Priceton student Brett R. has sent an e-mail from down under with the subject line, “What the hell is going on in America?” Brett aspires to know, more specifically, what the hell is going on as it pertains to the meltdown in the financial markets and the government bailout that has been proposed to fix it. Since, for some years, Brett and I have taken swings at each other from across an ideological Grand Canyon, I am touched and flattered that he thinks I can explain the current mess. To repay his misplaced confidence, I humbly offer the following.

 

The Hazard of Government

“It seems beyond the conceptual abilities of most people that current problems might have been based on too much rather than too little regulation. Somehow people can ignore that the U.S. financial institutions that recently stumbled were subject to comprehensive oversight by the Federal Reserve, the SEC, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and others. They have a blind spot to the role of government programs and policies in promoting the housing bubble, and of facilitating institutions, especially Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, that were widely perceived as being government backed (and ultimately were)…. As Richard Salsman points out…, far from being due to too much laissez-faire, the present turmoil was inevitable in a system that had been both massively subsidized by deposit insurance and over-regulated….

What is so stunning about public attitudes towards the capitalist system is that finance can be regulated eight ways from Sunday and still be written off as ‘unfettered’….

[A] less-regulated system…would be one in which people were a great deal more careful with their money, knowing that when they made mistakes they would have to pay for them. Under the existing heavily regulated alternative, when moral hazard inevitably rears its ugly head, the taxpayer gets lumbered. Such an arrangement is obviously attractive to incompetent managers and overweening bureaucrats, but it’s astonishing that it would be supported by the average person.”

–Peter Foster, Financial Post, Sept. 24, 2008

 

 

The fact that I’m not an economist, and certainly no expert on the markets, ought probably to dissuade me from weighing in on the current “financial crisis”, as it is being called. But then, in re the economy, there are no experts, least of all those who call themselves such. We are about as close to a scientific understanding of that dismal branch of human activity (I should probably include all the “social sciences” here) as medieval leeches were to a science of medicine.

If it were possible for any individual, or group of individuals, to understand and predict the trajectory of the economy, the Soviet Union would now be the world’s only economic superpower, and aging Russian apparachiks would currently hold the patents on the personal computer, the Internet, and high-definition T.V. As it happens, the Russians are still building cars with carburetors.

We’ve done rather better in the West, because no particular group of financial “experts” has managed to persuade our government “planners” to meddle in any more than a few sectors of the economy at a given time, and, at that, not for very long. It is not, that is, because of, but rather for the lack of, economic expertise that we, in the free-market economies of the West, have thrived. If you don’t share my skepticism, look at the performance of those actively managed mutual funds for which investors continue to pay a hefty premium, in exchange for the assurance that smart people with advanced degrees and a sophisticated knowledge of the markets will be picking the right stocks for them, and buying and selling them at the right time. For a while in the Eighties and Nineties, I recall that some fund managers were so sycophantically feted, by the economic washed and unwashed alike, that their names became as familiar as those of celebrity chefs. Yet, if one had bothered to check, one would have discovered that seventy-five percent of such funds have traditionally failed to do as well as the Index. You’d have a better chance of making money in the market by donning a blindfold, sitting yourself down in front of a list of the S&P 500, and feelingly checking off a dozen names, than if you happened to be the godchild of Sir John Templeton.

When I say that Economics is only presumptively scientific, I don’t, of course, mean that it is irrational. In fact, we have been aware of the simple laws according to which the markets have worked since the days when men traded spices and trinkets out of carpet bags on camels. Every transaction between a buyer and a seller, when acting as free agents, is to the advantage of both. The “value” of a commodity is neither intrinsic nor arbitrary, but whatever price at which a free agent agrees to sell it, to a free agent who agrees to pay it. When supply outpaces demand, prices fall; when demand exceeds supply, they rise. Arbitrarily fix the price of a commodity lower than the market would otherwise pay for it, and no one will produce it, leading to a scarcity, and higher prices. Collude to fix it higher, and everyone and his brother will get into production, whereupon the price will fall. When the costs of certain commodities rise, consumers use them more frugally; decrease the cost by fiat, and the population will descend into profligacy. Subsidize or insure against certain risks, and people will confidently take them. Give people something for nothing, and they’ll treat it as if it were worthless.

These are the immutable laws of the market, because they are the immutable laws of human nature. Economic law is thus highly rational, which is one reason why the central planners of command economies (including our own “free” democratic welfare states) always fail so miserably to understand it. Central planners don’t particularly like human nature. They think it ought to be reformed, and they think that only they know how to reform it.

 

One needn’t go back very far in history to illustrate the obduracy of these laws, and the havoc that has been wrought by the various “compassionate” and “progressive” politicians, bureaucrats, and social engineers who have tried to circumvent or repeal them. Most recently, it was our state planners and green activists who alone failed to predict that subsidies for ethanol—already recognized as yesterday’s technology–would lead to skyrocketing prices for corn, wheat, and other grains, significantly increasing the cost of food to householders in the industrialized world, and resulting in starvation for many in the developing world.

To be sure, this sort of benevolent meddling has gone on since the birth of the modern welfare state at the beginning of the last century. But it only achieved unstoppable momentum a little over thirty years ago, when politicians began to fantasize about eliminating poverty and economic inequity by declaring “war” on them (and you thought George Bush’s project of militarily imposing democracy in the Middle East was a fool’s errand?), and creating that paradise on earth that the likes of Lyndon Johnson called “the Great Society”. The criminal follies committed by such reformers in the name of progress and social justice are too numerous to recount. Let me confine myself to a couple of examples of which even today’s Economics majors will have had some immediate experience.

In the early seventies, rents were rising in many North American cities faster and to higher levels than most renters would have liked. Being economically obtuse but very adept at counting votes, mayors and city councilors astutely calculated that there were more renters than landlords in their constituencies, and so imposed what they called rent controls (i.e., they fixed the price of housing at an artificially lower rate than the market, operating freely, would otherwise have assigned). Of course, since it was no longer profitable to build new apartments, private developers erected condominiums instead, leading to a critical scarcity of rental units. The same urban planners who then argued for rent controls are now decrying the forest of condo towers that currently block out the sky in places like Toronto and Vancouver, and lamenting the fact that the poor and working classes have been driven clean out of the city.

Around the same time as we had the “crisis in affordable housing” that led to rent controls, we also had an “energy crisis”—just one more in a series, as it turns out, of such apocalypses, of which the current “financial crisis” is the latest. The world was one fill-up away from running out the oil (it still is) to which Americans had become so wickedly addicted (they still are, as that supposed shill for Big Oil, George Dubya, has been admonishing). Something had to be done. It was then that governments at all levels in both Canada and the United States began to impose a raft of regulations upon (and offer a raft of tax breaks and subsidies to) the auto manufacturers. Cars became smaller, lighter, and more fuel efficient: not in response to the spontaneous demand of consumers, mind you, but to the central dictates of bureaucrats and environmental lobbyists with the power to incarcerate those who didn’t share their vision. Never mind. Detroit finally gave us cars that got thirty plus miles to the gallon, and who can argue with that?

