Courage, Cowardice and the Wordsmiths
by Stephen Rittenberg, MD [American Thinker (24 August 2007)]
"... there must be a wonderful soothing power in mere words ....
I take it that what all men are really after is some form or
perhaps only some formula of peace."
by Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes
When I served as a Navy psychiatrist during the Vietnam War, one
of my weekly duties was interviewing and assessing potential
draftees who were seeking to avoid service by claiming mental
illness. Many of these were recent Ivy League graduates, students
of the humanities, who were active protesters of what they
insisted was an immoral war. They thought of themselves as
Yet they were not principled conscientious objectors. Instead,
they were glib, had read up on symptoms of psychosis, and could
feign the manifest behavior of any disqualifying syndrome –
including homosexuality. Their efforts to dissemble were usually
rather obvious. They were predicated on the arrogant assumption
that they were smarter than any military
Once it was pointed out to them that if they avoided the draft,
someone else, less educated and less favored by fortune, would go
in their place, they quickly revealed their true motivation:
fear. I realized I was observing cowardice masquerading as
idealism. These young men would do anything to avoid the risk of
fighting and dying for their country.
I then would return to my hospital responsibilities, working with
wounded vets. These were not glib wordsmiths. It took real effort
to get them to talk about their experiences. They didn't think of
their courage in battle as anything special. When they did talk
about it, they often worried that they'd let down their comrades.
The contrast with would-be draft evaders was striking. There was
absolutely none of the self-preoccupation of the Ivy Leaguers.
Instead, these were men who had done deeds, fought battles,
rescued other wounded platoon members, risked their lives. They
readily acknowledged having been afraid, and many paid a high
emotional price. They felt fear, but unlike our Ivy Leaguers, the
force that propelled them was courage, not cowardice.
Over many years of clinical observation, I repeatedly confirmed
the truth of Wordsworth's observation that "the child is father
of the man". So who were these wordsmith cowards as children? In
his great essay Why
Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?, Robert Nozick
pointed out that wordsmith intellectuals – writers,
journalists, liberal arts professors, film makers, television
pundits – had frequently been children who achieved success
in school, based on their verbal skills. They were rewarded with
elite status within the school system. As adults, however, they
were not similarly rewarded. Capitalism rarely gives its greatest
rewards to the verbally skilled. Nozick tried to sort out the
puzzle, and concluded that it is our educational system, where,
as he put it:
"... to the intellectually meritorious went the praise, the
teacher's smiles, and the highest grades. In the currency the
schools had to offer, the smartest constituted the upper class.
Though not part of the official curricula, in the schools the
intellectuals learned the lessons of their own greater value in
comparison with the others, and of how this greater value
entitled them to greater rewards. The wider market society,
however, teaches a different lesson. The greatest rewards do not
automatically go to the verbally brightest. Verbal skills are not
most highly valued .... Schooled in the lesson that they were
most valuable, the most deserving of reward, the most entitled to
reward, how could the intellectuals, by and large, fail to resent
the capitalist society which deprived them of the just deserts to
which their superiority "entitled" them? Is it surprising that
what the schooled intellectuals felt for capitalist society was a
deep and sullen animus that, although clothed with various
publicly appropriate reasons, continued even when those
particular reasons were shown to be inadequate? ... The
intellectual wants the whole society to be a school writ large,
to be like the environment where he did so well and was so well
As Eric Hoffer succinctly put it:
"Nothing so offends the doctrinaire intellectual as our ability
to achieve the momentous in a matter-of-fact way, unblessed by
Nozick also observed that there is a childhood forerunner to
capitalism – the world of the playground. There, verbal
intellect is far less important than action. On the playground
aggression is as important as intellect. Being able to utilize
aggression in the service of solving problems produces leaders
not designated by authority figures, but by one's peers. Physical
courage is valued highly. Cowards are mocked and shunned as
"scaredy cats". Willingness to fight for oneself, without
appealing to authority becomes a measure of status. It also
provides real world lessons in human nature.
I recall trading blows to gain sufficient respect to be included
in pick-up schoolyard games. An Irish Catholic boy admired for
his basketball skills joined my fight against the anti-Semites
and insisted that anyone who could sink jump shots from
twenty-five feet out could play on his team, even if he was a
Jew. It took a few bloodied noses but the matter was finally
settled. Gerry Paulson was our schoolyard Patton.
In that freewheeling world of the schoolyard, the good little
girls and physically timid boys who craved teacher's praise were
at a disadvantage. The schoolroom was their utopia, where
physical aggression was banned and all problems had a verbal
solution. Girls are usually more verbally adept in the early
childhood years and gain surplus praise from teachers. In
addition, such children, including boys who crave teacher's
approval, receive moral approbation for being "good" while
aggression is "bad". Hence the future wordsmith intellectual
grows up feeling smarter, morally superior, a caring idealist.
These self-flattering views carry over to adulthood, and shape
the future wordsmith intellectuals' political views. If words can
resolve all conflicts, then wordsmiths are exceedingly important.
If conflicts within and between human beings can be "resolved"
with words, then who better to play the role of savior than the
One of the central features of utopian politics, explaining their
appeal to intellectuals, is the promise that conflict can be
abolished and human nature fundamentally changed. Whether
Communism, Nazism or Islamism, the aim is a unified, submissive,
happy mankind led by an elite in possession of the truth, just
like Miss Murphy when she taught 6th grade. Aggression will then
vanish when the egalitarian paradise prevails.
