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the country, the Confederate Stars & Bars and Southern Cross battle flag are coming down, and Columbus Day has now been replaced by Indigenous Peoples’ Day in several places, including Portland and Brunswick just last week.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

  • Queenie42

    There is a book called “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn that should be required reading in all schools and for anyone who wants to learn our history from the point of view and in the words of us. Any of us. All of us. Not the history of high men in high places but a focus on the street, the home and the workplace.
    1492 to the present. (which, when the 20th Anniversary Edition was published, was the first term of Bill Clinton).
    I’m with you, Mr. Beem. I see no harm including and honoring Native American people and their history on Columbus Day.

    • Moishe the Beadle
      • EdBeem

        Zinn never said he was a communist. He said he was a socialist, more of a social democrat than anything else, just as the USA is more of a social democracy than anything else. Not sure why conservatives wet their pants over socialism, unless they want to give up Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits, national parks, state universities and public libraries.

        • Moishe the Beadle

          Zinn may have denied being a communist but he had a membership in the CPUSA from ’48-’53 (56). He was affiliated with other communist groups. “If it quacks like a duck….”

          “…….unless they want to give up social security, etc. That’s nonsense even for you and you know it.

          • EdBeem

            Only know what Zinn said.When asked to define his political philosophy, he described himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist.” Conservatives look at most forms of public assistance, social welfare and shared public ownership as socialism. Surely you know that.

          • Moishe the Beadle

            1. Zinn was a communist as was the founder of the ACLU, Roger Baldwin. Communists like eradicating those who don’t agree with their ideology.

            2. Conservatives believe in public assistance for those who really need the safety net, not able bodied healthy people who want to live off the dole.

          • Ted Markow

            “Conservatives say if you don’t give the rich more money, they will lose their incentive to invest. As for the poor, they tell us they’ve lost all incentive because we’ve given them too much money.” — George Carlin

            P.S. Zinn was not a communist. And he served in WWII. And he was an honorable man with a conscience – and he lived it.

            P.P.S. As for Roger Baldwin: “In St. Louis, Baldwin had been greatly influenced by the radical social movement of the anarchist Emma Goldman. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World.

            “In 1927, he had visited the Soviet Union and wrote a book, Liberty Under the Soviets. Later, however, as more and more information came out about Joseph Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union, Baldwin became more and more disillusioned with Soviet-style communism and called it “A NEW SLAVERY” (capitalized in the original).[4] He condemned “the inhuman communist police state tyranny.”[5]

            “In the 1940s, Baldwin led the campaign to purge the ACLU of Communist Party members.”

            This stuff is not hard to find.

          • EdBeem

            Just inconvenient.

          • Ted Markow

            You know, it would be amusing if the consequences weren’t so dire.

          • Moishe the Beadle

            Believe what you want. Not interested in an ideological pissing match with a “useful idiot”. Incidentally, the top 5% of taxpayers pay 85% of all federal taxes collected. The bottom 50% pay nothing. How much more blood do you want to squeeze out of them? Btw, Islam is a “religion of peace” also.

          • EdBeem

            As it should be. Luke 12:48

          • Ted Markow

            We’re all useful idiots. Some however, volunteer themselves a lot more frequently.

            Btw, Columbus brought Christian “peace” to the Taíno of Hispaniola.

        • Ted Markow

          “…unless they want to give up Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits…”

          Well, not if it’s THEIR Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits, etc.

  • Ted Markow

    “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.”

    I think that’s a great idea! I propose: the United State of Amnesia. Heck, we won’t even have to change what we chant at Olympic events and Trump rallies.

  • knighthawk

    best Beem piece ever?

  • funfundvierzig

    The abusive campaign of hostile liberals to cancel Columbus Day is a smack in the face to 26 million Americans of Italian descent.

    I will be proudly hoisting two flags on Columbus Day, the American Flag and the Italian Flag in honour of the brave explorer Columbus and in honour of Italian Americans and Americans in Puerto Rico.

    Merely the perspective of one individual Maine citizen…funfun..

    • Darren McLellan

      Columbus did not discover anything. Plenty of others were here before him and didn’t want to spoil the fishing so they kept it quiet.
      He had zero to do with exploring the region we know as New England. Never quite understood why he gets a holiday and people like Cabot and Hudson et al are forgotten.

      • funfundvierzig

        And what “discoveries” did the primitive Indians who roamed the continent for a thousand years make?

        Contrast: the advancement of civilisation wrought by Western Europe in the past 500 years. Of contrast the advancements made by Latinos in the Caribbean Islands in the New World over the past 400 years.


        • EdBeem

          Industrial pollution, climate change, nuclear war… you call that “the advancement of civilization?” And now we have a 14 year old clown as the most powerful man in the world. No thanks. No fun-fun.

          • funfundvierzig

            Perhaps Mr. Beem should relocate from the pleasant Town of Brunswick to a remote Indian Reservation in the west, Arizona or Wyoming, and live the good life, unimpeded by the white man civilisation and culture, and the advancements of medicine and science.


          • EdBeem

            I said North America was better off before the European invasion. Native and natural culture was destroyed and now manifests the worst aspects of the dominant white culture. There is no going back.

  • poppypapa

    We all know Eddie is trying to overcome his guilt for being a Straight, White, American, Male Progressive democrat. Which makes him, in so many words….well you try to decode it.

    I’ve posted this one before, but since it annoys him, I’ll do it again:


    What has really “angered” so many more millions who now feel drawn into the Trump camp isn’t just PC itself but that its proponents show such relentless moral
    contempt and superiority toward everyone else. People in America can take a lot, but not that. Marx would have a field day with how progressivism’s cultural elites have reordered social classes between the right-minded and everyone else.

    Despite years of winning Supreme Court assent to their views, the left insists that the other side must remain on the moral hook. On race, sex or the environment the moralistic left seems to think it can keep the population incarcerated forever on vague, unproven charges of cultural guilt. For what?

    Daniel Henninger/WSJ/July 6, 2016

    • EdBeem

      Which makes me the oppressor. You and me both, buddy. I just do what I can to mitigate white male privilege and Trump supporters wallow in it.

      • poppypapa

        Ah; moving from Yarmouth to Brunswick was an act of White Male Privilege mitigation. I had not thought of that. Do you think better of yourself for having done it?

    • Queenie42

      You have just described Trump to a T. He has contempt for anyone but himself and thinks he is superior, — ” bigly, the best, believe me. Would I lie?”
      As a matter of fact, Trump fits the description of someone with malignant narcissism, which is characterized by grandiosity, a need for admiration, sadism, (grabbing women by their genitals) and a tendency towards unrealistic fantasies. (like “dating” his daughter.)