Falling Awake

Just Darts Since 2009

The People Who Shape Our World – Heroes and Pioneers

Now we turn to the category of “Heroes & Pioneers” in Time magazine’s list of The People Who Shape Our World.

First, we have to eliminate the professional athletes from this list.  Roger Federer, Chien-Ming Wang and Thierry Henry (a soccer player) are not heroes or pioneers.  I am sure many children look up to them, but Time magazine is supposed to be for grownups.  In years past, minorities such as Chien-Ming and Henry might have been pioneers, but as things are now, they are simply highly paid professionals who are rightly given every opportunity to succeed.

So we’ll move on… to another group of people who are neither heroes nor pioneers.  I’m talking about victims.  We may be inspired by their courage in the face of hardship, but we must remember that not every act of courage is an act of heroism.  Heroism necessarily implies both an action and a choice.  So, let’s quickly dispose of Elizabeth Edwards, Michael J. Fox, Maher Arar, and Youk Chang.


Edwards and Fox we all know about.  I’m sorry for them both, but I can’t see how they’re heroes.

Arar was deported by the US to Syria, after Canadian authorities notified us that he was suspected of connections to terrorism.  He has since been cleared by Canada and claims he was tortured in Syria.  He seems to have been the victim of a tragic error.  If so, he is owed an apology and perhaps compensation, but not a medal.

Youk suffered under the depredations of the Khmer Rouge and, after fleeing to the US, eventually succeeded in documenting that regime’s crimes sufficiently well to bring its former leaders before a tribunal that will be held later this year.  Admirable, yes.  A thirst for justice usually is.  I’ve searched the web, though, and can’t find any indication that Youk exposed himself to any danger in his quest, so I can’t call him a hero.  If I find I am wrong, I will alter this post.

The largest group of people Time calls “Heroes & Pioneers” are real head-scratchers.  Are they supposed to be heroes, or pioneers?  I’m guessing pioneers: Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, George Clooney, and Tyra Banks are clearly not heroes.  They must have been the first at something.

Drew Gilpin Faust is a pioneer.  She’s the first woman president of Harvard University.  Seriously, after Larry Summers, does anyone believe that the fact that she’s a woman made it more difficult for her to get that job?  A woman had to get the job, no? But she’s the first _______ to ________, so she’s a pioneer.  (With all the different ways you can fill in the blanks, I guess everyone is a pioneer.)  When Jackie Robinson became the first black ballplayer in baseball’s modern era, he did it despite his race.  When someone “breaks a barrier” because of their race, sex, religion, etc., it doesn’t strike me as much of an achievement.

I almost had Amr Khaled down as a true hero.  Here’s how Time describes him:

…[He] encourages Muslims to implement action plans for transforming their lives and communities through Islam. [He] also urges them to get along peacefully with the West.

What really put Khaled on the world stage was his decision to host an interfaith conference in Copenhagen in March 2006, after the controversies over the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. Muslim clerics criticized him for extending an olive branch to the Danes. But Khaled didn’t back down.

Khaled is a needed voice for moderation from within the Muslim world. “[Osama] bin Laden is saying he is talking on behalf of Muslims,” he says. “Who asked him to talk on behalf of us? Nobody.”

This sounds really good.  I often wonder where the moderate Muslims are, and here’s one I missed.  But then I took a look at his website; specifically where he addresses the Danish cartoon controversy.  Here’s his advice to both sides:

Thus, my message to the Muslim ummah is that we should not forsake dignifying the Prophet (SAWS) under any circumstance.  On the other hand, my message to the West is that the value of freedom of speech should be adapted to Muslim values.

Hmm.  I guess this does make him a Muslim moderate.  Although he encourages his fellow Muslims to continue rioting (and murdering innocents), I couldn’t find the phrase “river of blood” anywhere on his site.  And so far he’s only asking for one of the West’s most cherished freedoms to be abridged.  At least on the English version of his site.  I’m guessing the shot at bin Laden quoted by Time is analogous to Al Sharpton’s occasional digs at Jesse Jackson.

