Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales,
and he received his sight at once…
— Acts 9:18
My first experience with having scales fall from my eyes came at the teaching of my early mentor, Robert Campbell. It was Bob who introduced me to the work of philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose scathing attacks on the hero of my political youth John F. Kennedy included Russell’s assessment that JFK was “more dangerous than Hitler”. I had written an essay for Mr. Campbell’s journalism class that was laudatory of JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As was Bob’s MO as a teacher,he wanted to expose me to different points of view…and Russell’s description of Kennedy’s behavior during the crisis as “reckless” was surely different than anything I had encountered anywhere in the world around me.
That may have caused the scales to drop somewhat from my eyes, but it did not stop the tears from flowing from those same eyes a year later when JFK was assassinated. Still my early idolatry of the New England Irish Catholic boy who grew up to be president was tempered for life. It wasn’t until decades later when I immersed myself in the White House tapes made during the crisis for a book I was writing that I achieved a mature, balanced view of John F. Kennedy that exists comfortably for me beyond boyhood hero worship and school boy iconoclasm.
That experience has prepared me well, I think, for bearing witness to the willful, sometimes wild, national reassessment currently going on regarding the pantheon of American heroes…all male…all white…all dead. I exclude from this consideration the “heroes” of the Confederacy. They were and always have been traitors who got passed on as heroes through a hallucinogenic mix of racism, nostalgia, and romanticized rebellion. Tearing down their statues and reassigning their legacies should be an easy call.
The warping of America, as I call it, concerns the Worthiness Adjustment of Reputable People…the Washingtons, the Jeffersons, the Lincolns, FDRs and JFKs of our history…Founding Fathers and war leaders and martyrs. Every one of them with damning flaws in their personal character or political behavior…or both. Recognizing these flaws should not be all that difficult. After all, these are human beings we’re talking about, not gods. But there’s the rub, as the Immortal Bard (who pretty much abandoned his family for most of his life) might say. Those who want to pull these giants of American history off their pedestals do not want to allow for human failings; those who want to perpetrate their lofty positions into perpetuity want to treat them like gods. The battle currently being waged over these legacies is in the hands of zealots on both sides. In the case of Jefferson, for instance, one side considers the taint of slaveholding enough to throw him out of the national pantheon on his effete ass; the other side wants to continue the historic whitewashing that turned his all men are created equal rhetoric into a grotesque get out of jail free card.
In a recent Nob post I wrote about Jefferson’s contemporary Mary Old who freed her slave as soon as she received her as a gift. On the one hand the incident proves that not everyone in Jefferson’s time and place accepted slavery. On the other hand, it raises the question: Who did more to spread the idea of equality throughout the world…Mary Old with her singular good act or Jefferson with his soaring if hypocritical phrasemaking?
I recently came upon this tweet on Twitter:
My response to the good professor was that rather than mock his students’ self proclaimed virtue that he ask them as follow up how it is that they, mere college students, would have been more enlightened than worthies of the past. Such a self-examination may have revealed more to them about themselves and their country’s past and present than a sucker question like the one he did ask.
The naïveté, ignorance and outright mythmaking that led us to inflate the reputations of our nation’s notables in the first place is now being answered by naïveté, ignorance and outright mythmaking in tearing them down. The recent attack on a Ulysses S. Grant statue in San Francisco on the grounds that he owned a slave is Exhibit A as to why the WARPing of any historical individual should not be made in the emotion of the moment or by people who learned everything they know about American history on social media. U.S. Grant, of course, did as much as any American to end slavery.
What we’re going through now is not really a test of these men of the past; it’s a test of ourselves. Are we grown up enough as a country to accept that those who helped shape us and defend us and push us forward were imperfect people? Are we mature enough to both honor and critique our Founding Fathers as we do our real fathers…and mothers? Are we fair enough to balance a man’s achievements against his failings and arrive at a true measure rather than a politically correct one?
With all else that’s going on these days, this test is still monumental. If in this coming November election we give ourselves the do-over we so desperately need, we’ll face major questions about how we want to move forward on health, the economy, corruption, and accountability. We’ll also face a major question about how we want to treat our past…as children who only want to see and hear what they want to see and hear…or as adults who can handle the truth.