Don't Be A Hero

Jordan Flaherty's No More Heroes describes the harm committed by the modern-day do-gooder, but stops short of outlining systems of power that uphold the hero role

AT the tail end of the 1960s, youth movements had America’s elite on their toes. The war in Vietnam and growing racial unrest pushed campuses and inner cities into revolt. “The spirit of dissent has spread its contagion across our student population and from there to other sectors of American life,” wrote the authors of a report commissioned by John D. Rockefeller III, capturing the anxiety of the nation’s most powerful philanthropic institutions. “If [social conditions] are not to reach their climax in a war of all against all, we are summoned by this turmoil to carefully consider the ways in which we can convert dissent into a force for constructive action and civil peace.” Nonprofits like the Rockefeller Foundation, then the second-largest private foundation in America, sought to provide release valves to these youth groups boiling over at national injustice. Young people, the Rockefeller report stated, must be able to “secure a fair piece of the social action.”

Corporately-funded non-profits have since managed to commodify the heroic impulse in whole generations of idealistic youth, purchasing it in exchange for a curated social experience. Four decades after the Rockefeller report, an extensive market has sprung up to shunt a certain kind of person, usually privileged, into roles that satisfy their desire for social action without threatening structural change. These range from the education reform behemoth Teach for America to anti-prostitution initiatives, from government programs with multimillion dollar annual budgets like Americorps to the short-lived, non profit-funded Kony 2012 campaigns on college campuses. Late capitalism, in all its abundance and deprivation, has left some room for the do-gooders.

In his new book No More Heroes, released by AK Press on Nov 15, 2016, journalist Jordan Flaherty weaves these various strands together in an attempt to trace “a path from the savior mentality to shared liberation.” The topic is timely. Occupy Wall Street and the Movement for Black Lives have been only the most prominent in a slew of recent protest movements emphasizing collective action over individual heroism, although neither has been immune to cooptation by institutional forces in the style of Rockefeller’s counterinsurgency strategy.

But for the change agents profiled in Flaherty's book, the struggle for justice is an individual, rather than a collective, one. Throughout No More Heroes, would-be saviors betray their intentions.

As Flaherty adeptly demonstrates, the liberal hero fantasy isn't just a harmless affectation. Motivated by guilt, concern, maybe even compassion, do-gooders intervene in communities where their presence isn’t requested, and their “help” often hurts. TFA teachers drop into communities of color with little classroom experience or cultural fluency. Aid workers, and the diseases they may carry, invade post-earthquake Haiti en masse, upsetting local governance with ill-conceived vanity projects. College activists drum up anger at warlords in central Africa, giving cover to American military adventurism.

Race and class distort the perspective of these social heroes, reducing the objects of their charity to helpless victims while elevating the interloper to a rarefied status. Some later recognize this. “I feel incredibly sorry for how disrespected my students and their families must have felt by me,” former TFA-New Orleans teacher Hannah Sadtler tells Flaherty. “The posturing, the playing teacher when I wasn’t one. I think the only way that I was able to buy into that, to maintain that position and stand in front of those kids, was because of internalized messages of superiority that I bought into it.”

The tension between savior and system is clearest in the anti-sex-trafficking industry, where prostitution opponents cheer the arrest of sex workers under the auspices of saving them. In Phoenix, Flaherty meets the founders of Project ROSE, a group that partners with cops to sweep the city for sex workers, then places a fraction of them into diversion programs. One in ten don’t qualify due to prior convictions; they end up in jail. Of the rest, fewer than a third finish the program—which mandates that participants not engage in any sex during their time there—while another ten percent face re-arrest within the first year. These numbers, Flaherty reports, are “nearly the same as without Project ROSE.”

Despite those numbers—and regular protests from organized sex worker groups—Project ROSE soldiers on. During one reporting trip, Flaherty watches as dozens of women are paraded through in handcuffs. “This is hostile. I’m the one being kidnapped,” one woman says as she’s processed. But for the program’s founder, Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor at Arizona State University, this is part of the healing process. “They do get handcuffed when they come,” she explains. “That is prevention-based. That’s saying, ‘We’re not kidding . . .’”

