Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

A good shepherd

But of course our bishops “smell of their sheep.” That is part of the problem, for we ourselves smell of corruption. I wouldn’t want to be a bishop today, for the smell. It would be an impossible job. Suppose, like Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, one set out to be a good shepherd. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Now, suppose that your See is Chicago. …

That recently retired bishop, who was among my constant reminders that good bishops are possible — one should try to keep at least a shortlist — died Friday morning of his unshakable cancer, in fulfilment of a famous four-part prophecy about the future of the Catholic Church in America:

“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”

The remark was made at a private conference of priests, and was never meant for publication. Someone captured it on a “smartphone,” then it “went viral.” Note that the last, most hopeful part of the quote, is usually omitted. This is itself a sign of our times. We are optimists on our material prospects — that’s the “American Dream” of the politicians, with variants adapted for use by politicians in two hundred other national jurisdictions. We are pessimists on all other aspects of futurity. Our interests are strictly short-term.

As Christ explained in today’s Gospel, within the Old Mass, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The good sheep also know his voice.

The wolf is very much on the loose in the public square, across North America, and around the world for that matter. Catholics and all other Christians are up against many enemies, but the most lethal is a satanic creed, directly opposed to all Christian teaching. It is the “agnostic,” secular, anti-religion of “human rights,” in all its bottomless stench.

But of course, to us, there is hardly a smell at all; or rather, it is almost sweet. For we are narcissists after all — happier every day to admit it — and the narcissist enjoys his own smell, whatever its cause may be. It is only the odour of others that disturbs his nostrils, and tabloid journalism gives him plenty of that to rail against. We glower at what the other narcissists are doing. Oddly, everyone knows the world is going to Hell. We have become glib about it.

As Cardinal George said, we will start picking up the pieces after the catastrophe has run its course. Preventing it is by now well beyond us.

This good priest, called “the American Ratzinger,” perhaps more by his enemies than by his friends, shared with that Bavarian a remarkable clarity on the order of things. That is, quite apart from deep knowledge (and Cardinal George was a formidably learned man), he could arrange the goods, beauties, and truths with which he was entrusted in his teaching assignment, in crisp mental hierarchy. He could see what was more important, and what Most, and could articulate this, to those prepared to listen and think. Alas, neither listening nor thinking are rewarded virtues, in our current pandaemonium.

From the Internet (the blog of Tim Drake), I retrieve these remarks, in which Cardinal George extended his memorable quote. He did not consider his words “prophetic.” He merely observed the direction of things:

“Analogies can easily be multiplied, if one wants to push a thesis; but the point is that the greatest threat to world peace and international justice is the nation state gone bad, claiming an absolute power, deciding questions and making ‘laws’ beyond its competence. …

“God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, Saviour of the world and head of His body, the Church. Those who gather at His cross and by His empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about Him and persecute or harass His followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression. …

“The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end. It’s on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters.”

So much more could be written, about this good shepherd, and actual native of Chicago. But the obituaries are appearing — a genre in which the best is often brought out, even from writers who tend to the malign. God is plainly opposed to Death. Nevertheless, He uses it for His purposes.

The Ezekiel airship

My thanks this morning to several correspondents who have told me their early aviation stories, but especially to the estimable Lord Jowls, who calls my attention to the Ezekiel airship, designed and built at Pittsburg in East Texas, which lifted briefly off the ground in anno 1902.

As I mentioned yesterday, the (1903) claim of Orville and Wilbur Wright to precedence in launching a man-piloted, heavier-than-air o’plane, cannot be challenged. This is because it has been lawyered so carefully, that it might as well be phrased: “The first flight by a member of the Wright family in the Outer Banks of North Carolina with all susceptible media in attendance.”

I rank it myself somewhere below the proud claim of Mrs Graham (“first ascent in a balloon at night by an Englishwoman,” 1850).

Of that feat I was entirely aware, yet knew nothing of this Ezekiel airship — one of innumerable aircraft, considerably heavier than air, built before the Wright Flyer, in which pitch, yaw, and/or roll were not perfectly under control, as they often aren’t today. Its builder was the Reverend Burrell Cannon, itinerant Baptist minister and sawmill operator, whom God rest.

Working from a design he had abstracted from the Book of Ezekiel, it consisted of curtain hoops of angelic sailcloth stretched on metal frames to make a great dipping circular wing, and a gas engine turning “wheels within wheels” of gearing to rotate four larger “paddle wheels,” or caged propellers. A man, harnessed standing within, bridled the parts by various levers.

The machine rose ten feet above the cow pasture in which it was demonstrated, drifted downfield and was safely landed before it could endanger a pack of fleeing, joyous children.

Satisfied that he could repeat this performance, the good pastor had his machine loaded on a railway flatcar, for the St Louis World’s Fair. Unluckily, it blew off in a considerable storm, and was smashed to pieces. The Rev. Cannon then speculated that God had not meant men to fly. (Uncertain of this, however, he had another go at it himself a decade later.)

In tracing this story, overlooked by the Wicked Paedia, I found a detailed refutation attempted by someone named Scott Gold, consisting mostly of acid sarcasm spat towards the good folk in East Texas, of a sort that would be actionable for “racism” had it only been directed against “African Americans,” or Muslims. This poisonous liberal gasbag sneers at every detail of the story in turn, while bleating his obeisance to the Wright brothers and the received, extremely selective account of the history of flight from the functionaries at the Smithsonian. He disproves absolutely nothing, demonstrates abject ignorance passim, and finally proves only the grave illness in his own soul.

Gentle reader may have noticed that on the point of dripping sarcasm I am not beneath replying to liberals in kind. I take my signal from Saint Thomas More who, in his epistolary replies to one Martin Luther, proved that he could out-gutter the greatest guttersnipe of his age.

Suffice to add that Rev. Cannon (born in Coffeeville, Mississippi; 1848–1922) was from an inventive family. His father held patents for various devices including a marine propeller, a wind-driven water pump, and a specialized camera. The son had been working on his ideas for an airship since the 1890s. This Bible Belt Hick spoke eight languages. His 80-horsepower, four-cylinder gas engine was custom-built by himself, and the four “paddle-wheel” fans were pivoted and directional so that they could, in principle, control pitch, yaw, and roll. There is copious contemporary documentation for the project, including many local newspaper accounts, and we may see the original Ezekiel airship in a photograph. (It has also been rebuilt.)

An ingenious mechanic, to be sure, but Rev. Cannon was also a man of burning faith, which is exactly what makes him so distasteful to the atheist vipers who drool for the Wrights.

God bless Baptist pastors in East Texas! God bless every God-haunted, Walker Percy character in the Deep South! And God bless all Lutherans, too, but only if they are true religious nutjobs, in the manner of mystical Catholics.

Verily: God bless all godly, and Saint Michael defend them against the legions of the depraved!

The Wright brothers

Though he broke both legs, Eilmer the flying monk of Malmesbury is reputed to have exceeded a furlong (40 rods) in his experimental flight of 1010 AD, inspired by the legend of Daedalus — father of Icarus; artist, craftsman, and Leonardo from the age of Homer. We do not find working drawings of Eilmer’s flying machine, in the Gesta Regum Anglorum, only the hint that it might have resembled a biplane. But like the Chinese (who were experimenting with manned flight a few centuries earlier), he would have had working knowledge of kites, and other airborne mediaeval contrivances.

Children of his day played with drawstring helicopter toys, for instance; and depictions of angels in contemporary art show a growing understanding of camber in the design of wings. We needn’t assume Eilmer was naïve.

Having correctly deduced that something Newton would later analyze as gravity, could provide him with something later called momentum, if he affixed wings, he saw a way forward through the breeze. For contrary to most modern teaching, mediaeval men had also observed the wind, and were thus surprisingly familiar with the properties of air.

It started well, from the tower of the old (later rebuilt) Malmesbury Abbey, leaning into an updraft and gaining additional ground clearance from the downward slope of the fields to the Abbey’s south-west. Eilmer was sailing triumphantly along. But then he experienced certain aviatory control problems — chiefly on the pitch axis though perhaps first on the yaw — that left him lame for the rest of his life.

Witnesses there seem to have been aplenty, and doubt there is little that the flight occurred. Still, it wouldn’t be acceptable to the American authorities who credit the Wright brothers with the original manned, powered flight, a scant 993 years later. First: there was no mechanical engine. Second: Eilmer used the height of the tower for his launch, instead of the catapult the Wrights used. Third: the witnesses weren’t American.

“Engine schmengine,” Eilmer would have replied. For he realized after the flight (as William of Malmesbury records), that what he needed was a tail. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in a condition to develop his invention, and perhaps short on volunteers for the next flight. (The Chinese had used death-row prisoners to pilot the kites off their towers.) Too, his Abbot had told him that, “enough is enough.”

Various further criteria are applied, to put the Wrights ahead of, say, the Frenchman, Clément Ader, whose steam-powered and gorgeously bat-winged Éole left the ground at Brie, in October 1890. Owing to an extremely poor power-to-weight ratio, it did not get very high or very far, but then, the first Wright flight near Kitty Hawk wasn’t that impressive, either.

Indeed, it takes a great deal of lawyering to establish the Wrights’ priority over, say, the Brazilian, Alberto Santos-Dumont, merrily flying his gas-propelled dirigible around the new Eiffel Tower; or for that matter the manned, steerable balloons that began littering the French skies from 1783.

Work on powered, controlled flight in the United States was far behind that in France, or England, but fell farther behind thanks to the Wright brothers. Fixated on the problem of converting invention into wealth, they pursued rival aviators around the USA with teams of lawyers. Their numerous, voluminous, cumbersome lawsuits were based on often fanciful patent claims, emerging from their own intensely secretive research.

One thinks for instance of the great aviator, Louis Paulhan (first to fly London to Manchester), who arrived with two Blériot monoplanes and two Farman biplanes to give flying demonstrations across the USA. Amazed at the workings of the American judicial system, but ignoring legal injunctions to prevent them from flying their machines, they took every prize at the Los Angeles Air Meet in January 1910, setting new records for altitude and endurance.

The Wrights were present, there as elsewhere, though never competing. They and their gaggle of lawyers followed Paulhan and the other foreigners around the country, serving them with process papers, and demanding unbelievably huge sums to call off their dogs, in vile and obvious attempts at extortion. And then they’d hit the local impresarios with additional suits to impound all the cash from ticket sales, &c. Truly: vicious and contemptible men.

To avoid fines or imprisonment in backwoods American jurisdictions, the visitors took to giving their demonstrations entirely for free, but still the lawsuits kept coming. Finally they gave up and went home.

Part of the reason for Canada’s early advances in aviation (first flight of the Silver Dart at Baddeck in Cape Breton, with its ingenious ailerons, &c) was the migration of American inventors, such as the brilliant motor-mechanic Glenn Curtiss, to safe territory away from the corrupt and unpredictable U.S. courts.

This, I suspect, was among the reasons that the spectacularly inventive Scotchman, Alexander Graham Bell, re-located from his grand mansion in Washington, DC. At first he went north, back to Canada (where he had settled before), only for the summers; but soon he was staying through the winters, too. Not only in flight, but in all the many other areas of his pioneering work (he invented the telephone, &c), he was afflicted with lawsuits from American cranks, with those dollar signs twirling in their eyes and the slick lawyers lining up behind them, ready to exploit a patent regime wide open to political manipulation. For apart from the beauty of the Bras d’Or landscape, Bell was back under the protection of British Common Law.

Terror birds

From what I can see, one would not want to be pecked by a terror bird. These venerable South Americans, called phorusrhacidae as a clade, flourished back when that continent was an island, the last of them perishing scarcely more than a couple million years ago. They could stand up to ten feet tall, and had beaks alarmingly large if narrow, coming to a point at a hawk-like spike, of an exceptionally hard material, which could be driven down and through a victim with uncommon force, opening him like a tin on the recoil. They seem to have eaten almost anything smaller than they were, and almost everything was smaller, so there you go: an apex predator. Fortunately, they were flightless.

My fascination with bio-engineering has been growing lately, with the arrival of spring. The buzzard I described in a previous post has practically moved in, and is now using my balconata rail as an habitual perch, to the distress of my sunflower seed-bribed purple finches, one of whom actually flew in the door of the High Doganate a few days ago, seeking protection. His friends, equally surprised, scattered in other directions as the big, mean-looking bird alighted. I had on my hands, briefly, one seriously distressed little avian, unable to decide whether I or the buzzard would make the better companion.

Now, some of these phorusrhacidae were rather smaller, and would thus be a problem only for the time traveller’s spaniel. From my glance at the skeleton, however, the neck seems sufficiently coiled and articulated for a strike from the side, in a scything action, provided that it does not wobble indecisively. So that, as a traveller myself, I would be seriously reviewing my commitment to biodiversity.

Still, if we can ranch an ostrich, I’m sure we could ranch a terror bird.

There are some parallel, coterminous species whose remains have been exhumed on other continents. As I say, these birds didn’t fly, and the Panama Isthmus to North America rose out of the sea hardly three million years ago. From the look of, for instance, the Titanis walleri who settled in Texas and Florida (no fault of Barack Obama’s here), we see a different design plan entirely. Similarly, or rather, dissimilarly, the North African “cousins.” It seems to me a bird of roughly that design and equipment was simply made for the Cenozoic. Once we get over this Evolution nonsense, we will see that chance plays no part, and that our planetary zoo is intelligently arranged in successive temporal sections.

The phorusrhacidae are stars of the moment, and I see them in all the pop-science ’zines. Last week the BBC picked up a nice item from the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, adding those “artist’s impressions” that make a dry scientific tract into a crowd-pleaser. Argentine palaeontologists have been picking them out of the cliffs by Mar del Plata, before the sea erodes them, and recently found a nearly-complete skeleton of a new species, Llallawavis scagliali (“Scaglia’s magnificent bird”). This included the intact chamber for an inner ear. From this we gather that the bird’s hearing was adapted to quite low frequencies, so that we might imagine it sang in a rich baritone.

