Harry Rakowski: Freedom requires the courage to defend what we hold dear

We should cherish the gift of living in a democracy that values freedom of thought and expression
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny appears on a TV screen in a court in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo.

John Kennedy’s book Profiles In Courage published in 1956 described the brave actions of eight US Senators willing to pay the political price for integrity.

As an admirer of Kennedy, I was disappointed to learn that the book was probably ghost written by future Kennedy biographer Ted Sorensen without credit. While that fact didn’t diminish its significance, it made Kennedy’s receipt of the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957 less deserving. While the courage of the eight Senators Kennedy documented may be less impressive judged by today’s standards, the concept of courageously defending morality and integrity remain crucial today.

A John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award was established in 1989 to recognize a public official who demonstrated the type of courage exemplified in Kennedy’s book. The award is made by a bipartisan committee and is administered by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.


There was no award made in the dark year of 2020, however the 2021 recipient is Senator Mitt Romney “for his consistent and courageous defence of democracy.” He risked his career and his standing with fellow Republicans to vigorously speak out about the lies of a “stolen election” and to vote to impeach President Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. Representative Liz Cheney has taken a similar stand to speak the truth and has paid the price by being stripped of her leadership in the Republican Party.

Kennedy believed that “compromise need not mean cowardice” as long as it served a higher purpose. A number of his “courageous” senators took compromising positions on slavery for the greater good of preserving the union of the country, something we would consider unacceptable by today’s standards. Can we accept that courage in politics and in life today still may require compromise but not acquiescence to inappropriate decisions?

While both Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney courageously spoke the truth to lies, they were still harshly criticized by the left for having traditional Republican values of smaller government and fiscal restraint. Mitch McConnell had the courage to admit the U.S. election wasn’t stolen but not enough courage to ensure that Trump couldn’t run again. His courage and that of many others who initially criticized the role that Trump played in stirring the insurrection had an early expiry date.

More and more, decisions about the future health of our country are made with the goal of winning votes rather than doing what is best. Self interest trumps national interest. It is acceptable to lie as long as you don’t get caught. If you do then there is always someone to push under the bus to take the blame. In politics you have to protect the king.

Today’s most courageous politician is Alexei Navalny, a strident critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Winston Churchill said that “courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities…because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” Courage involves being able to admit making a mistake, as Ontario Premier Doug Ford did about authorizing excessive police enforcement of potential lockdown restrictions that infringed on personal freedom.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can readily apologize for historic mistakes but not so easily for his own. While we struggle to identify courageous Canadian or American politicians, there are world figures that have shown what true courage really is.

Nelson Mandela during his Rivonia treason trial said in his statement to the Judge: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs to be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” He was not sentenced to death, but rather was imprisoned for 27 years, always maintaining his dignity. After his release he led his country without bitterness to a remarkably peaceful end to Apartheid. He said that, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

Today’s most courageous politician is Alexei Navalny, a strident anti-corruption activist, who has been a vocal critic of the powerful Russian elite and of the riches accumulated by President Vladimir Putin. As a result he was poisoned with Novichok, a military grade, highly toxic nerve agent from which he narrowly escaped death after prolonged treatment in Germany. Despite huge risks, he bravely returned to Russia to face baseless charges and imprisonment in order to continue to fight for the truth.

Russia and China control their populations through fear and repression. Freedom of expression risks imprisonment and “re-education.” When Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the U.S. he had a debate with President Kennedy about how both countries allowed freedom of expression. Kennedy said that anyone in Washington could stand at the steps of the Capitol and proclaim that Kennedy is an idiot. Khrushchev gleefully said things were exactly the same in Russia. Anyone could stand at the steps of the Kremlin and also proclaim that Kennedy is an idiot.

We need politicians who can uphold democratic principles and vigorously oppose foreign threats to our way of life. Individually, every Canadian needs to show the courage to stand up to restrictions on our freedom of speech and to preserve our ability to hold opinions not always in the mainstream. Opposing the restrictions to freedom of choice in Bill C-10 is such an opportunity.

Today more than ever each of us must understand the gift we have to live in a democracy that values freedom of thought, expression and movement. It can only be preserved if we maintain the courage to speak out against those at home and abroad who would curtail those freedoms.

As Thomas Jefferson said “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” We must remain vigilant and vigorously defend our freedoms at all costs.

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