“It’s always High Noon in America. Heroes save the day while we watch as ignorant, passive, perhaps even cowardly bystanders. These myths cannot inspire us to great deeds in the real world. These are fun fantasies of despair, an admission that we can no longer imagine a way to become strong.” Larry Kummer, in Fabius Maximus
When the challenges we face in our human societies are as complex and far reaching as they are today, it’s easy to look for relief from some kind of iconic savior, appointed or self-nominated. It’s natural for human beings to seek the path of least-resistance, to adapt and adjust and look to someone else for order and control. It’s a survival mechanism that has served us well for millennia. The purpose that adaptation may have once served – to identify safe and secure places for rest and recharging, and leaders for village building – no longer, for the most part exists, though. We’ve made everything convenient, climate controlled, sanitized and comfortable. And our natural biological response to that is to keep wanting it, because it feels good.
However, we’re also endowed with brains and increasingly, neuroscience, which says you can’t always believe what your primitive brain, that pleasure palace of the body, tells you. That just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s right. That just because you’re comfortable doesn’t mean you stop moving. That just because there’s an abundance of food, doesn’t mean you have to eat it all. That just because someone promises to take care of everything for you, doesn’t mean that they actually will, or even that you should let them.
The super hero phenomenon feeds right into these basic human tendencies. It says, don’t worry about anything. It says, “I’ll take care of you. Trust me. You don’t even have to think!”
As a result, some people would argue, myself included, that the super hero culture has infantilized us to a significant and problematic degree . Author Larry Kummer, editor and writer at the geopolitically focused website, Fabius Maximus, has some choice words on the subject.
“Somehow all this has become neurotic, making us weak. It’s always High Noon in America. Heroes save the day while we watch as ignorant, passive, perhaps even cowardly bystanders. These myths cannot inspire us to great deeds in the real world. These are fun fantasies of despair, an admission that we can no longer imagine a way to become strong.”
Super heroes are nothing new, of course. The Gods and Goddesses of ancient Rome and Greece were types of superheroes. In Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he contended that all the great enduring myths the world over shared an underlying structure he called the “monomyth,” or the hero’s journey. Storytellers, graphic artists and movie directors drew from this basic storytelling element to flesh out the first American superhero tales during the Great Depression, a period when Americans truly wanted saving. The genre hasn’t waned since, and in fact, in recent years, has doubled down.
45 super hero films were released between 2010 and 2017 alone and there were nearly 40 in the decade prior to that. The preponderance of super hero movies suggests, says Kummer, that “we have lost the ability to take collective action, or even see that as our greatest strength.” It also empowers the egomaniacal among us who will be happy to step into the superhero void to save us, and forward their own agendas in the process.
Even James Cameron has expressed super hero fatique, telling IndieWire earlier this year, “Not that I don’t love the movies. It’s just, come on guys, there are other stories to tell besides hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process. It’s like, oy!”
“Superheroes don’t exist to solve problems, they just exist to punch bad guys ,” observed Vlad Savov, in the Verge. .
“Batman’s stated goal is to rid Gotham City of crime,” Savov notes. “but he rarely undertakes the actions that can tackle the causes rather than the effects of criminality. Bruce Wayne could use his lofty social standing to lobby for more education funding, tighter gun control, and a social safety net that would prevent young people from resorting to a life of crime. His wealth could be used to support drug clinics and foster prisoner rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism. Instead, he puts on a black mask and a husky voice and goes to pound hapless street thugs in the night.”
If fist fights were effective, he points out, Batman would have retired his cape by now.
Superman, Savov says, “can hear, see, smell, and remember things in ways the rest of us can only dream of. His strength is otherworldly, and he can literally fly out into space on a whim. Think of all the impossible construction and exploration projects we could complete if we had a real Superman to help us. Instead, he gels his hair back, puts on a cape, and manhandles a different set of anonymous thugs to the ones Batman’s taking care of.”
“To be my hero,” he says, “you have to do something to change these awful societal habits, not merely contain them. ” Batman is over 75 years old, “and in all that time the only thing he’s truly improved is the muscularity of his physique.”
The entire superhero genre, Savov contends, “is predicated on having someone to guard against.” “The crazy thing about superhero tales is that, more often than not, they move to the rhythm of the active and dynamic anti-hero rather than the reactive and theatrically overdressed good guys.”
Think about that for a minute. The super hero philosophy is reactionary – it needs a singular, over simplified enemy for a spectacular boss fight that will impress the masses. Does that sound familiar? Super heroes just protect the status quo, says Savov.
