October 10, 2004
We Don’t Need Another Hero!
Out of the ruins
Out from the wreckage
Can’t make the same mistake this time
We are the children
The last generation
We are the ones they left behind
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change it
Living under the fear till nothing else remains
We don’t need another hero
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the thunderdome...
As so often is the case, philosophical issues turn out to be linguistic issues--plus something more that I cannot identify.
Let us review the bidding:
Paul Berman writes that "The Motorcycle Diaries" is a bad movie because it portrays a Bad Man--Che Guevara--as if he were a good man by focusing on a small part of his life when he was young. Bad Men--or people who grow up to be Bad Men--should never be portrayed in a way that allows us to confuse them with good men.
Matthew Yglesias reads these and lets Berman feel his wrath--"Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Yglesias!": "Paul Berman's review of The Motorcycle Diaries really pissed me off. Is the difference between an evaluation of the life of Che and an evaluation of a film about a brief period in Che's life really that hard to understand? We don't get a movie review... we get a rant about how Che was a bad guy and people shouldn't admire him and put his image on all kinds of stuff. Well, fine, but what about the movie?... [W]hen did the correctness of a work's politics become the sole -- or even an important -- criterion in evaluating it. Do we need to burn our copies of The Battleship Potemkin? Eliminate all the Shostakovich compositions that Stalin didn't condemn? In case Berman hasn't heard, the whole Soviet Communism thing didn't work out very well. It was pretty totalitarian, in fact. Do we condemn Shakespeare as a crude propagandist for the royal dynasty of the day? This is just a bizarre way to behave. The release of a film about Che is a perfectly appropriate moment for an article about how Che was not, in fact, an admirable person but that's not the same thing as a movie review..." Matt's points seem completely correct: that "The Motorcycle Diaries" is politically incorrect is something to mention in a review, but not the only thing to mention.
Chris Bertram piles on to say not only is Berman's piece not a movie review, it is not an appropriate evaluation of Guevara: "Hagiography should be out, but so should the sort of reaction that just carpingly lists bad things he did or unwise decisions he made.... Lack of success and damaging facts should not necessarily be enough to deprive a hero of heroic status: Achilles was flawed, and Achilles was cruel, and Achilles failed, but we still respond to him.... Alasdair Macintyre argues: 'For those who intend to write about Lenin there are at least two prerequisites. The first is a sense of scale.... A Liliputian who sets out to write Gulliver’s biography had best take care.... The second prerequisite is a sense of tragedy.... Those for whom the whole project of the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation and alienation is an absurb fantasy disqualify themselves from writing about Communism in the same way that those who find the notion of the supernatural redemption of the world from sin disqualify themselves from writing ecclesiastical history.' Guevara... did personify a historical moment and he did turn his back on a comfortable future as a communist bureaucrat to pursue the goal of the revolutionary liberation of humanity. Thersites from Des Moines (or wherever) can carp all he wants — and much of the carping will consist in a recitation of facts — but criticism that isn’t appropriately informed by a sense of grandeur, tragedy, heroism and tragic failure just misses the mark."
I say that Guevara isn't a hero--and that Achilles isn't a hero either: "[W]e 'respond' to Achilles--we may even pity him--but we do not admire him. None of us would wish to have the character of Achilles. Hektor is the one we admire. Hektor is the hero of the Iliad.And none of us would wish to have the character of Che Guevara."
Chris Bertram and Henry Farrell respond with a linguistic point: when they say, "Che Guevara is heroic," they mean not what a normal modern person would mean in saying, "Che Guevara is my hero," they mean something more like, "because Guevara did 'personify a historical moment and he did turn his back on a comfortable future as a communist bureaucrat to pursue the goal of the revolutionary liberation of humanity', he was a hero in a certain sense, and his fate was precisely a tragic one - it was a direct consequence of his aims and personal limitations. His arete may not be one that anyone sane would want to emulate in today’s world, but it’s surely an arete nonetheless" or "a certain type of commentary (the Thersites/Berman type) is wholly inadequate to capture what is humanly important about these people and their projects."
And commenters urge the position that Achilles is the hero of the Iliad.
All this is fine and good, and leads me to think that I should make three additional points:
First, Achilles is certainly the hero of the Iliadthat Homer wrote and that the classical Greeks heard and read. They did admire Achilles, and seek to emulate him--the monstrous killing machine sacking cities and suffering no insult to his honor without mighty retribution was, to their way of thinking, a fine thing to be and a wonderful example of arete [human excellence]. But when we read theIliad today as a work of literature, Achilles is not the hero: Hektor is. In analyzing the Iliad as a work of historical importance we need to be aware that for the ancient Greeks Achilles was the hero. But we cannot read it that way.
Second, in a similar fashion, for Communists, Lenin and Guevara are truly heroic. Standing as they did on the shoulders of the great Karl Marx, they saw deeply into the present and far into the future. They ran great personal risks and stood bravely against their adversaries as they struggled to bring about the revolutionary liberation of humanity. That the Communists saw Lenin and Guevara this way is indisputable as a matter of historical fact.
Third, we cannot view Lenin and Guevara as truly heroic, any more than we can view Hitler and Mussolini as truly heroic. Lenin and Guevara are inept Prometheus wannabees. Their only idea of how post-millennial politics might work is that the wise center of the Party tells everybody what the correct line is. Their only idea of how post-millennial economics might work is that things will function more-or-less the way that General Ludendorff organized the German economy during World War I. It's like a bunch of people trying to build a fission reactor who cannot remember whether it is plutonium or helium that is the fuel. Look for heroes who attempt the liberation of humanity, and you have to start with those whose projects had a chance to succeed--which means that they have to have understood something about how to build the institutions that support liberty and prosperity. Your heroes have names like Guillaume d'Orange, Coke, Hampden, Godolphin, Walpole, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Lincoln, de Tocqueville, Juares, Clemenceau, Roosevelt--not Lenin and Guevara.
The most interesting point made in the conversation so far--but in my view totally wrong--is Alisdair MacIntyre's claim that if you're not a Communist (or a Fellow Traveller) you are disqualified from writing about Lenin and that if you're not a Christian you are disqualified from writing about Athanasius and Arius. I think the truth is much closer to being the opposite...
Posted by DeLong at October 10, 2004 01:53 PM
I think there is definitely some concept of "noble but doomed" in heroism, and with Guevera you have the college students mistaking the "doomed" for the "noble." You don't see posters of Castro in college dorms, and I don't think it's only because Guevera's better looking. I think this is also some hard core leftists defended Trotsky a lot longer than Stalin.
Even I fall for this to some extent. I'm smart enough to prefer "noble and not doomed" to "ignoble and doomed", but the "noble but doomed" figures catch my imagination in a way that the "noble, successful, fat and happy" figures do not. It's totally irrational and I should probably know better, but there you are.
(it might be useful to mention that I'm 25--perhaps I'll outgrow this.)
Motorcycle adventurers were exciting - 80 years ago. Why settle for che, when you could use the adventures of Charles Lindbergh, from his biography "WE" (before the tendentious "Spirit..." some years later)? Or even my own father? Both rode motorcycles from California to the midwest in 1920, when the Lincoln Highway was new, and mostly mud and gravel.
We don't need no foreign heros.
"we cannot view Lenin and Guevara as truly heroic, any more than we can view Hitler and Mussolini"
HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK
Godwin's law violation in the opening salvo!
Godwin's law violation in the opening salvo!
Godwin's law violation in the opening salvo!
In the your first post on this topic you contended that Hector is the hero of the Iliad because "Hektor is the one we admire." However, I think such admiration is misplaced, because Hector is more sensitive to the claims of honor than he is to the defense of his family.
Recall that the walls of Troy were invulnerable (they were made by the gods Apollo and Poseidon; thus the need for the subterfuge of the Trojan Horse). If Hector defended Troy from inside the walls, as his wife Andromache urges him to do in Book 6, Troy wouldn't have fallen, and Hector wouldn't have died. But Hector thinks fortifications are for sissies:
things are in my mind also, lady; yet I would feel deep shame
before the Trojans, and the Trojan women with trailing garments,
if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting;
and the spirit will not let me, since I have learned to be valiant
and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans,
winning for my own self great glory, and for my father.
For I know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it:
there will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish,
and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear.
(Iliad 6.440-449, Lattimore trans.)
Hector's sense of honor prevents him from defending his family effectively. Instead, he has to go out of the city and fight a pitched battle, which he knows he will eventually lose. For the Greeks, Hector's insistence on fighting is noble, but to most modern readers, the failure to obey good tactical advice is not an admirable trait. It's even less so when you disregard good advice because you're afraid of losing glory...
"adventures of Charles Lindbergh"
Well, there was a political point to the Guevara movie. A move about Lindbergh would have a different political point.
To Brad's immediate topic, I do find it necessary to suspend disbelief and critical judgement in at least the first reading of a lot of books. I don't become a Christian or Jew, but I kinda pretend I am one. Approached in a certain frame of mind, Kierkeggaard's "Sickness Unto Death", his analysis of despair, is one of the funniest books of the 19th century. Which was at least part of his intent. The frame of mind is that all men are freely saved. I am not sure a committed atheist can get Kierkeggaard.
Btw, a younger Gael Garcia Bernal played the older Che Guevara in the tv mini series Fidel, which is well worth watching in conjunction with TMD.
Look for heroes who attempt the liberation of humanity, and you have to start with those whose projects had a chance to succeed--which means that they have to have understood something about how to build the institutions that support liberty and prosperity.
And there was I thinking of Spartacus and Toussaint as heroes, just because they fought against injustice. They didn't even have a credible business plan! How naive of me.
I don't think you have to be politically/militarily successful, or even have a chance to be politically/militarily or successful, to be a worthy hero.
I think Brad's point may be that if you would not contribute to the liberation of humanity--would actually have enslaved more people than you liberated--even if you were politically/military successful, then you're not a worthy hero.
I could be wrong about this.
I think Brad is way off here. The problem is that he hasn't thought through what a revolutionary is doing and why. As Carl Oglesby pointed out long ago, people don't revolt to create Paradise, they revolt to get rid of Hell. Revolutionaries are trying to get rid of an intolerable situation. True, they usually come up with some ideological reason for what they are doing, but that is after the fact. The question about Che is simple: when he was exposed to the brutalities of poverty and dictatorship in Latin America was he willing to look the actual situation in the face and do something about it? It would have been nice if that could have been done through democratic action and peaceful protest. Ask anybody who lived in Brazil under the gorillas just how likely that would be to change things.
In the long run, when the US decided that it didn't have to support the dictators, peaceful transtitions took place. But that long run was very long indeed. Che took action by leaving the safety of a conventional career and a comfortable life to get rid of that Hell he saw all around him. That meant he sometimes did evil things, as he knew. It also meant that he put his life on the line against evil as well. Heros aren't perfect, but they move history. Treating them fairly depends on your evaluation of their goals. If critics can't see a difference between Guevera and Hitler on that score, they have a blind spot they need to take care of.
The hostility Brad has for Che reminds me of the hostility a lot of the liberal blogs have for Michael Moore and Howard Dean. Like it's a necessity that the sharpest criticism come from our side.
Che may not be a great poster boy for "New Democrats", but for a lot of today's progressives Che represents a political perspective that resonates with us.
Commercially, this movie is likely to be a success, and it doesn't, on its face, appear to be historically inaccurate. It seems to me that that is all the justification you need to make this movie.
If you're disgusted by the actions he took as an adult, you're free to make a movie that examines this history.
"people don't revolt to create Paradise, they revolt to get rid of Hell"
If you aren't aiming for Paradise, Hell is what you get.
Brad, your interpretation of Macintyre is wayyyy off. The quote is:
"Those for whom the whole project of the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation and alienation is an absurb fantasy disqualify themselves from writing about Communism in the same way that those who find the notion of the supernatural redemption of the world from sin disqualify themselves from writing ecclesiastical history."
"Not regarding the project of the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation and alienation as an absurd fantasy" is not the same as "being a communist", and similar for Christianity. Macintyre is just saying here that if you don't understand what people were trying to achieve, then you aren't going to understand what they did (he even notes that, like Gibbon and Hume, it is possible to write decent history while operating under this handicap).
Well, for me, the "Guevaras" of "modern times" are men like Brad or PK. Go, go Brad go.
Brad, there is one big problem in your argument: what was the alternative to Che?
When Che set out to bring the revolution to Latin America, the alternative was not liberal politics and democracy, but corrupt, close-polity, Opus Dei preaching, rentier dominated dictatorships.
That is exactly the reason why Fidel used to be a hero for liberal-minded Latin Americans until at least the eighties.
Of course, the fascination for Fidel waned after the vast majority of Latin countries have lived through 20 years as liberal democracies.
"we cannot view Lenin and Guevara as truly heroic"
Brad, I wish you would not use "can" in that way. I'm sorry you experienced a pile on, truly I am, but I don't think that response is going to win your point.
I regard the valorization figures like Che and Lenin as unfortunate; I see it as secretly an expression of the despair I keep writing about. But when things are truly horrible, and there is no doubt that they are, people will often choose the brutally ideological or desperately violent. There is the urge to *do* something, anything, and to see matters set right in our lifetimes--to bring about heaven on earth in this generation. Come to think of it, they are not so different from those who wish to see the the second coming of Jesus in their generation. But in the case of the political left, I think this belief is in part a response to a valid perception of the widespread fear of change which is choking our world--hence the desire for dramatic change.
Do I have an alternative to offer? Perhaps I do. First and foremost, change of one's own attitudes and practices. I think there is much fondness of revolutionaries among those who let their fear keep them from making even small changes in their own lives. Secondly, patience in the pursuit of positive goals; if one doesn't pursue pardise one will find hell and if one pursues paradise violently one will also find hell.
...next I'll be reciting the Eightfold Way. Good grief!
Brad is both right and wrong about Achilles and Homer. He, and others, are being *too* culturally reativistic when they assert that Homer and the Greeks saw Achilles admirable in the same sense that moderns (or at least Brad and myself) find Hector (and possibly Odysses). There is some relativism in play, no doubt: some of Achilles immortal qualities are those that moderns find abhorrent but, perhaps, the Greeks found beautiful in a savage way.
Nevertheless, I think it is a perverse misreading of Homer to think that he or the Greeks responded significantly less sympathetically to Hector than we do today. Hector *is* admirable to us *and* Homer.
In no way do I mean to split the difference and say that both sides are "right". But Brad, at least, seems to becoming aware that he and Chris are not arguing about the same word "heroic".
In the specific...well, in the specific what is happening is argument between the idealist and the pragmatist. Those who greatly value the heroism of Achilles or Che are those who value the ideal over the real. They are Platonists, even if they won't admit it. Brad, I think, is a pragmatist who recognizes that the love of the ideal and the attempts to realize it, particularly in the context of individual powerful personalities, results *more often than not* in monsters, not saints.
Those philosophically inclined to romanticize Che Guevera might consider that they may be far more alike than different from those who, for example, are inclined to romanticize Ayn Rand. As a reality check.
I don't really care about Che or any of that stuff, but Brad please note that there Homer didn't write the Iliad. The Iliad and the Odyssey are both the products of an oral tradition. See Millman Parry and Albert Lord. When they were first written down is unclear, though certainly written texts were available in the 5th century.
To believe that the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation and alienation can be accomplished via one-party political dictatorship and a Ludendorffian organization of the economy is an absurdist fantasy...
