This month people in various countries will be celebrating what is commonly called “Columbus Day” or “Dia de la Raza”; a day marked to celebrate the arrival of Columbus and his cronies crew onto the shores of “virgin” lands.
Many view this as an incredible event, worthy of celebration and joy. At a time when the planet was believed to be flat and only dangers and monsters awaited at the edge of the world, that a man had the audacity to take off into the vast unknown is nothing short of extraordinary! The Italians get to glorify one of their own, others celebrate their ancestors escape from religious persecution, escape from famine, a place to begin life anew; some consider it was a god-given duty to bring Christianity and “civilization” to this “New World” and yet others, well, they just like the day off from work. But rarely does anyone stop to consider the flip side of the coin and are even surprised to hear that there are people out there who actually oppose celebration of this day as a holiday.
Well, to form an objective opinion one must have as much factual information as possible. I ask you to look at the other side of the coin, at least through this native’s eyes…
Before writing this essay, I sought the “pro” opinion; I needed an intelligent, objective and well constructed view in defense of the celebration of Columbus Day so that I may challenge it. I felt excited when I found Dr. Michael Berliner‘s editorial on this controversy. I was feeling brave, figuring it would be a difficult ordeal to take on a PhD- in philosophy no less! But the more I read this article the more I realized that this whole essay was nothing but a collection of logical fallacies, arguments that are flawed in logic and deliberately(?) inaccurate, leading to a subjective conclusion that wasn’t supported by the information provided. Disappointing, really! Among the fallacies most often used are: red herrings, which distract one point for another, judgmental language, which insults the opposition personally as if that were the point of argument, composition, which makes something true that isn’t and non sequitur, a baseless conclusion. What I found surprising was not only that the author’s philosophy is Objectivism, which is supposed to be based purely on fact, but that Mr. Berliner is also the Co-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Ayn Rand Institute. (Ayn Rand was the philosopher who created Objectivism.)
I guess a PhD doesn’t get you much these days.
The whole point of his piece is to argue in favor of the celebration of Columbus Day as the “discoverer of the New World”. The interesting detail here is that Berliner’s descriptions of natives, native life and history , on which he bases his “objective” opinion, are either erroneous or can very well be used to describe the Europeans themselves, if only because these points were facts of life in the 15th century. This essay will be dedicated to pointing out the fallacies used by Dr. Berliner as well as make corrections to the history he is basing his opinion on.
Magnesium vs. Gymnasium
One of the first claims Berliner states is that the attack on Columbus Day is an attack on Western Civilization. This is what is called a red herring fallacy. An argument thrown in to intentionally mislead or distract the other party from the original topic or subject, a digression. It distracts the listener or the reader into an unrelated topic and loses them in “yadda, yadda”. Then they come back to the original subject and viola! Because a lot has been written or said, you have a “convincing” argument.
But, not if you are paying attention…
The attack on celebrating Columbus Day has nothing to do with Western Civilization; apples and oranges. That native peoples have a bone to pick with western civilization as well is not a big secret, but it is a separate topic. I will touch on both topics separately, as it should be; and since “discovery” is the main topic, as well as the easiest one to dismiss, we will focus on that one first.
I was always taught that the word discovery implied finding of a new thing, to reveal or expose something that was not known before; like when they discovered DNA, or new insects or new uses for organic materials that have never been thought of before, those are true discoveries. I only have three dictionaries and they all seem to agree with this definition. However, in support of Mr. Berliner’s point, we could say that Columbus effectively, as he says “brought America to the attention of…Western Europe” since he did uncover a land that was unknown to them at the time. But does this mean that Columbus discovered America in “every important respect”, as he claims? The only argument he has is that the Europeans didn’t know about America so he discovered it for THEM, but this is not a true discovery, is it?
I have never been to Europe. If I get on a plane, fly over there and explore the cities I am literally discovering the area. But there are folks that live there already. Say my little imaginary trip is over, I come home and tell my family about it; could I claim discovery for anyone other than myself?
