Detecting Real HeroesBy Barry Rubin
In Raymond Chandler’s essay, “The Simple Act of Murder,” he describes the character of the detective as he was to appear in the great stories that lent themselves to “film noir.” Implicitly he was also defining the American hero — and who your heroes are tells a great deal about you and your society.
There are more than a few parts of the world where the hero is the terrorist or the martyr, often the same person nowadays. The ability to kill lots of people and the willingness to die are deemed to equate with greatness. This is a concept that often goes with dictatorships and ideological societies. Softness and kindness are weaknesses in such places, after all.
Similar yet different are the socialist realist heroes beloved of Communist states, cardboard cut-outs, persons of perfection, a sort of tractor mechanism inside the form of man.
Americans like their heroes flawed but not shattered. It’s good for the hero to be reluctant. After all, the first hero of America, or at least of the United States as a country, was George Washington, who was modeled on Cincinnatus, the Roman paragon who left his plow, served its country in its time of need, and then went back to the plow. He wasn’t thirsty for power, he wasn’t the servant of the state, he was a guy (or gal) who wanted to live normally but understood that to do so required some pretty tough fighting, bargaining, scheming, or whatever to get there.
That’s why Rick of Casablanca is a great American fictional hero, and why the sheriff in “High Noon” is not like the Sheriff of Nottingham. Neither born great nor seeking greatness or wealth or power, the opportunity to be heroic had to be thrust on him.
But these are not that creature so prevalent in recent years, the anti-hero. As a spice or for variety’s sake, anti-heroes are fine but when they displace the competition a society is in real trouble. The anti-hero is not heroic, merely the main character. Such a person can be a rat, a louse, a criminal, a drug dealer or a double-dealer. Being young and handsome (or beautiful) can be sufficient to redeem them. So is the fact that they are better than the rest.
A pirate fighting demons; a nicer gangster battling a less charming one, that’s enough to give you something to cheer for in this type of drama. After all, in our times we are told by the professional tellers that there are no heroes, everyone is dirty, corrupt and vile. After all, isn’t society that way?
Someone who appears moral is, of course, instantly identifiable as corrupt. In a television show, film, or whatever, if a sincere religious believer (except for a Muslim) or a clergyman appears, you know he is stealing from the poor box. That stereotype holds and you can tell from the start who the villains are. A property developer? Oh, no! A corporate executive? Obviously the murderer. A Republican or conservative? Oh, it must be a horror film.
But Rick or the sheriff aren’t too political. Self-mockingly, Rick declares his ideology to be that of the drunkard. We like self-deprecation. After all, a hero isn’t supposed to be someone better than you but rather someone you could be. That’s democracy. Equal opportunity for heroism, if one only has the moral fiber.
Thus Chandler writes, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Unlike today’s anti-heroes he or she must be able to deal with the corrupt without being corrupt. Yet being a nice guy alone is insufficient. You can’t just reason with the villains. You have to intimidate them and even bop them sometimes.
Well, no one’s perfect and the whole point of the American hero is that ordinariness, that non-perfection. We are cynical and skeptical but not about doing right but only about being totally right.
And after all, what could be more essentially hypocritical than putting the emphasis on people saying the right things — jumping through hoops of “approved” language, correctness, and never giving offense to anyone — rather than doing the right things.
If someone starts bragging, you know their coinage doesn’t ring true. That’s why it is hard to be a heroic politician, someone who constantly toots his own horn and yet is the genuine article. That’s why a good sense of humor, to show you don’t take yourself too seriously, is a prerequisite. Chandler calls it, “rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque.”
So Chandler says:
“He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”
“He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job,” says Chandler. Americans respect common sense. “Oh,” as a song in “Damn Yankees,” goes, “It’s fine to be a genius of course,” but you still have to put the horse in front of the cart. Anti-intellectualism is not one of Americans’ nicer traits. When you see what intellectuals act like and even think like, though, can you blame them?
Honor here does not take the form of a touchy self-regard but a deeply inbuilt sense of right and wrong. “He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.” A “due and dispassionate” one because he doesn’t lose his head but keeps a sense of what makes sense, of the goal to be achieved. The frontier and pioneer character has been much demeaned in recent times as that of wild cowboys, vigilantes, a lust for violence. Nobody lasted very long on the frontier with that type of behavior.
