Essays in Idleness


A look inside

Jean Vanier is the latest Catholic hero to go down. No sooner had we begun to name schools after him, but an internal investigation revealed an “inconvenient truth.” Not all of his relations with young attractive female volunteers had been chaste. Nor was he just slipping.

The grisly details may be found on the Internet. I have made no effort to examine the charge-sheet, case by case, though I can see it looks bad enough. Not McCarrick class (Vanier seems to have molested only technically adult women), but darkly hypocritical all the same. I seem to have misplaced my enthusiasm for smut, as part of my retreat from hack journalism, or I would provide more details.

Our hero came from a good family. (His father was Canada’s last plausibly viceregal governor-general, if that means anything to anyone anymore.) The institution founded by his son, L’Arche, with the play on his mother’s maiden surname, did commendable works for those with “developmental disabilities,” by all accounts I’ve heard: hundreds of outlets in dozens of countries. Jean Vanier was also internationally respected as a philosopher and theologian: some thirty books. I’ve never read one, so must pretend to have no opinion.

He was a repository for trust and adulation. He cultivated a “look” which I would describe as aggressively benign. He played the saint in public, well: he was a master of publicity. Owing, no doubt, to my personal nastiness, I was suspicious of him all along.

When a Catholic in his position systematically avoids such an unpleasant topic as abortion, and speaks of everything else with a cloying niceness, my suspicions are aroused. Though I kept my views politely to myself, it was only because he was none of my business, and I’ve seldom had a need for more enemies. He didn’t seem to have any, however.

“If the biographers of the saints would write of their defects as well as of their virtues, their biographies would be longer.” So said Saint Alphonsus Liguori to one of his novices.

Another of his nuggets, from Naples a quarter millennium ago, was, “Everybody has defects of character. I have more than others.” It was a pre-modern boast.

What they were I am unable to ascertain; even a modern Irish biographer finds only tepid ones. But God would find more. Too, let it be said, that one makes one’s confession to Him, not to the rabble.

But the irritation, with the late Jean Vanier, is that he kept his “little foible” up for too many decades. Moreover, and more damning, I gather he had developed a theological patter as part of his seduction routine.

Good taste, if nothing else, requires the sinner not to make godly claims. This is, arguably, the worst feature of sexual and all other exploitation. It is cruelty, of a vicious kind, for when the victim is abandoned he or she will be alienated not only from the figure of authority, but also from the God for whom he presumed to speak. Terrible harm is done to a soul who was trusting.

Terrible things happen: we must be “comfortable” with that. We cannot know to what depths of depravity another human is capable of sinking — it is always lower than we surmised. Yet we can know, with assurance, exactly what we have ourselves done, or intended; and we ought to know that forgiveness can come only from the Witness of all our crimes. For He is also the ultimate Victim.

A man like Vanier now serves as a dire warning. You think you are a nice guy? You’re not.

Joy & foreboding

Thanks to juxtaposition, the Christian feasts and fasts, both Western and Eastern, have not only kept the observant on their toes. The liturgical schedule also teaches, by increments, as all of the liturgy has been doing (or, “had” for the cynical) these last many centuries. The juxtaposition of “Mardi Gras” with “Ash Wednesday” is meant to be abrupt. Not meant, perhaps, by designing liturgists, but by the believers themselves.

Shrove Tuesday was, in its ramifications I think, an invention of the people. We will have a big party and joyously clear away the clutter from our barnyard lives; then we will face the morrow with ash on our foreheads. Both adventures are fully Catholic, “in spirit.” But one would be meaningless without the other. It is not merely cynical, but impoverishing, to take only the one we prefer.

We do this “secularly” (i.e. profanely) at the New Year. On the Eve we drink merrily and pig out. We used to extend this with indoor garden parties, to a levée upon the next day, up here in the frozen North. The governor or mayor would be waiting for us. That seemed too formidable and disciplined, however, so now we just do the headaches, quietly privatized — those of us who were young and animate.

