21 July 2017

‘Repentance is current and radical’

Archbishop Anastas of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania

There is an article on Pemptousia providing some excerpts from Archbishop Anastas of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania’s address to the World Council of Churches. His Holiness Anastas does not pull any punches at all when it comes to diagnosing the ills of the modern œconomy: as you can see, he makes the case with great conviction, moral force and prophetic power. Here are some quotes from his address:
Respect for the human person has been replaced by the high-handedness of impersonal institutions and forces. Stress on the freedom of the individual has given way to emphasis on the freedom of the market. So, from being a society of free persons, we have reached the point where entire peoples are candidates for enslavement to impersonal groups, anonymous money traders, who are basically regulating the œconomies of entire peoples, who are known as ‘markets’. These give money an independent existence as an abstract ‘accounting’ value and trade it. Among the complex mazes of globalisation, new structures of the financial system of a ‘virtual œconomy’ have been created, which are beyond the control of any state or other political institution. On the other contrary, decisions by these nameless dealers, whose identity is carefully hidden, can devastate states and nations, condemning millions of people to unemployment, and society to squalor. So the whole global œconomy is now living through a dreadful structural crisis of the financial system, which is the most cogent proof of the crisis of values in society.
On the responsibilities of the Church in the European œconomic crisis and the immiseration of southern Europe at the hands of the north, and the attitudes of the north toward the south, Archbishop Anastas also has a few strong words to say:
In this painful financial crisis, the Church cannot remain a mere spectator. It has to be outspoken in giving prophetic utterance directed at three issues:
  1. Bold criticism of the members of our Churches for an attitude which is inconsistent with the Gospel principles, for their participation, to a great or lesser extent, in injustice and social corruption. Mobilisation, with creative initiatives, of the parishes, the various ecclesiastical groups and organizations, for the immediate relief and assistance of the weakest members of our society. Thank God, in this area there is already serious Church activity.

  2. The expression of resolute criticism of the materialistic ideals and systems that are producing injustice generally and the financial crisis in particular. An effort to influence the political leadership. An invitation to eminent scholars and œconomists to work out solutions which would include respect for persons and the identity of peoples, and solidarity with them. The general concept of the human being and creation has been radically subjected to notions of self-indulgence. The Church is being called upon to defend the dignity of the human person as an image of the personal God, and also the sanctity of creation as God’s handiwork. The way of thinking that has people as masters of creation who therefore have the right to abuse the natural environment is not simply mistake, but, from an Orthodox standpoint, sinful. According to the Christian faith, people are an organic part of creation and ought to treat it with respect.

  3. Local Churches have the opportunity to demonstrate mutual support, with a greater impact on the societies in which they live. For example, influencing the peoples of Northern Europe towards understanding and solidarity with the struggling societies in the South of the continent. And, vice versa, restraining the feelings of bitterness and frustration of the œconomically weaker peoples of the South at the arrogant behaviour of some of the œconomically more robust European states. Examples could multiply, clearly, because of the disparities which exist all over the globe between the œconomically powerful and weak states. The Churches in the rich societies have no right to keep silent – sometimes, indeed, to concur – and leave room for the chorus of dismissive voices insulting the peoples who are in trouble.
Archbishop Anastas on why it is simply not enough to engage in vague moralising:
If all we do is repeat the phrase ‘crisis of values’, we risk becoming lost in vagueness. The Church, ‘again and again’, is called upon to name, emphasize and point out these enduring values which have global validity: justice, in the clear sense of ‘So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them’ (S. Matthew 7, 12); also truth, self-determination, the importance of moderation; efforts towards reconciliation; love in all its expressions and dimensions.
And what is the greatest source of danger to environment and œconomy, apart from corruption, greed and mendacity?
The greatest danger is self-love, egocentricity, enslavement to our ego, worship of our individual interests, those of the family, the locality, the nation. The antidote to this is justice, together with mutual support and self sacrifice. The secret of finding one’s self is to offer it. Emphasis on and the experience of this value remains the Church’s greatest contribution: support for the grieving, even if they are themselves responsible for mistakes and omissions. No other institution can offer love and self-sacrifice. To the classic ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am), the Church, drawing on the best pages of its history, adds: ‘I love therefore I am’, based on the model of the existence of the Holy Trinity in love and interpenetration.
And finally, some historical perspective:
This is not the first time the Church as been faced with crises. The tragic conflicts and experiences of the world wars in the twentieth century awakened consciences and led to the abolition of colonialism, of the fascist systems and of racist ideologies. In the course of great trials, when societies reach the end of their tether, rare virtues arise in people’s hearts, such as love of the truth, bravery, tolerance, forgiveness, self-denial, justice and altruism.
I have no doubt that the usual sourpusses in the usual jurisdictions will dismiss everything His Holiness has to say on the basis that he is (supposedly) a dirty rotten œcumenist who has dared to have anything at all to do with the ritually-unclean World Council. But he has made reference only to ‘enduring’, traditional Orthodox principles: the Golden Rule, the call to askesis, the Church’s role as moral guide of the state, rejection of materialism and, most of all, the praxis of true metanoia; in short, he has given voice to the Gospel and the Way of Our Lord Christ. The Church as a whole would do very well to listen to Archbishop Anastas.

