19 April 2011

Gelding Our Heroes & Distorting Our History

"We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful." ~ C.S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man)

Michael Aubrecht's increasingly partisan criticism directed at conservatives and a traditionalist view of history has become quite perplexing to me. While I have been working on a response to Michael's criticism of the Tea Party's alleged "distortion of history", he recently put up a post featuring this slanderous depiction of several Founding Fathers. I'm not sure what the purpose of this image is supposed to represent. I'd like to give Michael the benefit of the doubt and assume he was being absurd for the sake of it, but the comments which accompany the image make that benefit of the doubt a hard pill to swallow:

"Ever since 'Blog, or Die.' debuted back in 2009, I have become increasingly critical when analyzing the lives of our forefathers. As a result, my blog has become more popular and respected at a professional level. This has led to bigger gigs and better books."

I find that comment a bit troubling. Is that what it takes to "become more popular" and "respected at a professional level" - becoming a critic of our forefathers? I can't see how posting these images accompanied by the silly accusations could possibly be considered "professional." The image is something I'd expect to see in a comic book version of Howard Zinn's A People's History Of The United States. If promoting that version of history is the price of popularity and "respect", I think I'll pass.

There is so much wrong with Michael's post on so many levels, I don't quite know where to start. So, let's just start with the image. Allow me to address each "allegation."

  1. Washington - Drug Dealer: Yes, George Washington grew marijuana on his farm. He also made entries in his journal about the plant's potential medicinal value and promoted it's growth. However, anyone remotely familiar with the history of hemp knows that during Washington's day, marijuana was grown mainly for its industrial value as hemp as well as for its value in stabilizing the soil. It was not until many years later that marijuana became popular (and illegal) as a recreational drug. Suggesting that Washington was a "drug dealer" because he grew marijuana on his 18th century farm is utterly ridiculous.
  2. John Adams - Incest: Yes, John Adams married his cousin - as did Johan Sebastian Bach, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Rudy Giuliani, FDR, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.G. Wells, to name just a few. As a matter of fact, I married my cousin. I've told that story before. My wife and I share the same great-great grandfather and we were not aware of this fact until after we were married. I am quite amused by the fact. But incest? Please. Marrying cousins was actually quite common in colonial and antebellum America. It is still legal to do so in many states, including Virginia. Suggesting Adams committed incest  by marrying his cousins is, again, utterly ridiculous.
  3. Andrew Jackson - Murderer: At least we're getting a bit closer to the facts but, this too is quite a stretch. First of all, dueling was an acceptable social practice in Jackson's day and many a dispute was settled on the "field of honor." Jackson did defy dueling etiquette and took a second shot at one of his opponents, Charles Dickinson. The shot did in fact kill him. However, Jackson was never charged with murder and, even if he had been, would have likely been acquitted.
  4. Thomas Jefferson - Slave Relations: There is, at least on this charge, some evidence that Jefferson may have fathered children with Sally Hemmings. Most historians are familiar with the story and it would not be all that surprsing, were it true. This was not an uncommon thing in slaveholding societies. However, there is still considerable disagreement and controversey surrounding the allegation. Even the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (Monticello) acknowledges that nothing regarding these allegations has been proven: "Although the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings has been for many years, and will surely continue to be, a subject of intense interest to historians and the public, the evidence is not definitive, and the complete story may never be known. The Foundation encourages its visitors and patrons, based on what evidence does exist, to make up their own minds as to the true nature of the relationship." (Emphasis mine.) Making the allegation as fact is irresponsible.

So, 3 out of 4 of these silly depictions are out and out false. The remaining one is a matter of disagreement. 3 out of 4 of these depictions represent some of the worst and outrageious examples of presentism that I've ever seen.

If you'll read the balance of Michael's post, he appears to be overly concerned that students of history too often idolize those they study, i.e. "hero worship." Certainly that can be true. But Michael seems to be unaware that there are ditches on both sides of the road. Some of his recent comments further suggest that he believes the concept of heroes is immature and unworthy of anyone serious about history. I find that quite troubling, yet reflective of much of what we see in the way many moderns approach the study of history - humanistic and man-centered; even self-centered. Many who would reject a more traditional approach to historiography also see modern man as "master of his own destiny" and totally self-sufficient and amoral - not needing heroes, moral teachers, and examples of courage, self-denial, and patriotism - examples which we are blessed with an abundance of in American history. I don't think that Michael really embraces much of this mindset. Rather, I believe he has unwittingly fallen into this beguiling trap as he has "become increasingly critical when analyzing the lives of our forefathers."

Though not trained as a historian (not that this is necessary to write about history), I know Michael to be sincere and serious about the craft. He's done some good work. I've even helped him in small ways where I could. But somehow, he seems to have been convinced that he must, in the words of C.S. Lewis, castrate--figuratively speaking of course--the Founding Fathers and other American heroes in order to "un-hero" them and remove them from their pedestal, as well as to prove himself a serious historian.

Moreover, Michael assumes because one focuses on the positive and heroic aspects of American history, one must necessarily ignore the negative aspects or even forget that these heroes had human faults. The two aspects are not mutually exclusive. But that's not really the issue. The trend of denigrating American heroes and American exceptionalism is considered quite chic and "sophisticated" by many in academia and on the professional left. As I've noted before this mindset is, in most cases, much more about the writer or historian doing the "critical analysis" than it is about the subject of the analysis. It ostensibly elevates the historian "above it all" and puts him on a "higher plane" than those who write "celebratory history." Again, man-centered and humanistic to the core. Much of the "more recent scholarship" which embraces this faddish trend is, quite simply, ego driven. As historian Will Durant wrote: "To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves." That quote reminds me of something I once heard Bud Robertson say about Robert E. Lee: "Robert E. Lee never existed [in the minds of some] because we don't have a Robert E. Lee today." 

And therein lies much of the problem. A narcissistic, egotistical society and culture obsessed with immediate gratification and one that has rejected its founding principles finds it impossible to believe that a Lee or a Washington, with their towering characters and principled examples of self-denial and patriotism, could have ever existed. The typical modern, full of self and educated (he thinks) to the point of a smug, arrogant cockiness, simply cannot conceive of the selfless, heroic acts of which we read in the lives of these men, as well as so many others which have contributed to America's exceptionalism. The example of some of these heroic figures in American history necessarily causes some self-doubt among moderns regarding their own self-awarded superiority. Can't have that. Unable to measure up, it becomes easier for the modern to tear down

Much of this tearing down is also rooted in a distaste for America's history, for a whole variety of reasons, including much of academia's leftist political agenda. Andrew McCarthy made note of this some time ago at National Review's website:

What most frustrates Americans is that we are a happy, optimistic, can-do people ceaselessly harangued by media solons, delusional academics, post-sovereign Eurocrats, and the Democrats who love them. While we free and feed the world, they can’t tell us enough that we’re racist, imperialist, torturing louts. We know it’s a libel, an endless stream of slander. But we also know it’s an absurd libel. We’re tired of hearing it, but taking it too seriously would give it power it doesn’t deserve. (Emphasis mine.)

McCarthy expresses the anger that many Americans feel about this whole issue, including me. It is one of my pet peeves and a frequent topic of posts here. I am passionate about challenging these notions which is why I'll write long posts on the subject like this one. But all is not bleak. I recently had the pleasure of reading a piece by Gregory D. Foster, who is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, not all academic historians have rejected American exceptionalism and the worthy and legitimate concept of American heroes. Professor Foster's piece--very eloquently--addresses the current fad of "hero-bashing" and the preference for pop-culture idols and celebrities over traditional heroes. He has given me permission to include his article in this post. Here are a few choice excerpts:

Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century Scottish historian, said: "Society is founded on hero worship." Historically, that may once have been true. It may even be true of other societies today. It certainly isn't true of America. We are a society of celebrity worshipers, voyeurs of the rich and famous. We are infatuated by celebrities. We idolize them. We grovel in their presence. We try to look and be like them. We mistake them for heroes. To most of us, who you are and know is much more important than what you do or stand for.

Celebrities, though, are qualitatively quite different than heroes, markedly inferior to them in fact. The celebrity is nothing but a person of celebrity, well known for his well-knownness (as historian Daniel Boorstin put it), famous for being famous. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Walter Cronkite are celebrities. Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds, and Tiger Woods are celebrities. So too Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and Donald Trump, Bob Dole and Jesse Jackson, even John McCain and Colin Powell. 
Heroes, in contrast, are transcendent, mythic, seemingly superhuman figures who combine greatness with goodness. They may have charisma, presence, and "gravitas"; they must demonstrate courage, vision, and character--selfless character. Heroes have stature, if not size. Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel come quickly to mind. Non-heroes and anti-heroes lack stature, even if possessed of size. Bill Clinton, the quintessential postmodern anti-hero of our day, who demeaned and diminished most of what he touched, comes even more quickly to mind. 

