Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Tuesday, September 30, 2003 Steve Sailer delivers a heavy blow to Wesley Clark’s record. His cogent argument is worth reprinting:
See also Mr. Sailer’s incisive commentary on the influence of the late Edward Said.posted by Paul Cella | 1:35 PM |
I have had the pleasure of driving through the vast majority of the states of the Union. The main exception is New England. Growing up, my family usually took a major trip, by car, each summer. Often it was across the Midwest from Denver to northern Michigan, to my grandparents summer home. Other years we drove to California, Oregon, Calgary, Texas. Then, since I moved out east from college, I have put in many hours in the eastern states —- indeed, in all of them except Arkansas and, again, New England. I drove from central North Carolina home to Denver one spring, and from North Carolina to northern Michigan one summer; took the family from Atlanta to Denver last summer; have made the trip from Atlanta to DC many times, and from Atlanta to my wife’s family’s beach house south of Mobile, Alabama many times as well.
All that is preparation for saying this: Virginia has the most natural beauty of all the states I have seen. In its astonishing variety; its easy rolling hills, crisp air, bountiful farmland and quaint little towns, sublime blue mountains, meandering rivers, quiet fields, mixed forests —- in all these things and more she may well be the most beautiful state in the Union.
I know that some of my readers —- Bill Luse, for example —- have logged plenty of hours behind the wheel. I’d be interested to hear any objections or qualifications to my judgment here. Let’s try to keep it objective, though. Every sane and normal man loves his home, and is biased in its favor; in my instance, I think that Colorado, where I was born and raised, can make a strong claim, based mainly on the awesome majesty of the Rockies, to this distinction —- but for her eastern half, as desolate a land as man has ever laid eyes on. I also lived for four years in North Carolina, and she is a beautiful state, but she lacks Virginia’s variety, particularly of climate. And I’ll offer this qualification already: I have not seen enough of California for inclusion here. That fact changes the context of my judgment to some degree, for I have heard it said that only the dreadful combination of unbridled capitalism and dreary leftism could spoil so beautiful a land.
posted by Paul Cella |
12:14 PM |
Friday, September 19, 2003 Prof. Larry Arnhart of Northern Illinois University argues in The New Atlantis that human nature will persevere in the face of biotechnology despite the inflated hopes of some and the despondent fears of others. He cautions, in short, that “biotechnology is not likely to bring radical changes in the human condition.” It’s a good and sober piece, but I wonder if perhaps Prof. Arnhart has missed the point in one important sense. Biotechnology may indeed fall well short of its promised results: and yet it may still abet terrible crimes. Already we use prenatal testing and the unlimited abortion license for eugenic purposes, screening our children on the basis of any number of traits. Elsewhere in the same issue of The New Atlantis, we read that the human body, if harvested for its parts, is worth about $45 million; and in the current issue of First Things, Wesley Smith reports (not online) on the ongoing effort to expand the definition of legal “death” to allow for more economical harvesting.
Prof. Arnhart advises us not to worry, “human nature is here to stay”; but you see, that is precisely the problem. The arrogance of Science, as it brushes aside the objections of everything but its jejune utilitarian ideology, tries the forbearance of good and moral men; but our beef is emphatically with men, not things.posted by Paul Cella | 11:40 AM |
Wednesday, September 17, 2003 SUB SPECIE AETERNITATIS: “Communism, in short, proved not to be simply a life-style choice, or a divergent form of economic organization; it was a collective retrogression of an entire culture and the progressive de-civilizing of the individuals who had to operate in this hallucinatory world, both of which tendencies may still require decades to overcome, if indeed they can ever be overcome at all.” —- Lee Harris, TechCentralStation. posted by Paul Cella | 3:14 PM |
Tuesday, September 16, 2003 The pitiless invective leveled by James Kunstler against all of our civilization’s excesses, though uneven, is nevertheless bracing and valuable. Take his recent broadside against the World Trade Center as an architectural artifact.
But he hardly prefers the proposed monument/redesign:
Mr. Kunstler is a fulminator, all right, but he’s my kind of fulminator. Check out his monthly feature “Eyesore of the Month,” a mordant chronicle of architectural madness. (Warning: his website includes a health dose of profanity.)posted by Paul Cella | 1:47 PM |
The lead essay in that same number of The Claremont Review of Books is by the novelist Mark Helprin; and, as always with his writing, it is intellectual tonic of the first order. He is absolutely unflinching in his censure. A brassbound complacency among conservatives stupidly allows them to assume that “everything must be all right as long as a self-declared conservative is in the White House.” The supine posture toward the Saudis is captured with a caustic epigram: “the fear of speaking truth to oil.” He speaks of “a certain muddledness of mind” among Americans, resulting from “having been throughout the course of one’s life a stranger to rigorous thought.” He affirms that “because we cannot sufficiently study the nature of an insufficiently defined enemy, our actions are mechanistic, ill-conceived, and a function of conflicting philosophies within our bureaucracies, which proceed as if their war plans were modeled on a to-do list magnetized to some suburban refrigerator.” And all that in the first two paragraphs.
