Saturday, October 19, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- J Edgar Hoover vs Martin Luther King, Jr.

Barnard Mayo wants us to emulate role models. Can you think of a person - a historical figure, a living person, or a fictional character - whom you would like to emulate? Explain who and why. What are some of the problems involved with the idea of emulating role models ? 

Mayo said, "We find moral guidance by looking to a person who embodies, or a unified character type that exemplifies, some human ideal. We become better, more virtuous, by imitating this ideal as much as it is possible for us to do."

I'm going to start with the ending of the above question because I think it's more natural to start with the cautions. The problems in having a role model are many, but I will specify those that I think are most risky.

1.). What if your role model ends up disappointing you? 

Even an historical figure whose, life is safely over, may turn out not to be as you expected. You devote yourself to emulating an individual only to find out that he is not the person you thought he was. Consider the case of Demosthenes.

Google his name and you will find glowing reports of the great speaker, one of the greatest orators in of all history. The man who encourages people to rise up against Alexander the Great and defend their nation in the glorious struggle against tyranny...etc., etc., etc.

And then there's Demosthenes. Google his name and you will find bitter attacks upon this demagogue, this false prophet, who tricked his people into a stupid and pointless rebellion against an overwhelming power, causing the brutal destruction of his homeland for his own political gain...etc., etc., etc.

You'll find a lot more in the way of praise and a lot more in the way of attacks. Yet the attackers and the praisers are both describing the same person! They just see him very differently.

So was Demosthenes a great man to be emulated or an evil man who should be used an example of everything to avoid?
The answer is the depends on who wrote the history you are reading.

2.) Is anyone really so perfect that you should emulate them? Having a role model is nice, but you need to keep this in balance. Emulating your role model in entirety is not a good idea. No human being is perfect. Instead, you should emulate the traits a particular person displays in a particular area, perhaps even only at a particular time.

For example, Benedict Arnold was one of the greatest heroes of the American Revolution. His courage, his wisdom, his devotion to the cause were all deeply admired. Then he turned traitor.

3.) It is unreasonable to expect any one person to possess the same levels of potential as another person. The person you are emulating may have a very different personality or natural talents than you. So it is possible that what you're attempting to emulate may be extremely difficult or perhaps not attainable for you. 

4.) The question also rises, just how much should you try to be like another person? This is a question of balance. Do you try to be somewhat like the person you were using as a role model or do you try to completely pattern yourself upon him?

You may not be able to be as much like that person as you would wish, and you may have strengths which that person lacks.

It can be very endearing when a child says I want to be just like you daddy or just like you mommy, but in reality every person needs to become himself and not simply try to be someone else. You have your own talents, skills, and abilities. You need to develop them to be the best person you can be. It is good to look up to others and try to develop the traits that you admire in them, but you should also develop your own.

You'll have to figure out which role model you prefer for yourself.
As for me, I can point to two role models who were of the utmost importance to me in my childhood and youth.

As a child, I was a deep admirer of J Edgar Hoover. Later I learned that he had gone to great lengths to push his image onto the public, an early example of the effectiveness of public relations in an era of mass media. Still, here was a man who took an almost unknown federal agency and turned it into one of the world's most highly respected and professional police forces.

Who wouldn't look up to a man who fought gangsters, Nazi spies, and the Communist enemies of America? Especially in the 1950s!

In the early 1960s, someone else came to my attention. Having spent a year down south in Biloxi Mississippi, to this day still called the Capital of Segregation, I saw some of the ugliness of Jim Crow. We lived on base where the only color that mattered was the color of your uniform, but outside the gates was a totally different world.

Like so many service brats I regarded our entire family as members of the Air Force. We were an Air Force family. So when the couple who lived downstairs in our converted barracks housing was arrested by local police, I was angry. I was even angrier when I found out the reason they had been arrested.

They were a Black couple. One day they were out driving with their one-year-old daughter. The police thought that the daughter looked like she was not as dark as the parents. They thought she might be Mexican.

Of course, to Biloxi policeman, Mexicans were barely human. However, they were a lot more human than Blacks. So they arrested a couple because their baby was a few shades lighter in skintone but they were. Of course, they were released. Nevertheless, I have never forgotten that incident and never will. It had a profound influence on who I was and who I grew up to be.

I was also upset by the fact that we were all carefully vetted as to which school we could attend. Had that couples' daughter been my age she would have been sent to a Black third-grade classroom on the bad side of town. Because my family was Spanish and other European, my brother and I were sent to Miss Pittpat's school on the good side of town. (Aunt Pittpat was a character in the book, "Gone With the Wind". I don't remember the actual name of the actual elderly Southern lady who was principal of the school.)

If I learned one thing that year it was that I hated the South. I hated segregation. I hated injustice. I still do.

So, when Martin Luther King rose to prominence leading the civil rights movement, I had a new hero. When I read about Henry David Thoreau and his civil disobedience and how that idea traveled all the way to India to be practiced by Gandhi and then all the way back here to be practiced by Martin Luther King, I was more than a little impressed.

Also being a very religious person, I found the way that Dr. King combined religion, the dignity of common humanity, and politics was simply amazing. Since I tended to be a shy and quiet little boy who did not like violence, the whole concept of passive civil disobedience moved my soul.

So far, no problem. There's no reason you can't admire two men. Anyone who knows the history of that era sees the problem coming up, though. Of course it wasn't history then, so I wasn't ready!

When I was in junior high school, J Edgar Hoover's efforts to keep America the way he wanted it to be came into direct conflict with Dr. King's efforts to change this country. Hoover's efforts became absolutely repulsive. With his cooperation, Congressmen began attacking King as a communist. There were even quotes about this in the Congressional Record.

There was a real clash here. Something was obviously wrong with the way I was seeing the world. One of these two men I so deeply admired was a despicable liar. The question was, which one?

I did my research, and I tried to keep my mind open. In the end, I came to realize a J Edgar Hoover was now and had always been a very bad man.

Dr. King was not perfect. There's no doubt he cheated on his wife and had other moral failings. He had his imperfections, as we all do. But he remains one of the few men who was alive during my lifetime that I genuinely and truly respect. The lessons that he taught me, that he taught America, are still a very important part of my life today.

In the end, J Edgar Hoover let me down. He disappointed me very deeply. But I learned to be more cautious from that experience.

In the end, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proved to be a fallible human being. However, I respect him all the more for overcoming his human weaknesses to become such a great leader.

No comments:

Post a Comment