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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Proposition A: No more heroes

November 3, 2023

Heroes are dangerous things. Having a hero can lead to worse.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

Hero-worshipers can be more dangerous than their heroes.

First, because there are more people involved.

Second, because they worship not just the hero, but the goals the hero claims to seek — which he probably does not — and the qualities the hero claims to possess — which he doesn’t, either.

Third, because hero-worshipers wish — or demand — that their voices, too, be heard. And obeyed. Just like they obey their hero.

Worst yet, hero-worshipers may come to believe, in extremis, that their hero should be immune, exempt, absolutely prohibited, from suffering criticism at all.

Criticism of the hero, then, might be — should be? — subject to … what?

Scorn? Punishment?

Of what sort? Prison? Death?

I’m not making this stuff up.

Most of us acquired a hero or three, then discarded them as we trod along our roads, or at least toned down the adoration as we grew up.

One of my heroes, at my advanced age, is Charlie Parker. Yet I never would demand that you, or anyone, acquiesce in this. You don’t like Bird? You don’t get it? That’s cool. I’ve got my friends and you’ve got yours. No need to fight about it. I don’t like everything Bird did, either.

Another of my heroes is Shakespeare. I call him Shakey. I’ve spent nearly as many thousands of hours with Shakey as I did with Bird, though I never met either of them. I don’t worship either of them. I like them a lot, sure. But I don’t nail any of my theses to the wall about it and try to incite civil war.

The dangerous ones among us, it seems to me, are the ones who become obsessed with a hero, and live, in this way, in extremis, trying to force their hero down the world’s already diseased throat. Far too many of us have done this, and continue to do it, no matter who the hero be: Jesus, Mohammad, Mussolini, Hitler, Charles Manson, Trump, Putin, Narendra Modi …

Having edged this far out on a limb, I count myself lucky that this week I finally managed to plow through Ulysses S. Grant’s “Personal Memoirs.” I’d been meaning to read it for the past 30 years or so, and on our first snowy weekend in Denver this year I finally did. The critic Edmund Wilson called it “the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar.”

Talk about heroes. Brutus had a thought or two about Caesar.

Grant’s memoirs are remarkable not just for the historic events he relates, in some of which he acted, but for the simplicity and directness of his account, his acute judgment of the characters of army generals and politicians, and the humility with which he told the tale.

Here is a man who actually did help to save his nation, yet never asked — far less demanded — credit for it. Throughout the entire 640-page tome Grant rarely, if ever, criticizes another person directly, and when circumstances make it all but imperative to do so, he criticizes himself for having advanced the man to a position to which he may not have been equal. And when Grant’s “superiors” in Washington — the Secretary of War and his minions — criticized their underlings, Grant always stood up for the “underlings.” Quietly. Without making a show of it.

Grant even criticizes himself for his first great victory, at Vicksburg, won the day after the Union victory at Gettysburg — two battles that changed the course of the war. Grant laments that a few decisions he made at Vicksburg cost lives that might have been spared. He criticizes himself severely for the battle of Cold Harbor, toward the end of the war, a Union victory that Grant came to believe should not have been fought at all.

Grant, of course, was not a politician — even when he ran for, and became, president of the United States, twice. Despite his rise to command of the bloodiest war ever fought on our continent, it’s clear that he sought, first of all, not just to vanquish the enemy, but to care for his men — and their horses and mules, and the enemy people living on the battlegrounds.

In chapter 70 of his Memoirs, Grant devotes a few sentences each to summing up the qualities of the generals he commanded. If a cruel fate should condemn me to run a school for corporate CEOs — which god in his mercy will forbid — I would assign them chapter 70, and Grant’s concluding chapter.

Grant, the warrior, abhorred war, and he abhorred slavery. Yet in his conference with General Lee at Appomattox — they had served together in our war against Mexico, Lee as Grant’s superior — in that conference, Grant wrote, after some 20 to 30 minutes of friendly conversation, Lee had to remind Grant that, after all, he had come to surrender.

Compare this with our situation in Congress today: a bunch of arrogant, ignorant strutting peahens, wishing they had more feathers — pluck them where they will — or can. Or would like to.

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