Tuesday, 14 October 2014

In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two

Yesterday back in the States was Columbus Day (or, as we who come from Canada call it, "Thanksgiving Day").  Every year, there is a parade of politically-charged cartoons and comments marking the day, some humourous, some pointed.  Some are relevant and thoughtful while others are politically correct and silly.  A fair number blend hisory with contemporary politics.

There are big sale events (hard to miss even living in France in the age of internet advertising).  And of course, the usual foolishness in the arguments about "Indigineous Peoples' Day."

I've never held strong feelings one way or the other about Columbus Day, though I have always appreciated having the day off of school/work when we got it.  I'm ambivalent about the history of Columbus - yes; he certainly ruled the lands he "discovered" with a degre of brutality, and it's hard to argue that the coming of Europeans to the Americas did not have disastrous consequences for the Native Americans living there.  On the other hand, the 'discovery' of the West and the founding of the societies that followed (perhaps most notably, the United States) are in my opinion a tremendous and positive achievment for mankind, an opinion I find that is also very difficult to counter if one looks objectively at the facts.  Surely Columbus was a polarising figure, his voyages have had complicated impacts, and his legacies are mixed and complex.

This year, there is a bit of a theme that I've noticed that has been missing in the past.

A prominent meme I've observed has to do with the current struggle with Ebola, and how the West should respond.  The current cartoons and comments on the internet joke about how, in effect, discussions about the bringing of deadly viral infections reminded people to wish one another a Happy Columbus Day (obviously, playing on the historical artefact that smallpox and other European diseases arrived soon after Columbus, with devastating impact on American Indians. 

Now, I've written here, here, and here, I am unambiguous in that I believe that Western countries should immediately quarantine the affected countries.  Flights between the US and Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea should be interdicted; people with passports from or who have traveleld recently to those nations should be denied visas to enter.  The recent infections in the US and Spain of nurses treating patientswho had arrived with the virus  - and the subsequent hand-waving of officials - have not moved me away from this view.

What seems to be lost - completely - on those who make the analogy between European settlement and the current threat that Ebola presents is the reality that ultimately, the unwillingness or inabilty of Native Americans to respond to the challenge of European settlement resulted in their virtual disappearance.  

Is that really what they advocate for Americans?  Like it or not, that's the reductio ad absurdum of this line.  Carried to its logical conclusion, if Ebola is like smallpox, then these posters are in effect hoping that it will wipe out the current populations of Europe and North America.

When I see posts or comments from people along these lines, I always ask them, "If you were to ask a Native American (most of those posting the cartoons are in fact, not actual Indians) how the whole Columbus landing worked out for them, what do you think they would say?"

Simply - "How'd ignoring the European landings work out for the Indians?"

My own answer is, "not particularly well."

The most ironic posting of the meme I saw was on a friend's Facebook page, where a self-described activist of Palestinian freedom, a woman of Arab descent with a catalogue of quite incendiary comments about Israel, linked a cartoon describing "Genocide Day".  It's historical fact that one of the main reasons Columbus set out on his voyages was because earlier land routes to trade in India were blocked by Arab conquests in eastern Europe.  Spain was able to finance the voyages because they had - after several centuries - expelled Arab invaders from their own land.

I guess the fact that Arabic (nor Islam, for that matter) did not arise in the Levant, let alone Spain, is an artefact of history ignored in "Palestine."

World history is a complicated thing, and retrospective, facile analysis is a poor medium.  It's funny to post comical cartoons, but reality is seldom cartoonish.  I find it's best to look at historical events and historical figures in this context.  And remembering the details is often a good way to consider the challenges we face to day.

Learning from and not repeating the mistakes of past events is one of the greatest gifts of history.

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