Has America Lost its Bravery?

Life in the land of the free and the home of the terrified

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

Scientists say that the blue light our iPhones and iPads emit as we stare into them at bedtime suppresses melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep timing and circadian rhythms, but even knowing that, I still indulge. A good deal of the news I absorb, I’m sorry to admit, comes from whatever stories I happen to see on my Facebook feed just before I finally unplug for the night. And while I have no idea whether the phone keeps me from getting great sleep, I can say without a doubt that the news I read on it does. (To say nothing of the accompanying comments, which are basically the anti-Ambien — like downing a shot of bile, then chasing it with a Four Loko.)

Then there are the minutes I spend awake afterward, cataloguing all the other divided, fear-filled moments in this country’s history — times when other Americans must have read the news as I do now and thought: Well, this is it. There’s no coming back this time. The Civil War, of course. The Depression. The Cold War, and the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, then another Kennedy. There’s the killing of Martin Luther King, and most of the other events of 1968 — a year my mother, who was 18 at the time, still refuses to talk about. Also, the 1970s, with post-Vietnam disillusionment, Nixon, hostages, an energy crisis, all that polyester.

Still, I find pondering these terrible moments oddly uplifting. I know how those stories end. We’re still here.

And when you live in Philadelphia, it’s also impossible not to be constantly reminded of the country’s original crisis, the American Revolution, which may pale in comparison to, say, nuclear holocaust but was still plenty nerve-racking for the people living through it. On walks through Old City, I always contemplate the remarkable heroism of the founders, who, fears of stretched necks notwithstanding, decided to just go for it, solely because of inalienable rights and liberty et al. (Many of those men were the same age our millennials are now.) I’m drawn to the cinematic drama of it all — the heat that July, the wigs, the infighting, the speechifying, the eventual freezing in Valley Forge, the unlikely victory. The movie trailer basically writes itself, fading out on salty old Ben Franklin booming: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately!”

Now, 240 years later, it still strikes me as the most uplifting American story of them all. I mean, except when it’s not.

AT THIS POINT, only an insane person would suggest that this group of men, our forefathers — diverse as a sack of Wonder Bread, in many cases slave-owning, unconcerned with extending their ideals to women or nonwhites — were without grievous flaws. I don’t suggest that. Only that, feet of clay and all, they managed right here in this city (our city!) to birth the bold brand of civil bravery that came to define this country and its people. It’s important to note here that civil bravery isn’t the same thing as personal courage. The latter refers to the inner mettle required to charge through some frightening thing — to race into burning buildings, take a bullet, get a pixie cut. The former is directly related to being a citizen, and it requires both personal courage and a bigger-picture, idealistic, long-game sort of mind-set. That strain of bravery, birthed in Philly in 1776, is what Americans both great and unknown would tap into in years to come, and what propelled most everything we think of as progress in this country: women’s suffrage, the New Deal, the Freedom Riders and so forth. (If this doesn’t spark in you at least a twinge of Philly pride, you might be from New Jersey.)

Recently, accompanied by a few dozen tourists and a guide who looked exactly like Bernie Sanders, I took a tour of Independence Hall. It was a hot day, and the room where the founders signed the Declaration was cramped and smelled like a dozen deodorants pushed to the limit. In truth, there’s not much here that’s very cinematic: some Federal architecture, a handful of tables, some chairs. But then Bernie pointed to one chair with a semicircle of the sun carved on it — George Washington’s chair at the Constitutional Convention. As they all signed the Constitution, he told us, Ben Franklin said he finally felt confident the carving was a rising sun and not a setting one.

This is meant to end the tour on a, triumphant note, but I left feeling distressed and depressed, considering how the same narrative might play out today. I can’t keep from thinking of the story I read a few months back about the kids at Emory who, upon seeing the word “Trump” chalked onto a sidewalk, protested to the campus administration. “We feel unsafe!” they said. “We are in pain!” It reminded me of what I read a year earlier about Brown, where, in response to a controversial speaker on campus, students set up a “safe space” for those who might need it, equipped with coloring books, bubbles, a video of puppies. You get the feeling our best young thinkers today might not be so great at facing, say, tar and feathers.

But then, people like to pick on college kids, and I don’t mean to pile on. Especially because fear — and a distinctly modern expectation of freedom from fear — rules most corners of the U.S. right now, from campuses to Congress to the toilets at Target.

