30 December 2009

Human rights and the legacy of imperialism

Here's a case I have mixed feelings on - the execution of Akmad Shaikh in Xinjiang yesterday is indeed a thorny problem involving international politics, social justice and the continuing fallout from the bloody legacy of imperialism in East Asia. Some background on the case may be found here: at People's Daily, Auntie Beeb and MSNBC.

On the one hand, I am - as a Christian and Friend - philosophically opposed to the death penalty in any form. The execution of a man who had a history of mental problems and whose responsibility for his actions under the law may be gravely doubted is doubly heinous on the Chinese government's part, and I deplore the cavalier attitude they displayed toward not just the man's life and dignity but also the complexity of the legal questions involved.

But speaking of complex questions, there is also the long and sordid history of western imperialism in China to contend with - and the fact that this case concerns a Briton smuggling opiates into China alone changes the flavour of the entire discussion. Note the editorial use of language in the People's Daily article as compared to MSNBC or the BBC: while we in the West are concerned with the individual human rights of the accused (and now departed), the Chinese government spoke of 'judicial independence' and interference in what it considers its 'internal affairs'. Interesting choice of words. Even more interesting when one considers the argument to the effect that '[h]ow could a criminal be exempted from the death penalty only because he was British?' (an argument made by legal professor Wang Mingliang of Fudan University).

This mode of argument is meant to evoke the historical memory of the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing, with the implication that Britain is now again trying to impose not only its legal system and values upon China but also a new form of extraterritoriality for its citizens. It is unquestionably reprehensible for the Western media to ignore the historical wrongs the nations they represent have perpetrated upon China and, in so doing, prevent any meaningful discussion of a sensitive and accountable response to the government's actions in this case. But the reaction to the Shaikh execution is merely symptomatic of a larger problem - the West's collective amnesia with regard to its imperial projects, particularly when it comes to dealing with third-world nations like China and India. I touched on one form of this amnesia / deliberate naivete previously in this post (with regard to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India). In order to build the kind of trusting, communicative relationship with China and India that we need right now, as a nation we must come to grips with the realistic argument that we are not morally superior to other nations merely by our exceptional virtue or our values, and that we cannot escape the consequences of our own history through wishful thinking.

We are still paying for the sins of our fathers; they have certainly been visited upon Akmad Shaikh, at the cost of his life.

24 December 2009

A promise

Can the prey be taken from the mighty,
or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?
But thus says the LORD:

Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken,
and the prey of the tyrant be rescued.
for I will contend with those who contend with you,
and I will save your children.
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.
Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Saviour,
and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

- Isaiah 49:24-26

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

- Isaiah 53:1-6

Good tidings of hope and of liberation to all!

22 December 2009

Christmas double feature

Yeah, it’s that time of year again. I got to see two recent openings at the local cinema these past couple of days: Disney’s Princess and the Frog and James Cameron’s Avatar (in IMAX 3D), and I’d like to share my thoughts on both. A warning to the reader: this post does contain some spoilers.

The Princess and the Frog was the first Disney animated feature film I’d gone to see in theatres in a very long time, given my troubled relationship with the corporation. Eventually, my ars gratia artis side won out over my inner aesthetic Stalinist, and I allowed myself to appreciate again the artistic value of Disney animation, particularly that of the 1990’s renaissance beginning with The Little Mermaid. Artistically, I was impressed with The Princess and the Frog. It’s not daring or groundbreaking or revolutionary the way Beauty and the Beast had been, but it was a fun story with a genuinely strong, sensible and sympathetic heroine. I was glad to see the classism and redemptive-violence problems of previous animated Disney features completely gone. And Tiana is a remarkably dignified working-class heroine, facing down all the problems working-class black people had to live with daily in the postbellum South: minimum-wage poverty and entrenched racism chief among them. In an interesting twist, she isn’t saved by marrying a rich man; the Prince she ends up with starts out as a highly-problematic, frivolous spendthrift who’s been disowned by his parents (and Tiana, thankfully, sees straight through him), who is redeemed by his growing affection for Tiana and his eventual willingness to labour alongside her and share in her dream. It’s a Disney script informed more by Bruce Springsteen and Soren Kierkegaard than by the Brothers Grimm.

The animation quality is polished (but that’s to be expected) and the characterisation is good even for the minor characters (Louis, Ray and Mama Odie) who would otherwise have been bit gags. The musical numbers were delightful, drawing heavily from the cajun, jazz and gospel traditions (though I wasn’t that great a fan of the pop number during the end credits). I enjoyed the delightfully slick villain, Dr Facilier, with his tarot cards and magic cane, though the highly-stereotypical treatment of voodoo (almost, but not quite reminiscent of 1970’s blaxploitation films) was perhaps the most insensitive aspect of the whole movie. All in all, there’s not that much more to tell – it’s fairly optimistic and benign, with a ‘hard work, love and hope pay off’ -type moral, but one which somehow manages to avoid a Pollyanna treatment; even if it isn’t the flashiest or most daring of entries in the Disney animated canon, it is still solid work.

James Cameron's James Cameron's Avatar (by James Cameron) was far more awe-inspiring than Disney’s new film; though flawed, it affords rich food for thought as well as plenty of CGI eye-candy and popcorn action. Story-wise, there was nothing original about Avatar; it is essentially H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds told from the point-of-view of the Martians, and it basically plodded steadily along the trail blazed by movies like FernGully, Stargate, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Star Trek: Insurrection and most importantly Dances With Wolves. We are introduced to a mining project in the Klach D’Kel Brakt on an alien world, Pandora, which is about to displace the indigenous people, the Ba’ku Na’vi. Human agents are sent into the wilderness around the human base by remote-controlling replicant bodies called ‘Avatars’, which resemble Na’vi and can breathe the otherwise deadly (to humans) atmosphere, in order to learn their language and facilitate their displacement diplomatically. One of the researchers was killed in a mugging, so his identical twin Jake (played by Sam Worthington) is sent in his place, since his genome makes him uniquely suited to controlling his Avatar. Jake suffers a crisis of conscience as he begins to interact with the Na’vi (particularly Neytiri, his guide and eventual love interest, played by Zoe Saldaña) and understand their religion and way of life, and ultimately has to make a choice between his mission and the Na’vi.

Okay, so it’s been done before. That’s perfectly fine by me, because Cameron tells the story with relish and aplomb, and turns it into an amazing technical spectacle that puts even the new Star Trek movie to shame in terms of mastery of special effects and computer animation. The world Cameron created was something straight out of a Miyazaki movie – floating mountains, awesome landscapes, exotic insectoid and reptilian life – and he even included a breathtaking flying scene which ought to make Miyazaki-sensei proud. The Na’vi themselves are given their own physiology, language, culture and religion – though this religion is basically a revamped Lovelock hypothesis. Not a minute of the two-and-a-half hours is wasted; the film is gripping and adventurous within its own world.

