Wrongs That Are Right

A recent blog I posted elicited a most interesting comment from my blogging buddy “BTG” (“Big Tall Guy”). I argued for the objectivity of moral judgments, when well-reasoned, and he raised the following issues:

Hugh, I can think of a few examples where an act can be right, but also have some wrongness attached. A domestic violence victim who finally lashes back and kills her abuser. A man defending his home and kills the intruder. A mother defending a child who kills the assailant. All actions are justified and have a rightness about them, but killing someone is wrong. I recognize these are extremes, but there is a lot of gray in our lives.

I made a brief, but altogether unsatisfactory response — as one does with comments on a blog post — and then realized that the issues BTG raised deserve extended response. So here goes. Let’s begin with one of his examples. Let’s take the case of Mrs Jones who has been repeatedly battered by her husband, several times seriously enough to require trips to the hospital. After a series of such events, including one beating in a hotel elevator that was caught on CCTV and  “went viral” arousing the ire of millions of people around the globe, she reaches out during one such beating, grabs a bronze statue on the bedside table and kills her husband. Assuming that the case ever goes to trial, there is little doubt that a jury would consider this a case of “justifiable homicide.” It is wrong to kill, but under the circumstances one would almost assuredly regard the killing as “the right thing to do” — or if we hesitate to use the word “right,” at least we must admit it was expedient and therefore justified in the circumstances. That’s my point: killing is wrong, but in this case, within the context of this event, it is justified because there is a reasonable case to be made that if Mrs. Jones had not killed her husband he would eventually have killed her. It was self-defense.

My point is that we can reason about such events. We need not just rely on “gut feelings” or “intuition.” It’s not just a question of personal opinion. We can try to distance ourselves from the event and examine it as objectively as possible, separate out its grisly elements and render a  judgment. It’s what would be done in a court of law, and it is what we can do on a daily basis if we choose to venture beyond the realm of grunts and hunches. Ethics need not be reduced to the level of personal feelings, simply.

But there are cases which are even more troublesome. Take the case of Henry Smith who has joined the U.S. Army and is now in Afghanistan where he is called upon to kill people regarded by his country as enemies. He has no bone to pick with these people, and in the case of the war in Afghanistan it is not clear that the folks who fall before his automatic weapon are in fact enemies in any real sense of that term. And even less clear is the case of the airman who sits in a room somewhere in Nebraska and directs drones half-way around the world to “take out” presumed enemies of Freedom.

St. Augustine argued that the only justification for killing in war is in the case of defense of home and hearth, a defensive war. It’s not clear that the so-called terrorists Smith is killing pose any direct threat to Smith or his home and hearth. In other words, it is not clear that this is a “just war,” in Augustine’s sense of that term. He is simply ordered to kill and in many cases because of his situation, the men he kills are trying to kill him. Unless he is guiding a drone, his act is one of self-defense. But this act is complicated by the fact that Smith might well have chosen to take a job at Walmart rather than to enlist in a war that might be over nothing more vital than the country’s supply of oil — or poppies. He made a choice, presumably. It’s not as clear-cut as the former case — though we might revisit the former case and ask why Mrs. Jones didn’t simply leave her husband before putting herself in a position to have to kill him rather than be killed herself.

The point of this extended discussion is that we can pick out the various elements of each and every situation and examine them in the air of dispassionate scrutiny and render a judgment that stands up to criticism. To the extent that it can withstand criticism we can claim it is true — so far as we can tell at present: we have no absolute knowledge. We can say that Mrs Jones, for example, was trying to work through the domestic violence because deep down she loved her husband and leaving him was never a real option — she genuinely believed that things would work themselves out. But Smith is more culpable, despite the fact that our country keeps telling us that these young men and women are heroes, they have all made a decision to engage in a war that is of doubtful legitimacy: it is not clear just how those “enemies” in Afghanistan pose a direct threat to Henry Smith or anyone else in the U.S. of A. If he had been drafted the situation would be entirely different, but as it is his killing raises a number of problems regarding the rightness of his actions.

But in the end, the point I want to make is that we can discuss it: we can draw out the particulars and try to determine whether his action is right or wrong. I would simply note, again, it cannot be both. It’s either right or it is wrong. The problem we have, if we decide to think about such things rather than dismiss them with a grunt, is deciding which it is.

