Tina Turner’s song, “We don’t need another hero,” came to mind when reading a terrific essay, “When the Hero Is the Problem,” by Rebecca Solnit. I liked Solnit on another topic, the virtues and values of getting lost, as depicted in her book, A Field Guide To Getting Lost. Since then my dear friend, Lorain Giles, brought to my attention this recent Solnit essay on her blog.
Solnit’s argument is that change happens not because a hero rises above the crowd, but when deeper bonds and connections are built between people across a society. Here’s Solnit:
“Positive social change results mostly from connecting more deeply to the people around you than rising above them, from coordinated rather than solo action.
“Among the virtues that matter are those traditionally considered feminine rather than masculine, more nerd than jock: listening, respect, patience, negotiation, strategic planning, storytelling. But we like our lone and exceptional heroes, and the drama of violence and virtue of muscle, or at least that’s what we get, over and over, and in the course of getting them we don’t get much of a picture of how change happens and what our role in it might be, or how ordinary people matter.
“‘Unhappy the land that needs heroes’ is a line of Bertold Brecht’s I’ve gone to dozens of times, but now I’m more inclined to think, pity the land that thinks it needs a hero, or doesn’t know it has lots and what they look like.”
Yes, pity us with a President who clearly has delusions of grandeur and said the other day, “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey.”
Why do we look for heroes? The hero is a simple answer to what are inevitably complex problems. Remember Trump saying, when accepting the Republican nomination, “I alone can fix it.” There was too much hero worship of Obama, for his good or for ours, as well.
Lest we think that this is just a guy problem, Solnit cites another example, the impulse to sanctify Ruth Bader Ginsberg. More from Solnit:
“The legal expert and writer Dahlia Lithwick told me that when she was gearing up to write about the women lawyers who have fought and defeated the Trump Administration in civil rights case after case over the past couple of years, various people insisted she should write a book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg instead. There are already books and films (and t-shirts and coffee mugs galore) about Ginsburg, and these were requests to narrow the focus down to one well-known superstar, when Dahlia in her forthcoming book is trying to broaden it to take in under-recognized constellations of other women lawyers.
“Which is to say that the problem of the singlehanded hero exists in nonfiction and news and even history (where it was dubbed the Great Man Theory of History) as much as it does in fiction and film. (There’s also a Terrible Man Theory of History that, for example, in focusing on Trump excuses and ignores the longer history of right-wing destruction and delusion.) To concentrate on Ginsburg is to suggest that one transcendently exceptional individual at the apex of power is who matters. To look at these other lawyers is to suggest that power is dispersed and decisions in various courts across the land matter and so do the lawyers who win them and the people who support them.”
It is a truism among historians that totalitarian leaders do all that they can to weaken and undermine the institutions of civil society, whether they be the free press, churches that don’t kow-tow to the leader, associations of tradespeople or artists. And, conversely, historians have also made the point and argument that a robust civil society — that is groups, organizations, and institutions that occupy the middle ground between the state and the individual — are our best insurance against totalitarianism. This was one of my motivations in being a church leader. To strengthen that part of our society.
Leadership expert Ron Heifetz is fond of saying, “Leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can stand.” He means that often people think a leader is, a la Trump, going to magically fix it all for them. The true leader disappoints this expectation even as she mobilizes people to engage their own most pressing problems and challenges.
We are in one of those times when history is out of joint and social change threatens to overwhelm us. In such a situation many look for the hero. Hence, the rise of “strongman” leaders in many countries today, not just our own.
But it’s a bad bargain. Real leaders do take risks and exhibit courage that encourages others, but they understand that their job is less about being “the One,” and more about inspiring and moving the many.