In this article, I take a look at heroism using recent events in Canadian healthcare and the IT world. More specifically, I write about my hospital experience, Aaron Swartz’s suicide and Hamed Al-Khabaz’ expulsion from Dawson College, in Montreal. All thoughts here are my own.
In Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars, a young officer, Robert Ross, defies orders and releases horses and mules confined in a barn. It is WW1 and he is in an area of France being shelled by Germans. Releasing the animals is a way of saving them as the structure is an obvious target for enemy gunners.
Ross is with the CFA – the Canadian Field Artillery – and it’s his love of animals and justice that motivates him. It’s also his last act before desertion. Afterwards, he tears the lapels from his uniform and goes AWOL.
Days later Ross is walking along train tracks and discovers a lone mare and her companion, a mixed-breed dog. When they lead him to a convoy of boxcars carrying horses bound for the front, Ross releases them too and travels north, leading them all to safety. When he passes a military encampment and a private tries to stop him, Ross shoots him in the face. He is not court-martialed, however. In the following standoff, he sustains burns so serious he is deemed unfit to be tried. He dies six years later, in England, of complications from those injuries. Having brought shame on his wealthy Toronto family, none save his father will ever visit his grave.
The point of The Wars, of course, is to assert that Ross’ actions were heroic in context. His liberation of the horses is cast against the shadowy psychopathy of WW1, a psychopathy so hideous it kept high-ranking military men from touring the front. Had they done so, the carnage of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele might not have materialized. More soldiers, from all forces involved, might have made it home.
I taught Findley’s novel for many years and the poignancy of its message was rarely lost on my students. Its depictions of war are rendered through the voice of a historian calmly sifting through documentary evidence. Via transcripts, interviews and photographs, Findley’s characters come to life and we see that war’s damage, its pathology and momentum.
I’m writing about The Wars because it seems conventional ideas about heroism are atomizing before our eyes. A broader and more relativistic way of seeing things, perhaps brought on by the pervasive use of the internet, is transporting us to a world where the villians are everywhere and they’re usually in charge. It’s created some odd bedfellows and even odder instances of cross-pollination. The Arab Spring, a political uprising with some very discernible causes, was “replicated” in Quebec by the Maple Spring, a student uprising that had a lot of us here scratching our heads. Having lived and traveled extensively throughout the middle east, I was puzzled by the students’ adoption of a name whose power was clear but whose basis for comparison was wildly inaccurate. Events like these leave a lot of us asking: who are the real heroes?
It’s my contention that literature can provide us with compelling exemplars and that fictionalized heroism, in particular, has much to teach us: its portrayals reflect paradigms of courage culled from history and give us enough flesh to hang on that bone. In novels like Findley’s we see heroism, in all its disturbing and glorious detail, laid painstakingly bare.
Another theorist interested in heroism, Margaret Heffernan, has written about a different breed of hero, the whistle-blower. In her latest book, Willful Blindness, she describes qualities she feels distinguishes them from others. Here is a summary of her findings:
- - they seem to see things others can’t see
- - they are curious and resourceful
- - they are obsessive truth seekers
- - they are often considered psychologically unstable
- - they are optimists
- - they are not innate rebels
- - they believe truth will prevail
Most of Heffernan’s attributes don’t surprise. That most whistle-blowers are detail oriented, deeply engaged, and bring unique perspectives to problems is obvious. But two of her attributes stand out. The first is the common misconception that these individuals are psychologically unstable; the second is that they are not innate rebels.
The first of the two is important because feelings of instability are often what come of the cognitive dissonances whistle-blowers experience on an ongoing basis. For myself, I know there is a brief window of time, a blank nothingness like a broadcaster’s 7-second delay, that transpires before I realize a situation doesn’t make sense. Like many women, I often attribute that dead air to my shortcomings, to the perception that I’m unable to synthesize information quickly. However, I’ve learned that blaming myself usually isn’t fair. Given time to put my confusion in context, I can usually clarify who or what is wrong.
The second outstanding attribute — that whistle-blowers are not innately rebellious — also got my attention. It’s because I’m thinking of my struggles with the Canadian healthcare system and how unprepared I was. That lack of preparedness led me to become involved in the fight against institutional elder abuse, and that has put me in the company of activists of all stripes. It seems to me there is a divide among them and this observation of Heffernan’s comes close to defining it. Some activists come across as professional rebels, people who like a fight better than a cause.
