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Monday, October 30, 2017

Airbrushing, Deleting, Ignoring, And Expunging–Removal As A Way Of Life

“I wish Bobby were dead”, said Margot Thomas about Bobby Freeman, an annoying, baby-smelling boy in her kindergarten class.  “I hate him”.

Margot’s mother of course was quick to correct her daughter.  Everyone has their worth.  Hate is an unacceptable emotion and a selfish reaction; and wishing someone dead is impossibly childish.

“But he’s dumb”, said Margot, “and he stinks”.

Removal – that’s what life is often about.  Not accommodation, compromise, or tolerance but elimination.  Relegation is not enough sometimes when the grievance is particularly serious. It would not be enough to reassign Bobby to another kindergarten because he would still be on the playground, in the halls carrying his food-stained, tacky Bunny, hoisting himself into his mother’s SUV, or in the cafeteria eating carrot sticks and honey.

And so it is in the adult world.  Sometimes only removal is the only recourse to difficult conundrums.  George Washington, for example, father of the nation, hero of the Revolutionary War, legendary man of principle, courage, and rectitude, was a slave-owner; and despite his role in the founding of the Republic he should be banned for his irremediable immoral actions.  Easier to erase the image of George Washington than to deal with the complexity of historical context and moral relativity.

Image result for images george washington by peale nps

It turns out that the very church which Washington attended has been forced to remove his images because they might be ‘offensive to some’ and intolerable to others.  Washington, no matter what his place in American history nor his exemplary moral convictions must be expunged, removed, alienated and dismissed from consideration.

Martin Luther King, however, has been given a pass for his moral turpitude as has John F Kennedy because of their popular appeal.  King is the very embodiment of the notion of civil rights, the dignity of the black man, and the righteousness of African Americans in the face of white supremacy and manorial oppression.  Kennedy is Camelot, the embodiment of class, cool, and enlightened leadership. 

Image result for images jfk sailing

Americans are willing to overlook King’s notorious promiscuity and Kennedy’s philandering because they were even more relevant to the American experience than Washington.

While critics marginalize and dismiss Washington for his immoderate slavery and assume an a priori moral judgment of his life, they contextualize King and Kennedy, absolving them of any moral wrongdoing.

It would be an unconscionable act to expunge their images from the American visual lexicon.

Sexual libertinage is not slavery, say those favoring moral judgment.  It is right to airbrush Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and the rest of the Founding Fathers for their fundamentally unprincipled and essentially immoral behavior; but wrong to cast the opprobrium net over the likes of heroes like Kennedy and King for their misdemeanors.

The irony of course that such judgments will always be time-bound and temporal.   The sins of 0ne generation are often seen as  righteous rebellion in a just cause; or the understandable by-products of generational nurseries.  Of course women were attracted to dynamic, powerful men; and of course these men took full advantage of their entitlement; but at the same time the sins of earlier forefathers are considered out of context and condemned.

A college classmate – Errol -  has recently veered off the rails.  Despite his beginnings as a profound conservative valuing individual enterprise, will, and self-determination, he has become an implacable progressive.  He is now a true believer in environmental Armageddon, capitalist exploitation, white supremacy, and the retrograde nature of Biblical fundamentalism. How his transformation – his epiphany – came about is irrelevant.  The fact that he has cleared his social media directories of all those who hold opposing views is what is important.

Image result for images environmental armageddon

In his mind, political philosophy is the only valid indicator of personal worth; and those who do not endorse his view of progress, humanity, and social evolution have little value.

Those who disagreed with his crabbed and Johnny-come-lately liberalism did the same.  They expunged him, removed him from their ‘most favored’ list, and left him in cyberspace.

In other words both Errol and his detractors pushed the delete button.  Better not to be bothered by emotionalism and dodgy sentiment than to deal with it.   Better to remain within a sheltered community of those committed than to be open to breaches in the wall.

Such is the temper of the times.  Better to airbrush and remove all traces of history than to unearth the past, deal with the complexities of moral relativism, or simply to have to see Bobby Porter’s  fat, gumpy, and ugly face.

There are many people I would like to  airbrush.  There is the longtime friend who is getting pushy about my marriage, my children, and my work.  I would rather that he disappear completely than reappear fortnightly to ask embarrassing questions. There is  Paul S. who reminds me of an unpleasant period of my past and with whom I have chosen to keep an uncomfortable silence.

To a lesser degree there are the columnists of the Left who continue to raise questions about the environment, women’s rights, gay equality, and the erosion of  free choice in the face of religious fundamentalism.  I wish they would go away too, retreat into their own safe spaces and not bother me.

In short, we all have someone or something that we would like to erase.  For those passionately committed to eliminating racism, it would be convenient to erase feudalism, the slave labor that built the White House, the Imperial Palaces of Egypt and Persepolis, the pyramids, and the Taj Mahal, and the indentured trade between England and the colonies.

Image result for images the pyramids slave labor

For those who cast women as victims and men as perennial oppressors it is important to dismiss Tamora, Goneril, Regan, Volumnia, and Lady Macbeth of Shakespeare; Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilde Wangel of Ibsen, and Laura of Strindberg’s The Father – all strong women who asked for no sympathy and gave no quarter to men.

Once one takes out the airbrush and begins to remove images of Khrushchev, apostates of the Politburo, and Lenin, there is no end.  Once the statues of the Confederacy have been dethroned and destroyed; and once all traces of Fifties religious parochialism, Sixties male preference, and today’s white  prerogatives have been erased, we can all sleep easier at night.

Yet viewing this edited view of history is like looking at he pictures at a retrospective  exhibition with half of them removed.  Empty spaces, breaks in symbolism, creative evolution, and personal expression.  It makes no sense.

‘Let it be’, an admonition, warning, and sage advice.  Deal with the present, never blame the past, and look only to the future.  No predecessor or antecedent is culpable for events of the present. History serves to explain not to justify.

In the spirit of social ecumenism Margot Thomas looked up Bobby Freeman many years later, and found that he was as clueless and socially awkward  as he had been forty years earlier.

“I should have left the trash bin lid closed”, she said to herself.  Tine never helps, especially when looked at to explain or justify; and in Bobby’s case, his garbage only rotted more nastily. “I should have let him be”.

At least Margot gave Bobby the benefit of the doubt.  He did  in fact exist, went through puberty and adolescence, and emerged as an adult.  She never removed him completely from her files and was willing to give him a second look. 

When she saw the same inept, stumbling, sexually immature and socially backward Bobby Freeman as she had intuited in kindergarten, she knew that it would have been best to consign him to negative cyberspace, deleted without a trace.

Some have criticized Margot for a lack of compassion, a stubborn unwillingness to see the best in others, and a too quick finger on the social trigger. She would get her come-uppance eventually.  The tide would turn and she would be the one left on the curb.

Others admired her diffidence, confidence, and complete willingness to airbrush the unpleasant.
Yet unfriending, dismissing, and putting associates on a No Call list is quite different from second-guessing history.  Friends come and go, and for the most part aren’t worth the time spent with them; but George Washington, Jefferson, King, Kennedy, and JFK are worth the time.  Some people are simply more important and essential than others; and while getting out the airbrush in some instances is all well and good; it is precisely the thing not to do in others.

Discernment – that is the bottom line. Knowing when life is better off without the Bobby Freemans of the world and when even a retouche of the image of Alexander Hamilton is uncalled for and wrong.

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