The Real News of the Month

March 2002
Volume 9, No. 3

Editor: Joe Sobran
Publisher: Fran Griffin (Griffin Communications)
Managing Editor: Ronald N. Neff
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{{Material dropped from features or changed solely for 
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  -> The Moving Picture
  -> Burke's Transformation
  -> The State and Heresy
Letters to the Editor
Nuggets (plus Exclusives to this edition)
List of Columns Reprinted


The Moving Picture
(page 1)

     NATIONAL REVIEW has all but added a fourth member 
to George Bush's "axis of evil": Saudi Arabia. In a cover 
story, editor Richard Lowry suggests that "we should 
contemplate the end of the House of Saud." He means 
something more active than contemplation. "Stability in 
the Middle East may be important, but it should be on 
America's terms." Shall we nuke Mecca?

*          *          *

     Traditional U.S. allies are showing no enthusiasm 
whatsoever for a wider war against Evil. The voices of 
Infinite Justice and Enduring Freedom are graciously 
allowing that these folks may be weak and cowardly rather 
than actually pro-Evil. No matter. The Axis of Good -- 
the United States and Israel -- will proceed alone, if 

*          *          *

     Moving on, Bush went to New York to assure the city 
that it will get the $20 billion in aid he promised to 
help it recover from the September 11 attacks. "When I 
say I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it.... And 
when I say $20 billion, I mean $20 billion." Awfully big 
of him. I didn't know he had that much money. Or did he 
mean *we* are going to pay? Just the sort of generous 
gesture we'd learned to associate with Bill Clinton.

*          *          *

     Now we learn that several Catholic bishops, among 
them Boston's Archbishop Bernard Cardinal Law, have been 
covering up for pedophile priests and allowing them to 
carry on their pastoral perversions. "I am not a 
policeman," explains Brooklyn's Bishop Thomas V. Daily. 
"I am a shepherd." Exactly -- and these shepherds have 
been protecting the wolves instead of the poor lambs. 
Church officials have paid roughly a billion dollars in 
out-of-court settlements to keep the scandals quiet -- 
and continuing. The faithful in the pews, filling the 
collection baskets, have had no inkling where their money 
was going. Meanwhile, we are told there aren't enough 
funds to support retired priests and nuns in nursing 
homes, after lifetimes of service to Christ.

*          *          *

     It can be argued that Abraham Lincoln was the worst 
enemy America ever had -- and ultimately the most 
successful so far. What greater triumph than to be 
worshipped by your victims? Genghis Khan had his fun, but 
it was short-lived; he never enjoyed lasting popularity 
among those he beheaded and raped. Of course, he never 
pretended to be "protecting" them. That is the difference 
between a barbarian and a state.

*          *          *

     In THE GODFATHER, Don Corleone is portrayed as a 
noble mafioso, whose crimes (horses aside) are 
essentially victimless. His scruples won't allow him to 
engage in sordid vices like drugs, yet, unlike the 
mafiosi of the real world, he apparently doesn't depend 
on terror and extortion for his daily bread. He inflicts 
violence only on his evil rivals. In short, he is a 
sentimental conception -- very much like the patriotic 
image of the U.S. Government

Burke's Transformation
(pages 3-5)

     When Samuel Johnson, that notorious hater of Whigs 
("The first Whig was the devil"), reflected, in a pacific 
moment, that a wise Whig and a wise Tory would generally 
agree, he was undoubtedly thinking of his Whig friend 
Edmund Burke. Johnson's respect for Burke was boundless. 
He observed that after a brief chance meeting with Burke 
in the street, even a total stranger would say to 
himself, "This is an extraordinary man." He found Burke's 
conversation so challenging that once as he lay ill he 
said, "Were I to see Burke now, it would kill me." Always 
sparing and precise in his praise, Johnson spoke of Burke 
in superlatives: "His stream of mind is perpetual."

     Burke warmly reciprocated Johnson's respect. They 
might easily have been rivals, or even enemies, but for 
all their sportive competition in conversation they 
unreservedly loved, admired, and forgave each other.

