Monday, August 03, 2015

Atlantic, a few years back, "History is Beautiful Things Made by People with Ugly Ideas", a problem the internet age will keep running into

Something in the age of the internet that can make it feel truly unique, but in a terrible way, is what Wenatchee The Hatchet has called imputing comprehensive guilt by tangential association.  Another way of putting it is to forget that, as someone at the Atlantic put it a couple of years ago "History is Beautiful Things Made by People with Ugly Ideas".


Imagine medical residents refusing to mimic a surgical technique pioneered by a racist doctor, or English majors declining to recite any poems written by sexists. Imagine people in all fields being made to feel as if opposing racism or sexism requires that sort of boycott. What a waste that would be in a world where there is a perfectly good alternative, one that hardly requires airbrushing history or human pathologies. It is to say that some people, Whitman hardly unique among them, had wrongheaded, offensive beliefs on some subjects, but still managed, through the best of what they produced, to render things so wonderful that generations of people have seen fit to pass them on.

That isn't to say that everyone must appreciate Whitman, or any larger than life figure from the past. It is to say that 25-year-olds like McNair, along with 33-year-olds like myself, would be wise to stay open to the possibility that inhabiting the art of someone whose aesthetics or personal moral beliefs we find abhorrent might nevertheless end in our gleaning something valuable from the experience. The opportunity to learn in that way won't survive, for most students, in a world where rejecting bigotry is thought to require rejecting everything produced by every dead bigot. Let's reject that standard, and the attendant fantasy that it's possible to shun the part of our cultural inheritance contributed by people who held ugly ideas. To really confront the horrific scale of bigotry, and American racism in particular, is to know that is impossible. Too much would have to be shunned. The timber of humanity is too crooked. We'd have nothing left.

But it seems to be a sign of our times ... yesterday's measure of beauty can be today's measure of ugliness.
Baby boomers inherited a world that believed deeply in the value of the Western canon, and now inhabit a world that holds that canon responsible for many of our culture’s ills. One belief for childhood, the opposite for adulthood.

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