Essays in Idleness


Chronicles of distraction

Anti-blogging has been light, these last few days as, notwithstanding my dislike of business, I have been busy. As ever, it has been in a neglected cause. I consider a birthday the equivalent to a New Year, and thus the approach to my own as a time to clear decks. Rather a lot of unfinished tasks to sweep overboard this year, owing to my habitual procrastination. Still haven’t quite caught up, and soon after midnight I turn sixteen for the fourth time. Too, I might take another irresponsible holiday tomorrow, because it is my birthday.

Meanwhile, anyone suffering from a perverse hunger for additional David Warren Thought might consult the Catholic Thing (here), where I weigh in with my considered opinion on the first one hundred days of Mr Donald J. Trump. Actually, he is older than that, and like other commentators I’ve restricted myself to his first hundred days in presidential office.

I do wish the Americans would shift their inauguration date from January 20th every fourth year. They may not have considered that the hundredth day from that might clash with my birthday. I think this inconsiderate of them. Formerly they waited until March 4th, the anniversary of the invention of Congress in 1789. (Unless it was a Sunday.) And that year, Mr Washington wasn’t sworn in until the 30th of April, as I dimly recall.

Some time in May would be better. It would give the new gentleman most of the summer to repeal the previous gentleman’s fondest achievements, while people aren’t watching with overmuch attention.

A public danger

We learn, from an article in Atlantic magazine, that the idiots have published 129,864,880 old-fashioned printed books. And this was as of August 2010; there must be more by now. By “the idiots” I of course refer to humankind, and express the view of all the other animals, who inwardly laugh at our madness, though not all the time. (Alone with a human in a confined space, they may instead be terrified.)

Apparently, Messrs Google got the idea of digitally copying every one, and making each available “at one click” through the Internet, for a modest fee. They got 25 million books and 400 million dollars into the project, before the lawyers stopped them, and now this linguistic stargate is locked away, like the chemical weapons in Syria, waiting for a more appropriate moment to come out again.

Thank God for lawyers. They went to work on behalf of that unsilent class of over-literate intellectuals, who were happy enough for Google to pay, but outraged that they might benefit. They were demanding a vast new tax-paid bureaucracy to regulate everything, and redistribute the income from dead authors to live ones (i.e. themselves). Having cost Google a few more million in legal fees, and having won the support of the malicious clowns in the Obama Justice Department, they tied the project up in so much tape and string, that the corporation finally cut its losses.

This, so far as I can see, is the only use for the progressive Left. By bundling every one of their crazed, idealistic schemes with minute, Kafkaesque requirements, they eventually defeat themselves. All Google’s opponents spastically declared in favour of the project “in principle.” But it would have to be done to their unworkable specifications. A beautiful “own goal” by the devils.

Whereas, I would oppose the principle itself. Nine in ten books should never have been published (at a very conservative estimate), and cannot be forgotten quickly enough. I note that merely turning the pages, to feed the cameras, required an army of the unskilled, working at sausage-factory speed. Clever algorithms were written to correct their sloppy work, and straighten the images of the pages. Lorry-loads of books from the participating libraries were driven through — innocent books that had never disturbed the peace of the world, quietly serving their turn as interior decoration, were subjected to this indignity. How many lovely old leather spines were cracked in the process?

Books should be treated with care. They contain innumerable errors, of doctrine and of fact. Incarcerated in physical libraries they may seem harmless, these days. Hardly anyone goes there. But caution is required in the use of them, and all those currently in vogue should be handled with tongs. Were it up to me, we would restore the Catholic Index, and ban all newly-published books without exception, for at least fifty years, allowing any heat in them to cool. Then, a committee of hoary and senescent elders could let a few through, having determined that they constituted no threat to public morality.

Though to be fair, making every book ever published easily available to anyone, is perhaps the next best thing. For it would reduce a grave public danger to just another desert of pixels.

Reductio ad mysterium

Beware the salesmen who say, “It’s the soap in Duz that does it.” The statement is plausible, and therefore suspicious. The word itself may be noun in Azeri, verb in Luxembourgish, a numeral in Mauritian Creole; I am referring to the North American cleaning product, vaguely remembered from earliest childhood, more precisely recalled through the commercial jingle.

It was a lie. Duz wuz not a soap at all. It wuz an amphipathic detergent: one of those technological innovations of German laboratories, tasked with getting around the national shortage of oils during the late Great War. They found a surfactant more efficient than soap; one which did not waste effort binding the limestone and chalk in hard water to the dirt scum it was separating. Or so I understand.

