Your heroes will help you find good in yourself
Your friends won’t forsake you for somebody else.
They’ll both stand beside you thru thick and thru thin
And that’s how it goes with heroes and friends.
from “Heroes and Friends” by Don Schlitz and Randy Travis.
My heroes – say Brian Lamb and Denis Dutton – help me become more tolerant and curious. Franklin’s example helps me work a bit harder; the loving generosity of a woman in my Sunday School class encourages me to be more gentle with my tongue. Kids need heroes but so do adults. We make better choices because our imagination has been stretched with the sense of heroic possibilities. If we assume that we share with others a common humanity, a common human nature, and each of us has the potential to act in a way that transcends our baser selves, then stories of heroism resonate (no matter who nor where the actor). Those we admire may be consistently virtuous or consistently heroic, but often they are not; still, in an act of nobility and purpose we see something that makes our breast swell with pride because we have seen the potential of our common humanity. We come to know that the hero at the Alamo drank too much, that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, Abraham Lincoln took a long while to reach the ideas of the Emancipation Proclamation, Faulkner wasn’t always faithful. But we also know that, in the end, they made heroic choices, probably because they, too, could draw from narratives of others they nurtured within their hearts. Narratives give us strength; that the founders were willing to risk fortunes, reputations and even lives is admirable. They are like us; but they delved into themselves and found courage, wit, perseverance, nobility.
Losing the example of Winston Churchill is losing a model for leadership, responsibility, perseverance. To outsiders (and I suspect to many Brits) it is his voice, eloquent and raspy, that reminds us of the grace under fire of a besieged London. His story reminds us that that we may be right even when we seem wrong and that courage is derived from conviction and commitment. Of course, we have come to suspect that it is these very virtues, his values and perseverance, that some see as of little use. And some deny his heroism and words can merge with others’ selves for such a model is bounded by time and place, age and sex, race and nationality, and always, of course, class. But heroes link us in our common humanity.
An awareness that we can make choices, that these are irrevocable, that they can make a difference – this is an awareness of our own causality. Greater consciousness can lead to a fear of course, but our heroes give us an image not only of them but of ourselves, willing to act despite that fear. It is this Schlitz & Travis understand. Bravery comes with recognizing and accepting consequences. In “Postmodernism and the Fabrication of Aboriginal History,” Keith Windschuttle describes the problems with the veracity of modern politicized history. Of course, the fabrications that he catalogs mean no truth can be derived from connecting those dots. The newspeak of modern academia is clearly designed to fabricate an alternative reality that bears little resemblance to our own and concoct generalizations that support tainted policies.
Such fabrications are so destructive that our imaginations often stop with that thought – and it is an important one for us to ponder and counter. But I would like to discuss a related consequence of this politicization. History that focuses (as much modern history does) on victims, those “forgotten” in the great march of history, loses a sense of causality and responsibility. Here is Windschuttle’s observation on why traditional historians concentrated on Anglo-Celt males:
To show why their society took the form it did and how it responded to its major challenges, historians once invoked causes of a political, military, economic and legal nature. Most of the now favoured sexual and ethnic identity groups played only small roles in this account. This was because for most of the time most of these people were not causally effective: they were the objects rather than the agents of history; they were on the receiving end of major historical events, not their instigators.
He emphasizes “causally” – with causality comes responsibility, without which no action is truly heroic. This is true in small ways and big ones: in the heroic gesture of the jock who stands up to the crowd and champions the nerd, of Churchill as he motivates a country to stand tall. Of course, the former is not as great (as consequential) as the latter – but the former may be inspired by the latter and the latter may come more naturally because such small choices have prepared the imagination. Knowing heroic narratives helps us imagine making better and braver choices. We know Washington did what few men can: he turned down power. This gesture stretched the world’s imagination: America offered an image of Washington turning the reins over to Adams and he to Jefferson. Of course, many other images that were more dashingly heroic might come to mind (say Napoleon being crowned) but that that quiet image of Washington captured the imagination can be seen in the number of republics inspired by such an image.
