May 1, 2006, contrib.andrew.cmu.edu, Heroism, by Donald Lance Cardwell.
Heroism We cant all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by. -Will Rogers By, Donald Lance Cardwell Prepared for Professor Lavin American Political Thought. source: contrib.andrew.cmu.edu .
The moral fabric that formed The United States of America is without question composed of highly moral, super-individualistic, and ultra-nationalistic heroes. Most of us were raised with rich traditions holding that our great nation was founded by strong, self reliant, mammoths of society that could shape the face of this earth seemingly through their will and strength alone. We revere such figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin as the Founders of America, citing them with only a handful of others as directly responsible for the formation of Americas foundational roots. Similarly, the writing of our guiding laws, The Constitution and The Bill of Rights, was undertaken by a few individuals who had the knowledge and foresight to envisage the future to such a grand extent that the principles that they laid down are still capable of being the guiding principles which motivate each and every American. (Wootten, The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers) This complex individualistic heroism is not something that is confined to the time period around the founding of our Nation. To the contrary, the principle of super-individuals changing the course of our nation has always been the theme of The United States. Take for example, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, Davy Crockett, and George Patton. Let us even go so far as to take into account the fictional characters that serve as inspirations for American society such as Paul Bunyan, Superman, Captain America, Rambo, and the countless characters played by John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood. While other societies certainly have their own traditions of heroes and daring-do, it is difficult if not impossible to find other examples comparable to the scope and variety of those formed during the relatively short history of America. This genetic individualism is exemplified in The Bill of Rights quite clearly; it grants rights to people or persons, as opposed to groups or organizations. Such ideas have been so ingrained into each upcoming generation that the rugged individualist came to be the archetypal representation of what it means to be American. As such, the concept ofindividualism, until recently, never took a serious hit in the minds and hearts of the vast majority of Americans, not even when the Marxist ideals of the early 1900s were sweeping across the world. Historically, Americans have stayed consistently firm in their conviction to be the deciders of their own fates. The most ready example of Americans ideal of Individualism and what it is to be anAmerican hero is to be found in that iconic building block of the countrys national ethic: The American Dream. The American Dream, with few exceptions, has been passed down, unaltered from our Founding Fathers to the youngest of our schoolchildren. The American Dream is defined today as, →the belief held by many in the United States of America that through hard work, courage and determination one can achieve a better life for oneself, usually through financial prosperity (American Dream, Wikipedia). This notion has been held in high esteemand believed by so many that aspirations have been centered nearly completely on it. Thus, to speak of what it means to be an individual, or to conceive of being a hero, came to derive its meaning largely from the American Dream. The first truly great American success story comes from one of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin. An analysis of Franklins story will serve to show how the American Dreamremained intact until quite recently, and second it will give us an insight into the seminal beginnings of such an ideal. Benjamin Franklins Autobiography amounts to a large manual on how to live ones life. In the second section of this work, the people were asking, even begging for the then great leader Franklin to tell them what had contributed to his fantastic success. Franklin acquiesced and went so far as to give a list so that everyone may follow in his footsteps.
