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U.S. labor chief: Don’t cancel Columbus Day

STEUBENVILLE — U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia brought a crowd of more than 100 students to its feet Monday evening inside the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Finnegan Fieldhouse.

Scalia, who is the son of the late Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, spoke on Columbus Day about the history and meaning of the holiday, talked about recent efforts to “cancel” the holiday and memory of the 15th century explorer, as well as the meaning the holiday holds for both Catholics and Italian-Americans.

Scalia said doing away with Columbus Day would be a “mistake,” noting it has been “part of American heritage for more than a century.”

“Columbus Day stands for ideals and principles that are woven into the fabric of our nation, which are as important today as they were on the first Columbus Day in 1892,” he said.

He talked about Columbus’ detractors and the recent removal and protest of statues, stating more than 30 statues of Columbus have been removed.

“Although Columbus survived a 15th century mutiny, he wasn’t so lucky this summer,” he said, detailing a protest in Baltimore that left a statue of Columbus in the ocean.

He noted two statues have been removed in Ohio’s capital city that bears the explorer’s name, which has also come under scrutiny.

Columbus namesakes and statues have not been the only historical figures and monuments that have come under protest, he pointed out, talking about proposals to “remove, relocate, or contextualize” the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial in Washinton, D.C. as well as calls to remove a statue of Abraham Lincoln in the capital and statues of Francis Scott Key, President Ulysses Grant, and Saint Junipero Serra having been removed in California.

“A visitor from another era might ask, who would do such things? Revanchist loyalists of King George III? The ghost of Jefferson Davis? No. Activists who want to fundamentally redefine how we view our nation’s character and legacy,” Scalia said, going on to criticize the New York Times’ 1619 Project.

Scalia detailed the founders’ vision for the nation and even talked about some of their faults and shortcomings, but brought everything back to the founding ideals of freedom.

Like the founders, Scalia noted that Columbus had “grave faults.”

“Key facts about his life remain uncertain, and the mythology that surrounded him obscured realities that recently have received more attention. Sometimes, admittedly, that makes for the best heroes — more symbol than person, more an idea than a tally of individual virtues and vices,” he said. “He participated in the slave trade, as did others in his day, and was a harsh, at times inhumane ruler of indigenous people he subjugated.

“Many of the men and women we admire from centuries ago had grave failings. Washington and Jefferson held slaves. Lincoln made statements about Blacks that we would never countenance today … But, these men are our forebears, they achieved and stand for great things, and it is for those things, not for their errors, that we admire and hold them as examples today. The failings of great men and women should remind us of human frailty — and of our own.”

Scalia noted the first Columbus Day in 1892, which he said President Benjamin Harrison intended for the holiday to promote unity and patriotism as the nation continued to heal from the Civil War.

He detailed the holiday’s importance to Catholic and immigrant heritage, detailing what he referred to as “systemic discrimination and derision” of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Italy in the mid-to-late 1800s.

“Back in the 19th century, in the face of sharp hostility associated with religion and national origin, Columbus became a powerful symbol of the claim of Italian, Irish, and other Catholic immigrants that they were fully American,” Scalia said. “The nation’s Protestant elite proudly claimed forebears among the sons and daughters of the Revolution. Columbus was an equally proud answer that Italians and Catholics, also, had roots in the nation’s founding and a claim to be fully American. “

He talked about Native Americans, who he said “suffered terribly as this nation grew, and who in their own way stand for a spirit of freedom that we hail as American” and calls for Columbus Day to be renamed for them.

“To honor Native Americans, you need not dis-honor Italian-Americans and Catholics,” he said. “That first Columbus Day welcomed Catholics and recent immigrants as equal sharers in the American dream, and acknowledged, if only for a day, Native Americans as rightful participants in our national heritage.

“Maligned by progressives today, Columbus Day was an early celebration of something progressives purport to value — diversity and inclusion.”

He said Columbus Day’s meaning goes beyond just Columbus.

“Our nation did not establish Columbus Day to commemorate oppression or discrimination, we established Columbus Day to overcome it.”

He spoke against work place training practices that he said paint certain groups as prejudice by nature, noting that President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order to that “bars race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating in training programs at federal workplaces and of federal contractors.”

Scalia then turned attention to modern discrimination against Catholic’s, particularly in the public eye in the form of scrutiny of federal judge appointments – including Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who’s confirmation hearings began Monday in the Senate.

He noted Barrett, and other past Catholic nominees for federal courts, have been subjected to scrutiny because of their personal religious beliefs on abortion and involvement with charitable organizations such as the Knights of Columbus.

“Allow me to suggest this – let’s not cancel Columbus Day while some in high office are still internalizing its message of religious inclusiveness,” Scalia proclaimed.

“The hope, the optimism, the capacity for change in a New World are part of our heritage as Americans,” Scalia said as part of his closing. “When Columbus set sail to that New World, he set us all on course to a better world. We should never forget that.”

Following his remarks, Scalia answered a few questions from students, some about different historical aspects of Columbus’ journey. One question from the audience in particular stood out, as a student asked what he could do to preserve American and Catholic heritage.

“It’s important for all of us to have the courage to speak up,” he told the student. “It requires the courage to speak up. It’s not always easy, but at times I have to remind myself of the sacrifice that Christ made and the sacrifices of Saint Francis and so many others, just standing up and speaking your mind on something pales in comparison to what those who have gone before us have had to do.”

(Grimm can be reached at agrimm@heraldstaronline.com)

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