10 July 2020

Feet of Clay, Brains of Clay, and Honoring the Founders

There is a fundamental problem with current discourse on this nation's history, particularly among those overinfluenced by both evangelical protestantism and one-true-church-means-no-differences-allowed catholicism. Which, unfortunately, seems to be the majority of both history textbook editors and elected officials…

That problem is this: Honoring individuals for outstanding achievements is not the same thing as holding those individuals up as role models for everyone to follow in every aspect of their lives. Anyone who thinks otherwise, umm, misunderstands "sainthood." Obvious example: Saint Peter's faith was shaken; more than a few former tax collectors reformed themselves to become not just saints, but disciples; and then there's Saul who became Paul. If you'd like a less-inflammatory example, let's consider the Baseball Hall of Fame, where alcoholic flaming asshole and racist Ty Cobb has a statue — but there's not one word about removing it (which says more about baseball fans than they're generally willing to acknowledge). I've known several Medal of Honor winners (part of the price of a tour as a protocol officer in DC), and some of them were… not appropriate role models, despite their undoubted achievements.

The key issue when dealing with people of the past who had feet, and often brains, of clay is to put their achievements in context, and in particular consider whether their objective (however imperfectly achieved) is/was a worthy one. Senator Duckworth's call for a dialog is exactly what should be happening. The irony that Washington has been put forth as an exemplar of someone who may need fewer statues than he has — when that is precisely what Washington himself would counsel, and indeed he'd be appalled by the hagiography and iconography; just actually read his speeches as President! — has escaped those who worship the ikons and don't know the concepts. Conversely, it is also a more-than-sufficient rationale for removing Confederate iconography: Their objective was treasonous, making their achievements suspect at best.

Because heroes have flaws. They're people. Expecting perfection is a guarantee of disappointment, especially given that history is written by the winners — and rewritten every generation thereafter by the winners in those generations. That's not to say that some "heroes" can't, or shouldn't, be reevaluated right out of herodom; rather the opposite. I would start with more than one of my commanders in chief; others would start elsewhere.

I will make no sarcastic remarks about doctrinaire ancestor worship and its place in comparative religion or socioeconomic development. Other than this one. One of my heroes — Eric Blair a/k/a/ George Orwell — was not exactly free from either overt sexism or borderline misogyny in either his personal life or his writings, nor of a stubborn unwillingness to learn in areas outside his personal experience (like Keynesian economics and their implications for both wartime Britain, and Airstrip One's structure); and the less said about the sciences, the better. That doesn't take away from the achievements of "Politics and the English Language," "Inside the Whale," "Why I Write," Animal Farm, 1984, and other literary works. It does explain why I wouldn't put a statue of him on my front lawn (if I had a front lawn), though.

So, let's just not overdo it. And, conversely, we should listen to others who think we are overdoing it… because we just might learn something.