People aren’t perfect. We’re relatively safe when we idolize fictional characters, because they’re less likely to let us down, but when we idolize real people, we run the risk of being let down by their inevitable imperfection. From Bill O’Reilly to Christopher Columbus to Thomas Jefferson, people do unforgivable things, and we’re stuck trying to balance the good with the bad. What interests me is how people react when it happens.
Christopher Columbus is an interesting case. Many of us learned that he discovered America, and in many parts of the United States we still celebrate Columbus Day in the fall. The story is clearly more complicated than most of us learned in grade school, and it turns out that Columbus wasn’t close to the first human in the Americas (meaning that he couldn’t have “discovered” it, he thought he landed in Asia, and where he actually landed isn’t even part of the United States. It turns out that the history of holding up Columbus as an American hero is political…it was better to see him as the hero than Giovanni Caboto, who came through Newfoundland in 1497, marking the beginning of England’s colonization of what is now the United States. The political aspect is that we weren’t fighting a revolution against Spain, so there were no bad feelings against Columbus, like there were against Caboto.
From my perspective, it’s good to know these things. It’s better to know who the real heroes are, and know what really happened. Others somehow get angry at the person who opens the curtain.
In some parts of the country, the curtain is pulled back, and people stop idolizing the wizard. But this is almost always met with fury, and held up as an example of political correctness run amok. This seems especially true for Italian Americans, who find comfort that we honor an Italian, and get angry when people try to tell them the facts about what happened. They seem to want to believe the fairy tale, and are angry when the official story is changed to reflect newer knowledge of a situation. It’s not that I can’t feel empathy for people in this scenario. Certainly one doesn’t have to really believe in Santa Claus to enjoy the magical feeling of Christmas, but one also doesn’t have to believe in Santa Claus to be annoyed by the buzzkill who repeatedly reminds people that Santa is make believe. But Christopher Columbus isn’t Santa Claus. He’s not supposed to be an imaginary tale of wonder and magic. He’s supposed to be history, and when we get the history wrong, shouldn’t we fix it?
It’s not just people like Columbus, but any celebrity who turns out to be imperfect, or even horrendous. As somebody who lives in a world where I see plenty of gray (not black and white, all or nothing, like I’ve written about here), I can understand a variety of responses to these things. Mel Gibson, for instance, was caught on tape saying some awful things. He’s blamed many of them on being drunk, but that’s a lousy excuse from my perspective. I liked him before this happened, but I don’t anymore. That said, I still like many of the movies he’s made, and I’m able to separate the actor from the character. Isn’t that what acting is all about anyway? So I will still watch Braveheart when it’s on TV, and I’ll even watch a little Lethal Weapon if it catches me when I’m flipping. I enjoyed Signs, and would watch it again. But I totally understand people who can’t stomach those movies anymore because they can’t separate the actor from the character, or because they don’t like the thought of a single penny of royalty money going into his pocket. I can see those points, even if I don’t share them. But what I wouldn’t be able to stomach would be somebody who flat out claims he didn’t say anything wrong. That it’s just political correctness run amok, and the people who are sharing the stories of his awful statements are somehow purposefully ruining our fun. It sure seems strange if we do it with somebody like Mel Gibson, doesn’t it? Why is that response somehow OK when it’s Christopher Columbus?
Again, it’s one thing to see balance, and avoid all or nothing thinking. It’s pretty clear that lots of our presidents lived a life with choices that would be deeply frowned upon today. Plenty of presidents had affairs while in office, and we didn’t seem to care about them at all until the days of Gary Hart. But even then, I think it’s OK to see some balance. Of course, it takes an awful lot to balance some things, but I still think it’s OK to take a balanced view. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveowner and it seems clear that he fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. This has been proven by DNA evidence, and is recognized by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Does that mean we discard all that Jefferson did for the United States? It doesn’t mean that to me, but it could mean that for others. Slavery and likely a forced relationship with a slave are pretty horrendous, but I’m judging things by the standards of today, and that could be a bit unfair. So what do we do? I don’t have the answer, but I certainly don’t think it’s fair to get angry at the person who did the DNA test to show that Jefferson really did father children with Hemings. That just seems wrong.