Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Grande dame

The late Phyllis Schlafly was (and remains) a heroine in my eyes. For as long as I can remember, she has been a model of feminine insolence and good cheer: fearless against the enemies of Christian faith and universal reason. Our side (that of the good, the true, and the beautiful) has needed female as well as male soldiering, especially along the front line. The two kinds are not interchangeable, however, as this lady understood. Men do not give birth in their trenches; women do in theirs; and only the two together are equal to the pain of mankind’s exile. We can win battles without them, but need women to win wars. We need daughters resolute, chaste and brave.

Perhaps Mrs Schlafly’s greatest public service was by her tireless work defeating the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, back in the ’seventies. This monstrous congressional enactment was stopped at thirty of the thirty-eight States it needed to be ratified (after it had reached a high of thirty-five). Her campaign, with acronym STOP (“Stop Taking Our Privileges”), was both nervy and brilliant. Generals, and general-lasses, need both qualities; one without the other makes a lost cause.

As Mrs Schlafly clarified, women have traditionally enjoyed many privileges in Western society including — in the day — dependent wife status for tax benefits, separate toilets, exemption from the draft, &c. The feminists of NOW (the fanatic “National Organization of Women”) were campaigning to have all privileges revoked.

From an early time, when it was unforeseeable to others, Mrs Schlafly correctly anticipated the implications of feminist success — that it must necessarily lead not only to the drug and rape culture, and the holocaust of abortions, but specifically to gay marriage, transgenderism, and beyond. (She was mocked for these predictions by the “sisterhood.”) In other areas of politics, including foreign policy, she was as clear-sighted.

Her gift was the masculine one, of cold logical reasoning, combined with the warm feminine one, of prowling, psychological inquiry. She could see how shifts in traditional premisses would twist people, and show just how they would be twisted — how both women and men would be tokenized and demeaned. Her defence of privilege as necessary privilege — her conception of “rights” as according with actual human station, as opposed to some board of abstract automata — took her to the heart of social understanding. It is no accident that the most penetrating anthropological thought has so often been provided by women (from Mary Magdalene forward) — standing, as it were, aside from the “control” functions, exercised by men. For women (the responsible ones, not those sunk in liberationist imbecilities) are not instinctively reductive. Even as observers, they are multi-taskers: seeing what men habitually omit. (They have compensating flaws, and male strength is necessary against the mothering tyranny of women. But we needn’t go into that at the moment.)

Much more should be recovered. As several of my female correspondents insist, it is a terrible insult to the dignity of women that (since 1920 in USA) they have been expected to vote in popular elections.

The influence of women on society — holding together what would otherwise fall apart — is not and cannot be exerted through such deviations. The Nineteenth Amendment (as parallel legislation in other war-ravaged countries) reduced women to the status of participants in a brutish and abominable men’s game, to which women are entirely unsuited (as evidence the number who become unhinged). Over the course of the last century, the consequences of that tragic error have become so obvious that they are taken for granted: the expansion of statecraft into aspects of intimate and domestic life that were never any of the state’s business; and by inevitable consequence, the undermining and incremental destruction of human families.

Yet as political observers, women have often been superb. They look over masculine affairs from a heightened, feminine perspective. By standing above the mechanical processes of politics, they are able to appeal to the masculine capacity for disinterested justice, in a unitive rather than disunitive way. And in doing this they uphold the priority of the homely and religious, over the moral vacuity of state institutions. Men are called to defend that realm in which women are dominant by nature. It is the man’s role to shelter. Take this solemn responsibility away, and it is no wonder that, as today, the great majority of men never pass emotionally, or intellectually, beyond a callow adolescence.

To redefine women as smaller men — to equate the roles and thereby make the mother “theoretically” interchangeable with the father — is to pervert all natural order. It can be done by legislation, only within certain boundaries. When these are crossed, Nature takes revenge; as she has been doing. Mrs Schlafly was eloquent on all this.

More fundamentally, her genius was to be obstinate as a woman, and insolent in the face of the demonic. This involved, in the politics of the post-War, intervention in that formerly male preserve which had been turned topsy-turvy — an unavoidable concession to the times. This mother of six, who for many years could only think and write about public questions in the time after her last and youngest had been put to bed (for she refused to demand the emasculation of her husband), accomplished miracles of persuasion. Until the day before yesterday, she was physically present in the struggle for the best obtainable political results — a voice of extraordinary resolution.

*

I have had the honour to know, since childhood, many strong, independent women. I think particularly of several who made their way, towering alone. Their example inspires me to the present day: I think of such women and remember, if not my courage, at least what courage is.

I wrote once an essay on “The Modern Spinster” — a class to which I added women who had (by war and accident) long outlived their husbands. Born, typically, before the turn of the last century; widowed perhaps in the Great War; some had survived into the 1980s. They were impressive figures of pedagogical authority. We had, even here in the once admirable Province of Ontario, women I would rank with empress-dowagers of China. They were irreplaceable pillars of a society that I have watched disintegrate, over the decades since. Not one of them was a feminist, or could be interpreted as one by any fanciful act of the imagination. Each was fully a Woman.

Two converging points: First, that their power can be neither appreciated nor understood, in a society that has so far degenerated that sex (not grammatical “gender”) is dissolved in an androgynous slurry. Second, that there can be no such thing as an independent woman, who would exchange her position for that of a little man. Who could anyway wish “equality” with any of these strangely unnatural, mole-like creatures we have today — whining, whingeing, whimpering from the “safe spaces” in the hollows of their heads?

*

It is true that Mrs Schlafly endorsed Donald Trump, earlier this year. I note the view expressed by the (still living) Father Zed: that against Hillary Clinton, he would vote for the corpse of Millard Fillmore. I’m with him there; it is only at the prospect of “the Donald” that I hesitate. However, I’m prepared to make a concession. In commemoration of my late heroine, Phyllis Schlafly, I will permit one (1) of my USA readers to vote for Mr Trump in the coming election. (You know who you are.)