My own recollection of having drunk Southern Comfort too copiously of a Near Year’s, for the first and very last time, comes back to me after half-a-century. I am still trying to get the taste out of my mouth. I am still trying to account for the girl in whose strange bed I awoke next day — we were both fully clothed I must assure gentle reader — and who possibly hadn’t been my only mistake. I mustn’t have been thinking ahead. I don’t actually remember what I was thinking. My only defence was being a teenager. I knew immediately that it wouldn’t work.

But on New Year’s Eve, thought of the morrow is generally “abstract.” Such items as Resolutions are, as most of us realize, “for the record.” We might label them “fake news” in advance. We know ourselves well enough not to believe them. As Mister Wilde said, “I can withstand anything except temptation.” We forgot to anticipate, how our Resolutions would be enforced.

Ash Wednesday is, for the faithful Western Christian, not a joke, however. It is, to the believer in Christ and His Church, scarily specific. No matter what one’s capacity for pancakes and sausages, we know what is coming. There will be forty days of it — morning, afternoon, and night. This is what I mean by “foreboding.” To one of saintly disposition, there is joy in this, too: in the simplicity and purification; in the looking forward to Ends. This disposition does not come naturally to me, however.

There are moments, perhaps, when I feel that my appetites are conquered. This is a ruse of the Devil; and one of his cleverest at that. Imagine one’s subsequent surprise, when the double-dose of temptation arrives, and one has neglected to request divine help in facing it down. Or alternatively, one was a humble Christian, and cautious about playing the hero. We have learnt to try without the expectation of success, and therefore without boasting, even to ourselves. For how many times have we failed?

Hence the self-knowledge, never to be abandoned, in our preparation for the annual fight with the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. We will try to accomplish what seems within our modest powers, assisted by a Lord who knows that we are toddlers, learning, as it were, to walk. Let’s get that right, for now. But some day we will run — into His arms.

On paper logic

My old friend George Jonas, now forcibly confined within the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, observed of the times:

“In the not too distant past, people who were illiterate could neither read nor write. These days they can, with disastrous results for the culture.”

He quoted his own old friend Stephen Vizinczey:

“No amount of learning can cure stupidity, and formal education positively fortifies it.”

On stupidity itself, I like to quote Robert Musil:

“If it were not so hard to distinguish stupidity from talent, progress, hope, or improvement, no one would want to be stupid.”

How often we revert to the dispersion from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, when craving for a little common sense.

Over here in Canada, where the last few surviving reactionaries sometimes meet for whisky and a smoke, I was glad to discover myself not the only gentle reader who noticed the connexion between my last two Idleposts.

Some — not Catholic, I noticed — took me to be subtly criticizing the bible-thumping impulse. This showed discernment, on their part. From Gospel-printing by the million in a thousand languages, to Bible “apps” on your “smart phone,” our common religion does not suffer from lack of texts. Let me say for the record, folks, that I have no objection to Scripture, per se, only to the glibness with which it is so commonly received.

Can people accurately interpret the original substance of works translated after thousands of years? And on one quick reading? On its face, this question answers itself. They cannot possibly, without much help, and a patient humility far beyond the normal.

But if Jesus is God, and if he really founded a Church as He said, and introduced the sacrifice of the Mass, with a liturgy formed and steeped in her Scriptures, there must be some way in. When Our Saviour told his Apostles to disseminate the Word to the ends of the earth, I frankly doubt he was anticipating either moveable or digital type.

Cor ad cor loquitur, as Saint John Henry Newman took for his motto, from Saint Francis de Sales and much older sources. It is a phrase that contains many dimensions, explanatory yet inexplicable as many Christian things. (Newman himself did not try to explain it.)

We are not distributing a text, although it is Holy Scripture — whether the part written before He came down from Heaven, or the part that was written after He returned — in the largest possible number of copies at the lowest possible price. This is not a commercial enterprise, with missionary salesmen. As an exercise in communication, it is conducted from heart to heart and is — miserable word — ineffable.

The function of our evangelism is not promotional nor statistical. There is no formula. Men are not converted by syllogisms, Newman said. We do not tell the story of Christ, except to children. We distribute Him.

Selfie deaths

This week’s plunge into the mass meejah has yielded more obvious things to say than any since last week. Consider, if you please, the phenomenon of selfie deaths. According to a “global survey,” which I will believe if I’m in the mood, there have been hundreds of them. Personal biological extinction may follow from trying to get a picture at cliff edge, in proximity to waterfalls, with wild voracious animals, from moving vehicles, &c. A distinction is made between events that were foreseeable; and those which were not, such as the selfie-taker in Lebanon who got blown up by a car bomb that had been contrived for another cause entirely.

A young lady who is depicted cavorting atop the Pedra da Gávea by Rio de Janeiro — about half a mile of sheer drop — is the Twitterish heroine of the moment. She was able to creep down the steeply sloping side an improbable distance, then wave her arms. But many in her Instagram audience were able to post photos of themselves doing exactly the same thing, while they were in Rio, so we may have to yawn. At first glance, the story seemed to report that 259 had died in this way; but on more careful reading the number declined to zero. It was that “global survey” — apparently done by Google search, then dressed up to look “scientific.”

Still, who needs to master mountain-climbing if you can risk your life without any skills whatever? All you need is a toke of marijuana and a “smart phone.” You can even omit the weed, if you have no brains at all. The mean age of a selfie death is 22.94, it says here, and most accidents visit the 18-to-24 demographic (“millennials”). The overwhelming majority of defunct selfie-takers are boys (i.e. cisgender males), and India alone hosts one-half of fatalities. (America, however, proudly leads in selfie firearm accidents.) Most selfies — or koolfies, restaurantfies, musclefies, dentisfies, &c, to use the latest terms of art — end uneventfully, we learn. So much for our statistical overview.

There appears to be an international effort to reduce selfie deaths, by banning access to almost everything. It is probably led by a Canadian.

When an acquaintance leapt off the Bloor Viaduct (this was before selfies were a thing) the city fathers and mothers spent, I think it was, seven million dollars to put a tall, high-tech fence on the bridge, which would seriously delay the next person to try it (though give him some extra height). This figure would not include the cost of their endless studies and committee meetings.

Had I been in charge, we would have put up a sign, requesting those committing suicide to avoid traffic, underpassing in the ravine. In English and French. Total cost, derisory. But then I would be criticized for heartlessness, when in fact I was guilty of heartless black humour. The funny thing is, the sign would have worked, most likely. For laughter precludes suicide, in most instances. And if they don’t see the humour in it, well, we tried our best.

Contagion out of China

Surely, gentle reader is against printing. Although it may have some legitimate uses, it contributes to literacy in irresponsible ways. Generally, I’m opposed to making copies, whether we are stamping out car fenders or restaurant menus today. It even looks like cheating.

Blueberries are also produced in volume, along with corn cobs and mice, with some human intervention; it is true that, from one moment to the next, we want one thing or another. And it is true that I have felt somewhat paganized by a bowl of blueberries (plus maple syrup and thick cream). But never, to my knowledge, by a single blueberry; whereas, a single sheet of printed book may cause all kinds of mischief.

The Chinese noted the difficulty, not so much from inking stone in the Han Dynasty, and pressing cloth over it; nor when woodblocks were first employed in the T’ang; but later among the Sung elect. From laziness, I assume, they introduced moveable characters in carved wood or clay. (In a dangerous innovation, the Koreans soon cast type in metal.) Learned books were printed in runs of one hundred copies or less. They would (at first) find their ways only into the studies of reliable, backward-looking, Confucian scholars.

