Essays in Idleness


Robert Bork

We did not want the year to pass without lamenting the loss of Robert Bork, who died 19th December age eighty-five. Among the greatest American jurisprudes, he is alas more remembered instead as a verb, for what was done to him. President Reagan managed to get Antonin Scalia onto the Supreme Court (its finest mind to the present day), but the Democrats who controlled the United States Senate in 1987 had long been chafing at Reagan’s rightward judicial course. A Nixon appointee was now retiring, whom the Left had come to appreciate for his mediocrity & pliability. The last thing they wanted was another Constitutional “Originalist” to replace him, with fire & spine. (The Originalist position is to discover what the Constitution “originally” said, & apply that; rather than “creatively” misreading it to get what progressives want & Congress won’t give them.)

And so the campaign to bork Bork began before he was even nominated. It would be a vicious campaign of personal smears & slander against “fill-in-the-blank.” Upon Bork’s actual nomination, Joe Biden quickly draughted a brief in which Bork’s views & career were caricatured with scurrility; the Democrat politicians & progressive lobbyists primped their outrage for the cameras; & the liberal media went dutifully to work amplifying each insinuation.

The most memorable part of this performance was the late Senator Kennedy’s theatrical denunciation, of “Robert Bork’s America.” It was a succession of very bald statements, each a knowing & malicious lie. Bork & his allies were taken aback; they were not prepared for the full stench of what was venting into the Senate chamber from Teddy Kennedy’s soul. Even for a man among the most disgusting ever to demean American politics, it was an unprecedented performance. And yet, in the sight of millions of zombified television onlookers, it succeeded in its object. Robert Bork’s honest reputation lay buried under Kennedy’s steaming pile; & the honour of the Democrat Party went into total eclipse, where it has remained for the past quarter century.

Bork himself, a very decent & learned man, normally quite courageous, was shaken to the point of resigning his appellate-court seat, to become an independent legal scholar. During the Senate hearings, he often seemed amazed by what was being said to him, & asked of him — abandoning legal arguments half-stated, not from any apparent desire to pull his punches, but from the pointlessness of explaining anything to Gadarene swine. His own decisive arguments against e.g. the construction of “civil rights” principles out of thin air, or of the “right to privacy” that justified Roe v. Wade, trailed off into silence. One must go to his books to find them completed.

His book, The Temptation of America (1990), offered powerful insights not only into the techniques but the mindset of several generations of judicial activists, going back to the New Deal if not Woodrow Wilson, rewriting laws with which they did not happen to agree, for the sake of abstract conceptions of justice that were incoherent. He carried this farther in Coercing Virtue (2003), which surveys judicial activism throughout the Western world; for everywhere self-confident liberal judges are putting such cracks into the edifice of law, by means of grand & preening acts of moral & intellectual vandalism.

Bork wrote Slouching Towards Gomorrah (2003), & edited A Country I Do Not Recognize (2005), about activist legal assaults on the commonly-held moral values that serve as the glue for our civilization. Everywhere, liberty is being redefined as licence, & individual liberty confined to the expression of the vile & obscene. Yet throughout Bork maintains a voice that is calmly & cautiously working within the parameters of the old American constitutionalism, often candidly admitting that little or nothing can be done.

We met him a decade ago, up here in Toronto, at a moment when we were both moving into the Catholic Church. Bork’s second wife, Mary Ellen née Pohl (his first died of cancer) led him gradually into the fold, by example he said — a very charming & kindly woman. Alike, Bork & his wife were of the old neighbourly school of America, who took the world for a small town, & greeted everyone in passing. On parting, they casually invited us to stay with them, on our next jaunt towards Virginia. We should have leapt at the opportunity to continue what was already an exhilarating conversation.

Our impression was that, in addition to the spiritual substance of Catholicism, Bork was attracted to the light of Natural Law, in its ancient Catholic exposition; that he was mulling in this light his own implicit legal positivism (that is, the view that the validity of a law depends not on its merits, but on its sources). This followed, too, from revisiting his own earlier “revolutionary” thinking in The Antitrust Paradox (1978 & revisions), where he argued that the law was meant to protect the interest of consumers, which might or might not actually be harmed by any given corporate merger, & must therefore be considered from more angles, less by rote & with more common sense.

He was, we speculate, developing a position more Harry Jaffa than Harry Jaffa — or as we like to think, moving towards what could be labelled, “Originalism Squared.” Where the U.S. Constitution gives only vague, ambiguous, or even contradictory indications of right, it nevertheless points back to natural law principles from which a clearer indication might be constructed, which could then be shown consistent with Constitutional instruction. Bork was endowed with a mind self-critical & intellectually humble; his gift was to stop short, as he thought judges should always stop short, of pushing beyond a demonstrable cusp of clear understanding. But he began to look beyond, towards territory quite different from what activist judges had imagined.

There is never enough time, in this world, & a man grows old before all the implications of his faith & belief & knowledge have truly begun to unfold. As Bork said to me (paraphrase): “Your instincts may be sound, & your argument may be self-consistent, but then your realize the foundations on which you are building are too rough, & you must explore the deeper foundations.”

“Old men should be explorers,” as T.S. Eliot said, “still & still moving,” towards “a further union, a deeper communion.”

In the end Bork was grateful to have been borked. He would have had to spend his last years corked in the bottle with eight other judicial scorpions, joining hapless minorities on the Supreme Court bench, writing opinions on cases themselves misconceived, taking heat for ideas he had never entertained, & yearning for personal freedom. Instead, by luck, he was allowed to roam. “Defeat is the great liberator,” we said apropos another matter entirely, & noticed the sparkling approval in his eyes. Conversely, victory in this world is the usual prelude to disaster. It is a wonderful grace of God to be spared it.

The cure

In the words of the modern carol, “All we want for Christmas is some extra-strength Tylenol,” & sure enough, our little sister brought some up to the High Doganate, “on Christmas Day in the morning.” Since then, the quality of life has much improved up here. We specified acetaminophen, & neither aspirin nor ibuprofen, since in our understanding the former alone would be of any use in masking the symptoms of an unambiguously viral influenza. (Disclaimer: if you are taking medical advice from this website, you may already be beyond help.)

After just one gramme, the fever seemed abating, & the splitting headache had almost disappeared. Nearly three grammes later (at intervals, not all at once, you fool!) we feel almost well enough to run out & catch pneumonia. Isn’t medicine wonderful?

Indeed our first thought, on waking into this Feast of Stephen, was that we should start a charity to ship Tylenol to the Middle Ages. Maybe include some penicillin & basic antibiotics in the care packages; with instructions for their use in easy, colloquial Latin. We’ve all heard the stories about Mediaeval medicine. So why don’t we do something practical to help?

Already we imagine the wisacre query of some insufferable progressive. “How you gonna send that, by Pur-o-lator?” How wantonly these people expose their own ignorance & illogic. The courier companies only serve current addresses. Mediaeval Man is removed from us in time. Therefore Purolator can’t reach him. But that shouldn’t defeat the unwearying Yankee optimism. Instead, we could try digging down to the appropriate archaeological stratum, then leaving the boxes in a conspicuous place. Common sense would supply locations: say, the medical schools at Parma, Padua, Bologna, Montpelier, Paris, or Oxford.


Perhaps, had our ancestors been a little more robust, we could have avoided modernity altogether; & stood a little better against some other impositions, such as those plague-bearing Mongols.

For one of the little ironies of historical fact (as opposed to historical theory, which lacks irony) is that nomadic barbarians often show a quicker understanding of “empirical science” than more civilized peoples, whose practised decency obstructs their “vision.” Indeed, it is because we are becoming nomadic barbarians ourselves, once again, that we are understanding it better & better. But back in the days when we were quite settled, the Black Plague, “the greatest public health disaster in history,” spread from our encounter with the Mongols in Crimea. It was an exceptionally poignant illustration of this phenomenon.

We refer to the Mongol siege of the great Genoese trading colony of Caffa — in its heyday among the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, welcoming alike Genoese & Venetians, Greeks & Armenians, Jews & Muslims from all over, even visitors from far Ethiopia, & Cathay; as also every sort of Turk & Tartar who wandered the lonely Steppe. On his good days, the city enjoyed the contractual protection of the Khan of the Golden Horde, who derived considerable profit from it. On his bad days, however, it didn’t enjoy this.

To our backward, reactionary, & very roughly Mediaeval mind — unshared with contemporary historical scholars — Caffa’s problems really began with a moral, as opposed to physical, “issue.” The city had a very prosperous slave market, which dealt mostly in Turkic slaves, sold chiefly to the Mameluke Sultans for use as soldiers. From a Genoese or Venetian point of view, this was all to the good, not only remunerative in itself but beneficent, since otherwise the Sultan would be enslaving Christians. Too, the Mameluke soldier slave, selected for his height & virility, enjoyed a fairly good life. As the Sultan’s henchman he had the right to bear arms, & lord it over the general population. (The despot’s first act is invariably to withdraw the subject’s right to bear arms; for a half-armed subject is twice as obedient, & an unarmed one almost infinitely so.)