This film deserves the most positive reaction I can give it. While I applaud the political message (which is stridently anti-militarist, anti-imperialist, anti-corporatist, pro-conservation and often driven home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer), I felt it could have been far more nuanced. It’s very well and good to turn the lens upon ourselves and ask us the tough questions about our own imperial projects and environmental impact, but even beyond the problematic stereotypes of the noble savage and the sympathetic occupier becoming the leader of the resistance, the way in which Cameron explores these issues seems over-simplistic at points.

SPOILERS in next paragraph

For example, Jake’s eventual rejection of his own humanity in favour of his Avatar seemed like something of a cop-out. Jake suffers a crisis of conscience about the displacement of the Na’vi – as any red-blooded human being ought to in his place – and it’s even understandable that he might have in addition a crisis of identity as a result of spending so much time in his Avatar. But this crisis of identity is given pretty short shrift: what allows Jake to step back and tell himself that the imperial project in which he’s caught up is wrong is precisely the humanity that he casts off by the end of the movie. The decision he ends up making is the direct product of an ethic that arises out of his own culture, not that of the Na’vi; there’s no way it can, given Jake’s superficial understanding of their culture. Yet this question is either completely ignored or glossed over in a series of one-liners between him and the evil Colonel Quatrich.

End spoilers

So: Avatar and Princess? Both recommended, but for different reasons. Princess is good, clean fun with an admirably well-adjusted heroine. Avatar is a big, hulking CGI spectacle with a brilliant, if naïve, soul.

20 December 2009

Snow, and updates

Winter is here. Officially. Behold.

What you are looking at is a solid 15 inches of snow, which looks now like it's let up a bit, but no guarantees. At Meeting today I was one of seven people who showed up - and nearly half of the people talked, as the snowstorm whipped about us.

I am currently in the part-time employ of Ivy League Consulting, which helps Japanese prospective students apply to American schools, largely by editing essays and resumes for grammar, spelling and organisation. A lot of these students are applying to graduate and professional programmes here, so essentially I am being paid to do for them what I am currently doing myself. I have already applied for master's programmes in international studies at Syracuse University and the University of Washington, and am a stone's-throw away from applying to Tufts University and George Washington University.

Hopefully I will get to a more extensive blog post later, but for now, this is what I'm up to.

19 December 2009

I'm still alive

Sorry I haven't been posting recently; I've been working pretty intensively on grad school applications. I'll get back to serious blogging soon, I hope.

01 December 2009

Irony, tragedy and progress, part II (or, doing the wrong things for the right reasons)

I watched President Obama’s speech to the West Point cadets this evening. I found it disturbing and disappointing, though it did leave me with plenty of food for thought. It was many of the things we’ve come to expect from an Obama speech – polished, articulate, clear, with powerful and masterful use of language. It is not the style of the speech I quibble with, however, but parts of the content.

I sympathise heartily with President Obama’s predicament here, which looks like a massive juggling act. He is trying simultaneously to chisel out a realistic foreign policy which gets what we want out of Afghanistan, i.e., a state which can stand on its own without collapsing and guarantee some modicum of regional security; to heal a country split neatly down the middle and form some kind of consensus; and to equip the United States economically for the coming decades when we are no longer the sole world power (decreasing the deficit, improving health-care, protecting our industries and jump-starting our green technology sector). It is a job not for a president but for a miracle-worker, and President Obama is not the latter (however much some of his supporters wanted to see him that way). Perhaps not surprisingly, this speech hit at least briefly on each of these tasks facing the country, but failed to satisfy in each.

I fully realise that none of the options facing him as commander-in-chief are palatable. Though I completely disagree with it, I even understand Obama’s rationale for escalating the number of troops in Afghanistan for the short-term, and the extent of our continued responsibilities in the country after what was essentially a war of choice. What I didn’t like about Obama’s reasoning was his mixed message with regard to our overall foreign-policy outlook. On the one hand, he managed to convey a tone of humility with which I agree entirely – that we are (in the long haul) not interested in occupying Afghanistan or turning it into a client state or a protectorate. He stressed that we should not be expected to carry the role of hegemon or world policeman, since ‘no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone’. He point-blank ‘refuse[d] to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, our or interests’ in foreign affairs, which was heartening.

On the other hand, some of his rhetoric was remarkably naïve, though probably partially of political necessity. Obama’s speech failed to make it clear, even in light of this tone of humility and realism, that Afghanistan and Pakistan were and continue to be problems of America’s own making. Both are spectres of the Cold War – our political predecessors funded and armed the mujahadeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets; at one point, we liked the Taliban because they were so forthrightly and stalwartly anti-Communist. But in our brief, passionate partnership born of the political necessities of power politics we failed to foresee that the same zeal they brought to their fight with the Soviets could be exploited to our own disadvantage by radicals like Osama bin Laden. Likewise with Pakistan – the nuclear arms about which Obama is so concerned have American fingerprints all over them, and our long-standing partnership is a reminder of a day when we both distrusted the newly-independent republic of India for being too democratic, too protectionist and too non-aligned for their own good. In light of the new realities President Obama must face down, born of our national sin of hubristic pride, his rhetoric about our difference from the ‘great powers of old’ thanks to our country’s innocence, our ideals and our exceptional virtue among nations was wrongheaded to say the least, and his subsequent hope for our responsible use of our assumed continued global leadership and authority came off, to me, as downright farcical. Obama claims Reinhold Niebuhr among his favourite political philosophers, so he should damn well begin to show it!

… though this could also be seen as a shrewdly-considered but poorly-executed part of the juggling act. Obama is, after all, trying to restore America’s confidence in itself and its citizens’ trust in each other by appealing to a common set of shared values and ideals. Which is well and good, but we want that confidence to be placed on firm, sustainable ground. Is it too much to ask that we approach the world with greater humility and regard ourselves with less pride? In weathering Obama’s prophesied ‘darkest of storms’ in our battered fishing vessel, we must always turn back to the Way of Him who calmed it: by loving our neighbours as ourselves, by caring for even the least of them, by living in greater simplicity, and by moving lower at the banquet table rather than expecting the seat of honour.

20 November 2009

Irony, tragedy and progress

I had the very good fortune of going up to Boston to hear Andrew Bacevich talk about his book, The Limits of Power, about a week or so ago. Though I disagreed with him on a number of points, I felt that his arguments had merit (in the interests of not repeating myself, I will simply link to my previous post in which I outline some of his arguments). To be succinct, I agree with him that the current trajectory of American foreign policy, defence spending and conspicuous consumerism is unsustainable. Where we disagree is in whether anything can be done about it and what. Bacevich takes the view that the most we can hope to achieve at this point is to cut our losses and put the nation back on a humbler, more realistic path foreign-policy wise, but that ultimately the arc of our history is a tragic one – he quotes Niebuhr to the effect that ‘[t]o the end of history, social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that they are indestructible’, and he views the American project as no exception.

I take a view which interprets the history differently. The American project as it stands now may be doomed to self-destruction as we take on increasingly astronomical debts and continue to abuse our military might to act as world policeman in the name of ‘security’, but the American project also has an interesting gift for reinvention as it is tried against the limits of various economic and political paradigms. An economy that was built upon an unsustainable ideological contradiction (that of slavery) was consumed in the blazes of civil war, and America under Lincoln began its long climb upward from its tragic legacy of institutionalised racial injustice. We are coming up against the limits of a number of ideological contradictions, on the question of national security, on the question of the consumer/debtor-state and on the question of environmental protection, and it is growing increasingly likely that we will be harrowed by history in a similar way. But I am optimistic that the American project will find a way to reinvent itself, to progress – perhaps in a way which conceives its place in history with greater compassion, modesty and frugality.

