Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

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

Friday, July 18, 2003  

My wife and I are casually (or not so casually, you’d have to ask her) looking into buying a new house. She can’t get enough; she loves the idea of looking at houses, studying floor plans, working out loan and interest-rate figures, etc. Every couple of days she comes home with a new printout of a potential house she has discovered while browsing the Internet. On each occasion, without fail, some mention is made of the potential house’s public school district, as either an advantage or disadvantage. It is of course an old story — part of the larger ugly story of the degradation of public education in America — that real estate values are manifestly distorted by school quality; that, in short, no sensible family will look for a house without considering the schools. I wonder if there have been some economic studies attempting to calculate the size of the distortion. I would imagine it is hardly insignificant.

Anyway, always in the back of my head, occasionally uttered aloud, is the plain, pulverizing fact that no public school can be trusted. Very simply: The sort of miseducation and debased propaganda that sometimes passes for learning in many of our public schools no decent father can good conscience condemn his child to. I note, as a single example, not so distant from us, that activists in Britain are now demanding compulsory sex education for five-year-olds. Mr. Peter Hitchens reports,

In class programmes that are now recommended by several major education authorities, teachers are being urged to discuss anal intercourse, sadism, masochism and the use of pain, three-in-a-bed sex and bondage. [. . .]

The same pack — and remember this is for pupils aged under 11 — suggests teachers “check” that children know and understand a large number of sex-related words.

“Encourage them to come up with any words they have heard of, even if some words might not be nice words,” it urges.

It is difficult for me to find words adequate to describe this insanity. Depraved is not really strong enough; nor wicked. Demonic, perhaps. Mr. Hitchens is right to call the people who agitate for this sort of vileness “child-molesters.”

posted by Paul Cella | 3:47 AM |

Wednesday, July 16, 2003  

Score one for the Schoolmen: Here is a review of what will surely prove an illuminating new book on the study of economics by the mediaeval religious orders of Spain. The reviewer writes:

It comes as a bit of a shock to read these religious figures, avowedly concerned first and foremost with justice and Biblical standards, and find that not only are they economically literate but that in many cases their economic theory was far more advanced than many professional economists who came after them.

He goes on to state that “their brilliant economic analysis earns them a place as founders of economics” whose “analysis was superior to the confused Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations.” High praise indeed.

posted by Paul Cella | 5:11 AM |

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Faith & Values” section Saturday contained a rather feeble and confused call to heresy as its lead article: “Rediscovering ‘Lost Gospels’” was the provocative headline. The newspaper’s point of departure is what it imagines (and for all I know truly imagines) is a renewed interest in the Gnostic Gospels and the various heretics of the early Christian Church, as evidenced by two popular new books on the subject. Now a dozen superficial objections could be raised to this very typical article —- typical not least in its manner of advancing a very definite point of view without either (1) admitting to holding any such view; or (2) actually arguing for that point of view with any candor or assiduity, but rather giving voice to a mere prejudice.

Of these superficial, if very real objections, a few examples might be made. For one, a Christian of any historical sense might reply to the article’s central claim —- “A multitude of early Christian leaders and stories were deliberately excluded from the New Testament” —- with the quizzical equipoise of a man who finds himself lectured to about some of the very points he has made. Similarly, when the AJC’s journalist quotes a Princeton scholar as saying, “What the orthodox teachers say [about the early Church] is that everyone says the same thing, everyone agrees, everyone confesses the same belief,” we might be tempted to answer to the contrary: That what orthodox teachers relate in the early centuries of the Church is a running series of quite fierce confrontations with an astonishingly fissiparous diversity of heresies. And when another expert contends that those “that were labeled wrong in the early church tended to be marginalized groups,” and “the weakest in that world,” we might be coaxed into countering with a reminder that most of the great heresies of the Christian Church are named after a powerful bishop or Church leader for good reason —- Pelagians, Donatists, Marcionites, Arians, and the rest; or that, to be specific in the last case, the Arian heresy, which began by asserting the inferiority of God the Son to God the Father and ended with a total denial of the divinity of Christ (not unlike today’s Jesus Seminar), commanded enormous strength and vast resources, particularly in the ruling classes of the late Roman Empire, and, crucially, in the Army. More broadly, we might object with the quiet insistence that, whatever their sins and abuses, the Church’s great opponents of heresy —- Athanasius, Augustine, even Tertullian —- understood something huge and ineffaceable, but quite subtle, which our modern enlightened commentators do not: that there is no escaping doctrine. There is either a true doctrine, or there is a false doctrine; there is only no doctrine if there is no religion.

Thus the resistance to heresy is a resistance to catastrophic dissolution. The question of Marcion’s holiness and erudition aside, if the Marcionite heresy had prevailed in stripping Scripture of all its Judaic influences: had left Christian faith as an almost exclusively Pauline creed —- then the Church would have dissolved into contending schools of abstraction bereft of historical and narrative fixity. Similarly the opposition to the recurring heresy of a Gnostic Christ —- that great historical struggle which concentrated the minds of so many saints —- was a resistance to the very error and delusion which Christ himself rebuked on Palm Sunday by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey: The error of the immanent redeemer, the savior who saves by conquest and vengeance, or merely the prophet who saves by wisdom. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, the AJC quotes someone as summarizing, “Jesus doesn’t come off as an apocalyptic figure but more as an itinerant charismatic who is encouraging people to go within and find the kingdom within themselves.” It should be clear that to make of Christianity a purely human Jesus, to reduce Him to a wandering ascetic, a preacher of radical renunciation of the flesh (“the kingdom within themselves”) is to eviscerate the faith. It is always to be remembered that Jesus of Nazareth claimed repeatedly to be God; and if he was in fact not God, but mere man, then his claims of Godhood were the claims of a madman. Why some variation of this Gnostic heresy reappears so often throughout history: in the Manichees, in the Albigensians, even in Islam, is a question that will probably perplex us until the crack of doom. But why Christian champions across the centuries have perceived this heresy with a kind of choke of horror and revulsion, should not be so perplexing. It is the ruin of the Christian religion —- the dark antithesis and harbinger of dissolution. It denies the central dogmas of the Christian faith: that the Fall was irredeemable by the actions of men; that final redemption meant God Himself had to die and carry the burdens of sin which the Fall initiated; that the God-Man hung on the Cross that men might be saved. “One lord, one faith, one baptism” the AJC article begins. “Another lord, many faiths, all kinds of baptisms. Which version of Christianity do you believe in?” If you believe in the latter, then you simply do not believe in Christianity.

