16 August 2007

Superman has left the building

A discussion thread has been weaving its way through recent conversations, sometimes above ground as in the Thinking through my fingers post "Pulling pieces together" (and originating, as credited there, with the Freakonomics post "How much does the president really matter?" by Stephen J. Dubner) and sometimes in private or group emails started by TTMF's regular commenter Mac. It concerns the "great man theory" or "superman theory" (please yourself) of history, which Dubner dates from Carlyle (debatable, but not crucial here).

This view of history as a sort of relay race in which the world is passed (or wrest) from one towering figure to another across the years has far less currency in European thinking than in the US. This wasn't always so: it has come about in my lifetime. My friend and watchful guardian against intellectual laziness, Frank Jones, points out to me that this is probably because the US came out better than Europe from a conflict (the 1939-45 war) which was portrayed in broad brush 19th century Great Man terms - Hitler on one side, the Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin triumvirate on the other. But at a level below thinking, it is everywhere extremely durable. As Jim Putnam comments, "It almost seems as if we/they want to have a ruler, good or bad." I'd personally delete the word 'almost'.

It's not just in political leadership either. It's everywhere and everything. Read a popular history of science, and it seems as though we would still be homeless animists but for the good fortune of crucial men (always men, never women!) being born at crucial moments - from Anaximander to Einstein. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Elvis Presley; and received opinion would have us believe that Elvis single handedly changed music. Historians, post 1950s especially European historians, see it more soberly (if, perhaps, less dramatically and less interestingly).

The swell of scientific discovery made it inevitable that we would come to understand light, colour, gravity, motion, thermodynamics, the infinitesimal calculus. If Newton had died in infancy, others would pretty soon have provided the same insights. In fact, Leibnitz (for example) did crack the calculus at about the same time - though we rarely hear about it because it detracts from a good story. Popular culture in the 1950s was ripe for something new; if Elvis hadn't been there, Phillips and Parker (or some other promoter) would have found someone else to provide it. The same is true of the Beatles, and any other seminal performance you care to name.

The single heroic figure is a staple of fiction - inevitably, since art reflects the pure form of how we see our world and ourselves. Superman is the emblematic form of all "great men", making might and right the same thing and using the first to serve the second. Yesterday I went with my stepdaughter's two boys to see The Simpsons Movie ... and even dysfunctional slob Homer becomes the great man, saving the world (or, at least, the bit of it which he has selfishly polluted) by a personal heroic action.

One reason I like the Harry Potter books is that, although Harry himself is a hero figure whose courage and moral steadfastness carry the day, he is always and explicitly dependent on the staunchness of those around him: Hermione, without whom he would get nowhere, Ron whose feet of clay are always return to the path of loyalty, Neville the figure of fun who insists on that all must be part of what is to be done, Snape who turns from evil to good because of love ... Harry may be central, but the evil is defeated only because everyone around him also refuses to bow to Voldemort.

If Hitler hadn't been around, the people of a demoralised Germany, disillusioned by the failure of the Weimar republic to mend their ills, would have found some other charismatic thug to make the promises they needed to hear ... and make scapegoats pay ... and invade other territories to generate the necessary economic underpinning for it all. Britain would have found another orator to be the public mouthpiece of grim necessity. Some other US president would have played much the same game, and gathered much the same legacy. And some other monster (Beria, perhaps?) would have stepped up to fill the shoes of the departed Tsars and their successors in terror if Stalin had failed to show up.

There are, of course, times when a single decisive decision maker is more effective than a committee ... but they are rarer than we think. A long time ago, and a long way away, I once had the opportunity to watch for a while as a small guerrilla army fought a superpower. They didn't have any of the military structures, ranks, or disciplinary codes that we associate with successful armies. They elected their officers as and when needed, and those elected had to request, not order, their followers to do things. I more than once saw the equivalent of a platoon commander demoted and replaced in the middle of a firefight. And, despite what you are thinking, they won ... sadly, in the peace that followed, they discovered the concept of great men and rulers.

A US president can, in theory at least, wipe out the world with the push of a button; even I would have to admit that that is a pretty decisive historical influence by one person ... but, it hasn't happened, has it? And presidents don't, in practice, make decisions alone - they are simply the face and voice of a whole convoluted and inertia prone administration without which they cannot (short of Armageddon) achieve very much. Even dictators can only dictate because their power structures don't depose them. And power structures remain powerful because most people allow them to do so.

There are, in reality, no great men; they exist only in the heads of small ones - in the heads, in other words, of people like me when we do not feel like taking responsibility for the world which we are, day by day, allowing to be made.

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