On September 4, 2014, as the NATO summit convened in Wales, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron coauthored an op-ed in the Times of London. Its headline: “We will not be cowed by barbaric killers.” On January 15, a mere four and a half months later, the same coauthors had the good fortune to have another submission accepted by that august paper. Its headline? “We won’t let the voice of freedom be muzzled.”
One can’t blame politicians for message discipline. One also can’t help but note that their message is conveyed in the hortatory tone and declamatory voice used by politicians when asserting a condition contrary to fact. It’s not that Obama and Cameron are dissembling, exactly. Their determination may well be sincere. But they surely protest too much. People who aren’t cowed don’t spend a lot of time proclaiming they won’t be cowed. Leaders who really have strengthened the voice of freedom don’t need to reassure their electorates that they’re committed to doing so.
We in the West enjoy our freedoms. We occasionally appreciate them. If it’s not too much trouble, we’re more or less in favor of defending them. When the enemies of freedom kill innocents, we sympathize with them. But surely we are nagged by the unbidden thought—I suspect even Obama and Cameron are nagged by the thought—that while we like freedom, we may not really be up to defending it. And so we wonder if C. S. Lewis didn’t have it right: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
It’s true that we say “Je suis Charlie.” That’s better than saying nothing. But we do so only after the fact and in the safety of crowds.
“Je suis Charlie” is an echo, across half a century and from a neighboring country, of John Kennedy’s famous statement: “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ ” But “Je suis Charlie” is a plaintive and hollow echo of Kennedy’s proud and assertive boast of freedom.
Here’s how Kennedy continued:
There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. . . . All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
Who today takes a proud stand for freedom?
Two who did, men of Kennedy’s generation, died last weekend. The achievements of Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa are chronicled elsewhere in this issue. Both understood that freedom was precarious and the American republic was precious. And both were students of Leo Strauss, and therefore understood the weaknesses of the modern accounts of freedom.
The life’s work of both was shaped by the problem identified by Strauss in Natural Right and History: Modern thought, most decisively in Germany, had abandoned the idea of natural right and of any claim that there might be reasonable grounds for an attachment to freedom. Strauss remarked in 1952 that “It would not be the first time that a nation, defeated on the battlefield and, as it were, annihilated as a political being, has deprived the conquerors of the most sublime fruit of victory by imposing on them the yoke of its own thought.”
Berns and Jaffa, each in his own way, sought to preserve that sublime fruit of victory. Whatever differences, important and transient, there were between the two of them, both understood that saving freedom required historical and philosophical rethinking.
Strauss’s discoveries in the history of political philosophy had the effect of liberating his students from the yoke of contemporary thought. But Strauss and his students understood—indeed, emphasized—that such a liberation could not mean simply ignoring the challenges to or wishing away the weaknesses of modern freedom. Berns and Jaffa each tried to work through the arguments and rediscover the history that could deepen our understanding of the conditions of freedom, and thereby inform and strengthen our commitment to freedom. The greatest tribute we could pay to Berns and Jaffa is to rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly advanced.