Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Saturday, August 30, 2003 SUB SPECIE AETERNITATIS: “The arrogance of the man who tries to expound what he can glimpse of the order imposed by God or ‘Nature’ cannot hold a candle to the arrogance of him who thinks there can be no order but that imposed by man, or by successive groups of men.” —- Rosemond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery, 1948. posted by Paul Cella | 9:56 PM |
Apologies for the sparseness of posting lately. I have changed shifts at work, which has accordingly thrown all my habits into confusion. Several longer essays are in the works, and posting should become more regular soon. posted by Paul Cella | 9:53 PM |
Friday, August 29, 2003 Wrote Mencken, with that marvelous scorn for which he is so justly famous: “All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man; its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him.” Illustration (via David Cohen):
Mencken continues, “One of [government’s] primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives.”10:24 AM |
Tuesday, August 26, 2003 “There is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success,” avows Lord Acton. The object of his epigrammatic censure was Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, victor in the English Civil War; of whom Acton nevertheless conceded, “we cannot easily say too much of his capacity in all things where practical success is concerned.” But Cromwell, Acton explains, “professed to see the hand of God, a special intervention, when he succeeded, and when things went well. It was not the arm of flesh that had done these things. They were remarkable Providences, and the like.” His habit was to sanctify his own successes.
America in the twilight of modernity is unlikely to see the hand of God anywhere —- certainly not in courthouses. But it is surely a habit of the American mind to sanctify success. To vary the metaphor, success is our currency, and we trade in it wherever we go. As society’s common perspective, the shared sense of the permanent things, fragments with the culture that birthed it, worldly success has rushed into the void as the arbiter of value, and the measure of men and ideas.
Lord Action was a liberal —- albeit an old-style one, a liberal in the classical sense of admiring nothing in politics so much as liberty. Indeed, it is precisely in this light that we must see his resounding judgment on Cromwell: “he was a constant enemy of free institutions. Scarcely any Englishman has so bad a record in modern history.” And it is precisely as a liberal that Acton perceived, as few others in Europe did, the genius of the American system.
As we see, the genius of this system, which Acton and Tocqueville and the other great observers of the New World from the Old identified, was in its enormous caution about its own success. For success is quickly transformed into excess, which in democracy usually means comprehensive tyranny. Even the absolute monarchs in the mold of Louis XIV had to contend with other interests, each with organic sources of power; while the whole idea of democracy, in its pure form, is the reduction of those interests of class and church. Thus the founders of the United States erected artificial structures to restrain democracy. Lord Acton particularly admired the principle of federalism, which he believed preserved the best of the liberty of the Middle Ages, and approximated the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.
To begin to worship success qua success is to repudiate a signal component of our constitution as a democratic people. Success is not a virtue; and success as an idol is jealous of any consideration given to virtue. Now it should be noted that mere success is to be distinguished from quality or superiority. A thing or idea may succeed even though it is of low quality; it may succeed by treachery or by brute force; it may even succeed by mere luck or accident. This is just the point, and the error Acton described consists in that superficiality which abjures judging the quality of a thing, or the merit of a man, so long as success is obvious. A whole vision of history has risen up among us, deriving in part from Acton’s own intellectual tradition with its esteem for progress, which seems to asseverate that every cause that has triumphed has triumphed on its merits. This is an enervating vision. It undoubtedly contributes to the neglect of history as a vibrant and indispensable discipline; for what sense is there in learning only of things discarded and supplanted? What allure is there for a discipline that only admonishes but ever excites or astounds or challenges?posted by Paul Cella | 3:01 PM |
The estimable Noah Millman has produced three valuable analyses, the first two (here and here) rebuking Mideast fantasies, both of the Right and of the Left. Then here he puts Howard Dean in the proper perspective, labeling the man what he is: a politician. posted by Paul Cella | 10:58 AM |
