-Sir, the enemy is far more powerful than us. I fear we cannot prevail with our small numbers.
-No; we cannot. But we will face them in battle nonetheless.
[King Theoden of Rohan, responding to his commander before they ride to the battle of Minas Tirith toface the armies of Mordor (from the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings)]
The recent anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s birth (Jan. 3, 1892) got me thinking about courage, first because it’s such a major element in his writing, and second because that word is a favorite of Venice’s ruling party.
Tolkien’s works are filled with characters endowed with true courage, who are willing to sacrifice and fight for the people and places that they love, and they do so for that reason alone – it is the love of their friends and commitment to the greater good that drives them. In Tolkien’s writing courage is not just for heroes or major battles – it emerges as quality shared by many, in small gestures, agonizing choices, and in acts of personal bravery which make a real difference in events.
There is a moment in the cinematic adaptation of Lord of the Rings that is emblematic of Tolkien’s view of courage. The characters Eowyn and Pippin (both of whom have defied the king, who forbade them from fighting because the first is a woman and the other a hobbit) are lined up with the armies of Rohan, poised to charge into a battle already dominated by fearsome opponent. Both are clearly terrified. Then Eowyn leans down and whispers to Pippin, “Courage, for our friends”. He takes a deep breath and replies; “For our friends.” Those words transform them – you can see it in their eyes and faces – and they join the battle cry, charging headlong into the maelstrom down below.
Here in Venice, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro uses the word “courage” a lot. Brugnaro’s campaign slogan in 2020 was “Il coraggio di fare” “The courage to do”. He named his national political party “Coraggio Italia”, and in a speech he declared that what the country needed most was “courage and consistency”.
Brugnaro’s team throws the word around too. Just a few weeks ago, for example, one of the “Fuschia” city councilors began yelling at an opposition councilor after being criticized and said, “Vieni qui se hai il coraggio” – “Come over here if you have the courage”.
Brugnaro and his team are tacitly asserting that only they possess courage: their opponents are, by inference, cowards. But do they really live up to that claim? It’s worth looking at, bearing Tolkien in mind. But let’s begin with the more neutral standard of the dictionary definition of courage.
Merriam Webster defines courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty”. Courage, then, manifests (or not) in the way in which one faces opponents or direct challenges.
So how do the mayor of Venice and his team measure up to this definition? In fact, there is a well-documented record of how they deal with opponents and challenges. In one episode, the mayor responded to a student who put a challenging question to him by saying “Do you want to step outside”? Furthermore, one need only to read the papers to see how Brugnaro routinely personally insults opposition councilors – and Venetians themselves – and always refuses to engage in discussion or debate. The city has witnessed this in countless episodes: it is the mayor’s default response when dealing with anyone who challenges him, and his team follows suit.
Meanwhile, during the pandemic, the mayor’s majority in the City Council routinely shut off the microphones of opposition councilors when it was their turn to speak. Enjoying this ability to abuse their power, the majority insisted on keeping the council meetings remote, hiding behind the guise of safety, long after city workers had returned to their offices and other city councils were meeting in person.
Then, in late 2022, the first return to in-person council sessions ended abruptly when the Mayor verbally attacked an opposition councilor as a liar, saying “When you attack the administration you should wash your mouth out”, resulting in almost all of the opposition councilors walking out of the session. This was followed just weeks later at another in-person session with the “Come over here if you have the courage” episode mentioned above.
Looking at this record, the mayor and his team’s actions can be summarized as follows: they insult, threaten, and silence their opponents by abusing their power. This can hardly be seen as “persevering and withstanding danger and difficulty”. It’s not courage, it’s cowardice.
Courage isn’t merely the willingness to “do” things, as Brugnaro’s campaign slogan suggests. What you do is what counts. Courage is facing your opponents and challenges directly and defending your position. By this standard Brugnaro and his team have shown, time and again, that they have no courage. They hide behind the advantage of their power to slander and silence their opponents, and they run from any meaningful discussion or debate. They talk about courage, using it as a slogan and belittling their opponents as “complainers” and “pandas”, the “party of no”. But their actions tell the true story – Brugnaro and his team are the real cowards.
Returning to Tolkien, his notion of courage was forged by personal experience in the trenches of World War I. The enemies in Tolkien are incredibly powerful and direct, not cowards who yell insults and run away from confrontation, demagogues who only act like tough guys. On the other hand, Tolkien’s protagonists – men, women, and hobbits – possess the genuine courage to face those enemies just as directly, despite the odds against them. They fight for the greater good, and they keep fighting – not for personal gain, but for their friends, and for that which they hold dear.
Here in Venice, I see courage like that among the many people fighting for the city’s future. I see it in the city’s vibrant and committed citizen activism, and in the actions of individuals who choose to stay in Venice, to open businesses, provide needed services, form associations with their own time and money, or run for public offices, all to give something of themselves to their community. Like the ordinary heroes in Tolkien, they fight for what they love, for their city and for their friends, against what can seem like insurmountable odds. The true courage shown by these people exposes Brugnaro and his team for the petty cowards they are.
I don’t know if we can prevail against the powerful forces that are destroying Venice. Our numbers and resources are certainly smaller.
But I am sure that we will meet them in battle, nonetheless.