Original Sin

I quite like the concept of original sin. It neatly captures the premise that we are all flawed. And we are flawed; even the least self-aware among us knows that about him or her -self, whether or not he or she admits it.

To love others rather than simply idolize them we must accept that they, too, are flawed. Otherwise, we see only two dimensional portraits of impossible goodness.

The loves we feel for others are for their admirable characteristics, not their flaws, but we must know about the flaws to have any real understanding of them as people. The beauty that shines through the people we love overwhelms the darkness that makes them three dimensional.

***

Today, cancel culture is all the rage. Living people can – and do – face ritual humiliation, social banishment and the loss of their jobs if it is learned that they once did or said something that’s out of alignment with the prevailing zeitgeist. It doesn’t matter if it was long ago that they did or said whatever is now deemed unforgivable. If an unfortunate photograph emerges, or an off-color joke, or even just a now-verboten word can be shown to have been used, they’re done. Doesn’t matter what the intent was or if, decades later, they’re very different people – they’re to be cast into darkness. Unless they’re prominent politicians of the left, there is no possibility of absolution (and not even then if their usefulness to the progressive cause is past).

Meanwhile, self-designated righteous avengers tear down or mar statues of prominent figures from American history. Democratic processes and the rule of law? The mob has no time for them.

They began with the Confederates – statues of men who were absolutely on the wrong side of history, but whose memory was once cherished by the defeated people they left behind. (One sixth of the southern men between the ages of 13 and 45 were killed in the Civil War).

Even recognizing that the men the Confederate statues portray had characteristics that explain why they were once honored, as well as the terrible weaknesses that the statues are now undeniably taken as symbolizing, like most people I would happily vote for their removal to places where they could be seen as artifacts of a damnable and doomed sub-culture, now long gone, rather than left in place, implicitly to be venerated by all. Under no circumstances, though, would I think it appropriate to short-circuit the democratic process to achieve that end.

***

More recently, the mobs have proceeded to the giants of our shared history. Statues of Jefferson and Grant, Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt have already been removed or defaced. Washington is in their sights. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt – until recently, progressive icons – cannot be far behind.

Even statues of abolitionists have been toppled and a monument to black Union soldiers defaced (https://www.wbur.org/artery/2020/06/03/16-statues-memorials-damaged) – presumably out of the rankest ignorance and/or a hatred of American history generally.

Mob justice has little to do with justice and nothing to do with democracy.

***

It is to remake the present that the mobs are dishonoring memories of the people who gave shape to our country. They do not see the Founders, or our more recent leaders, as people who, for all their flaws, created a nation that has, at great human cost, worked to live up to and defend the ideals announced at its founding, and given hope (and ultimately, prosperity) to millions. In the Founders they see evil incarnate, resulting in a system that must be burned to the ground to make way for a New Man, free from sin, and a new system – actually and ironically, a system that has been tried many times and always failed – cumulatively at the cost of untold millions of lives.

Cancel culture and iconoclasm are cut from the same cloth: a myopic and Manichean vision of people as being either good or evil. For those or who see themselves as wholly righteous, democratic processes and the rule of law are mere impediments to required action. Those who are deemed evil are to be read out of polite company, employment and, if already dead, history.

We are witnessing a deeply intolerant, authoritarian perspective in action.

***

If all Jefferson had done was write the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, with the words that constituted, as Martin Luther King later said, not a statement of fact but a promissory note about this nation’s ideals: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – surely among the most inspiring and consequential words ever written – I would still revere him as a prophet, notwithstanding his all-too-human hypocrisies and contradictions.

If all Washington had done was win the war against King George and establish our republic rather than take up a crown, notwithstanding his personal failings I would still see him as the greatest man of his time.

If all FDR had done was ensure the defeat of the Axis powers, I would accord him immense honor in spite of his many shortcomings, moral and otherwise.

These men, and the other leaders of our country now so profligately dishonored, are inseparable parts of our nation’s DNA. They were real people, just like you and me – flawed, but in their cases, with strengths that proved to be of lasting importance. We honor their memory for the ideals they defined, upheld and defended and the much improved world they left behind. Beauty shone through them three-dimensionally.

***

We all have original sin. There is no New Man; there never will be. There are only flawed humans seeking, at best, to live up to ideals that affirm the dignity of each individual that can only come from allowing him or her the freedom to pursue his or her chosen path in a context of democratic rights and equal justice under the law. That’s precisely what the founders set out to do, however imperfect they were. They should be celebrated for the direction they set so brilliantly, not dishonored as if their personal shortcomings defined their impacts on the world at large.

M.H. Johnston   

4 comments to Original Sin

  • Anonymous  says:

    Thank you for expressing this so well.

  • David Brammer  says:

    The Marxist left recognizes neither good intentions nor good character. the Christian concept of original sin leads into humility and forgiveness – concepts lacking in the religion of socialism.

  • Vivian Wadlin  says:

    I hope you are pursuing an expansion of your audience. Our nation needs to hear your words.

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