The Evil that Men (and Women) Do …

January 5, 2016

I recently read an article by Sanford J. Unger in the Washington Post, and saw a film that prompted some thought on recent campus unrest.  When does it become morally wrong to honor someone who did something evil?  On the surface, the brave, moral answer is that we should never honor evil.  Certainly, when we hear stories about schools named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, noted founder of the Ku Klux Klan, we should be 100% behind getting that name taken down.  But, this is rarely as black and white as it seems.

The film I saw that prompted this thinking is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  It is a remarkable film not so much because there is significant drama (there really isn’t:  SPOILER:  the 13th amendment gets passed).  The real story is that Spielberg showed his subjects as human beings.  Lincoln, with the possible exception of Washington, is the closest we have in this country to a national deity.  Yet, he was a politician, and politicians even the nicest ones, are dirty.  Lincoln was no exception, and Spielberg shows that when it came to finally driving a stake into the heart of slavery, Lincoln needed to get dirty by purchasing votes in Congress by giving away jobs to other politicians and supporters.  I think we naively think that Lincoln simply charmed Congress into doing this, but it is ballsy to present Lincoln as an imperfect man who sank to political chicanery to accomplish one of his greatest accomplishments.

Did this make Lincoln somehow less a heroic figure?  Don’t we learn that the ends cannot justify the means?  Perhaps it adds tarnish to his halo, and perhaps it makes us look at understanding that there are those rare occasions when the ends might justify the means (was it worth putting some incompetent greedy people into cushy government jobs for a while in order to free thousands of people?  I would think the answer must be “yes”).  Does this mean we should tear Lincoln’s name off of buildings?  I would say no.  Our racist citizens of today routinely point out that Lincoln wasn’t interested in freeing the slaves (he absolutely was), which is why he waited so long, and even once commented that he would let slavery continue if it would hold that nation together.  As Unger points out, sometimes in the murky depths of politics, even good politicians do some awful things to survive and keep the good fight up (as Unger points out, William Fulbright, a noted liberal and anti-segregationist from Arkansas actually voted against the Civil Rights Bill of 1968, not because he was opposed to equal rights, but because he needed to do so to survive and keep doing good).

Another character in the film is a lesser known Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens.  Stevens was the leader of the Radical Republicans who were vehemently anti-slavery to the point of being extremists.  Stevens and Lincoln in fact didn’t get along because Lincoln didn’t instantly free slaves on his first day of office, and considered Lincoln a foolish hick who was giving in to Southern interests. Stevens is rumored to have had a long lasting and very loving relationship with his African-American assistant, and when he died refused to be buried in a segregated cemetery.  A man like that in mid-19th century America comes across as a forward thinking man … someone we should be really honoring!  Perhaps there is a reason why we don’t.  Stevens also was largely responsible for Jim Crow.

(insert needle scratch)

Stevens led the impeachment attack on Andrew Johnson when Johnson tried to carry out Lincoln’s more conciliatory approach to Reconstruction, and wanted to make sure the South paid for its decades of slavery and for daring to enter into insurrection over it.  As Stevens’ plans were largely carried out, the South realized that its worst fears were coming true.  Instead of being welcomed back to the nation, they were being occupied.  As time went on, it became all too easy for the more conservative elements of the South to loudly proclaim “I told you so”.  When the South was finally able to engineer a deal to get the Army out of the South with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, the South reverted as far back as they could to antebellum status quo, and that meant the institution of Jim Crow.  Had Stevens instead allowed Johnson to follow through on a more conciliatory approach, the next century of racial history may have turned out more generous to African-Americans.

The lesson here is that history has a lot of grey to it.  Leftists love to embrace the socialist aspirations of FDR … and yet overlook the fact that he not only imprisoned Japanese people because they were Japanese (one of the single most overtly racist things the federal government has done in the 20th century), but for all intents and purposes attempted a coup by trying to take over the Supreme Court and make it a pawn of his office.  How many schools are named for FDR, and how many of them are college students demanding get renamed?

We look at Nixon as a deplorable person … someone who used some tricks to try to win an election and then lied about it (and escalated a war in an attempt to get it over with with a win) … but he also reached out to communist, atheist China … the same China that had recently led a cultural revolution that was only slightly better than what the Khemer Rouge did in Cambodia … and we consider opening up to China a major positive step.  Not that I am saying that Nixon is a nice guy … he was racist and horribly anti-Semitic, but he did in fact have a few positive points in his favor.  Overall negative, but not without some good things, even though those with a cursory knowledge of history would consider him a monster of the worst kind.

In my own field of science, there is Werner von Braun, the man who put us on course to reach orbit and then the moon … one of the greatest of engineering accomplishments.  Of course, much of his early work on rockets involved missiles built for the Nazis targeted on England.  Where does van Braun fit in?  Is he a monster working for monsters, or did he simply do what he needed to do in order to survive.

I think this is where the value of a good education can come in.  You come to an understanding that no one is absolutely good or absolutely bad.  That good people have bad moments (and yes, even bad people can have good moments), and that the judgement of history has to really look at the entirety of their contributions and motivations.  Sometimes the bad choices that some people make are based on limited information, or are based on a need to survive in an era or situation where ignorance prevails and society is not ready for the shock of change.  I think this is what Lincoln realized:  setting slaves free on day one of his administration would have been too great a shock to the nation, and would have caused a rift so great that it would have been irreparable.  However, the shock and awe of the Civil War wore down the resolve of people to stand against slavery, and allowed for an opportunity to create a change that, against the backdrop of a war that killed hundreds of thousands, was suddenly swallowable.

I think we as a society need to take that time to step back and reassess our righteous anger.  Sometimes it may be righteous, but sometimes, it is simply anger.