For the week of February 3, 1999  thru February 9, 1999  

Of Heroes and Dogs

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

The other day a friend of mine was filling out a school admissions application. One of the questions was, "Whom do you admire and why?"

It gave me pause, not because it seemed a particularly hard question for her (she’s 10) but because it seemed an even harder question for me (38).

What does it mean when we say someone is an admirable person or is a good role model? I think it has to do with two qualities: depth of conviction and purity of motive.

In an age of cynicism these qualities are hard to come by. This average guy spends most of his energy trying to out-maneuver and out-smart the next guy, the system or both. Truly admirable people excel because they believe absolutely in what they are doing and precisely because they are not playing all the angles.

It is often pointed out that children no longer have heroes to worship. It is a position with which I’m not sure I agree. A distinction has to be made here between heroes and people we admire.

The term hero is grossly misused in most contexts. These days anyone injured or ill for whatever reason is automatically labeled a hero. The reason being it sells copies of People magazine and the like. As I see it, a heroic person risks his or her life or livelihood for a cause. And so there are many, many heroes out there. We just don’t see them on television. They are the police, firefighters, inner-city teachers, fighter pilots, Peace Corps workers and such.

And when it comes down to it, we really don’t need as many heroes as we need admirable people. The latter are the ones who keep the rest of us on track. They are like buoys to us swimmers adrift in the ocean. Every now and then we come across them grab on, catch our breath, get our bearings and then move on.

I actually worry less about children than I do about adults. After all, children usually have their parents to admire. Most parents I know focus their entire lives on inspiring, fostering and guiding their children through life. Good parents, if anyone, have pure motives.

It seems to me more problematic that adults have fewer and fewer people to look to when their world gets confusing. Whom do adults turn to for inspiration, wisdom, renewed belief in what they are doing? Some would say to the religious texts of the world. It would seem, however, that people we admire need to walk and talk, stroll through the world just as we stroll through it. Personally, I can think of a few such touchstones: Richard Feynman, Thurgood Marshall, Thomas Wolfe, Martin Luther King. Curiously, they are all of another generation and unfortunately, dead.

One reason it is easier for children to answer the question, "Whom do you admire?" is that generally, they have not been poisoned by our cynicism. And I don’t mean to make cynicism sound purely like an attitude or a choice. It is partly that, but it is also something real, a perspective borne of reality. Experience teaches us that people often have multi-faceted motives and beliefs.

The two primary ingredients of the poison are money and power.

Money and power have been with us since the beginning of time, but the difference today is one of scale. The stakes are so much higher now. The amounts of power and money involved in any kind of social decision are so dramatic that it is no wonder people make shady ethical and moral choices.

The two big news issues of the day, the Salt Lake Olympic scandal and the president’s impeachment trial, are prime examples of how power and money distort everything they touch.

It is estimated that the granting of an Olympic Games is worth $3 billion to a city. That is real wealth flowing into the pockets of everyone involved, from politicians to business leaders to the construction workers building stadiums. Even the guy selling hot dogs and T-shirts makes a killing. So for a few bribes, here and there, a city gets $3 billion. That’s a better return than owning Internet stocks. Even the athletes are corrupted by the big stakes. They used to be wonderful role models for us. Unfortunately, they know and we now know that there is a direct correlation between where they finish in the Olympics and the size of their future endorsement contracts.

The impeachment debacle is just as disheartening. The Republicans keep hammering home the point that "it is not about sex." They are probably right about that. It is, rather, about power, who has it and who is going to get it. The Republicans have the bug in the corner, but they can’t quite squash it. And this business of the "Constitution made me do it" is not only fallacious but insultingly disingenuous. It is akin to the "Twinkie defense." What the Representatives and Senators are choosing to ignore is the fact that in a democracy the will of the people trumps everything. The members of the Senate and House are starting to look less like representatives and more like a bunch of big, fat, junk-yard dogs fighting over a hunk of meat.

These are just two examples of the role money and power play in our lives. Depth of conviction and purity of motive, unfortunately, reside on a sliding scale. Temptation is more seductive when the payoff is big. Just ask yourself what you would do for $50 versus what you would do for $10 million.

So what do we do as a society if we want people to behave more admirably?

We figure out ways to reduce the stakes. As it stands now, the distribution of wealth and power, both within this country and between the northern and southern hemispheres, is becoming more polarized every day. As more and more assets, political and financial, fall into fewer hands, the potential for huge economic or political windfalls increases and with it the temptation to do wrong. Correcting this situation in a free-market economy is delicate but necessary work. Every tax or campaign finance reform bill that comes along is an opportunity to ameliorate the problem. So far the Congress has balked at every turn.

One has to wonder at the purity of their motives.


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