TCS Daily

Refurbishing Bad Ideas

By Paul J. Cella - December 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Last July, the writer A. N. Wilson reported a particularly ridiculous example of the modern world's insanity.


The British Medical Journal is calling for certain films to be X-rated. Why? Is it because they contain scenes of battle, murder and sudden death? Is it because they are blasphemous or contain explicit bestialism? No, it is because they contain scenes of explicit smoking.


Apparently he was serious. Not long ago New York City outlawed smoking in restaurants, and Florida has followed suit, so it is not so very hard to believe.


I have often thought that the contrast between our public attitude toward smoking (authoritarian) and toward sex (laissez-faire) typifies the special sort of madness that thrives in this decaying civilization. It is a madness of shouting repetition, well intentioned, but sightless: Men begin to refurbish old and despised ideas and apply them ignorantly to new circumstances.


It is as though the extremisms of the past, which in their place were only excesses, have risen from the grave in strange and shadowy forms. So it is that we see Puritanism, with all its blaring contradictions, directing its fierce piety not against a real problem like the problem of sin, but against puny things like tobacco smoke. Some men of the early Modern Age, confronted as we all are by the poison of sin, developed a narrow, momentarily vital, and finally unsustainable system to address it: the Puritan ideal. Infinitely more brassbound, some men of the very late Modern Age have developed a similar system to address the annoyance of hygiene. In colonial Massachusetts adulterous women wore scarlet letters of shame; in postmodern New York dirty smokers are cast out into the street like lepers. I do not say that smoking is an admirable habit; I simply say that the febrile energy with which we undertake to eradicate so minor a thing is evidence of a certain cultural imbalance, a deep-seated misconstrual of reality.


Another illustration: Few things are as complacently loathed as the old absolutist monarchies of Europe. We scoff at the unutterable folly of the courtier and his ridiculous flattery of the king. But in his place we have erected an edifice of incomparable folly and absurdity -- so large, indeed, that hardly anyone can even see it. That is edifice of the Advertising Age. Millions of people, billions of dollars, schools, degrees, professorships, doctorates, theories and dogmas -- all this built up to flatter what replaced Church and Crown after the deluge of egalitarian and revolutionary fervor leveled the ancien regime; namely, the sovereign People. Hilaire Belloc once wrote provocatively that the government of the United States is essentially monarchic in character; the monarch, instead of being the abstraction of the Crown, is simply the abstraction of the People. I think he was onto something genuine. Richard Weaver elaborated in a profound 1956 National Review essay:


It was a percept of courtiership always to flatter the king, and some weak-headed monarchs were flattered into a state where they lost all perception of reality. The suitors of the public today are well up on this principle of success at court. It was likewise a percept that no one should ever be a bearer of bad news to the king if he could get out of it. There was too much human tendency to identify the bearer with the news. So our advertisers always manage to be bearers of good tidings, and if evil has to be reported, it is in connection with the king's enemies, which in this case are work, self-denial, boredom, disappointment and the like.


This unremitting flattery of the People has done marvelous work; and produced a condition of dependence on the Welfare State so comprehensive as to preclude for elective politics in all but the rarest of moments even the suggestion that the whole enterprise is mere turpitude and rapine. For years Social Security (one of our largest and most lavish welfare structures) was referred to as "the third rail," implying that any hint that the system needed contraction was electoral suicide. Kill the messenger. The People must be flattered.


Another example might be made of the Inquisition. People of the Middle Ages accepted the Inquisition in large part because they had imbued the ideas of the more severe Augustinians (precursors, really, to the Puritans, without that streak of individualism) about the authority of the Church and the horror of heresy. It was merely a grim part of life that heretics should be flayed and burned. They were habituated to it. It was not seen as some catastrophic evil. For us the inquisition is economic: Submit everything you own to the State for inspection; prove that your coerced contributions have been sufficient to its liking, and that you have not evaded your duty to conform to a truly Byzantine welter of rules; fail to do so, or resist in any substantive way, and face a prison sentence of 30 years. We accept this outrage, this confiscation of our property, for the same reason that the mediaevals accepted their inquisition: because we have imbued certain ideas -- in our case, about the modern, expansionist State, with unlimited taxing and spending powers. It is a grim part of life. No one likes it, and occasionally some politician generously offers to give back some of what he has stolen. But as a fact most of us submit to it quietly.


Now admittedly I am presenting things somewhat tendentiously; but do we today present the circumstances of the mediaeval world with any kind of searching sympathy? Do we attempt any human understanding of the ideals of that age -- ideals vitiated, as all human ideals are, by human avarice and cruelty, but real ideals nonetheless? To ask that question is to answer it, as the very word mediaeval is for us a synonym for brutishness. How then can we expect our own follies to be examined sympathetically by complacent later generations? In my own view, which I hope is infused with some measure of human sympathy, Cardinal Richelieu, as the architect of the modern state, with its economic lifeblood of taxation, had some good reasons for doing what he did. The Hapsburgs were pressing from nearly all sides; the Reformation has sundered the Christian world, leaving pockets of revolt everywhere; and his beloved France was generally surveyed by hungry, predatory eyes. Richelieu was also a man of peerless ability, and his enterprise was successful is ways he could hardly have imagined: fearsome in its success and in the ramifying opportunities it introduced to the power-hungry and unscrupulous. His tireless work produced the modern state: which has proven the greatest killer, expropriator, profligate, and corrupter in history. Yet I find that I cannot bring myself to dislike Richelieu.


The figure of Abraham Lincoln seems to cut something of a parallel to Richelieu: a consolidator and statesman of genius, an amalgam of despot and patriot, whose project by its very success wounded liberty, but who nonetheless commands admiration for his singular greatness in trying times.


The more one reads and absorbs of history, the more difficult it is to pronounce categorical judgments on men or ages. This prudential restraint does not augur a plunge into desultory relativism. One thinks of Acton, hardly a relativist, and considered by many to be the most learned man of his age -- who failed to ever write a magnum opus in the pattern of Gibbon and Macaulay because his own scrupulosity and humility encumbered him. My point is that those who content themselves with superficial bluster about the benightedness of the past, or fancy history as an unbroken line of glorious progress, must also resign themselves and their age to the kind of sneering dismissal they pronounce on the past.


In broad stokes, my contention here is that our age, to an extent unlike any before it, has set itself up as the measure of historical Man. Great success in the material arts we certainly have had, which success has in part blinded us to our quite severe deficiencies. Most ironic, perhaps, is our blind iterative tendency: the Puritan and the monarch and the inquisitor, though hated as historical figures, are resurrected in new garb and lent the strength of modern prejudice.

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