#TakeAKnee: Bravery in America.
#TakeAKnee continues to trend on social media.
The statement, which was never meant to defile the American flag but rather to protest racial injustice, has morphed into the call sign for a raging debate over free speech and the essence of patriotism. Watching our Facebook emoticons flash angry red glares, and our Twitter rants burst mid-air, Revolutionary hero Tom Paine might as well cry again, aghast, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
From a historical perspective, perhaps it is fitting that the national anthem is finally being dissected by critics. The lyric, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!” still rings phony. Especially in the wake of Charlottesville. Did Americans not witness hostile white nationalists chanting “Make America great again” and “You (and) Jews will not replace us” claim exclusive rights to the flag?
These hate groups despise minorities who seek to share the pride, opportunity and virtuous equality that the bright-starred symbol was meant to assert.
When 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed in cold blood amid the street melee, the President’s equivocating statement — there were “some very fine people on both sides” — unleashed a spiritual crisis that has gutted the soul of the national anthem, and raised the essential question: When do acts of bravery border on cowardice?
Retired Cornell University Professor of American Indian Studies, Dr. Robert Venables, offers a humbling anecdote that turns any definition of bravery on its head. Pointing to an 1830’s painting by George Catlin, depicting Choctaw lacrosse players in their traditional dress, he acknowledges the feathers tucked in their skirts.
“Men in this society understood they could never be braver than women because women bore children and faced indiscriminate death in the process,” Venables tells Rebelle Society. Men, therefore, showed their courage by becoming warriors, and games like lacrosse were often pitched battles to decide tribal rivalries.
“What could be braver than getting so close to your enemy that you can touch him and pluck a feather from his belt?” Venables asks. His anecdote puts a mirror up to current discourse, and offers a unique standard by which the public can judge acts of valor in America’s strident culture war.
In Charlottesville, enemies did come close enough to touch, and there were stark differences in their armor. One so-called “very fine person,” whose actions beg judgment, is the peculiar character, Christopher Cantwell, an adrenaline-hopped neo-Nazi with whom Vice News embedded during the network’s Charlottesville reporting.
In the build-up to the protests, Cantwell made numerous bigoted remarks, and showed off an intimidating arsenal of high-powered semi-automatic firearms. In the tumultuous day that followed, he marched alongside white nationalists carrying shields and makeshift weapons. He was tear-gassed several times, yet always re-emerged stoic.
Cantwell’s strongman persona finally collapsed, however, when, in the aftermath of the protests, rumors circulated that a warrant had been issued seeking his arrest.
Fearing for his future, if not his life, he posted a tearful YouTube video plea saying, “I’m watching CNN talk about this as a violent, white nationalist protest… We are trying to make this peaceful. We are trying to be law-abiding. And our enemies will not stop. What options do we have left?”
Cantwell’s hypocrisy and five minutes of infamy say a lot about the baseless bravado white nationalists brandish, and yet, somehow, the President of the United States insists that the physical bravery “both sides” displayed in Charlottesville deserves equal homage. Surely it’s terrifying to be surrounded by a hostile mob or to be tear-gassed.
Judging circumstances on a purely human level, one is hard-pressed to deny that it took courage for individuals decrying the principles of either cause to face their opposition. Yet Venables pinpoints the underlying sickness that cripples the white nationalists. “They do not believe in the equality of all life,” he says, again referencing Native American beliefs and his Choctaw anecdote.
In traditional societies, it is understood that “you can go to war with the other guy, you can even kill the other guy, but you have to accept that he is your equal,” Venables says. Violence may be inevitable when circumstances stress communities, but warriors ought never face each other with preconceived malice in their hearts, or a sense that their foe is fundamentally inferior.
In this light, one asks: Why couldn’t the President condemn a movement propagated by bigots who put their race on a pedestal and distinguish their identity by rejecting the very concept of equality?
Sadly, “Bravery is not limited to good deeds,” former U.S. Congressman, Vietnam veteran, and author, Robert J. Mrazek tells Rebelle Society. He defines an act of bravery as a pivotal moment in ones life that tests a person’s conscience and character. “Bravery is the idea that a person puts him or herself at (existential) risk by taking a particular action which they believe is the right thing to do,” Mrazek says.
By contrast, he defines cowardice as “the facing of a test of conscience and character and failing that test because you know you are acting in the wrong.”
