That is the question I face. An author I know has a new book coming out soon. He’s been very successful, writes well, is in the genre I like to read, and every other book in this series has been quickly downloaded into my Kindle as soon as it’s been available. In fact, I have one or two signed copies of his work on my shelves. Ordinarily, this would be a no-brainer call: of course I get the book, I read it right away, and surely I enjoy it and look forward to the next one.
But there’s a problem.
There’s also another writer from the same genre. I’ve not met this one personally, as I have the first guy, but I have corresponded with him, and had a few of his books on my virtual bookshelf, waiting their turn. He hasn’t been as successful as the first writer, at least in terms of appearances on the various best-seller lists, but he’s likely making a decent living at it. Ordinarily, I would find my way to his books’ location in my Kindle, download one and spend a sunny afternoon out on my deck, enjoying a cold one along with this fellow’s work as my dog chases chipmunks and geese out of the yard below.
There’s a problem here, too.
At what point does a person’s politics overrule talent?
Recently, both of these gents have been very vocal on social media with regard to their political views. The first guy, let’s call him Brad, received a tremendous backlash from his Twitter followers back in March after a certain politically-oriented tweet, with many of them declaring they were done with him. Shut up and just write, they said. Can’t shut up? Cross me off your mailing list. Forget about selling me your next book, or the one after that, if there is one. Brad’s tweets since then have been decidedly apolitical. I suspect his publisher, or at least his agent, might have had a chat with him.
The other guy, let’s call him Bob, isn’t quite as active on social media, but he is very active on his personal blog, connected to his author website. He was very concerned about the coronavirus pandemic (who wasn’t?) and decided to post daily content about how to survive it. He evidently has some background in such things like stocking up on bottled water, using precautions when going out for supplies, things like that. He promised that his posts would be apolitical, but that didn’t last long. A few sentences, in fact, and when I commented to the post about that, he took rather extreme offense. A couple weeks later he made even more outlandish comments in a post, and when I asked him to clarify certain points he was trying to make, his reaction was vicious, and public: he responded to my comment by accusing me of faking a military history in order to sell my own books. Stolen valor, in other words. I immediately wrote an email to him, challenging him to find any writing of mine, anywhere, in which I claimed to have been in any branch of the Armed Forces. As my readers well know, I never served, thanks in part to a teenage athletic injury. I’ve never claimed otherwise. I waited for his response, but he didn’t write back. He did, however, delete those comments, mine and his, from that post. It never happened, in other words. Since then, he’s continued his daily postings, interspersing his sensible advice with political rants.
So, do I read these guys’ books, or not? Do I wipe them out of my library? Do I not buy Brad’s new book, which I’d actually been looking forward to reading? Do I ignore Bob from here on out? Would that be fair?
I’m definitely not a fan of today’s “cancel culture,” which seeks to wipe out of existence whatever a person or institution might have achieved in the past, if that target has done something to offend those who seem so easily offended. This usually takes the form of a Twitter pile-on, in which whatever the target might have said in his tweet is almost always taken out of context. And even if it isn’t, so what? As Americans, we have a right to say whatever we want, whether it’s regarded as wise or stupid…don’t we? The First Amendment hasn’t yet been repealed, but they’re working on it: The war on A1.
It’s been more than a month now since the murder of George Floyd at the hands–more accurately, the knee–of a Minneapolis policeman triggered a rage that has only recently, perhaps, started to slow down. But one thing it did that’s still going strong was to rekindle the intense public debate about the presence of certain works of art in public. I’ve written before about the coming of The Perfect Order, so there’s no need to rehash all of that, but now the cancel mob is not stopping at statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians. In a move anyone with half a brain could have predicted, they’re now going after any publicly-displayed artwork that depicts people who said or did anything that is now, even centuries after the person’s death, judged to be anti-something. Thus we now have calls to tear down statues of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, two Americans without whom we probably wouldn’t have any kind of country today, imperfect as it is. In our state capital of Madison last week, protesters tore down statues of “Forward,” the state motto, and one of Civil War hero Hans Christian Heg, a Norwegian immigrant who worked for abolition of slavery before the war and then put his words into actions by putting on a Union Army uniform and giving his life in the struggle to preserve the Union and free the slaves.
I was working the newsroom at WJMC Radio last week when the Madison protests made headlines across the nation. I’ve been to Madison many times, of course, and always enjoyed my visits. It’s a beautiful city, although I wouldn’t want to live there; I prefer the small towns and rural areas of Wisconsin over its cities, even though we’ve got some pretty nice ones here. I’ve been to Capitol Square, but can’t recall ever seeing the Heg statue, and in fact had never heard of him before reading the reports across the AP news wire about the destruction. And like many, many other Wisconsinites, and doubtless many others across the country, I thought, What the hell are they doing now?
Heg was born in Norway in 1829 and emigrated to the U.S. with his family at age 11. They settled in what became the Town of Norway in Racine County. He grew up to be a prison reformer and tireless advocate for the abolition of slavery. In the war he commanded the 15th Wisconsin, the only Union Army regiment composed entirely of Scandinavian immigrants. He was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. A statue of Heg was erected in the township where he grew up, with a replica in his birthplace town back in Norway. A park in the community of Wind Lake, near his family’s homestead, is named after him.
Nobody has been arrested for the destruction of the Heg or “Forward” statues. Nobody’s been arrested for the beating of Tim Carpenter, a state senator from Milwaukee who was working late at the Capitol that night and risked his life to take photos of the chaos: Search for Carpenter assailants. A few days later, people who claimed to represent the mob tried to justify the statue attacks as saying that they represented the city and state, which haven’t yet done whatever it is the mob wants them to do, so as such, they had to go.
