I’m old enough to remember the tv show M*A*S*H which dominated the ratings for most of the 70s. It was supposed to take place in Korea but was really about Vietnam. The heroes were zany doctors and goof-offs and the villains were generally the hard-charging military guys who got people killed.
Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce was the archetype of the 70s New Man: Witty, self-deprecating, humane and – proudly – a coward. He was brave about expressing his fear and laughed at those who spoke of standing firm in the face of danger. To be fair, he wasn’t a true coward. The show had various instances where he showed courage and ingenuity under fire, but it was always in non-combatant role. Hawkeye never shot anyone and disdained carrying a gun, even in a war zone.
That concept wasn’t particularly new, of course. Since the 1920s the Bright Young Things had begun to talk up the virtues of self-preservation. The infamous Oxford Union vote not to fight for King and Country happened 40 years before M*A*S*H hit the airwaves. The difference was that cowardice was now going mainstream.
In the aftermath of the Paris terror attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, many leading liberals are once again make the argument that “if you don’t piss them off, they won’t kill you.”
It is an argument that springs from cowardice, from the kind of people who figure that anyone stupid enough to enlist in the military deserves to get shot – the smart play is to avoid it altogether and work for a non-profit.
Our time is somewhat unique insofar as fewer of the elites than ever before seem to have any skin in the game. For all of the class oppression of a century ago, the upper classes felt honor bound to do their part – either by enlisting or sending their sons off to war in their stead. Back then, “public service” meant actual sacrifice – postponing one’s career and accepting the risk of death to compensate for one’s station in society.
Nowadays only the suckers do that – the low-brow Jeebus-worshipping backwoods rednecks with nothing better to do than catch a bullet.
Yet even today, courage is still seen as a virtue. We are constantly told to admire the courage of those who speak “truth to power.” Fabulists like Lena Dunham are paragons of course – or so we are told.
There was a time when artistic expression was indeed brave. Lenny Bruce went to jail out of conviction. His example led to an unprecedented opening of society to new and offensive ideas. How ironic that it is now closing right back down again.
The thing about cowardice is that one can always rationalize surrender. Why take a stand? Why be so strident? Why be so provocative?
Once one embraces that mindset, it is only a short step to full-on victim-blaming: “Of course we defend free speech, but if they hadn’t been so offensive…”
Yes, the great “but.” I’ve long since learned that one can pretty much disregard everything that comes before it in a sentence. When I find myself using the formulation, I force myself to stop and ask why I am hedging. A statement of principle should need no qualifier.
That is where our elites are today. Fearless against straw men, cowardly in the face of danger, ever eager to punish the helpless and persecute the weak.
Forty years of preaching cowardice as a virtue is finally taking its toll.