Discussion with Charles A. Coulombe
|Above: Charles A. Coulombe (right), and his loyal sidekick Vincent Frankini, from an episode of Off the Menu.|
This bank holiday Monday, I interviewed the American Catholic historian, author, and lecturer Charles A. Coulombe. As his Facebook page puts it, "Coulombe has lectured on a wide variety of historical, religious, and political topics on three continents, and did commentary for ABC News on the death of John Paul II and the election and installation of his successor. He is the author of numerous articles in many journals, and of 10 books on a variety of subjects including Puritan's Empire, a Catholic perspective on American history, and Vicars of Christ, a history of the popes." Apart from his Catholicism, he is also known for his keen, some would say radical, monarchism.
The interview took place online (hence the various links Mr Coulombe sent me), and developed into a lively and entertaining discussion between two monarchists, on monarchy, democracy, aristocracy, society, history, and religion. As always my words are both in italics and underlined, while Mr Coulombe's are not.
[I was myself flirting with Roman Catholicism when I wrote this article, hence my many references to it and the necessity of religion.]
I've heard that you grew up in a house owned by the TV psychic, The Amazing Criswell. Is this true? Did you meet him?
Yes on both counts. There were four apartments - two on the ground floor (one of which was ours), two on the first - one of which was Mr. and Mrs. Criswell's. We saw them every day.
Did he appear as an eccentric character to you?
Beyond eccentric. I only ever saw him in DJ. Tails, bathrobe and enormous boxer shorts. His stentorian manner of speaking was indelibly marked in our memories.
And his wife was even more vivid.
The very same. Their Sunday brunches in the front yard were always filled with...um...ah...odd people. Imagine this against a backdrop of '60s Hollywood!
Quite an interesting place to grow up, I imagine. I've heard, via Mr Criswell, you met the filmmaker Ed Wood. Is this also true?
You would imagine correctly! It was indeed - he was one of the brunch goers.
Never in drag, though.
Quite! So, how did The Amazing Criswell's neighbour grow up to become a writer and lecturer? How did you end up in this line of work?
Weeeelll - as with most writers, that's a long and tangled story. My parents started out as actors - though my Dad was a tail-gunner in WWII. Dad ALWAYS thought I'd end up as a writer, though I did not. Thinking to become an army officer like my elder brother, I went to a Military Junior College - NMMI - Roswell, NM, and than Cal State Northridge. But I decided the military was not for me. A summer in Washington decided me against politics. I did various odd jobs, settled on standup comedy for a few years - and then made the mistake of writing a book that got published. After that people began asking for articles, and I had to decide which way to go. Who knows - had I stuck with comedy, I might be the Catholic Seinfeld. Or not!
Now, rather than being any old American writer, you've become a writer on the subject of monarchy. I am very interested to hear how your monarchism came about - it's a very rare condition among Americans, a nation seeped in republicanism since its foundation.
Well, what you say is quite true. Although (as pointed out in "Star-Spangled Crown"), our deepest roots are Monarchical; hatred of Monarchy is a major strand in the quasi-religion of the State we have in place of genuine patriotism (and which took the place of loyalty to the Crown in other countries). But because my father was fond of the Bourbons and Stuarts (being French Canadian with a goodly dollop of Hebridean Scots), and my mother had a love of the Habsburgs and Romanovs thanks to her father's heritage, and the Cavaliers and American Loyalists because of her mother's - to say nothing of the White Russians and emigre Eastern European Monarchists in large supply in the Los Angeles of my youth - I was raised without anti-Monarchical prejudices, for all that my parents were deeply patriotic in the true sense - lovers of this country and all its peoples.
Because of my Faith, I hated the French Revolution at an early age; the fact that the American Revolution had contributed to it, and had also been partly a reaction against the Quebec Act (which confirmed my French-Canadian ancestors in our Faith and language) was not lost on me. American diplomatic history, which since 1898 has seen us pit our weight against Monarchy at any and all times - with disastrous results - was another factor.
There does seem to me to be this creation myth in America, a part of this secular religion you refer to, in which the American Revolution is depicted as a revolt against the tyrannous foreign king George III. I have seen American school propaganda depicting this, and find it quite humourous.
