Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition – Columbus Day Edition

Happy Columbus Day everyone!

In grade school, Columbus Day was a day when we got out of school because America got discovered by the best guy to ever own 3 festively-named boats. Cristopher Columbus was a hero who not only found the to-be-US of A, but he also proved the world was round. As I got older, I learned that everyone already knew the world was round, the Americas were already discovered, and Columbus wasn’t necessarily such a great guy.

The Simpsons touched on this topic in Lisa the Iconoclast when Lisa discovered the truth that Jebediah Springfield was really a pirate, and all-around bad guy, named Hans Sprungfeld. She had the opportunity to expose the lie of Jebediah, but decided instead to let people believe the legend as truth because it brought out so much good in people.

Did Lisa do the right thing? Should a legend ever be told as historical truth if something good comes of it?

Elyse

Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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51 Comments

  1. I don’t know that it matters whether we tell legends or truths…all things migrate to legends, especially for those who do no more than lip service to the facts they learn about the world around them.

    Darwin, for instance, has had his Galapagos voyage made legend. Few people really bother to learn that he actually did a poor job keeping notes about species and where he found them, etc. Everyone thinks he came to the islands, saw a bunch of different finches, and said “By jove, I think I’m on to something!”

    And still, given that human memory and love of tale-telling tends to legendify (awesome new word, no?) things, I can’t say as I really know too many people who still think Columbus was a great guy. Now, maybe people don’t know where he landed or what exactly he did, but almost everyone I know (admittedly, an anecdotal set of data) understands that Columbus didn’t exactly improve the lot of the people he found in the New World.

    The best thing we can do is to try to inform ourselves and disabuse others, when appropriate, of the fudged or legendified facts. As most people here know by now, history is a story, and certain stories are told for certain reasons. There isn’t the time in school to tell every side of every bit of history. All we can do there is encourage people to ask questions and to doubt the mythic narratives history becomes when boiled down to fit curricula.

  2. For something as impersonal as history, there is no gain to be had from falsehood that exceeds the gain to be had from telling the truth.

    And people who take their history personally tend to be anti-social types—seeking retaliation for ancient wrongs or feeling superior to others because of their heritage.

    No, I think history should always be presented for what it is, whether its useful as a positive or a negative example.

  3. um no. but then again i plan to tell my children there is no santa clause or easter bunny as soon as they are able to understand spoken language. so take it with a grain of salt if you think this makes me a monster. i just believe in giving it to people straight. all the time.

  4. oh and that last comment sort of mistakenly implies that i plan to have kids. i actually intend to adopt, though. (i will refrain from explaining the logic behind this here as i hate when people blatantly hijack threads with obviously controversial comments)

  5. The problem with doing this is the same problem with religion. Without honesty and reliability we fall prey to lies and illusions that seem to make other actions acceptable. If Columbus is a Hero then the atrocities he committed are acceptable. Which is absolutely not the case.

  6. @Hanes: Agreed. I see no difference between taking comfort in a historical figure being supercool ignoring the contradictory details and, for example, Jesus being supercool and ignoring the contradictory details. It’s all sugarcoat and I don’t approve of one, so I don’t really approve of the other. Because like dahduh said, how can we learn from that? One could argue that the dark ages was just one big sugarcoating. Look where that got us.

  7. There was a period where the U.S. was thought to need “national myths” to give it something like history. First Washington and the cherry tree/ never telling a lie type, then Boone and Crockett as superheroes and it never ended. Now it’s JFK and Reagan. It causes more trouble than it is worth. Most of history is mythical enough.

  8. Blogger/physicist Chad Orzel has a concept he uses when teaching physics that he calls, IIRC, “lies told to children.” That is, when he teaches freshman physics, he teaches concepts and formulae that he knows are not, strictly speaking, true. The truth behind basic concepts in physics is difficult, and requires a deep understanding of theory and mathematics. But what he tells them is true enough to get them to the next level in their physics education. In other words, learning physics becomes the iterative process of replacing what you learned previously with incrementally better models.

    By analogy, what do you teach a second grader about Columbus? Do you teach second graders the geographical and technological arguments put forward by Jared Diamond? Or maybe the political and economic story told by Howard Zinn? Maybe you start with the Reconquista (completed in 1492) and the Spanish Inquisition (started in 1492) and their role in shaping Spanish ideology and global ambitions?

    I think it’s fair to say that this is a bit much for second graders to absorb.

    Is Columbus a hero, a villain, or a fool? Each of these answers is a “lie told to children.” The question is, which lie provides the best foundation for what they will learn as they grow older? I’d have to go with answer (c), fool.

    Here’s what I would teach kids about Columbus:

    – Everyone knew the Earth was round, but Columbus thought it was much smaller than the current estimates. He was wrong.

