Heroification in History4 min read
As I read textbooks, blogs, and historical, non-fiction literature, I notice an ongoing theme; heroification. Our nation—as does other proud nations—tends to allow our Founding Fathers, past elected officials, and our most predominately heroic figures rest on their laurels. Our nation’s pride(s), whether their heroism spawns from overcoming adversary, bravely leading uphill battles, or risking it all for humanity, should deserve to have their whole life’s story told. Not only do they deserve it, but as citizens, we deserve it. When I hear of a hero, I want the hero to be relatable. I find it impossible to relate to someone who has no character flaws, no imperfections.
It is especially important to not deprive readers of essential information. As an aspiring historian, I need to know about the skeletons in the closet. An example (and forgive me if I put off anyone against religion): any person interested in Christianity or the history of the religion has heard of the Apostle Paul. Paul, a Roman citizen, was of most importance—if not the most important—to the start of Christianity. He was one of the religions’ prominent missionaries and the author of a large percentage of the New Testament. It is known, and told by Paul himself, that before his conversion, Paul openly and actively persecuted Christians and even participated in the stoning of Stephen. I believe that this plays two very important roles. First, it opens readers and coverts to Christianity to show that they can act in a deplorable manner, which Paul did, and still become a Christian. Secondly, it helps the reader relate to Paul, since I would imagine that many would-be Christians would find it hard relating to Jesus. For whatever reason, Paul found if necessary to include his past grievances; for this I applaud him.
In a book I am currently reading—which has sparked this particular entry—Lies My Teacher Told Me, by: James W. Loewen, he speaks of heroification. In the first chapter he expresses the same sentiment that I have expressed and he uses President Woodrow Wilson as an example. He states that President Wilson was a great president, who was notable for leading America into World War I, developing the League of Nations, and his role in women’s suffrage. James Loewen goes on to state that while all this was true, President Wilson interfered in war and politics in Russia during their civil war and intervened in Latin America sending troops to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. Both of these ended poorly and are hardly ever referenced; however, when they are, authors attempt to portray the events in a positive light. The most nefarious of his acts was his blatant racism. He segregated and removed almost all of the blacks from federal government positions, he was active in the further implementation of Jim Crow laws, and allowed The Birth of a Nation to be the first motion picture to be shown in the White House. (I wasn’t there, but they say he approved and gave raving reviews.) (If you aren’t familiar with this movie, check it out, it was largely responsible for the “second era” of the KKK.)
In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen goes as far to say:
Omitting or absolving Wilson’s racism goes beyond concealing a character blemish. It is overtly racist. No black person could ever consider Woodrow Wilson a hero. Textbooks that present him as a hero are written from a white perspective. The cover-up denies all students the chance to learn something important about the interrelationship between the leader and the led. White Americans engaged in a new burst of racial violence during and immediately after Wilson’s presidency.
He later goes on to say:
Americans need to learn from the Wilson era, that there is a connection between racist-presidential leadership and like-minded public response.
While I believe it may be a little farfetched to call out authors as “overtly racist” for not mentioning it, there still is an issue. I believe that this issue needs to be resolved, and immediately. There is an overused cliché, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If historians and authors of our times are not willing to tell history as it stands, without heroification, our chances of repeating it grow exponentially. If you are a history teacher and you are “lying” to your students; stop!
I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far it is a great read, definitely an eye-opener. You can purchase it on Amazon here: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
23 thoughts on “Heroification in History”
An excellent point and post! Perhaps the most interesting aspect is why do we enjoy our heroes without flaws. Do historians or humans in general tend toward a manichean approach to classifying the movers and shakers of history, putting them squarely into “Heroes” and “Villians” boxes, with usually only token counter indicators. Can a racist be a hero? Or a murderer? Or a tyrant? Absolutely, it just depends who’s doing the heroification, and who (out of insecurity or a love of heroes) is willing to play along.
I ask this question: what if the legacy of someone whose values, views, and actions you esteem highly is to have those same values damaged through your own adulatory acceptance of them as a ‘hero’? Is s/he still a hero?