Since that happy day never arrives, scapegoats are needed to
explain the failure of utopia whenever it is tried. Usually it's
the Jews, but it can be other infidels' as well. Thus the
wordsmith intellectual can rationalize mass murder by a Hitler,
Stalin, Pol Pot or Ahmadinejad, vicariously discharging his own
repressed violent aggression, while still holding fast to an
idealized self image.
Nozick's explanation for wordsmith intellectuals' opposition to
capitalism is an important first order explanation, but it
doesn't go deeply enough into the psychology of intellectuals.
Capitalism embraces competition and competition requires
utilization of aggression. Profound fear of aggression, and the
concomitant dislike of action to solve problems, constitutes the
underlying reason for the loathing of capitalism. The schoolroom
is a model for intellectual utopia. Utopia is, above all, a
conflict-free zone wherein no one is aggrieved. Whatever social
problems exist can be talked out. Intellectuals and their verbal
skills can show the way to harmony and peace. Having avoided
aggression at an early age, these wordsmiths never learned
Patton's lessons in courage. Cowardice is therefore the reaction
that comes most readily in situations of danger.
As a psychoanalyst, I belong to a wordsmith profession, of
course, and I have a close-up view of its practitioners. They are
overwhelmingly leftist in their politics and tend to think words
are the answer to all serious problems. Their faith in the power
of words to resolve conflict is almost absolute. When
psychoanalysis came to America it shed its European pessimism
about human nature in adapting to New World optimism. Therapy
changed its goals from Freud's limited aim of converting misery
into ordinary human unhappiness. It decided, in the cant phrase
that rules to this day, that mental "conflict can be resolved",
i.e. done away with, and blissful happiness can then prevail.
This became the task of individual psychotherapy – to
resolve intrapsychic conflict, and then the aim was extended to
include group social conflicts.
We are drowning in a therapeutic culture, saturated by a fantasy
version of human nature in stark contradiction to the original
psychoanalytic view, a view much closer to the stoics and St.
Augustine than to Deepak Chopra. Unfortunately for the adherents
of the therapeutic culture, conflict can never be 'resolved', and
they are doomed to disappointment. Never mind, there will be
another self help guru next week.
The human mind, however, is in conflict as long as it is
alive. Conflict between wishes, fears, moral prohibitions,
and demands of reality never go away. The ways of handling
conflict can change, with very hard and prolonged work, but that
is a far more modest and realistic goal than the utopian one of
transforming human nature implicit in the notion that mental
conflict can be resolved.
Changing entire societies is even more difficult. Contemporary
psychotherapists, like other wordsmith intellectuals, endorse a
Rousseau-ian ideal of human nature: innocent children are
victimized by their parents, who are unwitting transmitters of
capitalism's oppressive values to their offspring.
Many fine and noble efforts have been made to awaken the Western
world to the mortal threat posed to its moral foundations and its
very existence by militant Islam. The openly declared intentions
of these enemies of Western civilization, accompanied by their
daily deeds of mayhem, would seem to be enough to awaken us.
Testimony by former adherents like the brave Walid Shoebat should sound an alarm that
would wake the deepest sleeper.
Yet many in the Western world remain in a sound,
politically-correct, post-modern sleep. Why is this? When
evidence is ignored, when savagery is blamed on provocation by
its victims, when a Jew-hating death cult is described as a
"religion of peace", when media and governing elites see little
difference between the firemen and the fire, there must be
non-rational forces at play. Rational discussion doesn't always
work because fear is great, terror has worked on many, and
amongst the wordsmith elite, cowardice is the usual response.
Fear is, of course, a universal response to danger. How a person
handles fear varies widely, depending on early development.
George Patton, in his famous D-Day speech said:
"... every man is scared in his first battle. If he says he's
not, he's a liar. Some men are cowards but they fight the same as
the brave men or they get the hell slammed out of them watching
men fight who are just as scared as they are. The real hero is
the man who fights even though he is scared."
Fortunately, wordsmith intellectuals are not the majority of
Americans. If you took the New York Times, our Ivy
League faculties and the Harry Reid's and Nancy Pelosis' as
representative of the country, you would conclude we are a nation
of castrati. Their screeching volubility
notwithstanding, they are nevertheless the minority. I find it
comforting, when the caterwauling of the left becomes deafening,
to think of them as "the insects of the hour", in Edmund Burke's
phrase. He wrote:
"Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field
ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great
cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the
cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the
noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course they
are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the
little shriveled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome
insects of the hour."
Rarely does one find a Churchill or a Patton, men of action who
also are wordsmiths. It is unlikely that one will appear soon
gain, so we will have to get through this war in defense of
civilization by setting an example of courage and hoping that a
few of the wordsmith intellectuals will be shamed into silence.
After all, as Patton remarked:
"... Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the
time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and
laughed. That's why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose
a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American
It is well that in our early lives we are taught by our fathers,
mothers and teachers to try to use words, versus fists and
to achieve a peaceful, versus aggressive, discourse in our
relations with others. It is also well that bullies are admired
by few and shunned by most, and from time to time, are
"neutralized" by others bigger or more numerous. For it to be
otherwise would doom us to live our lives in a savage world