Young People Can’t Emulate Superheroes

By | May 19, 2014 | 0 Comments




 Spider-Man                         Audie Murphy

     Which one can you emulate?

The other day I was driving past a movie theater where “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” was playing. I recalled that when I was a child, we had superheroes as cartoons. But much more, we had human heroes. Some were real, like Sergeant York in the film of the same name. Most were fictional, like the cowboy heroes Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and my favorite, Hopalong Cassidy. Then of course there were the John Ford Westerns with John Wayne as either an outlaw-fighting cowboy or a cavalry officer.

As kids we played the now politically incorrect cowboys-and-Indians, cops-and-robbers, or (gasp!) soldiers. True, our play was based on our childish, unrealistic notions of these people. But we had human heroes to emulate. In doing so, we were building character. Today, that word is used to describe an oddball, as in “He’s a real character,” or to refer to an individual in a movie or novel. But when was the last time you heard “character” in the sense of moral fiber?
Today kids watch movies starring superheroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Batman. How do kids emulate superheroes? Perhaps the most revealing of these characters is Captain America, who was a short, non-athletic nerd, but who was turned into a tall, strong super-athlete by government scientists. The moral of this story is that short people should sit around and fantasize being made tall and strong.
It’s lucky Audie Murphy didn’t do that. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighed 110 pounds, was 18 years old, and had a baby face and a slightly high-pitched voice. But he hadn’t spent his time watching superheroes in the movies or comic books. He spent his time hunting in the Texas hill country, helping to feed his desperately poor family. When World War II broke out, he tried to enlist in the Marines. They turned him down as too small, but the Army accepted him. He wound up the most decorated soldier of the war, with the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, and two Bronze Stars, as well as three Purple Hearts.
Audie Murphy didn’t fantasize being a superhero. He didn’t imagine being tall and athletic. Instead, he made himself into a real hero. He didn’t need genetic engineering – he had character engineering.
Do we understand how we produced such people? Are we trying to produce more? I believe the answer to both these questions is No! I believe we are doing our best not to produce more heroes.
When I was growing up, boys were expected to be boys. They were disciplined and taught to behave. But no one tried to make them act like girls. Their maleness was channeled into socially acceptable paths, but it was never ridiculed or condemned.
Boys were discouraged from crying, and encouraged to bear minor troubles or injuries without complaining. Neither boys nor girls were expected to vent their innermost feelings in public. This sense of privacy helped us build a firm center for our personalities, just as a beautiful pearl has a hard grain of sand at its center. This may be the reason that years ago, a courageous person was said to have “sand” or “grit.”
We felt no need to join gangs or cults, because we were taught that we were already members of a special group: Americans. We studied American history and civics. We learned that our nation had noble ideals, so we didn’t want to let our fellow citizens down. And when we played cops-and-robbers or soldiers at recess, nobody objected.
Many high schools and colleges taught ROTC. At many universities, two years of ROTC was required of all male students. Here young men (and young women) were taught to wear a uniform, to shine their shoes, polish their insignia, and even get an occasional haircut – in short, to take pride in themselves.
Uniforms and drill taught us that being part of a group was important. Individual achievement was indicated by insignia of rank and award ribbons. But we learned that an individual is responsible for, and to, others.
Religion formed a part of most kids’ upbringing. For some this was superficial. But more of the lessons sank in than we realized. Combat is a stressful and dangerous experience, but it isn’t the only one. Divorce, job loss, illness, accidents, and terrorist attacks may become part of anyone’s life. Those who have a firm foundation, both religious and patriotic, are less likely to fall apart.
What of the second question? Are we trying to produce more heroes? Or are we doing our best not to?
We tell boys to bring out their feminine side. Caring and nurturing are admirable. But with this often goes whining about minor problems, as well as outward emotionality under stress. Rick Rescorla would not have been able to lead 2687 employees of Morgan Stanley to safety on 9/11 if he were weeping and voicing his fears, instead of shouting encouragement into a bullhorn and singing songs. But now, celebrities tell things in public that I would hesitate to tell a therapist.
We condemn masculinity and encourage verbal diarrhea, then profess surprise when boys grow up without any toughness at their centers. Why make half our kids ashamed to be themselves? Some boys will overcompensate and become violent. Thus we may produce the worst possible outcome – a majority of males who are afraid to be men or just don’t know how, and a violent minority who run rampant.
We punish boys who act like boys. We expect four-year-olds to sit still in preschool, and when many of them can’t, we medicate them with addictive drugs. I was hyperactive until I was almost six, when I calmed down and started school. Then I was just being a boy. Today I would be drugged and given a life-long diagnosis of mental disorder.
We kick out the Boy Scouts, then are puzzled when boys don’t grow up trustworthy, loyal, and brave. We ban ROTC, then wonder why the services have fewer civilian-educated officers. We emphasize the negative aspects of American history, then are confused when kids join gangs to feel “special.” We remove positive role models, then are dismayed when boys find negative ones.
We encourage unearned self-esteem, then are saddened when narcissists result. We flood kids with lessons, coaches, TV, computers, and smart phones, then wonder why they have no time to become socialized. We belittle uniforms and those who wear them, then are upset when kids disrespect authority.
We ridicule religion and remove the Ten Commandments from schools, then we are baffled when kids don’t honor their parents and see nothing wrong with cheating. We give kids no foundation but – like “Taliban” John Walker Lindh – leave them to “seek their own path,” then we are alarmed when they seek certainty in destructive cults.
I was taught to shoot in high-school ROTC by a master sergeant with combat ribbons. I saw a gun as a tool to defend freedom. Now kids may be handed their first gun by a gang member. No wonder they view the purpose of a gun differently.
I watched “High Noon,” which showed lawmen as honorable, and “Sergeant York,” which showed soldiers as admirable. Now kids see films like “Training Day,” which showed police as corrupt back-stabbers, and “The Hunted,” which showed soldiers as crazed killers.
I learned about heroes of the past from films. Now young people use the Nimitz Freeway, MacArthur Boulevard, and Basilone Road, but have no idea what the names mean. Where will they learn about recent recipients of the Medal of Honor? Not from Hollywood or the mainstream media.
To top things off, we borrow money to send kids to prestigious universities, where anti-American professors fill their heads with ingratitude and hostility. One of these professors praised the 9/11 terrorists and claimed the victims got what they deserved. But why are we surprised? We should have listened when C. S. Lewis said, “We laugh at honor, and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
We watch “CSI” shows and crime dramas. We study antisocial behavior, but we neglect admirable behavior. We assume that without negative influences, everyone grows up good. But after two world wars, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Ukrainian famine, and the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, it is absurd to believe that human nature is inherently good.
It’s time to study what makes kids grow up to be concerned with their fellow humans, to be loyal to their comrades, to be calm under stress, to be resolute in adversity, and to be rescuers and even heroes. Nobility of spirit does not bloom by itself. Like all beautiful flowers, it must be tended carefully. Only weeds grow spontaneously.
In order to have more heroes, we should study what produced the ones we were fortunate enough to have had. Superheroes make entertaining fantasies, but young people need role models. Hollywood, the news media, the schools, and all of us should give them human heroes to emulate. There are plenty of them – our military, firefighters, paramedics, police, and ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Let us use them.
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