On cowardice and the value of shame
“The worst problem of all in any society is that the majority of human beings are sheeplike in their obedience and conformity to authority, even when they are instructed to commit acts that go against their real values and beliefs.” (Israel W. Charny)
Turns out the right to visit the US for the “unvaccinated” only resumed on 11 May 2023.
What does even mean?
On the 10th of May, I wouldn’t have been allowed in. I’ve been thinking about Why?
As we all know, there is no medical reason (I won’t go into all the things the vaccine doesn’t do).
So, why? What is it about me that the US government is so unhappy about, that it wouldn’t have let me in on the 10th of May.
It’s because I hadn’t been obedient. I’ve been thinking a lot about obedience this last week. Those that were and those that were not.
It’s why I like Jimmy Dore’s bit in the masthead video so much. That’s really what it’s about. As he says: If you did, as the man on the TV said, without questions, then you are a good person.
It’s why “Public Health” as a force for obedience and compliance is so effective, because it equates obedience with goodness. It not only gives you the tools to force others into obedience, but it gives you the tools to rationalise your own obedience. Goodness all around.
Plenty of obeying is “strategic” as Paul Collits wrote in Je Suis August Landmesser
Some of this behaviour might be termed “strategic obeying”. This is self-regarding conduct whose aim is to protect the things that are important to us while ceding minor freedoms to the Covid State. Anyone who hates mask mandates but obeys them in order to get the shopping done, rather than risk a fine or risk getting spat at by angry CovidManiacs, is a strategic obeyer. A reluctant obeyer, perhaps, but an obeyer nonetheless. If I just do this, maybe they won’t come for me. If they come for the unvaccinated, maybe they won’t come for me. Strategic obeyers sustain the Covid State. They form a key part of the group that remains silent, and no doubt all the various Nudge Units will have figured this all out.
Around 2005 I sat down and wrote quite a bit about my time in Iraq between 1981 -1991, during the Iraq-Iran War followed swiftly by the Gulf War.
As I’ve been reflecting on obedience this last week, I remembered two stories that connect with that theme.
The Party brought out the worst and the best in people. Normally the worst.
Abu Bashar had a son, Bashar, and two daughters, Nada and Sommer, both of whom were studying medicine. Nada was finishing and Sommer was starting year three when I started Dentistry. It was an interesting and happy family, and I enjoyed their company a lot. Abu Bashar was an ex-Communist, well read and interested in life. He raised two daughters that believed they could do anything, not an easy feat in a place like Iraq.
Sommer had a friend named Zakia who lived with them during the university year as her family was much further north in Iraq near Kirkuk. Zakia was starting third year dentistry. Over the years I would come to know that whole family very well. We often carpooled on our way to and from university.
Abu Bashar, as an active closet ex-Communist, had strong political views and believed that Saddam was the physical embodiment of the devil, not that a Communist would believe in the devil, but you know what I mean. These political views trickled down into his family and Zakia by extension.
Year three of university is an interesting time. You have been around long enough to feel like you own the place, and you are far enough away from graduation, especially if it’s a five-year course, to not worry about the real world. One of Zakia’s friends in year three was a young man by the name of Kareem.
Kareem was an all-round nice guy, popular with the girls, confident, articulate, straight back, generous with a smile on his face most of the time.
He was a leader.
I got to know Kareem reasonably well through Zakia and saw him develop into one of the main personalities at university. In his fifth and last year he wrote an open letter to the university administration highlighting some of the faculty’s administrative shortcomings. It was a short letter, but well articulated, honest and courageous. He pinned it on the public notice board.
Someone who knew someone, who knew someone, read the letter and before long Kareem had been called up to one of Saddam’s many presidential palaces (isn’t that an oxymoron? Kings have palaces, not presidents) for a meeting with the King.
It was my third year, I had just left a class and was slowly finding my way to the cafeteria (remember, I felt as if I owned the joint by now) when I bumped into Zakia walking the other way. We stopped and chatted for a short while and just as she was about to go, she said, “Oh, before I forget, Kareem met with Saddam today”.
Feeling that I was in safe company, I did the only thing I knew in that situation. I rolled my eyes. I guess I was feeling and trying to communicate, “Big, bloody deal!”
She stopped and looked at me with a look I had not seen before. A look of annoyance. She was really annoyed with me.
“That’s a really big thing, what happened for Kareem, we should be happy for him”.
