Thursday, December 10, 2009

Burke and the Inevitability of Back Stabbing

"To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greater part of mankind—indeed, the necessary effects of the ignorance and levity of the vulgar. Such complaints and humours have existed in all times; yet as all times have not been alike, true political sagacity manifests itself, in distinguishing that complaint which only characterises the general infirmity of human nature from those which are symptoms of the particular distemperature of our own air and season."

--Edmund Burke, "Thoughts on the Present Discontents."

Regarding thoughts on the images on the wall, no more judicious remark could have ever been uttered in the English language. Edmund Burke had a genius which is to articulate the good and the right in the midst of the most bitter of partisan warfare without seeming to be naïve, nor without being a sucker to the most passionate and partisan version of the good. He understood partisanship, and its inevitable indignities. Partisanship leads to taking sides--even against one's friends. Politics is a nasty and ugly business, but for Burke, political "sagacity" manifested itself in the ability separate temporary delusion from long standing grievance. This was and is no easy task.

Nonetheless, Burke provides hope that one can maintain the respect of one's true friends by putting into speech the reasons for one's own partisan position. This means that one must be willing to take a stand against one's friends, but one must do it vis a vis argument and speech. At the end of the day, such speech may not be persuasive, and accusations of selling out to the powers that be (whether to the many or few) will abound, but at least one has something to stand upon at that point.

That stance is one's own reasoned defense of oneself in a way that points beyond oneself and addresses the "general infirmity." This stance gives one a position from which to defend oneself to any friends that may have been lost in the heat of battle. After the battle has subsided, one can say to them that perhaps all is not lost. If they cannot ultimately see this, then they are not true friends. If this is the case, then so be it. In that case there will be pain and tears at the loss. However, in order to emphasize the serious nature of the dispute, it may also mean war. And never forget, one may be on the losing side of the settlement. The stakes are indeed high, so perhaps one should err on the side of caution.

Politics is not for the tender hearted, but Burke is exemplary of the hope that it need not be purely spiritedness without reason. Rather politics offers an opportunity to point toward a defense of what is one’s own (i.e., one's opinions passions and interests as the Federalist has it) with a broad and noble spirit. Burke's speeches are performative of this very principle. Sometimes he won the battle, but more often he lost. Either way he never gave up.

It is true that as a man of practical political action, Burke had a problem with any abstract appeal to natural right. He criticized the French revolutionaries for their reason in the guise of public atheism. It may be true that such an appeal to abstract right provides the necessary surety of a guide while charting the course of political action amid the arbitrary winds of circumstance. However, for Burke, such appeals always upset all that which has already shown itself to be necessary and good, and they lead to nothing but disorder and anarchy. So Burke had no abstract appeal, and at times one wonders if he were merely defending his own private situation when defending the ancient constitution.

This lack of natural right in Burke is indeed a problem, but I don't think it is a situation that ultimately ignores the problem of abstract right. Rather, for Burke, the right must be stated in terms of tradition, but tradition is always somewhat of an abstraction anyway. It must be described and defined, and Burke provides this. Little platoons do indeed exist everywhere at all times--especially in England--and they provide a place for the perfection of one's political nature. In then end, it is nearly impossible to describe tradition without relying on nature--let alone God. These may be vague--even abstract-- concepts, but they are available to appeal to. There is the added benefit that there exists a real concrete manifestation of the thing that one defends. It is there, it is good, and it is undeniable--except to those who espouse atheism as a public doctrine. This tradition of right is what "we" always already know to be true through custom. It has the sanction of history and the ratification of time. In this way, Burke sticks with what is known by all without being in the least bit timid. This is a general abstract standard of right.

To be sure, this is not a Machiavellian politics of "new modes and orders," but it may speak to moderns in its residual Machiavellian flexibility and adaptability.

The figure of Burke and the thoughts he relates about political action are internal to modern politics itself. How does one keep what is worthwhile for a dignified human life in the midst of the continuous change of modernity? Burke provides a sensible reminder of prudence (phronesis). This is the virtue exhibited in an ability to deliberate well, which gives rise to the ability to choose well--choosing without being reliant on as the Federalist puts it "accident and force." With a calculated recognition of the possible consequences of any action, and in a sure foresight of what is possible in the present circumstance, one exhibits true statesmanship when it is itself the result of what is decidedly best from what has been given from one's forefathers. In this defense of the past, Burke had a sure hand on the helm--if only that were the model for today's erstwhile statesmen.

I suppose at this point I should relate a personal story to make this discussion less abstract, but experience has taught me to remain mum on such issues. I'll leave it to you to fill in the blanks. No doubt, we could look at public life. Are the centralizing, commercializing, incorporating, bureaucratizing aspects of American life, in their technocratic efficiency, for the good? What is being lost in the continual refinement of social organization according to scientific standards? One could also look to specific public figures. Were Sarah Palin's handlers fair in their post-election treatment of her? Not at all it seems to me, but since I can't imagine reading her book anytime soon, I don't know if she handled it with the equanimity which diffuses the "particular distemperature" of the current air in a way which points toward the nobility of the good.

So I'm sorry, I have no particulars I care to relate (for now) as exemplary of Burkean politics personal or public.

The question regarding the arbitrary changes in political life remains, viz. did Burke think backstabbing was our lot? I suppose the answer is “yes,” but only because others backstab too. Where can one hold steady amidst such apparent madness--that is, hold steady in a way that preserves one’s own dignity while distinguishing between the particular distemperature and the general infirmity? It requires true statesmanship with the knowledge, dexterity, and flexibility of the good surgeon, but in this case for the body politic. It ain’t easy. As the O'Jays sing, "They smile in your face. They're backstabbers." See here.

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