Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

On national unity

Women are always in the right. Men are always in the wrong. This is the basic tenet of feminism, and the theory behind modern family law. It is justified by empirical research, in which it has been found that, indeed, women are often abused.

Similar conclusions have been reached on questions of race, ethnicity, economic class, linguistic preference, religious affiliation or non-affiliation, immigrant status, et cetera — and the laws adjusted to reflect the latest discoveries of “human rights.” The intention is to achieve “equality.”

Employees are always in the right. Employers are always in the wrong. Surely everyone knows this. In particular, employers are wrong to expect people, other than themselves, to work, in the time before a social wage can be established, by the agencies of the State, to end this oppression.

Tenants are always in the right. Landlords are always in the wrong. More generally, creditors must defer to debtors. The principle is expounded on posters around Parkdale, which call persistently for rent strikes. How dare the landlords impose their gratuitous fees on persons who would otherwise be “homeless”?

Now, I have exaggerated a little. Many of the old laws remain on the books, and the police still do (selectively) enforce them. They have been given “sensitivity training,” however, lest they enforce with too much zeal, matters of no grave importance. They recognize that the only real crime is to possess the means of self-defence.

Moreover, it is possible I misrepresent the State. It may seem to have a radical policy agenda, when in fact it is content with absolute power.

We have a democracy, after all. Tenants have more votes than landlords. In every big city the politicians of the Left have rivalries, but only with each other. “Affordable housing” is in every manifesto; and “equality” on their every lip. The odd “Conservative” who gets himself elected has successfully demonstrated that he is really a “Progressive.” Or he has found a new constituency of whiners, usually among the denizens of the suburbs — where there may be a plurality of home-owners.

Home-owners are an inconvenience. They tend to engender biological families. These have always been a challenge to the State, especially when inflamed with religious beliefs. Their loyalty to the State falls short of absoluteness.

Democracy is built on, “Us versus Them.” Parties represent the contending interests. As Thomas Aquinas noticed, democracy is naturally divisive. As he didn’t, because it hadn’t happened yet, it is a means to advance the cause of violent revolution, peacefully. It is a way for the counter-revolutionary elements to negotiate their surrender, in a piecemeal fashion. As the Leninists used to say, the bourgeosie have rights. Specifically, “they have the right to become extinct.”

Out in the country, it should be said for balance, the shoe is still sometimes on the other foot. But the cities, or conurbations, grow, and rural populations are in decline, the world over. Technology has made this possible. In this sense it is the guarantor of progress.

And yet, advanced technology is not strictly necessary to create a Cuba, a Nicaragua, a Venezuela. A monopoly of arms is sufficient. Technology is there at best to create a China: a modern, centralized Surveillance State in which the proles get food, clothing, shelter — on the one condition that they keep their mouths shut. The Maoists began by killing tens of millions. These days obedience is secured by killing a few dozen, here and there. And prison camps work just as well.

Democracy works the other way around. The Surveillance State can be built without terror. The Internet provides all it can require, and its users volunteer information on themselves, in return for their economic treats. The mega-corporation and the mega-state gradually coalesce. It remains to be seen whether the Amazon method, or the Politburo method, will prove more durable.

For “national unity” was the object all along.

Naipaul

“Sir Vidia” is dead, at the age of eighty-five: one less magnificently cranky old man. To one of twenty years less, he has been around forever. I thought he might be a hundred by now; apparently time moves more slowly. The obituaries are long and plentiful, in the British press, which excels in that genre. Their profiles of the living also read like obits. Too, they do “rude” more elegantly than we know how, here in the Americas.

To my mind, he was among the greatest journalists in English. He wrote novels, too; indeed started with them, and his earlier novels won many awards. They were calculated to do that, in their place and time. Naipaul cashed in on Trinidad, brusque and curmudgeonly beneath a glittering comic surface. His career worked backwards, starting where most writers end. Each novel I started seemed a kind of memoir; an accounting for loss. I never finished one; not even A House for Mr Biswas. (I count A Bend in the River, with its African setting, as not really a novel.) Sometimes I got as far as page fifty, before admiring the developing structure, and deciding that I could see where it was going. In the ’sixties, the literati wanted to hear the Third World speaking. He gave them a little more than they wanted, but he filled the order.

