Good News Beneath the Surface

As I noted in an earlier post, apparently some good news has been going on beneath the surface of the chatter about stem cells. That we see little information about this is irritating: the assumption appears to be that the public has a right to know the mechanics of wiretaps but little context about issues such as these – also ones on which we judge our politician’s choices.

We hope other news – about Iraq, education in America, our health, energy sources – is good. But, we don’t know. Hell, the high level of home ownership wasn’t discussed all that much, but I suspect mortgage defaults will be. I suspect some bad but more good news, like the green revolution, is taking its course while we remain oblivious. What will prove important in the future? We don’t know. It isn’t all that important, probably, that we do know most. But not knowing some stories may affect us in subtle but important ways. One such story is that of heroic self-sacrifice Michael Yon reported (audio interview).

Bad news is entertaining. We like to consider the Alps and Grand Canyon – even though we know life is a good deal more like the Nebraska sandhills. A frisson of terror followed by relief that we haven’t been destroyed entertains: the reaction of an audience when the heroic, tragic hero (the scapegoat Aristotle tells us) is exiled, the reaction of the Puritans to Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom,” the reaction of the audience to Gore’s doom. We fear we are the goats but assure ourselves in the end we are sheep.

Bad news can be motivating. But bad news also leads to despair. Fearing consequences, fearing responsibility, we don’t act. We become mired in hesitations and doubts. Politicians hedge their bets. They say the surge won’t work but do not question Petraeus about the plan – preferring to say there is none. That debate, the sarcasm of the press, reinforces our sense that to be wise is to be ironic, cynical – passive. The twentieth century began with Marcher, James’s hero whose great tragedy is that he is the man to whom nothing happened because he did nothing, felt nothing, committed himself to nothing. Our politicians begin the twenty-first arguing their positions follow the polls better than do their competitors’ votes – passive before the winds, two-dimensional, turning like tin roosters, weather vanes on the barn roof.

But life hasn’t changed just because the way it is described, the art that represents it, the news that reports it has. Men are still heroic. And how better would our understanding of human nature be if the moving (and devastating to our emotions) description by Michael Yon of an Iraqi who gives his life to save a mosque full of worshippers was not only in a blogger’s column, but on the front pages of our newspapers, the main stories of our nightly news? Would that lead us to despair? Or to the more resilient sense that a man makes choices – that his acts do, indeed, make a difference? The respect we pay heroes is important: we appropriately feel gratitude and even awe at acts of individual heroism. But paying that respect, we, too, stand a little straighter, our walk more purposeful: we feel a little better about being, well, human.

Of course, such acts are not the choice of someone who sees no choice, who has no purpose, who feels no commitment. Such an act comes from humility – that there are values (the lives of children, for instance) that are larger than the self. Implicit in many such deeds is the argument that the culture that values life is bigger, more important than one man – that it is worth risking & even losing life to ensure that his children will live – and live well, live freely. The act was rational if tragic – such a man accepts trade-offs. And it opposes an ideology that assumes those children’s lives are not important. We are often told – and doubt – that those who choose death will win over those that choose life. That martyr chose life – others’ lives. In such heroism, we learn that the essence of heroic sacrifice is the choice of life. The belief in the generousity of such a choice sustains many of us; that courtyard reverberates with the worth of one man’s sacrifice.

The Puritans believed that neither assurance nor despair were appropriate responses to life. In this, of course, they were right. Modern man’s egotism, his rejection of history and tradition, his belief he is a blank slate appears to empower but in the end enervates. He suspects that he cannot, try as he will, will a world. But struck by that knowledge, he forgets that he can be heroic – that he can affect this puny moment. And that is what man’s heroism has always been. Where can we better see what man is capable of than in the heroism of that tragic, heroic, purposeful, self-sacrificing Iraqi? And how important is knowing that to our understanding of Iraq, of the surge, of ourselves?