Now that the Penn State powers that be have decided pulling down Joe Paterno’s statue is necessary to the “healing process” (spelled w-i-t-c-h-h-u-n-t), I’ve come to the realization that we could right so many of the nation’s ills if we followed the Nittany lead. So allow me to suggest some equally cathartic moves:
(1) Take a wrecking ball to the face of George Washington on Mt. Rushmore because, you know, he kept slaves;
(2) Ditto to the profile of Thomas Jefferson;
(3) Remove that giant statue of Benjamin Franklin in front of the Franklin Institute because, you know, he was a serial adulterer and had 18 kids, give or take a bastard;
(4) Dislodge the statue of Lincoln from his DC memorial because he had the audacity to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War;
(5) Erase FDR’s name from South Philly’s verdant park, because our wartime president had no problem interning innocent Japanese-Americans;
(6) Rename JFK Boulevard because, after all, Jack spent an awful lot of time with ‘women not named Jackie;’
(7) Take away that holiday from MLK, Jr. because he also stepped out on Coretta;
(8) Get rid of that memorial to Joan of Arc outside the Art Museum because the chick was a schizophrenic war-mongerer;
And this is just what I came up with sipping my coffee this morning. I was inspired to
compile my list when I witnessed the over the top response in both the blogosphere, in print media (including here) and on the radio to what many have called a long-overdue reckoning with the evils of hero worship. That’s both naïve and wrong, given the particulars of this case.
Joe Paterno was not an unapproachable hero who hovered above the Penn State campus like some benevolent deity. He was part of the sinew and fiber of that place, striding-and sometimes limping-across the football field while never ignoring the more sedate and academic spaces. The library that bears his family’s name was just as important to the man as the monumental stadium which showcased generations of scholar athletes like the champion from one town over, John Capelletti. While some may have lost sight of his humanity because, after all, it’s in our nature to admire the greatness in others and dream about the possibilities for ourselves, most understood that he was just a very good and decent man who believed in the words of Robert Browning: “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp else what’s a heaven for.”
Paterno urged his athletes, and all of those he encountered at Penn State, to stretch themselves beyond the expected. Yes, he may have made mistakes and he surely angered a lot of people with his single-minded pursuit of excellence. And he probably acted with the arrogance that some who achieve great heights often assume when dealing with troublesome opponents, like academic deans who think that rowdy football players who have too much to drink and act like idiots should be disciplined like students, not valuable athletes. Paterno was wrong to pull rank and try and get special treatment for his boys, something that is far better established than his complicity in a rape cover-up. But to go from there and blame him for the crimes of Sandusky, especially based upon an investigative report that reads like an indictment of ghosts and dead men is terribly, indefensibly unfair.
Joe Paterno was not a saint, nor was he a hero. It’s highly unlikely that he ever acted like one, tramping around a rural campus with coke bottle glasses, hopelessly dated jackets and a hairdo that would have fit right in on Lawrence Welk. He was a man who did a lot of good in his lifetime, and made what some think was an unforgivable omission.
We’re the ones who have now propped him up as a hero, only so that we can rip him from that pedestal with unseemly glee. We are the ones who are saying he flew too close to the sun, and it’s good that his waxy wings are now dripping in disgrace. And since we are the ones who are doing this, with obvious and ulterior motives, we can’t get away with false pieties about the dangers of idolatry.
So let’s be consistent. If the Paterno statue goes, supposedly to save Sandusky’s victims further pain (but it’s doubtful that removing a statue erases any memories) let’s get rid of the other vestiges of heroes who, let’s be honest, were a lot less worthy of human tribute than a humble Italian from Brooklyn who tried, and led, a decent life.