Worshipping Our Heroes
I've always been prone to hero worship. It's one reason I was fond of writing Spotlight on the Arts articles. But I'm starting to feel uncomfortable about being such a person.
We recently had the Olympics, that grandest of showcases for athletic prowess (and, in the case of the Winter Games, human adaptability to extreme environments). Even more recently we had the Oscars, arguably the most prestigious (but maybe just the snobbiest) of entertainment awards.
Obviously, both of those things provide a lot of hero worship fodder. It isn't entirely unreasonable to call athletes like Lindsey Vonn superhuman, and in theory, at least, the Oscars celebrate a beloved art form's power to move hearts and captivate minds--to change how we see the world, and thus, sometimes, maybe, to change the world itself.
But while events like the Olympics and the Oscars show off some of the best things that humankind is capable of, presenting us with something like royalty (just look at all of that gold ... and, uh, gold-plated Britannium for the Oscar statuettes), they also draw attention to some of our unseemly traits and tendencies. As The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley wrote of the Olympics: "the best exploits of what [NBC] unfailingly refers to as 'Team USA' only bring out the worst in network heavy breathing."
And of course it wasn't limited to Team USA. Consider all the buzz and baggage surrounding Canadian ice skater Joannie Rochette. Obviously, what she did was awe-inspiring. I found something distasteful, however, about the way the media (or at least NBC) played up her mother's death. There it was, prepackaged narrative angst, to be mentioned at every single em-effing opportunity. I can't escape the suspicion that when the news broke, someone at the network secretly went, "Yessss."
Then there was Andrea Joyce, interviewing Rochette after the medal ceremony: "Not only Canada, but the world embraced you. Did you take strength from that?" Am I the only one who thinks a question like this is not only loaded, but loaded with crap? It's one thing for Scott Hamilton to be reduced to tears. If you didn't feel at least a few plucks at your heartstrings, you might not have a soul. But Joannie Rochette's triumph belongs to Joannie Rochette alone. And the more you talk about how much "support" and affection she was getting from people who had never, ever met her and will never, ever have any meaningful interaction with her, the more it sounds like you actually believe all these people might deserve credit for the excellence of her performance.
So this is how I translated Joyce's question: "Everyone felt sorry for you! Aren't you going to thank us?" (Ever gracious, Rochette did.)
Of course, I doubt that this was Joyce's intention. But her question was still one of many attempts by supposed journalists (and others around the world) to insert themselves into the narratives and lives of people to whom they have no real connection.
Lindsey Vonn provides another example of this intrusive, vaguely self-congratulatory breed of fawning. Again quoting Alessandra Stanley, the day after Vonn won her gold medal, Today host Matt Lauer "gave her flowers ('just because we adore you') and hugged her tight ('we are so proud of you')--as if he and Meredith Vieira had spent the last 15 years rising at dawn to drive her to training." Also recall how just after the race, an NBC camera lingered interminably on Vonn as she sobbed into her husband's shoulder.
I can't think of a neat Oscar parallel, except for how chummy the red carpet hosts try to be with celebrities who probably don't care or just feel awkwarded out (I know "awkward" isn't a verb, but it should be). Still, the Oscars do highlight a tendency of viewers/outsiders to personalize and exaggerate their connection to and investment in those in the spotlight.
It's an understandable tendency, sure: like I said, these events highlight some of humankind's highest potential, and we should indeed pay attention. But some people's enthusiasm goes beyond understandable to unwarranted, even inappropriate. And more problematic (if still understandable) is the degree to which we let such events distract us from the world's Big Problems.
My point is not, after all, that those in the spotlight are so much better than the rest of us. It's that their lives are THEIR lives, not ours, even if they do affect ours, sometimes deeply. And if we spend too much time fawning, and if we're as lame and creepy about it as NBC was with Olympians, then we lose sight of the real reason we love and need heroes: to inspire us to strive for greatness ourselves.