In the wake of Mandela’s death, the deconstruction begins. What is his legacy, really? Along the way, didn’t he do some things that don’t seem all that heroic?
The answer is yes. I can tell you that without knowing anything about Nelson Mandela’s life. He was a human being.
The idea of the “hero” is one of the riskiest ones going. It taps deep into our primal thought processes, our ways of organizing the world into actors and acted-upons, of volition vs. doom, of our hope, our prayer, that we are efficacious and that life has meaning. That’s why it’s so often misused, appropriated by dictators, manipulators, and thieves, because it’s a short circuit.
We are definitely vulnerable to heroes. One of my favorite songs is by Woody Guthrie and is about the aviator Charles Lindbergh. It starts:
Mister Charlie Lindbergh, he flew to old Berlin,
Got ‘im a big Iron Cross, and he flew right back again
To Washington, Washington.
via Woody Guthrie – Lindbergh Lyrics.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie skewered the most popular hero of his day, letting you know exactly what medals and fame and money can mean, asserting that the nation’s most beloved son was a flat-out Nazi. So he was a skeptic, let’s say. But then he’d turn around and write a song like “Pretty Boy Floyd”:
And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
via Woody Guthrie – Pretty Boy Floyd Lyrics.
This peon to Floyd — this is the tone of the whole song — doesn’t seem like a super-critical way to look at a guy who robbed banks and killed people.
My point being, you have to be very careful in making someone a hero. When I listen to that song, I have to think about the tradition of the outlaw in music and try to look at the character as only a character. I am more and less successful at this on different days. I’m not going to go to bat for Woody on that one. Woody himself was a mixed bag of a human being.
So maybe we shouldn’t have heroes at all?
Myself, I don’t think that works. At the other end of the spectrum, some people are obviously awful and terrible. So there are some things we want to encourage people toward. Some people are better than others in their actions overall, at least. And we want heroes. Joseph Campbell was one of the first to note that heroes are, in ways both plain and subtle, how we organize our thinking. In my opinion, it would be foolish not to be aware of that at least, and choose our heroes wisely.
I thought a lot about this when I was writing “This Album Full of Angles.” Finn comes from a tradition of extreme individualists, people more skeptical of authority than almost anyone else in history. And yet, it had heroes. So how does Finn resolve this?
You’ll have your own reading, but I think the answer to that is that he resolves it lightly. He tends to look for heroes in particular acts rather than in character as such. He recognizes that “hero” isn’t an either/or term–it’s something you can be at one moment but not another–something that may only be clear in retrospect–something with the potential to injure us but also the capacity to lift us to new heights.
A quote has been on my mind since I heard about Mandela last night. It was something Nehru said about Gandhi–that he was a statesman among saints and a saint among statesmen. To me, that quote makes it clear that Gandhi understood heroes as well as or better than perhaps anyone in history. The hero has the hardest position of all–the hardest decisions to make–the decisions that are least clear, least obvious, least easy. The decisions that require the most courage, because it’s all but certain that few others will really understand them. That’s how Gandhi lived. But you could certainly run down a sizable list of ways in which Gandhi fell short of perfection.
I think the answer is that we have to entertain the idea of heroes without ever letting them move in permanently (perhaps we should say the same of villains, but that’s for another post). So yes, keep an open mind about Nelson Mandela (or Finn McCool). But also don’t forget that Nelson Mandela was a pretty exceptional human being who did things most of us will only dream of. A hero.
Don’t you think? Thanks for reading.