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I need a hero

daftandbarmy

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From The Times
January 22, 2008
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/men/article3226371.ece

I need a hero

Heroes aren't what they used to be – but, says our correspondent, our disdain for virtues such as courage and selflessness means that today we get what we deserve

Mark Barrowcliffe

When I was 5, no one walked home from school in a normal way. The streets and playgrounds were full of children taking elongated bounds in a weird slow motion and talking to each other in strange crackling voices. The reason was their admiration for someone who most had only heard speak a couple of sentences – Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon. Armstrong was a hero, as was Sir Edmund Hillary, who died this month. Their heroism came from humility and from the recognition that there are some causes more important than personal survival.

Hillary knew he might die on Everest. Armstrong put his chances of a successful return at about 50 per cent. In disregarding themselves they became more than themselves and more than us. Anyone thinking of what Armstrong had done could not be too proud of their own achievements. To paraphrase Dr Johnson, every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been an astronaut.

We don’t see huge heroes such as Armstrong and Hillary today, not because people lack the necessary fibre but because the times don’t create them. There are still plenty of opportunities left where heroes might be made. The problem is that no one cares about them any more.

Here’s a quiz. Name the two kayakers who paddled from Australia to New Zealand this month. They were brave and their journey was arduous, but already they are forgotten. Who was the first to reach the North Pole in the Arctic winter on foot? Mike Horn – who also went around the equator without using motorised transport. Who was the first man to stand on both poles and the summit of Everest? That was Hillary, the feat invisible in the long shadow of his previous achievement. Even the fact that Neil Armstrong flew with Hillary to the North Pole to complete the set didn’t capture the public imagination.

All the high-concept challenges have gone. Anyone wanting to break new ground today faces the problem of finding something big enough to capture the imagination of the public and of the sponsors who will make the trip possible. Some of the things they come up with are silly – setting the record for eating a formal dinner at the highest altitude – and some seem almost reckless – climbing Everest and other murderous mountains in winter. Yet who of us even knew that anyone had done it?

The problem the modern adventurer faces is that the reason for a lot of what they do has gone. Raising money for charity provides a worthwhile but slightly peripheral justification for some expeditions, scientific research on the human body’s capabilities another, but it’s not visceral. It doesn’t grab you like the burning question the Victorians, Hillary and Armstrong set out to answer: “What’s there?”

Also, the world is smaller. One explorer, Tom Avery, fought his way to the North Pole with a dog team just in time for a helicopter load of tourists to hop out and take his picture. It must have been a bit depressing for him.

We don’t even produce war heroes today. Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq may act very bravely indeed – even, such as Private Johnson Beharry of the Princess of Wales’ Royal regiment, win the Victoria Cross, but they’re not household names in the same way that Douglas Bader and Montgomery were to the immediate postwar generation. They are heroic, but not heroes.

The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his book 101 World Heroes: Great Men and Women for an Unheroic Age, says that in failing to identify the right heroes we are missing the opportunity to shape our society.

“The virtues of heroism are courage, tolerance and selflessness,” he says. “We need to teach our children about that.” He says that it is harder than ever for heroism to make an impact on the public mind as it once did. In a culture of limited attention spans and the veneration of glitzy, self-seeking celebrities, people become incapable of recognising a hero when they see one.

“Today people are awarded hero status for doing absolutely nothing. A good example was the Virginia Tech killing [in April last year]. There was an enormous amount of coverage of the murderer and of the students who had filmed it. They were portrayed as heroes. The old professor, the Holocaust survivor who blocked the gunman’s path and was killed saving the lives of his students, was by comparison ignored.” Professor Liviu Librescu was old, dead and uninterviewable. His story could not compete with the images of the weeping young witnesses. Even the story of John Coward (pictured left) the senior first officer, who successfully landed the stricken boeing 777 at Heathrow last week will disappear as soon as Britney Spears faces her next crisis. And one couldn’t help but feel that the lionisation of John Smeaton, who tackled terrorists at Glasgow airport last year, had less to do with respect for what he had done than delight in the reinforcement of the tough Glaswegian stereotype.

So who are our heroes now and what do they say about us? In a poll for Esquire magazine last year, Gor-don Ramsay emerged as the most admired man. Ramsay may be a talented chef but he is most celebrated for swearing a lot. Hillary and Armstrong were mouse-like by comparison, but their achievements were so much greater. How would Ramsay have coped on discovering, as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did, that the ignition switch on the lunar craft had been sheered off, stranding the craft on the Moon? One thing is for certain, shouting at the rockets to “get a f***ing move on” wouldn’t have done much good. Armstrong and Aldrin calmly fixed the problem by short-circuiting the switch with a pen. Have we forgotten how to recognise real bravery and mistaken loutish assertiveness for courage?

Perhaps more interesting than Ramsay’s selection was the way the votes were split. He was top with 17 per cent. It seems the Esquire readers couldn’t really summon much enthusiasm for anyone in particular.

