What Died With Neil Armstrong

With Armstrong goes a long-standing brand of heroism. 

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Apollo XI Astronauts Neil Armstrong (L), Michael Collins (C), and Buzz Aldrin (R) laugh with President Nixon aboard the USS Hornet, July 24, 1969. (Reuters)

American mythology loves nothing more than the reluctant hero: the man -- it is usually a man -- whose natural talents have destined him for more than obliging obscurity. George Washington, we are told, was a leader who would have preferred to have been a farmer. Thomas Jefferson, a writer. Martin Luther King, Jr., a preacher. These men were roused from lives of perfunctory achievement, our legends have it, not because they chose their own exceptionalism, but because we, the people, chose it for them. We -- seeing greatness in them that they were too humble to observe themselves -- conferred on them uncommon paths. Historical circumstance became its own call of duty, and the logic of democracy proved itself through the answer.

Neil Armstrong was a hero of this stripe: constitutionally humble, circumstantially noble. Nearly every obituary written for him this weekend has made a point of emphasizing his sense of privacy, his sense of humility, his sense of the ironic ordinary. Armstrong's famous line, maybe or maybe not so humanly flubbed, neatly captures the narrative: One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind. And yet every aspect of Armstrong's life -- a life remembered for one act of bravery but distinguished ultimately by the bravery of banality -- made clear: On that day in 1969, he acted on our behalf, out of a sense of mission that was communal rather than personal. The reluctant hero is also the self-sacrificing hero. The reluctant hero is the charitable hero.

And so Armstrong was an icon fit for America's particular predilections: one who made history, yet one who recognized the ultimate contingency of his own history-making. One who, Washington-like, preferred quiet retirement over continued fame. After he walked the heavens, James Fallows noted, Armstrong returned decidedly to Earth and to "a life lived deliberately away from the limelight and with scrupulous attention to avoiding any controversy or indignity that might reflect upon the space program of which he'd played such a crucial part." In particular, significantly, he declined to be an explicit leader. "Nothing is more typical of Armstrong, or more estimable," Anthony Lane put it, "than his decision not to go into politics; heaven knows what the blandishments, or the invitations, must have been. That is not to deprecate the service rendered by, say, John Glenn, but simply to remind ourselves that political ambition, like our other passions, is in the end a low sublunary affair; and that Armstrong, by dint of being the first man to tread not upon terra firma but upon the gray dust of terra incognita, rose above the fray and stayed there."

Thus Armstrong's ongoing place in the American imagination. We've needed figures like him, with their stories of retiring heroism, because the alternative -- fame sought and obtained -- has been less palatable to our moralized conceptions of achievement. We have constrained our notions of success with our competing notions of how, properly, success should be achieved.

Armstrong was one of the few remaining vessels of that assumption, one of the few remaining members of an archetype that blended ambition and humility in equal measure. As that other Neil, Dr. deGrasse Tyson, put it this morning, "We made him the hero that he was." It's hard, now, to find heroes who seem motivated, in some deep and cosmic way, by something more than themselves. It's hard to think of an analog to Neil Armstrong in contemporary culture. It's hard not to imagine that many of the cultural figures we're meant to look to for inspiration -- sports stars, movie stars, writers, business leaders -- will one day end up as characters on reality TV.

And so Armstrong's loss is not merely a loss for all the obvious reasons, but also because it signals a small shift in American mythology. If Armstrong's was the age of the reluctant hero -- the Silent Generation giving way to the Greatest -- ours is the age of adamant heroism. Our icons strive and struggle and seek. Our familiar figures are Kim Kardashian and Rebecca Black and LeBron James -- people who, whether or not their talents entitle them to it, explicitly sought their own fame. In a culture that confers fame with clicks, it's easier than ever to become famous, and for much longer than 15 minutes.

That is largely to the good. It means a democratic culture, a culture where systematized notions of merit -- based on race, based on class -- dissolve into the broader cultural will. Sports are now more equal-opportunity than ever. So is entertainment. So is politics. Some of our highest-level leaders (George W. Bush, Al Gore, Mitt Romney) were, to be sure, born into their "greatness." But many (Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama) achieved their greatness for themselves.

That is a good thing. In fact, it's a wonderful thing. It means that democracy itself is becoming ever more democratized, and that striving will be its own answer to systematized impediments. It means that people like Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden and Barack Obama -- figures who, due to a panoply of social discriminations, might not have risen to power in 1969 -- can now take their place in our cultural echelons.

But it also means a shift in how we see success and ourselves as seekers of it. The tension Armstrong embodied so succinctly -- publicity on the one hand, humility on the other -- is dissipating. The humility factor is dissolving into a culture than often equates fame with power. Our current icons are less the people who have been called to duty, and more the people who have battled their way into it -- the subjects, rather than the predicates, of their own greatness. The reluctant hero is diminishing. Armstrong's passing signals an end to that myth.