National Treasures

Friday, August 14, 2015

Ask any man or woman on the street to name a national treasure – something so far removed from the public psyche that many will stutter or stumble over their own words – and you are likely to hear things like the Grand Canyon, Lincoln Memorial and Disney World. All are important cultural places, to be sure. The Grand Canyon is one of the few spaces in nature that still inspires and moves us collectively. No small feat in our CGI world. The Lincoln Memorial, with its hulking size, marble edifice and piercing gaze, reminds us of a difficult past that is still unifying and fracturing our nation in its own perspective-dependent way. And what would our world be like without the genius of Disney and those who have helped sculpt generations of imagination.

Something missing from our treasure trove today are the heroes who carry our country on their backs and blaze a unique trail for the rest of us to follow. They are the stuff of ticker tape parades and universal admiration. Past heroes are today's icons and bookmarks in history – Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali. History books teach us of their deeds and their cultural importance, of the movements they spawned. Grainy celluloid shows us the spirit and fight and stoic determination they all possessed. They are rightfully remembered today as the heroes who stamped their own style, personality and dreams into the nation's collective consciousness, even though their value in our sound-bite driven culture is diminishing with each sweep of the pendulum and tick-tock of the clock.

Who are the ones replacing them or picking up the torch anew? Is pop culture and 15 minute fame all there is today? Heroes are born from important cultural issues, or at least they were in the past. Amelia Earhart was women's liberation personified – strong, independent and capable. Neil Armstrong proved we were better, smarter and braver than the Soviets and helped spur on a revolution in science. Muhammad Ali transcended boundaries, shredded cultural barriers, and punched racism and discrimination in the nose, first with a few well placed left-handed jabs, then with a solid right to the face.

Perhaps the difference between then and now is the Gordon Gecko effect. The greed is good mentality that has spread over us like an unchecked kudzu vine. Community – and our sense of it – is no longer an appropriate perspective in a world that is focused and tuned into me, me, me.

What are the cornerstone issues of our day, and who will today's children be celebrating as adults tomorrow? Is there a voice of climate change, or gay rights? What about freedom – does she have a voice? (I’m speaking of real freedom, not the idiotic, flag-waving, chest-puffing inanity that crowds out the rust on that old Buick down the road. The sort that was stripped from each and every one of us under the Orwellian named “Patriot” Act.) Is there someone capable of crossing political lines and crushing generational barriers to speak for all of us, or are we past that. It could be that the heroes of our past were simply the products of their time, that we have moved beyond them or the need for them. I hope not. I still think the forward press of humanity needs those voices that are not driven by greed or money. It needs the spark of passion and spirit that captures the masses in its jaws and doesn’t let go.

What I am asking is this: what if there are no heroes? What if the Ali of our time is stripped of his gloves and never fights? What if our MLK (and God knows we need that person, now) is silenced because we simply ignore him? What does that mean? What if in 30 years’ time the historians can’t point a finger at anyone and say “She spoke up and she was heard and things changed.” What if as a nation we have run out of heroes, not because there aren’t men or women brave enough to stand up and be counted, there are, but because our world is no larger than a six inch screen and we haven’t the time or patience to engage with them, to listen and absorb. What does it mean if our sense of awe at achievement, or art, or trailblazing acts can no longer hold our attention and we no longer choose to celebrate significance? What does it mean if we don’t recognize it?

It is possible, I suppose, that the empire is so far in decline that we have run out of heroes, at least the sort who command global attention because they shift the bar for humanity some increment north of its current position. It may be that our well has run dry and waiting in the wings are foreign heroes aiming for center stage. Not that they haven’t always been there. But, as with all empires and divas and gold medal winners, we may have passed our prime.

There is also the possibility that none of that matters. It may be that there simply aren’t any events or breakthroughs that merit our attention and collective gasp. Perhaps we’ve hit a dead-spot, us humans, a lull before we make another leap forward.

Either way, through history we know this to be true: in the U.S. in the time between our wars, which is intermittent at best, we need new national treasures of the corporeal form – heroes – to inspire us and knit together our fractured pieces into some form of community that we can all hang our hats on. We need to be moved so that collectively we can all move in a positive direction. We need to care about something greater than our own tiny lives. Something that lifts up each individual from the muck and that says we matter, we all matter.

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JACK MCDANIEL :: AGENTS OF THE UNDERTOW