Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

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

Monday, August 30, 2004  

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a guest column contributed by my old friend (and loyal Cella’s Review reader) Chris Floyd. Mr. Floyd achieved some fame recently by announcing to the world that he was one of those “elusive” former Gore-voters now supporting President Bush. The Editorial Board hopes that this will only be the first of many contributions.

Ideas and issues have gravity, and some issues are Jupiterian in scale. They threaten to pull us into their stormy innards if we make the mistake of coming too close, or think we can establish orbit and just assay them from a distance. I'm about to brave these harsh forces in order to examine one tiny satellite of the planetary body called The Gay Marriage Debate.

My topic really has nothing to do with that specific debate, about which I have conflicting sympathies and concerns (and that's all I've got to say about that). It theoretically could have to do with any number of public policy disputes these days. That topic is Civil Disobedience.

Whatever your position on gay marriage, I think one has to look somewhat askance at the actions of certain executives and bureaucrats who have explicitly broken the law to advance a political cause. Two clear examples are Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, and the county commissioners of Multnomah County, Oregon, who both began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples of their own volition, in contravention to the statutes of those states.*

In the early days of American life, when the moral burden of slavery was causing earthquakes large and small throughout the civic body, Henry David Thoreau outlined a philosophy of moral steadfastness in the face of the State** which he called Civil Disobedience. This tradition has not only inspired preeminent figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but it has proven to have had some arguable degree of success as a tool of peaceful protest.

Are Newsom and the Multnomah commissioners engaging in civil disobedience? Many have claimed so and while I haven't read those two words coming from the perpetrators' mouths, I can't see any other rationality behind their actions.

Let me be blunt: What Newsom and Multnomah engage in is not civil disobedience, but ideological warfare and abuse of authority. Far from being guideposts to moral rectitude — as Thoreau imagined the disobedient — they are muddlers of civic morality. They are, of course, criminals as well, but so was Thoreau. It is in two serious ways that Newsom and Multnomah are breaking from civil disobedience tradition.

First, they have no intention of being punished. Thoreau recounts his day in jail (for not paying taxes to a government that accommodated slavery) as a reversal of the State's power: he is the free one, on the “free” side of the wall. (One is reminded of Wonko the Sane, from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series. Wonko lived within an inside-out house, declaring everyone in the world to be inside The Asylum while he was the only one Outside.) Going to jail, indeed, was the very proof of Thoreau's righteousness — “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Imprisonment illustrated that the State “never intentionally confronts a man's sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body . . . It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” Thoreau did not question the narrow rightness of the State to imprison him, just the ability of it to effectively imprison him or his cause. In fact: “if one HONEST man were actually to withdraw from this copartnership [with the State], and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.”

But, again, our rogue executives have no intention of being sent to jail, they do not believe they should be so treated, and they probably in fact will not be. Nor does it appear likely they will be forced from office for their violations. (A separate judgment of the authority — such as the Governor of California — which fails to enforce the law against these criminals will have to be postponed for now.)

The fact that the perpetrators appeal to their state and federal constitutions as proof of legal rectitude only broadens the damage they have inflicted. There are processes for resolving the constitutionality of statutes and flat-out violation is not part of those processes.

Indeed, it is by virtue of their station as officials acting on public trust that Newsom and Multnomah inflict their greatest damage to civic morality (and civil disobedience tradition). How can they disobey the State when they are the State? Thoreau couldn’t be clearer on this point: “If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, ‘But what shall I do?’ my answer is, ‘If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.’” By their defiance, these executives are not asserting the fundamental weakness of the State against the individual, but are only declaring its irresponsibility.

The damage is doubled when one considers the practical effects of such official acts against office. If the State declared the perpetrators criminals, it could tell those who received their marriage certificates that they were victims of a crime or a fraud. As things stand, it can only tell them that the State is taking away what it previously bestowed and may restore later if the State changes its mind again. Far from abolishing perceived injustice, instead a new and messy injustice is created. (I can’t speak to whether those who took up Newsom’s or Multnomah’s offers knew they were subjecting themselves to crime, but it seems reasonable to assume at least some did so naively.)

An attempt could be made to explain the officer’s disobedience as a matter of the substate’s disobedience to the larger state. In fact, Thoreau even uses such language, comparing individuals’ relation to the state of Massachusetts to Massachusetts’ relation to the Union. But the individuals he is discussing are those who disagree in principle but cooperate anyway. A State, he is clear, has no moral drive of its own — no soul, we might say. Massachusetts must cooperate with the Union; only individuals can act against the law, for only they have a moral compass that transcends positive law. It is also clarifying to ponder what kinds of punishments under the law the Union might inflict on Massachusetts, or California on San Francisco. Where is that jail?