But the impartial observer would notice that thousands were printed from some of these blocks, for “pop lit” including Chinese novels. In cities, especially, whole populations were at risk of becoming prosaic. Outside entertainment had invaded previously innocent minds. Within another eight centuries or so, there’d be radio, television, Internet, fake news; to say nothing of repeating floorplans in skyscrapers.

A Chinese sage slipped out of a book on my shelf — I think it was Volume Five, Part One of Needham. He had been warning of the consequences even at the time. It was like gunpowder. The Orientals had discovered that, too, but had the decency not to use it (at first). Printing was also a kind of explosion.

People’s lives were seriously disturbed. Primary schools became commonplace, and literacy was spread, recklessly among the urban masses. As books became very numerous and cheap, they were read quite casually. Soon there were catalogues and advertising flyers. Trade manuals encouraged wild, do-it-yourself attitudes. The artisan class bought in heavily; many set up print shops to advance their own wealth and prestige. Men of humble origin would rise in society. Spoilt, discontented children would trail in their wake. Printing has much to answer for.

Europeans are slow, and more centuries would pass until the Catholic Church made perhaps her greatest error. This was to allow Gutenberg and others to spring moveable type on Europe, and actually to encourage it. Within mere decades we had the Protestant Reformation on our hands. By now we are almost used to this chaos.

Mea culpa: I early formed the habit of reading books myself, and by the age of five had acquired an addiction. It hardly improved my behaviour; in fact it put all sorts of ideas into my head. Compounding this, I also learnt to write. And I continue to do it, day after day, because, quite frankly, I cannot help myself.

A killjoy writes

Who knows what the bankruptcy point should be in public accounts? (I am trying to write a “lede” that will shake off all my readers.)

Certainly not oeconomists. (That first “o” was inserted out of euphoria.) The old-fashioned, “classic” ones, who wrote on this topic in ways that could be understood, and thus disagreed with, had the notion that when a person, human or corporate, reached the point where he could not pay his debts, he was bankrupt. There were laws to formalize this, so that customers could avoid being cheated, investors ditto, and creditors might grab what they could. The bankrupt entity would cease to have a good trading reputation. This is because it would be extinct.

Or perhaps we might backtrack to the term “insolvency.” This is a condition even poor people can participate in, without the ponderous intervention of the law. Poor person goes to corner store, tries to buy something on credit. Proprietor says, no. The police only come if the scene gets out of hand. (Or, used to come. The withdrawal of police protection from “little people” is a sign of our times.)

What interests me at this moment, and some others, is the bankruptcy of huge national states. Play with such words as “unfunded liabilities,” or even compare revenue and expenditures, and one is soon in wonderland. At what point do the “service costs” on public debt reach the point of no return? Why does nothing happen at that point? (It seems to still happen in private companies.)

All my adult life, in Canada and the other English-speaking countries, our political masters have been running up debt. This is true of all parties. There were laments about this, many years ago, from the rightwing parties, but at the moment they are, as it were, leading the charge. And while it is true that several countries still publish annual budgets, they don’t mean anything. In Natted States Merica, they may not even be published.

Now, gentle reader may be aware that my career in oeconomic journalism lapsed nearly forty years ago. But there was a time when I had the fondest clue. I used to look at the published figures, and try to make sense of them. It was a joyless existence. Still, I was able to provide myself with the illusion that there could be a responsible government. Just none that I examined.

Recently I wrote an Idlepost in defence of materialism. Granted, it was paradoxical. Today I would like to add a word in defence of money. We should ignore it at times, and I often do. The proud Aristotle says the magnificent man “does not count the cost.” Yet I’m in favour of having something real to ignore, rather than having to ignore things that are imaginary anyway.

Years ago I advocated a return to the gold standard, or some equivalent basket of commodities, for the same reason I still advocate the former (though distrust the latter). I don’t like money to be abstract. And my reason for this is moral rather than practical, or practical, but in a moral way. I should wish people and governments alike to endure consequences from going bankrupt, and therefore to avoid it more often.

