Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Heroes With Blemishes

Because yesterday was Martin Luther King Day, we saw many glowing references to MLK. But I always feel that we are less than honest with ourselves and our own expectations when we try to gloss over a hero's flaws.

As most of us know, MLK was hardly a perfect man. He cheated on his wife and he plagiarized speeches and papers. He's been accused of consorting with Communists, but those allegations were never substantiated by a valid source. However, we should remember that we honor MLK because he spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement in our country, and we owe a great deal to that man because he was able to unite whites and blacks together. Because of him, we have no more segregation.

But I return to my original observation and ask, why do we choose to pretend the flaws weren't there? Are we afraid it will dilute the message to the simple minded? Because the truth is that the ideas were bigger than the man. Whether it had come from Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa, the ideas were sound, the ideas were right, and the ideas rang with truth and justice.

When I did a little research this morning on MLK's flaws, I was very alarmed to see that most of the sites touting them were run by nut-bag white supremacist groups. Apparently they seem to think that destroying the man will destroy the message. Thankfully, we're bigger than that.

However, let's look at the other side of the coin. Why is it that we so superstitiously refuse to "speak ill of the dead"? Thousands of years ago, it was believed that if you spoke ill of the dead, they would come back to haunt you. This silly belief has evolved into a falsely pious attitude today that translates to "They're dead anyway, so what does it matter?"

This is the same belief that often keeps someone from stating baldly that Marilyn Monroe was a slut, Elvis died a drug addict, and Abraham Lincoln had mixed motives in declaring war against the South (it wasn't simply to emancipate the slaves).

But when we choose to scrape away the pancake makeup, we see the blemishes on our heroes and icons. Why is this important? It teaches us that we all have the potential to be heroes. It tells us that we don't have to be perfect to present a perfect message.

It also gives us object lessons for our children: Marilyn Monroe would have been a better person if she hadn't slept around. Elvis would have been a better person if he had avoided drugs. MLK would have been a better person if he hadn't plagiarized or cheated on his wife.

Only this way do we really know who we are, that it's OK to be human, but we should always strive to be better.


Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I agree, we put people up on pedestals and fail to realise the whole human makes them who they are.

Having said that, I'm rather happy he consorted with communists, better that then fascists.

R2K said...

Also odd how he was so serious about the christian faith: the same religion that all of the slave owners forced into black culture, the same religion that was used to justify whites owning other people: and indeed the bible does condone slavery. But I guess like MLK, we gloss over the bad parts of the bible as well?

Matt said...

Interesting point. Imagine the alarm by Union soldiers when congratulated on having freed the slaves.

What? We did what now?

It always bothered me that MLK was given the honorific "doctor" when his phd was in, like, philosophy or something. Of the dozen or more honorary doctorates from prestigious universities, not one of them was a doctorate of medicine.

I hate it when people canonize others like that.... Way to keep it real, Saur.

Ed Abbey said...

I've always thought we are too quick to use the 'hero' status these days. Suddenly everyone is a hero, many for doing what they are paid to do.

But as you pointed out, we all have it in us somewhere, flaws and all.

The Lazy Iguana said...

Yea. I can just imagine what the Union Soldiers said. "Hell, there goes Detroit!".

I look at MLK as more of the spokesman for a movement. OK so he may have "borrowed" ideas and phrases from someone else. Who cares? Does it matter? Does it make the message any less true? No, it does not. King was the man who had the opportunity and balls to say it out loud, in public, knowing full well it was going to piss off a bunch of white people with guns and that is mostly a dangerous thing to do.

And he did it anyway. So on MLK day, I do not think it is relevant that he stole words from other people. The important thing is that those words, stolen or original, were heard.

After all, is there anything new under the sun? One could say the entire Civil Rights movement was stolen from the men who wrote the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. And that was stolen from ideas from England. And those ideas were stolen from somewhere else. And somewhere else stole them from Atlantis or space aliens or something. You get my point. The idea that all men are created equal is not exactly new.

And if he cheated - so what. Maybe Mrs. King gave him the bait fish treatment (no more head and no more tail) or something. Was it the right thing to do? Probably not. I mean the bait fish treatment. And to some degree the cheating.

But still - it does not take away from the message. And what is that message? Lets ask the man from beyond the grave.

"People are people
So why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully?

So were different colors,
And were different creeds, and different people Have different needs. Its obvious you hate me,
though Ive done nothing wrong.
Ive never even met you so what could I have done?

I cant understand, what makes a man, hate another man. Help me understand."

NOTE - the above statement may or may not have been stolen from Depeche Mode. The Lazy Iguana research department is working on that right now - as soon as they finish this beer. If it turns out that this statement by Dr. King from beyond the grave is in fact stolen from an 80s synth pop band, too bad. You cant sue a dead man!

js said...