Slavery is intrinsically wrong, of course, but in this case the expansion of the trade turned out also to be a bad move, strategically, for it began to make the Mongols unhappy. They were indifferent when the slavers were capturing their enemies, perhaps even mildly approving. But soon enough it came round to their friends being captured & led away. (Poor Italians probably couldn’t tell the difference.) And no Khan of the Golden Horde is remembered by history for his phlegmatic disposition.

Sultan happy, Khan unhappy, was moreover a bad formula, for the Sultan could offer even less protection from an irritated Khan than could a distantly stretched Italian navy. Not that the navy should be scorned: for contrary to the general understanding, Italian “marines” did a number on the Mongols several times, while operating far away from home. Indeed, they lifted the first Mongol siege of Caffa at a cost of more than 15,000 lives, almost all of them Mongolian.

It was, however, the Mongols’ second siege that counted. Learning from Round One that they would need to up the ante, they suddenly re-appeared in 1345, in the usual Mongol way, from everywhere. They were as ever travelling fairly light, & quite brilliant in equine manoeuvre. But the one, incredibly unlikely, flaw in such a wide subscription of horsemen, announced itself. For at least one of the contributing exotic tribes was carrying the bacillus for the Bubonic Plague, which now began spreading through their entire ranks, decimating them daily, initially to the joy of the besieged within Caffa.

As we hinted above, the native cunning of the barbarian is more use, in grasping the implications of new “science & technology,” than is the reasoning of the civilized man whose judgement is diffused over a wider range of prudential considerations, & who therefore cannot match the “noble savages” for ruthless. The Mongols quite spontaneously grasped the principles of biological warfare. They began catapulting the bodies of their own dead & dying over the city walls.

It was not long before Caffa was losing the battle of attrition. Survivors of the Plague began evacuating voluntarily, even as the Mongols were losing interest in their siege. Those Italian ships that had come to supply food to the besieged, were now carrying the Christians back to their home ports: to Venice & Genoa & all over Europe.

We have for instance the remarkable account of Gabriele de’ Mussi of the homecoming at Piacenza, where the Plague exploded instantly upon the travellers’ return. It includes an account of the cause, crisp enough to satisfy any epidemiologist. It uses apocalyptic language in a convincing way, & adds a touching lament on behalf of distant foreigners: “the Chinese, Indians, Persians, Medes, Kurds, Armenians, Cilicians, Georgians, Mesopotamians, Nubians, Ethiopians, Turks, Egyptians, Arabs, Saracens, and Greeks — for almost all the East has been affected.” (Mediaeval Man kept in touch with world news, even without laptops.)


To the Mediaeval mind, a Plague on such a scale must surely involve Divine Judgement: that is what pertains to apocalyptic language. We retain the words, but the content has been discarded. We read such things & accuse our ancestors of superstition. Yet they were hardly unaware of proximate cause, & had long understood the principle of infection. They could be quite attentive to the hard factuals, when they were seriously interested. All men have always been. It is just that, being more humble & broad-minded than we are (as men generally were more amenable to reason before the Enlightenment), they did not exclude the possibility of Divine Wrath. Nor the hope, should that be the cause, that there might nevertheless still be something they could do to assuage it; such as, earnestly to repent their very real & terrible sins. They were certainly not so completely lacking in human intelligence & dignity as to run about shrieking, “Why why why?”

Consider: frequent private bathing, showering, & washing of hands & feet, were customary throughout the Middle Ages, in continuity from the ancient world. The old Roman systems of urban & rural sanitation had been, whenever possible, carefully restored & assiduously maintained; then gradually extended & improved upon. Episcopal condemnation of public bathing is often cited to refute this. It does nothing of the sort: for it was directed expressly against moral vices. Those fusty old bishops were acutely aware of what went on in bath houses — & of diseases spread not “through the water” but from sexual promiscuity.

It was rather in the Reformation era (on both Protestant & Catholic sides) that all this attention to washing was displaced by fastidious perfuming, & the steam bath — thanks to early modern superstitions about diseases spreading “through the water,” & the early modern belief that only water could carry infections through the pores. Hence, at least partially, the reason for the frequent reappearance of devastating plagues & other epidemics through the 17th century & beyond. Hence, as we have begun to establish from cumulative searching through parish records (we have Mormons to thank for much of this), the curious fact that life expectancy was substantially higher in the High Middle Ages than it ever was again until quite recent times. For as our mommy, a nurse, used to say, “Baby no wash, baby get sick.”

Which guides us to a theme to which we hope to return again & again. Mediaeval Man was not nearly so stupid, nor superstitious, as we hold him to have been today. His capacity for reasoning, in his circumstances, greatly exceeded our own in ours. Nor did he narrowly limit himself to making inferences based on “I feel.” And we, for our part, pay constantly for the contempt in which we hold our predecessors; whereas, Mediaeval Man benefited tremendously from the respect in which he held his. Ditto for our respective relations with foreign cultures. As soon as we meet a new furriner we start lecturing him on how to acquire the bacillus of “progress.” As soon as he met him, the Mediaeval Man began wondering what made him tick.

We remain, for instance, intellectually encumbered by a tremendous weight of foolish & malicious sectarian propaganda, adapted from Reformation pamphlets to our present secular need — which is to show how superior we are to our God-fearing ancestors, in the shadow of mountains of evidence. It cripples our capacity to learn elementary things, & confirms us in our attachments to some of the silliest nonsense any human beings ever believed. We mean really embarrassing, & totally implausible stuff, like Darwinism. Our self-confidence, in buying into such rubbish, is founded upon moronically false ideas about the past, such as “men believed the world was flat,” or “they had no idea of gravity,” or “they argued about how many angels would fit on the head of a pin.” Or, “they thought they were at the centre of the universe” — when actually they thought they were at the bottom of it (except for Hell), & were entirely free of that chronological vanity that attributes every boon to some spooky & murderous “spirit of progress” that we hail in tireless choruses of self-congratulation.

Mediaeval Man inherited astrological, alchemical, herbal & other quackeries (along with things not quack) from their own pagan ancestors, including especially ancient Romans & Greeks; then sifted for the efficacious over long tracts of time. Their notions of the Four Humours were derived from Hippocrates & Galen & many other classical sources towards which they were, perhaps, too credulously respectful. On the other hand, the system worked on its own rules. They were open to Arabic & Oriental influences, not from osmosis but from conscious systematic study. (This is why the motherlode of Mediaeval Islamic science & learning may be sought nowhere else but in European libraries, where so much of it was preserved from destruction: faithfully collected & transcribed, then translated & elaborately commented upon by both monastic & secular scholars.) Of error & prejudice they were quite capable, though on nothing like our modern scale; but also, to a rather greater degree, of empathy towards human suffering.


Our modern medical faculties descend from such medical schools as we listed above. Anatomy was studied with (Church-permitted) human dissections, & methods of surgery were advanced thereby. The use of clove & other herbal oils with anaesthetic properties was commonplace, along with methods of dressing & sterilizing wounds, & careful use of clean bandaging — whether or not on the correct germ theory. Monastic physic gardens were constantly exploring the properties & possibilities of medicinal herbs — goldmines of useful information lost & too often still awaiting rediscovery.

But beyond this the whole culture of medicine — the teaching colleges (in which it took ten years to become an M.D.), the specialized hospitals & hospices for such as cripples & the blind, those for sick children, for women, for the elderly & infirm, for those afflicted with various specific chronic diseases; the asylums for the mad, & for the lepers; the alms houses scattered everywhere; the dispensaries & surgeries for the poor which also distributed food & clothing; the networks of itinerant medical specialists of every description; the guild systems to enforce quality controls — from where would gentle reader think all these things came?

You are dead right, gentle reader! For all came without exception from that despised Mediaeval Catholic Church; & from her idle & corrupt clergy; & her crazy brooding monks & nuns; & from her scary dark theological notions; & from her antichrist Popes — such as Innocent III, who at the dawn of the 13th century launched a “crusade” to provide every little town throughout Christendom, no matter how remote, with its own medical hospital (as distinct from “hospitals” for pilgrims, which themselves provided medical assistance, & other charitable care). Towns of a size that would usually count as villages today. In so many of which, they also built cathedrals, with towers soaring into the sky.

And all this carried on the income of the great monastic houses, & by grand bequests & donations, & by guild & municipal charity & pride, & by voluntary & monastic labour, & by little old grandmas dropping their wee copper mites into small tiny boxes & lighting wee little candles for their loved ones in Purgatory — & yes, a portion through light but compulsory tithes, waived for paupers. Compare: the sprawling Kafkaesque bureaucracies & punitive taxation of our dysfunctional Nanny State, with its spectacularly overpaid union goons, & the powerpoint people whose fiscal footprints would swallow whole wards of nursing sisters (the real ones: the nuns). Who care about you like they care about their neighbour’s barking dog.

The city of Florence, population around 70,000 on the eve of the Black Death, had more than two dozen specialized hospitals; three-quarters of these Florentines perished all the same (fun facts that happened to burn into our brain many summers ago while reading Boccaccio, & Villani). But from a long fascination with old city plans, we may confidently tell gentle reader that, wherever he may want to go through the later Middle Ages — to London, to Paris, to Naples, to Milan — he will find eleemosynary institutions similarly thick on the ground. This remains true, incidentally, through to the eve of the Great War in 1914 — a much greater concentration of hospitals, pensioner’s reprieves, conventual establishments, schools, colleges, & every other sort of humane institution unlikely to pay its own way, than he will ever find in an equivalently populated patch of any urban landscape at the present day. And: supported by ecclesiastical & private philanthropy beyond the reach or audit of the state.


