Speaker argues in favor of leaving Columbus Murals uncovered
Thomas Murphy | Friday, February 22, 2019
The Notre Dame chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) hosted conservative political commentator Michael Knowles for a lecture titled “Columbus: Hero not Heathen” on Thursday night in the ballroom of LaFortune Student Center. The lecture was part of YAF’s Robert and Patricia Herbold Lecture Series.
The lecture came several weeks after the announcement by University President Fr. John Jenkins that the murals depicting the life and work of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in the Main Building would be covered due to depictions of Columbus’ interactions with Native Americans that some people have perceived as inaccurate and offensive.
YAF national chairman and law student Grant Strobl and YAF chapter president and sophomore Luke Jones introduced Knowles before he took the stand. Prior to the event, rumors swirled regarding the possibility of protests by Michiana Anti-Fascist Action, who had announced via Facebook that they planned to shut down the lecture. No protestors made themselves known during the event.
To begin the lecture, Knowles said he was excited to speak on the topic of Christopher Columbus.
“It is such a pleasure to be here to discuss one of the greatest men in all of history, Christopher Columbus,” Knowles said. “And where better to discuss Christopher Columbus, a devout Catholic, than here at the Catholic University of Notre Dame, named after Our Lady, to whom Columbus had particular devotion.”
Knowles said Jenkins’ decision is illustrative of a larger trend towards anti-intellectualism in the name of political correctness.
“In 2019, is there any clearer depiction of how far our educational system has fallen than for an American university president to cover up art and history with [a] giant tarp lest reality offend the ignorant and unreasonable?” he said. “ … According to Fr. Jenkins, art and history are simply too much to bear for the fragile minds of this university.”
While Columbus has been depicted by some modern historians as tyrannical and cruel against the Native Americans he met when he came to the Americas, Knowles said many of these ideas are wrong or misguided. He said progressive political actors vilify Columbus because he represents Western ideals and ambitions.
“Why does the left hate this poor old Genoan sailor so much? They hate him because Christopher Columbus embodies Western Civilization,” Knowles said. “A transnational, devoutly Christian, illiterate, of low birth, an autodidact and the greatest navigator of his age, Columbus spent nearly a decade doggedly attempting to convince the Portuguese and later Spanish crowns to fund his impossibly ambitious vision, at long last a success. … He helped to found the modern era and he played the single most important role in the founding of America. So, in a phrase, Christopher Columbus is everything the left hates.”
Knowles granted that Columbus had character flaws, but most of them were to be found in an inability to work as an administrative of the new Spanish colonies he founded, he said. In response to allegations that Columbus committed numerous atrocities against the natives, Knowles said many of these claims come from unreliable sources written by political actors with personal vendettas against Columbus.
“While Columbus may have been a weak governor, accusations of tyranny came from political rivals and they were indulged by the crown primarily because the crown had not yet recouped their investment in his voyage,” he said.
People who make these accusations against Columbus are ungrateful for the good that resulted of his work, Knowles said.
“This is the crux of why maligning our forebears is as ungrateful as it is ignorant; because it must be nice — mustn’t it? It must be nice to sit in the freest, most prosperous, most charitable country in the history of the world and from a position of totally unmerited luxury slander the man who made it all possible,” he said. “Cowards in grace and moral narcissists throw tarp over the memory of the man without whom they would not exist.”
Following the lecture portion of the event, Knowles received questions from attendees. Responding to a question regarding the selling of Native Americans as slaves to Spain by Columbus, Knowles said that, even though slavery is an atrocity, the ends justify the means.
“This is a political reality. This is not a beautiful thing, it’s a terrible thing. Slavery is an awful thing. None of us disagree with that,” he said. “But for us now, as people who have benefited, all people of the whole world who have benefitted from the greatest country, the most profitable, the most charitable, the most equitable, the most just, the one that allows you to stand there and ask me that question, for us to spit on that man who made all of it possible because he made some moral concessions in order to take the most ambitious voyage at that time in the history of man is so bizarrely ungrateful. It is so ignorant of historical and political reality as to be naïve and sophomoric.”
In one of the final questions, sophomore Alan-Mychal Boyd, vice president of Native American Student Association of Notre Dame, asked Knowles whether he thought it would appropriate to display more murals at Notre Dame depicting atrocities committed by Native Americans that descendants of settlers might find offensive.
“I personally think that the Columbus murals portray warts in history, obviously, which I think should be portrayed,” Boyd said. “Would you also support an alternative mural depicting Lakota people scalping settlers?”
After asking his question, Boyd walked away from the microphone without waiting for a response and left the ballroom. After realizing that Boyd would not be staying for a response, Knowles said he would encourage the further creation of art as a spark for reflection on history.
“I actually have no problem with some mural going up somewhere depicting some of the gratuitous violence of whatever tribe that gentleman wants to be depicted,” Knowles said. “ … Broadly speaking, if people want more art, if people want more discussion of history — not the revision of history, not the replacement of history with fantasy, but the actual discussion of history, warts and all — and there’s a lot of warts in history — that has my blessing. I think that’s a wonderful thing.”