Playing the Indian Card

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Beautiful Rebel Christmas Song

often overlooked.

Born with a Gift of Laughter, and a Sense that the World Was Mad

Friend Cyrus opines that morality is derived from the practical needs of society. More generally, “cultural relativism” has become a common position: morality is what your society says it is.

This goes against one of the most vital of all insights: that the world is mad.

So says Christianity: God came to the world, and the world crucified him.

Not just the civil authorities, either. The religious authorities were very much in on the act. And not just the authorities, either. They judgment is ultimately confirmed by the mob, by democratic vote.

Seems pretty definitive: whatever society as a whole is pushing, it is not reliable. You can’t derive morality from social authority.

This is also a possible understanding of Jesus’s warning “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

A pessimistic reading is that very few get to heaven. A more optimistic reading is that we only get to heaven one by one, never by following the crowd.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says of his disciples—that is, of Christians—“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world…. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”

Christians are to be in the world, but not of it.

What about the Church? Isn’t it a social authority?

Yes, it is—and have we not seen ourselves, even in very recent days, that as a social authority it is not reliable? What is reliable is the “deposit of faith,” the scriptures and time-tested traditions it preserves, and must exist to preserve. But not the USCCB or CCCB, meeting as a group—and not the Vatican.

The common phrase “whenever two or more of you are gathered in my name, I am with you,” often used to describe the Church, is a misquotation. Jesus actually said, “whenever two or three of you.” This suggests an upper limit as well as a lower one for his true presence.

There must have been a reason why, of his many disciples, he chose only twelve to be apostles, to whom he delegated authority. Only twelve to join him in the Upper Room. The apostles themselves understood this number as significant, for when Judas apostasized, they chose one successor.

Twelve seems a reasonable upper limit at which all members of the group will know one another and interact with one another as individuals. It is the upper limit of human sanity.


The same insight, that the world is mad, or is no moral guide, is found in Judaism, only a little less centrally. It is the story of Noah, of Lot—only the individual, only one man, is righteous. It is the story of the prophets, almost invariably, as Jesus notes, persecuted by their society. It is the story of the Jews as a whole, in the diaspora.

It is also clear enough in Buddhism—Sakyamuni literally rejects “the world”—he was fated to be a world ruler. He abandons his city and his palaces, then even his few companions in the forest, to achieve his enlightenment in solitude.

To me, the most worrisome thing about Islam is the absence from its mainstream of this awareness that the world is mad.

The Sufis understand it.

Beyond our great religious traditions, the insanity of the social plane is also the core insight of much of our greatest literature. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is always struggling with an irresponsible crew. In the Iliad: nobody listens to Cassandra or to Laocoon. And Troy falls not by force of massed arms, but through the cleverness of an individual, Odysseus. In the entire Medieval “knight errant” tradition; like the cowboy tradition that followed it. In Don Quixote—superficially Quixote is mad, and those around him are sane. Yet we sympathize with him, and see them all as dullards by comparison. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Gulliver’s Travels. Kafka’s entire corpus; Lord of the Flies; Catch-22; To Kill a Mockingbird; One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Emperor’s New Clothes.” “High Noon.” Orwell’s 1984.

It is a convenient error to understand 1984 as solely a prediction of the future. “1984” is “1948” transposed, the date the book was written, for a reason. Orwell meant that, if looked at carefully, the situation in England in 1948 was already that described.

Is there any similar literary or philosophical argument for communitarianism?

There is. It is called fascism.

Monday, December 30, 2019

On the Night We Held the Moon for Ransom

We Three Kings

A soothing rendition:

Pete Buttigieg's Christmas

The Flight into Egypt

Pete Buttigieg has gotten a lot of criticism for his Christmas tweet:

“Today I join millions around the world in celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee. No matter where or how we celebrate, merry Christmas.”

Others quickly pointed out that there is no indication in the Gospel that Jesus’s birth family was either rich or poor. And Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem not as refugees, but to register for a census.

And why can’t he use the name “Jesus”?

It seemed to me initially obvious that Buttigieg was way off; I am surprised to see that some have also defended his tweet.

Peter Wever at The Week, for example, responds “it's hard to see how a carpenter from an otherwise insignificant village in Galilee would be well-off.”

I suppose that depends on what counts for you as “well-off.” A carpenter from a small town in America today can do well enough. He’s just not going to make the Fortune 500.

But it seems to me the bottom line is that, if it were somehow significant to the narrative that Jesus was either rich or poor, that fact would have been noted in the Gospels.

Jack Jenkins responds that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were indeed refugees at a later point, the flight into Egypt.

JMJ do seem to fit the meaning of “refugee” in informal usage during the flight into Egypt; but not the legal definition. Because they did not leave their home country—Judea, Galilee, and Egypt were all provinces of the Roman Empire. It would be like fleeing from Georgia to Ohio. As many blacks did during “Jim Crow” days.

This does not look to me like a plausible interpretation of what Buttigieg wrote, however. He was speaking of how Jesus came into this world, not of subsequent events.

So it seems to me there are two possibilities here: either Buttigieg does not have a very clear idea of the New Testament; or he is distorting it to suit a political agenda.

Either way, it does not mark him as a serious Christian.

