History and Heroes



Earlier in the summer on the 4th July we had an Independence Day party. I went dressed as a Native American, and when challenged by an American friend as to what that had to do with American Independence, I said that I was representing the first nations of America. I suppose, on reflection I could have claimed that I was dressed as a participant in the Boston Tea Party, one of the mythic events that primed the pump for revolution... yet one which is badly misunderstood by the vast majority of Americans, and misappropriated by Sarah Palin and her posse of right wing nihilists (or theocrats depending on how you read it). It was priceless recently seeing her display her complete ignorance of that other iconic revolutionary event, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, and her acolytes' cack-handed attempts to change history, or at least what passes for history on Wikipedia. However, as Bernard Cornwell points out in his (as always) scrupulous historical notes at the end of his most recent book, "The Fort" (which in my usual thrawn style I started to read on the 4th July), perhaps her version is no more inaccurate than the one most people are familiar with, shaped by Longfellow's famous poem, and that, when looked at in the round, Revere is possibly a less suitable subject for national celebration than many others, including Longfellow's own maternal grandfather.
I'm a big fan of Cornwell's writing, being drawn into them by the Sharpe saga, although usually, a quick assessment of who the hero is, and a broad historical knowledge of the period in question will generally appraise you of the likely outcome long before the end of his books.
But with this one there is no singular hero, indeed he offers a perspective from both sides in this small but significant conflict in north eastern Massachusetts, a few years after the Boston Tea Party and midnight ride etc. I knew nothing of the events or outcome of this campaign before reading this, so I won't spoil it for anyone else, except to say that Cornwell paints the picture masterfully as ever, although it probably ends a bit precipitously for my liking.
Throughout it all, however, he explores the nature of heroism. Normally he writes historic fiction, using real people and events as the backdrop against which his larger than life heroes act. Here most of the characters are painted as real people, and it becomes clear that heroism in such a situation, even in the heightened form of historical fiction, is a much more complex thing. There are heroes and villains on both sides in any conflict, and sometimes the same person can be both hero and villain... and heroism is not always about feats of arms.
We need to be wary of hero-worship, and the warping of historic truth to meet contemporary needs. Longfellow's poem, written at the time of the American Civil War, owed more to contemporary political and social issues than historical accuracy. It happens all the time, everywhere, be it the USA with their War of Independence mythology, France, where I read the book and their Revolutionary myths, Protestant Ulster with its warped understanding of 1690 and all that, or the myths and heroes that underpin the founding of the Irish Republic and NI. And God help anyone who messes with the myth... Some of the online reviews of this book have been scathing, either because it is slower in pace and less "boys-own" than many of Cornwell's other books, or, especially with American readers, because they perceive him to be sullying the memory of Revere and trying to turn the Redcoats into heroes. Yet he does no such thing. He paints the people on both sides of the conflict (including the 2 most famous characters on either side, Paul Revere and a young Sir John Moore) as flawed human beings... which is what they, and all our heroes, whoever they may be, are...
"All history is biased." my first history teacher told us "All history is, to a greater is lesser extent, fictional. The secret of good history is identifying the bias and separating fact from fiction." Is that always possible? Maybe not, but it is a useful watchword, especially when dealing with the dangerous phenomenon of heroes.
And it raises the issue of who are our contemporary heroes (and villains)? With the current conflict in Afghanistan there is a tendency to talk about soldiers (particularly dead soldiers) as heroes... indeed a major charity in the UK operates under the label of "Help for Heroes." I'm happy to support such a charity, without feeling that I am supporting the military action, which I don't... but I'm not sure about the label of "heroes." And at a local level, in areas such as the one I work in the heroes of young men can often be the hard men and paramilitary leaders that are afforded a wary respect in the estate... The only alternative role models seem to be multi-millionaire Premier League prima-donnas and bling-wearing gangsta-rappers... which are no more laudable.
Within the church there are those who argue that there need to be more positive male Christian role-models... and they are identifying a real problem, however I am uneasy about some of the macho-posturing offered as a response to this. Within the church and society as a whole we need to seriously wrestle with who we want to hold up as heroes and role-models... And as we look at history (including Biblical and Church history) we need to help people understand that things were just as complex back then as they are now... Things were very rarely black and white with heroes and villains... and they aren't now...
Ciaran loves the Horrible Histories books and TV programmes - what am I talking about, our whole family loves them, and that's why we're going to the live show next month - And they are great because they not only go into the gory and gungy history beloved of young boys, but because they tell you all the things that the received histories hide away... That the good guys weren't always that good and the bad guys weren't quite so bad...
Perhaps that's the approach to history we should have rather than one built around heroic fictions.

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