I wanted to address a question that was raised by King and others on another thread, namely the question of when and how it is appropriate to lionize an historical figure. Much of this conversation comes from the debates surrounding the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, a U.S. President who achieved many great things but who, by modern standards, was a racist. Is it proper to have statues, buildings, and schools erected in his honor? He was not all that racist by the standards of his own time (contrary to the narratives that some “activists” are using in an effort to rewrite history right now), but by modern standards, he most definitely is. Do we take down the symbols? I think our answer can be found in the way chess players lionize former world champions.
I’ve been recently reading Jeremy Silman’s The Amateur’s Mind, which I won when I took first place in a recent quads tournament. Silman is widely regarded as one of the top chess writers in the world, if not THE top writer–not only is he a great player (and International Master), but he’s also a phenomenal writer who understands history and psychology. One of Silman’s observations is that many amateur chess players love attacking combinations, and “this attraction makes us want to emulate the great attacking masters and, as a result, we study games by Kasparov, Alekhine, and Tal.” (p.61) What’s interesting is that Jeremy Silman is Jewish, and he mentions Alexander Alekhine, who was an anti-Semite. But get this: not only does Silman mention Alekhine, but he also names Alekhine as his biggest chess hero.
Something like, “What chess hero had the most influence on your chess development?” seems more pertinent. Of my childhood chess heroes (Lasker, Fischer, and Alekhine), I would have to say that Alexander Alekhine’s amazing games, and his notes, played the biggest role in addicting me to chess.
So here we have one of the most prominent chess writers in the a world, a Jewish American, idolizing a former World Champion who hated Jews. Silman put aside his emotion to properly give credit where credit is due. And he’s not the only Jewish person in chess who thinks like this.
Keep in mind that Alekhine wasn’t just anti-Semitic. He cooperated with the Nazis, and although he later tried to say that his cooperation was coerced, evidence looks pretty damning that it was a true reflection of how he felt towards the Jews. For example, he was quoted by several sources as saying that Jews couldn’t play good chess because they were all about defense, rather than attack. He characterized his defeat of Max Euwe for the World Championship as “a triumph over the Jewish conspiracy.”
Yet Jewish chess players all over the world continue to show him respect.
Bobby Fischer, perhaps the most famous chess player of all time, was another anti-Semite (despite being Jewish himself) who used his stature as World Champion to attack the Jews. Still, Jewish chess players all over the world continue to show him respect.
As King mentions in his comment, every leader has flaws:
I think the question is, how can we balance those icons of the past who’s image we have raised into the pantheon of the honored dead? There remains a very human tendency to lionize our heroes (particularly posthumously). We overlook their faults, we exaggerate their virtues, and we shut down all voices of descent or criticism of them. This happens whether we are talking about Martin Luther King, Christopher Columbus, or Mahatma Gandhi.
So, once all the 3-story bronze statues with arms folded have been raised in the public squares, at what point after the cooling of ‘god worshipping’ fervor can we begin to look at these people as fallible again, and not as demigods? Because that is hard to do when they are 5x life size, towering over us on pedestals? People become angry that you are challenging the gods of secular humanism. They want them to say as gods.
Is it possible, after the fact, to say things like:
– MLK was great with Black Civil Rights but was a terrible husband!.
– Woodrow Wilson was great politician but was also a terrible racist!
– Gandhi was amazing at freeing India, but slept naked with 13 year old girls.
And what if we would have found out about about Bill Cosby’s raping ways after he passed away? Should we object to his honors being stripped of him? Was he just a product of a world where men were much more in control?
Is it possible to un-lionize these icons and bring them back to life size? Or must they forever tower over us because people were nostalgic and emotional about them in the years after their deaths? Let’s face it, if we keep the current murals, statues, and memorials, it will be very hard to ever see these figures as real people ever again.
– See more at: http://www.bigwowo.com/2015/11/removing-woodrow-wilson/#comment-318179
These are great points that I want to address in a bit. But back to Alekhine…
If you look at Alekhine’s games, the ideas are quite amazing. He is one of the pioneers of hypermodern thinking (controlling the center from the wings). He either invented or popularized Alekhine’s Defense, which is named after him because of his success with the opening. His tactical ability was legendary. He had an amazing ability to come up with attacking ideas and to hunt down the enemy king. If I remember correctly, Alekhine was one of the first players to promote physical exercise as a means to increase one’s ability to concentrate and play great chess. If you look at modern day chess players, they all work out and are in great physical condition, in part because of Alekhine’s influence.
