Plague Diary 30: Heroes and … Martyrs?

We’re All in This Together, or Are We?

There is a nauseating saccharine imagine coming down to us from corporate America of everyday heroes in the struggle against coronavirus. The word “hero” is being bandied about … a lot! But when you come to think about it, it doesn’t cost much to employ people in hazardous work without making much of an effort to guarantee their safety. You see, if you call them heroes, you open up the possibility that many of them can make the ultimate sacrifice and become martyrs. And we know that martyrs are heroes that can no longer fight back. Very safe from a corporate standpoint.

I have become very suspicious of this type of unanimity from U.S. corporations. But it’s not just an American trait: During the Chernobyl disaster, dozens of Soviet citizens were fighting toxic radioactivity with nothing more protective than brooms and shovels. Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich wrote a book of interviews with people involved in the disaster. It was entitled Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. I am not trying to imply that the coronavirus is like a nuclear accident, but it certainly shared a similar awfulness and magnitude.

SNL Takes on Three Mile Island

While on the subject of nuclear accidents, I am reminded of a Saturday Night Live sketch after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The title of the skit was “The Pepsi Syndrome.” The reaction of the bigwigs was to send Garrett Morris dressed as a maid with a broom to clean up the radioactivity.

It is in the nature of power to make the innocent pay the price. The whole hero thing is nothing more than soft soap, and during this epidemic, we certainly have had enough of soft soap, haven’t we?

 

 

 

“Heroes” and “Warriors”

Comrades Brezhnev and Nixon: За здоровье!

Under the rule of Hero of the White Race Donald Jehoshaphat Trump, it is suspiciously reminiscent of the bad old days of the Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Both rulers are mentally decrepit, yet outwardly pugnacious. To come up to the Brezhnev standard, our Presidente is now using battlefield language. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times:

Donald Trump has described himself as a “wartime president” during the coronavirus crisis, and now he seems to have found his army as he pushes the country to reopen despite the risks.

In recent days, he’s begun describing citizens as “warriors” in the battle against the pandemic and suggested some of those fighters might have to die if that will help boost the economy.

“Will some people be affected? Yes,” he said on a trip to Arizona this week, his first outside of the Washington area in nearly two months. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”

Notice the two medals that Brezhnev is sporting. One of them signifies that he is a Hero of the Soviet Union:

Hero of the Soviet Union Medal

Perhaps Trump needs to send us—in addition to those putative $1,200 checks—a medal signifying that we are Heroes of the Chinese Virus War.

I for one do not wish to be a “hero” or “warrior” as Trump defines it. That could only mean in Trumpspeak that we are losers. It is preferable to the Donald that all the “heroes” and “warriors” die nobly so that he could look good at our collective obsequies.

 

The Tomb of the Hero

Honor Guard at the Tomb of José de San Martín in Buenos Aires

The liberators of South America from the Spanish are honored throughout South America. One keeps running into the names of Bolivar, San Martin, Sucré, and O’Higgins again and again. The honor guard at the Metropolitan Cathedral on the north side of the Plazo de Mayo in Buenos Aires is dressed in the uniforms of the early 19th century, with swords drawn and standing at rigid attention.

Even Jorge Luis Borges, who never served in any country’s military, bragged of being descended from Colonel Manuel Isidoro Suárez, hero of the Battle of Junín in far-off Peru back in 1824. Many of his poems refer to this ancestral hero. Here is the last stanza of “A Page to Commemorate Manuel Suárez, Victor at Junín”:

His great-grandson is writing these lines
and a silent voice comes to him out of the past,
out of the blood:
“What does my battle at Junín matter if it is only
a glorious memory, or a date learned by rote
for an examination, or a place in the atlas?
The battle is everlasting and can do without
the pomp of actual armies and of trumpets.
Junín is two civilians cursing a tyrant
on a street corner,
or an unknown man somewhere, dying in prison.

I have read biographies of Bolivar and San Martín—as well as Gabriel García Márquez’s excellent The General in His Labyrinth, about the former—only to find that the heroes are more honored today than they were in their lifetimes. San Martín became so disgusted with his fellow Argentines that he moved to France. Only many years later did the Argentines invest him with the sanctity he wears today like an uneasy crown.

 

 

True Heroism

Superman

Superman

The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theatre. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all–all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience. Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality–there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth–actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.

True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.—David Foster Wallace, The Pale King