Op-Ed: Covering up paintings of Columbus imprisons history

December 24, 2020

Op-Ed: Covering up paintings of Columbus imprisons history
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The following article was written by Ashbrook’s Director of Teacher Programs, David Tucker. It has been published in newspapers across the nation and is part of an ongoing debate about Christopher Columbus’s legacy.   

The University of Notre Dame plans to cover murals depicting Columbus as benevolent toward Native Americans because they offend some people. Is this a silly example of political correctness? Yes, and it’s harmful too.

One of the 12 Christopher Columbus murals in the Main Building on the University of Notre Dame campus. (Photo: Photo by Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame)

A Christian school should be concerned not to offend others, of course. But to paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of academics and universities, there is something more important than not offending others, and that’s honoring the truth. If we do not honor the truth above all, then we build on falsehood, and nothing good, not even enduring concern for others, will come of that.

It is true that in failing to depict the whole truth about Columbus the murals themselves help hide the truth. But how does hiding the murals uncover the truth?

If truth is the objective, as it should be, especially at a university, would it not be better to leave the murals where they have been for over 100 years and hold a debate each Columbus Day over the legacy of Columbus and what he stands for?

Instead of free and open debate, Notre Dame plans to create a permanent, less public display, where replicas of the offending murals may receive “informed and careful consideration.”

Can “informed” and “careful” mean anything but managed and censored consideration?

Certainly, those offended by the murals will insist on determining who is “informed” and “careful” enough to talk about them.

Having given in to them before, will the university fight them over this?

And when the university backs down again, will the offended allow anyone to mention the slavery and human sacrifice carried out by Native Americans before Columbus arrived?

Will they allow mention of the land seized violently by Native Americans from other Native Americans, again before Columbus arrived? Will they allow mention of the Native Americans who cooperated with the Spanish to subjugate other Native Americans?

Will they allow mention of Columbus’ seamanship, courage and religious zeal? Will they allow mention of the Spanish missionaries and officials who tried to protect the Native Americans? In brief, will we get anything like the complex truth of the events the murals depict?

Notre Dame’s president, Reverend John I. Jenkins, suggested that the murals falsely portrayed Columbus because they reflected “the attitudes of the time” when they were painted in the early 1880s.

It would have been better, of course, if Father Jenkins’ predecessor at that time had questioned those attitudes. And it would have been better if Father Jenkins had questioned the attitude of his time — political correctness — that led to the murals being hidden away, rather than giving in to it.

Giving in to those who want only certain opinions expressed publicly is dangerous. Over the past years, surveys have found declining support on U.S. college campuses for free speech, if it offends someone. Father Jenkins’ decision only encourages this baleful trend — and beyond Notre Dame as well. It would have been much better if he had stood against it.

He should have followed the courageous example of President Harry Truman.

At the height of the anti-communist fear that swept America in the early 1950s, Truman vetoed a new security law.

Truman acknowledged the danger posed by Soviet espionage and subversion, but wrote in his veto message that “we would betray our finest traditions if we attempted, as this bill would attempt, to curb the simple expression of opinion.

This we should never do, no matter how distasteful the opinion may be to the vast majority of our people.”

Truman agreed with the great Italian philosopher and friar Saint Thomas Aquinas. Truth is more important than not offending. And when Harry Truman and Thomas Aquinas agree on something, we should follow their advice.