Friday, July 11, 2008
good people do bad things
In 1987 I was in Washington DC at the time of the first showing of the AIDS memorial quilt. The quilt stretched the entire length of grass between the reflecting pool and the Capital building. Tens of thousands walked on, around and through it in silence and overwhelming grief. Only occasional weeping could be heard. Later that same afternoon several gay rights activists spoke from a stage put up in front of the Capital building but the only person I can clearly remember speaking was the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Sitting on the lawn next to this massive memorial to those who had suffered and died from AIDS I listened as Jackson orated eloquent, angry, compassionate, searching, pleading, sad and hopeful. I remember a feeling of possibility and great pride that this one time presidential candidate and black leader would take time and bring media attention to an event almost exclusively attended by lesbian and gay people and their grieving families.
Since that day, twenty one years ago, I have heard Jackson speak several times and always find myself inspired. He is not only a fiery Baptist preacher and gifted speaker but also a fierce civil rights leader whose influence extended to international matters in the 1980's and 1990's, a respected and successful United States spokesperson who has traveled to Syria, Israel, Kenya, Serbia, Venezuela, Northern Ireland and Cuba on peace missions under three United States presidents. Here is a man who has chosen to do what he believes is right regardless of personal consequence, a man of God who acts with his conscience and heart and yet yesterday he said he would like to castrate Barack Obama because he believes he's "talking down to black people".
Is it possible to do a bad thing and still be a good person?
Almost immediately Jackson offered a public apology saying that there is no place for such "trash talk". He went on to say his remarks were "hurtful and wrong".
Should all his public service and good be questioned because of a moment of bad judgement and a slip of the tongue? Should Jackson's personal resentment and bitterness be taken into account for this unfortunate blunder? The remarks he made were off the record as an aside to a colleague and never meant to be heard by the public. Should that excuse such "trash talk".
This is not the first time Jackson has had his foot in his mouth. Anyone old enough will remember his "Hymietown" remark. Did that offensive comment negate all of his civil and ecumenical activities before and since?
What about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright? Weren't similar circumstances to blame for the public ridicule and media charged downfall of a man who has given his life to enriching and bettering a challenged community? Should his words, offensive though they might have been, undo all the good that he has helped come to pass?
What I am left with is a sense that these men are human and they, like all humans, are flawed. There is good in the worst of us and bad in the best of us. I believe myself to be a good man and yet I have certainly done many regrettable things. Unlike these men, however, I am not in the public eye. It is challenging enough for me to monitor my own behavior without having to live in front of a camera. If, at the end of the day, I can look back and not regret anything I've done or said I would consider that to be a good day. It is hard enough to amend my bad behavior privately I can't imagine the pressure to do so with the world watching. When events like these come to the forefront I am grateful that fame and celebrity are not mine.