Every country needs a hero. That is what most school teachers say. But why? What for? Is it because a country needs to promote their own good traits, and say to the world that no matter what, they still have citizens who they can be proud of?
So, the United Kingdom has Winston Churchill as their most popular hero — because he courageously refused to bow to the German authoritarian regime and this saved his country from the despotism of the Nazis. His principles and bravery in defending humanity against all odds, they say, make him a big politician in British history.
But a hero in one country may not be a hero in another. Churchill's persistence in facing the German Nazis was highly respected. But what did he do for India? He was rather reluctant to give India its independence and even called Mahatma Gandhi a half-naked kafir. In fact, Churchill thought it was rather "alarming and nauseating" to see Gandhi, who refused to dress in western clothes when he met Churchill for their official peace talks.
One who is considered a hero by some, can be a criminal to the other. John McCain may be considered a war hero by many Americans, however, he may not be one for the millions of Vietnamese who he shot and killed. Gen. Telford Taylor, a chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg, stated that during that war, several American pilots conducted indiscriminate bombings that caused the loss of civilian lives.
An eager opponent of the Vietnam War, Telford Taylor wanted to bring these "bombers" to trial for violating the Geneva Convention. The name "John McCain" would most probably have been among the group Telford Taylor wanted to prosecute.
For this reason, many scholars and critics have expressed their cynicism of the idea of a hero. Karl Marx once said history was determined by massive social forces at play in class struggles, not by individuals by whom these forces are played out. In other words, the changes in society do not usually depend on the merits of one individual, but on the collaboration of a community.
It is not, after all, because of the efforts of Barrack Obama alone that he can now be the first black president of the United States. Before him, there were sacrifices and struggles of so many black people like Daisy Bates, Martin Luther King, Rev. Jesse Jackson and the nameless others who were around and behind them.
Daisy Bates, a black activist, published a local newspaper to reveal unfairness against black people at schools. She was eventually elected president of the Arkansas State Conference in 1952. Her struggle, however, was somewhat inspired by her mother, who was killed because of fighting against three white men who attempted to rape her. Yet, her mother's name is rarely mentioned or even heard of.
After Daisy Bates, Martin Luther King led the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and strived for equal rights for Black people in America. However, beside Martin Luther, it was his wife Coretta Scott whose name is not half as popular as her husband's, who provided him with support and encouragement.
After the death of her husband, Coretta Scott took on the leadership and continued being active in politics until her death in 2006. Their efforts undoubtedly opened up the way for Rev. Jesse Jackson to be a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. These people, together with others who have been tortured, beaten and killed for Black equality in the United States, made it possible for someone like Obama to be in the White House now.
Indeed, there have been millions of nameless people who made sacrifices before an individual could take the reward for the long struggle. However, these people who opened the way died and are often forgotten. Yet, the public still need an individual who they can call a hero — who they adore.
But let us not idealize anyone too much, or too highly. And I do believe that even if the title "hero" must be awarded to an individual, any award should be given to someone whose name has not been paid much attention to by the public. Someone who has done so much work and sweated so much, quietly.
Giving an award to a person who has enjoyed a celebrity status is like giving an ice cream to a rich kid. Oh yes, this kid will always be happy to get free ice cream. After all, some rich kids are so spoiled that if they cannot get what they want, they scream like crazy. But would it mean anything socially? Rich kids can buy any ice cream themselves without too much difficulty. But something extra is always flattering for them. Nothing more.
Giving an award to a celebrity like Soeharto is similar. People already know his name. He was mentioned in every corner of school, his picture was hung everywhere. Any small criticism of his name could even land you in prison back then.
I can even remember how proud one of my father's friends was after having shaken hands with him! Songs and praises of Soeharto on television and radio programs were like our daily food during the New Order period. Let us talk about his alleged corruption as well as the alleged mass murders and kidnapping of thousands of activists during his governance. His persistence in striving for grandiosity already reduced my appetite!
A real hero is one who suffers for his idealism as he dares to go against the flow. He may even be unpopular for his beliefs, and his personal career may have to fail for his efforts. If anyone is in power to give an "award", it is their duty to search for these individuals and appreciate them. For an award should make these unknown people known, and make the hidden revealed.
(was also published in Jakarta Post Dec 4, 2008)
The writer is an academic of SOAS, University of London, and a composer.