Essays in Idleness


Digby chicks

Parkdale, which is to say, the inner core of the Greater Parkdale Area, in which the High Doganate is located, is a melting pot of innumerable overlapping ethnications. Among our most exotic immigrants are those from the far east: Nova Scotia, for instance, and Newfoundland. Shopping, at least for food in Parkdale, is a treat. We have every sort of specialist grocery, and in effect, groceries within groceries. One gets one’s Tibetan yak sausage, for instance, from a Serbian butcher whose store is cowboy-themed; ingredients for one’s Somali maraq from the Sinhalese grocery (via their Maldivian connexion); but the exhilarating, cardamom-infused gashaato instead via the Sikh Punjabis, as supplement to their Bengali sweets. Note, this culinary cross-dressing is the opposite of multiculturalism. Rather I would call it, “downmarket fusion.”

This being Lent, I try to avoid fish on Fridays. There’s enough of that for the other days, beans on rice will do, or perhaps sinfully on the last two Fridays, I indulged a craving for sweet potato in a Siamese red sauce. I woke this morning with a craving for salt, as well as protein, and as God is merciful, recalled to mind a little platter of Digby chicks in my fridge — obtained some days before from the Maritime ethnic section of a cheap local supermarket.

Digby Chicken has long been Nova Scotia’s answer to Bombay Duck. The latter, also salty, and so powerful in flavour and scent that it requires careful packaging, is actually a fish, the bummalo. Gentle reader may already be trying to construct an etymology from that, but there is no hope for him. The fish is actually harvested from the waters off Bombay. It was transported from there by rail, in the good old days of British Imperialism, aboard the Bombay Dhak (i.e. the Bombay Mail), which gave rise to such expressions as, e.g. “You smell like the Bombay Dhak.” Surely, that will be enough to go on.

Whereas, to my understanding (and my mommy was from Nova Scotia, remember), no one in its presence could be in the slightest doubt that Digby chicken are in fact intensely smoked and salted herring fillets. The name is an old Minas Basin in-joke, from the arrival of Loyalist settlers with Admiral Digby, after the final evacuation of New York City (in 1783). The first couple of winters were rather a pain, for these effete urban types, but the settlers did have a plentiful supply of fish. They called the herring they had salted away, “Digby chicken.” You see, they were being ironical.

It is a gorgeous thing, not only to eat but to look at, in its glistening darkness. I have knocked off two of the fillets this morning, cold (as they are best), each wrapped longitudinally in a slice of Bavarian rye, to assure catholicity. Nothing is required by way of condiment, except, arguably, a long slice of full-sour kosher dill, so that we may commemorate the Old Testament, also.

Pray for a slow death

It is all very well for these saints to be martyred, “at the top of their game,” as it were. One suspects it may even be a worldly privilege in some cases, like the silk rope I mentioned two Idleposts ago. However, recent events have reminded us that most die slowly, whether or not they happen to be saints, and with or without good palliative care. To the contemporary secular mind, this is appalling. The “quality of life” having been defined without reference to any spiritual values (love is incidentally a spiritual value) — but instead by analogy to the life of a dog — it is easy to understand the desire for euthanasia.

Today’s Saint in my Saint Andrew’s Missal is the young Passionist, Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (1838–1862). Should he not already know, I daresay gentle reader could find all about him, given the search terms just provided. (Some Catholics have even been infiltrating the Wicked Paedia, leaving all kinds of learning there: I am shocked, shocked, to find how much good stuff is now posted there, with information gradually transferred from standard printed sources. Good on them!)

What might occasion most surprise — after we have answered to our own satisfaction the question, “How did this young lady’s man and dandy become a saint at all?” — is Saint Gabriel’s peculiar prayer. It was for a slow death; and incidentally it was granted, through tuberculosis at the age of not quite twenty-four.

From a large family, Francis Possenti (as he was baptized) had in his short life already watched several of his brothers and sisters, and his mother, die of horrible diseases. One of his brothers had also committed suicide. Francis had himself suffered from the quinsy as a teenager: a throat abscess that starts with strep, from the days before tonsillectomies. It should have killed him, but miraculously did not. From such facts we may reasonably deduce that the young man could not possibly have entertained the romantic notions about “easeful death,” still quoted from the “Ode to a Nightingale.”

In the face of hard reality, yet, that was his prayer: for a death so slow it would give him a chance to prepare himself for the hereafter.

To those of you who are not yet saints (and I have a spiritual director who will confirm that I’m with you), a slow death is of inestimable advantage. There is a great deal of sinful attachment to this world that needs burning off, and best to get about it this side of Purgatory. Pain, properly managed (which is to say, peacefully accepted if it is one’s unavoidable lot), can be helpful, too. But even if the pain can be palliated — which it can be, usually, when known treatments are properly applied — time is of the essence. The more of it one has, the better, once one has fixed upon the ambition for a good death.

Time can also be wasted. This is the most heartbreaking thing I see in the nursing homes and elsewhere, where patients receive no spiritual counsel, and their visitors, if they still have any, flash the smileyface when they come, usually as cover for a quick getaway. These patients are told lies, including silly lies about how they are getting better. People who tell you lies are not your friends.

People who want to kill you are also not your friends, though I think this point has been sufficiently made in other Idleposts, recently.

Of course, if there is no God — no Heaven, “no Hell below us, above us only sky” — then I grant, you are a dog, indeed: a happy panting dog at best, but a dog nevertheless, and of course you should be put down if you are feeling seriously uncomfortable. But this is the fool’s hypothetical, which can be quickly dismissed. For if, as you aver, human life can be reduced to accident, it is entirely meaningless. So why don’t we put you down now?

There is no arguing with the Culture of Death, beyond showing it is a form of psychopathology. There can be no debate, and really it’s just a question of who has the power to get his way. Wolves eat sheep when there are no shepherds, and as Thomas More observed, sheep eat men when the atheists are in power.

Saint Gabriel Possenti, pray for us. … Lord, give us time to prepare ourselves for Thee.

Lili Kraus

The background music since last week, up here in the High Doganate, has been Mozart, mostly, oddly enough. He is not usually associated with Lent. But five CDs of his solo piano music fell into my hands the day after Ash Wednesday, and you know how superstitious I am. The organ is shut down till Easter in my church; and I haven’t been tempted to Mozart’s grander “operatic” and “symphonic” works — with one exception “proving the rule.” That is a small chamber transcription of his insuperable D-minor Requiem, by Peter Lichtenthal (1780–1853), performed by the Quartetto Aglàia on four very old string instruments. By subtracting the choral grandiloquence, and pulling away Mozart’s scintillating orchestral special effects, it makes the Requiem meditative and more shockingly Christian. And yet it does not reduce the terror in the Dies Irae, and rather enhances the dialectic of the whole piece, in which the proud soul is humbled to divine submission.

Lichtenthal was an accomplished musician and composer in his own right, of Hungarian origin, Viennese taste, and Milanese settlement. He was also a medical doctor, and a hack journalist — softly proselytizing against the melodramatic trend in nineteenth-century Italian music. His many transcriptions from Mozart and others appealed to keyboard and chamber players performing in their own homes, “under the radar,” as we say. His most ambitious literary work combined all his interests. It was a treatise on how music effects the human body, and can actually cure certain diseases.

From the album notes, I paraphrase this interesting observation on the nature of genius as gift. Lichtenthal is explaining Mozart’s accomplishment in a memorial pamphlet:

“Genius is present at birth. It does not provide the structure, however; only the base. Sometimes the genius strays from the path of hard study. He finishes by making disastrous mistakes. But if he is going to accomplish something truly great, he will need even more than diligent study of the classics. He will need, in addition to this and going beyond it, a remarkable focus: the ambition or will to accomplish something that is very great, that is universal.”

