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Hard Lessons (Video) + What Is the Alchemy of Moral Courage?


“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
—Henry David Thoreau

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
—Albert Camus

“If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.”
—Marcus Aurelius

“Historically, the most terrible things—war, genocide, and slavery—have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”
—Howard Zinn

“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.

“Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.”
—Albert Einstein

What Is the Alchemy of Moral Courage?

I often contemplate what kinds of influences, experiences, and practices forge the alchemy of moral courage. What can we do to cultivate the foundational values and tendencies that produce individuals who bravely defy unethical orders—the Julian Assanges and Daniel Ellsbergs; the 12 men out of 500 who refused to participate in the Józefów massacre; and the 5 percent Diane Perlman calls Veridos in her theory of the Courageous Personality?

In Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning describes Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of such people as follows:

“The exception—the real ‘sleeper’—is the rare individual who has the capacity to resist authority and assert moral autonomy but who is seldom aware of this hidden strength until put to the test.”

Diane says Veridos:

“see through deception, investigate truth and have the strength to challenge official narratives. They are truly courageous and refuse to remain silent.… Because information is power, those who expose truth are a threat and must be punished and silenced by the forces of oppressive authority, who need a mystified, pliable populace.”

The Psychology of Truth-Tellers: Inspired by Dan Ellsberg
Note: This is a revision of an earlier Substack on “The Psychology of Veridos™ (Seekers of Truth and Justice) being repurposed as a tribute to Dan Ellsberg In my A Tribute to Daniel Ellsberg: The Inspiration for My Psychological Study of Moral Heroism and the Courageous Personality…
Read more

These are the human beings who place themselves between tyranny and the people, sometimes at the cost of their freedom or even lives.

The most iconic and persecuted Verido alive today, Julian Assange states:

“Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. In a modern economy it is impossible to seal oneself off from injustice.

“If we have brains or courage, then we are blessed and called on not to frit these qualities away, standing agape at the ideas of others, winning pissing contests, improving the efficiencies of the neocorporate state, or immersing ourselves in obscuranta, but rather to prove the vigor of our talents against the strongest opponents of love we can find.

“If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.”

The Chris Hedges Report
Julian Assange’s Day in Court
And Our Flags Are Still There - by Mr. Fish LONDON — By the afternoon the video link, which would have allowed Julian Assange to follow his final U.K. appeal to prevent his extradition, had been turned off. Julian, his attorneys said, was too ill to attend, too ill even to follow the court proceedings on a link, although it was possible he was no longer …
Read more

What are the ingredients of such a person? Integrity, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, the willingness to question authority, imperviousness to conformity, skepticism, willpower, the guts to be an upstander, the persistent interrogation of powerful forces—these are some of the fibers that interweave to form a courageous personality.

But how do people develop those traits? As with everything, it comes from a blend of nature and nurture, so we can play a role in the nurture part of this formula by fostering these qualities in others and ourselves from infancy to death.

As I discussed in my “I Protest” podcast with Donald Jeffries, I have been anti-authoritarian since childhood, so nature set me up for life as a dissident.

Nurture could have overridden that inclination with enough menticidal indoctrination, though. Blessedly, many people throughout my life nourished my independence, resilience, and resourcefulness, starting with my mother, who taught me to read before kindergarten; modeled empathy, kindness, creativity, and humor; and encouraged my imagination and interior life.

I recount the indelible influence of my maternal grandmother, Margaret, in this piece:

And it is no exaggeration to say I would not be nearly as awake, audacious, and resistant to societal pressures without the inspiration and persistence of my contrarian husband, who also composed the music for the video featured here as well as in Ode to a Whistleblower and Tess Lawrie’s and Mike Yeadon’s readings of Mistakes Were NOT Made: An Anthem for Justice.

The video in this post illustrates my poem Hard Lessons, which introduces you to another instrumental figure (Paul) in my intellectual, spiritual, and moral education. It was inspired after yet another pivotal mentor, Marilyn, asked me to share some anecdotes about Paul for her speech at his retirement dinner. She didn’t have time to read the full poem, so she suggested I record it for Paul and she could share it at the more intimate faculty gathering in his honor today—and thus this video was born as I raced to assemble it over the past few days.

What about you? Who were some of the people, writers, and thinkers who cultivated your moral disobedience, pattern-recognition skills, and critical thinking faculties?

What hard lessons made you the person you are today and ingrained in you the values you hold dear?

