Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Friday, December 31, 2004 Early impressions of the new U2 album (which was given to me for Christmas).
It has a remarkable “cross-section” effect: a number of songs are strikingly reminiscent of older albums. Track 2, “Miracle Drug,” sounds like it could have appeared on The Unforgettable Fire, and I’ll be durned if “Love and Peace or Else” doesn’t resemble “Bullet the Blue Sky” from The Joshua Tree. Now it needs to be said that it is likely that these are inferior versions of the songs they evoke (certainly “Love and Peace of Else” is not the equal of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” though its novelty and the latter’s ubiquity on FM radio go some distance toward effacing this), but it is something impressive that this band has the ability to authentically imitate their own sound from fifteen or twenty years ago. I’m not talking about merely reworking old songs, but actually capturing the feel of an old album and a great album. Even “City of Blinding Lights” has a sturdy touch of Achtung Baby! in it, though it is refined and shorn of the characteristic Achtung background clamor — as if U2 were saying, we cannot intimate that innovation and we won’t even try.
One hesitates to prejudge (for of all great bands, U2 is in my opinion the one most deserving of repeated and concerted listening), but it is hard to imagine that a couple of these tracks will ever rise in my mind above mediocrity. “Crumbs from Your Table,” and “Original of the Species” will prove, I fear, just easily forgotten songs. Yet there are, out of eleven tracks, seven or eight “keepers.”
I wonder what the consensus about this disc will be. U2 has had a strange ride. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they were beloved by serious fans and dilettantes alike — and critics contended earnestly, though unresolutely, over whether The Joshua Tree (1987) or Achtung Baby! (1991) was the greatest rock album ever made. But in the middle of the ‘90s, with Zooropa (1993) and Pop, (1997) the dilettantes largely abandoned them, and indeed many serious fans threw in the towel — only to return with All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) and the subsequent Elevation Tour. How will this album be received? I know that I have several readers in the serious-fans-who-abandoned-U2 category; and I am certain that there are many U2 dilettantes out there. What say you?
UPDATE II: I should have mentioned the final track on How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, “Yahweh.” A fine, crisp, beautiful song, contributing to the striking fact that U2 has finished its last three albums (four, if you count the Johnny Cash collaboration on Zooropa “The Wanderer”) with a song that is in essence a prayer.posted by Paul Cella | 3:49 AM |
Wednesday, December 29, 2004 What a beautiful Christmas reflection this is. And who can fail to be delighted at a blog that introduces itself as this one does? “G.K. Chesterton once wrote that ‘if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.’ Thus my blog.” I use that GKC line too: to justify my golf game. posted by Paul Cella | 5:35 AM |
While I’m thinking about Colby Cosh, take a look at this scornful demolition of the argument that legalized gay marriage will in no way lead to legalized polygamy. It is a model of informal polemics.
Now that is good stuff. Have I mentioned that Mr. Cosh is one of the better writers around?posted by Paul Cella | 1:24 AM |
Tuesday, December 28, 2004 Reggie White, R.I.P.: Colby Cosh’s critique of the supposed “tarnishing” of White’s image is simply devastating. The hypocrisy hangs thick in the air:
posted by Paul Cella | 5:26 AM |
Noah Millman’s typically thoughtful remarks on Donald Rumsfeld and some of his critics should be read alongside Robert Novak’s recent column on the subject. One is reminded that the neoconservatives themselves are a rather disparate group.
(By the way, Mr. Millman has a whole mass of new posts up on his blog — almost like a new issue of a good magazine.)posted by Paul Cella | 1:52 AM |
Saturday, December 25, 2004 A Christmas poem by Chesterton, courtesy of Kevin J. Jones, who in his illness needs prayer. posted by Paul Cella | 11:30 PM |
Thursday, December 23, 2004 “Two Christian pastors in Australia have been found guilty of religious vilification of Muslims. The decision threatens us all.” So writes Robert Spencer in a disturbing report that needs to be read and absorbed far and wide. posted by Paul Cella | 8:07 AM |
Sunday, December 19, 2004 President Bush’s bestowal of the nation’s highest civilian award upon former CIA director George Tenet is simply too ridiculous to be worthy of anything but laughter. Let the mountebanks have their fun. Our only error would be to take them seriously.