Which is why I found myself laughing aloud while reading David Brooks’ Tuesday column. Brooks laments what he views as a ‘crisis of faith’ in America’s ability to be an innovative leader, which has manifested itself as a loss of optimism in the wake of the economic crisis. He goes on to compare our current social psychology with that of China, noting that the Chinese are more optimistic than we are about their own nation’s ability to be a technological and entrepreneurial leader, and pines for a leader who can ‘induce the country to salivate for the future again’ by creating a coherent economic strategy to keep us competitive with rivals like China.

The humour I derived from reading Brooks’ column is that his professed goal of seeing an optimistic, future-oriented nation (a goal with which I heartily sympathise) is riddled with irony and contradiction from the beginning. He begins by describing a decidedly retrograde colonial psychology based on an assumption of unlimited resources, and proceeds by describing strategies which sound inescapably quaint in a world where we are becoming increasingly aware of the scarcity of resources and the limits of the world ecology’s tolerance for our industrial activities. And the optimism he finds lacking in the nation is thwarted by the pessimism he betrays in describing the American social psychology as lacking discipline and fixated on the promise of material gratification. It may be possible that we need to bring back Thomas Malthus as our economic tutor. This may seem pessimistic to some, but it strikes me as the pinnacle of pessimism that we cannot bring the same manic energy that we once invested in altering our environment to bear upon ourselves, or that it would be misguided to invest more heavily in a communitarian, environmentalist, scale-free and scarcity-conscious economic programme. Such a project of reinvention might damage our competitiveness in the short term, but which will allow our economy to better endure the coming trials of history and withstand the tragedies our present-day Jeremiahs have prophesied.

17 November 2009

In which I go over to the Dark Side of the Force

There comes a time in every person’s life when he must make a choice that determines his destiny and defines his very existence. Good or evil? Jedi or Sith? Stephen or Maud? Red Sox or Yankees? Windows or Mac? And now, as a fan of Nightwish, my time has come to make the choice that has torn apart Nightwish fandom and plunged it into civil war: Tarja Turunen or Anette Olzon?

I imagine that I will probably be in a very small minority when I (with some reservation) claim that Anette is my preferred lead singer. Now, before I am dismissed as a perverse, stubborn contrarian (which it may be claimed with some justice that I am) for saying so, allow me to explain myself a little.

My first impression was that comparing the two singers and the bands supporting them was like comparing apples to oranges. Ms Olzon and Ms Turunen have very different singing voices and employ them in different ways even when singing similar songs. Tarja’s voice is full, powerful, precise and operatic, very well-suited to symphonic metal. Anette’s voice can also be precise, but it tends to drift into pop warbling, and it seems like she sings from higher up in her respiratory system than Tarja did – but at the same time, her voice is also more flexible. ‘The Poet and the Pendulum’ from Dark Passion Play is still among my favourite Nightwish songs in part because in it Anette gets free rein to exercise this versatility in a truly, unabashedly operatic piece. But ultimately, they’re singing with the same band, and it really does come down to which sound for Nightwish one prefers.

Even so, I’d really love to hear Anette sing ‘Sacrament of Wilderness’ or ‘Walking in the Air’ or some other Nightwish song that really demands sheer singing power. As it is, there is a video (kind of low-quality, YouTube being what it is) in which she sings ‘Wish I Had an Angel’:

(And Tarja's version for comparison)

And yes, she warbles something fierce. It’s a very interesting effect, but it doesn’t carry the same raw energy Tarja’s voice did. There is something to be said, though, for the way Anette actively sings with her instrumental accompaniment (as in particularly ‘Amaranth’, ‘Bye Bye Beautiful’ and ‘The Poet and the Pendulum’ and even occasionally in this version of ‘Wish I Had an Angel’) rather than over it, which Tarja seemed tempted to do particularly toward the end of her era. They are both amazing singers, and naturally what Tarja brought will be missed, but I think the Tarja fanboys (and ‘girls) are dead wrong when they claim that Tarja’s leaving was the death of Nightwish or some other such nonsense.


Anette is a highly capable singer, and I think that as she and the other members of Nightwish have the opportunity to get used to each other, she might yet outclass Tarja as a lead singer.

14 November 2009

I really need to go to the theatre more often - a review of UP

I have a bad habit of waiting for movies to come out on DVD before I go see them. Well, it's probably not that bad of a habit, all things considered; saves money that way. But in this case I really am sorry I didn't get to see it sooner - UP is a definite Pixar classic, even if it is perhaps the most deliberately melancholy of the studio's full-length animated films yet. If you haven't seen UP yet, please read no further, since there are bound to be spoilers.

To my mind, Pixar is at its best when telling stories which subvert the audience's expectations. To a society which expects them to sell toys and embrace an ethic of instant gratification and conspicuous consumerism, Pixar introduces WALL-E, a love-struck prophet-jester with the body of a rusty Rubik's Cube and the soul of Charlie Chaplin, bearing a message of community, social responsibility and environmental conservation. To a society which over-glamourises Adonic youths and gives them so many of its leading roles, Pixar gives Carl Fredericksen - a curmudgeonly old man with a cane whose grand unfulfilled dreams of adventure with his departed wife continue to drive him forward.

The first twenty minutes of the film describing the backstory of Carl Fredericksen (the main character voice-acted by Ed Asner) were heartwrenching; in loving detail, the film presents Carl's childhood dreams of adventure which he shares with his friend (and later, wife) Ellie - and proceeds in a montage of showing how those dreams are battered and pushed aside by life's bitter realities, culminating in Ellie's death. We see Carl's life afterward as he is left behind with his memories, protecting his and Ellie's home from the assaults of an uncaring capitalist modernity. The movie then takes off suddenly in a shamelessly Vernesque way. Even as the forces of modernity have seemingly triumphed and are about to put Carl away in a nursing home and tear down his house for new development, Carl decides to bid farewell and take off for South America in his house, to which he has attached an enormous regiment of helium balloons and a couple of bed-linens for steering.

This movie is about adventure, after all, and boy does Carl end up taking it - along with Russell (a young, ingenuous and overly-helpful 'Wilderness Explorer' who needs one last badge for 'Assisting the Elderly'), Dug (a dog who suspiciously channels the character of Caboose from Red vs. Blue) and Kevin (an ineptly-named rare flightless bird who is trying to get back to her chicks, and whose last name is probably MacGuffin) - who encounter an unlikely villain who is one part Eugène Dubois and two parts Charles Lindbergh with generous dashes of Cecil Rhodes and Laurence Olivier thrown in (and voice-acted, with appropriate malicious flair, by Christopher Plummer). There are also some fun visual gags that tickled my fanboy-bone: a secret lair and a chase scene which were obvious hat-tips to the Indiana Jones movies, an aerial scene which is unabashedly recalls the X-Wing assault on the first Death Star in A New Hope, and an escape which is slighly reminiscent of the Blackbird chapter in CHRONO TRIGGER but doesn't end up quite the same way.

It is an incredibly satisfying movie in its own right, however, allowing us to empathise easily with the hero's eccentricities and flaws. It allows us to grieve when he grieves, sigh with relief when he makes his peace with his wife's death and cheer when he swoops in to save the day in his floating house. I heartily recommend UP, though with the definite and apologetic admission that this recommendation comes only for those later in the day than I am.

I hope my next movie review comes in a more timely fashion, but I make no promises.

13 November 2009

Where is the love? Or, the rantings of a defiant progressive

My reading has taken me in some very interesting directions as of late, some of them fairly introspective. Notable among them was an opinion article by Newsweek’s Lisa Miller, entitled ‘Sexual revolution, part II’ – an article which brought to mind some old issues that seem to keep cropping up for me.

I used to consider myself ‘liberal’; now I prefer ‘progressive’, ‘socialist’ or ‘communitarian’, as I have drifted leftward in my economic views and toward the radical middle in my social ones. It is a common assertion by cynics that ‘progressive’ is just a different way for liberals to call themselves by spinning it in a different way, but I think there is a true difference in the way the word is shaded that alters its meaning. Much as I hate automotive analogies, I think one is appropriate here: where progressives are seeking to get into first gear, I think liberalism is content to be stuck in neutral, while conservatives eagerly seek to try ever-higher reverse gears. The attitudes toward sex highlighted by Lisa Miller’s article illustrate this wonderfully: a conservative group (True Love Revolution) at Harvard is, in ways which are probably best understood as sexist and heterocentric, seeking a throwback to a mythical time in which sexual relationships were simpler and people waited to get married before losing their virginity. And the responses Miller quotes from their liberal political opposition on-campus are merely the tired old lines (as she says) from the 1970’s: what matters is that sexual acts are consensual and that they are safe and STD-free and that women get greater control. It brings to mind the old debates we used to have in the opinion columns of the Mayhem’s Murmurs at Kalamazoo College.

I’m not saying what liberals want isn’t important. People deserve to be physically healthy, safe and respected. But Miller is right about one thing – TLR is close to bringing about an antithesis to liberal thinking which deserves to be considered seriously. You can talk about all of the clinical aspects of sex till you’re blue in the face; you can pass out all the condoms you please and give all the condemnatory speeches you wish about the homophobia and sexism of conservative Christianity, but it’s all incredibly weak tea, impotent when it comes to the central question of why a college student – or anyone – seeks out sex, really. Same reason people turn to religion (one hopes) – and Miller catches onto this well.

I was not a happy person during college. The psychological pressure to be sexually active got to be overwhelming to the point where I was feeling depressed, lonely and combative. I made some incredibly bad decisions and escaped into an ill-considered and ill-fated sexual relationship, with the fallout from which I’m still living to some extent. I cannot speak for my close friend and senior-year roommate, but I got the sense that he wasn’t a particularly happy person either – his troubled relationship to liberalism often boiled closer to the surface than mine did, to the point where he would write rants against the college feminists in the Mayhem’s Murmurs, or take refuge (from my perspective inexplicably) in an increasingly nihilistic philosophy of self-denial.

Of course, I took a similar route. My studies of and fascination with Confucianism, Daoism, German idealism, existentialism and now Quakerism were practically the mirror image of my roommate’s readings of Watts, Tolle and various Chan Buddhist authors. They led me to the conclusion that what college students look for when they are subsumed in this hookup culture, what the college feminists are looking for when they rail against the male portion of the student body in the abstract, what the conservative Christians and TLR are looking for now when they champion their reactionary agenda, is not from a physical desire that can be gratified with one or many one-night stands, or a moral desire that can be gratified with some political achievement, but a deeper desire for self-definition and self-narration that can be gratified only freely by some kind of recognition from society.

Yet, how weak even this neo-Hegelian language sounds! How much more poignant it is when expressed by a master poet and story-teller, whose unfinished tales from an age more civilised than this one, of knights in the service of impossible causes and kings giving up their thrones and toiling in the fields in pursuit of answers from the peasant women with whom they have fallen in love, still have the power to leave us questioning! The severe, troubled young Dane gives us leave to laugh at the frogs who croak in their ponds about how we should have the same attitudes toward sex as we do to food, yet who themselves are content to feast on whatever flies their long, despairing tongues can snare – but only for a short while before he turns his pen on us for our own hypocrisies.

Even Miller stops just short of asking the tough questions. Are we not allowed to look at our present age and ask the same question the Black-Eyed Peas ask: ‘where is the love’? Might not we take issue with the self-flagellation that sublimates itself into hatred of gays and lesbians, just as much as we might take issue with the people perpetuating the ‘hookup culture’ which confuses consent with respect and condoms with intimacy? Much as I may attract the derision of the cynics for using such language as ‘hope’ and ‘progress’, dare we actually hope for true progress in this discussion, or are we doomed to return forever to these tired rearguard culture-war trenches which claim the lives and sanities of so many college students (and others in our society)?

08 November 2009

A realist challenge, a pacifist response (or the beginnings thereof)

I am almost finished reading a book by Andrew J Bacevich (a professor of international relations at Boston University), The Limits of Power – being near the end of it, I think I can now safely recommend it. In it, Bacevich expresses some profound and sweeping concerns with the way foreign policy is now conducted in the United States. Though the Bush (43) Administration’s policies of hard power projection, an open state of global war and preemptive military action are the central target of the book’s criticism, Bacevich is careful to place the policy in its appropriate political and historical context. The mindset informing an alarmist view of threats to American security abroad, the author traces back to Truman’s Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and to Paul Nitze, who drastically exaggerated the military capacity of the Soviet Union (as a ‘permanent and continuous threat’) in order to create a country on a permanent war budget; this mindset he links to a notion of American exceptionalism which characterises the United States as the primary symbol of democracy, capitalism and liberal values in a benighted world. Further, he notes prophetically that this power projection abroad corresponds to a growing domestic attitude of consumeristic entitlement and profligacy, satiable only by a growing, unsustainable dependence on cheap foreign credit and cheap foreign petroleum. As a nation, he shouts from the wilderness, we are on a self-contradictory – even self-destructive – course.

