Politics & Policy

Where Have the Heroes Gone?

Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur
What no one is saying about the Aurora shooting.

In America we don’t ask why a man decides he wants to be a fictional character. That’s his business. In America perfectly sane people with families and jobs can be whoever they want to be on the weekends. You want to be Brad Pitt in A River Runs through It? Just watch your back cast. You want to dress up and reenact Civil War battles you saw in Gettysburg? Just be careful with your gunpowder. We don’t even care if they get the parts right. In fact, few noticed that James Holmes got the hair color wrong — orange instead of Joker green. But although we’re accepting of these fictional impulses, when such a nut decides to kill us, we want to stop him. Unfortunately, we don’t know how.

To recognize the sociopaths among us, we have to understand them. But when an evil or insane person uses a firearm, we never get the chance to even try, because the ensuing debate predictably bogs down in gun politics. This is a debate we have had, and the American people have mostly won it. But the anti-gun Left doesn’t want to move on to real solutions. It insists on pushing gun control even though murder rates show that taking away the guns of the law-abiding doesn’t save lives. Chicago, for example, which has some of the nation’s strictest gun-control laws, is on pace to become the U.S. city with the highest murder rate.

To see what I mean when I say this is a debate we’ve already had, consider that in 1959 some 60 percent of the American public favored handgun bans, according to Gallup, whereas today opinion on that question has flipped: Roughly 70 percent now oppose such a ban. Most Americans no longer want more gun control. And despite what Sarah Brady claims, it was not with a shadowy army of lobbyists that the NRA won this debate. The NRA won by making it clear that gun rights are a freedom issue.

To see how much opinion on this issue has changed amidst a lively national dialogue, consider the increase in the number of concealed-carry permits nationwide. Through a process that began in the mid-1980s, America has become mostly a “shall-issue” nation with respect to concealed-carry permits. A shall-issue jurisdiction is one where a person must obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun but where the granting of the permit is subject only to the applicant’s meeting certain established criteria. Local officials in shall-issue states don’t have any latitude to simply ignore the constitutional right to bear arms.

#ad#Today 41 states have right-to-carry laws. Thirty-eight of these have shall-issue laws. All the states except Illinois have laws that, to varying degrees, solidify the right of citizens to carry certain concealed firearms in public, either without a permit or after obtaining a permit.

Florida has issued more than two million concealed-carry permits since adopting its law in 1987; it had 919,831 permit holders as of March 2012. Nationally, the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates, there are 6.8 million concealed-carry permit holders today. This is up from about one million in the mid-1980s. Since 1991, when violent crime in the U.S. peaked, many federal, state, and local gun-control laws have been eliminated or made less restrictive. And the number of privately owned guns has risen by about 100 million, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As all that happened, the nation’s murder rate has mostly been falling; in fact, from 1991 to 2010, according to FBI statistics, the homicide rate decreased 51 percent.

Although the national debate about guns has been won by freedom-loving Americans, some politicians persist in keeping their minds closed. They insist that gun control is the answer to stopping homicidal maniacs, even though it demonstrably isn’t. Meanwhile, most Americans (and politicians) support gun rights but are busy playing defense. And so we never look at the underlying problems.

While the battle for individual freedom must be fought in legislatures and courtrooms, we must also step back to look at what’s happening in our culture. We have let Hollywood displace our heroes. Where they used to be, we now have narcissistic, arrogant guys and gals who really don’t care about the body count.

Our loss of noble heroes has consequences. Today, as “flash mobs” raid stores, the media rarely contemplate the cultural changes that have imbued young people with such a distorted notion of morality. Where is the debate about the culture that has brought this about?

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How Hollywood Killed the Hero

Hollywood controls our national story — and, with it, our view of heroism — because we’ve let it. We’ve let a mostly left-leaning elite undermine even our sense of right and wrong by replacing the hero with the antihero, which is a 20th-century invention. The 1940 edition of the Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary had a listing for “anti-hero” but didn’t define it. I would suggest that an anti-hero is a person who might want to do good but doesn’t believe he can know what is good and what is evil.