Now, I do not propose to bring Messrs Procter and Gamble before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I can’t afford the lawyers. There is evidence in the Internet that the product was a powdered soap before it became a powdered detergent. Yet I distinctly remember that slogan, from a time well after the soap component must have been retired. And I have found confirmation for this memory on YouTube.

Quite frankly, such avowals are in the heart of modern life: assertions that are plausible, but not strictly true. I could give other examples. In some, such as the whole concept of “government investment,” they are not even slightly true; and in many fields, such as that of insurance (public or private, it makes little difference) a bottomless pit of moral jeopardy is concealed by the surface claims.

We have not truth, but approximations to truth, that will not bear investigation. This is what makes us so different from our mediaeval, or other pre-modern ancestors, whose circumstances freed them from what I will call (with apologies to Ratzinger) the “dictatorship of hype.” Or rather than fall into hype myself, I should say they simply lacked the machinery by which hype of this sort could be generated, and poetry abused.

For the line in question is poetry indeed: “The soap in Duz that does it.” But it is poetry degraded. Somewhere near the beginning of his penetrating commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Thomas Aquinas notes that poetry and philosophy share an origin in the apprehension of the wondrous. I say they expound, yet neither can “explain” the mysteries, including that mystery of an existence (our own) that comes out of nothing.

Yet upon consulting the Wicked Paedia I find that the operation of detergent is no wonder at all. It can all be explained to any specialist’s satisfaction, in words of twelve syllables or less.

Which takes us, naturally, to the stain of sin. How is it to be eradicated? Clearly, we must begin by understanding what it is, and there we encounter a modern “problem,” carried forward through all human ages. The very existence of sin is mysterious, and can be casually denied, for as we sin we become less conscious that sin is sin, and slide by degrees into the modern glibness. If the German laboratories cannot invent a product to wash it away, why don’t we just ignore it?

Macula, guilt, is left over. We are soiled; it will not go away. Freud and other shrinks thought they could isolate it in their laboratories — explain it away — yet after more than a century of attempts we still feel it, like the itchy pyjamas that Duz promised to soften. Drugs may suppress it, temporarily, but at an hideous cost. For even when the sense of sin is gone, the guilt obstinately remains. Paradoxically, we have reduced this “problem” to the mystery again.

Among the new Infidels

After a fortnight of reading the words “First Class” in my Saint Andrew’s Missal each day — violet fading through black into white — we come to Low Sunday, and thus back to a life that is “normal,” if anything in the Easter season can be so. The contemporary Catholic, insofar as he is observant — and many will at least observe Easter Day, as we saw last week in the packed-out churches — may feel “churched-out” eventually. The more if he had made a passing effort to fulfil his modest Lenten covenants, and had been living slightly hungry. Three hours or more, of the Easter Vigil, after Tenebrae, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the frightful blank of last Saturday morning, on hardwood pews and kneelers, is enough to finish off a person who spent his earlier life not attending church, except for certain social obligations. (Marriages; funerals; perhaps even a baptism once upon a time.) And we, the converts and reverts, are the ones with the zeal.

We lack the stamina of the early Christians, who filled the entire night before Easter with their vigilant devotions, timing the baptisms for dawn. Those who have tasted the Christianity of the East may have some notion how this works in practice. In the West, too, there are chance survivals: I have seen people with their knees on concrete floors for hours without break, in a state that resembles a fugue. I look on in amazement. Some of the Filipinos in my Parkdale parish are of their spiritual company. They make me feel not only very Western, but quite inadequate.

The notion that “one ought to go to church” is not dead among us. It revives wherever the faith has been rekindled, in its otherworldly (“Ghostly”) way. It perishes among those who have made their concessions to the world, and to its “values,” so that the Church exists only for her value in political schemes. Hence the common atheist desire to have some sort of church-like organization, for the pleasure of delivering homilies to a captive audience. Or so they imagine, for as I’ve seen in our own “liberal” parishes, the audience for “Sandinista sermons” soon disappears; and not even canned Beethoven could hold the loyalty of Unitarians I once knew. In the absence of sincere belief in the practice and presence of Our Lord, playing dress-up starts to feel silly.

Instead, that irrepressible sense of awe is transferred to, for instance, high-class restaurants, with the candles on the table and the reverent “servers” chanting, almost liturgically, items from the menu. For the religious impulse will never go away, with its longing for a certain elevation and tone. If not foodie, every man and woman born will find something holy, and be outraged by blasphemies against it. The codes of speech and gesture that now govern our public behaviour are “spilt religion” of an obvious kind. Those who dare breach them are the new Infidels.

This distinction between religion still in the vessel, and spilt over the side, follows us through the narthex. Our motives for entering a church are often mixed.

A priest, whose remarkably short homily I heard some days ago, provided the simple explanation. There are those who, perhaps from some neurotic suspicion that Christ is really there, feel bound to drop in on Him once in a while, as one might visit the oldies occasionally in “the home.” And there are those who understand that, whether or not they are currently in the mood, Christ wants to see them.

Insolence towards the Zeitgeist

The one form of rebellion I support — by crabbed age or youth — is rebellion against the Big Lie. Hence my passing delight in gratuitous political incorrectitude. It is an act of resistance, which could have unpleasant consequences; but this was always so. Alternatively, smile. The age is as a neighbour’s pet, which one is obliged to host for the weekend. One will brush it off Monday.

It is vain to consider our generation somehow worthy of the Parousia, as if our skins were so valuable, or our sins more impressive, than those of any previous generation. We are small and squalid and statistical today, hardly worth punishing except by a loving God. Our men are not men and our women are not women. Look at the vacant faces.

We direct our unhappiness at miscellaneous targets, in an unfocused way. We locate ourselves within the smear of a “democratic” order — an immense dovecote meant as the expression of The People, not God. Inside, the guano is accreting. If something is wrong, we will vote on whom to blame, in our sleepy, pigeon-like way.

Frustrations associated with longer commuting times or diminishing real wages trigger a response. We are like union members in a company whose managers are too obviously incompetent to sustain their arrogance. So we call a strike; vote for Trump or Le Pen or whomever. In the end they give us more of the same.

It will make a difference when, by nature, masculine qualities re-emerge in the men, feminine qualities in the women; and when both turn from politics to God.

There was a lad in a bookstore of university age. He had been experimenting with independent thought; the proprietor taxed him with “conservative” tendencies. He had given his opinion that the welfare system entraps the lower orders, and could not be “reformed.” Instead it should be abandoned. He thought, with Saint Paul, that those able to work should earn their keep. As to the imagined hordes of unemployed social workers, “let them do the jobs we import immigrants to do.”

Pressed on this point, and asked how we should help the dependent poor, he said, “Maybe bring back workhouses.”

On the old and infirm: “Maybe their families should be taking care of them. Maybe they would be, if they didn’t have a choice.”

He was of course against public daycare. Warned that this position might be labelled “misogynist,” he escalated.

“Yeah. I suppose the idea that mothers should put their own daughters ahead of their careers seems misogynist to you. Well, you’re a white male, you have a right to your opinion.”

“What kind of politics is that?” he was asked.

And the young man replied: “I think I must be a fascist. Everyone tells me I am turning into a fascist, so that must be the word.”

This left his interlocutor speechless.

A young woman nearby spoke up: “Yes, you’re a fascist, that’s what you are! … I think I’m a fascist, too.”


Several readers mentioned that they’d heard this anecdote before, from me, but could not find the initial version in any computer search. That is because I deleted it. It was from a much longer piece I posted four years ago, and have since regretted, because it contained traces of political optimism. Still, I wanted to preserve the anecdote, so I brought it forward. I do this kind of thing fecklessly, and only sometimes own up. No “text” in this site is guaranteed stable. Mistakes, especially, may be subject to amendment. Fresh mistakes may be inserted in their place. The whole thing is a “work in progress,” and would change faster if I could find the time.

Sex & the single Dogan

One is nailed in modern journalism by the staccato of fact, fact, fact. Many of these facts are untrue, of course, and others have the same effect as hollow dumdum bullets — expanding on contact with flesh. It is a war out there, between adversaries named Fact and Truth. I am reminded of this every time I look in the news, and see that “studies have shown,” when they have shown nothing more than a valiant attempt on the part of the devil to undermine the obvious.

I mentioned journalism, but the phenomenon has spread to lexicography, if not farther afield. While explaining the Canadianism, Dogan (for “a Roman Catholic,” ideally of the Irish persuasion), I was recently shot down by a pert young tyro. She had taken the trouble to look it up in some supposed authority, such as the COD (Canadian Oxford Dictionary). The etymology there was in conflict with what I habitually supply. I’d have been more impressed had she cited, for instance, the more venerable Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (ed. Avis et al., 1967) where she would have found the same answer: that it originates in some Irishman’s surname.

My mother had a much better account. It is a Cape Bretonism, she gently insisted, from the days when Presbyterian missionaries were sent into West Africa. They came to the tribe of Dogans, and sent home eager anthropological reports. From these it emerged that the Dogans worshipped some female idol, which the missionaries mischievously conflated with Mariolatry. Cackling with glee, as would be their wont, the people back home in Glace Bay, or wherever, began calling their Catholic neighbours “Dogans.” The Catholics themselves rather enjoyed the slight, and so the term quickly spread through the island, up the fishing coasts of Newfoundland, down to Antigonish (a Catholic citadel), then west at least to Pictou. On reaching Halifax it jumped to Montreal, &c, while quietly penetrating the Boston States.

I refuse to stand corrected. Nor will my Gaelic mama be corrected, now that she has doyed. My corrector cannot be corrected, either, for nothing is as irrefutable as the testimony of an exceptionally attractive young blonde. Notwithstanding, all facts being equal, I prefer the better story.

People keep asking me, “What is the High Doganate?” I trust that, when combined with the information that my quarters float one hundred feet above the streets of beautiful downtown Parkdale (or, Vallis Hortensis, as I’ve come to prefer), all is now clear. Or may be for a few Idleposts. (Gentle reader might try his search engine next time.)

Which leaves me with the embarrassment of explaining my headline. It seemed to promise more than I have delivered, today. True, I selected it to get attention. But as a gentleman I feel compelled to acquit myself of any charge of evasion. So let me add that the Dogans come in two sexes, male and female. And that, in the more colloquial sense of the term, those who are single “must not.”

On writing Idleposts

Everyone knows that everything George does, ends badly. (From charity, I conceal his real name.) We might not know how badly, were he not always whining about his fate. I raised a laugh at a public drinking table, by referring to him as, “a lucky man.” That might mean many things, but in this case it meant, “bad lucky.” Normally, “lucky” implies good luck, but context is all.

The two conditions do not fail to be ambiguous. What is good luck for some, may be bad luck for others. Or good luck in prospect may prove bad luck in retrospect, for the same man. I have often lamented my own good luck, upon harvesting its fruit. The angel that led me turned demon, as I should have expected.

Aeschylus may be right, that the gods are with the willing and eager. But he did not intend this as a moral axiom. There are bad wills, and good, and the gods are often demons, as Plato observed. The sort of luck that leads to any sort of worldly success is, generally speaking, a jilt, and while there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune, one is more often lost at sea.

Hence my solemn commitment to Idleness. Many are the stupid things one might not do. The world would be a better place if they were not done. We should try harder not to do them. We should set an example, in resisting temptation.

In my days as a hack pundit for the gutter press, annually some time around my birthday, I would write a self-indulgent column touching on some aspect of “why I write.” George Orwell got me started; I blame him. He wrote the inaugural essay in this subtle form of moral posturing; or perhaps it was Luther in 1517. Adam, we are sure, did not write columns.

I can’t remember ever having hit upon a good reason. The best, I reflect, was never tried: that I had a family to support at the time. My duties seem since to have contracted. Doctor Johnson, my Virgil in the English hack trade, said, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” By which he meant earning, not thieving it, I suppose.

He also said, “Only a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Elsewhere he glossed: “A man who writes a book thinks himself wiser or wittier than the rest of mankind; he supposes that he can instruct or amuse them, and the publick to whom he appeals, must, after all, be the judges of his pretensions.”

Looking back over these Idleposts, from the height of a short Easter vacation, I find it hard to discern how they could make me any money. By acts of purest charity, some strangely trickles in. I’ve been told that the long ones are particularly ignored, and so I am trying to write shorter. Really, I am lucky to survive at all.

On seeking shelter

[I propose to fall silent for the rest of Holy Week, to Easter Tuesday or so; except a piece I owe to Catholic Thing for Maundy Thursday. So here is my opportunity to wish gentle reader a blesséd and serene celebration. In the words of this morning’s Introit: “Nos autem gloriari oportet in cruce Domini nostri Jesu Christi: in quo est salus, vita et resurrectio nostra: per quem salvati et liberati sumus. … Nos autem!”]


“But of course we had running water. How often we went running for it!”

As mentioned in yesterday’s Idlepost, I am haunted by the ghosts of my ancestors, especially those I once knew alive, but also those whose most memorable acts and sayings were conducted through them. The line quoted goes back only two or three generations, on my mother’s side, and looks beyond to a day when indoor plumbing was not even a novelty. It had never been seen in certain Scottish realms, which included the Outer Hebrides, and pre-industrial Cape Breton. The very idea of it would have been revolting; and that among people who thought nothing of sharing their small homes with cattle and sheep.

They built them in the hollows, in the Western Highlands, Skye, Lewis, the Uists. Today they build houses on the knolls. This is so the “summer people” can look out at the scenery through their large, pre-fabricated windows. The windows in the old crofts were small: to let light in and not the eyes out. If you wanted to look at the great outdoors, you could go outside. You went inside for shelter from it. A “brisk brattle of wind” was often blowing (“howling gale” to the tourist), and by building in the hollow, it passed unfelt overhead. The modern windows rattle, and though the people inside are kept warm enough, by invisible devices, there is a security they will never know, huddled next the hearth and behind thick walls.

These were people who sang and danced, played fiddles and pipes, entirely without cash payment. Whose storybook was chiefly the Bible.

Our outdoors have now been monetized, as a form of entertainment. Perhaps the outdoors were less entertaining to the dead folk, although they have left much poetical evidence that they could see its stark beauty, under sun, moon, stars; under moist blankets of overcast, or diffused in mists and fog.

Today we can buy a cottage, with all the suburban fixtures, among other cottages of increasingly monstrous size, gathered round each scenic spot, progressively blotting it away. It is there for the weekends. It is empty most weekdays. Here and there an old fusspot enjoys cramped quarters, and what we now call “minimalism.” But mostly the minimalists have selected a style: big rooms empty except for a few expensive objects. Indoor hollows, undisturbed by children.

Whatever you can afford: you write a cheque. It could be electronic. You get a mortgage from the bank, you can get bank loans for the contents; you don’t have to wait. By increments, you become indentured, to work it off. Your hands stay clean, and it’s good for the economy. Is there a cottage without a wide-screen TV? Perhaps, somewhere. The media follow, wherever you go. Who can argue against “options” that are taken by nine in ten, as a matter of right? Of course, vacationers may bundle into aeroplanes for Florida, instead. And there are other consumer options, to get away from the psychic hellhole of office life, into alternative hellholes for variety. All are lovingly described by the little devils who write advertising copy. We are rich in the poetry of their “choices.”

Yet, there is no shelter. I mean this in more than the material sense, for through this Holy Week we are reminded that the concept extends beyond this world, in which we must die.

These ancestors were riveted to “kirk” and to what we would call their “superstitions”; that is, to a worship quite different from ours for money and the shopped stuff. Imagine seeking shelter in the arms of the Cross!

And yet that is the only place where one may hope to find it.


Today is the hundredth anniversary of the day after the four divisions of the Canadian Corps launched their assault up Vimy Ridge, and stormed to the top, as part of the Battle of Arras in the Great War. This was a task the British and French armies had failed to accomplish. In the national mythology, it was the day we truly became a nation, at the cost of more than ten thousand casualties, including three thousand five hundred and ninety-eight dead; and rather more, I should say, among the Sixth German Army. The engagement was essentially settled in the first light hours of April 9th, which was Easter Monday. The mop-up continued until the 12th, when we took “The Pimple,” silencing the enemy’s last artillery.

One cannot argue with mythology, and I was not arguing with my grandfather, Harry Roy Warren, when he appeared to me in a dream last night. This helped me recall what he had had to say about the whole affair, when he still lived. He said that the gods were with us, in the form of the magnificent British artillery and logistics that lay behind us; the remarkable generalship of the very British “Bungo” Byng, and of our beloved Canadian, Arthur Currie; and most importantly, the sky. After an unusually cold and prolonged winter, it was hurling snow and sleet into the faces of the defenders, who were often shooting blind. But to our farm boys, from across the fair Dominion, it was, if one could overlook the shell-bursts, just like home.

Grandpa was more impressed with the casualties. It was the first in a long string of engagements in which the Canadians were used as shock troops — Hill 70! Amiens! Cambrai! — as the allies broke the German lines, setting stage for the rest of the twentieth century.

