Sunday, June 16, 2013

65. Who is a hero?


     New Yorkers love parades, especially ticker-tape parades honoring heroes and visiting dignitaries.  This has been going on since the 1880s, the heroes being originally showered with a snowstorm of torn-up stock market ticker-tape, and more recently with shredded paper and confetti thrown down from tall office building windows, as they proceed up Broadway, the so-called Canyon of Heroes, from the Battery to City Hall.  Those honored have included royalty and foreign heads of state, athletes and explorers, flyers and astronauts, victorious military commanders, and returning veterans.  Admiral Dewey and General Pershing were so honored, as well as Charles Lindbergh and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, and countless others, including the American hostages returning from Iran in 1981.  The only musician to receive a ticker-tape parade was Van Cliburn in 1958, after winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.  The only scientist was Albert Einstein, in 1921.  Significant among the athletes was Jesse Owen, returning in 1936 from the Berlin Olympics with four gold medals.  The ticker-tape parade is an old New York City custom, and one likely to be continued well into the future.


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The 1969 parade honoring the three Apollo 11 astronauts following their mission to the moon.


     But are all these people really heroes?   The crown prince and princess of Sweden, the winner of a golf tournament, the president-elect of Brazil, the governor-general of Canada, the prime minister of Pakistan, the president of Uruguay, the New York Yankees, the Pope?  With all due respect to all of them, I suspect not, though it depends on your definition of hero.  Who, then, is a hero?

     Recently I put this question to my partner Bob and to our friend John, asking them to just come up with some names off the top of their head.  John suggested Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and then, to my surprise, Beethoven, because he continued to compose in spite of growing deafness.  Bob first mentioned Proust -- for me, another surprise -- citing his race against death to finish his long, now highly acclaimed novel.  Bob then went on to cite Columbus, Churchill, Lindbergh, and the civil rights workers who fought against segregation in the South.  Obviously these choices reflected their personal interests: John is very knowledgeable about classical music, and Bob is currently rereading Proust.

     I then gave them my definition of hero: a hero is someone who, against great odds and at great personal risk, fights on behalf of many to accomplish a worthy goal.  Admittedly, a somewhat narrow definition, since I don't think the designation "hero" should be conferred too liberally; if everyone is a hero, then no one is.  This definition is tentative, since the more I think about it, the more issues come to mind.  I have already decided that a hero -- or heroine -- needn't win his struggle; it's the struggle itself that counts.  Also, that he may have some unattractive traits; this needn't disqualify him, if he otherwise matches the definition.  And finally, it is best to let the designation be tested by time; calling a contemporary a hero is risky, since there may be much we have yet to learn.

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A hero in spite of his flaws.


     So who, by my definition, is or is not a hero?  I certainly agree with my friends that Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela qualify.  Also Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who endured more than two decades of detention in Burma (Myanmar) while fighting for democracy and human rights.  Obviously, the persecuted opponents of prejudice and tyranny rank high.  Also on the list is Gandhi, even though a Bengali friend of mine has informed me that his treatment of his women left a lot to be desired.




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Bradley Manning.
A man I'd like to know. 

     Among others who came immediately to mind were Joan of Arc, Juarez, Bradley Manning, and -- for me, another surprise -- Jesus.  Bradley Manning is admittedly a risk, being very contemporary, but from what I now know of him, he qualifies, whereas I'm not so sure about Julian Assange; as for Edward Snowden, the other whistleblower who recently announced in Hong Kong that he leaked information about government surveillance programs, I need more information before deciding.  Jesus certainly qualifies, regardless of one's own religious beliefs or lack of them, and I might add other religious figures -- maybe Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism -- if I knew more about them.  I would also add Greenpeace, when it sails into areas where nuclear tests are about to be carried out, and Doctors Without Borders, when they operate in areas plagued with great violence.




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Ralph Nader, 1975.
Heroes don't have to look heroic.

     Sometimes only one phase of someone's life deserves to be labeled heroic.  Ralph Nader, when he first took on General Motors and proclaimed one of their cars "unsafe at any speed," was, to my mind, heroic, since GM hired private detectives to tap his phones and investigate his past, and had prostitutes try to entrap him in compromising situations; but later, when he became well known, the label seemed less appropriate.  Similarly Fidel Castro was a hero when he fought to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, but later, when he himself assumed power, he became an autocrat -- an autocrat who accomplished some worthy things, but nonetheless an autocrat -- and therefore no longer a hero.  The same applies to Charles Lindbergh, a hero when he flew across the Atlantic, but controversial later when he urged this country to sign a neutrality pact with Nazi Germany so as to ward off the menace of the Soviet Union.  And if Columbus was heroic in crossing the Atlantic, for me he loses that status when, upon arriving on the coast of North America, he sees the natives and notes how easily they could be enslaved.



     Who does my definition exclude?  Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, for one, since his life was not in danger daily and he exercised great power.  There are many admirable figures in history who don't quite qualify as heroes.  Athletes are also to be admired for their accomplishments, but I see those accomplishments as personal and not benefiting others, with Jesse Owens a notable exception.  Which raises a related question: if someone strives to overcome a physical handicap -- victims of the Boston bombing, for example, or wounded veterans struggling to recover use of their limbs, or to learn to use prosthetic limbs instead -- is their struggle to be considered heroic?  By my definition, no, since this is a personal endeavor, not one that will affect large numbers of people.  But this is well worth debating.  Maybe my definition should include a separate provision for those afflicted with a handicap and determined to overcome it, the supreme example being Helen Keller.  A personal struggle, to be sure, but one that can inspire others.

