I grew up listening to the Lone Ranger on our radio. I heard there for the first time a lot of music I came to understand better later. Like everyone else, I heard the William Tell Overture there. I heard a little 1812 Overture, a little Fingal’s Cave Overture and a little of Liszt’s Les préludes.
I also heard, although I don’t think I really learned it, what kind of purposes a hero might have. These purposes were laid out clearly in the introduction to each show. Here’s the one I remember.
With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early western United States!
I think that is the one they settled on, but earlier shows had variations. Here’s one:
In the early days of the western United States, a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice.
In trying to corroborate my childhood memory of the introduction, I found some really amazing alternative phrasings. The masked man and his partner worked “to bring justice to the oppressed.” Even more interesting is his crusade against the Order of the Black Arrow in which his resources were “taxed to the utmost in the cause of democracy.”
The piece of that I want to return to is the “resources that were taxed to the utmost.” Since it was a weekly show, we know his resources weren’t going to be taxed beyond his utmost. That’s how we know he was a hero. When I look at myself and my own life in the light cast by the masked rider of the plains, I see some stark contrasts. My resources, for instance, really are sometimes taxed beyond the utmost and I have responded to that shortfall in an amazing variety of ways. Here are six. Do you use any of these yourself?
I have turned around, hoping he hadn’t seen me. I have denied that I knew anything about it. I have argued that I needed to limit the number of battles I was fighting at any one time. I have said that the potential gains were not worth the costs. I have maintained that the issue at hand is really a matter of different tastes rather than of moral order. And, on occasion, I have raised the issue in general terms and demanded that changes to be made on my own behalf or for others.
The result? My resources have not been taxed beyond my utmost as often as they would have been otherwise. Also, no one thinks of me as a hero—or, at least, no one has since my children were too young to know any better.
The Lone Ranger never does anything for personal reasons and with a weekly show, he really can’t afford to. I can. In fact, there are times I can’t afford not to. Let’s consider three examples.
Example #1 The mother of one of my PSU students came to see me one day. She was angry about my pedagogy. Also, her son had just gotten a bad grade on a paper he had submitted. Her view was that the first submission of the paper should have been the beginning of a private tutoring relationship with her son. I make corrections; he hands it in again. I make more corrections—very likely different ones, because the new version will have new mistakes—and he hands it in again. This goes on until he gets the grade his mother wants him to have. I said that wasn’t how university teaching worked. She threatened legal action.
There are two kinds of ways to set this up. One is to cast it as a principle. The university was not set up for the private tutoring of students in introductory classes. There are no resources for it. If it gets legal, I embrace my part in the suit as a way of protecting and preserving both the university’s right to define good pedagogy and as a way to encourage students to do their best on the first submission of the papers.
Another way is to calculate the cost to me of fighting this fight and the value to me of winning it. And the resources I have at the moment. And whether I will have any allies. And whether I will expose any other professors to abuse by failing to fight this issue when it comes to me.
Example #2 Here’s another one. I pull my car past a parking spot so I can back in safely. While I am in the process, another car pulls into the spot. There are two ways to set this up. They are the same two as in the last example. I can say to myself, “Well that was rude,” and continue looking for a place to park. Or I can get out and go back to the driver and explain to him that I was just backing into that spot and that he should, as a matter of fairness, pull out and leave the parking spot to me. I was, after all, there first.
Example #3 Here’s a final one. A group of teenagers is walking down the street being teenagerish. They are eating potato chips and drinking soft drinks and as a bag or a cup is empty, they throw them on the sidewalk. Not a display of civic virtue, for sure. And they are not being subtle about it either. They are not dropping them on the sidewalk; they are throwing them over their shoulders and laughing about what they are doing. Here are the two constructions again. I can cast this as an issue that needs to be dealt with. Civic virtue after all, is at stake. If not me, who? If not now, when? Or I can shake my head and mutter something about the younger generation going to the dogs.
I’m not sure what choice I would actually make in those last two situations, but I am pretty sure that would think about which way to set up the issue. One way is to define it as a matter of right and wrong. A principle is at stake. It—the principle—is what is really real and I must make my choice about joining it or not. Another way is to define it as a matter of personal choice.  (I’ll come back to that.) In this way of looking at it, I am in the center of the strategic calculation and any of several unnecessary or irksome situations have taken up residence in my neighborhood. It’s a buffet table of grievances and I can choose a few or all of them, depending on my appetite.
