Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

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

Tuesday, August 05, 2003  

U.P.I. interviews one of the bravest, most admirable men in American politics.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:46 AM |

W. James Antle reports and comments thoughtfully on the movement to “privatize marriage,” an idea which seems to be gaining momentum, probably on the strength of the generalized spinelessness of defenders of tradition.

The inspiration here is quasi-libertarian: get the State out of “business of regulating, licensing or even defining the institution of marriage.” But the problem, at the very least, is one of sequence. If that sounds sufficiently bloodless to include me among the spineless, let me explain briefly. The institution of marriage is older that the State; and certainly much older than the expansive, unlimited modern State with which we are familiar. For the State to summarily retreat from the affirmation of this ancient institution in its traditional form, while leaving its claws sunk in a great host of other elements of human social life, is cynical rapine; and for men to fancy such an exquisitely selective act of liberation as a true increase in freedom is naïveté of a low order. Objectively, such a “libertarian” innovation involves a grave diminution of liberty because it would mean using government power to change radically something far older than, and to an important degree independent of, the State.

If the State were first driven back from all its other settled intrusions: upon personal income and private property and the education of children and individual employment contracts —- all things tried up inextricably with marriage and the family —- then perhaps we could consider the privatization of marriage a sagacious policy. In short, if some immense revolution “turned back the clock” to the time of a strictly limited State of enumerated powers, with a whole constellation of power bases to check its natural inertia of expansion, then a private marriage institution would be workable. As it is now, however, to privatize marriage without addressing any of these other complacently-endured invasions is as if a fisherman were to remove the fish-hook just as he begins to gut the fish —- and warmly celebrate the freedom he has just bestowed upon the unfortunate creature. It is like the last meal of a death row inmate, but proffered as a great ceremony of liberation.

The defenders of tradition resort to this sort of cleverly-articulated rationalization of surrender because they are so demoralized. They have severed themselves from the organic lifeline of natural law, and speak little more than the jejune vernacular of utility and expediency. “They have erected their defenses on positions quite easily overrun,” wrote Richard Weaver, “and the places they could easily have defended they have left unmanned.” The whole trend of modern theories of this nature, with their pretence of liberty and their high-minded sophistry, is to sow anarchy and confusion wherever the power of the State is not, and solidify its power where it exists; that there may one day be nothing fitting the former description.

(Thanks to Chapin Nation for the link.)

posted by Paul Cella | 4:20 AM |

Sunday, August 03, 2003  

Random thoughts on Sunday evening in August.
  • A commercial during ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball intoned, I kid you not, “Life is better when your cellphone is a walkie-talkie.” So much for subtlety.

  • In my car’s CD player the last few days has been U2’s Greatest Hits, 1990 – 2000. Against all conventional opinion, I somehow prefer the songs taken from the two albums regarded by most as the band’s weakest, Zooropa and Pop. How to explain this. A contrarian streak? Weariness with the more well-known tracks on Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind? Whatever it is, I have always felt that those two former albums never received their due respect; but rather suffered from the groupthink of pompous “fans” who fancied that Bono and the boys would just oblige them in continuing to release Joshua Tree remixes for another decade.

  • One of the silliest and almost pathetic spectacles in politics today is the spectacle of conservatives grumbling that if we could just get “our judges” on the bench, everything would be alright with the judicial world. Forgotten, it seems, is that central principle of conservatism which holds that no institution will undertake to deliberately diminish its own power. We might as well expect corporations to spontaneously move, with all deliberate speed, to reduce their own profit margins. The Imperial Judiciary is here to stay until structural reforms are effected. But recall that when the fine journal First Things, in a memorable symposium, contemplated some specific structural changes, the neoconservatives reacted with an extraordinary fury. Some went as far as to compare Fr. Neuhaus and his contributors to the New Left revolutionaries of the 1960s. A disgraceful performance.

  • The Veggie Tales films and songs are well-written and often quite funny. They are my favorite of my daughter’s video collection. “God Is Bigger Than the Boogie-man,” “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything”: good stuff —- but then, I am the father of a 3-year-old, so my judgment is a bit suspect.

  • Samuel Adams is better than Heineken, but not by much.

  • In his excellent (as usual) sermon today, our pastor reminded us of G. K. Chesterton’s characteristically marvelous phrase for the idea of original sin: “the cheerful doctrine.”

