Columbus Day: What Can We Hold in Common?

So a discussion ensued over the meaning of Columbus Day, not just it’s meaning, but a broader discussion on our national symbols, institutions, and myths. Are there common stories left that bind us as a people? Can we develop better stories than we’ve relied on in the past? Can we re-envision the old stories? Or are we endanger of losing any common things that connect us as a society?
PJ Johnston is a visiting Assistant Professor in Religion at St. Olaf College
Dwight Welch is a United Church of Christ minister and part time philosophy instructor at Oklahoma City Community College.
Kevin M Johnson is a blogger with Daily Theology

PJ Johnston It is a holiday dedicated to the empowerment of a despised ethnic minority considered non-white.

Kevin M Johnson While dis-empowering other ethnic minorities considered non-white? I don’t know. I’m not comfortable with the holiday.

Dwight Welch Or was, I mean Italians are pretty much mainstream today I don’t think we have to wonder about the “whiteness”of Italians, the Irish, or other 19th century immigrant groups that were previously despised in the country.

I’m sure there must be many dissertations on what counts as “white” and normal, properly assimilated

PJ Johnston You don’t throw away traditional civic observances because people from another time and place grow to disapprove of them. Nothing from the past can survive this kind of puritanism.

I don’t want a world in which a bunch of whiny radical undergrads get to hold the past accountable to their political agendas.

Dwight Welch St. Patrick’s Day has survived….I do think there are civic holidays that can survive, but I remember the critiques of Columbus Day as a kid in the 1980s, critiques of discovery (maybe it was growing up near the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations).
This doesn’t strike me as new phenomena. It goes back to the previous question, of what if any national symbols, days can belong to all of us. In other words, to have a civic observance, to do it’s work, it has to be collectively owned, otherwise it becomes another thing to be utilized for somebody’s culture war.

Kevin M Johnson But where do you draw the line? I understand what you are saying and I completely get your anger and frustration with censorship and the bullying of political correctness — and I’m not arguing for censorship here. I just don’t understand what it ever celebrated and the randomness of applying “discovery” to him.

PJ Johnston Traditions are supposed to be normative and morally form the people who participate in them into individuals who have reverence for the past and community. You cannot do that if any self appointed ideologue can knock ancestors to whom we owe reverence off their pedestals because their values are different from ours. Political community cannot be sustained where anybody who has an agenda can set themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner over the central symbols of a culture.

At the end of the day Columbus doesn’t need to have done anything great. Reverence is a debt one pays to tradition because it is tradition and because human social and political life cannot thrive where there is no reverence and the community of the living and the dead is so radically severed that there no longer are mythic stories that form a people.

Think of it like Confucian filial piety, the root of all virtues. One does not follow the customs of one’s father because they are the best customs on some rational calculus. One does it because he is one’s own father.  A filial person is not someone who preserves those customs only while one’s father is living but after he is dead. That is all culture and tradition are at the end of the day, or most of it anyway. But without that flimsy thing you cannot sustain a society

Kevin M Johnson But I’m not talking about an ideologue. Is there no room for adaptation or adjustment if the community no longer holds a particular tradition as normative? And your description is lovely and generous if people hold Columbus up “as their father” but when the community diversifies and people enter the community who doesn’t see him as father?

Your suggestion may even become very unwieldy. The weight of the dead dragging on the living.

PJ Johnston But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which [[171]]beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded[91] as romance and folly. Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any way gainers by it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.

On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, [[172]] always as aids to law. The precept given by a wise man, as well as a great critic, for the construction of poems, is equally true as to states. Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto. There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.

But power, of some kind or other, will survive the shock in which manners and opinions perish; and it will find other and worse means for its support. The usurpation which, in order to subvert antient institutions, has destroyed antient[92] principles, will hold power by arts similar to those by which it has acquired it. When the old feudal and chivalrous spirit of Fealty, which, by freeing kings from fear, freed both kings and subjects from the precautions of tyranny, shall be extinct in the minds of men, plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation, and that long roll of grim and bloody maxims, which form the political code of all power, not standing on its own honour, and the honour of those who are to obey it. Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle.

