Courage in high places in short supply

“Avoiding strong stands and pandering to your political base is in” among world leaders, author says.

Heads of State at G20 Summit
Barack Obama ran on a campaign of change, but has consistly compromised for political gain [EPA]

New York, NY – When John F Kennedy was running for office, he wrote a book with the help of a prominent historian and political adviser. That volume, Profiles in Courage, became a bestseller because the public wanted – and still wants – leaders they can admire.

The problem is that in an age of big money politics, polls and political consultants, courage among our politicians is dwindling fast. The courageous politician appears to be an endangered species that “lives” only in history books, but not in the present era.

Former CBS newscaster Dan Rather used the term “courage!” to end his newscasts. When he showed real courage in exposing President Bush’s non-existent war record, he was pushed out of his anchor chair for his bravery.

Courage Shmourage!

There are some – though few – exceptions. The recently departed Czech leader Vaclav Havel was one, perhaps because he was an outspoken human rights activist and playwright. A book about his work in theatre is entitled Acts of Courage. Havel wrote that when “courage to act against unfreedom is boiled down to mere calculations of risk, then courage ceases to be courage”.

Nelson Mandela also showed courage, as did FW DeKlerk when he finally let him out of prison. Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is on the courage list along with a small minority of others. Fidel Castro certainly has guts, but how many presidents and potentates can you name that consistently uphold values.

But what about Europe and the Middle East? Or here in the United States of political stalemate? Perhaps Senator Bernie Sanders, a lone Socialist from a small State.

Mostly, the courageous among us are independent cultural figures or activists like the occupiers of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Recently, the composer Phillip Glass joined occupiers at the tony Lincoln Centre in New York that was showcasing his new opera saluting Mahatma Gandhi. As the Los Angeles Times reported: “A few minutes after the ‘Satyagraha’ curtain calls, Glass made his way to the centre of the group and read (in the almost operatic Occupy Wall Street call-and-response style) the following text:

‘When righteousness
Withers away
And evil
Rules the Land
We come into being
Age after age
And take visible shape
And Move
A man among men
For the protection
Of good
Thrusting back evil
And setting virtue
On her seat again’.”

We are mostly living in another kind of opera, perhaps more reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy with its many circles or hell.

Watch the war of words in Washington and you realise why public support for Congress is so low in this age of hostile partisan paralysis.

Look at the President, Barrack Obama, who rode the demand for change into the White House and then neutered his own promises while never encountering a demoralising compromise he wouldn’t embrace for political purposes. And what about the Supreme Court – they will show you why we have reverted to corporations ruling the land. Will they bring back formal slavery next? It’s already returned to the economy in the form of debtor prisons.

Hip, Hip Hooray!

Having guts is no longer a path to glory; avoiding strong stands and pandering to your political base is in. Courage in these circles is an anomaly, something occasionally to be referenced and immediately forgotten.

Is it any wonder then that a wave of revulsion against corrupt and out of touch politicians is sweeping so many lands: Egypt, Russia, China and here at home.

No wonder TIME Magazine made “The Protester” its Person of the Year.

It takes courage these days to try to deal with the world that these politicians and their bankster buddies have given us. They think they control the system, even as it is imploding and collapsing all around them.

This does not mean that right will trump wrong. The System is still very powerful with its militarised police forces and armies of occupation. While they are being challenged, it is not yet strong enough to overthrow them.

A new round of Wall Street bonuses in the billions are soon to be paid out. The politicians meanwhile have laid out a direction that will only further demean our Constitution and its first amendment rights.

Will we all be seeing each other next in Guantanamo? That’s a trick question, what with our over-stuffed prisons and economy still in decline. The newly passed NDAA bill will compound the fear and intimidation in a “homeland” that a coterie of Republican and Democrats want to turn into a battlefield.

Is this what the Mayans meant when they predicted that 2012 would mark the end of the world?

As you know, when non-violent protest is ineffective, violence is sure to follow. Cops care less about courage when confrontations lead to bigger overtime pay. There are many among us who are standing up, but, as we are seeing in Cairo, the deepest hopes of a people can be officially romanced and then brutally repressed. 

We need to remember some past greats who encouraged bravery, like Winston Churchill, who said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities… because it is the quality which guarantees all others”. Or Martin Luther King Jr, who implored us to “build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear”.

In our era, in order to be visible and inspire change, political courage demands and depends on media courage as well, as the latter must be willing to shine the light on the darkness of our times and encourage leaders to speak out and lead without always first putting up a finger to see which way the wind is blowing.

News Dissector Danny Schechter made the film Plunder about Wall Street crime.

Follow him on Twitter: @DISSECTOREVENTS

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.