Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

The vice of tolerance

A lady of my acquaintance has been called a good liar. My informant says that this is not only her private opinion; that “everyone knows” it.

If “everyone knows,” I reflected, then the lady must actually be a poor liar.

Now, I will not take lying from its ethical handle, but only from the “aesthetic,” as De Quincey would say. To my mind, a “good” lie must be convincing. It should be believable, on its own terms, as any work of art. It should cohere within itself, and fit with externals believed to be true. It should fit so well, that no joins are apparent.

Practice makes perfect, as we say, and I will assume that a good liar has had plenty of. A bad liar may be new to the game. His lie may fall apart by internal contradiction, or for want of plausibility. Children, lacking experience, start this way. The clever child soon learns what will or will not fly; that a half-brick carries farther than a whole one, and so forth; that a non-brick will not fly at all.

Behind the skills obtained through practice, however, may lie natural talent. Great liars, it could be said, are born, not made. They rise to eminence, in business and public affairs, thanks to their gifts, which may not extend to competence in their trades. Notwithstanding, people believe, and rely on them — though everything they touch turn to ashes. Many, I suspect, of the captains of industry I have glimpsed, and most of the politicians, are such products of nature: genuinely talented in the arts of trickery and deceit; good cheaters, and even better thieves. Roguish charm is their defence against exposure. They must be good at something, or how did they get so big?

Are they good or bad liars? I should think success an important criterion, in scoring their achievements. On this view we might give the lying lady, above, another chance. Perhaps “everyone knows” that she is lying, yet none will challenge. Mere convenience may dictate silence. In the present environment of “political correctness” — in which lies are piled openly on lies — telling the truth becomes downright dangerous. You could be brought before a Human Rights Tribunal.

Not all salesmen are liars, incidentally. I discovered this long ago. There are those who sincerely believe in what they sell, and the mark of their sincerity is that they need not lie, knowingly or half-knowingly. Their products may be as splendid as they say. Often this is a critical factor. The more evil the product, the more lying is required — including selectivity with the truth, for there are lies of omission as well as lies of commission. “Hype,” generally, consists of lying in both modes. I have noticed it has become the unquestioned basis of our economy. Without hype, the Industrial Revolution itself would have failed.

Thus, assuming this lady were a persistent liar, I would need to know just what she had gotten away with, to make a fair judgement on her accomplishments. It is the same in many arts, I perceive: bad artists often succeed, the good ones often fail. Their audience, the “consumers,” should be held to account. You can’t get away with something, unless someone lets you.

I do not think lying a social problem, however. For the habit began with Adam. Rather it is, like all other sin, a matter between the perpetrator and God, and as such, extremely foolish. But “society” does not come into it, until we are out of Eden.

It is the widespread toleration of lying that I count among our social diseases.

By this I don’t mean that we should be more suspicious: for trust is the very thing lying undermines. Why spread its effects? Why be tempted to counter lies with lies? Rather, we should be less tolerant of both lying and suspicion, and more alert against ourselves. The best remedy against public lying, is not to lie; which includes not co-operating in the lies of others.

For while true, in some instances, that tolerance may be argued “a necessary evil,” we should not forget that it is always a vice.

The long sleep

Children, I should think, are guests in any house, and should act appropriately. If it does not occur naturally, some gratitude should be instilled in them. Granted, we feel a special regard for our own, and it would be wrong to torture or kill them. If we did not know this by some animal instinct, our species would not survive. But there are limits to anyone’s hospitality. A time comes when the welcome wears thin, and the little people (somewhat grown) should be off to weave their own nests. Much comes from overlooking this schedule, which as ever cannot apply to the superbly rich and entitled, whose nests are big enough to accommodate grown babies. But even among those, a certain spirit of adventure should lead to the occasional flight.

The quality of children is in abject decline. Partly I attribute this to their smaller numbers, compared with generations past. The single child receives no sibling examples. His parents draw upon a much narrower field of experience. Family customs lapse. Too, owing to the prevalence of public education, and the control of it by the mad and perverse, one must make allowance for intellectual disabilities.

Combine this with trends in entertainment and technology which leave that single child (whether he can read or not) with an extremely short attention span. He is unable to think any proposition through. For instance, the idea, “it is time I found my own way in the world” requires more sentence than he has patience to hear, for it may easily involve subsidiary clauses. Therefore, it is lost on him.

I am glad to see, from Tony Esolen and others, a revival of the notion that kids should “drop out.” Mr Esolen bravely focuses on the plight of boys. (Not that girls are unimportant; but they should give more thought to the unique functions of motherhood, which include the generation of babies.)

Most should get out of school for the sake of their own intellectual and spiritual stimulation. Merely going to university — where the moral corruption of their childhood is radically extended — cannot be the answer. It is true that some (I estimate one in twenty) could benefit from the specific forms of brain-training which universities were designed to provide; but any others who go there are getting in the way. A large proportion, upon graduating with their worthless degrees, will only go home again, often enough to parents themselves rendered passive by immersion in the drug and media “culture.” Dead loss all round.

Among the birds, however, and other animals, the settled procedure is to kick them out. Room must be made for a new litter, or for any other cause. One day the grown baby circles back, opens wide his beak for the fresh worm, and mommy tells him to get lost. (As I write, two young starlings on my balconata rail are discussing this very topic.)

God, or whatever subsidiaries He employs, invented hunger for a reason. It is a useful goad. Winter makes a nice clincher for us northern folk. Without hunger, no one would be free — free as birds, at least. We would all live like modern children, who expect Nanny State to assume parental functions when their own parents, as so commonly, fail.

I found that my own youthful experience with this goad — the need to find food and shelter, to say nothing of the means to acquire more books — was quite instructive. Once found, there is a certain relish in extending one’s independence, and shaping the immediate environment to one’s liking. Alas, most exchange this for the security of a truly boring and pointless job, and the social homogeneity of urban dovecotes or little suburban boxes, becoming, in effect, lifelong pensioners.

They weigh on me. It is not my business how they live, except, their distaste for freedom enables tyrants. I do not know what proportion habitually prefer an easy life and economic security to anything more fully human. I only know they are the overwhelming majority. Although it may never occur to them, the long sleep of inanition — slavery, in a word — is a choice. I only wish that, by their predictable voting, they wouldn’t choose it for me.

Now playing

Politics, it has been said (by me, I think), is the art of the hardly possible. One demands, or promises, things that cannot be delivered in this world, and that no one could want if they thought through the consequences. The successful politician does not lie, except when cornered. Rather, he fantasizes, “dreams,” and seeks a constituency that will dream with him. To my mind, Barack Obama was near to the perfect politician, and while lacking his class and cunning, Canada’s child prime minister, “Justine” (see the 4,000-page novel by the Marquis de Sade), has attempted to offer the same billboard attractions. It is what all modern capitalism has aspired to: nothing, in a very spiffy package; a triumph of pure advertising.

The perfect politician, as the perfect salesman, sells this “vision” — dwarfing any specific programme with its stated assumptions and checkable facts. Details, details; to the uninitiated, these are always boring, and the voting masses will never be initiated. The people, especially in this Age of Netflix, want entertainment, and what they call “leadership.” A leader is a person who does your thinking for you. In politics, he has a rôle like that of film director, in a movie where he will be the principal star. We must go through the movie emotionally on his side; grieve his little setbacks, feel that we participate when he wins. Black hats, white hats: his opponents are clearly marked and can be seen at every moment to be deplorable.

Of course this works both ways. “Liberals” think “conservatives” are deplorable; but vice versa, too. The divide is there to be manipulated. Each side knows the other side is wicked; and both sides have overwhelming evidence. The perfect politician will command the soccer-crowd loyalty of his own side, and appeal to a sufficient number of fence-straddling nincompoops (“independent voters”) to carry all before him.

Mister Trump drives me crazy with his vulgar garishness. His “MAGA” vision is perhaps the most expansive of all, having that tiny twitch of plausibility to make it more compelling than mere “Hope and Change.” Yes, surely Merica was great once. The slogan combines the edenic with the utopian, distracting from realities on both sides.

But his biggest draw is novelty. It is not just the brashness of his rhetoric — delivered in electric sentences that do not quite parse — but the content. There is no feint towards diplomacy or dignity. He says things that would be astounding for any politician to say. And this because, much of what he says is true.

Not the whole truth, of course, but true enough, as far as it goes. He has been, at NATO and now in Britain for instance, saying things so simple and obvious that he leaves his opponents in utter disarray. The USA has been carrying the can for the defence alliance, true; it has been gooed by arbitrary tariffs, true; it is invaded by illegal immigrants, true; it is stifled by unnecessary regulations, true; its bureaucracies are massive and dysfunctional, true; its people are overtaxed and cynically exploited by retail politicians who get rich in office. Et cetera. Some European politicians have been making the same observations and in the same tone, but most aren’t yet in power. Trump is, unbelievably, in power, by open election, in a country that is not, shall we say, small.

As everyone agrees, a disruptive force. He disturbs the holy cows — the vested interests, that had been peacefully flatulating in their fields. People hate him, but other people love him for this, even in Europe — the smell was becoming unbearable. “Hope and Change” masked a programme for, “more of the same.” It was just perfume. Mister Trump’s vision is the meat packer’s.

Take a world turned upside down, and turn it upside down once more. The deck is muck and reeds, but ah the excitement as it turns above the waterline again. People are mesmerized by this. It is even better than the last movie.

In the next instalment, watch it split up and sink.

Jus gentium

Rabbi Emil Fackenheim was once a power in this town. Well, no thinker is a power in this town, but there were days when dinosaurs walked the Earth, and when a few intellectual giants strode the campus of the University of Toronto — men of the stature of Gilson, Innis, Conacher, Frye, Havelock, McLuhan, Carpenter, Fackenheim. They met in coffee shops that are long gone; and my list is hardly complete, for now I think of the remarkable number and quality of immigrants we gathered from Europe: exiles from countries such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Poland, even England, whose talents were mostly invisible to the public at large. For Toronto was notoriously a provincial town. As Leopold Infeld put it: the finest city in which to die, especially of a Sunday afternoon, when the transition from life to death would be “continuous, painless, and scarcely noticeable.”

This was post-war Toronto, of the late ’forties and through the ’fifties — asleep in her inscrutable majesty; the Toronto into which I happened to be born; and not the self-advertised “world class city” of later real estate developments.

Fackenheim spent his Sunday mornings teaching confirmation classes in a liberal synagogue. As he remembered, he would ask each new class if anyone could present a Jewish belief to which he personally subscribed. After a long dreadful silence, someone might offer “one God,” or “the brotherhood of man.” Asked why he agreed with that, he would say, “That’s what I was taught.”

Next question. “Then how about people who believe differently?” To which the inevitable answer would be, “That’s what they were taught.”

“Then who is right?” would be question three.

Fackhenheim admitted that the response to this question — continuous dead silence — drove him close to despair. What about cannibalism? Or, Nazism? Does anyone have views that are absolutely wrong?

Most would blankly surrender at this, but some would stick up for relativism. Yes we believe this, and they believe that, but who is to make an impartial decision?

This did not happen yesterday, or last year. This was towards seventy years ago, among Jewish kids, within a decade of the Holocaust. These adolescents were more-or-less all under the impression that reason and truth were the exclusive property of Modern Science. Not one of them could explain why this should be, either.

I mention this as a reminder that the struggle today against scientism — against the Dictatorship of Relativism and the liberal and progressive forces that sustain its tyranny — is not new. It has roots that go below the World Wars, below the Enlightenment, even below the Protestant Reformation, to the Nominalist philosophers of the later Middle Ages. We aren’t dealing with some passing fashion trend. The “kids today” may believe things that are monstrous, because “that is what they were taught,” but everything in this world has a history.

As the blood of our martyrs (both Christian and Jewish) will attest, the old Pagan Romans were not relativists, in any recognizable modern sense. They knew our beliefs were in conflict with theirs. But they didn’t want to kill us, they only wanted us to shut up; to knuckle under; to assimilate. We were, in effect, troublesome multiculturals.

They had the equipment with which to think each case through. The jus civile might not apply to us, as we were usually not full Roman citizens. But the jus gentium, or something like “the law of nature,” provided a further backstop for the Roman magistrates. It was, as the Greeks had taught them, the law behind the law — what all men, if even partly civilized, acknowledge to be good and true; and as Henry Maine once expounded, the Romans were capable of being disturbed by conflicts between their own highly codified jus civile and the philosophical jus gentium. This was a key to why, in the end, they cracked, and became Christians themselves.

But we, in our time, have been dealing with a more fundamental challenge to right and equity. We face contemporary “authorities” who believe that things may be asserted with no reason at all, and therefore imposed without any reason. When one comes up against an assertion such as, “gender is a social construct,” one must realize that there are no holds. We are dealing with an “alternative worldview,” which may be enforced by law, and yet which is demonstrably insane. Things cannot be resolved as easily as they were between us and the Romans.

Justin the groper

As everyone in the world must know by now — if not the blesséd souls in paradise, cut off from the meejah — our Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau’s little boy, has been plausibly accused of groping.

Well, at least it was a woman, as the dirty old men used to say.

The incident occurred in anno 2000, at a “music” festival on Canada’s Left Coast, and the “victim” was a local newspaper reporter. (Poor choice!) Her description of the event appeared in the paper, immediately thereafter, in a short “tut-tut” editorial. It became news again when someone dredged it up. I don’t doubt that person had a political motive. (Alas, it wasn’t spotted during the last election campaign.)

The Trudeau lad — still a young man on the make — now says he can’t remember. Or if he can remember, nothing bad happened. Or if something bad happened, it must have been hallucinated, because we should all know that Trudeau is a heroic feminist, who decided at birth that he would never invade anyone’s personal space. (He has been invading mine for several years now.)

We are all chortling.

No need to search for evidence; it is already there in black and white. But even were it hearsay, we have often been told (by little Trudeau himself, among others) that the woman must always be believed. This is the advanced feminist dogma: that only men misbehave, and only men lie. (By contrast, sugar and spice and all things nice: that’s what little girls are made of.)

Innumerable careers have been ended for less, and the Trudeau child was himself instrumental in ending several. His virtue signalling has been stellar — twinkling in the manner of a starry night, across the bowl of a cloudless Prairie sky. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Do I feel sorry for poor Justin? No. Do I wish him political harm? Yes.

It has been suggested that he hasn’t handled the matter with political finesse. But that’s the beauty of it. He can’t. It isn’t possible. He is hoist by his very own personal petard.