Politicians and environmental lobbyists are still congratulating themselves on these “timely” and “responsible” interventions in the market–even as they continue, paradoxically, to chastise naughty Americans for their dependence upon cars and oil. Apparently, we are still depleting the earth’s oil reserves at the same alarming and unsustainable rate, in spite of our government-mandated fuel-efficient cars. But then everybody knew that this would happen, except the experts. When you make cars more fuel-efficient, you effectively reduce the price of gasoline. Drivers adjust their habits accordingly, as reason dictates, increasing the frequency, and the distances, of their trips, and burning, in the process, more or less the same quantity of fuel as they had burned in their pre-crisis gas-guzzlers. (They also die in greater numbers on the highways—not only because they are travelling more, but because the smaller, lighter cars into which they have been shoe-horned by the experts are environmentally responsible death-traps. But then saving the planet is worth the sacrifice of a few human lives.)

 

I challenge my readers to identify a single such “timely” and “responsible” government intervention that hasn’t failed as utterly to end the “crisis” for which it was prescribed, or had similarly “unintended” consequences. Such consequences are about the only thing, in fact, that is predictable about the market. To the extent that those who buy, produce, and sell within it enjoy whatever residual freedom has been left them by the leviathanic state, they will exercise it, and often in ways that are quite at odds with the utopian reveries of central planners.

Even in the nascency of the welfare state, when governments began weaving the safety nets intended to break the falls of citizens thrown from cruel Fortune’s ever-turning wheel, this principle was already well known. The insurance industry denominated it “moral hazard”, clearly recognizing in so doing that the markets function in accordance with the ethical laws of human nature. The principle was first observed at work when governments legally required the owners of real estate to purchase fire insurance. Immediately thereafter the incidence of both accidental and deliberately set fires doubled. Knowing their properties were insured against loss, owners—again, with a certain plausible rationality—gradually overcame their primordial fear of this explosive element, and became less vigilant against its catastrophic potentialities. It should have been no surprise, then, that after governments required the owners of automobiles to purchase accident insurance, drivers were involved in a much higher incidence thereof, and people were being maimed and killed on the highways in unprecedented numbers.

The moral hazards created by government safety nets are, naturally, no less hazardous than those created by private insurers. It is hardly surprising that welfare and unemployment “insurance”—paying people not to work—has led to an increase in unemployment, multi-generational dependency, and devastated lives; that, under the illusion that health care is “free”, Canadians visit their doctors for the most trivial of ailments, thereby swamping the system, and making it all but impossible to get a timely appointment for even the gravest of conditions. In every sphere of life, the welfare state is now the insurer of last resort. Why shouldn’t folks build houses on the flood-plains of the Mississippi or the sub-marine swamps of New Orleans? Even if private companies, sensibly enough, won’t insure them, they know that FEMA (i.e., the taxpayer) will quickly row to their rescue. (As the government is doing at this very moment in bailing out the sinking ships of bankers and mortgage holders who were similarly encouraged to buy and sell below financial sea-level.)

 

It’s hard to argue against these measures when the cameras of CNN are trained on the floating corpses of beloved family pets in New Orleans, or on the dusty caravans of the dispossessed leaving their humble cottages in the Arkansas hills, having been foreclosed upon by the evil Wall Street bankers. No less than CNN, politicians know the power of these Steinbeckian images, and how to mobilize support for their compassionate interventions by casually slipping into the conversation the dreaded D word.

In the case of the current financial bailout, there is the added incentive for the government of being able to abominate the capitalist classes even while making them its beneficiaries. Inevitably, the genesis of the crisis has been ascribed to the avarice and corruption of the Wall Street firms who once again enriched themselves “on the backs of the poor”. It’s the Reagan “era of greed” coming back to haunt us. We’re merely reaping the whirlwind for all those years of irrationally exuberant, unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, of de-regulation and getting government off our backs. If we’d only had a little more government, more regulation, the robber barons of Wall Street wouldn’t have gotten us into this mess in the first place. (And I’m paraphrasing Bush, McCain, and Palin, by the way.)

 

The Republicans have reflexively been accused of being the party of the rich, but this sort of class-warfare demagoguery has always leapt as naturally to their lips as it does to those of the Democrats. McCain’s descriptions of the Wall Street financial community might as well have been taken from one of Antonio’s harangues against Shylock.

The ironic truth is that it’s not pre-eminently “da liddle guy” (to quote our own former Chief Advocate of the Deserving Poor, Jean Chretien) who has an abiding interest in diabolizing “corporate America”, but the omni-wealthy state. Wherever the state, by bringing its unlimited prosecutorial resources to bear against an Enron, a World Com, or a Conrad Black, can foster the populist image of the private sector as a “corporate kleptocracy”, it is able to deflect attention from government’s vastly more depredatory regime, even while depicting itself as the champion of the people. Conrad convicted of skimming six million from his shareholders? Government leaders and functionaries waste, misappropriate, or steal more than that measly sum every minute of their working day. But how often do you hear the phrase “socialist greed”, or “government kleptocracy”, or the “robber barons of Parliament Hill”? The idea of governments–who confiscate half of our incomes every year at gun-point–protecting us against corporate greed really is rich. Almost as rich as bombarding the populace (especially the poor) with advertisements for federal and state lotteries while excoriating Wall Street financiers as “high-rollers”.

I confess that I am at a loss to understand how it is that in the popular imagination the “corporate culture” (Big Oil, Big Drugs, Big Box Retail, Big Everything, with the notable exception of Michael Moore’s or Oliver Stone’s Big Hollywood) is universally vilified, while Big Government enjoys a prima facie presumption of innocence. What could be more selfless than the government’s desire to provide school lunches for children or drugs for seniors? It is simply assumed that government interventions in the market—government activities in general–are prompted by the most altruistic and communitarian of motives. Whether they act to eliminate socio-economic inequity, relieve human misery, promote some virtuous technology, or save the planet, governments by definition seek the “common good”. Even though they are comprised of ordinary, individual human beings, once they are sworn into office or hired into the bureaucracy, the selfish gene apparently lapses into dormancy. The lust for power, wealth, and glory that disfigures ordinary human nature and the capitalist classes especially has evidently been “put off” (in the words of St. Paul) by New Governmental Man. Governments have transcended original sin.

What compounds the mystery is that wherever you go, you hear people complaining that politicians are liars and thieves, magnets for bribery and graft, monsters of self-enrichment and corruption. But, let them announce some new program to help the lame, the halt, or the fat, the victims of volcano or tidal wave, children with ADD, mothers with PMS, fathers with TMJ, and the electorate starts to believe in Santa Claus again. All their world-weary cynicism evaporates into infantile credulity.

 

The same childlike trust of the nanny state and cynical distrust of the markets has, inevitably, befogged the discussion of the current “financial crisis”. Who’s to blame? Here’s an answer to the question that practically nobody will dare to give: the principal culprits are those who defaulted on their mortgages. The good folks who, with that original advocate of the impecunious classes, Wimpy, promised, “I’ll gladly pay you next Tuesday for a hamburger today”. Those who blithely borrowed money from banks and broke the contracts they signed to pay it back; who fraudulently represented themselves as being able to pay it back, but weren’t, and didn’t.

