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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The perils of America’s missionary narrative

If the world is falling apart as so many people fear, how did this begin?  That’s the subject of Steven Kinzer’s excellent article this Sunday, August 7, 2016: “Don’t Blame the Masses if the World Isn’t Unified.”  He lays the blame primarily on our misinterpretation of the Soviet collapse.  “It was a Soviet failure, but we interpreted it as an epochal American victory.”

According to Kinzer, this led to further misinterpretations and poor judgment.  We believed that we were the sole international super power and built a foreign policy based on this idea and the need to sustain it.  The belief then pitted us against China, Russia, Iran, and anyone else who defied us.  We believed that we could build a world economic order—“Globalization” and free market economies—that would give sustained structure and credence to our triumph.  And to preserve that world order, we attacked Iraq, taking down a cruel dictator and protecting our oil interests, putting an exclamation point on our new position astride the world.

One of the reasons that this narrative of American ascendance took hold was because it isn’t new, and from here on in, I will be extending and reshaping Kinzer’s argument.  From the time of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny in the early nineteenth century, the American narrative has marked us as special, the standard bearer of democratic and Christian values.  Our special place then entitled, and sometimes mandated, us to spread the word.  It undergirded, for example, our push across the American continent.  So powerful was this narrative, that it managed to hide or exclude conflicting evidence, such as the enslavement of millions of Africans, the destruction of Native American nations, and the undermining of many Latin American governments that did not align with our ideas—and our economic interests.

The narrative of American exceptionalism continued into the twentieth century, with the nationalistic Spanish American War and the colonization of other nations, among others, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.  Even the most progressive of our politicians, Teddy Roosevelt, joined in with gusto.  The narrative then began to reach its current power with the experience of the World Wars, particularly the second war in which our American army and the American way defeated European fascism and the decadence that we always had seen in the “old world.”  We were the new world.  We interpreted our strength not just as strength but as proof that our values and culture were superior.  We no longer had to just trumpet our values.  We could insist on them.  What followed was economic and cultural dominance, symbolized by the spread of the English language and U.S. movies and music.

The one sticking point was the Soviet Union, whose armies also laid equal claim to defeating Hitler and, along with us, developed nuclear arms.  Ever since the Russian Revolution in 1917, we have been anxious that Communism could undermine what Alexis de Toqueville termed “the great American experiment.” This has led to repressive, sometimes violent reactions, like the “Great Red Scare” of 1919, and the McCarthy period of the 1950’s.  To combat the Soviet threat, we built the NATO pact, which created a European barrier to the American shores.

So it is no surprise that we reacted with joy to the American triumph in the Cold War and against the Communist threat, but, as Kinzer suggests, the American narrative of exceptionalism was so powerful that it led to a failure in logic.  Since we had been fighting Communism, we must have caused its demise. That is the conclusion that enshrined Ronald Regan as a national hero.

Let me lay out the logic of this theme.  By building and sustaining a democratic government, we are the anointed ones.  That is our origin story, our Garden of Eden.  It combines the religious rebellion of the Puritans and the democratic rebellion of the colonies.  That, then, gives us the right to establish our hegemony over other peoples.

Power then becomes addictive, an end in itself.  This has been the fate of virtually all empires. They all say that they expand for two reasons: to spread their culture and values and to defend the homeland.  Think of Rome and England.  Russia, too, for that matter, no matter how much we disagree with what they were selling.  For all empires, those outside the inner circle, are heathens, sometimes primitives.  The narrative paints them that way and builds the picture of lawless tribes trying to tear down the shining empire.  Thus the hordes attacked Rome, the Indian natives rose up against Britain, and, according to Donald Trump, among others, the Mexicans and Muslims threaten to bring down the great American civilization.

With the strength of the narrative of American exceptionalism married to the overweaning power of the United States armed forces and the need to tame the heathens, Bush’s assault on Saddam Hussein is understandable.  The attack on Iraq, according to Kinzer then led to a cascading series of events that have, in turn, led to the feeling that the world is falling apart.  The argument goes this way: the Iraq war led to war, starvation, desperation, and the growth of terrorism.  These events led to the migrations of millions of people and refugee crises.  The refugees, in turn, destabilized Europe and hinted at the dissolution of the European Union.

There seems to be no end to the vicious cycle created, as Kinzer says, by our misinterpretation of the Soviet collapse and by what I think is better framed as the out-of-control narrative of American exceptionalism—not the misinterpretation of a single event.

We badly need a new narrative, one that does not emphasize one way of life over another, one nation over all others.  But the universalistic narratives of the modern world—those of the League of Nations, the United Nations or the European Union have not seemed up to the task. The American notion of the Melting Pot, implying that all Americans should eventually be transformed – in essence — into White, Anglo Saxon Protestants, has similarly fallen by the wayside. Thank God.  In all cases, tribalism (sometimes expressed as Identity politics) seems stronger.  This is what makes the current world so dangerous.

I have personally struggled with this question for my entire adult life.  I feel inspired when listening to songs that bring all of us together, songs like “We are the World” and “Ballad for Americans.”  I am a universalist at heart.  But I certainly don’t know how to make that happen while accounting sufficiently for the need for belonging and protection that the tribal impulse seems to fill.  We desperately need a widespread and deep dialogue on how to blend the two.  We need a new, more collaborative, communal narrative to absorb and reconfigure all of the discordant and messy facts of our lives together…one that also leaves out all forms of exceptionalism –  religious, nationalistic, racial, and cultural.