Essays in Idleness


The “smart” economy

Some sense of the current world can be had if we consider college education as a fiat currency. The graduating student receives, in addition to a mountain of debt for him to climb, a piece of paper or e-paper that can be exchanged for a paid position in the labour market — the better the more wisely he shops. This “degree” indicates that he has useful virtues, the crucial one being patience.

A doctorate, for instance, indicates that the holder is willing to spend x consecutive years in an extremely tedious, and rather pointless activity, without doubting the benefits that will accrue. He may be secretly rebellious, but few have been provided with the religious skill of self-analysis, leading to self-knowledge. Natural feistiness in the human being is displaced from creative to destructive activities, such as crime or progressive politics.

Depending on the human, a voracious sex life is an alternative, or this can be combined with politics via social media. I first observed this phenomenon in the Vietnam hippie era, when any policeman could tell you that after a big protest rally, innumerable couples could be spotted “happily humping in the hedges” (the late McKenzie Porter’s memorable phrase), having been aroused by lust for sex and power, simultaneously.

In contemporary campus life, the burgeoning administrative class encourage this kind of behaviour, because it distracts students and professors alike from displeasure with the administrative class.

I notice that social studies repeatedly show that the administrators of colleges are more radical than the professors; and that the student body is, though still quite Left, generally the farthest to the Right. Thorough brainwash rooted in a Pavlovian reward/punishment system renders them complacent to the prevailing “politically correct” ethos, however, and accustoms them to unquestioning acceptance of obvious falsehoods. Upon graduation they may easily replace one set of lies with another, to fit in with “global” commercial requirements.

Quieter people invest in hobbies, which they may indulge out of public view. The great secret of the suburbs I discovered when, through bourgeois employment, I had suburban friends. It could be found in the “rec rooms” (rec for “recreation”), usually in the basements of North American homes. It was how they kept sane, given low-grade university degrees that equipped them only for unskilled or paper-pushing labour. These quite various and often interesting hobbies were their access to a world that was beautiful, and exquisitely ordered.

Weekday mornings, however, they would have to return, after a long chaotic commute, to their ugly, boring, debilitating, but salaried jobs. The contemporary notion of a “holiday” consists of getting in a car or aeroplane and flying as far away from one’s “real world” as one can afford. Five weeks per year if you are lucky.

I would seem to be wandering away from my point, but in addition, I should like to enlarge upon those fiat credentials. With the inflation of “education” since the last World War, these bear less and less relation to the owners’ natural or acquired abilities, except this ability to sit through numbing experience for a fixed number of years. A comparison might be made to Bitcoin, or other crypto-currencies, in which numerical value is digitally “mined.” This involves an incredible waste of expensive electrical resources, in order to obtain “something for nothing.”

Now, in a society that were fully sane, the abilities themselves would be the criteria for employment, and rather than by sitting through the “education” process, “cred” would be acquired through accomplishments that were appropriate to the trade.

Universities would of course still exist, but they would cater to the relatively small proportion of people who could benefit from focused, exacting, intellectual study. It is possible that as many as one in twenty of those currently populating the university campuses, actually belong there. But the rest are miscast.


P.S. already I must explain, to one of my incredulous correspondents, that I don’t include e.g. health trade schools, engineering quadrangles, or other technical training facilities in my definition of a university. Until they become politicized, these can be fairly useful institutions, and their credentials may perhaps be valuable, thus. Seminaries make an exceptionally interesting counter-example, combining, as it were, the intellectual and the vocational; almost all the world’s great universities began as Catholic seminaries. The old quad of arts, law, medicine, and theology I will accept by mediaeval precedent, though I remain sceptical of the “standardizing hand of Frederick II” at Salerno. 

Aside on law & order

Let us assume, for the sake of having an argument, the reverse of the contemporary assumption that a (post-birthday) human has rights. Let us rather assume that he has duties. These might not be specified by law; whenever possible they should not be. Yet society at large, in all of its many dimensions, should be at liberty not only to inculcate those duties, but to enforce them through punishments such as ostracism and shame; to make those who neglect their duties feel the lash of criticism.

Of course, people would still have rights (unspecified in law, whenever possible); but the rights would correspond to their duties. For instance, a policeman has the right to arrest, unobstructed, an observed wrongdoer. A fireman has the right to pump water through the window of a house that is visibly on fir​e. A baker has the right to bake cakes, and sell them to whomever he pleases. These rights were long ago established and for the most part require (or once required) little thought to sort through. A property owner has the right to manage his own property, in ways that do not spoil the surroundings. This includes the right to defend against trespassers, poachers, burglars, and so forth.