Professor Foster concludes his piece with this admonition:

Why do we need heroes today more than ever? First, because we are all followers at heart. We praise and preach leadership, but we practice followership. Consciously or not, we constantly seek someone beyond ourselves to tell us when and how high to jump. Better that we relinquish ourselves to someone worthy of adulation and veneration than to the many charlatans and demagogues who prey on us.
Second, we are adrift, wandering aimlessly in a post-Cold War intellectual and spiritual desert, unable to remember who we are or whither we should be tending. There must be someone of supernal dignity and virtue who can lead us out of our anomie and ennui.
Third, we are cynical, disillusioned, drained of the respect that would justify placing unconditional trust in public figures who presume to claim our allegiance. So, we turn to athletes and entertainers for escape.
Finally, despite our self-deluding sense of superiority as a country--you know, world's only superpower and all that we are less than we could be as individuals and as a people. Ultimately that's what heroes do for us: They make us mere mortals want to be better. As Emerson observed: "Great men exist that there may be greater men."
Would that we could find among us someone who is up to this great task. There's an empty pedestal waiting to be mounted. (You can read the complete article here.)

I think its important to further point out that many pop culture icons have very public moral failings, or flaunt a very amoral persona. Perhaps that is the reason that many prefer to idolize these figures. Down hill is much easier than up hill. Sadly, it seems it is easier--even preferable--for our culture to identify with a Paris Hilton than to identify with a George Washington.

Source of image:  PunditKitchen Warning: this site has some rather salty language and images.


Scott Manning said...

Richard, I agree with you that it is possible to recognize the greatness of past figures while still appreciating their faults. That discovery process is part of the joy of history for me. We do not need to look any further than the ancient Greeks and Romans to understand that "hero worshipping" is a strong part of western civilization and our inheritance. The Athenians had many monuments to past heroes. The Spartans, who built very few monuments, built one to Leonidas. When Xerxes and later Alexander the Great passed through Troy, they both stopped at the tomb of Achilles. The Romans built statues of heroes from their own culture, but also from other cultures. They even had statues of past enemies (e.g., Hannibal), which is a great parallel to Americans, or "Northerners," who admire someone like Lee or Stonewall. On the walls of my office at work, I have images of Churchill, FDR, Lincoln, Stonewall, Grant, Patton, and Washington. They all have their admirable qualities along with numerous faults. However, if they were not heroes, then they would not be on my wall.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I'm currently reading "Honor - A History" by James Bowman. In the book, he discusses the "origins of the Western Honor Culture" which, of course, includes the influence of the Greeks and Romans.

Thanks for the comment.

msimons said...

I love all my childhood Hero's They gave me the courage to do things I was afraid to do. Mine range from Andrew Jackson to Stonewall to Lee. In the last Century I admire TR, Patton, Sgt York, John Wayne RR, and Col Oliver North.

I am glad I am not in college today lest I would slap some Dr. and call him out to the field of Honor.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


"They gave me the courage to do things I was afraid to do."

That is key. Thanks for the comment, slapping the Dr. notwithstanding.


Michael Aubrecht said...

Richard, I am speechless...you just spent 2,240+ words criticizing a “friend.” Well done. I’m not going to add a rebuttal on my blog this time as we tend to go around in circles nowadays. I will say that the fact we have several grown men here, all defending the retaining their same "childhood view" of historical figures sounds a tad immature in my opinion. You are so enamored by the memories of these men from your childhood that you are unable to discard these biases (and sometimes misconceptions) as grown-ups. As I stated before, I have no problem with our childhood heroes or even people that we know today being called heroes. My issue is not evolving our perspectives of these icons as adults. Many of these men ignited my interest in history that has led me to where I am today. I have retained a great deal of admiration for them. However, I am now able to see them as they truly were which makes them even more fascinating to me. My point of that ENTIRE POST is that AS ADULTS (especially as students of history), we inevitably realize that these men were men, capable of all the wrongs and ills as the rest of us. That revelation knocks them off that pedestal. I can’t help but wonder why do you gentlemen as adults still need these heroes to validate or inspire some aspect of your life? What requires you to maintain this fixation? What does a “Patton” do for you today? The only heroes I can justify as a 38-year old man is my tax accountant and the pool guy. The calamity in all of this and something that I realized very recently is that the very men we tend to project as heroes would likely reject the notion and be offended by it. Stonewall Jackson, a longtime favorite subject of yours and mine, was a humble man who would most likely accuse both of us of idol worship. Finally, and I mean this truly as a friend…I would never put such an effort into fragging you. Whatever purpose this served I hope you achieved it.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I spent 2,240+ words criticizing a friend's work and opinions though I will admit I took no joy in doing so. But let's keep the distinction. I've had very similar exchanges with family members whom I love very much. This is nothing personal, but one must do one's best to remain loyal to one's principles and convictions. My pointed defense of American heroes (and the whole concept of heroism) was not an effort to frag anyone. I was very careful to include this about you: "I know Michael to be sincere and serious about the craft [of history]. He's done some good work. I've even helped him in small ways where I could."

