Essays in Idleness


Looking ahead

We go into 2020 without Gertrude Himmelfarb, who, having reached the age of ninety-seven, died yesterday. I am among those who are left in debt. Her accounts, especially of intellectual developments in the 19th century, also describe the heavy scaffolding for thought in the 20th. The Victorian world had become a far countrie, however, for those of my generation, who were left with too much freedom to think, irresponsibly.

She was called, provisionally, a “conservative scholar,” but by that was meant a learned and thoughtful writer, who could recreate the scenery around — e.g. Marx, and Darwin; Acton, and Bismarck; Comte, and Mill; Carlyle, and Newman — showing them plausibly as the men they were, rather than the men they became in later caricature. She could show, in doing so, constants in modernity; what was noble as well as ignoble; what not lost, as well as what was lost. Her invaluable “background” is not given in the spirit of parti pris, but broadly and openly, with calm and dignity.

The historian, Himmelfarb, is particularly good at revealing the often generational decline in “liberal values,” for instance from helping the poor through hands-on institutions such as the Salvation Army, to using them for moral posturing at no personal cost. This corresponds to a loss of religious faith, and its replacement by moralizing.

Modern “virtue signalling” has deep Victorian roots.

Unfortunately we now live in a time that is narrow, and for the most part thinkers are ignored, or reduced to single sound bites. For our time, and in our universities, so great a student of philosophy as Leo Strauss, of literature as Lionel Trilling, of social research as Irving Kristol (the brilliant man Himmelfarb married) are dismissed unread as “neo-conservatives” and worse, when in fact they were engaged with the whole Western tradition. Today, the contemptible Washington Post associates them with a rightwing “backlash,” as if they were shouting slogans. Impressive Jewish thinkers are casually compared to “white nationalists” or “supremacists,” in the frothing malice of the SJWs.

Yet the characters rejected were once themselves Leftists (though anti-Stalinists), and their perceived voyage to the Right was a steadiness as the waters passed them by.

I was thinking this just now while reading the first essay in Himmelfarb’s latest and possibly last book of essays: Past & Present. It is about Strauss (another formative influence). What a paradise it would have been to be among the “Ivy Leaguers” of the post-War and ‘fifties; during a long-lost American adventure into the world of ideas. Himmelfarb was the last of that team of adventurers, I was thinking; the landscape now is, intellectually, barren. Even to participate in “high culture” — what Matthew Arnold innocently called, “the best that has been thought and said” — is to put a professor at physical risk.

Leo Strauss explained somewhere, or in several places, that the student of the past must be prepared to learn something — “not merely about the thinkers of the past, but from them.”

Today’s students (if any in the humanities), reply with incomprehension. What an affront Strauss is, to a later academy, in which the only purpose for the past is to judge it, by the asinine prejudices of the present day.

While pessimism will keep us from going mad, in the New Year, we should renew our intention to fight “change,” and to restore reason as well as faith in the time to come. If it was possible for such a woman as “Bea Kristol” (née Himmelfarb) to be, there remains hope for a revival. Let us never abandon our mission in this world, to move decisively — backward.

Of head shots

As we look to the future, and a New Year, we must reckon with earthly realities. Some of us have years to run, before being recalled by our Maker. For what is upcoming, it is important to be armed. This is brought home, at least to the sane, in multiple events, inadequately reported in the “mainstream” media.

My thoughts turn to Texas, where two parishioners were killed, and a third critically injured, in a Fort Worth suburban church. A massacre was in progress, but ended in six seconds. Six people drew guns, and one of them, apparently a firearms trainer, took out the assailant with a single head shot. (All those not killed are indebted to this man for their lives.) The other gunslingers, locked and loaded as it were, then surrounded the assailant, ready to react if he moved.

It was a horrible event, though it ended justly. Not so in New York and vicinity, where assaults on Jews have become commonplace — and are treated with relative indifference by the leftist media and municipal government. Owing to this (ideological) indifference, it is hard to get reliable information on any of these events, including one in Jersey City which resembled a commando raid on a kosher shop.

Raids on churches, synagogues, those who “look Jewish,” &c, have become commonplace in France; now they are occurring in America. It is true that they are performed by people who are mentally disturbed. The crime itself — murder in cold blood, of unknown individuals — establishes that fairly clearly. That such people cannot be negotiated with, nor pacified by state-assigned psychologists, should go without saying. When the media ask, “What was his motive?” — and worse, the police play along — they ask an unanswerable question about the mystery of evil.

What we need, instead, is a single accurate head shot, for each perpetrator, administered with all possible haste.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, which has changed demographically because voters in Washington’s Virginian suburbs (overwhelmingly Democrat) now outnumber the Virginians themselves (majority sane) — the latest essay in gun control is proceeding, by a governor himself somewhat titched. When I last checked, it appeared that all counties outside this suburban zone would declare themselves “second amendment sanctuaries,” in defiance of new gun-confiscation laws. These would necessarily disarm legal and responsible gun-owners. I should think if there were going to be a civil war, that’s where it would break out. Too, that it would be over quickly.

