Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton

Monday, July 22, 2002  

An old friend with whom I share very little in ideological outlook writes to say that my writing is “just another manifestation of violence.” To be fair to context, he is responding to a blog in which I called for the execution of man for treason, namely, John Walker Lindh. My friend continues, “To be concerned with the value of life yet demand death for someone . . . evades my current intellectual capacity.”

His response interests me here to the extent that it helps illuminate the lineaments of this question: What does it mean to confess candidly that one cannot conceive of the reasons behind another man’s thought? There is a narrowness of intellect, characteristic of modern man, which needs addressing; a straitening of perspective; a refusal to take seriously on their own terms the ideas of others, and in particular the ideas of those who came before us. This is not garden-variety disagreement: “I can see what you mean; but I cannot think that way myself because I genuinely think this way.” No, we are talking here about the much more appalling statement: “Your thought is alien to me.” To which I am tempted to oppose the luminous remark of Terence —- “I am man; nothing human is alien to me” —- but that seems facile and incomplete.

Nevertheless, it is quite true that I can conceive of, at least intellectually, the reasoning (such as it is) and thought behind even those whom I find most repugnant. The Fascist in his visceral rejection of Christendom has seized upon human will as his pagan deity, through which he anticipates a violent overthrow of the decadent bourgeois order he so despises. The Communist arrives at his dark conclusions via the path of despair, bludgeoned as he is by the unspeakable injustice of that same bourgeois order; which order, he concurs with the Fascist, must be overturned, violently if necessary. His despair generates an adamantine ideology, once referred to as dialectical materialism, by which everything is subordinated to the goal of Revolution. Both of these monomanias are reactionary movements, in the literal and precise sense that they are reactions to something; in this case, reactions to the order of bourgeois liberalism which surged forth from the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment to encompass the Western world under its subsidiaries Capitalism and Democracy.

So if these monomanias, which produced such unparalleled misery, can be approached and ultimately assimilated by those whose opposition to them is unquestioned, what does it mean that some not insubstantial portion of people, including my friend, record the stunning fact that to them the citizen’s desire that treason be punished severely is simply incomprehensible? Or that a society’s right to demand loyalty from its citizens, and limit the tolerance it extends to disloyalty, is also incomprehensible? Not just wrong, mind you, but incomprehensible. We must assume, based on the principle augured, that any sympathy for the Athenian Assembly when it executed the agitator Socrates is equally incomprehensible. And this despite Socrates’ own respect for said Assembly, evident in his unwillingness to attempt escape and stoic resignation to his fate.

That Socrates himself is a sympathetic figure is self-evident; but whence came this narrowness of mind which renders the Assembly utterly unsympathetic? Modern man has conceived of Plato’s dialogues as a full, unqualified endorsement of the open society, with ramifying and unlimited rights extended to the individual; but he has very infrequently considered the reciprocal duties of the individual to society. And now we must face squarely the charge by modern man that the very assertion of those duties is incomprehensible.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:31 PM |

Saturday, July 20, 2002  

Blogger Stuart Buck dexterously assimilates the evidence garnered by Ralph Nader concerning the supposedly irrevocable structural problems with American capitalism, and reformulates it, with only minor adjustments, as an indictment rather against the irrevocable enervation which inevitably comes with the reckless aggrandizement of the state:

As I've pointed out, nearly every problem that Nader identifies is due not just to the corruption of big businessmen, but equally or more so to the size and scope of government itself. His argument boils down to this: “Government has sold its soul to big business; therefore, government should be given more power to investigate big business's influence.” Why not this: “Government has sold its soul to big business; therefore, we the citizens should ask why the government has so much power and money that it had anything of use to big business in the first place.”

The essence of the problem here is the concentration of power, a trend which is almost always more salient a feature of the state than of any individual corporation or cohort of corporations. Virtually every corporate abuse eliciting howls of outrage among politicians has its own doppelganger in the practice of politicians in their function as caretakers of the modern state.

posted by Paul Cella | 11:57 PM |

Friday, July 19, 2002  

I have often wondered about the extent of the discrimination against Arabs in Israel. Clearly it must be substantial; though not as substantial as the discrimination against Jews in Arab lands (how often do we hear talk about Jewish “right of return” to, say, Damascus?) or Arab discrimination against other Arabs (how often do we hear talk of the brutal Syrian occupation of Palestinians in Lebanon?). Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe contributes a sober and illuminating column on this topic, which lends yet more weight to the devastating arraignment against the Palestinian nationalist movement:

Israeli Arabs have the right to vote and to hold public office. Nearly one-10th of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, is Arab; there is even a mosque in the Knesset building for those who are Muslim. One of the justices of Israel's Supreme Court is an Arab; so is a minister in Ariel Sharon's Cabinet. Arabs are active in Israeli commerce, media, education, and law. A few years ago, a young Arab woman was even named Miss Israel.

