Do we need another hero?
Oscar Pistorius' hero status will have come into question after he was charged with the murder of his girlfriend. Photo: Getty Images
Afew years ago, I attended a workshop on writing for children's television. One of the presenters had been a script editor for Sky Trackers, a science fiction series with plenty of teen heroes, including a guy who loved playing guitar (a requirement for most kids' TV dramas), and whose hero was Jimi Hendrix. "It's best not to let your characters have living heroes," said the script editor. "Living heroes might go bad."
This explains why they instead chose a drug-consuming, self-destructive rock star who died after a drinking binge at age 27. What better role model for the youth of today? Sadly, Hendrix's demise was relatively tame (hoo boy) compared to the downfalls of some other heroes. Sports is an especially risky area to find heroes. American kids used to look up to Marion Jones. That didn't work out, so they went for Tiger Woods instead. Still, the worship went pear-shaped, so they settled for Lance Armstrong. Again, no luck. Their parents sighed: "Things were so much easier when we were kids, and we had heroes like O.J. Simpson to look up to."
So people will say it again: "Where have all the heroes gone?" They've been saying it forever. Trust me, they said it back in the Reagan years.
In the past weeks, South African kids (and indeed, kids almost everywhere) have been similarly disillusioned by Oscar Pistorius. Until recently, if South Africans had voted for their greatest heroes, I imagine that he would have been second, just behind Nelson Mandela. But while we can forgive arrogance, alcoholism, even casual racism in our heroes, it's harder to ignore alleged murder.
So people will say it again: "Where have all the heroes gone?" They've been saying it forever. Trust me, they said it back in the Reagan years. Nowadays, some people consider Reagan a hero. Back then, many of us thought he was an idiot. Yet people still voted for him, so obviously not everyone agreed with us. Of course, there were heroic figures back then, but Mandela was in jail, still officially a "terrorist" (according to at least one of our future prime ministers). Gorbachev was still part of the Politburo in the so-called "evil empire". Diana? She was just a princess. But there were others: Mother Teresa, Bob Geldof, Cliff Young, Kay Cottee and of course, Mr T. (The A-Team was cool, OK?)
Whenever we think of great heroes, we think of the past. In 1970, Madame Tussauds Waxwork Museum in London started to poll visitors on the most heroic people in history. In the first poll, the top five heroes were (in order) Churchill, Jesus, John F. Kennedy, Nelson (as in Horatio, not Mandela) and Joan of Arc. Notably, they were all dead. In 1977, the newly-deceased Elvis topped the list, suggesting that, if you want to be considered a hero, you need to be dead first.
Things were even worse by 1982. The top five were Superman, Douglas Bader, James Bond, Churchill and Joan of Arc. Things were getting so desperate that they had to bring in fictitious people. What could be more worrying? Why, the 1987 poll, of course. That was led by James Dean, Batman, Indiana Jones, Elvis and Sylvester Stallone.
Yes, two fictitious people (three if you count Stallone), and if they were thinking of real-life heroes, were people sure that they couldn't do better than rock stars and movie stars?
To make it even worse, in another poll that year, the "most hated and feared" villains were Hitler, Reagan (yes indeed), Gaddafi, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher. Not only were they all real, but with the exception of Hitler, they were all still alive.
Looking back at the lists of yore, you might well ask: "Why can't we have heroes like Joan of Arc and Horatio Nelson, Churchill and Douglas Bader?" Well, with all respect, we don't really need them. Britain is no longer at war with France, and (even better) World War II is over. In the same way, Howard Florey has already discovered penicillin, suffragists have got women the vote, and James Dean has already done whatever it was that he was supposed to have done. It's time for new heroes, and happily, I'm sure that they exist.
Who are these new heroes? Well, we probably won't know for sure until after their deaths.
"Yes," I hear you ask behind gritted teeth, "but who do you think they might be?"
Sorry, but after the terrible news about Oscar Pistorius, I'm not game to say. Besides, they are probably all working behind the scenes, unheard-of until Australian Story makes an episode about them or Time magazine names them "Person of the Year".
OK, OK, if you insist, I'll devise a list of living heroes (and famous ones at that), based on the seven virtues. If any of these people shame themselves (or if you disagree with me), remember: you insisted.
So here's an off-the-cuff list of seven living people I admire: Mikhail Gorbachev (prudence), Jose Ramos Horta (justice), Nelson Mandela (restraint), Michael Moore (courage), Tegla Loroupe (faith), David Ho (hope) and Melinda Gates (charity).
Naturally, there are other deserving people, but I probably won't think of them until they're dead. Apologies for that.