This article appears in the new March issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
I AM GOING TO SEE a friend of mine, an underground American comic named Neil Hamburger, open for Tenacious D tonight. He’s played at sold out venues across England, from Birmingham to Manchester, and has been booed by tens of thousands of people along the way. Hamburger sucks. But he sucks so bad that he rules. Less a comic and more a prankish performance artist — he’s the master of the non-joke — designed to confuse an audience that expects nothing more than “Bush is stupid” inanities. I would unleash a sample of his best material here, but I want to keep my job.
I am now in the crowd of about 5,000 pimply faced teens and their fat dads (both wearing similar black T-shirts and poorly managed facial hair) when Neil makes his way onto the stage, decked out in rented tuxedo and oversized glasses. The crowd eyes him suspiciously as he launches into a litany of hilariously obtuse jokes, and within 20 minutes the angry mass starts throwing coins — mostly 2 pence shrapnel, which is all they can afford after spending their meager wages on overpriced tickets.
I’ve seen Neil play a bunch of times — in the U.S. and in London — but this is the first time I’ve seen him play in a large venue, in front of thousands of people. And it’s the first time I’ve ever seen people throw coins. I watch as men-ranging from gawky 16-year-olds to flabby baldies-charge toward the stage and hurl a coin, and then slink back into darkness, patting each other on the back along the way.
I needed an explanation for all this.
“You throw copper coins at coppers at football matches, and at anyone you don’t like,” my British pal, Kevin, tells me. “It’s something we did as a kid at football stadiums as the mounted police attempted to bring order. But it’s handy for gigs too.”
The good thing about coins is that they can’t be seen in the air, so the victim doesn’t see it coming. “They also hurt! Football matches are rife with it and the police prosecute heavily if they catch you doing it,” says Kevin, who seems to know more about this than I expected.
I guess everyone likes the safety of being at arm’s length, which explains the popularity of coins, petrol bombs, grenades, Scud missiles, and the web. No one really wants to be up close and personal punching, stabbing, and charging. There’s too much risk, and unless you’re a celebrity, that kind of intimacy means accountability.
AS THE SHOWER OF COINS intensifies, I stand with my writer pal Dave and Neil’s lovely wife, Simone, who’s watching these cowards torment her husband on stage with increasing anger. Dave and I sense something interesting is about to happen.
When Neil leaves the stage to a chorus of taunts, I turn to Simone, who is eyeing a young man a few feet away, sporting a poorly maintained goatee. He is gloating among his friends over drilling her husband, Neil, with a coin right in the nose. “Don’t you ever want to hit someone?” I ask. She points toward the goatee. Without hesitation, we walk over to him, and in a short burst of movement, Simone punches him in the forehead. His temple reddens, and his friends burst out in nervous laughter. “That’s for hitting my husband,” Simone says, before hitting him one more time. The second punch is hard enough to make the 30 or so witnesses wince. The creep looks horrified.
The amazing thing about getting hit by a woman: it turns men into boys. “He has the look of a lad whose mum has caught him wanking,” says my friend Dave, who should know. Moments later, the injured coin thrower and his friends come over to apologize to Simone. They were from Milton Keynes, they explained, and are now wondering why — when they always come to London — they get hit in the face. “Why did you single me out?” asked the goatee. “Why not,” Simone answered.
Backstage, Neil emptied his pockets of about 20 pounds in change he’d picked up on stage, adding up to roughly 40 dollars. He’d use it to buy his wife a new sweater — a reward for her matrimonial act of bravery.
I only write about this now, because lately I’ve been getting hit with coins — figuratively anyway — whenever I write something on the web. After a few years of blogging, I’ve hit on one essential truth: there are millions of cowards willing to say things about you online that they’d never say to you in a bar. That’s the baseline definition of snark: catty words spewed on a screen but never uttered to a face. Blogging has created a chorus line of cowards — coin-throwers who would never take the stage or put themselves in the line of fire. The World Wide Web has revealed, sadly, that as a country we’re losing the will to fight real wars, preferring instead to be nonproductive wusses, incapable of delivering anything more than a snide aside to the outside world, via the “send” button.
