The corrective to hagiography is not reductionism

The other day, I convinced some of my friends to watch one of my favorite movies.

‘We’re going to watch The Prestige in honor of David Bowie. You want to join us?’

‘Did you know he was a racist and a pedophile?’ they replied.

That was an interaction that actually took place in real life, but an approximation of it has been filling my social media feed over the past few days.

It started with the shock that a 69-year-old man most people didn’t realize was quite that old and no one knew was getting treated for liver cancer during the past 18 months had just died.

Then the tributes started, and for musicians in particular, Bowie’s death was a cause for great mourning and his life one for celebration. Even I, who didn’t have any real connection to his music knew him well from Labyrinth and his turn as the eminently quotable Nikolai Tesla in The Prestige.

‘Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.’

‘Exact science is not an exact science.’

‘They’re all your hat.’

That last one needs some context, but Bowie was one of the few people able to die fairly long in tooth, and still shock everyone, and still be relevant. When Lou Reed died in 2013, his last major act was writing a review of a new Kanye West album. But Bowie released a new album.

So in this environment — of people calling  Bowie a genius, and lauding him for his musical achievements, acting talents, breakthroughs for being an out gay man, but also a proto-trans/genderqueer figure, and paragon of white privilege for using his position to call attention to and advocate for the music industry’s treatment of black artiststhere came the tug of the pendulum back in the other direction.

David Bowie was a fascist. He said nice things about Hitler.

He was a sexual predator, taking advantage of young, teenage girls, an inherently violent act.

David Bowie was a rapist, even if he got acquitted. (A grand jury no-billed him.)

In response to this, one of my friends texted me, ‘Fuck SJWs man.’

And yeah, I get that. But I also get that if we’ve got a pendulum swinging, a nudge back toward the middle doesn’t push enough to have that effect. If there’s a bunch of folk shoving sainthood in one direction, denouncing that person as the devil is necessary for equivalence. Obviously neither is good or of themselves helpful.

A person’s life isn’t stained glass, and it’s not the rock tossed through it.

Young people are drawn to absolutes more than older people because your experience tends to be very limited. Often, there’s the values you were brought up with your entire life (not realizing how short an amount of time that represents), and then the rejection of that you’ve chosen. This rejection is terrible important to you because you’re fighting with yourself as much as all the external forces ostensibly you’re addressing.

A fresh atheist is much more apt to pick fights and disallow moderation on religious issues than someone who hasn’t believed in god in 40 years. If you’ve just come to feminism, intersectionality, and structural racism, you’re going to want to practice it often and cast every issue in the starkest terms.

But if you’re older and have grown accustomed to past injustices, it’s easy to wave them off or minimize them so you only remember what feels good and comfortable.

Maybe the combination of impulses is ultimately good. Nostalgia has a flattening effect; social justice critiques tend toward pointillism. Hopefully we get three dimensions out of it at the end, or if we’re lucky four and understand how someone changed across time, success and failure, triumph and embarrassment.

Aida Manduley wrote an excellent piece on the same subject, and you probably should have been reading that one instead. But this as a summarizing principle really stood out.

It can be difficult and scary and destabilizing to hold the reality of loving someone and/or thinking they’ve done amazing things with the realities of those same people doing horrible things, but that’s how the world is.

Pointing out the shitty things someone else has done doesn’t make you a better person, but without all the postmortem criticism, I wouldn’t have known David Bowie had sex with teenage girls or said horrible things he later disavowed as coked up ramblings. Those should be part of his legacy, and have to be. Good art isn’t an excuse for bad behavior.

In The Prestige, Tesla invents a machine that can transport any object some distance away. The first thing to be transported is a top hat, and the process is done dozens of times before they realize the machine has been working all along, sending the hats elsewhere without removing or altering the original.

‘Don’t forget your hat,’ Tesla says to the owner about to leave.

‘Which hat is mine?’ the owner says, looking at the massive pile of identical headpieces.

‘They’re all your hat.’

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