11 November 2018

Through the silence of the guns


Soldiers receiving news of the Armistice, 11 November 1918
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one and another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ day is not. So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things. What else is sacred? Oh,
Romeo and Juliet, for instance. And all music is.

    - Kurt Vonnegut
Given that the end of the Great War happened one hundred years ago today, this seems as good a time as any to reflect on the reasons that Armistice Day was originally inaugurated. As the amnesiac great-grandson of a working-class Jewish immigrant soldier whose lungs were destroyed in this war, I am finding that this Armistice Day has for me a peculiar importance. It is not a celebration of war. It is not a celebration of those who wage war. It is a celebration of the end of a war – one that destroyed twenty million lives, including the Armenian, Arabic and Greek victims of the first modern genocides. It is worth considering why Vonnegut (himself a veteran of the Second World War who lived through the bombing of Dresden) thought of the ending of this war as something sacred, as a moment when God spoke through the silence of the guns.

After all, Vonnegut was not the straightforward pacifist he is popularly imagined to be. Even when Vonnegut wrote Breakfast of Champions, he was nowhere even close to the naïve certitude of the pacifists of his childhood, that this war could end all wars. In the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five (one of my favourite books, not coincidentally) he recounts a conversation he had with Harrison Starr to the effect that ‘there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers’. Vonnegut (and Starr) seem to have been proven right time and again, not just about the First World War. We can only truly end war when we can end the perversions of the human heart; and the fact that the human heart is universally perverse is every bit as evident as the fact that water will freeze below zero. But Vonnegut celebrated Armistice Day regardless, just as he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five regardless. There’s something cussedly admirable about a guy who understands that war is inevitable, and who will still throw his shoulders in trying to stop glaciers.

Even ‘inevitable’ wars have a certain terrible logic. When one studies the history of the Balkans, and clears away the miasma of clichés about the Balkans being a ‘powder-keg’, the Great War takes on a far different shape. The Balkans may have been a keg, but Europe’s great powers brought all the powder – the stoking of nationalist rivalries; the advent of factory and rail; the deprivation of the peasant under various forms of predatory lending, whether by village loan-sharks or by London and Frankfurt. Seen thus, the war becomes a kind of apocalypse, a tearing-away of the veil over the ‘civilised’ Victorian and Edwardian niceties of European politics – dominated as they were by high finance, industrial capitalism and nationalism, and a burgeoning machine-rationalism that was capable of completely subsuming the person. One of the great problems that Berdyaev, Solovyov, St Maria (Skobtsova) all had with the pacifism that dominated in their day, was precisely that it propped up an illusion of peace. A pacifism that seeks to ignore or explain away or whitewash these very real injustices and sicknesses of the human soul that underpin a presumably-stable liberal world order, is ultimately self-defeating – and in Solovyov’s view even a precursor of Antichrist.

But such a pacifism is very far from the only kind of witness for peace that there is. Those witnesses for peace that centre on the person in her depth, do (ironically) have a tendency to look more radical in a political sense, than those which seek for peace within a rationalistic exterior legal framework. But theologically speaking, any witness for peace that points back to the depths of the person, and of the human heart, has to be marked by an inner striving and an interior life marked by a search for the truth of Christ in quietude (not to be confused with quietism). Lest one think I am being a Byzantine chauvinist here, let me hasten to observe that one sees this kind of hesychasm not only in the tradition of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, but also in the West: Julian of Norwich, Lancelot Andrewes, Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is what Vonnegut points to in his brusque, laconic way. There’s a hidden genius in the original ceremonial of Armistice Day, which Vonnegut (along with the modern peace movement) asks us specifically to observe. It asks us to keep silence, in the remembrance of the guns that fell silence, and of the moment in which God spoke through the stillness. The quietude that came over the soldiers when the apocalyptic, relentless industrial machinery of death – the guns, the gas and the bombs – all fell silent: that is what Vonnegut asks us to remember. That moment of silence on Armistice Day therefore represents a kind of civic hesychasm, a quietude that cuts through all the false pieties and all the forms of idolatrous sentimentality whether nationalist or internationalist – and goes straight to the heart, to the inner man. And that is what renders it sacred.

