A Point of View

Heroes have always been part of my life, inspiring and uplifting, providing vicarious adventures. Early childhood was colored by heroes galore: The fantasy heroes of the comic book world - Superman battling kryptonite threats and saving the world from Luthor plots, Batman and Robin policing the night streets of Gotham, the Lone Ranger and Tonto galloping through the lawlessness of the wild west - mixing with the heroes from the requisite curriculum of Philippine history - Lapu-Lapu and the Mactan warriors in their battle against well-armed forces of Ferdinand Magellan, and the revolutionary heroes - Aguinaldo, Bonifacio, and Rizal. And there were the heroes of mythology, Ulysses, Hercules, Achilles and company, and heroes from far away spilling out of the pages of extra-curricular reading, many from the American landscape of the Civil War and the World Wars.

  The hero is known for achievements, the celebrity for well knownness. The hero reveals the possibilities of human nature.
Gen Ojukwu

The early mix of fantasy, mythological and historical heroes provided the basics for a hero-model. As I grew older and as the fiction heroes were relegated to comic strips and graphic books, a new hero-construct emerged - men risking or giving their lives in acts of bravery and sacrifice. Their stories never failed to fill me with wonderment. The man who dives to the ground to cover a grenade to shield his comrades. The man who moves into the path of a bullet. The one who rushed into a burning building to save a child. Stories of ordinary people unexpectedly and inexplicably doing heroic acts, stories that often leave me choked up.

Closer to home, in 2009, in the turbulent flood waters wrought by the typhoon Ondoy, Muelmar Magallanes, a construction worker saved more than 30 people from the raging floodwaters, the last effort, a baby girl and her mother, before he was swept away. Another hero, Pfc. Venancio Ancheta was swept away after saving 20 people. They must have felt themselves getting weaker, but probably thought: Kaya pa ang isa. Kaya pa ang isa. Coming back for one more, and then another, until exhaustion swept them away to their deaths. True heroes. They were granted 15-minutes of posthumous fame, now perhaps, their heroism consigned to oblivion.

That same year, Efren Peñaflorida of Cavite City, Philippines, won the CNN Hero of the Year. He was tagged the Puschcart Educator with his kariton-klassroom. The gentle humanitarian. And I admire him for that. But under the aegis and label of CNN, he was feted the hero, getting more than this 15 minutes of fame, as the hesitant hero and ephemeral celebrity, his life, work, and love life was dissected and made into fodder for the entertainment of the celebrity obsessed.

Last year, when CNN was calling for nominees for 2011 Hero of the Year, I thought: Nominees? Search no more! It should be a no-brainer. The "Fukushima 50." They were the 180 technicians and emergency workers divided into 3 teams of 50, to cycle in and out of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for 15 minutes at a time, to cool down the overheated reactors. By any measure, in whatever overlap, jumble, or confusion of semantics, I thought this was both incredibly heroic and incredibly humanitarian. Men walking into lethal levels of radiation, risking their lives to save millions of their countrymen. If heroic could be humanitarian, if humanitarian can be heroic, it would be the Fukushima 50. But CNN's Hero of the Year nominees are limited to individuals; groups are excluded. Besides, the CNN Hero of the Year is really a humanitarian award. Still, for an organization that purports to celebrate heroes, it was such a wasted opportunity.


The CNN Hero
In 2007, CNN started calling for nominees for a Hero of the Year. 10 finalists picked by a blue-ribbon panel from more than 9,000 viewer nominees. It was to become an annual gala affair.
The CNN Hero of the Year: An All-Star Tribute. Like the annual Oscars, Golden Globe or the Grammy, with all the glitz and glamor of a made-for-television event, black-tie solemnity, with servings of celebrities and red carpet photo opportunities.

It's really a humanitarian award - an annual television special created to honor individuals who make extraordinary contributions to humanitarian aid. Many other institutions have been giving out humanitarian awards: The Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel Foundation Humanitarian Award, Schweitzer Awards for Humanitarianism, among many others. CNN used the "Hero" tag instead of "Humanitarian" of the Year.

And you vote for your hero choice on-line. You log in to a CNN site, click on your hero of choice, then click vote. And you can vote up to ten times a day, for as many days as you want. Not much different than voting for American Idol, where you can cast a vote by texting or voting online, for up to 50 online votes.


