The End of Heroes

The Idea: The reason why, in 2005, anti-heroes are in and heroes are out.

roseanneMany people lament that “there are no heroes anymore”, but that criticism is somewhat unfair. In our age of speed-of-light change and fifteen minutes of fame, we forget that heroes emerge over time, and few people become heroes in their own lifetimes. If we want to look for heroes, we need to look back a generation or two, something that is very unfashionable these days when knowledge of the lessons of history, even by our ‘leaders’, is pretty abysmal.

The word ‘hero’ dates back to ancient Greece, and refers to a person of exceptional or exemplary ancestry (noble ancestry was once revered more than it is today), character, talents, discoveries, inventions or achievements. We now expect heroes to have overcome adversity, but that was not originally a requirement. Heroes are, in essence, role models, the protagonists of our lore (“knowledge or learning passed down through generations”). Heroes were essential characters in early oral story-telling culture. We learned from their stories, and aspired to follow their examples.

Many of our early heroes became myths: Their exploits became so widely known and accepted that their veracity ceased to be important. It was the learnings from their story that counted. More recently, our passion for science has reduced our appetite for mythological characters (indeed, we pride ourselves on ‘exploding’ myths rather than learning from them), though they remain, tellingly, an important part of our teaching of children.

The democratization of language and culture quickly gave rise, in medieval times, to the concept of a ‘folk hero’, a hero of the people, someone unprivileged by birth or natural talent that the average person could better relate to than the godlike heroes of ancient times. The next step was the creation of anti-heroes, protagonists of stories (still popular today) who lacked the special qualities of heroes but were somehow still sympathetic, usually because they struggled, successfully or not, in ways and with problems that the people could relate to. In fact, when we are not exploding myths, we are often found to be creating anti-stories that debunk stories about heroes and successes that we deeply suspect because we see them as propaganda (and stories are excellent vehicles for propaganda).

So our modern stories tend to be anti-stories about anti-heroes, deeply cynical, yet comforting and still inspiring — most people can relate better to a rough-edged, trash-talking Erin Brockovich than to a saintly Mother Theresa. These are stories for times of modest expectations and pessimism. We no longer have an appetite for ‘true’ heroes in the classical mold — the astronauts who landed on the moon, the team that eradicated smallpox, the group that mapped the human genome — because we no longer believe true heroism is possible for the average, helpless, cog-in-the-machine human. If we cannot aspire to heroism ourselves, what is the point of recognizing it in others? What lesson can there possibly be in this except that we are beyond hope and redemption?

Our modern, hollow substitute for the hero is the ‘star’: someone who has become extraordinarily rich, famous or powerful. So deep is our cynicism that what we enjoy most is seeing these stars — who we generally believe achieved what they did not through heroism but through sheer dumb luck, connections, inherited wealth or power, or manipulation and exploitation of the weaknesses of the ‘star’ systems — suffer tragedy and misfortune. It is our way of reassuring ourselves that the system is not rigged against us, that there is still hope for each of us, unprivileged, to become, if not heroes, then at least anti-heroes. These great falls — from the pinnacles of sport adulation, artistic celebrity or business success extraordinaire — also give us an excuse not to aspire to be more than we are, or solace when we try and fail.

We may get a perverse joy from seeing giants fall, but to see an anti-hero fail is deeply troubling. “This is a guy who struggled just like me, and managed by sheer perseverance or street smarts or ingenuity to beat The Man every once in awhile, and now look at him.” This, I think, is why the finale of Roseanne, the ultimate anti-hero, raised such howls of protest. How dare they allow this woman who courageously and cleverly gave the world the finger each week to end up pathetic and tragic, all her triumphs suddenly exposed as self-delusions?

The outrage over anti-hero stories ending in defeat is based in the religious myth of salvation. If you’re bad, inept, weak, or just plain mediocre but you struggle on, you’re supposed to be rewarded, saved, redeemed, forgiven. If you made it to anti-hero and then you just die in an accident, give up, go off the wagon for good, take your own life, what hope is there for the rest of us?

We don’t look for heroes any more because we cannot hope to follow their example. It’s learned helplessness again. We want anti-heroes we can laugh at, and make us feel by comparison competent, superior. And then we want them to struggle and succeed, kind of. Because if they can make it, then imagine what we could do. No, nothing that heroic, but better than him.

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