Lost perspective on heroes

America creates heroes, brick on teetering brick, like an imaginative child fashions building block figures: never simply, always with grand intent regardless of the reality.

America creates heroes, brick on teetering brick, like an imaginative child fashions building block figures: never simply, always with grand intent regardless of the reality.

From Neil Armstrong to Lance Armstrong, the culture of success so fundamental to the United States ethos means that the nation is always erecting pedestals, and always hoisting someone atop those pedestals. A national obsession with striving to be the best isn’t enough; Americans seem to need to constantly celebrate — and flaunt — their achievements.

It goes beyond good nation building, all the way to chauvinism.

Even the best of human endeavour, like venturing into space, becomes grandiose and, ultimately, perspective of the feat becomes twisted.

The space program should have always been about exploring, developing new technologies, and testing human limits. It should have been about advancing the human experience, and our well of knowledge, for the betterment of everyone.

Given the era, of course, it was about much more than that. (And, in hindsight, it’s often seen now as a colossal waste of public money that could have been put to use educating, housing and feeding America’s vast poor.)

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, tacitly declaring victory for the United States in its decade-long space race with the Soviet Union, and diverting attention from a host of ailments that had beset American society, from a disaffected generation to a pointlessly tragic war in Vietnam.

Neil Armstrong never meant to be a hero, and shied from the spotlight in the following decades until his death last weekend. That he had the stuff of a hero is undeniable. He was a combat-hardened war veteran, a brilliant engineer, a brave and skilled test pilot, a teacher and an innovator.

But he became more than that in the eyes of Americans, and reflected out into the greater world: he became an icon, emblematic of the battle to crush communism, and the mission to assert the supremacy of the United States and its way of life.

Certainly he never spoke in those terms, but that was how his life’s work was defined.

The space program with which Armstrong was so inextricably linked gave mankind some remarkable technological advancements. And it has inspired a host of young people to view their world, and their potential, differently.

But Armstrong believed firmly that he was just a man doing his job.

That he did it with modesty and extreme competence should have been enough. In the end, obligingly, the American public cherished him even more because he held true to his humility. It was one more thing for the nation, ironically, to puff its chest out about.

The lessons of Lance Armstrong, champion cyclist, cancer survivor and apparent cheat, are far more complicated. But they are equally illustrative.

After years of battling with the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the seven-time Tour de France champion last week said he would fight no more. He didn’t say he was admitting that he used performance-enhancing drugs (he has never failed a drug test). Just that he was tired of the constant fight.

Never mind that the agency has a dozen or more witnesses who are willing to testify that Armstrong and his team were guilty of “doping activity.”

The agency says it has persisted in pursuing Armstrong for years because it wishes to tear down the “win-at-all-cost culture.”

That, of course, sounds positively anti-American.

Here’s hoping the agency succeeds, in honour of people like Neil Armstrong.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Bryson, six, and Mara, eight, play with puppies from Dogs With Wings Saturday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Dogs With Wings introduces Red Deer program

A program that trains puppies to be certified service, autism, facility and… Continue reading

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw says the greater lag time between first and second doses will allow more Albertans to be effectively vaccinated sooner. (File photo)
Alberta extends time between vaccine doses means more people to get shot sooner

National Advisory Committee on Immunization says doses can be to up to four months apart

People watch the sun set in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
OPEC cartel, allies face decision on increasing oil output

OPEC Plus made deep cuts in output in 2020 to stave off a collapse in prices

The Twitter Canada office in Toronto is shown in this undated handout photo. Twitter Inc. will be bulking up on Canadian talent this year with a hiring spree meant to add dozens of engineers in the country to its staff. The San Francisco, Calif.-based social media giant said Thursday that it plans to form its first Canadian engineering hub with at least 24 new workers it will soon hire. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Twitter Canada
Twitter to launch engineering hub in Canada with dozens of hires this year

Twitter says technical talent has been evolving in the Canada recently

Jim Lowes, a living kidney donor who was inspired by Humboldt Broncos bus crash victim Logan Boulet, is photographed at his home in Burlington, Ont., on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Green Shirt Day, April 7, was started after the crash that killed 16 people and coincides with the anniversary of Logan Boulet’s death. Boulet’s family donated his organs after the crash. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power
Three years after Broncos bus crash, Logan Boulet still inspiring organ donation

Nearly 147,000 Canadians registered to be donors in two months

FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2021, file photo, a vehicle rests on its side after a rollover accident involving golfer Tiger Woods in the Rancho Palos Verdes suburb of Los Angeles. Detectives are looking at data from the so-called “black box” of Tiger Woods’ SUV to get a clearer picture of what occurred during the Southern California rollover crash last week that seriously injured the golf star, authorities said Wednesday, March 3. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Detectives look at SUV’s ‘black box’ from Tiger Woods crash

California law allows law enforcement to seek search warrants for data recorders

FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2019 file photo, Alex Kurtzman, from left, Heather Kadin, Anson Mount, Sonequa Martin-Green and Ethan Peck participate in the “Star Trek: Discovery” show panel during the CBS All Access presentation at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour at The Langham Huntington in Pasadena, Calif. Paramount+ debuts Thursday, March 4, 2021 as the latest — and last — streaming option from a major media company, this time from ViacomCBS. The company hopes its smorgasbord of offerings — live sports and news, reboots of its properties like “Frasier” and “Rugrats,” original shows like “Star Trek: Discovery” and the ViacomCBS library will entice viewers(Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File)
Will Paramount+ be a mountain or a molehill in streaming?

Over the last year and a half more and more streaming services have debuted

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre can accommodate up to 20 patients requiring a ventilator, says Alberta Health Services.  File photo by Advocate staff
Opinion: UCP government reneging on Red Deer hospital funding

Another year, another Alberta budget and another blow to central Albertans. Budget… Continue reading

Seattle Storm guards Sue Bird, right, and Jordin Canada pose for photos Wednesday, March 3, 2021, on the roof of the Space Needle in Seattle after they raised a flag with the team's new logo on it. Bird re-signed with the Storm earlier in the week. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Sue Bird staying busy with 20th Seattle season on horizon

Sue Bird staying busy with 20th Seattle season on horizon

Lille players celebrate after Jonathan David scored his side's second goal during the French League One soccer match between Lille and Marseille at the Stade Pierre Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve-d'Ascq, France, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
David scores 2 as Lille wins to stay two points clear of PSG

David scores 2 as Lille wins to stay two points clear of PSG

Canada defender Shelina Zadorsky, right, passes the ball in front of Argentina forward Sole Jaimes (9) during the second half of a SheBelieves Cup women's soccer match, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Alphonso Davies and Shelina Zadorsky have been named Canada Soccer’s players of the month for February. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Phelan M. Ebenhack
Davies, Zadorsky named Canada Soccer’s players of the month for February

Davies, Zadorsky named Canada Soccer’s players of the month for February

Most Read