August 24, 2007
Courage, Cowardice and the WordsmithsBy Stephen Rittenberg, MD
When I served as a Navy psychiatrist during the Vietnam War, one of my weekly duties was interviewing and assessing potential draftees who were seeking to avoid service by claiming mental illness. Many of these were recent Ivy League graduates, students of the humanities, who were active protesters of what they insisted was an immoral war. They thought of themselves as idealists.
Yet they were not principled conscientious objectors. Instead, they were glib, had read up on symptoms of psychosis, and could feign the manifest behavior of any disqualifying syndrome-including homosexuality. Their efforts to dissemble were usually rather obvious. They were predicated on the arrogant assumption that they were smarter than any military psychiatrist.
Once it was pointed out to them that if they avoided the draft, someone else, less educated and less favored by fortune would go in their place, they quickly revealed their true motivation: fear. I realized I was observing cowardice masquerading as idealism. These young men would do anything to avoid the risk of fighting and dying for their country.
I then would return to my hospital responsibilities, working with wounded vets. These were not glib wordsmiths. It took real effort to get them to talk about their experiences. They didn't think of their courage in battle as anything special. When they did talk about it, they often worried that they'd let down their comrades. The contrast with would-be draft evaders was striking. There was absolutely none of the self-preoccupation of the Ivy Leaguers. Instead these were men who had done deeds, fought battles, rescued other wounded platoon members, risked their lives. They readily acknowledged having been afraid, and many paid a high emotional price. They felt fear, but unlike our Ivy Leaguers, the force that propelled them was courage, not cowardice.
Over many years of clinical observation, I repeatedly confirmed the truth of Wordsworth's observation that "the child is father of the man". So who were these wordsmith cowards as children? In his great essay Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?, Robert Nozick pointed out that wordsmith intellectuals-writers, journalists, liberal arts professors, film makers, television pundits-had frequently been children who achieved success in school, based on their verbal skills. They were rewarded with elite status within the school system. As adults, however, they were not similarly rewarded. Capitalism rarely gives its greatest rewards to the verbally skilled. Nozick tried to sort out the puzzle, and concluded that it is our educational system, where, as he put it:
As Eric Hoffer succinctly put it:
Nozick also observed that there is a childhood forerunner to capitalism -- the world of the playground. There, verbal intellect is far less important than action. On the playground aggression is as important as intellect. Being able to utilize aggression in the service of solving problems produces leaders not designated by authority figures, but by one's peers. Physical courage is valued highly. Cowards are mocked and shunned as "scaredy cats". Willingness to fight for oneself, without appealing to authority becomes a measure of status. It also provides real world lessons in human nature.
I recall trading blows to gain sufficient respect to be included in pick up schoolyard games. An Irish Catholic boy admired for his basketball skills joined my fight against the anti-Semites and insisted that anyone who could sink jump shots from 25 feet out could play on his team, even if he was a Jew. It took a few bloodied noses but the matter was finally settled. Gerry Paulson was our schoolyard Patton.
In that freewheeling world of the schoolyard, the good little girls and physically timid boys who craved teacher's praise were at a disadvantage. The schoolroom was their utopia, where physical aggression was banned and all problems had a verbal solution. Girls are usually more verbally adept in the early childhood years and gain surplus praise from teachers. In addition, such children, including boys who crave teacher's approval, receive moral approbation for being "good" while aggression is, "bad". Hence the future wordsmith intellectual grows up feeling smarter, morally superior, a caring idealist.
These self-flattering views carry over to adulthood, and shape the future wordsmith intellectuals' political views. If words can resolve all conflicts, then wordsmiths are exceedingly important. If conflicts within and between human beings can be "resolved" with words, then who better to play the role of savior than the wordsmith intellectual?
One of the central features of utopian politics, explaining their appeal to intellectuals, is the promise that conflict can be abolished and human nature fundamentally changed. Whether Communism, Nazism or Islamism, the aim is a unified, submissive, happy mankind led by an elite in possession of the truth, just like Miss Murphy when she taught 6th grade. Aggression will then vanish when egalitarian paradise prevails.
