So, I’ve taken the opportunity on this day off (though every day is a day off when you’re unemployed!) to get back on that blogging horse.
And so I just wanted to write a note about Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day, and severely disappointing journalism.
A lot of people posted comments, from sincere to snarky, on Facebook today in reference to Columbus Day. It’s a day when I glow with a little pride for the place I’m from, the San Francisco Bay Area – because in Berkeley (I’m from neighboring Kensington) they don’t celebrate Columbus Day, they changed it to Indigenous People’s Day.
I feel lucky to have been from a place that’s willing to do things like that, to make the rest of the country stop and think. But of course, the rest of the country won’t stop and think if it’s not reported in a way that provokes thought. Which brings me to this the New York Times article (if it can be called that, it’s rather teensy, perhaps “note”) on the decision to change the day, from back in 1992.
It’s a gem. Let’s take a look:
Oct. 12 is no longer Columbus Day in this city known for political correctness. From now on, it will be Indigenous Peoples Day, and city officials have designated the whole of 1992 as the Year of Indigenous People.
“Berkeley wants to celebrate the important place that indigenous people hold in this country,” Mayor Loni Hancock said at a news conference on Friday. “Their societies and philosophies flourished long before Columbus arrived, and they continue until today.”
And right off the bat, the writer sparks my ire with the knee-jerk reference to Berkeley as a center of “political correctness.” Contempt inspired in the first line, well done! Why does it irk? It’s lazy. It’s a person saying “hmmm, what’s the first stereotype the average person unthinkingly relates to Berkeley? Political correctness! I shall now equally unthinkingly repeat that.”
Now, I’m not denying that Berkeley is what it is, a bastion of left-wing politics, and I don’t have a problem with identifying it as such. But the associations with the phrase “political correctness” (even in 1992) are such that it’s use is like code for “now prepare to roll your eyes at the crazy hippies” before you’ve even started your story.
Next? The writer mentions that the whole year will be the Year of Indigenous People, yet attempts no explanation at why that might be – like, I dunno, the fact that it was the 400th anniversary of the start of the European conquest of America. Just saying.
The city’s declaration underscored a revisionist notion that Columbus was no hero but instead a self-serving colonialist whose arrival in the New World led to the death of millions of American Indians.
The declaration has been recognized by the school board, which plans to modify Columbus’s image in history classes and textbooks.
Oh dear. So much bad in so little space. Even in 1992, the idea that the arrival of Columbus was not so great for the native peoples can hardly be considered “revisionist.” They imply that the change was intended by organizers as an attack on Columbus (the writer’s characterization), instead of (as the actual quote by Hancock reflects) an attempt to draw attention to the other side of the historical story, and to indigenous people’s cultural legacy.
And what is this about the curriculum? Talk about saying effectively nothing. What does that mean “plans to modify Columbus’s image”? Are they ripping up history texts and drawing mustaches on his portrait? What do they actually, specifically plan to do? This reporter couldn’t talk to a single person on the school board about what that meant in concrete terms? It’s so uninformative as to be useless.
And to conclude:
The city’s move was criticized by the Sons of Italy’s Commission on Social Justice, which said Columbus should continue to be celebrated. “It’s kind of tough to rewrite history 500 years after it happens,” said a commission spokesman, Richard Armento.
“I’m not suggesting we make him a saint,” Mr. Armento added, but “there’s nothing to say Columbus was a good or bad guy.”
Oh, well, they couldn’t talk to a school board member (or god forbid a member of an indigenous group) but the Sons of Italy get the last two grafs with two totally meaningless assertions “tough to rewrite history”? Really, we do it all the time – that’s what the study of history is about, refining and amplifying our understanding of past events, then rewriting them. And “there’s nothing to say Columbus was a good or bad guy”? Seriously? Nothing? At all? Astounding.
I know it’s just a teensy bit of newsprint from almost 20 years ago, but it bothers me nonetheless. It bothers me because, well, let me address the writer directly:
You write for the New York Times, you have the opportunity to do something interesting and informative, to challenge your reader. You have only a couple hundred words in which to do it, and you choose meaningless, unedifying ones to put in that tiny space. Fail. :p