There was a time when “coward” was the worst thing you could call a man. That was, of course, before cowardice became our default mode. From the (we learn now) outgoing Speaker of the House to my Facebook feed, the courageous are in short supply. We find ourselves surrounded by people who would rather have safety (whatever the hell that means) than morality or freedom or practically anything.
This obsession with safety has emerged in a variety of places, some predictable and some genuinely unexpected. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Paul Ryan, America’s most unfortunate wannabe home-gym infomercial model, couldn’t stomach a real battle for the soul of our democracy. But regardless of where you stand on gun control (as a Coloradan of the Columbine generation, I would happily see all assault rifles melted down), it doesn’t seem an unrealistic expectation that a police officer should act to protect high school students under siege.
Not that we should be surprised that we have arrived at this point. Pursuing safety above all has been the common thread of this century across the political spectrum. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush Administration was able to do just about anything under the banner of safety, from the Patriot Act to the Iraq War. Remember all those white women who voted for Trump and flipped key states like Pennsylvania? Those are the 9/11-born “Security Moms,” back again to shred the Constitution so they can use the parchment as bubble wrap to protect Madison and Aiden from, well, everything. Trump rallied his crowds with promises of safety from terrorists, immigrants and economic precariousness and the Security Moms bought it, along with their equally lily-livered husbands and fathers. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer men who don’t hide behind walls.
Progressives haven’t been much better, just less effective, such as their never-ending pleas for safe spaces. And Trigger warnings that appear when words might be “unsafe.” The absurd outcome of this is a Yale student screaming at her professor: “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here.”
It’s Yale, not Grandma’s house, darling.
Both sides mock each other for their respective safety targets, but neither is willing to relinquish their blankets. Safety is a quisling’s goal no matter to whom it belongs, and it is certainly not a virtue. Pretending it is could now cost us everything. In fact, it nearly has.
John Stuart Mill, arguably the founder of the modern center-left (and a guy of whom I am a big fan) wrote:
A man who has…nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
Any real response to our current chaos is going to require those “better men” (and women) whom Mill invoked. People who are willing to put their livelihoods, reputations and bodies in true peril in order to protect freedom are the only reason that liberty exists and the only ones who can insure its survival.
If we believe that freedom, writ large, has value, then we must believe that it is more important than anything unique to ourselves, including our safety. That is why the focus of our Trump’s America Survival Guide, both online and in person, must shift from safety plans to exhortations to courage. The plain truth is that we are not safe, and no number of think pieces or Facebook groups will make us so. But we can, yet, remain free. And this we can only do by giving up the pursuit of safety forever. We must be always mindful that safety is the pursuit of cowards and freedom the privilege of the brave.
We cannot embrace an ideology of cowardice nor can we be a nation of cowards. So we need to stop praising the “safe” as equal to the good. Moreover, we need to stop congratulating those who make their personal safety their chief aim, because such action, while understandable, is far from commendable.
If we want to protect any of these things, we must forget about safety, particularly personal safety, and return to the oldest virtue of a free people: bravery. This means progressives need to stop talking about “keeping people safe” and start demanding that everyone be brave, because when the world is demonstrably unsafe, you do not get to keep invoking safety as the highest good. At least not if you are interested in liberty.