Sunday, January 14, 2007

King, Washington, Lincoln, and the Iconization of Heroes

In thinking about Dr. King, it is truly odd what we do to our national heroes. They begin as flesh and are transformed in the most unusual way.

At first glance, there is nothing terribly strange there. All cultures have their mythological heroes and those based on the lives of real people require taking the story of a notable life (or more usually a part of it) and retelling it in a fashion that more perfectly engenders and typifies some virtue held dear to the society. That transformation fictionalizes the figure, makes him or her bigger than life, certainly bigger than the actual life lived, and places the figure upon the pedestal reserved in the cultural pantheon. Think of Parson Weem's version of the life of George Washington.

And, in a certain sense, so it is with King. One of the central leitmotifs of the 20th century was liberation. It was the century that saw women get the vote, the civil rights movement with all of its successes, the start of the gay rights movement, guaranteed accessibility for those with disabilities, and the end of mandatory retirement for older Americans to name just a few examples. Because of his vision, his commitment to peaceful change, and his power as an orator, Martin Luther King, Jr. was selected at the end of the century as the national symbol of justice and opposition to bigotry and discrimination, virtues that the our nation now had a place to celebrate.

Those seeking to undermine the figure, the virtue, or both, often choose to more carefully recount the actual history, taking special care to point out where personal failures illustrate a conflict. With Dr. King, it is often questions of adultery. "How could he be held up as a paradigm of virtue when he embraced such a vice?" the challengers whine. Of course, the move fails. Yes, we all have personal foibles. No one lives up to the fictionalized perfection, but that does not make the life lived any less heroic not the virtue embodied any less significant. Dr. King was a man, fallible, flawed like the rest of us, but it it in that fact, that he was able to do what he did as a mere mortal that makes him worthy of being more than a mere mortal.

Yet, in our admiration, we have done what the critic could not. Not by tearing down Dr. King, but by flattening him, taking one of the deepest of Americans and turning him into a flat icon. The writings of Dr. King, their development, intricacies, and meaning -- both in the historical context and universally -- are never considered. What may be considered his masterworks, the letter from Birmingham jail and his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, are read by a few, but as a culture we really possess no sense whatsoever of the mind of the man. Martin Luther King, Jr. has become nothing more than an iconic image -- portrait facing slightly to the side in black suit jacket and tie -- and a four word slogan -- "I have a dream." That's it. We don't probe what the dream truly meant, its many aspects he enumerates in the speech to see how far we have come, or whether such content was worthy of a dream. We simply repeat "I have a dream" like an advertising jingle.

Of course, it is not only King who gets this treatment. Washington has the image taken from Gilbert Stuart's portrait and the five word slogan "I cannot tell a lie," while Abraham Lincoln has the beard and stovepipe hat with the six word slogan, "Four score and seven years ago." It is a statue that one puts upon a pedestal, a three-dimensional sculpture that represents in marble an idealized version of the model. But for us, now, our heroes no longer can fit on a pedestal, just on a bumper sticker. The conversations their lives ought to force us to engage in remain undiscussed. The reflections on our own abilities to change the world go unreflected. The virtues they engendered and the ways we can become a more humane society by taking their example are too often left unconsidered. Heroes may not be real, but the effects of having heroes are. Sadly, we have turned our heroes into icons where we can remain safe from their heroism, true and embellished.