Later he moved beyond these “memoirs,” and became a focused journalist, writing pointedly about other people, with his trademarked motto, “The world is what it is.” I think his books on his ancestral India, and on the world of Islam, are unquestionably his best. They are journalism; they are not “travel books.” With tremendous energy, and unfailing curiosity, he travelled and observed. I got easily to the end of his epic, India: A Million Mutinies Now, of Among the Believers, and Beyond Reason — his later and most mature accounts of realms with which I was familiar. I remain in awe of the enterprise of his reporting. I cannot think of better preludes to the refugee world that we live in now.

He was a fine “racist,” in the best sense. He presented the spirit of failure, that animated post-colonial life in so many newly independent states, while capturing the flavour of each. He did this without exculpating, but also without demonizing, the old colonial powers. His accounts of Pakistan (country of my early childhood) and of other Muslim polities tells truths that other visitors cautiously avoid. Yet all he does is describe what is before him, with the sharpness that requires artistic genius.

Thanks largely to the deletion of history from the Western public mind, and its replacement with leftist gibberish and hogwash, there is little appreciation today for what journalism has been, or could be. It is a “first draught of history,” to be sure, but to deliver this it must free itself from “theory,” and try to depict what is really going on. The J-school emphases on the factitious lead us farther and farther away. Naipaul gives us a return to the methods of the eighteenth century, when the essay and prose fiction had not yet been surgically separated; when fruitful exchange between the general and the particular had not yet been disallowed; before imaginative powers had been foresworn on the side of the reporters. For this alone, he would be invaluable: for the example of a journalist using his whole mind, and not only the desiccated bits.

He was a truth-teller, even about himself. His account, in interviews for his authorized biography, of the history of his relations with women, has that ring we associate with the dentist’s drill. It is bravely candid. Naipaul reveals himself as a ruthless man devoted exclusively to his trade, who uses all those most closely around him, and abuses their loyalty. He admits to having been “a shit” of the first water, and his refusal to excuse himself was taken by many as proof that he never cared. But again: he would not deviate from the truth, nor refuse his penitential lumps for it.

Another irreplaceable man, for the overpopulated graves.

Death by technology

A commenter and queryist on yesterday’s effusion makes the brilliant and original suggestion that technological progress is inevitable. (Droll alert.) It makes no sense to resist, he says. With some background in the printing trade, he averred that the replacement of hot lead with cold film, in the world of half-a-century ago, entailed such large savings of time, money, and clatter, that only fools hesitated to buy in. (He overlooks the overheads.) Ditto the next revolution, less than a generation later, from film to digital, in which the newly-acquired skills of the paste-up artists followed those of the metal typesetters out the window. What use are skills that have been obviated? What use are Luddites?

In the case I cited, he fully missed my point. Yes, the revolution was happening, and soon great masses of heavy metal would be melted down as scrap. But why should we be in the forefront of that revolution? The New York Times, of all grey ladies, would not make the changeover until 1978. (There is a lovely documentary in the Internet somewhere, on the last day of the linotype machines in the Times composing room.) The little Bangkok World was rushing in where angels fear to type, in 1970. Why not take our time, and get it right? Let others who enjoy such things experience all the pain of pioneering. We can do our buying into the new machinery after the stupidest mistakes have all been made, rather than be among the first to make them. At least be conservative.

By some chance I know more about typography than printing, and have done since childhood. The first thing I noticed during the typesetting revolution was that all standards in typography had been relaxed, to accommodate the new procedures. To this day, cut metal type remains normative: it allowed human precision in the cutting, the font size gradations, the kernings and spacings, that computer algorithms can only approximate, having nothing to match the aesthetic faculties of the human eye and hands. The sublime beauty in the slight irregularities of craft production cannot be delivered by programmed machines; it can only be faked. Thus we “advance” by increments — not only in print — from the hard, unforgiving art that assists our rise to Heaven, into the soft homogeny of computer simulation.

Then followed the new slapdash sparkly effects, in both typography and writing. The notion of fussing over quality had lapsed.

Yet all this aside, we have the issue of whig-historical rush, in itself. Why, when the mythopoeic lemmings are rushing, ever quicker to the cliff, should we struggle to outpace them? Why not play the wise tortoises, instead? For as my son, the electronic engineer, tells me, they are the Luddites who force all the genuine improvements. Verily: why not experiment with moving the other way?

Granted, the “market” shrinks in that direction — where we find that the great plurality of the lemming-men have “moved on.” But still, we might enjoy the open spaces. They used to be so crowded.

