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Commentary: An immigrant's holiday

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst   |   Oct. 13, 2002 at 11:28 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Ethnic pride and political correctness clash when the nation observes Columbus Day. Italian-Americans, who count Columbus as one of their own, view it as an opportunity to celebrate their heritage.

This is not unusual. Many of the different population clusters living in America use holidays to celebrate their heritage. The Irish use St. Patrick's Day to proclaim their pride. Mexicans express theirs on Cinco de Mayo -- May 5.

In communities where ethnicity cannot be easily delineated, holidays honoring cultural self-worth have been invented. And all Americans, no matter what their origins, invoke their national devotion on the Fourth of July.

The problem in the case of Columbus Day is that Christopher Columbus is no longer held in the esteem he once was. In fact, many hold him to be a villain of monstrous proportions.

Macalaster College anthropologist Jack Weatherford, writing in The Baltimore Sun, said Columbus Day honors the man "who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history."

Ambrose Lane, author of "For Whites Only? How and Why America Became a Racist Nation," says that rather than being a bold adventurer, Catholic missionary or hero, "All Columbus was doing was trying to find some wealth for his patrons."

Even more to the point, as folk singer and songwriter Robert Hoyt put it during an appearance at Southern Illinois University last year: "Spread the word about Christopher Columbus ... He sucked. He still does."

All this is a far cry from the way Columbus used to be presented. Whatever else he may be, he is certainly no longer the same noble adventurer about whom schoolchildren were taught with the couplet: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."

So Monday, while tens of thousands of Americans of Italian extraction are celebrating him, thousands of other Americans -- in between their rush to grab towels and microwaves at 30 percent off -- will likely curse Columbus under their breath if they think about him at all.

Making Columbus into a font of evil is but one more symptom of America's cultural and historical decline. It is probably too late to do anything about it -- at least in the short term.

It would take more effort than can be mustered to sufficiently stigmatize the attacks and restore the status quo ante.

However, an opportunity exists to transform the holiday in a way that will redeem it -- or at least remove the contentiousness from the celebrations.

Beginning in 2003, the 511th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to the West, U.S. President George W. Bush should use the official holiday message to proclaim Columbus Day as the day on which to honor the many contributions immigrants have made to America.

Although he did not establish a permanent residence in what is now the United States, Columbus was, in the broadest sense of the term, the first American immigrant.

In his honor, Columbus Day can be set aside to reflect on all those who followed him and their many accomplishments. America would not be the nation it is today without them.

Irving Berlin, who -- under another name -- immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1893, wrote many of the songs now considered American popular standards, not the least of which is "God Bless America."

Other immigrants who have so enriched American culture through their work in arts include comedians Bob Hope, Danny Thomas and Dan Ackroyd, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, actor Cary Grant, musician Eddie Van Halen and director Frank Capra, whose films of the '30s and '40s put all that was good and virtuous about America on display for the world to see.

How different would the country and the world be if Alexander Graham Bell had not come to these shores from Scotland or if Intel founder Andy Grove had stayed in Hungary?

If Patrick Ewing had stayed in Jamaica, would basketball be the same? Or journalism if Joseph Pulitzer, RCA's David Sarnoff and United Press International's Arnaud de Borchgrave and John O'Sullivan had not come to America?

Illegal immigration, and the problems that follow it, have thrown the whole idea of the "golden door" into disrepute. Rather than welcome those who seek a better life with open arms, politicians are once again trying to find a way to keep people out in response to the public pressure to do something.

The problems are serious and the concerns are justified, but the nation must not be allowed to forget how much better off life in America is because of the contributions of immigrants.

The president would do well to establish the precedent next Columbus Day that it will be, henceforth, a time to celebrate the immigrants. That it would be a time to reflect upon all the ways in which America, and the world, are a better place because the United States has historically been open to those who, leaving all they had behind, would pursue a better life for themselves and their children.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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