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Author Archive | Paul Albers

Robin Hoodism is on the rise

Once upon a time, and in some periodical publication somewhere, I wrote a piece on Robin Hood. It was a review of some semi-scholarly book about this semilegendary figure, as I recall. Partly, I was interested in the “literary” aspect—the actual English ballad and folklore tradition going back to the Middle Ages, which has its parallels in other folklore traditions, from Persia to Peru. But mostly it was the political aspect that detained me.

Let us cut to the chase. Robin Hood was an outlaw, as medieval commentators were aware, and to be condemned as such. He was, unambiguously, a highwayman, and his Merry Men, using the camouflage of Sherwood Forest to mount their ambuscades, were an outlaw band. To put this in the plainest English, we are dealing with gangsters.

It is interesting that in the earlier versions of the tales, Robin Hood is a commoner, but in the later, he is cleaned up and re-dressed as an aristocrat, wrongly deprived of his estates. In other words, we have materials to trace the imaginative evolution of an unappealing common thug into a glittering romantic hero. And conversely, the more reason to believe that the tales began with some real, historical “Robin Hood.”

This is anyway plausible, for there were outlaws aplenty on the open roads, around the 14th century. And they would, by preference, afflict the wealthier travellers, more than the penurious ones. They imposed, in effect, a “graduated tax,” that fell a little more lightly on the minstrels, jugglers, charlatans, and herbalists; the messengers, itinerant merchants, and pedlars; the free workmen, and peasants out of bond; the mendicant preachers, hermits, and friars; the pardoners and the pilgrims—wandering the roads of medieval England. (See J.J. Jusserand, La vie nomade et les routes d’Angleterre au XIVe siecle. …. Or see Chaucer, for that matter.) The attraction of Robin Hood, perhaps then as now, to youthful and disordered minds, is that he himself “cuts to the chase,” or cuts the corner, discovering an effective method for redistributing wealth, centuries before the imposition of the Nanny State. He becomes, thus, a “romantic hero,” or to my mind, a wonderful illustration of the close connection between the “do-gooder” impulse, and the criminal one; or as Ann Coulter might put it, between a “liberal” and a “psycho.”

To the ordered, medieval mind, this would not do. Had Robin Hood given his ill-gotten gains to the poor, as a penance for his crimes, he might have passed within reach of absolution. But as he continued, in his proud self-regard, to rob the rich on the public highways, he put himself “progressively” further and further from any possibility of redemption. And as he was evidently determined to persist, and mount crime upon crime without ceasing, the charitable thing would have been to arrest his career as a highwayman, and hang him high. That is: save the poor wretch from accumulating the burden of any more damnable crimes, while focusing his need for repentance on the gallows.

The modern “folklore,” semilegendary equivalent to Robin Hood is perhaps Che Guevara—the Argentine Marxist and Castro agent, cleaned up in an iconic photo, and attractively coloured through a forged Andy Warhol. Yes, there was a real man by that name, operating in the Bolivian bush; in reality, a true human monster with much blood on his hands. But he acquired his legendary status—became “chic”—thanks to a revolutionary posture.

Robin is Che in a more antiquated costume, dyed in woad, but the same olive green; the pointed, triangular cap in place of the coffee-shop beret. (Though let me mention, before a reader corrects me, that Robin dressed for court in revolutionary scarlet.)

We enter a new year in which, despite the usual setbacks from reality, Robin Hoodlumism is alive and well, both as esthetic flourish and bureaucratic policy. Vast government departments continue to do what the outlaws did on medieval highways—though on a fiscal scale and with a crushing efficiency unimaginable in former times, upon travellers denied any of the traditional defences. Attempts to romanticize this operation, in which human generosity itself is obviated by arbitrary power, will continue for as long as the criminal impulse can be sublimated in moral pride, which is to say, probably forever.

Example, U.S. President Barack Obama is reported to be attending church again, and shows a “fresh start,” by persistently misquoting from the Book of Genesis, chapter four. “I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper,” he suggests it says. Check out the original. It is a scene in which no sisters appear, and the brothers in question are Cain and Abel. In particular, the intellectual leap from “you must not murder your brother,” to “you must create and sustain a vast and ponderous welfare system, that is funded by taxing him and borrowing the rest from China,” is not Biblical.

Nor, for that matter, is Robin Hood, though he and all history’s Merry Men will continue to have their pernicious influence on all youthful and disordered minds.

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Taking on the Reformation

One of the comforts, for a pundit out of tune with the choir, is to think “history will absolve me.” The whole world, or most of it, may appear to subscribe to various propositions, which the pundit believes to be buncombe. They may take things for true which he knows can’t be so, and only appear so through constant repetition.

But in his heart he thinks, “some day the truth will out.” He thinks, “a time will come.” And when the history of his times comes to be written, all the glib and confident assurances of the present will have evaporated. And the good, honest men who were so reviled, will be exonerated; and the bad, deceitful men shown for what they were; and the voices that were crying in the wilderness will be heard. “But of course I might not live to see it.”

I have come to think this is a false comfort; to doubt that “the truth will always out” in the theatre of this world. I know that it will in a few obvious cases, because there are lies so fragile the slightest breeze will compress them. But even among these, some will pass the test of time, either because all those who knew the truth were killed; or because the lie is preserved in the stillness of a vault, under guard from vested interests.

So much for small details. In the main, not little lies, but big ones, tend to be sustained from one century to another. They are, usually, the “myths” that sustain the state, or which remain convenient to the ruling party, even as its views “evolve” from one position to another.

Here I am thinking, today, of the myths engendered by the Protestant Reformation, now nearly half a millennium ago. Across northern Europe, and in North America, the very legitimacy of the state, and of the secular social order, depends upon certain received notions from the history of those times. Indeed, across the rest of Europe, the power of the state came to depend indirectly on the same myths: for it was secular power that arose to defend the Catholic Church, against secular power that arose to attack it; and both pillaged. “Statism” itself is at the heart of the whole project of modern history: the erection of kingdoms very much of this world.

And statism requires that a reality that was bewildering should be simplified. It requires some idealistic explanation for what in fact occurred: the sudden “nationalization” or appropriation of vast church properties to pay the debts and then hugely enrich and empower such monarchs as Henry VIII of England.

It requires that wars for booty be presented as “religious wars.” It requires that the worldliest motives be presented as spiritual, and spiritual profundity dismissed as superstition. It requires the myth of a totally corrupt Church, overthrown by shining idealists. It requires that we assign the motive of altruism to men who turned the monks out of their monasteries, and used the stone to build their own country estates.

It requires the myth of popular support, and in the English case, at the root of our own constitutional order, we must pretend that the Reformation advanced by popular demand. It requires that we ignore (except to footnote) the Pilgrimage of Grace, and many other spontaneous popular revolts, in defence of the “old religion” that had given meaning and custom to people’s lives. It requires that we assign the motive of “rationalism” to quickly drafted new “articles of religion,” crawling with internal contradictions.

