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Taking a Stand

The freedom to simply do a job in peace is a cause worth fighting for.

Socrates observed that cowards experience pleasure every time they back down, while heroes may experience the joys of courage only once. Our public life has no shortage of hedonists. Within any institution we might expect to find roughly 10 percent of the denizens agitating for change, less than 10 percent resisting it, with the rest sticking their fingers into the air figuring out which way the wind is blowing. While self-preservation dictates we place our bets on who we think the winning side will be, courage often requires we stand with the losing side. The Catholic Church, after all, has a saint for lost causes but not one for conquest.

Russell Kirk, paraphrasing Eliot, liked to say there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. Even so, there are winners and losers, and the losers after a while grow weary of losing. Sure, the winners will say they “have history on their side” and that their cause is right and just, until it comes to rewriting histories to fit their narratives. Then they will exaggerate both the crimes of the past and the nobility of the preferred victims as a means of bending institutional will. So long as they’re the oppressors, they will care nothing about the present’s losers and victims.

Those of us in the academy who will stand up and say “enough” can tell many tales of furtive and nervous emails we receive from colleagues who thank us after the bullets have stopped flying. “I really appreciate you standing up and speaking out,” goes a typical missive, “I was behind you all the way.” Indeed, way behind me. I’m almost impressed with the way they hedge their bets in an attempt to ensure harm will never come their way. But they’re like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle who opt out of the conflagration with the profession that their highest loyalty is to themselves. Misshapen and shrunken, they have nothing they’ll die for. They’ll stay neutral hoping the battle will never come to them. They may survive, but they’ll never generate respect, or self-respect.

The fighters for gained causes never weary. Of necessity. Change is their drug, progress is their legitimating cloak, and power is their goal. They can never have enough of any of them, and they’ll exhaust every opportunity, every venue, every path forward, and everyone else in the process. They agitate ceaselessly, and when you try to block them in the name of a higher good, they label you a troublemaker. If you simply try to do your job, they will castigate you as a defender of the corrupt and unjust status quo from which they draw their daily bread. If you insist they do the job they were hired to do, they will accuse you of upholding racism or sexism. If you raise your hands to defend yourself against their ceaseless jabs, they will call you the aggressor. They surround you with cacophonous and whirling activity that distracts you and keeps you from doing your work.

We defenders of lost causes aren’t the only ones who tire of the noise. We know this because we’ve learned a valuable lesson in life: that while people testing the winds can never be counted on, there are some who are emboldened by simple acts of resistance. Sometimes emails turn into public support and nervous agreement into solidarity. Spines stiffen both by example and habit, and they straighten by refusing to bend.

I have a good friend who sits on a city council where the progressive views of the councilors mask the underlying stasis of the organization. The progressives’ self-congratulating claim that they “speak truth to power” reveals both their underlying awe of power and their desire for it. This impulse in any institution would be less pathetic if the progressives were more consiglieri than court jesters. My friend the councilor found this out the hard way when he suggested that maybe the council had too cozy a relationship with other public institutions such as the police and the local public health unit, and not enough interest in representing the interests of the taxpayers who had voted them into office.

For this breach of etiquette my friend has been investigated and censured by a risibly named “Integrity Commission,” publicly insulted by some of his fellow councilors, and had his life threatened with a flame-thrower by the director of the public health office, who, my friend suggested with evidence, had some serious problems with financial and personnel management. And while my friend began fitting himself for an asbestos suit, the other councilors put kindling around him and provided the director with more fuel. “Surely,” they seemed to say, “threatening with a flamethrower provides evidence not only of the depth of the insult to the director but also proves he’s doing a splendid job.” What gives?

Meanwhile, because of his willingness to stand and speak publicly, my friend started receiving emails and phone calls from persons who had witnessed the director’s mismanagement and perfidy firsthand, a litany of complaints from those who have suffered the director’s slings and arrows but had neither the ability nor the will to step forward. The point is this: Sometimes all that is needed is one person to take a stand, one person who is willing to take the abuse and insults, one person who is not afraid to risk things that matter to him. Such risk-taking inspires others.

Nowhere is such risk-taking less in evidence than on college campuses. Even faculty fully tenured and fully promoted are unwilling to laugh at the naked emperor. We can spot the race hustlers, the guilt manipulators, the social justice grifters, the empty vessels of women’s studies, but we’re too afraid to say anything. We know that they have career-killing indictments sheathed and ready to wield. They’re not only not afraid to swing these insults indiscriminately, we know they’re eager to do so. And so we sit dwarf-like around our fires and hope we don’t get decapitated.

But, of course, they won’t let us off so easily. Our fires are too exclusive. The levels of heat produced by our fires evince inequity and systemic discrimination. We are too biased in our fire-building and need to receive training that helps us identify our biases while holding out no promise of fixing them. Our generations of experience and know-how in fire building need to be replaced by “best practices” administered by the new fire-building experts who seem intent on incinerating the whole damned forest.

Saving the forest is more important than saving our own skins. Unless we save the forest, there will be no skin left to save. Higher education is burning, nowhere worse than the bonfire of the humanities. In the past year three of my friends have lost their jobs as desperate schools try to shed salaries. The administrators consigning these faculty to the flames may save themselves for a season or two, but eventually they’ll be consumed as well. What they seem not to realize is that while people might endure insults and accusations in the defense of something, they won’t pay for the honor. Already facing a demographic downturn, the fools who run things decided to drive off paying customers by denouncing as “privilege” the very thing that enables those students to pay. It’d be comic if it weren’t tragic.

So I stand up for those who stand up. The city councilor who looks at a budget and questions it rather than rubber stamps it. The employee who blows a whistle on a corrupt manager. A faculty member who refuses to undergo implicit bias training. A student who refuses to apologize to a faculty member for her privilege or acknowledge her racism. For anyone who observes that sin is no respecter of race or sex, and power tends to corrupt anyone who holds it regardless of accidents of birth. Especially—most especially—for anyone seeking a bit of silence so that he or she can do a job in peace. That’s a cause worth fighting for. “But, perhaps neither gain nor loss. For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Jeff Polet is professor of political science at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is the author of works in American political thought, contemporary European political thought, religion, and politics, and constitutional law. He also helps direct the academic program for the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. 

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