Thursday, January 18, 2007


I used to know a fellow who owned a graphics design company that did a lot of business with Hollywood; they did movie posters, newspaper ads, that sort of thing. Hollywood being Hollywood they were always getting last minute rush jobs, even though the release dates were known months ahead of time and even a modicum of foresight would have saved a lot of agony and grief, not to mention the premium fees that have to be paid for rush jobs.

Now, as the saying goes, at the end of the day, it’s just a movie, and the movies that this particular company did were seldom A list. Actually, they usually weren’t even B list; we’re talking projects that were often derivatives of Roger Corman’s B list, what are these days direct-to-video, or, as another saying used to go, direct to Mystery Science Theater 3000.

But he was proud of his employees, and he often said so, for being able to turn out quality work (from a graphics design point of view) even under what were, to put it charitably, very sub-optimal circumstances. He had even extended the rationalization to the point where he would claim that the effort elevated the entire enterprise, an interesting philosophical reverse. Instead of “the ends justify the means,” he was essentially saying that the means justify the ends. After some thought I have to admit that I think the latter notion is probably less pernicious than the first.

Still, let me tell you a story. I don’t remember where I read or heard it, so I may have some details wrong, but the gist of it is what’s important.

Back during the Jim Crow days in the South, there were a variety of laws that had been passed for the specific purpose of disenfranchising blacks, things like poll taxes and literacy tests (with “grandfather” exemptions to allow illiterate whites to vote). In one particular county, there was an old black sharecropper who had, with substantial diligence, managed to keep his poll tax paid, qualify under the literacy tests, and so forth. It was a point of pride for him that he had voted in every election in which he’d ever been legally allowed to vote.

Now this was at a time of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and some members of the local Klaven decided that enough was enough, and someone should teach the “uppity nigger” a lesson, “teach a lesson” being Klan talk for “kill” or maybe just “beat so severely that he’d never manage to ever get to a poll again under his own power.” The owner of the property on which the old sharecropper lived got wind of it.

The owner paid a visit to the old man on the night before the election, just a friendly visit, he said, and the two of them spent the evening sipping and talking on the front porch of the old man’s shack. After it got substantially late, the old man confessed to being tired, and he wanted to be fresh for the trek to the polls in the morning. The owner smiled and nodded, and asked the old man’s permission to sit and rock on the porch for a while, if that wouldn’t bother the old man’s sleep. And could he leave the lantern outside? The old man agreed.

So the owner just sat on the old man’s porch for the entire night. But he’d brought his shotgun with him and he got it out and rested it on his lap. Dawn found him still on the porch, and if anyone came by, they’d seen him on the porch with his shotgun and they’d left without coming close.

Motives? Who can really tell? Probably some sense of justice, and just as probably a lot of plain cussedness. The old man was his old man, not property, but certainly under his protection, and the owner was damned if he was going to let someone else tell him whether or not the old man could go to the polls and vote. Furthermore, let’s not romanticize the owner too much. By our standards he was doubtless racist to his core. But whatever the mix of reasons, however noble or ignoble, I’m pretty sure that his actions add up to heroism, even though all he did was sit on a porch for a night.

This particular heroic act cannot happen today. There are no sharecroppers or Jim Crow laws. Modern methods of disenfranchisement are at the margin and not meant to be universal. They are methods of shaving votes, not totally disenfranchising an entire race. Black men are no longer routinely lynched, and even the later atrocities such as the murder of voter registration workers have given way to much more subtle forms of harassment and intimidation.

Which is all to the good. It does mean, however, that the standards have changed. It’s no longer possible to be a hero just by sitting on an old man’s porch for the night. To fight for racial justice these days means a lot more boring clerical work and a lot fewer heroic stances. And make no mistake, this constitutes a considerable improvement in social justice. We are the better for no one’s having the opportunity to be a hero by sitting on an old man’s porch with a shotgun.

I’m willing to generalize this observation substantially. A firefighter can be a hero, but we’d rather the fire had not started in the first place. An ER doctor can save an accident victim’s life through “heroic measures” but preventing the accident would have been better all around. A hero in war is a hero, but we’d rather have the war not be necessary in the first place.

Truth to tell, I can’t really come up with an example of heroic action that doesn’t involve some causative agent that we’d rather have never happened.

We’ve all heard the stories of people who start fires in order to then perform heroically, or of “Munchausen’s by Proxy” where someone gives someone else a poison or an injury in order to obtain the sympathy and respect that goes with “bearing the burden” of caregiver. There are a lot of similar examples in all sorts of areas of human endeavor.

And wars are sometimes started by people who dream of glory, and it’s not just the leaders to whom I’m referring. The glorification of war and conflict is often a matter of the yearning for heroes and heroic actions, and entire populations have succumbed to war fever, sad to say.

So let me raise a toast to prevention and prophylaxis, to the public health and environmental officials who keep the air fit to breathe and the water safe to drink, to the fire inspectors who prevent more fires than firemen extinguish, to the diplomats who cool the tensions, to the teachers who steer a student toward learning and away from crime. Here’s to all the professionals who are just doing their jobs. All of these people work to reduce the amount of heroism in the world. In a perfect world, there would be no heroes, and I would not mourn their absence.

The perfect world does not and cannot exist, of course. There will always be natural disasters to endure, and human misunderstandings that get out of hand. But I can hope for progress away from the heroic and toward a world less extreme. If you still crave on-demand heroics, there would still be mountains to climb, high waves to surf, glaciers to ski. In fact I suspect that speaking the truth will always remain dangerous, and honesty will always be difficult, even for men of honor.

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