Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

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

Monday, August 19, 2002  

The Spectator in London has printed a conspicuous essay by a leading Labour Party man which includes some at once very amusing and very instructive statements. In the interest of charity, I should say that this man says some reasonable things —- quite a few of them in fact, but organized and deployed in an unfortunately sly way so as to in part undermine their value. It is as if a man were to stand on a very impressive and stable scaffold of reason —- to craft and shape and decorate a great structure of unreason.

The writer’s purpose, in summary, is to abet the case for public opposition to the prospective American military action against Saddam Hussein —- in particular, to abet the case among the British; and more particularly, to abet the same case for Tony Blair’s opposition, Mr. Blair being the British Prime Minister, for whom the writer admits admiration and affection. To do this relatively simple but somewhat precarious, considering the political dynamics of the Atlantic alliance, thing, he makes numerous reasonable concessions of logic and history —- Saddam is an international menace, his acquisition of nuclear weapons could be disastrous, war against him in 1991 was justified, etc, etc. This is the scaffold of reason.

I do not mean imply, despite how it may seem, that opposition to military operations against Iraq is in essence a posture of unreason. In fact, such a posture might be thoroughly reasonable, if in the end wrong. No, the “structure of unreason” I spoke of above is the prejudice, innuendo, and sheer assertion which constitutes the central argument in defense of his political conviction. And here is where, as I say, his remarks are both amusing and instructive.

The writer actually writes these words:

Bush, himself the most intellectually backward American president of my political lifetime, is surrounded by advisers whose bellicosity is exceeded only by their political, military and diplomatic illiteracy. Pity the man who relies on Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice for counsel. The only man in the US administration who knows the score is Colin Powell. . .

Now I confess that when I read this, even aware as I was of the writer’s purpose in composing this article, aware, that is, of his intellectual prejudice against the Bush administration, I still for a moment took these statements for a joke. I may have even laughed out loud. The insouciance of its delivery; the almost complete lack supporting evidence; the startling bluntness and disrespectfulness: how could a plainly thoughtful and serious man write such things with a straight face? There are facts here —- facts that are disregarded with such breathtaking facility that it lends one to think the statement was proffered with deliberate unseriousness, that is, made in jest. Facts like, in Afghanistan, the crushing defeat of an experienced occupying military force, half way around the world, with precious few land bases, from a condition of almost total unpreparedness, with minimal casualties, in a matter of a few weeks. Facts like the securing of quiet acquiescence from a crucial and historically short-tempered regional power (Russia) on military operations in its traditional sphere of influence; and also quiet assistance from that same power in emasculating the most important economic asset of the enemy (oil). There are other less resounding but still bracing facts as well —- Mr. Rumsfeld’s masterly taming of an often hostile press corps during the Afghan campaign; the cunning and adept good cop/bad cop stratagem employed between Mr. Powell and “the hawks” —- whose silence in this article is, if you’ll excuse the cliché, deafening. What the writer is saying, at base, is that while there are many good reasons for opposing a military move against Iraq, the best one is that the political leadership in America consists of a clique of fools, narrow-minded militarists, and addle-brained hotheads. This is not an argument; it is a prejudice unsupported by facts, at least by any assembled to accompany its assertion. My view is that it is a prejudice of great and abiding error, and I have arrayed some readily-available facts among a large mass of them to buttress my view; the writer in question has arrayed almost exactly none to buttress his own more brazen one.

I say that this whole lively enterprise is instructive because it so obviously comes from a voice of moderation and candid reflection in America’s most reliable European ally. It does not come from those infallibly hidebound anti-American reactionaries whose pessimism and passivity and moral pusillanimity dominates elite European opinion, and whose animosity toward American power and influence is almost pathological in nature. That such a voice can speak of an American foreign policy leadership which has demonstrated at least a competence, if not a command, of the complexity of fighting this multifarious war in such a way bespeaks of the level of hostility we face among our allies across the Atlantic. I aver again, sincerely, that there is a solid, reasonable and hard-headed case to be made against military action in Iraq; but if we take the instance of our Spectator contributor, then what we face among our European allies is not an opposition borne of reason but of unreason; which is a much harder opposition to confront.

posted by Paul Cella | 5:47 PM |

Cynthia Tucker, an editor at my hometown paper, The Atlanta Journal-Constiution has penned a refreshingly candid column about Zimbabwe's murderous ruler, Robert Mugabe. She writes,

If a racist white dictator were creating conditions that starved millions of black Africans, the Congressional Black Caucus would have demanded severe sanctions, and a long line of African-American celebrities would be lining up to picket the nation's embassy, taking turns getting arrested and handcuffed for the TV cameras. But Mugabe's thuggery has barely roused America's black elite.

Like I said, refreshing.

posted by Paul Cella | 5:39 PM |

Readers may be aware of the brouhaha girdling the news of a mandatory freshman seminar at the University of North Carolina on the Koran, which seminar, importantly, employs as its primary textbook a commentary on the Koran which bowdlerizes those elements of the text reckoned too offensive, namely those elements which proclaim death to the infidel. Plenty of thoughtful things have been written about this (see here), but for my money Robert Bartley of The Wall Street Journal nailed it Friday when he said, (I’m paraphrasing) This is plain, simple indoctrination. And what is meant to be indoctrinated is the idea that Muslims aren’t dangerous. Now, I don’t know if this Muslims en mass are in fact dangerous; but I do know that nineteen Muslim men, or men who claimed Islam as their faith and guiding philosophy, were dangerous in a primal, spectacular way when they turned portions of Lower Manhattan into a mass grave last September. I know, further, that not insubstantial parts of the Muslim population of the world variously applauded, endorsed, cheered, hid behind weasel words to blunt authentic criticism of, dissembled about, and drew grotesque ecstasy from the massacre of American civilians. And I suspect that this indifference to human life, whether calculated or visceral, is rooted in plain stark religious hatred and soulless resentment, which will sadly but inevitably require horrible bloodletting to expiate. I do not welcome this bloodletting but recoil from it in horror. I know that while our sins are many and shameful, this one is not ours to bear; that I am not a bigot because I am suspicious of Arabs and think the United States government’s abjuring of all criminal profiling that involves race is stupid and brassbound beyond comprehension. I know that I was never suspicious of Arabs until nineteen of them incinerated 3000 of my countrymen and brought religious barbarism to my front door.

I know, finally, that if democracy in America were given the opportunity for consummation, it would rise up in wrath such that our enemies would tremble and our friends gape; and that this consummation is restrained only by the anti-democratic principle of the intellectual and media elite, whose loss of nerve is nearly complete. It is not healthy for a society to be so poorly represented in the halls of Intellect and Opinion; or for such an intransigent adversary culture, to borrow a phrase from Irving Kristol, to develop at a historical moment of grave peril. It hinders debate, constricts the mind, enervates clarity of thought, and cripples decision-making. More fundamentally, it makes real communication almost impossible, cultivates deep resentment and distrust, sabotages moderate, pragmatic action, and provokes society-wide paralysis; which is essentially what we are seeing right now.

posted by Paul Cella | 5:32 PM |

Saturday, August 17, 2002  

In the past year some college professors have said or done some pretty outrageous things. One published a book endorsing sex between adults and children. Another commented to the country’s most influential newspaper in a piece published on September 11, 2001: “I don’t regret setting bombs” at the Pentagon and other government buildings; “I feel we didn’t do enough.” Appalling numbers of them wrote articles and essays, and appeared on TV and radio, gave speeches and attended and organized rallies, denouncing with great vituperation America’s moves to protect itself from the lunatic cult of death which has captured the minds of many millions in the Islamic world. Others countenanced horrifying outbursts of anti-Semitic bile. Virtually all of them have acted without a threat to their employment, because tenured college professors enjoy one of the most secure jobs imaginable. But one man, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, finally went too far. He publicly criticized Fidel Castro, even wrote a scholarly book examining ways to effect Castro’s downfall, which is of course a huge no-no in academia. So he was denied tenure.

The decrepitude of higher education in this country is an old story; but it is an important story; the story of the barbarians not only at the gate, but let inside it, and paid with public money to teach the children. It is the story of loss of nerve, and of civilization slowing yielding to barbarism.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:14 AM |

The Dave Matthews Band, for a certain tranche of young men and women, has functioned as a kind of soundtrack for the journey from adolescence to maturity. They appeared, for most of us, in the mid-Nineties like a cool balm in the parched and stale musical desert of grunge-rock Noise and gangster-rap Malevolence. Consequently, about each of their recordings hangs a distinct vapor of nostalgia unique to its release date: Under the Table and Dreaming (1994), the summer before my junior year of high school; Before these Crowded Streets (1998), the spring and summer of my sophomore year in college; etc, etc. Others could surely relate their own Dave Matthews-induced nostalgia. For myself, they are one of the few popular musical acts I pay any serious attention to anymore.