But these rights were traditionally built upon duties. Policemen must uphold the law, which means obeying laws themselves. Or rather, in the mediaeval teaching of the old Scottish jurisprudes, they must not break themselves upon the law. Firemen must put out fires, and perhaps survey fire hazards in their spare time, advising the extremely ignorant of what they might be. Bakers must bake for a living, which entails getting up early in the morning, so they may sell their goods fresh. Dairy farmers likewise must rise to the task of milking their cows, sheep, goats, &c. (The animals themselves will be pleased to enforce this.) Land owners must pay (moderate) taxes, and concede ancient rights of way, as they still do in various backward places.

We could get lost in detail. Th​at is not my intention.

Everyone has duties, including in each case the duty not to interfere in the work of another who is discharging his duties. Only in extremes are statute laws necessary, for given a little time and sanity, good and useful customs (re-)emerge. It is everyone’s duty to observe these customs, once they have established themselves, and as the Church has long taught, it is our charitable duty to admonish those who lose sight of them.

Such as the duty to defend oneself, one’s family and one’s property, were not formerly controversial. Today, they are confused by the interventions of what I call Twisted Nanny State, instinctively on the side of the aggressor. Example: if an armed man breaks into my house, threatening not only my widescreen TV but the health and safety of my wife and children, surely I have the right to blow him away. But this follows from my duty to do so. In the moral order which I envisage, armed criminals would seldom come to trial. Knowing this, their numbers would diminish the quicker.

Cowboy, or vigilante justice — when action is taken after the event — should be discouraged, however. That is where police and courts come in, or should. Alas, such instances of individual or mob revenge are powerfully encouraged when the “liberal” authorities become so lax or lame that the citizen is left with no other means to obtain justice. Hence the need for seriousness, all round. Hence the citizen’s duty of vigilance against politicians who multiply laws that are trivial and fatuous; his duty to prevent “progressive” ideologues from coming anywhere near power.

Respect, I note, was once conferred upon the dutiful. It was not until recently that a “theory” was hatched — a bastardization of ancient Christian teaching — that compelled us to show respect to all, and civility even to the uncivil. This was an important abridgement of our freedom: to decide, for ourselves, whom to love, admire, ignore, fear, detest, &c. It interferes with our duty to make sound judgements, thus dehumanizing us.

Why read?

Marvellous things may be learnt from the Internet. For instance, I was just told in this miraculous medium that Saint Isidore (died 636 “CE”), scholar and for decades Archbishop of Seville — declared Patron Saint of the Internet by Pope John Paul II — actually died before the first Arpanet connexion (c.1969).

For the modern schoolchild, whose sense of chronology may not include the concepts of “before” and “after” (see the mass media for proof), this may not come as a useful datum. But by old-fashioned people like me, such things are worth bearing in mind. There was even a time when an educated person would know who St Isidore of Seville was, and to distinguish him from St Isidore the Labourer, who came five centuries later, and who anticipated in his love for animals the more famous St Francis of Assisi, who came two centuries after that, and had much the same to say about labouring:

“He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his mind is a craftsman. He who works with his hands, mind, and heart, is an artist.” We might guess from this that he lived in the days before assembly-line manufactories.

Among the uses of the Catholic (and Orthodox) cult of saints, is the groundwork they provide for the student’s sense of historical time. The saints arrive in succession, some earlier than others. Yet each is a figure who comes from outside time, and leads us, as it were, back where he came from. There is no “progress” from one saint, or generation of saints, to another. Each is sui generis — one of a kind — and each is “perfect,” by which we don’t mean entirely free of sin but complete to a purpose.

In their immense numbers they provide a constellation of light to our dark world, invisible to most but visible to many. The liturgy brings one after another into view, to serve as searchlights of us: thousands or millions of “little Christ lanterns” spread as the stars from horizon to horizon.

The custom of assigning saints to functions, of naming “patron saints” for trades and activities, sufferings and conditions of life, should be self-explanatory. To the faithful, of course, it is more than just custom. The Christian faith was from its origin extremely practical. (“Do this, in memory of me.”) To say, as they teach in our schools today, if they teach anything besides despair and juvenile delinquency, that the cults within our religion are “pagan survivals,” or “old superstitions,” is all very well; so long as we realize that this misses the point entirely, as all acts of malice tend to do.

Isidorus Hispalensis, the saint with which I started (feast day April 4th, I believe), last of the Latin Fathers of the Church, stands at the intersection of the ancient and modern eras, at the height of the (thoroughly misunderstood) “Dark Ages.” (In another sense, all the Fathers of the Church are moderns, and Christ marks the real division between “then” and “now.”) His project to create an encyclopaedia in which all things that could be known were explained, shines from either side. The modern efforts, from Diderot to Wikipedia &c, are similar in outward purpose, notwithstanding change in the recording technology, though less didactic by intention.

Saint Isidore might also be considered the Patron of the Footnote, though my argument for this is sufficiently cumbersome to be omitted today. He previews the mediaeval habit of seeking and posting the exact, checkable source, when it can be located. He was a true “original” in this and other ways — in that ancient, extraordinary, Visigothic Spain, Christianized before the Islamic conquest.

But the real distinction, between an Isidore and any creature of the Enlightenment, is that Isidore was a saint, whose conception of reading reflected his conception of prayer. We pray in our whole selves, to God in Christ and e.g. through the Saints to Him.

Reading, which in Isidore’s mind included the acts of meditation through which understanding and memory are achieved, was from God. The post-modern idea of reading as pure entertainment would not have occurred to him, except as a temptation. It would be too squalid.

On something & nothing

The term “infinity” was an invention of the Devil. This, gentle reader will understand, is my humble opinion. Or if the Devil didn’t invent it, he “evolved” it, from the more innocent usages that conveyed “unlimited,” or “countless,” or “unknowably” large or small. What is finite has an ending, can be finished, finis. What is infinite cannot be; it is open-ended. There is, where we look for an end, nothing there.

Nothing is quite the opposite of something. Perhaps this is a fact no longer taught in our schools: that “nothing” can do nothing for you. Whereas, “something” might. For in its modern usage, “infinity” has become a thing. It has become “virtually” an agent, a kind of god, demanding to be worshipped. The very Christian idea of Alpha and Omega — from the first to the last letter of the (Greek) alphabet, from beginning to end — is subtly replaced in our minds with the progressive idea, “from one to infinity.”

Which is where the human mind checks out. “So what is infinity plus one?” one asks. There can be no answer. Today we are hanging on a cross of “infinity.”

The mathematician Georg Cantor (1845–1918), in his lucid moments (when out of insane asylums), invented set theory. It may be found, lodged in the heart of post-modern reasoning. My hero Wittgenstein, among others, explained how pernicious it was. Scholastic theologians had already spotted the fly in the “infinite” ointment. It is pantheist, and in Cantor’s “final” posit of an infinity of infinities, it is a direct challenge to the unity or uniqueness of the revealed God. Cantor himself was under the impression that God existed, in the sense that God had communicated set theory to Cantor of all people. I, at least, am sceptical of those who claim direct communication with God, especially those who spend a lot of time in bat houses, and wonder with whom they were really chatting. (I don’t doubt that the mad can be brilliant, however.)

To Cantor, there is the infinity of zero. There is an infinity of points in a line, and of lines between any two points. And more infinities are coming, until we have an infinity of them. The non-algebraic constants (such as pi or Euler’s e) — very real in nature — become officious “transcendentals” that we must salute when we meet in the street. With Leibniz we can still breathe; with Cantor we are drowning.

While I’m in a position to deny being a mathematician or a physicist, I distantly descry the tragedy of string theories, “many-worlds,” and even the assumptions behind the standard model of particle physics. My intuition is that they involve the breakdown of logic and reason; that they create maths that “work” on their own premisses, but do not apply to anything. At some point, the “reality” of math takes leave of the reality of reality, and we find ourselves spending billions of dollars to equip the hunt for a “theory of everything” that can only be an artefact of a phantom.

And that is what our “infinity” has become: a thing, when it is not a thing. By those uncomfortable with the holy simplicity of God, a substitute has always been sought. In the days before Cantor it was sought in the belief, the “settled science,” that the material universe had no beginning and will have no end. Once that error collapsed in the empirical cosmology of the 20th century, the Cantor hypothesis kicked in. Except, it is not an hypothesis. It is the brilliant imposition of a “number theory” that reconceives math as an empirical science; that can intrude upon what is really only a tool or technique of science with the appearance of an absolute. Or in short: go get lost in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Anscombe, and the others who have seen the contradiction in all worldly, absolute claims.

