Summary: Superhero films dominate theater box offices. They also show our greatest weakness. We are a powerful citizenry broken into powerless individuals who see collective action as futile, or even corrupting. We have a second set of myths that show the path to a better future for America. Let’s take this first step to recovering our strength.
“People need stories, more than bread, itself. They teach us how to live, and why. …Stories show us how to win.”
— The Master Storyteller in HBO’s wonderful Arabian Nights.
Larger than life heroes play a big role in our history. There was James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier hero Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo (The Leatherstocking Tales), the Wild West’s cowboys, Tarzan (1912), Zorro (1919), The Lone Ranger (1933), Superman (1938), and countless since then.
Some are billionaire Jesus figures who sacrifice themselves for the peons, such as Green Arrow and Batman. At the other extreme are actual gods like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Thor. They operate outside the system alone or in small groups, often despite orders of their incompetent organizations — or fighting it after it turns against them (as in the Bourne and Mission Impossible films). We see all these elements in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (see details here).
Somehow all this has become neurotic, making us weak. It’s always High Noon in America. Heroes save the day while we we watch as ignorant, passive, perhaps even cowardly bystanders. These myths cannot inspire us to great deeds in the real world. These are fun fantasies of despair, an admission that we can no longer imagine a way to become strong.
They show how we have lost the ability to take collective action, or even see that as our greatest strength.
Another and better vision
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
— Joan Didion, The White Album (1979).
Until now fantasies of individual empowerment existed in creative tension with our true greatest strength — collective action. Teamwork and powerful institutions protect us in both our history and legends.
- GI Joe fought COBRA,
- UNCLE fought Thrush,
- SHIELD fought high-tech organized crime,
- Ian Fleming’s British Secret Service fought SPECTRE,
- In science fiction Heinlein’s Space Patrol kept the peace, EE Smith’s Triplanetary fought evil aliens, and Star Trek’s Federation brought civilization to the stars.
These were bigger versions of the organizations that built America: abolitionist societies, wagon trains, cattle drives, Franklin’s Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire (our first property insurance company), the Boy Scouts of America, the unions that built the middle class, progressive groups fighting for clean food and water, and for civil rights for Blacks, women, and gays.
How did these visions of collective action fall from our imagination?
When it went sour
During the 1960’s and 1970’s we became alienated from our institutions. Organizations which should have led us into the future, like NASA, failed us. Organizations that should have protected us, like the FBI and CIA, were shown to be criminal oppressors. Institutions which we admired, like the military, displayed gross incompetence in Vietnam.
Our response was not reform, at whatever cost and effort. Instead we retreated into fantasy. We exult in our individualism while our social cohesion frays — wrecking our ability to work together. The popularity of libertarianism is an extreme example of this (see this, one of the best web posts ever, for a rebuttal of this pernicious ideology).
A better path to the future
“Myth supplies models for human behavior, and gives meaning and value to life.”
— Mircea Eliade in Myth and Reality (Religious Traditions of the World) (1963).
The 99% have numbers and great resources, against which as individuals we are helpless. As the Founders knew, only collective action makes us powerful. But instead we’re fed dreams of power as individuals, our “opiates of the masses“. As children we read comic books. As adults we are fed follies like those described by Charles A. Beard in “The Myth of Rugged American Individualism“ (Harper’s, December 1931) — and its more recent repackaging by Ayn Rand telling us to become Objectivist Übermensch.
So we dream of either being superheroes, or having superheroes fix our problems. Neither paint visions of a heroic future in which teams reform America. These seduce us from the real path to successful self-government, through the difficult work of organizing ourselves.
We saw this self-crippling in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. Their members chose not to select leaders. Instead the Tea Party became GOP shock troops and the OWS became street festivals.
As individuals we are dust in the wind. The first step to gaining political power is organization — from School Boards to Congress, from the Pilgrims to the movements of tomorrow. That means selecting leaders, giving them authority and holding them responsible. Our forefathers did this well; it’s how they built America. It was neither easy nor fast.
- In May 1764 Samuel Adams took his first steps to end British rule in America (see here for details). That same year a small group of people in Boston formed the first of the Committees of Correspondence. The Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
- In 1774 Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush founded America’s first anti-slavery society. In 1868 we ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. In the mid-1960′s the great Civil Rights legislation ended the government-sponsored oppression of Blacks.
We can do equally great deeds in the future. We need no new myths to do so. The old ones remain potent; when we wish to act we will find them as inspiring as they were for our forefathers. Today we lack only the will to put aside fantasies and act together as citizens.
For More Information
- The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes.
- Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit.
- We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America.
- Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for.
- Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
- Captain America: the Winter Soldier – high-quality indoctrination for sheep.
- Why don’t our dreams of a better world inspire us to act?