Saturday, July 5, 2008

What Makes a Hero?

Some months ago, Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled Some Heroes. Paul gave us a list of his own personal heroes, and their reasons for greatness1. I think I might have pissed him off when I wrote a comment that brought up the allegation that P.G. Wodehouse collaborated with the Nazis. Wodehouse's fans are very protective of his legacy, it seems.

Lately, the notion of what makes a hero has been severely debased. Sports stars, musicians and actors are considered to be heroes by many youngsters (as well as by adults who ought to know better). If you ask someone why Tom Cruise is his hero, he will often cite a role that he played in a film. "Yeah, Tom Cruise was so cool in those Mission Impossible movies, man!" Tom Cruise never did any of the stuff shown in the films, though. Not once was his life at risk: stunt doubles and special effects are what made him look cool. Did he ever actually save someone's life or put his own life on the line for a great cause? Well, no. He is just some guy blessed with good looks who appears in films.

I am not trying to heap abuse on Tom Cruise. It is nothing personal and I am sure that he is a pleasant enough fellow. All I am saying is that he does not quite measure up to what a real hero is.

When I think of what a real hero is, it is someone like Raoul Wallenberg, a man who risked his own life to save the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II. Sometimes, I wonder how I would have acted, were I in his shoes.

Another hero of the War was Douglas Bader. In December 1931, Bader lost his legs in an aircraft accident. Writing about it in his logbook, he simply remarked:
Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.

Bader's understatement serves to show how very English this Englishman was. This minor handicap ultimately did not keep him out of the Royal Air Force. Instead of taking a desk job, he requalified as a fighter pilot and flew the Hurricane and the Spitfire in combat, shooting down 22 German aircraft. After he was shot down in August 1941 over Occupied France, he was captured by the Nazis and held as a prisoner of war. He took the POW's obligation to escape to heart, and made many attempts, eventually frustrating his captors so much that they took away his prosthetic legs. After the war, Bader was promoted to Group Captain (equivalent to a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force) and knighted.

One thing though, is that I believe you really should not meet your heroes, if you want them to remain your heroes. They are human beings, not gods, and will have the same weaknesses and biases that anyone else has. I am sure that even Martin Luther King had his bad days.

I am reminded of a story that I heard once about how Mel Brooks met Cary Grant. Back in the day, when Mel Brooks was starting out, he met Cary Grant at a party, and he invited him out for lunch. Cary Grant was Mel Brook's idol; he thought that he was the coolest guy who ever lived, so of course, he was thrilled to be able to hang out with him.

They went out for lunch at someplace like Sardi's or The 21 Club and they stayed for about three hours. Mel Brooks was entranced by Cary Grant's stories about Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, and so when Cary Grant invited him out for lunch the next day, Mel Brooks enthusiastically agreed.

The next afternoon, they met at the same place and dined for three hours. The only problem was that Cary Grant told exactly the same stories that he told the previous day. Mel Brooks was shocked. "Oh my God, My hero is a bore!" After that, whenever Cary Grant called his office to invite him for lunch, Mel Brooks dodged them, begging his secretary to make up excuses.

I have no idea of whether this story is true or merely apocryphal. But it does sound plausible.

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