I know it’s unfashionable to inculpate individuals so directly and specifically–especially the poor–, rather than to blame some impersonal abstraction like the “system”, or look for “root causes” (we’ll get to those in due course). But let’s try a little thought experiment to see how you might react in the situation. Imagine that an impoverished college friend comes to you asking for a loan of a thousand bucks to buy, let’s say, a used car. “I’ll pay you back in monthly installments, with modest interest, over the course of a year”. But six months go by and he’s yet to make a payment. (Meanwhile, he’s totaled the car.) You confront him, and he replies: “Look, it’s your fault. You wanted the interest, and aggressively marketed the loan. It was wrong of you to sell me a loan knowing that I didn’t have the means to repay it.”

Do you feel guilty now? This, I believe, is what most normal folks (including those within and without the Jewish banking cabal) would call chutzpah. And it is with similar audacity that, once again, the current financial crisis is being blamed on Wall Street.

It seems only decent to pause for a moment before the lynching commences to consider what the bankers of Wall Street are being accused of. The more specific charges, so far as I can understand them, are these. First, that they made imprudent loans to those without the financial wherewithal to repay them. Second, that they sold off these liabilities in elaborate Ponzi schemes, distributing tiny parcels of their otherwise unsecured risk around the globe. And, third, that they connived to get rich doing so

Certainly, offering mortgages without requiring a downpayment from under- or unemployed borrowers was stupid. (Of course, if government had resisted the temptation to cure the malady, the banks would have been justly punished by the markets for their stupidity.) But re-packaging and dispersing the risk was about the only prudent thing Wall Street could have done. Financiers have been doing that sort of thing since Lloyd’s of London first insured tobacco and rum against catastrophic loss at sea.

That the bankers hoped to make money from these schemes is the perennial and fundamental indictment of capitalist America. It’s not just that entrepreneurs and their financial backers expect to earn a profit; the besetting sin of capitalism is evidently in wanting to make as Big a profit as possible. Capitalists want to make “windfall” profits. Imagine that. Windfall profits. No ordinary, socially responsible, liddle guy would ever wish for such a thing for himself. That’s why whenever liddle guys win the lottery they refuse to cash in their tickets; why union leaders don’t try to negotiate as Big an increase in pay for their socially responsible members as possible; and, why, whenever their bosses offer to double their salaries, employees always just say no.

 

With the financial meltdown, we now enter the latest chapter in the Manichaean mythology of the cosmic clash between corporate America’s armies of greed and the public sector’s soldiers of mercy.

Since the seventies, practically every politician who has run for office at practically every level of government in the United States has intoned some version of these words: “I want to make the dream of home ownership a reality for every American.” And they have.

Does anyone remember the campaigns of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, et. al., vilifying the major banks as bastions of white old boy racism for refusing to “serve the needs” of the residents of the Black inner cities? Thanks to their racial huckstering, and the egalitarian arm-twisting of governments, banks have now been shamed into opening unprofitable branches in depressed underclass neighbourhoods throughout America.

Home ownership, like medical care, legal care, jobs, food, and clothing is just the latest of those desiderata to be advertised by the compassionate classes as a universal human right. (The working definition of a “universal human right” is anything that you want but can’t afford, and that your altruistic government will force others to purchase on your behalf.)

In pursuit of our politicians’ populist dreams, banks have been strongly encouraged not only to open in dubious locations, but (as part of aggressive government “outreach” programs in which their products were marketed amongst the poor and financially under-served), to offer sub-prime and variable rate mortgages to borrowers who had neither the equity nor the income to pay them off—self-interested borrowers, that is, who were hoping to profit from cheap loans. Not only was the risky behaviour of the banks morally enjoined by governments who urged them to be “good corporate citizens” and all that, but it was tacitly underwritten by them. Having been exhorted to take a chance on the deserving poor, the banks assumed, with plausible rationality once again, that those public sector lenders of last resort, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, or some other governmental agency, would rescue them if their creditors defaulted. And who can say that they miscalculated?

A few days ago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died at the age of eighty-nine of heart failure. Such was Solzhensityn’s greatness–as a writer but more importantly as a single human being who, by sheer force of character, changed the course of history–that newspapers and jounals around the world are still running tributes to his life. This will not be one of them.

What follows is the text of a lecture I have given in an undergraduate literature course by way of introduction to the reading of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Since it is the primary duty of a teacher to make his students aware of things of which they are not aware but urgently should be, my lecture touches only briefly on Solzhenitsyn’s life and work. It focuses, instead, on the monstrous historical aberration of which Solzhensityn was both victim and redeemer. It is a remarkable fact that young people of university age know almost nothing of the Communist Holocaust that blighted seven decades of the last century. It is a more remarkable fact that even as the mountains of corpses and rivers of blood were still rising above the Communist Killing Fields, Western liberals denied their existence. Here in the West, Solzhensitysn’s cries from the wilderness mostly fell on deaf or scornful ears. To this extent, his life’s work was (and still is) a failure. But to those who heard him, both inside and outside the walls of the Soviet prison, his words were electrifying. It may or may not be that Solzhenitsyn and the dissident movements he inspirited played a material role in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. But there can be no doubt that he invested with dignity and meaning the broken lives of all who laboured in the Gulag or groaned under the Communist heel, and kept alive the flickering flame of anti-communism whilst its keepers were being ridiculed and vilified by the liberal establishment.

*****

   I’ve said that one of the salient themes of Western literature and thought is the patient acceptance of suffering and adversity. I remember that some time early in the term a few of you, rather cynically, I thought, dismissed this perennial Western philosophical attitude as the advice of a privileged male elite. I pointed out at the time, as I recall, that the counsel to endure hardship and injustice with equanimity hardly emanated from the power structure: I reminded you that Boethius was a political prisoner, that Socrates and Jesus had been sentenced to death by the state, that Dante wrote his greatest works while in exile.

Since then, we have read Milton, who like Homer, penned his epiphanic verses in spite of his physical blindness, and Moliere, whose Misanthrope (which, while comedy, demonstrates the tragic folly of railing against earthly injustice and vice) was written by a man who was twice sent to debtors’ prison because he could not meet the payroll of his theatre troupe. But Moliere did not complain that there was not enough government funding of the arts, any more than Milton complained that there were no social programs to lessen the burden of his handicap.

The patient acceptance of adversity and injustice as a condition of life in this world is, I need hardly say, the central theme of the novel you have just read. Ivan Denisovitch not only doesn’t complain, not only stoically endures, but under the most barbaric and inhumanly cruel of circumstances, he manages to achieve what few of us who live in a world of freedom and ease have ever achieved: to take pride in the work of his hands, to assert unfailingly the dignity of the human person, and even to be happy.

Ivan Denisovitch is one of the millions of those who, either because of some minor breach of Marxist ideological orthodoxy, or for no reason at all, were sent to work, and usually to die, in what Solzhenitsyn called the Gulag Archipelago, that vast network of labour camps that stretched across the Soviet Union during the seventy odd years in which international Communism ravaged the globe.

I do not have time to retail the sordid history of Communism here; let me say only–and I say this without qualification, and I say it knowing that lingering illusions about it, especially in the academy, have utterly blinded the most sophisticated intellectuals to the stark truth of the matter and continue to inspire excuses and prettifications to this day–nonetheless, let me say that Communism has been, and is, transcendently, the most corrupt, despotic, and depraved ideology ever minted in the long history of human evil.

