Complicated Heroes

Sometimes in atheist and skeptic circles, we like to say we don’t have heroes. We do. We may try to keep from granting them epistemological authority because of that status, but we still grant it. Any endeavor that is meant to inspire will produce heroes.

It was a relief, then, when Christopher Hitchens died, to see so many people, even those who looked up to Hitchens as a hero to atheists, acknowledge his terrible flaws. (Yes, they were terrible. People who move the world enough to be heroes don’t tend to do things by halves.) It was also a relief to see that few people insisted those terrible flaws invalidated all that Hitchens had done for organized atheism.

Similarly, now, it is good to see the same process happening with Adrienne Rich, the feminist poet and activist who died earlier this week. She inspired many, but she also hurt many, some of them people she inpired, and those people are working to come to grips with her legacy.

When the news came across the internet yesterday that Adrienne Rich had died, my first response was a painful welling of sorrow that she was gone, because her contributions to American poetry and the lives of innumerable women have been uncountable. Her contribution to my own writing has been tremendous. But then I felt a different kind of sorrow, because I couldn’t just mourn her without complication. I had to ask myself about her transmisogyny, which has been largely overlooked in the wash of admiration. What I needed to know was whether or not she had ever disavowed statements about trans women in which she called them “castrated men” and other hateful things. I needed to know whether she had ever stepped back from her friendship and collaboration with Janice Raymond, who made a career out of her virulent, dangerous hatred of trans women.

I can’t just think, “Oh, well, she was a poet, and she changed poetry, so her views on trans women are private and don’t matter.” That would be dangerous, and it would also be untrue.

It’s not like Adrienne Rich existed in a vacuum, or as if she wrote a century ago. She lived and worked now. We admire Susan B. Anthony, but acknowledge her racism, to use an example from Rich’s Blood, Bread, and Poetry. In the essay “Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life,” from 1983, Rich writes that she and her friends and colleagues were challenged to deal with the whiteness prevalent in the feminist movement, that they had to carry on Anthony’s legacy of progress while at the same time making a point of dismantling her legacy of false inclusion. In fact, part of what I find most troubling is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of Rich’s writing in the world in which she faces her own history head on. She readily accepts that she, and most other white feminists, have a lot of work to do about not merely “including,” but really listening to and welcoming people of color, not-Christians, and others into their movement. And yet…

I hope all of us who work to inspire and to change the world can learn this lesson. We will leave complicated legacies, no matter what, if we have any legacy at all. The least we can do is try to learn the lessons of our complicated heroes and apply them in our own work.

Complicated Heroes
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6 thoughts on “Complicated Heroes

  1. 1

    I didn’t know that about her, but I didn’t know that much about her at all so far from surprising. That’s sad to hear, but yes we are all so very human.

  2. 2

    My first thought about hearing something negative about a hero is usually a disheartened “Oh no!” But, like you, I realize our heroes (or any heroes) are usually ‘complicated’, at the very least. I do try to think of the cultural context, mostly forgiving the negative and celebrating whatever areas of incongruous progressiveness. Fortunately, as freethinkers, we do not need to feel inclined, as followers of ancient holy texts often are, of trying to say that what is immoral now was somehow moral before, or that their actions were divinely sanctioned by an unchanging moral code giver.

    (Unfortunately, as a biology fan, I still don’t know what to think and feel about James Watson, or the Watson and Crick vs. Rosalind Franklin controversy…)

  3. 3

    In one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s novels one character says about another “He is a great man, but I don’t confuse greatness with perfection.”

  4. 4

    It was also a relief to see that few people insisted those terrible flaws invalidated all that Hitchens had done for organized atheism.

    Thank you.

    Women tend to drop or get “disappeared” out of cultural consciousness faster and in greater numbers than men. I’d hate to see feminists participate in such elisions by dismissing important figures because they had blind spots.

  5. 5

    Stacy, speaking not of Adrienne Rich here but in general, I don’t think that “We have so few heroes” is a good reason to continue to celebrate a figure who turns out to be extremely morally compromised.

    Jim Baerg, there is “perfection,” and then there is human decency. I myself am rather tired of hearing “the greats” excused for anything and everything. I won’t ever, for example, watch another Roman Polanski movie, no matter how talented he may be.

  6. 6

    And as for Adrienne Rich, while I believe she is important enough in her totality to continue to be embraced by feminism, I honestly do not blame trans people who loathe her and personally repudiate her. The ability to view certain appalling words and actions as “imperfections” is based in privilege.

    Another example: I wouldn’t take a college course that required me to read Norman Mailer, either. I don’t really give a fuck that he’s An Important Novelist; there are many important novelists out there, and there are lesser-known ones I enjoy much more than I’d enjoy the work of a notorious misogynist who nearly killed his wife. If you want to read him, have fun.

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