There is a line in the movie “The American President” in which President Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, called out his competitor for criticizing his girlfriend and lobbyist, Sidney Ellen Wade.
In the piece, Shepherd said,
“Sydney Ellen Wade has done nothing to you, Bob. She has done nothing but put herself through school, represent the interests of public-school teachers, and lobby for the safety of our natural resources. You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, ‘cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league”The American President, 1995
Change the wording just a little, put in some relevant actions that Saint Damien did in Moloka‘i for Hansen disease patients, slap on the name “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” instead of Bob, and you get the point. She went and picked on a figure that is way larger than the narrow racist-focused piece that she broadcast on Twitter.
Saint Damien, known more here in Hawai‘i as Father Damien, is a figure whose mere presence does not fit into any one box. He was a Belgian priest who came to Hawai‘i on a mission. Upon seeing the horrible conditions that Hansen disease (lepers) were treated upon their exile to Molokai, he went there to see it for himself.
His arrival at Kalawao, which was the first location of the leper colony on the Kalaupapa peninsula on Moloka‘i, he had to swim from the boat to shore. There was no landing for boats at Kalawao. He then saw utter chaos, a place where people were dropped off, ignored, and left to die.
He brought civility, gave those who were destined to die, hope. He gave people something kind. He learned the Hawaiian language, he advocated for the lepers there, he stayed with them until he contracted the disease, and died.
And so, comes along Ocasio-Cortez, probably not even aware of half of the story of Saint Damien, ties him to a discussion of why there is a lack of diversity shown in a hallway full of statues in our nation’s capital. It astounds me that people who purport to be all-wise and smart will take a symbol of what the human spirit can do for a fellow man, manifested as a statue in a hall of statues, and place them into a “race box”.
It was both a cheap shot for eyeballs on her Twitter account and a poor try at her message of diversity. She lost all credibility when she decided to use Saint Damien as that example of race uniformity in a hall full of statues.
And then, to add insult to injury tries to lecture on her twitter video about Hawaiian history and other individuals that “should be” in that hall. If you want to speak about Hawaiian history and its characters Ms. Ocasio-Cortez than I suggest you pick up a book and read about Hawaiian history.
If she would like to know more about what Saint Damien did, perhaps she should go to Kalawao, where the church that Saint Damien established and look at the work he did. She should look at his grave and the sanctity of the space it inhabits. She should then listen to the wind that blows through the trees near the church and listens for the voices of those who died there…and what they say about Saint Damien.
Because she will find, as I did when I went to Kalawao and Kalaupapa 12 years ago, that Saint Damien is indeed not just a “defined race” person, but a person who embodies the human spirit. And living at that level is a way higher game than most of us can even imagine playing at, including her I suspect.