The Long View 2004-07-26: Spies & Pigeons, Catholic Tradition, Catholic Muslims, Pre-Fab Politics

Ordinarily, I would trust John's judgment on a matter of legal interpretation, but I do wonder whether his opinion on the Valerie Plame affair was unbiased. We don't have a legal decision to look back on, since the courts declined to take up the charge, although in this case it doesn't truly seem that Plame was much harmed, in retrospect.

John expresses an idea here that I brought up in a comment at Steve Sailer's blog: the present political environment in the United States is ripe for personal politics, in part because American lack of corruption makes politics relatively cheap, and also because the political parties are losing power as institutions.

Not really. What this activity leads to is a system in which prefabricated components can quickly assemble around attractive candidates. The comparison we should think of is the production of a major motion picture. The sums involved for a presidential campaign are oddly similar, too: some small multiple of $100 million. In any case, as the article notes, the year to focus on is 2008.

The amount of money Hillary spent is arguably not a small multiple of $100 million, but Trump's spending falls in that range.

Spies & Pigeons, Catholic Tradition, Catholic Muslims, Pre-Fab Politics


Anyone can write about the Wilson-Plame Affair, so I can do it, too. The question is whether a felony was committed when someone in the Bush Administration leaked the news to a columnist that Plame, Wilson's wife, was a CIA agent. For what it's worth, I would say "no."

The key provision is 50 USC 421 [Protection of identities of certain United States undercover intelligence officers, agents, informants, and sources]. There are separate subsections creating liability for leakers and leakees in that section, but they both do so only for an offender "knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States." The term "affirmative measure" suggests some step in addition to the original designation of someone as working undercover. More specifically, 50 USC 426(4)(A)(ii) defines "covert agent" as someone "who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States."

There are factual issues here, of course, but also more questions of statutory interpretation. Suppose an agent simply traveled abroad on intelligence business: would that reset the five-year secrecy period? The CIA might not be well advised to pursue the widest possible interpretation of the statute in this case. If a court decides the ambiguity against the Agency, then the broad interpretation can no longer be used as a threat.

These are not new points. However, while looking up the statutes in the United States Code, I did make some startling discoveries. For instance, there was once a Chapter 7 of Title 50 of that Code that Jorge Luis Borges would have loved: Interference with Homing Pigeons Owned by United States. The provisions have long since been repealed. Casual readers of the US Code who are too lazy to hunt for the original legislation in the US Statutes, which is the uncompiled and unclassified output of Congress, must make do with these enigmatic repealer notes:

Section 111, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 1, 40 Stat. 533, related to prohibited acts affecting homing pigeons owned by United States. See section 45 of Title 18, Crimes and Criminal Procedure.

Section 112, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 2, 40 Stat. 533, related to possession of pigeons as evidence of violation of law. See section 45 of Title 18.

Section 113, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 3, 40 Stat. 533, related to punishment. See section 45 of Title 18

I used to write repealer notes, when I worked for West Publishing many years ago, so I know what extraordinary details may lurk behind the studied blandness of these memorial summaries. In particular, we must wonder what terrible punishment Congress deemed fitting for those who would molest the Pigeons of the Great Republic.

* * *

Even before I read Mark Sedgwick's Against the Modern World, I had reached the stage where I saw Traditionalists lurking in every footnote of every critique of modernity. I got this way because, in many cases, they do lurk in such places, but don't get me started. In any case, a more fruitful way to study Tradition is to read what people who identify themselves as Traditionalists have to say. I have become particularly interested in the overlap between Tradition in the Guenonian sense (which is what Sedgwick chiefly studied) and Catholic Traditionalism. The best-thought-out synthesis is the work of Rama Coomaraswamy, a retired thoracic surgeon and a priest in a group with its own bishops that continues to use the old Latin liturgies.

In his essay on Philosophia Perennis and the Sensus Catholicus, the Reverend Doctor Coomaraswamy does an interpretation of salvation history that is new to me, but which makes perfect sense in a Guenonian context:

It is also necessary to consider history, not as a progressive advance from primitive times to the present "enlightened" era but more realistically as a continuous degeneration from a former golden age. Adam’s fall from paradise is a paradigm for understanding the present situation. God did not abandon His creation and Adam found regeneration, and is indeed considered by the Church to be a saint. In ancient days, saving revelation, in accordance with man’s more direct apprehension of truth, was appropriately more simple. With each succeeding "fall," God provided more stringent requirements for man to follow if he sought to reverse the process of degeneration, until the time of Moses when the rules required encompassed every aspect of life. This is well reflected in the Sacrifice of Abel, followed by that of Abraham, and finally by that established through the medium of Moses. Yet throughout all this we have the Sacrifice of Melchisedech, renewed once again in Christ.