Humourous because Great Britain was already a constitutional monarchy by the time of the Revolution, and because the British were not, at the time, foreign.
(An example of what you describe! Used in my childhood!)
Yes! That video is what I was referring to!
Do you regret the American Revolution? How do you balance patriotism with monarchism? This also can be linked to your Catholicism, the USA being, it seems to me, an Enlightenment/Protestant/Masonic invention. Do you as a Catholic monarchist American struggle to be patriotic?
I do indeed regret the American Revolution for several reasons...
1) It poisoned King George's mind against Catholic Emancipation, toward which he had been favourable (he felt betrayed by the Kings of France and Spain).
2) It marked the final victory of the Whig Oligarchy over the Monarchy in England - as Eric Nelson puts it, "on one side of the Atlantic there woud be a Monarchy without a King; on the other, a King without a Monarchy."
3) It bankrupted France, and in this and other ways, set the stage for the French Revolution - and the horrible results of that continue around the World.
Having said all that, your patriotism question is quite a fair one, and deserves a thoughtful answer, again in several parts.
1) I am an American patriot, not a nationalist. That is to say, I do not love my country because she is "The Last Best Hope of Mankind," the "Shining City on the Hill", or any of that. I love her because she is the country to which my ancestors came, and where I was born. I love her immensity, her diversity, her scenery, and her quirky cultures. We Americans may not have contributed Molière, Cervantes, or Shakespeare to the world, but we did come up with the cocktail, the cigar, the Broadway musical, the American songbook, Hollywood, and the like. Not great things, to be sure - but pleasant and useful. I have little regard for the ideology of the country, but having been in all 50 of the States, I cannot help but love her.
2) As with any Catholic who lives in a heathen land - be it Japan, India, Great Britain, Ireland, or the United States, one way in which my patriotism must show itself is in a desire to evangelise the land of my birth. As Fr. Aidan Nichols Has pointed out (http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/anichols/realm/realm.htm), British Catholics have a certain advantage in this regard. My desire for this here in America is partly the reason for what little support I am able to give the Ordinariate here.
If ever these United States did convert, I have no doubt they would develop a worthwhile political system as a result.
I suppose this question really applies to me too. Britishness was originally closely linked with anti-Catholicism.
Yes, indeed - but you also have a very strong Catholic tradition which could be used (as Fr. Nichols desribes) for evangelism. We do not, save on a regional basis.
Yes, which found expression in the Oxford Movement, and Anglo-Catholicism, and eventually the Personal Ordinariates.
Just look at our Coronation ceremony. When we invited William of Orange to take the Throne in the Glorious Revolution, this Protestant Dutchman was apparently very mocking of the Coronation which was full of outdated popish traditions, or so he saw them.
Just so - and also in the Recusant tradition and the 19th and 20th century English Catholic revivals.
The thing about Great Britain is, it's been shaped by division - Catholic versus Protestant, Tory versus Whig. This is why we have an "adversarial" system in government - Prime Minister's Questions, the Government vs. the Opposition and all that.
I would argue it's shaped us for the better. But this is where the difference between you and me lies, I think.
You may if you like of course. I think not - I mention Alfie Evans not for the sensationalist value, but because of the overweening nature of the State. Mind you, ours has developed in the same direction as well. The Queen is unable to intervene, and all power in Heaven and Earth resides in the political/judicial classes. I would argue that without an effective Monarch and Lords, your system has devolved into mere Oligarchy - even as George Wyndham predicted!
This is where the difference between you and I lies, I think.
I actually like the British system. I think the Glorious Revolution, while in itself an inexcusable Protestant theft of the Crown, has had some good results, such as securing the liberties of Englishmen (if only for Protestant Englishmen at first) and enshrining parliamentary sovereignty & democracy.
No doubt. A lifetime of study and political observation has turned me into a Jacobite/Carlist/Legitimist - though no absolutist. But there is no absolute monarch who called himself Christian - even the odious Henry VIII - who would have arrogated to himself the right to alter marriage and gender - and indeed, the definition of life itself.
But I recogise that for the average Britisher, Parliamentary Sovereignty, etc. is seen as a good in itself - as with our own American Revolution here.
