August 14, 2006

Political Skeletons In the Closet

In a recent post, I discussed the Stalinist past of the late Dorothy Healey. Marc Cooper and I had an exchange in the comments.

The question is what weight do we give to the political pasts of public figures who have moved away from earlier positions, especially when those positions involved loyalty to or apologetics for murderous régimes of one kind or another.

Recently the German writer Gunther Grass revealed that he served in the Waffen SS. Tim Blair rhetorically asks how this revelation compares with the pro-Fidel Castro views of the writer Gabriel García Marquez.

There really are two separate questions here. The first is what weight we give to the early political views and activity of figures who have moved away from them, in evaluating the life's work of any public figure. The second question is how a public figure's political views, past or present, should affect our evaluation of their work in other fields, such as novels, music, and scientific research.

The answer to the first question is that although we can't ignore people's political pasts completely, a world with no room for youthful indiscretion or errors or judgment would be harsh indeed. When someone's views change in their fifties, of course, it's fair to ask, "What took you so long?"

The conventional answer to the second question is to judge the work, not its creator. As Paul Johnson demonstrates in his Intellectuals, good character is not widely distributed in the worlds of thought and the arts. Where the issue becomes most problematic is when despicable politics jumps the corral and invades other work, as indeed, totalist ideologies encourage it to do.

I don't know the work of García Marquez or Grass to comment on the connection between either's politics and their work. We can all think of work that displays great skill and creativity, but is flawed because its political message is distasteful.

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