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Moral Authority

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In the late 1980s the most respected leaders in the world -- Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa (and earlier Martin Luther King) -- all had one thing in common. They had spent time in jail. More important, they had spent time in jail for their beliefs, beliefs that threatened the power structures of their countries. It seems strange that many Americans idolize protesters in other countries and ridicule them at home.

Equally strange is the tendency of conservatives to revere the protesters of early times -- Tom Paine, the Bostonians who painted themselves like Indians and threw tea in Boston harbor, even the abolitionist John Brown -- and vilify those who protest today. Someone once said that conservatives are the worshipers of dead radicals.

Nevertheless, there is a rich history of protest in America, by laborers, by women, by war opponents, by environmentalists, by African Americans, and in almost every case the protests changed American ideas and policies for the better. Protesters make us think, that is those inclined to think. They stir things up, they rock the boat, they challenge the status quo and the conventional wisdom. They force us to look at reality often in painful ways. Protesters sometimes get themselves thrown in jail.

It is a great wonder that war opponents, including increasing numbers of Democratic "leaders," are so silent. Some of the most visible simply believe the invasion of Iraq, which they endorsed, has been mismanaged, that more troops (not fewer) are needed! Even today, they seem untroubled by the false statements and manipulated intelligence of the administration. The most difficult political statement in the English language is: I made a mistake.

Speaking only for myself, I will find it very difficult to support any Democratic "leader" who remains silent at this critical moment but who wants to be president in 2008. There are defining moments in political careers and in national life where true character is revealed, where moral authority is achieved, or forfeited. Recall Dante's well-known warning that a special place is reserved in hell for those who, in times of moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

There are those who earn their moral authority the hard way, by going to jail or, like Cindy Sheehan, by sacrificing a loved one. Such people do not merely earn an audience with the president.

Such people deserve an accounting.