The Perversion of Heroism

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It's always been fashionable to rail against populism. So I don't think I'm surprising anyone when I say that popular culture is complete crap, not even my statist opponents. Everyone thinks they're smarter than everyone else, and I'm no exception. But the main difference between me and my opponents lies in the fact that they decry the morality of the people who write and produce it (because of the socialist hatred of the profit motive, commercialism, and consumerism), and I decry the morality of what is presented to us. And one of my main beefs is the perversion of heroism that we are served day after day.

Why should our statist friends be concerned about the content of the pap they decry? Every day the media bombards us with altruistic and collectivist propaganda. Television shows, movies and books praise the nation, praise the family, praise the sacrifice, and praise those who work to preserve "culture" and "heritage." Individualists and freedom lovers generally appear either as hopeless, cold shells of humanity, or as crackpots trying to defend the worst crimes (just look at pretty much any given episode of 'Law & Order'). And what of heroism!

It's become an infuriating custom to call "anti-hero" any character that is not either a violent, unthinking brute or a completely "altruistic" goody two-shoes. The conception of heroism that we have been spoon-fed by the culture-peddlers completely perverts morality. It has been drained of all intelligence or subtlety, which is why "anti-heroes" are much more interesting and morally upright than so-called "heroes."

There are two main types of "heroes"--the unthinking brutes and the altruistic pansies. Your typical action "hero," mowing down crowd after crowd with no inkling of intelligence whatsoever, will be firmly inscribed in the former category. In most other movies, your anti-intellectual ineffectual "hero" will be firmly planted in the latter category. This, I think, mirrors our political dichotomy of "left" and "right", or at least the stereotypes of it. You have your right-wing, warmongering, socially repressive fanatic, and you have your left-wing, pacifist, effete anti-intellectual, the two opposite (and supposed exclusive) ways of seeing the world. Both are completely removed from reality.

And then of course you have your "superheroes", which have both properties at the same time, and thus represent the epitome of inanity, Superman being the paradigmatic example. Superman has had many incarnations and many writers in his long career, but his basic archetype is that of the altruistic brute mixed with anti-intellectualism- little more than a child in tights with almost infinite strength. Writers of "superhero comics" cloak their moral depravity in noble words like "justice" and "freedom", but we all know that what they advocate is the nobility of sacrifice without the weakness necessary for it to be an actual sacrifice ("Jesus", anyone?).

Now, there are "superheroes" that actually need to work for their powers, like Batman. But Batman is called an "anti-hero" and a "vigilante". Why? Because he's actually motivated by his past in his desire to fight arch-criminals, instead of by fiat? How is an action done on the basis of arbitrary moral duty "heroic" and the same action done on the basis of self-interest "vigilantism"?

Personally, my two favourite "anti-heroes"- that is to say, real heroes- are Gregory House (of the show "House, MD") and Malcolm Reynolds (captain of the Serenity). Neither of them has an altruistic bone in his body, and neither could be really called an "action hero". They are individuals with principles, and they will do anything to follow those principles, breaking as many rules as necessary in order to do so. Even though fans of both will do their best to back-pedal and concede that they are "flawed" characters with "questionable morality", I find this attitude a pitiful concession to the perverted heroism that we are supposed to accept, and scorn it at every opportunity.

Since I grew up on science-fiction, I like to compare science-fiction series in moral and political terms. Star Trek and Star Wars, the two heavyweights, are little more than a panegyric for collectivism, anti-intellectualism and altruism through and through (Next Generation, Voyager and the end of A New Hope were particularly cringe-worthy- as well as the fact that every second Star Trek movie seems to be about saving the world). In Star Trek, Roddenberry's vision of an ideal world is that of a communist, or at least socialist, military regime where trade has ostensibly been replaced by goodness of heart. In Star Wars, the Old Republic is a heavily bureaucratic democracy which supports governments of all types, and the separatists (including many corporate entities) are portrayed as puppets of the evil Sith Lords. In Firefly, government is portrayed as an oppressive force and anarchy, while not ideal, is a place where freedom and an individualist way of life can still exist.

Who do we look up to as a society? Soldiers, athletes and actors, the two former being good examples of brute force, and the latter a good example of effete anti-intellectuals. While they do provide tremendous entertainment, and I am not saying that they don't contribute anything in those terms, their lasting contribution to society is negligible. Heavens forbid we admire people who actually do something! The perfect example of a "hero" is Mother Theresa, the weakling par excellence, whose main claims to fame are hobnobbing with fascist dictators and refusing to administer painkillers to her emaciated, suffering victims.

True heroes usually face tremendous opposition--which is why they are heroes in the first place. A hero stands up against the problems of the world in his own way, pursuing his values even if it requires him to take risks or fight authority. Heroes are principled people, who are not afraid to speak or act against evil.

Have you ever heard of Ingo Potrykus? I'm pretty sure you haven't. And yet he is a real hero- a German bioengineer whose team developed Golden Rice, a genetically engineered food that could help millions of people, despite the opposition of governments and environmentalist organizations. There are plenty of heroes in this world. I count, for example, people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, James Randi, the late lamented Harry Browne, and perhaps even an economist like David Friedman. I'm sure you have your own as well.

The root of the perversion of heroism lies in two related areas: first, the collectivist propaganda needed to maintain the legitimacy of the state, and its strong incentive to smear individualism and freedom lovers, and second, the fact that most people who manufacture our culture work in brutally competitive fields unless they benefit from state subsidies, and thus have a natural hatred for capitalism and a natural love for the state. It is, therefore, a natural extension of the hero worship inspired by religious myths.

On a more moral level, the anti-intellectualist mentality, hostile to principles and virtue, is the emotional food of the mob, which revels in hating those who seek intellectual or materialistic pursuits. The scientist, the businessman, the skeptic, the civil rights advocate, and those who use or promote technology are virtually always the enemies. Even when the right people are faulted, they are faulted not for being wrong, but for being too principled.

And I'm afraid that people lack understanding of morality or politics partially because they have been fed this emotionalist, violent, ignorant pap. Where will the counter-revolution come from?

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Francois Tremblay's picture
Columns on STR: 12

Francois Tremblay blogs at Check Your Premises, is co-host of the Hellbound Alleee Show and has self-published a book called The Handbook of Atheistic Apologetics.