Mises Wire

How Should a Nation Determine Its Heroes?

Myths are crucial for nations to develop a sense of identity and civic pride. In many countries, national myths are centered around the charisma of heroes. Heroes are depicted as phenomenal individuals who uplift society through their determination and self-sacrifice. An empirical survey conducted by Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals demonstrated that participants associated heroism with eight adjectives: intelligent, strong, reliable, resilient, caring, charismatic, selfless, and inspiring.

Of all these characteristics, self-sacrifice seems to be the one most prominently linked to heroism. Typically, it’s assumed that the failure to exhibit self-sacrifice makes one ineligible to become a hero. Because of this perception, heroes are primarily political and military figures, but Barbados deviated from the norm in 2021 when the state officially declared pop star Rihanna a national hero.

This ignited debates in Jamaica about the suitability of declaring reggae icon Bob Marley a national hero. Marley’s status has made Jamaica a cultural superpower, and out of reverence for the late icon, some Jamaicans argue that he should be recognized as a national hero. Although entertainers like Rihanna and Bob Marley have improved the well-being of millions through their music, critics contend that such people are unqualified to be styled as heroes because their contributions do not reflect the sort of sacrifice people normally associate with heroism.

Critics are correct that Bob Marley and Rihanna are ineligible to become heroes, but their reasoning is flawed. Entertainment is important, but it cannot be a country’s highest value. Furthermore, it is also a matter of taste; to some people, Rihanna is a great singer, yet to others, she is bland. Meanwhile, while Bob Marley is heralded as a revolutionary for his socially conscious songs, some disagree with his endorsement of Rastafarianism and what they consider to be anti-Christian values.

Seeing as art is usually controversial, any proposal to make an entertainer a national hero will lead to an uproar. Yet this does not suggest that entertainers are always unfit to become heroes. If they pursue activities that lead to the advancement of society, then they are eligible for heroic status. So, a poet whose works and political engagement result in improved social and economic conditions is a suitable candidate for the honor of being named a national hero.

People find the image of a person who sacrificed himself for the greater good to be quite mesmerizing, but self-sacrifice alone cannot be the measure of a national hero. Most people can understand a man’s sacrificing his life to save his child, since biologically humans are wired to perpetuate their genes. Outside of this context, however, self- sacrifice can be detrimental to individuals and society.

Throughout history, people have sacrificed themselves for dangerous and foolish causes. Millions, for example, died under Communist regimes, yet the fatalities did not deter their sympathizers and activists. One can sacrifice oneself for a cause without advancing society or freedom; therefore, self-sacrifice is not inherently noble. Surprisingly, although philosophers and innovators advance society, many of them are not considered heroes. The ideas of men like Adam Smith, Baron de Montesquieu, and John Locke have fundamentally transformed how we think about politics and economics, and yet none of them were martyred for expressing their beliefs. Their promarket writings on economics and governance have positively influenced numerous societies, but people rarely describe these men as heroes. Likewise, the inventions of James Watt and Richard Arkwright spurred the Industrial Revolution, thereby initiating long-term economic growth and a steady rise in living standards, but Watt and Arkwright are respected as world-class inventors rather than heroes, even though society is better off because of their industrial prowess.

It’s quite unfortunate that in several cases, those who have been named heroes made their societies worse off. For instance, in Jamaica, Paul Bogle was posthumously rewarded for his influence in the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion.

The horrendous social and economic conditions in nineteenth-century Jamaica justified the anger of the black Jamaicans; however, Bogle’s incendiary rhetoric incited the violence that led to the rebellion and the brutal response of Governor Edward Eyre. Due to his vicious response, Eyre was later relieved of his duties, but many innocent Jamaicans who did not participate in the rebellion experienced his vengeance. People lost their properties, livestock, and homes because of the leadership of Paul Bogle.

Bogle was executed for his role in the revolution and today is cherished as a national hero for sacrificing his life. But Bogle did not die for a noble cause, since the people of Saint Thomas Parish were made worse off because of the rebellion. Bogle was described as a “dangerous man” by the Jamaican historian Douglas Hall in his classic book Free Jamaica, and for years, the Bogle name invited reproach in Saint Thomas. Admittedly, advocating for reforms would have resulted in slower progress, but legal advocacy is a superior option to violent rebellions.

To the average citizen, people like Paul Bogle are appealing due to their flamboyance and mystique, but those who do not uplift society through their sacrifice are unworthy to be named heroes. People should never be rewarded for making society worse off. Those who derail progress by sacrificing themselves for flippant causes are misguided villains rather than heroes.

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