By using Thoreau as a standard, I may be implying that his formulations of man/state relations are unimpeachable; they probably are not. This is not a defense of Thoreau, however, but rather a repudiation of certain executives by the standards (I reason) they are applying to themselves. When it comes to civil disobedience, that standard is Henry David Thoreau.

For any faults it may have, Thoreau's manifesto is marked by a philosophical confidence which we can hardly question, for what has occurred by his disobedience except the expected result? The man who did not pay his taxes is jailed. When the taxes are paid for him (against his will by a family member) he is released. He achieves his purpose and the State, its. While there is disobedience, there is no rebellion. What Gavin Newsom and Multnomah County’s petty autocrats have achieved is a devilish rebellion of the State against itself, a cannibalization of order in the name of order, a king declaring that he will not submit to the king.

* Perhaps Roy Moore, the judge who refused to submit to a court order to remove the Ten Commandments from the state court building, is an analogous case, and one that orbits a very distant political planet. The reason I do not address him here, and distance myself from the Great Red Spot, is that I’m not convinced he would rest his defense on civil disobedience.

** Thoreau used “State,” with capitalization, to indicate the state he lived in, Massachusetts. By perhaps questionable license, I use it here to indicate the institution of government in general and in the abstract.

posted by Paul Cella | 12:40 PM |

Wednesday, August 25, 2004  

The English historian W. E. H. Lecky once described Christianity as “the most powerful moral lever that has ever been applied to the affairs of men.” He was not a believer, but he spoke truly. A great cavalcade of thinkers over all these many centuries have subsequently contrived to remove the lever, or replace it with a new one; and few have been as successful, at least in modern times, as John Stewart Mill.

Reading this review essay (PDF format) by George Carey of Georgetown is a good introduction to the enmity which Mill harbored toward Christianity. Prof. Carey reviews a study of Mill which he calls “a tour de force,” precisely because it identifies religion — and not, as many would have it, liberty — as that which lies at the heart of Mill’s thought. Carey quotes the author of this study, Linda Raeder:

“From beginning to end, religious themes abound, implicitly and explicitly, in his books, articles, correspondence and diary. Neither Mill’s philosophy nor his politics can be adequately comprehended without taking into account his religious views and purposes.” “Indeed,” she continues, “Mill’s commitment to the replacement of Christianity with a Religion of Humanity was one of the chief purposes governing his philosophical endeavors throughout his life.”

But Mill was wary and calculating. He took to heart Burke’s pronouncement of England’s resistance to radicalism: “Thanks to our sullen resistance to innovation, thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we still bear the stamp of our forefathers. . . . Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers.” Carey argues that Mill’s writings “cannot be taken at face value,” because he devoted such care to concealing the full force of his project; he sought to undermine, to subvert, perplex and enfeeble. There is a Machiavellian edge here: his intent was not so much to confront Christian tradition in an open debate, but to slowly seduce his readers away from it. Another scholar calls this the “habit of prudently dissembling.”

In discussing the prudence of publishing one of [Auguste] Comte’s pamphlets in England, [Mill] again cautions: “The time has not yet come when we in England shall be able to direct open attacks on theology, including Christian theology, without compromising our cause.” The pamphlet’s message, he concludes, “would turn away a great number of minds from positivism.”

Then there is the towering arrogance. “Throughout his adult life,” Raeder writes, “Mill was convinced of the utter superiority of his purely human morality and seems never to have feared that his own moral conceptions might be incomplete or erroneous.”

I have long thought of J. S. Mill as an adversary at least; and conceived of him as the father of Open Society Liberalism, a wretched disaster of a philosophy. I now suspect that Mill was too smart to think the perfect Open Society a functional ideal. He understood well that every society has an orthodoxy; but he understood also that to enshrine his own orthodoxy, which he fancied was markedly superior to the one that attained, would require dismantling the older order. And Open Society Liberalism presented itself to him as natural and cunningly effective way to accomplish that. Let all questions be open questions and the old order will fall. An orthodoxy cannot long survive incessant public skepticism of its own rightness or desirability. As Raeder puts it: “the absolute freedom of discussion that would prove fatal to the preservation of traditional religious belief.”

