Why you should care
We love stories about heroes. But our search for them leads us astray, and it’s not helpful to the cause, either.
I don’t trust heroes. Much of America was horrified when Jon Krakauer exposed the Three Cups of Tea guy, Greg Mortenson, for self-dealing and fabricating chunks of his tale of building schools for Afghan children. I was smug. I felt like I had known it all along. White saviors don’t exist, you fools!
Neither do black saviors, and so I crowed when Wyclef Jean’s Haiti charity collapsed in a cloud of horrendous mismanagement. (The charity had paid Wyclef’s performance fees and once, for a carnival lion, but not for the Haitian kids’ meals it had promised.) “I told you so!” I told a friend, a ‘Clef fan, in a singsong voice I’d probably last used in the schoolyard.
Our quest for heroes is neither faithful to the facts nor especially helpful to the cause. In many cases, it comes off as racist and gendered.
And when Nicholas Kristof — the New York Times columnist who has endeavored twice weekly to put human rights on center stage — was exposed as a dupe, the tale was so familiar I felt like it had already been written. It hadn’t, or not exactly. Only in May did Newsweek dig into one of Kristof’s heroes, a Cambodian anti-trafficking activist named Somaly Mam, and suggest her harrowing backstory was mostly fake.
Let me clarify. I am not prone to schadenfreude, especially not vis-à-vis Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is trying to use his powerful platform for good. (Kristof has argued that readers shouldn’t draw broad conclusions about his work based on his experience with Mam.) And like everyone else, I want Afghan, Haitian and Cambodian kids to go to good schools, sleep with their bellies full and be safe from violence.
But I also want the facts — not hagiography. Our quest for heroes is neither faithful to the facts nor especially helpful to the cause. In many cases, it comes off as racist and gendered. (The prototypical hero is white, male and adult; the prototypical victim is brown, female and a child.) Storytellers sometimes use heroes in an attempt to enlarge their readers’ world; instead they just confirm assumptions.
As a human-rights columnist, Kristof often hewed to a tri-cornered narrative style. There’s a victim, an abuser and, sometimes, a protagonist who bears witness and/or vanquishes the evil — a hero. Good and evil are embodied in characters. Kristof had a rationale for his stripped down narrative: Readers love it! As Amanda Hess reported, Kristof had filed columns about Darfur, a complicated situation of mass violence, for two years. Nobody back home gave a shit. When he wrote about actual people, especially downtrodden ones, his readers paid attention. When he added in a bridge character they could identify with — a hero — his readers were inspired.
When one person symbolizes the cause, his or her scruples (real or smeared) can discredit the whole thing.
Historians, philosophers and literature scholars cast out the Great Man theory ages ago. It’d been faithful to contemporary notions of agency, but not to the real-life swirl of facts, events, personalities and forces, most of which lay outside individual control. But popular stories hew to the Great Men like barnacles to a hull. Why? The victim-hero, good-triumphs-over-evil narrative resonates. Maybe it’s imprinted into the post-Enlightenment, Western consciousness. It’s an upper, sure, because stories about heroism confirm our hope that we, too, can do good. Nobody loves a nihilist.
Besides, it’s convenient on deadline.
Our eagerness to heroize not only creates lies, but also does harm. Here’s one way: Living heroes are vulnerable. Rifle through the pages of any supermarket magazine and you’ll see how we put celebrities on pedestals just to knock them off. The stakes are much higher when it comes to people fighting for justice. When one person symbolizes the cause, his or her scruples (real or smeared) can discredit the whole thing. And you can bet their political enemies will find something. Just ask Jean Bertrand Aristide, the former Haitian president, or hell, Somaly Mam. The fight for a cause becomes a battle over a person.
The heroes history remembers best, the ones who seem closest to truth and nobility and God, are in their lifetimes controversial, often reviled. Mandela was locked away for nearly three decades, branded a terrorist. Jesus, Gandhi and King were all assassinated. Heroes do not live comfortable lives. They are outlived by their causes, and, I suspect, that’s the way they’d want it.