The wake-up call

My neighbour went off for the long weekend. She must have the same small Bose CD-player as I do. It has an alarm function, and I hear precisely the same repeating note that comes from mine when I set it. The sound would get anyone out of bed. Even at low volume, it fills one’s head, allows no other thought. Then it increases to the full volume, until it is tupped. The machine is plugged into the wall; there is no battery to go dead, eventually, as in cars when their burglar alarms are interminably sounding. (It does shut down after a few hours, then resumes next morning.) At intervals I must remind myself that my neighbour is a very nice person, who innocently “forgot”; that homicide would not be justifiable, in this instance.

Begin with a button off your best shirt.
Or: your mate, car, children
born and unborn. Someone steals your luggage,
a kind of rape. The first time is the worst. …

These lines open a poem by an old friend (Fraser Sutherland), entitled, “Forms of Loss.” It seems I published them in my Idler magazine, thirty years ago. Somehow they capture the essence of modern life.

One might bore gentle reader with other recurring instances, on this morning of our North American “Labour Day” (like “May Day” in Europe, less the overt Marxism). Traffic is light, today; but the din of half-a-dozen “home improvement projects” instead fills the air, and a ghetto-blaster has now cut in. Soon the annual airshow will be resuming (supersonic jets passing low overhead).

For there are three things with which our contemporaries cannot cope, even for one minute: stillness, silence, and simplicity.

An answer, I suppose, is to move into a log cabin, so far away, that only the tax collector will find you. But that is to forget the bears, the mosquitoes and black flies, and the Canadian winter. Alternatively, there may be an unoccupied atoll in French Polynesia.

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.”

That, I suppose, would be God’s merry greeting to us on Labour Day — the ancient, repeating message, that there is no way back to the garden, of Eden, or of childhood; that the arrow leads only forward, through death. The forms of loss are progressive, cumulative, and finally, comprehensive.

“Loss is given us, and we take it.” (Sutherland, again.)

Notwithstanding, one is reminded — especially on Labour Day, for some reason — that most of our work is counter-productive. Most of what I hear clamouring around me goes only towards making the world noisier, more perplexing, and more vile. It is thanks, I suppose, to our need for labour-saving devices, that we are caught in an unprecedented course de rat.

On leadership

To the surprise of many Christians, Christ turns out not to be the sort of leader who promises stuff for nothing. He is not a politician looking for votes, who will deliver what the people want, on pizza trays. (In baskets, once, but that was an unusual case.) He says uncomfortable things to His supporters, such as, “Shape up.” He says this especially when He gets them alone; but does not hesitate with crowds, either. The “empathy” is there — or rather an unearthly, almost inapproachable kindliness, which is not as advertised in the brochures. He is more like a Marine commandant, than a grief counsellor; He does not seem to hear our excuses.

(“Rise, let us be on our way.”)

He sends us into battle, and not against a pretend Enemy. And did you know that the Saints who truly love Him, cuss at Him sometimes?

An earlier Mother Teresa — of Avila, not Calcutta — was capable of repeating the old mediaeval saw: “When I see how you treat your friends, Lord Jesus, I don’t wonder that you have so few.”

The Mother Teresa who will be canonized tomorrow (a little too soon after death, in my view) was, in my own brief sight of her, not only physically small and wiry, but tough as nails. She was a school marm, on top of her other virtues; she had been principal of St Mary’s convent school, in Calcutta — which is why she got respect even from such as Indira Gandhi (who attended St Mary’s convent school, in Allahabad). She was officer-class: could command obedience. I interviewed once Sister Nirmala, her successor (who died last year, age eighty-one). She assured me that our twentieth-century Saint Teresa was no putz. Her nuns had to deal with lepers, with the dying, with abandoned babies, and hard-case orphaned kids. This is entirely unlike a vacation.

To this day, and even round the corner in Parkdale here (for I’m three blocks away from the local Missionaries of Charity franchise), many of their customers are charmless. Why, just this morning I was looking at one. Not the sort of person with whom I should like to share a flat.

Teresa’s love was of the Christian kind, which is to say: burning. There were eyes and — sometimes, not always — a smile that could put you on your knees. She was infallibly polite, I should mention; but I would not have called her a “nice” person.

One of her nuns once fetched me a glass of water. I feel as though I were still sipping it.

My favourite, of all her wonderful sayings, is: “I wouldn’t touch a leper for a million dollars!” (This is an American translation; originally she had indicated, “a thousand pounds.”) Said, with almost the flippancy of a Valley Girl. This caught one’s attention admirably. And with perfect, Bengali comic timing she would add, “I only cure him for the love of God.”

A minor observation, to be sure, but I think this is also worth mentioning: that she had, for some occasions, a “wicked” sense of humour. She was thoroughly equipped, to stay sane. Feet on the ground; no floating angel. Even though she was very light. Not an inch over five feet; thin, and somewhat crook’d in old age, for if she had wings, they weighed upon her.

(And by the way, she was aggressively “pro-life.”)

We perhaps underestimate the need for sanity in our leaders. Most of those we select appear to be not only humourless, but mad. This is not surprising. For the successful politician, in a progressive democracy, makes his living as a salesman, by flattering people. If he’s very good at it, he may go to the top. (Ability and experience are unnecessary.) The people must be flattered; they must never be told the truth about themselves. Especially while they are waiting for their pizza.

Perhaps it is the effort to sustain the lies that uncouples them from the golden chariot; leaves them running to keep up; desperately pounding. (“Don’t hop on the Great Chariot,” sage Confucius told us in his Book of Songs, “you will only be covered with dust.”) Finally they collapse in uncomprehending exhaustion, gasping for oxygen as the political lifeguards carry them away. Being a Saint can be quite hard work; but being a fraud is probably harder.

(“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”)

Nobody elected Mother Teresa. The only permission she got was from her (male) superiors. Having got this permission, she then went, precisely where the Spirit led her: from the modest office in her nice clean school into the darkest, dankest slum.

We do not need any more politicians. Every one of them fails. We need leaders, instead. It is more than that: we need real leaders, and the only reliable ones are sent by God.

(Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.)

Trump l’oeil

Really, I don’t care whom the Americans elect as their president — so long as it isn’t Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. From correspondence, I gather many of my USA readers feel the same. (Others are harder to follow, through the obscenities.) They won’t be voting, and refuse to be intimidated by the argument that if you are against one, then you are ipso facto promoting the other. It is possible to be opposed to both; and while there may be jurisdictions in this world wherein one is compelled to vote, even those must contend with spoilt ballots. To vote “tactically” is to enmesh oneself more threadily in the selection of poisons.

The worst argument I have found for supporting Trump, specifically, or any candidate in any election, is that he will provide “hope” for some downtrodden constituency. As I opine in my Thing column today (here), “I think Trump would do for unemployed, blue-collar American whites, what Obama has done for the ghetto blacks: make their position considerably worse, within a society more fatally divided.”

Liberal mass media (not only in USA) make me want to support Trump, and may well help him to the presidency. Were I his political adviser I would tell him to bait them remorselessly. Happily, I am not. The media smears and misrepresentations of that candidate; their suppression of news unfavourable to the other — are an open goad to an electorate ever more inclined to do the opposite of what the media tell them. But I do not think one ought to be goaded, one way or the other, by writers of so low a moral and intellectual height. We should try to ignore them, even though, like pornography, their “journalism” is everywhere in our faces.

Given a choice only between two evils, one may be obliged to prefer the lesser one. But here there is no compulsory choice. The idea that one must vote in a democratic election is like the idea that one must choose between flood and fire. (Of course, once the firemen arrive, you may have both.) One might choose instead to prepare for either, and endure what comes.

And besides, an extremely low turnout can serve as an electoral statement.

Hope, in this world, is misplaced. The (attempted) appropriation of “hope” by politicians can leave only deep scars. The real choice is between religion and politics: ultimately between the teaching of Christ, and profane teaching. To be drawn into the political “narratives” is to be drawn out of the “narrative” for salvation. The good is available to direct, selfless human action; it cannot be delegated to class representatives, nor enforced through political coercion. Whether to Heaven or to Hell, no one goes involuntarily.

Thus, I do not advocate revolution, which can only be another political act. Instead I recommend an ever more conscious aloofness from political processes.

Verily: the exact opposite of what I am now reading from Rome, under the title, Humanam Progressionem.

We are all foreigners here; we are all the equivalent of “undocumented immigrants,” so far as this world goes. So far as we are Christians, we were baptized into another order. We must not allow ourselves to be tricked, by the flash hand of any politician, into pretending that we are citizens here.

The slime chronicles

We see that the Australians who specialize in spotting fossilized slime in early terrestrial rock have performed another coup in Greenland. One might need to be a palaeobotanist to fully appreciate a stromatolith bouquet, but there it is (see here), inscribed into the Isua greenstone belt through the hills behind Nuuk, where volcanic rocks of 3,700 million years’ antiquity are to be found (by radiometric dating). We have pushed back the frontier of life on Earth another 200 million years plus, from similar findings in Western Australia, according to pop-science media — moving ever closer to some imagined evolutionary interface between physics and biology.

Alternatively, we are looking at ancient mineral accretions from evaporating sea water; but there you go. It could be biotic slime, of the sort we can observe today, microbially cementing layers of sediment to construct stone pillows in exotic shapes. And it might do for an image of the primordial gunge which, ever since Darwin, has served for a quasi-explanation of how Evolution got started.

The Earth is hypothesized to be 4,600 million years old (give or take a few ten-millions). Our proto-planet was bombarded from space continuously, and is supposed to have collided with another spinning proto-planet about the size of Mars, creating the mess that was finally resolved as Earth-and-Moon. Tranquillity was not to be had for some time, according to this cosmology, and metamorphic processes within the planet continue to the present day. All trace of life prior to, say, 4,000 million years ago, will have been cooked beyond the possibility of recognition.

The find in Greenland pertains to a little patch exposed by melting snow, smaller than a football field, which hypothetically escaped the intense baking, and floated through all later geological subductions. Well spotted, indeed!

A human body contains many trillion (millions of millions) of fairly cooperative living cells. Each of these cells contains a few million protein-coding genes. The microbial life imputed in this case is simpler, to be sure, but still incredibly complex. The degree of this complexity is under-appreciated.

We are often told that we share 98 percent of our genes with monkeys; but did gentle reader know that we also share around 60 percent with their bananas? I mention this otherwise pointless little fact, and compound it with the observation that genes can express themselves in myriad ways, to suggest the amount of choreography required to get anything reproductively genetic. As Nutman et al. acknowledge in their Nature piece, the ancestral slime imputed to their Greenland stone would already need to have been so biologically sophisticated as to require a very long previous evolutionary process.

Alternatively: the metamorphoses can happen rather quickly. This would be consistent with the entire known fossil record, in which we nowhere find creatures that are awkward. The closer we can investigate any one, the more we find it beautifully adapted to its spatial and temporal niche — coming into the geological record as a distinct item for aesthetic contemplation, and then making off; each with its entrance and its exit, from the cosmic dance. Here is its curtsy, there is its bow.

It was an Australian — a certain Lance Endersby from Hobart, Tasmania — who first introduced me to the powers of a microscope, and the thrill of examining smears of slime from the pond in his tropical (Bangkok) garden, whenas I and his two sons were wee boys. I saw things there, on the microscope slides, that blew my little head clean away, and I cannot say it has since had a chance to reassemble.

Later, I encountered this passage from Isaiah:

For thus saith the Lord that created the Heavens,
God himself that formed the Earth,
And made it, the very maker thereof.
He did not create it in vain:
He formed it to be inhabited!

