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Don’t Be a “Sleeper Agent” of Courage


Recently, I was sitting in a pew in a Nuremberg church called the Church of Our Lady, wondering what I would’ve done had I been a Christian in Germany as Hitler rose to power.

In this podcast, my Good Faith co-host David French and I returned from two different trips.  David had driven across the country (from Tennessee to California) to drop his son off at college, and I had been to Germany and London.  Our trips gave us a philosophical insight on courage and how narratives can build moral courage. 

Specifically we discussed:

  • David’s new job at the New York Times;
  • The right way to imagine your response in a major historical moment;
  • How to develop and nurture courage in one’s life;
  • The role of stories in virtue-shaping;
  • A critique of political institutions under the moral framework of courage; and
  • A film recommendation which helps build courage and virtue.

CURTIS CHANG: When I was sitting in that Nuremberg church, I asked myself a haunting question.  If I had been sitting in that pew as Hitler rose to power, would I have been swept up by that wave of hatred? Or would I have recognized the evil?

If I had recognized the evil, then would I have had the courage to stand up, to resist, to not make accommodations with this evil that was spreading through my congregation and spreading through the land? 

I wasn’t sure what the answer was. The laws of probability suggest I would have gone along with everybody else, just like the mass of other Germans did, that I would have caved and would have accommodated that evil. I don’t know.

David, do you ever have that moment where you wonder questions like that?

DAVID FRENCH: Oh, yeah. In fact, I even wrote a piece all the way back in 2020 called “The Question My Confederate Ancestors Taught Me to Ask” which posits: if everyone around you is saying yes to something evil, can you say no to it?

Evil doesn’t present itself as Mr. Burns from The Simpsons saying, “yess… excellent.” Rarely when evil presents itself as evil do you say, “Well, I’m going to be terrible anyway.”

It’s more insidious. You have a bunch of people around you saying, “This thing that is terrible is not terrible. This evil thing is not evil.” Everyone asks, “why is your conscience being pricked? Actually, you’ve got this all wrong. What is evil is actually good, and what you think of as good is actually evil.”

It isn’t just that you have the raw pressure of peers and communities. It is that you also have the tickling of the ears, so to speak, that says, “actually, you’re wrong to withstand this.” 

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote these two paragraphs about a decade or so ago.

“The basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand holding empathy, I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this you are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves, but it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t have and then ask why. This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking why. The fact that we, and I mean all of us, black and white, are in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling. The upshot of all my black nationalist study was terrifying. Give us the guns and boats and we would do the same thing. There’s nothing particularly noble about black skin. And to present business it is equally chilling to understand that the obstacles facing poor black kids can’t be surmounted by an advice column.”

That is really a profoundly humble declaration of human nature. 

CURTIS CHANG: How courageous are we truly? We assume we would be courageous.  But Coates is arguing that the better assumption is that you would not be and then work from there.

DAVID FRENCH: I think this is the better way to frame it, because we assume better of ourselves than we should. The key to courage is assuming the opposite and then building from there, intentionally building from there.

CURTIS CHANG: You’re exactly right. How does one build courage over time?

David, I also went to London where I visited the Churchill War Rooms, this amazing museum in the basement of the Treasury Room. It was constructed at the eve of World War II as a place for where the British government could run the war, especially if they were under attack. During the Blitz, May 1940, Churchill and his cabinet would regularly convene in these underground rooms. Churchill had a bedroom there.

At the end of World War II, they sealed up these rooms and pretty much left them intact, including with all of the documents, knickknacks, personal items, and maps.

When Churchill walked into the Map Room, when he took over the government in 1940, he declared, “It is from here I shall direct the war.” This became the nerve center of the British war effort. 

As I walked through the Map Room, I asked myself the same question I asked in the pews of the Nuremberg church: what would I have done?

I imagine, in May 1940, looking at the map.  What do I see, David? The map of Europe entirely overrun with Nazi Germany. I look over to Russia and they are allied with Nazi Germany. I scan over to the Pacific, and the Japanese Empire is leaning towards alliance with Germany. I see a few specks of my British Empire around the world, all under siege and under attack. And then there’s the tiny island of England, the one beacon of democracy, human rights, and freedom.

What would I have done?

Would I have said, “No, there can be no more accommodation with evil.” 

Even faced with that map, David? 

Again, I’m not sure. I’m enough of a strategist and a pragmatist. I would have been sorely tempted to listen to the fluttering voices in the air which say, “make a deal.” And those voices would not just exist in my head.  They would be all around me. There would have been a lot of moral arguments in favor of making a deal. Stop the bloodshed. People are dying.

DAVID FRENCH: Yeah, there would have been strong arguments, not just strategic, but also moral, to stop the bloodshed.

People are dying. 

CURTIS CHANG: So what was it in Churchill that caused him to say, “No, we will never surrender? Never. We will fight to the death on the beaches, in the air?” What was formed in Churchill that he could actually say “no” to the evil and summon the courage to fight? That was the question that I left the War room as I trudged up the steps from that basement. 

David, that’s a pressing question. Not just a historical question, not just some individual sort of musing. 

It is a pressing question of the day for Americans. When I returned from my trip, one of the things I saw on the TV was the second anniversary of January 6th. And I saw the GOP and Kevin McCarthy caving in to forces of illiberalism to what I would argue are the descendants of all of the evil. Not exactly the same, but has genetic resemblance to the evil that I saw on my trip.

The problem is not Trump. The problem is a lack of courage. The problem is whether or not at some point, our leaders, we – as a country collectively – will say, “No, this is enough. We will not accommodate, we won’t make a deal, and we will not, for the sake of pragmatism, for the sake of holding onto power, go along.”

How do we develop courage? 

