A sound instinct prompted David Bromwich to publish Moral Imagination at the same time as his biography of Edmund Burke, and not only because the idea of “a moral imagination” is derived from Burke.1 These essays were written between 1995 and 2012, and although Burke is not the central figure in them, they shed much light on the frame of mind in which Bromwich approached the ambiguous figure of Burke in his biography, and even more on how Bromwich is relevant to the politics of our own times. He has been a fierce, not to say a savage, critic of both President Obama and his predecessor in the White House; but his essays on the exemplary figure of Lincoln reprinted here remind us that Bromwich thinks it anything but impossible to provide moral leadership in difficult conditions—extreme conditions are difficult in many ways, but one of them is in offering too many temptations to behave in cruel and immoral ways.
The book begins with the essay on moral imagination that provides its title, and ends with a chapter of “Comments on Perpetual War,” a sequence of short and savage essays on enthusiasts for the war on terror from William Safire to Dick Cheney. They end with a rousing defense of Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing that only slightly tempers the chilling reminder that the National Security Administration has an ability to uncover the secrets of every citizen that the Stasi only dreamed of in Communist East Germany. It is hard to believe that either the judiciary or elected politicians can be relied on to police our own domestic spies when the spies possess, if they care to use it, the same hold over their supposed masters as J. Edgar Hoover held over his. Not that a majority of the judiciary or politicians seems disposed to attempt the task in the first place.
The scope of Moral Imagination is wider than such essays may suggest: the morality of war features prominently, but that is because a central figure of the book is Abraham Lincoln, whose reluctant resort to force and unwillingness to demonize his slaveholding foes contrast so sharply with the enthusiasm for a war against the “bad guys” displayed by the Bush administration. The title is drawn from a famous passage in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke was appalled by the treatment of Marie-Antoinette, who had been dragged from her bedchamber at Versailles and forced to return to Paris along with her husband, Louis XVI.
The event led Burke to lament that “the age of chivalry is gone.” Responding to the French revolutionaries’ contempt for chivalry and their desire to make the world over in a new and more rational form, he wrote:
All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to a dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
Although Bromwich begins with this famous claim from Burke, he immediately goes on to engage with very different writers, Shelley and Whitman and Dickinson among them. Burke wanted to remind his readers of the inherited moral resources of their own society. Bromwich is equally anxious to remind them to employ their own imaginative resources when those of their society fail.
Bromwich has engaged with the subject of moral imagination for many years. As far back as 1983, his first book, on the English radical critic William Hazlitt, opened with a chapter on “Imagination” where, significantly enough, he quotes Hazlitt expressing his admiration for Burke, qualified by his reminder that he knows enough to admire Burke while remaining immune to the noxious fumes of his conservatism. That nicely captures Bromwich’s own position.
Those who read these essays alongside Bromwich’s account of Burke’s intellectual and political career will find their eye caught by three topics, all with Burkean overtones, deeply relevant to the present, and handled with Bromwich’s characteristic sharpness. The first is the focus of the first two essays: how to draw on the moral, political, and intellectual resources of the culture in which we are raised to enlarge our moral imagination rather than to narrow our sympathies. Communitarian thinkers such as Michael Walzer and Charles Taylor, who emphasize the moral authority of our culture, are by no means political conservatives, but they can be accused of too readily seeing the good in things that radicals are dubious about. They are respectful of ethnic and religious attachments in particular. That, in Bromwich’s view, narrows the moral imagination.
The second topic is the question of character: the qualities of temperament and imagination a statesman requires to handle critical situations prudently, and without gross violations of morality; and how like and unlike those qualities may be to what we can expect of the ordinary citizen. American democracy is particularly plagued by that question; we want our leaders to be representative figures, but we long for heroes, too. We are committed to the importance of our own individual, perhaps even idiosyncratic, perspective on the world; and we long to be led by a leader who shares it.
The third topic is the temptations that beset an imperial power, and the ways in which the possession of overwhelming military power leads political leaders and ordinary citizens alike to imagine a world in which the “bad guys” are smoked out and evil is destroyed. The likely result of turning this fantasy into military action was spelled out almost two millennia ago by the northern British chieftain Calgacus, rallying his followers to resist the Roman legions. “To robbery, butchery, and rapine,” he said, “they give the lying name of ‘government’; they create a desolation and call it peace.”2 Bromwich is particularly sharp on the way government spokesmen wrap the realities of massacre, torture, and gratuitous cruelty in euphemism.
