The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes

Summary:  We choose our heroes unconsciously, choices which shape our daytime actions.  Our modern heroes serve us poorly, pointing to our weaknesses and away from our historic strengths.  This is the fourth in a series about our struggle to adjust to the new century; links to the other chapters appear at the end.

“The myth is the public dream, and the dream is the private myth.”
— Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (1988)

What do Superman, Spiderman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and their countless peers — have in common that makes them terrible heroes for America?  Fun dreams, but symptomatic of a growing weakness in us that imperils not just our Constitutional regime but the foundations of the nation?

It’s not their superpowers.  Consider other examples of this symptom: Batman, Sheriff Will Kane (in High Noon), the Lone Ranger, Dashell Hammett’s Sam Spade and the Continental Op.  It’s their role as individuals, and so contrary to the collective action that actually built America. 

Super-empowered individuals (using Tom Friedman’s neologism) have always played a large role in American myth, from from James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier hero Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo to the libertarian hero John Galt (in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged).  Until now this fantasy existed in creative tension with our true greatest strength — people working together to build America.  The Mayflower Compact, the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, abolitionist societies, wagon trains, cattle drives — groups from Franklin’s Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire (our first property insurance company) to the Boy Scouts of America.  Our triumphs during the Great Depression (avoiding totalitarianism) and WWII.

Teamwork and powerful institutions used to populate not just our history books but also our legends.  Such as Marvel Comic’s SHIELD, E. E. Smith’s Triplanetary, Robert Heinlein’s Space Patrol, and UNCLE (as in The Man from). No longer.  Today organizations most often appear in today’s fiction as irrelevant, inept, or evil. During the 1960’s and especially the 1970’s we became alienated from our institutions.  Organizations which should have led us into the future, like NASA, failed us.  We learned that institutions which should have protected us, like the FBI and CIA, were often criminal oppressors.  Institutions which we admired, like the military, displayed gross incompetence. 

Our response is not reform, whatever the cost or effort.  Instead we retreat into fantasy.  Ignoring the great problems facing our nation, we attempt to triumph by ignoring them.  As the punch line to the Russian joke goes, we’ll pull down the blinds and pretend we’re moving.  Gridlock in Washington becomes progress.   The Blue Fairy will solve everything —  if we believe in fairies.

“A dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group.”
— Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth   (1988)


One person can make a difference.  That confidence has (and hopefully will remain) a core American tradition.  To work it must remain in balance with its opposite, our ability together to build powerful institutions.  Otherwise we’ll be shep, controlled by special interests beyond the average individual or household’s to influence in any way.

The ability to maintain balances between contradictory values is distinguishing strength of western civililzation.  Freedom-equality.  Science-humanities.  Nature-Art.  Human rights-Multiculturalism.  Periods where we lose these balances often end badly.

Where does this lead us?

Mark Lilla explains how this will play out in “The Tea Party Jacobins“, New York Review of Books, 27 May 2010 (see another excerpt here):

Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that “the people” can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

… {w}e need to see it as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. … it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

… We are experiencing just one more aftershock from the libertarian eruption that we all, whatever our partisan leanings, have willed into being. For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. Some wanted a more tolerant society with greater private autonomy, and now we have it, which is a good thing — though it also brought us more out-of-wedlock births, a soft pornographic popular culture, and a drug trade that serves casual users while destroying poor American neighborhoods and destabilizing foreign nations.

Others wanted to be free from taxes and regulations so they could get rich fast, and they have — and it’s left the more vulnerable among us in financial ruin, holding precarious jobs, and scrambling to find health care for their children. We wanted our two revolutions. Well, we have had them.

Now an angry group of Americans wants to be freer still — free from government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and well-being; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better than they do; free from politicians who don’t talk or look like they do (and Barack Obama certainly doesn’t). They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and then hear someone on television tell them they’re right. They don’t want the rule of the people, though that’s what they say. They want to be people without rules—and, who knows, they may succeed. This is America, where wishes come true. And where no one remembers the adage “Beware what you wish for.”

Note the echos of libertarian theory at the end of The Matrix, an entertaining example of fetal politics.

“I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. … A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.”

An assessment of the real Tea Party movement, beyond the hype

Gauging the scope of the tea party movement in America“, Washington Post, 24 October 2010

Other posts in this series

  1. Which is better? Rioting in France and Greece or snoozing in America?, 28 October 2010
  2. Polarization and hot rhetoric conceal two similar political parties. Will we ever notice?, 29 October 2010
  3. We have the leaders we deserve. Visit MacDonald’s to learn why., 30 October 2010

Posts about the American spirit, the American soul

  1. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter IV – Alienation, 13 January 2008
  2. A philosophical basis for the Batman saga, 23 July 2008
  3. All we have to fear is our optimism, 12 November 2008
  4. The war for America’s soul, 23 December 2008 — Our changing attitudes to “It’s a Wonderful Life”
  5. This crisis will prove that Americans are not sheep (unless we are), 8 January 2008
  6. Sources of inspiration for America’s renewal, 23 April 2009 – The Law of Equivalent Exchange
  7. A famous guest speaker visits the FM site to tell us that we are not weak — we are strong, 8 June 2008 — Patrick Henry
  8. A great artist died today. We can gain inspiration from his words., 26 June 2009 — Michael Jackson
  9. A wonderful and important speech about liberty, 23 July 2009 — Judge Learned Hand
  10. Know thyself, America, 2 March 2010

