When do you throw down the gauntlet or throw in the towel? Sen. Jeff Flake did both things at once this week. He announced his retirement from the Senate and declared that his conscience impelled him to speak out against the “spell” of Trumpism.
The Arizona Republican explained, “Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough.”
Trumpers will scoff at this. And Democrats will howl that this is too little, too late. But we can all relate to Flake’s moment of truth.
Flake said there comes a time when you simply must say “enough!” He warned, “silence can equal complicity.” Martin Luther suggested something similar at the start of the Protestant Reformation, as I discussed in this column last week. Martin Luther King Jr. also criticized complicity and complacency. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King condemned the “appalling silence” of so-called “good people.”
Of course there are risks to breaking silence. Lives will be disrupted. Relationships can be lost. And there is always room for doubt.
But justice requires action. A legal maxim holds that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Grave injustices must be denounced as soon as possible. Unless bystanders speak up, there will be more victims. And unless courageous souls blow the whistle, there will only be a shameful and appalling silence.
It is inspiring to see someone transcend the constraints of business-as-usual and declare themselves a free person. Most people have contemplated singing along with that old country song, “Take this job and shove it.” We imagine ourselves speaking truth to power. We dream of throwing caution to the wind and saying what we actually believe.
But most of the time, we stick to well-worn ruts, afraid to upset the apple cart. We do a bit of math, adding up mortgage payments and retirement savings. Our confidence wanes. Then we sit down and shut up.
It is not that we lack courage, we tell ourselves. It is that we understand that freedom isn’t free. It is actually more expensive than we can afford. Freedom creates risk and uncertainty. It is usually more prudent to stick it out and soldier on. We take what the boss doles out because, well, that’s what it means to work for a living.
So we rationalize our conformism. Those who speak up get punished. And at any rate, we tell ourselves, quitting, protesting or going on strike usually changes nothing. When people resign in a huff, their places are easily filled by sycophants and suck-ups eager to compromise their principles. When people go out on strike, the scabs are waiting in the wings.
And yet, it is bracing to witness someone like Flake declare himself to be a free man. He said he is done with political calculation and that he will only be guided “by the dictates of conscience.” This implies that others are less courageous.
But conscientious refusal is not easy. The powers-that-be will threaten and manipulate. Retaliation happens. Whistleblowers often end up miserable. We must weigh costs and benefits.
But we should ask whether we can live with ourselves in the long run. Will our children be proud of who we are and what we stood for?
The existentialist philosophers said we are condemned to be free. To be human is to be forced to choose your existence. To be free is to be confronted with the anxiety of choice. With each anguished decision, you pick a destiny and choose your fate.
Our choices are declarations of identity and affirmations of value. Senator Flake explained this, giving us a lesson in moral psychology this week. He said, “Acting on conscience and principle is the manner in which we express our moral selves.”
He is right. Our choices declare who we are. What are you willing to risk? And what are you willing to stand for?
Most of us will never face the momentous choices of someone like Senator Flake. But every now and then we confront a moment of truth. You can duck and keep your head down. Or you can draw a line in the sand, blow the whistle, and tell the boss to shove it. The choice is yours.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala