Friday, June 05, 2020

Courage and Cowardice before Angry Crowds

In May 2020, Donald Trump, President of the USA, used riot police to remove protestors, clergy, and laity from the way to St John's Episcopalian Church in Washington DC, so that he felt safe enough to leave the Whitehouse without having to meet any of them.

During the Peasants' Revolt in 1382, King Richard II, then 14 years old, met crowds of rebels in person at least three times. Though some of the most violent leaders were executed, the King personally diffused some of the angriest crowds, and acknowledged and met the demand to abolish serfdom. (For all of us who've ever left a bad employer by applying for and getting a better job, we owe thanks in part to the eventual success of the Peasants' Revolt.)

In 1897, Sarah Alexander saved Gandhi from a white lynch mob in Durban, keeping them at bay with her umbrella, until her husband (who happened to be the chief of police) responded to her summons and came to join the rescue. Were it not for Ms Alexander’s bravery, the modern history of India would be entirely different.

Nell Gwyn, famous actress and mistress to King Charles II, was once beset by a mob in Oxford. Thinking they were mistaking her carriage with that of an aristocratic French rival, she put her head out of the coach and called "Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore!” Of course, I’d expect to be sorely castigated for using such insults today - but golly, she had wits and she had guts!

These stories inspire us. They show us heights of courage and leadership in the face of an angry crowd.

By contrast, a leader who cannot even bear to listen to an angry crowd is a coward. A leader who needs armed bully-boys to clear the way before they dare to venture out is literally a fascist - the “fasces” was the bundle of rods with an axe blade that was carried by the lictors, a magistrate’s bodyguard in Ancient Rome. Don’t take the etymology too literally, I’m not saying that the USA is now by definition a fascist dictatorship. By the same token, “democracy” doesn’t literally mean “mob rule” anymore, and someone can be “ostracized” without writing anything on a broken piece of pottery. But definitions aside, President Trump’s acts of bullying deserve our scorn and disgust, especially when so easily contrasted with historic acts of bravery and leadership that so naturally inspire our humble praise and respect. We can tell what a coward looks like, because we know what a hero looks like.

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