Was Fr. Damien of Moloka’i a white savior?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was at the National Statuary Hall Collection in DC on Thursday, and she shared a photo of the statue representing Hawaii on her Instagram account, commenting 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.”

(You’ll have to excuse me for not linking to her story directly. I don’t understand how to use Instagram.)

As often happens with AOC, she wasn’t wrong, but she also managed to say something true in a way that you have to work to defend. The statue representing Hawaii is of Fr. Damien of Moloka’i, a Belgian priest who ministered to Hawaiian lepers and eventually died of the disease. 

“This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like! 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 said.

She is, as I say, not wrong. She was saying that, when history is written by white people, it tends to present the world in terms of the wise, just, bold, important things white people have done. It makes it seem like white Europeans are the heroes of history, and everyone else is supporting characters at best, villains and savages at worst.

This is what she means by white supremacy, and she’s right. It’s not just a matter of skewing our perception of the past. Learning a white-dominated history makes it easier for white people to continue seeing themselves as realer and more important than dark-skinned people right now. A history that populates the past with white heroes and dark-skinned savages informs the thinking of people like the men who hunted and killed Ahmaud Arbery. They saw a black man in a white man’s world, and they got rid of him. 

She wasn’t even criticizing Fr. Damien specifically, although she chose his statue to feature with her comment. Her office told CNA

“it’s the patterns that have emerged among all of the statues in the Capitol: virtually all white men. Each individual could be worthy, moral people. But the deliberate erasure of women and people of color from our history is a result of the influence of patriarchy and white supremacy.”

Her office later added that “Fr. Damien conducted acts of great good, and his is a story worth telling. 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 in the Capitol over other Hawaiian natives who conducted great acts of good, and why so few women and people of color are represented in Capitol statues at all.”

But, she did feature the statue of Fr. Damien in her commentary. She apparently didn’t realize that the statue wasn’t chosen and donated by white Europeans; it was chosen and donated by the Hawaiian people, who presumably wanted Fr. Damien to represent them.

Why would they chose a white man rather than a native? If you read about Fr. Damien’s life, it was not because he was a white savior, but because he imitated Jesus the savior. 

It’s a touchy topic to compare any man to Christ, especially when contemporaneous accounts of Fr. Damien’s life did explicitly paint him as a white savior descending from above to minister to utter savages living in squalor, helpless until the beatific European man came to the rescue. That is not what happened. This skewed version of his story helps cement the bizarre idea that Christ Himself was white.

But Fr. Damien was so beloved not because of some supernatural ability to appear from on high and single-handedly transform a people, but from a willingness to work and live with them, learn their language, eat their food, and even contract their disease. His mission wasn’t to bestow salvation on them, but to help restore them to a life of dignity that they had been denied, by teaching them about Christ, by helping them to take care of themselves, and most of all by becoming one of them when no one else even wanted to think about them. 

Every saint’s story reflects the life of Christ in one way or another; but the biography of St Damien of Molokai, whose feast day is May 10, is full of unusually striking parallels that have nothing to do with whiteness and everything to do with Christlike-ness.

His sacrifice was entirely voluntary. After the Hawaiian government isolated its lepers on a peninsula to contain the disease, the Church realized that there was no one to tend to their spiritual needs. But the disease was so fearful and so contagious; the Bishop did not insist that any of his subordinates go there to serve. Young Fr Damien, a Belgian priest, willingly volunteered as a missionary, even though he was afraid.

The Son of God was utterly complete before the Incarnation. The birth, works, suffering, and death of Christ were all entirely voluntary, asked for by the Father and willingly accepted by the Son, even though He was afraid.

He was a substitute for his brother. His brother, a member of the same religious order, was originally slated to travel to Molokai, but became sick; so Damien took his place.

Christ took on human flesh and suffered and died to pay the debt of humanity. He became our brother so that He could take our place.

He tended to the body as well as the soul. St Damien’s mission was to preach and bring the sacraments, but he also cared for the lepers’ physical well-being, helping them upgrade their living quarters, organize schools, farms, a legal system, and even a choir.

Along with teaching, forgiving sins, conferring grace, and granting salvation for our souls, Christ healed the blind, made the lame walk, fed the multitudes, and even cooked a breakfast of fish for His friends, because even a mortal body is precious, and our physical needs are true needs.

