"Speak truth to power," a phrase of Quaker origins adopted by campus radicals, Hollywood gadflies and establishment journalists, has become shorthand for bravely criticizing government, big corporations and other stereotypical villains.
But where's the bravery? I don't know many journalists who are afraid of the government, and most make their living from big corporations. Sure, liberals -- which most journalists are -- are afraid of what conservatives will do in power and vice versa. But they aren't very afraid of what government will do to them, specifically.
In fact, being singled out for criticism by the president of the United States is nothing short of a gift. To this day, aging has-beens exploit any opportunity to brag that they were on Richard Nixon's enemies list. When Bill Clinton denounced William Kristol in 1994 for monkey-wrenching health-care reform, he helped make Kristol one of the most important people in Washington. Various White House assaults on Rush Limbaugh have him laughing all the way to the bank.
And yet, I've met innumerable writers and editors who are scared, even terrified, of one or more of these groups: gays, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews, feminists, evangelical Christians and the handicapped. You can write 100 columns calling the president a mass-murdering, sexually depraved sociopath, or demanding that we nationalize the oil companies, but don't you dare invite the wrath of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or the parents of autistic kids, or (shudder) cat lovers.
(I once wrote a column supporting the hunting of feral cats in Wisconsin, where up to 217 million birds are killed by wild felines each year. Several veteran editors sent me notes marveling at my naivete. Indeed, the e-mail response was so frightening, I nearly put my family in hiding. By the way, I now believe feral cats should be permitted to dine on schoolchildren if they so desire.)
And it's not just journalists. Politicians are petrified of seeming hostile toward members of the "coalition of the oppressed." Legislators cower in fear of earning the wrath of gays, but will brag in their direct mail that they are at war with the White House or that they've stood up to the military-industrial complex.
But even the gay bullies on "Seinfeld" can't hold a candle to radical Muslims in terms of their ability to strike fear in the hearts of others.
Just look at Britain. It is currently harboring a gaggle of non-British Muslim preachers who call for, among other things, the slaughter of Jews and the imposition of Sharia law in Britain. These people are accepted, sometimes even given welfare benefits, in the name of pluralism, multiculturalism and tolerance.
But when Geert Wilders, a documentary maker and member of the Dutch parliament, was invited by British members of Parliament to screen his documentary critical of the Koran in London, the government said, in effect: "Whoa, whoa, whoa! We can't tolerate that." Wilders has been barred from the country because his ideas "threaten community harmony."
If only Wilders' supporters beheaded people or thronged outside embassies spewing various "death to" chants, he might have been invited to have tea with the queen.
Speaking of beheading, have you heard about the founder of a television network in upstate New York dedicated to showing Muslims as peace-loving and political moderates? You might have when he started his enterprise in 2004, as the venture received lavish attention. But when Muzzammil Hassan allegedly cut off his estranged wife's head this month, coverage not only was muted, but the media bent over backward to dispel any notion that religion had anything to do with it. After all, isn't wife-beheading an ecumenical practice?
One can run through a long list of contortions and double standards when it comes to Muslims: honor killings swept under the rug, theater productions canceled, books shelved by publishers, thought-crime tribunals in Canada, death threats over political cartoons. Chin-strokers at the State Department will tell you U.S. foreign policy needs to cater to the "Muslim street," which chants "death to America" as a voice warm-up exercise.
But the point here isn't to single out Muslims. Of course most Muslims are law-abiding and peaceful. And I would say that even if the Council for American-Islamic Relations wasn't prepared to hound me from public life for saying otherwise.
But it's worth remembering that government and corporations aren't the only institutions that can abuse power. Factions, to borrow a word from the Federalist Papers, have a power all their own. When governments cave to that power, they become mere tools of bullies. And when journalists go along for the ride, there's no one left to speak truth to power when that is what's needed most.