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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the weekend: Where are our heroes?

This weekend’s question comes from reader Todd, who says:

OK, just finished watching “The Right Stuff,” and it occurred to me: Where are OUR heroes? You look at the late fifties through the late sixties and you have Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield, John Stapp, the Mercury 7, the Apollo astronauts, Yuri Gagarin, Alexei Leonov. Truly a time of giants. Where are our heroes?

Excellent question. It seems like the only public “heroes” we have these days are celebrities and athletes. Where are the people doing truly significant things — things not related to entertainment — who receive widespread public acclaim? Or are we living in a time of only hardworking anonymous heroes (teachers, firefighters, soldiers, etc.)? If so, why? Have our ambitions as a society become so constrained that we’re simply not taking on big challenges — like space travel — anymore?

Where are our heroes?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Ann Nonymous

    I’d say Sully for landing that flight that flew into birds, but the counter-argument is that he shouldn’t have flown into them in the first place.

  • Martin

    Stephen Hawking is a big hero of mine since he has overcome such odds and has become an expert in his field. He’s also cool enough to have appeared in the Simpsons and Star Trek.

  • Boingo

    Pre-internet, “Hero” was a more clear-cut “label.” Now, a man/woman’s past will be “exposed,”and the shine can
    lose it’s luster fast. People can dig up all kinds of
    mud. Remembering 9-11, I feel the “Let’s Roll” passengers who made that last attempt to confront the
    terrorists moved me the most.

  • Martin

    Have our ambitions as a society become so constrained that we’re simply not taking on big challenges — like space travel — anymore?

    The problem with that is that many of the famous “hero” Astronauts were the ‘first’, they were the pioneers. Today, Astronauts are more like scientists, performing zero-G experiments on the ISS. The next logical step for extra-planetary pioneers is either the first to colonise the Moon or the first on Mars and both seem a long way off, not just financially but technologically. When that bar is met, you’ll have your heroes.

    Today’s pioneers are in the laboratories, they are at places like CERN, working on the frontier of science.
    The problem is that I can’t imagine too many people in the mainstream that would argue against the space program (aside from it’s cost) but there are many people that are opposed to the LHC and the current advances in genetics so it’s a lot harder to elevate these people into the ranks of hero-dom. And it doesn’t help that scientists just aren’t that sexy – well, to the masses anyway.

  • Where are the people doing truly significant things — things not related to entertainment — who receive widespread public acclaim?

    Greg Mortenson.

    Paul Farmer.

    Rafe Esquith.

    Temple Grandin.

    Jane Goodall. (She’s still current, no?)

    Barack Obama. Some here won’t agree, and he’s not finished, and he’s not perfect; but considering everything he’s achieved (including his historic election) in the face of overwhelming odds (including the most toxic political climate in recent memory), he’s going to be a major, major figure in the history books.

    I can’t imagine too many people in the mainstream that would argue against the space program (aside from it’s cost)

    Interesting that people seem to think it’s so expensive; according to Neil deGrasse Tyson, half a penny out of every tax dollar goes to the space program.

    And if there’s any justice, all the folks behind NASA’s unmanned space program should be hailed as pioneers and heroes as well. See this post, and this chart.

  • Victor Plenty

    Building human settlements on Mars or the Moon is NOT a long way off, financially or technologically. We have the technology now, and we’ve had it for decades. The cost of doing it would be only a tiny fraction of the resources we spend on trivial things like pet food and cosmetics.

    And the vast majority of the money invested in space exploration gets spent right here on Earth, where it flows back into the whole economy.

    The ONLY key requirement we lack is the real political will to make it happen.

  • Boingo

    I guess too many “heroes” are unknown to the public.
    One fave “chick” heroine of mine was Frances Kelsey, who stood firm when the big drug companies tried to muscle her to “ok” Thalidomide.She epitomized the
    word “Integrity.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Oldham_Kelsey

  • Althea

    Pet food is not trivial.

  • Victor Plenty

    And neither are cosmetics trivial, nor gossip magazines, nor reality television shows, nor any of a hundred other things that cost our society more than space exploration does.

    But all of these things are far *more* trivial, to the long term survival of the human species, than space exploration is.

  • Victor Plenty

    Getting back to the topic, I must second Stephen Hawking as one of those our society ought to consider a hero. Also Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jane Goodall, Temple Grandin, and several others already mentioned.

    To those I would also add:

    Michael Sandel

    Joel Salatin

    Michael Pollan

    Naomi Klein

    Naomi Wolf

    Jane Lubchenco.

  • MaryAnn

    Today’s pioneers are in the laboratories, they are at places like CERN, working on the frontier of science.

    I don’t want to discourage anyone from posting names of people who should be considered heroes, but within the context of the question, the thing is: Why aren’t these people considered heroes? I mean, I was absolutely NOT suggesting that there aren’t people who are doing valuable and important work today. I was suggesting that those people are NOT being celebrated as heroes. Why is that?

    As for Obama: As long as he refuses to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, refuses to close Guantanamo Bay, and continues to act in Bush’s stead regarding secrecy and extra-Constitutional behavior — such as his claiming that he can order the execution of American citizens without due process if there’s some implication of terrorist activity — he cannot be considered anything like a hero in my book. He’s more like a villain.

  • Depends on what you mean by “hero.” What really is a “hero?” What do you have to do to be considered a “hero?”

