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Friday, February 04, 2005

12 Degrees of Heroism

update: Don't read this post! See the post above to see why... I'll submit a rewritten version soon. Thanx, dear reader.

Do Eskimos really have 42 different words for snow? The claim may be apocryphal, describing how language is shaped by culture, and, in this case, climate. 300 years ago Hawaiians had no word for snow for obvious reasons, while the Eskimos had 42. Makes sense, right? Okay, so why does English have only one word for hero?

Thesaurus.com gives us these synonyms:
ace, adventurer, celebrity, champion, combatant, conqueror, daredevil, demigod, diva, exemplar, gallant, god, goddess, great person, heavy, heroine, ideal, idol, lead, leading lady, leading man, lion, martyr, master, model, paladin, popular figure, prima donna, principal, protagonist, saint, star, superstar, tin god, victor, worthy

None of the above actually work. You’d never call the fire fighters who went into the Twin Towers exemplars or paladin. Hero is the only word we have for them. And yet, we use the same word when we refer to a reservist called up, unwillingly, for active duty to fight in Iraq. And we should, don’t get me wrong. But really they are not the same. Not only is the fire fighter MORE heroic, he is a DIFFERENT kind of heroic.

I’ve decided, arbitrarily, to pick 12 kinds of heroes. If that number doesn’t coincide with reality I’ll change it, but fyi, if the number is 12, after all, it is because I tried to make it so… Rather than plug in real people’s names or real groups of people (such as the 911 fire fighter vs. the reservist above) I’m going to use fictional characters whenever possible. This makes the issue a little less emotional and combative.

The Victims-
Some would say these are not heroes at all. But I include them in this list.

12. Sarah Connor- No, not THE Sarah Connor- but the one (take your pick) the Terminator killed because her name came before THE Sarah Connor’s in the phone book. She is the hero only in that she is the victim of the evil force. Some may say there was nothing heroic about her.

11. The Band in The Titanic- Yes, the band played on. I don’t know if they really played on, but in the movie they played on. There is something heroic about maintaining one’s dignity and sense of self in the direst of circumstances. I think, had I been on that ship, I would have told them to shut the f**k up, so they don’t get bonus points for entertaining the other passengers under that circumstance.

10. Holly McCain- heroine of Die Hard. She didn’t fight back so she remains a victim. On the other hand she held up well, made the best of a bad situation, and certainly WOULD have fought if she’d seen any kind of opening.

The Unwilling- These are people who are heroic, not by choice, but by circumstance. Some sense of obligation forced them to be great. At one end of this subset they fight only for their own lives, at the other end, they fight for love.

9. THE Sarah Connor from Terminator 1- The ultimate ‘ordinary person in an extraordinary situation’ heroine. Now you might think THE Sarah Connor should be higher on this list, considering what she went through and what she fought. But she fought for her own life or her unborn son’s life, which is less heroic than fighting for strangers or for ideals, and she had help. (I know she was fighting for mankind, but that was incidental) So she doesn’t score as high as-

8. John McCain from Die Hard- McCain was fighting to save his wife, yes, but he could have just kept his head down and hoped for the best. Plus she was kind of a bitch. While he is an unwilling hero since he found himself, (over and over) in the middle of terrible situations he did not volunteer to combat, he scores higher than Sarah Connor because he could easily have rationalized himself onto the sidelines, but chose not to.

7. Shane from Shane- Shane fought for love. Not for love of his own son, but for another man’s son. Not for his own farm, but for another man’s farm. Not for the love of a woman, but for love of another man’s woman. The other thing that makes Shane’s sacrifice extraordinary is the fact that the other man could have left his farm.

The Willing

6. Achilles from The Illiad- Obsessed with glory, with honor – not the new version of honor but the ancient one- Achilles’ story has bee told for millennia. What makes him worthy of The Willing Hero list is neither his staying power nor his martial prowess however, but the fact that he went to war KNOWING he would die. Why is he at the bottom of the list? Because he’s a selfish ass.

5. Dirty Harry- A cop, so by definition he is a willing hero. He isn’t some guy going along who just happens to have some bad luck. He seeks evil so he may destroy it. Having said that, he isn’t the highest order of Willing Hero- he does not enter every situation despite knowing he will probably die- he goes in thinking the OTHER guy will probably die.

4. Ripley from Aliens- In Alien Ripley was an unwilling hero, along the lines of Sarrah Connor. In Aliens Ripley willingly went back to advise the Marines on how to fight the foe. So she did put herself in harms way. Then she went back for Newt. While there was some maternal bonding going on before she made that choice, Ripley invaded the mother alien’s lair for, basically, a stranger. She knew she probably wouldn’t make it back. She didn’t give a fuck. That’s why she’s at the top of this list. Beowulf and Ripley battled for this top spot, btw. Ripley got it because she looks better in underwear.

The Naturals-

3. Chuck Yeager from The Right Stuff- I know I said I wouldn’t use real-life examples, but The Naturals are larger than life. I need a certain quote from Wolfe’s The Right Stuff to explain why Yeager belongs here… And I can’t find it online. Suffice it to say that, at least the way Wolfe portrays Yeager- the man simply had no fear. Read The Right Stuff and you’ll know why he qualifies as A Natural. I have the book and I’ll insert the quote tomorrow if you’d like to check back.

2. George Washington- People can argue about which of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. is most responsible for the creation of the United States as we know it, particularly in the form we know it. But the founders and their peers didn’t argue about it. George Washington was the unanimous choice. The Man Who Would Not Be King- that’s how I think of him. When his officers and enlistees asked him to bow his head and accept the crown he said no. And rather than make up some flowery crap about why, he basically said “I’m not going to do it because I’m not an asshole.”

1. Come back tomorrow.

(or maybe on Monday… I’m trying not to be a Monday through Friday blogger but I’ll be hiking the Na Pali and can’t guarantee I’ll have time to blog)


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