The Merits of Admiring Historical Figures

What would you think if you heard someone praising Karl Marx? or Francisco Franco? What about Andrew Jackson or Christopher Columbus? In this post I look at historical figures and whether it's generally acceptable to admire them. What's the dividing line, and how is it defined?

W. E. B. Du Bois
I recently saw a ridiculous article that criticizes famous African-American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois as having been a long-time admirer of Joseph Stalin. In some ways this would admittedly be unfortunate: No one these days (or at least no American) truly admires Stalin, and it's well known that his leadership led either directly or indirectly to the death or massive suffering of millions and millions of people. On the other hand, this criticism got me thinking about the relative acceptability or unacceptability of admiring historical figures. I would posit that one could find at least something to admire about any person in history. One might admire Stalin, for example, because he came from a small minority nation (Georgia) and still managed to become leader of an enormous state. One might also admire some of his words and stated ideals - even if his actions didn't reflect them. The big problem with saying such things, however, is that it's not very socially acceptable to say good things about someone widely perceived to be "bad" or even "evil" according to some. So who's "bad" and who isn't, and why does society frown upon saying anything "good" about certain historical figures?

Benedict Arnold
It may be useful first off to think of some of these people it's unacceptable to admire. First of all would be Adolf Hitler, admiration of whom I assume would be pretty globally shunned. Then, at least among Americans, I would add Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-Sung, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi, Joseph McCarthy, Lee Harvey Oswald, King George III, and Benedict Arnold - just for a start. (Leave a comment with more suggestions if you like.) Each of these people would have varying levels of acceptability: It would be strange to hear someone talk glowingly about George III or Benedict Arnold, but I don't think anyone would get upset about it. Is the American Revolution, well over two hundred years old, just too far gone to be upset about? It's possible. Additionally, it might only especially bother Korean-Americans to praise Kim Il-Sung, or only bother some left-leaning Americans to praise Joseph McCarthy. In both cases, the potentially offended party would have to be knowledgeable of the figure involved in order to be offended. So does time + ignorance = acceptability? After all, talk about George W. Bush would still be contentious these days, since every American of conversational age experienced his presidency. Talking about Rutherford Hayes, on the other hand, probably won't make sparks fly, though in the 1870s it certainly would have.

Joseph Stalin
I believe knowledgeability (or lack thereof) really lies at the heart of the whole issue. I believe there's an xkcd comic (which I can't find) that graphs one's willingness to talk about a particular subject according to the amount one actually knows about that subject. First there's a rise to a peak of false certainty, (where one knows a little but is willing to talk about it), followed by a drop into a valley of critical self-doubt, (where one knows more but is less willing to talk), followed by a constant rise of growing expertise, where the more one knows the more one is willing to talk about it. I think this concept also applies in a way to most of those who express admiration or dislike of certain historical figures. Think about it: A person who's never heard of Stalin won't have an opinion on him. A person who's only heard brief explanations and references to the man, (and I think that's most Americans), will likely judge him to have been "bad" or "evil" based on that condensed information. Then there's someone like me, who knows more than the average person about Stalin's policies and legacy, but isn't going to talk much about him. Why? Because I'm more aware of all the things I don't know and all the information I'm missing. (See my work on the Stalinist era here, in French.) Lastly you have the experts who have heavily studied the figure in question. They, most of all, aren't going to be tossing around words like "bad" or "evil," but neither are they going to express any sort of naïve admiration. From a historical perspective, these sorts of judgments are useless and get in the way of striving for accuracy.

Andrew Jackson
Now, since most people just know these limited bits of information about historical figures, and use those to judge them one way or another, (either with admiration or scorn), how do the information bits get out there, and who determines their content? For the most part that's a community project: Factoids and soundbites about everyone from George Washington to Hirohito get passed around in the press and between people, perpetuated through their memorability and ability to continue popping up, even if they're not exactly true. Why else do you think most people associate Hirohito with divine status, and Washington with wooden teeth? Textbooks also have their role to play, as they instill or reaffirm in young students established assumptions about different histories. That's why when Andrew Jackson turns up in people's heads, they first think of him as a president, then maybe as a military hero, and then maybe as a populist. Except for a few Americans, the public doesn't think of him as one of the foremost persecutors of Native Americans, breaking treaties and attacking them as a general, and then later ordering forced removals like on the Trail of Tears. In other cases, the common case of hero-worship has been in part reversed, such as with Christopher Columbus, whom people increasingly recognize as a homicidal idiot, rather than as a laudable explorer.

Despite my utter disdain for people like Jackson and Columbus being considered heros, however, I don't particularly care for them to become historical pariahs either, where decades from now an article will talk about how shameful it was for a public figure to have said they admired Columbus. When it comes right down to it, you shouldn't admire or detest anyone, living or dead, until you know a good deal about them. Unfortunately, the public has a tendency to turn historical figures into heros or villains without spreading much information about them. I understand the need or desire to have heros and villains from history; they can be relatively useful in that way. Still, I believe such impressions should always be tempered by at least a little bit of historical perspective - looking at figures from the past as complex individuals influenced by their times, rather than as one-dimensional caricatures.

I know I've rambled on long enough about this subject, so please leave a comment and let me know what you think. [All images taken from Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Commons.]