Rik Worth 17th June 2020
The rock critic Lester Bangs was a rambling, addled, mess of a man whose journalism frequently featured casual racial insults. In that sense, he was similar to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
But one of many ways Bangs differs from Boris is that he eventually recognised his racism. His 1979 essay, The White Noise Supremacist is a tough read which takes on liberal complacency in systematic racism — “maybe the greater evil occurs when you refuse to recognize that the poison exists. In other words, when you assent by passivity or indifference”. And he fundamentally opposed idol worship, writing: “A hero is a goddamn stupid thing to have”. Something Johnson should probably consider.
As you know, Johnson’s hero is Winston Churchill. The prime minister who protected Britain from Hitler, killed three million Bengali Indians and who is supposedly the target of nasty campaign wishing the removal of his statue. Johnson penned a defence of his sweet prince in a Telegraph article-cum-Government update where he asked: “Why attack Churchill?” knowing full well it was Churchill’s act of genocide that has people riled up. Johnson also wrote: “ I will resist with every breath in my body any attempt to remove that statue from Parliament Square.”
If you don’t create political heroes like this, you don’t have to find yourself in the position of dismissing or downplaying genocide
Now, I’m not making the case that discussions about historical figures and morality can’t be difficult, but when we make political figures into heroes beyond reproach, you don’t accept the complexity of history. You are weighing up one set of actions against another, in this case potentially saving Britain from the Nazis (the liberation of Europe required American help and it was Stalin, another history bastard, who invaded Berlin) against millions of deaths in India and decide the good is all that matters. It’s so reductive an appraisal of history it becomes worthless. And it’s just foolish to boot.
If you don’t create political heroes like this, you don’t have to find yourself in the position of dismissing or downplaying genocide.
On the other hand, take The Cenotaph. It was also boarded up at the weekend to protect it against the hilariously named “left-waffe”. But no one seems to be panicking its removal is being demanded. That’s because it represents the collective sacrifice of people across Britain and the commonwealth, not one man’s actions.
It would be insane to think everyone fighting the Axis forces was a good person, (Churchill is the perfect example) but we largely agree the historic group action was good. Unfortunate cases of the Cenotaph being graffitied aside, left and right seem to agree it’s a good thing to commemorate. And it’s important to remember, Churchill came out of the war relatively alive and, as much as he did to win the war, we might argue that any one person who died is more heroic and we should focus our endless reminiscing about winning the war on the diverse collective, rather than the reduced individual.
In that vein, you may have seen people wringing their hands of the idea of removing Churchill as being unpatriotic. Again, the lionising of a single figure pins patriotism to the reverence of a single figure, a compromised figure.
A patriotism based on a single hero who can’t be understood as anything other than good, isn’t patriotism. It’s religion
A patriotism based on a single hero who can’t be understood as anything other than good, isn’t patriotism. It’s religion. It’s the building of a mythological figure, only we tend to accept that actual mythological figures are deeply flawed. Creating a hero and making them the figure of patriotism says: “To be British is to love this man, this man did no wrong, therefore being British is synonymous with doing no wrong.” That’s nationalism.
And it’s not just the right-wing and the “true patriots” who fall for this trap. My particular social media bubble floats distinctly in the left-hand side of the political bubble bath. This means I see a lot of commentaries crying that had Jeremy Corbyn won the elections, everything would be infinitely better and Kier Starmer heralds the end of Corbyn project. Now, at one time I too idolised Corbyn. I even wrote a gag-strip for Self Made Hero’s The Corbyn Comic, a contribution I don’t mind admitting I’m somewhat embarrassed by now.
But these alternative, Corbyn-based realities and dismay that the dream is overcome from the same place of turning politicians, a function of the will of the people, into heroes. By holding onto the idea of Corbyn in that way, which incidentally exacerbated the antisemitism row, undermines the concept that Corbyn’s ideas don’t need Corbyn to survive. The people who supported those ideas can take them forward. Want proof? Look at the Black Lives Matter movement.
This isn’t to undermine the founding of BLM by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi and the hard work of activist organisers across the world who are putting together protests, nor that the protestors are brave (and thus, heroic) to face down pepper spray in the name of something worthwhile. But BLM doesn’t have a single, head figure or spokesperson who is cast as the hero responsible for the movement’s entire hopes and progress.
Admirable people are doing great work and leading the movement, but I’ve haven’t yet seen some made into a hero, not in the sense we’re talking about here. And BLM has been making a change. In the US states are reaccessing how their police forces function, in the UK, councils are voluntarily changing the culture of our landscape and there are calls for more education about Britain’s immensely racist past. And, although we’ve yet to see what it’s results are, BLM has engaged the public in a way has white liberals like me buying books about racism and saying to ourselves, “ I think I’m part of the problem. How do I learn how to be better?”
Heroes tell us we’re right to believe what we already believe. They are lazy, simple icons which remove our responsibility to question our shared history and absolve us of the onus to do anything about the future.
Movements create change.
All of which brings me back to Bang’s facing his own complicit racism and his opinion on heroes. Because what he actually wrote in full was, “A hero is a goddamn stupid thing to have in the first place and a general block to anything you might wanta accomplish on your own”.
Rik Worth 17th June 2020