08 November 2018

The inconvenient politics of everyday acts of decency


I have only ever met His Beatitude Vladyka Tikhon (Mollard) once; and that was at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis. My first impression (and at that, the all-too-brief impression of a lay parishioner of a visiting bishop) was that of a calm, genteel and well-educated man, not overbearing in his intellect but demure and irenic in his demeanour: in other words, a temperamental conservative. That impression has been expanded upon and deepened by several things I have read about him recently: not only his pastoral letters on various topics of importance, but his actions, like condoling with the victims of the horrific tragedy in Pittsburgh, or sending birthday greetings to the sole canonical Orthodox bishop in Kiev.

Let me assure you, gentle readers, of my awareness that by remarking on these acts by our Metropolitan myself, I am contributing somewhat to the sense that these things are not simply what a bishop, or indeed what a human being, ought to do at such times. Of course we ought to comfort the bereaved! Of course we ought to celebrate our friends’ birthdays! And, in a less politically-fraught time, perhaps, these little and unobtrusive acts of simple neighbourly and friendly decency would pass as unremarkable. But now they have a deeper significance, as Vladyka Tikhon himself alludes in his letters.

As I have said before, one condoles with the Jews of Squirrel Hill by condoling with the Jews of Squirrel Hill. As Israeli-American journalist Mairav Zonszein puts it: ‘showing support for Israel does nothing to combat anti-Semitism or bolster the safety of Jews in the United States’. One should think that this is a fairly obvious thing. But Orthodox and Catholic priests showed greater common sense, greater grace and greater humanity in this instance than did Israeli leaders like Naftali Bennett. How is this so? It is not the show of solidarity itself that is political, but instead an environment of strategic calculation which lends it a political ‘look’. It may look naïve, but the true and unmediated love of neighbour comes only from a certain (implicit or explicit) trust in the Most High, the ‘source of mercy, consolation and hope’, who can ‘free’ us ‘from the assault of attitudes and ideologies of prejudice and hatred, fear and anxiety about those who are indeed our neighbours’. And that was true of the Tree of Life congregation themselves, who reached out to help Honduran refugees without pausing to consider that they were not Jews or white Americans, but (largely) Catholic Hispanics and mestizos. They did a right and decent thing, even though this right and decent thing was seen as inconveniently radical.

A similar trust pervades likewise with the birthday wishes of Metropolitan Tikhon to his brother Metropolitan Onufriy. It is a simple letter (but not a simple-minded one), expressing simple but heartfelt sentiments. Some observers might even call it naïve, in a political environment fraught with questions of imperial legacies and ideological constructs like New Rome, Third Rome, Hellenism and the Russian World. But who is to say that the simpler approach isn’t the correct one here? Has Metropolitan Onufriy ever once alluded to a ‘Russian World’ or proclaimed a Third Rome? Even these concepts are broadly (and in some cases wilfully) misunderstood, both by their supporters and by their detractors, and I will get to that at a later post. For now, though, it is worth dwelling on the position of Metropolitan Onufriy himself.

Metropolitan Onufriy is a man of deep faith, whose guilt and transgression in the eyes of the state he lives in, is that he sat in silent protest at a state event commemorating the Ukrainian armed forces, when doing so would mean taking a side in a civil conflict in which members of his flock were murdering each other. (Sound familiar?) Indeed, he was doing the only right and honourable pastoral thing in refusing to stand, even though it brought down a charge that he was taking sides. He was saying, in effect, that ‘East Ukrainian Lives Matter’ (and Russian, American, Black and Asian lives) and refusing to assent to a lie that would erase them from the picture. Of course, the nativist right-wing over there could no more tolerate such a protest, however civil, than the one over here could. They had to find a way to punish the good Metropolitan for his protest, and they did so by attacking his Church and by branding him an enemy of the state. Note that all of the ideological miasma, the talk about duelling Romes and Greek vs Slavic Orthodoxy, arose in the aftermath, when the Œcumenical Patriarchate chose to intervene on Poroshenko’s side. Again, we see that the simple, decent thing which Metropolitan Onufriy did in virtue of his office, is inconveniently radical in the eyes of those with an agenda.

There is the risk of engaging in something of a tautology, pointing out that even small everyday actions toward our neighbours are political. (After all, what is politics but the question of how to treat our neighbours?) But that is the thing about tautologies; they happen to be true. The recent actions and words of Metropolitan Tikhon show clearly that even these small gestures can have important political ramifications in a world awash in what Dr Aleksandr Shchipkov would call ‘post-digital idols’. It can be difficult to rid oneself of the imperialist hangover (doubly so for those of us living in the sole post-Cold War empire left standing) and start seeing clearly again with eyes of faith, but it can be done.

06 November 2018

The other Russian, inequality, secondary simplification


Konstantin Nikolaevich Leont’ev

Konstantin Leont’ev is a truly fascinating figure, in many ways antipodean after the best tradition of Russian thinkers, but also in a certain sense separate from the rest. Not for nothing is he called – ‘the other Russian’. Leont’ev began his career as a democratic idealist, drawn to the romance of revolution, to the striking figures he found at their heads: people like Napoleon and Lord Byron. But during the 1860’s his political views took a sharp turn rightward; he became a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, a Tsarist and an apologist for the unmitigated power of the autocratic state. He shows a similarly antipodean relationship to religion: at times he can be Orthodox to the point of hyperdoxy, evincing the terrors at the heights of the Byzantine religious consciousness, naked before the Judge of All; at other times he delivers himself of opinions that reveal something of a deep, sensual and libidinous rodnoverie. Interestingly, in his autobiographical collection of writings, these two antipodes: democratic-revolutionary and reactionary; Christian and pagan; neurotic and narcissist – are at war in his psyche from the very beginning. Little wonder that Nikolai Berdyaev found Leont’ev such a mesmerising figure; his philosophy never managed to get fully out from under Leont’ev’s reactionary spell, and that same philosophy (particularly when Berdyaev veered leftward politically) was that much richer for it.

Konstantin Leont’ev served as an army doctor in the Crimean War, having studied medicine prior to that. It was during and after the Crimean War that he formed much of his political consciousness, but more importantly, he adapted a kind of poiēsis of science from his medical studies. This comes into play in his doctrine of the evolution of civilisations. He believes that civilisations tend to ‘develop’ (though he has certain problems with the word) according to three stages. There is, first, a process of flourishing in primitive simplicity; then one of flowering complexity; and finally one of secondary fusion and simplification. He uses the medical analogy of a disease in the lungs to describe this process, which at its pinnacle causes a spectacular differentiation within the lung tissue, but which either reverts to the ‘primitive simplicity’ of health, or else triumphs and produces the simplification of the body through death and decomposition. The analogy is limited in its usefulness, and Leont’ev quickly abandons it; however, his analysis of the development of social orders is compelling and even convincing in some cases. He had in mind modern Europe when he spoke of the process of secondary simplification, as here:
Oh, the massive, blood-soaked but picturesque mountain of universal history! Since the end of the last century you have been labouring in torments of new births. And out of your suffering depths merely a mouse crawls out! A self-satisfied caricature of the people of former days is born, the average rational European, in his comic clothes that even the ideal mirror of art cannot reflect, with a small and self-deluded mind, with his creepy, practical goodwill!

No! Never yet in the history of our times has anybody seen such a monstrous combination of mental pride before God and ethical submission before the ideal of a homogeneous, grey, labouring and godlessly passionless all-mankind!

Is it possible to love such a mankind?

Should one not, with all the strength of even a Christian soul, hate—not the people who are stupid and have lost their way—but a
future of theirs such as this? Yes, one should! One should! Thrice, one should!
This is the estimation of Leont’ev of the bourgeois European. It is true, Leont’ev by his own admission cannot stand the pretensions of the ‘radical’ intellectuals of his own day; though he makes a couple of notable exceptions for Aleksandr Herzen (whose work I am now eagerly looking forward to reading) and JS Mill, whose æsthetic modes of thought render them more sympathetic. (Even at his most democratically-minded, he understands that equality, in a metaphysical sense, is a problematic proposition. His democracy is an æsthetic one. He loves it not so much for itself, but for the brilliantly-colourful men-of-deeds that arise out of it.)

But neither does he have much use for the capitalist mass man, the respectable European who reads the newspapers, the suburbanite. He detests, even loathes, the very idea of ‘a world in which all people everywhere live in identical, small, clean and comfortable little houses the way people of middle income live in our Novorossiysky towns’. What fit world is that for heroes to come out of, for great deeds still remaining to be done? The equality he sees in such a world is the equality of death and decomposition. For the reactionary Leont’ev, any conservatism that regresses to such a vulgar mean is no conservatism at all worth espousing. Indeed, he says this outright: ‘Cosmopolitan democratism and political nationalism—these are but two shades of one and the same colour!’ So what does he propose in its place? Konstantin Leont’ev puts forward five—not canons, precisely, in the Kirkian sense, but something a little looser than propositions:
  1. The state should be diversified, complex, strong, class-structured and cautiously mobile. In general, strict, sometimes to the point of ferocity.

