Monday, August 31, 2009

Now Let Us Praise Wicked Men

So dear friend of the blog Sady has a post up at Salon's Broadsheet about Sophie Tucker, whose career as a female singer who pushed gender boundaries in the early 20th century would normally make her a feminist icon--except that she also did blackface for a long time. And that, as well as the funeral of Senator Kennedy, has me thinking about bad people who did good things, or vice versa.

Of course, Teddy looms large in this calculus.

Liss at Shakesville has the most nuanced discussion of the senior senator from Massachusetts' career, I think:

Teddy, as he was known, was privileged, in every sense of the word. And he made liberal use of his privilege, in ways I admired and ways I did not. The terrible bargain we all seem to have made with Teddy is that we overlooked the occasions when he invoked his privilege as a powerful and well-connected man from a prominent family, because of the career he made using that same privilege to try to make the world a better place for the people dealt a different lot.

Twice, Teddy did despicable things with his privilege, very publicly.
...the two things being the horrific Chappaquiddick affair, and whatever role he helped play in getting his nephew, William Kennedy Smith off the hook for his (alleged, I have to say alleged) rape of a young woman.

Those are two pretty terrible things, by the way.

Daisy over at Daisy's Dead Air does her best to speak for the dead:
I will mourn the working woman who was forgotten, as the actual circumstances of her death were covered up by a powerful family, who then arbitrarily assigned her slut status.

Imagine slowly, slowly drowning, water enveloping you inch by inch as you drown, waiting for the person to rescue you that never arrives.

Sorry, folks. Some things, I do not excuse.

Mary Jo represents all the nobody-women killed (or allowed to die, if you want to quibble over my terms) by all the powerful, rich men, because they were "evidence"--because they got in the way.
And yet, and yet--he fought hard for people who weren't able to fight as hard for themselves--the Americans With Disabilities Act, fighting apartheid, even helping Jews escape the Soviet Union. He never let up on the universal healthcare fight. He blocked Robert Bork from the Supreme Court. And he did all those things largely in part by using his name, his wealth, and his reputation to accomplish things other people might not have.

And he let a woman slowly drown. And he helped an (alleged, ok? alleged.) rapist avoid punishment.

Lots of--let's not say heroes--icons have feet of clay. Martin Luther King had affairs. Thomas Jefferson raped his slaves. And lots of wicked people do great things: Napoleon spread the rule of law, the ideals of the French Revolution, and death, death, death throughout Europe; Wagner wrote some of the most complex (and occasionally even beautiful) music in history and was a dead-beat, adulterer, and depraved anti-Semite. Julia Child was frequently homophobic. And so it goes.

How do we judge? Is it only time that allows us to be dispassionate? What are the morals of admiring the Declaration of Independence or the ADA when you know that they are the results of men who did despicable deeds?

I'm not sure I know. I mean, I'm glad for the Declaration and (well, sometimes) Tristan und Isolde and the millions of people that Senator Kennedy helped. I am aware of the enormous good that has been wrought by flawed men and women.

But I still can't shake the thought of that woman drowning, or that woman screaming on the beach where nobody could hear her.

1 comment:

  1. It's a grappling-with that never really concludes.