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Edmund Burke Warned Us About the Woke

The great statesman's famous Reflections eerily predicts our own predicament in the Reign of Woke Terror.

Statue of Edmund Burke at Trinity College Dublin. (By Fabian Junge/Shutterstock)

Burke warned us this might happen. No, not Tom Brady…although the 18th-century Anglo-Irish statesman’s penchant for the ancient and tried would have likely led him to predict that the “GOAT” was capable of another Super Bowl run. Rather, I’m talking about the increasing subjugation of America’s dominant cultural and political institutions to a suffocating wokeism. Indeed, reading Reflections on the Revolution in France afresh in 2021, one wonders if the good Lord gave Edmund Burke a John-the-Revelator apocalyptic vision of what the West was in for.

Perhaps if he was this prescient regarding the problem, Burke might also have the remedy.

It’s no secret that Burke, perhaps the most prophetic and incisive critic of the French Revolution, viewed radical political and social change with great suspicion and caution. Among his many concerns, the great parliamentary orator perceived that part of the problem with the radical revolutionary ideal is that it becomes a permanent, self-immolating raison d’être that incrementally hollows out the body politic. One cannot build a society on self-hatred.

“I confess to you, Sir, I never liked this continual talk of resistance and revolution, or the practice of making the extreme medicine of the constitution its daily bread,” he opined. “It renders the habit of society dangerously valetudinary: it is taking periodical doses of mercury sublimate, and swallowing down repeated provocatives of cantharides to our love of liberty.” Was Burke talking about the Jacobins or our own contemporaries who so viciously malign patriarchies, heteronormativity, and white privilege? If it is power structures that must be dismantled, the work of the woke revolutionary is never done.

Yet as Burke wisely notes, “revolution or nothing” devolves into the most fatuous triviality and tokenism. Revolutionaries “often come to think lightly of all public principle; and are ready, on their part, to abandon for a very trivial interest what they find of very trivial value.” Thus did our inauguration, liberal pundits ceaselessly reminded us, feature the first black, female, nationally elected executive officer, being sworn in by the first Latina Supreme Court justice. And the new administration may include the first transgender federal official confirmed by the Senate. Such “firsts” are, however, fleeting, with one required to forever espy the next glass ceiling in need of breaking. There is always history to make, my friends! 

More than this, because revolution is proclaimed in such dramatic, earthshaking binaries, it tends to engender resentment and malice towards those who fail to see the good in the unending attempts to immanentize the eschaton. “The worst of these politics of revolution is this,” Burke wrote, “they temper and harden the breast, in order to prepare it for the desperate strokes which are sometimes used in extreme occasions.” That pretty well describes our contemporary cancel culture, which maligns the unconverted and transgressors against our ever-shifting norms. Burke warns that giving social and political power to such people undermines the ability of the state to seek its natural goods. He explains: “In general, those who are habitually employed in finding and displaying faults, are unqualified for the work of reformation: because their minds are not only unfurnished with patterns of the fair and good, but by habit they come to take no delight in the contemplation of those things. By hating vices too much, they come to love men too little.” 

Before it was cliché to write essays on the religious character of wokeism, Burke had already traversed that terrain. He derides revolutionaries who, while spurning the patriarchal power structures of tradition and religion, “have a bigotry of their own; and they have learnt to talk against monks with the spirit of a monk.” As Front Porch Republic’s Jeffrey Bilbro notes in his Reading the Times, positivism, whiggish history, and Hegelian dialectics have led us to affix eschatological significance to every new event on the right side of history. “What an eventful period is this!” Burke cheekily declares. “I am thankful that I have lived to it; I could almost say, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.—I have lived to see a diffusion of knowledge which has undermined superstition and error….”

Long before Southern essayist Tom Wolfe so unsparingly ridiculed the radical chic of hypocritical elites seeking to burnish their progressive credentials with anti-establishment agitators more than happy to exploit white guilt, Burke perceived the enterprising dimensions of la révolution. He remarked: “We shall believe those reformers to be then honest enthusiasts, not as now we think them, cheats and deceivers, when we see them throwing their own goods in common….” Of course, rather than surrendering their own cultural and economic power to wokeism, America’s elites have learned it is much better to co-opt it. A yard sign here, a social media post there, corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives everywhere—these are the self-congratulatory tokens of a technocratic class assuredly on the right side of history.

Sure, some money must be thrown at snake oil salesmen…I mean diversity and inclusion consultants like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. But perhaps we can get the government to subsidize that too, or at least offer a tax break. “They are delivered over blindly to every projector and adventurer, to every alchemist and quack,” observes Burke. Nor need we be overly concerned with the socio-cultural revisionist programs; as long as they promote the latest academically certified “science” on racism, sexism, and bigotry, it will absolve the establishment, at least until next fiscal year. Says Burke: “In these meetings of all sorts, every counsel, in proportion as it is daring, and violent, and perfidious, is taken for the mark of superior genius.”

This “rolling revolution,” as Scott Yenor calls it, will inevitably create new hierarchies, based not so much on merit as the racial, sexual, and gender identitarianism that demands various quotas be satisfied, and ever-more obscure identities be celebrated, even if these themselves result in unjust outcomes and engender new forms of resentment and rage. “After destroying all other genealogies and family distinctions,” notes Burke, “they invent a sort of pedigree of crimes.” Yes, there will be casualties of such social engineering—the working-class, “backwards” religious communities, white males, female athletes—but such outcomes are the inevitable result of realizing the “arc of the moral universe.” Burke warns: “They have a power given to them, like that of the evil principle, to subvert and destroy; but none to construct, except such machines as may be fitted for further subversion and further destruction.”

Conservatives are necessarily suspicious of such positivist, hubristic efforts, in part because they are irrationally prejudiced against the ancients. Writes Burke: “They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one.” This is why we are wary of revisionist history in public art and changing the names of various public institutions. Though perhaps some efforts are justified—why do we have a military base named after a Confederate general who was hated even by his own troops?—we find no limiting principle in such efforts. This explains why Lincoln and other American heroes, and even Francis Drake, have also been targeted. “I do not like to see anything destroyed; any void produced in society; any ruin on the face of the land,” Burke states.

Rather, conservatives revere the “prejudice of the ages,” a preference for those ancient and venerable opinions and traditions that in the crucible of human history have proved themselves worthy of emulation. In contrast, we reject those socio-political visions that promise the moon and deliver dystopian disaster. Burke trenchantly asserts: “If it be a panacea, we do not want it. We know the consequences of unnecessary physic. If it be a plague; it is such a plague, that the precautions of the most severe quarantine ought to be established against it.” 

Is “plague” too harsh a word to use in describing wokeism and its revolutionary aspirations? In its allergy to human nature and objective truth, in its embrace of absurd histrionics, and in its elitist, exploitative practices, wokeism proves itself no better, and far worse, than its predecessors. “There is something else than the mere alternative of absolute destruction,” avers Burke. One prays that America hastens to the Anglo-Irishman’s exhortations before we witness an anamnesis of the Reign of Terror that he so accurately predicted.

Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.

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