Jesting aside, that a man so accomplished in failure would be deemed by the President worthy of this honor does not speak well for the latter’s judgment. In my view, Mr. Tenet should have resigned on September 12, 2001, along with a half dozen other public officials — not on account of some discrete error or miscalculation, but simply in acknowledgement of the magnitude of the catastrophe that they presided over. Their jobs were held on public trust; resignations would have demonstrated that that trust still meant something. A healthy Republic would have given the officials a week or so to resign on their own terms; then, if resignations were not forthcoming, her duly elected representatives would have solemnly drawn up articles of impeachment against them, thus demonstrating the seriousness with which We the People of the United States approach such matters.
But seriousness has departed us, though most of its many impostors remain. (And let it be remembered what Chesterton said of seriousness: Funny is not the opposite of serious; it is opposite of unfunny.)
For some reason (as the Mencken quotation below suggests, my sympathy for bureaucrats is less than fulsome at the moment) I am reminded of the recommendations that Jean-Jacques Rousseau offered, in his unjustly neglected The Government of Poland, to the Poles concerning their ancient tradition known as the liberum veto. Now the veto, an infamous and absurd device to most eighteenth century reformers, gave to any member of the Polish legislature the privilege of shutting down any debate or deliberation that displeased him, and dissolving the legislature itself: A single vote would shut down the legislative body of the nation — just like that. Intriguingly, Rousseau does not — as we who know Rousseau as a radical reformer would expect — recommend abolition of the supposedly barbaric device. Indeed he counsels the Poles only to narrow its scope a bit, and then give it real teeth.
Rousseau begins by declaring simply: “The liberum veto is not in itself a pernicious right,” but it has been corrupted and abused. The accretions and corruptions must be cleared, but the right itself should remain. It “would be less absurd if it applied only to the basic principles of the constitution; but that it should be used indiscriminately in all proceedings of the diet is absolutely inadmissible.”
Rousseau’s shrewdness in laying out the following argument is a thing to behold.
Thrilling, isn’t it? Here was a man who thought the health of a republic a problem worthy of concentrated attention. Whatever we may think of Rousseau, there is no question in my mind that he can teach us something about patriotism.
Now it goes without saying that I do not wish to propose death for Mr. Tenet. But I do mean to propose that our seriousness on questions such as these — public honor and shame, patriotism and duty — is sorely lacking. Tenet has received our highest public honor — but note well who has bestowed it upon him. Surely not the people themselves. Note well, further, that it was precisely without the kind of republican solemnity which Rousseau recommends that this honor has been accorded. The administration, in effect, gave our highest honor it to itself.
The whole thing has about it, frankly, the whiff of a decayed monarchy: the grand preposterousness of Versailles, the machinations of courtiers so distant from the people that their rituals are looked on with blank disbelief, cynical amusement and finally contempt. One can almost imagine the sensible and good-natured man out in Middle America opening his morning paper to read of George Tenet receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom (for “efforts” that “have made our country more secure and advanced the cause of human liberty”), and bursting into that laughter which only the charlatans of Washington, D. C., can produce.posted by Paul Cella | 2:55 AM |
Friday, December 17, 2004 Michelle Malkin’s discussion of the brassbound folly of Air Marshal Service Director Thomas Quinn calls to mind H. L. Mencken’s famous recommendation for how to deal with nincompoop bureaucrats:
The advantages of this plan, I believe, are too patent to need argument. At one stroke it removes all the legal impediments which now make the punishment of a recreant jobholder so hopeless a process, and enormously widens the range of possible penalties. They are now stiff and, in large measure, illogical; under the system I propose they could be made to fit the crime precisely. Say a citizen today becomes convinced that a certain judge is a jackass — that his legal learning is defective, his sense of justice atrophied, and his conduct of cases before him tyrannical and against decency. As things stand, it is impossible to do anything about it. A judge cannot be impeached on the mere ground that he is a jackass; the process is far too costly and cumbersome, and there are too many judges liable to the charge. Nor is anything to be gained from denouncing him publicly and urging all good citizens to vote against him when he comes up for re-election, for his term may run for ten or fifteen years, and even if it expires tomorrow and he is defeated the chances are good that his successor will be quite as bad, and maybe even worse. Moreover, if he is a Federal judge he never comes up for re-election at all, for once he has been appointed by the President of the United States, on the advice of his more influential clients and with the consent of their agents in the Senate, he is safe until he is so far gone in senility that he has to be propped up on the bench with pillows.
