Many historical figures have a tendency to be widely perceived as one-dimensional demigods lacking in flaws; they function as figureheads for lofty ideals which society professes to hold dear to its collective heart.
Often, these figures are larger than life myths, culturally necessary as a cohesive ideological gel, placed on a pedestal by establishment historians to maintain the illusion that our past is a noble one built upon unshakable ethics. In Britain, a textbook example of such a figure is Winston Churchill, the war prime minister revered by many throughout the country despite his questionable human rights record.
Christopher Columbus – perhaps more revered in the United States than Churchill is in Britain – possesses a record of abuse and degradation few other historical figures have surpassed, committing a string of atrocities against the indigenous people of America in his drive to accumulate untold wealth, from burning people alive to subjecting children to sexual slavery.
Today’s prominent figures often get the revisionist treatment during their tenure in the public limelight – an example of this is President Obama, who has bombed Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia since coming into office, while at the same time being a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (it’s worth noting that Henry Kissinger also won this prize for ending the Vietnam War, despite the fact that at the time the war was still raging and Kissinger had been instrumental in the illegal bombing of Cambodia leading to 100,000s of deaths). At the same time, Americans still drive around with “Obama for Peace” bumper stickers, proving that these myths endure, at least in the eyes of the less well-informed public.
Without these mytho-historical figures and the skewed narratives which revolve around them, the historical and ideological underpinning of the Western capitalist model would collapse. Strip away the thin veil of official history and the ugly realities of imperialism and tyrannical corporatism are laid bare. It is for this reason that these so-called luminaries of national heritage – warmongers and criminals recast as heroes – remain an enduring feature of contemporary discourse, subject to annual retrospectives and documentaries designed to keep the myth alive.
Perhaps it’s time to find real icons to revere, people who have made genuine sacrifices to better humanity and acted out of compassion rather than self-interest. Or better still, become these people ourselves.