We dip into the vast well of podcasts to pull out a gem. We talk about the Greeks, history itself, and what it means to be a hero today.
Heroes, History, and the Woke Left
In the Iliad, the epic poem by Homer, we are introduced to the age of heroes. And foremost among them is the great Achilles, “beloved by heaven,” who says to his patron goddess Athena, “for the gods ever hear the prayers of him that obeys them.” And In his introduction to the Barnes & Noble, leather edition of the Iliad, Michael Dirda writes of the great Achilles, “While sulking, the killing machine diverts himself playing on a stolen lyre and singing the feats of heroes.” Even the heroic, or semi-heroic, Achilles wants to sing of heroes.
Heroes and heroism are an indelible part of history. At the beginning of civilizations, many tales involve them: the Sumerian Gilgamesh, the aforementioned Greek Achilles, or the Anglo Saxon Beowulf. What is also endemic about these tales is the notable flaws of the heroes. Gilgamesh ends indirectly killing his best friend by violating the will of the gods. As compared to Hector, the real hero of the Iliad, Achilles comes across more like a petulant teenager than a heroic protagonist. And in Beowulf, Hrothgar preaches to Beowulf against the sin of pride. Why would Beowulf choose to fight the monster Grendel without weapons? Because he is a borderline narcissist. These heroes have one thing in common; their storytellers knew how fast heroes could become arrogant pricks.
History’s heroes have always continued to depend on the writer and the reader, more than the figures themselves. To Republic era Romans, the hero of the age was Alexander of Macedon, who had conquered the Persian Empire, and more, by the age of 33. For the militaristic Romans, there could be no higher standard. Certainly not the Carthaginian Hannibal, who had the temerity to be better than the Romans at their own game. Later, Julius Caesar became the model Roman based on his militaristic success. Still, for the Gauls, it was Vercingetorix martyred for the cause of freedom (!), or the ability of his native Averni to lord it over the rest of the Gauls. Ashoka, once rediscovered, took on heroic aspects in India. Han Xin, principle general of Liu Bang, helped the latter establish the Han Dynasty. And then there are more colloquial heroes such as the Arab Khalid ibn al-Walid, or the “sword of god,” and the Spanish Ed Cid. The former for pushing Islam across borders, the latter for pushing Islam back.
Actual evil in history has always been at hand but harder to find when one looks below the surface. When asked to name such scurrilous figures, many of the same appear. Attila, Genghis Khan, and Ivan the Terrible, to name but a few. But whereas Attila gets all of the press, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, a more successful conqueror of the era, gets little note though he also cut a swath of destruction through the dying Western Roman Empire. Genghis was a brutal conqueror who put whole cities to the sword, but so did his successor Tamerlane. There is a New Delhi because of what Tamerlane did to the old one. But Genghis’ scale of conquests lasted generations after his death, whereas Tamerlane’s died out immediately. Ivan was an effective Tsar until his decent in madness and the murder of his son. But of course, forgiving Ivan of his prolicide reminds of the quote uttered by John Kenneth Galbraith. Upon being told that Herbert Hoover would have been a great president, not for the Depression, responded, “yes, but Switzerland would be a flat country if not for the Alps.”
And then there is Hitler. So many 21st century writers, activists, and politicians like to apply charges of fascism to their opponents because the vileness of Hitler’s acts are so undisputed. Yet his contemporaries Stalin and Mao also directly orchestrated the mass murder of tens of millions of their people. However, no one evokes Mao as the archetype of evil with the same repetition as Hitler. Part of this is the strange affinity many in the academy harbor for Marxism. Another was Mao’s focus on keeping his bloodthirsty nature safely confined within China’s borders. Had he tried to export his Great Leap Forward, history might be more accurate to his nature than today. Stalin is even more difficult. There he is, sitting on Roosevelt’s right at Tehran and sitting next to the left of the ghost of FDR at Yalta. Despite his predations, including the purges, the mass murder of Ukrainians and Cossacks, and Eastern Europe’s conquest, a war-weary west was not about to confront, either militarily or historically, the man whose country had done the most to defeat Nazi Germany. Even this evilest of villains had a layer. What would World War II had looked like if 3 million Wehrmacht soldiers were in France when the allies came ashore at Normandy instead of Russia. That Stalin kept Russia in the war is part of his legacy along with his vile acts.
