Many years ago a philosophy professor gave our class a fascinating assignment. First, he instructed us to take a few minutes and decide who our favorite celebrity was. By “celebrity” it could be anyone famous—a writer, a politician, an athlete, an actor, a musician, a nuclear physicist, anybody. And they didn’t have to be alive. It could be an historical figure. It could be George Washington, Albert Einstein, or Emma Goldman.
Then he asked us to take a few minutes to seriously consider what our favorite celebrity would have to do—what egregious crime they’d have to commit, what disgusting character flaw they’d have to expose—in order for us not to “like” him or her anymore. According to the professor, the object of the exercise was to “explore the boundaries of tolerance.”
I chose Bob Dylan. Looking back on it, that choice now seems ridiculously trivial. In my defense, let me say that it didn’t have to be Dylan. Even at the time, I realized it could just as easily have been one of 50 other people, drawing from artists, writers, philosophers, politicians, as well as other entertainers. I could have picked John Dewey, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Hunter Thompson, Eugene McCarthy or 50 others. I could’ve picked David Hume or Marlon Brando. The list was endless.
But I picked Dylan. I picked him not only because I liked his music and had fallen under his spell, but because I knew a considerable amount about his personal history.
The classroom discussion that followed was very revealing. In fact, it’s fair to say it was mind-boggling. Unless that whole damn class was lying, it soon became apparent that there was virtually nothing any of our “cultural heroes” could do wrong that would change our opinion of them. We liked who we liked….and we were going to keep liking them. No matter what.
Part of the classroom exercise was to bring up all the hypothetical crimes and character defects we could think of to talk ourselves out of it. What if, for example, our heroes were alcoholics or druggies? What if Albert Einstein was a heroin addict who sold drugs to teenagers and turned kids into dope fiends? No, the class more or less agreed that that wasn’t a good enough reason to give up on him. The relativity theory is still the relativity theory.
What if James Madison was found to have been guilty of spousal abuse? What if it turned out that he used to beat the living tar out of poor Dolly? Nope….he was still a great man. What about cases of flagrant racism? No. Sadism? No. Fascist tendencies? No. Embezzlement? Child molestation? Cruelty to animals? Armed robbery? Nope. None of the things we brought up could pry us off our favorites. We were mindlessly loyal.
Students pointed out that even though many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners, it shouldn’t mean we can’t respect or revere them for what they contributed to the formation of the country. And let’s not forget that the same Earl Warren who stripped Japanese-Americans of their property and interned them in concentration camps was the same Earl Warren who led the fight for Brown vs. Board of Education. And Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Etc.
But what about murder? Surely, that would matter. Wrong. Murder didn’t necessarily tip the scales either. A student who had named Mozart as his “all-time favorite person” was asked by the professor if his appreciation of the great composer would be diminished if he learned that Mozart had, in fact, been a serial killer—that he had roamed the streets of Vienna committing Jack-the-Ripper-style grisly murders of young women. The student answered that it would not. “I’d like to think that I’d be able to separate the man from his art,” he said proudly.
As for myself, would my opinion of Bob Dylan have changed if I’d found out that he’d killed a man, or that he was a wife-beater, or that he used the term “nigger” in private conversations? Would I scratch him off my list of cultural heroes….or would I take a deep breath and find a way to “separate the man from his art”?
Which brings us to patriotism. It’s easy to see why we have no difficulty reconciling our country’s sins. Whether it was the extermination of native Americans, support of rightwing tyrants who uttered those three magic words (“I hate Communism”), the devastation of Iraq, or the killing of civilians in Afghanistan, we seem to have little capacity for self-recrimination. American exceptionalism is alive and well.