George’s View: Theodore Roosevelt and the EU

19th February 2016

One of my favourite political speeches is Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Citizenship in a Republic’, delivered at the Sorbonne on April 23rd, 1910. In the speech, Roosevelt confronts the critics and ideologues, showing how the noble art of politics has always been about the painstaking work of negotiation.

They are words that, I believe, have resonance for the current political landscape, with Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour party, Donald Trump winning Republican primaries and the Prime Minister fighting to get a major reform deal for Britain.

With negotiations still going on in Brussels, we could start by listening to Roosevelt’s searing indictment of those who ‘confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt’:

...The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities - all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness.

The speech then turns to the most famous passage where Roosevelt praises the ‘man who is actually in the arena’, the leader ‘who does actually strive to do the deeds’ rather than the critic standing on the sidelines:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Arguably the most insightful part of the speech is when Roosevelt turns to ideology, and those who would make ‘the impossible better forever the enemy of the possible good’, an important point as we enter the final stages of the EU renegotiation:

Perhaps the most important thing the ordinary citizen, and, above all, the leader of ordinary citizens, has to remember in political life is that he must not be a sheer doctrinaire. The closest philosopher, the refined and cultured individual who from his library tells how men ought to be governed under ideal conditions, is of no use in actual governmental work; and the one-sided fanatic, and still more the mob-leader, and the insincere man who to achieve power promises what by no possibility can be performed, are not merely useless but noxious.

The citizen must have high ideals, and yet he must be able to achieve them in practical fashion. No permanent good comes from aspirations so lofty that they have grown fantastic and have become impossible and indeed undesirable to realize. The impractical visionary is far less often the guide and precursor than he is the embittered foe of the real reformer, of the man who, with stumblings and shortcoming, yet does in some shape, in practical fashion, give effect to the hopes and desires of those who strive for better things. Woe to the empty phrase-maker, to the empty idealist, who, instead of making ready the ground for the man of action, turns against him when he appears and hampers him when he does work!

With Fleet Street preparing their response to the final EU reform deal, it is worth remembering Roosevelt's words on the power of journalists, and the role of the media in reporting political events:

...The power of the journalist is great, but he is entitled neither to respect nor admiration because of that power unless it is used aright. He can do, and often does, great good. He can do, and he often does, infinite mischief. All journalists, all writers, for the very reason that they appreciate the vast possibilities of their profession, should bear testimony against those who deeply discredit it. Offenses against taste and morals, which are bad enough in a private citizen, are infinitely worse if made into instruments for debauching the community through a newspaper. Mendacity, slander, sensationalism, inanity, vapid triviality, all are potent factors for the debauchery of the public mind and conscience. The excuse advanced for vicious writing, that the public demands it and that demand must be supplied, can no more be admitted than if it were advanced by purveyors of food who sell poisonous adulterations.

One of the amazing achievements of the speech is to range so broadly across so many different issues. With Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour party to disaster, Roosevelt’s warning that socialism ‘would spell sheer destruction’ seems more timely than ever:

We can just as little afford to follow the doctrinaires of an extreme individualism as the doctrinaires of an extreme socialism. Individual initiative, so far from being discouraged, should be stimulated; and yet we should remember that, as society develops and grows more complex, we continually find that things which once it was desirable to leave to individual initiative can, under changed conditions, be performed with better results by common effort...We ought to go with any man in the effort to bring about justice and the equality of opportunity, to turn the tool-user more and more into the tool-owner, to shift burdens so that they can be more equitably borne. The deadening effect on any race of the adoption of a logical and extreme socialistic system could not be overstated; it would spell sheer destruction; it would produce grosser wrong and outrage, fouler immortality, than any existing system.

And, with the Prime Minister’s inspirational speeches recently on life chances and prison reform, Roosevelt reminds us that equality of opportunity has always the central mission of the centre-right:

...We are bound in honor to refuse to listen to those men who would make us desist from the effort to do away with the inequality which means injustice; the inequality of right, opportunity, of privilege. We are bound in honor to strive to bring ever nearer the day when, as far is humanly possible, we shall be able to realize the ideal that each man shall have an equal opportunity to show the stuff that is in him by the way in which he renders service.

Though, with Donald Trump still leading in the Republican primaries, we can bear in mind the words of Roosevelt about any candidate who uses politics ‘for the sake of furthering his own interest’:

Of one man in especial, beyond any one else, the citizens of a republic should beware, and that is of the man who appeals to them to support him on the ground that he is hostile to other citizens of the republic, that he will secure for those who elect him, in one shape or another, profit at the expense of other citizens of the republic. It makes no difference whether he appeals to class hatred or class interest, to religious or anti-religious prejudice. The man who makes such an appeal should always be presumed to make it for the sake of furthering his own interest.

And, finally, if you thought being proudly British was the enemy of being an internationalist, then think again. Over a century ago, Roosevelt had already addressed that line of attack:

I believe that a man must be a good patriot before he can be, and as the only possible way of being, a good citizen of the world. Experience teaches us that the average man who protests that his international feeling swamps his national feeling, that he does not care for his country because he cares so much for mankind, in actual practice proves himself the foe of mankind; that the man who says that he does not care to be a citizen of any one country, because he is the citizen of the world, is in fact usually and exceedingly undesirable citizen of whatever corner of the world he happens at the moment to be in.

As we all wait to see the deal that the Prime Minister returns with from Brussels, it is worth taking a moment to remember Roosevelt’s words and the mission he set out in his inspirational speech. Politics has always been about the art of practical reform. Despite the calls of the critics and ideologues that Roosevelt identified over a century ago, reform is achieved by the painstaking work of negotiation. Only by the difficult work of reform can we ever achieve real change.


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