Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Wednesday, April 30, 2003 Peter Hitchens, right-wing brother of the famed leftist writer Christopher, once wrote a highly-praised book called The Abolition of Britain, a requiem for that once greatest of nations now reduced to ugliness and depravity by the Left. Theodore Dalrymple, a ubiquitous and indispensable journalist and prison doctor, reviews Mr. (Peter) Hitchens newest book, A Brief History of Crime, and concludes:
Now that is pessimism. Mr. Dalrymple is a bard of pessimism; or, more nearly, a bard of realism. He writes with authority on an astonishing variety of subjects. His value as an observer of Man, and a diagnostician of the fantasies and pathologies of his mind, is beyond measure. See, for example, his recent City Journal essays on France and Empire.posted by Paul Cella | 12:28 AM |
Saturday, April 26, 2003 The first thing to say about the controversy detonated by Sen. Santorum’s impugning of the decency and legality of homosexual sex is that Christian morality demands more of homosexuals than it demands of heterosexuals. Straight men and women are taught that sexuality is a gift from God, to be enjoyed within the procreative bounds of holy matrimony; while gays cannot, without falling into sin, enjoy this gift. This disparity cannot be ignored. But is it decisive? That is to say, does it end the argument?
No. I don’t think it does. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’” The modern world has lost all contact with the great noble idea of self-denial or asceticism; it has forgotten the profound words of St. Benedict, who said, “Laborare est orare” —- to labor is to pray. Every man has a cross to bear. The Church does not condemn the pleasures of fine drink; yet a recovering alcoholic knows he can never again, without risking disaster, partake. Our Lord taught us to pray “lead us not into temptation,” because He knew the weakness in our hearts. Maximos Davies articulates some solid insights about self-denial in a recent First Things essay:
Nevertheless, we must not forget that homosexuals are called to a more exacting duty in the area of sexual morality.
The second thing to be said about this is that Sen. Santorum, in his most explosive comment, made a statement of unassailable logic:
I see no flaw in this logic. By enshrining so expansive a right as one which protects all private consensual sex, the Supreme Court will have made it functionally impossible for any legislative body to proscribe bigamy, polygamy or incest —- and indeed it will be increasingly difficult to “hold the line” on pedophilia, because of the very real difficulty of defining minority. If the Court inflates the already manufactured “right to privacy” to a size anticipated here, it will have effected an unprecedented usurpation of legislative prerogative. It will have made the whole huge question of sex a matter not for the people of the states or the American people, but of the federal government alone; more specifically, the federal judiciary alone.
A little constitutional history may, by analogy, be instructive here. To wit: Why did the framers of the Constitution neglect to include protections for free speech, assembly, worship, etc. —- that is, the liberties embraced by the First Amendment —- in the original document? Why did those rights have to appear as an amendment? It’s not as if they just didn’t think about them —- in fact, a proposal very similar to what is now the First Amendment was taken up during the Philadelphia Convention, and it was rejected unanimously. That’s right, unanimously. There were many reasons for this, but one in particular germane to our purposes here.
With characteristic brilliance, the framers perceived that such an itemized “free speech” clause (I’ll use that phrase as a shorthand for the bevy of rights encompassed by the First Amendment) would actually injure liberty, not secure it; it would effect not an expansion of individual freedom but a diminution. The reasoning is simple, if counterintuitive: By enumerating precisely what government cannot do, one installs within the very fabric of the Constitution the dangerous assumption that government is authorized to do everything else. We place the burden of proof not on the state to defend, on constitutional grounds, its use of any given power, but on the citizen who opposes that use of power, to explain why the state has no such authority. The principle of enumerated powers holds that there is no need for a “free speech” clause because the federal government has no powers not specifically granted to it. Why restrict the government’s power over things for which it has no charter to address in the first place? To do so is not merely redundant but dangerous because it begins to erode the crucial principle enumerated powers.
It is important to note that this doctrine of enumerated powers applied to the federal government alone: this is why the First Amendment begins with, “Congress shall make no law” and why the Bill of Rights included the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” It was only much later that the enumerated powers principle was effaced and the Tenth Amendment repealed, in practice if not in law.
I bring all this up in some detail to make the following point: Giving authority over sexual morality to the Federal Government of the United States, through its judiciary, is perilous business, even if it is accomplished by means which appear to expand individual liberty. To my liberal or libertarian readers I offer this question: What happens, after the final consummation of a sexual regime presided over and guaranteed by the courts, when the composition of the Supreme Court changes, to the detriment of our glorious notions of sexual liberation? The precedent set, if the Texas sodomy law is overturned, is a precedent that effectively nationalizes sexual morality, and, whatever your view of sexual morality may be, it makes the articulation and protection of it depend on the enormously blunt object of federal judicial rulings. Each such ruling will henceforth be applicable over the whole country indiscriminately, with no recourse by citizens to their august legislative assemblies. Have liberals already forgotten their dismay at momentous judicial rulings going against them? I had thought that a certain election several years ago opened liberal eyes to the perils of judicial usurpation. Once give the state power over some feature of life and that power remains to it for abuse. And few venerate in their minds, or respect in practice, the principles of federalism and of enumerated powers when they sit in positions of great power —- precisely because those principles act to restrain power.
My larger point is to affirm the merit of legislative over judicial authority. If Congress undertook to reduce, humiliate, and finally break up the power of the other two branches of government (a thing which, in fact, Congress has the instruments to undertake), we would still be in possession, most likely, of a free constitution and a free country, particularly if state legislatures yet retained to themselves a liberal range of authority. There are few institutional checks, for example, on the power of Parliament in Great Britain. I would not welcome such a course of action, as I agree with Publius that threat of majoritarian tyranny is a real one; and I revere the delicate system of equipoise between branches and levels of government assembled by the American Founders. I would not welcome such a course of legislative aggrandizement, but I would not greet its advent with loathing and dread, as I do the trend toward bleak despotism augured by the judicial usurpation, by steps of sophistry, of each aspect of controversy in our politics.
If the American people, acting through their duly-elected representatives sitting in deliberative legislative assemblies, cannot use the instrument of the law to enforce the moral standards of the community, can we still be said to live in a republic? “The restraints on men,” wrote Edmund Burke, “as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” And if we are to continue to say, with the Founders, that governments are “instituted among men” to “secure these rights,” then we must trust their security to republican institutions. That is, we must trust them to the legislation of the people’s representatives; we must not yield them to nine robed attorneys in Washington in a fit impatience. The Supreme Court has no authority here; for it to arrogate to itself this authority is to accomplish a grave usurpation.posted by Paul Cella | 4:55 AM |
Friday, April 25, 2003 The culture of death, in all it's awful splendor, is on display here. (Via Mere Comments.) posted by Paul Cella | 6:19 AM |
Quicktakes: 1) I am fascinated by these two obituaries (1*2)for Ivan Illich —- it sounds as though he was an extraordinary individual. 2) Noah Millman has returned, after a short hiatus (it seemed interminable), with captivating posts like this one, which begins: “There is a reason that I consistently take a more optimistic line on Egypt than pretty much anyone else who is as pessimistic as I am about the Middle East. The reason: Egypt produced the Arab world’s only patriot.” Go, read up. 3) Will this devastating revelation induce the radical Left to even a modicum of self-examination? posted by Paul Cella | 2:21 AM |
Sunday, April 20, 2003 Please take a look at the comments section of this essay of mine. A colleague and I have engaged in an enlightening, civil and worthwhile debate (if I do say so myself.) posted by Paul Cella | 2:55 AM |
While we are on the topic of Imperialism (it does seem the topic of the day, doesn’t it?), let me say that there is no imperialism quite like the imperialism of Science. Its “tribal belligerence,” as one observer has christened it, is unrelenting; its arrogance at times bottomless. It seems to strive at all times, and in nearly all details, to bring more and more aspects of human life and society under its empire; and recognizes no scruples in this devouring enterprise.
Take the attempt undertaken by Science to subjugate Religion. It is the action of an empire: aggressive but anxious and paranoid; ignorant, but full of self-righteousness and total assurance. There is, first, the idea of Evolution and its attendant superstition The Big Bang, together the primary instruments of imperial aggrandizement, as it were. Now perhaps something like the Big Bang did occur, or is occurring, or is retreating; I do not know; and anyway the question is irrelevant. What is relevant is what happened before the Big Bang. If the answer is, Nothing —- if, that is, Science posits, against the Christian story of an omnipotent God who created everything out of nothing, that nothing just sort of turned itself into everything, as Chesterton wrote, like “an ever-increasing flood of water pouring out of an empty jug,” then what we have is indeed pure dull superstition; not even superstition, because superstition has a certain narrative élan, a poetic element to it, while this has nothing but tedious unreason. If, on the other hand, Science maintains that there was something before the Big Bang, something that generated or caused it, then the theory does not even approach the whole question of Creation; and God’s tremendous question in the Book of Job, “Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” remains unanswered, and unanswerable.
Notwithstanding this and a myriad of other problematics along similar lines (another is the, in many ways admirable tendency of Science to overthrow its own icons: Newton and Linnaeus have fallen, how long will Einstein and Darwin stand?), Science keeps rumbling on, an empire on the march. Objections based on the much richer, because much older traditions of philosophy and theology, when raised against efforts by the innovators of imperial Science to rend the fabric of human nature, or discard prescriptive institutions, are dismissed with derision, as when the arguments of human cloning opponents are disparaged as “emotionalism” or as “merely theological.” The ambition seems to be to swallow up each of the provinces of human enterprise under the exclusive privilege of Science, until the only admissible form of knowledge is the empirical, the only form of logic, the inductive, and the only method of thinking, the rationalistic. Intuition, sentiment, veneration, wonder, awe, instinct, even humor —- these things will diminish, because they are difficult to defend on empirical or rationalistic grounds.
What Science has forgotten is that it is fundamentally a instrumental entity: it does not choose its own ends. Theology, philosophy, ethics —- these things precede Science, and their authority over it, adjudicated through a political process, is final; thus also, of course, politics precedes Science. In practice, this means that one need not be a trained scientist to speak to its uses, and speak against its abuses. It is absurd to exclude the non-specialist from judgments about how we ought to use this instrument, just as it is absurd to restrict the driving of automobiles only to mechanics. One need not be a railroad engineer to identify a train wreck; nor to conclude that conducting a train blindfolded is criminal in its stupidity. Yet many of our practitioners of Science, from within the cacophonic rush of the train toward calamity, declare presumptuously that none can say anything against their wild rush, because they know not how a train works.
What this is, it seems to me, is not science but scientism; and when men argue that philosophical or theological objections to theory X or procedure Y ought to be discounted, and the decisions about its use made purely on the basis of “good science,” it is very difficult for a detached observer to conclude that they mean what they say. Some philosophical system must animate science’s interaction with human endeavors. There is no way around this: it cannot illuminate its own applications. The scientific method tells us how a discrete question is to be answered; it does not tell us how to apply the answer to life. We want to discover whether genetic cloning at the embryonic stage is possible: science can answer that question. But it can tell us almost precisely nothing about whether such technology ought to be used by men (the only assistance I can imagine science providing on this latter question is to inform us that cloning carries high risks of failure.) Bereft of first principles, Science is nothing but a decaying mass of unconnected facts, or an organ with no mind to command it. Practically speaking, the demand for decisions to be made on the basis of science alone has meant that while profounder schools of philosophy are excluded, a sort of gaunt and shallow utilitarianism reigns, a dull calculation of pleasure and pain which scorns all concerns about the wider social state, much less the wider moral order.
“Utiltarianism,” wrote Russell Kirk,
But imperial Science welcomes utilitarian ascendance, because it welcomes the doubt cast on all other orders of intellect; that it may more easily subdue and discredit Religion when young people are taught that to doubt authority is the first step on the road to wisdom. In fact, radical doubt marks a road to nowhere.
N.B.: I realize the above can be fairly described as a philippic. It was originally the product of exasperation over some now-forgotten piece of journalism; and it may one day come to embarrass me. Nevertheless, I let it stand. Readers should feel free to highlight my fallacies as necessary. I conclude with a long quotation from John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University:
Brilliant stuff —- a century and a half old.posted by Paul Cella | 2:53 AM |
Saturday, April 19, 2003 Canadian blogger Colby Cosh has a trenchant dilation on the massive question of Empire, which has renewed its salience in public dialogue. I wrote several months ago that imperialism is a matter too important to be left to “mere professors secure in their archaic Marxist redoubts.” I am delighted to say that issue has to some extent achieved a wider currency; tentative defenses and not ritual denunciations of imperialism carry the day; there is no longer that frisson of misbehavior in confessing admiration for some of the things accomplished during the Age of Empire.