For a 200-page book, Bacevich is tackling a lot. The book reads like a searing, if scattershot, broadside against American foreign policy going back at least to Reagan if not to Truman (Reverend Robert Hill of Marsh Chapel – the venue in which Bacevich has been discussing his book over the past two weeks – gave the book the apt epithet of ‘jeremiad’). He is questioning many of the basic presuppositions that Americans (whether or not they hold public office, and regardless of their party affiliation) tend to hold nowadays about their country that might have sounded ridiculous a few short decades ago. He questions the authority and importance which is now vested in an ‘imperial presidency’ at the expense of an increasingly narcissistic and emasculated legislature. He questions the way in which military force is now casually touted as an ‘option on the table’ in dealing with uncooperative regimes. He questions the ‘ideology of national security’ which perpetuates an all-around dysfunctional relationship between the government’s elected leaders, their advisers, civilian agencies and the military. He questions the strategic competence of the generalship which botched the Iraqi and Afghan adventures (for which the goals were surgical action meant to produce quick returns and from which exit was supposed to be easy). He questions the utility and accountability of ‘all-volunteer’ armed forces. Most of all, he questions an American body politic which contents itself with a self-defeating state of perpetual war and hard power projection abroad, from which they derive material consumer benefits without being called to make any material or moral sacrifice whatsoever, noting that Bush 43 in particular lowered taxes and encouraged consumer spending even as two simultaneous open-ended wars of choice were being waged!

Startlingly, he does all of this in the short space he has allotted himself, while still managing to acquit himself admirably in terms of deliberate research, analysis and reasoning. Each of Bacevich’s criticisms, sundry though they are as a lot, is made more forceful by the careful, coherent historical narrative in which he places them. He groups his criticisms into three broad strokes, giving us a sketch of a ‘crisis of profligacy’, a ‘political crisis’ and a ‘military crisis’, but he takes care to provide the reader with the historical background necessary to understand the breadth and shape of each. It is not so much a detailed representation that emerges so much as an impressionist painting, but it is still clear enough to allow the reader to appreciate the scope of the crises being presented.

But this author is no idealistic left-winger. He’s a former military man, a hard-nosed Niebuhrite (he quotes Reinhold Niebuhr a great deal in this book), a conservative in his approach to fiscal matters and at times startlingly palaeo-conservative in his pessimistic attitude toward the capacities of government in general. As such, there are certainly economic policy points on which we doubtless would disagree – he takes the attitude in the book that all debt is bad debt, whereas I would argue that certain domestic social goods are well-worth going into debt over (like health-care and education, provided they are of benefit to the entire society and can theoretically pay themselves back). As a committed pacifist, also, I have some very strong reservations about Niebuhr’s theology, but Bacevich’s Niebuhr-inspired call for modesty and realism in foreign policy is one with which I can very readily sympathise at this point in history. Ours is a society which has been – in an ironic, Hegelian-style self-negation – simultaneously insulated from global affairs and made comfortable with its government’s role of global constable and informal imperial hegemon; this development should be as troubling (if not more!) to serious Christian pacifists in America as it clearly is to conservative realists like Andrew Bacevich.

Though Bacevich is concerned primarily with the exaggeration of the utility of hard power by idealists of a more interventionist bent, he does try to take after Niebuhr in some areas by warning people off of idealism in general. In his view, it is a dangerous road one starts down once one considers his own motives and the motives of the society that produced him to be benign and altruistic; he sees this as a key component in the ideological exceptionalism to which he takes exception. In a way, we pacifists can be as guilty of this kind of exceptionalism as many of our fellow countrymen can, though it isn’t as much of an issue for us since we have for a long time been relegated to the margins of the foreign-policy discussion. We sympathise with an idealised self-image Bacevich begins to imply (as Niebuhr had done before him) is unhealthy and emasculating.

Niebuhr had his problems; one of which being a perennial straw-man argument against non-violence. In his rebuke of non-violence as a popular political strategy, he failed to provide a satisfactory answer to the success of Gandhi against the government of colonial India, and his insistence that non-violence only works inside a framework within which liberal and democratic values are shared and respected is, sadly for his own argument, speculative at best. (Non-violent methods and civil resistance did work against the Nazis, for example, to the very limited extent that they were actually put into practice – for example by Wallenberg, Schindler, the Trocmes and the Bulgarian and Danish governments.) However, his point should be very well-taken that pacifists ought to take a far more serious and critical approach to problems of human evil, and pay closer attention to how easily the best of human intentions can stagnate or be corrupted, without a hard-nosed and pragmatic strategy behind them.

In that sense, Bacevich’s work, which draws so heavily upon a Niebuhrite theology, does have some useful correctives to offer. In my opinion, it is well worth a careful reading and a thoughtful discussion.

03 November 2009

A Friendly persuasion

One of the odd things about coming back is that you tend to search things out to fill the void, sometimes bringing with you priorities you never thought you might have. I’ve been interested in my family history for awhile, but my interest was shown for mere dilettantism when I was in Qazaqstan. I was told it was common for Qazaq boys to be able to recite their lineage on their father’s side back six generations; indeed, when I was there everyone seemed to know everyone else’s ancestry, and a common question was what tribe you are from (‘Еліңіз не?’). Hence, my curiosity about where my family (the Coopers) came from.

As it turns out, the Coopers have been in what are now the United States for a long time – since 1699, when William Cooper (or Cowper, my great- x8 grandfather) of Low Ellington, Yorkshire came to the United States with his family on the disease-ridden passenger ship Britannia to escape religious persecution. He was born into the Church of England but became an English Dissenter, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (better known as the Quakers). The Act of Toleration had been signed ten years previous after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but the rights it accorded to English Dissenters were very limited – though according to The British Epic by Ricker et al., some Dissenters were given the right to worship and the right to vote (rights which Catholics would not yet have for some while in England), they were still barred from holding public office (Quakers were excluded from the Act probably because of their stance against oath-taking as per the Testimony of Integrity). After disembarking from the Britannia, William Cooper settled in Bucks County in southeastern Pennsylvania (a colony founded by a fellow Friend, William Penn), where they stayed for two generations or so before moving to South Carolina just before the War of American Independence – my direct ancestors were poor white sharecroppers there.

This led to a renewed interest for me in the doctrines and the beliefs of the Friends. Like the Anabaptists, they are an historic Peace Church, and many practise non-violence, following the Testimony of Peace (though not all Friends are absolute pacifists). They also espouse a Testimony of Equality (which led them historically to be early advocates for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery), a Testimony of Simplicity and a Testimony of Integrity. Most attractive to me is the Friends’ belief that Christ is the Word of God, and that all people are drawn to Christ by the Light Within (essentially what in other Christian traditions would be referred to as the Holy Spirit). George Fox himself posited that God ‘did not dwell in temples made with hands, not even in that which He had once commanded to be built, since He put an end to it; but that His people were His temple, and He dwelt in them’; and they practise this idea by using their worship services to listen to one another, keeping silence and speaking only as their inward Light moves them. It is a completion of the egalitarian ideal; each person has an opportunity to speak, to be heard, to be considered. This, to me, is the most attractive and most important aspect of my own Protestantism – the idea put into practice that the God represented to us in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth is close to us, and that God is within and among us. This goes back to the kinship and equality values within Germanic Christendom which I explored in my series on the existential roots of Protestantism (parts I, II and III) earlier this year – what the Germans and the English got essentially right was that God is not set apart from us by a priestly hierarchy or by a temple that is off-limits to certain people.

This past Sunday, I visited Providence Friends Meeting for worship (and afterward for lunch). It was an interesting experience – though like most churches in Providence, most of the worshippers there were significantly older than me. I spoke with them until they began to leave; mostly they were curious about what I was doing and where I came from, and some shared their own experiences with the Friends with me. I am not sure yet whether I will stay, but it is worth going a couple more weeks, to see if I can fit there. History works in strange ways; or rather, it seems to be the human will in history that makes it strange.

