A World Without Heroes

[A speech to the 13 Stars Social Club of Minneapolis, December 15, 2009]

Writing about a visit to an élite group of high school students in Britain a few years ago, Jim White of the London Daily Telegraph thought to compare them with what he remembered of his own adolescence. "Initially," he wrote,

I was rather shocked by their fascination with celebrity. As my father used to say about me and my chums: if this is the cream of the country, God help the skimmed milk. But gradually it dawned that taking a close interest in the famous and their predilections is no less legitimate a diversion than the desire to memorise Lancashire’s batting average, or plot the lineage of Joy Division, or learn which locomotives can best negotiate the fierce incline south of Glasgow. In truth, knowing who was the first to be evicted from the household in Big Brother III is to exhibit much the same youthful brain dynamic as being able to recite Manchester United’s line-up in the 1979 FA Cup final. One man’s totally worthless scrap of knowledge is another’s fascinating fact; one man’s trivia is another’s intellectual lifeblood. Sneer at someone’s trivial obsessions, and you sneer at their core point and purpose.

I would like to argue the case that Mr White was mistaken, and that there is an essential and highly significant difference between youthful fascination with that televisual celebrity manufactory, Big Brother, and what he remembers feeling about the soccer stars of his youth. It comes down to a single word that is not often heard anymore, or if heard is not understood, and that word is "honor."

Celebrity, now so familiar to us all from the popular culture that surrounds and, indeed, engulfs us, is a bit like honor in being, in essence, fame or reputation. You could even say that the fame of celebrity is like that of honor in being, as Aristotle called it, "the reward of virtue" if by "virtue" we mean the ability to swing a golf club or a baseball bat, readiness with a witty quip, a talent for acting or singing or just good looks. The only talent of some celebrities is the talent for attracting public attention. "Virtue" is not a word we automatically associate with Paris Hilton, but she certainly is talented that way.

Yet that’s the problem, isn’t it? The idea of such qualities as these being "virtues" is ridiculous in a way that virtue applied to the qualities which used to define honor is not. Those qualities to Aristotle included courage, temperance, liberality, magnanimity, patience, truthfulness and modesty. Someone with a reputation for such virtues might even today be spoken of in terms of honor, but how many young people today, as opposed to those in earlier generations are encouraged by the culture to pursue such honor? How many, by contrast, are eager for the Paris Hilton kind of fame — in short, for celebrity?

Where there are now celebrities, there were once heroes. Heroes were not just famous as celebrities are; they were famous for something — and something honorable; something involving one or more of those Aristotelian virtues. First, there were heroes who became celebrities, like the local boy Charles Lindbergh, after whom a terminal at the Minneapolis-St Paul airport is named. Then came celebrities for whom heroism was an optional extra, like the movie stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, some of whom, such as James Stewart, served bravely in the war. Finally, there were only the non-heroic kind of celebrities we have today: the kind who are not distinguished for their virtue and therefore "better than" other people but who must pay for their fame by being, as US Magazine puts it, "Just like Us."

You will perhaps have noticed that we may infer the obsessions of Mr White’s youth included both "the lineage of Joy Division" — a pop group of the era — as well as "Lancashire’s batting average," which is a reference to a cricket statistic. Sporting heroes are at least heroes in the sense that their activities require a bit of physical courage and cannot be performed by just anybody or without a degree of mental fortitude as well. They may be a bit like us but they’re not just like us. Pop music heroes are generally more in the celebrity category, but even they must stand out from the crowd for their talent and not just their celebrity. There would probably be a similar mixture of the sporting and the musical among the obsessions of most young people in Western countries today. But what I suspect there would not be for more than a tiny few would be any interest the war heroes of the recent past.

As it happened, I was a school-teacher in the UK at what I infer was the time of Mr White’s schooling, and in just such a school as he was taught in. I can remember asking my pupils to tell me about their heroes and getting answers which still included a fair sprinkling of the British heroes of World War II. Sir Douglas Bader, who became a fighter ace with the RAF in spite of having lost both his lower extremities in a pre-war air crash, was a particular favorite. Somehow, I think Mr White would have mentioned it if any of today’s kids whom he spoke to had brought up anyone like that. In America, how many of our youngsters today even know the name of an American hero of that — or any — war? And the chances are that the few who do will not have learned it at school. The passion for this kind of honor, once universal among young people, seems to wane further, year by year.