For we are not restricted to defending the honour of Mediaeval Man, & not interested in the view that his Middle Ages resembled Utopia at any point over their duration of a thousand years. This will especially not appear to anyone whose knowledge of Mediaeval history consists of the twenty worst things that ever happened over that whole time, compressed into six-&-a-half paragraphs. The most we would say, for most of this very long period, is that it formed a civilization that was morally, aesthetically, & intellectually, as well as spiritually, superior to our own. But perhaps even better Christendoms are possible, if by faith we should be inspired once again towards higher civilization.

That we cannot, alternatively, “return to the past” is a truth even a cat can understand, & only a progressive intellectual would try to explain. (Many have indeed tried to explain it to us.)

As journalist, we have several times patiently endured, in a television studio or wherever, an oily lecture from a little vacuum tuba on “the Mediaeval attitudes of the Catholic Church” towards e.g. public health. To which no short answer was possible. Given a sound bite to reply, we recently tried: “Have you ever noticed, Sunshine, that more than half the hospitals in this fine secular burg were named after some Saint?” But this was edited out, as tends to happen whenever a programme is pre-recorded, & before we are never invited back.

And we would not have it otherwise, for to interpret Saint Paul, there are chasms in nature no light may ever reach.

Ho ho ho

A member of our Commentariat complains about our misuse of the word, “issues.” But it is part of our “Gangnam style.” It is among the demotic expressions in which we delight. It casts light, or can do, into deep wells of unhappiness & misfortune. We heard once a young lady speak of an uncle who languished on his deathbed. “He has cancer issues,” she explained, as if it were some little fuss putting him out of his humour. Perhaps we should explain that she loved this uncle, & visited him almost every day. And that, to the end, he never approved of the way she dressed. (At his funeral, she appeared in Goth. )

Another for example is the word, “whatever.” We have heard it abused with real genius, & this excites the spirit of rivalry in us. The applications in theology, philosophy, & the other sciences, are downright stupefying. From how many mantraps could we have been sprung by the judicious insertion of this word, “whatever.” The mind buckles!

There are also complaints, in our email, about our promotion of pop videos, can you believe it?

We have a Moravian friend, Aegidius, who is, or at least was before he seemed to lose his television, our authority on pop videos. A man of learning, gravity & grace, he assured us that these videos must be seen; that they were hilarious. In truth, perhaps YouTube is too much of a good thing. But Aegidius kept that television only for the MuchMusic channel. It was thanks to him we discovered, those years back, so inspiring a video as this one.

Of a mediaeval disposition of mind, Aegidius is disinclined to condemn anything. As Dante, he is moved instead to arrange the phenomena of history, lovingly, each into its correct hierarchical position; thus in the Divine “Comedy” making use of all the rungs in Hell. Or lest we be taxed for too narrow a focus upon the heritage of Christendom, let us adduce the wise counsels of that Yogin of Amdo, Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol. Follow in the steps of this “laughing philosopher” through the fields & footpaths of a mediaeval Tibet (actually early 19th century), & one will hear echoes of our own wandering scholars, & their laughter in the face of the dangers of the road. And feel with them the great beauty of a world without cars, or televisions; only low-tech highwaymen.

We have lost, as a consequence of that Reformation, & in the scowls of the Puritans, that wonderful mediaeval sense of humour, so simple, even childish, & yet so profound. Verily, we have heard the echo of that breach in Christendom, in the excruciating feminist motto: “That’s not funny.” We have even lost this sense of humour ourself, & would be trying to recover it.

They had parades, for instance, in which they celebrated Fools, & the Lord of Misrule.  Confronted himself with a Gay Pride Parade, our Moravian friend did not flinch. He laughed heartily. He found the whole thing hysterically funny.  “Let us not be sombre, in the presence of a farce.”

Rabelais could laugh merrily at the spectacle of bad men getting their just deserts, even in this world, through some trivial accident or miscalculation. We read him today & are appalled that he could take such pleasure in great human pain; we scowl. But there was none of this modern censoriousness in Rabelais.

Meanwhile, do good & abjure evil. But not as the Pharisees, or the Pagans.

Doomsday postponed

We forgot to check the Internet this morning to see if the world had ended, a matter of some consequence to us, for if it had, we would have to reassess our whole position towards New Age Gnosticism. As we understand, the prediction for midnight Thursday, Greenwich Mean Time, was intelligently shifted to the Northern Hemisphere Winter Solstice at 6:12 this morning (standard time in the Greater Parkdale Area).  We write now more than six hours after that event, so feel entitled to sound the all clear. We have reached through the wheels within wheels of the Mayan calendar, without anything more than the usual unpleasant incidents, worldwide.

Contrary to several reports we have seen in the Mainstream Media, even the ancient Mayans are still with us. It is a small point, we know, but they were not wiped out by the Conquistadors, as graduates of our public universities are apt to believe. There are millions of them left, in Mexico, Guatemala, & so forth. In general, we have found a tendency among the liberal cognoscenti to seriously over-estimate the efficiency of Spanish imperialism.

Other threats remain, however, & while climate scientists in some of the world’s most heavily-funded environmentalist lobbies are beginning to abandon the anthropogenic global warming “theory,” & search for something more remunerative, the Toronto Scar hit us this morning with the very plausible backstop to it. Temperatures on this planet may rise by more than 100 degrees Celsius as the sun expands beyond the orbit of Venus into a Red Giant, a few billion years from now.

And of course there are asteroids. One winged by just the other day — 4179 Toutatis by name — at a distance of only a few million miles. Scary stuff: it has a highly irregular orbit, & though charted in 1934, was then lost sight of for half a century. As worrying, large patches of sky in the Southern Hemisphere are still not being monitored for small-but-wicked cosmic debris. Toutatis will, we are told, buzz closer still in 2069. But fear not: from what we understand it is barely large enough to take out one city, & even that would require a lot of luck in aim & angle. By means of the YORP effect, the Divine Gardener is anyway taking care of these nasty asymmetrical lumps of metal & silica. That is to say, reflected sunlight produces momentum as well as heat, continually tumbling their rotational axes & finally weeding them right out of our solar system.

The dinosaurs are believed by some to have perished by one of these fluky celestial conkers. They had a very long run before this happened, however — far longer than any “higher primate” — & can hardly be condemned for such a deus ex machina. As we argue, the more men behave like dinosaurs, the longer they are likely to stick around, & we will continue to advance our dinosaurian views on this website as an important public service.

But getting back to the Mayan calendar, we noticed polls showing a good 10 percent of the North American electorate (millions of people, & beyond the victory margin in almost any consequential election) actually expected the world to end today, or something big to happen. Frankly this did not surprise us.

More interesting, to our mind: only a few ten thousands of the world’s New Age goofballs congregated at various auspicious sites in France, China, & elsewhere, for their only chance of survival by intercession of mysterious rays. Which means, not only did this significant demographic believe their lives might end today but, in response to that threat, they did nothing. They just went on living their tedious consumerist lives, many perhaps neglecting even to max out their credit cards.

As Virgil explained to Dante, Hell has no place for these people, & Satan himself will reject them as unworthy. (End democracy now!)

The mad in our streets

We are neglecting to write new Idleposts, while being drawn into banter in the Comments, & email. See for instance the Comments under “Why why why?” for an illustration of our descent. Still, it is banter with actual readers. We must have a dozen of them, by now! Soon we may catch up with Lady Gaga (thirty million followers on Twitter) & Justin Bieber-Trudeau.

In the olden days, before the invention of all these portable electronic “devices,” we would sometimes sit at some long table in a public library, examining a book. It always seemed that we were sharing this table with what was called in our parents’ generation a “rubby-dubby.” He would not be examining a book, but nevertheless making notes in a soiled cahier, or on scraps of much-folded paper. He would be using a short & extremely blunt pencil, in an advanced state of engnarlment from chewing. Always, the fingernails caught one’s attention; or the hair, unwashed for a very long time. The eyes one seldom met. We would be in wonderment at the amount of paper that could be covered by his remarks, & might compare his exercise with our own, as a journalist.

On one occasion we decided that the brotherly & charitable thing, given the shortness of the poor rubby’s pencil stub, was to give him a much longer one from our pencil case. On another, our ministry required the surrender of a cheap plastic pencil sharpener. A neoconservative might say that we were feeding his habit, but what do neoconservatives know? They don’t understand people who must write.

Sometimes this habit provides a useful service to the economy. In our own case, we look back over years of supplying copy, to fill the spaces between the advertisements in large daily newspapers. Press lords recognized the value of this service, & would pay us handsomely. Too handsomely, we fear: for look what has become of their poor tattered properties. More sensible to pay by the word, use wire services, & encourage letters to the editor. As one press lord famously opined, the letters were his favourite part of the editorial “package,” because he didn’t have to pay for them.

