Late-nineteenth-century novelist Mark Twain is credited with the lugubrious reflection, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”
Physical courage graphically reveals itself in acts like storming numerically superior enemy forces, charging into a flame-engulfed building to save a child, leaping over a wall of three-hundred-pound linemen to score a touchdown. Moral courage is subtler; choosing to do what is right — even when it’s unfashionable, reputationally risky; even when you’re going it alone.
A recent event confirms Twain’s analysis befits our current age — an age which popularizes the likes of John Cena.
Cena is the square-jawed, prodigiously muscled WWE superstar-turned actor whose image is rooted in his tough-guy shtick; a beast in the professional wrestling ring, a powerhouse hero on the big screen. Stay out of his way, bad guys and regular schlubs. You don’t want to mess with John Cena.
Yet, The Blaze reports, Cena wound up being “bashed online after he posted a video to Chinese social media network Sina Weibo apologizing to the Chinese people for referring to Taiwan as a ‘country.’ ”
It’s a bizarre account. The backstory sheds some insight: “While promoting the release of ‘F9’ — the latest installment in the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise — Cena told Taiwanese broadcaster TVBS that Taiwan would ‘be the first country to see Fast & Furious 9.’ ”
Chinese Communists’ presumed gripe with the sixteen-time World Wrestling Champion’s remark? He let slip the obvious: Taiwan is a “country”, a self-governing territory. It identifies itself as the “Republic of China”, a sovereign entity separate from the authoritarian control of the gargantuan — and plainly hypersensitive — People’s Republic of China (PRC). Red Dragon tyrants just across the South China Sea from Taiwan have long resented reality, claiming the island-nation as their own; nothing more than an extension of their vast empire.
Cena’s probably unintentional choice of the provocative term (“country”) is a diplomatic gaffe, intimating — just barely– Taiwan is free. This is apparently intolerable for the PRC’s brutal despots and their supporters. We can gather they weren’t pleased.
How exactly did the forty-four-year-old sports entertainment personality respond to the Chi-Com pique? Posting a video to the Twitter-like Chinese social media platform Sina Wiebo, Cena groveled — in Mandarin, no less:
“Hello, China. This is John Cena. I did many, many interviews for Fast & Furious 9. In one of the interviews I made a mistake, … I love and respect China and Chinese people. I’m very, very sorry for my mistake. Sorry, sorry. I’m very sorry.”
“Taiwan’s independence,” writes Enloe “is mostly unacknowledged on the world stage”. I suppose we can now add that it’s “mostly unacknowledged” by John Cena as well.
Some Sino-true believers remained unmollified by Cena’s cringe: “[A]t least say Taiwan is China’s,” sniped one critic. “You’re avoiding the issue and talking nonsense. You can’t benefit from [the Chinese market] and trash it at the same time.”
That last point, of course, is the likely explanation for the beefy celeb’s ignominious collapse in the face of Chi-Com umbrage. The 1.3 billion individuals who compose the mainland’s population represent a formidable, coveted ticket-buying base. Cena’s most recent film — the aforementioned F9 — debuted in China May 21st. The last thing he, or the movie’s producers/investors, want is an international contretemps which might tamp down box-office receipts; particularly following what has been a dismal, COVID-ravaged fourteen months for Hollywood.
So what if China is a genocidal, liberty-throttling menace to global peace? So what if President Xi Jinping’s goons are operating literal concentration camps in the far-flung northwestern preserves of their land, persecuting and seeking to eradicate the native Uyghurs? So what if the Marxist, intensifyingly anti-religion regime is smothering Christian churches and harassing other sectarian minorities?
Wake up! Cena and Co. have a movie to hawk! Give them a break, will ya?
This excrescence of ignominy echoes Lebron James’ comparable 2019 antics. Back then, the outspoken Los Angeles Lakers forward disgraced himself, alongside much of the rest of the NBA, when they also ran cover for the Chinese Reds, staunchly defending a see-no-evil neutrality toward their bullying of tiny-but-defiant Hong Kong.
“King James” and other NBA bigs had moved expeditiously to shush Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey who’d tweeted support for Hong Kong’s then-democratic aspirations (another pesky movement that irks the Chinese high command). At the time, Forbes estimated NBA China’s worth at around $4 billion. The game — and stand-outs like Lebron — are massively popular on the mainland.
Did Confucius have anything to say about not messing with the money-maker? How about Karl Marx?
So Cena and Lebron… physically and athletically striking specimens? Hard to deny. Paragons of moral courage? Bluntly not. “Taiwan is a country. Hong Kong should be free. If you are unwilling to say these things because it might hurt your bottom line, you are a pathetic coward,” was the way Ben Shapiro framed it in a tweet tagging the shameful duo.
Adventitiously, around the same time Cena’s fail was popping up around the news cycle, Michael W. Chapman reported on George Vella. He’s the President of the Mediterranean archipelago of Malta who lately pledged “he would never sign a bill that permits abortion … and would rather ‘resign and go home’ than see such evil prescribed in Malta.”
Addressing a measure introduced into his nation’s parliament earlier this month which would nix extant restrictions on the procedure, the sixty-seven-year old politician avowed,
“I will never sign a bill that involves the authorization of murder. … I cannot stop the executive from deciding, that is up to Parliament. But I do have the liberty, if I don’t agree with a bill, to resign and go home, I have no problem doing this.”
When pressed about possible exceptions to his stance, Vella doubled down: “You have either killed or not killed, there can be no half-death. I’m very clear, there are no ifs and buts.”
Oh my, what’s this? Straight shooting from a public official? Nary a weasel word? No slippery hand-wringing or nose-in-the-air splitting of ethical hairs?
How gloriously out-of-place in the Cena/Lebron era.
I don’t know much else about President Vella. He appears to be a bespectacled, diminutive chap. Next to John Cena he’d, doubtless, look like a dwarf professor. Side by side with the even more towering Lebron James? You’d end up with the same startling impression.
There’s scant argument, though, about who more authentically fills the role of true giant — at least of the moral variety — in these comparisons.
On one lumbering side stand a couple of marquee players doing the bidding of a totalitarian system in order to fortify their careers; on the other is a fellow who says, in effect: You’re asking me to sell my soul and sell out babies for high office? Not a chance.
Nowadays characters like Cena and Lebron confirm wowing demonstrations of physical prowess are easy to come by; all over the TV, athletic platforms, silver screens. As it happens, however, the Island of Malta is the place to be right now if you want to catch a dignified display of something far more praiseworthy; to wit: moral courage.
At least in one gutsy little man who might snag Mark Twain’s attention if he were still around.