It takes a special kind of stupid to single out for removal from Capitol Hill’s Statuary Hall a statue of a man widely regarded as an exemplary human being, but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did just that when she burbled that
Even 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. Check out Hawaii’s statue.
It’s not Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii, the only Queen Regnant of Hawaii, who is immortalized and whose story is told. It is Father Damien. This isn’t to litigate each and every individual statue, but to point out 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. This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like!
Admirers of Fr. Damien, of whom I am one, were upset. But AOC is not backing down. Instead, she tweeted with approval the charge that her critics are showing “super bad faith” by misunderstanding her point. Fr. Damien’s statue doesn’t have to go because he was a bad man. Fr. Damien’s statue has to go because he was a white man, and we have far more statues of white men standing in Washington than AOC thinks is suitable.
There is a word for the belief that an individual should be excluded because of his skin color, without regard to his personal merits, but the problematic nature of white men in this summer of Wokeness is so taken for granted that wanting to rid Capitol Hill of most statues of white men is seen as an adequate defense to the charge of wanting to rid Capitol Hill of the statue of any particular white man.
AOC also tweeted that “every single statue there could be of a canonized saint and that *still* doesn’t change the fact that the erasure of women & BIPOC from American history is a feature of white supremacy.” Applied to the particulars of Fr. Damien’s case, this claim suggests that the native Hawaiians were doing an exemplary job of dealing with the lepers exiled to Molokai, but the white supremacist narrative gave credit to Fr. Damien instead.
The only problem with this is that it isn’t true. That is why native Hawaiians, including the Queen whose statue AOC thinks should replace Damien’s, honored the Flemish priest during his lifetime. Being banished to the leper colony at Kalawao was an exceedingly grim fate before the indefatigable “colonizer” from Flanders arrived.
Others had attempted to help the lepers before Fr. Damien came, but he was the one who succeeded. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his brilliant defense of the saint,
I have now come far enough to meet you on a common ground of fact; and I tell you that, to a mind not prejudiced by jealousy, all the reforms of the lazaretto, and even those which he most vigorously opposed, are properly the work of Damien. They are the evidence of his success; they are what his heroism provoked from the reluctant and the careless. Many were before him in the field; Mr. Meyer, for instance, of whose faithful work we hear too little: there have been many since; and some had more worldly wisdom, though none had more devotion, than our saint. Before his day, even you will confess, they had effected little. It was his part, by one striking act of martyrdom, to direct all men’s eyes on that distressful country. At a blow, and with the price of his life, he made the place illustrious and public. And that, if you will consider largely, was the one reform needful; pregnant of all that should succeed. It brought money; it brought (best individual addition of them all) the sisters; it brought supervision, for public opinion and public interest landed with the man at Kalawao. If ever any man brought reforms, and died to bring them, it was he. There is not a clean cup or towel in the Bishop-Home, but dirty Damien washed it.
It is hard to see what goal is advanced by having a second member of Hawaii’s royal family replace Fr. Damien as Hawaii’s second representative in Statuary Hall–King Kamehameha is the first–unless you already believe that there is something wrong with any institution that is too white and too male.
But if white men are so bad as a group that we should not be represented in Statuary Hall even by as saintly a figure as Damien, how can the Woke justify continuing to use antibiotics, air conditioning, air travel, and the many other advances that would not exist if white men had not invented them? And that would not be present in Hawaii or anywhere else in the United States if the much maligned “settlers” and “colonizers” had never come?
If the answer is that even the Woke continue to use these things because they represent genuine advances that benefit all of us, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that their inventors deserve to be honored, even if they were white men? And might the same be true for Fr. Damien and the other white men Americans have chosen to represent their states in Statuary Hall?