The troublesome part about all of this is that so many of us seem unable or unwilling nowadays to accept fear as part of being alive in tumultuous times, or to push for the greater good despite personal risk (or perceived personal risk) the way our best countrymen have through the ages. How else to explain why our elected politicians can’t get past reelection concerns to pass even the basic gun legislation when most Americans clamor for it? Why else are so many unarmed young black men, one after the next after the next, dying at the hands of police officers? How to reconcile otherwise compassionate, charitable people scared to welcome refugees fleeing certain death (yearning to breathe free, just like your great-grandparents)? Why are the brightest young minds in our country so apt to equate disagreement with danger, so set on thinking you can Snapchat your way to a safer world?

It’s not the questions but the answer that keeps my brain spinning at night, and that is this: Bravery — and I mean that old ideal-driven gumption we associate with everything we still like about ourselves as ­Americans — has all but gone missing from our national rhetoric, from our daily existence. Who knows when — if — it will come back? It seems entirely possible that it’s been squeezed out of our collective consciousness, replaced by some other, more modern ideal, like freedom from gluten.

The other, slightly less depressing possibility is that civil bravery is still a reality, still living inside more of us than not. That it’s simply been suppressed by the same thing ruining our sleep, night after night, as we stare into our own blue-lit, fear-filled abysses.

I’M NOT SURE we need to point fingers here. But if pressed, we might surmise it was my peer group — Generation X, Y — that hastened civil bravery out of fashion. Having aggregated enough history classes on everything from the Trail of Tears to Vietnam and then lived through Rodney King, the Gulf Wars and miscounted ballots, we were too wary of anything that might look like American exceptionalism to consider talking about bravery as an American birthright, as a responsibility. Even the words — bravery, courage, greater good — were cringey. Outdated. Too earnest, too grandiose, and anyway, what did we children of the 1970s and ’80s have to be brave about, really, in those fat, cushy years before 9/11?

It’s not like we were our grandparents, fighting world wars, or even our parents, marching for civil rights. Not that we didn’t respect that. Not that we couldn’t quote Martin Luther King, who talked about needing to build “dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” Just that there was a disconnect between appreciating and doing in those naive decades when so many were lulled into thinking the hard work was done.

We didn’t talk much about being brave, and so we weren’t. Muhammad Ali said once that the repetition of affirmations leads to belief, and that “once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” In other words: Rhetoric is important.

So it was inevitable, I guess, that fear, not bravery, would become the national obsession. That we would become, in the immortal words of Ed Rendell, a “nation of ­wusses” — Ed, who wrote a whole book in 2012 fretting that Americans were “in real danger of losing that spirit, that boldness, that courage” that had always defined us.

Before Ed, there was sociologist Barry Glassner and his prescient book The Culture of Fear. Americans, he said, not only fear the wrong things (like road rage and teen moms), but certain “atypical tragedies grab our attention while widespread problems go unaddressed.” For this, he blamed “peddlers of fear,” namely politicians and media. And this was in 1999, before the Tea Party, before the rise of social media, which is like traditional media on speed. Which spreads fear faster than a preschooler spreads pink eye.

Glassner quoted a former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski:

Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue … [The culture of fear] acquires a life of its own — and can become demoralizing. We are now divided, uncertain, and potentially very susceptible to panic. …

Hey Mr. Brzezinski, meet Mr. Trump.

The division (the anger, the violence, the asinine politicians) that fear hath wrought seems insurmountable today. Even if we recognize the need to push beyond the risks to tackle our “widespread problems” — global terrorism, Zika, climate change, mass shootings, racial injustice — how can we act on these things when we are so divided?

I’d say that question alone breeds paralysis. We’ve stumbled into a misplaced belief that we all must be unified behind a cause before anything gets fixed. This is patently ridiculous. Americans have never been unified — not since before there were Tories and Patriots. Adams and Jefferson fought about everything. The Civil War has never stopped: The vast majority of our battles are against each other. What of it? Bitter disagreement and bitching about the idiots on the other side is the American way. Nora Ephron, a feminist, wrote that the women’s movement was “nothing more than an amorphous blob of individual women and groups, most of whom disagree with each other.” It wasn’t a put-down. Civil bravery isn’t about agreement; it’s about enough people deciding that the alternative is so terrible , they’ll go ahead and hang together. It’s about principle, undressed and boiled down to a basic nub of truth so self-evident that people feel moved to get behind it. You know, like life, liberty, equality. For everyone. It sounds Pollyannaish, but it’s true.

