Culture: Americans’ fixation with sex and sleaze puts flaws on a
pedestal above achievement.
Shortly after her husband’s assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy wrote:
“For Jack history was full of heroes…. Jack had this hero idea of
history.” How quaint she seems, how naive and sentimental. Now Jack
frolics in the White House pool with call girls and plots how best to
kill Fidel Castro. We listen on the White House phone as Lyndon Johnson
bullies, to tapes of Richard Nixon as he swears and vows revenge. We
read descriptions of our president’s penis. For us, there are no heroes.
That is the deeper meaning of Seymour Hersh’s “The Dark Side of
Camelot.” Thomas Jefferson is the president with a slave mistress,
Albert Einstein the scientist who mistreated his wife, Mozart the care
less genius who liked to talk dirty. Historians remind us that Robert E.
Lee was cold Abraham Lincoln passive, Franklin Roosevelt devious. A
recent biography of Mother Teresa asserts that she took money from
dictators and mistreated subordinates. Its title: “The Missionary
There is in some ages a predilection to deny greatness and drag down
heroes. We live in such an age. In America at the end of he century, no
one is admirable, no one unblemished, no one on a pedestal. Mistrustful
of myths, we prefer full disclosure.
Skeptical of virtue, we easily find flaws. Instead of educating our
children by exem- plary lives, we offer them cautionary tales. It was
not always so. “Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives
sublime,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in a poem once familiar to
generations of Americans. Until World War I, the ideology of heroism was
intact and influential in Anglo-American culture. It permeated parlors,
schools farms and factories. It could be found in novels and newspapers
and eulogies; in McGuffey’s “Readers” and in the sermons of Phillips
Brooks; on statues everywhere, in inscriptions on public buildings and
engraved on tombstones. It could be seen in the names parents chose for
The ideology of heroism molded Harriet Beecher Stowe, Stonewall Jackson
and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It shaped Andrew Carnegie, Jane Addams,
Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who was raised on the book “Great
Men and Famous Women.” Of course Longfellow and his readers knew their
heroes were not perfect. Even so, they believed that heroes instruct us
in greatness, that heroes remind us of our better and braver selves,
that without heroes the American past loses meaning and the idea of
historical progress is ques tioned. They also believed that heroes
strengthen the ordinary citizen trying to live decently. Maybe our
Victorian forbears were too stuffy and too sentimental, too credulous
and too preachy, but today it is the scornful who prevail.
It is easy to blame others: politicians who lie to us and let us down,
journalists who obliterate privacy and offer only bad news, an
intelligentsia that likes to mock, an entertainment industry that
thrives on shock. But we all are complicitous. We have created a culture
that is cynical sneering, leering; a culture in which our children are
denied permission to admire. We have given free rein to envy, to our
desire to tarnish and tear down; and short changed our instinct to
emulate, to look up, to admire. Not finding heroes, we have succumbed to
Perhaps it is inevitable that an information revolution will create the
impression that sleaze is omnipresent and nothing is sacred. When all
archives are open, all conversations recorded, all secrets told, can
anyone be exemplary? Maybe our preoccupation with sex and the intimate
life makes nobility impossible. Maybe in a democracy there can be no
veneration, nil admirari.
Will our children become such devotees of the dark side that they forget
that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, that Mozart
composed the C Minor Mass or that John F. Kennedy wrote “Profiles in
Courage” and resolved the Cuban missile crisis? In the early part of our
century, gossip columnist Walter Winchell quipped: “Democracy is where
everybody can kick everybody else’s ass.” Could he be right?
Peter H. Gibbon is a research associate in education at the Harvard
Graduate School of Education.
– Peter H. Gibbon