Motime’s been having some problems, and in the meantime, Paul Cella posted this comment at Turnabout, and it’s definitely worthy of a response–so without further ado!

Mr. Fiore: I tried to post this comment at your own blog, but to no avail, so I’ll post it here.

May I take the liberalism you espouse as “the most ‘concrete’ political theory that has ever existed” [quoted from Mr. Fiore’s blog] to be, mutatis mutandis, the liberalism of John Stuart Mill? That is, a theory predicated on the principle that no man may lawfully force, or attempt to force, his moral views on another man? We might call this “Open Society Liberalism,” because it posits as its guiding principle the ideal of the Open Society.

May I also assume that you are an atheist?

Finally, let me just say this in defense of what you are disparaging as abstractions: Human civilization is, at base, a product of human imagination. To maintain it requires not merely that we punish and control barbarism and cruelty in concrete manifestations, but also that we “police” the imagination with the instruments of custom and prescription and inherited tradition.

To illustrate that, consider the effect it would have on you if an acquaintance turned to you and said, “Dave, occasionally I dream of violently raping your girlfriend. Of course, it’s just in my imagination.” Would you ever let this acquaintance, say, drive your girlfriend to work? I submit that you would think very hard about it.

My point is that, if men felt empowered at all times to utter their darkest thoughts, the cement of trust and neighborliness, so to speak, would rapidly dissolve; and the binding of civilization would follow in sort order.

Part of civilization is this control on our imaginations; our trained habit to repudiate our darkest thoughts, or at least, to never utter them. The prosecution of the crime, when it happens, is only the last option, and the state only the most obvious, but hardly the most important, element of civilization.

You write that “I am convinced that no problem was ever solved by silencing dissent,” [again, quoted from Mr. Fiore’s blog] but we have quite a number of examples of societies where all dissent was accepted, even celebrated and empowered. Two good examples come to mind: Weimar Germany and Spain of the early 1930s. In short, societies that just kept on talking without limits — and talked themselves into civil war.

Posted by: Paul Cella at January 29, 2004 07:50 AM

Yes Mr. Cella, you’re right to identify me as an “Open Society Liberal”, and I happily acknowledge my debt to the author of On Liberty–like Mill, I’m loathe to blur the boundary between what’s good for individuals and what’s good for society… I am an “atheist” (in the sense that I don’t believe in a personified Deity, or an afterlife), but keep in mind, I also describe myself as a “neo-Calvinist liberal”… I hold every relationship between myself and other beings sacred–which is just another way of phrasing Kant’s maxim that we ought to endeavor to treat humans (and, as far as I’m concerned animals) as ends rather than means. I’ve even had a “conversion experience” of sorts, which is what my first novel was about, in a way… No one likes hedonism less than I–but I’d rather let people “drift” than anchor them to a plot of ground that’s uncongenial to them. I don’t have any answers for anyone–and neither does the Catholic Church. You can’t legislate “groundedness”, or peace of mind–and it’s about time we stopped trying to do so.

With reference to your hypothetical “I want to rape your girlfriend guy”–I would say that this person would definitely benefit more from saying this stuff than bottling it up, although it might be preferable for him to say it to a therapist… If he let himself be guided by a sense of his indivdual relationships to the people in his life, he’d easily avoid the error you describe (making this admission to me, I mean). In any case–I don’t have the power to “allow” or “disallow” my girlfriend to do anything! She’s well able to take care of herself, and I trust her to make her own decisions, and to defend herself (both verbally and–since she’s done a good deal of Martial arts training–physically)

On Weimar and Spain–I could cite the very same examples to support my own contentions Paul. The problem in those places was that people became impatient with all of the talk and possibilities and decided to take “one road” in the interests of restoring purpose and unity to the body politic. I construe this development as a failure of nerve. This is why I’m as unhappy with softy liberals as I am with tradtionalists/patriots–liberalism is a faith. You’ll never hear me saying it’s “rational”. And a faith–as you folks at Turnabout know–must be defended! At this point in the West, the only choices are to go on with the liberal project or to embrace fascism. There’s no third way.

Good afternoon friends



  1. OK, another (and probably my biggest) why do people argue this way?? complaint: How is “what x happened to your woman?” ever a good rhetorical device? Well, other than in that it makes me so angry I have to work to follow the rest of the argument.

    (You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.)

