Temptations of empire: a conversation with David Bromwich
by Jonathan Derbyshire / MAY 22, 2014 / 6 COMMENTS
JD: 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”.
DB: 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.
I think a real test of moral imagination in foreign affairs is to be able watch the great "Because we live here" scene from Milius's Red Dawn and be able to see how it applies both to the Wolverines in Colorado and to America's enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
JB: 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.
DB: 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. ...
I find this [concern about action] 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. ...
JD: 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. ... 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!”
David Bromwich’s “Moral Imagination: Essays” is published by Princeton University Press (£19.95)