Action without relevant thought

In that same essay there’s a discussion of Blake and the deformations of morality that come from, as you put it, the “compulsion to do something”. The disastrous results of that compulsion are the focus of the essays in part four of the book. I was reminded, when I was reading that section of the book [Moral Imagination], of Mark Danner’s article on Dick Cheney in a recent edition of the New York Review. He quotes Cheney saying in a CIA briefing in 2001, “It’s not about our analysis, it’s about our response.” 

I recognize that strain of thought. It means acting quickly. There’s a compulsion that unites power with the necessity of action, which is understood to be rapid action—action without considerable deliberation and without a great deal of relevant thought. There’s an almost reflexive violence that comes from this need to act.

When you start reading the politicians of some depth of mind who I discuss in this book, you recognize that there’s a line of thinking about action which is wary of the trouble action as such may inflict, that makes you think hard before doing and makes you see some possible good in not doing. Now this is, of course, deep in the texture of Burke’s conservatism, for example. You also find it in Gandhi’s insistence that the actor in a programme of non-violent resistance take on himself the burden of the consequences of that resistance. This led to Gandhi, in more than one protest, asking the people in his movement, when it turned violent or chaotic, to fast, to take upon themselves the burden of self-recrimination. That’s what Martin Luther King was doing in Memphis when he assassinated. There’d been violence in the street and it was partly the fault of the demonstrators. Gandhi-like, instead of saying “Let’s do the next thing now,” King said, “We have to go back and do it again.”

I find this 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.

David Bromwich interviewed by Jonathan Derbyshire in Prospect Magazine

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