Cincinnati’s Cincinnatus, in perspective

There’s an ancient Zen story about a young monk who has dedicated himself, body and mind, to the Way, just knows that he has done well, and asks the master why he hasn’t praised him for his efforts. The master answers, “Because you stink of Zen.”

All nations and cultures have their heroes, but, most of the time, they’re dead and celebrated in a sort of mythical fashion to promote the values of that nation or culture. America is certainly no exception. When I was growing up, there was a small pantheon of heroes we all learned about–George Washington, Paul Revere, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, John Paul Jones, Jean Lafitte, Lewis & Clark, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and maybe a few hundred more, some of whom were heroes to some and villains to others.  Cincinnati, Ohio, is named for Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who took up arms to prevent invaders from crossing a bridge in order to save the Roman Republic, and who subsequently returned to his plow.

In other words, a hero is someone who does something extraordinary to either advance or defend the values and principles of his or her society and culture.

The overuse of the term in other nations and empires, however, was frequently if subtly mocked by Americans. Nazi Germany’s “Heroes of the German Volk” and the plethora of the Heroes of the Soviet Union come to mind. Hero status in America was reserved for a few people who really stood out, who did something that was truly remarkable to either advance or protect the values Americans held dear. The overuse of the term by other nations, often ruled by a very few, was held out as proof of their moral bankruptcy.

Since September 2001, however, that has changed. President Bush went on TV and proclaimed that all of the New York police and firefighters who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives trying to save others on that dreadful day were “heroes.” Then every American soldier who died in Afghanistan or Iraq were heroes, then every veteran. Even I, a former sailor who saw little actual combat and never fired a weapon in battle, have been so labeled by perfect strangers.

The term “hero” has spread like kudzu in the South or dandelions in the Midwest. Everybody who does anything positive or just does their job (like a policeman arresting a suspect or a fireman pulling a child out of a burning house), or even children who survive a theater or school shooting or a bus accident instantly attains heroic status. The guy who answered a kidnapped woman’s call for help from Ariel Castro’s house of torture and slavery in Cleveland is a hero. The cop who went into the house is a hero. The “real heroes” of the bus that overturned in Indiana today are the children who were lucky enough to survive, according to a bystander who got her 15 seconds of fame on national news.

You can’t even turn on the news these days without hearing that someone who did what any other quick-thinking or even decent person in the same circumstances would have done is a hero. The term has been used so much that it has lost its meaning; it’s devolved into a propaganda tool that says we’re ALL heroes just for doing anything a little above and beyond in America today, or just for surviving.

Is that any different from what the regimes of Hitler and Stalin did? Everybody who did anything for those regimes, whether they were actually acting out of loyalty to those regimes or not(and I think usually not), found themselves to be decorated heroes. But, if they used their newfound status to point out a flaw in the system, watch out! They could just as easily be turned into a traitor of the worst sort.

America is fast approaching that level of turning previously acclaimed heroes into traitors, or at least into those who should be shunned. Look at Chesley Sullenberger, or “Sully,” the US Airways pilot who made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009. He always said that he was no hero, that he was just doing his job, and he was right. He was elevated to hero status and invited to testify on airline safety before a Congressional committee. Sully went into a detailed explanation of how pilots are sleep-deprived, underpaid, and therefore accident-prone in order for the airlines to increase their profits. Most of the congresscritters walked out on him.

I submit that the cheapening of the concept of a hero is a reflection of the deterioration of the fundamental values of basic human decency and common courage in a society that does so. When doing one’s basic duty to save or improve the lives of others becomes extraordinary, then there’s something very, very wrong with the society that has eroded and systematically dismantled those values.

America stinks of heroes. Social collapse is not far away. I wish I could follow Robert A. Heinlein’s advice and move elsewhere, but I’m stuck here. Guess I’ll go for a walk in the Cleveland Metroparks instead. And have a nice day.

Photo by Earl under Creative Commons license