    In very general terms, I think a hero is someone who goes way above and beyond their required duties. However, because of the Internet and 24-hour news world we live in, the label “hero” is applied all over the place, but it doesn’t mean anything. Like that pilot who landed the plane in the Hudson River. Some called him a hero, but others said it was a miracle. Well, which is it? And if heroes have to rely on miracles to get things done, then what makes them heroic? It wasn’t a miracle, and that pilot wasn’t necessarily a hero. He was a highly skilled and highly experienced pilot who was trained to respond in emergency situations. In other words, he was doing his job. Doctors, researchers, etc are the same thing: they’re doing what they are paid to do. And that’s vague anyway: there are many different kinds of doctors, and there are a myriad of things to research (not all of which are beneficial). And many people become doctors simply because they want to make a lot of money. What’s heroic about that?

    It may be cliché, but I think the clearest examples or heroes today are war heroes. A lot times, war heroes don’t make it home, but they give their lives so their squadmates can. That’s not part of their job, is it? They’re not all told, “Each of you is required to die to save your squadmates,” if that were the case, the whole squad would die. War heroes who give their lives do so because, to them, in that one moment, it was simply the right thing to do. I’m sure that happens in Afghanistan, but unfortunately the media doesn’t report on it because the war is unpopular.

    But I don’t think you can have a universal definition of what it means to be a hero. It’s all about your point-of-view.

  • markyd

    I am my own hero.
    Damn, I rock!
    ; – )

  • Knightgee

    Due to the free flow of immediate information in our society, we can find out about the less than admirable behaviors of our heroes almost instantly and since our notions of heroism demand perfection from them even though this is inherently unfair, these flaws and indiscretions can be and often are deal breakers. Not to mention that there are plenty of people doing great work that will never get acknowledge by the larger culture simply because the larger culture doesn’t see the value in it, such as people who are organizing and doing antiracist, feminist, womanist, lgbt rights, etc. related works who will only ever be acknowledged as having existed, much less being heroes amongst the people affected by and interested in those issues.

    I think another interesting question stemming off from the above then is exactly who are these heroes for? When we recognize someone is an American hero at the level being discussed, which Americans are we talking about? You consider Obama a villain for certain actions he has or hasn’t taken, but many others consider him a hero for the ones he has taken. Whose view will be favored by history, why, and for which accomplishments? To which Americans are these people actually important and which are simply being told they are important and should care about them? Why should I care about the significance of space travel if that in no way relates to my life and thus does not uplift me? Someone getting to space will not be as relevant to my life as seeing black people and gay people break barriers in the professional and entertainment world that show me that I too can achieve despite my marginalizations, but I doubt many of those people will be considered heroes on the level of the people mentioned in the quoted statement.

  • anon

    I think what is being asked is, where are the broad appeal, national figures that people get behind, regardless of their differences? I think others have answered you can find out more about people’s pasts which can tarnish the image. But just as much we’re too far down extremes in the spectrum to come on consensus for most things. Opinions seem to be much less mutable and much more do or die. I also think the narratives we build with the more information we have, lead to less black and white images. So Obama who would probably be a hero to all Democrats in a different age, is now a hero and a villain, depending on who you ask.

  • Jolly

    Why aren’t these people considered heroes? I mean, I was absolutely NOT suggesting that there aren’t people who are doing valuable and important work today. I was suggesting that those people are NOT being celebrated as heroes. Why is that?

    A lot of them are. Just not on the scale that perhaps the astronauts were (I wasn’t there). But how surprising is this? The early space missions were major events that were followed by a vast swath of the population. How large a proportion of the population follows any particular television show or sport? If you take some of the contemporary figures listed above, many can probably fill a lecture theater or a gymnasium at various campuses around the country. However, much like the President, they are often polarizing figures that are unlikely to be uniformly admired anytime soon, and most don’t make for great television.

  • bronxbee

    here’s my hero today:

    Amy Carper traveled to New York with her 18-month-old son, Noah, to “protest the protesters.”

    “I’m here because I don’t want my child growing up in a country where our freedom of religion is at the mercy of the mob,” said Carper, 26, a stay-at-home mother from Springfield, Ill.”I’m an atheist, but I would lay my life down for their freedom to build this community center.”

    article here:
    http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/09/12/2010-09-12_protesters_reach_fevered_pitch.html

  • Boingo

    “Why are so many that are worthy NOT being celebrated as heroes?

    Not having “Mass appeal,” is one reason (IMO). The
    case of the “Barefoot Bandit,” was an odd one. Not
    being worthy of a “hero label” to most, he astoundingly
    garnered thousands of fans who felt he was symbolic
    of a thumbed nose at the “haves” vs. the “have nots,”
    along with distaste for government authorities.
    He did have that “mass appeal.” Hollywood started to
    “lick their chops.’

    The public’s tastes are fickle.

    Francis Crick and James Watson were hailed as heroes
    immediately. The story was later uncovered of how
    Rosalind Franklin- whose photograph opened the gate for their discovery- was shuffled to the back of the
    stage,and cast a slight shadow on these two. To explain how her contribution made her an equal in the discovery,is still lost in a way to explain it to the general populace in simpler terms(add the culture
    of discrimination towards women in science at the time).

    There is the hero that has achieved great things, stood against fierce odds, but maybe is just an ordinary Joe or Jane in the way of
    looks, pizazz, personality, save for Mother Teresa
    or Walter Mitty types that went way past the stratosphere of requirements for being recognized.

    I came to an understanding long ago, that public
    heroes were “fine, dandy, great (for possibly myself directly), etc., but my favorite “heroes,” are simply
    supportive friends and family,and it will never matter
    they’ll never be recognized by anyone but myself.

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