Where are all the heroes going?

Mar 05, 2008

It seems as if we're losing heroes (or at least, people perceived as heroic) left, right, and center these days. People that are put up on pedestals by people (or more often by marketing execs and television networks) are slowly and steadily being knocked from their lofty perches in the public eye and cratering when they hit, sometimes never to dig themselves out. About six years ago (probably a bit more, because I remember reading his book when I was still at IUP) a guy named Mike Warnke published what was ostensibly his autobiography, in which he described being the leader of a satanic cult 1,500 strong, lived his life drinking, using heroin, and generally daring death to claim him before turning his life around after what was described as an abusive stint in the US Army. The Christian and Catholic communities praised it to the skies and beyond. There's just one thing: His book was entirely fabricated, something that most of those communities will probably never forgive him for, not only because it impacted their credibility but because everyone that once admired him felt as if they'd been betrayed. A few years later, ex-football player Michael Vick was tried and convicted on charges of organizing and profiting from dogfighting contests and cruelty to animals. Yet another author, Margaret B. Jones, held up by Oprah Winfrey (who seems to be the authority on books that people need to read these days) as another sterling case of someone turning their life around was outed as a fraud when the sister of the author (whose true name is Margaret Seltzer) rang up the publisher and said that Jones/Seltzer wasn't an ex-gang banger but really a fairly well to do soccer mom from the San Frenando Valley. Hell, even the Food Network isn't immune - they just fired Robert Irvine for falsifying most if not all of his professional history.

The reasons for fabricating one's history as a step toward becoming a name that everyone (well, at least a certain set of someones out of everyone, which seems to be enough for some poeple) are obvious: Fame, recognition, marketing deals, money, and a little face time on national television. If you're slick and nobody looks at your CV too closely it's possible to get away with it for years on end (Irvine did) but the key is to drop out of sight and run with what you've got before the hammer falls. In short, the profit from such a scam makes the risk worth it.

Some people, though, are just screw-ups, like Vick. Don't tell me that he didn't know that dogfighting was illegal. You don't need to be Perry Mason to see the complete lack of professional bouts of pit bull terriers tearing each other apart on national television, put two and two together, and realize that this is a) cruel, and b) very illegal.

However, I can't help but think about this more carefully. First of all, what, exactly, is a hero? Someone you'd look up to, right? Someone who has qualities or abilities that you admire, or that you see to some extent in yourself. Someone that can do things you can't, sometimes - ask Superman all about that. I have to wonder how much of the time "someone that can do things you can't" really means "someone that's gained a measure of public notoriety for what they've done" - in other words, someone that's in the news media often enough that people recognize them on sight for what they've done. Someone that's been seen by thousands to millions doing what it is that they do. The key to this seems to be that they've been seen by many, and as such will be remembered by about as many. Who would recognize the name of a bad Shakespearian actor in the 21st century if he hadn't gotten his break wearing a corny yellow shirt and black trousers and spoke with what is now a trademark stop-and-go intonation?

My point is this: People hold other people in high esteem because they do something public and noteworthy. They play football. They have a television show. They have a blog that gets thousands of hits every day. They've spoken at conferences and conventions and are known in their fields. This has the unfortunate side effect of coloring how people see them: Because they're in the public eye they can do no wrong because they're never out of the public eye, which is not true. Just because you see someone on TV for two hours a week does not mean that it is the limit of their existence; they go home, have a beer, read the paper, swear a blue streak if they cut themselves opening a can of catfood, and probably flag off the idiot that cuts them off on the highway (as Spider Robinson put it, idiots are in front of you on the road; maniacs are behind you). They're also not perfect - celebrities are human beings, with their own foibles, follies, and yes, let's call them what they are, flaws.

If we're going to have any heroes in this world, looking to the television isn't the right place. Heroes in the dictionary definition of the word are people who are distinguished by dint of their ability and are known for bravery or particularly noble deeds. These aren't really things that we're going to find on television these days because television makes most everything shown bigger, brighter, and more of what it is, kind of like cocaine. When your medium lends itself to developing fictions that are all of these things, the real heroes are overwritten or drowned out by the technicolor images.

Heroes are local. Sometimes they're ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations who come out on top. Sometimes they're the people who do the right thing because it's the right thing, and not because they're likely to get anything out of it. People who, for lack of a better term, care 'just because'.

You don't have to be a star to touch people's lives. You just have to be there and interact with people (which is a twitchy thing these days when text and instant messages, e-mail, and websites are the most commonly used modes of communication). If someone needs help, offer to help. If someone's crying, offer them a shoulder. If someone's off by themselves, walk over and say "Hi." If something's broken, try to fix it. The people who do these things embody the ripple effect, the phenomenon in which affecting one thing also affects to some extent everything connected to the first. Connections are strange: You never know how far they're going to go or what's on the other end. A wise man once wrote, "but maybe you touch one life and the world becomes a better place to be", and he's absolutely correct. You don't need fame or fortune, you just need to act. Change, real change, doesn't come from CNN, it comes from four feet in front of your nose every time you get out of bed and go outside.