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Reputation 201

12/05/2012

Reputation. Four syllables that have become a regular feature in my daily vocabulary recently, but what is this elusive concept? John Woodern barked “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, for your character is who you are while your reputation is how people see you”.

I recently did a study into the life of one Erasmus Smith Esq., a wealthy English businessman and landlord who set up a charitable trust with the aim of educating, for free, the poor children of the Roman Catholic tenants on his land. The context was the 17th Century Cromwellian plantation of Ireland. In the course of my investigation, I read two accounts of Erasmus and his Trust by RC clergymen in early 20th Ireland who lampoon Erasmus, and one more recent biography by the historian WJR Wallace. I conducted an interview with Mr Wallace and aside from much else, established that the main reason he undertook this major project – while in retirement – was to restore Erasmus’ reputation.

Anybody living in the Republic of Ireland will be familiar with the recent controversy surrounding the national broadcaster RTE. An investigative program on RTE was found to have grossly libeled Fr Kevin Reynolds, after claiming he had sired children by an underage girl while doing missionary work in Africa. The national government demanded an enquiry, and now, months later, the controversy is ongoing. My own opinion, is that while it was a gross libel on behalf of the broadcaster, and Fr Reynolds thoroughly deserved to be compensated and have his name vindicated, that the ongoing controversy is due to political opportunism on behalf of rightist-christian vested interests group who saw the chance to attack what they see as a liberal media establishment. Others argue that there should be further executive resignations from RTE and that this man’s reputation was criminally tarnished. No doubt, for several months he had to endure the defame, but I would of been of the opinion that his reputation has been fully restored already.

Just by taking a fleeting glance at these two examples, we can see that man is very much concerned with his reputation. It may just be how you are seen by others, but that, I am convinced, is more important than Woodern might concede. Any company or enterprise with a bad reputation will rapidly succumb to bankruptcy, an intellectual or writer who finds their reputation impaired or stained, will similarly find themselves in disastrous states, not just economically, but in a loss of morale and self-esteem. In my search for a bohemian anecdote, I thought about a certain conversation between Genghis Khan and his friend Arslan, the story of Jason and the Argonauts and an excerpt from Nietzsche, although I have no recollection of which one I thought was relevant at the time. Eventually, I decided that the paradigm was the life and legacy of Christopher Columbus.

Christopher Columbus, it is said, is the man who has had more words written about him that any other. More than Shakespeare, Christ, Dickens or Hitler. His story is a quest. A quest over sea to find a new route from Asia to Europe, famously stumbling upon the continent in the way, and more integrally, Columbus’ personal quest to build his reputation. Little is known about his early life, he went to great lengths to remove evidence concerning his early years, he was of relatively humble parentage and aspired to greatness. After years of canvassing across the Iberian Peninsula, Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel agreed to sponsor the maverick’s expedition. He made three trips to various parts of the New World and began to establish colonies, often maltreating the indigenous population, for which a Spanish judge has him clapped in irons and stripped of his titles of admiralty that he had pleaded to be bestowed with. He was promptly released from behind bars but spent the rest of his days seeking for his titles and his reputation to be restored to their former glory.

After death, of course, he became famous the world over. A national holiday is named in his honour in the US, among other countries. He is credited as having discovered America – no credit to the Asians who had crossed the Kamchatka-Alaska land bridge or the 11th Century Nordic explorers – and lauded as the archetype entrepreneur. During the 1980s, Columbus once again began to fall from grace and was seen as the first in a long line of genocidal Europeans to decimate the aboriginal populations of the Americas. Later, a further metamorphose restored, once again, the man’s reputation.

A reputation is delicate, difficult to build up, but easy to destroy. The reputation of any person, from the small business owner to the historical figure, perpetually lies in the balance of what is said and what is heard. It exists always, in an unstable equilibrium, between respect and repugnance. Columbus, like countless others, experienced in life the acme and nadir of public perception, and in death, an even more violent oscillation between the two has ensued.

My conscience tells me, I should include a quote from our friend Nietzsche who said that “it is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation”. He said it better than I ever will, so I will leave you to meditate on him.

~Colm

 

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