“Infinity,” when it takes on divine qualities, becomes an idol. The same might be said for the term “evolution,” which has conquered the realm of biology, and subverted all the social sciences and humanities by reckless analogy. It is the “infinity” of biotech. Anything for which the cause can’t be known, is assumed to have been caused by “evolution”; whereas, evolution isn’t a cause, and never can be. It can only be a trend.

Instead of the naïve, nursery notion of a great bearded father in the sky, we get “the theory of evolution.” Instead of the loosh habit of attributing anything we can’t understand to God, we get the mentally ill habit of attributing it to bushy-faced Darwin. Instead of the something of God, we get nothing, to explain everything.

Mishan impossible

There is money to be made supporting Trump, and all he stands for; and there is money to be made opposing Trump and all he stands for. As usual, I have found the “sweet point” in the middle, where there is no money to be made, and one is exposed to attacks from both parties. Vain creature that I am, I take pride in this position.

To be against “progress” is to be against “growth” (considered as some sort of public virtue). It is to be against “democracy,” “the peeple,” and all the rest of the moralizing bafflegab that shot Trump into space over the last three years, through which his enemies have done far more to boost him, than his friends.

Full employment at higher wages are not good things in themselves. A national income growing at four points a year (as opposed to say, two, or zero) is in many respects a nightmare of so-called “creative destruction.” To cheer on mere numbers is, strictly speaking, batshit insane, for the numbers do not speak to anything that might make life better or worse at the ontological level.

Example: a mother raising children has nothing, including her own life, improved by aborting all her bairns and working at a debilitating job, although that is exactly what she must do to push all the economic indicators the right way. Or on the plainest domestic level, it should be obvious by now that, above the level of subsistence, there is a nearly inverse relation between material wealth and inward contentment. Look around yourself if you doubt me.

(I am not a Republican anyway, as I’ve had to explain to several Natted States Merican friends; I am a Loyalist Canadian and therefore a Monarchist; and not a “conservative” but a “reactionary.” None of the ideologies currently on sale appeal to me.)

But here is a puzzle. The people who claim to be against Trump, whose frothing lends them some authenticity, also want full employment at higher wages, economic growth and the rest of it. The only difference is that the means to these things which they propose are rather less plausible.

On questions of “social policy,” the conflict is no more interesting. Democrats and Republicans alike, from presidents down, have pragmatically accepted essentially libertarian social, cultural, and moral ideals. All have been consciously “progressive” in the less-material, more-spiritual realms; none would stand, and lose, on a principle.

“Put not your faith in politicians” is one of my principles. Being an honest man, in that trade, is not compatible with winning. They can be more, or less, dishonest, however, and I do make individual distinctions. (Trump, for all his wild exaggerations, outright lies, and childish theatrics, strikes me as more honest than most.)

Within fading memory, the world — everyday human life — was stable and predictable, often even in war, or during natural catastrophes. It was also comprehensible, and quiet. E. J. Mishan (1917–2014) somewhere enumerated the very long list of daily anxieties that came with post-war discovery, invention, and economic growth; things that simply did not exist (or were exceedingly rare) in our world beforehand. Yes, it could be said, we were relatively poor, and sometimes close to starving; but generally unharried and at peace with the cosmos. Human decency was reinforced, and indecency punished, in reliable, unexperimental ways.

There were universal goods that today are almost impossible to remember, for they have been obviated by the rat race, in pursuit of affluence, gizmos, dubious pleasures. In the successive editions of his textbook on The Costs of Growth, and penetrating essays with titles like, “Making the world safe for pornography,” Mishan usefully supplied economic analysis of the serious moral and social questions that had been diverted into “morally neutral” technocratic channels; so that now even the “environmentalist” factotums think only in terms of statistics, proposing megaproject schemes that are as ugly and inhuman as any mass-industrial blight.

Reading Mishan again after a lapse of thirty years, I again recommend him for his insights into the economic and logical fallacies that guide us, which no mere election will ever turn around, or government programmes alter. For there are no environmental cures that do not require the spiritual cure of humans.


See also, perhaps, this Idlepost from six years ago.


Among the best jobs I ever had, was in pre-Thatcher England, when I was young and poor and happy. It was a manual job. (All my jobs were, then.) A friend owned a small lorry, and did fairly minor haulage. He needed help for some deliveries, and one “signed on” for the trip. Almost anything might be carried, to almost anywhere in Great Britain, and sometimes even on the ferry to a place called Europe. Because my employer, the truck driver, and jack-of-all-trades, was of a thoughtful, philosophical disposition, the conversations were delightful. He would feed me along the way, and pay me in small banknotes, eschewing paperwork. Often the recipient of the delivery would add another fiver, for my help in unloading.

