Essays in Idleness



One of the great things about my privileged life — I get to live in the High Doganate — is the library up here. The resident at a loss what to do — how, for instance, to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them — may reach blindly for a book, let it fall open at some page, and start reading. Soon he is a-raft on the sea of someone else’s troubles, and these are often preferable to one’s own; even when, as in the biography of Lavoisier I started reading, they end with “death in the afternoon,” strapped on that ultimate logic-chopping device, the guillotine.

As my little sister says, knowing you are going to die tomorrow afternoon is not so great an inconvenience as people think. (She learnt “always look on the bright side” from our mother.) “No need for all this heavy weather,” she told me once. “You can still do stuff in the morning.”

The book in question, published 1952, came into the High Doganate with a clump on “the history of science” that seemed to need rescuing from the local Salvation Army. It will now return there.

My mistake was to begin reading about page one. Had I dipped in later, my patience might not have been tried so quickly. For the book begins (as it ends) with a little hymn to Science and Progress. Did gentle reader know that science has changed, and is changing the way we live? That it is doing so faster and faster every day? That Newton came before Lavoisier, and Darwin after? Or that these gentlemen had nothing to do with one another, apart from being lionized as revolutionaries of Science? All but this last point are conveyed.

It was surprising how much I did not know about Lavoisier; and of how little importance it was. He is Saint George killing the dragon of Phlogiston in this account. Father of modern chemistry, &c. Student of heat and respiration; improver of gunpowder; hyper-efficient tax collector in the bureaucracy of the French Old Regime; academician; weekend geologist; dreamer in agriculture and economics; aristocratic gardener whose works around his Château de Frechines might plausibly be described as an experimental farm; social climber and assiduous self-promoter, whose fame could not hide him from the glinting blades of Robespierre.

A very clever man was our Lavoisier, the more charming the farther one got away from him (often I read between the lines); whose pleasure, once he took offices in the Arsenal at Paris, with a budget to do largely as he pleased, was to conduct violent experiments on anything that was lying around. His revolution in chemistry consisted of quantifying it all.

When a child, I had the evil of Phlogiston brought to my attention. It was, not from the Dark Ages as popularly supposed, but only from the end of the seventeenth century, the prevailing “settled science” on the combustible principle in the air, and other substances. It was pure theory, and surprisingly easy to kick over with a few methodical tests; notwithstanding the scientific establishment of the day kicked, screamed, and desperately resisted every attempt to displace it. Lavoisier (and Priestley in England) burnt or blew up one thing and another until Lavoisier had discovered and named Oxygen.

And so we advanced from Phlogiston to Oxygen, and incidentally to ascending in hot air balloons. Good show!

Everything interesting in Lavoisier’s career is passed over, in the course of “teaching the controversy.” What emerges, at least for me, from the author’s secular hagiography, is the dramatic irony in his subject’s fate. Here is one of the grandest limousine liberals in our interminable modern history: who, in the end, the real “liberals” put up against the wet stony wall in their dungeon. Science was their god from the beginning, and for as long as it could be used to undermine religious belief. But once in power they decided that empirical inquiries were an irrelevance and a bore.

Who needs Truth, when you have Power?

And all his life poor Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier overlooked, with such brilliance, the actual consequences of what he was advancing — with the best will in the world, thoroughly admixed with the combustible principle of Vanity.

Teach the controversy

Controversy continues to swirl around my habit of calling my finches “purple.” A consensus is emerging among semi-perfessional birders that they cannot be. Bird Dog, at Maggie’s Farm (here), is the latest to “call me” on this. Purple finches are piney-wood avians, he insists. Those must be common-garden house finches who address me from my balconata railing, here in inner-city Parkdale.

Perhaps I am naïve, but I take them at their word. They say they are purple finches, so that’s what I report. Besides, there could be legal issues. They might be “trans” purple finches. In which case, my calling them house finches could get me a visit from the Mounties, under our young Liberal government’s latest experiment in criminal law. One can now get two years in the slammer, up here, for failing to acknowledge any creature’s personal choice of identities.

It is possible I misheard them, however. Sometimes they speak a singular metallic weet, whose meaning is clear enough. But usually it is a “bubbly continuous warble” (Andy Bezener, Birds of Ontario) — resembling Hindi, but with no English nouns inserted to help one determine the subject. I thought they said, Carpodacus purpureus. Perhaps it was, Carpodacus mexicanus, instead. Definitely, Carpodacus, and not, Loxia, for they sure don’t look like crossbills to me.

And then there is the fact that they lack the (slightly vulgar) body streaks, that I would expect to see on a house finch, whether male or female. And the lads seem to lack the brown hat. And the colouring, on those males, strikes me as a more graciously distributed matte raspberry; the red on a house finch would be more chesty and alarming and, … you know, burgundy.

The ladies, especially, know how to dress. There is that ermine mottle on their undersides, and it seems to me, that delicious dusk cheek. And they are less saucy than one would expect of the (sometimes frankly shrewish) house finch dames; they are lady-like and classy. I would swear, though not necessarily in a court of law, that their tails are slightly notched, too.

A visitor to the High Doganate said no, the tails are square, and besides, they can’t be purple finches. I told him purple finches have been recorded by the bird club in the woods of nearby High Park. He told me they stay there. They don’t do balconies. But this, I declared, is a distinguished balconata.

We all know the house finch is one of those “introduced” species, from the extreme Southwest, released in number by bird-dealers in New York City a century ago in anticipation of a police raid; that they took to urban life like many other questionable immigrants; and spread quickly from one town to another. That they displaced the native purple finches to the sticks, and have so pushed and shoved even the house sparrows (illegal immigrants of a previous generation), that we now have more than a billion of them, in dense congregations.

Did I say “illegal”? … Sorry. … The Eurasian house sparrows were imported in the 1850s to control the insects afflicting our cereal crops. But, ha! Turned out they were vegetarian — indeed trash vegetarians, who moved right into the slums. So that our melodious song sparrows felt obliged, street by street, to move elsewhere. These “Mexican” house finches have the same reputation. (Maybe Trump should have a go at them.)

My finches are not like that, at all. They are delicate, cultured birds who, as I say, can sing in Latin (as well as Hindi). They are not in the least aggressive. Well, sometimes they will note that the seed dish is empty — but softly, musically, regretfully. Surely they are finches of the “purple” class.