And finally, it requires that we worship a god, called progress, which has stalked through all the intervening centuries, making hecatombs in its wake—while appropriating to its own prestige every technical advance that would have happened anyway. For without this plausible idea that there is “a way forward, and no way back,” the State could never have secured its power.

For monarchs and statesmen must not go nude—they must be “dressed in a little authority”—and without some dainty fabric of right, to wrap around their might, the winter wind would scorch them.

The victors write history, and will continue to do so, as long as this world shall be.

Yet there are some “historians of lost causes.” Among the best books I read this year, was Eamon Duffy’s account of the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-1558), entitled, Fires of Faith. It retells the history of England’s most execrated monarch ( “Bloody Mary” she is called). And together with such previous works as The Stripping of the Altars, it provides a glorious corrective to what “everyone knows” about the English Reformation.

For hundreds of years later, what “everyone knows” is wrong.

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The miserly Canadian

Canadians, as everyone should know, are tightwads. This is true of Christmas-season giving, but also true in every other season of the year. When it comes to demanding that the government provide more generous health, welfare, housing, and pension benefits, we are not silent; when it comes to “taxing the rich,” we’re gung-ho; but when it comes to our own pockets, or even doing something that costs no money at all, we “gave at the office.”

This is statistically demonstrable. Compared to Americans, our charitable giving, in nicely quantifiable mercenary terms, is embarrassing. And as I am aware from past participation in various cultural enterprises, the same is true there. Americans shell out for art, music, literature and the like in a way that Canadians would find wasteful and reckless; they also give far more to political parties and candidates, thanks to this habit of “putting your money where your mouth is.”

Let me pause here, so my readers may look downcast and feel shame.

There. Enough. Let’s get on with the argument, that follows from, for instance, the most recent Fraser Institute study—their annual “Generosity Index” just released, which makes a broad swatch of these invidious comparisons, based on easily procured and processed numbers for private donations to formally registered charities. Factoid: Manitobans continue to give more, on average, than Canadians in any other province (12th straight year), but even they part with less than one cent from every earned dollar.

I know: the progressive types have seizures whenever the Fraser Institute is mentioned. But it does solid, honest work, within its remit. And one need not be a Fraser flunky to find damning evidence that Canadians are as miserly on behalf of the poor, as we are profligate in consumer borrowing for ourselves. The statistics have been piling up for a long time.

Indeed, I have my own esthetic distaste for the Fraser Institute, as for most number-crunching operations; and its founder, Michael Walker once irritated me profoundly with one of his gratuitous, anti-Christian rants. Also, with a note of advice he once sent me about a literary magazine I happened to be editing, in which he expressed his contempt for poetry, too. I mention this now, because I would dearly like to be spared the letters in which I am typified as a neo-conservative libertarian pro-business troll; when I am in fact a Catholic Christian libertarian troll, with no special sympathy for big business. (And effete, too: don’t forget effete.)

But it is to such numbercrunchers we must refer, for statistical evidence to support two perfectly slam-dunk observations. One is that there is an inverse relationship between tax levels, and the amount of private charitable giving. The higher taxes go, the more people shrug and say, “The government is taking care of it.”

The other is quite pointedly political. The further you go to the Right in the political spectrum, the more people give away their money and time. And vice versa: as you shift Left, private charity dries up.

A magisterial demonstration of this is available from Arthur C. Brooks, in, Who Really Cares (Basic Books, 2006)—and what came as a surprise, even to him, was how dramatically the two camps contrasted. Hypocrisy itself is something statistically demonstrable; and goes deeper than the cause-and-effect of tax loading.

Which is not to apply averages to individuals. I personally know at least one crazy leftist who is extremely generous to what he considers to be good causes. That those causes strike me as not really charitable—for I do not consider agitprop to be a charitable activity—is beside the point. He puts his money where his mouth is.

Each Christmas I recall the words of my late saintly aunt, who played the organ in Calvin United at New Waterford, Cape Breton. Who, out of her tiny churchmouse salary, was at one point supporting at least a dozen named children in the poorest corners of the Third World; and who regularly played gratis at Catholic weddings and funerals, to the scandal of some of her Protestant friends.

“Christ doesn’t look at people the way we do. He sees them inside out. He sees the heart in the foreground, and the mouth only yammering in the background.”

He isn’t much interested in people’s theological opinions, because He knows all about that stuff already. And He isn’t interested in their politics, because that bores Him.

A wonderfully intelligent woman, full of sharp observations that she almost always kept to herself. (Unlike her nephew.) And as selfless as the breeze.

My point would be: we don’t have to wait for Nanny State to collapse, to start giving away what remains of our money. Nor should those who live in penury be abashed, for time is money, and they can give their much-needed time.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Rediscovering the meaning of Christmas

Christians, or at least the Catholic ones, are supposed to do something through Advent—the season that immediately precedes Christmas. Prepare, in some way.

The “Christmas season” comes in with the Midnight Mass, announcing the birth of Jesus, whom we take to be the Messiah; in Bethlehem, of all places. That would be the signal for feasting. There are, traditionally, 12 days of Christmas, ending in Twelfth Night through which we transit into the “season of the Epiphany.” That is plenty of time to party, and happily it corresponds, for some mysterious reason, with the secular “winter holidays.”

A lot of people who are not Christian take the days off between Christmas and its “Octave,” which by a further coincidence happens to be the secular New Year’s Day. So luckily we can sometimes join them.

But that is next week, and I am getting ahead of myself. We are not there yet. This week marks the culmination of Advent, a season not of feasting but of fasting. It is not a season of fasting like Lent, for Christmas is not as important as Easter, upon which everything that is Christian hangs. In other ways, the liturgical flavour is different.

The point I’m making here, as I’ve made before, is the need for restraint and constraint; in purely material and secular terms, an almost physiological need for fasting as well as feasting. Likewise there are things we can be doing in a quiet season—in, as it were, the calm before the storm.

Through Advent this year, when not doing what I must to keep the wolf from the door, and fulfilling the other obligations of my religion, I have been, mostly, reading. I am not a learned man, but I am a curious one, and it struck me recently that I know far too little about the second Christian century. And in the event, I thought I knew a lot more than I did know.

This, incidentally, is one of the purposes of reading: to find out how little you know. And with deeper reading, to find, further, how little you can know.

Modesty and humility are by no means disagreeable qualities in anyone; and they are at their most attractive when they are unaffected. There are certain rogue charms, too; but when you come to your deathbed, which eventually you must do, modesty and humility will be about the only charms left. And character is the last thing to go.

The second century A.D. is the one that comes after the first. There is more in that than first meets the eye: It is the century in which the explosive events at the foundation of Christianity are, at least historically, complete.

And now the questions arise of “doctrine”—of what we do and do not believe.

Practically, the second is the first century in which Christians are desperately struggling with a tide of gnostic heresies that threaten to overwhelm everything that was clear in Christ’s teaching, and every extraordinary and even counter-intuitive fact about His Person, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension. And they are doing this amid terrible, though perhaps useful, persecutions.

There is no well-established Christian doctrine in this age; it is still being assembled. Or rather, it is already there, but it has yet to be fully articulated, and is therefore very hard to defend.

