Few individuals in Western civilization have undergone as pervasive a demonization as Christopher Columbus. He has been designated the “poster boy” of all that is wrong with the West, in general, and America, in particular. He is blamed for Western racism and slavery (as if those policies are unique to dead white Europeans) because of his enslavement of the indigenous population, despite discovering a New World that would establish freedom as the governing ideal of human existence. He is blamed for Western Christendom because of his conversion of the natives, despite taking the first step toward what would become a haven of religious liberty and freedom of conscience in America. He is blamed for Western imperialism because of his accidental destruction (by an uncontrollable lack of immunity) of the various cultures with which he came in contact, despite introducing a New World that would form the greatest melting pot of diversity ever accomplished. It was nothing less than American opportunity and freedom, at the basis of our institutions, that made this possible. None of the good America has meant to human history and its unprecedented advancement would have happened without that first step into the dark unknown.
The same folks who discredit and ridicule men like Columbus for his failures not only defend the most violent thugs and genocidal regimes of this and the twentieth century — one need only recall the Western media’s adulation for Mao, Castro, Qaddafi and “Uncle Joe” Stalin — to recognize the double standard. The “blame America first” mentality illustrates the failure, not of America, but of human nature itself. The principles that formed America as the exception to the rule of human affairs is not at fault here. We honor our heroes not because they lack imperfections or never committed any wrongs. We honor men like Columbus because we revere and love what good they did accomplish. It is a respect for good above evil that merits our praise and admiration. Meanwhile, as Coolidge would say,
[I]t is a very hasty and ill-considered judgment to conclude that there is more bad than good in any one. We are all a combination of both elements. While we ought not to approve of the evil in ourselves or in others…The only perfect man ate and drank with publicans and sinners. It did not scandalize Him, it was some of those who were not perfect who were scandalized.
The politically correct demand for perfection is chasing an eternally elusive object. When the only subjects worthy of study are those who never violated the politically correct creed, we will have an extremely narrow, and uninformed, view of human nature. We may know much but without a full understanding of our nature, the good with the bad, it becomes a fantasy fixated on the reality we choose, not the reality which is.
Coolidge reminded those reading his daily column,
There is enough good in all of us to support the law of human fellowship. We shall be much more effective for good if we treat men not as they are but as they ought to be. If we judge ourselves only by our aspirations and every one else only by their conduct we shall reach a very false conclusion. When we have exhausted the possibilities of criticism on ourselves it will be time enough to apply it to others. The world needs high social standards and we should do our best to maintain them, but they should rest on the broad base of Christian charity.
If the politically correct code sought to lift and inform the culture with higher standards, it would not mock the only Perfect Man Coolidge mentioned. Christ would be its greatest example. The hypocrisy evident in “blaming America first” is laid bare by this point. The offense of Columbus, in these folks’ eyes, is not what they claim it to be. His offense is helping to make America possible. The exploitation and oppression he perpetrated (meant to assign the full guilt we should all feel for being Americans) defines all we need to “know” about him. The good he did — not the first to arrive but the first to introduce the New World to the Old — is spoiled and negated by his sins against political correctness. Nothing but the evil he represents matters to such people because it fits the political agenda not honest historical perspective.
Ultimately, it is a denial of good itself. Truth learns from both the wrong examples and the right ones, honoring good where it can be found, even in flawed and imperfect people like Columbus. Pessimists and cynics may long for the “good old days” when Meso-American empires sacrificed their own human populations and chiefs, like Powhatan, consolidated power through war and genocide. But, if not for the Christian boy Chanco, murder would have continued unabated. Considering Americans were the first to appeal to higher ideals, ideals grounded in a moral conscience, Coolidge could rightly say of Columbus on October 11, 1930,
He is entitled to rank forever as the greatest of all explorers. But the glory of his exploit, great as it was, becomes almost unimportant when compared with its results. It marked the inception of the modern era. The minds of men were opened to new thoughts. The gold and silver of America gave a new trend to the life of Europe. The arts began to flourish. The people began to assert their rights. More colonies brought more trade. A new age appeared, great in captains, admirals, statesmen, poets and philosophers, and finally new nations dedicated to human freedom arose on this side of the Atlantic. These are partly the reasons why Christopher Columbus is entitled to be honored.
The substance for recognizing Columbus in this, the five hundred and twenty-first year since his discovery, resides not so much in what he personally did, or failed to do. It resides in the part he played in the opportunity to establish, for the first time, a place where people can live free to govern themselves, keep the rewards of their own work, and practice, unfettered, the obligations of their conscience before God and mankind.