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Friday, January 6, 2012

It's Complicated...

So I'm sitting here watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and he is interviewing a guest that wrote about one of our founding fathers, President James Madison and his documented ownership of slaves. During the segment, the interviewee who's name escapes me, tells the story of our 4th president promising a slave his freedom after his death. Yet in his will he passes ownership of the slave to his wife, Dolly Madison. In turn Dolly also promises this indentured servant his freedom. And again, in her will, she puts the man up for sale. After many broken promises this man, who spent his entire life as a piece of property and 2/3 a human being, borrows the money from a Senator and buys his own freedom. While the female guest of the talk show continues to colorfully explain the great things done by Madison himself, Jon Stewart interrupts her to ask "Do you feel that James Madison was a terrible human being?". To which she uncomfortably replies (and I'm paraphrasing) "I feel that Madison was a complicated man". 

This got my marble rolling. At what point does an individual's great deeds in life out shine the bad that they've done, allowing us to think of them as "complicated" versus "immoral" or "bad"? 

To tell you the truth, I know very little about the man James Madison. But I do know he is considered to be apart of a group of our most honored American heroes. Other members of this group include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, just to name a few. Washington and Jefferson were both slave owners. Franklin was an avid narcotics user and to put it lightly, one kinky son of a bitch. Now, we can all agree that slavery was one of the most shameful acts in American history. But it is very difficult to judge the moral fortitude of our nations first leaders and their owning of slaves. Their world and standards were different than ours. As for Ben Franklin? Well, his fetishes are a matter of conjecture and it depends on your own personal beliefs. 

But lets say we are talking in the strictest sense of right and wrong. Lets say were talking about life and death. Would it be as easy to dodge the question?   

During the French and Indian war, English allied natives under the command of the then Colonel George Washington, slaughtered, scalped and decapitated 10 French Canadian soldiers attempting to surrender their arms.

Andrew Jackson, considered one of our greatest presidents, refused to enforce a supreme court decision  granting the sovereign Cherokee nation their ancestral lands. Jackson wanted the real estate for Georgia. His stance on this matter lead to the eviction of the Cherokee people and the infamous Trail of Tears. Claiming 4000 Native American lives. Yet the state of Tennessee speaks of him with an almost God-like reverence. And believe me, I know. As the head of security so eloquently stated as I was being arrested in Nashville for sneaking onto Jackson's estate to watch the fire flies at dusk, "You don't FUCK with The Hermitage!". 

Here is a quote for you: "Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right - a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit." - Abraham Lincoln, January 12, 1848. Yet when the southern states constitutionally seceded from the union, "Honest Abe" launched a war of invasion killing over 600,000 Americans. 

Teddy Roosevelt started a civil war in South America, costing the Columbian and Panamanian people an untold number of deaths and casualties. Doing so just to control the land where the Panama canal would later be built. 

The other Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, suppressed reports of over 22,000 Soviet murdered Poles so as not to disrupt the negotiations to chop up post war Europe. He then proceeded to allow Joseph Stalin to take control of Poland. Subsequently, old Joe Joe went on to order more murders than any other man in recorded history. More than even Adolf Hitler.

In 1963 John F. Kennedy backed a military coup in Iraq led by Abdul Salam Arif. After it's success, the CIA (under Kennedy's instructions) sent a list of suspected communists to the newest middle eastern government on the block, leading to the massacre of thousands of suspected and so-called communists. Oh yeah, Arif's political party? The Ba'athist party. We all know what happened from there.

I got two words for Ronald Reagan, Iran Contra. Look it up.

