Our Despicable Heroes

There is a nice little Op-Ed piece in the New York Times today titled “Not-So-Charming Billy,” by Hampton Sides.  In it Mr. Sides makes an argument as to why New Mexican governor Bill Richardson is misguided in pursuing a posthumous pardoning of infamous western outlaw Billy the Kid.  I think Mr. Sides’ argument is sound and I agree with it altogether, however I kind of wish that Mr. Sides had taken a bit more time to consider and contemplate why it is that characters like Billy the Kid, regardless of their obvious despicable, if not heinous pasts, continue to produce such interest and fascination in our society.  Why is it that we create heroes from the rogues of history?

I am sure that there are a number of theories as to why we find a character like Billy the Kid appealing regardless of their very obvious cruel and unappealing lives.  The most obvious that I can think of is that there is an allure to the rebellious nature of those who “stick it to the man” even if they’re sticking it is killing law enforcers and robbing innocent people.  The history of the old American west is particularly riddled with figures who lived less than savory lifestyles, and even those who held relatively reputable claims (think Wyatt Earp) would probably be considered bad criminals by todays standards.

There seems to be something in the American psyche (and perhaps other parts of the world too.  I am looking at you Australia) that seems to take a real liking to characters, historical or fictional, who appear to fight the system.  For this reason we have our Han Solos and our romanticized Bonnie and Clydes all about our popular culture.  We glaze our history with false heroics because of a sense that the systems (specifically the law and such) is out to keep the average Joes and Sallys down.  Thus we can create these Robin Hood like heroes who, while they fight the government and establishment, for the most part leave the common folk at peace.

But here is the problem, people like Billy the Kid really were bad folks.  They killed people, the broke laws, and they maintained a general disregard for the world as a whole.  What do the romanticized figures like Billy the Kid say about our culture?  better yet what does it say about the malleability of history.  Perhaps we need to better reflect upon what it is we value.  True, we may not all like the government all the time, or the laws we have to abide by.  I don’t know anybody who really enjoys paying taxes or having to dive 20 mph down a road that could clearly be a 45 mph zone, however, the existence and maintenance of the laws assure an overall safety and well-being for our society as a whole.  If we were to all start behaving as individual Billy the Kids we would find ourselves living in a much more dangerous world (and we’d probably have mush lower life expectancies.  Billy the Kid was only 21 years old when he died).

Or maybe I am missing a part of it after all.  Maybe our romanticized less than amiable characters are our ways of vicariously “sticking it to the man” all the while maintaining our own decency and respect within the system.  perhaps it is our means to dream of a reality where we wouldn’t be accountable to anybody but ourselves.   That we like to imagine the opportunity to solve our problems with our own rules.  However, we should be thankful that most of us leave this to the realm of fictional reinterpretation and romanticized history.  Because the modern equivalent would likely be a madman with a gun and a grudge.

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~ by Nathaniel on September 7, 2010.

2 Responses to “Our Despicable Heroes”

  1. Good points but what do you think about the mindless diversions such as video games or tv/movies that allow us to live vicariously thru an electronic medium and commit acts of horrible cruelty and depravity?

    Does it desensitize us to violence? Does the distortion of people such as Billy the Kid have a similar effect on morals/ethics/behavior?

    • It is a good question and I have definitely been thinking about it. I have mixed feelings about our societies desensitization toward violence. On one hand I think that it isn’t exactly a great idea of promote violence and to overly glorify it, but I do not think that exposure to violent images, ideas, or scenerios need necessarily lead to violent actions. I think a lot of it is import in regards to contextualizing the violence. In this way we can read a story about an old west gunman and consider it as a piece of context that includes violence, but continue to maintain that in a healthy persepective such actions are not beneficial or admirable. I think that one problem our media saturated society has is that it is quick to present violence in many forms, but this presentation lacks healthy contextualization and broader perspective. I child who is allowed to just sit around playing violent video games is not having the necessary conversations needed to put violence into a real world perspective. Instead thay are inaccurately associating it with fun and excitement. I on the other hand have seen my fair share of violent movies and played violent video games, but I have also talked about the thought about the real world implications of such violent tendencies. It is certainly a pressing and relevent issue of our time but I think that people often have a tendency to look at it from a black and white perspective when the reality of the issue is really quite gray.

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