The dangers of political sainthood


Ifour aim is to lớn learn from individuals who somehow rise above their time, weshould treat them more like ordinary human beings.

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PresidentBarack Obama meets with Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the OvalOffice, Sept. 19, 2012 (OfficialWhite House Photo by Pete Souza, Public Domain).

When Thomas Carlyle wrote that “thehistory of the world is but the biography of great men,” he spoke to a commonsentiment. Although the ‘great man theory’ has seemingly gone out of fashion inthe academic world, it has not receded from our instinctive understanding ofpolitics, và is certainly not an exclusivelyconservative tendency.

Yes, the sanctification of a Churchillor a Reagan often arises from a longing for a simpler time when kids didn’tanswer back & we knew the difference between Good & Evil. But the obsessionwith finding & inventing political saints cuts across ideological boundaries.

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Individuals play a vital role in shapingour historical and contemporary imaginations. A good example is provided by ourobsession with counterfactuals: what if Lincoln had lived beyond 1865? What ifThomas Paine never metBenjamin Franklin, và had stayed in England instead of moving toPhiladelphia? What if Bernie Sanders had been the 2016 Democratic PresidentialNominee?

More significantly, individual storiessometimes tell us more about history than expansive scholarly accounts. Fewbooks illuminate the wounds và contradictions of the US as sharply as The Autobiography of Malcolm X; it’s impossible to lớn understand the NewDeal without the story of activist-turned-Labor Secretary FrancesPerkins; and the life of DoloresHuerta is a powerful illustration of the modern political struggles facingLatino communities across the country.

Towering individual legacies are rarelyforgotten. In life, they are solidified by lifetime achievement awards or NobelPrizes; in death by statues, poems, songs and biographies.

Is there anything wrong with thistendency?

The short answer is yes, & perhapsparticularly for those on the left, for two reasons. First, when a politicalmovement is personalized, the role of collective action is often overlooked.

Reducing the struggle for civil rightsto Martin Luther King & Rosa Parks rightly acknowledges profound personalcourage and intelligence, but says little about the thousands of activistswhose daily resistance steadily undermined the Jim Crow regime. Likewise,figures like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn are important lớn any understanding ofthe movement against the Vietnam War, but we cannot come near khổng lồ a full pictureof this history without discussing the “Quiet Mutiny”of thousands of conscripts who immobilized the world’s largest military machinefrom the inside out.

The moment we overemphasize heroic figuresis the moment we begin to thua thảm sight of the collective actions we have all shaped—and will continue to shape—in the arc of radicalsocial change. The individuals we praise will be the first ones khổng lồ remind us ofthis lesson.

Second, if we are lớn find the rightplace for individual stories in our political thinking, we need to see ouridols—particularly those who wield power—through a critical lens. This is because politics isdeeply complex, và success in politics usually requires an uneasy combinationof principle & guile.

Leading a political movement is hard. If the cause is nationalliberation, your task is to unify millions of people with opposing materialinterests; if it’s social revolution, you have to uproot an entire classstructure.

Any progress in these struggles requiresa wide range of political skills—and not just ‘honorable’ ones. Strongprinciples, courage, and eloquence don’t always get very far withoutcompromise, fudging, & even outright deception. But when an inspiring leaderemerges (and succeeds), we often forget this lesson.

Take the recent example of Burma’s AungSan Suu Kyi. Formerly printed on the front of ‘Freedom’ t-shirts, awarded theNobel Peace Prize and lauded across the Western political spectrum, she is nowprofiled on opinion pages as “TheIgnoble Laureate” who is “complicitin crimes against humanity.” Her refusal tocondemn the Burmese military’s brutalattacks on Rohingya villages—and thesmearingof the international organizations that have documented the violence–has extinguished her saintly global reputation.

Ms. Suu Kyi is an extreme butillustrative case. At heart a Burmese nationalist lượt thích her father, she becamean ideal symbol of solemn opposition to tyranny và the archetypal ‘prisoner ofconscience’ during her nearly fifteen yearsof living under house arrest. After her release & elevation lớn de facto civilian leader of the country,she has been confronted with the overriding question of building nationalunity.