    – When he arrived in Cuba, he thought he was in the East Indies. He was wrong.

    – Within a few years, it was clear to everyone else that Columbus was wrong, and that in fact he had landed on the edge of a continent previously unknown to Europeans. Despite the evidence, Columbus continued to believe otherwise.

    – Even though previous Europeans had had limited contact with North Americans (Vikings, British cod fisherman, etc.), Columbus’s voyages touched off a massive wave of European exploration and colonization that shaped, for better or worse, North and South America as we know them today.

    None of this is complete or true, of course, but I think it’s a better foundation than either a hagiography or a demonology.

  9. “Oh, He robbed from the rich
    and he gave to the poor.
    Stood up to the man
    and he gave him what for.
    Our love for him now
    ain’t hard to explain.
    The hero of Canton
    the man they call Jayne. ”

    Seriously though, I agree that the reality is usually much more interesting. Add to that that anybody real commonly considered a “hero” was probably a bastard in person.

    However…… In many cases our legends such as say Thanksgiving myths do provide lessons and ideals to children that they might not find other ways. The kids Columbus story can teach ideals like persiverence and self-confidence. Thanksgiving, is a load of crap, but the myth contains elements of the benefits of friendship and common cause, religious freedom, etc.

    In the end I’d say that, like Santa Clause, these myths provide some benefit during the early years of childhood development eventually these myths should be replaced by teaching the truth.

  10. @Athos Jayne FTW!

    I think this isn’t so black and white. If I know it will be more destructive to spill it about something now, but that there will be time to take the time for a more constructive education for the masses later, then let it be, I say.

    If you know someone is going to get pissy when they find out Springfield wasn’t Springfield, they’re probably not going to believe you anyway, so who cares what you tell them?

    Have to gauge it person by person, I think. Slip what you can into conversation. Help the deluded along, but know that they will not be coerced into changing.

    Men go crazy in congregations. They only get better one by one.

  11. The harm far outweighs the benefit. Deception imprisons just as much as the truth sets free.

    One problem is that the lies learned as children are very hard to dislodge – we all know grown adults who believe in Washington and the cherry tree and Columbus and the flat earth, despite probably having been exposed to correction many times as an adult.

    Another is that there is no ready check on the kind of twisting of history that proponents of the Columbus mythos advocate: if Columbus’ atrocities are to be overlooked because the rest of his story fits into an inspiring fiction, is there any wrongdoing that can’t be similarly set aside?

    I think the whole idea of a historical myth is without value*. Either something good happened, with a goodness so great and costs so low that everyone** can agree that it outweighed its costs and should be celebrated and looked upon as a model to which to aspire, or it didn’t, and the lesson that true excellence and virtue are often absent from history’s most important events.

    I’ve been unhappy with “Lisa The Iconoclast” ever since its original broadcast and have always considered it well out of line with the best values generally taught by “The Simpsons”. To this day I hate Donald Sutherland with a nigh-limitless malevolence.

    * Or it has as much value as the inspiring come-from-behind-in-the-trailing-seconds Chicago Bears victory yesterday.
    ** Ninety percent of actual everyone.

  12. Elyse, “Happy Columbus Day everyone”

    *Ahem*, I THINK you meant to say also, “Happy Thanksgiving to our Canadian readers!”

    I’ll let this one slide though. I expect a hardy ‘Happy Boxing Day’ in a few months.

  13. Wow. 24 Comments and no one managed to slip in “embiggen” or “cromulent”.

    It’s very hard to try to correct someone who grew up believing the lies they were taught; the more patriotic the lie, the harder it is. That ancient myth of Chris Columbus proving the world was round isn’t too hard to debunk because, hey, he wasn’t American.

  14. Lisa caved to popular opinion, imho. Are we to teach facts or fables? Heroes enough get created everyday through the news media, and legends are already shouted from the pulpit on every other street corner. If the next generation is to think rationally, let’s not muddle their thinking with candied historical tales, and be forthright with their education.

  15. Lisa didn’t do the right thing: she did the convenient thing. The right thing would have been to reveal the truth to all. It might, in the short term, have shattered some people’s sense of hope, but in the long run it would connect them more to reality. You have to stop believing in Santa Claus sometime, so to speak.

    Many people are so obsessed with the symbolic importance of legends that they don’t just lose their sense of reality, they lose their appreciation for it. For example, I read in a magazine about an Evangelical Christian youth group whose leader, at a rally, told that tired old story of Cassie Bernall, who said “yes” when one of the Columbine killers asked “Do you believe in your god now?” before he shot her.

    After the rally, a reporter asked a young woman in the audience about the fact that there is no strong evidence for that exchange having occurred. She basically shrugged and said that it didn’t matter: Cassie Bernall was a symbol.