The list includes such terms as temperance, frugality, industry, justice, moderation, order, and humility. (Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography and Other Writings) Franklins ideal of success, in summary of his Autobiography, is to attain virtue from wealth, and to achieve wealth by pursuing chiefly industry and frugality. Success is then defined as being respected, well-rounded, educated. However, the most important element of success, as it drives all the others, is wealth. When Franklin tells his story, he spends minimal time on the interactions, environment, and people that contributed to his success, instead focusing almost exclusively on his own actions. This type of story-telling, practically invented by Franklin, is in a nut-shell the American Dream. According to Franklin one man and one man alone is responsible for all the success that he has achieved throughout his lifetime, and that man is none other than himself. (Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography and Other Writings) The idea of individualism and the American Dream turns from an abstract notion that, though articulated by Franklin, was never as clearly understood as it was by Ralph Waldo Emerson. For Emerson, the essential American is one who acts on his own accord for his own reasons and succeeds. Emerson even stated, To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius (Emerson, Essay II- Self Reliance). Emersons ideal genius is a figure who stands up to the status quo, one who fights for unique ideas in the belief that they hold the key to right. In this vein he points to such individuals as Moses, Plato, and Milton. With this view, more pronounced than that which was to be found in Franklin, Emerson sees the community as a bunch of mediocre beings. If we are to phrase this in another manner, it seems that he is simply saying that no good can come of being a normal member of a community. No more can a person be sufficient simply by providing for his needs and being happy with his place in life. Emerson sees the gentle acquiescence to normalcy as a defeat in itself. The only way to become a great American, a great individual, a hero, is to step outside of the community and assert your own knowledge on your surroundings until your surroundings submit to your advances. (Emerson, Essay II- Self Reliance) Perhaps the clearest picture of Emersons heroic figure would be that of the mountain man, conquering the vast untouched wilderness with only his bare hands, knowledge, and desire. The mountain man forces everything around him into his view of the world, either by force or manipulation, and therefore he can be said to be a quintessential individual. Or perhaps we should look at the farmers who settled the West. These great individuals set out with their unique ideals of what needed to be done, and they imposed those ideals on the lands that they settled, forcing the environment around them to fit their conception. The most important aspect of all of this was that the individual acted on the principles and knowledge in which he believed. For Emerson, this was the most basic element required to define an individual/hero. (Emerson, Essay II- Self Reliance) Skipping forward to the time of Horatio Alger and the mid- to- late 1800s finds this famous author of the day writing books for young boys. These books, though entertaining, are not devoid of messages and ideas that are to be conveyed to the reader. As can be imagined, the central idea is none other than the American Dream. Horatio Alger adds in luck, good looks, and talent to bring the American Dream up to date. Now, not only does one need to be successful, virtuous, frugal, and industrious, but the heroic individual must be a model of perfection physically as well. Not everyone who possesses said characteristics as outlined by Franklin is guaranteed the designation of hero, as they may not have Algers further requirements of luck and the ability to capitalize on such good fortunes. Thus he places the finishing touches upon the modern ideal of individualism as most people recognize it today. Algers character Ragged Dick, in the book Ragged Dick Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks, symbolizes the American Dream nicely. Dick is handsome, talented, sociable, trustworthy, and completely self-sufficient. He is granted a golden opportunity by a passing stranger and he is able to capitalize on that opportunity to essentially remake himself into everything he could ever hope to be. (Alger, Ragged Dick or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks) At this point some may take the position of nay-sayer, claiming that America has crawled out of such a singular, individualistic notion of success instead moving towards a more group-oriented concept. Those individuals might point to the Civil Rights Movement in America or the Feminist Movement and say that now success can only be defined through the victory of groups, classes, organizations, movements, or communities over malevolent forces. This view of the current situation in America does not hold up to closer examination though, as it merely serves to show us the exceptions to the rule. The rule then is that the American Dream is alive now more than ever. Individualism is tied to heroism, spawning the American Dream in such a way that, in the contemporary mind, they fail to exist as separate and distinct concepts apart from each other. Examples are many; take a look at Hollywood. For years the movie making industry has capitalized on Americas infatuation with the storyline of either taking a man from nothing and making him into the hero of the century, or taking an already made hero and detailing his exploits. Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Wesley Snipes, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Vin Diesel, Denzel Washington, Bruce Lee, Bruce Willis and countless others are just a few examples of Hollywoods penchant for making a singular individual larger than life, and Americas tendency to spend good money to watch the process over and over again. Now try to think back to a movie where there was no lead actor transcending some sort of communal norm. Not even chick flicks are safe from this heroic posturing, as the female victors in these films are required to endure some immense trial or separation that transcends the normal feelings that would be felt by any other member of the community. Comic book heroes such as Superman, Captain America, Spiderman, Batman, the Incredible Hulk, and Atom Ant are just a few of the countless heroes of Americas youth. It seems that no child can be left untouched by such individualistic figures that serve to personify the American Dream in so many shapes. In the real world, todays heroes are figures like Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, LeBron James, and other athletic supermen. In the business world, Bill Gates reigns supreme, and the music industry is lead by raucous lead singers spanning the spectrum from Britney Spears to Kid Rock. All of todays role models transcend the community. Figures whom as professional athletes are already part of an extremely elevated community transcend even the higher expectations of that community, birthing larger-than-life rock star personas.The symbiotic relationship between the American Dream and individual heroism, and the intertwining of these concepts with the history of American success in most realms of human endeavor can no longer be disputed after such a long list of examples. The question then is; To what degree does this overwhelming religion of hero worship influence the average contemporary American person, and to what ends? Ian Levisons, A Working Stiffs Manifesto, A Memoir, lends us the perfect vision of what is becoming of our beloved American Dream along with individualism and the intersection of the two: Americas infatuation with hero worship. Levison tells us his story of bumping around through various jobs in his quest to be the next great American writer. It soon becomes quite evident though, that while Levison has the best intentions, and is more than willing to learn new skills, the work environment is not conducive to a productive work atmosphere. The discrepancies in pay, the constant micro-managing, job insecurity, and having no vested interest in the products of his labor lead to increasing dissatisfaction throughout the story. Levison says of his fruitless search for meaning in his manual labor, In the last ten years, Ive had forty-two jobs in six states (Levison, A Working Stiffs Manifesto, A Memoir). The sheer number of jobs attempted owes itself to the proposition that the labor, not the laborer, leaves something to be desired. (Levison, A Working Stiffs Manifesto, A Memoir) Another wonderful example of the American Dream grinding to a screeching halt is offered to us by the playwright Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman. The story, Death of a Salesman is centered on the withering away of an old salesman named Willy Loman. Willy Loman has staked his entire career in the service industry, and he had hoped to by this point be able to make a comfortable living by working from his house, making calls on reliable customers to support his family throughout his old age up until his death. The stinging truth of the matter becomes blatantly clear to all those around Willy that his dream-world of prosperity and ease of existence will never materialize. Willy is destined to shrivel into oblivion, incapable of rising above his meager status to achieve anything more than borrowing from friends for subsistence. (Miller, Death of a Salesman) Willys downfall is not so self-evident though, and it takes Biff, Willys lack-luster son to draw out the true cause of Willys demise. Biff points out that Willy has a faulty view of the world because of his insistence in the American Dream and the idea that an individual, simply because of his likeability can aspire and attain financial stability. Here, the American Dream is seen to crumble, and along with it goes individualism and heroism. (Miller, Death of a Salesman) We live today in a society where hero worship has led to the downfall of countless millions of Individuals. The role models, the key figures in the press, all lead Americans down a path from which unimaginable amounts of suffering derive. Why do these random figures of the media impose so highly upon our lives? It is obvious: We were raised for it. Instead of having the communal ideas of Founding Fathers before us (Wootten, The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers), we felt the need to attach to some other hero. A hero for every generation, a sort of leader upon which we can hang our preconceived notions of success and watch those ideas come to fruition. The saddest part of the whole thing is Americans believe we need these heroes so badly now because the American Dream has infiltrated every aspect of our life so deeply.Our entire moral, social, and economic fabric is supposed to be tied up in this idea of individualism, and out of that individualism rises heroes who are able to beat the odds. Yet something has destroyed the focus upon those who truly deserve the moniker, hero. Take one look at how many heroes exist in our society today. The pool is limited mainly to the elites in athletics, entertainment, and