Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

On heroic obedience

I will tell you a secret about Canada, but you must promise never to tell another living soul. We are secretly quite sane. We do a good job of hiding it, lest anyone notice and start asking us to assume adult responsibilities; for instance, we elected Justin Trudeau. But when no one seems to be looking, we do the right, or at least the practical thing. Then pretend it isn’t happening. Publicly, we may do something quite visibly insane, but just for a distraction. The Justin lad was good for that purpose. But then we act just as if we hadn’t done that, either. We have mastered the art of ignoring cause and effect. But privately, we can still tell most hawks from most handsaws.

Even here in beautiful downtown Parkdale — where everyone might live, if they didn’t overvalue their lives — I have met sane Canadians. They understand that, for instance, if the price of something is two dollars, and you have only one, you can’t buy it. Nor is there much point in pleading. You’ll have to borrow the other “loonie” (what we actually call our fairly worthless national currency). This will create some bother, so you might as well get a job. The general principle is to get away with anything you can, until the game is up. But then, instead of starting a revolution, get on with your life. In chess terms, all that we require is to recognize checkmate.

There may be foreigners who understand these things, but I’m sticking to the people I know. Even in this new epoch of social media, demand-making has limits. The Olde English concept of “fair cop,” where you stick up your hands and go quietly with the policeman, instead of trying to steal his gun and shoot him, is deeply implanted in the Canadian soul. (Like I say, I’m not going to speak for Americans.)

The trick, as all Leftists have ever understood, is to engineer a fait accompli. Give them no choice, and they’ll choose what you want them to, every time. This is how “democracy” functions. From non-smoking regulations, to single-payer medicare, just say we voted on it; even though we didn’t. People will even pay taxes voluntarily, if they can’t see a way to avoid them. I’ve seen them pay trolley fares on this principle; when the machines are broken, they stop. (Happily for us, the machines on Toronto trolleys are usually broken. Otherwise, we might switch to taxis.) This is sane behaviour.

Your average primitive in, say, the mountains of New Guinea or the backwaters of the Amazon — with, say, a spear and a bone in his nose — is also quite sane. He reacts to stimuli different from those we react to, and probably never rides transit, but when a threat appears, he knows what to do. I’ve heard a lot of smears against primitive people. But one must learn to look at things from their point-of-view, before passing judgement on their peculiar mannerisms.

Civilization (remember that?) is not built on sanity, after all. It is built on obligation and duty and habit. One gets so used to doing things in a civilized way, one doesn’t think twice about it. Class comes into this. As a member of the Middle Class, for instance, there is a whole world of “options” beyond one’s wildest imagination. But staying in the Middle Class trumps them all.

You don’t have to be sane to observe Lent, don’t y’know. You just have to be obedient. Forget the arguments for it; just do as the millions around you are doing. Or a little more, if you’re feeling like a hero; thus presenting your obedience to a higher command.

The millions around you are not observing Lent?

Bit of a problem, that, I’ll admit. You’ll just have to be a hero.

The freedom of Lent

One should be careful with the word “freedom.” It is full of mischief. Is it freedom for? or freedom from? or the freedom that is the opposite of freedom, adored by our progressives, who use old words with nice associations whose meanings they have gratuitously inverted.

If you hear a word like “tolerance,” run for your life (often it is used with the qualifier, “zero”). “Diversity” means punishment for those who deviate from the current party line. “Racism” announces an attack on white people; “sexism,” an attack on males; “gendered” means de-sexed. A “homophobe” is a person who disregards the demands of ruthless, aggressive, homosexual activists; and likewise, an “Islamophobe” disregards their Mussulman equivalents. Freedom, in each case, is identified with slavery; as war with peace; and among the “radicals” who populate our universities (the opposite of radicals because they are incapable of thinking anything through), ignorance is strength. Take almost anything coming from the mouth of, say, a “feminist,” or a “socialist,” and one may be reasonably confident that the opposite is true.

But gentle reader probably knows this already; and will know from experience if he is “on the far right” (i.e. endowed with sane judgement, moderation, and candour), that freedom is something that gets you in trouble, and therefore ought not to be casually indulged. It is a “human right,” but has become the freedom to be mobbed and persecuted by savage political hyenas.

Whereas, my idea of freedom is old-fashioned. Had I been around in the age of the great weasel (Eleanor Roosevelt), I would have been among those who ineffectually opposed her use of such phrases as “freedom from hunger.” From the founding documents of the United Nations, the list grows of “freedoms from” to justify bureaucratic intervention in every aspect of normal private life. Indeed, what I call Twisted Nanny State (the collective matrix of regulation) goes back to Bismarck, and to tyrants long before; though the inversion of evils to goods, and goods to evils, is a product of the modern imagination, detached as it has become from common sense and reason. It will recognize nothing holy: as of intrinsic value, divine and untouchable by the dirty hands of men.

The “freedom from” we need involves poverty, and abstinence from mad earthly schemes. It requires us to live not in a progressive, but in a timeless space, working for what one can know will be good at several complementary levels, but shy of all material ambitions and public awards. Confucius in his “Book of Songs” quotes an ancient Chinese lamentation (Waley’s translation):

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You will only make yourself dusty.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only make yourself wretched.

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You won’t be able to see for dust.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
Or you will never escape from your despair.

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You’ll be stifled with dust.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only load yourself with care.

Contra mundum

This item brought forward and subtly amended from only three years ago. (I’ve been looking through old Idleposts, and am utterly appalled.) I think I may be doing this a lot through Lent: revising old items that seem topical again; trying to fix them.