By conservative estimates, between 100 and 150 million people were either executed, deliberately starved, worked to death in labour camps, or killed in psychiatric hospitals, for the crime, as I say, of failing to believe fervently enough in the truth of Marxist doctrine. And I must point out, these 150 millions were not the European colonial “hegemonists” or Yankee running dogs of capitalism who in their selfish desire to preserve their own power and privilege opposed the great spontaneous, global Marxist uprisings of the downtrodden proletariat. These 150 million corpses were the citizens of the Communist regimes that promised to liberate their subjects from capitalist injustice and oppression.

As it happens, every form of political oppression and injustice throughout history (the suffering of the Jews under the Pharaohs or the Nazis, of Christian heretics during the Inquisition, of Native peoples at the hands of the Conquistadores, of African slaves under their European and American taskmasters)–all of these episodes of inhumanity and genocidal evil merely pale by comparison to what the very citizens of Communist countries endured for seven decades under the yoke of their presumptive saviours

A rough breakdown of the numbers suggests the unprecedent global scale (no part of this vast earth escaped it) of the Communist Holocaust. Under Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev, about 50 million Russians were exterminated for suspected counter-revolutionary opinions or activities; to Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, about 75 million Chinese were sacrificed; following Moscow’s post-war colonization of east Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, another five million citizens of these Eastern European nations were liquidated, including the thousand odd souls who were shot in the back by Communist guards as they tried to flee to freedom over the Berlin Wall.

Following the surrender of Vietnam to the Communists in the North, about a million Vietnamese died, most by drowning in the South China Sea as they tried to flee their national liberators in leaky boats. (Theirs is some of the blood that the anti-Vietnam War movement has on its hands). In Cambodia, another million and a half were either executed by the Khmer Rouge for the crime of being propertied, educated, or old, or perished in the re-education camps. In North Korea, the number of political dissidents who have “disappeared” is another million, and counting. In Afghanistan, upwards of a million Muslims were felled by Soviet bullets. Marxist liberation movements in Africa–in Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, particularly–have claimed another half million souls. In Cuba, under the charismatic Fidel, tens of thousands have vanished into the Caribbean Gulag, in which many still languish for such crimes as homosexuality, and a million, one-sixth of that tiny nation’s population, have fled their beloved leader’s brand of benevolent socialism for the oppressive, decadent, and imperialistic United States.

Of course, there has been in all of history no more blatantly imperialistic ideology, no farther-reaching colonial power, than Communism, which still maintains outposts on every inhabited continent. And though in the West we have generally bought the Soviet line that these far-flung Communist regimes have arisen as the result of spontaneous, indigenous national liberation movements, every one of them has been financed by Moscow or established by the might of the invading Russian army. And every one has, usually sooner rather than later, gotten round to the main Communist business of oppressing its own population.

As Solzhenitsyn has lamented, the response of the world to all this has been a deafening silence. During the long history of Communist depradation, the Western intellectual elite and political establishment have demonstrated either a naive innocence about, or a wilful complicity in its monstrous crimes.

In every generation in the West, right-thinking, progressive-minded writers, artists, Hollywood starlets, presidents and prime ministers have stepped forward to deny that any such atrocities could have been committed by Lenin or Stalin or Mao or Fidel or Robert Mugabe, or whichever of the totalitarian butchers was currently being held up as the next great hope for the future of humankind. After each successive Marxist leader was inexorably and undeniably revealed to be the despot that he was, these great Western beacons of enlightenment simply fastened onto a new one, who they assured us would finally reveal socialism’s human face. And every time the face of socialism was exposed to be just as murderous and repressive as it always had been, Western true-believers fell back on the same arguments: the socialist ideal of Marx and Lenin was corrupted by Stalin; or true Communism has never yet been tried.

But, as Solzhenitsyn has demonstrated throughout his works, Stalin’s Communism was no different from Marx’s or Lenin’s. It wasn’t Stalin who invented the secret police or the happy stroke of imprisoning political dissidents; the vast network of the Gulag was already in full operation under Lenin. And the use of terror as a means of enforcing the ideological purity and safeguarding the progress of the Revolution had been justified in Lenin’s writings and implemented from the moment the Bolsheviks seized power. Lenin himself had found its justification in the socialist tracts of Marx and Engels.

What has evidently never occurred to many Western fellow travellers is that the reason the Communist “ideal”, as they call it, is always and inevitably corrupted, is because Communism is essentially and inalienably corrupt; it is the ideology itself that is evil, so evil, in fact, that it cannot evidently exist in the absence of totalitarian repression.

Other Western leftists have been less sentimental: believing in the righteousness of the class war, and in the inherent malevolence of those who own property or wealth, like the organizers of the Terror after the French Revolution, they have justified the wholesale slaughter of the high-born and bourgeois classes, or the merely ideologically defective, on the grounds that social progress warrants it.

Then, too, there have been the eternally optimistic Western advocates of peace, diplomacy, and détente. Just stop opposing the Soviets and making them feel threatened—so they have said, even as the Soviet army was marching into country after country–and all will be well. Just unilaterally disarm, notwithstanding that the Soviet Union was spending more than a third of its GNP on armaments, even as they were unable to feed their own people. Just sign another peace treaty, they advised, often immediately after the Soviets had broken the last one. Just send them more humanitarian aid and technological know-how, even though the aid invariably went to enhance the upper class life-style of the Communist party bosses and never reached the people, and the technology was used to develop the missiles that were pointed at Western cities. Just sponsor a few more cultural exchanges, a few more visits from the Moscow Circus or the Bolshoi Ballet, and the Soviet lion will lie down with the Western lamb.

We did all of these things, of course, and the Soviets continued to build up their military, to ingest nation after nation, and to imprison and torture the presumptive beneficiaries of their various national “liberation” movements.

It was only after the West reversed course following decades of appeasement, only after some in the West, that is, mustered the will to defy the peace activists and believers in moral equivalence, and call Communism what it was, an Evil Empire, and only after renewed spending on American armaments finally beggared the innately flawed socialist economy of the Soviet Union, that it collapsed under its own weight.

And yet, even with the fall of the Soviet Union and the unambiguous revelation of its crimes against humanity, there has been no general moral accounting for this barbarous episode in human history. Not one of the butchers who murdered in excess of 100 million people has been indicted before an international human rights tribunal, such as we had in Nuremberg after the Nazi Holocaust, and have even today in the Hague where the relatively modest crimes of the Serbs are being avidly prosecuted.

There are no Holocaust Museums to commemorate the victims of Communism, no Schindler’s Lists or other Hollywood blockbusters. It is curious at the least to note that not one of those who made careers, as journalists, politicians, writers, or academics of denying that Lenin or Mao or Fidel incarcerated and exterminated millions of political enemies has today lost his job, or borne the moral stigma of being a “Holocaust denier”, or even been asked to apologize for his vicious stupidity. On the contrary, most are still ensconced in positions of authority and influence: still writing for the New York Times or the Toronto Star, or appearing on CNN or CBC, or making movies in Hollywood. Can anyone imagine that a former Nazi propagandist would benefit from that sort of moral amnesia?