The real basis of American character is less the cowboy but rather the homesteader, that steady person who better give first regard to family and stability. To survive required all those virtues that makes a society great but doesn’t necessarily make for a good action movie or a yuppie fantasy.
High society — whether of the opera-and-ballet with top hat variety skewered in Marx Brothers’ films or the snobbery of a self-styled intellectual-cultural elite — has no appeal for such a person. He or she isn’t trying to be a social climber. Never forget, there’s a difference between a celebrity and a hero.
Rather, says Chandler, the hallmark is “disgust for sham, and contempt for pettiness.” Yes, a lot of this does come in reaction against European airs. The idea of appealing to Europeans-a characteristic recommended in a couple of recent Democratic presidential nominees as proving them worthy of election-is not high in the priority list.
Yet if Mrs. Peabody or Mrs. Teasdale or Mr. Potter wants to look down on him or her, the hero — comic or charismatic — says all the better. The Teasdales of today aren’t so much debutantes and the Potters not so much capitalists, rather the credentials they flash are from, say — to pick something at random, Harvard Law School — and jobs whose descriptions are as empty as the payment is high — community outreach director for a hospital, perhaps.
Ironically, the left has forgotten about social class. Its old idea was to side with the salt of the earth, working stiffs, people who labored to support their families. It wasn’t important that they had good taste in clothes, drank gourmet coffee, were thin as possible, or had read big books. The people, yes, as Carl Sandburg put it in his milder populist progressive way.
When the peasantry and proletariat didn’t make the revolution and instead turned into rural folk and suburb-dwellers, however, the elements of the upper middle class that hated the bourgeoisie turned on those who were to be their foot soldiers (or less politely, cannon fodder). They saw them as grubby folk who clung to guns, religions, and bigotry. They didn’t understand that not everyone can — or, for goodness sakes — should be a professor or performance artist.
Society, especially democratic society, needs people who live by a clearly defined moral code, often atop a bedrock of a personal, not aggressive, religious faith. A minority can do drugs, mock the system, and engage in situational ethics and Hollywood-style morality. But if the majority doesn’t have family values, forget it.
These are the kind of people who serve in the military, risk their lives, endure torture as prisoners if that befalls them, and work the tough jobs. Or, to pick an example at random, such a person might be a mother who works her way up from the PTA to a governorship by raising five kids and choosing to have a baby with serious problems. Where one side sees a living being, the other sees a burden.
They are the store clerks who don’t get the big break and become rock stars. They are the insurance salespeople, the factory workers, the businesspeople on a big or small scale, the truck drivers, and all the rest. If they don’t get glamor they should at least get respect.
In the Communist bloc, they used to tell a joke about the uprisings against the “people’s dictatorships. When the spirit of Lenin is consulted about how to put down these “counterrevolutionary” revolts he considers the answer simple: “Arm the workers!” The joke is, of course that it is precisely the workers who are the ones already in the streets storming the barricades.
The situation is most apt for today’s “progressives” for whom the masses of actual Americans are the menace, often a bigger menace than foreign dictators or radical Islamist terrorists. At least the latter are exotic and have a sense of style. In the matter of choosing one’s downtrodden, it is best they be as far away as possible lest they use the wrong fork.
The irony is that if you are handed high-paying jobs, have offices given you on a silver platter, and get by on credentials and sneering at those who don’t have them, you are going to develop your ability to deal with the real world to a far lesser degree. Chandler knew better about what you learned outside the ivory tower and the golden cocoon. His detective, “has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.”
Who do you want to have next to you in a foxhole, or the White House, or in a tough situation? The wise, explains the saying, solve the problems that the smart create. If you need a refresher course in that one, see, “The Caine Mutiny,” “Casablanca,” or “High Noon.” Equally good or even better, read a lot of history.
Or, in Chandler’s words: “If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.” And if there aren’t enough, if those virtues are no longer valued, if the most basic survival instincts and lessons of centuries are ridiculed, watch out!