Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Hero Worship - Merchandising the Man: From Jesus to John McCain

Or... How did we get into this hero worship mess to begin with?

"I Will Save You!"

That's how it all started, you know. Yes, with Jesus Christ. To Christians, He was the first hero and still reigns supreme among many people to this day. The problem is that people can't get enough of heroes, so they make up fictional characters or lionize real people in a number of ways (some of which are rather embarrassing.) It's based on the insecurity of people: "I can't cope with this alone, so someone please help me! Save me from this problem called 'Life!!'" And how do we reward our heroes for helping us?

We merchandise them, of course! From a glow-in-the-dark plastic dashboard Jesus to a John McCain action figure (check it out here), we make icons of people we idolize (in both senses) and sell their names. As far back as the Middle Ages, we crushed small bones of saints and made "relics" (I have one - it contains the bone chips of two saints - my grandmother was very economical - one from a 10th century Bohemian saint and another from a second century Roman soldier.) Relics were big business because they brought in the pilgrim trade (tourists). Relics help to create the first superheroes. These saints were glorified and compartmentalized: if you really need to find those car keys, you pray to Saint Zita. In other words, "Saint Zita to the rescue!" or, more appropriately, "Saint Zita will save you!"

In our own time, we've had thousands of heroes. One who comes to mind is Audie Murphy. During WWII, Murphy wound up being the most decorated soldier in U.S. history. He was also very affable and good looking. Voila! Movie star!

Idolize and Merchandize. Get 'em while they're hot! Heroes have shelf lives, ya know. You never know how long they'll last or if they'll come back in style.

But what about the toll such fame takes on the hero? In most cases, the fame (and even the merchandising) is something they cannot control: they become reluctant heroes.

Jim Thorpe was a reluctant hero: Thorpe was proficient in track and field, baseball, basketball and football. He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8 seconds, the 440 in 51.8 seconds, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in. He could pole vault 11 feet, put the shot 47 ft 9 in, throw the javelin 163 feet, and throw the discus 136 feet.

After he won gold medals in the Olympics, Jim was given a ticker tape parade down Broadway.

Thorpe, the hero worship was a kind of curse: during the Depression, he couldn't find a steady job. He became a chronic alcoholic. He died in abject poverty. When he was undergoing surgery for lip cancer, his wife told the press "We're broke.... Jim has nothing but hisFor
name and his memories. He has spent money on his own people and has given it away. He has often been exploited."

There was, of course, racism wherever he went: (Wikipedia) Thorpe was of mixed Native American and white ancestry. He was raised as a Sac and Fox, and named Wa-Tho-Huk, roughly translated as "Bright Path". He struggled with racism throughout much of his life and his accomplishments were publicized with headlines describing him as a "Redskin" and "Indian athlete".

Rarely do heroes continue doing what they were doing simply because they like doing it. Such is the case with "Patch" Adams, a doctor (general practitioner) with an incredible sense of humor and joy of life which he conveys to all of his patients. Having a movie patterned after your life, and being recognized as "that zany doctor" could ruin some medical careers, but Adams has remained steady and stalwart to his profession:

He founded the Gesundheit! Institute in 1972. Each year he organizes a group of volunteers from around the world to travel to Russia as clowns, to bring hope and joy to orphans, patients, and the people. In 1998 he also visited Bosnia, one of the Balkan Peninsula countries torn apart by the war that started after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

His life was the template for the plot of the film Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams. Adams is currently based in Arlington, Virginia, where he promotes a different health care model in collaboration with the institute.

So, is there a formula for handling fame and hero worship? I don't think so. As to becoming a hero, we're seeing the process unfold before our eyes: in the form of politics. John McCain will never be able to escape the image of Vietnam prisoner of war. Obama has already molded the image of young black man on the verge of greatness. How far will the "selling" of these two heroes go? How far will their campaigns let it go? And what will they do after the campaign ends?

Below is a satire of superheroes. He's called "Captain Perfect". Let's hope that some of our future heroes don't turn out to be like him.