America has experienced the painful downfall of one of its favorite heroes of the last decade — Tiger Woods. I have nothing new to add on l'affaire Tiger; rather I would like to focus on the general nature of the American hero — past and present. I will argue that the nature of the beast has indeed changed over the last half century. Then I will describe the key feature of the change, identify the main culprit responsible for the change and conclude with a speculation on what the change says about American society.
More than 40 years separate the eras in which two catchy slogans captured the American public's attention: "I Like Ike" (early 1950's) and "Be Like Mike" (mid 1990's). The difference in the slogans’ objects represents more than just a time lapse; it highlights a change in our culture in terms of our reference to heroes — who they are, why we admire them and what we expect of them. In previous generations our heroes usually were politicians and soldiers, scientists and philosophers, statesmen and authors. For example, if we hark back to the mid twentieth century, the most common heroes would certainly have included — in addition to Eisenhower — Churchill, Einstein, FDR, MacArthur, Salk, and maybe a writer like Steinbeck or Hemingway. A half century earlier, businessmen and philanthropists like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Astor would have supplemented a list that surely included T. Roosevelt, Wilson and Mellon. Today, the most admired lists tend to be dominated by athletes, entertainers, and celebrities — people like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey and of course, Elvis. Leaders have been replaced by personalities. Why is that? Perhaps we can discover the answer if, having decided who, we consider why and what.
One of my Websters defines a hero as "one who is admired for his achievements and qualities; one that shows great courage." In the past we admired those who led heroic lives or accomplished heroic deeds; those whose great achievements were wrought at substantial personal risk and entailed courageous action. Today, we look primarily to those who are absolutely brilliant at what they do — on the court, on the screen, in the public eye, but without any attendant requirement of personal risk or courage. The difference is somewhat subtle. To perform heroic deeds requires courage, selflessness, willingness to take great risk. To be the best at one thing requires dedication, perseverance, raw talent. These are all admirable qualities. But I venture that yesterday's heroes manifested the latter qualities as well as the former, whereas today's heroes, while usually exemplary in the latter, are often lacking the former.
Why this subtle change? I think there are numerous reasons, many bound up with the massive culture shift that we have experienced over the last fifty years in the country. Here I would like to focus on one specific culprit — the media. I believe the media has played an enormous role in bringing about this change in the perception of heroism — for four reasons.
1. The muckraking, iconoclastic role of the media has escalated beyond bounds. No one is perfect of course, and while years ago the media was often complicit in hiding character flaws of our heroes, today they leave no stone unturned in their attempt to expose every possible wart that a potential hero might have. This applies particularly to politicians, soldiers and statesmen, making it nearly impossible for them to earn the unmitigated admiration of the public. John Kennedy was a womanizer, but the media did not report it. Conversely, every zip of Bill Clinton's trousers made the evening news.
2. Politics is a contact sport, but today it is bloodier than ever. The media has helped to drive a wedge through the body politic. The fault lines are clearly drawn and the media inflames the debate. In many ways the citizenry is divided down the middle and the opinions are so sharp that it is inconceivable that a man of the left could be admired by the people of the right — and vice versa. Thus it is hard to be a hero to the people if you start off with 50% of them detesting you. Because of this, political and religious figures don't have a prayer of garnering widespread public admiration. Reagan was loved by those on the right, despised by the left, and exactly the reverse pertains to Obama.
3. Celebrities sell ink and electrons. The public has a seemingly insatiable appetite for news about pop culture. Celebrities sell magazines, newspapers, books, films, TV shows, DVDs and all other forms of electronic media. Fewer and fewer people pay much attention to hard news, but the popularity of celebrity magazines and web sites, "reality" TV shows and music videos shows no sign of abating. The media encourages this and profits from it. Compared to Michael Phelps or Miley Cyrus, Hillary Clinton is a crashing bore.
4. The media has played a critical role in the vulgarization of the culture. The amount of violence, degeneracy and moral squalor that the media propagates is disgusting. The reputation of a classic hero cannot survive in that swamp; but it is not toxic to a modern celebrity. Moral degeneracy is just another "thing" that a celebrity can excel at.
So, what do we expect of our heroes? In times past, we exacted a high moral standard. Heroes often failed to live up to those standards, but that does not change the fact that that is what we expected of them. They were role models par excellence, people who could inspire our dreams and elevate our spirits. Today's heroes are merely expected to be the best at what they do. Roger Federer and LeBron James are phenomenal athletes; it is a joy and a pleasure to watch them. But they do not change the course of history; they do not inspire men and women to challenge their ideas about life and society; they do not discover new products or technologies to improve our lives; they do not take great physical or personal risks to achieve their goals. The old heroes did these things, and their and our lives were richer for it. We had inspiration instead of titillation, admiration instead of perspiration.
Finally, what does the change in the nature of our heroes say about American society? I believe it is yet another reflection of our mutation from a society that prized rugged individualism into the nanny state. We are increasingly risk averse. Instead of demanding a level playing field upon which all individuals can compete and rise to heights that their talents and determination might take them, we look to the government and to "experts" to salve our wounds and smooth our path to a safe, but uninspiring destination.