The bigger the bird, the lower the pitch, is among the more plausible rules of thumb. Elephants roar and mice squeak, as they say. I seem to recall a (typically fatuous) Darwinoid nostrum, that honesty in signalling is essential to sexual selection and … blah, blah, blah. The observation was never true, of course, and gradually even Darwinoids have noticed that a little wren can sing a very low-pitched line — whether to con a predator into not looking closer, or to impress a chick.

In fact the complexity of birdsong, and its astounding range, not only in solo performances but in conscious choral singing, is only beginning to be appreciated. With the collapse of neo-Darwinism, we will get a much better view into the phenomena of joy in nature, as we once had in the heyday of natural history, before the Great Bearded Killjoy of Down House arrived on the scene.

With joy comes paradox and scintillating reverses. The point was brought home to me recently when a large tall muscular young fellow (human) was singing for his supper at Yonge and Bloor. He had the most amazing high countertenor voice, with which he was doing Schubert’s Ave Maria — easily earning a toonie from me. By analogy I imagine this lately-found Argentine terror bird shocking his audience with the voice of a Franco Fagioli — bringing, as it were, just when they were expecting the floor to resonate beneath them, instead the chandeliers down on their heads.

Actually, I was intending today to launch a brutal and possibly gratuitous attack on the Wright brothers. But I’ve been terribly busy this week, so perhaps will leave that until tomorrow.

A yarn

In my dream, I was looking for help in a computer: trying to translate a poem from Basque into Urdu. This, I should mention, was not something I had ever previously attempted.

I was in a flat, full of my old things. It is a place I have returned to sometimes in dreams: one of several I visit while asleep, each quite specific in layout, furnishings, and address, and non-existent only in the real world. This one has high ceilings, tall windows, and gets plenty of sun; it is in a factory district. It bothers me I have not been paying rent, and must owe a lot of money by now: more than I could possibly pay. And as I seldom visit, my possessions must be insecure. I suppose this makes it an anxiety dream.

The computer is seriously out-of-date; by dream reasoning I conclude that the search function is pre-Internet and useless. Then I remember an old Basque dictionary, in a pine sideboard within this flat. I go digging for it, and find it on a bottom shelf, beside some tattered storybooks. These seem to be in various Occitan languages: Catalan, Provençal, Gascon, whatever. They are illuminated codices! How could I have forgotten that I owned them? I must pay the rent or they’ll be lost!

A duffle bag is stuffed behind the books. It contains old sweaters, boots, a radio, toys from my childhood, notebooks, discarded drawings and maps — all things I’ve been looking for!

And what’s this? A tabby cat, lost decades ago: alive and purring. She’s been feeding off what’s left of a barbecued chicken, in a plastic bag.

Waking, I try to capture the dream, and transcribe it into conscious memory. I know that some of these things once existed, others could not have. I did once own a Basque dictionary. I never owned such codices. The cat had a name, Meggins. The chicken reminded me of a carcass the landlord in a rooming house once abandoned in the back of a fridge. …

But I have left out the yarn. It was among the objects in the duffle bag: a spool of ancient yarn, very soft and silky, and of a distinctive colour: snow ivory with streaks of mottled brown and grey. It had unravelled, was entangled with everything else. It was when I pulled it, the rest came out. Somehow I knew it was spun from arctic hare. And that it came from somewhere.

*

The archaeologist, Patricia Sutherland, found such yarn some years ago, in a museum at Ottawa. It was from a box of curiosities a Catholic priest had collected on Baffin Island. It had struck him as odd, too: for the Inuit hunters use twisted sinews for cordage; yarn was a recent import. But this was no recent site; it was Dorset age, when neither spinners nor weavers were conceivable. The fragments were from Tanfield Valley, a sheltered cove at the southern extreme of Baffin, by the entrance to Hudson Strait. Carbon dating took the samples back to pre-Columbian times. How puzzling.

Until Professor Sutherland came along. This battle-axe, of a kind I much admire, remembered similar yarn from the ruins of a twelfth-century Viking farmstead in West Greenland. She leapt to a conclusion soon supported by other objects in the museum’s own collections, from several sites in Canada’s eastern Arctic. These included whetstones with tiny specks of copper and bronze, and wood fragments with iron rust from square nail holes. Other items long overlooked, now shouted through the lens of her microscope.

Funding comes from somewhere, and after some digging through the frigid muck at remote Tanfield Valley, what have we? A rather un-Eskimo stone wall: forty feet of unmistakably Viking masonry.

As a boy I was enchanted by the discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows, near St Anthony on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland. Through the early ’sixties the archaeologists fought over what they were; until it became dead obvious that Helge Instad and company had uncovered the remains of a sizable Viking settlement from 1000 AD. All these years had passed without the discovery of another. Now more villages are coming into view.

Later, much later, Basque whalers came this way. Their sunken galleons and long boats have been recovered here and there, and onshore, the iron trypots in which they rendered blubber. But that was a little after Columbus.

For now we glimpse a trading history, between the lost Norse settlements of Greenland, and the native peoples in the western reaches of Helluland (Baffin), Markland (Labrador), and Vinland (Newfoundland). Once again, ancient chroniclers are proved exactly right, after scholars had convicted them of “myth” and “fantasy.” All of this fits, too, with the climate history, through that “mediaeval warming” the global warmalarmists want us to forget, when these places were much less arctic than they are today. And a picture emerges of the West Vikings, as traders, more than raiders.

All of it retrieved as in a dream, along a string of yarn.

Hunwickean in Parkdale

An anti-blogger or Idleposter is likely to read others, from idle curiosity if no better cause, and the commentarii diurni to which I first turn most days is Father Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment. Surely he is the world’s greatest Catholic blogger in English (mostly), though Hunwicke himself assigns the title of Archiblogopoios to America’s Father Zed.

Once tired of here, gentle reader will find, there, a rich fund of learned and penetrating remarks on every passing liturgical, scriptural, patristic, doctrinal, homiletic, canon-juridical, historical and general ecclesial matter, along with fine classical asides, a typographical dog’s breakfast, and some good laughs. A man of Oxford and of the English Church, returned to Rome through the Ordinariate, I know him not, personally, yet am gobsmacked to think such a dinosaur still roams this Earth. And, as gentle reader may appreciate, “dinosaur” is my fondest praise.

Hunwicke lays it on with a trowel (the preferred tool of gardeners and Nehemiah), and with that glowering Oxonian glee, discernible in his photograph. Truth matters to him; the reputations of persons, not so much. Yet still he doffs his hat to the authorities, in the time-honoured mediaeval manner; doffs, as it were, what is lawfully owing to the office or chair, regardless of the clown who may be sitting in it; doing obedience, when necessary, with humour. (Saint Thomas More was like that: going to the block with a little joke to the axeman.)

Chiefly, Hunwicke has focused on the problem of repatriating Greater England to the Civitate Dei; which is to say, that City of God — contra Paganos. This is the task of bringing the best of the Anglican heritage of mediaeval continuity back into communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church; and thus Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, Jeremy Taylor and the rest back into accord with Anselm, More, Newman. Et cetera.

The challenge here, or rather, part of the opportunity, is to grasp the significance, not only for England, and for every living English-speaking soul, but for the Catholic Church at large, of Anglicanorum Coetibus: the apostolic constitution with which Pope Benedict XVI began an extraordinary act of reconstruction, under the patronage (and guidance, I should think) of Our Lady of Walsingham. There was nothing casual in this; nothing small.

