The media are agog
  • The media are agog

The great man theory of history rises and falls in fashion, but historians will go on arguing it forever. America is particularly fertile ground. The U.S. yields to no nation in its admiration for great men. Lincoln—a biggie. Churchill—another biggie. The Founding Fathers—giants one and all. A great advantage of the great man theory of history is that it provides an easy way for lazy people to learn all the history they think they need to know by remembering a few names.

But Americans also have a warm spot in our hearts for the good man theory of history. This is the idea that we can hope for important changes from new leaders just because they seem to be such darn nice guys. Americans relate to darn nice guys because we’re such darn nice folks ourselves.

One darn nice guy is Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani. Reports the Economist: “In written messages, Mr Rohani spoke directly to his enemies and ostensibly did so with humility and goodwill. He wrote a private letter to President Barack Obama, who sent one back. He also tweeted new year’s greetings to Jews celebrating the festival of Rosh Hashanah. Western social-media sites including Twitter and Facebook were temporarily unblocked in Iran, though users still reported problems gaining access to them.”

There’s so much excitement about Rohani that Benjamin Netanyahu struck some people as petulant and unhelpful when he called Iran’s genial new president a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I think Netanyahu’s point was that Iran is still Iran and Rohani is an Iranian and a product of the 1979 revolution. And the way the world and Israel look from Tehran is the way they look to Rohani because—well, what other view does he know? Even leaders with enormous power—and Rohani has far less—change their nations only at the margins; and Iran and Israel aren’t at each other’s margins.

For what grumps like Netanyahu would call a corrective, I recommend “The Shadow Commander,” an article in the September 30 New Yorker on Qassem Suleimani, the “Iranian operative who has been reshaping the Middle East [and] directing Assad’s war in Syria.” Both a military commander and a geopolitical strategist, Suleimani is described by reporter Dexter Filkins as very intelligent, very tough, brutal as he needs to be, and utterly Irani-centric. You’ll wish he were on our side. And the odd thing is that, according to Filkins, Seuleimani, from time to time, briefly, and always in the service of Iran’s national interests, has been. He’s a pragmatist; and when cooperation has been in Iran’s interests he’s cooperated. When it hasn’t, he’s come up with ways to kill us.

Hands down, today’s best example of the good man theory of history is Pope Francis, the pope who carries his own bags and scoots around Rome in a Ford Focus. “On Holy Thursday,” the New Republic recently reminded us, “Pope Francis washed the feet of two women in juvenile detention, one of whom was a Muslim.” Commenting on homosexuality, Francis said, “Who am I to judge?” And the gay Catholic columnist Andrew Sullivan was so overwhelmed that he wrote, “What’s so striking to me is not what he said, but how he said it: the gentleness, the humor, the transparency. I find myself with tears in my eyes as I watch him.”

The point of the New Republic article, however, was to explain how little Francis is likely to accomplish in the way of fulfilling the agenda of Western progressives—some not even Catholics. To expect otherwise “is to misread this Pope, misinterpret the legacy of his predecessors, and misunderstand the calcified structure of the Church itself.”

For a time, it’s enough for a good man entering history to just be himself. But when change doesn’t happen the way we think it’s supposed to, we start to scratch around for explanations. Barack Obama was elected as a good guy and black to boot, but now his old fans are thinking that he maybe he was always a little too prickly, haughty, and standoffish to deal with the Republicans in D.C. When Iran doesn’t beat its swords into plowshares, the twinkle in Rohani’s eye will be reinterpreted as weakness or cunning.

As for the pope, the New Republic reminded us that “even as Francis’s gestures make headlines, the Church does not think in terms of news cycles or election cycles, but rather in terms of centuries.” And I would add it doesn’t think ahead in terms of centuries but behind. If something hasn’t changed in 2,000 years, why should it change at all?

But the thing about good guys is that when they show up you’re sure things are going to get better.