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The Columbus Controversy and the Politics of Omission

The status of research institutes and non-profits and their relationship to certain social issues and controversies.

Rally of Italian Americans on August 24th at City Hall, in defense of Christopher Columbus Statue (Photo VNY)

In this case, Anthony Tamburri discusses the Calandra Institute’s stated policy of neutrality and how the Institute’s neutral position was mis-represented by the phrase, “Calandra is not supporting Columbus,” and nothing more. Hence the politics of omission!

There are three reasons, among others, that have convinced me, as dean, to have the Calandra Institute remain officially neutral on the issue of the Christopher Columbus controversy. The John D. Calandra Italian American Institute is a university-wide research institute. It is, secondly, funded primarily by the State of New York with tax-levied monies, which means that our funding, organically, originates from a state-wide population of people who represent a plethora of ideas and ideologies. Third, it is essentially a not-for-profit and hence should not engage in socio-political lobbying, as most 501(c)3 entities should not.

As a research institute, our mission is to engage in the intellectual process of investigation and analysis and present the facts of the case in question as they stand. Can we present both sides? Indeed. Should we then take a stand for one aide against the other? In most cases, as this one, I would say no.

That said, in the case of the Columbus monuments, we organized an event on October 24 around three monuments associated with Italian Americans. The monuments we discussed were: (1) Columbus statues in the United States; (2) The “Italo Balbo” monument in Chicago; and, (3) The yet-to-exist Triangle Shirtwaist Monument in New York City. Five different scholars participated in the event; four represented each of the three cases: Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra, Fraser Ottanelli, and Mary Ann Trasciatti respectively; Fred Gardaphe was the respondent. The event is now on YouTube in its entirety.

Our goal was to engage in the presentation of the facts in all their complexities, as they have been recorded throughout the respective histories of each monument. Further still, the goal of each scholar was, as we are wont to state, to complicate the matter in that s/he presented the main issues surrounding each monument, precisely because the public commemorative works under discussion are not all clear-cut cases regardless of which side of the issue you might stand or wish to stand.

Our procedural goal was, as is the case with the bulk of our activities, to engage in an open and respectful dialogue between each other, discussing throughout the event opposing or differing interpretations of these historical markers. I am delighted to say that we did so with great aplomb precisely because of the well researched and clearly articulate presentations by each of the five scholars and, I am pleased to add, the animated and respectful contribution of the people present in our audience, a veritable full house. It was a constructive event, for sure, and by every definition of the term.

From left to right: Joseph Sciorra, Mary Anne Trasciatti, Fraser Ottanelli, and Laura E. Ruberto on screen.

Conspicuously absent, on the other hand, were those on social media (e.g., Facebook and elsewhere) who have been vociferous in their defense of the Columbus statue and Columbus Circle. A few days later, at another event where I had laid out the Institute’s policy of neutrality to one of the boisterous defenders of the Columbus statue, as I reiterated here at the outset, that very individual in question wrote the following on Facebook: “Calandra is not supporting Columbus.” Now, within the context of those people and organizations who wish to see all things Columbian eliminated, to include therein the statement above is to engage in “calumny by omission.” Because this person did not accept the reasons for which the Calandra Institute has remained neutral on the issue, the individual decided to lump us in with those people and individuals who have taken a clear anti-Columbus stance.

Let me underscore that I do not expect everyone to agree with everything we do at the Calandra Institute. But I do expect, indeed presume, that our opinions and decisions will be represented in an accurate and complete manner. This was not the case. Instead, this person set up a rhetorical situation in which the inference that comes forth from someone who reads such a statement — and, again, especially within the context of anti-Columbus discussions — may very well lead the reader to conclude by extrapolation the following notion: “Not only does Calandra not support Columbus, but it supports eliminating him and all that he represents from history.” This, in fact, was the subsequent reaction of a few people who either read that statement or was informed of it. A few days later several people approached me to tell me that they had heard some troubling news about the Calandra Institute, that it was against Columbus. This, of course, is not true, as should be clear at this juncture. Indeed, this is precisely the danger of what I have called calumny by omission. It is fundamentally dishonest. It is, equally so, divisive. As a result, it leads anywhere but to open dialogue between opposing and/or differing interpretations of historical phenomena and events, which should lead us in the direction of some sort of general consensus. Indeed, for those of us who are misrepresented in these cases, we are, unfortunately, discouraged to engage further precisely because of such seemingly mendacious behavior.

The Columbus Statue in Columbus Circle, New York (Ph. VNY / D.M.)

Other disconcerting and discomforting behavior is the inflammatory use of language in which some have engaged on social media by using words such as “traitors” and “so-called” and/or “mad” professors with regard to those people who have either questioned the validity of Columbus or condemned him outright. Some may see this observation of mine as an exaggeration, but given the violence that exists in our world today, this is bating in the worst of forms. We have experienced this in the past. I remind you of our 2010 symposium on Guido culture. Once we had announced that event, those who had refused to accept the existence of such a culture and that, to boot, social scientists might actually want to study it, used similar language against the Institute at the time. As a result of such inflammatory language and added threats of violence, we were compelled to have a police presence at Calandra that day.

Implying falsehoods by omission and engaging in provocatively linguistic violence bating are unacceptable. I have stated for years as dean of the Calandra Institute that we can disagree and hence engage in discussion and debate, but we simply cannot adopt denigration and dismissal if we are seeking any sort of camaraderie on those issues we may all find troublesome. Such behavior of this sort, alas, goes even further than that in offense. It sets up the potentiality of people misunderstanding the situation precisely because the pertinent facts have been omitted. This is, as I stated earlier, calumny by omission, and it has no room within a community of people who have diverse opinions on different issues, because if the truth is not offered in one instance, how can we be sure that the truth forms the basis of other issues.

Finally, to return to the issue of Columbus, as dean of the Calandra Institute, I refer you to the following two articles:

(1) “The Complicated History of The Christopher Columbus Stature” by Jennifer Vanasco, with a four-minute conversation with Professor William Connell;

(2) “Recontextualizing the Ocean Blue: Italian Americans and the Commemoration of Columbus” by Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra.

“A buon intenditore poche parole!” As we say in Italian.

Buona lettura!

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