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Remembering Quixote

In a day in which reading books is rapidly becoming a lost art, it is refreshing to read one great author praising another. I have referred from time to time to Don Quixote, but Joseph Conrad’s tribute is by far the most eloquent I have ever read. It appeared in Conrad’s “Personal Record” of his life.

“. . .Indulgence — as someone said — is the most intelligent of all virtues. I venture to think that it is one of the least common, if not the most uncommon of all. I would not imply by this that men are foolish — or even most men. Far from it. The barber and the priest, backed by the whole opinion of the village, condemned justly the conduct of the ingenuous hidalgo who, sallying forth from his native place, broke the head of the muleteer, put to death a flock of inoffensive sheep, and went through very doleful experiences at a certain stable. God forbid that an unworthy charl should escape merited censure by hanging on to the stirrup-leather of the sublime caballero. His was a very noble, a very unselfish fantasy, fit for nothing except to raise the envy of the baser mortals. But there is more than one aspect to the charm of that exalted and dangerous figure. He, too, had his frailties. After reading so many romances he desired naively to escape with his very body from the intolerable reality of things. He wished to meet eye to eye the valorous giant Brandabarbaran, Lord of Arabia, whose armor is made of the skin of a dragon, and whose shield, strapped to his arm, is the fate of a fortified city. Oh, amiable and natural weakness! Oh, blessed simplicity of a gentle heart without guile! Who would not succumb to such consoling temptation? Nevertheless, it was a form of self-indulgence, and the ingenious hidalgo of La Mancha was not a good citizen. The priest and the barber were not unreasonable in their strictures. Without going so far as the old King Louis Phillipe, who used to say in his exile, ‘The people are never at fault’ — one may admit that there must be some righteousness in the assent of the whole village. Mad! Mad! He who kept in pious meditation the ritual vigil-of-arms by the well of an inn and knelt reverently to be knighted at daybreak by the fat, sly rogue of a landlord, has come very near perfection. He rides forth, his head encircled by a halo — the patron saint of all lives spoiled or saved by the irresistible grace of imagination. But he was not a good citizen.”

Socrates once said a person cannot be a good citizen and a good person. Jesus said we cannot worship two masters, God and Mammon. I wonder. So, apparently, does Conrad. In J.D. Salinger’s tales of Franny and Zooey, Franny quits college because she hasn’t heard anyone talk about wisdom. She would have done well to have read Cervantes. Or George Eliot. Or the early Platonic dialogues. Or the New Testament. Franny must have been receiving very poor advice: she missed all the really important stuff!  It saddens me to think that fewer and fewer people will read the adventures of the mad, holy knight of La Mancha — as it does to think that fewer and fewer will read anything at all. Conrad’s tribute, written by a man using his second (or third) language, gives us a sense of what they are missing.

Snowden’s Retreat

Despite the fact that I defended Edward Snowden for his risky revelations about NSA, the apparent fact that he joined the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in order to have access to privileged information so he could then reveal that information to the American people is disturbing. It raises questions about his motives, suggesting that he contrived to perform an act which seems on its face to have been one of courage and evidence of deep convictions. Further, it is equally disturbing to read that he is now “hiding out” in the former Soviet Union where he appears to be safe from extradition.

Henry David Thoreau Courtesy of Wikipedia

Henry David Thoreau
Courtesy of Wikipedia

In classic cases of civil disobedience, which this seems to be on the surface, the person involved willingly faces punishment for his disobedience to a particular law. It is a specific law, or in Snowden’s case, a specific series of violations of the First Amendment, that is found objectionable — not law (or the system of laws) itself. The classic cases are those of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom were willing to face the consequences of their acts of disobedience — King’s to the laws supporting segregation and Thoreau protesting fugitive slave laws. In any event, the phrase “civil disobedience” implies clearly that the disobedient person recognized the legitimacy of law as such but has serious moral qualms about specific laws that seem to be a violation of “higher” laws of morality.  Hence the term civil disobedience. As Thoreau said in his essay on civil disobedience, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” The appeal is almost always to a higher, moral law with the recognition that civil law as such is essential to the preservation of society.  As King wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”:

One may want to ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

Simple disobedience to laws with no intent to suffer consequences is anarchy or, possibly in the case of Snowden, treason. Unless there are mitigating circumstances about which we have yet to be informed, it would appear that Snowden is on rather weak moral grounds. This is not to say that I condone what NSA is doing. Quite the contrary. I regard it as a clear violation of the First Amendment. However, if we contrast Snowden’s actions with those of Pfc. Bradley Manning who “blew the whistle” on the U.S. Army and faces a military tribunal and a possible twenty-year prison sentence we can see the difference in sharp relief. Manning felt strongly that what was going on in Iraq was a violation of what we might call the laws of morality and he chose not only to reveal what he regarded as evil, but he also chose to face the consequences. His act was truly courageous; based on the information we are able to get from the public media, Snowden now appears to have had questionable motives in the first place and his unwillingness to accept the consequences of his act suggests that he is deserving of censure. We might want to exercise caution in determining who deserves to be placed on a pedestal.

Adulating The Military

I have written a number of blogs about what does and what does not make a “hero.” We use the term a great deal these days, usually attaching it willy-nilly to those in the armed forces. But I would apply it to those, in and out of uniform, who choose to do difficult tasks quietly, often daily, and in the face of criticism from others. In fact, I would regard as heroic those few in uniform who risk court-martial by daring to question what they were asked to do as members of the armed forces supposedly in the line of what they are told is their “duty.” I do not choose to apply the word “hero” across the board to those in uniform. Many of those folks, especially those in combat, are indeed brave and risk their lives in the face of fierce opposition. But it is not clear that the cause they fight for is worth their risking their lives or, worse yet, dying for. Cynics might say that the “freedom” they protect is the freedom of corporations to make huge profits and that freedom never actually filters down to the rest of us who seem to wander about in confusion at the bottom of the pyramid of power.

Our tendency to adulate the soldier, to label those in camouflage who seem to be everywhere these days and who are touted as brave risk-takers, is disturbing and a bit stupid. We find them conspicuously present at nearly every professional sporting event; we are surrounded by countless yellow ribbons as part of the “Support Our Troops” campaign; we note the military’s sponsorship of high school sporting events such as the all-star football game every year; and we cannot avoid the countless references to our “heroes” on television in commercials for the armed forces and even for insurance! One might say we are inundated by messages depicting armed servicemen and women as central characters in a global melodrama in which they play a pivotal role in a war that has never been declared. As noted, there are those among the folks in uniform who do in fact take risks and with whom I would not choose to change places. But the vast majority of them do the mundane, everyday tasks of just muddling through and following orders for enough money to get by so they can complete their commitment and learn the skills required to get a paying job when they are back “outside.” Many have simply joined up because they didn’t know what else to do, or because they were sold a bill of goods by the recruiting sergeant (I know a couple of these myself), or because they simply wanted the enlistment bonus so they could buy a new truck (I also know a couple of those). In any event, while it is impossible to question the motivation of every individual who “joins up,” it is possible to attempt to keep a balanced perspective and realize that those in uniform are pretty much like those who are not in uniform — some are heroes, some are not; they are just doing their job and, like the rest of us, they may even hate it. We know, for example, that the suicide rate among those in the armed forces is unusually high and this is cause for alarm. But, then, the suicide rate among college students is also quite high and we cannot draw much in the way of a conclusion from either of these facts, except to find them disturbing. Perhaps it is simply the case that being young and having to face an uncertain future is becoming too great a burden for many in this crowded culture of ours.

But in the end, we would be well advised to remember that those in uniform are not necessarily any more “heroic” than the rest of us — in many cases less so than, say, the unmarried mother of three who has to take care of the house and raise her kids on starvation wages. We bandy about words like “heroic” at the risk of draining the word of all meaning and ignoring the fact that there are those who are truly heroic while others simply wear camouflage and go about in groups while we bow and scrape and sing their praises, assuming that they are all exceptional young men and women. In a word, the mindless adulation of a group who happens to wear a uniform is jingoistic and takes us part of the way toward a militaristic culture that simply assumes that those in uniform know what they are doing and that what they are doing should never be questioned by those “civilians” who must judge their actions from outside the group. It might be wise to remind ourselves from time to time that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson (even George Washington) opposed the idea of a standing army on this continent, and with good reason.

