Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Watch this space

Having written myselves into several corners, I have decided to take the month of August off writing entirely (except a couple of prior commitments), and devote it instead to regrouping, in a quasi-religious retreat.

But with the intention of returning with a roar on Labour Day.

On news judgement

To a couple of journalists, yesterday, I complained; quite pointlessly of course. This was about the slight coverage of the genocide against Christians in Iraq. One emailed, that he had mentioned the matter himself on Twitter, and gave links to several items on Mosul that had appeared (on inside print and web pages) in the “mainstream media” I seem to despise. This was accompanied by a sneer, for me personally. I had by chance already read each of the accounts he linked, all of which depended on an original Associated Press file, which I had gone to the trouble of tracing. Without exception, I have found all the reports I have seen in mainstream media hopelessly muddled. That is to say, they repeat clichés, as an alternative to digging.

Example: “These actions stem from the harsh interpretation of Islamic law.”

Where to start unpacking the layers of falsehood compressed into that one outwardly plausible sentence? Starting from the assumption that there is any single code of “Islamic law” — mild, harsh, or whatever.

Consider: there are at least five distinct schools of “Shariah,” and none of them is strictly Koranic. The expression ash-Shariah occurs only once in the Koran, and does not mean “law” but something like “the way.” Contradictions between Koranic passages leave such a very wide range of possible legal interpretations, that no single code could be extracted, even on the principle that later passages obviate earlier (and supposing the chronology itself could be established incontestably). Moreover, all the Prophet’s injunctions assume conditions of life in early VIIth-century Arabia, requiring interpretation in turn to conditions at the present day. Whether there in the East, or here in the West, human law requires human reasoning — a point on which the greatest Islamic jurisprudes are fairly clear. To say that some murderous fanatics are acting according to “Islamic law” might pass for a slander against Islam; but it is a completely meaningless statement, of the kind on which journalists glibly build.

One might go sentence by sentence through any of the news reports I have seen, to show comprehensively sloppy thinking, and therefore slop where any reporting is attempted, but what would be achieved? Another million plops will land even as the first is being shovelled. Meanwhile the still formidable resources of mainstream news media are assigned not to find out what is happening in Mosul, but on e.g. “Carrie shows new side,” “Darling gets big gift,” “Upton barely covers up,” and “Veggies you may really like.” (I have just checked Fox.)

The notion that better is to be found elsewhere on the web, cannot stand either. It is true that vastly more attention is now being given to events in Mosul, by some of the “new media.” But it consists almost entirely of expressions of outrage, depending, invariably so far as I can see, on information supplied through “old media” channels. Moreover, you have to go looking for it: for it is not pushed down your throat and through your eye sockets, in the manner of the media for which e.g. Rupert Murdoch is willing to offer tens of billions in cash and shares. Money talks, and if you listen for a moment, you will hear what it is saying.

It is saying that the “final solution” for Christians in Iraq is a matter of no great significance or urgency. It is saying that “the people” are actually more interested in e.g. the dress Kim Kardashian wore for her third wedding. (Of course, this might be true, which is just one of the innumerable reasons I propose to stop idolizing “democracy.”)

Note, that soi-disant “conservative” media are no more likely to invest serious resources in reporting Iraq — now that U.S. soldiers have gone home — than “liberal” media. It interests them only as a stick with which to poke their Obama, when any other stick would do. The reality is that we have no mainstream “conservative” media, at all, nor could have under the conditions the retired Pope Benedict described under the phrase, “the dictatorship of relativism.” What we have, as soi-disant “conservative,” is instead “populist” — at several levels of dignity, mostly crass tabloid. And, the pomposity of journalists who wish to appropriate the higher-brow term, to give themselves the appearance of modest elevation above the moral and intellectual mire.

*

Here is a “thought experiment” for my remaining journalistic friends. It is an attempt to cast light by means of analogy. (“Now is the time when we juxtapose,” as the adored Kate Macmillan likes to write at Small Dead Animals.) And let me remind the journalist-entertainers of the mainstream, that they do indeed have influence, in the aggregate, over the tenor of our society.

The area and population of the territory the “Caliphate” now controls in Syria and Iraq being currently roughly equal to that controlled by the government of Israel, let us imagine what the “coverage” would be, had the Israelis told all Muslims to run for their lives; had they announced that everything Muslims owned now belonged to the Israeli government; and that any Muslim still found within Israel’s de facto borders after twenty-four hours would be put to the sword. Questions:

Do you think this story might make the front page?

Do you think the media would seek more information?

Do you think the matter might remain news for more than one day?

News from Ninevah

It would seem that, this morning, for the first time in more than eighteen centuries, there are no Christians in Mosul, Iraq.

The city was founded on the west bank of the River Tigris, as the continuation of the more ancient Ninevah, which it is still sometimes called by the biblically inclined, including its Christian former residents. Gentle reader will recall that Ninevah (on the other bank) was sacked by the Babylonians, et alia, in 612 BC. The first rebuilding was done a few miles north; the most recent only a few centuries later, back at the natural bridgehead.

“Recent” is a relative term; all history is modern history, as I like to repeat. Old Mosul (“Mepsila”) is mentioned in Xenophon’s Anabasis, from when his Greeks were passing through, towards the end of the fifth century BC — a time when the ruins of Ninevah had already been forgotten. It was later a Christian city, before it became, by conquest, a Muslim city: yet it remained until the dawn of the present century an important Christian centre, seat of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, and of classical Syriac learning. The ruins of Christian monasteries may be found scattered through the surrounding desert; many survived long into the Islamic era. A story could be told about St Elijah’s monastery, for instance, just to the south of Mosul, which American soldiers helped to restore only a few years ago. Before Tamerlane, it had dispatched missionaries across India, China, and Central Asia, as well as delegates to distant Rome. By much older tradition, the tombs of several Old Testament patriarchs and prophets are to be found within the large area now under Mosul’s modern urban sprawl. (It is the largest city in Iraq, except Baghdad.) This includes the shrine associated with the tomb of Jonah, itself of extraordinary antiquity — torched and demolished last week.

All physical evidence that Christians ever lived in Mosul will soon be erased, if it has not been erased already. Shia Islamic shrines have also been demolished by the Sunni jihadis; and I gather that Mosul’s famous museum, one of several sites around the city under nominal protection of UNESCO as “world heritage,” has also been trashed by these iconoclasts.

Christians were still a substantial minority in Mosul, at the time of the U.S. and allied invasion in 2003. Their numbers had since been reduced considerably by Sunni Arab torments; last month it was estimated that only 35,000 remained. “ISIS” — the army of fanatics that has seized much of northern Iraq — marked their houses with the Arabic letter for N, which stands for “Nasrani,” or Nazarenes. (This is what Christians are called in the Koran.) Educated readers may note that the Nazis had the homes of Jews marked in a similar manner — back when that wasn’t really news, either.

The “final solution” for Mosul’s Christians was blared from loudspeakers in the minarets of the city’s Sunni mosques after Friday prayers. They would have twenty-four hours to flee, taking nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Those found still in the city, after noon yesterday, would be put to the sword. A third option, conversion to Islam, was mentioned only for the record. Any intending to do that would surely have done it by now. The possessions of all Christians had been “nationalized,” according to the announcement — everything they owned now belonged to the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and the Levant.

This last point, though a technicality, is important to understand the sequence of events. Because the Christians now owned nothing, it would be impossible for them to pay the jizyah — the Islamic tax for non-Muslims. (Over the centuries, throughout the many lands conquered in the name of the Prophet, from Morocco through Indonesia, Christians who valued an easy life above that of Christ gradually converted to Islam, the principal reason being to avoid paying this onerous protection money, to say nothing of the occasional pogrom.) The amount of the tax — payable wherever and whenever it is demanded — is currently fixed in neighbouring Syria, wherever the jihadis of ISIS have taken over from the regime of Bashir Assad, at one half-ounce of pure gold per head for every man, woman, or child. I gather cash equivalents are not acceptable. Gold is hard for the Christians to obtain under prevailing conditions; it is one of many factors exerting an upward influence on the international gold price.

Details, details: I wish that our Western media were capable of spotting and recording them, on almost any topic. Not being in Mosul myself, currently, I cannot attest to the details in any of the reports I have read. (One may find the main event mentioned even by the BBC and CNN, if one examines their websites forensically.) But from previous familiarity with radical Islam, several small things struck me. One was that the announcement of Christian dispossession was phrased with bureaucratic precision, specifying that “the clothes they are wearing” must under no circumstances be used to conceal coins, jewellery, or a long list of other portable valuables, all of which were to be left in the homes which the jihadis would now secure.

It would be a mistake to assume that because they value human life so lightly, the jihadis are indifferent to the values of the bazaar. Note that their conception of heaven is also presented in market terms: as so many virgins in payment to a “martyr,” plus luxuries and treasures also carefully denominated. One might call it a transcendental materialism — religion in the form of compelled material transactions, and in that sense not fundamentally different from the democratic liberalism of our own Nanny States.

The Christians have fled, by necessity many on foot under the killing sun of the Mesopotamian summer, mostly towards Kurdistan: the one part of northern Iraq the jihadis have not yet attempted to subjugate. That is also where Western refugee aid is most likely to be available. At this point, we cannot guess how many will make it alive. Certainly the number of dead will vastly exceed those tallied in the airliner that was shot down in eastern Ukraine — the story now at the top of Western media headlines, for the plane was full of Europeans.

We pray, with least compulsion, for our own. Granting that is how things must be, by nature, those who remain Christian in the West should recall that Christians everywhere are our own.

On the road

Anti-blogging may well be light through the summer, as I am trying to reorganize myself in the shade of my most recent petty disasters, and will sometimes be straying to locations where this laptop does not shine. And sometimes, having gone nowhere, I just leave it there unconsulted, for there are other things to do.

Among the innumerable paradoxes of contemporary life, is that technology has anchored us, tied us down, done just the opposite of set us free. We are tethered to these “devices,” which themselves become a place. That is hardly a novel observation, yet I don’t think the full implications are conjured with, thanks in part to the epidemic of “skipjack” literal-mindedness that is another feature of Internet addiction; and let me add, the associated Comment Revolution — “interactivity” and the horrible unchastity it abets. Freedom in this world has been redefined, not as independence but as mobility. Because we now have extremely portable devices, we are trapped, but not at home, or in the factory or office, the way we used to be. Instead we are secured to the devices, so perfectly that a moment of freedom from them fills us with morbid anxiety and dread.

In a friend’s unpublished novel, that I have been reading, there is the image of aeroplanes passing overhead. The narrator imagines them with the aircraft stripped away: pictures pilots and passengers sitting in the sky, moving at great speed through nowhere to nowhere, in the illusion of some purpose. They are ridiculous.

“Pilgrimage” will be my word for today. It is something quite different from mobility, although the literal-minded might associate it with wandering. Well yes, it is associated with wandering: to a shrine, as making a pilgrimage. It is a consciously religious act, as we might make a Confession. It is not synonymous with travelling, however, just as attending the Mass does not reduce to “making a trip across town.” That is in turn a small pilgrimage, of the kind almost anyone could make, almost any day, on foot, or by car, bus, or trolley.

I have the sweetest memories of being young, of being “on the road,” usually over the ground, and often to an undetermined destination; of being a spectator, a witness, in my passing; and in myself, at the crossroads of many divergent paths. Of being, truly, alone on the road, or thrown in with total strangers, not of my own language, culture, or background. The sweetest memories even of the danger of being on the road, far from help or rescue in some remote place. It was exhilarating — to live in that animal alertness, and the sparrow joy in that alertness.

But what I did was not a pilgrimage, though it felt often as if it might be so, and in mornings setting out I often thought of e.g. Chaucer’s pilgrims, the more because I was writing a long rambling novel or sequence of interrelated stories, provisionally entitled Travellers, and meant as a XXth century Canterbury Tales. (The manuscript in my satchel became excessively heavy, and was ultimately consigned to the Mekong River, a little below Vientiane.) I was writing the parody of a pilgrimage — of e.g. foolish young dope-smoking hippies on the road to Kathmandu. But in reflection, the pilgrimage for me was God, Whom I did not then recognize, wishing to show me a few things; and requiring nothing from me, at that time, except my full attention.

Real, material dangers are part of the attraction through the great ages of pilgrimage: my beloved “Middle Ages.” One imagines the need sometimes to travel in convoy against highwaymen, for instance; to be well-armed and prepared for some despicable Robin Hood. One imagines much greater exposure to perils of weather, disease, even wild animals; nights in real darkness, shivering under the stars; the practical possibility of starvation. Ah, the lost joys. Yet also the moments of sanctuary, of a kind that cannot be appreciated today: the first sighting of a town and its towers from a distant hill; first hearing the tinkle of its distant steeple bells, carried on the breeze; the high walls and proud towers, and within them, safety. Life was more vivid then, and the more vivid it becomes, the more clearly God may be discerned in the pattern: a Lord who cannot be casually avoided, ignored then forgotten, as He is in our city life today; who must be personally welcomed, or rejected. And by rejection, I mean rejection: not casual cussing, and our modern pissing in the wind, but real blasphemy. Men were once capable of that.

Tethered: for wherever we travel today we may call home and stay in touch with everything; and all of our wanderings are circular. No one steps aboard a ship, thinking he will never see his homeland again, for he is sailing too far away. How wretchedly pointless is a holiday in the sun, airport to airport and then back again. How do people live, that they could feel the need of such (aptly termed) “vacations” — which prove, in almost every case, to be a vacating of the pilgrimage itself? Or going, as they boast, to an “unspoilt” place, some little earthly paradise they have located, to get away from it all. But if so, only going there to spoil it.

*

To be a pilgrim, it is not necessary to go anywhere at all.

We are on our pilgrimage through space and time; and even in stillness, we are moving through time. Let me dwell upon this very simple notion, perhaps too simple to be readily understood. The otherworldly moments, in which it seems we have stood out of time, are themselves locatable along time’s arrow. I don’t think people take this universe seriously enough. We disconnect ourselves abstractly, when we imagine ourselves the authors of some “progress” that is, in the reality, completely beyond our control. Our participation is itself fully real. We are entirely here, and not elsewhere; we have been put here, and not by ourselves. We are subjects, tightly bound within “laws” that are unalterable and unfailing, and we are answerable finally not to ourselves. We were summoned to this pilgrimage, to “the freedom of the open road.” But if I may shift from sublime to ridiculous: we did not build that road. Nor was it built by human hands. Nor is our travel optional; nor the conditions of travel; nor the duties to our God and to our neighbour that are the rules of this road. My friend Joe Hanna describes the lives of great masses of people today, as “one seamless sin of omission.” Think on that.

Think on this universe, which mimics infinity, but had a beginning and will have an end. (For centuries upon centuries Christians tried to explain to scientists those outrageous words, “In the beginning,” and were repeatedly laughed out of their court. It is less than a century since the scientists “progressed” so far that they began to realize, to their consternation, that the Christians were right. Yes, the universe had a beginning, a very literal beginning, a beginning of time, and the end follows from the beginning. The materialists may dispense with their smugness now.)

The Christian must be aware that he is moving towards a destination; and that the destination is not in this world. He must maintain a certain detachment from the things of this world; a chaste detachment; for where he is going cannot be here. Spectator and witness, perhaps actor in his turn, in some role for which he is or isn’t suited; bearing responsibilities to others in every single case. His suffering may be of more value than any achievement to which he may claim. He cannot vest his hopes in earthly things, knowing they will vanish. His finest possessions are not of this world, but from another: the phenomena of reciprocated love; of truth, goodness, and beauty apprehended, preciously kept in the purse of memory; of “news from a foreign country” received. This is all he will hold at the end of his journey, when his road through space and time lies behind him, and everything he once carried on his back has been used up, thrown or taken away, and even the old bag of his flesh is discarded.

To be sure, we all know this, but it is also true that we don’t know what we know.

Word for the day

“Palaeoconservative.”

I’ve been reminded of this word by my Chief Wrocław Correspondent (who is also Convenor for the Polish Branch of the David Warren Friendship Society). He cites the works of another friend and guru, Paul Gottfried, along with other palaeoconservative thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic Sea, most of whom will be utterly unknown to the general reader, let alone the media skipjack. (The allusion is to a shallow-draught fishing vessel, designed to retrieve oysters, only, and only from Chesapeake Bay. Or, in older English, to a class of inexpensive manservant or footman, whose strength and weakness lay in a certain lightness of heel, and a focused literal-mindedness. Or, the word could be left to find its own associations.)

See, should gracious reader be inclined, “No Country for Old Politics,” by Prof. Gottfried, which may be found by diligent Internet search. The gentleman patiently explains at some length what the word might mean; and how “conservatives” in media, the academy, politics, and so forth, are effectively in alliance with “liberals” to keep palaeoconservative ideas out of play.

“Palaeoconservative,” I have come to think myself, is necessary to distinguish actual conservative thought, from the rightwing form of glib liberal thinking. Curiously, we do not also need the term “palaeoliberal,” to describe the old Enlightenment attitudes, which remain in fashion after three hundred years, and some portions of which were, until quite recently, partially sane. “Nineteen-fifties liberal” is sometimes attempted: but that kind of person is now called a “conservative,” and has been called a conservative since at least the Reform Bill of 1832. He is of the faction that waves all the old signboards for Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, and what have you, but would prefer the realities for which these slogans stand to arrive at a slower pace. (The italicized words are the national motto of Haiti; and I think also of France.)