the wealthy. Contrast that pool with how many people we have in America today. Now think of all those people that will never be considered a hero, simply because the American concept of what heroism is has shriveled to an anemic shell of what it once was. Ever wonder how this thing called the mid-life crisis came about? It seems a rather logical connection: Its a short distance from the prostitution of the rugged individual to hopelessness that manifests itself in a frenetic search for meaning at a time of life when that meaning should be realized. Individual heroism has become the unattainable pipe dream of a frightening number of Americans who are succumbing to the reality of their impotence to make a significant impression on the world around them. In few previous situations have human beings been so disenchanted from their work, leading them to question their roles in society, relationships, and the culture at large. People are coming face to face with the realization that the modern corrupted notion of what has become the contemporary American Dream is an abomination. People are bumping up against the ends of society and seeing that those ideas of bringing oneself up by their bootstraps is all just hocus pocus. Instead of citizens of America enjoying their existence, firmly believing in their place in society, people are disillusioned. Many have fallen into a societal malaise, failing to live up to Levisons, Rule One: Whatever you do, never stop bullshitting yourself that youre important. Rule One keeps a lot of people sane. Quite simply, too many people lack the optimism it takes to consistently adhere to Rule One. (Levison, A Working Stiffs Manifesto, A Memoir) Instead of Americans trying to regain what is lost, perhaps it is time to come to grips with the truth. Were people ever really as important as the American Dream told them they were? This argument of a false sense of individualism and a need for something else is not new. Socialists, Marxists, Communists, Abolitionists, Civil Rights Leaders, and Black Nationalist leaders all see the need to rework our beloved American Dream, and thus in turn heroism. W. E. B. DuBois saw the need for change in our model of individualism, as he saw the blatant inability of the black population to achieve gains in social or economic status on an individual level. Instead DuBois wanted to suggest a model of cooperation with whites and the United States Government aiding the blacks freed after the Civil War. This sense of cooperation and sharing is a beginning step in the acknowledgement of the inability of an individual to make any change in society, either economically, socially, morally, or so on, without the aid of groups. DuBois stopped short of placing this stricture on all individuals however, reserving it for black individuals who were under the restrictions of American society at the time. The scope of the economic burden that rendered the black individuals in DuBois narrative to be incapable of achieving change on their own accord has grown widely, and now encapsulates much more than just the black population, instead engulfing all races and most economic tiers of America. (Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk) Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X both saw the need for groups and organizations to ensure change (King, Letter From Birmingham Jail; Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet) Labor Unions have gained great victories for the workers ever since their inception in America. Feminist movements, Immigration movements, and Gay Rights movements have all had to band together out of necessity. No longer do we live in a society where a person can be through and through an individual. No longer are the days when one man can change the face of the world, if ever such a time did indeed exist. Groups, gatherings, communities, mutual bodies and movements are all necessary entities in todays world for even a minimal amount of change to occur.For those who fail to accept the inevitability of a less individual individual lies the path of the defeated hero. These people are doomed to feelings of inadequacy, as it is impossible to measure up to an idealistic and fully individual hero figure while living in a society that is so very effective at stifling individuals. The only option then is to move towards a direction that is opined by John Dewey. Dewey believes that Americans not only need to realize the need for social groups and organizations, which to some degree they have, they also need to believe in the ideals which are championed by such groups. (Dewey, Individualism Old and New)
While this does not mean that individualistic heroes will be eradicated, it does mean that a new paradigm, albeit a shallow and superficial paradigm, has been lifted up as the source fromwhich Americans derive their motivations. Whether or not the American dream and its commensurate fascination with heroism and individualism was ever a realistic ideal is truly a secondary issue; it was the worlds belief in the American Dream that propelled America into its position of world prominence and ability to provide success to individuals. Sadly the American Dream metamorphosed into a monster that could not deliver even the illusion that it ultimately came to represent, thus becoming a force for demotivation as opposed to the motivator it once was. Thus a move towards a social consensus of groupings and the necessity for organizational lockstep became a sad necessity, complimenting the vast overarching power of a world run by industrialization.
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Rogers, Will, from a Newspaper article, Feb. 15, 1925,