Party Like It’s 1492 – Old Navy, Capitalism, and Genocide

This weekend (October 3-5, 2008), the clothing chain Old Navy is celebrating Columbus Day early with its “Party Like It’s 1492” sale. Apparently, Old Navy, and the creative directors that created this misguided advertising campaign, and the suburban White Americans who have bought into it, only learned the sanitized, white-washed version of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Americas.

Lest we all think that the arrival of the Spanish in 1492 and the subsequent colonization of the West was a gay old time when the Spanish and Natives partied it up with brotherly love, consider this:

  • Howard Zinn, historian and author of A People’s History of the United States, quotes Columbus as writing in his journal: “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.” Columbus’ motives? Gold.[ ]
  • Upon returning to the Americas on his second expedition, Columbus “proceeded to unleash a reign of terror unlike anything seen before or since. When he was finished, eight million Arawaks — virtually the entire native population of Hispaniola — had been exterminated by torture, murder, forced labor, starvation, disease and despair.” [ ]
  • Columbus, Zinn writes, enslaved the friendly and hospitable natives of the West Indies, searching for their gold (there wasn’t any gold). According to Zinn, “In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. // The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.” [ ]
  • Zinn quotes the Spanish missionary Bartolome de las Casas as writing, “There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….” [ ]
  • In one day, according to las Casas, the Spaniards raped, tortured, and murdered some 3000 natives, committing such atrocities as cutting the legs off of children who ran away from them, feeding live infants to dogs, and filling people with boiling soap. [ ]

What, therefore, are Old Navy and the producers of this campaign thinking? Are they so naive that they have accepted the white-washed version of Columbus’ arrival to the West Indies? Or have they bought into colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism so completely that the commoditization of genocide is something to be made light of?

Of course, it’s not that surprising that a bourgeois chain like Old Navy that caters to mostly suburban upper-middle class White people would so mangle the truth for their own commercial gain. Truth goes out the window when there’s a quick buck to make.

And the consumers that buy into this system, those currently shopping at Old Navy during this sale, who have forgotten the real events of 1492, those slaves to fashion – perhaps they should stop to consider truly what slavery means, their slavery to consumerism, and the barbaric slavery of the Natives of the Americas (and also, later, our brothers and sisters in Africa). It was and is this very slavery that built the foundation of the consumerist world in which we live today.

Some advice: stop buying overpriced designer goods, unnecessary clothing that will just be thrown out within a season or two, from stores large chain stores that really only care about enslaving a person to their fashion in order to acquire their “gold” (money). Boycott Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic, and the like, where most of the clothing is produced in third-world sweatshops powered by virtual slave labor.

Instead, make do with what you have. Buy second hand. Buy fair-trade. Buy recycled. Make your own. Do something to break free of the vicious cycle of consumerism in which we all seem to be trapped.

And get educated. Learn the real truth – whatever that may be – by seeking it out yourself. What you’re told by any one person, any one book, any one blog entry, does not and cannot encompass the entire story, even when the author is attempting to tell it as accurately as possible. There are always more sides. Learn how to learn, how to sift through the noise and find the fragments of truth, how to assemble those into a coherent and informed narrative. Otherwise, you always be a slaved to what you are told; your mind will never be free.

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