The Purity Obsession

Life is messy. People are complex, and it’s always been that way.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and was an untiring champion of religious freedom, but he was also a slave holder and made a slave who was a half sister to his deceased wife his mistress.

Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War to preserve the United States and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, but never believed blacks to be the equal of whites.

Martin Luther King fought valiantly and effectively for equal rights, but was an incorrigible womanizer.

Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly the Atlantic solo and an aviation pioneer, who risked his life in WWII to improve combat flight operations; he was also an America-first isolationist, closet Nazi supporter, and a bigamist.

Richard Wagner was a great composer, but also an avowed anti-Semite who seduced the wife of his greatest financial supporter.

Almost invariably, people want to believe that people of great achievements were better individuals than they actually were, and now, when history and scholarship reveal the full scope of their lives, there’s a growing movement to destroy statues and monuments and to denigrate important historical figures because they weren’t perfect.

Some of this backlash is understandable and justifiable. I can see why the descendants of slaves, in particular, would want monuments glorifying figures of the Confederacy destroyed, but trying to erase or change the view of history only makes it more likely that the evils will reoccur. In a sense, that’s exactly what happened in much of the American south, when in the post-Reconstruction period, southern whites papered over the evils of slavery and erected monuments to the “valiant” soldiers of the Confederacy, so effectively that for generations to follow the southern “story” was of lost glory, the destruction of states’ rights, and Yankee carpetbaggers, rather than the real story, which was the destruction of a socio-economic system based on dehumanization and oppression.

But there’s a difference between removing “propaganda” statues and monuments and removing those who made a difference in history. Removing statues of Lincoln or Jefferson because they weren’t “pure” ignores the basic fact that none of us are. Like it or not, the military ability of Robert E. Lee made an awful difference in prolonging the Civil War, but those abilities are part of history.

The preservation of some of the Nazi death camps helps keep alive a reminder of just how evil governments can become if people allow it. When the history of evil is buried – or white-washed – it becomes so much easier for subsequent generations to repeat those evils, as it was in the American south, if on a lesser scale.

As always, balance is vital.

9 thoughts on “The Purity Obsession”

  1. Sam says:

    It’s interesting to me that a few of your examples of human fallibility are regarding the sexual exploits/misdemeanours/crimes of the men in question.

    Sexual misconduct or at least fallibility is a fairly common character trait we see from male historical figures that I rarely see in any of your protagonists. From memory I think Rahl was your worst offender. In fact I’m tempted to classify him as a rapist given the way he used his order abilities to make his girlfriend more receptive to his advances.

    You might disagree with this but I’ve often felt like your protagonist’s romantic relationships have always been a little too straightforward. If the protagonist ever had a bad or messy relationship the story tends to pickup at the tail end of that relationship.

    I can’t recall ever reading a story where your protagonist began a relationship on a positive note and followed that relationship as it deteriorated.

    1. Generally, I don’t like to write “downers,” i.e, books where people destroy themselves [at least not where it involves the protagonist], but there’s a definite deterioration of Gerswin in The Forever Hero.

    2. M Kilian says:

      Creslin immediately comes to mind, I wouldn’t particularly say that his relationship ever got peachy, and didn’t really start well with since technically rape and all.

  2. Darcherd says:

    It’s the overall decency of your characters that I find most uplifting and satisfying. When they – infrequently – make a mistake, it’s due to a lack of information, not from the selfishness or pettiness that most of us succumb to from time to time. Sure, that makes the characters a bit one-dimensional but if I want to read about humanity at its worst, I need only pick up a newspaper or log onto the internet. Morality plays remain popular through the ages precisely because they inspire us, not because they accurately reflect human behavior and motivation. And these days, frankly, I really appreciate a bit of inspiration.

    1. M Kilian says:

      Using the Recluce Saga as reference, when I first read Magic Engineer I thought about how brave and valiant Dorrin and his comrades were in resisting the white wizards. Boy does that completely get turned on its head when you realise just how many people from across Candar die because of their escalation of violence from reading it from Cerryl’s perspective.

      In the ecolitan/ecologic series as well, though the protagonists are victims of terribly corrupt and violent systems, they still end up doing a hell of a lot of collateral damage.

      Perhaps it would be better to say that the protagonists differ from their villains in that they feel remorse? They seem no less willing to cause suffering to fulfill their goals.

  3. Grey says:

    I live in San Francisco, where a purity cyclone is raging in the board of education, which oversees the public schools. At times it’s like having a front row seat to medieval Catholicism.

    As but one example, having given up on creating a plan to reopen the public schools during the pandemic (which private and charter schools in the city proved could be done safely last fall), the BOE identified over 40 schools needing new names, having been named after abusive colonizers, racists, slave owners, misogynists, as well as other ne’er-do-wells, like… Abraham Lincoln, and current US Senator Dianne Feinstein (apparently because as mayor of San Francisco in the 1980s, she had the city replace a confederate flag that was stolen from a historical exhibit). As in LEM‘s essay, a few school namesakes got free passes, despite well-known blemishes fitting the purge criteria.

    In addition to having been poorly researched (Wikipedia!) with comical factual errors on for whom some school were actually named, the board shelved the plan after being sued by the city over the failure to develop a plan to reopen the schools, and most of the board is facing recall petitions from apoplectic parents.

    Then, a heretic was found in their midst! A racial minority board member and proponent of critical race theory (probably the only place I’ve actually heard about it outside of breathless, racist commentators on Fox News), was found to have made vile, racist rants on Twitter about another racial minority group. After being denounced and removed from all committee positions by the rest of the board after refusing to resign, they sued the city and other board members for $80 million, claiming to be the victim of a witch hunt (even invoking the Malleus Maleficarum in the suit).

    Anyway, the public schools are now slowly re-opening, and I’m glad we were able to provide some entertainment for the rest of the country in these trying times…

  4. MRE says:

    Not really related to Mr. Modesitt’s post but I just discovered that a lot of his older science fiction books have hit audible (Octagonal Raven!) and some of his Recluce series got the ensemble narration treatment! I’ve actually held off on reading Recluce (loved the original Corean trilogy though) but I think I’m going to dive in with the big cast version.

    1. Sam N says:

      i would stick with the original audio recordings for the recluse series. no amount of ensemble cast or effects can make up for the fact that they split them up in to multiple parts. I do love that the sifi books are getting audio books though slowly getting through he backlog of sifi i could never find in stores except occasionally stashed away in a small used store.

  5. Tom says:

    I wish the Purity Obsession was aimed closer to home, at ourselves as individuals, rather than monuments and the re-writing of history. There really is nothing wrong with aiming at perfection even if we are complex and prone to under-achieving.

    As always, balance is vital.

    Yes indeed, but in this instance balancing maybe more difficult than usual because we have to deal with minds rather than merely money. How would one decide on the value of a behavioral transgression and the appropriate behavioral penitence? One might think that Mother Theresa was impure to a great degree considering how she repaid it from the way she lived to earn Sainthood. On the other hand perhaps she was just a person continuously aiming at Purity.

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