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Saturday, March 17, 2001


Three words with
power to transform


Editor's note: Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court spoke on political courage when he delivered the annual Francis Boyer Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington last month. These are excerpts from his speech.


A judge who strictly adheres to the rules of impartiality and judicial restraint is likely to reach sound conclusions. But reaching the correct decision itself is only half the battle. Having the courage of your convictions can be the harder part.

(After I came to Washington) it became clear in rather short order that on the very difficult issues such as race there was no real debate or honest discussion. Those who raised questions that suggested doubt about popular policies were subjected to intimidation. Debate was not permitted. Orthodoxy was enforced. When whites questioned the conventional wisdom on these issues, it was considered bad form; when blacks did so, it was treason.

These "rules of orthodoxy" still apply. You had better not engage in serious debate or discussion unless you are willing to endure attacks that range from mere hostile bluster to libel. Often the temptation is to retreat to complaining about the unfairness of it all. But this is a plaintive admission of defeat. It is a unilateral withdrawal from the field of combat.

Today, no one can honestly claim surprise at the venomous attacks against those who take positions that are contrary to the canon laid down by those who claim to shape opinions. Such attacks have been standard fare for some time. Complaining about this obvious state of affairs does not elevate one's moral standing. And it is hardly a substitute for the courage that we badly need.

If you trim your sails, you appease those who lack the honesty and decency to disagree on the merits, but prefer to engage in personal attacks. A good argument diluted to avoid criticism is not nearly as good as the undiluted argument, because we best arrive at truth through a process of honest and vigorous debate. Arguments should not sneak around in disguise, as if dissent were somehow sinister.

Those who come to engage in debates of consequence, and who challenge accepted wisdom, should expect to be treated badly. Nonetheless, they must stand undaunted. That is required. And that should be expected, for it is bravery that is required to secure freedom.

Much emphasis these days is placed on who has the quickest tongue, and who looks best on television. There seems to be an obsession with how one looks to others; hence, a proliferation of public relations professionals and spin doctors. Perceptions are more important than reality. But this is madness. No car has ever crashed into a mirage. No imaginary army has ever invaded a country.

Even if one has a valid position, and is intellectually honest, he has to anticipate nasty responses aimed at the messenger rather than the argument. The objective is to limit the range of the debate, the number of messengers, and the size of the audience. The aim is to pressure dissenters to sanitize their message, so as to avoid being subjected to hurtful criticism. In my office, a little sign reads: "To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing."

By yielding to a false form of "civility," we sometimes allow our critics to intimidate us. Active citizens are often subjected to truly vile attacks; they are branded as mean-spirited, racist, Uncle Tom, homophobic, sexist. To this we often respond (if not succumb), so as not to be constantly fighting, by trying to be tolerant and nonjudgmental -- i.e., we censor ourselves. This is not civility. It is cowardice, or well-intentioned self-deception at best.

Pope John Paul II has traveled the world challenging tyrants and murderers, speaking to millions of people, bringing them a single, simple message: : "Be not afraid."

Listen to the truths that lie within your hearts, and be not afraid to follow them wherever they may lead. Those three words hold the power to transform individuals and change the world. They can supply the quiet resolve and unvoiced courage necessary to endure the inevitable intimidation.

The Founders warned us that freedom requires constant vigilance, and repeated action. Today, as in the past, we will need a brave "civic virtue," not a timid civility, to keep our republic. So, this evening, I leave you with the simple exhortation: "Be not afraid."


For the full text, see www.aei.org/boyer/thomas.htm




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