“We did our share of the damage,” was his Canadian way of putting it. He recounted his own experience in an understated manuscript entitled, “Up the Line with the Best o’Luck.” Somewhere along that line he ceased calling the enemy “Jerry,” “Heinie Hun,” and “The Bosch,” and started calling them “Bavarians,” and “Germans.” Finally, his heart went out to the poor bastards, in occupation duty. Both he and his flyboy son from the Second instalment of World War raised me with a curious affection for “them”; and a patriotism with no jingo in it.

Grandpa was never a pacifist, nor ever a mythologist. “We did what we had to do.” It was hardly for the sake of making Canada independent, for in his view we were already independent enough. He fought with his horse, and with his band of brothers; for them and for the nursing sisters; for Byng and Currie. Those were real things, and the need to stop the Kaiser was a real thing, too.

But: “It would have been better had the whole damned mess not happened.”

The glory of war belongs finally to the politicians who brought it on, and to their eloquence in appropriating the results. I have an instinctive aversion to wreath-laying speeches by men who weren’t there. My eyes are on the vets.

Grandpa’s finest moment, post-war, was when a troop of young reservists marched by his front lawn at Port Credit; and he an old codger in his eighties. Year of grace, 1977. In the faces of those boys he remembered the faces of the boys with whom he had once marched. With great difficulty, he had dressed himself once again in full uniform for Armistice Day, campaign medals dangling. As they passed, the troop leader called, “Halt!” As one man, they turned to grandpa and saluted. He saluted back.

Yesterday’s news

That was very post-modern, on the part of Trumpf. I call such operations, “experimental bombing.” Choose a bad country in no position to retaliate (Serbia, Taliban Afghanistan, Libya, …) that has got itself unpleasantly into the news, and wing in a few dozen Tomahawks. Though I must say aeroplane strikes are more photogenic. Then see what happens. Perhaps the subject’s behaviour will improve. I suspect surgeons sometimes try this with difficult patients. Bask in praise for your decisiveness, for a few days. You may decide whether to have a war later.

It all starts with emotional pictures, from one of the world’s many “hot spots.” The media rule our minds, including Trumpf’s, judging from his Twitter account. We may like or hate them, trust them or not, but they do have the power to set our agenda.

There have been plenty of horrific pictures from Syria over the last decade or so: ghastly unspeakable crimes committed either by the Assad regime, or by its opponents. The “sarin attacks” on Khan Sheikhoun were exceptionally effective, as media drama. Even those encouraging partial-birth abortion, wince at the sight of babies being slaughtered in gas attacks.

There was a “90 percent chance” it was indeed sarin, and a “90 percent chance” it was Assad’s, and a “90 percent chance” there were no Russians in the way at the Shayrat air base, when it was selected for demolition. Factor a 90 percent chance something technical or unforeseeable does not go badly wrong. This works out to about two chances in three the bombing experiment ends well; three in four it will not end that badly; four in five you won’t hit something you will wish you never touched. Time will tell what time tells in the longer run; usually nothing.

Now, the strike wasn’t only about Syria. It contained “messaging” for Assad, Hezbollah, Iran, Putin, North Korea, and the Chinese gentleman with whom Trumpf was dining at Mar-a-Lago last evening. Ah yes, and the congressional Democrats. All are expected to understand that “America is back” as an active player on the world stage. No more of this Obamanoid shirking. For this purpose, it was rather an eloquent gesture, to remind that messing with America makes a foolish hobby.

Too, it was an organizing measure, showing a formidable corporate skill. The rulers of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia had been through the White House lately; all these Sunni powers are at the point of realizing, with the clarity of the late Anwar Sadat, that Israel is not their real enemy. (“Sunni days” would be the operative Canadian pun.) Too, the Gulf states are certainly onside. We have suddenly a tenable Trumpf coalition of the more-than-willing to return us to the good old days of American superpower prestige in the region, and forward in the rivalry with ayatollaholic Iran.

Speed is its own signal. Surprise counts for more than tactical advantage in military affairs. On the strategic level, it informs your enemies that they may not have time for a correction, should they put a foot wrong. The prospect of a hanging at dawn tomorrow is more effective than the prospect of a possible hanging after a lengthy appeals process.

I don’t have an opinion on what happened yesterday, incidentally. But I did notice it.

War & peace

A century has now passed since President Wilson disowned President Washington’s advice to his successors — to stay out of European conflicts — and war was declared by the United States on Germany. A moral preener, Wilson justified himself by declaring an even more extravagant mission to go with it:

“The world must be made safe for democracy.”