In the fullness of time, I think it will be seen that through this and his yet more important apostolic letter, Summorum Pontificum, Benedict began a process that can enable, practically, the restoration of Holy Church, after her period of wilderness desolation (which continues yet, in the shadow of Vatican II). However modest these measures may seem, in terms of the number of people who have seized upon the opportunities immediately presented, they are Pauline in their implications. Within a Church that is outwardly shrinking, and retreating from her contest with the Dictatorship of Relativism, there is a Heart that will grow and restore circulation to her re-animated parts.

To my mind, Hunwicke is among the few who fully understand these implications. Rome, post-Benedict, may be in many minds and much confusion, but the means, even the mechanisms for recovery are now there; and from many dispersed locations that recovery has begun.

Recovery of the Catholic heritage — spiritual, intellectual, and material — has many further dimensions. Currently, Father Hunwicke is drawing attention to another. He returns to the Regensburg address of 2006, so maliciously misrepresented in the media. In a series of three posts (beginning here) he reviews some of its actual content.

Benedict was also working on the recovery of the scriptural tradition: the Catholic understanding of what the Scriptures are, and of the nature of their inspiration expressed in historical time. The interested reader should study these posts carefully because something subtle is conveyed, easily lost on academics in the contemporary biblical field. In a phrase: there is no such thing as an “original text” of the Bible. The search through “textual criticism” is for a chimera. Such texts as the Septuagint, and the Vulgate, are independent witnesses — not for some antecedent texts that might be reconstructed by “getting behind them,” but instead, canonical in themselves.

And they are attested through actual use in ancient church and synagogue, as throughout the life of the early Church. They were intrinsic to that life, and the life was witness to them.

The texts are what they are. They are neither interchangeable nor manipulable. There is no “theory” that can aggregate then refine them into one homogeneous substance, like corn, barleyseed, and municipal waste into methanol. There are only the texts in themselves, uncontaminated by modern hypotheses and speculations. Take them or leave them. What lies behind is not some “primitive text” that had been “redacted.” No such thing is to be found. They contain what they contain, including all the bits sinful modern men would like to excise or revise.

Each, from its angle, stands witness — not to some lost textual history, but to the Christ.

Fixate upon that, and the penny may eventually drop. It is Christ we worship, not scholarly chimeras. Turn your attention from what does not exist, and therefore can never be proved, and take instead what you were given in that ancient “deposit of faith.” In other words, turn your attention from the vanity of human wishes, and look behind Scripture to Christ.

For that is what the Church has been teaching all along: come, to Christ, comprehensible through history, and actually Present in the Mass.

As Joan of Arc put it: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” (It was she, too, who stated with such beautiful clarity, that she did not know whether God loved or hated the English, only that they’d be kicked out of France.)

The effort to complicate the matter requires much complicated resistance. Father Hunwicke has a genius for disentanglement. It would be worth “following” him, if only for the entertainment of watching how he does it. Go follow. And then for godsake go to Mass, and apply what you have learnt.

Model T

It is odd, spooky perhaps, to discover after the fact, and in conversation with a dead person, areas of agreement one never suspected. This comes from reading, principally; and in today’s case from reading the teaching notes of my father. (Much better organized than mine; he was less susceptible to asides on asides.) Too, a little heartbreaking sometimes, to recall so many things since I lost him, so many little discoveries that have inspired me to run and tell my father; only to realize the years that have passed.

An industrial designer, and a “flyboy” from the Hitler War, of Spitfires and other good things “in the service of his late majesty, George the Sixth,” papa was no Luddite. On the other hand, like my son the electronic engineer, he appreciated Luddites. Once, for instance, he read aloud from a popular science magazine, a mocking quotation from the turn of the last century. An old geezer had predicted that if everyone started driving cars, the world would choke on noise and pollution, with people and animals being run over, and collisions everywhere. Papa noted it was odd to mock a prediction that had come true.

He admired technological innovation, but thought the best could not be brought out unless resistance was constantly offered. It is the duty of the inventor to offer better ways of doing things. It is the duty of the craftsman to defend the way things are done, and to insist there shall be no sacrifices of quality to quantity. It was the duty of “the people” generally to resist change. Thus was “progress” humanized, to the  “classical liberal” mind, which could distinguish between improvement and its opposite — in the days before the “liberal and progressive” lapsed into unchecked depravity.

As my son puts it, “Luddites” are hugely valuable to computer designers, in forcing them to adapt their inventions to human use. Whether or not they enjoy this “feedback,” they should become patient. They should think through the consequences of what they are proposing, and “first do no harm.”

Caught between these generations, I am struck on both sides by the acknowledgement of social solidarity. Without continuity, without a view to common purpose that extends beyond the moment in time and space, evil must necessarily triumph. We must remain a closed camp against it. All the goods in “Western Civ” required, and then assumed, this solidarity.

Even in politics, the concept of the “loyal opposition” expressed this: that our purposes must be constructive, not destructive. The opposition does not exist to defeat a government’s best efforts, but to improve them. They must look for the holes: for the unintended consequences of what has been proposed. By the old Parliamentary arrangements, founded in the Middle Ages, a government was compelled to hear this criticism; to defend itself with wit and vigour on the floor of the House; but also to relent, and amend, and accommodate interests that cross all party lines. Only on those terms was “democracy” feasible.

Or call this “old fashioned liberalism” if you will: the kind Chesterton and Belloc thought themselves a part of. It was a secular expression of Christian ideals. It could not, as they understood, have survived the destruction of an essentially Christian intellectual order. Indeed, it has not.

Words have changed their meanings, almost of their own accord, because the premisses of civilization have changed, and at the heart of it, this rather Christian notion of a “solidarity” which extends across all classes, through successive generations, and beyond any national frontier. As recently as the 1950s, the term “Christendom” could be used, sometimes, without irony.

Common understanding of what is up and down, good and bad, right and wrong, was first directly challenged in the French Revolution; or rather before that, by the atheist philosophes who brought the revolutionary principles of Hell to the surface — opening those spiritual chasms through which demons might walk openly on this Earth.

The polarities were reversed, then in France, and now in an accelerating way across Europe and America. Down becomes up, bad becomes good, wrong becomes right. The whole task of the “liberal and progressive,” as he himself now sees it, is that of social re-engineering: to “liberate” us from the past and its “conditioning”; to remove God from every public place; to replace Christian Hope with the promise that through technology and the unshackling of the human will to power, “men shall be as gods.”

And then, the enforcement of new positive law, to bind everyone to their agenda, in constantly metastasizing detail.

(It is curious how in his notes and diaries, as in his conversation, my father — who was not a church-goer, nor in other outward sense a religious man — so often and unselfconsciously mentioned God. He did this in casual expressions such as, “God is in the details,” or “God sees what you are hiding,” or “the truth is holy,” or what he always said to me on parting: “Go with God.”)

A correspondent reminds me of Hilaire Belloc’s paraphrase of Thomas Aquinas, somewhere in The Cruise of the Nona. “All evil exists in the mistaking or confusing of the means for the end.”

