Can you separate the good from the bad?

There is a story of a God-fearing farmer trying to raise his sons up right. They wanted to run into town to see a new movie, but the farmer had heard that there was some nudity and coarse language that he didn’t cotton to, and he raised this objection to his sons. They listened to their father, but said that they were mature enough to ignore the objectionable stuff and enjoy the rest of the movie. After all, it was just a tiny part that wasn’t good.

The farmer told the sons that they were old enough to make their own choice in the matter, and they were free to go catch that matinee show if their chores were done that morning. The next day the sons tackled their duties with good cheer, knowing that at the end of their morning work, they had a long-anticipated movie awaiting them. When they arrived back at the farm, they were still talking excitedly about the movie they had seen. They greeted their father and told him about how much they enjoyed the movie. Sure, it had some bad bits in it, but they were grown up enough to overlook that stuff. The father was glad to hear it, and told the boys to wash up for dinner. Their mom had fried some chicken, and it was just being served. For dessert, the farmer had baked a large batch of brownies for the boys. As they were carving up big pieces for themselves, the farmer casually remarked that these were “special” brownies. He had taken a few tiny pieces of cow dung from the farm and sprinkled them into the brownies. But since the boys were mature enough, they could just overlook the bad bits. After all, it was just a tiny part that wasn’t good. Right?

Moral-teaching homily aside, at what point does the bad of a person, place, or thing overweigh the good? Is it possible to separate the creator from the creation? It is a quandary.

My wife says she likes to read, but she doesn’t like to read everything. For instance, she cannot abide Ernest Hemingway. No matter how much Hemingway’s stories are praised by readers and literature professors, she still maintains a distaste for them because she cannot separate Hemingway the author from Hemingway the man. She describes him as “a perfect S.O.B. in his personal life,” and his behavior was so repugnant to her that, even though she recognizes he had skill and ability, she cannot separate the man from his work.

Author and activist Susan Sontag died recently of leukemia. While she was praised by many in the literary world, I have never cared for her anti-American and anti-Western slant on subjects. I don’t care how much her stuff is raved about by the intelligentsia; I will not read Sontag’s essays because of the deep philosophical differences I have with her ideas. One example: “[T]he white race is the cancer of human history.” Oh, the irony! I don’t care what nuggets of literary gold she has embedded in her body of work; I simply refuse to wade through rivers of filth to find them.

My dad spent over two years in Samoa as a missionary representing his church. During his time there, he realized that nothing he did could keep the tiny ants out of the sugar tin. At first, he would carefully strain out the ants that would float to the top of his glass of punch. After a while, he learned how to blow the ants to the opposite side of the glass and drink the punch. Finally, he got to the point where he would just down the drink, ants and all. Sometimes what is objectionable becomes less so over time.

Let me give another example. In 1971, Ron Everett was found guilty of felonious assault and false imprisonment. The Los Angeles Times described the crime this way:

Deborah Jones, who once was given the title of an African queen, said she and Gail Davis were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes. She testified that a hot soldering iron was placed in Miss Davis’ mouth and placed against Miss Davis’ face and that one of her own big toes was tightened in a vice. [Everett], head of US, also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths, she said.

Six years earlier, Everett had founded US, or the “United Slaves Organization,” a Marxist African-American solidarity group on the UCLA campus that was even more radical than the rival Black Panthers. In 1969, the two organizations clashed over who would be the leader of the new Afro-American Studies department at UCLA. Two Black Panther members verbally denounced Ron Everett at a large meeting, and were subsequently killed on Everett’s orders by two members of US. This clash led Everett to a deeply paranoid distrust of the Black Panthers; eventually he tortured two women and was later arrested and convicted. Charming person, no?

While this man was born Ron Everett, he has since started calling himself Ron Karenga or Maulana Karenga. His greatest claim to fame, aside from torturing and beating women and ordering the execution of rivals, is that he created Kwanzaa, the holiday celebrated by less than 2% of Americans in the seven days between December 26th and January 1st. Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits,” and it is a syncretic holiday, meaning it is a blending of a multitude of different traditions and celebrations — a synthetic holiday, if you will. Most harvest festivals in Africa are celebrated months earlier, but Ron Karenga explained Kwanzaa this way in an interview with the Washington Post:

People think it’s African, but it’s not. I came up with Kwanzaa because Black people wouldn’t celebrate it if they knew it was American. Also, I put it around Christmas because I knew that’s when a lot of Bloods [Karenga's term for African-Americans] are partying.

You could say that I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa because I am not of African descent, and that is true. But calling Kwanzaa an African holiday is like claiming pizza and tacos are traditional Scandinavian dishes. But if people wish to celebrate Kwanzaa, I will not stop them. They are free to dedicate the seven days of this holiday to the seven principles Karenga chose: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

A growing number of people will end their celebration of Kwanzaa on New Year’s Day tomorrow, and I wish them happiness. They either do not know of the origins of Kwanzaa, or do not care. After all, I don’t mind that many, if not most, of the Christmas traditions are of pagan origin. That knowledge doesn’t distract from my enjoyment of the Christmas season. But because I cannot separate the thuggish actions of Ron Karenga from his creation, I do not and cannot celebrate Kwanzaa. Personally, I’ll skip the invention of an avowed Marxist, torturer and death-dealer. That’s how I solve this Kwanzaa quandary.

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