Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

National Bigotry Day

Say “undocumented immigrants” often enough, and it will become a hate crime. This is the fate of most intended euphemisms; few benefit from repetition. The “owner” of the euphemism would have been better off with his original appellation; especially if he’d earned it — usually by playing too consistently to stereotype.

Call him a “deplorable,” however, and he’ll scrawl it on his banner. Both “Tories” and “Whigs” were named by their opponents, in honour of Gaelic highwaymen and horse thieves respectively, during Britain’s Inglorious Revolution. It backfired both ways. The most malign insults — those truly without affection or humour — often do so. They become funny simply because they are so vicious.

My favourite continues to be a term which, according to a story quite apocryphal (a “backronym” as we call it today), began with an instruction from the Viceroy. He wanted general staff to stop calling the natives rude names. He proposed, “Worthy Oriental Gentleman,” instead, as official nomenclature. Given the British genius for affixing racist monosyllables to the over-various peoples of the world, it was contracted to “Wog” right away.

I love “Frog,” “Spic,” “Kraut,” “Wop” — all, be it noted, for white people — and a few I won’t mention because the subjects might actually be defenceless. All these quick epithets could be used affectionately, and still can be, by friends and lovers. As recently as the Korean War, “Gooks” was added to the inventory — for the people soon wiping us out in trade competition.

The need to invent a racial slur for Belgians (“Waffles” can cover only half of them) was a common topic in the pubs of Kent, back when I was alive. Any old edition of Brewer’s Phrase and Fable will supply numerous options for Dutchmen. They were the prime movers for that Inglorious Revolution of 1688 (as the Frenchmen were for the Yankee one of 1776). Surely, in the view of any Loyalist, they had it coming.

Now, faced with a legitimate non-racial monosyllable, extension would be indicated. If one meant an actual amphibian frog, one could clarify by calling it “a Dutch nightingale.” Dutch auction (prices falling), Dutch gold (nasty zinc store tokens), Dutch convert (a noisy drunk), Dutch concert (a drunken brawl), Dutch courage (gin) — it’s all there in the old Brewer’s, “or I’m a Dutchman.”

Once, while delivering a disquisition on this topic, in a pub at Canterbury, a stranger listening from the bar introduced himself as a Hollandish person. He had been laughing; and joined us, in good English, for a more general discussion of abusive terms. This proved useful. You see, it is only because Englishmen speak no other language that they are unaware of the world’s terms for them.

Back when (in another century) I had become briefly engaged to a charming Chinese lady, owing to a linguistic misunderstanding, I was privileged to be taught the broad Swatow vocabulary for the round-eyed types. I could pronounce almost none of it (I’m no good with tones), but will affirm that the Chinamen are far ahead of us — each European nation identified with a particularly sordid disease, or traditionary demon. I’m sure it was affectionate in every case.

My mommy, when very young, had blazing red hair (to say nothing of the freckles), and was subject to bigoted attacks for this in a Cape Breton schoolyard. “Redhead, gingerbread, ten cents a loaf!” &c. She was instructed by her own mother to reply, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Hearing that, her next black-haired assailant beat her up.

I do not contend that racism is pretty; but it is colourful, and when banned for certain races (you can still call Anglos anything you want; they’re not allowed to hit back) a term will simply be euphemized, into something secretly more demeaning. Indeed, I like to cite racism as a universal thing; something that binds all men together.

We need a National Bigotry Day, in which for twenty-four hours we can all find relief from the Political Correctors. And laugh at each other, scoff taunt and mock, because (have you noticed?) all of us deserve it.

Manifesto of Faith

People — even bishops — sometimes do what is required of them, without having been ordered to do so by their immediate superiors. It is a rare event, but an inspiring one. Mostly it inspires loathing in their opponents. Such enterprise will be noticed by the boss; though as the average drudge in any corporation knows, or learns if he did not know already, promotion will not follow. There is a question of loyalties: whom do we serve? In my limited experience, the average boss understands only personal loyalty to himself. It is human to confuse the corporate interest with one’s own, especially when conflicts are not visible to subordinates. It is also unambiguously wrong.

When a boss myself (in small insignificant ventures), I became acquainted with the supposed virtue of “decisiveness.” Let us say I made a foolish mistake — the result of allowing my mouth to get slightly ahead of my intellect. (This can easily happen.) Now what do I do? Climb down, and be perceived as weak and indecisive? Or damn the torpedoes?

On the other hand I have served (briefly but memorably) bosses who were utterly sleazy and contemptible. Though I name no names.

A sleazy boss will look for more alternatives. For instance, disown the mistake. Claim to have been misunderstood, or misinterpreted. Balance each mistake with its opposite. Blame the innocent, and sack them. Or, do nothing and wait patiently for everyone to forget what you said or did. Later, fire anyone who remembers. I belonged to the climb-down school, which is perhaps why my career got nowhere; that, and making what I believed at the time to be hysterically funny jokes. For “leadership,” I was soon told, requires taking oneself seriously, and carefully guarding one’s amour-propre.

Let us place Robbie Burns here, in opposition to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The one wished we could “see ourselves as others see us”; the other preferred the “who cares?” of amour de soi. Christian writers reject both, and recommend trying to please God. Since God, having created the universe, cannot be so easy to impress, it is the least satisfying short-term option.

Gerhard Cardinal Müller, before being relieved of the office without warning or reason, was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was every inch a Ratzinger appointment: learned, solid in doctrine and faith, diligent, incorruptible. But not humourless, and hardly robotic.