This would not matter, except that he has made his Christianity a central feature of his campaign, arguing that he can win Christian votes away from the right.

A tweet like this seems to make this less likely, by showing how superficial his avowed Christianity actually is.

There may be a constituency, on the other hand, of those who are not themselves serious Christians, but who would still like to be reassured that their political beliefs do not run counter to it. This, after all, is presumably why we hear ahistorical assertions that, say, Jesus was black, or a communist, or a political revolutionary.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Mark Steyn Christmas Show

This is objectively pretty lame, but for some reason, I love Mark Steyn's Christmas shows.

Live from Montreal!

Angles We Have Heard on High

All in the Holy Family

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. So the readings on the topic of family were of course rolled out.

The first reading was from Sirach:

My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,

… outlining at least in part what it means to “honour your father and your mother”: to care for them in their old age.

And the second reading was from Colossians:

Children, obey your parents in everything,
for this is pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children,
so they may not become discouraged.

The last two lines jumped out at me.

Recently, psychiatry has come to the conclusion that depression is generally the result of childhood abuse or neglect.

But this seems to have been pretty well understood right up until Freud proposed his “Oedipus complex” as an alternative explanation.

Here we seem to have the Bible saying as much: a parent “provoking” his children makes them “discouraged”—that is, depressed.

I checked the meaning of the original Greek:

“provoke”: “to stir up, arouse to anger, provoke, irritate, incite.”

“discouraged” : “to lose heart, be despondent, be disheartened. From a compound of a and thumos; to be spiritless.”

So at last we are back to the obvious.

An Updated List

... of the Seven Deadly Sins:

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Mariah Carey IS Christmas

Giving it the Gospel feel.

Canada's New Prime Minister

Some are saying that Justin Trudeau’s mandate for Chrystia Freeland as Deputy Prime Minister effectively makes her the real Prime Minister.

Smart move. Trudeau is in over his head—he needs someone else to make the decisions. He has been showing poor judgement for some time. And he is not popular any longer. It makes obvious sense to move to a “team” approach, and take that harsh spotlight off him.

Why doesn’t he just step down?

Understandably, he is not going to want to do that. This looks like a decent compromise. If the polls seem to warrant it, this puts Freeland in position to quickly and smoothly take over before an election.

But I think Freeland is a poor choice for this role. She keeps getting good media reviews, but she failed spectacularly in her previous posting as foreign minister. She managed, in just a couple of years, to alienate the Americans, the Chinese, the Saudis, and the Russians. She had an open row with her own ambassador to China. Canada is now isolated internationally to an extent that would have been unthinkable before her tenure.

Still, the Tories ought to keep in mind, in their upcoming leadership contest: who would run best against Freeland?

Friday, December 27, 2019

Predictions for 2020

I’m probably absurdly optimistic, but I have an intuition we have turned a corner.

UK former speaker John Bercow put out a Christmas message in which he called for greater civility and no more demonizing those with whom you disagree.

This seems notable, because Bercow was a notorious “Remainer,” and stands accused of twisting the Commons rules in aid of the Remain cause. The Remainers in general were guilty of slandering Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and the Brexiteers as racists and fascists.

It looks a bit like a concession speech. The left-wing elite may understand that their popular support has abandoned them, and they now risk being on the receiving end of the sort of treatment they have dished out.

It may not be related, but I was also surprised to receive friendly responses from several old friends to whom I sent electronic Christmas cards—who had previously unfriended me over political differences.

The shift may happen suddenly, after all. Gandhi tracked it, or someone; we generally attribute the quote to Gandhi: “first they ignore you, then they mock you, then they fight you, then you’ve won.”

This is clearer in the UK than in North America, thanks to Johnson’s big election win; but we are all now tightly bound together in the Anglosphere—an illustration of why an English-speaking union makes sense. The shift of the working class in the north of England looks like the shift of the upper Midwest working class to Trump last US election.

Both shifts look historic, a paradigm change. Regular folks are leaving the left electorally.

So let’s go ahead and make some crazy optimistic predictions, on the premise that the paradigm has shifted.

China’s government falls. I’ve been predicting this since the nineties. But as the Chinese living standard rises, it gets more probable every year: there is a point, at about $10,000 per person per annum GDP, at which the middle class will no longer tolerate and need no longer tolerate dictatorial rule. China is close to that.

The CPC has now been in command for 70 years. That’s the point at which the Soviet Union ran out of social capital. There may be something in that number—it is the point at which all the original generation that supported the revolution has passed on.

My Chinese friends always said the regime would stay so long as the economy was good; but if it turned sour, they could command no residual or ideological loyalty. No more mandate of heaven. The Chinese economy is hitting a demographic hurdle, thanks in large part to the one-child policy. They cannot compete on cheap labour any longer.

Moving away from China, the rise of social media is cleaning things up everywhere. Corruption has always been the main reason the underdeveloped world is underdeveloped. But now the average person can record functionaries misfunctioning, and post the results for all to see. This is causing corruption to be rapidly rooted out in the Philippines, and probably elsewhere. Either governments prosecute when this is uncovered, or governments get overthrown.