Now, as an effort of ruder analysis, we might come down from the clouds of theology, so to speak, and say that this article illustrates a very distinct modern contradiction. A newspaper aspires to be an institution of authority. The AJC, in publishing an article disparaging orthodox Christianity, assumes a certain authority —- even if it is an authority of debunking. It has a point of view, and seeks to spread it. This is elementary fact, though modern journalism has done its darnedest to obscure it. Atlanta’s newspaper fancies that its readers grant it a certain credibility. In short, it is not simply asserting things, but lending its authority to certain assertions. It positions itself and rests its profitability on the traditional notion of Authority. Yet it imagines that by a strange modern alchemy, men will find in extreme liberality a creative narrowness; that by the systematic denigration of Authority a specific authority will reign. It wants loyalty without obedience. It asserts vague doctrine while demeaning authority; the doctrine that to educate men, the Church ought to abjure all educational doctrine. By that almost insane routine so typical of our newspapers, it aspires to be an authority to men whom it has counseled to disregard authority. It represents what C. S. Lewis called the whole modern “tradi-comedy of our situation”:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Men have always felt that there is real solid authority in things like virtue and honor and enterprise and fruitfulness; and even the attack on Authority rests, in an attenuated way, on the authority of these things. There is honor and virtue in rebelling against tyrannical authority, and so forth. But these things are trussed and defeated in the modern revolt against Authority.

It might be objected that I rest entirely too much assumption on a single little newspaper article. Very well, I concede it; but I concede it precisely because the article is so very typical. Consider the opposite. It is almost inconceivable —- so inconceivable as to be absurd or comical —- that a major city newspaper would run an feature article reproaching society’s perceived sympathies toward ancient heresy. What would a feature article defending the claims of orthodox Christianity even look like? No: what this article on the “Lost Gospels” radiates is that powerful modern prejudice that Christianity would be richer were it not for those despots of dogma —- dogmatists, if you insist —- who fought to maintain Christianity as a coherent theology and philosophy. It sees a bright future for a religion that admits pure dreary incoherence and unreason: an “open church,” or a spirituality without the dreaded “institutional religion.” It suggests that there is courage and vitality in creeds that renounce their roots and embrace their antithesis; and vigor in institutions evacuated of all pretense to authority. In Christian history there is this huge imposing presence of the Scripture: on which so many struggles have hinged. As a fact, this controversy constitutes the central controversy of the Reformation, with Roman Catholics rebutting the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura on grounds that the Church is prior to Scripture because the Church made Scripture. This is inescapably a matter of doctrine; and an irreducible question of Authority.

The modern revolt against Authority, of which this small but very typical article is but an example, is an irreconcilable contradiction. To accept it is, by one’s own anti-creedal creed, to reduce oneself to gibbering lunacy. How is it possible to argue against the very principle of traditional Authority, when most argumentation is simply an appeal to some kind of authority? From whence does this newspaper derive its authority if all authority is suspect? How can it claim the authority to nudge us away from orthodox Christianity (by quoting specific authorities) if it denies the claims of authority? That pulverizing question remains unanswered, and the unanswer, as it were, is dubious; because even the assertion that all authority is suspect rests on some authority. Even an anti-creed is still a creed.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:18 AM |

Friday, July 11, 2003  

Man, I didn’t know that Noah Millman was back from his vacation and blogging away! Here is demolishes Andrew Sullivan. Here he demolishes John O’Sullivan. Other good posts here and here.

posted by Paul Cella | 7:15 AM |

Thursday, July 10, 2003  

Robert Novak reports:

The White House has made clear the president will sign any prescription drug bill arriving from Capitol Hill. Bush thereby has removed himself as a player in an epochal battle over this country’s health care, undermining the optimistic scenario. No realistic conservative can devise a way to kill this bill. The question is whether Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s inexorable march toward a government-controlled health care system can be slowed.

This must be why I voted for a “conservative” presidential candidate: so I can reap the glorious benefits of socialized medicine, and an expansion in the size of the federal government unlike anything since Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Mr. Novak goes on, “The correct perception on Capitol Hill is that the president’s political team wants to get this over with, sign any bill, and damn the consequences.” Yes. “Damn the consequences.” Those pesky consequences, which, along with an appalling record of federal spending by this “conservative” administration, and not a single veto of a spending bill, have induced the centrist British publication The Economist to announce in an editorial, with highly unusual vehemence, the arrival of “A Socialist in the White House.”

The real reasons for the profligacy are more depressing. Mr. Bush seems to have no real problem with big government; it is just big Democratic government he can’t take. This opportunism may win Mr. Bush re-election next year, but sooner or later it will catch up with his party at the polls. The Republicans are in danger of destroying their reputation for managing the economy — something that matters enormously to the “Daddy Party.”

Can the administration not deign to make a single argument about limited government? Can it not occupy itself for one moment with delineating the history of bleak misfortune visited on nations that persist in quietly leading their citizens into servitude?

The problem, to state things bluntly, is that the administration faces no pressure from the right. The conservative movement risks transforming itself into merely a set of court intellectuals for a ruling party, which is another way of saying a set of court intellectuals for the party of the State. They will be the handmaidens of Servitude, the functionaries of the Servile State.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:37 AM |

Wednesday, July 09, 2003  

Interested readers may want to cruise over to TCS for a look at a revision of one of my recent posts. The essay even received notice from one of the big shots.

posted by Paul Cella | 2:45 AM |

Sunday, July 06, 2003  

Democracy looms large today, as it has for many a century. But today we are in a strange and precarious position. The democrats have begun to question the ideal of the republic. Another way of saying the same thing is that democratic men are beginning to realize that keeping equality is in its own way as difficult as achieving it. Five hundred years have passed since Luther pounded his theses on the door of that Wittenberg church, and since then the authority of every hierarchical structure claiming Universality has been broken up: the Church, the Empire, the Throne, the Class. Must we now see the break up of the idea of the Citizen? If that is our lot, then we are left with the peculiar spectacle of conservatives, many of whom locate their intellectual pedigree in thinkers who rose up to denounce democracy as it advanced, now defending the idea of the republic — many of them even imaging we can cultivate it elsewhere. The only democrats left are men who are suspicious of democracy.

But once we get past this seeming paradox, we see that it has its own sublime poetry. Who but conservatives will defend the republic as it decays? The poetry of real conservatism is that it will only defend things feeble and fading — and manage to preserve something of them. (I would just note here, in the interests of clarity, that Christians can only wear the label “conservative” lightly and, as it were, merrily.) And the great virtue in this poetry is the forlorn tocsin of the conservative, rung out against the tyranny that approaches. Any decent and brave man can castigate the abuse of power as it stands before him: it takes a visionary or a prophet — or a poet — to castigate the tyranny that has not yet arrived.

I cannot help but see something solid and human and noble in men manning the barricades to defend a thing which (they thought) they disliked and distrusted. It is analogous to the unexpected bereavement of the loss of an old, unappreciated friend; someone who, in life, was tolerated reluctantly but hardly liked. Now gone, at last we perceive the affection and even veneration that developed for him. Conservatives first despised and feared democracy, then endured it begrudgingly, and now, as it slips away, we realize it is dear to us. And so we must defend it, for the whole world is turning against it, even if they will not admit it — to themselves least of all.

In this we will find few better models than the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. It is on sound common sense that scholars name Tocqueville among the greatest of democrats, despite the fact that he dedicated much of his career to critiques of democracy of frightful frankness and penetration. He spoke of a “religious terror” in his soul upon perceiving “this irresistible revolution that for so many centuries has marched over all obstacles, and that one sees still advancing today amid the ruins it has made.” Those are indeed the words of a democrat — and one who, as such, naturally identified the immense task before him:

To instruct democracy, if possible to reanimate its beliefs, to purify its mores, to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true interests for its blind instincts; to adapt its government to time and place; to modify it according to circumstances and men: such is the first duty imposed on those who direct society in our day.

Few performed that duty so well as Tocqueville, of course, but it strikes one, upon reading his magnificent Introduction to Democracy in America, that no man felt so clearly the strange contradiction in loving a thing and critiquing it almost to the point of recklessness. Tocqueville loved democracy, even as he acknowledged that it was “advancing amid the ruins it has made.” [Continued in the next entry]

posted by Paul Cella | 4:45 PM |

Today’s soi-disant democrats, the bitter remnants of the progressives and liberals and socialists, whether they love democracy or not, acknowledge no ruins, because to them it was only the merest justice that the Old South or French Monarchy or Russian Tsardom was cast into ruin. Tocqueville’s broadmindedness is a thoroughly refreshing contrast. It says something like this: “Obviously a man may hold two complex thoughts in his head at the same time. Come now, gentleman, surely we can admit at one and the same time that the Tzar was an iron autocrat, a countenancer of torture and brutality, and yet that the Bolsheviks were all that and more — above all, that they were not patriots but rather hated their own country, and showed no scruple in injecting it with an alien poison? Gentlemen! let us grant that America permitted the slavery of blacks utterly despite itself, and that when it came to war, as perhaps it must have, those that took up arms in Virginia and Georgia to repel an invading army did not all of them dishonor themselves, but rather honored a dishonored cause. Let us grant that if the Bourbons at the time of the Revolution were reactionaries and oppressors, the Jacobins were many of them wild-eyed madmen, and others, as Burke discerned, mere plunderers. Let us grant, in sum, that Democracy’s spread across the land has overturned some things that needed overturning, others that would have yielded peaceably to reform, and yet others that could well stand in glory and dignity still today, for the benefit of all.”

Now Tocqueville is probably turning in his grave to hear me put such clumsy words and clumsier ideas into his mouth, but my point is that his is a republicanism one can admire. His is a political philosophy of — if you’ll excuse the term — great, abiding manliness.

The republic, properly understood, means the rule of rules — that is, the rule of law. The law may be an ass; it may be absurd or complicated beyond all natural reason. But it will be universally applicable. The universality of the Citizen (that which still remains) is the universal application of law. The equality of the republic is the equality of men before the law. Deliberative assemblies sit in interminable debate for one purpose: to develop the rules by which society will be governed, to allow men to decide for themselves their role in the State. Therein subsists the grand ideal of equality, which has so dazed the minds of so many: it subsists not in the results of those laws, but rather in their application, which is universal for all citizens.

One of the strangest things about what passes for modern democratic enthusiasm today is its anti-democratic nature. It will not allow men to decide their role in the State. It sacrifices real equality for rigid formalism. To modern democratic ideologues, there is simply no tolerance for, say, women choosing for themselves to become mothers and not workers — they must be either workers and mothers or merely workers. Women cannot choose for themselves a role in the State which is different than that of men. The modern democrat will not allow such freedom to the people of a republic. Thus by the paradoxical turbulence of the modern world, we have the modern democrat, who does not trust the common man for whom he claims to speak, arrayed against the conservative, who manages, despite himself, to trust the common man, in his capacity for debate and deliberative legislation, though the conservative clearly comprehends a limit to that trust. His limit is the huge dim fact of the Fall: as much as a man may err, so may the mass of men err. As much as a man may fall into sin and debauch his soul, so may the rush of wealth and power debauch a democracy. “Adversity is easy to bear,” wrote Orestes Brownson. “It is prosperity that tries the man.” (Thanks to the industrious Orrin Judd, who pointed me to the essay in which that sagacious epigram appears.) And as much as an individual man may be duped by lies, so may men together learn to live by lies.

