In defense of private bigotry

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June 8, 2004 by AK

It does happen, more often that you would prefer, that certain truths, or a certain set of truths you have come to acknowledge, get voiced by people of whom you do not think highly, and ‘objectively’ serve the interests of groups you feel antagonistic to. Bigots and extremists have smart ideas about as often or seldom as nice mainstream girls and boys. Moreover, bigotry per se is nothing to be admired, but as long as one keeps it to herself and her close friends, I don’t see a problem. It might–and with little doubt will–seep through to her public conduct, but it’s another story.

Aaron Haspel‘s contention, “Pound was actually a nice guy. A traitor, but a nice guy,” caused a reader’s response, “I can’t bring myself to say that a fascist was a nice guy.” Aaron proceeded to explain:

By “nice” I meant that he was remarkably generous personally, which can co-exist with anti-Semitism and a belief in Social Credit.

In which I concur. In general, it helps to draw the line between private beliefs and public actions. I wouldn’t care much about Pound’s anti-Semitism (I don’t, anyway) if it had not been for his Rome radio stardom.

Stephen Burt writes in Slate:

Larkin’s letters revealed not only a collector of dirty pictures but a man whose right-wing opinions sometimes accompanied flagrantly racist language. Larkin’s epithets joined Eliot’s arguable anti-Semitism and Pound’s undoubted fascism as fuel for the over-familiar debate: Can a bad man be a good poet?

So Larkin’s privately held antipathies and preferences put him in the “bad man” slot, while his amorous escapades (having three partners at a time)–acts, not beliefs–are no cardinal sin in the reviewer’s eyes. Moreover, according to Andrew Motion, a Larkin biographer:

[F]ollowing the publication of the Letters and the Life, a few librarians removed Larkin’s poems from their collections, and some critics conflated their sense of his personality with their account of the poetry to condemn its entire foundation.

Can’t help loving that. Bigotry and racism are as natural and common as they get. When a poet chooses to live a common man’s life, he should be expected to have a common man’s weaknesses.


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