     I first came under Burke's spell more than 30 years 
ago, when I was in college. Conservatives cited him often 
in those days; Russell Kirk had celebrated him as the 
fountainhead of modern conservatism in his excellent book 
THE CONSERVATIVE MIND. And of all Burke's writings, none 
had more impact, in his own time and later, than his 

     This would have surprised his contemporaries, 
especially Johnson (who had been dead for years when the 
book appeared in 1790). For most of his career Burke had 
been thought of as a great liberal; as he had sympathized 
with the Americans during their revolution -- when 
Johnson snorted that Americans were "a race of convicts, 
and ought to be grateful for anything we allow them short 
of hanging" -- it was assumed that he would likewise side 
with the French during theirs.

     But Burke saw an essential difference between the 
two upheavals. The Americans had demanded only the 
traditional rights of Englishmen, and he had urged 
prudent and magnanimous conciliation. Tories like Johnson 
had insisted on the legal authority of Britain over the 
colonies it had chartered; Burke's view was that such 
claims, however valid in law, should not be pressed too 
hard when justified discontent was so widespread in 

     By contrast, Burke saw the French Revolution as one 
of "theoretic dogma," appealing not to history or 
tradition but, on the contrary, to "abstract" but 
allegedly "natural" human rights. Burke held that these 
supposed rights were directly opposed to both history and 
tradition, the only safe bases for civil society. Such a 
revolution, he insisted, could only end in chaos, 
violence, and tyranny. And events in France soon bore out 
his prediction. Just as he had opposed monarchical 
tyranny in England and America, he opposed democratic 
tyranny in France.

     Burke saw no inconsistency in this, but it cost him 
the friendship of other Whigs, notably Charles James Fox, 
who saw the French Revolution as a natural extension of 
the American (as did Jefferson). Suddenly Burke found 
himself a hero of his old foes the Tories.

     It isn't easy to distill a general political 
philosophy from Burke's writings, since nearly everything 
he wrote was a response to current events. The single 
exception was his problematic treatise, A VINDICATION OF 
NATURAL SOCIETY, written when he was still in his 
twenties and published anonymously in 1756; and it was 
anything but conservative. It was, in fact, a radical 
anarchist tract, fiercely attacking all governments as 
tyrannous and murderous. All had begun in brutal 
conquest, and few had risen far above their sanguinary 

     Nothing could be more at odds with Burke's later 
conservatism; or so it would seem at a glance. It is so 
different from, even opposite to, the views he is 
generally associated with that it has been ignored as a 
minor anomaly. Yet it may provide an important clue to 
Burke's development as a political thinker.

     Burke was born in Dublin in 1729. Since Catholics 
were then excluded from the legal profession under 
British rule, his father had joined the Church of 
England; Burke followed him in both religion and 
profession, but always retained strong Irish and Catholic 
sympathies. His Irish relations always found him a 
generous benefactor.

     When he entered politics in the 1760s, he was forced 
to explain how he squared the Vindication (his authorship 
had become known) with loyalty to the British crown. By 
the book's argument, it was nonsense to speak of *any* 
government as legitimate.

     Burke's explanation was simple: the Vindication was 
a work of irony, a parody and reductio ad absurdum of the 
radical opinions of the late Viscount Bolingbroke.

     But many have suspected that the Vindication was 
entirely sincere at the time he wrote it, and that his 
later repudiation of it was a disingenuous attempt to 
save his budding political career. The great anarchist 
Murray Rothbard judged it impassioned, cogent, and 
unrefuted by anything in all Burke's later writings; he 
found few if any traces of irony in it. Burke the 
politician disowned it, Rothbard argued, only because he 
felt he had to.

     Certainly there was no political future in 
advocating anarchism in the England of Burke's day; being 
Irish would have been a sufficient handicap. Was Burke 
the politician, then, living a lie? Did he betray his 
convictions when he entered politics?

     Maybe. But there is another possible explanation, 
which seems more likely.