Yet gun control, in Virginia and elsewhere, remains an urban political phenomenon. It is understandable, in places like Toronto, where a high proportion of residents are mad. Once shooting starts, the voters can easily imagine “wild west” scenes, and are incapable of thinking beyond them.

Of course, guns aren’t strictly required, as we learn from the knifing epidemic in London, or as I was reminded last week, one block away in Toronto. A much-liked neighbour was knifed to death, under circumstances that are hard to reconstruct except by rumour, since the “sensitivity police” only give out news edited by their public relations department, after interest in the event has died down.

Again, it is unfortunate that neither the victim nor anyone in his environment (it was an open-air crime, hardly the first in Parkdale), was there to administer the needed head shot.

The world is full of kooks: people who vote Democrat in USA, Liberal up here, Labour in Britain. They have bought so dearly into dependence on the State, that they cannot understand do-it-yourself attitudes. However, given realities now unfolding, their numbers are beginning to shrink.

Massacre of the Innocents

Those who shop for their food in supermarkets — and I did recently — will notice that the music is “curated.” They are closed on Christmas day, but for weeks before their customers are offered “Christmas carols.” These will be (if the ones I heard are an example) stripped of Christmas content; the lyrics possibly rewritten; but the tunes recognizable as “holiday music.” No attempt has been made to edit them in other respects. For instance, I heard a reference to a “one-horse open sleigh.” It is many years since I saw one of those; and other references are to some cosy comfiness that is quite irrelevant to the way we live today. Lurching through the parking lot after, I did not find a single sleigh parked there. I was not even looking for a baby in a manger, or other religious paraphernalia.

But return just after Christmas and the jingle music is gone. The all-season pop music has returned. The holiday is quite ended, except, holiday-themed goods are on sale at big discounts. Another sales season has cut in, and for a moment there may be a New Year’s theme, but generally we have segued to “bleak mid-winter” when we shop mostly because we need things. The sales staff may relax slightly; or, those not yet replaced by check-out machines.

The succession through Advent, which was once a season of abstinence, to the merry explosion of Christmas, has been amended. The “holiday season” now begins at Black Friday. It is not entirely over until January 2nd — for there are these “Boxing Days,” &c. But the notion that Christmas has twelve days, and that the larger season extends until Candlemas, has been obviated. On the 2nd of January we are, definitively, back to work. Unless someone has a birthday, no parties. Towards Easter, chocolate eggs will appear, and candied bunny rabbits, but these, too, vanish, this year on Monday, April 13th — by some coincidence the day after Christians are, in good conscience, allowed to eat them. But they are massively available through Holy Week.

Of course, this is not a major imposition. It does not compare with the Massacre of the Innocents. We can buy things when they are on sale, and stock them up. Better yet, we can avoid supermarkets, shopping malls, and Internet services entirely. There is an alternative economy out there, and by shopping in Korean and Punjabi stores, whenever possible, we needn’t be exposed to the (sparkling hygienic) filth.

Shopping, to my mind, is a religious activity. The products are miraculous, especially those grown and manufactured by human hands. I am amazed by what I am able to bring home, even from the supermarket. I think of farmers, and factory workers, and truck drivers. But these, for the moment, are out of court.

Instead, I want to emphasize the religious dimension of times and seasons. They have been changed, in the interest of a thoroughgoing commercialism, but they are still there. Notice we still have the old system, except turned upside down. Where there were fasts, we now have bloating; where we had feasts, we now have post-bloat diet plans. Where we had a hated king ordering the murder of male children around a little town, we now have an abortion industry. This is change, apparently; progress.

My Chief Texas Correspondent sent me a list of forty things, which, according to a website, proved that the world is better today than it has ever been. (Let me assure gentle reader that my CTC does not “believe” in progress.) Examining it, I could find only four items that were factually wrong. There were twenty-nine accomplishments to which I was basically opposed, and seven I agreed with, though each with serious reservations.

It was, however, though certainly not Christian, a religious manifesto. It was a list of “good things” people live for today. They are free to do so. I have not the power to stop them. But I do have the power to observe that what they think good is, for the most part, bad.

Thankless Christmas

No one in his right mind will be reading a weblog, or antiblog, on Christmas morning. Therefore these remarks are addressed exclusively to my wrong-thinking readers.

I have observed through the years that the wrong-minded crave thanks and recognition; therefore I should like to extend my appreciation to you all. If you tell me who you are, I might write a facetious thank-you note; though if you have recently sent me money, I hesitate. This is because, as I have come to think (whether rightly of wrongly), sincere gratitude is not transactional. In a transaction, you pay.

Moreover, a right-minded person will cultivate anonymity, especially while performing any mitzvah or charitable act. But for the wrong-minded, there is pas de problème. For any of them may plead, in their own defence, that they are not actually in their right minds.

