Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Deeper fakes

If you were planning to vote in “the world’s largest democracy” — a.k.a. “the Republic of India” — you might be following an “avatar” of one of the major parties. The Indian political scene has now slightly evolved from the standard we were accustomed to, in the United States, where dead people have long filled the voters’ rolls (though I expect the U.S. will catch up shortly). For in India, the actual candidate may be dead, or the “influencer” speaking for him may have perished — some time ago. A certain “Duwaraka,” for instance — the young daughter of a Tamil Tiger chief, who died in an airstrike back in 2009 — now reappears as an articulate middle-aged lady in Tamil election videos. Prominent politicians, not previously noted for their musical or bunny-hopping skills, adeptly sing and dance (and in athletic costumes); and there are other surprising achievements.

These are all current features of “artificial intelligence,” reported to the Beeb. I have elsewhere read commentaries on the “brave new world” that AI has made possible.

But really, one need only look at the performances of Justin Trudeau, or Joe Biden — two  miracles of the older technology — to see that democracy is not especially threatened. For these and other men (and women!) were also avatars, probably from birth, created by expert political projectionists. Only the naïve could think that they were tangible.

The new, entirely electronic avatars are only slightly more sophisticated than the old ones they replace. They bring just a little bit of technical progress to our governing estates.

Skyscrapers

Economics, at its best a non-partisan game, or “science,” is not the same thing as capitalism, although the extremely ignorant confuse these terms. Capitalism is an ideology, like socialism or communism. Whereas economics simply tells you, “If you do this, the market will do that,” everything else being equal (which it never is). But even when everything else is unequal, it still gives better results than any ideology.

The world builds skyscrapers, from what it imagines are economic motives. Minarets, pagodas, and campaniles need not pretend to be profane, but the Burj Khalifa or the Shanghai Tower pretend. They are, of course, also impractical, but their designers assume they will make money, which they might do in our spiritual Disneyland.

Across Humber Bay from the High Doganate I have had the dubious pleasure of watching a pseudo-Manhattan rise in formerly smalltown Mimico. It consists exclusively of vertiginous apartment blocks, without businesses, and provides a “sleeper suburb” for Toronto. Aesthetically, it is impressive, the farther away you stand. At the typical reader’s distance, it must be quite beautiful.

When the electricity cuts out, after the next Carrington Event, the latest inmates of Mimico and the office blocks downtown will get good exercise walking up and down from the 40th floor, and across town looking for food. But this may come to seem the least of their troubles. For unlike snails, or cockroaches, blockbuster real estate projects cannot adapt; and their corpses are very large and inconvenient.

This is being discovered in the United States at the moment. Huge skyscrapers are hitting the second-hand market at a reduced price. I was just reading about the 44-storey “AT&T Centre” in St Louis, which sold for more than $200 million when new in 2006. With the AT&T decals removed, it has resold for $3.6 million. That’s more than forty flights down. The Chinese property market has done somehow worse, and I look forward to the prices in the Mimico “clearance sale.”

But why should we expect such sites to be cleared? For what will the land underneath these giants be worth, when the worldlings come to their senses, and decide they don’t want new skyscrapers any more?

Being right

The problem for Galileo, so far as it was theological, was that the earth is not in heaven. This it would be, by the mediaeval model, if the sun were put at the centre of the universe, as the Copernican arithmetic seemed to indicate. But in contemporary Ptolemaic cosmology, the earth, being at the centre, was the farthest one could be from heaven. It did not participate in the dance of the spheres, and so, could not hear the music.

Of course, it turned out Copernicus, the Catholic canon, was wrong, along with everyone else. For the sun is not stationary, either, even though the wonderful aurora displays over the weekend made us think twice.

Can you believe it? That the earth is revolving around the sun?

“I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me,” said Cardinal Bellarmine, quite typically. This brilliant Counter-Reformation cleric got bad press out of the Galileo affair, even though he judged carefully. (The Protestants up north were much less cautious in condemning heliocentricity.) He thought that scripture and the better homiletic passages, along with common sense, seemed to endorse the Ptolemaic model. For it sure looked like the sun was rising every morning. But one must be circumspect about such things.

We now know that the professoriate were Galileo’s real enemy; not the Church. They were narrowly Aristotelian (instead of broadly Aristotelian, like Thomas Aquinas) and quite censorious. Aristotle was “settled science” for them, and Aristotle wasn’t a heliocentrist. Galileo had too much enjoyed defying “settled science,” and twitting the professors at Padua. They wanted him punished “as an asshole,” and Church officials were persuaded to play along.

There are Galileos in every science, always, and like their original, they generally jump the gun. I appreciate the “zen” Galileo, patiently polishing lenses for his telescopes, rather than the alarming controversialist looking for trouble. But the real hero of the Galileo affair (according to me) was Robert Bellarmine, then, perhaps, the most learned man in Italy. He subscribed to truth, at every level, and at all times.

Prog cons

Ontario is governed by a party that calls itself the “Progressive Conservatives,” and has a peculiar Canadian national history. The title is rather appropriate, however, even in a philosophical sense. It helps explain why I hate the current “Ford” party almost as much as I hate the Liberals and the N-D-Pee. (Of course, it is not humanly possible to hate them equally.)

The word “progressive” is not absolutely decisive here. I am a Reactionary and a Traditionalist — as readers may have guessed by now — and neither a progressive nor a conservative, except that I use that latter word colloquially, sometimes, to mean “reactionary” and “traditionalist.” The philosophical distinction was neatly made by Karl Mannheim, and others.

Indeed, the word “conservative” was a modern invention, made by that delicious Frenchman, François-René de Chateaubriand (who came from Saint-Malo, the way Canada did). In the early XIXth century, he launched a journalistic movement for the restoration of French civilization. It was a political movement, in opposition to what we would now call the progressive revolutionary movement. The word, “conservative” caught on, first in Germany and then in England, in the mid-1830s.

Now Chateaubriand, who wrote a magnificent, romantic defence of Christianity, may be recommended to the reader who is getting tired of C. S. Lewis, though it will help if he reads French. He will be taught that catholicism is not anything “mere.”

But back to Mannheim, the movement of conservatism is what marks it as an exception from instinctive traditionalism, “the original reaction to deliberate reforming tendencies … bound up with magical elements of consciousness.” In other words, traditionalism is not a movement. It is as old as time, and essentially undefeatable. The most revolutionary characters are (typically) set in their ways; they are only stimulated by “the programme.” Paradoxically, the political conservative will often be progressive in his private life.

The secret of tradition is those “magical” things, which the progressive is always jawing against. The most humans can achieve, individually or collectively, is a trade-off. Something worth keeping must always be sacrificed. The idea of progress is that of continuous, accumulating good, without trade-offs. It is an example of the fallacy of perpetual motion.

Torchlight

“There is a great deal of suicide in a nation,” said Adam Smith of General Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga. I paraphrase. In fact, the ur-economist had just been told that the United Kingdom was ruined, not that it had committed suicide; for there had been no intention to beget the United States. There was “a great deal of ruin” in the homeland, Smith said, at which he then sniffed. After all, the British hadn’t finished acquiring India, yet. But the Whigs — and I hate them yesterday as today — had generally settled on a policy of self-destruction, varied with romantic, Imperial arrogance. They might be compared to an over-dramatic teenager, who attempts suicide a few times before she finally gets it right. It took Britain until the XXth century to elect socialists, and finally do herself in.

Adam Smith was, intellectually, a “liberal”; but a fiery Scotch moralist under the skin. Nothing wrong with that; liberals (unlike Whigs, the prototype Leftists) tend to be thoughtful, convivial people, who avoid making scenes. But no empire is won or lost because of their advice. The perfect liberal is a benevolent cricket umpire, I once thought, while he ignored my l.b.w.

“Play up! play up! and play the game!” is the contrary advice of the “Vitai Lampada.” To take one’s knocks, and one’s outs, and even the existential defeats with tranquil serenity, is not even slightly in conflict with this. In Mr. Smith’s drollness I detect the glimmer of the true Tory lightening rod. That’s why I still condescend to read him.

Bi-polarity

“Here is the Church, here is the Steeple,” my maternal grandmother would say to me, illustrating her thesis with manoeuvres of her clasped hands. … “Open the door, and there’s all the People!” … It was my first instruction in Church history, which, I soon learnt, must overlap with world history. But whereas the Church is unipolar, focusing its prayers on the one God; the world, by contrast, has multiple poles. Or, to simplify, it is bi-polar, in relation to the divine; half pointed this way and half the other.

