It can be both thrilling and disconcerting when a thinker from an earlier time speaks to current issues in his (or her) day, and we find his (or her) words equally relevant for the problems we face today.
Edmund Burke was a member of the British Parliament in the second half of the eighteenth century (the 1700s). During his political career, he addressed many of the international situations that affected the British Empire, most of which involved the Empire directly. Burke did not want to see the thirteen colonies in North America leave the Empire, but he also did not want to go to war against those colonies; he wanted to negotiate a settlement that would address their complaints and preserve their place in the Empire. Burke opposed slavery, but he suggested a gradual reduction of slavery in place of sudden and potentially divisive and violent abolition. He sought greater rights for Irish citizens of the British Empire, and he sought to improve conditions in southern Asia (which is to say, India) and punishment for British officials who violated the human rights of Asians in the Empire.
Burke feared the excesses he saw in the French Revolution. A few British leaders were delighted to see France struggle, figuring that anything bad for France was good for Britain. Others favored the slogans of liberty and equality expressed in the French Revolution and hoped to see similar changes pursued in Britain. Burke despised the attack upon authority and tradition that he witnessed in France. He spoke against the Jacobins, the political group in France most responsible for the violent phase of the Revolution which has become known as the Reign of Terror. In 1795, Burke spoke about the Jacobins, their goals and their strategy, in a way that seems eerily relevant to political strife in the United States today. Burke wrote:
“What is Jacobinism? It is an attempt (hitherto but too successful) to eradicate prejudice out of the minds of men, for the purpose of putting all power and authority into the hands of the persons capable of occasionally enlightening the minds of the people. For this purpose the Jacobins have resolved to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion. To obtain an army for this purpose, they everywhere engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich. This I take to be a fair description of the principles and leading maxims of the enlightened of our day who are commonly called Jacobins.”
At first glance, eradicating prejudice out of the minds of men (and women and children) seems a good thing. We hold that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We quickly renounce prejudice and discrimination on the basis of race, culture, and other human differences. But what happens when the battle against prejudice is expanded to include tolerance of all human differences, even those differences that strike at the core of being human? What happens when the government is given power to censure and punish any statement or belief that the government defines as intolerant, as “hate speech”? Does this battle against prejudice provide greater freedom and liberty, or does it make all people slaves of the government and its managers?
Are we truly ready to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world—to strike down religious liberty in the name of tolerance, and to label as “science” any faddish procedure that the government favors today? Do we want a small group of elite educators, entertainers, and opinion-generators to be the guardians of truth, the authorities that undermine and displace traditional leadership in the family, the community, and the religious gatherings of the people?
And what do we say in response to those who “engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich”? Are we truly inclined to punish the wealthy for their success, to reward the lazy for their indolence, and to invite the government to gather all national wealth and redistribute that wealth as the government chooses? Granted, the world is not fair. Some people gather wealth without deserving it; many people are poor who deserve more than they have received. Must we abandon our hope that generosity and kindness will reduce the injustice, that hard work will be rewarded, and that compassion and respect for all people can be taught as common virtues? Must we trust a few self-proclaimed experts to take into their hands our wealth, our freedom, and our self-respect, allowing them to distribute these goods as they deem appropriate and right?
By asking these questions, I may well be risking my present job and potential future employment. At the moment, I do not care. Each generation, it seems, must struggle to preserve liberty and justice, and our time has come. If we remain silent, if we allow tyranny and oppression to go unchallenged because the tyrants claim to be tolerant and beneficent, then we cast away all that our forefathers struggled to establish in this land. We remain the land of the free only so long as we also are the home of the brave. J.