In Vincent Leung’s Politics of the Past in Early China, he refers to various early Chinese thinkers seeking out exemplary personages in the past to serve as models for present behavior. These thinkers were a diverse group who wrote and thought across a wide swathe of temporal space, yet settled on a relatively small set of “canonical, popular figures,” who they could then mobilize for a range of ideological purposes. To these men, the past was a small place inhabited by a small number of people and discussed amongst a similarly small elite literate clique. The past was so small, in fact, that, as Leung notes, an early 20th century Chinese historian found that “…the earlier the supposed time of a historical figure, the later he made his first appearances in the received corpus.” The paucity of the accepted historical record was such that they seemingly needed to invent heroes to make up for it.
No such limitations would appear to exist for those of us in the contemporary world. Our past is an infinite place populated by a countless number of potential heroes. Despite this, it sometimes seems that our collection of exemplary individuals is just as limited as those that the thinkers of early China could reference. Sure, each of us has our own pantheon of personal heroes, but my love of Barry Bonds does not have the same cultural cachet as Confucius referencing the actions of the universally revered (at least among that tiny minority of historically aware elites) King Wen of Zhou. As a society, though, our canon of heroes is a tired group of presidents, politicians, soldiers, scientists, and celebrities. Some member of this hallowed group stand out mostly for the fact that their monstrousness swamps their supposed heroism, while others are marked more by basic competence than brilliance (It reminds me of the bit by comedian John Mulaney where he notes that by the standards of the NY Post “…a hero is any man who does his job: ‘Hero Tutor Teaches After School’”).
To be sure, the concept of heroism is itself impossible to define, depending as it does on the personal priorities of the individual, but that’s all the more reason not to passively accept the heroes that we are handed. It is liberating to realize that you don’t have to defend Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding or, conversely, to realize that Frederick Douglas had more to say about liberty than TJ ever did. JFK’s assassination may have been tragic, but he was also a callow, pill-hopping, plagiarizer blessed with good looks, a good back story, and good speechwriters who nearly plunged the country into WWIII. My point is not to tear down our national heroes (although that’s fun too), but to suggest that in the infinite possibilities of our past, we don’t have to settle for these flawed paragons of national greatness. I also must note that even flawed people can make positive contributions to the world. If perfection is our standard the Hall of Heroes would end up awfully empty. As a starting point, I propose that if we must promote individuals to hero status let us look for people whose words and actions speak to their selflessness or who advocate for causes that they themselves might not even benefit from or who speak up or speak out even when there is no penalty for staying silent.
Whatever the standards for heroism are, at the very least we shouldn’t have to compromise our principles or values by elevating and then defending tragically flawed or downright villains into this pantheon of exemplary individuals. If we need heroes at all, then let’s find them outside our usual collection of racists, slaveholders, and warmongers. The historical record is large, the possibilities are endless, and we can do better. After all, the perfect may be the enemy of the good, but you know what else is the enemy of the good? Privileged assholes whose shitty behavior gets excused in the interests of nationalist myth-making.