Social media is also making it easier for opposition groups to organize and communicate. Flash mobs can appear at any moment to protest. The Arab Spring demonstrated the potential--but may have been only a dress rehearsal. In a way, the recent British election was another consequence: people are no longer taking the lead of the media.

So we are seeing lots of people in the streets, in lots of countries. Any given regime might go down.

Who is most likely to fall? Surely Iran is a prime candidate. Putin in Russia. Both have seen close calls in the recent past. Both must be reeling from the decline in oil revenue. Either would have vast significance in geopolitical terms.

I think Saudi Arabia also needs to be on that list. For them, too, the oil money is running out. During the Arab Spring, they bought peace. They can’t do it a second time.

Now imagine two or three of these governments fall in the next year: Russia, Iran, China.

Trump then wins reelection against Bernie Sanders in something like a landslide. The Democrats will be left in the same kind of disorder as Britain’s Labour Party.

Yes, I’m predicting Bernie Sanders will be the nominee. See my argument in a previous post. And I do not think this would be a mistake; I think he would do as well as anyone running in the general election. But barring a big recession, I think Trump is unbeatable. If, say, China and Iran go down, he’s going to have an easy win.

Britain is now going to leave the EU. I predict there will be no dire consequences; Britain’s economy will thrive. Once out, it is in Europe’s interest to make a new trade deal. If the EU does not act quickly and enthusiastically, pressures will build for other countries to pull out—the UK is too important to them. At the same time. new trading opportunities will open up beyond Europe.

I hope to see negotiations begin almost immediately on a trade deal with the US and Canada that will, in effect, bring in Britain as a member of NAFTA. Negotiations will begin on something with India too. Maybe a joint deal with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

In Canada, the electoral forecast seems murky. The Conservatives, in the middle of a leadership race, are not going to want to force an election soon. The NDP is out of money, and so are not going to want an election. The BQ had a surprisingly good result last time, and probably cannot expect to do as well again; so they are not going to want an election. This will sustain a now quite unpopular government in power.

This will increase voter frustration with the Liberals—and discredit the other parties for seeming not to offer an alternative. The Tories will probably reinforce this impression of lack of choice by turning to a more moderate leader. On present form, the NDP platrform will not be much different from the Liberals.

I predict, when an election does come, this should produce a breakthrough for Maxime Bernier and the PPC. They will look like the only real protest vote.

As a result, the Liberals probably get to stay in power…. But if we are really seeing a paradigm shift, we may instead see the two biggest parties suddenly both being on the right, as has happened in Europe. The centre might abandon the Liberals for a similar Tory platform, on the grounds of general corruption and disgust, and the angry protest vote, which can generally as easily go left or right, goes Bernier. Then the Tories may come to power by forming a coalition with either the PPC to their right, or the Liberals to their left.

We are due, even overdue, for some significant medical breakthroughs thanks to our growing knowledge of the human genome and to CRISPR. I expect some major development in the new year. Why not some promising new treatment for cancer, or something to notably slow the aging process?

Hi-tech is less easy for me to predict than it used to be, now that it has become so diffuse and pervasive. I think the underlying logic of the Internet works against the big monopolies that have developed. I expect the march of technology and increasingly bad PR is going to pull Google/Alphabet and Facebook down to size. I think Amazon still has legs and should continue to strengthen. I think Elon Musk is mostly a good vapourware salesman, and Tesla is going to go under.

AI is going to start replacing white-collar jobs.

Please bear in mind that all predictions are almost always wrong, and I have a no better track record than the experts.

A Breton Carol

Did you know that Celine Dion was Breton? Did you know that Jacques Cartier was? Pack of Celts...

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Pelican Chorus

And why not link it here?

Hunting the Wren

Hunting the wren on the Isle of Man

Another tradition for this second day of Christmas. The wren is hunted in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Britanny, southern France, and Spain. And Newfoundland.

The significance of the wren is probably the same as the significance of the Christmas tree: it is one of the very few birds that do not migrate south for winter. And so they are a symbol of life beyond death; of the resurrection.

Hunting the wren in Dingle, Kerry.

The traditional Scottish song:

The traditional English song:

Irish version by the Chieftains:

On the Feast of Stephen

Here's a traditional song specifically for this second day of Christmas.

Christmas: Day 2

Contrary to a common belief, it is STILL CHRISTMAS. There are Twelve Days of Christmas, and St. Stephen's Day is only day 2.

Bob and Doug remind us.

Cultural Relativism

Dante's Inferno

I not sure anything could be more sinister than the current idea that morality is culturally relative. But that seems to have become a dominant position. Even my friend Cyrus has bought it—and Cyrus is a very intelligent guy.

If morality is culturally relative, decided by some consensus within a culture to suit its own purposes, we have no business objecting to Hitler and the Nazis. The Nuremberg Trials were not legitimate. It was accepted within that society to kill all Jews. If we object, we are simply being cultural imperialists and showing our intolerance.

Not, of course, that there is anything necessarily wrong with intolerance or imperialism, right? After all, they too might be sanctioned by our culture...

So too with slavery, or child sacrifice, or torture, or suttee, and so forth.

There are other problems with the premise. Suppose you live in one of the anti-slavery counties in the antebellum US South. So, if you hold a slave, you are immoral locally, moral at the state level, and immoral at the federal level? The same act at the same time is both moral and immoral.