18 July 2017

Americanism and intégrisme: theopolitics resurgent

A recent Vatican-issued editorial co-authored by the Jesuit priest Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Presbyterian minister Marcelo Figueroa for La Civiltà Cattolica seems to have ruffled some feathers and inspired some serious reflection among my radical Catholic acquaintance. I find myself in broad agreement with the historical and moral stances written out in this article, given that it probes the sensitive point of the triumphal, right-wing Catholic intégrisme about which I have said several hard words recently. Spadaro and Figueroa make some sound historical points about the origins, nature and inclinations of right-wing political Protestantism (which they term ‘evangelical’ or ‘fundamentalist’) in the United States, link them to several parallel movements within American Catholicism, and attempt to show how they are at odds with a true Christian witness. Some parts of this they do better than others. They make, often very cursory, treatments of disparate elements of American Christendom, and the overall picture they paint seems a bit cluttered as a result.

There are several points where I believe that the authors could have made their point even more forcefully than they have. I will have to come back later and expand on this. I have already pointed out briefly how the sainted Emperor Constantine, despite the dubious place he occupies in Whiggish and Protestant historiography as a wedder of Church and State, was not an advocate of any political theology which might prefigure intégrisme. Constantine’s rule was messy, and he was deeply aware of that himself. He comported himself with humility in the presence of his bishops; and though he called for the council at Nicæa he did not dare to exert any political pressure on the outcome. He refused to be venerated as a god when that was expected of him under the pagan customs. In spite of the motto which has come to symbolise his reign, Constantine’s trajectory as Emperor was one of tragedy, humility and repentance. He was a model of symphonía, and yielded in his own opinions to the counsel of the Church. Not his the triumphal victory imagined by those now comparing him to the current elected occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Considered in the light of Orthodox political philosophy especially, such comparisons are far beyond asinine. They border on defamation and blasphemy against a holy saint.

Another point on which the Orthodox witness needs to stand firm, more emphatically than even Spadaro and Figueroa do, regards the rejection of Manichæan ‘dominionist’ and ‘national blessing’ forms of political theology. For this we must appeal to history of Orthodoxy in North America. Orthodox Christians should be, to a greater extent even than Catholics, aware of the dangers of the faith that drapes the Cross in the Stars and Stripes. The vicious, inhospitable and unbrotherly reception that Saint Alexis Toth received at the hands of Archbishop John Ireland (a corporate-friendly ‘Americanist’ if there ever was one – though not an intégriste!), or the less-dramatic but more-persistent social humiliations working-class Rusyn Orthodox immigrants to mining towns had to endure amidst their poverty for their faith and culture, should be grim reminders to all of us of the dangers of a political theology of ‘national blessing’, from when we were seen as the (cultural or class) enemy. These are forms of political theology which we must reject, with force. The more so since ethno-nationalism has been and remains an idol to which modern Orthodox Christians have proven sadly susceptible in our tragic history of resistance to Ottoman tyranny.