Mysterious ways

“It is one thing to pray for discernment, but quite something else to announce being in receipt of it.”

I quote Maureen Mullarkey, one of my living heroines, whose essays and blog (here) are a constant source of furious uplift. As the Naga peppers from the Chittagong Hills, I suppose there are people who don’t like them. The magazine First Things, for instance, decided that she was too hot to swallow. But I like edge, spice, taste, point, and Scoville heat units. And Mrs Mullarkey is a public provider.

By that sentence, from a recent post, she has put her finger in the correct eye. Within the Catholic Church today, and wherever the Christian religion is experiencing an exceptionally squalid late decadence, the belief that “the Holy Spirit” is telling us to do this or that, is alive and twisting. The notion that, for instance, we must respect the pope, not for his holy office, but because he is the receiver of divine messages, is superstitious, for a start. Popes, like emperors, may have no clothes, and the little boy who alludes to the fact should be judged on the evidence.

We owe respect, and obedience to the office. The man himself must earn it, as most previous popes have done, by teaching the Faith, unaltered. If he is serving warmed-over Zeitgeist from the political Left, for instance, or playing little subversive games with sound bites and footnotes, he must be held to account. Error must be corrected.

Now, to be fair to the current custodian of the Throne of Peter, he is not in the habit of claiming a hotline to heaven, in a direct way. The claim tends to be made on his behalf by his court jesters. I refer to men like Victor Manuel Fernández (see my Thing column yesterday, here), his appalling, blowhard adviser (and see the quotes therein); a man now exposed as the pope’s “ghost-writer.”

The “ghost” in this case is very far from requiring a capital G.

For Catholics in the trenches, or along the pews, the challenge cannot be to swallow the latest novelties from Rome. As Catholics, we can know that what is not in accord with Scripture and Tradition cannot possibly be in accord with the Holy Spirit. The challenge is rather to endure until the nonsense is over.

“Whatever they do in the Vatican, I’m staying Catholic.”

This exhilarating line comes from an old Czech drinking buddy, from the days when the Bugnini liturgical “reforms” were emptying our chapels. It is a more plausible expression of the Spirit than many others I have heard.

We are not dealing with a religion that “evolves”; rather with a Revelation immortal and unchanging, that we may come to “discern” more or less. At this historical moment, our hold is weakening. Therefore each, in his own life, must strive to make it stronger; to carry it forward in our very lives, and communicate it as well as we can, person to person: cor ad cor loquitur.

Mrs Mullarkey cites Paul, “How unsearchable are His judgements and unscrutable His ways,” echoing Isaiah:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

This is something we can know.

Conservative indifference

The phenomenon to which I will devote today’s squib has been known to me from childhood. It has a place, but not in my heart. I do not necessarily refer to “conservatism” in its political form. It is an attitude mostly indifferent to politics, as it is to most other things. By its nature it is hard to stir up. (When finally stirred, it gets pretty ugly.) To use it as a party label was clever, in principle: for the idea of doing nothing, and keeping things the same, was often a good one, in the past. Unfortunately, the label did not come into use until the nineteenth century, which is to say, much too late. To use it as a slogan, in the twentieth-century Anglosphere fashion, is downright obtuse. Why would we want to conserve or preserve all this wicked modern nonsense?

Pressed, I cannot remember ever having admitted to “conservatism.” In decades past I called myself “a Tory.” Pressed further for a definition I would quote the opening of Praeterita, by John Ruskin: “I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school — the school of Walter Scott, and Homer.” This wasn’t precisely true, but had the right flavour. Later, I found the term “reactionary” would serve.

In my generation, the mutation of the notion of “conservation” into the notion of “environmentalism” revealed the tragic flaw. The soi-disant “conservatives” allowed this to happen. They thought somehow the revolutionists had adopted their ideas, when in fact they had appropriated them for their own “progressive” cause. The love of nature was quickly transformed into interminable agitprop about “endangered species.”

John Stuart Mill famously explained that he did not think conservatives were stupid. He only thought stupid people tend to be conservative; and of course he was right.

The great majority are, and have always been conservative. This includes people on the Left. They do not actually like any of the “progress” they have been advancing, by their votes and their drudgery. They are as apt to moan about “bureaucracy” as anyone on the Right. But they are conservatively committed to playing along. Really they’d be happier as mild heretics in the Middle Ages, lacking as they do the spunk to get themselves burnt at any stake. The air was fresher then, and the instructions on how to live were not only simpler, but harder to defy. They might have found peace, in those circumstances.

When it comes to “lifestyle,” I cannot detect much difference between conservatives of the Left, and conservatives of the Right. Both lazily buy into every consumer convenience, and to the general convenience of consumerism. It is not hypocrisy. Some energy is needed for that. It is just indolence. Our ancestors would have bought in, too; and when you think of it, they did: over several generations. We are the result of our ancestors’ “progressive” lethargy, of mind and body.

No, gentle reader, “I am not a conservative,” as many have tried to claim before me. At least I aspire to be a lupine, implacable reactionary. I want everything associated with “modernity” destroyed — starting with the earth-moving machinery that is digging up my street yet again, as I write. I want the ice cream truck with its amplified jingle to be, likewise, rusting in some bush. Though I think, to be practical, we should start with “post-modernity,” and work methodically backwards from there.

Since the year of my birth, as I understand, the biomass of the lumpenproletariat (i.e. the conservatives) has more than doubled. I am a pro-life Catholic, and can hardly object. Over the same period the lumpen mass of machinery (chiefly cars) has increased perhaps tenfold. No reason to panic: it is made of iron mostly, and will quickly degrade. If we want to save the Earth, I think, keep the people, but get rid of the cars. And this can be achieved not by banning them — which would be controversial — but by merely neglecting the roads. Most become unmotorable within a decade or so.

And so on: through a strategy of “heroic neglect.”

In judo, as in most martial arts, we learn to use the enemy’s otherwise intimidating weight to our advantage. (“Asymmetric warfare”: learn how it works.) The trick is to exploit the conservatism of the masses. Being human, they are dim, and easy to sucker and con. That is the great secret of democracy. The revolutionists have done a much better job of this than have the reactionaries, over the last few hundred years, and the task for us is to master their tricks. The best one is to bring the whole weight of the lumpengeist down on their heads — the way they have been doing to us.