  2. The church should be more independent than the present one. The church hierarchy should be bolder, more powerful, more concentrated. The church should have a mitigating influence on the state, and not vice-versa.

  3. Everyday life should be poetic, varied in its national unity, and insulated from the West…

  4. The laws and principles of authority should be stricter; people should try to be personally kinder; the one will balance the other.

  5. Science should develop in a spirit of profound contempt towards its own utility.
For a doctor and a natural scientist, noteworthy in particular is his emphasis on poetry. Leont’ev places as much emphasis on that in the very midst of his politics as do Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis. ‘The highest poetry and the highest politics have a deeper connexion than people usually think. When poetry declines, so does profound thought.’ He believes that social orders must indeed have a mystical, metaphysical foundation in order to last (it would have been quite interesting to see what the man would have made of Morris).

And further, he believes that in order to forestall the process of secondary simplification, to stop the progress of decay and to ‘survive as a state and culture’ in the face of threats from China, India and the West, it is necessary for Russia, not to disappear within a hodge-podge synthesis and levelling, but instead to ‘fuse together this Chinese state system with Indian religiosity and European socialism, gradually forming new, stable social groupings’. The two of them likely would not have seen eye-to-eye, but this threefold civilisational analysis (China; India; Europe) and especially the conclusion that some conservative, mediated form of socialism could be adapted to an authentic civilisational flourishing, has distinct parallels in the New Confucian thought of Liang Shuming. Likewise, Leont’ev’s thought here is not quite Slavophil; his attitude toward the state is far too cavalier. But it is easy to see where the Slavophils have influenced him.

This ‘other Russian’, this proud reactionary and literary critic who could nevertheless never quite put away his old romantic attachments to revolution, is very deeply worth considering at our present political moment, particularly when the forces of consolidation, civic monoculture and secondary simplification are still afoot and rampant within our own body politic.

05 November 2018

Pointless video post – ‘Yo m’enamori’ by Sava


I have had the first album, Aire, by the German mediæval folk band Sava for a long time; and it has long been one of those albums that I keep going back to in my darker and more melancholy moods. Folk music, that is to say the music that comes out from amongst the folk without attribution, at its most real gives voice to certain heart-stirrings. That is certainly the case with their rendition of the traditional Sephardic Jewish love song ‘Yo m’enamori’ here, simply-expressed in its lyrics, yet bewitchingly expressive in its minor key. Do enjoy!

31 October 2018

News from Nowhere


I did get around to reading, at long last, William Morris’s most popular novel, the utopian News from Nowhere. This is one of those books that left a distinct mark on my intellectual life even without having been read, so I’m glad I was finally able to rectify that. Unfortunately, though it does seem to be his best-known, it doesn’t quite rank with the other two of his fantasy novels I’ve read (The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End) in terms of literary merit. For one thing, it is lacking for the most part in the antiquarian, Old English-inflected language which managed to grow on me so much in his fantasy novels. For another thing, even though there are characters and a setting and movement, there isn’t really that much of a story. The characters are very rarely in any sort of conflict, and the protagonist and narrator William Guest, though emotionally engaged, is largely passive throughout, being led around a post-revolutionary communist England by several of its beautiful inhabitants. It may rather lack in plot, but it still reads the way a Pre-Raphælite oil painting might look: rich and sumptuous and colourful, full of lively detail and worthy of close examination.

William Guest falls into sleep after a heated argument among the Hammersmith Socialists, and awakens in an England that is miraculously greener; brighter; cleaner; populated by fit, lively, happy and beautiful people. These people - chief among whom are Dick and Clara, a once-divorced and now-remarried couple - have an intense respect and enjoyment for their natural surroundings, and work not for the sake of busyness nor for the fear of starvation, but instead for the satisfaction in creating works of beauty. Gone are both the urban slums and (most of) the great houses, gone are the factories and the mills and the iron bridges; in their place are pleasant buildings of wood and stone reminiscent of both the European Middle Ages and the Middle East, as well as villages and forests reinvigorated through a solicitous attention to œcology. National borders are gone, but national distinctions remain to an extent - there are still Welsh and English and French cultures. Money exists only as a curio or as a vague remembrance of an unhappier past time. Law courts and prisons, too, are a thing of the past; even though crime still exists, the primary idea of justice is restorative, with the repentance of the wrongdoer being the desired goal.