He didn’t keep himself apart, but lived his life alongside his spiritual children.  Fr Damien didn’t isolate himself out of fear, disgust, or a sense of superiority, but lived with the lepers intimately, eating communal poi with his fingers, bathing corrupted limbs and dressing wounds. He clothed them with his own hands, shared their pipes, and dug their graves, until he finally died of their disease.

Christ did not save us from Heaven, but confined His immensity into a mortal human body, to live alongside the ones He came to save, and even accepted human mortality. 

He was slandered, accused of depravity and dirtiness; and even his own superiors gave him only faint praise, calling him a “peasant” who served God “in his own way.”

Christ was hounded by slander and abuse, culminating in a trial and execution full of insults and false accusations, which He bore without defending Himself.

His good works were not confined to his life span.  When Fr Damien died, he left behind a community that was transformed.

Before He died, Christ established the Church, so that His work would continue after the Resurrection.

 

I can’t help thinking that Fr. Damien himself would have chosen someone else to represent Hawaii, had he been asked. Nothing in his life indicates that he sought fame or recognition. He is the patron saint of outcasts, including HIV patients, a population many Catholics continue to see as untouchable, unworthy. 

Maybe it would have been better to represent him with a statue showing how he looked toward the end of his life, when the disease all but destroyed his white skin. If there is a lesson to draw from finding a Christlike white man representing Hawaii, maybe the lesson is this: Christ was not white; Christ was human. 

***

A portion of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in May of 2017.

Photo of Fr. Damien by Henry L. Chase / Public domain 

“Pro-life” Trump is engineering an American Kristallnacht

Here’s a ridiculous scenario: Imagine you drive a red car. One day, the mayor of your town says that, every week, he’s going to head over to the post office and pin up a list of people who have done bad things with red cars.

The list includes people who have bought red cars, people who have borrowed them, and people who have stolen red cars; and it includes everything from driving with a broken tail light to deliberately plowing through line of kindergarteners. The list doesn’t specify: It just has names of people driving red cars, and it says they’ve all done something bad.

This goes on week after week, and even though you’ve never so much as failed to use a turn signal, you start to notice that you’re getting dirty looks when you step out of your red car. You find yourself parking around the corner, just so no one realizes that you’re one of those “red car people.” Your neighbor sees you washing your car in the driveway and she makes a disgusted sound and loudly tells her kids, “Let’s go find some other friends to play with.” One morning, you wake up and discover that someone has slashed your tires and beat in your windshield, and “NO RED CARS HERE” is spray painted on your driveway.

You haven’t done anything. But you do drive a red car.

Stupid, right? That is a silly story. Let’s talk about something that hits a little closer to home with some of my readers:

At the peak of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, a priest friend — a holy, kind, exemplary man — told me that when he passed a woman and child on the sidewalk, the woman instinctively shoved herself between her child and him. She made a physical barrier to protect her kid, as if, just because he had a Roman collar on, he was going to lunge over and start groping her child.

How unfair! How grievously unfair, to behave as if every priest is probably a sexual predator, when in fact priests are no more likely than any other man to abuse children.

But at the same time, my priest friend couldn’t blame the woman. When it does happen, molestation of children is an unspeakable crime. And every day, week after week after week, the papers and the TV news carried stories of priests who did abuse children, or who were accused of abusing children, or who didn’t do enough to stop the abuse of children.

Or, maybe they actually did everything they possibly could to stop the abuse of the children, but still, ugh, they’re one of those priests . . . 

We all know what priests are like. We know, because we read it in the news.

Imagine being a priest in this climate. I heard priests debating with each other whether it was safe to go out wearing clerical garb. Why put a target on your back? Everyone you meet has been trained to look at you and think, “Sex crime! Sex crime!”

This is the power of the selectively chosen printed word. This is what can be achieved when you take a story that is true (some people in red cars do commit crimes; some priests do molest children) and play it over and over and over and over again, chanting in the ear of the reader: DANGER. DANGER. WARNING. WARNING. NO TIME TO THINK. ALERT. ALERT. PROTECT YOURSELF.

