Heroes or role models?
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
Some mother countries do ‘ave ’em. Michael Crawford, best known as gormless Frank Spencer in a Seventies sitcom (motto: ‘Ooh Betty, it’s done a whoopsie in my beret’) stands proudly at number 17 in the BBC poll of Great Britons.
Sir Alexander Fleming, whose whoopsie in a Petri dish led merely to the discovery of penicillin, lags a respectful distance behind him in twentieth place.
A glance down the list of those whom the public have voted our 100 greatest Britons suggests how puerile such an exercise is. I was particularly taken with the barmy incongruity of a sequence in the mid-forties – John Peel, John Logie Baird, Aneurin Bevan, Boy George, Sir Douglas Bader – and another in the fifties – Enoch Powell, Sir Cliff Richard, Alexander Graham Bell, Freddie Mercury. If there is an awards ceremony in the afterlife, those groups should make interesting table companions.
Yet despite being a risible excuse for history, the Great Britons documentary series and the increasingly heated debate around it reveals something important about the here and now. Even as it tries to define greatness, it confirms ours as an anti-heroic age.
Most of the programmes seem determined to demonstrate the a-historical ordinariness of those they are supposed to champion. Last Friday’s show compared Shakespeare to today’s soap-opera scriptwriters. The Nelson one was mostly gossip about his sex life, while his victories were illustrated by David Beckham (Great Briton number 33) scoring a goal. Cromwell was depicted as some sort of prototype Daily Mail reader from Middle England, his ride to London to take power compared to moving house to start a new job today. And Diana, Princess of Wales, was of course everywoman in a designer frock.
It appears that we are suffering a failure of historical imagination. We look around at the sorry state of our public life, at the disrepute into which so many of the alleged great and good have fallen. Then, rereading history backwards, we conclude that the heroes of yesteryear cannot have been as great as we were led to believe. Through a combination of cynicism and self-flattery, we put their accomplishments on a par with the banalities of contemporary celebrity culture. (Even the otherwise-straight Brunel show claimed that Victorian engineers were ‘like rock ‘n’ roll gods’.)
Great heroes seem hard to find today, even in the military sphere. The weekend’s Remembrance events reminded one of the difference between the selfless sacrifices of the past, and the present-day atmosphere in which veterans are suing the Government for sending them into a war zone, while the US pursues what one expert calls a ‘post-heroic’ military strategy, based on bombing everything from a great height.
Heroism is now largely the preserve of Hollywood, which is presumably why Saturday’s Remembrance concert starred the theme tune from Band of Brothers, the fictional television series about US soldiers in the Second World War.
Instead of heroes who can change the world, the demand today is for role models who can mind their p’s and q’s. As the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, declared during recent sex and drugs scandals: ‘It is important to remember that, in public life, you are a role model, for better or worse.’ Yet how many of the BBC’s Great Britons could pass the Jowell test posthumously? Churchill? A drunk and a chauvinist pig. Nelson? An adulterer. Lennon? A dope-head. Diana? All fur coat and no knickers. Cromwell? An anti-Irish racist. Sack the lot of them and get the Sunday papers on the phone.
Heroes should be defined by their achievements, inspiring us to raise our sights and think ‘I want to be like them’. Role models, by contrast, are defined by their personal habits, and only invite the complacent conclusion that ‘they are just like me’.
The cheapening of greatness is not just about ruining a few old reputations. More importantly, it reflects the lowering of all our aspirations and expectations. Today we seem to value suffering and victimhood over old-fashioned notions of heroism, seeing ourselves as the objects of history to whom things happen rather than subjects who can shape our collective destiny. Every cultural message appears to emphasise human vulnerability rather than resilience. Little wonder Diana, patron saint of victims, has done so well in that BBC poll.
As I write, the other front-runners are Brunel and Churchill. One can only guess what those iconic cigar-chomping history-makers would have made of a society in which we are deemed so pathetic that, according to the British Medical Association, smoking must now be banned in all public places. It’s not passive smoking that is the problem, but passive living.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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