Trawling through old Newsweeks, I came across the May 2nd story (“Shattered Faith”) about the “fall” of Greg Mortenson.
Mortenson is the author of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea (2006). It’s a story about how he returned hospitality (when the villagers of Korphe, Pakistan, nursed him back to health following an abduction by the Taliban) with generosity (how he built a school and raised money for other schools across Pakistan and Afghanistan.) Hampton Sides, the essayist, writes,
Anybody with a heart had to be inspired by the beautiful idea that one man could make such a profound difference in such a hard and desperate part of the world. I remember thinking that this was not only a book talk and charity fundraiser, it was something akin to a religious experience—a modern-day tent revival. People had not merely come to listen, they’d come to believe. Mortenson, a son of missionaries and a nurse by training who by then had been thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (and whose books were required reading by the Pentagon), was a secular saint who’d seized upon a revolutionary notion that soared across conflicts and continents—the power of educating children, especially girls, in tribal societies racked by poverty and war.
It now turns out that Mortsenson made most of it up, including the bit about recuperating in Korphe. He was never abducted by the Taliban, and the charity he founded never amounted to a hill of beans. Most of the “schools” are being used to store hay.
The thing that caught my eye however was not the meltdown of yet another American hero. We’ve come to expect that, even to overlook it: Pat Tillman, football hero, silver star recipient, last full measure of his devotion and all that, killed by friendly fire and the object of a military cover-up of operational intelligence. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Civil rights messiah, National Holiday. Don’t ask about why Boston University didn’t rescind his PhD when it was discovered he’d plagiarized chunks of his thesis. The list of disappointments goes on and covers the full range of political, military and philanthropic opportunities for heroism and tragic falls from grace. Did I mention John Edwards’s fight for the North Carolina little guy? Or Eliot Spitzer’s renown as as a prosecutor of corporate crime, vice and corruption?
When you get down to it, heroism corresponds to America’s love for tall tales and fake history: like the idea we won our own Revolution, or how the west was won by prairie knights like Kit Carson.
I have to admit, I don’t understand heroism. I think the deficiency comes from my mother who was invited once to give a talk to a Catholic sodality and, at the end of her discussion was asked what saints she admired the most. As Mother Theresa was not yet available, she said she was “sure they all had good points–except St Rose of Lima” (famous for being beautiful and disfiguring her face with lye to get over herself) “who was mad as a March hare.” She wasn’t invited back.
The irritaing thing about Sides’ little essay is the presumption that Americans, as Americans, need heroes.
We need our explorers, our sports icons, our Medal of Freedom winners, our Nobel laureates. We need our Greatest Generation warriors, our ‘Sully’ Sullenbergers, our Neil Armstrongs. On some level, we still subscribe to the myth of the man in the white hat. We yearn to believe not only in his good deeds but in his inherent goodness as a person. Perhaps it’s something rooted in our Puritan past, but we seem to have a monochromatic view of heroism.
But I see this need as basically religious. Is it any accident that the most religious industrialized country on earth (89% compared to Nigeria’s 92%) also throws the word hero around more casually than any other democracy? John McCain, real American hero. First-responders, real American heroes. Our men in uniform, real American heroes. Tea Party Patriots, real American heroes. The only thing close to military and athletic heroes are Hollywood actors and country singers who do good imitations of real American heroes.
Despite what Sides says in his article, I seldom hear Nobel laureates described that way–or longsuffering classroom teachers holding the fort in failing inner city schools. Mainly, it is people who follow orders, kill other people for God and country, score touchdowns, or–like Seal Team 6–perform ritual assassinations in the name of Justice.
Sides theorizes that “[America’s] deep need for heroes is tied to the sheer size of our country and the myth of the frontier.” Maybe so, but if that is the case then we have done a pretty bad job of filling the landscape with worthy prototypes. I don’t think legendary seven-foot-tall trekkers like Paul Bunyan, John Henry and Casey Jones fire the imagination of young Americans (even those who know their stories) any more than “real” ones like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Compared to the rounder and more glorious heroes of islands like Britain and Greece, for example, our iconic plonkers just seem to typify the American obsession with guns and engines. Brains, justice, “real” courage, and virtue–even chivalry and healthy sex lives, are not things American heroes have time for. –All those trees to clear and indigenous inhabitants to shoot. Our heroes, and usually our presidents and legislators, have to reflect our infatuation with stubborn determination and short sentences. The hero as a complicated, multidimensional, thoughtful and strategic player isn’t even especially good box office. Just ask Disney. Or Marvel Comics.
What Americans have the need for is the need to worship something uncomplicated, and their choice of heroes largely reflects the militaristic and violent disposition to which the American myth of “greatness” is attached. It’s biblical. It’s about conquering and subduing the land with big men and oil rigs, violence against nature when we can’t execute it through our unheroic foreign policy by making other nations tremble before The World’s Only Superpower. U.S. is the perfect abbreviation for what we think we are in the world of thems. In America Nietzsche’s Übermensch isn’t an atheist intellectual, he’s an ass-kicking man of steel. Who flies.
Sides ends his article with a throwaway line, a kind of epitaph for his disappointment over the fate of Greg Mortenson, non-hero: “I for one still want to believe,” he says. “Americans have a yearning to believe not only in a hero’s deeds but in his goodness as a person.”
Well, I don’t. Belief in heroes and belief in the gods have been connected since the dawn of civilization. America’s obsession with heroes is just another part of its social pathology, the other side of which is religious lunacy. I have no need to believe in heroes. I can’t handle the disappointment.