*

“Flapjack Tuesday” has been a day for maple syrup, these last few centuries in the Canadas, up here. “Mardi Gras,” or “Shrove Tuesday” — the last day, before Lent — is assumed to require some exuberance. The pancakes were, by tradition, made to use up household supplies of eggs, milk, butter; last year’s syrup; and other non-Lenten things. Sausages come to mind; and alcohol.

Dairy was going off the menu, should the point not yet be twigged. “Abstinence,” to our Catholic ancestors, was more like what we’d call a hard fast; a “fast” was total. In these northern climes, Lent fell conveniently towards the end of the winter — when we were running out of everything, anyway. And the contrast, the vivid truth in the notion, “Drink, for tomorrow we die!” — is lost on this age, with neither feasts nor fasts, but blueberries from Chile. Our days and weeks and years go by in one continuous upbeat blur, until each, alone, comes to his disaster. Death has been homogenized. But it is still served cold.

At the Quebec winter carnival, they still wear sometimes the old ceintures fléchées — the colourful woollen “arrow sashes,” in memory of the Habitants, long gone under the asphalt of Mammon. It was worn by men of all classes, in styles by region, not by rank: Charlevoix, L’Assomption, Acadienne. It pulled one’s coat together, against the bitter cold. It stiffened one’s back for heavy labour. The ladies made them for their men: in bright gorgeous patterns, by a method of finger weaving the Indians had taught them.

Knot it tightly to one side, and know that you are loved!

But they are ours to remember, who understood Ash Wednesday. Who knelt so timid before the Cross; and waited so humbly to be shriven; the women with their clutches of young, the burly men with caps in their hands. Ours to remember them that prayed, and I believe pray still, for the wayward children of children of children, riding the asphalt.

Today, the Church for our weakness asks little. (The State demands more, far more.) And now I have grown so old (past sixty!) that I am canonically exempted from any penitential diet.

Little is expected of anyone. A friend, who became convinced of Roman ecclesial claims, “after a life on the lam from Jesus,” complains: too little. “Please turn up for Mass sometimes, and drop a fiver in the basket.” And in return, a smileyface heaven will be yours to share, with the pornographers and the psychos, because “everyone is beautiful in their own way.”

To be shriven is to make one’s Confession, be assigned one’s Penance. Then to be Absolved, in the name of Christ. To be freed of the weight of one’s sins. People who have wrestled with their souls in darkness, and dwelt in anguish under Hell’s weight, today are most likely to receive in their churches a quick collective gumdrop mercy. Heavily they come, and sadly walk away.

The churches (Protestant and Catholic alike) emptied out when they ceased to expect much of people. They were full, back when they made demands, of those whose lives were materially more demanding than ours have ever been — pitted, as once, directly against nature. And the churches will start filling again, when the demands resume. For I will tell gentle reader a great secret I have learnt from a long course of empirical observation. All men need Christ.

They do not come to Him as an option. A tiny few seem almost born into His arms; many more come because they are defeated, and all “options” have expired. But those do not come to have their heads patted.

Bind them with the sash, with the ceinture fléchée! With the toughest Love, against the winter storm. Inflame their hearts for the battle, and set their minds to Victory: against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

A rant for Saint David’s Day

The distinction between how things look, and how things are, was the subject of my column today in Catholic Thing (here). With my accustomed modesty, I began by dismissing all literature, art, music, et cetera, that is not “visionary” in some sense I did not adequately define. Then I proceeded through rhetorical hoops to the conclusion that the same pertains to worship — omitting the thick square book that could have intervened, for I had not the time to write it yesterday morning. The column should of course, like most of my writings, be read backwards. (Some are meant to be read sideways.) The point I was making was itself quite backward.

The foreground question, that has been disturbing me for some time, and obsessing me lately, is whether what we call for shorthand “Western Civ” is salvageable. That it would be worth salvaging (we live in the age of gerunds, don’t we?) I take for granted. We are alive; we have to live somehow; better that it be in the highest of civilizations, than in barbarous filth. Not everyone agrees with me on this. The great majority, even within my Church, would prefer to live in a moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual pigsty of consumerism, in which the swineherds are provided by Twisted Nanny State.

Now traditionally, pigs had extended sharp tusks, and were death on swineherds. They still have them, but diminished in size by breeding, and sometimes even the wee vestigial bumps are removed, at the risk of cracking our jaws. This does not mean the captive suid is perfectly contented; only that he has been disarmed.

(I have a theory that humans are descended from pigs, not monkeys. I don’t actually believe it, but the argument can be developed in a way that will drive the village Darwinist crazy. Note: the average pig is smarter than a monkey; and can’t be bothered climbing trees.)

But I seem to be distracting myself into zoology, and my purpose was hardly to advance naturalism. Indeed, my self-assigned brief is for supernaturalism. My affection for pigs is just an aside. In the end it must be said there has never been a pig civilization, and the prospect that one may emerge by the ministrations of animal rights activists is, to my mind, dim.

Nor has there been a human civilization without unambiguously religious foundations. There can be no order (for good, or when it fails, for evil) that does not require reference to something higher than itself. This is as true for the headhunters of Borneo (where the pigs are bearded, and ought to be carefully avoided in the mangrove swamps), or the short-statured of the Congo jungle (formerly known as pygmies). Among the definitions of “faith” must be that which holds the tribe or a people together, without tyranny. When it is lost, everything is lost.