This is another logical fallacy called the fallacy of composition; if it’s a little bit true then it’s all true. Columbus discovered America for himself and the Europeans only, not the World. By implying that Europe was “The World” at the time, you devalue the people living everywhere else on the planet as “less than”, which is not only racist and ethnocentric, but also gives you an attitude of superiority. This attitude of superiority and thinly veiled supremacism is the same that supported the cruel and barbarous acts committed against the Natives, the same attitude that supported Hitler!
Civilized? I don’t think so. But it may be why these two different topics are so often blended together.
I am getting ahead of myself, but it is a nice little segue into my next topic. However before we move on I would like to end the topic of discovery with the comment that Columbus’ finding of the Americas was not discovery as much as it was a serendipitous finding, an accident. He was not out looking for America, he was looking for East Indies and found America instead.
This is how the Caribbean People became the First American Indians.
I found my dictionaries to be somewhat vague here so we will look at the facts and come to a logical conclusion. These dictionaries define civilization as being an advanced state of society with a high level of culture, science and government; a culture or society of a particular time and place and a populated area as opposed to a wilderness.
I also looked up civil, since a civilization is supposed to be constructed by and for civil people. Besides the definitions of citizenship as opposed to military life, they define civil as: not rude, acting in accordance to polite social interactions and a condition of social order and organized government.
These definitions can be applied to ANY civilization at ANY point in time. The Romans were the epitome of civilization in their time and their Superbowl was pitting people against lions to see who won! Not something we would do today because it’s “uncivilized”. During the Renaissance, people wore perfumes to mask body odor because they didn’t bathe on a regular basis. With a few exceptions, in this day and age we bathe daily. At one point in time doctors didn’t wash their hands from one patient to the next and it was only the other day that we stopped smoking in places like hospitals and doctor’s offices. Anything living and thriving will grow and change, civilization is no different. To say that one is better than the other is subjective– it really all depends on who you are asking.
Because once people congregate, make homes and have a governing body they are considered a civilization, I understand then, that Berliner was using the “uncivilized” argument as a Judgmental Language fallacy. This is a fallacy used when you don’t have a logical argument; so you use insults and derogatory language to put down the opposing party instead. A quick example would be “He thinks the movie is cool, but he’s an idiot anyway”.
You see it a lot in schools and playgrounds. And it’s, again, subjective.
Berliner goes on using this inflammatory language, putting down the civilizations that existed in the Americas as lesser than the civilization the Europeans had, even to the point of claiming that this Nation was founded on European ideas!
Fact: The Europeans had no clue on how to run a democracy. They came from a society governed by a Monarchy who claimed authority to rule as a god given right. It wasn’t working in Europe, it’s one of the many reasons they came to the Americas. And when they finally became independent from British rule, they were lost as to how to unite 13 colonies as one when they were supposed to be independent. USA democracy is based not on any roman ideal, it’s based on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, The Iroquois League, the Six Nations of the North who are the oldest participatory democracy on Earth. We have a governing system that was worthy of imitation! Benjamin Franklin’s first diplomatic job in the 1700’s was as Pennsylvania’s Indian Commissioner and during that time he became intimate with the ins and outs of Indian diplomacy and insisted that the US adopt this way of thinking to run the USA.
He speaks of the land and peoples of the USA in 1492, when Columbus had nothing to do with the lands that became the USA at the time. (Non sequitur Alert!)
Fact: Columbus’ first voyage landed in the Bahamas, after which he explored Cuba and then Espanola. The Spanish didn’t come to Florida until 20 years later and the British didn’t arrive until the 1600’s!
Berliner goes on to describe the native peoples in a way that makes you think of neanderthals, and perhaps that is his opinion. However, he needed to do more research and based his opinion on fact, like Ayn Rand would have done. Berliner states: “The inhabitants were primarily hunter-gatherers…living from hand-to- mouth and day-to-day” and they had “little agriculture and scant permanent settlement”.
