I’m generally a pretty big fan of The Oatmeal. His comics are typically funny, and many of them are also generally informative. While I don’t check his site on a regular basis, I’ve viewed it fairly often, and have never really noticed any political agenda or common propaganda. But alas, all good things must come to an end. His recent piece on Columbus Day appears to be “going viral,” and is full of the exact same common attacks, misrepresentations, and complete missings of the point that we usually hear from progressives in regards to Columbus Day.
As you may recall, one of my first posts on this blog was an explanation as to why Columbus Day is worth celebrating, and why the many haters have it all wrong. I won’t repeat all of the arguments again, you can go back and read it if you’re interested, but for the sake of context, I will provide a brief summary: The voyage of Christopher Columbus was a remarkable achievement. Risking his life in the process, his voyage directly led to European settlement of the western hemisphere, which would in turn lead to the founding of the United States of America. Regardless of how much of a dick he would later go on to be to some of the native peoples of the various islands he visited, his initial voyage was still remarkable and still worthy of celebration (much like how we can still dance to Thriller without necessarily approving of child molestation).
Now, to address some of The Oatmeal’s attacks on Columbus:
“In 1491… no one thought the Earth was flat… Columbus knew the Earth was round, the Queen of Spain knew the Earth was round, and pretty much anyone with an education knew the Earth was round.”
This is presented as evidence that Columbus was somehow not a heroic figure putting himself in great personal peril. Like most objections to Columbus, it is technically correct, but also misses the point entirely. Yes, Columbus, the Queen of Spain, and pretty much anyone with an education did in fact know the Earth was round. Although it might be worth pointing out that at the time, “pretty much anyone with an education” probably comprised less than 1% of the population. That aside, the debate that was being had among explorers and monarchs alike was over the size of the world, not the shape of it. They knew the Earth was round, but they had no idea exactly how much distance there was between Europe and Asia across the Atlantic Ocean, and naturally, they had no idea there was another continent in between. The reason Columbus was willing to undertake this expedition when others were not was because he believed the Earth was much smaller than consensus estimates at the time. This is significant because the limiting factor on voyages was time and distance. Travel too far for too long without hitting another land mass, and you run out of food and everyone dies. This was the concern for Columbus and his crew, not “falling off the edge of the world” or being eaten by sea monsters or any such thing. And it was a pretty darn legitimate concern too, because it turns out that Columbus was wrong about the size of the Earth. It turns out, the Earth was as large as most other people assumed. So large, in fact, that there was an entirely new unexplored continent between Europe and Asia. Had the “new world” not existed (and nobody had any particular reason to believe it did exist), Columbus and his crew would most certainly have starved to death before they ever reached India. While this doesn’t say much for Columbus as a geographer, it does in fact confirm that his journey was life-threatening, and required a certain amount of bravery and conviction to undertake.
“Glossing over the fact that the natives living in the New World got there 14,000 years before Columbus ‘discovered’ it.”
Once again, technically correct, but entirely missing the point. We celebrate the voyage of Columbus because it started a chain of events which would lead to the founding of our country. Unless you believe that the natives who were “already here” would have independently founded a Republican society that would have invented the airplane and the light bulb without European intervention, this is largely irrelevant. Now, if you believe that the native cultures are in fact superior to European and modern American culture, there may be a case to be made for Columbus being awful, but I’d like people to openly make that argument if that is in fact their position.
“Leif Ericson technically found the New World 500 years before Columbus ever set sail.”
While the seafaring abilities of the Scandinavian peoples were certainly impressive, the question remains, exactly what did they do with this amazing discovery? What did it lead to? Absolutely nothing of any historical relevance whatsoever. The Scandinavians went island hopping along the arctic circle, setting up a few trading posts in remote northern locations that never really flourished or prospered and were eventually abandoned. The End. They never followed this up with repeated expeditions farther south, and never discovered the parts of North, South, and Central America that would eventually go on to comprise what we know of as the New World. While Leif Ericson also has the “impressive and life-threatening achievement” box checked off, he falls short in the “achievement led to historically significant stuff” area.
“Columbus knew he’d stumbled on to something big, but he remained myopically focused on gold rather than the discovery of a new landmass.”
The notion of Columbus as some greedy and devious scoundrel foolishly obsessed with gold permeates the rest of the piece. As if gold was some triviality that he should have simply ignored and continued on his quest for India (keeping in mind, the entire reason a water route to India was desirable was for economic purposes, i.e., to make money). It’s important to remember that at this time in European history, essentially every major nation followed mercantilist economic doctrine, which basically stated that international politics was a giant board game, and whoever had the most gold would “win.” No seriously, that’s pretty much the only thing every major monarch at the time wanted, lots and lots of gold. Columbus figured that securing massive gold deposits would be worth far more to the Queen of Spain than a water route to Asia, and he happened to be correct about this. During the age of discovery, the gold and silver flow from Central and South America back to Spain propelled Spain from a relative backwater to a major economic power. It’s true that in the long run, their obsession with extracting gold and failure to colonize and secure viable trade routes would be less successful than England’s more balanced approach, but at the time, being “focused on gold” was a perfectly logical thing for Columbus to be.
“Columbus’s gold exports also resulted in the paralysis of the gold economy of the Gold Coast in Africa. This led to the rise of African slaves as the dominant commodity in that region, which inadvertently makes Columbus the father of the transatlantic slave trade.”