Protect yourself against what? Why, against people like that: people who commit crimes, people you can easily pick out on the street, because they’re illegal immigrant criminals. Well, they’re illegal immigrants. Well, they’re immigrants. Well, they have brown skin and an accent, and you know what people like that do.

We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish — lists of “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license) committed by “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal).  The important thing is, we have to have constant reminders that there are people coming into our country and doing bad things! Never forget!  Immigrant and crime! They go together.

Never mind that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the constant reminder of facts without context to create an emotional response. It’s not rational. It doesn’t have to be. In fact it works better when it’s not rational (especially when you’ve been training the populace to believe that there is no such thing as objective truth, just facts and alternative facts).

There are already laws on the books about deporting illegal immigrants. There are already laws on the books about arresting and prosecuting criminals. There are already numerous public records of crimes committed in this country. We don’t have a secret court system. Just about every arrest is public record. There are already numerous aggregators of statistics to tell us who commits what kind of crime. Most Americans already agree that crime is bad, illegal activity is wrong, and criminals should be punished by the law.

These lists do not give us more information. They do not “better inform the public,” despite what Trump’s statement claims. All of the information in them is already public information.

There is only one reason to publish a list like this, and that is to whip up fear, suspicion, and outrage. To make people feel unsafe and angry. To constantly remind them (as Trump did in his inauguration speech) that we are drowning in crime, awash in violence, crumbling into ruin, teetering on the brink, losing ourselves in the darkness.

Things are terrible, terrible, terrible. And whose fault is it? Well, I happen to have a list. And I’ll be updating it every week, so you’ll know who to blame.

Now imagine that you are the one with dark skin and an accent. Imagine your kids have dark skin and accents. Maybe you’re legally here and maybe you’re not, but it’s very clear that you’re some kind of immigrant.

Remember: immigrant crime immigrant crime immigrant crime. That’s the important thing to remember. Your neighbors have been hearing it for months.

Imagine that you live in a country where, every single week, your president has been telling everyone that people with dark skins and accents are criminals. Imagine getting your kids ready to walk to school, and knowing that half their classmates have been reading these lists every week. Imagine leaving work at night and finding that a couple of guys have had a couple of beers and they’ve decided they’ve had enough of these fucking immigrants fucking up their country, and if the police won’t do anything about it, then they will.

Think it won’t happen? Why? Because fearful, angry people never lash out at the innocent?

bundesarchiv_bild_146-1970-083-42_magdeburg_zersto%cc%88rtes_ju%cc%88disches_gescha%cc%88ft

Because we’d never let things go that far?

Why not? If we’re not going to say “halt” now, then when?

This is classic scapegoating. It’s what fascists do to gain control. They tell the people, over and over and over again, “You’re not safe. You’re not safe. It’s the fault of THESE PEOPLE. I will protect you from THESE PEOPLE, and then you can be safe.” And then, while you’re thrilled to get his help and protection, you barely notice the other stuff he’s doing, stuff that directly contradicts the things you said you cared about ten minutes ago. Stuff like small government, religious freedom, freedom of the press, respect for the disabled, protection for the innocent and vulnerable.

My friends, I have always thought that Trump would be a bad and dangerous president, a vulgar and ridiculous man, but I thought the accusations of fascism were overblown. I thought it was hyperbole.

I don’t think so anymore. This is textbook behavior. This is how it always starts. This is how totalitarians persuade the population to give him everything he wants: By whipping up fear and anger, by pointing to a scapegoat, and then by offering to take care of that scapegoat for you.

Up until now, I’ve been angry at Trump. Last night, he broke my heart. I wept when I heard of his plans, and I wept harder when I saw some of my friends defending them. Not because I want to protect criminals, but because I want to protect my country. I love my country. This is not what I want for my country.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A good day to remember that everything Hitler did was with the consent of the people, whom he had primed to fear and hate certain groups of people. He started by posting lists of Jews who were accused of committing crimes. He started by reminding Germans of what a shambles their country was in, and then he told them, over and over and over again, whose fault it was.

And then they let him do whatever he wanted.

We have seen this before. We have seen this before. There is no Mexico City Policy, no phone call to the March for Life, no promise of new jobs that can justify the American Kristallnacht that our president is openly trying to engineer.