(The “red-river hogs” of the Congo swamps are an exceptionally beautiful species, incidentally, with their gorgeous orange fox-like fur, adorable whiskers, decorative black and white facial patches, and thin white stripe along spine and tail. Though as any pigmy could tell you, they are terrible yam thieves, can defend themselves even against leopards, and would not make good family pets.)

Where am I? … Faith. … Our own once unambiguously Christian civilization has been typical in its embrace of a supernatural order. The phenomena of collective worship are not unusual, as civilizations go. What made Christendom unique was the attachment to a God who can actually deliver us from cosmic perils. The hand-held devices we now worship cannot do that for us. Nor will they induce order of any kind.

Even at the most incontestably pragmatic level: it is time we returned to something that was working. Serve God, in Christ, and He will look out for us. Serve some other gods, and He won’t.

*

BONUS POINT. — From that Thing column: “A prophetic vision is not visual, or necessarily visual: the author could be blind. Nor can it be communicated in language alone.” … I am unsatisfied with the latter sentence. Yes, it can be communicated in words alone, but in words that go beneath and beyond themselves. For space, I cut a paragraph more reasonably explaining that anything worth reading, though it be only words, must participate in a dimension of poetry. Anything that doesn’t, needs to be destroyed. It is of the devil. That which is of God will be poetic of its nature. This is why the introduction of “Novus Ordo” was such an anti-Catholic crime: by desecrating the poetry of the Old Mass, it also undermined the content. Or consider Esperanto, for that matter: the invention of a language in which poetry would be impossible. As Baudelaire said, a man can go without food three days; but without poetry, Never!

A question

“Whatever became of the ten northern tribes?”

The question, which is biblical (see the Books of Kings), was asked by a correspondent, after watching some excerpt from the Grammy Awards. It is a good question, so I have repeated it — answering a question with the same question, as it were.

Bad things happened to the ancient Israelites, from the Assyrian exile to the destruction of Jerusalem, and this list is not complete. But why did God let them happen?

The biblical account is clear enough. There is a “why,” and it involves a fundamental breach of Israel’s covenant with the Lord. And that, not with some later, but with the First Commandment. False worship, and the toleration of false worship, was not a “trend” but the thing itself. The Israelites had forgotten by Whom they had been favoured. They were now on their own.

Gleaning what I have of the latest persiflage from Rome, and the “fake news” everywhere else in the media, revealing the decline of social and political judgement at large, I think my correspondent has nailed it. Our “crisis” is not properly understood. We fall on fragmentary explanations. We have minds trained upon “evolution” and “progress,” which habitually look to petty cause and petty effect. To address the human fate, we seek management solutions.

As ever, “in the spirit of Vatican II,” I was struck by the extreme asininity of the rhetoric, in response to the general “perception” that the Church is harbouring, at its highest levels, internationally, the perpetrators of sex crimes. Rather than take action to root it out — regardless of cost, regardless of organizational convenience, to get to the truth and act on it with the institutional means that have long existed — we have these ludicrous public relations gestures. The word “homosexual” was banned from proceedings. One man named McCarrick has been defrocked, as the sacrificial goat — without even the appearance of an ecclesiastical trial. And while that was happening, the pope was appointing a few more very dubious characters to high positions — including McCarrick’s old roommate and buddy as Camerlengo, and a couple more prominent churchmen that Pope Benedict tried to get rid of, such as the sad old Communist now Archbishop of Peru. (The next Conclave is already stacked with shameful appointments.)

Men are what they are, and scandals may be repeated in any age. There are good men, too: including several excluded from the Vatican summit on “the protection of minors” who begged delegates inside to make a stand, to be heard, to ask serious questions and refuse to be put off with official silences and sophistry. No one inside rose to this challenge — a whole congress of cowardly and ineffectual mediocrities.

But like the current pope himself — the worst we have had in many centuries — they are not a cause but an effect of something much larger. The Church, and the societies she originally founded (“the West” and its offshoots, now all around the world) have breached the First Commandment. That we now take the other nine lightly, follows from this. Our worship is continuously “updated” to accommodate plainly temporal and profane aspirations, and we turn to God only to mutter our secular requests.

We do not worship God as He wishes to be worshipped, but as we wish to worship Him. In this, that most fundamental covenant, at the root of our own being, is breached. Why should we wonder that our civilization, raised through millennia of faithful labour, on His instructions and by God’s grace, is now falling to pieces?

A thousand years later

[Retrieved, and condensed, from the murky past.]

*

We — I would write “I,” but have a rule against starting an Idlepost in first person singular — try to take a long view of current events. God knows we have seldom succeeded. But on a day when a bishop’s conference is opening in Rome, to discuss the filth and corruption of our high priests, we wish to proclaim that it is the Feast of Saint Peter Damian.

This Saint Peter, whose thousandth birthday must have passed by now, will be familiar to readers of Dante, who presents him in Canto XXI of the Paradiso. On checking, I see that it has. He was less than three hundred years old when Dante met him; now he is one thousand and twelve.

Young son in a family rather large and poor, in the city of Ravenna, he was soon predeceased by both hapless parents and installed as a child in the office of swineherd. But an elder brother, the “Damian” whose name Peter later joined to his own, noticed that his little brother was extremely intelligent, and devoted himself to the lad’s education. Here was the origin of a Doctor of the Church — who lived a life most improbable, yet demonstrable as fact. As all Saints: a life which must remain incomprehensible to us, until we begin to see that God, and not the man, is guiding it. The man has merely got out of God’s way.