Only a fool would pay, as so many of us journalists, & other graphomaniacs, have discovered to our cost since the invention of the Internet. Soon, those among us who must write to eat, will find ourselves in an acutely embarrassing position. We may have no choice but to become interesting.


The question of what to do with the (formally diagnosed) insane was raised in the Comments to the post we flagged, above. Perhaps at this point we might drop the masque of humour. Those who have had the honour of working with the insane (a distinctly Christian honour) will know that being (certifiably) crazy is not much fun. They will also know that the genuinely insane often lack social skills; that they can be sometimes quite alarmingly charmless.

We are straying now into a very large topic, in which the tribulations of the mad are compounded by the organized & scrupled insanity of statisticians, policy wonks, & overpaid social workers. We will excuse pharmacists, for the moment, for we are convinced by modest experience that certain powerful anti-psychotic drugs, & even “mood stabilizers,” can be merciful in the relief of real human suffering, & should not be denied. If the condition of the patient requires their use, however, it also implies the folly of self-medication.

We live in Parkdale, a district overflowing with “outpatients” from what was once the largest mental asylum in Ontario (larger even than the Legislature). It has “evolved” into the province’s largest “mental health” processing centre. This means, in practice, that it hoovers in the mad from all over this Fine Province of Ontario — especially Sudbury for some reason — drugs them to the gills & then turns them out on our big city streets. From where they instinctively roll to the lowest accessible point on the socio-economic surface, i.e. Parkdale.

As we mentioned in our Comments banter, there is a huge & rather grave social problem here, known to euphemists as “the homeless.” It has been addressed not mercifully but ideologically, over recent generations. We summarized that history: “Throughout North America we emptied the mental asylums in the 1950s & ’60s, only then to fill up the gaols.” A fiscal problem — the cost of maintaining mental asylums — was solved in the usual way, by a bureaucratic game of cups & marbles, slipping it from one department into another. Meanwhile we, the people, have beggared ourselves with an array of middle-class “entitlements” which make every other fiscal problem irretrievable.

We are not a policy wonk, & while we are also not much of a democrat, we do wish sometimes there were a mechanism for voting the existing policy wonks out of power. For they are there ensconced, commanding all departments, whatever politicians we might happen to vote in or out. They even write the politicians’ legislation for them, when not by-passing “democracy” entirely with daily rafts of new & very petty regulations.

The wonk comes in two flavours: cause-&-effect specialist, or “technocrat” as it is called; & ideological “progressive,” in comparison to which your common garden lunatic is so much easier to endure. And to make the mess the more intractable, they are not two camps — for then we could just eliminate the progressives. The average policy wonk is instead a hybrid. That different wonks defer to slightly different ideologies might go without saying. There are, by analogy, many different kinds of mental illness, & in truth each patient is his own little universe of trouble.

It should be obvious that the Nanny State’s spic-&-spanking, upbeat, “mental health” approach, prettied up & tarted out in smileyface niceness, has failed, utterly. Look at the streets. To our mind it should therefore be abandoned, utterly. The tax-flesh consumed by these wolves in smileyface stickers is anyway needed elsewhere. It would indeed cost plenty to rebuild the network of old-fashioned, essentially incarcerative, mental asylums.

They are needed at many locations & in many different kinds. None need be “mediaeval dungeons,” need not even be as spiritually & aesthetically numbing as the asylums in which we now warehouse our old. For the point is not to serve our own convenience, exclusively; it is also to serve the real & often desperate needs of the mad. And, their needs are not served any better than our own by housing them on the streets.

A vast issue: on which we journalized in the past at some length, & on which we have since accumulated bags of additional fact & anecdote. Gentle reader must not assume we are overlooking the more obvious objections; that we are not for instance prepared to wrestle with the whole vexed issue of human freedom, which comes directly into play because the mad are not inhuman. Their instinct to seek freedom — & thus avoid incarceration regardless of consequences — is something we have encountered more than once firsthand.

This yields a spectrum wherein we find grey areas, which the determined may employ to confuse the larger issue. But that grey elides into darker on the one side, & lighter on the other. Some street person may turn out to be Diogenes, & by all means let him sit in the sun, as a constructive example to the rest of us. We are surely not opposed to mere public loitering, or invigorating eccentricity. We are talking mad here — visibly nuts — & as the jurisprudes have said, “hard cases make bad law.”

One must read back into the 1950s — the golden age of “liberalism” it could be argued, from which the ‘sixties & forward might be considered mere radioactive fallout — to see why sane, effective, & even affordable remedies will not soon be found. In the cause of emptying out the old, clearly labelled mental asylums, the progressive forces of that day set up a huge propaganda, demonizing the asylums & those who worked often selflessly to sustain them. They depicted these places as “mediaeval dungeons” — when they were not. Most reflected more than a century of tireless & sometimes heroic if also somewhat unimaginative work to improve living conditions for the inmates. (And incidentally, few mediaeval dungeons were like “mediaeval dungeons,” either. Victorian dungeons were probably much worse. This propaganda had in turn the usual Reformation ancestry.)

In retrospect, it is fairly easy to see that the propagandists were rather more concerned with some abstract idea of perpetual “progress” than with the actual fate of the inmates they were “liberating.” Not that they wished the mad ill, for the indifference was more akin to bullshit than to lying: they didn’t really care what happened to the actual, as opposed to the statistical, mad — as tended to show in their cost/benefit analyses. They only pretended to care, for the purposes of their propaganda.

(We might refer gentle reader on this point to the learned Prof. Harry G. Frankfurt’s useful little tome, On Bullshit, for light on this phenomenon, including a passing explanation of why bullshit may do more harm than lies, & bullshitting be morally lower than lying, since the liar at least knows that he is lying & therefore retains some appreciation for the truth.)

A good way to start felling this thicket of false consciousness might therefore be to put all money questions likewise on one side. Should gentle reader hesitate, he need only ask himself: “If we couldn’t afford to keep all these asylums for the mentally ill, how do we afford to keep all these asylums for our vastly more numerous unwanted oldies?”

Anyone who wishes to do something comprehensive for the mad in our streets must first help overcome this legacy of progressive bullshit. That, much more than the usual shortage of money, stands between the individual sufferer from a serious mental illness & a huge improvement in his conditions of life.

The even bigger thing is Love. Paid doctors, nurses, strong-armed orderlies, & basic service staff are not replaceable, & may need to be paid. On the other hand, we spy an immense bureaucratic infrastructure for which we might propose a Carthaginian reduction. Far too many “push paper,” or push people as if they were paper; it takes years to realize on how great a scale. The whole machinery might simply be unplugged, but would then require arduous recycling efforts. For we must never entirely withdraw our sympathy from the bureaucrats themselves, while wrecking their bureaucracy.

But the point here is that they have replaced the unpaid & perfectly voluntary endeavours of that host of people, both secular & monastic, who once filled the gaps. Who, to be plain, rendered their services out of Love — & for Christ alone in those moments when the mad become too much for anyone to bear. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say, “I wouldn’t touch a leper for a million dollars.” Yet for the love of God, she touched them every day.

The same Mother Teresa who spontaneously observed, in a California hospital where the forms were being filled for a little baby who urgently needed to be operated upon: “Such a lot of signatures for such a little heart!”

One may see, every day in the nursing homes that have proliferated through our urban landscape, that money can’t buy Love; that, where we do see love, in all this galaxy of professionally smiling government agents, it is an intangible, unpaid, even provocative “extra.” (And if it were tangible, the government would find a way to claw it back through taxes.) Mental asylums, like nursing homes, like prisons & public schools for that matter, could be made far more humane. But we would have to spend a lot less money in order to achieve this result, & build them around the very notion that without Love they are lost.


Which takes us back to those Commonplace Books. … Item: “Let us do something beautiful for God.” … Item: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” … Item: “To keep a lamp burning, we must keep putting oil in it.” … Item: “Love does not measure, but just gives.”

Item: “Our life of poverty is as necessary as the work itself.”

Item: “When a poor person dies of hunger, it is not because God failed to take care of him. It is because He told you & I to take care of him, & we forgot.”

Item: “The miracle is not that we do this work, but that it makes us so happy.”

Item: “Suffering in itself is a waste of time. But suffering in the passion of Christ is the most beautiful gift: His love token.”

Item: “We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but it will not cure loneliness, hopelessness, despair. Many in this world are dying for a piece of bread, but so many more are dying for a little love. This is the poverty I have seen in the West, & it is so much more terrible than what I have seen in the slums of Calcutta.”

Item: “People are often unreasonable, illogical, & self-centred. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win false friends & true enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest & frank, people may cheat you. Be honest & frank anyway. What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway. If you find serenity & happiness, they may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, & it may never be enough. Give it the best you have anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you & God. It was never between you & them anyway.”

Item: “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”

Ritualistic aside

Another blogger, linking our last post, used the killing initials “tl/dr” to warn against its length (a mere two thousand words, or 2.67 newspaper pundit columns). The letters stand for, “too long / didn’t read.”

