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3 April 2006

Heroes of our time

Who are the great men and women working today to change the world for the better?

By Jason Cowley

Those of us in the affluent, liberal democracies of the West are perhaps the most fortunate people ever to have lived, in terms of material comfort, opportunity and ease of living. Yet we seldom seem grateful for our good luck. Many of us feel that something important is missing – ideology, idealism, belief – and that these are resolutely unheroic times. We are living in the aftermath of the failure of the great world-transforming, Enlightenment ideologies. We have seldom held our politicians in such low esteem; politics, for all the zeal of Tony Blair’s liberal internationalism and the slick presentations of David Cameron, is reduced to the mundane and the managerial. Only the most unreconstructed socialist still believes that equality is attainable. Only the most idealistic among us believes that poverty can ever be made history.

Millions are turning away from the secular democratic model, with its cult of celebrity and materialism. They are seeking meaning instead in premodern belief systems – most urgently in the cleansing, apocalyptic certainties of political Islam.

In the late 1970s, the Stranglers released one of the great punk anthems. “No More Heroes” was an expression of dis-enchantment and inertia. The Stranglers’ lost heroes were the already dead, such as Shakespeare and Leon Trotsky, or the merely mythic, such as Sancho Panza. There were no more contemporary heroes.

Here at the New Statesman we are not so pessimistic. We do not believe that resignation is the only response to the cynicism of our political leaders, to the disgrace of the Bush administration and to the catastrophe in Iraq. For everywhere you care to look there are good people doing good, often heroic work. We all know some of them: the single mother living on a difficult estate, who raises her family with dignity and respect; the man who gives up his well-paid job in the City to work for a relief agency; the environmental activist helping to alert the public to global warming. But these people, though admirable, are usually known only to their immediate family and friends, their influence vital yet limited.

We want to discover who you consider to be the heroes of our time – the people, occupying a larger stage, who most inspire through their convictions, courage and good work. Do you, for instance, still believe in the virtues of our political elite? Who, if anyone, at Westminster or in international affairs is worthy of special admiration?

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What of Hans Blix, the former United Nations weapons inspector, who worked so hard to delay the invasion of Iraq? I, for one, admire Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa, whose daunting mission is to free her country, Liberia, from corruption and the ravages of civil war.

Away from politics, what do you think of the masters of our new technologies, such as Steve Jobs at Apple, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, or Bill Gates who, in addition to his achievements at Microsoft, is emerging as one of the great philanthropists of this or any other age, a figure to compare with Andrew Carnegie or Joseph Rowntree? What of TV celebrities who use their positions of wealth and privilege, and their captive television audiences, to make a difference – the media chef and entrepreneur Jamie Oliver, with his campaign to improve food in schools, or Oprah Winfrey, with her book club and concern with racial and social issues? Are they heroic in any recognisable sense of the word?

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What of ageing-rockers-turned-poverty-campaigners such as Bono and Bob Geldof? One believes in their sincerity, but what of their programmatic utterances and hippyish utopianism, not forgetting their atrocious taste in music and even worse dress sense? Or sportsmen such as Andrew Flintoff, the England cricketer, or Amir Khan, the British-Asian boxer, who inspire and enchant so many of us?

What should we make of those dissidents who, in their battles against tyranny, sacrifice their own and their families’ happiness? Are they monoliths of selfish motives, or something much greater?

One thinks of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his struggles against Soviet totalitarianism (rather than his recent reinvention as a Russian nationalist-mystic) or Aung San Suu Kyi, so long under house arrest for challenging the military junta in her native Burma. What of the courage of a religious leader such as Desmond Tutu, in South Africa, or a Christian believer such as the mother of the murdered black teenager Anthony Walker who, though grieving, spoke publicly of forgiveness and reconciliation?

“Heroes” can be diabolical as well. It would be not exaggeration to say that, for millions, Osama Bin Laden is kind of a hero: not only did he fight to repel a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he has dared, so the argument goes, to fight against the hegemony of American power.

Another ambivalent hero is Robert Mugabe, a former liberation symbol who, in old age, has emerged as one of the most reactionary of all Africa’s failed post-independence leaders. Yet he is still admired by many who cannot forgive colonialism. Naturally, I do not wish, or expect, to see such nefarious figures on our list.

So who will be there? That’s up to you to decide by nominating your hero and, if you wish, offering a brief justification of your choice. We shall publish some of these citations with our final list of 50 “Heroes of Our Time” in May.