     I find it hard to include political and military leaders, if they exercise power, since they are usually not exposed to great personal risk and often pursue controversial policies.  So I eliminate Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle, as well as Eisenhower and MacArthur.  But we should not exclude those capable of heroic acts in opposition to our own forces or policies, such as Aguinaldo, who fought for Philippine independence after we acquired the Philippines from Spain, and the niños héroes (boy soldiers), six teen-age Mexican cadets who died valiantly while helping the outnumbered Mexican forces defend Chapultepec Castle against a U.S. attack in 1847.  And of course all the native peoples of North America, who resisted our encroachments in a desperate attempt to preserve not just their lands but their way of life.

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John Brown in 1856.
Not a man I'd care to meet.
     Perhaps the most controversial figure in American history is the abolitionist John Brown, who in 1859 seized the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in hopes of starting an armed slave revolt that would lead to the freeing of all slaves in the United States.  Defeated and captured, he was tried for treason against the commonwealth of Virginia, convicted, and hanged.  On the day of his execution he predicted that the crimes of this guilty land would be purged only with much bloodshed -- a prediction soon confirmed by the Civil War.  His raid was at first condemned even by Northern abolitionists, but his trial turned him into something of a martyr, and opinion about him began to change in the North in the course of the war.  Even today it can be hotly debated whether his action was justified.  In other words, does the end justify the means?  I have trouble with this myself, and can't forget how in Bleeding Kansas in 1856 Brown and others pulled several proslavery men out of their homes in the middle of the night and hacked them to death with swords.  If Brown is allowed the status of hero, how can it be denied to the 9/11 terrorists, or any terrorists devoted to their cause?  For me, he is not a hero.  But I freely grant that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and one man's hero another man's villain or fool.  These judgments, alas, are always subjective.

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Saint George slaying the dragon.
Rogier van der Weyden, ca. 1432.
That's how they did it in the old days.
For us it's not so simple.
     John Brown surely thought of himself as a hero and martyr fighting the monster of slavery.  In myth and legend the hero is a man (almost never a woman) who kills a dragon or other monster and in so doing wins for himself a maiden in distress, or a treasure, or both.  Siegfried in Wagner's Ring kills the dragon Fafner and then is lucky to get -- for a while -- both a magical ring forged from a treasure of gold and also the sleeping Brunnhilde.  But these stories can also suggest the creation myths of many cultures, where a creator god who represents light slays a dragon or she-monster who represents darkness, and from her body creates the world.  In Mesopotamian myth the hero Marduk slays the monster-goddess Tiamat and from her ribs creates the vault of heaven and earth, while her weeping eyes become the source of the Tigris and Euphrates.  The she-monster is primordial chaos, the dark watery mass of unformed matter out of which cosmos is formed.  Some scholars also see in these tales the triumph of a patriarchal society over an earlier matriarchal society that worshiped an all-powerful goddess, which brings us back to the Earth Goddess of post #59; indeed, Big Mama is hard to avoid.


     Today, in our less mythic age, dragons are in short supply, not to mention sleeping Valkyries or other maidens in distress, whom feminism decidedly discourages.  But, metaphorically speaking, there are dragons aplenty meriting destruction: the GM that Nader attacked, other oppressive corporations, malfunctioning government agencies, the military-industrial complex, the prison industrial system, lingering racism, pervasive poverty.  (Post #60 on fascism offers a slew of contemporary dragons.)  Yes, dragons and monsters abound.  If we can't kill them, we can at least lop off an ear or two, defang them, slice them down to size.  But there are risks involved, as Mr. Nader learned early in the game, and Bradley Manning is learning now; those dragons play nasty.

     Here is a list of twelve well-known persons, living or recently deceased.  Which of them, if any, merit a ticker-tape parade up the Canyon of Heroes on Broadway?  How would you describe them?  Select one or more of these terms for each:

  • hero/heroine
  • almost hero/heroine
  • trailblazer
  • martyr
  • troublemaker
  • liar
  • hypocrite
  • rascally yeaforsooth knave (from Shakespeare)
  • criminal
  • traitor
  • murderer
  • fool

Barack Obama                                  
the Dalai Lama
Lance Armstrong
John McCain
ex-Pope Benedict
Michelle Obama
Mayor Bloomberg of New York
Hugo Chavez
Bradley Manning
Julian Assange
ex-President George W. Bush
Dick Cheney


     Finally, what dragons would you like to slay?  Name five or more.  Here are some suggestions.
  • J.P. Morgan Chase (or any other big bank)
  • labor unions (one or all)
  • your state legislature
  • the CIA
  • the FBI
  • the National Rifle Association (NRA)
  • the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  • ALEC (see post #60, May 2013)
  • the IRS
  • the military-industrial complex
  • the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)
  • the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
  • Roe v. Wade

     Coming soon:  Jim Fisk, part 3: Blue Fire in His Veins (Jim Fisk, corpulent and unmilitary, becomes a regimental commander, while his lady friend begins to stray); Farewells; Trees; Secrets of New York (Browder version); Go Ahead: The Mania and Disease of Progress.  Still in the works: Me and the Seven Deadly Sins (startling revelations!).

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder