My Back Pages
Keeping Heroes Honest
By Keith
Jul 1, 2003 - 11:30:00 PM

NEW YORK—If you happen to be the perfect homemaker living in New York City who loves baseball, then it hasn't been a very good couple of weeks for you. Martha Stewart was indicted for obstructing justice, the New York Times printed fabricated stories, and Sammy Sosa got caught cheating at the plate. These are giants of their industries, icons to countless millions, wealthy beyond reason...and they let their followers down. As it turns out, they are as flawed as the rest of us, and probably even more vulnerable to internal demons. So what else is new?

Baseball card collecting is an American pastime. Photo courtesy of Facebook.
Mankind has been engaged in hero-worship since time immemorial, and from beginning to end it's been a load of rubbish. The ancient Greeks at least had the good sense to make their champions mythical so as to bestow them with attributes and ideals that wouldn't be compromised by mortal weakness. Anything more is illogical and far less instructive, and the Greeks were nothing if not instructive. The lesson this teaches is that ideals should be embraced but not assigned, at least not in a mortal context. What is gained when heroes fall far short of expectations, resulting in disappointment, disillusionment and disgust? Who does that benefit and towards what end? It suggests that we're frail, insecure little creatures who find comfort and refuge in the accomplishments of those we perceive to be greater than ourselves; we live vicariously through them, hoping to gain insight and strength from their example, consequently setting ourselves up for a fall when they stumble. It says volumes about our need for bigger-than-life heroes to provide answers to the questions that we ourselves not only can't answer, but don't even know how to ask. And it says we're looking for these answers in the wrong places.

None of this should come as a surprise. In an era of relativism that values celebrity over substance, where cultural revisionism keeps moving the goal posts, and "experts" on everything babble on and on without any more of a clue about anything than anyone else, it's no wonder we're confused about whom, and what, to believe. Absolutes no longer seem so absolute, nor heroes so heroic.

I interpret these events as the metastasizing of a malignant value system, whereby our heroes are turned against us. Our need for guidance is tempered by a desire for cultural convenience and metaphysical expedience, so as not to upset our worship of the superficial and inconsequential. We want to be fulfilled, but don't want to do the heavy lifting required, so we ask others to do the work for us. We project unto them ideals to which we ourselves don't aspire, then are dismayed when they turn out to be as non-ideological as the rest of us. Not only are our hopes and trust dashed as a result, but the very ideals themselves seem diminished.

We require more of our heroes than of ourselves, and therein lies the problem. Those we elevate above all others should be every bit as much a reflection of who we actually are as who we want to be. But that's not the case. The differential in American society now is such that as long as our icons are excellent, then the rest of us can embrace mendacity and mediocrity because that's much easier. But when heroes fail under the weight of an unrealistic load, rather than blame them, we should blame ourselves for being hypocrites.

The Greeks avoided this trap by taking human frailty out of the equation, thereby assuring that the representatives of their ideals would remain steadfast, unswerving and absolute. This would appear to be a much better way of teaching classical truths, while keeping heroes honest. After all, did you ever hear of Ulysses getting caught corking his bat...?

© Copyright 2007 by