Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Sunday, June 30, 2002 An alarming report in The Washington Post discusses the increasing collaboration between al Qaeda and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist organization which before September 11 was responsible for more American deaths than any other. Most important here is the transcending of the traditional ethnic and religious barriers between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Also noteworthy is the prominence of Internet communication in the web of malice. And buried at the bottom of the report, about thirty graphs down, is this, yet another element in the arraignment against bureaucratic paralysis at American intelligence services:
posted by Paul Cella | 7:46 AM |
SUB SPECIE AETERNATIS: “The United States must overcome the materialist fallacy: the illusion that resources and capital are essentially things, which can run out, rather than products of human will and imagination which in freedom are inexhaustible. This fallacy is one of the oldest of economic delusions, from the period of empire when men believed that wealth was land, to the period of mercantilism when they fantasized that it was gold, to the contemporary period when they suppose it is oil; and our citizens clutch at real estate and gold as well. But economists make an only slightly lesser error when they add up capital in quantities and assume that wealth consists mainly in machines and factories. Throughout history, from Venice to Hong Kong, the fastest growing countries have been the lands best endowed not with things but with free minds and private rights to property.” –- George Gilder, 1981. posted by Paul Cella | 2:06 AM |
Nearly forty years ago, the philosopher and strategist James Burnham wrote a haunting book called Suicide of the West, the thesis of which was the following: liberalism is the “ideology of Western suicide.” It is the body of ideas constructed and arranged, oftentimes in an implicit manner, to reconcile us to our own decline as a civilization, to make palatable the “terrible, soul-shattering loses, defeats and withdrawals,” to narcotize our affliction, to make death mild when it comes.
Evidence of Burnham’s prescience comes to us from former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and his organization Empower.org, who have released the results of “the single most extensive survey of college students' attitudes about terrorism, the Middle East and the Bush administration this year.” The figures are disheartening, and they serve to peel away yet another layer from the façade which conceals the decay at the heart of American education. Fully 37 percent of college students are calmly disposed to announce publicly that they would contrive, if the situation arose, to evade the military draft if asked by their country to serve. A mere 25 percent agree with the statement: “the values of the United States are superior to the values of other nations,” while 34 percent strongly disagree. Even less (16 percent) view Western civilization as superior to Arab civilization, while 43 percent strongly disagree with such an assertion.
This is a crisis of spirit. American students are taught little of the unique goodness of their civilization, of the grand adventure of Western man’s rise from filth, darkness, tyranny and poverty to health, illumination, liberty and prosperity. We have been made ignorant of the great conversation across the centuries between ancients and moderns –- if indeed we even knew that such a conversation existed. We have absorbed the notion that man is just another animal; and therefore his works, superfluous.
The scoffer or the skeptic will look upon these survey results, and the many others like them, and reply that the academy is not supposed to teach the superiority of one thing over another; is not supposed to endorse moral gradation, or to inculcate “values”. The academy must transmit fact alone, abjuring judgment, and allow the individual student to formulate his own values and criteria for judgment –- or nonjudgment. The academy, he will say, embodies a culture of “moral freedom,” as the sociologist Alan Wolfe calls it. It is the model of an open society. All questions are open questions –- except, of course, for the question of whether all questions are open questions.
But the academy can claim no better in the area of fact. Only 19 percent of the students surveyed know who the National Security Advisor is; only 32 percent the Secretary of Defense; and less than half the Secretary of State. One student named Tony Blair as the man who runs the United States Defense Department.
And so we have eviscerated the vast but delicate edifice of virtue and honor that once comprised our intellectual patrimony; and we have assailed the very notion that such things are precious. In their place we have elevated trivia. I am reminded of the great C.S. Lewis, and his lament in his classic essay The Abolition of Man:
posted by Paul Cella | 2:03 AM |
Friday, June 28, 2002 The incomparable James Bowman dilates thoughtfully and incisively on the old capitalism/socialism debate. His impetus is the clutch of commentary appearing in response to all this high level corporate deceit. (See Peggy Noonan’s outstanding column today.) Mr. Bowman is probably the best movie reviewer in the business, and an original thinker of wit and intelligence. “Capitalism,” he writes, “is simply the socialist word for life.” Men do not construct capitalism; they inherit it, as an amalgam of a set of traditions which developed organically over centuries of human fits and starts. The economy
It is the socialist’s dream to transform an organic thing into a mechanical thing; but of course, as the countless socialist experiments in human misery attest, one cannot make an organic thing mechanical without killing it. And, Mr. Bowman points out, when the economy is unhealthy, as perhaps it is now, the socialists rise up from the fever swamps of ideology with their siren song of the machine which makes everybody happy.
Update: For a nice example of James Bowman's professional talent, check out this brilliant review of Black Hawk Down.posted by Paul Cella | 2:44 AM |
Happily breaking the monotony of ill-reasoned, maudlin, and ideology-infected rulings from federal courts, the Supreme Court yesterday upheld the constitutionality of publicly funded school-choice programs. This will allow millions of low-income families to escape the ruin and failure that sadly characterizes our urban public schools by virtue of their tax dollars being partially redirected to other schools, public, private or religious, of their choice. Millions is not an exaggeration: the Department of Education classifies some three million American children as confined without alternative to failing schools.
The ruling may mark the beginning of the end for public schools as we have known them for generations. This prediction depends on a great many things -- most notably the willingness of the public schools to undertake the reforms necessary to be competitive -- but if the ultimate demise comes, the public school bureaucracy, centered primarily around the teachers’ unions, will have only itself to blame. The public schools constitute a monopoly; and like any monopoly they concentrate a disproportionate bulk of their resources and effort on protecting the monopoly from external competition, which, taking into account the inherent inefficiencies surely to develop absent said external competition, will probably overcome the monopolists when the monopoly is broken. To protect the monopoly is a rational enterprise from the perspective of the monopolists; to defeat it is rational for patrons, who are, in this case, the children and their parents. The rhetoric of church-state constitutionality, which comprised the formal substance of this debate was, excepting the ideologues who likewise endorsed the unconstitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance, largely a sheen with which to disguise the real essence of it: a struggle to preserve a monopoly. Reason magazine’s Mike Lynch refines this point well:
The presence of an enormous state-protected monopoly in such a crucial social institution as education produced some remarkable distortions which will ramify throughout American society for years to come regardless of what happens next. The influence, for example, of school quality on the real estate market is self-evident to anyone with even cursory experience in such things. Public schools are also a source of explosive tension between inner-city and suburbs, which is in turn a significant element to consider in questions regarding race and poverty, higher education and standardized testing. The dynamics of the public school monopoly formed a kind of subterranean undercurrent for local, state and national politics, often in unforeseen, unremarked ways.
This Court ruling will likely over the long term generate unpredictable shifts and adjustments in these dynamics. Even in the short term it is hard to predict what will happen, other than that many, many poor children will have a better chance to become educated men and women.posted by Paul Cella | 12:14 AM |
Thursday, June 27, 2002 A Wall Street Journal reader tenders a seemingly-bizarre proposal to a Palestinian woman who announced publicly her pride in her now-deceased son’s successful suicide mission which also cost the lives of two Israelis. She, in addition, joyfully declared her continued wealth of resources, saying that she had seven more children to sacrifice to the struggle. The Journal reader offers to purchase her remaining children from her:
That gesture pretty well captures the profound, unimaginable sickness at the heart of Palestinian society. President Bush’s well-intentioned effort to reform it seems a pale thing indeed next to this shadow of the unspeakable, this awful debasement of the human spirit.posted by Paul Cella | 1:45 AM |
In 1994, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school textbooks containing Wiccan rituals (spell-casting, chants, etc.) as class activities were protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Students were asked to think of themselves as witches and sorcerers, compose rhymes and chants, and on occasion role-play those characters. Some parents took the school district to court, and lost. The Court found that “the Establishment Clause does not ban federal or state regulation of conduct whose reason or effect merely happens to coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions.”