One aspect of our reversal of polarities is technological. To the barbaric savages who have come out on top, technology is no longer means, but monster. It has acquired a capital T.

Low Sunday

Quasi modo geniti infantes, begins the Introit this morning (“as newborn babes”), to which is added, alleluia (unnecessary to translate). “As newborn babes, alleluia, desire the rational milk without guile, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. …”

You can’t have enough Glorias in Eastertide for me; and neither could the Saints, through whom the Old Mass came into being (from God, and not from some liturgical committee), get enough of them (alleluia).

Through the season we have Glorias echoing from the Sunday Mass through the ferial days of the week, alleluia.

And time it is, too, for the “rational milk” — for our faith to develop and grow; for it to get itself educated. For the Crucifixion is our end, but the Resurrection is our beginning.

Carissimi: Omne, quod natum est ex Deo, vincit mundum, as begins the Epistle from I John. “Whatsoever is born of God overcomes the world.” Et haec est victoria, “and this is the victory,” quae vincit mundum, “which overcomes the world.” … And what is that victory? … Fides nostra, “our faith.”

To which I would add, alleluia.

There is some strange old man who stands at the northwest corner of Dundas and Yonge, all the day long, getting complaints from the shoppers. For he is not selling anything, he’s just in their way. I think this man is blind, or very dimly sighted. He also looks a bit tubercular. Winter or summer, he dresses much the same. At intervals he shouts one word:

“Believe!”

… at quite startling volume.

Those who know Toronto will realize he is standing in the heart of our Gomorrah. (Sodom is a few streets to the north and east.) Lately, “Dundas Square” has been tricked out with huge, high-tech flashing billboards, and floodlighting from all sides, to make it a cheap imitation of Times Square. But the gunplay continues.

We have heard of the man of one book, but here is the man of one word. And for the environment, I think it is well chosen.

“Believe!” … For this is the victory that overcomes the world: our faith.

I doubt this gentleman is a Catholic, incidentally. But he could be, for all I know. The one time I tried to speak to him, he seemed to be deaf. The way he pronounces, “Believe!” suggests a deeply ethnic origin, perhaps Baltic; but deafness would also account for it. And it is as if he had been struck by a fist between the two syllables.

But there is no problem making out the word: “Be-LIEVE!”

To which, on this first decent spring-like day in the Greater Parkdale Area — this Low, or Quasimodo, or if you want, “Hunchback Sunday” — I should like to add, in my rather snooty Catholic way:

Alleluia!

Of books & men

Out of my charity, lest I confuse one sort with another, I try to arrange my enemies in three distinct groups: 1. psychotics (with that “cold look”), 2. neurotics (with that “haunted look”), and 3. common fools. This last group can pull a wide variety of faces. So can the first two, for that matter, but the eyes are the windowpanes of the soul. This is why I grant blind people a pass; but am deeply suspicious of those wearing sunglasses.

In email, it is often hard to tell one from another. This gives psychotics and neurotics a head start. In a combox, however, the answer is likely to suggest itself right away, and we learn that the proportion of the deranged in our society is even higher than we guessed on our last city stroll.

Among philosophers, Henri Bergson was no hero of mine, but he had his moments, and one of them was when he explained to a young visitor why he attended philosophical congresses.

“Sometimes,” Bergson said, “I have spent weeks, months, trying to master the sophisticated jargon and complicated system of one of my contemporaries. But one glance at his face and I know that I’ve been wasting my time.”

His visitor, the young T.E. Hulme, recommended his own method. It was to skip forward through a book to the last couple of pages. This is where the point of the exercise will be revealed, and if it is “the usual” — more sludge out of the long pipe — one may then omit reading all the previous pages.

My beloved Doctor Johnson, who resembled Hulme in size and tone, had similar methods for “tearing the heart out of a book,” while browsing in his friends’ libraries. It was he who when once asked for an opinion, said, “I’d rather praise the book than read it.”

Cast once as a generator of “Brief Notices,” I remembered him, and was able to write about twenty reasonably polite one-paragraph reviews of the latest academic blockbusters in the course of a lazy afternoon. Out of my ethical sense, I avoided repeating anything in the dust-cover blurbs. One must have principles. And like Mencken, I refused to review any book without an index. (This means avoiding novels.)

Note that an operation requiring ten minutes or less with a printed book, could take half-an-hour or more with a Kindle.

The purpose of short reviews is not to pass final judgement. It is instead to identify the sort of reader to which each work is addressed. Some books are written for psychopaths, some for neurotics, most for common fools. A tiny proportion might possibly repay a closer examination, and these may be removed to another pile, where they will be forgotten.

Perhaps I should amend that. In some cases the purpose of the squib is indeed to pass judgement. I think of Dorothy Parker’s useful 1928 review of The House at Pooh Corner, in the New Yorker magazine: “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

Or of Hulme’s more leisurely overview of A Free Man’s Worship, by Bertrand Russell:

“So extremely commonplace, and expressed in such a painful piece of false and sickly rhetoric, that I have not patience to deal with it here.”

But whether one is dealing with books or men, concealment is a nuisance. One really needs to look at a face when communicating, with friend or foe. And words alone, without even the inflection of a voice, are a lot of trouble.

Even Better Friday

Friday is a fast day, except when it is not; and today, gloriously, it is not. And that is because it is Easter Friday, within the very Octave, and therefore a Feast. (Action stations at the old Pantheon in Rome, converted to Saint Mary’s of the Martyrs by Pope Boniface IV, fourteen centuries ago almost precisely.)

Though it should be said that today is Good Friday among our Eastern brethren (or, Great Friday, as they call it at Constantinople), stuck as they are with the old Julian calendar, and holding, we Westerners suspect, on a point of pride. Annoying, too: because it prevents us from consulting their magnificent liturgies for background on, and resonance with, our own — in live time.

Be the motive what it may have been, my Orthodox and Ethiopic friends weren’t responsible for the decision, just as my Protestant friends cannot be held to account for the behaviour of some of their ancestors (and mine), over the last five centuries. Each was born where he was born. Just as we, saintly Catholics (and I use the adjective wryly), should be visited with neither the sins of the fathers of our fathers, nor the sons of their other sons — having enough sins of our own, thank you.

Our ancestors on all sides made a mess of history. And we, for our part, are still making it worse. And what makes it worse than that is, we don’t care.

Moreover, I can understand why some folks aren’t Catholic. I nearly joined the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic myself, when I was first converted from godlessness, and by a miracle, in England back in the ‘seventies. And would have, perhaps, had it not been for a couple of rather godless, liberal Catholic clergy, from those “Dutch Catechism” days. They persuaded me (perhaps without intending) that the Roman Church was actually no longer Catholic, but instead gone over to the Other Side. For this was England in the ‘seventies, when the Mass had been totally trashed on the authority of Pope Paul himself, leaving only the Anglicans with anything resembling the traditional, Western Christian celebration.

Later, being coached for entry into the Anglican communion, I recall some questions from other members of my group.

One of them was, “Father, why-on-urth should we call Good Friday ‘good’, if Jesus got crucified that day? Why not call it Bad Friday, and call the next one, after the Resurrection, Good?”

(That the lady who asked this later sought the female ordination, seems somehow relevant here.)

