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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner

Posted: November 30, 2010 09:25 AM

Nations deserve the heroes they get. A hero is one part the actuality of person and performance; three parts need of the observer for confirmation, reassurance, hope. Heroes are made more by the yearnings of others than by their own features and feats. Where the intensity of those needs stunts critical faculties, the powers of illusion and self-delusion grow. That holds for the object of hero worship as well -- for the emotional currents flow both ways.

Heroes are enemies of truth. For they evoke powerful feelings that give distorted meanings to inchoate emotions. They provide the personified symbols of legendary dimension that inspire unjustified confidence and offer the comfort of a cult. Thoughtless loyalty follows.

Contemporary America's craving is exceptional. It is diffuse yet at the same time self centered. Each one of us badly wishes to have the mythology of our collective identity and meaning restored. Abstract yet omnipresent, few can cope without it. The personal resources of our fabled individualism quickly run dry without the steady sustenance provided by the blind belief in our exceptional virtue, competence and claim on the future. Suspicions that we may not be destiny's child born under a providential star erodes the optimistic self confidence that is our lifeblood.

Now too much has gone awry, that is out of alignment with our emotional compass. Some registers in concrete ways; some is more sensed than consciously experienced. Minor irritants stand for a deeper malaise. No survey data can reveal the hurts inflicted by our wasteful, immoral wars foisted upon us by deceitful leaders exploiting our anxieties and gullibility. That only 2 percent may place them among our biggest national worries at the moment is a sign of sublimation rather than their discounting. As for the loss of faith in our institutions -- private and public -- from financial kleptomania and the compromised actions of government, it has become free floating. A constant presence that aggravates every fear and uncertainty.

This affliction touches even those who are not directly affected by our woeful performance at home and abroad. And the affected are numerous. Add together those with kin embroiled in our Middle Eastern adventures, the un/under employed, those hit by diminished benefits, those stuck with 'underwater' houses, and you have a substantial percentage of the population. It is surpassed by the much larger number who feel the pernicious effects on America's sense of self and what it bodes for the future. The diffuseness of want and need gives a peculiar twist to the hero phenomenon.

Those who have emerged as saviors offer no plan to resolve our tangible problems, no exciting doctrine of salvation, no fresh vision. Instead, they are amplifiers of our discontents with a gift for bolstering faith that restoration of the true and authentic America is within our grasp. It's the eternal American story of self redemption and self-realization that admits of no flaw in our basic character. Whatever is out of kilter just has to be fixed. There are villains, of course; there have to be. How else to explain that the Eldorado express has gone off the rails.

For the Tea Partiers, it's big, bad government who have taken away our freedoms -- freedoms, which if left intact, would have ensured triumph and prosperity. For others, it's all those venal politicians whose doings we can't be bothered to follow but who have betrayed us goo-- that, too, we can't be bothered to figure out -- the American ethic of earned reward. For all, it's the evil doers 'out there', abetted by soft headed apologists at home, who have put us it risk. Indeed, everyone 'out there' is suspect because 'they' don't appreciate what we have done for them and how vested 'they' are in America's success.

This is congenial terrain for would-be heroes of a peculiar type. The celebrity seeker, the hustler, the specialist in self promotion, the master conjurer of virtual realities so adept that he even cons himself -- these are the persons with the right stuff for the place and the times. They share one characteristic: they are not serious people. Therein lies a measure of hope even as we despair for a culture that produces them in profusion and promotes them.

This is not as incongruous as it may first appear. A touch of frivolity has advantages. It makes them more 'approachable,' i.e. emotionally accessible, which is something egalitarian Americans place great stock in. Somebody seen as an 'average Joe' gains trust and a claim on sympathetic attention far more easily than an 'elitist' figure. Fractured syntax, cavalier ignorance and primitive logic offer the reassuring comfort that he's one of us. Too, an element of nuttiness adds to their entertainment value. So, too, does good looks. As some wag quipped, Sarah Palin is to American presidential politics what Misty May has been to beach volley ball. (Apologies to a Gold Medalist.) For when it comes down to it, most of the distressed seek catharsis rather than salvation in any true sense. If we feel better about ourselves, our predicament is on the way to being solved -- or so our pop psychology says is how it works.

