Almost exactly a quarter-century ago, James A. Clifton, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, called me after seeing an article I had written in First Things, entitled “1492 and All That” (which later became a full-length book). We were then in a swirl of anti-Western and anti-Christian public emotion over the 500th anniversary (1492-1992) of Columbus’ voyages to the New World, and his alleged role in later mistreatment of Native Americans, slavery, and Christian imperialism.
I expected venom; he offered support. He had written a still fascinating book, The Invented Indian, that sought to distinguish the real achievements of Native Americans from guilt-driven idealizations. For his pains in service to truth, he reaped resentment and threats. In fact, one day someone dressed as an Indian – well, wearing a ridiculous jumble of articles of clothing from very different tribes – came to his front door with a gun. Professor Clifton laughed and turned away, saying: come back when you know something about Indians.
Some things never change. Especially the largely ignorant, suicidal rage that is now a regular recurrence in American culture, and which is spreading to other Western countries. Quite apart from the vile clash the other day between alt-right and alt-left in Charlottesville (which, as usual, also brought injury to innocents), we seem to have lost the Christian – and human – truth that we’re all imperfect beings. And that without a capacity for tolerating one another’s foibles and ultimately a chance at forgiveness, it’s simply impossible for us to live together.
Puritanical absolutism used to be the hallmark of extremist religious and political groups; now it’s come to infest the very places that should be most aware of differences and contexts, namely our universities and the media.
I learned my lesson about this back when I was trying to form a clear picture of the Age of Discovery. There were and are good historians, amateur and academic, of such matters. Broad-brush condemnations, however, which blur essential moral distinctions, get the airtime.
The great Dominican “defender of the Indians,” Bartolomé de las Casas – for example – described the “sweetness and benignity” of Columbus – in contrast to other Spanish explorers. Cortez could be brutal, though he ended in a monastery doing penance for his sins. Pizzaro was a psychopath. Period. Columbus was something else; despite the unprecedented difficulties he faced in the new cultures he encountered, there were few instances of his mistreating anyone. He was more typically uncertain about how to proceed, as we ourselves often are. Las Casas said of him, “Truly. I would not dare blame the admiral’s intentions for I knew him well and I knew his intentions were good.” Yet he became a cultural whipping boy.
Except for the few near-pure monsters in history, great cultural figures are a mixed breed, like all of us. And we are very much in a position towards them like that of children who have come to recognize the sins and shortcoming of parents. Even when their flaws are quite large, we can still honor the good things they gave us, too numerous and deeply woven into our very being even to spell out. That’s why right after the Commandments to worship God alone, we have “Honor thy father and mother.” This isn’t Stone Age patriarchy (note the mention of mother). It’s simple justice: we have a debt to those who gave us life and nurtured it.
Our culture was created by imperfect, if great, people. And the standards we use to judge them – and ourselves – were not immaculately invented when our exalted selves came on the scene. When we had a truer picture of human nature, it used to be no great surprise that great public figures had great virtues and – often enough – great vices.
Abraham Lincoln sometimes opined, quite wrongly, that enslaved Africans could not be assimilated into white society, and would do better if they were returned to Africa. Do we want to jettison the great voice of Lincoln because of a mistaken judgment?
Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. did a fair bit of philandering. I once asked a Catholic priest who worked with King during the Civil Rights Movement about that. He admitted it was a problem, but given all the women constantly throwing themselves at him, it could have been much worse. Should we let that weakness overwhelm great achievements?
We used to get exercised over the fact that students were graduating from high school and even college without knowing in what century the Civil War happened or the dates of World War II. Now we allow a small number of radicals, given a big media megaphone, to make cosmic moral claims and counterclaims ignorant of the winding human paths of history.
Debate and even a certain amount of division are natural to democracy, but not the current demonizing. It’s legitimate to study (and argue about) the life of figures like Robert E. Lee. It’s even useful to examine the record – not to deface monuments, but think critically – about saints like Junipero Serra, who faced conditions that would break most of us, and yet was able to draw great goods from them.
Las Casas, a sometimes fiery critic of his fellow Spaniards, was also able to say of them that they, “performed astounding feats never before invented or dreamed of.” All of us, Catholic and Protestant, religious and not, need to step up at this moment. People suffering from cultural amnesia and self-deceived about their own moral purity cannot be allowed to set the terms of debate.
We’re going to have to be the people of memory, especially of how our civilization came to be, and how to defend it, despite imperfections. Indeed, we define those imperfections largely in term of the Western Christian tradition, the only real basis for our notions of the dignity of all human beings, rooted in our being made in the image and likeness of God.
Destroy that tradition and the war of all against all will follow. It’s already starting.