Let us assure gently alarmed reader that it is really just ten much shorter posts, elaborately woven together. In our limited experience as lyricist & librettist (“the Ira Gershwin of Edith Street” as we hope to be remembered), we thought two or three minutes enough for a song. Some songs might be extended to four or five minutes, but making a habit of it suggests prolixity. Still, occasionally, one should go for fifteen, & explore the possibilities of the Ode form. (We have always adored Pindar.) Of course one will lose one’s audience about three minutes in, but why should they call all the shots?

That previous post makes (arguably) ten related points. But there is an eleventh signalled by a single word: “reverence.” This in turn reprises the subtext in several recent posts before it.


“Anger makes you blind,” a blind person once told us, to explain why, when he was angry, he would bump into things he would never have hit when tranquil — white cane or no white cane. He was confirming something any blind person could tell you. But he told us something else, too, that was very interesting: “Reverence makes you sighted.”

If there were one criticism to make, about the whole tendency of contemporary life — one criticism, for starters — it would be this. Not only in the celebration of the Mass, but in the celebration of life at large, “reverence” is too often omitted.

The Hindus in India — or shall we say, the “traditional” Hindus, for their religion like ours has taken a pounding & is endlessly run over in the streets — were very good at this. Our heart stopped once, watching a poor Hindu in his dhoti, immersed near the bank of a rather polluted river (the Ganges). It was dawn & he was saying his dawn prayers, beyond mudflats illumined as if by the brush of J.M.W. Turner. In all our travels in India, perhaps we never saw something so beautiful, as the stature of reverence in this frail little man. In despite of all the carnage & squalor of modern urbanizing Indian life, there he still was, as he had been for perhaps three thousand years. Our love for India overflowed: for all India, & as we imagined, all her twenty billion people (only a small fraction on Earth at this day). Each one of them known to God.

And to our mind as a Christian, Christ heard his prayer. (“There are other sheep I have, that are not of this fold.”)

To our mind, the Catholic Mass is the ritual, par excellence. Which is why it must never be said or sung in any perfunctory or irreverent manner. Yet the Mass also requires the support of a manner of life that includes ritual, in every small thing. In the world we contemn, nothing is sacred. But in the world for which we long, everything is sacred, including the way we knead the dough for our naan, & the way we make our tea.

“Why why why?”

Gentle reader need not actually consult this link from the Times of India, though if she reads mass media at all, she will be inured to such material. Delhi, the centre of India’s vast bureaucracy, had already the reputation of being, too, the “rape capital of India.” But gang rape in a moving city bus is perhaps a new development. Note further, young ladies, that having a courageous boyfriend with you is no use when the assailants are wielding iron pipes. Oremus.

And it is not just rape, in the nexus of the “liberated” attitudes that have overthrown India’s erstwhile sexual inhibitions. As an Indian lady said to us a few years ago, while we watched rhesus monkeys at play by a boulevard in that city, “I prefer the monkeys. They don’t leer at you like the Delhi men.”

The monkeys have their own little foibles, however, & tourists should be warned to keep their distance. They are surprisingly dexterous, & quick, & will mug you for any food you might be carrying, while you are still babbling, “Look, he is begging! How cute!” They bite viciously, when resisted, & will go for the face of a person to whom they have taken a dislike. On the plus side, few are rabid, & the bacterial infections can usually be cured with conventional antibiotics.

For the homeowner in Delhi, caged as in a zoo while a tribe of these macaques cavort in his garden, the answer is to hire a much larger monkey, such as a grey langur, to urinate around the perimeter. The smell is intensely acrid, but it keeps the smaller monkeys away; until the smell fades, & the operation must be repeated.

That Delhi’s municipal administration has utterly failed to deal with the monkey problem, despite extravagant trapping campaigns, could go without saying. (Move them out of the city & they come right back.) And India’s new Green movement wants to give the monkeys rights. So far as we know, no one has proposed to give them corresponding duties. Hell, most monkeys can be taught to draw an “X,” why not give them the vote? (We might even train them to vote consistently for some fascist, anti-environmental party, that will have them all exterminated.)

“Our monkey friends lack malice,” said this (Catholic) Delhi friend. “They have ‘invincible ignorance’,” she added. They do what they do from the purest motives of self-interest, in pursuit of food, sex, & the like, including shelter for they nest in stolen human clothing. In that sense, they are exemplars not only of Darwinian eugenics, but of Smithian free market economics. Humans, by contrast, are unreliable & unstable. They cannot even do “self-interest” consistently. Instead of behaving as “rational actors,” pursuing “enlightened self-interest,” humans do things that make “no sense at all” — unless perhaps on the theory that, through the rough & tumble of natural selection, we are gradually evolving into urban monkeys.

Whether in India or America we have developed this neurotic tick, often blamed on moral notions engrained in our species, which have served their evolutionary purpose & should now be cast off. We read the latest horrific report — gang rape on transit bus, massacre in kindergarten — then ask, “Why why why?” But the feminists of the ‘seventies had an answer for that: “Pourquoi pas?

Alternatively, it is a subject with which “traditional” Christians, or “traditional” Hindus, should have no difficulty. Indeed, all religious traditions are by force of circumstance (they must bear the weight of the human condition) prepared for the assault of this “Why why why?” The Hindu conception of Dharma — shared by Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs — is of a divine righteous order, distinct from all the gods of any pantheon & commanding the obedience of all men, in their myriad walks of life, in reverence according to ritual & station. It might be compared with our “Natural Law.” The antonym Adharma describes the terrible condition of disobedience, through acts that are unnatural & imbalanced, & therefore evil & wicked & wrong — & which will certainly require rectification, purification, & re-balancing, in accordance with the Shastras.

Humans, uniquely among the animals, are capable of something called Evil, a transcendental phenomenon. (Paradoxically, this makes them also capable of Good.) But in an environment “progressively” freed from the restraints of transcendental religion — which acts to restrain evil impulses not only through the individual conscience, but also through external social pressure, & a legal order founded on Divine Commandment — they will do what they do do.

Radical Evil has been around for some time: since Adam, according to the Biblical narrative; since before, as Milton points out. It is not something new on Delhi buses, or in Connecticut schools. The new thing is our pathetic inability to deal with it. For we can’t really deal with anything whose very existence we doubt; or refuse to believe even when we see it. (“Why why why?”)

On the morning of 11th September 2001, even the progressive types of our acquaintance suddenly recovered this transcendental concept. What they saw that morning was irreducibly evil. But by Christmas, in almost every case, they had got over it. The problem then became technical again. It was “Bush.” Get rid of him, and the problem with those Islamists is solved.

Mike Huckabee impressed us (not for the first time) in a couple of items from Fox News a reader kindly ping’d. After the Connecticut horror, he had the temerity to observe that people who had spent the last thirty years trying to remove God from every visible place in America were now theatrically asking, “Where was God?” Huckabee answered this question by noting the behaviour of several Christian heroes at Sandy Hook, including one modest schoolteacher who, from presence of mind, was able to save every child in her classroom, by the sacrifice of her own life.

God is present or absent, in us. He is present in the Saints, & in every act of human decency & unfeigned kindness, by Christian or by another. His absence is conversely marked by indecency, by faithlessness, & in the extreme, by the behaviour of real devils in human flesh. (Next question?)

Other old political pros are using the emotion of the moment (“never waste a crisis” as the leftists say) to grandstand for gun control. The effect of this is to disarm the very people who could put a prompt stop to such massacres. Instead we wait for the police to arrive, while the devil continues, gunning people down at so-many-a-minute. This is why, around the world, where gun control has tightened, gun-related crime has increased, often quite significantly: for now the devils are assured that their intended victims will be unarmed. (The legality of their own weapons tends not to be a concern with them.) This is why mass murders are already almost invariably performed in officially gun-free environments, such as schools & shopping malls in liberal jurisdictions.

The “liberal mind” is undistracted by such prudential considerations; its vanity is incurious about the payment to be made in other people’s lives. The point is for the liberal to make a lewd display of his own pretended virtue, that will be applauded by those easily conned. Even the cops are replaced by “violence awareness programmes” for the kiddies — consisting of yet more indoctrination for that fatuous worldview, in which evil is an artefact of short funding for progressive social schemes. Each advance prepares the ground for another. “Liberalism,” in this contemporary sense, is a cancer eating away at the body politic, rendering it defenceless against its own metastasis, & flourishing until the body dies.

In Delhi, as in Sandy Hook, “the people” do grasp there is something wrong, perhaps even seriously wrong. But cause & cure are alike beyond them. Outrage over the transit-bus gang rape is evident through the Indian media. But as in the West, the thinking in India becomes focused on the technical fix, & away from wrestling with intractable human nature. This is a big marketing break for purveyors of the sort of video recorders we’ve spotted on the ceilings of buses & trolleys in the Greater Parkdale Area. These cameras can’t stop anything, but they provide an important supplement to the spontaneous iPhone coverage, so we can all see what happened on the evening news. And we will all be demeaned by it.

No one has defended the behaviour of Adam Lanza. His mother may have loved him, but he shot her anyway. The strange “survivalist” culture in which she participated is itself a response to increasingly plausible fears of an impending social & economic meltdown. When told to register or surrender their guns, such people will hide them. Keep pushing them, & the blowback will occur.

