Sunday, July 26, 2015

Crime and benefits

Are Jefferson and Jackson unpersons now? I link an approving article, but I smell rank self-righteousness. If you measure worth by how much someone contributes to human well-being or good character, those who voted to disapprove of the two probably aren’t worthy to clean Jefferson’s latrines. “Our catches will be ever more numerous; but they will consist increasingly of trash — trash which we should once have thrown to Cerberus and the hellhounds as unfit for diabolical consumption.” Jefferson developed some serious problems in his attitude towards slavery, but he also did vast good in his work to institutionalize the ideals that (among other things) opposed it. God is entitled to demand absolute perfection, but it reeks when we demand it of others.

Even the well-respected hold close the secrets of their sinful hearts. (Some of us seem to succeed in hiding from even ourselves, crafting a twisted imitation of honesty.) Sometimes those secrets are merely shameful, and sometimes illegal, but all our heroes have feet of (at best) clay. If the offenses are fashionable we overlook them, and if unfashionable we tut-tut or else shift the hero to the “evil man” category.

You’re not supposed to notice things, but compare Roman Polanski with Bill Cosby. Same offenses, same Hollywood tribe, wildly different reactions by said Hollywood tribe.

Things aren’t always wonderfully obvious. Fran├žois Villon is perhaps a better test case than the living entertainers above, since we have a little distance and no emotional involvement. He was a great and transformative poet, and also a robber and a member of a criminal gang. How much of the latter are you willing to forgive for the former? Up the scale a bit, you can probably think of several writers or painters who lived by mooching or who were abusive to their families. How much do you forgive, especially if you know one of the injured parties? (It is easy to forgive injuries to people you don’t know—and also easy to refuse to forgive, exactly as you please…) In an era when many considered drunkenness (especially of someone in authority) to be offensive, Lincoln replied to a claim that Grant was indulging: “Find out what brand he drinks and send some to the rest of my generals.” We snicker a bit at that one, because we don’t take drunkenness quite as seriously, unless the miscreant was driving. Fashion strikes again.

If the villain is on our side, we generally minimize his crimes. That complicates evaluation even more—are you too eager to forgive?

We’re eager to depose heroes—or anybody else--for heresy. Heresy we think worse than ordinary crime because it attacks the standard of morality; actions don’t matter as much as respect for right belief. (What God thinks of that approach remains unclear, but there’s some suggestion that He cares about actions.)

I think that to say that benefit A justifies offense B is a bit presumptuous. But we can try to recognize and be grateful for benefits: let the good that men do live after them, as much as we can. Even if we have to punish them for some heinous crime. In Ninety Three by Victor Hugo, a sailor was awarded a medal for valor for saving the ship by stopping a loose cannon whose uncontrolled sliding was smashing the ship’s frame, and then was executed for being the one who let it get loose in the first place.

Keep the names. Certainly Jefferson's, at least. (And quit trying to make out that Lee was a dishonorable man.)

1 comment:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It is worth considering where we would be without these flawed heroes. We should be cautious with our ingratitude.