Meanwhile, as Jay Nordlinger often remarks, “In Muslim nations, Jewish members of the parliament . . . ah, that’s right: There aren’t any.”

posted by Paul Cella | 7:05 AM |

The intrepid David Horowitz says John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, should have been shot. I think I agree with him; and not out of some pathological desire for vengeance, as the liberals would have it, but because the execution of traitors constitutes a somber affirmation of the value of life and the need to protect it vigorously. As Mr. Horowitz notes, it is in the nature of our struggle today that one man can cost the lives of thousands through his act of treason. By joining the armed forces of his country’s enemies, Lindh violated the trust of his citizenship as an American, and thereby renounced the rights included therein. It is not a matter of deterrence but of moral seriousness. Affording him the resources and deference of federal court was to extend to him a collection of rights he had already by his actions deliberately relinquished. It was a mistake for the Bush administration to allow any enemy combatant, be he a foreign national or an American citizen, access to our justice system. Justice for them should be administered by the military, swift, austere and final. By such severity we establish the tremendous but easily elided distinction between civilization and barbarism.

posted by Paul Cella | 6:57 AM |

Thursday, July 18, 2002  

Strangely underreported by most of the media is the struggle for the soul of Algeria, a nation which seems, from the scant reports I have seen, to be clinging bravely to moderation and sanity despite ferocious violence from Islamofascist guerillas whose ambition, as elsewhere, is to coax from the blood and misery of its victims a kind of lunacy-as-governance. R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. pens a lively column of tentative praise for Algeria, in which he muses:

Aside from economic incentives for remaining moderate, the form of Islam practiced in Algeria seems to be relatively reasonable. Unlike some other Arab countries, women can vote in Algeria, hold office, and engage in business. They can enter into contracts and pursue the professions. In fact, there are Algerian women in both houses of Parliament and they compose 25% of the judiciary. Obviously with such achievements to their credit women have similar access to education as men.

Mr. Tyrrell reports that the State Department is also full of admiration for Algeria’s “tenacious and faithful” efforts in resisting terrorism.

Success for moderate, pluralist Islam in Algeria could mark a important triumph for the forces of reason, not only as a human victory for the Algerians, but also as a strategic victory for America:

Algeria is situated in northwest Africa along the Mediterranean in an area accessible by geography and trade to Western Europe and, for that matter, to the Americas, as shipping goes that way. Algeria's economic relationship to the United States is strong. It is the United States' fifth-largest market in the Middle East and North Africa. Algeria exports $3 billion in petroleum and liquid natural gas to the United States. Its daily export of 4 million barrels of oil to the United States is scheduled to increase to 5 million shortly.

It strikes me as altogether unfathomable that so few seem to be paying any attention, among journalists, strategists, and politicians. (Let us not forget, among the exceptions, the indomitable Glenn Reynolds.)

posted by Paul Cella | 7:12 AM |

Wednesday, July 17, 2002  

One of the most successful fait accompli in the socialist’s bag of rhetorical tricks has been the sly appropriation of the word “compassion.” Writers and journalists and voters across the political spectrum have come to accept the truly remarkable idea that compassion consists in having income never seen by its earner extracted mechanistically by hypothetical stranger A to provide charitably for hypothetical stranger B. It is one thing to asseverate that such a tax regime is necessary to finance the basic operations of the state; it is another thing altogether to insist that it is an act of charity; indeed, such an insistence breaks down into plain absurdity under even the most cursory of examination. Coercion is anathema to charity: one cannot unwillingly be charitable; and yet the socialists preach incessantly that I should feel shame for resenting this anonymous dispossession of my property to aid a still speculative abstraction referred to reverentially as “the poor.”

Nevertheless, the thing is a persistent feature of our politics. And it seems impervious to empirical evidence —- evidence, say, from countless studies which demonstrate the potential efficacy of a flat tax of around 20%, paid via a postcard, to sustain current obligations levied by our legitimate representatives on the state.

The average tax burden in America usually fluctuates between 40 – 50%, which means in effect that many of us have just recently, in June or July, begun working for ourselves and our families, rather than the state. Assume that a large portion of that burden is indeed dedicated to necessary functions of various levels of government; am I to still acquiesce in the injunction that several months out of my year’s income should taken to support a welfare state of nameless and faceless (to me) poor people? That acquiescence, for the socialist, indicates my personal compassion, even though there is precisely nothing personal about it.

The dominance of this thunderous fait accompli is predicated on its controlling the form, rather than the substance of the debate; so that opponents of progressive taxation must exert fierce rhetorical and intellectual energy merely to correct unexamined assumptions in order to have their substantive arguments taken seriously. Most have not the time or energy; and are left whispering in dark, smoky rooms that maybe, just maybe, there would be greater compassion in allowing a man to keep his income that he may support and educate his children while simultaneously caring for his elderly mother and father.

And from that position of obscurity and public opprobrium, that same man must endure the preening self-congratulations of the socialists as they celebrate the compassionate taxation regime through which they expiate their spiritual guilt by redistributing the property of one man to another, both of whom are little more than inhuman abstractions in socialist mind.

posted by Paul Cella | 2:43 PM |

Tuesday, July 16, 2002  

I do not think the world is even vaguely aware of its tendency to rehabilitate ancient ideas thought discredited, and now refurbished with a cloak of fashion and redolent of novelty’s inebriating excitement. The frisson of newness confounds attempts at scrutiny so long as the idea is fashionable, at which time the world turns away, distracted by the next new thing, and the old new thing vanishes like the receding vividness of a dream. Thus it will probably be at precisely the moment when the madness of political correctness has passed that thinking men will alight on the realization that they have just spent the last generation consumed by a florid and ersatz revival of Puritanism. But by then of course the world will already have plunged irretrievably into a revival of Deism, with an impersonal, immanent God offering all heaven and no hell; or maybe a revival of Paganism, with gods of the sky and the rain, whose tempers are divined from changes in the temperature of the earth's atmosphere.

