404. Debunking Debunking

It wasn’t too long ago that we all learned what great people Lincoln, Washington, Columbus, and all those guys were. Teachers taught that these people were heroes, and hinted that we should try to be like them. And since we didn’t have to go to school on the days dedicated to these people, we had our own reason for considering them heroic, whether or not we accepted the reasons our teachers gave us.
Later, we heard that Lincoln was more concerned with preserving the union than freeing the slaves. And George Washington had slaves. Christopher Columbus, we heard, was a mass murderer. Just as we had swallowed the myths that had turned these human beings into heroes, it didn’t take long to swallow alternative myths. So now Lincoln and Washington were not so great, and Columbus was much worse.
Until a recent conversation I had with Phil Hoose, who is doing research about Columbus, I had swallowed the alternative Columbus myth – that Columbus was a bad man who crossed the ocean blue, got gold, killed lots of natives, and took some back with him as slaves. He was despicable, and the only appropriate way to “celebrate” Columbus Day was to mourn the death of all the natives killed by Columbus.
Phil is studying Columbus’ journal, and discovering that Columbus was a human being. He thought about what was important, questioned his decisions, and was, among other things, a product of his times. We’re all products of our times. People of the future may look back on us as people who paid taxes to finance the wholesale murder of other people (war). They may see us as people who regularly killed mammals, birds, and fish, chopped them up, and ate them. We don’t know how people of the future will think of us. Sure, we get involved in charities, earth-saving projects, and all that, but they may not focus on that.
I hear many children who have learned how terrible Columbus was. Considering the extent to which Columbus-debunking has gone, it’s surprising that children still get a day off on the second Monday in October. In a way, it’s a good sign that we’ve taken another look at the myth we once created. But we’ve replaced it with another myth – that of Columbus the Terrible.
Like many of you, I’m easily impressed by a few facts. I like simplicity, and I’d rather think of Columbus or any other historical figure as either a hero or a villain. But it isn’t that simple. My own ancestors probably mostly lived on the eastern hemisphere. There was probably a time when they were taken as slaves. Some of them were persecuted. But maybe they were enslaved by people who also created one of the first universities, and persecuted by people who also created a lot we humans can be proud of. I’ll bet some of your ancestors had troubles, too. Like the present, the past was complicated, and we need to follow up our efforts to debunk it by debunking some of the debunking efforts, or at least putting them into perspective.

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