By paragraph five he is really heating up.
There follows a very lucid and detailed strategic analysis, based on a penetrating appraisal of history and Arab culture, which I cannot summarize here without butchering. The article must be read in its entirety. But perhaps some sampling will entice the reader. “In the West, success is everything, but in the Arab Middle East honor is everything, and can coexist perfectly well with failure.” Similarly, “though wanting victory, [the enemy is] equally magnetized by defeat, for [he] understand[s], as we used to in the West, that the defeated are the closest to God.” Strategic blunders are surveyed with acuity: “we were wiling to alienate the entire world so as to thrust ourselves into a difficult situation in Iraq, but unwilling to achieve a commanding position in Saudi Arabia for fear of alienating the House of Saud.”
Mr. Helprin’s judgment is essentially two-fold: 1) a weakness of will in the West — something so obvious that the clear-headed can hardly deny it, though huge numbers of prominent people in fact do deny it, which says something about our collective clarity; and 2) a failure of strategic imagination, which is far less obvious, but perhaps more enervating.
posted by Paul Cella | 8:51 AM |
Saturday, September 13, 2003 The increasingly valuable Claremont Review of Books has a capable review of John Lott’s meticulous empirical work in support of a counterintuitive and intensely controversial proposition, propounded succinctly in the title of his previous book: More guns, less crime. My amateur and incomplete (and, if you insist, predisposed) sense is that Mr. Lott has roundly disarmed his often-strident critics with the scrupulousness of his research. In any case, Mr. Lott is unquestionably an unpopular figure in liberal media circles. I have seen him several times paired on televised debates with emotional widows of shooting victims —- a rather contemptible act of broadcasting chicanery, if you ask me. posted by Paul Cella | 1:26 PM |
Judging by this altogether too-gentle report in the excellent new journal The New Atlantis, the bioethics industry is in just fine shape to address and ultimately govern the ramifying ethical and moral complexities of biotechnology. This stuff has to seen to be believed. Mediaeval scholars are often disparaged with a reference to the number of angels that can dance on the tip of a pin. Well, the very worst and pettiest of the Schoolmen had nothing on these academic charlatans. Their pretentious gibberish is beyond parody. posted by Paul Cella | 12:17 PM |
Friday, September 12, 2003 The New York Times has a fine obituary for Johnny Cash, for example describing his voice as “the vocal equivalent of a monument hammered out of stone” and not shirking from emphasizing that the late Mr. Cash, sinner though he was (like each of us), was signed of the Cross of Christ; and we might even say, with Chesterton, that he went gaily in the dark.
I went out walking through streets paved with gold
Yeah, I went with nothing, nothing but the thought of you.
I went drifting through the capitals of tin
I went out riding down that old eight-lane
I went out there in search of experience
I went out searching, looking for one good man
Wednesday, September 10, 2003 Welcome Corner readers! Linked below are several other essays of mine discussing modern conservatism. Also, I note that there is a good recent post by Noah Millman, in which he elucidates the central neoconservative insight on international relations, and acknowledges the cogency of libertarian reply, as it were, to this insight.
Monday, September 08, 2003 The energy and spirit of National Review in its early years is a thing to behold. The contrast with today’s rendition is difficult to overlook. Here is Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn in 1956, after the Hungary’s uprising against her Soviet oppressors:
Invigorating, isn’t it? Note that the censure came during a Republican administration. Note that it cares little for, is almost disdainful of, grandiose locutions about democracy. Note further the real admiration for something that is emphatically not American or derivative of things American. Compare this with today’s cover stories laden with cumbersome polling data; with capitulations to the drift of elite opinion; with bizarre unappealing complacency about principle; with flashes of tedious triumphalism. It is not my intention to harshly denigrate National Review in its contemporary manifestation, for the magazine is still unquestionably valuable. My intention is rather to call NR home, as it were; for my fear is that this venerable institution, with its genesis in the furnace of principled reaction to all the madness of modernity, is falling victim to its own success, and perceives itself as yet resisting that madness, when in fact it often lends its strength to it. To put it another way: while National Review at its inception was regarded as an almost ridiculous article — an anachronism from the benighted past — at some later point it became “mainstream.” Perhaps it was the ‘90s, more likely it was with Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s: Whenever it was, the achievement of respectability initiated a decline or enervation, restricting the freedom to publish bold, even scathing opinions; hardening, by a dependence on the finances of a political party, a climate of faction — so much so that this summer it was widely controversial when NR’s editors mused, in a sensible editorial, that conservatives might find it necessary to declare their independence from the G.O.P.
