BACK IN 1964, in accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater said: “I would remind you that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
Today it should be obvious to any thoughtful person that the United States is currently in the grip of extremism from Right and Left.
Destroying statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant were not mere acts of excessive exuberance in support of Black Lives Matter but acts of excessive ignorance and intolerance. Meanwhile, 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. All because at one time he owned a slave. ONE SLAVE.
Yet without any compensation, Grant freed William Jones two years before the Civil War, an act of courage uncommon where he lived around St. Louis, Misssouri.
Today, indless protesters act like unruly mobs devoid of 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 honour for actions that were not honourable 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.[Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern states; antebellum refers to the conventions existing before the US Civil War.] But tearing them down, acting like a lynch mob, besmirched the cause the protesters espouse.
Those who are seeking perfection in our national heroes past and present will be sorely disappointed. They come adorned with character warts we would these days 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 and that 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 (but not because I am not a Christian; rather because Jesus seems to be beyond reproach with no flaws). So 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 whom he, in old age, also followed. Despite his shortcomings, Solomon is lionized.
Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that 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 victims martyred at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, 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?