This same bunch of brilliant legal minds yesterday contrived to interpret that selfsame Amendment as prohibiting the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. This ruling hardly requires commentary; but it is a melancholy fact to face that it does not much deviate from the trend of First Amendment jurisprudence over these last decades.posted by Paul Cella | 12:04 AM |
Tuesday, June 25, 2002 It is on sound reason that some worthy literary critics have grounded their judgment of the English novelist Evelyn Waugh as one of the greatest prose masters of the twentieth century. Some of his sentences, his almost offhand remarks, leave one with the ringing sensation of having just struck upon the perfect formulation in the English language of a given idea; the reader is left with an at once exhilarating and vaguely demoralizing feeling of there being nothing left to say on that topic. Here is Waugh on the idea of the Bureaucrat: “He came none knew whence, armed with unknown powers, malevolent, unpredictable, implacable.” (Officers and Gentleman, 1955) Has there ever has a more concise rendering of the folly of statist bureaucracy, and the fear its arbitrariness instills in ordinary people? I doubt it. Then there is his justly famous statement of the clarity provoked for a brief moment by the Hitler-Stalin pact of September 1939, which precipitated the Second World War: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.” (Men At War, 1952) Again: what more is there to say? Waugh’s consummate precision confounds all thoughts of improvement.
For those not familiar with him, Evelyn Waugh is also the single funniest “serious” writer I have ever encountered; never have I laughed out loud at a book like I have his.posted by Paul Cella | 7:53 PM |
There has to be a better way of dealing with suspected and accused terrorists than the graceless, worrisome, anfractuous method hitherto chosen by the Bush administration. Thus far, the pattern established by the Justice Department does not inspire much confidence, and suggests an ad hoc approach propelled more by a desire for successful prosecution than by a deeper desire for justice. The political atmosphere being what it is, one can perhaps sympathize with this, but consider: Josè Padilla, the suspected “dirty-bomber,” is an American citizen, yet he is being detained by the military, incommunicado, without being formally accused of a crime; meanwhile, Zacarias Moussaoui, the accused “twentieth hijacker,” and Richard Reid, the accused shoe bomber, are both non-citizens, yet they are being tried in public court, with full access to a professional defense. One need not be a committed civil-liberties ideologist to perceive grave peril in the precedents set therein.
I fully understand and endorse the reasoning behind treating “unlawful combatants” in war as something else entirely than regular domestic criminals or prisoners of war -- something far more dangerous and less entitled to constitutional rights. But several serious problems present themselves immediately, and cry out for assiduous consideration: (For a somewhat different take on the inconsistencies and prudential mistakes I am about to address here, see Robert A. Levy’s recent essay.) (1) There has been no formal declaration of war by Congress, which declaration would have automatically initiated the machinery, available in both the Constitution itself and in legal precedents, to accommodate our judicial institutions, at least in part, to the reality of war. The failure of the administration to ask Congress for such a declaration, which it surely would have received in overwhelming if not unanimous votes, was in my view one of its first mistakes. The declaration need not have included anything specific about the enemy; it need only have observed the obvious: that a state of war exists between America and those who attacked her. That simple if unorthodox legislative statement would have struck a mighty blow for political, moral and legal clarity -- a clarity which certainly existed already in substance, but was never authenticated in republican form.
(2) The way in which the administration chose to propound and apply its military tribunal policy went a long way to undermining the legal rationale for the tribunals themselves. First in making a categorical distinction between citizen and non-citizen, and then in recklessly abandoning that very distinction in the first high-profile cases (Moussaoui and John Walker Lind, the American Taliban), the administration tacitly cultivated the pernicious idea that the tribunals exist primarily, even solely, so as to increase the likelihood of a guilty verdict. In point of principle, the use of tribunals should have precisely nothing to do with prosecutorial success rates; it should have everything to do with security of sensitive evidence, protection of witnesses, etc. The gravest and most insidious charge among the many leveled against military tribunals has undoubtedly been the assumption underlying much of the discussion that they will be inherently more likely to return guilty verdicts; that is, that they will be in some systematic way less conducive to a fair, rigorous defense. This assumption constitutes a complacent slander of the honor of the men and women of the United States military, who will make up these proposed tribunals; and anyone who holds this view has an obligation to explain why it is he thinks that military personnel will be intrinsically less scrupulous and fair in carrying out legal proceedings than civilian judges and juries. Sadly, in its unwillingness to apply the military tribunal to all terrorism, that is, all war-related cases, the administration has implicitly endorsed a calumny against the military, and thereby eroded, perhaps irretrievably, the moral authority of its proposed military tribunals.
(3) Even had it acted more prudently and with greater principled uniformity in propounding a military tribunal policy, I still think the administration’s policy would have proven inadequate. Because, lawful and serviceable though they are, I do not think the military tribunals, so constituted as they are today in legal precedent, represent a sufficiently robust, sophisticated and plenary body of legal doctrine and procedure to encompass what they must in this great conflict into which we were hurled on September 11. The tribunals are a thin, skeletal outline, incapable on their own of bearing the burden of a daunting task of indefinite scope and duration. This is where Congress, acting independently of the executive, must assert itself boldly and unambiguously, as the rightful and supreme legislative authority in America. Thomas Sowell made this point in a characteristically sharp column some weeks ago. If ever a dilemma cried out for legislative action, it is this! What we need is the machinery and institutions, fundamentally unprecedented, for dealing with a criminal conspiracy which transcends national borders, threatens mortally the survival of civilization, and presents irreconcilable problems for the traditional legal system. What we need is a kind of ancillary legal system that secures for defendants the spirit of American jurisprudence but does not simultaneously lay bare in public the capabilities and vulnerabilities of America’s resistance to those who plot its immolation. Difficult and painstaking though it will surely be, Congress is ideal for this kind of work; and indeed it is the only institution possessed of the necessary authority for creating this new organon of jurisprudence.
Unfortunately, Congress has seemed as yet unequal to the task; has shied from even approaching this solemn responsibility while favoring a host of other deeply partisan and trivial activities; and has generally reflected the impoverishment of our political discourse at a time when richness, subtlety and vigor is required. It should also be noted that this impoverishment is succored immensely by the degraded ideological fatuity of the major human rights and civil liberties lobbies, whose reflexive, intemperate opposition to virtually every effort by the administration to address the unique problematics of international terrorism represents a particularly debilitating triumph of abstraction over practical sobriety. If the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, cannot recognize the plain fact that unabbreviated constitutional rights cannot and should not be extended to those whose expressed and unambiguous intention is to exploit them in order to overthrow the society and polity upon which they are constructed, then a great organization has well and truly succumbed to the syndrome of ideology; and its influence must dwindle for our civilization to endure.posted by Paul Cella | 7:39 PM |
Saturday, June 22, 2002 I wrote previously that American immigration policy is most notable these days for embarrassment, incompetence, and disorder; and that even the public dialogue on the matter reflects a certain imaginative and intellectual poverty. Professor George J. Borjas of Harvard, in a commanding essay for National Review examining the foreign student visa program, all at once manages to single-handedly enrich the discussion and to illustrate with precision and lucidity a particular but representative example of the disorder of our immigration policy. His article bristles with telling statistics and perspicacious analysis. An example of the former: “In the San Diego area alone, the INS grants its seal of approval to nearly 400 institutions, ranging from the University of California at San Diego to Avance Beauty College, the College of English Language (where new courses start every Monday), the Asia American Acupuncture University, and the San Diego Golf Academy.” An example of the latter: “Because there are so many INS-approved institutions, anyone with the money can buy a student visa to enter the U.S. America has effectively delegated the task of selecting immigrants to thousands of privately run entities whose incentives need not coincide with the national interest.”
