Gopnik on Edmund Burke

The New Yorker has published an insightful article by Adam Gopnik on the controversial Edmund Burke. It’s definitely worth a read for those interested in political theory, and I’d like to share a quote (at length) that resonated with me, on Burke’s thoughts about America and the Post Office:

One reason that Burke is so appealing to American conservatives is that, unlike other anti-Enlightenment thinkers, he supported the American Revolution. Actually, he was at first rather cool to the American position–partly because of its hypocrisy over slavery (“We hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes,” as Dr. Johnson said) and partly because of the Continental Congress’s hostility toward the Roman Church. But he came to doubt the wisdom of trying to rule a big country from a great distance, and of taxing people who didn’t get to vote for the people who taxed them. He thought the idea that you could run an empire on a balance sheet was crazy. Life took place in a theatre of values and traditions, and it was fatal to translate them into a merchant’s language of profit and loss. The real imperial glue had to be a commonality of interests and values. “As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you,” he argued. “Do not entertain so weak an imagination as that your registers and your bonds, your affidavits and your sufferances, your cockets and your clearances, are what form the great securities of your commerce.”

In those days, it took about eight weeks for a letter or a newspaper to travel between Old World and New, as mail was carried on leaky and wind-tossed boats. There was no way to know that what you were saying today hadn’t been rendered immaterial by what happened last week. Burke was well aware of the difficulty: “Seas roll, and months pass, between the order and the execution; and the want of a speedy explanation of a single point is enough to defeat a whole system.” And yet each side’s ability to grasp the other’s position (or fail to), and to adjust its policy (or fail to) in the light of changing events, seems exactly as agile, or as clumsy, as it is today. In particular, the positions taken in Parliament sound the same as those we might have now regarding an imperial issue of our own. Some argue that to compromise with the insurgents would be to lose all credibility with other insurgents; others that just one more surge of troops will do it. We are no better, or worse, at understanding Iraq from instant video than the Brits were at understanding America from salty, soggy mail. Whatever the speed of the news, the speed of understanding never seems to change, perhaps because understanding is shaped not by our ability to get the news but by our ability to digest it. Knowing the day-to-day movements of a foreign adventure confers no more advantage than knowing the minute-by-minute movements of a stock. The range of responses is always the same: there are bulls and bears, loss-cutters and this-will-show-them-ers. When it came to America, Burke was a loss-cutter.

A link to the article for fellow New Yorker subscribers can be found here (paywall):

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