The age of heroes is over

We are all flawed.
We are all flawed.
Image: EPA/Dan Himbrechts
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Oh how the mighty keep falling. It’s been a difficult few years for cultural heroes, as a series of scandals showed that our superstar technologists, movie magnates, writers, and politicians are merely people with serious flaws. Even the memory of celebrity scientist Albert Einstein is losing its shine.

Of late, there’s been nothing but bad news for the once-beloved genius. In May, publication of Einstein’s 1920s travel diaries revealed that the scientist made racist and xenophobic comments about the people he encountered abroad, particularly in China. And in June, a paper in Physics in Perspective (paywall) argued that Einstein wasn’t quite the mythic physicist that pop culture has made him out to be.

University of the Sciences in Philadelphia physics professor and author Paul Halpern writes that the physicist’s early work really did change the world. But even after Einstein stopped meaningfully contributing to the advancement of physics, his later work was sensationalized by a bedazzled press and public on the basis of his celebrity.

“While Einstein became famous because of actual, verifiable achievements, such as the 1919 solar eclipse measurements of his general theory of relativity, the press maintained his fame for many decades thereafter by featuring story after story about his unified field theory attempts,” Halpern tells Quartz. The problem is that these theories couldn’t be proven, and Einstein’s later efforts each ended in failure, says Halpern. Meanwhile, the press ignored other important scientific advances by less famous physicists.

The result was that the public came to understand science as a one-man revolution—not as a cumulative, collective effort.

“Einstein himself recognized this effect,” Halpern writes in his paper. “Paradoxically, while he filled the press’s hunger for updates on his quest, he also decried their gluttony for news.” In 1947, after the press reported on a supposed breakthrough in unifying the natural forces by Erwin Schrödinger (of cat fame), Einstein criticized journalists for misleading people about the character of research, writing:

The reader gets the impression that every five minutes there is a revolution in science, somewhat like the coup d’etat in some of the smaller unstable republics. In reality one has in theoretical science a process of development to which the best brains of successive generations add by untiring labor, and so slowly leads to a deeper conception of the laws of nature.

Einstein’s contribution to our understanding of those laws was admirable, says Halpern. However, that’s not really why the public loved him. The culture had its own reasons for idolizing the German exile—basically, how liking Einstein made people feel about themselves.

The physicist’s likable shock of wild white hair and his European accent satisfied many Americans’ need to not feel xenophobic in a time when there was a strong current of anti-foreigner rhetoric running through the culture, Halpern contends. By admiring the celebrity scientist, people could reassure themselves that they didn’t dislike all foreigners—just those who failed to win a Nobel Prize.

Halpern’s not saying we should stop admiring Einstein altogether. But he does point to the dangers of creating celebrity scientists and mythic figures more generally. When an author, activist, or politician produces important work, both the public and the media tend to venerate them as personalities. Then we’re disappointed to discover that these seeming gods turn out to be mere mortals with lots of flaws.

Heroes can inspire people. But it’s important to realize their limitations, both personal and professional. “One might study their strengths,” Halpern tells Quartz. “At the same time, one must recognize that everyone has shortcomings and flaws. Einstein, for instance, made many mistakes throughout his career, and was not very kind to his wives. Yet his dedication to unravelling nature’s riddles is inspiring.”

Where’s Wilder?

It’s possible, even preferable, to recognize the great contributions that people have made without holding them up as paradigms of virtue. Not everything a talented person does is inherently awesome.

With artists and writers, the question of whether their work can withstand retrospective scrutiny becomes more complicated. Take the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books. She illuminated life on the American frontier for generations of young readers and was something of a feminist voice, relative to her time, creating defiant and strong female characters that many young girls admired.

