I was going to start the week with a series of paintings featuring coffee mugs; a little obsession of mine. Don’t worry, I promise to add *those* three posts in rapid succession over the next three days. However, another preoccupation got in the way today: Minnesota Public Radio.
I listen to it while brewing my morning coffee. I listen to it on my way to work, on my way home from work, while I complete my evening chores, and almost all weekend long. Having therefore steeped myself in the endless boil of news over the past couple of days, I could not avoid hearing commentaries on the “legacy” of Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno.
I really don’t have half an opinion on the specifics of this man’s life, accomplishments, or his memory. Nor do I believe that his death merits national news coverage, although I’d be willing to make an exception for ESPN and the sports pages. That said, I find myself in the extremely strange position of defending his legacy – that of ‘winningest‘ coach in major college football .
The reason is this: if we can only celebrate greatness when it is performed by men or women who are themselves great, this world would be a lot less, well … great.
Trekking to the South Pole without dying. Developing a miracle cure for a vexing ailment. ‘Discovering’ a continent. One major accomplishment is all it really takes to confer upon an person the mantle of “hero.” One extraordinary accomplishment; which can often consist of a single extraordinary feat. A single feat out an entire lifetime. But with greatness comes a halo effect, and it is rather unfair. Not everyone can be Jesus, after all.
There’s really no evidence that our heroes are ever any more virtuous than the rest of us. There’s no reason why they should be. We should be allowed to appreciate their legacies all the same. Take a few of our revered forebears, for instance:
- The artist Michelangelo was irritable, difficult to work with, morally flawed (as a likely homosexual) and was spectacularly unreliable: he left cartloads of unfinished work when he died. The world still marvels at his Sistine Chapel frescoes. Or should we tear them down because they came from an unworthy hand?
- Our founding fathers were a bunch of treasonous radicals, atheists, and philanderers who fathered children by their slaves. That doesn’t negate the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Heck, politicians and Kings have been some of the worst people in history, yet some of them have wrought amazing humanitarian advancements along the way.
- Then there are our more modern media stars. Michael Jackson immediately comes to mind. His legacy as an innovative entertainer stands on the merits of his work, even though I can no longer listen to his music without doubling over from the creepiness.
Personally, I like my own chosen heroes all the more for their personal failings. It impresses me that people as unremarkable as myself can actually make it in this world. For instance, I’m a sucker for blonde bombshells that succumb to corporeal expansion like Debbie Harry and Mae West. I adore Morrissey, not because he is clever, but because he thinks himself so much cleverer than he is. I have a special soft spot for those who revel in deliberate lies and artful disinformation like Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan.
So to bring it all back home, a person’s *legacy* should be based on the heights of his accomplishments. However, his *life* should be judged by the balance of his actions and inactions – or better yet – leave that judgment for somebody else.
See you all tomorrow.
P.S. The Oprah collage above is part of a 32 page “sketchbook” I recently completed, ostensibly on the theme of “heroes and villains” … but more on that later ….