A New Hero!

I apologize to readers for continuing to circle back to the question of the types of people we revere as heroes. But I have always thought, since I first read Homer’s Iliad, that the heroes a culture admires tell us a great deal about that culture and the values it holds dear. My most recent blogs were about the sad examples of Michael Jordan who seems to be totally self-involved, and the group that picketed after the death of the renegade cop, who seem to be simply misguided. In both cases, it seemed to me, we had examples of types of persons who are hardly admirable, much less heroic.

220px-Elizabeth_Warren_CFPB1

But I have found a person who is worthy of the title of “hero.” It is Elizabeth Warren, a first-term Senator from Massachusetts who is not only sharp but also a woman of principle who seems willing to take on the powers that be. She is like a breath of fresh air in Washington – the city of stale air and an excess of money and lazy self-interest. A recent story that has gone “viral” on You-Tube shows Senator Warren taking on bank regulators over the issue of penalties for ripping off the public. You remember: the banks are the types this government bailed out recently with a slap on the wrist. They apparently paid their fines with some of the $700 billion they received from the government to help bail them out of the difficulties they got themselves into. Iceland, in contrast, simply let their failed banks go under and the government bailed out the investors. And their economy at present is in fine shape, thank you very much.

In any event, a recent story and film clip on the internet show Senator Warren making fools of the bank examiners as  the following exchange makes clear:

“We do not have to bring people to trial,” Thomas Curry, head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, assured Warren, declaring that his agency had secured a large number of “consent orders,” or settlements.

“I appreciate that you say you don’t have to bring them to trial. My question is, when did you bring them to trial?” she responded.

“We have not had to do it as a practical matter to achieve our supervisory goals,” Curry offered.

Warren turned to Elisse Walter, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who said that the agency weighs how much it can extract from a bank without taking it to court against the cost of going to trial.

“I appreciate that. That’s what everybody does,” said Warren, a former Harvard law professor. “Can you identify the last time when you took the Wall Street banks to trial?”

“I will have to get back to you with specific information,” Walter said as the audience tittered. . . .

[Warren concluded the exchange by noting that,] “There are district attorneys and United States attorneys out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds and taking them to trial in order to make an example, as they put it. I’m really concerned that ‘too big to fail’ has become ‘too big for trial,'”

If you haven’t seen the video, you owe it to yourself to check it out (here). Warren is relentless. All she needs is a white charger or a cape and her image would be complete. The bank examiners look very uncomfortable and, try as they will, they are unable to prevaricate, a dodge they are very skilled at.  It will be very interesting to see if Senator Warren is able to have a major impact in a city that seems to swallow up principled politicians. In the meantime, I simply say: Go Elizabeth!!

Renegade Cop

You have probably read or heard about the ex-cop Christopher Dorner who killed three people on his way to a mountain cabin where he was surrounded, killed a deputy sheriff, and then apparently shot himself before the cabin burned to the ground. All reports indicate that the man had anger issues and his dismissal from the LAPD was apparently the last straw that turned him against the very laws he had supported for years. He has become something of a cult hero, as we learn from articles like the following:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Dozens of protesters rallied outside Los Angeles police headquarters Saturday in support of Christopher Dorner, the former LAPD officer and suspected killer of four who died after a shootout and fire this week at a mountain cabin following one of the biggest manhunts in recent memory. . . .

The 33-year-old has already inspired a burgeoning subculture of followers. While most don’t condone killing, they see him as an outlaw hero who raged against powerful forces of authority, and some even question whether he really died.

There’s already a song about him! We really are desperate for heroes so the fact that a man like Dorner would emerge from this terrible incident as an “outlaw hero” is not all that surprising, I suppose. For one thing, we all feel oppressed from time to time by those in authority who would insist that we do things their way. As Dostoevsky would have it, we all, perhaps, want to “assert our independence, to go against social conventions, against the despotism of relatives and family.” It is a natural, human impulse to want to resist those who would thwart our will: just ask any mother of an adolescent child. But as we grow older we are supposed to become accustomed to authority, learn to accommodate ourselves to others, and recognize laws and constraints as necessary for us to get along with one another. Or perhaps we do not grow up! It does seem at times that this culture worships youth and does everything in its power to hang on to youth well into old age. Just take a peek at the AARP magazine sometime and check out the ads that promote products that promise to help people look and feel younger!

