I grew up reading biographies of great men who had defined American and British history – people who lived long ago, and who despite their deep flaws, still managed to live lives of significance and personal character. I’m talking of course about people like Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln.
These were the classic American heroes of the kind of education I received. And they were respected not so much for their beliefs or even all of their actions – Lee and Washington were slaveholders, Roosevelt was a big-government imperialist – but for the best parts of their general character. Lee was a man of deep honor and loyalty, Washington was self-controlled in his approach to power, and Roosevelt was physically courageous in an infectious way, and Lincoln eschewed vengeance and worked tirelessly for the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Some of these men might not receive any positive mention at all anymore in the education of young Americans. Others will be deemphasized in the years to come for the ideologically inconvenient bits of their lives. And it will mostly be from the Left that these deletions and deemphasizations come.
Who will replace them?
From what I have seen of the American radical left, it doesn’t seem that they have much emphasis on personal character, and as a result they don’t seem to have much in the way of true *heroes.* Their hero of the now is the mass movement, the protest crowd, the oppressed victim class in toto.
If the Left does have heroes, they are heroes of ideology: people who hold or held the right political ideas. This is an inherently unstable method for picking out heroes. If those same heroes do not conform to the requirements of the ideology (I think it’s fair to say that even Martin Luther King, Jr. is a man inconvenient to the racial Marxists of the current moment), then they are deemphasized or even condemned.
The left should know better than anyone that opinions in a culture evolve with time. It’s not likely that the ideological heroes of today last long into the next generations if ideology is all that they stand on.
God knows I don’t hold the ideologies of Washington, Lee, Roosevelt, or Lincoln. I think there are many more worthy heroes who existed outside of the governing class. But I can’t deny their aspects of exceptional moral character, despite their moral flaws. And virtue – moral character – changes very little over time. Virtues of courage, honesty, forbearance, and loyalty have been virtues for as long as humans have existed, and it is unlikely that this will change.
These heroes of character can actually teach us something about how to live – rather than just what to think – and for that they are of greater value than any “in vogue” heroes of the ideological present. We should remember that as we think about whom we choose to remember.