Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

The Good, The Bad, and The Evil

In an early Shame Day post I called a particularly reprehensible political lobby “what cancer would look like if it were a social movement.” While I continue to stand by that statement (this group was pulling the exact same ploy against Muslims that Middle Ages Christians used against Jews), a commenter did assert that I had gone too far, stating “as wicked or wrong as you think these people are, they remain human beings.”

It’s got me back to thinking on a subject that’s long held my interest- namely the issue of evil. You’d think it’d be pretty straight forward- right is right and wrong is wrong- but let me get right into an example.

Was this guy evil?

No question. Hitler and his followers aren’t simply evil- they’re the go-to example of evil. They’re our baseline for evil. Everything vile and nefarious is measured against either Hitler or the Nazis.

So what about this guy?

Columbus’s long-list of achievements (discovering America not being one of them) read more or less as a chronicle of genocide, slavery, and theft. It’s well known, certainly at this point, that Columbus was a greedy, narcissistic, tyrannical, and corrupt man. Even with streets, cities, a holiday, and even an asteroid commemorating him, surely we can all agree that this guy was evil. Not on the level of Nazi Germany, but still indisputably evil.

But what about him?

Yep, that’s Thomas Jefferson. President.  Founding Father. Author of the Declaration of Independence.

Slave owner.

Not just a slave owner, but an abusive one- carrying on an affair with one of his slaves (that slave also being his wife’s half-sister), getting her pregnant multiple times, and then promptly allowing his own children to spend the rest of their lives as slaves.

Pretty depraved, eh? If I did any one of these things, I’d be called out as a first-rate ******* (and rightly so). I’d be called evil, and that would be telling it like it is.

But let’s move on.

Is this guy evil?

That’s J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the FBI, which he oversaw with about the same leadership you’d expect from some Stone Age self-proclaimed god-king. Hoover was an egoistical, jealous, paranoid man who used the FBI to advance his own political agenda. In addition to all of this, Hoover was a rabid racist, and struggled long and hard against the Civil Rights movement, targeting MLK Jr. in particular, as well as spearheading a campaign to undermine the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Would you call this guy evil?

Ok, what about them?

Yes, the average American family (not pictured above), or heck, even just the average American? Our money goes to supporting companies that use sweatshop labor. Our money goes to supporting companies that recklessly destroy the environment. Our money goes to supporting corporations that push objectifying ads (especially, but not exclusively, in regards to women).

Our taxes go to supporting dictatorial regimes (such as former Egyptian president Mubarak), racist and apartheid states (such as Israel), and even states that utilize child soldiers.

Where does that put us?

Now all of that is simply to illustrate the apparent complexity of the issue. Evil is evil, yes, but pinning down exactly who is and isn’t evil becomes a little more complex once we look at someone other than the Nazis. Jefferson was instrumental not only to the founding of this nation, but to the establishment and perpetuation of the core concepts of democracy and human rights- even to the point where Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose ancestors Jefferson owned– wound up quoting him in his iconic I Have a Dream speech.

Likewise, there’s the issue with the average American. Almost none of us would actually be able to manage a sweatshop, or put an assault rifle in a twelve-year old’s hands, at least, not in person. Despite this, our economy is built on the backs of Bangladeshi kids working for twenty-five cents an our. Our security (we are told) is predicated on us coordinated with nations whose human rights records are drenched in blood (*Cough*China*Cough*Saudi Arabia*Cough*Columbia*Cough*). The vast majority of us either don’t know or don’t care; not enough to raise a voice in protest, anyhow. Again, what does that make us? We might not be ourselves actively implementing imperialism and violence and despotism, but we still do rake in the rewards and howl for more.

We could try arguing innocence by virtue of not being the ones pulling the trigger on any of this, but the truth that history has taught us over and over is that simple knowledge of an injustice creates moral culpability. To ignore injustice equates with committing injustice. We simply can’t escape it.