If it were a problem, Christ did not address it. From Nativity to Crucifixion, and thereafter, He does not appear to have thanked anyone. Perhaps an astute scholar or theologian will correct me. (Nominally, He thanks God in his farewell discourse; but think this through.) True, even Jesus is sometimes quoted on Hallmark thank-you cards; but in none of these is Our Saviour himself saying “thank you” to anyone — a formality which, incidentally, any right-thinking person would wave aside.

We can thank God, in our hearts, constantly, and even on our lips. But what has God to thank us for?

A friend mentions the question of salt. While it is not recorded in Scripture, at a dinner table, Jesus probably said, “Please pass the salt.” Then, “thank you,” when it was pushed forward. It is hard to imagine that Our Lord would not have been polite, and customary. Had He not been, it would more likely have been recorded in Scripture.

Now, gratitude is another matter, as surely even the wrong-thinking will agree. But this goes from the start beyond the formal, and is expressed not by the tongue but in the life. We are changed by gratitude, just as we are changed by ingratitude or bitterness (our own).

At the sight of the infant Jesus, however presented, we respond. We are changed by the experience of gratitude, for the better, though when we reject it, for the worse. For a moment out of time, we are in Bethlehem. It is the Bethlehem of Mary and Joseph; also the Bethlehem of Herod.

On a tiny scale, it is the same for any writer, or actor in life; or participant, finally, on one side or the other. He is “effecting change” in those who read, or open themselves to influence in any other way. Of course he may be smeared, as Jesus told us to expect; smeared and persecuted, for His sake. But we have no control over that, only over how we respond. The important things are those over which we have some control. (Here we find the distinction between master and slave.)

It is for this thankless reason that we go into battle — onward Christian soldiers! — cheerfully. For this good cheer is, in itself, the expression of our gratitude, when we are called to serve. Thanks are unnecessary, whether we should live or die. There is only remembrance of the Child, who by his very appearance declared that, henceforth, death hath no dominion.

God rest you merry

The carol, whose incipit I cite, is quoted, too, in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and was being parodied already a century before his birth. I think of it as the Ur English Christmas Carol, for it goes back, according to a scholar I once spake with, to those last afterlife moments of Good Queen Mary’s reign, in the 16th century, if not before. The spirit of the carol — the spooky folk melody — comes from that strange place, at the crossover of what is unmistakably mediaeval into what is unmistakably modern. The words change over the centuries, though in this case not much. I think the carol was originally in English. Note that “rest” was a transitive verb. The comma before, “merry gentlemen,” was thus an 18th-century innovation.

I wrote “spooky” for I have so often wondered what would have followed, had the Reformation never happened at all; had it been suppressed, as were the Cathars. The world would be much different today, for things that now seem impossible to us would instead be familiar, and vice versa.

We usually think first of technology, when comparing ourselves to our distant ancestors. But as that is merely cumulative “progress,” and the Catholic Church had been all along more likely to encourage than to discourage it, I can’t see how that could have been so different. Of course we would be “high-tech” today; though still “unmodern.”

Blast furnaces for instance. The archaeologists have now found their fragments within monastic ruins — in England, Holland, Germany, Sweden — from about the year 1100. There was trade in steel balls right across Europe. We may dicker (improbably) over whether the techniques came ultimately from China, but the fact of simple steel-making gives, in itself, the lie to various modernist fairy tales about the Industrial Revolution.

Likewise, so much we have discovered not for the future, but about the past. We want to have invented ourselves. We want to believe our history was inevitable. We want to credit our technology for our greatness. But it hardly counts. The truth is rather in the human element: how this gift of technology is used.

Though I love Charles Dickens, I like to dismiss him as “a commie,” for reasons that might not seem obvious at first. A Child’s History of England, I once threw against a wall. In his genius he pioneered the commercialization of Christmas, and every advertising agency should thank him. For consider, what this commercialization required. Scrooge is converted by sentimental ghosts, into a character of material generosity. The moral hints are materialist throughout. Joy, while it is still remembered, is subtly converted into happiness. Soon we have food stamps, and cash welfare, and shops full of Xmas presents, to buy lest Tiny Tim have a wrang.

Gentle reader may not be surprised if I try to return this gift, and exchange it once again for the mystical. For while the story of the Nativity is easy enough to sentimentalize, and captures the imagination of small children (Jesus speaks to them, child to child), it is the document of an incredible event; without precedent, without compare.

It was more incredible to the old Romans, than to us after so many centuries of trying to assimilate it, until we have extracted it from history, reduced it to a myth, and then a Santa meme so we can have some fun with it.

Yet though not many, there are people who will attend the sacrificial mystery at the Midnight Mass; and who, even today, stand before the humblest crèche in contemplative amazement.

Victorian carols could sometimes recapture this, sometimes deafen us with bombast. The idea that God came down from Heaven, in the form of a defenceless child, to be born in a manger among shepherds and sheep — among the poor and defenceless — can never be fully assimilated. The very idea that the Creator of the Universe would care about us, defied all ancient wisdom. That He would bother to come. That He had not better things to do, than:

“To save us all from Satan’s power, when we were gone astray.”