Whereas, a “palaeoconservative” would not like them to arrive at all. He refuses to wave those signboards. (He sees how things have worked out in Haiti.) Indeed, he does not believe in signboards, or like them.

If we want to be democratic about this, I would suggest we form a political party. My proposal for a cool, sexy name would be: “The Catholic Christian Counter-Revolutionary and Anti-Bourgeois Distributist Subsidiarial Limited-Monarchist Hierarchical and Aristocratic Palaeoconservative Action League.” And insist that the authorities print the full name on every ballot, not try to reduce it to “CCC-R&A-BDSL-MH&APAL,” or whatever. That way, by taking up extra space, we will reap a huge harvest of unintentional supporters.

Alternatively, just the “Palaeoconservative Party,” and hope for the best.

For we have to work with what we have, according to a young lady with whom I was speaking recently, who added that what we have is “democracy.” Which is to say, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, and bats with little human faces. She dismissed my central idea (which was to restore Christendom) as impractical, and impracticable, under present conditions. And as I could see she might have a point, I am trying to become more practical.

Bring me my bow

No, we haven’t given up the ghost. Just a little more fever. (This website was knocked off the Internet for the last six days; hardly for the first time.) Be assured, gentle reader, that we do not surrender our ghosts, in the High Doganate. Nor throw in our towels, except to the laundry. Verily, we cling to our ghosts, up here, along with our guns and our bibles.

A fair number of people sent kind messages, and I did not reply to them all, and may not even have received all, as I was also bumped off email for a bit. Please take this as acknowledgement and explanation. (As a compensation, some thoughtful person would seem to have put me on the mailing list for every conceivable gay, feminist, environmentalist, neo-communist or other progressive cause. Thank you, for each unsolicited message is an inspiration to redouble my efforts.)

Let us not weary, as Paul writes to the Galatians (6:9). Or as the Anglikaaners sing: “I will not cease from Mental Fight, / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: / Till we have built Jerusalem.”

Quas primas

Lately, the centenaries of events leading into the lizard pit of the First World War have been much on my mind. This is thanks partly to the nice people at the Daily Telegraph, in England, who have been putting the whole year’s run of their newspaper, from 1914, up on the Internet in facsimile, day by day. On many levels it is instructive reading, for a creature mired in 2014. For instance, we learn what idiots people were, in fairly comprehensive detail; and must have been, well beforehand. This is always good to know. It is one of the most useful lessons of history: that, in the main, people are idiots. And just as travelling the world opens our eyes, on return, to the peculiarities of our own culture, travelling time helps to free us from chronological provincialism. It is a pity the Telegraphers did not put up their run for 2014, however, back in 1914. It could have served their readers back then as a terrible warning.

Yet a hundred years is, as the old papers also show, not that far away. Rather it is uncomfortably close, as we see in the case of malicious Serbian idiots, still celebrating the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and thus all the bloodshed that followed from it. We were in rapid transit, at that time, from what I call “modernity” — dating back to Luther, or perhaps Columbus, or perhaps Gutenberg — to what I call “post-modernity.” Which is to say, the same spool of string, but now horribly knotted, gooed, shredded, and snaking into the bababulla, as we say in Siamese. (The term is more evocative than our disyllable, “insane.”) The act of descending through those trenches into Hell — by men in their millions — had much to do with it. And then, the act of learning nothing from the experience, in the spirit of Versailles — where the boules were simply set up for another round of world-cup pétanque.

Or put this another way: I assign, arbitrarily to the year 1914, that point in history at which the possibilities of “Renaissance” modernity became totally exhausted, so that only men who were mentally unsound (from shell shock, perhaps, or the post-war influenza) could wish to take “progress” even one inch farther. But it was hardly the end of the world. For instance, “Western Civ” did not end, completely, until the 10th of August, 1969.

(Nothing of any significance happened that day. I’m simply counting from the moment I looked over the Atlantic from a cliff near New Waterford, Cape Breton, anno aetatis sixteen, and realized that it was salt water all the way to Ireland; and desert all the way behind me, to the corpse of Sharon Tate.)

*

For the purposes of my politics, I realized recently, I missed the sedecentenary (sixteen hundred years) of the publication of De Civitate Dei, by Aurelius Augustinus, bishop of Hippo in North Africa (since fallen to the Saracens). That was in 2010. To say nothing of the 500th anniversary of its first appearance in print, thanks to Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, at Subiaco (near enough Rome; they were German printers summoned by the Benedictine monks, who launched roman as opposed to blackletter type). That was in 1967.

There is much more to be said about this book, The City of God as we call it in English, which I recommend to gentle Catholic reader, if he wants to think through his own politics. I came close to weaving it into my last post, but it was already getting too long.

More often read than the Confessiones (first printed at Strasbourg, 1470), Augustine’s manual on the political interface between Heaven and Earth had already been, for a thousand years, the most important single standard reference for all Western Christian rulers. It was bedside reading for Charlemagne, and I should think almost every Holy Roman Emperor. It told them — in five “books” or long sections about the pagan Romans, five more on the Greek philosophers, then twelve on time and eternity in the Bible — how things are, and thus how things should be. It made brilliantly clear that no Heaven could be created on Earth. But the two mingle here, in the hearts of men, and it would actually be possible to improve quite considerably the conditions in which men lived, if they discovered some humility, and began to acknowledge the unapproachable authority of God, over the do-it-yourself authority of Man.

Beginning in the XVIIth century, and continuing through the XVIIIth, modern men “of the Enlightenment” reversed this instruction, and “democracy” today is the result of their endeavours. The very notion of a theocratic order was overturned, in the course of establishing the only possible alternative: a totalitarian order. But not by the first Protestant reformers. (Calvin, for instance, cites Augustine with approval many thousand times.)

The sans-culotte philosophers did not argue with Augustine, for after all, Augustine had anticipated all of their arguments and utterly demolished them. Instead, they pretended he had never existed. Or that he didn’t mean what he said. Or that he was irrelevant. (Similarly, the philosophers did not argue with Thomas Aquinas, since Thomas could expose their ludicrous premisses. Instead they pretended he had never existed; that nothing had existed; that nothing had happened; that everything was dark, all the way back to Cicero.)

The event from which De Civitate Dei drew its occasion — the sack of Rome by the army of that semi-Christianized Goth, Alaric, in August of 410 (after eight hundred years of “Roman exceptionalism”) — stands as another of those plausible  temporal boundaries, in this case between true “ancient and modern.” In particular, as many writers before me have noticed (e.g. Swift understands it, in his Battle of the Books), we read classical authors with a consciousness that they are exotic, full of traps such as words that have quite different connotations in our modern languages. But in Augustine we suddenly find an author who uses them with our associations, who often sounds accessibly like “one of us.” That is because he invented us; invented “the West”; invented innumerable things that even the incendiaries of the Enlightenment took for granted (and thus ignored). It is the deeper “modernity” which our ancestors understood — insofar as they were actually acquainted with Augustine — the “New Testamental” modernity. He is in this sense the first full Modern, for he lifts the Catholic thinking of his age decisively free of Pagan Antiquity. He writes the Christian “Declaration of Independence” — as I once put it, trying to explain his rôle to my-fellow-Americans.

It thus behooves us to read him, to return to our foundations; or even to begin to understand the nature of what we call “Western Civ.” (Which may not actually be dead; which may be only in a coma.) There are more than a thousand years of “middle ages” to explore, between say 410 and say 1492, filled with wonderful illustrations of what could be done, rightly or wrongly, on Augustine’s Christian premisses. There are further examples, to the present day, of what is possible whenever and wherever they are partially recovered.

*

Item, the meaning of what I’ve just written, above, is that one must go much deeper into history, and much farther back than one hundred years, to get a conception of what a Christian politics might be like, or of what it might consist.

Item, hint, it has nothing to do with “theories.”

Item, note well, any interpreter who starts talking about “Augustine’s theory of history,” or his “theory of government,” or his “theory of natural law,” or his any-other-sort of “theory,” is talking rubbish and must be whipped and stripped of his tenure. Augustine doesn’t do “theories.” They are what comes out of the Civitas Terrena (or, Civitas Diaboli, as I prefer). Whereas, the directions we seek are to the Civitas Coelestis.

Item, conversely, the “social contract” is a theory. In other words, it is nonsense, of the kind that is continuously updated with more nonsense.

Item, FYI, Christ did not tell us how to do politics. He had more important things to discuss. He left that to Augustine, along with many other significant delegations (through Holy Church).

Item, consider, it is for the very reason that Catholics and Protestants (of some education) both refer back to Augustine, that he provides the forum for recovering a common heritage, prior to and necessarily excluding the wicked inversions of the French, British, German, Italian, and other “Enlightenments.” He provides, as it were, a leap to safety, then a way home (to Christ). Too, as it were, a way forward, unentangled with the actual “Middle Ages,” which in point of fact came after his time.

