Saturday, October 10, 2015

Happy Aufheben Day

For many years, Columbus Day has been noted chiefly as the day when you go to the bank to make a deposit or withdraw some cash only to find that the bank isn't open. "What the...?" you say to yourself, then read the note pasted on the glass reminding you of the holiday.

But with the proliferation of ATMs, which can now accept checks you haven't endorsed, and are even too lazy to put in an envelope or total up, Columbus Day has largely faded into insignificance, and even become a magnet for protests and quasi-historical criticism.

Some municipalities, including Minneapolis and Saint Paul, have replaced Columbus Day with a new holiday, Indigenous Day. I like the idea of having such a holiday, though I'm not sure celebrating it on the day Columbus first spotted land in the New World is a good idea.

Then again, there is a certain logic to the association. Indigenous people would probably never have quit fighting one another and come to consider themselves members of a single extended family except as a response to a larger and otherwise indomitable outside force.

It's easy to understand how offensive Columbus Day seems to Native Americans, and many aspects of the explorer's character make it difficult for whites and Latinos to get much excited about him, either. But I can remember the days when we were required to memorize the red-letter days of early exploration:

Columbus - 1492 / Ponce de Leon - 1507 / Balboa - 1509? / Cortez - 1513 / Jacques Cartier - 1536

I don't recall that any of these men were being celebrated for their humanitarianism, honesty, moral fiber, or ethnographic curiosity. Back when the holiday meant something, Columbus Day was a celebration of two things: courage in the face of the unknown, and the freedom and economic opportunity opened up by immigration.

These elements of the holiday have also come in for derision, of course. Sailing west across an ocean into the abyss for eighty-one days can hardly be considered a courageous act, we're told, when Breton and Basque fisherman had been fishing off the coast of Newfoundland for centuries. And the fact that countless millions of immigrants, many of whom faced oppression, torture, or starvation in their home countries, found new lives in the Western hemisphere loses its luster when we stop to consider that the land wasn't really theirs to take.

For myself, I find such reasoning a little shallow, and look forward to the day when our understanding of historical events  and movements sheds both its gingoistic triumphalism and its petulant adversarialism, subsuming both attitudes in a more complex and all-embracing vision.

I'm not sure what a holiday based on that notion might be called, or when it would be held. Somehow, I don't think the idea of celebrating "Aufheben Day" on August 27 (Hegel's birthday) will catch on here in the States any time soon. Besides, considered in isolation from specific events, the concept loses its meaning.

This year, on Indigenous Day, I think I'll re-read Follow the Dream: the Story of Christopher Columbus, a gorgous children's book by Czech immigrant Peter Sis, and then maybe flip through the pages of They Sought a New World: The Story of European Immigration to North America, with its wonderful illustrations by William Kurelek, whose Ukrainian parents settled in Alberta.

After a light dinner of homemade acorn bread and orzo-wild rice salad, maybe we'll settle in to a double feature on the tube: Terrance Malick's brilliant The New World, and Jonathan Wack's wacky Powwow Highway


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