Wow. Here I was expecting to be reading nasty post-mortems on the despicable Harry Reid before his corpse was cold, and instead a wave of negative punditry appeared about, of all people, revered Desmond Tutu, whose body is only slightly cooler. The controversy? Nobody doubts that he played a major role in ridding South Africa of apartheid. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (whatever that’s worth). However, as the Times of Israel sees it, “underneath the godlike humble appearance was an insidious anti-Semite and anti-Israel vein that throbbed and surfaced in writings, public speaking, and conversation.”
In the U.S., the opposition to honoring Tutu was joined by lawyer and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who told Fox News that by the standards the U.S. was now holding its metallic and rock honorees to, Tutu is unworthy. He said on the air,
The world is mourning Bishop Tutu, who just died the other day. Can I remind the world that although he did some good things, a lot of good things on apartheid, the man was a rampant anti-Semite and bigot?…When we’re tearing down statues of Jefferson and Lincoln and Washington, let’s not build statues to a deeply, deeply flawed man like Bishop Tutu. Let’s make sure that history remembers both the goods he did and the awful, awful bads that he did as well….He didn’t talk about the Israel lobby, he talked about the Jewish lobby. He minimized the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust. He said that getting killed in gas chambers was an easy death compared to apartheid. He said that Jews claimed a monopoly on the Holocaust. He demanded that Jews forgive the Nazis for killing them…[Tutu] encouraged others to have similar views and because he was so influential, he became the most influential anti-Semite of our time…The bottom line is that at a time when people are reckoning with the careers, of people with mixed legacies, whether it be Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and others, we have to include in a reckoning of Tutu his evil, bigotry against Jews, which has existed for many, many, many years.
I don’t care to dispute the fairness or accuracy of the case that Tutu was an anti-Semite. His worshipers are already doing that; I note that Wikipedia, which, like every other information source today, just can’t play it straight, shaded its article about Tutu this week to note his support for the Palestinians while adding that he professed a “simultaneous belief in Israel’s right to exist.” (The two positions are impossible to hold “simultaneously.”) It doesn’t matter; for the purposes of the ethical analysis, I will accept that Tutu was as much of an anti-Semite as Dershowitz says.
He still deserves his public memorials, monuments and statues, just as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the other targets of the U.S.’s history airbrushing mob deserve theirs. Virtually all important figures in world history were flawed, many terribly. We honor them for their positive achievements when those are sufficiently significant, not for their worst moments, failures of character, ill-chosen words or personal misdeeds, unless these are so destructive that they objectively demand that we declare that individual a net harm to society or civilization.
If that is not the standard we apply, then we can literally have no icons and heroes, and must never remind future generations of the men and women who helped the nation and the world become better. Winston Churchill saved the world from Hitler, but he was a racist, imperialist and ruthless politician. Thomas Jefferson’s words and idealism made the United States’ possible and laid the foundation for the elimination of slavery; he also could not live up to his ideals in his personal life, and kept his dead wife’s half-sister as his slave and personal concubine. Teddy Roosevelt was a white supremacist and warmonger; his cousin Franklin may have saved the United States, but he approved the racist imprisonment of Japanese-Americans and handed millions of Europeans over to Soviet dictatorship. Jack Kennedy was a misogynist and abuser of women; so was Martin Luther King. Nonetheless, civilization owes all of these, and many more lasting and visible honors. Tutu certainly qualifies to join their ranks.
I was surprised and disappointed to hear Dershowitz endorse the absurd statue topplers’ logic in order to justify relegating Bishop Tutu to their exile from the public square. His is an unethical argument based on personal bias: as a Jew, he feels the most important aspect of Tutu’s legacy is his anti-Semitism. He’s just wrong, and he should be able to see that clearly. The most important aspect of George Washington life is not that he owned slaves, but that he was the “indispensable man” in creating the United States of America. The most important aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life was not that he was a white supremacist (like virtually every other white American of his time), but that he preserved the United States and ended slavery. inevitably the U.S. will be littered with Barack Obama statues, and his importance as the first black President justifies the honor, though he was a divisive, weak and inept POTUS once he was elected. Similarly, Desmond Tutu’s crucial role in ending apartheid is far more important than his public statements criticizing Israel (which, amusingly, included referring to that nation’s policies as “un-Christian.”)
He earned his statues.