     Burke did go on to enjoy a brilliant political 
career in Parliament. He became the leader and spokeman 
of the Rockingham Whigs, and his speeches were widely 
read, studied, and admired. They weren't always listened 
to: his voice was weak, his delivery boring, and his 
thoughts too dense for instant comprehension. Yet those 
same speeches, when they appeared in print, offered 
marvelous wisdom and an eloquence worthy of the great 
English poets. He was a consistent champion of liberty 
and temperate government. But why did he go back on the 
unadulterated anarchism of the Vindication?

     As a practical matter, Burke may have decided, with 
some regret, that the state was here to stay, at least 
for the foreseeable future, and that men had better make 
the best of it. In THE CITY OF GOD St. Augustine had 
argued that the state, along with war and slavery, was 
punishment for original sin; yet he had come to terms 
with the earthly City of Man as an interim arrangement 
until the Second Coming and the Last Judgment. The state 
was not an ideal, but a modus vivendi for fallen human 
nature. At worst, a state without justice was nothing 
more than piracy writ large; and even at best, it was 
never far from this condition.

     Burke's mature conservatism could therefore have 
been a sort of Augustinian compromise with the world as 
it is. Centuries of Christian civilization, with the 
gradual influence of tradition, "chivalry," "manners," 
and "opinion" (weighty words in Burke's vocabulary), had 
tamed the monster and humanized what had originated in 
raw power. He found in the Christian states of modern 
Europe something more than tolerable; something actually 
appreciable, and not to be discarded. At bottom the state 
was built on power, and original sin still lurked in all 
human affairs; but these evils were greatly mitigated and 
refined by what he called "the unbought grace of life." 
Under the Christian regime, "vice itself lost half its 
evil, by losing all its grossness."

     In his famous lament that "the age of chivalry is 
gone," Burke complained that the French revolutionaries 
were stripping away "all the pleasing illusions, which 
made power gentle, and obedience liberal," as well as 
"all the decent drapery of life." They were destroying 
the two principles that had civilized Europe: "the spirit 
of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion."

     Burke explicitly connected this reductionism -- 
"this barbarous philosophy," "this mechanic philosophy"
-- with a decay in manners: "There ought to be a system 
of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would 
be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our 
country ought to be lovely."

     Without the influences that "beautify and soften" 
society, politics would be reduced to a crude and bloody 
struggle, in which law depended solely on raw force and 
terror; for "power, of some kind or other, will survive 
the shock in which manners and opinions perish; and it 
will find other and worse means for its support."

     Burke has been criticized from many standpoints, but 
nobody can deny that he foresaw the course of the French 
Revolution with uncanny accuracy, from the Reign of 
Terror to the dictatorship of Napoleon. One of his 
harshest critics, Tom Paine, went to France to support 
the Revolution -- and narrowly escaped being guillotined 

     The Reflections give us a clue as to the change in 
Burke's philosophy since the Vindication. We can only 
speculate; Burke was never a confessional writer and we 
have little access to his inner life. But I suspect that 
he had come to accept power as an inevitable reality, 
which could never be eliminated from human affairs. This 
meant that a stateless society was a vain dream, a 
Utopia. At best, a civilized society might, so to speak, 
*feel* stateless, in that its subjects would rarely 
encounter power in its harshest forms.

     For all his angry and sarcastic invective against 
the revolutionaries, not only the French but their 
English admirers as well, I think Burke agreed with them 
on more than he admitted. He never denied that the state 
did ultimately rest on force. That was what made the 
revolutionary philosophy dangerously seductive and 
potentially contagious -- so much so that he wanted the 
nations of Europe to wage a ruthless war to crush the new 
French regime, lest its "theoretic dogma" engulf the 
whole Continent. He stressed this theme with increasing 
fury until his death in 1797.

     "On this scheme of things," he wrote -- meaning 
according to the new "barbarous philosophy" intoxicating 
France -- "a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a 
woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest 
order.... Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but 
fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by 
destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a 
queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common 
homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any 
way gainers by it, a sort of homicide much the most 
pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too 
severe a scrutiny."

