In recent decades, American culture and politics have been dominated by two competing archetypes: the anti-hero and the superhero. Moore, thankfully, was neither.
Depressed New Jersey gangster Tony Soprano and chemistry-teacher-turned-master-meth-cook Walter White thrilled television audiences by spitting on convention and breaking the law with style. Donald Trump, elected not in spite of but because of his willingness to shatter the norms of politics and basic decency, became our first anti-hero president.
At the box office, superheroes like the Avengers and Batman have ruled by exorcising the ghosts of 9/11 — there was no sneak invasion or alien attack that couldn’t be repulsed by a magic hammer or a well-aimed punch. In turn, liberals desperate to keep Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg healthy and to defeat Trump seized on superhero stories to imagine their political icons ascending to a higher level of humanity.
But when a world-altering threat really did arrive, in the form of the covid-19 pandemic, neither mode of heroism offered much of use. As Trump found out, scorning traditional forms of authority and old-fashioned values such as collective responsibility won’t make an infectious disease disappear. And while superhuman feats such as the killing of Osama bin Laden might be effective in the fight against terrorism, you can’t punch a virus in the face or shoot it in the head.
The heroism required to confront a pandemic is very different.
The efforts can be plodding: literally, in the case of Moore and his walker, or metaphorically, as is true of the volunteers who stepped into the gap left by the federal government to compile reliable data about cases and deaths for the Covid Tracking Project. The tactics involved can be simple, such as the discovery that turning patients onto their stomachs might help them breathe better, but they can’t always be carried out alone.
This kind of heroism is defined by meticulousness, creativity and caring. The public health officials from Josephine County, Ore., who vaccinated drivers in a snowy traffic jam rather than let Moderna shots go to waste are heroes. So are the staffers at Seattle’s Swedish Health Services who, after a freezer failed, administered shots until 3:45 in the morning to prevent them from going to waste. So, in his own small way, is the grocery store manager in my neighborhood who, on his own initiative, compiled a waiting list of people his staff could call if they had a leftover vaccine dose available at the end of the day.
And most of all, the necessary heroism of the moment involves rebuilding trust. Convincing others that covid-19 is real, that mitigation efforts like masks can be effective and that vaccines are safe and work extremely well is, inevitably, a grinding, uncinematic process. It is also a matter of life and death. No wonder National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony S. Fauci, whose institutional experience, patience and honesty even in the face of great pressure to lie or to minimize the truth, has become one of the cultural icons of the moment.
It’s hard to give up old ideas about what it means to be a hero — and about what heroes are meant to protect us from. But just as it has challenged so many other givens, the covid-19 pandemic should cause us to revisit these assumptions, too. Long after billions of vaccines have been administered, the threats posed by conspiracy theories, mistrust of outsiders, doubt in science — and, in the United States, a dysfunctional health-care system — will be with us. So will the need for the same qualities that helped beat back the coronavirus, all of which are necessary in the fight against these other pernicious social maladies.
Superheroes and anti-heroes may continue to populate our fantasies: After the trials of 2020, an alien invasion sounds practically relaxing. But the image of Moore making his way around his garden in his blazer and service medals was a testament to how much the world craves something different, truer — and a lot more useful.