And this of course Mozart had. There are no “untutored geniuses,” there never has been, even one. This is something I have tried to communicate to the class I teach on Shakespeare, to arm my students against the extraordinary volume of plain rubbish that has been written about The Bard, all premissed on the Victorian heresy that, “Shakespeare is a god.” The same is usually applied to Mozart, and as falsely. Consult the ancient Greeks, who perfectly understood that human genius explains nothing. It is what the human has done with that gift that counts. Hence, Christ’s Parable of the Talents.

As in nature, so in art. Notice that there is nothing murky about any of God’s creatures in nature; that, as we have been recently reminded in biological discovery, there is no such thing as “junk DNA.” Every living thing is designed to close tolerances that beggar the human imagination. The flaccidity of “Darwinism” is a total lie, an idiot lie.

Likewise, the greatest works of human craft are not vague, slurred, messy, or “visionary” in the cheap popular sense. They are extremely sharp: not only in physical execution but in what it is that they embody. A “soul” underlies the work, so particular that even in translation — and in transcription — the work carries into new realms, reassembling or resurrecting itself in new ways. It may be interpreted, too, in many different ways, but only because it has the power to be interpreted. It has dimension, such that it may be seen only from one angle at a time. It has movement, or in other words, it is alive.

Mozart’s solo works for piano — about one hundred of the six hundred or so entries in the Köchel catalogue — are strange entities, in effect transcriptions of themselves. There is — I am struggling to describe this — an untouchable interior precision; a self-enfolding emanation of wit. I would almost say, an impenetrable transparency, for (it seems to me) he is enunciating many things very clearly, but not to an audience. Often he seems to be sharing brilliant private jokes, but not with us. I will dare to call them prayerful. The shape is classical, but the spirit is high baroque. The fantasies are inward, the sonatas outward-facing and declamatory, but in both modes an audible conversation, behind our backs. And we eavesdrop on only the half of it.


The early pianos on which Mozart played were much crisper instruments than modern grands, which drown us in tone colour, and turn us all into lounge lizards. They were, in a sense, half-way back to harpsichords. He writes to his father about the joy he has found in Stein’s instruments:

“When I strike hard, I can keep my finger on the note or raise it, but the sound ceases the moment I have finished producing it. In whatever way I touch the keys, the tone is always even. It never jars, it is never stronger or weaker or entirely absent. …”

Stein’s pianos, he explains, have an escapement mechanism that other piano makers can’t be bothered with: he can completely avoid “jangling and vibration.” This is so, likewise, with the draughtsman’s exact implements, or for the colourist with his sable-hair brushes (the importation of which into the States, incidentally, is currently stopped by environmentalist whackos). Mozart is drawing lines, in music, that are not “approximate.” There is dimension in the lines themselves. We are dealing here with a form of chastity that only an artist can fully understand. A sparkling, and not a grim chastity.

That they can be played on any sort of piano, I will take on the authority of any sort of piano player, and Lili Kraus plays them on what sounds like a very modern piano, but the spirit of them is of the age and instruments on which Mozart composed, or if you will, inhabited. He was the last of the non-Romantics. Everything I hear in him that “prefigures” Schubert, Beethoven, and so forth, is dry. Not once does he grab us by the lapels. I like how he gives us space; and how Lili Kraus lets him.

This pianist (1903–86), who lived an heroic life, is not only an exceptionally clear player, but one of incredible “dash” and “poise.” (I’ve lifted these words from Bernard Jacobson.) It is not her virtuosity alone but something more: that very quality Lichtenthal identified in Mozart himself. She was a woman who did not rest on mere study. The discs I have are aciculate remasters of her Haydn Society recordings from sixty-plus years ago, and possibly rare. I’ve heard some of her later recordings of the same repertoire, but I think there is an aloofness in these — a Mozartean aloofness — that could not be recaptured. These were not for the big concert hall, but from a moment when we were briefly free of all that. They are performances of an astounding cleanliness. I was lucky to find them (especially where I did).

It seems to me (and remember, I know nothing about music) that Lili Kraus found access, not “generally” to Mozart, but to what is most Catholic in him, through these solo compositions. They are a purposeful constriction, a self-limitation, on a character who is normally outgoing and social, a mixer and charmer of the dramatic muse, a master of the comedy of manners. But there is nothing fastidious or self-conscious in them. The music is something in its nature Lenten, yet joyfully and playfully so; carried off with dash, and poise. It is as if, operating almost entirely in major mode, without shadowing or concealment, Mozart had at intervals composed a hundred meditations on the theme, “According to Thy will.”


In a politically-corrected world, where there is one side to every story, although it changes from day to day, I was delighted to see the Wall Street Journal publish a courageous article. It was in defence of French waiters. They are, as Cristina Nehring hints, among the last upholders of Western civilization; and in their settled attitude of pas possible, doing a job even Rome has been abandoning.

Unlike so many miserable wretches in contemporary Parisian society, the garçon de café has a calling. And it is not a calling to anything else. He is, like the ancient English butler (who survives only in old movies), a man of dignity; and of a wide knowledge, at the disposal of those who politely ask. He knows what is possible and what is not. He gives respect to the respectable; and he demands respect in turn. Like an officer in the field, he is called by his office, and not by his name; never should he be treated as a familiar.

“Hi everyone, my name is Johnny and I’ll be your server today! Do you have any questions about the menu?”

The journalist quotes this painfully common line, and adds what follows from it: “servers” who pester throughout the meal; put you on the spot by asking your opinion; freely interrupt dinner-table conversation with their feigned concern for your wellbeing, breathing empathy in a mist-like spittle over the fancy entrée; and again unbidden, suddenly they nail you with the bill. This is arrogance of a kind that would be unthinkable to a true French waiter.

Some years ago a visitor from Montreal, to the then still-existing Idler Pub, whose kitchen was not inadequate, confessed the ugly truth about the decline of his city. He frankly admitted that, in Toronto nowadays, even the food is better. But in his prideful despair, he cried: “Dieu merci! … At least we still have real waiters.”

Aheu, for the civilizing mission of Catholic Quebec, to our North American wilds! The waiters he admired provided the last distant echo of Brébeuf and Lalement, gone to martyrdom in Huronia.

Waiters, he recalled; and not the art students, who were then scurrying about us, at pains to let us know all about themselves. How deadly the idea that “serving” should be a means, justified by some selfish end; to do a job for which you advertise your contempt, and right in the face of your victims. No: waitering is a calling in and of itself, and considerably higher than most to which the young now aspire. (Such as lawyering, or banking.)

By contrast, there is a waitress in my local greasy spoon, of a certain age and majesty, crowned with blue-rinse hair. She has been a waitress all her adult life, and in the same restaurant; mistress of her trade. A calling is a calling, and she has never used the job crassly, to get ahead. Maternal and confident is she. Nonsense she will never brook. And on the analogy of a French waiter, she upholds standards.

This is chivalry to begin (which has its feminine forms), and charity in its reaches. The customer who has committed a solecism must be corrected; if he cannot pronounce French words he should be shown how. It would be irresponsible to leave him in a state of ignorance, wherein he could be mocked. The complacent servers of America are rogues who will not only tolerate error, but flatter, while angling for larger tips.

The very business of tipping is no longer understood; even by me. All I know is that it must be chaste. It is vulgar to treat it as a bribe, or a wage, or a “mark of appreciation”; to make it too personal, or too exactly proportional. It is instead a fee — a conventional amount, round in number, and modest in size — to be tendered regardless of the quality discovered. (If you don’t like the restaurant, don’t return.) How modest? I am likely to be asked. By tradition, I would say a penny in the ounce, or shilling in the pound.

Similarly, one tips the hangman on one’s way up the gallows. It is his due for performing an important public service: conscientiously, as we must assume. And as the principal beneficiary, one pays his fee. The amount may differ for a hemp rope or a silk (according to one’s social station), but will in either case be fixed by convention. Haggling would be untoward.

And the waiter (or hangman, as the case may be) should no more adjust his service to the tip, than the customer his tip to the service. This would make it a bribe for doing his job well, and thus frightfully insulting. A good hangman (or waiter) is incorruptible.

There is a wonderful anecdote in the newspaper, which conveys the expertise, and characteristic archness of a fine French waiter. The journalist, confessing a sweet tooth, has ordered a Kir mûr (dry white, heavily spiked with a syrupy liqueur). The waiter is naturally appalled.

Alors,” says he. “For the future, the desirable recipe for a very sweet Kir is double-cassis and aligoté.”

“You’re saying I ordered the bubble-gum version?”

“Ah, non, Madame. You ordered what you like. A man never contradicts a lady.”

Then after the pause: “Now, if it had been Monsieur who had ordered this Kir, I would absolutely have contradicted him.”

As will be seen, this is a large and very important subject, to which I sometimes return. We have what the economists call a “service economy,” yet know nothing — nothing at all — about service. This will not do, and will have to be un-politically corrected.

Primum non nocere

The Hippocratic Oath is by no means the only one that has been taken by medical students and graduates the world over, today and through the many centuries of recorded history. The Oath of Asaph in ancient Hebrew, Vaidya’s Oath in Vedic India, the Sun Simiao of Sui-dynasty China, the teachings of Nagarjuna in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, fragmentary hints in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian records — are among the many known parallels from antiquity, crossing all cultural lines. They provide startling evidence of the universality of the moral principles recognized in the school of Hippocrates: the Greek physician who flourished more than four centuries before the birth of Christ. There are, too, innumerable mediaeval and modern parallels, and testimonies to an identical reasoning. Books can be filled with this.

Readers of C.S. Lewis’s best book — The Abolition of Man — will be aware of such phenomena. He provided as an appendix many pages of parallel passages illustrating what he called, for popularity, “The Tao,” but showed to be the same as what we have called “Natural Law” in our Western tradition.

As a child, still in grade school, a book fell into my hands entitled The Portable World Bible (edited Ballou, 1944), with excerpts from scriptural works of all the major religions. Long before I became a Christian I was aware from this, and then many other sources, that there are universal truths: the philosophia perennis. And perhaps also, globalizing lies, being all attempts to deny or ignore them. “Multiculturalism” is an expression of the Great Lie today: the idea that each culture has only arbitrary beliefs, that one is as good as another, and that the only way to resolve the contradictions between them is through the moral and intellectual idiocy of a statist atheism, pretending to be neutral.

I used that word “idiocy” in a strict sense, ultimately derived from the Greek idios, suggesting not merely ignorance and mental deficiency, but more fundamentally: disconnexion, separation, isolation, alienation, atomization, aloneness. Atheism is an inevitable expression of this condition, but the “statist” adjective may have to be explained. Here I refer to what, for want of a better term, I call the essential autism of the modern state, which declares itself to be detached from any private interest. “Equality” is the modern, democratic ideal, reducing citizens to interchangeable cyphers, whose defining characteristics may then be overlooked. It is through this visor, this statistical abstraction, that the moral and intellectual idiot (or, “policy wonk”) views all matters that impinge on human life. We have reached an extreme where so fundamental a distinction between persons as that between a man and a woman can be shrugged off, dismissed, denied — with a glibness, a blankness of face and hollowness of soul, that should chill every heart.

After the last World War, the World Medical Association sponsored a revival of oath-taking by doctors in reaction to the suppression of the Hippocratic Oath in Nazi Germany. Gentle reader may perhaps guess why it would have been suppressed there. So long as the memory of Auschwitz is alive — and it is already fading from the popular consciousness — the lessons learnt may be vaguely recollected. But generations pass, and it is the fate of men to relearn truths by repeating catastrophes. How many of us, living and adult, can even remember what we learnt on the morning of 11th September, 2001?

The last time I mentioned the Hippocratic Oath in this space, a fortnight ago, I received a glib email from a correspondent who has been heckling me at intervals for at least twenty years. (His “avatar” is now a picture of George Orwell.) This clever fellow pointed out that “first do no harm” (a phrase I hadn’t used) is not in the text of the original oath. I daresay he found this “fun fact” in Wikipedia; primum non nocere was a brilliantly succinct nineteenth-century paraphrase of what that Oath articulates. He went on to tell me that I’m out of date, that the Oath is no longer mandated in white-coat ceremonies, that it never had any legal force, and that even where it is still recited the text has been revised and modernized to take account of “medical advances.”

Smug, as well as glib, the idiot didn’t remember that I had more than once previously shown myself perfectly aware of each of his points. And, before I gave up replying to him, I had also noted that his last point was a flat lie. There has been no technological advance that could possibly obviate the Hippocratic Oath, whose meaning has been intelligible to every generation, and retains its crystal clarity today. Instead it is altered to accommodate abortion and euthanasia — both of which were specifically and unambiguously condemned in the original. What this shows is not medical progress over the last two thousand four hundred years, but moral disintegration through the last fifty.

There is no more point in arguing with such a man, than with an audio loop, or an “ISIS” decapitator. Nor should we doubt he speaks for the majority, today — for what I call the “idiotized” masses; for the politicians they put into power; and for the judges and bureaucrats the politicians set in place. (Take this in: our Canadian Supreme Court voted for “physician-assisted dying,” nine-zero.) We are defenceless against people who do not value their own lives, let alone ours. But though in the end they may kill themselves and us, they cannot kill God.

It is true that the Hippocratic Oath is not legally enforceable, today. It may not even have been enforceable at the time it was written; though it is more likely the concept of honour was understood then. For it is an extremely solemn oath, and carries the sting in its last sentence. He who pledges it hopes to be ruined, should he ever betray it.

Primum non nocere, “first do no harm.” Our task is to keep this alive in our hearts: not only Christians, but every man and woman capable of decency. Every doctor and nurse and medical assistant who is not a murderer must keep it alive — pay any price rather than become complicit in a heinous evil. It is a phrase that resonates with a truth that is immortal, and will stand even as our world passes away.

On legitimate government

Only recently did I discover that I am a Hobbit. It had to be explained to me. Yet it followed from my previous political experience, for I was raised to think of myself as a liberal. This meant subscribing to the notion of free enterprise, in the economy and most other things; limited government; defending Western moral and intellectual values; and aggressively pursuing the international fight against Communism in places like Vietnam. This last was a question of decency and honour. My father explained all this to me. My mother more or less agreed, except she told me, sotto voce, the word for that had changed. People who preferred freedom to tyranny were now called “conservatives”; the commies had appropriated the other word. Upon going myself out into the world I discovered that, oddly enough, my mother was right. I was called a “conservative,” and soon gave up arguing that really I was a “liberal,” classical or otherwise.

Actually, some Czech drinking buddies helped me in this. Well do I remember a little pub altercation, in which some American draft dodgers at the next table went on and on about “Nixon” and “war crimes” and so forth. And when we’d had enough of their slogans, we Czechs answered with one of our own. “Bomb Hanoi!” we chanted (though not in the Gregorian manner). Then after some pointless exchange, we added, “Bomb Hanoi!” … Finally the bartender, affecting to be neutral, had us all tossed out.

From my readings in English history (using the term broadly here, to include Scottish, American, South African, Indian, Australian, and more generally “English-speaking” history), I was able to learn that “conservative” wasn’t good enough. “Reactionary” came closer to the mark; perhaps “Tory” was more conventional, so long as “Jacobite” was also understood.

By this time I had got a little religion, and begun to understand that with the loss of religion men became slaves to depravity, and the welfare state, requiring ever more “guvmint” to rule them as moral conscience faded, along with the spirit of personal independence, and the capacity for self-reliance.

The History of Mediaeval Political Theory in the West, by the brothers Carlyle (Alexander J. and Robert W., countless volumes, Edinburgh 1903, &c) was eye-opening in this respect, for it conducted me into a world of political thinking different from, and dramatically superior to, that with which I had been acquainted from Hobbes, forward.

