Certain things stand out from my childhood. One is my fear of the monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. They were to me these terrifying creatures who did the bidding of the evil Wicked Witch. My fear of them had me hiding under my bed at night after watching the movie, so they couldn’t find me.
I was a child, with a child’s fear of things that sprang from someone’s imagination and made their way onto celluloid, and into my life via the living room TV. But not all fears are related to things that spring from the imagination. Some are all too real. And we seem to be living through a moment (hopefully not much longer than that) of many things that give us good reason to be afraid. The two that leap immediately to mind for me are climate change and the twin scourges of the decline of democracy and the concomitant renewal and deepening of racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds.
Around the world, there is example after example of democracy in retreat, and of hatred on the rise. Look to Europe, to Asia, to the Middle East. Democracy’s retreat can be found everywhere. But I live in America, where the assault on democracy feels most acute, and most tragic. If we cannot–or will not–defend our democracy against those determined not just to undermine it, but to destroy it, then what hope is there for nations around the world who have looked to us, who have seen our democratic example as one worth emulating, worth aspiring to? And into the void left by retreating democracies and democratic values rushes hatred. Of all kinds. In Europe, drenched in the blood of six million murdered Jews, we see a terrifying resurgence of anti-Semitism from right and left, and added to, horrifically, by Muslims who fled their own countries and co-religionists seeking freedom and a better life. We see homophobia on the rise, alongside efforts to demonize immigrants, migrants, and people of color in general. We are deep into a well of ugliness, of making “the other” the object of what seem like an endless set of targets for haters.
And while democracy is in retreat, and hatred on the rise, what we see least of all is courage, the thing the Cowardly Lion set out to obtain from the Wizard of Oz. In America, the cowards are legion. Every elected Republican seems to be one. As is every corporate titan in America. As are too many faith “leaders” to count. The worst among the latter aren’t even cowards; they are something worse. Those are America’s Evangelical Christians, who have so twisted, stained, and desecrated Christianity to have somehow convinced themselves (while God surely weeps in horror), that Donald Trump is a bona fide instrument of Christ’s work on earth.
The commodity in shortest supply, it seems, is courage. And the difficulty of course, is that courage is not something, as the Cowardly Lion discovered during his harrowing journey through Oz, that anyone–even a Wizard–can bestow upon you. Courage is the thing that rests dormant within us, unless and until it is unleashed in defense of that which is worth defending. Courage is what we lean on when we rush toward danger to help loved ones–or even strangers in distress. Courage is what we reach for when we see our values under attack, when we see injustice on the march, when we see horror unfolding. Courage is what enables us to speak up and out, to march, to demand, to express our unwillingness to accept ugliness, cruelty, scapegoating and all other manner of abuse. Courage is what animates us as we endeavor to fight back.
Sometimes, our courage fails us. And it is never the case that we are all courageous at the same moment, in service of the same principles. That is human nature. But what is true in this moment is that in America, those who support Trump have the confidence and shamelessness to speak up and out, to declare the rest of us unworthy or worse–enemies of America. Their grotesque distortion of American and HUMAN values is met with silence by those who surely know better, but are too cowardly to put anything at risk. CEOs who won’t risk a dent in their companies’ market cap; nonprofit leaders who won’t risk offending donors; faith “leaders” who have lost their moral compasses and fall back, in their own cowardice, on the nonsense that they must avoid politics from the pulpit. All of them are failing the rest of us. Their silence is complicity. Their silence enables the hatred, the erosion of democracy, and the undoing of the fabric that undergirds what has been a treasured gift to the world–the idea that is America.
The Cowardly Lion learned along the way that he possessed courage all along. He just didn’t know he had it. My sense of America at this moment is that if the Wizard of Oz himself deigned to offer courage to all the silent collaborators enabling Trump and his minions to destroy America, brick by brick, they would turn him down. My only hope would be that in their cowardice, they would at least have a moment of honesty and be willing to say, “We are not worthy.” And indeed they are not.