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Who do you admire?

At The Daily Dish, Conor Friedersdorf contemplates the results of a recent Gallup poll asking Americans which men and women they most admire.  Barack Obama won out for men, whereas Hillary Clinton came out on top for women.  Friedersdorf thinks the fact that politicians make up the majority of people on both lists is “all about” name recognition, and I agree. He also says that “I’d never cite a living politician if asked who I admired most,” and I agree with that too.  Nor would I cite a religious leader who is heavily involved in politics, several of whom also figured highly in the ranks (Billy Graham, Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama).  In fact, the only people at the top who wouldn’t qualify for either of those two descriptions are Angelina Jolie, Oprah, and…Glenn Beck.  Dear god.

The poll asks “What man/woman have you heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?  And who is your second choice?”  I admit that if you called me on the phone and asked me this question impromptu, I would have some trouble coming up with my “best” answers.  I don’t keep a list of heroes in my head, because usually it’s not something important to consider unless you are asked for a Gallup poll, or, say, a job interview (why having a good answer to this question is an important quality in a receptionist, I’m not sure).  I couldn’t tell you my top five movies or bands, either.  It’s not because I’m apathetic or without preferences, just that ranking such things never really seemed that important.  But since I’m pooh-poohing the top answers given by the Americans polled, it seems like I should be able to come up with some I might actually give, at least for right now.  Such as…

Radley Balko:  Radley is a journalist.  To sum him up as a journalist, however, would be a little like summing up Norman Borlaug (someone who would absolutely be on my list, if he hadn’t died last year) as a farmer.  Radley’s work is decidedly political, but it is the kind of politics which any person with an ounce of compassion should praise, yet of which most are completely ignorant– seeking out and revealing the cases of people who have been oppressed by America’s justice system, whether by oversight or quite deliberately.   He’s written extensively about the harm caused by no-knock drug raids, prosecutorial cover-ups, asset forfeiture, the necessity of access to DNA testing for convicts, and general police malfeasance.  His work bring injustices to public attention– “My reporting helped get a guy off death row, helped win a new trial and acquittal for a 13-year-old murder suspect, and led to the firing of a corrupt medical examiner in Mississippi.”  His blog, as you can probably imagine, is frequently a depressing read.  But it’s a necessary one, and I admire him for doing this sometimes very dirty work.

Joel Salatin:  Joel is a farmer– but not a regular one.  To quote Wikipedia, he is
“a self-described ‘Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer'” who “produces high-quality ‘beyond organic’ meats, which are raised using environmentally responsible, ecologically beneficial, sustainable agriculture.”  To unpack that, it means that he doesn’t just farm without using pesticides or genetically modified animal foods, which is what “organic” usually implies.  Hence the ‘beyond organic’– the goal of Polyface Farms is to start with grass and build a progressive and decidedly non-industrial food chain off of it.  Cows, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs, all living off and contributing to the grass and each other’s…err…products.  No pollution production, no pesticide runoff, no tight confinement of animals in dark spaces eating food that makes them sick.  No docking of tails for depressed pigs.  No government subsidies, because the government doesn’t subsidize growing grass, or cows that were fed only grass or chickens that were fed only grass and the grubs of other animals that ate grass. Just a circular, self-perpetuating cycle of food production– something you’d think was the norm until you found out otherwise.  I admire that immensely. I also admire Michael Pollan for making sure the world has the opportunity to know who Salatin is.

Eugenie Scott:  Eugenie, who sometimes goes by “Genie,” is an anthropologist who heads up the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) and is, incidentally, one of the biggest fighters against creationism in public schools and promoters of evolution in America.  See Kitzmiller v. Dover.  Eugenie generally operates behind the scenes, but she is probably the foremost authority on the evolution/creationism controversy in the country.  And it’s not just about Dover– it’s about a country-wide ongoing tireless battle to make sure that what is taught in public school science classrooms is actually science, and she’s been contributing toward that effort for more than 20 years.  I find a lot to admire in that kind of dedication. I also admire Lauri Lebo for writing about the Dover trial in a way that could make everyone understand it and feel like they know everyone involved in it, because that’s absolutely necessary if people are expected to care. 

Carol Tavris:  Carol is a social psychologist who studies human bias.  She is co-author of a very important book entitled Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, which is a lesson in intellectual humility that everyone– everyone— needs.  I could make a list of science-based books that have made my head spin with possibility…and will, at some point.  But reading this one, and hearing Carol talk about it in the interview below and this one, really punched through for me.   As often as people throw around the term “cognitive dissonance,” they don’t really seem to understand it.  It’s not the simple fact of holding contradictory views– it’s the discomfort that arises from realizing that your views are contradictory.  Intellectually honest people feel cognitive dissonance and seek to resolve it by changing their views.  Intellectually dishonest people either don’t feel it to begin with or they find a way to avoid the discomfort by rationalizing their views to make them seem consistent, which is what Mistakes Were Made is all about.  We’re all regularly intellectually dishonest– it’s the norm, not the aberration.  Bias is in our nature, and bias is, in my view, infinitely fascinating.  That willingness to brave that chasm of human folly and make it easier for the rest of us to do so as well is why I find Carol so admirable.


Interesting choices. None of these people would have come to mind immediately, but all are admirable. My own difficulty with the poll is similar to yours. It just doesn't occur to me that admirability rankings matter. I would have trouble responding to these questions without putting some serious thought into it. Even then, selecting people who make the short list would feel rather arbitrary.

Yeah, that was a problem– it might be physically impossible for me to name the people currently alive on this earth who are most admirable, above all others. Instead, I reflexively want to talk about those who are currently most inspiring to me, which is no small thing but isn't the same regardless.

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