The subject of today’s essay is role models, which is a fascinating subject in contemporary America because our view of them has changed radically in a very short amount of time. The cultural tipping point may have come with Charles Barkley’s “I am not a role model” Nike commercial of 1993, where the NBA star proclaimed that parents and teachers should be role models, not people who can dunk basketballs.
Since then, we’ve suffered through President Clinton’s Lewinsky Scandal and the impeachment circus and an endless cycle of celebrity downfalls, culminating in Charlie Sheen’s highly postmodern crackup-promotion tour. I don’t mean to suggest that scandal is a contemporary – or even an American – invention. Rather, what’s changed is the idea that any person of renown is worthy of any privacy or protection. Our expectations for public figures are absurdly high – and the price for failing to live up to those expectations is steep.
On one level, it’s understandable because the contemporary rewards for celebrity in America are beyond comprehension. Perhaps we don’t think of actors, athletes and assorted billionaires as role models, but we sure do envy their lifestyles. The reporting about the “rock stars” of our culture is often about this lifestyle alone, not the work that created the status. So we end up with celebrities such as Snooki, famous just for being famous, or others like Lindsey Lohan for whom we’ve long since forgotten how the celebrity status was earned.
In essence, we’ve created our own dynamic royal family – except in the American version, you can and eventually will lose your birthright. Or maybe the better analogy is Greek gods. In our case, the gods aren’t just quarreling and capricious, they also have a tendency to fall to earth and become mortal after a brief reign, forced to spend their waning years signing autographs at comic book conventions or performing at Indian reservation casinos.
In Montaigne’s day, the concern wasn’t so much for the idol of the moment, but the historic figure. In particular, Montaigne disliked the habit of his day of finding fault in historic figures for not living up to contemporary mores. Here’s how he described his view:
I crawl in earthy slime but I do not fail to note, way up in the clouds, the matchless height of certain heroic souls. It means a great deal to me to have my judgement rightly controlled even if my actions cannot be so, and to maintain at least that master-part of me free from corruption…. The same pains that they take to detract from those great reputations I would readily take to lend a shoulder to enhance them.
The title of this essay refers to the reputation of Cato the Younger, who was a moral hero for many Renaissance Christians. Here’s how Montaigne responds to those who wished to diminish Cato in his day by interpreting his suicide:
Plutarch states that some men in his time attributed the death of Cato the Younger to his fear of Caesar; this rightly incensed [Plutarch] – by which one can judge how more indignant he would have been at those who attributed it to ambition. Idiots! Cato would rather have done a fair and noble deed which brought him shame than to do it for glory. That great man was truly a model which Nature chose to show how far human virtue and fortitude can reach.
Montaigne then makes an important point – how easy it is to ascribe false motives to someone for an acclaimed act:
Our judgements follow the depravity of our morals and remain sick. I note that the majority of ingenious men in my time are clever at besmirching the glory of the fair and great-souled actions of ancient times, foisting some base interpretation on them and devising frivolous causes and occasions for them. What great subtlety! Why, show me the most excellent and purest deed there is and I can go and furnish fifty vicious but plausible motives for it!
Easy as it may be to score points off old masters, Montaigne argues that good men have a duty to uphold their reputations, otherwise the meaning of virtue becomes lost:
For all our striving, our thoughts fall well below what the great deserve. It is the duty of good men to depict virtue as beautiful as possible; and it would not be inappropriate if our emotions should make us ecstatic under the influence of souls so august.
In “The Dark Knight,” Batman says “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” He then takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s various “Two Face” crimes under the theory that “Gotham needs its true hero.”
Which brings me back to Charles Barkley. His anti-hero stance had resonance because we had already seen so many undeserving heroes fall. But the anti-hero, like Batman, has power only by taking heat for another who we need to remain heroic. Yes, Barkley says that parents and teachers should be role models. President Obama in his State of the Union address mentioned scientists. But let’s be serious – parents, teachers and scientists don’t have endless riches and we aren’t on TV every day. Unless we find some way to honor people who actually achieve and create great things – and keep the focus on the achievements, not the rewards – Barkley’s wish is a fairy tale.
Barkley is not a role model, but that doesn’t mean that our culture should be bereft of them. It’s probably asking too much for Americans to start honoring our heroes from the past. Unless we stop worshipping the celebrity lifestyle, I fear we’ll continue down the path of becoming a nation of Snookis.