Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

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

Monday, February 19, 2007  

Reviewing a recent book called American Islam in the last weekend’s Wall Street Journal (subscription only for the full article), Shawn Macomber begins with a real head-scratcher of a paragraph:

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, most Americans recognize that there is no Islamist fifth column in the U.S. If even a small fraction of the four to six million Muslims in America were part of such an enterprise, the color-coded terrorist-threat levels would consist only of several shades of red and the Council on American-Islamic Relations would have more pressing concerns than the latest season of “24.”

If you've ever wondered how much confusion can be packed into a couple sentences, the above two should at least provide a benchmark. The first, aside from being singularly infelicitous of composition, is bereft of any functional meaning at all: the relation of its first clause to its second is either fantastically obscure or positively perverse. And the second sentence, while perhaps less obscure in meaning, is even more superficial in meaning. The paragraph is, in short, cut-rate sophistry. It tries to pawn off a very dubious assumption by means of some very awkward sleight-of-hand.

Later we read of one Osama Siblani of Dearborn, a man who, from humble beginnings, founded a newspaper that has become influential in local and regional politics. “From pauper to kingmaker,” comments Macomber; “truly the best of America.” Soon, however, we learn that this example of the best of America is on record supporting “the Iraqi resistance against American forces,” and publishes in his newspapers such fare as “U.S., U.K., and Israel: The Real Axis of Evil.” Sedition: the best of America.

Macomber notes several examples of Muslim outrage at American sexual license. According to the book under review, two thirds of American Muslims regard America as “immoral” on these grounds. Macomber’s gloss on this is as follows:

Yes, America is the Land of Opportunity. It’s also, famously, the home of “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos.” It’s true enough that American citizens need to show cultural sensitivity to diverse newcomers; but sensitivity is a two-way street. A pluralistic, affluent society needs to be understood on its own terms, too: It is a great place to escape repression and economic stagnation, but it is most certainly not fertile ground for suburban caliphates based on seventh-century mores.

Now this is an arresting summary for at least two reasons. First, because it implies that American identity is found in pluralism and affluence, the former exemplified by the fact that, as he states elsewhere, “women here dress and behave as they please,” and latter by the fact that much of our wealth is tied up in the success of fabricated depictions of depravity and decadence, like the above-mentioned television shows. And second, because it implies that opposition to this identity can only be the product of “seventh-century mores.” America the Decadent, love it or leave it.

This is how a right-wing newspaper and an up-and-coming right-wing writer handle the complicated problem of Islam in America. On the one hand by simply assuming, in a particularly clumsy and unpersuasive way, that there is no “fifth column” threat from Muslims in this country; and on the other hand by formulating the character of American identity is emphatically Liberal terms.

The most concise way to sum all this up is to say that Mr. Macomber, sadly like so many on the Right, has made two grievous errors: he has erred in his estimate of the enemy, and he has erred in his estimate of us.

Since September 11 there have in fact been quite a number of razzias, launched against Americans by jihadists in our midst. Most of them have been forgotten — precisely because remembering them is too distressing. The assumption that there is no fifth column must be maintained: and so these jihadist raids are forgotten. The DC snipers. The El Al ticket counter shooting at LAX. The Seattle Jewish center shooting. The hit-and-run attack by an Iranian student at the University of North Carolina. The grenade attack by a Muslim soldier on the eve of the Iraq war. Razzias, each of them — and perpetrated by members of American Muslim communities. That the press, both right and left, for the most part resolutely refuses to make the connection between these crimes and the doctrine of jihad, does not mean there is no connection, or that it is not evident to the discerning mind. It means only that something prevents the operation of critical intelligence upon this matter. It means only that men cling more tightly to their ideological assumptions than they do to their patriotism. It means only that it is more important to them to think proper thoughts about a sensitive topic, than to think truly. It means, in fine, that they have disabled their reason, in order to accord properly with the prejudices of the age.

