- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 7/28/20
I’ve gotten a lot of response the cancelation culture in which we live, which seems to take two forms. First, the review of history to expunge all people—regardless of the contributions to society, casting those who are not deemed acceptable by today’s standards into the dustbin. Second is the the public shaming and firing of those with views that vary from the established orthodoxy or make people feel “uncomfortable.” The issue of who we choose to honor from the past extends to a consideration of movies and books.
Certainly there aren’t many people who would include the racist depiction of the South in the early 20th century in Birth of a Nation. But are there others whom we should shun for their views? Richard Sandler suggests that I ought not have included a Mel Gibson movie in my “L.A. based favorites.” As you may recall, Mr. Gibson was recorded with a profanity-laced anti-Semitic encounter some years back. Given the presence of Beverly Hills Cop and Die Hard, the genre of Lethal Weapon probably is well represented by other equally memorable films. We probably could live without Mel’s Lethal Weapon (although Danny Glover was great in it).
But this begs the bigger question of how we deal with works of art of those who have held reprehensible ideas (or worse). As we were driving the other day, Andrea was singing along to a set of Michael Jackson tunes (he’s her favorite). Given his well-documented predisposition toward little boys, are we to boycott his music? And what of Kevin Spacey? I still think The Usual Suspects is a brilliant film and his star-turn in House of Cards (at least the first two seasons) was marvelous. Most of us grew up on Woody Allen movies, but it seems a pretty fair conclusion he may have been engaging in some pretty sordid stuff with his under-age step-daughter.
Going back in history, how do we handle Richard Wagner, the great classical composer and known anti-Semite? Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “For some, Wagner’s anti-Semitism diminishes or even invalidates his accomplishment as a composer; for others, however, it is a personality flaw that has no bearing on his landmark status in the history of Western music.” In Wagner’s case, some claim that his anti-Semitism actually informed his work product. If true, this arguably would seem even worse than if one watches Manhattan while listening to Thriller in the background… I really struggle with the separation of works of art from the thoughts or beliefs of the creator of that art.
REGARDING THE LOS ANGELES MOVIE LIST…
From Brandon Smith:
I'd add Swingers to the LA movie list. '96-97 vintage about LA nightlife; "you're money baby" was said by every 20 something for five years after this movie came out - launched Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau's careers.
Brandon actually is money, baby!
ARE THERE ANY HEROES LEFT?
I’ve officially had it with the dismissal and cancelation of people, both currently and through history. We currently seem on a mission, with aspects disconcertingly reminiscent of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” in which history is being torn down and discredited to make way for a “new truth.” Gone if the past and the meaningful contributions and heroic deeds of people before us because they were corrupt and flawed. The purity litmus test is one few people would be able to pass, including those challenging history. Let’s stipulate to the fact that we are all flawed. But it is possible to acknowledge flawed behaviors, within the context of the times and personal situation, and render judgment on the totality of their legacy—not a single flaw. It is instructive to a better understanding of JFK or Martin Luther King, Jr. that they were not always faithful to their wives—but that’s not why we study their legacy.
This is why I support removal of statues commemorating Confederate leaders and why I think Father Serra’s time has come. But it does not include great patriots like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, creatures of the Virginia colony who possessed slaves. Washington at least practiced the manumission of his slaves upon his death and Jefferson acknowledged that slavery was a poison. That they each had the clarity of mind to reject the concept of slavery may put them at the enlightened forefront of their time and place, but possessed of the human weakness to fall short of practicing their beliefs. Had they come from a place other than Virginia, or had they lived fifty years later, they rightly should be condemned. But they did not.
REVISITING A REAL HERO
Generations later, however, emerged a great leader of remarkable foresight—a remarkable flawed man who was brilliant in battle and kind in his comportment with others. I am not talking about General Robert E. Lee, who warrants our rejection, but his rival, Ulysses S Grant.
Grant’s presidency was not particularly notable for its accomplishments; in fact, it often is viewed askance due to the corruption among people Grant trusted. Yet Grant was a great man. Having experienced multiple failures in business, he rose to be the great general upon whom Lincoln could rely (after a series of false-starts with decent generals with arguably better preparation or records than Grant). Grant, more than any single individual, saved the Union.
His character was beyond reproach. He fought hard to maintain the reconstruction of the South that could well have changed our history (were it not for the results of the 1876 election that brought Hayes and the capitulation to the South). He oversaw enactment of the 15th amendment, ensuring voting rights. He created the Department of Justice, to protect the rights of freed Blacks from the South. He destroyed the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. He pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1875. While he issued the General Order #11, expelling Jewish merchants from the Tennessee military district during the Vicksburg campaign, he lived to regret that decision and spent the better part of his life atoning for this action. This included the appointment of more Jews to positions of responsibility in his administration than any prior president.
In his retirement he wrote one of the most important memoirs in American history, while sitting on his porch wrapped in a blanket, as he was dying of throat cancer. He persevered in this final objective to provide for his family after his death. It was one of the most read books of the 19th century. Grant was revered by his countrymen, with a funeral procession that stretched for miles. As we continue to drag down great people from the past, here’s one we can revere.
While it’s long, Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses Grant is a masterful portrait of a flawed yet good man who evolved into a great man.
All the best,