Professor Borjas’ prose is cool and authoritative; his mastery of the subject evident in the ease with which he assembles the data, constructs an argument, and then expounds it with both equanimity and vigor.
One knows not whether to shed tears of laughter, rage or joy. Laughter, because such corruption, and the incompetence that cultivates it, is almost comical; rage, because it is infuriating; joy, because what motivates it –- the unrivaled and astounding success of this country –- is in a paradoxical way a high compliment to America. We cannot afford, however, to be flippant with these things anymore; the perils of generalized complacency with regard to who crosses our borders are too great. Professor Borjas sharpens the point:
And he concludes:
posted by Paul Cella | 4:16 PM |
Pensées on soccer:
Friday, June 21, 2002 There seems to be no limit to the contempt with which the United States Supreme Court will treat constitutional law. Yesterday, the Court outlawed the execution of mentally retarded criminals. On the face of it this seems a deeply humane decision, but as a matter of logic and reason it is untenable.
A bit of exegesis is in order: The Court majority, in its boundless wisdom, has declared that despite a defendant being found competent to stand trial, despite his being found guilty of first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of peers, despite his being sentenced to death by a sentencer familiar with the case and with the laws relevant to it; despite, furthermore, the consideration and approval of capital punishment by the political community, acting through its lawfully elected representatives; despite, furthermore, the previous case law of the Court itself; despite all these levers for applying through reflection and debate the deliberate sense of the community; despite, in a word, democracy, the Court majority still sees itself as of the greater wisdom. The arrogance is astounding, irrespective of what one might think of the morality of capital punishment.
It seems almost superfluous to say, but I will say it nonetheless, because the dominance of what Father Richard John Neuhaus calls “the judicial usurpation of politics” is so complete as to elide fundamental principles: The Supreme Court majority is not interpreting law, it is making law; and that is properly the responsibility of the American people alone, acting through their elected representatives. If activists and intellectuals believe that execution of the mentally retarded is a monstrous enough practice to merit federal prohibition, then they must take on the burden of persuading the people of the United States of the rightness of their case. If they discover that this burden is too great to overcome, then they can turn to the people of the states severally -- which course of action, incidentally, is precisely what many have taken, with not insubstantial success: 18 states have outlawed execution of the mentally retarded since 1989. What they cannot do, however, without provoking grave offense to the principles of American constitutionalism, is demand that the Supreme Court, an unelected body unaccountable to the people, take up the role of legislator. In so doing, they reveal their indifference to the Constitution and the rule of law. And in obliging them, the Supreme Court majority has diminished its moral authority, and once again undermined the principles upon which it is founded.posted by Paul Cella | 1:33 AM |
Andrew Sullivan makes several lapidary, resonant points today, in analyzing the madness of suicide bombing:
That last exhortation is an important one, compounded as it is by the morally dampening effect of 7-second soundbtyes and 40-second video clips, which isolate and dehumanize the savagry and the horror.posted by Paul Cella | 1:26 AM |
Thursday, June 20, 2002 SUB SPECIE AETERNITATIS: “For Western civilization in the present condition of the world, the most important practical consequence of the guilt encysted in the liberal ideology and psyche is this: that the liberal, and the group, nation or civilization infected by liberal doctrine and values, are morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself.” -- James Burnham, 1964. posted by Paul Cella | 9:19 PM |
“The decline of Catholic higher education in our century should concern all Americans, regardless of their religious affiliation.” So writes Professor Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania in a bracing, erudite essay for the journal First Things. Despite all the chest-thumping about our glorious love of diversity and tolerance in education, anyone familiar with contemporary American academia, whose mind is uncluttered by straitened ideological dogmatism, knows that in fact academic freedom is at a very low ebb. Professor Kors is one of its few authentic defenders; and here he rises in eloquence to defend the intellectual tradition cultivated and refined by an institution too frequently and facilely dismissed as a juggernaut of oppression and cultural backwardness.
