Into the desert

I have done it again, gentle reader. This “essay” (actually a four-bead string) which I posted at 1600 words, grew mysteriously overnight to more than 2300, in response to queries from puzzled and affronted readers. More than one has begged me to flag all changes. But no, I won’t do that, it would make a dog’s breakfast. Best thing I can recommend is not to read any of these febrile squibs until I have posted the next one. Then you have some reasonable assurance that the man who rivals Joyce and Proust, if only in his fussing with the gallies, has at last moved on.


Everything is coming out of Egypt these days, just like in the Bible. The Paris demonstrations were a throwback not only to the grand gatherings of a century ago, when the masses in each European capital were demanding war, but also to the recent “Arab spring,” when the masses in Egypt and every Middle Eastern capital were demanding “democracy.” Mobs often get what they want. The best that can be said for the Jesuischarlies, is they haven’t a clew what they want, beyond making an emotional display of their own vaunted goodness.

And yet, large demonstrations are expressions of despair. They bring momentary relief in a false exhilaration: the idea that something can be done, by men; something that will not cost them vastly more than they are now paying. Verily, it is the counsel of despair. I don’t think I can provide any example from history in which mass political demonstrations did any good; only examples when they did not end as badly as they could have.

I hardly expect agreement on this point, especially on non-violent demonstrations that affirm some simple moral point, such as the wrongness of racial prejudice, or of the slaughter of unborn children. But these must necessarily politicize something which should be above politics, and cannot help bringing an element of intimidation into what must finally be communicated cor ad cor. Pressure politics change everything, such that even when the cause is indisputably elevated — the American civil rights marches of the 1960s are a good example — the effect is dubious. What came out in that case was not simply the destruction of an evil, but its replacement with new evils: welfare provisions which undermined the black family, the poison of race quotas and “reverse discrimination,” the canting and excuse-making and radical posturing that has wreaked more aggregate damage to black people — both spiritual and material — than the wicked humiliations they suffered before. (Read Thomas Sowell.)

“Be careful what you wish for.” Be mindful of what comes with that wish. Be careful whom you ask to deliver it.

To my mind (which rules this space) the Europeans have already accepted too much counsel from the Devil. The Devil likes to lead people into situations where anything they do will be wrong; where any way out will be too painful to consider. They are now in one of those situations, hemmed on every side; though the Devil still tells them they have soft options. He lies: they don’t. Wishing very hard won’t help them, that only works in Peter Pan. And despair won’t help them, either. They may demonstrate all they wish: a million fools are not an improvement on the judgement of one solitary fool. But try telling that to a million fools.

Try telling them that every Muslim in Europe is ripe for conversion; for every person is. Or that it is the duty of every baptized Christian to evangelize. And by the way, good luck!

Men love to make grandiloquent gestures. These never work. God might conceivably fix “a problem” with some memorable piece of performance art, but that isn’t His style. His direct interventions in history may for all we know be numerous — must have been, considering the number of inevitable catastrophes averted — but those interventions are invariably subtle. He does not “compel us to believe.” Even His own coming down, from Heaven to Earth, was done with minimal fanfare. That was what the ancients found most striking about it. An angel told a few shepherds; a few others were tipped off in dreams, though no human except Mary could have been fully “in the loop.” Indeed, the Devil was left to make the first positive identification of Our Lord and Saviour. (And for once, the Devil was a reliable witness.)

There is very little statesmen can do, though at their best more good than evil. Demonstrations achieve nothing good. Mass demonstrations, and mass idiocy, provide us only with facts, which every statesman must work with. The wise place themselves outside such facts, so far as they are able. What can be done, given what has happened? The intelligent political mind is something extremely rare, and its appearance at any location, in time of crisis, must appear sheer luck. The typical politician keeps no distance at all. He will go with the flow, ride with the tide, mud with the flood. One thinks, for instance, of the forty truly contemptible politicians who were leading that Paris demonstration, and the hundred more heads of state and government who now rue that they weren’t there, too, elbowing to get in front of the cameras.

What can be done? Perhaps call Egypt.


My chief western Ireland veterinary correspondent writes to ask if I think we can “do business with” General Sisi of Egypt, a man who is not easily readable, but whose heart seems to be in the right place. He seems to know how to deal with Muslim fanatics. He was installed as head of the Egyptian military by his Islamist predecessor, Mohamed Morsi; and (like Sadat before him) is known to be a devoutly observant Muslim. Notwithstanding, he has been heard to attribute Egypt’s political difficulties to Islam, of all things. He has also made gnomic remarks about his own past, and the pleasures of his childhood in a neighbourhood of Cairo where he could watch Jews going to synagogue, and hear the bells of the Christian churches, and enjoy the riches in the library of al-Azhar. He is the son of an antiques dealer in perhaps Cairo’s finest bazaar, and has the sphinx smile: it would be hard for me not to like the man. I am also well-disposed to generals, provided they are sane.

So far as I have been able to follow events, Sisi was behind the overthrow of Morsi, although he was not immediately installed as his replacement. It was Sisi who decided, in effect, that Egypt had had “enough democracy now,” and it was time to bring all demonstrations to an end. His boss had turned one half of Egypt against the other half, and that meant he had to go. That the American patrons of the Egyptian military were now siding with Morsi on “democratic principles” was a matter of no consequence: for the American government had already made a hash, and was led by a gutless zero. I admire clear thinking.

The answer to the question of my Irish veterinarian is, “I don’t know.”

I take it as a two-part question, for I am deeply suspicious of the phrase, “do business with,” when applied to international politics. In one sense a head of government should do business with everyone, in another sense with no one. To the degree he interferes in the political life of another state — plays games to favour one party over another — he endangers the interests of his own. Conversely the best influence is to rule by example; and by focusing on Egypt alone, and quietly stepping out of regional controversies, Sisi is doing perhaps as much regional good as Erdogan of Turkey is doing evil.

Long have I thought the best way for a head of government to influence events is by the profound mischief of telling the truth. If that rattles his enemies, at home and abroad, fine and good. Rattle them again; having made clear you don’t plan to stop. (Of all the words spoken by Ronald Reagan, the two most consequential were, “evil empire.”) It is amazing what spectacularly good effects can follow from speaking the truth clearly; and in that knowledge you may let the cards fall where they may. Sisi, who seems inclined to tell the truth, must deal with Erdogan, who is a compulsive liar. Erdogan has done everything in his power to meddle in Egyptian affairs, Sisi nothing to meddle in Turkey’s. And it seems to me that in this duel, Sisi is winning: Erdogan turns his attention elsewhere.

Only the truth can build a real consensus; lies only divide.

Good government — as captured in the old Canadian constitutional phrase, “Peace, order, and good government” — works towards consensus and not against it. Democracy, as Thomas Aquinas and other Schoolmen observed, is essentially divisive: it accentuates the division into parties, and impassions all sides. It can only work for as long as all parties agree on what constitutes motherhood and apple pie. From the moment the people are asked to choose between contending “agendas” and “visions,” the Devil has the keys to the city. It is because I think Sisi understands this, that I think we can “do business with him” — so long as our business is to stay out of his affairs.

But I’ve never met the man; and even if I had, it is unlikely I would have come to an intimate understanding of the condition of his soul; and if I could somehow have done that, I wouldn’t be writing about it. For I may be a hack journalist, but I am not totally sleazy.


What, gentle reader may ask, is that fundamental problem with Islam, that even many Muslims begin to understand? Now, that is a question much easier to answer.

It is the coercion thing. This has been deeply implanted through fourteen centuries, and to be fair to the religion in Egypt, it is backed by forty more of pharaonic or quasi-pharaonic history — with only a few centuries of Christian relief. Basically, your Musulman, like your modern Liberal, thinks that the Good is something that must be compelled. That is why Muslim fanatics and Leftists are likely to see eye to eye, and find ways to cooperate, wherever the work of the Devil is afoot, even though the theological differences between them are substantial. They have a common enemy, in us. They agree on the basic principle of Shariah: that law should be more than negative and preventative; that instead it should be positive and pro-active; that it is an irreplaceable tool for social engineering.

This is starkly in contrast with the Christian, or might I say, Judaeo-Christian inheritance, in which men should be discouraged from committing specific crimes, but virtues should not, indeed cannot be compelled. They can only be inspired. Christians and Jews have not always been good. Some have been tyrants. But their faith does not command them to be tyrants, does not tell them to enforce the Good, even on themselves. It tells them instead to be good. At most, Deus vult is for special occasions.

Not even God compels the Good. Instead, He tells us what it is and suggests that we choose it. He lets us make mistakes; lets us learn from the consequences, even terrible consequences. He does not chop our hand off the moment it reaches for something it should not take, for we shall need the same hand to restore what we have taken.

Ratzinger, my beloved Ratzinger, compared the Holy Spirit in this way to a good teacher, in relation to e.g. papal conclaves. He is strangely collegial. He does not, He most decidedly does not, choose the Pope. (We have had some really bad ones.) He lets even Cardinals make mistakes. He isn’t the guarantee they will get everything right, only the guarantee that, in the end, “we won’t be able to ruin everything.”


In today’s feast, that of Saint Anthony Abbot mentioned two posts back, we see how this “dependence on the miraculous” proceeds. Anthony was founder of Christian monasticism, both East and West. His solution to the world’s problems was to go off into the desert and pray. Many followed: to the present day, the Egyptian desert is fairly well supplied with Christian monks. Many found themselves out there on the front line — themselves, actually fighting with the Devil. And of course, losing, unless they got help from the only source that can help against him. But first it was Anthony, called into the desert, founding the first monasteries out there. It was a new music.

Three centuries later Gregory I, perhaps the greatest of our Popes, was the first to come in from a monastery, stepping through the rubble of Rome. A certain monastic aloofness has always been an advantage in a ruler; an understanding that God solves problems, because we can’t. (He was also blessed with a certain aristocratic aloofness.) Gregory was impossible without Anthony; Anthony was impossible without Jesus Christ; everything is connected. Nothing is possible, without Grace. Gregory understood, for practical purposes, that what we most needed was liturgy, and chant, and so he sang his Office. The Christian world began to come together when he did.

It still does. In the Mass, in the Gregorian Chant, we are drawn in a thread directly back through centuries of monastic life, to Gregory and through him to Anthony and through him — but now we have passed through the eye of a needle. And there is no need for coercion: Sing.

Of course, the worst evils must be stopped: every decent person can know that. But the Good cannot be compelled, by men. It must come to them by Grace, from God. It comes as life itself came to this planet: by inspiration, and in a seeming infinite variety of forms; and like a psalm out of the desert. It was to the desert that we went to hear.

Saint Anthony, as you have prayed for Egypt, and prayed for Rome, pray for those Frenchmen, and pray for us.