ince a September day changed its landscape, American media has come to crave the uplifting afforded by real and imagined heroism. Heroism’s potential fodder is everywhere: In crises, natural disasters, presidential elections, even in foreign insurrections.
America’s attachment to small and large-scale virtuousness is embedded in the documents of its creation. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are lucid and high-minded pieces of paperwork. But they are also pretentiously beholden to a sense of mission in line with the anti-monarchical times of their drafting.
In the last half-century, audio-visual narratives have taken over from pen-and-ink directives. Quickly-seen tales of coping and overcoming are the propaganda of choice.
America’s dependence on visual inspirational for awe and self-esteem culminated fatefully in late 2001, when circumstances conspired to let terrorists humble, if not divert, the country’s otherwise linear vision of its own rich but volatile destiny.
Almost immediately, a hero-machinery that had lain fallow since the space race was refreshed and inflated. New technology firmed up purpose and potency. Heroes were drafted first from among the ranks of firemen and grieving relatives, and later from terrorist survivors and soldiers.
For several years after September 11, the United States lived and breathed dramatic tension, some of it real, some manufactured to suit a public craving for enthrallment. Hurricanes merged with wars that merged with underdog presidential candidates. Rule by enthrallment, in which the newest event was always unprecedented, fed a culture of opinion that gained even greater clout when online and social networking worlds entered the fray.
Being American in the 21st century soon came to reflect membership in a club whose credo was the breathless impregnation of any topic. Conforming to a culture of collective feeling represented a virtue of its own. It was democratic, after all. Impulse control was suspended across all fronts to make wide berth for frequently simplistic clatter. The greater noise has since become second-nature, if not first.
Coverage of nuanced events such as the Egyptian revolt are not only tailored to the quick-fix needs of American experience and expectation but also made into sentimental battles between obvious good and certain bad, with the freedom-friendly oppressed rising up against freedom-depriving oppressors in a square with a thankfully pronounceable name. Egyptian protesters are heroes at work, “trudging to the work of revolution,” said one newspaper. “We are all Egyptians!” wrote a columnist in another, borrowing from the phrasings of 9/11. (Had Cairo’s marchers been members of the Islamic Brotherhood American sentiment would not have been cut quite as clearly.)
The public appetite for heroic events and Herculean debate has no patience for detachment (a Cold War vestige), which is seen as defeatist or, worse still, boring. Virtuous oversimplification satisfies the 21st-century urge to feel openly and have those feelings reach as wide an audience as possible.
Credulity — the more sinister side of seeing is believing — has vanished from the library of admonishments. Instead, seeing, feeling and spouting are the clattering self’s vital trinity, its assertion of meaning. Useless is the filtering reflex journalists once applied in the difficult service of objectivity. In the race to respond loudest and fastest, credulity has overwhelmed the competition.
In the 1960s, a cheerful entertainer named Allen Funt hosted a popular American television show called “Candid Camera” in which people were tricked into odd situations (a live duck appearing in a bathtub, say), leaving audiences howling with delight. The show’s title was ironic, since nothing was candid except the haplessness of the fooled. Funt’s antics gently mocked those who believed only what they saw.
Not surprisingly, “Candid Camera” yielded to any number of manipulated reality shows, and reality shows to a production-set world rigged for heroes, myths and uplifting clichés.
Now, we’re all Egyptians, albeit briefly. Except that we’re not.