Critics of Bromwich’s hostility to the present administration have been puzzled by the ferocity of his attacks on President Obama, but nothing here suggests personal animus or that Bromwich believes that Americans are more prone than anyone else to imperial self-deception. They have, he suggests, succumbed to imperial fantasies because they have since 1989 been vastly more powerful than anyone else and faced with more temptation.
Others before them behaved as badly and worse. One of Bromwich’s more telling quotations comes from George Orwell remarking on the way in which the British described the process of bombing tribesmen out of their homes:
Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.
Orwell was evenhanded; in the same passage of “Politics and the English Language” Stalinist euphemisms were dealt with just as savagely:
People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
“Enhanced interrogation techniques” is only a recent addition to a very long list.
The first two essays set out what Bromwich sees as the polarities of social and political criticism, on the one side a developed moral imagination, on the other an excess of loyalty to and immersion in the culture in which we are brought up. “Moral Imagination” reminds us that a vivid imagination has often been seen as a curse rather than a blessing, as in the wrong conditions it obviously is. Othello’s uncontrolled imagination, after all, makes him an easy victim of Iago’s scheming. A more phlegmatic Othello would have been less gullible.
For Bromwich’s purposes, it is the moral imagination that is at stake; and his view of it is that it is the capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are not only not ourselves but very different from us. This is not a matter of personal acquaintance, knowing them in depth, or individually, but being moved by their situation and being able to reflect sensitively and imaginatively on it.
Although Moral Imagination is in large part a book about politics, and especially the politics of war, its resources are historical and literary, and Bromwich makes his point about the essence of moral imagination with one of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. “The Idiot Boy” is a strange poem, and caused its first readers a good deal of puzzlement; the boy of the title is sent off on horseback by his mother, Betty Foy, to fetch the doctor for her friend, Susan Gale. He fails to return; Betty Foy goes for the doctor herself, but the doctor refuses to come. She searches all night for her son, and finally finds him, seated on his horse; asked what has happened, he responds, “The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,/And the sun did shine so cold!” In the meantime, Susan Gale is miraculously better.
A natural reaction is to wonder what we are to think about a boy who sees owls as cocks crowing at dawn and the moon as a mysteriously cold sun; but Wordsworth wanted his readers to engage not with the boy but with his mother, searching all night, and overjoyed to see him safe and sound and glad to see her. Wordsworth explained that he was “tracing the maternal passion through many of its more subtle windings.” He was not engaging in a politically correct attempt to empathize with the intellectually disadvantaged in the twenty-first-century mode, nor in a depiction of the strange and alien in a more eighteenth-century mode, but in making Betty Foy vivid to us.
The transition to politics is indirect but clear enough. Edmund Burke protesting the cruelties of the East India Company and Martin Luther King turning against the Vietnam War when he saw photographs of children burned by napalm may be almost two centuries apart, but they shared a common reaction to cruelties that provoked a nearly physical revulsion.
Bromwich sets his account of the moral imagination, with which he thinks Lincoln and Whitman were richly endowed, against the communitarian emphasis on culture and rootedness that was so much a feature of political argument in the 1990s, especially during the so-called “culture wars.” The most notable liberal defenders of the importance of culture were Michael Walzer and Charles Taylor, both of whom come in for some rough handling.
Taylor’s advocacy of a “politics of recognition” asks us to conduct social, economic, and political life in a way that reassures everyone that their allegiances, values, and ways of life are taken seriously by the wider society. The demand for recognition almost always arises when an ethnic, linguistic, or religious minority feels that it is being treated with contempt. It is the demand for respect. But there is a narrow line between asking not to be treated with contempt and asking to be positively valued. Atheists will have a hard time “recognizing” Orthodox Jews and vice versa, and speakers of a majority language will be bound to ask awkward questions about who is to pay the bills for printing every form in a dozen different languages. Since toleration is one thing and respect another, the demand for recognition asks for more than toleration; it asks for approval, perhaps even for assistance in keeping such subcultures alive. But why would a liberal state do that? Toleration is quite enough.
Bromwich observes that some people will claim that September 11 cured everyone of a belief in the benign effects of culture, but he says nothing could be further from the truth. The thought that everyone is and should be the creatures of their culture underlies, he claims, some of the largest follies of recent American foreign policy. Thinking that Iraq could be governed as a set of distinct Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish communities was not the prelude to the reign of peace and cooperation but to the bloody horrors that took place between 2004 and 2007.
If encouraging an obsession with cultural identity—which in a political setting invariably means religious, racial, and ethnic identity—has had some terrible consequences, its intellectual basis is shaky in spite of the best efforts of some distinguished philosophers and political theorists. One of Bromwich’s shrewdest jabs is the observation that it is boringly true that we all come from somewhere, and that all of us in that sense have roots, much as we come from families; but who, he asks, is to say that all families are happy families?
