In the first Mad Max movie, there is that classic scene where Max is trying to quit the police force. Fifi tries to convince him to stay by telling him of the need for heroes. “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them Max, we’re gonna give them heroes.”
Two massive, hard to avoid advertising campaigns have recently reminded me of this scene. The sight of Charlize Theron’s dirt-smudged face looking out from bus stops around the city tells me that Mad Max is back, while the government’s $330 million remembrance campaign for the centenary of the Gallipoli landing makes me think that somebody still thinks that the people need a hero.
The concept of heroes is interesting. On one hand you could see the proliferation of heroes as a response to our own shortcomings – unable to accomplish the things we wish we could, we love stories of superhuman figures who help us believe that there is some kind of messiah figure who can intervene for good and that everything will work out alright.
On the other hand, you could link it directly to our actual desires to change ourselves and the world around us. We all have attributes that we find desirable, and it’s seemingly natural then that people who epitomise those virtues we would put up on a pedestal as some kind of ideal.
Either way, you could speculate that maybe heroes are something that is an intrinsic need for humanity. Certainly you can find heroic figures in many ancient mythologies, from King David to Heracles to Cu Chulainn.
But then again, maybe heroes are less natural and more constructed. In more recent history we can see examples of this – Stalinist USSR used the semi-mythical superworker Stakhanov and countless other “Stakhanovites” as a propaganda tool; Hitler co-opted Nietzsche’s idea of the “ubermensch” (early English versions translated this as “Superman”!) to push ideas of genocide and eugenics. Various cults of personality either on large or small scales can be seen to do the same.
It’s simple enough to see how this works – most of us want to better ourselves, aspiring to follow a hero is a common way of doing it. So if you want to shape people in a particular way, you can do it by constructing a “hero” with the values that you prefer, then encouraging people that your hero is someone worth following.
Given the sheer amount of money involved (how can it possibly cost $330 million to just commemorate a war? Even Great Britain and France, whose casualty numbers and involvement in the war was far greater than Australia’s, are spending a fraction of this amount), I have to say that the centenary of ANZAC campaign has a strong scent of constructed heroism.
So what are the characteristics of the ANZACs that we are being encouraged to copy? We are told that it is “mateship” and “sacrifice”. Certainly those soldiers would have looked after their mates and given of themselves for a greater cause. But any kind of close inspection shows up that the way these values are portrayed now is very limited.
ANZAC mateship is very selective – if people are on your side they’re your mates and you should go to great lengths to help them out. If they’re not on your side they deserve to die. Of course, which side you are on in war is extremely arbitrary. The mere fact that you were born within a certain geographical area means you are expected to be willing to go to war and kill those who were not. This kind of mateship is looking after people who are “like you”, always at the expense of everyone else. The opposite of this mateship is empathy – trying to love and help others, whether they are like you or not.
What about “sacrifice”? Politicians love this word, but what does it mean? Again it seems pretty selective – compare the glorification of the ANZAC’s nationalistic sacrifice to the typical Australian response to the extreme threat of climate change. In the face of potential worldwide destruction on an unprecedented scale, we heroically refuse to sacrifice our lifestyle. Again, the ANZAC sacrifice is only for “people like us” – our nation, our own self-interest. Fair enough I guess, but I don’t know if you can honestly call it “sacrifice”.
Part of the ANZAC legend is the contrast of the brave diggers against the foolish generals – English aristocrats who callously sent men to their death through their incompetence. Another part is to recall that Australia had the highest casualty rate of any country involved in the war. What kind of heroism is this? One that will follow orders no matter what? That would prefer death (mostly it seems your own, or in the best case someone else’s) to challenging the ideas of those giving the orders?
It’s my belief that this is exactly the kind of heroism that some who push the ANZAC legend are talking about. Blind obedience to your nation and your leaders, subservience to the mob mentality, acquiescence to the status quo. In a pointless war between brutal European colonial powers that killed 17 million people just to do it all over again 20 years later; those who refused to fight are still derided as cowards, the women who shamed them with white feathers portrayed as heroes doing their patriotic duty.
The very idea of heroes would seem to represent individuals of great courage or values who rise up against established power structures and conformity to the status quo. That was the idea of Nietzsche’s “ubermensch”.
But in a world where the stories that spread the furthest are the ones told by those with the biggest budgets, that is rarely the example of a hero that we are given. Instead; from our celebrities, to popular movies or books, to the way we tell our history; the individuals who are exalted very rarely offer any challenge or critique to the dominant values of our society. Those people who do attempt that are shunned and demonised.
Still there are people who do it, people who truly believe in sacrifice and in the mateship of all people. These people deserve admiration and respect for their actions, though that would rarely be their motivation. Just as well really, because they are unlikely to be lifted up by those who are committed to giving heroes to the people.