However, Morris seems rather determined that the revolution he envisions will have little to no impact on traditional gender rôles or on the sexual division of labour: ‘women’s work’ is held of equal worth to ‘men’s work’, though the women of Morris’s utopia naturally gravitate to the domestic sphere, with a maternalism that is deemed to be natural and honourable. He even anticipates the objection that this view would be deemed ‘reactionary’, but Old Hammond has it that it would be truly retrograde to condemn a woman to live as a counterfeit man. Romantic love still very much exists (as we can see with William Guest’s waxing but hopeless attraction to the utopian Ellen), as well as marriage in an informal way, but the propertarian elements of marriage have been done away with. (In this, his ideas seem rather parallel to those of his contemporaries, the Serbian populist Svetozar Marković and the Swedish difference-feminist Ellen Key.) As with the later Christopher Lasch as well, Morris seemingly finds the ‘battle of the sexes’ to be something insurmountable by mere politics, but rather grounded in something deeper, more essential to the human condition. The preservation of sexual distinctions in this socialist utopia is particularly interesting, because it does point to a certain metaphysical dimension of Morris’s thought.

Another indication of this metaphysical dimension is Morris’s attitude toward work, expressed in the monologues of Old Hammond (and occasionally Dick and Clara themselves). There is a kind of equation in Morris’s thinking, that a society cannot be just if it cannot produce holistically-beautiful things. If I were a Straussian I would make much hay of the point that the meditation on craft is situated at the very middle of the book. But even as it is, when Morris tells us, through Old Hammond, that the consumer goods mass-manufactured under capitalism are ‘cheap’, ‘lowish average’ in quality, ‘useless’ and ‘transparent make-shifts’, it reads more like moralistic censure than like æsthetic disapproval. A key marker of his utopia is the return of handicraft, and the blurring, if not erasure, of the distinction between functionalism and art. This blurring-slash-erasure of the function-beauty distinction is, of course, classic Morris, and indeed one of the undergirding assumptions of the Arts and Crafts Movement which he midwifed. But again, this very materialistic understanding of art actually points to an unspoken Eleatic-Platonic doctrine of the commensurability of the transcendentals: which, again, strongly indicates the necessity of a metaphysics. Even though Morris’s utopian Englishmen in News from Nowhere make only deprecating allusions to the religion of former times, Morris is still both unable and unwilling to shake off this element of his Anglo-Catholic early education.

Note that this is also how Morris answers the common criticism or concern-trolling about socialism not being able to work in practice. Generally the sorts of people who issue such criticisms in the process make brazen appeals to the iron law of necessity and ‘sound œconomic principles’. But in so doing, they demonstrate in themselves a telling lack of metaphysics; for them, the ugliness of capitalism (which is what many in my generation truly revile about it) is justified on the grounds of the countervailing utilitarian material benefits that we reap from it. Morris is not trying to directly argue against this criticism, but instead to out-narrate it and show it as a hollow and even insecure position from an æsthetic and, yes, metaphysical perspective. The question is not whether or not socialism is practical, but rather: what kind of practice should a well-tuned soul actually want to see? His answer to this question, such as it is, lies in the character of Ellen, who is apparently Morris’s vision of a well-tuned soul, looking at the world through eyes of undiluted wonder and appreciation, and the one who most deeply enchants his narrator-persona William Guest.

Again, I would say that this book was instructive insofar as it provided a clear signpost for some of my previous thinking, theologically-informed as it was, on œconomic subjects. In terms of its literary merit, I would say that it is charming and even beautiful, but that it really doesn’t hold a candle to Morris’s prose romances. The only thing that saved Plato’s utopia from being dull were its parodical aspects and the tension between the philosopher and the politician which stood over and behind the whole thing. It is telling that the most interesting parts of Morris’s work came when he was indirectly interrogating his reader in a similar way about contemporary Victorian standards of justice and value. Despite these weaknesses, I would still hold this as an important work. So do not be surprised, gentle readers, to see Morris’s metaphysically-tinted political ideas crop up in my writing here more explicitly and more often.

