Thursday, November 13, 2008

A New World

This appeared today (11/13/08) in The Roanoke Times. I invite comments.


In 1492, a small Spanish expedition led by Christopher Columbus reached the Americas. These men were not the first to have reached the Americas from elsewhere – we are now certain that the Vikings did so around the year 1000 – yet that earlier event had all but passed out of human memory, only preserved in the pages of a few, scattered manuscripts, confined mostly to northern Europe. 1492 was something altogether different, not because of what the Spanish actually discovered (the people living there already knew the Americas existed) but rather because of how Europeans understood what they had found.

Columbus died in 1506 still firmly convinced that he had discovered a new route to Asia and that the islands he was exploring were part of a larger archipelago that would, eventually, lead him to Japan. Of course, he was wrong. Or was he?

For the next century or so, people weren’t sure and the discussion finally came to a head in 1550 at the university in Valladolid, Spain. Juan GinĂ©s de Sepulveda, a leading humanist, faced off in a debate against Bartolomeo de las Casas, a Dominican missionary. This debate was superficially about the rights of the Spanish monarchy in the Americas – what they could do with the land and its native peoples. But the debate was about much more than that too. It was about what makes someone human. Why? Because if this wasn’t Asia, this place would have been absolutely new. Were these natives actually people? If so, why had they never heard of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam? None of the ancients – no Romans, Greeks, Muslims, or medievals – had accounted for this place or these civilizations. Does that mean the ancients were wrong? If they were wrong about this, what else could they have been wrong about? As one very eminent historian has suggested, Columbus’ voyages destroyed the “Old World’s” coherence. It made European society rethink everything, from geography to the very nature of man himself.

Columbus setting foot on the island of Dominica in 1492 began a new world, both physical and intellectual, even if few recognized this at the time. When Columbus landed, he (and everyone else) thought they had found a quicker way to Asia. His arrival in the Americas did not immediately change anything, and yet his arrival – that singular moment – fundamentally transformed the world because of the questions it would provoke. The past is full of such moments. As a medieval historian, I could briefly mention as examples, the deposition of the last Roman Emperor in the West (the “fall” of Rome), Pope Urban II’s speech that launched the First Crusade, the arrival of the Black Death in Italy, etc. All of these moments were like 1492 in that they, in the grand arc of history, were not significant moments in and of themselves. But they all would eventually create “new worlds.” Something noticeably different would emerge, something utterly dependent upon the choices made in a particular place at a particular time.

As of November 5, 2008, we – all of us – live in a new world. The election of Barack Obama as our 44th President has changed the world. My life (and I’m sure yours as well) was not unusual when I woke up Wednesday morning. I woke up, ate breakfast, went to work, etc. But the world has changed because the implications of this moment, here in 2008, are extraordinary. Like in 1492, our new world may have little to do with the actions of one individual – Columbus or Obama. Instead, the world changes because of us. It changes because of the questions it makes us ask ourselves. In the end we collectively decided that race didn’t matter when choosing a president and our children will never know a time when an African-American couldn’t hold that office. The world regards us differently now. We, I think, regard ourselves differently now. We should realize that we – all of us together, regardless of party affiliation or even how we voted – have destroyed a great barrier in our path as we continue towards a more perfect union. This realization, I think, is something that should reinforce our love for this country and make us proud of who we are. But, again, this is just a moment. The real change will occur when we ask hard questions and realize the stunning possibilities of what we as a nation can become.


Thomas said...

Well, it's certainly an interesting view of the election. I feel that most of us expect a return to the Usual World after this election, and it's rather interesting to think about how we might discover that it's actually a whole "new" hemisphere.

I think that the way you describe it, you not only discuss the election but also (indirectly) how studying the past isn't just for the sake of the past, but that it also helps us to understand the world around us, and I think that's an idea with a lot of merit that you defend well despite never saying it.

What I wonder, now, is what will happen when we have our election's Sepulveda v. de las Casas. As you said, the actual debate was about a lot more than it "was about," and I'm sure this election will cause a lot of debates that end up answering much bigger questions than were asked.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Thanks for visiting. And yes, that's indeed the general point, that these moments can be transformational -- but not necessarily for the reasons anyone would've thought of at the time...