Essays in Idleness


Michaelmas day

I did not agree, incidentally, with the late Richard J. Needham, in his attitude towards Toronto readers — although I loved to quote it, seemingly with approval. I used to meet Mr Needham (at a Harvey’s franchise that dispensed cheeseburgers), after his (compulsory) retirement from the Globe & Mail. (Also known as the Mope & Wail, the Soap & Pail, the Grope & Fail, &c.)

Verily, Mr Needham could be looked on as a pioneer of the art of getting cancelled, from media outlets, up here in the tight-assed north. When you ask his old colleagues about him (should you find one still living), he will sneer at the memory of the gentleman who was the Globe’s most interesting and valuable correspondent, in just the way one sneers at any writer of interest and value today.

He, Needham, enjoyed perhaps a larger readership than the rest of that newspaper, combined (they didn’t count eyeballs as carefully in those days), but had no following among the fashionable and sophisticated. His views on women, animals, comportment, and several hundred other topics could have been subtly chosen to affront “respectable society,” but he maintained them in the dangerous, Socratic spirit. He belonged to no “team,” no “ingroup,” but rather he appealed to the young, including intelligent high school students: people who hadn’t been taught to shut their eyes and ears yet when unfamiliar ideas were discussed.

He told me, when I begged him to write for my Idler magazine (flourishing at the time), that he had retired from authorial labours. He put this politely, but as I became insistent, he countered by becoming rude:

“I have NOTHING to say to the inhabitants of this town.”

The word “nothing” is capitalized to indicate vehemence. His cheeks also changed colour, in a disconcerting way. But otherwise, he continued to be charming.

Mr Needham had observed the growth of Toronto into what its politicians called “a world-class city.” He had watched it become crowded with vehicles and construction materials, but most signally, the draining of every legitimate, unregulated cultural enterprise — a kind of rehearsal for the Batflu. He was what I would call a “bitter nostalgic,” in moments when he softened into nostalgia.

“Blow it up, and all you will lose is the cost of the explosives.” I contributed this miserly thought, from out of my own Presbyterian genetic constitution. (Scramble when we get merry.)

But in my view, so long as one is capable (which may not be for long), one has an obligation to one’s readers — including those, to reverse the usual advice, as shrewd as pigeons and as poisonous as snakes. As long as the world staggers, there is a chance for at least parts of it to be redeemed, and one’s sneering should be habitually contained. You will be laughed at, and generally insulted, but how does that differ from what you have deserved?

Today is indeed Michaelmas — the Feast of the Angels. It is the traditional “getting back to work” day in universities and places like them. It is the ninth anniversary of the day these “Essays in Idleness” were inaugurated — just after the last “mainstream” media outlet in Canada “let me go.”

The world is not to our taste, entirely, and in defiance of the public faith in “progress” I would add that it is unlikely to improve. But bless Mr Needham, in memory; take a moment to bless me; and put your hope in futurity into the hands and heart of Christ Jesus. What comes of that will be self-explanatory.

The vote

According to the tribal consensus, in my neighbourhood at least, there is a federal election today. We had been waiting for the campaign to start, but after a few weeks there wasn’t much more than tired media attacks on “the right-wing fanatics,” who hide their political views, to avoid social unpleasantness.

All the numerous parties in Canada are left-wing, including the Conservative Party, which beat the Liberals in the last election two years ago. The Liberals won it by the “efficient” distribution of their vote. They had been exposed for various forms of corruption, but “the people,” who lack something in the brains department, decided to forgive them. The former Conservative leader, an apparently sincere Catholic, Andrew Scheer, was believed to secretly hold conservative views. (Perhaps he did.) For instance, he did not show enthusiasm for killing babies, or the elderly and despairing. But he has been replaced, by media demand, with someone named Erin O’Toole (openly), who has no opinions that vary from the clichés of the smugly fashionable.