I’m thinking of that scene in The Life of Brian:
Brian: Please, please, please listen! I’ve got one or two things to say.
The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!
Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
Man in crowd: I’m not…
The Crowd: Sch!
Einstein said: “Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized.”
Personally, I feel nervous when respect turns to adulation, because I know that injustice and hypocricy are just around the corner- even if they are accompanied by inspiration and nobility. Lord Acton’s fine words in opposition to the concept of Papal infallibility still ring true:
“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
Sorry, I’m going on now. I blame it on your good post!
Answering one of your many questions.. Yes, I believe someone can still be a hero with the most egregiousness of character flaws and damaged values. It is also important, especially if the hero is historical, to take the time and place into context. I have heard a lot of people recently say, “George Washington had slaves…how can he be a hero??!?” Why it is true that he–and most of our nation’s early leaders–had slaves, it was also an aspect of his time. Slavery in the 1700’s was perfectly acceptable (albeit wrong.) For George Washington to have slaves should not strip him of his “heroic” title, but it should not be hidden.
As with President Wilson, he was born before the American Civil War and spent the majority of his live in Virginia and Georgia (both Confederate States.) I would imagine that the transition from the war and ending slavery, as a southerner, left a lot of people bitter and racist. While it was unfortunate that he was so outspoken on the matter, it was during a very tense time for race issues. Besides, it is hard to shake the teachings and racism repetitively thrust upon you by your elders.
Haha, in conclusion…. stuff happens, it may or may not make the man/woman less of a hero, but either way the world should know. I could possibly understand if the skeletons were in the closet of a living individual–out of respect, or fear. But seeing as President Wilson has been deceased for quite some time, everyone should use his story to learn from.
FYI- The Life of Brian was my first Monty Python experience…I still have the soundtrack.
Great post (and comments)!
The points you bring up here have always crossed my mind and I am always skeptical of what I read in history books (beside indisputable facts). I mean, doesn’t the winner always end up writing history? Had Hitler won WWII, would he not be a hero now?
I believe that historians create flawless heroes to turn people’s admiration into fanatic adulation – which is just what is needed to brainwash people into thinking whatever the ‘winner’ wants.
Researching the context of a personality and the decisions someone makes is definitely the way to get a measure of a man. We must be honest though and accept that not only do we judge our heroes/villians in light of the values of their age (like you say, teachings ‘repetitively thrust upon you by your elders’) but we should also be aware of our own prejudices/ the values of our own age when we make these judgements.
Otherwise we run the risk of saying that from the standpoint of his era, such-and-such did the right thing rather than focusing on the fact that in my age I have to do better than him in order to be true to his and my own values.
There are lots of examples of how we accept historical blinkers in order to confirm the stereotypes of our age. Genghis Khan is often afforded the reputation as an emperor who valued religious tolerance – and yet is responsible for two of history’s greatest massacres in Khwarezmia. Why do we focus then on his religious tolerance. Perhaps partially because in the years after his demise, european historians continued to compare him to what they considered a greater threat – the muslim armies, who, on the whole, did have a religious agenda to their expansion..
The obstacles to simply ‘setting the record straight’ on Wilson or Washington are in the fact that they have already gained mythic status. ‘Heroes’ are public property, and while the individuals they once were decay in the ground, the symbols they have become are used consciously and unconsciously to inspire and manipulate, and drive agendas which bear more and less relation to the individual values they once expoused. I’m not going to dwell on blaming historians or politicians per se for manipulating dead heroes for their own ends, as in a sense we are all historians who can change stereotypes by challenging them (obviously easier done in a democratic rather than an authoritarian society).
I don’t think that Hitler won WWll, he just kinda made it worse. Otherwise, I agree with everything you guys said.
See, this is exactly what I’ve been talking about. Where I was raised our founding fathers were heroes walking the Earth. No wiser, kinder, better men ever lived than these great men. Nowadays they’re a bunch of scumbag slave owners and rapists. Thus, I would argue that “heroification” is ephemeral at most and that in fact quite the opposite is actually the case. Let’s call it demonification. Our American hating left despises freedom, and demonifies all the great men who founded this incredible nation. They find or just make up so-called facts and fart them out in great gassy pronouncements that make everyone nod their heads knowingly. Yes, everyone is a sick twisted retard including Patrick Henry who probably peed himself after stammering his pathetic “Give me Liberty or Give me Death,” speech.
