Kyle Rittenhouse is not a hero for his actions on the night of August 25, 2020. Those events are a tragedy all around. The taking of human life, even when done in self-defense and against a less-than-stellar citizen, should never be treated lightly.
Kyle Rittenhouse may, however, be a hero of a different sort, one whose heroism falls more under the domain of the First Amendment than the Second. By taking the stand and testifying at his trial, Rittenhouse showed the world the falsity of the narratives that had been set up around him, and in doing so did a service to us all.
One gets the sense that many of Rittenhouse’s detractors would have been happy if he really was a sullen, brooding school shooter type, one of Michael Kimmel’s “angry white men.” Instead, Rittenhouse had the audacity to show himself to be an ordinary and seemingly well-adjusted young man, and his refusal to conform to the allotted script is the source of much angst to some.
Rittenhouse’s testimony alone was impressive. Save for a few awkward stumbles, he bore up quite well under withering, and at times flagrantly disingenuous, prosecutorial cross-examination. This was made all the more remarkable by his clear lack of legal acumen. His display of emotion on the stand was a call to the recognition of common humanity, of the individual soul beneath the identarian narrative.
It is difficult to sift through the media narratives and put together a picture of the real Kyle Rittenhouse, the person and not the culture war focal point. We know that he was, like one-fifth of boys these days, the child of a single mother. According to The Washington Post – a source which can be taken on its own merits – Rittenhouse idolized law enforcement, and he felt it his duty to “protect people” and run “into harm’s way.”
The picture of Rittenhouse that emerged throughout the trial was one of a teenage boy who is, in many ways, a model citizen and a pillar of his community. He was a firefighter cadet and lifeguard who went to Kenosha to clean up graffiti, put out fires, and treat the injured. Whatever the results of his actions, the intentions were wholesome.
Rittenhouse exhibits a certain masculine self-assuredness, a lack of neurotic baggage, that many of those lambasting him seem to despise. He is intelligent, sociable, empathetic, and adventuresome, willing to face danger and take risks. These latter traits led him into trouble on that fateful night, but taken alone they are inherently admirable. Rittenhouse is the sort of boy whom many people would be rightly proud to have as a son, one to whom, in past generations, the moniker “all-American” might have been applied. He is of the same breed as the boys who stormed Omaha Beach.
This is why Rittenhouse has become the object of such popular opprobrium. It is simply too much for some people to believe that a boy like him might still exist somewhere in these United States, a teenager whose impulse on seeing a riot might be to put out fires rather than set them.
For years now, we have witnessed the notion of heroism, particularly white male heroism, denigrated repeatedly in academia and popular culture. Statues of our Founding Fathers are torn down. Cultural heroes like James Bond are reframed as racist and sexist and all the rest. We are told that we have to see the dark side of everything, to look at all narratives with a jaded eye, to avoid unrealistic ideals. The values of traditional manhood, embodied in everything from Rudyard Kipling’s “If” to the Boy Scout Oath, are degraded and diminished at every turn.
As a result, we face a so-called “boy crisis,” with staggering numbers of young men dropping out of college and falling into the sand traps of video games, porn, and pot smoking. The inevitable endpoints of such a cultural miasma are men like Joseph Rosenbaum or Anthony Huber, deranged messes who feel it their prerogative to go around destroying other people’s property. The actions of these men may be abhorrent, but their stories, as products of our culture, are tragic.
Kyle Rittenhouse, born in 2003, has imbibed this worldview all his life. And yet he was able, to some small degree, to rise above it, to aspire to the sort of manliness shown by generations past. If his youthful idealization of law enforcement could be called somewhat simplistic, at least it can be said that he had an ideal. This alone makes him nobler than many. One need only ask oneself whether one would prefer to live in a city of Rittenhouses or Rosenbaums in order to see the truth of that.
Some have asked why the Rittenhouse case has been framed in racial terms, despite all of the people involved being white. Here is why: because some people in our culture cannot bear that a white boy under attack still has his head held high. Rittenhouse, like Nick Sandmann and Brett Kavanaugh before him, has become, against his will, the face and voice of white males everywhere. Like the white whale, he has had “the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down” piled upon him.
That is why pictures of his crumpled face, as he broke down in an apparent PTSD attack while testifying, were gleefully passed around on social media like trophies, often by the same people who say that “toxic masculinity” prevents men from showing their emotions. It is also why so many people on the right have become so invested in the case, correctly perceiving that a conviction for Rittenhouse is a conviction of some greater ideal.
On the witness stand, Kyle Rittenhouse rose to the occasion. By his words, and not his bullets, he has acted in a manner that befit his high adolescent aspirations. His refusal to be crushed by the great weight of societal loathing is an act of heroism greater than any he might have imagined when he set out to guard property in Kenosha, and those who view the case along narrow Second Amendment terms are not giving the young man his proper due.
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