However large, a war is just a war. It should have a beginning and an end. As my old Indian girlfriend explained, “Too much war only leads to peace. Too much peace only leads to war.” As most people prefer peace, most of the time, it is well that war is not a permanent condition. But a war to some idealistic purpose can get very large, and go on for a long time, and morph into conditions which resemble peace, but are not peace. We’ve been making the world safe for democracy for at least a century. By now we have far too much.

Paradoxically, or rather not, this year is also the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. It was greeted with something like relief by much of the war-weary Russian populace. This is because Lenin immediately completed his deal with the Kaiser’s Germany, which had contrived to deliver him safely to the Finland Station. He took Russia out of the war, so Germany could focus on the Western Front; this also allowed Lenin to focus on the annihilation of his Russian adversaries. The addition of America tipped the too-well balanced scales against Germany; but a war-weary Europe soon lost its stomach for dealing with Bolsheviks — and resurgent Turks — in the East. War was over; the massacres never stopped.

Wilson’s idealism was further expressed through his progressive admirers in the dismemberment of the old European order, for his idea of democracy became inextricably mixed with the idea of ethnic nationalism. The maps were redrawn and the ancient Habsburg realm — the Austro-Hungary that had been suing for peace, also since April 1917 — was among the casualties. There and elsewhere, dozens of new jealous nationalisms were spawned. Germany, too, was guided into chaos, and the circumstances from which the Nazi regime emerged; all in the cause of “a new world order.”

In my view, that Great War, that Totaler Krieg, hasn’t ended yet. The old etiquette, that war was for soldiers — that non-combatants should be non-involved — became a thing of nostalgia. Vast conscript armies had been summoned, and would never be fully demobilized. The men I call the “Three Stooges of the Apocalypse” — Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau — clinched at Versailles this new normal. It was not simply the punitive terms that were imposed on the war’s losers, but a more fundamental reorganization of all national and international affairs: “statecraft” became “policy.”

For Wilson was also the pioneer of progressive schemes to change the American way of life. He was, in some sense, a second Washington, consolidating a second American Revolution that had begun more modestly with Lincoln and the Union victory in the Civil War. America would be recreated, along bureaucratic lines, in a tireless campaign for full secularization, under centralized government control. The general mobilization of the First World War, now in America as well as Europe, created a new opportunity, by accustoming men to following orders; by the propaganda that made them identify with huge abstractions.

This is of course an inexhaustible topic, at which I pick away, in my attempts to explain if only to myself what makes our world so different from all preceding. It embraces more than any single force or event. We must also go back to the Prussian invention of the welfare state, and for that matter to the Gatling gun. Post-modernity is an invention of modernity, as modernity was an invention of the Middle Ages. The contemporary revolution has antecedents that may be found in the Enlightenment and in the Reformation. (What will post-modernity beget?)

Totaler Krieg and Totaler Frieden: that is our post-modern age, in which we have lived for a century or more; the age of the monstrous Nanny State, in war but also in peace. It grows ever more “inclusive.”

Demography & destiny chronicles

The world in 2060 will be different from the world today. How it will be different we don’t know yet; but what self-respecting demographer will let it stand at that?

For some reason I cannot fully explain to God, I’ve been glancing through the latest prognostications from Messrs Pew Research. They do “global” better than the other funny-number companies, and have some interest in the religious factors at play. People make a difference, sometimes, and I think being founded by a devout Presbyterian (J. Howard Pew of the Sunoco fortune, 1883–1971) begins to account for this. A graduate of the Shady Side Academy — the preparatory school for Christian plutocrats in Pittsburgh, full of Fricks and Mellons, back in the day before they admitted the “Shady Ladies” — he left five billion to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Add this to his enthusiasm for Liberty, and the Athabasca Tar Sands, and we had a mover and shaker for the lighter shades of grey.

As I will be past my centenary in 2060, I hope to take the developments in stride. Demographic change is not new to this planet, and Christians have been challenged for the lead before. The first odd thing I notice is that the Muslims still will not have caught up. They’ll need the rest of the century for that, at their current pace.

Why, back in my preferred century (the thirteenth), the Christian population was still less than 70 million. This, according to the best pseudo-authorities I have seen; and note it was before the Black Plague. The Muslims must have been ahead of us then, one would think; except they almost certainly weren’t. This is because they were still a minority in many of the populous lands they had conquered. And to this day, I doubt the veracity of many a national census which, typically in Muslim countries, likes generally to inflate population, and counts specifically as Muslim anyone who isn’t explicitly something else. By the same tactics, Canada could be counted as a Catholic country, and 96 percent of Americans are Christian. Let me tell you a few things about Indonesia.