All of this Solzhenitsyn has written about extensively: in his many novels, historical works, essays, speeches, and poems. And he has written from direct experience. In 1945, as a 27 year-old Russian artillery officer, while on the German front lines, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by the Soviet secret police for having made disrespectful remarks about Stalin in a letter to a friend. For this offence, he spent eight years in Siberian labor camps and three years in exile.

During that time, like his protagonist Ivan Denisovitch, he survived hunger, cold, beatings, stints in isolation, and stomach cancer. But what Solzhensitsyn could not have imagined while in prison was that the greatest insult he would suffer would be at the hands of the Western political, cultural, and academic elite who would refuse to believe the truth of what he had witnessed with his eyes and suffered in his flesh.

To go on telling that truth in the face of universal ridicule and opprobrium is, it seems to me, the highest test of human integrity and courage, and it is for this reason that I consider Solzhenitsyn one of the genuine heroes of Western Civilization.

 

It’s been three days now, and the Beijing Olympics seem to be coming off magnificently, proving once again that if you need to organize hundreds of thousands of zeks in the construction of the eighth wonder of the world, then totalitarianism is your system. When you think about building a modern Olympic facility, think the Pyramids, the Tower of Babel, the great Persian palaces at Persepolis and Susa, the hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Theater at Epidaurus, the Hippodrome, the Colisseum; and you’ve still got to build venues for kayaking, synchronized swimming, and beach volleyball.

All of the stadia, gymnasia, swimming pools, tracks, courts, rings, bicycle trails, artificial lakes and rivers, water courses with man-made rapids, and land-locked beaches that have been fabricated for the Beijing Olympics, though of no lasting utility, are worthy monuments to those two most noble classes of humanity to which they have been raised: politicians and professional athletes. Perhaps I should not mention them together, lest the politicians take offence. But both the national leaders who mount the games and the athletes who compete in them have one thing above all in common: they are motivated by the purest patriotism. It is for the glory of their respective countries that they have lobbied and taxed and trained so hard.

You can see it on the athletes’ faces, especially, when they parade into the Olympic Stadium behind their country’s flag. You can see it in the dignity with which they lolligag, chew their gum, and snap photos of each other and the adoring crowd.

But for the most ardent patriotism, the gold medal goes to the CBC. Watching its coverage, I’ve learned that though CANADA has entered no team, a CANADIAN company was responsible for trucking in the sand (to a depth of eighteen inches!) that covers the floor of the beach volleyball court! I’ve been able to watch a CANADIAN wrestler come in 69th in his heat, and a CANADIAN kayaker place 73rd. I’ve thrilled to moving background interviews with dozens of CANADIAN athletes, as well as their coaches, trainers, equipment managers, mothers, boyhood and girlhood friends, chiropractors, and kindergarten teachers. And just in case I am in the wine cellar, say, during the CBC’s coverage of the splendid performance of the CANADIAN entrant in the underwater skateboarding competition, I can relax, knowing that every hour or so the CBC will run a segment called THE CANADIAN TRAIL that gives me up-to-the-minute news of the glorious feats of Team CANADA in these Chinese-CANADIAN Games

Many thanks to the CBC for sparing me the agony of watching the Olympics on American network T.V. American sports commentators (like Americans in general) are such flag-waving jingoists that they brazenly televise only the events in which American athletes participate, and ignore the rest of the world. CANADA especially.

 

   I know that one is not supposed to be flippant about a tragedy; nor does it make sense to talk about “motivation” in the case of a gruesome murder and mutilation of an innocent bysitter by an obviously deranged psychopath. But what the hell; somebody has to come to a deranged psychopath’s defence. Fact: The victim was murdered while asleep in his seat. Fact: The victim was young, in his early twenties, and eulogized at his funeral as a “way fun guy”, a guy who “knew how to have a good time” and “loved to party”. Speculation: What does it say about a man’s life and character when this is the best his friends can come up with at his funeral? Fact: Most young people, especially those who “love to party”, like their music loud. Fact: The victim had fallen asleep still wearing his headphones. Fact: The perpetrator not only stabbed the victim to death but made a special point of decapitating him. Inference: His music was loud. The perpetrator had asked the victim to turn it down but got no response. So he cut the wires. Policy recommendation: Forget hand guns. Ban Ipods.

 

Progressives applaud themselves for many things, but none more enthusiastically than the fact that we no longer burn heretics at the stake—or even entertain such false dichotomies as orthodoxy and heresy. We are beyond them (as we are beyond right and wrong); and what we are beyond we are entitled to despise. That is why as a society we are so instinctively repelled by fundamentalist religion, whether in its Christian or Muslim guise. Leave aside for the moment that Christians of any denomination no longer persecute or even notice heretics, while militant Islam seems obsessed with them. These are quibbles. It is the idea of heresy and orthodoxy that we repudiate.

But here as so often the complacent modern deludes himself, unaware that the atavism he thinks he has put away has merely recrudesced in a novel form. This is veritably a psychological law. Today, the most zealous anti-racists are also enthusiastic proponents of affirmative action, which, being state-sponsored and coerced, is the most “systemic” form of racism imaginable. In the late nineteenth century, Marxist theorists announced that mankind had transcended religion, and in the twentieth, the socialist utopias founded on such brave new principles revived the heresy tribunals of the Inquisition. In show trials all across the communist world, millions of citizens suspected of harboring the slightest doubts about Marxist orthodoxy were forced to issue public confessions and recantations, before being sent off to the Gulag for their moral and ideological rehabilitation. Concomitantly, the leaders of these officially atheist workers’ paradises demanded such unquestioning and reverential obedience from their subjects as had not seen since the days of the Pharaohs. (Come to think of it, the Pharaohs merely claimed to be the sons of Amon-Re, whereas the dictators of North Korea continue to insist on being venerated as the Supreme Father.) It is a fantasy to think that the human race is “beyond” anything. As Jung has observed, everything that is primitive and embarrassing to us merely gets consigned to the shadow side, where it ceases to offend our sight, but thereby wreaks unlimited moral and psychological havoc for being unconscious.

This is true above all of what Jung has called the “religious function of the psyche”, an innate and indelible endowment of the human person that is wholly autonomous of officially codified creeds or rituals. As a political movement, nation, or civilization, we may well “transcend” religion, but the religious function of the psyche is hardly repealed thereby. It merely finds other channels through which to assert itself.

Today, with the exhaustion of faith in traditional religious postulates, all the urgency and fervour that had formerly attached to them has duly spilled over, like so much surplus energy, into the “non-religious” realm. And while organized religion is officially debarred from the public square, religious passions and certitudes strictly regulate every nuance of public discourse.

The indispensable term “political correctness” describes the situation nicely; but what it describes is an attitude that is not political in the least, but primordially religious: the reflexive disposition toward virtually every opinion on every question of the day as either orthodox or heterodox, motivated by pious devotion to the “correct” cause, or stiff-necked infidelity.

Secular modernity is awash in orthodoxies and heresies, and it is a wonder that they don’t stink in our post-religious nostrils. Point out that there is a correlation between the spread of AIDS and the peculiar modality of homosexual “sex”; observe that abortion in the majority of cases is a form of birth control for those who wish to enjoy the convenience of extra-marital congress without the inconvenient byproducts; suggest that the “wage-gap” is the effect, not of discrimination, but of biological and psychological differences between the genders; argue that immigrants ought to accommodate their cultures to that of the native population rather than the other way around; question the wisdom of rewarding people with cash for choosing not to work; ask whether global warming is in fact man-made, and you might as well have poked fun at the Law before the Sanhedrin.