This Harold was a kindly man. He took on some jobs free, for instance transporting a piano for some old codger being moved from London to the upper floor of a council house (modern almshouse) near Norwich. The joy in that delivery was smashing up a wall. It was a new house, made of ticky-tacky, full of narrow spaces and right-angled turns, one of which, on the stairs, made taking a piano to the upper storey quite impossible. But Harold had a crowbar and a mallet, so he eliminated the corner. He reasoned that the old man would die without his piano, and that the council authority was used to making repairs, so that was the Christian thing to do.

God bless Harold. A non-churchgoing, very Low Anglican, he did his own moral reasoning, generally without scholarly research, yet many of his decisions were sound. He was also an Archimedean genius, and could devise ways to move very heavy objects without powered machinery of any kind, and almost without effort. The trick, he explained, is to think it through, and not be in a hurry.

Against an age that favours bigness, and speed, he was a rebel. Married, in the informal sense, though at least to a woman. To say his children were home-schooled would be an understatement. His dog was not trained at all. His house was a jumble of abandoned things he’d picked up here and there, and in a pinch he’d sell some of this furniture to the antique merchants. He read books, but only those he’d found in buildings he was clearing. One such was a defunct nunnery. The nuns had left an immense pile of battered volumes, mostly travels and adventures. Harold was acquiring a topographical education, and an impressive fund of colonial anecdotes. He was also working his way through the Cambridge Modern History, cutting the uniformly uncut pages as he went along. Lord Acton would surely have been gratified.

There is much to be said for an off-grid life, and let me add, much for the Labour government in the days before Thatcher. Its socialist policies tended to collapse the industrial economy, but its thrilling incompetence left everyone free. Goods and services were alike quite cheap, since hardly anyone was paying taxes, and there was a delicious atmosphere of gentle decay. Yet class lines were holding. Coalfield strikes, directed by communist provocateurs, were nasty, but nevertheless beneficial to the country at large, being weaned from electricity and its unfortunate downstream products, e.g. television. Happily, the museums and libraries stayed open, and admission was gratis.

I had other brief jobs to earn cash (bricklayer’s mate on a semi-legal “lump,” building real, solid, individual houses, was another highlight), and comfortable accommodations in a Lambeth Borough squat. By means of chastity, I kept out of trouble. Even at the time, I knew that I was living in paradise. In lifting fog, in Suffolk once, driving with Harold down narrow country lanes, I spotted a bullock pulling an ancient single-furrow plough. I was in ecstasy.

Today we pursue the vanity of speed, practise endless mergers and biglifications, hardly bother with anything unless it is a megaproject. We want all the parts to be interchangeable, with computerized departments for the “human resources.” It is all happening in the wrong direction, and let me importune my readers once again: Backward, ho!

Maybe Corbyn is the man to vote for.

Creative outrage

A friend of mine says he wants to go home — to the place where he was born, where he came from — now that it has been de-industrialized, de-agriculturalized, hotelled, and made into a tourist haven. Like me, he despises tourists. He reviewed at length the transformation of his home town, “from something that was precious in itself, into something to be visited, like a bathroom, or a brothel.”

“So why would you want to go home?” I asked him.

“Mostly for revenge.”

He was joking, of course. (You have to explain this to Canadians.) He was not really proposing an act of terrorism. It was merely an experiment in comic timing. We both laughed hysterically. I can see how an unedited transcript of our conversation could have got us both arrested by the Happyface Police.

Several correspondents have noted the “darkness” in articles I have written recently, and beg me to “lighten up.” As a member of the Pepsi Generation (a.k.a. Baby Boomers), one is not allowed to prophecize. “Don’t worry, be happy” has been the motto of those who secretly fear that they are going to Hell, but are hoping for mere extinction.

Yet, I agree with the cheerful, “whistling in the dark” approach, and commend, on principle, those Christian martyrs who “always looked on the bright side,” even while being translated from this world to the next.

My pessimism is a worldly thing. One remains prepared to be happily surprised, by some unexpected turn of events. Pity the optimist, for he can only be disappointed.

Among the legacies of the Catholic Church (currently at a high point in nominal membership, but a low point in most other respects), is the original of Hope. We, and our Hebrew predecessors, have known for centuries, millennia, that history is not in our control; that human enterprise does not end well; that men are fatally flawed, and the best that can ever be got out of them requires heroic discipline and labour. Our Hope is thus, peculiarly, not in men.

