To paraphrase the popular saying, hindsight is a prick. I should have learned by now to stop making promises about future posts, especially in 2015, a year which is particularly well served in terms of significant anniversaries and commemorations, and as such a never ending stream of controversies and talking points. This week’s post was meant to be a continuation of a topic started in my last post, namely how historians can stimulate the public’s interest in history, but it isn’t. Instead, that post has the honour of joining the ever expanding list of posts I like to think of as my rainy day fund, and this week I’m going to talk about a not at all controversial topic, namely how the debate surrounding the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death debate which has arisen regarding Churchill’s legacy illustrates the wider issue hero worship poses to the study of history.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or on the fifth moon of Jupiter, you’ll be aware that there’s been a fair bit of controversy surrounding the commemoration of Winston Churchill’s death fifty years ago. Depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall on, Churchill was either the greatest Prime Minister who ever lived; or a misogynistic, racist charlatan who’s legacy has been overstated to a ludicrous degree. To be honest, this post isn’t really going to talk much about Churchill’s legacy, partly due to the fact that I don’t feel I’ve studied his life in enough detail to make what I would consider a well-rounded and balanced assessment, but mainly because I’m using it as an example to skewer the received wisdom that argues Britain doesn’t have the same cult of hero worship that is found in other countries.
Yes, as a nation we have plenty of sacred cows, the only difference is that that unlike the countries we usually associate with hero worship (the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, you get the idea) ours tend to graze in fields on both sides of the political … farm. Whilst commentators on the left love to mock the almost saint-like reverence papers such as The Daily Mail have for figures such as Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, they’re quick to fly off the handle when anyone dares to suggest that Tony Benn might not have been the saint they believe him to be.
Anyway, I can’t help but feel that I’m losing sight of my original question: why is hero worship so detrimental to the study of history? The first and most obvious point is that designating certain historical figures as beyond criticism, reproach or mockery, ignores the fact that history as a discipline it is an ongoing, and probably never ending, debate.
The great thing about history is that there is no objectively “correct” interpretation of history. Yes, there are certain sources of data and information which are more objective than others, but beyond this there is no “right” answer to the question “was Churchill a great Prime Minister?”, as the answer varies according to what you consider the definition of “great” to be. Debate is the lifeblood of history, and for anyone on the left or the right to try and quash this by creating hero cults around the people and movements they personally find inspiring or important is inexcusable.
Secondly, as I’ve argued in a previous post trying to present any historical figure as an infallible hero in order to try and protect their legacy can actually be counter-productive. At the heart of all good history is a sense of empathy. If our audience identifies with, or at the very least has an understanding of, the people we’re trying to talk to them about, they’re more likely to want to learn more about them, because they see them as people rather than abstract historical concepts; and the best way to generate empathy is to present your subject warts and all. Our flaws are what makes us human, and for somebody to reach greatness after overcoming their shortcomings, or even to be great in spite of them, is a far more resonant and insightful story than one about somebody who starts off perfect and carries on being perfectly perfect forever more.
A good example of this is The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. As a comprehensive list of his achievements the book is unparalleled, but as a candid insight and critical, personal reflection on his life it’s severely lacking. Whilst reading the book, it became apparent pretty early on that I’d learn nothing from it that I couldn’t have done from Wikipedia or a five minute Google search, and as such I found my interest in the book dwindled to the point where I almost entirely lost interest.
Compare this to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and you immediately see the difference between an autobiography which is a glorified list, and an autobiography which is an honest reflection on the author’s life. To put it simply, Malcolm X admits that he wasn’t perfect. He talks openly about his time with the Nation of Islam, and he discusses how his belief in black supremacy and black supremacy led him to do things that, with hindsight, he regretted.
However, he doesn’t do this as a means of excusing his past mistakes, but rather he uses these discussions to illustrate how his past mistakes influenced him in his later life, and also as a means to dissuade others from following the same path he did. Because he was willing to talk openly about his past mistakes, rather than glossing over them or omitting them, I found it easier to empathise with Malcolm X as a person, and as such began to understand why he acted as he did and believed what he did, even if I felt his explanation didn’t justify his actions or beliefs.
However, my main issue with hero worship is that it misses what I feel to be the heart of history: the experience of everyday people. The other day I was reading Studs Terkel’s Working (which you should all read by the way) and found a quote which illustrated this point perfectly. So, on that note I’ll conclude, and hand you over to Bill Talcott:
“The problem with history is that it’s written about college professors about a lot of great men. That’s not what history is. History’s a hell of a lot of little people getting together and deciding they want a better life for their kids”.