A person who used the second way of organizing issues would sometimes find himself saying, “I don’t think I have the stomach for that fight right now.” Notice the elements of the formulation. First, there is an “issue.” Second, I evaluate what it is costing me or others I care about. Third, I estimate what resources I have on hand. Finally, I take direct action; or indirect action; or no action at all.
A person who used the first way of organizing issues would find himself saying, “This is wrong. It’s just wrong. Something should be done. If I can’t find any help, I’ll do it myself.” Notice the elements of the formulation. First, a wrong is being committed. Second, I understand that I can stand up for the principle and oppose the wrong or I can be complicit in allowing the wrong to continue. Third, I look for allies because I will need allies, but I don’t check my own resources because I am committed to righting wrongs.
Please notice that the choice here is not whether to take action. My experience is that the people who set conflicts up as a “righting wrongs” model don’t take action more frequently or more consistently than the “issue investments” people do. What they actually do more often is to berate themselves for their complicity in this evil and to berate their friends for their complicity as well. If right and wrong are the counters, then virtue is to be defined either as doing something about it or as feeling guilty for not doing anything about it. If grievances are there to be defined as public or private and as issues I might take on or might pass by, then I make my choice and live with it.
Somebody is going to point, about here, that there is no reason why it has to be all one way or the other. That’s quite true if you consider these styles abstractly. You could mix the two. “Sometimes I set the issue up the one way,” such a person might say, “and sometimes I set it up the other way.” For actual persons, that isn’t really likely. “Leading the fight for law and order,” in Lone Ranger style, is like a powerful condiment: salt, let’s say. If you have learned that food with a lot of salt is really good and without a lot of salt, it’s more or less tasteless, then you will add salt when you can. The public definition of what is right and what is wrong and the urgency of your own part in the conflict is the salt in this metaphor.
You could say, “I am a thoughtful and attentive diner. I add salt to these foods (the under-salted ones) and not to those. The ones that are adequately seasoned, I eat just as they are.” That sounds good, but if your taste buds expect a certain amount of salt, foods that don’t have it are going to taste pretty bland. That is your style. It is characteristic of your taste.
If you are a low salt sort of person, running into highly salted foods is pretty unsatisfying. You might argue that you can’t really tell one food from another; all of them just taste like salt. In the same way, you might have a taste for a certain kind of civic disagreement, the kind that pits one interest against another, but neither of which embodies right or wrong. You might act to support resilience, for instance, rather than to prevent victimhood. You might put substantial resources into preventing problems, where that is possible, instead of waiting for the occurrence of the problem to identify just who the villain is so he can be trashed, as he deserves. It is true, by the way, that the identity of “the villain” will be clearer after the problem occurs. If you really need villains, “afterward” is the best time to find them.
So although it is true that any one person can set some issues up with himself in the center, so that actions may be chosen or not; or set the issue up in the center so that the choices are action or complicity—still, mixing the two styles together isn’t really natural. It is possible, but it isn’t natural. I would be like choosing high salt foods at one meal and low salt foods at another.
The Lone Ranger is not a high salt person. He just lives in a high salt time and in a high salt place. Everywhere he turns, there are lawbreakers to hunt down and defeat, widows and orphans to rescue, and law and order to secure. I live at a time when people read the papers and sit around and philosophize about how best to respond to the issues. Every day, there are opportunities to saddle up and take out after scofflaws. Somebody has to do that. Maybe we ought to take turns. I’m glad it isn’t always me.
 I didn’t learn until today that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, liked Les preludes too. He chose it as a theme to accompany the weekly news announcements that were supposed to lead up to a German victory in World War II.
 Here’s the New American Bible version of Isaiah 1:17. Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow. I’m not saying that’s where the writers got that phrasing, but I have heard Lone Ranger episodes about every one of those—especially the widows and orphans.
 This one actually happened to me. I took the issue to my division chair and worked out the options. I judged that it was going to come down to me and my attorney (not the university’s attorney) and the angry mother and her attorney. I had already said I would have no part of her notion of “proper university pedagogy,” so returning to her and saying that I would do what she had demanded involved eating a certain amount of crow and it tasted really bad.
 “Personal choice” does not mean “private choice.” I am a person and a citizen and a neighbor. I might choose to act on any of those identities. I might choose, for instance, to see the issue as a call to citizenship and I might attend a meeting or lead a march or drop a bill in the legislative hopper. But what I chose to do on that issue would not necessarily characterize my choice on “issues” as a general matter.