Dictatorship of Virtue (Signaling)

Reflections on Maximilien Robespierre and Russell Brand

On the subject of fanatical, homicidal dictators, the talk usually turns to the 20th century’s dynamic duo of Hitler and Stalin. I have read multiple biographies of both. While both were spectacularly destructive and criminal, they had far more military, industrial, and communication technology at their disposal than the fanatical dictators of the past.

Of all the dictators in history, I have often thought that Maximilien Robespierre the most frightening in his sheer, merciless fanaticism. He believed, with absolute conviction, that when it came to the business of destroying those whom he deemed “the enemies of the nation,” the more cruel and shocking the measure, the better. Over a century before Hitler and Stalin were born, Robespierre expressly praised terror and cruelty in the service of what he deemed virtuous. “Terror is naught but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”

I thought of this astonishing assertion a few days ago when I heard the news that the British actor, comedian, and public affairs commentator, Russell Brand, is facing accusations for crimes he allegedly committed in the years 2006-2013. As the Guardian reported:

The 48-year-old comedian and actor has been accused of rape, assault and emotional abuse between 2006 and 2013, when he was at the height of his fame working for the BBC and Channel 4 and starring in Hollywood films. He denies the allegations.

Before we have seen any presentation of evidence—never mind a day in court—we are already hearing loud calls from every Establishment quarter in the UK to punish, demonetize, and humiliate him.

Why now, over ten years later? Might it have something to do, for example, with his criticism of COVID-19 vaccines?

History teaches us that whenever tyrants make a move to overthrow the rule of law, they naturally target for elimination men and women who have a strong position and voice and the courage to speak out. The easiest way to eliminate them is to rummage around in their past and find something—real, exaggerated, or fabricated—to use against them. Since Russell Brand became sober, he has spoken openly about his wild, partying days when he was one of the most celebrated public figures in Britain. He has never concealed that he was given to extreme excess where drugs and sex were concerned. As one who combined celebrity with dashing, roguish good looks and an exceptional sense of humor, it’s hard to believe he lacked consensual partners.

Another thing history teaches us is that it is not uncommon for a deeply flawed man—a man who behaved badly and selfishly in his younger days—to become an exceptionally strong advocate for truth and justice after undergoing something akin to a conversion. In religious terms, this is the meaning of Saul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus, or the story of John Newton, the British slave trader, who immortalized his conversion in the hymn “Amazing Grace.”

As Robespierre, saw it, no punishment was too merciless and severe for those whom he deemed to lack virtue. Woe to he or she against whom the TERROR—“the emanation of virtue”—was unleashed. As author Stanley Loomis wrote of the September 1792 massacres in his book Paris in the Terror:

the bloody work went on for five . . . days and nights. On the morning of the third, the prison of La Force was entered and here took place the murder of the Princesse de Lamballe. . . . The frenzy of the crazed and drunken murderers appears to have reached its highest pitch at La Force. Cannibalism, disembowelment and acts of indescribable ferocity took place here.

The Princess . . . refused to swear her hatred of the King and Queen and was duly handed over to the mob. She was dispatched with a pike thrust, her still beating heart was ripped from her body and devoured, her legs and arms were severed from her body and shot through cannon. The horrors that were then perpetrated on her disemboweled torso are indescribable. . . . It has been loosely assumed . . . that most of the other victims were, like herself, aristocrats—an assumption that for some curious reason is often supposed to mitigate these crimes. Very few victims were, in fact, of the former nobility—less than thirty out of the fifteen hundred who were killed.

What Loomis described is an extreme form of what humans may do to one another when they are animated with the fanatical passion that their terrible acts are in the service of virtue. While Russell Brand has not been set upon by an actual, physical mob, he is nevertheless contending with the same mob mentality that seeks no due process, no proof of wrongdoing, and no concept of just punishment.

There is nothing more terrifying in all of nature than a mob of enraged humans who believe their righteous indignation gives them license to destroy their purported enemies. The prospect of facing such a mob would test the mettle of the strongest of men. I’m hoping that with Russel Brand’s extraordinary combination of boldness and humor, he will find a way to weather the storm.

This originally appeared on Courageous Discourse.

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