The Savage within us may upon occasion be noble, but certainly a civilization filled with examples of better behavior leads us to consider other choices; the great move from the tribal to the rule of law expanded our imagination and our sympathies. But modern culture seems to breed that old fatalism. Those responsible are “the man,” an opaque “other.” Our art is more likely to make transparent the pawn, but the pawn who has no responsibility, no consciousness is not all that interesting. Such perceptions have consequences. We may not feel heroic but we also don’t feel responsible. Nothing we do is irrevocable: a vote in Congress, a one-night stand, a marriage.
Sometimes in our pride we want to bring others down to our level rather than reach up to theirs. This seems to be the perspective of the msm. The sympathy it spent, quite appropriately, on those housed in the buildings around Walter Reed Hospital was important – they needed fixing and the country owes these patients a great deal. But the often heroic acts of these and other soldiers are seldom seen in the msm. As victims they were a story – as heroes they were not. But, then, we pay more attention to the Goracle than Norman Borlaug. We reject those who act and choose those who pontificate; we enjoy feeling superior and so pity comes easily to us but apparently not admiration. The good act makes us uncomfortable because we have lost an imaginative sense of the heroic – or any sense that we could be so.
The second half of the twentieth century saw several different strands, all of which led to cynicism. In America, the boomers took over. We became, as perhaps all adolescents do, prideful – we thought we’d discovered sin and death, sex and the great abyss. And we overwhelmed our culture. Some of us remain mired in this phony sophistication, this tired and jaded cynicism – years later we found Foucault struck a sympathetic chord.
We seemed to find it hard to pull ourselves out of this swamp. And our elders may have railed at us, but they had their doubts. Some liked the fact we’d knocked over restraints. And they were sometimes defensive – some institutions needed toppling. The marches on Selma and King’s speeches struck home. Kennedy was assassinated, then Vietnam, then Watergate. And many the child of parents who hadn’t gone to college set off to become educated as their parents had not been. Parents, in their humility, accepted the academic version as truer than their own. (It’s ironic that we confidently broke all the traditions, mocked the old institutions and then, as their generation began to die, we saw them as “the greatest generation.”) Well, we have to admit, some of the bathwater was dirty and sometimes the baby hard to see.
We were cocky – at that age most of us are, but we were reinforced, not least by the fact of our mass. I blanche at the remembrance of giving my conventional brother a copy of Open Marriage as he and his wife set off on what is now a forty-year journey that appears to have brought both of them, their daughter and now grandchildren pleasure in the way that old and great institution can. As we threw away the templates of our fathers, one of the first institutions weakened was the family. Of course, the fifties version was a bit rigid. Still, in the family we see our first and closest heroes. In some quarters (thankfully small but large enough), fathers were seen chiefly as child molesters. They were seldom seen as heroic. Only slowly now have we begun to realize how important a father – a model – is in a house. The statistics pile up – rates of incarceration, grades, drop-out rates, divorce rates, pregnancy rates, depression; the effects clearer and clearer. We do need heroes, we need much that tradition gives, we need the family.
Our cynicism was silly but we didn’t think so. We thought we saw more clearly than anyone before how meaningless life really was. Some of my contemporaries still think they are outside history when they are merely voicing adolescent angst. In their minivans, they have contempt for those who think “plastics” are the answer; they believe they are “authentic.” But actually they have not achieved a more modulated sense of the tragic – they seem constantly surprised that we sin and we die. In the last couple of years, NPR did a short on Benjamin Franklin’s desire to perfect himself. With no sense of the complexity of self-irony (or maturity), they argued Franklin’s list of self-improvement was a piece of satire. Well, Franklin was laughing at himself, but he knew that we can become better even if we can’t become perfect. This was a silly comment, but it was derived from the perspective of adolescent angst – my hero isn’t perfect, an eighteen-year-old cries. Well, of course, a grown-up responds – but oh, what a difference a good act can make anyway.
How often do we hear that segregation or a corrupt police department or McCarthyism or Abu Ghraib or . . . has meant that America is no longer a shining city on the hill. Well, idiots, it never was. And Winthrop didn’t say it was. Winthrop said they had brought with them the picture in their heads of their god, a strong belief that that God was indeed the God. Therefore, they owed it to Him to strive to represent Him in their loving relations with one another. Dismissing any goal that will be difficult (even admittedly impossible) is a bit silly. Heroes try. What makes them heroes is they succeed more often than we, risk more, try harder, achieve more – but that doesn’t mean they won’t fail as well. They will not be perfect. They will strive to perfect themselves. They recognize the difference. Our history is full of such failures. That’s life. But the context is important – sure, we were a slave-holding nation. But few nations paid as much to end it. Sure, we made mistakes. We’ve paid for some of them. We’re still paying for others. That’s life, too. We entered Bosnia, pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait – you can say these are the acts of a crusader, but why is it that more Muslims gain power when our soldiers lose their lives? Have we really taken Iraq’s oil? Let’s at least get some context here.