There is another big difference between honor and celebrity. Where the opposite of celebrity is obscurity, the opposite of honor is shame — that is, not being unfamous but being famous for the wrong reasons. Nowadays, it sometimes seems as if there are no wrong reasons. There was once a word in common use that meant, roughly, "the quality of being well-known for something that no one could possibly wish to be well-known for." That word was "notoriety." I think it is significant that notoriety, and even its adjectival form, "notorious," are now almost always used as mere synonyms of "fame" and "famous." There is hardly anything that someone — indeed, as it sometime seems, almost everyone — would not wish to be well-known for.

Today, being famous — even in quite trivial ways, as when people film themselves doing stupid things and put the result up on YouTube — is itself much more important than the residual shame or notoriety that might attach to any particular thing you might be famous for. This is one of the consequences of the celebrity culture. A celebrity can be famous for anything, good or bad, and if you are a non-celebrity wishing to be one you would probably be well-advised to go the bad route. There’s a lot less work that way.

The precursor of this kind of celebrity in ancient Greek times was a man named Herostratus, who was said to have burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, in 356 B.C. for no other reason than that the act would make him famous — as indeed it did, in spite not only of his own execution for the offense but that of anyone, so it was decreed by the enraged Ephesians, who so much as mentioned his name. Alas now, more than two millennia later Herostratus has his own Wikipedia entry, and his name is an eponym in several languages for just the kind of fame he sought. Nice one, Herostratus!

In the classic English poets, "fame" is almost invariably synonymous with honor. When Milton wrote in "Lycidas" that

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days

I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean the kind of fame that today blesses, say, Levi Johnston. Not that Levi seems to mind. So uncertain was that honorable kind of fame sought by the "noble mind", in spite of all one’s efforts to acquire it, that Milton asks rhetorically, why does anyone bother to scorn delights and live laborious days in the hope of being recognized for it?

Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair?

We can only imagine what Milton would have made of a world in which someone could be famous, as Mr Johnston is, just because he’d been sporting with Amaryllis in the shade. And how many laborious scorners of delight whose examples might otherwise be an inspiration to us all must live in obscurity because the media only care about the likes of Levi Johnston.

That they do so is no accident. Celebrity is not only a replacement for honor, it is also an honoricide, poisoning the cultural ground where it is allowed to grow wild, as we allow it to do today, so that we can be sure honor will never take root there again. The radical egalitarianism that refuses to accept that anyone can be "better than" anyone else is responsible for this. Anything that looks like a throwback to those old ideas of honor is generally either ignored — like the heroism of our armed forces at war in Iraq and Afghanistan — or turned into mere celebrity by being brought down to the level of everyman.

I think this impulse is at least partly what lies behind the media feeding frenzy over Tiger Woods. Of course Tiger Woods has other talents that have made him the celebrity he is, but his amazing skill on the golf course must have made him a little too much like a hero for comfort — a fact which cannot be quite unrelated to the eagerness with which his reputation is now being reduced to — shall we say? — a more human scale. And this makes him an even bigger celebrity. If the celebrity’s aim is to be talked about constantly not only in the tabloid and show-biz media but in the mainstream media too, as a way of promoting one’s personal brand, to use advertising terminology, then Tiger has succeeded brilliantly. Nice one Tiger.

Now it’s true that Tiger Woods, who was already a big celebrity, probably doesn’t welcome the extra attention. But then that attention would not be focused on him to the extent it is, or at all, if he were not who he is. It is the price he is paying for owning the premium, "Tiger Woods" brand which has made him so rich and famous. If, as for so long it has appeared to be the case, shame is a thing of the past, he’ll come through having been briefly turned into the media’s plaything without any significant damage to the brand. In the meantime the rest of us will just enjoy a joke or two at his expense — like that headline in the D.C. Examiner when there were new bimbos popping up every day: "Tiger tumbles to 9 over par." Or that in the British tabloid, The Sun: "Tiger’s five new birdies"

The joke depends on the fact that everyone gets it, and the photos that both papers ran on their inside page of the ladies in question, many of them smiling or in provocative poses, or with their most remarkable physical assets to the fore, are meant to tell us that it is all pretty harmless. Can it really be true then, as the public relations wizard Howard Rubenstein, claims, that Tiger is "beyond PR redemption"? He is, says Mr Rubenstein, "in public relations hell right now. There is not a PR man on earth who can restore his image." The fact that the daily drip, drip drip of new bimbos has now given way to the drop, drop, drop of old sponsors may lend some plausibility to the claim.