Please share this video and my poem with the people you feel deserve recognition for exhibiting and teaching moral courage, and perhaps together we can multiply that 5 percent of Veridos exponentially.


To courage!

Anne Gibbons: Common Sense

Hard Lessons

Poem for a Mentor on His Retirement

by Margaret Anna Alice

“What … strikes you about this poem?”
Your signature Socratic opening
was a running joke
among English majors.

You never imposed;
you elicited.
You never told;
you listened.

Teasing truths from depths
we did not know
were within us,
you allowed the silence
to sound the salient,
epiphanies blossoming
from the quiet
like dormant bulbs
stretching toward April’s
cruel light.

You never closed;
you opened.
You never coddled;
you challenged.

Leavening poignancy with humor,
honesty with empathy,
truth with beauty,
you watched us
wander our way
through the brambles,
earning our discoveries
like wide-eyed explorers
penciling in the contours
of untraversed territory.

You never dulled;
you sharpened.
You never lowered;
you elevated.

Eavan Boland, U.A. Fanthorpe,
Brian Friel, Eugene O’Neill,
William Faulkner, Flann O’Brien—
you conducted colloquies with
the poets, playwrights, and novelists
who illuminate my path today,
whose words swathe me during times of loss
like a palimpsest blanketing a lacuna.

Inspiring us to reach for our highest selves,
you strengthened the muscles of our minds,
the grit of our characters,
the resilience of our spirits.

You taught us there is
meaning beyond language,
myth beyond literature,
morality beyond law.

Valuing integrity over comfort,
conscience over compromise,
reality over ruse,
you held us to a steeling standard
some called harsh, I invigorating.

When I exposed corruption,
malfeasance, and injustice
in probing newspaper articles—
from the butchery of campus oaks
to the dismissals of wrongthinkers—
you championed my truth-seeking,
cheered my truth-speaking.

If you were impressed, it meant something.
If you were disappointed, it meant something.

No one knew that better
than your daughter, who
feared your furrowed brow
and prized your proud smile
even more than me, who myself
considered you the father
I’d always wished for,
the mentor who was to leave
the deepest mark on my being.

Remember that day in the library
when you found the two of us
in the catacomb of discards,
nineteenth-century periodicals
destined for destruction?

We’d been ordered to rip
the bindings from their pages,
the spines from their signatures.

She assumed the task with gusto,
fulfilling her assignment
like the A+ student she was.

I opened the first volume,
tentatively tearing the wings
from the thorax like a lepidopterist,
feeling the rupture in my breast
as the musty pages crumbled
beneath my fingertips.

When I cracked the next volume,
my eyes alighted on the table of contents—
now lost to memory, these were
names I knew, names I felt.

“I can’t do this,” I told her,
returning the book to its shelf.
“This feels like sacrilege.”

Never one to give up, she persisted.

Then you arrived in the doorway,
asking what was happening.
I said the acquisitions librarian
had told us to destroy these books,
but I could not do it.
I would not do it.

You pulled her aside—
your disappointed expression
being the only course she would ever need
in why “just obeying orders”
is the inexcusable excuse of those
complicit in tyranny, in genocide.

You then rebuked the librarian,
rescuing the tomes
from demolition
and ushering them
to shelves befitting
of their historic relevance.

Painful as it was,
this hard lesson
carved itself into
your daughter’s heart,
teaching her
   righteous resistance,
   peaceful noncompliance,
   daring disobedience.

I practice this homework daily,
reciting the one word that distinguishes
   the courageous from the culpable,
   the critically thinking from the conforming,
   the free from the fettered:

It was a lodestar
she would cradle within
for the remaining two decades
of her luminous life—
until the thunderclap stroke
struck her down,
teaching you
the hardest lesson of all,
the one every parent
lives in terror of.

Now she is within you,
her beloved,
her son,
her brother,
her mother,
the innumerable
lives she graced
with her noble presence,
following in your
formidable footsteps
in the very classroom
you are now departing.

And you are within me
and the thousands
of other students
you shepherded
through Translations,
“Getting It Across,”
At Swim-Two-Birds,
Go Down, Moses,
Long Day’s Journey into Night,
“What We Lost”—
every text a page
in the Grand Book of Life,
taking flight like
ah! bright wings
as our days count
down toward the
silences in which are
our beginnings

and endings.

For good books
must always end,
but their lessons
dwell in our deathless souls
for time immemorial.

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You will find this video on the following platforms for easy sharing.


And here is my tweet about it if you’d like to retweet:

© Margaret Anna Alice, LLC
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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