Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Friday, May 16, 2003 Dear loyal readers:
I apologize for the sparseness of posts recently. With the assistance of my three-year-old, I spilled coffee on my laptop, rendering it unusable, which in turn makes posting from home difficult; more importantly, it makes writing at home more difficult.
I am also leaving town for my brother’s graduation in New Orleans from Loyola University, followed by a week at the beach, so it is unlikely that there will be any posts until after Memorial Day. New readers from Tacitus and Yglesias may be interested in some of my longer pieces, which I have collected on the right (scroll down a bit) under “Longer Essays.” All readers are encouraged in my absence to visit the fine bloggers and links on the right.posted by Paul Cella | 4:20 AM |
Sunday, May 11, 2003 A few more thoughts on optimism and conservatism. Below I wrote the decidedly controversial words: “I expect slow decline,” which are very nearly as controversial as saying “I expect steady advancement or progress,” but not nearly so controversial as saying “I expect open-ended stagnation and immobility.” Saying what I have said marks me, I realize, in a certain obscure but real way; my many protestations —- “I do not feel like a pessimist,” “I am not wracked by despair,” etc. —- notwithstanding. Therefore, I want to add a few remarks on that very statement which may, or may not, mitigate some of its inadvertent effects on my readers.
First, I expect decline. That is very different from saying I regard it as inevitable. If ever there was an abused word, it is that one: inevitable. I certainly believe that the decline I anticipate can be arrested if men set themselves against it. If a man were to awake from a long and torturous fever-induced nightmare, and discover with a start that he is rushing wildly toward a precipice, all he need do is stop; having committed his will to simple survival, his vista opens wide from there. He need not thoughtlessly turn, almost as if beguiled by a new fever, and march precisely backward in his own wild steps. To his left may extend a daunting though ultimately navigable path along the mountainous crags back to his home; to his right may open a broad and primordial forest, imposing but by no means malicious, through which he can arrive at the home of his fathers. He may even find it necessary and desirable, after careful deliberation, to attempt a risky descent off the cliff before him, anticipating that below, perhaps, there is a solid road around the mountains or the forest; and for this he will need sturdy and reliable equipment, which upon consideration is readily available all about him, though most of it was dreadfully concealed by shadows and monsters in his nightmare. The point is that what he must not do, what in fact only a man of terrible insanity would do, is commit to a fatalism about his rush toward oblivion, or fancy somehow that oblivion is desirable, and plunge headlong in silence.
The whole illustration could be complicated by the presence nearby of other rushing dreamers, even thunderous crowds of them, who have not wakened from their own personal nightmares, and will in all likelihood fall to their deaths. Some may be stricken by that feverish lucidity that sometimes grips the delusive, and insist, against all reason and all the evidence of the natural senses, that oblivion is indeed desirable, or that it is not oblivion at all but Utopia; that the crags to the left are only bloody death and the forest to the right merely frightful doom; and that the reliable instruments around them, the equipment that Man has employed for survival amidst adventure since the dawn of Time, are but the rubbish of ancient beasts, treacherous and unusable. In this complication, our hero may perceive a few moments for the action of charity toward his fellow men, during which he can implore them to free themselves from the fever and halt their rush; but those moments will pass rapidly, and he may well be unsuccessful, for his influence on the wills of free men, even free men frenzied by a dream, is quite limited. And then he must entrust their souls to the God of Mercy —- for thereafter the action of charity will be best used in steeling himself for the difficult journey to his home (or the home of his fathers) where decent men can be mobilized to discover the source of the fever and defeat it.
All this is to say that a man or a nation or a civilization, even once on the road to oblivion, need not end up there. To say something is inevitable only makes sense, in a strict literal sense, after the fact; we more often hear it said that something was inevitable, that looking backward on history events seemed to gather and point toward some conclusion, which, surprise of surprises, in fact occurred. The occasional prophet, aye, has appeared and flashed like lightning with his vaticinations across the arc of history; but even the greatest of prophets is wrong more than he is right, and usually right only in the broad strokes, not the details.
My second purpose here, which is, so to speak, on the other side of the problem, is to say that it is still valid for a observer to presage decline. Critics of such presages often scoff that every age has had its declinists, its doomsayers and pessimists; this jeer they seem to imagine to be the end of the argument. They seem to think that the mere fact that previous doomsayers have been wrong means perforce that today’s doomsayer is wrong; that he is disarmed and his arguments trussed. It is a strange logic indeed that animates this line of dispute; that a thing has happened (or failed to happen) before means it is happening (or failing to happen) now. America will not decline. Why? Because Whittaker Chambers in the 1950s said America would fall to the Communists but it did not. Or because Henry Adams made a presentiment of doom at the end of the nineteenth century and was wrong. The truth is, it doesn’t really have any bearing on the severe question of whether modern American civilization is declining, that other controversialists have fulminated against what they perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the decline of America or Rome or the Carolingian Empire or imperial Britain. In fact, now that I think about it, what bearing it does have might be gleaned from the plain fact that those older empires did actually decline and fall. Salvianus said Rome would fall —- “The Roman Empire is luxurious, but it is filled with misery. It is dying but it laughs” —- and fall it did. The very language of “decline and fall” I have borrowed from a famous book about Rome with that in its title.
All that is to say that there is nothing inherently disreputable about articulating a presentiment of decline —- anymore than it is disreputable to articulate an elated sense of advancement or improvement. The thing must be judged on its own merits. It will do no good to laugh that every age has had its pessimists, because every age has also had its optimists, and indeed its romantics. Frankly, I might persuaded to go further and say that the pessimists can often be the real idealists: they have an ideal, and perceive that their society is not approaching, but rather receding from it. Meanwhile the misguided optimists suppose that what is in fact decline is secure advancement instead; they are the real dreary realists.
My final note here is this; that I do not presume to set myself up as some towering prophet on the order of a Whittaker Chambers or a Salvianus. It is the duty of all serious men to contemn such arrogance where it to flows from the pen of one such as I. But I do presume to defend the privilege of writers great and small who envisage a period of decline, even a period of steep decline, to enunciate it; and to sound the alarums to others; so long as they do not succumb to the sin of despair. That privilege I will not grant to anyone. But there is a great deal of quite unseemly priggishness in the air, an atmosphere which suggests that to make profound criticisms of the trajectory of American society, or to be ill at ease with what is fancifully called the “American creed,” is to be unpatriotic or almost anti-American. This will not do; for what if some of the very ideas that make up this creed are part of the decline? part of the fever?posted by Paul Cella | 4:49 AM |
Saturday, May 10, 2003 Rich Lowry’s latest column on the horrifying ubiquity of prison rape is a must-read. This evil is, truly, the shame of our prisons. (Thanks to T. Crown for the link.) posted by Paul Cella | 1:33 AM |
Thursday, May 08, 2003 Wes Little has a provocatively brief post about Ronald Reagan and conservatives (his archive is not working: scroll down or do a search for Reagan). Perhaps it is most provocative in its very briefness, its hint of levity. He writes: “This again supports my prejudice that conservatives are American only insofar as America is conservative.” This is a profound criticism, and I’m afraid that there really is some solid truth in it. There is a very real tendency on the American Right to make patriotism an ideology, to, in other words, confer the Crown of the Patriot, or the Patriot’s Cross, or whatever medal one might imagine, only on those who assent to certain ideas. In my judgment, this is a dangerous and ill-conceived idea.
Mr. Little also chides another blogger for imagining that “hating the Russians and wanting war” was “was fundamental to Reagan’s supposed revival of ‘patriotism.’” To be indelicate for a moment, this is a traducement of a very low order. Substituting “Russians” for “Soviets” or “Communists” is a clever piece of legerdemain, but Reagan did not hate “the Russians”; he respected them and believed they deserved to live in a country where famine and death camp were distant, historical nightmares, not instruments of state policy. He did hate the Communists, because they were hateful, depraved creatures —- the most murderous band of thugs and plunderers ever to achieve political power in the history of mankind. They fashioned, as near as man ever has, Hell on earth; and then they spread it around the world through subversion and lies and terror.
Reagan didn’t want war; but he preferred it to subjugation by the sword of this armed doctrine.
It is said that the Czech hockey player Jaromir Jagr came to America knowing four words: yes, no, Ronald and Reagan. He still wears number 68 to commemorate the Prague Spring of 1968, where others who preferred war with the Communists to subjugation by the Communists finally got massacre instead.
In fact, you can have both. Communism can never work at achieving its ideals, or even its own stated goals —- precisely because those ideals are unachievable. Moreover, Communism cannot even approximate the Good Society because it wages war on human nature; because it empowers the wicked; because it annihilates what is human and organic; because it accomplishes the ruin of private property and crushes the creative impulses of men; because it consolidates and monopolizes wealth and power, and enervates and subverts each province of opposition to its concentration, unlike any other system of government ever devised. Granted all these things, Communism can still rule; for there is no law of nature forbidding tyranny from enduring despite its manifest flaws. Indeed, we might say that the flaws are what allow it to endure. There was nothing inevitable about Communism’s fall, because there is nothing inevitable in history.
Reagan had his faults, but cloudy thinking about war and International Communism (the two are nearly synonyms) was assuredly not one of them. To the extent that Reagan “revived patriotism,” it was in large measure because he knew exactly what was at stake in the Cold War, what was worth fighting, killing and dying for in it, and, finally, why Lenin’s demonic vision had to be obliterated —- and he knew these things at a time when so many others were unsure.posted by Paul Cella | 12:16 AM |
Saturday, May 03, 2003 An essay of mine, developed from material originally exclusive to Cella’s Review readers, is part of a “Point/Counterpoint” exchange between myself and James R. Harrigan, Visiting Professor of Political Science at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, at the first-rate website TechCentralStation. Comments welcome. posted by Paul Cella | 4:47 AM |
Friday, May 02, 2003 “Can conservatives be optimists?” The question attracted the considered reflection of several distinguished bloggers recently. Most answered, with some qualifications, Yes.
As loyal Cella’s Review readers might expect, I cannot answer so confidently. The following should be taken as a demurral, as a instance of “thinking out loud,” so to speak. My ideas here, taken as a whole, are tentative: while some are held with solid confidence, of others I am hesitant. But if a blog cannot be used for thinking out loud, what purpose does it serve?
First, it is my observation that conservatives tend to underestimate or overlook the real spiritual perils of prosperity. The Christian philosophy, illumined by Sacra Scriptura, makes no such mistake; indeed even the most pious of Christians might be forgiven for the occasional suspicion that Christian teaching overestimates this peril. Our Lord himself marvels at the shriveling effect of wealth on the soul: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Those are words, I confess, that lead me to tremble for our age. And indeed, at the same time that economic growth rates soared and Western nations, invigorated by the materialist enterprise of human science, prospered unlike they ever had before, men were slaughtered like cattle by the various armed doctrines of the materialist West. “Treat men like raw material and raw material they will be,” C. S. Lewis wrote. Materialism, where it slipped the harness of conscience, where it became the enemy of the Creator and fancied itself as embracing all aspects of the universe, did just that. And the corpses piled high like mountains.
All this is not to prejudice liberty, which I believe reason amply demonstrates is a gift from God to man; and among the most precious gifts it is, and surely the highest ideal for the secular order. But freedom is instrumental; it was provided that men might faithfully seek virtue, and seek God. That great material wealth has been a product of freedom is no small fact; and that too, rightly ordered, is a blessing from God.
Secondly, whenever I read of optimism, I perceive a host of specters gathering on the horizon, all signified by the dread word Progress. Conservatives have been speaking altogether too glibly of progress of late. We are full of enthusiasm of democratic revolution across the Islamic world, not unlike, to my ears, the cries of permanent revolution by the Trotskyists many years ago; when what Muslims might need instead is a regression, a retreat from delusion and fanaticism. It was precisely the Western idea of progress, in my admittedly limited reading, which transformed Islam from an austere faith in Fate, into a revolutionary fantasy; and it was precisely Western technology and Western decay which made that fantasy anything more than a trivial irritation. I worry that our fatuous and irresponsible rhetoric may haunt us for years to come. “Men have been sometimes led by degrees,” wrote Burke, “sometimes hurried into things, of which, if they could have seen the whole together, they never would have permitted the most remote approach.”