On the other hand, let’s be aware of what is happening with these back-and-forth salvos in the Catholic blogosphere. We are seeing the reawakening of older, longstanding questions of political theology. The intégrisme the authors of the piece attack within American Catholicism, is in fact a movement toward papocæsarism, a movement which Spadaro and Figueroa are right to oppose, being as it is a temptation of special intensity for political thinkers in the Latin tradition. But the authors of this piece somewhat lazily conflate this with an opposite movement in the American church, represented by the dominionist and national-blessing tendencies within the Protestant tradition. These have a tendency toward cæsaropapism: no Pope, no magisterium, but rather the earthly ideational leaders within American political life have the right and authority to dictate the priorities of the public spiritual life. It is true that there is a great deal of overlap – for the time being – in ‘values’ and priorities between these two approaches to political ethics. But these are static and temporary – as Quirk notes in his op-ed, the common cause between the two is ‘superficial’. Whereas, as Berdyaev would say, the political ethics of Christendom are dynamic and fluid. No, but that sounds too peaceful. Political ethics and theology are a veritable Strait of Messina; it is too easy to get sucked away in a rogue current.

At a certain level, there is a kind of naïveté to which Spadaro and Figueroa leave themselves prone. It may or may not be Pope Francis’s study to ‘break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church’, but it should be clear, from America’s own experience, that doing so is actually more difficult than it sounds, and has the added danger of further distorting and poisoning the right relationships between Church and state. There can be no doubt that America is a very religious nation, particularly when compared with Europe, and that despite having an official separation of Church and state, by design of our nation’s founders. Yet clearly Spadaro and Figueroa (and presumably Pope Francis by extension) believe that, in spite of our having broken ‘the organic link’, at least between political institutions and the Church, our religious life is still affected by a number of forms of, let’s politely say ‘weirdness’, that don’t appear in less-religious (but also less institutionally-sæcular) Europe. Now, I’ve been a vocal critic of American-style sæcularism since my Episcopal days. That’s because it’s been apparent to me for awhile that sæcularism or laïcité is easier to realise on paper than it is in practice. France’s violent mood swings between rabid anti-clericalism and loud outbursts of Catholic piety are comical enough in historical perspective, but we Americans shouldn’t laugh too loud lest we forget our own political-cultural-religious dysfunction (of which I freely admit myself to be a part).

This makes it all somewhat ironic, then, that Spadaro and Figueroa go to all the trouble to point out (in most cases rightly) how distant American expressions of religiosity are from an ideal formed within a more deeply institutional religious culture, but their end prescription – ‘breaking the link’ – is the same one which caused those expressions to go astray to begin with.

Orthodox political theology does, of course, have an answer – or rather, a direction – which can sound utopian (or indeed dystopian) to Western ears, including Catholic ones: that of symphonía. But in order to work well, the state needs to internalise the moral and spiritual authority of the Church; and the Church must forsake any claim on temporal political power. These are massive struggles, historically, within the Church and within societies where the Church finds herself. Orthodox religious historian Gyorgi Fedotov claims that the closest any Orthodox polity has come to realising symphonía (as opposed to a cæsaropapist distortion of the same) was in the early Kievan Rus’, whose kings really did bear a heartfelt humility before the teachings of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople. Later developments, though, would show that the ease with which moral authority could translate into earthly power also had its temptations.

Still, Orthodox Christians would do well not to ignore the rumbles brewing among our Latin brothers and sisters. Questions of political ethics and theology are back on the menu. And they are more urgent, now especially at a time when older questions of political œconomy in the sæcular sphere are also busy reasserting themselves.

15 July 2017

In praise of Edo

For one brief moment,
Mankind touched the world-soul there
And then parted ways.

Okay, two hundred fifty years of Japanese history under the military leadership of the Tokugawa family obviously deserves far better than one haiku in its defence. Particularly from yours truly, who has written so many hard words on the Kingdom of Yamato for so many reasons these past years. Please allow this worthless blogger the attempt to do better than that in my usual way, even if in doing so I clumsily forsake the brevity and elegance which must match the style of my subject.

The more I read about Edo-era Japan, the more I find in it to admire, and the more I find I must lament its loss, its destruction by its very leadership. I have held previously, and still do, that what is noble and sweet and admirable in traditional Japanese society has been reflected and amplified from the importation of certain forms from Tang-dynasty China.

In terms of governmental and political principles, the parallels with Tang China were close. Tokugawa Ieyasu undertook land reforms similar to those of Li Shimin, if only for pragmatic and political reasons. Once he broke the power of his political rivals he turned much of the arable land over to the peasantry and the old samurai families, and placed them on land reclamation projects. Though this was largely for the reason of disarming them, it had the added effect of contenting them and spreading the wealth to the poor. These reforms ended up making Edo Japan one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, according to Dr Saito Osamu – comparable to many of today’s European welfare states in terms of wealth and income distribution. Between rural peasantry and urban mercantile and military élites, the wealth disparity didn’t far exceed two to one. And the land was quite evenly distributed, with each family (the smallest unit with recognised legal rights) tilling well enough to meet their own needs after taxes were paid. It’s something of an anachronism and a cultural imposition to call it so, but Edo Japan was essentially a distributist society.

Confucian learning was intensely valued, particularly the neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi (to the point where the entirety of Edo Confucian learning was styled Shushi-gaku 朱子學). Tokugawa Ieyasu was especially interested in promoting Confucian principles to consolidate his legitimacy. He established the class structure promoted by Ban Gu in the Han Dynasty: with samurai (supposedly the equivalents of the Chinese literati) at the top, then the peasantry, then the urban workmen, then the merchants at the bottom. The result – at least in the Japanese interpretation – was timocratic. The lovers of honour, the men who (putatively) lived by the sword, were placed deliberately at the top of society; the lovers of money at the bottom. Though Confucian learning, erudition and refinement were all deeply respected in the complete man, the masculine ideal was still that of the warrior.

But Confucianism didn’t stay at the top. The Tokugawas’ respect for Chinese learning did filter down to the grassroots; it saturated all of cultural life – poor as well as rich, women as well as men. As the (much-earlier) Tale of Genji puts it: ‘it is when there is a plenitude of Chinese classical learning, that the Japanese soul is respected in the world’. Or, to quote Gu Hongming’s The Spirit of the Chinese People:
If you want to see the grace and charm expressed by the word debonaire in the true Chinese feminine ideal, you will have to go to Japan where the women there at least, even to this day, have preserved the pure Chinese civilisation of the Tang Dynasty. It is this grace and charm expressed by the word debonaire combined with the divine meekness of the Chinese feminine ideal, which gives the air of distinction [meiki or minggui 名貴] to the Japanese woman—even to the poorest Japanese woman today.
There is indeed much to praise in the ideal of the Japanese woman, the Yamato nadeshiko 大和撫子 of the Edo period. Unlike her contemporary Chinese counterpart, who if she was wealthy enough, crippled her own feet and rendered herself in that way artificial and ornamental, the Japanese ideal woman was disciplined and dynamic, hardworking and subtly alluring – never flighty or superficial. Physically possessed of a supple willowy figure, with elegantly-coiffed black hair, snow-white skin and deep red lips; she was also spiritually endowed with a stoic, all-pervading modesty and a kind of kenotic selflessness. The Yamato nadeshiko of the Edo period is a deep inward concentration of the talented, free-spirited, full-figured Tang Chinese womanly ideal, and yet has a subtly different character.

Women do hold up half the sky, and it should be no surprise therefore that the society they embody has the same characteristics as they do. The society and culture of Edo was similarly concentrated and disciplined, yet it expressed itself in singularly sublime and beautiful ways. In one vital respect Edo did not emulate the Tang. It was not expansionist. It was a society which ‘lived and let be’; it minded its own business quietly and didn’t meddle on the continent at all. The two hundred fifty years of the Tokugawa bakufu 德川幕府 were years of peace – later Western and even later Japanese historians, believing in the liberal brass law of ‘free trade’ or in the militaristic iron law of expansion, would deride this policy as ‘isolationist’. But more than being mere imitators of the Chinese way and the Chinese learning (as were the Heian and Muromachi periods), the Edo period was a deep, spiritual, feminine concentration of the same cultural energies, so ebulliently released in Tang and Song China.

