Changing the world won’t make you perfect. It’s time to accept even heroes have massive flaws.

A silhouette of a superhero man and woman couple in capes standing strong and powerful against a sunset sky background.
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Alexei Navalny was an extraordinarily brave and strong advocate for progressive social change and resistance while fighting against enormous odds in Vladimir Putin’s corrupt, authoritarian Russia. While most other activists fled the country over very real fears of assassination, Navalny decided to remain there knowing full well that he would most likely die at the hands of the Kremlin, especially having barely survived a poisoning attempt by the Putin regime.

He vowed that though the dictatorship may take his life, he would never allow the current leaders in the Kremlin to take his country from him or the Russian people. Though his murder has created a great loss for a grieving nation and has torn open a vacuum of leadership, Yulia Navalnaya, his widow, has determined to take over the reins of the resistance movement her husband worked tirelessly to promote and empower.

For his perennial work in the service of social justice against the rampant corruption of Russian leaders and oligarchs, respected world leaders have nominated Navalny for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The myth of good versus evil

Through millennia of evolution, the human brain has developed a capacity to categorize reality into easily digestible morsels in its attempt to absorb and make sense of a complex world.

We have, for example, seen the perennial theme of good versus evil surface as far back as 3000 years in Zoroastrianism, as valued by Zarathustra. The theme has reappeared in literary and religious discourse ever since.

Though some forms of truth and reality may present in clear binary or dualist categories of right and wrong, good and bad, more often than not issues and concepts comprise a continuum with nuance, shades, and degrees.

Yes, Navalny can be listed among the ranks of heroes on our increasingly shrinking planet. Before we install this brave leader in the Pantheon of gods and demigods, however, we must realize that Navalny, like all our present and past heroes, is a human being with all the many faults that come with mere mortality.

Most humans do not remain static. Rather, we change and evolve. For example, Navalny held ultranationalist biased views. He left Russia’s socialist-democratic party, Yabloko, in 2007 and helped form a new political movement, which he and his co-founders called NAROD (the Russian word for “people”) with the acronym National Russian Liberation Movement.

Their platform included a lobbying effort for the people’s right to own firearms and a call for extreme restrictions on immigration from Central Asia. He participated in Russian nationalist marches in the 2000s. He supported Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2007, then referred to Georgians as “rodents,” a comment for which he later apologized.

Though he publicly did not support Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea in 2014, he believed at the time that his country should not return the area to Ukraine when Putin finally leaves office.

Navalny is not alone in this dichotomy of faults and strengths.

Among those regarded as the greatest “founding fathers” of the United States of America, most “owned” enslaved Africans during their lives. Of the 55 men who attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, 49% were involved in the slave trade.

Ten of the first 12 presidents held slaves, except for John Adams and John Quincy Adams, who opposed the institution of slavery. George Washington held anywhere from 250 to more than 600; Thomas Jefferson from 200 to more than 600; James Madison more than 100; James Monroe approximately 75.

Though Abraham Lincoln was opposed to slavery, he was constrained by the Constitution to continue the institution until he successfully lobbied Congressional passage of the 13th amendment.

Lincoln had to undergo his own growth process on the matter of racial equality. For example, in his fourth debate with his U.S. Senate opponent, Stephen Douglas, in Charleston, Illinois on September 18, 1858, Lincoln stated his position: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.”

He continued by arguing that he opposed Black people having the right to vote, to serve on juries, to hold office, and to marry white people. 

Lincoln eventually evolved by stating in his last public speech on April 11, 1865, that he now favored limited suffrage rights for Black men, stating that any Black man who had served during the Civil War in the ranks of the Union army should have the right to vote.

He believed, however, that the best way to address the moral and social problems of enslaving human beings was to establish the practice of colonization, which in this regard meant to ship Black people to Africa or Central America.

He first declared this plan in 1852. Then two years later, he stated that his first instinct would be “to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia” (the African country founded by the American Colonization Society in 1821). He held onto this idea all the way until he finally drafted his Emancipation Proclamation.

Some of our great male leaders have been “womanizers,” philanderers who often engaged in sexual affairs with women other than their wives. Some of these include Thomas Jefferson (who fathered six children with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved), Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton.

While every person should have the right to engage in consensual sexual activity with other adults, and it should definitely be determined by the couples involved, we must investigate all sides of our leaders to determine the full truth of who they are.

Countless Republicans have invoked the name of Ronald Reagan as the standard to which they would like to return the party. “As the glorious party of Ronald Reagan” has become the obligatory mantra by which candidates for office hope to enter the hearts and minds of the Republican electorate, referring to a mythical and supposedly grand-by-gone era of hope and prosperity, a “morning in America.”

The reality of Ronald Reagan is not, however, the model politician and leader that most Republicans worship today. The real Ronald Reagan forwarded policies that enormously increased the wealth gap between the very rich and the remainder of the population. He expanded the rate of people living in poverty with his doublespeak “trickle down” economics.

He illegally and surreptitiously sold arms to Iran and furtively redirected the profits to fascist Central American dictators. And contrary to Republican pundits, Reagan did not bring down the Soviet Union, which had been in decline for many decades by the time Reagan entered the Oval Office.

Most of all, the ungodly Ronald Reagan functioned as the Coconspirator-In-Chief in the deaths of people infected with HIV during the early years of what became a pandemic under his so-called “watch.” Ronald Reagan should have been charged, convicted, and incarcerated for genocidal murder, rather than deified as a much-venerated pseudo-saint.

So, while the myth of the hero serves some sort of function in the mind and heart of individuals and within the body politic itself, check out all of the ingredients on the package before we consider how to rate the total product.

But if we can forgive our heroes for their transgressions, maybe, in the end, we can also forgive our own.

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