Wish I’d said that – February 26, 2017

“The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity. The choice would not be hard to make. But there is no choice, and that is where the bitterness comes in. The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. ‘Everything is permitted’ does not mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions.”

Albert Camus “The Absurd Man” in The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays



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Rise, my Sun – It Happened Today, February 26, 2017

Christian painting of God creating the cosmos (Bible Moralisee, French, 13th century)

On this date back in 1616, February 26, the Catholic Church made its infamous effort to undo Joshua 10:12 and make the sun move in the sky. Or at least it ordered Galileo to shut up about the fact that it made far more sense to regard the Earth as in motion around a stationary sun. Confirming once again Robert Conquest’s 3rd Law of Politics: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.” Because to this day almost nothing seems to confirm the beliefs of anti-Catholics that the Church is repressive and obscurantist than this episode.

In my view the charge is not entirely fair. Even when it comes to science, the Catholic Church has very often taken very sensible views, in the spirit of Cesare Cardinal Baronio whose comment about the controversy was “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” But this episode with Galileo is the one that sticks in the popular mind.

And for what? After silencing Galileo the Church went on to ban all books advocating the Copernican system as “altogether contrary to Holy Scripture”. Galileo himself was unrepentant and despite formally accepting the 1616 decree went on to publish his devastating Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems which earned him a trial for heresy in 1633. And a conviction, and house arrest for the rest of his life.

The sun, you’ll notice, didn’t escape from the stationary position relative to our solar system to which Galileo had assigned it. (It is splitting hairs to argue today, as some do, that the Church was sort of right because the sun does move relative to other stars. The problem was declaring astronomy a branch of theology.)

A mere 122 years later, in 1758, the Church dropped the ban on heliocentric books without actually reversing the verdict against Galileo or allowing uncensored version of Copernicus’ key work De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium or Galileo’s Dialogue. Not until 1820 did the Church go “Ooops” for real and lift the ban on the two books, and a mere 15 years later a revised Index of Forbidden Books no longer listed them.

Eventually Pope John Paul II said it was a mistake to go after Galileo. But I am not sure the conviction for heresy was ever overturned. I mean, you don’t want to rush into things, right? Or rather, having rushed in, you don’t want to rush out just because the building is on fire or anything.

As I say, the Church has often done better on science than in this episode. But if you were in fact part of a cabal of its enemies secretly controlling its conduct, and desirous of discrediting it badly in a way that would last centuries, you’d do just about exactly what they did.

P.S. Conquest’s other two laws are “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best” and “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” The extent to which these also apply to the Roman Catholic Church is a matter for another day.


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See what I mean?

My latest National Post column ridiculed faith in government to solve all our woes despite its dismal record. And now we read that the Trudeau administration is going to make Canadians innovative after more than a century of supposedly disappointing sloth and timidity on the invention front.

Does anyone really believe it’s an appropriate use of government’s monopoly on legitimate force within society to make us creative, flexible, inspired and dynamic in our laboratories, workshops, home offices and cubicles? Does anyone really believe government can do such a thing? If so, why?

Would anyone apply words like innovative to government itself except as biting satire of its endless capacity, as Dave Barry once put it, to find expensive new ways to appear ridiculous? Yet a bunch of serious people with impressive credentials and public sector salaries to match stroke their long grey beards and murmur in soothing tones that at last government will work its exciting magic on that sluggish private sector though it has no idea how, and they are not laughed off the stage.


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Equality not Achieved at Last – It Happened Today, February 25, 2017

On February 25 of 1870 Hiram Revels became the first black member of the United States Congress as, of all things, a Republican Senator from Mississippi. It was a great achievement, and also a dead end.

Revels himself thoroughly deserved to be a Senator, in a positive sense. As an individual, he was not merely intelligent but wise, principled and reasonable, and an advocate of generosity in putting the Civil War behind Americans. And as a member of a long-oppressed race, he belonged in the Senate as part of a long-overdue extension of full citizenship to blacks including unfettered participation in the political community.

Nor is the problem that he was not democratically elected. Mississippi was at the time occupied by federal troops, who dictated election results dramatically at odds with the wishes of the locals. Or rather, the white locals. Mississippi was a die-hard white supremacist pro-Confederate state in a region where it was hard to stand out in that regard. And it is problematic to say that it is justified in dictating election results by force because the majority is wrong on an important issue, even a vital moral one. But whites were not a majority in Mississippi in those days.

In fact Mississippi was a majority black state from well before the Civil War into the 1930s. So the result of full, fair, free adult suffrage would have been the election of large numbers of blacks at every level, and the indignant rejection of segregation and race hate. That a bitter white minority would control Mississippi politics in the absence of armed outsiders was horribly unjust and federal troops were right to intervene even if the result was not precisely what would have happened in a genuinely free and fair election in which blacks were neither disenfranchised outright or terrorized into not voting.

So here’s the problem. Slavery had such a negative impact on the literacy, prosperity and social organization of blacks in Mississippi that in the absence of external force they were not going to prevail at the polls or anywhere else despite being a majority until the hearts of whites were changed. And the federal government, and voters in the American north, were not prepared to continue policing Mississippi elections until that happened. By 1877, following the corrupt bargain that secured Rutherford B. Hayes a single term as president by falsifying election results in three southern states, the North pulled out and left southern blacks at the mercy of their white neighbours.

Given this reality, the result of a punitive, in-your-face Reconstruction was further to entrench race hatred and make anything vaguely resembling an open mind on the subject seem treasonous to those who, once federal troops left, would be in charge for the foreseeable future. And that is what happened.