To put this in context, I was like most Canadians before my mother became ill. I took the quality of our nation’s healthcare system for granted; I believed my mother would be treated fairly and that her carers would be professional and honest. The system’s failure to live up to those widely-held expectations wasn’t something I, or my fellow travellers in this fight, saw coming. Consequently, many of us felt conscripted into battles we weren’t ready for. That doesn’t make us any less committed; in fact, that ordering of events — our loved ones suffered and we decided to take up the larger cause — is a bit like Cinderella’s slipper. It identifies us as genuine: I see other outraged relatives speaking up and I know we’re in it for the right reasons.
So when it comes to activism, are there wrong reasons for getting involved? I would say yes and that’s when definitions of heroism become useful.
One by-product of being pitched into a mighty battle is that one develops a heightened sense of vigilance. My trust in my government was shaken and it naturally followed that my ability to trust, in a general sense, was shaken too. So when an ominous thought appeared on my mental horizon, two things happened: a) I accepted it because I had become willing to; and b) I was too battle-fatigued to fight it.
And here is that thought: some individuals who lay claim to heroism actually create the conditions for it. For example, one of the primary physicians overseeing my mother’s care kept putting her off: he and his staff cancelled and then delayed appointments, lied to my family about having notified us and, generally, gave me and my mother’s GP the impression that her condition didn’t merit a quick intervention. All of this served to create a disastrous delay that saw her admitted to hospital in inordinate pain with an infection that had run an almost fatal course. She survived, but not until after she’d suffered a stroke, a stroke likely caused by the blood clots that were running unchecked throughout her bloodstream.
When this physician did get around to saving her, he wasted no time describing his heroic actions to me. He arrogantly claimed that he, and he alone, had saved my mother. For someone in my position, the requisite response to a declaration like this — correct or not — is gratitude. I did thank him, but that 7-second delay, that dead air that signaled to me something was awry, made its presence felt in my consciousness. So the bubble over my head, after the delay passed, had these words written in it: “But you created the problem in the first place.” I knew better than to voice my thoughts, however. I’d seen that speaking up, in that hospital anyway, didn’t pay.
Mock heroism appears in other forms. Dawson College, where I teach, recently came under fire from web enthusiasts because of the expulsion of a 22 year-old computer science student, Hamed Al-Khabaz. Al-Khabaz discovered a security flaw in Skytech’s Omnivox system and reported it to the college who duly reported it to Skytech. The college was initially grateful to Al-Khabaz, but unfortunately his curiosity didn’t stop there. He kept checking to see if the problem had been fixed and was finally given cease and desist orders, twice, to stop.
The college issued these orders because while Skytech was busy trying to fix the system, Al-Khabaz kept breaking into it. In an ironic twist largely ignored by his supporters, Al-Khabaz’ signing of a non-disclosure agreement became known once he went to the media. That agreement, reached jointly in order to contain the breach, was wrongly cast in a sinister light and some journalists used it to portray Al-Khabaz as the hero, as the little guy who was being silenced and victimized by the menacing wrath of an evil institution.
I saw things differently and here’s how: Imagine you are working on your computer. A colleague walks past, notices a problem and suggests you fix it. You try, but your computer isn’t cooperating and your anxiety level is rising. Then, every five minutes, your colleague asks you if you’ve fixed it. You finally ask him to stop, not once but twice, because his interference isn’t helping. When you do solve the problem, your colleague takes the credit for spotting it, tells everyone you took forever to fix it and then manages to fit in a comment about how ungrateful you are.
Al-Khabaz’ supporters will hate to hear this, but that’s not heroic, it’s annoying. But to give him credit, his timing was canny: he was riding on the wave of anti-institutional feeling triggered by the suicide of American web activist Aaron Swartz.
This brings me to my last point: a lack of perspective when it comes to heroism can be dangerous.
Justin Peters wrote a tribute to Swartz in Slate and in it he made Swartz’ iconoclastic nature clear. A gifted learner, Swartz quit high school at 14 and went on to collaborate with others in developing a version of the RSS feed — the Real Simple Syndication — that allows individuals to be fed articles from their favourite websites. Ten years later, Swartz got into legal trouble when he planted a laptop inside an MIT computer closet and downloaded a substantial portion of JSTOR’s documents. When he went to retrieve the laptop, police arrested him.
