The Loss of a Hero in an Age Without Any

<i> Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor/Doubleday). He is working on a book about Walter Winchell</i>

Say it isn’t so, O.J. That is the refrain one kept hearing after former football star O.J. Simpson was charged in the horrifying murder of his ex-wife and a friend of hers. I can’t think of anyone this popular, this famous, accused of as heinous a crime. So we keen for his fall from grace. We hurt not only for what he allegedly did to his victims but for what he has done to us.

On the football field, first as a Heisman Trophy winner at USC and then as a record-setting halfback for the Buffalo Bills, Simpson exemplified speed, grace, determination, excellence. In the locker room and, after retirement, as a sports commentator and commercial spokesman, he personified graciousness, modesty and good humor. Above all, perhaps, it was his geniality that made him so appealing even to those who don’t know a football from a baseball. “Juice” was the package: a great athlete and a decent, self-effacing man.

For years now, it seems we have been lamenting the scarcity of heroes, which is why when one falls from the pedestal, as O.J. has, we feel the cultural tragedy as well as the human one. Heroes are the repositories of our values. We need them to show us our better selves. So why do so few individuals seem to qualify these days for canonization, and why do those heroes we do have always seem poised on the precipice of their own demise?


Aside from a crime like Simpson’s, the magnitude of which is overwhelming, the answers reside less in our flawed heroes than in our flawed selves.

Certainly, heroes are endangered by the diminishing consensus over what values we share or at least over who embodies them. Once it was easy. Men who demonstrated courage in battle, men like Alvin C. York and Audie Murphy, were heroes in anyone’s book. Men of genius, like Albert Einstein, could be heroes. Men, like Charles A. Lindbergh, who performed acts of physical daring were heroes.

But that was before Vietnam, when war came to be perceived by many as less a test of one’s mettle than of one’s savagery, and before the religious right began attacking scientific theory, and before technology seemed to reduce physical daring. Today, few figures can straddle the right wing and the left, the religious culture and the liberal culture, much less the plethora of subcultures that now constitutes America.

Among the few who can, however, are athletes like Simpson. What makes them heroes is clean and untainted by political doctrine or cultural bias. On the playing field, the only things that count are what one does and how one does it. Simpson was an aesthetic hero as most great athletes are: a thing of beauty, gliding through the defensive line then high-kicking to the end zone. But to the extent that he kept hammering the line in carry after carry, that he drew on deeper reserves to continue long after his body had been punished, that he played with dignity and honor and that he seemed to have perspective and charm, he was a moral hero, too.

Because they exist in the hermetic sanctity of the playing field, short of a major transgression of the sort Simpson allegedly committed, athletes theoretically should remain a redoubt of heroism in our increasingly heroless society. But only theoretically--because even athletes cannot escape a virus of our own creation that endangers our heroes far more than our confusion over values or our lack of a consensus does. They cannot escape the constant threat of public revelation.

We know too much. In the great days of heroism, when America seemed populated by giants, the partition between public figures and the public was inviolable. What did we know of any of these men and women other than their feats of heroism? Once, when I was rhapsodizing about the baseball heroes of my youth and mourning the dearth of heroes now, a friend snapped me back to reality by suggesting what the tabloids might have done to Mickey Mantle, for one example, if journalistic standards had been different in his playing days. The drunkenness, the womanizing--Mantle might well have ended up like Darryl Strawberry.


But the fact is we didn’t know. The fact is that there was no pressing need in the media or in the culture to want to know. Whatever we might have suspected about our heroes--and we knew they weren’t all saints--the need for heroes was a far greater need than the need to know. Perhaps it was an elaborate fantasy--but it seemed a necessary one, and even the press, which did know, respected it.

Somewhere along the line, our priorities changed. After decades of protecting our heroes, we now challenge them, trying to fine chinks in their armor.

Heroism is another casualty of our own perverse sense of truth in an age of cynical manipulation where nothing is trustworthy. For decades, advertising, mass media, political deception and a thousand other small duplicities have all contributed to a rampant sense of skepticism--one now so deeply embedded in our culture that we have lost our capacity to be shocked.

To protect ourselves from the cultural swindles, we use our skepticism as a tool. We deploy it like a claw to pry open the old partition and let us see the “truth” beyond. We are all deconstructionists now, peeling away images. No more secrets. No more fabrications. It is the age of honesty, and hero-worshippers are naive fools. Just wait. Even beloved O.J. appears to be a brutal murderer.

Of course, the media happily rallied to the call for honesty. What was, for the public, an opportunity to regain some measure of control over an illusory public life was for the media a wonderful opportunity to hawk papers, magazines and TV shows. Heroism never sold as well as dysfunction because, frankly, it isn’t as entertaining. So the media gave us a small taste of sensationalism and then, like pushers, were only too glad to satisfy our addiction. Not only was nothing sacrosanct; those who seemed sacrosanct were especially fine candidates for desacrilization if they misbehaved.

Truth-telling, if that be what it is, certainly has its benefits. There are things the public has a right and a need to know. But few public figures can survive the ruthless revelation-mongering that anyone in the public eye must now undergo. No man is a hero to his valet, as the saying goes. But in a society where everyone has the privileged vantage point of the valet, the question is whether anyone can still be a hero.

Some of us certainly realized that the new honesty would destroy the old heroism, and suffer pangs of remorse over what we know will happen to our repositories of virtue once we subject them to the cold eye of the media. For people we especially like, as we liked Simpson, we are even willing to ignore what the eye reveals--ignore Simpson’s spousal abuse or Magic Johnson’s promiscuity.


But this is repression, and we know it. The balance has tipped now. The need to know is greater than the need for heroes. The need for a constant supply of titillation and scandal--and let’s face it, many are to glued to reports of the Simpson tragedy because it fills the role of a soap opera--is greater than the need to protect the few heroes we do have. And as they fall, the heroes only confirm what we have long believed and what the media have encouraged us to believe because it makes good copy: Deep down, everyone is terribly compromised. Even Simpson.

Say it isn’t so, we cry. But it is. And unless we learn to rejigger our concept of heroism in an age of revelation, we might be left with no heroes at all. Unfortunately, that may be what we deserve.*