Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ambivalent Legacy

Two recent news stories collided in my mind and I imagined that the late Ted Kennedy had once kidnapped an 11-year-old girl, kept her captive in his backyard for 15 years and fathered two children on her.  (Is that worse than leaving someone to die in a submerged car?  Answer to rhetorical question:  yes, I believe that prolonged abuse is worse than a "quick" death.  But anyway.)

On one of the blogs I visit, a discussion began on who was the "greatest American Senator" ever.  Someone suggested Henry Clay (about whom I know nothing) and someone else objected on the grounds that Clay owned slaves.  Then they headed into "you can't judge the past by the standards of the present" territory.  Personally I can't bring myself to agree with that.  It implies that nobody back then knew that slavery was wrong.  I am sure that the people who were living in slavery knew it was wrong. 

It's just that their opinions didn't count (because slaves are not human.)  And possibly there are people today who think that their opinions still don't count.  A thing does not become immoral until the ruling class decides that it's immoral. Isn't that right?

The Kennedys are just a big heap of moral ambiguity.  They did so many good things!  They did so many bad things!  Which one outweighs the other?  We all hope to be judged kindly.  But I . . . I don't think it's just a question of "I did ten good things and five bad things" or "I did three really good things and 15 things that were not really all that bad."  I think it's a question of power.

If someone uses their power for good, then that's good.  If they use their power for bad -- yeah, that's bad.  Abuses of power count for much more on the bad side than right uses of power count for the good.  And the reason is that people excuse abuses committed by the powerful.  They do this because they want to ally themselves with the powerful. There's no point in standing up for someone who has no power.  How can they benefit you?  You want to curry favor with someone who has favors to hand out.  You don't associate with losers.

I blogged recently about a conversation between a childhood friend of mine, and someone who bullied me in childhood.  I didn't mention that the bully also wrote "I admire you standing up for her."  Because it is so very unusual to take the side of someone who's demonstrated themselves to be a loser.  She didn't mean standing up for me at the time, either.  She's talking about their present conversation, years later.  Even now it is admirable, in the mind of a bully, to say just one little word.

Yes, a certain number of people are willing to side with the underdog, at least some of the time.  A large number of people are the underdog . . . sometimes they side with their oppressors and sometimes they don't.  I'm trying to say more than just "side with the underdog" . . . I'm trying to say, that powerful people are dangerous.  Because somehow, crimes against the powerless are always minimized.

I appreciate the ambiguity of someone who uses their powers both for good and for evil.  There's also a saying about "someone who has the power to do evil, but refrains . . . ."  But I just can't join in unmitigated, or even faintly mitigated, praise.  Because there are too many people, alive and dead, who never got a chance to speak for themselves.  That's why.

No comments: