The Flight 93 essay has been so thoroughly pulverized at this point that I won’t bother to get into the line-by-line. I’ll just say this: The whole time I was reading, I kept picturing a little boy in Superman pajamas.
This, as I see it, is our protagonist, “Publius Decius Mus,” who as others have pointed out aspires to the courage of martyrs but is unwilling to risk even his own reputation by putting his name on what he writes.
Movement conservatives have been holding out for heroes for a long time. It’s easy to understand. Many years back, as a student in a tiny dorm room, I would read columns from the ever-entertaining Mark Steyn and lie awake wondering how our society became so desiccated and timid. Too many hot showers and fluffy pillows, I supposed. What we needed was some true grit.
There’s some truth to this critique. The West is awash in comforts, and that can erode our resolve. You generally can’t accomplish great things without enduring some hardships, and we’re not big on hardship.
Conservatives especially have a yearning for heroism. We yearn for bold, chivalrous figures the way that liberals crave activism. It grows out of an inchoate sense that the age of miracles is behind us, and that it was better and more meaningful than our own era. Liberals imitate Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr., but we miss Lancelot. Squinting back through the mists, we try to catch glimpses of times when brave men did unambiguously noble things without first applying to a bureaucratic office for a license.
Conservatives really could use some heroes. We need bold visionaries who can infuse new life into our faltering movement and society. We need people who can inspire magnanimity and self-sacrifice, in pursuit of honorable goals. We need people who have gotten past the Superman pajama stage.
Superman Versus the Incredible Hulk
Here’s the problem with superheroes. They really like to break things. In the movies, we all cheer as the Avengers smash cars and level buildings, busting up whole cities while the hapless citizens run for cover. Of course the Avengers are the good guys (mostly). Their destructive activities are warranted, because Emergency. They only come out of hiding in times of crisis. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and from the comfort of your movie seat, desperate measures are all kinds of spectacular fun.
Strangely, the movies never tell us much about the clean-up. Nobody writes an anthem for the guys in municipal uniforms who show up later to sweep up all the broken glass.
Real heroism is admirable indeed. It’s absolutely proper to look at Todd Beamer and the other Flight 93 stalwarts and wonder: Would I? Could I? Have hot showers steamed that bit of resistance right out of my soul?
On the other hand, if you’ve got a hero fetish, you should be careful. There are a few good reasons for crashing a plane, and a lot of really bad ones. Every once in awhile, people do find themselves in Superman-like circumstances, where large-scale destruction is necessary in pursuit of a greater good. Far more frequently, we find ourselves in the position of Incredible Hulk, wanting to smash things mainly because we’re mad.
Accordingly, superhero enthusiasts need to be hard on themselves. They should be disciplined about checking unseemly emotions. They should be discerning and honest about less-admirable motivations. (Hint: We all have some.) They should consider carefully whether their activities are truly prudent, and in service of a foreseeable good end. When the breakage isn’t worth the gain, true heroes are able to rein in their destructive impulses, straighten their ties, and go put in a day’s work at the Daily Planet.
Otherwise, there’s a real danger that you might become Loki instead of Thor. Or, more likely, you might just be Loki’s groveling foot-soldier.
When There’s No Clean-Up Crew
Two weeks ago, Uzbekistan lost its longtime leader, Islam Karimov. Karimov had been president since 1989, which gives you a good sense of how free and fair Uzbek elections really are. I lived in Karimov’s Uzbekistan for a few years during the Bush administration, and unlike these people, I did not weep when I heard of his passing.
Instead I reflected on my memories of him and his relationship to his people. I remembered the enormous pictures of him that smiled down at me from billboards as I walked to work. (Top of the morning to you, Big Brother!) I remembered the smaller, icon-like ones that graced all the classrooms in my school.
I remembered the people who assured me with sycophantic glee that their leader was a Wonderful Man, a true visionary, who would lead Uzbekistan out of its present doldrums and into a bright new future! (What would that look like? They weren’t sure, but there would be lots of great jobs.) I remembered the ones who told me in far softer tones how Karimov was a tyrant, and they were concerned for their families, and if I had any inside information about getting visas to Elsewhere, would I let them know? (I didn’t.)
I remembered the family I once visited that had several children but, mysteriously, no father. This was very unusual in Uzbekistan, but there were no memorial pictures of the man of the house (as would be customary for a deceased relative), and a brooding wariness seemed to permeate the whole apartment. It was clear nobody wanted to explain the family’s situation, so I stuck to small talk. I wondered if perhaps there had been some scandal. A close friend told me later that it was suspected the father had been spirited away by the SNB (a descendant of the Soviet KGB). He was too loose-lipped with his political views, apparently. No wonder his wife and children were living in fear.
Thinking through all of this, I then remembered the moment, watching the flag-festooned antics of this year’s Republican National Convention, when I suddenly started shivering and suddenly heard myself muttering, “This is so damn Soviet.”
It was a histrionic reaction. I freely admit it. Feel free to laugh at my emotional excess. I later reflected that I should probably feel grateful that, even in such a bruising electoral season, Never Trump conservatives like me have spoken our minds without worrying that Donald Trump’s goons might come and spirit us away in the night. We are not Uzbekistan.
Still, there’s a reason the association came to me, unbidden. So many features seemed familiar. The aggressive toadies that drop all pretense of persuading and skip straight to the bullying. The glassy-eyed, delusional enthusiasts so obviously enamored of The Big Guy to the point of disengaging their rational faculties. The laughably transparent Big Guy shtick, obviously calculated to make an all-too-human personality look like a modern-day Hercules. Above all, the efforts to paper this over with a lot of frenzied flag-waving. Not Uzbek flags this time. American flags.
Again I stress that this dystopian moment, however gut-wrenching, was just a passing moment. It was a brief, albeit powerful, impression rooted more in instinct than in sober analysis. I don’t give it too much weight. Still, I have lived in a nation ruled by a brutal dictatorship, and some of the scenes of these past months have struck some disturbingly familiar notes.
The Heroes We Need
Populism and oligarchy often work in tandem, for very explicable reasons. Populists are often careless about breaking things. They are addicted to panic. Because they crave heroic drama, their assessments of the status quo are saturated in grim hyperbole, while their recommendations are as unspecific as they are sweeping.
Oligarchs, for their part, are often cagey about harnessing this undisciplined energy for their own purposes. Large personalities and sweeping rhetoric are relatively easy to supply. Transparency, democratic procedure, prudent policy, and a principled foundation are shackles to the power-hungry oligarch. He’s happy to accept the populist’s help in tossing them aside.
Even now, America remains a great nation. I certainly don’t want to live anywhere else. I can think of dozens of Uzbek friends who would pack up and leave tomorrow if you offered them a visa. They would be unfazed by the dark warnings of Publius Decius Mus. They know what life is like under a government that is truly dominated by unfettered, corrupt strongmen who have no real commitment to order, justice, or the common good.
I hope my children won’t have to experience that. I’m still hopeful that we can find a path through our present challenges and ward off such dark futures. But if we fail, I doubt it will be for lack of steely-eyed hero fetishists. Every failing republic has a healthy crop of those.