Saturday, September 9, 2017

Heroes Redux

     Well, the National Football League has begun its “regular season” once again. As is usually the case, the opening game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots was festooned with more celebratory pageantry, hyperbole, and miscellaneous self-glorifying folderol than we usually load onto the conclusion of a war. And as we were warned to expect, a player refused to stand for the national anthem, courting the attention of the media and the fans for his solidarity with...something or other.

     The C.S.O. is an NFL addict. Yes, she’s aware that half the players are convicted felons and the other half are Communist spies. It simply doesn’t matter to her. She’ll watch any NFL game in preference to any other sort of leisure-time activity except a New York Rangers hockey game...and she’ll slough the Rangers game if the NFL game is “important enough.” So in the interests of marital harmony, I endured as much of the Chiefs / Patriots game as I could before the Sandman managed to drag me to his lair.

     There’s no point in asking why. Pro football is most definitely an acquired taste. Those who can’t ignore it and those who can’t abide it are utterly and absolutely incompatible. They might even be mutually infertile. Science has yet to render a verdict. As for me, I’d rather read.

     But needless to say (though in time-honored Curmudgeon Emeritus style, I’ll say it anyway), that’s not really the point of this piece.

     Today, Amanda Green’s piece at According to Hoyt starts out by speaking of the NFL, its drug abuse rules – enough with the “substance abuse” crap, please; everything is a “substance” — and some Dallas Cowboys clown and his suspension from play for beating his girlfriend. This is typical of the sort of thing we see today in a piece about “heroes.” It’s also about as destructive a conflation as the English language will support.

     Why heroize some black thug for his ability to run with a football? Why put such a person in the same sentence as the word hero? What the Hell kind of mentality is revealed by such a juxtaposition? Yet it’s done far too often for me even to keep track.

     Long, long ago (2001), I wrote:

     Racing giant Dale Earnhardt died recently. Before his body had cooled, the media were trumpeting the loss of a great American hero. I haven't seen one dissent from this characterization, nor do I expect to see one. The word “hero” has been shorn of its meaning.

     Heroism is a concept that needs and deserves respect.

     There can be no doubt that Earnhardt bravely courted great risks in pursuit of the prizes of his sport. The same could be said of many other sports figures from many places and times. But this does not make him, or them, heroes. To court risk for personal gain does not a hero make.

     A hero is one who puts himself at risk for someone or something else.

     That is the only way to distinguish between heroism and mere courage in pursuit of a prize, whether the prize is a rushing record or the Ark of the Covenant. To laud sports figures as heroes – indeed, even to suggest that heroism is possible within a sporting context – destroys that distinction entirely. It also puts uncounted numbers of impressionable young men at risk.

     Today, when the material and social rewards for athletic achievement are at an all-time high, when the most sought-after professional athletes are paid more than anyone else in this country, and when pro athletes’ behavior is worse than it’s ever been in the history of sports, do we really want our young men to look to the world of pro sports in search of heroes?

     I revisited this subject five years ago:

     A society's hero figures are critically important to that society's spirit -- to its conception of its virtues, its strengths, and its destiny. Consider: America became the world's savior, defeating totalitarian powers in three successive world wars, because we stepped up. We weren't fighting for advantages for ourselves, or for our nation; we were fighting for freedom and justice. To the extent that they've served as the world's policemen, our fighting men have been willing to do so largely for the same reason: because we regarded freedom and justice as too important not to be defended, even at great national cost and great individual risk.

     Apropos of the above, the rise of a careerist ethic in the ranks of our senior officers tracks strongly with the entertainment world's promotion of cynicism about heroes, and by extension, about our national character. It's not yet pandemic, but even a hint of it should be viewed with great alarm: a nation whose military commanders think more of their prospects of winning high rank than of the nation and the ideals for which it stands is a nation in danger of being abandoned by its own defenders.

     A nation is more than a demarcated territory. It's more than a Constitutional tradition. It's certainly more than a common language and culture. If it is not more than these things, singly or in aggregate, it has little chance to sustain itself against the assaults and villainies of those who would profit from its diminution or demise.

     I can make a very strong case that no nation, however virtuously inclined, should serve as the “world policeman.” It has all sorts of negative effects over time. But it remains the case a man willing to go to war for others’ sakes exhibits infinitely more heroism than any athlete, regardless of his sport. America’s fighting men did so twice. Time was, we looked to such heroes for models to put before our young men. Alvin York. Audie Murphy. Rodger Young.

     What about Horatius and his fellows?

But the Consul’s brow was sad,
     And the Consul’s speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
     And darkly at the foe.
‘Their van will be upon us
     Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
     What hope to save the town?’

