Tears flow when beautiful things are ruined.
It was sad to watch recently as two beloved and iconic images were severely damaged. Around the world, people felt anguish as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was ravaged by fire. While many precious items were saved, the structure endured some of the worst destruction since leaders of the French Revolution ruined statues and vandalized the premises during the 1790s.
On this side of the ocean, another artistic treasure was all but lost.
The legacy of the late Kate Smith, a cherished singer for much of the 20th century, was devastated in just a few days. Her rousing rendition of “God Bless America” had been a tradition for many years at Philadelphia Flyers games as well as the confines at Yankee Stadium. When critics brought up a pair of songs Smith performed in the early 1930s, the sports world in both cities quickly dispatched the entertainer to the historical dustbin. Her statue in Philadelphia was hastily removed and Smith’s “God Bless America” has been shelved.
Out of nearly 3,000 songs in an acclaimed career that spanned six decades, Smith performed two depicting racial stereotypes. The material is painful to hear. The songs were unacceptable then and time has only magnified their mistaken views.
It’s worth noting, however, that the recordings came at the dawn of Smith’s professional life, when she was in her early 20s. As the years passed, the songs were largely forgotten. Smith did not include them as centerpieces of her repertoire or use her celebrity platform to spew racial hatred or division.
To the contrary, Smith led an exemplary existence. When “God Bless America” became a hit, she and composer Irving Berlin, who wrote the classic, donated their royalties to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Smith also raised more than $600 million in war bonds to help the Allies beat the Nazis and other evil aggressors during World War II.
On one of her radio shows, “Kate Smith Speaks,” the singer criticized Hitler’s cruelty. She also sought support for a new series of child labor laws and encouraged women to participate in government affairs.
But this lifetime of accomplishments was instantly dismissed. Today’s mindset demands punishment for every mistake. If anyone is offended by something you’ve done or said, forgiveness is not an option. The only permissible verdict is banishment from society’s collective memory.
These self-appointed tribunals excel in the blood sport of selective outrage. The special interest groups and the media have become experts in exacting their pound of flesh.
While mistakes must be taken into account, should everyone be judged solely by their starting point? How about where life’s journey takes an individual? An accurate assessment of a person’s character needs to include how things stood at the finish line. For evaluations to be just, they require context, perspective, and a sense of balance.
We ignore concepts of fairness at our peril. The price of admission to our new age of so-called enlightenment is steep. It looks and feels like the era when rebels vandalized the Notre Dame Cathedral more than two centuries ago. Modern day Jacobins are on an intense mission to abandon the past, highlight every grievance, and replace tradition with their progressive wisdom. The footprints of anyone who dares to deviate from their playbook, or have a lapse of judgment, will quickly be washed away.
Despite the current climate, perhaps the flames of extremism will eventually be doused. As Notre Dame rises from the ashes, millions will find beauty amid imperfection and redemption in the ruins. That same attitude would serve us well when considering Kate Smith, a wonderful and talented woman who brought joy to hungry audiences in the Great Depression and beyond. By acknowledging but forgiving her missteps from long ago, we can move forward to an informed and enriched future.
Kendall Wingrove is a freelance writer from Okemos, Mich.