Sometimes I think we honor too much.
It all began with honoring thy father and thy mother and we know that doesn't always work out. We honor our debts though it's less fancy just to say we pay them. In high school I was in the National Honor Society but, outside of having good grades, I was never sure what I was supposed to do with that honor. We give honorary degrees, too, though I've always thought that was kind of a hollow honor: You're not a student here. You didn't graduate from here. But we like you so what the heck. Would you like your coronary bypass done by someone with an honorary M.D.?
We also have a country full of statues and plaques and streets and highways and gardens honoring a huge number of people. I'm only a mile, for example, from Lincoln Highway and maybe three miles from the Ronald Reagan Expressway. On the other side of town is Roosevelt Street, and a bit beyond that is Pooler Avenue (former mayor). A little to the north is the Jane Addams Tollway (noted social worker), and a block from my house is Jefferson School. We also have Deprin Park and Hanna Park – honored folks about whom I know not.
Too, there's nary a profession, job, or hobby that doesn't have a Hall of Fame honoring either those who are actually good in that area or who've managed to stick around the longest. There's even a sidewalk in Hollywood where you can not only see all the names of the celebrities being honored, you can even walk on them. I'm not sure if that's a good honor, however.
Of course we occasionally learn that some of those names deserve to be walked on, which brings me to a certain point.
Now and then our heroes turn out to be bums and we begin to rethink that honoring and, as is the American way, we do it through condemnation and destruction. That's not the best way.
With respect to the bums, the list is long and we're all grateful I'm not going to peruse the whole thing, just a few.
If you don't know why Christopher Columbus is on the list you really do need to crawl out from under that boulder where you've been living.
Or consider Bill Cosby. As a young man I could approach hysterics listening to some of his comedy routines, and as I grew older I sometimes wished that my own father could have some of the characteristics of the wonderful Dr. Huxtable. For years he was America's Father and race never entered into it. Little did we know, of course, of the abuse that so many were suffering in his presence.
Or consider all those Confederate statues and parks and memorials honoring generals and politicians and soldiers in the south. If those of us in the north look with scorn on all that, there are those in the south (big numbers, by the way) who revere them as heroes of the highest order. That, however, does puzzle me a bit. I mean, there's no question the south lost the Civil War, so why do they want to surround themselves with icons of loser generals and loser politicians and loser soldiers?
There are ambiguities on the list, too. Perhaps the most prominent would be Martin Luther King Jr. For example, there is now a huge statue of him in Washington. It is certainly a fitting icon not only for the black community but for all those who wear the MAHA hat (Make America Human Again) – a man who assumed the dangerous role of leader in the fight against oppression and injustice. We also know, however, and for the most part have accepted, the skeletons in the man's closet. What we don't know is how those "sins" might be viewed by future generations. Perhaps they will think us woefully misguided in honoring the man and decide to have the statue torn down. History, as we all know, is a bitch. So is the future.
What this is really all about, of course, is the idea of revisionist history. This concept is usually cited by those on the right as another ghastly attempt by those on the left to take all the good that is America and make it bad. Obviously that's not true.
It's a big subject we don't need to go into here. Simply put, we revise history – and our views of people and events – when new information becomes available or when changing times or changing technology makes us see old information from a new perspective.
That sounds rather mild, but when we suddenly find that our heroes not only had feet of clay but sometimes hearts full of cinders, the reaction can be both swift and nasty. We've seen that and it's not pretty.
So there's work to be done, perhaps because we jumped to conclusions, perhaps we were just plain wrong, or perhaps because we honored too quickly.
It seems as though people who are being honored for something always like to say how they don't deserve the honor. Perhaps we should start listening to them.
Photoillustration by the author