September 15, 2009


I'm a few days late, but I was finally prompted to say something because of Patrick Swayze. I don't mean to denigrate him at all; he was a fine actor and probably a fine man. (He was in Red Dawn, for pete's sake, so that automatically makes him OK in my book.)  But a couple days ago, Deskmerc was the only one of my Facebook friends to salute the passing of Norman Borlaug. As of last night, dozens of people were saluting Swayze. I think that's exactly backwards, and while everyone is touched that Johnny won't dance again, myself included, we all missed the fact that the greatest man who ever lived passed away this week too.

Posted by: Sarah at 07:37 AM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
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1 Why are people more interested in celebrities?

We are still cavepeople. We feel more for what we can see. We saw Patrick Swayze, not just in a brief clip like one you linked to, but in movies watched by millions. Or a movie in my case. I've only seen him in Red Dawn over 20 years ago and have only the vaguest notion of what he looks like. So I had to look up "carried a watermelon".

How many actors from Shakespeare's time are remembered today? Only those who saw those actors perform remember them, and they are as long dead as the actors. But Swayze's image will live on every time a DVD of his performances plays.

I don't care for the cult of the actor. Movies are stories (or are supposed to be stories). Who makes up those stories? Unseen writers. Yet even directors get more attention. But there would be nothing to act out, nothing to direct, without writers. Yet how many people can name the writers of their favorite movies and TV shows?

Writing is abstract and doesn't impress us the way an actor does. Our reactions to actors are no different from a caveman's reactions to an attractive human. We let our instincts overpower our intellect. This is why people sit through bad movies with charismatic actors (and put up with bad but charismatic leaders).

I must have seen Borlaug's name before. I've definitely read about the Green Revolution before and I even mentioned it to you in a recent email (albeit without Borlaug's name). Nonetheless his name didn't stick in my brain. Unlike Swayze, Borlaug was a name without a face. A string of letters that unraveled and disappeared down the memory hole. I had to look him up this morning after you mentioned him. His achievements are hard to visualize:

Borlaug's discoveries have been estimated to have saved over 245 million lives worldwide.

Penn said "a billion people".

We can't see those billion lives being saved. There aren't cameras running to record his process of discovery. And watching people farm and eat isn't exciting, whereas a guy saving a single life on camera is exciting ... and understandable. Most of us don't process big numbers. We can easily envision saving one life, or the lives of everyone on a bus. We've seen such acts dramatized. But a billion lives? We cannot see that many people. It's physically impossible.

So in short, here's the cruel irony: we're hard-wired to admire the small and concrete but neglect the great and abstract. Man can do amazing things, but other men may not care - even though they may depend on the hidden and virtuous for their very lives!

Virtue is its own reward. Do what's right, even if you'll never be recognized. Be like Borlaug.

Posted by: Amritas at September 15, 2009 11:27 AM (+nV09)

2 Take a look at this (well, maybe you shouldn't): "The feted agronomist may have saved a billion from starvation, but..." How can anyone write "but" after "may have saved a billion from starvation"?

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at September 16, 2009 01:01 AM (/+KQb)

3 Thanks Sarah, I had  never heard of him.

Posted by: tim at September 16, 2009 08:56 AM (nno0f)

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