William Cobbett was perhaps the first to identify how closely connected the two are.
Have you seen The Cousins' Wars?
I would actually argue our current issues have come about via a lack of democracy. The Conservative Party is unrepresentative and undemocratic. It does not genuinely represent the interests of conservative people in this country. It only exists to secure office for the sons of gentlemen. Its policies are whatever is fashionable among the elite.
Just look at the EU referendum - the British people acted democratically, and (hopefully - we haven't left yet) guaranteed themselves national independence. I do think the common people have a common sense which the elites lack.
Quite true. Which is one very good reason for retaining the hereditary nature of the Lords. Ironically, as a whole they resemble the common man far more than the political classes do.
Indeed. G.K. Chesterton defended them on this basis.
No, I haven't seen The Cousins' Wars.
As I say, it really goes back to Cobbett - but it is well presented herein.
Mind you, Phillips' [the book's author] views are the opposite of mine - but the historical dynamic is what it is.
You see, we can prattle about independence all we like, and the Anglo-Canadians and Australians and New Zealanders can build their cargo cult republicanism. But we really are all tied up together.
For myself, one of the positive things I have seen coming out of Brexit has been the rush of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to "get back in" with the UK. I really doubt just how much the pain Britain entering the EU entailed in those countries was even on the mind of the British government at the time.
I interviewed the Chair of the United Commonwealth Society recently. To think just over 100 years ago the idea of an "Imperial Federation", as opposed to Imperial disintegration, was being seriously promoted.
Indeed - and it is one of those great historical "what-ifs" had it happened. For myself (and there were folk doing so at the time) a combination of Imperial Federation and "Home Rule All Round" might have done a lot of good. But we won't know, alas!
Going back to what you said earlier, about being a "Jacobite/Carlist/Legitimist" - would you like to elaborate on this?
I've heard you say you support a sort of "medieval monarchy" before (as opposed to an absolute monarchy).
Just so. Or, if you prefer more modern terms, an "Executive Monarchy". Power diffused, authority concentrated - rather than the reverse, which characterises the curent system.
Medieval monarchs, while less accountable, did have less power in many ways than modern bureaucrats. But don't you think that technological advancement plays a part in this? A medieval king did not have access to CCTV, and it took days to get from one town to another. The world was a wilder, more decentralised place.
We have unaccountable leaders - dictators and warlords aplenty - today, and I'm not sure I could name one that is as restricted as a medieval monarch. Now that they can rule absolutely, they will do.
Very true. And a great deal of the political history of the West is the story of the oligarchs created by that advancement taking control of the instruments of political power, whilst covering themselves in the mantle of "popular respresentation". That said, nothing is static; before a system can be reformed it first must be understood for what it is. Ideally, the Monarch (and Upper House, for which, regardless of country, a hereditary body grounded in the nation's tradition would be best) would act as a counter to and guardian of the people's interests, from said Oligarchs. But the reality is that parallel to that technological growth (though not necessarily causally connected to it), there has been in the West a religious and moral collapse. Given what we tolerate in the private sphere, I doubt that the majority of us could accept decent governance in any case. How many of us would happily accept a regime that - for example - outlawed contraception and pornography? It sounds radical today even to mention such measures - yet I am old enough to remember when it was not so. I suspect that, alas, having rejected wholesale what we inherited - from altar and throne down to mere decency - we may well have the "New Unhappy Lords" we deserve.
Do you know GK's poem of that name?
I do not.
Specifically, the penultimate Stanza:
They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.
I am reminded of this poem every time I watch a Congressional hearing!
It's as if Mr Chesterton met Tony Blair.*
I do agree with you fundamentally on the hereditary principle. As I summarised in one of my articles, "the hereditary principle allows for long-term-oriented freethinking nonpolitical civilians, not indebted to any party and therefore able to be truly independent, to be in the highest places of government, to temper the populism or plutocracy of elected party-political career politicians, and subsequently defend liberty and the constitution."
I just think we differ on the extent to which we want it carried out. You probably want the Monarch and the hereditary peers to have more power than I would give them, I bet.
No doubt. But perhaps that is the result of being a native of a nation invented by professional politicians. It is not that I am against democracy; I just have never seen or read of a place where the majority rule.
