Yesterday (Feb. 4), I noticed that it was Charles Lindbergh‘s birthday. I noticed it because of an editorial explaining why we don’t celebrate his birthday — because he was decidedly racist and sympathetic toward Nazism, not to mention a believer in eugenics.
My immediate reaction was two-fold. First, his birthday’s not important; he isn’t known for having a birthday (because anyone can do that). He’s famous for achieving the very first solo nonstop trans-Atlantic flight. If anything, there should be a holiday on May 20 or May 21 — the day he took flight and the day he landed, respectively.
Secondly, I thought, as the title says above: why can’t we celebrate achievements without hero worship? Despite his views, which many found objectionable even in the 1920s, his aviation achievement was by all measurements amazing. He took a single-seat, single-engine, fabric-covered aircraft, its forward view blocked by an extra fuel tank, and flew it 33.5 hours alone across the Atlantic Ocean (from New York to Paris) navigating only by the stars and dead reckoning though he was often blinded by fog. To save on weight, he opted to do it without a radio, sextant, or parachute. This milestone in human history is certainly worth celebrating and remembering, and doing so does not require either ignoring or embracing his objectionable views on unrelated topics.
The same holds true for other human feats that we honor.
Christopher Columbus is another example. His actions initiated the European colonization of the Western hemisphere. Regardless of one’s views on that topic, it must be recognized that the moment in history was a massive one. He is often honored for incorrect things, it’s true. For example, he was neither the first European to arrive in the Americas, nor did he “discover” the Americas (as many of us were taught as youngsters). But what he actually did is still impressive. Despite his now-hilarious insistence that he’d reached Asia, and despite horrible actions — kidnapping natives to demand the source of their gold, torturing and mutilating those under his charge — his voyages of exploration were still powerful achievements in his day and his influence on modern history cannot be denied.
We can spend all day listing famous men and women of history whose lives were amazingly flawed, yet who accomplished great or at least noteworthy things. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was both a hypocritical slave-rapist and a great political and scientific thinker who helped fashion modern democracy. Many of the freedoms we enjoy today in the U.S. are due directly to his influences, and many of his writings are well-worth reading, and we should be able to celebrate those things without either ignoring or embracing his less worthy actions.
This isn’t a new phenomenon of course; it’s been true as far back as history goes — the tendency to pretend certain heroes are infallible. The reason is probably obvious: when telling a story about someone’s great achievement, it’s usually irrelevant to also tell of their foibles and failings. Over time, only one part gets remembered.
Today, the tendency seems to be reversing itself. Instead of remembering only the good deeds so we can celebrate a “hero”, we loudly pronounce the broken parts of the story in order to dismiss them.
Perhaps it is just easier for people to take up one sound bite or another, and more difficult to contemplate nuance and complexity of character. Perhaps too many of us are trained to see the world in only black and white so that it’s difficult to notice that everything is gray.
But the fact remains that no one is faultless and even the worst person you can think of had — if you look deep enough — worthwhile qualities.
The chances are slim that I will do anything that historians think noteworthy, but if I did, will they focus on my poor choices and my character flaws, or on that one thing I did that was put my name in the public eye? And why can’t it be both?