Je suis Brian Sicknick

Every revolution has its martyrs, a tradition upheld by Wednesday’s Walpurgisnacht in Washington (WWW for short). Police officer Brian Sicknick died this morning, after some rampaging thug had struck him on the head with a fire extinguisher.


The mob will doubtless claim its own martyrs: Ashli Babbitt, shot in the head when clambering into the Capitol building through a smashed window, another woman trampled to death by the stampeding mob, and two other rioters who couldn’t handle the excitement and suffered cardiac events.

Yet they have no right to that claim. A martyr is someone who willingly gives his life for a good cause, the adjective being the operative word. Hence, say, those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising were martyrs; the SS soldiers killed there were not.

We can argue whether the low number of casualties among the thugs was due to the restraint shown by the police or their incompetence. All I can say is that, had I been in charge when the Capitol building was breached, I would have ordered the police to fire at will.

Lest you accuse me of being a crypto-leftie, I would have issued a similar order last summer, when BLM and Antifa mobs were turning Minneapolis, Portland and Manhattan into a pogrom orgy of arson, looting and violence.

Our information on WWW is woefully scant. We need to know who organised it, for example. We already know who inspired it: Trump, with his incendiary messages and entreaties for all ‘true patriots’ to demonstrate against Biden’s congressional rubber-stamp.

“Be there, be wild,” screamed Trump on Twitter, and the mob complied with alacrity. How could it not respond to such an elegant appeal?

To be fair, Trump didn’t specifically call for violence, and neither did he take care of the organisational details. Yet someone did – a hundred people may act on the spur of the moment, but never thousands.

Exactly how many took part in WWW is another datum we haven’t got yet. Moments before she went through the window towards the fatal bullet, Ashli Babbitt shouted: “Three million plus people here. God bless American patriots.”

Maths couldn’t have been her forte for TV footage shows a crowd smaller by several orders of magnitude. But even that mob had to be enrolled, coordinated, kitted with posters and so forth. Someone evidently did all that, and we should know who.

Until we have all the facts we should refrain from making specific comments, a wise policy regrettably disdained by many commentators. But general comments ought not to be off limits.

First, I can’t accept the view that WWW threatens to bring American democracy down. Riots may put paid to a political regime, but a political system of long standing can’t be destroyed by anything other than itself.

Thus WWW won’t upend unlimited democracy. It has, however, emphasised this system’s congenital defects.

A democracy of near-universal and constantly expanding suffrage based on birthright was brought to the fore by the American and French Revolutions, which, among other things, vindicated the eternal law of political upheavals:

Every revolution produces consequences unintended by its perpetrators. The likelihood of such consequences being the exact opposite of such intentions is directly proportionate to the temperature of the perpetrators’ stridency.

The democratic revolutions of the 18th century, just like the quasi-republican ones of the 17th and the socialist ones of the 20th, are a case in point. They too produced unintended consequences that gradually assumed a significance arguably greater than the intended ones (which were bad enough, but this is a separate subject).

One such was assigning an overriding importance to national politics, something that never existed in any pre-Enlightenment dispensation. People were given an illusion that they had the power to affect national affairs, rather than merely elect every few years this or that increasingly inane member of an increasingly homogeneous elite.

Another by-product is a gradual, eventually almost total, shift of political power from local to central government. That empowers the chaps in the capital to an extent unimaginable to even the absolute monarchs of Western polity: Louis XIV’s famous pronouncement on the nature of the state was more wishful thinking than reportage.

The democratically elected operators of central government can make the claim that people who put them into office consent to anything the politicians will then do in their name. Hence the shibboleth “consent of the governed”, which, like most other shibboleths, is often enunciated but seldom analysed.

Since neither Locke nor his followers could pinpoint the granting of ‘consent’ to any specific historical event, they had to talk about some nebulous ‘social contract’, to use the term first popularised by Democritus and later by Hobbes and especially Rousseau.

