It’s become kind of trendy to take characters from history, many cast as heroes, and downplay their achievements by highlighting their sins.
Every Columbus Day, for example, we’re reminded that he didn’t discover the Americas, that he kidnapped children and was responsible for a genocide.
All true, of course. In his quest for fame and glory, Columbus undoubtedly committed horrific crimes against the native populations of what he thought was the East Indies. He also, more than once, sought to trick and defraud the monarchs of Spain.
Winston Churchill is another one.
He saved Great Britain from Nazi Germany during the second World War. His leadership is one of the brightest lights from a century that was as dark and violent as they come.
He also hated Gandhi and was a racist. When he was young, he would go on adventures to wars for fun under the guise of being a journalist.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison not only founded our nation and wrote our Constitution, whatever is left of it after more than 200 years of wear-and-tear, but they also owned slaves and, when given the opportunity to end a practice Jefferson referred to as a “hideous blot,” instead said “Nah, later.”
There’s a problem when we use real people as moral compasses or heroes – they’re people, too, and they come with all of the flaws being human brings.
They cussed and cheated on a Latin test when they were younger and some did far worse.
It shouldn’t take away from their accomplishments – the voyage across the Atlantic was not easy, and there should be recognition for completing the journey. However, Columbus did some terrible things once he got here, and that should be known as well.
It’s like when we were younger and
we worshiped professional athletes:
We hoped our kid looked up to someone like Lou Gehrig and not someone like
Maybe we focus instead on setting up fictional characters to be heroes – and not the well-written or complicated ones. In the new Marvel movies, the heroes always save the city by destroying slightly less of the city than the bad guys would have.
Superman is another good hero. He can literally do anything the plot requires him to do to succeed, has enough power that we humans can’t really distinguish between him and a god, and yet he chose not to enslave all of Earth for his own personal kingdom.
Plus, despite being an undocumented – and literal – alien, he still fights for truth, justice and the American Way.
That’s a good guy to look up to.
(Now that I’ve written that, I certainly hope there isn’t an old issue of Adventure Comics where Superman argues in favor of segregated busing or that the German-American Bund is really a group of patriotic citizens.)
Depending on our own personal morals, we have myriad characters we use. If you’re the type to aim for a puddle driving by, rather than help the little old lady cross the street, then Superman wouldn’t be your go-to hero.
But Walter White from “Breaking Bad” might be more your speed. In tough situations, you can ask yourself “What would Walter White do?” and maybe the path before you becomes clear.
“What would Tony Soprano do?” could lead you down a completely different path as well, complete with a soundtrack scored by Journey.
Instead of those options, also we could look to people closer to us for models. We all have someone in our life doing it right, who is where we want to be ourselves. How do they carry themselves? What would they do in your situation?
No, they won’t be perfect like Superman. They might use foul language or have a speeding ticket.
But it’s also a far bet they haven’t committed genocide on am indigenous population either.