Bringing admiration back in style

The past month an almost archaic word came back into popular usage.

It was applied to Martin ''Lennie'' Skutnik, the civil servant of the Congressional Budget Office, who dove into the Potomac to save a survivor of the Air Florida plane crash.

The same term got trotted out to describe Hank Aaron when he was inducted into baseball's Hall Of Fame.

And the quaint designation was used to sum up Lech Walesa in all the year's-end retrospectives.

The word, of course, is hero - a noun that in recent years has generally found itself with an ''anti-'' in front of it.

The very idea of hero has suffered notoriously in modern times, for a number of reasons. In the first place, hero conjures up warrior almost as a synonym - macho-man with sword and scowl, measuring his manhood over the prostrate bodies of enemies on the plains of Troy or the opera stages of Wagner.

But our real problem is with heroism itself - the notion that a human being will sacrifice himself or herself for another human being or, even more incredible, for a code.

We have microscopes, we 20th-century people do, and we get mercilessly close to any alleged heroes. We see them, warts and all. And when, at last, we see nothing but warts, we debunk them, as we used to say, or demystify them, as the clinical phrase now has it.

We are weak on the subject of strength, but we are strong on the subject of weakness. We can prove to our satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) that there is no such thing as altruism - it's merely the cleverest strategy of selfishness. We write biographies like public prosecutors. We conduct interviews like the third degree. By the time we're through, heroism is a form of neuroticism, if not madness.

We can believe in Don Quixote. We just can't believe in Galahad unless he's put in a musical and officially designated as fantasy.

We moderns know how heroes are made. It's all publicity - cover stories in the double sense of the word.

At some point in our various cultural revolutions, we traded in heroes for celebrities. Heroes you have to love. Celebrities are an infatuation, easy come, easy go.

Ever since Vietnam and Watergate we have been especially wary of heroes. Yet the fact is, we guard ourselves against heroes not because we disbelieve them but because we are so passionately tempted to believe in them. Achilles is our Achilles' heel.

When did the hero cautiously start to come back? There were signs - as self-conscious as yellow ribbons - when the American hostages in Iran were freed.

Today Warren Beatty, who built a career on playing the mod skeptic, has made the leap from ''Shampoo'' to ''Reds'' - an act of great romanticism, whatever the film's final ''message.''

New York magazine, known for its level gaze (and sometimes its sneering lip) splashed this headline across a January cover: ''Who Says There Are No Heroes?'' Inside, as promised, the stories of ''six undaunted New Yorkers'' were told, without a touch of irony.

We are not yet in the state of the poet Stephen Spender when he wrote, ''I think continually of those who are great'' - and a good thing too. There are as obvious dangers to making heroism too easy as to making it nearly impossible.

But it is not coincidence that we are pronouncing this archaic word again at a time when the reasons for optimism seem less than usual. The hero tells us, in our dark hour, that problems can be solved - that life cannot only be survived but lived well. The extra we claim for the hero is the extra we look for in ourselves. And this, in itself, may be a cause for further hope.

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