This concentration found expressions not only in high-flown gendered ideals of warrior and wife. The social stratification combined with relative œconomic equality produced a spectacular urban culture in Edo itself where entertainments of all sorts could blossom. Edo was a golden age of visual arts (particularly woodblock prints like the ones shown above, filled with grace and power), performing arts (especially kabuki 歌舞伎 and the tradition of the geisha 藝者), music and literature – including great novels like The Tale of Eight Dogs, which were influenced by Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, yet carried their own character. This sublimely-beautiful explosion in cultural output corresponded with a modest, linear œconomic and population growth pattern. The average family size was above replacement with three children, but also not too large; and the œconomy grew to match – and this was not the result of higher levels of resource exploitation, but through gradual improvements in technology and natural boosts to efficiency and ingenious ways of reducing or eliminating waste (again, with Japan’s elegantly-practical women doing the great bulk of that ‘household work’). The result was a society which was sensitive and attuned to its immediate natural environment, œcologically-harmonious as well as peaceable!

Edo Japan was not a utopia. Christians were violently persecuted by the early Tokugawa bakufu. Easy divorce, prostitution and pornography were far from being inventions of the Meiji revolutionary state, but were already well-established in the same urban culture which produced art, music and drama of such beauty. And the Confucian class system had its ugly underside, too: the handlers of meat and leather – both necessary professions, but distasteful to Japanese sensibilities – were considered ‘untouchables’ by the rest of society. But there is a great, great deal about Edo Japan to admire and hold in reverence, the more so when we consider the devastating cultural effects that came after the appearance of Matthew Perry’s warships; when Emperor Meiji exchanged his nation’s traditionalist, Chinese-enlightened soul for the libido dominandi of modern revolution and the power promised by German-engineered steel.

14 July 2017

They’ve always been with us

Reading Gyorgi Fedotov on the religious history and psychology of Kievan Rus’ has been a fascinating and enlightening exercise. One of the things he shows, is that for those of us in the Slavic Rite of the Holy Orthodox Church, there are very few new things under the sun, and many of the issues we face have been debated at length before. The human condition being what it is, this shouldn’t be surprising. But here are some accounts from Fedotov’s account of the priest Kirik and his interactions with Saint Niphont the Bishop of Novgorod:
The best-known and the most embracing of the question-and-answer compositions [on the subject of canon law] belong to a group of Novgorodian priests in the middle of the twelfth century, among whom Kirik takes first place. The answers are given by the bishop Niphont and other prelates. The questions and answers are reflections and sometimes verbatim reports of real conversations between the bishop and the priests who come to him, canonic collections in hand, to solve their practical difficulties…

If a priest consults his bishop about the complicated detail of the ritual only recently adopted in a newly-converted country, it is in itself no indication of his ritualistic tendencies. It is simply a part of his professional training… But even in this liturgical interest Kirik goes beyond the limits of reason, revealing a spirit of narrow bigotry and ritualism in a pejorative sense; many times he deserves the rebuke of his somewhat more broad-minded bishop.
If you see already in Kirik, a native priest among the recently-converted Finns and Russians of Novgorod, some parallels among the American konvertsy, particularly those of a certain legalistic frame of mind, rest assured that you aren’t alone in that. It’s noteworthy that Saint Niphont, though he upholds most of the dietary and fasting restrictions (including very severely that against eating fowl or game that had been strangled), the saintly bishop is much more lenient when it comes to condescending to the needs of married couples.
Bishop Niphont cites an ancient canon of Patriarch Timothy, which was read to all newly-married couples and which prohibited copulation on Saturdays and Sundays. Very soon Friday was added to these days. The Precepts to the Confessing enjoins this prohibition with a curious warning: the child conceived during these three days risks becoming ‘thief, or robber, or fornicator’, and then his parents have to do a penance. The liberal Niphont is indignant about these exaggerations. When referred by Kirik to this, or similar, canonical authority he gives his opinion: ‘Those books are fit for burning’. Nevertheless, the prescription of ‘those books’ prevailed, and the superstitious view rejected by Kirik became a general belief of the Russian people.

