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Courage and Fashion

May 4, 2000

Now and then I’m praised for my supposed courage. I always blush at this compliment, because, knowing myself, I know how far from the truth it really is. There is no quality I honor more than courage, and there is nobody, except Christ himself, whom I admire more than the Christian martyrs who died under torture to bear witness to their faith. And I pray that I will never be put to the real test.

In fact, I could say that the reason I write as I do is that I hope I will never live in a society in which I will have to be truly brave. But we are headed for just such a society. The proof is that some people think I am brave.

[Breaker quote: Today's 
cowards: yesterday's heroes?]What an odd compliment people pay me! We are told that America is “the land of the free,” where our freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment and a tradition of tolerance; yet people assume that it takes guts to speak up against liberal dogma, to criticize Israel, to mention certain obvious facts about race and sex, to point out that homosexuality is a perversion, and so forth. If we enjoy full “freedom of expression,” why should anyone be afraid to say anything? In particular, why, in a society in which a swine like Larry Flynt can become a multimillionaire and a friend of the president, are people especially afraid to offend certain minorities?

Something is going on here that our official gabble of free speech doesn’t begin to explain. First Amendment or no, most Americans are deeply afraid to say what they think. And when they see someone who isn’t afraid, they conclude that he must have the courage of a lion.

On the other hand, as usual, there is Bill Clinton. Clinton is a perfect specimen of bogus courage — the sort of guy who says things that are now safe and even fashionable with an air of jut-jawed determination that suggests he would have said them when they were not only unfashionable, but dangerous to espouse. In fact he has even told us that when he was nine years old, he and his little friends, in solidarity with Rosa Parks, rode in the backs of buses in Arkansas!

Clinton is only a parody of many other liberals who want us to believe that their willingness to conform to today’s fashions is proof that they would have had the courage to defy yesterday’s fashions. Somehow I find it hard to believe that today’s coward would have been yesterday’s hero, if only he’d had the chance. More likely he would have been, like most people, a timid conformist in any circumstances.

Hard as I try, I can’t imagine Clinton dying a martyr’s death under any regime. At risk of seeming cynical about this selfless public servant, I find it easy to imagine him as a glib opportunist in any environment. My cynicism was only confirmed when the former antiwar idealist, elevated to the post of commander in chief of the armed forces, started bombing remote places as impeachment loomed. If he’d had any residue of his former scruples against “undeclared wars,” he might at least have asked Congress to authorize hostilities, as the Constitution requires; but of course the Constitution is a living document, superbly adaptable to the needs of the moment.

Clinton’s style remains equally homiletic no matter what side he happens to be on at a given moment. And whichever side he takes, he takes for the most moral of reasons. His self-justifications are as fluent as they are forgettable. He always speaks with the same iron conviction he displayed when he denied having carnal relations with “that woman.”

Though men like Clinton imply that they would have been willing to be martyrs for today’s fashions in other times, it’s typical of them that they can never really imagine themselves on the losing side in history. They can only imagine themselves fighting bravely for what would eventually be the winning side. They waste no sentiment on lost causes, however noble; they feel it was always their destiny to fight for today’s causes.

What does a Clinton really believe in? You might as well ask a chameleon to tell you its favorite color.

Joseph Sobran

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