Courage

I have been thinking about courage lately.  The upcoming period may demand a great deal from us, each in his or her own way.  Opposition to Donald Trump and the Tea Party Republicans’ assault on freedom has required us to bring our resistance into the open, and there may be a price to pay.  Then, too, I am almost seventy five; and the challenge of aging with dignity and self respect will demand stamina and courage.  For me, the two challenges are intimately connected.

As a boy, I would wonder if I had the courage to jump into a lake to save a drowning friend, my sister, my brother, or my parents.  By the age of five or six, my buddies, David and Freddy and I would throw out challenges to one another: would you run in front of a car to save your mother? A stranger?  How far would your courage reach?  I still ask myself these questions, though I now know some of the answers.  My life for my child or grandchild?  Of course.  But some questions about my courage remain opaque.  I can hope that I’ll come through but I’ll only know about when tested.

At nine or ten, World War II and the Holocaust were still fresh and dominant in mind.  I would dream and daydream about being parachuted behind enemy lines to fight the Nazis.  So many people had already died;  and carrying on the fight might be left to us, the children.  It seemed a daunting prospect but I assured myself that I could overcome my fears because the danger was so present and the cause so strong. Here, the roots of courage were clear.

While I have lived a mostly privileged life, there have been moments that frightened me. When I was young, my parents canvassed for the American Labor Party, and FBI men in trench coats came twice to our apartment door in the Bronx.  “Where is your father,” they barked.  As a young teenager during the McCarthy era, there were plenty of bullies who took it upon themselves to watch over our national conscience.  I learned to watch what I said but I also girded my loins for a fight.

I’m no child now but these early images are still vivid and defining for me.  So, too, the images of courage from that period.  Most of all there was Joseph Welsh challenging Joe McCarthy on TV. The McCarthy-inspired Red Scare, had intimidated a nation, its people and its press.  McCarthy’s unrestrained efforts to uproot the Communist enemy in our midst represented the greatest witch hunt in American history.  During the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, broadcast for hours every day on TV, McCarthy threatened to release a list of 130 “Communists or subversives in defense plants.”

Actually it was his eager assistant, Roy Cohn—yes, the same Roy Cohn who Donald Trump counts as his greatest mentor—who was on stage at first.  Then McCarthy, himself, interceded. If Welsh was so concerned about people aiding the Communist Party, McCarthy taunted, he should check Fred Fisher, a young attorney in Welsh’s law firm.  Fisher was a progressive but hardly a Communist and certainly no danger to the nation.

“Until this moment, Senator,” said Welsh, “I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… . If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me… Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

At that moment, people were terrified of McCarthy, as they might soon be terrified by a rampaging, fact-free Donald Trump, contemptuous of the press and the judiciary and of anyone who stands in his way.  Those who defied McCarthy lost jobs, friends, freedoms.  Some were deported.  Welsh didn’t flinch.

I would like to believe that I would respond as Welsh responded.  I am surely not important enough to matter as Welsh, who represented the United States Army, mattered.  But I can imagine that there will be small moments that will call on me—and on many of us—to stand firm, as he did.  The image of his doing so will be with me as I do.  I hope to live to his standard.

Here’s the key point: having clear standards of morality and personal conduct, as Welsh did, makes it simpler to know when a line has been crossed and where you must take your stand.  Each of us need to determine for ourselves what that line is.

Anne Frank took a different kind of stand, one of profound psychological valor. This is another kind of courage: a refusal to let your life be defined by what you don’t have and to keep a disciplined focus on what you do have. In the face of the relentless Nazi onslaught and almost certain death, she wrote:

“I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching       thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Her heroism stands as a beacon to me.  I dearly hope that her ability to find grace and beauty in the ugliest of circumstances will guide me as I confront the lesser challenges of my life.

If I’m lucky enough to live another five, ten, even fifteen years, these challenges will touch almost every aspect of my being.  There will be pain and illness—and the inevitable fear of dying.  I see it every day among my older friends.  The stiffness when we walk, the waves of indeterminate, maybe undiagnosed feelings in our bellies and our limbs, the anxious anticipation of what almost seems like weekly reports from doctors, the suffering and loss of friends, the increasing uncertainty about so many things.

