Remembering the Particular
Remembering both Indigenous People’s Day and Columbus Day is an opportunity to recover a true sense of diversity.
President Biden instituted the joint celebration of Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day on October 8 last year. The President’s words on the occasion appeared to highlight the importance of reflecting on history’s complexity, with the goal of giving space to recognize all of the communities that are part of this nation’s fabric, from “the courage and contributions of Italian Americans throughout the generations” to “the dignity and resilience of Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities.”
The tone of the arguments in favor of ratifying Indigenous People’s Day give me pause. Surely “reflecting on our history” really can help us appreciate the diversity of cultures in America and even lift up communities whose voices have not been adequately accounted for. But I feel compelled to question the real motives and end goals driving the debate over our public holidays.
Columbus Day was never really about Columbus himself, as Brent Staples has indicated. Rather, the first national celebration of Columbus Day in 1892 was a response to the lynching of several Italians in New Orleans and above all was an attempt to “quiet outrage among Italian-Americans, and a diplomatic blowup over the murders that brought Italy and the United States to the brink of war.” Staples later points out that up to that point, Italians (and most other Southern and Eastern European immigrants) were not considered “white.” He argues that the institution of Columbus Day as a national holiday served to elevate the status of Italians in the eyes of the WASP hegemon.
Through the years, Italian Americans have worked arduously to maintain a sense of ethnic pride and to avoid complete assimilation. But few Italian Americans realize that their legitimacy in the eyes of American society was built on two foundational myths: that Columbus was indeed an honorable and virtuous example of Italians’ contributions to the establishment of this nation, and that “whiteness” as a category exists. I perceive this tension still today when talking to my fellow Italian Americans. Most seek to distinguish themselves from what they consider the bland, genteel mannerisms of Anglos, while also distinguishing themselves from minorities considered to be “of color.”
Plenty talk about using Indigenous People’s Day to raise awareness, or to right injustices or reform oppressive systems. But as with most projects undergirded by poststructuralist thought, it seems to be more focused on highlighting and deconstructing than on proposing realistic and substantial solutions to identifiable problems. More importantly, Indigenous People’s Day seems to be much more focused on forging abstract identity categories than working with concrete communities with already established, deeply rooted cultural legacies.
What is at risk in these debates over public holidays is the trivialization and potential erasure of the unique sets of traditions, beliefs, and social norms that make up particular cultures. It is this abstracting impulse that ascribes guilt to “white people” for owning slaves, including to “white people” from countries that never owned slaves and were actually enslaved themselves, such as my ancestors in Greece. And it is this abstracting impulse that claims to defend the dignity of “indigenous people” as if they were all an amorphous monolith.
The political theorist Patrick Deneen has recounted visiting a collection of pre-Columbian indigenous artifacts in a museum in Chile. As he walked through the collection, he couldn’t help but wonder about “the causes of the extinction of these once-vibrant and self-perpetuating cultures,” and attributed it of course in part to colonial invasions and natural disasters. But as he reflected on the museum pieces, he went on to wonder how the push for “diversity and inclusion” might mask over more sinister globalist impulses, such that rather than affording more agency to cultures around the globe, a globalizing monoculture seeks to neutralize and eliminate “actual diversity–biodiversity, financial diversity (i.e., local markets) and educational diversity in the name of local, regional, religious and pedagogical traditions.”
Globalist multiculturalism claims to undo the effects of the myth of whiteness, when in reality it perpetuates the erasure of ethnic difference—for both “whites” and “people of color.” Black and Latino Americans are encouraged to be proud of their identities, as the government and major corporations seek to create policies and opportunities that are more inclusive and celebratory of said communities. But these efforts are often quick to gloss over their unique subcultures and traditions, opting instead to sprinkle generic elements of these cultures on top of a globalizing monoculture.
Political commentator and activist Michael Novak’s 1972 book Unmeltable Ethnics foresaw many of the cultural crises that would befall our nation fifty years later. Novak drew a correlation between those who want to perpetuate WASP hegemony—insisting that ethnic whites either relinquish their cultures and assimilate or be relegated to an “inferior” class—and what he called the “new multiculturalism.” The former tend to view ethnicity as a “source of evil” and aim to be “as universalist as possible” and “attain a liberal, enlightened attitude of ‘openness’ and ‘love.’” He went on to insist that this “enlightened” view creates a type of “cosmopolitan” ethnicity of its own, while the latter give precedence to diversity of “race, sexual preference, and gender” rather than to actual ethnic groups.
In the preface to the second edition of the book (published in 1997), Novak wrote that “just as they were excluded before the early 1970s, the ethnics from Southern and Eastern Europe are again today given no place in curricula about ‘diversity’… It never occurs to the new ‘multiculturalists’ that ethnic differences among Europeans alone–not to mention the diverse peoples of other continents–are full of passionate power, and heavy with political significance. All this lies beyond their own narrow, politicized agenda.”
As an antidote to the rootlessness of both prejudiced assimilationists and “inclusive” multiculturalists, Novak proposed a framework that he called the “new ethnicity,” which begins with the premise that “every human being is ‘rooted,’ and that each one’s social history is important.” He insisted that we are born into an inescapable matrix of “givens,” which are “gifts” and not “occasions for despair”—“Each of us is born from the womb of a single woman into a particular segment of human experience, at a time, in a place, within a language and a particular set of cultural symbols, beliefs, rites, gestures, emotional patterns, and a not-universal sensibility. Each of us is limited, singular, concrete.”
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Our roots, he continued, “are our material, our concrete limits, our purchase on a finite, real, earthy earth–our liberation from the land of pure spirits, disembodied presences, and gnostic hoverings… Ethnicity is not a matter of genetics; it is a matter of cultural transmission, from family to child. The new ethnicity is a form of historical consciousness. Who are you? What history do you come from? And where next? These are its questions.”
These questions neither neutralize our differences nor close us in on ourselves. Rather, they enable us to form a solid foundation upon which we can learn to appreciate and collaborate with those of backgrounds different from our own. Failing to get in touch with the concreteness and complexities of our roots only furthers our sense of existential malaise and exacerbates racial tension (as Bill Melone insightfully examines in his essay on transracialism).
Indigenous People’s Day and Columbus Day could become an opportunity to recover a true sense of multiethnic diversity. Or, more likely, these competing holidays will be an occasion to continue paying lip service to diversity while allowing a homogenous monoculture to ravish the cultures that help constitute our country. The fanfare over public holidays should cause us to question why we look to the government and major corporations for answers about who we are in the first place. Perhaps we might find it more enriching to look to our families and local communities, to touch our roots, or to engage in physical, face-to-face encounters with communities that are different from our own. Of course, for many this is easier said than done. Even so, relying on major institutions of global scale to give us an appreciation of what is particular and local to ourselves will prove a disappointment.