Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Paine v. Burke

When you look at the quality (or lack thereof) of political debate today it seems a bit of a stretch to link it to Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, but that's what conservative journalist Yuval Levin has done in his recent study of The Great Debate.  I can understand the desire to root the rhetorical differences in what passes for political debates, but come on now, how many Americans even know who Edmund Burke is?  As for Paine, he has been co-opted by right wing pundits like Glenn Beck, who see him as an early Libertarian maverick.

This doesn't stop Levin from cobbling together a "debate" of political differences, using their opposing thoughts on the French Revolution as a springboard.  One can understand why old guard conservatives would prefer Burke to Paine, as the British statesman espoused a "prudent conservatism" in keeping with the tone of the National Review, which Levin most often pens for.  But, Paine is more at heart an American than Burke, who criticized the emerging American republic as much he did the French republic, especially when Jefferson and other American statesmen sided with the French.

However, Levin is looking more for an ideological divide than he is a historic one, finding comfort in Burke's sense of stability, much the way Adams did, who cribbed from Burke when putting together his own Thoughts on Government.  So why not go with a homegrown Burke?

In fact, why not go to the heart of the American political divide, federal government vs. states rights, which has been the running debate since the US Constitution was first introduced?  I suppose this would put Levin at odds with Burke, who would have sided with the Federalists, and we can't have that.  No, by stripping down Burke's arguments to their raw core, he can keep this on a purely ideological plane.

Whatever the case, you have to marvel at what these conservative think tanks  ponder over these days.  However, this isn't the type of stuff that translates well to the rank and file conservative.  Much easier to turn Thomas Paine quotes into memes, like the one above in support of gun rights.  This is the nature of the political debate today.  Whether he actually said it is another matter ; )


  1. "arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The balance of power is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside."

    Paine is clearly referring to the British government and its army. I doubt Second Amendment advocates would agree with the last sentence.

  2. Glad to see you could get back in, Rick. It never ceases to amaze me how these gun advocates and Bible thumpers cut and past these quotes.

  3. I guess their cut-and-pasting tells you something about their readers: they are only interested in what validates their preconceived notions.

  4. A few years ago I had an online debate with someone who called himself "Thomas Paine" on a variety of subjects. He believed that political conservatives today are the best representatives of our Founders ideals. That Paine today would be a right winger and vote Republican. Hated to burst his bubble but his debating skills and knowledge of American history were absolutely no match for mine. Contrary to his beliefs, the real Paine would have said that the "Moral Majority", the church's undue influence on society, politics designed to enrich the wealthy, etc were not the things neither Paine nor the Founders would have endorsed. On the contrary he and they would have taken up arms in order to dissolve these problems.

  5. Maybe this "Thomas Paine" should read Age of Reason?

    1. That is precisely what I told "Thomas [sic] Paine". Thereafter, I proceeded to dissect each of his arguments and he declined to continue the debate. Had it been a boxing match, I would have scored a first round KO within half a minute.

  6. I was taken aback a few years ago when Glenn Beck was styling himself as a modern-day Paine, releasing his version of Common Sense. I read the intro out of curiosity. I could only surmise that the only thing he took was the title. But, then he is appealing to the base intelligent of a fruit fly, which hasn't read any Tom Paine or any other work by an early American, which I guess Paine ended up being after his brief flirtation with the French. It's like these guys serve as some kind of figureheads for the conservative right and can be shaped into anything the conservatives want, figuring their readers will never make the effort to find out who these figures really were. This is especially sad given that Paine's writing, along with Jefferson and Adams, and for that matter Burke's works, are easily available on line and make for much better reading.

  7. Plato is another favorite of conservatives,

    The Cave and the Light


  8. You might recall a few years ago when CONservatives tried to prop up John Adams as a champion of "liberty" and good old Americanism that modern day politicos should imitate. Then the subject of the Alien & Sedition Acts came up and the delusional right wingers gave up the ship.

  9. I meant to bring this up a while (in fact, I may have done so but have forgotten for sure):


    Historian examines the way two men changed America’s view of Abraham Lincoln

    By Frank Davies

    Taking for granted the canonization of Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator who set the standard for presidential and moral leadership is easy when you consider the massive Lincoln Memorial in Washington, a flood of books on the subject and Steven Spielberg’s popular movie.

    But that view of Lincoln was not always embraced. In the decades after the Civil War, Lincoln was viewed with ambivalence if not hostility by the intellectual elites. Prominent historians denigrated him as a backwoods politician and a bungling leader who mishandled the war. The moral dimension of the war — Lincoln’s drive to end slavery — was often forgotten by white Americans.

    In Lincoln’s Boys, historian Joshua Zeitz chronicles how Lincoln’s eventual ascendancy in our memory owes much to his two secretaries, who spent more time with the 16th president than anyone. John Hay and John Nicolay reset the historical narrative with a 10-volume biography that portrayed Lincoln as a deft leader and strategist, “the one unapproachably great figure of a great epoch.”

    ... more at Miami Herald

  10. It seems Republicans still have a hard time reconciling Lincoln,