To the point: why should human beings, created by God in His own image, agree to form such herds? Why should we emulate dumb animals in migration? (The actual animals have reliable signals, and every intention to return.) God made men to be Artists, like Him; to be “co-creators.” Each was endowed with his unique talents, and most, the time to discover and cultivate them. Each has his place in the mysterious, whole, Body of Christ. We aren’t interchangeable.

I will admit this thinking is counter-cultural, as well as uneconomic. More, it is philosophical; we stop to ponder as the herd rushes by. It is true that we will die, just like all the others. But the instruction from our Maker was to choose life.

Chronicles of defunction

Once upon a time, when I was younger (seventeen), I became interested in a specialized area of economics. This was, why companies fail. The math was of no interest to me; it was the human side of defunction that aroused my curiosity. This was because I was working for a small, but humanly sprawling daily newspaper called the Bangkok World, that was never going to make a significant profit, but had limped along for thirteen years and could, to my mind, have limped along forever. Unfortunately, the management got Big Ideas. Within six months of acting upon them, the paper was dead. (The title was sold to its inferior competitor, which fired everyone in the subsequent “merger.”)

The big idea was to take in American investors who would replace the backward (hand-set hot metal) composing and printing equipment with spanking-new state-of-the-art photo-offset technology (then in its incoherent infancy), flown across the Pacific Ocean. A hyper-professional MBA-styled managing director was also flown in: a nice man who’d never been to Thailand, never seen a similar publishing operation, and spent his short tenure learning elementary things before fleeing back Stateside.

I have been reminded of all this by reading a memoir by the paper’s then-editor, a certain Denis Horgan, a young ex-serviceman who had arrived in the job on a train of accidents. Naturally, everything took him by surprise. His account of “the end of The World” was quite affecting. A liberal, progressive soul (but with a lovable regard for quaintness), I think he has yet to guess what hit him.

Through the half-century since, I have been privy to essentially the same scene repeated, many times. A small company is doing passable work in a small market, adapting to the requirements for survival through trial, error, and multi-dimensional collusion. There is a hierarchy within that has developed organically and bears no relation to any organizational chart. Everything works at a low but constant level of efficiency. In my example, the newspaper did come out every day, in fact twice a day, morning and evening. And for all its eccentricities, it was beloved by its few thousand readers. Had the flown-ins spent their whole time drinking iced Mekong in the noodle shop across the street, making themselves too blotto to move, all would have been well.

Alas, they had the Big Idea. Too, they were exemplars of temperance — workaholic instead, and probably incorruptible, in that sterile, short-sleeve, Puritan way. This is of the essence of liberalism and progress. It is a matter of stolid conviction, in opposition to all human experience. Everything is done consciously, nothing by instinct. Statistics are gratuitously gathered, and constantly reviewed. Everything must be managed, to the end of eliminating anything that smacks of a living tradition, spontaneity, or morale.

The (ancient) Greeks, who knew a thing or two about tyranny, felt that no decision should be made until it had become unavoidable, by when it would have been discussed, in a leisurely and therefore thorough way, sometimes drunk and sometimes sober. If the same conclusion is reached by both methods — by the coffee method and by the whisky method, as it were — then, and only then, should we dare proceed.

Meanwhile: “live and let live.”

In my example, a company that was barely meeting its payroll, but somehow meeting it every month, took on a tremendous load of unrepayable, indeed unserviceable debt, which promptly sank it. The paper would probably be alive today if, instead of “investing” in a white elephant, they had bought a couple of second-hand linotype machines, to speed up the composing room a bit, and put the big-idea men back on an aeroplane. (Preferably in the hold.)

My memories involve intense affection. The Bangkok World was the best little newspaper imaginable, for its time and place. It was overstaffed with talented, mostly very young people, of innumerable nationalities. No one was paid well, nor should have been. It was a glorious place to work. All such institutions should be left alone.

On killing people, cont.

In one of his enchanting letters of travel, the English convert to Islam, Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936), defends the Oriental practice of casually killing people. He tells the tale of a bag of lentils, purchased in the market at Damascus by his host, Rashid, and left unattended just inside the door of a modest lodging. In a corner, on a heap of cushions, Marmaduke is trying to sleep off the midday heat.

A gentleman of eccentric dress and turban — which is to say, a gypsy — notices the bag and steps inside to take it. While he looks about for other spoil, Marmaduke stirs, and asks the man what is his business. The gypsy flees, disappearing into the city crowds.

