February 28th, 2011

Heroes And Villains

I was watching a documentary about Abe Lincoln last night. It was examining the legend and asking whether he was really such a visionary and saint as the legend makes him out to be- and the answer was, "No, of course not, but..."  He was a man of his time- and not any kind of advanced thinker. He had some pretty scummy ideas and did some pretty bad things.  What made him special was his capacity to respond to events and learn from them and change his views and policies accordingly. For instance, for most of his life he was a white supremacist; he thought slavery was wrong, but for reasons that didn't include a belief in racial equality. He had a plan to ship emancipated slaves to colonies overseas, but the staunchness of black soldiers in the Union cause made him row back on that one and by the end of his life he was thinking that maybe it was a good idea to treat black people as citizens after all.

It's interesting how we need our heroes to be consistently noble and virtuous. The British equivalent of Abe is Winston Churchill. Both men were consummate politicians- which means that much of the time they behaved like sonsabitches- but we sweep all the dirt under the carpet and remember them for the one or two things they did really well- and get huffy when people draw attention to their flaws. It works the other way too. When we've typed a person as one of the villains of history we really don't want to hear excuses for them. Neville Chamberlain, for instance. We are so certain- by reason of hindsight- that appeasement was a bad thing that all we want to know about him is that he was weak, weak, weak. The fact that his policy had the support of millions- including the sainted- and Oscar-winning- George VI-  is unwelcome in our drawing rooms and had best not come calling.

Our need for our heroes to be unflawed and our villains double-dyed goes very deep. We cling to it even though our best writers- beginning with Homer and Aeschylus- have been telling us to get over it for thousands of years.