National heroes can be a hassle.
On one hand, they are revered symbols of national pride, which should be propagated and celebrated widely. On the other hand, they are revered symbols of national pride, which should be controlled and guarded tightly.
It’s a dilemma at the very top of the political agenda … at least in Mongolia.
That’s because Genghis Khan—who conquered most of Asia almost 800 years ago—is a nearly universally respected hero there for his unification of the Mongol people, his strategic genius, and his righteous beard. But his name and image are being used these days on a wide variety of products unbecoming of an icon, including multiple brands of beer and vodka.
So last week, the legislature began debating a proposal that would allow the government to regulate the employment of the “Genghis Khan” name and likeness to prevent any “degrading or insulting” use.
If the bill becomes law, certain things could get you in serious predicament in Ulaanbaatar (or any other Mongolian city, although Ulaanbaatar looks the coolest in print).
For example, the country’s filmmakers would be unable to make a Mongolian version of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In the classic original movie, the protagonists bring Genghis Khan forward in time to modern-day California. The “very excellent barbarian” chomps on Twinkies for the sugar rush, ravages a sporting goods store with a baseball bat, and uses a toilet brush to comb his hair.
Not exactly how modern Mongolians want to see their national hero portrayed.
Moderating the exploitation of important historical figures makes sense even here in the United States. Look at what we’ve done to the father of our country, George Washington: Where I live, in the national capital area, you simply can’t avoid this guy.
Strolling down the streets of Washington, D.C., I walk through the campus of the George Washington University. Both the $1 bill and the quarter in my pocket bear George Washington’s visage. I look across the Potomac at the George Washington Parkway; I turn back and see the Washington Monument.
And yet, try as I might, I just can’t find George Washington’s face on a bottle of vodka.