Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

The vote

According to the tribal consensus, in my neighbourhood at least, there is a federal election today. We had been waiting for the campaign to start, but after a few weeks there wasn’t much more than tired media attacks on “the right-wing fanatics,” who hide their political views, to avoid social unpleasantness.

All the numerous parties in Canada are left-wing, including the Conservative Party, which beat the Liberals in the last election two years ago. The Liberals won it by the “efficient” distribution of their vote. They had been exposed for various forms of corruption, but “the people,” who lack something in the brains department, decided to forgive them. The former Conservative leader, an apparently sincere Catholic, Andrew Scheer, was believed to secretly hold conservative views. (Perhaps he did.) For instance, he did not show enthusiasm for killing babies, or the elderly and despairing. But he has been replaced, by media demand, with someone named Erin O’Toole (openly), who has no opinions that vary from the clichés of the smugly fashionable.

Like Mr Justin Trudeau, O’Toole also has no known religion. Religious belief has been largely extinct in Canada since the 1960s. As a Batflu precaution, it was phased out in the three remaining provinces.

A tiny “People’s Party of Canada,” under a possibly pro-capitalist leader (albeit French Canadian), has emerged to drain the “conservative” vote this time.

Really, there are hundreds of issues that could be discussed in an election campaign, but the citizens are too shallow to participate. Justin Trudeau, called “Blackie” in the blogs out West, or “Spendy McBlackface” for his junior-school behaviour, is the shallowest, most contemptible politician Ottawa can offer. He is also the most popular — especially with women — although he is closely rivalled by the airheads who lead each of the other parties. One of them is memorable for wearing brightly-coloured Sikh turbans. (He is the official socialist.) The “PPC” leader, Maxime Bernier, has a soupçon of courage. That’s what makes him exceptional, as well as inconvenient.

My brief discussion of the election with a local intellectual (I saw him examining a book once), ended when he said that Bernier is “a fascist,” &c. (I wasn’t listening for his precise terms.) “That’s why I’m voting for him,” I explained, even though I doubt he is a “serious” candidate, who could win even a free coffee at Tim Horton’s.

The election authorities have had a great deal of trouble recruiting people to mind the polls, in this most boring and pointless election — called so the Liberals could win back their majority. With luck, the staff will not be able to judge the result, and the established constitutional system will collapse.

Canada, like other countries, would benefit by doing without a federal government, indefinitely, or for fifty years. We could never have afforded what the governments we elected cost us, and a constitutional crisis could get us off the hook for repayment. (This works for other third-world countries.)

Blowing them away

It is easy to understand the attraction of high-tech killings, by the U.S. military and its more advanced rivals. For, although it is not often acknowledged, murder can be difficult for most people. This makes it unpopular in opinion polls. “High tech,” by contrast, makes it easy. The technical details had traditionally contributed to this awkwardness, allowing moral hesitation to get started up. The intended victim may move too much, or scream out in an alarming way, or be armed himself and ready to retaliate. Even if one catches him by surprise, one’s own gun may make an appallingly loud noise.

But imagine a helicopter drone or similar device, that launches highly explosive missiles. There is no pilot, and at most a television camera. The operator, miles away, does not have to dwell on what he has done. Within moments, his screen is blank, and so is his conscience.

The “strike” was in Afghanistan, say, but the “striker” most likely among the computers in an army base in, say, formerly rural Florida. The morning’s work, tapping instructions into his finger-board, having concluded, the officer can step out for a pastry and a coffee. The only risk he has taken is in his diet. He may have driven up his blood-sugar levels, and might some day be diagnosed with “diabetes two.” Then, finally, he will discover what moral criticism is like.

From some reports, it appears that the majority of U.S. drone strikes are misdirected. Wedding parties appear to be their principal target, followed by other school and family outings. Islamic terrorists seem to be repeatedly overlooked. However, we must bear in mind that when drone strikes can be so casually ordered, they can be more easily lied about, and our sources of information are leftist and unreliable.