It’s not just guns. America is more copiously supplied than India with shrinks & mad doctors, for the time being; & with psychiatric protocols themselves rapidly “changing with the times.” Thanks to broad public interest in pop psychology, which offers cures for the guilt once associated with sin, we get a range of truly irresponsible answers to that “Why why why?” question. We have, for instance, read some appallingly misinformed blather about “autism” & Asperger’s syndrome. One would think those suffering were witches. Today, of course, we don’t burn witches, the way they did at the height of the Reformation. We have more efficient means. Modern science seeks ever more “creative” biological interventions, such as new tests to predict autism, that will help moms pick which children to abort, the way they do already with Down’s syndrome babies, or unwanted girls. Oremus.

In fact, the studies we’ve seen show that the autistic are no more prone to violent or any other sort of crime than the rest of the population, & possibly less so. They may have wrangs, usually harmless, when their habits & the routines around them are disturbed. The outpouring is more likely to reflect pain in themselves, than hatred for some “perpetrator.” The notion that they are indifferent to affection is a lie. They may be fearful of strangers, may shy from intimate contact, express themselves in ways by which strangers are dismayed; but those who love them learn to understand. Like every other kind of human being, they benefit from a loving & secure home, indeed desperately crave it.

Conversely, crime correlates quite spectacularly to broken homes, especially fatherless homes, in one of which Adam Lanza happened to reside. (We gather it was an acrimonious divorce, that left both children traumatized, but Adam positively unhinged, alone with his mother in a gleaming high-tech mansion, her trophy from post-modern family law.)

That information is no use, however, to a generation taught that marriage is neither Sacrament nor trust, but a right & an entitlement like every other gift of Nanny State — a contract between “two persons,” that now comes with stipulated buy-out arrangements. Two generations have been taught, by both instruction & example, that inconvenient children may be discarded. Subtly or unsubtly every child learns that he is there if “wanted”; that he is potentially in the way of an adult “relationship” that trumps his own wellbeing; & that he may suddenly become another disposal problem. This is what the destruction of marriage has achieved: unloved people spreading their unlove; & sex expressing itself as pure animal hunger & aggression.

Indeed, for the state, the whole fiscal point of “traditional” marriage — one man & one woman, for life — was to limit claims on the welfare rolls. Even if cynically, the older politicians grasped the connexion. Progressive politicians have been overcoming this “uncaring” backwardness through legal & social engineering, with ever greater enthusiasm. For they have discovered that single moms, & vagrant dads, welfare dependents, & even the criminal class, vote overwhelmingly for progressive politicians, & respond like Pavlov’s dogs to “make the rich pay.” They benefit directly from the destruction of the social & moral order. It secures their monopoly on power.

What can one add, besides, “We have seen the past, & it works.” It is meanwhile incumbent upon every reactionary soul to explain why it worked, to people who may by now be too far advanced in moral & intellectual idiotization to understand a word they say. Who have become in effect voting monkeys, “selecting” for their own extinction.



When one whines to God — in that self-indulgent, obsessively self-referential, and spiritually self-serving, “Why me?” sort of way — it seems that God ignores one, for a while. But keep it up, and He starts piling on. As the years pass, we become the more convinced that this may be the Divine Policy, and that a scheme of private prayer that persistently omits thanksgiving and rejoicing is therefore provocative and deeply unwise. (Perhaps this may even apply to whole nations.)

In a mood approximating to desolation this morning, about one little thing and another, I decided only the Tridentine Mass would do — designed, as it were, to lift one out of one’s condition and point one, with the orientation of the priest, towards God. But I am an incurably absent-minded person, who doesn’t read parish bulletins with attention, and set out immediately on a long walk, to the wrong church.

The Mass is the Mass is the Mass: make no mistake here. But on this of all Sundays, the Gaudete — that rejoicing lift in the middle of Advent, with the magnificent passage from Philippians that concludes in “the peace which passeth all understanding,” and the Gospel with John Baptist’s exhilarating replies to the earnest questions of “normal people” — I was longing for the usus antiquior.

Longing e.g. for an acoustical environment in which e.g. good Christian secular music such as popular hymns and carols were replaced by actual Church Music, and e.g. we would not feel obliged to participate in the dreary muttering of a congregation, attempting cumbersome long English responses in unison like a kindergarten class.

And another little point in passing, from a penny recently dropped. No matter how good the organist, no matter how good the choir, put them together and the result is grim: a kind of three-legged race to nowhere. Surely we should leave that sort of thing to the Protestants; for an organ itself has breath, and is voices, and if by anything should be accompanied by an orchestra.

(I am an authority on nothing. Feel free to deride my opinions.)

But I had instead walked into the Sung English of the (“new improved”) Novus Ordo. Again, nothing wrong with this, some people apparently still want it, and the Mass is the Mass, however depressing. And as the entire system of Catholic seminary training promptly collapsed in response to Vatican II, there is to this day a telling shortage of priests who can handle anything in Latin, let alone the Mass of the Ages. But we must start from where we are.

I emerged still feeling sorry for myself, and with other obligations still on my dance card, filling me with dread.

Nevertheless, with John Baptist’s answers, to variations on the question, “What should we do?” And those answers rather ironically surprising. For what we should do, in almost every situation, is dead obvious. It was dead obvious, even before Christ, who came to tell us more than the dead obvious; who raises what should already be dead obviousinto another dimension, down here on Earth. To which John Baptist refers in a dead obvious way: by pointing to Our Lord.

“What should we do?” Sometimes the answer doesn’t need to wait for Christmas. It could be something simple, like, “Stop whining.”


We try to keep our posts gratuitous, & the sequence random, but sometimes the one principle clashes with the other, & gratuitousness demands several consecutive posts, or nearly consecutive, on the same topic. The tag of the moment is “business magazines.” We mentioned that this is among the precious few topics for which we have any credentials at all.

Sporadically through the ‘seventies, & even into the early ‘eighties of the last century, we compounded our mistake of drifting into journalism by drifting into “business journalism.” Often it was a pretext for travel: to get into places & situations a plainly labelled political journalist could not. Or, to get assignments at all, given the competition of political journalists far better known & connected. (One hardship was our age, for we were then ridiculously young.)

For instance, there were months, while Cambodia was collapsing into the hands of the inconceivably murderous Khmer Rouge, when we were perhaps the only business journalist operating in the country, getting interviews with the most august personages, who would not speak to the New York Times. But for the purpose of promoting foreign investment, they would speak to this silly little kid (ourself).

Ditto, our whole experience of Vietnam was predicated on posing as a business journalist. For, once accredited by the nice officers in MAC-V (who liked us because we didn’t spit in their faces), we could ride in their helicopters with the big boys. We had the advantage over them, too, of being not taken seriously. They had big-boy by-lines, & were pursuing Fame. We were filing, mostly as anonymous correspondent, to obscure & contemptibly specialized business publications. Such Fame was unnecessary to us, even something to be avoided, for we had no aspirations to grand advancement in the trade. (At the time we imagined ourself to be a poet.) What we wanted was to see things with our own eyes; while earning enough money to get by.

At the time, we had a huge crush on the Economist, then unquestionably “the bible” for business journalists, & a much better informed & better written publication than it is today. We remember our acute disappointment when we offered our services to them, & were rejected on sight, with a note that employed the future tense, & did not bother to assuage our ego.

What we admired about the paper was this very directness. It was possible because all their correspondents were anonymous, & their reputation was for getting facts straight. They were indifferent to “personalities,” to the “gonzo” rewarded by the big American media. And therefore they employed some extremely eccentric, but very well-informed people. They were much smaller then, they paid poorly, but their paper was read by a genuinely intelligent, international elite of people who needed to know what was really happening. (Mass media editors know their readers don’t really need to know anything they could offer; only to be entertained at a fairly coarse level.) Too, the Economist house style demanded wit, candour, brevity & precision.

Of course, those were also the days before what is mildly called “political correctness” made every journalist his own gestapo against candour of any kind.

And, one important aspect of this process of moral & intellectual idiotization was the replacement of all the lies & damned lies, with statistics. The process had been pioneered by Lenin & Stalin in their Five Year Plans. While Western journalists need not answer directly to the People’s Commissariat, the mindset in which direct observation of reality is replaced by manipulation of dubious statistics gradually spread through NATO, fritzing 83.27 percent of every brain. Like everyone else, the editors at the Economist gradually succumbed to this disease. From being very sharp on statistics — which requires being very sceptical of them, & refusing ever to depend on statistics alone — they wandered into the poisoned fog of numerology.

Let us give a minor & inconsequential example, as befits an Idler, to explain what we mean. We noticed & happened to bookmark this Daily Chart, found on the index page of the Economist website some months ago. Big so-called fact: “More than half of China’s people now live in urban areas.” What does this mean?

The assertion itself is meaningless rubbish. Various incidental remarks made in the text accompanying the chart are likewise nonsense, including the cute reference to Marco Polo. But let’s just stick to what is presented “seriously.”

