The Tiresome Fad of Giant-Killing

After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

- Luke 5:4-8

There once was a time when giant-killers impressed me. Once…but I was much younger than I am now. Exposed to “the Greats” in high school and college, it was hard not to become enamored with the vision of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, inspired by the courage of Churchill, Thatcher and Walesa and moved by the determination of Gandhi, King and Mother Teresa. These lives made me want to learn more, do more and be more. That is until I encountered the work of the giant-killers.

Killing giants has become an industry akin to the muckraking journalism of a century ago. Once upon a time, we were taught about the intrepid muckraking writers who exposed abhorrent working conditions and led to much-needed reform in numerous industries. It is difficult to argue against the reform of work standards ensuring that young children weren’t working endless hours for little pay in unsafe environments. However, the progeny of this muckraking ethic may have proven less than salutary. While some modern journalism has revealed outrages such as the unconscionable conditions at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a great deal of investigative reporting has seemed intent on creating a tempest in a teapot well-supported by hidden cameras and aggressive door-knocking. To make things worse, many such stories feature research that is shoddy, truth that is obscured and a few lives that are needlessly ruined. If you doubt this, sit in the room with a person well-versed in the industry in question (law, medicine, engineering, education, ministry, etc.) as the investigative report unfolds and see how they react. More often than not, they will shake their head and suggest several facts overlooked and several questions unexplored (if even considered). But in the fearless world of reporting, these considerations are of secondary importance. After all, there are awards to win and commercial air time to sell. If the news isn’t there, it is important to create it.

So that leads us to giant-killing. Giant-killing is a derivative of muckraking. Rather, it may be considered the “muckraking of biography”. It is a worldview and enterprise trading in the fallibility of heroes and legends. Giant-killers revel in the empty pedestal – having knocked legends off of it (unless the giant-killers, themselves, are hoisted up – reluctantly, of course – in place of their quarry). Giant-killers find flaws and draw caricatures intent on repelling us with the grotesque that we once thought was our hero. Cartoon caricaturists are quite honest. They plainly know that the oversized ears, close-set eyes and clownishly-large feet of their subject is no true representation. Giant-killers, however, are determined to convince their readers that the oversized failings of their subject are indeed the unvarnished truth.

As a young man, I came across the writings of the giant-killers and I was devastated. How could Lincoln have campaigned on abolition in the North and against it in the South? What would possess the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to have extramarital affairs? Wasn’t it bad enough that Jefferson owned slaves, but that he also fathered a child with one? Was Churchill really a self-serving glory-hound who neglected his children in ways similar to the painful neglect he endured from his father? Needless to say, exploring the legendary figures beyond the cursory exposure from our schooldays will bring us greater detail and more mature content. It is unsurprising and appropriate that we should learn that they are, indeed, human with failings and flaws in tandem with their virtues. But giant-killers don’t simply reveal the flaws as part of the individual’s whole; they argue that the flaws define the individual. There seems to be a zeal to disproportionately enlarge weaknesses. As such, the giant-killer is lauded as hero for defiantly dispatching the giant and “setting the record straight”. Cynically and arrogantly they leave the field with destruction in their wake, reveling in their lack of mercy while seeking another giant to kill.

In 2002, Christopher Hitchens (for whom I have a modicum of respect in spite of our diametrically-opposed religious worldview as I hope is evident in my post on his death found here) wrote a 10,000 word broadside of Churchill trumpeting spurious claims such as reckless foreknowledge of the bombings of Coventry and Pearl Harbor. Additionally, Hitchens reveled and inflated Churchill’s all-too-human ability to sulk, manipulate, ostracize and self-aggrandize (for a nice rebuttal, read Churchill scholar, Richard Langworth’s piece here).

In 2007, Time Magazine featured a story on recently released letters of Mother Teresa demonstrating a “crisis of faith” which lasted years. The letters, as characterized by Time and many other new sources, were reviewed with a certain zest. Not only was this an enormous scoop, but this, it was implied, effectively cast a dark cloud over anyone living for their faith. If the great and devoted Teresa had darkness in her life of faith, how legitimate could it be for the lesser among us? Once again, Christopher Hitchens – giant-killer extraordinaire, pronounced Mother Teresa a fraud, fanatic and fundamentalist.

To a young man thick with hope and idealism, the giant-killers unsettled me. After all, I saw these writers as fair and objective authorities on their subject. It seemed depressingly apparent that the figures I so admired seemingly had less and less about them that was truly admirable. Perhaps it was simply childish to ever have had heroes in the first place. Perhaps I should have know that heroes fall, legends decay, and giants are killed. Yes, perhaps.

But time has passed. And I have grown older. And one thing about growing older is that I have learned a few things. I have learned that not only are my heroes fallible in ways big and small, but I am too. I have learned that in the midst of my sins and shortcomings, I hunger more for mercy and less for justice. I have come to understand that the world’s shallow judgement of success and failure is false because it is binary. It is not a matter of being “up or down”, “in or out”, “heroic or villainous”. Instead, we live as valuable children of God striving to overcome our sin, succeeding some moments, failing in others, but always walking a road with a God who never gives up on us because He imparted a dignity inextricable from us. And that is a mighty satisfying realization.