Shrinks used the term to replace manic-depressive, out of a desire not to moralize. But, penetrating the skull scientifically, we have discovered there are right and left hemispheres, not only in every human cranium, but in those of many animals, too. (The reader should consult Iain McGilchrist — somewhat Scottish, just like my grandmother. You will find him all over the Internet, even if you are not looking.)

But I am curious this morning about another form of bi-polarity, that between Russia and America. Of course, the full, wide world is multi-polar, as we might imagine a person who had nuclear weapons, and was very, very, very, mad.

We have perhaps had “nukes” over-explained to us, although they remain, as it were, over our heads. The modern, high-tech, progressive, hydrogen, thermonuclear weapon is a miracle of sophisticated engineering and design. It combusts by fusion, a big improvement over the fission bomb that was good enough for Hiroshima. Indeed the latest thermonuclear bombs, though of smaller, more convenient size, can blow up on many times the scale.

And, they don’t spread radiation nearly as much as the old-fashioned A-bombs. Properly detonated, a little above the ground, they don’t produce fallout at all — although that danger was overstated. (You can walk right through Hiroshima with a Geiger-counter, less than a century after that blast, and you won’t get any reading at all.)

On the other hand, the new, improved nuke can obliterate most of a large city, and vaporize millions.

Will Putin use nuclear weapons when he finds himself bungling the war in Ukraine? For, he is hampered by munitions sent from Biden, and we know he is impatient. As any Democrat could tell you, he must really want Trump to win the next election.

He could interfere, by ordering surprise strikes against the United States, with those hypersonic missiles he’s been boasting about. He need not fear retaliation while the American command is distracted by gender issues, and Biden, who is senile, has probably lost the codes.

The electoral balance reflects urban-rural divisions. Regardless of State, if the County is urban, it is Democrat for sure. If rural, it is probably Republican. By targeting only big American cities, Putin could alter election results. Trump would now almost certainly win.

Arians, under every bed

One of the faults of the gentleman who writes these Idleposts might be described as “mental slippage” — a phenomenon that leaves him absent from the place he should mentally be. Indeed, “Mister Worn” wrote knowingly himself about “absent mindedness,” when he was younger: that it is the result not of acting without thinking, but of attempting the simplest tasks through cluttering and distracting conscious thought. (They are meant to be done unconsciously.) This author’s condition was somewhat aggravated by the stroke that turned him not quite into a vegetable, three years ago. (My friends insist charitably that I’m now “ninety-six percent,” so I shouldn’t claim to be more than twenty-four parts “a greenie” in every twenty-five.)

Example: when making my little mention of Athanasius, Thursday, I entirely forgot the point I was going to make about him on his feast day. He was, as I did mention, the scourge of the Arian heretics, but more, he is our contemporary. Now, this is not often said of an Ante-Nicene Father, but Athanasius was too large to fit entirely into the IVth century. He grasps the whole point of Arianism and, as it were, runs with it.

Arius taught that Christ was not Very God, not the Godhead of the Word, but just a man, only higher in grace than most, if not all, others. He was saying just what sympathetic non-Christians say today, that Jesus was, memorably, very good. We should try to emulate Him, they sort-of believe. In other words, we may “honour” him, even though he is absolutely bonkers, and a liar, and a fraud, who could not have risen from the dead. This is the immortal heresy, of the perpetually modern.

For if Christ was not God, He was instead rather silly, and we should be doing whatever most appeals. We, thanks to evolution and democracy, may distinguish right from wrong. This is the Arian principle on which every moderate liberal lives today — while saying nice, cluttering things about Our Saviour.

Contra mundum

Athanasius the Apostolic (as he has been to the Copts of Alexandria, since the IVth century, when he was intermittently the Coptic pope) took on the Arians, including Arius, the Egyptian heretic, directly. It was not merely an Egyptian affair — although Egypt was in the middle of Christendom in those days. For Athanasius also fought with Roman emperors, from Constantine to Valens, in defence of Christianity, plain and catholic. Intermittently, he was removed from office and kicked out of Alexander’s town, but there was no shutting him up. Attempts to kill him always failed.

We (Dogans) remember him today (literally) because the creed he advanced still has meaning. Catholic Christianity is the same as Nicene Christianity, sixteen-and-a-half centuries later. The Trinity, and the divine identity of Jesus, were the truths that Athanasius contrived to make clear. He maintained these orthodoxies, contra mundum, and is one of our most formidable proofs that, sometimes, the world loses.

