“Gad Sir, You Are a Character!”

Men like my grandfather and Humphrey Bogart give us a glimpse of the right relationship between goodness and shrewdness.

Christians don’t make means-ends arguments, or at least we shouldn’t (Romans 3:8). But this article by David Brooks started me pondering again about that relationship.

Granddaddy was a police officer for three decades; his rough upbringing made him an exceptional undercover cop. When I speak with his former co-workers, few recognize him by his first name, but each of them remembers “Fox” Yarbrough—sharp as a tack and sly as the devil. In my memories he always smells like cigarettes and metal, and his clothes are scratchy from blotches of dried paint and rips that he’d “fixed” with super glue. I can still see him snorting hydrogen peroxide to clear up a runny nose, and I’ll never forget the day I asked him about the pepper spray in his gun cabinet; he put a drop on my cheek. I was six.

Looking back on the specifics of his character and demeanor, I wonder that I wasn’t terrified of him. (He cursed and swore, and on more than one occasion almost came to blows with another member of my immediate family.) But I wasn’t. My childlike affections and admiration for him were beyond strong, and I felt utterly secure and comfortable with him, especially when we were alone.

Papa was (unexpectedly) a different story. I was slightly unsure of this grandfather, but in hindsight, that too seems strange. He was a kind of Charlton Heston figure: a hard working, morally upright Southern Baptist pastor with a sonorous, warm voice who usually complied with his grandchildren’s requests for cherry snow cones from his ice machine. From my perspective if he wasn’t eating, sleeping, or preaching, he was in his recliner reading his Bible, and I have no doubt his character was highly regarded in the community. Like all good grandfathers, he could be gruff when he needed to be, which explains my fear of him, but I was also wary (though I know it would grieve him to hear it) of this man who so overtly and stringently stuck to his principles. That was something I couldn’t explain until reading Brooks’ article.

Brooks (graciously) highlights a lack of moral realism in today’s up-and-coming social entrepreneurs, which he argues leaves them ultimately ineffective. ”In short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality, and disorder head-on.” He points to film noir sleuths as obvious embodiments of this confrontational quality (virtue?), which is what got me thinking about my grandfathers.

I remember watching The African Queen in my late teens and Casablanca more recently and thinking how much Charlie Allnut and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) reminded me of Granddaddy. “He [knew he was] not going to be uplifted by his work; that to tackle the hard jobs [he’d] have to risk coarsening himself, but he doggedly [plowed] ahead.” Maybe I sensed all that as a child; maybe I didn’t. But my intuition was right to be comforted by a man whose action was appropriate to the condition in which he lived, and to be nervous about another who behaved somewhat without regard for the world around him.

Don’t we have the same sentiments toward our political leaders? We say we want someone of integrity, but we’re slightly apprehensive about the nice guys who don’t play the game very well. Will they be able to get anything done? It’s not that hard to be a squeaky clean politician; there are a handful of them in every legislative body. The really difficult thing is accepting a coarsening of oneself, but doggedly plowing ahead while maintaining a basic sense of and commitment to “good order,” as Brooks puts it.

The question this raises in my mind is this: can we really call something good if it fails to shrewdly account for and respond to the venalities and corruptions of a marred world?

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