Do you remember the old adage about babies and bathwater? Wikipedia says it originated somewhere in Germany in the 1500s and summarizes it thus:
“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” is an idiomatic expression for an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad, or in other words, rejecting the favorable along with the unfavorable.
On Monday, we observed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and I took the opportunity to post a few quotes of his that I have particularly enjoyed. One of the first comments on the post was, “Giving praise to the adulterer communist, eh?”
A few months ago, we used a photo and quote of Winston Churchill on our social media and immediately received a couple of comments about Churchill’s moral failures as well as racist ideas and comments attributed to him.
A post featuring H.L. Menken with “Morality is doing what’s right regardless of what you’re told. Obedience is doing what is told regardless of what is right” emblazoned across his image garnered this remark:
“I don’t think this is the person with whom Tuttle Twins ought associate. If you’ve read ALL of his writing, you know why.” When someone said that they in fact hadn’t read ALL of Menken’s writing but were curious why one should distance themselves from this quote, the poster replied, “It can take a good deal of time to source everything and look at it in context, but I do not think the apparent misogyny and racism and anti-theism can all be explained away.”
John Kennedy is reported to have said, at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” He continued, “Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”
These days, if a man quotes Jefferson, or praises his work, he runs the risk of being called a racist, a misogynist, and possibly a slavery sympathizer. Guilt by quotation—or something like that.
I’d like you to do a little experiment with me. Pause for a moment, and think back on the people you grew up viewing as “The Greats.” Now think of how many of them could stand the scrutiny of being looked at through the lense of history with which we now have the luxury of viewing those who came before us. If time were devoted to reading everything that was ever said about them by friend, enemy, servant, spouse, or child would there be evidence to prove them less admirable than you previously imagined them to be?
In the Tuttle Twins and the Education Vacation, the Tuttle family tours Europe and spends a day at the Colosseum. Ethan says to his father, “This sign says that over half a million people lost their lives fighting animals and other people in the arena.” Mr. Tuttle adds, “And it was built by thousands of Jewish slaves. That shows how a lot of history is ugly, but we learn about it to try and be better.”
I wonder if certain people today wouldn’t, if it was within their power, tear down the Colosseum and bury its bloody history (and the lessons to be learned from it) in the name of condemning slavery and animal cruelty? Imagine what we would have lost if earlier people had, upon the realization that some of their leaders or history were sometimes repugnant, chosen to remove all mention of them? What would we have lost, and what tragedies would we have repeated?
I’m not saying that we should simply ignore the less-than-admirable traits of those who helped build our world. They don’t have to get a pass on being jerks, or Marxists, or racists, or philanderers, simply because they also wrote the Declaration of Independence, or helped defeat the Nazis, or ended racial segregation.
What I am saying is that the demand by some that we dismiss the entire contribution of a person because we now know that they were morally flawed (or downright wrong) in some areas of their lives sounds an awful lot like the thinking that leads to the banning of books or the propagandizing of history.
I chose to base The Tuttle Twins and the Search for Atlas on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. A lot of people had their minds opened up to some really important and life-changing ideas through Rand’s writing, and I felt that those ideas were worth creating a story around. Many people haven’t heard of a lot of the authors whose work we’ve based the Tuttle Twins books on, but most people have heard of Rand and her Atlas.
Democratic socialists and communists obviously can’t stand Rand—what with all the individuality and hard work and personal responsibility that she wrote about—but I sometimes get responses from those who generally agree with me but who think that basing a book on Atlas, or highlighting Rand’s work, was unnecessary because she ended up being such a flawed person.
It’s true that Ayn Rand ended up alone and broke—collecting Social Security and depending on Medicare after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Her personal life was full of heartache and betrayal, and she had some pretty strong views that can make her seem bigoted and cruel now. She had some views that I have never accepted and completely disagree with.
But I don’t believe that I have to condone every single choice someone made, or support every view they espoused, in order to see the value that they brought through their work. I think it’s good and right to search Dr. King’s work for beautiful and inspiring and empowering messages, and I agree with President Kennedy about Thomas Jefferson’s one-in-a-million mind even if I don’t think that his personal life always reflected the morals that he espoused.
I believe that it’s important for us to be able to find all the virtuous and good and praiseworthy ideas in as many people as we can. Our reading lists would be very short, indeed, if we reserved our sources to only those we could prove to be perfect.
I like this comment, left on a Facebook thread about those who were once revered but have since fallen out of public favor:
“I take it all with a grain of salt. It’s too convenient to attack individuals who are not able to defend themselves. It’s also silly to apply our hindsight to their worldview and expect them to have seen things our way.”