The Church Father on whom I’m focused is Irenaeus, about whose life little is known, and whose writings survive only in fragmentary form. But in what remains we can certainly discern a very great and wise mind, sorting wheat from chaff both intellectually and spiritually. The outlines of Orthodox Christian theology are being drawn, as if in pencil; erased and corrected as we go along.

What emerges to my sight, in trying to make sense of him, and of the myriad heresies he is writing against, is the reality of what we call “Christian doctrine.” It is not something that is being invented, but rather something that is being discovered.

It is thus like the moral law, written in our hearts, that is fleshed out by trial and error in objective human laws; or like every other “science” that emerges through the principle of non-contradiction.

Newton didn’t “invent” gravity, but discovered it, by following hard premises to their conclusions. Gravity having been discovered, we have in turn more confidence in those premises. We’re more certain they are true because they got us somewhere.

Likewise with the “revealed” premises of religion. If “God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten son,” and so on, then some things follow, and some things don’t. Gradually we discover what must be included, and what excluded, from this picture of the world. Gradually, we realize that the world makes more sense in light of what we have discovered.

This, to me, is the “meaning of Christmas” as I find myself rediscovering it this year. It is the way in which Irenaeus, and the other early Fathers of the Church, are finding their way to the manger—by “following the star,” like the three kings.

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A vocal truth

In addition to the convenient facts—news that fits effortlessly into a writer’s view of the world—he should deal also with the inconvenient facts. This is more than a question of honour. It is also a question of strengthening the argument. Indeed, one of my constant complaints about the “politically correct,” is that they don’t argue. When not merely ignoring “inconvenient” facts and arguments, their controversial efforts are too often directed to suppressing and demonizing the sources of them.

So let me begin today’s column by telling my reader something I don’t want him to know. It is a followup to my Wednesday column from last week, which was about the Islamist massacre in a Baghdad cathedral. Since that time, according to several media reports, the Melkite Patriarch, Gregorios III, had this to say about the murder of so many of his faithful:

“All this behaviour has nothing to do with Islam. … It is actually a conspiracy planned by Zionism and some Christians with Zionist orientations and it aims at undermining and giving a bad image of Islam.”

There are further quotes that would pass in the East as anti-Zionist, and in the West as anti-Semitic. It should be needless to say, that it is odd to blame Jews, long exiled from Iraq, for a massacre which an Islamist cell has openly claimed and boasted about.

“Interesting if true,” was my standard journalistic response to the first reader who brought this mad statement to my attention. In my attempts to get behind the reports, I could do no better than find another statement, from the same Patriarch, in English, posted on an official-looking Internet site, with an entirely different flavour. It said, in part:

“We know that this criminal act is not the work of authentic Islam, and cannot be based on it. Despite that, we hold Muslims in Iraq and in all Arab countries to be responsible for Christian security, since they have power, and control the army and police force. … The real enemies of Islam and Muslims are neither ‘Islamophobia’ nor ‘Christian Europe,’ but rather these fundamentalist organizations and trends. They are also the enemies of Christianity and of every Christian and Muslim social and human value, whether Arab or not. Christians … are not sheep, designed to be slaughtered by fundamentalists. Christians are builders of values, nations and cultures, including Islamic culture itself.”

This latter statement is clear, bold, sane, and courageous. The former was lying, cowardly, gratuitously vicious, and completely insane. The second also directly contradicts the first. Can the same man have made both statements? As someone who is not entirely unfamiliar with the Middle East, I would like to say no. I cannot, however, say no with full assurance; nor in the nature of the case can I, or anyone, get quite to the bottom of it.

For the truth is, I have heard such contradictory statements come from the same mouths in several Middle Eastern countries. And those who doubt me, can read for themselves the very different statements made by Middle Eastern leaders when speaking to Western diplomats privately, or speaking to their people publicly. Quite a few of these may be found in the WikiLeaks documents, and Daniel Pipes provides a good analysis of them.

In particular, I had the experience, when writing for this newspaper from Egypt more than a decade ago, of dealing with many Egyptian Copts. Again and again I would be told in private about all kinds of persecutions, in plausible and checkable detail. And then I would be told that I must never write about this, or my informants would be made to pay for it. I also noticed several public statements, made by the very same people, in which the fate of Copts was casually glossed over, and instead, implausible allegations were made against Israel and Jews. Nota bene: against Jews who had been driven from Egypt two generations before.

This is a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” that I attribute to centuries of real oppression. It is a part of human psychology that is not incomprehensible. You say what your oppressor wants to hear; you even identify with his imagined interests. You assimilate your oppressor’s world view, which necessarily involves suppressing your own. And you hope, in return, he will stop hurting you.

Now, oddly enough there is hope in this; for there is always hope. Even among Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, driven by circumstances into some of the most extraordinary contortions of “world view,” and uttering statements that could easily pass for paranoid schizophrenic, there is hope. Privately, they will tell you things that are completely sane and reasonable. So long as you promise not to repeat them.

Our task is to create a world in which people can be sane, out loud.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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Don’t underestimate Barack Obama

The notion that “the voice of the people is the voice of God” is the paper currency of representative democracy. There is no gold behind it, and its essential worthlessness was exposed even by the first man known to have used the phrase in writing. That was Alcuin, writing to Charlemagne, at the end of the eighth century. His advice to this ruler was, “Don’t listen to the people who say that.”

In one sense alone, “the people are always right,” just as the Pope is infallible. That is to say, there is no further appeal in this world.

The herd instinct; the madness of crowds; the general state of ignorance which everyone believes to have existed until the day before yesterday, when rather it persists—these should be adduced on the other side. I solemnly believe that any normal person in full possession of the facts will come to an astute and reasonable conclusion on any matter. I also solemnly believe that no such person is ever in full possession of the facts. And that the sheer quantity of facts is increasing daily.

Genius is often required, even to guess what’s really happening, and genius lights in one person at a time. We should actually seek such light, and cherish it wherever it appears. Don’t listen to the herd: listen for the prophet.

While I think he would make a very defective religious prophet (and I think he would agree), Charles Krauthammer strikes me as the closest we have to a genius on the Washington political scene. Though marked as a “conservative,” as most intelligent commentators are, he comes to his own conclusions, regardless of party. He appreciates that the views of the people are sometimes wise, and sometimes foolish. That alone suggests more subtlety than is usually available in our media.

I want to draw attention to his Washington Post column, which appeared Friday. It flies in the face of all accepted thinking about the “tax relief ” issue, currently at the forefront of most political minds.

Media reporting reinforces the general view that the Democrats are pro-tax (especially on the rich), that the Republicans are anti-tax (for everyone), and that the Republicans, having cleaned up in the midterm elections, are pressing President Barack Obama into making concessions he doesn’t want to make.

Obama, in this caricature, is the bull; John Boehner, the House Republican leader, is the toreador; and his lancers are sticking a bull who becomes increasingly enraged and disoriented. Cue to crowd roar.

