Profiles in False Courage


We like to think that modern western society was founded by and is based on courage. The bravery of Greece and Rome and Charlemagne, the founding fathers, the pioneers,  the heroes of WWII…all stirring moments of selfless sacrifice and civic endeavor. However, who are the inheritors of these brave men and women?

The media tends to throw up new heroes every day and splash them across our minds. A few are legitimate, but most others are merely PR and the hype of primal desperation in even more desperate times. How are we simple citizens supposed to tell the difference? Surely not by what they do, as the deeds themselves are now so hopelessly obscured by spin and demagoguery as to be impossible to judge. Rather, look for what they SAY, and the way they describe their moment of so called heroism…as the following article explains.

The following is reposted from InCharacter.

The “My Bad” Syndrome

by Joe Queenan

Shortly after the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cincinnati Bengals played to a miserable 13–13 tie back in November, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb admitted that he had not known it was possible to play a game in the National Football League that ended without a winner or a loser. This turned McNabb, a ten-year veteran, into a national laughingstock, as everyone who follows professional football knows that games that are deadlocked after sixty minutes are immediately followed by a fifteen-minute overtime period, and if at the conclusion of this extra session the score is still knotted, the game goes into the books as a tie.

As the controversy reached fever pitch, and other players admitted that they too were unfamiliar with the rules of a sport they were paid millions of dollars to play, Eagles coach Andy Reid gallantly stepped forward and told the media that all further criticism of the way that game had been conducted should be directed at him, as he was ultimately the one responsible for the woeful play-calling that had resulted in the tie. He was drawing a line in the sand. He was taking the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was putting himself directly in harm’s way. In the parlance of the jejune, he was manning up.

Reid’s acceptance of responsibility for the absurd outcome of the game is a classic example of a phenomenon known as false courage. In Reid’s case, false courage involves intrepidly stepping into the line of fire and accepting responsibility for a disaster, outrage, faux pas, or miscue that nobody else could possibly be blamed for. It’s like a parent courageously accepting responsibility for a toddler who knocked over a priceless vase by saying, “I admit it; I should have been watching. The fault lies not with Skyler, but with me.” It’s like the basketball player who throws the ball out of bounds and then slaps himself on the chest in a mock mea culpa gesture, telling his teammates, “My bad.” Well, of course it was your bad. You’re the one who threw the ball out of bounds, you knucklehead. Who else’s bad could it be?

The “My Bad” syndrome, the act of being gutsy enough to accept responsibility for doing what one has unarguably done, is a cunning though ultimately cowardly way of deflecting attention away from the fact that no one else could possibly be held responsible for the screw-up. It is similar to George Washington’s disingenuous declaration: “Father, I cannot tell a lie; I chopped down the cherry tree.” By declaring that the idea of telling a lie was morally repugnant to him, young George immediately diverted attention away from the fact that chopping down a cherry tree, a far more serious offense, was not repugnant to him, and from the fact that nobody else could possibly have been fingered for this act of gratuitous arboreal terrorism. The whole point of false courage is to move the conversation away from one’s failings to one’s strengths: I am an idiot, I am a jerk, I am a lecher, I am a scoundrel, but at least I am man enough to admit it. Now, let’s turn the page.

The primary objective of false courage in this context is to accept blame without accepting punishment. Real courage would call for confessions like: “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I did chop down the cherry tree. And because of that, I completely understand why you are going to break my legs.” Or “I admit that I had no idea that NFL games can end in a tie. I admit that I am thicker than two planks and have no more business leading a football team than a glowworm. Therefore, I resign.” Or: “Looking back on things, it probably wasn’t such a great idea to split up my command at the Little Big Horn. My bad.”

Of course, this tried-and-true, buck-stops-here brand of false courage is only one strain of an increasingly virulent social ill. As far as I can tell, there are five basic varieties of false courage, and most of them are practiced by politicians on a daily basis. Indeed, if it weren’t for false courage, most politicians would have no courage at all. Of course, neither would the people who vote for them.

Here, then, are the five basic types of false courage:

Taking popular positions and then acting as if they are actually unpopular: “I don’t care what anyone says, I hate the IRS.”

Attacking groups that are in no position to defend themselves, because they are too amorphous to be identified: “This may get me into a whole lot of trouble, but I despise rich people.” Or: “Organized religion is the bane of the human condition.” Or: “I don’t know about you, but I loathe the media.”

Attacking groups that are so physically removed from one’s environment that one runs no risk of retaliation by attacking them: “I know this won’t go down particularly well here in rural Texas, but I don’t like New York City liberals one little bit.” Or: “Call me a maverick, but I hate the PLO.”

Admitting responsibility for wrongdoing when it is far too late to atone for the offense: “I’m sorry that I used to get so drunk I would knock your mother’s teeth out. If she were only here today, I’d apologize and pay for the dental bills.” Or: “We’re terribly sorry that we wiped out your civilization. I don’t know what we were thinking of. But believe you me, it won’t happen again.”

Attacking the French: “This may get me into a whole world of trouble, but I find the French really annoying. I just do.”

