Last evening, my girlfriend and I went to a book release event at the National Press Club. The author was Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident who escaped house arrest three years ago. My girlfriend works with him at a policy think tank, and he had given her a signed book.
It was one of the most intense experiences I have had in a long time. I was confronted with a lot of thoughts and emotions.
Chen started by walking unsteadily to the podium, fumbling with braille notes, and giving a speech in broken English that included an excerpt from his book. As he described the effects of his imprisonment, he nearly broke down in tears and had to stop for almost a full minute.
On some level, he looked foolish or frail, but it was clear that we were seeing a great man afflicted by great trials. I found myself thinking how unfair it was that he lived in a world that, after all of his other problems, forced him to go through the hassle of learning a foreign language late in life just to continue doing his work and talking to people.
Later on, during the question and answer period, He spoke through a translator. I could tell from the way he spoke in Chinese that he was a good orator in his native language, speaking swiftly and confidently and with emotional resonance.
People tried to ask him questions about his real or percieved conflicts with people in the US. He deflected these in ways that were wise, but probably sounded a bit strange to most Americans.
While thinking about his life and the surrounding events, I realized several things about heroes. First, they will usually be difficult people. If they did not submit to armies of government thugs, there is no way they will submit to your assumptions and demands. They will do what they see is right, and your silly little social norms or strategic gamesmanship can be shoved where the sun does not shine.
Second, I was reminded of that I and many of my colleagues overvalue rational thought and analytical intelligence. A true hero is marked by insight and willpower, seeing what needs to be done and doing it. The media and academic world value a kind of cleverness and slickness that he did not have, but his presence reminded me that our culture often values and rewards the wrong virtues, and that we should remind ourselves about what the ancient thinkers like Aristote and Confucuious knew about virtue ethics.