But as Krauthammer observes, the bull is winning. In return for tax cuts not much in excess of what the Democrats were willing to agree to anyway, and which remain temporary in principle, the Republicans offer “sweeteners” that amount to a whole new stimulus plan. He calculates that between the cuts and the sweeteners, an additional near-trillion-dollar hole will be blown through the national accounts. This to be patched, presumably, by more borrowing from China. It is effectively a “Stimulus II” piled on the “Stimulus I” that no one wants to defend any more.

In this scenario, Obama is a very clever political operator. By allowing his hand to look forced, while rhetorically blasting what White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called the “professional left,” he is accomplishing two things.

Though a man of the left himself, he intentionally alienates his left flank, to recapture the centre of the political spectrum. Meanwhile, he is setting the Republicans up to take the blame for the fiscal squalor, while they are voting him the cash to go on an additional pre-election bender.

This is as clever as nationalizing the U.S. health system, by turning private insurers into regulated agencies of the government, instead of taking them over outright—preserving the appearance of capitalism while creating the reality of socialism.

My worst fear about Obama, expressed long before his election, was not that he might turn out to be a complete boob. Indeed, that was closer to my fondest hope. My fear was instead that he would turn out to be a brilliant political operator, in the manner of a certain Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves Elliott Trudeau. A man who, once in power, could divide and conquer to stay there.

Cue to old videos of Trudeau sneering at all the “bleeding hearts;” or at the myopia of our own professional leftists; of him delivering the line, “Zap! You’re frozen!”

Trudeau not only tacked rhetorically to the right at the approach of each election; he suckered his political enemies into doing his dirtiest work, such as persuading the British Parliament to hold its collective nose and pass his questionable constitutional “patriation” with its Trojan Bill of Rights. A master of cunning, both low and high.

How often we thought Trudeau was finally cornered. How consistently he proved us wrong.

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Stop waiting for policy

I mentioned recently in this space a book by John Pepall, Against Reform, just published, which gets to the core of national politics. And while it might seem on its surface to be merely a provocation, it is in fact deeply serious and informative. Its point being that, without exception, every proposal to change the way we do things, politically, by reforming the constitution, is intrinsically wrong and foolish.

Conversely, when constitutions must be changed, they are changed by necessity. There is never any need to plan.

To which I would add my own political prescription, which might be summarized under the title “Against Policy.” As readers so patient as to have followed my arguments for the last dozen weeks will already have discerned, I deny the need for bureaucracy in public affairs, and therefore decry every proposed solution to a public problem that demands a new policy.

And what I have already said in previous columns can easily enough be applied to all the other government departments; and I can make a conclusion of the series this week. The rule of thumb that I propose to replace policy is: eliminate any function of government that requires organized coercion, for any purpose other than law, order, national defence, and the occasional symbolic flourish.

Leave the people to manage their own affairs; leave them even to make their own arrangements for charity; trust human nature to provide what needs providing, for we do have an instinct to survive.

This may seem a radical prescription, and a critic might cruelly suggest that such a rule of thumb is in fact a policy. To be reasonable, I would have to admit that some operations, which resemble bureaucracy, would have to survive. There must be paymasters, and thus some accounting; and even much reduced taxes would have to be collected in some way. But my point is sustained if gentle reader will agree that such arrangements are necessary evils—that they shouldn’t be advocated as good in themselves.

Meanwhile I deny that this approach is radical. For I am merely proposing a return to the status quo ante the 20th century. To those who wish to invoke horrors in the world of the 19th century and before, my reply is that these fall into two categories: material problems of poverty and disease that no government ever solved; and other evils that will always be with us. Against definable evildoers we have always needed laws, courts, and prisons. We do not need government programs for the rest of us, however.

At the root of all the reforms and policies of that 20th century, according to me, was a massive loss of faith. Our ancestors began by questioning not so much the existence, but the efficacy, of God; a whole tendency of thought that might be traced through intellectual history, if not back to the Garden of Eden. It was expressed most candidly in the French Revolution, and it has been responsible there and since for the largest massacres of history. State atheism is the greatest killer our world has ever known, vastly more murderous than all of history’s religious wars. The idea that humans could tackle problems larger than the human through method of some kind—that we could find a means to save ourselves along a route to Utopia—is indeed older than the last century. But the idea that such method would require vast intrusive Kafkaesque bureaucracies dates back only to Bismarck; and the bureaucratization of the killing fields only to Lenin.

Yet if the 20th century proved anything, it was that insoluble problems cannot be solved. The grandest essays in state control each ended in collapse; and our patient efforts to create welfare states through the Fabian means of representative democracy have ended in bankruptcy. The project of bureaucratic socialism, in its many different forms, has a failure rate of 100 per cent, and the very aspiration needs to be abandoned.

But what to replace it with? Faith.

In the first instance, faith in God: that the universe is constructed to some good end, that our own redemption is not impossible, that guidance is available above the human plane.

In the second instance, faith in our neighbours: that given their freedom, they will often enough provide what is necessary to themselves and their families, and that when they fail, other humans will help.

Faith, in this sense, is in human nature, and ultimately indistinguishable from faith in God: that He has made men and women capable of performing the tasks set before them.

Therefore what we need is not available through political action. It is available instead through our own minds and hands; through our own direct intervention to fix what seems wrong; through our own cocreative efforts to advance the good, the true, and the beautiful.

It is in our nature, when we see a man fallen, to help him up. It is not in our nature to wait for the government to arrive. Therefore stop waiting, and live.

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Pagan savagery in London

Prince Charles, and Camilla, were not the only things under attack in England this week, on the streets of London, as the British government took its latest steps to avoid the fate of Ireland and Greece. Not only publicly, but privately, the British are now a people who have borrowed and spent themselves into perdition; and at both the public and the private level, the legacy of consumer gratification is at hand.

From the Daily Mail we learn of an incident at Glastonbury, too. The Holy Thorn Tree – a Crataegus monogena Biflora or hawthorn, of Middle Eastern origin, said to have grown from a staff carried by Joseph of Arimathea, 20 centuries ago – was hacked down by vandals.

This Joseph is mentioned in all four Gospels, as the man who gave his own prepaid tomb to house the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion. The story of his later travelling to England, and planting the Christian faith in her soil, through Christ’s own staff, is among extra-Biblical legends. Needless to say, Christians do not swear to the veracity of all extra-Biblical legends.

It is nevertheless a beautiful medieval invention – myth, symbol, art. To call it a superstition as the Roundheads did, when they hacked down a predecessor of this tree during the English Revolution, is to be obtuse. Those who willingly suspend disbelief to watch, say, a play by Shakespeare, are not convicted of superstition thereby. (Of course, Cromwell’s thugs also closed the theatres.)

Various theories have been presented about who did it this time, and why. Perhaps it was some private vendetta, and not the attack on Christianity that appears. Yet whoever did this knew perfectly well what that tree meant to so many faithful people, who never offered them any harm. So that any way you look at it, the perpetrators were a species of pagan savages.

It could of course be argued that pagan savages is a rude and potentially intolerant way to refer to the de-Christianized heirs of our Western civilization. We are aware that they can be quite touchy, and are generally disinclined to take what they give. We could fill this column with the terms they apply to religious believers.