An important aspect of ‘consent’, as understood by Lockeans, is that it’s irrevocable: once given, or presumed to have been given, it can’t be reclaimed by any peaceful means.

Yet in no conceivable way could it be true that those voting in, or at least accepting, a government ages ago gave perpetual consent on behalf of all future generations. For example, I don’t recall ever consenting to the state extorting half my income, and I find it hard to accept, say, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, as the time when such consent was given on my behalf.

Any real contract includes terms under which it may be terminated. Yet no ‘social contract’ can have such a clause. Therefore violence is the only recourse either party has, meaning that in a modern state a revolution – or at least a mini-coup like WWW – isn’t so much an aberration as a logical extension of the ‘social contract’, the only way for the people to withdraw their ‘consent’.

Conservative thinkers realise this inherent flaw of unrestrained democracy. That’s why they seek to mitigate it by opposing political extremism of any kind, an effort akin to trying to tame a wolf cub into growing up to be a cuddly pet. Alas, this side of Jack London’s White Fang the beast’s true nature may burst out at any time.

It’s pointless trying to plead with the masses that relatively benign politics doesn’t really matter, provided it stays benign. The notion that everyone is qualified to steer the political ship even in the absence of any navigational skills (Plato’s metaphor) has been indelibly etched into people’s minds.

Those minds are bound to become agued whenever they feel strongly, whether positively or negatively, about the figurehead of national government, its elected leader. They are inclined to think that their lives will be inexorably affected by yet another fool or knave governing in their name.

Elementary tradecraft can easily turn such febrile passions into violent action, and Brian Sicknick, may he rest in peace, fell its victim. Now I hope that some American conservative pundit, if there’s any such animal, will explain to the Trump fanatics involved that they are typological twins of the BLM mob. Hope springs eternal, doesn’t it?      

10 thoughts on “Je suis Brian Sicknick”

  1. Its one thing too diagnose a sickness, but quite another to propose a cure.

    How should the evident sicknesses of Democracy (as we now know it) be cured? We do need to know what ideas thinkers like you have to offer. I fear that there are no viable solutions in prospect. Please prove me wrong!

  2. The problem with the USA is that her domestic terrorists have a point. I mean, what exactly is the moral difference between the American Revolutionaries of 1776 and Wednesday’s mob?

    What I simply cannot understand is how the boneheads made it within a mile of the Capital Building. I suppose it must be some libertarian guff about the right to protest.

  3. For years we have been assailed with ‘space-filler’ stories in the popular media about a bunch of fantasists claiming to be getting ready to fight ‘the US government’ that was ‘agin the rights of common folk’. All we could learn that was that they sat around buying and training with guns, waving absurd banners at modestly attended field days. They did not make it clear what they wanted the government to do (perhaps abolish itself?) and how many people would be needed (at least three million?) to join their fight. These details we obviously left for later. Result: only a few turned up at the Capitol recently without a clue as to what to do. Contrast that with BLM – whose members in the past had the sense not to arm themselves in DC and invade Congress (both illegal acts). However they have always been clear about looting and destroying public and private buildings outside DC. As Brendan O’Neil said recently ‘When protesters assaulted police stations and even a courthouse, in Portland, little was said. You cannot implicitly green-light BLM rioting for weeks on end and then condemn the violent lunacy in the Capitol and expect to be taken seriously’.

  4. I don’t think the Trump mob is on an equal footing of evil with the BLM mob. What was the nature of that latter’s grievance, if a mob can be said to have a grievance? Alleged, and statistically disproven police and ‘systemic’ racism against US blacks. The BLM mob destroyed cities, looted businesses, assaulted innocent people on the street.
    WWW restricted their assault to government quarters.
    Trump voters have been systematically villified, ridiculed, called every insulting name in the book by all the popular media (99% of all media that is) for 4 years, and told that they and their privileged children are evil because of their white skin. Could this have been a boiling point?

