DOES BURKE MATTER?
by Judson Blake
When I was small, in what seems like pre-history now, I had passionate arguments with college students about the National Debt, which I believed was a problem that would grow out of control. I was vehement and convinced. I was told that my views were “conservative” and I pretended to know what that meant. One student suggested that I read the work of Edmund Burke who had laid out the conservative mode of thinking two centuries earlier and so was way ahead of me.
Well, Burke’s prose was beyond me ( I was ten ), but I could see the gist in his respect for tradition and natural human instincts. His famous work “Reflections on the Revolution in France” won my attention years later. There I learned some history, how Burke’s analysis prompted opposing thinkers, notably Thomas Paine, and how Paine replied with a powerful rebuttal in “The Rights of Man”. With such salvos between these two great minds, an historical crystallization came about; the difference between Left and Right became more defined, at least in England. What had before been isolated disputes now became colored and enriched by this clash of powerful ideas. Are these ideas relevant today?
Today America has shifted strongly and haltingly toward the right, and one naturally wonders what “conservative” means for us. Going over Burke’s resounding prose, I wonder today if any of it matters in America’s version of conservatism. Would Burke have recognized what we have today under this name? Would debates of the kind he engaged in the Eighteenth century even be possible today? Would anyone listen? Burke’s persuasive arguments were opposed by articulate thinkers who disagreed entirely, but nonetheless listened and took seriously what he said. Could such discussion hold an audience in America today? Obviously not. No one would attend. Clear distinctions such as separated Burke and Paine have effervesced for us; they no longer can contain our passions, our dilemmas or the complexity of our experience. These men offered context in the Eighteenth Century, but their ideas seem to have been overborne, exploded by passions, ignorance and weaponry more extreme than any in their time. So I am driven to ask: what trace of Burke might still persist in America’s version of conservatism? This is important because in times of radical change like ours, understanding antecedents can give balance and perspective we need.
It seems obvious that our national dialogue lacks concepts, since the opponents, Left and Right, have grown up spontaneously, as if in total ignorance of what went on in England at a time when America was just forming as a nation. One can sketch some of Burke’s thinking and those of his opponents in a rather simple phrase: the conservative is reluctant to jar what has worked before, especially if the jarring is proposed by novel ideas; the liberal is suspect of the rigors imposed by the past and so is more welcoming of ideas that spring from new conditions. Placed in this context, one might expect some sympathy from each side, not an impassable chasm of scorn. Such concepts, were they seen as a context for discussion, would help us understand the transitions we are going through and which are forced upon us. Is there even a shadow of these ideas in our modern ad hominem cannonades (mutated into tweets)? Do political figures we see today, without the patience to read either Burke or Paine, reflect any ideas at all?
I believe they do. I suspect American vehemence and American impatience with rational argument flow from deeply felt human character and human differences that we do not yet understand. Vehemence, bigotry and ad hominem attack look at first like only grandstanding and bombast, but there may be natural forces that this bombast obscures. We are in danger of dismissing as stupid what is only inarticulate outrage exploding on the right. Yet very often we see that the outrage comes from a place that even the speaker does not understand. So how are the rest of us to see through the bombast to some meaning? I suggest that there is a way to understand these things in a setting very different from the context of Burke, but one of historical force that parallels his.
Let us take for instance a remark made by a conservative politician not so long ago. Rick Perry, then governor of Texas, opined that he had a solution to the complex problems of the Middle-East: “Bomb them into the stone age.” Since many people have said this or something similar, Rick Perry is not alone. If the literal intent of what he said seems questionable, then the outrage and violence of such a statement are likely to be dismissed or taken for granted rather than looked at carefully. So much violence is repellent to thoughtful people and leads them to simply turn away. If I go into any bar or public place I’ll find people who second Perry’s view. They even applaud Perry for being so direct, for saying plainly what they think but have no podium like his.
What does such an expression mean? Is there anything in Perry’s remark besides simplistic thinking and faith in brutal means? His remark radiates from visceral impulse unmodulated by learning, compassion or reflection. As such we are faced with the raw reactions of a primitive but emotionally honest mind. This is unusual and quite forceful. Emotional honesty, with no regard for honesty of any other kind, has force because it is unusual in American politics but it speaks to feelings untampered by thought. This emotional honesty is a great strength of American conservativism today. It does not even need the cunning of lies. Political speeches filled with vague generalities meant to offend no one have worn so thin that a speaker who dispenses with such niceties is fresh air. And emotional honesty has the advantage that the speaker and the hearers need not be troubled by honesty about fact. The successful modern politician need not extend himself to careful articulation of ideas; such would only bore his listeners. But if he can speak from his gut they will listen. If he has clarity of his visceral feeling that will hold them. His emotional honesty brings raw expression to instincts that have been repudiated and disrespected in our enlightened liberalism. And there is where the shadows of Burke and Paine might be extended to inform the apparent irrelevance and chaos of American dialogue.
Burke praised human instinct as a surer guide to the future than theoretical speculation.
Conservatism today trusts primitive instinct more than mental exertion and it wishes passionately to dispense with complexity and the need for intellect. Thus one sees in modern American dialogue an unformulated new dichotomy: that between instinct and culture. Trust in “the old ways” has become freedom from strictures of science, diplomacy and careful thought. Today’s conservatives are reacting to liberalism they feel is forced upon them and has gone too far. We see in conservative initiatives not just hatred of ideas over experience, but even a hatred of practical science and human compassion. If scientific ideas are unwelcome, then blank denial can be imposed by simple repression, a kind of bureaucratic dropping of Perry’s bombs. My quotation from Perry expresses gut impatience with careful negotiation and the arduous task of understanding the minds of other people.