Let me add that people touchy about themselves, but not about others, are called narcissists too, and in that very formula my reader may discern the link between narcissism and criminal behaviour.

Indeed, let me spell that out.

At the root of criminal behaviour, after we have lopped off all its branches and dug to its source, is indifference to the pain of others, contrasted with wilful indulgence of one’s own pleasures. We think of criminals as brutish and cruel and, fair enough, they are. But only towards those who are in their way. In my experience, they are extremely sensitive about their own rights and perquisites. The person who doubts this should spend more time visiting prisoners in jail.

At the opposite extreme to the criminal is the saint: the man (or woman) operating under the command to love even his enemies. Love is not toleration incidentally, for toleration is another form of indifference. Nor does love require support for bad behaviour, as any adult should realize who has ever begotten a child.

The well-raised and well-behaved citizens of a civilized country may not be saints, but they are likely to grasp that sanctity is possible; and will be less inclined than those who do not know this, to make excuses for themselves.

Reason comes into this, too. At the root of reason is a certain patience in observing the connections between things. One does not, for instance, take out one’s wrath on Prince Charles because the education secretary in a government he never elected has raised one’s tuition fees. One does not even take it out on the education secretary, who is only doing his job in the face of massive public debt. Instead, one patiently reviews his arguments, to see if they can be confuted.

Unless, of course, one is a student in a university only in some nominal and superficial sense – mere accreditation. More deeply, one may be a ward of the state, already living on massive public subsidy; and beyond this, a person with criminal tendencies – a thug and a hooligan.

Which is precisely the problem we face on university campuses, not only in England; and increasingly in the streets, not only in London. We have a whole generation of what I characterized above as pagan savages, whose most plausible excuse is that they were raised by pagan savages in their turn. We have generations who have lived since early childhood almost exclusively for the sake of consumer gratification; who have no other God.

And it will be a royal pain to convert them; but I can see no other way forward.

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A pogrom in Baghdad

Breaking news quickly passes into “archive”; but days, weeks, and sometimes years may be required, to reconstruct what actually happened. Sometimes there are no survivors of a crime or catastrophe, and no testimony to work with, beyond what forensic specialists can provide. But humans are not that easy to kill, and there are usually a few accusers left about.

On Sunday, Oct. 31, during Mass, Islamist terrorists attacked the main Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad—the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. While there have been persistent and increasing attacks on Christians, as well as on other religious minorities, all over the Muslim world, this one was especially notable, and deserved far more sustained press coverage. Many details are only now emerging, from the wounded who were flown out of Iraq to Rome, and other European cities, for medical treatment.

The attack was sustained over five hours. Iraqi military authorities had the church surrounded for most of this time; American-made helicopters buzzed overhead. But, rather than risk the lives of soldiers, the authorities were content to simply contain the massacre.

It had begun with a diversionary strike against the Baghdad stock exchange, across the street: two of its guards were killed. Those inside the church could hear the automatic rifle fire, which began towards the end of the homily. Congregants were at first relieved that the attack did not seem to be directed at the church. Its entrances were blocked, the main wooden door barricaded.

A jeep parked outside the church then exploded, and a brigade of jihadis, in Iraqi army uniforms, burst through the main entrance commando-style. First one priest—a Father Wasim, among those trying to hold the door—shouted, “Leave them alone, take me!” He was immediately shot. A Father Thair then shouted from the altar, likewise, “Leave them alone, take me!” and was likewise annihilated.

While this was happening, a Father Raphael succeeded in herding about 70 of the faithful into the sacristy, and blocking its door. In due course the jihadis found it had a small high window, and tossed grenades through that; others amused themselves by firing bullets through the door.

In the cathedral proper, the jihadis used the central crucifix for target practice, while shouting in mockery, “Come on, tell Him to save you!” At their leisure, they executed the men of the congregation, while terrorizing the women and children in various other ways. They shot the arms off a couple of girls who tried to use cellphones; they shot babies who were crying. And in classical Arabic, with Egyptian and Syrian accents, they declared: “We are going to heaven, and you are going to hell. Allah is great!”

At their leisure, for over the five hours they twice stopped for formal Islamic prayers. They were also able to place bombs around the cathedral, for the purpose of blowing it up at the end, but owing to faulty wiring these did not go off. Survivors, in the accounts I’ve seen in Italian media, say the jihadis eventually ran out of bullets, and then began calling for the bombs to be detonated. They had several colleagues stationed on the roof, orchestrating their affair; unmolested by the troops surrounding the church. Two of the jihadis with suicide belts managed to blow themselves up.

Finally, the Iraqi troops went into action. The dead were now counted; the wounded removed to area hospitals where friends and relatives were already making their hysterical inquiries. The church was now “secured,” so that passersby could not get a view of the devastation inside it.

My reader may get far more detail through patient Internet searching. The facts mentioned above seem incontestable. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream reporting came down to “58 killed and a larger number wounded.” There were some insulting editorials, which generically condemned “religious intolerance,” thus putting murderers and victims on the same level.

The exodus of Christians from Iraq is, by now, more or less common knowledge. Within Iraq itself, there is a movement from such cities as Baghdad and Mosul—which once had large Christian populations—to safer territory in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Throughout the Middle East, from countries that remained majority Christian long after the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, the exodus of the last Christians is proceeding. In Palestine, entirely Christian towns such as Bethlehem have been, quite recently, Islamicized. In Lebanon—itself established as a Christian enclave—Hezbollah has largely taken over. The Coptic Christians of Egypt, who still number in their millions, suffer frequent violent attacks. Et cetera.

There were once Jews all over the Middle East; now they are down to Israel only, whose very right to exist is challenged. Christians are now following the Jews into exile or extinction. But in the West, we just don’t want to know.

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Something worse than terrorism

It is such a rare event when I disagree with George Jonas, my hero and mentor among Canadian newspaper columnists (along with the late Richard J. Needham), that I’m inclined to devote a whole column to it. The piece, to which I’m now referring, appeared in the National Post under the title, “Don’t Call it Terrorism.”

I don’t disagree with anything in his article, only with the headline. (Gentle reader should be constantly aware that editors, not writers, write headlines; often to a columnist’s chagrin.) I take issue with the suggestion that there is something absolutely wrong with terrorism.

Now, there is probably something wrong, when innocent people are targeted gratuitously. Or rather, let us call them “non-combatants,” for as my Church teaches, there were only two “innocent persons” in all history, and so the whole concept of an innocent bystander invites theological controversy.

Be that as it may, let us think back on the old George W. Bush phrase, “War on Terror.” Apparently it was too manly for his successor in the White House, who prefers, “overseas contingency operation.” To my view, “war on terrorists” would have been more accurate, “war on Islamist terrorists” sharper still, and “war on Islamists” would get us the rest of the way to the point. (Supposing, of course, that we agree on what the term “Islamist” means.)

And we need leaders who can say such things without wincing.

