When I was a child, I admired Richard Nixon and supported him during the dark days of Watergate. Why not? He was my president. He was the great man who had been selected to “run the country.” My civic indoctrination taught me this. I eventually grew up and learned better, but it seems that many people never outgrown this childish desire to put politicians onto pedestals.
USA Today released its annual poll last week of who Americans admire most. I shouldn’t be disgusted — because I know human nature — but I am disgusted. Topping the list of men is Barack Obama. Topping the list of women is Hillary Clinton.
I’m not making a partisan statement in saying this. My issue isn’t that they’re both Democrats. I’d have felt the same way when it was George W. Bush during his administration. My issue with it its that we deify politicians in this culture — instead of honoring the people who actually achieve things worth doing.
Take a look at the list and see all the politicians. I’ve colored all the political figures in red. (And, yes, I count Michelle Obama and Laura Bush as politicians. You’d have never heard of them if they weren’t associated with politics.) On the women’s side, 80 percent are politicians and the two remaining choices are entertainers. Why do we admire these people?
Interestingly, three of the men are religious figures, but I suspect that has more to do with who people assume they’re supposed to admire than anything else. Billy Graham made it onto the list because he’s who most Protestants thought of first. The pope is the one most Catholics thought of first. Thomas Monson is the one most Mormons thought of first.
The remaining three names are businessmen — Warren Buffet, Donald Trump and Bill Gates. I’m not really much of a fan of Buffet or Gates, but they’re defensible choices. Any list that includes Trump, though, is a list for idiots.
So who do I admire? Sadly, I have trouble naming anyone who I admire who you would have ever heard of. There are a few — not many — but they’re people who I’ve experienced making a difference in the world or who I’ve gotten to know closely enough to admire their hearts and minds. (At least one of those people might be reading this. You know who you are.)
The people we really admire aren’t celebrities, are they? Isn’t it more a matter of a few hundred people in every little place seeing the difference that some man or woman makes? It could be a teacher, a pastor, a co-worker, a friend or scores of different roles. But if we all mention John Smith or Mary Jones — the people we know that we admire — there aren’t enough people who even know those people for them to make the list.
So is there something wrong with Americans to produce such a shallow list? Or are we asking the wrong questions in a media-saturated world? I suspect it’s a little of both. I think most of us have real people in real life who we admire deeply, but those real-life heroes can never make a poll such as this.
But there are some people who truly do admire the Clintons and Bush and Newt Gingrich. (Heaven help us.) I wonder if these are the people who are most engrossed in the media culture. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect those groups would correlate tightly.
I don’t admire the people on these lists. I actively distrust most of them. I’m indifferent about most of the rest. Even someone such as Graham — whose faith is similar to my own — is a mere footnote of the past in my mind.
I admire a few people, but they aren’t people you know. The public obsession with making heroes out of politicians and entertainers — and the media’s complicity in it — is a dangerous thing. As long as we believe these people are the ones to admire, we’re going to keep giving our honor to people who don’t deserve it — rather than the truly admirable people who labor without recognition all around us.