Heroes of our time

April 3 2006 / New Statesman

A hero of our time: where indeed shall we find one? For the Russian poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov the times in which he lived, under the control of Tsarist autocracy, were cruel, capricious and debased. The narrator of his only novel, The Hero of Our Time (1840), is a cynical young former army officer called Pechorin. When we first encounter him he is already legendary; he has died, violently, and an editor introduces us to his journal, a lyrical account of his wanderings in the mountainous wilderness of the Caucuses following his unspecified disgrace in St Petersburg. Pechorin is, in many ways, the precursor of all those romantic nihilists and wanderers that were to become such a feature of nineteenth century and early twentieth century fiction and poetry: alienated, solitary, sardonic, courageous, and full of longing. He may be unable to find release for his restless energies but equally he refuses to accept the existing social and political order as it is; rather, he longs to change it, and is sustained, even in his cynicism and ennui, by a grander, more heroic vision of the world. Lermontov, who was killed in a duel at the age of 27, equated heroism with rebellion and extreme individualism.

Those of us who live today in the affluent liberal democracies of the west are hugely fortunate, perhaps the most fortunate human beings ever to have lived, in terms of material comfort, opportunity and ease of living. Yet we seem seldom grateful for our good fortune and many of us remain as cynical as Pechorin. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because these are such resolutely unheroic times. We live in the aftermath of the failure of the great world-transforming, enlightenment ideologies. We have seldom held our politicians in such low esteem. In fact, politics, for all the bluster of Blair’s messianic liberal internationalism, is increasingly reduced to the mundane and the managerial. Only the most unreconstructed socialist believes that the pursuit of equality is a realistic and worthy aspiration of political action. Only the most idealistic and na├»ve among us believe that poverty can ever truly be made history. Meanwhile, millions of people are turning away from the secular democratic model, with its cult of celebrity and hard materialism, and are seeking meaning instead in pre-modern belief systems - most urgently in the cleansing, apocalyptic certainties of political Islam.

In the late Seventies, the Stranglers released a single that would become one of the great punk anthems. It was called No More Heroes, and was an expression of disenchantment and inertia. The lost heroes for the Stranglers were the already dead, such as Shakespeare and Leon Trotsky, or the merely mythic, such as Sancho Panza. There were no more contemporary heroes. Indeed for many of the punks there was simply ‘No Future’ at all, as the Pistols sang.

Here at the New Statesman we are not so pessimistic. Nor is quietism and resignation the only response to the cynicism of our political culture, to the ignorance and disgrace of the Bush administration and the catastrophe in Iraq. For everywhere you care to look there are good people doing good, often heroic work. We all know some of these people: the single mother living on a difficult estate and with scarce resources who raises her family, despite outside pressures, in an environment of discipline, dignity and respect; the young man who leaves his well paid job in the City to work for a relief agency in rural sub-Saharan Africa; the environmental activist who works tirelessly to alert the wider public to the disaster of global warming.

But people such as these tend to be local heroes, known only to their immediate family and friends, their influence vital yet limited. What we want to find out is whether you, our readers, share our optimism about the present and new future, and to discover exactly who you consider to be the heroes of our time. Do you, for instance, still believe in the virtues of our political elite? Who, if anyone, at Westminster or in international affairs is worthy of special admiration? Surely someone such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian finance minister, is heroic in the way she is working tirelessly to combat corruption in that blighted country, so rich in potential? Or are the heroes of our time to be found outside political parties and institutions such as the United Nations, as I believe they are, working in scientific research, for non-governmental organisations and charities, in the arts, media and sport. Are they masters of our new technologies, such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, or Bill Gates who, in addition to his achievements at Microsoft, is emerging as one of the great philanthropists of this or any other age, a figure to compare with Carnegie or Rowntree?

What of TV celebrities who use their positions of wealth and privilege, and their captive television audiences, to do good work, such as Jamie Oliver, with his campaign to improve food in schools, or Oprah Winfrey, with her book club and concern with racial and social issues? Are they heroic in any recognisable sense of the word? What of ageing-rockers-turned-poverty-campaigners like Bono and Bob Geldof? One believes in their sincerity, but what of their programmatic utterances and hippyish utopianism, not forgetting their atrocious taste in music and even worse dress sense? And what does one think of those dissidents who sacrifice their own and their families’ happiness and freedom to fight tyranny? One thinks especially of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his long struggle against Soviet totalitarianism (rather than, say, his recent reinvention as a Russian nationalist-mystic) or Aung San Suu Kyi, for so long under house arrest for challenging the legitimacy of the military junta in her native Burma? And what of the courage of a religious leader such as Desmond Tutu, in South Africa, or a Christian believer such as the mother of the murdered black teenager Anthony Walker who, though grieving, spoke only of forgiveness and reconciliation?

But ‘heroes’ can have a malign and diabolical effect as well. It is no exaggeration to say that, for millions in the world, Osama Bin Laden is a kind of hero. To his admirers, he is a sage, a visionary, a revolutionary, as iconic and recognisable as a poster star and face on a T-shirt as Che Guevara once was for a generation of student radicals. Not only has Bin Laden fought to repel a hostile Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he has dared, so the argument goes, to fight back against the hegemony of American power. That his weapons are suicide terrorism, mass murder and propaganda means little to those Muslims who revere him as world-historic figure of influence and power.

Another ambivalent hero is Robert Mugabe, a former liberation hero who, in old age, has destituted his once-hopeful country, destroyed his own educated and progressive black middle class, and become one of the most insidious and reactionary of all of Africa’s failed post-independence leaders. Yet he is still widely admired by many who cannot forgive the sins of colonialism.

Naturally, I do not wish or expect to see such nefarious figures on our list. So who will be there? That’s up to you to decide by nominating your hero (or heroes), and, if you wish, offering a brief justification of your choice. We shall publish some of these with our final list of 50 Heroes of Our Time in our issue of XXXX.

So what ultimately makes a hero? By our definition, and for the purposes of this survey, a hero is a public figure whose work and actions have been in the service of the greater good of humanity and who has a national or international reputation. He or she must be a role model, an inspiration, and an optimist: someone who believes in the possibility of a better, freer, more democratic future and be prepared to act in pursuit of it. The point is, after all, not simply to explain the world, but to change it - and without resorting to violent revolution.

Please don’t nominate the great dead: we are interested in finding out only about those who have the potential to alter all of our lives in the years ahead, either through past example or present purpose.

No more heroes? We’ll leave you to decide that.