Of Golden Halos and Feet of Clay

This is a Good Time in National Life to Reflect on Human Nature


The Problems with Hero Worship

 The nation continues a vigorous conversation about whose statue remains up and for whom the local high school is named. This is often a contentious and difficult thing, but overall, it strikes me as a good and necessary thing. Much of the history most of us know is woefully incomplete and inaccurate. This is one step in getting this right.

But it can indeed be painful for some of us. We are finding that pretty well everyone who admire from history (and currently) may well have done great things, but also were responsible for terrible shortfalls and decisions. When faced with this, people sometimes have one of two reactions. I think both are wrong. In fact, both compound our earlier sins of simplification and omission.

One reaction is to say the new acknowledgement of these feet of clay means we can no longer admire these people, or anything about them. The bad they are responsible for not only outweighs but casts out the good they did, completely. One example of this is recommendations being considered in San Francisco to rename schools named after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Really?

The other reaction is to attack our growing national awareness of real history. The approach here is to say that this is revisionist history, is Unamerican, and disrespects our founders and others who walk large across history. That is a nonstarter. It perpetuates the old view. It was bad enough that way before. Now that the rest of us are in the conversation, to deny the truth makes us worse than before. It makes us accomplices to institutionalized lies. No thanks.

Can We Not Admire Anyone Anymore?

 Of course we can, and should. Recognizing excellence and extraordinary accomplishments is the right thing to do. It also helps inspire others to be their best. It makes us feel good. The essence of any civilization, the glue of any culture, is its shared stories.

Recognizing our bigger than life figures and passing that on to future generations is part of the deal. How about we rethink how we praise and condemn? A better model awaits us. It’s one I sort of cobbled together for myself over the years and I think it works. I think it helps me be a better person and better serves our country. Take a look and see what you think.

 Calling Them as We Now See Them – On All Sides

 My basic approach is to call it like I see it for everyone – those I think I admire and those I do not. The central idea is that we are all human beings. This means we are both inspiring and appalling. No one (except you, maybe…) is all one or the other. I am comfortable with knowing that some people I really like and/or admire deserve my admiration, but also my disappointment.

Those I dislike, some intensely, still have their rare moments worthy of recognition. I can accept the good and the bad and make a judgment overall. Frankly, if you can say only good things or only bad things about some famous person, I put much less value on your views. You are telling me you have 2D vision. What else have you missed?

Allow Me to Give You Two Personal Examples

I think Barrack Obama was a fine, first tier president. I also think he is one of the better people I have ever come across. Decent, intelligent, a fine father. I even like his dogs. He ran a spotless administration and accomplished much, especially the Affordable Care Act. But as much as I admire him, I can’t rate him as great president on three grounds.

One, he did not work the Congress well. Not his nature and it would have made no difference with McConnell, but he could have done better. Two, he really did almost nothing to build the Democratic party nationally. Three, his mishandling of Syria resulted in loss of life, weakening America internationally, and gave Putin new life as an international gangster. A man I admire and like greatly, but he’s not perfect. That is OK.

On the other hand, consider Donald Trump. There is no one that I dislike or disrespect more. If he is ever in a cross walk as I approach in a car, I cannot assure you what will happen. No one even comes close to being this low on my list. But he had his moments, however minor they were.

He made a mess of it, but some of his criticisms about China getting a pass on too many issues were correct. His criticism of Big Pharma pricing is correct. So, yes, I hate the guy and look forward to seeing him do a perp walk on the way to prison, but when you are right, you are right. Admit it.

Bottom Line

 We should be able to recognize both the best and the worst in someone and make the call on their net worth to humanity. I make no excuse for George Washington or any of the other founders who were slave owners. Yes, they live in their times, but even then, they knew this was wrong. Their own writings say so.

Does that mean I cannot recognize their remarkable contributions to the founding of this nation? It does not. I simply have to recognize both components. I remember when slavery was invisible at today’s Mount Vernon and Monticello. They are more honest and far more valuable now, speaking the truth.

 Why This is So Important Now

In many ways our country is more divided than ever. But we are also more aware than ever. We have a chance here to grow up, together. Let’s be adults about this. Let’s call it out truthfully, recognize the good and the bad, and move on. No more all good or all bad; no more excuses. We are up to this.

        Bill Clontz

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2 replies to Of Golden Halos and Feet of Clay

  1. This is such a good point, Bill. We have become reluctant to praise anyone on “the other side” for fear it will help support them. I’m not sure how to change this…

    • I think we can only try to set the example. Hard sometimes!

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