To Scott’s lists of recommended books for the Christmas season, I would like to add Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. Levin, probably my favorite current analyst of politics and policy, describes the philosophical clash between Burke and Paine and explains how it forms the root of the current political divide in America.
Levin’s discussion of Burke also has relevance, I think, to recent events in Ferguson and New York City. Virulent anti-police, anti-order sentiment has reared its head in ways not seen since the early 1970s, when society seemed to be unraveling. And unlike in the 1970s, top level public officials — President Obama, Attorney General Holder, and Mayor de Blasio — have contributed to this sentiment through irresponsible public proclamations.
The French Revolution confirmed for Burke the fragility of public order and the danger that natural passions can release. As he put it, “Leave a man to his passions and you leave a wild beast to a savage and capricious nature.”
Unlike Paine, and indeed most political philosophers of his time (and a great many since), Burke did not believe that pure reason can mitigate our dark sides. Levin describes Burke’s view this way:
We cannot be simply argued out of our vices, but we can be deterred from indulging in them by the trust and love that develops among neighbors, by deeply established habits of order and peace, and by pride in our community or country. And part of the statesman’s difficult charge is keeping this balance together, acting rationally on this understanding of the limits of reason.
During the past 40 years, our leading public figures have mostly managed “to keep this balance together.” Trust and love may not reign and current habits in many precincts are not especially conducive to order and peace.
But pride in country and community is widespread. To cite two small examples, people no longer sit on their hands when the National Anthem is played at sporting events and our troops are not abused in public. We are one country, whatever John Edwards claimed to have believed. The demons unleashed in the late 1960s and early 1970s have been kept largely in check, in part because until recently they were repellent to politicians across the political spectrum.
But this no longer seems to be the case. Obama and Holder look for occasions to pontificate in ways that undermine mutual trust and trust in institutions that maintain order. They seized, for example, on the unfortunate but justified killing of a thug who attacked a police officer in Missouri as the pretext for claims that law enforcement in this country is systematically unjust to African-Americans.
Shortly after this, they seized on what appears to have been an unjustified, but non-racially motivated, killing in Staten Island as the basis for pressing their divisive theme. And the mayor of New York chimed in by announcing that he warns his bi-racial son, in effect, that the police may be out to get him because of his color.
Did these kinds of statements incite the New York mob that chanted its desire for “dead cops now?” Probably not. Did they inspire the assassin of two of New York’s finest? I doubt it.
But the statements were irresponsible nonetheless because of their inherent tendency to destroy the balance that Burke described — the one that keeps the demons from overrunning our society.
To be fair, balance means balance. It’s not the proper task of our leaders to defend indefensible policing practices or systemic injustices, if any, in the grand jury system; quite the contrary. But neither is it their job to infer the widespread existence of injustice in our policing and our courts from particular incidents, especially ones that, on analysis, don’t really illustrate the alleged injustices.
If Eric Holder has a case against officer Wilson, make it court. Don’t talk in inflammatory terms about the matter before you have thoroughly investigated it. Don’t grandstand for the political base.
Clearly shaken by the slaying of the New York police officers, Mayor de Blasio may be having a Burkean moment. He has called for a temporary cessation of the anti-police protests and has asked citizens to report any and all threatening statements against the police.
Unlike Obama, de Blasio has a city to govern on a day-to-day basis. And committed leftist though he is, the mayor does not now strike me as one who cares only about “the masses,” not about actual people.
Unfortunately, President Obama, every bit as left-wing as de Blasio, seems to see people as pure abstractions. And like Thomas Paine, he puts all of his stock in reason — his own, naturally — and has little use for tradition, habits of order and peace, or love of country.
Thus far our president has not roused himself to speak publicly about the assassination of the two police officers. Eventually, I suspect, he will. But even if his speechwriters find the right words, there will be no Burkean moment.
Obama wants to uproot our habits of order and peace which stand in the way of the radical transformation he would like to bring about. He doesn’t fear the demons of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he would like to enlist them.
This weekend in New York, we saw a terrible preview of what this would mean in practice.