For whatever reason, it strikes a nerve when esteemed politicians like Abe Lincoln and FDR are criticized.
Why is that?
I suppose that people do not like to see their heros tarnished. I understand that inclination perfectly well. I myself grew very tired of hearing athletes and great leaders attacked and smeared.
I admit to liking Daryl Strawberry. He has the greatest left-handed home run swing I think I have ever seen. Watching him play was a great joy for me. When he continued to run afoul of the law, this saddened me deeply. It also saddened me to hear people tear him apart like garbage. The man, after all, is a human being, and a very talented athlete. It is certainly not a good thing to see him fall. As a matter of human decency, you have to hope that he can turn his life around — if for no one else's sake than for himself and his family.
At some point, however, I realized that some criticisms of public figures may be justified. I stopped worshiping Ronald Reagan and Abe Lincoln like heros. For that matter, I stopped worshiping baseball players like heros.
The annoyance which people feel as a result of criticisms of their heros appears to stem not from the belief that these heros — whether Lincoln, FDR, or Magic Johnson — are perfect and sinless, but from the realization that it will require thought and investigation to find out whether the criticisms are really true.
It is so much easier to sit at home, happily reflecting that all is right with the world. The world is populated with good, honest people, and we can all sleep peacefully at night.
It is easier to think that, but it is sadly not the truth. There are evil men in the world, and they often try to hide what they do.
Free persons have an obligation to themselves to find out what is what about the topics that concern them. This takes work, but there is no getting around it. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Although we would rather think that athletes or politicians are blameless and good, somebody to cheer for, that is not always the case.
Of course, there are genuine criticisms, and then there are smears.
But we will never be able to distinguish between a smear and a justified criticism without doing a little homework, a little digging around in books or magazines at the library, and bouncing our thoughts and concerns off of our friends. Without a little hard work, we will never be more than sheep. Just as it is easier to sit at home and think that all is right with the world, it is easier to dismiss all criticisms of public figures out of hand. This relieves one of the burden of independent thought.
Perhaps you are a Christian, and you are thinking "Hey, Jesus talks about sheep all the time. And he is the Shepherd." That's right, but the point of that image is that Christ shepherds his flock, i.e. that God loves and protects his creatures.
It is an entirely different usage of "sheep" that I employ. If we are sheep in the realm of politics, this is because we are allowing ourselves to be led and manipulated — and sometimes slaughtered — instead of standing up like men and women made in the image and likeness of God. God made men and women with minds that think. Despite what the animal rights crowd claims, human beings are different than sheep. If we do not use our minds to think for ourselves, we are not living up to our God-given potential.
This is not to sanction Cartesian skepticism, doubting everything in the world and accepting nothing on authority. Some knowledge can only, as a matter of practical reality, come from authority. For example, I believe that the Yankees beat the Mets in the World Series, although I was not there and did not see it happen, because other people who were there tell me the Yankees won. I believe that based upon authority.
Even so, authority can be examined. Some authorities are better, because more accurate and correct, than others. You listen to your doctor for advice on medicine. You do not listen to your TV repair man for advice on medicine. That is not to criticize those who repair televisions. It is only to point out that they are not doctors.
In a democracy, all persons are in theory able to figure out the truth about politicians and politics, such that they can vote and thereby govern themselves. It is easier to simply hop on the bandwagon, but that path leads straight to tyranny.
Cartesian skepticism is not a problem with the American body politic today. If there were more hard-boiled skeptics in America, it would be hard for politicians to sucker people into believing their promises. As it is, many Americans appear to be so far to the opposite of skepticism — let us say that they are credulous, and willing to believe almost anything — that they cannot listen to any criticism of their idols without launching into personal attacks on those critics.
If you disagree with criticisms of Abe Lincoln, state the reasons why. By arguing, the truth can be found. Calling those who attack Lincoln obscene names advances the cause of Lincoln not one bit. In fact, if that is all that can be said in Mr. Lincoln's defense, then the critics of Lincoln have made their case.
I suppose that some truths are hard to accept. Those who enjoy fantasy novels may have encountered the works of Robert Jordan. In one novel, a character gouges out his own eyes and eats them after learning the true history of his nation. The man, from a race of warriors, was unable to accept the truth that his people were once pacifists. And so he killed himself.
Americans, one hopes, are not so wimpy as to be unable to face unpleasant facts.
Nonetheless, many persons appear either unwilling or unable to hear or read anything about Lincoln or FDR which does not fit with the ideas they already hold.
Assuming that they already know all that there is to know about such historical figures, such persons do not wish to be exposed to thoughts which might force them to change their minds.
Why? What do you have to lose? The worst thing that might happen if the truth about Lincoln becomes generally accepted is that we take him off our money, convert the Lincoln memorial into something else (or leave it as a cautionary warning against Caesar worship), and we recognize that he was a human being with faults and sins like everybody else. In short, we take him off of a pedestal.
Some athletes, like Charles Barkley, attempt to avoid being put on a pedestal as a role model — perhaps because they can thus avoid later being thrown from the pedestal in disgrace. By the way, I like Barkley.
Politicians, however, proudly place themselves in the public eye, promising to save America and do wonderful things for us. They put themselves in the public eye.
If it is somehow immoral to criticize such politicians, then we are finished as a free society. If politicians are immune from criticism, we are living in a slavish society such as the USSR, the Roman Empire, Cuba, North Korea and China.
It's your choice. What kind of world do you want to inhabit?
February 20, 2001
Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman