I think there's an unanswered but vital question lurking at the heart of this otherwise rather charming essay: who is We? When we say "our ancestors," who are they? My ancestors were not Burke, or people like Burke. My maternal grandmother left school at the age of 12 to scrub the doorsteps of people like Burke. If I honour and remember my ancestors, it's not men like Burke I'm remembering and honouring.

Generally, you're a conservative if you don't want to disturb the existing order too radically — the working definition of "radical" is anything that makes the lords of the existing order uncomfortable or reduces their perks and privileges. Of course we don't want to disturb the existing order too radically if it's comfortable for us; but if it's nearly unbearable (or lethal) for us, then disturbing it becomes a lot more appealing.

Burke, and our author here, agree that "When the Jacobins tore down the theatre of feudalist monarchy, what replaced it was not a Festival of Reason, but a theatre of cruelty and blood." I feel obliged to counter with one of my favourite quotes from Mark Twain:

“There were two 'Reigns of Terror,' if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the 'horrors' of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”

I would say that all anciens regimes, all "great civilisations" to date, from Cicero's Rome to Burke's England and beyond, are built on "the unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves." The civilised and civilising England that Burke invokes -- the moderated feudalism of the beautiful Home Counties, the England of Magna Carta and parliamentary procedure, of sentiment and patriotic dreams... like any gorgeous garment, still has its seamy underside. And far more people lived in the seamy underside than the gorgeously embroidered top layer.

I cannot deny that the zealotry of revolutionaries can get both silly and ugly; fierce quests for absolute purity (religious, political, sexual, genetic) often evolve into self-satire, or worse: counterproductive purges and cruelties that tarnish the ideals with which they started. But let us be honest about it: these violences and excesses have their roots in the much longer history of abuse and despair that spawned the revolutionary moment. Auden warned us, "Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return."

People on the whole are lazy and inclined to go along and get along. We don't start revolutions for amusement, because we're happy, or even because we’re bored. We start revolutions because we reach a breaking point — of fear, rage, grief, despair — where there is little to lose and nothing to hope for.

If we don't want revolutions and their associated excesses, then we need to curb the excesses and remedy the routine cruelties of the status quo ante. Business as usual -- under the hood -- is a long-running theatre of cruelty and blood; to prevent revolutions, we need to fix that.

A side note to revolutionaries: do please remember that destroying "tainted" cultural artifacts is no substitute for systematically changing the way power works. It's good theatre, but makes barely a dent in the enormous inertia of the Way Things Work. Changing the Way Things Work is a much harder, longer, and less satisfying task than an outburst of great theatre; but outbursts of great theatre can indeed invigorate people for that daunting, tedious, multigenerational struggle for lasting change. That's the real value of political theatre: that it energises us for the marathon effort that is social justice work.

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.

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