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Heroes

by Frank Schnittger Sat Sep 26th, 2009 at 10:21:37 AM EST

The debate over who should be the first President of the EU Council and our collective inability to come up with a strong alternative to Blair got me thinking about how few heroes I really have.  It's not as if I go around looking for people to look up to - for people on whom I can project my ambitions, desires and frustrations.  It's not as if I think I'm as good as anybody else and don't need others to do what I can not.  And it is not as if the search for heroes hasn't been historically disastrous more often than not.  The cult of the personality, whether of Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and perhaps now Obama, has generally led to very unhappy results.

However most of marketing and popular politics seems to revolve around trying to persuade us that Brand X or Politician Y is the answer to all our problems. The left has, traditionally, tried to focus more on policy than on personalities, but this has often led to it winning academic debates and losing popular elections.  As anyone who has tried to de-construct neo-liberal economics or neo-conservative politics knows, it is not the intellectual rigour or factual accuracy which wins political arguments, but the power of images, mass media, and financial resources.  And before we get too po faced about this, it is worth noting that Trotsky, Che Guevara, Castro, and Allende have also gotten some uncritical adulation from parts of the left over the last few decades.

Perhaps there is something in-built in our nature which leads us to want and need heroes - people who embody what we can't or don't want to be - but who have made the world somewhat closer to what we would like it to be.  So who are your heroes, and what do your choices tell us about you?  I'll lay my cards on the table:  Whilst acknowledging their human flaws, I believe the world would have been a much poorer place without Gandhi, Gorbachev, Mandela, Dylan, Yeats... but I really struggle to come up with a lot of names after that.  I do have my local heroes, of course, people who wouldn't thank me for mentioning their names in public.  But what strikes me is how few people I could unequivocally name as having made the world a better place - or my life a happier one.  So maybe it is all down to us and what we do after all.

So what about you?  Any heroes or people who greatly influenced you that you would like to share with us?


Display:
I have written a little about the books and authors that have influenced the course of my life.  To those I could add Asimov, Heinlein, le Guin, and many more.  But they are only relevant because of two ancient souls who set me on my path many years before: Mildred Wade, who taught me to read, and Wanda Bryson, who taught me to love a good story.  To them I owe a debt I can never repay.  

On the world stage you have already mentioned most of the names that I would think of.  Two others that come immediately to my mind are Churchill and FDR.  Each, it seems to me, influenced the course of history in profound and relatively positive ways.  Churchill by the sheer force of his words alone rallied the British people at a critical point in history, not only for Britain but arguably for the western world as a whole.  FDR rescued the US from one of its darkest chapters and set the stage for a half century of relative prosperity if not of peace.  Without either of them I think the world we live in today would be a very different place, and not I think for the better.

Now where are we going and what's with the handbasket?

by budr on Sat Sep 26th, 2009 at 11:08:41 AM EST
Both FDR and Churchill obviously played a key role in defeating Hitler and Japan, and FDR additionally, helped lead the USA out of the great Depression.  For those reasons he probably deserves to be rated the Greatest US President.  However it is hard not to think of Churchill as one of the last great imperial leaders of the British Empire who opposed Hitler because he wanted to preserve the British Empire rather than because he was opposed to much of what else Hitler did.  Thus, although he played a key role in a turning point in history, I'm not sure he did much to shape the world which emerged thereafter in a very positive way.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Sep 26th, 2009 at 11:22:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Agreed on both counts.  Absent the existential threat of Hitler and Fascism in Europe I doubt that we would find much to admire about Churchill.  The little that I know about his political views seem very much Imperial Business As Usual.  His principal, perhaps his only, positive contribution seems to have been the stirring rhetoric that rallied the British people at a time when many another leader might have seen only despair.

FDR, on the other hand, seems quite the enigma.  Everything about his upbringing suggests patrician, upper crust, big money establishment politics, and yet he became the champion of the downtrodden and the dispossessed.  The more I learn about him the more interesting he becomes.

