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Though I have no way of knowing if it's true, I have always rather assumed that most of my fellow Americans carry in their minds an image of the archetypal American male, the beau ideal who embodies the values and virtues we like to associate with the national character. I'd also always assumed that my personal image of an admirable American male role model is probably not all that much different from the one most other American guys carry in their minds.

Good Guys

But I never, ever, would have imagined than any of my fellow American males would have ever seen a specimen like Donald J. Trump as the embodiment of an American hero, a guy they would want to point to as someone their sons should emulate. Alas, I seem to have been suffering from a delusional lack of imagination. The majority of American males who managed to gin up enough energy to get off their sorry asses and actually vote went for Trump, bigly. So did a majority of women, which is somehow even worse.

I surely can't speak for younger men, nor for all men of my own vintage, but when some guys my age are asked who we think of as salt-of-the-earth American men, when we are asked to name the kind of people who represented the best of what American males could be, that canon of stand-up guys would include guys like Woody Guthrie, Henry Fonda, Abe Lincoln, Paul Robeson, or Upton Sinclair. Some of us would include the fictional Atticus Finch, or the very real Wayne Morse, the fictional Randle Patrick McMurphy and the real George McGovern, the real William Stafford and the fictional Yossarian found in the pages of Catch-22. We might also include Jackie Robinson, FDR, MLK, I.F. Stone, Barack Obama, Frederick Douglass, or Audie Murphy.

If some of these names are slipping from public memory and no longer resonate with you, it might be worth the time to Google them and find out why some of us would find them to have been worth emulating. But there are far more names forgotten by all, men who stood up, often alone, in communities where their voices might be shouted down because they were willing to say the unpopular thing, insist on what was right when what was right was out of favor. And, though this piece is about American male role models, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes: "To be a man," wrote the French writer, Antoine de St. Exupery, "is, precisely, to be responsible."

Speaking out and standing up is an act of responsibility--to our country, to the future, and to personal integrity. By that standard, lots of brave and admirable American "men" are or have been women, from those courageous suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, Elizabeth Cady Stanton) to those women who more recently carried or are carrying the fight forward (Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Molly Ivins, Elizabeth Warren, Sally Yates), all of them people willing to say or do things that answered the call to conscience, that required courage, that prompted no small volume of derision and hatred to be directed their way. Few Americans of either gender ever showed greater courage, for instance, than Jeanette Rankin or Emma Goldman.

I'm not unaware of the fact that my list of heroes and heroines skews to the left. The movies and books that helped form my definition of heroism put me on the side of the underdog almost without variation. I wasn't indoctrinated by "godless Communism." My heroes, from the Lone Ranger to Hopalong Cassidy, from Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront to Cool Hand Luke in the movie of the same name, were found on movie screens. I found them in books about Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed. I'm even old enough to have found them on the radio as I listened to tales of the Shadow and the Green Hornet.

I grew up working class, in the heart of the heart of the country. My dad and my uncles all fought in World War II, in Europe and in the Pacific. None of them had much education. In fact, I'm pretty sure there wasn't a high school graduate in the lot. Some had left high school before graduation because, as children of the Depression, they needed to find work and help alleviate the poverty at home. Others left school to enlist in military service in the war against Nazism and Fascism.

When my dad got home from the war, he took a succession of jobs in factories where layoffs were common every time he got a few inches closer to being out of debt. He was once a shop steward who helped lead a strike against an almost stereotypical factory owner. The workers were locked out. After many anxious months, the strike collapsed when the owner wouldn't agree to a five-cent an hour raise. One day, my father got on a freight elevator to find himself alone with that owner/boss. Dad fished in his pocket, found a nickel, and said, "I guess you need this more than I do." Little acts like that are heroic; they create the difference between a work force with pride and dignity, not the disposable work force of modern-day serfs the kleptocrats and plutocrats are always trying to make of us all.

Though uneducated, my dad and my uncles were not stupid men. Because they had more than sufficient common sense to figure out which side their bread was buttered on, they joined unions when they could. They had cast their first votes for Franklin D. Roosevelt because they could tell the difference between a rich guy who honestly gave a damn about poor and working class people and that broad range of Republicans plutocrats like Herbert Hoover who gave listless lip service to concern for the broad mass of Americans, but gave all their energies to preserving advantage for rich and powerful people like themselves or their big donors.