30 October 2018

The heartrending news from Pittsburgh


Both as an American of European Jewish ancestry, and as a one-time citizen of Pittsburgh (a city of which I still have done memories and to which I still have profound cultural attachments), I feel compelled to write publicly about the recent mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. My heart is broken for the eleven Pittsburgh men and women who died, and grieves with their families: my neighbours and my kin by blood. I have been moved to write by grief, yes, but also by outrage. Thankfully, most of the reactions I have seen to this tragedy coming out of Pittsburgh itself have likewise been unconditionally ones of sympathy and compassion, and that is some consolation.

But this was indeed an attack motivated wholly by anti-Semitic bigotry. That requires particular attention. Firstly, this was undisguisedly an attack on American Jews qua Jews. It was not an attack on a political ideology - it was not anti-Zionism. It was not even an attack on a set of religious doctrines and observances, despite the attack happening at a place of worship - it was not anti-Judaïsm. It was an attack on a people (and particularly because neither nationalism nor religion were the targets, I feel I must say my people) both because of our immigrant heritage and because of our real or imagined place in as aliens in American society. That is to say: it was an attack on an American Jewry that exists in the anti-Semitic imagination as a fifth column. We occupy, in this imagination, the rôle of the instigator and the manipulator in the mythical narrative of white genocide. Which is indeed as much as to say that our purported whiteness is negotiable and revocable, particularly if we associate ourselves in sympathy with non-whites.

Just before this atrocity, the shooter made reference to the ‘caravan’ of desperately deprived people coming northward from Honduras, fleeing climate and political conditions there that have made life intolerable, and the ways in which American Jews (specifically, the historically Russian-Jewish Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) were mobilising to help them enter the country. This, to his depraved mind, was proof of our criminal disloyalty and genocidal intentions against whites - both long-standing anti-Semitic canards.

Let us note well: this is the single worst incident of anti-Semitic violence in American history. It was also directed, not at the Zionist lobby (AIPAC or ADL), not at the ultra-Orthodox who are the most visible representatives of the Jewish religion (and who, I note, have a sizeable presence in Squirrel Hill), but at a socially-oriented synagogue whose activity was not Zionist or apologetic, but instead humanitarian. Tikkun olam, the Old Testament mandate to repair the fallen world which is parallel to and sympathetic with Fr Sergei Bulgakov’s participatory sophic ethics, was the specific tendency in American Judaïsm to come under literal fire.

This is noteworthy, because I have seen preëmptive attempts to exculpate the administration by pointing out its Zionist policies (like relocating the American embassy to Jerusalem), or by pointing out the conversions to Judaïsm within the family. In light of the nature of American anti-Semitism and the threats that American Jews now demonstrably face, these kinds of exculpations are not only irrelevant, they are also insulting, patronising, cynical and dangerous.

The kind of political grandstanding so common among Republicans (but not unknown among Democrats) that seeks to curry our favour in such moments as these by ‘standing with Israel’ is particularly egregious in this regard. Pardon the tautology, but you do not comfort the Jews of Squirrel Hill by standing with Israel. You comfort the Jews of Squirrel Hill by comforting the Jews of Squirrel Hill. It is bad enough that these statements are made cynically with an eye to political fundraising. But it is also dangerous because it lends implicit credence to the same canard that motivated the shooter; to wit, that our loyalties are, in fact, dual: that our civic consciences are collectively motivated by a cabalistic ethnic self-interest. (And obviously, to judge by the mission and activities of the Tree of Life Synagogue, this simply is not true.)

Standing with Israel’ is also a cheap way for far-right nativists both here and in Europe to buy themselves some semblance of plausible deniability. Iowa congressman Steve King, to give a recent domestic example: his loud pro-Zionism serves as a useful fig-leaf for a history of supporting white nationalist rhetoric which is now a manifest danger to American Jews. This is common on the American far right: Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon both do the same song-and-dance. Or, in Europe: Mateusz Morawiecki (in Zionist mode and anti-Semitic mode), Orbán Viktor (in Zionist mode and anti-Semitic mode) and Petro Poroshenko (in Zionist mode and anti-Semitic mode). This kind of obscene charade needs to be axed.

And that isn’t even because most American Jews, particularly us younger folks, have a declining attachment to Zionism. This is because our security, indeed our lives, are at stake. We are under attack here; the response, therefore, must also be here; and we must bear in mind that we are not the only ones under attack. This localism and this neighbourly fellow-suffering is the only way our corner of the fallen world might indeed be healed.

