Are you feeling dismayed by America’s internal divisions, soaring crime rates, heedless personal behavior, and general coarsening of society? Cheer up. One positive development is that apparently more heroes are living among us than in any country at any time in history.
The proverbial visitor from another planet dropping into today’s America might think that, from the constant proliferating references to this person or that person being a “hero,” the country was not just populated by selfless, noble, courageous human beings, but that heroic figures were constantly bumping into other heroic figures at the supermarket, on the beach, or in the train station. It might have been yesterday that Byron wrote the opening lines of Don Juan, his great hymn to the antihero:
I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one
The recent re-anointment of Salman Rushdie as “heroic” and “courageous” after the heinous attack on him by an Islamic fanatic is a case in point. There has never been anything heroic or courageous about Rushdie. A super-privileged, non-practicing Muslim raised in a secular Muslim family who has lived his entire adult life in the West, he published a second-rate novel that insulted an already inflamed Muslim world, which responded with irrational fury and called for his murder. This was a despicable response to a work of culture, but the awfulness of the response, and the appalling violence of the attack, does not necessarily make heroic the act that provoked them.
If Rushdie had published his novel in the Muslim world, it might have brought him closer to hero status, but even then, satirizing an entire religion is not the same thing as taking a stand defying a particular injustice or system of oppression. Nelson Mandela was a hero. Alexei Navalny is a hero. Rushdie would at least have been making a moral point by positioning himself in the center of the system he was satirizing. As it was, he published his novel in the safety and comfort of the United States, with the clear intention of making a provocative splash, and with no apparent intention, as in the case of a hero, of acting upon reality in order to change it.
But that didn’t stop liberal mandarins from leaping on the bandwagon of the fatwa on Rushdie and declaring free expression to be in grave peril, thus trying to squeeze, as into a packed cocktail party, into Rushdie’s heroic zone—even as Rushdie was boasting about his own exploitation of his perceived martyrdom and joking on Curb Your Enthusiasm about enjoying “fatwa sex.” In The New Yorker, David Remnick, hailing Rushdie as a “hero of the free word” and weirdly describing him as “impeccably brave”—as if bravery were a matter of taste, not a quality of character—called for Rushdie to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature on the basis, not of his work, but of the recent attempt on his life.
I hope that Rushdie recovers completely from the deranged, cowardly attack on his life and goes back to writing and publishing as fast as he can. I also hope that he resists the temptation to go on presenting himself as an exemplar of moral courage.
Of course, the idea that the ayatollahs’ response to Rushdie endangered free expression in America was both absurd and an insult to writers around the world who live in constant fear of being jailed, tortured, or killed as punishment for their written words. The Satanic Verses never went out of print, no American writers were inhibited as a result of the fatwa, and Rushdie achieved the wholly original status of being, simultaneously, a martyr and a celebrity—think Joan of Arc on Saturday Night Live—even slyly gesturing to himself at one point in a New York Times op-ed titled “Whither Moral Courage?” Instead of suffering the consequences of heroism, he received almost a decade of protection from the British Secret Service as he indulged the benefits of international fame. A medieval theocracy ran head-on into modern American life: the mullahs actually monetized their attack on free speech for Rushdie, his publisher and his agent, and gave free, untrammeled expression to an entire industry of responses to their attempt to quash free expression.
Being a hero requires a selfless risk of injury or death, or at the very least the risk that comes with a gratuitous leap into the unknown—a risk taken for the sake of another person or a larger cause involving great numbers of people. Heroes always have a choice to act heroically, or not: it’s the nature of their choice that makes them heroes. (The only choice Rushdie made was to go into hiding.) We know this instinctively. And yet over recent decades, the word “hero” has grown so inflated as to become nearly wholly devalued.
Rudy Giuliani did what any mayor would have (or should have) done on 9/11. The people who ran into burning towers to save other people were heroes. Mike Pence wasn’t a hero for refusing to stop the congressional certification of the 2020 election, any more than I am a hero for refusing to rob a bank. Pence did his job as an American vice president. The Military Times juxtaposed Joe Biden’s praise as “heroes” of the 13 servicemen killed in an attack on the Kabul airport in 2021 against the indifference and recklessness of the withdrawal operation, thus implying that Biden was using the rhetoric of “heroes” to hide his incompetence. The bitter irony was that their slaughter cut their heroism brutally short.
Doctors who took the Hippocratic oath were called “heroes” during the pandemic for doing their job as doctors. Most of them did so obscurely and effectively. Some, however, complained in the media that they were being asked to do too much: a nurse in California said, “I didn’t sign up for this.” What, then, did she sign up for, if not to care for the sick and dying, sometimes in situations where she herself could be made sick? What if Chesley Sullenberger, instead of landing that plane safely in the Hudson River, had announced over the intercom, “Sorry, I didn’t sign up for this,” and then gone to sit in the lavatory and sulk? As it was, he was disgusted to be called a hero when, as he put it, he was simply doing his job.
The Internet made the increasing atomization of modern life a cultural style; the pandemic institutionalized it. Perhaps this is why a person simply doing his job has now acquired the status of “hero.” “Quiet quitting” might make sense for underpaid workers trapped in work that enforces a deadening routine, but it is a threat to society when taken up by, say, a surgeon who decides to bow out in the middle of a bypass operation, not to mention a firefighter racing into a burning building to save a person’s life—the same goes for teachers, cops, crossing guards, nurses, paramedics, and so on.
There is almost no cultural framework any more for the comprehension of the selflessness that is the quintessence of heroism. Earlier definitions of heroism have become irrelevant. Forget the tragic hero or antihero: moral flaws or a morally compromised past are pounced upon, publicly exposed, and punished. Goodbye to the classical or epic hero: exceptional qualities that elevate a person above other people are derided and undermined by social media mobs. And the Byronic hero, who hides an inner nobility and magnanimity behind dark and mordant cynicism, would last for less than a New York minute in our world where nothing counts so much as the polished appearance of virtue and generosity. A man cannot even count on being a hero to his valet: his valet might have quietly quit weeks before.
Some of the true hero’s absence might be attributed to the tremendous cultural influence of Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero’s Journey, in which Campbell defines the hero as someone who follows an adventure, suffers symbolic death in the form of a grave setback, overcomes it, is reborn, and returns to life more vigorous and successful than before. It is a mythology undergirding just about every great Hollywood film—recall the hero’s near-drowning at the beginning of some Jason Bourne films and a recent Bond film—but it also redefines heroism from a selfless, exceptional act to something more ordinary and attainable. As Campbell once told Bill Moyers: “It’s a fundamental experience that everyone has to undergo.” That’s a perfect dumbing down, as it were, of heroism for our age. Indeed, in its emphasis on self-actualization, Campbells’ hero is the very opposite of the hero’s selfless essence.
But perhaps in our brightly lit dark age, amid our rising tide of post-pandemic lawlessness and lack of responsibility, rendering the concept of heroism meaningless has a subtle intention. Maybe calling the simple act of doing one’s job “heroic” makes selfishness and fecklessness cultural norms, since everyone knows that being a hero is an exceptional act, one that no one could be blamed for not performing. As for fulfilling the most elemental job of being a human being and treating other people like human beings—just leave that to the heroes also.