There was a time when the heroes people revered were nobodies. By nobody I mean one with no special or privileged status in society. Judging by the social standards of their (and our time) they were considered failures. Their conditions were often in the worse; they were familiar with all sorts of discomfort. They were masters of a certain tragedy of one kind or another. Think of Jesus, a lowly carpenter in the poorest colony of the Roman Empire, who ended up on the cross. Socrates, a professional idler, ugly and pot-bellied, was forced to drink the hemlock. Diogenes, a cynic philosopher, lived in a wooden tub, and was not much impressed by Alexander The Great. The great Marxist philosopher and organizer Antonio Gramsci languished in jail. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated by their fellow Afro-Americans. Many of the greatest poets and writers of the early 20th century were wiped out through purges and persecutions. The Filipino national hero and martyr Jose Rizal did not earn a single centime from his two great books; and his short-lived profession as an ophthalmologist did not bring much profits because as he said most of his clients were “very poor.”
On account of their being a nobody, they were profound students and teachers of life. They were possessed by a seething spirit of grace to which the world owes marvelous acts of compassion, goodness, beauty, intelligence and imagination. Moving and poignant the lives they had led this old school class of heroes has today become quite unfashionable, untrendy; the values and causes they had embraced seem to violate our present culture’s extreme individualism and our learned obsession with comfort. They seem to us extreme to the extent that if they were alive today their presence would seem to kill the party.
Today the people we consider as heroes are nothing of the sort. They are the well-dressed billionaires, CEOs, Silicon Valley technocrats and the countless social media influencers who give us an endless stream of banality and ostentation. They would rather not be called a “teacher” for the word is far too mundane and an affectionate diminutive of the term minimum wage. So they prefer to be acclaimed as “life coach,” motivational speaker,” “guru,” “expert.” Unlike the heroes of the old school who were often deprived of banquets the heroes of the social media age are the familiar house guests of prestigious universities and schools, TV shows, podcasts, online talks (TED Talks), etc. They give countless speeches and interviews although they have nothing worthwhile to say. The young generations fall at their feet.
Because they bring the good news. You too can be successful; you too can be a billionaire; you too can be famous; you too can stand out from the rest of the unmotivated average lot. Their philosophy is not that difficult to follow because it’s all about the “me.” Their method can be summed up as follows: “10 steps to winning,” 12 rules of success,” “bring out the power of the inner you,” “the secret of greatness,” “how to stay hard,”… and so many other variation of this nonsense which I’m sure you’re familiar with.
In today’s culture, alongside heroism success is equated with genius. Status equals wisdom. A Tesla car is presented to the public with a touch of scientific enthusiasm comparable to the discovery of the theory of relativity and quantum physics. Elon Musk, whose inventions are nothing more than toys for the very rich, dreams of colonizing the universe. Any semi-educated person who has read a little of history will feel dread and disgust at the thought. As you (I assume) and I know, wherever we humans go we leave an endless trail of blood and destruction. It is quite ironic that Musk’s company was named after a great scientist and inventor, Nikola Tesla whose inventions and developments influenced much of modern life (unlike Musk’s toys for the rich), dreamed of energy free for all and never amassed millions on the contrary died poor and abandoned by society. Steve Jobs’ (not speaking ill of the dead) posthumous fame turned him into a saint and genius. Except that his genius required the collaboration of his brilliant assistants and the over-romanticization of his biographer and his saintliness did not count the sweatshop factories where the excessively overworked Chinese laborers (12 hours/day, 30 days per month) earn approximately 10.13 yuan/hour, or roughly $1.62 per hour, less than half the recommended living wage of about 3.77 per hour. And saint Jobs didn’t give much thought whether the discarded computer parts of his genius invention ended up in our already too polluted oceans. Bill Gates, the most loved nerd in the history of nerdom, friend and competitor of and as equally super rich as saint Jobs, has become hugely influential for his insistently annoying climate change sermons. The ubiquitous all-round expert has even written a pretentious little book entitled, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster; such a moving rhetorical, evangelical advice from one of the third richest person in the world, who owns more private farmland than anyone else in the US, an avid collector of private jets and Porsche cars, living in a mansion large enough to house the climate refuges in the world. So he kindly preaches us average human beings to eat synthetic beef if we want to avoid an environmental catastrophe. Jeff Bezos, the king of the Amazon, also the king of tax evasion, who generously donates millions of dollars to government organizations but refuses to raise the minimum wage of his workers and threatens them if they attempt to join a union. But the king is generous enough to gift his subjects with surveillance bracelets just in case they become too indulgent and lazy. As to the social media influencers who are self-appointed experts on everything, I rest my case.
These personalities appeal to our present culture because they uphold the cult of success and winning. In a culture that abhors the failure, the simple, the quiet, and the loser, these billionaires are refashioned as heroes. If you don’t stand out, it’s your own fault, or you don’t work enough or you’re not motivated enough. No wonder they place value on the rags-to-riches and the pursuit of happiness story. Instead of demanding social and economic justice for communities they prefer to romanticize the individual’s hero’s journey. They appeal to the misguided young because they offer that image of power specially if the young were those who grew up in an economically-disadvantaged countries. Amassing billions may appear a worthy enterprise, a heroic feat to one who is constantly in financial struggle. But to arrive to such a position of wealth and power requires a great dose of indifference, apathy, cruelty, rapaciousness, and narcissism. The truth is the rich heroes of today have nothing of value to say. They are illiterate of genuine culture. They are detached from the everyday realities of average people like you and me. Their speeches may sound full of concern for humanity—yes, for as long as their wealth and privileges remain untouched.
Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. He regularly contributes to journals in the Philippines, writing politics, culture, and art. He also writes for a local academic magazine in Tuscany that is published twice a year. His articles have been published in magazines in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, India, and Mexico. Visit his website or follow him on Instagram @carlo_rey_lacsamana