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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Historic figures were human

By Spencer Merrick

On April 7, the faculty of Brown University in Rhode Island voted to establish a new academic holiday, called “Fall Weekend,” to replace Columbus Day. Hundreds of students there have been calling for the change for some time now, saying Christopher Columbus’ brutal treatment of American Indians wasn’t in harmony with the values of the university.

My reaction to that is, well, of course it isn’t in harmony with the values of the university. As I learn of the slavery, disease and other atrocities that took place when the Europeans first came to the Americas, I’m amazed that anyone would idolize this man. I’m tempted to brand Columbus as the human catalyst of one of the greatest tragedies ever to take place on and around this continent. I’m even tempted to challenge Columbus’ navigational skills. He did, after all, land in the Americas by accident, and he died thinking he’d made it to Asia. A miscalculation of the Earth’s circumference led him to stubbornly embark on the historic voyage in the first place. I’m also tempted to deny that he was, as many believe, continually guided by God. He once wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on selling all the slaves that can be sold.”

As I follow the trend of modern historians, and, in the words of writer Philip Yancey, “pick at the scabs of the famous,” I have to stop and remind myself that it wasn’t his flaws that led to the near extinction of the American Indians. We cannot blame the man so much as the society. I would argue that had anyone else made the same discovery in Columbus’ day, we’d be left with the same tragic results. We’re trying to judge a man who lived more than 500 years ago by 21st century standards.

In many ways, we’ve done the same to American heroes such as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln is sadly less of a hero to many because some historians suggest that he was racist and because his role in the Civil War might have been far from noble. Jefferson’s role as a Founding Father is to some slightly shrouded by the fact that he had slaves and probably had children with one of them.

There are other times when, rather than take people out of their historical context, we pick apart their personal lives and use irrelevant facts to destroy their character. Coretta Scott King eventually stopped talking to reporters because most wanted to know less about her and Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredible contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and more about her husband’s extramarital affairs. Modern historians seem to be focusing less on how Mahatma Gandhi led a fifth of humanity to independence and more on how he tested his chastity by sleeping with nude, young women, how he mistreated his wife and how he raised a son who rebelled to become a gambler and a bankrupt alcoholic. These truths can either be used to balance our view of historical figures and remind us that they too were human, or they can be used to devalue the achievements they made. I hope, especially in the case of my heroes such as King or Gandhi, that the former is the case.

Although I empathize with Brown University in its decision not to commemorate this holiday, I hope the U will continue to do so. Rather than erase Columbus Day and Columbus’ important role in history, we should celebrate all that Columbus Day entails. It’s not just a homage to Columbus, it’s a remembrance of all who took place in that discovery8212;the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s a day to honor the unwarranted sacrifice of this land’s original inhabitants; not by saying, “Hey, thanks for taking one for the team,” but by doing what we can now to preserve a culture and a people that Europeans all but destroyed.

Columbus Day is a time to celebrate one of the key events that led to the birth of a free nation that, besides its countless flaws, would later lead the world in extending human rights to all, even the very rights violated during this land’s discovery and colonization.
And yes, the day is a commemoration of Columbus, a historical figure from a culture that, sadly, did not value life or liberties in the same way we do now. He was an individual whose flaws undoubtedly contributed to great atrocities that we must never forget. Perhaps he isn’t a hero. But he is, nevertheless, the symbol of a discovery that changed the world.

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Spencer Merrick

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