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.