Like Mr Justin Trudeau, O’Toole also has no known religion. Religious belief has been largely extinct in Canada since the 1960s. As a Batflu precaution, it was phased out in the three remaining provinces.

A tiny “People’s Party of Canada,” under a possibly pro-capitalist leader (albeit French Canadian), has emerged to drain the “conservative” vote this time.

Really, there are hundreds of issues that could be discussed in an election campaign, but the citizens are too shallow to participate. Justin Trudeau, called “Blackie” in the blogs out West, or “Spendy McBlackface” for his junior-school behaviour, is the shallowest, most contemptible politician Ottawa can offer. He is also the most popular — especially with women — although he is closely rivalled by the airheads who lead each of the other parties. One of them is memorable for wearing brightly-coloured Sikh turbans. (He is the official socialist.) The “PPC” leader, Maxime Bernier, has a soupçon of courage. That’s what makes him exceptional, as well as inconvenient.

My brief discussion of the election with a local intellectual (I saw him examining a book once), ended when he said that Bernier is “a fascist,” &c. (I wasn’t listening for his precise terms.) “That’s why I’m voting for him,” I explained, even though I doubt he is a “serious” candidate, who could win even a free coffee at Tim Horton’s.

The election authorities have had a great deal of trouble recruiting people to mind the polls, in this most boring and pointless election — called so the Liberals could win back their majority. With luck, the staff will not be able to judge the result, and the established constitutional system will collapse.

Canada, like other countries, would benefit by doing without a federal government, indefinitely, or for fifty years. We could never have afforded what the governments we elected cost us, and a constitutional crisis could get us off the hook for repayment. (This works for other third-world countries.)

Blowing them away

It is easy to understand the attraction of high-tech killings, by the U.S. military and its more advanced rivals. For, although it is not often acknowledged, murder can be difficult for most people. This makes it unpopular in opinion polls. “High tech,” by contrast, makes it easy. The technical details had traditionally contributed to this awkwardness, allowing moral hesitation to get started up. The intended victim may move too much, or scream out in an alarming way, or be armed himself and ready to retaliate. Even if one catches him by surprise, one’s own gun may make an appallingly loud noise.

But imagine a helicopter drone or similar device, that launches highly explosive missiles. There is no pilot, and at most a television camera. The operator, miles away, does not have to dwell on what he has done. Within moments, his screen is blank, and so is his conscience.

The “strike” was in Afghanistan, say, but the “striker” most likely among the computers in an army base in, say, formerly rural Florida. The morning’s work, tapping instructions into his finger-board, having concluded, the officer can step out for a pastry and a coffee. The only risk he has taken is in his diet. He may have driven up his blood-sugar levels, and might some day be diagnosed with “diabetes two.” Then, finally, he will discover what moral criticism is like.

From some reports, it appears that the majority of U.S. drone strikes are misdirected. Wedding parties appear to be their principal target, followed by other school and family outings. Islamic terrorists seem to be repeatedly overlooked. However, we must bear in mind that when drone strikes can be so casually ordered, they can be more easily lied about, and our sources of information are leftist and unreliable.

I have no better sources myself, and must take for granted that little, or nothing, can be known about this kind of obscenity. It is now the preferred way of eliminating unwanted people — accurately, or by mistake — and I would expect it, like other devices of military and paramilitary technology, to be provided for police work soon.


The mathematicians — or shall we say, the skilled  ones — often proclaim beauty as their criterion for truth. It is, in the view of the angels, and of the genius or saint, a world where order prevails, and thus serenity and peace. It is a place where we are reminded of the simplicity and purity that could govern our affairs, if men did not reject them. There is elegance, without all the slovenly trappings that we have associated with elegance.

I refer to things which are “just so”; and somehow inevitable, though inevitably unpredictable, in art and in science.

