Essays in Idleness


Think environmentally

Obviously, if you want to be rid of the wild boars overrunning your neighbourhood, you import their natural predators. You bring in grey wolves, tigers, and komodo dragons. The Japanese authorities now rely on gun-totin’ hunters. According to news reports, they have already nailed eight hundred of the beasts in the Fukushima district where, according to the same news reports, the boars had been flourishing thanks to the eviction of 150,000 human residents after the nuclear plant meltdown. They (the boars) had been making themselves at home in abandoned houses, and are reputed to stalk people outdoors when they haven’t already surprised them as squatters. Forest rats, larger deer, tanuki (“raccoon dogs”), and green pheasants have also been spotted by the returnees — all among traditional mountain fare in those islands — but all assumed to be heavily irradiated, so that Shogun says don’t eat them.

A pity, if gentle reader was dreaming of a botan nabe hotpot, with bamboo shoots and mushrooms, in a white miso sauce; perhaps with a side of bonzai prawns. One ought not to be mulling such things in Lent.

But what about that radiation? Not only around Fukushima, after six years, but Chernobyl after thirty, a wide variety of game has thrived, so well that the emigration of radioactive boars has been mentioned as “a problem” in Hungary and Czechia. Yet these animals were in the finest fettle, and after Easter, I’d be happy to try them in a goulash, provided only that gentle reader goes first. After all, if we overlook a slight increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer, that may be statistically insignificant, people who hung around haven’t suffered either. I suspect the warnings have been overdone, and what we have is the usual post-modern outbreak of neurosis.

If I returned to the High Doganate to find a wild boar had installed himself as my flatmate, the question whether he was glowing would not be the first I’d ask. Rather, I would call in my Swedish friend, whose wilderness skills make him my go-to guy for large ungulate pest control. But truth to tell, I have not encountered that or any similar inconvenience in all the time I’ve lived here. They are the tenants across the street, in the halfway homes for the criminally insane, whom I find more “concerning.” (Fortunately, the Tibetans have opened a new dzong farther down, which promises to improve local karma levels.)

As a diligent reader of Muir and Thoreau (some time ago), I’m entirely in favour of wilderness preservation, and perhaps wilderness creation, though not by legislation. I think nuclear accidents may be the means by which this cause can be advanced, through private enterprise. To which end I note that we have an antiquated reactor at Pickering to our east, that might at any moment improve the aesthetics of Oshawa; and were it not that our breeze prevails westerly, I’d recommend the slovenly construction of a new one for Mimico, just across Humber Bay.

For to my mind we call too many things “problems” today, which might more positively be identified as “solutions.”


J. M. Cameron (1910–95) was a philosophy professor at Saint Michael’s College in Toronto, here, for many years. I met him through one of his prize students, who happened to be my girlfriend at the time, forty-plus years ago. He asked me what I was reading, over tea. I was reading Hobbes. He thought Hobbes the devil, but as I was interested, he turned to teaching me Hobbes — who grew in my estimation under Cameron’s direction. That I wasn’t his formal student made no difference: when someone was interested, he found the time. He was the first of several distinguished “perfessers” I preyed on, over the years. Again and again I found them extremely liberal — with their time — if I could show a genuine interest in their topics.

Cameron came from a working class, North British background; he was an old Leftie from what we might call the same universe that produced Alasdair MacIntyre. (He would playfully class-bait his rather “Upper” wife, who would affectionately reply, “Oh, James, you are so jealous!”) But too, he was a sincere Catholic, and severe moral thinker, who over the course of decades became truly a sage, politically unplaceable. I got to know him well in his old age, when — compulsorily retired, and now banned from the pages of the Leftie intellectual journals for his various ideological heterodoxities — we took him up at The Idler. (He had been a major contributor to e.g. the New York Review of Books for nearly thirty years from its founding in 1963.) We disagreed about lots of things; but in addition to giving me a better understanding of his own positions, he gave me a better understanding of mine.

These days he is all but forgotten; but never by me. I still have most of his books; unfortunately his magnificent revisitation of Newman’s Idea of a University (1978) seems no longer among them. I will find it again, I hope. A significant part of it was devoted to exploring, then condemning, “parasensical discourse” … “a kind of curious verbal play, neither sense nor nonsense, designed to inculcate attitudes, not convey information.” The universities were already full of that, and the prospect for the recovery of real learning, especially in the humanities, had already grown dim.

He was among the last proponents, within liberal university walls, of the old liberalism — of the free and open (and civil) discussion of ideas. He recalled with pleasure Hasting Rashdall’s evocation of the universities in the later Middle Ages, when society could be said to be governed by three powers — Sacerdotium, Imperium, Studium — or, as we would say, the Church, the State, and the University. This last was, as it were, the one safe place for unsafe opinions.

