Essays in Idleness


Light-tight & might

It will take about seven years, according to mass media sources, for the United States to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil exporter. We are told that large harbour projects designed for the importation of gas are being redesigned for export. That voluble & entertaining billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, irritated by the leucophlegmatic attitudes of his fellow Saudi royals, has been lecturing them to be afraid, to be very afraid of the “fracking revolution.” Their kingdom has depended for decades upon holding the world to ransom through OPEC; almost all their revenues are derived from oil wells. Diversify or die, he is telling them: for “light-tight” shale will obviate crude sucking — is already doing so — & their game is up.

The future of North America might seem to be assured, as a supplier of cheap commodities (oil, gas, wheat, cotton, whatever) to the increasingly diversified & technologically sophisticated economies of the Tiers Monde. Combine this with our mounting debt, & one might easily predict the global feudalism coming to a home near you. Our job as Americans will be to export, at constantly falling prices, an ever-increasing quantity of raw materials, in the vain hope of working off that debt, while it compounds indefinitely. Or call it reverse colonialism if you prefer: the same old same old, but now with the shoe on the other foot, kicking our posterior. But do not waste energy in paranoia, fearing invasion & conquest by an alien power. We would only be invaded to enforce contracts.

Let us indulge this line of prognostication a little farther, in case it is over-optimistic. The world seems awash in fossil fuel resources, once we have the means to extract them. If fracking works for us, it may work for them, too, & our slight initial advantage in technology & geology will soon go away. They won’t need our oil. That would leave us to fall back on our manufacturing base; except, it was progressively abandoned. We can do “services” perhaps, under some form of indentured labour, once we have learnt to accept wages competitive with those in rising sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile the combination of the ever-continuing “green revolution” with falling populations suggests market reliance on the subsistence model in food: for us.

Now, that’s why readers come to me: all twenty of you. I can supply the pessimistic analysis when no one else will. I do it as a public service. It is not because I think my prediction will come true — no one can predict the future, for all trends are reversible — but because glib optimism is a danger to our souls. So would be glib pessimism, but that is not the sin to which “technological man” is tempted. He thinks instead that technology can solve his problems. But it solves problems only of its own choosing, & creates more as it goes along. And it does both entirely without a brain, or any anticipation, unlike clever Nature in which the acorn foresees not only the oak, but what it will need to grow, & the requirements of its neighbours.

While we no longer have the advantage of being Christian, in the West, we still have the fading benefit from having been Christian. We have, therefore, a vestigial suspicion of technology that is not yet necessarily shared in that Tiers Monde, & a dissatisfaction with ourselves that is incomprehensible to most external observers. As an atheist might put it, centuries of religion twisted us, & freighted us with a peculiarly Christian sense of sin. It is the flip side of the “personal responsibility” that still seems to weigh on some of our better citizens. We remain spooked by a morality that makes no sense at all, once we have admitted that man is just another animal, with appetites to satisfy by any available means.

The truth is, everyone is spooked. It would be ludicrously wrong to assume that men & women of other cultures had been living like animals, these last few millennia. All had religions. And even if Christianity honed a certain edge to the old flint, the basic moral notions have been shared in every culture — the more exacting the higher in civilization we go.

Still, we (& those Jews, hence “Judeo-Christian”) are spooked at a prophetic level I think the non-Western — or more precisely never-Christianized people — seldom visit. It was a point that kept coming home to me, as a young atheist travelling in Asia. And curiously, it came home less in contrasting my fellow travellers with the natives, than in contrasting Christian with non-Christian people who were Asia-born. It was a wavelength thing — this peculiar sense of the brotherhood of man, that comes from the acknowledgement of a common Father. In their case, it was a conscious acknowledgement. In my own case at the time, it was more subconscious: something “merely cultural.”


I used above the French original of the term, Tiers Monde, because the English translation into “Third World” has come to misrepresent Alfred Sauvy’s intention in coining it (around 1952). I think this French demographer — a Leftist, but an interesting one, who was for instance generally opposed to “population control” policies  — was communicating something more subtle than “backward” in describing the countries that were then neither members of NATO, nor members of the Warsaw Pact. “Ignored, exploited, scorned” they might have been, but also, ambitious to make something of themselves.

The Soviet Empire is mostly gone, the Red Chinese Empire is transformed; various countries have risen out of the abject material poverty of the immediate post-War, China most spectacularly in consideration of her size. The term itself remains useful, for it distinguished between territories governed by Western “ideologies” — which I would define here as “deformations of Christianity” — & those colonized by the ideologies but dreaming of escape.

Most were governed, at first, by variations upon one Western ideology in particular: Marxism. To my mind, their first dictators bought into socialism from training in the fashionable schools of London & Paris; but in the sincere if false belief that it could lead quicker than free-market capitalism to industrial wealth & power. The idea was, omit the capitalist phase & move directly to the smokestacks. Their peoples were seriously bruised by their mistakes, starved & often butchered. But we are wrong to suppose that the motive of the first generation of Marxist dictators (whether or not nominally elected) was ideological purity. Even in the case of the unambiguously demonic Mao Tse-tung, the underlying intention was pragmatic; monstrously pragmatic.

In a sense, Sauvy anticipated China’s later adaptation of the “capitalist road,” along with many other parallel developments. “Maoism” was an incredibly brutal, self-destructive phase, or phases. (The principles behind the mass killings of the Great Leap Forward, & the Cultural Revolution, were rehearsed in Yenan during World War II, when ten thousand or so were killed off by way of experiment.)  But eventually Mao died, & his successors, tired of murdering people pointlessly, resolved to try something that might work. In China, as elsewhere in the Tiers Monde, the inheritors of the Revolutionary State struggled to maintain “revolutionary legitimacy,” while also to feed their people. The trick was to grant carefully managed economic freedom &, if possible, no other kind.

Wealth, of course, is a means to power, & therefore attractive to any class that worships Power. Power in turn can appropriate wealth. The challenge has always been how to make a colony of human beings as efficient as a colony of ants, given the eccentricities of humans. From ancient Assyria at least, & forward, the worshippers of Power have been working on this. It now appears that the Organization Department of the Chinese Communist Party has come up with the best solution so far.

I brought religion into this earlier, in my usual apparently gratuitous way. Religious faith & counsel helps a society self-organize, from the family up, but is out of the question when the leadership intend to maintain control from the top, down. The “meta-narrative” of an ideology offers a fallback, for a while. When that fails, hands-on pragmatism remains as the means of maintaining a secular dictatorship, free from the religious “sentimentalities” of the past. The modern answer is the “mixed economy,” in which the power of socialist envy is married to the power of capitalist greed, to keep people’s minds from straying back to religion when Power begins to bore them.

In my view (which tends to monopolize this website), we have been approaching that from various angles. America, Europe, India, China are “evolving” towards the same thing — bureaucratic management of envy & greed, in the service of a genuinely godless political order, on a scale intrinsically inhuman. But in the moments before the Chinese system finally collapses, it must take the prize for efficiency. The Politburo in Beijing could indulge fresh thinking, of the most purely “unsentimental” kind, thanks largely to the pioneering work of Mao, who “let a hundred flowers bloom” & then cut them down, repeatedly. (The death toll was in the tens of millions.) This gave them the cleanest slate, & most docile population, on which to build “communist capitalism in one country,” & thus to beat the rest of us on efficiency alone.


As ever I am making a wild stab at a general understanding of our current situation. This necessarily involves history. But in public political consciousness, we are working from a history that has been reduced to “political economy” by both Left & Right, in Western academia over more than two centuries. To the European mind, post-Enlightenment, wealth & power are the only relevant things: “income” & “rights.” The rest is silence. The nature of the ancient religious “sentimentalities” — whether Eastern or Western — came to be less & less understood, until it is comprehensible only to the tiny minority who still refuse to buy in. The religious underpinnings of every social order were dismissed as irrational, as accidental, in the Enlightenment project to replace the living God with an abstract Man. They were taken to be arbitrary cultural obstructions to our material advancement. “Progress” had bulldozed, & would continue to bulldoze these obstructions — albeit with some “welfare” infilling behind, as the State appropriated the traditional educational, medical, & charitable functions of family & Church.