We must master the genius of dullness. We must, as in many successful societies before, put dullness once again at the service of high art. We must rebuild civilization on conservative indifference.

How we do this, I have no idea, but the principle of the thing seems clear enough.

Among the leaves the small birds sing

My Chief Newfoundland Correspondent (I hadn’t mentioned the appointment yet: I hope he is not unduly alarmed) writes about prayer, among the birds. Or rather, he asked a question of my purple finches, who are at last back in force from wherever, exploiting the sunflower generosity of the High Doganate. He asked if they, or the other birds pray, as they seem to do in his neighbourhood of Saint John’s (where, I gather, he is a physical oceanographer). The birds in his backyard conflate into song about one hour before sunrise, in the first light of the morning dusk.

“A gentle sound, not the rough ‘caw’ of our crows, nor the frantic chirps of small nesting birds as they attempt to fill their noisy children. It would be pleasant to believe that they are thanking God for life.”

It is the same in Parkdale. I have often noticed the choir is preceded by a single voice, intoning the invitatory Psalm. And then the full gallery of songbirds, in all their species, sing Lauds from each his tiny loft. The sound is unmistakable: of joy in being alive.

My swallows are back, too, only recently from the Amazon, or somewhere I think in southern Venezuela where the Ante-Parkdale may be found in the northern winter. They seem not to tire from their twice-annual, heroic journeying; nor to have suffered from the inevitable collapse of the Venezuelan economy after the introduction of socialism there, where only the human beings despair. The birds are above it.

My hearing is not so fine that I can distinguish any chirping from them within the Lauds; I think they wait until just after, to fly out in their squadrons, and feast on the early morning bugs — nattering away to each other where they find the midge-clouds thickest.

Alas, since last fall, the municipal authorities have taken out a beautiful old iron bridge over the railway, the underside of which was among the swallows’ largest hotels. It was targeted as unnecessarily quaint and lovely, banked on one side into a natural shade garden; it will be replaced with something better engineered to express the vicious ugliness in the soul of contemporary man. I daresay the demolition men were cursing at all the old swallow nests.

But my swallows, like my finches, and my sparrows, will survive. They find other hotels, and do not even bother to plague the city switchboard with their complaints.

In the spring, I have learnt, through the month of May, many million birds pass over Greater Parkdale in a single night, returning to their northern abodes. Along the Lakeshore, just now, one may see the flocks of whimbrel, en route to Hudson’s Bay and the Keewatin. They wade, and poke about in the dirty sands, with their down-curved beaks; then, on seeing a man too close, alert their friends with a rippling whistle. I know they are feeding, but in a moment it seemed all their heads bowed together, as if in acknowledgement of the Holy Trinity. Then being noticed, they took fear and flew off.

(I cannot say that I understand whimbrels. Approach a nest, I am told, and the parents will come at your face in a way that makes redwing blackbirds seem willing to compromise. But gathered in a mob they are meek and skittish. This is quite the opposite of the human propensities.)

Only, perhaps, a few hundred thousand among the songbirds have selected Inner Parkdale for their summer homes. Ovenbirds and juncos, warblers and thrushes, flickers and sapsuckers and chickadees, may be spotted in the quiet of the ravines; fox sparrows, song sparrows, house sparrows, chipping sparrows, lincolns, white-throats, savannahs, are to be counted among the “small brown jobs” of High Park and its vicinity; each a tiny squeezebox of music; enough to remind all those unstunted of the Joy of their Creator.

I am no authority on this. I cannot tell if all the Liturgical Hours are observed. I have no confidence, either, in my powers of identification, for I am no birder. I deal only with the obvious.

Without anything tantamount to human knowledge, they are praying for us.

On liberal education

During a conversation with whisky, a gentleman used the expression “teacher training.” He thought it ought to be improved. I had heard the phrase before. It struck me as unhappy: only two terms, and the one cancelling the other in the post-modern way. Surely we should use more words to conceal our self-contradictions. Even the standard of blathering is in decline.

I proposed “teacher teaching,” or alternatively, “trainer training,” insisting upon the distinction between the two activities. There may be some slight overlap between them, but training is what we provide to the human animal. Teaching extends to the human soul. Not that we aren’t both body and soul. There is, however, a question which is higher; or even, which will visibly decay.

Mrs Jessie Glynn, my elderly and wise instructress in Latin some years ago (about fifty, I now calculate), was very careful with this distinction. She told her pupils they were to be trained, as dogs. But for relief, there would also be some teaching. We would read and discuss some Roman history and literature; we could apply our training to little exercises in imaginative composition, and poetical translation (both ways); and to savaging each other’s best efforts. We might consider a few Roman ideas, that the Romans hardly ever examined, about how to live and so on; and compare them with our unexamined own. We would engage in the most frivolous time-travel, thereby. Training, she said, is required to learn a language; but teaching begins when we read with understanding, and come to chatter in it. It is that exhilarating moment when we graduate from “Latin” to “Classics.” The sooner we get to chattering the better; but the training of necessity comes first.

Small children take joy in being trained. They are suited to it by nature: their little memories are sharp sharp sharp. Their bodies are quite flexible. As we grow we move from training to “learning.”

Oddly, the contemporary mind, such as it is, hates training but omits teaching. The great majority of our college children go there to avoid a liberal education. But they are already too long in the tooth to benefit from rote training, the way they could have done when they were smaller.

They have minds, true, but no use for them. They want training for skills that could make them money. They are looking forward to an “intensely competitive” job market, in which they will be competing with robots, more and more. They need to become robots, but for the sake of competition must outpace their robot rivals in quickness and accuracy.

Had they been taught anything, they would already know that they are going to lose. For robots can do most anything that is beneath the full human dignity, quicker and more accurately than they ever will.

I wonder if Roman children, or Chinese for that matter in the Han, said, “When I grow up I want to be an abacus.” The modern solution is, never to grow up; to concede the battle with the robots and go on pogey instead. There is this “one percent” of people who are very, very rich — they seem to own all of the robots. Each, surely, can afford to pay for ninety-nine abject losers.

High Doganate confidential

Should gentle reader think I have forgotten about her (or him, as the case may be), let me reassure. I think about her all the time.

