The controversy of whether or not Christopher Columbus should continue to be acknowledged by a federal holiday proves that his legacy has not escaped the scrutiny of history. Arguments born of both sides of the controversy stem from issues such as genocide, racism, multiculturalism, geographical land rights, and the superiority of certain cultures over others. In The Christopher Columbus Controversy: Western Civilization vs. Primitivism, Michael Berliner, Ph.D. declares that recognition of Columbus Day is well-deserved, claiming that Western civilization is superior to all other cultures and Columbus personifies this truth. On the contrary, Jack Weatherford’s Examining the Reputation of Christopher Columbus equates Columbus’ so-called discovery with brutal genocide and the destruction of ancient sophisticated civilizations. These articles demonstrate two extreme points of view in a manner that makes clear each authors’ goals, leading the reader to consider issues of author bias, motivation, and information validity.
Berliner’s article, which appears in Capitalism Magazine, makes his pro-Columbus stance clear with the subtitle of his article: “Western Civilization vs. Primitivism,” an obvious implication that primitivism is the only alternative to Western civilization and that all non-western cultures are primitive. He criticizes the “politically correct” for trying to “intimidate schools across the country into replacing Columbus Day celebrations with ‘ethnic diversity’ days” and claims that the actual target for attacks on Columbus Day is Western civilization (Berliner par. 2). Berliner insists that Western civilization (a term he considers synonymous with the federal holiday) is the “objectively superior culture” (par. 5), and that an attempt to challenge this threatens to perpetuate the racism that (according to him) is created by ethnic identity and celebration of cultural diversity.
Weatherford presents the antithesis to Berliner’s argument. He begins by pointing out that Christopher Columbus never set foot on the North American continent, nor did he open it to European trade: “Scandinavian Vikings already had settlements here in the eleventh century, and British fisherman probably fished the shores of Canada for decades” (Weatherford par. 2). Recognizing that apologists like Berliner are instead commemorating Columbus’ discovery as the great “cultural encounter,” he describes the heinous crimes against humanity that Columbus introduced to the new world. “Under the apologist interpretation,” Weatherford contends, “Columbus becomes a sensitive genius thinking beyond his time in the passionate pursuit of knowledge and understanding”(par. 3) when actually he prompted the first wave of North American genocide, slavery, and European-style warfare.
It is notable that Berliner’s article was written for the Ayn Rand Institute, an organization that founds its principles on the philosophy of objectivism and the notion of individualism. It was republished in Capitalism Magazine, an online publication that prides itself in defending individual rights. It is apparent that Berliner is speaking to his pro-capitalistic audience, as his flattering descriptions of Western civilization appear highly exaggerated. Informed readers recognize that Berliner’s historical facts are grossly construed to support his extreme views of Western civilization. For example, he describes the inhabitants of what is now the United States as “wandering across the land, living from hand-to-mouth and from day-to-day” and as having “no written language, no division of labor, little agriculture and scant permanent settlement” (Berliner par. 4). Berliner uses no historical data or fact to support these points, and for good reason: historical fact refutes these points. History texts describe the early agricultural techniques of the Native Americans as sophisticated, and although Nomadic tribes did exist, several permanent settlements arose throughout the centuries preceding Columbus’ arrival. Berliner does accredit “endless, bloody wars” to Native American civilizations, but again, his argument goes unsupported: the concept of full war or violent warfare was not introduced in the Americas until English and French conquest. Columbus and Cortez used military violence to subdue a previously free people, and with it, launched a tradition of public violence and death. Berliner ignores this, as it contradicts his argument that Western civilization is the objectively superior culture, a saving grace to the “nasty” and “brutish” existence of civilizations prior to its domination.
Weatherford, an anthropologist at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote his article for the Baltimore Evening Sun. His target audience is both the American public, whom he accuses as “embroidering many legends around Columbus” (par. 4) and the academic community. Weatherford’s arguments focus on popular folklore that has been embellished to the point where it wipes out historical truth almost entirely. While Westerners remember Columbus as a pioneer for the integration of Western virtues and values into “underdeveloped” American Indian communities, academics and the ancestors of Columbus’ victims recall the horror and tragedy that he brought to the New World. Weatherford recalls the Taino people who became virtually extinct after Columbus captured them as slaves, hunting them for sport and profit, “beating, raping, torturing, killing, and then using the Indian bodies as food for their hunting dogs” (par. 7).
While Berilner makes sweeping generalizations of the Western encroachment of North and South America with statements like “whatever the problems it brought, the vilified Western culture also brought enormous, undreamed-of benefits, without which most of today’s Indians would be infinitely poorer or not even alive” (par. 4), Weatherford uses specific instances of torture, destruction, and terror to make his stance clear. By using specific facts, Weatherford’s information can be easily digested as valid, although his word usage suggests a clear bias while Berliner merely appears to be making a “yay, America!” rally cry. Berliner clearly attempts to affirm the hidden American attitude that “West is Best” while Weatherford presents his audience with a contrasting view from the other end of the spectrum. By examining the contrast between these viewpoints, including author bias and information validity, a reader is more efficiently equipped to form his or her own conclusion of the Columbus Day Controversy.
Berliner, Michael. “The Christopher Columbus Controversy: Western Civilization vs. Primitivism.” Capitalism Magazine Oct. 1999. 1-08-2000 *www.capitalismmagazine.com/1999/october/columbus/htm*
Weatherford, Jack. “Examining the Reputation of Christopher Columbus.” Feb. 22, 2000. *www.hartford-hwp.com/taino/docs/columbus.html*