Abby, I'm certain that everyone here is aware of that. But the particular authorship of the Iliad is entirely beside the point in the context of this discussion and, frankly, is probably entirely beside the point in almost any context.
I don't agree with Che's defenders here, but I do think there is something to what they're saying:
"when he was exposed to the brutalities of poverty and dictatorship in Latin America was he willing to look the actual situation in the face and do something about it".
I think this why a lot of the left still has more sympathy for communists than Nazis or fascists: we think that Communism was a very wrong reponse to a real injustice and a legitimate grievance. We don't think that fascism, let alone Naziism.
It's worth remembering two things:
1) Leaving aside Guevera--Lenin didn't replace the tsar. He replaced Kerensky. I had a college history prof who was fond of saying "The Bolshevik takeover wasn't a revolution. It was a coup d'etat."
2) Responding to injustice, or opposing evil, does not make you good or just. (I wish we could also teach the President, and much of the Republican party, this second lesson.)
Abby, I was unaware that there was scholarly consensus on this issue.
Stalin and Mao killed more people than Hitler in absolute terms, and Pol Pot more in proportion, so it isn't really a Godwin law vindication...
It is interesting how you react to the Illiad (and I have the same reaction, by the way). I suspect how modern people react to the Illiad tells a lot about their political perspective. And it continues to be relevant, if not in the way Homer expected - Giraudoux's 1935 play "The Trojan war will not take place" is a commentary on the ultimately doomed diplomatic activity to stave off impending war. It could as well have applied to 2002.
To look at another example that is not politically contentious, look ast Shakespeare's the "Merchant of Venice". Shylock's role is the most demanding one in the play today. It's hard to root for Shylock - Shakespeare made sure that is impossible, but one can relate to his need for vengeance, and playing that role effectively needs all the skills an actor brings to bear.
It is also a matter of debate whether Shakespeare actually felt any sympathy for Shylock, or whether the Merchant was merely an anti-semitic play, whereas Homer is clearly sympathetic to Hector (just as Sophocles is sympathetic to Oedipus, but that does not make hom any less doomed).
"But when we read theIliad today as a work of literature, Achilles is not the hero: Hektor is. In analyzing the Iliad as a work of historical importance we need to be aware that for the ancient Greeks Achilles was the hero. But we cannot read it that way."
I don't agree. If we consider one, all-too recent reading of THE ILIAD, the film "Troy", the character of Achilles was acted by Brad Pitt, because Achilles is the hero of the story of the Iliad, and Brad Pitt is the highly paid leading man. If Pitt, rather than Bana had played Hector, a retelling of the story would have been necessary, changing the persepctive from Greek to Trojan.
Formally speaking, a hero and heroine are "The principal male and female characters in a work of literature. In criticsim the terms carry no connotations of virtuosness or honour. An evil man or wicked woman might be the central characters, like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth." (Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms)
The problem here is the conflation of a term of social evaluation, 'hero' as someone to emulate, with the formal notion of hero. Achilles is the hero of the ILIAD because it's his story. He is a great and glorious hero in the logic of the ILIAD because he has the particular virtues which allow him to excel in battle.
One of the great things about heroes not having to be virtuous people is that it lets us tell and read complex stories about humans striving to be good and irredemptively failing. Those kinds of stories can be powerful.
To sum up, I think Che might be a more suitable hero for the latter genre of story.
Communists, at least a lot of the core Marxists of today, do not regard Che as a hero. They regard him as a stupid bougeois romantic who mistook poses and guerilla games for revolution and got a lot of good reds uselessly killed.
I don't think there's a complete consensus, but I think the majority opinion is that "Homer" as an accurate historical personality is quite unlikely, and that his assumed authorship in the modern sense of the Iliad and the Odyssey is also quite unlikely.
But, as I said, this is largely beside the point. It's convenient and not untruthful to speak of Homer as the sole author of the Iliad because the cultural context in which the work exists has always assumed his sole authorship. After having written my previous comment, however, I'll agree that it's arguable that in this particular context—a discussion of "heroism—it's mildly relevant. Why? Because as an oral tradition we can feel more sure that Achilles as a heroic archetype is, well, an expresion of a deeply held cultural value, and not, for example, an individual writer's particular values.
We assume that Shakespeare's Hal/Henry, for example, represents something beyond an isolated exercize of a particular playwright's imagination; but we can be much more sure of this with regard to the product of an oral tradition than of a sui generis artwork produced by an individual.
I'd like to reiterate: the sense of "heroic" in which Brad is condemnatory of Achilles and praising of Hector does, in fact, represent a distinctly modern sense of "heroic". Nevertheless, it is *wrong* to deny that the *classical* sense of "heroic" exludes Hector. And more to the point, since the word that we really should be using is "admirable", *both* classic and modern audiences find *both* Achilles and Hector "admirable". But for very different reasons and in different respects. Hector was admirable as a man. Achilles was admirable as *more* than a man. From a modern sensibility, Hector was a man admirable as being someone to whom his deeds and character were something to which we mortals can realistically aspire. Achilles, from that same modern sensibility, is someone who is *dangerous* to admire. The scales now tilt in this modern direction, but even to the ancients there was something ugly about Achilles's beauty.
