Edmund Burke on Rioting

May 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

We adjust our thoughts about rioting and looting to make those thoughts and perceptions at home with our overall ideology. That was the point of yesterday’s quote from Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush. The looting in Baghdad was clearly a result of the US invasion of Iraq, an invasion Rumsfeld promoted and planned. To see the looting as the indefensible work of immoral criminals would be to admit that his policies and thrown Baghdad into the Hobbesian chaos that David Brooks sees in Baltimore.

Instead, Rumsfeld characterized the large-scale theft of historical artifacts as a sign of “freedom” and liberation from oppression. This attention to historical and political context is rare in conservative analyses of looting, rioting, and other forms of what Rumseld called “untidiness” when these happen in the US.

Not all conservatives. Here is Edmund Burke,* much beloved of intellectual conservative, often quoted by the likes of George Will, William F. Buckley, Jr., et al. 

    If you do not carefully distinguish the feelings of the multitude from their judgments; if you do not distinguish their interests from their opinions; attending religiously to the one and utterly despising the other; if you lay down a Rule that because the people are absurd, their grievances are not to be redressed, then in plain Terms it is impossible that popular grievances should receive any redress at all, because the people when they are injured will be violent; when they are violent, they will be absurd—and their absurdity will in general be proportioned to the greatness of their Grievances.

[If one pursues the rule that grievances opposed through mob-like protest should be ignored,] the worse their [the people’s] suffering the further they will be from their remedy.

HT: I took this quote from Andrew Sabl at The Reality-Based Community. He got it from David Bromwich’s intellectual biography of Burke.

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