Conversely, the mediocre mathematician produces results that are ugly, trivial, squalid, and a mess. He is by nature clumsy, but also lazy: looking for proofs that can be easily found (because they are clichés.) Like all the higher intellectual disciplines, math reserves painful punishments for the lethargic and incurious, and awards brutal treatment to those intent on ignoring its “aesthetic” dimension; the element of form.

The other arts — one thinks of music, and sculpture — differ from mathematics in their selection of blindness. Math is sensually blind, or vacated, and must become musical or sculptural to assume “shape.” (A subtly different term from “form.”) But it is not sensual, and resists the transformation into something alien to itself. No mathematical model can be exact.

And yet, mathematics has beauty, or should have, for it is an art.

I knew once a collector of mathematics — a Polish gentleman, of course. He had, it was true, many mathematical books in his retinue, but these were the shadow not the substance of his subject, as print may offer a shadow of literature, poetry, song. These items have yet to be animated by their singers, and indeed, the visual arts also do not really exist until they are animated or “sung.” They must be found, or brought back, into life.

My Polish friend collected from among the things he had animated. He would eagerly show his most valuable possessions. He was remarkably patient with the slow-witted, such as me. But he realized his task was to give his possessions away; for only then could he keep them. He had the instinct of a teacher, which is to say, a kind of collector.

Those who collect material goods, sometimes exclusively, tend to operate on one of two radically opposite principles. Either they collect things that “might be useful,” though few things will ever be. Most do this, and make arguments for doing it. They are the common collectors of junk, as opposed to normal people, who use what is meant to be used, so that it is constantly disappearing.

The other type collects things which are beautiful, being indifferent instead to whether they will ever be needed. These hardly restrict themselves to lumpish, awkward, physical goods. However, note, they make shocking exceptions.

Twenty years

I am, plainly and without revision, reprinting my essay from five years ago, which was then entitled, “Fifteen years.” It states what I have to say about terror strikes, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Islamic tide and the Western, Christian response to it, in a way that I don’t think will change in the foreseeable future. My continuing sympathy for all victims of this world’s revolutionary events.


A generation or more is necessary to see any large event in some historical perspective. That the fall of the Berlin Wall was a “large event” we could see immediately, but not what it portended. The political world would be transformed, but the New World Order that George Bush Senior foresaw was a mirage. Ditto with events since 9/11.

Several thousand were killed on that day in 2001 — the anniversary of the Ottoman defeat at the Gates of Vienna. This was a comparatively small number, by modern standards. The rich symbolism of this Islamist operation was lost on the West, which no longer cares for history or legend. A brilliant assault of “asymmetric warfare,” it fulfilled all of its objectives. The torch has since been passed from the more moderate al-Qaeda to the more fanatic Daesh, and will be passed again in due course. Osama bin-Laden personally lost face by being hunted down and killed like a rat, but his vision of a restored Islamic Caliphate survives him. It inspires still the young in heart and mind.

The immediate intention was to humiliate the “Great Satan”; to awaken the sleeping giant and make him blindly thrash; to goad him into self-destructive behaviour as he struck against an enemy he could neither locate nor understand. Beyond this: to expose him as a paper tiger, tilting a balance of power, and transferring initiative from the mightily-armed “Crusader” to the nimble “Jihadi.” Within the Muslim world: to show that only the radical Salafist faction could get results, could change the direction of history and, as it were, “make Arabia great again.”

As I suggested above, we are still too close to this event to grasp its full significance; but after fifteen years we in the West are in a much worse position than we were on the 10th of September, 2001. We showed, as the Islamists predicted, that we did not have the stamina to prevail, even against weak adversaries; that America and allies could only fight “Vietnams.” Our will is shaken, and to Salafist delight, we have by now expressed contrition for fourteen centuries of Christian defence against Islamic aggression. We bow respectfully, as our culture is insulted, and as versions of Shariah are imposed. In disregard of our own security, we have thrown our borders open to massive Muslim immigration. We follow, at every junction, the course of sentimentality, and adapt to the certainty of defeat. After each hit we call for grief counsellors.