But now imagine any citizen free to approach him in open court and pull his nose. Or even, in aggravated cases, to cut off his ears, throw him out of the window, or knock him in the head with an axe. How vastly more attentive he would be to his duties! How diligently he would apply himself to the study of the law! How careful he would be about the rights of litigants before him! How polite and suave he would become! For judges, like all the rest of us, are vain fellows: they do not enjoy having their noses pulled. The ignominy resident in the operation would not be abated by the subsequent trial of the puller, even if he should be convicted and jailed. The fact would still be brilliantly remembered that at least one citizen had deemed the judge sufficiently a malefactor to punish him publicly, and to risk going to jail for it. A dozen such episodes, and the career of any judge would be ruined and his heart broken, even though the jails bulged with his critics. He could not maintain his air of aloof dignity on the bench; even his catchpolls would snicker at him behind their hands, especially if he showed a cauliflower ear, a black eye or a scar over his bald head. Moreover, soon or late some citizen who had at him would be acquitted by a petit jury, and then, obviously, he would have to retire. It might be provided by law, indeed, that he should be compelled to retire in that case — that an acquittal would automatically vacate the office of the offending jobholder.posted by Paul Cella | 4:40 AM |
Thursday, December 16, 2004 A few clips from the current Modern Age (What’s that? You don’t read Modern Age? You should.)
In a letter in The Habit of Being [Flannery O’Connor] recalls reading St. Thomas late at night and her mother asking her to turn off the light. O’Connor “with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression would reply, ‘on the contrary, I answer that the light being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes.’”
For Christians our proper end or goal is communion with God. Thus our highest art portrays the struggle for that communion, thereby shaping our culture in terms of this struggle. This is not hypocrisy, but the nature of social life.
The kind of culture in which we live can make communion with God easier or more difficult to attain. Each of us is blessed with free will but, human nature being frail, more of those living in a religiously grounded community will choose God than will those living in a truly secularized society. This is, after all, why secularists want to empty the public square — to lessen the “social pressure” to recognize the call of faith.
Sunday, December 12, 2004 What confusion Liberalism has thrown us into!
Here is Mr. Charles Moore’s very admirable but, I fear, somewhat confused column about the looming possibility in Britain of a law against religious hatred which, as everyone is coming to realize, will likely prove to be a law privileging Muslims and silencing their critics. In short, an astounding surrender to p.c. conventions in the face of a real threat.
There is a huge and important question behind all this — indeed, several huge and important questions — which I cannot give but a brief and sketchy treatment here. And even this treatment will require me to say things that even sympathetic readers will not take kindly to. As a character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings puts it, alas that these evil days should be ours. But these things cannot be helped: for the questions go to the very heart of who we are as a people, and touch on the question of whether this nation that we have built here shall endure.
First, we must reflect deeper on the always tricky problem of Free Speech*. The best I can come at the moment to articulating the problem is to say bluntly that speech is not free. It never has been and it never will. Every society lives by an orthodoxy, the traducement of which will bring punishment upon the traducer. There are those to reject the idea of orthodoxies with great truculence — but this rejection is only a very distinctive feature of their orthodoxy.
While it is true that here in America the presumption** has been in favor of free speech, this has never been absolute, despite what so many among our intelligentsia say about the First Amendment (an Amendment which, it should be recalled, as it was written binds only Congress, and which, whatever has subsequently been coaxed from it by way of extravagant interpretation, is still contained within a larger document.) What has limited it is our commitment as a people to the principle of self-government. Hamilton makes this point in an indirect way when he takes up the objection to the Federal Constitution of its lack of protection for the free press: “What is the liberty of the press?” he inquires. “Who can give it any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion? I hold it to be impracticable; and from this I infer, that its security, whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government.” (Federalist No. 84) Madison is getting at the same thing when he disparages the adoption of “parchment barriers” against the abridgement of rights. Questions of specific liberties, in other words, are subsumed into the larger question of self-government.