One must, Cameron explained, look squarely at the arguments for e.g. “sexism” and “racism,” if one is to defeat them. Looking squarely means entertaining the possibility that one may be wrong about quite elementary things. This requires us to widen our little worldviews.

Cameron was the sort of man it was impossible to surprise. One could ask him very basic questions, and find that he had thought them through. I asked him one day if, from all his experience in teaching, he had found anything in common between all his best students?

Without hesitation, he replied, “Yes. … All, without exception, were self-taught.”

Belmont, Fishtown, Middlebury. … All sound like towns in Charles Murray’s statistical imagination. I think of Cameron whenever I watch the savage offspring of “parasensical discourse” rioting to suppress a university speaker they have never read, but been taught to hate. They cannot look squarely.

As a (rather leftish, and publicly feminist) lady, seriously injured by the Middlebury mob, said after: “They will not even look in your eyes.”

Deep state

I’m against big guvmint. So is my JCWC (joint chief Washington correspondent), but he tells me to avoid the expression, “deep state.” It’s a propaganda term; it draws you into devil-worship. You might hate big guvmint, and totalitarianism in any form, but if you become obsessed, it will eat your brain. However, I like to err on the side of paranoia; and I appreciate the poetical flavour of the term.

Meanwhile, my CTC (chief Texas correspondent) pings me a piece from the Wall Street Journal. It is about a fellow Aggie who has lost big. It wasn’t directly the fault of Deep State. Rather, the price of oil dropped through the floor, and his aggressive investments went sour in consequence. They’d have worked at 45$ a barrel; not at thirty. He still has his wife (a former Playboy model), and a trickle of consulting income, but the mansion and everything else must go. That’s downright humiliating; and apparently there are many stories like that in the oil patch now. The man is upbeat, though, and his blonde says, “It was just a house.” He intends to win it all back. Good luck to him!

To my own little mind, there is a problem with “entitlements.” That Texan could let go, but most people won’t. Once they have an entitlement, you can’t take it away. Or rather, you can’t without a terrible scene. And the fight won’t be over political theory, it will be over cash. People sincerely believe in cash, they don’t believe in theories. Were they properly instructed, they would realize that post-gold money is also just a theory, and not a very good one. It is an illusion: one must be credulous to believe it. Thanks to “democracy,” of course, almost everyone is credulous, and feels “entitled” in some way. Still, unlike food stamps, oil was at least something.

All God’s fault I suppose: He put way too much oil in the ground, more than anyone can use. We can hardly burn it fast enough. Fortunately, it has good environmental effects, putting carbon dioxide in the air, which helps plants flourish. And we must do our best to delay the next Ice Age. I may be anti-cash, but I’m definitely pro-oil.

I think of a businessman I once interviewed, in a previous century: a big oil man (it was vegetable oil). His HQ was a noodle shop on lower Charoen Krung in Bangkok. That had been his first business, as a refugee from China. He sat behind an old splintered school desk in the shop, in singlet, khaki shorts, and plastic flipflops. He didn’t think businessmen should put on airs; it attracts unwanted attention, from tax collectors and other filth. He struck his deals in the shop (well, he may have had a telephone). He had never signed a contract. He was old school: a man’s word is his bond. Too, you stay where you got lucky. (Cue the sidebar on feng shui.) Family lived upstairs; his own kids served tables. He was worth millions. But he didn’t count it in cash, only in warehouse inventory. He wasn’t the sort of nerd who trusts paper.

Besides, he was rational. “If you can make this much, you can lose this much.” His father had been rich; lost everything including his life to the Communists in Swatow.

“And besides, I work all day. What use have I for a mansion? And who needs limousines? My customers come to me.”

Didn’t want his children spoilt, either. If he lost everything, they could still sling noodles.

Don’t trust cash. If you get a pile, spend it right away. Buy tradeable stuff. It’s stuff that sells, cash is just guvmint notepaper. It’s a big nothing, all Deep State.


Our word for today is a favourite with Senator Cruz of Texas. According to the (Internet) Urban Dictionary it refers to, “something lame, dead-end, a dud, insignificant; especially something with high expectations that turns out to be average, pathetic, or overhyped.” A more exhaustive explanation might include the simile of a hamburger with no meat patty. (Lenten suggestion, with nothingfries and water.) This would be a nothingburger definition of a nothingburger.

The latest examples are any of the endless series of lame, dead-end, dud, insignificant revelations about various Trump appointees having met the Russian ambassador in Washington — along with, apparently, everyone else in Washington, or at least, everyone on the right descending edge of Charles Murray’s Bell Curve.

Alternatively, a nothingburger might be like any of who-knows-how-many franchise combos which centre on a meat filling which, under laboratory examination, turns out to be at least half soya filler.

