A Man in Full

Dan Crenshaw’s inspiring story.

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

I guess I became aware of Dan Crenshaw, the freshman congressman from Texas, when most other Americans did. Three days before the 2018 election, Saturday Night Live aired a “Weekend Update” segment on which cast member Pete Davidson mocked a few House candidates. Among them was Crenshaw, whom Davidson described as looking “like a hitman in a porno” – the purported joke being that Crenshaw wears an eyepatch. Davidson tagged his jest by saying: “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in a war…or whatever.” 

Indeed, Crenshaw was a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan, where, on June 15, 2012, a Taliban bomb severely damaged both of his eyes. Although doctors expected him to be totally blind, surgeons at Walter Reed managed – miraculously – to save his left eye.

Davidson’s tin-eared dig at Crenshaw made headlines around the world – that’s why I heard about it (I haven’t watched SNL in years) – and sparked outrage. There were calls for him to be fired. But Crenshaw didn’t join in the pile-on. Instead, on the following Saturday, after he’d won his election, Crenshaw appeared on SNL, graciously accepted an apology from Davidson, and read a few gags at Davidson’s expense.

That display of class and good humor was impressive. During the year and a half since, Crenshaw has become a familiar face on cable news, and he’s been consistently impressive there, too – articulate, unflappable, and very, very smart. Hence I expected Crenshaw’s new book, Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage to be a worthwhile read.

It is. But it’s more than that. It’s a serious, intelligent meditation on a culture in which victimhood is so highly prized that we’ve made an art out of taking offense –  discovering racism and sexism everywhere, waging campaigns of personal destruction on the slightest of pretexts, and perpetrating ridiculous hoaxes à la Jussie Smollett. In such a climate, it was only to be expected that after Pete Davidson told that dumb joke, there would be calls for his head.

Not that Davidson was ever in any real danger of losing his job. After all, Crenshaw’s a Republican. Generally, you can get away with insulting, and even libeling, somebody on the right. But offend the left and your career may be over. Indeed, as Crenshaw points out, not long after his cozy SNL appearance, a newly hired SNL cast member turned out to have used supposedly offensive terms about Asians and gays on a comedy podcast, and NBC kicked him promptly and unceremoniously to the curb.  

In any event, one thing’s clear: for many leftists, easily triggered outrage is a virtue. Crenshaw recalls seeing a group of protesters outside of the Capitol with signs reading “Stay Outraged.” About what? Anything and everything, apparently. Another time, inside the same building, three of his House colleagues “held aloft a T-shirt that said, IF YOU’RE NOT OUTRAGED THEN YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION.”

Crenshaw doesn’t like any of this. In his view, when millions of Americans are capable of being devastated (or are willing to pretend to be devastated) by some offhand remark, and are, moreover, prepared to go nuclear on those who’ve offended them, that’s not good for any of the parties involved, and it’s not good for America, either. Crenshaw approvingly quotes Thomas Sowell’s observation that “we have demonized those who produce, subsidized those who refuse to produce, and canonized those who complain.”

And almost none of that complaining makes sense, anyway, given that, as Crenshaw points out, we live in “the best time to be alive, period.” Of course, even more absurd is that the people who have it best of all tend to be the touchiest. Crenshaw reminds us that “students at Oxford University voted to replace clapping with ‘jazz hands’ because clapping could, in their words, trigger anxiety.’”

How can this be? Crenshaw’s answer: “today’s society…is swelling with the wrong role models.” Not a new observation, needless to say, but Crenshaw’s approach to the topic – and to the question of whom young Americans should look up to – is fresh, smart, and incisive. Citing sources that range from Dostoevsky, Seneca, Jung, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius to the movie Patton, the cable series Game of Thrones, and not least (well, yes, actually least) the teen sitcom Saved by the Bell, Crenshaw makes an argument, as Tom Wolfe did in his novel A Man in Full, for the inestimable civilizational value of Stoicism, the third-century B.C. philosophical school that exalts reason, self-control, and fatalism. “Our culture,” Crenshaw writes, “has begun to confuse passion with substance, reward the loudest and angriest voices, and thus incentivize behavior wholly at odds with Stoic wisdom.”

To be sure, Crenshaw readily admits that he himself is capable of getting unreasonably worked up about minor irritations, such as bad Wi-Fi on airplanes. But when this happens, he says, he recalls his ancestor Sarah Howard, who at age sixteen crossed the frontier on foot with the goal of settling in Texas – a weeks-long ordeal during which “she had a run-in with Comanches that resulted in the death of her husband,” then experienced the deaths, “in similar circumstances,” of her second husband and infant child, and finally underwent an Indian captivity from which she “miraculously escaped.” Crenshaw adds: “And here I am, complaining about the Wi-Fi.” 

It’s all, he says, about putting things into perspective: “A healthy sense of perspective is an antidote to outrage. It is an antidote to self-pity, despair, and weakness.”

Another woman who helped give Crenshaw a sense of perspective was his mother, who, after a painful five-year struggle with breast cancer, died when he was ten – a torment she faced throughout “with endurance, grace, and optimism.” In the difficult days after his bomb injury, he thought of his mother: “I wasn’t about to let some cheap-ass IED in the ancient killing fields of Afghanistan render me unworthy of her memory.”

For good measure, Crenshaw also holds up as role models the local interpreters whom he calls “the unsung heroes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They often suffer threats and ostracism for their willingness to endure the battlefield alongside us. Their motivation isn’t money; there isn’t enough money to make it worthwhile facing down insurgents who know where you and your family live. They are idealists. They work and risk death because they believe in our common cause of freedom.”

How did Crenshaw end up as a Navy SEAL? At thirteen he read Rogue Warrior (1992), the autobiography of Dick Marcinko, founder of SEAL Team SIX, and, just like that, decided to become a SEAL. He never wavered in his pursuit of that objective, although the road was hard. Along the way, he put together a pretty impressive résumé. Before joining the Navy, he studied international relations and physics (!) at Tufts University; after losing his eye – and thus his Navy career (he’s still palpably angry at the military brass for jettisoning him) – he earned a master’s at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

No, this is no ordinary politician – and no ordinary political autobiography, either. I confess that un-Stoic tears filled my eyes several times while reading it. Yes, I was moved by Crenshaw’s account of his mother’s fortitude and by his own grit in the face of his eye injury. But I was also moved by the idea that the United States Congress – a body crammed with fools and scoundrels – has at least one member who’s served his country as bravely and selflessly as Crenshaw has done and who possesses the hard-won wisdom and decency of character to write a book like this.

Many of us who consider Donald Trump a vitally necessary world-historical figure have wondered where to turn after his eight years are up. We’ve worried that it will be a case of après lui, le déluge. Could Crenshaw – whose career I find myself following with growing interest, respect, and admiration – fill Trump’s shoes? Increasingly, the idea seems appealing. So far I, for one, can see few other satisfactory candidates.

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

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