Chungking (old-fashioned spelling), within Szechuan province (ditto), is often currently given as the largest city in China, with a population exceeding 30 million. We have seen it mentioned as “the largest city in the world” more than once, in credulous Western media. But this can be said only by a person ignorant of the official Chinese way of defining an “urban area,” for administrative & statistical purposes. For the “shi” (administrative division) of Chungking is listed as 82,400 square kilometres. That is about the size of Austria. So, yes: the City of Chungking is more densely inhabited than Austria.

Another hint: this “city” contains at least 15 “counties.” Another: two-thirds of the people employed in this “city” are working in “agriculture,” according to other official Chinese statistics.

This is to take Chinese statistics at face value. But they cannot be relied on in any way. The entire statistical system of China is corrupted, not only for propaganda purposes, but because it is used as the basis for budget allocations & bureaucratic promotions. That is to say, even if the central authority is not lying, everyone who supplies them with information is lying. Further complicating the issue, the Chinese central statistical department has been taken to pieces & reassembled at intervals of a decade or less, continuously since the Maoist Revolution; & each time its entire methodology has been “reformed.” Therefore no historical comparisons are possible; therefore no current statistic or estimate has any reliable context. Therefore the pretence of statistical precision throughout this chart is a farce.

One might take it from there. If one goes so far as to wipe from one’s consciousness every statement about China based on Chinese statistics, one will not go too far. But while forty years ago, the Economist‘s writers & editors generally got this, they do not get it today. And this problem extends from the population of Chungking, to the outermost journalistic horizon.

Om sweet om

We have trained several of our jet-setting friends to bring back newspapers & magazines. Not any one journal in particular: rather, whatever they happen to pick up along their way, & find still in their litter upon return to the Greater Parkdale Area. From childhood we have had a fascination for such things; for ephemera of any sort. Often one learns much about some strange place by reading a local paper front to back (or back to front if it is in Urdu), especially the classified advertisements. Alas, the Internet has smooshed the small ads almost everywhere, thinned newspapers generally, & for indirect reasons we’re too bored to explain, is imposing an homogenous glossiness on the magazines, & an asphyxiating sameness on “mainstream” typographical design, all over the world. Typographical error is also in decline, thanks to these infernal spellcheckers; although, by way of compensation, grammatical & syntactical mistakes are trending upwards.

We lunched Thursday with a couple of old friends who kindly supplied us with a recent number of Business India, from their plane ride home.

As the editor of a business magazine ourself, in Asia one-third of a century ago, we don’t expect much from such publications. Most were modelled on the Economist, including the Economist itself (see last post). The problem is fundamental & actually insoluble. Business is a tedious activity, & when you’ve seen one balance sheet you’ve seen them all. Moreover, the decline of the art of banknote engraving has made even the accumulation of large sums of money deeply unsatisfying. It gets harder & harder to trade for real silver & gold. The world is awash in ill-designed silver & gold paper notes, but only a tiny fraction of the denominated amount is actually backed by the substance, & the last time we tried to exchange a gold note for the gold it specified, we were gawped at by the bank manager as if we had stepped from a time warp in ancient Sumerian clothing. There really is no alternative to collecting old coins. But hardly any business magazine contains articles on numismatics. (The one we edited was an exception.)

Notwithstanding, we were able to find one mildly interesting article in the Nov. 11th Business India — just opposite a full-page, full-colour ad headlined, “Let’s talk Sex.” (“Let’s not,” we inwardly responded.) It was a semi-literate review of a new book by one Akash Kapur — son of Dilip, the big name at the high end of the Indian leather handbag trade. The book is entitled, India Becoming. It does not seem to propose an answer to the question, “Becoming what?” — but we’re promised some sort of “microcosm.” The lad has returned from a decade in the West, to find his country changed. The roads are improving, there are more cars, land prices are rising, & more women in the workforce. Hurrah.

“Veenah from Jaipur is a determined young woman, rapidly rising up the corporate career ladder. Divorced, she has a live-in boyfriend, & is open about her sexual needs.” We are already hoping not to meet Veenah. “In many ways she was like a lot of women I had known in New York,” writes Kapur. (We also have them in the GPA.) But wait for it: “Diagnosed with cancer, she realizes her need to have children, do yoga, & write stories instead of emails.” One wants to go into a dark place & scream.

For 599 rupees we can read, apparently, dozens more stories like this about the New India, & the New Indians. And for nothing, we can skip the lot. Mercifully, the review provides the author’s conclusion, thus sparing our time. He has noticed a common thread runs through the personal stories. Almost everyone’s life has been destroyed. “I wasn’t convinced anymore that any amount of money, any increase in salaries or GDP or the number of cars or billionaires was worth the damage.”

We think he may be on to something there.

Trendier than thou

For a magazine like the Economist, representing in theory & often in practice the classical liberal worldview (“classical” refers to the economists, starting from Adam … Smith), religion exists in a free market like everything else. This is not an animadversion. We have read leaders in the magazine over more than three decades that make this point explicitly; & which benignly argue that the world needs more religion. Therefore, let the product be supplied, & may the best salesman win. The Anglican communion from which we escaped could once be commended for developing their product range, with Low, Broad, & High Church branding to target the market niches. The Romans appeared to be following their strategy in the 1960s, & were duly complimented at the time. Pentecostalism has received some downright sympathetic coverage in recent decades, & the “newspaper” (the Economist has never admitted to being a magazine) was probably more polite to successful Evangelicals & Fundamentalists than any of the American liberal media.

Gentle reader may at first be surprised to see this unusual mainstream item, in which Catholic traditionalists & traditionalism are treated almost reverently. But this accords with the Economist‘s own principles: for as they note, the old Latin Mass is enjoying a surge; while the “new improved” Novus Ordo continues to lose market share. Father John Zuhlsdorf is even quoted comparing the latter to “a school assembly.” London’s Brompton Oratory is described as a “hotspot” & young Traddies are the new avant-garde.

Well, golly; they have numbers & everything. A few tiny points their fact-checkers missed, but in the main their report coincides with our own understanding, & that’s all we ask. They even use the F-word (“fogey”) to deal directly with the liberal conceit that the Tridentine Mass rides on nostalgia. They mention Juventutem, & do the math to calculate there are few people left on the planet who could even remember the old ways. True, one of them sits on the Throne of Saint Peter, but he’s the very man in a position to utter, “Le Vatican II, c’est moi.”

This item, on “Vatican II at 50,” by Robert Royal in the Claremont Review, is the most balanced & reasonable short account we have read of the fallout through the last half century. We are getting to a distance when this can be done; when the generation that lived through the spiritual carnage — both carnagers & carnagees — is no longer with us. We would anyway expect the return to “normal” to accelerate over the next half-century, for the fuel that powered the revolution is spent. But then, in the view over twenty centuries, “normal” for the Catholic Church can be quite exciting. She will need to recover her unity of spirit & intention in face of the persecutions that are coming, almost inevitably. They, in turn, will burn away anything that remains of our glib post-modernism.

Refugees in time

As a youff, with a teacher determined to teach us Latin, we became mysteriously attracted to the late 4th-century Roman author, Ausonius. Edward Gibbon, in the Enlightenment, wrote him off (“his fame condemned the taste of his age”), & his habit of writing setpieces on time-worn topics from a provincial location (Bordeaux, once Burdigala) does not immediately commend him to our attention. But there is an atmosphere about him, compounded of nostalgia & a diffuse shading of the Plutarchian wistfulness, that still haunts. Ausonius may not fully know it, but he is writing near The End, of the Roman Empire. He is anyway conveying a Roman spirit that comes very late in the day. (“Decadence” doesn’t do this justice; but nor is it Owl of Minervish.) Perhaps we “feel” his situation today in a way that Gibbon couldn’t; for Gibbon was too smug.

News breaks in on Ausonius in later life, grim events like the seizure of the Empire of the West by Maximus in 383, which involved the slaughter of his patron & old pupil, Gratian. The province of Gaul is increasingly insecure, from incremental surrender to murderous savages. Habits & mores are invisibly breaking down. But in Burdigala all is well. Ausonius recovers from such passing shocks, & life goes on into a well-funded retirement.

His most famous work is the Mosella, which follows the course of that gorgeous tributary of the Rhine. Ausonius became acquainted with that country as a young soldier, beating off the raiding Alemanni tribes. It is a blessed work, which tells us all about the river’s fishes, significant buildings along its banks, the wine-making, the fields & mills — everything one needs to know to “be there,” bouncing along on his happy Latin hexameters. For so it all once was.

A teacher himself, of grammar & rhetoric, who rose by the luck of tutoring a future Emperor to become, first governor of Gaul, then Consul, his place in the heart of Latin tutors may be explained. But there is more, though mostly fragmentary, to make him useful as a kind of picture gallery from the end of a world, & album of its fashions & forms. He is facile, but over a considerable range. We have writers today whom everyone thinks grand, in the way his contemporaries thought Ausonius grand; & he really is, in moments.

In one moment he revives his grief for a long-dead wife; in another unsuccessfully conceals his infatuation with a pretty German slave girl; in another indulges his love of Virgil rather crassly by assembling a cento (patchwork) of Virgilian phrases into a nuptial song that is, quite frankly, obscene. That he could write all three is a bit of a scandal. The little odes on the slave girl are the most lively. She has somehow become the mistress of his villa. She is a strange, somewhat wild, exotic thing: with blue eyes, & blonde hair! He thinks she is virtuous, & can’t get enough of her.