     Whether the Vindication was a satire, a credo, or a 
mere thought-experiment, it shows that Burke was capable, 
even in his youth, of empathy with the reductionist style 
of thought that was now convulsing France. He sensed its 
power and appeal immediately. Unchecked, it might mark a 
disastrous turning point in European history. He knew 
well enough, as his own rhetoric shows, that the 
chivalric fictions of the old European tradition were 
"pleasing illusions," mere "drapery"; however "lovely" 
they might be, they were extremely vulnerable to 
skeptical rationalistic analysis.

     But even if they were in some sense right in 
abstract principle, the revolutionaries had everything 
backwards. By reverting to naked force and Machiavellian 
calculation, they were annihilating the very things that 
had gradually, over many centuries, civilized the state. 
Once gone, those delicate yet necessary fictions would be 
impossible to restore. True, they were artificial; yet he 
insisted that "art is man's nature," and in that sense 
even the artificial can be called "natural."

     Burke's Reflections are best known for their 
wonderful (if sometimes slightly cloying) purple patches 
on Marie Antoinette and the passing of chivalry; the 
second half of the book is little read or heeded. Yet in 
its latter pages he brilliantly turned reductionist 
analysis against the reductionists themselves. Using all 
his vast knowledge of practical politics and finance, he 
showed how the new regime had relied on fraud, worthless 
paper money, confiscation, broken faith, and empty 
rhetoric, all in the name of "the rights of man," to 
bring France to ruin. Since nobody could escape the 
consequences of inflation and debased currency, France 
had been turned into "a nation of gamesters."

     Burke was especially scathing on the 
revolutionaries' seizures of church properties: "These 
gentlemen perhaps do not believe a great deal in the 
miracles of piety; but it cannot be questioned, that they 
have an undoubting faith in the prodigies of sacrilege." 
As a politician, he had an unsurpassed ability to detect 
the real sources and stratagems of power; as a 
rhetorician, he could sting like a scorpion.

     But the big question remains: Was Burke, after all, 
right? Despite the vehemence of his attack on the French 
Revolution, he was none too sure himself. The Europe he 
loved may have been a period of unstable equilibrium, 
doomed in the end by the dynamics of power; it was quite 
possible that the civilized state could never last 
indefinitely, given the momentum of decline and the 
evanescence of refinement in this fallen world. Europe's 
greatest achievements might prove mortal.

     Burke acknowledged this when he wrote, in a passage 
Matthew Arnold would later call one of his finest, that 
it might be the irresistible will of Providence that a 
new order should supplant the old. If so, the effort to 
conserve was finally futile.

     Johnson's Tory conservatism was rooted in a sense of 
permanence, which mocked the folly and presumption of men 
who aspired to change the world: "Why, Sir," he told 
Boswell, "most schemes of political improvement are very 
laughable things." And again:

      How small, of all that human hearts endure,
      That part which laws or kings can cause or

But Burke understood very well, as Johnson never did, 
that politics could drastically change the human 
condition, and for the worse. He lacked Johnson's 
confidence that social order was sturdy enough to 
withstand "schemes of political improvement." His fears 
proved prophetic. He lived to see the arrival of 
political modernity, of states matching the horrors he 
had described in the Vindication.

The State and Heresy
(page 6)

BRACKETS [[ thus ]].)

     In recent weeks I've been debating with people I 
usually agree with: conservative Christians. Many of them 
feel I've gone too far in the direction of philosophical 
anarchism, in defiance of both Scripture and Catholic 

     One reader, a self-identified Catholic socialist, 
went so far as to call my views "heresy." He cited 
particularly the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI. His 
e-mail message was so intelligent, provocative, and yet 
charitable that I answered him at some length, and we 
have had a long, friendly exchange ever since. [[ We're 
still arguing, and neither of us is backing down. ]]

     I've also been in touch with an old Protestant 
friend, now a minister, whom I haven't seen since high 
school. He too thinks Christian doctrine requires 
submission to government, and he argues his case with a 
power and sophistication I find especially impressive, 
considering the level of our old Scripture-banging 
arguments in our school days.

