Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

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

Tuesday, March 28, 2006  

There has been a basically sane and occasionally fruitful running debate on immigration over at Redstate. My contributions are here and here. My colleague Leon Wolf made a reasonable compromise proposal here. The debate rages in the comments section of each of these posts, if you have the interest and patience to engage yourself in such business.

As has been said a thousand times over the past few days, this issue is not going away. Nor should it.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:27 PM |

Wednesday, March 15, 2006  

Islam has, throughout the history of its aggression against the West, benefited immensely by, and in many cases cunningly exploited the divisions within the West. Some of the first Byzantine provinces to fall after the Mohammedan Revolution were those, like Egypt and North Africa, whose internal repose had already been shattered by the conflagrations of the great heresies of Christian antiquity. Many Arian, Nestorian, and Donatist communities had been subject to oppressions and persecutions from the Empire in the decades immediately preceding the rise of Islam, and they welcomed the Muslim invader, even, in some cases, collaborated with him. The rabble of the People's Crusade ravaged the Anatolian countryside — populated, by and large, by Greek Christians — before succumbing to the Turkish counterattack. The Crusader Bohemund, who betrayed his oath of fealty to the Emperor, made himself Prince of Antioch and never marched with the rest to Jerusalem, later returned to Rome and convinced the Pope that the real enemies of the Latin West were the Byzantines. His intrigues in the Vatican were as damaging to the endurance of Christendom as anything the Turks ever did.

When Constantinople was besieged in 1453, there were many Greek Christians among the Sultan's legions (and some few Turks among the city's defenders). A Christian engineer oversaw the construction of the guns that broke the city's great walls. The Venetians squabbled with the Genoese, and only sent a relief convoy after it was too late (though many individual Venetians and Genoese fought valiantly to the end). It is estimated that when she finally fell to Mehmet II, the great capital of Eastern Christianity, which had stood for eleven and a half centuries, could summon only a mere four thousand men to defend her.

Even at our great victory at Lepanto, the unity of the Christian forces was achieved only by extraordinary efforts, and by the extraordinary leadership of Don John of Austria. Chesterton's unforgettable picture of this disunity should be enough to emblazon it in our minds:

The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Or again:

The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.

Part of the dhimma contract extended to conquered Christians and Jews included the requirement those communities give their resources, when asked, to the cause of Jihad. In many instances these resources were quite substantial. The Janissaries were only the most salient, costly and terrible of these expropriations. It might be speculated that some significant portion of the success of the Ottoman Turks was due to the riches, both material and human, that they seized from the Greek world. We need only consider the explosions of creativity evident in the Western world as Latin Christendom gradually appropriated the learning and culture of antiquity.

The significance of this history for us today, who in our lassitude have forgotten it, cannot be particularly obscure. It seems to me remarkably relevant to the vexatious and pressing problem of American policy toward Europe. My old friend Orrin Judd speaks for some number of American patriots with his auguries that Europe under Islam will be a dramatic improvement over Europe under secular nihilism. There is, I admit, some real merit in this position. Certainly Islam contains more elements of truth than secularism. A religion which declares the awesome oneness of the sovereign God cannot but be superior to that despair which, denying God, embraces the emptiness of man. But it is this very grasp of some tremendous fragments of truth that has made Islam such a tenacious foe of our civilizations. Secular nihilism cannot sustain a civilization. It deprives a people of vigor, piety, foresight, and all that mysterious recklessness that we call creativity. Secularism cannot really be an enemy; it can only be a suicide.

But Islam can emphatically be an enemy, and one that commands respect and fear. Respect because of the doggedness with which it has laid hold to some very profound truths about God and man; fear because of, as Chesterton incisively put it, that “void made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it.” Islam cannot really settle down to the work of sustaining a culture. Even if some Muslims desire just that, their theology betrays them. Real stability is unachievable short of the final accomplishment of that peace which is the only kind Islam knows: the peace of unbelief defeated — destroyed utterly or subjugated. Chesterton continues, “The only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again.” He speaks of the chronic danger inherent in the religion of unleashing “lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests.” “The very dogma that there is only one Mahomet produces an endless procession of Mahomets.”

There is no reason to expect that Islam, which once absorbed the great Christian cities of Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Hippo, and later, Constantinople and the bulk of the Greek empire, will be unable to absorb the wealth and material resources of Europe. There is no reason to expect that the gradual subjugation of Europe to Islam, which we are already witnessing, will presage Europe’s decline as a economic and political power. Only the most brassbound and morbid of optimists could imagine that it will presage her decline as a military power. And I ask the contemners of Europe, like the one-man Global Content Provider, to calculate what contempt will remain when the factories of Germany are turning the tanks of our enemies; when the slippery diplomats of Belgium, having made their peace with Islam, will make its aims their own; when the clique of Eurocrats that dominates the ever-proliferating transnational institutions that would truss and check our action, have adopted the goals of Jihad; when we are all alone to enjoy our boasts about the superiority of Islamic Europe to secular Europe.

It is true enough that secular Europe is more hateful; it will be left to our children and grandchildren discover which is the more potent enemy.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:37 PM |

It is not obvious that true privacy in our day will endure the ministrations of its narrow partisans. There is a bizarre sort of double effect on the idea of privacy right now: a simultaneous exaggeration and diminution. Its deterioration as a firm principle of life proceeds at once with the hoarsest and most desperate cries in its defense; almost as if a howling mob of revolutionists, their hands bloodied from the work of expropriating and uprooting, now turn around and with all the sincerity of madmen, demand that their appointed despots reinstate Tradition, so that they may live by the simple customs and prejudices by which simple men lived before the Revolution. It is like the most ferocious Jacobin turning monarchist just as the guillotine’s blade falls on the King; and stridently claiming he was monarchist all along. It has an air about it, undoubtedly inspiring a certain human sympathy, of furtive penitence; perhaps it is the confession of faithless men. In any event, it is an intriguing phenomenon.

Say something shocking like “I favor censorship” to the average American, and you will not likely hear in reply a statement taking cognizance of privacy. But in truth part of the motivation for censorship has always been a robust notion of a bright demarcation between public and private spheres. Censorship is a way to insure that what is of necessity public does not encroach upon what is properly private. And the republican principle empowers a community to legislate to enforce this demarcation. More: the republican principle positively demands it, because the republican principle contains within it an ineradicable element of what is suggested by the ancient word virtue. It is unlawful, declare the good people of Anytown, USA, for commercial enterprises to depict graphically in public what is appropriately recognized as uniquely private — especially when what is depicted is a uniquely private sin. As a signal of the poverty of our politics, and more unmistakably the poverty of our idea of privacy, many Americans have come to imagine that such legislation is unconstitutional because it infringes on the principle of free speech. This despite the fact that laws against obscenity, pornography, etc., were already on the state law books at the time of the Bill of Rights, and that many more were passed later, with hardly a word ever spoken against them as infringements on free speech. It wasn’t until the enlightened twentieth century that such laws began to be overturned. There is a simple and even plain reason for this: Free speech for our forefathers always meant public speech, in the sense of debate and argument on matters of public controversy. A film of nameless choreographed encounters of the flesh is not an argument. And our error inheres precisely in the fact that, having obliterated the natural demarcations between public and private, we have thrown ourselves into a bleak confusion about what the free speech clause protects. In our confusion, we consent to vitiate the republican principle that is our inheritance; and endure a quiet cheeping despotism of unaccountable judges.

I find it fascinating that the people who castigate any natural or republican move toward censorship, like when Mr. Rudy Giuliani came to the defense (as he so often and so defiantly did) of New York Catholics who felt an understandable annoyance at the deliberate blasphemes of their icons at public galleries, are the same people who shout “privacy!” whenever an equally natural or republican act of legislation conflicts with their sexual “liberation.” The State should stay out of the bedroom; instead it should fund and endorse bringing the crudest and ugliest representations of the bedroom to public spaces. The public square, in Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus’ apt phrase, should remain “naked” — pristinely free of any religious argument or sentiment — yet in its nakedness should be teeming with base allure and temptation to lust. Our confusion about public and private has made a mockery of our politics. There is an unnerving sense that the American privatists really cannot imagine that the legal protections afforded to pornographers might possibly be quite ludicrous. They really think Larry Flynt is a free speech hero; their own bombastic rhetoric, which has its roots in the farcical drama that so often characterizes our legal system, beguiles them. They believe their own formulaic hyperbole. They deceive mainly themselves. One is tempted to speculate that future generations, looking back from a saner age, may regard us with that kind of befuddlement, or almost bemusement, reserved today for Prohibitionists and Puritans. We are puritanical about our vice: no touch of virtue or hint of public restraint will tarnish it. Pornography, at its nihilistic core, is the annihilation of privacy. That an enterprise dedicated to the crude exhibition of private things as grotesqueries or perversions is defended on the grounds that restricting it is a offense against liberty, is just the sort of insanity the modern world is capable of producing.

