The unpragmatic agenda

I doubt whether it is possible for there to be a fully genuine “traditionalist” (Catholic or any other kind), at least within a radius of several thousand miles of the High Doganate. This is because, in a myriad of ways, modern conditions have uprooted all genuine traditions. Or at least, believes itself to have done.

Glimpses I have had of what a tradition might look like — mostly decades ago, in or near childhood, and mostly in distant countries such as England or Siam. But they were glimpses of an almost religious nature, as the pilgrim might have glimpses of Heaven, though it remains not of this world. We can however demonstrate that a traditional life has existed here and there on Earth; arguably, once, almost everywhere.

To get at what I mean by “traditional,” in today’s special sense, I could explain the “traditional” exceptions. Throughout history there have been wars, sometimes terrible wars, and conquests, and sometimes huge natural disasters. Whole districts, tribes, peoples were made into refugees, and kept on the move. Indeed, primitive tribes in movement, such as the barbarians who swept across Europe during and after the fall of pagan Rome, are themselves by nature progressive not traditional. True, they carry customs with them, which may be quite striking, but are fragile and tenuous. Even in conquest, they are radically altered the moment they come in touch with a settled, civilized culture. Whether Mongols in China, or Vandals, or Huns, they give up their own customs with an alacrity that might be described as scandalous; though it may take them generations to adopt or develop anything like the rooted traditions of the people they conquered.

For tradition is necessarily organic and holistic. One might visualize it, abstractly, as a relationship between a landscape and a race. The people alter the landscape; the landscape alters the people; and the two grow into each other until, after centuries perhaps, if there are few disruptions, there is a “country” — using that word in a non-political sense, from a past when not everything was political. Languages, and dialects of languages, reflect the emergent settled order.

It is wonderful to consider, as for instance I once tried to do, the continuities in many patches of rural England — how many things had not changed, going back as far as prehistoric times — until sometime after what we now call the Industrial Revolution, and in some places right up to the First World War, when almost everything changed. Though none was entirely isolated, the parishes were worlds to themselves, and like the stars overhead, seemingly fixed in their courses for the duration of human time. Improved methods in agriculture and building gradually filtered through. Yet all were free of the modern restlessness, and scope for the modern ego.

Everything changes, as sage Heraclitus says — including, eventually, the stars in their courses. But there is a qualitative difference between things that change over centuries or millennia, and things that change every minute or hour. Similarly, there is no such thing as a society with no upward or downward mobility. But it makes a difference when the movements are as sudden as winning the lottery; or when a family breaks up.

In America, as I know through my own family past in Ontario and Nova Scotia, as well as from books, we had the beginnings of a settled culture, and traditions assembling by place, that did not last long. They were disturbed almost immediately, and the human longing for belonging was frustrated by “advances” on almost every plane of social existence. I do not mean only the technological, for the philosophical ideas that guide modern life — the unrooted ideologies, if gentle reader will bear with me here — invaded every clearing and hamlet.

And with or without adaptations through technology, a new kind of city arose in the landscape, on the analogy of an explosive fungal growth.

The modern city, or rather conurbation, has a physical region, to be sure, but occupies or rules it as an alien force. It is a remarkable organism in itself, but not adapted to, nor dependent upon, any “traditional” order. It imposes its own order, of “creative destruction,” to which people must adapt to survive, narrowly as economic units. To watch the new cities of China spring up is to see, condensed into a decade, what took more like a century everywhere else: ten million people where, only yesterday, there was something hardly larger than a town, set among small farms.

Likewise, in the overview of the planet from satellite photographs, where the dark side of the Earth is now corruscated by the blaze of artificial urban light. We see cities and the streaks between them like the synaptic diagram for some extraterrestrial brain. Compare pictures of the same territory, only a generation apart, and the extent of this urban growth can be charted.

