Pete Seeger and
…the Definition of “HERO”

Pete_Seeger_1986

The world lost the physical Pete Seeger last week. He well deserved the personal tributes that have poured in from around the world.  I cannot match the eloquence of many of them.  Rather, I offer the suggestion that we all use the occasion of his passing to re-think the definition of Hero. 

We briefly recognize the occasional good neighbor who rescues a child from a burning house. The common definition of hero, however, the one that gets automatic media recognition, is far too cramped. At one end of the spectrum it is sufficient simply that the person be in uniform. Almost any uniform will do: soldier, police officer, firefighter, sometimes even hockey sweater.  All of them are automatically heroes. At the other end, the person must still be a uniform wearer but must do something notable, although simply dying can substitute for that requirement. This range of definitions is both over and under inclusive.

The range is over inclusive because people in uniform, including those who die, are no different than the rest of us. Some lead admirable lives. Some do not.  The circumstances of death for some in uniform speak well of them. The death of others is singularly unremarkable.  What is manifestly not true is the oft-heard incantation about everyone in uniform: “They lay their lives on the line for us every day.”  No, they don’t.  I, as an absolute non-hero who was once in uniform, can assure you of that.  Most of life in uniform is stunningly mundane and non-heroic. It is in rare times of stress that we learn who the heroes are.  Defining all in uniform, living or dead,  as heroes does a disservice to everyone in uniform, including those in their ranks who do distinguish themselves during those times of stress. Neither wearing a uniform nor dying makes one a hero.  The real uniformed heroes have much in common with heroes who do not wear uniforms.

The range of the common definition is under inclusive because it leaves out Pete Seeger, Toshi Seeger, Sister Megan Rice, and many, many others.  A better definition of hero is one who demonstrates courage at great personal risk or sacrifice, while acting for the benefit of others.  A soldier who is killed trying to get a wounded comrade to safety fits the definition, but it is neither  the uniform nor the dying that makes the act heroic. 

Pete Seeger: Hero Canadian Broadcaster Michael Enright highlighted one of Seeger’s many acts of heroism. In 1955, when the ideological forbears of Michelle Bachman were engaging in un-American conduct in the form of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Seeger was charged with contempt of that body when he would not tell it whether he had sung for communists. Enright notes that most entertainers who were hauled before HUAC invoked their 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination, but Seeger invoked the 1st Amendment protection of freedom of association. That was courageous. There was personal risk. The contempt conviction was overturned but Seeger, whose life was music, was blacklisted from the air waves for 17 years.  I was proud to learn from Enright that Canada offered him employment with the CBC during this time. Seeger expressed gratitude, but instead turned it all to blessing. He carried what another columnist called his “ever so gentle rabble rousing” to small colleges and influenced thousands of young folks.  He certainly did not live for his own benefit. He lived a simple life and during a brief period of commercial success, he was distinctly uncomfortable. He left the Weavers, whom he loved, when the group opted to obtain badly needed funds through an endorsement deal with a tobacco company.  Many times and in many ways, the life of Pete Seeger demonstrated the proper definition of hero.

ToshiSeegerToshi Seeger: Hero Pete Seeger’s wife died in July 2013, a few days short of their 70th anniversary. She was 91.  Courage?  Personal sacrifice?  She traveled the world, took her own part in peace activities, lived and lovingly raised a family in rural conditions that were primitive, to say the least. She loved and stood with, not behind, a man who was both revered and reviled—for 70 years! “Family Values” supporters should be selling Toshi Seeger T-Shirts.

SisterMeganRiceSister Megan Rice: Hero The Catholic nun  turned 84 last week, sitting in jail awaiting sentencing. Federal guidelines call for a sentence range up to 20 years—for her, Life Without Parole. Her crime?  She and two other peace activists cut the fence at a storage facility for enriched uranium used to make U.S. nuclear bombs.  Then they strolled through the facility for hours, spray painting slogans calling for nuclear disarmament and hammering on the walls. When a guard finally confronted the three, they offered him food and began singing.

For whose benefit was this act of courage that carries such extreme consequences?  For ours. First, the act brought to national attention the appalling security lapses around U.S. nukes. Several officers whose fingers were literally on the nuclear button have been arrested on various charges.  More importantly, Sister Rice and her friends raised the question that is largely ignored:  Why do we have these bombs?  Who could we use them on? What is their purpose? The laughable claim of the U.S. Attorney that Sister Rice and her friends endangered “national security” is certainly not the answer. Pete and Toshi would recognize that Sister Megan and her friends are heroes.

 

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Pete Seeger was instrumental (pun intended) in bringing into fruition hundreds of potential heroes like Sister Rice and her friends. Some of those heroes have yet to act.  That is why I say that it is only the physical Pete Seeger that has left us.  For him and many like him, Shakespeare got it exactly backwards when he had Marc Antony say, The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.  The accurate description of Pete can be drawn from one of the songs for the working people who were so dear to him:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me,

Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”

“I never died”, says he. “I never died”, says he.

And standing there as big as life,

and smiling with his eyes

Says Joe, “What they forgot to kill

went on to organize, Went on to organize.”

 

 Thank you, Pete Seeger and all the cheerful warriors of non-violence, past and present.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

 



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