I have no better sources myself, and must take for granted that little, or nothing, can be known about this kind of obscenity. It is now the preferred way of eliminating unwanted people — accurately, or by mistake — and I would expect it, like other devices of military and paramilitary technology, to be provided for police work soon.

Keepers

The mathematicians — or shall we say, the skilled  ones — often proclaim beauty as their criterion for truth. It is, in the view of the angels, and of the genius or saint, a world where order prevails, and thus serenity and peace. It is a place where we are reminded of the simplicity and purity that could govern our affairs, if men did not reject them. There is elegance, without all the slovenly trappings that we have associated with elegance.

I refer to things which are “just so”; and somehow inevitable, though inevitably unpredictable, in art and in science.

Conversely, the mediocre mathematician produces results that are ugly, trivial, squalid, and a mess. He is by nature clumsy, but also lazy: looking for proofs that can be easily found (because they are clichés.) Like all the higher intellectual disciplines, math reserves painful punishments for the lethargic and incurious, and awards brutal treatment to those intent on ignoring its “aesthetic” dimension; the element of form.

The other arts — one thinks of music, and sculpture — differ from mathematics in their selection of blindness. Math is sensually blind, or vacated, and must become musical or sculptural to assume “shape.” (A subtly different term from “form.”) But it is not sensual, and resists the transformation into something alien to itself. No mathematical model can be exact.

And yet, mathematics has beauty, or should have, for it is an art.

I knew once a collector of mathematics — a Polish gentleman, of course. He had, it was true, many mathematical books in his retinue, but these were the shadow not the substance of his subject, as print may offer a shadow of literature, poetry, song. These items have yet to be animated by their singers, and indeed, the visual arts also do not really exist until they are animated or “sung.” They must be found, or brought back, into life.

My Polish friend collected from among the things he had animated. He would eagerly show his most valuable possessions. He was remarkably patient with the slow-witted, such as me. But he realized his task was to give his possessions away; for only then could he keep them. He had the instinct of a teacher, which is to say, a kind of collector.

Those who collect material goods, sometimes exclusively, tend to operate on one of two radically opposite principles. Either they collect things that “might be useful,” though few things will ever be. Most do this, and make arguments for doing it. They are the common collectors of junk, as opposed to normal people, who use what is meant to be used, so that it is constantly disappearing.

The other type collects things which are beautiful, being indifferent instead to whether they will ever be needed. These hardly restrict themselves to lumpish, awkward, physical goods. However, note, they make shocking exceptions.

Twenty years

I am, plainly and without revision, reprinting my essay from five years ago, which was then entitled, “Fifteen years.” It states what I have to say about terror strikes, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Islamic tide and the Western, Christian response to it, in a way that I don’t think will change in the foreseeable future. My continuing sympathy for all victims of this world’s revolutionary events.

*

A generation or more is necessary to see any large event in some historical perspective. That the fall of the Berlin Wall was a “large event” we could see immediately, but not what it portended. The political world would be transformed, but the New World Order that George Bush Senior foresaw was a mirage. Ditto with events since 9/11.

Several thousand were killed on that day in 2001 — the anniversary of the Ottoman defeat at the Gates of Vienna. This was a comparatively small number, by modern standards. The rich symbolism of this Islamist operation was lost on the West, which no longer cares for history or legend. A brilliant assault of “asymmetric warfare,” it fulfilled all of its objectives. The torch has since been passed from the more moderate al-Qaeda to the more fanatic Daesh, and will be passed again in due course. Osama bin-Laden personally lost face by being hunted down and killed like a rat, but his vision of a restored Islamic Caliphate survives him. It inspires still the young in heart and mind.

The immediate intention was to humiliate the “Great Satan”; to awaken the sleeping giant and make him blindly thrash; to goad him into self-destructive behaviour as he struck against an enemy he could neither locate nor understand. Beyond this: to expose him as a paper tiger, tilting a balance of power, and transferring initiative from the mightily-armed “Crusader” to the nimble “Jihadi.” Within the Muslim world: to show that only the radical Salafist faction could get results, could change the direction of history and, as it were, “make Arabia great again.”