If you read the Iliad as a work of literature, you have to understand that Achilles is a hero. There is no way to talk about historical importance outside of literary value. Walter Benn Michaels and Steven Knapp are annoying, but they are right.
Next up, Brad Delong reminds us that antiglobalization activists are Che-like utopians that hate the poor, and have no business plan, and so like Achilles should be scorned.
Brad, can't you forget about what is the politically correct position for a while? The Che is a romantic, heroic figure to millions for the same reason Spartacus is one. Nobody thinks that Spartacus made the life of slaves better or even that he had a viable way of achieving that.There is something that goes beyond politics and the consequences of their actions here. You feel it or you don't.
Quesrtion does Che really resonate today? I think that is pretty much not true. The posters are cool - the look is cool - but what Che was a Marxist revolutionary resonates where exactly?
and there is a reason for that - because the promise of Che's revolution was replaced by Castro's tyranny, which, BTW, Che applauded every step of the way.
Above a poster asked what was the alternative to Che - my God what a question - with
Lula the President of Brazil, with, for good or ill, Chavez the President of Venezuela, with much of Latin America democratized - we see the alternative - and it is certainly superior to what Che offered.
In any actual political sense, Che has NO relevance. None. Zero.
His relevance is wholly that of a poster - no different than James Dean.
Is there a being/doing distinction to be made? Che did heroic things -- sometimes. Does that mean he is a hero?
Brad's insistence on arete as a function of economic organization reminds me of Z. Herbert's "Elegy of Fortinbras":
Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust...
Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy
I have been reading your web log for the last several months and have enjoyed it immensely; I really am a fan of the discussions here - they are very informative. But when I saw my name brought up here, and in the manner that it was, well I had to say a word or two…
I am honored to be admired by so many, especially you, Brad, but I cannot accept your laurel of being the "hero" of "The Iliad." It would be foolish of me to take that mantel from the one character who DEFINES HERO, who the Poet used as a contrast to all the other heroes in "The Iliad," including me.
And one of the ways the Poet used to define the meaning of "hero" was by inventing my character. I really was loved AND admired by all. As a son, brother, husband, father, believer in my Gods - they really did love me. I gave my all in defense of my family and my Gods, and was blest with their love in return
But there was never anyone like Achilles. Every accomplishment of Achilles was beyond the reach of not only mortal men, but all of us heroes. Not one of us - Odysseus, Menelaus, the giant Ajax, none of us - could do any of what he could do. We literally would stop in battle and watch what he did - it truly was amazing.
Yet as you know he was a tragic figure; Achilles was different from the rest of us heroes. Where we sought to defend our family and lands, he sought only one thing - to be a hero. His life's quest not only alienated him from family, friends and all in his community, but it alienated him from his Gods. I was loved and admired by all; Achilles was admired only by heroes, and loved by few.
I thinks that's what Homer was saying about what it means to be a true hero; you are alone from both God and man. His accomplishing what he sought after, of becoming the "true hero", was the final irony and itself an heroic act: that he accomplished nothing. That along with the cruelty and savagery of men and the horror they create in war. There is no nobility in being a "hero," in itself; that's what Achilles eventually discovered. There is no nobility in war; that is what we all discovered, even in the Greatest War.
I hope you don't think we did "backflips" when we heard and saw what Achilles did; we're not so cruel as you may imagine. I don't think we differ that much in what we value and love (why do you all explain differences always as civilizational?); I just think it's a misreading of the Poem. Give it a try, it's quite good; that's Homer's, not Wolfgang's (how can you kill both Menelaus and Agamennon).
But I got to go, and let you boys fight your Communists vs anti-Communist wars. I thought that was over? Well, let me know how it turns out. Bye bye.
It seems to me that Brad's wording is a touch off, but
his heart is in the right place.
"Look for heroes who attempt the liberation of humanity, and you have to start with those whose projects had a chance to succeed."
I would say,
"Look for heroes who attempt the liberation of humanity, and you have to start with those whose projects, if successful, would in fact have liberated humanity, or some portion of it."
By this standard Spartacus and Toussaint are heroes, Che is not. It is not the probability of success that is the key, it is the consequences of it.
Actually, we DO need another hero. In fact, we could use several of them. What we don't need are any more dunces.
The Illiad can be read on its own terms, as a tale illustrating something the Greeks of that day found important: the concept of arete. Both Hektor and Achilles represent lives deliberately lived in an effort to demonstrate this value.
How do we read Che? Can we see that value in his life? Strength of will, purpose beyond himself, struggle .... Maybe we can see something admirable, maybe we see that there could be something more than just the grinding gradual improvement in our democracy. But, we do not have heroes like Che anymore, we don't think heroism is possible. We just ask for that gradual acccretion of improvement.
But if you are invulnerable except for a small patch on your heel, it is easy to be brave. As an economist Brad, did the failure of the piracy expedition to Troy bring on the collapse of the greek (Achaen(sp)) civilization?
How intentional is the Mad Max quote? This is a delightful post.
For those who haven't seen the third film, Thunderdome is a hero myth, but arguably a false one. We learn at the conclusion that the entire story is a narrative ("the telling") passed down as oral history by the children of the apocalypse. Symbolism and allegory elevate Max into a bibilical savior, yet his actions and ideals are often inconsistent with this interpretation. The title song captures this ambivalence perfectly.