With the same detachment, it is not hard to discern a surrogate notion of Calvinist Predestination in the fusing of evolutionary science to the materialist philosophy, which then together posit the reality of an unassailable chain of cause and effect in the development of the universe. The ugliness in this intellectual revivalism consists in the deracinated arrogance of the contemporary world pouring its contempt on the foundations of its own boastful ideas and ideals. Today’s Puritans hurl the world “puritan” adjectivally at their adversaries as a term of abuse, plainly without reflecting on the very methods they employ. And the materialists seize upon the rich patrimony of Predestination to assail their enemies among the believers, blissfully insensate to the solid fact that this selfsame battle was fought out inconclusively within Christianity four and a half centuries ago.

posted by Paul Cella | 5:04 PM |

Monday, July 15, 2002  

Senator John McCain, the Grand Inquisitor of the Church of Political Aesthetics, irked because the Federal Elections Commission is not implementing his cherished campaign finance law in a manner perfectly congenial with his wishes, has announced his intention to block the President’s judicial nominees until the President appoints a Commissioner who is congenial to those wishes. Sen. McCain’s drive to eliminate what he views as the root of all corruption in politics —- campaign donations —- has acquired an almost surreal quality in its favoring of appearance over substance and the particular over the general. Who knows how many political liberties Sen. McCain and his supporters will steamroll into oblivion in order that the “appearance of corruption” be extinguished.

What the good Senator and his fellow inquisitors ought to be more concerned about; what is far more damaging to a democratic republic than the “appearance” of corruption among politicians, or even the real thing; what condition may actually threaten us with serious political debasement —- is corrupt voters. The source of power in a republican system of government is —- remember? —- the people. The voter is the central public official. If he becomes irretrievably debased then the system cannot function.

I mean, of course, a large mass of voters; individuals of a corrupt nature are with us always and everywhere, irrespective of the political system in place about them; but here I speak of the of a large and influential block of voters who are corrupt. How do voters become corrupt? Well, consider this: The issue shaping up to be among the more contentious in the legislative effort by President Bush to consolidate a host of governmental functions into one federal agency devoted to domestic security is the ease with which employees in the proposed agency can be dismissed for incompetence. Right now, it is virtually impossible to fire federal employees. On March 11, exactly six months after the 9/11 attacks, the INS sent letters to a Florida flight school notifying it that student visas had been approved for two of the hijackers. Soon after, reports revealed that the four employees responsible for this pathetic ineptitude were neither dismissed nor even subjected to disciplinary action. A few other facts: (1) there are an estimated 180 separate race and gender preference formulas which govern the hiring of federal employees; (2) there are four independent agencies available for dismissed federal employees to appeal their dismissal, which agencies are utilized for discrimination claims at ten times the rate of similar mechanisms in the private sector; (3) in a recent study, out of a pool of over 100,000 federal employees identified as poor performers, only 3 percent were removed, while 88 percent were given raises; and (4) the entire pay schedule for federal employees is entirely based on seniority, totally obliterating any incentives for individual achievement or excellence.

And the mere suggestion that this regime of ironclad job security should be reformed has certain legislators bristling. Now, to trace the genesis of this reaction is not at all difficult, for most of the angry legislators are those with large constituencies of unionized federal employees; and most are Democrats, a substantial portion of whose electoral base is public employees.

So we have this enervating state of squalor, where incompetence is rewarded and enterprise punished mercilessly; and a detached observer would be forgiven for pronouncing our democratic system based to an astonishing degree on little more than bribery of voters. Could the peril of this bureaucratic mindset be any more obvious than in the case of the FBI, where unquantifiable human talents like intuition and prescience —- precisely the talents indispensable for investigative work in the murky world of international terrorism —- were dampened by an overarching culture of careerist caution and conformity?

John Stuart Mill, the great nineteenth century theorist of liberalism, declared it to be self-evident that when any voter receives financial relief from the state, he should be disfranchised, so as to prevent the use of the state for personal gain. The application of such a principle to political reality would probably put the Democratic Party out of business; but it would also put a great number of publicly-subsidized businesses out of business: welfarism is a disease with both individual and corporate symptoms.

State largess, distributed lavishly to those who vote the right way, inevitably, of course, assumes for its beneficiaries the mantle of entitlement; and then, to paraphrase Burke, the politicians and interest groups are driven to defend their error as if it were their inheritance. We should always remember as well that our regime of entitlements depends for its very existence on the confiscation of a portion of the property of our society’s most productive citizens. When the mob bribes someone, at least it uses its own money.

posted by Paul Cella | 8:49 PM |

Saturday, July 13, 2002  

With prose that deftly surveys a wide range between unpretentious humor and soaring eloquence, James Lileks is one of the more outstanding bloggers available. Recently he posted some merry ramblings on parenting, something with which I have some acquaintance. Here is one of his conclusions:

In the future when we go to this store, I’m putting a small piece of merchandise in [my two-year-old daughter’s] pants, so she sets off the alarm if she passes through the security gate.

That is a great idea!

posted by Paul Cella | 3:58 AM |

National Review luminaries John Derbyshire and Jonah Goldberg engage in an enlightening discussion of nature of Islam, and our relation to it. Both are graceful, funny and unpredictable writers; neither will have the last word on this important topic, of course, but both add something worthwhile.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:40 AM |

Friday, July 12, 2002  

The celebrated economic journalist Larry Kudlow cuts through the cant on the corporate scandals with a column of austere concision:

It seems that our more serious men in Washington want to bolster the rule of law by strengthening the incentive to choose right from wrong. Incentives matter. If you tax something more you get less of it. If you tax something less you get more of it. A ten-year jail term for rotten corporate apples — or their accountants — is a huge legal tax on wrongful actions.

Mr. Kudlow is a noted champion of what is known as the investor class, the inspiring result of several decades of economic brilliance which produced a vast democratization of corporate investment, spreading wealth more broadly than ever before in the history of the free enterprise system.

In no uncertain terms, this new political movement is forcing Washington to renew the rule of law, strengthen accounting and financial standards across the board, and restore a proper incentive system that will return Adam Smith’s ethical epicenter to the greatest wealth-creating machine in all of history. The days of egocentric and corrupt Soviet-style corporatism have come to an end. In the stock market, moral amnesia is dead.

