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Heroism and Hyperbole (Zimmerman redux)

As I write this, most of us have heard the latest iteration of the George Zimmerman saga. Just when we thought that he was destined to become a troubled footnote in the annals of American history, George Zimmerman pops back up into popular consciousness. This time the story has a happy ending. Or does it?

George Zimmerman, who has not been seen publicly since his acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin earlier this month, surfaced last week to rescue an unidentified family trapped in an overturned vehicle on a Florida highway, police said Monday.

Sanford Police Department Capt. Jim McAuliffe told Fox News that Zimmerman, 29, was identified by a crash victim as the man who pulled him from the mangled vehicle.

“George Zimmerman pulled me out,” firefighters were told by the unidentified driver, according to McAuliffe.


The work of uncovering the truth or falsity of this story is an important job for the fact-checkers. What I want to do instead is examine its place in a larger narrative about heroism and redemptive action, especially as it is situated in the contemporary conservative imagination. To do this, I have to shift gears and talk about a different (but not unrelated) story.

When I first heard about Zimmerman's rescue, I was reminded – unconsciously, perhaps – of something I thought and wrote about during the election cycle last year. My interest in that story arose out of a NY Times dialogue between David Brooks and Gail Collins, in March. Here’s what Brooks said:

David: I know it’s been a bad spell for him, but I keep hearing wonderful stories about Romney. One finance guy in Boston recently told me about the time the 14-year-old daughter of one of the Bain partners was kidnapped after a rave party. Romney shut down the firm, flew everybody to New York and they scoured the city looking for and publicizing her plight. The girl’s father credits Romney with saving her life. Those stories seem to surface about Romney periodically, leading me to believe he’s a good man caught in a horrible campaign. (

Brooks spins an excllent yarn. Everything here has a spectacular quality to it: a hedge fund partner’s daughter goes missing in Gotham – “kidnapped” is what Brooks says – and so Romney shuts down the firm. The Bain Capital partners blitz NYC and find the girl lost in one of its more dangerous quarters, dehydrated and apparently helpless after too much ecstasy. She is rescued and whisked back to the safe confines of Boston. In Brooks' telling, it’s not a rave weekend gone wrong, it’s a hostage crisis resolved and a life saved.

So what's the take-away from these two stories?

It's worth remembering that the elaborate construction of upper-middle (and in Romney's case upper-) class life has for the past half century revolved around a single idea: safety and security. Gated suburban communities are the epitome of this obsession. Sanford, Florida is not especially risky. Giuliani’s New York was of course (in)famously well-patrolled. In such places, the real job of saving lives is going to be in the hands of firefighters, (actual) policemen, EMT workers, nurses, and so on. In other words, members of the working class. It’s not surprising that in a stratified society like our own, the comfortable are going to be affilicted with boredom. They’re going to want excitement and risk, immediacy, a small taste of adrenalin. This longing is understandable. But just like the lurid daydreams of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty, some elements from the Zimmerman and Romney stories seem too big for ordinary life: the overturned SUV with a family trapped inside, the kidnapped girl in the deepest heart of a cruel city. We've seen these images before, perhaps countless times. Perhaps that’s the point. Small gestures of kindness carried out in obscurity are fine for those whose work involves saving lives. For those who long for a bit of danger without leaving the safety of the gated community, the sweeping, conspicuous and grand gesture is necessary. Why settle for the ordinary when you can have the imaginary?

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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My take on these matters is somewhat different: that safety and security are concerns, not only of the upper-middle-class and the upper class, not only of conservatives, but of everyone; and that George Zimmerman apparently did a good deed, which prompted the victim's gratitude.  


Sorry, just one more thought on this: we've seen George ZImmerman in two dramatic situations.  WIth Travyon, he apparently followed the boy and got out of the vehicle to confront him.  In this latter situation, he apparently rushed into a fiery wreck to pull out the victim.  It seems there is something in his character that is headstrong, that doesn't wait for police or EMTs or other working-class stiffs to do the dirty work; he does it himself.  In the latter instance, it seems heroic.  In the forner instance, it seemed imprudent and led to tragic consequences.  The same character trait (if we can induce this as a trait from observing his behavior in two isolated incidents) was a flaw in one instance and a virtue in another.  Is it a good thing or a bad thing?  It's the kind of ambiguity that complicates all sorts of political narratives.

I do think, though, that the conservative imagination exalts self-reliance as an ideal; it lionizes the man who doesn't wait for others - especially the government - to do the hard and dangerous work. George Zimmerman seems to be the kind of guy who doesn't wait for others; he tackles things himself.  I expect that the stand your ground laws are written for such an ideal.  Why call the police to chase off rustlers or scare off a punk in your gated comunity; the Constitution permits us to own guns so we can do this kind of thing ourselves.  


". . . he apparently rushed into a fiery wreck to pull out the victim."


Got a link to support the fiery part of this?  I thought the car turned over, no fire, no injuries, and George and another man helped the family climb out.  

 Interesting to observe how legends get started.  Soon, troubadors will be singing about how Zimmerman, Zimmerman, rushed into a fire!



Thanks for noting this. Looks like I got carried away with my own hyperbole. I've gone back to the original post and deleted the reference to a "fiery" crash. Apologies all around.

FWIW, I was relying on what Robert had written in the post for the "fiery" part (as it happens, I had heard virtually nothing about the incident until I read Robert's post).

Dominic, Grant, et al - there have been some requests recently in the comments, asking for restoration of the ability to edit comments.  Note the dynamic in this case: Robert (non-culpably) posts something that turns out to be not quite accurate; I add a comment that assumes that inaccuracy to be true; Robert now has the ability to go back and fix his mistake; but I don't.  The end result would be an uncareful reader concluding that I'm seemingly pulling 'facts' out of thin air to support a point.  My only option would be to provide yet another comment that corrects the previous comment, which is not very effective, and probably annoying to readers.  I know the pro's and con's of being able to edit remarks was discussed pretty extensively when your new blogging software was rolled out.  I'd like to add this consideration to the mix.   

But, Jim, as a non-subscriber, were you able to edit even during that brief period that the edit option worked?  I thought non-subscribers were blocked from making corrections to their posts.)

(It is frustrating that contributors are allowed to edit, but commenters are not vouchsafed the same right.  There have been two occasions on which contributors posted remarks to and about me that were untrue and intemperate.  When I responded, they edited (in one case) and deleted (in the other) their posts.  One of them followed up with a private e-mail accusing me of "troll-like behavior" for commenting on her "draft".)

(Another problem with the new format:  it re-formatted all old comments, removing paragraphing and making other adjustments that make commenters look illiterate.)

Gerelyn - you're touching on another sore point - I am a subscriber.  However, when the blog software was updated, it no longer recognized my subscription.  (It may be related to the fact that my email address has changed since I originally enrolled at dotCom.)  Dominic tried several times to fix it but apparently the software defeated him.  At any rate, if this is important - I do subscribe.  In fact, I'll put in a word of support for the digital subscription, which is less expensive and more convenient than the tree-killing traditional method.  

A shame the attempt to improve the site did not succeed.  I wonder why it says "body p" at the bottom of this box.  And why there are no avatars.  Seeing a face is nice. 

I remember a post from a long way back which Grant Gallicho edited, not by deleting a word but by crossing it out, earning praise from several people commenting.

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