Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Arrivederci, Columbus

    All statues, like all politics, are local. They're about the place where they are put up, and they change that place (which is to say, they're political). It's a mistake to think a statue is put up to represent some eternal truth; they're a local statement about the politics of the moment. So it is with Christopher Columbus, who got statues and a national holiday for political, and progressive reasons. Those statues don't seem progressive anymore, for a simple reason: they worked. So they've outlived their purpose.

    Columbus Day, and the statues of Columbus all over America, were introduced in the 2oth century in order to promote immigrants' rights. Italian immigrants, and Italian-Americans born in this country, were despised as perpetual foreigners, looked down upon as unassimilable and un-American. They weren't the only immigrant group treated this way, but they stood in for the larger group of Southern and Eastern European immigrants that nativists hated, and they were conspicuously despised. They certainly didn't count as white people in the first half of the 20th century. Elevating Columbus was part of a larger campaign to assert that immigrants were Americans, too. After all, "America" is an Italian word.

    And it worked. Italians, like the Poles and Lithuanians and Portuguese, have been promoted to the full privileges of American whiteness. The category has expanded to include them, which means the borderline of racism had been moved.

    And regressive approaches to immigration worked too. The first laws limiting immigration were passed in the 20th century to keep out the Italians, specifically, along with the Poles, Greeks, Czechs, and so on. The flow of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe was choked to a trickle, and over the decades after that those immigrant groups lost touch with their home countries. Being Italian American now is its own thing, heavily diluted and even at its purest divorced from Italian culture. Virtually no American Italians today speak the languages their immigrant ancestors did, regional Italian dialects that no American college teaches. (What one learns in an American university is the artificial national language created for reasons of other, strictly Italian, politics. Your great-grandmother didn't actually talk like that.) 

    And plenty of Italian Americans, at this moment in history, have gone over to the anti-immigrant politics that would have once kept them from being born in America. A large slice of Trump's base comes from white ethnics descended from immigrants themselves, people who show up in most polling as "white Catholics." Look at Rudy Giuliani spitting bile on cable. The Italian Americans no longer need help. We arrived a long time ago.

    And now that the America's racist imaginary is focused on the border with Latin America, and on despising Latinx as permanent foreigners, Columbus comes to symbolize an anti-immigrant agenda that the people who lobbied for his statues and holiday never intended: a celebration of European colonization by Spain. The reversal of the original intent is just ghastly.

    So arrivederci, Colombo. I'm done with you. We don't need you, and you're not helping. My people weren't from Genoa anyway. Anything I have to say to you I can say in Sicilianu, the handful of words that have come down the generations. But all of those words are obscene.

     

     

    Topics: 

    Comments

    Nice piece, Doc. There's been so little thoughtful discussion about the statue debate, and your analysis of Columbus's place in American politics is spot on. But in some ways, Columbus is more straightforward than other cases. His Italian-American constituency was ephemeral...easy-come, easy-go. But what do you do with more embedded heroes like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt? Where is the line between confronting our racist history and dynamiting Mount Rushmore?

    My own take is that we need to treat statues and monuments as symbols, not people. Insofar as a symbol represents some salutary ideal, it should be preserved, even if the subject was flawed. That allows us to keep our George Washingtons, which idealize democracy, liberty, etc., while smashing our Robert E. Lees, which represent slavery. Along those lines, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt should not have been toppled from their Portland pedestals just because they were imperfect in life, but the racist Roosevelt statue at the Natural History Museum had to go.

    But I don't know, maybe I'm trying to have my heroes and smash them too.


    Some people just want to watch the world burn - youre a bit of a thoughtful type, so not germane for this discussion - they're not trying to let the statue's beauty emanate from the stone - to modify or compromise, no fig leafs this time - they just want it back to rubble. 

    At some point over the last century Jews transformed into "white" and "too elite" class, and Chinese went from railroad & sweatshop workers to head of the class. I guess it's a sign we've all made it, when we don't need real life heroes anymore, just the flaws to (self-)flagellate. The human struggle has been achieved - we're now woke enough to sit around and self-absorb, admire our pristine perfection while we look in the mirror and steadily lop off any unseemly bits until all that's left is a pile of hair and severed skin and bones. The human ideal.


    I don't think a culture can outgrow its heroes. They're an integral part of the shared mythology that binds disparate individuals into a cohesive whole (for better or worse). You can amend the pantheon over time, kick out Andrew Jackson and make space for MLK Jr., but I don't think you can simply disband the pantheon without ripping the cultural fabric.


    But they don't seem to care about the cultural fabric, which is built from warp and weave, crisscrossing patterns that build up & reinforce something new. They're more into stretching rubber until it breaks, and then calling it a day.


    But Gen Z is making its own via social media, and they have a new name, they are "influencers", not heroes. It's populist and not top down. No teacher is going to tell them who is a hero.

    Also as for monuments specifically there is significant money and many organizations focused on making them more generic, less focused on individual heroes. Like this, but it's not the only one, there are many:

    The Mellon Foundation will invest a staggering $250 million to overhaul America's public monuments, the biggest initiative in the foundation's history: https://t.co/tFUPR0drRc pic.twitter.com/rUudGiQoID

    — Artnet (@artnet) October 13, 2020

    It's all the rage.

    This is worldwide, too! In England for example there's this organization desperately trying to save "the old ways" of heroic figures.

    I am sure, of course, that this is cyclical iconoclasm, but historically, these things last a long time, many generations if not centuries

    Sports figures seem to be sacrosanct outliers. Basketball players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant seem to be the only gods left that walk the earth. People will pay fortunes for their dirty gym socks. Does Covid affect this, with less play and therefore less shared experience? We'll see.


    Thanks, G. I guess I'm in the primary-legacy camp, where you keep the statues of Washington and Jefferson for breaking with monarchy, despite all their other flaws and misdeeds. But Lee's primary contribution to the history books is the problem.


    I don't give a fuck about any of them. All I care about is how they are dealt with in a way that will hinder or advance political and cultural change for the better. Apparently people like and need symbols and get attached to  them. I could never understand it. Perhaps I have an empty spot inside where other people have something that gives them an appreciation of the art and poetry of these symbols. I can be moved by some art but I've never seen a statue of a famous person that affected me at all. 

    You've made a useful analysis of the political and cultural use of these statues and which we should save and discard to advance progressive goals.  At least that's how I interpret your blog.


    Tomorrow is Vasco de Gama day in India. There has been very heated controversy over celebrating it for years. 


    A Columbus statue out here got done up so that he now looks like Vision from The Avengers. They only painted the hands and face so I think whoever did it did it intentionally.


    Perfect example of what I call "the new voodoo".


    Aha, lookit who else thinks this sort of thing is bad juju (and I can say that cause I am a product of parochial schools):


    Latest Comments