Item, to give this post a more “breaking news” quality, let me add that it was upon Augustine’s prayers to “Christ the King” that Pope Pius XI mounted the recovery of the Feast of Christ’s Kingship, as recently as 1925. The phrase itself presents the orienting principle, for an attitude towards politics that should be shared by all Catholics, indeed all Christians, and finally, all men of goodwill; all of the alternative attitudes being heretical, i.e. wrong.

Fourth of July

There are three Americas left, north of the Rio Grande; only two of them are countries. I live in one; most of my readers now live in the other. Since the spiritual disintegration of Quebec in the 1960s, however, we are really just one cultural space: about seven million square miles of “Middle America,” ignoring minorities and the freshly-arrived. The divide between “conservative” and “liberal” within both Canada and USA is now much deeper than any cultural divide between the two countries. A “conservative” in Canada has almost everything in common with a “conservative” in any of the “red states”; a “liberal” here is almost indistinguishable from a “liberal” there. They hate each other, ever more viscerally, but both are products of the same basic culture, that is now divided against itself, but might as well be having its civil war in the same country.

The third America is entirely uninhabitable. It is an “idea.” The politicians, south of the border, call it, with unintended accuracy, “the American dream.” It can be called, and has been called, many other things, from Manifest Destiny, to Get Rich Quick. Though puffy and evanescent on the surface, it has a hard core: an abiding and unthinking materialism. While the two current political factions may disagree on everything else, there is fundamental agreement on the purpose of life. It is to be “successful.” We are a “land of opportunity,” where the little guy makes good, because he has been freed from all the traditional constraints of history and nature. (Not like Europe, where they still have slavery.) In point of fact, the little guy very seldom makes good, here or anywhere, but he could if he wanted to, according to the myth, if he would only buy into “the American dream.”

The Republican version of this pipedream currently dominates. It requires the believer to know no history at all. According to the narrative, the Europe of socialism, bureaucracy, and the Nanny State was a product of the paternalism of the old ruling classes, going back let us say to George the Third — from whom America wisely broke free. “Freedom” is American democracy; “oppression” is European aristocracy. In reality, socialism, bureaucracy, and the Nanny State, were a direct result of the spread of working-class democracy through Europe, and the removal from power of aristocrats among whom personal independence (i.e. “freedom”) had always been extremely important; their interest in “equality,” high taxation, and the redistribution of wealth being — of course — nil. A few seconds of thought would burst the illusion that an aristocracy could have any possible interest in the creation of a Nanny State; but it is the function of secular myth to prevent those few seconds from happening.

Let me rub this in a bit, by alluding to the Magna Carta. The late King John was not brought to trot by “the people” of Olde England. He was made to sign the unpleasant document by a posse of titled nobles. And it was a mediaeval document, whose context is light years removed from our politics, eight centuries later. A shrieking anachronism is required, to present it as a harbinger of democracy. In this case, Americans subscribed to an old British Whig constitutional myth, or more precisely, hallucination.

To my own essentially mediaeval Catholic view, there is little to choose between Left and Right, once the argument is reduced to the profane; although that little surely makes me a rightwinger. “Democracy,” “Freedom,” “Capitalism,” “Socialism,” “Civil Society,” “The Welfare State” (I could go on listing these slogans) come down to much the same thing: a way of living from which both God and Man have been excised.  They are the signboards of the new Mass Man, who began to emerge in the conditions of the “Industrial Revolution.” I use the quotes because the term makes something vague, too specific. An urban proletariat appeared, first in the north of England, associated with coal and cotton. But before that, in such a country as France, still substantially agrarian long decades after the British economy had turned to manufactures, one may trace the growth of a new kind of class consciousness, the product of the rise then defeat of Huguenot factions. The central management and authority of the French Sun King had much to do, quite inadvertently, with the creation of the conditions for the French Revolution, for which both urban and rural “proletariats” served as manipulable powder.

In Scotland, too, by the triumph of Calvinism, a new sense of “the people” emerged, as the result of novel religious doctrines — such as the notion that everyone must be made literate, so everyone may read the Bible for himself, and be freed of the oppression of priestcraft. Ditto, elsewhere across northern Europe, Calvinist and Lutheran revolutions lie under the later, Godless, Enlightenment ones, for the whole organic, hierarchical ordering of mediaeval society was disrupted. To my mind (and no other governs these Essays), Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is half true. The actual methods of modern capitalism, of banking and trade finance and double-entry bookkeeping, had been invented mostly in Florence and developed in the other sophisticated city states of northern Italy, long before they were copied in the less sophisticated north. That “spirit of capitalism” was already well-established, and was in fact a mediaeval development. And yet the detachment of economic from spiritual life was a product of the Reformation, and had a lot to do with new forms of asceticism that developed, beyond the reach of Holy Church.

*

The “little guy made good” is an atom of this Mass Man, this “proletarian” of whom I’m writing. He has no real identity. He is an economic operative, working outside the older social order; a man for whom even land becomes a commodity. He does not owe anyone for his own success. The income he makes goes entirely to himself, unless someone robs him. This is a dimension of economic history that is lost on post-moderns, who cannot imagine the forms of income redistribution that exist in an organic order, which has grown around the requirements of family and Church, and in which one has irresistible duties — much more by custom than by law. The very concept of “the voluntary” has changed, but may be masked where the changes are gradual. But over time, well before the American Revolution, the lion’s share of Western society (in Catholic as well as Protestant countries) was radically transformed, into what today we take for granted.

When the British moderns acquired India — through the East India Company, more as an investment than from Imperial pretensions — their economic ideas were already so advanced that they were appalled by the caste system. They could only understand it in terms of oppression. They could not understand that for innumerable centuries, caste obligations, which included duties towards far extended family, had provided for the sick, the aged, and the poor, and had maintained the temples, teachers, and priests who in turn steadied the social and spiritual order. For a Briton even of the late XVIIIth century (let alone the middle of the XIXth), with his Western, analyzing mind — the kind of mind that could think in discrete, reductionist terms of investment and return — the material and spiritual orders were detachable. And each could be consciously “improved,” by prescriptive law, and decisive, rational human action.

*

We should try to remember the age in which the United States came into being. It was quite unlike the present. But it was also very much unlike the deep European past; and for people who spoke and thought in English, already vastly removed from mediaeval traditions which persisted, in parts of the West isolated from the metropolitan centres, right into the XXth century. For instance, in Quebec.

It is arguable, but unreasonable, to describe this new, universal, proletarian, atomized and “alienated” Mass Man, as a product of America. (Europeans like to think of it that way.) America, it might outwardly seem, was the place where he was first deracinated; melted in the pot, as it were. The American Revolution preceded the French — and almost certainly made the French one possible — but the idea of man stripped down to a particle, detachable by heat, came from the Atlantic’s other side. Nor was it intentionally embraced, by the Founding Fathers of the USA.

In my view (for yes, it is still I who am writing), they made the same simple mistake as Immanuel Kant, when he absent-mindedly assigned a series of synthetic propositions to the analytical reason. (I am now using both terms as Kant proposed them.) It was the kind of mistake (or series of mistakes) that came naturally to a Prussian, however humane. The effect was to reset Reason itself to the default position of Atheism, in the course of disposing of the claims of metaphysics. Kant was unquestionably a Christian, but engaged in a philosophical enterprise which he conceived as unambiguously “secular” or profane. This contributed to the philosophical inattention, into which the Founding Fathers of USA had already slipt: the notion that the religious dimension of human life is tautological; that it lies outside empirical inquiry; that it can be neatly hived off from consideration, when forming a new kind of State for all men. Instead they need only focus on contractual principles.

When I write of “the default position of Atheism,” I do not mean to imply that Americans, or anyone else, became atheists directly because of it. Kant himself would never have dreamt such a thing. I mean instead that religious faith itself had now to contend with a secular default position that was irreligious. In effect, it had to pretend to be irrational, in order to be allowed. In addition to the Puritan heritage of English-speaking America, supplemented by Protestant immigration from northern Europe, the Evangelical streak in American Christianity owes to this inversion, in which religion came to be associated with the irrational; and the rational conversely associated with worldly power. This is prior to any consideration of what ideology we should buy into: for ideology had now replaced religion as the thing to be publicly fought over. Religion became a private matter. (In this respect, I pine for the religious wars.)

“Ideas have consequences,” I was taught in my youth. I daresay they have. In particular, the idea that “ideas have consequences” has been tremendously consequential. It was a replacement for the mysterious notion that faith has consequences.

*

As still a child, really, I got my first good taste of the United States by busing and hitch-hiking around her. I found the country unusually large. To most foreigners the diversity or variety of her parts is also unusually small. This is less apparent in the superficial conditions of “globalization” today, than it was a generation or two ago, to the bus traveller, or other explorer. But it is still quite apparent. One might drive a thousand miles, two thousand, nearly three in some directions; indefinitely, if one includes the English Canada that belongs within the same cultural sphere. And stepping out of the bus, one would still be hearing not only the same language, but the same dialect, more or less. One would encounter towns and cities on the same grid plan; see the same shops; hear the same music from the radios. In restaurants they served exactly the same food. As a young explorer myself, with an unhealthy curiosity for journalism, I remember thinking that every town seemed to have the same newspaper, with the same columnists and comic strips, and the same advice from Ann Landers.