Then out spake brave Horatius,
     The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
     Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
     Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
     And the temples of his Gods,

‘And for the tender mother
     Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
     His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
     Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
     That wrought the deed of shame?

‘Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
     With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
     Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
     May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
     And keep the bridge with me?’

Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
     A Ramnian proud was he:
‘Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
     And keep the bridge with thee.’
And out spake strong Herminius;
     Of Titian blood was he:
‘I will abide on thy left side,
     And keep the bridge with thee.’

‘Horatius,’ quoth the Consul,
     ‘As thou sayest, so let it be.’
And straight against that great array
     Forth went the dauntless Three.
For Romans in Rome’s quarrel
     Spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
     In the brave days of old.

     Need I say more?

     Sport is entertainment. Those who play it for a material reward are professional entertainers. The promotion of such persons as heroes is an important component of our social degeneration. It’s really part of the larger problem of Celebritarianism, which has made it possible for attractive persons with an entertainment-related ability to sway large numbers of persons into emulating them.

     And it must be brought to a halt if we’re to have a posterity that’s worth our blood, toil, tears, and sweat.


sykes.1 said...

"A hero is one who puts himself at risk for someone or something else."

That is a thoroughly Christian conception. It is entirely alien to the ethos of the "Iliad" and the Norse sagas. Heroes in that tradition (Indo-European) are selfish, egoistic and not entirely trustworthy.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Perhaps not, Sykes. Listen to Hector, the tragic hero of the Trojans, as he takes his leave of his wife Andromache before going to fight Achilles in a duel the Gods have already decreed that he will lose:

‘Lady,’ said Hector of the gleaming helm, ‘I too am concerned, but if I hid from the fighting like a coward, I would be shamed before all the Trojans and their wives in their trailing robes. Nor is it my instinct, since I have striven ever to excel always in the vanguard of the battle, seeking to win great glory for my father and myself. And deep in my heart I know the day is coming when sacred Ilium will fall, Priam, and his people of the ashen spear. But the thought of the sad fate to come, not even Hecabe’s or Priam’s, nor my many noble brothers’ who will bite the dust at the hands of their foes, not even that sorrow moves me as does the thought of your grief when some bronze-clad Greek drags you away weeping, robbing you of your freedom. Perhaps in Argos you’ll toil at the loom at some other woman’s whim, or bear water all unwillingly from some spring, Messe├»s or Hypereia, bowed down by the yoke of necessity. Seeing your tears, they will say: ‘There goes the wife of Hector, foremost of all the horse-taming Trojans, when the battle raged at Troy.’ And you will sorrow afresh at those words, lacking a man like me to save you from bondage. May I be dead, and the earth piled above me, before I hear your cries as they drag you away.’

With this, glorious Hector held out his arms to take his son, but the child, alarmed at sight of his father, shrank back with a cry on his fair nurse’s breast, fearing the helmet’s bronze and the horsehair crest nodding darkly at him. His father and mother smiled, and glorious Hector doffed the shining helmet at once and laid it on the ground. Then he kissed his beloved son, dandled him in his arms, and prayed aloud: ‘Zeus, and all you gods, grant that this boy like me may be foremost among the Trojans, as mighty in strength, and a powerful leader of Ilium. And some day may they say of him, as he returns from war, “He’s a better man than his father”, and may he bear home the blood-stained armour of those he has slain, so his mother’s heart may rejoice.’

So it's not quite so straightforward as you say.

Bob Parish said...

Todays "American Heroes" are driven by the Media. As such, they have little in common with heroes from a century ago.

Kye said...

You've nailed my thoughts on the whole "hero" concept in today's America, Mr. P. And beyond making idiot football thugs heroes is the indignity of having anti-American idiots who won't stand for the anthem. Hero, after all is a Greek word meaning "warrior" I believe. So let's keep it used in that manner, not sportsmen.

Unknown said...

In this time of iconoclastic expression who will demand new statuary to commemorate the heroes born in all of our periods of calamity and seeming calm?
Who are all the heroes born in the wake of Irma, of 9/11 New York, ... for the sake of strangers?
What ought that new statuary portray? Will it be the skin colors of the saviors and the saved, the determination in the faces of all those volunteer demigods whose creed is, 'Yes, I will,' and will it capture the humble glory of gratitude of the saved and of those who served?
And may we be so worthy, not in bronze or stone, but in spirit, flesh and bone, when duty calls.

MMinWA said...

I haven't read the Illiad for many years, I'm going to dig it out. As I recall, true honor was thick as a brick among their warriors.

Andy Texan said...

Bread and circuses. It worked for the Roman emperors and it works for ours. Sports manias are definitely an opiate that distracts people from much more important cultural affairs. Very sad for our civilization.