Over what, in Canada, is an extended Victoria Day weekend — loyal firecrackers bursting upwards, all over the Greater Parkdale Area as I write — I have been continuously busy in an important domestic task. Let it remain a mystery. It has something to do with my Midas touch for beuks (Scotch pronunciation), and even beuk-cases, and involves a great deal of physical labour. But that’s enough hints.


A rather forward young lady (age seven) was conducting a press conference the other day, during a barbecue for priests, teachers, and graduating seminarians. The lively child of a fellow instructor — among whose littler sisters is one quite recently born, who appears to be an abbess — she announced that she would field questions from “the older people,” on any topic at all. She called on each around her by turn — mostly my students — using a descriptor if a name did not come immediately to her (slickly memorious) mind. Each was obliged to ask her a question.

We learnt, for instance, that she would not become a nun, but would marry. She would have ten children, because large families are happier than small ones. She had not decided upon a husband yet, but he would have to be Catholic.

Turning suddenly to me, I found myself described as, “The Old Man.” My students tittered, discreetly.

I asked why she had fixed on the number ten.

“Because it is a round number.”

Five boys and five girls?

“No, you get what you get. You should read your Catechism.”

She then turned to her next customer, allowing him to finish chewing his hot dog, though warning that her patience was limited.

I had never actually been described as an “old man” before, by another person, except in jest. I found it rather shocking, for though I so describe myself (prophylactically), I don’t feel ready for the glue factory, yet. … But yairs, out of the mouths of babes.

After three days of hard labour, always careful not to twist my back, I feel almost sixty again. It is amazing how physical work rejuvenates us.

I must get in the habit of doing more.


Meanwhile, I see that all the “Just War” theoreticians have written letters to me: mostly in outrage.

Let me end this note with a little tip I picked up while studying this topic myself, years ago: the Geneva Conventions, and all their (unambiguously Christian) antecedents. This has to do with the wars being fought against the Daesh, and other “informal” armies, in the Middle East, and elsewhere.

If they are armed, but not in a recognized national uniform, it is open season on them. If they are behaving, themselves, with indifference to the civilized conventions, it is open season. When we are up against a barbaric foe, and defending our civilization, the eyes are not dotted and the teas are not crossed.

For here is another hint. “Just War Theory” was not written by pacifistas.

(More on this topic, but no time soon.)

In patience to abide

“Too much peace only leads to war,” a beautiful young Indian lady said to me, once upon a time. “And too much war only leads to peace,” she added. This, I reflected, was a succinct account of how things go on this planet. Those idealists who would put an end to war, are shown to encourage it, by this aphorism. In considering the foreign policy views of Pat Buchanan (who thinks he is the brains behind Donald Trump), I should like to begin with a grand concession. It is so important, I have put it at the top.

Fill your enemies with the certainty, that messing with you will lead to their extinction, and you are reasonably assured of peace. Buchanan and Trump do understand this point. Buchanan looks back on the Republican party tradition, and notes Democrats started almost every foreign war. He regrets that the Republicans got into that business, after the Reagan years; but he is clear that his country needs a strong standing Army, plus ships and aeroplanes and missiles and things, if it is to speak softly.

On this, we are in total agreement; and even the Bushes (both father and son) would agree, in principle, that the military-industrial complex ought not to be casually aroused. Lions, as the Americans know, and the British knew, and the Romans before them, need not overmuch worry about molestation, even when exposed in the open grass. For a nation that can afford it, “peace through strength” will almost always work.

Not quite always, however. Some enemies are crazy, or shall we say they “miscalculate,” the way Saddam did each time he took on a Bush. He thought they were “paper tigers,” pussy cats; that they lacked the will to enforce their commands; that faced with wily, middle-eastern intransigence, they would yawn and turn away.

What is an Imperialist to do, confronted with such a vexationist? To which I reply, make an example of him, pour encourager les autres.

(I have been called an Imperialist on many occasions. I am one, so I do not object. Better our empire than theirs, I aver.)

The junior Bush also miscalculated. Curiously it was not because he listened to the “neo-conservatives” in his Pentagon (a few well-informed, high-intelligent Jews, who had travelled the region and could speak its languages). Their advice, as I recall it, partly from first hand, was correct. They were not over-eager to go into Iraq, but could find no alternative. They were much less eager to try the silly experiment of turning Iraq into a “democracy”; it struck them as the formula for another Vietnam. It was the idealists in the State Department who thought, “let’s make Iraq another shining city on the hill”; and Bush himself, in one of his “Lincoln” moments.

Notwithstanding, scapegoats were needed when the adventure started going badly — thanks to biting off more than anyone could chew — and not for the first time in history, everyone started picking on the Jews. For that’s what “neo-con” means — Jews — and that’s why I say that I am a neo-con. Though really, of course, I am just an Imperialist.

It is tedious to recall what was wrong with Saddam. We could perhaps have overlooked his propensity to bury his own people in mass graves: several hundred thousand of them in the graves so far discovered. He may not have been as great an offender as the neighbouring Ayatollahs in the sponsorship of “terror” — from Mali to Pakistan — but he was operating on a large and growing scale. His proprietorial interest in Hamas, and psychopathy towards Israel, were of course taken into the account. For quite apart from being Jewish, Israel is the front line of the West. There were moreover reports from all the allied intelligence agencies of Saddam’s inventory of “WMD” — which the fool himself had been helping to substantiate. Given their general incompetence, our spies had no way to distinguish fact from bluster.

Gaddafi of Libya could be reasoned with, by hardly more than a quick bombing around his residential compound in Tripoli. After the invasion of Iraq, he went all friendly, freely admitting to his nuclear programme, and inviting Americans to help him retire it, over tea. He even began withdrawing from his meddlesome activities in uranium-rich Chad. Why, in the end, we ever decided to displace him, puzzles me. The idealists thought he was a bad man. They’d thought Saddam was a bad man, too, until a Republican administration resolved to do something about him.

But as Buchanan would surely agree, it is not the function of the “world police department” to go hunting for bad guys. The world is full of sinners. The function is rather to know who they are, and what they are up to, and find criteria to decide when one of them has become such a threat to the peace, that he needs taking out.

The Ayatollahs, I said, were worse than Saddam. But Saddam was the easier target. There was a glowing moment, back in 2003–4, when even mullahs were suddenly impressed by Bush’s strange habit, of delivering on his promises, and Iran became downright cooperative. The trick was to freeze that moment in time; not fritter it away in gallant and fatuous nation-building exercises.

