For Real Teachers In Our Toughest Schools
Saturday February 17th 2018



Wait, There Are Still Idiots Out There Who Celebrate Columbus Day?

FaceCartoonMy wife told me the other day that my son, who is in the first grade, had Monday off. Knowing it was Columbus Day, I was confused, because I knew our liberal Bay Area school district knows better than to celebrate rapists and murderers. We checked the calendar and found it was a teacher-workday. This still bothered me. The only way any societal apparatus should stop on Monday is if a school district or state has made Monday Indigenous People’s Day. To me, a teacher-workday is a cop-out.

At least the high school where I teach has class today, and in class today I will be showing my students excerpts from Columbus’ diary where he dispassionately talks about how his men prefer 9-year old girls this month. Yes, it is exactly what you think. I will also show them evidence that he and his men cut off the arms and legs of indigenous children they encountered–on what we now call Haiti–for sport, or just to test the sharpness of their blades. I will also mention the fact that he never actually set foot on what we call the United States of America. Christopher Columbus is one of the worst people in world history, to say otherwise isn’t even arguable; but the fact that he still has a holiday in most of America is an example of everything that is wrong with this country.

We are at a critical moment in modern America where we might be beginning to face our sordid past. This might sound odd considering the platform of our most recent addition to the presidency was based upon taking America backwards again. But if you think about it, this slow process began with the Dylan Roof shooting, which led to confederate flags being taken down across the South–something unthinkable before the shooting. This has continued with the election of the first white president, the recent NFL protests during the National Anthem, and the pulling down of confederate statues. Our president actually posed a decent question when complaining about the statues being taken down. He asked, “I wonder: Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” For him it was more of a rhetorical question, but for me the answer is actually “yes.”

Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, and even the National Anthem need to be purged from our historical lionization. It is only by coming face to face with our past that we will ever become better as a people.

Here is the issue, which we can call the Founding Fathers Paradox: How much homage, if any, should we pay to men who did great things for the world but were individually horrible people? In short, my answer is NONE.

Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. There is no other way to say it. In general, I am not interested in giving rapists my adulation, and it bothers me that we let historical figures get away with these things because they were good at writing or conquering. Like Christopher Columbus, I am not interested in having holidays or money dedicated to objectively abhorrent people. Then there is the National Anthem, which romanticizes the idea of annihilating freed slaves fighting for their lives. I would argue these embarrassing facts about our songs and historical figures don’t allow us to move forward when we selectively ignore uncomfortable truths about our “heroes.”

I know all the counter-arguments, the most prevalent being guys like Jefferson grew up in an era in which slave ownership was the status quo. The argument goes that if I lived during such times I would have done the same thing. But Jefferson himself knew owning slaves was an atrocity (yes I realize he actually worked hard to ban it in Virginia), and I imagine he had enough intellectual acuity to understand history would not be kind to him for it. The Greeks knew it too. And for my own part, if I raped slaves because everyone else was doing it, I would expect history to call me the POS that I was. I don’t care if I invented a damn time machine. Moral conduct used to mean something, and I would never expect the world to remember me for something great if I was not great myself.

And no, even writing something as glorious as the constitution will not get me to like you if you were a slave owner and rapist. I still think you suck.

Remember, Nazis are no longer walking the streets of Germany, they are walking the streets of the United States. We need to ask ourselves why that is. They aren’t marching openly in Germany because long ago Germany faced up to its past. Today Germans are embarrassed and horrified at the behavior of their predecessors, and as a nation they have made every effort to acknowledge their atrocities. There are no statues of Nazis in town squares, and doucebags with Tiki-torches aren’t chanting about Jews and killing people. This is because German society OWNED their past. They faced it and shouted it down and didn’t allow it to fester. So the Nazis are here now and our Tweeter-in-Chief is more interested in blasting black men kneeling than actual Nazis carrying actual torches. And yet we as a people are more interested in blasting anti-Nazis who are trying not to let these sores open at all, let alone fester and become infected.

We need to come clean if we are to heal, and tearing down confederate statues is only the beginning. I would honestly like to see Thomas Jefferson taken off the two-dollar bill, and we can burn his fucking house down too and stop taking school-aged kids on tours in the house where he was raping everyone. I was taken there as an 8th grader and it doesn’t make any sense to me now why that was. I am disgusted. I don’t want to see a single statue, holiday, school, city, or street named after Jefferson or Columbus, and I want Elizabeth Alexander to write us a new national anthem. In addition, I would like the constitution to be rewritten. It is an old outdated document that says black people are 3/5 of a person, and the right of militias to bear arms so slaves couldn’t escape has been loosely interpreted to mean any yahoo can buy 20 assault rifles easier than he can buy cough medicine. Yes, there is almost no end to what I want to be purged from the creation myth of this country. If it involves a rapist, bigot, racist, or murderer, I want it labeled as such.

And I don’t want our children lied to, because when you teach that Christopher Columbus discovered America, you are lying. When you teach that Christopher Columbus was anything but a maniacal murderer, you are lying.

To be honest, the discussions I am having with my students show me that the tide is turning. A few of them have already been taught the truth about Columbus. They said their textbook in middle school didn’t lionize him, but it also didn’t mention any of the bad stuff. Change is slow, but if that is as far as we’ve come in California, I can only imagine the fact-free history being taught to students in red states.

So on today of all days, anybody celebrating this day–and believing it–has to be considered tone-deaf, blind, pig-headed, and fact-free, and embodies everything that is wrong with this country. We will NEVER get past this, and we will NEVER stop kneeling, if we don’t first admit our sins, and teach them as sins to the next generation.


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4 Responses to “Wait, There Are Still Idiots Out There Who Celebrate Columbus Day?”

  1. RS says:

    Hi Matt – I’m very sympathetic to your way of thinking, but just to be clear on one point, I live in Germany. This year – on Sept. 24, 2017 – the far-right party (Alternative for Germany) got seats in Parliament for the first time since the end of WWII. There’s a thought-provoking essay by Sherman Alexie, which he wrote after interacting with Germans and visiting Germany, that talks about how genocide could happen again anytime, anywhere — exactly because we human beings still don’t seem to know how to own our atrocities, take appropriate responsibility. Genocides have happened and are still happening all over the world – in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Oceania, Europeans were masters at it. It’s heart-breaking and devastating.

    • Hey RS,
      Thanks for the comment. I was wondering if someone was going to point out the gains made by the right in the recent elections in Germany. I almost added some words on that but decided to be brief. I wanted to focus on this idea of facing up to your past, which Germany has done well for the most part. But as you note, it is all coming back and you have to wonder at the US’s role in those gains. Thanks for the insight, and I’ll check out the article. I love Sherman Alexie.

  2. Kimberley Gilles says:

    Damn! You do indignation well!

    Out here in the ‘burbs, I too teach social justice — but many of my kids really don’t “get it.” So, I roll up my sleeves and get to work.

    I often feel alone — and then I read something like your blog and I am energized again.

    Time to bring on some serious TRUTH!

  3. Paul says:

    Apropos Nazis in Germany and America. Recommended reading:

    Ron Jones’s fictionalized documentary, The Wave, was required reading in German high schools when I was traveling there years ago. It describes events in Palo Alto, across the bay.

    Oh, and actually Columbus did set foot in what’s now the United States — in Puerto Rico.

    Good to see you back online

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