About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Crying for Suharto?
Yes, Suharto also did some good, such as it was, like leading Indonesia out of a bad economic turn in the ‘60s, and making it again a member of the United Nations. But by that standard Mussolini was also a pretty good guy: he promoted a lot of public works, including the cleaning up of the malaria swamps south of Rome.
I’m always puzzled by displays of mass emotion when someone famous dies. I saw people crying at Nixon’s funeral, despite the fact that he was arguably the most disgraceful President this country has ever had (George W. beats him handily, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like he’s going to step down before the end of his term). And, of course, we also witness similar scenes for the death of pop icons, from Elvis Presley to Princess D. Yes, Diana was a tragic figure who tried to do some good, but does that explain the obsession with her death and a display of hysterical grief that most people don’t reserve even for close family members? Elvis arguably revolutionized modern music (a good thing or not, depending on your taste), but does that justify the sometimes supernatural aura that surrounds his figure?
The fact that people seem to be in such desperate need of heros, no matter how undeserving the people being idolized may be, should be deeply disturbing. Someone once wrote that a mature nation is one that does not need heroes; if so, no nation in the history of the world has yet reached maturity, though clearly some are at an earlier stage of arrested development than others.
What we do need are role models, inspiring figures. It is important for human beings to see that someone just like us has made some important and worthwhile contribution to the world -- and I’m talking about accomplishments a bit more relevant than winning the Super Bowl or hitting the top of the pop charts. But a hero is something superhuman, it is an almost god-like figure that doesn’t inspire as much as require adoration. And that’s the crucial line to draw: inspiration is a positive force in human affairs, but adoration is diminishing and childish. Role models are complex individuals: they achieve great heights, but they are also human beings with the same recognizable faults we all have. Heros, on the other hand, are the stuff of military propaganda, religions and Hollywood movies: they are make believe and they are an insult to our intelligence.