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Profiles in Courage

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Two emails recently showed up, one right after the other, in my inbox. The first was a mass mailing from Ron Paul (my inbox is a big tent!). Its subject line: “The IRS asked for a fight. How about a revolution?” The second was a review by Peter Berkowitz of the recently reissued book by Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism.

AP Photo

Solzhenitsyn & Reagan

AP Photo

One couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between these missives from different precincts of conservatism. Paul’s spirited fundraising letter is, to say the least, a call to arms. Berkowitz’s thoughtful essay, “A Conservative’s Case for Moderation,” argues that conservatives need to exercise “political moderation in its highest form.” So, what’s it to be for American conservatives today? The spirit of revolution, or the virtue of moderation?

Our conservatism is generally closer to that of Berkowitz than that of Paul. We’re sympathetic to Berkowitz’s worry that, “Driven by the fear that every political compromise brings the country one step closer to the defeat of the idea of limited constitutional government at home and the ruinous erosion of America’s ability to defend herself abroad, conservatives have taken to equating political moderation with capitulation.” We second his warning against so simplistic an equation, and we appreciate his reminder that moderation really is, generally speaking, both a moral virtue and a political necessity. 

Furthermore, as Berkowitz points out, moderation plays a crucial role “in satisfying the persistent need [for conservatives] to reach accommodations among themselves.” More broadly, Berkowitz is right to remind conservatives of the need for an appreciation of “the complexities, trade-offs, and roads not taken involved in the American constitutional tradition’s paradoxical commitment to conserving liberty.”

But given the parlous state of the country, isn’t there something to be said for a dollop—maybe a soupçon, or even just a drop—of immoderation? We look around at Obama’s America. We see unmitigated weakness abroad, unprecedented nanny statism at home, and unimpeded assaults on free speech at universities. It’s hard to avoid the sense that we’re reaching a tipping point in the age-old struggle between decency and decadence, and between manly independence and importuning dependency.

And so we’re alarmed. Being alarmed prompts action, but it doesn’t of course lay out the right course of action. And any practical course of action—even if prompted by an urgent sense of alarm—needs to be informed by the virtue of moderation. The fact is moderation and incrementalism can at times serve the cause of boldness. And, conversely, boldness can help achieve a moderate outcome. Thomas Paine’s fiery rhetoric helped secure the success of the “bold and doubtful” choice the Founders made “between submission and the sword” (Jefferson). That successful revolution ultimately produced that exemplar of thoughtful moderation, the American Constitution.

Given the challenges today’s conservatism faces, a little touch of Paine isn’t inappropriate. Or a touch, say, of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

This is the season of graduation speeches—and, alas, of graduation speeches canceled under political pressure. So it’s a fitting time to recall Solzhenitsyn’s great 1978 Harvard Class Day speech. (Would any major university invite him to give such a speech today?)

“A decline in courage,” Solzhenitsyn told the assembled Harvardians, “may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.”

Shortly after Solzhenitsyn spoke, Ronald Reagan devoted not one but two radio addresses to Solzhenitsyn’s remarks. As one would expect, Reagan embraced Solzhenitsyn’s critique of détente and of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy. But Reagan also had the courage to summarize some of Solzhenitsyn’s broader observations on the dangers facing the West, going so far as to quote Solzhenitsyn on “the calamity of a despiritualized humanistic consciousness.”

Immoderate words, perhaps, and to be sure not the kind of words that occupied center stage in most of Reagan’s speeches over the next couple of years. But also not words or thoughts that Reagan shied away from. Moderation is a virtue. So, as Solzhenitsyn and Reagan remind us, is courage.

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