Our Forgotten Federal Holiday

Tonight I was walking to my car after work when I passed an obviously puzzled woman.  She asked me if I could help her, because she had put $1.50 into a parking meter but no time had registered.  I looked at the meter and pointed out that the parking was free on federal holidays.  She looked mystified until I mentioned that today is Columbus Day.  And this is in Columbus, Ohio, mind you.

Columbus Day is the forgotten holiday.  Only government workers and bank employees pay attention to it, because they get the day off.  For everyone else, it’s a work day — but a weird, Twilight Zone-type work day where everything is a bit strange, from the lack of morning traffic to free parking.  It’s a holiday that doesn’t seem to be celebrated in most places.

Why is this so?  Columbus used to be viewed as a crucial figure in the history of America.  He was credited with discovering the continent and was seen as a figure of enlightenment, a force for science and reason in an age of flat-earthers who didn’t want to sail off the map because “here there be dragons.”  In those days, every school student learned about Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492.

But then Columbus’ reputation changed, as people focused on his brutal treatment of the natives he encountered in the New World.  And the notion that Columbus proved the world was round has been discredited.  A posting today in the Washington Post blog is a good indication of the greatly diminished, modern view of Columbus.  And now people are questioning whether Columbus was the first traveler to find the New World, and whether Norsemen or even Chinese explorers beat him to it.

That’s why Columbus Day is a holiday that really doesn’t feel like a holiday.  It’s almost as if people are mildly embarrassed by it.

Malala Yousafzai And The Power Of The Individual

You can’t help but be inspired by Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who resisted Taliban edicts that forbade girls from going to school. Now 16 years old, Yousafzai is a living, breathing example of the unique power of the individual to serve as an agent of change.

Yousafzai’s story reminds us of how different the world can be under repressive religious regimes.  When she started a blog and advocated for education for Muslim girls in defiance of the edicts, the Taliban issued a death threat against her.  Later a Taliban gunman attacked her on her school bus, and she was shot in the head and neck.  She survived, went to Great Britain for brain surgery, and continues to be a strong voice for education even in the face of renewed Taliban threats.

This past week Yousafzai made a whirlwind tour of the United States.  She met President Obama, the First Lady, and their 15-year-old daughter Malia, thanked him for the United States’ support of education, but also expressed the view that U.S. drone attacks are fueling terrorism.  Yousafzai also deeply impressed Jon Stewart and the audience of The Daily Show by her patient insistence that violence and cruelty can only be defeated by education and peaceful dialogue.

Some people thought Yousafzai might win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Instead the Prize went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  I have no doubt that the group, which has worked to eliminate chemical weapons, has performed important work — but no organization can ever have the impact of one individual standing resolute in the face of tyranny.  Malala Yousafzai has single-handedly focused attention on the need for education and the plight of girls and young women under the Taliban and, by extension, in other places where religious edicts and despotic governments have repressed their rights and freedoms.  We can only hope that her message and example will ultimately bring about essential social changes in the benighted regions of the world.