The Precepts won over Niphont’s judgement also in another point: in the extension of sexual prohibition to all feast days and to Lent. This seems to be the practice of the Novgorod priests, which angered Niphont. ‘Do you teach abstinence from wives during Lent? You sin in this.’ Obviously, the Bishop considered this abstinence beyond the capacity of laymen. The Precepts insists upon abstinence, at least, during the first and the last weeks of Lent. The canons of the Muscovite period are more intransigent in this point as in many others…

A particular case of conscience was the perplexity of ‘being with one’s wife’ in the presence of icons or of the holy cross. From the context it can be inferred that in Kievan Russia, unlike during the Muscovite period, the icons were not kept in inhabited heated chambers but in separate cold rooms. But these rooms could also be used as bedrooms. This explains the question: ‘If one keeps icons or the precious Cross in a room (
клеть), is it lawful to be with one’s wife?’ Niphont is as liberal and peremptory as usual: ‘The wife is not given to one for sin… Do you take off your cross when you are with your wife?’ In this last point the bishop is seconded by the Precepts: ‘A layman must keep the Cross upon himself if lying with his wife.’ The Muscovites were of another opinion. But the fact that such questions were raised in the earliest times is evidence of the widespread view that all sexual life was unclean. The pre-Mongolian Church tried to oppose this conviction by stressing the sanctity of marriage. But the dual attitude toward sex was too deeply rooted in the Christian past. The ancient canons bear witness of it; and it was only natural that one of these currents, the negative one, should start a new development in Russia.
I find it highly interesting that a sainted hierarch, an accomplished ascetic cœnobite of the Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra with a firm doctrinal formation and a careful cultivation of personal holiness and virtue, had to rein in the legalistic tendencies of his spiritual sons, particularly the presumably-married Father Kirik (whose razor-keen mathematical mind, sketched here so diligently by Fedotov, was clearly drawn toward the harsher, more maximalist view of canonical rigourism). I also find it remarkable that the Russian Church, which had no interest in Hellenistic speculative theology but was instead more drawn toward the rabbinical ‘Judaïsing’ pole and toward theologies of history, swung so heavily at the grassroots to the guidance of the ‘Hellenists’ on matters of practical lay ethics. I’m sure there’s a reason for this, and I’m much mistaken if Fedotov will not see fit to mention it later in the book. Still, such a passage shows that convertitis and Hyperdox Hermans have always been with us; and have a history of trying the patience even of saints!

Parenting and cultural engagement

Rod Dreher has been going at it pretty hard these past few days. And by ‘it’ I mean lambasting post-Christian tech, pop and political culture and doing his book push. As the parent of a beautiful four-year-old daughter, a lot of the stuff he brings to light really does keep me up at night, and I really do agree that giving her her own smartphone before she’s old enough to drive really is a kind of moral insanity. And I can’t really fault him that much for promoting his own writing – Lord knows I’d do that too if I were lucky enough to be able to make a living from this blog – though I do rather take fault with the overly-defensive, brittle and uncharitable way that he does it, usually by accusing critics who clearly have read the book with having not read it.

Rod is right about one thing. The culture is changing, and clearly not for the better. Even so, culture is something manmade, and it philosophically stands therefore that it does not and cannot have full control over man – unless he lets it. As for my take on cultural engagement, and how and which media – books, music, movies, what have you – we should (allow our kids to) consume and produce: well, here it is, for what it’s worth.
  • Have you heard of Sturgeon’s Law? If you have, great. If not, here it is: ‘ninety percent of everything is crap’. Got it? Good. Engrave it on your heart. In letters of fire. Bold. Italicised. Triple underlined.

  • You aren’t weird for wanting to limit your child’s exposure. Hyperviolent, hypersexual, blasphemous film and print media are out there, and they’re ubiquitous. It’s perfectly understandable that you don’t want your child’s incredible, impressionable, absorbing young mind to be filled with it from an early age. Ratings are there for a reason.

  • Did I mention Sturgeon’s Law yet? It’s important.

  • Even G-rated media can be harmful. There’s a lot of television and movies which have a putative rating of ‘checked yay for youth’, which still encourage bad habits. Talking back to parents and teachers. Bullying or judging other children for their looks, tastes or socioœconomic status. Conforming to corporate-consumer standards of ‘individuality’. Thinking ‘tolerance’, ‘being nice’ and ‘getting along’, important as they are, are the same thing as genuinely caring about people. Forming poor or shortcut habits of thinking.

  • Not all ‘edgy’ is bad. Believe it or not, even violent, risqué, cuss-dropping films and television can still be spiritually or intellectually edifying. Some of my very favourite films are R-rated, and some of them, like Fight Club and Witness, ask tough but meaningful questions with which our society ought to find it useful to grapple. Keep means and ends in mind, and remember that reality is messy. Of course, YMMV as far as the maturity of the person you’re watching it with.

