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. (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/22/the-etch-a-sketch-doctri...)
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.