For some good de-herorification, check out “Honor in the Dust”, about the U.S. imperialistic adventure in my birth country, the Philippines.
Excellent post. I learned a lot from Loewen’s book as well. Howard Zinn says something in the introduction to “The People’s History of the United States” that has stuck with me. It’s been a while so I’m paraphrasing – he says that all historians are biased in the way they write history even if it’s just in the events that they choose to portray. One thing I like about his book is that he’s up front about his perspective. I have a hard time with anyone who writes history as “the Truth.” Almost everything is subject to interpretation.
But I do agree with your post. I want to know about the flaws of our hero/heroines. As you said with Paul, it makes them more accessible, more relate-able, and I think easier to learn from. Hopefully we all learn from our own mistakes as well as failures. Why not learn from the mistakes and flaws as well as the successes of our hero/heroines. It doesn’t have to be either/or as one of the previous commenters seems to imply. Hero/heroines aren’t any less complex than the rest of us.
As a teacher, i have always had a problem with every history text given to me to teach. I’m no history expert, but I knew enough to know, and have read enough biographies, etc, that what I was reading was majorly biased. It’s nice to see a historian who desires to see truth. I wish the media was more concerned….
As for the scriptures, that’s one reason why they come across as TRUTH and history. The flaws of every person mentioned are shown as well as the heroic feats they succeeded in, which just proves how a perfect God can use and lead imperfect men. I think of King David. What a flawed man he was, yet he was always described as a man after God’s own heart. What king would want his adultery known by everyone generations after his reign? The Bible is such a fascinating book of history.
Thanks for your post. I’ll be following you. 🙂
What an intellectually stimulating read! However, I must disagree with you, to an extent. You state, “It is especially important to not deprive readers of essential information,” and “If you are a history teacher and you are “lying” to your students; stop!” But let’s be real, in the scheme of things, is it ‘essential’ that we know that President Wilson intervened in the Russian civil war and Latin American political affairs? Granted, the facts and history surrounding him, or any other historical figure, should not be dismissed simply because they are not flattering, but it is only essential to know such trivial matters when conducting thorough research. The impact of President Wilson’s controversial decisions fair in comparison to the huge impact that resulted from his leadership in World War I and the creation of the League of Nations.
Indeed, all history is significant so that we do not repeat history, but it is impractical for everyone to know the trivial facts. Teachers do not teach “lies,” as you seem believe, rather they are the ones teaching the essential information.
On another note, if you are interested in a hero in which you can relate, research the anti-hero. It has all of the qualities of the typical hero, but also with human characteristics of failure, fear, drunkenness, etc… “A Farewell to Arms” is an excellent example… As is Batman
Thanks for stopping by, but I think that you missed the idea of my post.
It is of the MOST importance that President Wilson practiced such egregious policies! To hoist him on our shoulders and cheer his accomplishments as a great leader during WW I and as a contributor to the League of Nations, then to not mention his other poorly-misguided, foreign policies is wrong. I guess the fact that President Wilson (for selfish and unjust reasons) placed soldiers in several countries to ensure America’s commercial interest, took natural resources from said counties, and used military power to coerce government officials into compliance–that’s no big deal.
I guess it shouldn’t be mentioned that Wilson’s actions set the stage for future dictators to rule over Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Nicaragua? It shouldn’t be mentioned that because of his meddling in Russia, that his policies and invasions fueled the tiny spark that would lead to motivations behind the Cold War?
In 1933, FDR, as President of the US, would push forward the Good Neighbor policy. This policy enforced that “the definite policy of the United States from now on is one opposed to armed intervention.” This was enacted specifically in regards to Latin America. What you won’t read about is that the entire Good Neighbor policy would never have been needed if not for President Wilson.