Fact: The Taino, the nation that Columbus first met, used a farming method they called conucos, which was a farming method taught to the colonies who used it until the 1930’s. We would put corn, yuca, beans, and squash all in this conuco and not only did the plants protect each other from the sun, but they also protected each other by attracting insects that ate the pests that ate the plants. They also nurtured each other, since the wastes of one plant was the food of another; and the conuco itself, by it’s very construction, prevented erosion. Another thing the Taino did was farm by cuttings, as opposed to seeds. That’s advanced farming, my friend, not some fly by your seat, let’s-see-if-it’s-edible kind of existence. And that was just the Taino! The peoples in mainland Americas were cross pollinating corn to create corn hybrids that filled their needs. Present “civilization” is only starting to touch this kind of technology! The Taino lived in villages, had plazas, music and art, had a religious cosmology with priests and healers, a governmental heirarchy and we shared community ceremonies and celebrations…much like society today. And as far as “permanent settlements”, what are the ruins of the Maya, Aztec and Inca civilization if not permanent? People lived there! And they were so well constructed that to date, they are STILL standing! These are facts.
As for life being “nasty, brutish and short” that is pretty much describing life ANYWHERE on the planet in the 15th century. Life expectancy in Europe at the time was about 30 years, and that was for someone from a “good’ family. And he was absolutely right about the warfare of the times!
Fact: The Inquisition, the Hundred Year’s War, The Expulsion of the Muslims and the Jews from Spain and Portugal, civil upheaval in England, Wars in France, Wars in Italy- just google 15th century! All this and more was happening in Europe, in Berliner’s “superior culture” at the time- “endless, bloody wars.” Yes, the natives warred against each other but we didn’t commit genocide, rarely did people die. It was more honorable to “count coup”, to touch an enemy without killing him or being killed was admired. And to avoid inbreeding, women were taken from neighboring tribes. The Europeans were used to attacking to kill; European civilization did not bring us peace. These are facts.
To state that western civilization brought an improvement for the people in the Americas, without which we could not have survived into this century is a formal fallacy called appeal to probability. There is no way of knowing how things would have turned out. That comment is pure speculation and far from being objective. It also reflects Berliner’s inflamed ego and sense of superiority when he suggests western civilization was our saving grace. Just looking at the details we have gone over so far, we were doing pretty good without western intervention! You might even say better than the Europeans were doing, since they ended up running away from their own lands and would have died had it not been for the education provided them by those who lived and thrived in the Americas! How do you factor that in?
Berliner then goes on to prattle about how those against Columbus Day are actually out to get western civilization; talk about chasing your tail! I guess a PhD allows you to publish all sorts of nonsense.
For example, it is incredibly ironic to compare Mr. B’s argument that not all cultures are morally equal and dares say: “a free society is better than slavery; reason is better than brute force as a way to deal with other men”. This is , almost word for word, the stand of Objective philosophy, however it was not quite what western civilization brought to us, the native peoples of this land. We were enslaved; raped in body and mind, brutalized. Barolome’ de las Casas, a Spanish priest who came with Columbus wrote that the Spaniards:
“…made bets as to who would slit a man in two, or cut off his head at one blow; or they opened up his bowels. They tore the babes from their mothers breast by their feet, and dashed their heads against the rocks…they spitted the bodies of other babes, together with their mothers and all who were before them, on their swords….and by thirteens, in honor and reveraece for our Redeemer and the twelve Apostles they put wood underneath and, with fire, they burned the Indians alive”
This is the civilization Columbus brought with him. This is not propaganda, this is history as written by the conquerors themselves.
It was surprising to read Berliner’s claim that western civilization stands “for man at his best”, since his PhD is supposed to be in philosophy. He must have missed a couple of days of school. A far as I am aware, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was based on the romanticized information coming into Europe about the native’s way of life in the Americas. It was from there that the rest of Europe began thinking of a life free from monarchic rule. They knew no other way of living, they learned about freedom from the native peoples! Even Ayn Rand looked to America as a model of what free men could be!!