Now where are we going and what's with the handbasket?

by budr on Sat Sep 26th, 2009 at 11:52:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
our collective inability to come up with a strong alternative to Blair

Hm!? This comment perplexes me for the following reasons: (1) methinks not everyone shared your view that coming down to the endorsement of one candidate is desirable (at least I don't see the point at all -- Stop Blair is a cause to be shared by supporters of any other candidates as well as those rejecting or uninterested in the post), (2) we came up with several names. Also, (3) "strong" in what sense?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 07:20:13 AM EST
I'm not looking for an ET candidate or suggesting that we collectively need to agree on or endorse any particular candidate.  I do think, however, that it is a fair challenge to anyone criticizing a particular candidate to ask them to name better alternatives.  This diary was prompted, in part, by my sense that there are very few "good" candidates, and none that I would feel particularly excited by.  This lack of alternatives is what may eventually sink any Stop Blair campaign or result in some anaemic appointee designed not to upstage the delicate egos of our heads of Government.  

I'm not saying that the legitimacy of the Stop Blair campaign is undermined by this lack of alternatives - it highlights his complicity in the Iraq war deception, which is in itself a good thing.  It is also probably tactically wise for ET not to become identified with, or even especially to be appropriated by the campaign for some other candidate.  However I am not even aware of a campaign for another candidate - if we take Balkenende's disclaimers at face value - and thus there is a danger that the job will become Blair's by default.

But my more general point is that I am saddened by the dearth of any "heroes of the European Union" which inspire an identification with, or allegiance to the more general concept or ideals of the EU.  What started off as an historic enterprise to end wars, excessive nationalism and promote cooperation and social solidarity has become a grey bureaucratic monster which inspires very few people.  The debate in Ireland has reduced to a simplistic "what's in it for us" with no pretense at a wider vision or set of ideals.  

There are some good Irish Europeans - Garrett Fitzgerald (former Taoiseach), Alan Dukes (former opposition leader), John Hume (former N.I. SDLP leader and MEP), Pat Cox (former President of the EP), Micheal Martin (Minister for External Affairs), but for the most part Irish champions of the European ideal are either dead, retired, or marginal to the debate.

Hence I have been able to name no one as my hero with an Irish/European dimension.  I was hoping the rest of you could come up with a few more names...

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 10:39:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The point is that there are those who don't want a big, charismatic figure presiding the European Council (and quite probably extending the post to fit their ego). There is considerable fuel there for flare-ups and possibly worse between that figure and the Commission president on the one hand, and the foreign affairs High Representative on the other.

Jean-Claude Juncker is no "hero" or charismatic, media-borne figure, but he would probably do a good job of coordinating the European Council's work as chairman. That's what's needed, not an inspirational character.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 03:49:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have no problem with appointing good technocrats who are competent at filling a particular role.  However the bigger problem here seems to me to be a lack of public identification and engagement (+/-) with the European project as a whole.  

Certainly having European institutions working competently and effectively is a good start, but my sense is that populist euro-scepticism will continue to gain ground so long as there are no eloquent leaders making the case for greater EU cohesion and coordination in a way which captures the imagination of European people as a whole and which helps in the building of a more vibrant EU demos.

All the popular political moment seems to be with people trying to dismantle the European proeject and reduce it to a free trade area and even a resounding yes vote in Ireland will do little to change hat.  Hence the need for more effective leadership and Council level.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 04:04:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, if you broaden the case away from the presidency (chair) of the European Council, I agree with you. Europe lacks leaders, eloquent Europeans.

I'm not sure what to do about this. Step up, Frank?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 04:07:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Whether we like it or not, most people want to be ruled by people they can identify with and admire ("heroeise") and who make them feel proud to be part of something bigger than themselves.  So I don't agree that the President of the Council is a purely technocratic role.

Part of the reason behind the growth of Euroscepticism is the inability of most people to identify with what they see as largely a faceless bureaucratic process - even if that process is acknowledged (in Ireland at least) as being relatively competently carried out.  

The mostly faux claims of the Eurosceptics of a lack of democratic legitimacy within the EU is only possible because of the inability of most people to understand and identify with those processes which are supposed to provide such accountability.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 04:46:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's not a "purely technocratic role", but it is not one, in the current state of the history of the European Council, of the views of different member states (large and small), and in the actual language of the Lisbon treaty, that admits of the big charismatic leader option (without risk of considerable problems to come).