To put this another way, I believe the alternative to Monarchy is not popular rule, but Oligarchy.
Bear in mind, my Monarchism is grounded perforce in the American experience, although my knowledge of other nations is perhaps wider than that of most of my countrymen. Still and all, this satirical video from the 2008 election may give you a taste of the milieu. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adc3MSS5Ydc
I don't know, I think our representative democracy functioned pretty well in Britain until recent decades. The general mood of the British people was pretty decently represented. Governments genuinely did pander to the masses. For example, we had Benjamin Disraeli's brand of one-nation conservatism after the working class got the vote. When the experience of the British people changed in the Great Depression, the outdated Tory vs. Liberal rivalry was replaced with a Tory vs. Labour one. Our adversarial system was designed (I say "designed", although unlike your American system it evolved into existence naturally) to represent the two majority ideologies of the age, whatever that age happened to be.
The flaw of this two-party system, however, became apparent in the last few decades. From about the 60s onwards, an alliance of left-liberals from both the two parties did irreparable damage to Britain by helping to push us through a Cultural Revolution the majority of the British public did not want. Because these revolutionary measures were put forward and voted on by members of both parties through private member's bills, in general elections the British public could not electorally punish one party or another for them - because a single party was not to blame.
I haven't yet thought how such a problem could have been solved, but it seems to me that the problem here was a lack of democracy, not democracy itself.
Well, I would have to defer to Belloc, who predicted the outcome of your system from its implicits. Your systen was dependent upon your oligarchy being made up of decent men - and despite their differences (and they were huge) both Disraeli and Gladstone were decent men. When the nature of the Oligarchs changed, their system changed with them.
Do you know much of Belloc's work in this area?
I haven't read much of Belloc at all really.
Well - half a sec (you'll end up with a library by the time I am done, seemingly; but a lifetime of this stuff does it to you!).
I have to admit that I have more in common with Belloc than GKC - the whole Francophone thing. One sees the Anglo world a little differently than Anglos do. It does not mean you love it less - simply that you do not take for granted what Anglos do. Of course, he and I have very different takes on French history, but he was related to Danton, and with us, family loyalty takes precedence!
To say that so-called representative democracies are in fact, oligarchies, seems to me a little contradictory, if you say the solution to this is even less democracy, with a monarchy.
This is because you presume that democracy - in the sense of majority rule - exists. I assert that every society has rulers - a minority - and the ruled - a majority. What makes one society differ from another is how the rulership regard their subjects. If a King and nobility believe, more or less, that they owe their position to God and that their rulership is bound up with their salvation, then even when they err, they will view their subjects in one light; if they believe they owe their position to their own cleverness and excellence, and that their subjects exist to be milked, they shall view them in a different light.
I would rather be ruled by someone for whom I could not vote that believed he would fry forever for misrule, than by someone for whom I could vote, but saw me merely as an economic unit to be taxed. Can you think of an elected official who would die for his people? Perhaps Churchill or de Gaulle, but they still held remnants of the old aristocratic ethos. What allowed the British system to work for so long was the ever lessening influence of that ethos, dead at last in our time. The results you see before you - and have very well just described - and as Belloc predicted.
I think that the Soviet Union's existence delayed the process from coming to full fruition in the West. But since it fell - see how it gathered steam!
Of course, you must allow for my biases...
I live in a State where the Assembly just voted that there are now three biological genders.
Well firstly, I often think "representative democracy" and "direct democracy" shouldn't both be called "democracy". They're quite different. The former accepts the existence of the ruling minority, but allows the majority to hold it to account and replace it at will. The latter means the majority actually rule themselves, which is quite an untested concept, only really taking place in places like Switzerland.
And New England town meetings (which prior to 1776, were summoned "in His Majesty's Name"), and the Swiss institutions grew up under the Holy Roman Empire. But notice that even representative democracies, when they worked their best, had restricted electorates - that is, literate landowners - stakeholders, we would say today. And I agree with you - remember that it was Medieval Monarchy under which those who paid taxes had the right to say how they might be spent.