Yet it is misleading. For notwithstanding the spread of electrification, the population growth is intensely concentrated. Over perhaps 98 percent of the Earth’s land surface, the population has not increased, and in much of it is actually lower than it was a century ago. Some rural landscapes may be altered by the cities’ hunger for e.g. mineral resources, yet even these scars grow back over quickly enough. On the ground, the change we see is along the highways, jammed with traffic mile after mile. Having walked long distances across Europe, and parts of Asia, I have seen so much untouched beyond those highways, and encountered the reality of “depopulation.” Even from an aeroplane, the “flyover” distances between cities can be appreciated.

People who come to the city are changed by the city. This is obvious enough if one studies voting. Something called a Conservative Party is in power in Canada, and might survive the current election campaign, or might not; either way it enjoys the support of a considerable portion of the electorate. Yet I can walk for miles in Toronto, through forests of lawn signs for the two competing neo-socialist parties, and find not one Conservative sign.

The party platforms are shallow and deceitful — all party platforms — yet, there is a contrast of tendencies, towards “economic enterprise” and personal responsibility on one side, and on the other, “welfare dependency” and overt moral depravity.

Now, the paradox is that while the vast majority of adult city folk of both sexes (and all gradients between) are mere wage-earning serfs, they are cogs in the machine that actually generates the economic growth that the Conservatives celebrate. GDP per capita is substantially higher in the cities than outside them (generally double or quadruple or more); and even in the small towns, wealth requires big city connexions.

Or rather, this is not a paradox. The young who migrate to the city, seeking credentials, then well-paid jobs, are consciously or unconsciously leaving their very identities behind them. They feed themselves into a melting pot, in which the range of human values will be mixed and degraded, then strained for economic use alone.

William Blake referred to “these dark Satanic Mills,” but of course, technology advances, and the smokestack era has passed or is passing. The machinery of today and tomorrow is more hygienic, often carefully sterilized. The factories of the future are scrubbed, with constantly improving emissions standards. Even China is cleaning up its environmental act; even India. Soon, you will have to go to Africa to find private and public investment in environmental obscenities.

Humans as most other animals prefer clean to dirty in their own nests; this demand for clean-up is beside the point. The point is rather the machine, and were Blake living today he would see that the dark Satanic Mills have been technically transformed. But he would observe that Satan has only washed to make himself more presentable for dinner. His diet has not changed, however, and he is still eating human souls.

And we who claim or aspire to be “traditionalists” now find ourselves operating within societies where, as it were, “traditional” traditionalism is no longer possible. The tables have turned, and we are the subversives now. Everything humane is now subversive.


I think this is the meaning of the negotiations at the upcoming Family Synod in Rome, and everywhere else in the background of the current papacy. The immortal Catholic doctrine, now under frontal attack, was premissed on a human social order that has itself been fundamentally changed.

The Cardinal Kaspers are quite right when they claim that people today, in “advanced” Western societies, cannot relate to the old teachings. These do not speak to the way we live now, in cities or the high-tech rural islands. The very idea of, for instance, “indissoluble marriage,” is irrelevant to our modern man. He is not really opposed to it; rather it seems too silly to oppose. He can accept it on its own terms as an intellectual idea or “ideal.” But on the one condition that it belongs to the past — some other age, some other culture. Maybe in Africa, as Kasper hints, in his invincibly Teutonic way.

Placed, instead, in the contemporary “urbane” context, it becomes a pure idea; one of those many “ideologies” the pope keeps prattling about. It is this idea versus that idea, and progressive people, like the Mongols and Vandals and Huns of old, have no use for this one. But relocated to, say, the thirteenth century, they have no objection. So long as we keep them there, we can keep “indissoluble” marriages for ever.

Of course, the present writer is a reactionary. There are still some, even in the Greater Parkdale Area. (I’ve drunk beer with several.) And we condemn, strange to say, not the “traditional” Catholic teaching, stuck as it is in the rut of the Cross, but instead the whole modern world.

The task might appear a considerable one, from any pragmatic angle, but to my mind the Church should not buckle. Nor will she, with Christ’s own help. For what needs changing is the whole modern world.