Fischer’s legacy was even bigger. With Fischer’s 1972 match over Spassky, he brought chess into the geopolitical realm. He was one of the first to emphasize great opening preparation, and he is famous for his demonstration of the power of bishops over knights. Fischer was strong in all aspects of the game, from the opening to the middlegame to the endgame. He became the top chess player in the world, even though he was raised by a single mother in a country where chess wasn’t so popular. He revolutionized the sport by inventing Fischer-random and increment clocks that made the game more exciting.
Today, chess players all over the world continue to venerate these two giants.
The bottom line is that greatness rarely comes in the exact form that we want. Human beings are flawed. If Jeremy Silman, in his younger years, decided that he simply wasn’t going to study Alexander Alekhine’s games because “Jewish Lives Matter,” he might not have ever become an International Master. If Martin Luther King decided that he wasn’t going to study Gandhi since Gandhi didn’t think too highly of black people, he might have been unable to lead the Civil Rights Movement. I myself have studied Hegel, even though Hegel said that Chinese people would never learn from history. If you take everything personally and are unable to separate a person’s achievement from his flaws, you’ll never be able to learn from anyone. Everyone has flaws.
Now of course there are problems when one’s personal life comes in direct conflict with one’s achievements. Bill Cosby’s greatest claim to fame is his portrayal of a loving dad on the Cosby show. If allegations that he is a serial rapist are true, then yes, he should be removed as a symbol of a loving dad–because that’s WHY we would venerate him, and the image of a loving dad doesn’t work if the icon is a real-life serial rapist. We shouldn’t herald Jim Bakker as a great example of Christian love, since his sex scandal flies in direct opposition to what he preached–it doesn’t matter how many people his ministry reached. We can’t venerate Michael Brown because he wasn’t the innocent victim that people in the BLM movement say he was; he was killed while trying to criminally grab a cop’s gun.
These personal-political conflicts must also take into account the standards of the time. Abraham Lincoln was a racist, but compared to what was socially acceptable at the time, he wasn’t so bad. Nor was Woodrow Wilson. Socrates most likely slept with young boys, but that’s what lots of older Greek guys did back then.
Fortunately, this doesn’t affect most of our heroes. Even though Michael Jackson was most likely a child molester, one cannot understate what he meant to the music industry–not only did he come up with beats and tunes that still affect most living Americans today, he was the first mainstream black musical act, which is really amazing giving the history of Motown. If there are figures in music who deserves lionization, Michael Jackson has to be on the list. You can’t take that away from him. Similarly, you can’t take away Jack Welch’s ability to run a company, Mike Tyson’s ability to beat the crap out of people, Tiger Woods’s ability to hit a golf ball, Martin Luther King’s ability to fight and achieve equal rights, or James Watson’s ability to discover scientific phenomena. You can talk about their personal beliefs and weaknesses, but unless their actions directly affect the work for which we venerate them, their actions shouldn’t influence whether we venerate them. Mike Tyson might bite ears, but if you want to see how to throw a perfect left hook, he’s your man. Tiger might have cheated on Elin, but if you want to see how golf is supposed to be played, check out his games, not his personal life. Martin Luther King may have been a philanderer, but if you’re interested in a civil rights movement, that’s a separate issue. James Watson may be racist, but if you want to learn how to think like a scientist and create ideas that help millions of people, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be someone to look up to.
In closing, I would say that today’s PC climate of looking for a reason to be offended is harming us. I’m not asking people to become unemotional, but if your emotions are ruining your understanding of history and historical achievement, then it’s probably time to dial it back. Appreciate our heroes for what they achieved; don’t let their flaws represent the whole person. Doing so is not only a distortion of history, but also an obstacle in moving forward and developing the talents of our young people today. If adults cave in to the emotional and often illogical protests that are taking place on college campuses around the country, in the end we all lose.