Re-imagining ourselves in our fallen heroes

It is striking how often we resort to recasting our fallen leaders into molds of perfected humanity.  No matter their flaws, once assassinated, their death transforms them to immortal epic heroes.

In re-casting our fallen, we humans do not just pay tribute to their courage and compensate them for their lost years.  We also re-write history to make society seem more enlightened and history more bearable, if not downright inspirational. We re-write the fallen to have us seem more pious.

And so it is that Martin Luther King Jr., whose tragic passing we have just commemorated, has been re-written into a Disney prototype of a civil rights leader.  Whereas at 39 years of age this courageous human had failings like all of us, we cast out any weaknesses and remember only his “dream” of co-existence. We purge any problematic comments that some today would consider “unpatriotic.” And we conveniently forget that on the night that he was killed he was being called everything from a sell-out to a “menacing” instigator by leading newspapers and critics. According to modern lore, we fantasize that he embraced and was embraced by all of mainstream America, except by the one coward who shot him.

The phenomena of post-mortem-transformations is not uniquely American. Yitzhak Rabin is now revered by all Israelis as a unifying symbol, the soldier of peace who sacrificed his life for the cause. He should indeed be admired. But history seems to have conveniently swept aside that a large percentage of the Israeli population considered him a reckless traitor and the media was replete with condemnations and calls for his lynching in the weeks leading to his assassination.

Why is lionizing historic figures a problem? Don’t we all need to be inspired? Yes, but in transmogrifying the fallen into impossibly perfect figures to emulate, we make it very difficult to sufficiently appreciate and praise the mere good effort of the still-living leaders, not to mention our own responsibility to do our small part.

Why is re-casting history a problem? Because it turns deficient but illustrative history into unusable fairy-tale legend, and it leads us to draw distorted lessons from the past.

Gandhi, for example, was an exceptional leader, but he was not – as most people imagine him today – a heavenly pacifist.  Yes, his tools were non-violent, but his strategies were often not.  He was a brilliant strategist who knew he had the high moral ground and forced violence to be inflicted on his people in order to arouse moral rage around the world. He would ask his followers to walk and push their way through British soldier lines, knowing the soldiers would be forced to either give up control or hold the line through brutal force against defenseless white robed activists. He did not draw blood but caused others to draw it. Yes, one can admire Gandhi’s many positive contributions, but nobody is served by blind exultation of his “non-violent” path without critical examination of his means.

Contrast Gandhi’s approach to the still-living Dalai Lama, who has at least so far truly adopted a path of absolute non-violence, calling on Tibetan youth not to engage in violence or cause violence to be unleashed upon them, advising he will resign as spiritual and political leader if his call is not heeded. Gandhi would most likely have reacted differently. We have yet to see if the Dalai Lama’s path will change the status quo in Tibet, but if the path itself is the way, there is plenty to study and reflect in his life.

Only by analyzing the unvarnished nuances of human character can we accurately evaluate our past, our present, and our future.

Only by avoiding the tendency to create mythical messianic figures who must come to the rescue to rid us of human suffering can we own up to our shared responsibility as human beings, however imperfect and flawed we may be, to do a little of the leading ourselves.

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  1. Taylor Branch | Daniel Lubetzky said:

    [...] I wrote Re-Imagining Ourselves in Our Fallen Heroes, I was inspired after starting to read the first couple paragraphs from Taylor Branch’s op-ed [...]

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