Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

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



Saturday, March 22, 2003  

Last night CNN’s Aaron Brown interviewed John Burns of The New York Times about airstrikes on Baghdad. The latter compared those strikes to the casting of the rebellious angels out of heaven in Milton’s Paradise Lost. “It was an astonishing site,” he said, “even for those of us who have seen American air power unleashed in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and of course in Baghdad itself back in 1991. It was something quite Biblical. It made you think of words like Beelzebub.” Anything that reduces a Times man to that kind of imagery . . . well, it leaves me without words.

posted by Paul Cella | 6:50 AM |
 

A couple quick items: (1) An essay of mine, adapted from material first available here, was recently published at TCS. (2) Take a look at this blog run by a colleague of mine.

posted by Paul Cella | 12:23 AM |


Wednesday, March 19, 2003  

Apologies for the sparseness of posting of late. I beg the pardon of my readers. Work has grown exceedingly busy and demanding. I will post as I am able until things settle down.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:41 AM |
 

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus gives a commanding exposition of the lineaments of the Just war doctrine in an interview to the Catholic news agency ZENIT. He makes several important distinctions worth pondering; for example, the distinction between a just cause and a just war:

As St. Thomas Aquinas and other teachers of the just war tradition make clear, war may sometimes be a moral duty in order to overturn injustice and protect the innocent. The just cause in this case is the disarmament of Iraq, a cause consistently affirmed by the Holy Father and reinforced by 17 resolutions of the Security Council.

Whether that cause can be vindicated without resort to military force, and whether it would be wiser to wait and see what Iraq might do over a period of months or years, are matters of prudential judgment beyond the competence of religious authority.

He also laments the lack of historical context and seriousness in the debate:

In the Catholic tradition there is, in fact, a considerable literature relevant to these questions. Augustine, Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez, for example, all wrote on prudential action in the face of aggressive threats. The absence of reference to such recognized authorities in the current discussion among Catholics is striking.

Fr. Neuhaus is among the most admirable figures in American public life. His intellectual range is extraordinary: see this fascinating discussion of Dostoevsky’s biographer.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:37 AM |


Friday, March 14, 2003  

There is a striking feature piece in The Spectator this week: “The Case for Colonialism.” A marvelous little polemic, it refuses to be intimidated by terms like “empire,” and “colonialism”; and while I cannot bring myself to assent to its prescriptions, I like its verve. Particularly effective is the comparison to slavery:

Slavery was to the British in the 19th century what terrorism is to the Americans in the 21st: a blight on the earth, fostered by renegades and despots, and an affront to civilisation. Yes, yes, we were complicit in its first stirrings — establishing plantations in Virginia and Jamaica, funding Saddam against Iran — but that simply fired our resolve to stamp it out once we realised our error. The slave trade was outlawed throughout the British dominions in 1834, and it was simultaneously decided that no one else should be allowed to practise it either. For the next 30 years the prime duty of the Royal Navy was to eradicate the slave trade on the high seas.

By and large Britain did this duty alone. Overwhelmingly the most powerful nation on earth, she chafed at the restraints of international co-operation. She did lead a sort of alliance against slavery, with a handful of ships from America and France, but in reality Britain did the work, often ignoring diplomatic sensitivities by attacking slaving stations on sovereign territory, or stopping and searching ships flying neutral colours. The Americans in particular, the hypocrites of their day, were more a hindrance than a help: they bleated about British ‘unilateralism’ and protested about the need for ‘international law’, while all the time her entrepreneurs were running their own slave ships between Africa and the Southern states. One thinks of the French, urging the ‘UN route’ while Total-Fina schemes to win Iraq’s oil contracts.

Slowly, slavery was wiped out. But Britain did more than stop the trade. Tony Blair’s recent action in Sierra Leone was the fulfilment of a historic obligation of protection. For Britain created the country in the first place as a haven for liberated slaves, founding Freetown on a Georgian grid pattern and introducing the basic elements of civilisation. A black bourgeoisie was planted, took root and flourished. For half a century Sierra Leone was a vibrant mercantile entrepot and a place of relaxed liberal charm. Then came independence, and the familiar story: corruption and repression, rebellion and civil war.