God raises up such men as Peter Damian when there is need of them, as there is now. He has done so in the past; He will do so in the future. We need to understand this when inclined to despair, because the world is going to Hell. (It was going to Hell a thousand years ago. One would think it had got there by now.) We cannot repair any significant thing; we can only be faithful and ourselves try to live the life that Christ exemplified. (This includes repairing things, or in our case at least trying to repair them.)

Peter Damian was a major reforming “activist” through the middle of the eleventh century, of specific relevance in the tumult of today’s Church. Not that she has ever experienced perfect tranquility, in this world of wolves; not that her officers ever could, given conditions that do not change, down here.

Zealous, and wise, Peter became an advisor to popes, and excoriator of anti-popes. Sent repeatedly into action, against his will and desire for a silent monastic life, he boldly confronted the “liberals” of his day, and the mobs they raised with their false teachings. His Liber Gommorrhianus might as well be contemporary with us in its exposure of horrible crimes, especially sex crimes, within the Church — which followed, then as now, from a relaxation of her teachings. Paederast priests and the rest of it; homosexual networking; utter filth and corruption (“hetero,” too) in high places; it was all there in the eleventh century.

And with all that, lots of blather about “mercy,” with the progressive abandonment of serious penance, without which Mercy becomes an empty casque. Mercy is not a quick fix or free pass. Its depth cannot be lightly jumped or skirted. It goes to the bottom of the reality on whose surface we are dangerously playing.

Today’s Saint lived at another nadir of the Church’s fortunes. But that is mere background to his works, including the writings that fill two thick, double-columned volumes of Migne’s Patrologia Latina (144 and 145). He was a superb writer of the Latin language, worth study as a model rhetor, to get some idea of the living range and genius of ecclesiastical Latin, in its strict logic, and poetical precision.

A brilliant “reformer” — and yet for all his learning, Peter could half-reasonably be described as an “anti-intellectual.” One of his tasks was to show how empty is philosophy, when it is indulged as an end in itself. Earlier than al-Ghazali — arguably the greatest of the (mostly Persian) thinkers in the Islamic Golden Age, whose greatest work, On the Incoherence of the Philosophers, bore its best fruit in the Christian West — Peter Damian was working partly outside time. Hence: Doctor as well as Saint of the Church, as Leo XIII confirmed.

His long letter, number 119, De divina omnipotentia, addressed to the abbot of Monte Cassino in 1065, bears careful scrutiny. It began as an after-dinner topic in the dolce that followed a meal there.

This work has been recklessly misrepresented, by undue focus on just one of its paragraphs, which offers a bold, even mischievous paradox. Peter answers confidently in the affirmative, to the question whether God can restore the virginity of a woman, both physically and, as it were, metaphysically. This seems to involve a violation of the principle of non-contradiction, for it would require changing an event in the past. Peter shows that it would not; but to get this, one must continue reading. His purpose, in tackling this apparent contradiction, was not to play a logical game. Rather, it was to provide a theological insight that “dialectics” or philosophy could not have provided; yet which can be traced back through reason, and shown to be self-consistent.

God cannot lie, cannot give the lie; cannot contradict Himself; cannot take back today what He allowed yesterday; can do only good. His omnipotence actually requires this. He who is Being prior to all beings, cannot participate in non-being, or the denial of His own Being. Something, for that matter, can never participate in Nothingness — the root of all evil. But a philosophy that is not in acknowledgement of Revelation, will never grasp this; will always miss the point.

In this event: philosophy alone will not grasp that God could perform the miracle that restores the physical condition of virginity; that He could perform the miracle that retrieves the penitent soul of a grievous sinner from the consequences of her unalterable past. Neither miracle (or in combination, one) would involve tampering with history.

Christ did not come to make Adam’s fall unhappen. He came because it happened. Strangely, in the bottomless felix culpa, Adam “asked” for Christ to come; unknowingly begged for it to happen.

We miss this for the very reason that we have placed Time above God in our comprehension of the universe, and thus mistaken what is “true enough in its way,” for the Truth that is higher. We have, in other words, assigned to God an “omnipotence” that falls short of His actual Omnipotence.

We are, with Peter Damian, on a road from Aristotle, through Saint Augustine, to Saint Thomas Aquinas who will come later — in which philosophy itself is hardly suppressed or retroactively changed, but confidently redirected; put to its proper use in the service of our Redemption, and thus itself “redeemed.” This is just what, in that other tradition, al-Ghazali was doing in retrieving the legacy of Avicenna. He was not trying to suppress philosophy, any more than Plato was trying to suppress art. He was restoring it to life by providing its proper context and environment: the air in which it could breathe again.

For we have lost our way through the very swamp that once we drained. We can hardly breathe in its miasmatas. We need to find our way out to an elevated place where we can, once again, safely fill our lungs; wash and dry under the Sun of Justice.

Fame, fashion, future

Imagine, waking every morning, and having to pretend you are Karl Lagerfeld, again. Worse than that, being Karl Lagerfeld, so there can be no holiday. I will not say it was “a fate worse than death,” for I’m not dead yet, and don’t know what that’s like. But as living fates go, my sympathies were entirely with the man. Imagine, each morning, having to put on the uniform, like a doorman or old-fashioned lift attendant. Not just the uniform but having always something graceful and polite to say. Well, I can understand why he never rose to that lift-attendant standard.

