Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

On the invention of fake news

Among the pleasures of the “lockdown” or quarantine, when one tires of all the breaking tedious news from the present, is to stretch out and read — about great plagues and catastrophes of the past. They put us cosseted bourgeois to shame. As pandemics go, ours is a luxury that few other societies could afford, and on which none until recently would have much remarked. Contemporary, or near-contemporary accounts, from Procopius to Boccaccio to Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, are among those I happen to have on my shelves. They will have to do while bookstores and libraries are closed. There are Internet editions, of course, but one must not read them, or one will go blind.

Until recently (say, the last few centuries), there were no official instructions to deal with plagues. Things like “social distancing” evolved on their own, very very quickly. The idea of “infection” sprang from easy observation, and is therefore quite ancient. Then, as now, you lived or you died.

I mentioned Defoe especially because he is like a modern journalist: he makes everything up. But he has gone to some trouble to find good sources, and is consistently plausible. Older writers are slowed by their obsessions with fact and accuracy. In this respect, we might say there has been a continuous decline from Herodotus to the New York Times, except, it was more like a sudden precipitous drop, wherever it occurred. In past times, even rulers needed some reliable information about their (much smaller or less populous) domains; today, as we see most starkly in Red China, a totalitarian dictator has only to give the themes, and vast departments of his loyal scribes will copy and embellish, in both Eastern and Western media.

Defoe, too, marks a boundary. In the 18th-century, at the flourishing of the Enlightenment, the novel and hack journalism were born, as twins. They separated generically, but not in spirit. The ancient entertainment of “the tale” was replaced by the modern “narrative.” A new cult of empathy and sensitivity were part of the afterbirth. The idea that we should feel “as if we were there” anticipated television by two centuries or so. The replacement of reality, by virtual reality, did not, as we assume, require advanced technology. Instead it required only a desire to fake it. By now, almost all human experience is fake. The body has, as it were, flipped over in its grave.

Let me reveal the secret. It could be condensed in the phrase, “with freedom comes responsibility.” This latter necessarily involves a humble appreciation of truth, as something external to oneself, which cannot long be manipulated. I am a clinger to this essentially mediaeval view, upon which our conception of civic liberty used to hang. The free man, as opposed to the serf or slave, is under an obligation not from his master, but from God, to behave well. Those who do not believe in God, or who perhaps think they do but would never allow it to be tested, look to a human master, instead.

Through our modern cult of leadership, master tells us what to believe. He may not even believe it himself — in fact, he usually doesn’t — but he has seized the monopoly on human responsibility. He knows that his subjects are depending on him, and that if he were to die or be overthrown, the entire universe would come to an end. That is why he considers himself so important.

In this we detect the root of our modern political alignments, first formed in the later Middle Ages, in the battles between “realists” and “nominalists.” To oversimplify recklessly, the first group is persuaded that certain things are true, because they are true, and therefore we have to live with them; the second group, that our truths are of human manufacture. That is why words have ever been crucial to this “Left” — because words connote meaning, and finally create it. Something that didn’t exist can be made into “a thing.” God, by comparison, has a pro forma existence, at best. If He made the world, He left it to us, promptly; by now He is not The Word, but words. If we take away his name (“the separation of church and state”), He will evaporate.

But this is what I like about the great plagues and catastrophes of history, and like to read about them. They are our assurance that reality is real; that it always has the power to impose itself, in disregard of our planning. That we didn’t make it up.

And beyond this, disaster is our assurance that in the long political contest, between freedom and slavery — between those who ask to be left alone, and those who demand power — the latter are the garbage.

What happens next?

(I have modified this, to make it slightly clearer.)

*

What if, for the sake of having an argument, the epidemiologists were to discover after a few months (weeks, days) that the Wuhan Flu is leaving only two sorts of people. These are, 1. those who develop an immunity to it, and 2. those who can’t. And this because, try as we will to slow it down, and therefore drag out hospitalizations, we cannot prevent general exposure. Eventually it reaches everyone, even yachtsmen and mountaineers, because sooner or later they must come ashore, or down from the mountains.

This is not a sentimental post. The “What if?” is instead a thought experiment. It is not a proposal for changing our current “social distancing” regime; it does not make any technical or medical point. It simply imagines a situation. Gentle reader may suspend disbelief for a moment. He may still imagine that some drug will be invented, or vaccine, as the “game changer.” (None ever came to other pandemics; they finally burnt out, as a forest fire will do.) But in this dystopian phantasy, the distancing regime does not finally do any good. We are left with nothing to do in our interminable quarantena — except wreck our economy, our supply chains, and so forth — while we are waiting for “the bat soup” to reach us. “Post-modernity” is thereby relaxed, for a season.

Practically, the virus does only modest demographic damage. Only one in a hundred will die (or about 75 million worldwide), maybe two, or three. The rest develop immunity. Other plagues in history have slain far more, proportionally. Always, we were unprepared, and always, we will be: each having its own vectors, its own mysterious methods for sabotaging human response, though some are much worse than others. But as for the present mild one, let’s suppose “you can run but you cannot hide.”

The total loss is easily “survivable.” After all, we have performed more abortions that that, and the world wags on. It was just a policy decision.

Did I mention this is a thought experiment? Note that we will have done vastly more than the virus itself, by means of which we will appear to have changed our whole way of life. This is normal in response to an emergency. Mister Trump will be blamed for everything, because he cannot win; his experts will be humiliated, because they can’t, either; and everyone else will have been demonstrably wrong. Such political events will be irrelevant, however. People tire of the famine and the wreckage; a new pattern of life will emerge. In fact, it will be quite like the old one; outwardly more or less identical.

We’ll decide that the oldies must be sacrificed, “it’s our lives or theirs.” And, “besides, there’s nothing we can do.” Being a “merciful society,” we’ll step up our euthanasia campaigns. This will help clear the hospitals of the lingering cases, and the world will be growing younger again. The churches will reopen, for culling the elderly and ill by exposure through worshipping crowds will seems an attractive plan, to some. Others will persist in their pro-life activities, but be more despised, and more frequently arrested, for making a scene.

Like the Black Death, the Wuhan Flu will be all but forgotten within one generation (only to be remembered each time another pandemic strikes). Or less: modern man has a much shorter news cycle. Once every survivor apparently has immunity, and the WHO declares “all clear,” there will be a celebration. The abnormality of the pandemic won’t disturb this.

So what was the point of my wild speculation? It was to confirm the central fact of life. Everyone will die now, except in most cases, they will die later.

You can be “scientific” about it; or get superstitious and sentimental. Modern life demands efficiency. To paraphrase the old Hollywood dictum, “A robot’s gotta do what a robot’s gotta do.”

Did I mention this post is not sentimental?

And may I suggest a return to religious orthodoxy? Of course it is only a suggestion.

Another view

According to Karl Mannheim, foolishly condensed, ideologies come in four flavours. There are 1. chiliastic, millenarian, nutjob ideologies. 2. There are liberal, humanist, “progressive” ones. 3. There are conservative, often babbling individualist versions of the same. 4. And there are commies. In each case a utopia is conceived, towards which our society should aspire. A Christian, this patriarch of sociology nevertheless bought into Marxist analyses of class and condition to explain the preference for each in its culture and time. Marxists did not like Mannheim, however, because he wasn’t essentially a commie.

I’ve been clearing out books during the lockdown, and came to Ideology and Utopia (1929). It was “in my face” more than forty years ago. I decided to keep it, as I do with many old books which were once important to me, as their spines remind me not only of old times, but of what remains as a constituent of my own outlook on things. I like to be staggered by the news that I wasn’t born yesterday. (Next to Mannheim is Masaryk.)

We have lived in, though we have largely passed through, an “age of ideology.” It came with the Enlightenment, according to me, and goes out with it. When the half-educated children of Harvard, Yale, and the drive-in universities espouse socialism today, they have nothing like the elementary self-knowledge that Leftists of the past exhibited. “Half-educated” is of course an over-estimate: their utopias are filled with so many contradictions that they have “evolved” into something else. (“Post-modern.”) They are incoherent even by the traditional standards of madness, and have no arguments unlikely to be reversed.

And yet something remains of what used to strike me as the contrast between an ideological and a religious view of life. That the ideologists (including chiliasts) cannot understand the religious view, might almost go without saying; they put it in another ideological category, so that it can be easily dismissed. They would not be interested in, for instance, the comparative study of religions, which shows the same moral and even spiritual features arising again and again, in societies centuries apart. This is because they are only explicable as evidence of Grace — of realities intrinsic to the universe, yet external to human thought and planning. There is God, in other words.

With an apprehension of God comes the possibility of what the Protestants call “humble access”; of humility in the larger view. This is also at the origin of genuine science, where the truth is sought as something outside us, as opposed to control over nature, or over our fellow man (which is the basic impulse of magic). We know, as it were, what we don’t know, and that fate is not finally in our own hands. The orders we are willing to obey may come from priests, bishops, imams or bonzes, but only because they are believed to represent an order beyond normal human powers.

Politics, to such a view, are of a strictly limited, merely transient significance, and the “visions of utopia” are of no significance at all. Any idea of human progress must necessarily be false.

My principal, practical hope from the present viral medical crisis — a light affliction as these things go, but heavy enough to get everyone’s attention — is that it will help people think. For everywhere I turn, I see plain lessons, especially for Christians, including lapsed ones. It is as if the Creator were reminding us how to tell what is important from what is not. It is interesting to me how the infection has suddenly shut down almost everything in the latter category, and made the world quiet for a moment.

