by Michael S. Berliner
The following is a slightly expanded version of an op-ed piece originally published in the Los Angeles Times. It was later reprinted in more than a dozen daily newspapers around the country, with a total of over 4 million readers.
To the “politically correct,” the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America is no cause for celebration. And even before 1992 began, their protests resulted in a significant victory: the naming of an American Indian as co-grand marshal in the 1992 Rose Parade. Parade officials caved in to critics, who denounced the tournament committee when it first named as grand marshal Cristobal Colon, a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus. But the actual target of those critics was not simply Colon; it was Western civilization.
The politically correct view is that Columbus did not discover America, because people had lived here for thousands of years. Worse yet, it’s claimed, the main legacy of Columbus is death and destruction. Pasadena’s vice-mayor, Rick Cole, branded Columbus’s descendant “a symbol of greed, slavery, rape, and genocide.” And one Indian leader likened the celebration of Columbus’s arrival to a celebration of Hitler and the Holocaust.
Did Columbus “discover” America? Yes, in every important respect. This does not mean that no human eye had been cast on America before Columbus arrived. It does mean that Columbus brought America to the attention of the civilized world, i.e., the developing scientific civilizations of Western Europe. The result, ultimately, was the United States of America. It was Columbus’s discovery for Western Europe that led to the influx of ideas and people on which this nation was founded and on which it still rests. The opening of America brought the ideas and achievements of Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and the thousands of thinkers, writers, and inventors who followed. What they replaced was a way of life dominated by fatalism, passivity, superstition, and magic.
Prior to 1492, what is now the United States was sparsely inhabited, unused, and undeveloped. The inhabitants were primarily hunter/gatherers, wandering across the land, living from hand to mouth and from day to day. There was virtually no change, no growth for thousands of years. With rare exception, life was nasty, brutish, and short: there was no wheel, no written language, no division of labor, little agriculture and scant permanent settlement; but there were endless, bloody wars. Whatever the problems it brought, the vilified Western culture also brought enormous, undreamed-of benefits, without which most of todays Indians would be infintely poorer or not even alive.
The particular actions of Columbus and his men are irrelevant to the current controversy: Columbus should be honored, for in so doing, we honor Western civilization. But the critics do not want to bestow such honor, and this is the real reason for the opposition to Columbus as the discoverer of America. Their real goal is to denigrate the values of Western civilization and to glorify the primitivism, mysticism, and collectivism embodied in the tribal cultures of American Indians. They decry the glorification of the West as “Eurocentrism.” We should, they claim, replace our reverence for Western civilization with multiculturalism, which regards all cultures as morally equal. In fact, they aren’t.
Some cultures are better than others: a free society is better than slavery; reason is better than brute force as a way to deal with other men; productivity is better than stagnation and unthinking adherence to tradition. In fact, Western civilization stands for man at his best. It stands for the values that make human life possible: reason, science, self-reliance, individualism, ambition, productive achievement. The values of Western civilization are values for all men; they cut across gender, ethnicity, and geography. We should honor Western civilization not for the ethnocentric reason that some of us happen to have European ancestors but because it is the objectively superior culture.
Underlying the political collectivism of the anti-Columbus crowd is a racist view of human nature. They claim that one’s identity is primarily ethnic: if one thinks his ancestors were good, he will supposedly feel good about himself; if he thinks his ancestors were bad, he will supposedly feel self-loathing. But it doesn’t work; the achievements or failures of one’s ancestors are monumentally irrelevant to one’s actual worth as a person. Only the lack of a sense of self leads one to look to others to provide what passes for a sense of identity. Neither the deeds nor misdeeds of others are his own; he can take neither credit nor blame for what someone else chose to do. There are no racial achievements or racial failures, only individual achievements and individual failures. One cannot inherit moral worth or moral vice. “Self-esteem through others” is a self-contradiction.
Thus the sham of “preserving one’s heritage” as a rational value. Thus the cruel hoax of “multicultural education” as an antidote to racism: it will continue to create even more racism. As Ayn Rand observed in “Global Balkanization” (The Voice of Reason), “the advocacy of ‘ethnicity’ means racism plus tradition, i.e., racism plus conformity. There is no surer way to infect mankind with hatred–brute, blind, virulent hatred–than by splitting it into ethnic groups or tribes.”
The immigrants who built this country in the 18th and 19th centuries came here not to wallow in “ethnic pride” nor to repeat mindlessly the ways of their ancestors. They embraced the essence of Western civilization. They were “at least implicitly” individualists.
Individualism is the only alternative to the racism of political correctness. We must recognize that everyone is a sovereign entity, with the power of choice and independent judgment. The values of self-esteem and Western civilization should be proudly proclaimed.