I do not think it is hyperbolic to say that the modern world lives by lies. It is simply insane to tell men, as today’s oligarchic democrats do, that the Good Society excludes public smoking, but includes unbridled sexual freedom: that, in other words, the family will be abolished, but the puritan patriarch will remain; and we will all be teetotalers and libertines. It is no longer lawful to smoke in restaurants in New York City and Florida; it is no longer lawful in any state to prohibit any private sexual act. That is insanity. Democracy needs a vigorous defense because right now it is restricted in its natural moral tendencies at the same time that it is flattered and bullied by demagogues into acquiescing in the imposition of an alien morality. If nothing else would lead me to a qualified defense of democracy, it is the final fact of what horrors America’s decadent elites would inflict if they could. They would uproot and discard all inconvenient traditions and local customs with the stroke of the pen. They would empower lawless courts and despotic judges. They would expropriate the wealth of our most successful citizens, all the while calling it compassion. They would rend asunder the natural bonds of men to their families, their friends, their fellow citizens, replacing them with vague and spineless cant about a brotherhood of man. They would crush the vitality of Christian charity by making it bow to the idol of the State. They would hack to pieces the precarious structure known as the Nation-State, driving authority farther and farther from away from where it applies. They would open our borders to the depredations of a thousand foreign cultures, with no pressure to conform to ours. They would break up the ideal of the Citizen, and thereby obliterate democracy. If the republic means the rule of rules, they would give us the rule of mere rulers.

And I would prefer all the frail, foolish, fatuous rules of the common man in his deliberative capacity, to the ingenious efficiency of determined rulers. Democracy can unquestionably descend by man’s folly to tyranny; but the alternative the modern world presents is tyranny which is not folly at all but design. If I cannot have Liberty, give me the tyranny of fools; spare me, please God, the tyranny of calculating men.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:43 PM |

Friday, July 04, 2003  

Democracies can hardly conduct a foreign policy; the thing must be left to an oligarchy, to an elite. The Demos is too vast, too fickle, too passionate, and too indiscriminate. But it still applies an immense pressure upon its representatives, and will make its feelings known, particularly when the nation’s leaders are also democrats. Now a good many arguments have been made accusing George W. Bush of being a pale aristocrat; a complacent, ill-governed man whose success was inherited. I leave that dreary question aside and say here just this; that when President Bush recently responded to a question about attacks on American troops in Iraq with the defiant goad, “bring ‘em on,” he was uttering as profoundly democratic a sentiment as has been uttered by a high official in recent memory. “Bring ‘em on” is the foreign policy of an infuriated democracy; it embodies the feelings of ten million firemen and electricians, especially firemen and electricians who knew men that died on September 11; and George W. Bush’s popularity rests on this embodiment.

The foreign policy oligarchy is predictably appalled; because for it democracy is at best an annoyance, at worst a monster. The oligarchy likes to manage, cajole, maintain, occasionally adjust, but rarely disturb, the status quo; it is dependent on the status quo, whereas democracy, once aroused, cares nothing for it. The Democratic party is genuinely horrified as well, for reasons which can be sufficiently suggested by asking how the Democrats can possible secure the union vote when a Republican makes public statements of this nature.

But the democracy is happy; indeed it is grimly amused and even heartened. I confess that I feel some of this sentiment myself: not because I want to see more American soldiers ambushed by barbarians, as the tone-deaf oligarchs seem to imagine, but because in some primeval recess of my male brain there is an idea of honor, and it includes smaller ideas about jeers and taunts and certainly about defiance. With greater sophistication, I also recognize that honor bulks very big on the human stage of the Arab world; and, casting my eye back toward that crematorium beneath the streets of New York of that dark autumn two years ago, I read “bring ‘em on” to mean: “if the Arab street speaks only the language of blood and iron, then blood and iron it will have.” I cannot simply switch off the primeval recess, no matter how many imbricated layers of “enlightenment” they have laid across my brain. Nor would I want to if I could, for Honor, like its relation Patriotism, is godly in its proper place.

The question, then, is this: Is honor in its proper place on the lips of the President of the United States when he jeers a blood-minded enemy? Of that I am ambivalent. I cannot say that my esteem for Mr. Bush is particularly high at the moment. His equivocations on the muddle of post-war questions; his acquiescence in the Imperial Judiciary; his embrace of dirigism toward health-care policy; together these factors do not lead me to an instinctual defense of him. But I do suspect strongly that while the Arab street generally ignores the calculated banality of the foreign policy oligarchs, it is more attentive to blood and iron.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:08 AM |

Thursday, July 03, 2003  

Better late than never, I say: Bill Luse emerges from a summer blogging-lag to deliver the definitive essay on golf, equality and Annika Sorenstam. Long but brilliant; not to be missed.

posted by Paul Cella | 6:57 AM |

Summer reading: Kevin Holtsberry inquires about what “you are reading, plan to read, or would recommend others read this summer.” My list embraces all three categories.

1) G. K. Chesterton’s Collected Works: Volume IV, which includes What’s Wrong with the World, The Superstition of Divorce, and Eugenics and Other Evils. Bracing, brilliant stuff, all of it, full of verve and humor, and astoundingly relevant. GKC defends the traditional family against all the innovations of the modern age.

2) Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace. These essays comprise Burke’s final effort against the French Revolution and the weariness of England in resisting it. The Letters contains famous lines like these: “The blood of man should never be shed but to redeem the blood of man. It is well shed for our family, for our friends, for our God, for our country, for our kind. The rest is vanity; the rest is crime.”

3) Hilaire Belloc, Richelieu. Belloc locates Cardinal Richelieu as the architect of nothing less than the modern State. The book is full of sparkling character sketches, sagacious, unexpected judgments, and the human poetry of history.

4) John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University. I started this some months ago and got sidetracked. I intend to finish it this summer. Cardinal Newman’s writing is a lesson in logic and intellectual vigor, as well as a reminder that it is only through faith that our reason is properly illuminated.

5) Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Reputed to be an excellent introduction to the Angelic Doctor’s thought, it is nevertheless a daunting book. I hope to tackle it soon.

6) Orestes Brownson, The American Republic. After Tocqueville, Brownson is regarded as the most penetrating thinker on the irretrievably entangled great questions of Democracy and America. Peter Augustine Lawler’s lengthy Introduction is excellent.

7) C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves. A delicate, ineffable subject; a genius of apologetics and simple explanation.

8) G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse. This I am reading to my three-year-old daughter. All the reviews say it should be read aloud. J. R. R. Tolkien called it the greatest epic poem since the Middle Ages.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:43 AM |

There are a great many very bad ideas in circulation. Men are relentlessly oppressed by bad ideas; they are our nemesis as thinking creatures. In honor of Independence Day, I propose here to examine a certain bad idea, or set of bad ideas, relating to the very good idea of patriotism.

To name it descriptively, one might refer to it as ideological patriotism, or in John Zmirak’s eminently useful phrase, America the abstraction. The term Propositional Nation also adequately captures it. By way of a simple explanation, this notion holds that one becomes an American not by being born here, or by submitting to an appointed regimen of discipline to attain citizenship, but by simply assenting to certain political ideas. In other words, and to state it more provocatively, it holds that one can only become American by conforming to an ideology.

Now, almost no one denies that, in their abstract form, the propositions generally thought to constitute this ideology are noble ones, even, in their way, universal ones. Liberty, self-government, the rule of law, equality of opportunity, broadly distributed property, meritocracy: few will rebuke these ideas. But even in their abstract form, the ideas will admit wild differences of opinion. Put three thoughtful, educated men in a room and you are likely to have three quite different sets of basic American propositions. Moreover: when applied, when put into practice, the ideology rapidly becomes unsustainable. How shall we secure self-government? How shall we protect the rule of law from the inevitable encroachments by assorted malcontents, mountebanks, plunderers, knaves and fools? How shall we reconcile liberty with equality? This is stuff of the human political condition, and everyone conceivably could agree on the value of the above propositions without agreeing in the first instance on how to answer these questions.

Brittle as they are in practice, ideologies can be astonishingly resilient things in their abstract forms. One hundred and twenty million corpses, genocide, wars of unspeakably brutality, the utter ruin of great nations, the obliteration of an untold quantity wealth, the corruption of innumerable institutions, depravation of countless minds and annihilation of entire cultures; these were the wages of the most bloodthirsty and inhuman contrivance the world has ever known, International Communism —- and still a man is probably not harmed in his intellectual career by admitting to a sympathy it. The ideology endures despite its unparalleled crimes and catastrophic failures. Even conservatives have of late taken to citing Trotsky as a figure to admire.

The danger inherent in giving oneself to an ideology should be manifest; yet it is a temptation for all who haunt the realms of intellect, because independent thinking is a difficult, taxing thing. It is far easier to simply lend one’s mind to intoxicating ideas than to submit those ideas to rigorous scrutiny. I distinguish ideology from more innocuous words like philosophy or principles in saying that the former refuses to admit scrutiny of itself bodily. An ideology persists in the face of hard contrary facts, where a philosophy must assimilate them with frankness, or be discarded. As a corollary to this distinction, ideologists must invest a considerable portion of their time and effort protecting the body of the ideology from scrutiny, and policing the espousers of it, often by less-than-honorable methods.

The purveyors of the Propositional Nation have made American patriotism an ideology, and in so doing they have set this country on a course of ruin. An ideology’s resiliency makes it malleable in the hands of its custodians: the ideology can be gradually disfigured by the complacency of the negligent or the innovations of the cynical; such that, eventually, it becomes unrecognizable. Attentive observers have long noted the historical “Great Switch” of liberalism, as Jacques Barzun dubs it, when an ideology of individual liberty became instead an idolatry of collectivist power. We see a similar dynamic operating today as the ideas comprising the Propositional Nation ideology have shifted dramatically. Multiculturalism has infected the minds of the custodians; abstract equality threatens to overpower liberty; property rights, once venerated as the cornerstone of the rule of law and all individual security against the State, are looked on askance. The men and women who now disseminate the propositions embraced by the Propositional Nation ideology are, by and large, charlatans of a steely cynicism, or dupes. They will reason men into giving up their nation, by arguing that the nation compasses the world; they will sing a siren’s song of universality, and crush the particular which made possible the universal. If America was based on solid, historical propositions, then today’s Propositionalists reject them; substituting a new collection of ideas, noteworthy for the strangeness to the American ideal. They despise the real propositions set forth by the men who constructed this country: for example, the enumerated powers doctrine of constitutional government; or the inviolability of private property. More broadly and more seriously, they have rejected the assumed integrity of Christian ideals. If America began with any set of propositions, they were Christian propositions; dealing with ideas about sin and grace and things endowed by a Creator. To begin talking as if America were founded on secularism, as even some conservatives have, is merely to traduce history. Leaving aside the whole massive question of where, as a matter of history, the balance of religious liberty reposes in American politics, it is simply a lie to say that one of the American propositions is secularism.

It is important to recognize that any ideology, no matter how admirable at its outset, can be captured and subverted; and moreover, to recognize that when thus subverted it is very likely that those inebriated by it, and thus committed to its propagation, even perhaps, committed as a matter of personal livelihood, will not recover from their stupor, but will rather fall deeper into its narcotic effect. In short, a successful ideology will breed suspect interests all around it. The converts from Communism, the tortured souls who retreated breathlessly from its fevered grip, are striking for their rarity, both of numbers and of quality. These were men (and women) of immense manliness. One need only read Whittaker Chamber’s masterpiece Witness to learn what courage was required to renounce that armed doctrine. I do not mean to compare what I have called ideological patriotism to Communism in any concrete way; I do mean to highlight the very real fact that the renouncement of an ideology is an agonizing thing. An ideology captures minds; that is its business. Having captured them, it subverts their loyalty. An ideology of patriotism imperils the reality of patriotism by weakening the ties of loyalty, or rather by strengthening them, but to the wrong things. [Continued in the next entry]

posted by Paul Cella | 4:25 AM |

Do the conservative partisans of the Propositional Nation ideology realize the peril of their advocacy? Do they recognize the grim fact that they, who do indeed respect the patrimony of the Founders, do not control which ideas this ideology will include? Do they not see that by making the love of one’s country dependent on some sophisticated set of propositions, subject to the depredations of the intellectual classes, we have, in Burke’s memorable idiom, “subtilized ourselves into savages”? By giving patriotism over to the empire of ideologists, we have called forth our ruin. Where is the place for the man of unpretentious intellectual aspirations, whose intelligence, quite potent in its way, is dedicated to things practical and material, in this scheme of national constitution? Where is the place for the tank commander who knows little of federalism or judicial restraint, the fireman who hasn’t read his Harry Jaffa? If these men cannot love their country simply because she is their country; if, instead, they are asked to love ideas, and call them a country, then we have gutted patriotism, and replaced it with ideology.

The proponents of America the abstraction have made a revolution in moral sentiments; they have made patriotism disreputable. With America conceived as a purely abstract thing, men lose their cachet of patriotism, so to speak, if they decline to assent to the political visions promoted by this abstraction. So it becomes un-American or unpatriotic to harbor suspicion about the entire project of modern democracy; or to doubt the wisdom of multiculturalism. In fact, patriotism is not an intellectual but an emotional sentiment; it derives from habit and custom, from real feelings about real places, from a tender sense of home and hearth, from smells imperceptible but unforgettable, from a thousand attachments subconscious but fierce. Because patriotism subsists in these things and not in clever arguments or fancy rhetoric or dramatic gestures; because it is more the stuff of the factory and the farmhouse, than of the halls of intellect and litigation; because it isn’t really about ideas at all but rather sentiments —- because of all this, to make patriotism subservient to the whims and wiles of the intellectuals is to subvert it, to defeat it, and finally to discredit it. It is like saying that a man only loves his mother if he also proclaims her cooking as the best in the world; or that a child only loves his toys because they are the biggest and shiniest in the neighborhood. In the formulation of this patriotism of supremacy, the American patriot cannot comprehend a Spanish patriot because Spain has grown feeble and irrelevant; though he can well understand a Spanish patriot at the time of Lepanto.

American patriotism has the additional vulnerability of encompassing a very considerable land, which, because patriotism is naturally a local sentiment, leads to an astounding variety in the forms and expressions of patriotism. The rural Oklahoman loves his country for different reasons, and based on very different sentiments, than the urban New Yorker. I think the emergence of “America the abstraction” may have been the understandable response of an age utterly intolerant of real variety, an age of mass man, of crushing uniformity; the response of an impoverished public mind to these varieties of patriotic experience, as it were. Uncomfortable with diversity, the modern age seeks to make the Oklahoman and the New Yorker love the same thing: a phantasm of America that obstructs perception of the real thing —- because the real thing may simply not be the same for the New Yorker as it is for the Oklahoman, and therefore cannot be reduced to platitudes, or consolidated into a few epigrammatic arguments. The modern age, driving at uniformity, would have us all love an ideology, but disdain America; and yet still allow us to call ourselves patriots.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:19 AM |

Wednesday, July 02, 2003  

Anyone who has paid any attention to the United States Supreme Court over the past few years will be familiar with the Justice Kennedy’s notorious “Mystery Passage” in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mystery of human life.”

The passage is obvious sophistry; perhaps more nearly it is obvious heresy. But I would just like to note here Justice Scalia’s slashing wit in disparaging it, when he refers in his dissent to “the famed sweet-mystery-of-life passage.” Maybe this is why Andrew Sullivan thinks him unfit for the high moral duty of judicial authority: Antonin Scalia is funny. For, as we know, humor and seriousness are incompatible.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:59 AM |

The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

— G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

posted by Paul Cella | 2:33 AM |

Reason #206, why Mr. Orrin Judd is a bad-ass.

posted by Paul Cella | 2:11 AM |

Saturday, June 28, 2003  

If you want to read about a bit of an obscure subject with very large implications, follow this link to Jeremy Lott’s blog and cruise around a little, checking other links. The story is of the fall of Canada’s only significant conservative magazine. The larger story is of democracy and tradition and human tragedy; in short, all the good stuff. I contributed a sort of outsider's broadside in defense of traditionalism.

posted by Paul Cella | 11:21 AM |

Friday, June 27, 2003  

Peter Hitchens, brother of the ubiquitous Christopher Hitchens, and adversary in most matters political and philosophical, has a vivid and despondent essay in the current American Conservative (not online) relating his experiences in postwar Iraq. The picture he paints is grim.

The Hitchens brothers are a prominent instance of the decay of modern political allegiances — or, as some would aver, a mere recovery of the old allegiances which antedate the ideological bloodletting of the twentieth century. Peter is a conservative, and an opponent of the Bush administration’s hawkish attitude and (more sharply) its readiness to deploy military force; in short, he is a conservative in the pre-Second World War mold; and isolationist, if you insist. Christopher is a socialist and admirer of Leon Trotsky, an occasionally contrarian critic of the Left, and, most of all, a fierce and often crankish antagonist of religion is all its forms; in particular, its Christian form.

Ignorance of history is widespread, and so a great number of people are stricken with befuddlement at the idea that conservatives can oppose the very idea of military interventions absent direct and manifest provocation; forgetting, as we unhistorical people are prone to do, that for a very long time, right up until World War II, conservatives did just that. The case they made was strong, I think: interventions abroad mean an expansion of state power over private enterprise and personal liberty at home; a republic will not long endure imperial responsibilities.