But paradoxically, He has also let His Church be publicly closed, as a much-deserved scourge, cutting her off from all routine sources of income. Yet she is living within. At the place I attend, for instance, the Fathers are singing eleven Masses each day, to empty, often locked chapels. These are sung on behalf of the people, while they are “away.”

Am I saying there could be something godly in this; in this systematic confutation of all received “ideological” views? Gentle reader will guess that I am saying, Yes.

More sensitive today

A trillion here, a trillion there, it all adds up. Penny-wise and trillion-pound foolish. Time to float. I give gentle reader a choice of clichés this morning. He may already have caught my drift.

Like most making poor use of their time, I have been reading more Wu-Flu-related meejah through the last few weeks than I could possibly justify — and at a time when the churches are closed, so that I cannot confess it. Approximately none of it has done me any good, except in one instance, by checking if they were open first, I spared myself a long walk to a store that sells curtains.

All I (or anyone) needed to know was to wash my hands, and keep my distance, from crowds especially. But I already did that, from creative misanthropy; and had already learnt how to wash my hands in the philosophical manner. For, even without computer modelling, I already knew that the secret of modern longevity is soap. Everything else is incidental, by comparison; and in the case of the modelling, counter-productive.

The secret of defeating a pandemic is the immunity, which spreads among survivors. That is one of those incidentals, and it helps explain why Buddhist monks drank snake venom, back in the day. (Found through Google.) The concept of a vaccine is older than modern science, but like the rest of it, steeped in the arcane. This includes the (shockingly effective) placebo principle, which, long before the invention of sugar pills, relied on the feathers of the witch doctors. In order to impress the patient, you must make a show and dress the part. This explains the lab coats of practitioners, today. At some point the stethoscope replaced the wand.

I am not denying empirical science. I am merely noting that no one takes it seriously. It is scientism that wins the accolades, and collects the big budgets. A truer understanding of this than we have, would view it as part of the entertainment industry — and of our modern superstitious faith in matter over mind. We think, or are actually browbeaten and brainwashed from early childhood, that this is “the age of science,” unlike all the ages preceding. There has never been such an age, by the way, and never will be.

Ours is rather the age of electronic toys. Our ancestors had better things to play with.

Moreover, electronic toys confound us. The incredible piffle that supports “climate change” is entirely based on computer modelling. So are the projections of infections and deaths from the coronavirus. At the Imperial College in London, the number of dead pending in Britain went down overnight from half a million, to twenty thousand. That, to my mind, was an unconscionable number of resurrections.

While I try never to disagree with God, I have sometimes wondered if He was wise to let the worldlings learn about exponentials. Didn’t He know it would go to our heads?

It is by the use of their electronic toys that the Americans are about to spend two trillion dollars that they don’t have, then try unsuccessfully to tax it back later; each of our other Western countries in proportion. The politicians ask, What is the alternative?

That would be to tell everyone to fend for themselves, and be charitable with their neighbours. This is the “fiscal policy” compatible with civic freedom. All the others are incompatible.

They might add that, when this is over, people should try to recover from their losses, but they may think of that without being told. In the meantime, they should beat their electronic toys into ploughshares.

The DNR chronicles

Bankers make jokes about bankruptcies, footballers about own-goals, doctors about grisly deaths. The world is a merry place, and there is a funny side to everything. That the humour, however dry, is in bad taste, goes without saying. Several the sages who have averred that humour always is.

Recently, perusing an anthology of “classic” Japanese death poems, I began to giggle. Involuntarily, I assure gentle reader. I had perused too many, and they were beginning to read like a samurai version of the “Darwin awards.” (There are few tasks as thankless as that of a translator.)

But I am unable to see the fun in the present vogue for “Do Not Resuscitate” orders. Most, as I learnt from my late nurse-warden mother, are decided unofficially. Those who practice medicine know that they are not necessarily made by the patient himself. The safety of staff has sometimes come into it, during events like pandemics. Should the Hindoos turn out to have been right about metempsychosis, I hope not to be reborn as a bio-ethicist.

The vogue, or “viral trend,” almost certainly began in Red China, where for ideological reasons, “pro-life” attitudes are actively discouraged; but like the real virus, it spread to Italy quickly.

For reasons I have sometimes given, I tend to avoid arguing over statistics, but in this case it may be justified. We are told the death rate, which is fairly high, but also how the numbers are gathered. Anyone who dies after being tested positive counts as a coronavirus victim. So if you just flunked the test, and then get hit by a car, you will make it into the coronavirus statistics. We are also told that not most, but almost all who die with the virus in a hospital bed had “other conditions,” often more than one. The great majority are octogenarian or better, and so the cause of death could be plausibly reassigned in those cases.