I restate here what I wrote in the midst of another controversy. The intensely vulgar public square we are confronted with today is simply not the work of democracy — if by democracy we mean the prevailing of popular will. It is more nearly the work of oligarchy or aristocracy. An example I often turn to is the example of the film American Beauty — a film celebrated by Hollywood beyond all reason. Well acted and cleverly written, the movie nevertheless did nothing so effectively as projecting onto a fictionalized Middle America all the pathologies and obsessions of Hollywood. In that its creators were almost comically manipulative, fancying (sincerely, perhaps) that the rest of the country shared the particular disorders of their class. Now Hollywood is probably as near as America comes to a truly aristocratic society, as Adam Bellow demonstrated in his recent study of nepotism. What emerges from it, whatever the pressures of the market may be, is still largely the product of a segregated and complacent elite. The despair and frightful decadence of American Beauty is the despair and decadence of an elite (which is not to say that what issues from the elite does not infect the people.)

There is also what we might call the supply-side insight: that supply generates its own demand. Economists of a certain stripe are happy to argue that high tax rates are counterproductive even from the taxman’s point of view; that, in other words, reducing taxes will stimulate the “supply-side” of the economy — the producers of wealth, who are in turn the primary sources of government revenue. Emancipate the economic activities of the productive class from the fetters of taxation, and you will enrich the federal treasury. But these economists, also often being of a libertarian cast of mind, are less eager to acknowledge that the supply-side of vulgar oligarchs and complacent aristocrats in the entertainment business benefits from this mechanism as well. Their clever filth generates its own demand.

One might argue that the rise of the modern mass entertainment industry presaged the defeat real privacy. The rapacity of exposure of the former crushed the flourishing of the latter. The entertainment industry feasts on temptation and the exploitation of the feeble and vulnerable. I once argued my charges against American Beauty with some colleagues, and was told by one that the “moral” of the film was not, as I contended, that bourgeois life is soulless, but that “things that appear fine on the outside are probably a mess underneath.” In other words, there is value in annihilating privacy, so that we may discover once again that man is a strange and sinful creature. The idea might be more palatable, or least more fruitfully provocative, if it did not stand alongside this incessant chirping about privacy. The filmmakers and their ilk seem to say that bourgeois respectability is contemptible because it is a dreary façade for human frailty and ugliness. But is not the façade also, whatever lies behind it (and I certainly reject the hypothesis of the film that behind it always lies perversion and alienation), a kind of organic fortress of privacy? Do families not present a front of respectability in order to deflect prying eyes? to maintain their sanity and integrity in an honorless world of exploitation? And if the façade or the front is contemptible, what does that imply about the principle of privacy?

Now I admit that I rest quite a lot of polemical weight, as it were, on inferences drawn from a single film. But note the reception in Hollywood that American Beauty received. Note the magnification of its effect on subsequent Academy Award aspirants. I recall hearing it reported that this particular film made considerably more money after it was awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1999. That is a striking fact; perhaps it is a broader trend than I know. In any case it suggests to me that hardly anyone cared about this sorry specimen until Hollywood lent its weight to promoting it. And let us not underestimate the potential of the most profitable industry in the most prosperous nation in history to promote what it likes.

What remains an open question at the moment is whether privacy will survive the privatists.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:34 PM |

Wednesday, March 08, 2006  

My EM colleague Daniel Larison has a fine essay in The New Pantagruel about the relation between Conservatism and the Enlightenment.

He concludes with three practical proposals for restoring and revitalizing Conservatism:

1) An extensive revival of a knowledge of patristic thought, especially patristic thought of the first seven or eight centuries, and the re-establishment of patristic authors as the core of a new canonical literature to be learned beginning during formative education and continuing thereafter (along with the classical languages in which this thought was originally expressed) to acknowledge its centrality not only generally for all subsequent “Western” thought but also to affirm the decisive, defining significance of this thought for what it means to be Christian as well as what it means to create and sustain a robust Christian social and political order. If Christian civilisation is what we wish to restore, we must acquire the common mind that fashioned it in the first place.

2) An elaboration of ethics founded in Christian personalism and so premised on the very nature of the One God in Trinity in koinonia (communion), which would strive to abandon conceptions of agency connected with notions of autonomy, self-interest and choice and affirm a morality rooted in asceticism, festivity (the natural complement to asceticism) as well as communion.

3) A recasting of discussions of the proper role of government in terms of chartered liberties (as opposed to natural rights) and the government’s duty to the welfare of the commonwealth or republic.

posted by Paul Cella | 2:55 PM |

Wednesday, March 01, 2006  

The CongressThe Cartoon Jihad has provoked some valuable discussion, but we are still very far from where we need to be. We are still very far from the kind of discussion that a free republican people, jealous of its liberty, must undertake. We are still very far from satisfactorily discharging our duty of self-government.

The Boston Phoenix now admits that it refused to publish the cartoons not out of respect, but out of fear.