How people interpret the film largely depends on how credible they find the narrative and how sympathetic they are to the idealistic and uncompromising ideals of the children. Some are quite content in Bartertown.
Good for society does not equal heroic.
As for Che and Lenin and Mao...We must remember that these ideological movements occurred in an atmosphere of imperialism. The citizenry believed their masters were seduced and willing to sell them to the white devils. I don't think it's fair to judge these figures as merely believers of the ideology of Communism. We must also understand them as revolutionaries against Western European/American domination. It's not an insignificant accomplishment. All one needs to do is look to Sub-Saharan Africa to see the counterfactual.
Brad, I believe your list of heroes is a bit contrived. It's a little like picking the winners after they've won.
Why the lack of admiration for those who actually succeeded where Che failed? Che certainly wasn't the only one with Marxist ideals and determination to acheive them: he just got shot before he could. Why are there so few people wearing T-shirts with pictures of Castro, Haile Mengistu Miriam, Kim Il Sung, Mao, or any of these types? Or do we imagine that, somehow, if the revolution had swept Venezuala and Bolivia, things would have turned out differently? I don't see why it's worth admiring person A and not person B when the main difference is that person A failed and person B succeeded. Note: I'm not saying we should never admire people who fail. I'm just saying that I don't see why we should admire people BECAUSE they fail, which, to me, seems to me to be the most significant difference between Che and Fidel.
Armando seems to believe that the alternative to Che was Lula or Chavez.
In most Latin American countries back when Che was still alive, Lula would be tortured, incarcerated and/or killed.
Between Che's misguided idealism and the governments of most Latin countries in the sixties, I would go with Che...
Also have this in mind, for the median Brazilian or Mexican or Peruvian in the seventies, the standards of living in Fidel's island was better than the deal they were getting. Fidel's dictatorship was feeding and educating their masses better than Brazil's dictatorship.
Julian: The problem with Fidel is he got outdated. If he had died in the mid eighties, he would be a hero today.
Julian: The problem with Fidel is he got outdated. If he had died in the mid eighties, he would be a hero today.
Ladron: did Ho Chi Minh (d. 1969), Mao (d. 1976), Haile Mengistu Miriam (ousted 1991) or Kim Il-Sung (died 1994) become outdated before their falls, or were they all heroes?
I'd also take issue with the "Castro was better than the alternatives at the time." Cuba had been richer Brazil, and had longer life expectancies and such, before 1959. That's not to say that Batista is in any way responsible for Cuba's comparatively high standard of living relative to Brazil: everywhere in the country being fairly near the ocean, and thus having no large interior inaccessable be sea trade, helps, for example. Of course, as Haiti shows, that isn't a sure-fire way of becoming a well-off country either: this stuff is confusing. Anyway, my point is, while Cuba has lower infant mortality than Brazil, it also had lower infant mortality than Brazil in 1958. Nutrition likewise. To his credit, Castro's administration has reversed Cuba's high levels of achievement in health care or education, to name two areas that haven't gone backwards, but saying that that shows he was better than, say, Pinochet or Galtieri seems a stretch to me.
My point is, once we get far enough in time with respect to this particular set of people, we will see many of them primarily as anti-imperialists and not communists. In that sense, they've succeeded in their task. The likes of Ho Chi Minh, Mao, Che and yes, even Fidel, will be seen as heroes. They might not be seen as heroes here in the USA, but they will be by their home countrymen. Remember, for the Vietnamese the war wasn't about communism, it was about foreign domination.
Would the life story of most of Brad's icons make even a plausibly decent movie? I'll give you Washington and Jefferson, but I wouldn't want to be in the room with the studio execs after pitching "The Walpole Diaries" or "Coke: The Life and Legend."
Maybe our happily bourgeois society needs to look to its heroism from somewhere else -- the whole point of being bourgeois is to avoid the need for heroics. So the best heros come from fantasy worlds, like Luke Skywalker or Mad Max. Che comes from a fantasy world, communism, that has unfortunately been uncomfortably imposed upon real people, with dreadful consequences -- but it's the fantasy, the spark of hope that people respond to.
If I had to pick a genuine liberal American hero, I'd avoid Brad's intentionally boring list and choose Martin Luther King Jr.
Lula vs. Che
Indeed I do see those as the alternatives. you speak as if Lula did not create his movement under a dictatorship - he did indeed - a more oppressive dictatorship than that faced by Che and Castro in Cuba.
The lesson is that Che's model was a failure with an objectively bad objective, the installation of a Communist dictatorship - that was Che's goal you know.
Lula's was a success with an objectively good objective.
now who's the hero?
"If you aren't aiming for Paradise, Hell is what you get."
Tell that to the people in Hell. The answer most revolutionaries have to this is easy: we'll get rid of Hell then keep on fixing things until Paradise shows up.
"To believe that the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation and alienation can be accomplished via one-party political dictatorship and a Ludendorffian organization of the economy is an absurdist fantasy..."
