WASHINGTON –- For 15 years, I have kept a quote in my wallet from a Washington Post profile of David Remnick after he had been hired to run The New Yorker.
The Post quoted Remnick as issuing a call not for writers, but rather for "passionate readers who ignore the phone and the TV for a few hours to engage a book whose 'difficulty' is that it fails to soothe the ego or flatter a limited intelligence; the reader who honestly believes that the best and deepest of what we are is on the shelf, and that to read across the shelf changes the self, changes you."
And this was back when "phone" meant something far simpler than it does today.
A new book on Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke by Yuval Levin matches Remnick's description of a "difficult” read with the potential to have long-lasting impact on a reader: The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.
Levin is an intellectual and public policy writer who edits National Affairs, a conservative quarterly, weighs in often on health care and budget issues for The National Review and The Weekly Standard and is an informal adviser to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). His book is an attempt to go beyond the talking points that left and right throw at each other on cable TV. He delves deeper than substantive policy differences between conservatives and liberals, in order to examine the way in which bitter partisan political fights stem from radically different perspectives on such fundamental questions as the nature of man, the purpose of government, the power of reason and the proper path to reform.
Burke was an Irish-born politician who served in the House of Commons and, as a member of the Whig Party, argued in favor of the American Revolution but was a chief critic of the French Revolution. Paine, born in Great Britain, was a prolific polemicist whose pen helped along the American Revolution, and who then became a great supporter of the French Revolution.
Levin's book explains why the two men both supported the American Revolution and split on the French. But it does so by exploring the opposing political worldviews that were brought into stark contrast by the events in France.
Burke believed government was "a practical thing, made for the happiness of mankind," not "to gratify the schemes of visionary politicians." Paine, however, believed that government and politics were vehicles intended to free man from tyranny and injustice, to live as unconstrained as possible, through Enlightenment principles of applied reason. "Making nations rational was in one way or another his goal in every political exertion," Levin writes. And any government that was not living up to timeless principles of equity and fairness, Paine believed, should be removed to make way for a purer form.
Burke was highly suspicious of these instincts, both because he was skeptical that truth and wisdom -- especially in the realm of politics and governance -- were as self-evident as Enlightenment thinkers believed they were, and because he believed reform should be gradual. Revolutionary and drastic change, Burke believed, were destructive to social bonds and ultimately dangerous to large segments of society.
"Of this I am certain," Burke wrote, "that in a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity, as they often must; and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single scepter."
This Burkean instinct pops up sometimes in unexpected places. A recent interview in the Financial Times with jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been a political prisoner of the Putin regime for a decade, found the former oligarch warning about the consequences for society of vilifying the wealthy.
"It’s gradually getting through to people that complete lawlessness towards a powerful person will turn into even greater and wider-scale lawlessness in relation to ordinary people," Khodorkovsky told the Financial Times. "Not for nothing has a fair judiciary now come to the forefront of society’s demands."
Levin's book forces the reader to stop and create space for thought and reflection, and does not spoon-feed easy answers or applications to today's politics. It does, however, raise serious questions about whether the new obsession with "data-based" decision-making, the Nate Silver-ization of journalism and politics, could be taken too far if we come to believe that everything in public life can be answered by the scientific method. It also poses significant queries worth grappling with for those rightly concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor. Levin echoes Burke's challenge to reformers to proceed with caution, and with humility.
"A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman," Burke wrote.
Levin says that Burke helps us think about the emotional and temperamental foundations from which each individual approaches the necessary work of making democratic societies better.
"The fundamental insight of [Burke's] positive case for reform is that a statesman ought to begin from gratitude for what works in his society, rather than from outrage at what does not work," Levin writes. "Every person looks upon his country and sees a mix of good things and bad. But which strike us more powerfully? In confronting the society around us, are we first grateful for what works well about it and moved to reinforce and build on that, or are we first outraged by what works poorly and moved to uproot and transform it?"
Levin also argues that both conservatives and liberals are ill-informed and off base in the debate over whether Americans should be dependent. The left points out that it's inevitable that some need help and must rely on the state. The right says that dependence is a negative thing, and that too many people who are not helpless are asking for and receiving government assistance.
Levin's conclusion from the debate between Burke and Paine is that the right forgets that each of us is dependent on others in many ways, and that the left thinks of itself as communitarian, when in fact its policy proposals promote "a radical form of individualism" that seeks to "free people of the fetters of tradition, religion, and the moral or social expectations of those around them."
The author’s challenge to the right is to rediscover its intellectual heritage and by doing so, to ground itself in a politics that cares more about policy, governing and impact of elections on all Americans.
“Today’s conservatives are thus too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyperindividualism, and they generally lack a nonradical theory of the liberal society,” Levin writes.
“Both sides of our politics," he concludes, "might find some of its worst excesses alleviated a bit by carefully considering the Burke-Paine debate.”
It’s a sentiment that is hard to find fault with.
CORRECTION: The headline on an earlier version misspelled Yuval Levin's first name.
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