The American Hero
In the 1950s the birth of the national security state coincided precisely with the peak of cinematic and television westerns, which have been America’s primary image to itself and the world. Westerns had been central to the movies from the beginning. In 1910, they comprised more than 20% of American movies, and the trend continued well into the second half of the century. As late as 1959, westerns comprised a quarter of all prime-time network hours.
Who is the western hero? Besides his willingness to engage in extreme violence, what are his primary characteristics? Surprisingly, many films, novels and comic books cast him as widowed or divorced, as John Wayne is in many of his best-known films: Red River, The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers, but also in non-westerns such as Sands of Iwo Jima.
Other heroes in our literature – dozens of them, as we will see – are loners who reject any enduring erotic relationships.
Seen from the perspective of Depth Psychology, these characters lack a balanced connection with the feminine. They symbolize the man who has not had – or failed – an initiatory confrontation with the feminine depths of his soul. Such a man carries a sense of danger that is undeniably attractive – he is the “demon lover.” Through him, we vicariously live out our own longing for symbolic, initiatory death, which he approaches literally. Yet, considering this description, we must ask: how different is he from the suicidal terrorist / martyr? Robin Morgan writes, “In that he seeks (or risks) exalted annihilation, and threatens (or promises) the same, he magnetizes us as an avatar of power.” Except for the presumption that he is on the side of “good”, perhaps there is little difference.
These western images convey the myth of violent redemption. “Most viewers,” write Robert Jewett and John Lawrence, “…are not aware of being ritually instructed, because myths derive from and appeal to the unconscious rather than the conscious mind.” The issue to understand is violence. In myth violence can be meaningful; it moves toward symbolic death and renewal. But stories in our demythologized world are themselves demythologized, conveying only what Joseph Campbell called the sociological level of myth. In American popular culture this implies innocence. The lone hero never initiates the mayhem, although he reluctantly gives it back many-fold. He may be imperfect, wounded, comic, self-parody or complicated anti-hero, but both he and those he saves remain innocent of any complicity in the problems that he solves; thus his violence is rarely symbolic of deeper meaning.
American English has cheapened the word hero and diluted its potency. Consider that for at least four generations, the media have associated fictional heroes with the actors who portray them. In the culture of celebrity there is very little difference between Sylvester Stallone and Rambo, or between Arnold Schwartzenegger’s political persona and the high-tech vigilantes he portrays (yes, he still portrays them).
What does it mean that these men and others such as Harrison Ford and Chuck Norris continue to portray macho heroes well into their seventies? Have they helped lay the groundwork for national acceptance of an adolescent president?
But at least these men are actors, who have made art of a sort. At least they have done something creative. But we are in a different world now.
Ronald Reagan was a celebrity, an expert at portraying derived values rather than anything heroic or creative that he himself had achieved. Of course, he too had been an actor, but we are talking about his second career as a commercial spokesman that led to his third as a political spokesman.
Celebrities are famous simply for being famous; we often have no idea how they entered our awareness. We admire them for being who they are, not for what they have done for us. Joel Kovel argues that Reagan in particular was so persuasive (other actors had entered politics without attaining his status) precisely because he could barely distinguish his life from his role. As President, he “played Ronald Reagan.” Reagan himself, with rare candor, once admitted, “The camera doesn’t lie. Eventually you are what you are.”
The greatest example of the pathological confusion of actor and image, of course, is John Wayne. Where did the man end and his stereotyped patriotic role begin, especially with his public persona as right-wing spokesman? Those images were overwhelmingly present in the psyches of three generations of American men, and even today his films are required viewing for recruits at military academies, where his name is so common as to be a figure of speech, an adjective or a verb. Even liberals are entranced. Jimmy Carter eulogized Wayne: “He was bigger than life…He embodies the enduring American values of individualism, relentless bravery and perseverance in pursuit of what is right.” Robert Bly, on the other hand, used to joke at men’s conferences that the only images of masculinity available to young men coming of age in the 1960’s were Wayne and his reverse-image, the “wimpy” Woody Allen.
The heroic image is now not merely American; it follows the media everywhere. Barbara Ehrenreich writes of “Rambo culture”: in the 1980’s and 1990’s soldiers in Chechnya, Serbia and Liberia affected Rambo-style headbands and sleeveless muscle-shirts. She observes that the old warrior ideal has become a commodity in global consumer culture:
With Rambo…Hollywood offers up a denationalized, generic warrior-hero, a man of few words and limited loyalties, suitable for universal emulation.