     The key text for Christians is chapter 13 of St. 
Paul's Epistle to the Romans, which begins: "You must all 
obey the governing authorities. Since all government 
comes from God, the civil authorities were appointed by 
God, and so anyone who resists authority is rebelling 
against God's decision, and such an act is bound to be 
punished. Good behavior is not afraid of magistrates; 
only criminals have anything to fear.... The state is 
there to serve God for your benefit." This is from the 
Jerusalem Bible; the more familiar King James Version 
says that "the powers that be are ordained of God."

     Many Christians quote this passage to support the 
view that we owe allegiance and obedience to the 
government. But this interpretation, though obvious at 
first sight, soon raises difficulties for Christians. 
After all, the Christian martyrs -- including Paul 
himself -- lived under pagan tyrants and chose to die 
rather than submit to worship the emperor. [[ Paul is 
thought to have died during Nero's persecution. ]]

     Later Christian political thought was extremely 
varied and complex. But St. Augustine took a dark view of 
earthly government, which, with slavery and war, he 
deemed a consequence of original sin. St. Thomas Aquinas 
held that even unfallen man would need government (as 
even good drivers need traffic laws), but he agreed with 
Augustine that a positive law that clashed with divine or 
natural law was unjust and void -- a principle that might 
invalidate most statutes on the books.

     Over two millennia, pagan states were replaced by 
Christian states, which gave way to secularist states. 
During all this time Christians have been forced to 
grapple with many questions: What is a state? How do we 
recognize its authority? What are its limits? Can we 
distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate states? 
Is rebellion ever justified? Must the state defer to the 
Church? Must the Church obey the state? All these 
difficult questions have been further complicated by the 
experience of barbarian conquests, feudalism, monarchism, 
religious divisions, dynastic quarrels, republican 
constitutionalism, capitalism, nationalism, 
industrialism, mass democracy, dictatorship, Marxism, 
totalitarianism, the welfare state, and of course war, 
particularly total war.

     Today almost nobody holds the position of Romans 13 
in its full rigor, if that means a duty of unqualified 
submission to whatever regime happens to exist. Nearly 
all Christians distinguish between legitimate and 
illegitimate regimes; if rebellion is always a sin, how 
can we have a duty to obey the successful rebel when he 
assumes power? Must we obey the tsar one day, and the 
Lenin who topples him the next? Does Paul mean to say: 
"Thou shalt obey anyone who holds coercive power over 

     Or consider the United States. Here, "We the People" 
are in theory the sovereign authority, and our ruling 
officers are mere servants. The powers "delegated" to 
those servants are defined and limited by the 
Constitution. Must we obey them, even when they usurp 
powers never entrusted to them? When they claim such 
powers, it would seem that *they* are in rebellion 
against *us,* and we have no duty to obey. "Masters, 
obey your servants"?

     When there are so many kinds of states, some of them 
mutually incompatible, the only defining trait they share 
is the claim of a legal monopoly of coercion. Paul 
doesn't assert that brute power constitutes a right to 
command and compel. He must mean something else. But 

     He says the civil authorities serve God, and 
Christians can obey the law and be good citizens by 
simply keeping the Commandments. Were these words meant 
to ward off suspicions that Christians were subversive 
and to encourage them to respect human law, at least 
insofar as it conformed to God's law?

     If so, Paul's words may carry an ironic meaning that 
would escape the Roman authorities. By positing a just 
government -- very unlike the rule of Nero -- he may have 
been subtly implying that Christians are *not* morally 
bound to cooperate with tyranny.

     If that's what he meant, maybe I'm not such a 
heretic after all!

Letter to the Editor
(page 2)

BRACKETS [[ thus ]].)

Mr. Sobran -- I've exchanged many e-mails with authors 
and pundits who fail to confront a foundational issue. My 
reasoning runs something like this:

     Men tend to be wicked. They tend to form 
associations that advance their schemes (which tend to be 
greedy or promiscuous). Therefore, every human 
aggregation tends toward wickedness, with its only 
salvation being found in Christian belief.

     It follows that government ("force," as Washington 
called it) tends to be about as wicked as those who 
institute it. The best measure of wickedness is the 
presence or absence of meaningful Christian belief.

