How lovely, in this enlightened age, to call Columbus a racist!


IT LOOKS as if Columbus may survive after all. Last year his detractors seemed to have blackened his reputation so successfully that Columbus Day would ever after be celebrated only by moral vermin who revel in shame.

This year the day has come and gone again, yet with scarcely a peep of protest against honoring the Genoese navigator with parades and school holidays. Such is the swiftness with which our modern crusades end up moldering on the shelf.

In modern crusades, timing is everything. That's because a modern crusade's chance of success depends heavily on media attention. This doubtless explains why Columbus' detractors chose last year to have their go at him but let him off scot-free on Monday. Last year they were assured of maximum media.

Why? Last year was the 500th anniversary of his first Atlantic crossing. This year is the 501st. Nobody makes a fuss about 501st anniversaries, least of all the press. If, however, you want camera crews and reporters destroying your lawn, porch, roofing shingles, aluminum siding and parlor rug, simply let it be known that you have a 500th anniversary in progress.

Last year's attacks on Columbus were denunciations of a human product of 15th-century European culture, but they were more than attacks. They were also celebrations of the superiority of the present culture.

The modern custom is to stand in front of the full-length mirror patting yourself on the back and loudly congratulating yourself on how thoroughly your moral superiority exceeds that of the old-timers of long-dead generations.

Every time I hear some philosopher of the water cooler explain that Abraham Lincoln was "a racist," I am touched by the display of eagerness of modern Americans to boast that their own enlightenment puts to shame the great figures of the past.

What makes it comical is the assumption that the present is a pinnacle of some sort. Poor benighted Lincoln hadn't the good luck to be of the present age, so how could he avoid being "a racist," even though in some respects he was not half as unenlightened as a lot of the old-timers?

BLook at Jefferson. A slaver. A sexist, to boot. How sweet it is to sit in judgment on him here at the end of the 20th century, how flattering to ourselves to find him hopelessly unqualified for public office in this day and age, how superior it makes one feel to know he simply just didn't measure up to . . . well, to our own splendid standards.

Perhaps humans have always had this ridiculous belief in the absolute excellence of the present, this conviction that the world into which they have had the marvelous good luck to be born is the best world that ever was, the best that ever will be.

We laugh at the stupidity of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss insisting that his nightmare society is "the best of all possible worlds." And yet Dr. Pangloss is pathetically evident in the all too common eagerness to assert our superiority to a Lincoln, a Jefferson, a Columbus.

Last year's assault on Columbus found him guilty of being a 15th-century European, hence odious and unworthy of the respect of 20th-century Americans who, given Columbus' opportunity, would have refused to sail the Atlantic lest they open some idyllic new land mass to the murderous rapacity of other 15th-century Europeans, not to mention 16th-, 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, and early-20th-century Europeans.

The judgment of the court, if I read it correctly, was that if Columbus had stayed on the other side, eventually the enlightened people who passed judgment on him would have come across late in the 20th century and done things right in the New World.

As a result the Indians, who would not be called Indians, wouldn't have to go into the casino-gambling racket, slavery would not have existed, the spotted owl would not be endangered, and modern schoolchildren wouldn't be taught to admire morally inferior people like Lincoln and Jefferson.

How have we reached such heights of excellence in the present age, the climax of a century that a detached historian might reasonably consider an era of unprecedented human viciousness and butchery? I cannot say. Maybe we were elevated by our science, which gives us smart bombs and MIRV'ed warheads, or maybe by our medical care system, which is the best in the world.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist and host on public television's "Masterpiece Theater."

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