Ultimately, conservatism’s antipathy for Revolution won out over its principled stance against foreign adventures; and, facing the marching might of the Soviet Revolutionary State, it reconciled itself at home to a consolidated federal State ready to act militarily against Communist aggression. I have a hard time questioning this judgment, despite my natural sympathy for what is often called the Old Right. Self-serving analyses since the fall of the Soviet State have adopted the attitude that, Communism being unworkable as a political economy, the USSR’s fall was inevitable. Perhaps it was, in some strict and indefinite sense; but despotism need not be “workable” to subjugate, and tyranny can certainly endure its own widespread internal folly. The Communists had to be opposed with vigor and ferocity. They had penetrated virtually every Western government with agents, were actively subverting Western institutions while operating under their rubrics of equity and openness to conceal their efforts, and were fully prepared to overthrow each of these governments, no matter what the cost in misery and blood.

In this context one must read the strange and illustrative demarcation symbolized by the Hitchens brothers. It should, I think, give any serious and historically-minded right-winger pause to discover that he agrees with Christopher against Peter on a large issue like war; as it should a left-winger who finds himself in agreement with Peter against Christopher. It is telling then, and further evidence of the truth of the old dictum about conservatives as “the stupid party,” that while leftist opponents of the war in Iraq haven’t given Mr. Peter Hitchens so much as the time of day, right-wing supporters of it have gone out of their way to laud his brother and cite him as an authority. I recall an editorial paragraph in National Review some months ago celebrating the alliance forged between C. Hitchens, despiser of things Christian, and “America’s Conservative Magazine.” I am not holding my breath for any similar tribute to P. Hitchens, despiser of things huge and despotic and cumbersome, Christian enthusiast of things humble and sane, in the pages of The Nation.

I am not undertaking an ideological purge here. I recognize that alliances in politics can be curious things from the more rigid perspectives of abstract principles. I recognize, further, that we are in the midst of a fragmentation of ideological, even philosophical, lineaments; that the bitterness in the politics of our day is probably proportionate to the steady decay of their concrete meaning, along with the decay of the rest of the Modern Age. In recognizing this, I tremble most; for it might be that the Right has chosen poorly, and lent its now considerable weight to something emphatically leftist in nature, that is, to something injurious to the transcendent moral order of liberty and sanity. The Right might thus be right on the narrow question of war with Iraq, but horribly wrong on the much larger and more consequential questions of intervention, the role of the nation-state, and democracy as a stable regime. By a tragic fate, borne in confusion and haste and faction, the modern Right might be debasing itself before the emerging globalist or postmodern Left; and therefore C. Hitchens might stand as a presentiment of this approaching ruin.

Those are, in my darker moods, my fears. They may be bogus; they may be foolish; but it ought not be forgotten how disastrous the Right’s previous associations of an immediate political nature have been. One example should suffice. The damage done to constitutional government, to the majestic theory of federalism, to local autonomy, by the Right’s countenance of slavery in North America is incalculable. And I do know that the ease with which conservatives have embraced a man like C. Hitchens and generally ignored the admonitions of his brother, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name

On Christ the Solid Rock I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

posted by Paul Cella | 10:56 PM |

Well, the Supreme Court yesterday, though it tried mightily to avoid it, effectively declared all privately-engaged sexual activity to be a constitutional right; and thereby denied to the people of the states, acting through their duly-elected representatives, the capacity to restrict it in any way. That is the logic of the Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas. To it’s credit, the Court majority abjured, at least in its rhetoric, accomplishing so massive an innovation; instead relying on the narrower “right to privacy” and asserting that the state has no legitimate interest in punishing sodomy. That may be, but as Justice Scalia noted is his lucid dissent,

One of the benefits of leaving regulation of this matter to the people rather than to the courts is that the people, unlike judges, need not carry things to their logical conclusion. The people may feel that their disapprobation of homosexual conduct is strong enough to disallow homosexual marriage, but not strong enough to criminalize private homosexual acts —- and may legislate accordingly. The Court today pretends that it possesses a similar freedom of action, so that that we need not fear judicial imposition of homosexual marriage . . . Do not believe it.

It is telling that homosexual activists like Andrew Sullivan agree with precisely this point, in the midst of disparaging Scalia’s defense of “prejudice.” While some of us may be coaxed into unapologetically defending prejudice, enamored as we are by some unthinking fools and bigots who go by the names of Burke and Oakeshott, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on a curious fact: The advocates of gay liberation, like Mr. Sullivan, who agitated for an overturning of the Texas law (and all others like it), commend the Court’s ruling but reject its cautionary reasoning. The Court majority is trying to hold a line against logic, against the pressures of its own petitioners whose argument it endorsed, and against what it calls “an emerging awareness” in society “that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex.” In short, the Court majority seeks to hold a line against its own logic, its own arguments, and the political consensus that the majority itself cited as apprehending in support of its ruling. Justice Scalia is right when he says that this ruling “effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation” and when he says,

State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise sustainable only in light of Bowers’ [a precious Court ruling which upheld anti-sodomy laws] validation of laws based on moral choices. Every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision; the Court makes no effort to cabin the scope of its decision to exclude them from its holding.

As a matter of political philosophy, Justice Thomas’ dissent is a marvel of concision. I quote it in its entirety, excising some legal citations and jargon:

I join Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion. I write separately to note that the law before the Court today “is ... uncommonly silly.” Griswold v. Connecticut, (1965) (Stewart, J., dissenting). If I were a member of the Texas Legislature, I would vote to repeal it. Punishing someone for expressing his sexual preference through noncommercial consensual conduct with another adult does not appear to be a worthy way to expend valuable law enforcement resources.

Notwithstanding this, I recognize that as a member of this Court I am not empowered to help petitioners and others similarly situated. My duty, rather, is to “decide cases ‘agreeably to the Constitution and laws of the United States.’” And, just like Justice Stewart, I ‘can find [neither in the Bill of Rights nor any other part of the Constitution a] general right of privacy,” or as the Court terms it today, the “liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.”