Now, Hobbes was no Hobbit. He was, on the other hand, far more interesting as a political thinker than the Whigs who followed him, largely because he was himself arguing with the Elizabethan, Richard Hooker, and through him, with mediaeval, especially Thomist ideas that had leapt the fence of the Reformation, to survive a few moments on the other side. (He totally rejected them, but his rejection was “phrased in their language,” to be the more aggressively in their face.) He was not, like later philosophers of the Enlightenment, chiefly concerned with who should govern — a ridiculous question, as there will always be someone, no matter how he took the throne, or what he wishes to be called while sitting on it. Nor was he obsessed with the closely related Machiavellian question: How to get power and hang on? Rather, the background questions for him were the mediaeval ones: How to govern? What is most fundamentally necessary for the common weal? What is to be embodied in a ruler? Hobbes reads more like a robust mediaeval heretic, than like one of our effete modern whiners.

Shakespeare of course comes into this, for while never a formal theoretician, he was by far the greatest and most penetrating political thinker that broad “England” ever produced; and I say this without the least disparagement of the second-greatest, Edmund Burke. But Shakespeare was a fully Catholic, mediaeval thinker. His meditations on “legitimacy” for instance — which extend through all his works, not only the history plays — present the concept from innumerable angles, and in a way neither absolute nor relative, and thus beyond the capacities of the modern mind.

There is what the Chinese would call the “mandate of heaven.” It is unavoidably real, yet it is also as mysterious as Providence and Grace, and cannot be considered apart from those theological realities. The kingship is divinely ordained, but the king himself no more selected, nor compelled to do anything, by the Holy Spirit, than is the pope. For divine intervention is not of that kind. Statecraft partly resembles priestcraft as a calling. As we see most clearly in the two Henry IV plays, anyone can dress up as a king, but the office requires not the fitting of gown and crown, but the amendment of a person (first Henry, then his son Hal). The inheritor must take upon himself the role and solemn, lonely responsibility of kingship; or he must fail to do so, at terrible cost to himself and many others. For men are radically free. Even God respects their freedom. Either they rise to their calling, or drag the office down to their own fallen level, becoming tyrants in the process.

But this is getting too far away from Hobbits.

My own development as a political thinker was tragically stunted by employment as a political pundit. No class of writers knows less about politics than they. In order to write at all in this genre, one must pretend to take seriously an entire political order that is preposterous, peopled by the mentally and emotionally disturbed, and ruled by power-hungry maniacs, until one’s own last mooring is shot. The madness is compounded by complete ignorance of what is going on, since no one not himself up to his ears in the actual exercise of political power can possibly understand what is in play. And, those up to their ears are drowning.

The idea of the autonomous “prince” is modern. The mediaeval idea of hierarchy precluded it. The man at the top was lynchpin for a regime consisting of persons in various ranks of nobility, but in a curiously invertible pyramid, for though each in his place is servant to a master above him, he is also servant to the servants of those below him in station, pledged to their defence. The idea of “public service” survives today, but with a much different flavour. This is because the individual has ceased to be defined as a soul, a “being,” with duties. He has been redefined as a cypher or “function” with “rights.” Where to the old Christian view, rights followed from duties in the same man, to our post-Christian view the arbitrary rights of one man translate to duties for unaccounted others. (My right to a free lunch translates to your duty to pay for it, &c.) In this sense, all modern political thinking is in its nature totalitarian.

At the opposite extreme are the politics of Hobbitry: in its nature mediaeval, or if you will, sane. This I gather from perusing recent works on the political views of J.R.R. Tolkien, principally that of Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards in, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. I must depend on such secondary sources, for I’m afraid I’ve never been able to read Tolkien himself for very long without falling asleep. It follows that gentle reader is more likely to understand what I am saying here, than I am myself.

The Hobbits of the Shire live under a system of Hardly Any Government. Almost everything is decided at the family level, which leaves, on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, hardly anything else to decide. But it is better than this, owing to qualities in the Hobbits themselves. It appears that they have no understanding whatever of the concept of “fairness,” and no intellectual ability to distinguish redistribution of property from theft and rapine. They see things rather as they are. On the other hand, they have a perfect understanding of self-defence, engaged when they are occupied by liberal do-gooders. The solution to the problems these do-gooders create is thus very simple. Get rid of them. It is a task which everyone can join in.

Saruman, his Orcs, and their contrivances, provide the metaphor to liberal do-gooders and their obsessions with “process” and technology. They proved their value in resisting evil, arguably, once upon a time, until they became evil themselves. They would not understand Christ’s mysterious instruction, “resist ye not evil,” nor the parables in which He shows that “fairness” is of the Devil. They arrive in power with a do-gooder agenda, and in this are typically modern men. They toggle between damnable efficiency, and damnable inefficiency. They care not which, for over time their project is to create such a cat’s cradle of inter-dependencies that all freedom of action expires, and they may feed on human souls unchallengeably. (Whenupon, God destroys them.)

Hobbits lack agendas of any kind, which is what makes them pushovers, when dealing with the guileful. Instead they have customs, such as the meal times for which they are famous (breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper, &c). Their outlook is redemptively mediaeval. But how to protect them from e.g. Saruman and Orcs?

That is where thinking on kingship comes in. My suspicion is that the authors have been led by Tolkien’s whimsy into thinking him more naïve than he was. True enough, Tolkien the man hated democracy, and particularly hated tax collectors. Put more simply, he hated evil. He cannot have failed to understand that his Hobbits were in need of some sort of protection. They were not, however, in need of being changed. As a scholarly mediaevalist, Tolkien would have seen this plainly. I’m not sure Witt and Richards see it.

Mediaeval political thinking is focused on the requirements of kingship. It compasses an idea of men in personal relations with God, and with their neighbours. It is antithetical to various notions of the “divine right of kings,” hatched at the Reformation (then quickly copied from Protestant to Catholic realms); and by analogical extension to the abstract “divine right of the people,” in more recent constitutions. Divine rights belong only to the divine, and kings on the old model did not have “majesty,” only “highness.” (Again, “Your Majesty” was a dangerous innovation, from the late fourteenth century; though as it has since become customary, I let it pass.)

Not everything disappears. The mediaeval understanding survives to the present day, in the role of the pope as living ruler of the Church, and of the papacy as court of last resort. In the traditional understanding, he is no programmatic “politician”: his job is purely defensive. It is to defend the Deposit of Faith — the received doctrine, and the practices which follow from the doctrine — to the death if necessary. Any attempt to change these things — to innovate or pursue any kind of personal agenda — must be condemned. A pope who tried that would become an anti-pope, and all good men would then feel called to depose him (in the most orderly available way).

Similarly, a mediaeval king has the task of defending custom. It isn’t his “right” to change anything, but instead his duty to pass on the kingdom to his successor, unmolested. He is the symbol of unity, of social solidarity, of moral order, of motherhood and apple pie and everything that is “above politics.” When he exceeds his authority, he must be deposed. That is precisely why so much mediaeval political thinking was devoted to explicating the duty of rebellion. It can never be taken lightly, never be required except in the gravest circumstances. It is never a right; it can only be a duty. It is a duty not to overturn, but instead to restore a legitimate order, pleasing to God, that has itself been overturned. And as Shakespeare showed, with transcending genius in dramatic action, God’s favour is both sought and expressed in conclusive acts of Reconciliation.

What then, one might ask, is the legitimate purpose of kingship? On one level it is high and therefore sacramental, a mediation between God and man. But pragmatically or practically it has a related function that anyone should be able to understand. And that is, to protect the Hobbits.

A voice from the chorus

Before sending my little essays out in the world, I apply a special coating, to prevent them from going viral. It is my own secret recipe, which I am not prepared to share. I will only give a couple of annoying hints, on the ingredients. What I put in may be obvious enough; but what I take out is the key to it. For instance, whenever possible, I remove proper nouns. Gentle reader may have heard that the sin, and not the sinner, should be the target of Christian resistance; but for the world, the sinner is the search term.

Sometimes one must names names, however. But then one relies on another non-ingredient. I carefully avoid what the world is currently talking about, in relation to the name; to construct the post in such a way that it cannot be much use to anyone with an axe to grind, and therefore, no one will want to link it.

No one is perfect, and sometimes I slip. Usually it is because something has happened that makes not only others, but me, rather angry. There is some injustice that is obvious and needs rectifying; the victim is small and the perpetrator large. Still, with luck, my reputation for irrelevance may protect me from excessive attention.

I see that Thomas Rosica, one of the Basilian Fathers from over at St Mike’s — who have, in my longstanding opinion, done much over the years to kill off Catholic congregations and vocations — admirer of the disgraceful Gregory Baum, founder of Salt+Light TV, and now the English-language media point man at the Holy See Press Office under Fr Federico Lombardi (enough said) — has threatened to sue my friend David Domet. It is a story getting play all over the “traditionalist” blogosphere. Domet’s Vox Cantoris blog is a good enough source for material and links to many who do not much admire Fr Rosica, nor appreciate his “progressive” contributions to the life of the Church. I do hope Vox Cantoris stays up through the proposed “lawfare,” which began with a formal demand that Domet take down every post in which Fr Rosica is mentioned. (Go read them while you still can!)

Domet is a little guy, Rosica a big guy. (Well, biologically, they are more evenly matched.) I, personally, have many disagreements with both, yet am not midway between them. Domet treasures and defends the mystical dimension of the Church, and is deeply involved in her music. Where he has gone over the top, it seems to me he has chosen the right hill. Rosica is a mover and shaker; a wonderfully well-connected “modernist,” with a tin ear.

As a media man myself, at least in my dark past, I would not criticize the Vatican media operation nor, particularly, would I allege its total incompetence. As the Schoolmen used to say, some arguments are unnecessary.

Instead, I would call attention to a deeper problem, not only in media operations but most other communications I notice emanating from the current ecclesial bureaucracy, and devolving through various quasi-autonomous ventures (such as Salt+Light TV). They are upbeat, smileyface, welcoming, to a fault. The wolf, as we may see from Fr Rosica’s private, thuggish attempt at intimidation, may lurk behind the scenes, but in front we see only soft, glib, very comfortable sheepskin. We call this, “The Church of Nice.”

The harrying from within of all Catholic tradition — the replacement of her moral teaching with a fake “mercy”; of her profound liturgy with cheap karaoke; of transcendent truth with cute bumpersticker — is a sign of the times. We must read it even as we continue to pray; and in the knowledge that inevitably, Christ will prevail.

It might appear that the Church is imploding; that we watch a death star. I cannot know; I do not think this is the end of times, however. I suspect that under the surface the opposite is happening: that men will look back upon this as a true age of renewal, “out of Africa,” perhaps, but perhaps also out of here, in old Protestant territory, where converts have been breathing in new life. In order for the Church to emerge once again, from beneath the smoke, visibly as what she is and has always been, the gases of modernity must burn off. That, I think, is what is now happening: outwardly terrifying, but do not be alarmed. The forces of liberalism are consuming themselves.

Lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief. This will not be forgotten. Those who pray as the Church has always prayed, now suffer a persecution that comes not only from outside. A bureaucracy and even a hierarchy which leaves heresy to flourish, turns with increasing vigilance against every expression of orthodox faith.

On this Quadragesima Sunday, I am reminded so poignantly of this, in the account of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, and in the words of the ninetieth Psalm, scattered through the Tract and all the chants. Far from desolation, we have a song of tenacity and backbone, resolution and confidence. In the epistle, Saint Paul sounds the war horns: “Behold, now is the acceptable time.”

Persist: in caritate non ficta, “in charity unfeigned.”

Philatelic note

Stamp collectors should be aware of a new Polish issue, which features the Canadian prisoner of conscience, Mary Wagner. It is a 2.20 złoty stamp (about 75 cents), showing the face of the prisoner behind bars, in a se-tenant pair with a “Róże haft Łowicki” — a folk-art rose embroidered in the small town of Łowicz, a craft centre south-west of Warsaw. Sheets may I think still be ordered from the Polish post office, and of course, letters sent with the stamps from Poland to Stephen Harper, Kathleen Wynne, John Tory, the Queen, the Pope, and so forth.

The rose is significant. It is for persistently distributing roses around abortion clinics — in defiance of judicial orders enforcing a Toronto municipal by-law — that Mary Wagner serves time. She is unmistakably Catholic, but to be prayed for in a breath with the very Protestant Linda Gibbons, an older woman who has by now spent more time behind bars in Canada for infraction of the same municipal “bubble zone” by-law, than most killers and child molesters under the Criminal Code.

Miss Wagner is among the most impressive people ever to take tea on the balconata of the High Doganate. She resides currently in the Vanier Centre for Women at Milton, Ontario, with more than three hundred other female inmates. It is classed as a “medium/maximum” facility, named paradoxically after the last Governor-General of Canada who was a faithful Catholic.

(Georges-Philéas Vanier is also among my heroes. Soldier, diplomat, and statesman, he was our viceroy from 1959 to his death on 5th March 1967, in the last years of what we sometimes call “the old Canada,” before the Trudeau Revolution. Among his greatest accomplishments, to my mind, was the speech he gave over CBC radio after the liberation of Buchenwald, in which he shamed his victory-celebrating countrymen for having failed earlier to give succour as refugees to so many of the prisoners who had died there. But leave this and so much more for another day.)

At a recent court appearance, a fortnight ago, three dozen of Miss Wagner’s supporters turned up in the galleries, several of them resplendent with roses. It is useless to reason with our Canadian Pilates, as she discovered from previous court appearances, during one of which she was subjected by a “pro-choice” judge to a most extraordinary, frothing, incoherent harangue, which she endured patiently. She now sits silently in the dock, in imitation of Our Lord: looking at the Pilate, but not replying to his questions, except to nod that he has said what he has said. For what is the point? Of course she is guilty as charged, as Christ was; and if released she will go right back to witnessing for Christ, and praying for the souls of the babies and their butchers alike.

As she was led away in handcuffs, once again, her supporters were able to communicate that a Catholic priest had said Mass for her. This was important for her to know, as our bishops have washed their hands of her. (I asked one about her recently at a high-society dinner. I don’t think he heard me.)

It should be mentioned that Miss Wagner would criticize me for what I have just written. For while it is true that she imitates Christ, as she would have all Christians do, she does not want the focus on her. Instead she wants to keep it on the babies. Nor does she regret her life as a gaolbird. She can serve Christ as well in there, as anywhere.

From tea, I can report that Miss Wagner is a formidable presence. I have seldom encountered such burning sincerity, and rather suspect she might be a saint. (The saints are the genuine Christian fanatics.) Without a word against me, she made me examine the frivolity of my own nature. And yet she has also a sense of humour: an unusual one, entirely free of sarcasm.

She came to me for my reputation as a bibliophile. She wanted to read up on certain subjects, including the history of Catholic recusancy in England. She is herself a diligent reader, and as everyone today with any education, largely self-taught. I lent her four weighty, uncommon, valuable tomes, but she put me in a quandary. She would be returning soon to the prison in Milton — she is always returning to prison, soon — where, she told me, hardcovers are banned. In the belief that they might be used as weapons, they are taken from the prisoners. The guards then examine them for hidden drugs or tools, tear off the boards and spines, then return them to the prisoner — now in “soft-cover format,” as it were.

Mischievously, I told her about a martial arts expert I once interviewed. From him I’d learnt that hard-covered books are useless in close-quarter combat. If you want to use one as a weapon, you must tear off the boards, and roll the pages inside very tightly. With proper training, you can then kill a man with the butt end of this extremely solid wad. And yes, she did see the dark humour in it, the way my adored Teresa of Avila would have done. Of course, Miss Wagner prays for her guards — who are, after all, “just following orders” — like many of the guards at Buchenwald, who were personally rather kindly, and did not deserve to be slaughtered by the Communists as the camp was falling into American hands.

