What Should We Do?

My recent post on author and convicted murderer Anne Perry has brought me a few responses along the lines of “I’m shocked.  I had no idea that she was a murderer.”  And that has made me wonder what our response should be when we find that an author, composer or any number of other people have done things that we find morally reprehensible.  Should we, for instance, stop reading Perry’s books?  Is that fair?  Yes, she and her friend killed her friend’s mother, but they were both convicted and spent time in prison for their crime.  As far as we know, Perry has led a quiet, respectable life since being released, and has written many books that have given her readers great pleasure.  So should we forgive her and continue to enjoy her books or should we shun her?

Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair (1951) was based on an actual affair that Greene had with Lady Catherine Walston who was his godchild (they were both Catholics).  Both were married at the time, and it is said that “the affair was carried on with the full knowledge of all members of both families.”

In 1937 Greene wrote a review of the Shirley Temple film Wee Willie Winkie in the British magazine Night and Day in which he stated, “Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”  Twentieth Century–Fox sued the magazine, won the libel case, and put the magazine out of business.  Greene went to Mexico – a country without an extradition treaty at the time – before the trial took place, and did not return until after it was over.  The trial judge lamented that Greene was out of the court’s reach.

Greene wrote wonderful, very insightful books, but led a life that was selfish and lacking in responsible moral behavior.  Does that detract from the novels he wrote?  In his books did he display an understanding of the human psyche that was missing in his personal life?  Can you put aside the private peccadilloes of an author like Greene and concentrate only on the words he or she wrote?

In his book Just My Type (2011) author Simon Garfield writes about various type fonts and the people who created them.  One of those people, Eric Gill, created a font called Gill Sans which became very popular.  It is a sans serif font like Ariel.  In 1989, long after Gill’s death, Fiona MacCarthy published a biography of Gill that included information from his diary about having sex with his daughters, his sisters, and a dog though he was devoutly religious.  Immediately there was a movement to boycott the Gill Sans font.  Should we refuse to ever use his fonts?  By the way, he created other popular fonts besides Gill Sans, but you’ll have to read Garfield’s book to find out what they are.

Richard Wagner, probably the greatest German opera composer of all time, was a loathsome human being.  Once I read that “the only thing he was true to was his music.”  He was anti-Semitic, he shamelessly stole the wife of conductor Hans von Bülow, felt that the world owed him whatever he desired, and generally seems to have totally lacked a conscience.  Does any of that detract from the beauty of his music?  Does it matter that Hitler idolized him?

Let me bring up a related issue – our loyalties.  In his wonderful book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2010) Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel talks about people who have made moral choices that we may not agree with.  The one that immediately comes to mind due to a trial that is taking place right now is a choice made by James “Whitey” Bulger’s brother, William Bulger.  Whereas Whitey was a high school dropout who grew up on the streets of Boston in a world of crime, including murder possibly, his brother William got a good education, including a law degree, and eventually became president of the University of Massachusetts.  In 1995 Whitey was charged with 19 counts of murder, and fled rather than stand trial.  In 2001 William testified before a grand jury and said in part, “It’s my hope that I’m never helpful to anyone against him [Whitey]. . . I don’t have an obligation to help everyone catch him.”  In Boston some applauded him for his family loyalty while others condemned him for not helping to bring a suspected killer to justice.  In 2003 William Bulger was forced to resign as president of the University of Massachusetts.  Was that fair?  William Bulger didn’t commit any crimes, and he was never charged with obstructing justice, yet he paid a very heavy price for his family loyalty.

Perhaps William Bulger should have turned Whitey in just as David Kaczynski turned in his brother Ted (the infamous Unabomber).

Sandel also mentions the case of General Robert E. Lee.  Lee was an officer in the Union army when the civil war began.  He felt that secession was treason and that slavery was wrong, yet when Lincoln asked him to lead the Union forces, Lee refused and returned to his native Virginia.  In part, he wrote, he decided as he did because he could not bring himself to fight against his relatives, his children and his home.  So, as we all know, he led the Confederate forces brilliantly in their losing battle of secession.  Should we simply condemn Lee or should we at least give him some respect for his loyalty to his family and home state?  Isn’t loyalty important?

Though I have my opinions, I don’t have the answers to the above questions.  However, I believe strongly that it’s important to think about issues and to try to see all points of view before taking a stance.  In the cases of Anne Perry, Graham Green, Eric Gill, and Richard Wagner you must admit that they all created something of value regardless of their moral fitness.  In the cases of William Bulger and Robert E. Lee, their family loyalty might have been applauded by everyone under different circumstances.  Seeing things from another’s point of view is very, very difficult.  It’s much easier to quickly and decisively dismiss an alternate viewpoint as being ridiculous or immoral.  Perhaps we (and I certainly include myself) need to think a bit more before we judge others.

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