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Jewish World Review Aug. 17, 1999 /5 Elul, 5759

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Detritus in the plaza -- IS THERE A HEROISM gap in America?

There was much hand-wringing a few weeks ago at the time of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo Mission that sent Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon. That was indeed a truly a heroic moment for mankind. But, say the gloom-pots, since the end of the Apollo program in 1972, we haven't followed up with any more manned space flights. Too bad. Vietnam, Watergate, O.J. and Monica have sapped our energy. It's so sad, America no longer does heroic things.

That is mostly patent nonsense, but not entirely. America has won the Cold War, an achievement unmatched in history. We have cracked biological codes that have yielded pharmaceuticals that save lives. We have developed a communication system that puts everyone in touch. We have moved to deregulate an economy that was tilting toward ossification. We are leading the world toward political and economic liberty. And what about Mark McGwire and the American women soccer players? Those are all heroic achievements.

Nor have we abandoned space exploration. Since Apollo we have sent a space station aloft and put the Lunar Prospector crawling on the moon. We sent up the Hubble telescope. The Global Surveyor is now circling Mars, a neighborhood that will soon be visited by the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. That just begins a list of what $13 billion a year buys when spent in the heavens.

But how come no more men move on extraterrestrial turf? Here's what physicist Robert Park of the University of Maryland says: "When a human being is on Mars, it's not a like a human being on Earth. He's locked in a space suit. He has no sense of touch. He has no sense of smell. There is nothing to hear. The only sense he's got left is his eyes. (But) we can put better eyes than human eyes on Mars. We can see through those eyes from here on Earth. ... We see what the robot sees. We tell the robot what to do. When we send a robot to Mars ... we all go along on the mission. I find that exciting and inspiring."

But still, there may indeed be a heroism gap. So many of our allegedly most creative people neither recognize heroism nor salute it. And we miss that.

On a recent PBS "Think Tank" program, I talked with sculptor Frederick Hart, whose works include the "Three Soldiers" statue of the Vietnam Memorial and "Ex Nihilo" on the West Front of the National Cathedral in Washington. We received more mail from that show than for any in our five-plus years on PBS.

Hart is a sculptor in the "neo-traditional" mode, which means you can tell what the sculpture is about merely by looking at it. The three soldiers look like three soldiers, tired and heroic. The figures in "Ex Nihilo" show humankind emerging, in wonder, from the vortex of chaos. The emerging humans, stylized, look human. You can like his sculpture or not. I do, a great deal.

But the mail poured in because Hart is also a combatant in the so-called "culture wars." He believes that too much of the most-praised modern painting and sculpture is informed by a mentality that is not only non-representational and often plain ugly, but also purposefully non-heroic and anti-heroic. Hart looks for art that "leans toward the heroic possibilities of mankind ... oriented toward celebrating and embodying the nobility of the human spirit."

It's not just painting and sculpture. As I read the mail, the public wonders: Where is the melody in modern music? Where is the plot in modern fiction? And consider modern architecture, coupled with publicly commissioned modern sculpture, which prompted this comment some years ago: "I don't care if they want to build those boring glass boxes, but why do they always deposit the little turd in the plaza when they leave." The good news is that perhaps the modernist wave has crested.

In his youth Hart was a liberal Southerner, active in civil rights. He now regards himself as a conservative, although he cites with glee an Oliphant cartoon showing a vast and empty enclosed space entitled "At the Republican Museum of Art."

But many conservatives, too, seem to be missing modern heroism, as they plead for it. In a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, editor William Kristol laments the passing of heroism and argues that "we live in a lesser time." He goes on: "Our America is in many ways a lesser America."

I doubt that. I would argue that we live in history's most heroic moment. We are trying to reach goals unimaginable only short years ago, and often succeeding. It would be easier to move further ahead if we recognized that we are on the way.

. Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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