JSTOR is a non-profit organization that indexes and stores journals electronically, primarily for universities and libraries. The cost of subscription is significantly lower than other journal indexing and storage services (referred to as “aggregators”) and that’s because JSTOR hosts mainly archival rather than current content. Two of its main rivals, for example, are privately held, for-profit companies with subscription fees several times that of JSTOR’s. An institution like MIT would undoubtedly host them too.
And so this begs the question: why did Swartz break into JSTOR if, as he said, he believed information should be free? I’m making this observation because of all the indexing and storage services out there, JSTOR’s mission seems most in line with his thinking. It is non-profit, affordable and its access criteria are among the most liberal — they only cover their costs with their subscription fees. This means many institutions, like small libraries, can afford it. So the question is, why did Swartz risk so much to steal from an organization that was relatively inoffensive by his own standards?
We’ll never know the answer, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Swartz, like that arrogant doctor and Hamed Al-Khabaz, was caught up in a hero template of his own making. He pitched his actions against a heroic backdrop but didn’t take into account the inconsequentiality of what he was actually achieving. Did this finally occur to him? That JSTOR was not the bad guy and that a conflict had been created over a situation that barely merited it?
A lot has been said about prosecutorial zealousness, but if the death threats Dawson administrators received are any indication, a respect for the law is something supporters of Swartz and Al-Khabaz don’t seem particularly interested in — a fact some lawmakers might feel determined to change and to change for the public good. Ask the thousands of people who have had their identities, or even just their credit card numbers, stolen online. Making a decision to work with institutions instead of against them might have helped. Even Justin Peters notes that:
This was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of impatience with unpleasant situations. Instead of trying to adapt to what he believed were rigid, broken institutions, Swartz would try to make those institutions adapt to him. And if they didn’t change, he would leave.
Swartz was obviously brilliant, but he was also young. It’s also clear he was on a mission and saw himself as a liberator of information. But unlike Robert Ross in The Wars, Swartz’ act of civil disobedience doesn’t seem to have taken place in the context of genuine suffering. Instead, he acted on ideological grounds when his ideology, unfortunately, didn’t appear to come from a place of profound understanding. If it had, he might have chosen differently. He might have chosen to fight the battle on terms more amenable to everyone and targeted more appropriate “offenders.” He might not have painted himself into a corner by breaking the law; he might not have felt the need to end his life when the consequences, like so many harpies, came clamouring for him. These facts don’t just make his suicide tragic, they make it terribly so. His cause, the one he apparently died for, seems sadly flimsier than it ought to be.
It sounds trite, but a deeper understanding of how the world actually works might have helped Swartz and in fact might have helped all the men I’ve described here. A better understanding of behavioural templates, often derived from cultural archetypes and expressed in literature, might have helped them understand the transparency of their motives and the narcissistic aspect of their actions. They may have come to understand that we often play out our deepest needs in theatres of our own making and that even the most convincing altruism can disguise a profound yearning for acclaim. Our needs can be quite cunning in that regard and it is the job of maturity to bring us into closer contact with our souls, to give us the self-knowledge to deliver us from a life lived in the confines of less mature, less liberated versions of ourselves.
A line from a Margaret Atwood poem springs to mind. Her Helen of Troy tells us, “There’s nothing more opaque than complete transparency.” That’s a rather poetic way of telling us we’re all vulnerable to deception. I could have been fooled by my mother’s physician, I could have joined him in his belief he’d acted the hero, but an innate need to locate the truth wouldn’t let me. Throughout Atwood’s poem, Helen’s narrative makes the necessity of this diligence clear: her jaded voice warns us of the dangers of being dazzled by beauty, of failing to listen, and of making that fateful choice to see only what we want to see.
I included Heffernan’s thoughts on heroism because I have found them helpful. My experience with Canada’s healthcare system threw me into conflicts that tested my stamina and my spirit: like her whistle-blowers, I was truly a reluctant activist. However, spending time around other activists, particularly those interested in spreading democracy, has sensitized me to the nuances of activism generally. It’s been fascinating but difficult and my left of center politics have been sorely challenged at times. There’s an unspoken rule that leftists don’t criticize other leftists, but the gratuitous violence of the student uprising in Montreal and the willingness of some activists to break the law first and justify later, is troubling. That democracy is built on the idea of respect, and some activists aren’t willing to abide by that, is troubling too. The end result is a kind of stage heroism, a heroism that is too calculated, too self-referencing and too cold-blooded to come from the heart.