Wednesday, June 3, 2015

-Isms and the End of Reason

So the Jesuits at St. Louis University have waved the white flag, surrendered, and pulled a piece of statuary off display outside a building on campus that had stood there for years. With stunning speed, before the SLU community, including its many alumnae, ever knew that the University was under siege, an uninformed criticism of a statue honoring a Jesuit historically associated with the City and the University was consigned to indoor display at the University’s art museum. This shameful chapter came after an admittedly ignorant student ascribed characteristics of racism, colonialism, imperialism, and Christian and white supremacy to the statue in a letter published in the campus news.

Ryan McKinley -- the student whose letter provoked the Luddite act of statuary removal by campus officials -- gathered his thoughts and posted them to the Campus paper in a letter dated April 23, 2015, letter. In his missive, after gathering a sail of wind from watching “The Last Conquistador” at a showing sponsored by the SLU Anthropology Club, McKinley went on a relatively information- and fact-free soiree down the avenues of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, finally arriving at the De Smet statue. Of that statue, he wrote,
Whether the historical De Smet was a genuine friend of American Indians or a willing cog sent to convince the Lakota to sign the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty, a treaty which the U.S. government had no intention of fulfilling, is a debate beyond my research; hopefully scholars at SLU can illuminate his past. Nonetheless, if De Smet was a friend of the Indians, then this is surely not what is depicted by this statue. The statue of De Smet depicts a history of colonialism, imperialism, racism and of Christian and white supremacy.
Can’t be bothered to confirm one’s views with adequate research? That’s okay, let’s publish a jeremiad and let the scholars sort it out. Worse, existing scholarship and biography, readily available to McKinley (after all, I found it), would have assuaged his fears that De Smet was an evil racist oppressor the Native peoples. He might have found, for example, Robert C. Carriker’s, “Father Peter John de Smet: Jesuit in the West.” Given a moment or two of admirable effort, he might have found Carricker’s book in SLU’s library system or requested on interlibrary loan. Had he done so, he would not have had to defer to future research the answer to his not so important question about the nature of De Smet.

Silly me. Why would I think that one would do a bit of factual investigation before defaming another? Is this the quality of mind now being pumped up and out at my alma mater?

Yes, SLU is my alma mater, one of them.

I graduated from the School of Law at St. Louis University in 1987. To say that the experience was interesting is to acknowledge the meanness of the old curse, "may you live in interesting times."

I was then, as I am now, pro-life. In fact, I delayed my matriculation at the Law School due to participation in a law suit filed against my brother, Dave Henderson, and me by an abortionist who didn't care for abortion opponents picketing and praying in front of his center. Once his effort at stifling free speech got bounced to the curb by a North Carolina Superior Court judge, my wife and I packed, and headed west on this grand adventure of studying law.

I did apply to, and gained acceptance to, several law schools. SLU Law, however, was the school from which my dad graduated, and SLU was were my mom gained her degree before launching a career as a physical therapist. So, perhaps because I'm too much the home boy, or because the choice worked well for us, I settled on SLU, comforted with the thought that I'd be attending a "fine Jesuit, Catholic school." Attending SLU, however, quickly introduced me to the concept of "Catholic in name only." Just before my start at SLU, the undergraduate college had been scandalized when a resident assistant brought a Planned Parenthood representative in for a talk with students.

At the Law School, on one of my very first class days, I saw a poster on the law school student bulletin board communicating some pro-abortion message. In response, I created a little pro-life 8 1/2 by 11 poster and placed it underneath the pro-abortion one. Mine was torn down by the next morning. I posted a second copy. It too was torn down. I glued the third copy to the bottom of the pro-abortion poster and the next day both were gone.

The levels of hostility and loathing varied, but crested at the Women's Law Caucus. Members of the LWC, at least the vocal ones, were very similar, in a certain respect, to the antagonist in the current controversy:  they could only see opposition to abortion as oppression of women, just as McKinley can only see colonialism and imperialism and racism in the profound compassion of Fr. De Smet.

My years at SLU Law culminated with a visit in an assistant dean's office (Steve Smith) following a complaint about a poster I'd put on door of the office the Thomas J. White Family Foundation (of which I was a fellow) shared with the Women’s Law Caucus. My posting excoriated the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. It showed RCAR's logo, drew attention to the odd and, one hopes, unintentional inclusion of the swastika shape at its center.

Steve Smith told me that mine was "the most unprofessional act" at the law school in his experience. I thought that odd. Just two weeks earlier, two classmates were caught "in flagrante delicto" on a class room floor by an evening adjunct professor. The adjunct, accustomed to the assigned classroom being open, had to get a key from the law library because the classroom door, quite unexpectedly, was locked. When the adjunct opened the door and flipped on the lights, it became obvious that the passions of the two law students had made them deaf to their impending discovery. Their nakedness and sexual intimacy were discovered before the two could get entirely disentangled and clothed. 

Yet my act, writing a short essay excoriating ministers associated with the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, was "the most unprofessional act" Steve Smith had seen in his time at the school?

While attending SLU, I knew of, and celebrated, the Native American heritage that came to me through my paternal grandmother. I did not know, however, that through that same grandmother, by Jim Crow standards, I was an octaroon, as my great grandfather was African American. With my wife, I lived on campus, in married student housing. I participated in numerous law school events. In three years on campus, however, I never saw the statue of Father De Smet. I have seen the photograph now that the statue has been hidden away from public display.

What a bizarre world in which we live!

Fr. Jean De Smet, a Belgian Jesuit, a man of faith, spends his life propagating his Catholic faith. He does so in service to the Native Americans of the Northwest Territory. Between mission trips in the Northwest, fund-raising trips to Europe to support the mission work, and occasional service for the Native Americans as their representative to the US Government, De Smet would visit in, and spend time conducting outreaches in St. Louis. Ultimately, this Jesuit university sets up a statue to honor that man, a member of their Jesuit community, because of his selfless service and dedication. 

Nothing about De Smet's behavior screams racism, imperialism, colonialism.

It does scream compassion-ism. It does scream care-ism. It does scream kindness-ism. Those "-isms" are not so very popular these days, but grudge-ism and victim-ism seemed to have made an advance at my alma mater.

If you doubt me on how De Smet's evangelical outreach constitutes kindness and care, I'll refer you to Penn Jillette, who tells the story of being given the gift of a Bible by a concerned Christian. Jillette, an ardent atheist, expressed profound respect that a person who literally believed Jillette's soul was in danger actually acted on that belief in an effort to render aid to him. Jillette tells the story on his YouTube channel if you care to see it. 

According Ryan McKinley, the statue of De Smet, symbolizes a "history of colonialism, imperialism, racism and of Christian and white supremacy." The statue is no more so such a symbol than that much more obvious and noticeable one, College Church.

When will that vestige of colonialism be taken down, or converted to a museum?