“Terrorism” is merely a means to an end; a means so extreme as to be seldom necessary, and therefore always hard to justify. And while I am not his press spokesman, I don’t think even Osama bin Laden thinks Allah wants terrorism as an end in itself. Give Osama what he wants—the whole world under tightly enforced Shariah, in the fanatical Wahhabi interpretation—and he will be glad to stop terrorizing us.

These distinctions may, at first, seem absurd, but they are crucial to understanding the moral dimension of international politics. They are, thus, also needed to make sense of history, in which, at one point or another, almost every side, including “the good guys,” have used some form of terror to advance some urgent interest.

The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki will complete this point. They were designed to terrify the Japanese into surrendering promptly, thereby sparing millions of lives. And praise the Lord, the tactic worked: they surrendered.

So was it terrorism? Yes. And was it justified? Yes.

“The end does not justify the means,” we are taught from childhood. And like so many other things we were taught, including all proverbs in all languages, it is only true in context. “No end can justify any means at all” might be closer to precision.

The column by Jonas was on the blowing up of two cars containing Iranian nuclear scientists. As he explained, the regime of the ayatollahs may have had motives for killing them, then blaming it on the U.S. and Israel.

Others in Iran may have had motives. It would be foolish for us to take the regime’s word on a “Zionist conspiracy.” But even supposing “the Zionists” did it—well, good on them if by such means they can prevent Armageddon.

I wrote Wednesday and yesterday about the WikiLeaks issue, and the failure of our “liberal” elites to take questions of life and death seriously. To be fair to them, they are the products of their education, in the broadest sense, and many are animated by that coloratura soprano voice from childhood that sings, “The end does not justify the means.” They think they are being moral when, rather, they are being glib—and in the face of horrendous realities.

Let us bring this back to the large question of how we are to be governed—of the role of the state in our public life. I am, as any attentive reader must know by now, opposed to the extension of state power into common life, from education, to business, to health and welfare. I hold these are not legitimate fields for the exercise of the state’s monopoly on force.

They are also a distraction, to the state, from its legitimate functions, which pertain finally to life and death. Those functions are, classically: law and order, within the realm; and military defence against threats from outside it.

Moreover, there can be no prospect of individual human freedom unless the state is prepared to provide guarantees.

And here is the rub. The true business of the state requires very hard and consequential decisions on life and death: on crime, war and peace. We, as voters, cannot afford to be distracted by public policies that have nothing to do with these things.

For ultimately, our lives and the survival of our nation depend upon the spine of the men and women we elect to the highest offices of state. We need people there who can understand, not only that terrorism is bad form, but that there are things worse than terrorism.

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Matters of life and death

It has been argued that those who would consider the assassination of Julian Assange, because he has effectively become an “enemy combatant,” are uncivilized. But this is to confuse civilization with what is fey, hypocritical, morally obtuse and intellectually incoherent.

Let me try to make my position plain. Were I in government myself, in a position of responsibility for the lives of my country’s soldiers and citizens, and dealing with a threat to everything that protects them, I would not restrict my options. We are dealing with questions of life and death, in which killing is already on the table.

The question here is as old as the hills, though unfortunately, people with little knowledge of history cannot appreciate it. Every civilization has had the problem of frontiers: of the murky places where civilization ends and barbarism begins. By definition, this in not a place where the rule of law prevails. It is instead a place where the civilization itself is under attack, and must choose to defend itself, or be defeated.

In the past, people simply did not know—were not told—what goes on there. And this made some sort of sense: for no one is in a position to judge such things, from a position of safety.

To some degree, U.S. President Barack Obama himself grasps the reality, when he signs orders for the assassination by drone of specific al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Unfortunately, by his attempts to close Guantanamo, he has restricted his own options to “take no prisoners.” For trying to arrest armed men on a battlefield, read them their Miranda rights, then put them on trial before civilian judges, makes a farce. It actually undermines the rule of law; while providing a protected forum for the enemy.

Of course, in the case of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, we are not dealing with armed terrorists. We are dealing with people trying to undermine our defences by other means. That they are “idealists” of some sort, can almost go without saying. Self-justification is a powerful thing, at the root of human nature; and the worse the behaviour, the more shining the ideals that will be claimed. Conversely, honest people do not try to sanctify themselves.

Assange himself is an interesting person, to those who study the psychology of “transgression.” Even without delving into his past—his upsetting family history, his background as a computer hacker, allegations of rape against him—it is obvious from his own statements that we are dealing with a “difficult case.” He is a man who refuses to acknowledge limits upon his own actions. The jails in every civilized country are full of such people.

But whether he fully understands what he is doing—as I’m sure he does not—he is advancing the cause of the enemy in quite direct ways. The question of whether WikiLeaks revelations endanger the lives of specific persons in the field (and of course they do), only scratches the surface. For the issue here is not the arithmetical one of body count, by which media are too easily distracted. The sabotage goes much deeper, and the possible consequences are on a scale vastly beyond a few bodies here and there.

Assange and colleagues are doing something that undermines the functional integrity of the whole western security apparatus. And whether we sneer at this or not, our very survival depends upon that “security apparatus.”

The issue here is a war effort, against a barbaric enemy, whose unambiguous intention is to destroy western civilization. The world being an imperfect place, our own side must resort to such stratagems as gathering intelligence about this enemy and creating opportunities for surprise. Allied diplomats require secrecy, to preserve candour among themselves; allied operations in the field require it. To put our operations under the glare of publicity, while they remain in progress, is to sabotage them.

The true history is important to establish, for the benefit of later generations, but it must be established after the fact. And it will never, anyway, be established by persons whose intentions are malign.

Half-knowingly—I am making allowance for his psychological state—Assange has stepped into the field of conflict. By doing things of direct benefit to the other side, he has forfeited his right to our side’s protection.

The question of whether he should be assassinated is thus a serious one. On balance, I would oppose the idea, because the uproar that would follow might further advance enemy interests. For more complex reasons, I also think targeted assassinations are a dangerous, potentially self-defeating tactic, that require great caution. Better to find more subtle ways to put Assange and WikiLeaks out of action. But one way or another, they must be put out of action.

Hard calls. And the stakes are too high for pseudo-moral posturing.

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Treason and Wikileaks

Can there be such a thing as treason?

This is a question no one thought to ask, or at least no one sane, until recently. But part of the general insanity that has come from loss of faith—in God, then progressively in everything else—is the questioning of such things in isolation.

Does the state, under whose protection we live, have any claim on our loyalty, whatever? Do the men and women who have died, and generations that have made sacrifices for our very existence, have any moral claim upon us? Or are they simply disposable extensions of our own ego?

The questions in that last paragraph are not entirely rhetorical; not today. I am asking them by way of explaining what I mean by “questioning in isolation.”

We live, today, under opinion-forming elites that will very glibly ask and answer a question, as if it stands by itself; as if everything that follows from the question can be ignored. They are the intellectual descendants of people who, on this issue, advanced the notion that one’s loyalty to a friend, or to one’s current squeeze, must trump the most solemn obligations of honour, and therefore exempt one from making unpleasant sacrifices. This is a view unintentionally presented in its full fatuity in the novel, The English Patient, by the second-rate Canadian writer, Michael Ondaatje.

