Friday, December 25, 2009

My Favorite Heroes of the '00s

"Heroes" seemed like the simplest way to label this category, and the term is clearly apt for several of the individuals within it, but in addition to truly heroic sacrifices, my goal is to recognize people who demonstrated extraordinary courage, conviction and/or class during the decade.

Because of the imprecise parallels among those listed below, and the thousands of unnamed others--including soldiers, firefighters, police, rescue workers, ER doctors & nurses and more--who exemplify true heroism, the following won't be a ranking, but more a tribute to a handful of people whose actions stood out during the '00s, and in doing so, are representative of many more who did likewise.

I won't repeat them as selections in this category, but it is probably no coincidence the many of My Favorite Entertainers of the '00s--including Jon Stewart, Michael Moore, Bruce Springsteen, Howard Stern, Pearl Jam and Green Day--are artists who demonstrated one form of courage & conviction by raising voices of dissent, often to some degree of sacrifice.

So as I commemorate Christmas by saluting those who gave of themselves in impressive ways, those mentioned above should be noted in addition to the following:

NYPD/FDNY - Sadly, this decade saw great sacrifices from far too many victims, survivors & rescue workers of terrorist acts, armed conflicts and natural disasters. My words seem trite in saluting--to represent them all--the Police and Firefighters of New York City, who on 9/11, selflessly went to, and into, the twin towers in hopes of helping others even when the task seemed--and tragically proved--hopeless.

Pat Tillman - Eight months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman--a starting safety with the Arizona Cardinals--turned down a 3-year/$3.6 million contract offer to enlist in the U.S. Army. He was deployed to Iraq and subsequently to Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire on April 22, 2004. That the Army chose to cover up the friendly fire incident sadly disgraced but never diminished the noble example of sacrifice Tillman set.

Cindy Sheehan - After the death of her son, Casey, in the Iraq War, Sheehan spoke out against the war and the reasons given for it. Most notably, she camped out across from George Bush's Crawford, Texas ranch for 4 weeks in August 2005, demanding a meeting with the President. She maintained her protests throughout the rest of the decade, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2008.

Neda Soltan and Iranian Women - Emblematic of thousands of Iranian women who boldly took to the streets in protest of oppression and other wrongs throughout the decade, Soltan was peacefully protesting the rigged re-election of Ahmadinejad when she was shot and killed by a government militiaman. The London Times just named her their Person of the Year. This TIME article gives a bit more insight into the brave defiance shown by many Iranian women.

Rudy Giuliani - I'm not a fan of all of his personal, mayoral and political actions and beliefs, but the leadership he showed following 9/11 was phenomenally impressive. Some eventually criticized some of his choices and perhaps a bit of self-aggrandizing, but I don't think many can doubt his effectiveness in uniting NYC during a time of unprecedented trauma.

Amy Tauchman & Kathy Slovick - Now both friends of mine, Tauchman and Slovick were previously non-activist housewives in conservative Glen Ellyn, IL when they began DAWN (DuPage Against War Now) in October 2002, five months before the invasion of Iraq. While they didn't stop any wars or effect policy change, they motivated thousands of fellow citizens to attend meetings, vigils & protests and scared the bejesus out of local townships in attempting to get a question about Iraq troop withdrawal put on election ballots.

The Dixie Chicks - They were arguably the biggest recording act in America--having sold 10 million copies of 2 straight albums--when lead singer Natalie Maines told a London crowd in 2003 that she was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." Though Maines offered an apology for being disrespectful, a backlash ensued and she and her bandmates refused to back down from their original statement. In 2004, they performed on the Vote for Change tour and boldly proclaimed they were "Not Ready to Make Nice" in their 2006 single. While others--including Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Green Day and Madonna--also spoke out against Bush and the war, none so directly outraged their core audience nor sabotaged their careers to the same extent.

Chelsey Sullenberger - While the angle of this category is more about courageous choices than simply heroic actions, what "Sully" did on January 15, 2009 should be saluted, if only to symbolize all the everyday heroes whose deeds often go unsung. As the pilot of US Airways flight 1549, whose engines were disabled when flown into a flock of birds, Sullenberger landed the plane in the Hudson River, miraculously ensuring the survival of all 155 people on board.

Sean Elliott / Alonzo Mourning - In 2000, Elliott became the first NBA player to return to action after a kidney transplant, and Mourning did likewise a few years later. Elliott's brother and Mourning's cousin are also to be commended for donating their kidneys.

Petra Nemcova - In December 2004, Nemcova was a 25-year-old supermodel vacationing in Thailand with her main photographer and fiance, Simon Atlee, when the tsunami struck their resort. Nemcova saw Atlee washed away to sea--he wasn't found & identified until the next March--but despite breaking her pelvis, she clung to a tree for 8 hours to stave off near-certain death of her own. In 2005 she started The Happy Hearts Fund for disadvantaged children.