These pains and these uncertainties are not just my own.  There are others who care about me and whose lives are intertwined with mine.  I need to consider them when I chart my course.  There is my wife, above all, because our lives are inextricably joined.  There are my children, whom I have loved for thirty-eight and forty-six years.  They will suffer with my infirmity.  They won’t want to experience my weakness and decline.  They will ache when my time comes near, especially if my mind fades and I can’t share my grief with them.  There are my brother and my sister and my friends.  As they are for me, I am a pillar for them.  When one pillar falls, the world seems a much more precarious place.

Will we be brave as we face these days ahead?  How will I talk with them?  Will I be candid or stoic?  Will I permit myself to lean on them or will I hold to this foolish independence and pride of mine? Will we hold one another? Will I bemoan my fate or will I, with Anne Frank, see the beautiful blue sky above—I have had such an extraordinary life.  Much as I hope to stand firm with Joseph Welsh, I want to be my best when facing my own bodily and psychological assaults.  I want to be at my best, my courageous best, right up to the end.

Much as Joseph Welsh leaned on a set of standards to chart his political course, so I will need them to meet the physical and psychological challenges ahead.  Without these standards, I will flounder.  I will react to each problem as if it is unique.  And this would amplify whatever indecision and shakiness that ordinarily accompany crises.  I don’t want to live in constant crisis.  It would take me far from the dignity and self respect I aspire to.

I am inclined to see the world as a complex place and generally not given to right and wrong or good and bad answers to moral dilemmas.  But complexity is no great friend in during times of great struggle, and that is what is ahead.  So I have been winnowing my standards in search of the few that matter most.  Some stand as aspirations and may be beyond me.  I will live with that imperfection. For now, this is the best I can say. I will work to be clear eyed and realistic about the life I have.  I will try to accept that there is no other life.  And I will embrace whatever love and beauty I can find within the “approaching thunder.”

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When Bullies Become Tyrants

Ever since the he  swept into view last year, I have known the bully in Trump.  Only gradually have I realized how central it is to his persona and to his success.   I didn’t want to know that bullying could be so effective.

I’ve always hated bullying but haven’t fully credited its potential for power.  I’m an Alpha male myself, and always figured I could show up any bully who came my way.  I haven’t suffered the pain and indignities that women and my gentler friends have at the hands of such internally weak and injured buffoons.  For the most part, I haven’t suffered the tyranny that comes when bullies achieve institutional power.

That’s not entirely true.  I was a boy during the McCarthy period.  The FBI would occasionally come to the door of our apartment in the Bronx, asking after my father, who was always at work.  It was day time, after all.  In retrospect, I can see the visits as harassment, indirect bullying.  At the time, I was only mildly afraid.  Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover liked that, no doubt.  They wanted to create an air of anxiety in our culture, and they succeeded.

Now I see that there is no Trump without bullying. It is at the core of his “leadership.” His method is clear:  He enters the scene, any scene, with an air of implied threat, and feigned welcome.  He begins conversation with a criticism or an insult.  When he doesn’t get his way, he pushes.  When pushing fails, he manipulates.  When manipulation fails, he insults.  If the insults aren’t strong enough, he ups the ante through hyperbole and scandalous lies.  He is relentless.  He won’t stop until he has won…until he has backed people down, frightened them, worn them out, hurt them.

Trump fits well within our understanding of bullies.  Here are a couple of definitions that do him credit:  First: “Bullying is a distinctive pattern of harming and humiliating others, specifically those who are in some way smaller, weaker, younger or in any way more vulnerable than the bully.” Second: “…bullying is a subcategory of aggressive behavior characterized by the following three minimum criteria: (1) hostile intent, (2) imbalance of power, and (3) repetition over a period of time.[11] Bullying may thus be defined as the activity of repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another individual, physically, mentally or emotionally.”

Trump is not the first bully to gain political advantage.  His is a company of thousands, including McCarthy, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Hitler, Stalin, and other dictators.  Dictators are bullies by definition.  They almost always gain power by bullying, though the centrality of bullying is not always obvious to followers at first.

