As the War Between the States approached, there was occurring a fading away of what made up the characterization of a person of fame during that age. One antebellum writer described someone who had attained fame as having “struck a golden cord that binds us between our fathers and our posterity.” Fame was associated with things such as personal virtue, artistic genius, and military heroism.
However, in the years leading up to 1860 a new sort of celebrity began to emerge, one historians described as “post heroic.” The qualities this replacement embodied included reaching levels of fame that had less to do with actual accomplishments, and instead resulted from an over-dramatization or manipulation of such accomplishments.
Showman P.T. Barnum was an exemplification one of this new sort of celebrity. Certainly Barnum put on a show in which people from all over the country came to see, so he wasn’t necessarily devoid of accomplishment. But his main goal was to seek fame for the sake of fame, and if that meant having to fabricate the show he put on, then so be it. In his case, fame and deception went hand in hand.
We’ve not yet seen the end of the post-heroic phase. Since entering the phase, characters that we’ve been led to view as heroes — folks like Lincoln, MLK, and Ghandi — have all been lifted upon pedestals that don’t actually suit the men themselves. Again, not due to a lack of accomplishments, but rather because of the “post-heroic” baptism that’s been bestowed upon them by the “winners” of history.
None of this is to say that the heroes before this age weren’t also manipulated into statures that didn’t fit their actual character. History, to a certain extent, has always been fabricated. But it was around the time of the rise of “post-heroism” that mass media also became more prominent. Those who had the ability to inform the public of who their “heroes” were also had the ability to “create” them, and at a much quicker rate.
So while not completely out of the phase yet, we’ve seemingly reached an insane and perhaps unsustainable level of escalation. In the past year and a half alone we’ve had fraudulent actors — such as Fauci, George Floyd, and a senile man playing the role of president — painted as heroes of our time. And while it could certainly get more ridiculous, and probably will at this rate, the current rate of ridiculousness can only eventually lead to the end of an age — in this case, the Post-Heroic Age.
But then what comes after? The embodying of something closer to true heroism again? I’m not yet convinced that this is the case, that the cycle is simply two-fold. Instead, it’s my belief that those of us interested in attempting to prop up an alternative to the “post-hero” must first determine what sort of character is necessary for someone to be considered a true hero.
At a time when many of us use “virtue-signaling” as an insult (guilty), perhaps instead of focusing on hating the “virtues” being signaled, we start discovering and subsequently signaling our own virtues to combat the fake ones embodied by the aforementioned insult. And it is within these newfound — or rather, a reemergence of traditional — virtues, that we might find true heroic character.