Now it should be obvious that conservatives and Republicans are not the same. The G.O.P. is a political party: today, the party of the Right. Conservatism, however diffuse, is a philosophy. The former is primarily about acquiring and wielding power; and only secondarily about implementing a philosophy. I wonder if it would even be admitted, in this partisan age, that a philosophy can never be the same as a party — anymore than a creed can be the same as a trade or vocation. Carpentry is a trade; it is not a creed. While there could conceivably be a Carpenters Party, it is merely absurd to imagine a creed of carpentry guiding and inspiring the lives of men. Conservatism as political philosophy primarily posits a role for government in human life: and I cannot see how a philosophy of small, limited government can continue in alliance with the party of government, if the G.O.P. becomes, as many predict, the dominant governing party.
A historical parallel may illuminate the important distinction I am trying to tease out here. In England of the late eighteenth century, the Whigs were the “liberal” party — the party of progress and rationalism and skepticism. Yet the greatest Whig was Edmund Burke, who proved to be perhaps the most prophetic opponent of the religion of Progress, and the father of modern conservatism. Burke’s confrontation with the French Revolution (during which, as Lord Acton profoundly records, he transformed himself from being the leader of a party to a “teacher of mankind”) alienated him from his party so bitterly that many thought he had fallen into madness in his later years. The striking thing is that, with the perspective of history, Burke stands tall and his detractors (excepting Thomas Paine and a few others) are largely forgotten. Some of them indeed, like James Mackintosh, ultimately repudiated their earlier attacks, pronouncing his work a pillar of wisdom. Burke had quite plainly transcended party, and his inspiration was to correct philosophy, refine it, and cleanse it of the cancerous excesses of heady Enlightenment rationalism. This burden of instruction rent asunder party and philosophy.
I hope I am not taken to be fulminating against political parties; for they undoubtedly have their place, and are honorable in that place. But it should also be clear that philosophy is superior to party, even if philosophy aims at securing an instrument of implementation, that is, a party operating in alliance with it. It is a degradation for a journal dedicated to propounding a philosophy, and prompting a conversation about that philosophy, to become a mere party organ. Such is the vulnerability to which National Review is right now most subject.
I quote now Frank Meyer, in 1957, leveling a profound criticism against rationalism as an ideology:
How much more serious this is compared to Jonah Goldberg’s columns of semantic fastidiousness or David Frum’s strange fancies of decadence! For here we encounter a man’s attempt to grasp hold of the nature of the dissolution around him. Meyer goes on:
In fairness, the trends and pressures of journalism today are not particularly conducive to sober reflection: and their effect on writers can be seen rather vividly in the fact that both the men I have just cited unflatteringly are capable of producing high-quality work when they put their minds to it (though no one will confuse them with Frank Meyer). And there is another factor here, which I suggested above, and which we might call the complacency of success, that should not be overlooked. The contributors to the original NR were beleaguered men and women. There was little cause for optimism. John Dos Passos, once a darling novelist of the Left, did his career no favors when began writing for National Review. Russell Kirk wanted to call his most famous book “The Conservative Rout,” Richard Weaver, his “The Fearful Descent”; Whittaker Chambers, in abandoning the Communist Party, was convinced that he had left the winning side for the losers; F. A. Hayek’s clarion call of a book was called The Road to Serfdom; James Burnham penned a meticulous jeremiad entitled Suicide of the West. These books were not greeted warmly. An edition of William F. Buckley’s own early work Up From Liberalism reproduces on its back cover the amusing litany of abuse with which it was received, all quotes from reviews of the book containing vituperation of truly palpable rancor. Lionel Trilling’s dismissive remark perhaps sums up the reaction: to him conservatives were characterized by mere “irritable mental gestures” and nothing more.
In short, they were “outside the mainstream,” as the phrase goes today. And thus they were not the kind of people prone to consternation about whom they might offend with their opinions. Their polemical skills were honed to that sharpness and proficiency which comes only with frequent and frantic use; and their learning and intelligence always had to proven, was never assumed.
