On Covid and courage

A few weeks ago a reader sent this email, apropos the desperate desire for a magic bullet to end Covid - whether vaccines or ivermectin or powdered unicorn horn:

I’ve thought about that email a lot as I read “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which is nominally about Frank Sheeran but really about Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters, the mob, and the Kennedys.

It has me thinking: about what the United States was and is, and about courage.

The physical kind, I mean. I tweeted a while back that intelligence is fungible but courage comes in different flavors, and I’m more convinced than ever that’s true.

Frank Sheeran was a hitman, a World War II combat veteran and mob executioner. He was not a good man; if he had moral or intellectual courage it is little in evidence. But he had no fear of violence or death.

Neither, it seems, did the men around him, and for that matter neither did JFK or RFK or Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, the most important leaders of the 1960s, all of whom proved their courage in the most irreversible way. All those men were well aware of the risks they faced. At the time, of course, many American men were veterans of World War II or Korea, and had seen violence up close.

Which is not to say everyone at the pinnacle of American power was physically fearless; but a thread of courage - an awareness of the reality of danger and death - ran visibly through the culture.

Now, of course, our leaders are cowards, and the cowardice runs across both parties. It may be the last bipartisan trait. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden all managed to dodge service in Vietnam.

Worse yet, the United States has now followed Europe’s lead. It no longer asks for bravery from its leaders. It no longer merely plays down the moral - and practical - value of courage. It is increasingly dedicated to the avoidance of all physical risk, and physical or psychic pain, as an organizing principle. Thus our increasingly bizarre response to Covid.

A culture built this way cannot long survive. The world has wolves; and the more we hide from them the bolder they grow.