  5. “‘You cannot implicitly green-light BLM rioting for weeks on end and then condemn the violent lunacy in the Capitol and expect to be taken seriously’.”

    Exactly so. 100 %. Also no condemnation of the BLM riots period. Silence is approval and complicity?

  6. I think I would add to your explanation the decline of religion and the elevation of politics as a secular religion in its place. Your point about the centralization of power is an important one, especially in a country as large geographically as the United States. Citizens here feel increasingly isolated from their rulers in Washington, even as the tentacles of federal power have expanded their reach. It is hard to convince people that national power is not important when it has been exercised so badly for much of the citizenry for the last 30 years. The free trade policies that have decimated manufacturing in this country, and led to massive loss of middle class jobs, is a case in point. The exponential increases in the costs of higher education is another.

    1. I couldn’t agree more with your first sentence. But I did argue against your point about free trade a couple of years ago: I also struggle to accept that the cost of higher education is a problem. To me, the real problem is that in most Western countries, including the US and Britain, higher education isn’t worth the money. These days it doesn’t so much educate as corrupt, certainly in the humanities. Also, what’s growing exponentially isn’t just tuition fees but also the number of universities. I don’t have the exact figures in front of me, but 100 years ago, the US had something like 100 universities. Now it has a couple of thousand. The point is that there are still 100 universities — the rest are frauds. Britain has the same problem: a couple of decades ago most polytechnics got the status of universities, while still remaining polytechnics in essence. That’s the problem I’d look at first. Reducing the number of universities while increasing their quality would make it easier for them to seek endowments and, consequently, offer more scholarships to talented youngsters who can’t afford the fees.

  7. I accept the classical economic view that the free flow of capital and labor across international borders maximizes economic production in the participating countries. But like all economic principles it oversimplifies reality and can ossify into rigid dogma. It ignores the severe and long-term dislocations to American families and communities caused by the loss of industrial jobs, and the dangers of ceding a nation’s manufacturing base to — and building up the economic power — of a foreign adversary. “Maximizing GNP,” to use the economists’ term of art, is important, but to me it must be tempered by other considerations in a good society. The logic of the free flow of labor is open borders, and not a few free market economists at American business schools advocate for open borders on precisely those grounds. And the logic of the free flow of capital was aptly described by General Electric’s Jack Welch, one of the best-regarded CEO’s in American business history. He once said that “ideally” he would put every American factory GE owned “on a barge” to China, to take advantage of several dollar a day labor costs there.

  8. You are absolutely right: economic theories are good and well, but they don’t emerge unscathed from any clash with reality. Capitalism has its winners and losers, but in a civilised society the losers shouldn’t lose too badly. We went through exactly the same problems back in the 1990s, when Margaret Thatcher applied to Britain the same economic principles I mentioned. The problem with her – and most other Western politicians who attempt large-scale liberation of the economy – is that she had to do everything in a hurry, within one 5-year term ideally, two at the most. Alas, such things can’t be done in a hurry: they require painstaking preparation not just of the economy, but also, perhaps especially, education. That didn’t happen, and hundreds of thousands of people, especially those involved in the production of commodities, such as coal and steel, moved from payrolls to welfare rolls. It was predictable that most of them wouldn’t be able to retrain as systems analysts or financial consultants, but few provisions were made for their future. This is combined with the very nature of modern economy, which is increasingly computerised and automated. That too creates employment problems for obvious reasons. I suspect that here, just as in most other things in life, this is a matter of balance. When all is said and done, free trade has produced the most successful economies in history, whereas its opposite has produced nothing but widespread misery. My prescription would be to liberalise gradually, in parallel with stepping up programmes of training and education. How to do so in the conditions of kaleidoscopic changes of governments is a different matter. As Jean-Claud Junkers said, “We all know what to do. We just don’t know how to get reelected after we’ve done it.”

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