Why We Don’t Need Any More Heroes
By Noah Berlatsky
Jordan Flaherty’s just-released book No More Heroes opens with Pope Urban II: “Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber.” That plea for peace launched the Crusades, 300 years of slaughter ending with as many as 3 million dead in the name of saving the Holy Lands.
Saviors — you need to watch out for them.
Flaherty learned to be wary of saviors during years of work as an activist and journalist. He moved to New Orleans as a labor organizer a few years before Katrina, and was in the city when the Hurricane hit. What he saw, as the city tried to rebuild, was that the people coming into the city to try to help by, for example, completely rebuilding the school system, often caused as much harm as the flooding.
Flaherty went on to work as a journalist at Al Jazeera, covering social justice work and reporting on the stories of activists. And he saw the same dynamic again and again. “Over these last few years of doing these stories,” he said, “this common theme I felt was coming up of these saviors, these people who I think thought that they were doing the best for these communities they were trying to help, but were in many ways causing problems.”
I talked to Flaherty by phone both about saviors and how to avoid them.
Noah Berlatsky: Why did you feel like you were the person to write this book? No More Heroes is about not looking to white guys to save everyone; do you worry that the book positions you as someone saving people from saviors?
Jordan Flaherty: Yeah, I think about these issues a lot. I think about them all the time — whether as a union organizer, or as a journalist — what is my role as a cisgender white male, and how can I be accountable to movements in this work? And one of the answers I came up with for that question is I think I can speak out against these things I’m seeing other people from places of privilege doing.
What I hear over and over from organizers is that there’s a need for people of privilege to talk to other people of privilege; for men to talk to men, for white people to talk to white people. And so while I’m definitely indebted to a huge amount of analysis from people of color, I think this book is meant as one person from a position of privilege speaking to other people in a position of privilege to try to pass on the lessons I’ve seen and what I’ve learned.
Noah: You talk about a lot of issues that don’t initially seem like they’re closely connected. For instance, you discuss Teach for America, anti-trafficking orgs, and the campaign against Joseph Kony. What do these all have in common, in your view?
Jordan: We’re brought up in our school system with this idea of the “great man” theory of history. Abraham Lincoln is responsible for ending slavery; Kennedy or Johnson, maybe with MLK, are responsible for the political gains of the Civil Rights movement. The mass movements of people actually caught in the front lines are mostly erased in these histories.
We go to Hollywood films and it’s the same thing; we’re taught the individualist story. What I’ve seen, whether it’s Kony 2012, or Save Darfur, or social workers who work with police to try to “rescue” sex workers, or with Teach for America — it’s people who have bought into this idea of the savior, they’ve bought into this really limited idea of how change works. And I think this is a fundamentally wrong idea of how change works — the idea that a hero will come to solve societal problems, like Batman coming in to save the day or a firefighter rescuing kittens from a tree.
Noah: So what’s wrong about these ideas?
Jordan: In reality, change is much more complicated, and it really involves communities. If you look at, for example, the Arab Spring, the early successes of the Arab Spring, they didn’t come out of any of these nonprofits, or NGOs that were active in that region. They really rose up from the grassroots. I think you can say something similar about the Black Lives Matter movement. It didn’t come from these NGOs, it didn’t come from nonprofits, it didn’t come from people coming into a community to tell them what to do; it came from the community itself rising up.
And the people who had a position of privilege who did the best work were those who came in and followed the lead of the movement that was already happening, the people who were already on the ground making change.
Noah: One word I noticed you didn’t mention at all (or hardly at all) is “ally.” Do you consider yourself an ally of marginalized people? Or why did you avoid using that term?
Jordan: There’s an article that some folks wrote called “Accomplices Not Allies,” being critical of the concept of allies. I do try to talk a lot in the book about how people can be — whatever you want to frame it as, an ally or an accomplice — how people can support change in an accountable way. Part of what was really great about this book was being able to talk to these former Teach for America volunteers that then turned against Teach for America and joined with the students and veteran teachers who were already organizing against education reform in New Orleans and elsewhere. People like Caitlin Breedlove, who does incredible work as a queer activist, as a queer white activist in solidarity with communities of color.
Rather than getting too tied up in what the labels are, I just wanted to show concrete examples of how folks coming from positions of privilege have been able to do really great, accountable work.
Noah: I’m curious what you think the role of electoral politics is in movement-building. Are politicians just occupying the role of saviors?
Jordan: I mean I think that the savior mentality causes us to get too attached to these electoral politics and it becomes a distraction. You know, elections are important, but also the organizing that happens all year round between the elections is much more important, and I think it’s a huge tragedy that we’ve gotten to this place where we’re in this 16-month long election campaign that just dominates the news cycle for so long. You know they’re already, in some news reports, starting to talk about the 2020 election, and who the candidates will be then. I think that that is just absurd, and really dangerous and really harmful.
I think that part of the reason that Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed a lot of other progressive laws was because of the movement that was in the streets at that time. So who’s elected is important. But the movement that’s happening in the streets is really important, too.
Lead image: flickr/mopsografie