A Hero’s Progress

What does a hero look like to you?

What makes a hero? And how do we choose who to elevate onto the pedestals of our imagination?

I once related a story to my wife of how Scott’s Antarctic party were carrying 30 lbs of geological samples right up to the bitter end of their doomed expedition. My thoughts on this were to establish Scott’s heroic devotion to scientific discovery, but my wife’s response was quite telling – “That was a bit stupid wasn’t it? Wouldn’t they have been better off dumping the samples earlier? Or maybe carrying more food?”

It’s pretty hard to come back on that one – and to be fair, the dichotomy regarding Scott is not restricted to my marital comeuppance – many a column inch has been expended arguing the cause – heroes or idiots? Model Englishmen or repressed overgrown schoolboys? Can they be both? Is there a difference?

The question at the heart of this is – what are heroes anyway?

In the 1980s and 90s I used to see Ian Plimer as a hero – back when his dancing on the media stage revolved around debating Duane Gish on creationism and taking Noah’s Ark ‘researcher’ Allen Roberts to court over claims of deception.

Today I’m pretty much embarrassed to share a profession with the man. It’s not even his contrarian views on human-induced climate change that have me shaking my head – it’s the way he subverts scientific practices and principles in making his arguments, and adopts all the bluster and rhetorical tricks of the creationists and religious fundamentalists he once worked so hard to antagonize. He’s like the roguish Uncle at Christmas dinner who the kids all initially think is cool but ends up getting tanked and putting your new cricket ball through Mum’s greenhouse.

Has Plimer changed in the last 10 years? Probably not. Indeed, the things that most rile me about his climate science position – his tireless pursuit of media attention and dogmatic fixation on his own point of view – are probably the same traits I used to cheer on when he was battling the Young Earth Creationists.

When I sit down and analyse the issue, what has changed is the relationship of Plimer’s pronouncements to my ideals. In the Roberts case (in which, for the record, he was found to have proved two of the 16 instances of ‘false and misleading claims’ made against Roberts – but these were judged to be so minor as to not require remedying. It was at best a Pyrrhic victory, with legal costs estimated at $500,000 awarded against Plimer), I shared his beliefs and wanted him to speak for me. I projected myself through him. And it’s that personal buy-in that hurts when a hero shows their feet of clay.

A hero does not have to be superhuman across all the fields of human endeavor (take note Kim Jong-un) – but for my money they do need to pass muster as a moral exemplar. We construct them to be mirrors in which we want to see reflected a kinder, or stronger, or more clever version of ourselves.

Nelson Mandela probably comes as close as you could hope to universal hero status. A symbol of morality and hope bestriding the complexity and partisanship of late 20th century world politics – you can forgive the fact he can’t kick six goals against Collingwood, but if he’d come out of Robben Island and said ‘Right, 27 bloody years – I’m going to make DeClerc pay for every day of that’ we would not hold him in such high esteem. He is not just a successful leader, he demonstrates qualities of personality and morality that we all wish we shared – in the words of veteran British Labor MP Peter Hain “[Mandela] seems to encompass all that is best about us on our best day.”

At the risk of being accused of taking the easy shot – compare Mandela with his contemporary Robert Mugabe. Both were militant freedom fighters of great personal charisma who rose from years of struggle to lead their countries, both have had immense personal successes and made a great mark on the world stage, but I’d wager that the phrase ‘I wish I could be more like Robert Mugabe’ has not often escaped the lips of idealistic aspiring leaders around the world. Possibly outside of the occasional Central Asian republic.

All that is best about us on our best day...hmmm, maybe not. Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe - and perhaps hero to some, but hardly a figure of universal acclaim.

All that is best about us on our best day…hmmm, maybe not. Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe – and perhaps hero to some, but hardly a figure of universal acclaim.

My own field of science is not short of luminaries who similarly fail the personality test of heroism.

Werner von Heisenberg – he of the uncertainty principle. Great figure in 20th century physics…blots his copy book slightly though with the whole ‘being a Nazi sympathizer and leading Hitler’s atomic weapons programme’ thing.

Allan Cox…now this one troubles me. Cox was a tremendous scientist who made key contributions to the development of Plate Tectonic theory – arguably one of the most significant paradigm shifts in 20th century science. He was justifiably awarded a dazzling array of scientific prizes and medals, served as President of the American Geophysical Union, and was widely admired by his colleagues and peers. His untimely death in 1987, however, was ruled a suicide by the coroner, and is widely acknowledged to have been a response to the fact he was about to be charged with child molestation. Of his graduate student’s son. Where this enters the realm of heroes is the ongoing association of Cox’s name with academic prestige. The Geological Society of America still bestows the Allan V. Cox Student Research Award every year, and Stanford University the Allan Cox Medal for Faculty Excellence Fostering Undergraduate Research. Now, I have to presume the trustees of these respective awards undertook a thorough and testing review of their association with Cox, balancing the depth of his achievements against the gravity of the accusations against him…but on a personal level I feel they came down on the wrong side of the line on this. Yes, we should respect and admire Cox’s intellectual contributions. But just dial this one back a second and ask yourself whether Cox is really someone you would choose as a figurehead – a hero to represent you and inspire others to join your cause. I mean, come on guys – a student research award? Surely that’s right up there with having a Pauline Hanson award for racial tolerance and multiculturalism. If a hero is, as I suggest above, someone we hold up as a mirror in which we seek to see ourselves, I don’t think Cox fits.

This line is not always easy to walk – and certainly, a hero to one need not be similarly beloved by all. Mike Tyson’s 2011 induction to the boxing hall of fame, for example, was greeted with incredulity and derision from some commentators. But why? Personally, I’m no fan of Tyson, but I can appreciate that he should not be judged as if he were some secular saint with over developed pecs and a facial tattoo. Tyson is a socially maladjusted guy from a tough background whose single minded intensity and naked aggression took him to the pinnacle of a global sport – albeit a sport based around dominating, assaulting and attempting to physically destroy an opponent. And it turned out he was violent, struggled with personal relationships, and blew $300 million in a spectacular decade of orgiastic excess. Really? Nobody saw that coming? The point is, for good or ill, Tyson probably does embody a great example of the essence of boxing for many fans of that sport. If you happen to value that, then to expect him to have lived up to the moral and aescetic standards of Gandhi (or, let’s be honest, even Bon Scott) is an unrealistic projection of someone else’s hopes and dreams onto his shoulders.

If we really want to have a pantheon of heroes that can shine out as an embodiment of our values and dreams, maybe we’re better off sticking to the fictional creations of Stan Lee or Joss Whedon. Or if you prefer your cyphers in flesh and blood, let’s at least wait until they’re safely in their graves and away from the long lens of the tabloid photographer. And maybe even longer – Joe Paterno for exemplary moral leader, anyone?


One thought on “A Hero’s Progress

  1. nickfalkner

    A very interesting discussion. I suspect that there are a number of people who do think “I wish I could be more like Robert Mugabe” but do it silently and with a codicil of “and get away with it.” I hope never to meet any of them.

    Thank you!


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