The author is a "sedevacantist." Such people believe that, quite literally, they are more Catholic than the pope. Because the pope supports the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, the author holds that the See of Peter is vacant. (Other sedevacantists say there is a pope, but someone other than John Paul II: an opinion that need not detain us.) It is interesting to note how sedevacantism recapitulates the original Guenonian critique of Catholicism. Rene Guenon said 70 years ago that the "initiatory" element in Catholicism had been lost for centuries, so that the chain of primordial Tradition was no longer intact in the Catholic Church. Sedevacantists say that everything was fine until the Second Vatican Council cut the cord.

It's not just that the decrees of the Council are heretical, they say, but that the new rites of ordination for priests and bishops that were among the new liturgies promulgated after the Council are not valid, for much the same reason that Anglican ordinations are not valid. Thus any Mass, even a Mass in Latin, said by a priest who was ordained by a bishop consecrated using the new rite is not a valid Mass. Thus, bishops consecrated after 1982 are not real bishops, and the Catholic hierarchy is gradually being replaced with imposters.

The really interesting point here is that "traditional" Catholics are usually keen on the exclusive truth of Catholicism and the almost inevitable damnation of everyone who is not a member of the visible Church (or, sometimes, of one's own schismatic sect). How does this square with the Guenonian principle of the "perennial wisdom," which all the great Traditions of the world supposedly share? In Dr. Coomaraswamy's version, the two meanings of Tradition can be reconciled by emphasizing scriptural rather than hermetic proofs for this wisdom, and also by leaning very heavily on the notions of "the baptism of desire" and the "invincible ignorance" of some unbelievers, including intelligent ones. Those points, at least, are not off the reservation of respectable Catholic opinion, but they are not the sort of thing usually embraced by conservatives.

The moral, I think, is that we have yet another instance in which we see that Tradition should never be confused with conservatism. Perhaps it would be too much to state this categorically, but we can clearly see this trajectory in every form of Tradition: for a Traditionalist, no public institution in his own society is legitimate.

* * *

Global Policy Exchange has been holding discussions on whether what Islam really needs is a Reformation. In the August/September issue of First Things, one contributor to the discussion, Paul Marshall of Freedom House, has an essay whose title, "Islamic Counter-Reformation," sums up a contrary position:

My view is that many of the problems of contemporary Islam are more like Protestant problems than like Catholic problems, and therefore more akin to a dilution of Protestantism is required.

You can make your own list of Islamic "Protestant problems": a principle of "sola scriptura" based on the Koran that makes flexibility impossible; a neglect of natural law; the lack of hierarchical oversight of charismatic leaders. Randall suggests that what Islam needs is a renewal of the ancient science of interpretation, along with the creation of a more centralized system of authority to issue such interpretations.

I might point out that Spengler, in The Decline of the West, identified Islam as a Reformation of Eastern Christianity within what he called "Magian Culture," or at least as the Puritan phase of a Reformation. The problem is that Islam may not only have had its Reformation, but also its Counter Reformation: that is arguably what Shia Islam was all about. Particularly in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is a strong hierarchy and a sophisticated magisterium. There are also the makings of nukes, in the hands of people who should not be trusted with sharp objects.

* * *

As part of the New York Times coverage of this week's Democratic National Convention, the newspaper's Sunday Magazine section of July 25 had a long article by Matt Bai, entitled Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy. The story is about the efforts of leftist-progressive-democratic rich people to fund a network of new foundations and activist groups to counter the depredations of the American Enterprise Institute and the National Rifle Association and suchlike rabble.

There is something terribly delusional about all this. The organizers of the lefty network claim that they were blindsided by the fearsome new foundations and news outlets that the Right has assembled. Does the Hoover Institution really hold a candle to the Kennedy School of Government? Is FOX of much account compared to all three broadcast networks? About Hollywood we need not speak.

Be that as it may, the article is interesting because it emphasizes that the system of political financing is disengaging from the two major political parties:

The second potential outcome to which Dean alludes -- that the Democratic Party, per se, might not always exist in America -- might sound, coming from Dean, characteristically overwrought. But it does raise a significant question about the political venture capitalists: what if, in the future, they decided not to support Democrats at all? ... When I suggested this to Stern, the service employees' union president, he thought about it for a moment before answering. ''There is an incredible opportunity to have the infrastructure for a third party,''

Not really. What this activity leads to is a system in which prefabricated components can quickly assemble around attractive candidates. The comparison we should think of is the production of a major motion picture. The sums involved for a presidential campaign are oddly similar, too: some small multiple of $100 million. In any case, as the article notes, the year to focus on is 2008.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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