Recently, my Italian translator, Giuseppe, wrote me an email. It was not a typical exchange, but quite an extraordinary personal query:
“Many see you as a very courageous person. They would like to imitate you at that, at least a little bit, but they feel they are not courageous, say, ‘by nature’ and they cannot learn courage. What do you think about that? Can people train themselves to be courageous?
I do not know how to answer this question in brief, and definitely not in the body of an email, not in just a few words. But the question is important, maybe essential, and so I decided to reply by writing this essay.
I have travelled the world, covering a myriad of conflicts, on all continents. I have written books, made films, and produced investigative reports.
I have seen fear on the faces of men, women and children, I have seen misery and sometimes I saw what could only be described as absolute desperation. I often sensed fear ‘in the air’, in so many corners of the globe!
Fear has been, naturally, omnipresent at all battlefields and in the areas of carnage and plunder, but also at ‘not so obvious places’, such as churches and family homes, and even on the streets.
I have been ‘studying fear’, trying to understand its causes, its roots. I always suspected that to define what triggers fear, what produces it, would be like coming at least halfway to containing it, destroying it, freeing people from its tyrannical claws.
There are, of course, many types of fear: from rational fear of direct violence, to some abstract, almost grotesque fear that is imposed on people by our political regimes and establishments, by almost all religions, and by oppressive family structures.
The second type of fear is purposefully manufactured and has been perfected throughout the centuries. How to use it effectively, how to maximize it, how to inflict the greatest damage, all of that is passed on from oppressor to oppressor, from generations to generations.
Fear is administered in order to stop progress, in order to choke dissent and to keep people in a thoroughly submissive and servile position. Fear breeds ignorance, too. It offers a false sense of security and of belonging. Needless to say that one can belong to an extremely bad ‘club’, or to a family of gangsters, or to a fascist country. Fear manipulates masses to an ignorant obedience, and then threatens those who resist: “don’t you see, that is what the majority of people want and think. Follow the others, or else!”
Almost several decades ago, thinkers like Huxley, Orwell and others prophesied societies in which we now live. We are still reading ‘1984’ or ‘Brave New World’ with disgust, and with outrage. We read those books as though they are some imaginary, science-fiction horror, not realizing that those nightmares, actually, have already arrived in our countries, cities, even into our own living rooms.
As many nations, including those in Europe and North America, increasingly succumb to indoctrination and intellectual homogeneity, courage is vanishing. It is demonstrated very infrequently, and it clearly fails to inspire the majority.
It is not because ‘people have changed’, but because the world in which we are living is becoming increasingly compliant and restrained, and the main sources of information (mass media), as well as those sources that shape public opinion and the behavioral patterns of the citizens (social media), are fully controlled by corporate and conservative political groups and their interests.
While people used to be influenced and inspired by great thinkers, novelists and filmmakers, they are now being shaped by 160-character messages of social media, and by all those opinion-formers who try to make them shallow, unemotional, compliant and cowardly.
In much of the distant past, but before I was born, rebellions and revolutions were seen as something truly heroic; they were respected and seen as something worth living for, even dying for. That was still the era of true pathos, of struggles against fascism and against colonialism. And life was not stripped of all poetry, yet, not even of revolutionary poetry.
One’s worth was defined by one’s contribution to building a much better world, not by the size of his or her SUV.
In those days, entire nations rose up from their knees. Great men and women led some of the spectacular rebellions. Writers, filmmakers, even musicians joined the struggle, or often marched at the vanguard. The line between top investigative journalist work and the arts became increasingly blurry, as great personalities such as Wilfred Burchett and Ryszard Kapuscinski circled the globe, relentlessly identifying its plights and grievances.
Life suddenly became meaningful. Many, not the majority but definitely many, were ready to dedicate their lives, and even to die, in order to destroy that outdated and unjust world order; to build, from scratch, a decent and prosperous society for all human beings, or in brief, ‘to improve the world’.
If you see some of the French, Italian, Japanese and Latin American films from that era, chances are, that you will get goose bumps. Such was the energy, the zeal, and determination to challenge the establishment and to improve life on the planet.
When Sartre spoke, even if on topics such as imperialism and colonialism, hundreds of thousands of people would gather in Paris, and he would often appear in places like the Renault factory, far away from those famous intellectual salons of the capital.