And whereas Hitler is a glaring example of depravity, his German predecessor, the Kaiser, is not so easily pegged. For one, where Hitler had absolute power, the Kaiser was, in many ways, a figurehead. Though Allied propagandists morphed the Kaiser into some evil figure, World War I reality is more nuanced. France was spoiling for a fight with Germany after the ignominy of the Franco Prussian war debacle. England wanted Germany to take down a peg or two for the hubris of challenging England’s hegemony on the seas. Russia entered the war, not to directly fight Germany, but rather defend its perceived paramount position in the Balkans and continue to pursue its dream of taking Constantinople, Turks are damned. And the Austro Hungarians were a once-great power blown around by the winds of change. In other words, World War I was not about heroism or villainy, but rather about naked, national self-interests.
In World War II, the Japanese military government of the mid-20th century also perpetuated war crimes, mainly against the Chinese, but without that central villain. Tojo was the leader, but not the progenitor of Japanese racism and imperialism have become Prime Minister in 1941, well after Japan had begun the conquest of China. In the late 1500s, the Japanese, under the banner of racial superiority, had attempted to conquer Korea with an eye towards China afterward. It was one of those historical anomalies that, at the moment, Korea would produce arguably the greatest admiral of all time to send the Japanese packing. So Japanese designs were not the result of a single villain.
Throughout the history of the medium of movies, which has had a lasting effect on the 21st century’s minds, those featuring heroes are always of the greatest box office material, whether looking at total box office numbers or inflation-adjusted numbers, heroes reign. The Avengers, the people of Nabu in Avatar, or in the 1950s, Moses in The Ten Commandments, with a few exceptions, the heroes are the archetype for how a person should conduct themselves. And even in those without a clear hero, such as Titanic and Gone with the Wind, there are heroic figures such as Jack who gives his life to save Rose or Scarlett O’Hara, who finds her inner strength.
In some movies, the concept of the hero and the villain is more nuanced. Is Batman’s tactics in The Dark Knight, making him all too similar to Joker? Is the paramount Avenger’s foe, Thanos, pure evil, or rather a galactic eco-warrior with a Malthusian outlook? And of the many great things in the epic star wars-well at least the first three movies-was that the line separating the “good” Jedis from the bad was not ocean wide. Darth Vader, an archetypal villain who is strangling people left and right, and blowing up whole planets in the first movie, saves his son’s life by the third, by giving his own in return. Roger Ebert used to say that the villains made James Bond movies. This supposition is only partially correct. Thunderball was good, but the villain Largo is just so so. And I loved the villain Drax but the movie, Moonraker, ugh.
Whenever real-life movies are made today, it is not hard to discern who the villains will be. In 1992’s True Lies, it was a Pakistani. No more. And China, As noted in the Washington Examiner, “In 2012, for example, a leaked script of “Red Dawn” prompted outrage from Chinese state media as the film was set to depict an invasion of the U.S. by China. In response, MGM scrubbed references to China, substituting North Korea as the villain bent on taking over the U.S.” When Disney gets nearly 15% of its box office from China, the heroes are Chinese such as Mulan; the villains are Asian steppe tribes. Whenever a real (non-space opera, non-men in spandex) movie is made in 2020 the odious villains are – corporate CEOs! And why not. China locks up a million of its people based on ethnicity and religion. But a CEO tries to make money for themselves and their shareholders. And in doing so creates jobs for their employees and things that people wish to buy. When I think about that I just want to go to Wall Street, find one of those guys and punch them in the nose. Then go post a video of Tic Tok. Yeah.
But where nuance and ambiguity exist in most, not all, of history, In 2020, the woke left see themselves clearly as the heroes of today freeing African Americans from their oppression or liberating women from male-dominated bondage. One of the reasons that woke leftists continually evoke the hateful legacy of slavery is it is just that, heinous and evil and without nuance. I have noted that there are example of truly depraved history without question. The Holocaust is one, slavery is another.
