American heroes


Heroism was once so simple. In the wake of 9/11, George Bush famously said,

When [the terrorists] struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.

For so many Americans who had never witnessed war, this was an easy way to take part. The only sacrifice was one’s pocketbook; the only horror was enduring the long lines at one’s favorite attraction. Consumption and heroism went hand in hand, and America would be made as great as its airline industry. In the triumvirate of Republican politics – the business elite who write the checks, the politicians who serve at their beck and call, and the rubes who supply the votes and think they’re running the show – each would benefit. The airline industry would survive the 9/11-induced recession and go on to make record profits; George Bush would ride the wave of nationalism and jingoism to a wartime reelection; and ordinary Americans would feel a sense of accomplishment and belonging.

In the era of coronavirus, being a hero is no longer so easy. We are being told not to fly, not to get on board, not to do our business around the country, not to go to Disney World in Florida, and not to enjoy life. For many in our intellectual, business, and political elite, this message is unacceptable. Though coronavirus may have strained, it must not break the bonds between consumption and heroism. And if capitalism cannot be sacrificed, then heroism must be re-envisioned.

Here is one modest proposal, from Mark Perry at The American Conservative, entitled, “The Boomers Will Sacrifice Themselves on the Beaches of COVID-19”.

The estimated 3 percent mortality rate from the Battle of COVID-19 (the number is from the World Health Organization) is on a par with the percentage of Americans in uniform who died in the four years following December 7, 1941. 12.2 million served and just over 405,000 perished—that’s 2.99 percent.

Recently major grocery chains (Stop & Shop, Target, Safeway, Albertsons, and Whole Foods) have announced they are testing an approach that would protect “those most vulnerable to Covid-19” by allowing them special shopping hours at the beginning of each day. These new “senior hours” will make Boomers “more comfortable shopping our stores and helping to ensure they are able to get the items they need in a less crowded environment.”

We might be thankful that these chains want to protect our nation’s older citizens, but the announcement reads less like an exercise in altruism and more like the notice that many Boomers received years ago: “You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States….” For the goal, I suspect, is not to protect the old from the young, but to protect those least likely to contract the virus from those most likely to die from it. We might count our blessings: “In a world of arrogant adults who love money and kill children, the Almighty has seen fit to bare his arm and send a virus that will expose the deceitfulness of wealth and kills adults and spares children.”

This is as it should be. The Boomers are the first wave of COVID-19’s Omaha Beach, flattening the curve so that if and when a second wave of the virus hits, the young can go on living. We will have done our duty and sacrificed for our country. The honor will not be shared. We will have drawn the short straw and the older generation will finally, belatedly, pass from the scene. They will become the new “greatest generation”—allowing all those Gen-Z’ers and a large portion of their Millennial pals (the “virus rebels,” as they are now called) to do what they do best: enjoy beach week in Florida and whinge about how the tottering grey hairs of an older generation are clueless self-referencers focused only on themselves.

You’re welcome.

Thank you, Boomers. I’ll take back all the mean things I said about you, especially if you promise to die in states that are strategically important in the upcoming election.

I realize I’ve engaged in a bit of “nut-picking” in choosing Mark Perry to be my emblem of the new American heroism, but I would argue that his sentiments are not too estranged from those who have Trump’s ear. R. R. Reno, the editor of America’s preeminent journal for Christian intellectuals, First Things, wrote an impassioned essay with this astounding conclusion:

We, by contrast, are collectively required to cower in fear—fear that we’ll die redoubled by the fear that we’ll cause others to die. We are stripped of whatever courage we might be capable of. Were I to host a small dinner party tonight, wanting to resist the paranoia and hysteria, I would be denounced. Yesterday, Governor Cuomo saw young people playing basketball in a New York City park. “It has to stop and it has to stop now,” he commanded. Everyone must live under death’s dominion.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn resolutely rejected the materialist principle of “survival at any price.” It strips us of our humanity. This holds true for a judgment about the fate of others as much as it does for ourselves. We must reject the specious moralism that places fear of death at the center of life.

In short, Cuomo’s response to the coronavirus has made us weak, has stripped of us our courage. But we can reclaim that sense of heroism by throwing a small dinner party, thus “saying no” to “death’s dominion”. We can become the heroes referenced in George Bush’s speech, the ones who “enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” And if the nanny state stands in our way, then it has fallen victim to a “specious moralism”. Jerry Falwell, Jr., a key Trump ally in the religious right, might say the same thing.

I’m reminded of 9/11 in a different sense, too. After that attack, Americans were led into a war by an intellectual elite comprised of draft dodgers and armchair warriors, people who got hard-ons from the thought of mobilizing the American war machine but could not be compelled to harness that erotic energy in service of their country. The war effort was conceived by the rich, but carried out by the poor.

(Here’s a representative quote, from a practically frothing Tom Friedman on Charlie Rose:

What we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world, I’m afraid, and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there, basically, and take out a very big stick, and right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble….what they needed to see was American boys and girls, going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?” You don’t think we don’t care about our open society? You think this bubble fantasy we’re just gonna let it grow? Well, suck on this. That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq, because we could.


I think the Iraq War was terrifically misguided, of course, but there were genuine heroes back then: people who were sacrificing life and limb for a war they might not believe in (as opposed to the people going to Disney World because the president told them it might help the airlines).

So it is, this time. Mark Perry and R. R. Reno would like to fantasize about how the boomers will throw themselves on the Omaha beaches of Covid-19, reclaiming the mantle of the greatest generation. But the Americans who are told that heroism consists in enjoying life and spending money are simply play-acting at it, much like 20 years ago. The true heroes are the ones drafted into this war out of desperation and necessity, also much like 20 years ago. The gig workers who deliver our food, the nurses who tend our ill, the warehouse laborers who pack our useless shit, and the grocery store and pharmacy employees who exchange cash and germs with hundreds of people per day. The real divide is not generational, it is socioeconomic; people like Mark Perry and R. J. Reno, much like our peak boomer, Donald Trump, will never be in true danger.

When ghouls like Lloyd Blankfein say, “Extreme measures to flatten the virus ‘curve’ is [sic] sensible—for a time—to stretch out the strain on health infrastructure. But crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue-and beyond. Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work”, remember that he’s talking about sacrificing the health and lives of those people to benefit people like him, much in the way that Tom Friedman was willing to let hundreds of thousands die to satiate his libidinal impulses.

The cruelty of America has been that it has always demanded sacrifices, has always required heroes. The shame of America is that it has always dissembled about who those heroes are, and whose blood is being spilled.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s