Who Were Really Less Than Heroic
The world needs a hero, or at least, it craves one. The world is a brutal, unjust place, and we gravitate towards people who fight for a grand cause, never wavering in the face of unfathomable opposition or crushing despair. These people inspire us, and we view them as symbols of hope and courage in a world characterized by fear and loathing.
If they seem too good to be true, that’s because they often are.
Without any further preamble, here are five of history’s greatest heroes who were less than heroic.
Ah, the British Bulldog. Forget Benjamin Disraeli, Pitt the Elder, or Lord Palmerston (*punch*), because Winston Churchill is the one Prime Minister of the United Kingdom we all know. A brilliant orator and statesman who could inspire a nation and deliver the most savage of burns; it’s not surprising I had to pass a statue of him every time I walked from City Hall to the courts at 393 University. And he did all that despite being a drunk who sounded like a British Richard Nixon with a severe sinus infection.
How was he less than heroic?
More reasons than I can cover in a short article. For starters, racism. And not just run-of-the-mill early twentieth century racism, which was appalling on its own. No, Winston Churchill went beyond the typical “White Man’s Burden” view of British Colonialism, and let about two million people in Bengal starve to death in 1943. It’s not clear if his role in the Bengal Famine was inspired by apathy and antipathy, but when you insist that a country in the midst of a famine export rice, you hand in your hero card.
There was also the meeting he had with Stalin discussing the partition of Europe following the second World War. And the Dresden Bombings. And he wanted to invade the Soviet Union after the War. Churchill knew his way around a speech, but he was a lousy human being. It’s long past time we acknowledged as much.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
The father of modern India and the first person everyone thinks of when they imagine non-violent resistance. A man who stood up to an empire and won without so much as a clenched fist. An unflinchingly brave and stoic man, he endured prison stints, the salt satyagraha, hunger strikes, and 19th century British vegetarian food. Indeed, he was the greatest of advocates for equality among all human beings.
How was he less than heroic?
He was all for equality, unless you were black. Gandhi lived in South Africa from 1893-1914, and while he was a devoted advocate for the country’s large Indian population, his views regarding black South Africans were less than favourable. He was a proponent of the concept of Aryan Brotherhood, which suggests that Indians and Europeans are more civilized than Africans. He wasn’t openly hostile towards black South Africans, but he was far less invested in their rights than in the rights of his fellow Indians. Also, he was friendly with Hitler. I know, I know, Godwin’s Law and all that, but you lose your legitimacy as one of history’s greatest pacifists if your opinion of Hitler is anything more positive than “not a fan”.
When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the 266th Pope, it signalled a bold step in the right direction for the Catholic Church. He was the first Jesuit to take the office, held hugely progressive views, actually seemed to honour Christian values of charity and humility, and (most importantly to vocal heathens like me) left a lot of the Catholic establishment stomping on their silly hats in fury. He opened the gates of heaven to non-Catholics, cavorts with sinners as well as saints, and actually seems to give half a crap about the poor. What’s not to like?
How is he less than heroic?
Because he’s still protecting pedophile priests. Admittedly, the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is probably too big for one man to solve, even if he’s supposed to be God’s premier agent on Earth. But he continues to associate with people who have advocated covering up the widespread molestation of children, when such people deserve nothing less than excommunication. Also, he changed the Church’s policy regarding clergy convicted of sex abuse from “prison time” to “a lifetime of prayer.” I guess a slap on the wrist was too harsh. Couldn’t they have at least been forced to drink grape juice instead of communion wine? We had high hopes for Pope Francis, and unfortunately, he’s content to lock those hopes in a room with Father Bad Touch. Not cool.
Aung San Suu Kyi
The winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi is mostly known for decisively winning the Burmese general elections of 1990, only to have the election quashed by the ruling military junta, and spending most of the next twenty years under house arrest for her victory. Like Gandhi, she was an advocate of non-violent resistance, and her dignified opposition to tyranny stood as an example for the world. In 2016, as a reward for her life of public service and general perseverance, she was appointed State Counsellor of Myanmar, the equivalent of Prime Minister.
Why is she less than heroic?
Ever heard of the Rohingya? If you haven’t, the Rohingya people are a predominantly Muslim Indo-Aryan minority from the Rakhine area of Myanmar. Under the 1982 Myanmar Nationality Law, they are precluded from becoming citizens of Myanmar, and as if that wasn’t terrible enough, they’re now being subjected to ethnic cleansing. Thankfully, a Nobel Peace Prize winner is functionally the Prime Minister of Myanmar, so the persecution of the Rohingya can’t possibly be orchestrated by the government of Myanmar.
Oh, apparently it is. And when she hasn’t been content to simply ignore the plight of the Rohingya, she’s vocally defended denying them citizenship, and once expressed resentment about a Muslim questioning her on the subject. Well, if Henry Kissinger hasn’t handed in his Nobel Prize, why should she?
Abraham Lincoln, founder of the Republican Party, the man who “freed the slaves” and saved the Union. He also possessed awesome sideburns, a sweet-ass stovepipe hat, and wrestling skills that would make Hulk Hogan say “damn, Brother!” Unlike some Republican Presidents, Lincoln was no Chickenhawk, and was willing to personally fight for his values, as opposed to sending someone else’s children to do so on his behalf. He recognized the common humanity of us all, and started a war to defend that principle… right?
Why was he less than heroic?
Because he didn’t initiate the American Civil War based on respect for the shared humanity of all people. Yes, the Confederate flag toting southern-fried good-old-boy who insists that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery is wrong. The Civil War was about a lot of things, but slavery was the main reason. That said, slavery in the United States didn’t end because of basic human decency, and in Lincoln’s own words, he was “not, nor ever [has] been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” He hated slavery, but there’s a vast difference between thinking it’s okay to view a human being as property and seeing him as an equal, and Lincoln was somewhere in between those points. He didn’t start the American Civil War out of concern for the basic human rights of African Americans.
Perhaps the most important take-home here is that these figures were only human. Also, while the motivations of the people listed above weren’t pure, or they failed to address (or were complicit in) other atrocities, they still did some great things. Sure, Honest Abe didn’t end slavery in the United States for noble reasons, but he did bring an end to it, something none of the Founding Fathers saw fit to do. They were human beings, not mythical figures, and we should see them as such. Such an acknowledgement can help us understand that greatness isn’t so far out of reach; even a racist drunk like Winston Churchill could achieve greatness, after all.
Go forth and be great.