Friday, December 5, 2008

Democracy in Nightmare Town

The book "Myth of the American Superhero" is a work which is highly critical of what it sees as over-individualistic forms of heroism, as opposed to what it calls "democratic heroism." Basically it means people coming together discussing problems and then working together to solve them in agreement and compromise.

I suppose this sounds acceptable enough to someone not familiar with principles like "The Virtue of Selfishness." There is a concept that I think deserves some discussion in response to this.

Private investigator turned pioneering crime/noir writer Dashiell Hammett might have something to say on the subject. As his background implies, all of the stories he wrote during the course of his career were either based on events he experienced personally, or on "war stories" shared by his peers.

After getting a number of contradictory offers on a particular case which ultimately lead to the target of investigation (a local labor leader) being murdered one could say Hammett's "sense of life" was irreparably damaged. The result of this event and that damage was the story "Nightmare Town."

It starts with a man driving in from out of town on a bet that he could drive all the way across the desert with nothing to drink but a bottle of bad whisky. What unfolds over the next several pages is a litany of corruption. The problem with this story and any mystery it contains is that there is no way to discover who the singular guilty party is since the entire town consists of nothing but criminals some working in conspiracy, others working cross purposes.

I'd hate to see what democratic heroism would mean in this town. Because you see that's the flaw with democracy. If its a vote among a group of decent virtuous individuals, there's a good chance that the choices that group will make will be good and moral though there is no guarantee. But Hammett's "nightmare town" is more than a fictional device. Throughout history there have been instances of democracy giving power to evil ideas that happened to gain majority approval.

Hitler with his plans outlined clearly in Mein Kampf was given control of the nation of Germany. Socrates was "democratically" sentenced to death. And even in this recent election we've seen instances of rights being voted away.

The reason that democratic heroism is a flawed idea is that the group isn't always right and the fact that it is an idea held by a large group doesn't make it automatically right. The thirty-eight witnesses to the Kitty Genovese murder were not a majority worth following. All the people complicit in the torture and eventual murder of Sylvia Likens based on the prompting of Gertrude Baniszewski were not a moral group worthy of any authority.

The biggest single fact that the authors of the book ignore is that there is nothing easier than going with a crowd. Even though there are many examples of individual heroes using questionable ethics and tactics the reason this idea is glorified is because that doing this when it is necessary is often the most difficult thing in the world and any person who can do it deserves glorification for the capability of doing so. One person who could've exhibited these traits could've saved the life of Kitty Genovese or Sylvia Likens.