Well hell; we’d all love if it were that easy; but there is precious little reason to think it will be. It does appear, however, that the words colonialism and imperialism have been liberated from the tyranny of the Post-Colonial Studies departments and the tiresome tendentiousness of the postmodern Left. Maybe someone read the plea I made here. No, probably not; but its nice to see a little fresh air and sunlight brought to an important subject.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:42 AM |
 

Now this, friends is a great piece of writing.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:32 AM |
 

Angelo Codevilla writes some energetic stuff, elucidating a position on war and peace all his own. In the Spring 2003 number of the Claremont Review of Books he reviews Elliot Cohen’s Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. It is a fascinating essay. Mr. Codevilla argues that while the book contains some commendable historical discussion, it is, in the final analysis, inadequate because what Cohen has undertaken is the thorny task of forcefully criticizing the Establishment in Washington as a member in good standing of that same Establishment.

The four paradigmatic chapters set up Cohen’s treatment of what, one suspects, is the question that led him to write the book in the first place. How and why have latter-day American statesmen and soldiers so fouled the relationship between military means and political ends that, like Israelis but with much more power, they have managed to lose wars despite winning battles?

This inquiry into the congenital shortcomings of our Establishment is a delicate matter for anyone who gets along in Washington. That may be why Cohen frames his challenges to conventional wisdom in terms of civil-military relations — thoroughly conventional terms that touch only tangentially the basic assumptions of our political-military “best and brightest.”[. . .]

This may be the only politically correct way for Cohen to tell hard truths about the intellectual construct through which the best and brightest viewed the world. But it surely is an indirect way.

What Cohen cannot bring himself to say emphatically is that the “best and brightest” have so often been, in the decadence of the Modern Age, the most spiritually feeble among us; that for many decades now our institutions of education and edification have failed to teach men how they are to live; to instruct them in the virtues and imbue them with the proper awe, of the civilization into which they are born; and thus to solemnly inspire them with the awesome weight of responsibility placed in their hands to carry this civilization forth to posterity. Men who know not their duty will invariably fail to discharge it. Mr. Codevilla observes that during Vietnam, “from the war’s beginning to its end, more Americans favored a harsher policy towards North Vietnam than a softer one.” He goes on, quoting a phrase used by Cohen: “Yet most of ‘those who were actually steering military strategy’ thought that the majority of Americans who wanted a clear choice between victory and withdrawal (and who preferred the former) were more dangerous to world peace than the North Vietnamese, the Chinese, or the Soviets.”

Mark those words. They were true then and they are truer today: the elites of this country think the American people a greater threat to world peace than the Islamic doomsayers, fanatics and fantasists, and before them the Communists.

posted by Paul Cella | 12:47 AM |


Monday, March 10, 2003  

Christopher Caldwell contributed a remarkable piece of journalism to the Financial Times the other day (unfortunately, it is no longer available online without registration). In it he attempts to assuage European fears of American “unilateralism” by assuring his readers that American hawks are, in fact, “joining the European quest for a post-national global order, but on their own terms.” I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that line. Now Christopher Caldwell is supposed by most to be a conservative; his argument is either advanced disingenuously, or reveals something quite sinister. And since I feel that I must regard Mr. Caldwell as sincere in its contentions, I must point out that what he is endorsing here a species consolidation so comprehensive as to boggle the mind.

It is a commonplace that, in an era of globalisation, nation states lack the reach to solve important economic, ecological and military problems. Europeans view themselves as proven leaders in designing multilateral governing bodies to replace the nation state.

So that’s it, huh? A “commonplace.” Replacing the nation-state is now the project of some of the most influential members of the American Right as well as a goodly portion of the international Left. Just like that, we jettison the nation-state; and with it a lot of other stuff most of us always thought of as admirable. The principle of decentralized government, of diverse sources of authority with compass only over those with whom they are familiar; the principle variety, in economy, in political arrangement, in social state, in religious establishment, in vision and ideal; the principle of resistance to uniformity, of defense of eccentricity, of multiplicity of cultural attachments; these are all good, solid, rousing conservative principles. They endure because they approach and reflect the truth of human affairs. Mr. Caldwell would throw them out like depleted old vessels, the remnants of strange fashions and crazes. “As America sees it,” he writes, “there are two obvious problems with the UN as a world government. First, it is incomplete.” Incomplete? No: first, it is monstrous. Mr. Caldwell must know that leveling force of the State will not be reduced by broadening its jurisdiction and its authority; he must know that in this country the slow obliteration of the principle of federalism (sometimes by self-inflicted wounds such as the association with grave iniquity) has effected a steady diminution of individual freedom.

Some time before the end of the Iraq crisis, it will become clear that the US differs with Europe not over the need for post-national structures but over how those structures should be built. A nasty shock could be in store. By the time Europeans realise they do not have a monopoly on multilateral thinking, the US may already have come up with a more serviceable blueprint for a post-national order.

This is a quite thoroughly revolutionary vision; to deliver it with such glibness is to idly attack the entire constitution of our civilization, which rests in part on the sovereignty of the nation-state. If you thought the European Union betrayed menacing despotic tendencies in its rush to consolidate uniformity of governance, this new project will make that look like child’s play. Mr. Caldwell makes a few obligatory concessions to constitutional principles —- “Americans assume it is too risky to move to post-national structures without a separation of powers of the sort that England developed and Locke, Montesquieu, and the American founders taxonomised” —- but forgive me if I harbor doubts that all the despots of the world will make the same concessions when a stake in the new “post-national” bureaucracy is proffered to them. In my reading, constitutional government, that is, real limited government, with efficacious mechanisms to check to aggrandizement of state over the individual, and which perseveres in the face all the rapacious schemes of the sophists and radicals, is a peculiarly evanescent achievement. In the modern age, outside of the British Isles and North America and a few other isolated places, it has hardly ever existed; in ancient times it was even rarer. Now, as the modern age comes to its miasmic and disordered end, we have influential people, many of them near to centers of power, who seem to fancy that this precious commodity, this delicate achievement assembled on a mass of human knowledge and wisdom astonishing in its range and profundity, can be simply imposed, following the effacement on that troublesome structure the nation-state, on the globe from the lofty heights of a world government. It does not strike me unreasonable to reply that such a project will merely mean the demise of constitutional government.

Mr. Caldwell’s essay contains a certain candor; not often do men of the Right so baldly advocate the dismantling of the nation-state and replacing it with some chimerical world order. But the vision he adumbrates is detestable; it borders on madness I think. “The real American is all right,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. “It is the ideal American who is all wrong.” Mr. Caldwell’s vision of a “post-national order” is an attempt to remake the world in the image of that ideal American. He imagines that some improved version of the UN will emerge as the world’s legislative body, replacing in a stroke, or at least emasculating, all the august parliaments and assemblies and congresses by which human liberty has been preserved. He imagines America as the executive, but more nearly we would simply be the executor, or maybe the executioner. And whence would come the judiciary? Perhaps the International Criminal Court.

It is noteworthy that in this Post-National Global Order there is no room for patriots, only ideologues. Patriotism rooted in home and hearth, in actual places and actual people, in particular things rather than tedious abstractions; patriotism of this sort will be crushed. Already there are signs that it has fallen in to disrepute, as when people say that one becomes an American by assenting to certain ideas about democracy, thereby making American patriotism contingent on a democratic ideology. It is no longer enough that a man simply loves his country. Chesterton apprehended the gist of this dreary trend long ago; and it has rarely been more sublimely rendered than in the following digression, from the grand genius of digression, in his biography of St. Francis of Assisi:

War had broken out between Assisi and Perugia. It is now fashionable to say in a satirical spirit that such wars did not so much break out as go on indefinitely between the city-states of mediaeval Italy. It will be enough to say here that if one of these mediaeval wars had really gone on without stopping for a century, it might possibly have come within a remote distance of killing as many people as we kill in a year in one of our great modern scientific wars between our great modern industrial empires. But the citizens of the mediaeval republic were certainly under the limitation of only being asked to die for the things with which they had always lived, the houses they inhabited, the shrines they venerated and the rulers and representatives they knew; and had not the larger vision calling them to die for the latest rumours about remote colonies as reported in anonymous newspapers. And if we infer from our own experience that war paralysed civilisation, we must at least admit that these warring towns turned out a number of paralytics who go by the names of Dante and Michael Angelo, Ariosto and Titian, Leonardo and Columbus, not to mention Catherine of Siena and the subject of this story. While we lament all this local patriotism as a hubbub of the Dark Ages, it must seem a rather curious fact that about three quarters of the greatest men who ever lived came out of these little towns and were often engaged in these little wars. It remains to be seen what will ultimately come out of our large towns; but there has been no sign of anything of this sort since they became large; and I have sometimes been haunted by a fancy of my youth, that these things will not come till there is a city wall round Clapham and the tocsin is rung at night to arm the citizens of Wimbledon.

And what then, we might go on to wonder, will become of us when even our large towns have given way to global “post-national structures”?

posted by Paul Cella | 5:02 PM |


Thursday, March 06, 2003  

It is difficult now to deny the persistent applicability of the old “balance of power” formulations of international affairs. America has been for twelve years a hegemonic power in the world, arousing among lesser powers resentment, anxiety and fear; yet until recently America’s attention had been diffuse, its eye wandering and distracted, its popular alertness to world events meager, its policies oscillating and discursive, not to say haphazard. Opposition importuned with bluster and fulmination an inattentive adversary, but failed to provoke a concerted response.

Once resolution hardened in the American people for determined action after the blow dealt on September 11, global opposition began to solidify as well. And now we have formidable coalitions gathering to counter American energy and decisiveness. It is striking, for example, to reflect on the tenuous nature of our position on the Korea Peninsula. The South Koreans, our allies, offer to act as mediators between us, their historian protectors, and the madman who targets their capital city with thousands of artillery tubes. The Chinese and Japanese seem positively insouciant about the prospects of North Korea settling into the role of nuclear pawn shop, to be patronized by any lunatic with hard currency; and their insouciance may indeed rest on a certain rationality: they are not likely to be first on the target list of terrorists. The more aggressive we are with North Korea, the more we alienate our allies, who know that our cities are the targets, not theirs; and further, know that their alliance with us is increasingly less attractive as America itself becomes the front line in this shadow war we fight against terrorists. (Stanley Kurtz lays out all this bleak business with admirable candor here and here.) The far Left is utterly inebriated by anti-Americanism and cannot think clearly for even a moment; as witness the same far Left which once palpitated in fear when contemplating nuclear arsenals isolated in a few countries, now scorning complacently the convergence of threats in nuclear proliferation and stateless terrorism. Ronald Reagan the cowboy stationing missiles in Germany terrified the Left; Osama the madman, procuring fissile material from North Korea, not so much. American resolution on disarming Iraq has also precipitated a bitter rift in our Atlantic alliance with Continental Europe, namely, France and Germany; and it has, predictably, inflamed the Muslim world against us.

All this is not to say that the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and (interminable) build-up to war has been wrongheaded or even misconceived (I outlined my own concerns on this topic here.) It is to say that the policy has not been without its costs, already. When a power as dominant as the United States undertakes to assert its will thousands of miles away, the balance power theory predicts that a compact of disparate lesser, but not inconsiderable powers will almost inevitably form up in opposition. This theory is hard to shake, its vaticinations being so far well vindicated.

How long can we afford to antagonize the world in such a way? There are limitations to American power; they can be seen rather vividly already in Asia, where our position is precarious and our options reduced to Bad, Worse, and Unthinkable: supine appeasement of the North Koreans; a bellicosity which drives our skittish Asian allies into the eager arms of China and thereby profoundly diminishes our power base in the Pacific (see Noah Millman’s penetrating post for more on this); or a massive, bloody, terrible war. Moreover, victory in Iraq will hardly attenuate the threat from North Korea, which will simply see the example of Saddam as a compelling argument for accelerating and expanding its nuclear program to secure a deterrent against the same fate.

Victory in Iraq, and occupation of the same, will also procure for us an unenviable responsibility (in addition to many others) of maintaining border relations with the unstable Iranian regime. The Iranian regime deserves to be unstable, for it is but a grim tyranny; it applies odious force to repress the Iranian people precisely because it is feeble; it is the consummation, the disillusion and discredit, of the Islamist fantasy. “Few are the partisans of a departed tyranny,” said Burke. And indeed, if providence should be so good, we will not mourn the passing of this tottering terror regime; but until that day we may regret the tensions of (in effect) sharing a border with the ayatollahs. This could be further exacerbated if American military success against Iraq, without the assent of the Europeans (again, France, Germany and the Low Countries), further drives the latter away from us, and into, perhaps, an uneasy concert of interests with Iran. More ominous still, I think, is where China will calculate its own interests after Iraq. Very likely, American military might again will astound, and inspire fear; is it inconceivably that Europe and China will begin to also calculate their interests as converging in opposition to the aggrandizing “hyperpower”?

