He­roes, saints, mes­si­ahs and mon­sters

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THE English id­iom “devil’s ad­vo­cate” orig­i­nates from a beau­ti­ful an­cient prac­tice of the Catholic Church.

When­ever the Church had to canon­ise a new saint a lawyer or an ad­vo­cate among the be­liev­ers was en­gaged to op­pose the canon­i­sa­tion by as much as pos­si­ble as­sas­si­nat­ing the char­ac­ter of the can­di­date.

The ad­vo­cate would ag­gres­sively ques­tion the ho­li­ness of the can­di­date, call out their fake mir­a­cles and ex­pose their im­moral­i­ties. This beau­ti­ful prac­tice en­sured that pre­tenders, char­la­tans and op­por­tunists did not make it to the ex­alted po­si­tion of saint­hood. Ge­orge Or­well put it beau­ti­fully when he, in ref­er­ence to the saintly Ma­hatma Gandhi said, “saints should al­ways be judged guilty un­til they are proved in­no­cent.” In this short piece I posit to ex­plore the im­por­tant sub­ject of hero­ism in pol­i­tics and so­cial­ity to ob­serve and ar­gue why he­roes need to be ques­tioned, sus­pected and watched closely as po­ten­tial traitors and mon­sters.

The po­etic say­ing that “an­other man’s hero is an­other man’s terrorist, and an­other man’s terrorist is an­other man’s free­dom fighter” hides the fact that he­roes are much more dan­ger­ous to their fol­low­ers, than they are to their op­po­nents and en­e­mies who in­vest no trust in them in the very first place. “A man’s hero to­day is his mon­ster to­mor­row morn­ing” is a much safer un­der­stand­ing of hero­ism and he­roes in the present po­lit­i­cal sys­tem in the world. A hero is a mon­ster just wait­ing for the right time to prop­erly eat us, with forks, knives and other sharp ob­jects.

Kinds of He­roes

In world pol­i­tics and so­cial­ity he­roes have ap­peared in three ma­jor shapes. There is the war­rior king who comes into promi­nence and earns his hero­ism and fol­low­ing through mil­i­tary prow­ess, Alexan­der the Great and Julius Cae­sar come into mind, although Alexan­der was also a brood­ing philoso­pher who came from the acad­emy and tute­lage of Aris­to­tle.

In present Africa Paul Kagame would be such a hero, some­one who from the po­si­tion of an un­der­dog mar­shals some forces and, against great ad­ver­si­ties, shoots him­self into power and does great de­vel­op­men­tal work for his coun­try.

Af­ter the war­rior king there is the Mafioso king, a ty­coon and also a scoundrel who bribes his way into power us­ing ei­ther money or vi­o­lence, or both. Nic­colo Machi­avelli de­scribed the Mafioso kings as “those who come to power through their crimes.”

These are mainly du­bi­ous and scan­dalous politi­cians and celebri­ties who are glo­ri­fied for their dare-devil prac­tices and never say die at­ti­tudes to life and power. So­ci­ety se­cretly ad­mires the scoundrel and finds rel­ish in MacGyver and Ma­cav­ity char­ac­ters.

Roughly, the four-term Prime Min­is­ter of Italy, Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni was such a hero, a ter­ri­ble naughty un­cle, a wink­ing malume with bags of money, tricks and weapons that peo­ple mys­te­ri­ously get to love and follow in spite of his fi­nan­cial and sex­ual mis­de­meanour’s.

The third and in my view most dan­ger­ous kind of hero is the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial saint. This one ap­pears as a philoso­pher king, hum­ble and thought­ful. Or­well de­scribed Gandhi as a “hum­ble, naked old man, sit­ting on a pray­ing mat and shak­ing em­pire by sheer spir­i­tual power.”

