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Colombia’s gem

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn called the Colombian aphoristic philosopher Nicolas Gomez Davila (1913-1994) “the brightest thinker on the Right.” It is perhaps no coincidence that his writings have been altogether unavailable in English. Nikos Salingaros just did English speakers a service by translating some of his thoughts on artistic, architectural, and urban matters. They’re an interesting mixture of things.

Some are eternally applicable. For example,

A properly civilizing task is to revisit old commonplace things.

puts me in mind of Confucius.

External influences enrich solely those with an original mind.

is the same as Emerson’s “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.”

Others deal specifically with modern times, and modern abuses:

What is deceiving about the aesthetic quality of certain new works is that their manner of being bad differs from the traditional manner of being bad.

Still others are in between. They are eternally applicable, but particularly to the point in a time of verbal fog and half-baked ideas:

Clarity of text is the sole incontrovertible sign of the maturity of an idea.

They’re all worth reading. Still, I can’t help but think that his best thoughts are on politics and religion. Here are a few of my own translations of translations from a somewhat over-the-top German site:

Prejudices save us from stupid ideas.

The realities of the 20th century are less terrifying than the ideals by which it hopes to justify them.

In contrast to the angel of the Bible, the Marxist angel doesn’t let people flee his paradise.

No-one holds the idiocy of yesterday in so much contempt as the idiot of today.

I can’t help but think that translations directly from the Spanish would be better. Also, the aphorisms gain by cumulative effect—the more of them you read the better they seem. Is there a Spanish speaker willing to pitch in and make more of them available to us Anglos?

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Christian thought in America today

Evidence that American Christians are generally more American than Christian, and that opposition to the “radical religious right” is basically a mopping-up operation: Unbelieving ‘born-agains’. Most born-agains reject the Trinity and consider salvation a matter of living a good life. A third or more deny the Resurrection, and accept premarital cohabitation and same-sex unions.

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The NYT on popular participation

The effect of “equality” on self-government: Bias Feared in School Plan for Councils. New York City has 32 elected school boards. Most potential voters don’t have school-age children, and fewer than 5% participate in electing the boards. So the city wants to replace the school boards with parent councils elected by PTA officers. That way they would be chosen by parents actively involved in improving their children’s education.

The problem? Minorities don’t get involved much in civic affairs. The “black community” is mostly a fable. As a result, many heavily-minority schools don’t have active PTAs, in spite of the presence of a paid full-time parent coordinator, and those that do have disproportionate white involvement. To the New York Times, that means bias. To the “growing number of critics” the Times cites in support of its opinion, it’s “appalling,” “unconstitutional,” and “unfair representation.” They feel “sick, absolutely sick,” and say that “[w]e might as well not have had the civil rights movement.”

The solution? Get the federal government involved, and have them force the city to keep the entirely unrepresentative current system. If local participatory institutions can’t be made equal, which they never can, the answer is centralized control by people who can be presumed to read the New York Times. That is liberalism in 2003.

A striking feature of the article is the lack of curiosity about the substance of the dispute. Apart from noting down comments from various not-very-astute local liberal activists, the writer makes no effort to analyze opposition to the reform. As they stand, the school boards are somewhat independent local authorities that are responsible to no-one, because the electorate does not in fact elect them. In New York City that kind of situation normally means corruption of one sort or another—patronage, cronyism, placement of contracts and whatnot. If goodies are available they never go to waste, and if someone tries to take them away there are complaints. To the writer of the piece, though, that kind of problem doesn’t exist. The only thing relevant is the overriding requirement that everything be made equal.

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Distinguishing moderates from extremists

Daniel Pipes has a list of questions he says are helpful in Identifying Muslim Moderates. It occurred to me that with surprisingly slight modification the list could become a guide for identifying liberal moderates:

  • Violence: Do you condone or condemn partial-birth abortion, or illegal direct action by militant environmentalist, animal-rights, gay-rights and similar organizations? Will you condemn by name such organizations as NOW, Greenpeace, PETA and ACT-UP that promote such things?
  • Modernity: Should traditionalists have equal rights with liberals (for example, in judicial and academic appointments, and with regard to the right to follow their own beliefs in running their own organizations)? Is wide-ranging humanitarian intervention, meaning a form of warfare, acceptable in today’s world? Do you accept the validity of political and social views that reject liberalism? Do liberals have anything to learn from antiliberals?
  • Secularism: Do you accept the laws of a non-liberal government and unreservedly pledge allegiance to that government? Should the state insist on liberal propaganda in the public schools, or impose liberal ideological observances such as the Martin Luther King Holiday? When liberal habits conflict with secular laws (e.g., regarding sexual conduct), which should give way?
  • Liberal pluralism: Are libertarians and mainstream American “conservatives” fully legitimate liberals? Do you see liberals who disagree with you as fascists? Is PC (condemning fellow liberals one has disagreements with as bigots or reactionaries) an acceptable practice?
  • Self-criticism: Do you accept the legitimacy of scholarly inquiry into racial differences? Which is responsible for AIDS, sexual liberation or the Roman Catholic Church?
  • Defense against the militant Left: Do you accept enhanced security measures to fight the militant Left, even if this means extra scrutiny of yourself (for example, stepped-up border controls to control immigration and thus multiculturalism)? Do you agree that institutions accused of funding the anti-American and anti-Christian Left should be shut down, or do you see this a symptom of bias?
  • Goals in the West: Do you accept that Western countries are majority-Christian or do you seek to transform them into liberal countries ruled by liberal constitutional law?

As Pipes points out in the case of Muslims, the answer to a single question doesn’t necessarily prove anything, but taken together the questions do “offer a good start to the vexing issue of separating enemy from friend.”

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Reality Czech

Evidence that there is at least one sensible European politician: Czech President Vaclav Klaus warns Europe of ‘dream world’ woes. He doesn’t like the EU, thinks the Europeans are living in lotus-land, views the Euro as a purely political scheme, believes “you cannot have a democratic accountability in anything bigger than a nation state,” and worries about “a new form of collectivism.” These aren’t obscure points, even an untutored outsider can see them, but it’s refreshing and somewhat startling to see them made by a head of state. I wonder how soon he’ll get arrested?

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The eldest daughter of the Church

A French parliamentary group has called for a ban on the wearing of any visible religious symbols in schools. The question had been whether Muslim girls can wear Islamic head scarves, but if that’s a problem why isn’t it a problem for a Catholic girl to wear a little silver cross? President Chirac takes the matter seriously, so he’s gone further and appointed a “blue-ribbon panel of French intellectuals” to study the broad issue of French secularism and whether new laws are needed to defend it. The moral of the story seems to be that “diversity” means that everything has to be the same, and “secularism” is the established religion of France, defended by laws that suppress public dissent.

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Copy rights and wrongs

If draconian measures are needed to enforce a law, we should ask whether the public benefit justifies the penalties. A copyright bill is being introduced in the Senate that would make it a federal felony punishable by five years in prison to use a camcorder to make a copy of a film in a movie theater. The bill would also make it punishable by three years in prison and a fine of $250,000 to put a copy of a not-yet-released movie in a folder accessible to a public computer network.

The problem is that words, sounds and images have become a huge business, and the advances in technology that have made them a big business have also made it difficult to maintain control. If electronics can put The Titanic in every living room they can take the same digital stream and copy it to every hard drive. It’s not easy to do anything about it.

The choices are to threaten extreme penalties, as in the proposed bill, or to tie up the whole process of data communication and storage in the interests of the pop culture companies. That’s being attempted as well. Both are things we shouldn’t have government do without very good reason.

The ownership of information, ideas, words and images is an artifice. Congress has the power “[t]o promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Congress, mindful of the public interest and campaign contributions, has evidently decided that it promotes progress to give the culture industry ownership of each addition to culture for 95 years or more. Now they’re deciding what combination of threats and restrictions will be needed to back that up.

But why bother? Serious literature doesn’t make money. The vast majority of good musicians don’t get recording contracts. So it seems the practical issue is whether it’s good for our public life to have a big-money entertainment industry, or whether we’d be better off to have people making their own entertainment out of love for what they’re doing. It seems to me the question answers itself.

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More on the Derrida virus

Nikos Salingaros has made some fascinating material available that gives the background to an essay he wrote on “The Derrida Virus” that I mentioned a month or so ago. (The essay is no longer available on the web but it appears it will be published in Telos.) The material provides a perspective on how nihilistic ideas propagate based on what seem to be rather close medical and computer science analogies. Sample quote:

Studying deconstructivist writings gave me the impression that except for Derrida, who is very cleverly and deliberately obfuscating, their authors were suffering from some sort of brain damage. (I’m being serious, and not trying to score points). The normal, evolved mechanisms that enable human analytical thought had apparently been scrambled, so that those authors seemed mentally incapable of expressing a direct, logical statement. Their writings almost make sense; but not quite. They avoid closure as part of the method, but this eventually becomes a habit as neural circuits rewire themselves. This syndrome mimics the effects of a biological virus that has destroyed part (but not all) of the brain, preserving intelligence and memory while damaging the ability to synthesize thoughts. Since synthesis depends on connectivity, which deconstruction erases, this adds supporting evidence for some new type of mental virus with observable and possibly permanent effects.

