Christopher Columbus and the New Alt-Lightweights

The first person I ever knew who wanted to tear down a statue of Christopher Columbus was my mother. It was 1986 and my father, an editor at National Geographic, had erected a 10-foot statue to the explorer in the small backyard of our suburban Maryland home. Mom didn’t like the way Columbus dominated the half-acre, even if the basin at the foot of the statue attracted some nice birds.

Still, the statue remained. My father Joe had spent five years investigating the spot where Columbus had landed in the New World, and his discovery had been the cover story in the November 1986 issue of National Geographic. The press conference announcing the discovery had been the biggest in the history of the organization. At that event, which took place in the Grosvenor Auditorium in NatGeo’s venerable headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.—and which I attended as a college student—my father talked about Columbus, history, and George Orwell.

What Joe Judge said then has a direct bearing on the current leftist mania for defacing, destroying, and mothballing statues of Confederate leaders and “genocidal” explorers like Columbus. Unsurprisingly, the tear-it-down fever has struck New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who is thinking of bringing down his city’s Columbus statues. The Los Angeles City Council has just voted to replace Columbus Day, October 9, with “Indigenous People’s Day.”

But first, the story.

Using computer technology that was then considered cutting edge, my father and a team that included legendary explorer Luis Marden argued that in 1492, Christopher Columbus landed at Samana Cay, a small island in the Bahamas. This was different from San Salvador, which had been the largely accepted spot of the Columbus landfall. This is from John Noble Wilford’s report in the October 8, 1986 New York Times:

Attacking a centuries-old mystery, a team of researchers used computers and a new analysis of key documents to conclude that Columbus did not make his first landing in the New World where most historians had thought he did. The historic landfall probably occurred 65 miles away at a small, remote island in the Bahamas, Samana Cay, according to new findings announced today by the National Geographic Society.

Added Wilford:

The new interpretation was the first major challenge in more than 40 years to the widely held conviction, endorsed unequivocally by the late Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, that the first landing took place at another Bahamian island, San Salvador. Rather than resolve the landfall issue, however, many scholars expect the new hypothesis to revive spirited debate on this and the many other unanswered questions surrounding the voyage of discovery nearly 500 years ago.

San Salvador and Samana Cay are just 65 miles apart, and at the press conference my father was asked why what might seem like a small geographical dispute had generated such media attention. Dad invoked Orwell, and I can still paraphrase the words: In the novel 1984, there is a man sitting in a room and a screen comes down. There is a face on the screen, and that face is lying to him. History matters. Getting it right matters. If you don’t care about your history, you wind up like Winston Smith in 1984, being lied to.

As the Times reported, “Mr. Judge conceded that the new calculations would not end the controversy over where Columbus landed. ‘History grows,’ he said. ‘This will go on forever. It should go on forever.’”

When my father said that historical controversies should go on forever, he didn’t mean that there are not facts or foundational principles that are stable and unchanging. He meant that new discoveries could challenge contemporary historical perceptions and, if based on hard facts and research, could rewrite history, or aspects of it. It’s what he himself had done.

What was crucial, however, was—and is—that such revisions be the result of diligent research, peer-reviewed inquiry, and lots of investigative sweat and toil. My father had a phrase for lazy scholars, vacuous journalists, and hack politicians: “That guy’s a lightweight.” Our current social and political climate, and the hysteria over statues, are the work of lightweights.

On the one hand we have Antifa, the pathetic and illiterate crew of left-wing activists who speak in social justice clichés. One gets the sense that they are protesting not social injustice but venturesome masculinity itself, which fueled men like Columbus.

On the other we have the shlubby neo-Nazi soldiers, doughy losers who make up a tiny fraction of the country’s population.

Churning it all up are journalists and social media, amplifying these street conflicts to make small fringe groups seem like massive armies tearing the country apart.

All three have common traits: ignorant or apathetic about history, addicted to virtue-signaling, hooked on “hot takes” and social media, and starved for attention. All lightweights, in short.

If there is to be a debate about the meaning of America’s public statues, it cannot be conducted by these people. The question is not one of politics. When my father did his Columbus story he was contacted by Kirkpatrick Sale, a left-wing journalist and author who was also interested in Columbus. Sale wrote long letters to my father detailing why Columbus was an imperialist invader who despoiled a Native American paradise. Sale would publish his views in the 1990 volume The Conquest of Paradise: Columbus and the Columbian Legacy.

As one reviewer, William H. McNeill of the University of Chicago, noted: “silly remarks and callow, sweeping judgments disfigure . . . the book” and “obscure a few worthwhile challenges to received opinions that Mr. Sale scatters through his pages.” The most valuable chapter, wrote McNeill,

shows how poets, publicists, politicians and historians have twisted the figure of Columbus to suit their different purposes (just as Mr. Sale himself has done). A conspicuously Roman Catholic seaman from Genoa who served the Spaniards was an odd hero for the new American republic to latch onto in the 1780’s, yet that is when Columbus entered our national iconography.

Sale, though, had spent years doing his research, so my father never dismissed him as a lightweight even though the two of them had clashing views. To his credit, Sale’s investigations involved reaching out to people who differed with him, like my father. The result was a substantive (if flawed) book brought out by a major publishing house. Sale is one left-winger who makes Antifa, and its knucklehead right-wing counterparts, look infantile. He appreciated the value of marshaling evidence and doing deep dives into history to make your case.

The alternative to such diligence is the Orwellian specter my father evoked 30 years ago: a huge screen on which a government representative appears, telling everybody lies.