In his fa­mous or in­fa­mous book, depend­ing on where one stands, Christo­pher Hitchens ex­posed Mother Teresa as such a kind of hero­ine. The book, The Mis­sion­ary Po­si­tion: Mother Teresa in The­ory and Prac­tice, is not for the un­cir­cum­cised as the Bri­tish philoso­pher and polemi­cist col­lapses the saintly hero­ine to a re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ist who hid her crimes be­hind moun­tains of hu­mil­ity. Po­lit­i­cal and so­cial saints might not mur­der peo­ple in masses or squan­der bil­lions of money but they re­main very vi­o­lent char­ac­ters in their van­ity.

Their hu­mil­ity is their pride as they be­come self-lov­ing and in­deed self-eat­ing prophets who ad­vance per­son­al­ity cults and all sorts of per­son­alised po­lit­i­cal and so­cial re­li­gions around them­selves. Cu­ri­ously, Gandhi be­came so beloved by the Bri­tish Em­pire builders that he was fight­ing against as much as the poor In­di­ans that he was sup­posed to be fight­ing for, he be­came a hero of both war­ring sides and also a traitor of both, and there­fore his own per­sonal hero and kind of god. Saints are idol­a­trous in the way they com­pete with God for fol­low­ing.

The later Man­dela be­came as such, a hero of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, heal­ing and for­give­ness and there­fore a paci­fier of black vic­tims of apartheid and pro­tec­tor of white su­prem­a­cists. There is a thin line be­tween a hero and a traitor or should it be said that there is a traitor in ev­ery hero or even a hero in ev­ery traitor. Whether they ap­pear as war­riors, gang­ster or saints, he­roes are po­ten­tially mon­strous per­son­ages.

It is Ge­orge Or­well again who said “when­ever saints are named” peo­ple “must doubt the saint­li­ness” and “ques­tion the in­ten­tions of the saint mak­ers.”

He­roes are char­ac­ters that should al­ways be re­garded with ut­most sus­pi­cion lest so­ci­eties are thor­oughly be­trayed or sim­ply mis­led. Any­one who com­mands sup­port and pop­u­lar fol­low­ing, how­ever, well-mean­ing and in­ten­tioned has the power to trag­i­cally lead peo­ple in their pop­u­la­tions to hell, if not watched vig­i­lantly.

The Vi­o­lence of Hero­ism

Jean Ro­stand is an in­ter­est­ing French in­tel­lec­tual, one of the few bi­ol­o­gists in the world who also be­came a philoso­pher, true oil and water at the same time. Ro­stand was dis­gusted by po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence and the way vi­o­lent he­roes got away with their sins.

In his Thought of a Bi­ol­o­gist clas­sic, he re­marked “kill one man, and you are a mur­derer, kill mil­lions of men, and you are a con­queror, kill them all, and you are a god” in ref­er­ence to how war­riors be­come he­roes by mass mur­der and how small crim­i­nals get pun­ished while big ones walk free and are re­warded for their evil.

As a philoso­pher Ro­stand was scep­ti­cal and pes­simistic of hu­man be­ings es­pe­cially those that wanted to be pow­er­ful, “my pes­simism” he said “ex­tends to the point of even sus­pect­ing the sin­cer­ity of the pes­simists.”

In other words, Ro­stand’s po­lit­i­cal wis­dom is that there should be no end to just how much peo­ple should dis­trust and sus­pect he­roes. Al­most all hero­ism is not in­no­cent.

The war­riors and the Mafioso that dis­play some courage later use that to black­mail peo­ple and de­velop a sense of en­ti­tle­ment over coun­tries and the world.

Through­out the world, war­rior he­roes from Cae­sar to Idi Amin are known to say be­cause we did this, we risked those, we suf­fered that, and died then, for you there­fore we must per­ma­nently be this. They lit­er­ally steal the history and life of na­tions.

The Mafioso, be it a celebrity or politi­cian, or both, be­comes a hero by his crimes and must com­mit more crimes and sins to keep the power and in­flu­ence. Much like the war­rior hero he is not a role model but a wrong model who gives chil­dren the im­pres­sion that crime and vi­o­lence pay.