Our primary reason . . . is fear of retaliation from . . . bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do . . . Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and . . . could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy. As we feel forced, literally, to bend to maniacal pressure, this may be the darkest moment in our 40-year-publishing history.

It is all well and good to denounce those who have produced this climate of fear; it is well and good to refer to them as “bloodthirty Islamists,” or to invoke, against them, the heroic images of the dissidents of the past, as Jeff Jacoby does. But the question hangs in the tense air like a silent accusation: what are we going to do about them?

This question — the uncomfortable practical one — is the very one we must raise amongst ourselves. We must place it before the sovereign, which is the people, acting through their duly-elected representatives. We must raise this question and set ourselves with sagacity and resolve to an open deliberation about it, while we still remain free to do so. I think such a deliberation, unburdened by the sort of ideological shackles that characterize the media discussion, will soon issue in some effective policies.

The first and most obvious sector to strike at is Muslim immigrants, especially those here illegally. Let us draw up legislation emphasizing the priority of deporting illegal Muslim immigrants. I repeat: illegal Muslim immigrants. If we encounter defiance of this simple act of republican will, much as our immigration laws have been brazenly defied by local officials before, let us draw up legislation withholding federal funds from localities that resist. There can be no doubt whatever about a local municipality’s obligation to obey Congress on this, and Congress’s authority to retaliate in the event of insubordination.

But let us go further. Let us draw up legislation declaring that any Muslim immigrant, here by our forbearance, who so much as breathes a word of jihadist threat against an American, whether on a placard in the streets of New York, or in some screed on the Internet, will be arrested and deported forthwith. Let us make clear that we will not tolerate such threats, and that, taking cognizance of recent world events, we consider them qualitatively different that run-of-the-mill incitement to murder; consider them, rather, an aspect of a shadowy and complicated war being made against us, and thus deserving of particular attention and firmness.

I ask the reader to consider what effect the mere introduction of such legislation in the United States House of Representatives might have. Should we not be thinking about how to turn the climate of fear around a bit? When the seething jihadist, his sensibilities inflamed by a half dozen sensationalized examples of “disrespect,” goes to his dirty little apartment with his poster-board and his crayons, let him pause for a moment, recalling the most recent CAIR online alert, and calculate the possibility that taking that colorful placard to the street one morning might, willy-nilly, result in his being on a plane to Pakistan that afternoon. Let another seething jihadist, preparing to post some wild diatribe on a Islamist website from his comfy workstation at the company office, stop short and ponder whether an agent of the hated infidel lurks out there among his hitherto trusted interlocutors, and whether this post will be the one that earns him a revoked visa and a one-way ticket to Riyadh. Let the jihadists and their sympathizers, isolated in the unseen enclaves throughout our great cities, soak in two or three weeks of media hysteria over that bill introduced by Representative So-and-So, the very New McCarthy himself, which actually cites by name several of the more problematic doctrines of Islam, and declares them anathema to the traditions and liberties of America; which bill, moreover, seems to be somehow gaining support in both houses of Congress.

In short, let us proclaim publicly, by means of our very own republican institutions, that our sufferance of this lunatic faction of the Islamic religion has come to an end. This faction is outside the protection of our laws; outside the security of our liberties; outside the shelter of our traditions. It stands naked before the power of the State.

Is this problem too difficult, too sensitive, too explosive, to be even addressed in the Congress of the United States? To answer Yes is, in strict cold logic, to affirm the death of republican self-government in America.

posted by Paul Cella | 2:00 PM |

Dr. Andrew Bostom, whose persistence, energy and courage gave us The Legacy of Jihad, which is, very simply, the best single resource we have on the doctrine, tradition and history of jihad, delivered a talk recently at James Madison University. And a strange thing happened afterward. It was one of those striking little disclosures, whether accidental or deliberate, which recalls the thrill of truth erupting onto a field saturated with falsehood and fraud.

A local newspaper reported on the talk objectively [pdf file].

Lee Zion of the Virginia Valley Daily News-Record shamed the bigshot mountebanks of our leading media organizations by simply reporting what was said.

Despite recent attempts to re-brand jihad as internal struggle, it is in the main an Islamic war of conquest. It started with the military activities of Muhammad himself, described in the Muslim sacred texts, [Bostom] said.

It is to be wondered, without much exaggeration, whether a paragraph of such simple honesty has ever appeared in a major American newspaper, even in the context of merely reporting what was said at some event, as is the case here.

The reporter does not attach sly words of deprecation like “controversial” or “divisive” to his description of Bostom; nor are we treated to some furtive and condescending editorial passage. We are given a summary of what Bostom said, and how it was received. That’s it. Magnificent.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:56 PM |

Here is a marvelous little polemic by Prof. Anthony Esolen.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:52 PM |
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