“Peace through strength” only works, over time, with an occasional exhibition. Without that, the bad guys are apt to forget that the weapons can be used. Too, as Romans and later Europeans understood on the clear days, one must keep one’s troops in tip-top condition. They need to be battle-ready y’know, at all times.

So now I have begun to depart from the isolationist tendency. The question might fairly be asked, why mess with the world at all? This tends to be asked by idealists. Why not mind our own business, and greet all the world with a smile?

Because, ever since Adam and his mistress were evicted from the Garden, we have found the world to be a dangerous place.

The sparrows currently upon my balconata (helping themselves to the lunch of my finches) perfectly understand what is lost on idealistic people, with their posturing sophistication. They can be pert and daring; they know that making a living takes nerve. But they, and even more the pigeons, who know they are carrying more flesh, share their environment with hawks, and other predators. If you’re small, you can often get yourself ignored. If you’re large, there may be no hiding.

America is big and fat, the juiciest bag the world can offer, even after seven-plus years of Obama. The USA is no longer thirteen little realms of doubtful significance. It has risen to the condition of fight or flight. It is moreover the inheritor, from old Mama Albion (and Mama Gallia, and Mama Hispania, and Mama Italia right through the Middle Ages) of an interest that goes beyond that of any individual nation.

The world is full of pirates, too, and as we have been recently reminded, off the coast of Somalia and in the South China Sea: the freedom of the seas must be “established.” On this analogy, I place everything else. We’re on a planet where the bad guys win, the moment the good guys go off their game.

I feel sorry for the Americans. They did not want the job. But they are stuck with it until they walk away, and jilt all their remaining allies. They did not even want the praise that goes with the uniform, let alone the more frequent contumely. But a man must do what a man must do, to keep the world in order, and in this respect the USA remains the big kid on the block. Either he will deal with the little devils, or they will finally deal with him.

Rudyard Kipling was good on this topic. Read his “White Man’s Burden” for what he actually says. It is addressed to that rising America of 1899, and is reasonably prophetic. Kipling was the Imperial Poet on whom I was myself raised (partly in his home town of Lahore), and as I’ve aged I have realized not only that his prose and verse are remarkably sound, but that his understanding of how the world works borders on the sublime. He is not bloodthirsty or violent by disposition. He takes pleasure in all the variety the world can set before him; on all its open roads. (Read Kim, as I did, again and again.) He is in the best sense cosmopolitan (“almost Jewish”); a Little Englander in no way; and very far from any proclamation of “my country right or wrong.” He knows, too, that there is such a thing as civilization, and that history has many ages. Our own corporate or collective position, is only for a time.

The poem addresses an America embarking upon that difficult, “adult” life, that comes with terrible responsibilities. He foresees the thankless tasks ahead.

In time America, too, will be buried with the other empires. But the funeral has not yet come, and while she lives and breathes, she retains her duties. She must, for the world’s sake, stop licking her wounds, and whining; must keep up our quarrel with the foe.

The world, in all its imperfection, will have empires of one kind or another. Not one will always be a force for good. But there is better and worse, and if we are sane, we will allow that in our time the American power has been a blessing.

Buchanan yes & no

The idea that, “We must do something about this,” is not necessarily a bad one. One encounters it often among the Victorian Imperialists, back when the United Kingdom, and not the United States, had the role of “world policeman.” It can be a very bad idea, too, of course, especially if the intentions behind the action are criminal, or one is settling private scores in public ways. But today we are discussing public policy, God help us; and assuming that truly national and not private interests are at stake.

Which opens the wide gate on what a “national interest” might be. Without discussion I will affirm that it is the security of a people in a fairly broad sense: the preservation of their liberties and way of life; the keeping invasive forces at bay; the safety of a nation’s citizens both at home and abroad. I say this in the knowledge that the definition is inadequate: that nothing can be reduced to the worldly without sacrifice of the unworldly. Still, we are proceeding roughly, through a world that is itself rather rough.

The “national interest” is seldom analagous to an individual’s interest, practically or morally. Nations cannot be saved — and are not saved in the long course of history. Men can be, and are. The politician who thinks his country should act as saint or martyr, is making that decision on behalf of others. To volunteer another for martyrdom is murder; to volunteer another for saintly behaviour is tyranny of the same species. We may recommend that an individual become a saint or martyr; but it is an horrific abuse of power to impose this outward fate upon him, when he has not inwardly subscribed.

It follows that the nation state should avoid “idealism.” Its business is only to legislate for the common good, insofar as that is obvious; to encourage, perhaps robustly sometimes, motherhood and apple pie; but to impose only upon criminal wrongdoing. The State is not our Church and not our Nanny.

Note that this is an unambiguously Christian approach. We have only to go as far as Islam to find it denied. Mohammad in the Koran tells us to “command the good.” Christ in the New Testament sets it before us by example. I’m afraid we have to choose our prophets; I hope I have made my own bias clear.

“Sovereignty” is another big word. In its old sense, it meant the paramount: what is above something else. It did not apply exclusively to the nation state. A subtle transformation took place, which I have never seen properly examined. The “sovereign” was head of state — at its highest symbolic, more than managerial, station. “National sovereignty” is quite a different thing. It transfers the headship to the state itself, however headless or “republican.” It projects the will to power, transforming state into Leviathan. It creates an abstract being, beyond management or symbol. To my mind, it opened the city gates to the demonic.

In politics, however, we accept things as they are. The field delimitations are as they have been for the last few centuries (since the seventeenth in Europe): they are boundaries around “sovereign” nation states. Each national government has the “sovereignty” within its recognized frontiers (a sovereignty within a sovereignty, as it were), and is thus responsible for order within that domain, as well as for guarding those boundaries. The world “abroad” is that of peace and war; of diplomacy if possible, or war if not. The case is necessarily complicated by ethnic conflicts, and essays in federalism.

Thus far I think I am in agreement with Pat Buchanan, the old Nixonian sage (and sincere Catholic) who has expounded, and been expounding for many years, a view of the American interest that is coherent and by tendency, isolationist. He takes America on its own word, as a nearly-absolute claimant on the loyalty of its people, and describes himself as a patriot. He is probably more a Catholic than an American, should he ever have to choose, but it would be a close-run thing.

