"The clichÈ of the 1980s was that it was the "Me" decade, the era of consumption and consumerismÖI do think that materialism and consumerism is to some degree the enemy of heroism."--Peter Gibbon
PETER GIBBON, a researcher at Harvard University's Department of Education who has been studying the decline of heroes in American culture.

Q: Have you found that the obsession with heroes is a strictly American phenomenon?

A: Well, I think from the beginning of time and in all cultures that people have been interested in heroesÖI play squash with a scholar from Iran who reminds me that every other street in Teheran is named after a fallen warrior who fought in the Iraq warÖIn communist society, the plumber, the self-effacing, self-sacrificing working class member was a hero at one time. But I think the urge to find something to believe in, someone to look up to is universal.

Q: What do you think sets America apart from other countries with regards to our treatment of heroes?

A: Well, I think that we, because of mass media and popular culture and the Information Revolution, we are certainly skeptical of public heroesÖheroes from history or contemporary political figuresÖI think that we are far removed from where we were at one time in history, and I argue in my articles and books that a combination of the Information Revolution and the Sexual RevolutionÖbiographies, revisionist history, all together have caused us to lose our heroes in an unprecedented way at the end of the 20th centuryÖAmerica is a much more irreverent, skeptical and cynical society, particularly about public people. Or cultural heroes, whether it be T.S. Eliot, or Einstein, or Ernest Hemingway.

Q: Can you talk broadly about the change in America's treatment of heroes between the first half and the second half of the century?

A: Vietnam and Watergate were important watersheds, the late 60s and the youth culture and the youth rebellion invented a whole new series of heroes ranging from the Beatles to Jimmy HendrixÖwhat I call entertainers of the 1950s became more heroes in the late 1960s. For example, Elvis Presley, to me and to my generation was only a singer. John Lennon becomes some kind of icon and hero to my brother, who's 10 years younger than I amÖso entertainers in the late 60s became spokespeople, philosophers to a much greater degree than they ever had before. Soldiers ceased to become heroes because of VietnamÖIt's the function of peace and prosperity and the end of the Cold War.

Q: Was there a distinct cultural shift in the definition of a hero from the 1970s to the 1980s?

A: The clichÈ of the 1980s was that it was the "Me" decade, the era of consumption and consumerismÖI do think that materialism and consumerism is to some degree the enemy of heroismÖPart of the definition of hero is being brave and self-sacrificing and being idealistic. And when people in America have been asked what qualities a hero should have or who a hero is, it's interesting that businessmen rarely are picked. Americans rarely pick having a lot of moneyÖWhich I think maybe is a reassuring thing about America, that they refuse to use the word "hero" to describe a Donald Trump, or an Ivan BoeskyÖFocusing on the accumulation of goods - money -Americans have never thought to be particularly heroic. Now when they give the goods away, that's a different story. When you look at John D. Rockefeller, when he started giving money away he was more accepted as a hero.

Q: How has the public perception of athletes changed over time? Can you compare Joe DiMaggio, who was widely regarded as a sports hero, and Michael Jordan, who seems to be much more of a media package instead of a hero?

A: Well, since the 1920s, the Golden Age of Sports, athletes have loomed incredibly large in the psyche of American malesÖOne difference is that baseball was the sport for many decades and now it has to compete with basketball, and one of my arguments is that basketball has even eclipsed it. And so Michael Jordan has become not only an AmericanÖphenomenon but a worldwide phenomenon in a way that Joe DiMaggio wasn'tÖIn regard to athletics, three things happened since the 1950s. First of all, athletes made so much more than the average American. In the 1950s, they made five times what the average American did. Secondly, they started advertising, and when you advertise, you become less heroic. And thirdly, and maybe most importantly, we just know so much more about them. To take the case of Michael Jordan, his sister now has just written a book saying that he comes from a dysfunctional familyÖThat kind of discussion we never had about Joe DiMaggio. The sports writers wouldn't have permitted it. That all started in 1970 with a book called Ball Four by Jim Bouten. And before that, reporters didn't go into dugouts or didn't go into hotel roomsÖJim BoutonÖwas exiled to the minor leagues and he kept a diary of what it was really like to be a New York Yankee. So he talked about they would roam under the bleachers looking up women's skirtsÖIt was very controversial at the time andÖsome schools even banned it and teachers were upset about the effect of it. But after that, there was a whole slew of sort of muckraking books on sports. And that was a new phenomenon in America. I mean, Babe Ruth was hardly perfect and private, but the country didn't know about it, and he always behaved in public.

Q: Do you think that the media revolution has made younger people inherently cynical?

A: I think soÖIt's not just that there's so much more radio and television. It's also there's no forbidden knowledge. In other words, there's no gatekeepers, so every kid can know about the latest scandal or gossip, rumor or innuendo. And so they do become jaded and cynical in a way that those raised in more mythological times are not. But I find them, you know, in a funny way, idealistic about small deeds and about local heroes, maybe mother and father and people they knowÖThere was also of course, starting in the late 60s a questioning of authority in America. The previous generations were much more reverential of all kinds of authority. I think a sad thing todayÖis the suspicion of priests, scoutmasters and teachers, that everyone is potentially corrupt inside. If you look at biographiesÖeverybody has a secret, imperfect or hidden life, every biography now.

Q: Do you think that the suspicion of authority that emerged in the late 1960s has changed the definition of heroism in America on a fundamental level?

A: Yes I do. I think there's an automatic suspicion of politicians, corporations, presidents, lawyers, any people in authority are not put on the same kind of pedestal they used to be. So there is this questioning of the establishmentÖthe trust in government figures is way down. So it's a little strange in this most prosperous, wonderful time in our history that people are suspicious of those in authority.

Q: Can you give a few adjectives that really capture the essence of the 1980s and its place in the century with regards to the evolution of heroes?

A: If you think about the 1980s, in some ways one could argue that there was a resurgence of heroism as epitomized by Ronald ReaganÖHe has taken credit for making America feel good about itself, acting like a hero. The whole thing is so complicated when you try to boil it down decades. On one hand, it was the decade of greed. On the other hand, it was Ronald Reagan, standing tall and saying that America is proud and will stand up to the Soviet Union and we should feel good about our countryÖThere's Reagan, talking about heroism. Heck, he invented in the 1980s this custom in the State of the Union message. He would pick out heroes in the audience, and that's a custom that every president since then has continued. "