Catching up with Conservatism: Edmund Burke Attends TEDx Lectures

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

It’s not every Saturday morning that you wander into Sharples and hear a live-stream of Swarthmore’s president paraphrasing Edmund Burke, the English father of modern conservatism. President Chopp led off last weekend’s TEDx talks with a lecture entitled “Moral Imagination.” To be fair, the phrase “moral imagination” has seeped into non-conservative dialogue over the years, and I highly doubt Chopp is a self-declared Burkian. But the words are indeed Burke’s, originally appearing in Reflections on the Revolution in France. In short, Burke was a rather pompous but brilliant Tory who stoutly objected to the French Revolution (although he sided with the American colonists’ uprising against George III).

For Burke, the mob outside Versailles had found its voice but lost its splendor. Chivalry, he lamented, was at last dead. With the Revolution’s disregard for tradition and manners, Burke saw:

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 raised to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

Russell Kirk, a key player in the history of American conservatism, reinvigorated Burkianism with his Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot in 1953.

Okay, what do these stuffy old Anglo-Saxons have to do with the TEDx talks, you ask? While Chopp wasn’t exactly paying tribute to Marie Antoinette, her recollection of JFK’s assassination struck a similar chord of a society political crisis. Chopp, like Russell Kirk, turns to the liberal arts as both an answer and retreat for discovering beauty and meaning beyond our own station in time. She discussed watching the sun rise over her college campus as a moment of aesthetic allure, reflection, and hopefulness. Furthermore, a liberal arts education entails a dual-purpose: learning and responsibility. It’s not just the TEDx talks that pose, “What Makes a Good Society?” Plato and his readers have been begging that question since antiquity.

Burke is likely guilty of the “bombast and sentimentality” actor Stephen Lang ‘73 warned against, yet Burke champions the same honor and bravery Lang so brilliantly captured in his segments from the 2004 performance Beyond Glory. Faced with the moral dilemma of supporting the troops but opposing the Iraq War, Lang composed a series of war-inspired monologues as a tribute to American Medal of Honor recipients. I don’t know if Lang would agree with me, but his 20 minutes on stage highlighted the raw and noble–dare I say masculine–courage that often gets underplayed because of its association with violence and bloodshed. Lang avoided staging the vicious art of war and, instead, painted a rugged, more nuanced art of patriotism.

As for Professor Donna Jo Napoli, her talk on children’s literature and why even darker children books ought to remain on the shelves reminded me again of Russell Kirk and the quest for texts that last. Kirk writes, “[W]e have been failing, here in America, to develop a normative consciousness in young people through a careful program of reading great literature….the ‘Dick and Jane’ and ‘run spot, run’ school of letters does not stir the imagination..” Napoli’s example of the connection she fostered with Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was particularly poignant for me, not only because it was a personal fifth grade favorite but because it combines a compelling tale of the American Dream with a realist’s eye for the very real situation of poverty and pain. Censorship has been a age-old temptation, particularly when it comes to sheltering children, but Professor Napoli rightly articulated that hard stories can serve as a kind of personal salvation, for the suffering and privileged reader alike.

The final TEDx talk I attended featured Carinna Lather ‘88, who spoke of the need for human-centered technology. That is, technology in and of itself creeps ever-closer to the dystopian land of science fiction. Meaningful machinery, on the other hand, like the equipment Lather has engineered to assist children with cerebral palsy and autism, places the person–and not the electrical circuit–at the focal point. Being one of those conservatives who’s often yapping about the ever-looming dangers of 1984, I heartily nodded along to Lather’s lecture and her capacity to aid families.

From my more traditionalist, strangely Burkian lens, the TEDx talks attempted to sew that “essential drapery” back into the fabric of our civilization: What does it mean to be a reader? A man? A student? Sure, not every TEDx talk was steeped in my style of conservatism. At one point, Professor Napoli, underscoring our responsibility to one another, proclaimed, “This is why we pay taxes,” when I would have prefered she say this is why we give to charity, attend religious services, teach our children, and volunteer. But overall these are not just relevant political questions, but beautiful and poetic inquiries, pertinent to an English aristocrat, American frontiersmen, children’s writer, perceptive actor, humanistic entrepreneur, or Birkenstock-wearing Swattie.

Correction: The article originally stated that Beyond Glory premiered in 2003. It premiered in 2004.


    • I am very, very confused about what conservatives mean by the term “moral imagination.” I sometimes feel like liberals and conservatives really live in alternate realities with different facts and different dictionaries.

      Too often I here conservatives saying that we need to inspire people’s moral imaginations, only to later understand that what they mean is people must be indoctrinated into Judeo-Christian values. Are the two expected to be synonymous, that if people had moral imaginations they would see the “truth” of Christian morality? It often sounds as if religious conservatives do not even believe people are capable of genuine moral imagination, because I often here how humans are naturally incapable of proper moral judgment, which is why we need God and religions, and/or, ironically, older humans like Aristotle, or else we would have no reason not to be evil and cruel to one another. http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/277693/why-young-americans-can-t-think-morally-dennis-prager

      My understanding of the word imagination, lines up with the (possibly liberal-biased) dictionary version, “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality” or “creative ability.” So moral imagination, to me, would mean the capacity to generate moral sentiments. Yet few conservatives seem to support relativism, so it is hard for me to imagine that they genuinely want to encourage everyone to exercise their own moral imagination, lest their creations deviate from socially-approved morality.

      From Kirk’s writing on moral imagination, “If we starve young people for imagination, adventure, and some sort of heroism—to turn now to a later level of learning—they are not likely to embrace Good Approved Real-Life Tales for Good Approved Real-Life Boys and Girls.”

      Kirk also writes, “The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination… Formal schooling actually commenced as an endeavor to acquaint the rising generation with religious knowledge: with awareness of … moral truths… Its purpose (is) to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.”

      Yes, the person has primacy in liberal education, but the purpose of liberal education is to empower and free the individual, to offer psychological and intellectual liberation, to develop the critical and analytical skills necessary to assess for themselves the validity of the “truths” and “norms” they confront. It is (or should be) about developing faculties, not delivering “moral truths”. He sounds like a victim of doublethink, accepting that imagination and indoctrination go hand in hand.

      I have no doubt that we need moral imagination; that is how we have overcome slavery when the Bible condoned it, that’s how we have accepted homosexuality when the Bible condemned it, that’s how many Western societies have outgrown capital and corporal punishment when the Bible demanded it. And (too) slowly, moral imagination is changing society’s view of and reactions towards criminal behavior, mental illness, poverty, animal treatment, etc.

      But, conservatism is by its very definition opposed to imagination, hostile to any and all new or novel ideas, conditions, or methods. Conservatives seek to preserve the existing conditions or restore older ones, and to resist innovation, changes, or progressions that propose the unfamiliar. Conservatives have often sought to prevent people from using their imaginations (women, minorities, the poor) through, among other things, false consciousness, and have denigrated anyone who dared to utilize it (for instance, Anaxagoras, Socrates, and Aristotle were all charged with impiety). “How dare you have the arrogance and the audacity to challenge the wisdom of our ancestors and the traditions they passed on to us?” seems to be the common question. Well, the founding fathers were revolutionaries; they saw that the status quo was ill suited for a late eighteenth century society armed with Enlightenment ideals, so they rejected tradition and established a liberal democracy. And Tories denounced them as radical, because, well, they were radical. Whether conservatives wish to admit this or not, we do live in a different world from theirs, and in the twenty-first century world we can look to them for guidance, but not for answers. They are not omniscient, infallible creatures who could foresee the future and devise policies that are applicable to all places at all times. Jeffersonian libertarianism makes much more sense in a pre-industrial society with a large proportion of yeoman farmers and plentiful land to enable so-inclined citizens to engage in subsistence farming, than it does in post-industrial society made up mostly of wage-earners. Needless to say, I am very lucky that the ancestors I question have provided me with one of the few times and places in history when conservatives (usually) are not allowed to imprison or execute people who question tradition and the infallibility of ancestral wisdom, or who dare to use their imagination and openly express its products. (I am not saying radicals have not killed people too)

      But just as I am the appreciative recipient of the Founding Fathers changes to society, I have a responsibility to future generations to try to make positive changes also. I feel conservatives believe it is our responsibility to pass on traditions and morality (derived from the insights gained by the moral imaginations of past generations) uncorrupted and perfectly preserved from one generation to the next, but isn’t it our responsibility, as intelligent creatures, to critically reflect on them to weed out those no longer appropriate for our time and to imagine and contribute new ideas, moral sentiments, or institutions that are suited to our situation? Thankfully, previous generations have altered their inheritance from the Founding Fathers, adding women’s suffrage, or deleting slavery, or adding Social Security. I think we still have not reached the end of history, and there is still much to add, modify, and delete. And it would surely be helpful if conservatives would be partners in this project, rather than summarily dismissing most proposed alterations and diluting others to the point that it will be ineffectual so they can then argue that change never works. I have no doubt that progressives, myself included, want to change some things that should not be changed, but we need scholarly conservatives who can intelligently explain why a certain tradition deserves preservation or why a certain progressive proposal is unwise, and who can admit when the facts are not on their side. And there are a few out there that do, but many conservatives simply plug their ears and refuse to offer rational, factual critiques (and, admittedly, progressives often plug their ears when critiqued).

      I wish conservatives would partner with progressives in encouraging moral imagination and moral reasoning, but I fear conservatives only use this as code for moral indoctrination, indoctrination into their interpretation of Judeo-Christian values. And I am sure that conservatives think we use it as liberal code for indoctrination into hedonism, secularism, fatalism, nihilism, communism, Nazism, Satanism, the occult and who knows what else. Which is hilarious because the liberal goal is not to indoctrinate but to liberate, by encouraging freethought and developing critical and independent thinking, so that people are less susceptible to indoctrination. But, over a number of people, atheism and moral relativism will be an occasional by-product of critical thinking. I’m sure conservatives fear a breakdown in morality and social cohesion if we do not indoctrinate each person with an identical set of values, but research on the moral intuitions of infants would seem to suggest their likely are broadly shared moral intuitions, which is probably at least partially why there are certain virtues and values that appear across many different cultures. Evolution has provided us the capacity to treat others with decency, respect, and caring because it gave us empathy. Empathy encourages us to consider and care about the lives and well being of other conscious creatures, of beings capable of subjective experience, and allows us to transcend beyond ego and narrow self-interest. Maybe we should try to foster empathy, inspire moral imagination, and offer guidance in developing moral reasoning, rather than indoctrinating people with the belief that they are naturally evil and sinful and face the eternal torments of hell unless they subscribe to ancient Near Eastern moral precepts supposedly passed down by a murderous, totalitarian, vengeful God with acute self-esteem issues. If we are ever able to reach a point when everyone in the world has a sincere concern and love for one another, I doubt it will have come through demands, threats, and the ethnocentrism of the Abrahamic religions. I am not saying people are naturally “good” or “bad, ” we obviously have the capacity to do great good for or great harm to others given a certain environment, but maybe we should worry less about indoctrinating our children and more about creating loving, empathetic, supportive environments for all of them (not that some Christian parents are not doing that also).

      So I guess my question is, what do you intend to mean by moral imagination, and how do you think it relates to conservative demands for the country to stay faithful to their version of Christian values, homeschooling children to indoctrinate them into a particular set of values without any exposure to alternative moral systems, etc.?

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