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Political Antidotes: Reading Edmund Burke in a Spirit of Revolution

Women at the first state election, swapping notes
State Library of Queensland, Australia

Welcome to Election Day. We’re almost done.

Like Abigail on Youtube, many of us ache for the democratic process to be over (though some of us fear that democracy itself will be, you know, over) as much as we worry about the results of the election. We’re tired of the intellectual shallowness of endless Pandora ads, of the bickering and the tension amongst people who need to work together. We’re tired. We’re tired of it, and at the same time, the majority of us perpetuate the same dysfunction in miniature.

So as the American laundry cycle of semi-psychotic political behavior turns to “cooling,” from active to somewhat contemplative, I will be looking at antidotes. I’ll be reading political philosophers and social commentators, searching for new ideas in old places, and discussing them with you here. I’ll dabble around in various schools of thought but I’m mostly interested in variations of classical conservatism, that branch of thought that has little to do with Glenn Beck and a lot to do with Edmund Burke. Classical conservatism has the benefit of being accessible to both contemporary conservatives and liberals, since resulting policies (on taxes, abortion, marriage, crime, food stamps) do not fall neatly onto one side of the spectrum. It also has the benefit of challenge, of challenging us, and our conception of what the political spectrum looks like.

I first became interested in Burke when I heard David Brooks speak in Florida a few years ago. During the Q&A, I asked Brooks what book had been most influential in shaping his intellectual development, and he said Reflections on the Revolutions in France. Like most writers before 1800, Burke has a cool factor because nobody reads him any more (hipsters should really think about majoring in Classics, or at least Medieval & Renaissance Studies.)

He’s kind of edgy, precisely because he’s not.

Burke would not do so well if he was campaigning today . Rather than “Moving Us Forward” and talking about “Making Progress,” he says, “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views.” He would be more of a “death tax” than “estate tax” person (“The power of perpetuating our property in our family is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself.”)

Radical Republicans have not exactly found an ally in Burke, either. He writes that, rather than suggesting drastic socio-political action, “We compensate, we reconcile, we balance. We are able to unite in a consistent whole the various anomalies and contending principles that are found in the minds and affairs of men.” Reflections opens with his criticism of Rev. Richard Price, a preacher who advocated political views from the pulpit, a sin Burke finds a grievous violation of the sanctity of the church.

Instead, the party whose principles Burke advocates is conservative, in the sense of conservational, preserving the endangered species of society. Like a cleric but not a cleric, he demands that politicians and those who support them confess the sin of limitation, the weakness of not knowing everything, and therefore confess the need to act cautiously. He demands respect for the complex, mysterious systems of societal structure. He calls for a nation to admit that we do not, always, know what is best; that the surest knowledge we have is the knowledge of the consequences of our parents’ and grandparents’ actions. He warns us to fear the allure of “the private stock of reason.” 

And how does this translate into political action?

To avoid therefore the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by subversion; that he should approach the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.

Conservatives are often criticizing revolutions rather than creating them, but as I read, I wonder, regardless of who is president-elect next week, if it isn’t time for a little intellectual rebellion. As we watch the nation vote today, and learn the results through the week, let us ask our representatives to pause from their agendas, to silence the stump speeches, and admit that they do not know exactly how this is all going to play out.Romney does not know whether he will actually be America’s Comeback President or whether he’ll oversee a massive decline in American society. Obama does not know that “Forward” will always be the best direction for the country to move, or what will happen if that is the the GPS coordinate for the next four years.

And let us also rebel, by admitting that we, the passionate convicted electorate, do not always know, either. – Gabrielle


2 comments on “Political Antidotes: Reading Edmund Burke in a Spirit of Revolution

  1. Pingback: CONSERVARTISM | One Minute Theory

  2. Pingback: Conservatism

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , .

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