The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, March 07, 2005

Lead from Strength

A post by Ed Morrissey criticized defeatism:
In all of these cases, ankle-biters abounded to predict our defeat if we fought for freedom and liberty as well as our own security, and that we should learn to live with the ascendancy of tyranny. In its way, this pattern reminds one of Jimmy Carter's infamous and embarassing "malaise" speech, an ingrained defeatism that pretends to hold out a promise of a brighter day as long as we accept our defeat as inevitable and accept second-tier status for ourselves.
Why does this defeatism spread so widely, and resist disproof so strongly? Because defeatism avoids responsibility.

When we adopt a non-defeatist position, we are making a promise: if the course we advocate is taken, then some desirable result will follow. So the claim that good outcomes are possible is an acceptance of responsibility (unless we advocate means which we know will not be used).

If we say that nothing can be done, that the situation is beyond our power to improve, then we avoid this burden. Similarly, if we say that things can be improved only if some implausible measures are taken, then we can be confident that no one will take us up on our bluff; again, we will not become responsible.

I imagine that everyone is familiar with that heavy, depressed feeling which accompanies the start of any difficult task, the first line of code or the first sentence of a long essay. When that difficulty is compounded with the problem of promises made -- so that the essay, or program, or operation is only a step on a long road, and we have accepted responsibility for the final outcome -- how much heavier this burden seems, how unlikely success:
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
Yet make allowance for their doubting too...

Settling for less is not always wrong; but it is always easy. Defeatism can never be proved wrong before the event. Thus it provides an unassailable fallback in debates: it is an impregnable fortress which must be circumnavigated, not besieged. This is why advocates of action never assail defeatism on its own terms, preferring instead to challenge their opponents to present a competing plan.

The only balancing factor is that, in a kind of contagion, one man's determination can bolster those around him. The acceptance of responsibility, and taking up arms against a sea of troubles, ennobles the one and emboldens the many. To mangle Keats: Duty is strength, strength duty.