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Monday, August 6, 2007On Heroism And The Language Of Fascism
'Everyone's a hero, everyone's a star," sings Jon Bon Jovi on his 2005 album, "Have a Nice Day." It's an insipid song, but a fitting anthem for what has become a thoroughly insipid age.
Once upon a time, you had to do something truly exceptional to qualify as a full-fledged hero: single-handedly hold off a battalion of enemy soldiers to allow your platoon to escape, or rescue 100 children from a Nazi concentration camp. But today, just showing up at your Army recruiting station makes you an instant hero -- and getting yourself hurt or killed doubles your heroism, even if you were sound asleep when your supply convoy went over an IED.
The empty rhetoric of heroism is everywhere these days. You know what I mean. Pat Tillman -- the former NFL star -- is "an American hero," apparently because he volunteered for duty along with several hundred thousand other people, then had the misfortune to be accidentally shot by his own side. Every wounded service member is a "hero" too: Sen. Hillary Clinton proudly sponsored the "Heroes at Home Act of 2007," intended to improve medical care for wounded military personnel, and the Defense Department recently sponsored the "Hiring Heroes Career Fair" to encourage companies to hire wounded veterans. No soldier left behind!
Before you run me out of town on a rail, let me be clear: I respect the service and sacrifice of the troops. It takes guts to volunteer for the military. Injured service members deserve top-quality care, and the families of those killed deserve our deepest compassion. Soldiers, firefighters, police and many others accept risk and privation to serve the public, and we should be grateful.
But it's a big mistake to mix up the idea of service -- or the idea of sacrifice and suffering -- with the idea of heroism.
As most dictionaries explain, true heroism involves "extraordinary courage, fortitude or greatness of soul." So firefighters who take unusual risks to save others can legitimately be called heroes -- but just showing up for work and turning on a fire hose when required isn't quite enough. Similarly, suffering doesn't magically turn an ordinary person, however beloved, into a hero. Some of the office workers who died on 9/11 were truly heroic, sacrificing their own chance of escape to help others. But many of those who died never even got a chance to be heroic.
Distinguishing heroism from service and suffering is important for two reasons. First, it's always worth fighting the Lake Wobegon effect because, in a world where "all the children are above average," the truly special child gets no recognition, and genuine acts of exceptional courage are trivialized.
Take Jason Dunham, a 22-year-old Marine corporal who, in 2004, threw his helmet and then his body on top of an Iraqi insurgent's grenade, saving the lives of the Marines around him. Dunham died of his wounds and became one of only two soldiers in the Iraq war to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the United States. But in a world where every service member is a "hero," how many Americans have heard of Dunham's fatal courage?
There are plenty of other genuine heroes whose names will never be recorded, like the utility workers described by a Cornell University research team: On 9/11, "they went into the flooded Verizon building just north of World Trade Center 6, risking electrocution in chest-deep water and kerosene to shut off the building's massive circuit-breakers by hand." But when each of the thousands of stockbrokers and secretaries in the World Trade Center qualifies for the "everyone's a hero" award, why bother to identify those whose actions were unusually selfless?
But there's a deeper reason to be wary of the "everyone's a hero" rhetoric. Simply put, it fits neatly alongside other terms beloved of the powers that be, such as "warrior" and "the Homeland": It's part of the language of fascism.
For a chilling account of another society in which "the devaluation of the concept of heroism" was "proportional to the frequency of its use and abuse," check out Ilya Zemtsov's "The Encyclopedia of Soviet Life." In 1938, Zemtsov notes, the Soviet Union instituted "the title 'Hero of Socialist Labor'. . . . Thousands of those heroes emerged. . . . The hero was supposed to die in the name of Stalin during wartime [and] give his or her all in labor on communist constructions. . . . [But] a person upon whom the title 'hero' is bestowed has often performed no heroic deed whatsoever, but may receive the title . . . merely in return for displaying loyalty and/or diligence. . . . With time, the awarding of the title came to be used as a token to be disbursed or withheld according to political considerations. . . . "
In other words, comrades, whenever it seems as if they're handing out "hero" medals for free, look out: There's usually a hidden price.
Female lab mice tend to be docile, passive creatures. But by either genetically shutting down or surgically removing their ability to smell pheromones, scientists transformed them into aggressive, pelvic-thrusting, vocalizing lotharios—without any significant rise in testosterone or other steroid hormones.
"The female brain has the neuronal circuit both to control male and female behavior," says molecular neuroscientist Catherine Dulac of Harvard University. "What is sexually dimorphic is the switch that allows one to be silenced."
The key to gender-specific behavior, in mice at least, is a cluster of receptors in their noses that allows them to smell pheromones, special chemicals that deliver information about sexual readiness, among other things, between members of the same species. Called the vomeronasal organ (VNO), it connects to the brain and registers the gender of other mice, triggering the appropriate response.
But when the researchers genetically disabled the VNO, female mice began to chase their male peers, mount them and attempt to pelvic thrust [see video here ]. "From a behavioral standpoint you could not recognize the animal from being any different than the male," Dulac adds.
"All the thinking until now was that female brains can produce feminine behaviors while male brains can produce masculine behaviors, with little or no cross talk between them," says Marc Breedlove, a neuroscientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "These results do suggest that, at least for mice, the brain retains circuitry to display both masculine and feminine behaviors into adulthood."
Surgically removing the VNO also provoked the same behavior, the researchers report online in Nature. The full range of male mouse behaviors were on offer: from pelvic thrusting to high-pitched songs designed to woo mates. "Females never do this—ultrasound vocalizations," Dulac notes. "People thought that they didn't have the larynx."
Although the females acted macho at times, they also retained the biological functions of their gender, ultimately becoming pregnant when paired with males (though only after aggressively trying to mount said males). Their maternal instinct was not as strong, however, as they wandered off from their pups after a few days, unlike normal mouse mothers.
It remains unclear if disabling the VNO in males would make them act like females, because female lab mice are largely passive and do not exhibit any particularly distinct behaviors, Dulac says. But it is very clear female and male mouse brains are functionally identical. "It's easier to do it that way," Dulac adds. "If you have to imagine how to build two entirely different circuits, it's complicated."
It also remains unclear how broadly the finding may apply. Fruit flies display similar behavior, but additional studies will be needed to assess the wider effect. "For other animals, we need to explore whether the VNO has this same dramatic effect," Breedlove says. "Is this true for all rodents? What about carnivores?"
As for humans, we appear to lack VNOs and pheromones may play a less critical role in our mating rituals. "Humans are relying much more on visual cues," Dulac notes. But our brains may be wired similarly with "both circuits present and one is constantly inhibited." The key to gender-specific behaviors may have less to do with hormones and more to do with how various neural circuitry gets triggered.
Dozens of bananas failed to do the trick but an Indian thief has finally produced a gold necklace he had snatched and then swallowed after police fed him a hearty meal of chicken, rice and local bread.
Sheikh Mohsin, 35, grabbed the 45,000-rupee necklace from a woman in Kolkata on Friday and popped it into his mouth when cornered by police.
Officers then fed him 40 bananas over a few hours believing they would act as a purgative, and sat back and waited for results.
Mohsin passed an uncomfortable night in jail, but not the piece of jewellery.
Police said on Sunday he was then given more substantial fare.
"Now he wants to go free and doesn't want to even hear about bananas any more," senior officer Gyanwant Singh told Reuters.
A tired and rueful Mohsin was, however, staring at 3 years in jail if convicted, Singh added.
"Bananas were good enough for another thief who had swallowed an ornament a few months ago, but Mohsin was definitely a tough cookie," said one clearly impressed police constable.