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Romance with Fake Martyrdom

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In the course of back-to-back confrontations over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling, the conservative base has become intoxicated with visions of glorious martyrdom.

On the eve of the federal shutdown, as House Republicans agreed to insist on defunding Obamacare at the price of keeping the government open, Representative John Culberson of Texas rallied his colleagues by invoking the doomed heroes of United Flight 93. Declaring that the moment somehow reminded him of September 11, the Congressman cheered his colleagues with the words: “Let’s Roll!”

Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz likes to cite Braveheart to inspire his loyal followers, urging beleaguered conservatives to “Hold! Hold! Hold!” against the on-rushing enemy in the spirit of Mel Gibson’s version of the 13th Century Scottish warrior, William Wallace.

Every day during the crisis, excited callers to my radio show draw parallels between today’s GOP stalwarts and the doughty band who fought to the last man at the Alamo or the 300 Spartans who perished at Thermopylae in 480 BC. Is it merely coincidence, I’ve been asked, that the number of Republicans in today’s House and Senate comes to a combined total of just about 300? (Actually, 278 – but close enough).

It does little good to point out the obvious problem with invoking such fierce examples as role models for today’s conservatives. United Flight 93 crashed and burned in a field in Pennsylvania, killing all on board; “Braveheart” died in awful style when drawn and quartered by his English enemies; the slaughtered defenders of the Alamo offered only short-lived resistance to their Mexican attackers and the 300 Spartans found themselves overwhelmed by invading Persian hordes, who preceded to occupy much of Greece for more than a year thereafter. The problem with doomed, hopeless struggles, in other words, is that the participants are, in the end, hopelessly doomed.

In response to such common sense observations, enthusiasts and activists snarl imprecations about gutless RINO’s (Republicans In Name Only), milquetoasts and panty-waists, cowards and appeasers and turncoats. According to this logic, all who dare question a laughably impractical and self-destructive strategy selfishly place their own safety above commitment to a worthy cause. Sometimes, according to common convictions, decent men must take a selfless stand against the odds and prepare to sacrifice themselves for higher principle.

Such arguments rest uneasily on two faulty assumptions regarding the current situation.

First, today’s impassioned conservatives most committed to fighting an unending but impossible battle against Obamacare hardly sacrifice their own interests in this effort. In most cases, they gain rather than suffer for their self-righteous theatrics. Consider the obvious example of Senator Cruz (R-The Alamo) who has made himself a household name and a presidential front runner after just nine months in public office through his strident refusal to let go of the fantasy of instant-uprooting of the Affordable Care Act. As late as the second day of the government shutdown, he insisted that Tea Party conservatives were “winning” their struggle and could achieve final victory over Obamacare “now.” Such pronouncements win him bedazzled cadres of eager admirers together with mountains of campaign cash.

As for the House conservatives who deride all notions of compromise or cooperation, the redistricting in 2010 leaves them with little chance of serious liberal or moderate challenge in their lopsidedly GOP districts. According to leading handicappers of the upcoming 2014 campaign only two of the 232 House Republicans represents a district currently listed in the “toss-up” or “leaning Democrat” category.

And as to right wing organizations like The Club for Growth, Heritage Action, Tea Party Patriots and many more, they risk nothing at all with their demands for a fight to the bitter end on pain of primary challenge and insults to a dissenter’s manhood. Current confrontations provide the activists and entrepreneurs who run these operations with surges in publicity, membership and donations, while they make no plans to return the dough when the present non-strategy inevitably collapses in frustration and embarrassment.

Similarly, the loudest voices in conservative media hardly count as courageous or altruistic by urging their favorite politicians to take the most unbending and ideologically pure positions. In the world of talk radio, for instance, any hosts who regularly win as much as 5% of the available audience in major markets count as wildly successful, while professional consultants frequently suggest that the angriest, most emotional rhetoric reliably attracts the needed niche following. While Braveheart and his fearless Scots earned death and dismemberment for their unbending determination to resist, media figures who claim to follow that example earn million dollar contracts.

The second problem with the analogy between today’s Washington brawls and some of the most fateful battles in human history involves their long-term impact. We remember the little band of Spartans and the Alamo defenders only because their sacrifice proved so consequential. According to many historians, the ferocious defense of Thermopylae delayed the Persian invaders just long enough so that other Greeks could rally and prepare to win the decisive battle of Salamis. Similarly, Colonel Travis and his Texans held off the Mexicans and gave Sam Houston (who chose to avoid a sacrificial confrontation of his own) the chance to surprise and defeat Santa Ana’s over-confident troops at San Jacinto. Most poignantly, the heroes of United 93 stormed the cockpit and brought down a plane headed for the Capitol building, arguably saving hundreds if not thousands of other lives. Fearless commitment to advance a righteous cause counts as heroic; a pointless, losing fight that brings you no closer to your goal might better be described as self-destructive.  “Standing up for principle” only amounts to a noble spectacle when your stand advances the principle you care about, rather than damaging it.

Despite the super-heated rhetoric comparing today’s conservative dead-enders to military heroes of history, what we see today hardly counts as selfless nobility. There’s no sacrifice when individuals and organizations advance their own interests with no real risk, and no nobility when you assure both short term and long-term victories for the other side.

“Better a live dog than a dead lion,” isn’t the sentiment of some mushy-moderate, GOP squish; it’s the advice of the Bible in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Unfortunately, the unedifying melodrama in the nation’s capital doesn’t provide Profiles in Courage but offers, rather, Profiles in Crazy.

An edited version of this column appeared first in USA TODAY.

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