I look at his views instead of those of his supposed disciple, Donald Trump, because the latter is pure populist and thus, utterly incoherent. That is to say, he will not state his principles, and champions instead his feelings, presumptively shared in the crowd with which he has emotionally bonded. Buchanan has principles and strategy; he will go to the wall for them, win or lose. Trump has impulses and tactics; but at the moment he seems to be following, roughly, Buchanan’s view of things. (And Buchanan has generously allowed that this may be so.)

Given the function of a modern, sovereign state, I find nothing controversial about minding the borders. Yet I would remind that to a mediaeval mind, such as the one I aspire to possess, it is senseless. Boundaries were meaningless, except in the limited sense of trespass on property where there was no right-of-way. One crossed borders freely, in the main (there were tolls to pay, but for the use of roads and bridges). One showed deference to local custom and lordship because one was now, in effect, a citizen of that country. And would become the citizen of another, when one passed on to the next domain, within Christendom. Only at the frontiers of Christendom did one’s status radically change, in the way it does today at national borders; and did one lose one’s right to the common courtesies (including the pilgrim’s claim on monastic hospitality).

The USA was an unusual country in having been built upon mass immigration; but it is not unique in that respect (Canada, Australia, Argentina, &c). By now it is “a nationality,” however, and while the sonnet of Emma Lazarus sounds uplifting, it is just words:

… Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore …

Unless it sets a quota on immigration, even a country as big as USA can be overrun by the teeming in question. Unless, indeed, it selects immigrants, for compatibility with what is already there, a government has betrayed the denizens of its gated neighbourhood. It must choose those who want to become Americans, not those whose national loyalties will continue to lie elsewhere.

A special, traditionally Christian dispensation for refugees from tyrannies fleeing for their lives has long been (selectively) recognized — on the assumption that their gratitude for shelter will be real. The status of “economic migrants” is necessarily confused. It is entirely pragmatic, whatever the idealist blather. I have no great trouble with policing borders, or building necessary fences and walls, in the modern circumstance. Neither, I think, would any loyal immigrant.

Laws, too, must be enforced, to maintain order. Those in a country illegally have broken them. If they are not prosecuted the world has been informed that no one will be. Compared to this, fences are ineffective: all “merciful” exceptions will be taken as licence to go up and over. (Or dig under, as the Mexicans seem to prefer.)

And yet we retain the licence to be humane, in specifying exceptions. A distinction can decently be made between those newly arrived, and those who have been in the country so long that they have established a right of abode, bygones being bygones. Those otherwise law-abiding, who have set down families and acclimatized themselves, should to my mind have the equivalent of the old pioneering “squatter’s rights.” Say, seven years, and you have immigrant status. (One day less, and you should remain inconspicuous till morning.) There should anyway be no such thing as a second generation of illegals: crimes of the fathers being, by convention, not visited on the sons.

Verily, statutes of limitation, in various kinds, are a fine Christian, mediaeval concept, and should be borne in mind when any politician opens his populist yawp. Nothing in this world is by its nature perpetual, and limitations on positive law should be freely, and pointedly, acknowledged. Moreover, retroactive legislation should be subject to taboo. Laws are for now, not yesterday.

Too, the public order, for which laws were intended, requires sometimes the relaxation of laws. The USA today is full of Hispanics (those from Mexico, incidentally, most likely of all Latin Americans to be Catholic and Christian); it is unwise in the extreme to alienate them. Or more plainly: it cannot be in the practical interest of the majority to persecute a very large minority. If they are there already, what is done is done. Try charm instead.

And remember that the melting pot is always in operation. Their children will if welcomed become much more like us, and we will in turn become a bit like them, in the cultural stew. Live with it: for the real cultural questions are not, in the end, race and language. They are at their base, credal.

Which is why I fear, and think others should fear, massive Muslim immigration more than any other. For here we have credal differences, that cannot be bridged except glibly. Shariah is in its nature antagonistic to most Western norms. The poor of Ireland and the Germanies were not, in the past; nor are the Hispanic “economic migrants” today. They more-or-less embrace our common, fundamentally Christian, notions of public decency. (Indeed, these are challenged almost exclusively by native-born lily-white liberals, inventing the “shariah” of the politically correct.)

Here again we are dealing with a distinction above the national, which falls awkwardly into our present bureaucratic categories. The question is rather civilizational. Should men be admitted to flood our realm who — if they are sincere in their religion — are committed to our destruction? Or should they be admitted only if they can prove their insincerity? In which case, the insincerity becomes an issue. But in any case, we are typical post-moderns, dealing pragmatically with something that is not in its nature pragmatic. This is a strategy that leads, invariably, to a bad end.

So we build a wall against (mostly harmless) economic migrants, largely Catholic and Christian, then empower the TSA to grind holiday traffic through our airports to a standstill against abstract “terrorists,” who by law cannot be subjected to a religious test, and are unlikely to pose as terrorists. For which Trump at least (Buchanan is not so naïve) proposes a “temporary” religious test, until we’ve sorted out what we are doing.

Here we begin to discover the impossibilities of modern political thinking. America the nation state has been confused with America the civilizational; and the latter, more important, must be sacrificed to the former. Like Laurel and Hardy, we’ve gotten ourselves into a fine mess.

But immigration is only on the cusp of foreign policy. I foolishly promised to critique Buchanan’s (and by supposed extension Trump’s) novel views on how those United States, which incidentally remain the pre-eminent Western military power, should conduct themselves around the planet. I am what they would call a “neo-conservative” (whether with justice I do not care). I am in fact more of an old-fashioned Imperialist, and will continue this ramble perhaps, tomorrow.

The talkpast

Among the difficulties in writing about politics, society, religion, is that of expectations. The reader today, even when he won’t admit it, has an “agenda” that is set by what our beloved last pope called “the council of the media.” This is so regardless of his opinions. He knows, or cannot help knowing, what the live issues are in the public forum; he must have some idea how the forces are arrayed, for and against specific propositions. There is Left and Right. There are allies and enemies one never chose, and one writes in the knowledge that they are accustomed to have the first and last words.