Most people, it seems, avoid moral choices by going along with what everyone around them is doing, and doing the same. This is an attempt to justify that attitude. But it is unjustifiable. It is lynch mob morality. It is the attitude that makes mobs in general so dangerous: if everyone else is smashing windows, tonight, I can smash windows.

It would make you a willing executioner in Hitler’s Germany.

It would make Oskar Schindler a moral reprobate.

Or Socrates. Or Qu Yuan. Or Jesus Christ.

Is just going along and never making individual moral choices immoral? Dante thought so. He put all such people in the first circle of Hell.

God thinks so too, according to the New Testament: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” (Revelations 3:16).

Literally, this says it is better to be deliberately evil than to just go along—at least you are acknowledging morality. That means there is some hope for you. None so guilty as the “innocent bystander.”

Worse than doing evil is denying the existence of evil.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Boar's Head

Abortion and Crime

From The Economist.

A famous study suggests that legalized abortion has been responsible for the otherwise mysterious drop in crime we have seen over the past few decades.

The study has been challenged; as with any science, and especially social science, that has obvious political implications, you cannot trust it.

But it seems plausible enough that it would be so.

This does not amount, however, to a justification of abortion.

If it were, it would also justify eliminating poverty by killing the poor.

What it should do it alert us to more compassion for those who fall afoul of the legal system. They are usually not the real criminals, but desperate young men.

The real criminals are rarely punished.

And the better way to reduce crime is to do something about dysfunctional parenting.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Once Kingston in a Fog of Time 2019

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights

Michael Caine Educates Us

A guy I met with yesterday had met Michael Caine.

He was hired as an extra on Educating Rita. One day at the canteen, he saw Caine just behind him, waiting in line for food like everyone else. He offered to let Caine go ahead of him, and Caine refused.

“Good God, no. You’re just as hungry as I am.”

And so, he reported, in wonder, Michael Caine, despite being such a big star, had no ego.

You here these stories often, about big stars. They say Rod Steiger, or Peter Sellers, or Laurence Olivier, seemed to have no ego at all. Marilyn Monroe was famously unsure of her attractiveness.

And this is actually not surprising. It all stand to reason.

If you had a large ego, how could you be a good actor?

The whole trick of acting is to inhabit someone else’s ego. To put yourself aside, and be them instead of you for a while, to act and think and say as they would.

You need a vanishingly small ego for that.

Perhaps you need that for any art. Keats called it “negative capability.”

As to the poetical Character itself ... it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.... A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. …

When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated—not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children: I know not whether I make myself wholly understood: I hope enough so to let you see that no despondence is to be placed on what I said that day.[i]

This is why it takes a life of suffering to produce great art. This is “depersonalization,” a typical symptom of abuse: having been demeaned, rejected, criticized, the depressed have low self-esteem, low ego, and even a tendency to lack a sense of self. This makes it easy for them to temporarily inhabit other selves, giving them a keen sense of empathy for others.

This also means that anyone who can generate genuinely good art has to be a good person—someone who tends to think of others before themselves. You hear stories of artists doing “anti-social” things, but society was never a guide to morality. Being conventional is really the opposite of being moral—so long as you just do what everyone does, you are not making moral choices.

And anyone who has bad taste in art, is pretty surely a bad person. For getting fully into a work of art, or a fictional character and their struggles, takes the same talent of getting beyond ego and seeing things from a different perspective.

This is a useful test to apply in daily life. You cannot judge a book by the cover, but you can judge the person by the bookshelf.

[i] John Keats, Letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27th, 1818.

Shuffling Right?

As we look back on an ending decade, a couple of commentators make the case that overall, it was a story of the left is dying, and the right rising. Witness the recent historic election in the UK. Following Brexit, following the surprise election of Trump.

And in Europe. When I was young, the contest was always between the right and the socialists or even communists. The communists were a significant factor in Italy and France. Europe was seen as well to the left of the US, and leftists generally saw America as simply lagging behind the parade.

This no longer seems to be clearly so. The social democrats are slipping to third-party status or worse in Germany, the socialists are down to sixth in France. The contest now is often between the centre or centre-right and a party farther right. This means that policies in general are being pulled rightward rather than leftward in the civic debate.

Back in America, Trump’s breakthrough into the upper Midwest last election, like the Tories’ success in the north of England, seems portentous. The old industrial working class is moving over to the right.

There is less movement visible in Canada; but it seems significant that a right-wing party recently won in Quebec, where all major parties had been left-wing for the past fifty years. It all speaks well in strategic terms for Maxime Bernier’s notion of launching a new right-wing alternative. If Canada has not been following the same trajectory as the UK, US, and Europe recently, it may be for lack of electoral alternatives.

Michael Knowles makes the case that in the last ten years, the right in the US has won elections pretty consistently. If you track the number of seats changing hands at the federal and state level combined, there seems to be a definite and strong shift right. What look like continuing major defeats in the culture wars have come, he points out, at the hands of judges. They have been imposed by courts; even if, after the fact, the rest of the country seems to have accepted them. If we are seeing a revolt of the general population against the views of the elites, the courts are going to be a lagging indicator: here we get the views of a small professional elite.

