Watch Out for Falling Heroes

The past few months, heroes have toppled under the sledgehammer of truth. I’m not talking about the confederate statues; I’m taking about personal heroes. Among the fallen are L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz books, who advocated exterminating native Americans; John Wayne, who made disturbing remarks about blacks and Native Americans: J.K. Rowling, who has made remarks some interpret as transphobic; and Dr. Seuss’ —of all people—whose cartoon art included racial stereotyping.  Classics like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and Gone with the Wind are coming under scrutiny for racial stereotyping.

This is really nothing new. Gertrude Stein, an American poet and literature icon, sympathized with France’s Vichy regime (a puppet state for the Nazis). Ezra Pound, a major American poet, became a fascist collaborator in Italy during World War II. T.S. Eliot, a famous British essayist and poet was an elitist, writing that “a large number of free-thinking Jews is undesirable.” He did not espouse tolerance or even traveling widely and thus, presumably, exposing oneself to other cultures.

One of the real angsts about the historical book I am writing now is that one of my heroes stumbles on his pedestal. When he visited Birmingham sometime in 1963, his brother set them up with prostitutes (both were married). I worried about putting in that chapter, but the story was true and germane to the book. I grappled with whether to cut it or leave it. In the end, I decided it was true, and the truth was more important to tell.  Is he still a great man? A man to be followed and listened to?

I stopped drooling over actor Sean Connery when he said he thought it was “absolutely right” to hit women when they wouldn’t “leave things alone.” The “father of our national parks,” John Muir, had no place for indigenous peoples in his “pure” wilderness and was clear about his racist opinions about them and about blacks. Bill Clinton led record job creation but sullied the office of president with his shenanigans. John F. Kennedy was just as bad in that department, yet his words still inspire. Nixon created the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and opened China, but also dishonored the office he held. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. Abraham Lincoln plainly said he had no intentions of freeing slaves. And the paragraph above regarding prostitutes refers to Martin Luther King. Even Mahatma Gandhi, surely an icon of peace and civility, said the Jews under Hitler’s heels “should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife.”

What?

What, indeed, are we to do? Everyone has flaws. No one is perfect. If you think someone is, you just don’t know about theirs. And one person’s “flaws” is another person’s “strengths of character.” Judging people is simultaneously harmful (“Judge not, lest ye be judged”) and necessary. We can’t choose a better path without acknowledging and turning away from ideas and behavior that will harm our social, cultural, and personal evolution . . . or our world.

Should we separate the person from their creations (art, writing, leadership) or do we turn away and disregard their accomplishments or creations because of the creator’s flaws? Is it a matter of strict lines in the sand? Should we make allowances for time, context, and culture?  Is justice  about punishment or mercy? Does it matter if the theft was a loaf of bread and the thief was hungry?

I suspect dealing with this is akin to the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about forgetting, turning from what is true, or acting like something didn’t happen. It is about letting go of the grip wrongs have on us; letting go of our own emotional angst and moving forward.

So maybe the answer is not to ban books or art (because ideas are next) or even to shun the art, works, or accomplishments of the flawed (because ultimately that is everyone), but to be aware and negotiate the complexity. What young children with forming ideas are exposed to may need to be more strictly scrutinized than what adults read. It’s important they be exposed to material that reflects the diversity of the world. Confederate statues are still art and reflect historical people and events, but do they belong in public squares as “heroes?” Can we appreciate the beautiful and charming aspects of Southern culture while remaining clear-eyed about the racism that dominated that way of life? Can we admire the stunning culture of the Japanese, while rejecting the blood thirst of feudal rulers and war mongers? Can we accept and understand that structural racism can exist along with good, decent police officers?