However, I cannot stand by and be silent when I see such distortions, slanders, and views being published.

My post has already answered your questions about what heroes do for us today. Did you read the essay by Professor Foster? He very specifically addresses that question and I agree with him.

I've also already responded (privately and here) to your other comments about my views on these historical figures. I think it's a straw man. Of course I recognize the frailties and humanity of heroes - that fact is absolutely crucial to the whole concept. We're miles apart on this Michael and I see no hope of coming to any agreement.


Michael Aubrecht said...


You contradict yourself throughout this entire post when you focus on the illustration (which I did not make but used as an example).
Here is your words:

“Washington - Drug Dealer: Yes, George Washington grew marijuana on his farm…”
“John Adams - Incest: Yes,…”
“Andrew Jackson - Murderer: … The shot did in fact kill him…”
“Thomas Jefferson - Slave Relations: There is, at least on this charge, some evidence that Jefferson may have fathered…”

Then you say “So, 3 out of 4 of these silly depictions are out and out false.”

How is that possible when you just validated them? It makes no sense and you look quite foolish here.

Scott Manning said...

Michael, you asked what a "Patton" does me today? Nostalgically, he does a lot. My interest in Patton dates back to high school when he was one of the figures that sparked my interest in history. As for his hero status, I believe he has value. Not just for me, but for others. I realize he is not perfect and understanding his traits (good and bad) is part of the joy for me. I have read his memoirs from World War II several times and understanding his experience from rise to fall to rise and fall again has been a worthwhile journey. That does not mean that he is an idol and we should emulate every one of his traits. In fact, as I have grown older, I hope I have shed most of my Patton-like traits. Still, his photo on my wall is a great conversation starter, as people are naturally attracted to prominent figures from history. I mean, he was instrumental in liberating North Africa, Sicily, and France while being one of the most flawed generals in American history. If that qualifies him as a hero, then so be it.

Outside of historical figures, my only real hero would be my dad. I hate my tax accountant.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Scott - thanks for the comment. Patton is a great example.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - I made no contradictions, if one reads the whole of my comments in context. You're grasping at straws my friend.

Michael Aubrecht said...

I respectfully disagree Richard. I think in a way your post validates my post even more. You appear to have a "yeah, but" complex going on here. Agree to the ‘black and white’ but then paint over it in gray. "Yes Washington did that but....let me rational why it’s OK to support my pov." This is just as bad as the "Civil War wasn't fought over slavery" bs that's been swirling since the 150th kicked off.

And I'm sorry but there comes an age when it's not cool to wear a sports jersey with another grown man's name on it. Same can be said for historical heroes. We grow up. What I find most curious is I can list several well published historians, multiple National Park Rangers and my favorite Civil War painter who have all personally shared this EXACT same philosophy with me. “Depict people as they are, not as you want them to be”.

I think you are allowing your personal convictions to affect how you look at these people. The time has come to get impersonal in order to truly understand your subject. This was told to me just last week by a PHD at Carnegie Mellon University who will be staying with me next spring while he conducts research at the National Archives. Trained historians live by this creed.

PS. I don’t want this to escalate into something unpleasant, so I will make this my last comment.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - as I've already noted, we're miles apart. Some of your comments here simply drop my jaw.

"Yes Washington did that but....let me rational why it’s OK to support my pov."

Washington did WHAT? Grew hemp for industrial use before marijuana was ever classified as a harmful drug and made illegal? And by that you take a 20th century law and attitude and post an image suggesting he was a "drug dealer"?!?

"And I'm sorry but there comes an age when it's not cool to wear a sports jersey with another grown man's name on it."

You are just all over the place. Where did that come from? I have said sports figures (most of them anyway) aren't heroes, they're celebrities. Professor Foster very forcefully made that same point. Big difference Michael. We're on totally different wavelengths. I have no idea where you're coming from.

"The time has come to get impersonal in order to truly understand your subject. This was told to me just last week by a PHD at Carnegie Mellon University who will be staying with me next spring while he conducts research at the National Archives. Trained historians live by this creed."

