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Saturday, October 15, 2005
A Spectrum of Political Courage

The most-celebrated varieties of courage are physical and moral courage. Physical courage goes bravely to battle, into a burning building, or under a surgeon's scalpel. Moral courage sticks to its principles in the face of temptation, fear, discouragement, exhaustion, even adverse public opinion. Neither physical nor moral courage appears to be endangered, but we really can never have too much of either.

It seems to me that there is also such a thing as political courage. It is much like moral courage, but often more prosaic. Frequently, there are true principles and firm convictions at stake in politics; we always hope for candidates and leaders with the moral courage to defend them. But even when such things are not at stake, so that moral courage is not at issue, we still see and welcome and need political courage.

Political courage is willing to stand up and speak its mind, knowing full well that some (perhaps many) will disagree, knowing that political defeat is a common outcome, and knowing that even victory might turn out to be hollow. What if my views prevail, and I turn out to be wrong? Or what if I'm right, but virtually everyone thinks I'm wrong? What if I say the wrong thing, or the right thing in the wrong way, and lose when I could have won - and then something bad happens? Political courage advocates and governs by reason, discussion, gut instinct, and sometimes consensus - but without keeping one eye on the latest poll results.

Political courage in candidates overshadows significant doubts and fears. What if I don't know the answer to the question, or garble it and look stupid? What if my opponent is a good, honorable, able person, and I win? What if my opponent is not good or honorable or able, and I lose? What if someone looks at the financial filings, sees I am the only donor to my own campaign, and mistakenly decides that I'm rich, cynical, and trying to buy my way to power? What if someone sees numerous major donors, and falsely concludes that I am bought and paid for before I ever take office? What if some anonymous coward spreads vicious, personal rumors or publishes a misleading attack ad when it's too late to fight back, and my family, my career, or my reputation is damaged?

Political courage takes up difficult and controversial 'third rail" issues and acts meaningfully, unlike the crass seekers of power or fame, who prefer to avoid such issues altogether or, when pressed, to act only symbolically. It is not afraid to disagree, or even correct others' errors, at the risk of being judged not to be nice. (As an adjective describing humans, nice is the casual counterfeit of kind.)

Political courage sees a political need and steps forward to address it. It braves not only inevitable opposition, but also the very real risk that observers will misjudge its motives. Cynics like me frequently mistake a genuine eagerness to serve for power-lust, ego, a sense of superiority, or a hidden agenda. We often misinterpret genuine concern and alarm as cynical pursuit of personal profit. These vices are real enough, and often enough are mixed in a human heart with more honorable sensibilities. Political courage sees and experiences these human complexities, but is not paralyzed by them.

Very near the courageous end of the spectrum are the typical people who run for local office, including American Fork's current candidates. I have the privilege of knowing nearly all of them. As far as I can tell, none is interested in acquiring power principally for power's, fame's, or fortune's sake.They have things they want to accomplish, things they believe (rightly or wrongly) would be good for American Fork and its residents. And every one of them could find more lucrative, more pleasant, or more private ways to spend those uncounted hours, or people whose company they prefer to the public's. Yet each goes to the City Recorder, signs his or her name, swears an oath, and spends the next weeks and months attaching his or her name to ideas and positions, explaining issues to people who agree, disagree, or simply don't care, and watching other candidates' signs go up around the neighborhood and city.

Scattered through the middle of the spectrum, exhibiting a healthy measure of political courage, but not as much as the candidates, are the people who put signs in their yards, write letters to the editor, openly contribute time or money to campaigns, speak up in city council meetings, and otherwise attach their names to specific candidates or particular positions - knowing that, doing so, they may oppose, disappoint, or even anger others, including family, friends, and neighbors. I fancy that those of us who publicly comment on the issues, facing the near-certainty that we will sometimes bungle the message, give unnecessary offense, or simply be wrong or foolish, also fit somewhere in the middle.

Near the other, less desirable end of the spectrum are the leaders and candidates who "triangulate," who faithfully follow the polls, who try very hard to feign political courage in order to obscure what really motivates them, or who run as something they are not. Very near this end of the spectrum - barely twitching the needle on the political courage meter, if you will - are the anonymous cowards. In some societies or situations, where life or perhaps career is at stake, we might see courage in their speaking out despite the risk of being discovered. But this is not the Soviet Union. Among us, the anonymous voices are more likely to be cowards.

I'm not saying that American Fork's new anonymous political blogger, for example, doesn't have some wit, insight, and interesting sources. I'm just saying that smug, comfortable anonymity in commenting on candidates and issues does not in any way resemble political courage. I'm tempted to analyze some of the posts, but there is little point. Without knowing the source of the material, we cannot evaluate its credibility or sincerity. Agree or disagree, if I knew the author's identity, and could either reveal it or see for myself that anonymity is necessary in this case, I'd most likely link to the new blog. Links are the official currency of the blogosphere; for now, I won't be spending any on our unknown electronic pundit.

In our relatively free, relatively democratic society, political courage does not wear a sheet over its head. In print, it signs its name. In person, it wears a nametag or at least its own face. In such a time and place, anonymity is typically the refuge of cowards and the exploiter of fools, and serves no honorable purpose. It should not be suppressed, unless it is libelous or slanderous, but it deserves to be ignored.

Political courage . . . Let us pay tribute to the people who have it, and pay little heed to the people who don't.

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