I suppose lift attendants were retired, because no one could rise to that standard any more. I am myself notorious for saying things on elevators that are, shall we say, “ironical” — in reply to some conventional remark about, say, the weather. Perhaps I could be taught to just nod and smile. I’m already fairly good at pressing buttons. But the uniform would surely defeat me.

Fame, as ersatz immortality, appeals to some. I have known men — even some women — devoted to becoming famous, in the spirit of the “Renaissance.” All, therefore, became actors, in the Hollywood mode, where you play the same character, movie after movie. The less imaginative never tire of it. I think of one auld acquaintance still playing his part, in what looks like old age. Sadly, he never became famous.

The standards for vanity have been falling, like everything else these last fifty years. Or, these last five hundred. I mentioned the Renaissance — the common term for an historical epoch, though entirely a construct of the pigeon imagination, which longs for its pigeon hole. But the late Mr Lagerfeld had the vanity I associate with heroic stature. “Brave” would be the Elizabethan term — a time when the word was not necessarily associated with courage. A brave man in those days was ostentatiously dressed. He cut a fine figure. Stout-hearted, perhaps, if I follow the etymology. (Ultimately, I think, from the Latin barbarus.) Grand, splendid, with a hint of the untamed. Think bravo! — think bravado — related terms we also filched from Spain.

But one must move fast, in the dance of fashion: a rumba, a salsa, cha cha cha. I am not against it. The skirts rise, but they also fall; the tempo quickens, but it also slows. Each turn can be fashionable, for a season. And when the season ends, the circle is complete. The latest mania has been exhausted.

*

I cannot say, that my opposition to “evolutionism” is growing, for that would be to express it in an evolutionary way. And it would be wrong: for when I look back over the history of my opinions, I see no forward motion at all. Rather, it is another kind of growth, a filling out. An idea formed in me, almost certainly in childhood, has rooted and branched. The connexions become more apparent, between one thought and another. Is this leading somewhere? That is something I can’t know, as nothing can be now known, of the future. And even our knowledge of the past falters.

Gentle reader may be aware that I oppose “progress.” The question, what do I mean by this, could still be asked. The word means many things, depending on context, and for instance I am not against walking, A to B. That is “a progress.” Verily, I love a parade (I love a dance, too, if the truth be told), provided that it is unlike a riot.

But the idea of some abstract parade, a “march of humanity,” fills me with dread and revulsion. It is a forced march, to nowhere.

The deadly neurosis, that governs modern men — this compulsion to some invisible earthly future — is enemy to life, and even to pleasure. We demand “evolution” and “progress” as ends in themselves. We will run, launch, rise. But a fashion runway leads only to the bathroom.

National Bigotry Day

Say “undocumented immigrants” often enough, and it will become a hate crime. This is the fate of most intended euphemisms; few benefit from repetition. The “owner” of the euphemism would have been better off with his original appellation; especially if he’d earned it — usually by playing too consistently to stereotype.

Call him a “deplorable,” however, and he’ll scrawl it on his banner. Both “Tories” and “Whigs” were named by their opponents, in honour of Gaelic highwaymen and horse thieves respectively, during Britain’s Inglorious Revolution. It backfired both ways. The most malign insults — those truly without affection or humour — often do so. They become funny simply because they are so vicious.

My favourite continues to be a term which, according to a story quite apocryphal (a “backronym” as we call it today), began with an instruction from the Viceroy. He wanted general staff to stop calling the natives rude names. He proposed, “Worthy Oriental Gentleman,” instead, as official nomenclature. Given the British genius for affixing racist monosyllables to the over-various peoples of the world, it was contracted to “Wog” right away.

I love “Frog,” “Spic,” “Kraut,” “Wop” — all, be it noted, for white people — and a few I won’t mention because the subjects might actually be defenceless. All these quick epithets could be used affectionately, and still can be, by friends and lovers. As recently as the Korean War, “Gooks” was added to the inventory — for the people soon wiping us out in trade competition.

The need to invent a racial slur for Belgians (“Waffles” can cover only half of them) was a common topic in the pubs of Kent, back when I was alive. Any old edition of Brewer’s Phrase and Fable will supply numerous options for Dutchmen. They were the prime movers for that Inglorious Revolution of 1688 (as the Frenchmen were for the Yankee one of 1776). Surely, in the view of any Loyalist, they had it coming.

Now, faced with a legitimate non-racial monosyllable, extension would be indicated. If one meant an actual amphibian frog, one could clarify by calling it “a Dutch nightingale.” Dutch auction (prices falling), Dutch gold (nasty zinc store tokens), Dutch convert (a noisy drunk), Dutch concert (a drunken brawl), Dutch courage (gin) — it’s all there in the old Brewer’s, “or I’m a Dutchman.”

Once, while delivering a disquisition on this topic, in a pub at Canterbury, a stranger listening from the bar introduced himself as a Hollandish person. He had been laughing; and joined us, in good English, for a more general discussion of abusive terms. This proved useful. You see, it is only because Englishmen speak no other language that they are unaware of the world’s terms for them.

Back when (in another century) I had become briefly engaged to a charming Chinese lady, owing to a linguistic misunderstanding, I was privileged to be taught the broad Swatow vocabulary for the round-eyed types. I could pronounce almost none of it (I’m no good with tones), but will affirm that the Chinamen are far ahead of us — each European nation identified with a particular sordid disease, or traditionary demon. I’m sure it was affectionate in every case.