Rejoice! Another proof that liberalism destroys itself. It will destroy a lot of other things first, but in the end, it flames out. No abnormality can endure forever.

____________

In response to queries: Yes, I am a wicked, wicked gloater.

Defective shoppers

By some happenstance, I often find myself in the company of booksellers and book buyers. It is only human to prefer some to others, yet recently I found myself developing a more than human dislike for one book buyer in particular. He was, and to an ill-chosen audience, boasting of his negotiating skills. Apparently he had managed to get the price of some once-valuable tomes knocked down to laughable levels, and was expressing his glee. It struck me that the (young, inexperienced) bookseller in this anecdote had been suckered. He did not know that the books in question were in fact still valuable.

Now, as a man who has driven some fairly hard bargains in my time (and been hard-bargained in return), there must be a limit to my moral unction in this case. Too, I must confess a bias, for I am generally in favour of high book prices. This is in my personal interest, though to understand why requires a bit of explanation. For I am not a bookseller myself. I am however searching for specific books, and while I rejoice when I am able to afford them, and will haggle as much as I can, I am less likely to find them at all if they are too cheap. People who know nothing, or care little, are more likely to snap them up at low prices. A higher price keeps the book for which I am searching on the booksellers’ shelf until I get to it. It also keeps the bookseller in business.

This in turn reveals, I’m afraid, my shockingly unmercenary values in the used book trade which, thanks be to God, still tends to reward such behaviour, notwithstanding such post-modern catastrophes as the invention of pulp paperbacks, and the Internet. New (freshly published) books are a meat market like any other, but the economics of the used book trade defy plausible economic thinking. The relations between supply and demand are too strange and wonderful.

And by his thuggish breach of the unwritten rules, the gentleman mentioned above powerfully annoyed me. His whole attitude was appalling. He is not a reader, as his conversation made plain; rather a “book collector.” As such, he is indulging in sumptuary acts which any advanced civilization must discourage. I hardly mind if titled Lords and Ladies keep or collect libraries of this sort — in which the leather bindings form a kind of wallpaper within an ancient and decaying, palatial house. The contents of the books hardly matter, if the titles on the spines are gilded prettily. But for a person of no title and low class to be building such a library, for his suburban home, is obnoxious to reason. And people like him are driving prices down!

I could go on. It has been too hot to go on, these last few weeks. Let me skip a few paragraphs in which I would only further disburden myself of my views on book buyers of this sort, and as the Americans say, skip to the chase. We need sumptuary laws.

A nightmare

“Heat wave” is among the latest long-established terms to endure official persecution (along with “father,” “mother,” “son,” “daughter,” “sister,” “brother,” &c). From Al Gore down, the weathergirls are instructed not to use it, for it is not “scientific.” This, I suppose, is because everyone knows what it means. A scientific term should be comprehensible only to scientists. They may not understand it themselves, but the important thing is that we can’t understand it.

Let me provide the old definition, in a spirit of nostalgia. A “heat wave” is when the temperature stays abnormally high for a long time. The subtlety here is that, if it goes on long enough, the night temperatures also climb, so there is no relief. Still, or dead air helps rub it in: no breezes. And humidity: let’s not forget that. And then the pope comes along to tell you that air conditioning is wrong. Well, okay, that was not part of the original definition.

There are heat waves currently in both America and Europe. In Canada, a few dozen people have died as a direct result: mostly oldies living up high in unairconditioned urban apartments. (People like me.) But only a few dozen. We have had heat waves here, there, and elsewhere in which thousands have died. God cool their souls. We lose thousands each year from commonplace influenza, and more from traffic accidents. It is no big deal; the meejah haven’t made an issue. For as Stalin said, a single death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic. He understood the meejah well.

Everything gets boring if it is repeated long enough; even pain can get quite boring. I, for instance, am getting comatosely bored with the current heat wave. The fact I have also contracted some kind of common flu, with heavy nasal congestion, and cannot sleep, adds to the tedium.

Well, there I go, exaggerating. I do get some sleep. Why, last night I must have been asleep for more than an hour, at one stretch, until awakened by a memorable nightmare.

As a good Catholic, always obedient to the pope, I don’t have air conditioning up here in the High Doganate. I do, however, have a watch-battery high-tech oven thermometer gizmo, left me by my late mama. Hardly ever use it, but curiosity got the better of me. It told me the air in here is 116F. And yet it is only 93F outside, on my balconata! … Let me hype this for a moment, as if I were a weathergirl.

Wonderful heat retention qualities, this 1962 masonry edifice. Classic death row design, to prevent cross breezes. Marvellous greenhouse effects, from giant, industrial, west-facing windows. If the architect were still alive, I should like to have him up for tea. And, you know, lock him in for a week or two. He would be beating on the door, begging to be put out of his misery. But ha, I’m pro-life!

