Why Can't Americans Accept the Fact that Columbus Was Not a Hero?
tags: myths,Columbus Day,Columbus
Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016), from which this article is drawn. You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.
We go through this every year. The calendar says it's Columbus Day and so Americans celebrate the man the holiday is named after. Then the debunkers get to work and everybody feels deflated. And then the very next year we go through the exercise all over again! Why can't we just quit Columbus?
You may think that the reason is that Italian Americans have rallied to his defense; as the New York Times reports, many have. But no, this isn't the explanation.
The answer is that Columbus is no longer a man. He's a myth. And we love our myths.
Think of all the ways our lives and culture are defined by myths. The Virgin Birth? A myth. The British Stiff Upper Lip? Myth. William Tell? Myth. Everywhere around us, in all directions, in all aspects of life, there are myths. When the president of the United States invokes freedom, he’s laying claim to a myth. When we speak of George Washington, what do we have in mind? Not the man, but the monument. Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock? Betsy Ross making the first American flag? The Liberty Bell tolling to signal independence? They’re all myths. Every society on earth has these so-called Foundation Myths (that have to do with origins) and many others. The universality of myths suggests they are one of our most significant evolved psychological mechanisms.
This goes far toward explaining one of the most troubling facts historians have uncovered about myths: they don’t die. They just go into hibernation, ready to spring back to life when circumstances become favorable. Take Joseph Stalin. He was officially repudiated by the Soviet Union shortly after his death in 1953. His horrors were fully exposed. But on the sixtieth anniversary of his death, who did Russians tell pollsters was the greatest Russian leader in history? Joseph Stalin. It’s not the man Russians were celebrating. It was the myth of the Great Leader. In myths, fact and fable get all mixed up. The facts are incidental. What counts is the meaning the myths have for the people who believe them.
Americans, like others, are susceptible to myths. The reason for this is that myths serve the same purpose for us as they do for others. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out, myths bind groups together. As he says, they bind the hive. Myths bring us closer. As a heterogeneous society we have more of a need for myths than homogenous societies. Unlike most people around the world, our history is short—so short, we have not had time to meld into a single people with a common culture. We come from everywhere. Unlike, say, the Germans or the French, we have not lived in the same place for thousands of years. Nor do we share a common tribal identity. E pluribus unum? Out of many one? That is what we like to believe, but it’s not really true. What unites us is not a common identity but a loose set of beliefs. This is why myths are so appealing to Americans. They help answer the burning question, to quote the eighteenth-century French émigré writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur: “What then, is this new man, the American?”
Two centuries on we still aren’t sure, but a clue is in our myths. Our myths make us, us. We therefore cling to them and can’t give them up. It’s who we are. Myths are so important to us that writers and intellectuals after the Revolution set themselves on a conscious path of mythmaking. This was to create an authentic American identity. They did not want children growing up on the stories of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. They wanted children to learn American stories. The story of Paul Revere did not become part of American culture by accident. Longfellow wrote a poem about him. Plymouth Rock became iconic because Daniel Webster gave a famous speech about it. Why do we have myths, after all? They tell us who we are and what values we cherish.
That is why we see such fierce battles over figures like Christopher Columbus and holidays like Christmas. They have become part of American mythology. We define ourselves by these myths. Plymouth Rock, Betsy Ross, the Liberty Bell—these are part of the bedrock foundations of American culture. We take them seriously. So when critics challenge Columbus’s virtue and Christmas’s universality, many Americans naturally recoil. It’s not the myths that they are defending. It’s themselves. Myths R Us.
So what's stopping us from changing the name of the holiday? Italian Americans would probably complain vociferously as they have in the past, but it's not their opposition that's stopping us. It's us. Or at least "us" minus Native Americans and historians.
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