Thursday, February 13, 2014

Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin


Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I found two of my old college friends, representing opposite sides of the American political divide, had posted links to articles--articles that set me to thinking.

The first, from my conservative pal, was a piece by Bill Federer comparing and contrasting Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. The occasion for the article was the coincidence that Darwin and Lincoln were both born February 12, 1809. Federer all but deifies Lincoln but does a typical relgious-right hatchet job on Darwin. Federer pulls some egregiously racist quotes from Darwin's works, blames the scientist for social darwinism, and links the theory of evolution to the politics of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

In response to Federer I note that Darwin and Lincoln were, in fact, both abolitionists. They were also, products of their times, both racist by modern standards. While Darwin's racist statements may make him morally flawed, they do not reflect on the accuracy of his scientific observations. Nor, do I think, can we hold Darwin responsible for the atrocities committed by later generations who misused his work.

In short, Federer's critique of Darwin is a blatant ad hominem attack. He goes after the man but does not address the issues.

My liberal friend linked to this article at Religion Dispatches magazine's website. In it Stephanie Krehbiel  raises the question of whether the moral failings of prominent 20th century Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder should color our reading of his work. She calls it the "Woody Allen problem."

I’ve been thinking of Yoder since Woody Allen received his Golden Globe award for Lifetime Achievement last month which has resuscitated public discussion of whether a man who married his partner's daughter, and who’s still accused of molestation by his now-adult daughter (who was seven years old at the time), should be receiving accolades of any kind. “There would be some measure of accountability in not giving Oscars and Golden Globes to such men,” writes Victoria Brownworth in Shewired. “A small gesture toward their victims, but a statement that those victims matter, irrespective of canon or genius. The only way to make the crimes stop is to stop rewarding their perpetrators. For now that seems to be the only recourse we still have.”

Yesterday, in a lunchtime conversation with a colleague, I referenced Woody Allen's movie "Sleeper," a movie that was made before my interlocutor was born. By way of explanation I said, "It was back when Woody Allen was still funny, before he was a child molester." It was a glib, sarcastic remark made in an informal conversation. For the purposes of this blog I should probably note that Allen has been accused of the sexual abuse of a minor but that he has not been convicted.   He is an alleged child molester.

I think the last Woody Allen movie that I watched was Love and Death (1975). Since that time I just haven't been interested in his work. I will admit that the accusations against Allen color my perceptions. I don't want to see his movies. I don't want to spend my money to support the work of a man whose alleged actions I find morally reprehensible.

I am torn, though, over the question of whether he should have received that lifetime achievement award. His work clearly has merit apart from his personal moral failings. Is it possible to reward the quality of his films without approving his actions? Would withholding an award on the basis of his personal life amount to an ad hominem attack?

An unintended consequence Allen's Golden Globe award is that it has raised awareness and sparked discussion of the very real, very serious problems of child sexual abuse and the ways that some abusers can use their power, prestige, and privilege to get away with it. I am not, of course, suggesting that this in any way serves as a justification for giving Allen that award.

Granted, there is a great qualitative difference between Woody Allen's movies, which are essentially entertainments, and Charles Darwin's objectively verifiable science. And here is where the case of John Howard Yoder comes in. Yoder was neither an objective scientist nor an entertainer. He was influential ethical thinker, an intellectual apolgoist for pacifism. He was also a serial sex abuser. Because of his powerful and privileged position Yoder got away with it for a long time. When the institutions to which he was beholden finally acted, it was too little and too late. Krehbiel notes that Yoder still has defenders: people--men--who, in defense of Yoder's work, minimize his actions. That, in itself, is wrong. But how are we to respond to the work of an ethicist who behaved so unethically, a pacifist who perpetrated sexual violence?

I don't have any easy answers. Maybe there aren't any. There are, however, serious ethical questions to wrestle with. One thing is clear. Krehbiel's article is a plea for the voices of the victims to be heard. Justice demands no less.

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