I felt badly about what might happen to my books, especially Thomas More’s Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, but could not hesitate to lend them on that account, thinking, “What do I care more about, the lives of those babies or my precious books?” Still, I am a sinful man (“sorrowful, for I have many possessions”).

Later, when Mary was back in prison, a common friend returned the books to me, undamaged. She had left them with this friend for their protection.

Slow-witted creature that I am, it was then I realized, that if she had only taken them inside, and returned them to me gutted, they would now be more valuable to me as holy relics than they can ever be, sitting on my bookshelves whole.

The fat chance chronicles

In the course of my arguments with Herr Zeitgeist over the years, I have tended to compromise less and less. The Gentleman (cap for the German noun; they don’t have their own word for it) has of course tried to exploit this. Why won’t I be reasonable? Why must I refer to “democracy” and “the people” with contempt? Why publicly defend what is ludicrously “mediaeval”? Why, especially, do I not try harder to make common cause with potential allies, to form a “united front” against Herr Zeitgeist hisself? Why this “stand or fall” on Catholic Christianity? He accuses me of making his task too easy. Whether or not Western Civ was “created by the Catholic Church” as I insist, he says there is no way the old Catholic order is going to be restored.

“Please,” he pleads, “be a little reasonable. Make our dispute a little more interesting: give yourself an outside chance. After all, your own Pope tells you to stop proselytizing, and that your traditionalism is just an ideology. The days of Catholic obstinacy are over.”

He sends me emails from all over the United States; sometimes from Europe, too. (Unlike me these days, the guy gets around.) From everywhere he reports, that the chance of a Catholic rising is nil, and that the chance of installing my “mediaeval utopia” is nil to the minus forty-third.

As for English-speaking North America: “This place was never Catholic in the first place, and the mainstream Protestants have all come over to me. Aside from the maybe one-in-twenty nominal Catholics who could honestly recite the Nicene Creed, all you have is a few Evangelicals, weird immigrants from the Middle East, some Orthodox Jews, and what? God-crazed libertarian Tea Party types who share your gift for self-evisceration. At least get your act together on the Right, and link these people up. We’re getting bored smooshing you, even within the Republican Party.”

His latest ping came with links to a few blog items on fundraising. The joke is that all these desperately sincere, hard-working, self-sacrificing, single-income, rabbitlike-breeding, home-schooling, overtaxed, rightwing lunatic types, are sending their miserable little contributions to these grand Republican PACs, in the belief that will help swing the next election, and protect them from the satanic liberal tyranny that is pushing them around. The PACs have names on them like “Sarah Palin” and “Dr Ben Carson.” They collect millions and millions in these small donations. A tiny proportion of that money goes to candidates’ campaigns (not always the ones the donors were expecting); often nothing. The rest goes as costs and fees into the pockets of the PAC organizers. Some PACs are legitimate, according to some sources, but there is terrible confusion about which they are. Campaign finance laws, themselves sold on false pretenses, favour the owls. And as I keep reminding on the subject of democracy, the little people are easy marks: picked off like fieldmice.

To which Herr Zeitgeist replies: “There you go again.”

And there I go, with my motto for the day: “As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.” For when the progressive gestapo come for me, I want it on the record that I went down not for the Conservative Party, but for Jesus Christ.

But leave that until it happens. For this Friday, it is enough to consider the odds on Western Civ. In my judgement (and every human being makes his own calculations), the odds for recovery are currently about zero in one hundred. But given what that Civilization has been, for all its wonted sins — an institutional and societal reflection of the teaching of that same Christ Jesus by which we embraced both God and our neighbour — there are only two options. One is to fight with every dying breath to preserve whatever can be preserved, restore whatever can be restored. The other is to write ourselves off.

It is true, for instance, that abstract arguments can be constructed in Natural Law for the defence of human life and soul against contraception, abortion, pornography, unmarriage, eugenics, euthanasia, and every other form of human genetic engineering and filth that Herr Zeitgeist has brought progressively into play. It would thus be theoretically possible to form a grand coalition, among all those intellectuals trained in classical moral reasoning, quite apart from their religious affiliations — which is to say, perhaps one person in every hundred thousand or so. And I haven’t the slightest objection to people trying to do this, on their own time.

They cannot succeed. The kind of pluralism for which they hope, or merely take to be inevitable, itself cannot last under the same Natural Law: because the truth is indivisible. The argument of e.g. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa contra Gentes is irresistible: natural reason will lead us eventually back to the same God. The roads of reason lead paradoxically through Rome, and to the feet of Christ, Crucified and Resurrected. All the others lead to mud holes.

Now, Herr Zeitgeist says, “What if you are wrong? What if, as your admirably progressive Pope is now frequently suggesting, salvation is not only through his Catholic Church? Or what if all men perish anyway?”

I note that by both arguments, Christ was a fraud. For centuries upon centuries He let a Church, which He clearly founded, put a quick one over on countless Christian souls — while providing alternatives that would invariably evaporate. Thus: Christ was not Christ. In the second, He was just another merchandizing guru, who lucked upon the biggest sales gimmick of all time — the scientology to beat all scientologies.

There is, to my mind (the one which rules this Idlesite with iron pixels), what amounts to a Pascal’s wager. Either Christ was, and is, and will be what He claims, and “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against her.” In which case it don’t make no sense to play ’possum.

Or, there was some silly mistake, and we are dead men one and all.

I’m in for the fat chance.


Among the most common appetitive items given up for Lent, in my circle, is the Internet. Sometimes this is restricted to Internet “news and entertainment,” and I was delighted to hear from several of my GRs (“gentle readers”: an email correspondent actually used this abbreviation) that even though they were blocking almost everything else, they would still be following my daily rambles.

I commend this view, with reservations. The first would be, “What else haven’t you blocked?” The second, “Do you trust yourself to resist temptation when something really juicy comes up?” I know I wouldn’t; and as good CPs (Catholic priests) ever warn us, there is danger in biting off more holiness than one can chew. Be careful what you leave yourself wishing for.

Cigarettes and whisky make a good example. I know many people who are alive today, and not confined to psychiatric institutions, thanks to these two useful substances, which might be considered as modern medical advances, if we set the initial date for modernity early enough. Tobacco is the only known cure for neurosis; distilled alcohol the most effective preventive for nervous breakdowns and “the vapours.” These in themselves might be endured for a season, but under the pressure of news and entertainment, one thing may lead to another. When early treatment is not sought, sudden acts of violence may follow, and I think a great deal of monstrous sin and unnecessary bloodshed may be laid at the door of abstemiousness.

I’m not saying don’t give them up, however. (Please! don’t put words in my head!) I’m just saying that, if you will eliminate cigarettes and whisky from your daily regimen, conscience dictates that you first get your Internet provider to stop service at source, and then have yourself locked in a padded cell.

Alternatives to cigarettes and whisky have often been suggested to me, but only by the naïve.

Laughter, according to the old Reader’s Digest, was the best medicine. GR will notice my use of the past tense. It is now against the law in many jurisdictions, which still permit outdoor smoking, and taverns (which count as indoors), thanks to their generation of tax revenue. I believe laughter falls into the category of “hate crimes,” since it is impossible to construct a joke in which some person, place, thing, or aggregate is not stung in some way. Moreover, self-deprecating humour carries, nowadays, an additional threat: that of piling on. Indeed, one might as well whistle the enemy’s attack dogs directly, for the typical graduate of a contemporary post-secondary educational institution has never encountered self-deprecation.

In Canada, under the Elder Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I believe laughter is permitted between consenting adults; although this is not yet court-tested. So I suppose I might suggest this, too, and observe, that if you can find another adult who consents, there may still be something left to conversation after the bottle empties — and they find you giggling to yourself like a madman, or an iPhone user.

An imposition

Rather than read me today, gentle persons really ought instead to visit Sandro Magister’s blog, and follow his links to the Ash Wednesday homilies delivered by Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope. They are a treasury. Read them, one after another, from 2006 to 2013, and one may begin to understand what is meant by the phrase, “Doctor of the Church.”

But if you are still here, let me afflict you with a little of my nostalgia. It will be for the first time the ashes were imposed on me, decades ago, as a Christian convert in an Anglican church (in England). Listening to the homily in my Catholic church this morning, I was reminded of it. Specifically, of that word: “imposed.” The Anglican priest — surely by now a member of the Ordinariate, if he is still living — had used the word to explain something that might otherwise be lost on his congregation, or sensed as an uncomfortable paradox.

The older sort of Englishman — at least, the sort whom I could still find alive in the 1970s — did not like ostentation. His Christianity he might not deny, but the idea of having the cross of ashes inscribed on his forehead, to be worn about later on the streets, could not appeal to him. I had to catch myself from rubbing it away, the moment I stepped outside the church. I could understand exactly how he felt, sharing, perhaps, in the genetic heritage.

Through Lent we are taught not to make an issue of our penances; even, from charity, to abandon them in the moment when some well-wishing soul, who ought to have known better, offers us some luxury we had foresworn. (Take it thankfully.) We were taught this by Christ; ministers of His gospel are merely repeating what they heard from Him in Palestine, all those years ago:

“And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face — that you appear not unto men to fast, but unto your Father, who is in secret. And your Father, seeing in secret, will repay you.”

The hair-shirt, the sackcloth, is worn underneath, not outwardly — unless as part of the ancient costumage of mourning; or perhaps you have mistaken yourself for one of the Hebrew prophets. But in these cases the garments were also externally imposed, and worn as a mark of humility. By which I do not mean a humble gesture; I mean a sign of having been humbled. And this, even if we have sought it, for we cannot rightly put it on ourselves.

The ashes do not mark us specifically as Catholics; they are not strictly sacramental, as you will learn from Ratzinger. Instead, they mark us as dust. “From dust you were raised and to dust you will return.” In the same moment they mark us out: as a chattel, belonging to Our Lord; turning in repentance from death towards the life He has offered.

All Christian sects stand together in this respect, as brothers; and at a time when there is painful controversy about who may take Communion in the Catholic Church without harm, all may kneel for ashes. Even small children, beneath the age of reason (seven or so), and therefore not yet capable of mortal sin, will not be turned away; as I saw this morning. For during the distribution, a holy priest delayed the acolytes, kneeling down with solemn gravity before a little child — who was himself nearly standing to reach the top of the altar rail. This priest drew the cross upon the child’s forehead with extraordinary care, as if it were the most important thing he had ever done.

Many Evangelical and other Protestant churches have returned to the observance of Ash Wednesday. It is a symbol of our regathering.

Wearing the ashes we go out as pilgrims, over the mystical geography of the ancient Lenten stations at Rome, marked with this dust as Christ’s own.

It is the mark of our death; of the death we still owe — but too, the touch of this Tremendous Lover, which having received we want never to wash away.

Martyrdom revolved

As gentle reader may know from the news, twenty-one kidnapped Coptic Christians were martyred by beheading on the weekend, in Libya. Their blood was mixed in the Mediterranean, and the Jihadi executioners, including one with an American accent, vowed that Rome across the sea would next fall to slaughter, at the command of Allah.

I believe these Copts, like many hundreds before them in the last few years mostly in Egypt itself, were genuine martyrs. They were slain in the knowledge that they could escape their fate by publicly converting to Islam. Of twenty-one captives, it appears twenty-one refused. It is the more remarkable that even little Christian boys captured by the Jihadis in Iraq refused to deny Christ, directly in sight of the butchery that awaited them. Take that in, O we of little faith, in our fey and emasculated culture. This is an aspect of the case that Western journalists overlook — often do not even bother to report — because they find anything but cowardice incomprehensible.

On Shrove Tuesday, eve to Ash Wednesday, it behooves Catholics and other Christians to remember not the happyface of singsong, feelgood religion, but the Cross on which Christ was nailed. In light of what our brother Christians are enduring, in other lands, we must also prepare ourselves body and soul: for we are not going to be defended.

This is a point of principle with, for instance, Barack Obama. In his pro-forma statement opposing the latest act of terrorism, he refused quite intentionally to mention that the perpetrators were believing Muslims, the victims believing Christians, and that the event was staged in its location to show how close the Jihadis now are to their ultimate destination: Rome. In all his public statements, formally on behalf of the United States of America, when Christians and Muslims are mentioned at all, he insults the former and exculpates the latter; having made the preposterous claim to be Christian himself.

Indeed, even the Pope, after an admirably emotional show of declaring, “Their blood confesses Christ!” wandered off on some extempore ramble about Christian ecumenism, as if Catholics had to be goaded into acknowledging that Copts are Christians. This is not the sin to which we are currently tempted.

But there was no matching the fatuity of Obama’s recent remarks at a Washington prayer breakfast. As so many old, anti-Catholic slurs, the remarks he echoed are now applied to Christians generally: “The Crusades! The Inquisition! Galileo!” The president omitted Galileo, perhaps from a lapse of memory but possibly because a White House checker consulted Wikipedia and discovered that Galileo hadn’t actually been beheaded, but instead parked in a luxurious villa and told to keep his theological speculations to himself.

That the Crusades began as an action in defence of Christian pilgrims, persecuted and slaughtered in the Middle East; that the Inquisition provided a legal remedy to persons falsely accused of heresy by conniving secular authorities (which is why so many submitted their own cases to it) — are things anyone with a high school diploma really ought to know. One might start from there to a much broader discussion of these historical phenomena, spread over centuries and like all human affairs, replete with sin. But to repeat the vapid, anti-Christian clichés in the way Obama did is to make a definitive display of one’s low intelligence and poor education.

When applied to current circumstances in the Middle East, the big lie becomes more malicious. The Christians now being persecuted and slaughtered are descended from those we tried to rescue, nearly a thousand years ago. They are the same whose ancestors were already there, and Christian, long before the Islamic conquest.

Here, Obama has picked up a talking point from the Jihadis themselves, who in the course of their video beheadings refer to their Christian captives as “Crusaders.” A native Egyptian Copt, an Iraqi Assyrian, cannot be a Crusader. He has no European past. The lands were taken from his ancestors by violent force, and the Christian ancestors of his own Muslim neighhbours converted through the centuries by various forms of intimidation, from swordpoint to the Jizya. It was a ratcheting in which no one could safely convert or revert to Christianity, because the death sentence for apostasy has been universal in Islam through the centuries.

In the strange, perverted world of Obama, “multiculturalism” specifies that there are no differences between creeds, that one is always as good as another, or as bad as another should the rhetorical moment demand. This vicious doctrine is at the root of all “political correctness,” and liberals who have wormed into positions of power in the modern State are constantly looking for ways to enforce it. Christians and Muslims are not interchangeable; indeed, no two men are interchangeable, no two groups of anything are the same.

The truth must also have rights, and to establish the truth requires the free inquiry that arose and was promoted throughout Christendom; that arose and was, alas, repeatedly suppressed in the Dar al-Islam.


At the University of Regensburg, nearly a decade ago, Pope Benedict XVI touched on this issue in its theological dimension. He cited a fourteenth-century dialogue, between a Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian, conducted in a series of twenty-six parts. (He had been reading it in a recent scholarly edition, in the original Greek.) The quote, of Manuel II Palaiologos, shorn from context and falsely attributed to Benedict himself, was the occasion of much controversy. Here it is, with its more immediate context:

“In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that Surah 2, verse 256 reads: ‘There shall be no compulsion in religion.’ According to the experts, this is one of the surahs of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the ‘Book’ and the ‘infidels’, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness — a brusqueness that we find unacceptable today — on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence, saying: ‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only bad and inhumane, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’ The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. ‘God,’ he says, ‘is not pleased by blood; and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.”

