Cancel culture so far seems to have targeted exclusively males. Apart from the Virgin Mary, we rarely hear of a woman’s statue being torn down or of a female intellectual being thrown to voracious woke wolves. The great Southern author Flannery O’Connor, however, has returned from the dead to bring gender equality to the victims’ roster of our current jacquerie.
In June liberal Catholic writer Paul Elie, a fellow of my nominally Catholic alma mater, Georgetown University, published a preachy article in the New Yorker titled “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” (answer: somewhat racist), alerting the world that the celebrated writer, who died at age 39 in 1964, shockingly failed to live up to the standards of the post-George Floyd left in 2020. Elie suggested that if we have consciences of the type of which undoubtedly pristine New Yorker contributors might today approve, we should reexamine O’Connor’s “racist passages” regardless of context and “face them squarely” in our own mandatory intellectual struggle sessions with hypocrisy. His evidence for her retrograde speech and attitudes has long been known, and includes now-objectionable language expressed in the 1940s, when O’Connor was a teenage girl, but has now been reinforced by the publication of previously unpublished private correspondence in a volume called Good Things Out Of Nazareth.
We can only imagine how many lonely and spiritually empty woketards desperate to conform to a secular faith based on guilt purged their volumes of O’Connor’s collected short stories and two novels while “decolonising” their Ikea bookshelves, but Elie’s article provoked ire at Maryland’s Loyola University, a once respectable Jesuit institution sharing O’Connor’s Catholic faith that named a student residence hall after her in 2007. Homebound students who may have glanced through their suburban parents’ back issues of the New Yorker seem to have caught wind of her thoughtcrime from perusing Elie’s article and drafted a brief but bizarre online petition worth repeating full:
Recent letters and postcards written by Flannery O’Connor express strong racist sentiments and hate speech. Her name and legacy should not be honored nor glorified [sic] on our Evergreen Campus.
“Recent letters and postcards?” One does not need a Jesuitically trained mind to reason that someone who has been cold in the ground for more than half a century has not written anything “recent”, objectionable or otherwise. It seems well within reason to surmise that the petitioners, who are, after all, products of woefully (wokefully?) deficient American humanities education, simply have no idea who Flannery O’Connor was and believe that she is a living individual of racist proclivities spouting offensive statements that they did not have the time or attention span to look up and include. The grammatical error in the petition’s second sentence suggests that these poorly educated youths could learn a thing or two from her eloquent prose rather than consign her to the dustbin on the basis of a sententious article by a pompous guilty white man in a dreary publication whose cartoons have long since ceased to be funny.
The issue is not one of logic or even power but of image
Be that as it may, the Elie-inspired petition attracted over a thousand signatures. Loyola’s Jesuit president Father Brian Linnane, who may be Catholic, soon caved in what he described as a “difficult” decision, while nevertheless acknowledging that in O’Connor’s fiction “the dignity of African American persons and their worth is consistently upheld, with the [white] bigots being the object of ridicule.” Father Brian announced the immediate renaming of O’Connor Hall for Sister Thea Bowman, a Mississippi-born granddaughter of slaves who was the first African-American to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and who is now under consideration for canonization in Rome. He also announced a new commission that will comprehensively study Loyola’s honorific naming to root out any sign of ideological impurity, perhaps ignorant of the fact that French revolutionaries did the same thing with equal zeal to Catholic sites in the shadow of a device that removed the heads of thousands of his fellow clergymen. While Father Brian’s assessment of O’Connor’s fiction is correct, his logic suggests that even Martin Luther King could be struck down from honorary naming. The great civil rights leader did, after all, both advocate for African-American dignity and use the hated “n-word” in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail. Indeed, a hapless university lecturer in California was recently investigated by his institution for reading King’s letter, “n-word” and all, aloud in a classroom.
But like so much of this recent unpleasantness, the issue is not one of logic or even power but of image, the major concern of all university presidents, whose worth is no longer measured by intellectual leadership but by fundraising ability and attendant public relations management. Father Brian clearly has no desire to be seen as even remotely tolerating ambiguous racism of three generations ago, despite the massive evidence to the contrary that he himself has identified, and threw one of America’s greatest women writers – and a disabled one at that – posthumously under the bus to look woke enough to avoid being called out by his university’s inarticulate but tuition-paying adolescents lest they mar his august leadership with something so unseemly as a campus protest.
Not all may be lost, however. The superb O’Connor specialist Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, a former Loyola faculty member now at Fordham University who wrote the definitive book on O’Connor and race, has penned a letter that has been signed by more than eighty scholars and clergymen urging a reversal of Father Brian’s shallow capitulation to an online mob. Among them is the celebrated African-American novelist Alice Walker, who in a separate missive poignantly urged us to “honor Flannery for growing,” to use her legacy – warts and all – to teach, and to observe the danger of a slippery slope that could consign virtually any great cultural figure of the past to oblivion by applying the modern standards of a small but unfortunately vocal segment of what passes for our intelligentsia. One hopes there will also be an online counterpetition. That might do more to capture Father Brian’s media-driven attention. Who wants to start one?
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