The priest replied with some learned remark on English etymology. Good, he explained, is here used in its much older English sense of “pious,” and Good Friday was then, as ideally now, a day observed with grave piety.

This did not satisfy the lady, who said it should be renamed “Pious Friday,” in that case.

(I am not naming names, for they can still be traced, and the purpose of this anti-blog is not to settle old scores. The lady in question is now not only a retired Anglican priestess, but also a divorced one. Hardly a surprise: I pitied her husband even then. Still, I owe her, for she was among my many inspirations for finally leaving that communion.)

Searching in his heart for a way to explain the inestimable value of tradition, in words that might be acceptable to a madwoman, the poor Anglican priest broke down. He resorted to the sort of remark the quick-tempered Anglican Dean of Saint Patrick’s used to utter on such occasions.

“Well why don’t we compromise, ma’am. We’ll keep calling it Good Friday, for the time being, and call the one after, Even Better Friday.”

FAQ

He said we must love them. We don’t have to like them. Christ never asks for the impossible.

And, tough love is the best.

This, in response to several correspondents who think I’ve been riding a little hard on the liberals, lately. Nonsense.

To paraphrase Doctor (“the first Whig was the Devil”) Johnson, much can be done with a liberal, if he be caught young.

I am falling, ever falling behind my correspondents, some of whom ask quite straightforward questions, so I will devote today’s post to standard, boilerplate replies.

*

A frequent question is, “How do I subscribe, so that I can get your ‘essays’ the moment they are posted?”

The answer is, I don’t know. I am not a techie, and my son, who has the webmastery, also has a steady job, so that I don’t like to bother him too much. My only idea is: make me your homepage.

And yairs, to another question: I am now posting daily. I resolved to do this upon the Feast of Saint Andrew, one hundred and thirty Idleposts ago, and for as long as I could keep it up. For being then at a loss what to do, given a worldview that makes me completely unemployable, I consulted my Guardian Angel. It was her idea.

And yairs, I try to post every day by noon, but this is not always possible. Sometimes, for instance, I have to teach in the morning, though that is no big thing.

And yairs, among other motives I was rather hoping that Gentle Readers would take the hint, recognize me for a Brother in some long forgotten and defunct, mediaeval Mendicant Order, and start dropping cash into my begging bowl. Some of you have, indeed, started: and I am very grateful, including the thought of you with grace before each meal.

*

“What does ‘yairs’ mean?”

It means “yes,” I gathered, from my perusal of an obscure Australian novel, some decades ago, in which it was assigned to the mouth of an elderly lady from the steaming outback beyond Brisbane in the tropical far north. Since, neither I, nor any Australian acquaintance, has been able to trace the reference. But the word appealed to me, so like some pretty shell from a distant shore, I decided to keep it.

*

“What is the ‘High Doganate’?”

That is where I live, in an ivory tower, suspended one hundred feet above the Village of Parkdale, a formerly incorporated municipality extremely proximate to the City of Toronto, by which it was annexed perhaps a century ago.

I love Parkdale, once full of mansions and the provocatively rich, but now, thanks to municipal planning, full of the poor, the unfashionably ethnic, and the mad. To say nothing of the communists and perverts.

Yet often, in my walks around the Greater Parkdale Area (also known as the Greater Toronto Area), I have thought that Parkdale is the only part of the conurbation that will come well out of the Rapture.

I think of the High Doganate as a kind of Institution, to which I have committed all my various personae, including the pseudonyms, for the time being. At the last census, the population was 1; but that did not include the purple finches on my balconata, nor the “speros,” nor the pigeons, nor the more recent buzzard. Nor the spiders, nor the flies.

The name “High Doganate,” of course, is derived from the stem, “Dogan.”

*

“What is a ‘Dogan’?”

Ah, now, there is a controversial question.

According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, and probably all the others, it is a slang term for a Cath-o-lick, from the Maritimes, not originally meant to flatter. For an etymology they guess it must have been the surname of some Irishman.

They lie. According to my late mother, who was certainly from the great Island of Cape Breton, and incapable of error on any point of fact, the word was a gift from Presbyterian missionaries. Proceeding from Glace Bay, they penetrated the wilderness of West Africa, until they had reached the Dogan tribe (variously spelt). The Dogans were, they noticed, a highly imaginative tribe, already quite religious if not exactly Christian, and much given to the adoration of statuettes, which weren’t exactly Christian, either. People of marvellous aesthetic vision, and artistic skill.

Now, prominent among the Dogan goddesses, or so-to-say “idols,” was a figure so carved with child, as distantly to resemble our Blessed Virgin Mary. The Presbyterian missionaries, amused by this discovery, wrote home that they had found mariolators in “DA” (Darkest Africa).

Recipients of these letters were also much amused, and took to calling their Catholic neighbours “Dogans.” If the shoe fits, wear it, is an old saying, and upon discovering what the word suggested, their Catholic neighbours soon took the title for themselves.

From Glace Bay, it spread up the western coast of Newfoundland (where Cape Bretoners then went for logging jobs), and of course, quickly down to very Catholic Antigonish, then west at least to Pictou.

It is a proud title, indeed, and since becoming a Dogan myself (initially to my mother’s shock and horror), I have clung to it along with my cricket bat and my bibles.

Genesis applied

“The urban/suburban dweller walks in the illusion of sufficiency. The agriculturist looks to the sky with suspicion, the thermometer with unquiet, and the cloud of flying things with dread.”

This remark, from an American reader, will serve to extend my rant of yesterday, and “segue,” as we say in film, to another of my little qualifications. For today’s issue will be GMOs, which is to say, “genetically modified organisms.” The same reader may be stunned to discover that I am, more or less, a fan of GMOs.

But first, a pre-qualification of the impending qualification of my seemingly Luddite reservations about the March of Technology.

For the truth is, I’m more backward than a Luddite. He was a response to the Industrial Revolution, determined to fall into its maw; whereas, I am a man of the thirteenth century, determined not to. I have no objection to technology, per se. I have no interest in the creation of “employment” as an end in itself.

For labour is inevitable, and is a curse: we must work to eat. And the only way to defeat the curse, is through joy in our labour.

For the smashers of stocking frames and power-looms were not joyful. They were approaching their problem in the wrong way. To my mind, they should have responded instead like men of the thirteenth century, thinking: “We are artisans. What can we do with this?”

There are limits, I will allow. They come down as Commandments.

For instance, I do not think the genetic modification of human beings is a good idea. The most dangerous thing about GMO is that it puts this idea in the liberal’s head. He would, as we see from innumerable articles of “popular science,” rather tamper with people than with crops, for his moral outlook is topsy-turvy. When he speaks of “frankenfoods,” he shows that he cannot grasp the moral distinction between a human being and a cob of corn. That the cob has already been genetically modified, over millennia, he may not understand: but that is sheer ignorance, more easily forgiven.

There is a question here to pause over. Is “genetic modification” the same as “eugenic”? Or could it be worse? We have been domesticating plants and beasts “eugenically” since time out of mind. Mendel described the mechanism we were exploiting all along. (Darwin before him had failed to see that this “evolution” necessarily required design, to an end fully anticipated.) The methods of GMO — direct tampering with the genes, including transfer across species — does more than speed the breeding process. It is at a definably new level. I don’t think we should deny this, when defending GMO. The argument that this is just “the same old thing” is false.

I candidly confess that I can find nothing intrinsically wrong with this new trick, however, only with some ways in which it might be applied. Prudence would dictate caution in proceeding, on two fronts that ought to run parallel. The second is to watch for unintended material consequences. The first is to keep examining our motives, to see that they are pure.

It is a good thing that people should have enough to eat. It is better that the poor should eat, than that they should starve. Without question, GMO provides the means to radically increase both the yield of the land, and the area that can (if necessary) be put under cultivation — while radically reducing the need for various pesticides and herbicides with known deleterious effects. But again, watch: for we may be breeding super-bugs and super-weeds into the bargain. There is a law of nature that reads, “No free lunch on this planet,” and anything that promises free lunch should call out the Inquisition.

On the other hand, the need for better nutrition is urgent. As GMO advocates can say, the known death-rate from malnutrition, around the same planet, is three million children a year. The known death-rate from genetically modified crops is zero. This might not distress the smug customers at Whole Foods, able to pay double for the jar that says, misleadingly, “organic.” But it ought to.

And here — again, on the same planet — is not only infant (and adult) mortality. Many more millions live lives unnecessarily enclosed by the permanent effects of childhood malnutrition. They are blind, halt, and lame from that fallout. The smugly-efflings who campaign against Monsanto will answer for that at the feet of Our Lord — for on top of ignorance they have added the crime of incuriosity.

It happens I don’t much like Monsanto myself, but for reasons unrelated to their products. I share the farmer’s fear of that company’s lawyers. Modern capitalism is obscene in this respect. One may conquer and control a market not by competition, as the faux–naïf libertarians suggest, but instead by lawyering and lobbying. Money talks, and where big money is the stake — at the interface of vested interests and government regulation — we will find hard men.

It happens, too, that I cut my teeth, when a lad in journalism, as a “business journalist” in Asia, whose chief interest was development economics. The question how to feed, and generally improve the lives and extend the freedom of the very poor, was the issue that moved me. I disliked the obstacles that I could then see: mostly hard men. I became acquainted with the ruthless means their large corporations use to inhibit small and rather promising competitors. It was then I first noticed that no elected government, needing money to buy votes, would fail to advance their interests.

Too, I noticed that Adam Smith was right: that genuinely free markets, along with free inquiry, can deliver material goods in a way that appears miraculous. And, that the biggest opponents of open competition were joint-stock corporations. Smith was facing down corporatism, but in his age had not faced socialism yet — which takes monopoly one giant step farther. He could nevertheless anticipate why it would fail; and how, on the contrary, the “hidden hand” of unadministered nature repays honest, independent labour. To reduce this to a formula: I hate large corporations, and I hate government departments more. And I hate the way they enable one another.

This is a Shakespearean position, incidentally. He hated kings, and hated rebels more. And most, he hated the tyranny of perpetual, institutionalized rebellion against the laws of nature and her God. He was Catholic like that, and without knowing it, four decades ago, so was I. The order of nature was not made with human hands. It is invincibly hierarchical, and at the top is God. Men must realize — as did Shakespeare’s secret hero, Thomas More — that Christ is King. It is to Him, and not to some chubby, statist Tudor, “dressed in a little authority,” that we owe our lives.

But men are men and sin is rampant. It is enough to discover how sin can be avoided; men will decide for themselves how to behave, and will believe what they want to believe, en route to the scene of each new crime. No government can stop this, for no government is above God. It is not their rôle to “create justice”; rather to stop specific unjust acts, one case at a time.

Now, I think I mentioned money. It will not do to condemn the amounts Monsanto can raise to advance their own, sometimes cruel, interests, without also mentioning the often greater amounts their opponents can raise, or appropriate through politics. The moral posturing of Monsanto’s opponents — the sanctimony of their slogans — should warn us of what they are. For the slogans offer less than candour. They speak for a cause in which God has no part, and God’s own poor are neglected.

Both sides claim redemption through “science” — which is scientism. We gain some insight into the nature of contemporary “settled science” when, for instance, we observe that all the “studies” commissioned directly or indirectly by the GMO industry find nothing but good in their endeavours, and all those commissioned directly or indirectly by their opponents find nothing but bad. Money talks, at every level, and that is the way of this world.

It is the reason I remain sceptical even of the more self-evident assertions on the side I prefer. The advocates make statements that appear too good to be true. This is probably because they are. The opponents make statements which they present as too bad to risk. Neither side feels it can afford to be candid, for both put self-interest above truth; and both engage in fear-mongering. Still, from what I can see, the sides are extremely unequal.

Let the smuglies buy their organic jars, and let the poor eat GMO. And the poor will continue to enjoy their food more.

As a man of the thirteenth century I have, as I said, no objection to technology, per se. To demonize it is to create an idol, of the voodoo kind. My questions are not for the gun, but for the shooter. I also insist on distinguishing between what follows in fact, and what follows in the neurotic imagination. There is no intrinsic reason why GMO should be suppressed. Problems may arise in the field, but that is where knowledge is gained from experience.

Of course the environment will be transformed. The wheat of Jesus’ day was very far from the wheat we found “in nature,” having been hybridized through hundreds of generations. The wheat we have today is very far from what it was then, all trace of that wheat having now passed away. Yet, stop intervening in material nature, and our own wheat will, strangely enough, revert to its original type — in which it fed only a few stragglers. (And the parasites that depend on our modern strains will also pass away.)

Behind what I call the “environmentalcase” worldview, is a profound misunderstanding of how things are. The transient is confused with the stable. Everything man does alters the world. And soon after he is gone, it is as if he never existed. Get over it: for in this world is change, but the only true “progress” is the pilgrim’s, beyond it.

We have, already, industrial farming on a vast scale, scouring once beautifully varied landscapes. Paradoxically, the development of focused, soil-specific and high-yield crops, requiring fewer external inputs, should give competitive advantage to the smaller farmer. Indeed, it is already doing so: this is the gist of the statistics I’ve seen. They are no surprise, for by reducing the need for heavy machinery, and other large fixed investments, GMO actually undermines economies of scale.

And that is the prudential consideration I find most attractive, after saving lives: not the technology in itself, but how it can be applied to restore the possibilities for small-scale, family farming.

Our redneck heritage

Letters from readers can be very useful in showing me where I’ve gone wrong. On balance, I encourage them. It is better, usually, to be right than wrong. But ignorance is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it is the only thing that might preserve us from damnation.

In several recent posts I now realize that, on balance, I could have been clearer, or even perhaps more accurate. We’ll see if I can restrict myself to providing only one (now unseasonal) example today.

This will have to do with the “divine irony” I discerned in my account of Roman Palestinian events, during the recent Passiontide. Christ looks upon crowds who will one moment laud and praise him, yet in the next mewl and pule for his blood. This is not an especially amusing irony, but it is there, and I insist it is there. In a longer Idlepost, however, I’d have been obliged to introduce an important qualification.

As several critics have suggested, I could have made that ancient distinction between the city mouse and the country mouse. For as they note, it is a distinction I’ve often raised myself, in other connexions. It may appear more debatable in the world of two thousand years ago, when the cities were considerably smaller in relation to the countryside. Today, our cities are so huge that I’m inclined to call them “conurbations” instead; and such is their consumptive power that the country around them is absorbed, over a radius sometimes more than a hundred miles. Not only is this vast area besucked of its agricultural potential, by the spread of new and ever more sterile sleeper suburbs. The arable land remaining must focus upon feeding the city. For all practical purposes it now belongs to the city.

The point has been brought home to me by rural acquaintances, who come into the Greater Parkdale Area to shop. The penny dropped a few years ago, when one of them explained that he was shopping for fresh food. It is no longer easily available “out there,” amid the vast industrial farms. All the distribution lines lead into the big city, and so one must come into the big city to find where they come out. “Out there” they have what has washed back, in commercially processed and packaged form, in the narrower range available to the SLIMs. (This is an acronym a big-businessman once used in my hearing. It stood for, “shitty little insignificant markets.”)

Now, Jerusalem in the generation of Jesus was mostly within the walls. The area was perhaps slightly larger than that within the walls today, but not much, and today we find perhaps 25,000 souls (plus tourists) within the later (Ottoman) walls. Through most of the Old City’s four quarters, they are rather crowded; but pack them in tighter and we might fit double that. Tacitus somewhere estimates Jerusalem’s population much larger, and Josephus gives some very large sums, but I don’t believe them. “Lots and lots” is really what they are trying to say. Jerusalem today, spreading far beyond her old walls, has perhaps thirty times that ancient population, even if culturally and spiritually she is now only a minuscule fraction of her former self.

From having spent some time there as a walker, lodged usually within the walls (in the old Franciscan hostel, Casa Nova), and moving among frequently mischievous Palestinian lads, I know how claustrophobic the neighbourhood can be, and how small it is within the modern conurbation. And yet by twenty-first century standards, Greater Jerusalem is a small city.

When we contrast “city folk” with “country folk” today, we work from different assumptions. One could live as if Jerusalem did not exist, back then, only a few miles out of town. Only along e.g. the (single-lane) “highway” to Damascus would one be aware of the milestones. From the top of the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem and her Temple would be extremely apparent; but down the other side along the road to Jericho it would disappear. Though a place, it was more familiar as an idea.

Even so, Jerusalem was a city. And as we grasp from within the Passion narratives, it had city ways. There is some analogy to the urban/rural contrast of today. In fact this would have been more vivid, in the absence of that sprawl from one into the other, and the global-village technology that now links every place to every other in live time, and thus homogenizes and emulsifies what was formerly distinctive, and human.

Balancing this, was a greater non-virtual interpenetration of space and time. Time was simply more continuous: travellers in the nineteenth century found a landscape still essentially unchanged from biblical times. But with respect to space: I must have explored every accessible corner and crack of modern Jerusalem-within-the-walls, and walked over many of her roofs, too, and can report that it is an incredible labyrinth. Yet from gate to gate is less than half a mile, as the nightjar flies, and from any point, with a knowledge of the streets, I could walk across town in ten minutes, or get right out of it in five. (Slower, however, if one is carrying a cross.)

Where are we getting? Back to the crowd hailing Jesus to Saint Stephen’s Gate on Palm Sunday (and thus fatefully directly into the Via Dolorosa). They would have been mostly country folk: bumpkins if you will. But the well-rehearsed crowd accusing Him before Pontius Pilate, with their punk-musical refrain of “Crucify Him!” — would have been recruited mostly in the city. From the evidence of the Gospels it was “rent-a-crowd”; something easy to do among the urban masses. And whether or not people were literally cash-bribed to get the show started (as they invariably are, in one sordid currency or another) few were likely to have been country bumpkins.

Still, “none” would be too low an estimate.

There is a more general point I should have drawn in passing, from human experience, reflected in the Gospels. Riots, anywhere, don’t “just happen.” As every accomplished leftwing activist knows, riots need planning. And Caiaphas was a first-rate “community organizer,” who’d gone right to the top — always ready to pay his bills (to Judas, for example).

Then, as now, the demographic profile of the “Christ-killers” would be, urbane. Or to translate into contemporary American terms, Democrat Party. Whereas, those “naïvely” impressed by Jesus were in the main, Red State; they were from “flyover country.” In demographic profile, the more faithfully Christian, or Christian at all, tend to be rednecks: they who cling to their guns and their bibles (still their Hebrew bibles, back in the day: the Torah with its many delightfully redneck passages).

Yet, to follow the analogy, both groups were “patriotic Americans” in our twenty-first century sense. So were the Roman provincials in the sense of the first century. (Oh say did you see how that crowd pledged its allegiance to Caesar!) One type could be converted into the other type, by migration and resettlement, then as now — the children of the migrants becoming city-slick, the children of urban-evacuee hippies becoming rednecks again.

I hope I have made this clear: that the hicks are not gooder, just less tempted.

In other words, both principles apply. Rural people are not entirely saints, nor urban people entirely devils (in most cases), and the original sin of human nature applies to them both. Yet then as now, city life had a pervasive corrupting effect; it was a formidable influence for evil. And this I think because, then as now, the country folk are surrounded by the works of God, from the vault of the stars, to the murmurations of the animal kingdom, the miracle of the harvest, and death in new life. Whereas, the city folk are encased within the works of man, however beautiful or (as today) ugly.

*

There is a book just out, a bestseller in Israel, that casts light on this from another angle: a distinction between the gathered and dispersed which long predates the foundation of Jerusalem. It is by Yuval Noah Harari, of Hebrew University at Jerusalem, and the English translation is entitled, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

It touches upon the “prehistoric” agricultural revolution which, in the tradition of Plato and other ancient conservatives, Harari depicts as a mixed blessing. Or worse, for he calls it “history’s biggest fraud.”

The propaganda for this agricultural revolution has been intense, in our modern academies. What a wonderful thing, we have been taught: that it brought people together, begetting literacy and progress; that it socialized them in comfortable “civilizations” with ever-improving technology. Which is to say, that it made big cities possible, big government and so forth.

Professor Harari — this gay-married, moshav-dwelling, macro-historian by whom I am so impressed — looks back over the aggregation of evidence and asks: What was there to like? The cultivation and selective breeding of new stocks, from grain to farm animals, came at a terrible price, in habitual over-specialization of diet, and debilitating disease, to say nothing of the loss of personal independence.

Carnivorous man, who had once run free, now became by comparison an “ethical vegetarian,” with devastating material and spiritual consequences. In purely material terms, life expectancy for the individual was considerably shortened (as the data of palaeontology have revealed) from what it remained among humans who stayed out in the wild — visiting the settlements only to get sick on what they pillaged.

Yet, thanks perhaps to dairy, fecundity increased among these pocked, unpleasant, short-lived people, and with this the proliferation of a new human stock, smaller and nastier. Or to put it in my own terms, to which Plato and Socrates would immediately subscribe: the world began to fill with liberals.

But of course, God makes and will make the best of this. One must not be trapped within one’s own ideology, as our beloved Pope keeps saying, from within the trap of his. It is sufficient that we learn to see through the illusion of “progress” — and understand that only God can save us, from the mess that only we have made.