To follow the “Proper of the Saints” daily is to take in Catholicism in her breadth. It is to be, at least in aspiration, a little Athanasius, from yesterday until tomorrow. It is how one learns to be a proper irritant to the heretics one encounters. For our religion isn’t narrow, and we will not make it narrow to please them. It was perhaps in his frequent displacements from the See of Alexandria that Athanasius acquired his familiarity with the wide world, and with the monks of the Egyptian desert, including Anthony the Great.

He was smeared by the Arians, over and over; their mud naturally targeted Athanasius, for he never moved. But Pope Julius in Rome, and Holy Church, eventually washed it away.

Lying in debate

One cannot lie in a debate. Or, to put it the other way, one cannot debate with a liar. This elementary fact (or “principle,” sounds nicer) seems not to have been put at the disposal of students in any college or post-graduate setting in the time since I (arguably) grew up. True, one might argue that Biden or Trump is a liar, but this will be meaningless in a forum where everyone is lying. At most, one may distinguish the smaller from the bigger lies, and “bullshit” (as Harry G. Frankfort defines it) from the more obvious forms of deceit.

This, to my mind, is what honesty has been replaced by, in journalism and all the other occupations where the impartiality of truthfulness was once prized. “Fairness” has become the new standard. If a statement undercuts both sides, it may be presented as “fair,” though of course it will not be. But the advantage, to the lazy falsifier, is that an apparent balance requires little effort, and no knowledge of the subject. For the knowledgeable exhibit bias, after all. They are, like Aristotle, “masters of those who know.” They are imbalanced; they take sides. Only the ignorant escape special pleading for the truth.

I have noticed this phenomenon (universal lying) more clearly as I try to keep up with current events. We cannot defeat “Communists” and “Leftists” (and “Islamists” and dispensers of “smelly little orthodoxies” of many other kinds), because they make up facts to benefit themselves. But more, the universality of lying creates a background against which any truth must vie. Our leading sceptics deny that we can even distinguish a truthful pattern. This makes them systematically dishonest.

Perhaps I exaggerate — one of the more innocent forms of lying? Perhaps, even today, it is possible to speak the truth. This could be done with much effort, and real courage, like Hercules shifting the Augean pile; a necessarily heroic act. For the human mind was usefully endowed with a mysterious ability to detect reality: a “nose for the news,” as it were.

It can tell when the mephitic smell has lifted.

Laetatus sum

The seventy-first is a good, or memorable, birthday, for it is the point when most men (who are just like me) realize, “I am now an old man.” The point was perhaps overlooked previously, because “three score and ten” suggests, Biblically and often medically, that death is imminent; that one’s assigned days have lapsed. (“Come in, number twenty-nine, your time is up.”) But by seventy-one, he has absorbed that trauma, and is in a better position to “lift up eyes to Him that dwelleth in heaven.” For the date or year of one’s death can only be of interest to historians, insurance salesmen, and tax collectors. When a thousand years have passed, and vexation is over, surely the immortal soul loses interest in “vital statistics.”

I think back to when the numerals were reversed — when I was seventeen and not seventy-one — and thanks to Julian, dear surviving friend, I’ve been given a photograph of myself with the other five tenants of “45 Soi Phet” in 1970. We are all young, especially wee “Bu,” who was then only two, and mischievously trying to squeeze out of the frame. I stare at this picture, which seems to preserve a mythic time, unreachable by the common. Yet I could return to it, as if subsequent history had been a dream. I am slain by nostalgia.

The sense of loss comes with this world, and continues until, eventually, even the sense of loss is lost. The dead will bury their dead.

Expressionist

Sir Alister Hardy, famous as a marine biologist, was instead a great camoufleur. A young man, he wanted to continue his schooling, on the eve of the Great War, but instead volunteered and was enlisted in the camouflage directorate. It was where the authorities sent their artists, who would be nothing but trouble elsewhere. And it was a way for the artist to continue developing his skills as a painter, rather than as a shooter or bomber (although these also require skill).

The term could be extended beyond the battlefield, I think, into art and science. A camoufleur pretends to be a scientist, while joyfully painting things. Or, he pretends to be an artist, while contriving to be systematically uninventive.

