The death of the Soviet Union’s last leader last week was met with eulogies in the West and more of a collective ho-hum in his native Russia. When he peacefully dissolved what Ronald Reagan called the “Evil Empire” in 1991, it was still too early to know that three decades later he would die in the Age of the Asterisk. These are our days, and they are most inhospitable to heroes.

Even in the most positive Western treatments of Mikhail Gorbachev’s life and legacy, riffs of disappointment and failure are prominent. Russia, now trying in Ukraine to rebuild the empire many blame him for surrendering, has voted at least three times for strongman Vladimir Putin, in part as a reaction to Gorbachev and Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, whom his fellow citizens also came to see as weak after a promising start on top of that tank in 1993.

But in a broader sense than even the wasted opportunities to build something lasting and meaningful out of the wreckage of communism, heroes are now an endangered species everywhere. Why? Because society today is committed to putting an asterisk next to the name of any man or woman who tries to stand up and make a difference.

Around the same time the Soviet Union was collapsing, an elder statesman who had built his name going toe-to-toe with Soviets in arms negotiations asked me, a scrawny 20-year-old student, who my heroes were. I think he was genuinely interested in what I would say, but I couldn’t think of a single name.

At the time, I blamed myself for being stupid or otherwise unaware of the works of great men and women out there I ought to admiring. But it wasn’t all just my fault. The great dissembling was only beginning. An American president would soon be impeached for lying about his relations with a young female intern. Empire building (even figuratively) was over, and governance was about to be reduced to its current state of responsibility: managing decline.

Great men and women of today must make the best of the bad choices in front of them. Gorbachev certainly did. He could see the writing on the wall as the twin catastrophes of the Afghanistan war and the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power reactor tested a brittle regime, whose weaknesses they exposed. Brokering a treaty with the constituent republics and an architecture in which they might cooperate as neighbors was the best that could then be done.

I just spoke with someone who attended a wedding in Southern Maine this weekend where James Comey was present. Did you punch him on my behalf, I asked. No, she said after confessing to having thought about it. And then she got serious and said, “You know, he could have been a hero.”

But he wasn’t. For a brief period, some pretended he was only because, in our impoverished time, that’s as close as we can get, right? Instead, Comey demonstrated for the world to see where fecklessness mixed with twisting in the wind and a smug sense of false moral superiority gets you: nowhere good.

Blame the media, academia, Hollywood, or the sense of liberty that the online world gives people to say what they “really think.” A powerful universe of forces stands ready to point out Bill Gates’ frailties, Tiger Woods’ philandering, Hillary Clinton’s wickedness, or Angela Merkel’s undoing sense of compassion. Don Henley may have put it best: “People love it when you lose/They love dirty laundry.” Whoever’s at fault, the outcome is the same. Sticky cynicism pulls us to the ground, where we are safe from false illusions.

Being too clever robs us of something important: role models. We need them desperately nowadays. Perhaps the greatest heroism of our day is knowing what a meat-grinder public opinion is and going ahead anyway. After all, that’s the best we can do, right?

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.