As I suggested above, we are still too close to this event to grasp its full significance; but after fifteen years we in the West are in a much worse position than we were on the 10th of September, 2001. We showed, as the Islamists predicted, that we did not have the stamina to prevail, even against weak adversaries; that America and allies could only fight “Vietnams.” Our will is shaken, and to Salafist delight, we have by now expressed contrition for fourteen centuries of Christian defence against Islamic aggression. We bow respectfully, as our culture is insulted, and as versions of Shariah are imposed. In disregard of our own security, we have thrown our borders open to massive Muslim immigration. We follow, at every junction, the course of sentimentality, and adapt to the certainty of defeat. After each hit we call for grief counsellors.

It is instructive that, in the present circumstances, with Christians reduced to desperation through much of the Near East, we import Muslim refugees almost exclusively. The Christians flee to the protection of the Kurds; not to refugee camps in which they would risk massacre. Western governments take only from those camps; or in Europe, the flotillas launched from Turkey and Libya. The Islamists gloat at this demographic achievement; the Daesh now recruit from the disaffected young in the new Muslim ghettoes of Europe, radicalized in Saudi-built-and-financed mosques. Few directly engage in suicidal acts of terrorism; but those who do are lionized as heroes. Lesser, safer acts, such as rape of European women, and desecration of churches and synagogues, have become commonplace. We are, and we know that we are, as incapable of assimilating these migrants as the Romans were of assimilating the Vandals and Huns through their increasingly porous frontiers.

Crucially, in the mindless fantasy of “multiculturalism,” we refuse to recognize the contradictions between Islamic and Christian teaching, and look the other way, muttering fatuities about “the religion of peace” after each psychopathic explosion. This is just what Osama predicted: the harder the blows, the more docile we would become, and the more complacent in the face of the ancient Islamic demand for submission.

The genius of Osama bin-Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, was to know that the de-Christianizing West would respond in this way. Their propaganda spelt out, from the beginning, the argument for their methods. They called us chestless wonders; they said we would fold under any sustained pressure; that we had lost the confidence of our Christian identity. We are an aging society now, vitiated by abortions, needing immigrants to pay our pensions; a people addicted to drugs, from opiates to iPhones; lapsed in creature comforts, and spineless in the face of adversity.

Not all of us, of course. I am sometimes impressed by the number of remnant faithful to the old Christian religion, and its “Western ideals.” In moments of crisis, as we saw for some weeks after the Twin Towers came down, the rest of the population stirs. Yet by Christmas of 2001 they were snoring again, and again the liberal reflexes were twitching. Not al-Qaeda but “Bush” was already being blamed for disturbing the peace.

Bush made one fatal mistake. He “overmisestimated” his countrymen’s ability to stay what he knew must be a long and difficult course. His “flypaper” strategy — as I called it at the time — was to engage the Islamists in their native East; to let them go fight in places like Kandahar and Fallujah, where they would be irresistibly attracted to, and annihilated by, vastly superior American military discipline, logistics, and firepower. It was working too well: Americans began to feel safe again, resented the foreign bloodshed and expense, and so called the boys home. Now the flypaper hangs over the West.

Beyond this, the Bush strategy was to repair a disintegrating international state system. National governments must take sovereign responsibility; must patrol within their own borders. Regimes which exported violence would be confronted. Either they would end the sanctuary they had granted to terrorists, or a U.S.-led coalition of the willing would do it for them. He cited long-established international law, which entitles the victims of raids to “hot pursuit” across international borders. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq successfully, Bush could compel other regimes, such as those governing Libya, Syria, and Iran, to behave themselves. That, too, was working: until Obama suddenly evacuated Iraq, vindicating indeed those who had called the USA a paper tiger. And, flew to Cairo to deliver an obsequious apology from America to the whole Muslim world.

There had been, shortly after 9/11, a curious exchange in a Washington corridor between President Bush and the freshman New York senator, Hillary Clinton. Playing to the morning-after gallery as a hawk, she needled him. He was quite rude. He wished to assure the former First Lady that he would not be replying to the hit on New York City as her husband had done, to previous al-Qaeda provocations. He would not be merely firing a cruise missile up some Afghan camel’s derrière.

Bush delivered on his threats. He thereby earned the respect of his country’s worst enemies, who had become accustomed to American vacillation. But he became over-extended, as he began to fill the Mesopotamian bog with unrecoverable billions, in a lunatic scheme to turn Iraq into a “model democracy.” This was well-meaning American naiveté at its self-defeating worst: for what had once worked in Germany and Japan had no chance anywhere in the Middle East.

Notwithstanding, within two years, despite serial misjudgements, the USA held all the cards. America still enjoyed an unchallengeable and unprecedented “hyperpower” status. Within two more, Bush himself had started to drop them, for domestic political ends. But the Iraq “surge” demonstrated that he was not retreating. He was willing to expend his own diminishing political capital in the American national interest.

It takes some stomach, to stand one’s ground against a ruthless and implacable foe. Bush wrongly believed the West still had it. He paid for that naiveté, too. Tiring quickly of the inconvenience of battle, the public were easily persuaded to disavow Bush as captain, and make him their scapegoat instead. Osama bin-Laden, and not George W. Bush, had been proved more astute.

In my youth, I was amazed to watch the United States of America let itself be defeated by little North Vietnam — having, it seemed to me, agreed to fight blindfold, with hands tied behind back, and feet chained together. It was a failure of resolution, from which I hoped much had been learnt: you don’t fight a war by a ponderous extension of your domestic bureaucracy. You certainly don’t fight a war you don’t intend to win. Osama told the Muslim world it would happen again, and in retrospect, he was right. But Vietnam was made into a mere holding action within the larger Cold War. The consequences of defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan are much greater.

America was our champion, but the West as a whole has proved itself unequal to the barbaric will. Frankly, I cannot imagine a recovery that does not involve the restoration of our Christian identity, and the renewal of our Christian mission at home and abroad. As “nothing in particular” we are already buried up to the waist in the trash heap of history.

But of course: alternative futures are not precluded, just because I can’t imagine them. Maybe we’ll be saved by flying saucers.

Things go better with Coke?

I am quite fortunate to have several critics, or email correspondents as they might call themselves, who selflessly opine on almost every one of the posts I despatch from up here in the High Doganate. I am thinking in particular of a lady — her youth and foreignness have never been specified — who has commented at greater length than I have written, and mostly about my literary quirks, in addition to the topics I have written on. She is pleasantly abrasive and saucy, and has seldom failed to make at least one point that might be construed as negative and destructive; but in a spirit or tone that is casual and jolly.

Perhaps I might call her “upbeat,” from her ability to put a positive spin on the behaviour and intentions of, for instance, our present Holy Father; as well as certain other progressive religionists (mostly nominally Catholic). I begin to see why all the recent popes have been canonized, or at least, are getting loaded into the canons. The Church makes a powerful cheering section; which drowns out those looking glum. There is always someone to like the pope, no matter from where he comes, or how novel and astonishing his theological, doctrinal, and moral positions.

What most impresses me is the ability to remain cheerful, about the way things are going, even when they are going to Hell.

Good cheer requires good energy, too, and here would be a good place to insert an advertisement for a popular energy drink. But as I’ve had to explain to several inquiring advertising agents, recently, I don’t run ads — for fizzy drinks, sports cars, or anything “commercial.” Its part of my anti-flash, downbeat aesthetic presentation.

The calendar

Much to my surprise, I discovered upon glancing at the calendar this morning, that it is the first of September. As my (equally surprising) heart surgery occurred in February, I must have survived it by six months, and be now on the giddy road to recovery. I am not, but that is just a technical detail.