These musings are undoubtedly speculative, some may say even alarmist. Very well. We live in alarming times. I have spoken here several times of my fear that we may be assisting in the consolidation of Europe under French or Franco-German dominance, and anti-American impetus; a development which would subdue the nascent and heartening independence of Eastern Europe and self-evidently set back our interests. It seems that everywhere one looks long-term trends forebode ill in this manner; and as Mr. Kurtz argues forcefully, the increase in nuclear proliferation tends to turn “foreboding” into “horrifying.”

posted by Paul Cella | 3:27 AM |


Wednesday, March 05, 2003  

David Brooks has a stimulating essay in the April Atlantic Monthly (not online yet) about “The Return of the Pig” —- that is, the male chauvinist pig. He surveys influential constituents of popular culture —- Maxim magazine, Comedy Central’s The Man Show, rap musicians —- and concludes that feminists have beat a rather hasty retreat in disarray from this new (if we can properly call it new) incarnation of the notorious male chauvinist:

The most interesting thing about the surge of retro-sexism is how unprepared feminists and other enlightened thinkers are to deal with it. The ironic tone of the material defeats them. Feminists seem to know they are being toyed with. They don’t want to appear to be earnest plodders in the face of hip, playful gestures, and they don’t want to grant that anyone is more postmodern than they are. [. . .]

We have a dynamic urban culture that treats women like whores and that regards owning a Mercedes as the highest possible human aspiration, and the leading articulators of progressive opinion have almost nothing to say about it. They can’t seem to bring themselves to admit out loud that their most effective ideological enemies have turned out to be the same underprivileged people they wanted to rescue from exploitation.

That last remark about “ideological enemies” is too clever by half, but Brooks’ analysis carries a distinct element of truth, I think. His writing is, characteristically, clear, calm and agreeable; his reasoning solid; and his ideas often quite insightful. Also characteristically, however, Brooks resolutely abjures polemics and all but the most modest of judgments; personally, this trait simultaneously arouses my respect and leaves me cold and dissatisfied, so indulge me while I supply my own polemics.

Feminism has been a nearly unmitigated disaster for women; sexual liberation has liberated no one so much as the predatory male. A fairly considerable portion of the energy of Christian civilization has been dedicated to the very considerable effort to restrain the biological tendency of most men toward infidelity. This effort has met with uneven, but very real and admirable success; and the resulting social structure centered on the traditional family is one deserving of reverence and obedience, even in the absence of any thorough knowledge of its sources of vitality and development. We might say that there is a conditioned prejudice, in most people, in favor of the traditional nuclear family; and that prejudice ought to be cultivated, because it cleaves close to the truth, the truth as apprehended through the centuries of human social organization. This prejudice, and the natural reverence for inherited wisdom it represents, ought to be greater still because the structure it addresses is a delicate one, and resists immediate penetration and appreciation by rationalistic or empirical thought. That is to say, there is superficial plausibility to arguments about self-actualization through sexual freedom constrained only by utilitarian considerations —- plausibility which is augmented by the multifarious failures of men and women to live up to the Christian ideal of matrimony. When resourceful people attack an institution like the family, they are not at a loss to find soft targets; nor can the institution’s defenders grasp so readily at outstanding examples for their defense. This institution’s great successes are often inconspicuous; its failures, spectacular.

But what the “progressive” innovators, among them the feminists, undertook was not merely to castigate the failures of the traditional Christian ideal of matrimony, but, dubbing the whole of it, ideal and all, a failure, to dismantle it comprehensively. Now here was a revolutionary project worthy of the name; and, despite provoking a vigorous and formidable reaction which may ultimately overwhelm it, this project has become, to an astonishing degree, part of our social state. This is an old story. The method was initially to divorce (an apt word) sex from child-rearing, from the responsibilities, from the sacrifices, from the hardships, joys and virtues —- all of it, root and branch. The advent of easy-access birth control assisted here immeasurably, and once the rather meager conventions against birth control were defeated, the project could proceed apace: the divorce of sex from marriage itself. A concomitant here was the undermining of the entire idea of sin in a sexual context. What is natural, it was argued, cannot be sinful, and so adultery became not a violation of the moral order of things, not a transgression against vows taken before God and Man, but, if condemnable at all, a mere breach of contract. Chastity was no longer a virtue but an abnormality; and it was foolish to even think that young men and women might restrain their urges. This large step was accomplished in law, as Noah Millman has argued cogently, through the mechanism of the “no-fault divorce,” which stipulates that marriages may be voided by simple mutual consent of the two parties. Once manage to conceive of marriage purely as a contract between autonomous individuals, dissolvable without any complaint of violation or even explanation, and alienated altogether from the interest of the community, or of the created order; accomplish that and a blow has been struck at the substance of the ideal itself, not simply its forms.