No more absurdist, in the context of the time, then our revolutionaries thinking that democratic politics and petty capitalist economics would lead to human happiness. Hindsight is 20/20. I don't blame Che - or Lenin, for that matter - for their choices, given their commitment and the facts on the ground. Then it becomes a question of personal motivation to decide about heroism. That's why Lenin, Kim, Mao, and company aren't usually considered heroes and Che is. It's a question of what you are willing to put on the line.
i have nothing to offer on the iliad front, but based on my reading of it, i'd have to agree with hector above. i would argue that while Che was a martyr and a revolutionary, he does not fit the hero persona completely. as homer(simpson) said... the important thing is, he tried. btw, this is the same kind of treatment Bhagat Singh gets in India. look him up, sometime...
also being a committed dove i see nary a mention of Gandhi or Mandela (kudos to williamsburger for bringing up MLKII). their achievments are out there for everyone to see, yet you barely hear anyone talk about them anymore. this, while mandela is still alive. i realize that both men have their flaws, but both men represented and continue to represent an ideal much bigger and far greater than themselves. also, both played a vital role in the independence movements of their resp. countries which i think satisfies Prof DeLong's requirements for admission into the hall of heroes.
"I awoke slowly this morning, and in the distance i could hear the screams of the living... and the sighs of the dying... ahhh, another day of the few leading the many to the slaughter... and superman died... go figure ! wonder who i can eat for breakfast ?... it's a good day to die !" sacrifices sacrifices... and from those christians who profess to follow the teachings of the master.... hahahahahahahahaha *Sob*
Brad, when we criticise Lenin or Che Guevara we have to be careful not to forget the historical perspective. Lenin masterminded a revolution in a country where peasants, at the beginning of the XX century, were still considered property of the landowner and where slavery was, in practice if not in theory, still the way of living of the majority. Said that, Lenin started from a decently idealistic beginning to then develop into a monster and a blueprint for all the future monsters of the XX century.
El Che perception was shaped by the inequality he saw as a young medicine student travelling across Latin America (his book: Transamericana from which the Motorcycle Diary is derived is quite clear in this respect). If any of us would travel back in time and to Latino America in that period, he/she would probably start thinking that a revolution would not be such a bad idea. He was an idealist and has never been motivated by personal gain. The comparison with Hitler and Mussolini do not stand. These two had a goal of global domination by the aryan race and the phisical elimination of Jews in the process. El Che stated goal was a more equal world. We can (and should) disagree on the methods, but we cannot deny that el Che's dream is still relevant. On a more "PR" level, the Che dying young ensured his own immortality, people remember the idealistic rebel he was, not the dictatorial dinosaur Castro has become (and maybe el Che saw this when he went looking to die in Bolivia).
"Lenin masterminded a revolution in a country where peasants, at the beginning of the XX century, were still considered property of the landowner and where slavery was, in practice if not in theory, still the way of living of the majority."
1) The serfs were freed by Aleksandr II, in 1861.
2) There were *two* revolutions in 1917. The February revolution overthrew the Tsar. The October revolution overthrew the Kerensky government, installed the Bolsheviks in power, and aborted the first truly democratic assembly that Russia would have had. Lenin was in Switzerland at the time the Tsars were overthrown. He had fuck-all to do with liberating serfs or relief of Tsarist oppression; the Cheka quickly grew to ten times the number of the Tsar's secret police.
Responding to Julian Elson...
Ladron: did Ho Chi Minh (d. 1969), Mao (d. 1976), Haile Mengistu Miriam (ousted 1991) or Kim Il-Sung (died 1994) become outdated before their falls, or were they all heroes?
>> Ho Chi Minh is certainly a hero.
I'd also take issue with the "Castro was better than the alternatives at the time."
>> It depends on your point of view. For my upper-middle class Latin American family, our right wing military regime was quite good, despite the odd uncle being killed, or the other cranky uncle who was tortured. Not sure if the same applies to the 85% of my countrymates whose income is below the country average.
Cuba had been richer Brazil, and had longer life expectancies and such, before 1959. That's not to say that Batista is in any way responsible for Cuba's comparatively high standard of living relative to Brazil: everywhere in the country being fairly near the ocean, and thus having no large interior inaccessable be sea trade, helps, for example. Of course, as Haiti shows, that isn't a sure-fire way of becoming a well-off country either: this stuff is confusing. Anyway, my point is, while Cuba has lower infant mortality than Brazil, it also had lower infant mortality than Brazil in 1958. Nutrition likewise. To his credit, Castro's administration has reversed Cuba's high levels of achievement in health care or education, to name two areas that haven't gone backwards, but saying that that shows he was better than, say, Pinochet or Galtieri seems a stretch to me.
>> Pinochet's record in human rights AND the economy is abyssal.
>> I understand you are an economist, aren't you? Please find me an utility function that ranks Chile higher than most Latin American countries in terms of growth during the Pinochet years. I tried this exercise, and IIRC, the only country worse off than Chile is Argentina, even after we include the post-Pinochet years.
I'm not an economist, but I didn't pick Pinochet as an example of good leadership. I picked him as an example of bad leadership, like Fidel Castro and Leopoldo Galtieri. His economic record was fairly bad, from what I can tell (basically, monetarist theories put in practice: that didn't work too well in Britain either).
Looking for something
We can rely on
There's gotta be something better out there
Love and compassion
Their day is coming
All else are castles built in the air
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change
Living under the fear till nothing else remains
"Less Hell in our time" is a damn good political slogan.
Replying to Armando...