Sir Alister coloured my childhood through two nature books, on The Open Sea. The first was on The World of Plankton and the second on Fish and Fisheries. His illustrations were aberrant for scientific work: for, borne on boats like the Discovery, and dredging the deep, he painted his subjects before their colours had faded, and the wink of life was still on them. He thus captured qualities that no photographer has ever captured. But his prose is “camoufleur,” too: technically correct, but with the breath of poetry whispering.

Marine biology has made dramatic improvements in the years since the IGY (approximately when these books were published), but at the microscopic, “genetic,” sub-cellular levels. At the visual, his work remains precise and explanatory, and in its kind, complete.

It is a wonderful illustration of how science never goes out-of-date, so far as it can be confused with art. The same goes for utile diagrams in all ages. Mr Henry, my biology teacher, demonstrated this with coloured chalks, on the board in the Bangkok Patana school. He cared only for scientific accuracy, but as he obtained it, he obtained art.

The creatures of this world camouflage their physiology with expressions of being. Except, it is not expression. It just is, and they just are.

The Luddite’s dilemma

Chancing upon the Unabomber’s cabin, while visiting Lincoln, Montana (on my Internet screen), I had a look inside. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, a mathematics prodigy and a domestic terrorist, committed his last murder in June at the ADX Florence (a “supermax” security prison in Colorado). It was a self-murder (selbstmord, as the Germans say). Before going to gaol, he had a 35,000-word essay entitled “Industrial Society and its Future,” which the Washington Post published in 1995 (with the official encouragement of Janet Reno). I went to some trouble to obtain that number of the Post, at the time.

As I recall, it was a reasonably coherent exposition of the Luddite’s doctrinal position, or “ecofascist” as its opponents now say, though it left this reader wondering: Why did he kill people by mailing them bombs? The flaw here was that these targets were specific individuals, not gratuitously slaughtered while demolishing their machines. Even Kaczynski himself seemed aware of this contradiction.

But it is while looking around his cabin, off the Stemple Pass Road in the woods to the south of Lincoln, that we feel the weight of this dilemma.

There was no expressive spontaneity in the Unabomber’s acts, for he required much research and preparation. While I was delighted to see a Latin schoolbook, several paperback translations of Tacitus, and a mediaeval history on his shelves, they groaned not from books but with his matériel as a bomber. He erred, not in his declensions, but in his partiality for cybernetic and technological means.

No proper Luddite will embrace mechanical methods to such a degree. The beauty of Ludditism should consist in the destruction of sophisticated machinery with unsophisticated gear (and the disabling of the machines, not the people — but then, I am a stickler). The mission is to advance a pastoral cause, not to systematically extend the frontiers of “urbanity.”

Given this dilemma, one wonders whether the young counter-revolutionary should consider becoming a Luddite at all.

Electronic materialism

It is a minor point, like many I am inclined to insist upon, but my chief criticism of the Internet, and “cyberspace,” has to do with its materialism. By this I don’t mean the omnipresent advertising that brings filth and dirt into one’s life whenever the World Wide Web is consulted. Yes, it is appalling; but the excuses made for it are, if possible, rather more appalling. (They make the service “accessible to the poor,” who will be the most harmed by it.) There is such a crass display of sensuality, carnality, avarice, that one might argue it gives moral protection, by making these things more repugnant.

The opposition in our culture, between “the material” (rhetorically bad), and “the spiritual” (rhetorically good), dating in some respects to the early Nominalists and thus even before my enemy Descartes, is at the root of many errors about the constituency of both. The human, for instance, with body and soul, is our primary example of “one person,” necessarily including both of these elements, that cannot be separated unless by the mechanism of death. (Yet even then, we are promised a new body.)

Even the bats that fly through the planet’s hollow interiors have this human-like individual unity, and even the rolling stone has gravity for an aunt. This last may not have free will — even the bed bug seems to have a minute quantity — but it doesn’t need any. When freed from his aunt, the stone can participate in the dance of the superlunary spheres. The stars, however, may have free will, and mobility, too, by their solar jets, flares, and coronal ejections. They elegantly dance to the cosmic music, whereas, in the sublunary space down here, our dancing is so shamefully awkward.

The tyrannical doctrine of materialism extends through all of our electronic media, via the (false) art of “virtuality.” The difference between a Virtual Thing and a Real Thing goes back to that conflict between the scholastic philosophers (Nominalists v. Realists), then off-road down an unmarked byway.

One is not “spiritual” and the other “material.” Both are merely temporal.