    Call me insane, but for an actual person to be a symbol of something, they have to actually have personified what they symbolize. Cassie Bernall, according to other sources, was praying out of desperation when she was shot. But the human reality of her death means nothing to those Evangelicals at the rally—only the fiction surrounding it, which they accept as the “truer” reality even when faced with the facts. If we teach legends as truth, we encourage this deplorable tendency to not just deny the facts, but deny reality itself and withdraw into a womb of imaginary ideals.

  16. Let’s take another figure from history and clean him up a little bit of those less than pleasant details, and present him in a positive light….

    (I know I’m treading on dangerous ground here, but it was the most viceral example which came to mind of whitewashing historical figures)

    ******************
    “This man loved his country, and saw great things for his people. He was both commanding and determined, as evidenced by his massive programs which revitalized both his countries industry and infrastructure, ending a horrendous depression caused by the aftermath of war.

    He served time in prison because of his unpopular views despite many people sympathizing with him at the time. During this period he wrote an autobiography which is still in circulation over 50 years later.

    But despite the incarceration, he continued with his vision, and literally changed the world. Both an amatuer artist and captivating orator, he immediately grabbed the attention of people worldwide, and even today he has devoted followers taking inspiration from his grand vision…”
    ***********************

    Can you gues who I am talking about? He committed suicide in 1945…

    The “for the greater good of the community” has been used as an excuse for numerous atrocities throughout history (the above person also used it a lot during his time in power).

    Present historical figures and legends for what they are – not a nice sanitized whitewash because peoples senibilities may be offended.

  17. Hmm…probably not unless reincarnation is real.

    But I do understand that the Canadians and this individual both shared a habit of setting fire to important government buildings. ;)

  18. @Lyc: also, joking aside, I can only assume that “But I do understand that the Canadians and this individual both shared a habit of setting fire to important government buildings.” is refering to the War of 1812, in which legend tells us that Canadian soldiers set fire to the White House?

    Well, I wrote a paper on this back in my 2nd year, and although the force that set the White House ablaze did contain some Canadian militiamen, 80% of the soldiers were British regular infantrymen (many of whom fought both Napoleon AND Washington).

    We Canadians like to identify every possible way we’re not American, and this is a creation-myth of sorts that I feel obliged to correct (as half of my B.A. degree is in Canadian History).

    So to my fellow Canuckleheads, sorry, but it’s a lie. The Brits set the fire, we just brought the marshmallows.

    Source: Morris Zazlow, ed., The Defended Border, (Macmillain: Toronto, 1964). Probably the best, also rarest book on the War of 1812.

    P.S.
    Unless you were talking about something entirely different, in which case I just made an ass out of my self.

  19. No, you were correct. I was referring to the torching of the White House as you surmised.

    But to be exact you could say that Canada technically didnt exist until about 1867 (IIRC) so at best you had the British marines and some British colonial militas. Though my knowledge of Canadian history is spotty at best (wrong hemisphere and all), I knew some of the details about it – I think it was in retaliation for the US torching Canada’s parliament buildings in 1812 or so.

    But it ties into the original topic in a way about ‘legends’ skipping details because they are for ‘..the good of the community’.

  20. “Seriously though, I agree that the reality is usually much more interesting. Add to that that anybody real commonly considered a “hero” was probably a bastard in person.” (Athos @ 20)

    This is why this thread is so interesting to me; I’m trying to make something of a study of heroism in its many guises – along with its value (in truth or illusion) to society. Incidentally, if anyone else is interested in this, I heartily recommend the book Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen by Lucy Hughes-Hallett.

    As for my opinion on the subject, it is of course highly complex and difficult to come down on one side or another. My personal view and wishes are that of Sagan, quoted by Detroitus @ 27. But society is not as rational as I am. There is undeniable value in heroic myths and legends when shared by society as a whole; it would be great if one day everyone were as rational as we are, but that day is not yet here.

    That said, however, perhaps we can help the process along by teaching more of the truth as opposed to the legend to our children – as proposed by Howard @ 19.

