-is what David Bowie sung in “Young Americans” after his fictional heroine in the first choruses is the victim of a crime.
It’s a strange song as its lyrics express a nostalgia for an era that, at the time of the song’s debut, had not yet passed into memory. He asks if people remember their President Nixon among other rhetorical questions about the times and mood… as if anybody in America could ever forget Watergate. Bowie seemed to be singing about how American lives “blow by” in some respects, urged by panic, national tragedy, failed expectations, the dashing of grand but personal hopes and the day-to-day pressure of making ends meet in a country where freedom is ironically mitigated and qualified by how much money you have. In this Bowie has something in common with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sad understanding of life in America.
"Where have all Papa's heroes gone?" is a question I mull over in my head from time to time. David Bowie was not singing about anybody’s “papa” in particular of course, not mine, not yours, nor his. The implication seems to be that heroes always belong to another generation, and that maybe we can’t see them clearly or feel their significance until they’re gone. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we Americans try to rush out of the present so damn fast… so we can get a look and some much needed distance to appreciate things in scale, -unblinded by our proximity to greatness.
“Hero” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. As a born skeptic, rewarded early in life by disappointments in people and things, it’s not a word I’ve ever used to describe anybody, except characters in fiction. Maybe I don’t feel I have the right to bestow it. It’s no small thing to call someone a hero. You are imparting a responsibility as well as conferring an honor… maybe that’s why we often wait until they’re dead?
Clearly, firemen, and our military are heroic people. They are heroes beyond understanding as they do things for hourly wages that most people would not do for any amount of money in the world; running into burning houses, patrolling streets where armed adversaries lie in wait, but those are, for the most part anonymous groups.
While it may be “jaded” to say: “there are no heroes,” it is certainly false to say so.
A more appropriate question to ask is may be: -Where have they gone?
In this age where entertainers, celebrities, professional athletes and political demagogues so easily capture our imaginations; our attention once held by accomplished persons, scholars, civic leaders, inventors, artists, writers, doctors, healers, and yes Presidents, is diffused and scattered -where are those individuals we would call heroes without embarrassment, qualification or excuses?
Who can I name without feeling like some silly thoughtless flatterer in search of someone to worship?
-And that’s the real truth isn’t it?
It feels weak, even juvenile to name someone a hero today. Perhaps, in our modern insistence on sober equanimity and self-reliance we just can’t afford them anymore.