Essays in Idleness


Decide, comrade

“What is to be done?” asked Lenin rhetorically, to himself before the crowds, in the grand tradition of Russian revolutionism. Those with some slight knowledge of history (a tiny diminishing minority today) will have from the history of the Soviet Union his approximate answer. It was revolutionary terror. Marx had said that communism was inevitable. A Fukuyama ahead of his time, he thought it was the End of History. But as the times continued too slow, Lenin thought to speed them up a bit. Even in this 21st century we continue trying to end it all. One is on the right side of history, or the wrong side, as the late Trotskyite, Christopher Hitchens, liked to declare. He thought George W. Bush was on the right side of it. I wonder what he thinks now.

The notion that we should “do something,” collectively, led by a vanguard of the self-advancing elite, is not confined to the Left. Reading Georges Bernanos, I was apprised of what Franco and company were doing in Majorca, during and then after the Spanish Civil War. The island was exceptionally apolitical, its inhabitants indifferent to who was winning the battles, either by blood or by toil. A droll population. There were not more than one hundred Communists and Anarchists in the Balearic archipelago, according to one unreliable estimate. (All estimates are unreliable.) The Falange had to create a few more, when they ran out of people to slaughter.

Generally, civil fanatics are created by their enemies. Of course, until they are created, they don’t know who their enemies are. But should they finally link their suffering, real or imagined, to those who are causing it (see Venezuela today), they want to do something about it. We have the pendulum swing of events, in which the glass is successively shattered on both sides of the street. This is almost a force of physics. Once the pendulum is in motion, holy friction — of the air, and of the chains rubbing — gradually slows it down. As an Indian girlfriend once explained: “Too much peace only leads to war. Too much war only leads to peace.” She had a better understanding of history than Lenin.

Bernanos I mentioned not as a civil, but as a religious fanatic. Most of his novels feature (apparently ineffectual) priests. They do nothing, or very little beyond what is their duty, day by day; then (for instance) die of stomach cancer, uttering: Tout est grâce.

“Grace is everywhere.” … Even in the prison camps of history, as we learn from the best literary sources; and on the scaffolds. Too, it is in less obvious places, such as our supermarkets. One must develop the ability to see it against the disgusting background that Bernanos also described — though with the subtlety of a great master. One is cured of this blindness also by grace, from the moment one decides to receive it.

Which leaves the question, What is to be done?

Decide, comrade.

Has gentle reader ever witnessed, by happenstance, an act of kindliness? By this I mean an authentic act, that seeks no reward; an act unintended as an example to others, as “a teachable moment,” or to win public praise? Perhaps even something the recipient will not recognize as kind, until his benefactor is well out of sight? Or done without his knowledge.

It is the most radical thing I can currently imagine.

Strange but true

There is a man named Sam Brownback (I kid you not) who is the United States Ambassador to Religious Freedom (which I am unable to find on a map). Leaving this aside, I am happy to inform gentle reader that, as far as I know, he is a good and honest man, which is an unusual thing in diplomatic circles. Anyone formerly the Secretary for Agriculture in Kansas I assume will have the down-home virtues. But I’ve heard other good things about him. As Governor of that fair state (elected then re-elected) he made himself viscerally hated not only by Democrats, but by all liberal and progressive Republicans, radically cutting not only state taxes but spending on their various statist schemes. And then he refused to retreat when they spread politically-correct lies about him, his policies and his record, with the active cooperation of the media. How to endure an adversary who can’t be manipulated or intimidated?

This is the most we can hope in a rightwing politician — guts — and they are still on display. Brownback is now in the news for a speech he gave at the Hong Kong press club, detailing what is happening to Catholics under the still professedly Communist Peking regime. They are being persecuted, their churches demolished, their children orphaned and brainwashed, their own hierarchy systematically infiltrated by Communist agents, all with the permission and cooperation of men in Rome who, as Cardinal Zen — still among the most impressive and courageous living bishops of our Church — says must have come “from another planet.”

The recent Sino-Vatican Accord was a surrender. Among many other things it instructs members of the underground church in China to out themselves to the authorities, tells their priests to register with the mortal enemy, gives to the “official” church (a front for the Chinese state) the standing within the Roman to advance their anti-Christian subversion all over the globe. And, none of this is subtle.

Liars and press officers in the Vatican bureaucracy say that as a result of the Accord, the Communists are now going easier on the Catholics. But as Brownback and many others have reported, their campaign against these Christian faithful has actually stepped up since the Vatican sold them out.

