Who Else Is There?

In the fertile imagination of a bookish, young boy, their names echoed down the years, a pantheon of heroes—some real, some fictional—whose gallantry and derring-do inspired dreams of glory.

There were Galahad, Arthur’s most loyal knight; Brian Boru, high king of Ireland; Ivanhoe, Scott’s noble warrior; Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest; and Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn—all of whom led me to think that perseverance and a righteous cause can triumph over all odds.

I read of boys I fancied to be just like me, and wished I could be just like them:  Peter Pan, Jim Hawkins, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, and my favourite, Tom Sawyer.  It was delicious to imagine myself walking in their shoes, yet sobering to realize I could never fill them, except in my playtime fantasies.

As I grew older and my interests broadened, the list expanded to include heroes from the world of sport, some of whom had feet of clay I either was ignorant of, or chose to ignore.  Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach; Busher Jackson of the famed ‘Kid Line’ with Primeau and Conacher; Arnie Palmer, the King; and the incomparable Ali, the greatest.  They inspired me to believe I could accomplish anything, even though reality kept bringing me back to earth.

By the time I came to realize that all my boyhood heroes were male, almost all of them white like me, the list of people I admired had already swelled to include both women and people of colour whose stories I avidly read.  The women included Joan of Arc, faithful martyr to a cause; Marie Curie, two-time Nobel prizewinner; Florence Nightingale and Laura Secord, who sought the battlefields heretofore trod only by men; Amelia Earhart, intrepid aviator; Anne Frank, diarist of atrocities; and Rosa Parks, igniter of a movement.

The men included Mahatma Gandhi, champion of non-violence; Jackie Robinson, who broke the colour-barrier in major-league sport, beginning in Canada; Willie Mays, the ‘Say Hey Kid’; MLK, another martyr to a cause; Bob Marley, the reggae Rastafarian; and Harry Jerome, world record-holding sprinter.  Sports heroes were prominent, of course, befitting my own predilections.

A common theme running through these lists, although I may not have been aware of it at the time, is the willingness on the part of these iconic figures to persevere through all manner of tribulation before finally achieving success.  However, I also admired others whom some considered failures, despite their ablest efforts against all odds to attain their objectives: Horatius at the bridge; William Wallace of Braveheart fame; the doomed troopers of the Light Brigade; Jimmy Carter, a one-term US president; Terry Fox, forced to surrender short of his goal to a relentless cancer; and Roméo Dallaire, who strove unsuccessfully to prevent the Rwanda genocide.  The passage of time, however, has heightened the regard in which most of us now hold their accomplishments.

A number of the people I looked up to, although famous in their own right, have been linked inextricably in the historical record, rightly or not, to someone else.  Lee and Grant at Appomattox; Stanley and Livingstone in the Congo; Holmes and Watson in Conan Doyle’s famous works; Churchill and Roosevelt in WWII; MacArthur and Truman in Korea; Mantle and Maris of the Yankees in 1961; and Mandela and Tutu combating apartheid in South Africa.

All of these figures are from the past, however, so what of the present?  Are there people I regard as heroes out there right now?  Are there people to whom today’s youngsters might justifiably look for inspiration?

A partial contemporary list for me would include:  David Attenborough and David Suzuki, devoted to the preservation of our planet; Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, pioneers in the feminist movement; Stephen Hawking, physicist and exemplar of courage; Malala Yousafzai, girls’ and women’s rights advocate; Alexandra Octavio-Cortes, US activist and congresswoman; Greta Thunberg, climate change protester; and Alexei Navalny, Russian political dissident.

Almost everyone on that list is younger than I, unlike those who populated my boyhood lists.  They are all, if not politicians, quite skilled in the political arts.  And every one of them, devoted to the betterment of society, has put their commitment to their causes into constructive action.

None of the groups described in this piece is complete, of course.  Any of you reading them could come up with names of others who might accompany, or replace, my choices on lists of your own.  The most important of those, however, is the final one, the people you would consider heroes for today, people who will inspire and lead us to a transformed, more equitable society.

So, I leave you with this question as you consider the people I’ve mentioned—

Who else is there?

Anticipation and Response

The annals of human endeavour are replete with tales of glorious heroism and gallantry in the face of death.  In some cases, those involved were victorious in their struggle; in other cases, they were not.

