As he usually did, the extraterrestrial, mutant, collective or whatever he was William Shakespeare (no human could be that wise) had it exactly right, and a long time ago: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” In a dispirited column on the CNN website, obviously inspired by the Paterno debacle, ESPN writer L.Z. Granderson writes that he has become afraid to watch the news, fearing that another of his heroes will be shown to be a fraud:
“And when we find out our gods are not perfect, we’re confused. We don’t know what to do with a storyline where the perceived protagonist is complex. Heroes aren’t supposed to do bad things. That’s what villains are for. So either the good supersedes the bad, or the bad makes it impossible to remember the good. We don’t like it when such duality exists in one person. We don’t want to know our heroes are human.”
It’s strange that writers like Granderson are proclaiming this to be a new phenomenon, created by a pervasive media that makes every celebrity’s and public figure’s character warts frighteningly visible. The fallibility of heroes was a common theme of ancient Greek mythology, and formed the basis for Greek tragedy. Shakespeare, of course, mined the phenomenon again and again. While it is true that parents and schools traditionally cleansed the biographies of America’s icons of their misadventures and most unattractive failings, these were never very difficult to learn about, even a half-century ago. I knew Jack Kennedy was a liar and an adulterer shortly after his death. I learned that Babe Ruth was an astounding baseball player and a self-centered, drunken jerk pretty much simultaneously. That Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and kept his slaves anyway was a matter of long-standing record. William Barrett Travis stood bravely at the Alamo, but only after he had run out on his wife and children; so did Davy Crockett. I don’t know where Granderson has been, but it apparently wasn’t the library.
Yet these people were still heroes; they just weren’t heroes all the time, in every aspect of their lives. The Greeks knew it and Shakespeare knew it: nobody’s perfect. That doesn’t mean that we can’t admire the best of someone’s accomplishments and conduct. We can. We should.
What we cannot do is allow our admiration of a hero’s heroic acts us to cause us to embrace, emulate, excuse or ignore her or his flaws, or allow a hero to escape accountability for the most egregious misconduct. Today’s papers carry the obituary of William Aramony, the man who established the United Way. There is no disputing the fact that his work in charity and philanthropy saved untold lives, and soothed the pain of thousands, indeed, probably millions, through the organization he created. Shakespeare would have loved Aramony: his tragedy was built on the classic sense of entitlement heroes have suffered from since the dawn of mankind. He was helping to raise all this money for good works: why shouldn’t he spend $90,000 of the charity’s funds on limousines in a single year? Why shouldn’t he take his teenaged mistress on expensive jaunts around the world—all paid for by the United Way, naturally? By the time Aramony was sent to prison for defrauding his own organization out of millions, he had transformed his reputation from that of a hero to a betrayer and villain. Yet the United Way still stands as his legacy, and the world is a better place because of him.
Our challenge is to find the good in our heroes and be inspired by it, and to use their flaws, foibles and even their falls into infamy as lessons and a kind of inspiration as well. The fact that even the best and most productive of us are capable of terrible mistakes, horrible misconduct, and outrageous breaches of integrity shows that we can rise above our own weaknesses and failings to do good things as well. Our heroes are not innately better than us. They may be smarter, bigger, stronger, braver and more talented, but life is a challenge for them too. The fact that they are far from perfect shouldn’t shock us; it should remind us that they aren’t that different from us after all. We can be heroes too.
At the same time, they are accountable. Betrayals of the principles and goals that made someone a hero have to be condemned, and may require a permanent demotion from cultural hero to cultural villain. When such a betrayal causes sufficient harm, all accomplishments have to be put aside as footnotes to a life that, in the end, must be judged a failure. Martin Luther King’s adultery doesn’t rise to that level; neither, I would argue, does Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy regarding slavery: his words were more important than his deeds. Aramony is a close call; Joe Paterno is as well. But Babe Ruth? He was a hero for what he did on the field, not off of it.
In any of these cases and many more, reasonable people may disagree. The conclusion, however, shouldn’t be that there are no heroes, but that we need to take care that our heroes inspire us with their best, without corrupting us with their worst.