We children like to ask the “Why?” questions. In this, the greatest of them is answered.

That time of year

Well, it’s the time of year to be nice to Protestants.

Some of my best friends are Protestants; and when it comes to events like Christmas, we might as well be on the same side. Ditto for the Greeks (though with some calendar questions), Orthodox generally, and other acquaintance in the farther East, among whom I have a special affection for Armenians, and Copts. Reciprocally, they would warmly deny that they are pagans of any sort. We have, too, much anciently in common with believing Jews. We may not be in Communion with any of these people, nor with Mussulmans, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Animists, &c — but then, if you look at some of the people with whom we are in Communion, we could at least be polite.

While, unlike our current pope, I am gung-ho for proselytizing, I remain opposed to violence. There are conventions to be observed, going back to arrangements after the Thirty Years’ War and, in a more strict interpretation, going back to Our Lord. While Peace and Love are not enjoying a good press at the moment, they really aren’t fashion questions.

In the Koran (8th century; 7th by some accounts) we are told that, “There is no compulsion in religion,” and that verily, there needn’t be, because the evidences and commands of Islam are so wonderfully plain and clear. Elsewhere we are told that Muslims should fight, until there is no more Fitnah in the world, and all disbelief and polytheism has been exterminated, leaving universal submission to Allah. As I am not of the Islamic persuasion myself, it would be presumptuous of me to choose between these imperatives. Islamic jurisprudes have tried to refine a Just War Theory, between these positions, which some might characterize as contradictory.

My own crusader-Christian view derives from the Gospels, in which Just War Theory is not explicitly discussed; and from Saint Augustine, who gets into detail. As I understand (although I will simplify), you put up with an enemy for as long as you can, but when, finally, naught less will avail, you press the Smite button. But you really don’t want to, and your forbearance should stretch a long way. It does snap at some point, however, and to my reading, has snapped in the past, for reasons that could be articulated.

Pacifism, vegetarianism, teetotalism, and non-smoking (except for marijuana), are not positions that I find attractive, although I have endured them, heroically in some cases. I may have passed through a hippie phase, between three and five o’clock on 10th August, 1969, but quickly recovered. Worldly (as opposed to spiritual) perfectionism has (almost) never appealed to me. Mortal evils are different in flavour. They were inscribed on a tablet, memorably, for Moses. Each item could be seen as a form of murder, starting with the attempt to murder God. But they were not a social policy.

I am against unnecessary impositions. There was a time when I was reading John Locke (whose Epistola de Tolerantia says Catholics and Jews should forget about citizenship or voting). Among other soi-disant philosophers, lines are drawn elsewhere in the sand, but to me the key is understood, even by animals. Threaten me, my family, my friends, my tribe, and you may not live to regret it. For this, we could have an international convention, to which dolphins, fleas, and rattlesnakes could be invited.

As to aggression and food-seeking, all bets are off. “Rights language” can never cope with such features of reality. But for people who admit a right to self-defence, what the Mericans call the Second Amendment has been in force since the beginning of time, with or without Militias.

And so has been the Law of Love, that governs the universe, invisibly when it is not shown or expressed. It was to this that Our Lord was constantly alluding. It is not a “nice” law — it is the burning Fire of Creation — but it allows niceness often enough, and is all but obligatory on festive occasions.

Which is why I say, it’s the time of year to be nice to Protestants.

De seculo & religione

Coluccio Salutati is a name to be reckoned with. He is one of the early “humanists” along with such (older) contemporaries as Boccaccio. He is eloquent in a way that has served as a model. He stands at an intersection of life, between worldly and religious aspirations. This is an intersection that remains familiar.

Called “Cicero’s Monkey” for his refined Latin, and who knows what for his chancellorship in the Florentine Republic (back in pre-Medici days), Salutati (1332–1406) could be read today as a kind of fin de 14th-century Rod Dreher, telling his readers to retreat from a world, from which he boldly is not retreating. Back then, retreat meant clearly to a monastery or hermitage; the world was full of such possibilities, and an agrarian economy had been developed to support them. There were monasteries in and around cities, not only in remote countryside, and there were several prominent in Florence. As today, the more urban and urbane were often vexed, especially in Florence, by the convulsions of this world and its usual Party fervors. (Whether Buddhist or Christian, monks are quite capable of getting into fights. They still live in the sublunary, after all.)

Salutati’s book, On the World & Religious Life, translated and published in Harvard’s “I Tatti” series a few years ago (with the original en face), is written as a long letter to a Camaldolese monk who was his patron and mentor, and had been a renowned canon lawyer. This “Father Jerome” is now dealing with political discord within the urban monastery into which he had tried to disappear. Outside, the mobs were conducting the Ciompi Revolt, which we won’t get into.

Florence is prosperous, and getting more so, as modern methods of trade, banking, and investment are being pioneered. God, apparently, allows us in our freedom to pursue riches, if we want them. He even lets riches grow, as Salutati can see, for the industrious and conscientious, as well as for the undeserving.