Friday, August 22, 2003 Friday’s Syllabus:
Wednesday, August 20, 2003 I wrote discursively below of the value of a human sympathy in studying history; further below I quoted Richard Weaver to a similar effect. Behold! here for us is a fine example of both. posted by Paul Cella | 4:48 AM |
The melancholy and erudite Kevin Michael Grace sends me a marvelous essay on Hilaire Belloc. A sample:
This short bio by William Bryk makes clear that “Old Thunder,” as Belloc was nicknamed by his mother, would top anyone’s list of historical men one would most like to know.posted by Paul Cella | 4:40 AM |
Monday, August 18, 2003 Some evidence of the modern world’s insanity, you say? Well, here it is. A. N. Wilson reports:
Apparently he’s serious. Not long ago New York City outlawed smoking in restaurants, and Florida has followed suit, so it is not hard to believe. I have often thought that the contrast between our attitude toward smoking (authoritarian) and our attitude sex (laissez-faire) typifies the special sort of madness that thrives in this decaying civilization. It is an unrelieved misconstrual of reality; such that, out of ignorance, men begin to refurbish old and despised ideas and apply them blithely to new circumstances. It is as though the extremisms of the past, which in their place were only excesses, have risen from the grave in strange and shadowy forms. So it is that we see Puritanism, with all its blaring contradictions, directing its fierce piety not against a real problem like the problem of sin, but against puny things like smoking. Some men of the early Modern Age, confronted as we all are by the poison of sin, developed a narrow, momentarily vital, and finally unsustainable system to address it: the Puritan ideal. Infinitely more brassbound, some men of the late Modern Age have developed a similar system to address the annoyance of hygiene. In colonial Massachusetts adulterous women wore scarlet letters of shame; in postmodern New York dirty smokers are cast out into the street like lepers. I do not say that smoking is an admirable habit; I simply say that the febrile energy with which we undertake to eradicate so minor a thing is evidence of a certain cultural imbalance.
Another illustration: Few things are as complacently loathed as the old absolutist monarchies of Europe. We scoff at the unutterable folly of the courtier and his ridiculous flattery of the king. But in his place we have erected an edifice of incomparable folly and absurdity —- so large, indeed, that hardly anyone can even see it. That is edifice of the Advertising Age. Millions of people, billions of dollars, schools, degrees, professorships, doctorates, theories and dogmas —- all this built up to flatter what replaced the Church and Crown after the deluge of egalitarian and revolutionary fervor leveled the ancien regime; namely, the sovereign People. Hilaire Belloc once wrote provocatively that the government of the United States is essentially monarchic in character; the monarch, instead of being the abstraction of the Crown, is simply the abstraction of the People. I think he was onto something genuine. Richard Weaver elaborated in a profound 1956 essay:
This unremitting flattery of the People has done its work; and produced a condition of dependence on the Welfare State so comprehensive as to preclude for elective politics in all but the rarest of moments even the suggestion that the whole enterprise is mere turpitude and rapine. For years Social Security (one of our largest and most lavish welfare structures) was referred to as “the third rail,” implying that any hint that the system needed contraction was electoral suicide. Kill the messenger. The People must be flattered.
Another example might be made of the Inquisition. Now people of the Middle Ages accepted the Inquisition in large part because they had imbued the ideas of the more severe Augustinians (precursors, really, to the Puritans, without the streak of individualism) about the authority of the Church and the horror of heresy. It was merely a grim part of life that heretics should be flayed and burned. They were habituated to it. It was not seen as some catastrophic evil. For us the inquisition is economic: Submit everything you own to the State for inspection; prove that your coerced contributions have been sufficient to its liking, and that you have not evaded your duty to conform to a truly Byzantine welter of rules; fail to do so, or resist in any substantive way, and face a prison sentence of 30 years. We accept this outrage, this confiscation of our property, for the same reason that the mediaevals accepted their inquisition: because we have imbued certain ideas —- in our case, about the modern, expansionist State, with unlimited taxing and spending powers. It is a grim part of life. No one likes it, and occasionally some politician generously offers to give back some of what he has stolen. But as a fact most of us submit to it quietly.
