David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University. Over the past decade or so, Bromwich has carved out a second career as a social critic, writing regularly in publications such as the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Much of his writing there on the depredations of American power since 9/11 has been collected in a new book, “Moral Imagination“, which also contains essays on the history of American exceptionalism and the nature of cultural identity. The book establishes, too, a sort of pantheon of Bromwich’s moral and political heroes—notably Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln and Dr Martin Luther King.
I spoke to Bromwich on the phone recently and began by asking him whether there are any models he consciously tries to emulate when writing in the journalistic, rather than the academic, mode.
DB: The models for it come mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hazlitt is one. Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling are also writers I’ve learned from. Also Dwight Macdonald and Harold Rosenberg. And more than any of them, Orwell. Not, I would add, for the standard reasons—which I take to be because he told the truth about communism. Re-reading Orwell, I’ve found him to be quite an eccentric and disturbing writer, sometimes in ways I don’t find easy to admire. There’s a streak of cruelty in him. I think that was something he recognised in himself. And there’s maybe a streak of cruelty in the desire to tell the truth. He talks about this in his essay “Why I Write”. He realised early that he had an aesthetic interest in words and how to put them together, and a capacity for facing “unpleasant facts”. There’s no American who’s quite his equal. But then again, there’s been no British writer his equal either.
JD: That line of Orwell’s about facing “unpleasant facts” has become very famous. But it’s also been turned into a bit of a fetish among some of his followers. You mention Orwell in your discussion in the book of the “neoconservative moment” after 9/11. Now, Orwell was deployed by certain neoconservative writers—or fellow travellers of neoconservatism—to particular political ends during that period. One thinks of Christopher Hitchens, for instance.
I think Hitchens took a particular pleasure in going against the prejudices of his previous constituency—whatever that happened to be as he moved along from one stage of his career to another. I believe Hitchens underrated the real horror of war, of killing. I don’t know how close he’d ever been to it, as Orwell certainly had. This idea of wanting to be among the rhetorical powers helping to draw a great country into a just war, or a great contest in the world—Hitchens came to see this as his mission. And I don’t think he concerned himself very much with evidence. He knew there were journalists and people like himself among the Iraqi Kurds, for example, who wanted the US to attack Iraq and he sympathised with them enormously. He was lifted up by his own powers of fantasy. And I would distinguish fantasy from genuine imagination.
What you’ve just described is an instance of what you say is the subject of all the essays in this book—the relationship between power and conscience, or, as you also put it, between imagination and what you call the “canons of accuracy that govern judgement”. You think that this relationship is clarifying lens or optic through which to examine the behaviour of the United States since the end of the Cold War. Could you explain why?
“Conscience” is a word I don’t hear much in discussion of public life in the United States any more. It had more force and employment in the years when I was growing up and first started to follow politics, in the late Sixties and early Seventies. One of the things that killed it was identity politics.
In that connection, I was particularly struck by just how strenuous you are in your criticisms of Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer, two thinkers who regard themselves as being on the left…
And they are.
And they are. Your suggestion seems to be that their influence on left politics, especially on the academic left in the US and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, has been pernicious.
The word I would use is “dangerous”. The reason is that they are working up a version of tolerant multiculturalism, but one where cultural identity becomes a human right on a par with the right to be decently clothed, fed and not molested. Taylor actually asserts that not to be recognised for the proper cultural membership that you feel you ought to enjoy is a human wrong which should be punished much in the way that theft or assault is punishable. When I started to take that argument apart, I really didn’t understand it as a political argument at all. It’s a quasi-moral argument that, at bottom, is religious. And both of those writers will confess that under pressure—that the kind of belief in cultural and tribal identity that they’re promoting is, as Taylor puts, a substitute for religion. I go further back to the 18th century, and writers like Kant, Burke, Paine and others for whom the political definition of what counts as dignity, as rights, didn’t have to have this [kind of] cultural definition. Burke said somewhere that the “sphere of my duties is my country”. Well, Taylor and Walzer would have to reject that.
I think it’s fair to say, however, that Walzer’s relation to the theologico-political tradition you’re describing is more troubled than Taylor’s.