As for your premiss "most people want to be ruled by people they can identify with and admire ("heroeise") and who make them feel proud to be part of something bigger than themselves", I am not sure that that is in fact the case in Europe today. And, even if it were, it's not just the EU that would be on the lookout for such rulers, is it?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 05:00:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you are arguing the same case I am making in discussion with Jerome below.  The difference between overbearing ego and good communication skills can be fine, at times, and there are not many who come to mind who can manage that distinction.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 05:25:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Whether we like it or not, most people want to be ruled by people they can identify with and admire ("heroeise") and who make them feel proud to be part of something bigger than themselves.

IOW, let's have someone like Daniewl Cohn-Bendit in place of Barroso as Commission President.

So I don't agree that the President of the Council is a purely technocratic role.

By best intent I don't see how the President of the Council comes into the picture. He doesn't rule us. He won't even rule the Council. This is like asking for a replacement of Baroness Hayman with someone more charismatic.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 05:02:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As I think you have argued elsewhere, the role of President of the Council will be significantly shaped by it's first incumbent.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 05:26:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Frank Schnittger:
no eloquent leaders making the case for greater EU cohesion and coordination in a way which captures the imagination of European people as a whole and which helps in the building of a more vibrant EU demos.

after obama's election, i too thought this way, but now after 6 disappointing months of presidency-as-usual, i am cynical about charisma in general when it comes to politicians, they're not there to sell charm, but serve their electorate, (not just lobbyists!)

some days i still feel a vestige of need to be led by some inspiring, iconic frontman, most days not.

yet what you are left with is a sorry bunch of insipid technocrats who don't inspire anyone, and that this is far from ideal, but since we have had our fingers burned so many times with strong and charismatic leaders, our unwillingness to go there is understandable. the three most high charisma pols in europe are sarko, berly and bliar, QED.

having no charisma, like gordo, is not necessarily better, but perhaps the risks of being herded off some cliff are somewhat reduced.

we need an well educated, politically savvy electorate, driven by (and driving) a free media.

which is why ET exists.

"We can all be prosperous but we can't all be rich." Ian Welsh

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sat Oct 3rd, 2009 at 01:13:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't disagree.  The problem is that if there are no charismatic leaders making the case for the EU - there will be some making the case against the EU - and the battle between competent pro-EU technocrats and charismatic Eurosceptics is an unequal one which the latter are currently winning.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Oct 3rd, 2009 at 04:45:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
my sense that there are very few "good" candidates

Well, then that's your personal sense :-) I think I saw half a dozen names brought up, and I had no big problems with most. Most of these have been discussed in the media, too. So I don't see a lack of alternatives.

anaemic appointee designed not to upstage the delicate egos of our heads of Government

Eh, that seems more like the job description to me. Someone upstaging those delicate egos will fail at the job. His only legitimacy will come from those delicate egos.

the job will become Blair's by default.

I wouldn't bet on it. Bliar's surrogates may make a lot of media noise, but while the media is essential to influence public opinion, here the 'voters' are heads of states and governments, who are also influenced by non-public backroom deals and their own power interests. I think at this point, no one wants to lay their cards on the table.

But my more general point is that I am saddened by the dearth of any "heroes of the European Union" which inspire an identification with, or allegiance to the more general concept or ideals of the EU.

I have a more basic problem: I can't feel inspired by the current batch of elected right-wing and right-leaning center-left governments and parliamentary majorities. The EU is built atop these -- and we get the Barrosos and Pötterings and Prodis as a result. To run the EU in a way that I think is inspiring, these governments and majorities would have to be replaced.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 05:15:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
To run the EU in a way that I think is inspiring, these governments and majorities would have to be replaced.

Look at Germany and weep.

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 05:21:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Die Linke grew. Die Grüne grew. Die Piraten got more than a decent result. The far-right got pasted so hard that they'll spend the next few years wondering whether somebody got the license plate number of the train that hit them.