Sam Brownback is a Trump appointee, however, as the progressive types eagerly point out. He is not Red, but Red State. They, who excuse moral monsters from Xi Jinping to Nicolas Maduro, faced with an opinionated Brownback, fall into apoplectic rages.

To me, standing harmlessly on the sidelines, it says something, that Trump and his administration are more reliably Catholic than Bergoglio and his. The latter has Cardinal Filoni, “ambassador for evangelization,” as it were, touring the planet to sell the Sino-Vatican deal. I do not think it possible that a man of Filoni’s background and eminence can be so ill-informed. He is “only following orders,” as they said at Nuremberg.

Filoni says this deal will be a good thing in the future, implying the admission it is a bad thing now. He should also know that the future is unknowable, by men. Perhaps he will prove right: that the Vatican-approved torment of China’s longsuffering Catholics will lead paradoxically to some unforeseeable good. But meanwhile, I am inclined to condemn, with horrified outrage, a grave and present evil, of just the sort we must expect when our own shepherds cut deals with the wolves.

On heroic obedience

I will tell you a secret about Canada, but you must promise never to tell another living soul. We are secretly quite sane. We do a good job of hiding it, lest anyone notice and start asking us to assume adult responsibilities; for instance, we elected Justin Trudeau. But when no one seems to be looking, we do the right, or at least the practical thing. Then pretend it isn’t happening. Publicly, we may do something quite visibly insane, but just for a distraction. The Justin lad was good for that purpose. But then we act just as if we hadn’t done that, either. We have mastered the art of ignoring cause and effect. But privately, we can still tell most hawks from most handsaws.

Even here in beautiful downtown Parkdale — where everyone might live, if they didn’t overvalue their lives — I have met sane Canadians. They understand that, for instance, if the price of something is two dollars, and you have only one, you can’t buy it. Nor is there much point in pleading. You’ll have to borrow the other “loonie” (what we actually call our fairly worthless national currency). This will create some bother, so you might as well get a job. The general principle is to get away with anything you can, until the game is up. But then, instead of starting a revolution, get on with your life. In chess terms, all that we require is to recognize checkmate.

There may be foreigners who understand these things, but I’m sticking to the people I know. Even in this new epoch of social media, demand-making has limits. The Olde English concept of “fair cop,” where you stick up your hands and go quietly with the policeman, instead of trying to steal his gun and shoot him, is deeply implanted in the Canadian soul. (Like I say, I’m not going to speak for Americans.)

The trick, as all Leftists have ever understood, is to engineer a fait accompli. Give them no choice, and they’ll choose what you want them to, every time. This is how “democracy” functions. From non-smoking regulations, to single-payer medicare, just say we voted on it; even though we didn’t. People will even pay taxes voluntarily, if they can’t see a way to avoid them. I’ve seen them pay trolley fares on this principle; when the machines are broken, they stop. (Happily for us, the machines on Toronto trolleys are usually broken. Otherwise, we might switch to taxis.) This is sane behaviour.

Your average primitive in, say, the mountains of New Guinea or the backwaters of the Amazon — with, say, a spear and a bone in his nose — is also quite sane. He reacts to stimuli different from those we react to, and probably never rides transit, but when a threat appears, he knows what to do. I’ve heard a lot of smears against primitive people. But one must learn to look at things from their point-of-view, before passing judgement on their peculiar mannerisms.

Civilization (remember that?) is not built on sanity, after all. It is built on obligation and duty and habit. One gets so used to doing things in a civilized way, one doesn’t think twice about it. Class comes into this. As a member of the Middle Class, for instance, there is a whole world of “options” beyond one’s wildest imagination. But staying in the Middle Class trumps them all.

You don’t have to be sane to observe Lent, don’t y’know. You just have to be obedient. Forget the arguments for it; just do as the millions around you are doing. Or a little more, if you’re feeling like a hero; thus presenting your obedience to a higher command.

The millions around you are not observing Lent?

Bit of a problem, that, I’ll admit. You’ll just have to be a hero.

The freedom of Lent

One should be careful with the word “freedom.” It is full of mischief. Is it freedom for? or freedom from? or the freedom that is the opposite of freedom, adored by our progressives, who use old words with nice associations whose meanings they have gratuitously inverted.

