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Monday, April 12, 2010


About a decade ago I read an interview with Alex Popov, the Russian swimming champion. At one point the interviewer asked Popov who his favorite film stars were.

Popov replied disgustedly, "That's such an American question to ask. Don't Americans realize that actors are just celluloid heroes? People should look up to someone who actually does something, like me."

He had a point. But when you think about it, sports "heroes" aren't really heroes, either. A hero is someone who makes a personal sacrifice for the greater good, or does something which takes tremendous bravery. Wordnetweb defines it as "A man distinguished by exceptional courage and nobility and strength."

By this definition, any ordinary soldier comes a lot closer to the definition of a hero than any sports star. A soldier puts his very life on the line for the good of his country. Sports are occasionally characterized as ritualized combat, but participating in most sports takes neither nobility nor courage.

So why is it that our social pecking order is set up the way it is? Sports stars and movie stars are lionized, yet soldiers remain anonymous. The only individual soldier (not including high-ranking brass) who has received individual acclaim in the last two decades is Pat Tillman, and that was only because he was a sports star first.

Back during World War II everyone knew who Audie Murphy was; he later played himself in the movie based on his exploits. Where is today's Audie Murphy? There are certainly plenty of candidates.

How many can you name, beside Tillman? Zero?

There is something very wrong with our culture, and our media, when we hear all about Brangelina, and Michael Jackson, but never about any real heroes.

Have you ever heard of Jason Dunham, the Marine Corporal who fought hand to hand with the Iraqis and then threw himself on a hand grenade to protect his fellow Marines?

No, but you've probably heard of Jessica Simpson. And Paris Hilton. And Lindsay Lohan.

Ever hear of Michael Monsoor? He, too, dove on a grenade, to save his fellow Navy Seals in Iraq.

No, but you've probably heard of Roger Federer. And Tiger Woods.

Ever hear of Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith? He singlehandedly manned a machine gun turret while being attacked from both sides in order to provide cover for some wounded fellow soldiers to be carried out. (Smith was found later with thirteen bullets lodged in his protective vest and one in his brain.)

Well, at least you've heard of Adam Sandler. And Nicolas Cage.

Ever hear of Army Specialist Ross A. McGinnis? He too smothered a hand grenade with his body to save the lives of the other four soldiers in a Humvee.

But you have heard of Donald Trump.

None of this is your fault. The media simply doesn't tell you about the real heroes. They just tell you instead about actors and socialites and sports stars and businessmen.

Sometimes celebrities can be interesting, and talented, and fun to read about. But they're not heroes. The people who actually are heroes, sadly, are almost never celebrated.


Anonymous said...

In the theory of "revealed preference" consumers show the products they value most by their purchases. Does a theory of "revealed values" indicate our true values? I think it does to a good degree: perhaps while intellectually we applaud and honor real heroes, we don't really want to be like them - we really want to be Roger Federer, or more decadently Nickelback's "Rock Star".
On a different note, I think it's wrong to place the blame too much on the media, which I see is more of a commercial reflection of our collective revealed preference (and revealed values). It's more troubling to me that in our culture we give our kids strong signals about values that reinforce the concern you highlight. My kids are required to attend pep rallies for the school sports teams, but why not a pep rally for the Math Team? The first acceptances at our Ivy League colleges are the sports star recruits. I guess as a society we care more about cheering the ball team than curing cancer.

Anonymous said...

PS It is very appropriate of you to draw our attention to recent Iraq war medal of honor recipients. May I suggest that you add Pfc Ross McGinnis for completeness?
Thankfully, despite our societal failings we are blessed by the presence of many true heroes.

John Craig said...

Note: Guy just sent the following email:

Aplologies, Spc. (not Pfc.) Ross McGinnis.

John Craig said...

Guy --
I've included McGinnis, thank you.

As to your first comment, you make a very good point: to a certain extent the media is just fulfilling a need regarding public curiosity. People want to read about Britney Spears et al, so they, as businesses, are just providing the public with the product they want. And as far as who we want to be, I couldn't agree more: I would certainly rather have led Warren Beatty's life than Jason Dunham's.

But I also think the media shapes public thinking more than most realize, and they also have more of a liberal agenda than most realize. And glorifying soldiers who have given their lives like this doesn't fit in with the Culture of Grievances picture of society they want to paint and brainwash us with.

You're certainly right about the primacy of sports in our culture; the fact that your idea of a rally for the math team is so funny illustrates that point. (And I'm speaking as a 55 year old who never outgrew his sport, as the previous post indicates.)