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Athens and Jerusalem

On the need for courage.

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Last Thursday, Athens was paralyzed by rioters protesting the government’s austerity program, which is needed to keep the Greek nation solvent. The protesters chanted “No sacrifice” and “Higher pay.”That same day, near Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority honored Dalal Mughrabi on what would have been her 50th birthday. A square was named after her in Ramallah. She and 11 other terrorists hijacked a bus in Israel in 1978, and killed 37 Israelis and one American.

Athens and Jerusalem

The challenges posed by these developments are representative of those all civilized nations face. They aren’t that complicated. Dealing with them doesn’t require extraordinary subtlety of thought or exquisite elevation of soul. Common sense and courage will suffice.

Do we have to curb our profligacy today so we can be prosperous tomorrow? Common sense says yes. What does it take to do this? Basically, political and civic courage. Now, how to do this—how to cut budgets so we are living within our means, how to control the natural tendency of the welfare state to grow, how to get present-oriented populations to invest for the future, how to move from a public policy that doles out entitlements to one that sets a framework for achievement and self-reliance—this is a complex challenge of public policy and political strategy. But the fundamental challenge is simple. Not easy, but simple.

Similarly, the need to condemn rather than to tolerate (or even glorify) terror, the need to defeat rather than appease it, is obvious. Doing that in a resolute and determined way takes courage. How best to weaken and defeat the forces of jihadist terror, how to deal with the nations and cultures that are its breeding ground, how to mix together in one’s policies hard and soft, smart and dumb power—that is complicated. But the basic challenge is simple. Not easy, but simple.

We need to resist indulgence at home and appeasement abroad. This task needn’t be the subject of endless handwringing and conspicuous chinpulling. But it does require—to use an unfashionable phrase—moral virtue. In particular, it requires courage. 

It takes courage for a polity to say no to the temptations of welfare state politics. It takes courage to turn away from the public trough and refuse to think of ourselves as victims and entitlees. It takes courage to become, once again, self-governing citizens. And it takes courage to rally ourselves to fight against—and to preempt—the forces of terror and the nations that harbor and sponsor them.

The Bible and the Greek philosophers disagree on many important things, but they seem to agree on the crucial role of courage in the lives of individuals and nations. Courage is the first of the moral virtues for Aristotle—perhaps because it is both important in itself and because it peculiarly makes the other virtues possible. When the Lord speaks to Joshua after the death of Moses, He tells him three times to “be strong and of a good courage” as he assumes leadership of the nation of Israel.

In June 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a not unworthy heir to the traditions of Athens and Jerusalem, delivered the class day remarks at Harvard. Among other things, he said:

A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course there are many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?

By the end of the 1980s, it seemed Solzhenitsyn had been too pessimistic. In an impressive showing of moral courage and civic strength, the societies of the West confronted in that decade the threats of decadence at home and weakness abroad. Leaders like Reagan and Thatcher, John Paul II and Lech Walesa discovered reservoirs of moral virtue in their publics and rallied them to action.

The threats of 2010 are as great as those of 1980. They are intellectually different, of course—and perhaps even more complicated. But, like the threats of the Cold War, they cannot be overcome if we lack the simple and often prosaic virtue of courage. Can we, in our clever and sophisticated time, once again summon up this old-fashioned virtue? 

—William Kristol


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