“Marco!... Polo!” Kids in a pool. One yells “Marco!” Another answers, “Polo!” After the fifth iteration, I’m wondering why I decided to go swimming that afternoon. After the tenth, I begin to entertain homicidal thoughts. Yet this dumbest of games honors one of the West’s greatest human beings. Why do I say that?
For contrast, consider that other great Italian discoverer, Christopher Columbus. A century and a half after Polo’s travels to Xanadu, Columbus arrived in the Bahamas. As Howard Zinn reports in A People’s History of the United States (2001), “When Columbus and his sailors came ashore... the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.” Here’s how Columbus responded to their hospitality: “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first island which I found, I took some of the natives by force that... they might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.” Later, on Haiti, Zinn writes, “in two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians... were dead.” Quite differently, Marco Polo, per Laurence Bergreen in his biography (2007), “did not just humanize the Mongols, he extolled them. He did not simply describe the Mongol way of life, he lived it.” To be clear, on arrival Columbus didn’t know where he was, thinking he’d found Indonesia’s Spice Islands. Then this hero of ours became a role model for cruelty, exploitation, and forced religious conversion. Polo found his heathens to be fellow human beings with whom one could trade and from whom one could learn. Not least, he discovered lo mein and brought back pasta to Italy. So, you can celebrate Columbus Day if you want. As for me, it’s “Marco!... Polo!”