I am less inclined to share Mr. Kudlow’s optimism, but it is infectious, and, one hopes, well-founded.

posted by Paul Cella | 7:43 AM |

“As the Vietnam-era song said, ‘Something’s happening here.’ And what it is may be exactly clear. Some very talented young men, and women, are joining the armed forces in order to help their country because, apparently, they love it.” A classic Peggy Noonan in today's Journal.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:41 AM |

Jeffrey Collins dilates eloquently and thoughtfully on the fascinating topic of trying to square the indisputable illumination and technical success brought into the world through the development of Quantum Mechanics, with the sovereignty of God. The essay, plainly animated by both faith and scientific curiosity, is too complex and multifaceted to deface with summary here; but I will add simply this: Christianity is a religion of paradox, and in its embrace of paradox lies one of its greatest and most invigorating and irrepressible strengths. For a breathtaking elucidation of this principle, I turn to that bard of the paradox, G. K. Chesterton:

Some Determinists fancy that Christianity invented a dogma like free will for fun —- a mere contradiction. This is absurd. You have the contradiction whatever you are. Determinists tell me, with a degree of truth, that Determinism makes no difference to daily life. That means —- that although the Determinist knows men have no free will, yet he goes on treating them as if they had.

The difference then is very simple. The Christian puts the contradiction into his philosophy. The Determinist puts it into his daily habits. The Christian states as an avowed mystery what the Determinist calls nonsense. The Determinist has the same nonsense for breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper every day of his life.

The Christian, I repeat, puts the mystery into his philosophy. That mystery by its darkness enlightens all things. Once grant him that, and life is life, and bread is bread, and cheese is cheese: he can laugh and fight. The Determinist makes the matter of the will logical and lucid: and in the light of that lucidity all things are darkened, words have no meaning, actions no aim. He has made his philosophy a syllogism and himself a gibbering lunatic.

It is not a question between mysticism and rationality. It is a question between mysticism and madness. For mysticism, and mysticism alone, has kept men sane from the beginning of the world. All the straight roads of logic lead to some Bedlam, to Anarchism or to passive obedience, to treating the universe as a clockwork of matter or else as a delusion of mind. It is only the Mystic, the man who accepts the contradictions, who can laugh and walk easily through the world.

Well said.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:34 AM |

Thursday, July 11, 2002  

Film critic and vastly under-appreciated commentator Steve Sailer (no permalinks available) reports that the next big thing in Hollywood, drawing on the immense success of “Gladiator,” is movies about the ancient world. In the works already are films about Alexander the Great, the Battle of Thermopylae, the infamous Carthaginian general Hannibal, and “Rubicon,” about Julius Caesar. Denzel Washington is rumored to be featured as Hannibal, or, alternatively, Vin Diesel of “The Fast and the Furious.” Other rumors, Mr. Sailer informs us, include Bruce Willis or George Clooney as Julius Caesar and Colin Ferrell as Alexander.

For what it’s worth, I greet this news with a mix of excitement and deep apprehension. Hollywood’s approach to history has traditionally been, shall we say, less than scrupulous in its rendering of facts. Indeed, one of the reported directors under consideration for an Alexander project is Oliver Stone, a man who despite his unquestionable talent has sadly made a career out of shrewdly falsifying history. Will Hollywood even approach offering something serious and worthwhile in its depiction of the tremendous struggle between Carthage and Rome? There may be in a purely historical sense no subject more deserving of seriousness than this, for in this we enter the cradle of our civilization, and the struggle which would decide its fate. Will Hollywood show it and other touchstones in Western history the respect they merit?

posted by Paul Cella | 3:06 AM |

Where the hell is Congress? Some of the most important constitutional questions in a generation stand before us, demanding critical attention by the central republican institution of this Republic, and Congress dithers. About the administration’s decisions on the prosecution of suspected terrorists, Stuart Taylor, Jr. of National Journal, arguably the most rigorous and fair-minded legal journalist in the country, has this to say:

The elected representatives of the people should be publicly debating this radical assertion of executive power, and whether some sort of preventive detention policy is necessary, and how to guard against error and abuse. At the same time, Congress should be open to giving the president any new investigative powers he really needs, and perhaps creating a special federal court to handle the cases of suspected international terrorists arrested on the domestic front. Instead, Congress has been largely passive.

Mr. Taylor is especially percipient when he notes that the squalid practice of gerrymandering congressional districts to insure near unchallengeable single-party dominance, which commands the quiet connivance of both national parties, bears a substantial burden of blame for the decline of legislative authority. A polarized House of Representatives precludes hardheaded compromise, and therefore undermines the republican nature of the body. Meanwhile, the Senate’s supermajority requirement transforms that body into little more than “an obstacle course” when swiftness and agility are called on to draft law.

Into the vacuum left by the decline of Congress has rushed the eager avarice of the other branches of government, with the Supreme Court turning to legislative divination about death penalty consensus and the executive branch essentially writing a new legal system on its own. Congress must act; must assert its constitutionally-granted supremacy in legislation; and must finally renew the republican nature of a republic at war.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:43 AM |

Wednesday, July 10, 2002  

Today I am provoked by a series of comments over at Champology to take up the cudgel for something which will surely leave me even less popular with my readers than I was before; alas, “to thy own self be true.” My cudgel will be raised in defense of censorship.