So while I have long thought of Mill as an adversary, I feel that now I must regard him as an enemy. To perceive his religious objective is to shudder at its totality; but it is also where we begin to resolve the strange contradictions that have always seemed to plague Mill’s otherwise solid logic. Carey summarizes thusly:

Viewed from this perspective, the frequently noted inconsistencies in Mill’s argument vanish. For instance, Raeder observes, Mill championed “a general freedom not, as it appears and is generally thought, from the restraints of all social conventions, but merely from convention and custom derived from traditional religion.”

His civil libertarianism was little more than a finely-wrought rapier with which to slash and impale his adversary: namely, the Christian orthodoxy of his country. His success in this endeavor is evident throughout the West.

[Cross-posted at Redstate.]

posted by Paul Cella | 3:26 PM |

Thursday, August 19, 2004  

I agree with Larry Auster: It is disastrous to equate Jihad with the Christian Middle Ages in some broader category of “mediaevalism” or “fundamentalism.” It is, moreover, an ugly, stupid slander.

It is understandable that modern men would not know much of anything about the history and texture of the Middle Ages (I know little myself); what is remarkable, indeed almost comical were it not so suddenly vital to our own age, is that they go on acting as if they did know something; as if the whole of the Mediaeval World had been perfectly compassed and penetrated and exposed, and every mystery of that mysterious and vital civilization had been debunked — as if, in short, they were all great Mediaevalists, secure in their disdain by virtue of their learning.

But it is nearly the opposite. Most modern journalists know pretty much nothing about their ancestors in the Middle Ages; and many of the very greatest of mediaeval scholars were indeed Mediaevalists in the true sense of the word: they admired and cherished the Middle Ages. I feel as though I only need mention two names to carry this point across. Tolkien and Chesterton.

Let us hope that later ages will treat us with a bit more sympathy than we have treated our ancestors.

posted by Paul Cella | 7:21 PM |

Wednesday, August 18, 2004  

What a grand experiment this sexual liberation has been!

[Via Jeff Culbreath.]

posted by Paul Cella | 8:59 AM |

Friday, August 13, 2004  

Some fascinating stuff in this review. It looks like some of the more serious on the Left are turning their backs on modernity as well. Who can fail to delight in such paragraphs as these?

Eagleton himself observes that postmodern nihilism supplies high-octane fuel for consumer culture. Indeed, “no way of life in history has been more in love with transgression and transformation” than capitalism, whose ever-more untrammeled enlistment of fantasy and desire leaves pomo partisans the harmless task of shocking yesteryear’s bourgeoisie. Safely imprisoned in the winter palaces of departments and administration, the radoisie rearranges the Feng Shui of academic life. They rail against the tyranny of hierarchy while forming tenure committees and write reams of footnoted, peer-reviewed articles on the indeterminacy of truth.


At his best, Eagleton takes an Augustinian turn. Secular modernity, he observes, strips the world of inherent worth, and the individual will becomes the sovereign source of value. And as the will proceeds unchecked by love, it “crushes the things around it to nothing, and leaves them worthless and depleted.” Though Eagleton figures this triumph of the will in psychoanalytic terms as “the death drive turned outwards,” surely he knows that this is also what Augustine called libido dominandi, the lust for domination that pervades the earthly city.


At the risk of patronizing, I suspect that Eagleton senses this. He’s just too smart for boilerplate about “fundamentalism” or “theocracy,” the polemical standbys of those, from Christopher Hitchens to Katha Pollitt, too flippant or illiterate to mount serious rebuttals of theology. He knows and acknowledges that religion once “did all that culture was later to do” — try to link everyday life, ritual, politics, art, and metaphysics — and that it did so “far more effectively.” So if cultural theory occupies the place once filled by theology, and if “the age in which culture sought to play surrogate to religion is perhaps drawing to a close,” shouldn't theology be one of those “new topics” explored in the wake of postmodernism?

Postmodernism comes to the Cross? It seems to good to be true.

[Via The Japery.]

posted by Paul Cella | 10:00 AM |

I have an essay in the current American Conservative. The issue is on newstands now, but not yet online, and I do not know if my essay will ever be online. So you'll have to pick up a copy or subscribe to read why (in my view) both Bush and Kerry are Leftists, at least on one issue.

posted by Paul Cella | 8:35 AM |

Tuesday, August 10, 2004  

Mr. Charles de Nunzio’s discussion of the question, Why liberals are brazen while conservatives are bashful is solid yeoman’s work indeed. He first critiques an Opinion Journal columnist for admirably identifying a problem, but inadequately penetrating its depth; and then goes on to supply his own analytical depth, which he interprets through the delightful application of some ideas in Tolkien’s great tale The Lord of the Rings.

