“I never met a hero I didn’t like. But then, I never met a hero. But then, maybe I wasn’t looking for one.”
That’s a line from a Lester Bangs piece, I believe, actually, his epic interview with Lou Reed. Anyone who’s read Bangs knows that he loved Reed passionately, obsessively–and so his willingness to confront Reed, to basically fuck with him over the course of the interview, was pretty impressive, even if it was just a rock profile.
Lester Bangs met a lot of my heroes, but one of the things that made him great was that ongoing willingness to question people, even people he’d allowed care of all the hopes and dreams that we pin on the best rock songs.
Helen Thomas did that. Only she did it with people who make policy and decide who lives and dies.
I’m Jewish. Polish and Russian Jew, actually, on my father’s side, which in some people’s minds makes me not actually Jewish, but I went to Hebrew school and temple as a kid and recently fasted again on Yom Kippur just to see if I could do it. I eat bacon and have tattoos and don’t really believe in God per se, but being Jewish is an important part of my life–as important as being a woman, being American, and other things I can’t change.
My family was chased out of Europe. I’m sure that someone related to me died in Poland’s camps, though I don’t know of them–my family was tight-lipped about that part of their history. I went to the kind of slacker Hebrew school that the parents (and in my case, grandparents) of well-off Jewish kids sent their kids to to learn some of their history and enough Hebrew to stammer through a Bar or Bat Mitzvah so they could be showered with gifts, and maybe some religion along the way. I dropped out (for lack of funds for a Bat Mitzvah) and have since joked about being and made a T-shirt proclaiming me a “Hebrew School Dropout.”
Part of Hebrew school was always being taught to identify with Israel. I guess they mostly failed at that, since I’m a pissed-off lefty who wants to cry at this point every time someone in the press or someone I know conflates “Israel/Israeli Government” with “Jews” (sample: New York Times headline “Is the Embargo Good for the Jews?” when it’s about Israeli national interests. Also, the answer is simple. No.)
I don’t identify with Israel anymore at all. It’s not a place I ever want to go and certainly not a place I want to live. Like many nations in our sort-of-post-colonial world, it’s got a problematic history that will never completely go away–and I have steered mostly clear of those questions in my career. When I write about Israel, it tends to get personal. As you can see.
My reaction to the Israeli raid on the Freedom Flotilla was mostly blind rage. I wanted to cry, to scream. I couldn’t write anything about it and still can’t really. It hurt. So maybe I’m more understanding this week of Thomas than I would have otherwise.
I usually have a knee-jerk reaction to anti-Semitism. It slaps me across the face, reminds me that though I live every day with white privilege, there is a special kind of racism directed at me too, one that at one point wiped out millions.
Yet I’m having a hard time being outraged at Helen Thomas. (Link has the full transcript.)
Let me be clear: Poland and Germany are about the LAST places she should tell Israelis to “go back to.” Wow, was that ever a bad choice. And the kind of “just get out” anti-Zionism always strikes me as, well, as problematic (Adam Serwer was great on this) as telling me and all the rest of us white Americans to go back to whence we came. But I don’t get that visceral feeling from Thomas that I do from many, that she blames all Jews for Israel. And it annoys me just as much when Zionists tend to elide Jews into Israel, like whatever they deem “good for Israel” is automatically what I should support. No. Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic. Maybe I’m making excuses. It’s not for me to say. She resigned and she was probably right to do so.
Anyway. The title of this post. It references a song, just like my last one (and probably like all of them; I am forever stealing great lines from my pop idols). David Bowie put “Heroes” in quotes on the title of his album and his song for a reason. He was a pop star on his third or fourth or fifth persona (depending on when you start counting) by the time he made that record and he knew better than anyone that your public face is one you create and put on. (Oh, there will be more on Bowie.) For me, part of being a hippie lefty feminist type is not looking to people to be heroes.
Oh, I look up to people. I look for life assistance in pop stars all the time. In fact, I’m more comfortable doing that than I am with political figures. I’m a journalist; I figure they deserve my unending skepticism. So do members of the press corps, even ones with a stellar history of fighting for things that I believe in like the right of women to be in the press corps, and most importantly being the lone voice in that White House corps that actually pushed back against whichever administration was in office.
Maybe it’s a combination of years in journalism (many in pop culture journalism especially) meeting people I looked up to and realizing that they’re just people. But I don’t think having heroes is especially helpful. It’s an essentially conservative notion, really–the idea that it’s been done before and better than we can and we just have to try to get back to some period when people were Great. It’s an Ayn Randian notion of Super-people that we can never hope to be. It’s great to have inspiration from those who came before, to acknowledge and learn and know our history. But we can’t expect our heroes to be perfect. We have to acknowledge also that they are people.
Sady wrote about this in the context of that awful M.I.A. interview, and I think made an excellent point:
Speaking out about politics is tricky; as anyone with even marginal self-awareness knows, it requires you to be more or less constantly opining on morals and an ideal future world, while also being a person with moral failings (I have them, God knows) who has made plenty of compromises or choices about how to live in the world as it presently exists. Hence, my flip-the-fuck-outery over being interviewed; being regarded as an authority is a little hard to take, given how familiar I am with my own imperfections. But lots of people on this here planet are privileged in one way or another, including people who speak out against privilege. Lots of people are inconsistent, incapable of being hardcore moral vegans at all times; pretty much everyone has unpleasant aspects to her personality. If we make personal perfection a prerequisite for speaking out, the result will be silence. It simply will be. There will be one woman, living alone and off-the-grid in a yurt, eating nothing but pickles, interacting with no-one but the squirrels, who walks out to her favorite pooping tree every morning and delivers a brief monologue to it about social justice. She will be the Perfect One, the Chosen One; she will be allowed to speak. And it won’t be a problem. Largely because no-one will actually hear her.
Helen Thomas was/is not my hero. Helen Thomas is someone I look up to and is still. She said something stupid. Hell, maybe deep down she does hate me and the rest of the world’s Jews. I can still take away the things she did that have made my personal journey, career, and life better and easier. I don’t require Gloria Steinem to not have written that atrocious op-ed about gender being a bigger handicap than race to be grateful to her as well for the things she did.
It’s hard to look forward if you keep lookin’ back. We need not to look at the last generation and venerate; we need to do things for this generation. We don’t need heroes. We need, maybe, “heroes.” “Heroes” that we are conscious are two-dimensional things we’ve created that stand in for real flesh-and-blood people who fuck up, who have opinions we loathe, who say stupid things to the wrong people. We need to understand this, and it is good for us, because it allows us to realize that our own fuckups don’t keep us from being “heroes” too. Even if it’s just for one day.
(By the way, if you wanna call me a self-hating Jew, etc. etc. in comments, feel free. It won’t be anything I haven’t heard before. Don’t expect me to come here and argue with you, though.)
- The Gaza Ceasefire and the Hereafter by Natalia Antonova January 17, 2009
- I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Taliban by Sam August 6, 2008
- This is what anti-semitism looks like by The Girl Detective July 9, 2008
- Goodbye Goodbye by Constintina September 6, 2009
- Jon Stewart takes on Gaza by Holly January 7, 2009