“I rebel, therefore I exist!” wrote Albert Camus, proudly. It appeared to be one of the main mottos of that era.
Then, suddenly, rebellion ended’, it was ‘contained’.
But the wars continued. Imperialism and colonialism regrouped. Media outlets were purchased, bought. Capitalism won, once again, despite all dialectic logic against such a victory. Progress was stopped, even reversed. Corporatism produced Thatcherism and Reagan-ism, and the world got its shackles and muzzles back. Then, that gangrenous ‘War on Terror’ was launched and fear began creeping back, even from where it had been expelled several decades earlier.
I do not consider myself ‘brave’, Giuseppe.
In fact, I am very scared, and that is why I rebel, and risk my life, constantly.
I am scared of what I see. I am also scared of not being able to see, to witness, to document.
I am scared when I see the desperate faces of women, holding photos of their disappeared or killed husbands and sons.
I am scared of the aftermaths of aerial bombardment and of drone warfare.
I am scared of overcrowded hospitals, with injured people screaming on the floor, drenched in their own blood.
I am scared when I witness how all those great dreams of, on paper, independent countries in Africa, Asia, Middle East and Oceania are vanishing into thin air.
I am scared of all the new forms of imperialism, of neo-colonialism, of buying intellectuals in poor countries, of manufacturing ‘opposition movements’ against the governments the West does not like.
I am scared of the irreversible destruction of our beautiful planet. I have seen how entire stunning countries, atoll nations, are becoming uninhabitable because of global warming and the rising sea level – Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands.
I am scared when I see scars instead of beautiful rainforests, stumps of trees and black chemicals floating where once ran bubbly, happy rivers – in Sumatra, Borneo, and Papua.
I am scared of so many things!
I am scared of seeing women being treated like dogs or doormats, as possessions of their fathers and husbands, and even brothers.
I am scared when brutal, corrupt and ignorant priests ruin lives and spread grotesque fears.
I am scared when books are getting burnt, directly or indirectly, replaced by sheets of metal and plastic, with potentially controllable content.
I am scared when they are, metaphorically or in real terms, shooting people straight between their eyes, or in their backs, simply because they refused to kneel.
I am scared when people have to lie in order to survive, or when they have to betray their loved ones.
I am scared of rape, of people being raped; in any way that rape is performed – physically or mentally.
I am scared of darkness. Not the one in the bedroom, at night, but of the darkness that is once again descending on our planet, and on humanity.
And the more scared I am, the more I feel that I have to act.
It is just because sitting still is the scariest thing of all. Sitting still while this world, this beautiful world which I know so intimately; from Tierra De Fuego to Northern Canada, from the Cape of Good Hope to the tiny Pacific Islands, to PNG to DRC, is being plundered, violated, and intellectually lobotomized.
It is also because I am a human being, one tiny grain of sand in this tremendous mankind, and as Maxim Gorky once wrote “Mankind – that has a proud sound!”
I am not always scared.
When the muzzle of a gun attached to some tank, slowly moves in my direction, I am not scared. I have seen what happens, what can happen if it fires; unfortunately I have seen it too many times. The moment of pain must be very intense but extremely short – and then, there is nothing. I don’t want it to happen to me, because I love this life so passionately, so much, but I am not scared of the possibility of death.
But again, I am extremely scared of ‘not being there’, of not witnessing and documenting life, in its full beauty, in its richness and its brutality.
I am scared, I am terrified, of not knowing, of not understanding, of not fighting, of not rebelling, of not loving, not hating, not running, not falling, not laughing or crying (as one cannot exist without other), of not doing the right thing, or not erring, of not existing!
To search for the truth, to educate oneself, that is already brave, it is very brave.
The way our world is structured nowadays, people are strongly discouraged from being different.
Most men and women, even children, are now conditioned in such a way, that it makes taking the first step away from the controlled mainstream, extremely difficult. To step out of that ‘comfort zone’, away from the swamp of ‘commonly accepted and promoted values’, of cheap clichés, and the outright lies, is brave, heroic.
As a result, while the world is in flames, while it is being plundered, very few are actually fighting for its survival.
Has courage disappeared from this world? Is cowardice what actually accompanies those cheap ‘pop’ values’? Does shallowness, intellectual and emotional, breed compliance?
Can there still be a struggle for justice? Is rebellion still possible? Of course there can still be, of course it is, and you are walking away, you are rebelling as well, Giuseppe, with every article that you translate, and with every question that you ask.
