Martyrs vs. Heroes

Kage Baker put Martin Luther King Jr. on the list of Great Good Mortals. Mendoza learns it in her baby cyborg training – it is one of the foundation stones in her perception of what is right and moral. It’s also a foundation stone in her opinion of the human race; since most of the people on the list are, like Dr. King, martyrs.

Mendoza prefers live heroes to dead martyrs. So did Kage. She made Mendoza that way too because most people – especially the ones who talk loudly in public and make policy – seem to prefer it the other way around. Kage felt this was … unhealthy.

Dead martyrs are so convenient, though! They are permanent, for one thing – when their martyrdom is fresh, no one would think of looking for scandal, nor believe it readily if some unbeliever did so: Shakespeare was right about this one, the good men do lives after them. Even when and if it becomes obvious that the martyrs may have actually been  real live human beings, most people are forgiving. They don’t like their martyrs to be real men and women; that would mean their behaviour, hard and painful and fatal as it was, could be imitated. And no one wants to do that. But it’s tolerable, forgivable.  People just prefer the noble dead, who were exceptional and cannot be duplicated.

A live hero can, sadly, outlive their heroism. Sometimes they just behave like normal people, warts and all, and end up repulsing their admirers. The admirers want to be able to cherish the hope that they themselves may be like the heroes: they don’t want to know for sure that the heroes are like them.  And sometimes the local taste in heroism changes – folks do get bored, after all – and the breathing, walking, most of all talking heroes find themselves going on about stale old news … I don’t quite understand how tales of virtue, bravery and nobility can be boring, but I am clearly aberrant. I don’t understand why celebrities’ sexual escapades are news, either.

Martyrs are more compliant, too. Their message doesn’t change, unless the Powers That Be find it necessary to make it change. That doesn’t always work, of course, because by then a lot of people have heard the original message – but talking loudly and frequently and controlling sources of information helps. Doesn’t always succeed, but the process of debating just what the Sacred Dead Person actually said can eat up a lot of time.

Live heroes can – and do – listen to the news one day and then call a press conference and say: “Man, that is a load of shit. I never said that.” Awkward, that …

Martyrs are remembered in love, and memorialized in reverence, and trotted out on every occasion where they might be useful. Heroes are watched warily, and speak in public with 5-second delays.

All over America, in every city where I have traveled, there is a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It makes for a lot of abbreviated street names and double-decker signs; the more sensible cities put big signs on the roadside, rather than try and squeeze the name on the light fixture signs. It is usually a short, twisty street built out of leavings of larger thoroughfairs and hastily constructed connector roads; rarely did a new, purpose-built street get renamed. (Though Los Angeles built a Richard M. Nixon Freeway.) It’s usually near an airport, or a port, or it edges a business district: someplace where people are moving fast and on their way to somewhere else, and don’t stop to think. It tends to dead-end, double back on itself, and just stop for blocks at a time – resuming somewhere unexpected.

It would be better if all the Martin Luther King Jr. Boylevards were wide and clean and shining, and lined with parks and schools. But in this aspect of his remembrance, Dr. King is treated not as a dead martyr, but as a live hero. A dangerous man – too dangerous to forget, but much, much too dangerous to safely be consigned to the dependable storage room of history.  He’s treated as if he is still speaking.

I hope he would like that better.

About Kathleen Bartholomew

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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3 Responses to Martyrs vs. Heroes

  1. Mark says:

    I don’t know where you have traveled…

    But Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Los Angeles is roughly 6 continuous miles through the traditionally African American communities of South Los Angeles, starting at Rancho Cienega Rec. Center, passing a park named for Dr. King (albeit a block North) as well as Exposition Park (with LA’s traditional sports facilities and museum complex).

    In San Diego, it is the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway, and runs from just Southeast of Balboa Park (NE of Downtown) generally ENE 12 miles past Chollas Park to Lemon Grove and Casa Del Oro.

    In Atlanta, it’s 12 miles of main artery through downtown and the West side.

    In Chicago, it’s MLK Jr. Drive…and runs 10 miles from just South of the Loop (downtown) all the way down to Calumet, passing Washington, Nat King Cole, Tuley, and Palmer Parks.

    But all of these were renames of older streets…

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  2. Kate says:

    Mark: Sorry if I gave you the impression that these streets were identical – of course, they are not. But they are *not* very big, very wide, very long. I personally get lost on them a lot, especially due to dog legs and discontinuity. As to where … Columbus OH. Oakland CA. Portland OR. Seattle WA (but all the streets in Seattle are odd …). Kansas City, MO. New York has 3 or 4, depending on where on the islands you are; they are all a little odd. In New Orleans, MLK Boulevard is long and straight and often wide … and looks like a war zone. But that’s New Orleans. Nonetheless, it was pretty grim before Katrina.

    My point was that every city named a street for Dr. King: but surprisingly often, they did not build them a’purpose, they are (often carelessly) re-dedicated, and they are in funny places. Or so it seems to me. You can find half a dozen instances where this is not the case, but I don’t think that invalidates what I have seen and experienced: every time I drive down an MLK Boulevard, I personally am reminded that his dream advances but is not yet fulfilled.

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  3. MCMC says:

    Your observations about dead martyrs vs. live heroes reminded me of one of my favorite lines from Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy”: “It’s much easier to love someone who’s dead – they make so few mistakes.”

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