A crude parody of FDR's "the only thing we have to fear....is fear itself." The spectacle is an exercise in collective self-improvement that observes the same user friendly philosophy incorporated in the eye catching tracts that occupy hundreds of shelf feet in Barnes & Noble and Borders. They usually are placed right next to the 'Christian Literature' section. The complementarity is striking at Tea party events where Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann or Glenn Beck is in the limelight such as occurred at the Washington Mall gospel rally.

Is it proper to call these people 'heroes?' I think 'yes' -- for very substantial numbers of people. For the line between those who earn fame through accomplishment and those whose celebrity is based on some quirky personal qualities is obscure. The absence of the former in contemporary American society blurs the distinction even further (sports stars aside). Having maneuvered oneself onto center stage, the now public personality is accorded respectful treatment just because he or she is there and getting adulation from lots of folks. It is this circularity of celebrity, fame and 'heroism' in American pop politics that is at once derisory and frightening.

The confusion reaches even into the august realm of The New York Times. In November of this year, the editors of our journal of record published the following: a lead story in the Sunday Magazine (cover photo and all) of Glenn Beck that cited neither his crazed, outrageous lies and defamations nor serious criticism of the Beck phenomenon; a lead story in the Sunday Business Section that same day (replete with half page photo) of Ann Coulter's ambitious plans to diversify her 'product' -- again without reference to her scandalous public slanders; yet another lead story in the Sunday Magazine (cover photo and all) on Sarah Palin that cited neither her outpouring of slanders, race baiting and gross lies nor serious analysis of what the Palin phenomenon says about the depravity of American public discourse.

The Times' penchant for milking the maximum entertainment value from the nation's weirdo politics was evinced as well in the exaggerated attention it paid other Tea Partiers. Christine O'Donnell, Ron Paul and Sharon Angle were all the subject of several long stories that offered solemn coverage of their campaign organization, planning, 'message' etc. Strikingly, none of the other dozen or so senatorial candidates received more than the most cursory journalistic attention. But they weren't celebrities, they were not colorful, they didn't titillate readers by their looneyness. All of these characters featured in the Times are from the far right fringe. No leftist counterparts offset them. This is not political bias. I'm sure that their response to any suggestion of bias would be: "It's not our fault there aren't equally weird and wonderful kooks on the left; cultivate a crop of crackpots and we'd be glad to give them the same coverage." That's what journalist fairness means in our postmodern politics.

So the Times' new motto is: "All The News That's Fit To Sell." The collateral damage to the caliber of America's public discourse is treated as just incidental.

It was the same editorial state of mind that months earlier led to another magazine piece that examined closely the compelling issue of new plot lines in the Hollywood's porn industry as the answer to its recession era financial blues. Weimar on the Hudson? The merging of the Times' journalistic persona with that of People may also have to do with the bottom line of a corporation that has strayed so far from its calling as to invest in a troubled English soccer franchise (Liverpool). One is tempted to ridicule all this as just a bizarre example of how the money culture and celebrity culture have come together. But it is no laughing matter to lend legitimacy and validation to absurd people who are the agents for a dangerous warping of our public life even if themselves no direct threat to the integrity of our democracy.

Why is it that all segments of American society are so credulous, so literally mindless, so lacking perspective, so unready or unwilling to call the burlesque that is contemporary American politics what it is? Is it the power of the moneyed interests? The ruthlessness of the Republicans who put their claim to exclusive power above the national interest? Is it that we have not the gumption to face squarely what we have become? To admit to ourselves and to the world our foibles and our fears? Is it the laziness of our elites and their lack of appetite for a fight that match their lack of conviction? Is it a supposedly high minded president who approaches the prospect of any conflict with all the temerity of a gazelle readying itself to cross a crocodile infested river in the Serengeti?

My guess: all of the above.