That does not make the patient any less dead, however; or in cases I can imagine, the deaths less horrible. Fear of contagion, from hospital staff, may have sped the death sentence. Had a “negative” experienced heart failure, for instance, they would have swung into action. This is how the world works, and will be working in New York, once the danger is accentuated by a bed shortage. Other hospital equipment already runs short, so that sadistic intentions need not be alleged.

My question will be a characteristically unpopular one. What happens when what is done under extreme pressure during an emergency is formulated as a policy by bureaucrats? What, when given our generally mindless modern conception of the “rational,” when something that had been defended as a “necessary evil” is officially imposed?

This has been our experience from legal abortion forward; or more precisely before that, in “birth control.” I don’t approve either under any circumstances at all — there are moral lines we should refuse to cross — yet know perfectly well that they are crossed by individuals, and have always been crossed. Too, I know about winking.

“Euthanasia,” to use the time-honoured euphemism, is now policy in many realms, and as predicted, it has spread to many forms. Legislated, compulsory euthanasia would inevitably follow. It might be interesting to predict what follows after that.

Not “merely” human lives, but a whole civilization is finally desacralized in this movement. The human being, whether unborn or dying, and ultimately everyone in between, becomes interchangeable with farm animals, to be put down when sick or otherwise unwanted. Should he become a medical threat to others, he is put down “on principle,” once our principles have been reversed — and they have been.

One could make a joke about painful ways of dying, though by social convention we do not make it too soon. But now we are “progressing” into Holodomor or Holocaust territory, where innocent people may be killed on what are presented as ethical grounds. One is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic, as Stalin (supposedly) said.

On capitalist competition

Young people are trained to blame Wall Street and the Capitalists for everything that is wrong in our society. Our schools turn out armies of resentful, spitball socialists every year. They all know how to remake the world, condensed into five hysterical slogans. They agree that the rich should pay. Like their teachers, they are constantly protesting.

Well, maybe not all. I tend to exaggerate.

Sometimes, however, I wonder if what they need is not a Revolution, just an extra five points of IQ. Perhaps, quite apart from the Capitalists, their Customers could benefit from some critical attention.

We have a new, family-owned, mildly ethnic supermarket in Parkdale. It is almost excessively clean, fully staffed, and well-organized. Generic brands are packaged simply and sharply. Everything appears to be in stock. The prices are not higher than at the other supermarkets, except for luxury and high-end items. The food is noticeably fresher: it takes about one glance. The place is quite empty of customers thus far, so you may walk right in. The cashiers don’t charge for plastic bags.

Or you can go to the slightly nearer, “cut-rate,” mass-market foodstore. There, you must queue to enter, for more than a block, six feet apart. It is surprisingly dirty, for a store in a “developed country.” The atmosphere of crisis is palpable. The prices are sneaking up. Lots of shelves are bare. The customers are rude, loud, vulgar, and aggressive. Their children are wild and sneezing. These little ones seem to have been taught to handle all the merchandise, before rejecting it, having squeezed anything that might be soft. The staff try to be polite, but only till 10 o’clock in the morning. The stocking clerks like to run people down in their gigantic carts, and block the more popular sections. Notwithstanding, the place is crowded.

I’d mention that everyone around here votes Liberal, but that would be political. Besides, some of them vote NDP.

I had noticed before that, in the days when we had restaurants, there’d be huge crowds competing for the attention of the “servers” (who don’t serve), willing to pay higher prices for hamburgers that were half the weight of those available from quiet family restaurants, right across the street. I could sit peacefully in the latter and puzzle over the perversity of human nature; or the phenomenon of obedience to crass mass advertising. I could work on my personal theory, that humans are not “rational economic actors,” but more like kittens being led about by string. Or in an emergency, tangling themselves in loo rolls.

Perhaps, if we were attentive to Our Lady instead, we wouldn’t need that extra five points. Perhaps even with five points less of IQ, the methods of evaluating even the smallest things would mysteriously improve.

Good luck with those Capitalists, kids.

And to the backward, a glorious, if invisible, Annunciation.

On living dangerously

Is gentle reader bored with pathogens yet? At some point in the proximate future, death will lose its sting. While there are plausible economic reasons for people to return to work, there is also a dark secret. The most restless society since the invention of restlessness cannot cope with “downtime.” This is what gives me my monopoly on Idleness. Without the “events” which help to distinguish one day from another, we will need to start a war.

Had we books, and to have developed the habit of using them, we might read history instead; and even a bit of poetry on the side. But now, at loose ends, we are inspired to do something. Also, please note, the doctrine of original sin. I’m a big fan.

