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The Curse of Cowardice

“The implications for our country are so serious that I feel a responsibility to my constituents… as well as to my conscience, to voice my concerns forthrightly and publicly.  And I can think of no more appropriate place to do that than on this great Senate floor.”

~Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, September 1998

It takes courage to stand up to our enemies, but even greater courage to stand up to our friends.  And that’s precisely what is missing in modern political culture:


In today’s world of groupthink, challenging the party line can be socially and professionally self-destructive.  Friends and allies turn into assailants at the first whisper of dissent, at even the suggestion that there may be more than one side to any issue.


In June of last year, Maya Dillard Smith, head of the Georgia ACLU, came under attack for suggesting that the topic of transgender bathrooms warranted deeper discussion.  To her credit, Ms. Smith resigned her position rather than remain part of an organization so fervently opposed to the principle of civil discourse.

The previous November, Professor Erika Christakis (together with her husband) lost her job at Yale after sending an email suggesting that students should be treated as adults, then compounding her transgression by attempting to engage demonstrators in reasoned debate.

And for years, moderate Republicans, disparaged as RINOs – Republicans in Name Only – have been hunted and attacked as traitors to their party.

In this age of polarization and partisanship, it’s much safer to attack the other party, whether from the right or the left.  Republicans and Democrats alike circle the wagons to defend those among them who hurl even the most outrageous verbal projectiles across the aisle.  To stand alone as the voice of reason by suggesting temperance, moderation, or compromise means taking your life in your hands.

After last week’s horrific shooting spree, which targeted Republican lawmakers as they practiced for the annual congressional baseball game, the obligatory expressions of unity and civility poured forth from both Democrats and Republicans.  But it didn’t last long.  By week’s end the rhetoric was already ratcheting up again, with each side blaming the other for creating a cultural atmosphere of toxic hate and violence.

Both sides are right.  Yet neither is willing to offer more than lip service toward solving the problem.


So who will be today’s Joe Lieberman?  Who will speak out against entrenched power and political pressure to risk the slings and arrows of reprimand and reprisal?  Who will show the courage to call out his or her own colleagues for their inflammatory excesses instead of taking the coward’s way out by indicting the other side while claiming the high moral ground from amidst the morass?

Where are the mavericks, the lone wolves, and the white knights who fear the sting of their own conscience more than lash of their own party, who will bet their own future on the long odds that their example might spur others to join them in building a coalition of responsible statesmen to right the ship of state?

When Senator Lieberman took to the senate floor two decades ago, he directed his censure not only against his president and the leader of his party, but against his personal friend.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t safe.  But loyalty to truth and responsibility to country outweighed emotional comfort or potential fallout.  Abuse of power could not be tolerated.  Corruption of office could not be sanctioned.  Silence was not an option:

“The president is a role model and, because of his prominence in the moral authority that emanates from his office, sets standards of behavior for the people he serves.

“His duty… is nothing less than the stewardship of our values. So no matter how much the president or others may wish to compartmentalize the different spheres of his life, the inescapable truth is that the president’s private conduct can and often does have profound public consequences.”

If so, how much more so his public demeanor.

King Solomon teaches:  When a ruler indulges falsehood, all his ministers disdain the law.

Herein lies the awesome responsibility of all who wield power.  Every elected official, every appointed judge, every journalist and news anchor and editorialist has a moral obligation to ensure that his words are accurate, that his positions are based in fact and reason, and that his language is respectful.

And it is the moral obligation of We The People to hold our leaders accountable, and to support those among them who demand accountability.

Published in Jewish World Review.

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