  • Liberals will probably never quite comprehend why it is that conservatives despise taxes so. But can we at least be allowed to remind them that taxation in the private sector is simply robbery; and that when it comes to taxes, liberals become the most dreary of traditionalists, declaring that whatever has been done should continue to be done?

posted by Paul Cella | 9:36 PM |

Thursday, July 31, 2003  

“The best thing that the movement for gay ‘marriage’ has going for it is the ineptitude of its opponents.” So writes Daniel McCarthy in a solid piece criticizing the general fatuity of the effort, led heroically by Stanley Kurtz, to resist gay marriage based on what is at base a utilitarian argument. Mr. McCarthy writes that there are, in fact, good “cold” utilitarian arguments against gay marriage, but

they will be no more popular with the political and media elite than theology or natural law reasoning. The simplest and best utilitarian argument is surely just that very few people indeed stand to benefit from gay “marriage,” while large factions of the population —- traditional Christians and Muslims, for example —- will be outraged.

No one will pay any attention to this reasoning, of course; and the more subtle argument from utility that Mr. Kurtz marshals —- that gay marriage will overturn traditional marriage by enfeebling the “ethos of monogamy” —- is likely to prove equally ineffectual.

There are several basic logical problems with Kurtz’s arguments. Nowhere does he prove —- or even attempt to prove —- that if married homosexuals are engaging in adulterous affairs that married heterosexuals will be tempted to follow suit. Why would heterosexual couples model their behavior after homosexuals?

Mr. Kurtz argues that traditional marriage is worthwhile because of its utility to society; that, in short, the “ethos of monogamy” embraced by marriage is crucial for the right ordering of civilization. He does not argue that traditional marriage is valuable because it is true; because it cleaves to the truth about men and women as sexual beings, and embodies the natural law derived from this truth.

There’s good reason to think, based on statistics Kurtz himself reports from a study by in his “Beyond Gay Marriage” article, that what provides the “ethos of monogamy” is women. Lesbians in civil unions, according to the University of Vermont study that Kurtz cites, value monogamy more highly than men in heterosexual marriages. This would seem to confirm what has long been known —- that men, regardless of sexual orientation, are more promiscuous than women, regardless of orientation. It’s the presence of a woman in heterosexual marriage that accounts for the “ethos of monogamy.” The legal recognition of gay “marriages” will do nothing to change this fact. Women, straight or lesbian, will not stop being monogamous just because “married” gay men have difficulty with it.

Still less does Mr. Kurtz turn for succor to the faith of our fathers, and its rather formidable library of wisdom on this ancient question; because to make that turn would mean, almost inevitably, to repudiate the sexual revolution itself. Like most right-wing liberals, Mr. Kurtz wants the modern innovation, but not its excesses. His project is fundamentally to consolidate; to check and restrain, but never drive back. His project is a dexterous surrender. Mr. McCarthy puts it more pugnaciously: “Moral traditionalists have all too often cut themselves off from the basis of their own beliefs in order to appeal to the media, the political class, and the State itself.”

We cannot reasonably demand that homosexuals submit themselves to the discipline of the virtue of chastity while allowing heterosexuals to enjoy all the dissolute pleasures of the sexual revolution. If we are to recover the ideal of chastity, we must abandon the failed god of sexual liberation. This fact may have been what President Bush had in mind recently when he quoted Christ as admonishing against trying to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye, while there is a log in our own. The log is the sexual revolution.

[Readers are also invited to read Noah Millman’s gentle but devastating critique of Stanley Kurtz.]

posted by Paul Cella | 3:46 AM |

Monday, July 28, 2003  

G. K. Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc both wrote of Islam with strange and remarkable prescience. Unconstrained by the intellectual prison of what is drably called multiculturalism, these men were freer to look on Muslims with real human sympathy and curiosity, and not delude themselves that all other peoples are just bourgeois Europeans or Americans in costumes. They were of an age that still valued diversity as a reality not a catchphrase. Both men recognized an immense strength in the Muslim (or the Mohammedan, as they called him); and this despite Islam’s rapidly deteriorating material position vis-à-vis the West, a position now matured to uncomfortable obviousness. In this, “ChesterBelloc” again reveal the pathetic narrowness of the modern world’s rodomontade about tolerance and pluralism: having repudiated in a glib and small-minded way the power of faith on the minds of men, the modern mind makes itself ignorant as mud, and walks about the world in a kind of daze. The hardest thing for the Modern Age to do is actually see a thing other than itself.

Now Chesterton and Belloc saw Islam; and saw in it precisely the sort of spiritual energy which was proving evanescent in the West even in their time. Belloc, for example (and probably Chesterton too, although I myself do not recall reading it) emphatically declared Islam a heresy —- a heresy which derived its strength from the affirmation of some true doctrines of Christianity while denigrating fatally other true doctrines. A heresy is not necessarily evil; it is simply wrong, staggeringly, definitively wrong. This sort of judgment is very nearly impossible today: it provokes the charge of crankishness, or even bigotry. But therein lies our suffocating narrowness. We have resolutely amputated some of our mental faculties; like the faculty of distinguishing a creed from its adherents. For it is, I think, a solid fact, no matter what modern insularity avows, that a man may be an implacable enemy of Islam and still a friend of Muslims.

Multiculturism denies this fact. And I will grant it this small concession; that it is no easy mental task to be an enemy of a man’s creed but a friend to the man himself. Not easy, but possible —- and indeed necessary. In this sense multiculturalism is a capitulation or abdication of responsibility; it is the surrender of clever poltroons. In the face the challenge of charity, the challenge propounded by the awesome equality of the Christian creed: “love your neighbor as yourself,” the modern world resigns itself to dull platitudes. At weddings we so often read that tremendous 1 Corinthians text about love; and I am often struck by the screaming contrast between St. Paul’s picture of Love and the enfeebled surrogate the world erects. It is the same with the Brotherhood of Man.

We must escape multiculturalism to see things clearly; that is the plain truth. And to do so we should turn to those unaffected by it —- the men of the past. Both Belloc and Chesterton knew, at least intellectually, that Muslims are really our brothers, even if they have been led astray. Belloc in particular repeatedly wrote in his superb book on the great heresies that though Islamic civilization is at the moment materially inferior, it remains spiritual strong, and there is no compelling reason to believe that the material impotence will persist indefinitely. He admired this strength; though he had no love for the heresy it animated. He reminded his readers that, hardly a hundred years before the founding of the American Republic, the Turks were threatening to overrun central Europe; that, in other words, men of the American Revolutionary generation in Europe felt the menace of the Mohammedan not unlike how men of the 1950s felt the menace of the Communist. Belloc also shrewdly noted that internal disunity has usually been a greater liability for Islam than external threat (though we might say the same for Christendom). And then we have Chesterton perceptively registering this striking insight:

A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and this equality can only breed a multitude of lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mohamet produces an endless procession of Mohamets.

Well, Chesterton was a genius, we know that; but at any rate, reading these two towering English Catholics got me thinking about one of the singular blindspots of the modern mind. This is the fallacy of thinking that material vigor signifies spiritual vigor, or of simply failing to imagine that the two can, as it were, run on separate tracks. Thus, for example, the modern mind (when it condescends to the subject) cannot see that Western spirit surged precisely at that moment when its material strength declined and collapsed, as the ruins of Rome decayed into the Dark Age. Out of this spirit of discipline and preparation came the great flourishing of the High Middle Ages, and ultimately the great rupturing creative energy of the Enlightenment and Renaissance.

“Cultures spring from religions,” wrote Belloc; “ultimately the vital force which maintains any culture is its philosophy, its attitude toward the universe; the decay of a religion involves the decay of the culture corresponding to it —- we see that most clearly in the breakdown of Christendom today.” This is like an alien language to the modern mind; but alien or no, it is a real and vital language, unlike the mere gibberish on offer elsewhere.

And the language of these aliens from the past seems peculiarly more energetic, and peculiarly prophetic:

The future always comes as a surprise but political wisdom consists in attempting at least some partial judgment of what that surprise may be. And for my part I cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the return of Islam. Since religion is at the root of all political movements and changes and since we have here a very great religion physically paralyzed but morally intensely alive, we are in the presence of an unstable equilibrium which cannot remain permanently unstable.

I mean, that is bracing stuff. We think of Chesterton and Belloc as skillful poets, brilliant apologists, eccentrically fascinating historians, but rarely prophets. Christopher Hitchens recently called them “antique” —- a frankly embarrassing judgment in light of their prescient flourishes concerning the resurgence of Islam as a force. It is foolish to overlook them, as it was foolish to overlook it.

posted by Paul Cella | 5:08 PM |

Thursday, July 24, 2003  

Steve Sailer recommends that we start “getting in touch with our mediaeval sides”:

It sure seems like we Americans have just gotten too darn nice to do what needs to be done to rule our new Mesopotamian satrapy. We finally do something useful —- exterminate Saddam’s two sons —- and then we refuse to show the pictures to the Iraqi people because that would be “gloating.”

What were we thinking? By now, a large chunk of the Iraqis have no doubt decided that we didn’t really get the Gruesome Twosome and that any pictures we show them in the future will be Photoshopped fakes.

Look, there’s a tradition for how to handle situations like this: cut their heads off, stick them on pikes, and display them at Traitor’s Gate until they rot. Does that sound a little too medieval for modern American tastes? Well, then, maybe we should have thought of that before conquering Iraq.

This is precisely the sort of thing I had in mind when I declared one of my doubts about the war in Iraq (which I reluctantly supported) as our lack of “ruthlessness and perseverance” in executing an imperial policy. Perhaps readers will forgive me for quoting myself.

Meanwhile, some conservatives imagine the role of America today as imperial, with a reformulated noblesse oblige, to democratize rather than civilize, animating it. I think this wild idea dangerous, impractical and largely divorced from reality; but even if it were advisable, do we really think that the country could undertake to implement it, with ruthlessness and perseverance? We have not that strength; it is imprudence to think so; the British imperialists, who failed as much as they succeeded, were made of sterner stuff than us.

Now some will object to my use of the ominous term imperial. In particular, my friend who goes by the moniker T. Crown has pressed me on using so loaded a word. I concede that his objection rests on sound and respectable arguments, which perhaps Mr. Crown will perhaps elucidate in the comments to this post; but I stand yet by my judgment of the utility of the term. The following list (PDF format) might suggest why I stand as I do —- a list of locations of U.S. military bases.

Afghanistan, American Samoa, Antigua, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bahama Islands, Bahrain, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Canada, Columbia, Cuba, Curacao, Denmark, Ecuador, ElSalvador, France, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Guam, Honduras, Hong Kong, Iceland, Diego Garcia, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Johnston Atoll, Korea, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kwajalein Atoll, Kyrgyztan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, St. Helena, Tajikistan, Turkey, Egypt, United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Virgin Islands, and Wake Island.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:12 AM |

The Hill runs a nice interview with Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a man of courage and principle. A sample:

Earlier this year, he joined the majority in calling for a federal ban on “partial-birth” abortion. “If there’s any vote I’ve ever cast that might be technically on the fringe [of constitutionalism], that would be that one,” said Paul. “The justification in my mind is one; it’s about the most horrible act that one can conceive of … as well as the fact that the law was nationalized by the courts in Roe v. Wade.”

Courtesy Champology.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:45 AM |

Wednesday, July 23, 2003  

When Orestes A. Brownson asseverated that “it is not monarchy or aristocracy against which the modern spirit fights, but loyalty” he had, I believe, penetrated to something profound about our age. The heady eighteenth century theorists of the rights of man unleashed this revolt, grounding their politics on the notion of the isolated and sovereign self driven by its natural selfishness; for it is the essence of loyalty to declare something as prior to the self. Loyalty is a restraint imposed upon the self. A truly selfish man cannot be really loyal to anything or anyone but himself. Brownson in his book The American Republic says of loyalty that it

is the highest, noblest, and most generous of human virtues, and is the human element of that sublime love or charity which the inspired Apostle tells us is the fulfillment of law. It has in it the principle of devotion, of self-sacrifice, and is, of all human virtues, that which renders man the most Godlike.

An age of unbelief, then, is an age of disloyalty; the more that men turn from God, the more they will turn with suspicion and loathing and finally treachery on their fellow man. “There is nothing great, generous, good, or heroic,” Brownson continues, “of which a truly loyal people are not capable, and nothing mean, base, cruel, brutal, criminal, detestable, not to be expected of a really disloyal people.” Those words convict us, do they not, poised as we are at the close of the Modern Age? Whittaker Chambers (who would know) once pronounced this the age of treason, when dreadful ideologies reared up among us called on men to betray every institution or tradition to which they have bound their loyalty for centuries. Communism made a religion of treason; and in so doing subverted the natural religious yearnings of men toward a utopian fervor. Its dark and terrible power lay precisely in its ability to marshal the zeal and fiery boldness of faith, which all men possess to some degree. Here is Chambers himself, in his opening statement before a congressional committee investigating the Communism in America:

Disloyalty is a matter for principle with every member of the Communist Party. The Communist Party exists for the specific purpose of overthrowing the Government, at the opportune time, by any and all means; and each of its members, by the fact that he is a member, is dedicated to this purpose.

But the attenuation of loyalty appears not merely in the awful power of the once-prominent Communist system; indeed, since the collapse of that system, its poisonous propositions have become ever more diffuse and ubiquitous throughout the institutions of the West. Disloyalty pervades, as what some have very justly called the Imperial Self reigns. We can track its depredations in many quarters, none more devastating than in the dissolution of the family; for at the heart of the familial ideal is loyalty, which is of course why the wedding ceremony centers on vows. The liberty of free men, not the despotism of imperial selves, includes ineradicably the freedom of men to bind themselves for a lifetime to another; and, as Chesterton wrote, “it is not hard to see why the vow made most freely is the vow kept most firmly.” As usual, though, Chesterton was prescient: anticipating with delicate sagacity precisely the black and morbid turns the modern world would take in debasing the singular and almost indescribable vow at the heart of the family.