Secondly, we must reflect on this problem — the problem of Free Speech — in the context of a question that no one wants to ask, much less answer. It is a hard question, but we mustn’t avoid it, or pretend it is not a real question. Nor can we simply denounce as bigots anyone who entertains the question publicly. Perhaps, having taken up and considered the question, we will in the end answer as most of our Liberals (and many of our Conservatives) would so dearly like us to: or perhaps we will not. But we must take up the question in earnest, in a manner befitting of a free people which has faced and surmounted hard questions before. The question is this: Is Islam compatible with the American tradition of politics? I for one will not have that question closed before it is even examined.
A similar question faced us with regard to Communism; and, by and large, after some very fierce public debate, Americans answered No. Communism, we concluded back then, is not compatible with American politics. Having concluded thusly, we proceeded to do what follows logically, for a self-governing people, from that conclusion: we moved to proscribe Communism as an organized force in America. We did what we had to in order to place upon anyone loyal to Communism — loyal enough to betray, or countenance the betrayal of his country — burdens sufficient to truss and emasculate the Communist enterprise here in America. That was a wise decision: the Communist enterprise murdered more people, in a shorter amount of time, than any other force in human history — and no amount of vituperation against “McCarthyism” will change my mind about it.
Now — and here we get into even more sensitive issues — it is important to note that with Islam, as with Communism, what we are considering here is not so much freedom of speech as freedom of thought (there: I said it) — the freedom to hold certain opinions without being subject to certain impairments, inconveniences, and irritations, most of them a matter of social pressures but some — yes, some — a matter of law. In both cases, that of Communism and that of Islam, the opinion that falls (or may fall) under this proscription amounts to the following: The government of the United States of America should be violently overthrown and replaced by another. Here is an opinion we will not tolerate, and that is that.
Some readers — especially those of the libertarian persuasion — will have a hard time with the idea of intermediate measures. They will think that intolerance of certain opinions leads directly to horrible things. Their rhetoric will escalate before their intellect has really taken an appraisal of the situation. All we can say to them, is that they are of little faith — little faith in the ideals of self-government by which the people of this country set themselves apart from the rest of the world.
I am well aware that all this rings fiercely discordant to ears used to being massaged incessantly by Liberalism’s platitudes; but these are no less pressing issues for us, because they make us uncomfortable.
Thursday, December 09, 2004 Jeremy Lott is right: “Mean Spirited Arrogant Santa Hating Liberals” is among the very greatest of insults. I’m also taken with the protestors in Kensington, Maryland who chanted “No Santa, No Peace!” ‘Tis the season indeed. posted by Paul Cella | 1:33 AM |
Sunday, December 05, 2004 Mr. Robert Hayes of the web-log Let’s Try Freedom recently sent me his series on same-sex marriage (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7). It is an admirably clear and systematic attempt to work out a difficult problem; he begins with theology and works down to practical politics, and concludes, in his own shorthand: “civil unions for gays and secular straights, sacramental marriages for the religious.”* But Mr. Hayes, in my opinion, has skipped a step, and a very important step at that: He has skipped the step of political philosophy.
I will be brief. The political philosophy of this country, conveniently articulated in our great public documents, teaches that we Americans, as a people, have committed ourselves to certain way of answering great public questions. We will not shirk them. We have no illusions about the historical fact that all societies face great public questions, and must finally answer them or cease being societies. Understanding this, we do not set ourselves against change qua change, but we do emphatically pledge ourselves to a way of changing — or not changing. This, mind you, is not an obsession with mere process. For the process in question is in fact the process of self-government. As Publius puts it in Federalist #71, “The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern.”**
The American political tradition, our political tradition, holds that, even if the State has the authority to transform the institution of marriage (which it did not create), it cannot undertake this innovation except through mechanisms which decisively reveal, for all to see, that a consensus of We the People (us the people for you grammarians) has developed and matured. To change the public institution of marriage is to legislate; it is a very profound act of legislation, answering publicly a very emotional and momentous public question. The question must be answered by We the People. It must go through legislative assemblies of the people’s representatives, or we cannot continue to call ourselves a self-governing people. This innovation, if it happens, must not be an act of usurpation by a factional minority of judges, but of republican consensus. More: the consensus itself must not consist of a bare majority, or a mere plurality, but instead reflect the “deliberate sense of the community.” Still more: even a solid majority, if it is achieved, must be able to pull along in acquiescence most of its opponents. We are not crude majoritarians, though we are republicans. When issues of enormous importance come before us, we debate them, in parliamentary assemblies comprised of men and women who have been entrusted by the people with legislative authority — and, by that very republican principle of which Publius speaks, in parliamentary assemblies that are, of all the branches of government, closest to the people. That is how republics work. We do not stand by idly and let robed attorneys proclaim a judicial despotism. The courts will not be our Legislator if we are to remain a free people.