This is a tenuous stretch at best. Simple economics would dictate that regardless of who discovered the new world and regardless of how they went about securing its gold deposits, the massive influx of new supply would obviously lower the price of African gold, thus disrupting its economy. This, in and of itself, does not ipso facto lead to the slave trade. This is akin to implying that if Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and discovered that it was, in fact, made of cheese, and engineered a method to easily transport all of this cheese back to Earth, and this caused all the dairy farmers in Wisconsin to resort to prostituting themselves, that this would make Neil Armstrong a pimp.
“And good ol’ Chris Columbus, sex slaver, mass murderer, and champion of sociopathic imperialism, HAS HIS OWN FEDERAL HOLIDAY. This is an honor shared by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. I repeat: THE FATHER OF THE TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE IS HONORED ON THE SAME LEVEL AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.”
Oh boy! Regular readers of my blog and anyone who has ever read Tom DiLorenzo probably know where I’m going with this one. Linclon was also a mass murderer and champion of sociopathic imperialism who egregiously violated the constitution, initiated a draft that would send hundreds of thousands of (mostly poor) men to their deaths, and flagrantly encouraged a “total war” strategy where civilians were targeted, as northern armies rampaged through Georgia, setting fire to homes, barns, and crop fields, raping and killing southern women and children, and leaving many of the rest to starve to death. How dare we compare a hero such as that to the dastardly Columbus! MLK was a socialist, who, if modern liberals and “black leaders” are to be believed, achieved essentially nothing (we’re constantly being told that racism is still rampant in America and that his dreams remain unfulfilled). Nobody is a saint. Nearly all historical figures have some pretty major flaws (more on this soon). But Columbus’s achievement is certainly on par (and I would suggest superior) to those of MLK and Abraham Lincoln.
“If you look at anyone closely enough, you’ll always find dirt. In the case of Columbus, I did not simply find dirt. I found a soiled, wretched, horror show of a human being.”
Well, the first sentence is a nice acknowledgement that common practices of the past differ wildly from the common practices of today, and that nobody is perfect. Of course, he then promptly dismisses the entire point because hey, Columbus wasn’t just bad, he was really bad. I’m not here to argue that Columbus was a saint. I’m not here to argue that his methods were justified, or to dispute any claim that he treated the natives horribly. But I would like to point out that harsh punishments, dehumanizing non-Europeans, greedy warmongering, and imperialistic expansionism were ridiculously common traits of virtually all of civilization running up until… geez, the 19th century probably. Columbus is not singularly guilty here. It’s not as if after he died, the colonies were then ruled by a string of benevolent and kind governors who treated the natives universally well. Columbus did not invent the practice of taking slaves, cutting off hands, or raping the women of conquered peoples. That he engaged in them is despicable indeed, but once again, nearly every historical figure has done things that we deem despicable in modern context. This does not diminish his achievement. I can’t stress this enough: the holiday of Columbus Day celebrates the achievement, not the personal characteristics of Columbus himself.
“History is full of terrible people and terrible things, so instead of casting a shadow where there is already darkness, I’d much prefer to cast a light.”
It’s interesting how he tries to take the high road and act as if the purpose of this article is to give a positive and uplifting message, merely sentences after describing Columbus as a “wretched, horror show of a human being.” While I appreciate the effort to end on a more positive note (if you can count a picture of Columbus with the universal NO sign over it as positive), I don’t think you get to take credit for lifting up rather than tearing down when well over 75% of your essay consists of the tearing down, and the lifting up is simply a few sentences tacked on at the end.
The rest of the essay is dedicated to glorifying Bartolome de las Casas, and suggesting that we should celebrate “Bartolome Day” rather than Columbus Day because he repented his views of the inferiority of natives and his previous involvement in the slave trade. Of course, when it comes to world-changing achievements, his resume seems rather light. The best The Oatmeal can muster is the claim that “He is considered to be one of the first advocates for universal human rights.” I don’t have anything against human rights, and I’m not interested in disputing Bartolome’s legacy, but come on. It’s easy to advocate for something. Changing the world is hard, and that’s exactly what Columbus did (and Bartolome didn’t).
Let’s see…. I’m beginning to sense a pattern here. Constantly bashing a well-known European historical figure, check. Focusing on the exploitation and denigration of natives while completely ignoring significant historical achievements that would eventually lead to massive benefits for humanity, check. Judging the merits of individuals not based on what they achieved, but what they “advocated” for, check. This almost seems… it sounds like… surely he’s not getting all of his information from…
“All of the information in this essay came from A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, and Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen, both of which uses (sc) primary sources such as eyewitness accounts, journal entries, and letters from Christopher Columbus himself.”
And there it is. The primary source for this article is none other than communist propagandist Howard Zinn. I honestly suspected this about three sentences into the article, as it’s pretty much the same tactic Zinn uses throughout his book to tear down anything European or American in thought or origin. For the record, Zinn spent most of his life lying to the U.S. government, and to the American public at large, about being a Communist. It turns out he was a card-carrying member. Many chapters of the Communist party in the U.S. required members to literally take a loyalty oath to the Soviet Union in order to join. His book is now being presented as a completely legitimate textbook of American history. How do I know? Because it was used as such in my high school. It had the same effect on most of my classmates as it apparently did on The Oatmeal. They read it, and immediately considered themselves experts on history, ready to tear into any and everyone who might suggest that there are a few good things about the United States and that freedom and liberty just might be better than massive government control. When asked if the world would have been better off if the United States had never existed, Howard Zinn claimed that he was neutral on the subject. Given his desire to tear down the achievements of Christopher Columbus, one has to wonder whether The Oatmeal feels the same way.