What should we feel about people who inspire us and who command the respect of millions for their achievements against difficult odds, yet who have engaged in personal activity that is worrisome or even repugnant to us?
Today's prominent example is Michael Jackson, an inspirational figure loved by many. For an African-American community that has faced extraordinary adversity and remains marginalized in much of our country, Jackson is a hands-down hero. He succeeded in ways that opened doors for others. He fought racism and his own personal demons to produce sweet music and dazzling creativity. His body of work provided inspiration and enjoyment to millions around the world, including me. But Jackson's personal traits and activities must concern us, especially for those who were touched by them. This dilemma of a flawed champion is being fought out in the court of public opinion and possibly in Congress, which will consider a proclamation in his honor.
So, what are we to think of modern heroes with clay feet?
The struggle over Jackson's legacy reminds me of a more important dispute currently being played out, albeit on a much lower profile stage, over how to consider the legacy of César Chávez. How to remember and credit the works and life of Chávez is now the subject of a hard fought battle in the progressive community.
Like many socially conscious people of my generation, I was active in the grape boycott of the 1970s in the cities in which I lived and worked. The boycott was a consumer campaign to elevate and protect the lives of farm workers who worked in those fields. The lives and struggles of farm workers resonated for many Americans. The grape boycott lead by Chávez was a way for people to actually do something about the conditions in the fields. It vitalized the concept of consumer boycotts that, up to that time, had only had sporadic successes in the union movement's "Do Not Buy" list and in African-American struggles, mainly in the South.
The name and image of Chávez have now become ubiquitous. To the credit of many US cities, any number of public facilities and roadways are named for Chávez. A simple Google Search for "César Chávez Oakland" brings up, on the first page alone, a park, education center, library, gym, chess workshop, medical therapy clinic, and day, all named for the labor leader.
Last year, Randy Shaw, who edits the useful BeyondChron.org web site, wrote a book on Chávez and the United Farmworkers Union called Beyond the Fields. Shaw ascribes great and lingering activity to the work of Chávez and his union. Shaw recently wrote that "many of the ideas, tactics, and strategies that Chávez and the UFW initiated or revived — including the boycott, clergy-labor partnerships, and grassroots voter outreach, particularly toward Latinos — are now so commonplace that their roots in the farm workers' movement are forgotten." Shaw also believes that the UFW was "the era's leading incubator of young activist talent," many of whom who are active in social movements today.
Shaw's vision of Chávez and the UFW is being challenged by another progressive writer and activist, Michael Yates. Yates, an editor at the Monthly Review and the author of the important book, Why Unions Matter, is highly critical of Chávez and Shaw's history of Chávez and the UFW. Yates argues that most of the strategies and behaviors that Shaw credits to Chávez and the UFW have no such original derivation. Yates also contends that while the UFW had an extraordinary run, it was brought down by Chávez's "dictatorial, hateful, and ruinous behavior." Chávez, Yates contends, became influenced by the leader of the cult-like group Synanon. Using Synanon mind-control tactics, Yates claims, Chávez brought charges against so-called "enemies of the union" and had at least one of these "enemies" arrested when he asked for his rights under the union constitution. For Yates, Chávez's personal flaws have left not a shining legacy, but one that is highly tarred. "A charitable description of today's UFW is that it has become a quasi-racket," Yates claims.
Yates argues that the real story of the UFW is a tragedy. The union began in a blaze of glory but has had little or no lasting effect in the lives of the workers. Yates credits the UFW for its successes in the fields and for the passage of the California farm workers' labor law. However, Yates writes, "Today, farm workers in California are no better off than they were before the union came on the scene. They still don't often live past fifty; they still suffer the same job-related injuries and illnesses; they still don't have unions; they are still at the bottom of the labor market barrel." Shaw disagrees, and while he is critical of some of Chávez's personal characteristics, is much more charitable to his legacy.
I never met Chávez, though I have known many who worked with him. The debate about his "true" history is interesting to me, but it is not the real point. For me and millions of others, Chávez was an image and an idea. He is present in my psyche as part of a narrative about the ability of the salt of the earth to try and construct a life marked by justice and dignity. The grape boycott and the UFW were a reality that became an idea, an idea that gripped the masses. Chávez was its personification.
Realities quickly become images. Images then influence reality, and this cycle continues.
Those who inspire us and who personify ideals that motivate us all have issues. When I first became acquainted with ancient Greek tragedies I was surprised to see their emphasis on the trials and tribulations of the successful. Two thousand years ago, the writers of these works seemed to recognize that even the greatest are tortured by difficult personal foibles, which often have deleterious effects on others. So should we.
Frankly, an impressionistic view of Chávez is all we need. I feel the same about Michael Jackson; I will retain the image of the wonderful sounds of the Jackson 5 and his later work. I think that is enough.
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