In this dream, some unpleasant person — no doubt a liberal or progressive — or architect of some sort — perhaps a city planner — had locked me in a coffin and buried me six feet underground in the trackless Amazon forest. He had, however, driven a narrow pipe from the ground through a hole bored in the coffin, so that I could get some steamy air, and he could utter taunts, and slide down stinging insects. I was beginning to feel something like claustrophobia, which I’m sure, like other phobias, is now against the law. I could shout up the pipe, but decided since the only one to hear would be the unpleasant person, I would save my breath. Rather, stay perfectly silent, in the hope he might get curious, and dig me up again. (“Strategy, strategy.”) Meanwhile I was thinking, no lavatory down here; and wondering how long it takes to die in such circumstances.

Happily, I woke, and while still oppressed by heat and stuffiness I reflected, it’s not so bad up here. Things could be worse. Thank you, O master of dreams, for that reminder.

Chronicle of things to read

There are a lot of schlusses in German literature — Schillers and Schillingses and Schlafs and Schefflers and Schimmelmanns and Schallenbergs and Schallücks and Schickeles and Schleiermachers and Schlageters and Schiebelers and Schlegels. I can remember having difficulty telling them apart when, in High School, I was trying to learn German, desperately in the hope of getting the attention of a celestially beautiful German girl named Schlillvia, I mean Sylvia. As ever, all my efforts failed. (Alas, she was a Pferdeliebhaber, and finally fell for the scion of a horse-breeding family.)

It would be well if there had been only two or three Schlegels, but as I found there were at least half-a-dozen quite prominent ones in the alphabetized annals, to say nothing of their several famous wives. And these in only one genetic line of Schlegels; I despaired to think there might be other Shlegelian family trees. But the sincerity of my efforts were recalled to me several years ago, when meeting an old childhood chum. He returned several books to me in which, through the intervening decades, he had shown no interest. As a consequence I have one Schlegel back on my shelves, up here in the High Doganate: a course of lectures, printed in 1846.

Alas, it seemed to be by the wrong Schlegel; though it has proved slightly useful in my autumn dayjob, teaching Shakespeare to seminarians. This would be August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and the book his Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur. Translator not only of Shakespeare into German, but of works from Sanskrit; formulator of Romantik ideals. Dramatist and poet in his own right, and author of some deliciously bitter satires, he had a memorable bust-up with Schiller, but stayed wisely on the good side of Goethe.

No, not that Schlegel, but his little brother Friedrich. Another Romantik formulator, and distinguished orientalist, yet mainly an assiduous professor of Classics, and author of the Fragmente — a collection of scintillating aphorisms that remind me in moments of everybody’s hero, Don Colacho. This Schlegel, too, was a self-acknowledged “reactionary” — the way they made them, two centuries ago. He was received into the Roman Church, moved to Vienna to work for the Habsburgs, then travelled Europe delivering wonderfully learned diatribes against civil and religious freedom, from within an inspiring cohort of priests, monks, canons, and other pious persons.

It should be mentioned that Friedrich Schlegel was a greater Indologist even than his brother; a pioneer of Indo-European linguistic discoveries; and in earlier life the champion of the literary trinity — Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe — not for purposes of idol worship but to broaden the popular conception of what is possible in creative art. To his end he was developing a conception of The West, percipiently informed about our place among other, deeply respected civilizations. (As was his wife Dorothea, the exhilarating mediaevalist, and his fellow convert.)

Normally, I have used Romantik as a term of abuse, but in my present dotage, I have come to find the old school of Jena more interesting especially for this Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, easily the most brilliant of that constellation, and preaching no commonplace romantic fluff and sludge. Rather, he was espousing a return to the principles that had animated Europe through the High Middle Ages. Not to go back in time (of course), but to bring those principles forward.

Of course, in our contemporary drive-in universities, where they do all those drugs and babble incomprehensible slogans and behave in a manner unspeakably vile, he is, if known at all, simply dismissed as dead, white, and “backward-looking.” But that is the whole point. As Newman said, we walk to Heaven backwards. It is the path also of self-knowledge, acquired only thus, along the way.

____________

Perhaps with the intention of sabotaging my happiness, a reader mentioned the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, Herr von Schlegel’s contemporary. I have thought of him, sometimes, but not in a good way. He is in my Salvador Dali class of painters. That is to say, chocolate box but with a dead pigeon inside. I would not go so far as to say that the bombing of Dresden was worth it, if only to reduce the supply of Caspar David Friedrich paintings — the “collateral” was too large — but if gentle reader were to call him the embodiment of brooding Nazi kitsch, I would not object strenuously.

As to the current popular conception of the Romantik, as “a sentimental branch line of lust,” yes, that is another thing that needs putting out of mind.

On incivility

Today would be the 104th anniversary of the death, by assassination, of the presumptive heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary. The archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his Czech wife, Sophie, were shot by a 19-year-old hothead, while stalled in traffic during a visit to Sarajevo. It was the second serious act of incivility towards them that morning. Another Bosnian fanatic had tossed a grenade at their car, earlier. It was moving then, however, and all those injured were in the car behind.

