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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