I agree. It also seems that when folks die they become greater, especially if they die unexpectedly. good post.

Kathleen said...

Well done, Saur. Gutsy and bold ... your trademark.

mal said...

thought provoking entry.

For some reason we like to take these people to gold plated status. Why? I do not know.

Some people like Marilyn, are totally unworthy to really be included in our pantheon of heroes. Do they get their by notoriety alone?

I wonder at times how many of the "Heroes" greatness was part and parcel with their flaws? Was it the greatness the created the flaws or the flaws that nurtured the greatness?

We really need to humanize these people and separate the person from the deed(s)

Senor Caiman said...


I just don't want to get stabbed walking to my car.

Excellent post.

Matt said...

A professor at a historically black college where I took a few classes (UDC) once told us a story about the actor Sidney Poitier (spelling?)....

He said black people queued for hours in the rain to hear this man speak one day but... he didn't want to go out b/c it was raining. He didn't want to get wet.

The message was that people are complex and we're all "sinners."

Emma Sometimes said...

We should strive to be better and in doing so we expel the negative aspects and embrace the lessons worth bettering ourselves.

MLK echoed MANY Unitarian beliefs but I wouldn't label him anything (stereotyping anyone?), but know he was someone who had fabulous ideas.

by the way, this not pointedly at you, dear Saur, but I love how people who are non-Bible believers are constantly attempting to disprove or invalidate the very thing they don't believe.

Emma Sometimes said...

ps. Good post saur power

Ellen said...

Even Dr. King didn't want to be euologized as a Nobel Peace Prize winner... he opted for being remembered as a "drum major for righteousness". This in a speech he made only days before his death.

I like your take on this, and the very fact that we can acknowledge that even heros have their flaws.

Bryan said...

And as I know you're well aware, but some of your readers may not be, the Bible is also littered with men and women who possessed some serious character flaws and yet God used them in mighty ways.

If there's hope for them, there's hope for us. :)

R2K said...

"And as I know you're well aware, but some of your readers may not be, the Bible is also littered with men and women who possessed some serious character flaws and yet God used them in mighty ways."

The bible does in fact, and clearly, condone, accept, tolerate, and even suggest rules and regulations for the keeping of slaves. Not weak people, the whole bible accepts slaves. Even Jesus said that good people would act towards god as good slaves to their owners. But again, we ignore flaws in our heros, leaders, and holy books. If we didnt, we would only have a few heros: Carl Sagan, Darwin, Galileo, Rachel Carson. Boy it would suck, you would all be nerds like me.

Bryan said...

I guess this is the part where I'm supposed to feel like my faith has been shattered and that I should just give up now. (yawn)

Sorry. Just not in the mood for a counterproductive debate. Nothing personal.

The Lazy Iguana said...

You have to take the Bible in context. And the whole slave thing? What exactly were slaves back then? The Bible says (I think) that the Jews were slaves in Egypt - but then again it also says they built a golden calf while in route to the promised land.

Now tell me - where do slaves get gold to make anything?

So were they "slaves" or "employees"? Word meanings do change over time. And are employees not, to some degree, "wage slaves" even today?

King uses passages from the Bible to support his cause. And why not? The teachings of Jesus went along with his whole non-violence thing. Did the man have flaws? It seems so. But again - none of us are perfect. Only one man was "perfect" and he was executed a very long time ago.

Marylin Monroe (and the others mentioned) are not heroes. They were simply famous for some stupid reason. They contributed diddly squat to humanity. King on the other hand did contribute - in a positive way - to humanity.

I do think the message is greater than the man. But men (people) with nothing of value to say? Snooze ville.

Debbie said...

Hi Saur! I have been a lazy blogger again!

Being a Christian I have accepted that I am not a perfect person but that does not stop me from trying to be a perfect person. My potential is what I can and do make of it.

On the subject of MLK I have a funny story. Well it is funny to me!

When I first started dating my hubby years ago I gave him directions to my mothers house. He lived in Clearwater (we were in FL at the time) and I lived in Tampa with my Mom. I told him to take the Buffalo exit and go south. He called me later to ask where on I4 was Buffalo? That he was passing Plant City and on his way to Lakeland! LOL I have never gotten use to Buffalo Ave name being changed! Thats my story and I am sticking to it!

~Deb said...

"...It teaches us that we all have the potential to be heroes. It tells us that we don't have to be perfect to present a perfect message."


I LOVED this post! I really thought at first you were going to tear MLK apart. But reading through, I can see now that your point really made an impact on how humankind really is. We have imperfections- which make us more realistic. I'm almost relieved to hear about people's flaws when they are high in power- it shows they have a human side to them.

I love the way your mind works!

Valerie - Riding Solo said...

Thank you, no one is perfect and we all need to remember we have a hero side as well as the flawed one.

I really got this post.