Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Friends to Columbus, but not to truth

Two aldermen pretend the only way to honor Italian contributions to America is to venerate Columbus forever. They’re wrong.

Alds. Nick Sposato and Anthony Napolitano belong to a people notorious for their theatrical emotion and looseness with fact. I’m referring, of course, to the Chicago City Council. Those qualities vibrated off the page in the Sun-Times Friday, in Fran Spielman and Nader Issa’s story detailing aldermanic outrage at the Chicago Public Schools’ decision to drop Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous People’s Day.

“He found America,” Sposato said of Columbus, declaring “war” on the CPS over its disinclination to honor the Italian explorer.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” added Napolitano, inflating elimination of the holiday into a general slur “that Italian Americans haven’t contributed to the United States.”


Opinion bug


Let me begin by saying I have sympathy for the underlying issue here: the importance of the Italian-American community, their invaluable culture and vital contribution to Chicago. I could not have spent as many hours as I did sitting at Gene & Georgetti, across a table from that charming booster of all things Italian, the late Dominic DiFrisco, hearing him expound on this very issue, and not be sympathetic.

A huge deal, Columbus was. In the 19th century. From Columbus, Ohio, founded in 1812, to the 1893 Columbian Fair.

But guess what? We’re in the 21st century now, and the political climate has shifted. Columbus Day, while a chance for some Italians to display their pride — something which, judging from these two aldermen, needs no special holiday to rear snorting and pawing its hooves in the air — has turned into open season on Italy’s famous son.

Were I to create a holiday specifically designed to generate ill will toward Italians, I would call it “Columbus Day” and encourage students to work themselves into a lather revisiting his atrocities, which are real no matter what Nick Sposato imagines.

”You think he could do the things they’re claiming he did with 90 people?” he said.

Columbus sure thought so. The crimes lain at his feet are not some slur cooked up by the anti-Italian legions infecting this pair of aldermanic brains. Read Columbus’ journal:

“They do not bear arms, and do not know them,” Columbus wrote of those he encountered. “They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Sposato returned my call. I read him that entry.

”A guy acting like a badass,” he conjectured. “Just like me saying, ‘This is war.’ I didn’t mean ‘war.’ A figurative war.”

A figurative war then. Against the Chicago Public Schools. For declining to honor his hero. Why be stuck with Columbus? Two words of advice: Dante Day. Make it Good Friday, when Inferno occurs. Celebrate Italian literature. Change Balbo Drive to Enrico Fermi Drive. He actually lived here.

Columbus is a lost cause. “He found America” is also wrong. Millions of native Americans already knew where they were. Plus, Columbus didn’t find it, not in the usual sense of the word. And Columbus didn’t believe he discovered America; he went to his grave insisting he had reached the East Indies.

Speaking of Dante. Turning my head, I see the bust of Dante the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans kindly gave me in 2010. Engraved there is a line from Paradiso, the third book of Dante’s Commedia: “Never be a timid friend to truth.”

Maybe there wasn’t room for “ ... except when truth wounds your pride.”

The quote is another error. The actual text — as Dante so often does — speaks directly to our situation. Wandering heaven, Dante runs into Cacciaguida, his great-great grandfather, and wonders if he dare reveal all he has seen below.

“Down through the world of endless bitterness ...” he says, neatly summarizing identity politics. “I have learned things that, should I retell them, would discomfort many with their bitter taste.”

“Should I be a timid friend” — a timido amico — “to truth?” Dante wonders.

Cacciaguida urges him to “foreswear all falsehood/revealing all that you have seen/and then let him who itches scratch.”

Lots of scratching going on. These two aldermen scrape away, oblivious to how bad they look. They claim to speak for all Italians everywhere in their demand that Columbus remain glorified forever. I would bet that for every one who agrees, five sadly shake their heads. It’s a free country; you can adore the lowest beast. But you can’t force others to do the same.

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