It is interesting to me, that in their last moments, only the archduke knew what was happening. His retinue were in confusion, at first thinking he had a nosebleed, perhaps, and that his wife was fainting at the sight of it. Franz Ferdinand’s last words were: “Dear Sophie, don’t die! Stay alive for our children.” She was a loyal wife but, having been shot in the stomach, found this instruction impossible to obey.

Let us not even try to review the awkward yet quick diplomatic Dance of Death that followed from this incident. Within a few weeks, all Europe was at war, and the issue with which it had started — the constitutional status of Bosnia-Herzegovina — was no longer on the front page. This year we have been celebrating, or rather ignoring, the centenary of the conclusion of that Great War, which stands as a bookmark in history, marking to my mind the beginning of the chapter on “Post-Modernity.”

Further incidents of incivility would follow, in which tens of millions would die. Again, I will not take the space for a statistical review. The post-modern, pseudo-scientific mind wants numbers, and eschews anecdotes. My old-fashioned mind prefers a story. For the last half-century I have been trying to understand what it is; and what lessons, if any, can be learnt from it.

I regret the loss, not only of Franz Ferdinand himself — an intriguing character, with some delicious prejudices which he was perhaps too candid in explaining — but of the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire in his small wake. It was the last multi-national realm united by the Catholic religion; sleepy and quiet for the most part. “Harmonious” might be going too far. The waves of what we could now call “identity politics” — essentially, godless ethnic and linguistic tribalism — were already crashing against it, from without and within. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, member of “Young Bosnia” and the “Black Hand,” was only one example of what this did to people. It made them discourteous and impolite; in a word, uncivil.

Whereas, civil-ization requires a certain calm, and a broader frame of mind. Energy, indeed, is required to uphold it; but energy requires discipline and restraint, if it is to be used to good ends. Rules, mostly unwritten and even unspoken, guide the civilized man through life; and behind those rules lie more rules, which account for the exceptions. Violence, shall we say, is to be generally discouraged, yet there are circumstances in which it is de rigueur, and non-violence would be barbaric.

Should we, for instance, stand for a national anthem? Though the opposite of a nationalist, I think, yes. This applies even to foreigners, and the rule I was taught is that on all public occasions in which God Save the Queen is played, all are to stand, “with the possible exception of bath-chair invalids.”

Should we tolerate those who, though apparently sound of limb, fail to stand? Of course not.

Post-modernity is taking a long time. To the category of ethnic and linguistic truculence, we have now added many others, increasingly batty. I won’t take the space to name them: they are listed in most current inventories of fanciful “human rights.” All serve as occasions for incivility.

Any one is as likely as not to trigger others. Prudence tells us not to get it started.

Be prepared

Remember, gentle reader, those “young Romans who lost the Empire of their forefathers by being wishy-washy slackers without any go or patriotism in them.”

I am quoting from that Edwardian classic, Scouting for Boys. One may still discern it on the distant horizon. The Boy Scouts were one of many young paramilitary organizations, that rose from the victorious ashes of the Boer War. There was the Boys’ Brigade, the Church Lads’ Brigade, the Kibbo Kift Kindred. There was even a National Peace Scouts movement, founded by some liberal as a reaction to all this campfire militarism. But General Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts, never intended to amount to more than the competition, spread quickly through the British Empire and beyond. Even in USA, the Boy Scouts supplanted such native organizations as the Woodcraft Indians, the Cos Club, the Sons of Daniel Boone. The Hero of Mafeking had the style and charisma. The uniforms were better, too; and the jingoism more polite and restrained. Boy Scouts were taught to be helpful to old ladies.

Grown Boy Scouts were among the first eager recruits for the Great War. More than a hundred thousand of them soon signed up, in 1914, and soon after, ten thousand of them were dead.

My parents signed me up — for the Boy Scouts — half a century later, and more than half a century ago. It cost them for the uniform and trinkets. A wishy-washy slacker by disposition, and never much of a team player, I wanted out the moment I was in. Perhaps I lasted eight weeks, through which I scrood up every assignment. I associate most of my early experience of regimented “physical education” with physical injuries, and without affection. A woolly empathizer, too, it is well that I have never been placed in command of soldiers.

But I am no pacifist, and will lead with my chin (or more precisely, my mouth) when faced with the feminized girly-boys, boys who want to be girls, boys who’ve made the transition, and actual girls who “criticize” the Boy Scouts today, yet weirdly demand to be admitted. It is a sign of the times. (Why not join the Girl Guides, and learn some “home economics”?)

The boy with enthusiasm for nature and outdoors will today, I suppose, do what I did. He will go hiking alone, with a field guide in his satchel and perhaps a pocket microscope; or opera glasses for the singing birds. He will fill his head with adventure stories, and imagine himself rafting down the Congo, or bagging Himalayan peaks. He may discover the use of a canoe. A close companion may tag along, perhaps. Boyless uncles will vie for his company on their own private fishing expeditions.

