Barack Obama is the chief of many things: the executive branch, the armed forces, even the economy.
He is also the chief of America's character. In this role he must continue to carry the mantle of moral courage and inspire us to redeem our national integrity. This is the work of a moral hero, last exemplified in US culture by Atticus Finch.
Heroes are those extraordinary human beings who, in pursuit of a high-stakes quest, overcome obstacles to win the holy grail, be it freedom, victory, love. Or the hero might bring home a magic elixir that's been lost or stolen from his people.
President Obama cast himself as dynamic hero when he brought home to a badly hurting America its lost elixir: hope. For millions of us despairing over the war in Iraq, torture, sullied ideals, and now financial collapse, the newcomer had us at hope. He also had us with his equanimity, intellect, and ability to admit error. By appealing to our better angels, he touched our profound yearning for redemption.
His election did more than just change the face of US politics – it heralds a badly needed return to a classic model of heroism.
How needed? Quick: Name a recent movie, TV show, novel, or play whose hero gets the grail by exercising moral qualities. Not much springs to mind, does it? Instead, our cultural fare features the antihero going after the antigrail.
Reigning example: Tony Soprano, mob boss in the TV series "The Sopranos," whose job – it can't be called a quest – is "whacking" rivals who move in on his turf. Would Tony Soprano appeal to our better angels? "Fuhgeddaboutit." Tony's grail is power pursued at absolutely any price.
Tony's ilk is the result of a cultural imperative since the 1960s to "push the edge." Invariably, "edge" defines humanity down, below the moral line, into pathology. Critics enamored of "transgressive" art hail this cracked morality. Yet for all its alleged truth-telling, "edge" has not made us happier or wiser. In truth, its view of amoral humanity reflects a culture not worth saving.
Once upon a time, US popular culture did offer a life-affirming vision: the movies of the 1930s to 1960s. Amid the Great Depression and World War II, many films offered all the things humans crave: hope, beauty, wit, escape, and, often, triumph.
In contrast to Hollywood today, these movies featured real heroes and heroines: ordinary people in quest of defensible objectives. Often the objective was love. Or it was the plight of "the little guy," on whose behalf Mr. Smith went to Washington. And sometimes the objective was no less than saving the world, in combat or by sacrifice at home. It was an idealized vision, yes. Left out were the scars of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism.
But in "Casablanca," every refugee at Rick's cafe wanted to get to this America. The solidarity conveyed in these movies, viewed from our post-9/11 divisions, makes one weep. Clearly, fighting a "good" war, as opposed to bad ones (Vietnam, Iraq), is everything. And unlike today, the characters were grown-ups – adults in a serious world taking responsibility. They made decency classy. Conversely, the villains were always vanquished.
The last hero of this era was Atticus Finch. In "To Kill a Mockingbird," this gentle lawyer and widower with two children took on racism in 1930s Alabama. By defending a Negro (Tom Robinson) falsely accused of raping a white woman, he planted himself squarely against the prevailing social code and the state's legal system, isolating his family.
Daunting as his quest is, Atticus explains to his children that an innocent man must be defended and he himself must "hold my head up." Along the way, he teaches them equanimity (don't resort to fistfights), empathy (walk in another's shoes), respect (it's a sin to kill a mockingbird). Yet the power of moral conscience notwithstanding, Atticus knows its vulnerabilities. He loses the case, Tom dies trying to escape, and our hero is spat on.
Still, "loser" though he is, he remains a winner to his children – and to our cultural imagination. The American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch as the No. 1 hero in 100 years of film.
Today, we need Atticus's example more than ever. Are not our financial collapse and national decline a moral collapse? To rescue ourselves, we need – desperately – the hero's qualities of intellect, equanimity, civic responsibility, and – vitally – moral conscience. We need to quit the snark and stigma against these qualities and the many people who live by them. (Columnist Maureen Dowd derided them as "virtuecrats.")
Leading the way upward is Obama, who closed his inaugural speech invoking George Washington on the two things needed in dark times: hope and virtue. The next day he forbade US torture, resetting our moral compass. In his first address to Congress he pressed his presidency's theme: responsibility. He now exhorts us to "our better history."
Even with heroic action, the odds of national recovery are long. But with Atticus Finch and Barack Obama, it'd be a nobler fight, not a suicidal one in which bad people continue to do bad things without opposition. Recall that the antiheroes who followed Atticus Finch – Michael Corleone ("The Godfather" trilogy), Travis Bickle ("Taxi Driver"), Gordon Gekko ("Wall Street"), Tony Soprano – all wreaked their havoc without a moral counterforce of equal weight pushing back.
Time to push back. Time to push "the edge" upward. Time to restore, not an idealized America, but America's ideals – by pitting Atticus Finch against Tony Soprano.
Carla Seaquist is a playwright. Her forthcoming book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, and the American Character."