THAT’S WHY AT HAMMERSMITH APOLLO, Simone was my hero. It was the first time that these pimply faced boys — either online or in real life — had experienced accountability for their anonymous crimes. When faced with an angry woman who literally struck back, they learned something about the real world — that actions have consequences, even those of a coward.
We all have potential to be cowards. But most of us never take that route. We’re decent people, or try to be, anyway. Take Sunday night, for example. Lying in bed, alone, thinking about stuff I think about when I’m lying alone in bed, my phone rings. It’s my wife, walking home after a night out with friends. “I’m being followed,” she whispered, terrified.
“Where are you?”
“Mortimer Street.” I heard another voice from her receiver, someone barking nonsense. I ran out of the apartment and raced down Wells Street, then onto Mortimer barefoot in the rain, until I came to my wife, walking along the sidewalk, with a hooded man behind her, closing in, adorned in the casual uniform of druggy bagginess. Whatever he wanted, it wasn’t directions to the London School of Economics. As I approached, waving my arms, he backed away, with his hands fumbling in his oversized pockets. As I got closer, he retreated into shadows.
Calming down, my wife gave me the look. “What are you wearing?”
We walked home in the middle of a rainy London street at midnight, me wearing nothing but tattered boxers. We hadn’t done laundry, and I wasn’t wearing my best underwear. It had holes in all the wrong places.
I looked ferociously stupid. And then and there, I realized that the hood had run off not because he was scared, but because I looked crazier than he did.
Back at the apartment, my wife was still shaking. “I felt bad for calling,” she said. “When I told him to leave me alone, he just got closer and kept yelling.”
She explained that she had two competing voices in her head, one saying, “This is nothing. He’s just a drug addict.” And another saying, “Call Greg and scream — it’s better to be stupid than be dead.”
SINCE 9/11, these two lines of thinking should compete for attention in your brain each time you’re faced with a potential crisis. Should you do nothing and be cool? Or take action, and look stupid? If you don’t wrestle with those two thoughts when you’re on a bus, subway, or plane, then you are a liar. Or a coward.
They were present when Simone saw that man hurl a coin at her husband, and they were also present on that USAir flight last November, when the imams made passengers and airline staff uncomfortable with their prayers, their animated conversation, and their odd requests. At some point before take off, each passenger on that plane must have had those dueling banjos of thought in their heads:
“It’s 99.9 percent certain that these people are harmless idiots. Just relax. Don’t be a fool.”
“It only takes that .1 percent to blow a plane up. I don’t care if I look foolish, I must say something. My family is on this flight.”
“But I’ll look like an ass.”
“But I don’t want to die.”
These two lines of thinking reveal the key differences between the left and everyone else on earth. Normal folks are willing to take the risk and appear stupid. The left cannot fathom why anyone would do such a thing.
Why? Because it’s uncool. And that’s the only thing that matters to the left. They claim to be concerned about tolerance, but really they are concerned about how cool they appear to others. They need to be admired. The left will never stand up for anything, because doing so undermines the protection necessary for their fragile egos. And it also requires balls, which they sorely lack.
And that makes them all cowards. Because, in order to prevent evil, you have to take a risk-not of death, but of embarrassment.
The bravest response for all of us? To have the balls to appear stupid — at any and all times. We need to stand up and demand to see what’s in a fidgety man’s back pack, even if it turns out its nothing more than back issues of the Utne Reader and a “neck massager.”
We need to be willing to face the mobs in the street and the mobs online. We need to punch a coward in the face when it’s called for, and do so in front of his friends. We need to be the scary ones, for once.
Myself? I’m ready to play the fool. I’ve had lots of practice over the years — just ask my friends. The U.S., in fact, as a nation, needs to start acting like fools. We need to be ridiculous. We need to be scary. We need to keep our enemies up at night and make them squirm for a change. When we hear those two competing voices in our heads, we need to listen to the one that dares us to look stupid. Because it’s better than looking dead.