Genghis Kahn’s empire killed 2/3 of Northern China, but people under his rule knew unrivaled gender equality and religious freedom. Mother Teresa gave aid to the poor, but also encouraged their suffering. Spiky cacti sometimes contain life-sustaining water, and even the most beautiful roses have thorns. We’re all some mix of good and bad.
Content advisory: today’s episode includes racial language in its historical context.
For 50+ years, the only thing people have known singer/actor Al Jolson for is for appearing in blackface in the first motion picture with embedded sound, The Jazz Singer. But he also promoted the work of playwright Garland Anderson, leading to the first all-black Broadway show, as well as pushing to hire a black dance group at a time when black performers were outright banned from Broadway. Beloved country singer Johnny Cash was an impassioned spokesperson for prison reform, going so far as to appear before a Senate subcommittee, to call for things like as separating first-timers from hardened criminals and focus on rehabilitation. But, he also started a forest fire that burned over 500 acres and displaced or killed dozens of endangered condors. Spiky cacti sometimes contain life-sustaining water, and even the most beautiful roses have thorns. We’re all some mix of good and bad. My name’s Moxie and this is your brain on facts.
Let me stress that we’re not trying to vilify or redeem anyone on today’s episode. They are what they are and a part-time podcast isn’t going to change that. And we’re not getting into the debate of ‘separating the art from the artist;’ this is only a half-hour show. So let’s go back and forth through some examples of bad things done by good people and good things done by bad people.
We’ll start our list with the first president of these United States. George Washington was said to have been so humble and noble that he refused a salary. Instead, he had an expense account that he downright exploited. In a seven month period, Washington spent $6,000 dollars, or the yearly salaries of 75 privates under his command… on booze. He used his expense account to lend money to deadbeat friends who never paid him back, and to buy senselessly extravagant things, like a saddle that cost 10 privates’ annual salaries. At Valley Forge, one-sixth of the critically under-supplied colonial army died, many from starvation. The food situation was so desperate that Washington sent troops as far away as New Jersey to “forage,” a polite way to say ‘rob the nearby farms.” Meanwhile, on his birthday, Washington ate mutton and hired a band to play for his guests. Bizarrely, to raise morale for the starving, often-shoeless troops, Washington used his expense account to put on a play. That one angered the Continental Congress to the point where they banned everyone in the entire army from ever attending any play, on threat of court-martial. All told, Washington blew through over $4 mil in modern money.
In addition to being a brilliant general, Napoleon Bonaparte was a ruthless dictator. Not content only to conquer other countries, he had no qualms against using force on French citizens, including ordering canons to be used on a group of protesters in 1795. At the same time, though, Napoleon governed the conquered territories under a system of laws based on equality. This Napoleonic code also forbade titles that are acquired at birth, which basically meant that your birth will not determine how good your life can be in the future. Napoleon also set in motion a system of secular, public education reforms that would become the foundation for the modern educational system in much of Europe. He founded a number of state secondary schools, to provide a standardized education open to everyone, teaching the sciences, plus modern and classical languages. The system offered scholarships and outperformed its European counterparts.
Ask any school child “who freed the slaves?” and they’ll tell you immediately “Abraham Lincoln!” We hold him up as a champion of humanity and equality. His current reputation might surprise the audience of his famous debate with Senator Stephen Douglas, who heard Lincoln explain, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Lincoln proposed relocating freed slaves to Liberia, Haiti, or Central America, almost anywhere that wasn’t here. Lincoln’s views may have started to change once he saw how bravely black troops fought for the Union cause, but even up until his death, he seemed willing to leave the fate of emancipated slaves in the hands of bigoted state legislators.
Bonus fact: the Oregon territory outlawed slavery before it ever achieved statehood….and promptly outlawed people of African descent in the territory, on pain of repeated flogging, 20-40 lashes every six months until they left.
Genghis Khan spread the Mongol empire from China’s Pacific coast to the doorstep of Europe, conquering or destroying both small tribes and large cities. If his riders appeared in the distance, it behooved you to surrender and pay tribute to the Khan. If you didn’t, you would be eradicated. Genghis Khan’s empire killed 10% of the world’s population, including ⅔ of northern China. But if you did surrender, your life might actually improve. Not only would you be *allowed to continue practicing your faith, Genghis Khan enforced religious equality. He also upheld gender equality, with women seated as prominent advisors. Scholars, doctors and skilled tradesmen were not only saved, but encouraged to develop and teach their skills. Life could be so good that certain tribes asked to join the Mongol empire, rather than waiting for the Mongols to eventually reach them.
Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful protests against British rule of India have left an indelible mark on history; his name is synonymous with transcendent passivity. Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel peace prize five times, the last time being in the year he was assassinated. Since the award is not given posthumously, the committee declared there was no suitable living candidate. Gandhi held firm to his principles of nonviolent resistance, but not so much to his stance on celibacy. At the age of 38, he took a vow of brahmacharya, which meant literally ‘living a spiritual life’ but is normally used to refer to chastity. Embracing poverty was easy; chastity not so much. So he worked out a series of complex loopholes which meant he could say he was technically chaste while still engaging in explicit sexual conversations and behavior. While he routinely told married couples to take a cold bath when they felt sexual urges, Gandhi carried on an affair with his personal physician for a number of years. After the death of his wife, Gandhi gathered more and more women around him, whom he coaxed to sleep naked in his bed, including *two 18 year old grandnieces. In case it needed to be said, such behaviour was not part of the accepted practice of brahmacharya.
The top name in organized crime in the first half of the twentieth century, Al Capone, built a criminal domain that brought in $100 million a year. Crossing him was a fatal mistake, as seven men learned in a garage on Valentine’s Day 1929. Capone didn’t keep all that money for himself, though. In 1931, Al Capone opened one of the nation’s first soup kitchens, which served 3,000 meals to the poor and homeless every day. Many claim the main impetus for the soup kitchen was PR, to clean up Capone’s image, but he still fed men, women and children who would otherwise go hungry.
If you think Gandhi is the only seemingly-sainted historical figure we’re talking about today, you might want to pace yourself. Next up is an actual saint, Teresa of Calcutta, aka Mother Teresa. Through the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, the Catholic nun devoted her life to helping the sick and impoverished of the world. From a distance, she looked like the pinnacle of Christian love. But saving *souls may have been more important to her than saving lives. She repeatedly bragged about coercing people into deathbed conversions. She saw the struggle of those in poverty as admirable, she envied it, she thought it brought them closer to God. She likened their suffering to Christ on the cross and, in the worst years, she condoned and even encouraged it within her hospitals and orphanages. Medical care was administered by volunteers with no medical training, needles were reused until they were so blunt they couldn’t pierce skin, pain management was non-existent, and staff were not able to distinguish the dying from the treatable. She told those in pain that they were being “kissed by Jesus”, yet on her own deathbed was happy to accept the very best medical care offered to her. I’m not even getting into her stance on women’s rights. If you’ll pardon me, I’m about to receive an angry phone call from my old-school Catholic mother. All that being said, Mother Teresa died within days of Princess Diana. It was a rough week for a lot of us.
We all knew that we weren’t going to get through this episode without talking about Adolph Hitler, so let’s see if we can do it quickly. Hitler had it in for many types of people, chief among them the children of Israel; his list included smokers. He ordered the first public anti-smoking campaign in modern history. Hitler also passed laws to stop experimentation on animals. Okay, we’re done.
You’d be disappointed to know just how many of your childhood heroes would have taken Hitler’s side. In a 1983 interview, beloved children’s author Roald Dahl suggested that Hitler “didn’t just pick on [the Jews] for no reason,” adding that “there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity.” Revolutionary industrialist Henry Ford was also grossly anti-Semitic. He bought the Dearborn Independent newspaper to use as a platform for his unsavory views, and his insistence that Jews started World War I was even cited by Hitler in Mein Kampf. In a 1971 Playboy interview, John Wayne said: “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.” Fashion designer Coco Chanel was a Nazi collaborator during the occupation of France and helped fund anti-semitic publications. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh publicly claimed that Jews were trying to drag America into the war through their ownership of the media. Walt Disney supported a number of pro-Nazi organizations.
Racist views spring up like mad when you look back into the lives of the authors you loved as children. Roald Dahl, Rudyard Kipling, and I even, sorry to say, Dr. Seuss. Joining me this week for a deeper dive are Carleigh and Katrina from Dimly Lit podcast.
Thanks, Katrina and Carleigh.
Another world leader with a failing report card in all things humanitarian was Saddam Hussein. He had committed genocide by ordering the deaths of thousands of men, women and children in the Kurdish province. At the same time, he, like Napoleon, was a champion of education. During his rule, primary school enrollment was 100%, and he instituted a literacy program with the intent to see that the entire population of Iraq could read. Likewise, Moumar Gaddafi dramatically improved Libya’s literacy rates, even though his human rights violations were gruesome.
One of the most famous Englishmen in history, of which there are many, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s leadership during World War II helped lead the Allies to victory. He was not as universally loved as he seemed from across the distance of an ocean and several decades. Despite being a figure of British resilience, his Conservative party failed to win the 1945 general election, not even for the fact that the Prime Minister deliberately diverted food away from India during the war to feed Europeans at a time when India desperately needed it, worsening one of the worst famines in the country’s history, particularly in the state of Bengal. Some of India’s grain was exported to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to meet needs there, even though Ceylon wasn’t experiencing the same degree of hardship; Australian wheat sailed past India to the Mediterranean and the Balkans; offers of American and Canadian food aid were turned down. India was not permitted to use its own sterling reserves, or indeed its own ships, to import food. And because the British government paid inflated prices in the open market to ensure supplies, grain became unaffordable for ordinary Indians. Churchill announced that the Indians “must learn to look after themselves as we have done… there is no reason why all parts of the British empire should not feel the pinch in the same way as the mother country has done.” Still more disgracefully, Churchill told Secretary of State for India Leopold Amery, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” The famine was their own fault, he declared at a war-cabinet meeting, for “breeding like rabbits.” Three million Bengalis died of starvation.
Bonus fact: A 2008 survey of British teenagers found that 23% thought Churchill was fiction and 58% thought Sherlock Holmes was fact.
As history’s biggest drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar was behind 80% of the world’s cocaine traffic. Like Capone, Escobar did not just want to be rich and powerful, he also wanted to be loved. With Escobar being responsible for over 4,000 deaths, countless bombings, kidnappings, and political assassinations, it’s hard to believe that anyone in Colombia has any fond memories of him. But the people in a neighborhood he built, and named after himself, do. In the 1980s, the government ignored the plight of the people in the Moravia neighborhood of Medellin, where 15,000 people were forced to live on a garbage dump the city had built. Escobar came in and built 1000 new houses, a soccer field and a sanitation system. He did this in part because he felt a connection to the poor and in part because he was trying to win their votes in his run for Congress. Regardless of his his actual motives, the people in the community never forgot. He spent million of his ill-gotten booty on more housing for the homeless, constructing 70 community soccer fields, and building a zoo.
Speaking of booty, pretty girls are part and parcel to the rock & roll lifestyle. For a number of our favorites, it was literally girls. Fresh off Great Balls of Fire, Jerry Lee Lewis landed in England with a young girl on his arm, his new bride Myra, the daughter of his bass player/cousin, age 13. When a reporter asked who she was, Myra said she was Jerry Lee’s wife, because no one told her to keep it a secret. As if that wasn’t enough, 22 year old Lewis was still married to his first wife at the time. The British press ran with that, the public was outraged, and the band was practically run out of the country. Things didn’t get better when they returned to the US. The scandal never left him; Lewis’s brand was done-for. Elvis Presley married Priscilla Beaulieu when she was 18, but he began dating her when she was 14 and he was 25. We don’t have time to get into rock stars having sexual relations, consensual or otherwise, with undersage girls, or we’d be here all day. Looking at you Jimmy Page, Don Henley, David Lee Roth, Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, David Bowie… Though I do want to single out Ted Nugent for special recognition for adopting the 17 year old girl he wanted to sleep with, to avoid being charged with kidnapping. Father of rock & roll, Chuck Berry was convicted in 1961 of transporting a minor across state lines for the purpose of sex, a 14-year-old he met in Texas. In the 80’s, Berry installed cameras in the bathroom of a restaurant he owned, claiming it was to catch an employee stealing, but he had footage of women and girls on video at his house, along with drugs. Jumping over to the movie biz, Charlie Chaplin also had a penchant for underage girls. When he was 30, he impregnated a 16-year-old actress, and his next relationship after that was with a 15-year-old.
In the aftermath of the devastating Japanese earthquake in 2011, the organized crime syndicate the Yakuza were among the first responders. Within days, they were dispatching trucks filled with food, water, and blankets to the affected areas. In the first two weeks, they donated relief supplies over $500,000. Rather than this being a PR stunt like some of our earlier entries, their philanthropy seemed to be genuine. According to their ninkyo code, others should never be left to suffer. (We’ll just tiptoe around all the people they kill in the course of their business. In times of national disaster, Yakuza gangs follow this code to the letter. During the 1995 Kobe earthquake, they were the first to get supplies to victims. They’re also notoriously shy about publicizing their donations, refusing to talk to the press. Their intentions are so honorable that even crime reporter Atsushi Mizoguchi has praised them, which is saying something considering he’s been been attacked and stabbed by Yakuza, twice.