But it wasn’t just the boomer mentality – the second half of the twentieth century is a reaction to the first half. That a country of people so much like us could be tempted to modern genocide is something we had to face. The utopia of communism in which so many believed so fervently resulted in tens of millions of deaths – this is another fact with which many are uncomfortable. Europe, too, needed to deal with these. Much as the Fugitive Slave Law brought the North to a certain sense of its own culpability and connection to slavery, the fifties brought to Europe a sense of theirs. For the last few months, my husband and I have been recycling the movies of our “formative years” – Bergman, Antonioni, Malle, Bertolucci. The remarkable nihilism of what were then known as “art films” has startled (and depressed) us. The Italians and the French, gifted filmmakers, create a world in which all is meaningless. These movies were no less gut-wrenching, no less beautiful than we had remembered them. But they depress, again and again, with their nihilism, their decadence, their sense of man at the mercy of circumstances, of pointless evil. The protagonists of The Conformist and Lacome, Lucien are not heroes who have fallen but fallible men – children at first – who, molded by great and terrible events, do evil. Bergman and Antonioni create characters who lost their faiths but also their faith that meaningful actions are possible. The power of these movies comes because we are moved by an absence at their cores.
This way of looking at narrative has come to dominate both high art and low in the last half of the century. A few years ago I spent a summer session at Bread Loaf. The cynicism of the instructors and, indeed, the organization appalled many of us of my generation. The professionals who came to read their works shared a remarkable similarity – their narrative voices were all victims, generally children, at the mercy of powerful figures who abused them. None of the voices were self-conscious nor truly imaginative – they were simple victims. These artists shared with Windschuttle’s historians the postmodern view. Causality – heroism – responsibility: these are linked. Victims are acted upon, things happen. Sure, Benjy has the mind of a three-year-old, but Faulkner, as implicit author, has much to say in The Sound and the Fury, as in everything he wrote, about the mythic nature of man, of the spirit within even those who seem unconscious.
Reading the books these later writers would write, watching these movies, we are given no materials to understand heroism, to understand man’s potential. Watching these movies, I’ve become aware of how much we swam in the world of nihilism and of how much we should have felt humble and how seldom we did. Of course we listened to the Beatles in their revolutionary, flying high charm, but our responses were also dominated by Ginsberg and the Beats, Dylan and those influenced by Pete Seeger. We felt scorn for the man who believed plastics were the answer; in our narcissism we thought we were the children our parents were sacrificing to Molloch (even though a good many were sacrificing a good deal to give us better lives than they). We were smug in our superiority (as is so often true of the far left’s elitism) to those in “their little boxes on the hillside.”
And I suspect when we fail to feel humility before the heroic and therefore fail to extend our imagination, we are more vulnerable to that greatest of all human temptations, pride. Romantic pride throws off the restraints in the form of cultural institutions and traditions – it believes it is outside history. The great flaw of the hero has always been pride; the confidence that leads to risk-taking enables the heroic act but it is often entangled with a pride difficult to restrain. However, discounting heroes does not inoculate us against pride – it merely makes our pride more sordid. There is the pride of cynicism, of the Iagos of the world: all motives are suspect, none is capable of the great deed, all soiled. This sniff of disdain is a strange pride that delights in finding our forefathers genocidal, great novelists racists, statesmen venal. Recognizing the inevitable flaws in others is part of growing up. Relishing them is not.
So, we come back to Jonathan’s comment, that perhaps it is not useful to have images in our heads of glorified gangsters. Not, he would argue, of course – as anyone reading anything he ever writes here would assume – that censorship of The Sopranos or of Winter Light or Larry Flynt is a good idea. Nonetheless, there isn’t a lot of reason to fill our minds with the limitations of our possibilities, the meaninglessness of good acts. Of course, our heroes have clay feet – but oh, how much they can do