“It is the soul’s duty to be loyal to its own desires; it must abandon itself to its master passion.” Thus spoke Rebecca West, perhaps the greatest of the leftists and feminists of the last century, who did honestly wrestle with questions of treachery and betrayal. See her book, The Meaning of Treason.

What, I’ve been wondering, would Dame Rebecca have said, about the casual treachery of The New York Times, and other media who have cooperated with Wikileaks in return for advance access to their stolen documents—as if this were a straightforward business arrangement?

The total hypocrisy of the Times has been exposed by several of my right-wing colleagues, who have juxtaposed the paper’s various self-justifications. The Times smugly refused, for instance, to print or link any “Climategate” revelations of a global warming scam, because “the documents appear to have been acquired illegally,” and “were never intended for the public eye.” But when an opportunity arises to publish potentially devastating state secrets, they do so without hesitation “in the public interest.” And the smugness is the same.

Paradoxically, these documents confirm everything the Times and like-minded media have not been reporting for the last few years.

That Arab leaders have been begging the U.S. to take military action against Iran, or at least stop appeasing a regime they compare to Hitler’s; that Egypt fears Hamas more than Israel; that Iran rearms Hezbollah in Lebanon under cover of the Red Cross; that Iran and Syria are hand in glove; that North Korea has been trading lethal weaponry to Iran, with Chinese encouragement; that the Turkish government is alarmingly Islamist, and has become a cuckoo in the nest of NATO; that the Emir of Qatar is double-dealing—all these things which “paranoid right wing” types such as yours truly have long known (and been reporting in this column)—are confirmed in the documents.

One might express frustration, that U.S. diplomatic, military, and intelligence agencies did not make much of this public, long ago. For it has struck me, repeatedly, that the U.S. government has been fighting world opinion with two hands tied behind its back.

All this can be fairly stated, and yet it does not change the nature of the crime. A conscious act of treason has been performed—very smugly—and there is yet no prospect that anything will be done about it. Wikileaks continues to publish privileged U.S. diplomatic traffic day by day, with the full co-operation of the world’s “progressive” media, and with the impunity that is granted by an elite “liberal” culture, which lives in something like Michael Ondaatje’s moral universe.

Which is unfortunately the alternative universe from which Barack Obama stepped, when he became president. He evidently does not have the intellectual equipment to understand the grave duties he has assumed. And that includes the duty to do something about open acts of treason.

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Something beautiful and worthy in its own right

One of the happier moments, in what has begun to feel like a long life (for I have now lived through three dekaenneateric cycles), was in the Khan Market at New Delhi.

This was some time ago. There was a bookstore in that market (perhaps there still?) and I am happy as a simile in a bookstore. It was before the Indian economy had turned, in merry cartwheels of Vedic Thatcherism—before the Khan Market had become one of the world’s most expensive retail locations. In those days it was merely well-appointed, and (for India) almost provocatively clean.

It was something about the condition of the light, and the cool air (a late winter afternoon); the understated display of all goods; the polite modesty of both salesmen and customers; the gorgeousness of Delhi ladies in their saris. I felt for a moment that I was in Utopia, and that this was its corner market.

The district around was (is still) full of civil servants. I had an invitation to dinner with a couple of retired ones, and we would talk about their memories. I was fascinated by the ideals they represented, from the earliest days of Indian independence. These were members of the Indian elite, wonderfully if often satirically described in books by the late Nirad Chaudhuri, which made him persona non grata right across the subcontinent.

It was a class of people in some ways less Indian than the Indians, and more British than the British. The couple I was interviewing were themselves products of London intellectual life, with degrees from the LSE, and connections to the Bloomsbury aristocracy, impregnated with all the old Fabian ideals. Like Nehru himself, they spoke and thought in English, and as they freely admitted, came back to India “speaking Hindi with a heavy English accent, if at all.” Yet now they ruled in their own country.

With this—with both the Fabianism and the Brahmanism—came a mysterious affiliation with Gandhi, who also had his feet in both camps, and had been Easternized only after being Westernized. With that, came the desire to be outwardly holy.

I despise “the Left,” despise its hypocrisies, despise the tyranny implicit in the hypocrisy ( “do as I say, not as I do”) but often can’t help loving the people. Hypocrites do not know they are hypocrites, narcissists do not know they are narcissists, except on some level accessed through irony. Hence the ironies with which our present world is dripping.

I despise Utopianism, in every form, yet it must be said that much of the craving for Utopia, and therefore the craving for “progress” towards it, is perfectly sincere.

The couple I have mentioned lived in the sort of house that only civil servants could afford, in the old socialist India. Yet by western standards of wealth, it was small and modest—on the scale of an English cottage—and its denizens made a point of living simply. With hawk eyes, I could not spot a single example of “conspicuous consumption.”

And so throughout the neighbourhood: a model estate, a “garden city” of purely Indian materials, yet somehow redolent of William Morris and Ruskin.

Something of the same Bloomsbury spirit was exported to Canada, too, and is written, esthetically, into the ethos of Canadian socialism. It was an ideal of equality, originally dictated by people at the top. For there was no big government, to start with, and the Nanny State we have since inherited, with its dysfunctional bureaucratic regulation and parasitical taxation, was only an accidental byproduct of those Fabian ideals.

“Equality” can mean many things, but our particular form of it descends from a particular cultural history, and life trying to imitate art. So, for that matter, are the socialist traditions in every other culture; for there was a French, a German, an Italian way of expressing egalitarian ideals—descending in each case from art and literature.

My admired economist, Friedrich Hayek, understood this fairly well, when he dedicated his famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944), “To the socialists of all parties.” He understood the degree to which well-educated men and women, motivated by something like goodwill, had filled our world with unintended consequences. Through decades of research, he diligently traced the intellectual sources of their unfortunate miscalculations.

But the real, original cause of error was not intellectual miscalculation. The neighbourhood of the Khan Market showed what could be achieved; something worthy and beautiful in its own right. It was the best that could be done with human will and foresight, in the absence of religious faith.

They did not reckon with the wolf in human nature; only with the sheep. The “Bloomsbury” elites in all times and places trade on this common oversight. They are invariably the descendants of religious zealots, who lost their faith; the product of “spilled religion.” They continue to preach, replacing “God” with “Man.”

Yet in the end, no one listens. For, oddly enough, men will not long do for men what they will do for God.

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Malled all over

The secular shopping year takes a long time to die, but its death throes are now upon us. Yesterday was Black Friday, and not only across the U.S.—for while American Thanksgiving is hard to export, the morning-after kickoff of the Christmas shopping season has grown dark wings.

Truth to tell, I live a little aloof from what I call “the mall culture” (pronounced, “maw”) and it took me about four decades to learn what this term means. Black Friday to me had meant any number of unfortunate historical events, from Wall Street crashes, through obscure moments in Irish history, to the Suffragette riot of 1910. It was the sort of Friday you did not want to have.

This one apparently refers to traffic congestion in Philadelphia, circa 1966, as cars and pedestrians cluttered the streets for post-Thanksgiving sales. The term took another decade to spread into continental consciousness.