And even this is likely to change, as Trump gets to appoint more judges.

"'Tis Silent Night," Says I

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas Night

Wrapped was the world in slumber deep,
By seaward valley and cedarn steep,
And bright and blest were the dreams of its sleep;
All the hours of that wonderful night-tide through
The stars outblossomed in fields of blue,
A heavenly chaplet, to diadem
The King in the manger of Bethlehem.

Out on the hills the shepherds lay,
Wakeful, that never a lamb might stray,
Humble and clean of heart were they;
Thus it was given them to hear
Marvellous harpings strange and clear,
Thus it was given them to see
The heralds of the nativity.

In the dim-lit stable the mother mild
Looked with holy eyes on her child,
Cradled him close to her heart and smiled;
Kingly purple nor crown had he,
Never a trapping of royalty;
But Mary saw that the baby's head
With a slender nimbus was garlanded.

Speechless her joy as she watched him there,
Forgetful of pain and grief and care,
And every thought in her soul was a prayer;
While under the dome of the desert sky
The Kings of the East from afar drew nigh,
And the great white star that was guide to them
Kept ward o'er the manger of Bethlehem.
-- Lucy Maud Montgomery

Did you know that the author of the Anne of Green Gables series was also a fine poet?

O Holy Night

This is my favourite rendition of one of my favourite carols. Rickie Lee Jones does not have the best voice technically, but the feeling really comes through.

I sang this carol as soloist one midnight mass at our church.

Don't Mock the Five and Dime

Don’t mock the five and dime
The five and dime is important to me
The five and dime is where my dreams once were
Until I noticed Delia on the next block.

Don’t mock the five and dime
The velvet paintings of Niagara Falls
The rulers, the pink erasers,
The model cars and paint-by-number puppies
The little metal wind-ups from Japan.

Don’t mock the five and dime
There once were wonders there
The painted clowns and wide-eyed kittens.
The pet turtles and the bright flourescent tetras all alive,
The magic cancelled stamps from foreign missions.
Once this was my world.
It was a big world.

Don’t mock the five and dime
I lost something important on that creaking wooden floor
It rolled under a cabinet and was gone.
The store now closed and shuttered
And I have never found anything like it again.

-- Stephen K. Roney

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Savior Must Have Been a Docile Gentleman

Good old Emily Dickinson, deceptively simple in phrasing, but difficult to rightly understand.

The Savior must have been
A docile Gentleman —
To come so far so cold a Day
For little Fellowmen — 
The Road to Bethlehem
Since He and I were Boys
Was leveled, but for that 'twould be
A rugged billion Miles —
-- Emily Dickenson

The Cherry Tree Carol

This is one of my favourites. Once did it as a play with my catechism group.

Diversity in the Arts

Pauline Johnson recites.

An acquaintance runs what is billed as “Toronto’s most diverse poetry reading series.”

Proposing a poetry journal to another friend, he asks, “what about diversity?”

Leaving aside larger issues, there is a special problem with calling for diversity in the arts. Because diversity in the arts is automatic.

This is so for at least two reasons. To begin with, novelty—diversity—is of entertainment value. Accordingly, anyone whose background or experience is out of the mainstream, or has not previously been heard, has a built-in market advantage. Why did Shakespeare set so many of his plays in Italy, or on some remote island, or anywhere other than England? People want to hear about lives and places other than their own.

Secondly, art is from suffering. Art is sublimated anguish. They say you need to have suffered to sing the blues. But this is equally true of all art.

As a result, art in itself is the outlet for the excluded and marginalized.

Speaking of the blues, the dominant art form in America is music, specifically popular music. And what group has always dominated American popular music—since at least the early nineteenth century? The blacks, the Africans, the folks hauled over as slaves. Almost all American musical styles are African in essence. In the old days, to make it with an audience, performers who were not black had to do it blackface.

There are a few styles that are not African: country, bluegrass, cowboy music. These come from the Scots-Irish living in the Eastern hills, poor, remote, and forgotten. These come from the defeated, impoverished South, not the urban power centres of the North. Add some Hispanic influence to the Scots-Irish to make cowboy music.

Put it together, and you get an accurate map of the history of social exclusion in the United States.

Now turn to the UK: the dominant art form there has been literature. Who has dominated English literature for centuries? The “Celtic fringe.” The actively oppressed Irish in particular, next to them the Scots, next to them the Welsh. If a prominent author turns out instead to be English, you can almost put money on it that he is Catholic. The socially excluded fringes.

And so it goes. Start tinkering with that in the name of “diversity” instead of quality, and whatever you think you are doing, you are promoting the privileged over the oppressed.

Ethnic or immigrant voices have always been prominent, indeed dominant, in English Canadian literature: Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Robert W. Service, Stephen Leacock, Pauline Johnson, Irving Layton, A. M. Klein. What are you accomplishing, then, by insisting on skin tints instead of quality?

You might ask, here, what about women? Surely women at least have been excluded in the past from the arts?

They have not.

In the US, while they might have been at a disadvantage in the corporate world, women have long been as prominent as men in popular music.

In Britain, and in English literature, my own research is anecdotal, but it is confirmed by others who have done the leg work: women are very well represented in Victorian literary publications.