The second error is a problem outside the scope of my brief essay here. I will content myself with noting how really remarkable it is to observe soi disant conservatives rendering the identity of America purely in Liberal terms. Material advancement — “from pauper to kingmaker” — and a “pluralism” which abjures all moral censure on sexual matters: these, according to the right-wing scribes of today, are what define America. They have taken for granted the left-wing argument of a generation ago. They are conserving Liberalism.

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posted by Paul Cella | 10:49 AM |

Friday, February 16, 2007  


“I don't want my 17-year-old son to have to pick tomatoes or make beds in Las Vegas.” That, reportedly, is what Karl Rove pronounced recently as a defense of his boss’s immigration policy. Mark Kirkorian answers it well here. Mr. Kirkorian bemoans the fact that it is now necessary “to explain why this is an obscene statement”; I agree with him. The Republican Party, under the leadership of George W. Bush and Karl Rove, has come to believe and teach that some work really is beneath us, that the lawyer or financial analyst really is “somehow better than the parking-lot attendant.” It is difficult to imagine an uglier trend in our politics than this.

Karl Rove is not alone in his expression of this trend. We have heard its like many times. It is rather horrifying to see this brazen appeal to class interests; and the horror is only magnified by the denigration of some category of honest work. A rather provocative way to state the problem is that the Republican Party, under its current leadership, is advancing a plutocratic theory of politics: an aristocracy of wealth. But even this does not capture the full ugliness of the thing, for in a true plutocracy, no form of wealth is derided. That a man made his fortune by, let us, “picking tomatoes” or “making beds,” does not bar him from entry into power. But here it is indicated that some occupations are dishonorable by nature, and that even success at them is contemptible.

It is noteworthy to me that this position flips the whole “jobs American won’t do” argument on its head. It’s not that there are jobs Americans won’t do: it’s that there are jobs we shouldn’t, because we are better that. Some are born to be served; and some are born to serve.

This sort of arrogance and elitsim, I submit, positively permeates the immigration enthusiast position among political strategists. There are those who are immigration enthusiasts out of a misplaced idealism, an overconfidence in a culture that has lost its nerve, compounded by a complacency with the sedition in the street and treachery in the administration of our laws. But the idealists have a strong and influential ally in the calculators and sophisters, who do not share their admirable idealism. For this latter faction, I do not hesitate to use words like “betrayal,” “treachery,” and even “treason.” They have betrayed the ideals of their party; and the effect of their machinations is to subvert the ideals which are integral to the American political tradition.

I suspect that the betrayal derives from despair or resignation. These men are realists, by and large: they are not possessed of any illusions about the mettle of American culture; they are well aware that the assimilationist ethic has been overthrown; they have seen the failure of such eminently mild things as removing bilingual education, and have read the writing on the wall. Except this writing is not the doom of God’s judgment, but of Mammon’s. They want to get ahead of the wave of the future; plutocracy, servitude, balkanization, the dissolution of the Republic and the dispossession of our inheritance as Americans.

We may not, in the end, be able to defeat their contrivances; but God help us if we join them. If we are to lose this struggle, let us leave a monument for our descendents that, should it survive the scrubbing of history contemplated by the coming regime (a scrubbing already perceptible in our public schools, in our new myths and legends, in the falsification of history our academics peddle), will teach those who care to know that not everyone was lost to despair and false hopes when the Republic was imperiled.


posted by Paul Cella | 1:19 PM |

Last Fall, ISI released yet another college guide. But this one is different, and worthy of particular attention. It’s editor is John Zmirak, author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist and The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living. I recently interviewed him via email.

Paul Cella: Mr. Zmirak, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. First, if you would, tell us briefly how All-American Colleges differs from all the other college guides out there.

John Zmirak: There are several ways in which our guide sets itself apart. First of all, it is based on a solid vision of what education ought to be, against which we are able to judge the institutions we consider. That vision is the same one most eloquently described by John Henry Newman in his The Idea of a University: A place which is not primarily concerned either with research or political activism, but rather with passing along the great body of knowledge that has accumulated (and continues to accumulate) in various disciplines. This should happen first through the medium of a solid core curriculum which introduces students to the history, culture, institutions, arts and literature of the civilization which “hosts” that educational institution. In China, such a curriculum ought to be Confucian (though nowadays it will still be infused with that toxic Western export, Marxism). In the Germany, it ought to focus on German culture, and in the U.S. it ought to stress Anglo-American institutions and history.