The wrong im­pres­sion that money can buy hero­ism and power is es­sen­tially cor­rupt and evil be­cause it makes ethics and hon­esty as foun­da­tions of all good look use­less.

When power and priv­i­lege be­come com­modi­ties in the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal mar­ket place so­ci­ety is cor­rupted and hooli­gans come to po­si­tions of in­flu­ence and au­thor­ity.

The war­rior and the Mafioso he­roes have given suc­cess and power in the world a bad name. Be­cause of war­rior and Mafioso celebri­ties, politi­cians and busi­ness­peo­ple, many young peo­ple grow up think­ing that to be suc­cess­ful and pow­er­ful one has to be evil.

It is easy to think that if the war­rior and Mafioso he­roes are bad then we are safer fol­low­ing the saints such as the later Man­dela, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and other war­riors of kind­ness and hu­mil­ity. The non-vi­o­lence of the saints is their very vi­o­lence.

They can­not be true rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies be­cause they do not dis­rupt or con­front the sta­tus quo in any way.

The ap­peal of the saints to both the op­pres­sors and the op­pressed, such as that of Man­dela and Gandhi, makes them a waste of ev­ery­body’s time.

One can­not, for in­stance, be­come a hero of two war­ring sides with­out com­pro­mis­ing one side or both. At the end of the day one might ar­gue that the saints are not about com­mu­ni­ties, so­ci­eties and na­tions but about them­selves and their heroic lega­cies.

Some of the most deadly despo­tism comes dressed in soft, hum­ble, sweet and saintly py­ja­mas. Rad­i­cal young po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists in South Africa that are de­mand­ing trans­for­ma­tion and de­coloni­sa­tion of the polity and the econ­omy are told, not in so many words, to calm down and pre­serve the legacy of Madiba magic while in­equal­ity and colo­nial­ity con­tinue undis­turbed. Man­dela’s saintly name is used to si­lence the youths and post­pone lib­er­a­tion.

The name of the saint is used as a po­lit­i­cal sym­bol and metaphor that is de­ployed to dic­tate the ac­tions and lives of a whole gen­er­a­tion and in most cases this pre­serves the sta­tus quo rather than pro­mote rev­o­lu­tion.

In that and other ways, there is a mon­ster in ev­ery saint. Saints make them­selves mar­tyrs and other vic­tims who suf­fer pris­ons and per­se­cu­tion on be­half of the rest of hu­man be­ings and then ex­pect hero­ism and wor­ship for it.

They use the power of their mar­tyr­dom and vic­tim­hood to change history to the favour of their spon­sors and han­dlers, and their per­sonal re­li­gions.

De­colonis­ing Hero­ism

All he­roes are traders in hearts and minds. Pop­u­la­tions give them a fol­low­ing and some faith, and so are they pow­er­ful and dan­ger­ous. Mes­si­ahs, un­less if they are like Je­sus the Christ whose King­dom was not of this world, are mon­strous fig­ures.

Even the Christ has had his name and phi­los­o­phy used by mon­sters that are af­ter the earthly king­dom. Any­one who does or pre­tends to do good in the world and ex­pects a king­dom of this world for it must be sus­pected. Hero­ism has, in busi­ness, pol­i­tics and show­biz been used as a beau­ti­ful mask that cov­ers the face of a cow­ard, scoundrel or true id­iot.

Hero­ism should not be en­trusted to in­di­vid­u­als be­cause they are too small and too weak for it. It should be given to in­sti­tu­tions, sys­tems and struc­tures.

Com­mu­ni­ties and col­lec­tives of peo­ple should be given hero­ism be­cause as a po­lit­i­cal and so­cial re­source it is too wide and too heavy to sit and be car­ried on the shoul­ders of an in­di­vid­ual.

Oth­er­wise, nje, we should, at hear­ing or catch­ing sight of a hero, just run! Beware of the Greeks even if they carry gifts, is an an­cient but still very fresh id­iom in mean­ing and rel­e­vance.

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