You know the theory: we create inequality because humans have a childlike need to feel protected, so we attribute extraordinary powers to someone or some thing that we believe can save us. The warlord, the boss, the cosmic Father or Mother, even a lover—they all promise to save us from danger and make our lives meaningful. It’s hero-worship or, to be fancy, transference.
Of course the behavior is a sort of denial, since sooner or later everybody bites the dust. We also know that hero-worship and even divine worship can get us in trouble when the supreme honcho turns out to be inept, cruel, selfish, or all too human. Not to mention our fear of not living up to the hero’s expectations, and the dread of being abandoned.
But there’s another way of thinking about this imbalance.
Without a heroic leader, we’d all be more equal, but also more average. We might manage to make plans and decisions by voting, say, but such a system is pretty unwieldy. We’re ambivalent about hierarchy, but we seem to keep returning to it. The Greeks recommended “the golden mean,” but they actually spent most of their time with spears and jockstraps, in violent competition to excel.
The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker held that the drive to be heroic or to identify with a hero is the basis of self-esteem. If you exceed the standards of your culture, you feel “right” and enjoy the conviction that your life has lasting meaning. Becker thought of this as a form of symbolic immortality that enables you to get on with living without being crippled by fear.
This helps to explain why people fight to be a hero and not a loser. Heroes feel “right”; losers die. Part of the problem is that, as cognitive science reminds us, we think in terms of opposites such as good/bad, black/white, meaning/nonsense, accomplishment/futility, something/nothing, and leader/follower. You’re either a hero (or identifying with a hero) or you’re a loser. If you’re not heroically alive, you’re a goner.
The elevation of average people to heroic status is literal in human habitat. Mansions go up on hillsides to “oversee” the town. Castles were built on heights to fend off attackers. Skyscrapers such as the World Trade Center try to live up to the name: epitome of the world. It’s a dream of godlike immunity and command. There’s lordly oversight but also paranoia in the topography. You can see why terrorists chose it as a target. In their colossal destruction, like rampage killers, they were trying to grab heroic immortality for themselves.
The catch of course is that nobody can be heroic all the time. In fact heroes are usually coming or going. We never stop creating and killing them off. Even if the name “Genghis Khan” persists, Genghis himself is nothing now, just a grab-bag of puffy adjectives on a page. The fact is, most of us spend most of our lives between categories, not heroes or losers but muddling through. With luck, we get to feel heroic now and then, and to let go when it’s futile.
As the wreckage of Iraq shows, life turns nightmarish when leaders become so convinced of their heroism that they try to remake far-away countries by invading them with “shock and awe,” gullible followers, and a bucketful of lies. On a personal scale life can be nightmarish, too, when fantasies of heroism on TV and in the news are overblown, exhausted, or used to sell floor wax.
You’d think we’d know better. Today’s confusion over heroism and inequality shows the need to rethink. Americans let bankers, CEOs, and other “heroes” pick their pockets partly because the honchos have power to wangle what they want. We tolerate it, I suspect, because we want them to be larger-than-life. We want to believe in heroes and excellence. But the flip side of that wish is a fear of ordinariness: an average life.
Even if things are going smoothly, the golden mean can seem not golden but gray. Sameness can be gray. Routine, loyalty, stamina can be gray. Uneasiness about change can be gray. If you hate or disappoint yourself, you see a lot of gray. Yet sooner or later everything, even being rich as Scrooge McDuck or as famous as Lady Gaga, is some sort of routine. And all sorts of things remind you of the average. A shopper buying an overpriced gold watch is heroic; a crowd of shoppers is a stupid gaggle. Generals are given absolute power to send vast formations of average guys to their deaths. Crowds—or the crowded earth—make the average anonymous. Individuals disappear into a herd of insignificant motley bodies destined to wear out and vanish forever.
Since WW2, the US has been flirting with phantom heroism. The corporate military has been playing “world-policeman” in a fabulous, sometimes criminal waste of effort and shame. Meanwhile big money and its ads promise to make everyone a hero while treating ordinary working people like appliances to be switched on and off as needed.
You can see the lurking terror in the insane greed for information evident in corporate and government spying. NSA and internet data-gathering creates a stupefying bank of averages and indistinguishable selves, so much that nobody can master it all. It’s as if the powerful few at the top want to vacuum up all the lives below them. Sucking all those lives into a database is a fantasy of controlling millions of slaves, or chewing up all the steaks and drumsticks on earth.
At the same time, “Former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker has admitted that ‘metadata absolutely tells you everything about someone’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content . . . . [It’s] sort of embarrassing how predictable we are as human beings.’” (NYRB) That is, vacuum up enough of us and you can see that we’re pretty much all the same—average: innocent and boring. The fear’s not just of false prosecution or loss of “freedom,” but the anxiety of ordinariness: the terror that data-gathering exposes the trivial limits of identity and lives. Your unknown, private "free" self is your secret immortality. Once known, you're just a number, one more mote in the churning dust of space.
You can hear the drip of cold fear behind attacks on “big” everything, from big government and storms to the populous billions of China. They make us feel small. Ephemeral. The urge is to withdraw into your own pure backyard, where you can be a heroic bullfrog in a goldfish pond. But that evades the basic question that we're going to have to deal with. What are we going to do about being average? What in the world do we mean by “average”? How are we going to make the average livable?
What a trivial, gut-wrenching question.
Sources used in this essay:
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York, 1973)
David Cole, “Can Privacy Be Saved?” New York Review of Books (March 6, 2014).
David Cay Johnson, “The Impact of American Inequality,” Pirate Television.