Resist. Even if you need a job. Even if you are pro-life. Even if your city is full of people who don’t speak English. Even if you think Hillary belongs in jail. Even if you voted for Trump. Resist this path we are on. Remember who you are, and resist.

***
EDIT Friday around 5:00 eastern: Thanks to a reader, I realized that I misread and mischaracterized Trump’s statement. It was an honest error, not a malicious one, but that’s no excuse. I have edited the post to make it more accurate.

The original passage, as far as I can reconstruct it, read:
We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish –‘lists of “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal) who have committed “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license).

The corrected passage now reads:
We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish — lists of “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license) committed by “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal).

I apologize for the error. It does not change my argument in the slightest.
Kristallnacht image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-083-42 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s resist kneejerkifying history

Every few weeks, a group of enlightened teenagers, who have been raised since birth to believe such-and-such is wrong, will get together and demand that a long-dead man should be punished for not having been raised since his birth two hundred years ago to believe that such-and-such is wrong.

Sometimes, they’re onto something. I wouldn’t want to spend my afternoons bathed in the hues of a stained glass black man kneeling before John Calhoun. (I wouldn’t smash a window depicting slavery, but I would put up a fuss.) There’s a fine line between acknowledging the past and condoning its errors.

But it sure does get old to hear that Abraham Lincoln was “not the great emancipator” because his stated main goal was to preserve the union, and because he was against interracial marriage. No: Lincoln was a white man was born in 1809, and he thought like a white man born in 1809; and he was a great and good man.

Same thing for great thinkers of the Catholic Church. You refuse to employ your super-fine mind in the same room as Thomas Aquinas just because he had some dumb or hinky ideas about the ladies? Your loss. The rest of us don’t have much time to be offended; we’re too busy trying to keep up.

Just as irritating as the knee-jerk judgment of the past? The wholly unearned smugness that often goes along with that judgment. Let’s be fair: If I can’t blame Lincoln for thinking like everyone thought when he was alive, then why should I laud you for thinking like everyone thinks now? You’re not a courageous free-thinker for wearing an anti-racist T-shirt in 2016. You’re just someone who noticed that “NOH8” or “BLM” or whatever is trending right now.

Even worse than wagging our fingers at history is when we try to protect our paper-thin skins by blotting out the past altogether. What a horrible, self-defeating error. If our country is guilty of crimes, then there is one foolproof way to ensure that we repeat them, and that is to erase all evidence of them, to cleanse our living space of any exposure to them. Your body won’t fight back against a disease if you spend each day bathing in Purell, and the same is true for our collective soul as a country. You must endure some exposure.

Well, here’s an encouraging spot of sanity: Yale announces new procedure for renaming of university buildings. They’re not going to refuse to hear any argument against honoring a historical figure who held troubling views; but neither are they going to knuckle under to the mob and despise greatness when it comes dressed in historical clothing that clashes with current political fashion.

In an interview with NPR yesterday, Yale dean Jonathan Holloway said:

The fact is as human actors we’re all flawed. So I really wonder if you are going to be using the Oregon test [which applies strict, inflexible criteria] against historic figures who are operating in a world in which you – people did not even know or worry about the experiences or views of women or immigrants or minorities, you’re going to fail the test pretty quickly. And so I think any renaming test has to be mindful of the present and the past and also the future in trying to sort out what its litmus tests are going to be.

To my mind, when we wonder if we should honor someone who held views that most people now despise, there are four issues to be considered:

  1. Were these views widespread and unchallenged at the time? Would the person in question have to be an outrageously original and insightful thinker to even consider holding a different point of view?
  2. Are the unpleasant views he held even relevant to why he is being honored today? Are we honoring him for all aspects of his entire life, or can we say, “Even though he was terribly wrong about this issue, his achievements in that other field are immense and indisputable”?
  3. If he did do great things, were the bad things he did so bad (even if they were in an entirely different field from the great things) that they overshadow what was great?
  4. Have we done our research, really? Or have we just read a line or two off some Buzzfeed compilation of the Daily Snit?

Yale is apparently taking a measured approach to challenges from people laboring under what Halloway calls the “arrogance of your contemporary moment,”and is trying to slow down that locomotive of self-congratulatory outrage. He wants, if you can imagine such a thing in an institute of higher learning, for complainants to thoughtfully and dispassionately contextualize history, rather than just reflexively scratching whatever the current mob considers itchiest.