Now admittedly I am presenting things a bit tendentiously; but do we today present the circumstances of the mediaeval world with any kind of searching sympathy? Do we attempt any human understanding of the ideals of that age —- which ideals were vitiated, as all human ideals are, by human avarice and cruelty? To ask that question is to answer it, as the very word mediaeval is for us a synonym for brutishness. How then can we expect our own follies to be examined sympathetically by complacent later generations? In my own view, which I hope is infused with some measure of human sympathy, Cardinal Richelieu, as the architect of the modern state with its economic lifeblood taxation, had some good reasons for doing what he did. The Hapsburgs were pressing from nearly all sides; the Reformation has sundered the Christian world, leaving pockets of revolt everywhere; and his beloved France was generally surveyed by hungry, predatory eyes. Richelieu was also a man of peerless ability, and his enterprise was successful is ways he could hardly have imagined: fearsome in its success and in the ramifying opportunities it introduced to the power-hungry and unscrupulous. His tireless work produced the modern state: which has proven the greatest killer, expropriator, profligate, and corrupter in history. Yet I find that I cannot bring myself to dislike Richelieu.
The figure of Abraham Lincoln seems to cut something of a parallel to Richelieu: a consolidator and statesman of genius, an amalgam of despot and patriot, whose project by its very success wounded liberty, but who nonetheless commands admiration for his singular greatness in trying times.
The more one reads and absorbs of history, the more difficult it is to pronounce categorical judgments on men or ages. This prudential restraint does not augur a plunge into desultory relativism. One thinks of Acton, hardly a relativist, and considered by many to be the most learned man of his age —- who failed to ever write a magnum opus in the pattern of Gibbon and Macaulay because his own scrupulosity and humility encumbered him. My point is that those who content themselves with superficial bluster about the benightedness of the past, or the fancy history an unbroken line of glorious progress, must also resign themselves and their age to the kind of sneering dismissal they pronounce on the past.
In broad stokes, my contention here is that our age, to an extent unlike any before it, has set itself up as the measure of historical Man. Great success in the material arts we certainly have had, which success has in part blinded us to our quite severe deficiencies. Most ironic, perhaps, is a blind iterative tendency: the Puritan and the monarch and the inquisitor, though hated as historical figures, are resurrected in new garb and lent the strength of modern prejudice.posted by Paul Cella | 4:39 PM |
Friday, August 15, 2003 Want to know why Gray Davis is despised by Californians? It’s pretty simple: he has deployed the power of the State to plunder them, and then used the spoils to insure his political fortunes. Pillage. posted by Paul Cella | 12:59 AM |
Thursday, August 14, 2003 My essay on the blindness into which the peculiar errors of our age have cast us, and the illumination offered by men like G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, ran on TCS today — revised and updated. posted by Paul Cella | 11:06 PM |
Here is some shrewd political analysis of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early campaign moves by the astute David Horowitz. He notes that
It is indeed fascinating to watch the herd mentality of the political press at times, which manufactures vague arguments, dampened bombast, and unsupported innuendo, then proceeds to believe the trickery itself.
Mr. Horowitz might have added that an influential faction of conservatives, preferring vapid platitudes to engaging in gritty political debates, have also crippled themselves by failing to make that same distinction. And Mickey Kaus adds some needed perspective against those on both the Right and the Left who anticipate a surging ascendance, to be soon followed by dominance, of Latino voters in California. It hasn’t happened yet. Mr. Horowitz concludes:
posted by Paul Cella | 4:32 AM |
Wednesday, August 13, 2003 The Doctor of Gloom, Theodore Dalrymple, with his usual brilliance packs into an expository column of moderate length nearly all reasons why the welfare state is a catastrophe. Its abolition of fatherhood; its degradation and impoverishment of women; the ineluctable expansion of its attendant bureaucracy; its enervating cult of victimhood; its staggering ignorance of human nature and war on responsibility; its cynical exploitation. In short, its grinding reduction of striving human beings to a condition of malignant servitude. If it weren’t for that quiet but insistent Burkean sensibility in me which says that no vast revolution in the State (even a desirable one) should be accomplished without due caution and prudent gradualism, I would say that the whole thing should be eradicated, root and branch, with not a fragment left to remind us of its wickedness.
I would quote Mr. Dalrymple, but the article is not long, and deserves to be read in full.posted by Paul Cella | 6:25 AM |
As his “Thought for the Day,” Kevin Michael Grace quotes Kingsley Amis: “A lost cause may deserve support, and that support is never wasted.” I’ll add Richard Weaver’s comments from his 1958 essay “Up From Liberalism.”
posted by Paul Cella | 2:27 AM |
Monday, August 11, 2003 David Mills of Touchstone magazine’s web-log Mere Comments pens a sharp little post about day care. His final sentence is (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious. posted by Paul Cella | 6:43 PM |
Aakash Raut sends along a noteworthy article about the rumblings of discontent on the Right about a feared lurch toward — that dreaded word — empire. I have written obliquely on the topic a number of times, reflecting an evolving perspective on the burden of empire. posted by Paul Cella | 5:41 PM |
Saturday, August 09, 2003 There is a bizarre sort of pressure on the idea of privacy right now; more so on the reality of privacy. Its abolition proceeds at once with the most horse and desperate cries in its defense; almost as if a howling mob of revolutionists, their hands bloodied from the work of expropriating and uprooting, now demand that the despots reinstate Tradition, so that they may live by the simple customs and prejudices by which simple men lived before the Revolution. It is like the most ferocious Jacobin turning monarchist just as the guillotine’s blade falls on the King. It has an air about it, undoubtedly inspiring a certain human sympathy, of penitence; perhaps it is the confession of faithless men.
Now part of the motivation for censorship has always been a robust notion of a bright demarcation between public and private spheres. The republican principle allows a community to legislate to enforce this demarcation. It is unlawful, declare the good people of Anytown, for public enterprises to graphically depict in public what is properly recognized as uniquely private — especially when what is depicted is a uniquely private sin. As a signal of the poverty of our politics, and more unmistakably the poverty of our idea of privacy, many Americans have come to imagine that such legislation is unconstitutional because it infringes on the principle of free speech. This despite the fact that laws against obscenity, pornography, etc., were already on the state law books at the time of the Bill of Rights, and that many more were passed later, with hardly a word ever spoken against them as infringements on free speech. It wasn’t until the enlightened twentieth century that such laws began to be overturned. Free speech for our forefathers always meant public speech, in the sense of public debate and argument. A film of nameless choreographed encounters of the flesh is not an argument. And our error inheres precisely in the fact that, having obliterated the natural demarcations between public and private, we have thrown ourselves into a bleak confusion about what the free speech clause protects. In our confusion, we consent to vitiate the republican principle, favoring instead the despotic principle of unelected judges throwing out duly enacted legislation on free speech grounds.
I find it fascinating that the people who castigate any natural or republican move toward censorship, like when Mr. Rudy Giuliani came to the defense (as he so often and so defiantly did) of New York Catholics who felt an understandable annoyance at the deliberate blasphemes of their icons at public galleries, are the same people who shout “privacy!” whenever an equally natural or republican act of legislation conflicts with their sexual “liberation.” The State should stay out of the bedroom; instead it should fund and endorse bringing the crudest and ugliest representations of the bedroom to public spaces. The public square, in Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus’ apt phrase, should remain “naked” — pristinely free of any religious argument or sentiment — yet in its nakedness should be teeming with base allure and temptation to lust. Our confusion about public and private has made a mockery of our politics. Does it not occur to American privatists that the legal protections afforded to pornographers are plainly ludicrous; to the point that future generations, looking back from a saner age, may regard us with that kind of befuddlement, or almost bemusement, reserved today for Prohibitionists and Puritans? We are puritanical about our vice: no touch of virtue or taint of public restraint will tarnish it. Pornography is the annihilation of privacy. That an enterprise dedicated to the crude exhibition of private things as grotesqueries or perversions is defended on the grounds that restricting it is a offense against liberty, is just the sort of insanity the modern world is capable of producing.
I restate here what I wrote in the midst of another controversy. The intensely vulgar public square we are confronted with today is simply not the work of democracy — if by democracy we mean the prevailing of popular will. It is more nearly the work of oligarchy or aristocracy. An example I often turn to is the example of the film American Beauty — a film celebrated by Hollywood beyond all sense of reason. Well acted and cleverly written, the movie nevertheless did nothing so effectively as projecting onto a fictionalized Middle America all the strange pathologies and obsessions of Hollywood. In that its creators were almost comically manipulative, fancying (sincerely, perhaps) that the rest of the country shared the particular disorders of their class. Now Hollywood is as near as America comes to an aristocratic society. What emerges from it, whatever the pressures of the market may be, is still largely the product of a segregated and complacent elite. The despair and frightful decadence of American Beauty is the despair of a decadent elite.