My political dogma has surely been established by now. I am against “doing” anything. Fight for a world in which nothing exciting happens, other than the pursuit of beauty, goodness, and truth. Fight relentlessly — by example.

Here in Parkdale, Toronto’s go-to centre for the criminally insane, there is always entertainment. From my balconata I can spy several half-way houses, and for variety, a Tibetan temple. The streets get quieter every day, especially the throb of the superhighways. It has been softening, as the economy bleeds away; and there are clear days with no contrails in the sky.

The “Green Nude Eel” is being accomplished. Superficially, this might seem like a good thing.

But because Parkdale has been unable to start a war with our bourgeois neighbour — Liberty Village, where the childless young professionals live in sterilized apartment blocks — we have had to look for excitement elsewhere. By calling 9-1-1 frequently, the Vallishortensians (demonym for “Parkdale”) are able to keep the sirens blaring, and little knots of emergency vehicles collecting, to no definable purpose here and there. Due to my Scottish genetic endowment, I follow these skits as I would a taxi-meter: How much have we cost the taxpayers today?

In theory, once the assiduous Left has succeeded in regulating everything, we may achieve that perfect state of placid bureaucracy in which, without ever having voted for socialism, it has arrived. In practice, it never lasts long.  Some new inconvenience is discovered.

Take “racism” for instance. It is now considered “racist” to withdraw flattery for the Red Chinese politburo. Think this one through: it is the real bat contagion. Nice liberal people can now say “racist” to anything, without even running a fever. The upside is that you can give them a stroke by saying “Woo Flu,” or my current favourite, the “Xi Letter.” (I await the arrival of the Sensitivity Police, all suited up against the threat of an incorrect opinion.)

The victory of Body over Spirit is confirmed in the Church. A correspondent forwarded a particularly obnoxious, but catatonically glib, remark by one influential ecclesiastical hierarch. He and others say that “keeping people safe” is their “highest priority.”

As another priest explained — this one a believing Catholic, unlikely ever to suffer advancement — the hierarch in question probably didn’t think he was uttering Catholic doctrine, just mindlessly repeating what he had learnt by rote. If quizzed meticulously, he would probably realize that Christ was not a gym instructor; and that the salvation of souls is in many ways unlike a public health operation. He was just going with the flow, as the trivial consequence of being an idiot.

For the record: Catholicism does not keep people safe. Verily, Christianity is dangerous, which is why they are tearing churches down in China, and why, when the progressive authorities want to clamp down on public gatherings in the West, churches are the first thing they think of — even though their mental lives are spent in vast crowded shopping precincts. Closing those was a sad, regretful afterthought.

By all means follow their pandemic instructions, until you get bored and have to start a war. But the most dangerous life is not licking doorknobs. It is trying to become a saint.

Perhaps I am insensitive

While my own advice can be generally ignored, and is, I would like to play Trump for a moment, and give my instructions to the American people. This includes the British North American people, who would disappear into the same averages. Pretend I’m surrounded by superannuated delinquent punks — yelling, “Gotcha!” — and have a bunch of doctor-looking people behind me.

I say:

What’s wrong with you? According to three years of headlines in the rightwing blogs (it isn’t mentioned in progressive meejah), you have been passing through a period of unprecedented prosperity. Except for some obscurely isolated places, like Parkdale or maybe Guam, you’ve been making money hand over fish, and have experienced some of the lowest unemployment stats in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way. And you haven’t saved enough to get you through a few weeks of idleness? And you’re waiting for the guvmint to save you?

That’s your job. Go buy a gun in case someone tries to steal your toilet paper. If you’re really as poor as you claim, fetch a rock from the park.

Special instruction to deeply indebted students. Consider yourselves expelled.

Up to a point, I will empathize with those whom luck consistently passes by, but in 97 percent of cases, you have no excuse. The other 3: see if mommy will help. You had every opportunity to prepare for a nasty surprise, while you were running up the totals on your credit cards. It is time you were cut off.

Now, illness and death would be an imposition, but not an enormity. Those of you eighty years and older have had a good run. Those younger probably won’t even die. So what is your panic?

Okay, there was a crocodile in a picture someone sent me, and it was ignoring the social distancing rules. But for all you know, it tested negative.

Meanwhile, you’ve been given a free pass to read and take naps. (An exemption for those who have real jobs.) It is your signal, to get your life together, even this late in the day. And you are whining?

Speaking as your Trump, I would like to say, go fry a bat. Alternatively, I will give you permission to shut up and leave me alone.

Making distance

“Do I really want to get on that?” I was asking — myself, of all people — as one of our new, $2 million, state-of-the-art trolleys, pulled up to a transit stop in Parkdale. It was crowded, and the subway would be crowded, too, though not as much as before the pandemic began.

