The Long View 2005-05-30: The People Have Spoken. The Bastards.

The EU really is a remarkable experiment. Not everything has gone well, but a lot has, and that is worth remembering.

The People Have Spoken. The Bastards.


We should not blame the Belgians. It is true that the proposed European Constitution begins with the phrase, "His Majesty the King of the Belgians..." It then lists all the heads of state of the signatories of the constitution-treaty, who say that, in order to advance civilization, et alia etcetera, they designate their plenipotentiaries to negotiate the treaty. The plenipotentiaries are listed, and they in turn propose the text: 1.5 mbs in my version.

This is not one of the world's great preambles. However, it follows the pattern of The Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, whose preamble simply lists the signatory states. If you want an interesting constitutional preamble, glance at The Golden Bull, the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, of which the European Union is a deliberate revival.

Reading the text of the proposed Constitution, I was surprised that I became angry. The problem is not that it is long, or that it is complicated: all those detailed appendices on economic matters are actually the most reassuring thing about it. The problem is that the text displays contempt for the reader. Prolix, flaccid, repetitious, opaque: whoever wrote this did not care whether anyone would read it. And the flaw is not just in the prose. What kind of a nitwit designs a central government with two key officials called "President"? Executive action in many of the core provisions is to be taken by "the European Council and the Council." You will have forgotten which Council is which by the time you get to them. You can go back and refresh your memory, but again, what nitwit failed to coin different names?

There is a more fundamental issue: I don't know what this document is. Consider this, the second paragraph from Article I-41: Specific provisions relating to the common security and defence policy:

The policy of the Union in accordance with this Article shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States, it shall respect the obligations of certain Member States, which see their common defence realised in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, under the North Atlantic Treaty, and be compatible with the common security and defence policy established within that framework.

That phrase, "which see their common defence," is not statutory language. It is not legal language in any sense with which I am familiar. Does it mean, "signatories of the NATO Alliance"? Maybe it means only those signatories who take their signatures seriously. Perhaps the problem is just that I was educated in another legal system, but I find the ambiguity maddening. In any case, this sort of language is a feature of the core provisions of the treaty; those addenda and protocols that cause the opponents of the treaty so much merriment are at least pretty clear. Publicity campaigns in support of the treaty have had the paradoxical effect of increasing popular opposition, maybe because they incite people to try to read it.

The European Union is a necessary institution, and I am sure that eventually its structure will be rationalized. A realistic EU would require two things:

(1) It needs a comprehensible central administration.

(2) It needs to define itself as part of the West, with a relationship toward the United States different in kind from its relationship to China or India.

Also, someone should replace Schiller's sappy lyrics in the chorale movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

* * *

Speaking of paradoxes, on Friday, May 27, I saw a broadcast of the CBS series, Numb3rs, about a mathematician who fights crime. That episode dealt with the hunt for the origin of a deadly strain of flu (two deadly strains, actually). The police nab the guilty biologist as he is entering a church. Imagine their surprise when they discover that he is not carrying more containers of flu, but candles: he intends to light one for each person killed by his experiment, which he continues to justify.

There are several oddities here. For one thing, churches where candles have not been replaced by little electric imitations have enough candles on hand for the needs of even the most diligent mass murderer. You don't even have to buy them: there is an honor system under which people who light a candle make a donation. And to wax a bit paranoid, just why did the killer have to be religious? More specifically, why was he apparently Catholic (judging by the look of the church he was entering)?

Occam's Razor counsels us to presume that the scriptwriters just needed a twist at the end of the story. The killer had to look as if he were about to infect another crowd, and a church is a reasonable place to find a crowd. As a thought experiment, though, let us consider that the facts were otherwise. Suppose that the scriptwriters were indeed trying to undermine Holy Mother Church. Indeed, let us suppose that there is a conspiracy among all scriptwriters to effect that purpose. What would the results be?

The most interesting effect might be on the scriptwriters. Consider: the people who insert these poison pills into the media would soon recognize similar instances of the denigration of Catholicism as the work of others like themselves. In fact, they would eventually interpret all criticism of the Church as the work of their own network, whether it was or not. By and by, they would bracket the truth-claim of any denigration of the Church: they write these things themselves, and they know they are rhetorical devices. Before long, they would reach a state where there was no criticism of religion they would not automatically regard with skepticism.

This is not perhaps what Clifford Geertz had in mind when he defined the Mannheim Paradox, but it is a plausible extrapolation. Only a small percentage of subversives, political and otherwise, become converts to the opposition. A remarkably large percentage do become mere cynics, however. Perhaps that is the short explanation for postmodernism.

And would the same process also occur among crypto-evangelists?

* * *

On the subject of religion, I see that the American Bible Society sponsors a museum in Manhattan, the Museum of Biblical Art, at 1865 Broadway at 61st Street. The Christian Science Monitor takes a somewhat high-concept view of the institution:

NEW YORK: To an art world deeply skeptical of religious sentiment, the paintings displayed at the Museum of Biblical Art here must seem startling. The fact that this newly opened museum exists in New York at all signifies a change in the compass that orients how art is viewed.

"We're witnessing a worldwide religious revival in response to 9/11," says Norman Girardot, a folk-art specialist and professor of religious studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Since the terrorist attacks, "We've all woken up and realized we have to take religion seriously."

One might contrast this with what the museum says about itself:

Unlike many art museums, the Museum of Biblical Art will address the history of art from a perspective--the tenets and stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition---that will be familiar to many Americans.

Not necessarily all that familiar: bible-illteracy is common in the United States, too. On the other hand, it is a good thing that this museum has not adopted cultural subversion as part of its mission statement. A policy of subversion is hard to maintain over the long haul.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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