It is to the great credit of National Review, and the host of disciples it acquired, that conservatism in America did indeed become respectable, by virtue of its forcefulness which translated ultimately into political success. The fruits of this success are evidenced by some watershed victories for a philosophy that was once seen as declining into oblivion. But the success carried a price. Part of the price consists in the clear reluctance to criticize the Party. More broadly it consists in the understandable human hesitation to jeopardize one’s social station, or to alienate one’s peers; which is another way of saying it consists in a certain capitulation to regnant dogma.
What is to be feared, and vigorously resisted, is that the price of respectability will ultimately include the betrayal of principle — the principle in question being limited government, or what was once referred to as constitutional government of enumerated powers. In this age of the modern, limitless State, a truly conservative party cannot also be a party of government. And conservatives must indeed declare their independence from a party of government if they are to retain their principles.posted by Paul Cella | 10:36 PM |
Sunday, September 07, 2003 New additions to my links: The learned and fascinating Paul Musgrave, whose thoughtful work can be sampled here and here. Jeff Culbreath, a supple Catholic blogger; see his defense of pipe-smoking. And Jude Wanniski, perhaps the most potent opponent of the neoconservative foreign policy; an eccentric alright, but a valuable and lively one. posted by Paul Cella | 9:42 PM |
Friday, September 05, 2003 Ever-vigilant, Josh Claybourn lays out in broad detail the reckless fiscal profligacy of this Bush administration. Mr. Claybourn calls it a horror show. He is quite right. posted by Paul Cella | 10:07 PM |
For those with eyes to see, evidence of the culture of death could hardly be clearer. posted by Paul Cella | 5:57 PM |
Here is a wonderful interview with J. Budziszewski. The topic is natural law. A sample:
(Via Mere Comments).posted by Paul Cella | 5:18 PM |
Thursday, September 04, 2003 It is interesting question to ponder: does education, in the modern sense, make a man more or less susceptible to propaganda? The conventional answer is, of course, less —- but the more I think on that convention the less I am convinced by it.
Now by modern education I mean what is normally achieved at American universities by young men and women who achieve it without any real idea why they should, or what should be included in it. They might be better described as half-educated, which I do not mean as a term of derisive abuse. Everyone feels that they must matriculate through college, though few know why. There is a vague but ubiquitous social pressure to arrive at this destination, with hardly any explanation of why the journey is worth taking or how a man might discern that he has indeed arrived at it. And as a matter of plain fact, a striking number serious men who decline to indulge this propaganda (for that it what it is: and behind it lies a very solid, if somewhat sordid, financial interest), end up successful, often founding small businesses or entering into fruitful trades.
Resistance to propaganda consists in that sophistication of the intellect which allows one to develop in one’s mind a mental picture which inoculates by providing an alternative. That is to say, I see an old Communist Party recruitment video, replete with joyous worker-owners laboring in satisfaction at collective farms or factories —- and in my mind’s eye I conceive of the soul-crushing Gulag, the Famine, and great men who write their memoirs on toilet paper amidst starving fellow slaves. By this image, the propaganda is checked and defeated. The antidote to untruth is not skeptical disbelief, a purely negative impulse, but the affirmation of truth, an act of positive vigor.
Modern education provides only the negative impulse, the impulse to distrust, an unfledged cynicism full of bluster but empty of real substance. This impulse is as treacherous as it sounds, and cunning propaganda will readily conquer it; for the skepticism inculcated by modern education will rarely include a distrust of one’s own emotions, the doctrine of original sin having been discarded, which is precisely the organ at which propaganda aims its contrivances. Moreover, to leave discontented the human hunger for belief in something, to provide no armor against the poison of despair, is simply to make vulnerable young minds. It is no accident that Nazism began as a student movement in an age of disillusionment; or that the ideologists of what Burke so memorably called “armed doctrines,” together the greatest of modern scourges, bled the ground red with the blood of young “idealists.”
It almost seems a truism to say that wicked ideas are not resisted by skepticism but by good ideas. Skepticism by itself is aimless and emasculated; and it is only by the light of principle that skepticism is armed. It is precisely because I know courage to be a great virtue that I am skeptical of any attempt to denigrate courage revealed. It is because of the doctrine of original sin, which I see so plainly to be true in myself, that I know that power can never be trusted in human hands. By the light of doctrine, of principle, the world is illuminated; and skepticism is, if I may use the phrase, baptized. I do not disparage skepticism in toto; I do revile skepticism unhinged.