As an example of the first, one might cite the conflict at Bannockburn in 1314 when an army of Scots led by Robert the Bruce defeated the army of England’s Edward II in a bid for Scottish independence—a battle where the flower of Scotlandstood against them, proud Edward’s army, and sent them homeward tae think again.

An example of the second is immortalized in Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, describing the failure of a British attack at Baclava in 1854, in the face of superior Russian forces—theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die…into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.

light brigade

Of course, one’s determination of the outcome, whether victory or defeat, depends to a great extent upon which side one was on.  But in all such confrontations with an enemy, whether military or civil, whether in war or peace, there are at least two key factors that determine success or failure.  The first is anticipation of and preparation for eventualities that might lie ahead; the second is mounting an effectual response to a threat if it materializes.

The efficacy of the second is, to a great extent, dependent upon the effectiveness of the first.  Robert the Bruce was successful on both counts, prepared and ready to win; the British high command at Baclava not so much.

If both factors—anticipation of future threats and successful response when they occur—are to be significant, leaders are needed who embody a number of qualities; for example, a perceptive and analytical mind, a willingness to trust authoritative sources, a capacity to look beyond short-term outcomes, and the ability to act decisively.

Absent those qualities—if we are cursed with leaders who are inferior thinkers, mistrustful of others, focused on short-term gains, indecisive or erratic when called to action—the chance of a positive outcome at the end of a struggle is much reduced.

When we look at the battle currently embroiling us, combatting the Covid-19 virus overrunning the world, there are four broad scenarios we might identify:  i) nations that were ill-prepared for a pandemic and are unsuccessfully battling it; ii) nations that, although likewise ill-prepared, are responding more effectively than might have been feared; iii) nations that seemed well-prepared, but for a variety of reasons are failing in the struggle; and iv) nations that were well-prepared and are successfully dealing with the scourge.

As you read and listen to news-reporting about the surge of the disease, you may be able to determine which nations fall into which category.  Those in category iv), alas, are the fewest in number.

We might have expected that the poorest, least-developed countries would have been among those most likely to be ill-prepared and, therefore, least successful in contending with the virus.  And that seems to be borne out as the virus spreads into the South American and African continents.

What we might not have expected, however, is that a nation purported to be among the most powerful the world has ever seen would have been so ill-prepared, and would have mounted such a dismal effort initially, that it currently has more fatalities than any other nation, ranking in the top four worldwide per 1 million population.  And climbing.

covid 4

One could be forgiven for thinking that the rally-cry to make that nation great again might now be recast as a prayer to make it whole again.

Anticipation requires foresight on the part of government; preparation requires a willingness on the part of elected leaders to spend what is needed to build bulwarks against a potential calamity.  And both require courage on the part of those leaders—Churchillian courage, Rooseveltian courage.

But preparation cannot be accomplished, unfortunately, without educating a populace clamoring for lower taxes, to help them learn that protecting our future comes with a cost.  The time to build the dike, and pay for it, is not when the flood is raging.

Effective response to a threat likewise requires courage, plus an ability to recognize that threat in a timely manner, and a willingness to act decisively to combat it.  Denial delays effective action; vacillation aids and abets the enemy; inaction too often proves fatal.

We are reassured by many experts in their field that we shall survive this plague and come successfully out the other side.  But we are warned by many of those same people that the worst is yet to come, that the other side is a good way off.  I pray the first is true, and fear the second is, too.

Increasingly, my thoughts turn to the future, if we are to have one.  There are harsh lessons to be learned from this pandemic, but I wonder if we will pay them heed.  From my layman’s perspective, it seems inevitable that we shall face a similar situation again—not necessarily a plague, but perhaps a massive crop-failure brought on by prolonged drought, perhaps a critical freshwater shortage, perhaps a worldwide collapse of the fiat currencies we have come to rely on, or an unmanageable debt-crisis.

crisis

Whatever the predicament may be, will we have leaders in place who will have anticipated it and prepared us to deal with it—perhaps soon enough to prevent its occurrence?  Will they be ready to respond to it in a timely manner, and to plan for an effective recovery?

Those questions will be in the forefront of my mind when I next journey to the ballot-box.