The CDF was the very office to which Pope Bergoglio was bound to turn, when five urgent Dubia were hand-delivered to him, from Cardinals Burke, Brandmüller, Meisner, and Caffarra, on May 6th, 2017. By Catholic tradition, the pope was solemnly obliged to respond. Two of these men have since died (heartbroken, according to reports); all four were among widely admired stalwart defenders of Catholic orthodoxy, in vivid contrast to the pope’s inner circle of dubious friends. But Bergoglio was already in the habit of ignoring Müller — and said he’d never heard of the Dubia, until he saw them mentioned in a newspaper. (Behaviour I associate with low characters.)

The pope had been asked to clarify Roman doctrine, straightforwardly by Yes or No to each question, with precise qualifications if any, in light of numerous statements ranging from the absurd to the heretical that he had uttered, both formally (in e.g. Amoris Laetitia) and informally (in his frequent aeroplane media scrums), leaving a billion poorly-educated Catholics haplessly confused about what the Church is teaching, and has always taught.

God bless Cardinal Müller for the four pages of his Manifesto of Faith (English text here). He has given us the answers that a reckless and irresponsible pope owed to us: the Catholic answers, to which we as Catholics, and indeed all men have an absolute right. (Flaccid leftist tweets and posturings we can get from anywhere.)

Four pages take four minutes to read. Ten, perhaps, with a sip of tea and full attention.

Inside the whale

Often I am asked, “What would you do?” …

I think it is a fair question, for I was never in agreement with the late beloved curmudgeon, Auberon Waugh, who said the journalist’s job should be purely destructive. In this respect, I try to be impure, offering, for instance, frequent affirmations of Christian belief, to supplement my stock-in-trade of renouncing the Devil and all his works. Even on the plane of mundane existence, the occasional suggestion of what might make life more endurable should not be ruled out.

As a journalistic account is called “a story,” the journalist should stop to ask himself if what he is writing is a good story. Has he omitted useful literary devices, contradicted himself, skipped connectives and crucial details, or supplied some that were not strictly necessary and might be in blasphemously poor taste? Other questions to himself might have been overlooked, such as, “Will the reader be uplifted by this, or will he be dunked deeper in the contemporary slime?”

But Mr Waugh was right to hint that the journalist who proposes to solve the world’s problems is, at heart, a jackass. They cannot be solved. Sneering negativity makes more sense. My excursion in yesterday’s Idlepost into the cloud cuckooland of utopian ideals might be explained by the fact that I’m feverish at the moment.

A reader (no less than my Chief Texas Correspondent) wrote, “You seem to have been born in the wrong time.”

“So?” I replied, defensively. “Everyone makes a mistake now and then.”

An alternative explanation is that I am trying to show how we moderns are trapped in a blind alley of our own enlightened choice. We cannot make improvements in our lives, or win our freedom, by the methods that were devised to make improvements, and free us. And, we can’t get out of them, either. We are accroached progressives who have left ourselves only one path forward, and that leads into a brick wall. We can acknowledge only political solutions and … there are no political solutions. The only conceivable way out is backwards, but our car was designed to have no reverse. (Or brakes, or anything but an accelerator.)

Politics, as I like to say, is “the art of the impossible.” It is impossible even to imagine how, by a political process, any large modern nation state could devolve to the point where locals could have control of their own affairs. The vested interests for Large are too large. Big-league politicians, of any stripe, do not voluntarily part with their powers, whatever rhetorical roughage they may spew, and small interests will always be crushed or bought off — more often with lies than with money. This is why I concluded that with God all things are possible. They aren’t with men.

The limit of what we can do for ourselves through politics is seek ameliorations, none of which can possibly stick — unless something unforeseeable by any man happens.

Our foreseeable future is something like what “PRC” China is already achieving: using advanced surveillance technology to rank all citizens by obedience to the State’s commands, and arrest all those with failing grades. (Going offline and unplugging all appliances won’t hide you, as anyone with a techie son can learn; in our brave new world, even Jeff Bezos can be monitored.)

It is true, we still have some checks and balances in the West (semi-independent judiciary and the like), but note that they are all inherited from the distant past, and all are currently under unthinking attack from both Left and Right ends of the political spectrum. And while only one of those is demonstrably insane (guess which?) they routinely alternate in power.

Time, in my view, to revive the old-fashioned stratagem, for when you find yourself inside the belly of the beast. Complete passivity is not an option, so what you do is, pray.

The non-utopian Utopia

One slight change to this Idlepost: I was persuaded that I’d gone too easy on the Anabaptists. I’ve always had a soft spot for Mennonites, I admit.

*

Being a liberal in a Catholic country (Newman’s definition of a liberal will do) should be safe, legal, and rare. It is a condition that does not necessarily preclude salvation, though at its worst it may endanger others, and so some vigilance is needed, just as it is against corrupt priests. Men should be oriented to God, leaving to God his orientation towards men; a society in which men are constantly nattering at each other is unhealthy.

It must be free in some other than the current “liberal” and “democratic” usage, in which obsessive voting and campaigning is directed to the power of one interest over another. Far from seeking political power as the class of Catholic (i.e. “universal”) Christians over any other class, civil courts and legislature in a Catholic country must be restricted to tenets of justice that pertain to all men, qua men. A Catholic who breaks laws should be looked upon as “blindly” as a man of any other affiliation, so far as it is not a pretence to undermine the laws. From petty theft and cheating, to murder and abortion aforethought, no man charged should ever fear that judge and jury are predisposed against him. This is no easy task, but we should never stop trying.