We can find other threads from Perry’s violent but simple remark. One thing is its imperious machismo. I call this monotonic machismo because it blankly insists on not listening to anything that would alter its willfulness. The macho dismisses subtle questions and leaves it to someone else to pick up the pieces. The ideal is that there will be no pieces. Then the macho will leave a clean slate and the future will be a beautiful fresh start, with no connection to the complexity before us now.
In with this machismo we also see that it is in love with its own maleness. It refuses to be compromised by what could be feminine tact or circumspection. So it is no accident that we see on the right today so much disrespect of the female. The monotonic macho will ride roughshod over any delicate niceties, especially those of women. This would have been too primitive for Burke.
Since his day the intervening centuries have brought a deep shift we don’t understand. Between instinct and culture, or instinct and intellect, there has arisen a dark divide. Burke leaned toward the valuing of instinct, but to him that implied stability, the tried and true, not the acting out of violent emotion or the denial of culture. In America today, this natural dichotomy, between primitive instinct and the culture that would civilize it, has become a stark divide that has calcified because we don’t understand it. In much of human history this duality has played out as opposites circling each other. Now American experience has thrown these distinctions into a drastic light and added deadly force to what was before a logical leaning or preference. Primitive instinct armed with modern weapons threatens chaos and massive destruction of life, but our lack of understanding of these instincts has forced them to explode with no need for logic or science.
Modern American machismo has gut insistence that has surprised those who side with culture over primitive instinct (the liberals) – and this surprise springs from too much trust that science and intellect could decide all problems. The liberal believes that people will behave rationally if given a chance; the conservative sees, as Burke clearly saw, the naiveté of such a presumption.
Burke saw the naturalness of ordinary life as a better guide than intellect and he felt that culture, far from opposing instinct, informed and enriched it. Tradition was the main avenue of this enrichment and should be trusted first whenever possible. For him breaking with tradition would require strong justification but he did not rule that out. For instance, Burke argued heavily in favor of giving the American colonists the independence they desired. The new nation was started out on a strange logical theory, a serious and practical application of new ideas. So we see in this the traces of culture (meaning logic, ideas and science) overcoming instinct (meaning adherence to historical experience and its ancient mores). It is my belief that this dichotomy–between instinct and culture–is the American evolvement (or blurring) of the dichotomy between Burke and Paine.
Perry’s instinctual dismissal of intellect, honest in his gut, is opposed by thoughtful people who doubt that complex problems can be solved by gut instinct alone. Yet today, instinct, like a beast that has been trodden over by the mass of inevitable scientific research, resurges and demands its time, even dominance, in a world it believes it knows well enough without science, diplomacy or careful reflection. What we see today is resurgence of primitive trust in instinct.
Our modern dialogue has descended into name-calling. But the outrage expressed that way should press us to understand it. We would be greatly helped if each side, left and right, could see these concerns as having a human basis, a basis on the one hand in instinct and macho privilege. On the other hand in the importance of science, compassion and careful study due the complexity of our modern world.
The primacy of gut instinct has meant a remarkable hostility to science. We see that the evidence for global warming is attacked by vested interests in fossil fuels. But the vehemence and connivance of these attacks suggests natural expedience (“Just burn what you like.”) is feeling defensive in the face of new technology and knowledge. Hostility to research in space is reflected in resistance to funding the International Space Station. The conservative feels threatened when natural assumptions of the past are called into question by the mass of statistical research. The gut instinct of men like Perry is to summarily dispense with all this. Repress it if possible, if not, just ignore it.
Another conservative aspect that is greatly under threat is ancient instinctual tribalism. Conservatives today are regularly accused of racism. By assuming that legislation could make people live together with indifference to tribal distinctions, our culture set the frame for instinctual backlash we see today. This has meant the ascendency of instinct that disregards all compromises that stand in its way. Culture, represented by liberal thinking, is swept away by the force of gut passion. A leader who speaks with gut honesty (and no honesty of any other kind) finds a following among tribalists. Now, it is natural that they would feel threatened, for today, due to modern technology, every nation on Earth shares a boundary with every other. Contrast this with the world of Burke. In an Eighteenth Century town such as he grew up in, practically every person a child saw looked like himself. Everyone spoke in the same language. The mindset of that day remains as our heritage, and is affronted now when hearing foreign speech is a regular occurrence for Americans. We are a nation of immigrants and it is possible we will one day become a modest cross-section of the whole world. Where will tribal feelings go then?
This is a deep problem, yet today the premise of American democracy is struggling toward a solution.
It will come about from understanding and compassion to bridge these radically opposing views. What this is coming to, and what will help America move into the future, is awareness of the root feelings that separate these two sides. For only if there is understanding of why these differences arise, can some viable firm direction be worked out. The naturalness, regard for instinct and tradition that guided Burke should inform our modern discussion.
About the Author:
A little about myself: BA, Literature, UC Berkeley; MS, Mathematics, UNM. For many years I worked in Wall Street (didn’t save a dime) and the scientific community, doing technical writing and programming. For several years I directed and acted on stage in New York. These days I tutor math and go to various cafés to sketch people, usually without their knowledge. For a long time, my writing was hardly coherent but recently it has grown so I’m proud enough to show it to you.