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The life of the mind today

William Buckley left some on the American Right with a residue of Anglophilia and Ivy League snobbery. Here’s something guaranteed to cure even the most stubborn case: lady nominalist leaves Yale to take Regius Chair of Divinity at Oxford. The bit about the black leather clerical attire (the lady is also an Episcopal priestess noted for her support for the gay cause) was confirmed by the Yale Alumni Magazine.

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It’s good we have police protection!

Do small boys still play cops and robbers? If they do, here are a couple of variations they might try: nail a small businessman for having an ashtray in his shop and fine him $6,000. After that they can take a bishop down to headquarters and grill him over allegations that he said that some people who are “primarily a homosexual” can “reorientate themselves” with the help of psychiatrists.

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Exterminate the Hun, I suppose

There is something that can rightly be called neoconservatism that’s overbearing and abusive by nature. It tries to establish its principles by acting as if everything’s already been settled and yelling at people who seem to have doubts. An excess of bile spills over into all one’s views, it seems.

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Is restoration a pipe dream?

Can Christendom be restored? When something started disappearing in the Middle Ages, and has been disappearing more and more every year since then, it looks like the tendency of things is rather against it. Still, there are points that should be kept in mind:

  • The definitive public rejection of Christendom was actually quite recent, mid-to-late 20th century. Before then it was possible publicly to refer to the Western countries as Christian, and for politicians, mainstream pundits and what not to make public comments that implied the truth of Christianity. The place of Christianity might have been like the place of the Emperor in old Japan, apparently more notional than substantive, but that doesn’t mean it was dispensable.
  • The replacement of Christendom by managerial liberalism is not working well. There’s no doubt a great deal of ruin in a nation, but there must be some limit. When a civilization wills the destruction of the conditions of its own existence it’s not a Chicken Little attitude to say it won’t last.
  • The glorious ’60s led very quickly to radical increases in crime, radical disorders in education and family life, and radical degradation of and intellectual life and popular and high culture. Post-Christian Western societies don’t reproduce themselves, they propagate by infection. They must support themselves by importing non-Westerners. Can that go on forever?
  • Christendom is the society whose public life is Christian. It exists as long as there are two or more Christians. Liberal society is the society whose public life is defined by liberalism. It is in decline, because liberalism destroys the preconditions of public life—the belief that the world is an ordered cosmos, so that public discussion can be more than a matter of conflicting egos, and the basis in common identity and substantive moral commitment for public loyalty and trust.
  • It therefore seems likely, as a Darwinian matter, that if a society includes both Christians and advanced liberals its public life will eventually become Christian. Christianity can sustain public life, but liberalism can’t in the long run. While liberalism can infect public life, and seem to dominate it as a tendency, when it is finally victorious it destroys its host and thus itself.

The argument in brief is that Christianity is an adequate picture of man and the world and liberalism is a grossly inadequate picture of those things. Liberalism can exist as a tendency within Christianity but not otherwise. When it definitively rejects Christianity and tries to order social life on its own it destroys itself. Something else will have to pick up the pieces. Why not Christianity?

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Whither the dead Right?

My own dogmatic pronouncement: the fundamental goal today for those in the West who reject what liberalism has become has to be the restoration of Christendom—a public order that recognizes Christianity as authoritative. Without a goal to give an overall orientation, particular efforts to resist liberalism will lack definition and continuity and get nowhere. That has, in fact, been the fate of conservatism. It’s been reactive, incoherent, endlessly compromised, and easily bought off with gestures and symbols. The claims that conservatism has “won” in fact show that it has utterly collapsed. The situation won’t change until those drawn to conservatism can find their own voice, based on something no less principled, comprehensive and definite than liberalism. What could that thing be, at least for someone in the West, other than Christianity?

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School lesson for an MP

I found some human interest in this story of a self-righteously egalitarian English politician worried about her son’s education: Abbott says son’s school decision is indefensible.

The problem with egalitarianism is that it destroys all good things, or at least most of them. Good things are usually particular and local and relative to the capacity of the recipient to find them or bring them about, and to make use of them. Often they are gifts—that’s the meaning of the word “grace.” Usually some luck is involved. The result is that if you say they all have to be equal for everyone you’re mostly saying they can’t exist.

