Aussie conservatives, it’s time to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Malcolm Bligh Turnbull’s just put us to shame. Toby Young, in his latest column for the British Speccie titled ‘Western liberalism is no match for the Islamic Game of Thrones’, claimed that what’s required to turn the tide in the war on Islamism ‘is not just an adjustment to the curriculum taught in Europe’s schools, but an alternative narrative that’s as compelling as the propaganda churned out by the Islamic State on social media.’
In the wake of the attacks on Paris, the Prime Minister offered us just that: ‘Freedom stands up for itself’. And yet he was roundly ridiculed by the Right – including by the editor of this magazine. Janet Albrechtsen took him to task in an article for the Australian, saying, ‘Freedom is not one of those air-filled clown bop-dolls that you can hit and it pops right up again.’ Yet that sort of thinking—that narrative—is precisely why we’re losing the war. We don’t feel our freedom and liberal values are an integral part of us.
Isis has gained such fantastic grounds because it’s convinced Muslims that it is Islam—that it’s the manifestation of the teachings of Mohammed. If they suffered a crippling attack by the West, they wouldn’t say, ‘We believe in Islam and will fight to advance it.’ No: they would equivocate themselves with Islam. They would say, ‘The West is trying to wipe Islam off the face of the earth, but we won’t let them.’ I wish our right-wing commentariat believed in our liberal society enough to identify unequivocally with it, because I’m not sure we’ll beat Isis until we instinctively feel that an attack on our liberal society is an attack on us personally; or that, when we rise to defend freedom, we rise as freedom.
What state is conservatism in when Malcolm Turnbull seems to understand the organic totality of a civilization—its values and the individuals that comprise it—better than we do?
Young also claims that ‘A crash course in the virtues of limited government and the rule of law, drawing on the writings of John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, may not win over the hearts or minds of the disaffected Muslim youths.’ Surely he can’t be serious? The American and French Revolutions were both fought by young men willing to die by the thousands for those virtues. If we don’t have the mettle to lift more than a finger over a keyboard to defend them now, that’s not a failure of liberalism—it’s a failure of the Western temperament. And this isn’t just semantics. Liberalism should be an active principle. It’s the life-giving force of our democratic order.
The narrative that will win the war against radical Islam will be classical republicanism, which has defined great powers like America, France, Britain and Australia for centuries. In Scruton’s words, ‘Only in a republic—a system of representational offices filled by citizens held answerable to those who elected them—will true patriotism animate the workings of power.’ We should resonate with Captain Bluntschli’s assertion in Shaw’s Arms and the Man, ‘My rank is the highest known in Switzerland: I’m a free citizen.’
Thousands, if not millions, of men and women have died for less; yet we who have it don’t take such pride in our citizenship. And it’s because we’ve lost our concept of civic virtue.
When asked what form of government the United States employed, Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, ‘A republic—if you can keep it.’ Franklin didn’t mean ‘keep’ as in ‘preserve’, the last-ditch fight against invasion or dictatorship. Rather, he meant upkeep, maintain: the daily practices required to keep a republic in top form. Republics are held together by nothing but the goodwill of its citizens, and that goodwill can only be maintained if certain standards are upheld in the public sphere.
George Washington wrote a monogram called Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in the years leading up to the American Revolution that became the young republic’s standard of conduct in their new consensual society. Among them are: ‘In your apparel be modest… Rather than to procure admiration, keep to the fashion of your equals such as are civil and orderly with respect to times and places,’ and ‘Run not in the streets, neither go too slowly nor with mouth open; go not shaking your arms, kick not the earth with your feet; not upon the toes, nor in a dancing fashion.’
It may seem a bit toffish, but a society where men and women can’t be bothered to show basic decency and respect to one another is no society at all. Civic virtues are essentially the republican answer to a theocracy like Isis’s means of creating a sense of belonging. No one, Christian or Muslim or whatever, will feel like they belong in our society without them.
The only way we’ll be able to maintain Western civilisation is if it becomes civilised again. Our winning the war against radical Islam depends on us taking pride in our role as citizens of our respective republics, which in turn depends on us rediscovering the civic virtues that the great 18th and 19th century liberals set out. We need to believe the narrative that the values and institutions we revere are inextricably bound to us as individual citizens, and that our being citizens in turn depends on those values and institutions.
But perhaps we won’t wake up to this reality until it’s too late. Jefferson himself said, ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,’ which history seems everywhere to confirm. It should come as no surprise that the young democracies of Eastern Europe have put up the most strident opposition to Islamisation, having only wrested their freedoms from communist totalitarianism in the last century. They know all too well the cost of building a republic; we can be sure they’ll take every pain to keep it. Maybe we’ll just have to learn that lesson the hard way.
Michael Davis is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia
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