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GP1Dec04: Living Treasures

Living Treasures.  After World War II, the Japanese took to honoring craft artists who not only were blessed with unsurpassed skills but whose knowledge embraced tradition stretching back to times well before the modern era.  In 1950, its Cultural Properties Protection Law codified the nation’s determination to save its cultural assets, ranging from a kimono maker to a potter.  World War II and new industrial habits had erased so many prideful memories: here was a different way for the past to shape the future.  Sheila Hamanaka and Ayano Ohmi have written about this in In Search of the Spirit.  In these craft artists the Japanese nation found people of the middle ranks to esteem in lieu of leaders who had been dishonored by their conduct of state affairs in the first half of the 20th century. 

The United Nations has found this to be a worthy idea and thought that other nations should honor their “Living Treasures.”  To some degree, UNESCO has tried to lay out a template for other nations to follow (see www.unesco.org/culture/heritage/intangible/
treasures/html_eng/method.shtml.  Many American Indians are said to believe that the objects we make are inhabited by the spirits of the men who made them.  In turn, we can argue, the finest craftsmen are most likely to travel in the footsteps of the ancients, preserving  the teachings of a nation’s immortals, importing into the present the spirits of those worthies who have come before. 

The Heroic Age.  Cultural preservation has more than passing interest for us, because the idea of greatness and the heroic suffered greatly in the 20th century, when our newscasters quickly made every giant look very, very mortal.  Sports figures and Hollywood buffoons, with all their warts, became our luminaries, but their glow was always short-lived.  The great pitcher Sandy Koufax, whom we discussed in “Tall Trees and Sturdy Men,” is, however, the rare exception that proves the rule, his luster never diminishing.  In March 2000, The Royal Bank of Canada Letter asked, in some puzzlement, “Where Have All the Heroes Gone?”  We have yet to see if we can raise up our eyes to some towering figures in the 21st. 

The 19th century, a time of nation states and various liberating insurgencies, was a better canvas for heroism.  You can think of Lord Byron, Garibaldi, and maybe a 1,000 others. Thomas Carlyle gave a series of lectures in 1840 that were turned into a book called On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, where he cataloged heroes ranging from great poets to kings and prophets.  Friedrich Nietzsche could dream of a hero with a soul so deep that he could all on his own create happiness amongst the whole of humanity, “like the sun in the evening.”  In that time, big men appeared to make a big difference, and it did not seem incongruous to pay them homage. 

The hero, says Joseph Campbell, is “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”  Even in this age, there are those who have caught a tiger by the tail and given themselves over to some transcendent goal.  However, the hero, at least in mythology, also is defined as “quasi divine,” trafficking with the gods, perhaps even having a god or goddess as a parent.  That presents a problem today.  Only a very few people feel godly these days, and we fear for their sanity.  Nobody looks godlike.  Without this divine mantle, it’s hard for any mortal to achieve heroic standing. 

Keeping Heroism Alive.  Nonetheless, in bits and pieces, we keep the idea of heroism alive.  In our hearts we still yearn for heroes.  Some devotees have conferred minor sainthood on Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and countless other books and articles about the claims of the myth in human society.  (See www.jcf.org.)  The very popular historian Stephen Ambrose in several stirring books wrote of heroic men and of his own clear belief in heroism: “I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarism.  I still think so,” he said (see USA Today, October 13, 2002, from Associated Press.) 

Likewise, comic books and a stream of children’s literature have kept the idea of the hero alive in youngsters even if their parents have lost belief.  We have noted in Best of Class on the Global Province how Brian Jacques has emboldened animals in the forest to take on the forces of evil, all to the delight of a vast following of adolescent boys in several nations. 

A New Kind of Hero.  We notice that the heroes now are not national figures or multi-starred generals, but are buried in the middle ranks, enjoying less than celebrity status in society.  Our own Gods, Heroes, and Legends—dedicated to people of outstanding character—features heroes that are not on the tip of your tongue, such as Yen Chengzong, a pianist, who is bringing back China’s “Piano Island” or Arnold Wendroff who has lightened the burdens of the ladies of Malawi.  Our new heroes are no longer kings, but only subjects who perform their mighty exploits well out of the limelight.  They’re mere mortals, which is something of a contradiction, because we have always thought that heroes sat right beside the thrones of the gods, nowhere near the masses. 