It is instructive that, in the present circumstances, with Christians reduced to desperation through much of the Near East, we import Muslim refugees almost exclusively. The Christians flee to the protection of the Kurds; not to refugee camps in which they would risk massacre. Western governments take only from those camps; or in Europe, the flotillas launched from Turkey and Libya. The Islamists gloat at this demographic achievement; the Daesh now recruit from the disaffected young in the new Muslim ghettoes of Europe, radicalized in Saudi-built-and-financed mosques. Few directly engage in suicidal acts of terrorism; but those who do are lionized as heroes. Lesser, safer acts, such as rape of European women, and desecration of churches and synagogues, have become commonplace. We are, and we know that we are, as incapable of assimilating these migrants as the Romans were of assimilating the Vandals and Huns through their increasingly porous frontiers.

Crucially, in the mindless fantasy of “multiculturalism,” we refuse to recognize the contradictions between Islamic and Christian teaching, and look the other way, muttering fatuities about “the religion of peace” after each psychopathic explosion. This is just what Osama predicted: the harder the blows, the more docile we would become, and the more complacent in the face of the ancient Islamic demand for submission.

The genius of Osama bin-Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, was to know that the de-Christianizing West would respond in this way. Their propaganda spelt out, from the beginning, the argument for their methods. They called us chestless wonders; they said we would fold under any sustained pressure; that we had lost the confidence of our Christian identity. We are an aging society now, vitiated by abortions, needing immigrants to pay our pensions; a people addicted to drugs, from opiates to iPhones; lapsed in creature comforts, and spineless in the face of adversity.

Not all of us, of course. I am sometimes impressed by the number of remnant faithful to the old Christian religion, and its “Western ideals.” In moments of crisis, as we saw for some weeks after the Twin Towers came down, the rest of the population stirs. Yet by Christmas of 2001 they were snoring again, and again the liberal reflexes were twitching. Not al-Qaeda but “Bush” was already being blamed for disturbing the peace.

Bush made one fatal mistake. He “overmisestimated” his countrymen’s ability to stay what he knew must be a long and difficult course. His “flypaper” strategy — as I called it at the time — was to engage the Islamists in their native East; to let them go fight in places like Kandahar and Fallujah, where they would be irresistibly attracted to, and annihilated by, vastly superior American military discipline, logistics, and firepower. It was working too well: Americans began to feel safe again, resented the foreign bloodshed and expense, and so called the boys home. Now the flypaper hangs over the West.

Beyond this, the Bush strategy was to repair a disintegrating international state system. National governments must take sovereign responsibility; must patrol within their own borders. Regimes which exported violence would be confronted. Either they would end the sanctuary they had granted to terrorists, or a U.S.-led coalition of the willing would do it for them. He cited long-established international law, which entitles the victims of raids to “hot pursuit” across international borders. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq successfully, Bush could compel other regimes, such as those governing Libya, Syria, and Iran, to behave themselves. That, too, was working: until Obama suddenly evacuated Iraq, vindicating indeed those who had called the USA a paper tiger. And, flew to Cairo to deliver an obsequious apology from America to the whole Muslim world.

There had been, shortly after 9/11, a curious exchange in a Washington corridor between President Bush and the freshman New York senator, Hillary Clinton. Playing to the morning-after gallery as a hawk, she needled him. He was quite rude. He wished to assure the former First Lady that he would not be replying to the hit on New York City as her husband had done, to previous al-Qaeda provocations. He would not be merely firing a cruise missile up some Afghan camel’s derrière.

Bush delivered on his threats. He thereby earned the respect of his country’s worst enemies, who had become accustomed to American vacillation. But he became over-extended, as he began to fill the Mesopotamian bog with unrecoverable billions, in a lunatic scheme to turn Iraq into a “model democracy.” This was well-meaning American naiveté at its self-defeating worst: for what had once worked in Germany and Japan had no chance anywhere in the Middle East.

