Today, while eating lunch, I came across an article titled: “California bill would ban naming state, local sites for Confederate leaders“. This bothers me greatly, not because I support the secessionist cause in any way, but because it is yet another example of the “TL;DR” view of society. We have two primary examples of that in the news right now: Robert E. Lee and Bill Cosby.
Let’s start with Robert E. Lee. Yes, he was the leading General of the Confederacy. But he was also (as Wikipedia notes): “The son of Revolutionary War officer Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III and a top graduate of the United States Military Academy, Robert E. Lee was an exceptional officer and combat engineer in the United States Army for 32 years. During this time, he served throughout the United States, distinguished himself during the Mexican–American War, served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy…”. Afterwards he was President of Washington and Lee University. The attempts to remove his name from everything essentially say that he is only defined by the three years he was in the C.S.A. army. I understand the victor gets to write the history books, and we should not be glorifying the losing cause in the Civil War battle. But how to we do this without forgetting all the good he did for the Union side before the split.
History is ugly, and doesn’t have clean lines. People we hold up as venerable have dark sides. Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson all owned slaves. Does that mean we no longer mention them? No. What we do is not hold them up as perfect icons — we present the history, both the good and the bad. Instead of a “zero tolerance” for any confederate involvement, we look at the person and ask: for what are they being honored? Were their accomplishments outside of the Civil War worth honoring, and can we present those aspects?
Bill Cosby is another example. I’m not attempting to defend the man at all. The recent court transcripts released paint a pretty conclusive picture. But that doesn’t make the stories he told in the 1960s less funny? That doesn’t make the series he developed less educational? How do we recognize the good done while acknowledging the bad man behind the good. Cosby isn’t unique in Hollywood. We all know there are other actors who, in their private lives, have committed all sorts of violence towards women. How do we learn to see the whole picture?
America these days has been trained on scandal; we’ve been taught to focus our attention on the bad most immediately done. We’ve also been taught to think to the sound bite — the snippet characterization. The problem is: life isn’t a sound bite; it isn’t the most recent story. In the many decades of life each of us have, we do both good and bad. We need to recognize no one is 100% good or 100% bad. We need to figure out how to recognize the good aspects, while acknowledging the bad aspects.
When I hear “Piiiiiipes”, see the name “Bob” on a coverall, or hear a “thump-thump thump-thump”, I’m going to think of Bill Cosby’s humor. I’ll remember there’s a bad and disturbed man behind that humor, but I’ll still smile at the story. When I think of Robert E. Lee, I’ll think of the Confederate General and the cause he fought for, why he fought for it, and why that side was wrong. But I’ll also think of the West Point officer who before the war was friends with other officers such as Grant, and who fought for the Union.
Life isn’t a sound bite; people can’t be characterized or pigeon-holed easily. We must take the time to see the whole person — the good and the bad. Perhaps these people don’t deserve a particular honor; perhaps they do. But we must always acknowledge the person — both the good and the flaws.