Rather, as my faithful readers may have long suspected, I suffer from tediously post-operative dizziness and “imbalance”; and weakness not merely of will. Some Swedish cardiac rehabilitation equipment at the Toronto Western Hospital has so far failed to cure the physical aspect of this unworldliness; and my propensity to prefer Conservatives to Liberals, Artists to Terrorists, Dante Alighieri to Jorge Bergoglio, and indeed Trump to alternative madmen, cannot be cured. I think I was born with natural biases, before the subjects of it presented themselves.

But this squib must serve as an excuse for my frequent non-appearances in this space, and slowness to respond to my email commentariat. They are asked to forgive me, if they can; and may God bless them, whether or not they do.

Against commerce

It would be useful if all those who are opposed to capitalism, or commercialism, would declare themselves. Hypocrisy requires them to retire from economic activity, and its consequences, such as eating. It happens that most of the material features of our society, and all known previous societies, depended upon commercial activities, and can be described as “capitalist” even when they insist upon describing themselves as “socialist” or “communist.”

The differences come not from buying and selling things, but from what a military man would call “command.” Certain persons (mostly non-military) are elevated in law, to a position where they acquire command of resources, and decide arbitrarily who gets what, based on an equally arbitrary moral system of reward and punishment.

No system of “free market capitalism” is perfect, because no such system has yet to exist, nor could exist given a world that is finite, and in most of its details, consistently real. Indeed, the more “free market” it is declared, the more its operation is interfered with by agencies of the government, in more complicated and unpredictable ways. Taxation is only one of the impositions; and yet substantial, compound taxation is imposed even in sectors of the national economy that are publicly called tax-free.

The issue is not complicated; whereas politicians and the self-interested political or bureaucratic class must pretend that it is. “The world is too complicated to survive without regulations.” Our schools are designed to drive this message home, and thus deprive our infants of even the possibility of freedom; they manufacture the evidence of complication. Except, some children nevertheless instinctively learn to experience freedom as the gift of God.

In my mind, “the economy” has some purposes besides the creation of paperwork, and prison sentences, but its consequences are always tediously economic. For instance, how is it that everyday, necessary objects of food, clothing, and shelter are, if they are not consciously made to an extravagant, luxury standard (which often involves bad taste), are still no match for military goods, which typically may be used only once; if that.

At the Sally Anne and similar institutions, the junk of our culture may be cheaply obtained; it is almost given away. But as we see in Afghanistan, the most potent weapons tend to be distributed absolutely without charge (to our most repulsive enemies). And these are made to an incomparably high standard of reliability, and even beauty.

I am seldom offended by the injustice of our various commercial arrangements — on a good day when the sun comes out, and there are not too many biting insects. Instead, I am uncomprehending.

What chiefly mystifies me about the economy is the common belief in the universal existence of entirely imaginary things; when the universal non-existence of them is fairly clear. This is the case with “capitalism,” or “commercialism” (to maintain a higher standard of politeness. The latter is perhaps more innocent because it is merely comparative; nevertheless it is also rude).

Military items are made to the standard to which religious objects once often answered, or weapons intended for almost purely aesthetic display. Cost is not an issue, whether in manufacture nor in giving the goods away (or sometimes, wantonly destroying them in an act reminiscent of iconoclasm). Whereas, cost/benefit seems always to be calculated, and usually the determinant, in goods available to “the free market.”

That a high proportion of military goods don’t work, when they come to be tested, may be taken for granted; for the cost of testing is a necessary contributor to the theatre of government waste. That is a universal truth — most things don’t work, or don’t work for long — but that is an entirely different issue.

Lightning

Near the beginning of his De Rerum Natura, Lucretius predicts that Mount Etna will again erupt — “ad caelumque ferat flammai fulgura rursum.” The old classics hand, believing that he is dealing with the eccentricities of a poet, will take this as a colourful way to describe a volcano vomiting forth.

But “fulgura” here refers to lightning, so that if the passage is properly translated, lightning will be thrown into the sky.

