Everyone Has Flaws, Some Major

When I went to check the news this morning, I was greeted with a new-to-me (and likely you) quote from President Reagan, back before he became President. The unedited version just surfaced in the Nixon Library, and it’s from when then-Governor Reagan called President Nixon up after the UN voted to recognize China. Reagan was not a fan (to put it mildly) of the way the delegation of Tanzania celebrated after the vote, which he disapproved of. He said:

To see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!

As a person who grew up admiring Reagan, reading this quote was more than a little unsettling. It’s so unabashedly racist, any which way you slice it. There’s no getting around that fact. For someone to think this, let alone speak it, says something about that person’s view of the world.

This made me think about the broader debate on who deserves to be honored with awards named after them, statues erected to them, buildings named in their honor, etc. Everything from Confederate statues to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. Some have carried that argument forward, saying people like Washington and Jefferson shouldn’t be revered because of troubling issues in their past.

(A quick side note to say I believe there’s a huge difference between someone expressing racist thoughts in 1780 and someone expressing the same thoughts in 1980, and they should be weighed accordingly.)

The more I think about it, the more clear it becomes that any award or building or monument dedicated to any person runs the risk of having a PR crisis at some point in the future, because people are people. They all have flaws. Is it possible for a blatant racist to accomplish great things? Sure it is. Being a racist doesn’t preclude them from fighting Communism, for example. (It also doesn’t stop them from making bigger mistakes or bigger great decisions.)

On the one hand, I believe if we go around trying to clean up and sanitize all the monuments to men or women around the world, we’ll likely end up with no monuments at all. If we knew the totality of each individual’s life, I’m confident we’d find evidence to disqualify them for being honored. (Cutting some of you off at the pass here: let’s remove Jesus Christ from the data set, just to keep things focused.)

So is that, then, the solution? No naming buildings? No making monuments? I don’t think so. I think naming something after someone only becomes problematic when we begin to put the person up on the same pedestal his monument rests on. But I also think that simply the act of erecting a monument or naming an award doesn’t equate to endorsing everything that person ever did, thought, or said. Down that path, no one’s recognized for anything. And recognition is important.

Why? Because it’s what helps us strive to be better. Seeing someone take a stand or break a world record or overcome some obstacle can inspire us to know that more is possible. The monuments and the awards are for the specific things those people accomplished in their field.

So my thinking on this has changed some since I first encountered the concept of tearing down memorials to flawed individuals. Not that I don’t believe there are some memorials worth tearing down (I still think there are), but rather that we need to be conscious about the greater place of that memorial or award. The context of where it sits, who it influences, what it endorses, and how it came to be.

Do I still admire Reagan? Sure, for some of the things he did. But I know for a fact he was racist, and that changes my evaluation of him as well. Do I believe we need to rename Reagan International Airport? Probably not. But my estimation of him as a President has already gone down a fair bit over the years, and this recent revelation has caused it to sink further.

I don’t know . . . I’m still processing some of this. Maybe it was all old news to some of you, but it was new news to me. What are your thoughts around this whole topic?


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