It wasn’t like that in Europe, where a journey of a hundred miles would take one to another country, often within the same national borders. One was bewildered by Europe in a much different way. In England, I could cross two county lines and begin to have trouble understanding what people were saying to me, in English. In America I could fly from New York to Los Angeles, and have no trouble at all. For sure, I was still in the same country, although with acclimatization I began to discern some regional variety. The cities, too, had different flavours: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were not quite the same, though in the same state. Notwithstanding, the differences were subtle, compared to Europe where they hit you in the face.

Now, everything changes, as sage Heracleitus says, and outwardly the rest of the world has been changing more than America, and becoming superficially more like America as, for instance, all human life is progressively adapted to the requirements of the motor car, and Western Europe especially to the requirements of central planning, on a scale not seen since the Mongolians descended upon the Hungarian plains. The Internet is the latest of media to provide a powerful universal homogenizing force, and sameness is increasingly enforced in commerce by international branding. In politics, Left and Right have agreed, everywhere it seems, not only that “progress” is ineluctable, but that it comes with “democracy” which in turn requires the reduction of everything to the lowest common denominator — including the human himself to the condition of an animal seeking food, comfort, and sex (though sometimes he cavorts irrationally). In such an age, the sameness of America seems truly pioneering, with her Puritan/Protestant heritage of social pressure to conformity, eventually turned to unChristian ends.

*

So far, so Fukuyama, and to be fair to the fellow it ought to be said he wasn’t entirely happy with what he could foresee, nor entirely complacent about new challenges that would rise through human rebellion. For in the end, humans are not like other animals, and they will push back in the strangest ways. That tiny, God-given sparklement of soul — that irreducibly unique quality in each of the persons He has created — will “express itself,” for better or worse. It is in the strictest sense, immortal, so that nothing can quite snuff it out.

In America, they had hobbies. I bet they still have. It was the little secret I discovered about American suburban life. The living rooms were much the same. The kitchens were much the same. The bathrooms were much the same, and one caught glimpses of kids’ bedrooms decorated with the same pop posters, &c. But down in the basement, personhood would out. There would be, for instance, a “rec room,” which though it might sport the same bowling trophies, as a kind of protective coloration, would also contain evidence of the hobby. It might be a secret collection. One could see it if one gained the confidence of one’s host, and showed the proper kind of respect and interest. It might be a collection of stamps, or cigarette cards, or obscure jazz records; an aquarium full of exotic fish; a trove of genealogical documents; butterflies pinned on carefully captioned boards. Or perhaps in the garage, some antique vehicle being patiently restored. Or a workshop in which a model was being meticulously assembled, of some ancient sailing vessel. It would be “daddy’s little secret,” or secret world, in which his masculinity went secretly unchallenged.

For God gave gifts, special talents, to every being he placed in this world. And to every man, remarkable gifts and talents, with which to find his way. And men need an outlet for them, from the way we were designed; for without the means to use God’s gifts, we are stifled and unhappy.

And upstairs, hidden in plain sight, mommy has been collecting tiny blue glass bottles, which she has set on the muntins of the window over her sink. And when she does the dishes, she is in a secret reverie, of contemplation on the colour, blue. Nobody needs to know about this. All they need to know is that, on Mother’s Day, they may give her a new tiny blue glass bottle. And perhaps a little understanding wink. (I’ve known other women who have mastered baking, and done so for no reason at all, baked goods being cheaply available in the supermarket. And it takes time, and it takes attention. And nothing can make her stop. And when someone notices what she has done, she glows in a way that is unearthly.)

This is something I love about the human condition. It may even be true of God’s other creatures, for I study the finches I have attracted to my city balcony, and the sparrows I feed while picnicking in the park, and each one has his little foibles. And God has this infinite foible, for he never makes quite the same creature twice.

America, with perhaps the most conformist society I have encountered in my travels, once created the myth of “rugged individualism.” There was some truth to it, in pioneering conditions, both for men and women, from the time when women, as men, had to help shift rocks, and pull tree stumps out of the ground, and the two learnt to look each other in the eye.  (For there was nowhere else to look for help.) But there’s not much truth to it, under our present economic conditions. As I like to say, “Look at all the rugged individualists, lining up for their Big Macs.”

America is however not responsible for the conditions of factory labour, and the administrative offices that came with that, and the principles of management and salesmanship that emerged — the basic productive arrangements by which the gifts and talents of the great majority of people are made to count for nothing, and their lives reduced to sterility, in an environment made quickly replaceable, and almost purposely ugly. That was an English invention, and for decades through which English and then Continental industry “progressed,” America was still basically agrarian. Her very culture resisted, for long, the imposition of machinery, with an attitude inconceivable today: that you must never buy what you can make for yourself. Americans copied the fashions of European high society before they copied the techniques of European industry. (Go look at the history with fresh eyes.) It was, I believe, paradoxically because of American naïveté, in the face of the machine, that America was able actually to lower the aesthetic standards of machine production, while leap-frogging over the Europeans on the point of industrial “efficiency.” (I write as the son of an industrial designer.)

The myth does not account for all this. Even on the purely material plain, it does not account for the dunkle Materie.

*

America is human, but she is also a country; and as I said when I began, an idea, too. The country might be rather over-large — I think of her often as “the supersized country” — but she is lovable on her own terms, and the terms are really not that demanding. The old Norman Rockwell America has passed, yet is something we can still almost touch, and cherish, so recently has it been eradicated. America has “hoped and changed” in many apparently fundamental ways, as she has chosen to follow a more ambitious, Kafkaesque model of cradle-to-grave bureaucracy and regimentation. But the changes are in detail, and her allegiance to the ideals of the Enlightenment, in the form of “the American idea,” has not wavered. It is an idea which, paradoxically enough, contains the idea of “American exceptionalism,” as if America really were the foundry in which the New Man was forged. But no, I will not blame America for him, but instead the larger circumstances of modernity, and post-modernity.

I have made several provocative assertions, and I have made them on Independence Day: so that I hasten to remind gentle American reader that I include English (and now, French) Canada in every part of my critique; for we, up here, have long since abandoned every principle of our own Loyalist founding, and embraced “We the People” in our turn. I might even, at this point, be accused of agreeing with Obama, when he mentioned that the Greeks also think themselves exceptional, and the Bolivians, too, and the Sri Lankans. It rather goes with being anything at all.

But so what? Let’s just say America has been an exceptionally benign superpower, since the last World War. I don’t like it when Obama lets the world push America around, for the United States has been our protector. It is for the very reason that the world is full of exceptionalisms — many of them quite monstrous — that we have needed America. She was usefully employed standing up to the truly Evil Empire of Soviet Russia; chasing off Jihadis; stopping other murderous nonsense here and there; racing to the scene of natural catastrophes; patrolling aerospace; preserving some order on the high seas. For the Royal Navy sailed away; and the alternatives to “American Imperialism” have been consistently much worse. (Or when they were not so bad, too small.) We, who have received such services gratis, could afford to cut her a little slack, or alternatively pick up more of the bill.

The part of “the American idea” which has proved most attractive to people of far countries is its essentially peaceable nature. Since the heyday of land grabs from Mexico, and less successful invasions of our North, the Americans have shown little interest in conquest, though no little interest in right and might. I write as a Canadian, so I know. We are a big empty nation of sitting ducks, with a cornucopia of natural resources. If Americans were Russians they’d have walked over us a century ago. Instead they are content to sell us things, and buy what they want in return.

American arrogance has been decried by the world, but it is mostly a response to American generosity. It is the one American crime that can never be forgiven: that she has placed the rest of the world in her debt.

Nor were we ever “Americanized” — nor could be since, after all, we were Americans ourselves to start with. Nor have they tried, very hard, to Americanize anyone else. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the rest of the world has been flattering America in its sotto voce way. They like wealth. They like taking a break from “history.” They have visions of the easy life.

*

Years ago, a young Chinese lady of my acquaintance, who had spent two years as an exchange student in an American high school, in a small town in the Midwest, explained the attraction perfectly, when I asked her to tell me what “freedom” meant:

“Freedom is walking down Main Street in jeans, eating an ice cream cone, and nobody thinks you are a prostitute.”

Not anything specified in the Declaration of Independence, we agreed. For this was a way of life that was prior to that, which had actually preceded it in time, and may have been one of its principal causes. It was a particular form of freedom, that had something to do with far horizons, and enemies easily annihilated. America was “the world’s safest place.” It was a country in which the people were at ease. It was a whole culture that had been built upon ease, and a genuinely classless informality.

