Jennifer Hochschild ponders how we should evaluate "flawed historical heroes." She specifically mentions the anti-Semitic H. L. Mencken and the "Savage"-hatin' Ben Franklin. One can also throw in basically all of the Founding Fathers and "dead white guys" of Western political philosophy, just for starters. Of them, Hochschild asks:
How should we evaluate, teach, and write about people like Mencken and Franklin? Some of my students are prepared simply to condemn them as racists and therefore dismiss everything they wrote, or at least to interpret all of their writings through the lens of racism. But this seems to me too stringent, if only because I don’t want my own corpus of work to be interpreted through the stupidest sentences I ever write. Others are willing to excuse people like Mencken or Franklin on the grounds that they merely reflect the common discourse of their time. That seems too lenient, if only because by definition our heroes are not participants in common discourse; if they were, they would not have been identified as heroes. So they should be evaluated differently.
I continue to look for some middle interpretive ground that neither dismisses important political actors with a glaring flaw nor dismisses the flaw because the political actors are otherwise important. Exactly how to do that, however, remains a puzzle.
Dismissal and excusal are both poor answers, I agree. But I think Hochschild blurs an important line between dismissing someone because they were a racist and interpreting their writings through the lens of said racism. It seems helpful here to basically toss Mencken out of the conversation, as while he was certainly an interesting guy with some witty things to say, he doesn't really rise to the level of national hero or influential political philosopher. But does it matter that, for example, many of the Founding Fathers who declared all men are created equal also had slaves? Or that modern political philosophy is rooted in works with seemingly off-handed references to the ignorance of "savages"? It must matter for something.
Which is why I think interpreting such writings through the lens of the racism of its authors -- while it shouldn't make up the entirety of the discussion, or indeed even the majority of it -- is nonetheless an essential part of understanding the philosophical and political heritage of the United States (and many European countries as well). A student can't appreciate the critical nuances of modern political philosophy without actually taking note of the fact that many of the authors held deeply offensive views about people that seemed foreign to them. And, likewise, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are not just mythical documents bestowed upon us by the gods. They were written by real people with real flaws. This need not necessarily detract from the power of these documents in our political culture. If anything, carefully evaluating the racism of our founders -- both philosophical and political -- might very well help us to come to grips with the tension inherent in reaching for the promise of America in a nation that so terribly often has fallen far short of it. Indeed, believing that America can transcend the bigotries of those that founded it necessarily requires engaging in an open discussion of that bigotry, not by using it as an excuse to discount the importance of the Founders but rather as an opportunity to demythicize them.
"The more fallible the mammal, the greater the example," as I believe Christopher Hitchens put it in his analysis of Martin Luther King, Jr.