Ignorance Abounds

A story about the banning of Flannery O’Connor’s works at a Catholic school is a reminder of an incident in my professional life.

First, the story about Flannery O’Connor’s works, which is told by Joseph Bottum:

…Down in the traditionally Catholic Cajun area of southern Louisiana, there’s a school called Opelousas Catholic that serves several local parishes. Early this summer, an English teacher named Arsenio Orteza placed on the summer reading list for the high-school seniors some O’Connor, including The Artificial Nigger, a tale primarily about the moral and religious blindness of Southern bigots.

Not bothering to read the story or find out anything about O’Connor, an unspecified number of parents complained about the title to Fr. Malcolm O’Leary, the pastor of Holy Ghost Catholic Church, one of Opelousas Catholic’s supporting parishes.

Likewise not thinking it necessary to take a look at the story or learn about O’Connor, Fr. O’Leary gathered the parents of black students at the school to express their complaint – a meeting to which neither the teacher nor anyone else with Catholic literary credentials was invited. An African American himself and the wielder of considerable political power in a racially charged district, Fr. O’Leary then convened a meeting with his bishop to demand the removal of O’Connor from the high-school curriculum and the disciplining of the teacher who assigned her work.

Joining the parade of those southern Catholics down in Louisiana who seem never to have heard of the southern Catholic O’Connor and couldn’t take the time to read her challenged story, Edward J. O’Donnell, the bishop of the diocese of Lafayette, issued on August 17 a letter announcing his decision. “I do not want to require the firing of the teacher involved,” Bishop O’Donnell was brave enough to declare. But “I direct that the books in question should be removed from the reading list immediately.”…

The story is eleven years old, but its relevance has grown with the burgeoning stridency of aggrieved and yet triumphant “victims.”

Only a few years before the incident related by Bottum, I had my own encounter with ignorance and political correctness. As chief financial and administrative officer of a tax-funded think-tank, I had the onerous duty of finding ways to slash spending when the think-tank’s appropriation was cut by Congress. The most obvious way, of course, was to fire employees — and we did that. But we sought other cost reductions, for the sake of saving jobs.

I met with groups of employees to discuss the options under consideration. Somewhere in the course of one of the meetings, I used “niggardly,” and I used it correctly. At least one of the employees present was black. There may have been others, but I remember her because she was secretary to another vice president. That vice president later came to my office to tell me that “some employees” were offended by “niggardly.” I do not remember the exact wording of my response to the vice president, but the gist of it was that the problem was the ignorance of the “employees,” not my correct use of a legitimate word that has no bearing on race.

Of course, ignorance abounds in matters non-linguistic. Its most dangerous manifestations occur in matters legal and economic. It is ignorance, as much as anything else, that leads aspiring beneficiaries of the welfare state to confound the Constitution with the Communist Manifesto. It is ignorance, more than anything else, that leads those same aspiring beneficiaries to believe that the welfare state can coexist with a burgeoning economy.

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