Dave Matthews’ new recording, Busted Stuff, is a curious thing; and it might even be a great thing; of this latter I am still ambivalent. It is unquestionably the product of a distressed mind, notwithstanding the highly public revisions of many of its components to attenuate its plaintive excesses (much of the material on this disc was previously released via the internet, without, incidentally, the band’s consent). Here as usual, the Dave Matthews Band relies on the equipoise of its talented bassist Stefan Lessard and drummer Carter Beauford to hold together a wild and subtle wandering of various instruments; and in this they are not always successful, though almost always interesting. Mr. Matthews’ voice is a unique one, also almost always interesting; his lyrics, though occasionally trite, are frequently surprising and rarely inadequate. Several songs emerge immediately —- particularly the title track and “Grace is Gone” —- with their characteristic blend of charm and innovation; others I sense have that this-will-grow-you quality of intricacy and imagination.

Somewhat surprisingly, Busted Stuff maintains a sort of thwarted, aching coherence as an album; it cannot be accurately said to be merely a collection of songs. It is coherent in that it reflects the profound, unanswerable discouragement of the human soul with the caprices of the world; and the homelessness of the soul in a world that always, finally, disappoints. Like so much in art, it reflects a failed attempt to assimilate the Fall, to make palatable the unpalatable. The soul is rent and assailed by the pain and injustice of the world; and it alternately quails and rages before a God who countenances evil. In the moment of realization, despair beckons. While I do not say that this album can be reduced to a mere three words, I do say that it can almost be; and those three words are: drink, God and loss.

These are the accouterments of depression, though not quite of despair. On this point, Mr. Matthews’ reworking of some songs from the bleaker preliminaries comes as a relief because it belies that even he was repelled by the approach of despair, and it is always relieving to perceive the human soul’s retreat from the abyss. The Doors’ classic meandering song “The End,” while surely a great song, is also a horrifying thing of raving madness; the chronicle of a soul’s capitulation to stark bottomless despair, from the perspective of which the vista narrows to suicide or murder; and of course Jim Morrison chose slow-motion suicide.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end

Busted Stuff never goes so far; it walks tentatively up to the edge, looks over, then cringes and retreats, wide-eyed and breathless, like a man waking from a nightmare. But the nightmare produced good material of undeniable aesthetic value, and so Mr. Matthews has endeavored here to make the nightmare’s harvest appear more like a dream. This, I think, explains what I can only describe as the disconnect between music and lyrics. The effect is quite difficult to isolate; like fog, it can only be seen from a distance, and gradually dissipates as the observer approaches it.

Mr. Matthews has lamented publicly the effect the unauthorized release of many of these songs had on the album as whole, likening it, in a lucid comparison, to a painter whose work is displayed in his museum before he has in fact completed it. His point is valid, and I wonder if I would have had the same response to this album without the unauthorized antecedents. There are many who asseverate the plain superiority of these antecedents, which, having only cursory familiarity with them, I cannot adequately evaluate. But I do know that if someone were to steal a preliminary draft of this review, publish it, and then assert its superiority to the final draft, I would feel entitled to a certain irritation.

On balance, Busted Stuff is a worthy album: worthy of the standards set by the band’s previous work, worthy for its internal unity, and worthy for its sincere depiction of the human mind and soul in struggle with a world which cannot, on its own, sustain them. It may well be a component of this great modern tragedy of a tremendous surge in spiritual longing coupled with the general secularization of the churches. Hearts and minds and souls reach out for an authentic, revealed religion at precisely the moment when the churches have retracted their arms.

Within the admittedly straitened limitations of popular music, this Dave Matthews album is something to admire.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:01 AM |

Thursday, August 15, 2002  

We have just returned from a trip across the country to visit family (which explains the recent sparseness of posts). One cannot drive over the plains and prairies of Missouri and Kansas and eastern Colorado without being struck by the pulverizing vastness of the American Midwest, which verily crawls with a kind of desolate beauty, and yields to no one in stolid imperishability.

