Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

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

Sunday, January 30, 2005  

The historian Arthur Herman has an article developing parallels between the 17th century regicide of King Charles I of England and today’s Iraqi election.

This election, which many hope will spark a democratic revolution for the Middle East, falls on the same day — January 30 — as the event which set in motion the modern West’s first democratic revolution more than 365 years ago. It was on that day in 1649 that King Charles I of England was beheaded after his formal trial for treason and tyranny, an epoch-shattering event that destroyed the notion of divine right of kings forever, and gave birth to the principle that reverberates down to today, from President Bush’s inaugural address last week to the Iraqi election this Sunday: that all political authority requires the consent of the people.

Now I certainly wish the Iraqis well on this their day, but Herman’s comparison strikes me as most unfortunate. As Dan Flynn notes, for instance, Herman neglects to mention the man who followed King Charles after the latter’s beheading: Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England. Cromwell was a Puritan, and while the Puritans were in many ways admirable folk, extending Herman’s historical parallel to include Cromwell would force him into a very awkward position of anticipating a rigid Islamic version of Puritanism as the great midwife for democracy in Iraq. Hardly encouraging.

Herman also writes that, “in spite of the chaos and instability, the defeat of the English monarchy shattered once and for all the idea that had governed Western political institutions since the Middle Ages, that a king’s authority was divine and beyond question.” Divine right of kings, however, was not a mediaeval but rather an emphatically modern idea. Jacques Barzun documents this extensively in his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, even giving a portentous name to the second of the four great revolutions that made the modern world: “The Monarchs’ Revolution.” The monarchs, whatever we late moderns may think of them, were crucial to the formation of the nation-state — an entity without which the development of modern democracy is inconceivable. The monarchs, in short, made the nation-state, by accelerating the break-up of the old mediaeval order and consolidating a decentralized tapestry of interlocking sources of power into a unitary state.

So when Herman argues that this act of regicide ushered in modern liberal democracy, he is forgetting that the monarchs themselves were an indispensable part of the great process that made liberal democracy possible.

Finally, Herman parallel implies that Charles I was tyrant of considerable stature. This charge is, at least, arguable. I will let my friend Mr. Jeff Culbreath stand in the King’s defense.

Ultimately war would begin to ravage the British Isles, and the king would steadfastly refuse to capitulate to Puritan demands that would have resulted in the destruction of the Anglican Church. The king’s cavaliers fought valiantly, but the gathering storm of determined Puritan rebels, aided by an emerging class of wealthy merchants, proved too strong for them. The targets of the enemy — then as now — were chiefly the Prayer Book and the Apostolic Succession. King Charles could have saved his own life, and probably his throne, had he been willing to destroy the English Church in the bargain. But the Church was his mother, at whose knee he had been taught the love of his blessed Savior, and the king took seriously his anointed role as her Defender. Charles wrote thus in 1629:

“For we call God to record, before whom we stand, that it is, and always hath been, our own heart’s desire to be found worthy of that title, which we account the most glorious in all our Crown, Defender of the Faith.” [. . .]

The life and death of King Charles the Martyr is instructive in these last days, when love and loyalty are so little valued, and when both Church and State appear to have lost their divine sanction in the eyes of men. He reminds us that the Faith of our fathers is ever in need of valiant defenders and staunch confessors; he proves that traditional Christian orthodoxy is not incompatible with a charitable tolerance; he shows us that this broken world contains no lasting kingdom, that ultimately we are meant for the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. Let us then imitate the zeal and steadfastness of our beloved Anglican saint, and seek his intercession for our little corner of the Church that owes so much to him.

posted by Paul Cella | 5:21 PM |

Friday, January 28, 2005  

A Cella’s Review rerun! This I stumbled upon not long ago, purely by accident, and I thought readers might appreciate it. It is from September 25, 2002.

There has been an interesting discussion between two bloggers (see here and here) which I do not think I will disfigure irretrievably by summarizing as “Conservatism and Progress.” This topic, of course, is too enormous to take on in a comprehensive way, but it is worth returning to from time to time, in an effort to assay the lineaments of the vast body of thought known as conservatism. Mr. Orrin Judd presents a forceful case for tradition as the principal fount of all genuine conservatism, a case which has never been more succinctly put, in my experience, than in those celebrated lines of G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.

It will always be a bit exasperating to hear from people that our grandfathers may know us better than we know ourselves; that the Greeks, say, understood democracy better than we; that, to wit, progress of the intellect is a myth. Mr. Patrick Ruffini senses the approach of this ever-unpopular asseveration and communicates a mild and understandable irritation with it. Instead, he offers a sort of dialectical dynamic, where competing ideas face off and ultimately the superior ones emerge victorious, albeit in an amalgamated form. The welter of forces impinging on the culture will, after some trial and error, and the operation of reason, perhaps some rational self-interest, produce something satisfactory or better.

I must admit that I am deeply suspicious of this kind of optimism, because I am less than sanguine about Man’s sensitivity to reason. No amount of evidence will drive most people to abandon long-held beliefs, much less a complete ideology; the socialist enterprise, despite catastrophic failure after catastrophic failure, yet endures in the minds of an astounding number of people, and would indeed be re-implemented, history, experience, evidence be damned, if these people, who are never very far from power, were to dramatically reclaim it. Mr. Ruffini speaks of the failed social policies of the 1960s, which plunged many American cities into ugliness and decrepitude and squalor, and remarks that had we known in 1955 what these policies would do, things would have been quite different. But as Mr. Judd points out, we did know. In fact, “we” knew long before the policies were even formulated: Tocqueville wrote a book of stunning penetration, which is not exactly obscure, about the beguiling tendency of democracy to reduce men to bondage.

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

That sparkling sentence was written some one hundred and sixty-five years ago, and I’ll be damned if a more consummate and prescient arraignment of the welfare state has been written since. Well, John Derbyshire came close when he wrote of the English underclass, similarly produced by idiotic social policy:

Americans may find it surprising that most of the people wallowing in this slough of ignorance, illiteracy, promiscuity, bastardy, intoxication, vice, folly, lawlessness, and hopelessness are white English people. Much of what is described here is the sort of thing Americans instinctively associate with this country’s own black underclass. There is some satisfaction, I suppose, though of a very melancholy kind, to be drawn from the revelation that sufficiently wrong-headed social policies, persisted in with sufficiently dogged refusal to face simple truths, will visit moral catastrophe on people of any race.

Now it bears a moment’s attention to note that Britain’s experience came predominantly after America’s own; that, in other words, even the stark exhibit of failure across the Atlantic did not disabuse the British socialists of their social policy dogmas. And of course the Brits are not alone in this despondent, incorrigible “refusal to face simple truths”: opposition here to welfare reform, perhaps the single most successful domestic policy in a generation, is still truculent and inspired, and its potential to roll back what was achieved continually threatens.

Reason alone is simply not a solid enough foundation upon which to build a civilization; it does not hold final sway over the minds of human beings; stronger elements must be employed: habit, prejudice, prescription. That was Burke’s teaching, and I do not think it has been refuted, neither by argument nor by experience. Burke does not disdain reform. But it must be done with care for the organic thing that is human society, for the traditions into which men of genius and of modesty alike have infused their hard earned wisdom and lessons for posterity. Tradition should be venerated; that the past is full viciousness and injustice only strengthens the necessity for taking it seriously.

I want to emphasize that I have no reason to believe that Mr. Ruffini has any dispute with all this. His piece was just a mild demurral from something previously remarked, which provoked the above inscribed thoughts.

posted by Paul Cella | 9:03 PM |

Tuesday, January 25, 2005  

I have posted several controversial pieces over at Redstate recently. Here are links and excerpts for the benefit of readers who do not make their way over there regularly.

The first, “Murder Most Foul,” deals with a brutal murder in Jersey City, and the speculation surrounding it.

The mainstream media seems to operate of the principle that reporting uncomfortable facts about Islam or Muslims will lead inevitably to internment camps and other horrors. What loathing these journalists must harbor for the people of this nation to think so ill of them! But what is far more likely to lead to the horrors anticipated is a deliberate suppression of serious debate about Islam — by serious debate I mean the asking of hard questions, the raising of uncomfortable issues, the facing of difficult problems — so that anyone who wants to think out loud about questions like, “is Islam compatible with America?” must speak in hushed tones and take great care with his audience. What is far more likely to drive otherwise sane and simple men to acts of impetuosity and vehemence is the sense that their sane and simple concerns have been redefined as bigotry or “bias” and driven from the public square. [more]

The second article is heavy on quotations from the writer Mark Helprin, who has delivered a tonic of well-argued criticism on the war on terror every few months since September 11.

Consider the following line, as devastating a critique — not least because of its simplicity and concision — of the democratizing enthusiasm as I have yet seen: “God help the army that must fight for an idea rather than an objective.” This has been the thrust of Helprin’s blistering impatience, often bordering on disgust, with the Bush administration. It has not given either us, the American people, or our soldiers in the field, a clear idea of what victory would mean. It has given us boilerplate instead of sober argument about objectives, about the nature of the enemy, his weaknesses and strengths, our strengths and weaknesses, and how, within this matrix, we might defeat him — not, mind you, transform him into something else, but defeat him. [more]

Both essays have generated some good discussion in the comments section.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:07 PM |

Friday, January 21, 2005  

You just can’t make this stuff up: “California professor flunks Kuwaiti’s pro-U.S. essay.” I say again: political correctness has disarmed parody. It has silenced irony. It has defeated satire.

posted by Paul Cella | 6:52 PM |

Friday, January 14, 2005  

I open this question to my readers. What is preferable — that Europe continues on its path of secular nihilism, with the crushing weight of multiculturalism descending in an ever-drearier enervation; or that Europe becomes Islamic?

Secular nihilism is, in James Burnham’s phrase, an ideology of suicide. Europe is dying; unable to face this brute fact, she throws up an intricate and protean ideology to mask it, most of all to herself. She writes a constitution which conspicuously fails to mention the faith that made Europe the teacher of mankind for centuries. She makes Tolerance her idol, and it becomes a jealous god indeed. Most of all, her love of comfort and leisure exceeds her love of life or her love of truth. An older word for this ideology is despair. What the Christian Salvianus said in the 5th century of Rome could be said again today of Europe: Europe is luxurious but it is filled with misery. It is dying but it laughs.

But let us have no illusions about what the conquest of Islam would mean for Europe. Islam’s capture and subjugation of other formerly Christian lands was so complete that most Westerners (even when they are Christians) no longer even think of them as ever being Christian — and this despite the names of such lands, which ought to ring like ancient tocsins for Christian men: Ephesus, Antioch, Hippo. Imagine that the day may dawn when men will have forgotten that Paris was once a great Christian city, or Monte Cassino a great Christian monastery.

So if these be the wretched alternatives set before us, what should we prefer?

posted by Paul Cella | 1:50 PM |

Friday, January 07, 2005  

“[H]e [Muhammad] declared undistinguishing and exterminating war, as a part of his religion, against all the rest of mankind . . . The precept of the Koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God.”

— John Quincy Adams, 1830 (quoted in a rich and illuminating and because illuminating disturbing essay by Andrew Bostom of Brown University).

posted by Paul Cella | 3:40 AM |

Thursday, January 06, 2005  

I’ve seen attention paid to this Washington Post article on other blogs several times over the past two days, and I must admit it is a remarkable little specimen.

At a time when the medical community has been heartened by a decline in risky sexual behavior by teenagers, a different problem has crept up: More adult women are forgoing birth control, a trend that has experts puzzled — and alarmed about a potential rise in unintended pregnancies.

It goes on like that for quite a while.

Now the burden of most of the rest of the article is to demonstrate, in the pinched tones of modern journalism, the unique badness of “unwanted pregnancies,” but I think that little word “potential” gives us a hint of the real thrust of the article.

In the first place, a pregnancy, whether wanted or unwanted, is potential because a certain intimate event must precede it. Women may abandon their birth control methods, but they will certainly not have unwanted pregnancies until they (ahem) find a man to do his part. There can be no “unwanted” pregnancy unless there is first a wanted act of sexual congress (as they used to say). Yet no judgment attaches, it seems, in the eyes of most of the authorities quoted by the Post, to the circumstances of the sexual congress. There is judgment (implied at least) against “forgoing birth control,” and there is certainly judgment against the retrograde abstinence-only or abstinence-until-marriage educators, and there is judgment against the health insurance companies that are not generous to foot the bill for birth control, and there is judgment against the men who won’t foot that bill either; but resolutely there is no judgment concerning the sex act itself which produces the unwanted pregnancies.

And underlying all this is a chilling hostility — unstated, perhaps unrecognized — toward children. The one opposing opinion cited — “pregnancy is not a disease” — strikes the reader as almost pathetic: the faint, muffled cry of sanity into an insane world.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:01 AM |

It is as concise as it is cogent. I mean Mr. Larry Auster’s brilliant little critique of the reckless rhetoric that accompanies so much of what is said today by public men.

According to the natural rights teaching of classical liberalism, people have the natural right not to have their lives, liberty, and property taken from them by force, but — of course — if they want to keep their lives, liberty, and property they must be prepared to defend them, by force if necessary. By the same token, people are not entitled to a government that can protect their natural rights. They must create and maintain such a government.

Is it really necessary to explain these things to a man who served nine years in prison for opposing Soviet totatitarianism, and who is today a citizen of a country surrounded by its mortal enemies? Sadly these fundamental understandings are being washed away by the sloppy democratist rhetoric used by Bush and his followers, and now by Sharansky as well.

The entitlement schtick, moreover, doesn’t stop at freedom and democracy; it extends to the entire panoply of civilization. Here’s Bush’s statement about the Mideast on June 24, 2002, which Sharansky calls one of the two greatest speeches he has heard in his life. Addressing the Palestinians, Bush said: “You deserve democracy and the rule of law. You deserve an open society and a thriving economy. You deserve a life of hope for your children.”

Once again, is it necessary to point out that human beings do not simply deserve these things? They have to earn them, by producing the private and public conditions that will allow for their existence, namely a functioning, civilized society, with everything that that entails. Do headhunters on a Pacific island “deserve” the rule of law? Do the residents of a West African shanty town “deserve” a thriving economy? Do people who kill political dissidents and converts from the majority religion “deserve” an open society? Do people who encourage their children to become suicide bombers “deserve” a life of hope for their children? Of course we feel bad for the good people who are stuck in such backward conditions and who long for something better. But that doesn’t mean that they are entitled to something better, any more than I am entitled to a Rolls Royce, my own Pacific Island, or a seat in the U.S. Senate.

It is appalling that intelligent people such as Sharansky — and, worse, the neoconservatives, since as Americans they ought to have a superior grasp of these things — have so distorted our fundamental political principles, as well as the rudiments of moral reason upon which true freedom is based.

I find it increasingly astounding to witness the transformation of conservatism, not simply into robust classical Liberalism, but into a thin, cut-rate Liberalism, a mere shadow of a once vibrant idea.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:35 AM |
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