Michael - it doesn't take a PhD to figure that out. Objectivity is common sense when analyzing anyone or anything. But, we ALL approach history from a certain perspective. Anyone claiming otherwise is not being truthful.

“Depict people as they are, not as you want them to be."

I would add depict people as they were, not as moderns apply their presentism upon them in a morality play.

Scott Manning said...

As I read the back and forth between you too, I cannot help but notice that you both seem very much on the same page. You both agree that there is good and bad in historical figures. You both agree that any historical analysis should be objective. Is the only difference on whether it is okay to admire these men?

Michael Aubrecht said...

I think you misunderstood.

I just used the Washington line as it was the first in your post. It's not the weed issue at all (which I actually dig)

Its the "Ok ______ did that but....let me rational why it’s OK to support my pov." you use again and again.

And the "sports jersey" line was just another way of looking at growing up and no longer holding on to these heroes.

I really don't see the issue here. Every academic historian who ever took a 'historical analysis 101 class' in school knows this. I've just got around to accepting it as these guys know what they are talking about and make a lot more dough doing it. What are we doing all this work for anyway?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Scott - I think there are deeper differences though. It's not personal for me, though it is passionate.

Michael Aubrecht said...

I agree and thanks for the levity. Richard and I have a long background and I value his friendship greatly. The next time we see each other we will embrace. It's not personal at all here (although we can sometimes come off short-tempered). You all have offered interesting insights and I think we tend to agree more than disagree. I think this is more of me coming to terms with my own hero-issues as I become more integrated into the academic community. It’s all good men. Have a blessed Easter and we can all come back and argue about something else next month. Thanks.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - on the image - you've accused those on the right of distorting history (Tea Party), then you post a ridiculous image from what appears to be a left-leaning website - with no "critical analysis" whatsoever. You don't think that would raise eyebrows? Your concern with distortions of history, while you claim a new perspective in regards to "critical analysis", is void of any criticism of the left which has done far more damage in distorting history.

You may respond that I focus my criticism on the left - you're right, I do, and I do so intentionally. But I'm open about my perspective and the way I approach history - read my header. That being said, I do look at individual cases/examples objectively, but not without presuppositions. The general philosophy and principles reflected in our founding documents and by our founders - limited government, individual liberty, and Judeo-Christian principles - form the foundation of my presuppositions on American history. Furthermore, I believe these views are correct and FAR superior to the statist, socialist, liberty-stifling principles being advocated by the left. I honestly don't know how anyone who OBJECTIVELY looks at the landscape of world history and the trash heap that rots under statism and totalitarian regimes could come to any other conclusion. What is liberating to me, is that I have no problem or shame being open about that. As a matter of fact, I'm proud of what our founders believed and did their best to establish - a constitutional republic - warts and imperfections notwithstanding. Their brilliance, convictions, courage, and selfless sacrifice make them heroes in my sight, even if I'm the only one left who believes it.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Happy Easter to you too Michael. His resurrection gives us assurance for a brighter and peaceful eternity.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"The next time we see each other we will embrace."

Hey, watch it. No man hugs - let's keep it at a firm handshake, a smile, and a slap on the back.


13thBama said...

Mr. Williams

Before a government can be changed, enough people need to be "nudged" into believing the one they have is bad and that it was created by bad people. Attack the founders and the foundation.

I swore an oath to this country. Even though I am now a civilian, that oath still stands "...against foreign AND domestic."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

13B - I don't believe Michael is part of that mindset, which is why I assume he's been beguiled into this "critical analysis perspective" but you are quite correct. This is a stated goal of the progressives and the Soros crowd. They've admitted it over and over. The radical left has ripped off the mask.

Anonymous said...

Is this what you have to do to get anywhere in the publishing world?

I suppose it is full of left-wingers just like academia and Hollywood. Actors who hold conservative views are not wont to express them.

Remember when Mel Gibson got in trouble because of a drinking binge? Right afterward he started spouting left-wing causes- "against the war, etc." I guess he wanted to hold his place in Hollywood.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael's post troubled me, but I won't judge his motives.

Michael Aubrecht said...

I've never had problems publishing anything (6 books, 1 film and about 300 articles before I'm even 39). I guess I've turned into one of those evil "leftists" that you speak of. :)

13thBama said...

and modest too.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

13B - Michael is accomplished. No problem w/him crowing a bit, though, again, his recent turn puts me at odds with some of his perspectives.

Michael Aubrecht said...

I was just playfully replying to the comment above that says "Is this what you have to do to get anywhere in the publishing world?" That's all.