Since I'm dabbling in Lord of the Rings metaphor once more, a little slice of anecdotal fluff in the form of Middle-Earth backstory becomes useful here. Recall that “ruling rings” were given to the major species of Middle Earth: the Nine Kings, the Dwarves, the Elves, etc. “But they were, all of them, deceived.” For the Dark Lord, Sauron, who had bestowed these other rings under false pretenses, forged in secret the One Ring to rule the others, and therefore, to bind all of Middle Earth under his tyrannical rule....

There were several “ruling rings” thus bestowed upon American society, two of which concern us here. With the American Revolution, two ideas having their genesis as byproducts of Christian culture took on the character of absolute and supreme principles and, from the Declaration of Independence itself, assumed center stage in American conceptions of self-identity: liberty and equality. Now, so long as both of these ideas are viewed in a properly Catholic theological context, i.e. viewed in subordination to the rights of God and the work of the Church in the salvation of souls, they do have a certain value and place.

Separated from this noble context, however, these ideas became instruments of the “One Ring” of a quite different master. From the earliest days of American independence, these two concepts (together with material prosperity, the other “ruling ring” of American culture, which concerns us only indirectly here) comprised the summum bonum of ideological and rhetorical focus in American discourse. The greater part of American history since lies in two related trends: (1) the progressive cultural acceptance of the absolutization of these two concepts, thereby ever more divorcing them from their original Christian cultural context, and, furthermore, inducing people to debate and then repudiate, in their name, the truths of common sense itself; and (2) a never-ending series of “crusades” to bring American society and all pertaining thereto in line with these increasingly unnatural rhetorical conceptions.

Fine work.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

posted by Paul Cella | 6:35 PM |

Thursday, August 05, 2004  

In the course of discussing the student revolts of the 1960s in his masterpiece From Dawn To Decadence, Jacques Barzun writes, “When the rebellious were still in their colleges and universities, their way of protest was to occupy a building, especially the president’s office, and vandalize ad lib, not excluding the destruction of research notes and equipment.” He continues with a phrase of lapidary brilliance: “On their side, administrative officers behaved with that final degree of caution which is cowardice.”

This, we must admit to ourselves at least, as citizens of a republic who in theory govern ourselves, is a pretty serviceable description of the behavior of our governing class in the face of the threat of Islamic terrorism. There is no boldness from our bureaucrats; they are enervated. A consuming fear of being charged with discrimination or intolerance stultifies initiative; it disarms learned instinct; it is the remorseless enemy of the detective’s intuition, the investigator’s hunch, the citizen’s nagging unease. We all know the stories about the body searches of grandmothers at airports (this because airlines still face fines for any disproportionate scrutiny of certain ethnicities); these are but a prominent symptom of a deeper disease. When the political and administrative leadership of society have by and large declared that they will not act against their own sense of propriety and decorum; in a word, that they will allow people to die for political correctness — when this paralysis has struck (and it has with us), then there is no sense in mincing words: we are losing the will to defend ourselves.

My local newspaper reports on the heightened security in that peculiarly anodyne way: “In Washington, police increased patrols on subways, including canine units to search for explosives. Announcements on loud speakers urged vigilance from passengers and asked them to report suspicious packages or backpacks.” Are we to fancy that the explosives and suspicious packages might simply fall from the sky? “In New York, authorities banned trucks and vans from tunnels and bridges leading to lower Manhattan near Wall Street and closed streets near Grand Central Station in response to threat.” Shall we imagine that the trucks and vans will drive themselves?

The way this is described, just like the way this is conveyed to us by government officials, makes terrorism almost a kind of natural disaster, a quite mindless force. We should prepare for it as we might prepare for a hurricane. Has Homeland Security ever given us a public description, even in vague terms, of the kind of men who might carry out these attacks? Have there ever been announcements on loud speakers urging passengers to be vigilant for suspicious people?

I ask another, more philosophical question: Has there ever been, in all of history, a society so staggered by political cowardice? Has there ever been a people, of all the multifarious peoples of the earth, that really thought it better to be murdered than be called racist? Has there ever been a civilization that shuddered, not at the silent approach of the assassin’s blade, but at the sanctimonious outrage of the offended assassin? Has such bizarre insanity ever before touched with its cool unreason the vulnerable hearts of men?

[Cross-posted on Redstate.org]

posted by Paul Cella | 10:32 AM |
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