If you hear a word like “tolerance,” run for your life (often it is used with the qualifier, “zero”). “Diversity” means punishment for those who deviate from the current party line. “Racism” announces an attack on white people; “sexism,” an attack on males; “gendered” means de-sexed. A “homophobe” is a person who disregards the demands of ruthless, aggressive, homosexual activists; and likewise, an “Islamophobe” disregards their Mussulman equivalents. Freedom, in each case, is identified with slavery; as war with peace; and among the “radicals” who populate our universities (the opposite of radicals because they are incapable of thinking anything through), ignorance is strength. Take almost anything coming from the mouth of, say, a “feminist,” or a “socialist,” and one may be reasonably confident that the opposite is true.

But gentle reader probably knows this already; and will know from experience if he is “on the far right” (i.e. endowed with sane judgement, moderation, and candour), that freedom is something that gets you in trouble, and therefore ought not to be casually indulged. It is a “human right,” but has become the freedom to be mobbed and persecuted by savage political hyenas.

Whereas, my idea of freedom is old-fashioned. Had I been around in the age of the great weasel (Eleanor Roosevelt), I would have been among those who ineffectually opposed her use of such phrases as “freedom from hunger.” From the founding documents of the United Nations, the list grows of “freedoms from” to justify bureaucratic intervention in every aspect of normal private life. Indeed, what I call Twisted Nanny State (the collective matrix of regulation) goes back to Bismarck, and to tyrants long before; though the inversion of evils to goods, and goods to evils, is a product of the modern imagination, detached as it has become from common sense and reason. It will recognize nothing holy: as of intrinsic value, divine and untouchable by the dirty hands of men.

The “freedom from” we need involves poverty, and abstinence from mad earthly schemes. It requires us to live not in a progressive, but in a timeless space, working for what one can know will be good at several complementary levels, but shy of all material ambitions and public awards. Confucius in his “Book of Songs” quotes an ancient Chinese lamentation (Waley’s translation):

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You will only make yourself dusty.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only make yourself wretched.

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You won’t be able to see for dust.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
Or you will never escape from your despair.

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You’ll be stifled with dust.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only load yourself with care.

Contra mundum

This item brought forward and subtly amended from only three years ago. (I’ve been looking through old Idleposts, and am utterly appalled.) I think I may be doing this a lot through Lent: revising old items that seem topical again; trying to fix them.


“Flapjack Tuesday” has been a day for maple syrup, these last few centuries in the Canadas, up here. “Mardi Gras,” or “Shrove Tuesday” — the last day, before Lent — is assumed to require some exuberance. The pancakes were, by tradition, made to use up household supplies of eggs, milk, butter; last year’s syrup; and other non-Lenten things. Sausages come to mind; and alcohol.

Dairy was going off the menu, should the point not yet be twigged. “Abstinence,” to our Catholic ancestors, was more like what we’d call a hard fast; a “fast” was total. In these northern climes, Lent fell conveniently towards the end of the winter — when we were running out of everything, anyway. And the contrast, the vivid truth in the notion, “Drink, for tomorrow we die!” — is lost on this age, with neither feasts nor fasts, but blueberries from Chile. Our days and weeks and years go by in one continuous upbeat blur, until each, alone, comes to his disaster. Death has been homogenized. But it is still served cold.

At the Quebec winter carnival, they still wear sometimes the old ceintures fléchées — the colourful woollen “arrow sashes,” in memory of the Habitants, long gone under the asphalt of Mammon. It was worn by men of all classes, in styles by region, not by rank: Charlevoix, L’Assomption, Acadienne. It pulled one’s coat together, against the bitter cold. It stiffened one’s back for heavy labour. The ladies made them for their men: in bright gorgeous patterns, by a method of finger weaving the Indians had taught them.

Knot it tightly to one side, and know that you are loved!

But they are ours to remember, who understood Ash Wednesday. Who knelt so timid before the Cross; and waited so humbly to be shriven; the women with their clutches of young, the burly men with caps in their hands. Ours to remember them that prayed, and I believe pray still, for the wayward children of children of children, riding the asphalt.

Today, the Church for our weakness asks little. (The State demands more, far more.) And now I have grown so old (past sixty!) that I am canonically exempted from any penitential diet.

Little is expected of anyone. A friend, who became convinced of Roman ecclesial claims, “after a life on the lam from Jesus,” complains: too little. “Please turn up for Mass sometimes, and drop a fiver in the basket.” And in return, a smileyface heaven will be yours to share, with the pornographers and the psychos, because “everyone is beautiful in their own way.”

To be shriven is to make one’s Confession, be assigned one’s Penance. Then to be Absolved, in the name of Christ. To be freed of the weight of one’s sins. People who have wrestled with their souls in darkness, and dwelt in anguish under Hell’s weight, today are most likely to receive in their churches a quick collective gumdrop mercy. Heavily they come, and sadly walk away.

