Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On heroes and political correctness: Nobody's perfect!

Lately there has been a lot of discussion about removing the names of political figures from various monuments, schools, and buildings, because the people so honored are not politically correct by 21st century standards.  For example, there was the recent demand by some students at Princeton University to rename the Woodrow Wilson public policy school because of Wilson's "racist" attitudes.  Students claimed that the very presence of Wilson's name was offensive and made them feel "unsafe." In the end, the board of regents at Princeton decided to keep the name but also do more education and discussion about Wilson's mixed legacy.

In my opinion, this was the right choice.  Wilson, like everyone else on earth, was not perfect.  He is best known as the 38th U.S. President, who helped found the League of Nations, and also received a Nobel Prize.  But it is also true that he supported and encouraged segregation.  However, nobody would argue that Wilson is being honored at Princeton for his racism.  That was a flaw in his personality that we can justly criticize.  But to allow this flaw to overwrite and erase all the good he did is, in my opinion, taking things too far.  If we start doing that, where will it end?

Charles Lindbergh & his plane, 1927
In Minnesota, where I live, Charles Lindbergh's name probably crops up as often as Wilson's at Princeton.   He is fondly remembered as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in his little single-engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.  In 1957, a film by that name was released, with James Stuart playing the role of Lindbergh.  There's a Charles A. Lindbergh State Park and a Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site, both in Little Falls, MN, where he spent his childhood.  Then there's the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, where a terminal is named after him, and a reproduction of his plane (one used in the film) is on display.  The original plane is at the Smithsonian's Aeronautics and Space Museum.  Clearly, this daring flight is why we remember and honor Lindbergh.

But there is a dark side to this story.  Lindbergh was also a Nazi sympathizer and an antisemite -- a fact that was recently well-documented in the PBS American Experience segment, Fallen Hero: Charles Lindbergh in the 1940s.  In 1936, Lindbergh visited Nazi Germany and was so impressed with the country's industry and revitalized economy that by 1938 he and his family were making plans to move to Berlin.  Also in 1938, Lindbergh was awarded the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his contributions to aviation -- presented by Hermann Goering on behalf of the Fuehrer.  Lindbergh became so convinced that Hitler would inevitably win the war, he advocated for America to follow an isolationist policy and stay out of it.  And he blamed the Jews for getting us into it.

As a Jew myself, I most certainly do find this side of Lindbergh offensive.  But I do not feel "unsafe" in the Lindbergh Terminal because of it.  Nor do I advocate erasing his name from our history or renaming the terminal.*  As with Wilson, Lindbergh is not being honored for his racism.  I see him as a genius in one area, and a flawed human being in other areas.  

Insisting that historical figures of the past must stand up to the scrutiny of 21st-century values is a very slippery slope.  For that matter, a lot of modern heroes don't measure up in every way, either. If we insist that all of our heroes be absolutely perfect, then we shall soon have no role models at all.  Sometimes it is necessary, as Rabbi Meir in the Talmud once said, to keep the kernel and throw away the chaff.

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*Although in a way it was renamed, as Terminal 1, because apparently out-of-state people could not distinguish between the Lindbergh Terminal and the Humphrey Terminal and got lost.  But apparently they can tell the difference between 1 and 2.  As of this writing, there is currently a movement to rename Lindbergh Terminal-1 after Prince: see http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2016/04/22/msp-terminal-prince-petition/

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See also my Nov 20, 2017 article, Franken's Apology: A Jewish Perspective, which explores the question of repentance and forgiveness for flawed leaders (and the rest of us, too.).


Rabid Doomsayer said...

The converse is also true. We need to recognize and understand the humanity of the monsters. Perhaps then we can learn how the monsters arise, recognize the evil that is generally accepted. Recognize repeats of history.

Regards Tony

Yonassan Gershom said...

I agree, Tony. The Talmud says that even the worst sinner is as full of mitzvahs as a pomegranate is full of seeds. So there is humanity in even the worst "monsters" as you put it. But most of us are neither saints nor monsters; we fall somewhere in between.

What bothers me is when people insist on everything being absolutely perfect -- according to their own standards -- or no good at all. For example, recently an animal rights person told me she would not use my book opposing the use of chickens as kapporos because I said something positive about zoos. (That they help preserve & breed endangered species, which many zoos do.) To her, all zoos are evil so, in spite of the fact that was only TWO PAGES in a 200+ page book, the whole thing was discounted.

Now the fact is, I rarely, if ever, read a book that I 100% agree with. If I made that demand, I'd never read anything at all! Same goes for bios of famous people. I can admire some things about them and disagree with others.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Add to this the recent controversy over singing the "Star Spangled Banner" because the third verse has an offensive line about slaves: " “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” This refers to mercenaries and American slaves that the British recruited to fight against America in the War of 1812 (when Key wrote the words.) Some people today are seeing this as a "celebration of slavery" and calling for the "murder" of black people.

Maybe, maybe not. Key was writing about a battle in rhymed verse, and "slave-grave-brave" do rhyme well. The British did recruit both slaves and mercenaries ("hirelings") to fight against the Americans. Key saw that as treason. So was he "celebrating slavery?" Or just using the historical fact of British hiring mercenaries to make his poem rhyme?

Be that as it may, The words are offensive today. However, unmtil this morning I never even knew there was such a third verse -- or a second one, for that matter. Nobody ever sings anything but the first verse. Most songbooks don't have the other verses either. So in effect, we have already self-censored the offensive part of the song. I'm willing to bet that until the words were exhumed yesterday, most people had never read the whole poem. (Key wrote the words only; later it was set to the tune is an old drinking song!) Now, with all the controversy, it is plastered all over the Internet, along with a call to change the national anthem to something else altogether.

OK, so let's make "God Bless America" our national anthem. Oh wait -- that was written by a Jew (Irving Berlin). And yes, back when the song came out in the 1930s, the KKK boycotted it, claiming it could not be an American patriotic song. There were also those who said Berlin had no right to invoke God because he was a Jew, and that calling America his "Home Sweet Home" was bogus because he was an immigrant from Russia. All of which goes to prove my point. If we remove everything that has ever in any way shape or form offended anybody somewhere somehow, we are going to be left with nothing of our history or culture. Again, nobody's perfect.