Let me express sympathy for Pope Francis for a moment. (Already I have the backs of some readers, and of some others, the backs up.) Consider this remark he made on an aeroplane, somewhere over the Ionian Sea I think, after specifically mentioning the warning of Pope Benedict XVI:

“When I convoked the first synod, the great concern of the majority of the media was communion for the divorced and remarried, and, since I am not a saint, this bothered me, and then made me sad. Because, thinking of those media who said, this, this, and that, do you not realize that that is not the important problem? Don’t you realize that instead the family throughout the world is in crisis? … And the family is the basis of society. Do you not realize that the youth don’t want to marry? Don’t you realize that the fall of the birth rate in Europe is to cry about? Don’t you realize that the lack of work or the little work available means that a mother has to get two jobs and the children grow up alone? These are the big problems.”

I happen to think that the Holy Father made this “problem of the problem” worse, from his first moments on the Throne of Peter, by touting men like Cardinal Kasper. (And uttering logical howlers as in that penultimate line: for if there’s little work available, how do millions of women get two jobs?) But as I wrote before, somewhere, even Kasper moans that he cannot get a hearing on topics beyond the pet project that the media have saddled on him; that on other issues, and especially in the context of contemporary, ultra-secularized Germany, he might almost be described as a conservative.

When reading other Catholic media (and the whole of the world’s media are my rivals for your attention, gentle reader), I am struck by the ease with which quite intelligent writers get sucked down the sinkholes. They are for instance revolted by some socialist proposition, and therefore align themselves with some (imaginary) “free market”; they are revolted by some laissez-faire proposition, and therefore align themselves with big nanny guvmint. Yet even if they don’t, the alignment will be made for them, and what they never said will be casually assumed.

A certain Thomas Aquinas predicted that this would be the downfall of “democracy” — that it divides a nation into factional camps, who soon talk past each other. I often hear him mumbling from his shelves, up here in the High Doganate, that yet again a “both/and” proposition has been misrepresented as an “either/or,” in the manner of those Reformation theologians, after they had lost the thread of scholastic reasoning. That his successors lack the patience to consider all the flowers in the fragrant garden. That seizing upon a beautiful flower, they yank it to their bosom by the roots. That they do their weeding with Agent Orange.

Reading through the latest electronic dollop of reader mail, I am moved to make a singular proclamation: That, what I haven’t said, I haven’t said.

Give me a chance and I’ll get around to it.

Creative destruction

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was proclaimed by Chairman Mao Tse-tung (as he was then spelt) on the 16th of May, 1966. I leave gentle reader to do the math. It continued ten years, until its author’s death. It was one of the greatest continuing massacres of history — a work of incredible destruction through which almost all the surviving institutions and monuments from China’s civilized past were also wiped out. The Chinese Communist Party, which still rules this immense nation or empire, no longer wishes to talk about it. The anniversary has been suppressed, and even in Hong Kong, where media retain some fraction of the freedom they enjoyed under British colonial rule, Internet links to the anniversary have been frozen.

Led by young, psychopathic Red Guards, it was an unrestrained obliteration of what Mao called “The Four Olds” — old habits, old customs, old ideas, old culture. His satanic dream was of a “perpetual revolution.” His principles were ultimately those of the French Revolution — “improved” by the models of Leninism and Stalinism, the Hsin-hai Revolution of 1911 (in which the Chinese emperor was deposed), and the imagination of a petty bourgeois from a rural backwater in the province of Hunan (Mao himself). At this day, nothing like an adequate historical accounting can yet be attempted of the Cultural Revolution; nor of Mao’s previous iconoclastic essays; nor of the ways in which subsequent economic accomplishments have depended on them. Crucial sources for such a history remain under the control of the Politburo; and travel within their empire is still regulated by their “guides.”

The personality cult Mao launched, for the worship of himself as living god, exceeded that of Hitler or of Stalin. (At one point nothing was allowed in print that was not either by or about him.) I note that his image yet adorns Chinese banknotes.

As a high school student in Georgetown, Ontario, I would often bus into the city of Toronto, truantly to prowl the bookstores, and haunt the museums and libraries. Among my ports of call was a little establishment on Gerrard Street that specialized in Chinese revolutionary paraphernalia. I no longer have my copies of Mao’s Little Red Book (which I bought as a mischievous decoration), the two volumes of his Selected Works, or odd numbers of the Peking Review. This last was the periodical in which I discovered that I was myself a “running dog of American Imperialism” — a phrase I once found repeated several dozen times within a single article.

But at this distance the flavour of the Cultural Revolution was merely quaint. It was later, discovering for instance the works of that remarkable wandering Belgian Catholic, Pierre Ryckmans (pen-name Simon Leys, 1935–2014) that the full horror of the Chinese experience began to reach me. This amateur sinologist was among the few Western intellectuals who freed themselves from the mesmerizing “coolness” of the Mao cult, in his own generation. Understated, he presented only what he could learn from first-hand travel and research. The power of his writing came from this extraordinary patience. He was looking only for the truth.

Yet I had skirted China by then in my own travels, and read other newsy-historical works, and chatted with more than one acknowledged “China expert” in my quasi-vocation as a hack journalist; and thereby been fed almost entirely with lies. I knew that Maoism was evil, but could not begin to compass how radically evil. A growing appeciation of the grandeur of the ancient Chinese civilization accentuated this. For what was destroyed, in addition to the bodies corresponding to tens of millions of human souls, was of tremendous value, not only to China but to the legacy of the planet.

To my mind looking back, the Cultural Revolution may be the most sustained and thorough exercise in the cause of “progress” that men have yet performed.

I have come to think that its specifically communist ideological thrust was only a component: an efficient means to a larger end. The ideal of “creative destruction” is at the heart of modern capitalism, too: the scouring of the earth in pursuit of some empty glittering tomorrow. The removal of all signposts to a loving God. Their replacement with endlessly sprawling utilitarian “facilities,” in which the human spirit will find no home.

A thought

So long as we live — breathe, take sustenance, sleep and rise, work and play, stand in the sun or the rain — we have, every one, something to look forward to. Death.

Perhaps this does not come as breaking news to gentle reader. To some, however, it surely must. Those who are young are more easily shocked; the old have seen it all.

“It was such a tragedy. He was so young!”

The old concur, or will play along with such fatuous observations. (No, tragedy requires a better plot.) One easily understands their motive. (This is not the time, &c.)

We like to assure our juniors that they will live forever. Often we encourage their illusions, as if they were harmless. Like the incredulous who ask about our religious faith, we speak to ourselves half-aloud: “I wish I could believe that.”

