If you ever need to start a morning like a fucking champ, start it by listening to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For a Hero.”
“Mm,” you’ll softly moan, “Yeah. I’m gonna wreck those spreadsheets today.”
There’s something about the concept of heroes that gets people amped up. Calling someone a hero is basically the best compliment you can give them before calling them a “god” or telling them they have a “cool dick.”
Which is why I got so pissed off while reading the book American Sniper and hearing that people thought of Chris Kyle as a “hero”: in the book, he calls Iraqis “savages” whom he “could give a flying fuck about,” he jokes about desecrating a corpse, and he jokes about looting video games from a young kid’s apartment, even though in separate interviews he bragged about going to Hurricane Katrina and murdering 30 looters (which, it turns out, was probably a lie). “This guy is a hero?” I thought, “He sounds like a violent psychopath.” But America generally disagrees: Chris Kyle is an American Hero.
A guy who knew a ton about heroes was mythologist Joseph Campbell, who wrote the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell explained how most “heroes” followed the same basic path, and were actually just different manifestations of the human experience. All humans can connect with them because they go through exaggerated versions of the trials we go through every single day.
Of course, different societies will ask different attributes of their heroes. A modern hero like Harry Potter will be kind and forgiving and opposed to racism, while a slightly older hero, like Frodo Baggins, will be fighting on behalf of the natural world against an anti-nature, industrialized enemy (seriously: watch those movies again with that frame in mind. Mordor basically just looks like Detroit, while the Shire is a lush English countryside). They can also belong to specific nationalities. Here’s an exchange from Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers from the book The Power of Myth.
MOYERS: It has been said that a leader is someone who discerned the inevitable and got in front of it. Napoleon was a leader, but he wasn’t a hero in the sense that what he accomplished was grand for humanity’s sake. It was for France, the glory of France.
CAMPBELL: Then he is a French hero, is he not? This is the problem for today. Is the hero of a given state or people what we need today, when the whole planet should be our field of concern? Napoleon is the nineteenth-century counterpart of Hitler in the twentieth. Napoleon’s ravaging of Europe was horrific.
MOYERS: So you could be a local god and fail the test on a larger cosmic level?
CAMPBELL: Yes. Or you could be a local god, but for the people whom that local god conquered, you could be the enemy. Whether you call someone a hero or a monster is all relative to where the focus of your consciousness may be.
In this way, Seth Rogen was totally right about American Sniper:
American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds.
— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) January 18, 2015
The concept of hero is not culture-specific: any culture can proclaim anyone a hero. Some people think of terrorists as heroes. Some think of Hitler as a hero. Some think of Donald Trump as a hero.
Chris Kyle is a hero. But he’s an American hero. And in a global age, American heroes are no longer sufficient. Petty nationalism is no longer useful to us: nation states are merely the best form of political organization we have right now. But our problems are global: the climate, extreme global poverty, religious extremism, growing global inequality, public health, cyberwarfare, state-on-state violence, human rights abuses. None of these problems can be dealt with within the borders of a single country. So a valid global hero should be someone that doesn’t just fight for a single nation, but who fights for humanity and the planet as a whole.
Otherwise, they’re just another member of the pantheon of irrelevant heroes. Otherwise, they’re not fighting for anything important.
Featured Photo by Jeepers Media