Yes, we want to retreat from the world, and a very small number of the religiously devoted manage to pull it off. Many fail, but most do not succeed even in starting because their idea of retreat is a romantic posture. They die, still dreaming, of a discipline ungained. They are, as it were, sincere in their insincerity; that is, sincerely distracted from their worldly tasks, by the desire to be elsewhere. (Cue the virtue-signalling.)

In Salutati, as in others of his age, the conflict intervenes even in his account of the world. Sometimes he is astounded by its divine beauty; sometimes he describes it as a toilet; sometimes he manages mildly Manichaean feints in other directions.

But let this Idlepostulator (Idleposter?) observe that the world itself is like that, and answers to our needs, and moods. Salutati set out to write a robust defence of the active life, as his humanist successors would be doing, rather shamelessly, in another century or two. Arguably, his personal misfortunes gradually turned his attention inward, from moralizing to theologizing; and made his classical prose something new.

To me, he is an interesting as well as disappointing figure. To me, the whole “Renaissance” was a mistake, and all the self-conscious “enlightenments” that follow from it are part of a civilizational retreat, from God. But the most convincing “humanists” are the earliest ones; too, its most convincing artists. By this I don’t mean that the great Renaissance figures can be dismissed or forgotten. Dante and Giotto herald glorious things, but I insist that they precede humanism. We followed a path towards the aggrandizement and celebration of Man, and we have continued along it, farther and farther downhill. Six centuries or so later, we probably need more than six centuries to climb back up the hill.

That will not be to a city in the clouds, or “utopia,” however. Late mediaeval Florentine politics stand as guarantee that the world-as-toilet will persist. Rather the limit of our ambition should be to ascend, to a place where the City of God becomes visible again. Much of that “backward progress” must necessarily involve retracing our steps.

Another day

There was a topic called “politics,” plain, or political philosophy, before it became “political science” in deference to post-modern fashions. There is, of course, nothing scientific about it, as there is nothing scientific about anthropology, or sociology, or (God help us) psychology, yet, we shouldn’t give them up on that account. Like politics, as I mentioned yesterday, they are something to talk about, and each was interesting, once upon a time. This was before the labcoats arrived with their calibrators and calculators; their scientific airs, and incomprehensible jargon; before daily tracking polls.

The word “philosophy” is also rather vexed, and people call themselves “philosophers” who are merely post-secondary schoolteachers; but leave that, or it will draw me astray.

“Science” meant knowledge, simply, and there were very many kinds. Or, it did mean that before it began to mean something narrower. Some knowledge might even be had from statistical correlations, but not much. Today, the labcoats patrol the boundaries. They decide who and what gets in.

One’s Bible reading on this topic could begin with I Paralipomenon (I Chronicles), chapter 21. This contains a warning. Recent Bible translations have scrambled this, but Satan has inspired David, in his pride, to take a census, and what he gets for it is a plague. Joab, his general, had warned that nothing good could come of this counting; because nothing good follows from transferring one’s faith from God to digits. We see this writ large in modern science, which distrusts God entirely. It is “science” as a means to power, and in its very nature is a method of coercion.

I mention this fully realizing that my own opposition to number-crunching, for which I find easy Biblical reinforcement, drives Modernists crazy (which is also easy to do). What I mean by it, should anyone be Christian, is to excite scepticism, of the oldest kind. What is our motive in pursuing statistical analysis? What can we learn that wasn’t obvious to start with?

The Greeks, likewise — or should I write, Plato and Aristotle — were not statisticians. More widely, the Greek mathematical fascination was founded in geometry, not arithmetic. (That’s how they could live with such an awkward numeral system.) Plato, like me, was distrustful of democracy, as well as pop entertainment, pop religion, and too, commerce, industry, and mechanical operations. (This did not mean he was against trade, or making a living; he was not insane.) He disparages the victory at Salamis, which surely delighted the crowds. This should shock gentle reader, who might call it treason.

His point, like the Bible’s, is larger than opposition to number-crunching, or “materialism,” per se. He, like his mentor Socrates, is against the worship of power. The State ought not to focus upon self-preservation; “the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.” Its function is to make civilization possible, not to develop an immense war machine.

All of the knowledge he seeks is related to wisdom. In this sense, it is utterly un-abstract. To understand the world is to grow in appreciation of a natural order, that is not our creation.

Today, it seems ludicrous to be against what we call “science”; to think it should serve wisdom rather than plausible, practical, “accountable” ends. This is why our contemporaries would be plenty shocked, if they actually read Greek and Hebrew classics. Far from confirming what Modernity takes for granted, they condemn these things; and they condemn them for reasons that are the opposite of the little reservations we might dream up.

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This old saw from Proverbs could be readily understood by a pagan Greek. Knowledge was understanding, wisdom. It necessarily involved trust and good faith. That is to say, it was not sceptical in our modern, distrustful, faithless sense. It was a fear founded in awe, yielding joy.