It’s especially admirable that Yale is choosing to do this now, in post election 2016. With Trump as president, and the alt right ascending, we’re likely to see more and more re-legitimization of historical figures who truly ought to be intolerable to everyone today — not because of current, changeable sensibilities, but because their views were intolerable to decent people even while they were alive.

I expect that a president who reportedly kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside (just for the articles, you understand. He doesn’t even notice the pictures) will breathe new life and vigor into old, deservedly condemned causes. We’ve already seen some efforts, from a population indispensable to Trump’s victory, to reanimate fetid corpses of egregious racism, anti-semitism, denial of Bosnian genocide, and more. Confederate flag sales skyrocketed in 2015Trump himself praised the “strength” of China’s response to Tianamen Square; and Trump openly admired Saddam Hussein’s efficiency in dealing with his enemies.

This man is now our president, our representative to the rest of the world.

Anticipating the battles to come, we might be tempted to suit up with an extra, protective layer of righteous indignation. If we’re going to be led by a man who dabbles in horrors, we might decide ahead of time that we’ll have a prophylactic zero tolerance policy against anything and anyone that smacks of his ugly ideals.

But let’s not. Let’s not respond to kneejerk politics by jerking the knee in the other direction. This country isn’t over yet. We’re still writing our history, still making adjustments, still figuring out who we are. Let’s take a clue from Yale, and slow down, do our research, think things through — and above all, not respond to unthinking rhetoric with more unthinking rhetoric.

In an absurdly awful election, where there could be no winning for the American people, we lost. Yes, we did. But that doesn’t mean we need to surrender. We still have time.

 

What can American parents learn from a doll?

Polio_sequelle

In wealthy, progressive Seattle, polio vaccination rates are lower than in Rwanda. Parents in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Algeria, El Salvador, Guyana, Sudan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Yemen are doing more to protect their children from this crippling and often deadly disease than some American parents.

This dangerous trend is due, in part, to historical amnesia. There are fewer and fewer people around who remember the devastation of the polio epidemics of the late 1940′s and early 50′s.  Between 19445 and 1949, something like 20,000 American contracted polio. In 1952, there were 58,000 cases. Ten of thousands of American were paralyzed; many died. The nation was terrified, and rightly so.

Read the rest at the Register.

***

Brilliant men in dark boxes

Anybody remember when this happened?

 

 

PIC statue behind box

 

This was back in 2011, when the NAACP hid a prominent statue of George Washington inside a wooden box during a MLK Day rally, offering the terminally lame excuse that the box that shielded the crowd from Washington’s face would make a more suitable backdrop for the rally’s speakers.   The NAACP denies any intention of disrespect, but their narrow view of history is no secret:  anyone who owned slaves is a racist, and anyone who is a racist cannot be called a great man.  This is what is taught in history class, and several generations have been nourished on these junk food ideas.

Students are taught that they must not squander their exquisite admiration on someone who owned slaves.  They are taught, by implication, that it’s not enough for a man to give up his family and his safety for the noble cause of independence.  It’s not enough to inspire and command.  It’s not even enough to triumph in a way that directly benefits millions of people today.

He must also be . . . EVERYTHING MAN.

He must leap out of his time, and see with the eyes of every possible future type of enlightenment.  Did he accomplish the massive victories that his generation desperately needed?  Not good enough.  We also require him to be the role model for solving any type of conflict that might ever turn up, or else he’s no good to us.  Into the box you go, little George.  You don’t impress us anymore.

Where else do we see this same lazy, self-absorbed analysis of history?  In the sour voices that grumble over John Paul II’s beatification.   He may have been good, they say, but oh, he was not great.  Oh, sure, he was very charismatic and all.  He clearly prayed a lot, and that’s commendable.  But what a hash he made of the Church!  It’s all his fault!  He’s the one who wrote all those lame hymns, he’s the one who offered free butch haircuts to nuns, if you’ll recall.  And who can forget those Woodstock-style World Youth Day rallies, where he encouraged the youth to hold hands during the Our Father?  Never mind that the number of Catholics worldwide grew from 700 million to 1.2 billion while he was Pope — the guy was a squish, a pushover, a washout.

