Back in 1964, in accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater said, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
It should be obvious to any thoughtful citizen that we are in the midst of extremism from the right and left. Destroying statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant were not acts of excessive exuberance in support of Black Lives Matter but rather acts of excessive ignorance and intolerance.
The very public displays of white supremacists bearing neo-Nazi and Confederate flags, coupled with the reluctance of Donald Trump and other Republicans to unequivocally denounce such actions, chills hope that right wing extremism can be tamped down to the fringe corners of society.
Grant’s statue was toppled, despite his being the Union general most responsible for destroying the Confederacy and slavery, because at one time he owned a slave. One slave. Without any compensation Grant freed William Jones two years prior to the Civil War, an act of courage uncommon where he lived around St. Louis, MO.
Out of their mind protesters acted like an unruly mob absent any knowledge or context. Ridding public spaces of memorials to traitors who fought the Union or politicos who defended slavery or held beliefs counter to the nation’s creed of equality, however elusive its attainment has been, is not in itself a contemptible act.
While Confederate generals and office holders are part of the country’s heritage, there is merit in denying them a public place of honor for actions that were not honorable and not sustainable on the battlefield. Nor should they be rewarded for the back door tributes they secured from Jim Crow laws and a media-manufactured retelling of the antebellum South.
But tearing them down, acting like a lynch mob, besmirched the cause the protesters espouse (unless the protesters were anarchists acting under the cover of legitimate protest).
Those who are seeking perfection in our national heroes past and present will be sorely disappointed. They come adorned with character warts we at present would find not just discrediting but also disqualifying for elective office or reverence. Martin Luther King was no saint. Neither was Malcolm X. Nor JFK. Nor FDR. Nor Barack Obama.
What can be said of our icons is that despite their flaws they advanced the dignity of our country, they fought and sometimes died for the expansion of rights and freedoms.
They were better than the prevailing mores of their times. They weren’t perfect. We should not judge them solely by 2020 standards.
Perhaps it is a good moment for a collective time out to look at the Bible. Not the New Testament, not because I am not Christian, rather because Jesus seems to be beyond reproach with no flaws.
Look to the Old Testament for leader upon leader, patriarch after patriarch, who is imperfect. King David was an adulterer and conspired to have his consort Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle. He was not a great father. He turned a blind eye as his henchmen assassinated his foes. Yet, he is venerated as Israel’s greatest monarch.
Jacob was a trickster, on multiple occasions. Samson married a pagan. Saul failed to follow God’s command to kill all of the Amalekites and destroy their possessions.
Even wise King Solomon, who should have known better, succumbed to excess—excessive taxes, excessive marriages to pagan women and excessive construction of temples to his wives’ gods to whom in his old age he followed.
Despite his shortcomings, Solomon is lionized. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is a figure’s place in history must be measured by his entire resume, not just a smudge on the page.
At the 2015 funeral of one of the nine martyred at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, Obama concluded his eulogy by singing “Amazing Grace.” It was a stirring moment.
But that haunting hymnal was written by a one-time slave trader, John Newton. By today’s ethos of puritanical extremism, should “Amazing Grace” be stricken from the roster of messages of consolation, forgiveness and redemption because of its originator?
I think not.