Monday, January 28, 2008

That coward thing

I found myself thinking of Julie Phillips and Martha Nussbaum's reviews of Mansfield's Manliness when I read Joline Guiterrez Krueger's article in The Albuquerque Tribune ( Catholic Priest, Other Protestors, Sentenced in Santa Fe) the other day. Last Thursday US District Judge Don Svet sentenced Rev. John Dear for failing to comply with signs and directions when Dear and eight other antiwar activists occupied an elevator outside Sen. Pete Domenici's office in Sept 2006. The judge's sentence was relatively lenient in these days of harsh prison terms for activists of conscience. What caught my attention, though, was Krueger's reporting that the judge called Dear "a coward" and "no Gandhi." Why? Krueger's article suggests that the judge was incensed by a previous antiwar act:

“Mr. Dear, you frankly are a phony,” Svet said. “You preach nonviolence but you are the same man who took a hammer and a can of paint against a U.S. aircraft.”

As I recall, the activists who have wielded hammers and red paint against bombers do not actually damage the aircraft but rather do so to make a symbolic statement. The judge, apparently, is an ignoramus without any knowledge (much less understanding) of nonviolent activism: this explains his telling Dear that "you frankly are a phony," and his saying that Dear is "no Gandi."

But the charge of cowardice? That's what I don't get. It sounds illogical and irrational on its face.

Here in the US, we hear people labeled "cowards" by the media and government officials all the time. In some cases, the people so labeled are murderers or terrorists. I don't quite get the logic of that particular application of the characterization, except that for a simplistic notion that all Good Guys are heroes and all Bad Guys are cowards. But I really scratch my head when time and again the people so labeled are those who have had the temerity to stand up to the school-yard bully knowing that in doing so they've risked getting beaten to a pulp. In this case, on the one side---Judge Svet's side---we have a government that made more than 900 "false statements" (i.e., they told conscious lies) to justify devastating the lives and culture of several million people. On the other side, we have Dear's Pax Christi group, saying that that destruction and devastation is unjust and morally unacceptable. For me, allying oneself with the lying bully is the real act of cowardice.

I'm wondering: is it a "manliness" issue? I gather from Nussbaum's piece that John Wayne is now the exemplar for manliness. (Perceptions of gender just keep changing and changing, don't they...) Since the days of the Reagan Administration I've had it firmly in mind that the image of John Wayne (channeled through Ronald Reagan)---the man's man of a hero---is that of a thuggish bully who rides roughshod over everyone who gets in his way. Is it possible that people now think that the bully is the manly hero and anyone who thumbs their nose at the bully is, by definition, "unmanly"? Am I leaping to conclusions? Such reasoning doesn't square with the way the word "coward" was used when I was growing up, but as I've noted elsewhere, anything to do with gender is riddled with discursive instability. I wonder if the judge thinks that the nuns arrested for hitting the bomber with a hammer are cowards, too? Or do people who use the word in that way see it as applicable to men only?

It's a mystery-- to me, anyway. If anyone has any ideas about this, pray do enlighten me.


Josh said...

Yeh, ever since the D'Souza-Maher-Sontag flap right after 9-11, you're not allowed to question use of the word "coward" for anyone who opposes Us.

I'm more struck by the fact that the judge sees property damage on the part of an advocate of nonviolence as hypocritical. By that standard, New York must be one of America's most violent cities . . .

Anonymous said...

He probably would've called Gandhi a coward too, if he'd been a contemporary.