Mark Steel: Heroes and monsters of history

Most modern opinon insists everyone is labelled either a baddie or a goodie
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The Independent Online

Napoleon reminds me of Eminem. This week the French have been commemorating the 200th anniversary of one of Napoleon's greatest victories, at the Battle of Austerlitz. Apparently, Napoleon's first ambition was to be a writer, just as Hitler's was to be an artist. So you can't help thinking people like that should be allowed to get on with what they wanted to be, as the world could soak up a few more trashy books and paintings.

To put it another way, imagine the damage Frederick Forsyth or Jeffrey Archer would have done if they'd taken up something that mattered.

Napoleon doesn't have much of a following in England, but it seems we haven't yet come to terms with him. Every article about him has dwelt exclusively and tediously on his battle tactics, full of phrases like :"New evidence suggests Napoleon delayed manoeuvring his sixth battalion seven yards to the right until 3.37pm, rather than 3.34pm as was previously believed. Experts suggest this may be due to his concern that otherwise the post-battle crème caramel may not have been sufficiently set".

Yet the starting point for his victories is that his army was motivated by the ideals of the French Revolution.The British prime minister, William Pitt, justified the war with France by saying Napoleon's army "held out encouragement to insurrection and rebellion throughout the world". Which is why Napoleon was a hero for millions of radicals, including Byron and Beethoven. But then he spoilt things by declaring himself emperor, slaughtering thousands of rebelling slaves and insisting his military advisor was an imaginary red genie. Which some people considered a sell-out. He even rewrote the Catholic catechism, so children had to recite: "What do we owe to Napoleon?" And the reply would be "We owe to Napoleon our love, respect, obedience, and loyalty." Which is quite clever, to take over the rituals of the Catholic Church and make them madder - a feat not matched until the boy-band Blue took an Elton John song and made it worse.

To make him even more confusing, it's not even as if he was good and then went bad, as he administered his megalomaniac brutality AT THE SAME TIME as he was deposing tyrannies. So now no one knows how to deal with him, because it's impossible to simply state whether he was on your side or not. And most modern opinion insists that everyone is labelled either a goodie or baddie.

Almost every article about George Best hailed him as a hero, except the odd dissenting one condemning him as a savage. John Lennon is declared a genius, every flaw in his personality excused, or he's dismissed as an idiot. Typical was another article this week portraying Eminem as a woman-hating monster who, in his song "Stan", "fantasises about murdering his girlfriend". Whereas in the song he plays two parts, one a crazed fan who ends up killing himself and his girlfriend, the other a rapper who tries to placate the nutcase but is too late. To confuse Eminem with the character of the mad fan is an extreme case of these people who think the characters in Coronation Street are real. If the columnist who wrote that article ever has to review King Lear, she'll complain the performance was completely ruined when one of the cast went berserk, strapped his colleague to a chair and poked his eyes out.

But also, if he's nothing but a mouthpiece for misogynists, the millions who enjoy listening to him must either be woman-haters themselves, or idiots. Some of Eminem's lyrics ARE reprehensible, but his anti-racist songs, his anti-war songs and contempt for authority are a major part of his appeal. He's neither a goodie nor a baddie but a compelling combination of both at the same time.

You could play this game with anyone. Bob Marley, most people would agree, would get straight into the goody category. But part of his religion was to view women as naturally unclean and subservient. Everyone now loves Muhammad Ali, but we must all be wrong because he was a powerful advocate of the Nation of Islam, who are a tad behind David Cameron when it comes to all-woman shortlists.

Maybe the mistake radicals made with Napoleon, as a later generation did with Stalin, was to invest all their hopes in him rather than in the ideals that attracted them to him. So when these heroes turned out to be monsters they had nowhere left to go. The trick, if you can manage it, is to celebrate the positive side of an artist or movement while remaining wary of the horrors. Or just listen to Westlife, watch Linda Barker adverts and Ben Elton musicals and, with no complications, be certain it's all 100 per cent shite.