Monday, November 08, 2004

Burke, Burke, and Bush

I'd like to hear comments, if anyone has them, on Tim Burke's reaction to the GWB revolution. On Nov 4, he posted a long essay called The Road To Victory Goes Through the End of the Democratic Coalition and on the 5th he did a shorter update, recapitulating much, And Another Thing...

To some extent, Burke views Republican voters as peasants who are conservative in the pure sense that they want to conserve, as Burke says, a "deliberate maintenance of sufficiency." In other words, they don't buy into the grasping materialism, floated on unreal levels of credit, that the editorial in yesterday's Wash Post refers to (see here for the editorial, while the link lasts, and below for my blog entry on it).

I don't agree and think Burke should look to his namesake, Edmund Burke, for inspiration on this subject. That Burke spoke for tradition (what we might call the constraints of social strictures) and reverence for established authority. He was a reactionary in that he reacted to, and put up defenses against, the threatened and actual revolutionary events of his time. He greatly feared anarchy, class warfare, and the uprising of the lower orders of society. In the French Revolution, he saw the potential for disintegration of civilization.

I see this as one key to the attractiveness of GWB to voters. He, Bush, tells them they are being threatened and must defend themselves. He says faith in the traditional order of things is the best defense. He says we must use our enormous strength to defend our liberty, He says we must cherish and strengthen our traditionally-held values. And he says, "we are freedom's home and defender."

In Reflections on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke uses great eloquence in opening up this theme of "freedom's home and defender." In opposition to terrorism and what he sees as attacks on freedom, he invokes as traditional values: morality, liberty, fear of God, and reverence for authority. Put otherwise, he invokes what he sees as the inarticulate feelings of the English people in opposition to the tyranny of reason in France: the attacks on tradition of the Philosophes of the French Enlightenment and the attacks on tradition of Machiavellian politicians.

This is very Bush-like. In viewing America as "freedom's home and defender," he too invokes inarticulate feelings and what he apparently believes are self-evident truisms. He says, "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves—safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life."

Burke says the best response to emergencies, such as the terror of the French Revolution (and by extension the War on Terrorism) is an unthinking dependence on tradition, even prejudice. He says: such prejudice "engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature."

This prejudice probably parallels the way GWB sees his faith: He says, "My faith frees me. Frees me to put the problem of the moment in proper perspective. Frees me to make decisions that others might not like. Frees me to do the right thing, even though it may not poll well. Frees me to enjoy life and not worry about what comes next."

Burke has much to say about "duty:" the unrational feeling of what it is right to do and the faith needed to act upon this feeling.

Bush agrees. While Governor he said: "My dream is to usher in what I call the 'responsibility era'—an era in which each and every Texan understands that we're responsible for the decisions we make in life; that each of us is responsible for making sure our families come first; that we're responsible for loving our neighbors as we'd like to be loved ourselves; and that we're responsible for the communities in which we live."

That's it.

I don't maintain this explains all, but, as I say, it seems to me a more persuasive approach than Tim Burke's.

In closing, I can't resist quoting a bit more of Edmund Burke. He was so much a master of persuasive oratory and political writing. In the section of Reflections on the French Revolution from which I've quoted above he said:

We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity. In England we have not yet been completely embowelled of our natural entrails; we still feel within us, and we cherish and cultivate, those inbred sentiments which are the faithful guardians, the active monitors of our duty, the true supporters of all liberal and manly morals. We have not been drawn and trussed, in order that we may be filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with chaff and rags and paltry blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man. We preserve the whole of our feelings still native and entire, unsophisticated by pedantry and infidelity. We have real hearts of flesh and blood beating in our bosoms. We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility. Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected; because all other feelings are false and spurious, and tend to corrupt our minds, to vitiate our primary morals, to render us unfit for rational liberty; and by teaching us a servile, licentious, and abandoned insolence, to be our low sport for a few holidays, to make us perfectly fit for, and justly deserving of, slavery, through the whole course of our lives.

You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.

Your literary men, and your politicians, and so do the whole clan of the enlightened among us, essentially differ in these points. They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery. They conceive, very systematically, that all things which give perpetuity are mischievous, and therefore they are at inexpiable war with all establishments. They think that government may vary like modes of dress, and with as little ill effect: that there needs no principle of attachment, except a sense of present conveniency, to any constitution of the state. They always speak as if they were of opinion that there is a singular species of compact between them and their magistrates, which binds the magistrate, but which has nothing reciprocal in it, but that the majesty of the people has a right to dissolve it without any reason, but its will. Their attachment to their country itself is only so far as it agrees with some of their fleeting projects; it begins and ends with that scheme of polity which falls in with their momentary opinion.

Source: Edmund Burke (1729–1797). Reflections on the French Revolution.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14 (Paras. 125–149)

In another rhetorical flight, elsewhere in the Reflections, Burke describes what we used to call the silent majority:

Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.

Note: Bush quotes come from the book review section of the Claremont Institute home page. The Claremont Institute aims to "restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life" (from the mission statement on the home page). Here's a link to the review article: A President, Not a Preacher, by Joseph M. Knippenberg, Posted September 2, 2004. A review of A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush by David Aikman, The Faith of George W. Bush by Stephen Mansfield, and George W. Bush on God and Country edited by Thomas M. Freiling.

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