Unhappy the country without heroes, says one of Brecht’s characters, only to be told by another, no, unhappy the country that needs heroes. Ours is a nation desperate for them. There’s our voyeuristic celebrity culture; our children of all ages worshiping at the odorous feet of corporate-branded athletes; the many who await the man (or woman, cf. palm-pilot Sarah Palin) on horseback; the others who dream of their spectral savior. To me this all speaks of a great passivity and impotence, a triumph of spectatorship over citizenship, of consumption over action; in the case of the messianic, it bespeaks the perversion of religious teaching.
In this week’s New Yorker -- a journal of middlebrow starfucking and conventional wisdom, with the occasional gem amid the dross -- there’s a portfolio of veterans of the Civil Rights movement. Here are some of the footsoldiers (two of the original Greensboro lunchcounter sitters-in, all of the Little Rock Nine); some the surviving leaders (of SCLC, SNCC and the NAACP LDF); and some of those thrust into history by violence (Myrlie Evers, Maxine and Chris McNair, Emmet Till’s cousins). I found these portraits tremendously moving, not least because I didn’t know that many these veterans were still alive. But mostly I was moved because they dared. They faced the curses, spit, fists, clubs, dogs, water hoses, bullets, and bombs of their enemies, and so few of us are prepared to do that. Certainly at the time, the majority of Americans largely sat out that struggle, out of fear, indifference, antipathy. (A majority of white Americans were supporters of anti-miscegenation laws when the Supreme Court trashed that filth in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.) There were those who offered moral and economic support, of course, which is good and necessary -- but hardly heroic. (Today many of us push the “send” button on our computer and call it activism, but nothing real was ever won this way.)
We can, and should, honor these warriors, but the greatest honor would be to emulate them.