Dwight Welch This is where I’ll sound like a liberal. I believe in the same communitarian impulse being described, bemoan it’s loss. But the losses we’ve also experienced are because the institutions failed, the ideals were never sufficient and invariably exclusive…they couldn’t hold the weight needed to tie us together. The government really did lie to us about Iraq, high finance really did not know what it was doing that led to the crash in 08, the church really did seek to hide pedophiles and protect bad priests, Columbus really did see Natives only in terms of their values as slaves, the US really did kill 2 million Vietnamese.

So if there has been a loss of a public faith, a sense of the goodness of our history, the possibility of symbols to bring us together, we need better ideals, better symbols, better things in our history to relate to, which are able to include our increasingly diverse society and whose admiration is justified. Otherwise we’ll have bad faith, coerced patriotism, cultural symbols that demand loyalty they cannot receive (and thus become litmus tests in the culture wars)

PJ Johnston It is rather the ugly side of the beautiful 1960s and the Baby Boomers absolute rejection of authority and tradition. All the rest of that are symptoms of the more basic problem of irreverence. The institutions of the post-war consensus were not tried and found wanting. They were simply abandoned for hedonism.

But there is a truth here: social institutions are never perfect enough in and of themselves to succeed. That doesn’t make them less necessary or abandoning them always more destructive than keeping them.

Dwight Welch As an example I believe in the mainline protestant church, one of the many institutions abandoned since the 1960s. I seek reform and at the same time trying to get folks to be a part of the institution. I can tell you that track record has been mixed in my personal experience. And I grieve that.

But again, I think some of it is that Christianity is no longer a common possession, it is also part of the culture war, a way to delineate tribe. How to make common, what has been used exclusively for a political tribe, not sure? I mean in Spain, when the church sided with Franco, that ended any possibility of liberals in that country ever identifying with the church. And that was many many generations ago. But history has a way of solidifying these lines, not erasing them.

PJ Johnston I have been thinking about it and there is no longer any way for the US to avert civilizational collapse. This game was lost a long time ago, probably with Watergate

Dwight Welch But if I was to mourn the loss of the mainline in the 1950s, I’d have to be yearning for a church that by definition I could not serve in, given my sexual orientation. I’n other words, there is a lot to miss in the world pre Watergate, but really it is idealization, imagining institutions and norms that in many cases were not worthy.

I guess the case I’d make is that loyalty not be directed to institutions but rather towards the way God can use such institutions, when properly re-formed, for better ends. Certainly better, as you say, than abandoning them.

PJ Johnston No institution is ever worthy. But we need the illusion that they are worthy and reverence directed towards them as if they are or society cannot survive.

Dwight Welch I will sound Protestant and I’m not sure if experience, justifies this: but is it possible to revere institutions not as they are, but what they can be? Their potentiality, not their actuality?

PJ Johnston That was the mistake of the 1960s. They got the crazy idea that the only society you respect and show reverence is one “worthy” of it – something no society can actually deliver to all its critics – and then tore everything down ostensibly to create new institutions. But that is not how these things work. Revolutions only burn and kill. Change must grow out of what already is loved and reverenced

Dwight Welch Because I think the illusion needed to direct it at the institutions when that loyalty couldn’t be justified, was: the cover ups, the lack of honesty, bad and partial histories, protecting the institutions even if other folks got trounced on to make it happen.

PJ Johnston There is no progressive arc to history. No one now is any better than their ancestors.

There are certainly ways I wreck institutions so they provoke greater disorder. But trying to uproot them creates even greater suffering and disorder.

Dwight Welch Will you can’t reform what you destroy. In that I’m an institutionalist, and a reformer, not a revolutionary. I suppose I’m caught between two world, institutions that wouldn’t have me and the collapse of our social glue. Want my cake and eat it too!

PJ Johnston We could start a club.

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