A proverb is a short, pithy sentence based upon long experience, expressing what is believed to be a well-known truth or fact. An aphorism is a terse statement of a truth or opinion, usually less time-honored than a proverb. While they are not infallible, one would be wise to heed them, particularly in times of emergency or national panic.. They frequently instill the wisdom of the ages.

Two of these time-honored expressions, particularly pertinent when we look at recent events, are being totally ignored by our society. We do so at our peril. The first:

“He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day.”

So true that it is father to several parallel proverbs. “Discretion is the better part of valor.” “A living dog is better than a dead lion.” Yet, it is a truth that is being totally ignored by us in the Iraq war. Any thought of discretely withdrawing or even retiring to border areas is being treated with scorn and contempt. Anyone expressing these thoughts is accused of cowardice, of “cutting and running,” of betraying our soldiers, as if stepping back when the evidence is clear that you are not winning is an abandonment of manliness. A shameful act, with many synonyms –– You,Sir, are a cowardly, craven, spineless, faint-hearted, yellow-livered , milksop.

Ask any retired general if there are not times when forces should fall back –– sometimes just to regroup, rest or modify the plan of attack. Or if defeat is imminent or victory would be too costly, to preserve one’s military personnel and equipment. History if full of stories of forces which have temporarily retreated, only to forge ahead and win at a later date. George Washingon at Brandywine and Germantown. The Allied forces at Dunkirk.

While we treat this proverb as ignoble, the terrorists, the jihadists and the insurgents –– our enemies –– are more pragmatic. They follow it all the time. And very successfully. Consult your newspapers and TV news programs. In Iraq, whenever we send extra forces into an area, there may be a little resistance, but for the most part the enemy forces melt away, hide or retreat to another town. When we have cleaned out a town or area and our soldiers leave, enemy forces return. In Afghanistan, they retreat to their hideouts in the hills, only to attack us when they feel our guard is down. In short, they cut and run. Who seems to be winning? “He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day.” Smart!

Let us consider another expression –– call it an aphorism or a popular historical quotation –– often erroneously attributed to Voltaire.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Here is another bit of ancient wisdom we would do well to consider today. I thought I would hear it over and over during the Don Imus brouhaha. The silence was deafening. Nowhere in the press –– left, right and center –– did I see in print this historically important cry against censorship, this democratic pilar of freedom of speech. My ears encountered a similar void in television and radio coverage.

The Al Sharptons and the Jesse Jacksons were everywhere in evidence, loudly trumpeting the hurt and demoralization created in the African-American community by Imus’ intemperate remarks. White and black commentators all agreed that the Imus comment was disgusting. Then, there were the free-speech deniers. This was not a free speech issue, they claimed, since it was speech on radio and television, airwaves licensed by the Government. Nonsense. These communication media are so ubiquitous in our society that limiting free speech to all other areas is to make a mockery of the term.

Where were the champions of free speech? With a few notable exceptions, they all ran for cover. Liberal columnists and commentators fudged on the subject. Civil liberties organizations were relatively mute. Not a single candidate for the Presidency made an attempt to stem the tide, to point out that Imus should perhaps be chastised, fined, temporarily suspended, raked over the coals –– but not summarily dismissed for exercising his right to speak out.

That Don Imus’ comments were rude, insulting, impolite, impolitic and yes, disgusting goes without saying, as are similar comments by dozens, if not hundreds, of others in the media. Still, he was not, after all, crying, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Nor was he urging others to physically attack minorities. Should such comments be disparaged, criticized, countered? Yes! However, if we go down the road where derogatory statements about blacks, Latinos, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, homosexuals, fat people, bald people, short people, cripples, stutterers and stammerers lead to draconic punishments, we can kiss free speech good bye. Somewhere down that road, as in many countries today, criticism of political leaders can lead to jail sentences or worse. I kid thee not.

The camel’s nose is already under the tent. Now that we have had a chance to cool off, let us make sure it goes no further. Open your window, lean out and yell,

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

As for my fellow minority members who regularly face a barrage of abuses by the Don Imuses of the world, fight bad speech with good speech, but don’t take part in a verbal lynching. Those who would limit freedom may start with banning just three words, but the ultimate aim is to limit free speech. And if free speech goes, so goes democracy.

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