30 October 2009

The ultimate awesomeness of VLC + a review of The Founding of a Republic

Yesterday I went to Boston to visit some friends up at Marsh Chapel to talk about academic matters upon my abrupt return. However, I visited Chinatown and picked up, along with some lunch, a copy of a new Chinese blockbuster released back in September, The Founding of a Republic 《建国大业》. Sadly, the DVD was coded for Region 6 and my WinDVD is permanently set to Region 1, so I had to watch it in VLC (to which I can only say ‘开放原始码运动万岁!’ – that’s ‘long live the open source movement!’ for you non-Chinese speaker types out there).

There were some in both the American and the foreign media who wrote off this film as yet another official government-driven propaganda piece, and perhaps understandably so – but it was about the tumultuous period in Chinese history out of which the current government was founded, so my expectations going in were shaped by these considerations. For someone unfamiliar with Chinese history, this film would be hopelessly confusing given its immense cast (all of whom are introduced with Chinese nametags at their first appearance), which is a pity, since it is actually an almost Shakespearean drama. (To be perfectly honest, it might be said that a lot of Shakespeare’s plays themselves were propaganda pieces favouring the ruling monarchs of his time. His portrayal of the ancestors of Elizabeth I Tudor in his Henry VI progression and Richard III, and of James I Stuart in Macbeth, were flattering often well beyond their historical desserts, and his portrayal of their enemies almost always as villains.)

And what a drama The Founding of a Republic is! The producers of this film were much more generous to Jiang Jieshi 蒋介石 (leader of the Guomindang government which is now Taiwan, played by Zhang Guoli 张国立) than Shakespeare was to, say, Richard III Plantagenet, and the film is more powerful (in my opinion) for that consideration. We see in General Jiang a man who is thoughtful, reflective and even caring, but whose tragic flaw is his inflexibility: he is stubbornly determined to tighten his grip on China and quash his political opposition despite the urgings of his wife, his close friends and his trusted advisors. We watch him as he spurns Mao Zedong’s 毛泽东 (played by Tang Guoqiang 唐国强) diplomatic gestures and refuses to entertain notions of a multi-party democratic government; we see him falter as his son uncovers deep corruption and even treason within his own family. But if this is propaganda, it is certainly fairly tame and considerate, even generous, to General Jiang’s character – the directors are not encouraging us to hate him and view him as a fascist devil. Behind the smile of the general-turned-politician we see the subtle movements of hesitance, of worry and of pain in his face (even as he is ordering political assassinations and turning a blind eye to blatant abuse of power), and we pity him – even at the end when he has truly lost everything he sought to preserve, alone, grieving and facing the rain.

On the other hand, Mao’s portrayal does have some rather retro flourishes of old-timey propaganda about it, as he is portrayed as an only slightly cynical nice-guy whose sole vice is the occasional cigarette (or four or five). We see him playing with children, who call him ‘daddy’ and ‘Uncle Mao’, in a field of flowers while discussing strategy with Zhou Enlai 周恩来 (who gives a piggyback ride to one of the kids). He is always cool, collected, affable and polite; portrayed either as a genuine nice-guy or as a thoughtful, hard-nosed realist puffing wryly on his cigarettes – never the firebrand revolutionary. When he speaks about defeating the powers of the reactionary government in the name of the working class, it almost sounds like an afterthought, a throwback; almost as if it is done tongue-in-cheek, though the historical man clearly would have taken himself more seriously. Closer references are made to the literary-historical figure of Liu Bei 刘备 from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms: in particular, Liu Bei’s flight from Chang Ban, when he refused to leave behind the civilians he had brought into peril. Mao insists similarly that he prefers to have lost the land and have kept the people. Indeed, throughout the movie, we see Mao as being more than a bit of a softie – it’s a big emotional moment when he is in the big military procession in Beijing after the Gongchandang have taken it, and is giving his salute when the frames slow down and we see a great tear of gratitude rolling down his left cheek.

The cinematography in this movie is slow, careful and deliberate, much like the rest of the movie, but fantastic. The movie shows some hints of indecision when it forgets that it is a human drama and decides it wants to be a big explosion-filled action movie or a TV documentary. Brief bits of documentary exposition are scattered throughout, cutting to a grainy black-and-white filter and giving some written explanation of political event it is showing. We get more than one art-film shot of armies moving either in triumph or defeat done in this style. Special effects were used liberally but unobtrusively (as special effects should be, rather than being shoved in the faces of the audience), particularly during the equally brief, equally interspersed war scenes. Aside from the special effects, there were some other particular interesting cinematographic conceits: the disgruntled Guomindang officer firing the rifle in target practice, after which the scene cuts immediately to the startled flight of a flock of pigeons around Jiang Jieshi and his son Jingguo (the subtext being the growing unrest and abandonment of Jiang Jieshi’s cause by his own men in favour of the Gongchandang). These little graces in technique and storytelling saved the movie in my view, but it’s still a film that takes on too much (as its rather ostentatious title suggests).

Would I recommend it? I can’t in conscience recommend it to someone who doesn’t already have some background in this period of Chinese history – I have, and I found it difficult to follow at times, the cast being as well-peopled as it was. It’s also quite militaristic, but that is to be expected from most Chinese historical dramas these days (with the possible exception of A Battle of Wits 《墨功》). But it far exceeded my own expectations. It is not to be dismissed as mere propaganda; if it is propaganda, it is surprisingly subtle in its treatment of its characters and its tangled, meandering narrative, and quite worthy of serious aesthetic appraisal.

29 October 2009

A (pointless?) parable

If I may intrude upon my gentle readers’ time and patience (and perhaps sanity) for a few minutes, I would like to tell a brief story. Some of it may even be true. It concerns a young man whose every action was motivated by fear: a deep and enduring dread that he would be rejected by God. We might make him a member of a church, if we so wish – I imagine such fears may be common among those who find themselves adrift in the wide yet shallow ocean of present-day Christendom, even in churches which find themselves not so much professing as digging up a bland sort of fossilised liberalism encapsulated and buried by Schleiermacher and Hegel, and postmarked from the 19th century. We may imagine further that this troubled youth is a deeply ethical person, that considerations of right and wrong tend to drive his reasoning, his motivations and his actions. But this youth is a doubter: he questions his own ethical bearings frequently, even routinely; he has trained himself, perhaps not even consciously, to question what his church says about God’s forgiveness, because he conceives of this speech as cowardice meant to preserve the vanities of the church’s less ethically-minded and more hard-hearted donors. Hence, this fear that he isn’t doing enough, or that he is doing the wrong things, and that as a result God will cast him out, perhaps becomes more understandable.