Not without risk of being hunted down by zealously religious Irishmen…

And maybe that’s the answer. Maybe we can’t be so picky about where we draw the line between right and wrong. Maybe the answer is sweeping judgment. That’s not meant to be some fire and brimstone-esque statement, that’s simply a fact of the matter. You’re not good and evil only when you embark on a mission of genocide- you’re a participant in a viciously evil system until such a time as you act otherwise. You’re part of the problem until you’re part of the solution.

That’s not to say that you have to be flawless. You’re not going to be able to do that (neither am I, for that matter)- in part because we’re human, and in part because the world we live in simply isn’t going to cooperate. But people, we can at least try. I don’t think making an effort to not totally **** up the planet and all that’s in it is really all that much to ask, do you?

Advertisements

The Good, the Bad, and the Racist

Over the past weeks, there’s been some talk here in Vegas about changing the name of our airport from McCarran to something- anything– else. Named after Nevada senator Pat McCarran (1876-1954), the group pushing for the change were of the opinion that it wasn’t quite right having one of the busiest airports in the world named after a viciously racist Fascist-sympathizing McCarthyite. Last night, I caught a bit of a local talk-show as I was channel surfing, and heard the subject get brought up. Steve Sebelius, a major journalist in Vegas, was commenting on the name-change movement’s loss of momentum, pointing out that despite McCarran’s psychotic antisemitism and racial bigotry, he was the principal defender of gambling in Nevada, and that without him “None of us would be sitting here”. The show wrapped up after that closing comment, and whether or not the they addressed the whole issue of what comprises one’s legacy I can’t tell you. Frankly, I would like to see the airport’s name changed- and not just the airport, but every street, boulevard, and building named after a bigot. But as the journalist rightly pointed out, the world doesn’t quite work in white and black.

Pictured: Pat McCarran, who objects to me using the words “white” and “black” so close to each other…

As much as we’d like to imagine (at our history book’s insistence) that America was created by heroic men who only drank distilled freedom and wiped the sweat from their brows with patriotic American flags autographed by Jesus, this nation was built on the backs of slaves and the bones of Native Americans. The same man who authored the Declaration of Independence owned his sister-in-law, and despite his assertion that it was self-evident that all men are created equal, hated and feared German immigrants with a passion that the Minutemen Project would feel is “a bit much”. Jackson- the hero of Federalism, the slaughter of Native Americans. FDR, the creator of the New Deal, the guy who forced over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans out of their homes and into prison camps. Between genocide, exploitation, segregation, and a host of other forgotten sins, there’s not much in US history or culture that doesn’t carry with it a stain of injustice or inequity.

Our food included…

But how, then, do we deal with this? If we rename racist streets or airports, why stop there? Why not get rid of the sexists’ names? Or those who were just plain greedy or arrogant or inept? It seems if we go down that road, we’ll wind up leaving everything blank as we dig through history in search of the perfect human being. On the other hand, we can’t exactly drive down Hitler avenue and assert that his anti-smoking campaign is just as much a part of his legacy as the concentration camps and Kristalnacht. So how do we measure a figure’s good acts against his bad ones? I’d personally like to see Jefferson Street renamed Malcolm X Street, yet I have to simultaneously deal with the fact that X held many racist views himself until his conversion and change of heart later in life. Again, how do we discern between the good guys and the bad guys? No one’s perfect, but not everyone uses child soldiers either. Simply, people are complicated.

Case and point…

And because I don’t want to leave you hanging with another “Make of it what you will” post (as I did in my report on Extreme Midget Wrestling– check it out), I’m going to fly in the face of caution and offer this criteria for naming your airports and roads:

I. Is he or she a good guy?

That’s it. If you can’t answer “yes” immediately to that question, and if “mostly” doesn’t work either- move on to someone else. Simple as that. There is always going to be controversy- and we’re going to have to deal wit that. Values change, secrets are uncovered, and some heroes become villains and villains heroes- but for now. For right now- let’s go ahead and make the change. Yeah, it’s a pain in the neck, but if we do it right the second time around, hopefully we won’t need to change up the names for a another seventy years or so. And before someone writes in about it being part of our past or our heritage- let me shoot you down right now. Yes, bigotry, as ugly as it is, is a part of our history. But changing names doesn’t mean that we’re running away from it- it means we’re passing judgment on it. In the end, that’s what I want to cite as my heritage- not racism, but the condemnation thereof.