The lack of a clear hero may be less to do with the calibre of people today than the nature of modern society. Professor Stephanie Barczewski, author of Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton and the Changing Face of Heroism, says that in the more unified culture of the UK before the 1960s we knew what a hero looked like. He was middle or upper-class, self-effacing and understated. Under the influences of immigration and social mobility, this has changed. “The old style of heroism was actually mocked and derided during much of the 1960s and 1970s. People became more cynical, and it was difficult to see the sort of context in which heroism could be expressed.” This, she says, may be why sports stars have come to such prominence. Multicultural and from every class, they are more suited to a society that has reshaped itself, abandoned deference and fallen out of love with war.

The challenges they face are slight compared with those of previous generations. The Australian cricketer and Second World War pilot Keith Miller summed it up when asked how he handled the pressure of big matches. “Having a Messerschmitt up your arse is pressure. Cricket is not.”

Some stars, though, are venerated less for their achievements on the field than for their money. Roy Keane, manager of Sunderland FC, has complained that players will sign for clubs with half the crowds and passion of his Sunderland team just to be near London. The people the young footballers admire are not heroes of sport but heroes of consumption. David Beckham is far from being the world’s best footballer but he could stake a claim to being its most famous consumer.

The American writer Susan Faludi sees this as part of a “feminisation of celebrity culture” where stars are celebrated for their appearance and fashion sense rather than the manly virtues of the explorer, warrior or sportsman. She says that the virtues of craft, loyalty and social utility are no longer respected, much less rewarded.

Barczewski says that in creating our modern heroes we have lost the idea of heroic sacrifice. In an age where people weep when a fellow contestant is expelled from a reality TV show, how are we to understand the stoicism and motivation behind Captain Oates crawling to his death in the Antarctic in an effort to improve his colleagues’ chance of survival?

However, all is not gloom. There are plenty of remarkable and admirable people about. The challenge is for us to make them heroes, to allow them to inspire us. The worldwide affection in which Nelson Mandela is held is cheering. The Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi is heroic by any standards. Suu Ki, and other heroes of the oppressed, however, are fighting a clear evil.

The difficulty for our society, lacking such definite lines, is to produce heroes who will steer us where we would like to go – to thrill us into seeing what is valuable and what is not. For the democratic and affluent West the new heroes may not be pioneers in the jungle, the frozen wastes or space, but where true heroes have always operated, in the terrain of morality and decency.
 

Flip

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D&B

Interesting observation but a sad commentary on western culture.

I was raised to understand "good guys" and "bad guys", heroes and villians,
and the role each plays in the world.  Now everything has faded into
relativism.  Values are not valued. The admirable are not admired.

Is it social maturity or ambivalence?
 

CesarNostradamus

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It goes like this... The bad get away without that much punishment, and the good arnt treated, and honoured enough.

For Example... The police. They find a person with Crack, they sentence them to 6 month inprison. That just isnt enough time. how we suppose to get drugs off the street when the punishment is lite.
 

Shec

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Not to brag or anything but I'm my dog's hero.

Who was that penned something to the effect of "You can tell a lot about a people by the heroes they keep" ?
 

Flip

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There's another quote from somewhere.......

" Lord, let me be the man, that my dog thinks I am"  ;D
 

cobbler

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daftandbarmy said:
Here’s a quiz. Name the two kayakers who paddled from Australia to New Zealand this month. 

knob #1 and  #2

They did it over the holiday period. So if something had gone wrong, 200 people on one of the RANs east based ships would have been called away from their families over chirstmas to rescue those two selfish clowns.

I cant believe this journo compared those two to Armstrong or Hillary, it cheapens their great feats.
 

Delicron

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Interestingly, I read an article in Maclean's magazine a couple years ago that bemoaned the 'wussification' of the Canadian male.  The article focused on the continually infuriating 'Canadian Tire Guy' and his ridiculous family as a major example of this somewhat feminizing influence in Canadian popular culture.  I tend to agree with both articles.  I find that I'm often alone in respecting and admiring people who are real heroes, such as my personal hero (and I'm sure many others on this site) Gen. Romeo Dallaire (among others).

I hope at some point Western culture as a whole can come out of our malaise and identify what it is we need to direct our culture in future generations.
 

daftandbarmy

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OK, so these guys are my heroes - for now anyways. How many Canadians have completed polar treks like this before?

http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=4lSgTt1qbZw&feature=related

http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=sKnBZTVqE4I

http://www.explorapoles.org/index.php?expeditions/arctic_arc&s=4&rs=home&uid=24


It is not often that one can follow the adventures of modern day explorers. You now have that opportunity. To celebrate the International Polar year 2007-08, Dixie Dansercoer and Alain Hubert are traversing from Siberia to Greenland on skis.

Dixie will be honored this coming October as Belgium's Outstanding Explorer of the past 100 years.

You can follow their adventures by connecting to:

http://arcticarc.org



 
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