Mr. Cosh writes,
On the other hand, as Steve Sailer has remarked, it is disgraceful to have conservatives uttering apologias for rioting and looting that “Jesse Jackson would be ashamed to use.” As James Madison might have said, the grip of faction on the minds of men is fierce indeed.posted by Paul Cella | 10:02 PM |
Friday, April 18, 2003 One of the things I have learned over the years is this: Never trust the secular media’s reporting on the papacy. Credit goes to First Things for cultivating in me this healthy skepticism. Scarcely a month goes by in which Fr. Neuhaus fails to sarcastically highlight the inability of reporters and commentators to get it right about what the Pope says or does.
Consider recent papal reflections on the war in Iraq. “Whenever you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, you’re time is up,” Michael Moore said, cleverly, at the Oscar ceremony. The general trend of reporting has it that Pope John Paul II has passionately condemned the war. But “condemned” is too strong a word, as this article demonstrates: the Pope opposed the war; he did not condemn it. And as the Roman Catholic Church is in the business, among other things, of making moral distinctions, this distinction is important, it is frequently, whether intentionally or not (I imagine not) elided over in the media, and it is evidenced by the calls of prominent Catholic pacifists for papal statements that do not “leave loopholes for parentheticals and hairsplitting.”
But those pesky parentheticals point to an indispensable component of the Just War teaching, viz., the division between just cause and just war. In fact, the Pope has affirmed that the disarmament of Iraq was a just cause; what he opposed was the prudential decision by President Bush and Tony Blair to vindicate that cause by a resort to armed conflict. This, in my view, was a wise judgment by the Pope —- for it would be quite awful for the Catholic Church to lend its blessing to any but the most unambiguously justified war; a war which, I confess, it is difficult to imagine in the modern world.
In the media, one rarely if ever hears of this delicate nuance in the Pope’s pronouncements and public judgments; for these things are simply too complicated for the soundbite world of the modern media.posted by Paul Cella | 11:09 PM |
Lawrence Auster of the valuable blog “View From the Right” penned a sharp post recently about democracy and the impoverishment of our understanding of it. He writes,
That is very well said. He also quotes a 1811 letter by the Duke of Wellington which stands as a cogent admonition against utopian thinking, and against the emboldened promoters of permanent revolution:
posted by Paul Cella | 4:22 AM |
Tuesday, April 15, 2003 Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College, writing in The Daily Standard, mercilessly exposes and dismantles a tendentious and lazy technique of denoting contempt, which is a regular feature of complacent hacks. That technique, of course, is the scare quotes, as in: “The Americans ‘liberated’ Baghdad.” I almost feel sorry for Mr. Jacobs’ pitiful targets. Almost. (I found this gem of an essay on Instapundit.) posted by Paul Cella | 5:40 AM |
Monday, April 14, 2003 A pair of disturbing reports from The Washington Times’ celebrated defense correspondent Bill Gertz: “Terrorists said to seek entry to U.S. via Mexico” and “U.S. fears attacks from Muslims in armed forces.” Frankly, it is my view that threats like these are precisely the kind that American society is least adequately equipped to confront. We are too supine before the self-loathers in our intelligentsia; we have been dulled by the incessant harangues of collective guilt by the same; we have lost the vitality of our grip on history and tradition: we no longer venerate what we should, and cannot rouse ourselves to defend what must be defended with the necessary resolve and even coldness.
Imagine the furor that would greet an announcement, however dutifully couched in platitudes, that the military would have to scrutinize Muslim soldiers more thoroughly; or that would greet a more vigorous —- indeed, ruthless —- policy of border patrol, by the military if necessary. Even most soi-disant conservatives couldn’t swallow that last one.
It is this profound feebleness in the face of grave but uncomfortable threats that worries me most. Our mastery of technique is unquestionable; our mastery of our own demons is highly questionable. We are like a well-conditioned fighter who cannot give up the narcotics which injure his constitution and slowly but relentlessly drain his strength. (Links via Parapundit.)posted by Paul Cella | 12:48 AM |
Saturday, April 12, 2003 William McGurn of The Wall Street Journal reviews Fareed Zakaria’s new book assaying the foundations of free societies.
