First contact is a venerable science fiction concept. It refers to the literal first physical contact between beings who previously had had no direct contact with each other. Frequently, prior to first contact, one group, the technologically more powerful one, observes the second one possibly leading to close encounters of the first kind. Or in the story, the stronger group may appear out of nowhere. Sometimes it is we humans who observe others and sometimes it is we humans who are observed. Part of the appeal of science fiction is in the opportunity for the writer to imagine a multitude of possibilities in infinite scenarios. There are great story-telling opportunities here.
These moments of first contact are fraught with danger. Even with the best of intentions, the encounter may go awry. The positive expression “We come in peace” may be a valid remark or a duplicitous one. The noble saying that we have come here “to serve man” may in fact be the title of a cookbook with recipes for preparing the humans to be eaten. I will always remember the people dancing on the rooftop in Manhattan in celebration of the arrival of the aliens in the movie Independence Day (1996) only a few years before two Manhattan buildings did crash to the ground on 9/11. When the movie was made, little did anyone realize that a variation of its depiction of Manhattan would play out in the real world shortly afterwards.
Orson Welles to the contrary, to the best of my knowledge no such close encounter of the third kind has yet occurred. The time of first contact is still in the future.
In history, first contact is a much more difficult concept to pin down. When the Roman Empire came in contact with China it wasn’t comparable to the first contact between humans and Klingons or even Romulans. Instead it was through a host of intermediaries along the way in an endless chain that eventually linked the two peoples. The contact wasn’t from out of nowhere but almost an orchestrated event. One recalls Alexander the Great going further and further east encountering one new people after another to the Greeks until at last his troops said “no more.”
With Columbus, the story is more complicated. He did expect to encounter people when he sailed west but had no expectation of encountering the people he actually did encounter. The name “Indian” reflects where he thought he was but in fact he had had a close encounter of the third kind with no preparation or advanced knowledge. In this instance in history there was a first contact between peoples of different technological strengths neither of whom knew of the other.
Part of what makes the first contact by Columbus so important historically is that it is one of the few examples we have of such a stark and unexpected encounter between two different groups of humans. There was no universal translator available to them. Without this science fiction staple, much of science fiction would not be possible. It is one of those devices one has to take for granted otherwise the story collapses. However, no such device existed in 1492.
When Columbus arrived, he also did not arrive as blank slate. He arrived here with preconceived ideas about the nature of the earth. He knew that the planet was round and that he would not sail over the sides at the edge of ocean. He also knew about the Bible with its geography and distribution of people. His mission was not solely economic for the crown but contained a religious element as well. Now he was faced with what appeared to be people but not civilized in the sense an educated Europeans would apply.
He also was ignorant about disease. His knowledge about communicable diseases was not our knowledge. It is not progressive to hold him accountable to our standards of science and technology. Another staple of science fiction is the decontamination process and scanning to ensure that life is safe for the humans and the lifeforms the humans encounter. In science fiction that process may break down leading to a story as people struggle to fix it (The Andromeda Strain ). Such opportunities did not exist in 1492.
Another issue is genocide. Genocide may be defined as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” Genocide involves a conscious will. Genocide involves targeting a group of people. Genocide means with malice aforethought, it is a premeditated act. There are people in human history including today who have perpetuated genocidal acts. There are people in human history including today who have murdered millions in genocidal acts. There are people in human history including today who deserve to be condemned for the monstrous evil they have done to their fellow human beings. Columbus is not one such person.
1492 set in motion a host of events with profound effects on multiple peoples. Does anyone think that if 1492 had not occurred there would have been no first contact between the Europeans and the Indians? Yes, the Vikings were here earlier but those voyages did not initiate a sustained contact between the two continents. Sooner or later there would have been such contact between peoples who didn’t know the other existed. What would you have liked to seen happen at first contact? How realistic is that?
Another impact of Columbus is the law of unintended consequences. At the time that Columbus sailed and for centuries afterward, Italians were not a major factor in the settling of the western hemisphere by Europeans (except for the Papal Line of Demarcation  allocating western hemisphere lands to Spain and Portugal). In fact, the country of Italy didn’t even exist then. When the various city-states, principalities, and kingdoms were uniting as Italy at the time the United States was dividing into North and South, a new day was born for Italians. In the decades to follow Italians migrated to the United States. When they arrived they were not white people. There is story to be told about Italians becoming part of We the People, living a wonderful life, and fulfilling the American Dream.
Part of the story of Italians in American is Columbus. The Italians here don’t have much opportunity to biologically connect to the founding event of the United States of America, the American Revolution. In this regard they are like many of the peoples from around the world who have migrated to this country since 1965 and have to address the issue of their connection to American history from before their arrival here. Columbus provided one way for Italians to take pride in the birth of their adopted country. One of them helped pave the way for settlement by sailing here (or at least near the mainland).
Even before the arrival of the Italians in numbers, Columbus was important to the United States. The female figure Columbia served as a symbol for the country until displaced by Lady Liberty. The capital of the country is in a district named after Columbus. Columbia University and Columbus, Ohio, also share a Columbus heritage. In 1892, the Quadricentennial of Columbus was such a big event it wasn’t even held in Chicago until 1893 (how’s that for on time and under budget?). If statues are offensive how much more so are cities and rivers based on the same name?
At this point, Columbus is more a symbol than a person. For the politically correct who demonize him, he is the root cause for the all evils and woes which the people who were already here experienced. If he hadn’t sailed here in 1492, none of that would have happened. The Aztec and the Mayan empires would still exist and everyone in this hemisphere would be living in peace harmony with each other and nature. Just as they had been in 1491 and the millennia before then. Putting that Disney view aside, we still do have need to redefine Columbus Day to reflect the historical reality of what occurred after 1492 and the political reality of the present.
I suggest a better way to celebrate, remember, and reflect on October 12 is through “Columbus Day: First Contact.” We need to recognize that if Columbus hadn’t arrived then, someone else from Europe would have later anyway. We need to recognize that Columbus did not have first contact with all the peoples of the Western Hemisphere. We need to recognize the abominable things which then did happen at least to the peoples in what became the United States of America. We need to recognize the consequences of those abominable actions still plague the land today. We need to recognize the need of Americans to connect to American history. We need to use Columbus Day not as a time for three-day weekends and department store sales but as a day when schools should be open, discussions should be held, and understandings should be sought.
Now who is being Disney? We are a country of yelling and shouting at cross-purposes in ever more vehement and strident tones. We are a country whose president who thrives on division not healing, who thinks calling a Senator a “Pocahontas” is an insult. Just as we are not capable as a people of constructively talking about race and slavery, so we are not capable as a people of constructively talking about Columbus. There is no come let us reason together in America, only a cultural war which sometimes is violent. Statues, street names, city names, all will become battlegrounds in every classroom, college, and community throughout the land if they haven’t already. Happy Columbus Day America.