If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies …
- Rudyard Kipling, “If…”
This has been a bit of a rough year for conservatives who count themselves as sincere friends of freedom. We have seen a number of people who started their activist careers defending freedom (so they said) descend into the fires of “blood and soil” nationalism; one such person spent some of the summer cruising the Mediterranean with like-minded souls, seeking to find and prevent NGO ships from aiding would-be refugees adrift on the seas. We have seen the ethno-nationalistic right do battle with the not-so-peaceful left on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and blood has been spilt. And we have seen the sorts of political false equivalences most prominent on the movement Left during the Cold War make its appearance among the ranks of some of our friends in the conservative movement.
What is a principled liberty-conservative fellow to do, in these circumstances?
In the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville, I had drafted a 3,000-word meditation on what precisely is going on, both with us and with our society in general, and our kind hosts here had agreed to publish it in five parts. I was and am of the view that there is something sick in politics and society right now, and that some introspection was called for among all well-intentioned people.
Events overtook that piece, and there are hints that some amount of that necessary introspection has taken place. A number of people who were involved with The Rebel from its founding have taken their leave, dissatisfied with the editorial direction. (They should perhaps have done so after the platform began its crusade against “globalists,” but better late than never.) The Conservative Party has also distanced itself from that platform. Ezra Levant has claimed to be shocked, shocked by the direction that the “alt-right” has taken this year, as though it was a complete surprise (and as if there had not been manifestos written on this in the past).
Finally, he fired one of its hosts for appearing on a podcast for The Daily Stormer, a notorious neo-Nazi website that the older among us have known of since the 1990s. I do not know whether The Rebel can be salvaged. Its initial mission was one that most of us could support wholeheartedly, but much has happened since then.
In the aftermath of all of that, I myself have turned to poetry, and to re-reading some old friends. It takes one out of immediate concerns, and helps one situate oneself more generally – to see the forest, not the trees.
So many lines of Kipling’s speak to the challenges we now face:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools…
When all else fails, we must return to first principles. Truths we have spoken in the past have been twisted to make traps for fools. Lord knows, our Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with fools who call themselves conservatives, or even Conservatives (i.e., party activists).
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools
Things we have given our lives to have been broken, and we have to decide what we can do next.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue
Talking with crowds and keeping our virtue isn’t easy. We have seen people whom we once respected greatly fall to that temptation. Chants of “lock her up!” quicken the blood, but explicitly call for a break with long-held and dearly-paid-for customs and norms of a liberal democratic society.
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch
Political staffer jobs are notorious for depriving their holders of principle and virtue – but they do not have to be. We know exemplars of good.
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much
We have had past political heroes show themselves to be mere mortals lately, and we have seen past adversaries turn out to be allies on particular issues.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Here’s what I think our main challenge is: we have a shortage of adults in our movement – a shortage of people looking to more lasting things. People desperately want leadership, and wise & moral leadership has not been forthcoming. That’s not any single person’s failure – it’s my fault and your fault, and it’s on each of us to do things better, going forward.
We must be wise men and women, if we are to do good in the public sphere.