The churches (Protestant and Catholic alike) emptied out when they ceased to expect much of people. They were full, back when they made demands, of those whose lives were materially more demanding than ours have ever been — pitted, as once, directly against nature. And the churches will start filling again, when the demands resume. For I will tell gentle reader a great secret I have learnt from a long course of empirical observation. All men need Christ.

They do not come to Him as an option. A tiny few seem almost born into His arms; many more come because they are defeated, and all “options” have expired. But those do not come to have their heads patted.

Bind them with the sash, with the ceinture fléchée! With the toughest Love, against the winter storm. Inflame their hearts for the battle, and set their minds to Victory: against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

A rant for Saint David’s Day

The distinction between how things look, and how things are, was the subject of my column today in Catholic Thing (here). With my accustomed modesty, I began by dismissing all literature, art, music, et cetera, that is not “visionary” in some sense I did not adequately define. Then I proceeded through rhetorical hoops to the conclusion that the same pertains to worship — omitting the thick square book that could have intervened, for I had not the time to write it yesterday morning. The column should of course, like most of my writings, be read backwards. (Some are meant to be read sideways.) The point I was making was itself quite backward.

The foreground question, that has been disturbing me for some time, and obsessing me lately, is whether what we call for shorthand “Western Civ” is salvageable. That it would be worth salvaging (we live in the age of gerunds, don’t we?) I take for granted. We are alive; we have to live somehow; better that it be in the highest of civilizations, than in barbarous filth. Not everyone agrees with me on this. The great majority, even within my Church, would prefer to live in a moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual pigsty of consumerism, in which the swineherds are provided by Twisted Nanny State.

Now traditionally, pigs had extended sharp tusks, and were death on swineherds. They still have them, but diminished in size by breeding, and sometimes even the wee vestigial bumps are removed, at the risk of cracking our jaws. This does not mean the captive suid is perfectly contented; only that he has been disarmed.

(I have a theory that humans are descended from pigs, not monkeys. I don’t actually believe it, but the argument can be developed in a way that will drive the village Darwinist crazy. Note: the average pig is smarter than a monkey; and can’t be bothered climbing trees.)

But I seem to be distracting myself into zoology, and my purpose was hardly to advance naturalism. Indeed, my self-assigned brief is for supernaturalism. My affection for pigs is just an aside. In the end it must be said there has never been a pig civilization, and the prospect that one may emerge by the ministrations of animal rights activists is, to my mind, dim.

Nor has there been a human civilization without unambiguously religious foundations. There can be no order (for good, or when it fails, for evil) that does not require reference to something higher than itself. This is as true for the headhunters of Borneo (where the pigs are bearded, and ought to be carefully avoided in the mangrove swamps), or the short-statured of the Congo jungle (formerly known as pygmies). Among the definitions of “faith” must be that which holds the tribe or a people together, without tyranny. When it is lost, everything is lost.

(The “red-river hogs” of the Congo swamps are an exceptionally beautiful species, incidentally, with their gorgeous orange fox-like fur, adorable whiskers, decorative black and white facial patches, and thin white stripe along spine and tail. Though as any pigmy could tell you, they are terrible yam thieves, can defend themselves even against leopards, and would not make good family pets.)

Where am I? … Faith. … Our own once unambiguously Christian civilization has been typical in its embrace of a supernatural order. The phenomena of collective worship are not unusual, as civilizations go. What made Christendom unique was the attachment to a God who can actually deliver us from cosmic perils. The hand-held devices we now worship cannot do that for us. Nor will they induce order of any kind.

Even at the most incontestably pragmatic level: it is time we returned to something that was working. Serve God, in Christ, and He will look out for us. Serve some other gods, and He won’t.


BONUS POINT. — From that Thing column: “A prophetic vision is not visual, or necessarily visual: the author could be blind. Nor can it be communicated in language alone.” … I am unsatisfied with the latter sentence. Yes, it can be communicated in words alone, but in words that go beneath and beyond themselves. For space, I cut a paragraph more reasonably explaining that anything worth reading, though it be only words, must participate in a dimension of poetry. Anything that doesn’t, needs to be destroyed. It is of the devil. That which is of God will be poetic of its nature. This is why the introduction of “Novus Ordo” was such an anti-Catholic crime: by desecrating the poetry of the Old Mass, it also undermined the content. Or consider Esperanto, for that matter: the invention of a language in which poetry would be impossible. As Baudelaire said, a man can go without food three days; but without poetry, Never!