America’s Heroism Trap

Yes, we are grateful for every person working on every front line. But the language of martyrdom distracts from what we could do about it all.

A woman pokes her body out of the passenger seat of a car, carrying a sign saying "Land of the Free." In front of the car, a medical worker in a mask stands with arms crossed.
Health care workers stand on the street counterprotesting the people demanding that the stay-at-home order be lifted, in Denver on Sunday. Reuters/Alyson McClaran

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Doctors and nurses and orderlies, truck drivers and grocery workers and transportation workers, nursing home aides and sanitation workers and EMTs—they are all, along with so many others, heroes. Stipulated. There is no amount of honking, singing, or clapping that can adequately express our gratitude for these people, across so many professions, who suit up every day, imperiling their own lives and the lives and health of their loved ones, to make sure that the needs of the rest of us can be met. That’s why it feels good to honor and celebrate and fete and lionize these extraordinary people, who are answering the call of honor and duty every single day as we attempt to flatten the curve.

But in this country parched for heroes, there is a long tradition of using the language of “heroism” to disserve the heroes and, indeed, to affirmatively harm them. After virtually every mass school shooting, the children who were killed for having attended school that day are celebrated as brave little warriors; the teachers and staff who hurl themselves in the path of flying bullets to protect those children are also held up as saviors and saints. More often than not, this search for superhuman lifesavers in a crisis short-circuits the ordinary processes of accountability and reform. It’s considered inappropriate to talk about political and systemic failures immediately in the wake of a tragedy because doing so might dishonor the heroes and victims. And under that cloak of national reverence and well-intentioned hero worship, political and systemic failures are never corrected in ways that might prevent other ordinary Americans from ever having to commit such acts of “heroism” in the future.

After the Wisconsin primary elections this month, wherein voters had to stand in line for hours wearing protective gear in order to do the one thing that democracy is meant to demand (er, vote), they too were held out as heroes of the pandemic. But as my colleague Mark Joseph Stern wrote at that time: “We should be inspired by Wisconsinites’ refusal to let Republicans silence their voices. But we should also be horrified that some Americans may have literally sacrificed their lives to exercise this constitutional right.” When ordinary people are forced to do extraordinary things as a result of poor planning, political maneuvering, retrospective ass-covering, or all of the above, they are heroic, sure—but it’s also a tragic failure and a shame on all the rest of us.

The language of “heroism” is further used to distract attention from the fact that some of our newfound heroes do not have any choice in the matter. The appalling infection rates among transportation workers and drivers and food workers is a result of an economic arrangement in which they may well be a paycheck away from losing their homes, or cars, or—ironically enough—their health care. Yes, they are all heroes, but they are also stuck, and if calling them “angels” deflects from how broken their compensation and job protection arrangement really is, then we need to find a new way to talk about it. Heroism is associated with unnatural martyrdom, willing sacrifice, and, above all, choice. But as a Walmart cashier, Jennifer Suggs, told New Orleans public radio station WWNO: “We’re not essential. We’re sacrificial. I will be replaced if I die from this. I don’t have a mask or gloves. The only thing I have is a stupid blue vest.”

The rhetoric of heroism leads to another unforgivable act of violence done to our heroes: It silences them. The cost of being a hero today is that in return you are meant to accept your halo and wings and then die quietly. If that strikes you as occurring in the wrong order, that’s because it is. It is particularly wrong in the case of medical workers, who simultaneously seem to be among those at the greatest risk of contagion, who often have the fewest choices, and who are also facing the most vicious campaign of censorship, threats, and recrimination for asking for the seemingly simple things that might keep them alive.

All around the country, we hear of doctors and nurses and EMTs and others who have been silenced and even fired for speaking outside the four corners of their hero badge. Michael Hiltzik reports in the L.A. Times of nurses in Los Angeles who were disciplined by their hospitals for speaking out about the shortage of personal safety equipment. Several, he writes, have “faced discipline for bringing PPE from home or raising money to buy it for their colleagues. Kaiser Permanente, the giant national managed care organization in Oakland, threatened to fire nurses ‘on the spot’ if they were caught using their own N95 masks, according to the nurses union.”

As physicians Arghavan Salles and Jessica Gold noted in Vox, a long-standing medical culture that rewards poker-faces, respect for authority, and putting the patients’ need first means that doctors feel uniquely unable to voice their genuine fears or anger about the current state of affairs. In some case they are even under threat for what they post on social media. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and professor who directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale, talked with the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf two weeks ago about health care workers who were being sanctioned for speech. He said: “Instead of being treated as independent professionals who swore a Hippocratic oath and are carrying out a moral calling—I mean, these health-care workers are literally risking their lives. It’s hard to imagine a more important calling than one that requires this of you. And they’re doing it for us. The idea that they can simultaneously be shut up is just offensive to me.” But then again, that is also one of the undiagnosed side effects of fantasies of heroism. We mostly prefer our heroes to be of the strong, silent variety.

But finally, and perhaps most critically, the problem with labeling any of our essential workers heroes is that one side’s heroes swiftly become the other side’s enemy. When President Donald Trump calls himself a “wartime president,” he isn’t wrong—it’s just that the war he is presiding over is a civil one. Americans have been fundamentally torn apart with regard to any shared understanding about science, truth, freedom, the economy, governance, or life itself. Though he mouths platitudes about the heroism of doctors and scientists, they are still facing death threats, just as they are risking death by going to their jobs without adequate protection—protection he could be focusing on providing to them. A viral video of two Coloradans in scrubs staging a silent protest on Sunday reveals just how quickly the president’s messaging about the overreach of Democratic governors attempting to protect their states could turn into an attack on the medical personnel who are certain to bear the brunt of “opening up the country” before it is safe. That video, and the attention it garnered, perfectly captures the dilemma of so many essential workers: You’re a hero until you “politicize” the problem. The moment you veer off script—indeed, the moment you perhaps find your own voice to speak up about what is actually happening to you—you so easily become the enemy, a hoax, and a target.  We’ve seen that pattern play out with actual military heroes for years now, from John McCain to Alexander Vindman to Capt. Brett Crozier. We know by now that Donald Trump prefers his heroes to be martyrs, and anyone who opts to act with real moral courage, real leadership, or a genuine desire to place their mission over Trump’s electoral fortunes will be quickly demoted to public enemy. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s conspiracy theory.

One might have wished that despite the uneasy military undercarriage of the language of “heroism,” the country could have come together to show genuine respect and humane compassion for all those who have walked into the maw of the pandemic without PPE or concern for themselves, and without the need for adulation and acclaim. But it was perhaps inevitable that, with the martial metaphor, a nation at war with itself couldn’t agree to protect its heroes first—that it might turn on them, in some quarters, simply for being willing to save lives while churlishly asking for the bare minimum of protections while doing so.

We keep struggling with the language of privilege and good fortune. When asked how we are, we intone solemnly that we are lucky not to have to risk our lives in this crisis. Maybe instead of thanking and revering and worshipping our first responders we could instead simply ask them what they need and then find a way to give it to them. Even heroes need armor and a spear. Yes, these essential first responders are our heroes. But if the price of their heroism is silencing, retribution, death threats, and delegitimization, we should perhaps find another name for them. Might I suggest that we start by remembering they are humans, too?