Thursday, September 18, 2008

We don't need another hero

By Carl

"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you" -- Paul Simon

I read a fascinating essay this morning written by Paul Simon. It had originally been published upon the death of Joe Dimaggio:

A few years after "Mrs. Robinson" rose to No. 1 on the pop charts, I found myself dining at an Italian restaurant where DiMaggio was seated with a party of friends. I'd heard a rumor that he was upset with the song and had considered a lawsuit, so it was with some trepidation that I walked over and introduced myself as its composer. I needn't have worried: he was perfectly cordial and invited me to sit down, whereupon we immediately fell into conversation about the only subject we had in common.

"What I don't understand," he said, "is why you ask where I've gone. I just did a Mr. Coffee commercial, I'm a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank and I haven't gone anywhere."

I said that I didn't mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply. He accepted the explanation and thanked me. We shook hands and said good night.

Heroes are myths.

I don't mean that if heroes didn't exist, we'd have to invent them. No, I mean that we've invented them, and in so doing, have mythologized them as human beings. We've created larger than life, fictional characters out of flesh and blood people, people with foibles and flaws just like you and me.

In Dimaggio's day, it didn't matter that he was a focus-driven, cantakerous old coot who disliked most people and tried to live a solitary life in his silence. Indeed, part of his mythos is that he avoided the spotlight, this paragon of ability and dedication. His 56 game hitting streak is likely the purest of records in sport, falling so far outside the statistical norm for the sport, as Stephen Jay Gould observed.

In Dimaggio's day, all that mattered was the public image he had, his accomplishments on the field, and what few public appearances he made, carefully controlled by his handlers. In co-operation with the sporting press, of course. They understood that America needed heroes, that heroes sold papers back then.

We were a younger country back then. We're much older now. We don't need heroes.

Or so you would think. Part of what I believe the divide is between red staters and blue staters (meaning conservatives and Democrats) centers on heroes. Red staters are determined to have heroes, no matter how flawed they may be. The trouble is, they don't seek out their own heroes. Their heroes are manufactured for them.

A hero is someone you seek out, not for their sake, but for the sake of what they've accomplished. My heroes growing up, and please forgive the heavy sports theme of this post, were Joe Namath, Tom Seaver, Muhammad Ali. They were JFK and RFK and MLK Jr.

And yes, there was Jesus and Moses and Ghandhi, too.

Could the American hockey gold medal have meant half as much if we had won in 1976 at Innsbruck or 1984 at Sarajevo? We needed the mythology, the false construct of defeating our sworn enemy on our own soil. People conveniently forget that victory took place under the Carter administration, so mythified that victory has become. People believe Reagan was already in office!

Somewhere along the way, we lost the thread of heroes. Look around you now, all you see are sympathetic eyes, searching for someone, ANYONE, to point the way ahead, to lead by example.

It is not any wonder, in my view, that our heroes today are fictional characters. Having stripped away the veneer of polite society from our news coverage, allowing our politicians and public figures to become not just clay-footed but clay-legged, -armed, and -chested, we have a need to search out those who we can look to in admiration, without reservation.

Silly Americans.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the release of movies like Star Wars, or the Indiana Jones films, or Rocky or Rambo or The Terminator, or any countless action/adventure movies came at a time when the scales of our eyes were being stripped away by partisan politics determined not to speak for the good of the nation, but for the bad of the politician it faced.

We look for purity, and find it wanting. Even now, the right looks to Sarah Palin as a beacon of "old fashioned values," conveniently forgetting that old fashioned values would have had her sitting in her kitchen preparing dinner instead of running a city into a massive debt and a state for less than two years, or would have her daughter exiled from her home town while she dropped a litter.
And conveniently ignoring that she's about as corrupt a politician as they come.

Similarly, the Democrats looked to Barack Obama for the same reasons: fresh-faced, principled stands, filled with ideas and vinegar.

Conveniently ignoring the fact that his hometown of Chicago is responsible for an awful lot of the corrupt ways that have infested our polity, and that it's impossible for a politician to come out of that untainted.

Harry Truman might have pulled it off, coming out of Kansas City
Pendergast machine, but I doubt it. I seriously doubt that this unassuming man, with little personal charisma and charm and certainly nowhere near either of those qualities as Barack Obama has, was suddenly knighted as untouchably pure.

It appears that Americans are so in need of heroes, real-life heroes, that we'll create them for ourselves.

John McCain? Hero. John Kerry? Hero, but later villified for his heroism.

Sarah Palin? Hero. Hillary Clinton? Hero, but later villified for her heroism.

We just haven't gotten around to villifying McCain/Palin, but we're working on it!

And, as
I posted below, Barack Obama, a man who genuinely worked his way up the ladder on his own merits, hero, but villified for his heroism. But McCain/Palin? Hero.

We just haven't gotten around to villifying McCain/Palin, but we're working on it!

And we will. Win, lose, or draw, McCain's accomplishments will be viewed thru the eyes now of the people who hate him the most, as will Palin's, as will Obama's, as will, eventually, Biden, altho I don't hear many people championing Biden as a hero.

Despite the fact that, indeed, he's picked himself up from tragedy and accomplished much in his life. He might actually BE a hero.

(Cross-posted to
Simply Left Behind.)

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