The specter of Australia outlawing various things deemed offensive including the video game Grand Theft Auto 3, and the fear of a boarder Western effort to restrict “anything that smacks of fun,” has elicited howls of irritation from many libertarians. Now, indubitably, the impulse to restrict the offensive, be it art, music, or even the most debased of dissipations can and does on occasion overturn common sense. Infuse that impulse with the emasculating influence of political correctness and one risks overturning reason and indeed threatening liberty. It is unmistakably damaging to American children when crusading educrats ban, say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it includes the dreaded n-word; it may even be in a certain sense ridiculous to ban a video game. Very well; but this boilerplate does precisely nothing to illuminate the real question here, which is at base a question of political philosophy: where do we draw the line, that is, when is the state justified in deploying coercive force to silence cultural effusions reckoned to be beyond toleration?

The ideological libertarians will reply, with perhaps minor qualifications, “never”; and their position bespeaks of a kind of polished consistency that has much to commend to it. Moreover, it benefits from an ally of immense advantage in the form of contemporary First Amendment jurisprudence, which has produced an interpretation of said Amendment essentially absolutist in character.

This advantage —- the advantage of popular perceptions of the First Amendment —- is a very difficult challenge to answer; indeed, the only real answer to it is to say simply that these popular perceptions, and the jurisprudence upon which they rest, are wrong. And there is abundant evidence to support the assertion that modern First Amendment interpretation is in error, a mere two examples of which I will adumbrate here:

(1) Why is the First Amendment to the Constitution just that: an amendment, rather than an integral part of the basic document? Did the Framers somehow forget about the critical issues later comprising the Amendment? No indeed: they took up a proposal for a Bill of Rights, including such articulation of free speech, press, etc. as now appears in the First Amendment, at the original Philadelphia Convention of 1787 —- took it up and unanimously rejected it. And they rejected it for reasons not immediately clear to our modern, enlightened minds. They rejected it because they feared that such constitutional provision, so sweeping in its scope, would ultimately become an instrument for federal aggrandizement against a most important guarantor of the people’s liberty, namely, the states. Which brings us to the second piece of evidence:

(2) The language in the First Amendment most routinely neglected by today’s commentariat happens to be precisely that language which was most crucial in the minds of the Framers: Specifically, I am referring to a single word, the first word of the Bill of Rights: “Congress.” It is Congress which “shall make no law”; Congress which is restrained from legislating to abridge the freedom of speech, press, assembly, petition; Congress which feels the sting of rebuke in the blunt language of the Amendment. And by inference, those aspects of republican governance thus removed from the purview of Congress are deferred to the several states. This principle is reinforced by the Tenth Amendment, which reads simply: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

What is lost in all our contemporary debates over censorship is the crucial, one might even say singular element of the political philosophy of the American Founding Fathers which manifests their true genius: the principle of federalism. The poverty of modern ideas has been a recurring theme on this weblog, and here we encounter it again: that the American people are generally unfamiliar with the essence of the genius of their political system. American federalism is an experiment in self-government, and depends as much on separate, overlapping and competing levels of government as it does on separate, overlapping and competing branches; all of which serve to provide angles of approach for we, the people to guide and direct our government.

Would it be too horrible to bear that culturally-conservative Georgia might outlaw a certain video game while liberal California refrain from doing so? Is it too much an offense to our homogenous sensibilities, or are we too habituated to the crude application of power, that cosmopolitan New York might sustain generous opportunities for decadent music and art that traditionalist Utah would restrict vigorously? The array of issues to which federalism should apply is appalling when one considers how few it actually does apply. Abortion, pornography, marijuana, firearms, even video games and hip hop music. What is preserved by this principle, delicately, with little fanfare, is the ultimate right of exit. Move to Connecticut if you do not like New Jersey’s obscenity laws: the commute to Manhattan is hardly any longer. What is also preserved, as a mathematical certainty, is the influence of the individual citizen vis-à-vis the legal regime of his community. Lobbying state legislatures or city councils or school broads is less difficult and intimidating than taking on the professional lobbyists of Capitol Hill. And so what is more broadly preserved is the principle of self-government.

Now the ideological libertarians —- the thoughtful ones —- have already heard all these arguments, and have repudiated them, asseverating instead that America was founded as an open society and that no level of government can justifiably restrict a citizen’s speech. They admire federalism, just not when it comes to the First Amendment. I disagree with their reading of American political philosophy; but at least they are taking seriously the philosophy itself. For those thoughtless absolutists, those glib denouncers of anyone who suggests that producers should exhibit a modicum of respect for basic decency in their products; for those with extravagant claims about the slippery slope between banning Eminem and banning Shakespeare; for those who declare obdurately that any work of art, no matter how offensive, deserves a place of honor at publicly-financed museums; for them I confess to having very little patience. It is a mark yet again of the impoverishment of public discourse that the burden of proof in this rests on those who affirm the principle that what a man puts into his mind will have an effect on what comes out, rather than on those who say that what he sees and hears is utterly irrelevant to what he thinks and how he behaves. And I must also confess to doubting that the latter folks have ever given much thought to the logical consequences of their beliefs. How does the vast edifice of propaganda in the history of the modern nation-state square with their epistemological theory? The constant infusion of the public square in the Islamic world with images and messages glorifying the death cult of martyrdom is unrelated, one must assume from their theory, to the horrifying phenomenon of suicide bombers.

Where these romancers of materialism make their most grievous error is with their conception of the human mind —- a conception which rigidly subordinates mind to matter. It is only through the manipulative alchemy of this conceit that they can get away with claiming that the ideas and images which penetrate a culture have no influence on what is produced by that culture. In fact the ideas and images are near-total in their influence, a verity which has been marching inexorably through the realms of intellect ever since Einstein deposed the Newtonian permanence of matter.

posted by Paul Cella | 12:53 PM |

Monday, July 08, 2002  

The idea of liberation, or perhaps more precisely emancipation, commands great esteem in the Western mind. It was the idea of liberation, to touch on a salient example, that the radicals of the 1960s seized with a frenzy which verily shook American society to its core. Their frenzy nearly consumed them, and those who admired them. Indeed, one might even say that their frenzy annihilated the idea itself, or at least much diminished it; and we were left with something akin to insanity, as when a prominent radical declared it to be an act of liberation for a black man to rape a white woman.