Let’s get to the real heroes:

Zeng Jinyan

Zeng Jinyan’s husband was detained by Chinese authorities without charge and held for 41 days.  Throughout this time, and despite threats, intimidation and censorship by the Chinese government, she kept up pressure through regular reports via the internet to allies overseas.  Let’s be frank here.  For China, 41 days with no charge is a blink of the eye.  I also think that if her husband were, say, a Catholic missionary, as opposed to an “AIDS and environmental activist,” his plight, and her actions, would have been ignored by Time magazine.  But the fact remains that anyone willing to stand up to a brutal dictatorship in a worthy cause is hero enough for me.


Garry Kasparov

…is Garry Kasparov.  (Time used an unflattering illustration here, I like this photo better: he looks like my high school physics teacher!)  The former World Champion of chess has been using his celebrity to challenge Vladmir Putin’s increasingly ruthless suppression of critics who feel that their dream of a democratic Russia has been betrayed.  I’m talking real suppression here: jail, poisonings and unexpected falls from windows tend to bedevil Putin’s opponents.  Eat your heart out, Sean Penn.  This is speaking truth to power.  (I hate that phrase in the context of American politics.  “The power to do what?” I always wonder.)


Timothy Gittins

…Timothy Gittins.  (Wow!  Time recognized a soldier!)  From his write-up:

The Army recently recognized Gittins as one of its most outstanding young officers. The highly decorated Ranger says he loves leading troops in combat. “We have liberties that we stand to lose if we aren’t willing to fight for them,” he says.  And he insists the U.S. is making more progress in Iraq than most people realize.

I’m sure Captain Gittins would be the first to say that he’s no more a hero than the next guy in his unit.  Time magazine implies as much, calling him a “symbol of the heroism that the U.S.’s pair of lengthening wars have demanded of the roughly 1 million men and women who have fought them.”  But if he is a symbol, he’s an apt one: he was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries received in combat in Afghanistan, and will be taking on his third combat assignment.


Wesley Autrey

…this guy.  This is the guy.  Wesley Autrey’s story makes your jaw drop and wonder: would I ever be capable of doing this? Here it is:

[He’s] a very unassuming man who felt what he did was simply the right thing to do. It was that simple to him. In reality, it was anything but simple. In case you’re not familiar with his story, Autrey, 51, was waiting for the subway in New York City when a young man suffered a seizure and fell onto the tracks. A train was coming into the station, and Autrey knew the man would be killed, so he quickly jumped onto the tracks and covered the man with his body. Autrey does construction work, and he has good instincts about confined spaces. He realized there might be a chance of survival if he could keep the man still until the train passed. It passed over them with inches to spare, so close that there was grease on Autrey’s cap from the train.

Okay, Time magazine, you profiled this guy and you still called Roger Federer a hero?

Come on.

UPDATE 5/17/07: I’ve noticed that I’ve had some visitors who have translated this page into Korean and Chinese.  Welcome! 

UPDATE 5/27/07: I missed Time’s story on the meeting of two of the real heroes of this post:

And then there were the heroes. U.S. Army Captain Timothy Gittins met Wesley Autrey, the man who famously saved a stranger who had fallen onto New York City subway tracks. They acknowledged each other’s bravery. “I’m just doing my job. You went above and beyond,” said Gittins. “I just saved one guy. You faced enemies who had guns,” Autrey responded.

Did I mention that one of the hallmarks of heroism is humility?


Previous related posts: Artists & Entertainers, Leaders & Revolutionaries

Next related posts: Scientists & Thinkers, Builders & Titans


One response to “The People Who Shape Our World – Heroes and Pioneers

  1. francesco August 10, 2008 at 8:19 am

    and now it seems that zeng jinyan disappeared….
    mystery of chinese police…
    hope she will come back soon…
    justice for all, in china and all around the world


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