This is not a poetic metaphor. It is a description that is scientifically exact. The lightning is generated in the heart of the volcano, and thus shoots upward. We aren’t reading what it looks like, but what it is.

Scientists — for instance, a knowing Epicurean like Lucretius — can grasp this. Literature professors might grasp it as well, I suppose, though they tend not to. And, journalists … know less than anybody. In reading the classics, with attention, and perhaps a dictionary, one acquires some respect for the ancients.

*

Afghans similarly. They have had a most unfortunate reputation through most of my adult life, … as psychopathic killers. Yet when I travelled, fairly extensively in that country, as a youth, I saw no sign of this. There were several mostly unrelated regions of Afghanistan, yet there was only one district in one region (Baluchistan) that I felt uncomfortable visiting, to the point of unsafe.

In those days, Afghanistan had not yet been invaded by the Soviets; let alone by Americans and the combined forces of NATO. She had a king. She was surprisingly independent, and ridiculously poor, but was mastering the art of begging from the world’s competing suppliers of foreign aid.

This was unwise. It is sufficient to be poor: the powers will most likely leave you alone in that case.

But the Afghans, especially the overly proud Pashtoons, had the settled habit of gunning down unwelcome intruders. This is not as mad as the world assumes, for it usually discourages their entry.

Granted, Afghans were, in the main, infidels; but when not being invaded, they were generous and hospitable, lively and charming peoples, almost to a fault. Also, some of them good dancers.

The libels told against them are appalling. The Taliban are a small part of the population, though enthusiastically armed, and manly. Their native, foreign-equipped defence forces, against this Taliban, were useful, before the United States Congress decided to cut them off supplies, repeating the crime they had committed at the end of the Vietnam War.

Unlike Afghans, it appears that Americans are easily defeated. Patience and time are all that is needful. They panic and surrender, when they hold all the cards — for instance, surrendering the immense, quite defensible, Bagram Airfield, which they still had a use for, if they were going to ship Americans out. Many other decisions, in which their advantages were relinquished, leave an unfortunate impression of sub-normal intelligence.

More significantly, they announce to the world that they are untrustworthy and unreliable. I am puzzled by such behaviour. A sovereign nation tries generally to avoid this.

They need science, and poets. Also manliness. They have soldiers and aeroplanes enough.

 

Afghanistan

No one can make a serious argument, with or without moral posturing, that the United States had no right to be in Afghanistan. Moreover, there is little evidence that Americans and allies (including Canadians) committed any significant atrocities in that country, that might be cited under Geneva Conventions (which anyway don’t apply). In fact, substantial casualties were taken to avoid inflicting civilian casualties and destruction, even when the civilians in question were committing grievous acts themselves. They just weren’t wearing uniforms.

Whether it was the Americans, in Asia, or the Romans, in remote Europe, it is difficult for any mostly civilized military force to defeat or tame a barbaric enemy. This must be attempted, from time to time.

It is not sufficient to imprison this sort of enemy. As a practical matter, he must instead be killed, both to remove him definitively from the theatre of conflict, and to terrify survivors, thus make them compliant. Modern, Western, post-Christian man has failed to do this even in imagination.

The principle of “mercy” does not come into it. We were fighting to the death against a mortal enemy. Any relaxation on our part would appear as weakness, and weakness costs lives.

The war lasted twenty years, less a few weeks, counting from 9/11. The United States (and allies) once again established their incoherence in battle. A coherent strategy would have ended in victory in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the intimidation of any potential enemies thoughout the “Middle East.” This result was almost available to the George Bush regime, but was sacrificed to maintain several childish illusions about democracy and the rule-of-law, where neither had ever existed.

Foreign wars, against barbaric savages, can be fought and won. Publicity should be avoided, as it has been in all successful encounters of this sort, since history began. We cannot afford to “pull punches.”

It is a myth that Afghans were unwilling to accommodate Western ways of life, or that Muslim fanatics cannot be defeated. The former, like most men, can be governed by fear, when that is what is left to motivate them; and the latter through annihilation.