The damage inflicted on individual men, women and children, and on the social fabric of the nation, by the effacement of the traditional ideal of marriage and family is extensive. It hardly needs delineating at this late date. And I think it is safe to say the damage has been borne primarily by women and children. The enterprise undertaken to sever sex from all its viney entanglements with the rest of human life was hardly a surgical thing, though the social science rationalizations built up around it seemed to imply that it was; it was rather a wild and maniacal hacking at part of the roots of our society; the action of madmen, deracinated creatures awash in self-loathing. “Ten thousand women,” Chesterton wrote, belittling the feminism of his day, “marched through the streets shouting, ‘We will not be dictated to,’ and went off and became stenographers.” More modern feminists, and their comrades in the sexual revolution, thundered and marched for freedom, for liberation from the restraints of Christian sexuality, and ended up in bondage to the caprices of licentious males, and to the scars of shattered lives and the guilt of more ghastly “innovations.” Much of the action of Christian civilization, as it bent itself over the problem of sexual sin, was an effort to tame the baser urges of men (and women, but to a lesser degree); for men are disposed to promiscuity, and mankind is disposed to sin.

The extent to which such language strikes us as so jarring today reveals the depth of this revolution in our social state. That the wedding ceremony centers on vows of faithfulness taken before God, family and the wider community is lost on us, though that fact constitutes the wisdom of civilized man imparted to posterity. We have turned from that wisdom at grave peril.

posted by Paul Cella | 2:38 AM |


Friday, February 28, 2003  

Lee Harris stirringly defends the virtues of the word “evil”; and more broadly, the virtues of clarity of thought and speech, things which the academy seems to have undertaken to discredit and obliterate. If the first moral duty is indeed to think clearly, then Mr. Harris is surely right when he argues,

To tell the average man that there is something wrong with using the language of evil when this language is the only appropriate way of expressing his sense of benumbed outrage is itself a species of evil. It is the use of one’s intellectual superiority in order to subvert the trust that the average person feels in the intuitive reliability of his own moral conviction.

Elsewhere he writes:

To banish the word “evil” from the moral lexicon of humanity, simply in order to take a cheap shot at a politician, is an unforgivable act of moral and intellectual dishonesty. It is making use of one’s academic standing and scholarly reputation in order to debase the level of our public discourse, and those who engage in this kind of cant should be treated as charlatans and quacks.

The word evil has been used over and over again throughout human history as the means to energize human beings to deal with the wrongs and the outrages of the world, and various Bush-baiters of the academic world are perfectly cognizant of this fact. They know that it was the word that was used in the battle against slavery, against Nazism, against Communism, against segregation. They know that it is the only word that rings true when one wants to speak of such horrors as the Middle Passage and Auschwitz.

Strong words. True words.

posted by Paul Cella | 11:14 PM |
 

If I could but remove for a moment from our idiom the whole edifice build up around the language of abstract “rights”; remove it as if in the manner of a debate moderator I were setting the parameters of a contest. It would be interesting to discover whether, in the event of such a linguistic amputation, so to speak, all the vitiated and instinctual adversaries, the facile chicaners of ordered liberty as it has descended through the crooked timber of human institutions —- whether all these motley malcontents jostling about in Modernity’s lengthening shadows would have any material left with which to mold speech and engage in disputation. The language of abstract rights (by “abstract” I mean extracted from the whole nexis of human relations and contrivances, and shorn of the dangling tendrils of reality so to remain pristine, unreal and unsullied by the messiness of what is organic) beguiles our politics; it impoverishes and enervates; and finally renders discourse open to crabbed foolishness. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” goes a celebrated maxim; and the argot of rights has made our politics safe for fools. James Madison, surely an angel of political science, delineated the folly of a capitulation to the anodyne parlance of abstract rights with a memorably disdainful phrase when he wrote of the uselessness of “parchment barriers” against despotism.