The great Midwestern cities seem to rise up from nowhere, which in point of fact they do, with only a quickening of automobile traffic and thickening of the jumble of road signs to signal their approach. U2 wrote a fine song, aptly entitled “Heartland,” about the sublime insouciance of these plains, and the architectonic majesty of the cities punctuating them; a single, emphatic line of which tentatively, even reluctantly, captures the inassimilable paradox at the heart of Modernity’s greatest civilization:

In the towers of steel belief goes on and on

It is a paradox to the modern mind that still integral to the American story, the story of the enterprise and industry and vision which erected great cities out of these unbroken prairies, is the story of God become Man, and the God who died that men might live. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus employs an exhilarating little phrase to describe the paradox: “incorrigibly Christian America.” And one sees it in the “Jesus Saves” billboard over decrepit St. Louis industrial parks; in the sign in the middle of nowhere Kansas advertising a Catholic Church —- 250 miles ahead; in the small towns with modest, saturnine church steeples their tallest structures. One only misses it by a deliberately closing of the eyes, which generally is an accurate characterization of modernity's attitude toward religion. Christianity is an unseemly, angular thing for modern sophisticated man, because he is deracinated from a fertile historical sense of his world’s intellectual and spiritual roots. When he turned against tradition because he no longer had patience for learning its ineffable value, modern man discovered with thwarted alarm the supreme, even perhaps the only, wellspring of tradition in the faith of Jesus Christ. But he cannot so easily dismiss Jesus Christ in a petulant haste as he does even the great works of Shakespeare or Homer. God said to Job: “Where were you when the foundations of the world were laid?” and the thunderous question remains unanswered. And so modern man must ignore Him; and grow uncomfortable when the believers exercise the resplendent liberty of their birthright in proclaiming their faith.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:43 AM |

Friday, August 09, 2002  

One of the most explosive, painful and difficult questions of our age is the question of race. The wide-ranging and perspicacious journalist Steve Sailer addresses the question, gathering on a vast array of scholarship and a career of intelligent reflection. His essay is a must-read, though it will surely not be read enough.

posted by Paul Cella | 12:40 AM |

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:

The administration has recklessly abandoned the longstanding two-major-theater-war construct. Inexplicably defining a major war as one in which a combatant occupies the enemy capital and changes the regime —- strike World War I —- the secretary of defense remains sanguine about facing two major outbreaks even if ready for only one. “Since neither aggressor would know which conflict would be selected for regime change, the deterrent is undiminished.” That is, unless forces had already been moved, or one aggressor is willing to take a chance, or doesn't care, or ranks the two theaters according to U.S. strategic interests, or has a telltale intercept, etc. Will one enemy really refrain from making war against us because we are in combat with another? As Valley Girls say, "Hello?" Put charitably, to imagine that we will never be required to fight in multiple theaters is insane.

In his speech, Mr. Helprin issues a reverberating challenge:

My charge to you is that in this, you never be either ashamed or afraid. Civilization is vulnerable not only to munitions; it is vulnerable to cowardice and betrayal. It is a great and massive thing of many dimensions that can be attacked from many angles. When professors of ethics at leading universities advocate infanticide, you know that civilization is under attack. When governments and churches advocate racial discrimination, you know that civilization is under attack. When a popular “art” exhibit consists of human cadavers in various states of mutilation, including a bisected pregnant woman and her unborn child, you know that civilization is under attack. The list is endless. The daily assault could fill an encyclopedia of decadence and degradation.

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:

When, in 1936, General Emilio Mola announced that he would capture Madrid because he had four columns outside the city and a fifth column of sympathizers within, the world pounced on the phrase with the eagerness of a man who has been groping for an important word. The world might better have been stunned as by a tocsin of calamity. For what Mola had done was to indicate the dimension of treason in our time.

Other ages have had their individual traitors —- men who from faint-heartedness or hope of gain sold out their causes. But in the 20th century, for the first time, man banded together by millions, in movements like Fascism and Communism, dedicated to the purpose of betraying the institutions they lived under. In the 20th century, treason became a vocation whose modern form was specifically the treason of ideas.

The horror of treason is its sin against the spirit. And for him who violates this truth there rises inevitably Bukarin’s “absolutely black vacuity,” which is in reality a circle of absolute loneliness into which neither father, wife, child nor friend, however compassionate, can bring the grace of absolution. For this loneliness is a penalty inflicted by a justice that transcends the merely summary justice of men. It is the retributive meaning of treason because it is also one of the meanings of Hell.