Mrs Jessie Glynn, to remember the name of my last & most beloved Latin teacher, recommended his Ephemeris, however, as a work of the highest pedagogical value. It tells “a day in the life,” of Ausonius himself in retirement, or at least, tells it until towards noon, when the ancient manuscripts desert us; cutting back in later with some bad dreams. This is unfortunate, for by the time we’ve got through his morning the piece has become genuinely amusing, & we are pulled entirely into the diurnal world of Roman town & villa among the elect. From scene to scene, the metre re-arranges. He wakes, calling for his idle slave in plaintive sapphics, switching to breathless iambics as he hunts the wretch down. He washes, gets dressed, dropping satiric dactyls, & then prays in hexameters. (A lukewarm Christian, he has soon “prayed enough.”) And so through the morning, in which he has more slapstick trouble with “the help.” These Romans externalize too much; they don’t make enough fun of themselves. But through it all, one can see how to teach a boy his Latin verse composition.

It is because, perhaps, the Romans went before us, & some other civilizations of which we’re now aware, that our own more educated writers look forward in a way that might never have occurred to Ausonius, who, as it were, “knows without knowing.” Whereas, we are objectively acquainted with the burial mounds of history; in one of which we found him.


We had intended this post to be about Joseph Roth. From various sources, we gather he has undergone a revival, & that a certain Michael Hofman may be at least partially responsible for this, for he has been doing fine translations. This last fact we cannot yet confirm, for we haven’t read any of them; though we were rather pleased by Hofman’s translation of Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. Yet we are also slightly aggrieved, for Joseph Roth was a forgotten literary star, & we thought we had the monopoly on reading him. We specialize, as gentle reader may have noticed, in a certain class of the historically defunct. But suddenly Stefan Zweig, Klaus Mann, & all the other lost luminaries in the German language of the inter-War era, are likewise coming back into vogue. We thought they were all safely dead.

Mark Falcoff writes, in the Weekly Standard, of Hofman’s new translation of Joseph Roth’s letters. (A fine splash of culture in that neoconservative rag.) Roth is presented as “the last cosmopolitan,” a rather dangerous piece of flattery when we recall he was a Catholic-converted Jew. Vividly aware of the rise of Hitler, as it cost him the royalties from his German publishers, he spent his last six years in a morbid spiral, finally perishing in anno 1939, a broken alcoholic old man at age forty-four.

A creature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his most famous novel, Radetzy March, is a kind of “Gone with the Wind” on its passing. For that alone, it was dismissed by the post-War generation. But if one reads it in the original English translation one will find it is rather subtle. The whole plot is built around misperceived corruption; around the consequences to a family, over three generations, of an aristocratic lineage founded in a “harmless lie.” Joseph Roth, almost to the degree of the justly celebrated Robert Musil, sees behind the false fronts of late Viennese pomposity. But he also wanders beyond Vienna. More gently than the very urbane & caustic Musil, he sees the beauty in the sprawling territory that depended upon the preservation of that “absurd” Dual Monarchy — that Empire, weightless as the Holy Roman, in which peoples speaking seventeen official languages freely moved & had their being, enjoying long intervals of security & peace. When the Habsburgs went down, life became considerably worse for every single one of them.

Through another twenty books (only half, we think, ever translated into English) — novels & collections of essays, stories, memoirs — Roth provided a surprisingly clear-eyed view of what was happening around him. He was unpopular with the progressive intellectuals of his day, who looked fondly to the “hope & change” being brought about in Stalin’s Russia. Roth had been to Odessa; he knew what Stalin was. He could not toke on this worldly utopiate, from hard direct experience but also, from the persistent flicker of a faith that was not worldly.

He was proud of the Jewish heritage into which he had been born, & consistently bold in defending it. His Catholicism in no way rejected it; it was instead an even greater positive. In the course of dismissing him, a previous generation also insinuated that he was one of those “converts of convenience,” which entirely mistakes the man. So heavily did fall the curtain of Auschwitz, that today it is almost impossible to escape anachronism, when reading authors before the War. Even affectionate glances towards Jewish contemporaries are now condemned as dark lethal stabs of anti-Semitism (often as not by people who want Israel annihilated tomorrow).

Roth could indeed be presented as “the last cosmopolitan,” but to understand this is to see that it was more than the old ease of crossing borders. In central & near-eastern Europe, men crossed the borders the more easily, in themselves. The very way in which Roth carried his ancestral Judaism & acquired Catholicism, is indicative of this; he did it almost unselfconsciously. This could not be done today, when everywhere we turn to face either/ors.

In the Austro-Hungarian realms we had, until only a century ago, a survival of that much older conception of “personhood,” an inward pluralism from which a man’s identity could not be reduced. He could have one citizenship, & another nationality, yet be of an ancestry different again, speaking a language foreign to all three. He could practice his religion in another language still; adding layers of identity through family connexions, professional associations, cultural avocations, & artefacts of class. Nor did this make him “multicultural” in our current sense, where one must choose a single adjective & stick with it to receive benefits from the state. The multiculturalism was carried instead within each person, & was by its nature beyond the state’s purview.

The Roman society, which Ausonius depicts, was mixed & stratified in different ways, owing to the high value placed on Roman citizenship. Yet in its own way it also permitted dimensions of personhood. Ausonius himself is citizen, par excellence, & a Roman whether speaking in Latin or Greek; but he reveals himself, too, as the product of a region that is never so simple as that. The identity he evokes, along with that “nostalgia,” is a complex thing, which begins & ends in a sense of specific personal location.

Joseph Roth’s fidelity to the Habsburgs outlived their reign; rather as the fidelity of Ausonius outlived Gratian. But Roth belonged to a world that had already been crushed, better in every way than the world that had crushed it. Alas he drank his way down the memory hole. (Not to be recommended.) Though he loved Paris, he was an exile there, & often a pauper into the bargain, robbed, like so many others, of all he owned, from his country to his cash. His works wonderfully describe that quality of exile — exile even from oneself — that only moderns know. A passing revival of his literary reputation is therefore a hopeful thing. He can help us to look back. He can even remind us that barbarism, too, has a past, & a very uncertain future.

Father Schall in play

We may not have the time this week to blather as we have done the last few days, giving a certain “Mildred” an opportunity to catch us up, for she complains we write faster than she can read. But we would not have another day pass without acknowledging the retirement of Father James V. Schall from Georgetown University in the District of Columbia, to a Jesuit community in Los Gatos, California.

He is eighty-four, & perhaps entitled to retirement, but gentle reader must know what we think of “entitlements.” A certain Joseph Ratzinger was looking forward to a serene retirement — to catching up on his bedside reading, & humming Mozart in the garden, & not having to listen to delegations of crackerjack Yankee theologians any more — when the nasties in the College of Cardinals suddenly elected him Pope. We harbour the same secret wish for Father Schall: that Our Lord will immediately disturb his retirement plans, with some task suited to a much younger man. It is not for us to demand alterations in the Divine Plan, but we were thinking he would make a good President of the United States, & a considerable improvement on the incumbent. (We leave the “how” to others.)

Er, seriously, Father Schall & Father Ratzinger (as he then was) were, prior to our own entry into the Catholic Church, at the top of the list of (biologically) living Catholics we most admired, & read. The full list was longer, but these were by-lines that made our heart skip & our wallet come out, every time. Since we are discussing the former, in limited time, let us say the quality we found most glorious & exceptional in Schall, after taking his towering intellect for granted, was his manliness. He was not merely unafraid of the vast wretchedness of our post-modernity, or of the pinhead legions expounding the latest progressive doctrines. In his writings he embodied, & has since embodied, a very masculine head into the prevailing breeze; a wonderful freedom from soppiness & crappola. He was ex-Army when he entered the Jesuits, & it shows. He leaves the impression of the true Christian soldier, marching as to war; of the Crusader in the finest sense, which incidentally encompasses a casual drollness, a delight in paradox & the shocking understatement. With a gentle smile, he loads a slingshot against Goliath.

Read this brief squib, “On the Mind that is Catholic,” directed to the “popular” reader, in which faith & reason are presented whole. And here is a characteristically manly phrase: “The very idea that we can actually love someone without willing his good is simply contradictory.” To which we could add only, “Bang!” — for he has just shot the Zeitgeist in the head.

That appeared in a collection of philosophical & political essays recently published. (He has been, in fact, a “professor of government.”) The man has been on a roll, these last few years, his books & collections appearing almost annually. His titles through the years give some flavour: … Redeeming the Time … Human Dignity & Human Numbers … Christianity & Politics … Christianity & Life … The Praise of “Sons of Bitches” … Idylls & Rambles … Does Catholicism Still Exist? … Unexpected Meditations … What is God Like? … And then: On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, the best, most Platonic, recent presentation of homo ludens, of man who “plays,” not as a break from more serious activities, but as his sustaining & essential activity. For even soldiering is play.

Let the reader unfamiliar with Schall do his own homework. His Georgetown University website is still here. His column in today’s Catholic Thing is another point of departure. And here is a little call to arms, to get things moving.