Perhaps my demurral here qualifies me as a pessimist; I do not feel like a pessimist. I am not wracked by despair, or doubt about the unparalleled nobility and worth of our civilization, despite all its manifest flaws. I do not expect catastrophe. I expect slow decline. My sense is that our vitality has left us; that we are a spiritually diminished people; that we are living on habits of enterprise and virtue borrowed from a previous age of vigor; and that, even as we depend on these habits, all the action of our own age is to discredit and traduce their principles. A civilization cannot long survive on habit alone, and cannot long sustain the sort of wild and maniacal hacking at the principles of those habits to which we so often bear witness. Our culture has come to despise the organic sources of its vitality; those who value their own heritage have become the outsiders. But vitality has not abandoned the world of men, for its Author still sits on the throne.
The role of conservatives, then, is more counterrevolutionary than it is “conservative” in the strict sense of the word; for to conserve the structures of decline and fall, the forms of cultural rapine and plunder, is to shelter a friend in lonely despond, and secure him from desperately needed succor in his moment of despair; it is to guard against the approach of solicitous physicians in the patient’s hour of agony; it is, in short, to make the civilization of the West safe for suicide. The conservative’s role is properly restoration, not conservation.
As an example, reflect on the following question: Should the Right reconcile itself to the French Revolution? Now, of course we must reconcile ourselves to it as a human historical fact; but should we reconcile ourselves to its principles? to its universalizing abstractions and utter intolerance for departure from in practice, and disagreement with in principle, those same abstractions? Should we reconcile ourselves, that is, to the logic of the Guillotine?
Or should today’s conservatives still regard themselves as opponents of the principles of the Jacobins? Well, I submit for consideration this vivid historical update depicted by the gifted John Zmirak:
Sort of puts a new face on what seems so distant a historical event, doesn’t it? (Click to the whole article: it is excellent, and includes convenient links to the actual historical events corresponding to each of Mr. Zmirak’s modern renderings.) If conservatives cannot bring ourselves to denounce this sort of collective madness, what standing have we to denounce all the other calamitous innovations of the Left? And surely we can concurrently acknowledge, even as we denounce the rapacity and insanity of the Jacobins, and their miscellaneous radical progeny, that the brittle ancien regime they broke up with such ferocity, was in plain fact a feeble and dismal despotism in its own right. Surely we can hold two true ideas in our minds at once; and yet hold up Reformation or Restoration over Revolution as our guiding principle.
If I am pessimistic, it is because (with apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Orrin Judd) abstractions are in the saddle and ride the conservatives. Conservative circles seem all abuzz with talk of progress and democracy, words that should fall discordant on our ears. If conservatives are to be optimists, which I do think is possible, it must not be because we have simply capitulated to the ideas of the Left, and reproach only their excesses. It must be instead because we know our ideas to be superior; because we favor what is human to what is mechanical, what is organic to what is regimented, what is venerable to what is fashionable. Conservatives never hated Progress and Democracy until they became slogans on placards, catchwords to conceal the armed doctrines of the revolt against God.
The modern world is in revolt against the Augustinian reminder that Man cannot conquer Sin. My fear is that conservatives, influenced as we all are by the pressures of our age, have joined in the revolt —- or at least wearied of resisting it.posted by Paul Cella | 10:41 PM |
Thursday, May 01, 2003 The great John Derbyshire makes a point far, far too infrequently made: Where are all the romancers of privacy when the IRS comes around each year, demanding that each and every incoming-earning citizen lay bear comprehensively his financial activities from the previous year —- with the burden of proof in the event of a dispute resting . . . that’s right, on the citizen, not the state? Economic privacy has few champions; private property few defenders. posted by Paul Cella | 6:13 AM |
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 |