(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:

This is the second wonderful thing about Zionism: it was right. Every other “ism” of the modern world has been wrong about the nature of civilized man—Marxism, mesmerism, surrealism, pacifism, existentialism, nudism. But civilized man did want to kill Jews, and was going to do more of it. And Zionism was specific. While other systems of thought blundered around in the universal, looking for general solutions to comprehensive problems, Zionism stuck to its guns, or —- in the beginning, anyway —- to its hoes, mattocks, and irrigation pipes.

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,

according to my guidebook, “in 1984 there were violent clashes as Greek and Armenian clergy fought running battles with staves and chains that had been hidden beneath their robes.” What would Jesus have thought? He might have thought, Hand me a stave, per Mark 11:15: “Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers.”

And from this register of human squalor juxtaposed with divine wrath, Mr. O’Rourke tenders a consummate little amalgam of humor and elucidation:

It's left to the Muslims to keep the peace at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, just as it's left to the Jews to keep a similar peace at the likewise divided Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Who will be a Muslim and a Jew to the Muslims and the Jews?

Then later, more epigrammatic insight:

What could cause more hatred and bloodshed than religion? This is the Israel question. Except it isn't rhetorical; it has an answer. We went to Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust Memorial, and saw what the godless get up to.

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:

The Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life. It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate. A man who holds this view of life will find it giving light on a thousand things; on which mere evolutionary ethics have not a word to say. For instance, on the colossal contrast between the completeness of man’s machines and the continued corruption of his motives; on the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind; on the fact that the first and not the last men of any school or revolution are generally the best and purest; as William Penn was better than a Quaker millionaire or Washington better than an American oil magnate; on that proverb that says: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin; on those extremes of good and evil by which man exceeds all the animals by the measure of heaven and hell; on that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and skeptics: “We look before and after, and pine for what is not”; which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.

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:

So Arlen Specter, our four-term, senior senator from Pennsylvania, thinks foreigners visiting the United States shouldn't be kept under surveillance unless there's a “really good reason” for it, and thus is “troubled” to learn that the FBI is now tailing people on the flimsiest of pretexts —- like that they're “supporters of al Qaeda” who have “sworn jihad” and the Bureau thinks they're “terrorists.”

We are troubled, too. We are troubled by Sen. Specter's assertion that he is troubled. And not just because the specific worry he raises here is altogether bizarre —- though it is certainly that. More “troublesome” still is the fact that Sen. Specter's expression of concern for the civil liberties of visiting Islamic jihadist terror suspects is actually quite typical of the current debate about America's near-term homeland defense requirements.

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.

Exactly how, to what extent, and with what authority the Bureau should conduct its domestic terrorism investigations seems to [be] a legitimate and wide open question that could not help but profit from rigorous national debate. But the Bush administration is so far conducting that debate pretty much all by itself —- while the rest of the world plays imaginary French resistance to an equally imaginary Justice Department Gestapo.

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:

On ABC's Nightline tonight in an interview with Bruce we get: The point of music like his, he said, is to liberate, to make people feel like coming out of themselves and thinking differently. “For me the greatest pop music was music of liberation: Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Public Enemy, the Clash, the Sex Pistols. Those were pop groups that liberated an enormous amount of people to be who they are.”

Those groups and people he sites never did a thing to spiritually ennoble or uplift a single human being, but primarily desired to incite rebellion, distrust, disunity, hatred, anger, violence, and fear. Gee, Bruce, what a great group of role models and exemplars of peace, harmony, love, compassion, understanding, wholenss, and gentility you espouse to value. What a great bunch of Mother Theresas, St. Francises, Gandhis, MLK's or Bachs, Handles, Hadyns, John Newtons (Amazing Grace) you profess to admire.

No, you like the so-called transgressors who tear things down and replace with what? Self-indulgence, selfishness, crassness, vulgarity, and viciousness. What a guy, Bruce. Yeah, you have a lot in common with your blue collar fans and all the police, firemen, nurses, and folks who actually serve humanity and build things up; who practice tolerance and forgiveness to all the insufferable “reformers” and altruistic rebels grasping at power in their hatred and disgust of the bourgeoisie.

Man, you make me sorry I ever admired you.

