Behind the Mask

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” 

Edmund Burke

 

To be human is to revere, and to revel in veneration. And we all partake.

From Beyoncé to Lionel Messi to Harry and Megan Markle, we obsessively seek out celebrity news and pore over the smallest details of those we admire and hold in high regard.

For the most part, our society’s obsession with celebrity culture is a harmless and (it turns out) entirely natural pursuit. As evolutionary scientist Daniel Kruger explains, humans have evolved to keep a very keen eye on the dominant individuals in their society, in order to become stronger, more capable, and more dominant themselves.

“By watching what high-status individuals are doing, you might more effectively become one,” he says. “Also, knowing what is going on with these high-status individuals, you’re better able to navigate the social scene.”

Thus, it pays to pay attention to people at the top. And in our current obsessive, media-saturated culture, it’s hard not to pay attention to upper-strata individuals.

But what happens when our heroes and mentors fail us? When someone we have admired and respected is unmasked as someone other than who we believed them to be? When they are shown to be devoid of the values or moral stature we ascribe to them?

Where is the comfortable space where past accomplishments can co-exist with current flaws and failures? Is there one?

Grappling with how to readjust to a shifting character narrative is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s been a part of our social landscape since celebrity culture first emerged.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, people around the globe watched in stunned silence as one of the biggest heroes on the world stage revealed himself to be … less than.

At only 25, Charles Lindbergh was the first global celebrity of the 20th century and the undisputed darling of the paparazzi, long before we invented this term to describe 24/7 media obsession.

An obscure air mail pilot, Lindbergh flew into the record books on 27 May 1927 when he recorded the first solo, nonstop, transatlantic flight in a purpose-built monoplane, surviving close to 34 hours of extreme icy weather, navigational failures, Atlantic storms, sleep deprivation, and more than 5 000 kilometres of featureless ocean.

It was a seminal moment. In the same way that the Apollo Moon landing would galvanise extra-planetary exploration more than 40 years later, Lindbergh’s flight revolutionised aviation science and proved a turning point in long-distance travel.

And the pioneering pilot who made it happen became an international sensation, mobbed everywhere he went, and treated, as one newspaper article put it, “as if he had walked on water, not flown over it”.

Lindbergh’s celebrity only intensified when, in March 1932, his 20-month-old son was kidnapped, and despite a ransom of $50,000 being paid, was later found dead in a wood near his home.

But then, slowly at first, the Lindbergh sheen started to tarnish.

Following the death of his son, Lindbergh moved to England, and later France, where, surprisingly, he started praising German aircraft innovations, specifically the Nazis’ superior fighter and bomber designs.

By 1938, his subtle praise of Germany had escalated into a full-throated defence of German nationalist ideals – so much so that Nazi war architect Hermann Göring decorated him with the Service Cross of the German Eagle.

German field marshal Hermann Göring presenting Charles Lindbergh with a medal on behalf of
Adolf Hitler in October 1938. Picture: US Library of Congress

Over the next few years, as Germany launched one expansionistic assault after another, Lindbergh’s rhetoric, too, grew increasingly dangerous. He was a vocal advocate for American neutrality, believing the Allies’ opposition to Germany was an ill-conceived attempt to “deny Germany a place of power and prestige”.

At the height of German aggression, the Lindbergh mask had slipped completely, to reveal a profoundly flawed man who was deeply racist and antisemitic. Western nations, Lindbergh wrote, had to “build our white ramparts again”, and needed to help Germany “dam the Asiatic hordes”. Hitler, he said, was a great man, who had done “much for the German people”.

The story of Lindbergh’s fall from grace – and the way in which an adoring public battled, and continues to battle to redefine his legacy – is especially apt for South Africa in our current moment.

All around – politically, culturally and, increasingly, in our boardrooms and C suites – masks are slipping. Or rather, being ripped off.

Many of our most respected leaders – men and women on whom we have bestowed our trust and admiration – are being revealed as less than. Hero narratives are being rewritten. Motives are being questioned. Agendas are being exposed.

And questions are emerging.

At the height of the Watergate scandal, the question that came to define US President Richard Nixon’s downfall was: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Since then, this question has morphed into the quintessential guilt metric applied to virtually every major scandal. What did they know? And when did they know it?

As South Africans grapple with the tumultuous, shifting landscapes of state capture, sanctioned corruption, corporate fraud, and boardroom misogyny, this question becomes increasingly relevant, but also increasingly uncomfortable.

When masks slip, and feet of clay are exposed, it inevitably sends ripples of doubt through the inner circles. How did I not know? How did I not see it before? How could I have been deceived for so long? Am I complicit?

Unfortunately, the trauma of deceit, especially from those we held in high esteem, often manifests not in outrage and disappointment, but in cowering denial.

Because admitting to buying into the lie is often as damaging as admitting to turning a blind eye.

So we create elaborate systems of denial and plausibility, not necessarily to protect the reputations of those we trusted, but to justify our trust. Even after it has been broken.

In the 1940s, after the German attack on Pearl Harbour, Charles Lindbergh, and many of his most loyal supporters, launched a concerted effort to rehabilitate his public image. His support for Germany was naïve and uninformed, they claimed, while also being misunderstood and misinterpreted. He was pro-innovation, not pro-Germany, they said. He believed in science, not war.

It worked. Sixty years on, Lindbergh continues to be celebrated around the world as a pilot, pioneer, and advocate for innovation and aeronautic science. He was all those things. But he was also unquestionably racist, an unrepentant white supremacist, never wavering in his discrimination against Jews and, despite writing dozens of articles and books in the last 40 years of his life, recounted none of his most despicable public utterances.

And therein lies the lesson of Charles Lindbergh.

It is possible to be both hero and antihero. To steer great organisations and lead them astray. To build and to corrupt.

When the mask slips, our instinct is often to retreat in defence of ego. To protect ourselves, and those close to us, similarly duped. But by not calling villainy by its name, by not holding it up to the light of accountability, we don’t only rewrite history, we also become part of the landscape that enables corruption and corporate malfeasance to blend into the background.

Despite South Africa’s myriad challenges and setbacks, I continue to be passionately, purposefully optimistic about our country, our continent, and our shared future. But it is an optimism premised on courage.

No matter the cost or repercussions, we must – collectively and individually – marshal the courage to condemn unethical, unjust or unlawful action where and whenever it occurs. To denounce racism, sexism and discrimination. Loudly, unequivocally, and without exception. Not only when it is convenient. Not only when there is no material or emotional price to pay.

Always.

Because as Edmund Burke reminds us: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Yours in accountability,

Natalie

 

February 25, 2021

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