Thursday, October 22, 2009

What is a hero anyway? (or do we live in an age without them)

I spend the large majority of my time addressing this very question. As a teacher of 9th grade literature, my days are often filled with the likes of Odysseus, Atticus Finch, Guy Montag, Romeo and Juliet, and many others who fit, if not always perfectly, the role of hero. Every year I ask a new set of 14 year olds to tell me what a hero is and year after year the answer fluctuates very little. The qualities these teens list? Unselfish, honest, kind, law-abiding, brave, giving, moral people who do the ‘right’ thing. The problem, of course, arises quickly because, after all, who decides what is right? Who arbitrates what is moral? It can be difficult to introduce to modern American teens a hero who is as admired for his brutality and his ability to lie, as Homer’s Odysseus was. Without fail there is shock at his philandering while his poor, faithful- to- a- fault wife, Penelope, wards off the attentions of a hoard of suitors. There isn’t a deep well of sympathy amongst today’s teenage girls for a man who cheats but excuses himself by saying he never consented ‘in his heart’. The carnage that cleanses the house of Odysseus of the unwelcomed guests rises to a level of brutality that shocks even the jaded among them. Stringing up a a line of faithless female servants and cutting off cods of a disloyal man only to feed them to the dogs is a vengeance most have difficulty acclimating to the someone deemed ‘heroic’. Clearly, what makes a hero changes over the course of time.
I have stood in front of many classes and listened to them debate what qualifies as heroic. Some of these groups are fairly sophisticated some argue that one man’s hero is another man’s terrorist, I’ve heard some go so far as to say that ‘hero’ is a cultural construct and that while the 911 hijackers are, to the American sensibility (and many others for that matter) terrorists, to some they are heroes. It gets really sticky quickly and that’s a good thing. Life is full of contradictions and complexities and for a group of fourteen year olds to show even a cursory knowledge of this is pretty awe inspiring.
I ask them if a flawed person, a cheater, a philanderer, an addict, anyone with a serious moral flaw could be a hero, again they say, ‘it depends’. We discuss the personal shortcomings of such figures as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, both of whom, it has been widely reported, were given to cheating on their spouses. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself if such a person could accomplish today what these men accomplished in their day? Is it possible that this generation is being robbed of its heroes by our insatiable appetite for the details of public figures lives? Would Kennedy and King, were they living today, fall victim to the media’s appetite for the sensational? Could a movement as vital to America as the Civil Rights movement have been stopped in its tracks by a paparazzi lurking in a hotel lobby? Could Kennedy have been impeached because of his marital dalliances?
The questions are disturbing. I want to believe that a movement cannot be stopped by exposing the foibles of a single leader but in the current atmosphere of gotcha journalism, I believe it’s a valid concern. John Edwards is clearly a less-than-stellar husband but he worked diligently to bring light to important issue of poverty. Are there families who could have been helped that aren’t getting the assistance he’d have facilitated if he’d gotten power? Impossible to know. We are far more forgiving than we used to be, Rush Limbaugh was among the most vitriolic critics of ‘drug addicts’ but his slide into addiction has been all but forgotten by his loyalists. One after the other high profile preachers, celebrities, politicians, and various others sit down with talk show hosts in an attempt to receive absolution from the American public and we are more likely than ever to give it. I remember a certain British actor who, after being caught with a prostitute, made his sheepish apology on late night and won his career back. Gone are the days of Fatty Arbuckle, enter the age of redemption.
Ah, but how much forgiveness is too much? It seems that when Hugh Grant sat across from Jay Leno he established the apology script as a staple of modern life. Cheat on your wife? Talk to Oprah. Have an illicit gay encounter that may or may not have placed the state you were charged with preserving in danger? Stand behind a podium and pronounce you’re a ‘gay american’. As far as our ‘heroes’ go, America is addicted to the mea culpa.
So, is this real forgiveness or just the desire to keep the flaws of others on display? Celebrities are afforded the kinds of chances that politicians, at least lately, don’t seem to be getting. Perhaps it’s justifiable, celebrities don’t shape policy. Hard as they try to attach their faces to various causes the people who really influence our daily lives are largely unknown to us. President Obama is beginning to see what George W. Bush must have seen quite clearly, you are always the devil to someone. For liberals, Bush was a good old boy who could barely finish a sentence. Daily we were barraged with his oratory fumblings, he was labeled illiterate and backward because he lacked eloquence. Obama, who suffers no such challenge in elucidation, is routinely maligned for being haughty and elitist. It’s a lose/lose for the ‘hero’ and a win/win for the media.
How will the coming generation find heroes in a society that feeds on the flaws of others? How can we expect our kids to grow up moral people when all around them corruption and bad behavior are on display? People complain regularly about the jaded nature of teens, they lack respect, they lack work ethic, they steep themselves in violence and sexuality, they live in an age when politicians lie, spouses cheat, random violence intrudes on their lives. Well, I ask them, who hasn’t? Since the beginning of time people have found hope in morally imperfect heroes: Odysseus, Beowulf, Lancelot, even Leopold Bloom. While we adults sit around lamenting the loss of moral certainty, the slow slide into depravity, the loss of morally sound role models, it’s the fourteen year olds that haven’t lost focus. As almost any teen can tell you, heroes aren’t perfect. Teens don't seem as obsessed with the paradoxes as we adults do, they understand imperfection and know how to dig the hero out from underneath the rubble.