Hence paradox, and what follows, humour. Dark humour, especially. The joke is in the contrast between what we were expecting, and what we’re going to get.

Beneath the surface of what we might call the “creative outrage” that fuels our contemporary liberals and progressives, is a humourless frustration. It is “creative” only in that it finds something new in tradition and nature, to be outraged by every day. While their outward target may be people such as Christians, their real animosity is towards God, who refuses to surrender the Creation to them. Nor do they appreciate His occasional concessions. For they may get their sweet way for a while, as we endure their tyranny, but still they are not happy, and want more. It is a definition of the progressive that he can never be satisfied.

Now, gentle reader may ask, how does this have anything to do with the growth of the tourist industry?

Or let us make the question grander, to make it clearer. What has it to do with the overall Disneyfication (or Potemkinization, or virtualization) of modern life?

I refer to the disharmony between words and things; between what things are and what they pretend to be; to the constant replacement of the real by the fake. The scale is overwhelming and is likely to defeat even the imagination of any individual who seeks to restore the real, within his own environment. The “mass man,” as I and others call him, does not pretend to pilgrimage in a world not of his making. Rather he becomes part of the illusion, dressing up in costumes for the service industries. He becomes something a little worse than a slave: a ghost figure. He is “not really there.”

The progressive aspiration, to ban God from human life, or at least restrict Him to private venues, must necessarily fail, as all earthly projects. Like everything based on a lie, it collapses. For God can only be contained within the womb of Mary.

Raptors defeat Warriors

There is a children’s game that is played on this continent, and apparently on others. It is called “basketball,” and the object is to put an inflated ball through a hole, or hoop, that is inconveniently raised above normal human reach. Two teams bounce this ball back and forth on a court of some kind, towards the “basket” at each end.

The game was invented by a gentleman from Almonte, Ontario, and resembles an Aztec sport in which players had to use hips, not hands nor feet, to manipulate the ball. This must have made it very difficult to score a basket. Only one goal was necessary to win, however. The match must have been quite dull to watch, but some spectator interest could be derived from the post-game ritual, in which members of the losing side were put to death.

“Blood sports” — those involving human sacrifice — were a feature of pre-Christian societies from Meso-America to gladiatorial Rome to the farthest reach of Asia. A more encyclopaedic account may be found elsewhere; this is not the place to discuss the long history, for it is very long, and I am rather tired from having been kept up through last night by car horns and firecrackers.

It would seem that a basketball team of grown men from Greater Parkdale won some sort of continental championship. I have yet to consult the Toronto Scar to see if there were riots as well, as often happens after a major professional sports team wins or loses a deciding match. (I noticed from the same newspaper that our home crowd were wildly cheering the injury of a star player of the visiting team, in the previous game.)

Well, I assume they are cleaning up now.

Recently I was mocked for belonging to a tribe (Catholic Christians) whose primary sacrament involves (according to my correspondent) “symbolic cannibalism.” A typical liberal, he had the rest of his facts exactly backwards. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, culminating in the Mass, actually achieved the substitution of bloodless for the bloody pagan immolations of old. It is with the decline of Christianity that we may observe and expect the return of what might be called the pornography of violence. (The pornography of sex is fully restored, already.)

Humans, and bonobos (dwarf chimpanzees) for that matter, are notoriously given to this sort of behaviour. But while the bonobos are almost impossible to tame, humans can be improved by religion. It has to be a good religion, though.


Allow me to agree with Pope Francis that Holy Church owes the world some “outreach.” Of our 266 popes (plus or minus), I mention that one in particular because he has had more to say about politics than, possibly, all the rest combined. His views on social class, income distribution, imperialism, colonialism, general oppression, environmental issues, anthropogenic climate, immigration controls, and many other topics not traditionally considered to be any of the Church’s business, are broadcast constantly. Moreover, his neglect of her primary mission — the salvation of souls through propagation of the faith — has underlined this revolutionary contrast.

I am not a Church historian, but in my understanding her former political engagements were more strictly towards her own practical ends — chiefly the defence of her own independence — and seldom if ever involved the institutional equivalent of “virtue signalling.” In her earlier centuries she sometimes found herself ruling — chiefly when the profane authorities had run away from e.g. pagan Norsemen or invading Mussulmans at the frontiers of Europe; and within the modest sphere of the Papal States. She played the initial organizing rôle in essentially defensive Crusades against Cathars and Caliphs, and yet, she was ever eager to leave details of policy to free and self-supporting agents in the field. They would know much better what they were dealing with.