It was not appreciated that these cultural obstructions were purposeful; that many of the inefficiencies were purposeful; that in every society limitations on the creation of wealth were intentional, even when only instinctive. (Parenthetical segue to Elizabeth Anscombe’s magnificent long essay on Intention, 1957 revised 1963, where such concepts as “purpose” & “intention” are sorted out.) The obstructions had a function that is inconceivable to the modern observer. It was to keep Mammon in chains.

Starvation is a real evil, as everyone will guess, & worth doing something about. The ambition to eat & live, decently, is not a surrender to Mammon. But bloat is a surrender, & the intention towards bloat is a deadly sin (“gluttony”). This, anyway, is one way of describing the Christian construction. Gluttony, not the worst sin in the pléiade, until we make it so, is perhaps the sin most laughed at today — an indication of how poorly we are defended against it. (We reduce it to over-eating, for which we assume the cure is dieting & exercise.)

To my mind, the great evil in European Imperialism did not consist of economic exploitation. Instead that “exploitation” was merrily spreading wealth (until squandered in many cases by Marxist dictatorships). The great evil was instead exporting what was of no value in our Western culture — the how-to of gluttony — by the extremely bad example of our rapacity. What we had, or once had, was a religion worth exporting, because it was actually better than any other. Our extremely bad example restricted its spread.

Our missionaries, almost everywhere, worked at cross-purposes to the secular colonial authorities. They worked, whenever wisely, with the grain of native cultures, enlarging & redeeming rather than destroying. Tremendous effort was expended in the intellectual enterprise of meeting each culture half-way: in mastering languages, customs, comparative religion; in establishing means of communication at the deepest possible level. It was a mindset for which every individual soul counted, & in which, for the purpose of Salvation, no price was too high. They — not all the missionaries, of course; some were mere outriders for the State — learned as well as taught. (Conversely, some colonial officials were themselves deeply & very purposefully Christian.) Indeed one cannot teach without learning, & it could be observed that the great bulk of what has been preserved of the world’s cultural history is the direct or indirect product of that missionary enterprise.

But alongside it came an immense destructive force, the true exploitation, which consisted of undermining native religious & cultural traditions, & replacing them not with a “higher religion” but with the ideologies of Western nationalism & materialism. We re-programmed the world for “economic progress,” as the end for human striving in & of itself; & for its delivery through agencies of the State. This was the means by which, I think, many of our ancestors were able to reserve for themselves a lower place in Hell than any of the pagans they so casually oppressed, manipulated, & despised.

Today we are harvesting what we sowed. We “freed” people from native traditions which should never have been sneered at, while preventing the deep-cultural infusion of our own best traditions. We evangelized for an empty materialism. And now, the countries of the Tiers Monde embark one by one on entirely pragmatic enterprises, burying our materialism under theirs.


This would in turn provide the basis for my own worldly optimism. For while it is true that we made a hash of our Christian mission, hope is not extinguished. In the face of vacuous materialism, & under long-neglected angelic direction, it is now finally growing without our help from tiny seeds once planted — seemingly everywhere outside the West. Here alone is it shrinking, together oddly enough with our material power — as Christ leaves us to go where He is wanted. Even in the terms of this world, we have got what we deserved. And as Socrates argued, a just punishment should be welcomed.


“Dearth of civil courage” is a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor & theologian, anti-Nazi dissident & conspirator (martyred 9 April 1945). He used it to explain the failure of German resistance to Hitler, before, during, & after his rise. Hitler was a special case, but “dearth of civil courage” is not an exclusively German trait. Lies, including very big lies, are in circulation &, for the duration of our world, will be in circulation from the Father of Lies. They will likewise always enjoy cover behind some form of “political correctness” — behind the drapery of fashion, if you will. Not everyone even knows that they are lies, or cares what the truth is. No courage should ever be expected of the careless. But there are people who do know perfectly well, have & will always know which end is “up” — & these remain silent. Their motive is dead obvious. Speaking up would cost them.

A latter-day disciple of Bonhoeffer’s, & a friend of mine, is Uwe Siemon-Netto. We never met in Vietnam, but go back to similar experiences there: rather more intense in his case. He was & remains an unusual case: a hack journalist by trade & yet, a Lutheran pastor by training. He has played a part in various intra-Lutheran debates that is interesting, but largely beyond me. His prolonged survival on some outer limb of the journalistic “mainstream” is, in itself, a noteworthy accomplishment. His job, as he has understood it, is to act as witness, & report what he has seen. Unlike most journalists I know, who falsely present themselves as “objective” & “disinterested,” Uwe imagines this calling to be pregnant with moral significance. It most certainly involves speaking up for truths that no one wants to hear; telling whole truths, not partial; being the messenger &, if it comes to that, the messenger who gets killed.

At age seventy-six, however, it must be said that Uwe is very much alive, & that his fate was instead to be ignored. He covered everything from the building of the Berlin Wall to its fall, & was present for almost every world crisis from the 1960s forward, on various continents. But Vietnam was where he left his heart most conspicuously. His recent book, Duc (his nickname in ‘Nam, shared with a street urchin he befriended), may stand as his definitive memoir of the forgotten & ignored truths of that conflict. But it is also what the subtitle promises: A Reporter’s Love for A Wounded People. Though very grim in passages, it is often entertaining. Many anecdotes are hilarious, & his evocation of life as it was in Vietnam, now pushing half a century ago, is undimmed & exact from what must have been obsessive note-taking. The reflections scattered through the book, including Uwe’s reflections on the journalist’s calling, are beautiful.

If for no other cause, I would recommend the book to gentle reader as the best account I know of the massacre at Hué, during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Played down by the functionaries of the Western press, excused by many, & denied by some (Noam Chomsky, &c), it was a manifestation of unambiguous evil on a convincing scale. No honest appraisal could fail to expose the nature of the Communist mind that had planned it in attentive detail: three thousand political executions, against a background of general carnage in which defenceless non-combatants, including large numbers of women & children considered to belong to the “class enemy,” became the intended occupants of mass graves.

It is hard for me to write about my own experiences in that country, partly for the rage I still contain against smug, liberal journalists who critiqued the allied war effort from the safety of the bars in Saigon. It is a disproportionate rage, for they were malicious idiots, not murderers in the first degree. Few had the intelligence to see the sometimes direct relationship between what they were filing & what would ensue; some did, & exulted in their power.

Uwe, with far greater experience in the field, as well as in Saigon, has done something very impressive. He presents his account calmly, by infusing it with love. What he is presenting is in accord with my own understanding of the history, & my own cursory witness. To his as to my mind, the fall of Vietnam into the hands of the Communists was among the great horrors of the 20th century. Those from the West whose vanity, wilful ignorance, moral indifference, & deceit served the Communist conquest, I have yet to forgive. So many went on to dominant positions in the world’s second-oldest profession.

The most memorable incident in the book is, perhaps, Uwe’s brief recruitment as a nurse in a German field clinic for civilian wounded. A doctor was working alone, after the Viet Cong had kidnapped the rest of the medical staff. Uwe’s tasks included, for instance, holding the spilt guts of a Vietnamese woman in place while the doctor tried to stitch her back together.

Years later, he found himself proposing an angle to a “conservative” German newspaper, looking for background historical features during the reunification. The major rôle East Germany had played, as an arms supplier to North Vietnam & the Viet Cong, & as an agitprop supplier to the West, was recalled.

“Here is an idea,” he said. “How about producing an in-depth report on the East German manufacturers of PPM-2 mines, the remnants of whose victims I saw all over Route 19 in Vietnam? How about searching East German archives for material about the propaganda mill that accused West Germany of complicity in the Vietnam War, probably resulting in the death of our doctors and nurses in Vietnam?”

He was met with an explosion of hostility from his younger editorial colleagues. Graduates of the student revolution of 1968, they had been taught to glorify Ho Chi Minh. This could not surprise him. Nor, alas, was he entirely surprised by the silence of his older colleagues, who knew more than the puppies, but “found it imprudent” to come to his support.


Hitlers come & go, but moral docility remains a constant in Germany, as here. I could fill this anti-blog with Canadian examples, witnessed first-hand. And I have seen it inside the Church, as well as outside. Would it make the slightest difference if our society, in the main, were still “nominally” Christian, & not as highly “secularized” as it has become through my lifetime?

On the simplest pragmatic level, I think, yes it would. I think the great majority would be, as ever, timidly unwilling to express themselves at personal cost. But I also think the constant liturgical reminder, that better is required of humans, would provide us with more heroes & heroines; that the constant recollection of Saints & Martyrs, who made stands when stands had to be made (often enough against the Church’s own bureaucracy) would help impart some starch. And in the background, I think there would be a greater capacity to discern the ring of truth. For in telling right apart from wrong, constant reinforcement should in fact work better than no reinforcement.