Regardless of denomination, a man should, if he lives a reasonably honest life, have no fear of police. In a country where the Catholic principle of subsidiarity is properly observed, custom would reign at any local level. The beauty of custom, unlike written law, is that it grows organically by consensus over time; so that it includes even such arrangements as what is voted on, and what not. There may be ways of doing things in one parish, and perhaps other ways in the next; but until there is some conflict between them, or some grave allegation of misgovernment, no higher authority will be involved.

This was, to my mind, among the great principles overturned by the French Revolution. Overnight, some sixty thousand parishes in France — no two of which were governed quite the same — were redrawn as thirty-six thousand civil wards, to be governed identically by directives from Paris. The measure was so attractive to totalitarians, that the obscenity spread country to country, so that by now the contrary idea of municipal independence is inconceivable almost everywhere.

Many other traditions, parallel to that, were also overturned; centralization proved very convenient to administrators of the Industrial Revolution, too. Our challenge, as I often suggest, is to turn them back, and thereby reverse the effects of what is by now a long history of dirigisme.

I am aware that there have been events in history in which the Church, when in her unwanted position of civil power, has acted less than Christianly towards non-Catholics; and more when Christian majorities (whether Catholic or non-Catholic) have abused minorities — harmless Anabaptists for instance, minding their own business in their own estates. It is enough that their doctrinal errors be publicly explained and corrected; they need not be physically suppressed. But we are in no perfect world, and not all heretics are peaceful. The best we can do is resist excess, for without the freedom to protest, sans retribution, and the institutional means to address protest, insurrections will spawn. It is in the interest of the Church not only to present a clean operation, but to create and contribute to moral cleanliness at large. The Church must not seek to replace an over-centralized State that should never have existed. The “universal” power must be a spiritual, civilizing power, of God not of men.

While I could go on, sketching what is abstractly required in a Catholic country, gentle reader may be asking a practical question, i.e. “How do you propose to get from here to there?”

The answer is, I have no idea. But I affirm that, with God, all things are possible.

Hue & cry

There are such things as politics, even though I don’t like them. Yet we are involved whether we like them or not, if only to defend ourselves against those who (like Satan, for example) are playing politics in every watchful moment.

Venezuela is important, even to the English-speaking world, where opposition parties in both Britain (Labour) and the United States (Democrats) are proposing to replace the current “Brexitism” and “Trumpism,” respectively, with something like the Venezuelan revolution. They advocate appropriation from the rich, the regulation of everything that moves, and stomping the ideological jackboot in every uncooperative face.

Polls I’ve seen present their winning case. About four in five Americans, and probably more in other countries, say “soak the rich.” The overwhelming majority earn enough to get by, and the minority of incapables are over-served with public assistance programmes. Debt is a critical problem, both privately, and publicly, where debt service is now the largest category of spending in most national budgets, and growing remorselessly. But the public have no interest in bookkeeping — the Millennial Generation leaves counting to computers — and are quickly bored with policy prescriptions unless there is something advertised for them. Most would now prefer bill-free medicine; and the young want tuition-free education. Recklessly irresponsible “liberal” politicians are glad to promise such things, knowing that the media won’t ask hard questions, but are entirely focused on smearing their opponents.

The rich and visible have always been unpopular, and a target for malignant and stupid people. Humans being what they are, the hatred is often deserved. But the essentially criminal idea, that we could all be better off if we just took what belonged to those smarter or better connected than ourselves, and spread it around “democratically,” has been with us through all recorded ages.

Envy, rightly marked in Christendom as a grievous deadly sin, works with the mob, and owing to advances in technology a mob can now be formed electronically, on an unprecedented scale. I look to our mundane future with a mixture of pessimism and optimism. The pessimism is for what I can immediately foresee. The optimism is for what comes after.

For God made man with a heart that is also capable of good. This tends to emerge in the most trying circumstances. To the outrage of liberals and progressives, agencies as diverse as those of USA, of various countries in Latin America, and of Venezuelan refugees, have organized aid projects to bring food and medicine to those still imprisoned by the Caracas regime. They are meant to replace the hand-outs that Chavez and Maduro used to buy votes, but which are no longer available since they crashed the economy (recently among the wealthiest in this world, thanks to oil). Without weapons, it may be possible to bring down that regime, as it was a generation ago to bring down the Berlin Wall. I pray Godspeed to all those who work towards the destruction of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela.

But there is alas no reliable method on Earth by which Power can be held in check, once evil men have won an election. In a civilized polity, they would be compelled to balance each budget; to build reserves instead of debts; would be prevented by custom and constitutional instruments from engaging in extra-legal activities (i.e. those not directly sanctioned by specific legislative acts, nor administered transparently). By increments we have “progressed” beyond limits to statism understood in the past. (I have always opposed socialism, not because it is inefficient — though it leads invariably to farce — but because it is evil.)

Here nature is on our side, in the form of national catastrophes. Only after the triumphant response to those, do things start getting worse again.

On selfies

How am I to give advice to others, on how to live, when I have made a mess of my own life? Has anyone asked himself this question recently?

It is a question that does not seem to arise outside Catholic and the more rambling Judaeo-Christian tradition, where Adamic “guilt” hath always played a major part in morality. The sense that we, not as a class, but as individuals, are guilty as Adam, and ought to be ashamed is, or was, drummed into us through childhood. I look at old faces in photographs, and often see it there; and where it is absent, the man stands out. He is “leadership material,” as one might think today.

