So Much for Self-Righteousness
As mentioned in a recent blog, I did much of my growing up in the D. C. suburb of Arlington, my father being an employee of the Interior Department.
But even as we lived “in the south,” or at least on its northern fringes, I was aware that I was from the Northwest, an Oregonian, and that my attitudes about race were different from and better than that of most locals. At least that’s what I secretly, or not so secretly, thought.
I, or we, were not unlike the Pharisee in Luke’s tale. The law-abiding Pharisee marched to the front of the Temple where he prayed, “Thank you God that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues and adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, give a tenth of all my income” and etc.
Meanwhile, at the far back of the Temple, the tax collector (a Jew who worked for the Roman overlords and got rich by taking a slice of his countrymen’s taxes) prayed simply, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The tax collector, said Jesus, went home “justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humbles themselves will be exalted.”
I said, or thought, to myself, “Thank God, I am not like these bigoted Baptists and red-neck southerners. I am from the enlightened, progressive Northwest.”
I managed to keep that going for quite a long time. But lately it has gotten more difficult. Reading Blaine Harden’s Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West, has pretty much put the nails in the coffin of my Oregon, Western, Northwestern hubris and “better-than-thou” conceit.
Noticing the splinter of slavery in the eyes of Southerners, we missed the log of conquest in our western eyes.
Harden in his introduction draws on historian of the west, Patricia Limerick:
“The legacy of conquest, as revisionist historian Patricia Limerick has written, is as fundamental to understanding the West as the legacy of slavery is to understanding the South. Both ‘have tested the ideals of the United States,’ and both demand ‘sober national reflection.’
“Yet Americans did not see it that way. ‘The legacy of slavery was serious business, while the legacy of conquest was not,’ Limerick wrote. She said the unsightly and undemocratic realities of the West had ‘dissolved into stereotypes of noble savages and noble pioneers struggling quaintly in the wilderness.”
It turns out we in the West cannot hold our noble, pioneer heads high as we look down our noses at folks in the South as backward and benighted. We got our stuff, we got our history, too. We too have not so nice history to look at and with which need come to grips.
Harden, who joined us for our book group’s discussion of his book, reported that some of that “coming to grips” is going on. For example, Oregon City (southeast of Portland) has decided to do an exhibit about the “Cayuse Five,” the Indians charged with the murdering the Whitmans. After the briefest of trials, in a kangaroo court, the five were condemned and, shortly thereafter, hung. Now, Oregon City is going to correct the story and tell the truth about this miscarriage of justice that happened in the middle of the 19th century.
I’m sure that kind of effort can be dismissed as PC or something worse. But it is important. Not so that whites or Oregonians can wallow in racial guilt, but so that we are telling a truer story about ourselves and our history. As Jesus put it in the Gospel of John, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Still, as one wise person commented on hearing Jesus’ words, “But first it will make you mad.”
Harden concludes the introduction to his book with these words, “The Whitman lie is a timeless reminder that in America a good story has a way of trumping a true one, especially if that story confirms our virtue, congratulates our pluck, and enshrines our status as God’s chosen people.”
Clearly, these challenges are not just about history or the past. They are about the present and our shared future.