There is nothing like a funeral for a young person to bring out this incredulity, from its hiding place behind popular clichés.

“He had all his life ahead of him!”

Did he? Evidently not.

During “feudal week” up here in the High Doganate (the principal reflection was here), I have been pondering our economic arrangements in light of death.

I was much affected, once upon a time, travelling in rural England and in Europe, by the sight of parishes that had formed in mediaeval times. The steeple to mark each village habitation, with its bell; the church congregated beneath; its yard laid out with gravestones. Here were people who lived with death. The agricultural life compounds it: the sight of things that must soon die; the appearance of new life on that condition only. All made invisible, or put out of mind, in our modern urban living; muted by our noise in so many forms.

Death, for us, has been tabloidized.

In the past few weeks I have lost the tenants on both sides of me. Both were well progressed through their eighties; neither could occasion much surprise. “Good people,” both; one actually aspiring to sanctity in a conscious daily way. The other an old soldier, garrulous and unreadable; always on top of his pain. (Died on the first anniversary of his wife’s death.) Both human and full of judgements and misjudgements; private sorrows that never go away. Neither could have looked to death as a “solution.”

We must look beyond, to rebehold the stars. (L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.) It is the only fortitude.

“These things happen.”

And now, for some reason, I think of the death of a boy, many years ago. A boy of eighteen who did not make it through a drug “trip”; one I hardly knew and had no reason to like. Yet somehow I came to be at his funeral.

Of the prattle at this funeral; the meaningless clichés; the hang-dog look on the faces of his school friends, who had been at the party with him, to celebrate his birthday. (To which I came as a neighbour, only to complain about the deafening music.) Who had brought the drugs.

Of the stoic bearing of his black-veiled mother (a “society lady”); the shattered face of his wealthy father (they had lost their only child).

Of a bright-eyed boy, soon “dead on arrival”; of his purple face which I glimpsed along the way. How he would be nearly as old as I am, today.

Mostly, I recall my youthful shock at his dying, and the snippet from an ancient devotion which had come unbidden to mind. (“Do not ask for whom the bell tolls.”)

The Christian thing is to live with death, always; to make constant accommodation with it. We are creatures no less than the sheep in the fields, who lay down their lives in their season. But too, we are more than sheep, and death for us is a meditation. Were we not meant to think, as men?

Peace at last

On consulting my notes, I am appalled to discover that on April 17th, because it was a Sunday, I failed to post an item I had intended to commemorate the anniversary of the conclusion — only thirty years before — of one of the world’s longest wars. This was the Three Hundred and Thirty-Five Years’ War, between the Scilly Isles (off Cornwall in England) and the Netherlands. Or if gentle reader would prefer, we might call it the Driehonderdvijfendertigjarige Oorlog. It is among my favourite historical wars, both for its duration, and from an humanitarian point of view. (There were no casualties.)

You see, the Dutch took the Parliamentary side in the Second English Civil War of 1642–51. (Quite a few casualties.) They wanted to maintain an alliance with England against the Catholic powers in Europe (Spain in particular), and were expecting Cromwell and his Roundheads to win. Which (woefully) Cromwell did, and even by 1648, his troops had pushed the (saintly) Cavaliers across Cornwall, all the way to extinction at Land’s End. This, however, left the Royal Navy of (His Late Majesty) King Charles still in possession of the Isles of Scilly, some thirty miles farther. But when the Roundheads invaded those, their troops mutinied and went over to the Royal side. Engagements elsewhere led Cromwell to forget about the place entirely.

But his Dutch allies did not forget. This was because the (sadly) much reduced Royal Navy was meanwhile plundering the West Country coast, capturing passing ships of various nationalities and, to the point, taking Dutch vessels. Indeed, it seems the Royalists were having a jolly piratical life out there — the Isles naturally defended by shoals, but the English captains knowing their ways around and through them. The irritation of the Dutch was growing, however.

On or about the 30th of March, 1651, Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp of the Navy of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (no relation to the Trumps of the New World) arrived safely in the sea roads of these (rather small) islands. He demanded reparations for a long list of depradations. Receiving no acceptable reply, he formally declared war on the Isles of Scilly (a written record was deposited at Pendennis), and then — the tide turning — he sensibly sailed away.

Please, gentle reader, do not berate me for failing to support the claims of this Tromp gentleman; nor try to explain to me that the whole affair was resolved by English treaties with the Dutch at the end of this Civil War, a few months later. I am perfectly aware that the Scillies were never a de jure nation state.

But wars tend to be de facto sorts of things, and the declaration was made by the agent of a sovereign power. The matter was not specifically resolved with the Scillies.

Now, I don’t want to leave the impression that as an Anglo-Saxon Monarchist and Catholic I am prejudiced against the proto-Orangemen from Holland (although of course I am). For to their credit, I will state that when the matter was brought to their attention by historians in anno 1986, they moved promptly to rectify it. A Dutch delegation landed at Hugh Town (let us call it the capital of the Scillies), and the declaration of war was publicly withdrawn.

To their further credit, they also apologized to the inhabitants of the Isles for any anxieties they may have had about an imminent Dutch invasion, through the previous centuries.

What can I add?

There are people who say that all wars are bad, but I disagree with them. I offer this one as an example of just how long and pleasurable a war can be.


Owing to diplomatic oversight, there may have been several longer wars, but the question came to mind, which was the shortest?

According to my cursory researches that would be the Anglo-Zanzibar conflagration of 27th August, 1896. It started at 9:02 a.m., local time.

The casus belli was one Khalid bin Bargash, who had imposed himself as Sultan in succession to his cousin, whom he had probably poisoned. Worse, he had done so without first notifying the British Consul, which was de rigueur. As it turned out, the British preferred another heir, and so sent an ultimatum. Khalid barricaded himself inside the palace, calling out the palace guard.

Well, the British happened to have a few gunboats in the harbour at that moment, and while seriously outnumbered, they were much better armed. They shelled the Sultan’s harem, and a surrender was received at 9:40. The duration of the war was thus thirty-eight minutes.

A good war, in the sense that it was short and decisive, but I’m sorry to say there were quite a few hundred Zanzibari casualties. (The British suffered one sailor, slightly wounded.) Alas, the defunct did not include the offending Khalid, who ran immediately to the German consulate, and found his way from there to German East Africa.