The confluence of Martin Luther King's holiday and Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday got me thinking about "untouchable" national icons, people about whom nothing bad can be said. You might call it the anti-Political Correctness, where PC seems to be either frivolous or designed to tear apart society, this is is designed to teach us who in our national history is to be revered and respected in order to unite and enlighten us.
This has a valuable purpose, which is pointed out in a great episode of the Simpsons "Lisa the Iconoclast
." Lisa discovers through some research that Jebediah Springfield (founder of the town the Simpsons live in and a hero to the populace) was originally a pirate named Hans Sprungfeld, who among other dsatardly deeds, tried to kill George Washington. She tries to prove it through the episode, finally gaining control of the microphone at the annual parade in his honor, but decides to keep the truth to herself, because the (false) image of Jebediah Springfield brings out the best in everyone in the town.
This, I think, is an important lesson. People need heroes. They need someone they can measure themselves against to try to aspire to. When people constantly criticize our national heroes, pointing out or claiming that Washington was a slaveowner, or Lincoln didn't really care about ending slavery until it became useful to the War effort, or that MLK knowingly consorted with Communists, I don't think they're doing a service to our nation.
Were any of these men perfect? Of course not. (Although it seems Washington comes darn close.) But we need them to be icons to us, to help us keep in mind the heritage we as Americans share. It's that shared history that unites us, especially as we're not a nation based on race or ethnicity. More than any other nation we need to understand our history and how we got here if we're to maintain our unity. Tearing down our shared icons can only lead to disunity in the future.
UPDATE: Before anyone gets the wrong idea (and I meant to write this before but forgot about it): I'm not saying the flaws of our national icons should be forbidden topics of discussion among historians or philosophers, just that sometimes there needs to be a disconnect between what the "experts" talk about and what the rest of us talk about. An recent example, which have been due to faulty reporting, is a theologian who recently argued that Judas may have been saved despite his role in the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ. That's a legitimate topic for theological experts, but until that's resolved one way or another, the rest of us probably shouldn't worry about it.
And before the "Scourge of the Delaware Blogosphere" shows up (love that term, Hube), I'm not calling for consorhsip in anyway, merely self-restraint.
And as long as I'm on the subject of The Simpsons, here's some of my favorite quotes from "Lisa the Iconoclast":
I hope they show the time where they traded guns to the Indians for corn, and then the Indians shot them and took the corn.
-- Bart watches "Young Jebediah Springfield", "Lisa the Iconoclast"
Jebediah: [on film] A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.
Edna: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield
Ms.Hoover: I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word.
Skinner: Now, as you all know, Springfield's 200th birthday is only a week away. Every class will do its part to make our local bicentennial just as memorable as our national bicentennial. Of course, you children are too young to remember that, with the possible exception of Kearney.
Kearney: [shaving] Those tall ships really lifted the nation's spirits after Watergate.
Lisa: How about town crier? You'd be great at that.
Homer: You think so?
Bart: Well, yeah, Dad, you're a big fat loudmouth and you can walk when you have to.
Hoover: Ralph, A. Janey, A. And Lisa, for your, ahem, essay "Jebediah Springfield: Super Fraud", F.
Lisa: But it's all true.
Hoover: [scoffs] This is nothing but dead, white male-bashing from a PC thug. It's women like you that keep the rest of us from landing a husband.
Can't we have one meeting that doesn't end with us digging up a corpse?
-- Mayor "Diamond" Joe Quimby
We had quitters in the Revolution, too. We called them Kentuckians!
-- George Washington (in Lisa's dream)