note: While Jonah Goldberg is honeymooning, NRO presents the
Best of the Goldberg File, as chosen by G-File readers.
I was at the Hoover Institution in California for six days. That's
a full 30 percent more time away than Jesse Jackson spent away from
public life in order to heal his family. So let me tell ya, I feel
pretty rejuvenated too. Although that might have a lot to do with
the fact that Bill Clinton has finally left town and Sid Blumenthal
has returned to the private sector, where he can eat rodents whole
without garnering much public attention.
I have learned a few things during my period of healing and reflection
in Palo Alto. I've learned that college kids today are far too interested
in academics and not nearly enough in the Nietzschean self-strengthening
that can only be achieved through Bacchanalian excess. I've learned
that there's something about the Pacific time zone that has a debilitating
effect on my already tenuous grip on grammatical rules, as evidenced
in Friday's column. I learned indeed I was shocked to discover
that for all the talk about how attractive Californians are,
the student body at Stanford was surprisingly unsightly. Indeed,
most of the kids I saw walking around could have been students at
Lehigh, Worcester Polytechnic, or some other school where winter
clothes and Black Label beer are indispensable tools in the courting
Regardless, now that my spirit has been renewed and I, like Jackson,
can return to my public ministry (if he can have one, why can't
I?), I feel I must fulfil my covenant with my readers and address
the deeply pressing question, "What is the most Burkean line from
Let us pause for a moment while those interested in neither political
philosophy nor juvenile college movies shuffle out of the room.
One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand. Okay.
The World According to Burke
This is the first such question that has pretty much stumped everybody,
so I think it makes some sense to eliminate some of the incorrect
guesses. First of all, what do we know about Edmund Burke?
Well, we know he was a hoss. We know that he was the founder of
modern conservatism. We know that he was the Nostradamus of the
Right, anticipating the success of America, the futility of slavery,
the French Reign of Terror (no, not Jerry Lewis, the original one),
Indian autonomy, and the rise of Bonapartism, years and years ahead
of time. Burke was no ideologue, but he was profoundly rooted in
his principles. In other words, he was a man who lived in the real
world. He despised abstractions, especially of the French variety.
French bleating about "fraternity" was so much "cant and gibberish,"
he said. He argued that he himself loved "a manly, moral, regulated
liberty as well as any gentleman in France," but he wouldn't "stand
forward and give praise" to a concept "stripped of all concrete
relations" and standing "in all the solitude of a metaphysical idea."
Burke has been called a "Christian pessimist" because he firmly
believed in the concept of original sin and supported laws that
recognized its existence. This is one of the many reasons why Burke
liked the American Revolution but despised the French one. The Americans
recognized that human nature not only exists, but that it is deeply
resistant to change ("If men were angels…" and all that). The French
held the exact opposite view: We are all born as blank slates and
the state can rewrite whatever happens to be on the slate, whenever
But for the purposes of this discussion and for modern conservatism
generally the most important aspect of Burkean thought is
his view of tradition and change. Burke recognized the need for
reform (the lack of it, he believed, forced the American colonists
to revolt) and he did not fear change. "A state without the means
of some change," he wrote, "is without the means of its conservation."
But he thought haste in the realm of reform led to even greater
injustice than deliberate inaction. "Preserving my principles unshaken,"
he said, "I reserve my activity for rational endeavors," rather
than the excesses of revolutionaries and other social planners.
"I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes," he
once said. It's not that Burke was blind to injustice. In fact his
record on spotting problems is better than just about everybody's.
No, Burke simply didn't trust the problem-solvers. No single individual
is smart enough to impose changes on society willy-nilly.
Instead, Burke like Hayek, Chesterton, and others
put his faith in tradition. Tradition is not merely "the way we've
always done it." Tradition is the distillation of thousands of years
of trial, error, and modest correction. Tradition contains volumes
of unexpressed knowledge that has been passed from one generation
to another. We do not know why we do everything we do, because we
are not omniscient historians. We are not conscious of all the painful
trial and error that went into our habit of cooking food, but that
doesn't mean it's a totally arbitrary practice. Knowledge isn't
just in books and journal articles, it is in our architecture and
our language and a million habits and traditions we until
recently accepted without much questioning. Think about how
much accumulated wisdom is represented in our use of currency, and
yet that practice predates the written arguments for currency by
thousands of years. As Friedrich Hayek (a thoroughly Burkean libertarian)
wrote, "more 'intelligence' is incorporated in the system of rules
of conduct than in man's thoughts and surroundings." So when Burke
says, "Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at
no other," he's saying that tradition is a recognition of what works
over what some "expert" thinks will work without benefit of precedent.
"Tradition," wrote Chesterton, paraphrasing Burke, "is the democracy
of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant
oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about." And when
we live by their example, we are giving them a vote.
Thus, we should revere old institutions because they are the storehouses
of ancient wisdom and the thousands of conscious and unconscious
decisions of our ancestors.
And the Winner Is…
Well, first of all let's run through the runners up for the most
Burkean line from Animal House, discounting the more inappropriate
and therefore deliberately wrong guesses about Fawn
Lebowitz, Marlene Desmond, etc.
• Many readers were convinced that "fat, drunk, and stupid is no
way to go through life" was the apotheosis of Burkean thought. This
can't be right, because it would rule out the lifestyles of many
British Monarchs, whom Burke supported.
• A more promising guess comes from the line during the trial of
the Delta House. Eric "Otter" Stratton says: "The issue here is
not whether we broke a few rules, or took a few liberties with our
female party guests we did. [winks at Dean Wormer]
But you can't hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior
of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn't
we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity
system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of our educational
institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg isn't this
an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever
you want to us, but we're not going to sit here and listen to you
badmouth the United States of America!"
This is an excellent suggestion on several points. It shows a deep
appreciation of the integral role that institutions play in the
social fabric. But it also displays a degree of unquestioning patriotism
bordering on jingoism. No, sorry: close but no cigar.
• "Toga! Toga! Toga!"
This was suggested by many, but as we all know, that was the new
Latin motto inscribed on the Bill Clinton presidential seal.
• Then there's Otter's second stirring speech: "Bluto's right, psychotic,
but absolutely right. We gotta take these bastards. Now, we could
fight 'em with conventional weapons, that could take years, and
cost millions of lives. No, in this case, I think we have to go
all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really
futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part."
This does reflect a certain Burkean nod to both prudence and moral
certainty, but it fails, ultimately, by being too extreme.
• Quite a few people offered, "Have a beer. Don't cost nuthin'."
But this contradicts Burke's faith in trade and would make Milton
• Then there's my absolute favorite suggestion: "The Negroes stole
Considering Burke's moral clarity on racial issues, I must say this
fails, but I just think it's hilarious. Hold on to it for my quiz
on the line from Animal House most befitting Calhoun.
• Finally, in light of the conversation above, how could the answer
be anything but Delta House President Robert Hoover's impassioned
and thoroughly Burkean protest of Dean Wormer's tyrannical decision
to close his fraternity: "But sir, Delta Tau Chi has a long tradition
of existence both to its members and the community at large."
And there you have it. I have now just concluded the dumbest column
of my life. Congrats to Matthew from New Haven, the only person
to guess correctly. You'll get your NRO T-Shirt soon!