How Have You Rediscovered Christopher Columbus?

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Last week, a good friend of mine wrote a piece called “Don’t Be a Social Media Debbie Downer” (see MarkFrisk.com). In it, he says “overdoing it on the negative 400129_8598_Christopher_Columbus_stock_xchng_royalty_free_300is maybe not the way you want to go.” While ostensibly written for the social media space, he quickly adds the lesson applies to any space.

Today is Columbus Day. No one has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous Debbie Downer Syndrome more than the man who discovered America. Almost every event, person, place or thing in the human record stands as a glass either half empty or half full. Throughout history, we’ve taken the “half full” approach when defining our heroes. Why?

The best answer I’ve seen lies within a 60+ year old movie directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda called Fort Apache. In this classic western, Ford both unmasks and makes the myth. Fonda’s character, Lieutenant Colonel Thursday, an obnoxious and ill-suited commander, disdains the more knowledgeable Captain Yorke (played by Wayne). Despite Yorke’s warnings, Thursday foolishly leads his troops into a suicidal trap not unlike that of the real General George Custer. When Yorke saves the injured Thursday, Thursday demands to return to his dying regiment. He does, leaving Yorke alone – and alive – to tell the true story, and Thursday perishes with the rest of his soldiers.

Years later, as the story of “Thursday’s Charge” grows to mythic proportions – indeed, it has inspired future successes – a group of reporters confront an older Yorke for the inside scoop on the famous battle. Yorke, realizing the myth now has greater importance than the facts, does not reveal what really happened, but embellishes the bravery of all the soldiers – not just Thursday.

America long ago adopted Christopher Columbus as its patron saint. Indeed, one might be tempted to claim Columbus has become the American Rorschach test. He has represented the rebel who refused to accept “no” as the answer. We’ve pictured him as a visionary devoted to a cause, not to a king (or a queen). We have idolized him for using scientific techniques to thwart the backward thinking of a flat earth culture.

We’ve even acknowledged his error – he never found that direct route to India as he had hoped. We’ve smiled at his naming the indigenous tribes he found “Indians;” thus, reinforcing his error. But we have honored the inventive notion that from our greatest mistakes come our greatest discoveries. In fact, we have – rightly or wrongly – assumed this to shine as one of the most enduring of American traits. Thomas Edison – another hero – embodies this spirit of persistence in the face of failure with his famous quote about his path to inventing the light bulb: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

For centuries America placed Christopher Columbus upon a mantle few others could sit. Maybe this reverence and homage peaked during the Apollo XI mission – our first manned lunar landing – when it became popular to compare that voyage to Columbus’ trek.

In the intervening years, however, a wart-filled America has morphed into the historical Debbie Downer. Classic heroes – including our own Founding Fathers – received the revisionist treatment of those who prefer to see the glass as half empty. What has this “honesty” produced? In fact, is it any more “honest” to replace mythical hyperbole with demonic hyperbole?

John Ford himself provides the answer (from page 297, John Wayne American, by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, New York: Free Press, 1995):

Peter Bogdanovich once asked John Ford: “The end of Fort Apache anticipates the newspaper editor’s line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, ‘When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend.’ Do you agree with that.” “Yes,” the director answered, “because I think it’s good for the country. We’ve had a lot of people who were supposed to be great heroes, and you know damn well they weren’t. But it’s good for the country to have heroes to look up to.”

Maybe only by allowing ourselves to again look up to others, can we then stop looking down on ourselves.

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