Another way of saying this is that imagination, or the cultivation of the rightly-ordered intellect, not skepticism, is the only effective treatment against propaganda. Modern education teaches an ersatz method of treatment, by encouraging students to distrust, not merely the chaff of propaganda, but everything of the wheat, including the grain. The intellect is not cultivated, it is deprecated; discernment is not encouraged, nor wisdom, nor discrimination. Indiscriminate scornfulness is instead favored. What appears and is marketed as prudence and worldliness is revealed as mere poltroonery. And a great host of bewildered minds ambles about, confident of its hollowed out defenses, trusting in its dull rusting weapons.
It is fashionable in conservative circles to vilify the University; but as a fact the thing predates what passes today as conservatism by a great many decades. In fact, most conservatives today, for all their harangues against leftist academics, have largely bought into the philosophy from which this blunder I have just described descends. That philosophy goes by the name Utility; and they are with Locke and Bentham against John Henry Newman. Locke contemned the classical liberal education on the very familiar grounds that it failed the test of usefulness: “Can there be any thing more ridiculous than that a father should waste his money, and his son’s time, in setting him to learn the Roman language?” Bentham enlarged the objection into an entire philosophy. And the modern critics of academe hardly offer a refutation. They denounce our schools on essentially utilitarian grounds; that is, they interrogate about practical results, but do not question ends. They charge the schools with failing to achieve their own ideals, and they disclose many instances where professors replaced useful fact with useless cant. The universities are mistrusted because there are now failing to even lay a foundation of utilitarian information and method. This jeremiad, about the politicized university peddling ridiculous ideological gibberish, is all for the good as far as it goes; but it does not go to the heart of the matter. To the decline of the University, the critics of today answer that it does not pass the test of utility or practical usefulness. They do not answer as Newman did, resoundingly, that health of the intellect, like bodily health, is useful because it is good.
But the whole edifice of modern education, to which, by and large, most conservatives have conceded, is debased by the utilitarian ethos; this, in part, because our shared ideas about the Good and the True have fragmented, leaving only worldly success as the standard. If men cannot agree on what is good, at least they can agree on what is profitable or successful. The University thinks in forms relating to usefulness even when it employs older phraseology; and when faced with a bold assertion of worth or goodness, in other words, a judgment about value, the institution shows its unease.
There is no utilitarian method of resistance against propaganda short of the cultivation of the intellect. There is no easy formula. That resistance must be active and individual; it cannot be passive and general. When people are told blithely that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal revived the American economy from the Depression, they must have ready in their minds the contrary fact that it did little of the sort; that, rather, it was not until the War began that any sustained revival occurred. But when they elsewhere told that war is a positive good for a nation’s economy, they must have ready the contrary fact that no enterprise dedicated to massive destruction can possibly be the cause of a growth of wealth.* The work of propaganda is too multifarious, too subtle, too ubiquitous to tolerate neat shorthand methods of inoculation. And abetting it is a whole educational apparatus all its own, along with the huge imperious marketing and advertising industry. To defy this empire of influence requires vigorous, ably-trained intellects.
Now it is not my view that men have all become automatons beneath the crushing weight of modern propaganda; my vision is not so darkened by gloom, despite what some readers may conclude. But it is my contention that, in our media age, the approach to the minds of men is unimpeded by external barriers — the family, the church or parish, the local community, etc. — to a degree largely unparalleled in history. We are truly as mass society, and many of us are indeed mass men. It follows that to resist propaganda is a responsibility left to the individual alone, largely unassisted by the old resources of community; and in our atomized society, I worry that individual minds are not being trained as they should be repel the onslaught.
*This latter is the famous “broken windows” theory, of which Henry Hazlitt observed that if adopted on a smaller scale would recommend the economic advantages of breaking random windows, that we might thus make business for some glazier, whose new business would multiply throughout the local economy. “The smashed window,” Hazlitt writes is his remarkable little book Economics in One Lesson, “will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be . . . that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.”posted by Paul Cella | 9:33 PM |
Wednesday, September 03, 2003 PLEASE NOTE my new email address: cellasreview -at- yahoo -dot- com. All correspondence should be directed there. posted by Paul Cella | 8:59 AM |
Tuesday, September 02, 2003 A giant of our times, imprisoned, oppressed, and finally exiled from his country by the energumens of the Modern Age, lives out his concluding years an exile in the Modern Age itself. Yet Alexander Isaevich Solzhenitsyn speaks to us still.
posted by Paul Cella | 12:02 PM |