An inconceivable God

“He is not a male; he is not a female; he is not a neuter. He neither is, nor is not. When he is sought, he will take the form in which he is sought; but again, he will not come in such a form. …

“It is indeed difficult, to describe the name of the Lord!”

This is how God appeared to sages of the Upanishads, in not-quite-ancient India. I would update it, by adding that it neither is, nor is not, compatible with our Christian attempts at description. A Christian would not have God depersonalized to this extent, while even today, a Hindu might think this would be a good thing.

But consider, the Christian has it both ways, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Father of Christ can be — for as much as it means anything to the human understanding — more abstract. He cannot, even in principle, be seen. Christ is less abstract, and more immediately poignant, to the human person. The Bible stories present Him as within the reach of the sympathetic imagination, in a way that, for instance, a mathematical abstraction is not within reach.

“Personhood” has many implications, including the implication of reality. But then what we’ve implied is transcended, through the provision that Christ is “Very God.” Somewhere in this, we have stepped through the irresistible Indian qualifications of God, without reducing everything else to “maya.” It is, theologically, why even as an intellectual attainment, Christianity exceeds all other religions.

But was it achieved by human hands or human minds? This is where the question of Faith re-enters, in its peculiarly Christian way. Our Saviour had to declare Himself. There was no way he could have been discovered. Our Faith must be necessarily a “reckless” departure, from what can be done on our own terms, to what can be done only on His.

Without Christ, Christ is inconceivable.

Discernment

“We can only renew ourselves by discerning God’s will in our daily lives.”

This line was all that I retained from the blither and blather of a random papal Tweet. It is a statement of radical, uncontested Protestantism; if I should put it vaguely. More succinctly, it reveals pathological narcissism in the speaker, and marks him out as someone, at most, only partially sane.

His other remarks were of the same quality.

Let me explain. No one can discern God’s Will, even when it is presented to us in its simplest, most direct form. God, for instance, tells us not to murder our children. But we don’t need to discern this. It is like science. The “fact” that murder is evil, is confirmed by all human experience, and is too obvious to insist upon a written proof. A person who doesn’t understand it is not making a mistake, a “scientific error,” or discovering an exception to the conventional rule — although such things happen.

But we are discussing Murder. An intelligent person knows what that means, as much as an unintelligent person can know it. I daresay even an over-busied Peronist from Argentina will “smoak” it out.

What he may not know — what he may imperfectly “discern” — is that he will be damned for a knowing act of murder. The same for many acts that are an analogy to that; that resemble murder by intention or style. Or perhaps, after the course of a complex life, he will not be damned.

We might know this by discerning God’s Will, assiduously through all pasts and futures, if we could. Be we cannot. We can only beg for mercy, and promise to amend.

This, at least, distinguished a Catholic from a Calvinist in my mind. I am not trying to condemn Calvinists here, for again in my experience, few of them honestly believe what they’ve been taught, and many are in defiance of the teaching, or by forgetting it, kind and merciful. The belief that they’ve been saved, by the Will of God, and are among the “elect,” is an emotional distraction from what in their lives was objective. It is foolish to depend upon discernment.

It is foolish to pretend that you know what you can’t know, and yet, can know perfectly well that you can’t know.

Call this “science.” The standards for proof are very high, when we look into the most straightforward, demonstrable empirical questions. It goes beyond, for matters that must be permanently invisible to us, such as the Will of God in all its unknowable detail.

The person who claims to teach, more than he has received from his own teachers, and tells others to claim this freedom for themselves, must generally assume himself to be very knowing. But he lies, and is a mindless tyrant, and what he knows is false. Ignore him.

A rainbow nation

Like most observers, visiting from Mars, I have a hard time making sense of events on this planet. In particular, what caused: the death by violence of several hundred people; the looting of shopping malls and warehouses nationally; arrests and bumps in the night for prominent politicians (having naught to do with actual disorders); and general rioting and destruction. That about one-third of South Africans are unemployed, perhaps has some explanatory value, but there is no agreement on what caused that.

