When I was in college, Arlo Guthrie had a song out called ALICE’S RESTAURANT. It was cute and fun and satirical. Many of us could still quote lines from that song. Another cut on that same album (I believe, anyway) was a song about Santa Claus and how we have to wonder about him. The lyrics, paraphrased, asked if he’s a communist since he wears a red suit. The lyrics also wonder about the contents of his pipe … is Santa a druggie?
Santa is that mythical good guy – the ‘he can’t do anything wrong’ guy. Arlo’s song satirizes that whole idea, wondering about Santa’s purity and goodness. Santa’s image is drawn into question. Tongue in cheek? Probably.
Recently, I read a biography about Dwight Eisenhower. It is titled IKE, by Michael Korba. The author is a British citizen, a veteran of the Royal Air Force who flew during World War II. In the introduction, Mr. Korba brings out a point that I found very interesting – he points out that Americans have a way of degrading their figures of note over time. Call them heroes, call them achievers, call them accomplishers, he contends that we Americans do that. We find flaws in such people – Washington and Jefferson had questionable dealings with their slaves. General Ulysses Grant was a drunk. We’ve questioned the fidelity of several presidents of the mid-1900s, from FDR to JFK (remember “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”?) and even Eisenhower, who some say had a fling with his driver during WWII. Such discussion by Mr. Korba got me thinking some more.
And then on a local level, here I sit, living in the center of Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Yeah, sure, you betcha I do.
A handful of years ago, a pedestrian bridge was built in town. On that bridge, an ironwork was placed, showing a black silhouette of Paul Bunyan walking through the piney woods of the area. Paul Bunyan, man of the woods, man of tall tales, man of legend.
And then the furor began. Oh yes, there was the discussion asking, “Did we really need to spend that much money on a bridge?” Fine, let that issue be honestly considered. But guess what? There were those who were just as angry about the ironwork image itself; that the silhouette showed Paul Bunyan smoking a pipe – what sort of message did that send to our kids? How horrible to have to look at that. What sort of artist would do such a thing?
A hero, as far as academically pure circles would say, is one who selflessly and without consideration of their own safely, takes action to preserve the life of others. I give you the soldier who throws himself on a grenade so his brothers don’t get killed. I give you the person who pulls someone from a burning building. Heroes of honest work and duty.
Some of our heroes less distinct, and can even be legends, such as I’ve already mentioned. Some of them may better be described as ‘role models’; people we look up to. There are sports figures, musicians, people in the clergy, movie stars, political figures … the list goes on.
On personal levels, we all have our own list of heroes and role models. My list includes family members, teachers, and some famous people. Your list would be different, and we might even debate some of them. I may revere someone you wouldn’t even consider, and vice versa.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, that brings me to this. I have to agree with Mr. Korba. We Americans could use a bit of reality in our heroes in how we treat them.
Sometimes, they get taken off the pedestal. Columbus serves as an example here. For years, he was the epitome of the New World Explorers. None better. But then, out came the news of how he dealt with the people who lived in the New World., and down came that image. The result? Movements to remove Columbus Day from the official American Calendar.
Sometimes we put up some who shouldn’t be there. Those who come to mind are those who are famous for being famous. Paris Hilton? The Kardashian girls? They may not be heroes, but I certainly am uncomfortable that they’d even be considered role models.
And some seem to arrive where you wouldn’t expect them. Dennis Rodman, elder statesman supreme. Yes, that’s sarcasm on my part.
Who’s next to suffer the deflowering of this American attitude when it comes to heroes and role models? Charles Lindbergh came close when he was seemingly tied to communist leanings. How about the astronauts? Any skeletons in the closets of the shuttles or the other spacecraft? How about our political figures – oh wait, they’re under the microscope like nobody at all. The most minor act can be inflated to something so heinous that you wouldn’t tell your grandmother about it.
And let’s not get into how certain heroes can do no wrong. That’s not healthy either. Yet, we have people who are willing to say that if this person says something, that’s good enough for them. Nope, folks, we need to be careful about that kind of hero-worship.
My point is this. Maybe we need to be more careful of our heroes – who they are, who they have been and who they should be. Let us be thoughtful in who we put up there, and be careful about why we take them down. Our best heroes are few and far between – let us honor them as such with all our effort in heart, mind, and soul.