Columbus did it


THERE'S A LOT of anger against Columbus these days. People are saying it's bad to honor him by celebrating the 500th anniversary of his discovery of America. Everybody knows he didn't discover America anyhow.

They say all he did was pave the way for Europeans to come over, push the residents around and exploit the land for profit.

Listening to these charges, you get the impression if it hadn't been for Columbus there'd be no air pollution, no grim interstate highways or ugly housing developments marring the continent's beauty, no mountains of burning tires or reeking gasoline refineries blighting the landscape.

When you think about this possibility, you can't help feeling angry at Columbus.

Imagine great primitive forests uncut, rivers thick with fish and woods dense with animal life where smelly Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington now blot the landscape.

Imagine the deer and the antelope at play on a prairie where the grass grows six feet high.

Imagine, instead of eyesores like Houston and Los Angeles, a vast and majestic Southwestern desert alive with the sinuous and abundant glory of rattlesnakes 20 feet long living in nature's perfect harmony with the heirs of some prehistoric Columbus who arrived way back in the who-knows-when.

I love the idea of this paradise, though I have reservations.

The people populating it are supposed to be superior, meaning they respect nature too much to put up with things like burning tires or New York, but I can't help wondering how much patience they'd have with people like me, which is to say tourists, after the first few hundred years of putting up with us.

Because obviously, when you've got a planet with two perfectly unspoiled continents like North and South America, people from the spoiled continents are going to pay arm-and-leg-size money to go do the tourist number on them. And very few industries put more strain on the sweet temper of their personnel than the tourist business.

Assume that the dreadful Columbus never fetched up on these shores, bringing all that evil cargo. Technological development in Europe, Asia, Africa and all those other non-American places surely would have moved at its usual relentless pace, with or without American input.

Eventually a wandering airplane pilot, or sonar, or an orbiting earth satellite would have spotted these two big, beautiful, unspoiled continents teeming with nature-loving people and great beasts, fish, reptiles and grass.

Until that moment Europeans, Asians, Africans and all would have thought a visit to Disney World in sub-Sahara Africa or Disneyland in the Gobi Desert or Disney Paradise on the Arctic Circle was fun at its apex. With two whole continent-sized theme parks available, however, it would be "so long" to the tourist dollar for the Disney industry.

The trouble is, though, that once the tourist dollar starts flowing, residents of the new-found continents are going to be under heavy pressure to make a mess of Paradise.

I don't know about you, for instance, but I'm not going to be in a hurry to go until they build some decent highways and motels and a few places where you can get a cheeseburger at 3 o'clock in the morning.

Sure, I want to see those thick woods alive with animals, but I'm not dying to, so I want to make sure all the grizzlies and wild boars have been cleaned out before I take the kids.

And unless they stop those snakes from flourishing so abundantly in the Southwest, I'll just take the sight-seeing flight over the six-foot-high prairie grass, thank you, provided there's a good airport nearby with an air-conditioned waiting room and a well-stocked bar.

Thinking about all the necessities that would have to be dealt with makes me a little glad, I'm ashamed to say, that Columbus got here when he did, because even after 500 years of working at it, there's a lot of work still needed to make the place fit to visit.

Of course, Columbus also brought slavery, capitalist exploitation, cultural arrogance, racism, sexism, ethnic jokes and steroids to these shores. Such things always happen when two utterly alien cultures encounter each other for the first time.

That's why I'm against sending earth people to other planets.

Russell Baker is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner.


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