Apples and Oranges
Berliner does touch on something intrinsic to native society, the Collectivistic philosophy we live by. This way of thinking supports the idea that is presently being proven by physics, we are all connected. All living things are interdependent and what affects one will eventually affect the rest, so decisions were made with thought on how it would affect people seven generations into the future. Within this philosophy of life, however, it was understood that the collective was made up of individuals and these individuals were free to do as they pleased. Berliner’s rhetoric is all based on the debate between the philosophies of Individualism and Collectivism. This is not a difference of right or wrong nor better or worse, unless, like Berliner, you make it that way. It’s merely a difference of perspective, much like measuring in feet and yards as opposed to using the metric system.
Mr. Berliner seems to have a passion for teaching and a desire to be of service in a way that focuses on the freedom of the people of this great country of ours. I would suggest he refocus on issues that affect the country on a grander scale; perhaps apply Ms. Rand’s objectivistic philosophy on the slave work that lines the pockets of so many American companies, the rape of third world countries by the World Central Banks and Corporate interests, the forced (and illegal) removal of native peoples from their lands for the benefit of American Companies as well as the poisoning of our environment by yet other American industries and the way this affects the local human populations down to their very DNA. These actions would best serve the country as well as fall well within the objective philosophical view of laissez-faire capitalism.
Then he’ll be doing Ms. Rand proud!
4 thoughts on “The “Discovery” of America?”
Well written, Nanu. You might want to check out a book called 1491 by Charles Mann.
Perhaps some drops of native American blood course through this white woman’s veins, because I have long felt the glamorization of Spanish and English conquest a gross injustice. Today, people frown on Islamic cries of “Jihad!” and some quake at the mere thought. Most don’t do enough personal research to discover most Muslims condone only non-violent jihad. Tell me what, if not jihad, were the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Hunts?
Even in our own time, during the 20th century, Japan sought to increase its empire by bloody takeovers. Suddenly what “we” had done to others was wrong. Today, it’s wrong -it’s terrorism when people of other cultures try to impose their beliefs on “us” yet “we” did it only 500 years ago.
People may argue that slavery does not exist in the 21st century, and I won’t open that can of worms, but I do highly encourage those who believe it can’t or does not happen to watch “Trade” starring Kevin Kline or talk to a member of Zonta. Human trafficking does exist and slavery exists on many levels throughout the world. As long as there is human greed, there will be slavery.
I like the way you took your essay point-by-point. A doctorate does not make a person intelligent. It merely means he or she has passed the required courses with a high enough grade to get the degree. Granted, many people will not stick with their education long enough to even attend the extra courses required – but how many people have also been awarded honorary doctorates based on years of service in a field. These honorary degrees may be awarded to people with no prior connection with a particular institution. For example, Nelson Mandela has received over 100 such honorariums, but that is an extreme example.
Okay, my rant ends here!
I say reclaim it! Columbus Day deserves to be observed as a day to talk about these things, to specifically give some thought to the impact of one invading culture on another, to learn the true history of the First Nations (that’s what Canadians call “American Indians”, I am much more comfortable with that label, personally, as the descendant of oppressive white folks…), to take actions to preserve the unique cultural practices of those peoples as well. I think it’s fascinating that so many “modern” problems are solved or at least more thoroughly addressed by “uncivilized” or “primitive” solutions from First Nation cultures.
Also, I know a certain cabby, Mr. Cash, in the Bahamas, who would totally have your back on this. Columbus was teh suck.
I think the facts included in your essay definately prove your points. Obviously, the whole subject is very complicated on many levels and can be distorted to prove or disprove whatever an ‘expert’ wants to say, but the facts have a funny way of hitting you like a brick wall.
The history of the Americas is fascinating, and certainly pre-dates the ‘discovery’ of the continent by Columbus and other explorers. I hope more people listen and learn about the history of the land in which they live.