Watching the HBO miniseries John Adams, I’m struck by how we whitewash history in classrooms and conversation. We are perhaps most shortsighted in our view of the historical figures that have risen to mythic proportions. Often we’re left thinking of these people as two-dimensional characters that reside only on our rapidly devaluing dollars. These individuals, for all their great achievements, were still human, and thus, in my mind, more appealing.
I fear our willingness to overlook the very humanity of the individuals we admire, in favor of their great exploits, puts us at risk of chasing away the very people we need to lead in society. Consider the men and women who seek public office. While many are true representatives of their communities, others still hold their seats because equally or more qualified candidates refuse to submit to the nonsense that passes as a modern-day election.
Within the business community, the most able are sometimes passed over for the ones with the smoothest tongues. The company scandals—Enron and Worldcom—were brought about because these companies were led by people more interested in appearing successful versus actually being successful. I’ve thought about this reality when compared to what we see in modern day politics. We want our political figures to speak of change, but we’re rarely interested in true change. We want our leaders to say something of value, but we punish them for honest speaking.
This past week saw the political world caught up in the words of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Attention then fell on Obama as he responded to critics who questioned his membership in Wright’s congregation with a speech many believe made history. For others, it still wasn’t enough. Once again, instead of focusing on the individual’s credentials, we allowed the media to drive the conversation towards requiring Obama to take responsibility for the words of someone else. Do we really believe that Obama’s pastor choice defines whether he is qualified to be president? Aren’t there other questions that would be better qualifiers?
Ultimately, history’s allure lies in our ability to assign responsibility with supposedly perfect hindsight. We can define the heroes, loathe the villains, and laugh at the jesters. Living in the moment requires more patience, but our fast-paced lives don’t allow for the consideration we give to those in the past. And for many, yesterday or last week IS history, but we’re unwilling to recognize how our humanity makes it difficult for living figures to reach mythic proportions without falling off the pedestal.