Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Saturday, February 28, 2004 Hadley Arkes writes from “Darkest Amherst” about the treatment afforded Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia during his visit to the college to deliver an address about the vocation of the judge and Constitutional interpretation. As usual, the assorted leftists abandoned their vaunted liberality, resolutely closed their minds, and proceeded to vituperate the good Justice in a manner that is sadly common these days.
Elsewhere on the same fine website, there is an instructive exchange over a case decided last week by Scalia’s own agency, the United States Supreme Court, concerning one of the great Controversies of this Republic.posted by Paul Cella | 12:22 PM |
Thursday, February 26, 2004 Here is an admirably fair review of The Passion of the Christ, contributing succinct and sensible judgments like the following: “Because information about the so-called ‘historical Jesus’ is so incomplete, it's impossible to argue for or against The Passion of the Christ's factual veracity. It is largely in line with the gospels, and ultimately represents Mel Gibson's vision of Jesus' long, lonely final hours.”
I have not yet seen the film, but will probably post a review here when I do.
Also, for an essay that moves as it illuminates on this huge and terrible subject, see the great and Venerable John Henry Newman’s sermon “The Mental Sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion.”posted by Paul Cella | 11:59 AM |
Tuesday, February 24, 2004 I do not think it is too much to say that, with the ascendance of what might be called the George Soros interpretation, the First Amendment has been endowed with an explicitly theological meaning. This statement will seem paradoxical, even absurd to some (particularly among my Liberal readers), but close examination bears it out. Here I will focus on said Amendment’s religion clauses, which are usually referred to as the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause (whether they are to be read as, in fact, two clauses is a question for another day). Now: perhaps the clearest way to illustrate this argument is to follow the late Fr. John Courtney Murray and say that for secular Liberalism the First Amendment is an article of faith, in that it makes claims to which men are called to assent. It articulates in an affirmative manner a dogma about the ultimate truth of human nature and human aspiration. It is a positive declaration, theological in nature.
Fr. Murray summarizes this theology thusly:
I will not permit the secular Liberal to slip loose from the bonds of his own logic and comport himself as though he has taken no position when in fact he has taken a very radical position. “In truth,” wrote Chesterton, “there are only two kinds of people, those who accept dogmas and know it and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it.” At best we can say that Liberals do not know that they have accepted theological dogmas. Their theology is a negation; but it is real. It is still a dogma about Truth to declare that there is no Truth, or at least no dogmas about Truth.
Fr. Murray goes on:
Secular Liberals will of course detest the use of terms like “state of grace” in the description of their theology, but, unless I am in error, they will be unable to reject the description itself. And I hope it is clear by now that it is a description of a theory the content of which is a set of highly-articulated claims about the truth of Creation. It is not mere agnosticism. Nor is a supreme denial possible; as Aquinas put it in a passage I quoted last week, “It is self-evident that truth exists, for he who denies that truth exists concedes that truth exists. Indeed, if truth is not, it is true that truth is not.” The word theology is the proper one here, for this interpretation of the First Amendment contains specific and sectarian content about religion and the church. It answers, in its own way, Pilate’s question to Christ: “What is truth?”
Issuing from this theology is also a distinct political philosophy which holds that civil society is the highest expression of the human condition; nothing stands above or outside civil society, and its legal manifestation the state, in judgment of it. In short, there is no Church. As Fr. Murray puts it, “the churches are englobed within the state,” and “possess their title to existence from positive law.” They are not sovereign entities, and certainly not above the state. Separation of church and state means more nearly subordination of church to state. Traditionally, this political philosophy has been given a name: Jacobinism.
James Hitchcock has a disconcerting essay in a recent First Things documenting the fruits of this Jacobin anti-theology in the legal profession. It is instructive to see just how effortlessly Open Society Liberalism slides into an incipient despotism. As Chesterton put it in his playful way, “most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late. It is often essential to resist a tyranny before it exists. It is no answer to say, with distant optimism, that the scheme is only in the air. A blow from a hatchet can only be parried while it is in the air.”
The hatchet is in the air; and its target is the great Tree of Religious Liberty in America. If the First Amendment must be read, as so many of our judges and law professors tell us (though not in so many words), as an article of faith in militant secularism; if Open Society Liberalism, rushing headlong down its own logic, succeeds in dogmatizing the First Amendment — it is because men moved too late.
[Part II to follow at a later date.]posted by Paul Cella | 9:50 PM |
Saturday, February 21, 2004 Here is an essay by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn which, as usual with his articles, exudes erudition and wisdom (PDF format). A good sample is his brief but compelling taxonomy of Liberalism, which is notable for its basis in Continental, not Anglo-American, political history.