Such opinions are affronts to today’s regnant dogmas (environmentalism, multiculturalism, “gender equity”, and so on). And as dogmas, of course, there is no more need to demonstrate their veracity or reasonableness than there is for believers to demonstrate the rationality of the Resurrection or Virgin Birth.

For the sake of illustration, I’ll have to confine myself to a single current example. (It would take a book to document the phenomenon adequately. Indeed, dozens of such books have been published, but apparently without effect.)

In the past year, on campuses across the country, a number of pro-life organizations have been denied club status and funding by their student governments. The justification offered by one Gilary Massa, vice-president of the York University Federation of Students, is instructive. Student clubs will be free to discuss abortion in student space, so long as they do so “within a pro-choice realm”. Ultimately, “you have to recognize that a woman has a choice over her own body”. This is not, as Ms. Massa stipulates, “an issue of freedom of speech”. “No, this is an issue of women’s rights.”

There it is. Freedom to discuss the issue so long as it’s within the bounds of pro-choice orthodoxy (“within a pro-choice realm”). But why discuss it? What is there to discuss, within the “realm” that Ms. Massa defines as permissible?

It obviously doesn’t trouble Ms. Massa that many Canadians do want to have a discussion, inasmuch as 70% of us have consistently called for at least some restrictions on abortion. But I prefer not to get into the argument here (on this Ms. Massa and I agree). I’m more interested in the peculiar psychology of pro-choice orthodoxy that can apparently confer upon its evangelists the repose of certainty in the midst of a raging controversy.

For them, a “woman’s right to choose” is a revealed truth, beyond the “realm” of rational human investigation. There is no point in inquiring into it, anymore than there is in inquiring into the nature of the Divine, which, as Plato remarks in the Timaeus, is “beyond knowing or expressing”. The absolute right to abortion is an inscrutable mystery. For feminists, it is the magnum mysterium (with apologies to Christianity); and those who raise questions about its truth or moral rectitude are trespassing on sacred ground.

Ms. Massa’s views are reflective of a generalized exaltation of human “rights” to metaphysical status. Calling something a “right” (the “right” to an education, to medical care, to a “living” wage, to same-sex “marriage”, and, of course, the ubiquitous right not to be offended) confers upon it a kind of magical potency, which is one reason why utterly novel “rights” like a woman’s over her own body have been breeding like flies lately.

But let us grant, for the sake of argument—not that Ms. Massa would be open to argument–that there is a “right to choose”, even if no Canadian Parliament has enacted it, and not even Canada’s activist Supreme Court has recognized it.

In non-totalitarian states, citizens possess many “rights”, but none of them comes with the included right to immunity from criticism. Rights don’t have rights and never have had—not even the traditional ones that have been on the books since Magna Carta. We have long had the right to private property, but that does not prohibit socialists from inveighing against it, and advocating its abolition. Even in the nineteenth century, when Americans enjoyed the right to own slaves, emancipationists were at perfect liberty to call the legal practice pernicious. Presumably, even Ms. Massa would have been happy about the evanescence of that right. No right is insulated from rational judgment. Only eternal laws handed down from on high lay claim to the privilege of sacrosanctity.

It’s not merely, therefore, that Ms. Massa and her co-religionists have decreed that, at York and other universities, opposition must be crushed and non-conforming points of view silenced. On campus, this is nothing new. By now we all know that universities, once sanctuaries of free thought and untrammeled debate, have of late become Zimbabwe’s without the violence. Universities proudly merchandise themselves as perfect little jewels of diversity–by which their administrators mean diversity of race, country of origin, religion, and “sexual orientation”, but absolute uniformity of thought.

In the academy, this is more or less an open secret. Students know that if they submit essays propounding views that go beyond the “realm” of acceptable opinion, they can expect a poor grade. For the sake of self-preservation, they learn, like all political and religious dissidents, to suppress their own doubts, and observe the proprieties. Professors know that if they fail to do the same in the classroom, their students might denounce them as racists, sexists, fascists, homophobes, Islamophobes, Euro-centrists, or anti-choice bigots, in their end-of-year course evaluations, which can spell the end of their careers. So professors, too, sensibly reduce the risks by staying within the “realm” of acceptable opinion. It’s a tacit, mutual undertaking to dissemble, such as one often finds in totalitarian societies. And it works. Which is not to say that in the academy there aren’t the usual disciplinary committees and tribunals charged with enforcing adherence to “speech codes” and the like, and censuring those who violate them. But there is little need for them, when the system of self-repression functions so efficiently.

Of course, the university is not the only theocratic institution in our officially secular world; only the most suffocating one. The same “smelly little orthodoxies” (to recall Orwell’s pungent phrase) delineate the bounds of speech, thought, and action in most departments of modern life: in the workplace, the news media, the legislature, the literary and arts community. Go beyond the “realm” of orthodox opinion in any of these contexts, and you might well end up before one of Canada’s busy human rights tribunals.

One is grateful, certainly, that such tribunals do not have the authority to burn heretics at the stake; merely to get them dismissed from their jobs, fine them, imprison them, or deport them, while sullying their reputations, forcing them to issue spurious but nonetheless humiliating apologies, to surrender their presses to their ideological opponents, or open their private reception halls for the sport of those who offend their most deeply held moral convictions.

But then I thought we were “beyond” all that.

 

 

While driving up the DVP the other day, the words “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR” loomed ahead, spray-painted in capital letters on the side of an overpass. Normally, it’s hard to read these revelations from on high while approaching at highway speeds; but that’s rarely a problem on the Parkway.

Let it be known that I too consider it better to make love than war. Had I been president of the U.S. at the time, I would have put aside my old-fashioned prejudice in favour of the opposite sex and proposed the idea to Brezhnev, had I thought it would end the Cold War. But Brezhnev, I fear, would have rebuffed my advances.

It’s nice, in any case, to see that the Iraq War has re-energized the Peace Movement. The collapse of communism left the Movement wholly dispirited, it seems. The fact that the proximate cause of the peaceful implosion of the Soviet Empire was Reagan’s relentless military build-up rather than the West’s unilateral disarmament must have been particularly irksome to the world’s amorous pacifists. Shortly thereafter, not even NATO’s unprovoked invasion of Yugoslavia succeeded in mobilizing them.

Why are the Movement faithful finally dusting off their placards and agitating their spray cans once again? A hypothesis: The overthrow of little Serbia by NATO’s armed might was intended to save a Bosnian Muslim plurality from genocide at the hands of a Christian minority. The invasion of Iraq was intended to save a Muslim majority from genocide by a Muslim minority. If one Islamic sect sets about to ethnically cleanse another, it’s one thing, but if Christians try it, that’s too much for the multicultural community to bear. Clinton’s war against Serbia was a “humanitarian intervention”, as it was called; Bush’s war against the Sunni tyranny is “an occupation”.

I regard the war in Iraq as a calamitous mistake, by the way. (No less calamitous than America’s uncritical advocacy of Israel, for what it’s worth.) But the rhetoric of the Peace Movement is so puerile that no thinking adult would have anything to do with it. Unlike the fellow travelers of the Movement, thinking people don’t wish to be judged stupid by association.