I love to discover that I am wrong about something, for it means I will have to rethink not only the issue in question, but all subsidiary questions, including several that may freshly occur. Lately, the question of urban density has provided me with just such an opportunity. (I’ve also been reconsidering single-use plastic bags.)

Until recently, I took the superiority of public mass transit to automobiles for granted, along with innumerable “urbanist” platitudes. But let us entertain the possibility that after Sars, Swine Fevers, the “Kung Flu,” &c (we must thank a leftwing journalist for circulating that last term), we are in a new era of public hygiene. From the wet markets of China to the cowboy West, we must now plan for pandemics as a routine feature of modern life, just as they were known to the low-tech ancients, but with this difference. A virus is now able to travel with the speed and efficiency that we are, intercontinentally.

By chance I was already reconsidering the oeconomics of public transport, these last few years. It costs much more than plausibility would pretend, requiring another vast package of those subsidies that bind The Peeple to The Taxcollectors in perpetuity, and thus the enforcement of various yuge diseconomies of scale.

Several years ago I wrote a meejah column that inspired the usual outrage and incomprehension. I proposed that we re-privatize all transit systems, but nationalize car manufacturing, as a solution to urban transit problems. This would have the effect of making mass transport relatively cheap and comfortable. But if you wanted a car, there would be a long waiting list for the standard rustbucket government jalopy, which when it eventually arrived would promptly fall apart. Unfortunately, as I now see, this would only alter the density problem by increasing it.

Whereas, “social distancing” would now be in vogue. Compressed thousands hanging like Wuhan bats from trolley straps must be among the most effective ways to transmit an infection, yet devised by man. We even have, or had until a few weeks ago, aeroplanes that transport the little people as if they were airborne sardines, with a covid chilli in every tin. And have you heard of “cruise ships” for recreation? I’d rather holiday on a cruise missile.

Now, I never was an enthusiast for modern life, more generally. My idea of a city was like any in the world, prior to what is called the Reformation, or still closer to the Aristotelian ideal for a city state — about five thousand souls or so (plus, of course, slaves). At ten or twenty millions, it becomes awkward to walk around them, or escape for a picnic in the surrounding hills.

Such “urban distancing” would actually be possible today, if we were differently organized. Technological advances might actually make small, self-supporting, city- or town-states quite practical, but getting from here to there might offer difficulties, and all those who dream of America-sized polities with themselves in charge (i.e. liberals), would tend to be opposed.

But crowded trolleys, maglev trains, and sexy vacuum tubes, were only an interim solution. Better, I think, to divide the conurban megalopolis into a thousand municipal pieces, and spread them around. That might allow us to take pandemics at our leisure.

And as for mechanical transport, we could phase it out entirely.

Homeschool

We have all seen, or think we have seen, the satellite photos from over north China. The dust storms from the Gobi Desert have cleared. Another cause of the usual cover was some of the world’s most intense, besmogging, industrial production. Most of it is closed, just now. However it happened, the cover blew away. I do not habitually believe the captions on news photographs, but this latter explanation seems plausible to me: that when industry shuts down, the skies open. The stars may unexpectedly reappear. But what is plausible may or may not be true.

In Venice, the canals have become “crystal clear.” Newsmen report fish are returning, and dolphins have been spotted in the city, at high tide. They (the newsmen; dolphins think for themselves) say the pollution vanished in a few short weeks, thanks to the coronacrisis. That it has killed thousands is a downside, they admit, and pauperized some millions more, but seeing fish in the canals is so cool. In reality the disappearance of the (mostly tourist) boat traffic let the sediment settle. The fish were there all along.

Notwithstanding, the world grows quieter. I am able to gauge this from my balconata. It is a moment when, for instance, we are able to judge that the environmental horror was not “peak oil,” but cars everywhere, and other machine noise — visible, audible, tactile and so forth. Too, a landscape we routinely half-notice, of highways, factories, flats, and other things that sprawl — both vertically and horizontally. These things are not cold and evil in themselves, just ostentatiously brutal. They’re easier to bear when they are turned off; and should we wait patiently enough, all will return to wilderness. The deeper ecologists hope everyone will die.

An alternative might be to make the human components of our environment beautiful in themselves. This was the old strategy, abandoned in recent historical time, to accommodate Progress.

It is a jealous god. It demands all our attention. Its altars are located everywhere, and its sacrifices are very strict. Should it be displaced, even briefly, it will take vengeance. Its priestly bureaucracies swing into action, telling its faithful exactly what to do. We obey, fearfully.

But to the canals in Venice, add ten-millions of “homeschools,” suddenly sprung up; and the myriad ordered to work from home. The zoning of the world is suddenly lifted, but the borders are closed. It is a moment when Progress might actually be in danger; when it looks as if the fish swam back. Many are reduced to making their own coffee; heating their own food; even wiping themselves, apparently.

