Icons, or Heroes?

I’m slowly working through, and very much enjoying the BBC series Icons. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether it makes any sense to have a "final" in which "iconic" sportsmen, politicians and scientists go head to head, but that’s not the real issue. The big problem is that the series has wholly the wrong name, and should be called not Icons, but Heroes.

To qualify as a 20th Century icon, a person should be:

  • Instantly recognisable, to a large proportion of people,
  • Representative of some characteristic of the 20th Century,
  • Usable in the abstract, perhaps through a caricature or a single word, to stand in for others and key concepts.

The simplest and least controversial example is probably Albert Einstein. Everyone knows that smiling face and wild hair. Through a series of seminal papers in 1905 and the following years he established not only relativity theory but also key elements of quantum theory, the two major planks which ensured that 20th Century Physics diverted strongly from the Victorian version. I can use the single word "Einstein" or draw a very crude cartoon of a smiling face with spiky hair and a bow tie, and it immediately invokes a range of concepts in the beholder.

Einstein was also a hero. He completed his early work despite a number of personal and academic setbacks. A Jew, he escaped Nazi Germany and helped the allies to defeat the axis powers, but then became a strong proponent of denuclearisation and peace. He qualifies both ways.

At the other end of the scale, consider Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton is undeniably, absolutely a hero. The story of the Endurance voyage, and how his leadership bought them all back safely despite horrendous tribulations bears endless retelling. Shackleton is certainly a personal hero to me: I have read books about him, watched programs, travelled to exhibitions. I managed to track down a copy of the wonderful dramatisation by Kenneth Branagh and we re-watched it just a few weeks ago.

But is Shackleton a 20th Century icon? How many people would recognise a picture of him out of context? I might struggle myself. Also in many ways he represents not 20th Century exploration, but the end of the Victorian era: plucky white men opening up the dark areas on the world’s map. There is a case for considering the Endurance story as a precursor to Apollo 13, that other great 20th Century tale of explorers rescued, but it’s not a strong one.

If you want an iconic 20th Century explorer, you really have to focus on aeronautics or the space race. There are many heroes, but the best chance for an icon is probably Neil Armstrong. We may not all instantly recognise his face, but that picture of a man in a spacesuit standing next to the American flag, or those words announcing "a giant leap for mankind" are certainly iconic, and representative of a type of exploration which didn’t exist before, and no longer really exists now.

In the political space, Winston Churchill is certainly an icon. His name and face, even in caricature, immediately invoke concepts such as strong leadership, freedom fighting tyranny, a blend of conservative and liberal ideals sadly lacking today. He is a clear exemplar of one side of 20th Century politics. His qualification as a hero is more nuanced: his amazing talent for being in the wrong place at the right time, his determination to do the right thing, his dominant skill as a leader, orator and writer all support it. However I acknowledge that his position on issues like Ireland and India, and his errors such as over Gallipoli and Singapore do at least slightly offset his great successes elsewhere. His icon is also capable of being misused, for example by those who view him as a symbol of British independence, who carefully ignore his post-war advocacy of unifying international institutions such as the UN and EU.

However, if you accept Churchill as a 20th Century political icon, you also have to consider another: Adolf Hitler. As an icon he qualifies without question. We instantly recognise his name and image, even if it’s just a simple cartoon of the hairstyle and moustache. He also stands as a clear exemplar of the other side of mid-20th Century politics, and a clear warning of the risks of allowing the rise of his like again. Icons do not have to be heroes. They can be villains.

A basic qualification for iconic status is that someone, or something must be famous, or infamous. However the BBC series has been so determined to not just parade a series of middle-aged white men that they have made some odd choices with the candidates. I enjoyed the story of Tu Youyou, the Chinese lady who discovered an important antimalarial drug, but can you honestly propose as a "20th Century Icon" someone whose individual identity was carefully suppressed until well into the 21st?

I have just sneaked a look at the results, and I see that neither of my prime examples of unquestioned icons (Einstein and Churchill) got through to the final. That doesn’t matter: I also consider both Turing and Mandela among my heroes, and I will still enjoy the rest of the episodes. However even if it risked being confused with that series about people with imaginary physical super-powers, rather than just real mental ones, I think the series should have been called simply Heroes.

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