>> Indeed I do see those as the alternatives. you speak as if Lula did not create his movement under a dictatorship - he did indeed - a more oppressive dictatorship than that faced by Che and Castro in Cuba.
Actually, Lula rose AFTER the Brazilian dictatorship had cooled down.
Why did Brazil's dictatorship cool down? Several reasons: Jimmy Carter, fiscal crisis, middle class insatisfaction etc.
>> The lesson is that Che's model was a failure with an objectively bad objective, the installation of a Communist dictatorship - that was Che's goal you know.
By that time, it was not clear that Communism was that bad... It was also not clear that the liberal system allowed for developing countries catching up to industrial countries. Only with Korea, that fact was established uncontroversially.
>> Lula's was a success with an objectively good objective.
Lula also drank the same Kool-Aid as Che... Notice also that Lula also made his political and union career after ALL attempts of violent insurrection had been "forcefully quieted down" in his country (which in retrospect probably saved Brazil from the kind of protracted conflict that has cursed Colombia and Peru).
>> now who's the hero?
I have no question that Lula has a great chance of joining the books of heroes...
"Che may not be a great poster boy for "New Democrats", but for a lot of today's progressives Che represents a political perspective that resonates with us."
Unfortunately that is true for far too many on the left.
we cannot view Lenin and Guevara as truly heroic, any more than we can view Hitler and Mussolini as truly heroic. Lenin and Guevara are inept Prometheus wannabees. Their only idea of how post-millennial politics might work is that the wise center of the Party tells everybody what the correct line is. Their only idea of how post-millennial economics might work is that things will function more-or-less the way that General Ludendorff organized the German economy during World War I.
When you write this, Brad, you are writing for yourself, not your political compatriots. And that is too bad. But your comment section clearly shows a willingness to give Che (and Lenin for that matter) quite a bit of slack.
Lula and Cooled Dictatorships -
Well, so did Che and Castro - your distinction escapes me.
Do we really have to be so whiggish as to see Godolphin as a hero? Venal, opportunistic old Godolphin? One of the "Chits" who helped Charles II to rule despotically without parliament for the latter years of his reign, and who then opportunistically changed sides when William III looked to be triumphant? And who then competently, but corruptly managed Britain's domestic politics while Marlborough was winning his victories abroad? I'm not sure what's heroic there. Walpole's hardly any better. I could hardly think of less heroic figures than those two. I'm not particularly sure that either of them did much to advance the cause of human freedom, either.
I suppose there's a case to be made that unheroicness (a quality exemplified, surely, by someone like Walpole) is often a superior political philosophy to useless heroism or pseudo-heroism (e.g. the Jacobites, who brought the British Isles repeatedly into near civil war to promote their impossible, romantic cause; or Walpole's successor, Carteret, who helped embroil Britain in the War of the Austrian Succession). But that doesn't make unheroicness itself heroic.
Sebastian, the reason people on the left can still admire communists, while people on the right cannot admire fascists (or worse, Nazis), is that communism, for all its faults, at least got one thing right - capitalist economic systems come at a horrible cost. The premise of communism is to do something about this. Lenin's, or Che's, solution to this problem was obviously at least as horrible as the problem that was set out to be solved, especially in the visceral "terror is an awful way to go about things" way. But the basis of communism is a recognition of genuine injustice and oppression.
On the other hand, the basis of Fascism is ultranationalistic warmongering and demagoguery, and the basis of Nazism is genuinely horrific anti-semitism and bizarre racial theories. That is to say, communists came up with a horrible, awful answer to a very real and legitimate question. Nazis did horrible things to promote a horrible, horrible ideal. But I don't think any conservative is ever going to buy this argument, so why bother with it?
Leftists prefer idealistic fantasizing, warmongering and demagoguery to ultranationalistic, warmongering and demagoguery? I guess. But that distinction doesn't do much for me in the hero department.
"Sebastian, the reason people on the left can still admire communists, while people on the right cannot admire fascists (or worse, Nazis), is that communism, for all its faults, at least got one thing right - capitalist economic systems come at a horrible cost."
The problem with this analysis is that it shows a horrific inattention to history. Capitalist economic systems don't come at a horrible cost compared to the communist alternative. Advocating communism is like advocating cutting off your left leg with a dull knife so you don't notice the pain from the stubbed toe on your right foot.
That isn't heroic. That is insane. The fact that some on the left still want to rehabilitate the repuatations of villians like Lenin and Che only shows that they either do not accept how awful Communism was, or they do not understand why it cannot work.
Furthermore capitalist economic systems are allow the societies which adopt them far greater success than any other system. Pre-capitalist economic systems were far worse to far more people than capitalist systems. Failing to acknowledge that is failing to deal with reality.
"Furthermore capitalist economic systems are allow..." ought to be "Furthermore capitalist economic systems allow..."
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Re: Greek heroism and Achilles
This making of Achilles as a heroic ideal would be useful to Greek society. Troublesome, violent males would be out making trouble and doing violence someplace else, and for the benefit of the state, instead of making trouble at home. Very convenient.
"what was the alternative to Che?"
I think Brad accurately points out the answer to this question. The alternative to Che were the Cuban revolutionaries who wanted Cuba to be a liberal democracy.
No one is saying that Che should have used nonviolence to gain his means; but when he did succeed in taking power, he used it improperly, and that is an intolerable crime.
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