arteejee

A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Monday, January 18, 2016

Icons in Black and White



Once again, we honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a visionary who devoted his short life to eradicating the inequities of American social justice. Many Americans used the day off in a constructive manner to extend his legacy through volunteer work. He has become an icon for social justice, but we should be wary of making demigods out of mere mortals.

Take (for example) an icon of the Democratic Party, Woodrow Wilson, who served as president of Princeton University, then governor of New Jersey, and finally President of the United States. He was also a visionary for world peace. His idea of a regular meeting of sovereign states, The League of Nations, survived him and became the United Nations. His vision is honored with a school for international studies named after him on the Princeton campus.

In recent months, there has been a movement at the university to remove his name from the campus. The charge: contributing to the inequities of social justice which Dr. King fought against. The movement leaders believe that given Wilson’s racist attitudes he should not be so honored with a school dedicated to international relations named after him. The movement has good intentions, but I hope the school remains unchanged with its intentions and the man for whom it is named.

Wilson’s place in history has been challenged because stories of his racism have been widely circulated in recent years. A product of the south - a region of America which has received the historical reputation of being racist towards African-Americans - Wilson chose like-minded individuals to help run the government. The result was the segregation of government agencies, which had been desegregated for decades.  

In private, Wilson was equally loathsome. Allegedly, he and his wife told “darkie” jokes at the White House dinner table. The President embraced the historical telling of the Reconstruction Period in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which (like it or not) forever put to rest the idea that this new movie medium was solely for entertainment. Yet this same man envisioned an entity which would enable people from different cultures the opportunity to resolve their difference through peaceable means. Go figure!

In some ways, Wilson was like many of us: a complex character whose ultimate legacy can’t be defined in simple terms. Yes, he was devoted to the idea of world peace. On the other hand, if I had the opportunity to meet Woodrow Wilson, I would thank him for his efforts on the world stage, then ask him to remove his glasses so I could punch him in the face for his offensive attitudes towards other races.

Okay, obviously I have a thing or two to learn about peace; but hey, that’s me.

The movement at Princeton obviously wants to enact some sort of historical revenge on Wilson. Their goal is tantamount to erasing history, an action which inevitably always comes back to haunt humanity sooner or later. The movement’s leaders should be content with the job they’ve done so far - raising awareness about the other side of Wilson’s character - and call it a day.

In any case, karma exacted its own revenge on Wilson. The President suffered a debilitating stroke in the midst of a rail stop tour of America to promote his League of Nations idea. He served out the remainder of his presidency in physical paralysis, with his wife Edith acting as a gatekeeper from political Washington, and the rest of the world for that matter. They retired to a house in DC, where on a good day he could walk ten feet between two doors in his house foyer.

Wilson had hopes of writing his memoirs after he left the White House. He completed little more than the dedication page. Yes, karma is a bitch.

History has been kind to Wilson - and King for that matter - until recently. Some unseemly rumors have been heard about King’s extra marital affairs in recent years.   

This is the luxury history affords us: we can learn about those people we cherish if we just dig deep enough. The lessons we learn should not affect their respective legacies, but should remind us that these men were just mere mortals.

Think about that! Mere mortals! Not gods! Not demigods! 

If we are disappointed about Wilson’s racism or King’s running around, then perhaps we should adjust our standards so we aren’t so shocked when we learn more about how they lived their lives. We are the ones who set ourselves up for the pain and disappointment we inevitably feel.

We can look back at the past and pass judgment on the actions of others. It isn’t quite fair for us to use our values, which we like to think are more developed today, than the values of yesterday. Yet we do it anyway. 

We believe our icons should always be in terms of black and white. We should know better. We should always allow for all the shades of gray in our heroes.

In any event, karma will come back and bite our legacies in the ass. Just think what people in 2116 will think about us! “My God,” they’ll say, “What the eff were those people thinking when they put Donald Trump in the White House?”

(Thank you for reading. I love you, karma!)

8 Comments:

Blogger Ur-spo said...

Perhaps we should elect Trump - he is what the country deserves.

January 18, 2016 at 9:50 PM  
Blogger todd gunther said...

Ouch! I would hope we're better than that, but (sigh) I guess we'll have to learn the hard way.

January 19, 2016 at 7:11 AM  
Blogger Raybeard said...

We have exactly the same kind of argument going on right now re a statue of arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford, whose views, if they were propounded by anyone alive today, that person would be regarded as a white-supremacist. Those who want the statue removed and destroyed say that it's an intolerable reminder of those unenlightened times while others maintain that we can't judge historical figures by today's standards. I can see both sides' arguments but don't know which side on which to come down. Until forced, therefore, I'll comfortably sit on the fence.

January 19, 2016 at 9:34 AM  
Blogger todd gunther said...

Yes, actually I can see both points of view too. i also end up on the fence many times, but I will usually defend history no matter how ugly it is. We can't change it, we can only learn from it.

January 20, 2016 at 6:51 AM  
Blogger Fearsome Beard said...

I do not understand why extramarital affairs are considered some indication of a bad character flaw? I can see it as a flaw if he preached fidelity and was then a hypocrite. to each his own, sexuality is a personal choice period. Straight/gay, Fidel/infidel...etc. It's not for society to judge. Well...unless that society is basing law on a 2000 or so year old work of fiction. Ok off my soapbox and to work I go.

January 20, 2016 at 9:29 AM  
Blogger Raybeard said...

A brief update on the Cecil Rhodes statue controversy, RTG. Yesterday, in an open vote, Oxford Debating Society came down in favour of having the statue removed, though the vote carries no obligation on the authorities to do so. I guess it's all still up in the air, just like the statue looking down on the college courtyard.

January 21, 2016 at 5:23 AM  
Blogger Madilyn Quinn said...

Oh, no.. I hope that isn't what people are saying in 2116 :(

But this is exactly why I don't have any heroes. I'll respect folks and what not, but not idealize them, because you're always disappointed by something.

January 22, 2016 at 4:37 PM  
Blogger todd gunther said...

Thank you Fearsome Beard for your comments. Yes, for some reason cheating on one's spouse somehow carries more weight after you say I do than before. In any case I can only imagine that the pain of the break up/realization of betrayal is the same.

Hi Raybeard. Thanks for the update. It appears that the vote was symbolic at best.

Welcome Madilyn! Thank you for your comment. We should probably all leave a little room in our open respect for heroes for the inevitable crash.

January 23, 2016 at 12:21 PM  

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