Since that happy day never arrives, scapegoats are needed to explain the failure of utopia whenever it is tried. Usually it's the Jews, but it can be other ‘infidels' as well. Thus the wordsmith intellectual can rationalize mass murder by a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or Ahmadinejad, vicariously discharging his own repressed violent aggression, while still holding fast to an idealized self image.
Nozick's explanation for wordsmith intellectuals' opposition to capitalism is an important first order explanation, but it doesn't go deeply enough into the psychology of intellectuals.
Capitalism embraces competition and competition requires utilization of aggression. Profound fear of aggression, and the concomitant dislike of action to solve problems, constitutes the underlying reason for the loathing of capitalism. The schoolroom is a model for intellectual utopia. Utopia is, above all, a conflict-free zone wherein no one is aggrieved. Whatever social problems exist can be talked out. Intellectuals and their verbal skills can show the way to harmony and peace. Having avoided aggression at an early age, these wordsmiths never learned Patton's lessons in courage. Cowardice is therefore the reaction that comes most readily in situations of danger.
As a psychoanalyst I belong to a wordsmith profession, of course, and I have a close-up view of its practitioners. They are overwhelmingly left in their politics and tend to think words are the answer to all serious problems. Their faith in the power of words to resolve conflict is almost absolute. When psychoanalysis came to America it shed its European pessimism about human nature in adapting to New World optimism. Therapy changed its goals from Freud's limited aim of converting misery into ordinary human unhappiness. It decided, in the cant phrase that rules to this day, that mental "conflict can be resolved", i.e. done away with, and blissful happiness can then prevail. This became the task of individual psychotherapy-to resolve intrapsychic conflict, and then the aim was extended to include group social conflicts.
We are drowning in a therapeutic culture, saturated by a fantasy version of human nature in stark contradiction to the original psychoanalytic view, a view much closer to the stoics and St. Augustine than to Deepak Chopra. Unfortunately for the adherents of the therapeutic culture, conflict can never be ‘resolved', and they are doomed to disappointment. Never mind, there will be another self help guru next week.
The human mind, however, is in conflict as long as it is alive.
Conflict between wishes, fears, moral prohibitions, and demands of reality never go away. The ways of handling conflict can change, with very hard and prolonged work, but that is a far more modest and realistic goal than the utopian one of transforming human nature implicit in the notion that mental conflict can be resolved.
Changing entire societies is even more difficult. Contemporary psychotherapists, like other wordsmith intellectuals, endorse a Rousseau-ian ideal of human nature: innocent children are victimized by their parents, who are unwitting transmitters of capitalism's oppressive values to their offspring.
Many fine and noble efforts have been made to awaken the Western world to the mortal threat posed to its moral foundations and its very existence by militant Islam. The openly declared intentions of these enemies of Western civilization, accompanied by their daily deeds of mayhem, would seem to be enough to awaken us. Testimony by former adherents like the brave Walid Shoebat should sound an alarm that would wake the deepest sleeper.
Yet many in the Western world remain in a sound, politically correct, post-modern sleep. Why is this? When evidence is ignored, when savagery is blamed on provocation by its victims, when a Jew-hating death cult is described as a religion of peace, when media and governing elites see little difference between the firemen and the fire, there must be non-rational forces at play. Rational discussion doesn't always work because fear is great, terror has worked on many, and amongst the wordsmith elite, cowardice is the usual response.
Fear is, of course a universal response to danger. How a person handles fear varies widely, depending on early development. George Patton, in his famous D-Day speech said;
Fortunately, wordsmith intellectuals are not the majority of Americans. If you took the New York Times, our Ivy League faculties and the Harry Reids and Nancy Pelosis as representative of the country, you would conclude we are a nation of castrati. Their screeching volubility notwithstanding, they are nevertheless the minority. I find it comforting, when the caterwauling of the left becomes deafening, to think of them as "the insects of the hour", in Edmund Burke's phrase. He wrote:
Rarely does one find a Churchill or a Patton, men of action who also are wordsmiths. It is unlikely that one will appear soon gain, so we will have to get through this war in defense of civilization by setting an example of courage and hoping that a few of the wordsmith intellectuals will be shamed into silence. After all, as Patton remarked: