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I wrote the first draft of the following piece before Donald Trump's shocking upset victory over Hillary Clinton. I have now revised it slightly, especially its five final paragraphs where I argue that we need our heroes now more than ever.

Progressives Need Heroes

Why We Progressives (and Others) Need Heroes, Especially Now—Walter Moss

When a few weeks ago I read that Trump said he had no heroes, I thought how appropriate it was for such a narcissistic individual because who could be greater than he? The rest of us, however, who realize that we are far from perfect, need our heroes.

When a few weeks ago I read that Trump said he had no heroes, I thought how appropriate it was for such a narcissistic individual because who could be greater than he? The rest of us, however, who realize that we are far from perfect, need our heroes.

But cannot following the wrong kind of heroes do more harm than good? Are there not dangers lurking in making heroes of others, no matter how noble they may be? Yes and yes. Obviously, for example, glorifying someone like Hitler and becoming a neo-Nazi would be a tragic mistake.

Psychoanalyst Sue Grand even believes there is great danger in idolizing more admirable “heroes.” She cautions us against creating “outsized” heroes who possess superhuman qualities. Instead she encourages us to identify “ordinary” heroes, to see how interdependent we all are and to realize the heroic in our own behavior

Her view is far different than that of the nineteenth-century Scottish thinker Thomas Carlyle who wrote On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (1841). In it he glorified such men as Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, and Napoleon, but perceived no heroes among “ordinary” people, whom he viewed unfavorably.

During the twentieth century, however, debunking great historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, pointing out their many flaws, has become more popular than it was in Carlyle’s time, and so too has historians’ emphasis on social history that elevates the importance of common people.

For their 2011 book Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them, social psychologists Scott Allison and George Goethals surveyed 450 average Americans about whom their heroes were. About two-thirds of these heroes were real people, from the past or present. The other third were fictional heroes from the likes of books and films, people like Huck Finn, Indiana Jones, Rocky Balboa, Han Solo, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Among the real people, about half of the heroes were family members like one’s mom or dad, while sports stars and entertainers slightly outnumbered heads of state and humanitarians like Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

On their blog the two authors conclude:

It’s pretty clear that heroism is in the eye of the beholder. Preferences for heroes are as varied as people’s taste in music, movies, and paintings. Defining a hero is like defining a good meal at a restaurant. It depends on your values, your personal experiences, and maybe even the stage of life in which you find yourself.

Cancer victims name cancer survivors as their heroes. Soccer players list soccer stars as their heroes. In short, your needs and motives determine whom you choose as heroes. Maturity and development play a role in hero selection, with younger people tending to choose heroes known for their talents, physical skills, and celebrity status. Older people tend to favor moral heroes. As we get older and wiser, our tastes in heroes evolve. Some have suggested that with age and wisdom, our choice of heroes improves—perhaps as we get older we become more discriminating and more respectful of the term “hero”.

What these psychologists write seems true to me. When I was twelve and thirteen my greatest heroes were basketball stars because I hoped someday to be one. As I got older (and never became as skilled at hoops as I had hoped), my heroes resembled more the “moral heroes” that Allison and Goethals mention. By 1968, three of them were two men assassinated that year, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the man I had just completed my dissertation about, the Russian philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900). What I most admired about this Russian were his values—he was a Christian ecumenical thinker critical of anti-Semitism, intolerance, and nationalism.

Now, almost a half-century later, while still admiring King and RFK, I have added new heroes to my list, men and women whom I consider wise and who exemplified in their lives values that I consider most important. In the last seven years I have written long essays for the Wisdom Page on such individuals, men and women like Carl Sandburg, Anton Chekhov, Andrei Sakharov, E. F. Schumacher, and Dorothy Day. In these essays and shorter pieces I have also mentioned others who have displayed considerable wisdom, such as Gandhi, Protestant minister Reinhold Niebuhr, naturalist and co-founder of the Sierra Club John Muir, Nelson Mandela, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and the poet W. H. Auden. At present I am reading a long biography of another person I admire greatly, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for involvement in a plot against Hitler.

Learning and writing about these individuals has helped me in many ways. Their values and actions have inspired and encouraged me, and we all need inspiration and encouragement from time to time. We are all fallible human beings, prone to error and weakness—including my heroes—but they have done a pretty good job of living the values I hold most dear.

And our values are, or should be, central to our lives. The founder of the Wisdom Page, Copthorne Macdonald, once wrote that “values are at the heart of the matter.�� He quoted a famous neuropsychologist who wrote that “human value priorities . . . stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events. More than any other causal system with which science now concerns itself, it is variables in human value systems that will determine the future.”

