Sunday, September 26, 2021

Hero Worship

I'm listening to The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr, and it's really fascinating. It's his attempt to unite research in psychology and the inner workings of the mind with the most effective styles of storytelling, and I recommend it for anyone interested in either psychology or fiction. For instance, he applies the sense of self as seen by psychology to the practice of creating or analyzing character in fiction. In the second chapter, "The Flawed Self," he writes,

"Our brains are hero-makers that emit seductive lies. They make us want to feel like the plucky, brave protagonist in the story of our own lives. In order for us to feel heroic, the brain craftily re-scripts our pasts. What we actually 'choose' to remember, and in what form, warps and changes in ways that suit the heroic story it wants to tell."

When I read that, I think of all the ways that I might reinvent or revise my exploits or interactions with others to make myself the hero in my own story. I also think about the ways that I might revise the truth or history of people or characters that I admire, heroes that I identify with, because, perhaps, to accept their flaws and failures would somehow reflect on me for admiring them.

I'm seeing this dynamic more and more in our culture these days, the tendency to revise history and tell ourselves lies about our heroes and ourselves so that we don't have to admit that they, and by extension we, are not as good as we think, or as moral as we aspire to be. 

For instance, the debate over the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy has resurged lately, in every channel from mainstream media all the way to social media. Especially since the removal of Robert E. Lee's statue from Richmond, Virginia, I've seen debate online and no end of posts and memes on FaceBook and other social media sites extolling his virtue. This trend seems to have ramped up ever since Trump weighed in on the issue by saying that if Lee had been in charge of the war in Afghanistan, it would have been a "complete and total victory." I've seen posts that quote him as saying that slavery was a "moral & political evil," that he was a kind slaveholder (as if such a thing could exist), and that he actually freed his slaves.

Even Americans who have never read a biography of Lee or studied the history of the era very closely would probably know two basic facts about him: that he led the military effort of a war to protect and expand the enslavement of African-Americans and that he lost that war, handily. Neither of those facts bolster the idea of Lee as a moral man or a military genius. But a closer look shows even more of those flaws that people who worship him as a hero are willing to overlook or rationalize.

For instance, while Lee did say in a letter that he believed slavery to be a "moral & political evil," he also said in that same letter that it was more of an evil to white people than to Black, that Black folks needed the "discipline" of slavery, and that only God Himself should end their enslavement.

Furthermore, despite what the neo-Confederate meme-lords would have us think, Lee was horribly abusive to the people he enslaved, by all historical accounts. Of course, I suppose that if we only consulted the Lee family and his supporters, they might paint a different picture, but I propose that their hero-making brains are emitting seductive lies. If we consult the reports of the people Lee enslaved, they tell stories of vicious beatings and floggings, followed by torture with brine and other methods, as well as brutal working conditions. The truth is that while Lee eventually released some of the nearly two hundred people he enslaved, he only did so because the legal terms under which he inherited these slaves stipulated that they must be released within five years. Note that the terms were specifically "within five years," meaning no longer than five years, but obviously at any time before that term. If Lee were really the Confederate anti-slavery anomaly that some would have us believe, he could have released these enslaved people immediately after the reading of the will that gave him legal control over them. Instead, not only did Lee never intend to free them, only doing so after a vigorous battle with the courts to keep them enslaved, but he also worked them so hard in that five-year span that he provoked a legendary slave revolt on his property. His intention, apparently, was to wring every drop of life and labor from these people before the courts demanded he set them free.

On a side note, can we just agree that enslaving people is bad? That ordering the release of enslaved people in one's will is no different from saying to them, "You'll get your freedom over my dead body"? I just can't understand why this subject is once again up for debate.

For the record, I don't think that most people who propagate these myths about Lee are bad people; I just think that their seductive brains are lying to them, desperately trying to protect the image of a hero whom they have been educated to identify with. In many ways, that's what the sudden and vehement opposition to CRT is about - the protection and preservation of hero myths. But it has to stop, not just because it is spreading lies, which is bad enough, but also because it harms people of color who already have reason to think that America does not value them, their lives, or their contributions.

Imagine the hurt it would cause to Jews in America, or anywhere else, to hear people praise Himmler as a great military leader, or Mengele as a scientific genius. These would not only be lies, but the kinds of lies that put people in psychic and even physical danger. This has to be what it's like to be African-American and react to these revisionist lies about some of the worst perpetrators of racist violence. Propaganda, a prominent rapper and Christian speaker wrote, "There's a high school in Alabama named after Robert E. Lee / And it's eighty-nine percent black, you don't see the irony? / What it do to a psyche, it's simple, you don't like me /What I'm 'posed to do now?" These memes, debates, and lies are simply ways to boost the psyche of some white folks at the expense of continuing damage to Black folks.

But the good news is that we are not our heroes. We don't have to defend every person we were taught to idolize in our youth, or, for that matter, every person on our side of American politics. We can reconcile our minds with the fact that some of the people integral to American history and politics are flawed and should be critiqued, and that some others are just outright vile, and should be condemned. And that doesn't change who we are, because our goodness or badness isn't connected to those people, but generated by our own thoughts, words and actions.

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