“In America, you can talk to anyone,” she said, “and say please and thank you in the same way.”

Now, this was an exceptionally astute young Chinese lady (with whom, at the time, I happened to be in love). She had a high regard for America, and I asked her if she would like to live there.

To my surprise she replied, “No. … I am one of the nine in ten who does not want to emigrate to America. Or maybe it is ninety-nine in a hundred. We are the people the Americans can’t understand.” And moreover, she added with a glint of arrogance, “And they think we don’t understand them.”

The two of us used to translate poetry together, which is how we came often to discuss cultural differences — and similarities, too — not only between places, but also over time. She was familiar with major American poets, and popular songwriters, too. She could do good parodies of American music that was excruciatingly sentimental. (Once, in order to test my patience, when I asked her who was the greatest American poet, she fluttered her eyes and said, “John Denver!”)

I am suddenly reminded of something else she said; that, “If you want to make money, then the important thing is to get to America. But if you want to write poetry, then the important thing is to get out.”

For that “American idea” is anti-poetic, as well as intrinsically irreligious, and finally irrational. It is full of a sometimes impressive optimism. There is no tragedy or comedy in it, however. It is a success story, plain and simple, and now there is nothing left but to cling, in a time of failure. The sunny optimism of Reagan has now set, and for the future America hopes for leaders who can “manage decline,” like the European leaders.

No one can look realistically at such a phenomenon, as the re-election of Barack Obama, without entertaining the proposition that America’s remarkable historical run is over. The people themselves have abandoned God, and in so doing lost faith in themselves. As all who break faith, they have embarked on the path to self-destruction.

Or rather, we have embarked; for again, Canadians made the same choice: to live and die for nothing but pleasure. (And lost our pleasure, into the account.) In many ways we have been ahead of the curve, to perdition. Our re-election of Pierre Trudeau, all the way back in 1972, showed that we, too, as a people, had lost our dignity and self-respect, in the course of losing our religion. “Canada” may remain on the map, but there is acá nada (“nothing here”) any longer much worth defending, our achievements being all in the past.

Here, as in USA, the ideology itself is changing, yet on the same premisses first invoked, of citizen and state in contractual obligation. It took time for the full depravity of that rationalist “theory” to be realized; but we have had the time. In the age of Obama, it gets farther and farther from Washington and Lincoln, closer and closer to Marx and de Sade. But still there is a flag flying, whether the stars are white or yellow, or on a field of blue or red. And the pledge of allegiance is to the flag, not to God; and the anthem is not cast in the form of a prayer, but as an exaltation of revolutionary violence. (Nota bene: “Ideas have consequences.”) Lady Liberty stands in the place of Mary Mother of God, and licentiousness in the place of freedom.

We have come, as it were, to the reductio ad absurdum of the premisses on which the Enlightenment was lit, after a full century of violent post-modernism. Yet it passes as inevitable, as still the only way forward, for by now the idea of the State as the ultimate source of authority, and idol for collective public worship, has travelled the world. It was enhanced in the French and Russian Revolutions, and the sheer obscenity of it is lost on men who have come to take the contractual State as a fact of nature. The State’s claims bathe in spilt religion, as well as in that legacy of blood, and by now the man who hesitates to bend his knee to the latest “politically correct” ukase is denounced as “an enemy of the people.”

*

But I adhere to an older notion of patriotism, of a pre-revolutionary, or pre-ideological kind, in which the nation was more the product of its people than the other way around. I think back, in this anniversary year of the coming of the Great War, to the waning moments of the Habsburg realms, and the many small nations living in peace within a comparative paradise, each set in its own ancestral ways, yet with roads open and passing over every rise to a new vista of quiet beauty. Instead this order would be overthrown by the blood-curdling cry for “democracy,” and the jackboot of violent secular nationalism, descending on every human face.

One hears the echo of it today, in the roar of the football crowds contending for the World Cup: the car-horns beeping and the flags waving as the victors parade their ugliness through the city streets.

But the love of one’s own is not evil; and there is much in the hearts even of football supporters of an innocent pride, founded on that love of one’s own; a pride that is not hooligan, and a joy that includes love of the game. True patriot love is thrilled, when something fine is accomplished by one’s own countrymen. Yet it is also shown in the shame we feel, when our countrymen behave badly. A patriotism which takes pride in victory alone, is unworthy; it is the patriotism, or rather chauvinism, of the thug.

We might take honest pride, even in a State that avoids evil works, which rules with a light hand and with the consensus of all honest and reasonable men. For long Americans could take honest pride in a State that was, in the balance, a decent thing; which enforced reasonable laws at home, and defied despotic tyrants abroad; which was “a duly constituted authority,” not eager to make extravagant claims. To my mind, that America was indeed a blessing for the people, and a triumph, in the sense that the old freedom of America, of which I wrote above, prevailed in the face of new government agents.

Yet to my old Loyalist mind, too, the seeds of the new statism were planted in 1776; and in the defeat of a distant and gratuitously demonized monarch, the principles were laid for what could become, merely by the manipulation of words, and the extension of the franchise to the easily befuddled, a revolutionary totalitarianism. For all its strengths, and weaknesses, the American culture resisted the spread of this cancer, more effectively than many other cultures. And the seed itself was not particularly American; it was imported with the ideals of the Enlightenment from the Atlantic’s other side. Still, it was the fate of America to show the way, to create the precedent, to plant the insidious Tree of Liberty in soil watered by blood. The American Revolution made the French one conceivable, not under a paternal and aristocratic General Washington, but now a sans-culotte Robespierre.

A constitutional order was nevertheless enacted which has survived to the present day, and makes the United States after two hundred thirty-eight years one of the world’s oldest continuous constitutional regimes. It should be respected, not only in itself, and in its authors, but in the wisdom of later men who did not overthrow it, but struggled to make it work. It should be maintained, for the good of all; revised only by necessity; restored, where foolish changes have been made. It is right that, in America, each anniversary should be celebrated, as such anniversaries are celebrated in every other country. A flourish, some pomp, is certainly in order: and there are moments when everyone loves a parade.

I think we should keep what is good and what works; but we should never worship the works of man. That has been the Hebrew, the Christian and Catholic teaching, found throughout Old Testament and New, standing today against nationalist idolatry. So far as America has been good and has worked, we should thank God for her, not men. So far as she has failed, we should also turn to God. And in a time of trial and encroaching darkness, likewise turn, with our better angels, and make our appeal to Him, to “stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above.”

A test

Yes, this post is a test, merely a test, and I am testing, one-two-three. A test of whether a few little changes can be made, without blowing up the whole website. So that, whether it succeed, or whether it fail, it is likely to disappear. … Along, of course, with the cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself. … But I would guess a little sooner.

Now, as an aside, let me mention the importance of heating the butter separately, when making mashed potatoes. There are reasons for this, but I have not the patience for a little science lesson at this moment. And besides, I have forgotten it. But trust me, you don’t want gummy mashed potatoes.

You needn’t use a separate pot, however. Quarter, or better, octuply your spuds and set them in that pot in salted cold water, along with as many cloves of garlic as your conscience will allow. Thus, we bring all together evenly to a gentle boil. (Never violently boil a potato!) Fifteen minutes should be more than adequate. You’ll want the potatoes still somewhat firm. Drain (but you can keep potato water for stock). Then leave the potato chunks (and mooshy garlic cloves) in a bowl (or whatever), to steam off moisture. This will make them more absorptive.

I hope you used baking potatoes. I’m currently partial to Yukon golds. If you want to peel off the skins, you will find that it is now dead easy.

Melt a great dollop of butter in that emptied pot. … No, more than that. … A spoon of lard or bacon grease would be copacetic, too. … Stir cream into the melted butter. Others say milk, but I suspect they are Protestant. We are Catholics here, and Catholics use cream. Salt, black pepper, and to my mind, finely-chopped chives or green onions may be sprinkled, or any of many other modest herbal amplifiers. But all this is Option City.

The potato chunks (and garlic cloves) may now be mashed in. Do this a few chunks at a time, and with an old-fashioned, flat-bottomed wooden pestle. This is not hard work. And it is anyway morally wrong to use powered machinery in a kitchen. So that if you happen to own any such “labour-saving devices” (pshaw!) you may use the time while your mashed potatoes are cooking (let’s say, another fifteen minutes at low heat) to locate and destroy them.

Note to readers

These “Essays in Idleness” have had a run of twenty-one months, with what success their author cannot gauge. He has become displeased with the format of them, and will, should God permit, soon resume, after making a few simplifying changes.

The chief one is to eliminate Comments. I can imagine objections from the Commentariat, so will provide a thread for them below this post, where each member will be allowed one good swing of his bat, as in the old Fall Fair smash-the-jalopy contest. (Please leave a quarter for each additional swing.)