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To improve ourselves and our world, to advance the progressive causes that we believe in, two things are necessary: we need to have the right values and we need to live them. In a previous essay on Progressivism, I identified some of these values: love, compassion, and empathy; humility, tolerance, and compromise; rationality and the proper mixture of realism and idealism; humor and creativity; passion, courage, and sticktoitiveness; hope and optimism; and a love of beauty and peace.

Collectively, my heroes have personified these values. Like all of us, they are far from perfect human beings, but they have overcome obstacles and demonstrated to us that these values are not impossible ideals, and that we can put them into action.

Take Dorothy Day, for example. She wrote some of the wisest words I have ever read about love: “If we could only learn that the only important thing is love, and that we will be judged on love—to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven, to mothers-in-law, to husbands, to children—and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury—not to see them, not to hear them. . . . not judge, not do anything, but love, love, love.” And she realized that this advice was “a hard, hard doctrine.” But in her work of almost a half century at hospitality houses she established for the poor and suffering, she tried to practice what she preached.

Day also thought that “we must always be seeking concordances, rather than differences.” Although a devout Catholic most of her adult life, she had radical atheist friends, was active in the ecumenical movement, and was one of the founders of the Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. In 1975, she wrote of the necessity of exercising “the virtue of hope even when all seems hopeless.”

She was also a great lover of beauty and peace. Her biographer Jim Forest, who knew her well, wrote that “from childhood onward, Dorothy had a marked capacity for awe and a vulnerability to beauty”; that she had “a gift to see not only what is wrong in the world, but to see beauty and to discern signs of hope”; and that she saw it “in places where it was often overlooked.” She was a committed pacifist who in the late 1950s was arrested every year for her participation in pacifist demonstrations.

My other heroes also demonstrate most, if not all, of the values I emphasize. The writer Chekhov, for example, was known for his compassion, humility, tolerance, humor, creativity, and love of beauty. The title of an excellent biography of Sakharov, Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov, hints at the respect this scientist, dissident, and human rights advocate had for rationality, but the biography also demonstrates his other values such as compassion, courage, sticktoitiveness, and optimism. E. F. Schumacher was not only an incisive critic of our modern dominant economic systems, but an early environmentalist whose writings reflect his great care for other human beings and the planet Earth that we all share.

In examining my own personal concerns, as well as our many societal problems, I cannot count the number of times I have reflected on the words and deeds of my heroes. Recalling them encourages and inspires me.

In facing the difficult days ahead, when we progressives must adjust to a Trump presidency and a continued Republican-dominated Congress, we need the courage and sticktoitiveness of a Day or Sakharov more than ever. Like Day, we should seek “concordances” and recognize the good qualities in many of our fellow citizens who supported Trump. But also like Day, who on occasion was jailed for her pacifist actions, and like the dissident Sakharov who suffered through occasional hunger strikes and seven years of exile under a Soviet government, we should be willing to struggle and suffer for our values and beliefs.

Like the poet and Lincoln biographer Sandburg, who was a good friend of two presidential candidates, the socialist Eugene Debs and later Democrat Adlai Stevenson, but saw them both defeated multiple times, we must not lose heart.

And like Sandburg and Chekhov we must maintain our sense of humor—see here for my essay on Sandburg’s “wisdom through humor.” About Chekhov, two observers have written, “All his life, from his early childhood, he had laughed off any disagreeable situation in which he had happened to find himself; the joke became his most effective weapon in a crisis.” And, he viewed “laughter as medicine, and a vital prerequisite for any treatment of his fellow human beings. Implicit is the sense that laughter—and comedy—are restorative.

Finally, in a political atmosphere likely to be hostile to progressive attempts to improve environmental conditions and combat global warming, we can benefit from the example of E. F. Schumacher's pioneering environmental consciousness. Undoubtedly, during the next four years, such a struggle for a sustainable environment will be difficult and at times discouraging.

But like Sakharov and another of my heroes, Nelson Mandela, we must continue to persevere and hope, regarding our planet and our common fate. In the USSR in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev finally came to power, freed Sakharov from exile and permitted him to press forward in seeking the better world he desired. In the midst of Mandela’s 27 years in prison, he gave the name Zaziwe, meaning “Hope” to one of his granddaughters, and continued to believe that “man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”

walter moss

Walter Moss

In 1994, the former prisoner became South Africa’s first black president. One of Sakharov’s books in the mist of Soviet oppression was entitled Alarm and Hope. Today we are experiencing the first of these words, but in the days ahead we will need to emulate the steadfast hope, sticktoitiveness, and courage of heroes like Day, Sakharov, and Mandela.

Walter G. Moss

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