There is so much to be thankful for that no column could begin to encompass it. Here are just three things, from the past year:
1. The continuance of the new patriotism which is marked not by a tinny boastfulness but by an intellectually and emotionally experienced fidelity to and respect for the founding ideas, documents and assumptions which have guided us since we declared our independence from the mother country 226 years ago.
2. A still-broad prosperity.
3. An enjoyment of religious freedom that is so much a part of the air we breathe, so expected, that we barely remember to be thankful for it. Yes I know they look down on American religious feeling in our great universities, but the Ivy League isn’t America. The suburbs of Dallas where they busy themselves doing, among other things, Christian outreach to topless dancers is America.
There is much to be happy about. But why wallow in good cheer? My subject today is not something we have gained the past few years but something we’ve lost. Or seemingly lost.
It is an old, stark bit of knowledge. It is something Americans used to be born knowing, or at least picked up along the way.
It is this: You pay a price for where you stand. And this isn’t terrible.
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On “NBC Nightly news” last week there was a story. You’ve probably seen it. An Eagle Scout is fighting the Boy Scouts of America because they won’t let him be a troop leader. They won’t let him be a troop leader because he has declared he is an atheist. The BSA sees it as part of its mission to encourage the love of God in the young. An atheist, in their reasoning, is unlikely to help young boys love God. So they don’t want him to be a scout leader.
He, naturally, is threatening to sue. How dare the scouts deny him his right to be an atheist!
But the scouts aren’t denying him his right to be an atheist. They’re denying him the right to be a BSA troop leader.
The young man has received much sympathetic press suggesting he is a victim of narrow-mindedness.
But he’s not. He’s a victim of not knowing you pay a price for where you stand.
In the America of 50 years ago and a 100 years ago and 1776, this is how it went:
You, a citizen, decide you want to belong to a group but you believe in “A” and they believe in “B.” There is a clash. Here the old American myth kicks in. You, the citizen, stick with what you believe, and don’t join the organization. You won’t lie about what you believe, and they won’t change what they believe. So they don’t let you in. You pay a price for where you stand. But you can keep standing there.
You keep your integrity, and maybe in time the group will change and you and your suffering will be the reason. (This is the story of, among others, Dr. King in the Birmingham jail.) Or maybe the group won’t change its ways, ever. But you have your integrity and they have their rules and this is America.
Now that rough old myth has been disturbed. Now it’s, “I have my views and your group has its views. If you don’t accept me with my views you’re wrong, and will suffer in court.” Now you insist on joining. You insist they change to accommodate you. You don’t respect their position, you insist they alter it. You get a lawyer. You weep and rend your garments.
This is not a good way to convert people. It is however a good way to push people around.
We are a big muscle-bound nation. We are so physically strong! We have muscles and missiles and more. But how did we, as individuals, get so wussy, so weak, so whiny when it comes to our ability to stand for what we stand for and take the world’s blows?
Why do we celebrate those who complain? Why don’t we celebrate stoics who can take it? They’re the ones who move history forward.
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Let me not pick on a teenager, for teenagers are by definition unfinished. They often confuse their needs and wants with the world’s. Let’s pick on adults. Let’s pick on Tom Daschle.
He, as a leader of a great political party, is an example-setter for the young. Some of them might look to him as a famous man who knows how to be an adult. After the dreadful showing of the Democrats in the election he held a news conference in which he famously blamed Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio talk show hosts for inciting people to . . . well, to not liking Tom Daschle. Rush says mean things about Tom. His listeners, who Tom Daschle subtly suggests are possibly unstable and insane—how could they not be, they’re conservative—get a little too excited when they hear Rush, and start to make rude sounds. “The threats to those of us in public life go up dramatically,” says Tom Daschle.
Oh, please. Boo hoo. When people disagree with you they criticize you. When you’re trying to tell an entire nation how to live, which is what big-time politics comes down to now, some people will fight back with terrible weapons such as sarcasm, irony and vulgarity. They will sometimes be mean. So what?
Tom: Grownups pay a price for where they stand! Being put down by conservatives is the price you pay. Is it really too much?
Rush Limbaugh has 20 million listeners. If Tom Daschle wants to make progress for his side why doesn’t he go on his show and talk to them? Take call-ins, explain your views, be a man, move the ball forward.
The same week Tom Daschle made his remarks I read of comments made by the columnist Anna Quindlen. She said, as she has in the past—she says it a lot, actually—that she gets a lot of hate mail because of the views she holds. I don’t doubt it. But when she speaks of it she always seems to be suggesting she has a lot of courage to write what she writes. See what I have to put up with, and see how I persevere. There’s an air of indignation. Do you believe what a nice liberal has to put up with from these right-wing primitives?
Well Anna, and Tom, I have never written of this or even spoken of it, but let me tell you something.
My political philosophy is conservative. I am pro-life. I live in New York City, surrounded by modern people. They are mostly left-wing, they are all pro-choice, many of them passionately and even furiously so. I have written books saying Ronald Reagan is a great man and Hillary Clinton is a bad woman. I know something about being a target, and I know something about hate mail. I have received not hundreds but thousands of the most personal and obscene denunciations; I have received death threats; I have been threatened with blackmail; I have been informed that I do not deserve to live; I have received a three page typed double spaced letter with perfect grammar and syntax the first sentence of which was “Dr. Ms Noonan, Let me explain to you why you are a . . .” and here I cannot suggest the word used. But damned if he didn’t make a good case. I used to hear regularly from a woman who’d tell me she hopes I have a brain hemorrhage.
I have never talked about this because I would consider speaking of it both self-pitying and self-aggrandizing. But there’s another reason. I’m a grownup. I know you pay a price for the stands you take.
It’s a disputatious world. Rocks get thrown. I could make myself safer by changing my views, but why would I abandon what I think is true so that people I think are wrong will like me? That doesn’t make sense. So I stand where I stand and pay. And you know what? Too bad. Tough. That’s life. Nothing is free. If you hold a controversial position you will draw controversy and its cousins: denunciation, dislike, etc. It’s the price you pay. And unlike Tom Daschle, I pay it without a taxpayer-funded security team to keep me safe.
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So that’s what I think our culture is losing and wants to get back: The old stoic sense that you pay a price to stand where you stand. This, ultimately, is the story not only of all adults who fully take part in the world but of America itself. It is the story of all political and personal heroism (here’s to you, Pilgrims); it is the story of all progress (here’s to you, fighters of the Civil War) and the story of all hope (a final tip of the hat to you, Martin Luther King Jr.; and another to you, Ronnie).
The great question, as Diana Trilling once said, is how high a price you’ll pay, how much you’ll suffer. That’s a question we all answer every day by the way we live our lives.
So that’s what I think. If I have offended you or you disagree with me, press the reply button at the end of this piece and feel free to tell me what a jerk I am. I can take it. It’s the price an adult pays.