Perhaps he was. Perhaps that cocky self-confidence that breathed into the film played its part in the defence of each little realm. But perhaps, on the other hand, it was unnecessary. I am unlikely to have discerned as much as I imagine from portraits and scenes of the long-expired.

Velazquez has been among my favourite painters, for as long as I can remember. I can be floored by a still-life within a Spanish kitchen; by the colours and shapes and reflections alone. On another plane: by his presentations of nobility, of the royal, the God-approved, in pose and gesture. It seems so alien to our “virtue signalling” world, in which each character is projecting himself, at his best though sometimes, proudly, at his worst. The flavour of nobility marks the world of Velazquez apart from ours.

Truth to tell, the “selfie” was invented at the Renaissance. The technology has degenerated considerably since then, but not the intent, to flash the image of a person as a self-contained being, cutting through the constraints of his environment. The Renaissance portrait lifts us out of the Mediaeval into the Modern. The figures have come to life, in the round, and are innate with movement. It is like the transition from silent films to talkies: art had suddenly “come alive,” become noisy. Become, I think, capable of ugliness.

Of course these old Spaniards are projecting themselves, too. They are depicted in the flesh. They are symbols of authority in their society, I suppose, except, they are ceasing to be symbols. They were profiles on the coins, but now they have sprung out, and grown bodies, too. The authority is in their gestures as much as it had been in their stations. The idea that a leader should look like a leader had always been there, but now he was also a performance, an act.

This arrogance of power — “man the maker of man” — is now at large among us. Shame and humility have been overcome. Each class absorbs the fashion in dress from the class above, but wears it in a more tawdry way. In just a few centuries we will have paparazzi: the dress and imagery of the stars, passed down. Finally we will have people taking pictures of themselves. They carry their (skill-free) “smartphones” about, like pocket mirrors. The higher the technology, the lower the reach: why I called it “degeneration,” above.

But these are just pictures, my inner-modern says. They aren’t meant to be so serious. Look at them: the people are all smiling, or making faces — having a joke. How unlike those old Victorian portraits, in which the faces are serious, grave, because everyone, even humble farmers and fishermen and miners, had some dignity to preserve.

Nor were they givers of advice, unless to children in the privacy of their homes. (And takers of advice, from the pulpit.) There was no attempt to convey a narrative about “lifestyle” — frankly, how to live. Like Christians and Jews, through the rest of the world, people were unsmiling when their photos were first taken. The human resolution to maintain some dignity appears even in the anthropologists’ pictures of naked savages in the bush.

It could be said that “shame,” in a sense deeper than “trying to save face,” was an invention of our own, “Western,” religious tradition. It had to be invented, before shamelessness could be. The “primitives” — as we used to think of them — lack the guilt that we were capable of feeling, the “neurosis” that remains in post-Christian man; but were men for a’ that.

Fortieth day of Christmas

[This item is revised from first appearance for Advent, in 2014. The Prison Notebooks of the Jesuit martyr, Alfred Delp — executed at Berlin on Candlemas, the 2nd of February, 1945 — were first brought to my attention by my fondly remembered “Chief Far Eastern Correspondent,” at Halifax, Nova Scotia.]

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“Advent is the time for rousing. Man is shaken to the very depths, so that he may wake up to the truth of himself. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender. Man must let go all his mistaken dreams. …

“The kind of awakening that shocks man’s whole being: … that is the necessary preliminary. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken. …

“It is precisely the shock of rousing while he is still deep in the helpless, semi-conscious state, in the pitiable weakness of that borderland between sleep and waking, that man finds the golden thread which binds Earth to Heaven and gives the benighted soul some inkling of the fullness it is capable of realizing and is called upon to realize. …

“Once awakened to an inner awareness we are constantly surprised by symbols bearing the Advent message, figures of tried and proven personalities that bring out in a most forceful way the inner meaning of the Feast and emphasize its blessing.

“I am thinking of three in particular: the man crying in the wilderness, the herald angel, and our blessed Lady.”

*

Do you believe in God? Perhaps that is a silly question. A better might be: Do you trust Him? I have long suspected that even my “atheist/agnostic” friends believe in God. They can’t really help it.

My late mother was an atheist. Of course she believed in God. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have argued with Him, for seventy years. She would have just “forgotten about the Guy.”

Instead she had a grievance. As a young nurse in training, at Halifax of all places — a good hearted, literal-minded Calvinist, raised to say her prayers — she prayed ardently for one of her patients, a little boy with a horrible spinal injury. It was ghastly, and she was appalled by the excruciating pain the little boy suffered: quietly, even sweetly. Modern medical science (circa 1940) could do little for him.

He didn’t get better, so she prayed more. She got so she was praying “every day, every hour.” Still no result. Finally, the boy died.

Why, why, why, why?

We discussed this when seventy years had passed, and my mother was herself in great pain: fiendish arthritis, Parkinson’s, and a few other things. This after heroically beating off a cancer, through eight rounds of chemo. For mama believed in “stoic.” (When the pain, and worse, the disorientation became insupportable, she would sing old hymns, from her choir-girl childhood, and recite the still-remembered Lord’s Prayer.) She was still vexed, however, on behalf of the little boy. That is what had made her angry with God, “forever.”