My prayers and deepest condolences are with the souls and with the families of Rose Malinger, Melvin Wax, Sylvan and Bernice Simon, Joyce Feinberg, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger, Rich Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal. May the God who knows all things and cares for all things grant them eternal rest and keep them in His remembrance.

28 October 2018

Šťastný sté výročie!


Today marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia. I did thankfully manage to celebrate a little bit yesterday by going to a concert by the Kenwood Symphony Orchestra, playing Romanian and Hungarian folk songs as well as a rendition of Eugen Suchoň’s Psalm of the Sub-Carpathian Land.

I know several monarchists who see the occasion as a cause not for celebration, but for grief – however, that is a sentiment I cannot share. Given the horrific atrocities they committed upon Slavic bodies in the War, I can no more lament the partition of the Habsburg Monarchy than I can lament the fall of the Soviet Union, despite the very obvious political downsides to each. (Historical revisionism regarding the Great War does rather lose its charm when one goes to church with Arab-Americans, Armenians, Pontic Greeks and Rusins whose families remember the Central Powers as existential foes.) And, like the fall of the Soviet Union, that of the Habsburg Monarchy happened quite suddenly and with little to no thought beforehand of its taking place. As Daniel Miller put it in his biography of Antonín Švehla: ʻDespite the tensions within the Monarchy, few politicians from any of Austria-Hungary’s constituent nations were calling for the dissolution of the realm as the guns of August 1914 sounded.ʼ The republicanism of Masaryk and the Russophile politics of Kramář were not particularly popular even among the first Czechoslovak statesmen (including Švehla) to inherit this republic, in its way every bit as accidental as the independent Kazakhstan birthed around this same time in 1990.

All that having been said, though, this most accidental republic did have a spiritual mission to the world. I say this in part from my own residual conservative agrarian-distributist sympathies, of course. As Chesterton himself acknowledged in his own writings, the greatest hope for distributism was the peaceful peasant revolution underway in countries like Romania, Yugoslavia and – yes – Czechoslovakia, under activists and statesmen like Švehla and Hodža. I also point to this spiritual mission, in acknowledgement of the Orthodox holy men who were spiritually-formed in this interwar period: Bishop Saint Gorazd of Prague and Saint Iov the Venerable of Ugolka.

Neither of these developments is to be greatly wondered at. The lands of the Czechs, the Slovaks and the Carpatho-Rusins rest in a transitional area between the Christian civilisation of the West and the Christian civilisation of the East – even just as they lie on the dialect continuum between the West and East Slavic language groups. These were the lands where Saints Cyril and Methodius first took up preaching in the late 800s AD. Are we therefore to be surprised, that the pent-up spiritual energies repressed by four hundred years of a Teutonic captivity should be released with independence in the form of advocacy on behalf of the peasantry, and in the form of a renewal of the Orthodox Christian witness?

One other thing to note – the intellectual side of Orthodox Christian development also owes a great debt of gratitude to the interwar Czechoslovak state, as a haven and a refuge for Tsarist and White refugees fleeing the Soviets. Among these were a talented Prince, Nikolai Sergeevich Trubetskoi, whose contributions to the field of linguistics have been unrivalled (being a particularly strong influence on a certain Dr Noam Chomsky); as well as a father and son: Nikolai Onufrievich Lossky and Vladimir Nikolaevich Lossky, whose combined contributions to Orthodox religious philosophy and intellectual development cannot possibly be understated. The reasons for this solicitude may be stated in a twofold way, though the two in fact are related. Firstly, the Czechs and Slovaks have always had a certain public pan-Slavist, Russophile streak that has been absent among, for example, the Poles. We see this also in the work of people like Karel Škorpil and Konstantin Jiriček in the newly-independent Kingdom of Bulgaria. And secondly, the Czechs were the first and most eager to turn to Byzantine concepts of statecraft as part of their growing Slavic awareness – their friendliness to the Russian white émigrés may also thus be seen in this light.

It is a complex and multifaceted heritage for so short a time-frame, between the end of the Great War in 1918 and the occupation by the Nazis in 1939. It is very far from being one worthy of outright dismissal. It is in such a mind, and in memory of people like Saint Gorazd, Saint Iov, Švehla, Hodža, Kramář, Lossky père et fils and Trubetskoi, that I for one can heartily wish the Czechs and Slovaks a hearty ‘šťastný sté výročieʼ on this, their hundredth national day of independence.