On second thought, let me not.

Based only on longer-term trends in birthrate, deathrate, immigration, emigration, conversions, reversions, and other supposedly quantifiable things, the demographers at Pew tell us what we already know as a media cliché. It is that Islam has been moving ahead by birthrate alone. However, Christians are almost keeping up, with the second-highest birthrate (2.6 per woman compared to 2.9), and making some of the difference back in conversions. The biggest stories, as we ought to know, are in Sub-Saharan Africa and farther Asia; we just look at the West. Hindus will be holding their place in third, and everything else will be proportionately declining, should everything continue as it was from the imaginative baseline of 2015.

Bad news for “nones” and atheists. Their current numbers are much higher than gentle reader might estimate, owing chiefly to the many in China. But there, as everywhere, they don’t breed. They have the world’s lowest birthrates — lower even than Buddhists, and far below replacement levels. Their only real hope is for a fresh spurt of faithlessness thanks to Capitalist and Socialist excess. Who, from information available in 1915, could have predicted the situation in 1960?

While it is not in the latest Pew mega-report, or I didn’t notice it, I think it worth mentioning that the Muslim acceleration dates only from about 1950. It is historically anomalous, and can be explained by several obvious external factors. All trends are reversible, as I like to say.

My bet is they can’t keep it up.

Custody of the emotions

There are a lot of hotheads in this world. Take me, for example. Often I find myself on the horns of a false dilemma. My gut tells me one thing, my brain another. Or rather, they are in rough agreement to start. But then they go different ways. The brain might for instance say, “There is nothing you can do about this, and there is no conceivable influence you may exert on other persons to join with you in doing something, now or in any foreseeable future.” Whereas the gut says, “Kill!”

The heart is somewhere in the middle. I am using these terms in a less than strict anatomical sense, I should explain. I am considering the whole human, in his complexity. This would include the soul. I lose the scientistic materialists along this way, but so it goes. If I wanted to confuse them, I would court plausibility, by using current jargon from brain science. But there is no point. One has a “soul,” and even a “conscience” — harder to lose than any limb or organ, though they go bad more easily. And there are many other things about our human that would look messy in a diagram. But I am not drawing one. I am being, shall we say, impressionistic.

Back to the conflict. The mind is, if anything, too calm. It can construct an argument for inaction in almost any circumstance, and in the exceptions, prefers flight to fight. The gut is more of a wild animal. Calmness is satiety to the gut, and after eating it will go to sleep. When disturbed, however, it goes to fight or flight directly, and the brain is forcefully dragged along. Actual wild animals have better “instincts” than we have, and don’t come to grief so quickly as we do, when we obey ours.

Animals have a bit of moral heart — I have seen them sometimes weighing things — but not such as we have. I have chosen to locate the human forum in what I’ll call the “thinking heart,” to distinguish it from the reflexive valves. It makes those decisions which follow from character, and can make them sharply once that character is properly formed. It is capable of taking the brain’s analysis to committee, and parsing it again. Often it tells the gut to shut up: “I heard you already.”

It has “emotions.” (Good thing I’m not drawing a diagram here.) Its job, in addition to pumping blood, is to legislate on them. Which emotion would be the best idea?

One of the cleverest things C. S. Lewis noted is that a man gets the same feeling in his stomach whether he is in love with a young maiden, or has eaten a tainted fish. I reiterate that we are dealing on a level different from, and higher than, that of physical reaction. The human being has tremendous emotional and aesthetic range. By comparison, his body is stupid. And when the brain is roller-chained to the gut, he presents a farce.

The purpose of education, through more centuries than one could shake a stick at, was to build character. This was why it was not confused with school. And at the centre of things we recognized the human heart. Mens sana in corpore sano is all very well if one is speaking in Latin and thinking in Greek; but as post-pagans know, this is a dodge. Neither is completely within our control. More fundamental to us is the character of the heart, for even the man who is losing his mind will retain splashes of character.

That is the key thing to educate. If necessary, one must embark upon self-education.

For in the end, knowledge is worthless. And being smart is no particular advantage. It is like your stamp collection: you can’t take it with you. Everything you know will be as straw.