Thursday, August 17, 2017

Heroica

It’s true that many of the U.S.’s Founding Fathers were slave owners, or at least condoned this horrible practice. Many other historical figures were oppressors and killers of Native Americans, or later exploiters of Chinese-American laborers, or captors of Japanese-Americans, and so on. If you take a ruthless examination of history, almost no one comes out looking good.

The fact is that people are selfish, bigoted, intolerant and exploitative. That’s human nature.

The whole concept of heroes is fundamentally flawed. People are not heroic.

But we do value certain ideals, such as bravery, wisdom, justice, liberty, etc. And to the extent that various people exemplify these ideals, it’s not a bad idea to honor them. George Washington is honored not for being a slave owner, but for leadership on the battlefield and in government. Thomas Jefferson is recognized as a great statesman, and as one who definitively articulated some fundamental ideals that shape our country.

By the same token, there are those whose historical significance is the embodiment of ideas we now find reprehensible: slavery, oppression, insurrection and brutality. Commemorating these individuals makes a negative statement about our current values, and about our attitudes towards their victims.

In one of those weird metaphysical ironies, we can celebrate virtues and values that we don’t actually live up to. And doing so gives us something to strive for, and to enshrine in law to help defend these ideals against our human weakness.

So we must pick and choose carefully which values and heroes to celebrate. These are our strongest statement of who we are.