Swimwear issue

It is well that I am not the editor of Sports Illustrated; for were I so, I might commission a special burqini swimwear issue, just to provoke … everybody. All my lithe supermodels would be wearing burqini and veilkini variants, some with Marianne liberty caps and so forth. In the shoots, I would have them all posed on beaches surrounded by French policemen in their various uniforms, striking extravagant dance poses. There’d be a dwarf traffic cop in the traditional Paris “aubergine” raincoat, who’d turn up in set after set, blowing on a whistle. Perhaps one model in a wetsuit, with oxygen tanks, made to resemble a suicide vest; and other subtle topical allusions. In the background there’d be men and women in Edwardian beach attire, of extreme modesty, expressing shock. An old bathing machine would be lying on its side, with a sea turtle crawling out, mounted by an avatar of Vishnu, to extend the multicultural range.

Of course, I wouldn’t last long at “SI” — the only question, whether I’d be fired or assassinated first. But in the interim I might have the pleasure of being denounced by world leaders, and getting the company account banned by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, &c. With luck, an outrageously goading defence, and the help of Drudge and Breitbart, I might be able to stretch my fifteen minutes of infamy to twenty or twenty-five.

The intention would be to provoke laughter, at levels of absurdity now many layers deep. But we stepped beyond parody and satire, when four cops by the Promenade des Anglais in Nice were photographed ordering a Muslim woman to strip down, out of respect for “good morals and secularism” — while the nearly-naked on the beach around brayed at the woman, and her little daughter wept. Mayors have banned burqinis along the Riviera and around Corsica this summer. Most of these mayors are socialists. The costume itself was designed in Australia. It was first banned on beaches in Morocco.

Layers and layers, I say.

Yes, it is bad form to provoke people. I have this on the authority of Il Galateo, greatest of Italian renaissance courtesy manuals; better even than the short treatise on Manners presented to my paternal grandmother by Canadian immigration authorities in anno 1913. She had arrived at Quebec from Devonshire, with a French surname, and so must have been suspected of harbouring barbarous traits; our officials were more pro-active in those days. By the ’twenties, grandma was wearing a swimsuit that exposed not only her ankles but the calves, almost to the knees. Like any girl raised by (Anglican) nuns, she could be a little wild, once untended. But with marriage she settled nicely, and from what I can make of the family pictures, was never seen in a swimsuit again.

If provocation by ostentatious Muslim dress is the issue, I have seen much better in the Robarts Library. Perhaps I should report it, and demand that our local constabulary send in the clowns.

The common man

The usual way to remove inferior races from public spaces is to price them out. Municipal and regional governments are the guiding hand, through their planning departments. The “gentrification” process is done overtly through tight by-laws, licencing, and commercial regulation, all arranged on the Clintonian principle of “pay to play.” This makes the respectable zones too expensive for the lesser breeds, and assists in the development of their underclass-consciousness.

On the other side, more subtly at first, it is done by such as public housing projects, which remove the poor to a greater distance from respectable neighbourhoods, and confine them in camps, where their criminality and poor table manners can be offensive only to themselves. They become, by increments, wards of the state — and may be easily manipulated to provide voting blocks for the “progressive” parties, on whom they now depend for their rent, food stamps, and modest cash doles.

Compulsory attendance in state schools seals the bargain, by which the young of the underclass species are indoctrinated and trained to know their place in the social and political order. They can see that they are victims of “discrimination”; their resentments can be shaped in the interest of the governing liberal elites, and directed instead at people who have no idea what they are yammering and rioting about.

Who do not see that the poor have been “unpersoned.” And that, having little to lose, they are now playing the unpersonable part.

The superior races principally benefit from this system of apartheid, in which the unwashed are kept out of view, except through the selective camera angles of the media voyeurs. Without this isolation, the liberals’ smugness would be hard to maintain, and their commitment to various hygienic and environmental causes would suffer. They, for their part, are taught in their much better appointed government schools that the welfare-state redistribution of income exists to promote “equality”; when in fact it exists to promote the division of society into manageable cells, walled both visibly and invisibly to prevent the respective inmates from mixing and meeting. Now, even if they see, they cannot smell each other.

*

Years ago (about seventeen of them), when I was embedded as a journalist in Washington, DC (for the Clinton impeachment stake-out), I was curious to observe the psychology of “white liberals” in their most native home town. Having contacts in Georgetown, and access by journalistic credentials to the upscale, I could gawp at close range; yet I also wished to maintain some aloofness. (A journalist, to my eccentric mind, should neither fear nor favour the elect.)

I have always preferred to stay in fairly cheap, “local” hotels, and insisted upon it in this case, notwithstanding my media bosses kept assuring me that I need not be such a “cheap date.” (Newspapers still had money then.) The hotel I chose was the Harrington. For many months it was my base. I prefer such places because they are full of what I shall call, obnoxiously, “real people” — guests paying their own bills, as opposed to those on government or corporate expense accounts, accustomed to various luxuries, in social isolation.

Staying there put me in touch, instead, with the lower middle classes, constantly arriving from the “flyover” country. These were the ultimate Washington outsiders: mostly young, worker-bee types from states like Missouri, Nebraska, non-Chicago Illinois — with children in tow — visiting their national capital on money they had saved, to show the kids a heritage, in which they took a naïve and often beautiful pride. They had no prejudices, which I could discern; they were themselves aloof from Washington expectations. I noticed that their children were better behaved than either the spoilt, or the depraved of the city; that they were, in the main, respectful and orderly, and often wide-eyed. Too, especially on Sunday mornings, I noticed that all these people were Christian, of one flavour or another. They came from an America that is a “time capsule” to the urban and urbane.

I mention them because I am trying to avoid the notion that there are only two classes. My point is about a complex system of apartheid imposed through social engineering, and for which the worker-bees of the outback pose a constantly diminishing threat; for America is ever more urbanized. It was not anyway in their repertoire to make demands, to express group “rights.” These people were apolitical, “normal”: I loved their ease and their laughter, their comfort in their own skins (some dark, some light).

Too, I should make clear I use the word “race” in the old cultural sense, quite distinct from “colour.” (Like this gentleman, here.) There are white and brown and other-coloured underclasses, and the monied white disdain for “white trash” is what makes their unspoken views on the other colours sustainable to themselves. They take their caste privileges as a part of nature; their claim to liberality goes with their station.