Fascinating stuff, eh? Elsewhere he gives a rousing cheer for the Poles, whose remarkable contributions to our civilization are so often forgotten:
It might be added that once the Bolsheviks did overpower the Poles (with the complicity of the West), they murdered most everyone (though not everyone) capable of that kind of heroism.
Friday, February 20, 2004 At the moment it seems that George Soros carries the mantle as the leading propagandist for the Open Society. Long ago that distinction was carried by Hugo Black, the Supreme Court Justice whose Open Society interpretation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution ultimately, despite its obvious and even plain contempt for the history and text of the document itself, held sway over the Court, the legal profession, the media elites, and finally the country as a whole.
The Open Society can be pretty comprehensively suggested by the following statement. All questions are open questions. The agitators for the Open Society — and, make no mistake about it, they were and are agitators — aimed at refashioning our society in such a way as to enshrine that statement as our guiding ideal. Their philosopher was John Stewart Mill, who argued in his famous work On Liberty that the central question in political philosophy — What is the good society? — could be answered thusly: the good society is that society which protects “the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral in may be considered.”
George Soros contends that the Open Society is the only antidote there is to totaliatarianism. Indeed, he asseverates that all totalitarians share in common a firm belief in “absolute truth”; thus it is clear in the mind of George Soros that George W. Bush, being a professing and practicing Christian, is of one mind with all the great totalitarians of the twentieth century and the Islamic totalitarians of today. Subtlety is not Mr. Soros’s strength; and neither is philosophical rigor. Mill at least had the latter in some quantity.
But what I want to say here is that the philosophy of Mr. Soros is incoherent. On its own terms it refutes itself. And I want to show, at least in sketch form, that this philosophy of negation is a road to the most awful of tyranny. The heart of the matter is that the Open Society, if pushed to its logical conclusions, is no guarantee against totalitarianism but rather a precursor to it.
There was an Open Society in Weimar Germany, and in Spain before the Civil War. Where did they lead? The Open Society allowed men to talk endlessly, about anything, with no moral limits, just as it said it would — and they talked themselves right into war and terror and grinding, fanatical tyranny.
The simple fact is that by asking us to commit to no absolute truths, Soros is working to enshrine a very real conception of absolute truth. It is absolutely true, he says, that there is no absolute truth.* His orthodoxy is anti-orthodoxy. The philosophy of negation becomes its own rumbling behemoth, drawing to itself all the coercive apparatus of the State as it is articulated in a social order. And because the Open Society men will admit no truth outside of the Open Society ideal itself, there can be no limits on the methods or means of enforcing the negative orthodoxy. On principle they deny any standard or moral claim outside of the Open Society; therefore, on principle they maintain that there is no limit on what can and should be done to achieve and preserve the Open Society.
A man who cleaves to absolute truths, to a law of nature which is discovered and not created, will recognize that whatever he desires for society must be limited by the dignity and humanity natural to his fellow man. In short, his very recognition of higher law puts limits how he can use the instruments of coercion if and when he attains them. So, in a seeming paradox, it is the Open Society partisans who make the most ruthless tyrants.
It is true, of course, that even men who assent to natural law can be driven by sin and passion to abuse — even to the point of tyranny. It is also true that cunning men may cloak their rapacity in the comforting forms of natural law even as they plot to build the darkest of despotisms.
But my point is that a society, and its legal form the state, which recognizes a moral law of nature, is far, far less likely to descend or decay into tyranny. Its logic forbids it. On the other hand, the society which commits itself only to the “orthodoxy of negation” of the Open Society, while it may not necessarily become totalitarian, will tend toward that result. Its logic ordains it.
Tuesday, February 17, 2004 Also worth a careful read is Edward Feser’s two-part assay (part one, part two) of the strange and dangerous phenomenon of the Left’s utter dominance over the Academy. An old story, this one; but Professor Feser brings new vigor and depth to it, ultimately concluding that what we have here is a massive, systematic revolt against God and against the Law which He has ordained. In short, we have the story of the Modern Age. I am reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s epigram on the Hitler-Stalin pact of September 1939, delivered through the thoughts of his quasi-autobiographical character his novel Men At War: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.” posted by Paul Cella | 5:31 PM |
Mark Butterworth, editor of Sunny Days in Heaven, has a gift for telling hard truths. His recent entry, “The Quick and the Dead,” an uncomfortably candid discussion of fertility and sterility, is a fine example. And elsewhere he notes shrewdly, “The hate campaign against [Mel] Gibson is not about fear of anti-Semitism, but a desire to prevent souls from salvation and hope, or a restitution of respect for Christ in America as the greatest hero of all.” Yes.
