The Universal Notebook: Conflicts over Columbus, the Confederacy

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So why the sudden mania to address long-standing moral ambiguities of American history? Short answer: Donald J. Trump.

Monuments to Confederate generals are toppling all over the country, the Confederate Stars & Bars and Southern Cross battle flag are coming down, and Columbus Day has now been replaced by Indigenous Peoples’ Day in several places, including Portland and Brunswick just last week.

The South has never really stopped fighting the Civil War, seeing it as a key element of Southern heritage, though not as a defense of slavery. But now the Confederacy is being treated as an act of treason and the Confederate flag is being seen as a symbol of racism, as inflammatory as the Nazi swastika or the Soviet hammer and sickle.

Columbus Day has been observed as a celebration of Italian heritage at least since 1866. It became a federal holiday in the 1930s, thanks largely to the lobbying of the Knights of Columbus Catholic fraternal organization. I’m guessing the rise of fascism under Mussolini and the desire of Italian-Americans to assert their American patriotism had something to do with the timing.

But now Columbus Day is increasingly being seen as a celebration of the European invasion of North America and the destruction of the indigenous cultures that already existed here.

The reason all this is happening now is that the election of Trump and his apparent support for white nationalism have legitimized and embolden racists and forced the majority of Americans to oppose Trump and his troglodytes by rubbing their noses in the sins of our fathers.

These days, you will see the Confederate flag displayed defiantly by a few young bucks. Whether they are motivated by racism or just a punk desire for attention, the Southern Cross means something quite different to many people in the South. One of my Southern relatives, who is in no way a racist, explained the South’s investment in the Confederacy to me in part by writing, “Imagine if approximately 7 million Americans died in a four-year period? Almost all young men under the age of 30. That would be the ratio of dead in today’s society compared to 1865.”

We don’t expect the African-American community to get over slavery, so I guess we need to cut Southerners a little slack, too. Trauma is a generational thing.

Some will see toppling Confederate statues and replacing Columbus Day as simplistic approaches. Some will see these reactions to Trump as attempts to rewrite history, as though history were a static and agreed-upon set of undeniable facts.

It’s not that simple and never has been. History is constantly being rewritten as our understanding of past events and our moral values evolve.

I was reminded of this last week while watching Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” series on PBS. Americans are still struggling to come to terms with how and why we fought that disastrous war. Even many Vietnam veterans now understand that they were lied to by their government and that too many people died needlessly.

But Vietnam veterans are no more to blame for the moral failings of the Vietnam War than Confederate soldiers were to blame for those of the Civil War. They were just pawns in the game. They believed they were fighting to protect their loved ones. Why would any good person fight a war otherwise?

While I certainly understand the sudden urgency to suppress signs of the Confederacy as manifestations of racism in a new era of white nationalism and I certainly see the virtue in celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I do worry that we may be going overboard as a society afflicted by Trump Derangement Syndrome. Yes, he won, but we are never going to get over it. This trauma, too, will be generational.

Still, I’m not sure why we can’t observe Columbus Day as a celebration of Italian heritage (and even the Age of Exploration) while also celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, not in replacement, but in addition. At the very least, the revision of U.S. history requires that we teach and learn a great deal more about the native and natural people of the Americas. The Eurocentric white male lens on the past creates an unhealthy distortion.

That said, we do live in America, a country named for an Italian explorer (Amerigo Vespucci) by a German cartographer (Martin Waldseemuller). We cannot begin to seriously atone for the sins of our forebears unless we change the name of our country, and I doubt anyone is willing to go that far.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.