“Super hero movies imprint this mindset that we are not masters of our own destiny and the best we can do is sit back and wait” for super heroes to rescue us, he says. “Forget hard work, government institutions , diplomacy, investment, we just need a hero to rise, so we just put out the bat signal for one man who can step in and solve all of our problems, very quickly…”
Kummer believes things went south during the 60s and 70s when, he says, “ we became alienated from our institutions. Organizations which should have led us into the future, like NASA, failed us. Organizations that should have protected us, like the FBI and CIA, were shown to be criminal oppressors. Institutions which we admired, like the military, displayed gross incompetence in Vietnam.
“Our response was not reform, at whatever cost and effort. Instead we retreated into fantasy. We exult in our individualism while our social cohesion frays — wrecking our ability to work together.”
As a result, says Kummer, we “…dream of either being superheroes, or having superheroes fix our problems. Neither paint visions of a heroic future in which teams reform America. These seduce us from the real path to successful self-government, through the difficult work of organizing ourselves.”
The subtitle of this post – No one is coming. It’s up to us – is sourced from an article of the same name published by technologist Dan Hon, and a phrase recently championed by the national civic tech organization, Code for America, of which I’m a part through our local affiliate, Code for Tampa Bay Brigade. The phrase has become something of a wake up a call, a rallying cry. It’s a refutation of learned helplessness, of willful hopelessness, and a call to community service arms, hands and minds.
“Saying “there isn’t anything better we can do” isn’t how society works,” says Hon. “It isn’t how civilization works. It isn’t how people work together and protect those amongst us who cannot protect themselves.
“It is a little bit like saying on the one hand that the condition underlying human existence is nasty, brutish and short, and on the other, writing off any progress humanity has made to make our lives less nasty, kinder and longer.”
“…Saying “we can do nothing” is what America says in response to the latest mass shooting when every other civilized country is able to regulate the responsible ownership of firearms.
“Saying “we can do nothing” is like saying it’s not worth having laws or standards because we can’t achieve perfection.
“We would do better to be clear: is it true that we can do nothing? Or is it true that we choose to do nothing?”
“There’s no one coming,” Hon asserts. “It’s up to us.”
“We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote over 150 years ago, in the essay Self-Reliance.
Not much has changed, which may be why we look to super heroes, to that one standout, for the star quarterback, to the Elon Musks and Bill Gates and, even the Donald Trumps – because we hope they can save us when we don’t know how to save ourselves, and are too afraid to try, to take a chance, to risk the effort.
“Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born,” said Emerson.
Today the movie theater – or the cosplay conference – is often our parlor, where we’re relieved of even the illusion of being a soldier of any kind, because we now have Hollywood heroes with out-sized physical qualities that conveniently free us of the burden of trying to be anything remotely like them, unless we want to spend the day dressed up like them.
In a fascinating diatribe against the morally tenderizing effects of the “modern world” of 1841, Emerson lamented that, “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy…”
It is the reliance on things outside of ourselves, believed Emerson, that weakens us.
“… the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long, that they have come to esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.”
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” Emerson said.
By extension we can add that reliance on superheroes and saviors, as on millionaires and innovators – on any one individual we believe can save the day, is misguided at best, and disempowering at worst. It outsources the hard work that requires the exercise of our own special powers of personal engagement, critical thought, insight, empathy, outrage against injustice and cruelty, and physical action to be successful, especially with respect to social challenges.
We need to find the courage to question things, especially “traditions” – which “separate but equal” was, and male-only voting, and child marriages and slavery all were – and to speak up and out when we know things aren’t right, instead of waiting for “someone in charge” to do it, for someone else to fix what’s broken.
These days, in my own work, and in my own life, I’m less likely to trust without verifying, or to throw my lot in with anyone until they’ve consistently shown they share similar ideals and goals, that they’re truly collaborative and consensus building, that they’re someone I truly enjoy working with in the interest of serving useful ends. This isn’t to say I only want to be with people with whom I completely agree all the time – there are lots of paths up the mountain.
But I will never again blindly follow anyone who even remotely suggests he can carry me up that mountain by himself. That’s an ego-maniacal self-serving promise that isn’t at all about shared purpose and goals. It’s about self-aggrandizement. Besides, it’s not like I can’t use the exercise. I’m also seriously reassessing the true value added nature of my work, to ensure that the things I contribute to the public dialog and in our community spaces deliver impact rather than just entertainment.
We can do great deeds in the future, said Kummer, adding, “We need no new myths to do so. The old ones remain potent; when we wish to act we will find them as inspiring as they were for our forefathers. Today we lack only the will to put aside fantasies and act together as citizens.”
No one is coming. It’s up to us. And that’s exactly as it should be.