I have come to realize why Peter, when first exposed to the awesome love and power of Jesus Christ, begged Him to leave as he was a sinful man. I understand this because I, too, am ashamed of my sin. Yet I am also overwhelmed that in spite of Peter’s sin and  flagrant betrayal of Christ, Jesus still loved him, recognized his dignity and entrusted him with the Church. I have found that I, too, am worthy and dignified thanks to my merciful God.

Giant-killers don’t bother me so much any more. Frankly, I find their fad tiresome. They seem to lack insight that was well-articulated by G.K. Chesterton,

“The great strength of Christian sanctity has always been simply this – that the worst enemies of the saints could not say of the saints anything worse than [the saints] said of themselves. It is disheartening to go on abusing a man while he is quite unconscious of your presence, but is in a low furious undertone abusing himself. This has always been the strong point of even the most commonplace Christianity. Suppose the village Atheist had a sudden and splendid impulse to rush  into the village church and denounce everybody there as miserable offenders. He might break in at the exact moment when they were saying the same things about themselves. You can say anything against a man who praises himself, but a man who blames himself is invulnerable.”

So it seems that heroes can be heroes even if they’re flawed. Saints can be saints even if they have sinned. Giants can still be giants even if they have fallen. It could even be argued that we can relate to them even better because they are imperfect…because we are too. How about that…? Yes, how about that.

On Catholicism & Atheism...My Dogma & Yours
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My Quaint, Silly, Ridiculous, Little, Lovely, Lovely Faith
  • abb3w

    It seems less so much the slaying of giants than showing how idols oft have feet of clay. On the other hand, clashes between titanic figures makes for a good story — Hitchens versus Mother Theresa, Ken Ham versus Bill Nye, Darrow versus Bryan — and that may be much of the appeal.

    Of course, sometimes it’s nearer to tilting at windmills, when the “giant” isn’t actually regarded as all that tall.

    • eddiestardust

      Ken Haim is a jerk sadly

  • Howard

    That’s perfectly fine, as long as you don’t try to make heroes into gods, as has too often happened.

    For instance, on a site like this it would not be unusual to see a quote from Winston Churchill, with the implication that because Churchill said it, it is *probably* wise and good — because Churchill was a “great man”, or was thought so by our side. It would be surprising to see a quote from Heinrich Himmler, because he is not seen as a great man with flaws; he is seen, as you so eloquently put it, as being defined by his flaws. Of course, Himmler said things like, “Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an anti-tank ditch interests me only in so far as the anti-tank ditch for Germany is finished.” It is worth noting, though, that Churchill was himself so afraid of Russian tanks that he staunchly backed preparations to murder by means of nuclear war, not tens of thousands of Russian females, but tens of millions, and that these would NOT have been “unintended collateral damage”; as with the night bombings of Germany during World War II, the purpose was PRECISELY to maximize civilian casualties so as to dishearten the enemy. The situation is entirely analogous to the one which led Chesterton to say, in THE BARBARISM OF BERLIN, “I am content to gaze rapturously at the blinking eyes of the True, or Positive, Barbarian.”

    Naturally, this will be seen as blasphemy by many worshipers of Churchill.

    • Howard

      Here is the passage for greater context.

      “In the Imperial proclamation the fact that certain ‘frightful’ things have been done is admitted; and justified on the ground of their frightfulness. It was a military necessity to terrify the peaceful populations with something that was not civilised, something that was hardly human. Very well. That is an intelligible policy: and in that sense an intelligible argument. An army endangered by foreigners may do the most frightful things. But then we turn the next page of the Kaiser’s public diary, and we find him writing to the President of the United States, to complain that the English are using dum-dum bullets and violating various regulations of the Hague Conference. I pass for the present the question of whether there is a word of truth in these charges. I am content to gaze rapturously at the blinking eyes of the True, or Positive, Barbarian.”

  • Ron Van Wegen

    When I worked with young teenagers in a crisis refuge I would sometimes begin to be told by one or more of them that I was a “#$%^%$#” etc etc. I tended to reply that I was certainly all that but I was also a “^%$#%^, *&^%HGT H%&*G $#778**HY” and I had a much better vocabulary than they did. This deflated them immediately and I was very happy to see them walk off muttering to themselves!

    • Howard

      Congratulations: you scored one on a teenager in crisis and drove him off. A job well done.

  • Eve Fisher

    I believe it was St. Therese of Lisieux who said that she needed to hear about the weaknesses of saints, not their virtues, because they gave her courage to persevere.

  • roger

    I applaud your posting. It is consistent with the very message of the Bible. Without exception, Christ’s associates were,ALL flawed. That is why Christ chose them. That’s why Christ came to be with us, choose us, love us (with our flaws), teach us, and die for us, Yet,the Giant Killers could dismiss them all and could be personally justified in doing so.

  • RufusChoate

    A fine essay and a needful reminder for our purist tendencies always seeking perfection in others while we tolerate our own failings. The sad counterpoint about Hitchens was that many of articles either defending (Noam Chomsky) or attacking (Churchill and Kissinger) was how inherently dishonest and partisan they were from the perspective of the Left. He is late realization of the threat of Islam is the only note worthy exception and the basis of many of the fond feelings for him. His vicious self righteous posture was just that: a posture.

    Rest in Peace. Christopher Hitchens. .