Or examine this another way. The old God, put out of view, may be recalled through that still, small voice, once again detected through the ages. Or let us call it “the music of the spheres,” heard when everything else falls silent.

What we currently call “globalism” is actually much larger, and quite deafening. It is why I gave Progress a capital P. Sometimes it is called “technology,” but that now seems old-fashioned. None of these terms remains adequate to the product of multiple industrial revolutions, through which the relationship of God and man, and each between man and man, has been seriously disrupted. But for a moment the disruption itself is disrupted.

If I were God (and I’m not, incidentally) I would arrange for breaks like this; to give the worldlings some “quiet time” in which to reflect upon their loyalties.

War, famine, plague, millennials

Unlike certain oldies, I have retained some awareness of the “young people.” Curiosity alone would drive me to this, although childbearing (not by me personally) has had the same effect. In my research, I have found the so-called Millennial generation to be every bit as shallow, irresponsible, stupid, and smart-assed as my own, and what is worse, younger. I thought we were the Peter-Pan generation that would never grow up, but the claim must now be shared with successive rounds of offspring. To be fair, the rewards for growing up have been sharply curtailed, through that part of history which anyone remembers, and those who never tried were never punished.

History itself has now so far receded — it certainly is not taught in schools — that by now the kids persist on pure theory. They do what seems necessary to them, in the absence of knowledge. I cannot reasonably blame them for lacking what they’ve never come in contact with, for no one can know about what he has never heard of. On religious questions, for example, what could “transubstantiation” mean? It was easier to explain this to a South Sea Islander, in the good old days of the missionaries, before the islanders got cell phones.

On the other hand, the Millennials are human. The instinct to be human, even when repressed, often returns. Several times I have been moved, almost to tears, by a native decency suddenly expressed, by the most unlikely subject in rings and tattoos. There will always be something to work with, there.

While Millennials appear even dumber than their elders, we must allow for the progressive slide. There are just as many smart people as there once were — they are just born that way, it seems, like cats — and some abroad have benefited from improved nutrition. If caught young, and exposed to learning, they would learn. They simply haven’t been exposed to it yet.

Today’s Defence of the Millennials could be taken as my latest Idlepost on the coronavirus. Millennials are accused of partying, while the world suffers; of not listening to their public health instructions. In particular, it is alleged that, escaping symptoms themselves, they spread a disease that will kill the old, the sick, the feeble and the wrinkly — as if they don’t care. But I think we had the instructions backward, and the young might actually have seen through our imposture.

Rather than put everyone in quarantine, we should protect the weak exclusively. The young can, almost entirely, survive this infection. Let them build their immunities for the future, and meanwhile let them amuse themselves. (Staying away from the age-impaired is much easier for them than not partying.) We could use better methods for this smaller quarantine. Off the top of my head: just shoot any Millennials who come near.

Meanwhile, Deep State is rehearsing how to do a lockdown, in case they want to use it for “Climate Change.” The inability to see health and economy as anything other than a list of priorities, was already inculcated — only partly from demonic malice. The commanding idea that “you just do it,” from banning guns and “carbon,” to changing “genders,” to slaughtering the inconvenient, comes naturally to those who don’t know any better. Depravity becomes logic if you change the word, and “Why not?” — said the button on the red beret that a girlfriend once wore. (I dropped her.)

She was a Millennial, now seventy years old. She knew more than the average Millennial today, but it wasn’t helping. In defence of the latest Millennials, they know less. Moreover, I can’t imagine a compulsory summer camp at which we could fill them in. We’ll just have to start earlier.

Your days are numbered

When statisticians go to heaven — here I am assuming as many things as they do, but let’s do an estimate all the same — the first thing they want is to check the accuracy of their results, exhaustively obtained back here on Earth. Well, not all of them: 13.72 percent ask to see something else first, but the Foyer Angels (FAs) are briefed to humour them, and so each gets to indulge his curiosity.

While statisticians generally make up one of the tamest groups arriving at the PG (Pearly Gates), some are startled by what they find. Population statistics, for instance.

“But we did a census!” I actually heard one cry.

An FA, by the name of Fred, commented on this. He said there are DDs (Demographic Devils) who are delegated by “the Boss” to scramble such figures. Sometimes a DD will refuse to interfere with a projection, however, because he thinks it is too easy, and besides, nobody believes projections anyway. He would rather get back to the racial and ethnic pie-charts, instead. Lots of people believe those.

Too, he has some interesting new business, re-sorting the females and males.

But this all happens back on Earth, as some of my readers already know.

“The epidemiologists make much sport for these little devils,” as one of the other FAs joked, while he was waiting for a new customer.