I think that’s right. Taylor’s a religious communitarian, and the religion is Catholicism. Walzer is a broad, latitudinarian believer in everyone’s right to have that kind of identification. His own connection with the desire of the State of Israel to be at once secular and mainly Jewish is extremely complicated—it’s now a minority cause.
One can read these essays, I think, as an attempt to provide a genealogy or diagnosis of America’s failings since the end of the Cold War. You argue that this is partly a failure of “moral imagination”. So I wonder if you could explain exactly what you mean by “moral imagination”. It seems to me that this is partly the language of the Enlightenment—or at least that part of the Enlightenment that was most hospitable to the first intimations of Romanticism. I’m thinking, for instance, of the relationship between Kant and Coleridge—the way Coleridge took up the Kantian category of the imagination. Or the relationship between Kant and Jena Romanticism.
If you want to take Coleridge, for instance, both the Romantic and Enlightenment burden of the parable of the Ancient Mariner is someone marooned, isolated, cut off from the moral community of all human beings, and who acquires some self-knowledge through the recognition that he has been capable of wounding something outside himself just by a random act that was an assertion of power—the killing of the albatross. There, all nature, not just human nature, is taken to be the thing that I ought to unite myself with.
But the phrase “moral imagination” comes from Burke, from a passage in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. He’s talking about the “wardrobe” of moral imagination and it’s knowing, so to speak, how to use clothing from that wardrobe that allows us to know that the Queen of France ought not to be subjected to humiliation. I think the best sentence that I can find to define the moral imagination comes from Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry”, where he talks about what he calls “love”: “a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.” It’s that identification of ourselves with something quite radically not our own that I take as definitive of the moral imagination—as opposed to what people now like to call empathy (I feel for you because you’re just like me and I’ve been there) or what I call energetic fantasy, the idea that you and yours, your people, are out to do good for the world and therefore ought to be supported. This sort of fantasy is, I think, deep in the doctrine of American exceptionalism, which has stolen on my country over the past twenty years with a grip that now baffles and disturbs me very much.
There are stronger and weaker versions of that exceptionalism aren’t there? One of the interesting points you make is that, over the last twenty years, what happened to American exceptionalism was that “being exemplary”, as you put it, got confused with being “evangelical”. And that’s something new.
Absolutely. There is a famous statement about the exemplary status that America might have in the world of moral conduct by Lincoln in his speech on the Dred-Scott case. There he says that the idea that all men should be created equal was meant by those who signed the Declaration of Independence as a standard maxim for a free society, which should be “constantly looked to,” “constantly laboured for” and “constantly approximated.” That’s the way Lincoln talks about it. It’s in that setting that he says the United States ought to be exemplary. Lincoln was an anti-imperialist. He made a big speech against the Mexican war of 1847.
You find this in Martin Luther King as well. I quote in the book his great Riverside Church speech of April 1967, exactly a year before he was assassinated, which closes with a wonderful quotation from James Russell Lowell: “Once to every man and nation/Comes the moment to decide,/In the strife of truth and falsehood,/For the good or evil side.” There King is, so to speak, putting his hand on the bible of American patriotism, but saying that this means that we should be judged against our best ideals; that it’s those ideals we should try to live up to. But the standard use of exceptionalism now is from people who are American treating the United States as the “indispensable country,” as Madeleine Albright called us, the sole superpower. This has roots in the Protestant, Puritan exceptionalism of the 17th century. And I talk about that a little in the book. But in those cases, it had not yet acquired its full nationalist weight and import.
1967 was, as you point out, the year that King became fully conscious of the disaster that was unfolding in Vietnam. There’s a passage you quote in which King recognizes the Vietnamese people as “our brothers”. And that’s connected with one of the principal themes of the book isn’t it? Moral imagination interests you because it’s the faculty that governs relations with strangers, precisely. In other words, it’s the cosmopolitan faculty.
I think that’s right. There’s a line in Burke’s “Speech on Fox’s East India Bill”: “It is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” And that’s what King as doing and for which he was denounced—not only by the liberal establishment (the New York Times, the Washington Post etc), but also by the civil rights establishment at the time. He was thought to be deserting his proper cause, which was equality for blacks in the United States. King was extremely sensitive to the fact that there was a disproportionate sacrifice by black soldiers in the army in Vietnam, but he didn’t pretend to weigh that most heavily in this remarkable speech. What counted most for him was the suffering of the Vietnamese under those bombing sorties, napalm, defoliation and all the rest. And that makes the speech for me one of the most remarkable gestures of all-round humanity that has ever come from an American.
