Unlikely Inspiration

What does it mean to behave honorably? Where do we draw the line, when we realize we're expected to participate in something unethical? Inspiration, it turns out, can come from unlikely places.

I’ve written about heroes and heroism in this space before, and these days I’ve been thinking about what inspires people to behave honorably — in matters both great and commonplace.

I’ve pointed out examples of ordinary people who rose to extraordinary heights of courage and integrity when the occasion demanded. They are inspirations to all of us.

Yet lately I’ve found inspiration in odd and unusual places, in the words of people I otherwise profoundly disagree with.

This year I won my second consecutive first- and second-place awards in the North Dakota Newspaper Association’s “Better Newspapers Contest” in our category, and was given the largest single raise within the newspaper staff’s memory.

I celebrated by resigning. Right now, instead, I’m driving a semi truck for harvest, hauling seed and grain from point to point on North Dakota rural roads, sleeping in the cab most nights.

My reason for resigning? Among other things, the newspaper’s editor did something I considered ethically questionable. It concerned an article on three college jocks accused, but not charged, with an assault that sent a local man to the hospital.

I didn’t actually have a big part in the story, though the editor magnanimously told me he‘d credit me. I just researched any criminal records of the boys — and found none. Nor did the injuries described add up to a mass beating.

As I found my doubts growing — and I still don’t know anything for sure — I researched further.

Finally I went to a source I trusted in the college administration and asked bluntly, “Did we do a hatchet job on those boys?”

“Yes,” he answered. “And they can’t say anything in their own defense because of a potential lawsuit.”

I further found that of the other two people in the newsroom, one old-timer thought for sure it was a hatchet job, but wasn’t saying anything. And I believe the sports reporter does too, but doesn’t want to get involved.

To make a long story short, I wanted to raise the subject at the next editorial meeting. The editor said he was dispensing with meetings — and no, we wouldn’t discuss his article. He also indicated in no uncertain terms he expected me to be a hatchet man.

I might mention that this editor is a young man laid off from a bigger paper that, like a lot of city papers these days, is downsizing. My guess is he’s looking for the big score that’ll get him out of our little town. I might also mention that he once “improved” an editorial of mine by identifying Neville Chamberlain as prime minister — of Czechoslovakia! (That was excruciatingly embarrassing; it was my name on it.)

Still, why did I resign? My publisher had told me she thought I could be a nationally syndicated columnist — a high compliment for someone who entered journalism this late in life. Now I’ve exposed my family to an uncertain future over a point of principle nobody will remember next year.

Thinking about it while bouncing down our state highways, I have to ruefully admit it wasn’t the example of Miep Gies or Steven Vincent, or the fictional John Galt. It was Walter Lippmann.

I detest most of what Walter Lippmann stood for. Lippman advocated that elites should lead the masses by “manufacturing consent” through the media. (And that phrase was adopted for the title of a book by two other intellectuals I detest: Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman.)

Yet Lippmann also defined honor in the most succinct and clear way I’ve ever read.

“A man has honor,” he wrote, “when he adheres to a code of conduct when it is unpopular, unprofitable, or dangerous to do so.”

Honor is one of the most misunderstood, abused, and often-corrupted concepts in history. After Lippmann’s definition, however, it will be very difficult to misunderstand, abuse, or corrupt the ideal of personal honor.

As for me? I can still write. Not behind the wheel of a truck; but I do most of my composing in my head before I sit down at my laptop anyway. I can compose driving down the road to who-knows-where. That road may be long and hard, but I’m going down it considerably lighter of heart, for now.

Stephen W. Browne is a writer, editor, and teacher of martial arts and English as a second language. He is also the founder of the Liberty English Camps, held annually in Eastern Europe, which brings together students from all over Eastern Europe for intensive English study using texts important to the history of political liberty and free markets. In 1997 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights for his work supporting dissidents during the Milosevic regime. His regularly-updated blog is at StephenWBrowne.com.

7 comments from readers  

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Good article.

"To know what is right and not to do it is the worst cowardice."

Hang in there, talent will always have a job. Or so I've been told.
Congratulations, Mr. Browne. If I could shake your hand, I would. Something similar happened to me. In my last job in a 15 year radio career, I worked for three years in a radio newsroom, and was responsible for counting and assembling votes and opinions from telephone polls conducted by the radio station. My boss expected me, and asked me outright to fake the results of some of the polls we conducted. I refused. I recall the suppressed rage of my boss which caused his face to go red. A short time later I was fired for no reason. The loss of job and income was devastating, but I am proud of the stand I took. Because of that incident, and other corruption I had seen in other radio stations, eg. rigged contests, it was the last radio job I ever worked in, by choice.
Bravo Stephen - for the column, but moreso, for your principled actions. One would only wish that downsizing wasn't the reason this editor was let go from his previous position.
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Bravo dittoes.

Be assured, you (and the fellow in the letter to the editor who refused to fake polls) accomplished far more than meets the eye. Even if the editor continues his travesties and the staff remains compliant with the status quo, you have yanked the moral standing out from under their feet. They may continue, but will not thrive; the knowledge that someone named their sin will eat at them like a cancer. They will ultimately suffer and fail.

Had they found in you someone who bowed their head and complied, they would have become tyrants, always able to blackmail you into the next bad move. Had they found someone who would wink at their perfidy, they would have fed on it. Enough moral wiggle room, they will become dictator. So many countries have gone this route, seemingly to the point of no return.

And it starts in the newsroom. We need you back in a newsroom ASAP!
I admire your integrity and wish you the best in your future. The world would be a far better place if there were more people like you.
Jeff O
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Sorry to hear about the job. The damn things go south on you way too often. The inspiration I have gotten, standing at my post at work, has been immense. Most of my best stuff comes to me doing routine tasks at work. It's not a bad thing.

I also, have found good advise coming from thinkers I otherwise deplore. It is consistent with Objectivism. I remember Miss Rand once said, paraphrasing:"I don't care if an idea comes from a janitor, if it's a good idea." If we stick to our convictions we should be OK.

Your next job will be better, much better, trust me.
I rejected a career in gaming with a corporation over 40 years ago because I was shocked to learn that promotions were based on social networking instead of job performance. I choose to be self employed and I have not regretted that I have no pension. My choice to live on the fringe of society has given me a greater degree of freedom while requiring intellectual integrity and emotional stability.

Stephen, I am sure you will be increasingly comfortable with your decision as the years go by.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.