Sunday, June 7, 2009

What would Cotton do?

Not Big Cotton, Cotton Mather. For those of you unfamiliar with this man well let me just say you are clearly not from New England. If you were you would have taken at least one class field trip to one colonial settlement/settlement recreation & his name would have come up, trust me. If that field trip had been to Salem, his name would have come up more than once.

In ?sophomore? history class, Mr. DeVito asked why New Amsterdam outpaced Boston as the premier harbor in the colonies. He was looking for some answer that included the Hudson River, but I still say it was Cotton Mather & his ilk. The Dutch might be drunk & disorderly but most people would still rather do a little business with them than with the we-left-England-because-the-local-religion-was-too-easy-on-SINNERS that settled to the north. I do not remember what grade I ended up with, probably a reasonable one; Mr. DeVito never seemed to mind my sideways interpretations of the textbook he had used for years.

How could that possibly be relevant today you ask? Because a good idea is always relevant. I have written before that earlier this year the city-next-door voted on whether or not to remove anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian & transgendered people. & I cannot help but think, that is exactly what Cotton would do.

& I am glad they voted to leave those protections in place. Not just because I think it is the right thing to do, but because I think a big part of why this county is doing much better than most of the rest of the country (& so much better than the rest of the state) has a lot to do with the attitudes present that drafted the original protections. I am as sure as I can be that if you create a community people want to live in, people who could live anywhere will want to live there, too. & a good sustainable system really does take (absorb, require) all kinds.

Back to Cotton Mather. It is easy to look at a picture of him in the simple cut of the black robes, other muted colors of the puritan dress code & that inexplicable powdered wig, see him prosecuting the Salem witch trials (witches, really?) & decide he was a pompous hypocrite & anyone who listened to him was a gullible fool. & you would be wrong. No matter what you think of the man, no one can doubt his sincerity; he never asked anyone to adhere to a standard he did not cleave to himself. Among his followers were the high & the low & everyone in between. When you consider how much damage most people with as-good-as-absolute power manage to wreak, Cotton Mather does not look like such a bad guy.

& so I do not think What Would Cotton Do? is such an absurd question. Even though I think he was wrong-wrong-wrong: his belief that poverty (for the other guy) was a gift from G*d- wrong; his failure to educate women & most men- wrong; his conviction that the potential rescue of anyone's immortal soul made OKay to torture anyone else on this earth- wrong. Truly, the list of wrong ideas almost never ends with this guy. BUT he was prepared to do everything in his power to keep his people safe in this life & the next, whether they wanted him to or not. & each & every one of his many ghastly mistakes was well intentioned.

Maybe the point is not to do what Cotton would do, but to imagine what we can do better. Keep the ethic, lose the prejudice.

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