If we are unaware of this, it is because writings by male authors are on average better remembered over time.

Is this prejudice? If so, it is a prejudice that has grown, rather than declined, in modern times.

There is a simpler explanation. To create something for the ages requires more than mere competence. It requires genius.

There are more male than female geniuses. This can be accounted for by evolutionary biology, but aside from that, it is simply so. It is consistent in IQ testing.

So there seems to be no case for imposing racial or sex quotas in the arts.

In practical terms, what the current call for “diversity” has done is drastically reduced diversity.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

A Christmas or Fifty Ago

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."
-- from Dylan Thomas, "A Child's Christmas in Wales."

The Holly and the Ivy

Once I start listening to Steeleye Span, it's hard to stop.

Doesn't She Mean "Wine Cellar"?

Wine cellar in Spain

Political junkie that I am, I did not watch the latest Democratic presidential candidates’ debate. These things have just become too tedious, everyone mouthing almost the same slogans, with the exception, in this grouping, of Andrew Yang. Who is never given any speaking time.

It seems there was one dramatic exchange. Elizabeth Warren accused Pete Buttigieg of holding fundraisers in a “wine cave full of crystals.” He responded, “this is the problem with setting purity tests you can’t pass yourself.”

Commentators on the right all seem to think that Buttigieg destroyed Warren in the exchange. Commentators on the left all think Warren destroyed Buttigieg. It is as though we experience separate realities.

A possible insight into the difference emerges from a focus group of California Democratic voters. They seemed to hold to the idea that anyone who is very rich is morally corrupt. Accordingly, holding a high-price fundraiser shows that you are in league with the devil.

Conservatives presumably do not think so, and believe that wealth can be acquired either honestly or dishonestly.

But I still think the position of the leftists is illogical. If this is the assumption, Buttigieg’s response should also have been effective: he pointed out that he was the only person on the stage who was not himself a millionaire or billionaire.

So why do the leftists think Warren won? Two possibilities:

1. It is the power of the image: “wine cave filled with crystal.” Never mind that it is simply prejudicial language used to describe something common in politics. In other words, they want pleasing fantasies, not truths.

2. While the rich are evil, present company is always excluded. These are not real people they are thinking of, but fat cartoon people who wear top hats, spats, monocles and pinstriped pants, and smoke cigars. So no problems for themselves and those they know—no matter how rich they are, they are the good guys.

The hidden enemy of us all.

The real rich must be invisible, snickering unseen in their “wine caves.”

Friday, December 20, 2019

The House of Christmas

…This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
-- G.K. Chesterton

Ex Maria Virgine

One of my all-time favourites.


Why is politics intruding more and more into our lives? Why is everything now political? Even, say, the pronouns we use?

This too has to do with the decline of morality. Once morality is gone, all that is left is the struggle for power—in other words, politics.

The bad news is, this ends as a war of all against all.

The chilling thought emerges that Nazi Germany might only have been a dress rehearsal. The underlying civilizational currents that threw it up have only gained strength since.

Lean to the Left, Lean to the Right, Stand Up...

The face of Canada's most leftist province...

The talking heads remain relentless in insisting that the Canadian Conservatives must move left to be electable.

This is demonstrably false.

Where in Canada is the electorate supposedly most left-wing? Quebec? Quebec just elected a right-of-centre party provincially.

Ontario? Ontario twice elected Mike Harris, whose government was about as far right as Canada has seen. They just elected Doug Ford on a right-wing platform.

Okay, not Ontario as a whole, but Toronto specifically? The 416?

They elected Rob Ford mayor. And Mel Lastman before him.

When the Conservative Party chose Stephen Harper, he was from the right wing of that party, long in opposition. He was supposed to be too far right to be electable.

So, of course, was Ronald Reagan in the US. He’s the last candidate to have won a presidential election in a landslide—took every state but Minnesota.

Boris Johnson just won such a landslide in Britain. And who was the last candidate to win a landslide of similar proportions in the UK? Margaret Thatcher. Unambiguously right-wing Margaret Thatcher.

The evidence could hardly be clearer. Taking a strong right-wing position is an electoral winner, not a loser. Pose “right-wing” positions as individual issues in a survey, and most people agree with them.

The issue is sincerity. People want someone who will do as they say. Someone who will lead. Someone who is not conning them for votes, and who will only end up doing whatever is in the interests of the existing bureaucracy.

All this said, I see no candidate, nor obvious potential candidate, who could embody this in the current Conservative leadership contest.

Could have been Max.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Jean Charest Is In

Tom Mulcair has said unequivocally that Jean Charest will seek the Conservative leadership. He also claims he hears that Charest’s bid will keep Peter MacKay out.

Frankly, simply in terms of his resume, nobody else looks like a better choice. Charest has actually served previously as Tory leader. He has been deputy prime minister; served for nine years as premier of the second-largest province. He is perfectly bilingual.

Ought to take the leadership easily.

Charest also contrasts well with Trudeau. Trudeau looks callow, lightweight, underqualified and inexperienced. Charest is the opposite: he’s been around forever, and has an almost surreally strong resume. Looks like a man against a boy.