From what does a man so fervently desire liberation? From what must he be emancipated? In my view the answer is quite plain in objective reality; its apparent obscurity consists in the choking haze which has descended upon Western minds in their modern state of implacable reaction against the cradle of their youth.

The Western intellectual who bodies forth from the revolutions of modernity cannot even for a moment think or speak objectively about Christianity. For so long he has achieved psychological repose, miserably inadequate though it may be, in a sort of perpetual rebellion against the Church of his fathers that he can no longer even approach it with basic human detachment. He is like the teenager whose rebellion from his parents is so all-consuming and ill-considered that he is incapable of conceiving them as human beings with experiences not unlike his own. The intellectual has dehumanized the Church, just as the teenager dehumanizes his mother and father, makes of them abstract, alien figures of intense but uncertain and in a sense insincere disdain.

Therefore the Western intellectual has chosen to deify emancipation, to make it his object of worship; even though, in a kind of consummate irony, only in the Church can he find true emancipation –- emancipation from that which enslaves all human beings: the poison of sin. The primal terror with which mankind recoils from his sins is no more or less definitive than it was two thousand years ago when Jesus Christ offered the Truth which will set men free; and for that was tortured to death.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:11 PM |

Sunday, July 07, 2002  

Could the brassbound fatuity of the nation’s law enforcement bureaucrats be more blindingly obvious? An Egyptian immigrant, armed with two handguns, a six-inch hunting knife and plenty of extra ammunition marches into Los Angeles International Airport, makes a beeline for the ticket counter of Israel’s airline El Al, and begins methodically shooting people, before being overcome by El Al security personnel and other travelers and fatally shot. He commits this crime on July 4. This same man had affixed a bumper sticker which read: “Read the Koran” to the door of his apartment soon after September 11, and had complained to his landlord about the prominent display by his neighbors of American and Marine Corps flags. His family, conveniently, are right now traveling in Egypt (what are the odds that they will return for questioning by American authorities?)

And yet law enforcement officials, all the way up to the White House, have dedicated an astonishing amount of public relations energy to downplaying the clear terrorism implications. The FBI’s notion of terrorism seems to hinge on a strange fixation with “known terrorist organizations,” as if a terrorist could not plausibly act alone, as if the FBI’s own incessant talk of “sleeper cells” and so forth was all so much vapor for public consumption with no anchoring in reality at all. Their sand-pounding stupidity is infuriating, and I think it reveals the nearly insuperable damage done by political correctness, which has infused those pledged to protect us with a paralyzing fear of the accusation of racial profiling.

On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Yasser Arafat's al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades threatened “to strike at Zionist and American interests and installations” throughout the world, a cute little example of profiling in its own right. Now I have no reason other than coincidence to believe that these two things are related, but it is worth remembering that it is in the nature of the sleeper cell to remain hidden for months or even years before rising in response to a coded message to strike at the very society in which he has moved.

Israel, quite sensibly, is treating the shooting as an act of terrorism; why are we so resistant to the label? Andrew Sullivan airs some righteous anger, and offers a bit of clarifying perspective: “Can you imagine if a white supremacist had shown up at an African airline counter and killed blacks? Would anyone be ‘puzzled’ about the motive?”

Update: A Israeli source, citing an Arab newspaper reports that the LAX gunman had al-Qaeda ties, and that he met with a bin Laden deputy twice.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:31 AM |

Saturday, July 06, 2002  

If you read nothing else about the International Criminal Court, read this.

posted by Paul Cella | 10:31 PM |

Two of the best headlines I’ve seen in awhile appeared recently in connection with the unorthodox tendencies among American gays, which tendencies, with increasing frequency, have begun to irritate the gay Left, which has assumed for a long time that its radical brand of politics held sway in minds of virtually all gays. Not so. First we have “Here, Queer and Armed,” a lively column by Deroy Murdock discussing Pink Pistols, a gay gun-rights organization with 30 chapters nationwide. Mr. Murdock writes,

Pink Pistols chapters hold monthly meetings and frequent competitions at shooting ranges, to promote marksmanship and camaraderie. It also endorses candidates who “support the Second Amendment as well as the rights of consenting adults to love each other however they wish.” . . . Most intriguing is how straight conservatives respond to [them]. “I know of absolutely no conservatives who have attacked us,” says Washington lobbyist Austin Fulk. He often joins the group's Northern Virginia chapter for target practice at the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, with which Pink Pistols has collaborated on issue advocacy before California's state legislature.

Self-defense and by extension self-government is what animates this unusual organization, which found its impetus in the story of two men who defended themselves from a roving band of gay-bashing thugs in San Jose, California —- defended themselves with a handgun.

Along the same lines, there was Jonah Goldberg’s post some weeks back about gay conservatives at The Corner: “We’re Here! We’re Queer! We Want Lowers Taxes!” Gays thinking for themselves on political matters, rather than absorbing the tired old radicalism of the Left, has struck a nerve, as evidenced by this sounding of the alarum by a prominent gay socialist. No one can deny the unique torment gays have suffered where their neighbors despise them, but I think the marginalization bemoaned here is more a function of distaste for frenzied radicalism than of deeper odium and intolerance. Americans are a charitable people, despite the declamations so often heard. And by contriving to smother the dissenters from radical politics (“Fighting the Gay Right” is the title of the above article after all), the gay Left is insuring its own alienation from wider American society –- which is perhaps precisely its goal, for what quality more nearly and succinctly characterizes the Left than a constricting orthodoxy of alienation?