In its most insidious form, false courage involves thrusting out one’s chest and preying on the supine or the harmless and then acting like this gesture is tantamount to David squaring off against Goliath, or the Light Brigade charging the Russian gun emplacements in the Crimea, or, for that matter, Christ standing alone against the arrayed power of imperial Rome. Examples? Rural Republicans bashing gays, as if payback were ever likely to come down the pike. Greenwich Village graphic designers and cabaret artistes attacking evangelical Christians, as if they were ever likely to meet any. Rock stars mocking the former president. Going to see Borat and acting as if the mere act of paying to see innocuous red-state Americans ridiculed for two hours puts one in the same weight class as Nathan Hale and Paul Revere. And, of course, bashing the French, who have no way of knowing that you are teeing off on them, who wouldn’t care if they did, and who have no plans to retaliate against you, because they’re used to being ridiculed by witless, gutless Americans.

False courage almost always involves flaying the defenseless or defending the powerful. A particularly heinous example of false courage is the sequence in the movie Bowling for Columbine when Michael Moore interviews the aging, sickly Charlton Heston, who was already in the process of succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. No matter how much one may despise the National Rifle Association, it is cowardly to heap one’s derision on a sickly, addled old man, as Moore did. And although Heston may have had values that many Americans disagreed with, he at least had principles. Moreover, the foibles of people like Heston, who have made major contributions to the nation’s cultural life, are usually overlooked by most Americans; even people in favor of gun control have a soft spot in their hearts for the star of Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments because he actually contributed something to this society. Moore, by contrast, is a conscienceless predator. Moore, the classic faux prole, became wealthy by making a movie about the war in Iraq. The war in Iraq was launched by George W. Bush, who came into office in large part because Al Gore lost so many votes in the 2000 election to Ralph Nader. Michael Moore voted for Ralph Nader.

The difference between real courage and false courage is that real courage necessitates taking positions in which one actually risks one’s livelihood or one’s health, whereas manifestations of false courage usually result in nothing more damning than an angry letter to the editor. An obvious example of real courage was the Dixie Chicks’ well-publicized opposition to the war in Iraq. The Dixie Chicks, as artists, make the same corny, hammy, mass-produced, schlocky music as Toby Keith and Tim McGraw and Hank Williams, Jr. But unlike most other country artists, the Dixie Chicks staked out a position that the vast majority of performers in their genre would deem disconcertingly left-wing and unpatriotic. Conversely, Toby Keith, Hank Williams, Jr., and all the rest may be proven by history to have been right on target in defending George Bush. But it doesn’t take much in the way of guts for a country artist to defend a president during wartime. Especially a president from Texas.

A spectacular example of false courage is the decision by most of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives to vote down the first economic bailout bill proposed by the Treasury Department in October 2008. On first inspection, this opposition to a mammoth taxpayer-funded bailout seems oddly gutsy, suggesting that the balky congressmen were sticking to their guns and adhering to their principles come hell or high water. But on closer inspection, given the level of hatred directed toward Wall Street at the time of the proposed bailout, their decision to vote no required no courage whatsoever. They were merely channeling the attitudes of their constituencies. They were nothing more than ventriloquists.

False courage comes in many styles, all of them odious. Real courage stands out because it is rare, precious, and beautiful. Here are a few examples:

  • Defending Israel when your name is Abdul.
  • Defending Bush’s tax cuts when you are a Goth, a professor at Bard, or the lead singer in a Clash tribute band.
  • Attacking the coal industry when you live in West Virginia.
  • Defending the coal industry when you live in West Hollywood.
  • Sporting a Bush-Cheney decal on the bumper of your car when you live in Baghdad.
  • Dissing Vladimir Putin in the Russian press.
  • Being a conservative columnist for the New York Times.
  • Wearing a Che Guevara shirt in certain parts of Miami.
  • Questioning the negotiating tactics of the Irish Republican Army while quaffing a pint or two in a Belfast pub.
  • Wearing a Confederate flag headband on Saturday night in a Detroit nightclub.
  • Wearing a “Red Sox Suck” T-shirt at Fenway Park.
  • Attending a NASCAR event in drag.
  • Shorting Wal-Mart anytime, anywhere.

The most wonderful story about false courage I have ever heard centers around the great Spanish painter Joan Miro . At the height of the surrealist movement in the 1920s, the leading lights were ordered to go out into the streets and make outlandish, inflammatory comments that might land them in the hoosegow. One surrealist went out and said “Bonjour, madame” to a priest. A second insulted a policeman, which got him arrested. A third went into a public park and exclaimed, “Down with France! Down with the government!” until he too landed in jail. At which point Miro who never really had his heart in this thing, but who was determined to be one of the surrealistic boys, marched into the Jardins du Luxembourg and ceaselessly repeated the phrase, “Down with the Mediterranean!” This disgusted and infuriated his fellow surrealists, who chastised him for uttering an execration so general and vague it ultimately meant nothing whatsoever. Sound familiar?


adam and eve


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