As I see it, any organization that invites its members to congregate en masse to shout slogans or sing folk songs probably can’t manage the intellectual depths of a problem as intractable as man’s inhumanity to man. Hard critical thinking is not encouraged in mobs. The very purpose of convening one is to induce individuals to surrender their independence of mind to its collective tyranny. Nor does it make much difference whether the mob is chanting “Kill the Negro” or “Make the Rich Pay”, “Zieg Heil ” or “Give Peace a Chance”: its median intelligence quotient still languishes in the bottom quartile.

 

Listening to the arguments in support of same-sex “marriage” is a bit like reading some of my undergraduates’ essays. When undergraduates write, they use words with no apparent connection to their established meanings. No doubt their high school teachers assured them that obedience to convention in this regard would only inhibit their creativity, and so for them, a word signifies whatever happens at the time to suit their convenience. Here are a couple of examples that I can remember, from a sample (trust me) of several hundred: “Achilles defected Hector and drudged his anatomy behind his car nine times throughout the walls of Troy”; “During the French Revolution, a large amount of acrobats were incapacitated by the guillotine.” George Bush, call you office.

At least when undergraduates mutilate the language, they do so unintentionally, out of ignorance, laziness, or genuine heartfelt indifference. When the same-sex crowd expediently re-defines marriage, it’s out of pure cynicism. They intend not only to change the definition of the institution, but to mock the old one at the same time.

In this regard, they stand in a long and hallowed tradition. The example that leaps to mind is Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. These days, the Wife is a prophetess and role model of modern feminism, a sort of feminist avant le mot. But for Chaucer, who was unfortunately born too early to have enlisted in the women’s liberation movement, Dame Alisoun was simply a moral exemplum of the sins of mendacity and hypocrisy. (Besides, feminism would have been too easy for Chaucer to make fun of.)

The Wife is so steadfast and enthusiastic a supporter of marriage that she has entered into its sacred estate five times, having driven most of her husbands to an early grave. To one of the five she became engaged during a liaison at her previous husband’s funeral; she met the last on a pilgrimage to Santiago, while her penultimate was out of town on business. Her pious reason for joining the holy road to Canterbury is to find a sixth.

The good Wife confesses unashamedly—proudly proclaims, rather–that for her the purpose of marriage is 1. to satisfy her voracious sexual appetite; 2. to satisfy her equally voracious lust for power, which she lords sadistically over her subservient husbands, mainly by threatening to withhold her “belle chose” if they fail to comply with her demands; and 3. to fleece them of their wealth. Naturally, this means picking and choosing amongst the more conventional interpretations of marriage.

The text from Scripture of which she is most fond is the injunction to “be fruitful and multiply”, although, as she notes, it’s the “pleasure of engendering” that appeals to her rather more than the fruit. She knows that St. Paul urges widows to remain celibate, but Paul is speaking to the “perfect”–and she is not perfect. Besides, the Lord calls His flock in many different ways; virginity happens not to be her particular calling. She knows too that Christ’s attendance at the Marriage at Cana and His admonition to the Samaritan Woman at the Well have been universally interpreted to mean that a husband should have one wife and a wife one husband. But Dame Alisoun has never really understood the Lord’s preaching in these instances; His words are ambiguous, at best.

The Wife is a skillful biblical exegete–like many another in Chaucer’s time who manipulated, distorted, and selectively adduced scriptural texts to suit their own moral convenience. The Wife pursued what was in the Christian Middle Ages an “alternative lifestyle”, and would have preferred that the traditional definition of marriage recognize and accommodate it. No less desirous of societal approbation, today’s partisans of same-sex “marriage” seek it likewise through “exegesis”. Had he been alive today, Chaucer would surely have written Husband of the Bathhouse instead of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. But at least when the Wife deliberately misinterprets tradition, she does so with a twinkle in her eye. The same-sex “marriage” crowd, on the other hand, do so with high solemnity, and grave talk about discrimination and human rights, wanting us to believe that they believe that marriage does not mean what it has always meant, namely, the union of a man and a woman.

The problem with self-serving definitions is that their logical momentum is unstoppable. If a thing can become something other than it is defined to be by convention, it can become anything other than it is defined to be by convention. If two men (or women) can be “married”, because they love, care for, and are committed to each other, then there can be no rational impediment to extending marital status to those whose alternative lifestyles follow slightly different but similar trajectories. Why not two spinster sisters, or bachelor brothers? Why not a devoted unmarried daughter and her widowed mother? Why not two lifelong friends? Take the potential for biological offspring out of the equation–as you must with homosexual “couples”—and there’s no arguable reason why these other, equally loving, equally committed, and equally abiding relationships shouldn’t qualify for the legal benefits and social prestige of the married estate. Oh wait, you say there is sex involved in same-sex relations. Yes, there is sexual titillation, I suppose, but the “sex” is fatally unproductive. Do we really want to make fruitless arousal a sufficient condition of marriage? You go there if you wish, but first imagine the scenarios.

Let me make it clear, then: I don’t oppose same sex “marriage” because of the dire consequences it portends for a foundational human institution; I oppose it because it is a semantic shell-game. I’m well aware that the institution of marriage itself has been road-kill for almost forty years, having been run over repeatedly by the steamroller of progress and bent as far out of shape as Wile E. Coyote after an encounter with a freight train.

In the seventies, the liberalization of our divorce laws made terminating a marriage contract easier than getting out of an auto lease; and so the essence of the thing—the idea of a covenant unto death–was utterly abrogated. The free-love revolution of the sixties had already removed the stigma from extra-marital sex, which in due course became the norm—there to be enjoyed without the need for the community’s official imprimatur, not to mention the inconvenience of paying a mortgage, taking out the garbage, and coming home at a reasonable hour from a night out with the boys. Besides, when universal access to contraception severed the nexus between coital pleasure and offspring, the only potential drawback to a career in extra-marital relations was eliminated. And even the official blessing could be had for nothing, once the state decided to confer equal rights and privileges upon “common law” couples.

These progressive measures had the inevitable effect of dismembering marriage piece by piece, but no one had yet hit upon the ingenious strategy of changing its fundamental meaning. In re-defining marriage to suit their political convenience, homosexual activists, like Chaucer’s Wife and my undergraduate essay writers, have declared themselves liberated from the despotism of words.

I’m not entirely certain what the current definition is, but let us say that according to it marriage is now a loving relationship between two adult members of the species homo sapiens. Never mind that since time immemorial, in almost all civilized cultures throughout the world, it has been regarded as self-evident that, whatever form it takes, marriage at least requires the collaboration of a man and a woman. Now, apparently, the self-evident must be stated, and even publicly demonstrated. When this happens, an institution has become irredeemably moribund, and when it happens to so central an institution as marriage, one’s civilization is in the terminal stages of its protracted illness.