I came not to bring peace, but a sword.posted by Paul Cella | 12:06 PM |
Friday, February 13, 2004 Let it be admitted forthrightly: heterosexuals have done more damage to the institution of marriage than homosexuals will ever do. But even the explicit meaning, much less the implications of that admission generally are not perceived or appreciated because of the great miasma of confusion and shoddy, emotionalized reasoning that has descended on our public dialogue regarding rights and duties.
Rights and duties. The two are inseparable. One cannot declare a right without concomitantly shouldering a duty. But even that formulation does not frame things properly. One does not declare a right at all; one discovers it — discerns it from the nature of man. The Declaration of Independence did not declare rights; it declared the independence of a nation — or, in the language of that magnificent article, it declared “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle “one people,” namely, the American people. What the Declaration said about rights is was an articulation of things discovered, and as such must be contrasted with Declaration of the Rights of Man that emerged from the French Revolution.
If there is indeed a “right” to marry, then there must be an attendant duty. And here is where heterosexuals have debased the institution, with what is called the no-fault divorce: For it is clear from even a cursory examination of the wedding ceremony that our traditions reflect a profound understanding of the duties inherent to the institution of matrimony. Men and women go before their family, their friends, the State of which they are citizens — and they usually go before God — to profess their love for one another, yes; but more importantly, to bind themselves, one to another, in a vow that transcends romantic love. The vow: the solemn commitment to discharge certain duties: that is the tremendous focal point of the wedding.
When we as a society vitiated that sacred heart of marriage, by making the vow a mere contract, we inflicted ruinous damage on the institution. We made the wedding a mere profession of romantic love, real but almost invariably transitory. We tore marriage lose from its great binding force, the vow. Solemnity was replaced by sentimentality. Only the Roman Catholic Church has retained, at least in principle*, its hold on the centrality of the vow.
An interesting thought experiment is to consider if there would be such a clamor for “gay marriage” if marriage were understood as legally binding beyond the nature of a mere contract. Calculate what thunder about “rights” would issue from the precincts of this most flamboyantly promiscuous of communities** if it were understood that to violate this vow is to stain one’s legal record: to make loans more difficult to attain, to supply potential employers with means for rejection, to damage one’s credibility in the court of law. In short, compute the change in the calculation of “marriage rights” if marriage were understood properly as a duty which binds a man’s sexual freedom, not merely in a customary way or privately religious way, but in an emphatically legal way.
Tuesday, February 10, 2004 I have essay running today at TCS about John Edwards — or, more precisely, about his stump speech, which I find unusually repugnant in certain of its particulars. posted by Paul Cella | 2:00 PM |
Monday, February 09, 2004 Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight
But roaring Bill who killed him
Thought it right.
— Hilaire Bellocposted by Paul Cella | 8:40 PM |
Saturday, February 07, 2004 Here is one of Noah Millman’s lengthy but quite riveting political analyses. Were there justice in this world, he would be getting paid handsomely for these missives. This one could be aptly entitled “How Kerry Could Win.” He makes a compelling case. For my part, I don’t care if he is right or not; my patience with President Bush is exhausted. I dislike John Kerry, but not enough to greatly fear his victory; and I confess to wondering if it might not do Conservatives some good to have Bush’s various extravagances (read: immigration and spending) disciplined at the polls.
I await being dissuaded of this jaundiced view by the President’s more articulate defenders.posted by Paul Cella | 10:29 AM |
Thursday, February 05, 2004 National Review Online has done a very useful thing in reprinting William F. Buckley’s 1971 commencement address at the United States Military Academy at West Point. It is a magnificent document: an eloquent recording of John Kerry’s irrevocable indictment of America.
That next-to-last passage is particularly haunting, for it is a bleak fact that the “root question” has indeed “risen to such a level of respectability as to work itself into the platform of a national political party.” In short, the question of America’s worth is an open question: Though shrouded by assorted devices of sophistry, political campaigns in this country have become, or are at least very close to becoming, plebiscites on this question. (And plebiscites, we should note, were horrifying things to the Framers of our constitution: precisely because they actuated the exercise, in politics, of naked will.) We are asked to answer — though rarely are we presented the question clearly — whether America as it is, is a society worth preserving. This is the unspeakable question on which we vote our consciences.
