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From Hero-Worship to Celebrity-Adulation

The problem of greatness in an age of equality.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Notwithstanding the bravado of its author, Carlyle’s project was a failure. He recurs to the abstract coinage “Hero-worship” at the historical moment when “bow[ing] down submissive” is finished. An indication of the extent to which the man was overmatched by his times comes in ironic form from the resilience of his term “Hero-worship,” which remains common in discourse nearly 200 years later. Carlyle wrote in praise of “Hero-worship.” Today, hero worship is something parents tell children, teachers tell students, and friends admonish each other not to engage in.

Is the modern world really worse off for its unwillingness to worship heroes—or leaving worship aside, at least to acknowledge that some individuals, by dint of superior achievement, have a superior claim on our respect and admiration?

There is, of course, the counterclaim that the modern world is awash in heroes. Movie stars, athletes, and pop singers command attention and affection as never before. In the recently concluded age of mass culture, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Elvis, the Beatles—they were like unto gods in terms of capturing the fancy of an adoring public. Of course humans being prone to disagreement—a fact Carlyle conveniently overlooked—many people hated one or all of them. But even the hatred was an artifact of their ability to compel attention. Mass-scale phenomena they remained. 

In our age of wiki-culture, the difference is specialization: One need not be a hero to all to be a hero to some. The Internet allows fanciers of almost any specialty to aggregate and to sort themselves, and by a voluntary process to crown champions. Dissenters are no longer out of luck: They have ample opportunity to try banding together to elevate a rival.

Nor is it the case that all of those celebrated are merely celebrities, famous for their success at the intersection of commerce and culture. Many retain a connection to heroism of a Carly-lian sort—the originators of the “things that we see standing accomplished” in the political and social world. Barack Obama was certainly a hero to millions. So was Sarah Palin. So was John Paul II. Teddy Kennedy. George W. Bush. Osama bin Laden (though that’s a more complicated story).

Yet there is also something distinctly un-heroic about most modern-world heroes. The desire people feel to lift them up seems often to be accompanied by an equal and opposite desire to bring them down. Sinatra had quite a set of pipes, but his appetite for an expensive sort of low-life behavior—eating steak and eggs off the chest of a Las Vegas prostitute, for example—while distinctive, was not admirable. Tiger Woods had an equivalent talent and, it turned out, a similar propensity. 

As for political figures, the partisan character of politics ensures that at least 25 percent of the population will be willing to believe and repeat the worst about a politician from the opposing camp: Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance; Obama was covering up his foreign birth. After the party nominating conventions in 2008, one could plausibly see both Barack Obama and John McCain as heroic figures: Obama as the first black man to be nominated for president, McCain for his years enduring torture in a North Vietnamese POW camp. Yet a Venn diagram mapping those who regarded Obama as a hero and those regarding McCain as a hero would surely have shown very little overlap. Partisan sentiment more often than not dictates or at least temporarily overrides judgments of character.

Many are the venues today where people gush over the famous. Equally important, however, are the venues devoted to proving that idols have feet of clay. Often, they are the same venues. “You’re ridin’ high in April / shot down in May,” as Ol’ Blue Eyes sang. That’s life. No longer is there a heroic status that attaches itself to a person, in the light of which all the person’s actions, great and terrible alike, count as fundamentally superior to those of lesser mortals. Heroes are a mixture of some form of greatness and an all-too-human baseness, about which people are equally if not more curious. Osama bin Laden was a figure of great evil to most Americans, and, let us be frank, a hero to many Salafist Muslims. How fascinatingly subversive of both views was the screaming headline (it’s called the “wood”) on the front page of the New York Post the day after the revelation that the Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden found a cache of pornographic DVDs in the compound in Abbottabad: OSAMA BIN WANKIN’. Now, that is cutting someone down to size.

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