Second, building on that core, students’ specializations should be serious, foundational, and grounded in the real historic development of each discipline; what is more, the course work should be structured, with prerequisites such as highly informative survey courses mandated before students are permitted to delve into the sort of arcana which professors like to study — because it complements their research.

Third, a school should be focused on teaching, and should reward faculty members at least as much for serving their paying customers and intellectual wards — the students — as for contributing ever more recondite articles to the stacks of unreadable academic journals that litter our libraries.

Finally, a school should provide a wholesome, civil, safe and decent environment — where parents can be confident that their children will at least have the opportunity (although they cannot be compelled) to practice the virtues and carry on the beliefs which the parents strove to inculcate in their young.

We have chosen some 50 schools, out of many worthy candidates, where we believe that many or most of the above ideals are realized.

PC: In your Introduction, you elegantly define “true liberty” as “the capacity and inclination to choose the good.” How has the average established American university departed from this ideal of liberal education? Is this departure reversible?

JZ: The old ideal of American education was always progressive in a genuine sense; teachers and administrators strove, in our newly democratic environment, to provide the children of farmers, workers, recent immigrants, et cetera, who had the talent to learn, with the best fruits of the Western heritage which (as we remembered back then) were what made a liberal society possible. In the 1940s and 50s, even closeted Marxist professors saw the extraordinary value of teaching the classics, of trying to raise the sons of the working class to the cultural level previously only available to the aristocracy. Historically black colleges undertook the same task for the descendants of slaves. In the 1960s, the radicalism of the New Left abandoned the goal of elevating America’s poor — a grim task, which had previous generations of leftists working with coal miners to organize labor unions — and embraced exotic ideologies, hedonism, grossly lowered academic standards, and cheaply acquired “virtue” attained by shrugging off the heritage of centuries’ struggle for liberty, order, and prosperity. As timorous administrators gave into their demands, education descended into the welter of polemic, grievance-based indoctrination, and utter mediocrity which characterizes most universities today — with isolated exceptions of good, old-fashioned teachers who hold out against the odds in various academic departments at otherwise compromised colleges. In our other guide, we try to give the names of some of these holdovers from better days, and lay out the best courses students can take even if they find themselves at a bad school.

PC: In a recent article, Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College (one of the schools examined in All-American Colleges) refers to a Draft Report out of President Bush’s Department of Education, which “does not mention religion, God or morality. It does not mention history as a subject of study. It does not mention the Constitution, either for what it commands or allows, or as a subject of study. Although busy governing, the Report does not mention government as a subject of study. Philosophy, literature, happiness, goodness, beauty are not to be seen.” This sort of rootless, sterile, technocratic document has become standard for education experts of both parties. Do you see any reasonable hope for restoration from the political world?

JZ: The only hope I would hold out for a restoration of education from political sources would come in the form of funding cuts to the humanities. In most public and elite universities, these fields are hopelessly compromised, almost entirely in the hands of tenured radicals who cannot be removed, and who vote to choose their future colleagues and successors. I would be loath to see the federal government try ham-handedly to impose educational goals and political fairness on such departments; such an attempt would probably work about as well as “No Child Left Behind,” Title IX, affirmative action laws, and our futile attempt to turn Iraq into Switzerland by making the rubble bounce. A large-scale withdrawal of federal and state funds from university programs — except those in math, the sciences, and foreign languages which have some relevance to national security — would force universities to cut back on programs which exist mainly to transfer leftist ideology to impressionable young minds, and to seek funding from donors (such as parents and alumni) who are much more effective at exerting positive pressure on college administrators than political hacks who work for legislators.


posted by Paul Cella | 1:08 PM |
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