Courage is contagious

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    So many people in the public life of the planet appear decidedly dull and disappointing, if not downright rogues and liars.

    Decency, if it’s present, is greyed out in merciless three-minute news clips and we’ve become wired for distrust.

    For the last nine months, I have had an almost furtive addiction to news. Specifically, and in common with much of the world, I’m watching the war in Ukraine as the country defends itself from Russian attack and asserts its identity on the global stage.

    For me, it’s old stuff, recent Netflix titles and nightly news bringing back long-ago political studies at university as a young cadet journalist absorbing Stalin’s 1930s, man-made famine in Ukraine, the Holodomor, which stole Ukraine’s grain crops and murdered three million of its farmers in the dogma of collectivisation. That and the monstrous European duplicities and appeasements in the years before and after the second World War. And the flawed electoral checks and balances and political shrifts of political gerrymandering and meddling in the US, not to mention McCarthyism, weren’t inspiring either.

    From the first decisive moments as the Russians crossed Ukraine’s eastern boundary in February, Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s charisma and storytelling genius has allowed the West to participate in the country’s resistance and solidarity and the existential survival of democracy, along with the tenets of sovereignty and international rules-based order. 

    That it’s bearing the cost of defending democracy for the rest of us is essential to Ukraine’s mission of maintaining popular support and obtaining the resources it needs to bring the war to its enemy. The rights and wrongs of it aren’t in question. There’s no venal geopolitical expediency in plain sight. The flaws that have shown up in geopolitical realities in trade are getting attention.

    Ukraine is the second biggest country in Europe, a bread-basket for much of the poorer world and perhaps part of the compelling narrative is that the war has continued for nearly 10 months with every sign that Ukraine’s citizens are not even remotely intimidated by shelling, full scale trench warfare or Russian warships and are, in fact, fighting on every ingenious front and with the same wry humour that got Britain through the German blitz of London and Coventry – updated by 21st century communications and technology.

    Leading with moral and physical courage, Zelenskyy has made risky visits to support citizens and soldiers, including a trip to the front lines of the Donbas region in June, and celebrating with residents of the city of Kherson after Russian troops withdrew in November. History will always have that desolate news photo of him after Ukraine troops had liberated Bucha.

    In recent weeks, shortly after a makeshift drone project struck military sites deep in Russia for the first time, came the news that Time magazine had chosen the Ukrainian president and the spirit of Ukraine as its Person of the Year “for reminding the world of the fragility of democracy” but also for “proving that courage can be as contagious as fear.”

    Time reporter Simon Shuster wrote: “Zelenskyy’s success as a wartime leader has relied on the fact that courage is contagious. It spread through Ukraine’s political leadership in the first days of the invasion, as everyone realized the president had stuck around.”

    A friend dropped Dutch author Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History on my desk last week, and it’s a gamechanger, his argument sweeping away the myth that humankind, in crisis, ‘descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation’, panic and violence erupting as humans reveal their true nature.

    This Lord of the Flies scenario, put forward by French psychologist Gustave Le Bon in his 1895 book ‘The Psychology of the Masses’ and avidly read by Hitler as well as Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, survived the second World War, in spite of the evidence of the Londoners’ phlegmatic, kindly and grimly humorous response to 80,000 bombs raining down on it over nine months, a response mirrored by German citizens in subsequent Allied bombing of their cities.

    That the fallacy has been kept alive for so long is probably down to austerity politics and globalisation. Actually, behaving kindly is the norm for most, says Bregman. With compelling scientific truth. 

    Ukraine’s matter-of-fact battle for freedom does not need to be seen as a fragile outlier; a Robin Hood moment in a vicious and cynical world.

    We’ve been reading too much bad stuff. We can change the narrative with a few words. Awash in a sea of cynicism, we can literally and deliberately rethink what we believe of society. The ‘kindness’ that our own prime minister called for in the early stages of the Covid threat was not an aberration but a call to our better nature. It’s in the DNA of most of us. 

    Slava Ukraini, Mr President. •
    Liz Waters

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