Let me provide three arguments, each of which could be cleverly refuted:

First, and most obvious, this site is under frequent attack from that class of censorious busybodies whom I affectionately describe as “communists and perverts.” The Comments threads give direct access to mount “denial of service” campaigns. As well they open the portal to routine spam that creates mountains of administrative clutter. I may still get shut down from time to time, but not so easily. (I think once again of the Duke of Wellington, who had iron shutters affixed to the windows of Apsley House in London, so that whenever the filthy democratic mob came to put out his windows, he could close the house into a tight masonry shell.)

Second, the moderation of Comments requires time and energy I am no longer willing to expend. This has been constantly increasing, not only from the number of Comments, and their growing length, but from the overall tone, as members hurl abuse at one another, while drifting far, far away from the topic at hand. Many of the Comments, although themselves reasonable, require editing to make them fully comprehensible to native readers of English, and to impose a consistent house style against typographical distractions. This is wearying, and I should rather spend such time as I can devote to this website writing “Essays in Idleness,” than playing Speakah, or otherwise preventing the threads from going rancid. (Lately, indeed, I have been getting abuse myself from those impatient to see their views displayed, or outraged that I have deleted this remark or that. Were I to please them, I would have to carry some “device” with me everywhere and always. I refuse to be enslaved by electronic gadgets, however.)

Third, and most subtly, I have found that the very existence of Comments alters the nature of what I am writing. For what I intended, from the beginning, was not to inspire public debate, but to make the kind of idle observations any individual reader could take or leave. I am trying to operate on the reader’s mind, not on his mouth, throat, or intestines. The nature of a conversation is changed in anticipation of hecklers.

I was told when I began that, in order to attract readers, I must absolutely provide a Twitter feed (plus Facebook, &c); that I would need enticing “graphics”; that Comments “build readership” along with any other form of “participation” or “interactivity.” What I discovered in my three-month Twitter experiment, not entirely to my surprise, is that such tactics do indeed attract “eyeballs.” But naked, sexy women attract more, and tabloid hysteria dominates a market, in which drooling ignorance has become quite acceptable. Who wants to “compete” in an environment like that?

Readers who scan at half-attention are no more use to me, than they are to themselves. I don’t mind if I lose them all, and would be happy to tap the dust off my flip-flops and move on to the next electronic town. I certainly cannot wish to prostitute myself for customers who are anyway loath to pay. (Ten dollars through PayPal the week before last; twenty the week before that, &c.)

But those who wish to speak to me directly may reach me by email, as many already do, and I will try to keep up with them. Many of the most astute comments have arrived in that way, and in future posts I will sometimes excerpt such correspondence. To be sure, I am glad of many of the people I have met, whom I would not have met otherwise. My email link will remain on the “About” page.

*

In the meantime, everyone is instructed to be virtuous, and my Canadian readers to exhibit true patriot love on this one hundred and forty-seventh Dominion Day — Le Jour de la Confédération — with pennants flying (“One Flag, One Fleet, One Empire”) and ideally, a slice of deep-dish maple-syrup apple crumble pie, and a generous wedge of sharp, five-year Ontario cheddar.

God save the Queen and Heaven bless: the Maple Leaf forever!

Latest from Iraq

I sometimes think that as a pundit in the newspapers I was too realpolitik; whereas now, in my enforced leisure, writing these idle essays, I am too pixie. Put this another way. In my newspaper columns I would take the position, “If you want to achieve that, you must do this.” Whereas, now I am more inclined to say that the this is not worth discussing, because the that is not worth achieving.

“Democracy” is a word I have put in quotes often lately, in the hope that the more intelligent readers with whom I am now blessed will detect shadings of irony. No Catholic can be against voting, per se, since after all our Popes are elected by ballot; and even the Holy Roman Emperor was thus elected, albeit the franchise was limited to seven persons. My objection is to the use of the word “democracy” in an abstract and utterly irresponsible way, as in for instance the phrase, “bringing democracy to Iraq,” when the speaker (unwittingly) proposes to bring chaos and violence instead.

But I could equally place the scare quotes around e.g. “capitalism” and “free markets,” often around “Western,” and even around “constitutional” and “the rule of law.” All such terms and many more are used in a slovenly way, which under cross-examination comes down to, “You know what I mean.”

No, Mr Bush, I don’t know what you mean; though I must allow that compared to Mr Obama, Mr Bush was almost comprehensible. Moreover, in my unchanged opinion, the 43rd President was, by the standards of politics, a good and decent man, doing what he believed right by the light of his understanding. (“The light that failed,” in Kipling’s haunting phrase.) Demonized, as it were, by demons.

Iraq has been much on my mind and in my heart, these last weeks. News junkies may refer to the standard junk sources to get some idea why. The “journalists” seldom get the details right, confuse matters further by their pig ignorance of history, and by writing a farrago of meaningless abstractions, clichés, and desperate nonce words. Nevertheless, a reader acquainted with Iraq may extract some vague shape within their slurry: of another civil war in a Middle Eastern country where there are (a lot) more than two sides. We get, for instance, “Sunni versus Shia,” presented with the same glib assurance as “Brazil versus Cameroon” with a half-time score. Suffice to say, there are many factions of Arab and non-Arab Sunnis, of Arab and non-Arab Shia, of communities neither Sunni nor Shia, and “terrorists” in multiple and mixed flavours. We would seem to be coming down to a “final” between ISIS-faction Sunni Islamist terrorists and Iranian-sponsored Shia Islamist militias, with Team Obama proposing to drop bombs on behalf of the latter. But I wouldn’t be too sure, of anything in Iraq.

Now, in the olden days, earlier in this century, I was an enthusiast for invading Iraq, for smooshing the monstrous regime of Saddam Hussein, and replacing it with a more benign dictatorship under, say, Ahmed Chalabi, with American and European help cleaning up. On the assumption it was too late to restore the Hashemite dynasty, I thought, go for the next best alternative. Given the borders as drawn by Gertrude Bell, and the variety of peoples contained within them, and immediate external threats on all sides, it did strike me that an essay in mass democracy would be exceptionally obtuse. I regret that I did not make this argument (which disturbed my editors) plainer.

The interest of United States and allies, with electorates lacking moral or intellectual stamina, was to get out as quickly as possible, consistent with leaving a stable regime that would not be a threat, at least to us. Under circumstances of real and present internal and external dangers, it would be necessary to leave a few bases behind, with troops and equipment ready to dance at short notice, and the back-up of, in effect, a fully reconstituted American Fifth Fleet, receiving more generous contributions from all NATO allies. That’s what kind of Imperialist I am.

Not, alas, the older sort of Imperialist, who might have put Iraq under the rule of a British Viceroy; but only because the option was not at hand. Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible (notwithstanding the way they are conducted today), and even I, like other Canadians, have noted the decline of the British Empire — as, too, the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, &c — with their more “hands on” approach to persistent sources of disorder. The problem with American Imperialism being, they don’t know how to do it, and keep messing up, even with military resources that any of the old Imperial powers would have envied.

This is because they keep trying to sell “democracy.” They have been doing it for several generations, and they will not learn from experience, nor accept any criticism on this point. Power may be projected, but “democracy” cannot be imposed in a place like Iraq (let alone Afghanistan) without easily foreseeable, shall we say, negative consequences. Nor should one persist in giving lip service to an ideal that is impracticable, to such a ludicrous degree. As we have seen, it is not even working in the United States of America, where “the people” have voted themselves government benefits and entitlements (as the Europeans before them) to the point of spiritual as well as fiscal bankruptcy.

But let’s stick with Iraq. There are at least a dozen countries within that country, some larger, some smaller; and the challenge for any central government is to keep them out of each other’s affairs. This was the normal and traditional challenge for governors of vast dominions, and I mentioned the British with approval, above, because they were (once) rather good at it. It is exactly what mass democracy ignores, as in the case of Iraq, where the Shia majority were given the opportunity to vote on how the Sunni minority should be treated.

Just as “socialism” is only possible among friends, “democracy” is only possible at the small level, and then depending on the local mood. Trying to forge a nation on this “one size fits all” ideological principle is asking for … what we have been getting for the last century and more. Indeed, the Ottoman regime was more benign than any of the nation states that replaced it, because the Sultan in Istanbul still recognized, in the old-fashioned way, that his dominions were various. If they were sincere in arguing, “that government is best which governs least,” North American libertarians would take a good look at the Ottoman administration, and stop reflexively supporting Young Turks.

The task of statesmen — long before “Democracy!” became the cry of the mob — was to promote peace, order, and good government, given the kaleidoscopic reality of “facts on the ground.” An important part of that task, as I was reminded recently in reading at length of Talleyrand, then Wellington, was subverting megalomaniacs in their dreams of glory. They were mutual admirers, these two, incidentally. Talleyrand from within, Wellington from without, worked on the problem of Napoleon, whose immense popularity in post-revolutionary France, when he was winning, was compounded by his genius on the battlefield. This would require a very long historical essay, but for my present purpose I will cut to the chase: Both of these very different heroes understood that the cause of peace, order, and good government, could only be achieved by carefully resisting anything like mass democracy, or the popular will. For both understood the first thing: that “the people” are fools.