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:

Yankee Doodle
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (“bay-bay baxwell”) [the Beatles]
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Bouncing Around the Room [Phish]
Lie in Our Graves (“splish splash”) [the Dave Matthews Band]
Walk On [U2]
Here Comes the Sun (“comes a sun”) [the Beatles]
In a Little While (“Mommy’s song”) [U2]
Amazing Grace
Rock-a-Bye Baby
Proudest Monkey (“monkey song”) [Dave Matthews]
Indiana [The Samples]

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:

That a call for dialogue would lead to violence should be no surprise. The notion that offering concessions can defuse Middle Eastern conflicts is one of the most destructive myths of American foreign policy . . . Dialogue may work among democracies, but dictatorships at best interpret engagement as a go-ahead for business as usual, and at worst see a weakness to exploit.

Mr. Hanson:

While [Europeans] will be the first to criticize us should we stumble, there is nevertheless a general feeling that the temperamental, half-crazed Americans are now going to be unleashed to settle accounts for the Western world in general.

But Europe is gripped by lurking trepidation about the clarifying effect a certain black day last September had for its ally across the Atlantic:

They fear now that [it] was a macabre liberating experience for Americans, and realize that we don't much care about European carping when our greatest buildings and best citizens are vaporized. Yet, when you tell a European precisely that —- and as politely as possible —- he is either shocked or genuinely hurt.

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:

Arthritis, various operations and Parkinson's disease have transformed the vigorous man who visited Canada last in 1985 into a shuffling, quivering wreck. Parkinson's freezes the muscles, bends the back, stifles the voice and makes ordinary movements an exhausting battle. The strength of will it must take to travel all this way and then deliver an address to a throng in the summer heat is unimaginable.

Yet he does it, and with joy . . . [His] smiles brought tears to many who saw them; he so plainly wanted to be there, spending the last measures of his failing strength to inspire others.

An Ottawa Citizen columnist remarks on the young people who came to see him:

They came here because they are Catholics and this is their Pope. They came because he is not merely Pope, but an extraordinary man, a real man, in a world of straw men, victims, and cowards.

And Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, in a powerful essay, marvels at the hope which he conveys and inspires:

In October 1978, in his first homily as Pope, John Paul repeatedly declared, "Be not afraid." That phrase —- echoing the words of the risen Christ to his despairing disciples —- has been the constant refrain of his pontificate. In a world in which there is so much to fear, some have been led to say that John Paul is an optimist. He is not an optimist but a man of irrepressible hope. Optimism is a disposition to see what we want to see and not see what we don't want to see. Optimism is a matter of optics, a form of selective blindness. Hope looks at reality unblinkingly, seeing all that is fearful but insisting that we finally have not a right and have not a reason to despair.

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:

But the overriding question —- the one that dwarfs everything else —- is what to do about the huge tax cut that Bush pushed through Congress back when those mythical budget surpluses were still clouding most people's vision.

“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 far as I can remember, this has always been our family's breadbasket,” [shop-owner Arnold] Rubin says. “I think it's atrocious that for the sake of a private corporation like The New York Times, somebody has the right to take it away from us.” He might understand if the block were being condemned for a city road or hospital. “But no one has explained to me why they have to do this so The New York Times can have a big new skyscraper here.”

Two other groups of property owners are challenging the condemnation under both the U.S. Constitution and the New York state constitution. Their chances are considered slim. New York has a long tradition of using eminent domain aggressively . . . and in this case the landowners are arrayed against the combined forces of City Hall, a leading developer, and the country's most powerful newspaper.

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:

[In some places] it turned out that new owners could not sell their land for thirty years. This was intended to prevent them from selling it back to those from whom it had been taken. The effect was to weaken property rights considerably, because those who cannot realize the value of what they own cannot really be said to own it, and will certainly be deterred from improving it . . . Moreover, the new owners weren’t allowed to rent out “their” land either, because if they did they would become… absentee landlords! And subject to expropriation in turn. This destructive and tyrannical provision . . . effectively returns a country to serfdom.

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:

A Lightning Rod is designed to attract and absorb the energy of a lightning strike, preventing houses from being damaged. So when people say that Attorney General John Ashcroft is a lightning rod, they're right. That's exactly what he's supposed to be —- attracting all of the rancor of the left, keeping the rest of the administration free from attacks. It's a perfect role for Ashcroft —- a stubborn yet ultimately humble man —- and one more reason why his appointment was the smartest administrative move of this administration thus far.

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 |
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