David Brooks, Edmund Burke, and Me

David Brooks:

Burke is famous for his belief in gradual change….I’m sticking to my Burkean roots. Change should be steady, constant and slow. Society has structural problems, but they have to be reformed by working with existing materials, not sweeping them away in a vain hope for instant transformation.

Edmund Burke on the East India Company:

It is fixed beyond all power of reformation…this body, being totally perverted from the purposes of its institution, is utterly incorrigible; and because they are incorrigible, both in conduct and constitution, power ought to be taken out of their hands; just on the same principles on which have been made all the just changes and revolutions of government that have taken place since the beginning of the world.


The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read….Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them—little platoons and so on—emitting that stale blast of familiarity you sense when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.

David Brooks:

Gail, as you know I have a policy of teaching at colleges I couldn’t have gotten into, and as a result I find myself teaching at Yale….I just got out of a class in which we discussed Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”


  1. M. McL October 23, 2014 at 2:16 am | #

    Brooks’ knowledge of Burke and Yale’s judgment aside, I wonder whether he is as committed to English conservatism as he claims. While I generally don’t read his columns, I did notice a few years back that he jumped on the MOOC bandwagon with all the zeal of a Jacobin. When it came time to raze the university structure and rebuild it from the ground up, somehow Burke never crossed his mind. Does Brooks really think that all the talk about disruption coming out of Silicon Valley is conducive to Burke’s vision of slow, gradual change? Or was this an instance in which we saw the real David Brooks?

  2. Stephen Zielinski October 23, 2014 at 2:47 am | #

    “Gail, as you know I have a policy of teaching at colleges I couldn’t have gotten into, and as a result I find myself teaching at Yale….I just got out of a class in which we discussed Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”

    What would it cost a student to take this class? Too much, I would bet, no matter what the price might be.

    • Snarki, child of Loki October 23, 2014 at 8:13 am | #

      Is that in dollars or IQ points? I agree, it would cost too much, either way.

  3. joel in Oakland October 23, 2014 at 4:09 am | #

    I’ve noticed that the commenters on his NY Times pieces seem clear that Brooks is a fountain of superficiality, his enduring qualification for his various seats on the media gravy train being his utter lack of resemblance to Rush Limbaugh: Brooks is able to joke about himself, looks nice in a coat and tie, and won’t scare anyone’s grandmother at the dinner table. There’s nothing much beyond that, which I guess makes him perfect for Public Broadcasting.

    • Bart October 23, 2014 at 12:38 pm | #

      I still long to know whether Brooks had his things pitched out in the front yard as when George Will’s wife did so.

  4. Kevin Donoghue (@Paddy_Solemn) October 23, 2014 at 5:53 am | #

    “I feel an insuperable reluctance in giving my hand to destroy any established institution of government, upon a theory, however plausible it may be.”

    Brooks is a twit but he’s not completely wrong here. Burke goes out of his way to stress that the onus is on him to show that the East India Company is incapable of reforming itself:

    “To justify us in taking the administration of their affairs out of the hands of the East India Company, on my principles, I must see several conditions. 1st. The object affected by the abuse should be great and important. 2d. The abuse affecting this great object ought to be a great abuse. 3d. It ought to be habitual, and not accidental. 4th. It ought to be utterly incurable in the body as it now stands constituted. All this ought to be made as visible to me as the light of the sun, before I should strike off an atom of their charter.”

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant October 23, 2014 at 9:00 am | #

      According to that quote, the conditions are met that the police departments of many cities across this nation have, by their actions, placed the continued administration of their affairs at risk of transferral from its present location and its subsequent removal into the hands of those most affected by the departments’ actions.

  5. nnyhav October 24, 2014 at 7:47 pm | #

    TLS first article in current issue is “Complex to the Core: The perils of simplifying the thought of Edmund Burke: a deeply contemplated account of his early career”, Seamus Perry reviewing David Bromwich’s _The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke_ (and _Moral Imagination_). So you know.

  6. gstally October 25, 2014 at 8:05 pm | #

    You know I was reading a book on Modern India and they completely misunderstood Hegel. They missed his sarcasm. What I found strange was that authors were possessed of the opinion that the EIC ever left power.

    • gstally October 25, 2014 at 8:09 pm | #

      Oh, there is nothing wrong with ripping out at once weeds and root rot. Good riddance.

      • gstally November 3, 2014 at 11:29 pm | #

        Hegel ain’t no hedgehog, he’s a teddy bear.

        Also – Scarcity. Before there was plenty and every man was my brother and after every man my meal. That was a weed that grew into something nasty, it’s a pity it couldn’t have been dealt with early. I’m pretty clueless but I like to think there are ways of gardening without conflict, if you have to go war you’ve already lost – twitter especially.

        I don’t know if I could condemn the Aztecs but I’m not going to stand with them either. I’m a western teddy bear, as you put it “it’s how my mamma raised me.” Just-so-ya-know.

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