What makes a hero?

In the lead-up to the US election on November 3rd, I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes, or more specifically, about the particular brand of heroism that we ascribe to politicians and figures whom we deem larger than life, even without concrete evidence to indicate as such.

We place politicians on pedestals because their ‘special qualities’ set them apart. We imagine that, through far-sighted action, perseverance, and unwavering strength, they succeed in the face of adversity. We want them to be our heroes, and we’ll go to extreme lengths to actualise that desire. According to American writer Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the idea of the hero has had a profound influence on our daily lives; it’s a myth that permeates every culture. Now, in an age characterised by seemingly inexhaustible news and social media outlets, both our praise and our criticism of these figures is amplified.

In terms of popular hero figures from the progressive side of politics, on a global level, there’s a lot to be mined. Barack Obama reached an unprecedented level of celebrity-like adoration (which has only skyrocketed since he left office in 2017), while congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a lightning rod championing democracy, and closer to home, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is marching towards a future that many other leaders seem grossly unequipped for. However, when thinking locally, Australia has very little to offer in the way of heroes. On occasion, we’ve been led to believe we might have one in our midst. Kevin Rudd’s rise to leadership was promising, as was Julia Gillard’s, and even Malcolm Turnbull’s. However, none have quite met our expectations, and the ‘next big thing’ narrative is now depressingly predictable.

The problem with heroic figures, wherever they are in the world and whichever side of the aisle they belong to, is that they’re often less of the ‘super’ variety and more of the Aristotelian ‘tragic’ variety: they experience a rise to power and along the way they make an error of  judgment that inevitably leads to their own downfall. Take Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, in 2019, came under fire when a photo was released depicting him donning brownface at an Arabian Nights-themed party in 2001. The subsequent scandal revealed something that I suspect many of us feared all along, that someone like Trudeau, or at least, the projected image of Trudeau, was always too good to be true. The result is an inevitable conflation between the right and the left as we are forced to recognise that, in the words of social-political writer Lara Witt (@femmefeministe on Instagram), ‘There are no “good ones” – there are only slightly better ones.’

Truth be told, it’s often easier for people like me who lean left to denounce figures that belong to the right, because we use their misgivings as ammunition to further condemn them for what we already believe to be true. But when it’s someone who we’ve collectively decided represents a bright, progressive new world (like liberal Prince Charming Trudeau), we flounder. We feel shocked, disillusioned, even personally wronged, and maybe that’s our fault for ever expecting more than disappointment. Eventually, we have to watch these ‘fallen heroes’ pick up the pieces and attempt to move forward. Sometimes they succeed, but more often the first fall marks the beginning of a larger tale of demise. Either way, it leaves us shaken; uncertain about the story we’ve told ourselves and the version of the truth we’ve committed to.

Tagged in What messes with your head, Opinion