The only problem is that he is an old-line Progressive Conservative. He will look too leftist to many in the party. This may be an incentive for someone prominent on the right to enter. Mulcair thought Rona Ambrose, although early indications are that she is not running. Brad Wall? Who else has the stature to compete?

Having been out of federal politics for a while, Charest may have maneuvering room to adopt some policies to soothe the right wing.

I Sing of a Maiden

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose. 
He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the flower. 
He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray. 
Mother and maiden
There was never one but she;
Well may such a lady
God's mother be.
--Anonymous, 15th century.

Sex and the Deep State

The Sixties
A friend sends along this link from American Thinker. A lot of great insights here. Some stuff that had never occurred to me. 

“Our divorce regime is a unilateral divorce regime. Anyone who wants a divorce gets to have one: The State always takes sides with the party who wants the marriage the least. The State incentivizes disloyalty and infidelity between spouses.”

“The injustices of the unilateral divorce regime have been known for a long time. The Deep State could, at any time, enact divorce by mutual consent. Yet, they do not.”

“Delaying childbearing has become the cost of entering the professions. That means many of our most successful and visible and influential people have used contraception or abortion. They literally cannot imagine what their lives would be without it. Journalists, lawyers, foundation officers, business executives, and politicians all join hands to protect the Abortion Industry from skeptics like David Daleiden.”

I do disagree, though, with the basic premise, that the Sexual Revolution was imposed from above by elites in order to seize more power.

I think it came from all of us, and it was far simpler. The attraction was the promise of sex on demand and without consequences. Couldn’t be clearer, really: “free love!”

To make it work, you then had to kill the traditional sex roles and make men and women interchangeable; the traditional roles required that women and men worked in tandem in a family unit. You had to subvert the family generally. Family, commitment to one partner and to children, went directly counter to random access to sex. It became the enemy. 

You also had to go for unrestricted abortion, and then—hey, if murder is okay, where are the limits?

Instead of sin being condemned, now it was “conventional morality,” or any appeal to morality, that was condemned. The whole gay and trans thing has been an attempt to discredit conventional morality as “discriminatory.” So, for that matter, is the overall attack on “Western civilization,” as though it were a blight upon human history. The target is the Judeo-Christian moral tradition.

This rejection of morality was simply more dangerous when embraced by the elites. If morality is no longer a constraint, the elites are free to pursue pure self-interest. They can just go for power and possessions.

It is also in their self-interest, now, to destroy the family, and religious authority, and even thinking for oneself, as rival power centres.

And so here we are.

Caribbean Christmas

Some Quite Interesting Christmas Entertainment

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

We Who Must Die Demand a Miracle

Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood. 
Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own? 
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss. 
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
- W.H. Auden, "Advent," from Christmas Oratorio 

Deck the Halls

For Advent:

Sale on Playing the Indian Card

Don't miss it! From December 25 to January 1, my book Playing the Indian Card is available in ebook format for half the usual price at Smashwords. Only $2.50!

Why Poetry Is So Bad

A man who should need no introduction.
We were discussing the other night, I and a prominent local poet, the sad fact that no one is interested in poetry any more.

“Even other writers,” she laments, “never come out for poetry readings.”

I remarked on the dramatic change from my youth, when perhaps a dozen poets were national celebrities, and everyone had read at least one of their poems. Irving Layton, Earle Birney, Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, Dennis Lee, Milton Acorn, Leonard Cohen, F. R. Scott, P.K. Page, George Bowering, bpNichol ….

And we both immediately agreed on the problem: it is that poets in Canada now write only to impress one another, and not for the general public. It had become, in proper Canadian style, a Family Compact.

It seemed to me the solution was simple: launch our own poetry journal, to bypass all this and get directly to the public. We could have a podcast, a YouTube channel.

No, she explained, she did not have time for that. Too much editing required.

I did not see the problem—just a matter of selecting the poems to feature, right?

Ah, she explained, but we would need to find experienced poets with a strong publication record to evaluate each entry.

I could not make her see the irony of her position. This is exactly what we were trying to get away from.

“But,” a colleague intervened, “who else is qualified to evaluate a poem? Would you let non-doctors evaluate a medical treatment?”

Here, I think, we see the essential problem. Not just with poetry, not just with art in general, but with our current society. The very problem that is getting some folks out in the streets wearing yellow vests, and others voting Johnson or Trump.

It is the forming of little cartels everywhere, seizing control of everything. Generally under the banner of “professionalism.” While it does make some limited sense for doctors or engineers, it does not for most other endeavours. It is a disaster for poets, or any artists, or journalists, or teachers. Can you imagine the rule applied to comedians? Only other comedians get to decide what is funny?

Even for doctors or lawyers, it is a dangerous seizure of power by a self-selected group, with little oversight; and, in effect, a cartel in restraint of trade.

Prior to this, and driving it, is an obsession among the educated with the concept of power. This is why politics has permeated everything: they think life itself is all about grabbing power and money for themselves and their group.

And the obsession with power probably comes, in turn, from a collapse of morality. Take ethics out of the picture, and what is left? Grabbing as much as possible for yourself.

But power and politics is especially a blasphemy against art.

