That Columbus is no hero is well-known. Why do we celebrate a guy who reveled in exploiting a people “remarkable for their hospitality, their belief in sharing?” A guy – epitomizing an entire continent (or rather, the well-to-do of that continent) – who quested for “slaves and gold.” In an era when “total control led to total cruelty,” when one writer, Bartoleme de las Casas, reflected in horror, “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write,” emerged this terrifying figure responsible for “complete genocide.” His reward? A comfortable slot in our nation’s mythology. What better representative of America – especially now with Trump as our leader – than a power-hungry nincompoop?
While it also isn’t fair to reduce Columbus to being simply “power-hungry,” we cannot, as Zinn argues, breeze past the reality of his tyranny, as one historian chose to do in ultimately portraying Columbus in a positive light despite his atrocities: “he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him.” Welcome to History, an ideological battleground that gets presented as objective truth by all its messengers.
How is it that “the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress” persists? How do we combat this mentality, that sacrifices must be made, so long as we aren’t the ones who have to make them (“we” here representing the people unrepentantly calling for mass sacrifice)? To echo Zinn echoing Camus: “in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people…not to be on the side of the executioners.” Moreover, we ought “not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present.” The present, when we would do well, at least, to hear the victims: “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”
Basically, everything that Zinn encourages in this chapter is suffering under a political will bent in the opposite direction. Liberal elites get his perspective. And so…?
I grew accustomed to teaching my students that power in our age is most often manifest psychologically; i.e. the violence we experience is nothing like that of older, more barbaric times. But to say this ignores present horrors that rival what Zinn recounts about Indian extermination. Just because I’m shielded from their reality, viewing them only through the eerie glow of a computer or television screen – and therefore abstracting such truths to the level of film – doesn’t mean brutality isn’t out there. And that’s just the problem: it’s out there. Not here, wherever I happen to be, basking in all my privilege. My privilege to look at it with intellectual distance, to wonder about it. To ask my silly hypotheticals, pose my silly interpretations, offer my silly condolences.
But hey, good for me that I empathize. Yet is it empathy that I practice when I shake my head or shed a tear for – let’s be real about how I conceptualize tragedy – mere things? When I read about Aleppo, for instance, I choose not to fully fathom war happening to real human beings. After all, it’s over there, where “these things happen.” If it’s a news article or a viral video, it’s not really real, right? It’s deeply sad, but in the same way that Arrival is. I don’t know how to cope with my own coping, nor am I seeking forgiveness or even care for my incapacity to see other peoples’ suffering as real. I feel, but only to the end of catharsis. Nothing sits with me. My worldview is a theater, and when the lights come up, I move on. I get to move on. I choose to move on.