Speaking of high praise, we got a five star review from Dan, “I was recently introduced to YBOF and I couldn’t be more excited about it. As a researcher, writer and all-around nerd, this show appeals to my very soul. Moxie’s voice is mesmerizing and draws listeners in to the well-researched factoids surrounding our history and daily lives. The stories behind the facts keep you hook to the very end of each episode. Add this one to your feed. You won’t regret it.” If you’d like to hear your name and opinion read on the show, leave us a review on our FB page or through Apple Podcasts.
Like Abraham Lincoln, President Grant was concerned that blacks and whites would never be able to live together peacefully. His proposed solution was to buy the Dominican Republic, then known as Santo Domingo, and send all four million freed black people in the United States there. He even got legendary anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner, then the most powerful man in the Senate, to agree to help him with the mass deportation. The Dominican Republic was on board with this idea, though that may have something to do with Dominican President Buenaventura Baez personally being offered $100,000 in the annexation treaty. The treaty didn’t go through, of course. As a general, Grant also made a run at banning all Jews from the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, because he blamed them for, of all things, cotton smuggling. It’s General Order #11 from 1862, not to be confused with the forced evacuation Order #11 from 1863. Grant’s order is the only example of a purely anti-Semitic action taken by the U.S. government, and yet somehow, Grant still won the Jewish vote both times that he ran for president. The guy must have been persuasive as hell.
If there’s one group of people most of us would cross the street to avoid, it’s the Hells Angels. Biker gangs are often in the business of, or at least adjacent to, drugs, murder, and a host of other illegal activities, but they are not without benevolence. In 2014, members of the Hells Angels waited in line at Walmart for five days in advance of Black Friday in order to make a very special purchase. Once inside, they purchased every single child’s bicycle in the store—about 200 of them. They donated the bikes to Poverello House, an organization in California that helps the needy. In addition to that, they also run a yearly toy drive.
American civil rights leader and prolific writer W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the best known spokesmen for African-American rights and co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. That’s why it lands so strangely in the brain to learn that he took a five-month-long Nazi-funded trip to Germany in 1936, on the condition that Du Bois not criticize their treatment of Jews. When Du Bois returned to the United States, he wrote that the German hatred of the Jews “is a reasoned prejudice, or an economic fear.” Jewish and anti-Nazi organizations were understandably unnerved. Du Bois shared many of the Nazi views on Jews (saying they were an “alien presence” and “foreign element” in Germany), claimed Hitler’s dictatorship was necessary and that national socialism made sense, and spoke highly of Hitler’s right-hand man, Rudolf Hess. Du Bois would spend years backpedaling and defending himself in the press.
While the Black Panthers were often portrayed as a gang, their leadership saw the organization as a political party whose goal was getting more African Americans elected to political office. By the early 1970s, FBI counterintelligence efforts, criminal activities, and an internal rift between group members weakened the party as a political force. Despite all that, The Black Panther party started a number of popular community social programs, including free breakfast programs for school children and free health clinics in 13 African American communities across the United States. The party saw a serious need to nurture black kids in disenfranchised communities, so they spent about two hours each morning cooking breakfast for children in poor neighborhoods before school. “Studies came out saying that children who didn’t have a good breakfast in the morning were less attentive in school and less inclined to do well and suffered from fatigue,” former party member David Lemieux said in the documentary. “We just simply took that information and a program was developed to serve breakfast to children,” he added. “We were showing love for our people.” The party served about 20,000 meals a week and it became the party’s most successful program of their 35 survival programs.
Bonus fact: the Black Panther comic book character debuted in Fantastic Four less than a year before the Black Panther party emerged in 1966. Although their names are of unrelated origin, their histories are intertwined. In a 1972 issue of “Fantastic Four,” the publisher briefly changed T’Challa’s name to “Black Leopard” to distance him from the political group. The change didn’t take, however, and within just a few months T’Challa was back to calling himself “Black Panther.”
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. Again, none of the good things we brought up are meant to expunge any sins or to discredit legacies, but it’s important that we try harder to remember both sides of people. So next time a headline comes across your social networks, “thus & such person did this thing,” good or bad, before you Like or Share, take a second to remember that we’re all, at best, a mixed bag. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.