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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Strong Men

Perhaps you are familiar with Joseph Campbell's works exploring the great themes of mythology among which and most central to every culture is the myth of the hero. That word conjures a very different vision, however, than modern day usage reflects. Our latter day hero, is no lowly figure who will ascend to greatness after a long and perilous journey--instead he emerges fully formed --a strong man come to save his people. I am not talking about physical strength alone in this context or even heroic deeds, although he is depicted as possessing both, but rather a caricature of strength, a simplistic fabrication—the John Wayne, Ronald Reagan version of the take charge man. On the surface this attraction to a self-styled father figure, leader or guardian reflects our inborn desire to feel protected and to lionize those who express views and, more specifically, biases that echo our own. But if we scrape the surface, we can see just how destructive this preference proves, especially with regard to the people we are drawn to as our leaders.


For example, in an effort to understand the attraction MAGA devotees have for such a man, one who so obviously embodies extremes of narcissism, sociopathic personality traits, and a utter disregard for the truth among his more benign qualities, it is instructive to note how he is so often depicted. In lurid drawings and photoshopped images we see an image of a man transformed, his aging, balding, obese physique grafted onto the body of a superhero with rippling abs, bulging pecs and flowing golden locks. Like so much about the man, the extraordinary exaggeration of his unimpressive presence is all the more revealing of the way in which his corrupt and immoral behavior is transformed his career ending flaws transmuting into virtues conferring a God-like status, that places him above the laws of nature and man.


Belief in the power such figures possess and a conviction that it extends both personally and corporately, to us as individuals and the nation as a whole, endows the strong man archetype with this extraordinary dispensation. When it comes to their personal morals and violations of societal norms, the strong man's adoring fans simply dismiss both allegations and proven transgressions. He is not held accountable as any other individual would be in similar circumstances.


We can perhaps understand why MAGA followers endow their idol with an outsize physical presence, it is essential to their belief that only men possessed of such larger-than-life attributes are able to keep the forces they fear at bay. On some level, it is obvious play acting like a televised wrestling match but the audience, as Coleridge put it, is possessed of a willing suspension of disbelief. To be sure this vision is carefully cultivated and perpetuated by modern day folklore and mythology. Bards, Skalds and Poets have been replaced by Bloggers, Tweeters and PR hacks but their role remains the same--to fabricate the legends that will propel their patron to power. But it is not sufficient to merely lift the hero strong man above all others. He must be seen as all powerful. Any who challenge him must be reduced to something despicable while the mob delights in the circus of his denigration and emasculation of all opponents. The extremism of our current political discourse no longer reflective of ideological difference but characterized by corrosive, demeaning, even violent depictions of those who hold opposing views is the step child of such behavior.

We can also observe another aspect of the strong man mythology, his self-styled portrayal as a champion of the people. This role play serves two purposes, suggesting on the one hand that the strong man is selfless and beneficent, while justifying a relentless grasp for personal power and aggrandizement at the expense of not only opponents but supporters alike. One might think this would spark resentment, but followers of the self-serving strong man see such behavior as justified –the spoils he deserves—even if it comes at their own expense.

If this all sounds patently cartoonish, the stuff of B grade movies and 1960’s television we should not be surprised. We have hundreds of years of conditioning. Thousands of stories, legends and dogma underlie our belief in a dangerous, capricious universe locked in a struggle between the forces of good and evil. What scares us, the goblin under our bed, needs a face and a name and it requires a shining knight who will vanquish it. No tarnish can be permitted to dull the accomplishments of our hero, his dazzling glow obliterates any suggestion of imperfection.

An unshakeable belief that only a super-human can contend with the predatory forces at large—in whatever form they are seen or imagined is at the heart of this phenomenon. Sadly, of course, the figures and forces which are the true threat to our way of life, ignorance and superstition, greed, not only for wealth but equally for power over others, a flagrant disregard for human life or for any who are not of our ‘own kind’ are all acceptable in the imagined war between good and evil that is conjured up to pave the way to power for the strong man.

But there is a cautionary warning for all strong men. History and mythology inform us that an unmasking lies ahead. Whether the current hearings on the events leading up to Jan 6 will prove successful in terminating the career of one man’s adventurism remains to be seen but the tides of mens’ fortunes have turned on less. Nevertheless, the predicament in which one man presently finds himself is not the issue. Rather it is our predilection to repose in any individual those responsibilities which we alone bear. They cannot and should not be delegated. Responsibility for making our world safe from those threats over which we have control is ours. Natural occurrences and so-called acts of god will always be with us, but self inflicted threats, the overwhelming source of our afflictions, lies within us. War, disease, famine, homelessness are within our power to banish. Ignorance, superstition and the lust for power are human inventions.

Let us be wary, of strong men and of all tyrannies, whether exercised at our expense or for our own good. The strong man’s desire for power may wax and wane but the cruelty of those who would in good conscience subject us to their remedies will make our lives a living hell. Rather than a cure against our will we alone must determine our fate, we alone must be our own shining knights.

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