In an age where image is reality, and Corporate America protects the ‘free market’ at all costs, the meaning of the term ‘hero’ needs to be seriously re-examined.
In a plutocracy, the natural hero is the man who robs a bank.
–William Carlos Williams
There was a time when Americans knew what it meant to be a hero. But thanks to the last few decades of corporate mind control, mass media distortion, and political double speak, the term has lost its meaning. As a result, Americans too often compromise their principles, give in to the “bad guys,” and condemn anyone who questions their motives or points out the flaws in the system. Not a very heroic way to live, yet shouldn’t everyone be a hero in his (or her) own life? In order to answer this question, we need to re-examine what the word itself means. For the definition, I’ll defer to Joseph Campbell, the world’s foremost authority on mythology and author of the classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
According to Campbell, who died in 1987, a hero is an individual who has gone beyond the normal range of human experience to perform an extraordinary act or deed; in addition, he is an individual who is willing to risk or sacrifice his life for a cause greater than himself or other than himself. Historically, the hero has embodied these qualities: honesty, bravery, unselfishness, compassion, inviolate personal ethics, and a commitment to never give up, to fight until the end. Campbell also divides the hero into two subcategories: action heroes, who achieve their objectives through violent or militaristic means, and spiritual heroes, who achieve their objectives through non-violent or passive resistance.
One of the great action heroes of ancient times was King Leonides of Sparta who defended the pass of Thermopylae in northern Greece with only three hundred troops against Xerxes, the Persian King, who had thousands of troops. According to the historical account, Leonides knew he and his men had no chance of victory, but their goal was simply to delay Xerxes and his army in order to give Athens and Sparta more time to prepare their armies for war. “Stand and die” was the battle cry among the three hundred Spartans, and for three days they held off Xerxes’ troops until eventually they were overwhelmed, and each Spartan warrior was killed, including King Leonides. Their noble fight to the finish, however, gave Greece the time to prepare for battle and ultimately win the war against Persia. This act of heroism, which highlights patriotism, bravery, and self-sacrifice, set the standard for military battles for centuries to come.
In contrast, the spiritual hero uses moral rectitude and nonviolence as his tools of the trade, but like the action hero, he is prepared to sacrifice his life if necessary. Socrates and Christ, for example, were two great spiritual heroes who died for their beliefs, as were Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Joan of Arc was a spiritual hero, but a unique one because she was also an action hero (and a woman) who led her troops into battle at a time and in a culture that did not sanction female warriors. Unfortunately, she ultimately sacrificed her own life and became a martyr (dead hero), the fate of many heroes, or as F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, “Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.”
Dating back to the ancient Greeks, the hero was a primary archetype of Western culture and was celebrated in stories and song. During the twentieth century in America, however, the archetype began to change as our society evolved culturally, and by the 1960s, the heroic archetype came under attack. Black Americans, for example, objected to the fact that the mainstream media almost always portrayed a white American in the role of the hero. Women also objected to the fact that most often the hero was a male rather than a female. In addition, the Vietnam War changed the perception of war itself and the role of a hero.
During this era, another archetype evolved: the antihero. The antihero, or alternative hero, as I prefer to call him, embodied many of the same qualities of the traditional hero, but unlike the traditional hero, he was decidedly anti-establishment. The alternative hero, of course, was not a totally new phenomenon; in fact, one could make a case that some of the ancient Greek heroes, Odysseus, for example, could be interpreted as more alternative hero than traditional hero. In more recent times, Dashiell Hammett’s detective character Sam Spade was a classic alternative hero, and Humphrey Bogart, the actor who portrayed him in The Maltese Falcon, the movie version of the book by the same name, became famous for playing alternative heroes in the movies.
The concept of the alternative hero reached its apotheosis during the cultural revolution of the late1960s and early 1970s. During this period, the traditional, clean-cut, God-fearing hero of post World War II America had become corny, passé, and at odds with the prevailing political zeitgeist. He was a relic from another era who represented the “plastic” values of the 1950s establishment. On screen he was embodied by John Wayne, but even “The Duke,” the quintessential western film hero of the World War II generation, was being outgunned and replaced by Clint Eastwood’s gritty new alternative western hero whom he portrayed in “spaghetti westerns” like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The new archetype portrayed by Eastwood was a perfect fit for the Baby Boom generation of the sixties; he was unkempt and iconoclastic, a bounty hunter, not a soldier or a lawman, and he didn’t like taking orders. He was an existentialist who created his own code of ethics, the same way that rebels or gangsters did, and he foreshadowed a changing world where the line between the good guys and the bad guys was becoming progressively more blurred.
