Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Tuesday, August 06, 2002 The novelist Mark Helprin delivered a stirring commencement address last May, which deserves to be read in full, for it is an example, as usual with Mr. Helprin, of the English language in full. Earlier this year he wrote a startlingly blunt essay which castigated Congress and the administration for deeply under-funding the American military in a time of war. A sample:
In his speech, Mr. Helprin issues a reverberating challenge:
The dreadful thing to discover is how many people do not know that civilization is under attack; more dreadful still, that many of its assumed defenders have opted for betrayal over resistance. The magnitude of treason in the modern age is at once unparalleled and rarely remarked. For some treason is a way of life, though they are hardly aware of it; it is a cachet of prestige, a secret handshake with which to open doors and cultivate respect. Terms and catchphrases develop around it: remember the contempt implied in the phrase “flag-waving” before September 11?
In 1947, Whittaker Chambers, as sound and as excruciatingly personal an observer of treason as there ever was, wrote some unforgettable words:
(Incidentally, those words were published in Time magazine. Can you imagine Time printing such as they today? No, you cannot imagine it; and neither can I.)
Mr. Chambers wrote of treason as a vocation; what unspeakable awfulness exists in that idea. And here we are, washed ashore from the tumult of a century of blood and gas chamber and gulag, and we are called to defend the civilization which produced treason as a vocation.posted by Paul Cella | 8:49 PM |
Saturday, August 03, 2002 Read enough accounts of the invincible incompetence and bad faith of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and you will come to find great balm in a curse like that of H.L. Mencken, who described the state as the “common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.” posted by Paul Cella | 5:56 AM |
John Derbyshire pens a column of pessimistic magnificence; blogger Noah Millman replies with equal magnificence. A highly edifying exchange we have here. posted by Paul Cella | 1:46 AM |
Last fall, the incomparable P.J. O’Rourke wrote what may be the single best short essay I have ever read on the Israel-Palestinian war. His delicate humor and arresting insights are buttressed by a remarkable impartiality. It seems at times as though no conflict on earth fires greater passion and zealotry than this one; there are no impartial observers. Mr. O’Rourke comes close.
Consider this gentle but resounding defense of Zionism:
Those haunting words: “But civilized man did want to kill Jews, and was going to do more of it.” We can’t really get past this glaring fact, can we? It has about it that ring of truth which in its angularity and plainness will never fully be assimilated; it rings like the plainness of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth”; those irrefutable things which make us squirm.
Mr. O’Rourke moves into a discussion of the squabbling between various Christian factions over control of the Christian holy sites. At the Church of the Nativity, he reports,
And from this register of human squalor juxtaposed with divine wrath, Mr. O’Rourke tenders a consummate little amalgam of humor and elucidation:
Then later, more epigrammatic insight:
His conclusion, if you can call it that, is that there is no solution, because there is no solution to the Fall. I shall let Chesterton have his say on this:
It is memory which assails the Holy Land; memory of “the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man”; and Mr. O’Rourke thinks we could use a little amnesia.posted by Paul Cella | 12:55 AM |
Friday, August 02, 2002 Not a week goes by in this country these days without some effusion of hysteria which masquerades as solemn concern emasculating the public discourse on civil liberties. Virtually every domestic security measure promulgated by the administration, no matter how modest or sensible, is met by some wildly intemperate, and indeed repugnant, reference to the looming specter of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust, or the onset of a brutal police state here in America. Congress, pathetically unserious despite its self-satisfied affectations of seriousness, reflects this intellectual numbness; and while American civilians and students are dismembered on the front lines of this war in Jerusalem, the President shows his determination to persevere in the Middle East “peace process,” an abstraction so utterly superceded by reality it truly beggars the imagination that anyone can speak of it with a straight face.
David Tell, in an editorial for The Weekly Standard, examines this distressing phenomenon with acid wit:
Now a somber and thoughtful discussion of the limits of domestic security as it necessarily infringes upon civil liberties is precisely what we need; but it is also precisely what we don’t get from our public representatives.
Yes indeed: shadowboxing with fantasy enemies while the real enemies proceed with their diabolical infiltration and preparation.posted by Paul Cella | 7:34 AM |
Thursday, August 01, 2002 Mark Butterworth, having stolen my blog template, proceeds to demolish the new Bruce Springsteen album. He concludes with this razor-sharp polemic:
posted by Paul Cella | 2:21 AM |
A splendid day yesterday at National Review Online. Michael Ledeen says that Europe is being brassbound and counterproductive when it comes to Iran. Rod Dreher reports on a hot shot new mayor in the Big Easy, who seems to think that corruption ought not be the norm. Karl Rove, the President's top political advisor, receives a letter of advice from no less than the greatest political philosopher of the modern age. A momentous bill, of deep and ramifying consequences for the great debasing controversy of American politics, passes Congress, and no one even noticed. And Donald Rumsfeld sings an ode to one of the true titans of post-war economics, a man who walks with gaiety amid the halls of the dismal science. posted by Paul Cella | 2:04 AM |
Tuesday, July 30, 2002 So this afternoon Katie (aged 2 and a half for those who don’t know) and I were busy dancing to the Phish song, “Bouncing Around the Room” when it occurred to me that someone out there must be interested in a list of Katie’s favorite songs. Here they are, in no particular order and including, where applicable, translations into Katie-speak:
I wonder with mild despair when the filth of our culture will trespass upon her idyllic life, which filth my wife and I will then resist at the risk of being called assorted names that people employ to avoid thinking. I read somewhere that the average first exposure of American children to pornography is five years old —- statistic that I cannot at the moment verify but which does not seem implausible considering the ubiquity of porn on the internet, and the contemptible little tricks used by pornographers to redirect web surfers to their sites (explore what happens when you mistakenly enter whitehouse.com into your browser instead of whitehouse.gov).
I cannot think of a class of people more singularly loathsome than professional pornographers. They would, leaning on the facile complacence of the cultural elite, destroy human sexuality, replacing it with a predatory barbarism more akin to that of most of the animal world.
And what can we do about it? Well, nothing, say the First Amendment absolutists; our society is an open society; all questions are open questions, and cannot be subject to restriction by the state. (Although we should always remember what Willmoore Kendall observed: when the absolutists say, “all questions are open questions,” they really mean, “all questions are open questions except for the question of whether all questions are open questions”; that question is closed.) And why would you want to do anything about pornography anyway? they continue: pornography, like any other media, has no effect of behavior. Intelligent people know the difference between reality and artificial media.
It strikes me as illuminating that only the First Amendment can be respectably absolutized in this manner in public discourse. If someone advanced an absolutist interpretation of, say, the Second Amendment, arguing that the right to keep and bear arms included a right to own a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and an M1 Battle Tank, he would be laughed out of the room, and quite rightly. But with respect to the First, absolutism carries the debate without even deploying real arguments. One day we will overcome this mindless cant, this puritanism of the depraved; whether it will be in time to recover an authentic human sexuality is another matter.posted by Paul Cella | 4:37 PM |
Monday, July 29, 2002 The U.S. State Department and Europe, can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. For some lapidary analysis and elucidation on these two problematics, turn to Michael Rubin and Victor Davis Hanson, respectively, the former arrayed on the newly-minted New York Sun website. Mr. Rubin:
But Europe is gripped by lurking trepidation about the clarifying effect a certain black day last September had for its ally across the Atlantic:
It won’t do, of course, to demand that the State Department abandon its charter as our diplomatic face to the world, to demand, in other words, that it abjure prudence; nor will it do to castigate Europe for voicing its anxieties. But it should also be realized that the priorities of both the State Department and Europe are not necessarily ordered rightly, that is, with the protection of American citizens as the unchallenged vital principle.posted by Paul Cella | 9:48 PM |
In Toronto yesterday, Pope John Paul II said Mass to between 800,000 and 1 million people, estimated by the Canadian Broadcast Corp. to be the largest crowd ever to assemble in that country. This is congruent with what has often been observed: that no man in history has been physically seen by more people than this Traveling Pope. A Globe and Mail columnist comments eloquently:
An Ottawa Citizen columnist remarks on the young people who came to see him:
And Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, in a powerful essay, marvels at the hope which he conveys and inspires:
John Paul II is a very great man. We shall not forget his contribution to God’s Creation.
Update: Here is the full text of the Holy Father's homily yesterday.posted by Paul Cella | 5:12 PM |
Sunday, July 28, 2002 One of the great social commentators of our day, Theodore Dalrymple, gives an erudite and illuminating interview to an Australian magazine. Worth reading, every word. Few produce the kind of hard-headed, cant-free examinations of modernity’s pathologies that this realist par excellence specializes in. posted by Paul Cella | 6:18 AM |
Saturday, July 27, 2002 Thank goodness for the President’s tax cut, exiguous though it was. It is giving Democrats and other assorted Keynesians great fits of irritation, for the simple reason that it is the only thing impeding an enormous surge in government spending. Take a gander at how everybody’s favorite moderate, David Broder, feels about it:
“Dwarfs everything else”? The gravest physical attack in American history; a problematic, multifaceted, global war; cyclical retrenchment of an overwrought economy; a series of record-shattering corporate bankruptcies; hardly a prominent public institution untouched by debilitating scandal and concomitant distrust; all these things impinging upon the framework of American society in rapid, violent staccato, and Mr. Broder, that fount of wisdom and temperance, blames a measly little tax cut, the effects of which will not be felt in full for nearly a decade. Please.
I say again: Thank goodness for that defamed and careworn little tax cut —- it is our only ballast against the kind of encroachment by the state upon the prerogatives of the individual not seen in such breadth since the New Deal; an encroachment, in one of history’s delightful ironies, shepherded by an administration noteworthy for its commitment to conservative principles. (For a sharp exegesis of Mr. Broder’s whole article, see blogger Christopher Badeaux.)posted by Paul Cella | 5:59 AM |
More on the insatiable appetite of the state to plunder the property of private citizens, this time in collusion with a business corporation —- a frequent enough occurrence. Jonathan Rauch documents a staggering act of hypocrisy by the nation’s insufferable newspaper of record, which flails President Bush’s business activities in its pages ceaselessly while employing the same methods in its own business activities.
