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David Bernstein
Free speech proponent in the Jewish world

Why America Needs both Columbus Day and Indigenous People Day

Today is both Columbus Day and Indigenous People Day, and I’m marking both. One would think these narratives of America’s origin story are mutually exclusive. Indeed, most Americans, to the degree they pay attention at all, probably think one version of the American story is completely legitimate and the other completely invalid, even laughable. It’s very much in our interest, however, to embrace both.

Columbus Day commemorates the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas in 1492. While formerly devoted to honoring Columbus’s bold expedition, the holiday, made official in 1937, has come to represent “the discovery” of America and the “New World.”

Progressive activists and academics, however, have long asserted that the holiday whitewashes Columbus’s enslavement of Native Americans and falsely credits him for discovering a land already populated. They have endeavored to replace the holiday with Indigenous People Day. For progressives, the holiday represents the violent colonization of the native population and the brutal force of Western imperialism.

The American who celebrates Columbus Day can indeed be indifferent, even callous, to the suffering this country’s founders inflicted on Native Americans. Native Americans were indeed here first, they were dispossessed, and many were simply wiped out. In celebrating the spectacular achievements of America, can the American patriot not make room for those who were victimized by the relentless and often brutal expansion of the American project?

The American who celebrates Indigenous People Day ignores the fact that Columbus did indeed discover a New World that brought about, over time, unparalleled freedom, women’s rights and democratic governance. The very categories of criticism that progressive American critics bring to bear in vilifying Columbus Day would not have been possible if Columbus had not found his way to these shores and laid the groundwork for the spectacular growth of not only a thriving society but a democratic republic. America brought to scale the enlightenment values that we all benefit from. In marking the brutality of America’s founding, can the progressive not acknowledge the incredible contributions this nation has made to the world?

More than one thing can be and is true at the same time: America both gave birth to ideals that transformed humanity and frequently failed to live up to these ideals. America both instituted slavery and was an example to the world in ending it. Thomas Jefferson both articulated the foundations of a liberal society and ruthlessly exploited slaves. Native tribes could indeed be brutal to each other, as the patriot will point out, but nevertheless were brutalized by the founding generations of this nation, as the critic will point out.

The telling of these two disparate stories has consequences. The left’s oppression narrative has gained dominance in many of our cultural institutions and is breeding a generation of Americans who hold the country in low esteem. There has been a decline in patriotism on the left. The right’s “great replacement” narrative has gained dominance in a major political party and is engendering hostility to immigrants. The two disparaging narratives are feeding on each other, pulling the country apart.

It’s time that political leaders, historians, social scientists and ordinary Americans synthesize the competing stories. We can be patriots without being bombastically nativist. We can be pluralistic without destroying the unifying narrative and love of country. The right tends to be patriotic but not pluralistic. The left tends to be pluralistic but not patriotic.

Those of us who want to live in one country, united by a common story, in peace with our neighbors, must proudly be both patriotic and pluralistic. We must stand for Patriotic Pluralism. Let’s start now by embracing both versions of our country’s founding.

About the Author
David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and is a former CEO of Jewish advocacy organizations. He is author of the forthcoming Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews (JILV.org/book).