Opinion: Sorting out the good and the bad of our falling icons

We spent the late summer talking about monuments to dead men, and whether we should tear them down. We’ve spent the fall tearing down the living.

Unlike the statues in our parks, the men (they’re all men) being felled by accusations of sexual harassment and/or assault over the past two months are able to speak up for themselves. In most cases, they haven’t really tried. What’s there to say? With very few exceptions, the behavior coming to light in recent weeks has been indefensible.

The dishonor roll is both stunning and growing. This past week alone, it added Matt Lauer of NBC’s “Today Show” and Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion,” playwright Israel Horovitz and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Congressman John Conyers finally said he would not run for a 28th term in the U.S. House and was under pressure to quit before the end of his 27th (which, I think most of us can agree, is too many terms for one person in any case).

One obvious lesson here is not to put too much faith in individuals. Celebrity worship has long since become unhealthy — as if there is such a thing as healthy idolatry — and bled over into our politics. I remember feeling there was something of the cult of personality to those “W: The President” bumper stickers. That seems quaint after Shepard Fairey’s hero-iconography of Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s red-hatted loyalists.

But the flip side of acknowledging the failings of our cultural and political icons is recognizing that, if everyone has shortcomings, perfection cannot be the standard. If we ought not to whitewash their sins, we shouldn’t forget the good they’ve done, either.

Let’s set aside for now Confederate generals, whose cause was far from pure, and celebrities such as Lauer, whose career hardly qualifies as art. Surely we can agree the actions of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were revolutionary in their time — and thus preconditions to the eventual securing of liberty even for those left behind at the time. Surely we can agree that, although their ownership of slaves was obviously hypocritical by today’s standards, they and their compatriots altered history’s course for the better.

Moving to the present, Keillor’s performances and writings have never really been my cup of tea. But they have been entertaining and influential to many, even artistic in their way. He is paying for his alleged misbehavior with the loss of his role at Minnesota Public Radio; is that outlet also right to stop distributing past episodes of his show? Some listeners might choose not to tune in any longer, but perhaps others could enjoy his work though aware he may have done a bad thing once. Was his mistake so bad as to warrant taking that choice away?

There’s almost certainly a line beyond which someone renders himself unworthy of milling about the public square any longer; Harvey Weinstein certainly comes to mind, and I could not in good conscience vote for Roy Moore now. The way things are going, there’s a good chance we’ll face such questions about prominent Georgians at some point, and I don’t claim to know exactly where that line should be drawn.

But I do believe a more reasonable, even skeptical, approach to these icons would keep us from raising them so high that their fall is so great, and their contributions, whatever they might be, so hard to keep in mind.

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