There is also what we might call the supply-side insight: that supply generates its own demand. Economists of a certain stripe are happy to argue that high tax rates are counterproductive even from the taxman’s point of view; that, in other words, reducing taxes will stimulate the “supply-side”: the producers of wealth, who are also the primary source of government revenue. But these economists are less eager to acknowledge that the supply-side of vulgar oligarchs and complacent aristocrats in the entertainment business benefits from this mechanism as well. Their clever filth generates its own demand.
One might argue that the rise of the modern mass entertainment industry signaled the defeat real privacy — it crushed us with its rapacity of exposure. It feasts on temptation and the exploitation of the feeble and vulnerable. I once argued my charges against American Beauty with some colleagues, and was told by one that the “moral” of the film was not, as I contended, that bourgeois life is soulless, but that “things that appear fine on the outside are probably a mess underneath.” In other words, there is value in annihilating privacy, so that we may discover once again that man is a strange and sinful creature. The idea might be more palatable, or least more fruitfully provocative, if it did not stand alongside this incessant chirping about privacy. The filmmakers and their ilk seem to say that bourgeois respectability is contemptible because it is a dreary façade for human frailty and ugliness. But is not the façade also, whatever lies behind it (and I certainly reject the hypothesis of the film that behind it always lies perversion and alienation), a kind of organic fortress protecting privacy? Do families not present a front of respectability in order to deflect prying eyes? to maintain their sanity and integrity in an honorless world of exploitation? And if the façade or the front is contemptible, what does that imply about the principle of privacy?
Now I admit that I rest quite a lot of polemical weight, as it were, on inferences drawn from a single film. But note the reception in Hollywood that American Beauty received. I recall hearing it reported that this particular film made considerably more money after it was awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1999. That is a striking fact. It suggests to me that hardly anyone cared about this sorry specimen until Hollywood lent its weight to promoting it. And let us not underestimate the potential of the most profitable industry in the most prosperous nation in history to promote what it likes.posted by Paul Cella | 9:00 AM |
Thursday, August 07, 2003 The Episcopal Church has confirmed a practicing homosexual bishop, and thus undertaken a deliberate institutional subversion of the virtue of chastity. Here we have a capitulation to sin of awful gravity. As the Rev. Geoff Chapman, rector of Saint Stephen’s, Sewickley, Pennsylvania wrote:
I have endeavored before to acknowledge that the burden of the virtue of chastity is certainly different, and in its own way heavier, for homosexuals than it is for heterosexuals. Nevertheless, Scripture is clear (St. Paul in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, for example); and I cannot but see this as a ruinous error.
It is also, probably, an augury of the ruin to come across Christian denominations. Just this spring it looked as though the mainline Presbyterian Church might be the first to endorse officially large portions of the homosexual agenda. And we need not outline here the unspeakable turmoil wrought in the Roman Church by its experimentation with sexual liberation.
I am rent by the whole agonizing spectacle, and my prayers are with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ, in all its manifestations; and I think now of the hard, unpalatable words of Christ himself when he said:
UPDATE: John Derbyshire’s brief jeremiad on this is, as usual, outstanding. He points out that the good bishop “abandoned two little girls in order to indulge his sexual urges” and that “millions of ordinary Americans struggle through worse crises every day, and come down at last on the side of social responsibility and Christian duty.”posted by Paul Cella | 7:06 AM |
Orrin Judd points us to this searing article. Exposed and castigated with due anger is the morbid fact that the leading cause of death among blacks is not violent crime or AIDS or even heart disease, but abortion. Ismael Hernandez, executive director of the African and Caribbean American Center in Fort Myers, Fla., writes that “more African-American babies have been killed by abortion during the past 27 years than the total number of African-American deaths from all other causes combined.”
I’ll note that this unspeakable harvest of slaughter proceeds apace with a nearly ceaseless chorus of self-congratulation about progress. Mr. Hernandez writes that “the new Middle Passage in the greatest Holocaust in black history is the birth canal.”posted by Paul Cella | 2:38 AM |
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.