  • Sturgeon’s Law? Remember it.

  • ‘Christian’ literature often falls in that ninety. Depressingly often. Too many are the Christian authors who think moralising or sermonising in the form of a movie or book makes it worth reading. Or conversely, trying to make Jesus-talk ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ instead of presenting the truly weird, counterintuitive religion that Christ showed and Paul taught: a scandal to the Greeks and a stumbling-block to the Jews. If you’re going to write a book, write a good book with a good story. If you’re going to make music, make beautiful music. Don’t be all weird and twitchy about it.

  • It’s okay. Sometimes you can judge books by their covers. Sometimes.

  • Don’t be the morality police. Better to be ‘Merrie’ – in the sixteenth-century English sense of the word – and risk perdition that way, than to be a self-righteous legalistic Puritan (or Old Believer schismatic, or Jansenist) and ensure it.

  • That’s right. I said ninety percent of everything. Exercise good judgement. Use your experience and good sense. I guarantee you, that way you’ll weed out enough of the poison to stay sane.

13 July 2017

The prokeimenon in the Sixth Tone – let us attend

Apologies for the bad Orthodox pun there. The article published recently by Dylan Levi King in Sixth Tone, on the ‘baizuo 白左’ or ‘white left’ insult amongst Chinese netizens and who uses it, is a much-needed addendum and corrective to the foregoing commentary on the phenomenon. Long story short: in Mr King’s telling, it’s not Chinese Trump fans who are dishing out most of these critiques of the Western ‘white left’. It’s Chinese leftists themselves.

This is why it is so important to remember that, from what data we have, China’s political life runs for many intents and purposes perpendicular to ours. According to the study by Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing, China’s left, though it is every bit as hostile to neoliberalism, privatisation, ‘free trade’ and market fundamentalism as the Western left is, is nonetheless well out-of-sync with ‘left’ or ‘liberal’ priorities on a broad array of other issues. Broadly speaking, Chinese leftists tend to emphasise the value of folk medicine and folk beliefs, sexual continence and restraint, traditional gender roles, a strong military presence and cultural distinctiveness. King acknowledges this explicitly: ‘although Liu and his acolytes tend to evince a certain discomfort with hallmarks of Western progressive thought — such as gay marriage and the decriminalization of drug use — they are mostly sympathetic to the struggles of marginalized groups’.

King makes a point in this essay that I have been making for a long while now, which is that China at the grassroots level is a politically- and intellectually-intriguing place – far, far more so than the official media organs or at Western mainstream media would suggest. And the fact that the ‘white left’ is indeed drawing such criticism should not be taken as comfort by the nouvelle nouvelle-droite. There is indeed a certain admiration for Trump among the pro-government groups in China, but he is far from being broadly liked. Even the cautious optimism many of China’s leftists may have felt about Trump’s ‘pragmatism’ where rights-and-democracy talk was concerned, has long since worn off.

More to the point, consider that even left-conservative thinkers like Wang Hui take a historical view that has little in common with the ideological preferences of the nouvelle nouvelle-droite. To give one historical example, in Wang Hui’s view (and, indeed, in the view of many ordinary Chinese people, my wife included), the Korean War – still officially called the Great Movement to Resist America and Aid Korea 抗美援朝運動 – was a justifiable war of defence, undertaken by the Chinese people themselves against an aggressive imperialist power. For their part, the American and European alt-right – if pressed – takes the common view that their nations’ involvement in that war as a valid expression of the national interest, or more moralistically as part of the effort to stop the spread of communist ideology. The irony is that the alt-right often does a fairly good job of accounting for differences in cultural outlook and history in forming political awareness – but that awareness seems to fly straight out a window when they fancy they see a nationalist ally of convenience against globalism. At the very least, it’s irresponsible and an exercise in wishful thinking, to believe (as many alt-right China watchers now seem to) that history and ideology don’t shape the formation of popular opinion in deep ways. As King says, the current outcry against the ‘white left’ is best interpreted as ‘a throwback to earlier movements in Chinese political thought’. Such a view is at least consistent with past experience and with contemporary government preferences.

11 July 2017

Guangxi’s brand-new arcology

Remember that classic DOS game by Maxis, SimCity 2000? Unfortunately, its game mechanics may have made it out to be a glorified advertisement for the Laffer Curve and supply-side œconomics, but it did indeed feature some interesting social science-fictional concepts. One of these, a ‘future technology’ which became available as a reward after your city reached a certain threshold of population, was the arcology.