Timely in the wake of Charlottesville, and amid the #TakeAKnee debate, Mrazek’s new book, And The Sparrow Fell, is a profound exploration of the meaning of heroism and the kinds of bravery that word enshrines.
Deeply personal, and relatable to his own experience in Vietnam, Mrazek’s narrator, named Rick Ledbetter, is admittedly a reflection of his younger self, “a shallow romantic, who wanted to see the war in Vietnam,” Mrazek says.
Rick, an ardent admirer of John F. Kennedy’s PT boat valor, believes the war is justified and longs to emulate the bravery his father, Travis Ledbetter, showed in the skies as a Medal of Honor-winning, World War II navy pilot. Rick’s younger brother, Tom, on the other hand, is a devout Christian and committed antiwar activist.
When Rick barely survives an ambush in Vietnam, he emerges from his tour with his eyesight compromised and a sense of the lies and corruption that underlie the war effort. Tom, meanwhile, holds steadfast to his principles at every turn, enduring unspeakable abuse from civil authorities.
The characters in Sparrow commit enviable acts of both physical and psychological courage, and yet, Mrazek says he is loath “to pit one kind of bravery against the other” to establish a hierarchy of value. That said, he remains enamored of men like Charles Liteky, who braved enemy fire to rescue 20 of his comrades in a 1967 Vietnam battle.
“Liteky kept going back, time and again to save people,” Mrazek reflects, and he suggests this selfless instinct under fire might be the pinnacle expression of bravery. As Rick Ledbetter discovers in Mrazek’s novel, however, men and women can’t set forth to accomplish such brave feats by force of will.
Uncontrollable circumstances and an air of chance set the stage for humans to distinguish themselves in the face of danger, and adrenaline is a peculiar drug. The simple fact remains, despite the best training, our instinct for fight-or-flight occurs involuntarily and outcomes are volatile.
Venables suggests that Love is a force that can meld physical and psychological bravery, tempering adrenaline, and prevailing over hasty instincts. “I was in the Civil Rights Movement,” he recalls a charged encounter with a white supremacist. “I had a double-barreled shotgun shoved up my nose and cocked.” In that moment of truth, the teachings of Martin Luther King saved him.
“You have to express love to everyone, even the segregationists. If you flash anger, then you escalate the situation,” he recites Dr. King’s lesson. “I swear if I’d flashed anger, that white supremacist would have blown my head off.” Venables’ survival story raises the question: Is tolerance the bravest ideal men and women can aspire to?
“My concept of bravery changed when I saw the human cost of the war in Vietnam,” Mrazek remembers his initial inspiration to write Sparrow, and to pursue his career in politics. “I realized that I had never asked a hard question while I was at Cornell University, and vowed never to be afraid to do so again.”
Trying times fuel a vow of this sort, and the answers men and woman devise at critical junctures amount to a summation of character and conscience that the public can judge at large.
Mrazek and Venables would agree that when free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem, he showed incredible courage and posed a worthy query that stirs the American soul in light of atrocities. #TakeAKnee also draws a line, as rapper, Eminem, so proudly hailed in his recent BET award video.
Americans might keep faith that time will sort the brave from the cowardly and ultimately define a renewed, free and virtuous culture, but first every man and woman must prove their moral courage.
For the banner to yet wave our highest principles, Lincoln’s words must echo: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” #TakeAKnee is the new Battle Cry of Freedom.
Jeffrey F. Barken is the author of ‘All the Lonely Boys in New York’. Based on the unsolved terrorist attack that damaged the U.S. Army recruitment center in Times Square, March 6th, 2008, this gritty political thriller suggests a conspiracy among former Marines, and portrays the beginning of the global financial crisis in New York. Uniquely, Barken’s short story collection, ‘This Year in Jerusalem’, plants the seed for his novel, launching several reappearing characters in a series of inter-connected travel-inspired shorts. For both projects, the author collaborated with Irish artist Diana Muller to illustrate his fiction. Barken is the founder and Chief Editor of Monologging.org. This colorful publication connects writers with artists around the world, encouraging collaborative multimedia projects and providing regular arts-related reporting. The author received his Bachelors in English from Cornell University. He also has a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Publishing from the University of Baltimore. You could contact him via his website or Twitter.