There are attached to it, by the nature of things, consequences so tremendous that no contract can offer any comparison. There is no contract, unless it be that said to be signed in blood, that can call spirits from the vastly deep; or bring cherubs (or goblins) to inhabit a small modern villa. There is no stroke of the pen which creates real bodies and souls, or makes the characters in a novel come to life. The institution that puzzles intellectuals so much can be explained by the mere fact (perceptible even to intellectuals) that children are, generally speaking, younger than their parents. “Till death do us part” is not an irrational formula, for those will almost certainly die before they see more than half of the amazing (or alarming) thing they have done.

Of course, marriage has for us become a mere contract; whose breach is a mere legality; but the “tremendous consequences” still cling to that vow even in its debased condition. Marriage was to be a vow of loyalty of almost appalling rashness —- for its model, for men of the cross of Christ, was Christ himself: whose union with the Church is so often symbolized by the union of marriage. Thus the ideal of Christian marriage included the idea of that terrible burden which Christ endured. His vow, as the bridegroom of the Church, was “this is my body, which will be given up for you”; the most the perfect act of loyalty. To so dramatically reduce, as we have, an institution with this as it model is a degradation of truly awful profundity. But such is the modern revolt against loyalty.

Elsewhere, loyalty is beleaguered by the strange decay of another, lesser but related ideal: the ideal of patriotism. Men once imbibed an ideal of citizenship which made demands of them; it was a thing of reciprocity. But the action of the Servile State upon their wills, as well as their own conscious and unconscious detachment from the faith of their fathers, and disaffection from the civilization which it birthed, has enervated the republican ideal of Citizen. The State is to pamper, soothe, flatter, coddle them; its largess, to inebriate and daze them. We sell our liberty for base luxury and leisure. Some in this condition of servitude come to regard patriotism as mere barbarism, the folly of the unenlightened; others, on the other side, facilitate this fatuous judgment by making of patriotism an ideology, a patriotism of superiority, which on its margins does indeed tend toward barbarism. Both manifestations rebel against real loyalty; on the one hand by rejecting of the claims of loyalty, on the other by conditionalizing them. The one makes the patriot disreputable; the other makes him love his country only when it is strong and, as it were, universal. Portentously unanswered is the pulverizing question: would he love her still if she were feeble and parochial? It is in the latter circumstance that loyalty is tested, and revealed.

The sane man recognizes that patriotism is among the most natural of human sentiments, and indeed, part of “that sublime love or charity which the inspired Apostle tells us is the fulfillment of law.” It is as natural that a man should love his country, as that he should love is own father. Now the modern world, as it disintegrates, seems to say something like this: that we should either consider the man who loves his father rather benighted, even disgraceful; or that we should march around like children proclaiming the superiority of our father to all other fathers. This latter is not Loyalty; it is hardly even Admiration. It is more nearly the sin of Pride.

Which is not to say that there are not things about beloved fathers that are universal. There are, undeniably —- but the love consists for most men primarily in the particulars; that is, we love our own father as a particular man, not as the embodiment of some abstract ideal. Indeed, we love the particular man long before we even assimilate from society, experience and education the idea of an ideal. Ultimately, we are only able to approach the ideal by way of the particular as it resides in our memory: through perception of our own fathers we construct the ideal, even when our own fathers fall short (as all must). I would even argue that our relationship with God the Father is ineffaceably particular; certainly it is particularized or personified in the particular man Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps I have pushed this analogy too far; but it strikes me as very true that patriotism too rests the particular, and cannot be sustained by mere abstract ideals, however noble.

At any rate, whatever we might think of the abstract values espoused by the current manifestation of American patriotism (and I acknowledge that I may think less of them than many of my friends), my purpose here is to suggest, in an admittedly crude way, that the weakening of loyalty in our age is significantly revealed in, among other things, the divarication of patriotism into the two unnatural types I have just tried to describe. Men who rebel against loyalty cannot have a patriotism based solely or even principally on it; so patriotism is either discarded or it is distorted. And just as a society in revolt against loyalty will embrace a religion of treason, and dissolve the ancient bonds represented by the vow at the heart of the family, so too will it repudiate the natural human sentiment at the heart of patriotism; and erect newer, stranger idols in its place.

posted by Paul Cella | 4:02 AM |

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 |
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