To make a long blog, short. All of these men are considered great Americans and all accomplished great things. I don't propose to judge whether their decisions were right or wrong. I will let you express your own opinion on that subject. All I am trying to do is ask this not so simple question: Where do we as a society draw the line on "complicated". Were they truly as so many scholars perceived them to be? Or is this adjective our way of excusing their actions in order to salvage their heroic stature and the moral fortitude of our own collective conscience? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. We draw the line on "complicated" when it suits us.
    Think about this. Back when Madison owned slaves it wasn't wrong. It's just the way it was. Things evolve, people evolve, well, most of them do.
    In a hundred years, what are people going to be saying about the things we do today? What normal activity do we do that they'll look back on and say, "Oh my God, how terrible"? I'm not condoning the fact that people were "owned" and treated so terribly by any means. But back then, that was the norm.
    As far as excusing their actions to "salvage their heroic stature", yep, we sure do. We're taught from the time we start school what great men they were, what they did for our country. No one wants to see the men behind the mask of heroism. Would you want to know that John Wayne, another American hero, although in a different category, was actually the head honcho for the local KKK or some such shit? No. It would ruin the picture we all have in our heads of how great he was. Just using him as an example, I'm really not a John Wayne fan. My point is, we like to keep our heads buried in the sand and pretend that people of power in this country could never do any wrong.
    Wow, I took the title of your blog to heart I guess...enjoy my random thoughts and bullshit.

  2. [ans pt 1] I was thinking of something very similar to this the other night. They run a documentary here on Scotland called “Coast,” and the usual host is fantastic, he’s perfect. But, the other night they had a woman doing a few segments on there. Her focus was on architectural structures, which is good except that she almost completely left out the human element of the stories which I found already mildly annoying in her first piece. Her SECOND segment was of a giant castle like house built by a mining magnate. A particular line of my ancestry moved to Australia to escape the issues with the Scottish coalmines, so for me the tale there suddenly becomes a little personal. This man of whom she was discussing invented the vertical shaft which allows for air to get in too deep under the sea bed mines. Well I’m sure that is genius, but not once did she mention the miners in that hole were slaves. Born to be that man’s property. I won’t remove the genius of the man’s invention, or the beauty of his house, but if you are to truly weigh a man’s measure you cannot, nor should not ignore that he did it all on the blood of other men. You should not ignore that, weather it was socially acceptable at the time or not, that this person took a three year old child, denied them an education and threw them down a hole which would result in their early death from black lung. Which my Great Great Grandfather did die of, having escaped too late. I felt that, probably mostly because of the personal aspect for me, that before you taut a man’s greatness, you should explore the horrors he committed to do it. Like, buying and selling my ancestors as though they were cattle.

    His invention is great, it has saved lives. His property was stunning, but he did commit horrors to achieve these great things. I’m sure Hitler did some good things too, but we don’t ignore the horrors for a reason! Because, somewhere it was someone’s ancestors who paid the price for that great achievement. Somewhere someone is thinking, ‘Wait. My ancestors were in that hole! You really should explain that they weren’t there by choice’.

    You SHOULD weigh up both the good and the bad of any person. Yin/Yang. Even the worst people have done something good somewhere, and the best have done some bad. For a true measure you must explore both. Regarding Madison, would I use the term ‘complicated’? Personally, no. I’d say he was a man typical of his station AT THAT TIME. I believe it is vital to consider domestic and foreign beliefs common AT THE TIME regarding any issue like that. Whilst we cannot, nor should not, condone it we do need to recognise what the common beliefs were at the place and time. What the whole situation was surrounding the issue.

  3. [ans pt 2] To (finally) get to your question: ‘Or is this adjective our way of excusing their actions in order to salvage their heroic stature and the moral fortitude of our own collective conscience?’ I think the word ‘complicated’ is a little bit of a cop out. Because to explore the full extent of the situation would be lengthy and possibly hurtful to people whose ancestors were involved. I guess the adjective ‘complicated’ is a short, and nicer way of stating something quite long that begins with ‘for that era….’ It is a word which saves time by letting you the listener recognise that these things are horrifying today, but were common back then, and FOR THAT ERA … well… it is a complicated issue isn’t it? Is a man evil because of something horrible even despite the fact that the views were widespread and common at the time. To even consider granting that man his freedom was very forward thinking at the time. Should his more heroic actions be considered heroic? Absolutely. Should the fact that he was a part of this awful part of history be ignored? No. It shouldn’t, BUT the common thoughts of the time do need to be considered before you detract too wholly from the good he achieved. Does this make Madison complicated? I don’t think so, but the question at hand is extremely complicated mostly because it is almost impossible to remove the emotion from the answer.