They imagine the “white trash” are uniquely “racist.” Yet they are far from colour-blind themselves, and I was several times struck by warnings from nice liberal people not to venture east of an imaginary boundary in DC, to where I might be, as a white man, in danger for my life. It was like being told not to enter the cages of wild zoo animals; or if compelled to do so, to wear the prophylactic, painted, “I’m tolerant” white-liberal smile, and avoid any movement that might trigger an attack. (Whereas, when I went east without the uptight, condescending smile, I was received quite warmly.)

Nor would I wish to be sociological; for statistical sociology is the tool of the social engineers, for whom men come in sets with numbers. What interests me is instead the apartheid policy at the heart of the welfare state: the policy of arranging its supporters into a patchwork of “gated communities,” so that each may be insulated from troubling contact with the others, and the political “sales messages” can be tailored to the “demographics,” one set at a time.

Micromanagement requires filing of this sort. A term such as “the common man” is instinctively taken as a reference to a certain class of people. The specific group depends on the context: each to be handled in a particular way.

Whereas, the basic scheme of Christianity is to see through race, colour, stratification — to look upon all as sinners, yet each as made in the image of God. The “common” in the common man is what we have in common, not what distinguishes us from the members of another human class. It embraces all causes, whether lost or found.

*

Lately, I have been mightily irritated by the politically-correct campaign to permanently banish the old Confederate flag, and all music associated with the Southern cause, or any symbol that it once existed, before it was comprehensively defeated a century-and-a-half ago. Memorials of Robert E. Lee are being treated as memorials of Adolf Q. Hitler.

It strikes me that even under the old lamentable cotton-plantation slave system of the South, people mixed and got to smell one another — rich and poor, black and white, genteel and grotesque. That, the most forgotten slogan of the Dixie Land was her war cry: “Down with the Eagle, and up with the Cross!” That, it is the Cross of Saint Andrew astride the old Confederate flag that is most galling to the hyper-secular, liberal mind. That, the greatest triumph of the Union propaganda was to tar all those flag-bearers in the way our contemporary media demean all dissenters from the current party line as “racists,” “sexists,” “phobes,” and nothing more. That, the principal crime of the South was to stand by the wording of the U.S. Constitution, and from the beginning, to get in the way of a grand national scheme for social engineering, which triumphed with Lincoln (though hardly a liberal by the standards of today). That, in the Southern view, the eagle swooped down on them, with claws.

Something similar is now happening in the division of “Red States” and “Blue”: in an America from which the Christian conception of the “common man” is being systematically expunged. All who resist the categories to which they have been assigned are instinctively rebelling; “victim” and “oppressor” alike. This is what “common men” will do, when tarred and pressed, often without fully understanding why they rebel. They remember, however obliquely, whose sons and daughters they are. That, no matter how low in social station, they are Christ’s, and not the segregated chattels of some malicious and incompetent — and intentionally divisive — Washington Nanny.

The recovery of USA, and more largely, the recovery of Christendom, turns on the recovery of this conception of the “common man” — as Man, not as member of a client group. This has nought to do with “equality,” for it is none of a government’s business to help one group get even with another. Rather it is to serve man as man. This is a matter that goes deeper even than slavery, as Saint Paul explained. It is an unarguable, even mystical point. Where that conception survives, of the common in man, Christendom persists, and can potentially flourish.

Yes: that old Christendom, that Cross, which appeals to no class, no race, no colour, no nation, but to men of goodwill, wherever they may be found. It was the Land where I was born in, and I’ll took my stand.

(Roll the credits.)

On discernment

True, I am a simpleton, with a weak hold on the English language (and yet weaker on any other). My difficulties begin with basic vocabulary. There are words that pass over my head, not as the baptismal dove, but like some poorly-aimed vegetable matter. Even if it splatter me — as for instance let us take the word “discernment” — it leaves little beyond a desire to wash.

I can, for instance, discern the colour blue from the colour red; or the direction up from the direction down, given planetary gravity. I can do singulars and plurals. I am also good on telling left from right, though not always at judging if the wind is quite southerly. Hawks and handsaws seem distinct, at close range.

This morning I discerned a crow, atop an apartment elevator shaft, two blocks away. This was because it was saying, “Caw, caw.” And, “caw.” Too, it was coal black, and when viewed from my balconata, through my 7×50 binoculars, had a distinctly crow-like shape and profile. Might it instead have been a raven? On mature reflection, I decided, no. It had not the size or shagginess for that. The beak was slimmer, and it lacked the wedge tail. Moreover it was pacing, just like a crow.

Quite frankly, I would rather have seen a raven, but had to admit (if only to myself) that “the facts is the facts.” Even more, I would have liked to see a hummingbird, or a peacock. Or best of all, a pterodactyl. But no luck. On the other hand, I thought, “A crow beats yet another pigeon.”

But let us consider instead my hero, Saint Philip Neri. He was renowned for “the discernment of spirits.” This was within his “charisma,” or gift. As any art, it was honed in study and practice. Saint Philip was an inveterate reader, especially of “books beginning with the letter S” (i.e. those about saints). He had the faculty for giving people his full attention. He had the task of the direction of souls, beginning with his own. I can easily believe that, had he to deal with a penitent like me, he could teach me things about myself that I had not previously known.

Or Saint Francis of Sales; or others of the more extraordinary spiritual directors in history: who had that praeternatural ability to “discern” what, in Christian terms, might be described as the configuration of good and evil spirits. I am thinking here especially of Christian psychology prior to the irruption of psycho-analysis and other pop-science frauds; back when, for instance, the voices in your head might be deemed to originate elsewhere; and the soul might be “discerned” to be struggling with principalities and powers; or the man to have admitted the wrong sort of spirits into his confidence.

Which are the spirits that flatter, or torment? And which are the ones that reason? It is well if the penitent can tell these apart.