Things of the day

Do you believe what you believe, gentle reader? This is a question I sometimes ask of gentle writer. He is fairly free with his opinions, but how many of them have been put to the test?

The tests might include empirical, “scientific” experiments, but there is no finality in them. I love “scientific method” as much as the next guy, but it is only useful for eliminating the more fatuous propositions — for demonstrating what cannot be true, which is useful enough for disposing of the rubbish. A “theory,” which is a supposition or speculation dressed up for a night on the town, may remain standing, sometimes for a century or two. Eventually it, too, will fall, to some spiffier “theory” which accounts for more phenomena; so that the last one only provided a guide towards it. “Settled science” does not exist — at least not among the scientific. It never was and never will be, except in an age like this: an age of superstition.

Notwithstanding, there are rules of thumb, “notions” if you like, that are fairly serviceable. My own notion of gravity works well enough, and has saved me from numerous deaths. The physicists know almost as little about gravity as I do, but have come up with some nice equations, that satisfy our desire for simplicity in contemplating the larger universe. These don’t come close to true understanding, however, nor could unless the connoisseurs of cause and effect take many things for granted.

That Richard Feynman (1918–88) once explained to large audiences how a conversational gambit like, “Auntie slipped on the ice and broke her hip, so she was taken to a hospital,” might pass for a reasoned statement, but it involves countless subsidiary reasonings that would take forever to explain to a Martian. For instance, what is water? why does it freeze? why is it slippery when it freezes? what is a hip? — et cetera. And this is assuming we can speak in Martian; and that the Martian is so incurious, he won’t discover that we don’t know the answer to any of these subsidiary questions, either. And just when we think the Martian has twigged, we realize that serious points have been overlooked, such as Auntie has more than one hip. How many? And why?

Our apprehension of the world, even before visiting Mars and collecting a spaceship-load of fresh ponderables, is a mulch of neglected imponderables, rotting away. Our historians, including the natural historians, can ultimately explain nothing at all. There was always more happening than they could see or record. They slither over the surface, the way one does on black ice in Parkdale, forgetting for the moment that it will disappear in spring, by a process that is implicitly supernatural.

Compare, if gentle reader will, our opinions on politics. Or economics, for I’ve met few people who begin to understand supply and demand — and that it might apply to other things than turnips. We believe, at some ripe level of abstraction, that a politician must act in a certain way, to produce a certain, predictable result. (The “fatal conceit,” as Hayek called it.) Yet such a result has never once happened.

So what is the purpose of this art, or science? The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that politics exist merely to give us something to talk about. It is a form of theatre. Those who become impassioned on the subject may forget that it is a play, or movie. All the world’s a stage, as a playwright once observed. Perhaps it is a kind of Aztec play, in which the human sacrifices are real enough, but still, the sets will be cleared off. We mount the next play as if the first had never been performed. New victims wait patiently in the wings.

I wish that instead we could get back to the more fundamental questions, such as why is ice slippery? The more one looks into it, the more humble one becomes, in the face of a world that we did not create, and where we are passing spectators.

On coal mining

Coal could be the symbol of the “Industrial Revolution,” and by extension of the “Enlightenment” — King Coal and the Almighty Dollar. It was the lump of coal in the stocking-gift of Santa (Saint Nicholas offered a fist instead) that was the engine of our late modernity, or post-Christianity, or whatever we are to call that part of the Western world that turned its back on God, and took up the worship of mammon, instead.

Yes, I am trying to sound like a Bible-thumping preacher from the Old South, that old Christ-haunted South which Flannery O’Connor depicted. There is not room in one brain for two obsessions, or as Jesus said Himself:

“No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will stand by the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

Jesus Christ, hater; non-founder of the Church of Nice. There you have it in black and white.

Coal is at the heart of our niceness; coal and mammon. Yet coal is something I love, and will defend, against the environmentalcases. My mother came from the coalfields of Cape Breton, whose miners and fishermen went out daily to risk their lives, for no reason better than to feed their families — including the children who descended into “social justice warriors,” serving mammon in new and imaginative ways.

I get a certain amount of blowback from writing these Idleposts, and more yesterday than average when I light-heartedly dismissed the political judgement of coal miners, by saying that even they could see (from a mile underground) that a certain Corbyn were an unpleasant idiot. Mea culpa, for while I did mean to disparage Corbyn, the coal miners were “collateral damage.”

Even practically and politically I should not have. In the new and latest political world of Trump and Boris, with parallels on the European continent, the wheels are turning. In Britain, for instance (I speak for a correspondent in Yorkshire), the Conservatives used to represent snooty, college-educated folk, pleasure seekers, “Capital,” and public vested interests; whereas Labour was for The Workers. Now everything is turned around. The interests of The Workers are more and more represented by the Right. On the Left we have the Party of Privilege, the overmonied, dweebs and marijuana smokers.

This is all theatre, however. Every faction represents only itself, and is likely to do so poorly. A more significant divide is between the sane and the crazy; the latter so-called because the cracks run everywhere. The men and women who stand to gain or lose from politics are not philosophers; but they are whole, indivisible moral entities, whose souls are consequential. All are sinners, and (inconveniently, sometimes) we are called to love them, even if we cannot possibly like them. We are to hate their sins.

