WASHINGTON. — Was America discovered? Maybe we'll get an answer at the 1992 World's Fair in Seville.
The question is heating up. Christopher Columbus is becoming an empty vessel, fillable-upable as a metaphor for all things, both fine and evil.
''Yes,'' say the Spaniards; of course America was discovered. The title page of the guide to the Seville Expo says, ''In 1992, 500 years will have passed since the discovery of America.''
Discovered. By Columbus. Who was funded by the Spanish crown. And who did a grand thing by finding the New World.
''No,'' say assorted provocateurs, always looking for new ways to demonize the American experience; Columbus didn't discover anything.
The jargonistas of the Social Studies Syllabus Review Committee of New York State broke into English to politely maintain that ''to Native Americans, the Western Hemisphere is not 'the New World.' It was the newly arriving Europeans following Christopher Columbus who were new . . . ''
Less politely, it is said by others that Columbus, his white male pals, and their European successors, were rats who stormed a place already inhabited by politically and environmentally correct natives.
The National Council of Churches (surprise!) says 1492 was no discovery, but ''an invasion and colonization . . . with genocide, economic exploitation and a deep level of institutional racism and moral decadence.'' Thanks.
The Spanish ambassador, Jaime Ojeda, says Spaniards are getting ticked off about the Columbus-bashing. Spain, he notes, was invaded by Rome, which then devastated Iberian civilization -- but no one cries for Iberia. (Many Spaniards wonder whether Chris-crunching is just another anti-Hispanic harangue.)
Mr. Ojeda is a descendant of Alonso Ojeda, who sailed with Columbus. He proudly says that 1492 was a discovery and ''a conquest.'' (But how could something be conquered that hadn't been previously discovered?)
Who is right? Trash-America revisionists have a point: The hemisphere was populated before Columbus; he was met by Carib Indians. Various Native Americans were indeed cruelly treated.
But Spaniards, and most Americans, are also correct. Something great happened because of Columbus. For Westerners, who would ultimately shape, and improve, the entire post-Columbian world, it was a new world and a new chance.
Perhaps the best way to handle the question is offered by the U.S. government: ''No comment.'' Thus, the word ''discovery'' is not in the vocabulary of Frederick Bush, U.S. Commissioner General for Seville. He artfully speaks only of ''the historic voyages'' of Columbus.
In the strange way that Washington often stumbles backward into sound policy, the American exhibit in Seville may end up celebrating just the right things.
The original plan, prepared by the U.S. Information Agency, featured three new buildings. But a powerful congressman, Neal Smith, D-Iowa, didn't like it. Funding was delayed, and cut. Gone were two of the buildings. (The ''Nina'' and the ''Pinta''?)
America, however, is not about architecture. Two geodesic domes that had housed earlier American exhibits are being put back into service. A few American corporations have pitched in as sponsors. Fred Bush is waving his tin cup for more support.
In one spotlight will be American live entertainment: professional, semi-professional and community groups. Mostly it will be music American-style: jazz, rock, country-western, gospel, bluegrass, musical comedy, rap, fiddling, break dancing. Not by accident, American music is the world's most listened-to. Accordingly, the audiences should be large and from everywhere.
One American dome in Seville will feature a dazzling 70 mm movie, funded by General Motors. The second dome should get right to the heart of the matter. It will likely deal with the founding American political documents of liberty, which have shaped the American past and are now shaping the global future.
Five hundred years after Columbus landed, a healthy global culture is aborning, both politically and economically. That new global culture is largely American-inspired.
In this sense, Columbus was neither a discoverer nor a destroyer; he was a uniter. By linking the Old World to the New World, he created the conditions for the establishment of the United States, whose presence is changing the whole world.
Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.