Fred explained. “It is an area in which every possible comparison is between the statistical equivalent of an apple, and the statistical equivalent of an orange. This makes every definition arbitrary, and deviations from the arbitrary add a cumulative touch. But the illusion of similarity keeps them going.”

I asked him whether this was often the case, in parallel professions. With his delight in double negatives he told me, “It is never not.” He said humans can’t even count things that hold still; imagine how inept they are when an unknown, but changing, proportion of members in each apparent set have become invisible.

Jim, the other FA, and something of a wit, added: “A large part of the little devil’s job is to avoid laughing.” He let me wait for the punchline. “If a human person hears him, the slip goes in his file.”

Fred giggled. “You should see what happens when they try to count birds, or gophers. It’s quite entertaining.”

Jim flashed off to do his “meet and greet” with a New Arrival.

Being sceptical, I began to wonder about these Foyer Angels. Which side are they on? It seemed to me that neither of them was up-to-speed with dignity and respect for the deceased.

Now, I had just read a piece comparing the last flu season to this year’s coronavirus numbers. The loitering FA told me:

“Compare the number tested for any disease, to the yield of dead. There are two valid ways to do it. In the one, everybody lives. In the other, everybody dies. That should be obvious. The art of statistics is to find a third way. Of course, there is none.”

Fred now had to go. But curiously, he was rubbing his hands together, with enthusiasm.

“I have a real treat today: I’m greeting a baseball statistician. But I’ve got a ‘spasmo’  I must get through, first, so I must be off.”

“You mean a heart attack victim?” I asked, somewhat appalled.

“That’s what he thinks,” Fred winked. “Just another boring actuary at the PG.”

Darn. I had wanted him to tell me how the DDs put census-takers wrong, but he was gone in a poof.

I did, however, buttonhole another spirit by a water cooler. (These are reserved for the little devils.) I had many more questions the FAs hadn’t answered. This hunched, rather bat-like, dark little fellow, was looking rather idle. He’d been reading the supermarket flyer some “PG” had been clutching. I noticed that the water came out between his toes.

“Do you ever get tired of your job?” I asked him.

He smiled, roguishly. The smile came out in an upward-pointed crescent, just behind his head. But otherwise no answer.

“What happens to the statisticians after they leave this place?” I inquired of him.

“Oh they don’t,” he said.

The leap

A  gentle reader in Massachusetts, in the habit of attending Mass frequently, comments that we are back in the 14th century: “A plague, two popes, and no Mass.” As a man of the 13th century, I have not caught up with events. In my own diocese, the Cardinal Archbishop has cancelled Sunday Masses, though retained Vespers and daily Masses, where attendance is much smaller. He was “advised” to do this by the politicians; and has therefore dispensed from our Sunday obligation.

Of course, priests may say the Mass privately — that is to say, without lay participants — on behalf of all the faithful. They can hear Confessions, and as we should know from St Thomas Aquinas and others, there is such a thing as spiritual communion. Consult e.g. Father Zed for instructions to “seriously bad-ass spiritual warriors.” It is not actually necessary to become lax. Moreover, taking communion, whether on tongue or hand, does not prevent coronavirus, even if you are superstitious. It could even increase the risk.

But the Catholic doctrine does not work on material assurances. We are still prey to infections, and other accidents. Whether the current infection will be as large and lethal as the media, government, and other enthusiasts publicize, we will see. I have mentioned I have no opinion on that, aside from my characteristic scepticism. But feeling sheepish after it goes away, in a few weeks, after a run on the groceries and stockmarkets — with only a fraction of the annual death toll from conventional flu viruses — would not be the worst that could happen. It has never been necessary to get covid-19, in order to die.

That there are many silver linings, goes without saying. Anything that reduces the vile commercialism of our “globalized” world will be an advantage. But we know it won’t last, and the cruise ships will fill again shortly, whoever happens to own them. A good scare will last slightly longer, but people have a long record of forgetting what they have just experienced, unless they have been through a spiritual awakening in the meantime.

Sometimes I think of a rather undisciplined dog, who escaping from his collar, stepped on the third rail of a railway track in England. He jumped up five feet in the air. Then he went on trotting as if nothing had happened. Dogs may have even shorter memories than moderns.

I had myself nearly forgotten about Sars, Swine Flu, &c. Or Ebola. Or Syphilis, &c. And let us not forget Cholera, Yellow Fever, Spanish Flu, Smallpox, Tuberculosis, Polio, &c. Or the Bubonic Plague, which still doesn’t have a vaccine. Should I survive — which is very likely — I may nearly forget about this, too, although the death rate can be quite high.

I am not telling anyone to avoid precautions, however — this side of the absurd. We have probably bought enough toilet paper now. Avoid Netflix, or it will rot your brain. And I gather we should not lick doorknobs.