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How, If at All, Should We Evaluate Flawed Historical Heroes?

- February 21, 2008

Lee Sigelman assured me when I took on this assignment that once one started blogging, everything would suddenly take on the character of a potential subject for a post. He was, as always, right; I have been ruminating about the masthead of this blog for several days. Mencken is one of my heroes, if only because he provides so many wonderful observations for use in undergraduate lectures or as epigraphs for articles (and blogs). I love his combination of cynicism and resonance with the aspirations of ordinary people. He is also laugh-out-loud funny.


But Mencken was anti-Semitic, viciously and consistently, even after World War II. I will spare us all any quotations, but Thomas Mallon is right to point out that “Mencken’s anti-Semitism, by any definition, and in any time or place, was spectacular–gaudy, energetic, and marked by, to use a Mencken term, salacity’.” (Click here to read his essay.). Should I stop reading, quoting, or teaching Mencken; should “The Monkey Cage” be christened with a new name? I don’t think so, but I have a hard time explaining why not.

Consider another example, also a hero whom I read, teach, and quote from a great deal: Benjamin Franklin. He was, by almost any account, a deep humanist and at the end of his life he took on the mission of seeking to abolish slavery. But he also wrote in his Autobiography about American Indians, “If it be the Design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for Cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that Rum may be the appointed means.”


How should we evaluate, teach, and write about people like Mencken and Franklin? Some of my students are prepared simply to condemn them as racists and therefore dismiss everything they wrote, or at least to interpret all of their writings through the lens of racism. But this seems to me too stringent, if only because I don’t want my own corpus of work to be interpreted through the stupidest sentences I ever write. Others are willing to excuse people like Mencken or Franklin on the grounds that they merely reflect the common discourse of their time. That seems too lenient, if only because by definition our heroes are not participants in common discourse; if they were, they would not have been identified as heroes. So they should be evaluated differently.

I continue to look for some middle interpretive ground that neither dismisses important political actors with a glaring flaw nor dismisses the flaw because the political actors are otherwise important. Exactly how to do that, however, remains a puzzle.