It’s so funny, it’s not funny. Bradley Manning, a twenty-two year old military analyst who faced a daunting jail sentence ranging in the decades to take a stand against war, has been widely ridiculed and impugned. But an airline steward who had a nervous breakdown at work is now the media’s designated “folk hero”. The New York Times has had no less than two hagiographic articles on Slater—here and here—in the past two days, though as I noted, Manning has been the target of character assassination at the paper. The New York Daily News, according to Lexis-Nexis, has already had more articles on Slater in the past five days (9), than it has on Bradley Manning (3) since the Wikileaks expose broke on July 26th.
But don’t blame this on the media. Americans have dutifully integrated Steven Slater into their hearts. Steven Slater’s Facebook page now has nearly 125,000 friends. The “Free Steven Slater” Facebook page now has 28,000 fans. Slater’s workplace implosion has inspired online imitations, such as “Jenny, the Dry Erase Board Girl”, an obvious fake which nonetheless has generated a Facebook page called “1,000,000 Strong for Jenny DryErase to Pose in Playboy” . The “Support Bradley Manning” Facebook page, by contrast, has 873 adherents–only two hundred more than Jenny garnered in the five days she has been live. Meanwhile, a Pew poll finds that a clear majority—53%—says that Manning’s act is very harmful to the US.
What is it about the American psyche that elevates the actors at the center of such accidental media events, such as Slater, to the status of hero? And why are people like Manning, who rely on conviction and courage in well-thought out, deliberate challenges to injustice, relegated to the status of marginalized outsider?
Is it really that Americans love working class heroes, as many media narratives have claimed? Then why has the public increasingly grown hostile to unions, as this Pew poll from April of this year shows? Despite the obviously waning power of unions in the last decade, Americans still believe that unions are too powerful by a 61% margin. Ironically, Americans fondest desires for the American workforce were realized in the case of Slater’s job which is the largest non-union airline. Americans prefer cheap flights to unionized workforces in which people like Slater receive guaranteed health benefits, vacation and grievance procedures–all those things that would have mitigated Slater’s feelings of frustration over his job.
Is it that Americans are pro-war? Well, no. Recent polls, such as this USA Today poll, show that support for the war in Afghanistan continues to decline. Despite rejecting the actions of people trying to end the Afghan war, the American people apparently don’t support the war.
Americans are deeply confused, disengaged, apathetic and rabidly apolitical. There’s no other way to explain how they can be anti-union and pro-Slater, while being anti-war and anti-Manning. As the saying goes, we get the leaders our political engagement deserves. In a little known corollary to that truism, we also get the heroes our confused and self-destructive world-view deserves.