Topic: Society

Heroic Tale Ethics, Part 2: Print the Legend No More
(5/7/2007)

Some people believe that what constitutes right and wrong has been settled for eons. They are wrong. Civilization constantly (if infuriatingly slowly) learns from its experiences, and ethics evolve, change and, presumably, improve. Workplace harassment of women was once commonplace, accepted, and regarded as fair and natural conduct. Parents beat young children with belts and canes in full confidence that it was for the little tykes' own good. The list is as long as human existence, and the learning process continues. It is continuing in the United States today, as a long-standing practice once regarded as essential to building national pride and personal character faces extinction because it no longer seems right. The practice is hero-making, and after flourishing for centuries, it has reached the end of the line.

The Democratic Congress, which has apparently decided that it is more important to embarrass the Bush Administration than actually legislate (odd, because the Bush Administration is perfectly capable of embarrassing itself), recently re-opened the matters of Jessica Lynch and the late Pat Tillman, U.S. soldiers whose exploits were embellished and fabricated to provide the public with war heroes. Tillman, an NFL star who volunteered for combat service in Afghanistan, died as the result of so-called "friendly fire," turning an inspiring story into a tragic one. The military tried to claim that Tillman perished from enemy fire while leading a counter-attack, even awarding him a posthumous Silver Star for an incident that never took place. Lynch was anointed a hero after it was reported that she battled furiously to save herself and her fellow troops, though she never fired a shot during the attack on her unit. In her testimony before Congress, Lynch prompted applause by saying, "The American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes, and they don't need to be told elaborate lies."

The ethics of hero-making is more complicated than Lynch knows, and the Congress members who tut-tutted and shook their heads sadly as if manufacturing heroes was a sinister innovation of the Bush Administration were either being disingenuous or ignorant. Up until very recently, manufacturing heroes has been regarded not only as routine but crucial to supporting a society's values and teaching ethical ideals to new generations. And the practice did not begin in the United States. It undoubtedly predates written history. Burnishing heroes has long been in the special category of "good lies," deceptions that do far more good than bad

It is a time-tested solution to a perplexing dilemma. People need role models to inspire them, and stories of remarkable virtue to show what admirable conduct is. It is much easier to find a real person to emulate than an abstract ethical principle without a face. The problem is that real people are too complex to be effective heroes. Great men and women have equally great flaws. How do teachers hold up a famous man or woman as a role model when that model also engaged in reprehensible conduct? George Washington was a courageous soldier and a wise leader; he also pulled out the teeth of his slaves to make false teeth for himself. Martin Luther King showed skill, bravery, restraint and leadership as he spear-headed the civil rights movement; he was also a notorious philanderer. Clarence Darrow once bribed a juror; Sir Thomas More could be both corrupt and cruel. Thomas Edison's inventions changed the world, but he was a neglectful father who exploited his employees. One of the most troubling of all American icons is Thomas Jefferson, who was almost tried for treason for his disgraceful and cowardly conduct as governor of Virginia during the Revolution, and who kept his wife's half-sister as a plantation concubine. Civilizations have believed that it was better to turn such tarnished figures into uncomplicated legends so the lessons of their lives would be powerful and unambiguous. "Print the legend," concluded the newspaper editor in the famous climax of John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence." Print the legend because we need heroes, and nobody is a hero all of their life.

As a utilitarian approach to reinforcing and extolling good conduct, the process of hero-making was ethical. It did inspire and guide the young, and the damage from the deceptions seemed minimal. What was the harm of Woodrow Wilson biographers neglecting to mention that their subject was a noxious racist, compared to the inspiration his legacy as an advocate for international cooperation provided to advocates of world peace? So what if the real World War I battle-field accomplishments of Sergeant Alvin York were outrageously inflated; wasn't it better for American to read about home-grown heroes than soldiers dying of infections in muddy trenches? Indeed, war required hero-making. Hide the inevitable atrocities and battlefield blunders, or the public wouldn't support the most just and necessary wars.

The U.S. military was following established practice when it tried to turn Pat Tillman into more of a hero than he already was, and most veterans know it. This is another reason why the attacks on John Kerry's military honors by the Swift-boat Veterans for Truth was such a low blow. Veterans, including my father, himself a recipient of Silver and Bronze Stars, know that battlefield honors are motivated as much by the public relations goals of the military as by the exploits of the troops. Accepting a decoration is part of military service. It helps the war effort, regardless of how legitimate it is.

What has changed since Homer sang of the courage of Hector and Achilles? Simply this: we know too much. For better or worse, the public has learned about the dark sides of past heroes, and is suspicious of modern ones. Combine this with the increased availability of information and the presence of a voracious, amoral and venal media eager to print anything, no matter how harmful, and the result is obvious. Legend-making is impossible, and that means it no longer works. If it no longer works, even utilitarian principles pronounce it unethical. Efforts to manufacture heroes are bound to fail, and when they do, increased public cynicism is the consequence. The public is too cynical already, and cynicism is an impediment to ethics.

The era of "print the legend" is over. Honesty is served by this development, though its impact on society is much in doubt. How future generations will develop without traditional heroes, illusory though they were, only time will tell.

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