It had begun just after his death; she prayed. She told God her views very candidly. “All these prayers I said for him, day and night. And You did nothing.” She wasn’t going to play the fool any more. She blamed God for not listening, for not being there, for not acting when He was called upon. She drew up her account, like Jefferson’s Declaration; finally she accused God of Not Existing. And then, of not responding to that, either.

She would even spite Him. She decided this on a walk: that she would be a good person, without His help. She would show Him up. She would drop all these pointless prayers, and prove to Him, once and for all, that He wasn’t needed. For seven decades she kept this up, in the Gaelic manner, through thick and thin.

This was the way my own mother put it. She was vividly aware of the irony, and towards her own end, when there was nothing left for it, she just listened to a very young Catholic priest that I had “stuck on her.” (I caught this Father Michael once by her bedside in the middle of the night. The nurses told me he’d been on his knees, on the hard floor, well over an hour. They worried that he’d cripple himself.)

*

Unless the Lord. Unless the Lord build the house. Unless the Lord

Father Delp’s hanging, from a meat hook, in a cold little cell on the Feast of Candlemas, had been enriched by four months in solitary, and nine weeks of interrogation and beatings. He was offered freedom if he’d quit the Jesuits and join the Nazi Party. He refused. His body was cremated; the ashes dumped in a sewer. (This was standard practice for German “traitors” at the time.)

“It is the time of sowing, not of harvesting. God is sowing; one day He will harvest again.”

The Nazi judge who condemned Delp, predeceased him just before his execution in an allied air raid. … (Details, details. God attends to them.)

The German bishops who drafted defiant statements against the Nazis, re-drafted to tone them down. Like Dolan of New York, they would criticize those who went “over the top,” thereby courting trouble. Why would Father Delp himself feel the need, to make a big issue, from the pulpit in Munich, of the Nazi policy of euthanasia? After all, it was “humanitarian” — designed to put suffering people out of their misery.

The idea that suffering could be of any value is lost on most. Why should we trust God on this? That God, who sent his only-begotten Son into this world, to suffer on the Cross.

I sometimes think belief in God is entirely beside the point.

Baudelaire: “Everyone believes in God, though nobody loves Him. No one believes in the Devil, and yet his smell is everywhere.”

Fun with figures

A quarter-century ago I blundered into a public discussion about prisons for women. The nice liberal people were celebrating some guvmint decision to build new ones. Being very gullible, they bought the guvmint’s argument that the existing “PFWs” were crowded dungeons, and something more “modern” and fashion-conscious was required. Too, they were housing the female inmates too far away from their families and friends. Feminists were appalled at the treatment these women were getting, when all they had done was commit serious crimes.

It was left to me, as one of the four “token conservatives” in the Canadian media at the time (our numbers have shrunk since then) to point out that the guvmint wasn’t replacing women’s prisons, but adding to them. For thanks no doubt to feminism, the number of women committing serious, “masculine” crimes had risen substantially, both in raw numbers and in proportion to the men. The old dungeons would be “renovated” (i.e. expanded); in addition, more were needed to accommodate these surging numbers.

Still, even after the new building programme, there would be far more spaces for men — more than four times, if memory serves. As liberal and progressive thought had already concluded that statistical inequality is an unanswerable proof of prejudice, I called attention to the fact. Canada’s criminal justice system was, obviously, deeply prejudiced against men. Something would have to be done.

One answer would be to reduce male inmates, until numerical equality were achieved. Indeed, money could be saved by simply emptying existing prisons of men, and filling them with women, instead. The great majority of, for instance, rapists and murderers would have to be pardoned and released. But I could foresee objections from the same people who wanted nicer digs for women — they would find the old prisons for men even less upbeat than the prisons for women — so dismissed this proposal as too radical (in the sense of, extreme).

A more moderate approach would be to achieve equality from both ends. By only halving the number of male inmates, while doubling the number of female, the same end could be achieved, over time. The guvmint could establish quotas for equal sentencing between the sexes, and instruct the courts to decide cases and assign punishments on a 50/50 basis going forward. Perhaps we could have a moratorium on putting men in prisons for the first few years, as an immediate step in the right direction.

Thenceforth, men could still be charged, even nominally convicted, but would be immediately exonerated if the crime were non-violent (such as a peaceful bank robbery), or even if violent, so long as the victims were only maimed, not killed. Far fewer men would go to gaol as a result. Remember, the target was half, so if that goal weren’t met, the requisite number of actual recidivist murderers would also have to be discharged, until each judge had met his quota.

But as the number of female convicts must still be doubled, to achieve “equity,” women would be convicted and sentenced to much longer terms, for much lesser crimes. A woman guilty of, say, an illegal turn while driving, or a parking violation, would get approximately the same sentence as, say, a man who had murdered his wife, in order to correct this historical injustice — especially as it goes back such a long way.

True, I anticipated, feminists, who never stop complaining, would say that the treatment of these women was “unfair.” But their point could be easily ignored. For, “fair” is a subjective judgement, whereas statistics are perfectly objective.

How surprised I was by all the angry letters-to-the-editor. After all, I was using the same reasoning nice liberal people took for granted, in rectifying inequalities elsewhere. How could they just stand by, and let an historical injustice be perpetuated?

Time flies. My old columns seem dated now, for they only mentioned men and women. Were I making the argument today, I would have to propose that precisely equal numbers of cisgender males, cisgender females, and each of the seventy or so categories of the transgendered, be incarcerated. There can be no justice until this is achieved.

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[A related piece in the Catholic Thing, here.]