In that same essay there’s a discussion of Blake and the deformations of morality that come from, as you put it, the “compulsion to do something”. The disastrous results of that compulsion are the focus of the essays in part four of the book. I was reminded, when I was reading that section of the book, of Mark Danner’s article on Dick Cheney in a recent edition of the New York Review. He quotes Cheney saying in a CIA briefing in 2001, “It’s not about our analysis, it’s about our response.”
I recognize that strain of thought. It means acting quickly. There’s a compulsion that unites power with the necessity of action, which is understood to be rapid action—action without considerable deliberation and without a great deal of relevant thought. There’s an almost reflexive violence that comes from this need to act.
When you start reading the politicians of some depth of mind who I discuss in this book, you recognize that there’s a line of thinking about action which is wary of the trouble action as such may inflict, that makes you think hard before doing and makes you see some possible good in not doing. Now this is, of course, deep in the texture of Burke’s conservatism, for example. You also find it in Gandhi’s insistence that the actor in a programme of non-violent resistance take on himself the burden of the consequences of that resistance. This led to Gandhi, in more than one protest, asking the people in his movement, when it turned violent or chaotic, to fast, to take upon themselves the burden of self-recrimination. That’s what Martin Luther King was doing in Memphis when he assassinated. There’d been violence in the street and it was partly the fault of the demonstrators. Gandhi-like, instead of saying “Let’s do the next thing now,” King said, “We have to go back and do it again.”
I find this also in Wordsworth. This is not unique to my reading of him—you’ll find other critics sensitive to this train of thought or feeling. A poem like “Nutting” and even elements of the Prelude are full of the evidence of something equivocal about action, something to be concerned with even after you’ve committed yourself to the action. Of course, the mentality of empire goes absolutely in the opposite direction—one conquest must lead to another.
There’s an environmental aspect to this as well isn’t there? You see it in the green conservatism of someone like Roger Scruton, who derives it from Burke’s notion of “stewardship” and of having obligations not only to future generations but also to nature.
That’s a fair connection to draw. You get it from Heidegger as well as Burke—the idea of “letting be”. This idea is utterly alien to the progressive ethos of modernization which liberalism shares with what we might call corporate or business conservatism. And to reject that means to become a radical with allies in surprising places. One of the things I’ve realised in the last eight or nine years is that my thinking runs much more parallel to that of certain consistent “right-wing” libertarians than it does to my former liberal friends, who are utterly progressive, without a second thought about backing the latest advance in computer science or whatever. And it was liberals who wrote the legal justification for drone warfare.
Who, specifically, are the “right-wing libertarians” you just mentioned and whose intellectual and political company you’re finding increasingly congenial?
Some of the political commentators you find in The American Conservative—for example, Daniel Larison. Some of the sharpest critiques of American imperialism under Bush-Cheney and now under Obama have come from Patrick Buchanan. In some ways he’s a very bad man, but he’s a consistent anti-imperialist. When I say this to liberal friends, they say, “How dare you read this man!”
The tutelary intellectual influence in this book is Burke isn’t it?
Burke has been a prompter of a lot of this. Also in the background is the line of Romantic poets you alluded to earlier. And Shakespeare, too, in my reading of the histories and the tragedies, which are very ambiguous about the nature of action—and indeed about the uses and disadvantages of politics for human life. King Lear, for example, is an allegory of power and the impossibility either of renouncing it or holding on to it. All those plays are concerned with the human cost of the use of power. How it takes away from the value of the person and the uniqueness of the person.
The temptations of power are permanent—they’re part of the landscape of human nature. But they do take on a historically and geographically specific tinge in what you call the “American psychosis”. I was very struck by a line of D.H. Lawrence’s that you quote in which he says that the American hero is “hard, isolate, stoic and a killer”. You make a connection between that and Emersonian “self-reliance”. And one of the things you show, it seems to me, is the way Emersonian self-reliance ramifies in all sorts of directions—individual, spiritual, political and, indeed, geopolitical.