But just as the alternative hero replaced the traditional hero, a new archetype, what I call the “corporate hero,” replaced the alternative hero in the 1980s. The new corporate hero was a product of the Reagan era. He was a stalwart proponent of free market capitalism and Ayn Rand objectivism, a staunch anti-communist and disciple of ultra-conservatives like Milton Freedom and William F. Buckley Jr. Where the alternative hero of the sixties was an anti-establishment rebel, the corporate hero of the eighties was a super-establishment businessman. But he was not like Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, the old-fashioned conformist businessman who goes to church on Sundays, gripes about unions and high taxes, and occasionally feels guilty about his affluent lifestyle. No, he was more like Gordon Gecko, the ruthless, greed-driven character Michael Douglass portrays in the movie Wall Street. The Gecko character was patterned after real life cutthroat capitalists like Michael Milkin and Ivan Boesky, both of whom went to jail for their financial misdeeds. Boesky, of course, was credited with coining the term, “Greed is good,” and he spoke for a whole generation of corporate heroes and all-around swell guys like “Chainsaw” Al Dunlop, “Neutron” Jack Welch, and “Kenny Boy” Lay.
Predictably, the mainstream media, forever obeisant to their corporate masters, were quick to lionize these heroes of cutthroat capitalism and couldn’t wait to put them on the front covers of magazines and do flattering interviews with them on television. Even college professors lauded these immoral, ruthless creeps as “smart cookies” worthy of admiration. In fact, I personally know of a case where a professor at a prominent business school actually showed the movie Wall Street to his students not as a cautionary tale of good verses evil, but as a primer on how to be a consummate businessman!
In the old days, this type of corporate hero, who represented greed, ruthlessness, selfishness, and lack of ethics and morals, would have been considered evil and identified as a “villain,” an archetype as old as the hero himself. Charles Dickens, for example, was noted for writing classic villains who fit into this category, and more often than not, his villains were businessmen, like Ebenezer Scrooge, the prototype of the miser who values money above all else. Twentieth century Hollywood continued in the Dickens’ tradition and often depicted the villain as a tightfisted, mean-spirited businessman, such as the despicable, prune-faced banker played by Lionel Barrymore in Frank Capra’s classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Throughout the film, Barrymore tries to financially (and spiritually) ruin the good-hearted hero of the story played by Jimmie Stewart. He almost succeeds too, but an “angel” helps a suicidal Stewart realize what is really important in life, and ultimately good triumphs over evil.
In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the dramatic paradigm of good triumphing over evil was no longer so clear-cut, even in the movies; after all, this was the era of the alternative hero, and many of the villains during this period were no longer portrayed as stereotypical, mustache-twirling businessmen obsessed with schadenfreude. Instead they were often depicted as nondescript members of “the establishment” who were just like your next-door neighbors. Remember the movie Magnum Force? Who would have guessed at the beginning of the film that the clean-cut motorcycle cops who sucked up to Dirty Harry would turn out to be maniacal vigilante killers? In real life, many Americans had the same difficulty believing that political leaders like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were responsible for creating enemies’ lists, lying to the public, and supporting government coups and mass executions in Third World countries. (Many Americans still have difficulty believing it!)
During the 1980s and 1990s, the image of the villain changed again. It had to change, since the corporate hero from the Reagan era, who supplanted the traditional hero and alternative hero, was really a traditional villain in disguise! As a result, villains could no longer be nondescript members of the establishment; they had to become super villains in order to balance the scale with the traditional villains who were masquerading as heroes. And who would combat these super villains? Well, super heroes, of course! (Calling Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarennegger, Chuck Norris!) Perhaps this is why Ronald Reagan always reminded us that the “Godless Communists of the Evil Empire” were the greatest villains of them all. Therefore, in contrast, the ruthless corporate heroes who were running the affairs of the United States seemed downright decent and noble!
But once the Soviet Union disintegrated, a void was created, and our corporate heroes needed a new enemy to step in before the American public discovered their charade and demanded accountability. This became even more urgent after the Enron scandal broke and our corporate heroes were perceived as a bunch of sleazy crooks and unethical scam artists, i.e., traditional villains. But then 9/11 happened– some have said a little too coincidentally!– and the corporate hero/villains of America got a reprieve as Muslim terrorists filled the void as the new super villains. Soon after, the Bush administration, comprised almost exclusively of corporate hero/villains, announced that America had two new super villains to fight: Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. But not to worry! America had the greatest superhero of them all in its corner to meet the challenge, the mighty U.S. military machine, magnificently equipped with a super arsenal of super bombs and super high-tech weapons. Unfortunately, the soldiers who risk their lives in combat to implement our super military machine do so at the behest of the corporate hero/villains who run our government and sit on the boards of our largest companies. Well, perhaps it’s unfair to brand all of them as corporate hero/villains, since some of them fall into our final category of arch types: the “coward.”
A coward is a person who lacks courage, one who is unable to control his fear and shrinks from danger, or fails to live up to his principles or responsibilities. To use a literary example: In Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, the main character of the story is a ship’s captain named Jim who must make a crucial decision during a typhoon at sea. His ship is in imminent danger of capsizing, and his officers have already lowered the lifeboats into the choppy sea, but there are not enough lifeboats for everyone on board, only enough for the officers and the captain. As the captain stands on the deck watching his officers board the lifeboats, he turns and looks at the passengers aboard the ship who are looking to him for leadership and begging him for help. Caught in an ethical crisis, Jim reluctantly turns his back on the passengers and jumps into one of the lifeboats. But the next day, when Jim and his officers arrive at the nearest port, they discover that their ship did not sink after all, and it was saved by another ship. Jim is then found guilty of cowardice by a military court and stripped of his captain’s rank. For the rest of the novel he does penance for his act of cowardice by working at the lowliest of low jobs and taking on the most dangerous assignments available. By the end of the book, he redeems himself and becomes a hero, and finally a martyr.
