Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hero or Process? The Making of Historical Turning Points

It’s been the fashion among historians of the late 20th and 21st centuries to see the momentous events of history as the product of social evolution. 

Modern historians like to deny that there are such things as heroes – despite such obvious anomalies as Alexander the Great. I doubt anyone can reasonably claim that the conquest of a region from Egypt to India was the natural evolution of the social history of Macedonia.
Yet there is validity in the view that most turning points in history gather in a long process, an evolution formed by the actions of many individuals or a shift among a people as a whole. But the denial of heroism, of the importance of individual leaders, suggests an over-reaction to the Victorian obsession with the grandeur of heroic acts.

The truth, in most instances, is a combination of both a receptive state of mind among a people and a bold (or rash) person who turns a growing disposition into action.

Major events, from social reforms to revolutions, can happen only when reality final catches up with the mood of the time. Usually when an idea growing in the hearts of a people makes the wracking process of change possible -- and some individual is frustrated or angry enough to very visibly transfer thought into action.

The list of heroes who ignited a movement that changed their country’s history is immense. But let’s look at three examples.

In 1980 Poland’s revolt against Russian dominance became active only at Lech Walesa’s rousing of his fellow workers in the shipyards of Gdanzsk. 

In the spring of 1775 George Washington attended the convening of colonial Virginia’s House of Burgesses dressed in his uniform from the French and Indian War and announced he would raise an army at his own expense to protest England’s oppressions of her colonies. That rash offer made the raising of the Americans’ Continental Army a possibility, and that army, under Washington’s leadership, eventually won the colonies’ freedom. 

In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Her arrest provided the Reverend Martin Luther King with occasion to call a boycott of buses – and the American Civil Rights movement was started.

While the spirit of revolt was not of Rosa Park’s or Martin Luther King’s creating, nor of Lech Walesa’s, nor George Washington’s, those movements that achieved change probably would not have acquired focus without their actions.

In recent years we’ve seen movements without apparent leaders. The advent of social media such as Twitter may be the means for mass coordinated action without requiring a leader. So we may be seeing the end of the age of the hero. 

Indeed, with the leaders of nations taking on exceedingly generous interpretations of their offices, we may be approaching a time when the highly visible leader is identified with oppression – with willful actions counter to the desires of the people.

There have always been anti-heroes: the man of power who wields his capabilities according to his own desires and notions. And perhaps the fashion in the scholarly world to deny heroes as the cause of great changes, while not really accurate, is wholesome. 

Mankind has been experimenting with the problem of government ever since our evolution from herd animals. The experiment goes on. 

Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series 

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series