I looked at her again. There was no conflict in her voice or her face. She was proud of Kareem for having met Saddam. Serial killer Saddam, mass murdering Saddam, genocide Saddam, destroyer of Iraq Saddam. She was happy and proud that Kareem, her friend, had met the Devil and she was annoyed with me that I wasn’t happy too.
What part of this picture was I missing? Bloody hell Zakia, aren’t you the one living with Abu Bashar and his family. Aren’t you the one involved in almost daily discussions at his house about the hell that Saddam has put us all through. Aren’t you the one laughing at our Saddam jokes? What has happened to you? What is happening?
Power can corrupt and it can corrupt in more ways than we can ever imagine.
Saddam’s lasting legacy in Iraq will be that he changed the psychological DNA of that nation over a period of twenty years.
I looked at her, as if for the first time. “Yes, of course, I’m sorry”.
The pathway to obedience is very personal.
There are many, many roads to Rome, but at the end of the day all get you there. You are often a different person at the end of the trip than at the beginning.
Living that far from the university meant that travel was always an issue. Over the years I would take a number of routes to get to university and back. Own car, carpooling with others or a series of buses.
On one of those long bus rides home, our bus got stopped just outside The Village opposite the Ba’ath Party headquarters that was positioned at the entrance to our home compound.
It was a hot, hot day. The doors to the minibus opened and up climbed a short, fat and sweating old man wearing the Party outfit with his shirt still needing a good tuck into his trousers. It was around 3pm.
“We have a Party rally at 4pm. Everyone on this bus needs to come”.
Now you need to understand that everyone on that bus was students coming back from either high school, or tech school or university.
No one said a word. This was a moron with power. That normally is a lethal combination.
I was seated in the middle of the bus. I started to hear a commotion behind me. Sommer, Abu Bashar’s daughter, was asking people to get up so that she could get out of the bus. Like a set of dominoes, we all got up and made way for her as she edged past us to the door.
The moron asked, “Where do you think you are going?”.
“Home. I have an exam tomorrow and that is more important than your rally. Please get out of the way”.
That is exactly what he did. He was not expecting this sort of response and had no idea what to do. She stepped of the bus and started walking the one kilometre to her house.
The moron decided to salvage what he could out a bad situation. He obviously had a quota to meet.
“I will take care of her later. I hope no one else is thinking of leaving”.
That is exactly what everyone else was thinking. One by one they started to walk off the bus. They had found their leader and they were going to follow her.
He was shouting at their backs something about having everyone’s name and this was not the end of it. The moron had been overpowered. He looked inside the bus and all that was left besides the driver was me and one other boy.
He had managed to capture one coward and one young Party member idiot with nothing better to do with his time than go to a rally. I was the coward.
I honestly feared that if I walked out, somehow, they would cause trouble for me, and especially for Dad. The whole idea of the Party office being so close to the compound was to try to integrate the two. To have its finger on the pulse of what happened in The Village. Everyone knew everyone.
I feared retribution, even though the equation had changed dramatically and there was now safety in numbers. If I had left, I would have been just one more rebel on a long list of rebels.
The moron looked at us. Two was still two. Better than one or zero.
With the sternest voice he could muster from his defeated position, he told us to go home, get a drink and some food and be back at the headquarters at 3.30pm sharp. I said OK.
I was dropped off near home. Had my drink and food, was too embarrassed to tell Mum where I was going and made it back by 3.30pm sharp. I have always been a stickler for punctuality.
I now had proof that I was indeed afraid of these people and that I would need to quickly learn to deal with that fear to be able to operate in this society. Some fear was healthy and functional but letting myself be bullied to a stupid rally was ridiculous.
The rally was 30 minutes away. There was a gathering of some 200 people, mostly Party types in their green Khaki suits, carrying Kalashnikovs and jumping up and down praising Allah, Saddam and whatever the latest battle that the army had been victorious in.
I was the only white, fair-haired, Christian Non-Party member without a beard or a moustache.
I stood out like a virgin in a whorehouse.
To blend into the crowd and hide, I had to join in. To do the jump and chanting. Oh, the ridiculousness of it. The shame. How did I get myself into this situation. All I had to do was walk away.
This is the path of the coward and on that day, I walked it.
How can you understand disobedience without havening obeyed first.
Or more importantly how can you want disobedience without having first felt the shame of obedience.
How can you choose courage without having first felt the shame of cowardice.
I know one thing for sure, and that is a lot of people obeyed this last 3 years, and many of them now feel the shame of their obedience and cowardice.
That shame is a fuel, and for many it will change them, for the better.
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