Rashid returns, and Marmaduke tells him what happened.

“What?” Rashid exclaims. “The man stole our bag of lentils, and you watched him do it? And you had a good revolver at hand, and did not use it?”

“Why should I shoot a man for such a trifle?”

The debate between them continues on the stools of a coffee vendor across the street. All the idlers gathered there agree with Rashid. The thief should have been shot. Marmaduke, then young and still fairly English, insists that it was “just a bag of lentils.” He stands corrected: that is not the point. The man did something wicked. What if, encouraged by his escape, he goes on to steal a bag of lentils from a poor man who owns nothing else? One must be practical about these things. What kind of world will we live in, if thieves are not shot on the spot?

The “Franks” (Europeans) are criticized for their habit of encouraging both the good and the wicked, indifferently. They are condemned for their lack of religion.

Finally, an old bearded gentleman, venerated for his learning and wisdom, sums up the case. He is gentle and indulgent with this foolish young Englishman, but feels he must speak plainly.

“The Franks have lost belief in Allah and the life to come. They deem this fleeting life the only one vouchsafed to man, and death the worst catastrophe that can befall him. When they kill a man they think they have destroyed him quite. But when we kill a man, we know it is not the end. Both killed and killer will be judged by the One who knows the secrets of men’s hearts. The man who is killed is not deprived of hope.”

It was worse than that for the Franks, in the old man’s estimation:

“For us, death is an incident in life; for them, it is the end of the story. They have no idea of sacrifice. They can only imagine killing a man out of hatred.”

He goes on to explain how, for instance, it is necessary sometimes for a ruler to kill all his brothers and closest friends, lest later they conspire against him and disturb the peace. He doesn’t want to kill them: they are after all the beloved companions of his childhood and youth. His sympathies are entirely with them. But he mustn’t be sentimental. He kills them all for the public good, and they, if they are at all manly, meet their deaths with fortitude and understanding.

I would not go so far. Perhaps I am too soft. But in recent discussions about the death penalty, I take this Mussulman argument to heart. We must shake off the atheist notion — now prevalent even in Rome — that death is simply The End. For truly, we shall all die, and when we do we will learn that it is more like The Beginning.

Crime without punishment

What is the difference between an “old-fashioned” liberal and a “modern,” or “post-modern” one? I have thought about this question much, over the years, as I have myself migrated towards what are called “reactionary” positions on most subjects, beginning I think with poetry and art but gradually encompassing politics and religion. So far must I have wandered, that I cannot account for many of my youthful views. They strike me as having been not so much wrong, as they were asinine. Yet looking back I see that I was never a hard-boiled progressive. Rather, a liberal like my father and grandfather: what would count as a libertarian today, and traditionalist in manners and morals.

The two things went together. A man (and a woman, to be clear) must take personal responsibility. It is not for “guvmint” or “society” to meticulously regulate his thought, speech, or behaviour. A man, particularly, must adopt a trade, make a living, marry once at most, support a household, raise children to be upright, kindly, and responsible. He must also be ready at all times to lay down his life when it is asked of him in a valid cause. (Both papa and grandpa volunteered in the World Wars.) He is answerable to legitimate authority with respect to laws, modelled essentially on the Ten Commandments. If he is accused of crimes, he should be fairly tried, and if found guilty, punished — from fines for minor traffic violations, to the death sentence for wilful murder.

But in everyday life, where there was little crime, and houses did not need to be locked, prudence ruled. Whatever you intended to do, you first thought through the likely consequences. And if there were unpleasant consequences to be faced, you faced them. Views might vary between religious sects, on this overwhelmingly Protestant continent, but without doubt, there was God, and one of His attributes was Justice. Moreover, “God is in the details,” as my father (not a church-goer) often told me. “Go with God,” he always said on departure. (He died with a Saint Benedict crucifix in his hands.) Until quite late in life, he continued to vote Liberal.

When you see real injustice, you make a stand. When you see crime, you intervene to stop it. When you see human suffering, you do what you can to alleviate it; or even animal suffering, for that matter. Your duty is to be harmlessly benign, and in all transactions, honest and reliable. Nor were these considered heroic virtues. They were duties incumbent upon all.