“Never, in the history of all creeds, has there been more intellectual dynamism, vitality, philosophical diversity, mutual criticism, and natural philosophical liberty than in the history of the Catholic Church.” Professor Kors’ deft command of history is impressive and inspiring:
The American Catholic Church, of course, has been driven to its knees, mostly by grievous self-inflicted wounds; but it is perhaps a worthy enterprise, now more than ever, to remind us of the immense richness and honor of this oldest institution on earth. Professor Kors has done this, with probity and equipoise.posted by Paul Cella | 9:11 PM |
Check out the interesting debate, including contributions by yours truly, on human nature, going on over at Champology. Scroll down to the posts on June 18 and 19. posted by Paul Cella | 9:07 PM |
The always intelligent Steve Sailer proffers an argument for Palestinian statehood I had not heard before -- and one which, while certainly not unassailable, strikes me as substantially more persuasive than the usual ill-considered pieties about self-determination. "What Israel needs," he writes
Meanwhile, the apologists for the slaughter of Israeli civilians are all over the airwaves, hectoring and badgering and generally exploiting the liberties of America's open society to advance a cause which treats precisely those liberties with nothing but contempt.posted by Paul Cella | 5:27 AM |
There is no element of American public policy in a more extravagant state of disorder than immigration. Even after September 11, an event which would seem to concentrate the mind on matters relating to national security, the simple fact is: We have no national immigration policy. Public debate on the issue, moreover, except for a few isolated points of seriousness and candor, reflects this disorder in its angularity and intellectual poverty. This is a disgraceful state of affairs for a great nation at war.
Herewith a single anecdote, reported by the inimitable Mark Steyn, involving the case of Deena Gilbey:
But the disorder of immigration policy is broader and deeper, and more profound, than these momentary lapses of sanity. Consider:
(1) It is mass immigration, haphazardly unleashed by a piece of 1965 legislation, that has made a mess of the nation’s affirmative action policies -- which policies were at their most defensible when they acknowledged and addressed the unique historical abuses of American blacks, but are now at their least defensible, unfettered immigration having degraded them into ugly racialist squalor. (2) It is mass immigration that has effected a steady transfer of wealth and power from the working class to business, by driving wages down, tightening the market for skilled and unskilled labor, and thereby diminishing the influence of labor vis-à-vis capital. (3) It is also mass immigration, and the unwillingness of our public figures to confront it, that has gone a long way to undermine thoughtful discussion of environmental policy -- for if we cannot serious debate the primary cause of population growth, how can we seriously debate environmental policy?
All of this and more the ramifying disorder at the heart of immigration policy has in part produced; and yet it is still very difficult to even approach the subject in the public square without risking immediate vilification. Indeed, none of the three items I have adumbrated here falls under what is traditionally understood as the “conservative” agenda. Yet opponents of our immigration policies are almost uniformly described as “extreme” right-wingers. Witness the treatment of Pat Buchanan. Witness Pim Fortuyn, the eccentric Dutch politician who, upon gaining prominence and popularity with his frank opposition to Dutch immigration policies, was promptly assassinated. He was regularly referred to in the press, both here and in Europe, both before and after his murder, as a man of the “far right,” which is a strange label indeed for an openly promiscuous gay man who favored euthanasia and recreational drug-use. No matter: dissent on immigration, it seems, is alone enough to justify systematic demonization.posted by Paul Cella | 2:22 AM |
Hello. Here is my first official post, and my first stride into the Blogosphere. I cannot offer any assurances about the quality or quantity of subsequent posts. I can assure you of my sincerity, and my seriousness in approaching topics deserving of seriousness. But I hasten to cite Chesterton in saying that funny is not the opposite of serious; it is merely the opposite of unfunny.
Perhaps that is enough of an introduction. The whole introduction enterprise, in the context of this medium of communication, seems rather superfluous: Who will go back and read my introduction in the archives six weeks from now?posted by Paul Cella | 1:20 AM |