Columbus and the march for Italian pride

Published in the Times of London Oct. 13, 2000


Camille Paglia
October 25, 2000 9:41PM (UTC)

Last weekend in Denver, a protest by American Indians stopped an Italian-American parade celebrating Columbus Day, a national holiday when banks, post offices, and schools are closed. The protestors blocked the street, chanted, beat drums, and burned ceremonial cedar incense.

Christopher Columbus, once hailed as the discoverer of the new world, has been regularly denounced as a symbol of "genocide" since the rise of political correctness in American education in the 1980s. The 1992 commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage set off the present round of bitter controversy.

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In Denver, protestor Kay Miller, who identified herself as an Indian from another Colorado town, shouted, "You don't need a killer for a hero." She told reporters, "I think Columbus Day is an insult to every human being on the planet. His life is valued because of the horrible things he did to the native people."

Among the 140 protestors arrested was Russell Means, head of the militant American Indian Movement. He was the principal agitator in a Columbus Day demonstration in 1992 in Syracuse, New York (where I grew up) that defaced Columbus' statue with red paint, signifying the blood of native tribes slain or displaced by Europeans throughout the Americas.

My family and I were incensed at the Syracuse vandalism because the beautiful Columbus monument and fountain were donated by local Italian-Americans in 1935 to serve as the hub of the grand plaza facing the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. We whose impoverished forebears emigrated to the U.S. between the 1880s and the 1930s are not, in our view, responsible for earlier injustices done to Indians or blacks.

In 1992, due to the threat of violence, Denver's Columbus Day parade had been cancelled by the city just before it was to start. For the last nine years, a parade permit was denied to Italian-Americans because of pressure from leftist activists. This year the parade's organizers, in tandem with the Knights of Columbus and the Sons of Italy, received permission to march under an agreement partly authored by the U.S. Justice Department requiring Columbus's name to be struck from banners and speeches. Denver's parade would be called only a "March for Italian Pride."

However, the organizers, citing their First Amendment constitutional rights, reversed course and announced that the parade would explicitly honor Columbus. This brought out the protestors, who waved signs such as "Columbus did not discover America -- he invaded it."

Italian-Americans, hard-working, stoical and family-oriented, have been one of the most weakly organized of U.S. ethnic groups, or rather the most reluctant to engage in political confrontation or to claim victimization. The tide may be turning. The loathsome slurs and outdated stereotypes in the hit TV show, "The Sopranos," have provoked many of us to action. This year I joined the National Italian-American Foundation, a group that honors Italian-American achievements and denounces the insults to Italians that are standard in American media, where blacks or Jews are rarely treated with such careless vulgarity.

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Politics and more politics are sucking up the cultural oxygen here. Americans are struggling toward the end of a frustrating, volatile presidential campaign. Will the disgraced Bill Clinton -- for whom, Juno forgive me, I voted twice -- be exonerated by the election of his wife and his vice-president, or will the fates mercifully drive the entire Clinton regime into the sea?

The past week has given us one tasteless display after another. Al Gore, as berouged and epicene as the decadent emperor Heliogabalus, seductively swished his lips and hips at the TV audience in his first debate with the mumbling, blinking, sniffling George W. Bush. Gore's lieutenant, Joe Lieberman, fatuously launched the only vice-presidential debate with a saccharine anecdote about his doting mama that used up all his time for the assigned question about the U.S. economy.

Hillary Clinton, in her second New York senatorial debate with home-grown Congressman Rick Lazio, continued on her I-am-Evita track with her supercilious impersonation of a real human being. Even last week's ABC network program, "20/20," hosted by the ultra-liberal Barbara Walters, was clearly repulsed by its documentary evidence of the Clintons' mercenary trade of White House sleepovers and invitations to state dinners for contributions to Democratic Party coffers. The Clintons' ethical compass seems to have been lost 20 years ago in Arkansas hog swill.

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Marie Antoinette -- oh, sorry, I meant Hillary -- has never seemed so obtuse and solipsistic as in her ever-so-slow, pollster-driven reactions to the past two weeks' events in the Middle East, which is edging toward war. This former fervid supporter of Palestinian rights is now desperately waffling as she tries to cater both to pro-Israel Jews (who are among the major financial supporters of the Democratic Party) and pro-Palestinian urban blacks, who constitute a huge part of her electoral support but who may fail to turn out at the polls.

The international press seem quite captivated by Hillary. They are wrong.

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My media diary contains two major entries for the week. The first was the arrival by mail order via an Internet bookseller of Sam Staggs' new book, "All About 'All About Eve'." I am rejoicing at its wealth of material and juicy gossip about the production of one of my all-time favorite Hollywood films. Long a campy cult classic among gay men, Joseph Mankiewicz's "All About Eve," which was released in 1950, has entered the mainstream pantheon on American television, where it is frequently rebroadcast. For reasons I still cannot fully explain, I drink in every bitchy line and crisp shot in this film as if it were holy writ, containing the secrets of the universe as well as of my heart.

The week's second stellar media moment was Discovery cable channel's program on the sinking of the Bismarck in 1941. There was stunning archival footage of the huge German battleship photographed from far above by an R.A.F. Spitfire that had taken off from Scotland during the ship's attempted escape from the Denmark Strait into the North Atlantic. There was a wrenching account of the Bismarck's sinking of the H.M.S. Hood, with a loss of all but three of its 1,421 British sailors, who were shown grouped on deck in brighter days. Finally, the Bismarck, shortly before it was sent to the depths, was seen belching smoke and fire on the horizon. As always, I was filled with admiration at the sacrifice and heroism of the Allies in the Second World War, in which my father and uncles fought. Those hundreds of thousands of brave young men saved the world from Hitler.

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I just completed teaching "King Lear" this week at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. It's always a fearful struggle for me, as a 1960s era Amazon, to curb my impatience with the wimpy, feminine and manipulative Cordelia and to suppress my fascination with that butch pair, the deliciously evil sisters Goneril and Regan. I must always pinch myself and repeatedly apologize to the class for my feminist bias.

Of course, it doesn't help that the great Diana Rigg, one of my idols, plays Regan in the university's videotape of the 1984 British TV production starring Laurence Olivier. In her bravura performance, Rigg reminds me of the glamourous, imperious witch-queen in Walt Disney's animated "Snow White," a movie that I saw when I was three years old and that marked me for life.


Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

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