In a similar way, I would like morality not to be abstract. I should want it to be fixed, like old-fashioned money, when Kings or Parliaments weren’t tampering with it.

Current Canadian example: when you block the railroad on purpose, you go to gaol. You pay, so to speak, and since you know that you will pay, you are less likely to do it. But now that all you fear is “negotiations,” it is like bankruptcy. It becomes a question of how big you are, and whom you can intimidate, with the help of such demonic powers as “the meejah.”

True love

Though I’d hate to criticize a holy father, I’m not sure Pope Gelasius knew what he was doing when he declared the Feast of Valentine, towards the end of the fifth century. For one thing, it would never be clear which Valentine we should celebrate. We had so many Roman martyrs by that name, and two centuries had already passed since we could have gotten to the bottom of it. Even at the time there was confusion between Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni; although they might have been the same. A previous pope (the first Julius, scourge of Arians) built a basilica on the Flaminian Way, at the place where whichever Valentine was martyred, and this was a popular site of pilgrimage (it says here, in my St Andrew’s missal).

Perhaps we will discover that the two men were indeed one, should we have leisure to investigate in the hereafter. For worldly purposes now, it doesn’t matter. I am content with the legend of his miraculous gift of sight to the judge’s blind daughter — that judge who had condemned him — sending her a note signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell. This would be a fine act of Christian retribution.

For Christian love is a strange thing. One might almost call it paradoxical. How are you to get even with him who has done you an ill turn? With those who hate and curse and despitefully use you? Who persecute you? Saint Valentine shows the way.

As weapons go, it is extremely efficacious. I’ve had it used on me, and gosh does it sting. Years later, I am still feeling painfully guilty.

I even tried it on one occasion when I was feeling uncharacteristically pure. But not being a saint — as gentle reader may have noticed — I added a nasty little barb. I pretended that I hadn’t noticed what my “persecutor” had done, when doing him a big favour. He would now be condemned to wondering about me; to wondering if he could cover his traces. He’d be thinking that he owed me, in the moral bazaar of life, when really I owed him. For his ill turn proved to be, for me, a net benefit.

This is not so surprising. Those capable of candour, with themselves, will acknowledge many such unintended boons. They begin with graduation from the school of hard knocks, and may continue until God has determined that martyrdom is the only way to save you. Those who said “please” and “thank you” along the road, had no effect upon you at all. Those who actually took the trouble to hurt you did favours that you could not have received in any other way. Why shouldn’t you bless them?

But still we haven’t got near to the strangest factor, Love, itself. It makes a mess of everything. It disturbs every routine. It is, I fear to say, revolutionary. We do things, out of Love, that no one enjoying a comfortable life would dream of doing. Enduring Love is a splendid form of enduring madness.

And it is not a Valentine’s card. Those, for the most part, are self-interested. Flowers, too, are often just contractual. Nothing wrong with self-interest, in itself — our very Salvation is in our self-interest — but it mustn’t be in conflict with an incomparably greater interest, that ought to delete the craven. A plan of seduction, for example, isn’t intended to do another any good. Rather it is meant to enslave another person, for one’s temporary pleasure.

This is why chastity till marriage is so important. My younger gentle readers are invited to think this through. And to consider how often the true Valentine is a gesture of farewell.

Sceptical thoughts

Why did the Romans decline and fall? Well, there’s an easy answer to begin with. The Romans declined because they spoke an inflected language. They declined because they had nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. They also conjugated, but we won’t go there. Ablatives and “locatives” were challenge enough (they promised me sex, but here was a seventh declension), and while I can hardly speak for gentle reader, the irregular nouns used to drive me squirrelly. Still do.

But why did they fall?

For the same reason everybody falls, is the easy answer. No one is biologically immortal, and nations, empires, are just like them. Sooner or later something fatal hits them. Some, like the Egyptians, live to a very great age, and some, like the European Union, are stillborn. Wipe your tears.

