Calling all White Hats

In a recent visit to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, I did not meet America’s most famous farmer, but I did meet a four-year-old who provided a marvelous tour of the grounds. “Do you want to see the hay that I climb on?” he asked my wife and I.

What could we say in response? He led us to a hay barn, pausing once with a quick “shhh!” when he thought we might see deer across the pasture.  As he clambered onto a mountain of square bales, his mouth kept up a stream of explanations and comments, a few of which we actually understood.

Apparently at some point, he was launching into a story that was playing in his imagination. “And that’s when we got the bad guys!”

“Who got the bad guys?” I asked.

“I did,” he explained, his face relaying his seriousness. “With my good guys!”

What must it be like to be four years old and inhabiting a world of good guys and bad guys, white hats versus black hats, a world more straight-forward in its allegiances than the plots of Gunsmoke or Bonanza that my mother watches each afternoon?

Those stories and the cut-and-dry characters that populate them seem quaint and simplistic to contemporary sensibilities. We prefer far more nuance and complexity in our fictional characters. The white and black hats have been abandoned for a series of greys. We embrace Don Draper and Walter White, Tony Soprano and Olivia Pope. Even someone as close to the old-school Western hero as Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS carries along some fairly disturbing baggage. The simple character seems as passe as the family of Father Knows Best. We’re just a bit too sophisticated for that sort of thing.

After leaving Polyface Farm, we drove back into nearby Staunton, Virginia. Along the roads of that fascinating small city, we saw a number of campaign-style signs that read “Save the Name.” Investigating this plea, we discovered that a movement is afoot to change the name of Staunton’s Robert E. Lee High School. The opposing side wants to preserve the tradition of that name. In the wake of last year’s chaos in nearby Charlottesville, the urgency of this matter seems to have only increased.

While I understand the feelings of those who think a Confederate general to be an inappropriate namesake for a public high school, I can’t help thinking that those who dismiss Lee out of hand are separating the world into good guys and bad guys just as surely as  my four-year-old tour guide had.

Was Lee a perfect paragon of moral rectitude? No. An absolute devil? Of course not. He was a man, generally honorable but with serious flaws.

In that same Staunton, Virginia, the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president has his name placed on various local landmarks. Was Wilson a saint? No. Did he segregate the Federal offices in his administration? Yes.

But I wouldn’t argue for his name to be struck from the public view. After all, once we start that sort of action, the only names that can remain are those of people who did nothing. In my own home town of Independence, Missouri, the three high schools are named for Harry Truman (who dropped two atomic bombs), William Chrisman (who owned and traded slaves), and Robert T. Van Horn (who was a lawyer, politician, tax collector, and journalist, thereby almost guaranteeing at least some less-than-stellar doings).

People who do things of consequence almost invariably take some faulty steps. And when various people, from various parts of the moral and social compass, bring their ideas of what constitutes a faulty step, there’s very little hope that anyone’s name could remain on a high school or a street.

Humanity has very few absolute “good guys” and many people who can be partly tarred with some “bad guy” accusations. Perhaps we should be as open to complexity and conflict in our real people as we are in our fictional characters. Let’s leave the simplistic stuff for the pre-schoolers.

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