Words on Water

Bishop Robert Barron

I am a bit put off by the name Bishop Barron has chosen for his online organization, “Word on Fire.”

It just does not fit. 

Bishop Barron is a pretty upbeat guy, who thinks everyone may go to heaven, we are destined to become gods, and those trying to evangelize should stress beauty and avoid morality.

I don’t see any fire. 

It feels like a Catholicism of words alone.

It’s the kind of “I’m OK, you’re OK,” “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” Hallmark, plaster saints, everything-is-ducky-as-it-is, don’t-rock-any-boats kind of Catholicism that really turns me off.

If this is all Catholicism is, why do we need Catholicism?

And where in this is there room for someone who was innocently tortured and then crucified for speaking truth?

I wouldn't mind so much--perhaps Bishop Barron is doing good for some constituency--if it were not for co-opting the term "Word on Fire." That seems sinister. That implies there is nothing more than this. Nothing that actually tests us, like gold tested in fire. Or that might make us repent in ashes. Or that sees things ripe for burning, like Sodom and Gomorrah.

Happy happy joy joy.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Words and Deeds

Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park, London

In our discussion last night, my friend Cyrus defended “hate speech” laws. I argued that the only speech that can legitimately be regulated is speech with clear material consequences, on the familiar principle that “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” Accordingly, slander, libel, fraud, yelling “fire” in crowded theatres, or incitement to violence should be outlawed—but no more.

Because, among other reasons, any speech that makes a point worth making is guaranteed to upset someone. No free speech, no meaningful discussion, no democracy, no human progress.

He countered that it was in practice difficult to distinguish speech inciting violence from speech that simply expressed an opinion. He offered the examples “blacks do not deserve to live” and “kill all the blacks.” Can we really clearly distinguish the former from the latter?

I do not see any difficulty here.

We have always made this same distinction in common law. It would be fairly unremarkable for someone to say, “Jack Poulson does not deserve to live.” A bit shocking, because it is a severe condemnation, but fairly acceptable in polite company. After all, we have a common phrase, “Jack Poulson is a waste of oxygen.” Same meaning.

But to tell someone to kill Jack Poulson we understand as incitement to action; if the listener follows through, the speaker is, like Charles Manson, guilty of murder.

A dramatic distinction, that we have always understood. No different for groups.

I could name people who I would say do not deserve to live. People whose net contribution has been to make the world a worse instead of a better place. That does not mean I would either murder them, or condone murdering them. Just as, if I said someone did not deserve their wealth, it would not be an endorsement of robbing them.

Practical or Transcendent Morality

Relics of the Rwandan genocide.
My good buddy Cyrus rejects my contention that there are transcendent values: most famously, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

In conversation last night he insisted that morality could be derived entirely from the pragmatic needs of society. “Do unto others” simply ends up being in our mutual interest. So it is all empirical.

I disagree. It might be entirely to a society’s—that is, a group’s—benefit to allow or encourage murder of some distinct target group. Then the murderers, after all, might get all their stuff. This works fine so long as the designated group is relatively powerless, and distinct enough that no members of the dominant group fear the same force being turned on them in future.

Whenever some society has considered itself free from traditional moral constraints, this is exactly what has happened, and happened soon: mass murder of some vulnerable and distinct “other” group. The Jews or the disabled in Nazi Germany, the kulaks or Ukrainians in Soviet Russia, the unborn today.

Murder is the most dramatic example, but by the same principle, a society that does not accept transcendent values can equally justify any other sort of wrong against the vulnerable group: lying, theft, enslavement, and so forth.

So the practical needs of society cannot produce morality.

The Journey of the Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly. 
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory. 
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
--T.S. Eliot

Fairy Tale of New York

For Advent:

Immigrants Dislike PC Culture

Speaking last night with a first-generation immigrant from Iran. She has nothing good to say about Canada or the West or Canadian culture. But she also strongly dislikes political correctness. She laments the pervasive climate of censorship.

Her view is that it is due to Canadians having too few real problems.

An interesting thought.

Monday, December 16, 2019

At All Times in the Mind's Eye

Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
--W.B. Yeats

For My Brother Gerry

The Return of Optimism?

One never knows; but it seems to me that Boris Johnson has the seed of greatness in him.

It puts me in mind of the nineteen-eighties. Since the retirements of the last great leaders from the Second War—Churchill, DeGaulle, Tito—we seemed to be dealing only with mediocrities, and there was a general sense of decline in the West. Then Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II arose at about the same time. Each was transformational. They ended the Keynesian economic ideology, they ended the Cold War, they ended the constant disruptive strikes. More importantly, they changed the public tone: from one of “malaise,” as Jimmy Carter termed it, and the assumption of inevitable decline, to one of strength and optimism.

It looks as if we now again have two such leaders, in Trump and Johnson. Even if you hate Trump, he looks transformational. He has re-introduced a relentless optimism about America.

Johnson seems able to do the same in Britain. He has the right tone, and the right manner. His electoral win already looks transformational in electoral terms; and Brexit will be transformational again. The sense is of entering a new age.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Little Tree

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don't be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i'll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won't be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you're quite dressed
you'll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they'll stare!
oh but you'll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we'll dance and sing
"Noel Noel"
-- e.e. cummings