Whatever | Hero worship
Heroes, princesses and saints: how do we escape the age of the overstatement?
I don’t wish to blow my own trumpet, but I recently performed a heroic act. A woman dropped her suitcase on the London Underground and got her foot stuck in the gap between train and platform. In one bound, I picked up the case and helped free her foot. I was like the gallant Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, rushing to Elinor Dashwood’s aid when she sprains her ankle in the rain. I must stress that it was no more than anyone else would have done. I must also stress that I didn’t actually do it.
I found out about my own heroism while listening to genial Jon Richardson on 6 Music; the grateful damsel had emailed his show in order to publicly thank me for my chivalry as part of an ongoing quest for “good deeds”. But it wasn’t me. I wonder if perhaps it was the left-wing comedian Mark Steel who freed her stuck foot, as I am often mistaken for him.
It was nice to be a hero, however fleetingly, although sadly the word itself – once the evocative preserve of Greek myth, Hegelian Volksgeist, or at the very least Victor Mature – has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. We live in the age of the overstatement, where Jade Goody can be a “princess” by dint of dying, and a “saint” without any of the tiresome red tape of investigation, exhumation, veneration, beatification and the corroboration of at least one miracle. You can be a “hero” in the Daily Mail for refusing to sort out your plastics and glass in the recycling bins provided.
The rot started with Diana’s death on August 31, 1997, when Tony Blair coined “the people’s princess”, and the princess’s people struggled to express themselves without recourse to the iconography of playing cards. A similar thing happened on September 12, 2001, when the US media indulged in an increasingly deranged hyperventilation contest, invoking nothing less than the rhetoric of the Bible and/or Winston Churchill.
Feminist writer Susan Faludi catalogued the farce in her book The Terror Dream. The New York Times set the overstatement ball rolling in an editorial that read, “If one hero has come to stand for all, it is the New York City firefighter,” later using the phrase “knights in shining fire helmets.” Under the headline, “The Firefighter: An American Hero,” People magazine testified, “It is the valiant warriors on a flame-filled vertical battlefield who have taken on the mantle of legend, like the Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain, or Leonidas’s 300 Spartans holding the line at Thermopylae.” The Wall Street Journal claimed that firemen “possess a gene lacking in the rest of us,” speaking of a “godlike prowess, beneficence and divinity.” President Bush, posing with firefighters and waving a bullhorn at Ground Zero, said, “These are the men who will fight our wars.” Actual firefighters admirably resisted sanctification of this kind, giving testimony about “inadequate communications capabilities” and “no command structure” – but such inconvenient oral histories were buried for three years.
New York governor George Pataki went further. He proposed that every single one of the 2,974 who lost their lives on September 11 (2,992 if you count the hijackers, which, oddly, he didn’t) be inscribed a “hero” on a memorial plaque. Families of rescue workers actually demanded a distinction between “heroes” and “victims”, at which a semantic tug-of-sentiment ensued.
The Sun would have us believe that every single man or woman who joins the armed services is a “hero.” The newspaper’s laudable charity for wounded personnel, Help For Heroes, hammers this home, even though many are injured in the mundane course of duty. On April 15, for instance, the US Department of Defense [sic] announced the death in Afghanistan of a US corporal due to “injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident.” He was more heroic than me, or any Sun journalist – to quote Woody Allen: in the event of war, I’m a hostage – but how are we to distinguish between a soldier and a hero if you apply the accolade to somebody just doing their job?
It’s the same kind of breathless but self-defeating overstatement that, from a random recent sample, speaks of “anarchy unleashed” at a largely peaceful protest, or a life “snuffed out” when it simply ends, or indeed that Kelly Macdonald is “cinema’s best kept secret” when in fact she is just an actress who’s not especially famous. Smooth Radio recently advertised concerts by the “legendary Neil Sedaka”. Where does that leave music’s actual legends?
How much slower the “Pugh! Pugh! Barney McGrew! …” bit would have been on Trumpton had each member of Captain Flack’s brigade been dutifully acknowledged as a “hero” by narrator Brian Cant. In the event of an emergency, I’m Mark Steel.