But universal suffrage is another matter entirely. An illiterate on the dole is given the right to vote for how money should be spent, and his vote is bought by whomever promises him, her, or (as we say now in California) ex the most in the way of goodies - goodies said person does not pay for.
You know, I may actually be seeing what you meant about the "aristocratic ethos"... in the old days, before universal suffrage democracy, the only thing holding leaders in check would have been abstract responsibilities and principles; therefore, more value would have been placed on them; on such things as a leader's accountability to God. Since the advent of democracy these values may have given way to some extent to the more powerful and pressing concern of how to win the next election, and whatnot. Therefore, perhaps the decay of our political class can be put down to some extent to the loss of this "ethos".
And without ethos, you would not have a Monarchy (even if I designed it!) but tyranny.
And when we speak of direct democracy, there is a world of difference between Swiss and Yankee yeomanry, owning and working their land, and a vast urban mob with no loyalty save to themselves.
For the old system to work, it required Kings, Lords, and Commons to be on the same religio-ethical page. When that was shattered, over time it all collapsed - and here we are!
"Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice, and all things shall be added unto you" can be taken quite literally - as can its reverse.
Regarding the "aristocratic ethos", and by extension the "Divine right of kings". I'm all for leaders believing they have a spiritual duty to govern well. I'm sure most religious Prime Ministers and Presidents believe they have a moral duty to do good. The problem with using this alone to hold our leaders to account is that people tend to believe what they want to believe. A lukewarm Christian will believe in God when it suits him and conveniently not believe in God when he wants to commit a sin. I've certainly found this to be the case in my own life. People are naturally present time oriented; an ordinary human would sooner care about the immediate danger of losing his job than the distant possibility of a) God actually existing, and b) actually being sent to Hell. It's sad, I know, but that's just how flawed, fallen humans are. Therefore, I think a Prime Minister accountable to Parliament and ultimately the people, while he may well be now and then incentivised to govern well due to his religious convictions (and good on him!), due to being a fallen, stupid human, will be better guaranteed to govern well by the fear of losing his job and his legacy (after, say, a vote of no confidence). What say you to this?
Well, I am afraid it is a functional solution to the problem, which I have seen demonstrated in American history. Men's actions are affected by their beliefs more than their positions. Everyone here acknowledges that our founders were the greatest political generation this country has produced - and oceans of ink have been spilled to figure out why we have never matched them. The obvious answer is that they destroyed the very ethos that created them in the first place - which was far from perfect, but better than anything we have seen since. It lasted longer in Britain, by perhaps a century and a half.
Let me give you something from your own country's recent past to think about. Are you familiar with the constitution of the City of London? I mean the Square Mile.
Vaguely. I know it has quite a complex old-fashioned system involving guilds and corporations.
Just so. And prior to the early 19th century, every borough in England and Ireland and every burgh in Scotland was run in similar manner - self-perpetuating guilds of merchants and craftsmen chose the mayors and other town officials, and basically ran the affairs of each town without much reference to Whitehall or Westminster. This was very "undemocratic!". HOWEVER - if the locals were unhappy with conditions, the centre of power which they might either riot against or cajole or lick the boots of to achieve needed relief was right at hand - and many are the cases (if you study the case histories) of such relief being granted - the Mayor and Corporation having the power to do so. However...
In a gradual process, starting in the 1840s, all the while the municipal franchise was being opened up to the general electorate, more and more power was taken away from the Guildhalls by Whitehall and Westminster, until local government accounts for very little, although everyone can vote for it.
So while anyone may vote for the Totnes town council (say), there is far less said council can do for its citizens than in the days when no one could vote for it - but it could be bribed or intimidated or begged. There is an old maxim in this country - "If voting could change things, it would be illegal." A tad over-dramatic, but suggestive of certain truths.
All very paradoxical, to be sure. But at any rate, my point is that the religion and ethos of those in power outweigh the mere form of that power. We Americans designed a representative democracy from the bottom up - but we left out an animating spirit, save the "American ideal" - whatever that may be, and a certain moral consensus that died in the 1960s. And here we are.
I think the guilds can be a discussion for another time. I know little about them, and that whole distributist scene. On first impressions I don't see why guilds should get votes and not each and every individual workman himself.