This iteration of the punishment-as-uplift impulse—a tradition that extends back at least to European colonialism and missionary work—fits with what Barnard sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein calls carceral feminism, a disposition that leans on crime control and “restoration of victims” in its liberatory ambitions. A similar streak runs through TFA, whose pedagogical system stresses discipline and control, drawing explicitly from “Broken Windows” policing theory and applying it approvingly to the classroom. Lacking a cohesive theory of liberation, the hero tends to draw on whatever is at hand to get things done, even if those methods draw from the same oppressive systems that they’re fighting.

In Flaherty’s telling, the savior complex stems largely from privilege. Though a Peace Corps volunteer might see themselves making a sacrifice, they’re still riding on the benefits of their race, class, and gender. “The prototypical savior is a person who has been raised in privilege and taught implicitly or explicitly (or both) that they possess the answers and skills needed to rescue others, no matter the situation,” Flaherty writes. “They are taught that saving others is the burden they must bear.” Functionally, that means saviors often uphold the structures they intend to challenge. “We don’t want to see that the systems of race and class and gender that keep us in comfort where we are . . . are the same systems that created the problems we say we want to solve,” Flaherty writes.

But Flaherty leaves open some big questions. What about our current historical moment has spurred such a profusion of hero factories? In a desultory early chapter, he meditates on the development of the savior mentality, a section that covers a wide range of reference points: Pope Urban launching the Crusades, Lord Amherst giving Ottawa Indians blankets infected with smallpox, the growth of the “nonprofit industrial complex.” For modern cultural background, we get a penetrating look into an entertainment industry in which half of all top-grossing films are superhero movies, and where Danny Glover couldn’t finance a project about the Haitian Revolution because it had no white characters.

It’s a lot of ground to cover, and it isn’t clear what Amherst’s explicitly genocidal mission says about misguided TFA teachers. The heroes we meet fall largely on the left side of the political spectrum, a breed of liberal whose polestar might be the New York Times columnist and “white savior extraordinaire” Nicholas Kristof. (Kristof, in fact, gets an entire chapter to himself). Flaherty’s target is the would-be radical, whose desire to help others comes from a vaguely left sense of social injustice. So why do these well-meaning types end up erring so greatly?

Flaherty’s answer doesn’t extend far beyond “privilege,” a term he deploys broadly and often without specification. Given the types of saviors the book profiles, it’s a particularly white, upper-middle-class form of privilege. But privilege is just one of the forces operating on those white upper-middle-class people whose interest in social justice leads them to foolish heroism. Not every person born with class or race privilege shares Nicholas Kristof’s fantasies. Bankers, for instance. Privilege helps us understand why self-appointed saviors fail, but it doesn’t fully explain their existence to begin with.

Moreover, “being aware of your privilege” is not a cure for saviorism and can even exacerbate it. “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” as Teju Cole has written in The Atlantic. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” The deeper issue with the savior mindset isn’t just misunderstanding privilege; it’s knowing too little about power. At one point Flaherty defines privilege as “not having to notice your own power or the systems that give you that power.” But he stops short of outlining those systems of power that funnel privileged people toward hero roles and away from the collective movements that might actually challenge power.

The “spirit of dissent” that Rockefeller feared must always contend with the allure of the liberal savior, an age-old figure whose modern myth-making processes Flaherty only partially sketches out. But the ways that capital spins bleeding-heart heroism into social dividends come into focus from inside the system, as it did for me as a TFA teacher.

One memory stands out in particular. TFA had invited me to the quarterly dinner and earnings release celebration of a local hedge fund, to be held at a swank Mexican restaurant in the little port town of South Norwalk, Connecticut. They needed teachers as props. A half-dozen other TFA members joined me, commuting from Stamford, New Haven, and Bridgeport, the blown-out post-industrial inner cities that dot the gated suburbs and bedroom communities of coastal Connecticut.

The hedge fund manager was a forty-something white guy with long hair and plaid shorts who greeted us warmly and showed us to a table in the corner. There, we were left to gulp down margaritas and tacos in relative peace, as southern Connecticut’s moneyed elite mingled around us. But every now and then, the financier would swing by with his wife and a few friends in tow, gesture at us magnanimously, and declare, “These are my teachers.”

His teachers? We’d look up, wipe hot sauce from the side of our mouths and force grins. Then his wife would smile at us and sigh: “My heroes.”