Here come the superheroes, solitary, outsider conquerors of evil, doing what we stumbling, ordinary beings could scarcely ever hope to achieve and winning public adulation along the way — the latest Batman movie is breaking all kinds of box office records, and Barack Obama is now nine points ahead of John McCain in Gallup’s daily tracking poll.
Obama’s akin to the Caped Crusader? You just might get there if you follow the logic of a 1977 book, "The American Monomyth," in which two professors trace out the social implications of a constant theme in our popular entertainment. It’s the one in which bigger-than-life figures show up to save threatened communities, doing the work pretty much by themselves while the rest of us cowardly duty-dodgers sit on our hands.
Considering the present dominance of superheroes on our movie screens — not just Batman, but the Hulk, Iron Man and Hancock — this seems a good time to reflect on the idea of professors Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence idea that the "monomyth is an escapist fantasy" that "encourages passivity . . . and unwise concentrations of power in ostensible redeemers."
"Just as the public is not held responsible for causing evil in monomythic drama, it is not called upon to cope with it," they write. "Since the public is shown as devoid of creative intelligence, its laws and institutions as incorrigibly corrupt, and evil as immensely powerful, the task of coping is transferred to redeemer figures."
The book’s view is that these monomyths have "the character of a tranquilizer, exchanging the sense of communal alarm and obligation for a fantasy of Edenic resolution achievable only by superhumans."
Sometimes, the authors say, these superhumans come riding into town in the guise of politicians, such as Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Reagan, they note, cast himself as independent from a "buddy system" consisting of Congress, bureaucrats, big business and big labor, while Carter likewise emphasized his outsider status, that of someone who had nothing to do with the Washington mess.
All of which brings us back to Obama, who celebrates his distance until recently from D.C. politics (also known as inexperience), his contempt for special interests (crucial segments of America to which he himself bows when it’s advantageous) and whose announced policies tend toward vastly extended federal power (not unlike the welfare states threatening to crush once-proud European nations).
It’s true that he preaches to audiences that they are the coming change, although what he wants from them besides their votes is hard to decipher. There’s no denying his eloquence and charisma, but it’s worth remembering that these attributes in leaders have sometimes drawn history down deep, dark holes.
The peril is investing too much faith in one person and one office, of relying overly much on him instead of self, other levels of government, other leaders and other institutions, of too quickly shoving aside one’s own hesitations, of becoming uncritical and all-adoring.
The sort of reaction you can then get is widespread applause for an Obama speech in Berlin, a fatuous, empty thing that could as well have been composed by an earnest ninth-grader all caught up in one-world enthusiasm and sure that good will is sufficient to make spiders and flies kiss and make up.
The truth of the matter is summed up by the great philosopher, comedian and moviemaker Woody Allen, who thinks the Western "Shane" a marvelous movie (as do I). He is quoted at length about its qualities in a New York Times piece. The superhero gunfighter played by Alan Ladd ends up ridding homesteaders of an evil that could spell their ruin after making sure another character and friend, Joe Starrett, does not take on enemies who would surely kill him.
"And when Alan Ladd takes control and tells Starrett that he’s not letting him go into town," says Allen, "it’s like, you know, you always hope in life that there’s somebody who will take that kind of control, who will fight your battles. It’s really only in the movies that it happens, though."
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)