The modern Batman character is very much an example of an antihero. He’s not right or wrong, but is lost somewhere in between. He is as tragically flawed as Martin Sheen’s character in the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now. But Batman wasn’t always like that. In comic books from the 1940s up until the 1970s, Bruce Wayne was clearly fighting for good. Since  the 1970s, and especially in the most recent films, he is a darker character. Though he sides with good, he is ravaged internally, a bit like Sylvester Stallone’s antiheroic character in the 1982 movie First Blood. So the line between Batman and the Joker has blurred.

The line between the hero and the ordinary person has also blurred — so much so that heroism is now seen as just a mad moment when someone forgets his own mortality long enough to save another person’s life. Today we say a person has been heroic when he rescues a child from a burning home, disarms a sociopath, or applies a tourniquet to someone who is bleeding to death. But calling the act heroic is different from calling the person who performs it a hero. We don’t identify the heroism with the fallible individual. Men today, that is, can never be heroes — by definition. At best, they display heroism, and then only briefly. And so the men in that movie theater in Aurora who gave their lives selflessly as they threw themselves in front of loved ones have not been widely honored as the heroes they are. Real-life heroes have been rendered mute and invisible.

#ad#Meanwhile, sociopaths such as Holmes see a culture that elevates the bad guys to the same moral plane that the good guys occupy. And the bad guys get more attention. The good guys? Not so long ago, armed Americans who shot murderers — see the NRA’s blog The Armed Citizen for examples — were revered as heroes. Today, they are soon forgotten. Worse, on the left, they’re derided.

What Can Save Us?

Not that it’s all the modern Left’s fault. Our idea of heroism began to change in the 19th century when the “Byronic hero” was developed as an idealized but flawed figure, morally ambivalent. “I am such a strange mélange of good and evil,” Lord Byron, who died at age 36, once said, “that it would be difficult to describe me.”

The Byronic hero was summed up by Byron’s ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb when she described Byron himself as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” The Byronic hero left his mark on the Romantic and Gothic literature of the rest of the 19th century: Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the Phantom in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera — these are not heroes whom the Romans would have understood or who would have been esteemed in the Middle Ages.

But it is only in the past few decades that the hero — chivalrous, brave, and pious — has fully given way to the antihero, who is flawed, dark, and mysterious. Into the early 20th century, the moral man was still portrayed favorably — see Jack London, Louis L’Amour, Robert Ruark. At the same time, though, Ernest Hemingway, a masculine outdoorsman and warrior, was creating flawed protagonists who were not so much amoral, like later antiheroes, as they were ineffectual. In Hemingway’s classic The Sun Also Rises, Jake has lost his physical manhood in war, and so his romance with the heroine is frustrated. Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea heroically catches the great fish of the deep but ends up losing it to the sharks in the end.

Meanwhile, the heroic cowboy — in his white hat and on his trusty steed, gunning down the bad guy — held on in film and fiction for a while. But by the middle of the century the type that he represented was being viewed increasingly as an unattainable ideal, and even westerns began to feature antiheroes: Clint Eastwood, in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, played a wandering hired gun who stood less for justice than for his own fortune.

Popular culture is now loaded with antiheroes — Harry Callahan, Jason Bourne, Martin Riggs, Rambo. They may be strong and virile, but they no longer have a clear conception of justice, so they are afflicted with uncertainty. They are like Michael, the character played by Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter — men grasping for virtue but doubting they can ever be virtuous.

This is not a call for censorship. It’s a call for more freedom of speech, not less. We again need films about the men and women we want to be. We need stories that might even wake up and inspire misguided youth.

If we want once again to have heroes for our sons and daughters to measure themselves against — if we want our youth to aspire to be Superman, not Lex Luthor — we have to remind Hollywood of the stories it used to tell. We need to put forth clear examples. We need to hold up for them characters like Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur, a figure fighting for justice, his people, and his family — a man who rises to overcome obstacles in his path by first acknowledging the clear difference between good and evil.

Frank Miniter is the author of The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Manhood.

Frank Miniter — Mr. Miniter’s next book, out in October, is Spies in Congress—Inside the Democrats’ Covered-Up Cyber Scandal.

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