The principle of subsidiarity (making decisions at the lowest possible level) is among the gifts of Christianity to the world, though it has seldom been well-received. Those with power who embrace it will usually make exceptions for themselves. The Church herself has sometimes ignored her own principle, and the contrary one of micromanaging from Central is easily promoted when local agencies fail. The contrary behaviour — a central power devolving because it has failed — is relatively unknown. Those with power are loathe to relinquish it, as Scripture itself teaches; and human lust, greed, and arrogance make predictable hash of the best-laid schemes.

That is why the Church must preserve some aloofness from “secular” affairs. She must do so in order to remain the Church, rather than a faction. She takes sides, but as spectator not player. (In some historical moments, as referee.) Her occasional attempts to waltz or wade in, never end well; never ever, so far as I can see. (I will write another day in defence of integralism.)

Now, I love to defend a pope, whenever it is possible, and it must be said in Pope Francis’ case that he hasn’t tried to form a political party, or seize power in any civil realm. The worst that could be said is that he favours the wrong sides. He is a big fan of vast, centralized, bureaucratic organizations, which never achieve anything, or at least, never anything good.

The alternative is to use the moral suasion of a central institution founded by Jesus Christ to change people’s attitudes. The “social teaching” of the Church through the ages was to this end. It was, when it advanced any political cause, not to a political end, but for the sake of removing obstacles to holiness. It served the restoration of the natural moral order, itself instituted by God, and positively requiring human freedom. It (the social teaching) and she (the Church) favoured good, truth, and beauty, which necessarily involves opposition to what is bad, false, and ugly. But the way forward is not by diktat but through the genius of human goodwill.

The Church articulates what we already know in our heart of hearts, having been wired for it from conception. We supply the action, starting with our prayers. (Note: that Prayer is not an evasion but an action.) And by our witness to the Truth, we also provide … a regular supply of martyrs.

Long ago summer

Today, the 11th of June, would be Miners Memorial Day in New Waterford (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia), where my mama grew up. It commemorates those miners killed on the job through the years; the many who died in the explosion at Colliery No. 12, in 1917; the miner shot dead by company police during a labour disturbance in 1925; all the roof-falls and the floodings. Coal mining has always been a kind of battlefront. But the war is over in New Waterford. The last colliery closed, twenty years ago.

Since, the town itself has been closing. The population has shrunk to less than half of what it was in the boom days, and I would think the average age is now twice as high. The only signs of life I can spot through the Internet are in guvmint programmes. These can create a brief illusion of “future,” but return in a decade and they’ll be gone, too — the votes they were buying having likewise departed.

The worst of the recent contractions was the Catholic Church of Saint Agnes, a splendid worn clapboard structure, once brimming with life; and a superlative architectural gem. The diocese merged six parishes into one, and had all the beautiful buildings demolished, so that the site in question is now another denuded scar upon the landscape.

I carry so many memories, still vivid, of “formerly industrial Cape Breton,” from summers now more than half-a-century ago. Things were sliding even then.

Most poignantly, when I close my eyes, the faces of other children, my playmates; of little Donna, on whom I had a crush; of my mother’s friends, and elderly worthies; of my beloved Aunt Buddie the church organist; and Great Aunt Alice, the folk painter. My maternal grandpa, Oliver Wilbur Holmes, “doyed” as they say, before my birth; has lain in the cold wet ground three-quarters of a century. (He was engineer on the S&L Railway.) The young grew up and all moved away; their elders stayed, to join grandpa in the graveyard. That whole world is depopulated now.

The past is the past, and nothing can be done. Human memory barely lasts out the generation. The sorrows and the joys fade as if they had never been, and in the end there is nothing to say.

Timor mortis conturbat me.

On the means of propulsion

As a man of the 13th century, I may not think it goes nearly far enough, but the present vogue for electric cars at least takes us back more than one hundred years. I am gung-ho: not necessarily for the cars, because the world has more than one thousand million too many, and they were only ever appropriate for remote and rural districts; or as limousines to relieve excessively wealthy persons of the burden of their money. Rather, I’m enamoured of electrical propulsion.

