Summary: Our dreams of hero-saviors dominate the Hollywood box office. But modern heroes serve us poorly, pointing to our weaknesses and away from our historic strengths. Fortunately, better heroes are there – in our past.
“The myth is the public dream, and the dream is the private myth.”
— Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth (1988).
America has a thousand heroes. Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Sheriff Will Kane (in High Noon), the Lone Ranger, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and the the Continental Op, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and their countless peers. What do they have in common that makes them bad myths for America? They are fun dreams. But our love for them is symptomatic of a growing weakness in us. This weakness imperils not just our Constitutional regime but the foundations of the nation.
Super-empowered individuals (using Tom Friedman’s neologism) have always played a large role in American myth, from James Fenimore Cooper‘s frontier hero Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo to the libertarian hero John Galt (in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged). But America was built by the collective action of its people, not just lone rangers.
Our powerful and useful myths
“Myth supplies models for human behavior, and gives meaning and value to life.”
— Mircea Eliade in Myth and Reality (1963).
Teamwork and powerful institutions built America. They were not just in our history books but also our in legends. Marvel Comic’s had SHIELD and the Justice League. E. E. Smith’s novels featured the Triplanetary force (the model for Marvel’s Green Lantern Corps). Robert Heinlein told young boys about the Space Patrol. On TV we watched the adventures of UNCLE (the United Network Command for Law Enforcement, as in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)” defend us and saw the Federation bringing order and civilization to the galaxy.
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 was not to reform our institutions, at whatever cost and effort. Instead we retreated into fantasy. We focused on lone heroes, flying Jesus figures like Superman. This dream of solo solutions has always been a problem for America, fantasies that lure us away from the real source of our strength. Charles A. Beard described this trap in “The Myth of Rugged American Individualism“ (Harper’s, December 1931). These alluring stories make us weaker when taken too seriously.
When we choose dreams that better match our needs, then we will know that America is on the path to reform – and a better future. They are there, ready for action.
“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 in The Power of Myth (1988)
For More Information
- The philosophy behind the legend of Batman.
- The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes.
- We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America.
- Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
- We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
- Hollywood’s Hero Deficit – both a cause and symptom of our weakness.
- An America without heroes. We’ll miss them.