Two items

Item, several readers have queried my location of the Existentialists on the Left of the 20th-century political spectrum. To call Gabriel Marcel, for instance, a leftist, would seem almost untoward. He was consciously faithful to the Catholic magisterium, and as the son of a revered Jewish mother, and an atheist through adolescence, not from any habit, but by smouldering convert zeal. He did not call himself an Existentialist, like Sartre, but a neo-Socratic, like Kierkegaard. And he was so, not only in The Mystery of Being, but as playwright, and literary and musical essayist. Indeed, Kierkegaard is called “the father of Existentialism,” and the label sticks — as a radical conception of the existence, the freedom and responsibility of the subject, who allows this also in the subjective will of The Other. Not, in other words, one of those “we the people” types.

The short reply is that, I am wrong. (I am often so.) It should be mentioned, however, that I love Gabriel Marcel, and that necessarily includes delight in a certain leftishness in him. It consisted of a sense of intellectual fashion. In ideological terms, he dressed well for the cameras. He was “in the swing” — as Heidegger, and Louis Armstrong, liked to say. He knew how to contend with leftists, without entirely losing their respect. He was a fine intellectual dancer.

Further, on my terminology, is my own sense of fashion. The primary distinction I make, between Left and Right, could be put in this way. Going back to the French Revolution, the Left has always been fashionable, the Right unfashionable. If gentle reader should wish to be more fashionable, at the present day, he will have to swing Left — to the “we the people” side. (I consider Mr Trump to be left-liberal-progressive, for instance; Mrs Clinton was, too.) And as I assure my leftish friends, if they should wish to be less fashionable, they must swing Right, towards self-denying faith in God. But just as we have cooler and warmer colours in painting, there are questions of tinge within the hues themselves. Marcel was on the Left-tinged Right. Sartre, by contrast, was a flaming Red until, it seems, he rethought his whole colour-wheel position on his deathbed.

Of course, anything that is fashionable in its time is soon dead. The “classics” in all fields — literary, scientific, more generally “cultural” — tend to be the reactionaries. They were the ones who, like Ulysses, had themselves tied to the mast, rather than succumb to the bewitching chorus of the Sirens.

Kierkegaard, incidentally — impressively unpopular in life — would, like Nietzche, have disowned all his supposed philosophical progeny. But then, so would Marx have done, and probably even Darwin. By now they must all necessarily realize that, without God, nothing makes sense. Kierkegaard, and Marcel, too, realized this in their own lifetimes.

I hope this makes everything clear.

*

Item, a crack ex-Vatican Latinist has taken me to task for my proposal to launch a daily Latin news sheet. (See here, then follow the link to my original article.) Let me reply to that reply.

I am criticized for having proposed “a little elitist island of sanity and spiritual calm.” Daniel Gallagher is onside with the Latin newspaper project, per se, and would “send the first edition to the printer tomorrow.” But he notes, from his own experience in the Latin translation bureau at Rome, and as a teacher in elite American universities, that many of the best students are what I would call “liberals.” He mentions prominent leftish-feminish classicists such as Mary Beard, who would have no difficulty expounding her views in the language of Cicero and Augustine and Spinoza.

I, too, would welcome op-eds from Mary Beard, for while I disagree with most of her opinions, she expounds them cleverly, and is (like e.g. Germaine Greer) not a party-line zombie, but a woman who thinks for herself. She also understands that the ancient authors were neither leftish nor feminish. Even slightly.

Moreover, if the effect of such a newspaper were to make Latin better known and more popular among the masses, I would not despair.

Gallagher accuses me of dog-whistling, implying that Latin is “for the smart, the sophisticated, the sane. It’s a secret code that separates those who are right from those who are wrong.” Here he is mistaken. I make this distinction quite openly.

So my response is: Good! I will be Publisher, and he will be Chief Editor, and then we will have creative tension between these poles. Too, as Gallagher’s Latin is surely better than mine, I would rather he did the copy-editing.

But he must be warned, that I have already promised jobs to quite a few people, including most recently a learned Swedish gentleman, who will be our Sports and Palaeography Editor. (He is a crack sniper and enthusiast for all blood sports. He has also many small children, to whom I have promised jobs in the mail room.)

Perfesser Gallagher should be assured, as he leaves his secure job at Cornell, that wages on the daily Brevium ad Principes will be very high and prompt, as I am rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

Signs of the times revisited

We do not know what is going on, in our own times, and we cannot know. What we imagine to be important, may not be, and vice versa. There are several obvious reasons for this, plus one less obvious but rather more substantial.

First, there is so much going on, in so many places, to so many persons; who could follow it all? Imagine a novel with more than seven billion characters and sub-plots, in the present chapter alone. That is why we settle for cheap blurbs, written by publicists who can’t have read the book, either.

Second, we know less about the past — “another country” — which each plot depends upon, but where all the (former) characters had minds attuned to environmental realities quite different from ours.

Third, we know nothing at all about the future (“know not the hour”), and therefore cannot see where all the sub-plots are leading. If we could see some temporal distance, we could know much more about the present; we could clarify many problems of interpretation.

Fourth, and least obviously, we cannot know anything (except by Revelation) about what is going on beyond our own dimensions of Space and Time — about events in other worlds, in dimensions beyond ours, which may nevertheless interact with diurnal events in our worldly dimensions. This may sound scientifictive, but gentle reader must remember I am a religious nutjob, not an extraterrestrial, and must therefore be referring to “spiritual events” including that War in Heaven about which we were anciently told. Saint Michael the Archangel is, after all, apprehended by this world only on its own dimensional levels. For all we don’t know, we are soldiers in one sector, of one battle, within a vastly greater Cosmic Campaign.

After the Second World War (on this planet), René Guénon wrote a book entitled, Le Règne de la Quantité et les Signes des Temps (“The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times”). It was a smash-hit bestseller among people picking up the pieces of France, which then became an international bestseller in translations. This was probably because the learned but articulate Guénon wrote of this mysterious fourth realm. He makes an attempt to view the cycles of history, including the satanic elements, from what is in fact the traditional perspective (traditional in all human cultures), wherein qualities, not quantities, are the focus of attention. His post-War version of the philosophia perennis differs radically from the other modern imitations, from Hegel through Heidegger to the latest post-post-deconstructionalism, whose cyclical systems are assumed to occur strictly within Time.

Yet Guénon is dealing with the fate of civilizations, uphill and down, in their circular “progress” from ages of “myth” to ages of “science” and back — Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages: in that order. He warns (as did the Old Testament prophets) against the murderous glibness of our post-Ironic time in which, as it were, the price of everything is accounted, but the value of nothing is discerned.

Guénon’s hot fashionable book was in immediate competition with others in France, and elsewhere, back there in 1945. On the Left, the alternative sages were Marxist and Existentialist; on the Right, the sirens of bourgeois democracy and Free Trade. But there was nothing to choose between Left and Right, for all partook in the Reign of Quantity. Every one of these draughtsmen of grand visions was, essentially, painting by numbers.

Dead now, for nearly seventy years, this Catholic-raised Guénon was a heretic and gnostic. This is not an accusation: he embraced these things openly, and as a sometime cult-follower of Egyptian Sufis, took the name Abd al-Wāḥid Yaḥyā. He dabbled in Hinduism, too; Taoism; Theosophy; Masonic rituals; and any esoterica he encountered. Famously, he befriended Jacques Maritain, but it should be added that Maritain tried to get all Guénon’s works placed on the Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum. (Those were the days before, in effect, that Index was itself placed on the Index.)

I condemn Guénon utterly, of course; though also affectionately. But I also condemn (lovingly) the failure of our contemporary Church, to teach laymen and now even her own priests her traditional doctrine — that we are all participants in a Cosmic War, and cannot begin to understand our battlefront position until we grasp that there is indeed a War going on. It is by walking away from this crucial responsibility that she has made the world safe for gnosticism and heresy, socialism, and so much other trash. Too, a world in which all we ever ask is for the latest figures.

An aside on beaks

If you were a bird, gentle reader, and had been one for some time (a million generations, say), you would probably be quite adept at eating with your beak. And not only eating, I should think. You would also use your beak for most other purposes, for instance probing and pulling, grabbing and manipulating things, fighting, killing prey, preening, courtship and mating, nest-making, feeding your little ones, even breathing (through the twin holes or nares on your beak). You would take it for granted not only that your beak had a certain size and shape, but a distinct colour and texture; and perhaps be guilty of racism towards those with other physical traits.

This is how things are, for the birds. Beaks are big and obvious and right in the middle of their faces, as the purple’d finches who alight on the balconata railings of the High Doganate could tell you — who are frankly Accipitriphobic, uncertain about pigeons, rivals to the sparrows, though skittish and likely first to retreat. (Illegal immigrants to North America, these sparrows, as any house finch could tell you. The sparrows reply by calling the finches Mexicans.)  I am unable to tell if they are vain about their beaks, but for all I know they may be inwardly smiling, smugly, while staring each other down. The boys like to wear red hats. (They were doing so even before Trompe came along.)

Now, let us suppose that you are not a bird, but an evolutionist. You would be used to explaining how all the finches in Galapagos had adapted to life on their respective islands, through e.g. alterations in the shape of their beaks to suit the available food in each insular restaurant. Everyone knows about adaptation. It is illustrated in every evolutionary textbook. Though it can’t be proven, it can be repeated until every student is hypnotised, or numb with boredom and unable to resist.

Dr Jesús Marugán-Lobón of Madrid, or Prof Emily Rayfield of Bristol, would be the first to tell you about the relationship between beak shape and feeding ecology — or would have been before they had done exhaustive studies on hummingbirds, eagles, parrots, puffins, flamingos, and a broad assortment of other birds. What they found, according to my daily dose of science news, is that there is indeed a relationship — sometimes — or seems to be with a little imagination — but often the inference is a long stretch and, “many species with similarly shaped beaks forage in entirely different ways and on entirely different kinds of food.” The reverse — different beaks, same applications — is also commonplace.

A certain Guillermo Navalón (not a bird but another Spanish researcher) mentions the unreported scandal of fossil interpretation, in which the ecology and all that follows from it is based on the shape of an ancient bird’s beak, and nothing else. Take that plausible assumption away, and one is left with — nothing.

“Really, we’re just starting to scratch the surface, and a lot more research is needed to fully understand the drivers behind beak shape evolution,” he adds, modestly, while instinctively framing his next funding request. (Spanish researchers have to eat, too.) I wish other scientists cited in the media shared his reticence to assume knowledge they will never have. I don’t expect them to abandon the Darwinian evolutionary paradigm, of course — that would cost them their jobs.

But I have no job to lose, and will tell you what I consider obvious from the findings of natural history, wherever I look. A finch is a finch is a finch; and every mysterious species its own incredibly complex thing. I know this because my finches have told me, but it applies to each of the other birds, and all of the animals that come into view. They have the means to confute every materialist assumption, and do so in every moment of their being.

Hail patron

A reader from the Ontario boondocks (the word is from Tagalog) reminds me that today is the Feast of Saint Francis de Sales, patron of all journalists and hacks, as we near the fourth centenary of his burial. I think of Doctor Johnson, too, in this connexion, but the greatest of English hacks was no saint; just an honest, diligent and decent Christian man, of sound common-sensical reason. I think of Chesterton, too. Why this Saint Francis should be assigned this rôle, on behalf of the Church, is itself a subject for contemplation. All his writings (so far as I have read them) are to an immediate point. That is part of the reason he is still up-to-date; for the “breaking news” with which he dealt — way stops in the journeying of souls — is immortal.

Thrice in a single day, according to the legend, this scion of a noble family, that was grooming him for high station in law and public life, fell off his horse. Each time his sword and scabbard came off — how embarrassing! — and each time they came to rest in the pattern of a Christian Cross. I mention this as if it were important, because it is. We portray saints and mystics today as if they were Triumphs of the Will, heroes overcoming all adversities to win the main prize, each a spiritual Hercules. This tends to leave God out of the account, and thus the Will by which each was actually not only motivated, but directed.

Francis proceeded to the heart of the Calvinist country around Geneva, where precious few Catholics remained; tramped through ice mud clobber and snows; became accustomed to doors slammed in his face, and rocks thrown at him. He had the gift of poetry, and became a patient, tireless writer of — pamphlets. This was an innovation for a Catholic, for pamphlets were the “mainstream medium” of that early modern age. It was a genre the Church had surrendered almost entirely to the Protestants. Francis spoke, wherever he could be heard, with the highest and with the lowest of society, and conquered, soul by soul. He converted, or re-converted, some tens of thousands who, under his direct tutelage, returned to the old faith.

In worldly terms, a demographic change of historical significance was achieved by one man. By those writings on the fly, he continues his mission to the present day; and by other means of which only Heaven knows.

Eventually, the Church that Francis served appointed him to her throwaway position as Bishop of Geneva. This must have been divine intervention, too, for like any large, centralized organization, the Church tends to be run by incompetents on self-defeating principles. The “lifestyle” of this Francis did not change, however. He seemed happiest in a hovel.

Writing on the run, against pressing deadlines: this is a journalist’s lot. How odd, when it is ever done to some purpose, beyond interests that are unambiguously worldly. Perhaps God will send us more like him. We might think to ask.

The handkerchief tree

“Oh, please,” said I to an irritating person, with whom I was having a bar-room “debate,” from which I was trying to extract myself. “If you must insult my intelligence, would you have the decency to do it behind my back.”

I will leave gentle reader to imagine the topic, and the circumstances. There is a certain multivalent use in such phrases. I was confronted by a customer who was using angry emotional arguments in the hope of defeating syllogistic reason. We get a lot of that today. It appeals to the crowd, who share with the speaker strong views inculcated by brainwashing, together with gobsmacking ignorance of a wide range of subjects. Their arguments consist entirely of hurling epithets, of whose meaning they have also not been apprised: “fascist, racist, misogynist,” &c.

My epithet for them is, “liberals and progressives.”

There is no way to confute dirty words, and the only way to deal with their chanters is by not being there. Unfortunately, they come to you. Leaving would be cowardly.

One may answer a proclamation only with a better proclamation, dirty words with clean, and an unsound premiss only with a sound one. This may have, at first, only shock value. Maybe in the fullness of time, the very possibility that another view is possible, may have some effect on one’s opponent. Likewise it may have some effect on individual members of the audience, who observe that one party to the “debate” is more reasonable than the other. An auditor might come, and leave, on the side of unreason; but the medicine begins to work, later on.

*

Davidia involucrata. — I refer to the “handkerchief tree,” sometimes called the “ghost tree” or (by the Chinese, I think) the “dove tree.” As a breeze passes through the bracts and flowers (that resemble pinched white handkerchiefs), they rise and flutter as a cote of doves. Or, a flight of receding angels, “waving adieu, adieu, adieu.” This tree will make a beautiful ornament in any alpine garden, though without ascending the hills of western Hupeh, or making connexions with the Royal Horticultural Society, one is unlikely to find seeds.

Davidia at Kew, near London, once limned or illuminated for me a profound theological idea. It did this by a kind of liturgical dance, from a stationary position, corresponding to the opening of a waltz. I remain grateful to it.

Discovered by an intrepid naturalist, the French Vincentian missionary, Père David — then adroitly tracked by some Victorian Scotsman — this tree is a remarkable, a miraculous creature, the only species in its genus. It was also found near Drumheller, Alberta, but as a fossil there, buried a hundred million years ago.

The handkerchief tree is among the innumerable calling cards the divine gardener left in his wake, while preparing our world for human habitation. By contemplating it we may understand God, not as the watchmaker but as the constant sustainer of a world that is no mechanical device. In that specific sense, the “First Cause” — prior (in logic) to the merely chronological. One must be a hardened atheist indeed, not to fall upon one’s knees in the presence of that deeply unmodern, Davidia revelation. For men today are pinned like butterflies or beetles to Time’s flat board, no longer conscious of the movement of the heavens, or themselves able to float or fly.

The waving flowers are “a proclamation,” enunciating Life. (E pur si muove!) This works better than any argument. Defamation, insult, murder and blasphemy are ineffective against it. No sooner is it seen than it begins to lead, beyond the world of Time to which it is a signal.