Mainstream acceptable heroes now and lasting long into the future have in common perfect understanding of what should be done, fraudulent pretenses of doing it, and calculating weakness as the true driver of their actions.
Exhibit one from nearby here in Virginia: Patrick Henry. Like Jesus, his story was written up third-hand decades later, with him gone from the earth. While his speeches usually warned of the need to keep the Native Americans on the run and the slaves in slavery (yes, that was part of what the revolution was for and what the Second Amendment was for), we’ve been handed down a hearsay composite memory of a speech without any such unpleasantries.
In this speech, Henry cries for war, and even in this age of recognizing the barbarous idiocy of choosing war, popular “progressive” history books depict Patrick Henry not as a war monger but as a fortune teller who simply looked into the future and recognized the “necessity” of starting a war earlier than did mere mortals — or, for that matter, the Canadians who still haven’t done it.
In this speech he supposedly stood as if in chains, depicted the U.S. colonial relationship to Britain as one of metaphorical slavery, liberated himself at the end, and declared that he would have liberty or death. But Patrick Henry was not a slave. He was an enslaver of men, women, and children. He opposed abolition and wanted a war to preserve the status quo in the name of “revolution” and “liberty.”
How is it that we can respect such a man? Why, because he declared slavery to be evil and understood it as such. He just engaged in it, because, you know, Donald Trump forced him to or something. Here’s Henry’s actual explanation first-hand in a letter he wrote to a Quaker who was trying to persuade him to free his slaves:
“I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not — I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct. I will so far pay my devoir to Virtue, as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and to lament my want of conformity to them. I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be afforded to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we can do, is to improve it, if It happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot, and an abhorrence of Slavery.”
Barack Obama, ender of the ongoing war on Afghanistan, closer of the open prison at Guantanamo, vanquisher of lawless imprisonment standards he legalized, opponent of cruelty and creator of mass drone murders, defender of the poor and champion of the TPP, empowerer of corporate health insurance in the name of health, Constitutional law scholar and wager of unauthorized wars, messenger of economic and racial justice whose presidency saw both worsen dramatically, bringer of transparency through record acts of retribution against whistleblowers, opener of borders via record deportations of children, Barack Obama will be remembered — is already remembered as if he’s finished his term — as the creator of an agreement that saved the earth’s climate.
In reality, Obama blocked serious efforts to protect the climate at Copenhagen and at Paris. He speeded up the process of permitting new pipelines during the Paris meeting. He approved all but one portion of the one pipeline most protested, while weaving a web of pipelines across the country. He brags about a reduction in the use of foreign oil, and people fail to hear the word “foreign” or its implication regarding non-foreign oil. The United States remains far and away per-capita the leading destroyer of the climate. If the United States behaved like the average nation, the climate crisis would vanish, replaced by decades of time in which to switch to sane sustainable practices. But Barack Obama and the United States are “leading the world” to climate salvation. Or so we will remember.
Except that, while you can pass down slavery and hatred of slavery, you cannot pass down climate destruction and hatred of climate destruction, because the climate won’t let you. It will render your descendants’ home uninhabitable.
Patrick Henry would not free enslaved people because of “the general inconvenience of living without them.” Obama will not move away from fossil fuels because “Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad.”
Weakness. Weakness. Weakness. Nothing more.
But weakness from people who understand their weakness, who are fully aware of it — and so, we don’t mind. It’s idiots who don’t know any better who bother us.
But should it be that way?
And aren’t we all weak? What am I, a saint? Don’t I eat non-vegan food for no other reason than that it tastes good? Don’t I produce more trash than Colin Beavan (“no impact man”)? Doesn’t Obama use cheap gasoline as an applause line because lots of people and probably all Congress members will applaud it?
True enough. But I never asked to be a hero. Congress doesn’t give me a standing ovation and proclaim me a savior of the climate while I throw away packaging from breakfast or continue to support massive subsidies to fossil fuel corporations. And of course I don’t do the latter. On the contrary, I’ve protested it, been arrested and locked up over it, been banned from Capitol Hill for the good of the country over it.
Most people don’t have the power to raise wages or build public transit or otherwise improve lives that see cheap gas as a good thing, or even a microphone from which to mention those possibilities. Can’t we hold our heroes to a higher standard?
Or at least acknowledge that they are weak calculating schmucks hoping to blame us and “the times they live in” for their failures?