Whatever the pathologies of the Left, it is refreshing to see thoughtful independence and the dissolution of rigid voting blocks, the adhesive of which has largely been militant identity politics.

posted by Paul Cella | 2:53 AM |

Friday, July 05, 2002  

Ever vigilant about our infallible newspaper of record and its crusading new editor, Andrew Sullivan makes a nice catch: every single letter on school choice printed in today’s New York Times opposes private school vouchers. Every one. Now that’s balance, baby.

Meanwhile, James Bowman uncovers another revealing little episode, this one of such wanton ugliness that one has difficulty imagining the intellectual ruin that would inspire it. The article discusses an upcoming conference on the late socialist philosopher Sidney Hook. Now Hook, importantly, despite his left-wing inclinations, ultimately became an indefatigable cold warrior, recognizing the Communist enterprise as nothing more than organized inhumanity. Emily Eakin, the reporter, reports:

A protégé of John Dewey who distinguished himself early in his career with an important study of Karl Marx, Hook became increasingly disenchanted with the left, emerging after World War II as an ardent anti-Stalinist and hard-line cold warrior. Hook's reputation as a turncoat was cemented in 1985, four years before he died, when Ronald Reagan awarded him the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Wait, wait. Back up. “Turncoat”!? Excuse me? The facility with which a Times reporter (and of course the editors who cleared that sentence) can equate “anti-Stalinist” with “turncoat” speaks of a miseducation which, as I say, beggars the imagination. How about we push this logic a wee bit further: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, traitors; Whittaker Chambers, turncoat; Anne Frank, spy, betrayer. Black is white. Up is down. When the rhetorical violence of the totalitarians has become a commonplace among the educated elites of a free people, I think we can safely say that decadence has set in. With great and sad irony I remark the motto of The New York Times: all the news that’s fit to print.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:35 AM |

Thursday, July 04, 2002  

Over the last few months, Michael Ledeen has issued a series of rather severe tonics in the form of short essays for National Review and The Wall Street Journal, each culminating in the plea, “faster, please.” Yesterday he propounded a vision of bureaucratic inertia stultifying necessary action in Iran –- which action, he believes, if taken with vigor and alacrity, holds great promise for success. But the window of opportunity is closing rapidly.

Iran hurtles toward chaos, and we are still dithering. July 9 will mark the third anniversary of the student uprising at Tehran University, and the capital is girding for new demonstrations against the increasingly unpopular and insecure regime of Ayatollah Khamenei.

It was Ledeen, almost completely alone among our journalists, who reported the widespread pro-American demonstrations last fall in Iran. I recall reading his words with jaw-dropping astonishment: there, in Iran, the genesis of modern militant Islam, people were taking to the streets in defiance of their tyrant overlords to express their solidarity with America! The report seemed almost comically implausible. But no: it was verified. And then they cheered the President’s truculent State of the Union address, an address which distressed Democrats, Europeans, and Arabists alike –- the Iranians cheered it, many of them. “And in Washington,” Mr. Ledeen continues in yesterday’s article

[There is] silence, as the appeasers in the Department of State ponder their next round of secret contacts with the regime. They do this despite the president's luminously clear statements that we are at war with tyrannical terror sponsors, and despite State's own repeated finding that Iran is the world's leading sponsor of terrorism. That they continue to sabotage the president's policy is a real problem, and no doubt it is only a matter of time before the president lays down the law to them, but delay is bad for us and confusion undermines our power.

Now, Mr. Ledeen is not demanding military action; he is merely demanding a cold shoulder to the Iranian regime, and a steady issuance of solidarity with the Iranian people –- a concentrated effort, in other words, to make that crucial distinction between regime and people which constitutes a central component of our intellectual struggle in this war. The Iranians, he says, edge toward a revolutionary timbre, which is perhaps revealed best in the extraordinary measures contemplated by the regime to crush democratic agitation. He raises the specter of Tiananmen Square.

With words alone we could aid this thing; with words alone we could score crippling blows against militant Islam. “Faster, please.”

posted by Paul Cella | 5:37 AM |

Wednesday, July 03, 2002  

When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to Separation.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:11 PM |

I don’t know about you, but I have been acutely emotional these last days. Perhaps it should not have surprised me, but it did: The poignancy of September 11 still lingers almost unchanged, pristine. Old Glory waves serenely in the sultry Georgia air, above grimy carwash workers or over cool, air-conditioned bank offices, and its beauty still sends chills through my spine. A local radio station, in an advertisement for an Independence Day party in downtown Atlanta, includes two very quick soundbytes: one of a reporter’s horrified cry “I just saw another plane hit the South Tower!” and another from one of the President’s speeches: “This great nation is strong; this great nation is united” -- and when I heard this thing I nearly wept. Am I alone in this? No indeed: the pervasiveness of it is palpable. Many tattered, sun-bleached flags have been replaced by immaculate new ones. The same radio station proclaims its gallant aspiration to “buck the system” and lead Americans in the “biggest Pledge of Allegiance in the southeastern United States.” A prominent blogger floats the idea that rather than succumb to the trepidation of terrorist attacks tomorrow, we ought to turn the tables, or, as my friend Champ would say, flip the script on the Islamofascists and launch an attack of our own on July 4.