My mommy, when very young, had blazing red hair (to say nothing of the freckles), and was subject to bigoted attacks for this in a Cape Breton coalfield, cum-schoolyard. “Redhead, gingerbread, ten cents a loaf!” &c. She was instructed by her own mother to reply, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Hearing that, her next black-haired assailant beat her up.

I do not contend that racism is pretty; but it is colourful, and when banned for certain races (you can still call Anglos anything you want; they’re not allowed to hit back) a term will simply be euphemized, into something secretly more demeaning. Indeed, I like to cite racism as a universal thing; something that binds all men together.

We need a National Bigotry Day, in which for twenty-four hours we can all find relief from the Political Correctors. And laugh at each other, scoff taunt and mock, because (have you noticed?) all of us deserve it.

Manifesto of Faith

People — even bishops — sometimes do what is required of them, without having been ordered to do so by their immediate superiors. It is a rare event, but an inspiring one. Mostly it inspires loathing in their opponents. Such enterprise will be noticed by the boss; though as the average drudge in any corporation knows, or learns if he did not know already, promotion will not follow. There is a question of loyalties: whom do we serve? In my limited experience, the average boss understands only personal loyalty to himself. It is human to confuse the corporate interest with one’s own, especially when conflicts are not visible to subordinates. It is also unambiguously wrong.

When a boss myself (in small insignificant ventures), I became acquainted with the supposed virtue of “decisiveness.” Let us say I made a foolish mistake — the result of allowing my mouth to get slightly ahead of my intellect. (This can easily happen.) Now what do I do? Climb down, and be perceived as weak and indecisive? Or damn the torpedoes?

On the other hand I have served (briefly but memorably) bosses who were utterly sleazy and contemptible. Though I name no names.

A sleazy boss will look for more alternatives. For instance, disown the mistake. Claim to have been misunderstood, or misinterpreted. Balance each mistake with its opposite. Blame the innocent, and sack them. Or, do nothing and wait patiently for everyone to forget what you said or did. Later, fire anyone who remembers. I belonged to the climb-down school, which is perhaps why my career got nowhere; that, and making what I believed at the time to be hysterically funny jokes. For “leadership,” I was soon told, requires taking oneself seriously, and carefully guarding one’s amour-propre.

Let us place Robbie Burns here, in opposition to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The one wished we could “see ourselves as others see us”; the other preferred the “who cares?” of amour de soi. Christian writers reject both, and recommend trying to please God. Since God, having created the universe, cannot be so easy to impress, it is the least satisfying short-term option.

Gerhard Cardinal Müller, before being relieved of the office without warning or reason, was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was every inch a Ratzinger appointment: learned, solid in doctrine and faith, diligent, incorruptible. But not humourless, and hardly robotic.

The CDF was the very office to which Pope Bergoglio was bound to turn, when five urgent Dubia were hand-delivered to him, from Cardinals Burke, Brandmüller, Meisner, and Caffarra, on May 6th, 2017. By Catholic tradition, the pope was solemnly obliged to respond. Two of these men have since died (heartbroken, according to reports); all four were among widely admired stalwart defenders of Catholic orthodoxy, in vivid contrast to the pope’s inner circle of dubious friends. But Bergoglio was already in the habit of ignoring Müller — and said he’d never heard of the Dubia, until he saw them mentioned in a newspaper. (Behaviour I associate with low characters.)

The pope had been asked to clarify Roman doctrine, straightforwardly by Yes or No to each question, with precise qualifications if any, in light of numerous statements ranging from the absurd to the heretical that he had uttered, both formally (in e.g. Amoris Laetitia) and informally (in his frequent aeroplane media scrums), leaving a billion poorly-educated Catholics haplessly confused about what the Church is teaching, and has always taught.

God bless Cardinal Müller for the four pages of his Manifesto of Faith (English text here). He has given us the answers that a reckless and irresponsible pope owed to us: the Catholic answers, to which we as Catholics, and indeed all men have an absolute right. (Flaccid leftist tweets and posturings we can get from anywhere.)

Four pages take four minutes to read. Ten, perhaps, with a sip of tea and full attention.

Inside the whale

Often I am asked, “What would you do?” …

I think it is a fair question, for I was never in agreement with the late beloved curmudgeon, Auberon Waugh, who said the journalist’s job should be purely destructive. In this respect, I try to be impure, offering, for instance, frequent affirmations of Christian belief, to supplement my stock-in-trade of renouncing the Devil and all his works. Even on the plane of mundane existence, the occasional suggestion of what might make life more endurable should not be ruled out.

As a journalistic account is called “a story,” the journalist should stop to ask himself if what he is writing is a good story. Has he omitted useful literary devices, contradicted himself, skipped connectives and crucial details, or supplied some that were not strictly necessary and might be in blasphemously poor taste? Other questions to himself might have been overlooked, such as, “Will the reader be uplifted by this, or will he be dunked deeper in the contemporary slime?”

But Mr Waugh was right to hint that the journalist who proposes to solve the world’s problems is, at heart, a jackass. They cannot be solved. Sneering negativity makes more sense. My excursion in yesterday’s Idlepost into the cloud cuckooland of utopian ideals might be explained by the fact that I’m feverish at the moment.

A reader (no less than my Chief Texas Correspondent) wrote, “You seem to have been born in the wrong time.”

“So?” I replied, defensively. “Everyone makes a mistake now and then.”