    In Australia we rather ignore the negative side of Captain Cook. Its not that it’s forgotten, but the omission is the silent answer to the question of modern thinking, vs the thoughts of the time. Captain Cook found the land which granted my Scottish and Irish ancestors freedom. But he did it at the cost of 25 nations of indigenous Australians whom he dined with, traded with, danced with and then declared not to be human. He did it to send starving men to a life of servitude, and women to be raped for the sake of breeding to build a nation. Was he a good man? Not by modern thinking. Was he a good man AT THE TIME? Quite possibly debatable even then. Did he achieve something remarkable from which I today benefit? He did. It came at a massive cost to others though. To even begin to consider all of this is EXTREMELY complicated. Would I call Cook complicated as she called Madison, well… its one word for it when honestly for our modern ideals, there really isn’t any word at all. Personally I’d call him the greatest prick in our history, but that is subject to opinion and doesn’t consider the thinking of his peers at the time. I definitely wouldn’t call him a hero though either, but I’ve no doubt he was one at that point in time.

    So, complicated seems to be to be a way around the uncomfortableness of a situation placed out of its space in time. We can’t today say these things were excusable, but most of us recognise that it was extremely different then.

    This has been a rather long essay, at this point not so much an answer as an essay, to get to my point that using the word ‘complicated’ is as good of a word as any for the question at hand.

    [end of answer]

  4. my thoughts? we all will say and do everything in our power to retain our "reputations". however you look at what yours might be or where you want it to be. we will say we are not wrong. we were "under the influence" of something/someone, or we thought is was right even when we knew it was wrong. all to make ourselves sound good. sure, people are complicated but complicated is different than "right" or "wrong". complicated is that fun little puzzle you get to put together when you get to know a person. i'm complicated (or so i've been told) but i know the difference between right and wrong. we all need heros. that's why we are so inclined to sweep the "bad" under the rug so we have someone to look up to. unfortunate but true.

  5. I think "complicated" could be used to describe each and every one of us. Defining right and wrong can be difficult as there are different standards. Having said that, people often cross their own personal line which causes them to think, "I shouldn't have done that." That person has their individual interpretation of what constitutes right and wrong, yet they act contrary to their own standards. The same can be said for everyone, and that's what makes human nature "complicated."

    As far as evaluating the past, I think there's an overarching tendency to idealize the past and marginalize the negative aspects. Focusing solely on the good allows us to be hopeful and sets a standard and a pattern of behavior to try to live up to. No parent (well, most parents) do not tell their children everything there is to know about our founding fathers. No doubt each of them were flawed, but showing both good and bad could be perceived as condoning the negative. The child could think "it's okay to be an intravenous drug user, as long as I'm creative or productive." Revealing only the good accomplishments creates a standard to live up to. Unfortunately this doesn't create a realistic expectation. Realizing that people can do both good and bad creates a cognitive dissonance, and this is dealt with in different ways. I think that evaluating a person entirely as good or bad is ineffective. Rather, separating the person from the actions allows us to learn from their decisions without that cognitive dissonance of a "good" person making a "bad" choice.

    Finally, I think that the media has an enormous role in outlining what is complicated. A lot of people do not make decisions on their own, meaning that they rely heavily on the media for their information. In doing so, they must accept what the media determines as right or wrong. I saw the Daily Show interview as well, and what struck me was that Madison and his wife lied. I wouldn't say that Madison was a horrible person, but the author of that book makes it clear that they continued to lie about the freedom for that slave. Determining whether or not Madison and his wife were good or bad people will be left to the media.