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The men in the neighborhoods where I grew up weren't so befuddled that they couldn't see who the bad guys were in the movies. They knew that Mr. Potter wasn't the hero of It's a Wonderful Life, the first movie Jimmy Stewart made after returning from the war. Because they'd lived through the Great Depression as boys, they knew in their bones about predatory bankers, land grabs, and merciless exploitation of working people. And though far too many of them may have accepted the common "wisdom" of their time--the racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and oppressive misogyny--the best of them gave little or no energy to the darker angels of their natures, joined no mobs, and held the KKK in contempt. They knew the difference between bullies and the people bullies tended to target.

So I'm confused when I see so many of their sons, grandsons, and great grandsons who have lost their way so completely, men (and women) of the working class who, through perversions of understanding about God, Christ, and capitalism, have decided that their best interests are served by a megalomaniacal son of a bitch who never saw a con or crooked scheme he didn't like, who spent his life screwing over people who worked for him, caring for nothing but "I, me, mine," a wily ignoramus who served nothing and no one but himself.

As I thought of men worth admiring, I realized that three of my best friends fit the profile. Dan Embree came back from service in Vietnam to help form a group called Concerned Academy Graduates against the war. I met him in grad school when he was still sporting a military haircut and a stiff military bearing. He testified against his former commanding officer, Gen. William Westmoreland, in the lawsuit Westmoreland initiated against CBS. He left military service with the rank of captain, garnered a Ph.D in English from U.C. Berkeley, taught at Mississippi State. He also looks the part, a Henry Fonda-esque figure, laconic and simply unable to deny the dictates of his conscience.

Darrell Dodds, who majored in American Studies and published an alternative paper in a thinly populated California mountain county, was cut from similar cloth, a tall and lean man who went on to edit a couple of horse magazines, and never lost sight of who he was or what mattered to him.

And then there was my target shooting buddy, Jim Davidson, who died a few years ago, a more outgoing and garrulous fellow than either Dan or Darrell, but as good a man as I ever knew. His heroes had always been cowboys and though he had no education past high school, he could tell the good guys from the bad guys without an explanatory footnote. Though quite different men, they all struck me as quintessentially American--decent, thoughtful, and determined to do their best to be the best they could be.

For nearly four decades, I taught in community colleges from California to Washington State, mostly classes filled with young people whose educations had been poor, whose childhoods had been impoverished to one degree or another, kids from trailer parks and homes even more stressed by low wages than my own had been. Never, however, did I find students who didn't realize without being told that the growers and the strike breakers were not the heroes in The Grapes of Wrath. Students didn't need a lit. teacher to sort out for them whose side they should take in any poem, story, essay, or folk tale in which peasants fought landlords, sharecroppers struggled against the forces that stole their labor, undervalued their crops, and kept their children hungry. I can't recall students who wouldn't have known intuitively which man was exhibiting greater integrity and courage if asked to choose between Colin Kaepernick kneeling and Mike Pence engaging in an expensive PR stunt meant to tap into the base racism of the Trump base.

I just don't get how we got to this place where so many American males are so clueless about what a hero might look like and just who the good guys are.

Like so many others, I just don't get how we got to this place where so many American males are so clueless about what a hero might look like and just who the good guys are. Why are so many willing to allow the servants of the kleptocracy to turn their fears and prejudices against their own self-interest or their common sense? How did we get so many losers to think a cartoon villain like Donald Trump would make winners of them all? Hell, didn't these guys ever read a Batman comic book, or see a Batman movie in which grotesque bad guys like the Riddler or the Joker were always turning up? Were they too illiterate to have read and understood Superman so they could tell Lex Luther from the man of steel. Did they not study Dick Tracy comic strips until they managed to figure out how to distinguish Tracy from the ghastly goon squad that crime fighter fought? Trump, Pence, Price, Mnuchin, Rick Perry, Kellyanne Conway, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders could easily have been drawn and cast as comic strip monsters without much modification at the drawing board. They are all hyperbolic in their grotesque villainy. There's nary a lick of subtlety in their machinations.

And yet, far too many "Christians" confuse these gargoyles of greed with Christ, far too many working class men think making America great again is likely to be the result of having such people in power. Far too many have lost the ability to distinguish heroes from villains as our nation comes to look like an anime nightmare, a very bad melodrama, a dystopian futuristic sci-fi novel, or a comic strip from hell.

Behaving irresponsibly, the majority of American men failed to grow up and man up. They sided with the bad guys, and now we're all screwed. Damn their sorry hides.

jaime oneill

Jaime O'Neill