July 11, 2020


Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln, 'All in All' (GREG WEINER, July 7, 2020, National Review)

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke took aim at Lord George Gordon, who had led the anti-Catholic riots that bore his name. By the time of the Reflections, Gordon resided in Newgate Prison, convicted of libel and unable to afford the security the judge demanded for his freedom. In the interim, Gordon had converted to Judaism. Burke took note. Gordon should stay in Newgate, Burke suggested, to "meditate on his Talmud" until France bought his freedom "to please [the Jacobins'] new Hebrew brethren." Burke continued, referring to the church lands the French revolutionaries had seized:

He may then be enabled to purchase, with the old hoards of the synagogue, and a very small poundage on the long compound interest of the thirty pieces of silver, . . . the lands which are lately discovered to have been usurped by the Gallican Church. Send us your Popish Archbishop of Paris, and we will send you our Protestant Rabbin.

Perhaps excepting Jeremy Corbyn, no British politician would speak this way in 2020. The caustic use of Gordon's conversion and the characterization of Jews as heirs of Judas are unmistakably tinged with anti-Semitism.

As one of those heirs, I cringed the first time I read the passage. But it has never induced a sense of profound offense or inhibited me from calling myself a Burkean or from writing about Burke. The passage is otherwise unremarkable, though it does contain a priceless bit of Burkean wit. After referring to the Gordon rioters as a "mob," he apologizes parenthetically: "Excuse the term, it is still in use here."

But in a 280-character world, Burke would be reducible to one label -- anti-Semite -- and, to the extent that is an offense to the avatars of cancelation, canceled. The accusation consumes a few characters. A handful more words of quotation wrenched from context, a pile-on of denunciation, and a tweet hits its limits. There can be no overall assessment of a scholar-statesman's body of action and writings. There is no space for noting Burke's eloquent parliamentary defense of the Jews whom British troops looted on the West Indies island of St. Eustatius, or his rousing defense of the rights of India against British imperial abuses. In her history of Judaism in British thought, The People of the Book, Gertrude Himmelfarb recalls the Gordon passage as well as the St. Eustatius speech, concluding that the latter may not qualify Burke as "a philososemite," but that it was also an honorable defense of the Jews when no one else offered one.

There is a Yiddish saying: When a man wears a white coat, a speck of dust makes it look dirty.  That is true enough, especially if one lives in a world devoid of nuance, where heroes are spotless and sinners can never be redeemed. When Horatio told Hamlet that his father was "a goodly king," the prince replied: "He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again." The passage on Gordon is troubling. But taken for all in all, Burke was a great and admirable man. The cancel caucus would be unable to see it, and Burke knew why. One of his insights, also in the Reflections, was that "those who are habitually employed in finding and displaying faults are unqualified for the work of reformation. . . . By hating vices too much, they come to love men too little." The result is that they can destroy but not build.

Posted by at July 11, 2020 6:33 AM