Six People We Think We Know (and Totally Don’t)
A few years ago there was a movie called Crash that taught us that the best of us are all closet monsters just waiting to happen and the worst of us are maybe just misunderstood, wounded people capable of real good. We all took pause, looked at each other with fresh, tear-blurred eyes of understanding, and then promptly forgot about it.
It’s a lot easier to assume humanity falls into two neat categories: terrible people and awesome people. Unfortunately, those classifications often end up completely wrong, like this totally true story where a couple low-life burglars filched some guys laptop, found it stuffed with child porn, and turned themselves in to the cops just to report the guy.
The question is this: are we willing to alter our ideas of who some people are? Or are we totally married to hating them because it validates our simple view of the world? Let’s do an experiment: I’ll leave the names out of these tales until the very end.
Crash was a movie. The following is real life.
The world’s most ineffective poor-hater
Imagine a couple of wealthy guys. They’re both well-known spokespersons for their political causes, and both pretty polar opposites. We’ll call them Joe and Moe. In a private conversation, Moe admits that a charity he runs in New York City had run out of cash and won’t be able to distribute food and Christmas gifts. It stands to be pointed out that, despite his charity’s lack of funds, Moe himself is worth an estimated five million dollars. Joe, no friend of Moe, is moved to privately donate twenty-five thousand bucks to Moe’s charity so that it can provide the necessary food and gifts for the poor that it serves.
Later, Moe goes on TV to deliberately misquote Joe’s beliefs and refer to him as a “brutalizer of the poor”.
The tale of two greens
All right, some of you will know this one already. Don’t give away the ending.
Two more super wealthy dudes, let’s call them Mike and Ike, build their houses.
Mike cools his heels in a ten-thousand square foot gas-fueled house that sucks up power at a rate twelve times its neighbors. Mike’s average power bill is $2,400 per month, making his carbon footprint somewhere in the Godzilla range. Unconfirmed sources claim that Mike’s espresso machine is fueled by burning hundred dollar bills and the tears of orphans.
Ike, on the other hand, paid to have his four-thousand square foot ranch house built with every conceivable energy saving doohickey imaginable. It was built out of local resources, has a 25,000 gallon cistern which channels rainwater for irrigation, recycles all its household waste-water, and utilizes geothermal heating and cooling, reducing its energy usage by seventy-five percent.
Understandably, Mike and Ike are political/social rivals. One is a hero to the green movement, the other is considered a prime example of ecological wastefulness.
The Unknown Philanthropist
Let’s call him Phil. Phil got his first job as a shoe-shiner in a barber shop and spent his early career earning $20,000 bucks a year (and getting repeatedly fired.) Nowadays, he’s chummy with guys like Elton John and Seth McFarlane, even occasionally appearing on McFarlane’s Family Guy, where he is (very amusingly) made fun of. One of Phil’s least known qualities is his philanthropy. He’s been named the tenth most charitable celebrity, giving millions to everything from the children of veterans to disease study. He annually conducts a donation drive to benefit cancer research, raising over $20 million (including several of his own millions).
It seems Phil’s quite a generous tipper as well. He is known to tip in the triple and quadruple digits.
One of Phil’s best friends and supporters (not to mention his producer) is a guy named James Golden, a vegan African American former radio personality who’s been one of Phil’s closest partners for over two decades
Phil has been named one of the “ten most hated” public people.
The Unlikely Defender
Back in 2010, a homeless black man named Sherman Ware was attacked without provocation. The attacker was Justin Collison, a white, drunken, adolescent son of a local police official. For the cynical among us, it won’t come as a big surprise that this attack– which was caught on videotape– was broomed under the rug by the local cops.
The incident probably would have been forgotten entirely, if not for one man– let’s call him Marco– who spoke up. Marco and his wife were among the “very few” who got involved, putting up flyers on cars in the parking lots of black churches in an attempt to organize the community against the injustice.
According to neighbors, Marco’s was “the only non‐black face in the meetings for justice in this case.”
And Marco’s cause succeeded. Collison ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanor battery.
All right. Want to see how you scored?
Joe and Moe? That’s right-wing commentator Bill O’Reilly and civil rights activist Al Sharpton. O’Reilly only recently revealed his charitable gift of 25 grand to Sharpton’s charity in the wake of Sharpton’s deliberate misrepresentation of O’Reilly’s comments, adding that O’Reilly was a “brutalizer of the poor”.
Mike and Ike are Al Gore and George W. Bush, who famously duked it out over the presidency back in 2000. Despite Gore’s impassioned diatribes about being “green”, it turns out that his is the house with the godzilla-sized carbon footprint, whereas “environment hater” George Bush’s home is a model of ecological soundness (not to mention a third the size).
And Phil the Unknown Philanthropist? That’s none other than broadly hated radio personality Rush Limbaugh. Detest his politics all you want, but despite allegations of unchecked greed, the guy is indisputably one of the most charitable people on the planet.
And finally, what about Marco? The guy whose passion for social justice led to the conviction of a white police official’s son in the attack of a homeless black man? Well buckle your seat belts. That guy was George Zimmerman.
Yes, that George Zimmerman.
So how are you feeling right now?
I’m really not suggesting that any of these facts makes the people involved great people. I mean, Hitler apparently loved to draw Disney characters.
But still. Can we afford to believe the seamless media representations we’ve been given? Can we continue to think of George Bush as gleefully anti-environment? Or Limbaugh as a mere greedy capitalist pig? Or, dare I say it, George Zimmerman as a hater of black people?
I’m betting a lot of you are righteously, speechlessly enraged by all of this. But should we really be surprised that people aren’t one hundred percent good or evil? I mean… really?
And for my conservative pals who are sitting all smug, as much as I hate to say it, the knife cuts both ways. We can be just as small-minded and categorical in the people we dismiss as seamlessly evil. Barack Obama isn’t the antichrist. Heck, you might even find him an enjoyable guy to hang out with. And let’s be honest: Bill Clinton would be a riot to roll with on a Friday night.
The simple, boring, unsexy truth of it is that the bad guys are nowhere near as bad as we want to think they are, and the good guys are definitely never as good as we pretend they are. Our heroes and our villains aren’t like Harry Potter and Voldemort. The more we believe they are– the more we gulp down the media’s portrayal of people as seamlessly good and bad (regardless of what media we are listening to) the more we turn ourselves into cartoon characters.