Notwithstanding, within two years, despite serial misjudgements, the USA held all the cards. America still enjoyed an unchallengeable and unprecedented “hyperpower” status. Within two more, Bush himself had started to drop them, for domestic political ends. But the Iraq “surge” demonstrated that he was not retreating. He was willing to expend his own diminishing political capital in the American national interest.

It takes some stomach, to stand one’s ground against a ruthless and implacable foe. Bush wrongly believed the West still had it. He paid for that naiveté, too. Tiring quickly of the inconvenience of battle, the public were easily persuaded to disavow Bush as captain, and make him their scapegoat instead. Osama bin-Laden, and not George W. Bush, had been proved more astute.

In my youth, I was amazed to watch the United States of America let itself be defeated by little North Vietnam — having, it seemed to me, agreed to fight blindfold, with hands tied behind back, and feet chained together. It was a failure of resolution, from which I hoped much had been learnt: you don’t fight a war by a ponderous extension of your domestic bureaucracy. You certainly don’t fight a war you don’t intend to win. Osama told the Muslim world it would happen again, and in retrospect, he was right. But Vietnam was made into a mere holding action within the larger Cold War. The consequences of defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan are much greater.

America was our champion, but the West as a whole has proved itself unequal to the barbaric will. Frankly, I cannot imagine a recovery that does not involve the restoration of our Christian identity, and the renewal of our Christian mission at home and abroad. As “nothing in particular” we are already buried up to the waist in the trash heap of history.

But of course: alternative futures are not precluded, just because I can’t imagine them. Maybe we’ll be saved by flying saucers.

Things go better with Coke?

I am quite fortunate to have several critics, or email correspondents as they might call themselves, who selflessly opine on almost every one of the posts I despatch from up here in the High Doganate. I am thinking in particular of a lady — her youth and foreignness have never been specified — who has commented at greater length than I have written, and mostly about my literary quirks, in addition to the topics I have written on. She is pleasantly abrasive and saucy, and has seldom failed to make at least one point that might be construed as negative and destructive; but in a spirit or tone that is casual and jolly.

Perhaps I might call her “upbeat,” from her ability to put a positive spin on the behaviour and intentions of, for instance, our present Holy Father; as well as certain other progressive religionists (mostly nominally Catholic). I begin to see why all the recent popes have been canonized, or at least, are getting loaded into the canons. The Church makes a powerful cheering section; which drowns out those looking glum. There is always someone to like the pope, no matter from where he comes, or how novel and astonishing his theological, doctrinal, and moral positions.

What most impresses me is the ability to remain cheerful, about the way things are going, even when they are going to Hell.

Good cheer requires good energy, too, and here would be a good place to insert an advertisement for a popular energy drink. But as I’ve had to explain to several inquiring advertising agents, recently, I don’t run ads — for fizzy drinks, sports cars, or anything “commercial.” Its part of my anti-flash, downbeat aesthetic presentation.

The calendar

Much to my surprise, I discovered upon glancing at the calendar this morning, that it is the first of September. As my (equally surprising) heart surgery occurred in February, I must have survived it by six months, and be now on the giddy road to recovery. I am not, but that is just a technical detail.

Rather, as my faithful readers may have long suspected, I suffer from tediously post-operative dizziness and “imbalance”; and weakness not merely of will. Some Swedish cardiac rehabilitation equipment at the Toronto Western Hospital has so far failed to cure the physical aspect of this unworldliness; and my propensity to prefer Conservatives to Liberals, Artists to Terrorists, Dante Alighieri to Jorge Bergoglio, and indeed Trump to alternative madmen, cannot be cured. I think I was born with natural biases, before the subjects of it presented themselves.

But this squib must serve as an excuse for my frequent non-appearances in this space, and slowness to respond to my email commentariat. They are asked to forgive me, if they can; and may God bless them, whether or not they do.