July 4 is a national holiday that celebrates the creation of the United States of America in 1776, a day for patriots of all flavors. With the festivities and fireworks comes a salute to all those who have made the nation what it is.
As the Founders knew, a self-governing nation requires exempla virtutis, ideal examples of statesmanship and moral character. Their own came mainly from the Bible and Plutarch. The courage and greatness of biblical heroes and ancient statesmen were reiterated in churches, classrooms, and public assemblies for U.S. generations that followed.
In time, Americans created their own national pantheon. In statesmanship, Benjamin Franklin and Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John Kennedy led the way. Iconic military heroes John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee followed. Their personalities and feats remain etched in the heads of older citizens.
Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers were revered inventors. Lewis and Clark, bold explorers, guided by Sacajawea, then folk heroes Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Kit Carson, confidently tamed the frontier. Wyatt Earp brought justice to the Wild West. Likewise, Indian chiefs Crazy Horse and Geronimo epitomized the brave Indian warriors who fought back. Esteemed exempla in 20th-century America included Pocahontas, Martha Washington, Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, and Jacqueline Kennedy.
But who are the heroes in postmodern America? To whom do Americans look to define liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Fast forward sixty years. A generation—two, actually—has come into adulthood likely hearing America is not about Plymouth Rock but smallpox blankets. Thomas Jefferson is a slaveholder and misogynist first, then the author of the Declaration of Independence. Woodrow Wilson of Princeton University and the Treaty of Versailles turns out to be an unspeakable racist. The horror show begins with Christopher Columbus, don’t forget, agent of invasion and genocide.
Mid-twentieth century up-from-slavery black heroes, George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, have fallen out of favor. Freedom fighters Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks have moved to center stage. Since 1983, civil rights leader Martin Luther King has had a special day set aside as a federal holiday, the only individual to have such an honor.
Textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin eagerly assures the nation’s curriculum supervisors its American histories contain new, improved heroes, pointing proudly to Crispus Attucks, Juan Sequin, Dolores Huerta, Ida B. Wells, Zitkala-Sa, and Speckled Snake.
The loss of legacy heroes to multiculturalism is well documented. Colonial Williamsburg’s visitors have dropped by half in the last three decades, and it’s fast losing money, says the Boston Globe. Legacy America no longer appears to be a box-office family favorite.
More to the point, for those Americans stripped of their nation’s history or taught to hate it, celebrities and television personalities fill a hole. Sports and show people — historically they have had the status of gladiators, jesters, and prostitutes — command vast audiences and loyalties. They are exempla. Not surprisingly, the pick-up is different from Plutarch. Marilyn Monroe is more of a national icon than Martha Washington.
Who are today’s models of probity? Is probity what Americans really go for?
Tom Brady and LeBron James at least offer something wholesome. Eminem and Kanye West do not. Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, and Rhianna are models for millions. Pole-dancing and spread-eagled in a 2013 video, stuffing dollar bills into her hotpants, Rhianna draws 250 million YouTube hits, a staggering number.
Let it be, we might say, trying to adjust to postmodern latitude, until we learn that earlier this year with great fanfare Harvard University gave Rhianna a major humanitarian award for her philanthropy and good works.
America’s contemporary exemplars likely embody what New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls “Hollywood values.” These include good looks, talent and charm, but also “out-of-control egos, blatant materialism, a dog-eat-dog ethos, and a devotion to pretense.”
Many American hearts and minds ask for a simple plot line. They respond to shiny names; they want scripted emotions and tweets. Entertainers Donald J. Trump (tough guy, billionaire or monster, take your pick) and Oprah Winfrey (sweetie, earth mother, black saint) have more in common than you might think. Such charismatic individuals make magic in front of a camera. They are geniuses in their realms. But when these demotic figures seek to control political culture and policy, watch out.
Intoxicated by their own fabulousness, and thinking that they offer something profound, celebrities crave the center of attention. They need to be at the top of the food chain. They can’t get enough of themselves, which is exactly — based on their own studies of history — what the Founders feared in public life.
With exemplars, there’s room for many types and styles, of course, old and new, high-minded and vernacular, even Republican and Democrat. But it is essential to draw a bright line between entertainment and political capacity. The rise of celebrity tribunes building their brand, able and eager to move millions, is daily disquieting. But on no day more than Independence Day.