frederick douglass, susan b. anthony, and the ridiculous (and dangerous) quest for moral purity

Reading David Blight's monumental Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, I learned some facts about both Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony that were very unpleasant and, at least in Douglass' case, baffling.

This brought me back to a topic I've revisited several times on wmtc: the rejection of art or culture or historical admiration, based on some moral or ethical failing of the individual.

I only want to know about perfect people

I was amazed to learn that Douglass himself could be racist! In his speeches, he used the stereotype of the drunken Irish immigrant to bolster his case for universal suffrage: if this lout is allowed to vote, why not the Negro? Douglass also had a huge blind spot regarding Native Americans. He would contrast the civilized, educated Negro with the Native American who preferred their own savage and backwards ways to that of the white settler.

Douglass did (verbally) to Native Americans what white oppressors were doing to African Americans -- while Indigenous people were being slaughtered, herded into death marches, and forcibly displaced at the very time he was speaking!

Susan B. Anthony was classist. Her entire life was dedicated to the cause of universal suffrage, but at some heated and contentious points in the struggle, she was willing to throw working class and poor women under the bus to achieve suffrage for the educated classes, as long as that included women.

It was difficult and disturbing to learn this.

From what I've read and seen, many people, knowing this, would now write off Douglass as a piece-of-shit racist, and dismiss Anthony as an elitist, therefore unworthy of their time, thought, education, or admiration.

Douglass and Anthony were both brilliant, radical activists, light-years head of their time. They fought ceaselessly for the good, and they changed the world -- they changed the status of women and African Americans in the world. In an era when change moved more slowly, their activism was even more radical. Their obvious flaws do not outweigh their achievements. Nor should the discovery of these flaws alter their prominent place in progressive history.

It's not possible to understand the movements for African American and women's freedom and equality in North America without knowing the work of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Their individual flaws don't change that.

One strike and you're out

Back in the 21st Century, two feminist writers and social critics -- women whose work I have read, loved, and admired -- have recently made me cringe, one with a racist "joke", the other with transphobia. This hurts me. I don't understand it. I wish it were otherwise.

It also doesn't change the good that both women have accomplished, their excellent thinking and writing on other topics, the work they have done for the greater good. But many outraged leftists are ready to (metaphorically) burn their books and boycott them altogether.

I didn't realize how far this trend had gone (typical me) until I read a letter in a newspaper. The letter writer was sad, baffled, and a bit frightened after hearing that a university student "had thrown [famous writer]'s book in a trash can" because he learned the writer had made racist statements in the 1920s. Don't admire the man? Sure. Refuse to read his work, because you don't agree with all his views? Time to re-think.

To experience art, I must approve of everything the artist has done and thought

People who reject books, music, paintings, essays, any created work, because of the revealed misdeeds and opinions of the creator will soon find themselves in a very small world of narrow opinions. This is a sad way to go through life -- and a dangerous one. Great art has been created by flawed people. Why is it so difficult to separate art from artist? In the political and social justice sphere, why is it so difficult to accept that great deeds have been (and will continue to be) accomplished by people who were not perfect?

When I last wrote about this topic -- dylan farrow and woody allen: a feminist, a rape survivor, and a woody allen fan weighs in -- I included this.
I was talking about books with a friend from the library. I mentioned I had re-read Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls before I went to Spain, and how much I enjoyed it, how it made me appreciate Hemingway in a whole new light. My friend said, "I won't read anything by him. He was a bad person - a womanizer, a drunk, a disloyal friend." She had read The Paris Wife, a novel based on Hemingway's relationship with his first wife, and now she will not experience the man's art.

Let's leave aside the fact that The First Wife was a novel; in this case, it doesn't matter if the novel was 100% factual or not. I was amazed that someone would choose not to experience art because of something they know about the artist. The implications of this are enormous - and absurd. Shall we lay bare every artist's life story, examine their motives, their worldview, their moral code, pass judgment on them, then if we find the artist to be upstanding moral citizens, read their books, see their plays, view their paintings? I don't subscribe to a stereotype of the artist as outside the bounds of morality, but neither do I set myself up as judge and jury. When it comes to art, I'm not there for the artist's personal life. I'm there for the art. An artist may choose to infuse her work with morality, but the personal moral code of the artist is irrelevant.
(If you bother to read that post, more good and valid nuances are discussed in comments.)

As I've written in the past, no one will die if they don't read Hemingway or see a Woody Allen movie. But who will be read? Who will be deemed pure enough? How much must we know before we decide that we can engage with this person's work?

Bear in mind I'm not referring to work that is overtly sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and otherwise bigoted. Picasso may have been a misogynist, but Guernica is not.

If  we continually stomp off because Famous Writer made a racist statement or Agent of Historical Change was a flawed human being, how will we experience the larger world -- the world outside our own heads?

Holy, holy, holier than thou

I have many questions for people who take this position.

Can you not disagree with someone and still appreciate their art? Do you only experience art created by people whose worldview you share? Do you vet the artist before sampling the art? Whose art will be pure enough for you?

As your world shrinks, as the variety of ideas and creativity that you engage with diminishes, aren't you engaged in something that is the opposite of progressive thought? Do tolerance and compassion come into play? Does the zero-tolerance policy you hate in the right wing look better on the left?

And above all, I want to ask, For What Purpose? What does this moral indignation give you? How does it benefit you, or benefit the world?

Do you imagine you are more just, more moral, because you seek to purge yourself of association with the morally imperfect?

At bottom, I see this behaviour as self-righteous, limiting, and utterly useless.

No need to be extreme

Of course there are extreme examples (or we can invent some) that blow a hole in this line of thought. There are opinions and associations that are so grossly repellent that we can never admire the person or experience their art without the knowledge of those opinions intruding.

That has always existed and is not the problem.

The problem is discovering a shred of unpleasantness, a non-perfect person, a person with prejudices -- especially a non-feminist man or a racist white person -- and shunning them from your mental landscape.

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