But what of the roles in 21st black inequality? It is easy to condemn a single police officer such as Derek Chauvin, but what of the liberal mayors and governors and their personally appointed police chiefs? What role of the liberal-dominated big education complex that for 50 years has continued to deliver unequal outcomes for students? What of black leaders such as Barack Obama who rail against inequalities and yet purchase $15 million homes in mostly white enclaves such as Martha’s Vineyard? What is the role of a culture that almost denigrates two-person households, something that even Obama celebrated? These are debatable, nuanced discussions, not the stuff of good vs. evil. Not the thing of heroes and villains.
What is so concerning about the woke left is not their motivations. As a conservative, I share some of them, albeit with the notable difference of creating equal opportunity vs. equal outcomes. What is concerning is their certitude, and in that certainty lies the justification for a burn it all down, transform all of it mentality. How many heinous acts have been committed throughout history in the name of certitude? The perpetrators of the Roman proscriptions, the Spanish inquisition, the Russian pogroms, and the Holocaust were all quite certain that what they were doing was correct. None of these was completed in the heat of the moment or a people gripped by passion. Instead, they were thought out, planned, and formerly executed.
To question something, such as asking whether African American travails are the stuff of police discrimination, is the soul of reason. Blind faith is the stuff of certitude. The nuanced and sometimes scurrilous history of the United States? Burn it down and replace it with something else. The Declaration and the Constitution? Written by slaveholders, so trash them both and replace them with something else. Lincoln? Even the “Great Emancipator” is now seen as flawed and needs to be put on the trash heap. The earlier evocation of The Dark Knight movie was intentional. The real difference between the characters is the one wishes to reform but save what is already good. The other wishes to burn it all down. That is evil.
But what of the conservative ethos preached in this podcast and on the pages of my website? The desire for smaller government is so that the certain cannot have grand power to achieve their aims, beneficial though they perceive them to be. The desire for liberty is to contain and challenge the certitude of others. And the wonder of capitalism is that it channels the natural inclination of individual choice, and mutual benefit to a successful end. And what of other certitudes held by this conservative? I am certain that free trade is better, but better with the current Chinese regime? I am certain about federalism, but does not COVID provide an example, or war, where a national response from a centralized entity may be better? I am certain that immigration is a good thing. We need the workers and their effort. But is this current wave becoming part of the melting pot or a country within a country and access to the entitlement state? And I am certain that a woman should have control over her body and support free choice.
But is that not a life?
A conservative’s goal is not to conserve a given place in time or a regimented belief system never open to change. Slavery was with us for 4,900 years. Now it is considered despicable. That is good. Instead, as a conservative, I wish to preserve the basis of individual liberty so that these issues can be worked out. I am not sure about how other people should live, but I am confident we should be free to work that out, for ourselves, and as a society with as much equality of opportunity as possible. The heroes of history are flawed creatures, and so are we. But what was the best thing about our heroes? Washington held slaves but was also instrumental in the creation of the most prosperous republic of all time. Jefferson owned slaves but wrote the most exceptional single document capturing the concept of freedom in history. At one point, Lincoln conceived of a country in Africa where the slaves could return, but later, did more than any other human to free over 3 million human beings. Martin Luther King Jr. had views on gays that would not be acceptable today. But more than the 20th-century figure articulated a vision that led to an African American becoming the most powerful man in the world in 2008. Flawed, but heroes all.
But for these heroes on the left, there is no such doubt; they do not own flaws. And for these heroes, there needs to be a villain. What would Al Sharpton, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Robin DiAngelo do if we were in a post-gender, post-racial society? Because none are general activists, but instead committed to a single cause, with a single explanation, white racism. There can be no discussion, no debate, and no reasoning. At some point, the Spanish Inquisition ceased to be about religion and became more about conformity and power. But the priests could never admit this because that would be to lose their hold on morality and power. So many leaders of leftist movements in the United States simply can never get to a post-racial society. There are too many votes to be had, too much money to make, and too much heroic acclaim to collect. Without a villain, there is no hero, and with the particular villain of white perpetuated, systematic racism, they would be just ordinary people, not heroes. And within this divisiveness lies the current, real villainy.