Morally, a lump of coal is fairly neutral. It is the coal miner we should celebrate, for the heroism of his life. His political opinions (mostly leftwing through the years) are no important part of him. A golden rule, according to the aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, is to judge a man not by his opinions, but by what his opinions have made of him. If socialism has made a man charitable, then socialism was good in his case. I have actually met a few coal miners. I found them not nice, but kind; instinct with decency; absolutely sane.

Lichtenberg also said, “Wit and humour, like all corrosives, should be used with care.”

Pointless happiness

Gentle reader must forgive me: I have been prattling too much about politics lately. My excuse is a poor one: that there have been many political events of apparent significance. Too, some sympathy must be enjoined for a writer who, through many years, had to support a family as a hack journalist — his nature subdued to what it worked in, like the dyer’s hand. Would that I had been cast as a sports columnist. I could have written well on cricket, I think in my vanity; or in some other world might have been a fine spin bowler. Instead I was assigned to practise political spin, which anyone can do.

Happily for me, my views were so rightwing, that I never advanced beyond “token” in the meejah, and was at length driven out entirely. (Even when at my most complacent, editors would tell me to “tone it down.”)

Now, happiness is a jilt. It comes and goes, and ought to be rejected. This, at least, in the words of Doctor Johnson, beloved master of invective and abuse. “It is all cant,” he declared to the ears of Mrs Piozzi, “the dog knows he is miserable all the time.” (Her memoirs are sometimes as readable as Boswell’s.)

Told of a very happy woman, Doctor Johnson replied, “If your sister-in-law is really the contented being she professes herself, Sir, her life gives the lie to every research of humanity; for she is happy without health, without beauty, without money, and without understanding.”

But, happiness does not require such things. It can be had from a pill or a bottle; in my case, from an election in which, as yesterday, Corbyn and the British Labour Party were trounced. I giggled with delight, for instance, at Labour’s loss of a seat in Yorkshire, which they had held since the Jurassic, and were expected to hold until the crack of doom. It may never happen again, but for today, ha!

That made me happy, and for hours, after the exit poll was announced, indicating a landslide, I was irresponsibly giddy. This did not mean I thought, “Good things will start to happen”; only that a good thing had happened. For good things are good, in themselves.

As usual, the pundits are all wrong. They may be right about incidentals they cannot get wrong — for yes, Brexit is now likelier to happen, and be over with, stopping a source of terrible boredom. But more largely, that is not why Boris Johnson won.

He won on superficial charm, for as maniacs go, he is attractive and entertaining. He won because he was running against such an unpleasant idiot as even coal miners can see (i.e., from a mile underground). And he won because, in the course of the campaign, the Conservative Party had promised everyone a giant Christmas stocking of free stuff, which people wanted to believe they could deliver.

No one really cares about principles, except idiots like Corbyn and me; whereas “free stuff” is extremely popular. This includes the better chance of prosperity, in the shortest imaginable term. No successful politician has principles. All, especially the socialists, serve greed. They promise to better your lot by robbing some rich people you never met. As Mrs Thatcher once explained, in an instant of clarity, it can only ever work for a while. (“Eventually you run out of other people’s money.”)

Therefore nothing can come of an election, of lasting value.

True, some pain can be relieved, for a moment, or an irritating figure removed from daily sight. I wouldn’t discount such passing pleasures, just as I wouldn’t deprive a poor man of his chocolate bar. But if one cares for the prospect of a civilization, one must understand that, by voting, it is not upheld.

Rather it is upheld by our behaviour, in agreement with principles immortal and unchangeable, and in defiance of principles that are barbaric. It depends upon broad agreement on what is good, beautiful, and true — things that can’t be voted on. It relies on the action of disinterested persons, neither happy nor unhappy by trait. They must have a conception of right, and the desire to control not others, but themselves.

Derangements I have known

Once, I had a girlfriend who was deranged. This eccentricity was part of what appealed to me about her, at first. I became quite infatuated, until her infidelity cured me, and the apprehension of my own stupidity acquired greater emotional force. At nineteen, one’s judgement may not have matured, owing to inexperience, and hormonal “issues.” (I speak only for boys, of course, and hardly for all of them.) Now I am sixty-six. I still “fall in love,” but have learnt to take aspirin.

Be that as it may, my memory can still retrieve the sordid moments: those which gave me an earthly premonition of Hell. I should have known what I was getting into. Faced with temptation, however, I had neglected to flee. My own parents had warned me against girls like that, but I was of the adolescent, romantic temper.

This preface will provide context for a political observation. While, nearly fifty years ago, I was already accused of “conservatism” by my approximate contemporaries — I was, for instance, pro-American on Vietnam — I had not yet abandoned various “liberal” assumptions. One was the belief that if a lot of people felt something strongly, there must be something in it. They must have a reason. Perhaps they do: but it is more likely to be a psychological reason, than the piffle they cite.