And there is a bleaker fact still. Though many have risen, like Mr. Buckley, to rouse us from our stupor, that we might answer, Yes America is worth it! — though many have risen, too few have been roused. There is a telling analogy in Europe, where an actor has made some rather mundane remarks, sub specie aeternatis, in defense of his civilization; and for the effort been branded a racist. This rhetorical violence against simple patriotism is hardly a novel event. It is most striking and most dispiriting, perhaps, when it issues from the mouths of those who fancy themselves as the opponents of the national party which made America’s worth an open question. Thus, to question the wisdom of mass immigration, as said actor did, is, here in America, to designate oneself a “nativist” — even for the party that fancies itself as “conservative.” Thus by a sly dialectical process the open question of America’s worth has corrupted our politics. Introduced on the Left as a revolutionary idea, it moves by an almost imperceptible osmosis to the Right, where it solidifies itself in implicit orthodoxy; and conservatives are left to preserve the structures of decline and fall.
It may be that once a question is opened, it can never again be closed, no matter what is exerted in the attempt to do so. It may be that the really crucial battle to fight, in the arena of ideas and politics, is that of whether certain questions should be closed. And it may be — indeed, I think it is — that here, on this crucial issue, our forefathers weighed resoundingly, in with those four pregnant words: “We hold these truths.” By thus declaring themselves as committed to certain propositions about the nature of Man and the State, they founded our nation. It should be astonishing in our day of license and clamor to reflect that America was made not by the opening up of all questions, but rather by the closing of certain supremely important ones. And I fear that once the Vietnam generation (felicitously described as the “counterculture”) publicly raised the question of whether America was at base a criminal society — even before the counterculture began its “long march” through the institutions — once this momentous step was taken, and patriotism was traduced in principle, there would be no turning back: The consensus was broken. This, indeed, in similar circumstances, was the insight of Edmund Burke when, upon seeing with his prophetic eye the calamity of the French Revolution, he bent the whole of his genius as a rhetorician and polemicist against the mere consideration by his beloved England of the principles of the Revolution. By doing so he shocked and dismayed his friends among the Whigs, who were enthused by it, and expected from Burke — Burke the defender of the American rebels, Burke the advocate of the subjugated Irish Catholics — a booming cheer for the French effort to (as they saw it) throw off the yoke of tyranny.
But whatever tyranny there might have been in France after Richelieu, there was nothing comparable in Britain; and Burke perceived that for the English to consider the principles of the Jacobins as they wafted across the Channel, was for them to embrace the same question we have embraced: Is our country worth it? The question, once open, could not subsequently be closed. Nor can ours today.
And the question for us — by us I mean “We the People” who still “hold these truths” — is how to restore what has been lost. It is indeed a task of restoration not conservation.posted by Paul Cella | 11:39 AM |
Wednesday, February 04, 2004 Michael Novak has some hard words for the NFL:
Mr. Novak then gives his jeremiad over to some practical suggestions:
That last line in particular rings in my ears, as a father: Our families have enough enemies to fight through. Must they also fight the NFL? I have often thought that the only good reason to have a television in one’s house is to watch sports. But how long will I be able to say with a straight face that that is a good reason?posted by Paul Cella | 4:39 PM |
Tuesday, February 03, 2004 SUB SPECIE AETERNATIS: “The next clause of the amendment respects the liberty of the press. ‘Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ That this amendment was intended to secure to every citizen an absolute right to speak, or write, or print, whatever he might please, without any responsibility, public or private, therefor, is a supposition too wild to be indulged by any rational man. This would be to allow to every citizen a right to destroy, at his pleasure, the reputation, the peace, the property, and even the personal safety of every other citizen. A man might, out of mere malice and revenge, accuse another of the most infamous crimes; might excite against him the indignation of all his fellow citizens by the most atrocious calumnies; might disturb, nay, overturn all his domestic peace, and embitter his parental affections; might inflict the most distressing punishments upon the weak, the timid, and the innocent; might prejudice all a man’s civil, and political, and private rights; and might stir up sedition, rebellion, and treason even against the government itself, in the wantonness of his passions, or the corruption of his heart. Civil society could not go on under such circumstances. Men would then be obliged to resort to private vengeance, to make up for the deficiencies of the law; and assassinations, and savage cruelties, would be perpetrated with all the frequency belonging to barbarous and brutal communities. It is plain, then, that the language of this amendment imports no more, than that every man shall have a right to speak, write, and print his opinions upon any subject whatsoever, without any prior restraint, so always, that he does not injure any other person in his fights, person, property, or reputation; and so always, that he does not thereby disturb the public peace, or attempt to subvert the government. It is neither more nor less, than an expansion of the great doctrine, recently brought into operation in the law of libel, that every man shall be at liberty to publish what is true, with good motives and for justifiable ends. And with this reasonable limitation it is not only right in itself, but it is an inestimable privilege in a free government. Without such a limitation, it might become the scourge of the republic, first denouncing the principles of liberty, and then, by rendering the most virtuous patriots odious through the terrors of the press, introducing despotism in its worst form.” — Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 1833. posted by Paul Cella | 10:54 PM |