I suppose Howard Rubenstein ought to know about such things, but it is a little hard for me to imagine what it might mean nowadays really to lose one’s reptuation, particularly over sexual misbehavior. The David Letterman scandal already appears to have been a nine-days’ wonder, and Dave is still at the old stand, doing business as usual. Can that be only because the women he slept with were presumably of a different class than those that Tiger favored, and so haven’t been coming forward in droves to take advantage of their chance at a little fame? As Maureen Dowd of The New York Times wrote, one lesson of the scandal is never get to involved with a woman who has an 8×10 glossy headshot in her drawer.

Another famous person who went to public relations hell over her heroin use was the supermodel, Kate Moss, but that just meant that the price of Kate Moss futures fell for a while on world markets before heading back up again. Some people think that the same thing will happen to Tiger Woods futures. Others, like Mr Rubenstein, appear to believe that he could actually be ruined, in the way that a respectable lady a century ago would have been ruined by any suspicion of sexual impropriety. Leigh Steinberg, a sports agent, was quoted as saying: "He needs to get out front with all the facts and make a public apology to the relevant people so the healing can begin and he can put this behind him, otherwise it will eat him alive."

What would that look like, I wonder, a celebrity’s being eaten alive? I don’t think we have ever seen such a thing. Without honor there is no shame, and without shame there can hardly be such a thing as being "beyond PR redemption." As yesterday’s New York Times pointed out, "although Woods is not solely responsible for the economic growth of the tour, he is given much of the credit for the quadrupling of prize money since he joined it — from $70 million in 1996 to $278 million in 2009." With that kind of money at stake, it’s not going to be the P.G.A., anyway, who is eating him alive or casting him into the outer darkness beyond redemption. What celebrity, today, has ever really been disgraced? Maybe O.J. Simpson, but even his case is arguable.

Yet there are parts of the world where honor and shame remain not only powerful motivators of ordinary human behavior but literally matters of life and death. You may have heard of the "honor killings" that are so common in South Asia, parts of Africa and the Middle East — and now in Western countries where people from those primitive honor cultures have settled. Girls who fall for the wrong guy, or refuse an arranged marriage or wear make-up or provocative clothes in public are quite often killed by their fathers, uncles or brothers for bringing shame on the family. There are new cases like this all the time in Britain, which is now the home of millions of people from the Indian subcontinent. What, people in the Western tradition want to know, could that kind of craziness possibly have to do with honor.

Let me try to explain. I have said already that honor has always been a matter of reputation. To everyone in the ancient world, and in the modern one too, at least up until relatively recent times, this reputation was first and foremost for bravery and strength in men and chastity and fidelity in women. Even today, you would be risking a punch in the nose by calling a man a wimp or a coward or a woman a slut or a tramp, though probably not vice versa. Remember: actually being either a coward or a slut is not shameful. The reputation for these things is. Enlightened as we are in other ways, at some level our subcortical lizard brain has still managed to instruct itself in the essential virtue appropriate to our sex — a virtue that we can in no circumstances allow ourselves to be suspected of not possessing, even at the risk of injury or death.

A couple of hundred years ago, aspersions cast upon his honor would have required a man to fight a duel in which he stood a very real chance of being killed. But this was a survival of a much more primitive honor culture which had been worn down by centuries of contact with Christianity, a religion which was in many of its teachings — especially in those to be found in the Sermon on the Mount — anti-honor. "And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also." That was obviously not the way of the man of honor, but neither was the man of honor in the Christian West quite unaffected by having that held up to him as an ideal for 2000 years.

Female sexual continence was also important in the honor culture of the West as it was elsewhere, and some of the more elderly among us may still speak — only in a jocular fashion, of course — about marrying someone "to make an honest [that is, honorable] woman of her." But Christianity has long been recognized as the most feminine-friendly of the world’s major religions, and our ancestors also had the example of Christ’s forgiveness of the woman taken in adultery. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Maybe that’s why honor killings for female sexual transgressions never really took off in Christian lands.

The unusual and relatively humane honor culture of those lands, however, all but died out in the decades after, and largely as a result of, the First World War, which the Western élites began to see, as they still do, not as a war like any other but as senseless slaughter motivated by out-dated notions of honor. It’s important to understand the centrality to the progressive project of this novel idea of virtue’s — or virtue’s reputation’s — being subjected to an expiration date. When Sean Penn at the Oscars spoke of people’s grandchildren being ashamed of them if they’re not for gay marriage, or when Senator Harry Reid spoke of those willing to vote for his party’s health reform bill as being "on the right side of history," he is appealing to this progressive notion of morality as something which, like last year’s fashions, may be said to "date."