Finally, as a matter of cruder politics, I think we see here yet more evidence of Justice O’Connor growing into her own as Empress of the Imperial Judiciary. Justice Scalia quotes a wry remark from a previous ruling, now overturned by this decision, on sodomy: “The law is constantly based on notions of morality, and if all laws representing essentially moral choices are to be invalidated under the Due Process Clause, the courts will be very busy indeed.” Justice O’Connor, in fact, declares in her concurrence the Texas law to be in violation of the Due Process Clause; a very busy Court, it seems, would suit her fine. In this week alone she has asserted her authority to scrutinize, with dispositive authority, every admissions policy for schools and other learning institutions in the country; and to rule with similar dispositive authority, over every piece of legislation informed by moral traditions in all the fifty states. It is often remarked that Sandra O’Connor is the most powerful woman in the country; perhaps it would be better to say she is the most powerful person in the country. And she is not constrained by any law, but rather decrees the Law; even liberals assent to this last judgment, if their words after the famed Bush v. Gore ruling mean anything.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:32 AM |

Thursday, June 26, 2003  

Certainly, the appearance of modern Israel has to be one of the most astonishing developments of modern times. Implausible just does not quite convey it. I wonder what the Crusaders would think about this; that, many centuries after the bitter disappointments and failures of the Christian men of the Middle Ages in attempting to recapture the Holy Land and deal the Mohammedan heresy a death blow, a host of Jewish socialists, armed by satraps of militant marching atheists from the Communist bloc, would succeed in conquering it; and that, moreover, come the end of the twentieth century, as Western Christendom commenced its final decay, the most militant Christians within it would oftentimes lend their militant support to the Jews of Israel, in anticipation of the Eschaton. It is too fantastic to be anything other than history.

(As an aside, I think it interesting to note how quickly commentators —- most of whom have only the most minimal acquaintance with the Middle Ages —- solemnly deplore the efforts of the Crusades; and implicitly agree with bin Laden that that period in history was among the more dishonorable for the West. Bill Clinton made some remark to that effect, I recall, just after September 11, saying that we owe some vague apology for the Crusades —- all of us, presumably, having descended from the Franks and all of us being, presumably, orthodox Christians. I confess that I rather feel a strange stirring in my breast when I think of men willing to uproot themselves from home and family and undertake a long journey punctuated by disease and hunger and great discomfort only to engage in ferocious warfare against alien people for the sake of a small strip of land called Holy, where their Savior lived and perished. Most people today call that insanity —- with, perhaps, a certain superficial justice; I hope I will be forgiven for calling it heroism. But there is certainly dishonor on the side too, on the side of the moderns. For the Modern Age excels at this sort of thing; it excels at the practice of attacking dead things, which are naturally incapable of retaliating. And I always wonder: how will our descendents treat our own modern, secular “progressive” history, with its little quirky record of massacre and concentration camp and purge and all the rest.)

Anyway, the first thing to be said about Israel is that it is a Western nation. This is fundamental, though a very large number of people seem to imagine that it is not. For that dim and dreamy interim between 1989 and 2001, Westerners managed to forget that a nation’s identity with a real civilization matters; and, as a plain fact, those were the years when the Oslo delusion took hold most forcefully. I do not say that Oslo was an uncomplicated failure; nothing in the Land is uncomplicated; and from the perspective of 1993, after all that blood, the thing had to be tried, even if it meant trying it with a treacherous thug like Arafat.

I will leave the parallel monomanias that Israel is dedicated to the extinction of the Palestinians, and that Israel should concede absolutely nothing to the Palestinians, to the monomaniacs on either side of this; and simply say that no decent observer can deny that Israel tried. When people cannot see that Ariel Sharon, whatever his faults, was elected by a people that just two years before had elected the very dovish Ehud Barak, the latter with a clear mandate of peace at almost any cost; when other people cannot see the injustice of subjecting Palestinians to what amounts to a policy of tedious apartheid —- when people cannot see these plain facts, it is hardly worth conversing with them. Peace was attempted by a bone-weary Israeli population; and peace was murdered by base cynics and delusional, despairing heretics.

Now: why is America partial to Israel? First, it should be recorded, as a matter of historical fact, that America did not begin that way; rather the Zionists had to turn to France and Czechoslovakia to acquire arms; and American sympathizers had to violate an American-enforced arms blockade. As I have tried to illustrate, the history of the modern Middle East is an exercise is improbability and oddity, so this sort of thing should not surprise us. But neither should it mislead us into thinking that America has been impartial. And America has been partial for a straightforward reason: Israel’s descent from Western civilization. We are distant cousins; we are of one tissue; and loyalty to one’s historic civilization is simply patriotism on a broader scale.

Patriotism is an understandable human sentiment. In its place, it is noble; though not as noble as Christian charity. But the problem with modern notions tracing their lineage from Christian charity is that they have abandoned its humanness in favor of abstract Humanity. Humanitarianism in the modern world lost its humanity. St. Francis was a real humanitarian: but he cared not one whit for Humanity, though he loved as a brother every human being he met; and his example set hearts aflame.

All this is to say that patriotism of that broader variety which includes the Jews of Palestine, whose society descends from our civilization, but excludes the Arabs of Palestine, whose society is part of our civilization’s greatest historical rival and antagonist, is perfectly understandable, unavoidable, and ineffaceable. To require of Americans that they hold out fastidious impartiality in this bloody conflict, a conflict so distant from them, is to simply misunderstand the nature of man. It is the victory of rationalism over sanity; abstraction over human sympathies. It is a very modern error.

posted by Paul Cella | 6:58 AM |

Wednesday, June 25, 2003  

On a delicate topic of immense consequence, Mr. David Mills of Touchstone magazine contributes a thoughtful essay. The topic is motherhood among modern women, and his writing sparkles with supple insight and sagacity.

While at the website of this first-rate publication, also take a look at Patrick Henry Reardon’s recent article “Chesterton and the Aristotelian Tradition.” There is no need to remind regular readers of my fondness for Chesterton: Mr. Reardon offers an admirable introduction to the great man’s thought and genius.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:08 AM |
Weblog Commenting by HaloScan.com
Site Feed
Published Work
Links & Sources
Worthy Blogs
Longer Essays