I'm not going to weep for the Grosse Koalition, and even less for SPD.

Yes, the next few years will be hard for Germany, as Schwartz-Gelb run amok. But Germany will survive, and the left will be stronger when the Schröderite fuckwits have been firmly and finally showed the door.

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 05:35:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Lafontaine in 2013?

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 05:42:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]


Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.
by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 05:45:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps what got defeated is the attempt by Social Democrats to be more conservative than the conservatives themselves - or to look for a Blairite third way.  As Obama is also learning on Healthcare, there is no compromise possible that is acceptable to the Right which does not also completely undermine your own base and raison d'etre.  

Indeed the only reason the Right might compromise is that it does undermine your base.  The SDP's problem, if this analysis is correct, is that it agreed to enter a Grand Coalition as second fiddle in the first place.  It meant the green left - voted green left - and conservatives continued to vote conservative.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 06:22:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Couldn't have said it better myself.

Now try telling that to the Schröder/Bliar wing of the SPD.

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 07:02:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps what got defeated is the attempt by Social Democrats to be more conservative than the conservatives themselves

That got beaten in 2005 already. Being forced by the Left Party to thematise minimum wages and such, the SPD moved left since. So, you may say that what was beaten now was an SPD first trying to be kinder gentler conservatives, then trying to be critics of neoliberalism with the same leaders.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Sep 28th, 2009 at 10:14:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The frightful thing is that it's an appearence Sarkozy is currently pulling off...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Sep 28th, 2009 at 10:23:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If we go outside politics, unlike you, I could name too many heroes. In politics, it's not much more than those you name... going back in history, I'm not sure if I count her as hero, but I am fascinated by Jeanne D'Arc.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 07:26:46 AM EST
is Napoleon put in the same category as Stalin and Hitler...

Whatever you think of his warmongering, he did not bring about the annihilation of his country and/or the death of large fractions of its population. Quite the opposite, he consolidated the results of the French Revolution (thus the hate of the Brits, of course) and set the bases for the modern organisation of public administration in France (départements & préfets), and for most of its laws (through the civil code).

Now I know you've added Obama in your line on past "heroes", but that throwaway joke doesn't eliminate the need for my point to be made...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 01:17:15 PM EST
The category I have put him into is that of leaders who have become surrounded by a cult of personality and whilst the jury is out on Obama, his inclusion is not intended as a joke.  The worst I have said of this cult of personality is that it has "generally led to very unhappy results" and that "it is not as if the search for heroes hasn't been historically disastrous more often than not."  Hardly a ringing endorsement or condemnation of any one historical figure.

Obama, Napolean. Mao, Stalin and Hitler are very different historical figures indeed, and I'm not sure how you can extrapolate from an observation that they may have one factor in common (the cult of personality) to the claim that I am arguing that they are equivalent in  every other way or that none of them have any positive achievements to their credit.

It doesn't seem controversial to me to make the observation that whilst many people have their heroes, the need to find or create heroes isn't necessarily unproblematic in human history, or an unalloyed good even in society today.  

So whilst there may be English language writers who are unduly critical of Napoleon, there is no need to direct your defensive fire at those who are discussing the process of "heroefication" rather than directing insults at someone who may be one of your heroes.


notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 03:36:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I will probably be shouted down for saying this, but my nominees would be, following Spinoza and the other parents of the Enlightenment, the small community of people who set up the United States. Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and the others managed to take a radical philosophy and translate it into a practical revolution that led to a political system that drifted neither into anarchy, dictatorship, nor collapse. Without commenting on the current state of American political affairs, it seems to me that they accomplished something that has stood up pretty well.
by asdf on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 04:38:39 PM EST
The problem most people have with the USA is not with what these gentlemen created, but that these giants have been followed (for the most part) by intellectual and moral midgets....and that the US constitutional/political structure n culture has not been substantially improved since.  Indeed it could be argued that their achievements have been eclipsed by the rise of corporatism since.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 04:50:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Heroes? Hmm...

Well, Emma Goldman is always cool and generally inspirational to read.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!

by A swedish kind of death on Mon Sep 28th, 2009 at 07:55:42 AM EST


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