Amid the betrayal & cynicism thatoften defines politics in every country, it’s natural khổng lồ look for people like AungSan Suu Kyi who seem lớn rise above it, but this can lead us to thua thảm a valuabledose of scepticism. Flaws are ignored, power plays are excused & dirty tricksare rationalized. And when we look at individuals from our own history, ourcritical instincts are diminished further.

Think, for example, of the ‘man of histime’ defense. Supporters of Confederate statues have been seen using this argumentrecently for people like Robert E. Lee: sure, he lashedhis escaped slaves và had brine poured into their wounds, but everyoneelse was doing it back then—we just wantto honor him for his “gentlemanlysurrender” at the over of the Civil War.

Attempts khổng lồ elide the ugliness of historicalfigures are not confined khổng lồ conservative publications like the National Review. In some waysprogressives have actually been worse. Above all, we hide from the fact thatthe 20th Century progressive movement was always accommodating towhite supremacists, its leading heroes happy to appease the most racistfactions of the Democratic Party.

As C. Vann Woodward points out in hisbook, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, modern progressivism—based on economicpopulism và an attack on corporate power—was never incompatible with the Jim Crow South. Infact, some of the New Deal’s most passionate disciples were committedsegregationists, including the infamous Alabama GovernorGeorge Wallace, who surged in the 1972 Democratic primaries less than adecade after giving an inaugural Governor’s address written by a thành viên of the KuKlux Klan.

While the Wallaces of recent times are beingexpunged from the memory of progressive Americans, Franklin D. Roosevelt retainshis place in the pantheon above almost all others. Mark Lilla concluded hiswidely read post-election essay on The over of Identity Liberalism witha rousing appeal to the values of F.D.R.—his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech highlightedas a reminder of “what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.”Thomas Frank also criticisesthe Democratic Party’s departure from the Roosevelt legacy; Bernie Sanders takes a similar view.

But this is the same F.D.R. Who sent more than 120,000Japanese-Americans to lớn internment camps, refusedto tư vấn federal anti-lynching legislation because it would damage hiselectoral prospects, & gavethe great black athlete Jesse Owens less recognition than Adolf Hitler didafter his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The great social programmes ofRoosevelt’s New giảm giá khuyến mãi were minutelytailored lớn suit the racial politics of Southern Democrats: “The segregationistssupported the Tennessee Valley Authority, but only so long as the cheapelectricity it produced flowed only lớn white communities… Likewise, AfricanAmericans were specifically excluded from New khuyễn mãi giảm giá legislation that mix minimumwages & secured benefits for farm laborers and domestic servants.”

Honesty matters. It allows us to lớn drawmore complex lessons from our past. A true assessment of Roosevelt sayssomething about the dangers of promoting social justice while deferring racialjustice; a fuller understanding of Lincoln reveals not a God-like,single-minded “Great Emancipator,” but thevalue of changing your mind.

If our aim is to learn from individualswho somehow rise above their time, we should treat them more like ordinary humanbeings. If they hold serious political power, even more so, assuming they will behaveor have behaved immorally at some point: they shouldbe judged guilty until proven innocent. This is a sceptical rather thancynical view, rooted in the conviction that the best way lớn appreciate greatpolitical leaders is lớn humanize them.

This brings us back khổng lồ the wider pointabout collective action. No matter how exceptional, an individual is limited inwhat they can achieve. Historic achievements have come from Labor activistsfighting for the right khổng lồ picket without being arrested; feminists distributingleaflets about birth control in defiance of censorship laws; abolitionistsgathering under the threat of mob violence; & pacifists opposing the draft.

Although we owe much to the individualswho have led these struggles or helped lớn realize their demands, we can’t letthem overshadow the millions of people who made so many daily sacrifices,fought so many battles, và won so many victories.

I think the trade unionist and five-timeSocialist Presidential candidate Eugene Debs made the point better than anyoneelse. “I am not a Labor Leader”, he once said. “I vì notwant you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to leadyou out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are.” And,even more profoundly: “I would not lead you into the promised land if I could,because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out.”