  2. {{{{Here’s Mr. Cella’s reply–from the Turnabout comments thread}}}

    Mr. Fiore:

    You must get a new comments program. Here is my reply:

    My problem with Mill’s Open Society Liberalism is that it is incoherent. It claims that “all questions are open questions,” but what it really means is that all questions are open questions _except_ for the question of whether all questions are open. That one is quite closed.

    In short, the Open Society is an orthodoxy in its own right, as you admit when you declare that Liberalism is a faith which “must be defended.” As such, it must act to protect the orthodoxy, generally by placing too high a price on certain opinions for most people to continue espousing them (and, off at the end, by persecuting them). This, I submit, is what we refer to as “political correctness”: the Open Society defending its orthodoxy; in this case, defending its orthodoxy of negation.

    A man in Britain recently was prosecuted and fined for carrying a sign that condemned homosexuality, even though _he_ was attacked by demonstrators. Young children are rebuked by their teachers for praying together before lunch. Etc, etc. The assertion of moral absolutes is an infraction against the Open Society, and must be discouraged, silenced and finally prosecuted. The logic is inescapable.

    Now, because the Open Society is not constrained by any moral stricture whatsoever, outside its own principles, it must become even more ferocious. There is no obligation to act with charity or mercy against violators; nor even fairness. There is only the commitment to the negation.

    For example, your “neo-Calvinism” is incompatible with Open Society Liberalism: personal relationships _cannot_ be sacred, in the sense of making claims prior to one’s commitment to the Open Society. That is, however much you value human relationships (or animal relationships), they must still be subordinate to your assent to the Open Society.

    I submit that the Open Society must, by virtue of its logic, degenerate into a cruel and inyielding tyranny. The fact that societies do not do this, merely reveals that they have not altogether committed themselves to the Open Society.

  3. {{{{and here’s my response}}}

    Mr. Cella,

    I have no problem acknowledging the contradiction you describe—it’s true, the open society cannot question its’ own first principle… But that first principle is that people—unlike ideas or doctrines—cannot be deconstructed! That’s why, when a person tells me that they want to live their life in a way that I can’t understand at all, I’m willing to just let it go. The open society=”faith in the reality of other people”.

    You’re right to bring up this example of the “man with the sign” to illustrate the limits of what the open society can tolerate. Anytime you express a belligerent judgement of what other consenting adults do, you have crossed the line and become a bully, and the liberal state exists to prevent that. The right to oppress others is the one right that cannot be countenanced—that way lies fascism. (which is not to say that the man with the sign deserved to be attacked…)

    On the question of the children who wish to pray—I have no problem with that, and there’s no reason they should be prevented from doing so. I feel similarly about the argument about “not being able to wish people Merry Christmas” and other standard anti-PC arguments. Of course you’re “allowed” to say Merry Christmas. And if anyone takes that the wrong way they can go home and whine about it to whomever they want. Expressing culturally specific goodwill is not the same as condemning a person for behaviour that has nothing to do with you.

    But these are largely questions of application, not theory. In an open society, you are free to do anything you want so long as it does not oppress others. All “bucks” must stop somewhere—and in the liberal scheme of things, the buck stops at the individual’s right to our respect, even if we believe that they are acting foolishly (so long as they hurt no one but themselves) or even that they are going to Hell… Go ahead and think it—but put away your signs, or save them to express something you believe in about the way you live your own life, rather than to express a judgement about someone else’s…


  4. What I’d really like to know is, what would Paul Cella or Jim Kalb, or any similarly minded person who happens to be reading this and cares to answer, do if all of this were a matter of policy and not theory? Of course there are plenty of people who support a constitutional ban of gay marriage… what about a constitutional ban of divorce? Would that be acceptable to anybody?

  5. As I was saying yesterday, I don’t think there’s much point in bothering with the Turnabout gang anymore. They’re basically sticking to the same line that D.W. Griffith adopted when the furor over his technically-brilliant but unbelievably sick film Birth of a Nation (which offers a view of Reconstruction that makes the KKK seem like heroes–and numerous scenes of African-Americans smearing fried chicken grease all over the plush seats of their state legislatures) prompted the director to call his follow-up effort Intolerance!!! According to Griffith–the NAACP was “intolerant”–not him!

    Suffice it to say–Turnabout has nothing to do with “fair play”.


  6. Turnabout frustrates me even now that I’ve bowed out of the argument.

    Personally, I see nothing wrong with the stand that all questions are open except the question of whether all questions are open. It sounds strange, that’s all.

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