Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Rudolph and Lincoln

Happy New Years to all those to whom I have not already wished good tidings through personal contacts during the holidays.  I hope this post finds everyone off to a happy and healthy 2022.  My family had our share of sickness, Covid and non-Covid, in the past few weeks, but nothing serious, no hospitalizations.  We did experience a cancelled New Years party due to these various illnesses, but nothing like the tens of thousands of Americans who were effected by flight cancellations or emergency visits to the hospital, or worse.

I did manage to watch a few of the holiday classics this past year, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer being one of them.  I had been thinking about this post since then, but only felt compelled to put pen to paper, as they say, after reading an interesting article about Abraham Lincoln this morning.

First, Rudolph.

I imagine most people are familiar with the main morale of this story, that discrimination and prejudice are not only damaging to those who are on the receiving end, but also the entire community in which they occur.  Remember, if not for Rudolph and the nose he was made to think made him a misfit, Christmas would have been cancelled that snowy, wintry night.  Rudolph's uniqueness, the very thing that made his parents, community, and even Santa, reject him, saved the day.  If it doesn't make you hold your tongue the next time you encounter someone who looks, loves or worships differently than you, then perhaps by imagining all the magnificent achievements that have been made by people with absolutely no similar qualities as yourself, innovations that have helped propel mankind forward (including those who rejected them outright), not to mention those still to come, maybe that in itself might encourage tolerance, acceptance, a common goal for real equality, and not just equality for those who look like the person in the mirror.  

But what about Santa himself?  Santa who saw first hand Rudolph's flying ability, yet thought it a shame that such talent was negated by the red, glowing nose.  Had Santa focused on Rudolph's ability, and not his "defect", the community might have accepted Rudolph right away, rather than driving him out.  (Note, it seems to me that Clarice - the girlfriend - and Mrs Donner - the mother - were the first to realize the mistake of prejudice, an interesting comment on woman's superior ability to empathize).  

Santa, for all his generosity, goodness, outright saintly behavior, was prejudiced when it came to Rudolph's difference.  Does this mean we should demonize this Santa character. allow this fault to override his overall goodness?  No, emphatically no, because Santa realizes how wrong he was, even if only because Rudolph's nose was now useful to Santa.  This admission of guilt enables us to excuse Santa's behavior as a mistake that all humans make, even cartoon characters who resemble real people and/or mythical figures. 

This lesson, that everyone can make a mistake, even our most treasured and revered heroes and ancestors, may help us when we are deciding to remove, hide or otherwise reconsider the statues and honors we have erected.  Certainly, we should not use an advanced moral norm of today to rethink all historical figures, without considering the circumstances of the times.  

A good example is slavery.  Most of the founding fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, two of our most important founders, owned slaves.  But there is also evidence that they regretted the practice as time passed.  Certainly, even if their recanting of slavery was a bit of lip service, we need to remember that, despite their flaws, they accomplished more good than bad.  It seems to me, that this should be the core of how we grade our heroes, did they overcome their flaws, or did the flaw define them.

Moving forward then, if we keep with the concept of slavery, there are hundreds of statues in the American South which honor and glorify various generals of the Confederate Army precisely because they took up arms against the United States government to defend the existence of slavery in their states.  While it may be said that some did not own slaves, or did not particularly believe in the concept of slavery, they chose to fight to keep it going.  They chose the side of slavery, and for better or worse, slavery is a big part of what defines them.

In other words, I could consider leaving in place a statue for a Confederate general who subsequently disavowed slavery after the Civil War, perhaps went on to found a college (and allow the Negroes of the day to attend), or in some way admitted his mistake and took steps to alter his definition, maybe we can allow an altered (or new statue) to exist which honors these new achievement.  But glorifying the actions of those who actively killed or led others to kill, their fellow citizens in the name of the complete dehumanization of men merely because they were born with a different skin color (as God wished them to be, He being the creator of all men), then that is a travesty, and not worth our honor.  If, in any way, an expression of humanity is one of the reasons to create a statue or otherwise honor a past hero or heroine, then anything erected which somehow emphasizes the horror, the non-Christian treatment, the sheer evil of a defense of slavery, then that statue must be removed, even if just to remind us now, and in the future, that enslaving any of God's people, is not to be tolerated, excused, or otherwise treated as if it is not evil incarnate.

Which brings me to Lincoln.  The article I was referring to was an essay which was meant to remind the readers that Lincoln himself, the Great Emancipator, did not embrace the abolition of slavery, and certainly not the idea of suffrage for Blacks in general, immediately.  Some might even say that he came around, in part, because he soon realized that allowing former slaves and free blacks to fight for the Union, and to be treated as men and not property once the War ended, was needed to win the war, and might help in some of the post-war elections of the South, by both allowing suffrage for this formerly enslaved population as well as providing representation for those people in the halls of Congress.  While we certainly don't know how an extended Lincoln Presidency would have changed our history as we was killed shortly after he gave a speech attended by John Wilkes Booth in which he supported the vote for educated Blacks and those who had fought in the Civil War, we might imagine that Reconstruction might have taken a different course.

It could be said, that Lincoln died for his belief in race equality, or at least some steps in that direction, but not because he believed in it from the start.  His perspective changed over time, just as any thinking man's viewpoint might, even should, evolve over the course of a lifetime.  Perhaps that is something to consider when a politician is praised for his/her consistent opinions over time.  Does that reflect someone who is wise, or just someone who is so in love with their ego that they can't see that times change, and along with it the tenets of what makes us human, and humane. 

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