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Jewish World Review
Apr. 25, 2013 / 15 Iyar, 5773
For some libs, 'courage' = agreeing with them
A. Barton Hinkle
The reaction to last week's defeat of gun-control legislation in the Senate reveals the high degree to which, for some, contemporary liberalism has become an ideology of self-congratulation.
It was "a pretty shameful day for Washington," President Obama declared. Shame does not apply to someone who makes an honest mistake, or who reaches the wrong conclusions despite his good intentions. Shame applies to those who do wrong willfully. "Shame on you" is a lecture delivered from the mountaintop to those in the moral gutter.
Obama was not the only one castigating others for their shortcomings. The Chicago Tribune also called the vote "shameful." The Los Angeles Times took a shot at the "shameful failure" of what writer David Horsey called "our cowardly Congress." The Washington Post blamed "a cowardly minority of senators" who betrayed "the will of the American people." The paper's Dana Milbank agreed: "Courage was in short supply at the Capitol," he declared. CNN's Piers Morgan went further: "What a pathetic, gutless bunch of cowards," he tweeted.
Over and over again that theme appeared: Ex-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords blasted the "cowardice" of senators who acted out of "political fear." "The cowards defied the will of most Americans," said an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News. USA Today agreed that "Senators' votes on gun proposals reflect profiles in cowardice. … Opinion polls showed [universal background checks] had the backing of up to 90 percent of Americans, including 74 percent of NRA members."
So there's your headline: Craven Senate Cowards Defy Public Opinion.
Got it. Funny thing, though. In other circumstances, politicians who flout public opinion receive hosannas for their bravery.
When Obama suggested raising the gasoline tax in 2008, The Washington Post praised his "political courage." Three years later, Walter Mondale wrote in the same paper that, "We Need the Courage to Raise Taxes." Last year the paper's metro columnist, Robert McCartney, wrote that Marylanders should "Give [Gov. Robert] O'Malley Credit for Courage on Taxes." O'Malley proposed to raise them.
After the debt supercommittee collapsed, The New York Times lamented that Republicans would not take the "courageous step" of supporting higher taxes. The New Republic considered Obama's proposal to raise taxes on hedge-fund managers "truly courageous." Time magazine once dubbed Alabama Gov. Bob Riley "America's most courageous politician" after he reversed his anti-tax stand. And so on.
Why is it considered courageous to support higher taxes? Because higher taxes are politically unpopular. Courage, in this telling, consists of defying public sentiment. Yet now we are told that by defeating a bill supported by the vast majority of Americans, the Senate acted like a bunch of gutless cowards. What gives?
No great mystery. What everyone really means is that courage consists of taking the more liberal position on a given issue.
The Nation's Katrina Vanden Heuvel illustrated this neatly in a 2011 piece. "Real political courage," she wrote, "means bucking party orthodoxy" for the sake of principle. She cited several examples, including Sen. Russ Feingold's "vocal opposition to the Patriot Act," Sen. John McCain's critique of "those in his party who advocate torture," and Rep. Barbara Lee's "sole vote against the far-reaching Authorization for the Use of Military Force" after 9/11
In each case, the courageous move is toward the left, no matter where the politician starts from. But if bucking party orthodoxy qualifies as courageous, then consider Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey - who stuck to his pro-life views even after being shut out of the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Wasn't he a brave fellow? Apparently not.
Calling your opponents cowardly serves several purposes. First, it lets you avoid engaging the merits of the argument. (Would background checks or an assault weapons ban have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook? Probably not.) Second, it introduces an ad hominem argument that can't easily be refuted. Statistics and philosophy can be debated. Motives can't.
Third, it delegitimizes the opposition. Policy positions are not simply opinions, but questions of character. Those on the other side are not good people who happen to be wrong, they are wrong because they are bad people. No point in trying to reason with them.
This certainly seems to be President Obama's feeling. Last Wednesday he said "there were no coherent arguments" for not taking his side on gun control. None at all? Nonsense - unless you sit inside the hermetically sealed circle of logic that to be liberal is to be virtuous, and to be virtuous is to be right, and to be right is to hold the liberal view on guns and taxes - whether the public agrees with you or not.
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A. Barton Hinkle is Deputy Editor of the Editorial Pages at Richmond Times-Dispatch
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© 2011, A. Barton Hinkle
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