Lead plumbing can be a killer, it is said: people might hit each other over the head with the pipes. A number of other “environmental” causes have been adduced on the Internet. Decadence is often cited. The possibility that there was no single cause has yet to be examined; for it would complicate the question. Whether the Romans should be defined as an Empire, or a Notion, might be spilled across the table. The Empire is almost certainly gone, but the Notion survives in the world of Notions, vaguely mixed with other ones. For years now, I have been living in the Roman Church, which has been in ruins. But she is used to that.

It was the Empire that went, because Empires go. One dynasty succeeds another, until we get to the last. Then we have new management, usually savage. I am, as it were, a fan of empires, for within their territories there is often peace, and a desire for order. Those who have experienced the contrary, savage arrangements, may pine for the old imperialist days. A little nation may be safe within an empire; on its own it is likely to be eaten. Whereas, semi-voluntary assimilation is a less painful fate.

My own theory, presented in public bars, is that the pagan Romans fell because of rationalism. They had too much, and it gradually poisoned them. Glibness is lethal, according to me, and it sneaks up on you. Confidence in “reason” leads to taking things for granted. Eventually, even the irrational have to pay. The Romans thought anyone in his right mind would want to be a Roman; the Americans get like that sometimes. They didn’t realize that most people are in their wrong minds, including them.

Take, for example, the old pagan Roman religion. A cliché tells us that they were legalistic. In their worship, they made elaborate contractual arrangements with the gods. “We do this” (worship the gods correctly, down to the most tedious and finical details), “and you do that” (bring a fine harvest, or whatever). But all societies are legalistic in this way, from the least to the most sophisticated. It is one of those things hard-wired into the human brain. We all hope to control what is beyond our control, except a tiny minority of the wise. The worst fools believe in technology.

What made the Romans special was that they believed in law. They did not follow formulae irrationally, and blindly out of stubborn tradition; but rationally, out of calculation. Rationalism makes madness really stand out.

You wouldn’t have caught the Greeks doing this. They always knew they were done for, no matter how clever they happened to be. Unconscious prejudice was good enough for them. For the Romans, the end came more as a surprise.

Was this why the (western) Roman Empire collapsed? Partly, I think: a certain cocky over-confidence in their ability to handle and regulate things, that they should leave alone; an incipient quasi-socialist powerlust. A lot of empires went down that way, and the more rational, the quicker.

The other reason was snapping turtles.

Now granted, all European snapping turtles were extinct long before the Romans, but you know what I mean. For as a child hiking along the western branch of the Credit River, I learnt not to mess with them. So maybe it wasn’t snapping turtles, precisely, but the Romans liked to mess.

In defence of materialism

The cathedrals were useful in their time; by human standards, for quite a long time. The works of Homer were also useful. One might argue that both still have some use. I mention the latter because I’m a perfesser of literature — a “tweedjacket” — in my spare time (or not, in my spare time). This activity encourages me to think about things. Being alive also contributes to this process. The question, “What is the use of this?” often occurs to me. Too, I ask this question on other occasions: What is the use?

Which is not to say I am a utilitarian, for I’m often able to distinguish broad from narrow. There are people, for instance, and I’ve met them, who find use only in things that contribute to making money and, in particular, for themselves. In my view, Trump’s toadies are a little broader than those who imagine well-paid administrative positions, making, for instance, the regulations that will impoverish others but enrich themselves, and others like them. But I have probably expressed my views on socialism adequately.

My ambitions for influence consist of making things. A cathedral, to give a good example, is or can be an important agent of influence. I may first think of Chartres, but next perhaps of Nidaros in Trondheim, where King Olav is buried; or several hundred others. All of my examples remain splendid, though much altered over the centuries, even when only by wear, or when reduced to ruins. One may calculate only approximately how many devout and pilgrims have passed through or, more recently, how many tourists. Some of those might still be influenced, at least to take selfies that prove they were there.