Diane Abbott, a member of something parliamentary called the Socialist Campaign Group, has in effect been saying that for years. She found she couldn’t stomach it in her son’s case and sent him to private school. When called on her decision she admitted her conduct was indefensible, which does credit to her honesty, but kept her son at the school, which does credit to her humanity.

Unfortunately, the article suggests she’s attempting to soften the contradiction by pleading special circumstances. I hope she can find some other way to make sense of her situation—for example, by accepting that the campaign of the Left to make life a controlled and self-consistent system doesn’t make sense.

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Appetite and sensation as conservatism

George Will and Virginia Postrel seem to be creating a new fusionism in which true conservatism, like true libertarianism, turns out to be a celebration of Starbucks, manicurists and health clubs—not to mention “tattoo parlors and the emporiums where people get their bodies pierced in so many interesting places.” In a puff piece on Postrel’s new book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, Will compares the “thoughtful people” who appreciate “the complex prerequisites—social, political and intellectual—of a society that produces … abundance, and honors … emancipation of choice and desire” with snobbish and spoilsport progressive intellectuals like Adlai Stevenson who complain about the consumer society and want something more elevated. It’s the former, he says, who have the better grip on “what exalts America and makes it inspiring.”

As the example he chooses shows, Will can pretend to say anything distinctive only by mindless anachronism. It’s notorious that highminded liberalism is as dead as the counterculture, the avant garde, high modernism, and anything in national public life that one could reasonably call principled conservatism. A postmodern progressive like Bill Clinton has about as much in common with Adlai Stevenson as Will does with Richard Weaver. In fact, the Left has a fusionism that is far more comprehensive that anything conservatives have dreamed of. The whole point of postmodernism is that oppositions have been abolished, so that commerce, public life, thought and art have become equal and indivisible manifestations of polymorphous appetite, with enough rationalism mixed in to keep the goodies coming and make sure everyone gets an equal share (with a little extra for those who are supervising the show). Inclusiveness and diversity are the name of the game, if you want to participate in the public conversation today you have to join in, and Will’s column is one sign among many that establishment conservatives have no intention of being left out.

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Cool Britannia

More on the transformation of “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” into a modern technocracy:

  • Labour opts for women-only shortlists for parliamentary candidates. Women don’t seem to be the same, but we’ll force them to be the same. Anything else would be irrational and we couldn’t stand it.

  • British education chief wants to send 70 percent of all school-leavers to university. After all, people can’t function except to the extent they’re formally trained to do so.

  • Still, it’s hard to keep the human factor out of things. If you try to turn people into a collection of interchangeable parts with no mutual connections, civic loyalty will disappear and officials will turn to EU-style nest-feathering.
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Terri and the technocrats

I just saw some of the video clips of Terri Schiavo and was horrified. I hadn’t been paying close attention to the case, although in the abstract I opposed what the pro-death people were up to, but seeing is believing. Unfortunately, I saw the clips shortly before going to bed, and ended up losing some sleep.

All of which makes me wonder why the press uniformly treats as fact the evidently absurd claim that Mrs. Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state. The same mystery appeared in press “coverage” of the partial-birth abortion issue—it took 15 months after a bill on the subject was introduced in Congress for a reporter to call a clinic and try to find out what was going on.

The best theory I can come up with is that life issues are so basic as to define who we are morally. In particular, they define the moral nature of the technocratic society to which our ruling elites are committed. Judges, journalists and even doctors, as professionals, define themselves by reference to that society. So no matter what facts might be obvious in an ordinary human sense, they feel duty-bound to understand, report, interpret, or ignore them in a way that supports the Culture of Death. To do otherwise would betray the loyalties by which they live, and attack the basic principle—the supremacy of technocratic reason—by which they understand all things.

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When a pose loses its function

Attitudinizing that’s gotten old: A. N. Wilson would be sad to see his Church sundered by so small a thing.

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Pomo, Hojo’s, and other cultural stuff

Hilton Kramer makes a good observation in his essay “Modernism & its institutions” in the current (October) issue of The New Criterion, that postmodernism has created no institutions of its own. One explanation for the situation—Mr. Kramer doesn’t go into this—is that postmodernism is basically a career strategy for functionaries trying to gain power within established institutions.

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Dubyah says it takes a village …

A story that suggests the mess the President’s school initiative has left behind: Should Utah opt out of school reform?. No Child Left Behind requires states that accept Federal money to bring all students up to grade level in reading and math by 2013-14, and in the meantime show annual improvements on standardized tests. The goal is silly, and the money is raised within the states in any event. Only the federal control and financial coercion are real, and it’s not clear what public function they serve.

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