The more you atomise the electorate, the more you render them helpless before those in power. Of course, none of this works without everyone having some idea of the Common Good. Otherwise, it is indeed every man for himself and devil take the hindmost. As we have today.
Ah, I sense you keep coming back to this -
Indeed, indeed. From whence does the word "Commonwealth" stem?
Religion determines culture, politics, and so much else.
Well, Religion is the settling of fundamental principles. Everything else naturally flows from that, yes.
Can you guess why, as a rule, the great nations of the East - India, China, Japan etc. had little in the way of organised charities before the European came (bearing in mind I am a great Sino- and Japanophile)?.
It was because the notion of Karma meant that the poor man was that way because of punishments for past misdeeds - if you helped him you might be hindering his own reascension in the next life (even though personal almsgiving might do you some good). It is what separated Bushido from Chivalry.
But the West has become so secular that most of its denizens have no idea where their most basic viewpoints came from - and as we have seen over the past several decades, those viewpoits themselves are rapidly decaying.
Regarding what you say about karma, a side-note: couldn't the same be said of the "Protestant work ethic" - the Calvinist deterministic idea that God rewards the Saved materially (therefore, the Damned must be poor).
Absolutely. My own country is - to the degree it is anything - sort of secularised Calvinist; the religion is gone, but the attitudes - toward the poor, the arts, Canaanites (i.e. un-Americans) remain the same. If you would understand us - that is the first thing to be grasped.
It is why, now that our conventional morality is gone, we have turned smoking and obesity into the objects of moral crusades. We do have to be on about something!
My point about religion was that, in this interview I have been trying to get you into a conversation about the best system of government - you mention, as counterpoints against the representative democratic "oligarchy", that it now lacks moral principles. YOU COULD remedy this by creating a sort of theocratic "Divine right of kings" monarchy which is always explicitly Catholic, or you could, as I would argue, remedy this by:
a) if the oligarchs are not representative of a (moral) population, democratise the system so that more morally upstanding leaders may replace them.
b) if the oligarchs are representative of a (immoral) population, evangelise the people first, and better, more moral government will follow, via democracy.
I favour the bottom-up approach. I get the impression that your "Catholic medieval monarchy" is more top-down.
It is the only one that would have any chance of success.
No, actually. In my book, I played with the notion. But you see, Catholic Medieval Monarchy was itself the result of the "bottom up" - in the sense that the Faith came first, and then the rest followed. Now, in most cases, the catalyst was the local King - your Ethelbert, Clois, Erik of Sweden, Constantine, Vladimir of Russia, etc., etc., ad nauseam converting, after which the majority followed their leaders - even as we do today (hence the widespread acceptance of gay marriage after it became the law). But that could not happen until there was already a vibrant Catholic presence among the populace. Do you know the two social classes that first accepted the Faith in ancient Rome?
No. Oh wait, slaves?
The ancient pre-Imperial nobility, who saw in the Faith supernatural validation of their long holding of the "old Roman virtues" - and the transformation of those virtues thereby; and the Slaves, to whose lives it gave value. At the first Masses, you saw the most elevated names in the City next to the lowest members of Society. Together, they began the revolution that culminated in Constantine, and more particularly in Theodosius.
So you see, in my view, the solutions to our political problems are not to be found in politics - nor are they any more short-term than the process that produced them. And in that belief, you will find every Counter-Revolutionary writer from de Maistre to Cram. I believe in preserving whatever remains of Old Christendom's government wherever it exists - but that is a mere bandaid over a gaping wound. So you see, our differences may not be as great as you suspect.
So can we agree, regardless of where we stand on democracy or monarchy, that the most important thing, from which everything else flows, is not the political structure, but the religion of the masses?
Well, I think that agreement is a good point at which to conclude!
Yes, indeed - so long as you force all your readers to endure "No More Kings"!
Thank you for graciously giving up your time. I felt it was an entertaining discussion, and will make for a jolly good article.
Splendid! If you ever come to LA, etc.! Many thanks!
*Now that I think of it (yes, it's Dominic talking here), perhaps Mr Blair wasn't a good example, although Blairites in general are. Theresa May or Amber Rudd would have been better.