Politics & Policy

The Bluto-Burke Connection Revealed!

Animal House and the philosophy of the Right.

So, 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 process.

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 Animal House?”

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 it chooses.

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 Friedman nuts.
  • Then there’s my absolute favorite suggestion: “The Negroes stole our dates!”

    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!


Two quick things.

1. Please check out my friend Tevi Troy’s diarist in the latest New Republic [registration required]. It summarizes better than anything I’ve seen the disgracefulness of the assault on John Ashcroft’s religious convictions. Also, as a matter of trivia, Tevi is largely responsible for me getting my first job in Washington.

2. If somebody has advice for what would be the perfect wireless doohickey for a Mac-using, AOL-subscribing doofus like me, I’m all ears. I want to get my (AOL) e-mail, instant-message, surf the web, and maybe even get porn while waiting planes at the airport. I know there are more than enough techie geeks out there who can answer this question. By the way, now that I think about it, the porn isn’t too important.


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