Alas, to boil anything down to its essence in this age of endless layers is hard. It’s also very tiring, especially on Facebook and Twitter, where it’s so easy to shut out any opposing view and exult in an echo chamber of empathy-free righteousness — where we’re not surprised when #Hiddleswift trends higher than #BLM. Now, the task of rallying people around one single, solitary nub, no matter how essential and self-evident, feels Sisyphean. We know it takes outrage and fear to fuel the civil bravery we need to tackle the really big, really scary stuff. And lo, we have outrage and fear — so much outrage and fear! — only now it’s diluted and misdirected, dwelled on and reveled in, parsed out across so many microaggressions, so many Twitter wars, and, of course, that endless, futile grasping for safe spaces.

As if such a thing ever existed.

AND YET, THERE ARE a few reasons — I think — to have hope for the onetime land of the brave. They are: Harriet Tubman, Black Lives Matter, Jim Kenney (sort of).

When, last April, the Treasury decided to oust Andrew Jackson from the front of the $20, to replace him with Harriet ­Tubman — former slave, Union spy, daring abolitionist — it warmed my heart. A heart, I should add, that grew up in Jackson’s home state of Tennessee, where I regularly visited his house, the Hermitage, on field trips.

I don’t mourn the loss. Trading Tubman for Jackson wasn’t just poetic justice (the Hermitage tour always ended with the slave quarters); it felt like proof that we still recognize, revere and want to be reminded of American bravery in ways that apply to our “multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial nation moving contentiously through the early years of a new century,” to borrow from the New York Times. Just think! They’re adding suffragettes to the money, too! And Martin Luther King! Marian Anderson! Eleanor Roosevelt!

Still, I recognize that the new bills — which don’t roll out until 2020 — are a distant and largely symbolic argument for a comeback of civil bravery. The Black Lives Matter movement, in contrast, is immediate and real, with stakes that are immediate and (all too) real. The time I spent writing this overlapped with the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers, followed by a sniper attack that killed five officers guarding otherwise peaceful protests. It seems there is no end to the fear and the hateful fruit it bears. But then: Black Lives Matter, a movement started mostly by millennials, is gaining momentum across all generations. This movement begun by blacks is roiling across races, as more people are finding that the essential nubs — life, liberty, innocents not being shot to death, not allowing fear to ruin lives — are too important to ignore. The movement is facing down threats, counter-protesters, online vitriol, death. But it goes on. Think of that photo from the Baton Rouge protests a few months back: a young black woman, a calm protester, standing wordless and serene in the street, surrounded by faceless police in riot gear. No puppies. No bubbles. Civil Bravery circa 2016, it turns out, looks an awful lot like Civil Bravery circa 1965, a fact at once heartbreaking and also inspiring. Mostly inspiring.

Finally, I have to mention the third ray of hope, trivial though it seems in the wake of BLM. When Mayor Kenney’s soda tax passed as a way to fund city pre-K — a bill hotly debated among Philadelphians and also targeted by the Goliath that is the soda industry — I felt a swell of optimism. Pardon the melodrama: A tax on Dr Pepper isn’t exactly an American triumph. But political bravery is, especially at a time when most of our elected officials seem set on avoiding personal risk at all costs. I’m not saying Jim Kenney is Abe Lincoln (or even Ed Rendell). Only that we are the first large city in the country to try this idea, and I appreciate the ingenuity and guts it takes to be first. I also appreciate the thought that as Philadelphians, we have a special connection to civil bravery. It’s our heritage. It’s in the streets, it’s in the landmarks, it’s in our core.

This is, at very least, what we should tell ourselves. That we come from brave. That we must be brave. That we are brave, dammit. That we must hang together, build dams of courage against the floods of fear. Because fear — not each other — is the enemy. Because rhetoric is important. Repetition leads to belief; belief leads to conviction.

And that’s when things begin to happen.

Published as “Where Have You Gone, George Washington?” in the September 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.