The question becomes an interesting one, for observant Catholics. At what point can we be sure that the actual meat content of a Something Burger is so low that it will count as a nothingburger for the purposes of Lenten abstinence?

Now, I have no opinion on the allegations raised, via leaks from Obama holdovers in Deep State, against Trump’s minions, beyond observing that they are all nuts. I have no memory of having met Ambassador Kislyak myself, but fear that when my staff consult the charred remains of my dayplanner, they may discover that we discussed the USA election, NATO’s logistical arrangements, and the political situation in eastern Ukraine, on seventeen occasions between July 21st and November 8th, 2016. Fortunately, I am not a Trump appointee, so the world may never know.

He is a very charming man, incidentally. Who knows I need more money.

And not a nothingburger at all, or more precisely, not a consumer of nothingburgers, as I judge from his formidable girth, and the tightness of his shirt collars. Whatever one might say against the old KGB, from whose ranks Kislyak ascended, they didn’t leave their operatives hungry.

Turning from Bell Curves to Pareto, and my old saw about the “rule of thumb” (based on the numerical ratio between thumb and fingers), about 20 percent of everything is opposed. Example: make a list for any purpose and you will find that 80 percent of entries arguably belong on the list, and the rest don’t. This will remain true no matter how many times you edit the list. It is one of the interesting things about nature, and it explains much otherwise inexplicable to science. Given about eighty years of the next century, I could write a book on this. One might even say that it is on the 20 percent that seems totally irrelevant that the life or use of the 80 percent depend.

Or vice versa, from a thumbic point of view. No matter how you focus your reading, four-fifths will prove to be a waste of time. Just nothingburgers, like today’s Idlepost.

On beautiful women

There are two kinds of women to whom I am attracted: bad ones and good ones. On examining my conscience, as I am obliged to do by my strange religion (Roman Catholic), I discover an interesting thing: that I am attracted in much different ways. Over time — and I suppose age helps, though not as much as the young might suppose — I find that I have been developing “a preferential option for good women.” It remains imperfect, however.

I am writing as a male, incidentally. Women will have to speak for themselves. Their attractions to men are beyond my comprehension.

Now another distinction, which I will share from my night thoughts. When it comes to bad women, I find that my attention is focused, almost but not quite involuntarily, on those who just happen to be young and gorgeous. Whereas, when it comes to good women, my attention is captured by all ages. And whereas, in the first case, the idea of possession is never far away, in the second it disperses. Let me not compare them to museum objects. But if I did, I would say that I find great artworks, and some pieces especially beloved, beautiful without any need to own them. And often enough, unconventionally beautiful, as for instance certain old ladies, married or widowed or never married or nuns, who exquisitely embody the feminine principle. To be in their company is to be somehow washed, of that which makes one most grossly male.

And then there are women with children. Among those young — and all such will be younger than I am, spare some freak of recent reproductive technology — I am struck with an irrefutable fact. The same woman who was merely pretty, becomes beautiful with child. Which is not to say childless women can’t be beautiful. But then, the active ingredient is chastity.

I was just looking at a photograph of one such, whom I’d describe as “agelessly young.” It was taken recently; it is the daughter of someone I know, in a rural community in midwestern USA. She is at work outdoors. Everything about her posture conveys what is dutiful, humble, kindly. She is in the near background, wearing a sunhat that shadows her face. Her coarse work-dress goes almost shapelessly down to her ankles. She is carrying a bucket that must be full of water: its weight is apparent. I think: there are girls like that, there always were. From all this paucity of information, I can see that she is very beautiful, and the old male instinct of protection is stirred: “Lord watch over her.”

Partly I excuse myself from all the lustful thoughts I’ve ever entertained: a lust promoted throughout “the media,” whether sought or unsought. I was raised in it: in modernity, or post-modernity, its most advanced form. Women have been not “objectified” in our culture so much as monetized; used as a sales tool. Every man who walks through our contemporary world is exposed to this gnawing devilry. Women are demeaned by the “soft” pornography that surrounds us; on the billboards, but also walking the streets. Actually it is quite hard pornography, by any traditional measure; one might even say it is exhausting. It enters not only the eyes of men, portals to the soul; but also the eyes and souls of the women. By increments they become what they behold.

There are women who are beautiful, as paintings. I could gaze on them all day. But in the moment lust enters the configuration, that beauty is destroyed. As anything else in the economy it becomes something to use then discard. That mystery of Eros — that aspect of the Love that entails the Creation — is removed from all relations between women and men. And instead we have the cold wither of transaction.

I ask you

As a white heterosexual Christian male, of at least seven-eighths British ancestry, I demand to know what my privileges are. Can I jump queues when I am wearing my “White Privilege” pin? (Get yours here.) Do I qualify for other special treatment? Platinum credit facilities, for instance? More air miles? Clearly marked safe zones for my sex and kind? Will I be automatically short-listed for any job or prize? Granted priority for my partialities and opinions? Extra parmesan on my spaghetti bolognese? A bit of deference if I happen to be drunk and somewhat feisty?

