Why Can’t We Celebrate Achievements Without Hero Worship?

Categories: History
Comments: 7 Comments
Published on: 2017.02.05

Charles Lindbergh, May 31, 1927

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?

7 Comments
  1. Dana says:

    I disagree – I think we do ‘celebrate’ the achievement without celebrating the person in many of the cases you sited above. Perhaps history classes have changed since I was in school (well, I assume they have) but we’re taught about these people and their achievements. I didn’t learn about Columbus or Charles Lindbergh from a National Holiday or the internet. I learned about them and their contributions in a historical context (in school).

    While the achievements are certainly worth knowing and learning about; I don’t think any of them necessarily warrant “celebration.” And the majority of the folks responsible for them shouldn’t be viewed as “heroes.”

    (I thought perhaps this blog entry was going to address one of my personal pet peeves – which is the overuse of the word “hero.” Ever since 9/11 it seems that everyone and anyone is a hero – just because they’ve done their job or acted in a decent manner (as any other human would be expected to). You didn’t kick the homeless man you passed on the street – you’re a hero. You’re a police officer and you helped someone who was lost – you’re a hero. You’re dying of cancer and were interviewed by the local news – you’re a hero. My local radio news is 90% stories of people doing nothing extraordinary being dubbed “heroes.” We’ve completely devalued the word hero.)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “I thought perhaps this blog entry was going to address one of my personal pet peeves – which is the overuse of the word ‘hero’.”

      That’s also a pet peeve of mine. Perhaps a topic for a future entry. I completely agree that we’ve devalued the word — at least compared to what I thought it used to mean. Of course, it depends on one’s point of view. If you’re the child who was lost, that police officer *is* a hero in your eyes. I remember once, when a somewhat popular kid in high school was being generally uncouth in my direction, an even more popular kid stepped in and told him to shove off. Bystanders (who had before been silent) immediately sided with the more popular kid and the bully lurched away. To me, that one student (who had just done what any decent person *should* have done) was a hero — at least in that moment. :-)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “I disagree…”

      Perhaps this is also a matter of perspective. In my experience, I first learned about these folks in the context of their achievements — “Wow! What a great man!” (Usually a man, of course, due to many abominable factors.) And then later another source pours on the hate: he was a racist, a Nazi, a Stalin sympathizer, a bad husband, a cruel landlord, etc.

      Today, I usually see this weird dichotomy in the context of social media. One person (or news source) will post about a person typically venerated for achievements, and someone else will immediately counter about how horrible they were.

      For example, recently in an atheist forum, the admins posted a Thomas Jefferson quotation. Many commenters immediately took them to task: “I’m not sure we should be quoting Jefferson, because he [list of horrible things he did].”

      My wife does this too: “I can’t watch the Cosby Show anymore after hearing all these allegations.” Or: “I can’t listen to [musical artist] anymore because of how his/her marriage ended.”

      Personally, I’m fond of Thomas Jefferson quotations, despite later learning of his indiscretions. He put thoughts into words in a way that stood the test of time; the quotation can still be correct, and worth quoting, even if he acted otherwise in other areas of his life.

      If your experience is that most people are now able to recognize heroic achievements or impressive talent, while also admitting to personal faults, then that gives me hope. Perhaps the people in your circles are more nuanced and able to grasp complexity than the people in my circles. :-)

  2. Marline says:

    At least for me it is extremely difficult to separate “the man from the myth.” Let’s go with The Cosby Show. It was a great show. It helped to introduce a normal, albeit upwardly mobile, rich, Black family to White America. But since it has come out that multiple women have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault I cannot in good conscious show that program to my children. Which is sad, because heck I once used an episode for a college presentation, but again I can’t watch that show anymore. Now my kids have no idea what this man has been accused of and would most likely watch the show and find it hokey due to the age, pacing of jokes being 30 years out of date. A Different World, the HBCU spinoff, is a different matter. I believe there were only a couple of guest appearances by him on that program, so I would be okay with my children watching that show once they are older.

    I know sounds like hypocrisy, but it makes sense in my head.

    With Lindbergh, maybe it’s my age, but I am too far removed from his accomplishment for it to seem like a big deal. Growing up Amelia Earhart was always the celebrated aviator, perhaps owing to her mysterious disappearance, or the fact that she accomplished all this as a woman.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Thanks for the contribution, darling.

      I’ll agree that Earhart is a far better choice for aviation hero. Not only did she replicate Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight (in half the time), the first woman to do so, she was the first aviator (male or female) to fly solo from Honolulu to California. She also didn’t do or say anything that would (today) be considered controversial — obviously, at the time, her feminism was controversial because: misogyny.

      But I think her achievements would be just as noteworthy and just as astounding even if she’d had some horrible character flaw. Let’s say that in her spare time, to help her relax, she tortured small animals for fun. That would make her a horrible person in my estimation, but her aviation prowess would still stand.

  3. Dana says:

    A colleague said it very eloquently the other day in a farewell speech when she was explaining why/how we do the work that we do (criminal defense) – “We each believe that a person is more than their worst act.”

    To be a successful defense attorney it helps if you can learn to see the humanity in everyone (and a perverse ability to compartmentalize doesn’t hurt either).

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