What makes a hero? By our definition, a hero is a man or woman whose actions have been in the service of the greater good and whose influence is national or international. He or she must be a role model, an inspiration, an optimist: someone who is prepared to act in pursuit of a freer, more equitable and more democratic future without resorting to violence.

Please don’t nominate the great dead: we want to find out about those who are with us now and can influence our lives, either through past example or present purpose.

No more heroes? We’ll leave you to decide that.

Richard Eyre nominates Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese dissident

“Unhappy the country that has no heroes,” says Galileo’s assistant, Andrea, in Bertolt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo. “No,” says Galileo, “unhappy the country that needs heroes.” There is no land of which that is more true than Burma – or Myanmar, as it was renamed by the Orwellian SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) – and there is no one more deserving of the title hero than Aung San Suu Kyi. For 18 years she has opposed the junta with fierce but calm conviction. She has suffered house arrest, been separated from her two sons, and from a husband she was prevented from visiting while he was dying. She has been barred from using a phone or receiving letters. She has endured grief, danger and loneliness with extraordinary grace and courage, all the while inspiring resistance to the regime.

“The quintessential revolution,” she says, “is that of the spirit.” In 1995 she had a speech smuggled out to a conference: “There is an outmoded Burmese proverb still recited by men, who wish to deny that women too can play a part in bringing change to their society: ‘The dawn rises only when the rooster crows.’ But Burmese people today are well aware of the scientific reason behind the rising of dawn and the falling of dusk. And the intelligent rooster surely realises that it is because dawn comes that it crows and not the other way around. It crows to welcome the light that has come to relieve the darkness of night.”

Add great beauty and considerable eloquence to her defiance, and you have the perfect hero for our time.

Shami Chakrabarti nominates Mary Robinson, human-rights activist

Mary Robinson was David to the US government’s Goliath, challenging its assault on democratic rights in the “war on terror”. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, she fought the idea of a trade-off between security and civil liberties. She was among the first to urge prisoner-of-war status for Guantanamo detainees. Despite considerable pressure, she chastised the US and UK for actions that would make others believe they had “a green light to pursue repressive policies, secure in the belief that any excesses will be ignored”. Her courage brought about her early departure from the post, in 2002. Her passion for justice undeterred, she is now chair of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, an organisation she set up after leaving the UN.

Ian Hargreaves nominates Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter

I’m not comfortable with the word hero. By definition it exaggerates the place of the personal and plays into the hands of celebrity. It’s tempting, therefore, to propose an unknown hero. So, veering to the domain of mass influence, my nomination is . . . Bob Dylan.

Why? Dylan is the most significant artist of my lifetime, in terms of his engagement with my own concerns, perceptions and dreams. Yet more than that, he has eluded the bondage of celebrity to remain forever himself.

There’s an integrity to Dylan which has survived many changes in artistic direction: in his own words, “to keep on keeping on like a bird that flew”.

Also, aged 65 at his next birthday in May, he’s still on the road and thumping at his typewriter: the poet of the pensions crisis.

Jonathan Dimbleby nominates Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet leader

Gorbachev inherited an arthritic empire. He saw the writing on the wall. He would either have to heap repression on repression, or let eastern Europe off the leash and allow Soviet communism to disintegrate in the process. Most dictators try to keep their hands on the levers of power only to fall in the bloody quagmire they create in the effort to survive. He voluntarily surrendered power and probably saved Russia from greater violence and turmoil. He was a man of intellect, wisdom and courage – and I hope the people of Russia will one day honour his memory accordingly.

Bonnie Greer nominates Toni Morrison, novelist

I came to the work of Toni Morrison late in the day. In a way, I think I was trying to avoid it, probably because I knew the impact it would have on me. I needn’t have worried. Toni Morrison has invented the voice that all novelists who write about the experience of being The Other use, whether they are aware of it or not. I should correct that by saying that Morrison has located a voice which, before her, had largely been silent. To accomplish this, and then to make it intelligible to the rest of us, to make it beautiful, requires heroic effort. She names what had no name before she came along.

Kathy Lette nominates Marion Donovan, inventor

My hero of our time is the inventor of the disposable nappy, Marion Donovan, which she patented in 1951. A mum, of course. No matter how much you love your progeny, there are days when you’re tempted to put them into the condom vending machine for a refund. But at least disposable nappies liberated women from also being up to our elbows in bowel movements all day.

Unfortunately it is the only time you can change a male, though – out of a nappy as a baby!