INTERVIEW WITH A SCHOLAR:
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
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?
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
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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
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. "