Nolan, Jefferson, and The Batman

Keep on reading, this’ll make sense.

In the year 1820 Thomas Jefferson shared with a number of his friends a book
he had put together entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It was, in essence, the four gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John] in chronological order. What truly differentiated it from the Bible was the omission of all references to angels, prophecy, references to Jesus divinity and resurrection, and miracles.

In the year 2005 Christopher Nolan’s film Batman Begins made its way into theatres, spawning a trilogy and getting the ball rolling for dozens of “grim and gritty” remakes. In an interview with The Guardian the director said that he “[tried] to do it in a more realistic fashion than anyone had ever tried to [do] a superhero film before.”

The parallel I’m trying to make should be obvious to any Batman fan, either of the comics or the animated series. Having finally seen The Dark Knight Rises this Tuesday and finishing the trilogy, I can finally say this with confidence that Nolan has done to the Batman canon what Jefferson did to the Bible.

These two men have something against the improbable.

To make things clear, I like Nolan’s Batman movies. He took a concept as seemingly ridiculous as a vigilante crimefighter who dresses up like a bat and somehow grounded it. On top of that he forced us to accept the fact that comic book movies can be more than entertaining, they can be awe-inspiring as well.

An issue that I had with Christopher Nolan and his films was the staunch inability to embrace anything even vaguely fantastical. The problem with that being that the concept is, as I just mentioned, a vigilante crimefighter who dresses up as a bat. With that in mind, maybe the imagination can be stretched just a little more to accommodate a psychopath whose makeup can’t wash off, or a badly scarred man with a deeply split-personality.

Furthermore, by thinning the line between reality [that of the audience] and art [the film being watched] questions are forced to arise. If this is the real world, why didn’t the kidnapping of a Chinese national from his homeland spark an international debacle [The Dark Knight], and <SPOILERS> how is Bruce able to make the jump to escape the prison given the damage in his legs [The Dark Knight Rises]? The films lower our suspension of disbelief, and with our guard down we become quick to ask why.

In his film Captain America fought pseudo-Nazis with energy weapons and tanks as large as houses. The audience never questioned this because although the film had some sort of anchor in a real-life event [World War II], we still understood that this was a world with one foot in the fantastic. If we can believe that a scrawny kid from Brooklyn ingesting a “super solider serum” can help the Allies win the war then we can just as easily believe that Hitler’s “deep science division” is led by a man whose face looks like a red skull.

Taking the “magic” out of the Batman mythos was no easy task, and Nolan threw a lot out when he decided what his approach to the canon would be. Scarecrow’s fear gas got the go-ahead, but not the Joker’s laughing gas, or the Venom that Bane uses to grow stronger. Batman could be called by name, but not Catwoman. Batarangs can be seen, and used, but the Batmobile must be free of any visual associations with the character.

Nolan was free to pick and choose what he wanted, and in many ways simply used Batman and his world to tell the stories that he wanted to tell. This is somewhat lost in the third film due to its connections to actual events in the comics [Knightfall and No Man’s Land, though that’s a post for another time], but for the most part he co-wrote the stories and screenplays for all three films. In another interview he states that “I don’t think our Batman, our Gotham, lends itself to that kind of cross-fertilization,” in response to a question about heroes co-existing between films akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Having stated that, I must admit that I have to view Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films as- something else. Something not Batman. Batman would never kill purposefully [letting someone die, Batman Begins], accidentally [tackling Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight], or not react to the deaths of others [all throughout The Dark Knight Rises]. I guess I view them as Batman movies about as much as I view the apocrypha part of the Bible. They can be good, and even beneficial, but ultimately miss the mark somehow.