An alternative explanation is that I am trying to show how we moderns are trapped in a blind alley of our own enlightened choice. We cannot make improvements in our lives, or win our freedom, by the methods that were devised to make improvements, and free us. And, we can’t get out of them, either. We are accroached progressives who have left ourselves only one path forward, and that leads into a brick wall. We can acknowledge only political solutions and … there are no political solutions. The only conceivable way out is backwards, but our car was designed to have no reverse. (Or brakes, or anything but an accelerator.)

Politics, as I like to say, is “the art of the impossible.” It is impossible even to imagine how, by a political process, any large modern nation state could devolve to the point where locals could have control of their own affairs. The vested interests for Large are too large. Big-league politicians, of any stripe, do not voluntarily part with their powers, whatever rhetorical roughage they may spew, and small interests will always be crushed or bought off — more often with lies than with money. This is why I concluded that with God all things are possible. They aren’t with men.

The limit of what we can do for ourselves through politics is seek ameliorations, none of which can possibly stick — unless something unforeseeable by any man happens.

Our foreseeable future is something like what “PRC” China is already achieving: using advanced surveillance technology to rank all citizens by obedience to the State’s commands, and arrest all those with failing grades. (Going offline and unplugging all appliances won’t hide you, as anyone with a techie son can learn; in our brave new world, even Jeff Bezos can be monitored.)

It is true, we still have some checks and balances in the West (semi-independent judiciary and the like), but note that they are all inherited from the distant past, and all are currently under unthinking attack from both Left and Right ends of the political spectrum. And while only one of those is demonstrably insane (guess which?) they routinely alternate in power.

Time, in my view, to revive the old-fashioned stratagem, for when you find yourself inside the belly of the beast. Complete passivity is not an option, so what you do is, pray.

The non-utopian Utopia

One slight change to this Idlepost: I was persuaded that I’d gone too easy on the Anabaptists. I’ve always had a soft spot for Mennonites, I admit.

*

Being a liberal in a Catholic country (Newman’s definition of a liberal will do) should be safe, legal, and rare. It is a condition that does not necessarily preclude salvation, though at its worst it may endanger others, and so some vigilance is needed, just as it is against corrupt priests. Men should be oriented to God, leaving to God his orientation towards men; a society in which men are constantly nattering at each other is unhealthy.

It must be free in some other than the current “liberal” and “democratic” usage, in which obsessive voting and campaigning is directed to the power of one interest over another. Far from seeking political power as the class of Catholic (i.e. “universal”) Christians over any other class, civil courts and legislature in a Catholic country must be restricted to tenets of justice that pertain to all men, qua men. A Catholic who breaks laws should be looked upon as “blindly” as a man of any other affiliation, so far as it is not a pretence to undermine the laws. From petty theft and cheating, to murder and abortion aforethought, no man charged should ever fear that judge and jury are predisposed against him. This is no easy task, but we should never stop trying.

Regardless of denomination, a man should, if he lives a reasonably honest life, have no fear of police. In a country where the Catholic principle of subsidiarity is properly observed, custom would reign at any local level. The beauty of custom, unlike written law, is that it grows organically by consensus over time; so that it includes even such arrangements as what is voted on, and what not. There may be ways of doing things in one parish, and perhaps other ways in the next; but until there is some conflict between them, or some grave allegation of misgovernment, no higher authority will be involved.

This was, to my mind, among the great principles overturned by the French Revolution. Overnight, some sixty thousand parishes in France — no two of which were governed quite the same — were redrawn as thirty-six thousand civil wards, to be governed identically by directives from Paris. The measure was so attractive to totalitarians, that the obscenity spread country to country, so that by now the contrary idea of municipal independence is inconceivable almost everywhere.

Many other traditions, parallel to that, were also overturned; centralization proved very convenient to administrators of the Industrial Revolution, too. Our challenge, as I often suggest, is to turn them back, and thereby reverse the effects of what is by now a long history of dirigisme.

I am aware that there have been events in history in which the Church, when in her unwanted position of civil power, has acted less than Christianly towards non-Catholics; and more when Christian majorities (whether Catholic or non-Catholic) have abused minorities — harmless Anabaptists for instance, minding their own business in their own estates. It is enough that their doctrinal errors be publicly explained and corrected; they need not be physically suppressed. But we are in no perfect world, and not all heretics are peaceful. The best we can do is resist excess, for without the freedom to protest, sans retribution, and the institutional means to address protest, insurrections will spawn. It is in the interest of the Church not only to present a clean operation, but to create and contribute to moral cleanliness at large. The Church must not seek to replace an over-centralized State that should never have existed. The “universal” power must be a spiritual, civilizing power, of God not of men.

While I could go on, sketching what is abstractly required in a Catholic country, gentle reader may be asking a practical question, i.e. “How do you propose to get from here to there?”

The answer is, I have no idea. But I affirm that, with God, all things are possible.

Hue & cry

There are such things as politics, even though I don’t like them. Yet we are involved whether we like them or not, if only to defend ourselves against those who (like Satan, for example) are playing politics in every watchful moment.

Venezuela is important, even to the English-speaking world, where opposition parties in both Britain (Labour) and the United States (Democrats) are proposing to replace the current “Brexitism” and “Trumpism,” respectively, with something like the Venezuelan revolution. They advocate appropriation from the rich, the regulation of everything that moves, and stomping the ideological jackboot in every uncooperative face.