I think there is a complex, but persistent and hard-to-unravel, relationship between the self-isolation and utter credence given to the sanctity of oneself, which Emerson preaches very powerfully in the essay “Self-Reliance”, and the strange indifference to ordinary social approval or disapproval that you find in the doctrine of maximum exceptionalism and American expansionism. These two things seem to be opposites. But you find both tendencies in the poetry of Whitman, although never deployed in the direction of imperialist grandiosity. But there’s a grandiosity of the self that might somehow correspond to it. This is not a new perception—plenty of people have shared it. I’m more sympathetic to the purely antinomian, religious intensity of belief in oneself and one’s own soul that you find in Emerson, Dickinson and others, while at the same time being wary of its connection with a wider ideology that has terrible ramifications.
And among those public ramifications is the way that American self-absorption on the national and international scale can take both expansionist and isolationist forms.
There’s a ready enough example of that in the evident feeling of being wounded and shocked in George W Bush when he became aware of the world’s reaction to the Iraq war. He’d say things like, “Why don’t they understand us? We are good.” We now have a president who is far more sophisticated, and more the product of a genuine elite education than Bush was, and yet versions of this come over in Obama’s speeches—particularly in, of all things, his Nobel Prize speech, which was a sort of capsule 50-year history of the post-Second World War era in which the United States played a unique and entirely benign role. There was no mention of Vietnam, just as there is no mention of Vietnam in the book about genocide by Obama’s ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power. Yet Vietnam was an extraordinary episode in post-Second World War history. We killed between one and three million people and ruined a country. But it’s still now close to being unspeakable in American politics. So much of what Johnson and Nixon did in Vietnam is unimaginably worse than what Bush did in Iraq. Yet it’s not talked about.
It’s interesting that you should mention Johnson. There’s what, from this side of the Atlantic, looks like a rehabilitation of Johnson going on today. The Johnson we seem to be being encouraged to pay attention to is not the Johnson of Agent Orange and the disasters in South-East Asia, but the Johnson of the “Great Society” and civil rights.
No doubt the civil rights legislation was a great achievement for emancipation of American citizens and the improvements of justice. And Johnson deserves credit for that. But I still can’t make that wash out Vietnam. Vietnam, to me, was an enormous crime and a kind of turning-point in America’s militarism. Thereafter, it was felt that we always ought to have a super-abundance of military readiness. Militarism was locked in by the Vietnam War, just as the Cold War was locked in by the engagement in Korea. Johnson knew what was happening and he didn’t have the courage to defy the generals and to defy the centre-right consensus in American politics. To me, that was an irreparable wrong that he did.
You mentioned Obama just now. He appears for the first time in the book in your essay on Reinhold Niebuhr. You end that essay quoting Obama on Niebuhr, from whom he claims to have drawn the lesson that we should be “humble and modest” in our belief that we can eradicate evil from the world. You think Obama’s commitment in office to that Niebuhrian credo has been somewhat shallow don’t you?
I don’t think Obama understood Niebuhr. He took Niebuhr to be saying that we’re all implicated in a world in which there is evil and we can’t cure it all by ourselves, so let’s be moderate. Obama seems to want to end every train of thought with “Let’s be moderate!” So it’s natural to find him thinking that’s what Niebuhr thought. But what Niebuhr says in his great book Moral Man and Immoral Society is that there is a terrible evil in nationalism itself, because it takes the genuinely unselfish, morally imaginative instincts of a person and illicitly transfers them to the larger, corporate body that is the nation. These unselfish instincts thereafter are routed through the nation and self-sacrifice becomes possible only on these corporate, national terms. And that, for Niebuhr, is a tragedy. But it’s a tragedy of the post-Enlightenment world of nations that he saw himself living in. I don’t think Obama has a particle of understanding of that tragedy. And the lack of understanding comes out in his constant references to the United States as the unique, exceptional and indispensable nation which, nevertheless, should not try to do too much. So I find him quite inadequate. His temperament is less rash, less brutal, and there is very little, if any, sadism in it. So in that sense he profits by comparison with his predecessor. But that’s a very slender consolation!