God bless America, my home sweet home.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:07 PM |

Tuesday, July 02, 2002  

A man may derive great wonder from the simple endeavor of studying a globe. The topography with which we are familiar is so dependent on the inevitable and necessary distortion of maps that a globe’s accuracy brings its own delightful surprises. Item: Atlanta, Georgia is farther south than any point in Europe; indeed, the state of North Carolina is farther south than any major European city. Meanwhile, London is farther north than anywhere in the United States save, of course, Alaska. And Rome is north of New York City, Paris north of Montreal, Berlin north of Calgary.

Even within the U.S. there are some head-scratchers: Seattle is farther north than anywhere out East, save perhaps the tip of Maine; Honolulu is south of Havana, Cuba; and Denver is at roughly a latitude equal to Washington, D.C.

If, as the anthropologists tell us, mankind has been around for some 30,000 years, then he was largely unaware of the earth’s lineaments, and completely unaware of its curvature, for about 98 percent of his existence; and as I sit and look upon this globe, I reflect on the palpable fact that I am glazing upon one of the grandest achievements in all of the history of human civilization; an achievement which in importance and profundity surpasses, say, the television by several orders of magnitude. My impression is that the natural inversion represented by the undeniable disparity in importance between these two things, globe and television, in our society reflects the basic poverty of our ideas. Standing on the shoulders of genius, modern man declares himself the tallest. We would be an unquestionably wiser, more patient, less self-absorbed and more interesting people who redirected one tenth of our attention paid to the television toward a casual and amateur study of the globe. I emphasize that I use the term amateur here divested of its implication of talentless or unskilled; but rather merely as opposed to professional, as in done for income or monetary profit. Would that we were all amateur globe-studiers; the superiority of our human intellect would be readily apparent.

Somewhere, someone is laughing at what seems the foolishness of staring at a globe for anything more than a moment of complacent diversion. The only obvious riposte is: No, it is not foolishness; what is foolishness is to be consumed by fabricated events delivered through the medium of an optical illusion; almost by definition it is foolishness, because the essence of television is a facsimile which fools the brain into seeing what is not actually there. The cynic replies in all seriousness that all vision itself is illusion; indeed, that all human perception is illusion. Very well, let him take that dark path, for if we follow that logic to its terminus we discover only suicide: and I, for one, will not follow him even a single step. The cynic who asserts that all reality is an illusion must contend with the horror of waking to an illusion every day, and of accepting that illusion every day. He has integrated insoluble contradiction into the very fabric of his being, and thus confronts insanity as a way of life.

Let us leave the cynic and his tenebrous philosophy behind with only this final thought: that here again is yet another reflection of the poverty of our ideas -- the temper of the cynic is the fashion of our age. A more generous, a more august and confident temper would be that of the navigator, whose life, when not spent traveling by the light of the stars, was spent hunched over maps, and if he was lucky, globes. His vocation was to chart God’s Creation. Ours is to forget it exists.

posted by Paul Cella | 7:05 PM |

Monday, July 01, 2002  

I think Chesterton was on to something (as usual) when he admonished that we not take smug pride in our inurement to things as commonplace which would have shocked our grandmothers: “It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic.”

There is surely moral paralysis in our culture’s casual celebration of pornography. It is not merely the ubiquity of it, nor our indifference to it, but moreover our resolute celebration of it which betrays paralysis; for what is celebrated is not, as we are conditioned to think, an enlightened understanding of human sexuality, but a diminution of it –- a profanation of the human form. What pornographers aim at is not authentic sexuality; they aim at the commodification of pleasure. The landscape of human sexuality is beautiful, imposing, mysterious, ineffable, and the pornographer looks on it as the rapacious industrialist of the environmentalist’s nightmare does a pristine natural landscape rich in resources: he looks on it as a mine to be plundered for short-term gain and then discarded as a scar on the countryside.

Do we recognize a distinction between the erotic and the pornographic? Between a majestic, precious, human thing and its dehumanized, fatal excess? Or do we stand, bereft of moral vitality, and watch in quiet desperation as the latter mutilates the former? That is paralysis.

posted by Paul Cella | 11:21 PM |

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.

This new alliance, even if informal, has greatly concerned U.S. officials in Washington and intelligence operatives abroad who believe the assets and organization of Hezbollah's formidable militant wing will enable a hobbled al Qaeda network to increase its ability to launch attacks against American targets.

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:

European and U.S. intelligence operatives on the ground in Africa and Asia said they have been trying to convince headquarters of the new alliances but have been rebuffed.

"We have been screaming at them for more than a year now, and more since September 11th, that these guys all work together," an overseas operative said. "What we keep hearing back is that it can't be because al Qaeda doesn't work that way. That is [expletive]. Here, on the ground, these guys all work together as long as they are Muslims. There is no other division that matters."

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.

The ideology of modern liberalism must be understood as itself one of the expressions of the Western contraction and decline; a kind of epiphenomenon or haze accompanying the march of history; a swan song, a spiritual solace of the same order as the murmuring of a mother to a child who is gravely ill.

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:

And all the time –- such is the tragi-comedy of our situation –- we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible . . . In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

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

can continue to generate wealth, as it always has done, or it can be hobbled and interfered with and prevented from generating wealth and doing other things natural to it. But it cannot be replaced by a machine which has been designed so that everybody will be happy.

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:

In a country that relies on publicly funded vouchers to help pay for higher education and pre-school, the only question people will have decades from now is why First Amendment concerns were ever an issue. Few worry that the state is supporting religion when a college kid spends a Pell Grant at Georgetown or Notre Dame. And government granted child-care vouchers are spent at religiously run daycare centers and preschools with nary a second thought.

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:

I want to buy them away from the god of death you worship. Perhaps I can help them convert to traditional Islam, a religion that abhors murder and suicide. Maybe they'll wish to become Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or atheist. That will be their choice, if I can raise them as Americans.

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 |
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