My empirical evidence for this is, however, only cumulatively anecdotal. It consists of the real heroes I have encountered in my life. Again & again I have found they were animated by what is today a highly unrepresentative religious faith; that this was very plainly the source of their courage. And that the few exceptions (such as my own unreligious father) nevertheless acted in ways that were stereotypically Christian. In principle, of course, anyone can be a hero. In practice, it is not so glib.

Uwe is one of my Christian heroes. Not a Saint, by any stretch of my imagination or his, but an honest man, willing to call a spade a spade, which is half way home already.


We see, on perusing the news this morning, that the BBC have lifted their deathwatch on Nelson Mandela for the moment, & shifted to birthwatch on a lady they identify in their headline as “Kate Middleton.” I think they are referring to the Duchess of Cambridge, & that the child will be, according to received laws of succession, third heir to the throne of Canada, after his or her father Prince William, & grandfather Prince Charles. We pray all goes well.

My views on monarchy have not been concealed, & though Jacobite I must say that I am finally reconciled to the Hanoverian succession. In light of the performance of (apostate) Catholic figures on the world stage, I might almost thank God they are Protestant. And I pray for Canada, & for the other remaining British dominions, & for Little England, too, that we will continue to deserve our Queen, & her successors. Lord give them strength & wisdom, to do the little that remains in their charge with elegance & exemplary panache, as a constant reminder of noble order in a world given over to, … well, look around.

My formula for the rectification of powers between Church & State was stated somewhere on an idiot box. Multiply those of the former by ten, & divide those of the latter by ten, & the State will still have too much power. As to rebalancing between Crown & Parliament within the State, I would employ approximately the same arithmetic. But of course our system is not “and” but rather “Crown in Parliament,” so the whole thing should be done invisibly. We’ll leave Commoners & Lords (within the Parliament) to another day.

Patriots & Loyalists alike should be reminded that the little tyrannies against which we both railed, back in the 1760s & ’70s, originated almost entirely in the Parliament at Westminster, & not, as certain propagandists alleged, in the household of his late majesty, King George III. The attacks on him were cheap shots, & typical of self-serving politicians. Now that my republican friends have had a good taste of the despoliations of their own Congress, perhaps they may finally agree to review the mistakes that were made.

In the meanwhile all I can say is, God save our Queen!


Afternoon update: IT’S A BOY!

The dead motor

We had, up here in the High Doganate, succeeded until this moment in resisting the temptation to mention Detroit, a city which does not seem able even to declare itself bankrupt successfully, now forty-six years after it should have begun processing the papers. For the entire city resolved to surrender to rioters in 1967; to not even clean up after them. That was when they should have declared complete public incompetence, & submitted their collective application to be enslaved.

Looking at the pics the media have exhumed of the decay & abandonment, it struck me that the ruins of Detroit are more haunting & beautiful than Motor City ever was. And yet part of this beauty is in the ache for that lost past: for the men & women who made “normal” lives here, once upon a time — who went about their jobs & housework; raised whining kids, made their mortgage payments; watched movies & television; pressed their noses into the shop windows; ate hamburgers, & macaroni with processed cheese. And see the pride of the world in these gutted mansions, where the more successful accountants used to live. How grand they must once have been: the turrets & the gardens & the servants bringing iced tea!

(Of course, there is always more to it than that, more in every life, even among the most craven materialists. And perhaps that, too, is easier to see when the people are ghosts, & nothing can be concealed any longer; & even the houses are ghosts, & we can see right through. We know, that because they were human, these people who lived & died in Detroit had joys & loves, fears & hatreds, precious memories & precious things. We know that each was a secret universe, shared only in moments with his neighbour, & then only partly seen. We know, or should know, that each life was worth living, regardless of the externals. But here I am only discussing the externals.)

Detroit embodied our North American promise of “equal opportunity” — wealth in return for willingness to work. Arbeit macht frei. The promise was empty, as all such promises are empty, that turn on the wheel of fortune. The city was built on false promise. It died. It is true that you could once get a job, in return only for docile behaviour; that you could once get rich, if you had the right sort of insolence, & luck. But even those promises stale-dated.

And now that part of Michigan is a suburban encampment of economic refugees; a ring in space around a black hole. From the Google height, of low orbit, one may detect the crescent of malls & parking lots, the spread of docile labour in their ticky-tack boxes, & of gated management in their monster homes — all of it pushing outward in search of fake freedom, or spinning inward to the expanding hole. And rather ugly, except the flowers & trees.

The term that stabs is “equal opportunity.” The rich & poor had always lived together, everywhere else in the world. One might argue that America’s chief export has been “the gated community,” at the crown of a system of segregation or “apartness”; of by-laws enforcing neighbourhood by class. It works with retailing by market stratum, & “lifestyle” advertising to postal location; everyone within a given neighbourhood having tastes & wants much the same. By increments we have become a continent gerrymandered for “democracy” — for the purposes of mass marketing, & mass politics, also much the same.

Detroit developed this product of the Industrial Revolution. It went beyond what Birmingham & Manchester had achieved. Race was added as a self-organizing factor, & another poison to hasten its demise. The city became an array of non-communicating cells, a “multiculture.” European cities survive to the degree that they do not import this disease, & people of different classes still mix. But each is now under siege, being ghettoized by unassimilable immigration, into mutually uncomprehending sheikhdoms.

London we may still have, for some years yet, because after the riots two summers ago the neighbours came out in solidarity with their brooms, the morning after — in Hackney, Brixton, Chingford, Walthamstow, Peckham, Enfield, Battersea, Croydon, Ealing, Barking, East Ham. It was as if they were confronting the rioters, by turning the other cheek. I was deeply impressed by that spontaneous response, from Londoners I thought had nothing left in them; by all those “middle class” petit-bourgeois types (of quite various races), actually taking responsibility upon themselves, & not waiting to blame the politicians they had elected. And when the Mayor turned up to deliver a little speech, his constituents drowned him out with, “Where’s your broom?” — until he stopped blathering & started sweeping.

The “white flight” to the suburbs — not only in Detroit — was, it seemed to me even at the time, the domestic equivalent to the American surrender in Vietnam. Ditto the surrender of college administrators to over-indulged, rioting students; & a hundred other indications that defeat was now being accepted by the “silent majority,” wherever it was made available to them. They would vote for Nixon, & leave it to him. They would meanwhile retreat inside their (literally or figuratively) gated communities. Having lost round one, they would now wait, patiently & apart, until they were entirely outnumbered. They would, when required, pretend to like it, & give lip-service to anything the Zeitgeist now ordained. They would even agree to be called “oppressors,” when in fact they were simpering cowards.

It is almost half a century since Americans (including Canadians) decided that our habits & values were not worth defending, that in the larger Darwinian view we ought to be extinct. Everything from Roe v. Wade to “same sex marriage” declares, in one ascending voice: “We are not worth saving.” And now we discover that even some fey Europeans have more spine: one vertebra still connected to another, among people not yet isolated by class; a moral order not as fully disintegrated, & therefore less amenable to arbitrary change. (Though pretty darn amenable notwithstanding.)


I noticed several Detroit photographs were spoilt, aesthetically, by the sight of glass office towers in the distant background — erected, as I understand, thanks to the major subsidies, insider tax breaks, & focused planning corruption of urban regeneration schemes. They are, or were, Nanny State’s way of saving the city — big business & big government in partnership to provide gleaming anthills of fresh bureaucracy. And now they ruin the harmony of the ruins. But they will fade in when they, too, are abandoned in due course.

Detroit was marked for self-destruction from the beginning, by the grand scheme. It was Henry Ford the Soviets so admired. Good old Henry “Bunk” Ford provided their model of industrialization: smokestacks, not spires. The Red Chinese in their turn have done a better job of exploiting the history-is-bunk worldview, building instant cities, starting from Shenzhen — perhaps the ugliest urban agglomeration ever assembled by compelled human labour, until it was overtaken by a dozen more in the same country. They have created, on the improved Detroit model, fantastically large conurbations in which “the people” may work & sleep, eat & defecate; skyscraping concrete hives for their worker bees. Cities built yesterday; without history, without flavour, without “soul.” And now, strange to say, I gather Chinese planners have begun to fear these omissions, & seek some “spiritual” component they can somehow plug in, before the whole thing blows up in their faces.

