My father said the n-word when I was young. Often. Casually, and sometimes in anger.
My father was not a terrible person. He was a liberal Christian minister. He did good works for his community, and he did extensive missionary work in Liberia, a country whose modern culture was built by freed slaves.
The common thing to say here is that he was a product of his times. He grew up in a country where school segregation was still legal. He became in adult in a country where it was still legal to ban whites from marrying blacks. When I was young, he laughed with the country at Archie Bunker, an unapologetic bigot.
That’s how we usually excuse wrong behavior: “He was a product of his times.”
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” in perhaps the single most important document in our nation’s history. Those words were not enough to end slavery, nor to give women the vote; those equalities would have to wait decades. In 1776, all white men were created equal.
In 1785, when arguing that slaves from Africa “are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination,” Thomas Jefferson wrote that “it is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.”
This is not “all men are created equal.” This is also two years before he apparently started a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave, then 14 years old. A sexual relationship between a 44-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl that he not only believes he owns, but who belongs to a race he sees as “inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination,” can only be described in one word: Rape.
The common thing to say here is that he was a product of his times.
In 1942, Traudl Junge, then 22, got a job as the private secretary for Adolph Hitler. Like most Germans, allegedly, she was blindered to the atrocities being committed by Hitler. We tend to wave off culpability for the German populace on the grounds that Hitler and the Nazis were doing a great job of hiding what they were doing. Even someone as close to the inner circle as Junge was claimed that she just didn’t know.
The common thing to say here is that she was a product of her times.
In 1943, at age 21, Sophia Magdalena Scholl, born and raised in the same Germany as Junge, was beheaded by the Nazis for treason. As part of White Rose, she had been publishing pamphlets against the Nazis.
Her last words: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
Sophie Scholl was a product of her times, too. And yet, unlike Junge, she stood up against the barbarism.
Years later, Junge went past Scholl’s memorial plaque and realized they were the same age, and that Scholl had been put to death the same time Junge had started to work for Hitler. Junge wrote: “And at that moment I actually sensed that it was no excuse to be young, and that it would have been possible to find things out.”
John McCain is being remembered now as a great statesperson. He reached across the aisle, he took his roles as Senator and as former Vietnam War POW with gravitas and humility, he represented all that was wonderful in the Republican Party.
The common thing to say here is…
This country would not be what it is without the contributions of Thomas Jefferson: Both good and bad. He was one of the greatest intellectual minds this country has ever had, and when he turned that mind to the goal of liberty, he helped inspire white men to rise up against the British crown.
But when he turned that mind to the issue of slavery, he added to the barbarism. To be clear: Jefferson wasn’t openly opposed to abolition. His argument was, if anything, even more grim: He wanted the free slaves to be expelled from the country. “When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.”
When we say someone was a product of their times, we are addressing our own cognitive dissonance at the realization that our heroes have done and said some terrible things. Even in Jefferson’s era, there were people capable of seeing Africans as humans, having the same intellectual capacities as Europeans. There were white men capable of not having sex with teenage slaves.
Jefferson could have known better. He should have known better. Perhaps it was more difficult for him to come to that awareness as someone today, but “a product of his times” is no excuse.
Three of the four people who died during the second march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 were white. They knew better. They had the same access to news that my father did.
One of the most iconic photos of the Woolworth Sit Ins shows two white students sitting with a black student while all three have food dumped on their heads. The two white students knew better. They had the same access to news that my father did.
Our environment, our culture, our upbringing: These things shape us, they inform us, but they do not force our actions. Our actions are our own responsibility.
John McCain’s torture at the hands of the Viet Cong did not justify his racism. It might have helped explain it, but nothing could ever justify it.
Great people can do terrible things and have terrible beliefs. It is up to each of us to rise above the immoralities of our era.