  21. @Lyc: two fact-corrections:

    1) Actually, the 1814 attack on the White House was in retaliation for the American sacking of York (present-day Toronto) in 1812. The Parliament DID indeed catch fire, but that was in 1916, when the two countries were getting along perfectly well, as we were trying to get the yanks to quit waiting out the Great War and send forces to Europe ;)

    2) Technically, Canada wasn’t really a fully soverign country until 1982, when we patriated our Constitution from the English. However, even at the time of the War of 1812, the region was known as Upper Canada (current Ontario) and Lower Canada (current Quebec), and its residents known as Canadians. I’m lucky enough to have some old sheet-music from 1895, printing a song written during the War of 1812 to encourage Canadian civilians to join the Militia, called “Come, Ye Bold Canadians” (a delightfully charming 20-or-so-verse battle-hymn that I can only hope our soldiers in Afghanistan would sing)

    3) The majority of soldiers on the Canadian/British side were comprised of British Regulars (Cruikshank, “The Defence of Upper Canada”, 1951), many of whom were on regular tours of duty between the North American and European theatres of war. The British had very few marines over here, and they were used mainly on the oceanic front (which was a virtual stalemate, so there was little action there), and no British Militia. The “Canadian” militia meanwhile can truly be said to be Canadian, as although they were technically British subjects, they were born /raised on Upper-Canadian soil. Though again, they were highly outnumbered.

    4) What often gets lost in the story is the role of the 6-Nations aboriginal forces, which outnumberd the Canadian Militia, but they tended not to travel as far with the regulars and militia, though they fought with incredible bravery, and their psychological impact was even deadlier than their rifles. (The Americans were TERRIFIED of the ‘Savages’)

    *whew*

    Now if you’ll excuse me, we have a federal election today, and I must vote.

  22. Thanks for all the great comments. This has been a hot subject in my house for some time. TheSprialArchitect was a history major who believes that Lisa didn’t necessarily do the wrong thing. I disagree.

    But I’m also the cold-hearted bitch who is taking Santa Claus away from my child.

    @Some Canadian Skeptic:

    I will wish you a Happy Thanksgiving in due time. Probably at the end of November.

    In the meantime, have some beer and maple syrup, eh.

  23. @Some Canadian Skeptic: “d’oh! I said two fact corrections, and I mentioned four. I’m a dink.”

    Cardinal Canada: Our chief weapon is surprise, suprise and fear…our TWO, Two weapons are surprise and fear and ruthless effeciency…THREE! Our Three….

    I just hope you don’t submit us to…..The Comfy Chair! ;)

  24. It seems to me that continuing or creating a myth or legend about a historical character or situation where the truth is easily found is counter-productive. It’s too close to historical revisionism for my liking.

    States like to “revise” their histories to cover up too much. I think it’s important to understand that, for example, what was thought to be a wonderful thing for one side was genocide for the others involved.

    One modern example, look at the Jessica Lynch story – blown out of proportion and seriously distorted because someone in the Pentagon thought that “America needs a hero.” As if there weren’t any REAL heroes out there. History is not and should never be allowed to be turned into a mere public relations exercise.

    Another modern example: There are some serious inconsistencies about the destruction of the United flight in PA during the 9/11 attacks. Many aviation people think that the aircraft was shot down, not taken over by the passengers. Why? The original wreckage pattern shown was suddenly removed from the Web and another was substituted. Why? Because the original pattern showed that the left wing and engine were found a mile or so from the main wreckage. That’s not consistent with a plane being forced into a crash, but it is consistent with a plane that was shot down. I think that someday this will be verified. It is just a little too convenient and dramatic for the Bush Administration that “some patriotic Americans bravely attacked the hijackers and crashed the plane to prevent it from flying into the White House or Capital.”

    Remember the Lusitania? It was allegedly “just a passenger liner” when the Germans sank it in WWI. It came out that the Germans were actually right to sink it, in that it was ferrying artillery shells to the UK in WWI. It was (sadly) a valid military target. Many still think to this day that it was a wanton attack by a German U-boat.

    Sometimes the truth sets you free, but it sucks, too.

  25. No, a legend should never be told as historical truth: that’s what creationists do, and look at the problems it’s caused.

    Legends are great, and there’s cultural value in understanding them.

    I’d tell the story of Columbus, in the context of a story (say, in English class), because kids need to understand our cultural myths.

    But I wouldn’t tell the legend in a history class.

    Just like I would happily share the creation story as part of an English or sociology course — I wouldn’t even harp on the term “myth” or “legend” — but I’d never teach it as part of a science course.

    Deliberately lying to kids about facts is harmful.

  26. @Chew:
    Perhaps. But I don’t recognize Popular Mechanics as a valid aviation source. They have printed a lot of crappy aviation-related articles. Some of their military-related aircraft articles (especially on new technology aircraft) have been so poorly researched as to be ludicrous. The MSM is just as bad on aviation – most of them can’t tell a Boeing 747 from a Piper Cub with a copy of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft in their hands.

    I maintain the jury is out on that crash because too many people I know with connections to the airline industry, the NTSB and the FAA are suspicious of how it was handled. With the Bush Administration’s record of lies and cover ups in the last eight years, it is still a possibility. It just seems pretty damn convenient to me that such a good, uplifting propaganda-like story happened at just the time that Mr. Bush needed some heroes. Maybe I’m just too cynical.

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