Beware of Icons but Not of Complex Journalism

One of the finest pieces of journalism I have read in a while appeared in the New Yorker recently by storyteller extraordinaire David Grann about William Alexander Morgan, the gringo comandante of the Cuban revolution, who rose to folk hero heights during the anti-Batista days but then died by execution squad in Cuba's tumultuous transition to socialist rule.

By Grann's analysis, it was the widely hailed and sacred from the left Che Guevara whose rigid revolutionary orthodoxy led to Morgan's marginalization and then when he resisted, downfall.

He points to this quote by Guevara in explaining why those who weren't hardline communists in the struggle needed to be eliminated.

“By their presence, they showed us our sin—the sin of compromise . . . in the face of the actual or potential traitor, in the face of those weak in spirit, in the face of the coward. Revolutionary conduct is the mirror of revolutionary faith, and when someone calls himself a revolutionary and does not act as one, he can be nothing more than heretical. Let them hang together.”

This led me to think of the danger of hero worship and making icons out of historical figures, dead or alive.

A second example which comes to mind is Nelson Mandela, who is treated by many in South Africa and elsewhere as a quasi religious figure, even though he had many faults, made many mistakes, and disappointed scores of people.

Showing the complexity of a person's ups and downs, as Grann does brilliantly with Morgan, is much more interesting, and beneficial to all. I wish there were more Morgans out there, and fewer so called icons.

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