From Heroes to Abstractions

There is an interesting dichotomy going on in Western Culture and especially the United States. It has been noted that when politics moves away from the individual to the abstract, that is when the most terrible things happen, such as wars and violent social upheaval. It it so much easier to look away from the affects of policies on individuals when they are fulfilling an abstract good, no matter how many individual lives they destroy. Yet at the same time, you could argue that within popular culture, we live in the age of heroes.

As the larger political culture moves from individual heroes, even to the point of trying to tear down those who would formerly be viewed as heroes (look at the recent treatment of Army General David Petraeus) to instead focus on abstract ideals (children, poverty, fairness, equality, etc.), the popular culture appears to be embracing a plethora of heroes. But is it?

One of the most successful new television shows last year was aptly named Heroes and the key to the show is the individuals who experience XMen-like genetic mutations, replete with a super bad guy by the name of Siler, who is a serial killer on steroids. The good and evil is drawn sharply enough for anyone to take a stand.

We could also argue that recent Hollywood movies have elevated heroes, though almost all imagined, into iconic status. They are universally drawn from fiction, and include Neo, Jason Bourne, Obiwon and Anakin Skywalker, Spiderman, Superman, Batman, The XMen, Harry Potter, Jack Black, and Aragon, Frodo, and the Lord of the Rings heroes to just name a few. Real flesh and blood heroes normally cannot compete, though for a while Leonidas and his 300 Spartan tried, but even they had to be made into abstract representations to keep our attention.

I guess if you really examine these multimedia heroes, you see that they are not real people, and when their stories try to make them too real, as in this summer’s Spiderman, we begin to turn away. We want heroes that rise to the level of abstractions, who personify for us goodness and fairness, yet also have the power to make it happen.

So it could be argued that even the popular culture’s embrace of heroes fits the move away from the individual to the abstract. We do not celebrate real people as heroes any more. General George Patton as a real hero is from the 70’s. Today, if we examine a real person, it is to emphasize their frailty, their “humanity”. Rather than elevating them, we seek to tear them down, as the CBS miniseries on Ronald Reagan attempted to do. Real people are at best anti-heroes.

This shift to the abstract as primary needs watching, because if it isn’t soon moderated, it may mean we are headed for significant upheaval in near future.

  1 comment for “From Heroes to Abstractions

  1. October 8, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    “Today, if we examine a real person, it is to emphasize their frailty, their “humanity”. Rather than elevating them, we seek to tear them down…”

    So true, and rather disturbing because instead of saying, “Look what this person overcame, and they were still successful, a boon to their family and community, etc.”, it seems that the media types dig into the deepest, darkest, most embarassing corners of people’s lives in order to embarass them and tear them down instead of using the obvious flaws to encourage others. We’re more interested in the dirt, to make them seem “more human” and more like us (like a certain recent president, to use an example that flits to mind), which only lowers the bar instead helping us see sin, dirt, failures, and humiliations – self-inflicted or otherwise – as things that can be overcome and left behind.

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