People seem today to regard an assertion of “right” as the resounding end of an argument; a man like Madison, or a man like Burke, regarded it as merely the beginning —- perhaps just the preface. To assert a right to simply to say that a thing is worth preserving; the real question is how it is to be preserved. Proclaim whatever rights you chose; proclaim life, liberty and property, or liberty, equality and fraternity; but proclaim them without considering how they are to be secured within a body of law and tradition and convention and you have done little. Burke said some wise things in reflecting on the early propounders and consequences of the then-newfangled doctrine of “the rights of man”:

These metaphysic rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are by the laws of nature refracted from their straight line. Indeed, in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction. The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and, therefore, no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.

Or again:

The moment you abate anything from the full rights of men, each to govern himself, and suffer any artificial, positive limitation upon those rights, from that moment the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience. This it is which makes the constitution of a state and the due distribution of its powers a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill. It requires a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities, and of the things which facilitate or obstruct the various ends which are to be pursued by the mechanism of civil institutions. The state is to have recruits to its strength, and remedies to its distempers. What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics.

Burke even went as far as to declare that restraints on the men’s appetites “are to be reckoned among their rights,” a opinion which surely rings discordantly to modern ears; but who can claim to enjoy the liberties of self-government that cannot learn to govern his own passions? Public self-government seems decidedly unlikely among a people who conceive of their political science and even their political philosophy as countenancing no restraint upon their sovereign desires. It was Burke’s nightmare vision of the rapine inaugurated by the “armed doctrine” of abstract rights that inspired his great effusion of sagacity and lucidity in Reflections on the Revolution in France, a truly oracular work which to my mind stands taller as history advances.

I thought of all this as I watched some ESPN journalists discuss the issue of the day: a women’s college basketball player at Manhattanville College who has, all season long, turned her back on the flag in protest during the singing of the national anthem. Excluding prepositions and stutters in speech, the word “right” must have been repeated more than any other. Her “right to protest”; the sacrifice of many to “protect her right”; the “rights symbolized” by the flag. The discussion was nearly intolerable, because no one could get around the huge and intimidating encumbrance represented by that dreaded word. In fact, the question of right is well nigh irrelevant. If she were a nameless spectator in the stands, her protest would remain anonymous and basically unnoticed, and her right, uncontroversial. But here, as the argument unfolds, we are conflating her right with her power; power granted not freely but in exchange for something, namely athletic talent. Few people are tendered such an opportunity, and it is not a right but a privilege. The acknowledgement of her right to protest the flag (which virtually everyone does acknowledge in the abstract) obscures more than it illuminates; and indeed it enfeebles our discernment because it drives out all the other principles which, whether perceived or not, do impinge upon this question. The principle of honor, for example; the principle of propriety, of convention; the principle of restraint or temperance; the principle of humility: To ignore these things is to abet the deterioration of our vocabulary.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:53 AM |


Wednesday, February 26, 2003  

In an fine review of an apparently fascinating book I had never heard of, Orrin Judd articulates an idea that has crossed my mind now and then:

The payroll deduction should be done away with. If the income tax is to remain, taxpayers should have to write a check to pay it. This would both show them exactly how much government is taking from them and create the possibility that a mass revolt might occur, and people refuse to write them, in a case where government had over-stepped what the polity is willing to allow.

The automatic payroll deduction must be one of the greatest, shrewdest fait accompli ever conceived and executed by the State and its unscrupulous pillagers. Citizens never see what is taken from them; the income is never theirs; the confiscation, the coercion, behind progressive taxation has achieved its ample completion, and is treated with general complacence. What a clever scheme!

posted by Paul Cella | 3:51 AM |
 

The new film “Gods and Generals,” which, it appears, has the temerity to depict Southern soldiers and generals as human beings, is receiving, as it were, all the right bad reviews. Nothing inflames the sensibilities of today’s prigs and proper-thinking liberals quite like a candid and sympathetic treatment of men who nobly fought for this disfavored, even monstrous cause. I myself have not seen this movie, but I like what I see in the fury unleashed on it by our monotone reviewers, who often seem to have undertaken to review history rather than a film that attempts to render history.

posted by Paul Cella | 12:54 AM |
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