Or, we could examine the whole history of race relations — and all other interpersonal relations — that produced the explosively-packed supercharge of bullshit that generally passes for “political analysis” today. This could be summarized as “racial tension, communal mistrust, injustice, corruption and blah blah blah.”

“Corruption” is a rather vague term, for there are several thousand forms of corruption, or more, each of which can be justified in a pinch, and all of which are popular with their beneficiaries. There are heartfelt cries for “democracy,” which is irrelevant to the case, for it is at the root of every election, where the people are invited to vote for what they want. A large part of South Africa’s (racially diverse) population seems to want wide-screen TVs, cellphones, and a remarkably narrow list of other “consumer durables.”

I suppose that, in a state of anarchy, I might be tempted to loot scholarly, specialized bookshops. I say this to assure gentle reader that I am no different from everyone else, except — there are no high-class bookshops near where I live. By comparison, wide-screen TVs, cellphones, and the other electronic gizmos, have never appealed to me. This perhaps explains why I have no revolutionary inclinations (and am frequently criticized for my reactionary disposition.)

Returning to our political analysis of South Africa, after wading through the factional stresses in what amounts to a one-party state (the African National Congress is unassailable), I notice that a writer in the New York Times (William Shoki) has the power of seeing through many illusions. The bloguist, Glenn Reynolds, put his eyes on what we call the money quote:

“The state, rather than the market, became the main site for opportunity and enrichment.”

Read and absorb. For thirty years, or more to be accurate (for the apartheid system also enriched its loyal friends), this is what has been happening there. It has little to do with race, as we can see locally, for it is happening here, too. White people are equally adept at exploiting a system based on black or other “visible minority” favours. The suffering, impoverished minorities, or majorities it may well be, are equally liable to be cut out.

It’s very hard to do racism, efficiently. People don’t understand.

Mr Warren advises

This morning’s mail contains a shocking suggestion. A correspondent in remote Michigan asks, “Would not a ’13th century man’ have chosen to die rather than have heart surgery and all the care that followed?”

I was already preparing my answer when I realized it must be posted too late. I am often inconvenienced, or embarrassed, by my birth in the 20th century. But at least, it was before open-heart surgery, which I had the leisure to grow into, without a terrible rush. Many other medical adventures I omitted, together with the moral quandaries they would have set me in, to say nothing of the time I could have spent in hospitals.

As the driver of a three-wheeler in Delhi once explained, death is the solution to many, apparently intractable, problems. We were travelling around a traffic circus between two large transit buses at the time. Our three-wheeler was, by comparison, tiny and invisible. The buses were squeezing together.

My driver had just finished commenting on traffic conditions. “A path will emerge!” he said, brightly. Asked to review this opinion in light of the two buses, he said, “Death can be a path.”

True philosophers can perhaps only be found in Michigan and Delhi; plus Socrates in Athens.

My present correspondent added, I should mention, that he was asking this morning’s (first) question on behalf of himself. In the last decade or so, he has “gone to the ER with heart problems multiple times,” yet never had surgery because his cardiologist said he would probably die on the table.

Even so, he is sometimes tempted to throw all his medications in the garbage and chance it.

As I lack the qualifications to practise as a physician, I am unable to advise my elderly correspondent if this would be wise. Nevertheless, I have a settled prejudice against “Big Pharma,” which would incline me to the lower doses.

In my own case, I was rushed into the operating theatre so quickly, and with so little philosophical discussion, that it would have been impossible to consider all the implications. In this, and most other cases, “modern medicine” has decided on the course of action.

One watches the surgical team assembling. They are, like so many modern things, urgently efficient, but unimaginative. Verily, they would be punished if they used their imagination.

That is why people live so long today, although my information is that they lived almost as long, and stayed healthier, in the High Middle Ages. But this is to reduce the historical experience to arbitrary medical criteria (confirmed in the parish records). Surely there are better ways to judge human life.