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The Burkean Regicide | The Nation

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The Burkean Regicide

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David Bromwich

David Bromwich

Moral Imagination
Essays.
By David Bromwich.
Buy this book

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke
From the Sublime and the Beautiful to American Independence.
By David Bromwich.
Buy this book

There is a long-running debate about Burke that goes back to his own lifetime: How could a friend and advocate of the colonists of North America and the colonized of South Asia against Great Britain’s imperial and commercial power become the French Revolution’s monumental foe? The two Burkes, Hazlitt memorably contended, “are not the same person, but opposite persons—not opposite persons only, but deadly enemies.” (Burke “was at once a coward, a liar, and a slave,” he added, for good measure.) In contrast, Bromwich thinks that “Burke had a way of shifting his emphasis without fundamentally changing his ground.” Yet I doubt the same could be said of Bromwich himself. Or one might consider the parallel in reverse: what the French Revolution altered in Burke corresponds to what 9/11 brought forth from Bromwich.

Bromwich’s immediate reaction to 9/11, published less than a month after the events, anxiously intuited the disproportionate response that would follow: “If the US should seek to avenge these thousands with new thousands of innocent dead, it will be the response of a nation merely. I fear that we may do that, but hope that we will not. By what we do now, and what we refrain from doing, we ought to wish to be seen to act on behalf of the human nature from which the agents of terror have cut themselves off.” It was an obvious shout-out to Burke. In the longest-lasting political concern of his life, the parliamentary trial of Warren Hastings for misdeeds as governor-general of Bengal, Burke rose to “impeach” the accused “in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed.” If the US government acted from narrower purposes, Bromwich feared, it could easily slip into the imperial posture of a Hastings.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. Bromwich’s justified screeds against Bush and his henchmen offered up penetrating insights into continuities running not just forward to Obama, but backward to prior Democratic policy. “Let us say that the neoliberal,” he writes, referring to Bill Clinton’s idealism of human rights, “wants humanitarian interventions that may uneasily shade into wars, while the neoconservative wants wars that sooner or later find a justification to satisfy humanitarian goals. How great is the difference?” These two schools were “rival schools of empire.” Burke’s indictment of “homicide philanthropy” seemed less an anticipation of the mainstream of either political party than of strictures against “military humanism” among leftists and libertarians.

Even as he continued to target Bush and his ghastly retinue (Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh), after the 2008 election Bromwich’s bitterest contempt was reserved for the new president, in a wave that overflowed the London Review and New York Review and spilled onto various websites. Some of the choicer tidbits are verdicts worthy of the Burkean example. In these pieces, Bromwich always shows a tenacious engagement with the particulars, but the primary concerns have always been Obama’s wars—the unfinished one in Afghanistan, the initiated one in Libya and the threatened one in Syria. “George W. Obama,” Bromwich charges, let his predecessors off the legal hook, not least by perpetuating their policies. When it came to most of these charges, Bromwich had his antagonist dead to rights. The secret “way of the knife” that Bush honed is one that, in many respects, Obama has continued to sharpen.

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Yet these failures of policy were unerringly personalized and traced to a series of character flaws. Obama, Bromwich writes, was a social climber who relished the fact that he had made it into the elite and thereafter kowtowed to the great while talking down to those lesser than himself. Worse, he proved miscast in the role of savior that he had scripted for his presidency: “His love of fame—to occupy the central place but also to perform the shining deed—is greater than anyone had estimated. Yet his political instincts turn out to be weak.” His narcissism led him to dissociate himself from his party so as to be a singular prime mover: “In Obama’s speeches the word ‘I’ (which appears frequently) and the word ‘Democrat’ (which appears rarely) are seldom found in proximity.” Even Obama’s appearance and manner, except for his winning smile, were included on the charge sheet: “He is theoretically humble but practically haughty. His posture, faultless and fastidious, is always elegant but never warm.”

More seriously, there were the recurrent attempts at bipartisanship in the face of mortal enemies on the right, apparently because Obama believed his own false advertising about uniting the country. “Ideally, he would like to inspire everyone and to offend no one,” Bromwich sneered. As a result, the president’s essentially tactical disposition toward gaining consent avenged itself on the tactician. “Obama’s long-drawn-out attempt to settle himself in a place above politics has injured his party and found no takers on the other side.” He indulged in hollow rhetoric and “statements of purpose” rather than providing truth-telling and clear explanations: Obama deals “in the most innocuous slogans and sound bites his voice can wrap itself around. The concern is to stay ahead by staying safe…. Nothing about this best-in-the-world presentation even begins to move the country toward a sober understanding.”

Most of all, Bromwich offered an abstract critique of abstraction and an attack on dreamers for not being moderate enough, a Burkean indictment to which he added his own charge that moderates never get anything done:

The position of a moderate who aspires to shake the world into a new shape presents a continuous contradiction. For the moderate feels constrained not to say anything startling, and not to do anything very fast. But just as there is trouble with doing things on the old lines, there is trouble, too, with letting people understand things on the old lines. At least, there is if you have your sights set on changing the nature of the game. Obama is caught in this contradiction, and keeps getting deeper in it, like a man who sinks in quicksand both the more he struggles and the more he stays still.

Or more concisely: “If it is bad, all things being equal, to appear grandiose and worse to appear timid, it is the worst of all to be grandiose and then timid.” Obama couldn’t win: to the extent that he tried to hew to his revolutionary promises he betrayed Burke, but the converse was also true.

It wasn’t so much Obama’s unexceptional compromises as it was the way he fooled Americans with his promise of saving us from politics that gave Bromwich’s criticisms their power. He made himself a harsh deprogrammer who tapped into the quiet fury of many a betrayed cult member. How much anger at Obama’s triangulations masked, or fed on, embarrassment about prior credulity? Bromwich caught the mood of this ire. Yet as Obama’s ratings—real and moral—tank daily, more depends on why we conclude the president failed. The strengths and weaknesses of Bromwich’s diagnosis stem from a Burkean configuration of interests: the personal and the anti-imperial. Burke was at his most convincing when defending freedom against empire, a fact that Bromwich has long emphasized. But the Irish protector of English liberty was at his most bombastic when his political rhetoric slipped into a merely personal hatred. Bromwich understood this point in his first book—“What is weakest and most imitable in Burke’s style,” he noted then, “is a quickness of scorn that amounts at times to superciliousness”—but he sometimes forgets the lesson.

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