Real and Mythic Heroism and Caitlyn Jenner

Toy SoldiersThis is a picture of soldiers represented in an almost a Homeric vision of bravery — a wounded man being carried to safety as he fires at the enemy. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is an artistic construction made with toys. But it became a very big deal last week when a Facebook user posted it along with the caption, “As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!” Ah yes, the fetishization of the military strikes again.

Let’s start with the fact that this is a totally cliched and limited idea of bravery. I don’t doubt that it takes great bravery to fight in a war. But for the people who fight the war, the alternative is prison and in some cases death. In many ways, standing up against the simple choice of going along and instead resisting a draft is more brave. But forget wars. There are lots of ways to be brave, and they usually involve going against the default behavior. It usually isn’t a question of doing what people will reward you for.

On the issue of Caitlyn Jenner, however, I don’t think we are talking about bravery. She is a public figure who is pimping a reality show. She has all the support that money and fame can buy. What she is doing is good for society and for the transgender community. But brave? I’m not convinced. For non-famous, non-rich people, coming out as transgender is incredibly brave. For Caitlyn Jenner — it’s at best less so.

But okay, people in the military do at times display amazing examples of bravery. But why of all the images that the poster could have picked, did he selected this one? After the post got nearly a million shares, he looked into the source of the photo. He found that it came from the documentary Marwencol. It is about Mark Hogancamp, a cross-dressing man who was beaten outside a bar — almost to death. Afterward, he got into building a model of a Belgian town during World War II. The fact that the poster had picked the work of a member of the transgender community made him rethink the whole thing. Now he thinks it was God working in mysterious ways to teach him about the importance of inclusion and love. Good for him!

But I don’t think that’s why he picked the photo. I think he picked it because it is a highly romanticize image of reality. When people talk about things like heroism, they are dealing with abstractions. What “real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like” is dolls designed by a wounded outcast. In other words, what makes real America “real” is that it isn’t real.

This is something I’ve written about a lot in other contexts. The conservative image of “real America” is a place that never existed. And this, I think, explains why modern American conservatism is so nutty. It presents a false choice. The real choice is always between competing imperfect Americas. But in the conservative mind, it is between these imperfect choices and their idealized, perfect choice. It is no wonder that they are against compromise.

But it fills me with hope that the Facebook poster changed from slighting Jenner and defining “real” American heroism to writing, “Hate helps nothing. Love wounds no one.” It bothers me that all those people who shared the original sentiment will not land where the original poster did. But we take baby steps. And that’s good.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Real and Mythic Heroism and Caitlyn Jenner

  1. That’s a great movie, it really hit me, and great story about the Twitter poster who learned something very valuable.

    For no reason, here’s something I just watched before bed: Dr. Noam and Bill Buckley. Buckley is sure of himself as Sam Harris. The parallel seemed eerie. Enjoy, if you enjoy things like this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dt-GUAxmxdk

    • People have been recommending that film for me for the last couple of years — I even had it on my Netflix account while I still had it. But I never got around to seeing it. I’ll have to find it now.

      I’ve seen that video a number of times before. It’s very interesting. I agree with you about the certainty. But Buckley is a stronger thinker than Harris. I like Harris in a lot of ways. He’s a good, clear, and straightforward thinker. But that’s also his limitation. When the material gets complicated, he just keeps on with his bulldozer thinking and never notices his mistakes. But his little Free Will pamphlet is very good. Still, it doesn’t say a single thing that I hadn’t already worked out. That’s why he’s the hero of subgeniuses everywhere! Intellectually, I feel very much at Harris’ level. But I have humility and he has hubris. Apparently, hubris is worth a lot more money.

      • What struck me most about that video is Buckley making the same fatuous arguments all empire apologists make (and using his cleverness as though it supported his arguments — no, it just means you’re clever) with one amazing difference from those saying the same stuff today. Dr. Noam would make some reference to the historical record of oppression and Buckley actually knew what Chomsky was talking about.

        Harris would have no clue. Hitchens would. Maher would be somewhere in between.

        • Strangely, I think you are right about Maher. But clearly, Harris is a far better thinker than Maher. But Harris really does seem pretty ignorant about history. As for Hitchens: that’s what made him so vile in his later years. He understood all the history and just trampled all over it. I guess it was a good economic move for him.

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