The purpose of my little sermon this morning is to defend materialism. Modern man has no taste for it. He is thoroughly spiritual, in one sense of the word. He prefers abstractions to real things. He does not build in stone. His works are almost invariably shoddy, and will be soon cleared away. But this does not mean we should build for the ages. We can’t.

Consider, if thou wilt, eggs, wrapped in the traditional Japanese manner, dangling in a chain of five, ingeniously, indeed securely bound in rice straw or hemp twine. This string is as transient as a cherry blossom, supposing the purchaser intends to eat the eggs, rather than have them carefully sucked by his weasel. Each egg itself is, as surely everyone has noticed if only “subconsciously,” a masterpiece of non-industrial design. It is true, one must crack it to make an omelette, although there are people (socialists for instance) who simply enjoy smashing eggs. Note, however, that both egg and omelette are physical objects, whatever they are made to embody. They come and go.

In Kipling somewhere, the suggestion is made:

“Eat, Sahib, eat. Meat is good against sorrow. I also have known. Moreover the shadows come and go, Sahib; the shadows come and go. These be curried eggs.”

Now, I could try to explain that cathedrals last longer than curried eggs, but I’d wager gentle reader already knows that. For balance I might cite my motto from Baudelaire that, “A man can go three days without food, but without poetry — Never!”

We live in a world of embodiment. The spirits are not visible here, unless they take a material form. The form requires a body to exist. My father’s body, to give just one example, does not exist any more. That he still exists I believe — and do embody in declaration of faith — but in what form I cannot imagine.

To be in the world is a material function, as any Zen bonze could tell you, in a brush painting. It serves a purpose. Every material thing does. Let us therefore embrace these things, sacramentally.


At my age, you don’t learn anything, according to current fashionable wisdom (which is always wrong). It also denies that memory is, or can contribute to, learning. (My “always” will cover that, too.) Things which made no sense when they were happening, gain clarity of explanation, after years of experience and thought. We all start in ignorance, complete except for the little instinct with which humans are endowed (as compared to, say, flies). To the modern mind, however, that is where we end.

This is one of the principles that underlie what Pope Ratzinger called, “the dictatorship of relativism.” No idea, and no single culture — verily, no fact — is to be preferred. But since inconsistency is another of its underlying principles, the opinions of the kakistocracy are generally exalted.

The word, of which I was reminded by its use in a rightwing blog, should be revived. It was first employed in the 17th century, against those “sanctimonious incendiaries” who spread the political “ideals” associated with puritanism. (“Political correctness” has been with us for a while.) Formed from the Greek, it means “government … by the worst, least qualified, and most unscrupulous.” (The Wicked Paedia has this right for a change.) Or to bring this up to date: by the progressive factions. The word was ab initio meant to serve as the opposite of the aristocratic principle.

Democracy is not kakistocracy, necessarily, but tends to lead towards it, especially where universal suffrage is imposed. The blind lead the blind, and seldom to a good place. The credulity of the masses is easy to exploit, at least for the short time until that place is reached. “Social media” are wonderfully designed to clinch it. Whereas, those with experience and historical understanding often find themselves in a small minority, shouting their warnings in vain. Their very shouting tends to get them surrounded, by the kakistocracy who, because they are indefensibly stupid, are allergic to debate.

The political policies of the kakistocracy consist, fairly consistently, of repeating programmes that have never worked. Socialism is a good example, in any of its forms. It can be made to appeal to a large audience which, through youth or mental defect, has no appreciation of socialism in practice, and thus judges it from its rosy claims, rather than from its murderous history. The “AOC” phenomenon — those who received their moral and political formation on contemporary college campuses — who may or may not be articulate by the gift of nature — is the “cutting edge” of kakistocracy today. But as, for instance, Bernie Sanders demonstrates at great age, the condition can be incurable. Not only has nothing been learned through the years but, thanks to perversions of the human will, nothing can be learned. The appeal will invariably be to youth.