From my cruelly limited understanding of the Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, it seems to me he is the enemy of illusions. But here some brief attention is required, for these are hardly the sort of illusions our contemporaries might identify, about the very existence of good and bad angels. Ignatius does not doubt they are there. Rather he is conveying, in a carefully structured, precise, and I would almost say “scientific” way, a key to illusions about one’s self, and about one’s disposition towards the good and bad angels. He offers clear and distinct ideas. Verily: the Exercises are useful, for the procedures of spiritual surgery, because they are incredibly sharp.

We must learn, or if you will, discern, that joy has its entry through conscience, and not through the imagination. It is a little paradox that we, as moderns, are ill-equipped to discern. We would rather seek paradise in all the wrong places.

Such as, to give but three examples: sex, and drugs, and rock-and-roll. We are easily convinced that these will make us happy, and that restraint will only make us sad. And surely God wants us to be happy. So He is to blame if they make us sad. How many people I have met, who blame God for the consequences of their own actions. Could there be something they have not discerned?

Yes: the distinction between good and bad angels. For the former tell the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it, and they intend our happiness. But the latter tell us lies, and do not intend our happiness. That is why it is so important, why it is even in one’s personal interest, to distinguish the former from the latter.

Since we are all moderns, in this cyberspace at present, I should mention that while there are some who deny, everyone believes in angels. This much is innate. Their presence is acknowledged in every culture, and I will not hear any nonsense to the contrary. Only a bad angel could tell you that angels do not actually exist; and only a fool will believe him. Discernment might begin in suspecting that we are being had on, by this bad angel.

But how much worse if one were being had on by a priest. And worse still, by one who thinks he is discerning “grey areas” between good and evil; who encourages us to think there could be good mixed in certain evils, and evils mixed in certain goods. As opposed to helping us clarify the one from the other, in all things. To his wide experience with souls, we appeal for help. How to extricate oneself from an evil, without sacrificing the adjoining good? That is his job, on assignment from our Master — quite broadly, the cure of souls.

Sometimes it is complicated. Never is it mush.

Christ did not propose any “reasonable middle way” between good and evil; between the truth and the lie. He was totally partisan, and downright confrontational. (Oh please, gently doubtful reader: go read the Gospels for yourself.)

I think we are dealing with a new concept or definition of “discernment”; and therein lies my confusion. The idea that there are, and I quote, “overly clear and distinct ideas,” has my little head spinning. Even though raised by non-practising post-Christians, I was never fed sludge like that. I would not have thought that moral distinctions could be made clear enough. If an angel told me to avoid clarity, I would jot down his rank and badge number. The one who suggested that my sins might be “okay,” in the murky context of my previous mortal sinning — that I was now “good to go” for Communion, in that execrable state — well, what can I say?

“Bad angel!”

He is setting me up. He is feeding me the exact opposite of mercy.

Now, perhaps I would continue to sin, because, after all, I am a bad person. But knowing sin is sin is a start. Already one has some small distance from it. To be told, rather, that it is not crisp objective sin — to be douched, rather, in some grey lagoon — cannot be helpful. It leaves one with no prospect of ever being clean. It does not turn the mind towards holiness, purity, sanctity; rather, towards the contemplation of, “What can I get away with?”

A crow is a crow is a crow. That, I affirm, is the beginning of wisdom. There is more to know, but we can build on that.

The ground beneath her feet

The epicentre of the Italian earthquake was by Nursia (Norcia in current Italian), birthplace of Saint Benedict, and his twin sister, Saint Scholastica, in the year 480. An oratory was built over the Roman foundations of their family home, for the pilgrims who came to pray with the founder of Western monasticism. Then, by the tenth century, it had become a thriving monastery itself. Fortified: for from the ninth century, Saracen invaders had found their way up the hills to it, in raids and spoliations. (Through four centuries before the Crusades, southern Europe was under constant Muslim attack, slaughter and pillage; then sporadically through seven centuries after.)

More recently, a cosmic artillery has been bearing down. The Umbrian quake of 1997 was centred a little to the north-west; that which levelled much of L’Aquila in 2009 a little to the south-east; yesterday’s hit was a bullseye. Tens of thousands are once again homeless in the region; less a few hundred who are dead. The Monastero di San Benedetto di Norcia took quite a shaking, through terrifying shock and aftershocks; plaster down and much broken glass. But not nearly as much damage as in the surrounding mountain hamlets and small towns.

(Here is a report from an old Toronto friend who lives there now.)

The Apennine range is itself the product of collisions and subductions. The continental plates of Africa and Europe are contending; faults run down the whole spine of Italy. Earthquakes are common in the mountains, and though painful, are no surprise. Nursia has experienced at least three hundred since Benedict’s time, including several much worse than the latest. It sits right over the “Norcian Fault System,” after all. The quake of 14th January 1703, for instance, was several times harder; opening chasms in the earth, and toppling statuary far away in Rome.

Lives and property are always at risk, as I mentioned a couple of posts back. Let us pray for the dead, and for the survivors, and help them pick up the pieces if we can.

Sometimes ancient monuments are cracked, though usually they are restorable. The frustration of the current Nursian monks — mostly traditionalist Americans who came in the year 2000 to resume its Benedictine mission — can be imagined. (Each year they provide hospitality for about fifty thousand pilgrims; they also brew a magnificent beer.) They have just watched sixteen years of their own heroic restoration efforts, dissolve in less than a minute. But the structural members were soundly laid. The old stone rocks with the waves, the great timbers creak and flex. But then they return to their original settings.

One might call this the editing function of earthquakes. The ancient and mediaeval masonry stands, as it has done through the previous earthquakes. More recent buildings collapse on their inhabitants. The former were raised up with humble prayer and hard-won experience; with native materials and by rule of thumb. The most recent were quickly jerry-built, in the cocky self-confidence of credentialled engineers, doing cost/benefit on money alone. Their pride is in themselves; the mediaeval architects, often anonymous, mortared their pride into their buildings. Yet some of the modern innovations are unquestionably improvements. (Perhaps one in a thousand.)

A comparison could be made with the works of Vatican II, or more precisely, with pre- and post-conciliar innovations which, by a little shaking, come down on the orphaned Catholic faithful, and drive them into the secular streets. Whereas, that part of the Church built solidly upon the Old Mass, and the words of Christ as spoken, remains standing, even by the epicentre of the “reforms.” She will need some repairs; she always needs repairs; but she will not need to be cleared by the bulldozers. Only the “modernist” part of our Church becomes uninhabitable.

*

An Anglican priest, of beloved memory — a man of genuine, simple faith, though of considerable learning — told me what follows, back in the ’eighties. That was when his denomination (and mine, at the time) was busily ordaining its first priestesses. He said that while he was personally opposed to the innovation, “We must wait and see how it works out.”

He said, “In a hundred years, we will still have women singing in the sanctuary, or else we will not. Over time, God will show us whether we have made a mistake. …

“Yes, God will decide,” he added, after a moment of reflection, and with a touch of horror, “if there will still be an Anglican communion in a hundred years.”

And in a hundred years, we will also learn if the ambitious contemporary innovations in our own Roman communion will be remembered, as anything more than a night fever, or very bad dream.

For the truth is, except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.

Positive reinforcement

“The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed.”

I pick up such delightful phrases in my (entirely unnecessary) morning ramble through the news on the Internet. This one had me giggling, for, in addition to applying to the test flight of a commercial blimp — which nose-dived upon approaching the ground — it seemed to explain everything else.

Other items included the information that the driver of a Great Western train that derailed while pulling into Paddington station, after passing through a double red light, thus crippling rail service across much of England for a few days in June, was in the sixteenth hour of a Ramadan fast.

“The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed.”

Or news that our Canadian RCMP (“the Mounties”) will allow female officers to wear hijabs. This adventure began a quarter-century ago with Sikh turbans; but where will it end? What, for instance, will be the Mounties’ response to transgender requests? Especially when these cross-pollinate with their multicultural agenda?

“The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed.”

Or, the young backpacker in a Queensland hostel whose journey ended when she was stabbed to death by a gentleman from France shouting, “Allahu akhbar!” This in front of thirty witnesses, including a man and a dog who tried to intervene. (Both are in critical condition.) The grief machine has been cranked back up in the tabloids, with social media excerpts from the much happier former life of the victim — a popular, and quite photogenic, 21-year-old from Derbyshire.

“We don’t have a motive yet,” said the police spokesman.

Alternatively, he could have said: “The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed.”

Mere chance, of course, that the next three items to catch my attention after the dirigible prang happened to involve members of the same, formerly non-Western religion. I’m sure Catholics crash trains during Lent, stab strangers while reciting their Credo, and should be allowed to wear mantillas while serving in the Mounties. And it is probably the heavily pro-Catholic bias of the media that keeps such stories out of view.

“Whatever,” as we say today, whenever required to make choices. Or since that expression is getting tired, I propose to replace it with:

“The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed.”

Movers versus Shakers

There is no safe place on earth, and as we have become aware through developments in astronomy, the planet itself is exposed to celestial flotsam such as asteroids, and effluvia from decaying stars, including any in our near vicinity that may happen to go supernova.

Verily, I am reminded in my walks through the Greater Parkdale Area, that modern technical contraptions (such as these fiendish powered wheelchairs in which the elderly now buzz themselves about) are not only wasteful, intrusive, and noisome by design, but characteristically lethal.

Within my ivory tower, an insurance adjustor could surely spot any number of palpable threats, not restricted to spontaneous combustion; and with the annual Lakefront airshow approaching I am reminded that, at any moment, the pilot of a low-flying jet, executing a sharp turn over Humber Bay, might succumb to G-forces and take out the whole building. (Should this Idleblog disappear during the first weekend in September, gentle reader may assume the worst.)

Having spent some part of the summer attending funerals, and another part reading accounts of defunct, pre-Christian civilizations, I am put in poignant recollection of the span of human life. Notwithstanding, there are things that survive us — ruins, chiefly; but also the odd robust child. And so it is, that until our thoughts turn or are turned definitively upward, we hope to preserve a few valuables for the use and instruction of generations to come.

*

From an early age, I was curious about the Shakers: the extraordinary beauty of everything they made, in comparison to our contemporary vileness. This strange, nearly lunatic sect, believing the end of the world to be nigh, retired to attractive rural settings in Appalachia and beyond, to live apart from the concupiscent worldlings. They legislated celibacy for their members, and interpreted the range of domestic tasks as acts of constant prayer. (“Hands to work, hearts to God.”) They celebrated the Presence in otherworldly line-dancing, the sexes facing in chaste rows. Indeed, that is how they came by the name, “Shakers.”

They had, incidentally, like mediaeval Catholics (whom they resembled in other subtle ways), no particular objection to mechanical implements or labour-saving contrivances, provided that they did not pollute, made no unpleasant sound, and were not otherwise ostentatious or obnoxious. They generated electricity; did admirable plumbing; delighted in modest farm machines. Most of their inventions, however, reflect a Zen-like simplicity and concentration of mind: spring clothes-pins, for instance, and circular saw blades, and seed envelopes, and the flat-edged broom. They took out an impressive number of remunerative patents — for neither Jews nor Christians were ever required by their religion to behave as freierim (“suckers”). And while they never took a penny from guvmint, they faithfully paid their taxes, only asking to be excused from killing the guvmint’s enemies during the U.S. Civil War.

Children, when orphans like themselves, they gladly took in and schooled; trade they conducted with the world through their elders; but more than this they would not exchange. Tourists they turned away; but welcomed the sceptical, investigators, pilgrims. Their shockingly spare furniture, and buildings, were made to the highest achievable standards of hand-craftsmanship, each object designed “to last a thousand years.” Anything sub-standard was immediately broken up.

I think God used them — to show us that, even in America, and in the labour of everyday life, holiness is possible. Or shall we say, especially in America, and even in the denominational confusion that came out of the squalour of the Reformation.

Except the settlement at Sabbathday Lake in Maine (which, I have heard, is growing again), the Shakers have died out. But they did hang in for a couple of centuries, and their goods remain to taunt us in our world of wide-screens and candy wrappers.

This instinct to build, exactly, for permanence — even in the face of our bodily extinction, and the inevitable destruction of all human works — is what I shall recommend this morning. It is the best, or most practical way to slow our frenetic rat races, and put us back into fellowship with the men and women of all places and times.

Make everything better than it needs to be made; refuse to accept inferior merchandise; smash unworthy possessions; do everything in the sight of Eternity. Then leave the products of our labour to speak, when we ourselves have become silent; to speak not for us, but for Him who inspired.

As the architect of Seville told his patron: “We will build such and so great a Cathedral that those who look on it will think that we were mad.”

Unless they, too, catch the hint: to embrace what is good, to reject what is evil.

Beyond ornithology

There are, so far as I can count, six kinds of flying creatures about this earth: birds, bats, aeroplanes, helicopters, flies, and pterodactyls. There are many species within each of these orders, and I have simplified this morning’s Idlepost by excluding things that merely float upon the breeze, such as smoke and squirrels.

Indeed, my thoughts in the wee hours of this morning are focused upon pterodactyls, the more interesting to me because I have never seen a live one. Or rather, I don’t think I have. Apparently, no one else claims to have spotted one living, either, but as the pop science logicians insist, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are large areas of the planet I have not personally explored, and moreover, I may have seen one perched on a wire along Queen Street the other evening, when I was returning from the pub. Hard to tell in the poor lighting: it may instead have been a large, dark green, plastic garbage bag, which I would have to class among the gliders.

According to some authorities, the pterodactyls (or “pterosaurs” as they now call them, in their mania for inclusivity), are extinct. But as a reader of BBC Nature I am not so easy to fool. Lots of species, including those presumed extinct, are being photographed these days — even faster than the ecological types can put them on their “endangered” lists.

A better theory, or an equally plausible, is they fly so high that we cannot see them; live on ozone as whales on krill; and dive, when moved to do so, at lightning speed. This would account for the fact that their remains are often found deeply buried in the soil.

Ovid is my authority on questions of evolution. Lucretius gives some good pointers, too; but the Metamorphoses are specifically devoted to the topic, and would be much better appreciated today, if people were properly educated. Ovid’s accounts of the origins of species (he does not make Darwin’s mistake of attributing all to the same causes) includes numerous transformations into winged beings, by condensation, heat, fire, and liquefaction.

Scholars have identified the creatures that sprang from the smoke and ashes of Memnon’s funeral pyre (the memnonides of book XIII) with ruffs and reeves. But the exquisite description (around line 600) of the condensing bubbly lightness in thin, seemingly membranous wings, of whirring pinions and the ascending clamour, might easily apply instead to pterodactyls.

There are many other places where pterodactyls may have been indicated, thanks to the intervention of the dawn goddess, Eos — by Astraeus, mother of the winds and the stars — or some other superlunary mediator; and the general account of the formation of the sky in the De Rerum Natura, from the lighter particles of fire and air, supplies the necessary connectives. For creatures of the sky must partake of the empyrean; are not cloddish and weighted like Icarus and ourselves.

Now, gentle reader may propose problems of chronology, in the modern way. But I do not see that these should be allowed to vex us, in our metamorphic studies. Time, for us, as for all animals once hatched into this world, is the strait arrow; but in the mysterious processes of Creation, there are wormholes everywhere.

Even that atheist, Charles Lyell, author of what he imagined to be The Principles of Geology (1830), assumed that the dinosaurs would return, once climatic conditions became favourable — the iguanodon to the woods, the icthyosaur to the seas, and “the pterodactyle to flit again through the umbrageous groves of tree-ferns” (page 123 in the old two-volume edition). And what atheist and evolutionist would dare to clash with the authority of Lyell, who replaced Genesis in the Darwinian scheme?

Of course the pterodactyls will return. It is only a question of where they are hiding.

Eorum culpa

“O God, I give thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this Republican.”

The passage is a slight update by Timothy Williams at Crisis (here), on the original in Saint Luke. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is among the more biting of Christ’s satires, and an anticipation of what our contemporary Church and her leaders, from popes down, would keep doing. That is, issuing apologies for someone else. Aren’t we Goody Two-Shoes?

As those who have received elementary Christian instruction ought to know, other people’s sins are not our business. We have enough sins of our own to confess, and have performed enough injustices to keep all of our enemies smirking and happy. Trying to apologize for something that e.g. may or may not have been done by our ecclesiastical forebears, one thousand years ago — or have been done by some other faction we frequently disown and despise — does not count for moral purity. Instead it is exemplary of hypocrisy and corruption.

And as Professor Williams, of Steubenville, propounds, the contrast with mediaeval practice is striking. It was typical of men, a thousand years ago, to apologize for their own failures; to look upon their own generation as fallen into filth; and often to compare their own behaviour — unfavourably — with that of their worst enemies.

They could also be ribald, and lively in many other ways. This was an important balancing feature: necessary, I think, to Catholic survival. Having found the mire, we should not sink in it. We need not take counsel of despair. We must maintain a sane appreciation for the fact that, “sin happens”; that it will continue to happen and that the Confessionals are there for a purpose — like shower stalls on the way into church.

If I am right (and I could be, sometimes), the tilt occurred in the Reformation. That is where I first find the fashion emerging, of unctuously apologizing for the other side. It seemed natural for rebels from the Church to distance themselves in this way, from their unworthy ancestors; for Church loyalists to apply the same unction to the rebels — in the course of their respective moral preenings. Though of course, there had been that previous “hermeneutic of rupture,” between East and West, with its legacy of Pharisaical expostulations.

Just yesterday I was saying (at the Thing, here) that it is amazing atheism can survive, in the face of modern scientific discoveries. Today I should like to add it is amazing that the most basic biblical, gospel, Christian principles can be overlooked. But let me not apologize for the people who do this. I do it myself; and ought to be chastised.

Here is where we insert the standard quotation from G. K. Chesterton — that eloquent spokesman for all Christian Dark Ages. To the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” he replied: “I am.”