We find men of all ages in locker rooms across the country slapping each other on the backs, snapping towels, and telling dirty jokes — just like high school. College is regarded by the majority of its students as a time to have fun, not to grow into responsible, well-informed adults. Immediate gratification is the order of the day. Postponing gratification is the sign of maturity. And we can see from the level at which the commercials on TV are directed that marketers clearly think they are selling their products to eighth graders. Perhaps they are.

In any event, when a cult forms around a man who went berserk and shot three innocent people in imitation of Rambo (as he himself is reported to have said), then we need to stop and wonder where we have come in our resistance to legitimate authority and adulation of those who openly flaunt it at the expense of innocent lives. There was something clearly wrong in the workings of Dorner’s mind that led him on his rampage. But there might also be something wrong in the workings of the minds of those who would place him on a pedestal and think that this man was in any way admirable. We really do need to be careful whom we revere as heroes. I seriously doubt that the man could walk on water, feed the multitudes with a few loaves and a couple of fish, or emerge alive from a cabin engulfed in flames and surrounded by law enforcers.

Getting It Right

In the aftermath of Black Friday and what is rapidly becoming Black Thursday — previously known as “Thanksgiving” — it is refreshing to read stories like the following:

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Here in the birthplace of Thanksgiving, where the Pilgrims first gave thanks in 1621 for their harvest and their survival, some residents are giving thanks this year for something else: the Colonial-era blue laws that prevent retailers from opening their doors on the fourth Thursday of November.

In fact, throughout New England there are remnants of “blue laws” and a growing movement toward keeping Thanksgiving safe from commerce. And polls show that a large percentage of this country’s population finds the commercialization of the holidays unpalatable. But record numbers of folks still show up at the stores in the early hours of Black Friday and, increasingly, late on Thursday as well. One does suspect that the anti-shopping movement will fizzle out as commerce has money at its disposal and money as we all know can be very persuasive. And that’s the problem, isn’t it?

We have bought in to the notion that money talks and what it has to say is somehow important when, in fact, it has little to say and should be told to shut up. But that ship has sailed. We not only listen when money talks, we bow down and worship it and buy into its metaphors (‘sorry about that!) and applaud its wealthy heroes and blindly accept its definition of success.

We do not define success in terms of character and improving the lot of others as we most assuredly should; we do not applaud the feats of the true heroes, the volunteers who serve dinners at soup kitchens, the underpaid police and firemen who protect our lives daily, the teachers who have to deal with our spoiled children on subsistence wages, and the men and women who step forward during a crisis such as hurricane Sandy.  Instead we applaud the wealthy athletes and Hollywood actors and actresses in their $45 million homes whose shallow lives we follow avidly and seek to emulate. Those are our cultural heroes, not the ordinary folks who are selfless and go thankless and unappreciated every day of their lives.

But Plymouth, Massachusetts may have the right idea. Thanksgiving is the one holiday every year when commerce should be told to take a hike, when we should stop and think about what really matters: the many blessings we all share. Shopping should not be on the agenda. It’s bad enough we sit after a sumptuous meal glued to the television set watching one or more of the three NFL games provided for us by sponsors whose only goal is to make bigger profits. But, sad to say, the reason this day will eventually become a Black Thursday is precisely because there is a ton of money to be made and we will be told repeatedly to shop until we at long last get the message and leave the couch and head to the nearest box store. After all, we do want to get the best deal — and it’s first-come-first-served.

In the meantime, let’s give thanks to the folks in Plymouth who got it right. They are members of a vanishing breed and will soon go the way of the dinosaurs.