The best I’ve received was an offer of a senior’s discount at a Sally Anne thrift shop the other day. Ten percent off a three-dollar book. (Then I blew it by admitting I was under-aged.) I asked the lady what my White Privilege discount would be instead. Being from Hungary, she was ready with a precise answer.

“Height in inches divided by weight in pounds,” she said, adding after a cheerful pause, “times nine-point-seven over the square root of pi.”

(She is my favourite Hungarian immigrant, since the last one died.)

More than twenty-five years ago, in my Idler magazine, we published an internal government document, which proposed a careful grading of people by shades of race and ethnicity for the purpose of making “reverse discrimination” more algorithmic. The funny thing was, it wasn’t a joke. There were seven levels, each carefully described. Those at the top could be treated like dirt, those at the bottom got anything they wanted, so far as we could see. (Can gentle reader guess who was at each end?)

I recall this only because I’m trying to think back to the origin of that ghastly, sick, viciously evil, rainbow pageant called “identity politics.” More cumbersome research (I checked Wiki) takes us to the early ’seventies. Those inventive Subcontinentals may have started it with reserve places in the Indian bureaucracy for Dalits (the “untouchable” caste). For that I think they should have been raised two places in the chart.

Alas, it would seem, my White Privilege only entitles me to certain adjectival honorifics, as, “Racist,” “Sexist,” “Islamophobe,” &c. Plus vaguer expressions, such as “Fascist,” for which one need not even be Italian. As one drops down the list, fewer and fewer of these terms are applied. At the bottom one is merely, “Sir.”

A correspondent has now called me a “White Supremacist.” I didn’t ask why, for as I’ve learnt, only people with Privilege (in this case, some intelligence) can formulate explanations. Instead I replied, “I’m whatever you say, my little ball of sunshine.”

But do they have a pin for that, I wonder? And what do I get if I wear it?

In cinere et cilicio

I have found that little is accomplished by sitting about in the dark feeling guilty. Penance must be more constructive than that. The expiatory side of penance would more likely consist of prayer and inward chant, extended to prayerful reading and to contemplation. It will carry one’s sorry ass to church; and to that participation in the Mass which is a conduit of the divine mercy.

Anyone can go about in cinere et cilicio — in sackcloth and ashes, marks of poverty. They could be a fashion statement; anything can be turned into that. They began as the costume for our Catechumens, given forty days to prepare for Baptism at Easter. Through this time, they could wear their sins, and by extension public sinners could join them — publicly, in that attire. As I understand (from missals and the like) reconciliation occurred on Maundy Thursday. Christ carries, the rest of the way.

We will know that the Church is getting back in gear when we see a few bishops in sackcloth and ashes. Meanwhile, there are our own sins, our own quiet sins, carefully hidden, even from ourselves. The ashes carried out of church on the forehead — the ashes that were blessed at the altar, at the beginning of this morning’s Mass — sustain that tradition, now much less severe.

To my understanding, shame has been adapting to these post-Christian times. Shame today consists of getting caught. Without God, what else could it signify? But God already knows you and I are worms, we cannot impress Him. Sins honestly confessed then absolved are left behind. The world may still think us an embarrassment, but who cares what the world thinks?

For you and me, penance will be joyful. We’ve got off easy, what could we lament? In perfect contrition we come to know ourselves: to know what we are capable of doing, or capable of not doing when action is rightfully demanded. This takes an awkward burden off our backs, a lot of gunk out of our eyes. It is thus a big plus, and the resolution not to sin again is of its nature joyous. We may fail, but will keep trying.

Penance is penance. It is doing the right thing. Doing the right thing makes us feel good.

There is expiation and purgation. They are subtly different, and subtly the same. In the grand cosmic scheme of things, Christ has atoned. We know of Purgatory, though we don’t know much. Here on this Earth we will do what is within our powers, to expiate in positive acts, and purge ourselves of encumberments. The self-denial that threads through Lent, the de-habituation to luxuries and crutches, is not for sin, per se. It is merely good exercise, repeated each year; the divine form of that cute saying of Nietzsche’s (“what does not kill me makes me stronger”). Alas, clever man, he was able to turn a great Lenten truth into a feeble and implausible lie.

It is the building of strength that makes us stronger; the ability to withstand temptation; the wisdom not to hurt but to avoid hurting ourselves. That is the groundwork of Christian virtue, and like exercise in the gym, it is not for public display.

And neither for that matter is the expiation, except to right very public wrongs. Lent is not performed for an Oscar. The acts of charity — the additional acts, required in this season — are to remain invisible to men. And by charity, invisibly, the heart is uplifted.