     It worries me to see writers suggest that giving 
government anything results in giving government 
everything. This kind of extreme parceling out of force 
will leave us with what some have called the "sovereign 
individual." What is the first thing the sovereign 
individual will do? He will form an aggregation with 
other persons to advance his best interests, and the less 
the Christian influence, the more egregious those 

     Therefore, limited government is not a myth. To 
speak of the virtue of implementing anarchism (even 
within the safe ambit of its precise, political 
definition) is reminiscent of another political theorist 
who believed the state, having served its function of 
setting all things aright, would wither away. This didn't 
happen, and neither will a libertarian/anarchist 
approach. Indeed, it would take another government to 
prevent people from forming new governments to take the 
place of the previously deposed government.

     There is no structural cure for postmodern political 
thinking. Moreover, discussions about it miss the point 
so badly as to create false hopes.

Bill Wilmeth
Ogden, Utah


     Every state depends on popular belief in its 
legitimacy. Anarchism would likewise depend on popular 
belief that no state can be legitimate, that the essence 
of the state is force. Both the state and anarchism 
require what might be called cultural preconditions. 
Unless a considerable body of people deny that any state 
may justly command, an anarchic order is impossible.

     But if enough people denied the authority of any 
possible state, it would be very hard for such a state to 
claim legitimacy. A merely cynical gang of rulers, bent 
on robbing the mass of people and not pretending to be 
"legitimate," would never be able to settle into power 
for long. Even a limited state, supported by much of the 
population with moral conviction of its legitimacy, but 
also jealously watched, opposed, and even resisted by a 
large and articulate anarchist minority, would have to 
watch its step.

     [[ At the moment the anarchist minority is 
minuscule, so the precondition for anarchism doesn't 
exist. I hope that will change. ]] Of course we can 
imagine a situation in which a criminal majority rules 
for a time by raw force, but even Communism at its worst 
needed some feeble pretense of legitimacy. I don't think 
men can be ruled for long by raw force; some element of 
fraud -- a more or less plausible ideological claim of 
legitimacy -- is also necessary.

     Legitimacy claims are hard to sustain when even a 
sizable intelligent fraction of the people deny them, if 
the majority are aware of an alternative view. Every act 
of tyranny would create more sympathy for, and generate 
more attention to, the dissident position.

     [[ Slavery itself depends on the general contentment 
of slaves, the belief that their masters are taking care 
of them and protecting them from worse evils; the state 
likewise ]] The state also depends on people feeling that 
it protects them -- from enemies, poverty, et cetera. 
Osama bin Laden has been a boon to the limitless state. I 
don't think anarchism is any more utopian than the hope 
that this government will return to its constitutional 



MINOR RESERVATION: I whole-heartedly approve of the film 
version of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. I admire its good 
intentions and high moral tone. I rejoice at its success. 
I just didn't enjoy it. (page 5)

equally sophomoric on foreign policy, have come to a 
parting of the ways. NR wants  to overthrow the Saudi 
Arabian government; TWS wants a "regime change" in 
China. Wouldn't it be simpler just to nuke Israel? 
(page 8)

TRUTH WILL OUT, BRIEFLY: Senator Tom Daschle mildly 
criticized President Bush's "axis of evil" speech; but 
when a furious reaction ensued, he issued a 
"clarification," saying he fully agreed with the 
president. You can always tell when a politician has 
spoken from the heart: he takes it back the next day. 
(page 12)

Exclusive to the electronic version:

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD? Since Bill Clinton moved 
into Harlem, other whites have followed suit, crowding 
blacks out. One Harlem landlord is quoted: "Man, I'm 
looking to rent to white folks. I don't want the brothers 


* How Killing Became a "Right" (January 15, 2002)

* Anarchism, Reason, and History (January 24, 2002)

* Words and Power (January 29, 2002)

* On with the War! (January 31, 2002)

* The Cross and the Swastika (February 5, 2002)

* O Canada! (February 7, 2002)


All articles are written by Joe Sobran

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