The Post-Heroic Hero

And so I saw this article in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin titled “The End of Men.” Actually, in the interest of full disclosure, the article was recommended during a meeting focusing on the issue of men’s ministry as a must-read.

Being the reader I am of course I read it. Admittedly, it wasn’t what I thought it would be. That a great deal of the author’s conclusions are based on the fact that more expecting couples ask for girls than boys (frankly I didn’t even know this technology was possible) seemed wimpy in support of her overall thesis—that men have failed to adapt to changing needs and environments and traditional expressions of masculinity are, generally speaking, no longer needed. What I found most interesting, however, was a brief, almost subtle, reference to our present age as “post-heroic.”

Even though the author implies a narrower scope for the term, Rosin’s use of “post-heroic” seems to encompass more than corporate leadership. If taken in a broader sense, a post-heroic position suggests we no longer require, need, nor have any room for the hero—that single voice that captures the imagination of a people-group, clearly stating what he stands for and against, influencing and rallying a population to some end. Instead, I assume, the current model looks for safety in numbers, a tribe of like-minded people, and works above all to keep the tribe together above. The post-heroic age hastens the neutralization of masculinity.

I’ve been reading a little about the 1920s, the Great Depression, and post-war US. Tell me if this description of 1929 doesn’t sound familiar:

“Blinded by the uninterrupted good news, most investors completely missed the danger signals: the overexpansion of major industries, the weak banking structure, the swollen credit balloon, the unsound and unregulated policies of the market itself.”

Whereas our culture participated in recovering from the infamous chain of events beginning in the fall of 1929 that continued for more than a decade, culminating in an age of unprecedented nationalism, today’s consumerist American seems more bent on perpetuating the current economic crisis.

Yes, Roosevelt’s New Deal programs did aid the recovery. But we also experienced the Roosevelt Recession when FDR’s administration reined-in government spending. (For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.) In the final analysis it was lend-lease, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and American spirit that pulled us from the brink of collapse. We’re all familiar with war bonds, USO tours, and ration stamps. But more than that, we became a culture of heroes:

• More than half of major league baseball players were serving in the military by the end of 1942; in 1945 the figure had risen to 90%. Many of those remaining pledged a portion of their salaries–very publicly if I may add–to the purchase of war bonds

• 600 profession football players entered the armed forces before 1945

• For-profit radio stations regularly sponsored shows like “The Navy Hour” and “The Army Hour” specifically for servicemen

• Popular music galvanized the nation with songs like “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”, “We’ve Done It Before,” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” that helped us sing ourselves from the brink of defeat

• Comic-book artists invented heroes like Captain America, Buz Sawyer, and G.I. Joe

• In December of 1941 the US had 1.5 million soldiers. That number was 3.9 million by the end of 1942 and over 9 million by 1943.

We can only make these comparisons because we are at war today. And much like WW2, although much smaller in scale, we are at war on two fronts today. And I would contend that as much as World War II is rightfully credited with pulling America out of the Great Depression, current military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq do not seem to be having the same effect—possibly because we are not taking the opportunity to create a culture of heroes.

But the “End of Men” isn’t about war. And maybe it’s not even about men. It’s a lament; a lament for the loss of the hero. In graduate school I remember reading about Byron Bunch from Light in August and Willie Loman in “Death of a Salesman”. That Bunch and Loman opted for the fight (instead of abdication) despite overwhelming odds against them actually made them heroes. Even though Byron Bunch got the livin’ daylights beat out of him by Joe Christmas, he met the enemy on the field of battle and fought for something. Accordingly, neither physical prowess nor spectacular cunning made either Bunch or Loman heroes. It wasn’t the will to fight that mattered. Rather it was the willingness to fight.

So all that’s to say that if we have in fact entered the post-heroic age, then it is only because we have collectively chosen to trade in our swords and hand over the battle to some other entity. And if that’s the case, then it’s not so much the end of men as much as it is the end of hope. But I Am Agonistes isn’t buying it. Hope is not dead … and neither is the hero. Be it William Wallace or Willie Loman, Byron Bunch or G.A. Custer, we are a culture of heroes that will continue to meet the enemy on the field of battle. Daily.

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