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Heroes Part II
November 14, 2018
“Well, that was different!” Notta proclaimed after class. She hauled the extra early US History packets back into my office. They fell a couple inches from her hands to the conference table with a satisfying plop. “Can’t say I ever heard so much trash-talk about our first president.”
“Well,” I said, typing in my class notes, “he did own slaves and he did marry a rich widow.”
“Who didn’t, back then? Those were hallmarks of wealth and influence. We certainly didn’t focus on all that when I was in school.”
I smiled to myself. “Nor when I was in school. George Washington was held out as a hero.”
“Who couldn’t tell a lie,” Notta added. “You know the whole myth of the cherry tree and all that. And we assumed he never told a lie, even as an adult.”
“Maybe if he did, his wooden teeth would have fallen out.”
Notta snorted. “You know as well as I know that he didn’t wear wooden teeth! That’s another myth.”
I dated and saved my notes to the daily file. “I know. They were animal bones or ivory or something like that. And one wonders how much hair he actually had under that powdered wig.”
“You might wonder,” Notta said. “But I don’t. I’m perfectly comfortable with my heroes from history. Washington, Lincoln, Grant (yes, I know he had a drinking problem), Susan B. Anthony and Mrs. Stanton, Teddy, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt (don’t start on FDR’s marital situation), Eisenhower, Kennedy. Those were real people, real heroes who weren’t only out for themselves; they did good things for other people.”
“And had a few flaws,” I pointed out.
“You’re as bad as our cherubs,” Notta said, plopping herself down into a chair. “It drives me crazy that we can’t talk about American heroes without all the bad habits or prejudices they had. Why do we always have to take people who do so much good and subject them to the reality TV or Fixed Noise expose treatment? I understand warts and all, but do we have to know about the pimples on their butts, too? What has that got to do with learning history?”
“Nothing, from a certain point of view,” I said. “It depends on why you are studying history. Historians and professors tell us not to judge our ancestors’ actions by our own standards and current values. Those ‘old dead folks’ always come off as hypocrites or worse. Then again, if we take them as they are, accept the mores and customs of their times as correct and current, where does that leave us?”
“Supporting slavery, disenfranchising women and denying civil rights to probably two-thirds or three-fourths of the country’s population,” Notta said.
I nodded. “So where does that leave us?”
Notta settled back in her chair. “Oh, I feel a ‘teaching moment’ coming on. Do tell. Do.”
I gave her a ‘you asked for it’ look that had, at one time, stopped my children in their tracks. “Okay. History tells us who we were, what we did, and how we got where we are today. There’s nothing going on today that can’t be traced to some decision or event in the past. And there is no history without people. It’s like the old Vietnam slogan, ‘Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?’ If nobody came to the American Revolution or the Continental Congress, for example, there would be…well, nothing. The US of A wouldn’t be. Same for Westward Expansion, the Gold Rush, the War Between the States, and so on up to this moment.
“Now, I expect somewhere along the way, we Americans noticed all great civilizations had heroes. We decided we need heroes: other Americans who represented our values. People who had qualities we thought admirable – yes, even for that cherub who likes the narcissist millionaire – and wanted to pass on as something to strive for to ourselves and our posterity.”
“Leave the Constitution out of this or we’ll be here all day,” Notta said, wagging a finger at me.
I shrugged. “Maybe it was easier to see George Washington as a hero in the 19th century, because he hadn’t been dead that long. Two hundred plus years later, it’s akin to revering the Etruscans or even the Roman Empire. We know people write about it and there are artifacts to support some of the stories, but it’s not real. Heroes made of virtues may as well be made of the same stone as the Coliseum in Rome. Not something we can cozy up to or even understand. People we put up on pedestals. The more virtuous we make them, the higher the pedestal.
“This is where the warts and all approach to history comes in,” Notta said.
I nodded. “Pretty much. Our cherubs want to know enough to answer the unreasonable reasoning questions on the GED; but what did they ask at least three times in our 90 minute class?”
“’What’s this got to do with me?’” Notta quoted in a high, nasal mockery of our students.
“Right. And they’re not alone asking that. These days most folks are in a mode of evaluating things by what they mean to us as individuals. The notion of what these people meant to the country seems to have taken a backseat to the ‘me’ part of studying history. What’s Jefferson’s writings got to do with me? Why should I care that TR stood for reform? World War I was 100 years ago, so what? History becomes a long, dull walk past marble statues on pedestals.”
“Boring,” Notta said.
“Unless…” I gestured for her to follow the thought.
“Unless you make them more human, something people today can relate to.”
“Which is all well and good,” I said. “Might even make a lot of our ancestors more heroic. The trouble comes in when the ‘humanizing’ doesn’t stop.”
“Like when everyone is obsessed with Jefferson’s sex life and Grant’s drinking than what else they did for the US.”
Another nod from me. “The reality TV bit. But you know what is truly sad, in my opinion?”
“No, but I know you’ll tell me.”
“I don’t have to.”
Notta sighed. “Tell me.”
“What’s sad is that heroes were people we wanted to live up to imitating. It was the goal to climb up to their heights by embodying their virtues as best we could. Nowadays, seems it’s an easier goal to pull them down to our level. Or lower, so we can feel better. And we all love easier being better. Means we don’t have to work so hard, if at all. We’re all alright now and G-d forbid someone should expect us to try to be better.”
“Our cherubs are trying to be better,” Notta pointed out. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t be learning with us.”
“I imagine that’s true,” I said.
“So, if they can ‘diss’ George Washington, who do you think they look up to? Real people, I mean, not the superhero stuff.”
I knew a ‘you know I’m right’ statement was coming. The finger waggled. “I’m sure I don’t know.”