"Heroes" and an American Epidemic
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
The lone hero forges ahead despite the odds. They don't need help delivering justice, rescuing innocent victims of evildoers, saving the world, etc. They might be humble or even surprised by their own power, but the populace usually celebrates their deeds. Thank goodness they were there to make all the difference when it counted.
This myth isn't uniquely American, although our culture has leaned on it more than most. We've long exported an adrenaline-fueled, CGI enhanced version of it to screens around the world in the form of action and superhero movies. We talk about "good guys with guns" and consider arming teachers in schools. Candidate Trump claimed "I alone can fix it" and people actually believed him. In the U.S., the rugged individual is revered and those who can't find their way in our society have only themselves to blame.
I am fascinated by the recent explosion in popularity of the "Punisher" logo. You'll see it on most highways these days- the menacing visage of a comic book vigilante, often combined with other symbols such as the American flag, the "thin blue line," or depictions of assault rifles. I've even seen it sporting a Trumpian hairdo. It says something about our national climate that this is the hero (mostly) men are choosing to adorn their vehicles with. The adoption of this symbol by law enforcement is especially disturbing.
As I write this, almost 5 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19. The U.S. has under 5% of the world's population but more than 20% of COVID deaths. About five times more cases were reported in the U.S. this past month than in Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Australia combined. Debates are raging over reopening schools, mask mandates, and even thermometers.
Our preference for self-reliance rather than collective action has been recognized by many as a cause of this tragic American exceptionalism. Writing in The Atlantic, Meghan O'Rourke remarks that our predilection for gaudy action is also working against us. Americans "...have no shared discourse for the idea that the hard thing to do, the truly challenging thing to do, might be to do less in order to help another." Wearing a mask, keeping your distance, washing your hands- none of these (except maybe the first) seem to pass the superhero test.
As the spring wore on, we saw lawn signs and billboards thanking our essential workers: our "heroes." The use of this word grated on me. I know it was meant well- of course we should be grateful for those taking risks on our behalf during a pandemic. But it became clear that these workers were not being provided for. We were failing to give them the tools they needed to stay safe and, in many cases, paying them middling wages. The word "hero" was being used to paper-over incompetence and poor leadership. It's certainly been used this way before, particularly when describing police officers and soldiers. President Trump makes prolific use of this word, but the Twitter feeds of politicians of all stripes look similar (at least in this regard).
The spread of COVID this summer has led me to wonder about another possible consequence of using the word "hero." It summons those American myths of self-reliance and bootstrap-pulling. Coordination and compromise are boring time-wasters. Our "heros" can soldier on, tending to patients in ICUs, bagging our groceries, and processing our food. As a teacher preparing for in-person teaching this fall, I dread the day when we'll be called heroes. Our experience in this pandemic so far teaches us that this will be the moment when our well-being can be disregarded.
So how should we use the word "hero?" Gavin Edwards wrote about this in a recent article about heroes in the context of the card game Magic: The Gathering. He notes that the fantasy world of that game reflects the most traditional, uncomplicated understanding of heroism. Players control mighty sorcerers, casting spells to vanquish monsters. The latest Marvel film probably evinced more nuance. But Edwards focuses on the community that surrounds Magic and the etiquette and common courtesies that have grown around the game. Edwards also wrote a book about Fred Rogers (AKA Mister Rogers) and offers Rogers' story as one form of heroism. Edwards writes "Not everybody can be Fred Rogers all the time, but if everybody indulged in an act of kindness two or three times a day, maybe we could be fostering an army of part-time heroes." We rely on the work of doctors, EMTs, and food service workers for our society to function. When we elevate their work using the language of heroism we make them susceptible to other superhero tropes (e.g., the Man of Steel can't possibly need our help and our reverence for his sacrifice is ample payment for his services).
I like the idea of "part-time heroes" but I wonder if the word "hero" may have simply outlived its usefulness to us. Most problems in life are too complicated to be solved by individual heroism. Pretending otherwise can be fun, like thrilling to the adventures of our favorite Avenger. But the idea of fighting a global pandemic without deliberate collective action is at least as far-fetched.