Polls I’ve seen present their winning case. About four in five Americans, and probably more in other countries, say “soak the rich.” The overwhelming majority earn enough to get by, and the minority of incapables are over-served with public assistance programmes. Debt is a critical problem, both privately, and publicly, where debt service is now the largest category of spending in most national budgets, and growing remorselessly. But the public have no interest in bookkeeping — the Millennial Generation leaves counting to computers — and are quickly bored with policy prescriptions unless there is something advertised for them. Most would now prefer bill-free medicine; and the young want tuition-free education. Recklessly irresponsible “liberal” politicians are glad to promise such things, knowing that the media won’t ask hard questions, but are entirely focused on smearing their opponents.

The rich and visible have always been unpopular, and a target for malignant and stupid people. Humans being what they are, the hatred is often deserved. But the essentially criminal idea, that we could all be better off if we just took what belonged to those smarter or better connected than ourselves, and spread it around “democratically,” has been with us through all recorded ages.

Envy, rightly marked in Christendom as a grievous deadly sin, works with the mob, and owing to advances in technology a mob can now be formed electronically, on an unprecedented scale. I look to our mundane future with a mixture of pessimism and optimism. The pessimism is for what I can immediately foresee. The optimism is for what comes after.

For God made man with a heart that is also capable of good. This tends to emerge in the most trying circumstances. To the outrage of liberals and progressives, agencies as diverse as those of USA, of various countries in Latin America, and of Venezuelan refugees, have organized aid projects to bring food and medicine to those still imprisoned by the Caracas regime. They are meant to replace the hand-outs that Chavez and Maduro used to buy votes, but which are no longer available since they crashed the economy (recently among the wealthiest in this world, thanks to oil). Without weapons, it may be possible to bring down that regime, as it was a generation ago to bring down the Berlin Wall. I pray Godspeed to all those who work towards the destruction of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela.

But there is alas no reliable method on Earth by which Power can be held in check, once evil men have won an election. In a civilized polity, they would be compelled to balance each budget; to build reserves instead of debts; would be prevented by custom and constitutional instruments from engaging in extra-legal activities (i.e. those not directly sanctioned by specific legislative acts, nor administered transparently). By increments we have “progressed” beyond limits to statism understood in the past. (I have always opposed socialism, not because it is inefficient — though it leads invariably to farce — but because it is evil.)

Here nature is on our side, in the form of national catastrophes. Only after the triumphant response to those, do things start getting worse again.

On selfies

How am I to give advice to others, on how to live, when I have made a mess of my own life? Has anyone asked himself this question recently?

It is a question that does not seem to arise outside Catholic and the more rambling Judaeo-Christian tradition, where Adamic “guilt” hath always played a major part in morality. The sense that we, not as a class, but as individuals, are guilty as Adam, and ought to be ashamed is, or was, drummed into us through childhood. I look at old faces in photographs, and often see it there; and where it is absent, the man stands out. He is “leadership material,” as one might think today.

Perhaps he was. Perhaps that cocky self-confidence that breathed into the film played its part in the defence of each little realm. But perhaps, on the other hand, it was unnecessary. I am unlikely to have discerned as much as I imagine from portraits and scenes of the long-expired.

Velazquez has been among my favourite painters, for as long as I can remember. I can be floored by a still-life within a Spanish kitchen; by the colours and shapes and reflections alone. On another plane: by his presentations of nobility, of the royal, the God-approved, in pose and gesture. It seems so alien to our “virtue signalling” world, in which each character is projecting himself, at his best though sometimes, proudly, at his worst. The flavour of nobility marks the world of Velazquez apart from ours.

Truth to tell, the “selfie” was invented at the Renaissance. The technology has degenerated considerably since then, but not the intent, to flash the image of a person as a self-contained being, cutting through the constraints of his environment. The Renaissance portrait lifts us out of the Mediaeval into the Modern. The figures have come to life, in the round, and are innate with movement. It is like the transition from silent films to talkies: art had suddenly “come alive,” become noisy. Become, I think, capable of ugliness.

Of course these old Spaniards are projecting themselves, too. They are depicted in the flesh. They are symbols of authority in their society, I suppose, except, they are ceasing to be symbols. They were profiles on the coins, but now they have sprung out, and grown bodies, too. The authority is in their gestures as much as it had been in their stations. The idea that a leader should look like a leader had always been there, but now he was also a performance, an act.

This arrogance of power — “man the maker of man” — is now at large among us. Shame and humility have been overcome. Each class absorbs the fashion in dress from the class above, but wears it in a more tawdry way. In just a few centuries we will have paparazzi: the dress and imagery of the stars, passed down. Finally we will have people taking pictures of themselves. They carry their (skill-free) “smartphones” about, like pocket mirrors. The higher the technology, the lower the reach: why I called it “degeneration,” above.

But these are just pictures, my inner-modern says. They aren’t meant to be so serious. Look at them: the people are all smiling, or making faces — having a joke. How unlike those old Victorian portraits, in which the faces are serious, grave, because everyone, even humble farmers and fishermen and miners, had some dignity to preserve.

Nor were they givers of advice, unless to children in the privacy of their homes. (And takers of advice, from the pulpit.) There was no attempt to convey a narrative about “lifestyle” — frankly, how to live. Like Christians and Jews, through the rest of the world, people were unsmiling when their photos were first taken. The human resolution to maintain some dignity appears even in the anthropologists’ pictures of naked savages in the bush.

It could be said that “shame,” in a sense deeper than “trying to save face,” was an invention of our own, “Western,” religious tradition. It had to be invented, before shamelessness could be. The “primitives” — as we used to think of them — lack the guilt that we were capable of feeling, the “neurosis” that remains in post-Christian man; but were men for a’ that.