Unsung Heroes

The recent “Frankenstorm” that hit the Northeast and left such devastation in its wake gives us pause. We can feel sympathy for the terrible losses in lives and property those people sustained and the suffering they continue to endure. But we can also marvel at the heroism of ordinary people who came together at such a time and exhibited true selflessness. It has been said before and it needs to be said again: the true heroes are the ones we hear very little about. They are the ones like the  medical personnel at New York University’s Langone Medical Center who acted quickly when the storm knocked out the power in their hospital, including the backup generator. They moved 300 patients, including a number “preemies” whose lives depended on the fluids being pumped into their tiny bodies from equipment driven by the electrical impulses that suddenly stopped. None of the lives was lost, due to the determined and selfless actions of a group of people who quietly save lives every day. And there are the dozens of volunteers who are currently taking meals door to door to senior citizens trapped in their apartments on Staten Island where things are growing more tense with each passing day. There are countless more people whom we will never read or hear about who came forward to help others during the storm and the aftermath.

But there are also small stories we hear about that did not emerge from the hurricane  — like the high school football team in Queen Creek, Arizona who befriended a 16 year-old girl who was subjected to such bullying that she went home each day in tears. As we are told in a brief Huffington Post story:

Players including the star quarterback have rallied behind Chy Johnson, a 16-year-old special needs student who was tormented by kids at school, reports 3TV News and azfamily.com.

The players now eat with her at lunch and watch her back.

Chy is now a happy kid who looks forward to school each day even more than she used to fear it. I like to think I am a realist. But my world view borders on cynicism when it comes to the stupidity I see in my fellow humans each day. I have voiced my feelings on numerous occasions in these blogs. I mean, really, how can this presidential race even be close, for Pete’s sake? And why on earth are we still discussing global warming while the Midwest suffers from serious drought, freakish storms tear apart lives in the Northeast, and the oceans rise as the ice caps continue to melt? But there comes a time when one must acknowledge that there is good in most of us. We just seem to be unable to bring it to the light much of the time. It takes a crisis such as a major storm or the repeated bullying of an innocent young girl whose plight suddenly is seen as unacceptable by a group of her fellow students.

The interesting question is why it takes extraordinary events or situations to bring out the best in each of us. Given the widespread need of hundreds of thousands of people on this planet every day, why do we wait until pushed to the extreme before we allow ourselves to feel sympathy for our fellow humans and take action? These questions will continue to nag at me; but I give thanks that there are a great many people who are compassionate and capable of selfless acts. These are the true heroes and they give us hope.

The Athlete As Hero

Generally speaking our athletes aren’t terribly heroic, though we don’t seem to have figured that out yet. We place them on a pedestal and watch their every move with interest. But many of them are greedy and self-absorbed and often given to flirtations with the law — not the kind of people we want our kids to turn into.  But there are some interesting exceptions, one of which is Phil Mickelson.

This week’s Sports Illustrated Golf special promoting the upcoming “Players” golf tournament has a very interesting article on Mickelson and the number of lives he has touched with his charitable works — quietly and unobtrusively behind the scenes without drawing attention to himself. That’s a real hero. He deserves the praise he is sure to get after this article is read by the golfing public, unless they are too worried about their 3:00 P.M. tee-time to read it in the first place. The man, Mickelson, does immense good with his money instead of spending it all on himself; he gives much of it to those who need it more.

It all started in 2003, apparently, when his wife nearly died giving birth to his infant son who didn’t breath for seven minutes. During the chaos surrounding those moments, he swore that if they pulled through he would “lead a more purposeful life.” Others have sworn the same thing during moments of crisis, of course, but this man meant it and has kept his promise. He contributes thousands of dollars from his winnings and endorsements to various charities — not just the “First Tee” that so many golfers give to in order to make it possible for kids to learn “life lessons” as they learn to hit golf balls. Mickelson’s charitable giving is not for promotional purposes and it benefits people in genuine need.

