November 30, 2010, 7:43 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Heroes, for the most part, are made by the yearnings of ordinary people.  If we’re not careful, and we yearn too much for the qualities we imbue in the heroes we prop up, we can become dangerous to ourselves:  delusional, ineffectual, uncritical, zombified.

There is a too big element in American society that holds these untruths sacred:  American exceptionalism, its inherent goodness, its guaranteed success.  Very hubristic, don’t you think?  And we all know what hubris leads to.  Yet these are the very heroic qualities which we continue to yearn for, dream up, codify, bundle, mount high, enshrine, and most damnably, believe in.

Why do we do it?  A crisis of leadership?  An addiction to happiness-at-all-cost?

Socrates sat in the market in Athens, ugly and insightful and alone, and devised dialogues that challenged the hypocrisies inherent in Athenian society.  He pricked peoples’ inflated hopes.  He pissed people off.  He was an anti hero because he was interested in the truth.  Enough of that, they eventually said and killed him.  That’ll shut him up, they thought, but it had all been written down and we can still read it today.

This kind of critical thinking doesn’t play well in an amnesiac culture like ours, prone to propping up a continuous parade of hero idols.  And yet, now that history has healed all wounds – or something like that – we accept Socrates as being important to the health of Athenian society and, vicariously, of our own.  Maybe that’s an answer that gets us somewhere:  we need new philosophers who aren’t afraid to take on the special orthodoxies of our time.  They are out there if you can see past all of the other noise.  And with enough traction their new ideas can challenge and perhaps even help to change our hero fetish.

Michael Brenner writes about heroes in his essay Celebrities as Heroes:

Nations deserve the heroes they get. A hero is one part the actuality of person and performance; three parts need of the observer for confirmation, reassurance, hope. Heroes are made more by the yearnings of others than by their own features and feats. Where the intensity of those needs stunts critical faculties, the powers of illusion and self-delusion grow. That holds for the object of hero worship as well — for the emotional currents flow both ways.

Heroes are enemies of truth. For they evoke powerful feelings that give distorted meanings to inchoate emotions. They provide the personified symbols of legendary dimension that inspire unjustified confidence and offer the comfort of a cult. Thoughtless loyalty follows.

Contemporary America’s craving is exceptional. /…/ The personal resources of our fabled individualism quickly run dry without the steady sustenance provided by the blind belief in our exceptional virtue, competence and claim on the future. Suspicions that we may not be destiny’s child born under a providential star erodes the optimistic self confidence that is our lifeblood.


Why is it that all segments of American society are so credulous, so literally mindless, so lacking perspective, so unready or unwilling to call the burlesque that is contemporary American politics what it is?

Michael Brenner, Celebrities as Heroes