“Honour, duty, loyalty, self-control” — all good, if you ask my opinion. Too, I can see there is something attractive in drill and parades, though I would rather watch than march, or line-dance. After all, I still have those opera glasses. But my ideology was formed in “A Boy’s Song,” by the estimable James Hogg (1770–1835), which I was given to memorize at the age of six:

Where the pools are bright and deep,
Where the grey trout lies asleep,
Up the river and over the lea,
That’s the way for Billy and me …

Wars are necessary, and we should be prepared. But even after the next one starts, we should also be prepared for peace. Because it happens, you know, sometimes.

On not working

My hero Ivan Illich (the Cuernavaca leftist, not to be confused with some character in Tolstoy) wrote a lovely book in 1978 entitled, The Right to Useful Unemployment, with the stimulating subtitle, … and its professional enemies. It was one of his series of little bombshells aimed at technology, institutional liberalism, the education system, public medicine, power transmission, unions, certified professionalism, the legal trade, and so forth. He also shared my doubts about mass literacy and numeracy.

Very leftwing. All the smuglies used to adore him, because he spoke like one of theirs, but with a chic, whole-earth edge. I noticed, however, that what he said was opposed to everything they took for granted. He was not fighting to advance medicare, or judicare, or welfare, or any of the projects of what I call the Twisted Nanny State. Moreover, the “equality” he depicted turned out to be a radical endorsement of human freedom.

What would “useful unemployment” be? The perfect example is a housewife:

“An active woman who runs a house and brings up children and takes in those of others is distinguished from a woman who ‘works’, no matter how useless or damaging the product of this work might be.”

Illich shamelessly employs the non-statistical concept of “use values,” against our world of commodities and paycheques. He mischievously applies words like “poverty,” for instance, not to low incomes and backward living conditions but to an environment in which human autonomy is sacrificed for mediocre material ends. This goes somewhat beyond the distinction between socialism and capitalism. No effort is considered productive in our world, unless done at the behest of a boss.

Sometimes he was rude. I particularly enjoyed his characterization of the socialized medical establishment in Canada as the new hookers trying to take the trade away from the old hookers. Or snippets of economic analysis designed to drive economists crazy. Example: by the mid-1970s automobile manufacturers were paying more per unit for worker health, than for the metal in their cars. But their death rate was increasing, owing to traffic accidents.

Indeed, it was Illich who alerted me to the most interesting traffic statistic I have seen. It was a calculation of all the hours spent not only in making and driving cars, building highways, &c, but down the whole column of vertical integration to the metal-mining and oil-extraction at its base. Divide these total hours worked into total miles travelled, and it is discovered that the average speed of cars is about the same as walking. In the name of efficiency, the opposite was achieved.

Most technology is counter-productive like this: the more advanced, the worse it gets. Yet this is not the principal complaint. Rather it is the kind of society, and nature of human interaction within, that is at issue. Everything now requires regulation, and all functions must be professionalized. A centralized political regime inevitably follows. It instinctively resists and condemns any attempt to undermine itself by doing simple human things.

It is also the fortieth anniversary of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement speech, “A World Split Apart.” In retrospect, it went beyond the Cold War context in which it was delivered. Solzhenitsyn was identifying the “political correctness” that has been eating through our old civilizational values; starting with that of courage.

But more:

“Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness — in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during [recent] decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.”

From quite different angles, I think “leftwing” Illich and “rightwing” Solzhenitsyn identified a key modern “problemo.” It is that, progress doesn’t work.

Old engagements

Lost my Internet connexion just after accidentally uploading this. Now I have
it back, I have tried to fix the piece, for I was not finished with it.

*

I am in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, in June 1972. Well, really I am not, gentle reader. Rather I am glancing at a ragged old notebook, which I should have pitched decades ago. It has risen to the surface of a dry sea of papers, a raft of dust and nostalgia. Forty-six years have gone by! Who scribbled all this pretentious nonsense? Me, I’m afraid. My best excuse is that I was not quite twenty. (I don’t suppose that will work any more.)

A short plump Welshman is pacing his office, his hands as if tied behind his back. He is Derek Davies, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review — a weekly I once held in admiration; a constellation of brave dedicated underpaid journalists, of many nationalities; who had sometimes got the magazine banned, or themselves locked up, in the countries from which they were reporting, what they earnestly (and often wrongly) believed to be true. Decidedly the best newsmagazine in Asia; now long extinct. It was also a late relic of the colonial era, a creature not only of “old Asia hands,” but of Fabian aspirations descending from the London School of Economics. (Oh, gentle reader, the men who held dominion over palm and pine were progressive to the core.)

We were discussing contemporary journalism. Rather, Mr Davies was discussing this, as he paced; I was listening politely.

“I have grown very tired of journalisme engagé,” he asserted.