Politicians further cheapen the image by assigning it to persons who have done nothing courageous but have been arbitrarily victimized in the normal course of their jobs. As a result, we confuse heroes and victims. When we do hear of individuals, such as the firefighters of 9/11, who actually do sacrifice themselves to save others, we are left with only this de-potentiated, over-used term – hero – to describe them.
Contemporary expressions of actual heroism tend to fall into the patriarchal trap – the erasure of feminine values – regardless of what cause the hero serves. Feminists can cite countless examples of how they frequently initiate progressive political movements, only to be pushed aside once men become involved. Then, writes Morgan,
A fatal shift in tone occurs – a slide from…spiritual integrity (now regarded as sentimental, idealistic, womanly) into self-righteousness.
Predictably, the men become obsessed with a higher abstract good, and soon the tone shifts from “living for a cause” to “dying for a cause.” They take something that was conceived in images of integration and turn it into a heroic duality: with us or against us.
The hero myth underlies the fields of surgery and emergency medicine as well. To the degree that doctors focus on the single goal of prolonging life – to the exclusion of quality of life – there are two myths operating. One is the denial of death. The other, closely related, is the hero myth. In extreme cases, the doctor affects a shift, from an event that centers on the patient to one that centers on him, as the individual savior, intent, like the mythical Achilles, on achieving fame and honor. It becomes less about the patient’s desire to heal and more about the doctor’s heroic quest. By contrast, palliative care, with its goal of alleviating pain and facilitating a good death, expresses other mythic images: Hermes, as guide between the worlds; and Artemis, patroness of childbirth, that other most fundamental of transitions.
The hero disdains the feminine because, in his uninitiated state, he has never fully separated from the orbit of his mother. Unlike classic heroes such as Heracles, who serve the mother goddess (“Heracles” means “Glory of Hera”), the modern hero reacts against his fear of (or longing for) engulfment by constructing a thin veneer of machismo. But his shadow hides just below: the needy, dependent and vulnerable child. For every hero, said James Hillman, there is a child in the background.
So the cult of the hero and the myth of innocence merge to create a culture of victimization: perpetually wounded and/or angry “adult children” who prefer the kinds of political and religious approaches that please children, writes Lyn Cowan. These include “simple solutions, literal thinking, and singularity of viewpoint.” A grand circularity: literal thinking produces people who can only think literally (and vote, if they do at all, for similar people). The child in the psyche, as Hillman argued, does not want deepening into mystery; all it wants is a return to innocence. Thus, whether one identifies as pop hero or as victim is to return to innocence.
Or as loser: when individualism and competition are the highest values, we make the hero – the winner – into our greatest mythic personification. But in this mythology, for every winner there must be many losers. It is a zero-sum world; no one can win unless someone else loses. Altruism and compassion become signs of weakness. Some go on to compete in other arenas – work, hobbies or activism – and find some satisfaction. Or they are told that the mere effort of “trying” has made them winners; it’s the effort that counts. Some get promoted, win money in Las Vegas or find love. But these victories are not initiations, nor do we perceive them as such.
The masculine culture of competition always searches for challenges, because competition itself (the toxic mimic of the quest for knowledge) is addictive. Consider the sad spectacles of the newly retired sports star, suddenly lacking challenges; or the former executive, moping around the house, disturbing his wife’s feminine world, until she pushes him off to the golf course.
Thus, with both the feminine and the child existing in the shadows, heroes live with the constant fear of losing.
And what becomes of those of us who can’t succeed or find regular satisfaction? Our puritan heritage reminds us that it is our own fault. In the society of the meritorious, many feel at the deepest level that we don’t merit approval. We have no one else to blame, unless (in therapeutic mode) we blame our parents, because the myth of individualism prevents us from seeing the systemic causes of poverty and dissatisfaction. We internalize shame, which builds in intensity until it demands release in scapegoating, the vicarious violence of heroic action movies – or support for war (from a safe distance).
In the mythology of redemption through violence, the only way out of victimization is the quest for revenge that turns the victim into its mirror-opposite, a perpetrator. It is action that changes from a paranoid imagination into a predatory imagination (two concepts I write about in Chapter Seven of my book). When the only choice is between fear and rage, there is no room for compassion or self-knowledge.
Read Part Two here.