The physicist Niels Bohr once said, The opposite of a true statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a very true statement may very well be another true statement. Contrary to postmodernist hijackings (as in the play Copenhagen), modern physics is not about the absence of truth, but the presence of coexisting truths. What hip folks miss in the uncertainty principle is the principle of judging and acting despite lack of absolute knowledge.
In A Call to Heroism, Peter Gibbon tries to bring this double-edged kind of wisdom to bear on key subjects in the culture wars, and tries to articulate what it means to live with two truths about heroism at once. But will either the right or left, with their one-note agendas, take note? Neither can live with nuance. On the right nuance terrifies; on the left it is still mistaken for nitpicking. The mavens of the mediawhere the information explosion has not generally been matched by appreciation of subtletywill also have a hard time grasping Gibbon’s transcendence of truisms.
A Call to Heroism first came to my attention online at www.edletter.org., the Web site of the Harvard School of Education, where Gibbon is a research associate. His ultimate focus is education: how to teach youth to respect heroesa pedagogical goal articulated as early as Plato’s Republicbut without idealizing them. Many passages in the book derive from Gibbon’s reflections on visiting classes, and some may help those who work in them. (Is there a more cynical place in the world than a room full of American adolescents? As one teenager says to the author, Face it, Mr. Gibbon, all we believe in is Hollywood.)
Each chapter is a short essay following a similar pattern alternating between argument and meditative aside on works such as Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Benjamin Franklin, the Hall of Fame of Great Americans, Mount Rushmore or the Sports Bay of St. John the Divine (Gibbon is excellent on the importance of sports heroes to youth), along with some apt illustrations. The whole book ambles along with loose organization, but is nonetheless rich with insight, even in small matters such as the words that we use. Hero isn’t much used anymore among hip folks; they prefer mentors and role models or, heaven help us, celebrities.
A Call to Heroism is not yet another post-9/11 bookthe author was at work for yearsbut the book may be pitched that way. A friend in government immediately took it so, saying that post-9/11 hype made him tired of even hearing the word hero. The comment reminded me of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, one of the first great works against the heroic tradition, in which, after the military madness of World War I, Hemingway wrote, Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and dates.
Gibbon tackles this modern/postmodern anti-heroic tradition head on, for his goal is to redeem the word hero and a modified concept of heroic glory, even for intellectuals. To do this, he wants to immunize the word hero against the plague of cynicism by taking into account, by acknowledging and transcending irony’s critique of heroism. As he says in the introduction, We need to realize a more mature society requires a more subtle and complex presentation of heroismone that includes a recognition of weaknesses and reversals along with an appreciation of virtues and triumphs. And we also need to recognize that an egalitarian multicultural society requires that the pantheon of heroes be expanded.
As this implies, Gibbon is fighting on two fronts. As he points out, our ideas, images or, to speak the new prose, constructs of heroes and nation are invariably intertwined. Both have been under attack in the last few decades, understandably; for what one thinks about the founders (or later heroes such as Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt) is directly related to what one thinks about the United States. To many radical historians, they are simply white Euromales and the sooner everything they represent is dead, the better. (If you really have any doubt about the ultimate aims of deconstruction, remember its literalization on 9/11.)
To refute this, Gibbon takes the revisionists head on, but not by restating American triumphalism (as in Norman Podhoretz’s recent My Love Affair With America), but by arguing for a more mature understanding of our place among nations. Granting all that the revisionists say of our racism, classism and sexism, which fills the new textbooks (rightly), he still objects that little mention is made in them of our genius or our heroism; omitted is all the drama and majesty. From many textbooks one would not know that the United States has stood for peace, wealth and accomplishment, and has made possible millions of quiet and contented lives.
The new American history has been remarkably good in one way, bringing many great untold stories to light (to choose just two, the film Glory or The Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). Its failing is neither the discovery of new heroes nor deconstruction of old (e.g., Jefferson’s having slept with his slave), nor the presence of new stories about all races, classes and genders. It is rather the relentless demonization of America, which Gibbon accurately traces to the shaping experience of Vietnam, during which time many present-day historians grew up or earned their degrees.
One problem with this book has to do with something more general. Like many others trying to fight the academic demonization of America, Gibbon does not trace its roots to the absence of realistic world history. To demonize America and American heroes requires pathological denial of what Japan did to China, or Turkey to Armenia, or Indian Muslims and Hindus and Tamils and Sri Lankans to each other, or (can truth be told?) Arab slave traders to blacks or Lakota to Crowto cite just recent examples. The new history illustrates an old problem: factual knowledge is not the same as the wisdom to see facts in context. The historical context, forgotten by revisionism, is simple: There is no one righteous, no; not one.
Gibbon dwells on the religious influence on many American heroes of all kindsfrom the Rushmore Four to southpaw Christy Mathewson to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. He sees as decisive in American high-mindedness the Puritan heritage and its call to build a city on the hill. But Scripture actually holds things in a more profound equipose and, at its deepest reading, should have immunized us long ago in just the way that Gibbon wants. No one means no one, even us (even writers). In truth, it is not only John F. Kennedy or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Washington and Lincoln, or Dr. King who has mud feet, but alsomoving beyond Gibbonpriests and even popes, the first of whom ditched his best friend when he needed friends most. Has America, albeit a religious nation, ever really come to grips with what no one means?
Gibbon is half right about religion’s role in encouraging heroism. The medieval gem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ends with its Christian hero discovering his imperfection. But venturing forth again, he explains, A mon can but essaye. The last word is an old verb from Anglo-Norman French; before it became narrowed to writing, essay meant to try, to make an effort. Heroism then may not involve simply high-mindedness (as Gibbon says) but also (as he implies) a kind of low-mindedness too: the sure knowledge of failure and the determination to get up again and put another stone atop a stone, even if life (to mix myths) often seems like rolling stones uphill. The difference between the best and the rest of usnations as well as individualsis not that the best don’t fall, but, admitting that, they keep on pushing.