Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
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
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.
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.
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:
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:
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”:
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.
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:
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
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:
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.
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,
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:
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”:
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:
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.”
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:
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 Horseposted by Paul Cella | 2:33 AM |
Reason #206, why Mr. Orrin Judd is a bad-ass. posted by Paul Cella | 2:11 AM |