How often do I make a mistake? Pretty much every day.
Perhaps you know the feeling.
Fortunately, most of us learn from our mistakes. We ponder the past, we apologize, we restore what’s restorable, we improve, we move on.
But these days the ability to fully turn our backs on the past is nearly impossible.
That’s because modern mistakes never go away. Somewhere they still exist, ready at a moment’s notice to return—a stupid tweet, a compromising picture, or evidence of an unflattering action.
Sometimes, uncovering an error-prone past is a good thing. When misdeeds are covered up without remorse, and perpetrators continue to inflict physical, emotional or moral pain on others, then I’m first in line to applaud when someone’s past actions move out of the darkness and into the light. Jeff Epstein comes to mind.
But other times it may not seem fair. Sometimes people find themselves having to pay not for the sins of their personal past, but for the sins of the age in which they lived.
We see this today when young women ask their mothers why they put up with the leering and butt-pinching of the business world back in the days before #metoo.
When their mothers say, “we knew it was wrong, but that’s just the way it was back then,” those mothers may fall a bit in the estimation of their daughters. But whenever we apply modern standards to judge the accepted actions of the past, we are treading on thin ice.
Take the recent dismantling of the career of one of America’s great singers, Kate Smith. The powerful, matronly voice that belted out “God Bless America,” has fallen far off her previous pedestal with the rediscovery of some of the other songs she recorded—some of which contained embarrassingly racist lyrics.
There was the 1931 song “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” recorded when Smith was 24. It included lyrics like “someone had to pick the cotton, someone had to slave and be able to sing, that’s why darkies were born.” Matters weren’t helped when she recorded “Pickininnies’ Heaven” two years later, where she musically describes heaven for black children as a place with “great big watermelons” and “pork chop bushes.”
These kinds of songs still existed in the ‘30’s, but today they are painful to the eye, ear, and soul. Smith might have overcome the damage if she had forcefully repudiated the songs later in her life, but, sadly, she never did.
Now, both the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers no longer play her trademark “God Bless America” before games. And a statue of Smith outside the Flyers’ stadium has been covered.
Is all this fair to Kate Smith? It’s hard to say. There’s no record of her spouting racially-offensive speech during her life, but at some level you’d like to think she could have said no thanks when asked to record songs about darkies and pickininnies.
But that was the 30’s, and such things were tolerated back then. Today we know better.
Personally, I think that the current Kate Smith blowback isn’t as much about her as it is the age in which she lived. And I think it’s okay to make clear that the ugly underpinnings of earlier times need thorough exposure and repudiation in our modern era.
But I wonder, as we criticize those who accepted the moral crimes of their day as “just the way things were,” what moral crimes we’re committing today that future generations will rightly berate us for?
How will our great-grandchildren judge us for our foot-dragging and head-in-the sand stand on climate change? Or our look-the-other-way soaring national debt? Or our stony refusal to address the runaway costs of education and healthcare? Or our attitudes towards other humans fleeing cruelties we pretend not to see or understand? Will our descendants one day mock us for the same moral fuzziness that we feel free to apply in judgment of our ancestors?
Yes, we’ve made some strides in social morality, and those strides are to be commended.
But we’re far from the finish line, and like every previous generation we struggle as a society to even recognize, let alone address, our own moral blind spots.