DAVID FRENCH: That’s a great question. This C.S. Lewis quote is really illuminating.

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” 

We tend to think of courage as physical courage, moral courage, but it often means overcoming fear to display a virtue. That a version of the C.S. Lewis point. What is the virtue that is being tested? It takes courage to demonstrate virtue in the face of the test.

We’ve all seen people who can display enormous physical courage, say, on a battlefield, where there’s this sort of instinctive courage to protect loved ones. But these same people, oddly enough, just fall in line with the political necessities of the moment. They have far less moral courage than they have physical courage. 

I like the Lewis definition because it shows that demonstrating courage is a lifelong project, a lifelong multifaceted project. Success in one area is no guarantee of success in another area. When you are on this lifelong journey of facing tests of different virtues, failure is going to be somewhat inevitable. But how do you respond to the failure? Do you recognize it and seek to correct it or do you deny it or seek to rationalize it? And one of those two choices sets you on a path. And if you are on the path of rationalization, it is very hard to get off. But if you are on the path of recognizing your frailty and trying to correct for it, that has its own self reinforcing patterns as well. 

CURTIS CHANG: Courage is virtue exemplified.

Influential philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote a book called “After Virtue,” which examined what is virtue exactly and how do we grow it? One of MacIntyre’s central insights was that virtue and narrative and stories were inextricably linked.  You can not really understand, grasp, and form virtue without grasping, understanding and forming it through stories. And let me explain why.

If I told you, David, that Jane is tall, we don’t need a story. You just measure that and Jane is tall in all cases, in all situations. That’s not a virtue, that’s a quality, that’s an attribute, right? But if I tell you Jane is courageous, immediately you’re forming a story and you’re probably asking, “Wait, how is Jane courageous? How has Jane demonstrated courage?”

You need a story to tell that. The very word courage immediately requires you to form a story. 

When you say, “Jane is courageous,” it means Jane at some point met a challenge that opposed where she ought to go, her destiny, her true moral destiny. And she had to overcome that opposing force to resolve her true self and to get to her true destination. That’s the essence of what you’re saying when you say, “Jane has courage.” 

You’ve told a story. You’ve expressed the basic elements of a narrative of hero, desire, opposition, overcoming that opposition. That’s the heart of a story. MacIntyre argued that virtue and narrative are tightly linked. And so if you want to form virtue, if you want to form courage, you form it through story, through an imagination and sensibility that is formed by story. 

Stories invite you to imaginatively enter a scenario and ask that question that I asked in Nuremberg and London.  The one you referred to in your essay about the Confederacy.

“What would I have done?”

That, David, I think, gives us a clue to why Churchill was able to say no and stand up and say, “We must fight.” Because Churchill just devoured narratives and stories and literary classics, especially of courage and heroism. 

There’s a great book called “The Literary Churchill” by Jonathan Rose that describes how much these classic stories, like Herodotus’s tale of Leonidas and the 300 at Thermopylae right, that he memorized. A child playing out a story helps form character and virtue. You’re rehearsing whether or not you would be able to stand up to that.

If you analyze Churchill’s speeches, you’ll see how he’s calling on phrases and tropes from these stories of classic courage. And you sort of get why Leonidas and Thermopylae is almost echoing in his background as he’s thinking about Britain as the 300 standing against the Persian Empire. But Churchill not only read and rehearsed and acted out stories.  As a young man, he wrote a novel in 1890 called “Savrola.”

It’s not a great novel. But it’s fascinating.  It tells the story of a brilliant author and public speaker who uses his wonderful oratorical powers to defeat an evil dictator. This is 1890, okay? 

In this case, it’s a dictator of a Middle European country who tears up treaties, stabs rivals in the back, murders prisoners of war, uses torture, and recklessly seeks a confrontation with the British Empire. 

Why was Churchill so quick to intuit Hitler’s evil and depravity? Because he’d already narrated it. 

Why was he so prepared to stand up and use his wonderful oratorical powers to defeat that evil dictator? Because he’d rehearsed it in his mind already. 

DAVID FRENCH: Yeah, that’s fascinating. Another thing about him is that if we know much about his biography, we know a lot about his biography. And he had acted out prior to becoming prime minister. This is a guy who sought out a challenge. He sought out danger. 

Now, there are constructive and destructive ways to do that, and sometimes he bordered on the destructive. He had established a pattern of taking risks in his life, both physical risks and political risks. Some of them really hadn’t paid off. In World War I, he’s one of the architects of the Gallipoli invasion which was a disaster.

By the time he ascended to be Prime Minister, he had a fully formed biography that was checkered. He had not arced to that moment with a string of unbroken, glorious successes.

I go back to this principle in Luke 16:10: 

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much. Whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”

A lot of times,we think when the stakes are low, they are not as important as when the stakes are high. But our practice when the stakes are low often dictates exactly what our practice and character will be when the stakes are high.

I’ve spoken to an awful lot of college students and law students over the course of my life, and there’s this consistent sort of temptation that occurs. And that is something along the lines of, “I would say something, but I really need the recommendations for grad school. So I think I’m going to lay low for now.”

Or, “I would really take that tough pro bono case that really cuts against the grain of my law firm’s ideology, but I’m not a partner yet. I need to make partner.”

Or, “the things I’ll say when I have tenure.”

And you can just go down the line of all of the ways in which we intentionally postpone courage. 

But as you get older, the stakes get higher.

Why would you think, “Well, if it was too much for me to risk a grad school application, now I’m risking a mortgage payment?” Or, “I’m risking this career that is now fully formed, or this public reputation that has now been put together painstakingly over a decade or two.” And it is very rare to find somebody who would be sort of the “sleeper agent of courage.” 

HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French

PRODUCER: Victoria Holmes

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.

Photo Credit: Churchill War Rooms

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