On Courage

“I am firmly convinced that the passionate will for justice and truth has done more to improve (the human condition) than calculating political shrewdness which in the long run only breeds general mistrust.” Albert Einstein, “Moral Decay,” 1937

We’ve been hearing a lot about courage since September 11th. There’s the courage of those on the hijacked plane who apparently decided to attack the hijackers, leading to its crash into a rural Pennsylvania field rather than the White House or some other government building. There’s the courage of those in the World Trade Towers who helped others to get out, or stayed with those who couldn’t immediately leave, and who in doing so lost their lives. There’s the courage of ministers and firemen and policemen and emergency medical personnel and others who risked and in some cases lost their lives because they put themselves in harm’s way to do their jobs, to try to help others.

What is courage? Webster’s dictionary defines it as “facing or dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult, or painful, instead of withdrawing from it.” I would say that courage means a willingness to face your fears and refuse to let them rule your life; instead, saying and doing what you know is right regardless of the risks or possible consequences. Or how about just following your conscience, your heart?

Where does courage come from? What makes it possible for some of us to speak up when all around us everyone else seems to be acting, talking or thinking in a way we find very disturbing, even threatening?

One place it comes from is an understanding of human weakness.
Oftentimes many people are deeply ambivalent about an issue. Inside themselves they see more than one side to it. But if the mass media, the government, and people with power in their workplace or community are constantly putting forward a one-sided point of view, many will prefer to remain silent or just go along with what seems to be the dominant viewpoint. Yet silence does not always mean agreement, and individuals who have the courage to buck the tide and speak up, and who do so clearly and intelligently, will often find much more support than might be expected.

On a more personal level, individual courage comes from a willingness to get centered, to look within, meditate, pray or think deeply, and connect with conscience, God, truth, the Great Spirit, or whatever other way one describes the universal impulse toward justice and love. It comes from having the love and support of others, a caring community, a knowledge that one is not alone. And it comes from an ability to think ahead, to understand the results of inaction, if only personal guilt and deep regret that will follow a person for years to come.

And in this particular case, courage can come from an understanding of the true political reality underneath all the media and government hype and the polls saying 85% of the people support Bush, the other Republicans and the Democrats who are beating the drums of war.

Three days after the 9/11 attacks, I happened to catch a portion of a CNN Crossfire program which reported the results of a poll, I believe a Time/CNN poll. When asked if they supported military action against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, about 85% of those polled said yes. When asked if they would support a massive bombing campaign which led to civilian casualties, the response was 48% saying yes, 46% saying no. I’ve not seen this reported on elsewhere since, but it happened; I saw it myself.

I keep remembering this experience. I remembered it this morning when, driving around town, I saw the American flags that seem to be on fully 75% of the buildings in the town I live in, Bloomfield, New Jersey, a mainly working-class, predominantly white suburb where large numbers of people commute to work in Manhattan. I felt almost overwhelmed by the way these flags have mushroomed in the last few days. I have to consciously remember that the experience I had in the ’60s, where I experienced flag-waving as a very militaristic phenomenon, is not the same now, at least not yet. Right now it’s partly an honest expression of emotions, an expression of solidarity with those wounded or those families grieving over the dead or missing, as well as for some an expression of anger and outrage. But I know from personal conversations with some of these same people, these neighbors of mine, that not all of them are caught up in jingoism and macho militarism. Many are deeply concerned about what the future holds for them and for all of us.

There’s another example from today, an example of courage, that gives me hope, that keeps me going, that stimulates my own willingness to speak up and organize as much and as hard as I can.

My wife, Jane Califf, went by herself (I had another commitment) to a large community meeting of 800 people in West Orange organized by our two New Jersey U.S. Senators, Torricelli and Corzine, both Democrats.
The focus of the meeting was the September 11 attacks. She was able to get in line to speak and finally did so.

Many of the comments and questions from the audience supported the move toward war. A couple of people raised concerns about civilian casualties in a U.S.-led war, and there was applause. When Jane not only talked about this but also the growing anti-war movement on college campuses, our government’s past support of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in the war against the Soviet Union, and ended by calling for a new, fundamentally different U.S. foreign policy, there was much applause but also boos. The chair of the meeting had tried to cut her off, but with some audience support, she persisted. A number of people came up to her afterwards and thanked her for her courage.

If she and a few others had not been there, and if they had not spoken up, these two N.J. Senators, the press and everybody there would have gone away thinking that the vast majority of those in attendance supported the Bush plans for an ever-widening war. But now, more people who were afraid to speak up may well do so within their circles, because of these personal examples.

We all need to be examples of courage in this time of danger. We need to speak the truth, with compassion and intelligence. We need to be forthright, not trying to be “politically shrewd” about the impacts of what we say. That’s what far too many Democrats have been doing, excepting Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

But you know what? I really don’t believe that, in the long run, we are taking that much of a political risk. It is clear, 11 days after 9/11/01, that there is a growing, grassroots-based, national movement for peace and justice. 400 people came to a meeting a few days ago in New York City to plan for a major demonstration on October 7. Students have already organized nationally-coordinated actions on about 150 campuses. Many groups and prominent individuals have put out good statements. In cities and towns all over the country vigils and protests have happened and are continuing to happen. At a meeting yesterday of national peace groups I heard of several efforts underway to put major ads in newspapers. And serious efforts are underway to bring all of this together into some kind of nationally-coordinated network or coalition.
It is entirely possible that such an entity could come into existence within a few short weeks.

In the long run, I believe it is entirely possible that this perilous crisis we are in could lead to the emergence of a much stronger, much deeper, much more effective independent progressive movement. Just about everybody in the country is talking about this issue. Many are questioning why it could have happened, what would motivate people to undertake suicide actions against the United States like this. Many are listening closely, will listen to us as we find the courage to articulate the truth about the U.S. government’s role in the Middle East and the world. We can take significant political strides forward in a relatively short period of time and have a chance of having some real impact upon what this government does and doesn’t do.

Indeed, it is has been at moments of grave world crisis like this in the past that significant historical events have occurred. World War I led to the Russian Revolution. World War II provided a huge impetus to the movements for national independence in China and Southeast Asia and, not long after, Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the civil rights movement in the USA. Although the results of those revolutions left a great deal to be desired, by and large, and some hopeful efforts just plain degenerated, it is still an historical fact that major world crises can bring about consequences much different than what the ruling powers of the world expect.

I do not want to see this crisis get worse. I wish the September 11th bombings had never happened. I hope that our movement can bring enough pressure to bear in as short a time as possible to prevent the kind of “war against terrorism” Bush and his government are planning. This war is sure to bring not an end to terrorism but the “Israelification” of U.S., European and other societies and even more desperate conditions of life for the vast majority of people in the world as resources are devoted to war and “internal security” rather than the addressing of poverty, injustice and environmental destruction.

Many of our fellow countrymen and women know this, on some level. Let’s have the courage of our convictions, the faith that is grounded in knowledge of the past and an understanding of people, and energy that comes from the urgency of this particular time and place in which we find ourselves. History cannot find us wanting now.