I finally read what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said about St. Damien’s statue, after having read a number of reactions from the right. Which were often as unfair, and sometimes dishonest, as you’d expect. And often abusive, too. As, alas, you’d expect.
She said in a short video: “Even when we select figures to tell the stories of a colonized places, it is the colonizers and settlers whose stories are told — and virtually no one else’s. Check out Hawaii’s statue.” Noting that it’s Fr. Damien, not Queen Lili‘uokalani, she explains she’s not “litigating” individual statues. She’s pointing to “the patterns that have emerged among the totality of them in who we are taught to deify in our nation’s Capitol: virtually all men, all white, and mostly both. That is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like.”
As far as I could find, none of her critics bothered to quote the part before that. The camera pans through the crypt in the Capitol building over the text: “When we talk about sexism and racism being cultural — aka just the water that we swim in and don’t even realize — I want to show you a real life example. … Millions of people come here every year to learn these stories and see who is celebrated as heroes in US history. Who do you see? Who do you not see?”
A perfectly reasonable question. A wise question. But being reasonable and wise did not save her from being misinterpreted by the ideologues. National Review summarized her talk in the headline of their story “AOC Calls Statue of Priest Who Ministered to Leper Colony an Example of ‘White Supremacist Culture’.” Lots of Catholic writers leapt to school the congresswoman on St. Damien, all assuming she’d called him a white supremacist. It was a way of calling her stupid without calling her stupid.
Others did. Washington Examiner writer Becket Adams wrote that AOC moved “from basically annoying into genuinely loathsome territory.” The Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Hennessey, a Catholic, called the comment “a savage level of ignorance, shamelessly displayed.” Louisiana senator Bill Cassidy accused her to “trying to dunk on” the saint, and declared “We must not cave to cancel culture.” And that’s to leave out the snarling junkyard dog right-wing responses on social media.
The Catholic Herald story described the saner responses. Among them was Bishop Robert Barron. I’m an admirer of the bishop’s work, but someone who’s so regularly misinterpreted from his right and his left should be more careful not to do the same to someone else. “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,” he wrote.
Her conservative critics couldn’t just say, as most of us would in a normal conversation, that we knew what she meant, that she chose a bad example, but was making a reasonable claim. Maybe one we disagreed with, but a reasonable claim from her point of view.
But here’s the point. AOC made a claim that everyone makes in some circumstances. We all read the world the way she reads it. And what we read affects how we live in the world.
Conservatives themselves believe as much as anyone that “History is written by the victors.” They believe that secularist liberals hold the cultural power in America. Those people won and now they dictate the dominant narrative. Conservative Catholics see how anti-Catholic is this dominant narrative.
Bishop Barron called what AOC said a “woke category,” by which he meant a stupid idea. It isn’t at all. It’s one of those things Christians should understand. We all see as through a glass darkly, as St. Paul says. The window distorts and obscures much that you see through it.
It also limits what you see. You see only part of the world. Someone else looking through another window will see something you’ll never see from your window. We know from Christian teaching, not to mention basic sociology, and for that matter day to day life, that we tend to see what we want to see. We choose the window we look through. One blessing of the Church is that she contains lots of people looking through different windows and correcting and amplifying each other’s vision.
That’s also one of the values of real political discourse, not that we have much of it, as the responses to the congresswoman’s remark showed.
Their experience of ideological marginalization ought to make AOC’s conservative critics recognize the plausibility of another claim to the same thing. If you recognize that secularists preach secularism, someone else will recognize that white people overvalue their own peoples’ places and beneficence in history.
We would do better to learn to read cultural symbols the way AOC reads them: more intentionally. When you look at the statues in the Capitol, who do you see? A lot of white men, as she noted. Who do you not see? Christians who are there for being Christians — St. Damien, St. Junipero Serra, and Mother Joseph excepted.
Others were Christians, but their faith is accidental to the reason their statues sit in the Capitol. The totality of what the Capitol statues teach is that the most important Americans, the defining Americans, were political figures, and that religion doesn’t matter much.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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