In Bromwich’s view, the facts about our origins are just that; they are about where we came from as a matter of fact. Whether we should feel pleased with the hand that fate dealt us is another matter. To elevate loyalty to whatever culture we are talking about to the highest of virtues is precisely a failure of moral imagination.
Unsurprisingly, Bromwich reprints alongside these two lengthy essays a shorter piece, “The Meaning of Patriotism in 1789.” This picks up the argument between the Reverend Richard Price and Burke. Price’s sermon on love of country was what provoked Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Price thought we should love our country to the extent that it promoted the interests of mankind at large; and we should accept our government as legitimate to the extent that it worked effectively to that end. His insistence that the people retained an inalienable right to appoint their rulers and “cashier them for misconduct” provoked Burke to fury. Price thought that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that had deposed James II, the American Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789 were in all three cases vindications of that inalienable right.
Burke insisted that political authority rested on “prejudice,” the habit of obedience; we accepted our rulers out of habit, unless something dramatic occurred to break that habit. The revolutions of 1688 and 1776 had been defensive, restorative actions to reestablish political arrangements that the English in 1688 and the American colonists in 1776 had seen violated. We do not proportion our allegiance to a rational conviction that our country is the agent of universal values.
The implication is not hard to draw: patriotism is neither “My Country Right or Wrong” nor a license for imperial adventures. A less obvious thought is one that Bromwich credits to Hazlitt. We are not friends and neighbors of our compatriots, who are in the most literal sense strangers to us. Patriotism is not a natural reaction to physical proximity or personal acquaintance; it must be “the creature of reason and reflection,” in which case it had better be intelligently reflective. With the director of the CIA praising the torturers employed by his organization as “patriots,” it seems a good moment to think again about patriotism.
The central essays of Bromwich’s book are more meditative, and none the worse for it. They focus on the American character, encouragingly in the essay “Lincoln and Whitman as Representative Americans,” less encouragingly when it is exemplified by the recent craze for self-exposure on reality TV. The centerpiece is a long essay, “Lincoln’s Constitutional Necessity,” that is essentially a eulogy to Lincoln’s temperament as a leader who was neither at the mercy of events—although he frequently described himself in just such terms—nor driven by an impulse to strike heroic or self-aggrandizing poses. Even at the end of the Civil War, it is impossible to imagine Lincoln galloping up on horseback to declare “mission accomplished.”
The theme of “Lincoln’s Constitutional Necessity” is the deftness with which Lincoln acknowledged the realities of the politics of the day without ever shifting from his detestation of slavery. For him, necessity required that the compromises built into the Constitution be accepted until the institution of slavery had lost such legitimacy as it had had in 1787. Necessity worked both ways; it was necessary to work within the constraints that existing institutions and attitudes imposed, but a larger necessity, the workings of history, would operate to extinguish an institution that was evidently a moral abomination. That history was on the side of abolition seemed obvious from the early years of the Republic; the slave trade had been abolished before the end of the twenty years envisaged in the Constitution, and engaging in the trade had subsequently been treated as a capital offense on a par with piracy.
Yet progress had been halting. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 imagined a balance of free and slave states lasting into the indefinite future. What impresses Bromwich is Lincoln’s ability to preserve an implacable opposition to slavery without demonizing slaveholders or accepting the abolitionists’ view that the Constitution was a “Covenant with Hell.” The Constitution was the basis of a legitimate, democratic government. Perhaps even more important were the opening words of the Declaration of Independence; the United States was built on the principle that all men are created equal. That principle excludes slavery, as Lincoln said in 1854: “The plain unmistakable spirit of that age, toward slavery, was hostility to the PRINCIPLE, and toleration, ONLY BY NECESSITY.”
Lincoln’s moral imagination was capable of stretching to appreciate that slaveowners were not worse men, person by person, than their northern cousins. “They are just what we would be in their situation,” he said; people get used to the arrangements around them, and there was always a danger of people getting used to slavery, which was one reason why the Kansas–Nebraska Act was a disaster. Making slavery a local option, as the act called for, was reducing a matter of principle—that slavery should be extinguished as and when possible—into a matter of “dollars and cents.” And as he did in the Dred Scott case, Lincoln drew the line at any suggestion that free Americans should acknowledge the legitimacy of slavery.
Here is where Bromwich’s opposition to the “politics of recognition” finds its historical roots; it might be necessary to tolerate slavery, but it was impossible to accord it moral recognition. Yet Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision in Dred Scott amounted to just such a demand for recognition: the inhabitants of states where slavery had been abolished were to be required to reenslave their fellow inhabitants.