Revels himself warned against this approach, including a very pointed letter to President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, after he had left the Senate to become the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College. In that letter he exaggerated the willingness of white Mississippians to let go of “the bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife”. But he did warn that punitive Reconstruction was calculated to keep it alive.

What, then, should have been done? No conceivable Reconstruction policy would have brought a quick end to bigotry in white hearts or key political institutions of Mississippi and its neighbours, not even a generous one. Under the actual circumstances, there was a long legal battle against seating Revels in the Senate based on all sorts of arguments including that the awful 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision meant he was not a citizen before ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 and thus did not meet the nine-year-citizenship requirement.

Republicans answered with all sorts of arguments of their own, from the narrowly legal to hey we won the war. And by straight party vote, Revels was seated. It seems the right thing to do even knowing the sorry long-term outcome. And I greatly admire Revels himself for speaking so wisely about reconciliation. But he was seated at gunpoint and as soon as white voters in Mississippi and other southern states were left to their own devices, they were able to oust blacks from Congress and local legislatures using the same device and did so.

So what would you have done? Not to seat Hiram Revels and his various black colleagues in Southern legislatures in the 1870s would have been to be complicit in injustice. But to seat them, deepening white bitterness, and then leave, did neither southern blacks nor southern whites any good.

Clearly the only solution was to stay until hearts were changed. But that solution is deeply ahistorical. In fact between 1901 and 1929 there was not a single black in Congress. And I don’t just mean in the South. (They began to be reelected in the New Deal, and this time as Democrats from northern cities.)

There’s the core of the problem. Northerners may have disliked, even despised, slavery and then former slave-owners. But they did not love the slaves or ex-slaves. They did not put blacks into southern legislatures to help blacks but to hurt whites. And it ended up hurting everyone.

So if you’d been there in 1870, with modern attitudes, the only policy you could conceivably have supported without reservation would have been for northerners to insist on genuine protection of civil rights in the south. Not just for a season to annoy defeated Confederates but for as long as it took out of genuine commitment to equality for blacks and compassion for the closed minds of most white southerners. And there’s no way you could have found anything like sufficient support for this plan.

It is because of dilemmas like this one that I am convinced that, in our own day, we should take what we can get when it seems to constitute genuine progress toward a worthy goal. But we should never be afraid to speak up, charitably if we can manage it, in defence of radical goals when all so-called practical, prudent and moderate courses point clearly toward dishonourable disaster. As they surprisingly often do, and did in 1870 in the American South.


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Wish I’d said that – February 24, 2017

“There are many shades in the danger of adventures and gales, and it is only now and then that there appears on the face of facts a sinister violence of intention – that indefinable something which forces it upon the mind and the heart of a man, that this complication of accidents or these elemental furies are coming at him with a purpose of malice, with a strength beyond control, with an unbridled cruelty that means to tear out of him his hope and his fear, the pain of his fatigue and his longing for rest: which means to smash, to destroy, to annihilate all he has seen, known, loved, enjoyed, or hated; all that is priceless and necessary – the sunshine, the memories, the future, – which means to sweep the whole precious world utterly away from his sight by the simple and appalling act of taking his life.”

The narrator Marlow in Joseph Conrad Lord Jim



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The Treaty of We Stole Your Land – It Happened Today, February 24, 2017

To say that we cannot undo history is not to say that we should not recall genuine injustices. For instance the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, signed on September 27, 1830 but proclaimed on February 24, 1831. The first “removal treaty” under the Jackson-era Indian Removal Act, between the Choctaw and the United States Government, it traded some 11 million acres of fertile land in what is now Mississippi for 15 million acres of barren scrub in Oklahoma. Or else.

Now the Treaty did give those Choctaw who chose to remain in Mississippi U.S. citizenship, the first significant non-European group to receive it. And that is a path that should have been taken far more, and with far better goodwill on the part of citizens and governments in the United States and Canada. But it would also have been essential to leave the Choctaw, as citizens, in possession in fee simple of the land they had once held traditionally. And that was not something the American government was willing to do. Instead, each Choctaw who remained where he or she was got one “section” of 640 acres, plus a half section for older and a quarter for younger children. The rest of the land was, well, stolen.

The Choctaw were the first of the “Five Civilized Tribes” to be subjected to this unfair process and sent along the “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma where, of course, the land was not of equivalent quality in any case. (The other four were the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Seminole.) Around 15,000 of them went to Oklahoma, which is actually a Choctaw word (it means “red people”). And there the Choctaw were promised in the treaty “Autonomy of the Choctaw Nation (in Oklahoma) and descendants to be secured from laws of U.S. states and territories forever” which of course did not happen either. As to the roughly five to six thousand who stayed, they were harassed, abused, and encouraged to move to Oklahoma into the early 20th century.

I believe the rise of the United States to superpower status militarily, economically and culturally has been an enormous boon to the world and to Canada. But there were aspects of it, from slavery to foreign policy misdeeds to the “Indian removal policy”, that remain wrong even as part of a story that turned out very well.

One Choctaw chief, George W. Harkins, wrote a letter to the American people that included the poignant phrase “Much as the state of Mississippi has wronged us, I cannot find in my heart any other sentiment than an ardent wish for her prosperity and happiness.” I share his sentiment. But surely one should also wish that for the descendants of those who were dispossessed.

Not by restoring conditions of life as they had been in 1830 or 1430, but by compensation to individuals for wrongs to their direct ancestors that can reasonably be demonstrated in court, full citizenship without social prejudice, and frank recognition of the historical wrong as an outrage not only to those directly affected, but to all decent people.


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With government in charge…

In my latest National Post column I satirize people’s ongoing faith in government’s compassionate efficiency despite all their experience with its actual performance.


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