He was agreeing with something I had not quite said, about the tone and posturing I had witnessed among journalists in Vietnam, on a mission that had little to do with reporting. These were hacks indifferent to the truth, incurious about their sources, vain, self-serving, committed only to good salaries and scoring political points. Though I was very young, I was already jaded from having watched them concoct dramatic phantasies, in the hope these would pass for front page news, and win them Pulitzers. Yet few were as bad as their editors, back home, who added the finishing touches.

(I made an exception for the photographers, who risked their skins in the field. Often they were surprisingly rightwing. This was because they’d had the opportunity to stare Communism in the face, and understood what the Americans were fighting. Whereas the writers, romanticizing the Viet Cong, strayed seldom from the comforts of Saigon.)

Mr Davies knew all this. He told me several ear-curling stories, without mentioning his own correspondents. There were decent folk among journalists, to be sure, but the whole trade seemed to be falling into the hands of political operators. This is what made the “Feer” (as it was known) so necessary. It was trying to get some things right; trying to explain why things were the way they were. This made it more informative than, say, Time magazine, or Newsweek — as much “fake news” then as today, though in those days a little more sophisticated.

Not journalism, only journalisme engagé — Mr Davies said this could be the future. Though light by disposition (the author of such amusing “Traveller’s Tales”), for a moment he was dark. He described a spirit of malice; an overwhelmingly destructive attitude of mind; and deriving from that, a terrible, a purposeful blindness. The engaged journalist can no longer see what is right before his eyes. He makes no concession to realities. He is a political propagandist, for very dark causes. An apparatchik; a fifth columnist; an enemy of civilization, poisoning from within.

This is hyperbole, I thought. (For I was not quite twenty.) It can’t be that bad. Nor is it likely to get any worse.

But it was, and it did.

Television review

I never watch movies, so that when I do, they have a tremendous life-changing effect on me, that lasts for hours, even days. Similarly, I never watch television, so that when I did watch a programme last evening I was blown away. In fact, I do not own a TV, but when a trusted reader told me that I must watch something by the Communist Broadcasting Corporation (Canada’s taxpaid guvmint network) I found the Internet link.

They did something sorta neat: got a Canajan suburban family (with three teenaged kids) to live in the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, &c. Their house was stripped to the studs then authentically periodized for each decade in succession; meals, clothes, chores, &c, starting with war rations. The guineapig family were good sports, and did their best to adopt the mores and manners. They were also rather charming. Mommy bitches a bit about never having worked so hard (in real life, a nurse in our socialist medical system), but is diligent, and witty, and the rest of the family plays along, including girls knitting socks for our boys in Europe, needlework, &c. (The less cooperative, but still obedient older girl does a lovely handkerchief with the motto, “I hate needlework.”) Black-&-white footage is supplied to viewers for some background; and even when the household gets a TV (in 1959), it plays contemporary CBC shows.

Tupperware party; salads in jello.

In the ’forties episode, the family really got into the war effort, and decided to actually like short servings of “meatless pies,” and kidneys in flour sauce on toast. When we win (in 1945 segment) they decorate the house with bunting and our old Red Ensign flag, and look overjoyed. All seem to be coming round to the view that “things were better then,” though mommy still wishes she had her microwave, and didn’t have to grind the meat herself for shepherd’s pie, or look perfect and have tea ready when daddy comes home from work. Even so, she kinda likes looking perfect, getting respect, having her kids turn into responsible “young adults” before her very eyes, including her daughters pitching in for a change, and the family bonding over shared meals.

I will not watch the ’sixties episode.

*

On my other channel (here) gentle reader may find a very short essay on the very long, involved topic of “place.”

We get glimpses, sometimes, of some spatio-temporal “place,” some little corner of the universe where people are “at home” and things may be taken for granted that aren’t, on other planets. Moreover, there were once times when people lived in places, and there are remote locations where people still do. As I’ve tried to convey by the use of two terms, my definition of a “place” subtly varies from my definition of a “location,” such as one might find using GPS. Place implies neighbourhood and continuous history. It extends beyond family and provides the means by which an individual human is “socialized,” or as we used to say, “formed.”

Formation is a Catholic Thing, or more precisely a “traditionalist” Catholic idea, that like so many others was once generally understood. The alternative to a good formation is a bad formation; there can be no such thing as no formation at all, though in modern liberal thought an effort is made to pursue this “ideal,” working piecemeal on suggestions from the Father of Lies. The rude power of the state (including our nominally “private” megacorporations) is employed to destroy the sense of place, in every place, and thereby create a form of “New Soviet Man,” or Perfect Consumer, who will be not only “Equal” regardless of race creed and gender, but have attitudes free of prejudice, memory, knowledge, intelligence, or any inclination to resist the instructions of his computerized bureaucratic minders. All such “arbitrary” features as the place you came from will be ground into a grey soup in which the individual floats as a grey pea, subject to immolation if he shows signs of colour.

As I say, it is a large topic.