Columbus Day has been — for the last several decades — a time when the Europeans who came to the Americas have been roundly condemned in the spirit of political correctness.
There is little doubt that some of them, maybe even a great number, did some awful things to the natives on this continent. And so did many people everywhere do awful things to others — as they still do, sadly enough.
However there is a tendency in our time to focus only on the misdeeds of those who hailed from Europe. This form of what amounts to self-flagellation is, of course, part and parcel of political correctness. Just as environmentalists often denounce human beings and wallow in misanthropic sentiments, so others — some of them multiculturalists who hold to a doctrine of moral equivalence about all cultures except what is usually lumped together as Western — cannot say anything nice about Columbus and his pals.
I was recently watching an installment of the program Globe Trekker, this one reporting on Peru. There was a good deal of talk about how terrible the Spanish were to the Incas, who were, in the end, pretty much displaced by them in that region of the world. Of course, there are many people who trace their heritage back to the Incas or Mayas; sometimes celebrations are held in memory of those ancestors.
What was quite interesting about the program, aside from all the natural and cultural lessons it contained, is that the narrator said absolutely nothing about the human sacrifices that used to be standard fare under the reign of the Incas. As many as two hundred children used to be killed so as to please some god or another. Sometimes the sacrifice would involve cutting out the heart of a living individual so as to please some deity.
None of this is noted here so as to whitewash what the conquistadors and their predecessors perpetrated in the efforts to get in on some of the riches in the Americas. But while the program mentioned plenty of that sorry part of history in the region, nothing was said to besmirch the innocence of the Incas.
How sad. History should not fall prey to such distortions simply because some people are eager to paint certain men and women of the past in an unfavorable light. Indeed, doing this betrays a nasty habit of condescension: It treats certain people of the past as not entirely human, unable to do what other humans do routinely — namely, act badly, violently, and brutally toward their fellows.
By acknowledging that all kinds of peoples around the globe and throughout history have been capable of malfeasance, one acknowledges these people’s fundamental humanity. No doubt, at different times and in different places more or less malfeasance has occurred, just as is occurring in our own time. But it is rank racism and ethnic prejudice to make it appear that only Europeans had the inclination and capacity to do bad things to others.
By all reasonable accounts of the history of humanity, there is no group of humans who have managed to rid themselves of the capacity for evil. But when one picks on just one group as having such an inclination or capacity, when in fact there is plenty of evidence of their sharing it with the rest of the human race, a gross injustice is being perpetrated and seeds of continued prejudice are planted that all of us can do without.
Sure, in the past it was non-Europeans who bore much of such prejudice. But nothing good comes of a kind of payback attitude, as if unleashing injustice now on the Europeans of the past would remedy matters. There is no remedy of past injustices; the victims cannot be compensated and no apologies can be delivered to them.
The only thing that can be done that will make a difference is to stop all this collective praise and blame and to recognize that justice requires looking at and judging all human beings individually, based on their own choices to act badly — or well.
Tibor Machan is R. C. Hoiles Professor of Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University in Orange, California. He is also a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and an advisor on public policy matters for Freedom Communications, Inc.