Now as well, we have a host of demi-heroes.  We are happy to see the veneration accorded a score of  academic heavyweights—middle-rank geniuses—who, unusually, are clearly as proud of their teaching as their research.  Long esteemed Nobel Prize winner and physicist Richard Feynman was not only a star at Los Alamos, but made himself felt in both the MIT And Caltech communities, and in the successful Apollo investigation.  (See www.zyvex.com/
nanotech/feynmanWeb.html).  More recently,  Professor Daniel Dennett III of Tufts, whom we might call the argumentative philosopher of artificial intelligence, was celebrated in Tufts Magazine, Fall 2004, and in Britain’s Guardian newspaper (see http://books.guardian.co.
uk/review/story/0,,1192975,00.html).  “He’s famous among philosophers as an extreme proponent of robot consciousness.”  For sure he sees the brain and consciousness as mechanical processes, not the stuff of either spirituality or divinity which we attribute to the hero.  The November issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine essays on Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractals: “they are geometric patterns whose properties repeat on different scales or with subtle variation,” the analysis of which helps us explain the behavior of stock markets and the distribution of the galaxies.  He has found order in a most disorderly universe.  For some detail on his introductory course, see http://classes.yale.edu/fractals/welcome.html. Each of these academics has achieved a patina not found on run-of-the-mill intellectuals.   

Peter Hartz.  Probably the heroes of this century will be unsung, such as Rick Rescorla, who pulled so many people out of the World Trade Center on 9/11.  Or they will even be reviled. 

Peter Hartz, head of personnel at Volkswagen in Germany, was summoned in 2002 by Gerhard Schroder, Germany’s socialist chancellor, to head a blue ribbon commission to reform Germany’s labor practices—in effect, to remake the German economy.  He has put together a series of recommendations, the last of which are being implemented now.  Essentially it has meant pulling apart Germany’s extensive social safety net, particularly as related to unemployment benefits and certain rigid labor practices.  In Germany and in most of developed nations, we are being compelled to take compensation out of  the pockets of laborers and white collar workers alike in response to global economic pressures.  The latest moves merely compound the slow erosion in the standard of living in the major countries of the West underway for at least the last 20 years.  His proposals were monumental, given the fact that generous social insurance schemes in Germany dated back to the era of Bismarck.   

Protests have been staged across the country that vilified him and even aroused  fears for his safety: “I was concerned about my family,” he said haltingly.  “I myself was somewhat calmer because I have a clear conscience.  But the impact on my family, that concerned me a lot” (see The New York Times, November 26, 2004, pp. C1 and C3).   

The Heroes We Need.  Probably the heroes of this age will be a little like Hartz.  They’re not our generals, just our captains, endowed with a sense of duty.  We don’t hear much about them.  They’re doing and talking about unpopular things often at risk to life and limb.  They try to transform society, since nobody else will take on the task.  Is this to be the age of unpopular heroes?  Certainly we need more of these little big men who are willing to swim upstream and re-organize us around the demands of a new century where Y2K and other jolts to our systems are happening every day.  

Our academics and glib business gurus have put all sorts of emphasis on retraining, education, and knowledge management/dispersion as panaceas for the havoc the global economy is wreaking in America.  Maybe so.  But we see, instead, the need for a different kind of human capital—heroes—to help us redraw our relationships within our community and to create more fluidity between our own society and others around the world.  It is this re-orientation that Kenichi Ohmae (see www.ohmae-report.com/pro/bioe.html) tried to think about when he pondered what power and strategy would look like in The Borderless World.    

P.S.  Perhaps America’s greatest heroes in the 19th century were explorers, not warriors.  To look at one, see “Audubon Inc. Aloft” in our Agile Companies section, where we learn in a new book by Richard Rhodes that John James Audubon, who prowled the Continent to put together his portfolios of birdlife, also pulled off a major production and financial coup to bring his books to life.

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