The Policy of Legerdemain

Perhaps everyone knows already what to think, about this policy, but if so they aren’t showing it. Our modern, endless election cycles, instead give evidence of the reverse. Nonsense prevails.

A pioneering sociologist (Howard Brotz) once told me of a student with a bright idea. To which lad he replied: “That incredibly dumb idea is so old, I can’t even remember the refutation.”

His words come back to me, looking through the “meejah.” I see arguments being made for e.g. socialism in its various modes, that were demonstrated to be not only disastrous, but murderously so, wherever they were tried. And they are still being tried, and are still ending badly.

Yet we hear the same old arguments.

Those who make them may privately gloat. “The people” fell for it again! And now I have them in my power! (I’m tired of making exceptions. There is plenty of material to explain why what doesn’t work, can’t ever work.)

“Legerdemain” was, traditionally, the art of the card sharp, of quick finger-work, street and stage magic, pickpocketry and theft. The word is French, or from Latin it is “prestidigitation.” In English (from Old Norse) we sometimes call it sleight-of-hand.

While helping the audience to focus on something irrelevant, the trickster does something they aren’t meant to see.

One’s audience, unless it is a congress of professional magicians, will be gullible. Emotive words reliably sucker them. What they were expecting will not be what they get.

I know a talented magician who is also a Catholic priest. He is a fine entertainer of children, or when stuck in older company, of adults, too. I have no reason to think his tricks are not entirely innocent by intention. He is doctrinally sound.

But this cannot be said of all practitioners. Often the skills are acquired for questionable purposes. By “questionable,” of course, I mean activities that should be questioned in a court of law, for the purpose of suppressing them and punishing the miscreants.

Still, we might spare a moment to admire the craft skills. The Devil might find work for idle hands, but that doesn’t mean God could not find better; and could suggest them, through grace.

The same might be said for prestidigious politicians, and “reformers” in the Church and elsewhere. They seek, invariably, power for themselves, including the power to take wealth. To accept anyone at face value is to be unconscionably naive.

At times, I have regretted that an opposing politician was not on my side. I make a distinction between his craftsmanship and talents, and the cause to which he puts them. Then I realize that his ends are an extension of his means.

The ability to fool people, including large crowds, is something bad in itself. That is why I instinctively trust the dull and unambitious; the grindstones who get on with the job. Their mission is to avoid crises, rather than never to waste one.

Those neither sly nor cynical are not therefore stupid. Nor must they be unphilosophical. They are simply not manipulative, by nature. They are unlikely to call attention to themselves when it is not necessary.


Alas, this is a tall order for a politician, and a counter-productive one. It often happens that a man who is admired and trusted by his colleagues, for his abilities, remains unknown to the world. But being unknown means not getting elected.

How does the good man get elected, then? The short answer is, he doesn’t. My unfaith in democracy follows from that, and too, my broad attitude towards politics (including, remember, politics in the Church).

I have long favored being shy in public, and when possible, boring. Unfortunately, we don’t get boring leaders anymore, nor anyone reticent or humble.

The late Sir Roger Scruton, about as sterling a “conservative” as we could wish for our times, was a model for how not to be a modern thinker. Industriously, he tried to be dull and could be unexcitable even under great provocation.

His favorite British prime minister was not Sir Winston or Lady Thatcher, but Lord Salisbury, unremembered from late Victorian times. Through many years in office, Salisbury quietly put out fires, and rigidly upheld practicable standards of human decency.

You Americans have had some presidents like that: men who were trying not to accomplish anything, let alone anything important. One thinks of your beloved Coolidge.

But Salisbury raised do-nothingness to Zen heights. He did not read the newspapers, except for information; he paid no attention to media thrills. His political creed was brilliantly expressed in this way:

“Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.”

As Sir Roger often mentioned, it is hard for the genuine conservative to win. The radicals will be out on the street shouting, “Forward! March!” But what sign can the conservatives be waving? He recommended, “Hesitate!”

In recent years, I have been impressed (in an entirely negative way) by the fixation that now goes under the slogan “climate change.” It struck me from the start as an obvious fraud, designed to trick people into foolishness, on a grand scale. It is a method for extending the Nanny State into new dimensions of tyranny.

Yet it is all a policy of legerdemain. The label itself reveals the stage magic: “Climate change.” The climate is always changing, has always been changing, and by its nature is impossible to predict. To claim one understands what it is doing, or how it could be controlled or assuaged, may be a good circus act. But note it is accompanied by rifling through everyone’s pockets.

I give this particular example not only because it is very large, and breathtakingly remunerative, but because politicians in our Church are participating. In my view, the Church should oppose legerdemain. It has a big enough job trying to save people.


*Image: John Dee Performing an Experiment before Elizabeth I by Henry Gillard Glindoni, c. 1900 [Wellcome Collection, London] The Glindoni painting origianlly showed the polymath Dr. Dee standing in a circle of skulls on the floor. The pentimento was revealed when the painting was X-rayed in 2015.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: