In the wake of the Freeh Report’s revelations regarding the extent of the late Joe Paterno’s involvement in allowing Jerry Sandusky’s child molesting appetites to be sated with Penn State’s assistance, many are calling for the campus statue honoring the now-disgraced coach to be removed.
I am generally opposed to removing memorials and honors to historical figures according to the popular verdicts of the day, for several reasons. The main one is that every individual who ever achieved something worthy of such honor also was guilty of misconduct that someone could convincingly argue outweighs it on moral or ethical grounds. New facts are uncovered, cultural values shift, and over time, no revered figure is safe from deconstruction. The reverse is also inevitable: if a life can be judged unworthy of honor, subsequent generations may well disagree. The verdict of a community, a culture and an era should be given due weight and respect; a statue, memorial or monument not only recognizes an individual but also represents the judgment of our predecessors. Leave their judgments alone, and if we disagree with them, try to make ours better.
The alternative is to have changing attitudes and assessments send statues up and down like so many yo-yos. There is also the matter of deserved recognition for particular accomplishments, made embarrassing by later conduct. Charles Lindbergh’s brave solo flight across the Atalantic was a cultural watershed for the U.S., with far-reaching consequences, almost all of them good. Lindbergh deserves immortality for that achievement. Still, the more we learn about the aviation hero the worse his character appears: he was pro-fascist, anti-Semitic, a champion of eugenics, and maintained two mistresses in Germany while his marriage was being celebrated in the U.S. as the epitome of a love match. Never mind: Charles Lindbergh was one of the trailblazers of American aviation, and his contributions in that field should not be ignored or diminished because of his deficits in character.
Institutions and fields that reject their architects and champions cut themselves off from their origins, making them cultural orphans. To this day, the national trial lawyer association that is indebted to the late “King of Torts,” Melvin Belli, for its very existence refuses to acknowledge his indispensable role in advancing the art of trial practice as well as his heroic efforts to establish the organization. The reason for Belli’s rejection was his late-career client recruitment techniques, which outraged his colleagues and created multiple public relations disasters for the profession. Still, Belli’s positive achievements were already significant and substantial, and neither can or should be denied. The same is true of J. Edgar Hoover, whose name on the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the F.B.I. is periodically a target of historical revisionists. Hoover founded the F.B.I. and devoted his life to building it. Whatever his flaws and misdeeds, and they were many and awful, he still deserves proper credit and recognition for what he did right.
At Penn State, Joe Paterno’s legacy is now in a similar position to Hoover’s. Paterno built the football program and record-setting team performance that brought fame, prestige and dollars to his university. His hard work, dedication, vision and talent changed the lives of thousands of students for the better. At the end, Paterno’s program was allowed to corrupt and warp the school’s values, doing immeasurable harm to both the institution and Sandusky’s victims, and the legendary coach was exposed as a hypocrite and enabler of evil. By that time, however, Penn State’s reasons for gratitude were already in the books. Joe earned his statue, just as Hoover earned his building.
There is a key difference however. Joe Paterno’s statue stands at an institution charged with the mission of training and shaping young Americans to be productive members of society, and that means that the right values must be clearly endorsed and conveyed. The Sandusky scandal, with Joe Paterno as a primary participant, represents an utter failure of values like caring, responsibility, civic duty, fairness, justice, accountability, courage, honesty, and many more. How can a statue of Joe Paterno be tolerated where young minds and character are at risk of taint?
Here is how.
The most compelling reason not to tear down the statues of tarnished heroes is that it abets one of human nature’s most destructive instincts, which is to forget, ignore and deny the events and episodes of the past that upset, embarrass, or frighten us. Ultimately this tendency becomes a cultural habit, one that removes the opportunity for future generations to extract wisdom from past mistakes. The fact that Joe Paterno’s statue is on a college campus is the best reason of all to leave it up.
Penn State should teach courses around that statue of Joe Pa, about the responsibilities of leadership, the opiate of success, the temptations of greed, the mechanics of corruption, and organizational dynamics. Future Penn State students need to learn the lessons of Joe Paterno’s rise and fall, and the university should embrace and institutionalize them. Paterno’s statue will guarantee that nobody at Penn State will ever forget what happened, no matter how much they would like to.
Letting Joe’s statue stay is the courageous and responsible thing to do, not because his legacy hasn’t been ruined, but because it has.
Source and Graphic: New York Times
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