I am, of course, aware that all human institutions “evolve”, as the advocates of same-sex “marriage” have so impatiently reminded the anthropologically illiterate (i.e., all the rest of us). But change in core institutions is normally a slow and incremental process, occurring over centuries and sometimes millennia, fecundated by widespread discontentment, and only finally reified when consensus reaches critical mass. In the history of the West, the evolution from monarchy to oligarchy to democracy took well nigh five millennia. The reduction by half in the sum of genders legally required to constitute a marriage has taken under two years. Nor was this halving of the connubial equation the long foreseen result of seething popular indignation. Even after a relentless campaign of government propaganda to the effect that same-sex “marriage” is a fait accompli, the majority of Canadians still oppose it. Little wonder, since it was pushed through by a tiny cadre of homosexual activists, who represent a small minority of homosexuals, who themselves constitute less than one per cent of the population. Never before in the history of representative democracy has so overwhelming a majority been overruled by so underwhelming a minority.

But “evolution” is in any case no argument. The historical fact that human institutions change does not mean that change is always ameliorative, let alone that it ought to be celebrated for its own sake.

Since the sixties, “change” has been a word of mana (as the Cambridge anthropologists used to describe the magical potency with which certain fetishes or formulas were charged in primitive societies). But for the greater part of the history of human thought, change (“mutability”, as the philosophers call it) has been a symptom of defectiveness and fallibility. In observing variations in the legal codes of different states, the Stoics regarded all local laws as imperfect approximations of the one universal and unchanging Law of Nature. In observing the baffling diversity of political constitutions and their alteration from age to age, they regarded them as imperfect approximations of the eternal Government of the Cosmopolis. The Cosmopolis, ruled by the divine Reason in perfect conformity with Nature, was for them the fixed ideal against which the transient legal codes, moral fashions, social customs, religious ceremonies, and socio-political institutions of all earthly polities were to be judged, and inevitably found wanting. For the Stoics, Reason and Nature were bulwarks against the irrational tyranny of the actual. Today, contingent actuality has been restored to its pre-philosophical eminence. It is a mark of the modern that the ontological hierarchy has now been turned, as Chaucer liked to say, “upsodoun”.

And yet, while we no longer credit Reason or Nature as transcendent entities, we can’t help but appeal to them whenever there is a disagreement over right or wrong. We argue about the “reason” for government (to redistribute wealth, or to guarantee equal justice and opportunity for all?); we proclaim the “nature” of man himself (innately endowed with inalienable rights and liberties–wherefore the institution of slavery was wrong). And so too do we have every justification and duty to ask, What is the “Reason” and “Nature” of marriage?

To this question, the proponents of same-sex “marriage” have as yet offered no response—other than, that is, that the reason for the institution of marriage is to extend Charter “rights” to political minorities, or to accommodate itself to the most current of our changing moral fashions. But the first “reason” is purely extrinsic to marriage itself, and the second would have made our old sages laugh. If an institution has a “nature” (i.e., an intrinsic meaning), it is up to us, and our inconstant moral codes, to accommodate it, and not the other way around.

It is easy to see why the question has had to be evaded: the traditional answer to it is too compelling. As everyone knows, the natural raison d’etre of marriage is the engendering of offspring–on which the perpetuation of the species depends–, and their upbringing in the most stable and salubrious environment possible. Alas, in the matter of the perpetuation of the species, Nature has not been kind to homosexuals. They are uniquely unqualified for it. Certainly, they can resort to heroic (unnatural) methods to repair this deficiency—borrowing some sperm here, renting a womb there, as the case may be. But why on earth would the state want to consecrate and encourage such an arrangement?

For well over a century, we have been painfully aware of the psychological and social injuries suffered by young children growing up without fathers or mothers. Nor can the doubling of one conceivably compensate for the absence of the other. Every new-born child is the recipient of male and female psychic inheritances, whose successful integration into the human personality depends upon the nurturing of parents of both genders.

The adolescent anxieties and psycho-pathologies incubated in motherless or fatherless circumstances are already familiar enough from our experience with the children of divorce, and those who, having been conceived out-of-wedlock, are raised by single parents, or consigned to foster homes or state orphanages. As social progressives invariably remind us (when it advances their political agenda), growing up in a broken home is the single most reliable predictor of failure and misery in every aspect and phase of life. It is a consistent factor in higher than average incidences of school drop-outs, of juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, marital breakdown, mental illness, poverty, and incarceration.

These are unfortunate eventualities, which any society without a death wish has an obligation to forestall. Save, apparently, in the case of same-sex “marriage”, where the state finds it desirable to create new opportunities in which they might—or rather, must—breed. It’s no coincidence that same-sex “marriage” is probably the only piece of legislation that politicians did not have the nerve to introduce with the oleaginous phrase, “for the children”.

 

The Death of English…Grading Relatively…The Beauty of Spring…

We applaud the efforts of Pope Benedict to revive the Latin Mass. But he does not go far enough. At Priceton.org, we encourage the revival of Latin, period. As for the revival of English, in either written or spoken form, we are much less hopeful.

Let’s face it. Grammatical English is dead. It was run over by the pedagogical juggernaut of the 1960’s, and it’s been rotting on the shoulder of society ever since. It’s time to pick up the stinking carcass and bury it.

*****

Grade inflation is like the weather: everybody complains about it but no one is willing to do anything. Actually, the word “inflation” hardly does justice to the problem. Inflation means that the price of a commodity is increasing whereas its intrinsic value remains the same. But in skule, “prices” have been going up even as value has been plummeting. For the past half-century, every new class of undergraduates has come to university with a slightly more perfunctory acquaintance with the intellectual and cultural patrimony of the West, a diminished aptitude for independent thinking, and ever deteriorating literary skills; and each new class has transited with more exalted grades. Quite a trick. The only political regimes that have managed to achieve that kind of inflation have been those that manufactured Ladas and Yugos, every year’s model worse than the last, and at a cost of five years’ wages.

Today, even if, say, the best essay in the bunch is less articulate than the monster in Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein, you are more or less expected to give it an A. It’s called grading relatively. Some years ago, having received a particularly fetid batch of papers, I submitted grades ranging from C+ to D-. (I thought I was being generous; there ought to have been several F’s, but not even I can resist the invincible Zeitgheist of self-esteem.) An avuncular colleague in the English Department reminded me that this was the twenty-first century, after all. Following a little sermon fecund with phrases such as “disadvantaged minorities”, “broken families”, “urban poverty”, the “Harris government’s underfunding” (of everything), he suggested that I ought to re-evaluate students relative to the class as a whole. “Relative to the class as a whole, the essays ranged from bad to execrable”, I replied. For some reason, this response did not satisfy him.

*****

All the signs are there that spring has finally arrived in Toronto. The tulips are on display; so are the disjecta of the returning Canada Geese; Nature has removed the snow from the side streets, redeeming Mayor Miller’s perennial promise; the punks in their tarted-up Honda Civics have their stereos cranked up and their windows down, deafening entire neighbourhoods rather than just themselves; the Leafs have just fired their coach; and, with the advent of the warmer weather, the national strip-athon is well underway.

While heading to class the other day in the Subaru Deforester, I happened to tune into the Commodities Report on the radio. Something about pork backs and bellies—either a shortage or a glut, I think. As I stepped out of the car, I was visually inundated by the annual tsunami of female corpulence as it heaved and crested between low-slung jeans and shrunken tee-shirts. The half-understood words of the Commodities Report came back to me. And I wondered in kind, Is there a worldwide shortage of mirrors?