Forty Four Years Ago
Forty four years ago, I was a young plebe at the United States Naval Academy, being indoctrinated into the culture and traditions of the United States Navy. While I wasn't always a happy young man at the Naval Academy, I got a great education and went on to enjoy a rewarding career.
August would still have been during Plebe Summer, kind of like boot camp for midshipman. And since most of the class was coming from civilian life, there was a great deal of effort made to instill in us certain values of the culture. Some of this is vague now in my memory, but I recall going to classes about military ethics. Part of this was about the academy's honor code, "A midshipman does not lie cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do." But part of it was about military ethics in general.
I suppose some of it may have come about as a result of Vietnam and My Lai in particular. I don't recall a great deal of discussion about those particular issues, but I do recall getting a lecture from a Navy chaplain, an O-6, a captain, which is pretty senior in the Chaplain Corps. I recall that he was a tall man, physically imposing, and that he suffered from hearing loss, which I seem to recall may have been combat related. I do recall that he seemed like someone who knew what he was talking about, and I listened to him.
I don't remember if it was the central topic of this particular lecture, but I do recall he spoke at length about something I hadn't heard about before, something called "moral courage." And I wish I could remember the specifics of the lesson that he offered, but they're lost to me now. What I do recall, and what has stayed with me for all of my life since then, is that sometimes it takes courage to do what is right.
It's not the same as physical courage or bravery, because the risk isn't borne by your body, but by your psyche. Sometimes, if you do what is right, people will resent you for it, or mock you, or ostracize you. You will be made to pay a price for not doing what is expedient, or something that profits yourself or others in the short term. And there will be pain associated with that.
But somehow he made it clear that it was important as a future leader in the Navy to exhibit moral courage, to be an example to those that follow. (I'm just now remembering part of that lecture or another one about learning to be a good follower.)
For some reason, perhaps because I admired the chaplain, perhaps because what he said resonated with me then, but that lesson has always been with me. That's not to say I've always lived up to it; but I am confident that I have honored that value in the main for my whole life.
Of course, being a chaplain, he'd probably also have a lesson about not judging others. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a failure at that. Because I'm disappointed and frightened by what I'm seeing in our leaders today, and I am judging them for failing to exhibit moral courage; both for their own sake, and for the people that they ostensibly lead and to whom they may be looked upon as an example.
Maybe they just never had a Plebe Year.
Well, here I am again.
This is something I considered writing on Facebook, but then I realized that it probably wasn't appropriate for Facebook. Or, better, it is appropriate for Facebook, but if I posted it on Facebook it would probably just vanish.
This is about moral courage and leadership in the face of tremendous challenge. There is a noticeable lack of moral courage on the part of many of our leaders, and it just so happens that most of them who exhibit this deficiency are Republicans. This will offend many of my friends who are Republicans, but it's not intended to offend them. It's intended to get them to think, instead of merely rationalize.
On Sunday, following the horrific shootings that occurred the day and evening before, I watched Face the Nation and had the absurd experience of seeing and hearing Republican Senator Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, be utterly oblivious to his own words. I watched, in real time, as bitter irony issued from his mouth and I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
You can watch it too. You'll find it right here. There's a commercial at the beginning, I'm sorry about that. But the statement I'm addressing begins at about 1:47 in the timeline. Senator Scott is thinking about the effort that the city of Charleston made in the wake of its mass shooting. And one of the things Senator Scott seems most proud of was this:
"We did something that I thought was incredibly important. We said to each other that, when you hear someone that looks like you say something that is out of line, or inconsistent or insensitive, make it your responsibility to respond to that individual within your own community. That really did resonate here at home; and it was very powerful and very helpful. Because, when we're looking for ways to address the challenges that our nation is seeing all over the place, one of the things that we do, we must take individual responsibility and speak up when we hear something. Silence, in and of itself, is a part of the challenge. So we must speak up when we see things that are out of place, when we hear things that's inconsistent. That's in the best interests of our nation and our community."
That took him all of 42 seconds to utter.
It struck me, because I seldom hear about Senator Tim Scott. That's not too surprising, he's from South Carolina and his colleague Lindsey Graham, gets enough face time on TV for both of them. But, surely, if Senator Scott had been speaking up about Trump's rhetoric it would have made news. So I did a quick search for it and found little. Now, I did find that Senator Scott often votes against the Republican Party line. And just about two years ago, right after the President's remarks about Charlottesville, Senator Scott did offer mild criticism of the President and his mixed messages.
Other than that, unless someone can find more examples, it's been crickets.
Now, someone might argue that Senator Scott qualified his exhortation to speak up by saying that you should speak up if you hear someone "that looks like you," and Senator Scott is black, and President Trump is orange. They don't look at all alike.
But they're ostensibly both Republicans. They're both elected officers of the federal government. They're both leaders. I'd say they're far more alike with respect to the meaning of Senator Scott's words, than they are different.
And Senator Scott, the advocate for speaking up, the advocate of taking individual responsibility, Senator Scott, who recognizes that silence in the face of speech that is "out of line," is a problem, a challenge to all of us, is silent on the matter of President Trump.
And that is a bitter, bitter irony.
The man literally knows better, but says nothing.
I'm sorry, but that's cowardice. Moral cowardice.
And he's not alone. With the exception of Justin Amash, I can't find a single elected Republican currently in office who is willing to publicly rebuke the President for his hateful rhetoric. You can't even find one who will mildly criticize him!
This legitimizes his rhetoric. It emboldens racists and bigots and misogynists and anti-Semites and every other odious belief so proudly harbored by "the deplorables." While all these things have existed in this country since its founding, Trump elevates them to the position of acceptable civil discourse because he is actively aided and enabled by the silence of his party.
So, what about social media?
Should my Republican friends be denouncing the President's rhetoric? Is Facebook just a place to come look at cute cat pictures, wish each other happy birthday and keep up on what our kids are doing? Or is it the public square of the 21st Century? I don't think we've figured that out yet. There is certainly no shortage of political speech on Facebook. Should my Republican friends be judged for not speaking out against our President? And by "speaking out," I don't mean that they have to denounce Trump with the same intensity and vitriol that I use. A mild expression of regret of his choice of words would probably be sufficient. Except it would invite trollish replies from the people who embrace Trump's rhetoric. I guess that's why they call it "courage."
And really, is moral cowardice a personal failing? Can cowards help it that they're cowards? Am I exhibiting some unfair anti-coward bias here?
I can expect more from my elected leaders, but I've learned that I won't get it. Congressman John Rutherford is a moral coward who is willing to stand silently by and by his silence legitimize the hateful rhetoric of this President. Likewise, Senator Marco Rubio, who wasn't afraid of Trump in the primaries until he was bullied into silence. And Senator Rick Scott, my state's junior Senator, who is more interested in his political ambition than he is in exhibiting leadership, likewise an enabler, a facilitator of hate. And they're all Republicans.
I suppose I'm willing to give my friends a pass, but I am disappointed. But my elected leaders? I will call out their moral cowardice.