One such is David Finn who suffers from a “mitochondrial disorder that has left his limbs shriveled and his mouth unable to form words.” He has become Mickelson’s pal, enjoying genuine interaction with a man with a great deal on his plate. David has attended a number of golf tournaments that Phil played in and the latter has always made a point of noticing the boy’s presence, giving him a moment of his time, and making him feel important and liked.The association with Mickelson has given the boy’s life a huge boost according to his parents. Then there’s the science teacher who attended the Mickelson Exxon Mobil Teachers Academy for a week of intensive science and math instruction along with 600 other teachers, all at Mickelson’s expense, and who became an award-winning teacher as a result. There’s also a soldier who lost his legs when an I.E.D. exploded under his vehicle while he was on duty in Iraq and who now plays golf and lives in a specially designed home provided for by “Homes For Our Troops” funded, in part, by Phil Mickelson. “From the start Mickelson has been a financial supporter and a spokesman. He is also a benefactor to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides college scholarships to the children of fallen special ops personnel.” There is also the young cellist in New Orleans who lives in a home in “The Musicians Village,” one of 72 houses reserved for struggling artists. “Two of the houses were built with money donated by Phil Mickelson. In the days after Katrina he had contributed $250,000 to relief efforts and pledged all of his winnings from the 2006 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, which inspired a number of players to do the same. Mickelson was disappointed to finish 15th and earn ‘only’ $81,720.00, so he rounded the number to a quarter mil.”

And, finally, there is the single Dad whose two kids were able to attend “Start Smart, an annual event that Phil Mickelson hosts for about 2,000 kids from lower-income school districts across San Diego county. Mickelson pays for the buses to bring the children to a big-box store” where they purchase school supplies for the upcoming year. “At the end of the day Mickelson picks up the bill, which runs well into six figures.”

Good stuff. A good man, obviously. One who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the rich, spoiled athlete who poses with kids in hospital beds and then goes out and gets another tatoo or buys a new car and some more jewelry. Mickelson has obviously touched the lives of a number of people with genuine needs, and he deserves praise — though from what I have read, he doesn’t want it.  If there were more like Mickelson — and surely there are a few more — then athletes would deserve the hero status we give them in this country, not because they are great athletes, but because they are good people.

True Heroes

Every age needs its heroes. The Greeks had Achilles the manly warrior who was flawed but able to overcome his deficiencies when the chips were down. We have our football players and professional athletes who also clearly have flaws but are able to prevail on the field — if they aren’t in jail. Oh, and we have our movie stars who live very public lives. The firemen and policemen and women who risk their lives are a better bet, as are those in the armed forces who risk their lives to protect our way of life. But, then, what is being protected for the most part are corporate interests and most of those people were either drafted or are paid to do a job. They are certainly admirable, but I prefer those who quietly and voluntarily make sacrifices to buck the tide and further the general welfare of all of us who share this planet.

One such person who is a hero in my view is Danny DeVito who is interviewed in this month’s Sierra magazine. DeVito plays the voice of The Lorax in the new Dr. Seuss movie. He is also a staunch environmentalist who realizes that (as he says) “we have maybe fifty years to get this right.” He drives an electric car and plans to install solar panels on his house so he is using less electricity generated by nuclear power or coal-burning plants. He owned an electric car before it was “hip,” in the late 1990s “then the powers that be decided it wasn’t good for the oil companies, and they took it away from us.” He knows who the true villains are in this drama we are living through. And he knows what needs to be done.

One would like to think the new Dr. Seuss movie will open the eyes of our children to the fact that as they grow up they will need to do whatever they can to repair some of the damage their parents and grandparents have done to the planet. They will have even less time to do so. This is not to say that there are not more heroes like DeVito who are doing their best right now. There certainly are — just not enough of them.  I have a friend who became the third customer of a company in the Twin Cities to install solar panels on his garage to supplement the electricity he draws from N.S.P. He watches it like a hawk and delights to see the sun taking money out of the pockets of the corporations. We need more people like this, and we need to modify our notion of what makes a person a hero. It certainly doesn’t need to be the football player or the sports star. It doesn’t even need to be a man. In fact, there are a great many women in our culture who are truly heroic in their day-to-day struggle to survive in a man’s world where the cultural role models are totally unlike themselves. Our notion of what makes a person admirable needs to be brought up to date.

In the Dr. Seuss movie, taken from the book, the antagonist Once-ler (a financial titan who sells cans of fresh air) is, according to DeVito, “simply misguided, taken in by his commercial ability to make Thneeds [‘a Fine-Something-That-Everyone-Needs,’ which require cutting down the forests].” There lies the ugly truth about our urge to increase wealth no matter the cost. In the end, the message calls for individual responsibility (there’s a new idea!) by saying “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” This is a message we can take to heart, and the man who wrote it — not to mention the man whose voice is that of the main character — is truly heroic.