Identifying a problem is at best only half the job of fixing the world. Responsibility demands that we must determine whether any proposed solution to the problem will result in actual betterment.
No one made this point more strongly that Edmund Burke. Burke, a Whig in the House of Commons in the late 1700s, was a powerful supporter of the American colonists and of American independence. When revolution came to France in 1789, however, he expressed serious reservations:
The effect of liberty on individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do before we risk congratulations that may soon become complaints. Prudence would dictate this even in the case of private men considered individually; but when men act in bodies, liberty is power. Thinking people won’t declare themselves on this until they see the use that is made of power.
Burke wrote these words in 1790, when the French Revolution had only just begun to spin out of control. It would not take too long for the Terror to emerge. Waving the banner of liberty, fraternity, and equality, it set a hideous example that would be followed by the ideology-toting tyrants who brought ruin and death to millions — and continue to do so today.
What is so insidious about the ideologues is that they point to real problems. Whether the misery of exploited workers or the squalid oppression of colonial bureaucrats, militant ideologues have spoken about pressing issues. But by one means or another, they have always succeeded in evading Burkean responsibility for outcomes, until they inevitably inflict their greater evil upon the world.
One example of such a real problem exploited by tyrannical ideologues was the discriminatory attitudes and actions of Europe’s colonial powers in Asia. As the military increasingly took over the leadership of Japan in the 1930s, it focused Japanese public opinion on the obnoxious British contempt of Asians that was so evident to the native populations affected by the rule of British imperialism in the Far East.
We need to care about the practical results of the power we all wield as free citizens.
Until they were laid low in 1945, the Japanese militarists played out what often seemed a winning hand. They mobilized enough support to launch the first of the many wars that eventually became World War II. In the course of their ascendancy, from the 1931 invasion of Manchuria until VJ Day, Japan’s army killed Chinese and other Asians by the millions and inflicted such signal miseries and humiliations on their captive ethnicities as forced prostitution for the Japanese troops and forced subjection to medical experimentation.
Britain, heir to Burkean political rationalism, with its core understanding that humans are imperfect and must conserve the wisdom of the past in order to continue to improve in the future, was not unaware of its shortcomings and errors. Many in Britain recognized the legitimacy of the main complaints Japanese propaganda was voicing, including by people in positions of power. A British diplomat of the time wrote, “We acquired our dominant position in China as the result of our wars with that country in the nineteenth century and we can now only keep it by the same or similar methods.” Foreign Office documents show an awareness of the long-term untenability of such a position.
Japan did drive Britain out of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaya following its surprise attack in December 1941. Britain retook control of Hong Kong at the war’s end and kept control of it until a treaty negotiated with the People’s Republic of China turned over sovereignty to the Chinese Communist Party on condition that for another half-century, the people of Hong Kong would enjoy the same basic political liberties they had had under British law.
And in giving up the territory gained in the Opium Wars, Britain allowed its most compelling and enduring gift to shine and inspire. Britain’s empire came and went, but the gift of a system of law that is shaped to preserve liberty draws admiration and emulation, especially when it is contrasted to systems far less concerned about freedom.
In the last decade, the increasingly aggressive regime in China dramatically ramped up its long drive to eliminate political freedom in Hong Kong. This in turn brought about dramatic mass protests in Hong Kong, as the gift of political freedom inspired millions to resist the clumsy and threatening encroachments of the power monopolists of Beijing.
The CCP responded to the mass protests by a thoroughgoing revocation of the rights it had guaranteed and the reduction to zero of any of the cherished liberties of dissent and free political expression, which are at the core of the English law tradition. Protest leaders have been rounded up and imprisoned, the Hong Kong courts have no independence, and local governance is only by those who are approved by the central government. The regime has been generously applying its well-honed instruments of psychological and physical abuse to break the will to resist their complete domination.
Winston Marshall, a founder of the British folk-rock group Mumford and Sons, became deeply involved in supporting the cause of Hong Kong. In a very serious and deep interview recently with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he spoke at length of how he was motivated to take up the cause by seeing how little the gravity of the abuse was registering on the public, especially in his Millennial age group.
Marshall’s brief word of appreciation of Andy Ngo’s work in exposing Antifa subjected him to a tsunami of indignation from the ranks of those who have crowned themselves as woke defenders of all that is socially just. Marshall, who sees himself as belonging neither to the left or right, could not understand why the profound Chinese abuses of human rights in Hong Kong and in their grotesque mass imprisonment of the Muslim Uyghurs have brought so little protest among his peers.
Marshall is impressive in his independence of thought and the clarity of his concern. He is not campaigning as a Trumpian or an anti-Trumpian, as Tory or as a Laborite. He shows a Burkean concern for looking beyond the mere claims of those working for societal change to get to the core issue: do the actions of leaders produce something better or not? If not, they must be exposed and protested against.
Communism has always been adept at portraying itself as rectifying great injustices. Today’s version of the Marxist vision is no different. Racism is bad and should be ended. On that, there is greater agreement in America and in the West than ever. The question is whether or not the solutions posed to racism and imperialism result in something better.
Looking with Andy Ngo and Winston Marshall at Portland, or with parents across the nation at their children’s education going in the exact opposite of Dr. King’s goal of people not being judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, many people are seeing what Burke saw. They agree with the problem, but they criticize solutions that are substandard at best.
Certainly, in Hong Kong and in the Xinjiang home of the Uyghurs, the solution is far worse than the alleged problem the authorities claim to be addressing. It is dismaying that so many in free political societies have not taken on that basic responsibility epitomized in Burke’s simple question. The world needs true warriors for justice, not stuffed and mocking effigies whose policies result in increased injustice and its attendant miseries. We need to care about the practical results of the power we all wield as free citizens.
The message is as old as the book of Genesis, where we learn the principle that power and goodness must always be exactly linked. The new religions that erect their own gods, whether the Goddess of Reason of the Jacobins, the immortal Lenin of the Soviets, the Great Helmsman cult of the CCP, or whatever inchoate faith moves the woke in the West believe themselves unaccountable to any such principle.
Those who take up the challenge to be responsible for the results of their exercise of political power believe themselves accountable to something beyond kowtowing to some new and artificial ideological orthodoxy. The principles of Burke and of Genesis have proven themselves capable of sustaining societies that can be self-critical and dedicated to continuous and successful social betterment. Neither Jacobism, communism, wokeism, nor any similar ideology offer anything comparable.
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