Matthew Continetti tells us in his “Mediacracy” column for the latest Commentary magazine that he “enjoyed himself immensely” during the recent controversy about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks. But Continetti’s enjoyment of the media spectacle changed once he read media coverage of the news conference during which NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced plans to fine Sterling and to seek other owners’ permission to ban Sterling from the league.
Silver was lauded for his courage, for his leadership, even though his decision required absolutely zero courage and did nothing but follow the crowd. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan discovered a new appreciation for capital punishment: “In issuing the sports equivalent of the death penalty — lifetime ban, probable forced sale of his franchise — to the basketball owner Donald Sterling, the NBA showed every other institution that courage is more commendable than dithering.”
The meaning of courage in these sentences is unique. Ernest Hemingway defined courage as coolness under pressure, which I suppose is an apt description of Silver’s demeanor at the lectern. But that does not seem to me to be what Silver’s fans are getting at. They take courage to mean boldness, making an unpopular stand on behalf of the oppressed, deciding on a course of action without regard to popularity. Silver did nothing of the sort. His league, which had done zilch in response to earlier instances of Sterling’s racial animus, was facing universal criticism, public shame, economic boycott, a potential strike, and the prospect of delegitimization. The fury had reached such a fevered pitch that only the toughest possible judgment would appease the crowd. What else was Silver to do? Say he had refused to give in to the critics, had suggested a lesser penalty despite knowing that there would be costs to the league? Such a decision would have counted as courageous — wrong, stupid, but also taking guts.
Leadership, too, seems to have lost its original meaning. A leader, in my view, is someone who chooses a course of action in the face of long odds and works, diligently, tirelessly, and deliberately, to turn his policy into reality. Nowadays we use the word “leadership” to praise the strong for enforcing the dictates of the politically correct.