Cowardice As a Political Philosophy

The tenth anniversary of the Iraq War was marked by a procession of mostly liberal pundits solemnly apologizing for supporting the ill-fated invasion in the first place. As the issue of gay marriage goes in front of the Supreme Court, we're treated to the sight of the former president who signed the Defense of Marriage Act arguing that it should be overturned. Let's talk about what courage and cowardice in politics really mean.

It is a privilege to have influence in American politics. Most in our system wield influence in naked pursuit of their own interests. A small group of people—widely followed pundits, respected political thinkers, elected officials—are granted the additional privilege of wielding power due to their perceived pursuit of what is right. They are accorded influence because we suppose that they meditate upon these hard issues and draw conclusions honestly. They are, collectively, accorded influence because we suppose they have wisdom. You may think this or that particular pundit or moral voice is wrong, but we all have an affinity for some sector of the professional thought machine. Someone in it speaks for us, and to us. To them, we give the benefit of our attention. To us, they give honest thought.

This is how it is all supposed to work. It doesn't, of course. Cynicism about our own elected officials is absurdly high. Political pundits as a whole are characterized by the fact that they don't know much more than the rest of us, really. Yet the structure of our system means that there will always be a "respectable" class of political thinkers. And it's not too much to ask them to not be simpering cowards.

It is cowardly to advocate a position that will hurt people simply because you fear the backlash for taking the other side. It is cowardly to be afraid to speak up against something important that is wrong just because you don't want to suffer professional consequences. It is cowardly to lack the strength of your own convictions.

Cowardice defined the public debate leading up to the Iraq War. How is it that millions upon millions of ordinary citizens around the world could plainly see that the case for war was a farce, yet our nation's most respected pundits, with their inside access, could not? Even then, you did not have to be a genius to see that Iraq's connection to 9/11 was tenuous at best. And you did not have to be an insider to know that a war would kill and maim and destroy the lives of millions of people. And you did not have to be a great philosopher to draw the conclusion that it was a bad idea. The fact that pundit class supported the war en masse is not evidence of some great and sophisticated trickery on the part of the White House. It is evidence of cowardice. Liberal politicians and thinkers—the very set of people who were supposed to form the opposition to such rash violent imperial crusades—talked themselves into supporting the war because it was popular. It is that simple. They allowed themselves to be taken for a ride, because that ride was more comfortable for them than facing the loud backlash of post 9/11 war machine, which had captured public support—with the help of the very pundits and journalists and politicians who were supposed to be providing the counterbalance to it.

I, and my mom, and thousands of other exceedingly normal people who took to the streets to protest the looming Iraq War were smart enough to figure out that it was a bad idea, even then. If a professional political pundit was actually duped by the case for war, they are too dumb to hold their job. Most of them are not that dumb. They are cowards. And as we all sit and listen to their apologies, we should point out that they did something much worse than being fooled: they weren't fooled, and they made the wrong call anyway. And a price was paid for their cowardice.

Cowardice has defined the gay rights debate for many years. Outside of religious fundamentalists and those afflicted by hardcore prejudices born from provincial lifestyles, no one could really argue—even 20 years ago—that gay people were somehow intrinsically inferior in a way that would mean that according them less rights than the rest of us would be just. It's an absurd position to take, in view of what this nation learned from the civil rights movement. And people like the Clintons—cosmopolitan, well traveled, well educated, well connected, and liberal—do not really believe that gay marriage is some great threat to America. They would no doubt laugh at the simple-minded odiousness of such a position, in private. But in public, they were all too happy to embrace it for their own political gain.

Bill Clinton signed into law an act which banned gay marriage, because he feared the political consequences of vetoing it. That is a fact. And it is disgusting. Hillary Clinton, like many of her peers, supported that act, and continued to oppose the right of gay people to marry up until just this year. That she supported "domestic partnerships," the most intellectually laughable attempt at a middle ground since the the Three-Fifths Compromise, only serves to expose her own hypocrisy more easily.

Let us be clear about what this is: this is an example of some of the most powerful people in America spitting upon the basic civil rights of a minority group in order to further their own political power. This is the opposite of courage. This is cowardice in all of its repulsive glory. At least religious Republicans who opposed gay marriage came to their position honestly. The Clintons, and many of their fellow Democrats, made a calculated choice to spit on the civil rights of gay people until they knew that the issue was no longer dangerous to them personally. Then they came out in support. This reveals a fundamental aspect of the character of these politicians, just as breezily failing to raise a voice against a plainly misguided march to war reveals a fundamental aspect of the character of those political pundits: they value their own careers over everything. They are willing to go to indecent lengths to keep themselves situated comfortably. This trait can manifest itself in their conduct towards any number of political issues, of course; but knowing that they are willing to discard what they know to be right even in cases of war or basic civil rights is good to know. Remember that, the next time these people ask for your attention, or your vote, or your trust.

Mistakes are forgivable. Moral cowardice as an operating philosophy is not.

[Photo: AP]