1 thought on “The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes”

  1. Your article on America’s heroes is good, but the examples you give are faulty.

    It’s not their superpowers. Consider other examples of this symptom: Batman, Sheriff Will Kane (in High Noon), the Lone Ranger, Dashell Hammett’s Sam Spade and the Continental Op. It’s their role as individuals, and so contrary to the collective action that actually built America.

    Not sure how the “continental op” is a lone hero, he has an entire detective agency behind him.

    FM reply: Good point. Although the agency plays a role in ony a few stories, and even then the Op often conceals his activities and goals from his fellow ops (as the Agency would not approve). In several he catches hell from his boss for his activities (e.g., Red Harvest). The Lone Ranger is a misnomer because he has his faithful Indian companion. And Batman has Robin. But neither are leaders of organizations or any meaningful collective effort.

    Its true that Sheriff Will Kane had to fight the villains alone, but that’s the point of the story. He worked his whole life to make the town safe, and was on the verge of retiring – and they abandoned him in his time of need. He thought he was part of a community. In reality, he was alone. He took risks and made enemies while defending the community. But when those enemies returned for payback the same community deserted him. He’s not an equivalent of Batman, he’s the opposite of Batman. What if Batman’s enemies teamed up to destroy him, and Commissioner Gordon, Fox, and even Alfred went home and locked their doors? That’s High Noon in Gotham.

    FM Reply: Agreed. I’d phrase this as the extreme case of the dynamic I describe. Sheriff Kane thought he was part of a collective effort, and learned that it was a sham — and all he could rely on was his family (another long-standing theme in US fiction).

    There is a trend of course, but you’re missing it. All those heroes with the exception of Batman on that list are “serious” heroes. It’s common sense that one man can’t defeat the eastern horde by himself, but its fun to read about. The lone hero has always been popular in American culture, going back to the Dime novels. If anything, the trend is going the opposite direction. Americans (or at least the writers) don’t like lone heroes anymore. Now its teamwork. Teamwork teamwork teamwork, beat it into your head until your ears bleed. Every cartoon, comic strip, and movie is the same now. You have the smart person (Usually the female, incidentally) who insists that teamwork is the way to go. Then you have the dumb obnoxious do-gooder who insists he “works alone”, but in the end learns the errors of his ways (But usually not before being subjected to a lengthy sermon by the aforementioned female character).

    You can literally see this evolution before your eyes. You mentioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yes, at first she worked alone. But how did the series evolve? By the end you had thousands of brainless bimbos running around stabbing vampires. Or how about The Justice League? The first season featured a small team, though it was a “team” in only the loosest sense of the term. Too many chiefs, not enough indians, they all did basically what they wanted to do. At first the Green Lantern tried to impose a chain of command on the team, he quickly gave up. None of them were going to be put up with being bossed around.

    That’s how the show ran for a while. Then what happened? The Justice League threw open its doors and a hundred million super heroes joined. But just like any growing organization… the Justice League got really GAY. Now you don’t go LOOKING for adventure, you get ASSIGNED adventures, like a plumber who just swam across the Rio Grande yesterday. Instead of being the lone hero punching bad guys in the face and saving damsels in distress, you’re getting bossed around like an indentured five year old in the Uguandan Revolutionary Army by… Wonder Woman. Aren’t you supposed to be rescuing her or something? Nope, she’s your boss now. She’s an E-7 in the USMC (United States Mutant Corps), and you’re only an E-3. You’re fucked.

    FM reply: That’s a powerful rebuttal. I’ll have to think about this. But were any of these uber-politically-correct shows successful, as successful as the lone heroes?

    What does this tell us about America? We like to talk about individualism, but in the end we find true comfort in collectivism, in being a part of a group. Instead of facing crisis by ourselves and taking responsibility for our own lives we prefer to hide behind Sarah Palin’s skirt. Sure we may rant and rave about how the government is interfering with our lives, but just like a black and purple hooker bailing her pimp out of jail, we secretly like it. We like being able to go to sleep at night knowing that the men in black suits and sunglasses, the legions of marpat-clad drones stumbling around with metal detectors and m-16s in the desert, and the fat TSA guys are keeping us safe from the scary terrorists. Whenever somebody does something dumb and gets killed (like rocking a coke machine and letting it fall on top of him), the first words out of our mouths are “Why doesn’t the government do something? There should be a law!”

    Safety in numbers. Like the lemmings running off the cliff.

    FM reply: I agree! This is an equally important problem. Rather than collective effort, we prefer to be sheep. Wolves and sheep, even shepard and sheep, are not a collective in the good sense.

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