As it happens, there are several legitimate mechanisms by which the proponents of homosexual marriage might accomplish their innovation. We have the Constitutional amendment process. Failing that, proponents can turn to the state legislatures or to Congress itself. But for this to be accomplished through the action of the least representative, the least accountable and the least flexible branch of government, against the considered opinion of the majority of We the People, and against laws duly-enacted in our august republican bodies (and indeed, as with the late election, against laws duly-enacted by the people themselves), would comprise an act of usurpation without parallel.
Mr. Hayes, for all his reasonableness, has failed to address the specter of what some have aptly called “the judicial usurpation of politics.” What is at stake here is not merely the question of homosexual marriage; it is the question of the nature America as a people and a nation. It is, in short, the question of whether we will continue to be a self-governing republic, or decay into a judicial despotism.
Saturday, December 04, 2004 Many years ago my great friend and teacher (or so I fancy) G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay of vigor and subtle prescience entitled “Babies and Distributism.” Now it was almost Chesterton’s vocation to write essays like these — that is, essays that reach out like vivid paintings from their antiquity to strike the reader with their freshness — but this one was unusual even considering its source.
First (and this a difficult irony to express properly), Chesterton in this case was writing essentially as a man of the Left. Distributism was a posture of opposition to capitalism, and indeed Chesterton reserved some of his fiercest polemics for industrialists and millionaires. He wrote, for example, a series of articles for a socialist paper that would make a good Republican’s blood boil today. But Chesterton, writing in 1925 a man of the Left, to our eyes scores so many blows against the Left that it is difficult to think of him as anything but a Conservative; indeed, a reactionary, for his arguments will assuredly not sit well with our right-wingers of today. If one were to imagine the typical American lefty and the typical American righty reading this essay, one would picture them both reacting with settled irritation.
For Chesterton is writing against birth control, and he is pulling no punches. And the fact that his arguments — not, to be sure, because of any confusion or internal disorder on his part (for Chesterton is a sharp as ever) — reduce our familiar ideological markers to a muddle, is simply evidence that he has, characteristically, transcended politics. He has brought us closer to the nature of political things, and shown us with greater clarity the destiny of our civilization. Such a concentration of mind is sure to discomfit.
For Chesterton, birth control was emphatically a thing derived from capitalism, and the ascendance of capitalism as a guiding principle:
But it is Chesterton’s second reason for contempt for birth control that reveals his remarkable prescience. I would like the reader to keep the Groningen Protocol in Holland — the protocol, that is, for euthanizing infants — in mind as he reads these words:
The program has arrived, Mr. Chesterton. Indeed, it has nearly triumphed, and conquered outright in many precincts.
Now my point here is not to draw out the long, dirty road that led us from birth control* to the lawful execution of infants; it is, rather, to show that its lineaments at least were discerned and censured by the more perceptive of those who bore witness to its origins — among them G. K. Chesterton. My point, moreover, is to suggest, by way of the muddle Chesterton makes of our comfortable ideological framework, how far the poison has penetrated.
But Chesterton does not leave the matter at that. He concludes instead with a strange and stirring challenge: Stirring because any man who knows of what he speaks will not fail to be stirred to very his soul, and strange because so remote, like the distant sound of a trumpet, calling back to battle men who have grown soft with luxury and debasement — calling back by the words of the Apostle: O Death, where is thy victory; O Death, where is thy sting?
Today almost everyone is hugging the chains of an older slavery, and striving against the life and reality of the new world.
[Cross-posted at RedState.]posted by Paul Cella | 5:45 AM |
Well, I think I ruffled some feathers on TCS yesterday.
Talk about moral train wrecks: here is the first paragraph of an early comment on the piece:
Good grief.posted by Paul Cella | 2:44 AM |