However, Wilder’s writing is also culturally insensitive. Her treatment—or lack thereof— of the frontier’s indigenous people leaves a lot to be desired, and now her name has been removed from the Association for Library Service to Children’s prestigious writing prize. The ALSC explains that Wilder’s work “includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”

The decision is perhaps overdue, as Wilder’s writing has long been criticized for its characterizations of Native Americans, even when she was alive. The Weekly Standard reports that in the 1950s, the author consented to have a line rewritten in subsequent editions because it drew reader criticism. Wilder originally wrote, “The land was level, and there were no trees . . . there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” She told Harper Collins that she didn’t intend to ignore the humanity of Native Americans; now the description reads simply, “There were no settlers.”

What isn’t solved by removing the name from the prize or changing some of Wilder’s writing, however, is the question of whether, and how, to read problematic works of the past. Wilder was describing the mentality of frontier settlers, so her fiction serves as a window on to American history, one that children need to understand to make sense of a nation still grappling with racism of the past and its continued effects today.

Gatekeepers like the American Library Association “should encourage children to read all our provocative classics—critically,” argues Wilder biographer Caroline Fraser in The Washington Post (paywall). Fraser is the author of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She contends that removing classic works from the literary canon is a mistake because doing so erases the past, rather than fixing it.

Instead, “every American—including the children who read her books—should learn the harsh history behind her work. Vividly, unforgettably, it still tells truths about white settlement, homesteading and the violent appropriation of Indian land and culture,” Fraser writes.

Like Halpern, Fraser argues that cultural heroes can and should be dethroned, so that a new understanding of their work can emerge. She says that while Wilder’s memory has “been awash in sentimentality,” the work itself retains cultural value precisely because it espouses reprehensible views. Fraser doesn’t even think Wilder would have objected to her name being removed from the award, as her primary priority was to nurture children.

The write stuff?

Feminist literary critic Roxane Gay has expressed a similarly nuanced sentiment about the writing of Junot Diaz, the Dominican-American literary superstar and Pulitzer Prize winner. In 2012, she wrote of the protagonist in Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, “there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Yunior is a misogynist of the highest order…This is fiction and if people cannot be flawed in fiction there’s no place left for us to be human.”

But revelations in the wake of the #MeToo movement have led some to view Diaz’s writing in a different light—perhaps his characters were revealing something true about him, and his treatment of women.

In May, the novelist was outed for “forcibly kissing” Zinzi Clemmons and being verbally aggressive to women generally. Gay pointed out that this should come as little surprise, given his writing.

Diaz has retained his position teaching literature at MIT and remains an editor at Boston Review after both institutions found no evidence of wrongdoing in their inquiries. He vehemently denies the accusations now. But whether he’ll ever regain his reputation as an “all around good human being”—as Lauren O’Neal described him in The Rumpus in 2013—remains to be seen.

Probably not. His contribution to literature, while notable, by no means makes him a hero. In fact, even his supporters say he’s not so much an abuser as a jerk, which is becoming a critical distinction.

So perhaps one of the important lessons of the #MeToo movement is that everyone is fallible. If we didn’t make gods of the accomplished and confuse their talents with their personalities, then perhaps they would not become so revered that they can get away with abuses of power.

The future of the past

In some ways, it’s  unfair to judge bygone greats and their past works by contemporary standards. We can’t simply condemn anyone who dared to document ideas that were widely circulated in their time—especially since some works that are troubling to read today were created as criticisms of societal norms, like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which depicts American racism.

That said, going forward, we should all be more circumspect about celebrity. We’d be a lot less disappointed, distraught, and shocked by the news that society’s most successful are complex and limited people with psychological problems if we didn’t make so much ado about a few seemingly special humans.

As Halpern tells Quartz, role models are useful, and recognition of valid achievements is great. We can use the exceptional contributions of individuals to inform and inspire our dreams.

Myths about the unique and enduring genius of a few special people are not very helpful, however. Cults of personality only distract us from the great things that lesser-known people do, and offer deluded views of what it means to be human. Understanding, as we do now, that few can withstand the judgments of time or rigorous scrutiny of their personal lives, we should happily declare the age of heroes over.