The concept of the arcology itself – a neologistic mishmash of ‘architecture’ and ‘œcology’ – belongs to High Modernism (Frank Lloyd Wright’s utopian Broadacre City has been considered a spiritual forerunner of the arcology concept), but the concept was floated specifically to combat some of the major ills of Modern design – especially the waste and pollution associated with suburbs. In an arcology, the architectural design itself is deployed specifically to increase population density, reduce sprawl, make lived spaces more compact and accessible, and ameliorate or eliminate the harmful impacts of human habitation on the environment. Theorists associated with the arcology include Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller and (most famously) Paolo Soleri.

Arcology as a concept worked its way into dystopian literature and film, also – including William Gibson’s Sprawl series and the Philip K. Dick-derived Blade Runner. SimCity 2000 itself, though, billed the arcology as something of a ‘city within a city’, a ‘futuristic self-contained [city] where a huge population is all contained in one building’. Up until now, though, most ‘arcology’ projects have been experimental high-density developments in existing traditional cities, as opposed to the gigantic, steely, glimmering Blade Runner-esque constructions of the science-fictional imagination, whether utopian or dystopian.

But the government of China is apparently considering building an arcology after the futuristic, utopian model, following the utopian intentions and principles of Wright and Soleri, in the city of Liuzhou, Guangxi Province, designed by Stefano Boeri: plans for this project were unveiled last week. Forest City features buildings which are designed to support greenery, generate its own energy and ultimately reduce air pollution; and it really is meant to be a standalone city. The project will be surrounded by farmland. ‘The Forest City was created as a scalable development following a petal formation. Each petal, which caters to a population of 20,000, can be scaled to include five petals in a single region, forming a flower-like formation centered on communal green space. All buildings would be covered in trees and greenery to help suck tons of carbon out of the atmosphere, pump oxygen into the air, and provide soothing habitat to both humans and native fauna.’ Boeri himself describes his project thus:
What they [Chinese developers] have done until now is simply to continue to add new peripheral environments to their cities. They have created these nightmares – immense metropolitan environments. They have to imagine a new model of city that is not about extending and expanding but a system of small, green cities.
I have to say that I like and approve of the intentions of this project: I’m not a fan of suburban sprawl either, of the air pollution and environmental destruction that inevitably accompanies it, or of the denatured, atomising effect sprawl has on our communities. I approve, as indeed many other conservative urbanists approve, of Boeri’s idea of urban spaces being an intimately-connected network of small, green built spaces. Having lived for three years in China – in two cities where living spaces were contained in six-storey Soviet-looking concrete blocks painted various garish shades of pink, orange and yellow, and severed by multi-lane streets from places of work, making even walking commutes a chore – I must confess that some fresh architectural principles, tending toward compactness and a conviction that ‘small is beautiful’, could do wonders in a number of places. And, of course, this is another thing that will put the already breathtakingly-beautiful and sublime Guangxi Province on the map, and preserve further what makes the province special. At the same time, I think there will be and are particular problems associated with the idea of arcology as China is pursuing it.

The great big glaring question with many new developments in China, of course, is who precisely is going to live there, and how will they be drawn there? China is facing a demographic crisis and has already begun overbuilding in many places – this is a problem Boeri acknowledges, but one which seems to cut against his own project as much as the architectural ‘nightmare’ he seeks to supplant. The second question is: what precisely is wrong with the elder architectural traditions in China, and especially the architecture of the siheyuan? Extended families, even as many as four generations and including more than one ‘nuclear’ family, lived in compact, self-contained urban units centred on a common-use courtyard for centuries before Western architectural principles began to spread, particularly after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. Could these older principles be adapted to building ‘new urbs’ in China, rather than adopting the possibly overplanned utopianism of the arcology?

China’s unique population, property-use and pollution problems do present opportunities for unique solutions, and it is not a surprise that both the government and private actors would be drawn to ideas like Soleri’s and Boeri’s to confront them. It will certainly be interesting to see what comes of the Forest City of Liuzhou. But perhaps a note of caution and a hint at other alternatives is what China could use at this point.