Anything that is given a name can be deemed to exist, and once it exists it can be deemed to grow. From what I can make out, through my electronic researches, Black Friday once barely made the top-10 list of retail blowouts. It began to rise, once nominalized, and reached the very top only a few years ago. Today, it is considered perfectly normal for great masses of shoppers to queue outside malls that will open for their Black Friday sales about four or five in the morning.

Formerly, in Canada as in the U.S., the Christmas shopping season was announced a little more discreetly with a Santa Claus parade. Stateside, Santa’s float came promiscuously at the end of the Thanksgiving procession. Because our northern Thanksgiving comes earlier, our parades came later. They were (and in some cases, remain) beautiful because they gave children something to see, that could enchant them. More generally, they answer to a deep craving for public theatre and spectacle, that has made, for example, Gay Pride Parades so popular, elsewhere on the calendar.

By comparison, the crush to get into shopping mall sales lacks something in the way of “community,” or even “dignity.” It is more of a Hobbesian spectacle, the “bellum omnium contra omnes” (war of all against all). Try as I might, I cannot find anything edifying in it.

Do not giggle at the Americans. As I was discussing this week, with European friends, there is no vulgarity of which Americans are capable that does not quickly spread around the world. Readers in doubt of this may call up the webcams for the Paris Metro, or any other place on the planet where large numbers pass in and out of view.

Or station yourself by a tour bus, emptying into a picturesque location. The fat, loud, and rather boorishly dressed biomass that will pass before your eyes may be German or Italian or Brazilian or Japanese. Odds on, they are not Yankees.

At the other end of this shopping season we have what we proudly claim to be a Canadian invention: the Boxing Day Sale. The “boxing” in this term, I must explain to foreigners, never referred to pugilism. Canadians are a peacekeeping people. It instead, we think, referred to giving gifts in boxes, which may once have been opened on the day after Christmas. The day thus named is the secular replacement for the Feast of Stephen which, in the calendar of the Western Church, was placed so poignantly: the very first Christian martyr recalled on the day after the birth of Our Saviour.

An expandable concept, Boxing Day or its equivalent may now refer to any day between Dec. 26th and about mid-January, and corresponds to further sales in the shopping malls.

Perhaps gentle reader does not need me to tell him that Christmas has been commercialized. It had to be sentimentalized, first, and that was the achievement of our Victorian ancestors. Nothing against sentiment, nothing against commerce: this is a business-friendly column. And only a peep when it begins to appear that this “culture” can suck everything into its “maw,” and that Santa claws have scraped an entire landscape into the bottomless gullet of consumerism.

I once wrote that, “I never thought the collapse of Western Civilization would turn out to be good for the economy.” But statistically, yes, the more we buy, even on consumer credit, the more our GDP grows. Statistics can even be skewed to suggest improvements in “the quality of life”—whereas, I would suggest, that in the mall culture, statistics are about the only indication.

Tomorrow is, incidentally, Advent Sunday. That would make it the beginning of a new liturgical year. So it has been for a long, long time, and so it will remain even when unnoticed. It is a day to make resolutions; to go to church instead of to the mall.

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Talk loudly, carry a big stick

Technically, the Korean War never ended. There was no peace treaty in 1953. The war (in which Canada was intimately involved) went from hot to cold by tacit understanding. It is a mere ceasefire, and over the decades since, the cold war has been punctuated by cross-border incidents—from live fire to tunnelling—initiated, so far as I can see invariably, by the North.

We have all heard that the vast, incredibly prosperous city of Seoul is within practical firing range of the frontier, with quite old-fashioned technology. You can take a taxi to the frontier, as I once did: it is a short drive, lengthened only by city traffic. More than 20 million people thus live in the shadow of considerable North Korean fire power, trained directly upon them—just as the whole island of Taiwan goes about its business day by day, in the shadow of far more than a thousand Chinese missiles, targeted to wipe out everything.

Just as, since time out of mind, people have lived in the shadow of great volcanoes, known to have erupted within human memory. The soil in such locations is highly fertile. In a strange way, the “spiritual soil” of South Korea is enriched by the presence of this “volcano,” that may suddenly rain down, leaving no hope of escape.

My impression, visiting Korea now a decade ago, was that the zeal and industry of that country—once called the “Hermit Kingdom,” once known for its sleepy aloofness from the world—was partly fuelled by this fear. It had contributed to a kind of alertness that was more than “cultural.”

The North Koreans began gratuitously shelling the South Korean military base on Yeonpyeong Island at 0534 GMT yesterday, killing a couple of marines, injuring more than a dozen soldiers and civilians, and sending the island’s 1,600 fishermen and their families into the shelters. The South Koreans returned fire, which it is their duty to do. We will see what follows.

Pyongyang claims Seoul started it, but that is ridiculous. The South was conducting a well-announced military exercise, in the seas near the island; but all action was purposely directed away from Northern shores. There was no legitimate pretext for the North Korean strike; just as there was no legitimate pretext for the strike last March, in which a South Korean naval vessel was suddenly torpedoed and sent to the bottom, with a few dozen souls.

A fully intentional armed provocation, and to leave no doubt, it followed closely on an unarmed provocation. Over the weekend, we learned that Northern authorities had shown off a new uranium enrichment facility to a visiting U.S. scientist. The West was being told they were capable of building such a thing, quickly and right under our satellite noses. That stunt was intended to make us wonder what else they may have, hidden away, beyond our capacities for detection.

The conventional explanation for these and the many other incidents (including many minor ones that hardly make world news), is that the North Korean Great Leader of the moment, is crazy. I fall into this myself, sometimes—one foot—but then have to explain the difference between medical and moral insanity.

The “completely crazy guy” theory of history explains nothing, and is useless. Hitler was a crazy guy; Stalin was a crazy guy; Pol Pot was a crazy guy—but mad only north-northwest. Often from a desperate position, they played brilliantly, cheated brilliantly.

One does not become a psychotic, totalitarian dictator without knowing all the weaknesses of half-decent folk, including the location of their Achilles heel. Our politicians are willing to appease even a madman, for the sake of peace. And even when peace is unavailable, those with insufficient moral starch will continue appeasing, in the hope of prolonging the appearance of peace.

The current North Korean position is perhaps as desperate as it has ever been. Such indications as we have are of a prison camp in which the people are quite literally starving, and the whole totalitarian infrastructure might be cracking from withdrawal of some foreign aid. The Great Leader of the moment is thought to be ill, and there could be a “succession crisis.” Alternatively, this crisis is being staged, in order to sucker the West into renewing aid, in the belief that a more reasonable leadership may soon emerge.

We cannot know the degree to which the Chinese are supplying whatever is necessary to prop up the regime. We can know that Beijing is using North Korea to advance its own regional and international interests; and that it wouldn’t be so calm if it weren’t party to the stunt.

Do not do what the Chinese suggest; do not make concessions, or agree to talk; ignore “humanitarian” arguments; continue making military preparations. Call the bluff, but be ready for anything.

Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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