The phrase “never meet your heroes” has an indistinct origin. There is no certainty in where it came from but, as with most statements that bear some timeless truth, it has likely been said one way or another since people first began idolizing other people.
I believe in the truth in this statement but it is important to note that its truth hinges on both the subject and the predicate – that is to say the hero and the act of meeting said hero. When we meet another we bring ourselves into this meeting, we bring our biases, preconceptions, filters etc. A hero is only a hero because of the one(s) who worships them and the expectations and beliefs they endow them with.
Today I read an article in the New Yorker about Flannery O’Connor entitled How Racist was Flannery O’Connor and it seems the answer to that question is – pretty racist.
Apologist have sprung up like weeds to point our various and obvious things like “she lived in a different time” blah, blah, blah. To which myself and others would point out that so did so many others who were not racist.
I bring to this conversation an admiration of Flannery O’Connor’s work. At least I did. Now what I bring is an appreciation of the work and a newfound struggle to enjoy it. At what point do you say that we should not hold the past accountable to today’s morality?
I do not know the answer to that question. Everything is subject to who we are. I can appreciate Shakespeare and The Merchant of Venice but I cannot enjoy it. The caricature of the greedy, merciless, literally blood thirty Jew has done so much harm throughout history that one cannot condone or enjoy the portrayal just as one cannot enjoy the passion plays that continue even to this day in Europe and elsewhere as they present an image of Jews as murderers of the Christian god.
I don’t care when these things occurred I cannot enjoy them.
In the same way I cannot enjoy the music of Wagner though I am forced to admit its quality. Wagner wrote too much about the need for Jews, Jewishness and Judaism to “go away” and of its “negative” influence on German culture and music to be ignored regardless of his motives.
In the same way, while I can intellectually comprehend the use of the swastika as a religious symbol for thousands of years, I cannot endorse or understand its use today because of its co-opting by the Nazis. The symbol is not too loaded with ideologies of racism, intolerance, and death to be worthy of resuce.
Now with all of this being said I do not advocate for the destruction of Wagner’s, O’Connor’s, or Shakespeare’s work – but rather that it be taught and understood within the framework of the artist’s beliefs and ideologies. The works themselves can no longer stand on their own for we know too much. Any such effort would be an exercise in willful ignorance – the opposite of what education is supposed to be about.
And so I am saddened as another star in my sky’s small pantheon has grown dim as a result of having come to “meet my hero” but not so sad as to agree with the statement “never meet your heroes” or else we doom ourselves to live in that ignorance we just railed against.
We find ourselves increasingly in agreement with the author of Ecclesiastes 1:18 when they said “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”