I suppose we must give this sad youngster a name (the present-age being what it is, it will not long tolerate characters who are not adequately labelled, typed, squared away in neat little marked boxes and presented with all the depth, substance and individuality of a mass-produced party balloon), but in this case I don’t think it too offensive to give him one – it will not detract from what I am about to describe of him. Since he is such a doubter and exists in such fear, perhaps it would be fitting to name him Thomas. Now, poor Thomas, who is caught trying to prove to himself that he is an ethical creature, joins a service organisation in another city (maybe even another country) to do so. Now, the name of this service organisation is not important; suffice it to say that this Organisation does not share Thomas’ deep qualms, even though it undoubtedly appeals to Thomas’ need to express them (else he would not have joined). Hence, we cannot call it a for-profit outfit. But reputation – that is, the appearance of having qualms – might very well be the driving force which keeps this Organisation going; and that would prove no obstacle to Thomas. What would he care for reputation, or the Organisation’s obsession with it, if it allowed him to prove himself ethical before God – say, by teaching?

And yet, there is still this persisting dread in Thomas, which does not abate as he begins to serve and to teach. He acquires impressive credentials in the pursuit of membership and service in the Organisation: certificates, teaching-hours, time in service to other organisations; why not? All this effort to prove himself before an Organisation which highly esteems ethical behaviour (or at least the appearance of it), only compounds his fear of being found unworthy. By the time he actually joins this Organisation, he has allowed this fear to dictate every action he undertakes; it is multiplied further when the Organisation begins laying upon him the standards he must hold to: ‘thou shalt not do or say anything to embarrass, discredit or otherwise tarnish the reputation of the Organisation’, and your superiors in the Organisation will be watching you. And he takes the commandment as gospel; what else can he do?

But – alas for poor Thomas! – his fellows in the Organisation do not fear rejection or judgment before God the way he does. Moreover, the Organisation compounds the torment of the fear, as if to insult him, by simultaneously telling him not to worry, that everything will be fine. And yet, he is worried, and he thinks there is nothing they can do about it – so Thomas lies, saying that everything is fine, that nothing is wrong, that he is not worried. His fellows begin to fear him, to view him as unstable and anti-social, because he cannot talk to them even though living with this contradiction is becoming a daily torment for him. It is a torment that follows him to his work and compounds itself there as he finds his students unwilling to accept what he is offering; this sends Thomas into a deep despair, and the quality of his work declines accordingly as he senses it being appreciated less and ever less, as though God is mocking his efforts to be useful and throwing them back in his face. He brings this despair back home; he tries to lock himself in his room, or he tries and fails to control his temper over some small incident (it doesn’t matter what) – though his rage is all directed at himself, his friends and neighbours in his adoptive city begin to worry, and fear him even more.

And the Organisation is not pleased. For Thomas has, in attempting to uphold the golden Commandment of the Organisation on his shaky, fearful foundation, done precisely what the Organisation has forbidden him to do, threatening the reputation of the Organisation. With as little ceremony and as little trouble as possible, and in the gentlest possible terms though in the urgent need to be rid of him, the Organisation encourages Thomas to resign and leave his adoptive city to return home. Thus, Thomas has brought about the end he so feared: his desire to prove himself capable of this ethical undertaking has ended only in ruin and rejection.

It is a depressing story, and we must leave Thomas standing there, ticket in hand. Do not pity Thomas, though, I ask: not for his sake but for yours. He doesn’t need it, and any pity you could offer would be sadly misplaced. He had his chance and we must suppose that he has to keep going from where we leave him. Thomas is silent throughout this tale save for his self-deceiving lies and his outbursts of despair and rage; he has no need to explain himself any more than he needs pity, and even if he tried to, he could never seek to be understood. That explanation has no meaning for you. So why am I telling you this outrageous downer of a tale, if indeed you find it so? Why am I assaulting your sensibilities with it, if your sensibilities are indeed assaulted? It is certainly not to ask you whether the author of this parable is as fearful and as bitter a young man as our hypothetical doubting Thomas is here – there would be no point in that.

Indeed, the question should be: what is the point? If seeing from wherever you are you do not perceive, and hearing from wherever you are do not listen nor understand, then rest easy – there is no point. The story is what you make of it, for you to accept or reject. Speaking for myself, I still am not sure what to do with this story.

28 October 2009

'10th man down' by Nightwish

Powerful song; powerful anti-war message; amazing band. Not much else to say here about the video.

It's kind of sad that I hadn't really gotten into Nightwish until after I came back to the United States - they occupy a space which allows them a good deal of freedom in terms of sound, a freedom which they use to wonderful effect, whether in short and pointed songs like this one or longer, more subtle and complex pieces like 'The Poet and the Pendulum'. Regardless, rare among metal bands is that they sacrifice raw sound to play around with the classical elements, which makes them fun to listen to.

26 October 2009

Hints from a Dissenter

I found myself reading the opinion section in the International Herald Tribune today, and Mr Douthat’s column (regarding the Catholic Church’s recent announcement aimed at proselytising conservative Anglicans) provided me with some concern.

It would be all too easy on my part to take refuge in the notion that we of the Dissenting movements which took the ideals of the Protest closer to heart have less to worry about on these issues, gender equality being central to both our witness and to our interpretation of the messages of the Gospels and the Epistles (we don’t and it’s not, not fully, but that’s another issue). But both the Catholic Church’s tactics and Mr Douthat’s response to them are troubling and problematic. For, while Mr Douthat easily dismisses the ecumenical movement of the latter half of the 20th century as only ‘tenuously’ connected to the Gospel, he fails to produce any kind of Scriptural justification for Benedict’s recent political ploy to grab away from the Anglican Communion those who are uncomfortable with the concept of women in the clergy.

I genuinely do believe that the Roman Church is on the wrong side of history, and more importantly on the wrong side of the Gospel message, in their opposition to greater participation of women in the Church. Women, including Peter’s wife, were among those doing deeds of power in Christ’s name, and were most praised in the Gospel according to Mark for their faithfulness to Jesus and to his message. The schizophrenia of Paul in the Epistles which the churches have accepted as canon is far more troubling, but I believe that Paul was speaking in greater accordance with Jesus’ message when he told the Galatians that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). But this is merely one small part of the content of the current debate which is tearing apart the Anglican Communion at the seams – what is at issue now is the current tactic the Church is employing to speed that process.

Mr Douthat makes light of the tragic history the Anglican Communion shares with the Roman Catholic Church, but for those of us who know it, drenched as it is in human blood and ashes and befouled by intrigue and deceit, it adds another dimension completely to the Pope’s unfortunate decision. Such an aggressive political move, aimed at mobilising a disaffected sector of the church motivated more by hate than by love, brings to mind the bloody religious conflicts of the English Protest’s infancy: the legal excesses of Henry VIII and the brutal fanaticism of his eldest daughter Mary, resulting in the martyrdoms at the stake of some three hundred men and women of conscience, clergy and common folk alike, and the dislocation of hundreds more; the shaky coalition of religious moderates under Elizabeth, followed by calls by Pope Gregory XIII for her assassination and the resulting conspiracies (one such involving Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots); the Protestant massacres in France in which tens of thousands were killed (causing greater alarm to the English church and heavier crackdowns on Catholic sympathisers); the religious turmoils within the English nation under the Stuarts following Elizabeth’s death, egged on by both Catholic and Protestant fanatics, resulting in civil war. Though the Pope’s manoeuvre here is far more genteel (by necessity, as Mr Douthat admits) than those of his predecessors, he is coming dangerously close to tapping into the historical mistrust that in some areas has not been completely forgotten (e.g. Northern Ireland).