Listen to me.  God sends certain men to achieve certain great deeds while they live.  They are not responsible for what future generations may require:  that is up to the heroes born of those generations.  Great men are great because they do what needs to be done at the time.  They put their own desires and frailties aside, and they make the world new with their particular strengths, their particular form of brilliance.  Heck, that’s what Martin Luther King Jr. did.  A holy man?  No.  He was a serial adulterer.  And Washington owned slaves, and John Paul II allowed the monster Maciel to flourish.

But they were great men.  They took their personal, God-given talents and turned them into something immense — something that made the world better.

It’s not just that we should forgive the wrong they did because they did so much good (although that is also true).  No.  I’m saying that these men were good in the way that they were designed to be good, great according to their own natures.  George Washington’s great strength wasn’t as an abolitionist, you know?  John Paul II’s great strength wasn’t as a disciplinarian.  It wasn’t his calling.

Do we criticize Fra Angelico for not figuring out how to split the atom?  Or do we sneer at Herman Melville because he couldn’t outrun Carl Lewis?  I mean, what do we want from these guys?  And can’t we even imagine that whatever  heroes we admire today may someday be judged harshly by our great great grandchildren — and wouldn’t that seem unfair?  Men are men, and they live when they live.   Who is good enough for us?  Who can escape our endlessly dissatisfied dissection?

There was only one perfect Man.   The other great men of the world — Washington, King, John Paul II, and any hero you can name — are only mirrors, who catch and show to us a little bit of His radiant light.  The world is dark enough already.  Let’s not become so enlightened that we spend our time setting up boxes around the brilliance of great men.

 

****
This post originally ran in 2011.

A little blaze

In discussing history with my older kids, I always try to hammer home the following point: when someone tells you that this or that issue is perfectly simple, then that person is either stupid or lying.

Here’s a satisfying case in point:  a recent Salon article (h/t to Kevin James) reminds us that, despite what renowned scholar Dan “I know how to type” Brown tells us, it wasn’t the mean old misogynistic Church who led those infamous European witch hunts.  More reliable sources show that women were accused of, tortured and killed for witchcraft because of  “squabbles among neighbors, resentments within families, disagreeable local characters, the machinations of small-time politicians and the creepy psychosexual fixations of magistrates and clerics.”

So there’s a good lesson there:  when something really big and awful goes on for 300 years, you can’t sum up its cause or significance in a single sentence (unless that sentence is “It’s a fallen world”).  Nothing is that simple.

For younger kids, though, I am in favor of teaching the simple, mythologized version of history first, and then refining it later (as long as you don’t get your myths from a dumbbell like Dan Brown).  Kids should understand the basic truth of what happened, and then discover the details when their minds become more subtle.

Thus, we teach the little ones that Columbus was a hero, Lincoln strode into battle to free the slaves, and God made the world in seven days.  All of this is true.  The details are more subtle, but the basic myth tells you something important that the details can’t convey.

Modern history books for children will have none of this fairytale foolishness.  They want to paint a truer, fuller picture of history by debunking myths — but they do this by oversimplifying in the other direction, and they end up telling an equally false story.  By insisting on the deary, mitigating details, they teach children that no one ever fights to the death for justice, and that no one is really courageous, that nothing is noble.  What a terrible lesson — what a lie!

So now school children kids believe that Thomas Jefferson was, above all, a famous racist; that Columbus’ main goal was to find some peaceful natives to slaughter; and that the liberated Israelites merely trudged after Moses through a swampy area during low tide.

I don’t lie to my kids.   Soon enough, children learn that there are details, there are complications.  But I know they haven’t lived long enough to understand that sin and weakness go along with courage and nobility — that they can exist in the same man.  This subtle understanding is something they will need to have eventually.  But trying to teach it prematurely doesn’t give you educated students, it gives you ignorant cynics.

When you’re building a fire, you have to start with a little blaze. Sure, the fire is more useful and productive when the flames have died down.  You can get some even and steady heat then, and glowing coals are easier to control and maintain than the leaping, unpredictable tongues of flame when kindling catches fire.

But you can’t just skip to the steady heat stage.  That’s what these myths about history are–they’re a little blaze to get things going.  You have to start with the blaze.

(cross-posted at The Anchoress)