It is not necessary to always face a combat helicopter, in order to be defined as a brave person. Some do go to wars, of course. I do. Is it because I am brave? Or is it because it is sometimes easier to point my camera at some battlefield, than to deal with the gentle art of translation? I don’t know. Let others judge.
But to answer your question, it is: yes, one can learn the trade, any trade. And one can also learn how to be brave, too.
However, courage just for the sake of courage is worth nothing. It is like bungee jumping, or driving at breakneck speed on some icy road, not much more. Just a strong rush of adrenaline…
Genuine courage, I believe, has to have a purpose, an important goal. And to risk one’s life, one has to really and deeply love it, and to respect it: his or her life, as well as the life of others. Therefore, courage makes sense only if it is there to protect the life of other human beings. One has to love this life, passionately and madly, in order to fight for it, in order to fight for the survival of others.
A courageous person can never be a slave, to anyone or to anything. Maybe that is the best way to begin ‘being brave’: by realizing, by defying, by demolishing slavery, by fighting against it no matter where and in which form it exists. There is still so much of it, all around us… Not only that old-fashioned slavery defined by shackles, but all types of slavery, in so many forms.
Accepting slavery, but especially becoming a voluntary slave, is the opposite of courage.
To ‘swim with the flow’, equals to being a slave. To repeat pre-fabricated clichés, to refuse forming his or her personal opinion is nothing less than intellectual servitude.
Of course, to be courageous, one has to be informed, as one has to be able to analyze the world, to choose a personal set of values, to be secure. Then and only then can one fight, if there is no other way; to fight and to risk everything combating oppression and brutality, whenever human beings are being tortured and violated, anywhere on this planet.
In order to be informed, one should never ‘believe’, one should always demand to know! That is brave too, and not at all easy, but necessary. It is brave when one is determinedly demanding to study and to learn, when one dares to form his or her own personal opinion. Not some pre-chewed school curriculum, but real learning. That is actually immensely brave, and also the only way to help to move humankind forward.
That is why truly free thought has lately been directly and brutally targeted in the West, and in the other oppressed parts of the world. Because this present regime, this ‘New World Order’, which is actually not new at all, is doing all it can to reverse natural development, to lock us all back in the gloom and doom of some outdated religious-style dogmatism. We are forced; we are being conditioned to believe in capitalism, in a Western style of ‘multi-party democracy’, in the superiority of Western concepts.
But it is clear – more thoughts are there, more alternatives, options, more checks and balances, the safer our planet becomes. Needless to say, it is brave to fight for its safety.
There is perhaps nothing as powerful, as humble, as honest, as this quote by Bertrand Russell displayed in the office of Noam Chomsky, at MIT:
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”
This quote also helps to answer the question posted by my translator and friend from Italy:
When the desire for knowledge becomes truly overwhelming, one simply cannot stop, or slow down. The only way is to go forward, to absorb knowledge, to fight for attaining knowledge, to see the world, to understand, to feel, to listen; passionately and consistently. No fear can deter us, when we are avidly searching for truth. It is so proud, so brave, this desire to know!
When we feel ‘unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind’, when we witness how unjust is the arrangement of this world, when we truly internalize the suffering of others, of our fellow human beings living on all the continents of this beautiful but battered planet, then almost all of us, or at least those who are humanists in their core, become courageous, and brave. They suddenly know what has to be done.
As for ‘the longing for love’, it is there, it is always there, in all of us, in all human beings. To fight for love, when it comes, is brave, and to die for it, if risking all is the only way to save it, is courageous. That ‘longing for love’ is the most humble, most sacred, the most essential part of our nature, so rarely satisfied. It takes courage to love; it takes tremendous, indescribable courage!
As the Cuban poet Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez, one of those brave ‘Cuban Five’, imprisoned for defending their country against Yankee infiltration and terrorism, once wrote: “Love is either eternal, or it is not love.” If it can vanish, it is not love. El amor que expira no es amor.
These words, a poem, were written in a brutal North American prison and what they mean is clear. It is brave to love. It is so easy to betray. But it takes real courage to defend love.
Such courage, Giuseppe, can be learned. Or it can simply be discovered and nourished, as it lives inside us: inside all of us it lives!
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His discussion with Noam Chomsky On Western Terrorism is now going to print. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. He has just completed the feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.