After I did yesterday’s post about the Israeli media’s attack on Yoni Netanyahu, I kept thinking about the Leftist assaults on iconic American figures. The approaches that most immediately spring to mind are the almost obsessives reports about Washington’s and Jefferson’s role as slave holders. There are a lot of superficially obvious reasons for these challenges to these men’s previously exalted status — and, indeed, there are even some very good reason for filling in the blanks that previously surrounded the almost saint-like reports of their lives.
Most obviously, a legitimate history of anyone’s life can’t shy away from the warts that may characterize them. It’s true that Washington and Jefferson had slaves. Both were anguished by their slave-owning status, but selfishly could not bring themselves to abandon the comforts of their own existence, even though they were aware that they were hypocritically abandoning their much vaunted principles. (To do him justice, Washington did eventually free his slaves, but he did so only in his will, so he was not personally affected by that act.) So, certainly, an honest history brings out these facts.
These same facts are also exciting, in that they make for an interesting story. They’re the man bites dog versions of biography. Let’s face it: Parson Weems’ little Washington, holding a hatchet, and refusing to tell a lie is old hat; it’s boring by now. How much more exciting to learn that Washington had a volcanic temper, whined a lot and had slaves. And isn’t it thrilling that Jefferson not only had slaves, but slept with the women among them?
The problem, as I see it, is the tendency on the Left, not to report these stories in order to flesh out and humanize historic figures, but to elevate these same less than savory facts to centrality. Amongst school children, Jefferson isn’t the man who authored immortal words about the human condition; he’s a sleazy slaveholder. And with that angle of attack, it’s perfectly easy to discount his intellectual genius.
The other problem, it seems to me, is that the attack on individuals is a way of emphasizing the State over the individual. America was always so proud of the individuality that characterized her citizens: certain men (and, albeit more rarely, women) stepped forward and changed history through the force of their personalities and the strength of their beliefs. This kind of rugged individualism, however, is antithetical to a mind set that believes the State provides all benefits, both for the mind and the body. To allow for the possibility that each individual might provide such benefits, that these people might be a vehicle for change or strength, is a State-ist’s nightmare. And the best way to defeat the rich power of the individual is to make sure that our children know that individual actors are all irreparably flawed.
Anyhoo . . . these are just ruminations. I have a project to get out today, and just wanted to pound this out before I headed off. I’d like your comments, especially because I suspect there are cavernous holes in my analysis.