In modern society, most individuals are not often faced with as dramatic a decision as the one the captain has to make in Lord Jim; nevertheless, we are all faced with similar decisions at one time or another in our lives. The firemen and police who risked their lives on September 11 at the World Trade Center are good examples of individuals who chose the hero’s path rather than the way of the coward. But it isn’t always that simple. In fact, it is often easier to act on instinct and display physical bravery in a life and death situation than it is to display psychological courage or ethical resolve when it involves one’s career or relationship or duty to one’s country, especially when there is time to think about the consequences and weigh the options.
For my generation, the baby boomers, the biggest decision we had to make regarding heroism was whether to go to Vietnam. Using the definitions I have outlined, I believe it was a heroic choice for young men to enlist in the service or allow themselves to be drafted in order to fight for our country. No one can ever take that away from them, and it was wrong for some people on the left to scorn them when they returned home, or call them baby killers. On a personal level, I had friends who went to Vietnam, and I know they believed they were doing the right thing and acting as good Americans, just as Senators John McCain and John Kerry believed at the time. In my estimation, they were all traditional heroes.
But I also believe it was a heroic decision for college students to avoid the draft and protest and demonstrate against the war, as I did, along with many of my contemporaries. It was an unnecessary war that destroyed or divided everyone it touched, and it was not fair for those on the right to ostracize protestors or call them cowards or traitors. For the most part, the Vietnam War protestors that I knew were not cowards or unpatriotic Americans; in fact, many of them were emulating their spiritual or alternative heroes and were acting in accordance with their principles.
During this time, however, there was a third category of eligible young men who decided to take the coward’s way out regarding the Vietnam War. They were the rich or well-connected kids whose daddies got them special deferments or into the National Guard. In truth, they were the ones who didn’t have the guts to fight in the war, or the integrity to protest against it, but they were able to keep their skirts nice and starched and clean so they wouldn’t hurt their future prospects in the business or political world. Today, they are known as “war wimps” or “chicken hawks,” individuals who never went to war themselves, but have no problem sending the sons and daughters of less privileged Americans into battle to fight for them. President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both fall into this category, as do many U.S. Senators, Congressmen, and media pundits.
In ancient times, military leaders like Julius Caesar actually led their men into battle and fought alongside them, thereby gaining their soldiers’ respect and unflagging loyalty. Perhaps if this were still the custom, we would have fewer wars, or at very least braver leaders whom we could truly respect. Imagine, for a moment, if at the beginning of the war in Iraq, a reporter at a press conference had asked President Bush these questions: “Mr. President, since you are Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces and feel so strongly about invading Iraq, even before you get widespread international support, do you intend to personally accompany our troops into battle? In addition, sir, are you going to encourage your own daughters and the sons and daughters of your family and friends to enlist in the military and fight in Iraq?”
The fact that these questions seem absurd illustrates how far removed Americans are from the traditions and values of our heroic forefathers. George Washington, for example, actually did lead his men into battle, and Alexander Hamilton actually did fight and die in a duel to uphold his honor. But that was a different time, a time when many political leaders lived by absolute standards and were willing to die for them. For the most part, today’s political leaders (both foreign and domestic) are too “sophisticated” to adhere to absolute standards or risk their own lives for anything as quaint as honor. In their view, absolutism is reserved for religious fanatics, or well-indoctrinated soldiers, or just plain chumps. Which explains why Saddam Hussein, a secular pragmatist, hid out like a rat during the war in Iraq and ultimately gave up without a fight, even though he had a gun in his possession and could have died in a blaze of glory.
Regarding the current war on terrorism, Bill Maher, the host of Politically Incorrect, got booted off network television when he said that the Islamic suicide bombers who crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11 were not cowards. Strictly speaking, he was right; they were not cowards. Obviously, they were fanatics who were prepared to die for their cause. But were they heroes? Well, this depends on one’s perception. To paraphrase an old joke: An American and a Brit are having a conversation when the name Benedict Arnold comes up. “You mean the American traitor?” the individual from the United States responds. “No, the British patriot!” his counterpart from the United Kingdom counters.
To many Muslims, America is perceived as an evil oppressor who wants to destroy the entire Muslim world. As a result they view the suicide bombers who attacked America on 9/11 as heroes. Naturally, most Americans find it difficult to perceive our enemies as “heroic,” especially when they kill innocent civilians, but it is not correct to dismiss them as cowards either. It’s not that simple. Our government leaders and media pundits cannot insist that our enemies adhere to absolute standards of good and evil, right and wrong, and heroics and cowardice, when they themselves do not abide by these same standards. This is what is known as hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is not heroic. And if our leaders want to be treated with respect and honor and trust by Americans and citizens around the world, they can start by becoming heroes themselves. Then maybe, just maybe, the rest of us will follow.