Tuesday, May 09, 2006


According to one voice on a radio promo for United 93, the film is about “standing up for what you believe in.” I can hardly imagine a more inane—even if thoroughly predictable—statement.

I know that moral illiteracy pervades this country far more than the substantial illiteracy of letters. Still, I would have thought that some measure of care would have been given to a statement that describes the import of what the passengers did on United 93. Instead, a vacuous cliché is employed to tout acts of courage performed in the service of life and decency.

Does it not occur to people who employ this ubiquitous phrase as a badge of moral distinction that the terrorists responsible for killing almost three thousand innocent people on 9/11 were also “standing up for what they believed?” Or is thirty seconds of ethical reflection too much to ask of Americans eager to equate passion and admirable behavior?

As long as we are handing out kudos for simply acting on one’s beliefs, why not give lifetime achievement awards to Joseph Stalin, Mao, Adolf Hitler, and Pol Pot. In the American division credits could go to George Wallace for standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama in definance of a federal court order giving blacks the right to attend the institution. Bull Conner might also get a “standing O” for his more forceful interventions on behalf of Jim Crow laws.

Depending on the meaning of the elastic phrase “standing up for,” one might place Timothy McVeigh in the distinguished company of persons who persist in their beliefs—no matter what.

In other words, it seems to occur to no one in the editorial business, or elsewhere, that “standing up for what you believe in” is a phrase perfectly consistent with pig-headed racism, ideological intransigence, and even mass murder.

Given these semantic shortcomings, one might ask why this phrase has become so popular with Americans. The answer, I think, is precisely because the phrase possesses no moral content whatsoever. Consequently, it can be employed to sanction whatever course of action anyone happens to pursue—provided the person “embraces” that act.

Thus, immoral scumbags like Howard Stern are now praised for “honesty” while the once-loathsome word, “shameless,” is consigned to the dustbin of cultural history. Gone is the incomprehensible aphorism: “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice gives to virtue.”

Vice and virtue—there’s the rub. What many Americans want is a way of talking that dispenses with those inconvenient, judgmental terms. And making terrorists the moral equals of those who oppose them is a small price to pay for the “freedom” that is bestowed on individuals who enthusiastically embrace such language.

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