You, Colonel, are “lying” to yourself if you don’t see a problem with the facts as they are presented. While FDR was responsible for fixing relations with Latin America, via the Good Neighbor policy, we should just go ahead and sweep Executive Order 9066 under the rug, right? I guess it would be a “trivial fact” to mention this. Why would anyone care that he placed 110,000 individuals of Japanese descent, 65,000+ of whom were American citizens, in detainment camps after Pearl Harbor? Now this may be an exaggeration or a straw man argument, but hopefully you can understand the point I am trying to get across.
As for Batman, no one hides his flaws. He proudly allows his sidekick in tights and red cap to follow him around like a puppy dog!
Interesting post. Personally, I do not think Woodrow Wilson was a good president, but I did not form that opinion from what I learned in school. I learned it from what I read latter.
When we talk about the heroification of certain individuals, I think we can generally put this heroification in the context of propaganda. That is particularly true of an education system run by government.
Imagine if the United States had an entirely private education. Then different groups would see to the education of their children in a variety of ways using a variety of materials. However, each group would have to prepare its children to compete in an open marketplace. In that case it would be embarrassing to hero worship any man. It would be too easy for those who know the truth to dig up the facts and lay them out before the shocked worshippers.
Consider a figure such as Mohammed. Whereas no one knows of any flaw in the character of Jesus, such is not true of Mohammed. In fact, what Mohammed did and what he taught should be a source of shame. Therefore, if Islam is to succeed in this nation, much of the truth about what Mohammed taught and what he did will have to be suppressed. Hence, Muslim clerics go ape just because some cartoonist makes a cartoon they don’t like.
Because freedom of religion is so important, that’s why it is dangerous to allow any government to suppress freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or the freedom of parents to lead in the instruction of their children. When we can be convinced to idolize people, we lose our right to search for the truth.
We shouldn’t forget Thomas Jefferson’s dalliance with his slaves, or even as recently at mid-20th Century, Sen. Strom Thurmond’s backyard lays with black people while he was banging the drum against civil rights.
This is an excellent post and ties in very well with my Real American Heroes post. Thank you for stopping by and liking that one by the way. This is an excellent read and it is very thought out. There is a side to our heroes that is never presented to the public. It is there, it is just not advertised.
Great job, I look forward to reading more.
Ya, I almost recommenced that you read it, but some people are put off by posting what might appear as spam on their blogs. Thanks for the compliments.
I love history. Not enough to make a living out of it, but I do feel we have a lot to learn from our past. Feel free in the future to link me to one of your posts, I know who you are now so spam is not an issue.
Thank you for dropping in on my blog… it helped me find yours. I will definitely be back!
Another interesting book by James Loewen is this one.
The problem many people make in determining the rights and wrongs of those who went before is by judging them with our morals and standards. That is completely wrong. Would Wilson be considered a racist today? Surely! But then so would nearly everyone else alive at that time. During the Civil War, racism existed in the north as surely as it existed in the south… yet that is overlooked and we don’t talk about that, either, because it doesn’t fit our modern day template.
As I said in another response – there are good and bad in all of us and always has been. To judge someone by our standards today is grossly unfair and unprofessional and sadly it’s all too much the norm.
Did FDR send thousands of Japanese into the camps? Yes, he did – but he did it out of the necessity of the perceived threat the United States was facing at the time and he was doing what he thought was right. That’s not forgiving him, that’s admitting to the realities of the war at that time.
It is a sad state of affairs when today’s historians discuss those things that our predecessors did without losing first their own 21st century morals and standards. Those who went before did all sorts of things that for us today are wrong and socially not acceptable; they also weren’t privy to all we have learned in the meantime.
Good post. Many years ago in high school I wrote a paper on Woodrow Wilson and even called him one of my favorite presidents due to his creation of the league of nations and the way he handled WWI. It wasn’t until I took a history class in college that I learned of Wilson’s stance on racism and segregation. At the time and largely because I am black I was ashamed to have even thought highly of him. During Wilson’s time many thought the same way he did, so today I won’t hold that against him, but he’s no hero in my eyes. It’s disappointing to think that while in high school I received the most cleaned up, sanitized version of him and history in general.
Ha ha, yep…that’s the worst! It is always unsettling to find out that someone you thought was a great person, was not.