Virtues don’t excuse sins; they cohabit with them. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. Perhaps worse he was a slaveholder who comprehended, more than any other, the moral failing of slavery, and it’s potential to bring the country to war, and yet at the end of his life he argued for slavery’s expansion, and on his death many of his slaves were sent to the auction block.
At his end, Jefferson sided with those who would eventually bring about the deaths of 600,000 Americans. He argued that the antebellum South would have either “justice” versus “self-preservation.” To paraphrase Churchill, it chose the latter and consequently got neither. But Jefferson was a beautiful writer, and a great intellect, whose thinking and prose I consistently find stunning. This admiration does not negate his moral cowardice. Both are true at the same time. (The same point could be made in regards to our conversation over Elizabeth Cady Stanton.)
Or, from one of Coates’ own comments below the post:
But on the broader question, for me, so much of this comes back to writing and race. If I disqualified people for the horrendous ideas they held or advanced, my personal canon would be sliced in half. I don’t think those horrendous ideas should be shooed away. But they aren’t a counter to whatever better ideas the person espoused. You can be a horrendous bigot, and a great father. You can be a raving misogynist and a great novelist. Neither cancels the other out–though I understand people often write as though it should.
To be fair to Greenwald, he doesn’t say so either.