For this reason, in stable societies, there has always been, in addition to the respect youth owes to age, the hallowing of tradition. Departure from inherited “norms” will be received less with excitement than with horror. Proposals to reverse settled customs, or the definition of virtues that have guided us, will be met with proposals for prompt and severe punishment. Letting such innovations out of the bag, the box, or the closet, will be condemned — perhaps in a thoughtful way, but more likely in the spontaneous kneejerk manner, which should be discounted because it might not succeed. But if it works, fine.

Up here in the High Doganate, we have an aristocratic disposition. We would prefer “government … by the best, most qualified,” and genuinely virtuous, not only by inheritance but by arduous training. In this sense we are Platonic; in the desire for breadth, Aristotelian. To the kakistocratic factions, that currently dominate our politics, we are fanatically opposed.

Aesthetic economics

Must a commercial culture be vile?

One thinks of Venice, Florence, Genoa; of Suzhou in late Sung Dynasty China; of many cities that were unquestionably commercial, from what we can reconstruct of them in the (educated) imagination. They were celebrated for their beauty as well as for their wealth. Now, if we could return to them, we would probably complain. No Starbucks; plumbing issues; can’t find a bank machine. All this useless beauty, and the smell is intolerable. Or “natural,” I would reflect, stepping out of an aeroplane that had just landed in tropical Asia.

Being a weird person, and possibly unAmerican, I loved the scent of this accelerated rotting. “I’m home,” I felt, recalling childhood in what Mao used to call the “Third World.” This was when Calcutta was my favourite city and, monster that I am, was thrilled by utterly unWestern juxtapositions of rich and poor. I felt comfortable in the raw, human, “capitalist” environment of the bazaar with its bargaining. For back in the day before micro-regulation, bargaining was normal, everywhere. Today it is concealed.

Death was also normal, regardless of age. There were always people who lived superbly long — into their nineties, for instance — though infant mortality brought the average way down. Today, if we counted those who were aborted, we would see that, statistically, not much has changed, although an appearance of longevity is credited, to modern medicine. (It should go to soap.)

Although it had been decaying, the splendour of Calcutta could still be detected, and seen in postcards from a century before, when it was the second city of the British Empire. Alas, built more of plaster than of brick or stone, it wasn’t going to last. It required what today would be ruinously costly maintenance.

Well, a lot has changed, and the middle of Calcutta is now glass, concrete, steel. At one glimpse it is interchangeable with many thousand other cities, and the streets are clogged with cars instead of carts and tongas. Dominance belongs to new professional classes. The worst, most painful forms of poverty are ending, as millions from the countryside come to find jobs, and live in miniature, electrified apartments. All the old splendour is being restored, with air conditioning; or in most cases, demolished and cleared away. Rah! Rah! for the new Raj of micro-regulated capitalism!

I once watched a man, almost naked in a scant, filthy cotton dhoti, prevent an arch from collapsing in my hotel suite, with a single, bent nail. A hammerhead was apparently his only tool, and the nail came from a tiny, precious, collection. He looked embarrassed when I offered a five rupee tip, as if he were more used to whippings. If I’d bought him a saw, his life would have been destroyed. One thing would lead to another. Instead, I was amazed by his transcendental focus on the problem: how to fix it without using a second nail.

This is, I think, the first thing to know about the economy of the past. Labour was cheap, but materials were expensive. Tyranny was different from what it is today, when it has been transferred more from nature to men. Goods become disposable as income and technology “improve.” The chief environmental problem becomes: Where to put all the garbage?

For note: it was made to be disposed of, and much of it won’t rot on its own.

Whereas, in older times, when there was much less stuff, people were more jealous to keep it. They would live with their modest possessions, and the question of beauty was therefore asked from the first day. Wealth was not expressed in convenience, but in marble.