Joseph de Maistre is the French philosopher who first said, “Every country has the government it deserves” and “in a democracy people get the leaders they deserve.” Of course when you factor in America’s Electoral College those words aren’t quite as poetic – or accurate – and, besides, ‘Merica could care less about what some fancy-pants Frenchie thinks anyway. Right?
Staying in the early 19th century for a moment, an apt correlation to our current governmental condition might be Mary Shelly’s story Frankenstein, wherein a monster is created that haunts and destroys the life of its creator – only, in our case, the mad scientist is the American electorate and the creature is a Twitter-obsessed tyrant with a canary-colored coiffure that might just be a reanimated corpse.
But maybe our democratic debacle is best observed through the lens of our modern popular culture, where our once-heroic icons have all but deserted us, leaving us to our own incompetent and demented designs.
Where have all the heroes gone?
Be it good or bad, pop culture typically mirrors the society and the era in which it lives, and in some cases it can predict the future direction in which a society might travel. So is it any surprise that in a world where the foul-mouthed and immoral Deadpool is our most popular hero, and the demonic entity Valak (from The Conjuring 2) is one of the most highly searched names on the Internet, our countrymen have elected the most repulsive and disliked presidential candidate in history?
In the same way that some people use religion to guide their lives, I grew up looking at heroes from literature, comics and film to help steer me down the path of good. Icons like Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man, and even pulp heroes like Tarzan and Doc Savage – trustworthy, infallible characters who always did the right thing, no matter what.
These days, our movie Superman is a jerk (and currently dead); Captain America is a Hydra operative in the comics, and in the movies he has surrendered his shield; and Spider-Man spent over a year in the comics as the “Superior Spider-Man” led by the consciousness of his greatest enemy. Each of these heroes is now and forever tarnished in the minds of old and new fans alike.
Recently, one of the most honorable characters on television was gratuitously and horribly murdered (on AMC’s The Walking Dead), and on HBO’s Westworld the cyborgs are more sympathetic than the humans.
To be fair, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice does a pretty good job of exploring the complexities of “being good.” On a political level, the Senator Finch character (played by Holly Hunter) even says at one point, “How do we determine what’s good? In a democracy, good is a conversation not a unilateral decision.” There are thought-provoking concepts going on here — but, to be clear, this movie, which also has Superman saying lines like “No one stays good in this world,” is part of the problem.
The future used to be a utopia with flying cars and miraculous medicines, but instead we live in a world where “xenophobia” is the word of the year and the press is scrambling to try to figure out how to best approach writing about “alt-right” racists. The difference between right and wrong in our culture seems to be an ever-growing gray area, and as the classic Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth” says, “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
The answers are certainly not as simple as having a heroic icon to lead our way … but, dammit, having no one to look up to doesn’t help, and many of us are left wondering, “what did WE do to deserve THIS?”
Perhaps, while the corporations that control the lives of our once cherished fictional heroes continue to remake them and subsequently run them into the ground, maybe we should turn to one of the smallest heroes among them – one who actually lives in the ground – the hobbit.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, it is believed that “it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” Until we once again have a hero we can trust to lead our way, maybe we can do this for ourselves.