Cliven Bundy: A counterfeit hero

We live in a world of false heroes

Rancher Cliven Bundy poses at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada.  (REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)

Rancher Cliven Bundy poses at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada.
(REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)

The shelf life of heroes isn’t what it used to be.

Once upon a time, a hero would burst upon the scene — a Charles A. Lindbergh, a Babe Ruth, a Red Grange, an Audie Murphy, a Neil Armstrong — and he would not only receive reverent acclaim, that acclaim would last for decades. Sometimes forever.

Not anymore. Now we live in a world of false heroes — people who have done nothing to deserve their heroism save for capturing media attention or satisfying a group of the like-minded. So they come — and inevitably, they go.

Just last week, a Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy was heralded as a modern American patriot for facing down the Bureau of Land Management, when the bureau came to seize his herd after he had refused to pay government fees for grazing on public land. Many Tea Party types raced to his side to cheer him and provide a protective phalanx. Several Republican officeholders extolled his resistance — as if he were a Minuteman.

Bundy basked in the attention. Ain’t no government gonna tell him what to do.

But then Bundy, that great American patriot and hero, began waxing expansively — as many anointed heroes are wont to do. One of the topics on which he expatiated, as detailed in the New York Times, was slavery. Bundy said that African-Americans – “Negroes” as he referred to them — had it better on the plantation than in public housing because, as he put it, they had a skill in the antebellum South. They knew how to pick cotton.

So long heroism. Even those spineless GOP panderers who celebrated a law-breaker couldn’t defend a racist. Just like that, Bundy’s day in the sun was through; except for some militia supporters.

What happened to Bundy, however, was not an isolated incident. It is only remarkable for the rapidity with which it happened. The sudden hero whose patina is tarnished happens all the time now: Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong, the fabulist James Frey, Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, who made up portions of his book, and last but not least, Oscar Pistorius. These are just a few of the clay-footed. The reason why we have had an epidemic of fallen heroes is because they were never heroes to begin with. Exposure is just a matter of time.

Part of the hero inflation is the product of our 24/7 news cycle that is so desperate for fresh narratives that it must continuously produce protagonists, many of whom have a heroic mien. The trouble is that while there may be some genuine heroes among these — like the folks featured on the “Person of the Week” segment on ABC World News or the “Making a Difference” segment on NBC Nightly News — they are one-offs. When the broadcast is over, they are forgotten.

By the same token, “heroes” who capture the larger public attention may be less heroic than media-genic. Bundy was a disgruntled rancher one day, Fox News’ poster boy the next.

Then there is the kind of heroes contemporary culture produces. We talk a lot about the country’s deep political divide. But we have a hero divide too that often follows the same fault line.  Just as we want pundits and politicians who reinforce our prejudices, we want heroes who reinforce our values.

Bundy was one of those. So is Rush Limbaugh. So is Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.). This isn’t heroism. This is a form of narcissism.

But in the final analysis, tarnished heroism may have more to do with the changed notion of heroism itself than anything else. Heroism has always been a reward for achievement — one reason athletes are so often lionized. But in the past, achievement wasn’t sufficient. There had to be something else – something like nobility.

True heroism arose from character. It was a function of who a person was and not just what he did – of his discipline, his honor, his decency. Whether they could have withstood the kind of scrutiny heroes now receive, whether their character was also an invention, great heroes were thought to be great souls.

Heroism is much thinner now. Basically, it’s a media ploy. Bundy was never a hero in any sense. He was a right-wing blowhard, who became a right-wing darling for playing to the nut-case ideologues. Armstrong wasn’t a hero either, as several truth-seekers like fellow cyclist Greg Lemond kept saying long before Armstrong’s cover was blown. But we wanted to believe the story until we couldn’t.

Pistorius may have seemed like a hero who had overcome the odds. In reality, he was no less an egotist than Armstrong and a gun-loving hothead to boot.

None of these people deserved our hero worship. None of them possess character.

That is the sadness of these faux heroes for the larger culture. When the standards for heroism are so low that a Bundy can qualify, we may not be able to recognize real heroism when we see it.

Worse, we may not care.

(Neal Gabler is the author of “Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” He’s working on a biography of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.)

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7 Responses to "Cliven Bundy: A counterfeit hero"

  1. egc52556 (Eddie Caplan)  April 27, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    Michelle Bachmann promoted similar claims. In 2011 her campaign website recommended a 1997 biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins.

    Wilkins wrote:

    [QUOTE]

    Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith. . . . The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.

    [/QUOTE]

    For more about Bachmann read this: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/08/15/110815fa_fact_lizza

  2. SDRSr  April 27, 2014 at 10:01 pm

    Amen.

  3. Daniel  April 27, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    I’m not a fan of Bundy. I’m a pro-gun supporter. I think Bundy is probably a racist, and I find racism disgusting. I think Bundy is unsophiscated, partly because he kept saying “they was,” instead of “they were.” I think the armed response to an armed response was wrong. However, please quote what Bundy actually said. He didn’t say, “Negroes” had in better on the plantation, rather he said he had “wondered” if they had it better on the plantation. It makes some difference.

  4. Number 6  April 28, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Excellent article! Everything was summed up very nicely….except….I would add one thing….Besides being an unabashed racist, Bundy is a mooch….Other ranchers pay the grazing fees, but not Bundy.

  5. Jon  April 30, 2014 at 3:55 am

    The land belongs to all of us. He’s using it for his own personal profit.

    Imagine someone wanders into your living room, says, “It’s nice, I’ll take it”. Your objections about rental agreements and security deposits are simply met with “I don’t respect your authority” and he starts selling auto parts out of your living room. Then you call the cops on him, and fifty of his ‘best friends’ show up with rifles and the one responding cop car just ups and backs off.

    It’s our land. It’s his profit. How can this be a ‘freedom’ issue?

    Jon

  6. woody188  May 1, 2014 at 9:59 am

    In 2004 the Federal agencies spent $144 million in grazing management programs while collecting $21 million or 1/6 of the expenditure of managing the grazing lands. It would be more in the people’s interest to not manage the land at all, or to allow the state or local governments to manage the land within their territories if the objective is to preserve the wealth of the people at a Federal level.

    • woody188  May 1, 2014 at 10:02 am

      My stats sourced here. Of note, “The purpose of the grazing fee is, ultimately, for the
      Congress to determine.”

      Unsure what they determined it was for. Seems like a ranch subsidy more than anything else.

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