In our personal lives, we have heroes – those we look to for inspiration if not emulation. Some are family, others further afield. Sometimes it is worth looking again, widening the aperture, thinking bigger, and rethinking why they are heroes.
For me, the Nation’s founders, plus Lincoln, TR, Churchill, Reagan, Powell, and men like the Apollo astronauts, writers, warriors, scientists, and inventors all inspire. Colin Powell’s hero was George Marshall. These choices are personal, but I wonder whether we rethink enough.
In exploration and science, we remember those who took risks “for all mankind,” Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, and Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11, the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia crews, who died pioneering, Lewis and Clark, the Mayflower settlers and early American pioneers.
We recall inventors like telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell, agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, automobile inventor Henry Ford, biologist Ernest Everett Just, and in our time those who pioneered medicine, computers, nanotechnology, and other discoveries.
In faith, philosophy, and transcendental writing, we have other heroes of a sort, those to whom we turn for guidance, compass, wisdom, and reflection, who help put things in perspective.
Among musicians, Mozart, Handel, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and dozens of classical composers were followed by innovators like Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, early rock innovators, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Joanie Mitchell, Travelling Wilburys.
Main point is that, as individuals and as Americans, we turn to the past for inspiration, upliftment, and forward thinking.
Now, here comes the turn, big question: How can we be so divided, at odds and preoccupied by the present that we forget the larger picture, values that bind and lead us to hold common heroes?
Today, we have Americans who see themselves as one subgroup or another, all drifting toward their own group’s heroes, often celebrated for being against, for opposition, for tearing things down, not for finding common ground. Is that the modern premise on which we make heroes? What about celebrating those who personify goodness, creativity, insight, courage, invention, risk-taking, peaceable leadership, or humanity?
Dozens of factions today identify themselves first by ideology, geography, skin color, language, national origin, political party, socio-economic status, state citizenship, occupation, or how “green” they are. They are gung-ho to tear down other groups, but what of the Nation?
Think with me on this. We are all Americans. What that should mean is we believe in the Bill of Rights, upward mobility, equal opportunity, individual liberty, free markets, entrepreneurship, belief in each other and each other’s freedom, and are all proud of path-breaking American history. There has never been a nation like this.
That is why we are Americans first, we must be. We should know what the entire world knows: When the chips were down, WWI and WWII, Cold War, Space Race, need to turn the dial to save the world’s health, security, and stability, we – big-hearted and determined Americans – made it happen. That is not rhetoric, it is a fact.
So, back to heroes. I think it is worth noting, while sectarian heroes are good for reinforcing our individual, ethnic, or national affinities in a pluralistic society, the real point is we should all be elevating those who elevate us all – regardless of race, gender, or any other affiliation.
One more point, the proudest times in this nation’s extraordinary history have not been when we divided, picking divisive heroes, but when we understood what held us tight and helped us fight, and drank deeply of the genius of America.
No one compared to George Washington, or for that matter Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, or Franklin in their time. No one compared with Lincoln for his wisdom, nor the Wright Brothers, TR, Lindbergh, Salk who ended polio, or Einstein – all European Americans.
And no one compared with George Washington Carver, whose discoveries are used today, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, whose musical genius still fills music halls, Percy Julian whose insights produced cortisone and steroids, mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Gladys West, and Annie Easley who got us to the moon, astronauts Mae Jemison, Ron McNair, and Robert Lawrence (who would have flown Apollo but died), neurosurgeons like Alexa Canady and Ben Carson – all of African American extraction.
No one compares with Arab-Americans like Elias Corey, a Lebanese Christian who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, heart surgeon and pioneer Michael DeBakey who won the Congressional Gold Medal for lifesaving, Nobel Laurette in chemistry Ahmed Zewail of Egyptian extraction, Lebanese American geneticist Huda Zoghbi who changed the way we approach Parkinson’s, Alzheimer, and autism – all Arab-Americans.
Pick your nation, region, religion, sector for achievement, area of highest concern – and you will find Americans, drawn by the same beacon, our history-changing liberty. They gave their all – because here you can do that. They are worthy of being thought heroes, by all of us.
So, when the leaves fall, when spirits rise and flutter back to earth in November, when things seem better or worse in the moment, remember that we are all Americans, share something special, and it matters not at all our skin color, creed, extraction, distraction, or affiliation.
If we believe in the greatness of this nation, we are – in a blink – one. In that oneness, we become strong. From it, rise real heroes in every walk of life, every discipline, sector, race, gender, and discriminator. What matters is that we understand what makes a hero, the devotion to what matters, a full heart. That, we can all admire. And note: America makes a lot of them.
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