Here’s the tyrant’s profile, written long before the current president-elect came to power.  You decide who it calls to mind.  First:

  • Continual claims for attention and admiration
  • Cold and uncaring behavior toward others
  • Other people are seen only as an extension of the self to be manipulated and/or eliminated as needed; an inability to relate to people as people or separate from oneself
  • Inflated/exaggerated sense of self-importance.

You may object to my grouping Trump with tyrants.  So far he only has the potential to join the club, but he does have that potential.  The likelihood of potential turning into reality most likely depends on the conditions in the larger culture.  Following World War II, social scientists labored endlessly to identify the conditions that readied German for Hitler.  They focused on the anguish and anger of the nation following the humiliating peace treaty for World War I,  the country’s social dislocation and economic depression, the availability of ready made scapegoats, and the tendency towards  “authoritarian personalities” among the populous. These are people ready to surrender their own power in favor of a strongman, who could tell them what to do.  Many Trump supporters fit that same profile.  They did not vote for his policies—what policies?  They voted mostly for the promise of a fix, the highlighting of a bogeyman (immigrants) and the promise that he alone could make things right.

You might ask: why am I writing this essay when we already disapprove of Trump’s approach to leadership?  The reason is simple: I want to put words to what we all know.  I want to say it out loud.  I want to be clear about the direction the Trump bullying might take.  Bullying women is one thing.  Slanderous reactions to John Lewis and his terrible Congressional district (he means the Black areas of Atlanta) is another.  Bullying the press takes it a step further. . Imposing private security teams with the potential to be small armies take the trend too far. And trying to bully other countries, those who cannot and those who might retaliate, may speak mainly to the grandiosity that often goes with the bully.

You might say that people like Trump are “just” bullies, not tyrants, and it’s not fair to place Trump in their ranks.  But don’t forget that these tyrants didn’t begin that way.  Hitler, for example, portrayed himself as a “little man,” much aggrieved and neglected.  Mao, Fidel, even Hugo Chavez were said to be men of the people.  Dictatorships that don’t begin in coups, begin as populist rebellions that draw on the people’s yearning for change.  These populist leaders, once they have gained institutional position, turn rapidly into dictators.

Their initial campaigns seek out enemies—often an oppressed ethnic group, like the Jewish people, or a callous elite, like the money-lenders (read financiers or read Shylock).  Often enough, they are elected to office.  Then the transformation from democratic to dictatorial leadership happens quickly and decisively.  Here is how “leaders” move from bullying to tyranny:

Control of public information and opinion Use of the law for competition suppression
Vote fraud used to prevent the election of reformers Creation of a class of officials who are above the law
Undue official influence on trials and juries Subversion of internal checks and balances
Usurpation of undelegated powers Conversion of rights into privileges
Seeking a government monopoly on the capability and use of armed force Increasing public ignorance of their civic duties and reluctance to perform them
Militarization of law enforcement Political correctness
Infiltration and subversion of citizen groups that could be forces for reform Increasing dependency of the people on government
Suppression of investigators and whistle blowers Use of staged events to produce popular support

I could go into much greater detail about the transition from bullying populists to outright dictatorship, but I hope you’ve got the general idea.

The next and probably more important subject is: what to do.  That will take some deep thinking and concerted action.  Remember, bullies and tyrants do not yield to reason, to compassion, to ethical standards.  In other words, they do not respond to the most cherished tools that are used by a non-violent opposition.   For them, it is not just power itself, the ability to achieve what you want.  It is the power over others.  The pleasure, the thrill is in humbling enemies and doubters; it is the thrill of domination.  What’s more, wielding power distracts bullies from personal insecurities, minimizing what can  otherwise be incapacitating anxiety for bullies.

We know that it’s important to stand up to bullies.  We have a thousand small, often personal, examples of standing strong.  Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Walsh, who helped to dislodge Joe McCarthy from his perch, are shining examples of this approach.  They are heroes.  But it will take more than the courageous acts of individuals to keep Trump from tyranny.  It will take organized opposition.  Thank goodness, the opposition has begun.