I was listening to a podcast yesterday in which the host described the experience of watching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. go from being a very real person who was a political leader of the radical variety (remember, in the 1950s and 1960s, his ideas, though widely accepted five decades later, were radical) to his posthumous transformation into a white-washed hero figure. The irony is that by turning him into this heroic figure, Dr. King has been stripped of those things that truly made him a great man, as well as those warts that made him a real human being. We hear about the non-violent approach to civil rights, complete with the March on Washington and his famous "I Have a Dream Speech", but we don't hear as much about his opposition to the War in Vietnam, his criticisms of capitalism, or the fact that factions within the Federal government considered him a dangerous radical. We hear about the fact that there were those amongst the racists who wanted to kill him, but we don't often hear that there were those within the FBI who wanted him "neutralized" despite the fact that this is now public record readily accessible to anyone who is willing to look. We also strip away many of his flaws, and he was a human and like all of us had many flaws, leaving not a historical figure of great importance but an idol who could be knocked off of his pedestal should we learn of his shortcomings.
the fact of the matter is that Dr. King was someone who took controversial positions with regards to race and civil rights, yes, but also with regards to a variety of other issues. He was someone who faced the wrath of not only the rednecks, but of the G-Men. He is someone who had many flaws, some of which even the less-uptight among us would find upsetting, and yet he accomplished great things at considerable personal risk. In other words, he was a great man, but he was a man, and it is when you realize that he had the same frailties as the rest of us that the truly amazing nature of what he did becomes clear, otherwise he's just another face without depth in our public history pantheon, he ceases to have been a human and simply becomes another set of names and dates.
Dr. King is, of course, only one of many historical figures to whom this has happened. We all know of George Washington's position as a Revolutionary War general and as the first president of the United states under the Constitution, but few know of his early military failures or his rather loose social life, or, for that matter, of his troubles as a political leader after becoming president. It's hard to come out of elementary school without knowing the inspirational story of how Helen Keller learned to communicate with the outside world, but few people know that she was a suffragist, a pacifist, a socialist, a birth control supporter, and one of the founders of the ACLU. And yet, without these pieces of information, our understandings of these people and their times are incomplete. George Washington's shortcomings as a husband and his military defeats are part of the frame that shows the sort of man he was and why it was he, as opposed to others, who was suited to doing what he did. Helen Keller's early life may be the stuff of Hallmark Hall of Fame movie inspirational stories, but it is her later life, and the fact that she was an articulate person brave enough to stake out positions that were controversial at best and unpopular to the point of marking those who held them as targets for violence that made her an important historical figure - indeed, if someone only knows of her early experience with Annie Potts, one would be fair in asking why she is so famous.
This is a process called heroification. I first heard the term when reading the book History on Trial about the 1990s political fight over establishing history standards for public schools. It is a process by which actual people who achieved undeniably great things are transformed in the public consciousness from the difficult, flawed, and often controversial figures that they really were into one-dimensional idols stripped of much of their true meaning for the purpose of providing the public with an inspirational, and decidedly safer, figure. This process happens through a variety of different, concurrent, activities. Those who feel that people (especially children) need clean-cut heroes will begin shaping the mythology of the individual via writing books, articles, and using influence on school boards to push a cleaned-up version of the person's life history. The process of producing school curriculum and text books often results in controversial elements of history being downplayed or left out (which is why so many people are shocked when they find out that history was rather different, and grittier, than they had been taught in school). When these individuals die, there are few who wish to "speak ill of the dead" and as such much of the later journalism written about them will either leave out difficult information or else give it only lip service while focusing on their accomplishments (witness what happened after Reagan's death, when very few public figures, including journalists, were willing to spend much time talking about the divisive nature of many of Reagan's policies - yes, there was some discussion, but it was drowned out by the eulogizing). Much of the public, wanting to see things in terms of black and white, will latch on to the hero figure, and any criticism of the individual becomes a mark of ill character*. Over time, sometimes a very short period of time, all of these factor together remove the individuals name from the person and replace it with a calcified and inhuman false memory. Although portions of this are directed by people with a media and/or political interest, much of it just happens because, for whatever reason, it is one of the things that we humans do, we want our historical figures to be safe. It provides us with heroes to worship, but also robs us of the ability to truly believe that we might be like these flawless men and women of the past.
Of course, there is also an equal and opposite process, which you could called vilification, that also occurs. Here, rather than the uncontroversial and good being accentuated, the uncontroversially bad is accentuated. Even the difficult but true fact that the bad could sometimes serve a greater good is cast away. The accomplishments of these individuals is forgotten, and their faults remembered. As a result, we have Nixon being synonymous with Watergate, with few people (outside of those trying, just as falsely, to turn him into a hero) remembering that he had many truly great accomplishments. Stalin is remembered, legitimately, as an amoral and paranoid dictator, but few people outside of Eastern Europe realize that Stalin's brutality is arguably the thing that stopped Hitler's conquests and that the Allied Powers would have fought longer, and possibly lost, without him.
There are numerous problems with this reduction of historical figures. The primary problem is that it is simply not true, and I believe that the truth matters. All of the individuals that we cast as heroes and villains were real people, who had flaws and good points, who did good and bad - even if the good outweighed the bad or vice-versa. When we forget this, we forget the reality of our species and our history.
Another problem, perhaps a more practical one, is that in removing these figures from humanity, we reduce their abilities to inspire or warn us. It is easy to look at the caricature of Dr. King and know that one can not match it, and perhaps not bother to try when we evaluate our own flaws. But when we know of his flaws, it lets us know that our flaws shouldn't hold us back from doing great things, as they didn't hold him back. At the same time, if we view Stalin and Hitler as inhuman monsters, we fail to see that they were humans like the rest of us, and that their societies were reacting to pressures both from within and without, and that we and our society have the same potential for evil if we are not watchful. A true history of the rise of these two would see how they used and manipulated their political systems, their national narrative and mythology, and the populace for their ends, and reveals that there are politicians throughout the world capable of doing the same under the right conditions - some of them in the places where we are most certain such things could never occur.
A third problem is that this "boiling down" of historical figures contributes to the names/dates approach to history and robs us of a true understanding of the past both by making such an understanding hard to get, and by making history appear dull and uninteresting to those who might benefit from it.
In the end, nobody truly benefits from this sort of history. It may be supercicially satisfying and make these figures seem safer, but in truth it increases their danger by failing to provide real inspirational figures and failing to warn us of danger. It may make history seem more grand, but it truly makes it duller. And, ultimately, it just isn't the truth.
*I fully expect that I will get emails claiming that I am trying to tear down Dr. King or Ms. Keller, which is ironic since, knowing about their controversial positions and their flaws, I respect them more now than I did when I saw them as historical idols. Before, to me, they were just names I was forced to learn, now they are individuals who achieved great things.