Let's talk about heroes. There's a lot we can learn from that exploration.
But first, a quick detour as I introduce French author, lawyer and diplomat Joseph-Marie de Maistre.
Joseph de Maistre was no stranger to politically interesting times.
As a nobleman and key figure of the “Counter-Enlightenment,” he lived through the French Revolution.
(Yes, I meant the word “interesting” in the sense of the old Chinese course, which probably doesn’t actually exist. Oh well.)
Joseph the Maistre had some ideas that seem rather nutty to me (such as monarchy as the only stable form of government — though, in his defense, this was centuries before Game of Thrones).
Anyway, the important point is that he gave us this gem of a quote:
“Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.”
(“Every nation gets the government it deserves.”)
Something to ponder while drowning one’s sorrow in Bordeaux and listening to Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” perhaps?
While I don’t necessarily agree with Joseph de Maistre’s quote, it certainly packs a punch. In a way, it almost reminds me of Immanuel Kant’s insight that “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self incurred tutelage.”
(Which, by the way, sound about a million times better in its original German version.)
Both of these sentences ask us to take a good hard look at ourselves. To accept responsibility.
Perhaps our external world is a reflection of… us.
Perhaps we’ve focused on exactly the wrong things.
Perhaps we’re the ones responsible for cleaning up this mess.
Of course, the first step to any type of change is awareness
Without awareness, we’re just grasping in the dark. So, let me ask this question: “Just how sick is the patient and what are the symptoms?”
Well, I’m not an expert but I’d say the patient’s condition is critical.
First, who exactly is the patient?
The patient I’m examining is our heavily US-shaped, global culture.
I come to this assessment by examining who this culture admires. In other words, who are the heroes in our culture? Are they good, kind, full of compassion for others?
That’s important because someone’s personal heroes will tell you everything you need to know about that person’s values. The same is true for systems, such as a culture.
Surely a culture who looks up to school teachers and nurse has different values than one who admires pop stars and football players?
Well, if we use that metric, we’re pretty much ______ (insert rude expletive).
If you don’t believe me, take a look at our current cultural heroes:
- people who made a lot of money, regardless of whether or not their way of conducting business is actually good for the wider whole,
- people who manage to attract attention, regardless of whether or not they actually have something insightful to say,
- people who, in some way, shape or form, “look good,” regardless of whether or not they’re also pretty on the inside.
And, by the way, I’m not saying that it used to be better in the good ol’ times. I’m not prone to that sort of historical nostalgia. “Good ol’ times” doesn’t exist, except in works of fiction.
Who are then, some worthy heroes to admire?
Glad you asked. The first person who came to mind for me is Stanislav Petrov (who unfortunately passed away in 2017).
You might not know him but you owe him. Big time. (We all do.)
He’s the person who, on September 26, 1983, likely prevented a nuclear war.
That day, he was the duty officer a the command center for the nuclear-warning system. That’s when the system reported that the US had launched missiles.
As Vox writer Max Fischer explains:
“Petrov had to make a decision: Would he report an incoming American strike? If he did, Soviet nuclear doctrine called for a full nuclear retaliation; there would be no time to double-check the warning system, much less seek negotiations with the US. If he didn’t, and he was wrong, he would have left his country defenseless, an act tantamount to treason.”
Wow. Just take a moment and imagine that amount of pressure.
That’s a pretty unprecedented level of pressure, going even further than what Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as “having skin in the game.” That’s having your skin, your soul and the fate of the world on your shoulders.
Going against Soviet military protocol, Stanislav Petrov came to the conclusion that it was a false alarm. In a 2013 interview, he admitted that “he was never absolutely sure that the alert was a false one.” He said that it “was a gut decision, at best a “50–50' guess.”
After reporting a system malfunction, he had to wait 23 minutes to discover whether he was right or not. (Just allow that to sink in. That must have been the longest moments of his life.)
It later turned out the system had indeed malfunctioned.
Which means that Petrov likely prevented a nuclear war.
To put the magnitude of that feat into perspective, consider these estimates from a 1979 report by Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment: a full-scale Soviet assault would kill 35 to 77 percent of the US population. A US counterstrike would kill 20 to 40 percent of the Soviet population.
The report goes on to explain:
“ These calculations reflect only deaths during the first 30 days. Additional millions would be injured, and many would eventually die from lack of adequate medical care. In addition, millions of people might starve or freeze during the following winter, but it is not possible to estimate how many.”
(According to a 2013 report by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a nuclear famine might put threaten the lives of 2 billion people.)
Oh, and if you thought that it would be impossible to esteem this man any more than you do right now, I’ve got even more Petrov-awesomeness for you:
- In an interview, he was super-humble about the whole “saving the world thing”: “All that happened didn’t matter to me — it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing. I did nothing.’”
- When his wife got cancer, he retired so he could care for her.
Honestly, screw Alexander the Great’s military pursuits!
Why are so many people fanboying him and not Stanislav Petrov? Saving countless lives by preventing an unnecessary war is a gazillion times more admirable than taking lives.
Here’s a short, totally irreverent round-up of cultural heroes from different eras (don’t like, don’t read — you’ve been warned):
- Alexander the Great: tamed a horse a bunch of cities after himself but didn’t leave an heir (seriously, you had one job — isn’t leaving an heir the whole point of monarchy?).
- Steve Jobs: iconized the turtleneck and created a nice-looking phone that became very popular while also helping to accelerate our rate of addiction to our smartphones. (Contrast that with the people who created the Fairphone and showed that business can be a force for good.)
- Winston Churchill: former UK Prime Minister with a knack for personal branding. That’s why he’s now being seen as a great moral authority despite reportedly saying things that were racist even for his time period, such as: “ I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”/ “The Aryan stock is ripe for triumph.”
Parting thoughts on heroes
American actor Will Rogers had an interesting insight:
“We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.”
Well, I don’t know about you but when it comes to heroes, I’d much rather clap for Stanislav Petrov (or people who risk their lives for others, such as the doctors who fight Ebola or the liquidators in Chernobyl) than any of the usual suspects.
Because the truth is that our culture deserves better heroes.
We deserve more than the shallow and the superficial.
We’re so much better than that.
We deserve real heroes.
The thing about real heroes is that you’ll rarely find them in the limelight.
It’s perhaps similar to some of the fictional superheroes we see in shows who hide behind a mask.
Because real heroes aren’t doing what they’re doing for publicity or recognition. They’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, just like Muhammad Ali and other everyday heroes.
And that’s something we can all learn from them.
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