It is, of course, unfair to hold present-day politicians to the standards set by Lincoln in a time of genuine national crisis. The Civil War was a war to decide whether the United States would remain one country or two, of which one would be a state whose raison d’etre was the preservation of chattel slavery. Neither the two world wars of the twentieth century nor the cold war that ensued posed such a problem. Bromwich does not suggest that we measure the authors of the so-called war on terror by such exalted standards, although one cannot help feeling that the combination of complete moral clarity with enormous self-restraint displayed by Lincoln would stand a national leader in good stead in times of peace as well as war.
What moves Bromwich—apart from deep disgust—is the thought that after the end of the Soviet Union in 1989, the United States simply squandered the chance to repair the damage done by forty-five years of overinvestment in military hardware and neglect of the country’s social and physical infrastructure. Instead of which, hubris became the dominant style; the fact that no other power could hope to challenge the United States militarily was mistaken for a license, even a duty, to remodel the world in an American image. One begins to see why Bromwich is so sharp with President Obama when reading his tart discussion of Reinhold Niebuhr’s reflections on our proneness to political self-deception in The Irony of American History and elsewhere; Obama claimed to be a disciple of Niebuhr, but has behaved with a moral obtuseness that makes the claim a bad joke.
Why is Niebuhr an obvious figure to invoke? It is not because he was right about the politics of the early cold war; like many anxious liberals, he wanted the United States to stand up to the Soviet Union, but not in a fashion that might provoke a war. He wanted the United States to intervene to prevent Communist takeovers, but the US interventions of the day—Bromwich cites the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala—were just what he did not want. Niebuhr’s ambivalence about the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has not worn well either.
But Niebuhr reminded his readers of two things it is easy to forget. Liberal societies are better than totalitarian societies, but liberals are no less afflicted with the taint of Original Sin than the rest of humanity. And if individual liberals are prone to forget it, it is much harder to persuade an entire nation to acknowledge itself as guilty of wickedness. “Patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism,” Niebuhr wrote. When citizens give themselves wholeheartedly to the service of the nation,
The unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation’s power and of the freedom to use the power without moral restraint. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations.
The moral is not entirely obvious. It is not isolationist. But it is deeply hostile to moral crusades. This is not, says Bromwich, only a matter of appreciating the limits of our ability to rid the world of evil; it is more importantly a matter of acknowledging the evil in ourselves:
Niebuhr said that there is evil in the world; also, that there is evil in ourselves. Only if you take the second point with the first will you discern the depth of the madness in the claim by President George W. Bush, on September 14, 2001, that Americans are now in a position to “rid the world of evil.”
The same reticence about ascribing every evil act to the wickedness of our enemies must, of course, be applied at home. We do not have to imagine every CIA operative a sadist; only to appreciate that conscientious people do terrible things when they pursue what they believe is the national interest, unconstrained by the knowledge that the damage the enemy can do to us is nothing to the damage we can do to ourselves.
The final chapter, “Comments on Perpetual War,” displays Bromwich’s skills as a critic in the tradition of Hazlitt and Orwell. Nailing the Bush administration’s habit of disguising the realities of torture and massacre in whatever bureaucratic euphemism came to hand is not unduly difficult; but Bromwich’s sustained pursuit—for instance of Condoleezza Rice’s description of the Lebanon War of 2006 as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”—takes stamina as well as a sharp eye and a sharp pen. But since hardly anyone now thinks that the “war on terror” has been anything other than a disappointment to its defenders and a disaster in the eyes of its critics, it is perhaps right to end, as Moral Imagination does, with Bromwich celebrating Edward Snowden’s courage in revealing what he had learned about the government’s surveillance of its citizens.
Critics of Snowden’s actions range from those who think it is simple treason to divulge official secrets to those who think he was right to want to bring the extent of the government’s program of spying on its own and everyone else’s citizens into the open, but that he should have somehow taken a more responsible route, perhaps waiting several months for The New York Times to verify the authenticity of the material. Bromwich seems to me to get it right. Reactions to Snowden’s disclosures cut across party lines; Democrats and Republicans came out on both sides, and the split provided “an infallible marker of the anti-authoritarian instinct against the authoritarian.”
What especially distresses Bromwich is “the evidence of the way the last few years have worn deep channels of authoritarian acceptance in the mind of the liberal establishment.” Anyone who wonders why he is quite so critical of President Obama might reflect on that thought, along with the fact that this administration has employed the Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute more whistle-blowers than all previous administrations put together.