Essay:Hero worship

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Cults of personality have arisen surrounding people like Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and Ron Paul. In what ways is such hero worship good, and in what ways is it bad? One thing is sure: that although one could perhaps do better than to worship such people, one could also do a lot worse. On the other hand, who is to say that any devotion is good or bad? People fanatically devote themselves to their favorite games, TV shows, etc., so why would it be any worse to devote themselves to a person? Even a seemingly frivolous activity can be a playful means of learning and a source of enjoyment.

Worship of the creative genius

Ludwig von Mises notes, "It is not difficult to ensure that the genius who has completed his work shall be crowned with laurel; that his mortal remains shall be laid in a grave of honour and monuments erected to his memory. But it is impossible to smooth the way that he must tread if he is to fulfil his destiny." The genius will often not be regarded as such while he is doing his work, and thus he lacks the encouragement this support might otherwise provide. However, looking forward to future honors may push him to strive for vanity's sake. It may even be that his not having the satisfaction of contemporaneous glory could create the dissatisfaction needed to impel him to work harder. On the other hand, it could be a source of discouragement.

It is sometimes considered unseemly to give a person all the awards he may seem entitled to while his work is ongoing; it is only after he retires or dies that he can receive this without it seeming inappropriate. At any rate, the person may find it embarrassing and feel compelled to say, "I don't deserve this" just for the sake of form or because of genuine low self-esteem.

But many people's egos are so big that they would like to see their names memorialized forever. Narcissism might push people in useful directions. Benjamin Franklin writes, "Most People dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves, but I give it fair Quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of Good to the Possessor & to others that are within his Sphere of Action: And therefore in many Cases it would not be quite absurd if a Man were to thank God for his Vanity among the other Comforts of Life."[1]

Worship of others

Some of the most wonderful people are also pretty down-to-earth. They realize that they do the usual mundane stuff that every other person does and that they too are infinitessimal specks in the cosmic scheme of things. So, how are they to respond when they encounter hero worship from their fans? They can either despise their fans for having such poor judgment as to hold such an inflated opinion of them, or they can regard themselves as deserving of their adoration, which could lead to arrogant behavior. Either seems like a bad outcome.

But perhaps one can think, "The universe is capricious; who knows who will end up being the one everyone loves and who will be ignored. I would have had to accept being ignored, even if I didn't deserve; therefore, I will accept being loved, even though I don't deserve that either." Thoreau remarked, "The events of the past month teach me to distrust Fame. I see that she does not finely discriminate, but coarsely hurrahs. She considers not the simple heroism of an action, but only as it is connected with its apparent consequences. She praises till she is hoarse the easy exploit of the Boston tea party, but will be comparatively silent about the braver and more disinterestedly heroic attack on the Boston Court-House, simply because it was unsuccessful!"

Still, should not the Boston tea partiers make the most of their undeserved praise? Maybe they can use it for a good purpose. Or would the best purpose have been to praise the attack on the Boston Court-House, so as to spread the love around?

On the other hand, sometimes a hero can get up on stage and say, "I just want to give a shout-out to all the people who helped me and all the people I respect..." and then everyone ignores the rest because it's boring and they never heard of those people. So maybe it's impossible to share the love around very much.

Then again, heroes can make or break careers; Nathaniel Branden's claim to fame was mostly his relationship with Ayn Rand. Celebrity endorsements are apparently worth a lot of goodwill, because companies pay large sums for them. People who admire a celebrity and want to be like him will take note of his preferences and mimic his behavior. They will be inclined to be open-minded toward considering ideas that the person puts forth.

What does hero worship mean?

Vlad Draconis PenDragon wrote with respect to Jeremy Hammond, after Hammond came and went from Petersburg FCC without their meeting, "It feels like missing an opportunity to meet MLK Jr, or John Lennon, or Gandhi, or something. That's the level I put him in, in terms of regard and respect." What would the hero worshipper actually do for the worshipped person, though? Would it be anything useful, or is it mostly mere sentiment that wouldn't actually lead to much useful action? One might establish a checklist asking, "Would you catch a grenade for him? Throw your hand on a blade for him? Jump in front of a train for him? Do anything for him? Go through all of this pain? Take a bullet straight through your brain? Die for him?" More importantly, would he do the same? Regrettably, sometimes (perhaps more often than not) love is at least partially unrequited.

Perhaps the best thing that the worshipped hero can do is say, "Go, live your life; pursue your dreams." Then it is not just an aspiration that a person is pursuing based on his own idea of what is good, but something he is commanded by his idol to do. However, it is difficult to pursue such a course just on the basis of one such admonition; continuing moral support is helpful.

Hero worship might in some cases be an intense desire for the kind of companionship a particular person could offer. Sometimes, one sees a celebrity and thinks, "That is a person I could relate to in ways in which I couldn't relate to others." If he were to get to know the person better, he might find he were mistaken; at any rate, the aura of mystery might be dispelled. This may be part of the reason why there are only a few heroes; if people have to worship from afar, then their illusions are not shattered by harsh reality's intruding.

All people have flaws, but they tend to try to hide those flaws as best they can and put their best foot forward. Within the cult of worshippers, people tend to idealize the person and downplay the negative. It becomes harder to ignore flaws when one is confronted with them undeniably through one's personal acquaintance with someone.

Economies of scale

Perhaps hero worship of only a few individuals is efficient because of economies of scale and because it produces bonding experiences for the worshippers. E.g., if the libertarian movement worships only a few people, then the cultists can have something in common that they talk about. If they worshipped thousands of mini-heroes, then they would have less in common. But any two people of the Austrian school can easily strike up a conversation about how awesome Mises was, and they can work together on the basis of that shared appreciation, e.g. to establish the Mises Institute, Mises Circles, etc. Hero worship is like other forms of worship: it can bring people together, if they worship the same gods and can agree on doctrine and forms of worship, or be tolerant of differences.