He goes on to discuss the example of Hong Kong, which example, I think, forces every clear-eyed observer to at the very least acknowledge that British colonialism was something more —- more complicated, more human, more impenetrable, and yes, more beneficial —- than its bitter defamers would have it.
We Americans, it seems, were less successful in our own colonial adventures; let us hope that this new imperial thrust in Mesopotamia, this thrust of democratic imperialism, will turn out more along the lines of the British model in Hong Kong and perhaps India. It is probably too much to hope that it will turn out along the lines of the British model in North America. (That last link comes via the intrepid Orrin Judd.)posted by Paul Cella | 5:06 AM |
Wednesday, April 09, 2003 Roger Kimball, managing editor of the peerless journal The New Criterion gave an interview to the webzine Enter Stage Right (which has published my own work). It is an invigorating document. A sample:
Don’t miss this one. Mr. Kimball is a rising giant.posted by Paul Cella | 6:05 AM |
Tuesday, April 08, 2003 “Householders to be fined for not recycling rubbish,” reads a simultaneously ominous and hilarious headline in The Sunday Telegraph. Here we have the postmodern managerial state in all its despotic self-parody. Satire is almost disabled in this world.
Guilty until proven innocent. And then, of course, the requisite tincture of deceit and manipulation:
Ah yes: like “a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd,” as the oracular Tocqueville envisioned in 1840.
This is precisely the sort of despotic impulse that led a certain collection of colonies to rebel against their imperial masters. Why, in point of fact, the Brits recently had imposed on them none other than a Stamp Duty. Fancy that. I do not anticipate a rebellion.
posted by Paul Cella |
10:20 AM |
Columnist Ralph Peters of the New York Post predicts that this Iraq war “will result in the greatest intelligence coup in history.” He makes some persuasive points, which have been repeatedly remarked by David Warren as well, about a “secret war” undertaken largely by U.S. Special Forces to make things easier for the regular forces. Well worth a read, but I still am sort of appalled by the glibness with which our hawkish commentators discuss the prospects of flourishing democracy in Mesopotamia. posted by Paul Cella | 6:48 AM |
Saturday, April 05, 2003 Repeal the 17th Amendment. (Via T. Crown's Musings.) posted by Paul Cella | 11:32 PM |
Continuing to flesh out his sagacious interpretive tool, the idea of a “fantasy ideology” gripping nearly an entire culture, Lee Harris argues that we must learn to confront the barbarism that would make of us a colossal theater with which to assuage its ineradicably wounded pride.
As Mr. Harris wrote in a previous piece, the Islamist fantasy manages to reduce everyone to symbols —- abstractions which stand in for some delusive emotional reaction to a reality which cannot forthrightly be participated in. America and Israel have become, for these pitiable creatures, abstractions for evil incarnate, for aberrations in the moral order: “we are their necessary villain”; while the pure, virtuous Arab street is both victim and hero.
This cannot go on; the fantasy must be discredited, the gruesome illusions shattered, the fever broken. But how? The pessimist in me says this thing cannot be done from the outside; or, even if it can, that we have not the sophisticated ruthlessness to carry it off. Instead, we will muddle through as always, fighting ourselves and our self-loathing as much as we fight the enemy. But I do not think that al-Qaeda will bring down in ruins what we have erected with such toil; if that grand edifice should fall, it is we who will bring down upon ourselves.posted by Paul Cella | 6:04 AM |
Ben Domenech has a very good post on the question of guilt in war. Shakespeare and Dostoevsky are his sources. posted by Paul Cella | 5:20 AM |
I am saddened by the death of Michael Kelly. I have subscribed to his magazine, Atlantic Monthly, for several years and found it routinely excellent and rarely less than fascinating. He was also vast and witty and memorable columnist. It is so very strange how things like this hit you suddenly, making a distant thing seem now so near. It is very difficult to expect men to mourn the lives of people they never knew, as we are expected to with the soldiers who perish; but I feel like I did know Michael Kelly, at least a little bit. RIP. posted by Paul Cella | 3:28 AM |
Tuesday, April 01, 2003 A United States Marine with a blog, putting out amusing and incisive copy like this:
posted by Paul Cella | 5:18 AM |