Though littered with unnecessary, high-tech gizmos, our private cars are actually rather shoddy. They cost too little, and do not endure. The “urbane” replace them with the latest (obnoxious) models every year or two, whereas any vehicle should be designed to last, for a quarter-century as an absolute minimum, and normally half-a-century or more. They should of course be functional off-road, like tractors and other farm equipment, allowing us to retire many million miles of (tediously) paved highways. (A street worth having will be attractively cobbled.)

Ideally, we might return to horses, and bullocks, but I am a practical man, and not opposed to mechanical contrivances, so long as they have a reasonable purpose, and can be made environmentally discreet. I make the classical distinction between town and country, urban and rural, but would have neither territory crisscrossed with multi-lane speedways, or pocked with sprawling parking lots. The roadsters that use these are themselves dirty, noisy things, as I have observed before, and let me add that they are very dangerous to children and animals.

How, then, should we deal with the problem of moving large numbers of people about (to say nothing of their baggage)?

We had this problem licked more than a century ago, when the overwhelming majority never went anywhere except on foot, and those with a need to travel grand distances could take the railway — which, incidentally, had baggage cars. Taking this Province for my example, and my wanderings through it for my research, I am constantly impressed to discover evidence of how well it was served by the railroads, back when it had a fraction of its present population, and incomes were much lower. One could get from almost any little place to almost any other along them.

The obliteration of our railroads did not happen by chance. Starting with Roosevelt, on this side of the Atlantic, and Hitler, on the other side, a grand concerted effort was made to promote the automotive and paving industries, and build autobahns, specifically at the expense of rail. Cars had already become too numerous by the 1920s, but the idea of what Trump and I might call “biglification” — the totalitarian impulse — was to choke the planet with “people’s” cars, trucks, and buses. It became the one big economic pseudo vision, as the Depression wore on. What had been fairly useful vehicles — very local extensions from the train stations — became the most awkward and wasteful mass-transport system imaginable. The intention of the captains and politicians of industry was, from the beginning, to compel everyone to buy and drive these voracious machines, and become permanently indebted thereby.

I doubt not the whole scheme was inspired by the Devil, though as usual, however obvious, this cannot be proved. It was part of his continuing project to reduce humanity to an interchangeable mass of human cyphers, who would readily exchange their freedom for the occasional dubious luxury or treat — to invent the “mass man,” the “man without qualities” who can be governed by statistical methods, and is always ripe for social engineering.

It is time to do this global megaproject in reverse.

As Ivan Illich argued, the average speed of private cars, once the total distance they cover is divided by the work hours spent in the range of (degenerative) activities to produce and drive them (from iron mining and oil drilling forward), is three miles per hour. This is about the same as walking. Horses, at twelve miles per hour — much faster at a gallop — were always more efficient, and sailing vessels, too, but the modern, mass man does not understand efficiency. He works from assumptions that are invariably false, owing to his intoxication with money.

He will, for instance, think that a 2$ loaf at the superstore is cheaper that the 6$ loaf I just bought in a farmer’s market. (It was a potato salt bread.) But the latter is nine times more delicious and nutritious. Gentle reader may check my sums: the 6$ loaf is thus three times the better bargain, and keeps a superbly independent baker in business. (And if you can’t afford it, just eat less.)

So it goes with transport. A journey that may cost as much as three times more, per mile, may be in truth a much better journey. The slower it goes, the more we can appreciate a magnificent countryside, and be humanized by contact with our fellow man.

Intelligent signalling devices could allow a great variety of railway stock — from single-car trolleys to long freight trains — to share narrow bands of track, carrying our busiest traffic along the tranquil line. And all we need is general agreement on etiquette and the track gauge.

A branching, mycelial, thread-like hyphae, spreading organically through the human arbour; meandering through the fields, bridging the rivers, tunnelling under obstacles and crowded city streets. Short, pleasant walks at either end. Carts and (electric) buggies to provide doorstep-to-doorstep for the halt and feeble. The odd electrical hay wagon.

No need to sacrifice even the automotive factories, which are anyway already being converted to the manufacture of private electric vehicles, in unconscionable volume. Divert the production to rolling stock, instead.

Everyone will be happier. Trust me on this.


A reader asks if I’m aware that railway trains make a terrible clatter, to which I reply, that there are ways to make them much quieter, which I am prepared to divulge for a modest fee. (My suggestion of electric is gratis.) Note, too, that the clatter is only heard while the train is passing; that children and poets turn excitedly to watch it pass; whereas a busy car highway is no fun to watch, and emits a numbing, unending, and unmerciful, audio drone.