In an Instagram post on Thursday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed to a statue of St Damien of Molokai as an example of “patriarchy and white supremacist culture”.
Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives, argued that “when we select figures to tell the stories of colonized places, it is the colonizers and settlers whose stories are told — and virtually no one else.”
She then highlighted Hawaii’s memorial to Fr Damien at the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection and, after suggesting Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii should have instead received the honour, she said the Catholic saint was an example of “who we are taught to deify in our nation’s Capitol: virtually all men, all white, and mostly both.”
“This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like,” she added. “It’s not radical or crazy to understand the influence white supremacist culture has historically had in our overall culture & how it impacts the present day.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s critique of Fr Damien’s statue received significant backlash from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Fr Damien was much loved in his adopted home of Hawaii and became known as a “martyr of charity” after dying from the leprosy he contracted during his 11-year service to the Molokai leper colony.
Bishop Robert Barron tweeted a video response to Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks in which he asked if she had “any idea who Damien of Molokai was”, before himself giving a brief account of the saint’s life.
“This Belgian man who becomes a priest — a member of a missionary order — he goes in the mid-nineteenth century to Hawaii, works there for several years, and then volunteers to go to the island of Molokai, which at the time was a place where lepers were sent,” Bishop Barron said.
“At the time there was no treatment, no cure. Those who had the disease were simply sent there to spend the rest of their lives, and they would die there. Damien went knowing full well that he would most likely never return from this ministry, and in fact, he never did.”
In a concluding video tweet, he added: “To associate this man in any way with colonialism or white supremacy is so ridiculous and insulting, and it shows the superficiality and the simplistic quality of these sort of woke categories. I can’t help but think that of all the people that could have been singled out in statuary hall… Damien of Molokai? What is it with this attack on Catholic saints?”
A number of others said Ocasio-Cortez’s comments suggested she was unaware of crucial facts concerning the context of the memorial.
Becket Adams in the Washington Examiner argued that Ocasio-Cortez displayed a three-fold “ignorance” by failing to recognise that “Damien was no ‘colonizer'”, that the statuary also honours Hawaii’s “King Kamehameha I, the indigenous ruler who united the islands”, and that Fr Damien is not even afforded a prominent place in the Capitol. “Instead, he is tucked away quietly in a corridor frequented mostly by members of Congress, staff, and reporters,” Adams notes. “But do you know who is displayed conspicuously in the Capitol Visitor Center as the representative of Hawaii? Kamehameha.”
In The Week, Matthew Walther added a note about Fr Damien’s deep connection with the culture of Hawaii: “Ocasio-Cortez is probably not aware of the fact that the statue of the saint is a replica of one that stands outside the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu, that he spoke and preached in the Hawaiian language, that his feast day is a holiday in Hawaii, or that he is routinely named in lists of the most admired figures in modern Hawaiian history.”
Former US Diplomat Alberto Miguel Fernandez tweeted that Ocasio-Cortez’s own suggested figure for a memorial in the Capitol, Lili’uokalani of Hawaii, had herself honoured Fr Damien for his heroic service — a point similarly picked up on by Sohrab Ahmari.
Interesting that @AOC is unaware that King David Kalākaua bestowed on Damien the honor of “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua” and that it was then Crown Princess Liliʻuokalani who presented it. https://t.co/kTL7sreYU7
Hawaii-based prosecutor Justin Kollar responded on Twitter that such criticisms of Ocasio-Cortez had been made in “bad faith” and that commentators had missed “the (very good) point she was making”.
Ocasio-Cortez herself originally offered no response to the pushback, instead leaving it to her office to argue that, while “Fr. Damien conducted acts of great good”, it is “still worthy for us to examine from a US history perspective why a non-Hawaiian, non-American was chosen as the statue to represent Hawaii”. Later, however, Ocasio-Cortez responded to Kollar’s tweet of support and insisted that her argument was not about Fr Damien being “a bad figure” but only that “a huge supermajority of statues in the Capitol are white men”.
At no point did I say Fr. Damien was a bad figure – in fact, I explicitly stated that my observations weren’t about litigating his or any individual statue.
It’s about the fact that a huge supermajority of statues in the Capitol are white men. Barely any women or BIPOC. https://t.co/son0SZ2HVS