I know mine is not everyone's cup of hero-tea. Hero types are many and as varied. One category lists heroes into artistic, athletic, business, law, military, musical, political, and ordinary heroes. Another types heroes into antagonistic hero, anti-hero, paragon, sidekick, superhero, chosen one, tragic hero, and the unwilling hero. Wordplay added another hero type to the list - the humanitarian hero - one who does not risk his or her life while doing something wonderfully humanitarian, but exceptional enough to justify a hero-label. Many celebrities have taken on humanitarian-type advocacies, working off their red-carpet platforms, replete with the accoutrements of limelight and media coverage, some dubiously earning the "heroic celebrity humanitarian" title.

Victims as heroes? Too often tragedies become fodder for media circus and entertainment, as victims are made into heroes, as government and corporate neglect, diluted by the drama of the rescue, are soon forgotten by the promise of change and restitution.

Professional athletes? No jocks in my hero list. But too often, media shower them with hero plaudits. Heroes of the this and that sport. A golfer's heroic surge in the last nine holes. The basketball players' heroic fourth quarter rally. Indeed, the training and pursuit of excellence can be inspiring. But they're entertainers and celebrities in the sports arena of their choice; most are amply compensated, some absurdly and ridiculously so. Ten to twenty thousand dollars per at bat in baseball. Five million a year or more shooting hoops. Five to twenty million dollars to box and pummel the daylights out of an opponent.

There is cultural overload, not just of fantasy heroes, but also of celebrities, TV personalities, and rock stars, many vying for a place in the pedestal of hero-worship and demigodness, while the mediums of print, television, and celluloid battle for the commerce of serving the clamoring masses' insatiable obsession and fascination with their imagined heroes.

And in the wayside fall the real-life heroes, too often, unappreciated and unheralded. The historical heroes have been relegated to the obscurity of history books, some to their annual one-day commemoration, their deeds vaguely remembered or sadly forgotten. The present-day heroes - policemen, firemen, good samaritans risking their lives - get their mere 15-minutes of soundbite fame or short-lived days of media celebration. . . if at all.

  To vote for a Hero of the Year online or through texting, as often as you want, up to ten times a day, is a trivialization and degradation of the hero idea.

The hero-model has become a confusing jumble of definitions and muddle of ideas. What makes a hero? Who deserves to be called a hero? Should risking one's own life be a requisite for an act of heroism? Should humanitarian acts be called heroic, or are they simply advocacies promoting human welfare? Is humanitarianism more closely associated with altruism and philanthropy?

Humanitarianism is not heroism. However, that does not diminish their work and achievements. There are millions of humanitarians all over the world, working alone or in countless organizations and grass root advocacies, toiling in selfless work to relieve the problems of poverty, injustices, and disease, many unnoticed and unsung. And they should be acknowledged, appreciated, and celebrated for their humanitarian acts.

In our desperate search for heroes, we have used "hero" so loosely its meaning has become diluted and diminished. The contemporary hero-world is populated by a confusing mix of fantasy heroes, celebrities, athletes, humanitarians, and some real heroes. We need to resurrect the word, bestow it on those who have indeed done the heroic deed. Teachers and parents should search out the real heroes who live among us, and whenever they happen, to applaud them, to celebrate their deeds, and to share their stories with their children and students. When National Heroes Day is celebrated, small towns should take the opportunity to also honor their local heroes, the ordinary townfolk who rise to a call for the heroic. Their stories should be relived and retold, to teach the young and remind the old and jaded, how the sacrifice, courage and nobility of these men and women inspire and enrich our lives.

Concern, compassion, and courage are all hero traits. The risking or giving of one's life is the ultimate act that singularly defines the hero. But risking of life is not a sine qua non for heroism. There are other intangible qualities that uniquely define the hero - those that make heroes of Gandhi, Mandela, Kennedy and many others. And while we search, ponder, and discuss these inexplicable qualities, we should try to save the hero from mediocrity. We need our heroes and heroines. But we must not be indiscriminate in who we hero-worship. We should elevate rather than diminish. We should separate them from the pseudo-heroes. We shouldn't choose them by nomination and voting in a made-for-television event.

And to vote a Hero of the Year by texting, ten times a day, for as many days as you want? That is a terrible trivialization and degradation of the hero ideal.

by Godofredo U. Stuart Jr.                                                                                                                 February 2012
Suggested Readings
What Makes a Hero? / Philip Zimbardo
Fukushima's nuclear plant workers walking into certain death by radiation / Andy Soltis / Post Wire Services
Children's Heroes and the Ego Ideal / Barbara Frazier / Feb 18, 2012 / The Successful Parent
2011 YEAR IN REVIEW / Heroic Acts / Fukushima 50
/ Yahoo News
Heroes, victims, martyrs, fools: Americans don't know what to make of coal miners
/ Tawni O'dell / April 11, 2010 / Post-Gazette / Opinion / Perspectives

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