The desire for bread alone will never keep people working. It will only keep them working until they get the bread.

This is a principle of economics that Joseph Schumpeter partially discerned, or saw more clearly than the other Austrian economists — that liberal democratic capitalist materialism is, in its very nature, self-defeating. It cannot generate anything but decadence. It decays inevitably, in meandering welfare socialism. At heart (not according to Schumpeter but to me) materialism is boring. In a sense, Detroit died of boredom. It made money, lots of money once upon a time. But it had very little use for the money. A few nice museums, & churches while there were still Christians, but the rest was all production & consumption of essentially worthless goods. That is to say, goods that are merely the means to some end that was never thought through; not goods of any intrinsic merit. Production line goods, like cars: faster & faster ways to get nowhere.

Decades ago, the high-paid workers began welding beer cans inside the fenders on the automobile production lines. They were dying of consumption. They couldn’t be bothered competing any more. “These jobs aren’t good enough for Americans.” They were only good enough for Asiatics, who work desperate & cheap. (And now they are welding beer cans to the fenders in Shenzhen.)

That, I earnestly believe, is where the “opportunity” society checks out: at the Dollarama. Man cannot live by bread alone, nor on empty abstract expressions: “democracy,” “progress,” & all the other cant. We need another reason to live, as an older, & quite explicitly Christian, Middle America once had. As even Detroit had, before religion & family bled away.

You can’t kick start an economy that has burnt itself out, as the Japanese have also discovered, through the generation since they caught up with America, materially. You can’t regrow a world without children, or rekindle belief without belief. But let me not get carried away. Eventually hunger will kick start us again: hunger alike for bread & for meaning.

Come the revolution

It is a little known, & therefore underappreciated fact, that I am not trying to overthrow the Government. Nor, though I am vexed by democracy, would I blow up the Parliament — not even if provided with the munitions gratis, & a crowd of cheering supporters. I am anyway, like the American Loyalists from whom I descend, generally opposed to the use of violence, in pursuit of political ends. And even when goaded by revolutionists, I recommend the least violent course in defence of the established order. As a tactical matter, I do not think the cause of de-politicization can benefit from extreme politicization, or that when we are (as invariably) defeated in the ballot box, we should take to the streets. For everything else that can be said against it, let me emphasize that insurrection is charmless, & beneath the dignity of the well-bred.

“Mow them down to marmalade” was the recommendation of our Canadian sage, Stephen Leacock, when considering civil disturbances of that kind. It was a last resort he was proposing, albeit with some warmth, in response to news from South Africa, where the imposition of British rule was not going smoothly (more than a century ago).

But like most reasonable-sounding men, Leacock would counsel that we start with schemes of amelioration, in order to sap the rebellious impulse. Responsible democrats, as monarchs of old, first try to buy off their opponents. To a mob that is forming, that will not listen to reason, bread & circuses may first be applied. This may work, sometimes, for extended periods. The expense inevitably rises, however, & the debts accumulate. Finally they are on the scale of Obamacare, & one can no longer afford even to pay one’s militia. “Pas d’argent, pas de Suisse,” King Louis is said to have lamented, in a mangled Racinian moment. I’m sure the freely-elected rulers of Greece have entertained the same despairing thought.

So far as I can see — & I have been looking at the history, in a life-long desultory way — democracy must inevitably end as it begins: a failed scheme of amelioration. By increments, the power of the purse is itself surrendered to the crowd, with mordant parting advice to spend it wisely. The business of holding them in thrall is transferred from hereditary agents, to the political demagogues (i.e. devils in human flesh). We have, immediately, a New Class of rulers, who differ from the Old in important ways. They are no longer in any sense minding their own business, nor spending money they might otherwise keep.

The great Pierre Elliott Trudeau provided a nice illustration, in his own person. He was the wealthy scion, from the sale of his papa’s gas station empire, appropriately enough. He was a man of style. He would flaunt his wealth in showy sports cars, suits, & an art-deco mansion in the primest neighbourhood of downtown Montreal; but for him such vanities were easily afforded. For the rest he had a very Scottish reputation (his mama was Scotch) for tightfistedness. I knew a man who knew him well: you couldn’t borrow a fiver from Trudeau. He paid his bills promptly, & no more.

But then he came to power, by popular election, thanks largely to his carefully crafted reputation as a “swinger” in the Hugh Hefner ‘sixties style, with a few added Gallic Intellectual touches. Women swooned, & fainted at his feet; men wanted to be him. Instead of the few millions he had inherited, he now controlled the bottomless billions of a modern democratic State. His spending habits changed. Paradoxically, this tight-fisted Franco-Scotchman left Canada drowning in a peacetime debt, unprecedented in our history. He’d blown the bank in budget after budget, through sixteen years. How odd, gentle reader might think, that such profligacy should come from a man who counted the nickels & dimes in his own pocket. And yet there was an explanation. It wasn’t his own money he was spending.

Bread & circuses are all very well, & the welfare state if someone can afford it, according to the best current liberal thinking (from moderate Left to moderate Right). Actually, not very well, for free money, or even the illusion of free money, has a terribly corrupting effect. Moreover, what begins as windfall, continues as contractual obligation. Tell people now that the party is over, & they won’t just thank you & go home. They will riot. I am amused by the mob reasoning the Left now employs, in its angry demands for continued pay-outs. “If you could afford this yesterday, why can’t you afford it today?” They think the Government must be hiding something. They observe rich people who have yet to be eaten: the viciously targeted “one percent.” Let the banquet resume!

It could be argued that this is a simplistic account. Not everything simple is false, however.

Some gentleman in Texas has been prattling to my inbox about our need of equality before the law, which requires, he imagines, a more general egalitarianism. It began as a discussion of the game of golf, wherein it came to my attention that the Americans have amended the rules of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews. And done so without compunction.

“In the real world (outside your head),” my Texas assailant writes, “bias has a great deal to do with egalitarianism. Specifically, when non-egalitarian procedures are relied upon in the construction of the law, bias becomes part of the law. And, that is why ye olde aristocratic order was destroyed. It biased the political game in favour of ye olde aristocrats.”

I think what he was trying to say, in his awkward Maoist sloganeering way, is that the envy of the trolls is constantly at work, cutting down the achievements of higher civilization. But while it is true they annoy me, I am much more grieved by the sacrifice of freedom, my own in particular. There is this “game” of politics that we are forced to play, under troll rules. I don’t want to play it. I don’t want to have to defend everything I already have & enjoy from these appropriating People’s Committees. I should rather they get on with their miserable little lives, & find their own desperate little pleasures.

Now, under the laws of Old England as I understood them, an Earl reserved the right to be hanged with a silk rope. Whereas, a commoner had to settle for hemp, “the Bridport dagger.” But so what? We all hang anyway.

And it is for a rather simplistic reason that I now propose not to overthrow the Government, & seize power, & do what seems necessary by main force. It would be short-sighted. For no one in his right mind could wish to inherit the democratic legacy. And besides, none of the problems are soluble, or could ever have been solved from the top, down. Leviathan has always had his own agenda.

It is not actually “democracy” I oppose, in principle, but the power of the State. And this is immensely enhanced by the shrill whistle of mass democracy. Men are reduced to the equality of interchangeable cyphers, in the service of an incomprehensibly huge machine. The Canadian constitution, like the American & some others, made reasonable sense on the assumption of peace, order, & respect for the autonomy of the local & voluntary. I’d say restore them to what they were, if I believed for a moment that this were possible. The totalitarian dynamic is all the other way, & we only encourage it by voting.

The propaganda of the State relies on a selection of cant terms — “democracy,” “equality,” “freedom,” “human rights,” “reform,” “progress” — each an unqualified abstract conceptual designed to prey upon human credulity. As all sophistical language, such words are intended to make what is evil appear to be good, & what is good appear to be evil; to bait the trap, & oil the machinery for the Big Lie. They are for grinding down persons into a mulch called “The People,” & evaporating their human souls. I would not propose to overthrow the Government, for that would only put me in control of the machine, & make me responsible for its preservation. Instead I would propose to calmly & persistently dismantle it, from the ground up, & in the only way I can imagine it could ever be peacefully dismantled.

I revert once again to the first political principle of Confucius, & Orwell. The true reform of a political order begins when we resume using words for what they mean — & with their necessary adjectival & adverbial qualifications, in sentences that parse, & admit subsidiary clauses where & when required. It thus begins by discarding the slogans, the clichés, the formulae, the bullshit. It begins by distinguishing Heaven from Earth, & recognizing the transience of earthly arrangements, & therefore the inapplicability of absolute terms to non-absolute realities.

Not slogans, but prayers, will advance liberation. Here, to my mind, is the most radical political agenda that was ever enunciated in Planet Earth:

Pater noster, qui es in caelis: / sanctificetur Nomen Tuum; / adveniat Regnum Tuum; / fiat voluntas Tua, / sicut in caelo, et in terra. / Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie; / et dimitte nobis debita nostra, / sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris; / et ne nos inducas in tentationem; / sed libera nos a Malo.

Before those carefully qualified words, & in the blood of our own martyrs, the demonic power of the Roman State melted away, & its very gauleiters were converted.

I cannot think of any truth, goodness, or beauty, that is incompatible with that paternalist agenda. Whereas, I cannot think of any that is not potentially an affront to every earthly tyrant, whether or not freely elected as the Ruler of the People. Therefore I support this radically idle, hippie course:

“Random acts of kindness & senseless acts of beauty.”

This anti-slogan was, I gather, contributed by my babyboom contemporary, Anne Herbert, who maintains her own anti-blog somewhere (Peace & Love & Noticing the Details). She also supplied: “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” Whether she were from Left or Right is no matter, we are obviously on the same side. Compare & contrast:

“Revolution is not a dinner party, nor an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be advanced softly, gradually, carefully, considerately, respectfully, politely, plainly, & modestly. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

In this famous analysis, Mao Tse-tung gave his position away — identical, in principle, with that of Thomas Jefferson — thereby providing my fellow “enemies of the people” with a few useful hints.

Let us advance the counter-revolution with dinner parties, essays, paintings, embroidery. Let us proceed softly, gradually, carefully, considerately, respectfully, politely, plainly, & modestly. And when we cannot escape the ministrations of these devils in human flesh, let God help us to endure them.

Alex Colville

The notion that painting should supply imagery remains fairly well implanted in the public mind, at least since the aurochs & equines of Lascaux. “Representative” is a related but different idea. The Abstract Expressionism against which Alex Colville rebelled, when he returned from the European front as perhaps Canada’s most memorable war artist, cannot be said to dispense with imagery. I think it would be more accurate to say it was “dispensing” with it; & Colville was pleased to dispense with the dispensing. (He had no use for fashion.) I cannot recall an abstract painting in which the image is not retained as a ghost, or a poorly concealed premiss; but then, there is a lot of abstract painting I simply can’t recall. By contrast, it is hard to forget Colville paintings.

His “magic realism,” or “super-realism,” or “hyper-realism” — perhaps one might sometimes say “supernatural realism” — was something I admired without entirely liking. Yet it was certainly not “photo-realism,” which I detest. Colville himself was a magnificent man, entirely sincere & characteristically humble. The “supernaturalism” was I think constantly & intentionally present, but as consciously & intentionally restrained. As I know from my own family past, it is a mistake to think that United Churchmen rejected mysticism & asceticism, or that they were ever unemotional. They did not reject Trinitarian Christianity, and many still do not, as I was recently reminded at the funeral of a beloved uncle, who had for decades continued singing in the choir. Colville, who in my very brief brushes with him seemed like a member of my own extended family, was a tame & decent man, such that the tameness & decency itself carried a religious charge — a contained & applied religious anxiety.

They are clubbable people, in my view. Colville’s membership card in the Progressive Conservative party (how Canadian that oxymoron!) was something precious to him, signifying his refusal to be an outsider. From war artist forward, he never resisted public service. He accepted awards, & behaved with due diligence on arts committees, in academic administration, & any other call to duty, without ever pushing himself forward. He was entirely in his element designing the reverses for our national coinage in Centennial Year (quite astounding reliefs of common Canadian animals). He rejected rejectionism. He was totally reliable. He was the exact opposite of what we imagine by an artistic temperament.

For he put that temperament entirely into his work. He chose the most painstaking methods available, not only in technique but in construction. The geometry in his paintings is as refined as that of Piero della Francesca, & the colouring as serene in the service of the geometry. The symbolism has a similar quality: resonating from the obvious, rather than from the arcane. The subject matter was entirely different, but I mention Piero because after taking in Colville, Piero made more sense to me: his careful choreography of extraordinary detail towards an overall simple effect; his uncompromising “logistics” in the service of disarmingly plain juxtapositions.

The most famous Colville painting is, “Horse & Train.” One could not hope for symbolism more dead obvious. A dark horse is running off from the foreground along railway track, directly in the path of an approaching engine, whose steam is modestly bleaching the sky. The original title spells this out more clearly still: “A Dark Horse Against an Armoured Train.” The setting is a specific place, near Sackville, New Brunswick, where the rail trestles low over the Tatramar Marshes. The inspiration is likewise deadpan. Colville was arrested by a couplet, itself often quoted, from the (explosively Catholic) South African poet, Roy Campbell:

Against a regiment I oppose a brain,
And a dark horse against an armoured train. …

Colville himself acceded to calling this his signature work, or as he told my father, “A skeleton key to all the others.” In none of his paintings is the outward placidity to be taken at face value. Though employing some techniques associated with photo-realism, it is never to a photographic purpose. It is curiously enough to an abstract & expressive purpose. Always some juxtaposition; always something disturbing in that, & some hint of nature in opposition to nature; for even over a pure landscape he flies the scavenging “Seven Crows.” Death is always stalking.

It would be inane to attribute this “psychologically,” to his formative experience as war artist, or his own early proximity to death by pneumonia; just as it would be obtuse to say that the attraction of his paintings to the large audience he eventually found, overlooked this element. For while it is true that any pretty realism will appeal to the chocolate-box mentality, the power in Colville’s paintings is to spook it. “Oh look, a little naked child with a big black labrador.” But the child is looking at the dog, the dog is looking through the child, & the dog’s collar is its symbolic mark of submission. It could, if it wished, tear that little child to pieces. Even while trying, no one will be able to miss this aspect of the composition, in which the comforting is presented, then withdrawn.

Colville (who died yesterday, age 92), was hardly a melodramatic person. His “lifestyle” & sunny demeanour gave no hint of this. Nor did his remarkably long happy marriage to the witty Rhodda (née Wright), herself artist as well as wife, mother, model, & muse, who predeceased him in December. They were contented Maritimers, small town citizens, perfectly in tune with their neighbours. Nothing could ever draw them towards the big city, for Alex had seen enough of warzones already. The down-home warmth in his voice is the impression I will carry.

He could not come from any other place, & only the weight of his art drops through it. His work was “discovered” in Germany & England before it made any significant impression in Canada. It will probably survive, because it has real universality. It is uncluttered by period sentiment, aloof, complete, & self-explanatory: such things travel well through time. But Colville didn’t worry about such things, & it is not for us to worry on his behalf.

Truth & numbers

According to the BBC, I was the 75,962,709,323rd human to be born on Earth. Our numbers have now grown to 83,445,892,578, or had when I checked their world population widget the other day, & entered my birthdate in the calculator provided. That would be something like 10 percent growth, in just the last sixty years; & I gather the population continues to increase at this breakneck pace, so that in the absence of apocalyptic events, we may well reach 100,000,000,000 within a century or two.

The numbers may be easily contested, for like all statistics in which the count exceeds what can be represented on our fingers (plus toes for the prehensile), it is based on raw arbitrary assumptions, themselves uncheckable unless by statistical means. Except, some of these “givens” are more basic & ironical. I infer, for instance, that the BBC birth number calculator must, for precision of count, unavoidably assume an original Adam & Eve, at a fixed point in time. (Why statisticians should be allowed to assume this, but preachers not, is one of those secular mysteries.) The Beeb machine must also posit that everyone born on a given day arrived at precisely the same moment, for it appears I must be tied for 75,962,709,323rd place with many who shared my birthday. Others may shrug at such things. I’ve given up on shrugging.

I was reminded of the dubious precision of statistics this morning, as I examined not my conscience but my supply of ready cash, for the purpose of deciding how much to drop in the church basket. I found only $15.34 in my wallet & pockets. But then a little angel reminded that $80 was stashed in the Analects of Confucius (by the page entitled, “Additional Notes”). My statistical assumption had been that all the cash would be found in my wallet & pockets. I’d been off by a factor of more than five.

Once upon a time I studied demography, at first for the purpose of excoriating the “population bomb” scaremongers back in the 1970s. The subject struck me as boring, until I was sidelined into historical demography, & discovered such authorities as Thomas Henry Hollingsworth. And while his Demografia Historica will by now be dismissed as a little dated, it is permanently astute. No one could read it without having his confidence in all past & present estimates of population profoundly shaken. And while modern census-takers have devised very extravagant methods by which to corral heads for a headcount, they rely on a ludicrously complex pile-up of crude assumptions to invent every confidently-reported fact about these people. The demographers flourish nonetheless, as prized servants of bureaucratic tyranny, which has found the number crunching of “democracy” very much to its liking.

(A correspondent in email serendipitously supplies this explanatory note from C.S. Lewis: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”)

My libertarian hero in this regard was Sir John Cowperthwaite KB CBE, financial secretary to Hong Kong through the 1960s, & perhaps the most significant figure in the recovery of the old Crown Colony from its condition at the end of the last World War. He pointedly refused to collect economic statistics. His reasoning was that, without numbers to play with, the “economic planners” would be at a loss. They were, & Hong Kong boomed.

But to mention him is to stray into questions of economic policy, which, like Cowperthwaite, I am against. How we live our lives is God’s business, & none of the government’s until we are reasonably suspected of a crime. Their job is to provide for our defence against rapine & massacre by foreign powers & domestic criminals, in return for modest taxes. It is an important job, from which they should not be distracted by their own alien & criminal propensities. Let it be added that Hong Kong was remarkably free of crime throughout the period in question, comparing favourably even to booming yet placid Tokyo.

Proving that last point would, to the modern mind, require a peacock display of statistics — not strictly comparable between different cities, but homogenized by inserting additional layers of raw arbitrary assumptions. At best, this would yield a result compatible with what people familiar with both cities already knew. (If it didn’t, the assumptions would be revisited & adjusted.)

The ancient alternative to this exercise in absurdity is direct human experience. The human, as every other animal, is alert to security, & learns quickly whether he is in a safe environment. (Though alas, sometimes, not quickly enough.) I, for instance, know with fair certainty, street by street, & without reference to statistics, where not to walk in my neighbourhood after nightfall. I also have a fairly clear idea of the decline in civility, overall, that has come as a direct consequence of police & courts whose focus has been shifted both culturally & legislatively from preventing crime, to advancing a social engineering agenda — with a constant eye upon statistical indicators.

The issue here is not cause & effect; or rather, not the mechanical details of the scientism of our lunatic social engineers. It is the fundamental question of good & evil. The individual may, in strict obedience to the Sermon on the Mount, sometimes turn the other cheek. But nota bene: this is a strategy for defeating evil. Other strategies include catching & gaoling thieves, & hanging murderous psychopaths. The point isn’t to analyse their numbers, but to deal with them one by one — ideally, without excessive attention to race, creed, & colour.

In the meanwhile, gentle reader may be wondering why I brought the cumulative population of the world into this, from the start. It was to show the one good use for statistics which I have found: and that is to blow away reliance on statistics. As Burke, & several others have observed, our human world is a compact, a “social contract” if you will, between the dead, the living, & the yet unborn. We, the currently living, are a small & shrinking minority. Yet we have responsibilities towards the whole, to fulfil & to project by our own moral actions. And to this end, the numbering of our hairs, or of the grains on the beaches, counts for nothing.

The numbers lie. Each one of these people — dead, living, yet unconceived — is an immortal universe. Each is the recipient & provider of justice, before & beyond worldly trade. Each will be held to account, at the Day of Judgement, when the complete record is set before us, to our inevitable surprise; when, as it were, our whole lives flash before our eyes. It is in our personal & collective interest to bear this superlative Truth in mind, & not a phantasia of unknowable & irrelevant numerological epiphenomena.

The 5th of July

It would have been rude, perhaps even obtuse & insensitive, to deliver myself of another Loyalist rant on the 4th of July. And besides, after 237 years, it would be arcane to argue the Declaration of Independence point by point.

The document landed in London without much of a thud; it was more noticed by the progressive factions there, than by the authorities it proposed to defy. But in due course, a few Tory hacks took note of Jefferson’s wild effusion, & pulled it apart, fact tact & premiss. Someone should reprint it all today (perhaps someone has): the full, contemporary Tory response, or rather, the full response — for rebuttals to the Declaration came mostly from self-described Old Whigs. Some, even among those sympathetic to the political aspirations of the American “Patriots,” were nevertheless embarrassed by such an over-the-top chargesheet. In the meantime we fall back on our beloved Doctor Johnson, for a summary of the reactive, contrary position: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

In America, there could be little debate, for the British offer to concede American independence by a peaceful settlement under the Crown had been ignored, & the matter was now being settled by arms.

My own people were on the losing side of that exchange, which is perhaps why I still harbour some mild annoyance in the matter. I think of men like my maternal great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Stetson Holmes of Massachusetts, who actually fought on the side of the Continental Army, but was so disgusted with the treatment of his old Loyalist neighbours in the wake of their defeat, that he followed them into exile. There were many, many stories like this, that don’t fit any “official narrative.” Ditto, for symmetry, the plight of so many Loyalists, smugly abandoned to the convenience of British negotiators after the war, who switched sides to the Patriots, though at less personal cost.

That war was far more complicated & messy than is taught in the myths of national chauvinism, whether from my traditional Canadian, or the traditional American side. As, too, our respective versions of the invasion of Canada in 1812, which even where they can agree on fact, diametrically oppose on principle. Each side supplies facts to the other, in a somewhat selective manner; each finds the other side strangely deaf. Though equality in error does not follow from this, it may well follow that the discussion is pointless.

Yet, get me started, & I’ll be glad to resume it, easily provoked by the simplistic & disingenuous account long provided, to the young & impressionable in the Republic to our south. As I was saying just yesterday to some provocateur from Texas, pushing that account too aggressively into my face: “You really must dirty your brain with a little historical reading, for it appears to have been too thoroughly washed by your State education system.”

Not everything taught in State schools (both sides of every border) is a lie, of course. But when formative national myths are expounded, no teacher is quite under oath. I long defended the need for such propaganda, in holding a nation together, or a religious sect. With age, it now seems that lies are just lies, & that a key objection to the whole project of Modernity — from Reformation through Enlightenment & forward, with every nationalist revolution along the way — is its foundation upon a few big lies, with a lot of little ones cemented into the buttressing.

Had the lies been all on one side, however, the edifice might have toppled by now. For the whole Baroque scheme of opposition to Modernity, splendid as it may first appear, rests itself upon the same loose gravel. (Put not your faith in men!) And in a mysterious way, lies from one side buttress lies from the other. They perpetuate each other in fulfilment of the prophecy I attribute to Christ in his mysterious instruction: “Resist ye not evil.”

It is hard to see, in the heat of conflict, that rather than push back against an evil with equal & opposite force, we should not resist, even flee the temptation when necessary, & let it collapse under its own weight & thrust. For somewhere in the divine advice is an ingenious earthly strategy: to recognize our own contribution to an intractable problem, & see what happens when we take it away.

Call this, as I will, “Christian idleness.” It consists of considering everything from all sides, & then doing nothing — not because that is the easiest thing to do, for it is usually the hardest. Rather, because it is the right thing to do.

That “the perfect is the enemy of the good” may be sworn against this. That the moral order for human persons is irrelevant to States, we may also allow. In which case, let it be observed, that States can make no legitimate claim to virtue — being inhuman, after all. Leviathan should not be mistaken for a man. It is therefore wrong to attribute moral virtues to this Leviathan of State; for only (human) statesmen can be wise. Which is why, in sound mediaeval political thought, the focus is on the statesman & not on the question of how the statesman is elected. (This is important; there will be a test.) We cannot consider virtue in politics until we have put the politics in human terms, & exited the wonderland of leviathanic abstraction.

Wise statesmen, & America has had her share, may grasp that where perfection is unobtainable, an approach to it might still be worth a try. “Less is more,” or can be, & the contemplative use of a little force, applied in timely way, at just the right places, might be the next best thing to perfect hebetude.


There are reasons to celebrate the 5th of July, as we do up here in the High Doganate. It is the day in history when Constantine’s great bridge over the Danube was opened (anno 338); when the Auld Alliance was declared between Scotland & France (1295); when Newton’s Principia was published (1687); when the Battle of Wagram was fought (& darn that Napoleon, 1809). At Mass we recall Saint Antonio Maria Zaccaria (d.1539), a larger figure in history than is commonly acknowledged, whose dozen surviving letters are absolutely extraordinary. One could do worse today than listen to any one of those letters (available free from the Barnabite Fathers, through iTunes).

Notwithstanding all these important events, I think rather of the 5th of July, in its secular aspect, as the day after the 4th. The reason we don’t bother to argue with Tom Jefferson any more, nor Tom Paine & the rest of them, is that the United States can no longer be prevented. For better & for worse — indeed, arguably, largely for the better — it has been a fact of life ever since. It will probably remain for a few years yet, & we are right to accommodate it in our general scheme of current realities. Indeed: we usually do.

In politics, as in life more generally, we must start from where we are, to get any purchase; not from where we’d like to be. We make the best of a botch. And the curious thing is that some history is required to understand the botch. The Iron Law of Paradox tells us that only by “living in the past” — by some conscious intellectual effort to overcome the anachronism in all propaganda history — can we even begin to understand the botch at which we have most recently arrived. Those who don’t read history are not doomed to repeat it. The case is worse than that. They are doomed to keep trying to repeat it, in a really amateur way.

The 5th of July is a day on which, in light of all that our ancestors achieved to make the world the mess we have inherited, we start thinking again — the way they’re still not doing in Egypt. As a first step, how can we go about deconstructing the lies, & recovering a few elementary truths? I should think any effort in this line would yield abundant public dividends, by a deep cost-cutting: the determined writing-off of so many poor investments.

“That you will know the truth, & the truth will make you free.”

My mama used to have a poster with this caption, on the wall by her washing machine. It depicted a rag doll being fed through a wringer. It was a superb poster, illustrating a formative truth. Not, not assuredly, the highest truth, but the journey of a thousand loads begins with a single laundry cycle.

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; … for dust thou art, & unto dust shalt thou return.”

Is this not so? And does wisdom not begin at this beginning? And does every aspiration to worldly renown, to inserting oneself in the stretch of the narrative, to immortality in fame or in works, not return to the dust with us? Prospero put this nicely, about “these our actors”:

… melted into Ayre, into thin Ayre:
And like the baselesse fabricke of this vision,
The Clowd-capt Towres, the gorgeous Pallaces,
The solemne Temples, the great Globe it selfe,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantiall Pageant faded,
Leave not a racke behind. …

We start from where we are, but must recall the irony in all our proud aspiration to make some national or material order that can outlive Time, consecrated not to God but to our own genius. This, to my mind, is the error that has dragged us through centuries of spiritual misery, & down into a Hell in which, even when we have every material comfort, & every satisfaction of revenge, we still cannot be happy. We ask of the world what the world cannot provide, feeding our appetites more than our bellies.


It was the wisdom of Christendom, before the Western Schism, to conceive of this world in quite another way; to build everywhere in view of the Hereafter. This has remained the intention of remnants, scattered here & there. It is a view that seems unrecoverable, in the light of our politics & traffic today. And yet it can be recovered in a moment, without looking for a fork in the road, for all we have to do is rise.

The possibility of rising is implicit not only in every personal deliberation, but also, strange to say, in every public or political decision that must be made. Most, I would say, need never have been made, & were better unmade than taken any farther — but even there, the truth is that someone must decide. And whether with or without a vote, the man entrusted to decide cannot honestly deny that he is choosing on behalf of others. Let us be ridiculous, & call this the “public choice theory” in “the economy of salvation.”

I think it may be formulated in guiding questions, that we can ask of ourselves before every public decision, every act that impinges upon the fate of others — as much in business as in government, for public is as public does. I might even tag this, “Christian libertarianism”:

Does the proposed measure aid, or impede, the salvation of our fellow men? Does it lift, or impose, a burden upon them? Does it make each more free to pursue his salvation, or help to mire us all in the earthly?

(And let it be said that neither the American nor the Canadian “founding fathers” were impervious to such questions; not quite.)

Where the answers are negative: Why are we doing this, when we could equally well be doing something else, or nothing? Why are we rolling ourselves in the dust? And compelling others to roll with us? By what divine right to we appropriate the power to modify the divine plan?

I’m sure that sounds oppressively Christian, to the post-modern ear. Yet oddly enough, the Chinese understood it, as well or better than we ever did; & the pagan Greeks, with their warning of hubris; & many others who were capable of a little chastity, even a little fear, under the Eye of Heaven. It starts with not desecrating ourselves, & continues with not desecrating others.

Confucius, the very great political philosopher, conveyed this peculiarly well — this gentlemanly striving not to play along, not to ride with fashion & falsity & fuss in the foolish Procession of the State; not to mire ourselves in matters that go far beyond our business. For he included in his Book of Songs, among the ancient lamentations (Waley’s translation, no. 286):

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You will only make yourself dusty.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only make yourself wretched.

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You won’t be able to see for dust.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
Or you will never escape from your despair.

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You’ll be stifled with dust.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only load yourself with care.

Arab autumn?

At last, good news from the Middle East. Democracy has been overthrown in Egypt. The generals taking over promise new elections in a few months, but with any luck they are lying.

Nothing lasts in this world, & I mustn’t get carried away. In Cairo, the show is far from over. It would be too much to hope for a similar coup in Turkey, where I fear the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has had too much time to re-arrange the higher ranks. And in Iran, the Islamists are fully militarized: after thirty-four years, external force is still required. The tide is turning against the Islamists in Libya: the government there seems finally to be killing them off. There is still some hope for Tunisia; maybe even Iraq. But let me be cautious, if first in the field, to declare the arrival of the “Arab Autumn.”

When the Ayatollahs finally fall, supposing they do not fall directly on Israel, the peoples of their realm will be inoculated against Islamism for a generation to come. (Gentle reader may recall that the “Persian Spring,” or more precisely winter, arrived in January 1979; & all the democratic euphoria that came with the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty.) For truth, the people of Iran have probably been inoculated these last thirty years, but again: Mao Tse-Tung was right about power. Those with the guns have it. Those without do not. The trick is to manoeuvre into possession of the guns, & then a peaceful transition follows. Those who think the world is governed by ideas cannot know much about it. Nor is it ruled by guns, to be clear: but by the people who hold & are willing to use them — & for as long as the rest of us think they’re still awake.

I’m sure that sounds cynical. But power itself is a cynical thing, & we must look to the psychotic dimension of human behaviour for the appeal of holding it. “Democracy” does not eliminate this dimension. It offers to channel violence into peaceful competition for the monopoly on force. It provides a plausible & upholstered alternative — fighting with boffers instead of spiked clubs. It can even work, for as long as the electorate is confined to gentlemen with a strict code of honour, a comprehensive sense of personal responsibility, an apprehension of God, & sufficient wealth to resist the temptation to appropriate. As the franchise is enlarged, all this collapses into what we have now: government by cynical manipulation of the ignorant masses.

You do not win elections today by telling the whole truth so far as you are capable of understanding it — even about the obstacles to fulfilling an agenda; let alone the most likely “unintended consequences,” which if not you, your advisers know perfectly well. You do not win by giving an honest account of the stakes in play. Nor do you win by polite self-deprecation, leaving the argument for your merits to your colleagues & oldest friends.

You win by bamboozling the public; by shamelessly vulgar boasting & display; by making promises that can never be fulfilled; by colouring low motives with high-sounding phrases; by offering pay-offs in not-too-subtle ways. You win by mastering the methods of Hollywood & the entertainment media; by employing the tricks of mass advertising to “create demand” & “shape the marketplace.”

Later, after you have made a hash of everything, your old loyal supporters will cuss you into retirement. That, almost alone, remains as a palpable attraction of democracy, or “unique selling point” as the marketing people say: the routine humiliation of once-successful politicians, & with it, the visceral satisfaction of turning them out of office. (But even this is lost in systems of proportional representation, or by the gerrymandered tenure of Congressional USA.)