Ray Adams - Representative of many gutsy whistle-blowers whose stories I didn't come across, Adams was an air traffic controller at Newark Airport who was relieved of his duties by the FAA when he began raising concerns about numerous near misses. Just this month Adams was vindicated and the FAA lambasted by U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which sent a report to President Obama saying: "The investigation substantiated Mr. Adams' allegations concerning the unsafe operation of the two intersecting runway configurations."

Craig Newmark and Larry Sanger / Jimmy Wales - Newmark, who started Craigslist, and Sanger & Wales, who did likewise with Wikipedia, forewent potential billions by keeping their enormously popular websites operating as non-profits, devoid of advertising (save for small exceptions) and not-for-sale.

Robert Plant - Let's put it this way: of the more than 1,000 concerts and theatrical performances I have attended, I have never paid more than $130 for a ticket. I would gladly pay over $200 for the worst seat to a Led Zeppelin reunion show. But despite a highly-praised Zeppelin reunion gig in December 2007 (with Jason Bonham--John's son--on drums) and huge paydays for "geezer" tours by the Eagles, Who, Rolling Stones, CSNY, Fleetwood Mac, Police and more, Plant has repeatedly declined the chance for what would likely be the most lucrative concert tour ever. He said he didn't want to "tour like a bunch of bored old men" and stuck to his commitment to tour with bluegrass star Alison Krauss, with whom he was rewarded with an Album of the Year Grammy in February 2009 for Raising Sand.

Jose Canseco / The White Sox 16 of 2003 - When it comes to Steroid abuse throughout baseball, few have been heroic, with just a handful of players offering weak mea culpas after being busted. But Canseco, who generally seems to be a complete tool and outed other juicers in his 2005 book largely for personal gain after his steroid-enhanced career was over, can at least claim to be the person who was likely most responsible for getting baseball to finally start cleaning up its act, at least in theory. Although less publicized or vainglorious, in 2003, 16 members of the White Sox were intending to refuse blind steroid tests and thus be counted as testing positive (but not personally identified) so that more regular and open testing tied to a 5% positive rate in the blind tests would kick in. The Players Union convinced them not to proceed with their plan, but their intention should still be considered noble. Also to be saluted are any players who opted not to use performance enhancing drugs, especially those for which the ethical choice likely meant forgoing up on potentially-lucrative careers or greater success.

Brendan Reilly - In 2007, Chicago's imperial Mayor Daley and some big wig benefactors wanted to move the Chicago Children's Museum from Navy Pier to a proposed subterranean structure in Grant Park. Reilly, a first-term Alderman from the 42nd Ward, stood in opposition to the mayor and most of the lock-step City Council, citing not only major concerns from his constituents but age old doctrines protecting Grant Park as an open space, unadorned by private structures. Oooh boy, was Hizzoner ever pissed. But Reilly stood his ground and to this day, no ground has been broken and other options are still being explored.

Denzel Washington - This isn't exactly heroic but pretty damn cool. In 2005, I saw Denzel in Julius Caesar on Broadway and thought I would try to get him to sign my Playbill near the stage door after the show. I've done likewise for Billy Crystal, Antonio Banderas, Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and others, and while I've been fairly successful, most stars just sign a handful of autographs as they hustle into their limousines. And to be fair, they really have no further obligation and don't have to sign anything. But Washington did something I've never seen before or since, and I imagine he did so after every performance, not just the one I attended. He simply told everybody with a Playbill to get in line, and though the line stretched all the way down 44th St. and clearly lasted more than an hour, Denzel signed for everybody and even posed for photos. I remember him making fun of me as I fumbled with my camera phone to take this poor quality photo.

Barack Obama - I wasn't going to include him on here until I watched his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech and heard him renounce torture almost exactly as I'd put it throughout the Bush/Cheney years: "We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend."

A few others to mention:

George Ryan
for ending the death penalty in Illinois after years of mistakes being made. Sure, he was a lousy governor and wound up in jail, but he did something right.

Radiohead for putting In Rainbows out for free over the Internet

Roger Ebert
for maintaining his voice even after his vocal abilities were taken

Steve Stone
and Chip Carey for calling out the imbeciles on the 2004 Cubs and not backing down even though it cost them their jobs

Patti LuPone
for screaming at audience members who disturbed performances with cameras and cell phones (more here)

Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy for adopting Michael Oher as depicted in the overtly sentimental but still heartwarming The Blind Side

TMZ for scooping the mainstream media and at least (usually) getting things right when it comes to sleaze journalism

Whew, it took over 3 hours to write this post. And while I appreciate all reactions and comments to my rankings and other posts, I'd really love to hear of more examples in the spirit of those cited here.

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