As long as you say the right things, utter the right pieties to signal your deep sympathy for the less fortunate, you can basically act any way you wish with impunity.posted by Paul Cella | 12:40 AM |
Friday, July 26, 2002 Today's syllabus: Peggy Noonan on the quickening of history. Engaging, useful, laced with profanity and fiery common sense, occasionally hilarious: here we have a trucker-blogger's recommendations for avoiding a collsion with an 18-wheeler. David Warren, always possessed of some arresting new perspective on the lineaments of our protean struggle, looks at the forces and pressures faced by a beleaguered Israel. Ruth Wisse pronounces a somber eulogy for the tragedy that was the Oslo Peace Process. Two eminent historians astutely examine the record of radicalism in historical scholarship, and lay bare the ruin inflicted on our vision of history by the incurable syndrome of ideology. Victor Davis Hanson, the single best post-September 11 commentator, constructs a detailed and compelling arraignment against the House of Saud, ostensibly our ally, plainly nothing of the sort. His website resplendent in a new, sleek design, James Bowman reviews Road to Perdition and says it is yet another brick in the towering edifice of Hollywood's pagan myths. And finally, Father Richard John Neuhaus, a blogger before there were bloggers, tells the moving tale of his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. posted by Paul Cella | 6:46 AM |
Thursday, July 25, 2002 Some time ago good friend of mine wrote me to chastise what he views as my hopelessly dogmatic anti-communism. The bulk of the letter eludes memory at the moment, but I do quite distinctly recall the appearance on stage of a dread phrase: “land reform.” And its appearance in the context, if I recall correctly, of the Cold War in Latin America made it all the more dreadful.
For those who love liberty, “land reform” is among the most fearsome phrases in the English language; for what is almost invariably denoted by it is the systematic expropriation by the state of the property of individuals, usually under the auspices of egalitarian sympathy for the peasants or some such grandiloquent rumination; and thus what is also denoted, more broadly, is the weakening and even obliteration of property rights, a cornerstone of the rule of law. “Land reform” is Robert Mugabe’s euphemism in Zimbabwe for organized plunder of some of the choice farmland in Africa, which, on account of its ownership by whites, makes a vulnerable target for state-sponsored theft on a vast scale, and which, on account of its unproductiveness in the hands of the new, unskilled owners, is now contributing to a horrible famine. It was Stalin’s mantra, as it was Mao’s, when they unleashed egalitarian barbarism to occasion two of history’s greatest man-made catastrophes, both also famines. Less obvious calamities were perpetrated by benighted land-reformers Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and the Shah of Iran in the 1960s, both on plans and formulations concocted by abstraction-inebriated intellectuals from the West; both of which insidiously set their respective nations on the path of chaos, misery and ultimately tyranny.
It is truly astonishing to reflect on the extent to which the security of private ownership is treated with indifference if not outright contempt by the world’s educated elites, despite its demonstrated indispensability to a functioning economy and social order. The insecurity of property in the Third World may be the single most important factor in explaining the state of squalor which persists in the face of so much well-meaning activity to alleviate it. The pulverizing essence of it is this: Once the state has shown a disposition to plunder the property of some, whatever soothing platitudes are offered justify it, there is no reason to trust that it will not do so again, and again, and again. Tom Bethell examined the ruinous record of land reform in a penetrated essay back in 1985:
Even in the United States, this bastion of free enterprise and rule of law, property rights are looked on askance by a great many elites. Leftists and liberals from here to The Nation who profess a heartfelt commitment to personal privacy nonetheless countenance with perfect equanimity the annual violation of privacy that comes with the Sixteenth Amendment (national income tax), in accord with which every income-earning American citizen must lay bare in exquisite detail all his economic activity for the previous year, with the burden of proof in any dispute resting on him not the state.
This economic inquisition is so multifarious, its instruments so cacophonous that it has generated entire industries dedicated exclusively to mitigating the burden of tax disclosure and compliance. There is perhaps a melancholy delight to be had in this fact: that human enterprise is so irrepressible as to develop profitable and respected professions parasitically coupled to the state’s rapaciousness. But the melancholy does not abide delight for long.
A man’s urge to produce pornographic material using the likeness of children; a woman’s license to abort her child as it descends the birth canal; a student’s desire not to be even mildly offended in public debate —- these things our intellectual elite regard serenely as civil rights. But not the right to security of private ownership of property; that remains controversial even in principle.posted by Paul Cella | 1:13 AM |
Wednesday, July 24, 2002 Ben Domenech, a talented young commentator and blogger, makes a trenchant point about John Ashcroft and the Left:
For those interested, Jay Nordlinger wrote a good sympotic piece on the intemperance and hysteria provoked among liberal elites by Ashcroft.posted by Paul Cella | 11:31 PM |
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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 |