Meanwhile, in democracies, the bureaucracy grows & grows. This is absolutely inevitable: for the people will always vote to collect more, from programmes to be paid for with other people’s money. Peace may prevail, in the absence of actual bloodshed, but knot by knot the entire population binds itself in the cat’s cradle of tax & regulation, & freedom is lost from sheer aversion to risk. In a fully-fledged democracy, no one can hope to be let alone by the authorities. Whereas, that is the only freedom a government can confer.

Monarchy may offer peaceful transition, too; & rulers born not made, thus eliminating much squalid competition, & shutting the power hungry outside the gates. It has many other virtues I have elsewhere puffed, though also several flaws. A legitimate heir is not always available. Or, he is available, but happens to be insane. Or, though perfectly adequate, he falls on the field of valour, or gets murdered in a palace intrigue. Chance comes into everything, & there are times when a good monarchy isn’t in the cards. That is when we need a fall-back position: somewhere to turn when better options fail.


And that is the beauty of military dictatorship. If we must have a republic, I recommend the “banana” variety. Generals, in the main, are men of little imagination, & simple tastes. They love order, to be sure, but in the balance of public vices, a little order is seldom a bad thing. They are not easily infected by ideology, or any other form of intellectual ambition; even those who acquire some may lose it after a while. They don’t much care what one is doing, so long as it will not threaten the peace, or otherwise interfere with their breakfast. Should the general be smart enough to fully understand his need to avoid free elections, he will become unobtrusive. He won’t go out of his way to antagonize anyone. He may line his own pockets, & those of his friends — for as Valéry said, “Power without abuse loses its charm.” But the odd billion into a Swiss bank account is a small price to pay for freedom.

It is the officer who may not be lining his own pockets whom we need to fear; the one possessed by revolutionary zeal, associated from the start with Party. Those, let me admit, give Generalissimos a bad name. No, it is only the career general I’m proposing to push forward: the sort already used to giving orders & having them obeyed; who will not feel the need to redesign his own uniform. Real generals, a little on the plump side, & entirely without charisma: that’s where to turn in a pinch. Not to hothead colonels.

For a real general is a man with a trade. He understands the value of elementary professionalism. He’ll appoint boring accountants to the budget office, prosecuting attorneys to every judicial bench — the sort of men who have some vague idea what they are doing. They won’t be like the czars in the Obama administration. A few technocrats here & there won’t do much harm. Better them than the bug-eyed idealists.

Granted, real generals have their foibles, too, that go with the tendency to be stupid. Alas, perfection is not available in this world. But while they may be rough & somewhat brutish in their ways, may eat ice cream with a fork & so on, there is usually some underlying decency in them.

That would be the weakness. They are good at seizing power when the people riot against a stale-dated regime, & genuinely enjoy their brief candle of popularity. But the wish to be loved may scramble their later judgement. They will hesitate to turn their guns on the people who come out rioting against them, in their turn. This we saw in Cairo the year before last, when the military stood down rather than shoot more students in Tahrir Square. Not that I recommend carnage as a principle of public policy, Heaven forfend! Rather, the cultivation of a certain tone of voice that projects well through television, & makes people not want to test you.

Add that to policy preference for mom & apple pie, & a general may last a few decades. He could be the next Franco, or Pinochet, or Park Chung-hee — the next Mubarak, perhaps — granting his (ungrateful) countrymen a prolonged respite from the horror of politics, “interesting personalities,” & “events.” Eventually, the devils displaced will find some way back to power. The world is the world, & nothing works forever. But a long holiday is better than a short one.

The happy soldier

Celebration of the secular nation state, with fireworks &c, helps one remember what it is good for — fighting wars, mostly. And so on the eve of Dominion Day, wandering idly through a flea market, I was pleased to find, in mint condition, the first edition of a fine book on war; for one dollar. True, I already had a copy, but I’m of the Scottish genetic persuasion, and cannot resist a bargain. I’m sure I could flip it to a dealer for two dollars, just like that. Maybe three. Or read both copies at once, to get the effect in stereo.

The book is Private Army, by Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff, DSO, MC, a.k.a. “Popski,” published 1950. The man was a very British Russian Jew, from Belgium, quietly making his fortune from sugar refining in Egypt when War came along. The unit he assembled — a “demolition squadron” or raiding party — was called the “PPA” (for “Popski’s Private Army”). The whole merry story of their works, chasing Rommel across North Africa, hitting his fuel dumps and so forth; then finding further German weaknesses in a sprint up the spine of Italy — can probably be found on the Internet somewhere. Details, details, for another day. But for today, they are the first three paragraphs of this delicious memoir that I would call to gentle reader’s attention:

“This is the story of what happened to me in my middle age between the beginning of 1940 and the end of 1945. Up to the times I am writing about I had found little contentment, and I believe that my contemporaries had the same sterile experience; but during these five years every moment was consciously happy. …

“My tale is of war and hard work and enterprises, sometimes stirring but more often ludicrous; of sudden reversals of fortune; of people in high places who were not ruled by convention and others who were; of lowly men from foreign nations whose devotion to our cause exceeded our own; of bloodshed and violence, but more of cunning and deceit and high spirits and the pleasant cudgelling of brains and then again more hard work; above all of friendship.

“Only to the fools among the men of my generation will the realization come as a surprise that we liked war.”

The rest is of a piece, and Popski’s joyful outlook is everywhere apparent. On losing a few jeeps, for instance, despite a pang for all the work that had gone into bringing them to peak performance, he is perfectly blithe. “War is wasteful,” he explains to his companions. “We’ll get more.” …

On the loss of a good friend, and very successful bomb disposal artist (until one unlucky moment), he is philosophical. A terrible loss, to be sure, but the man was at least having a good time.

Canadians are lucky not to have me as their Generalissimo, perhaps, but had I the command of any armed force I’d want happy soldiers, and give them more latitude for war as sport. How often, thanks to increased dependence on technology, the whole experience has lapsed into grimness. From my own father, grandfather, and other veterans, I was already acquainted with the Joy of War, and had glimpses of it in Vietnam and elsewhere. The big marching army is a tedious affair, to say nothing of wasteful. The fun is to be had in special forces.

(Verily, that was my “critique” of Vietnam: “Why aren’t you guys fighting this like the British in Malaya and Borneo? You’ve got a perfectly good jungle out there, full of Commies. Why are you piling up accountants in Saigon?”)

For war is inevitable, and has always been, and there will always be wars. Even in the blessed Middle Ages, there were plenty: though for the most part small when internecine, and well regulated by Christian tradition. As Popski himself observed, the best sort of war can be fought without too much bothering civilians. That is what made the North African campaign especially attractive. I applaud fighting in deserts whenever possible, or in jungles, or on mountain glaciers such as those in Kashmir, or remote underpopulated islands such as the Falklands. Clausewitz to the contrary, it has never seemed right to slaughter non-combatants, and “Total War” always leaves me cold. It is among the reasons I dislike democracy.

But “no wars at all” would be too few. We should eschew fanaticism, and instead focus on making the wars we fight more enjoyable for everyone involved. I’m for more enterprise, and less bureaucracy; for “privatizing” armies on Popski principles, wherever we can; for making everything more voluntary. None of that puritanical “make love, not war” of my sad, embittered hippie generation. Why choose, when we can do both?

Statutory holiday

Today is Dominion Day. It was officially renamed “Canada Day” in some bigoted Act of Parliament around 1982, which should have been ignored. American readers can imagine what they would think of a Congress that had “Independence Day” officially redesignated “United States Day.” They would assume their country were under alien occupation, just as I assume, of Canada.

My annual rant against the desecration and destruction of the Dominion of Canada’s institutions and heritage — and their replacement with the vain, vile, and very cheap paraphernalia of this gliberal affront — will be found this year in Catholic Insight magazine, published at Toronto. I would republish that essay here, but fear copyright infractions whenever transcribing my own works. Meanwhile, readers are advised to find the website of “Catlick Incite” (as it is affectionately called, up here in the High Doganate), to obtain their lifetime and multiple gift subscriptions.

To my mind, “O Canada” should be included as a hymn in the Mass, today — in the original, unaltered, French, richly Catholic version. Then for the recessional, have the organist hit hard on “The Maple Leaf Forever.”

For all my dead ancestors, for all who fought on behalf of a much better Canada — so many of whom laid down their lives in France and other remote places — the consecration of my love in my prayers. History, generally, is a Lost Cause, which so long as we do live we must never cease from embracing:

For there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

God save our Queen, and Heaven bless … the Maple Leaf Forever!