This is hard. We are not wired to do this very easily. We are wired to want simple choices—good/bad, dangerous/not. We want (need?) our heroes to be perfect. And if they aren’t, we want to put our hands over our ears and shut our eyes. But they aren’t perfect. We aren’t. Our country isn’t. We can be patriots and criticize. In fact, we must if we are to continue making things better and stay true to the ideals that many have given freedom and blood for. At the moment, we are so polarized, that one side cannot imagine saying anything good about the other, no matter what it is. Picking a path through this jungle is hard. It is much easier to stay divided, to cheer only for our team. But life is not like that. Life is change.  It is complex and contradictory, even our heroes. We must make decisions as we pick our way through stony, thorn-filled paths. We must make choices. Sometimes they are obvious, but often they are not clear or perfect.

Sometimes they will just be the best we can do.

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes Books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.

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About T.K. Thorne

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like this blog, roam wherever her interest and imagination take her.
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8 Responses to Watch Out for Falling Heroes

  1. I admire your commitment to truth. I may need you to defend me when my book on sterilization of young Blacks comes out.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. T.K. Thorne says:

    Laura, tough decisions and I expect to be attacked on this one too, perhaps from the opposite people you expect, lol. Regardless, I will be there for you! Truth is difficult, but without it, we slide into chaos or illusion. Some people live comfortably there, I guess, but ultimately it can make it difficult to see our way forward.

  3. I agree, no one is perfect. Just because we admire someone’s art and accomplishments doesn’t mean we embrace all their ideas and values. If we hold out for “perfection” we’ll never have any heroes.

  4. T.K. Thorne says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Sharon. I agree. And I think we are okay, for example, to love Harry Potter, while disagreeing with the author’s stands or to boycott the author’s works in protest of her stands. We each have that freedom to choose our path.

  5. Beth Knox says:

    Beth K, in Fairhope… barely working through hurricane Sally. Fairhope hit bad. I wonder how Warren and Sarah’s house made out. But thanks for your inspiring message, very much to ponder.

    Two decades ago, I went back to school, and had to write a piece for speech class that was difficult. It was a poem that was about my father’s racism. No man better on this earth, except your dad, Warren, maybe. But he was doing very learned old southern racial line and verse. As a child I challenged him, don’t know where I got that ! I harped on our maid to bring her child with her to work, and she’d just say ‘No, child, can’t do that.’ never an explanation. My grandmother, who was keeping us as my mother had passed, INSISTED, she sit with her and eat lunch, of which she was nervous to do. As ‘good’ white people we sent her boxes of used clothing and left over food. My dad took her home each night. I sat in the back seat with her.
    Then I get my Ancestry.com results. A small percentage of my DNA listed ‘Senegal, Africa.’ (The place with the ‘Doorway of no return.’) I always knew. Even as a child. it’s just in your soul. My mother was an extremely dark child, beautiful child with gorgeous black wavy hair–my sister and I came out as white rabbits!), photos prove this. But she was sickly, became very pale, and died in my childhood. However, I have to snicker now and then at what my father never knew. The best of the confederates in Southern states never of their heritages as well.

  6. T.K. Thorne says:

    Good to hear from you, Beth. Yes, fallen heroes can be a lot closer to us than literary authors! I don’t think there is any such things as “purity” in terms of our genetic heritage. To the best of my knowledge, we all came from Africa.

  7. Robert Kracke says:

    I am assuming you misspelled T.S. Eliot’s name on purpose (His name spelled backwards without the S spells toilet, a reminder that his most famous work was Wasteland). I look forward to reading your book about the church bombing in that I processed in the photo lab of the Birmingham Police Department the photographs taken by police personnel when I was working my way through law school. I too have some stories to tell in that regard and maybe will get them written soon. Bob Kracke

  8. T.K. Thorne says:

    Hi Robert, thanks for your comments. You are very generous and diplomatic, lol! I never misspell something on purpose. I will fix it, thank you. And very funny memory tag to spelling it in the future. How interesting your connection to BPD and history. Please write down your memories! I think you would enjoy Last Chance for Justice, as it is written from the perspective of the investigators. Have another book in the works, but Last Chance one will always be special. Love to hear your thoughts when you read it.

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