Verily, I am now so old that I can remember some history. I can recall, for instance, “Nixon Derangement Syndrome.” It was manifested by my own girlfriend. Though hardly interested in politics — becoming a ballet dancer was more her thing — there was Watergate to contend with, just surfacing in the news. I was pro-ballet.

My views on Watergate were derived from an article in the French leftwing newspaper, Le Monde. They were, “If a French president did this, no one would bat an eye. Perhaps the Americans are incurably naïve.”

Still, I did not care for Nixon myself, one way or the other. My only serious objection to him, was his apparent eagerness to cut and run from Vietnam, and consort with Red China. I also thought he looked, “Tricky.”

But then my girlfriend had a breakdown. It was provoked by the mere sight of Nixon’s portrait — a photo on the front page of my copy of the New York Times. She began actually frothing, and exclaiming that he was, “The most evil man in the history of the world!” She became so excited that — as we were sitting in a respectable café — I did whatever I could to calm her. Nothing worked.

We had never discussed “Nixton” before. The diagnostic phrase, “Nixon Derangement Syndrome,” was not then available; but that is what I had been witnessing. It struck me that, in addition to knowing nearly nothing about the history of the world, she knew absolutely nothing about American politics. Her own thoughts on Nixon had been gathered from the air, the way one gets some other diseases.

Since, I have lived through “Reagan Derangement Syndrome,” “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” and most recently, “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” They have been very much alike, although this last seems most virulent. One wonders if the equivalent of a flu shot could be designed for this, for derangements are contagious, and potentially fatal.

There were other moments when I speculated that my girlfriend could benefit from escort in buckles to a padded cell, or from therapeutic electric shocks. But this was the first such event I had to deal with. By now, I wonder if half the population is in need of such restraints.


A woman who has the management of a household, all the tasks associated with that, plus the charge of, say, four or more children, along with the home-schooling of each of them, is not a hero. She is called to be a heroine, as we say or said in good English. To make her gender-neutral is to diminish her, for she is doing something only she can do, and she is a she. A man would need assistance.

To ask this woman also to hold down a job, in our feckless commercial world, is to ask the impossible. There are limits to what people can do, which apply even to saints of either sex, though as we were once taught, “With God, all things are possible.”

One thinks of Grace Darling, or at least I do, for as a little boy I was subjected to Wordsworth’s poem on that topic. She was the young heroine who, with her lighthouse-keeper father, rescued nine souls from a rock-smashed paddlesteamer in the Farne Islands (off county Northumberland) on 7 September 1838. And this in a rowboat, launched by her mother, which in the weather should never have put to sea: furious walls of water. All, but especially the girl, became in their time and after, the fame of England.

Indeed, I was subjected to many heroic stories of women in my very backward school (St Anthony’s, Lahore), and to this day have visions of Grace Darling with her oar, Florence Nightingale with her lantern, Edith Cavell before the Kaiser’s firing squad. (It was a boy’s school, incidentally.)

A mother is in the business of the rescue of souls. Absent her, the children may well be lost — in the full Christian sense, which passeth understanding. Even here in Parkdale, I have observed several heroic mothers, including one disfigured while rescuing someone else’s child from the wheels of an absent-minded truck, and another raising fine Catholic daughters in despite of a monstrous, utterly faithless father. One is not called — until one is called.

Feminism has set its neck against heroic women, and against the calling of maternity. The last I heard of Grace Darling, she and her fully deserved reputation were being mocked by a cute clever young female siren, whose answer to “excess children” was to abort them. To say she had reversed Victorian attitudes would be too tame; her view of the world was consistently anti-human. Yet she herself I might cast as a victim — of a godless home and frequently satanic system of public education. I add this last because they preach lessons that deny the natural moral order, and sabotage simple human goodness with unholy demands. I celebrate each day Ontario’s revolting teachers walk out on strike — ever demanding more money for their (wildly overpaid) selves.

This is why home-schooling has become necessary, for all those not provided with great wealth, and even for some who are, for they cannot trust private schools which promote the same moral disorder as the public ones. By adolescence, all but a few of their pupils have sized up the world as a playground for perfect selfishness, or directed both their malignity and idealism towards “social justice warring.” And yet, do nothing charitable on their own account; who live to protest.

The mother in a fine family is not alone, who has a good husband. But even without him she is not alone. From the tax department down to mass and social media, she is under assault. She must be heroically formed, to make her stand against them all; to pay the real costs that accompany “going against the flow.”

Politics have become, at best, a necessary evil. They require us to try, within our means, to reverse that flow; to do whatever can be done to restore a sane moral order, in which people are encouraged to do what is good, and discouraged from doing what is bad, rather than vice versa. Men have their rôle in this struggle, but I am hardly the first to notice that women are on the front line.

Or that, once their children have grown, our whole society is deprived of women who have come through that challenge, and are now free to offer this world the fruit of their wisdom, maturity, and strength — as well as to receive the tribute love of grandchildren.