Monday, August 27, 2012

Death of Armstrong

One could say that two Armstrongs died this past weekend. One is the myth of Lance Armstrong. Since he declined to take the accusations against him to arbitration, he's agreeing that they are true. He's not even throwing the dice to see whether he can win in arbitration. Amazingly, many Americans still consider him a hero. The French cycling press, much reviled by Americans for accusing Armstrong of cheating all those years, deserves an appology.

The other Armstrong who died was Neil Armstrong (no relation). He was always a hero to me because he refused to take the limelight. He was only the astronaut who stepped off the landing module first. His trip was made possible by the work of thousands, and he always remembered that. His modesty and humility is from a different age, and I admire that. He never tried to cash in. He is a true hero, because real heroes are reluctant heroes.

I actually saw Neil Armstrong as an 11 year old or so, when the astronauts were in Paris. We were living in France at the time and happened to be in Paris and out walking when we came across the crowd waiting for the motorcade to pass by. Somewhere I have a picture I took of a hand waving out of an open window of a black limousine. I assume it was Neil Armstrong's hand, but have no idea. Maybe Collins and Aldrin made him sit in the middle for that ride.

I've often thought of that event. I realize now it was a PR event, probably designed as a Cold War show. It was exciting to see the astronauts. I'm not sure how it shaped my values and molded my mind, but I assume it had some effect since I remember it clearly today.

China has tried to do the same thing with its astronauts. They've been sent to Hong Kong to bolster the SAR's patriotism, as have China's Olympic athletes. The demonstrations by athletes is rather embarrassing, since Hong Kong has its own Olympic team, but whatever. There have been large crowds to see the athletes, apparently, and there is coverage in the media, but most students I know are not interested it such propaganda. There were even some CUHK students who protested the arrival of the astronauts, though our university president was on hand to be photographed with them and have their glory shine on him too.  The idea of space travel as glorious is a bit weird.  It is 40 years late, for one thing. And with robots, it would seem cheaper and safer not to send humans in space. And one would hope we are not going to start a race to colonize outer space (though the US started the race with the Columbus-style planting of the flag, it is good that no one followed up on that, at least so far).

There is widespread opposition in Hong Kong to the imposition of the "National Education" for primary schools. Many assume it is just a way to brainwash children into loving the CCP.  Propaganda tours like that of the astronauts and athletes make people worry. At the same time, some in Hong Kong, both in the pro-Beijing camp and in the pro-democracy camp, seek to demonstrate their patriotism and love of the motherland by rallying to the Diaoyutai issue. A China Daily commentary suggests the Diaoyutai issue would be ideal for teaching "National Education." Really? Are they really going to present the messy details, including the facts that make the Japanese think they are in the right? Robert Sutter has an interesting opinion piece that was republished in today's SCMP entitled "China's Self-absorbed Nationalism--It's Worse Than It Looks." He notes that China's sense of victimization and its sense of itself alone as moral in international relations (which is not accurate) frightens China's neighbors and prevents Chinese from understanding why the neighbors view China with distrust. Of course, not all Chinese hold these jingoistic nationalist sentiments, any more than most Americans hold the nationalistic and exceptionalist sentiments that we'll hear at the Republican convention. Nationalism and patriotism are a scourge everyone, and are getting worse with the worsening economy.

So, how do we teach about heroes? Which heroes will we pick for our youth? 

Choosing heroes is a bad business. Lance Armstrong is considered a hero, but we now know he cheated. He has to be taken off the pedestal. Neil Armstrong was hardly a hero, in many ways (though my kids' secondary school had a "house" called "Armstrong", recognizing him as an explorer in the company of Drake, Scott and Hillary). In some sense, he was just the bus driver for an elaborate long-distance bus. But he symbolized human curiosity, and embodied the achievement of landing on the moon. And by carrying that burden with grace, and not trying to cash in, he was a hero to more than just Americans. His death is sad, even though his achievement will be remembered for many decades (if humans survive that long).

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