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A Day for Celebrating Western Culture



Guest Column Scott Schneider

Five hundred and five years ago, Christopher Columbus discovered America. He was not the first man to set eyes on American soil, but he was first to bring America to the attention of Western civilization. In so doing, he opened the way for the transmission of the myriad of ideas which made up Western Culture, from "God, Glory, and Gold" to capitalism and democracy. For better or worse, Columbus Day marks the day that Western culture first came to America, and is symbolic of all that it brought for every American who shares Western beliefs.

1776 was the year that brought The Declaration of Independence, which hurled defiance against a tyrannical King in the name of "unalienable rights," and The Wealth of Nations, in which Adam Smith set forth the principles of laissez-faire capitalism which would bring freedom and previously unimagined wealth to the world. In 1690, in his Second Treatise on Government, John Locke introduced the idea of natural rights into Western culture. In 1492, before classical liberalism had been introduced, Christopher Columbus, in the name of "God, Glory, and Gold," discovered America.

On the eve of the Enlightenment, Western culture was in sorry shape. Europe was wracked by wars fought to expand the state, tyrants ruled in the name of divine right of kings, and the Crusades had ceased in favor of local religious persecution such as the Spanish Inquisition. Therefore, it is no coincidence that America's first dose of Western culture was a particularly bitter one. Overbearing Christian missionaries, slavery, confiscation of property, and outright extermination were the first imports from Europe. Undeniably, massive negative consequences arose from New World's exposure to the Old.

With the coming of the Enlightenment and continued religious persecution by the monarchies of Europe, America became a haven for those who sought the freedom to build their own life by their own effort, to live by their own religion, and to conduct business without suffering under the massive taxation which funded the wars of Europe. This is how America came to reap the benefits of Western culture more fully than any of the old monarchies of continental Europe.

The citizens of the United States enjoy an unequalled level of freedom and wealth due to the influence of Western culture. Sir Isaac Newton gave us calculus and classical physics; Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. John Locke gave us a vision of government as a protector and a servant; the founding fathers gave us the Constitution. Adam Smith gave us laissez-faire capitalism, enabling America to undergo a massive industrialization which raised its entire population's standard of living and made it foremost economic power of the world. It is due to Western culture that we can take for granted things like internal combustion engines, gargantuan flying machines, indoor plumbing, computers, and also free speech, freedom of religion, private property, and so on.

These benefits are enjoyed by all Americans and many other people all over the globe. Culture is not an inherited mantle, passed from parent to child like a family heirloom. Culture is a collection of ideas which individuals are free to adopt or reject as their own judgment demands.

When Christopher Columbus discovered America over five hundred years ago, his discovery marked a definitive turning point in American history. When he first crossed the Atlantic Ocean seeking a passage to the Far East, he brought with him all the ideas of Western culture. Many of these ideas had tragic consequences for America's native inhabitants, and many of its positive aspects, including freedom, science, and individual rights, were yet to come.

In celebrating Columbus Day, we celebrate these aspects of Western culture which gave us liberty, wealth, and a body of knowledge undreamed of by any cultures of the time. We celebrate reason, freedom, and rights. We celebrate ingenuity, ambition, and unfettered productivity. In short, while we must not forget the horrible cost paid by those who suffered from Western culture's shortcomings, Columbus Day also enables us to celebrate humanity at its best.

Scott D. Schneider is a member of the Class of 2000.