*

We are five days short of the most important centenary we will observe in our lives: that of June 28th, 1914 — the day from which I date “post-modernity,” in the work of an anarchist for “the people” of Serbia. The Great War happened because there were madmen in high stations — Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany being the prize example — but more consequentially, because the popular will had been teased into irruptions of nationalist, chauvinist hysteria in every European capital, by the newly emergent yellow press and cheap, demagogic politicians. It is sickening, today, to look back over the huge demonstrations that assembled for war in Berlin, Paris, London, elsewhere. In the background, intelligent, aristocratic statesmen of the old school were scrambling to avert it. They, unlike “the people,” knew what this world war would mean: that it would destroy Europe; that it would overwhelm every remaining vestige of peaceful and traditional ways of life. But the ideal of “democracy” had already gone too far. The mobs wanted action. And they soon got what they were lusting for.

In the aftermath of that War, in the dealings at Versailles and in constitutional developments throughout the West, it became evident, to a few of the wise, that no lesson had been learnt. And how could it, given the deceitful rewrite of history already proceeding to serve new “democratic” purposes? The very men who had struggled to avoid war were now said to have conspired to start it; the vulgar mob that had demanded it, were now cast as their innocent victims. (The media then as today delight in flattering their uneducated audiences with reversals of that kind.)

There was no turning back from what man had wrought, on his own wilful initiative. In the shadow of Total War, a new generation of populist politicians went to work on delivering Total Peace. The voting franchise, already dangerously over-extended, was now doubled; men of no distinction rose from the bottom on the churning thunder of the populist tide. Politics became everyone’s business, whether or not everyone knew the first thing, and the experienced statesmen of past generations were systematically replaced by the crowd-pleasers with their electoral circus acts. A new world of technology also burst forth, thanks to the inventions of war, helping to divert the attention of men from the life everlasting, to instant material gratification. Men were “progressively” set free of all customary restraints, especially the restraint of honour.

And what we were selling in Iraq — an artificial nation already deformed from the clash of ancient and post-modern forces — was more of this same poisoned porridge. It hasn’t worked out. It could never work out. Even had it been entirely successful, it would have delivered only another “globalized” culture of depraved men and women, shorn of their identities as souls, enslaved by their own greed for things that can only distract from Heaven.

And these are not indifferent things. In order to please the mass market, in politics as in trade, we must pile up the bodies in the mortuaries. Murder is at the root of all revolutionary zeal, and as Jefferson said, the tree of his new, revolutionary liberty “must be refreshed with blood.” (Even where there is outwardly no war: for I think of the blood of forty million North American babies, shed to refresh “the liberty of women.”)

We have been piling them up for a century, on a scale not seen since Tamurlaine, all in the name of “the people” and “democracy.” Or as a Canadian sage liked to put it — the Nova Scotia Yankee, Thomas Chandler Haliburton — “vox populi, vox diabolus.”

*

Let me add, for the benefit of at least a couple of readers who lost boys in Iraq or Afghanistan, that their deaths were not in vain. It is at another level from “foreign policy” that they became engaged in the struggle. What we fight for, what we achieve and don’t achieve, has a reckoning beyond the confines of this world. Those who died trying to protect the harmless — the common simple people of Iraq and Afghanistan, longing to live in peace, yet oppressed by psychotic tyrants and caught up in their wars — died well.

The real testimony to the value of their service comes from love. I was deeply moved by several allied soldiers who, in letters to me in the course of their field service, wrote with great affection for the people they had met in towns and villages — that is, real, actual, singular people, as opposed to statistical counters. They went to fight for USA, or for Canada in several cases; they stayed to fight for the Iraqis, for the Afghans, as they had come to know them — hoping to build them a better future, in safety and in freedom. Those who died, died also for them.

One is heartbroken for their loss, in the flower of youth. For their families: their moms and dads, their wives and kids, their brothers and sisters; for their friends and their lovers. But I absolutely refuse to agree that their lives were “wasted,” in the manner of newspaper pundits and the asinine liberals on TV. No matter how badly the mission failed, in the end, so many engaged with pure hearts and fine courage. And every human mission fails, in the end. We cannot judge on the basis of worldly success or failure.

The axeman

So far as I am aware, there is yet no law against carrying an axe openly around the city; or a concealed hatchet for that matter. A broadaxe might get you stares on the trolley, but only brief, silent, and thoughtful ones. Whereas, a gun — even an innocent hunting rifle — would be a problem anywhere in the Greater Parkdale Area. The police are increasingly well-armed, but among the citizens, only criminals are allowed “to carry” in these parts. (Of course, we could discuss my use of the word, “allowed.”) Gun clubs and gun ranges have been made unwelcome, too, within city limits. This may be among the reasons the military, nowadays, can forget about recruiting in most urban areas: for the city boys have grown up fey, and show the product of indoctrination, to the effect that war is hard on children and animals.

Truth to tell, there is very little use for an axe, almost anywhere in a modern conurbation. I am unfamiliar with the minutiae, but was told by an interested party that wood-burning stoves are now verboten, not as fire risk but thanks to “air quality standards.” The Smuglies (my short, affectionate term for our ruling class of affectedly nice, self-consciously “progressive” people, who live almost entirely off our tax money) often suffer from asthma, and it appears to be triggered by the sight of anyone smoking a cigarette. The idea of a wood stove threatens them by analogy. Barbecues are still permitted, but only for people in single dwellings with back yards (i.e. above a certain income level).

One does not need an axe for a barbecue, I suppose, unless one has seriously tired of its appearance. Ditto, with other household furniture and appliances. I think of a young Czech friend who was being shown a flat which contained a shoddy built-in “shelving unit,” of an exceptionally painful colour. The landlord said he could re-paint it.

“Why don’t we paint it with an axe,” my friend suggested.

We had only the one modest hatchet up here in the High Doganate, used only once since moving in, and then only the poll, as a mallet. It was a small (15-inch), modestly curved single-bit affair, with a plumpish profile: a good compromise about equally efficient for cutting, splitting, or shaping. Left only with this one tool, a skilled axeman could fell trees and build a log cabin (starting, perhaps, with the sculpting of a longer haft). Our pioneers, in the woods of Canada, were very particular about their axes. Many a Loyal pioneer began as a man of one axe, and it would have become his most valuable possession (after his Bible had been memorized).

Alas, I gave my hatchet as a gift to a friend who was moving upcountry. (I lack prudence and foresight, sometimes.) But more axes are available in the flea markets, much better than I have seen in any chain hardware franchise, and I will obtain another in due course.

Meanwhile, I have retained a fairly manly Chinese cleaver, in forged iron that will hold an edge, that would serve for a hatchet should some sudden need arise.

Promoting intolerance

This morning’s treat: an inbox full of extremely obvious “phishing” try-ons, from something falsely describing itself as the “Gmail Team.” …

I am hardly the first to observe, that if people behaved on the street the way they behave on the Internet, they would be punched — even in Canada, I think, where tolerance for fiendish behaviour has replaced watching hockey on television as our national sport. For Canadians, I have observed, are like Cambodians. And Cameroonians, I might add; to say nothing of Cape Verdeans. You can push us only so far. This is indeed true of the people of all countries beginning with the letter C, right down to Cypriots and Czechs.

Well, it is amazing how far you can push us, before we snap. Every day, in my walks around the Greater Parkdale Area, I acquire new anecdotes. Perhaps my countrymen have forgotten that civilization depends far more on intolerance, than tolerance. Perhaps, now that I think of it, civilization depends entirely on intolerance: on what people are unwilling to put up with. Discomfort, if you will: with the small, the sleazy, the crooked, the cheap, the noisome. A certain willingness to eliminate hucksters. Unwillingness to take “the easy way out.”

Do the good, speak the true, make the beautiful.

Stop tolerating the bad, the false, and the ugly: starting with yourself, and perhaps continuing discreetly with your neighbours. (Eventually, they will stop tolerating you.)

Another item in my inbox this morning is an article by Francis Fukuyama, the dime-store Hegelian. He writes in the Wall Street Journal, as the subhead neatly summarizes, “Twenty-five years after Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall’s fall, liberal democracy still has no real competitors.”

It is a quarter century now this gentleman has been backpedalling on his End of History “thesis.” One may make a good living on backpedalling, I have observed. First make your name with an absolutely ridiculous claim; then devote the rest of your adult life to qualifying it. Yet all along, the premiss of the argument could be confuted with the words, “Oh, please.”

Or let me put this another way: “We have enough quantity now. We need more quality.”

And quality does not depend on liberal democracy. It depends on intolerance.