All of this became “dated,” as I grew older. My first shocking discovery about the “modern” liberal is, that while he might give lip-service still to some “antiquated” ideals, and gratuitously pose as virtuous, his first instinct when faced with serious responsibility was to cut and run.

My second was to find that he was now brainwashed by ideologies and slogans; that it was impossible to argue with him from reason or fact; that faced with any difficulty he would present himself as the helpless victim of forces he would not even try to define coherently.

My third was the discovery that he was now, instinctively, on the side of the criminal; that he identified with the lawless; that he admired “the transgressive,” trespass, violation. Without acknowledging it to himself, he now had a conception of “human rights” which consistently excused the wrongdoer, and consistently ignored the consequences to those who had done nothing wrong.

This “modern” liberalism, I came to understand, was the development — not over months and years but over centuries — of a mortal flaw in the “classical” liberal worldview. It was avoiding God. The liberal mind was persuaded that humans must “make their own beds.” Its great strength was that it took responsibility; its great weakness was that it had no reason to do so. Faith and reason are mutually dependent; when one goes the other eventually goes, too.

Or put this another way: the Devil gets in when we make room for him.

Over at Catholic Thing, my piece today (here), is about the latest outrage from that very “modern” liberal, Pope Francis: he has now taken it upon himself to begin rewriting the Catechism of the Catholic Church — to change not merely words, but doctrine.

It has been an extraordinarily bad week for Catholics, with major revelations of the profound corruption in our hierarchy: by no coincidence, almost entirely among the most outwardly “liberal” of them. I invite gentle reader to read that column, in light of what I have written above.

On fake news

I don’t do “breaking news” in this website. I mention this in boilerplate reply to those kindly readers who continue to supply me with news tips on the latest outrages — unreported, not accurately reported, or not adequately presented in conventional news media. I am more a former journalist than a present one, but from experience I know that, to do the job properly (“without fear or favour”) takes detailed, and usually expensive, mostly thankless work. By omission of this plodding we spread rumours instead, which is wrong even if many of the rumours might be true. You can’t take “maybe” to the Confessional.

Worse it is, when the bias is carefully managed, and the hearsay is almost certainly untrue. As a long-time consumer of “the news,” familiar with how it is generated, I am more and more appalled. I have elementary “editor’s questions” for almost everything I read on Internet sites, and what I see in print is seldom any better. This applies to all sides of every contested issue; though it is obvious that the bias runs Lefterly, to an overwhelming degree. One comes to believe only what one has seen with one’s own eyes, and that is necessarily little.

It is a matter to regret, that in a country the size of Canada, or one the size of the Natted States, there is no market large enough to sustain even one reliable news agency. That is to say: even one that stakes its reputation on methodical checking of fact, unhurried collocation, and dispassionate articulation; which consistently eschews emotion and sensation. Nor, if such a thing briefly existed, would it be likely to survive long. It would require heroic vigil, against efforts to subvert it. Scrupulous editors would, for instance, never hire any graduate of a journalism school, or with a commonplace humanities degree. They would rather employ strictly specialized correspondents, with genuine expertise, writing within carefully delineated “beats”; whose honesty is above suspicion. They would grant the space that is required to report significant matters thoroughly. Which is to say, something like the remarkable Swiss daily, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, used to be. (I think it was the last to crack up, in the 1970s.)

Even in the past, there were few newspapers or news agencies like this; and going back to the sixteenth century (the Fugger newsletters and the like), the few that have existed were invariably “business” papers, cultivating a readership of traders and investors who “needed to know” what was actually happening, far afield, because they had money on the line. But in a modern economy dominated by the capitalism of hype and fashion trends, such businessmen no longer exist. Money is risked, but no market or currency is stable. One reads the media only to know which way the wind is blowing.

At the moment I sit on at least five Toronto-based “stories,” about which I cannot write. But in each case I am aware that the accounts from all “mainstream” media are seriously incomplete, and on crucial points, wrong. I don’t know anything resembling the whole truth in any of these cases (hence my reticence to weigh in). I do know that I, and all other news consumers, are being misled, both intentionally and unintentionally. Scratch any surface and I find an “agenda.”

The fault lies largely with us. We are easily angered, but we are not curious. We grasp at what straws are offered, and if they fit our preconceived views, we are content to repeat the half and full lies. We choose news sources to suit our preconceptions: to provide ourselves with the emotional comfort of being told what we already know and expect. The news outlets don’t dare to contradict us; they make their money on our credulity.