Two generations after this dialogue was written, Constantinople itself — the last bastion of Eastern Christendom — fell under the Islamic sword. Note also that the response to the rational argument of a fourteenth-century Christian, was violent demonstrations in many twenty-first century Muslim cities. Note also, however, that the Pope’s address led to many interesting and reasonable responses from learned imams and other intellectuals, from across the contemporary Islamic world: who noted that the Pope had called for a dialogue between religions, based on reason not intimidation. (Unfortunately this little-reported, rather promising dialogue expired with his papacy.)

Which side are we on? The side of reason or the side of violent intimidation?

Don’t answer too quickly. The Christian reasoning, as the Hebrew on which it is founded, and the Aristotelian and Platonic reasoning before Christ, is that we must hold with the side of reason. As Socrates said, it is better for a man to be the victim of evil, than the perpetrator of it. Throughout the Western philosophical heritage, we have been taught to identify, in justice, with the innocent victim. We have also been taught to eschew vengeance, whether on his behalf or our own: for as the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition affirms, vengeance belongs to God, only.

Self-defence is another matter. We are entirely within the right to defeat the unjustly violent, even to hunt down the Jihadis to the last man, if that is what victory requires. But nothing in this allows us to “get even,” or even to wish it, under Heaven’s law. Justice itself requires chaste reason; and chastity is precisely what we seek in being shriven today, for the Lenten fast ahead.

Curiously, this is just what several of the learned imams wrote, reasonably, in reply to Pope Benedict’s remarks at Regensburg. It is that sometimes reason may actually propose and justify a violent action. They believed that in this respect, learned and reasonable Christians would support them: that reason does not dictate the pacifism or radical complacency towards evil with which Christianity has been associated, by some of its own heretical fanatics.

Were he Christian, Obama might have said: “There are real perpetrators and real victims in this world; there is real good and real evil, and we were endowed by our Maker with the brains to distinguish evil from good. And so it is that when our choice is finally reduced, by the failure of our defences, to being victims or being perpetrators of irredeemably evil acts, we must accept our victimhood. For so Christ taught us.”

Sundown & after

I want briefly to record my indebtedness to the late Sun News television network, and to its staff: a couple hundred mostly young earnest industrious, rather underpaid people who lost their jobs when the signal went down at five, Friday morning. My friend Ezra Levant (who is secretly a mensch) describes most of these people as “severely normal.” That is to say, they did not necessarily share the strongly-articulated opinions of some of the on-air personalities, and may therefore live to find future employment. For the Sun’s stars, however, let us say an extra prayer. They may now be as unemployable in Canada’s left-atheist mainstream as I am.

Perhaps I can claim a third prayer, for after a year or so occasionally on camera, I became unwelcome even at Sun News. But it wasn’t their fault: I’m a grinding audience killer. The medium is, after all, the message, and television gets impatient with long-winded, droll, allusive, “highbrow” types, who take pauses longer than most sound bites as they think through what they should say next. Quite apart from any political or religious bias, TV demands quickness and obviousness. It is in terror of “dead air,” but also of substance, or the threat of substance. Perhaps the worst solecism that can be committed on air, from the viewpoint of a television producer, is to say something that requires thought, and then grant the audience five seconds to absorb it.

Sun News was unambiguously “tabloid,” and sometimes lots of fun, but not therefore less “serious” than the major networks. Absolute zero is absolute zero. But it presented views that were different from, even opposed to, those of the other networks. It took (rather mild) “redneck” positions, amplified by sometimes rather witty theatrical stunts. More to the point, it covered news that the “majors” instinctively suppress.

An example was Faith Goldy (also a friend), determined to cover the criminal trial of Benjamin Levin, for sex offences involving children. When Ontario’s current premier, Kathleen Wynne, was education minister, the gentleman in question was her deputy. He drafted in 2010 a new “sex ed” curriculum by which small children in all the province’s public schools were to be indoctrinated on homosexuality, masturbation, anal sex, and so forth. The draft was hurriedly withdrawn when parents’ groups got hold of the details. A revised version is now being processed, which according to rumour may actually be more foul than the original. It is scheduled to be imposed in September, not only on the public schools, but on all Catholic and private and home schools in the province, without exception. But this time the minister, now premier, has clamped down on all information, and is dodging questions in the Legislative Assembly from an intrepid opposition Member, Monte McNaughton (whose own party leader has asked him to shut up).

Miss Goldy was covering Mr Levin’s trial, alone. She rightly called attention to the fact that other media weren’t in the courtroom, even though they have the resources to mob much lesser cases. She, alone, had pursued many other stories that liberal media wished to ignore. So did others from the Sun News “babe cave”; and the “angry old white men” from the evening talk shifts persistently placed before viewers the sort of guests (including some with real expertise) that liberal media would never dream of letting anyone watch.

This, to my mind, is why Sun News is now off the air. The CRTC (Canada’s broadcasting regulator) made one decision after another to limit the network’s exposure to the public, and thus access to revenue — while carefully dangling little carrots to keep it running up huge losses. As a man not born yesterday I could see exactly what they were doing; Sun News management had to pretend they could not. Management failure has been alleged, but as Roy Thomson used to say, the broadcasting authorities issue licences to print money: either they give you one, or they don’t. The chief management failure was naiveté: failure to see that the old girls and boys on the CRTC would not be well disposed to them; and nor would the cable carriers, with their own horses in the competitive race that Sun News was trying to get into.

Now that they are dead, their enemies gloat, politely. (Canadians are so polite.) The setting of Sun News has proved, to the surviving talking heads, that there is no audience for anything like Fox News in Canada — the “conservative” network which, after getting open access to the USA television market, promptly whupped all their liberal competition.

Another common view is that of Heather Malice, in the Toronto Scar. She attributed the network’s demise to its “bullying.” Canadians won’t stand for that, she assures us — the sort of bullying by which Davids intimidate Goliaths — and that’s why Sun News went down. Ms Malice (if I have spelt her name correctly) is the sort of journalist Canadians instead approve and adore: all ethylene-glycol sweetness and sanctimonious light.


“What is to be done?” as Lenin might have asked, had Lenin been a deeply religious and rightwing counter-revolutionary. … Pray?

Yairs, pray; and I should think, stop using our skins for wallpaper.

To my experience, the only journalism that can make a difference is elitist, “broadsheet,” and uncompromising. By seeking the truth, it will offend many readers, and alienate most potential advertisers, too. Fine and well, for some will still read it, if only to find out what is going on. Aim for the top, and let the truth trickle down; and prepare for the near future, when anything Catholic or Christian will be banned anyway.

Rightwing populist journalism was perhaps worth a try. It cannot help us much or for long, however, for as we discover, quite apart from whether our enemies will let us get away with it, we fail even when we succeed. For it addresses a culture that is bleeding to death — in moral, intellectual, spiritual, and even demographic terms — a blank culture of sleepwalking consumers, easily manipulated by the cynical. It cannot aim high, for the audience is low; it must crouch very low, to hit any target. It must participate in the grunge, swim in the sewer as it were, to get public attention or “market share.” For sure, there is money to be made, dredging; but the rats won’t like it if you preach.

And it makes no sense to preach to those who aren’t listening. Reporting what others would suppress is enough, with patient and unexcitable accuracy. And putting it on paper makes plenty of sense, for in the near future we will have to pass the news around, discreetly. The single sheet, that can be folded to pocket size, and smuggled through the electronic sensors: that is the future of honest journalism. The sheet that can then be read aloud, to eager ears, or shown to eager eyes — in secret gatherings, away from the drones and microphones of “inclusiveness,” and “human rights.”

For the rest, the truth is that only God can help us, so that all our strategies should be designed directly to enlist His aid: cor ad cor loquitur. We might think there is some shortcut to success, through that mass market. Truly, there is not, and the more time we spend looking for it, the more time we will waste.