Sunday, February 17, 2008

Boundaries, II

With that, we come to what is, for me, the most troubling and therefore most interesting part of Failure of Nerve. As an example of one whose nerve did not fail, Friedman chooses Christopher Columbus. His argument, if I follow it correctly, is this. The Europe of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance was a deeply regressive culture. Lacking health and growth, the Church was devouring innovation in waves of persecutions. Doctrine took precedence over truth. And then Columbus came along and took risks and saw the way out of this mess and discovered a whole new continent. He did not give in to conventional thinking. He refused to be limited by a flat earth and dragons lurking at the end of the known world. He did not give up when the voyage got tough. His determination to find the New was like laser vision across the morass of late medieval Europe. This may all be true. The trouble is that it is far from the whole truth. If Columbus was able to maintain healthy immunity from his own culture, he could not sustain health in the New World. He gave flesh to the whole nightmare of regressive, judgmental, genocidal late medieval culture by initiating centuries of rape, plunder and destruction of a continent and its people. Of the gentle Taino who greeted him, not a single one remains. I don’t believe it is possible to praise the achievements of this man without also acknowledging his failures.

Friedman would brook no criticism of his choice of heroes. If someone suggested that Columbus might have been differentiated on one side, but was murderous on the other, he would answer that now was neither the time nor place for whining. Indeed, whining was the problem. Life is not about the abuse I suffered as a child and this conversation is meant to highlight the positive aspects of exploration.

And now, having changed the subject, I too must stop. What a mess I have got us all into! Columbus the explorer (forget his evil and concentrate on his differentiation) and me the victim (whining never did any good – build up your immune system). It’s the old apples and oranges problem. Stick to the subject at hand and swallow your own pain. Get over it.

But do I even want to get over it? Can I stick to the subject of your freedom when the cost is so high to my own? Getting back to the facile reasoning with which I began, I think Friedman’s theory facile. If Columbus is the best we can do, all I can say is heaven help us.

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