The idea of "history" as a replacement for honor or virtue, which we derive from Karl Marx, owes its widespread acceptance among non-Marxists today at least partly to the popularity of this notion in the wake of World War I and subsequently, of the obsolescence of honor and its close relation, duty as part of the high expectations we used to have of both men and women. If honor were out of date, so might be any of the virtues which used to be associated with it, including both courage in men and chastity in women.

I’m happy to go into this process of enlightenment, if that is what it is, in greater detail later. It is the subject of my book, Honor, A History which Mr Kolbo has been kind enough to order some copies of for you to purchase, if you’ve a mind to do so. But for right now I want to talk a little more about the vacancy in our cultural arrangements that was left by the departure of the honor culture and about the celebrity culture which was eventually to fill it. Sports stars, as I say, retain a hint of the old idea of honor, perhaps because the competitive nature of what they do retains some of the characteristics of warfare. But as the Tiger Woods scandal suggests even they are likely to behave more like rock stars, who are the quintessence of celebrity, than like old-fashioned heroes.

This is not only because the musical accomplishments of even the finest pop musicians are pretty small by the standards of musical greatness once familiar to everybody but also because they sing of or otherwise express — by obscene gestures, for instance, or public displays of bad manners — their feelings. It is really Tiger’s feelings that are the star of the new Tiger Woods exhibition match. Feelings are the great leveling force of the age of equality, and all we ask of the age’s heroes, the celebrities, is that they show us their feelings — not so much, that is, their talents (if any) and especially not their virtues but only their feelings. This is the price of celebrity, and those who cannot or will not pay it have no place in the Pantheon of the Pop Cultural Élite.

Not coincidentally, in the old honor culture, it was one of the characteristics of masculine honor that it meant not showing one’s feelings. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar contrasts Mark Antony’s current dalliance with his Egyptian bimbo, as Caesar sees her — at least there was only one of them — to his mental and emotional toughness in the days when they served as soldiers together. "Antony!" he cries,

Leave thy lascivious wassails. When thou once

Wast beaten from Modena, where thou slew’st

Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel

Did famine follow, whom thou fought’st against,

Though daintily brought up, with patience more

Than savages could suffer; thou didst drink

The stale of horses and the gilded puddle

Which beasts would cough at; thy palate then did deign

The roughest berry on the rudest hedge;

Yea, like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets,

The barks of trees thou browsed’st; on the Alps

It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,

Which some did die to look on; and all this —

It wounds thy honour that I speak it now —

Was borne so like a soldier, that thy cheek

So much as lank’d not.

Even today we may look up to those who suffer without complaint — who are able, that is, to repress their feelings — but lately people have taken to caring as little for looking up to people as they do for repressing their feelings. Celebrity is honor for the egalitarian era, and its salient characteristic is that in order to have it you must abandon all claims to being "better" than other people. Even show business celebrities are rarely the best actors or entertainers. These tend to be relegated to "character" roles. The biggest show-biz celebrities are mediocre or even poor actors, like Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts — people who are not even strikingly beautiful (Cruise is too short and boyish, while Julia Roberts is too toothy and boyish) but who strike us as being slightly idealized version of the boy or girl next door. Celebrities are not only just like us, their celebrity depends on their being just like us, and they show that they are just like us by showing us their feelings.

The ideal celebrity is someone like Paris Hilton who has absolutely nothing to recommend her except her ordinariness, which is the condition to which the once extraordinary Tiger Woods is now aspiring. The satisfaction that people take in the age of celebrity as they see the heroic statue’s feet of clay — or, if Mr Rubenstein is right, knocked off its plinth entirely — is really what lies behind the obsessive interest of so many today with the soap opera of this and other scandals. It’s not too much to say that the media live for scandal, because there is always a market for it among those who believe that, if the hero isn’t really a hero, then maybe there are no heroes — no one to make us feel small by comparison and unable to measure up.

When so many of us have been brought up according to the canons of the "self-esteem" movement, we are bound to feel a certain relief when what we have always secretly suspected, namely that there is such a thing as greatness and heroism and honor and therefore that there are some people worthy of a higher sort of esteem, proves (as we think) not to be true. Maybe, too, there’s not any virtue peculiar to our sex — bravery in men, fidelity in women — to make demands upon us that we are not ready to meet. The world is more comfortable without honor but a lot less interesting. And, without heroes, sooner or later it will be a lot less safe.


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