By Ira Chernus
They were all white folks, mostly Italian-Americans, riding in cars and on cheaply-made floats, trying to create an air of excitement. But there was something sad, hollow, and strangely touching about it—as if they were trying too hard to whip up enthusiasm and regain a proud sense of identity.
Many looked like they had just stepped out of the pages of a 1950s-era issue of Life magazine. I got a strong impression of people longing for the secure identity that our culture has taught us to associate (both rightly and wrongly) with the white adults of the ’50s, before their children heard the Jefferson Airplane’s call to “tear down the wall, motherfucker.” For the white paraders celebrating Columbus the Native American protesters were, I suspected, a disturbing throwback to the counterculture that ended the (largely imagined) tranquility of American life. That made Columbus himself a symbol of all that the paraders seemed to be so desperately seeking: identity, security, pride, tranquility.
But the traditional myth of Columbus (RIP) said nothing about new ideas or worlds within. It was all about a new land, a new world defined strictly geographically. As long as the myth was vibrant, it assured Americans that they needed no sophisticated concepts. The land of the United States itself (which became, in the U.S. version of the myth, synonymous with the “America” Columbus “discovered”) would be the paradise Columbus sought. It would exude all of his mythic qualities: courage, initiative, intelligence, skill, and the freedom always to be making a new beginning.
Simply by living on the land, the myth promised, each of us and our nation as a whole would always embody those qualities. They would permanently define America, celebrated in song as “Columbia, the gem of the ocean.”
For more on the subject, see Columbus Day 2010 Protests, What "I Want My Country Back" Means, and Why We Believe in Columbus.