So this is where we’re at. The massive protests following the Floyd death were often cheered on by politicians and even by doctors who had previously warned everyone against even going to church so as to not spread the coronavirus. Those same doctors are now curiously silent as we see big spikes in infection rates in the very cities where protesters were allowed to gather by the thousands, without the slightest regard for masking or social distancing.
But, I digress a little bit, a nasty habit of mine. What has all this got to do with my problems with the authors Brad and Bob?
Well, it’s because while I’m not in favor of “cancel culture,” I’m wondering if there is a point at which someone who is considering an association with another person has to take that person’s overall actions into account and say, “He crossed a line. I’m done with him.”
Can we still consider the big picture?
If you look into anybody’s life, there are going to be some questionable things that person has said or done. We’re all human, we all make mistakes. Sometimes there are whoppers. Hopefully, we learn from them, get better. As a Christian, I believe in grace and forgiveness. But I also believe that redemption has to be sincere, and it has to be earned. A person who has lived his entire life as a moral degenerate, for example, shouldn’t expect to be welcomed into Heaven because God gave him a pass regardless of what he did down on Earth. Nobody gets a permanent get-out-of-hell-free card. If that were the case, what would be the point of living a good life at all? The atheist believes that everyone will get a dirt nap when the heart stops ticking, regardless of what kind of life that person lived, good or bad. Whether you were King or Gandhi or Mother Teresa, or you were Hitler or Stalin or Jack the Ripper, it makes no difference. What, then, is the idea of universal grace, if not the same thing but in the other direction?
So, we all make mistakes, and sometimes they’re so serious they land us in jail, or destroy relationships, or cause unintended heartache and hardship for loved ones. Sometimes these mistakes are simple that could result in tragic consequences. Running a stop sign is not normally going to result in a tragic accident, but it could–that’s why the stop sign is there. But if a guy runs a stop sign and causes an accident, is that grounds to hound him for the rest of his life, cause him to lose his job, smear his name in public?
Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, was recently asked about the issue of Confederate statues, and he made a good point. Regardless of what type of men they were, however brave and valorous they were on the battlefield, these men took up arms against the United States. They were traitors. None of them who survived the war were ever tried for treason. Not even Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. The country was not in the mood for retribution. The war had caused so much death and destruction–upwards of 750,000 dead, and as a percentage of the population, equivalent to over 7 million today–the people just wanted to put it behind them and rebuild. Statues commemorating Confederate heroes were not put up until decades after the war. Gates’s question was simple: why do we honor men who were traitors? If anything, we should see more statues of Union heroes, like Ulysses S. Grant, like Hans Christian Heg.
But Heg’s statue was torn down, apparently because he had the temerity to live in a state that is not yet perfect. And last week, protesters in San Francisco toppled a statue of Grant, the Union’s greatest general and later on a president who virtually destroyed the Ku Klux Klan in the South. Why did they topple Grant? Because, apparently, Grant at one time owned a slave. One slave, who was given to him as a gift, and whom Grant subsequently freed after a short time. But that was enough of a transgression for the mob to determine that whatever else Grant accomplished in his life–defeating the Confederacy and ending slavery, for example–wasn’t enough to overcome that one sin. God might very well have granted Grant forgiveness and grace when he died in 1885, but today’s “woke” Americans aren’t that soft-hearted.
In light of all of that, what about one person’s decision to purchase another’s work, or to admire that person for the things they accomplished in their life? Two of the men whose lives I have admired since my adolescence have been Johnny Unitas, the great quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, and Bruce Lee, the martial arts legend. Yet recent biographies of both men revealed that they were serial philanderers, married men who thought nothing of cheating on their wives. Yet, should they be forgiven? Apparently they have been, by the people to whom they were closest. Unitas’ daughter talked extensively about her father in the recent book, Collision of Wills, and while she was well aware of his cheating on her mother, she did not condemn him for it. And Bruce Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, recently collaborated on an ESPN documentary of her late husband that was very favorable toward him and said not a word about his adultery.
I am definitely not in favor of adultery, but I’m also careful to understand that I’m not in that person’s place, either. Neither Unitas nor Lee are still alive to answer any questions that might be posed to them about their behavior. Were they regretful? Were they forgiven? Only God knows. In the meantime, what of those of us here who admire them still for their work, their skill, their achievements in their chosen fields, which were massive? Unitas played his last game in 1972, Lee made his last movie a year later, and yet both men are still held up as the gold standard in their respective professions. When NFL fans debate the greatest quarterbacks of all time, they always include Unitas in those discussions, without ever once considering what his private life might’ve been like. And that is, perhaps, as it should be. He was a generous and loyal teammate, especially to his black teammates, something that wasn’t at all common back then, and his toughness and skill on the field were widely respected and remain without peer. Lee’s martial arts abilities are admired by the many millions who have stepped onto the mats of dojos around the world, and his movies inspired a genre that has untold numbers of devoted followers today. Like many, I suspect, while I cannot excuse their infidelities, I’m not going to allow that to cancel out everything else they did.
So, finally, we are back to Brad and Bob. Will I forgive Brad for his intemperate political tweets and buy his book? I think I will. He’s done a lot of good work other than his writing, and perhaps one day he will put his money (of which there’s a lot) where his mouth is and get into the political arena, where he may discover things aren’t quite as black and white as he might think. As for Bob, I decided not to go any further with him. I took a look at some samples of his work and decided that there are better writers out there with which to spend my time. I deleted his books from my Kindle, and he can go on with his blog rants. I’ll find better ways to spend my time. This is still America, after all, and I can decide for myself whose work I will admire, and whose I will not. And if the mob wants to come for me, well, they might find out I’m a little more resistant than a statue.