Worrying also is Mr Douthat’s proposed rationale for the Pope’s actions. He proposes that the Pope is more concerned with presenting a unified ‘front’ (his word, not mine) in a conflict with Islam than with the relations among Christians or with the rightness of allowing women to serve equally. Some hints from an English Dissenter by blood and by conviction: perhaps there is a better way to go about building the Kingdom of Christ. Christ tells us in Scripture that the heirs of the Kingdom are those who clothe the naked, those who feed the hungry, those who comfort the mournful, those who welcome the stranger, those who make peace, those who pray for their persecutors and those who love their enemies. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury can build all the grand coalitions they so please, it will not avail them either one jot before God if those coalitions are not based on love for those who most need it, and justice and equality for those to whom it continues to be denied – for example, women and homosexuals. And it bears reminding both the liberals and the conservatives on this issue that the Kingdom of Christ is not built from conquest and the sword, nor is it built on the scale of empires and principalities and powers, but everyday, painstakingly, from even the smallest of seeds with enduring faith in the living God.

UPDATE: a needed note of levity.

14 October 2009

Дос жылатып айтады, душпан күлдіртіп айтады

It’s a saying in Qazaq: ‘дос жылатып айтады, душпан күлдіртіп айтады’ (‘a false friend will make you laugh; only a true friend will make you cry’). I think it’s actually a very good saying – the friends you can trust are the ones who won’t be afraid to correct you when you do something wrong, even if it hurts you.

This is difficult for me to write about even now. I was invited to Nurgül Täte’s house for Courtney’s birthday party, but I was in an emotional shambles that day – my lesson had gone very poorly, and I had gone into a tailspin trying to plan my following lesson, and my host nephew and niece were trying to pick the lock on my room with a spoon. When I arrived at the house, I was on the verge of tears, and I tried to calm myself down in another room, but this caused everyone there to start worrying about me. In hindsight, I should not have gone there at all in that state, since it was offensive of me to be arriving at a birthday party when my emotions were not good – I was spreading my bad mood onto everyone else. Indeed, I had offended my host sister so badly she would hardly speak to me at all for the next two days (when we finally sorted it out). Asem and Nagima had to take me aside later and tell me bluntly that I needed to change my attitude completely if I wanted to work effectively (or at all) in Qazaqstan, that I needed to change my attitude toward my fellow Trainees and in general be more flexible.

It wasn’t easy at all to hear. But I’m glad they were honest with me – my trainers, and indeed all of my fellow Trainees, are far truer friends to me than I gave them credit for. They aren’t afraid of telling me what they think. It was good of my trainers to tell me that I need to learn to take their criticisms more gracefully, and also to have more human grace toward my fellow Trainees in general, because they are good people, every bit as good as the people in AmeriCorps, and I had been misprising them severely. They are undergoing the same trials I am, and they are dealing with them in different ways – they deserve what support I can offer. I had been holding them and myself to an impossibly high standard, and to be perfectly blunt, I needed a good slap in the face from my true friends to realise it.

Since then, I’ve been taking their advice to heart, without being overly hard on myself. I had a good discussion with Laura Marshall (whose blog site, ‘The Central Asian Times’, has some link-love in my volunteeroll to the right – visit her! If she writes half as well as my discussions with her have gone, you won’t regret it!) about how to handle cultural differences and how to manage my own stress. I’m still learning, and I should treat myself as such.

12 October 2009

Visiting a Russian Orthodox Church …

… is definitely different from visiting an Antiochan Orthodox Church in the US. This past Sunday I went to Alexandrovski Church in С— to worship. The first noticeable thing about the church was how dark it was inside. St. Mary’s in Pawtucket was well-lit, with a sky-blue roof and great windows. Alexandrovski was much more atmospheric, with a plain wooden roof and four small windows to give the candles that were placed around the church their full effect. Before the service, the candles were blessed by the priest with holy water (from what looked like a plastic washpan of the sort we use in the монша) before being lit.

There were no pews, only some benches near the back for the older women to sit on during the service. Everyone else stood for most of the service which was almost entirely sung (in Russian, so my understanding was limited at best). Basically I offered my own prayers in English, and did as those around me were doing – crossing myself (with three fingers rather than two, right shoulder before left) and bowing, even getting on my knees and touching my head to the floor (as is done in a mosque). The service lasted a good two hours – it seemed to me that I was among the few who stayed inside the church building for the entire service, though. I met some of my students from English class outside, who greeted me with an eager ‘Мистер Купер!’ (‘Mr Cooper!’), and we went into an adjacent building for lunch.

Grace was sung both before and after the meal, facing a portrait of our Lord as an infant in the arms of St Mary Theotokos. The meal itself was борщ (borscht) with mayonnaise, bread, cookies, chocolate and tea, naturally. The church seems to be the closest thing I’ve yet seen to a community centre in С—, but only for ethnic Russians. Only Russian was spoken there; I had to manage with my incredibly simple, incredibly broken survival Russian. I didn’t manage so well when the priest tried after the service to engage me in a theological discussion; he resorted to drawing his point on a piece of paper – what looked to me like the centred-set model of the Church, with Christ as the sun in the centre and with people following the rays towards him. Definitely an interesting cultural experience! I must not have made such a bad impression, since two of my students invited me back to the service next Sunday. Time permitting, I will definitely take them up on that, but I will arrive at 10:30 instead of at 9:30 this time!

09 October 2009

Alright, let's try this again.

Hub Day lunch break. I've got two hours - let's see what kind of photos I can upload today.

From our trip to Talghar on 18 September. It was a short hike, but a stunning one - some more adventurous Trainees (and current Volunteers) went into the waterfall for a brief shower; good thing it was a warm day.

My wonderful host family (clockwise from top left): Quanysh, Bota, Dauyr and Dana. The picture doesn't show it, but Quanysh is actually a pretty tall drink of water - he's 185 cm (about 6'1").

That's all I have time for at the moment. Көріскенше, my gentle readers.

06 October 2009

Bring it on

Alright. It’s the fifth of October. I’ve got three classes to deliver today and two more team-teaching lessons to prepare for Wednesday. All unit lessons must be planned by the end of the week. Activities to choose for Game Fair and Health Day tomorrow. Site placement at the end of this week, plus intensive preparation for language testing next week. Welcome to PST in earnest. Bring it on.

I’m sorry I haven’t been to Ecik in awhile, and that my blog posts have gotten less frequent as time has gone on, but I simply didn’t have time this weekend to get up there – hopefully sometime before site placement I will be able to upload these posts from our favourite Ecik internet cafe (which is a basement, by the way, below a store, with five computers on mounted desks on the walls). It’s 300╤ an hour ($2.00), but man, is it ever worth it on the weekend! Ecik itself is a pretty cool town – I actually enjoy Ecik more than Almaty, since you get the benefits of being in a city (like a downtown, a bazaar, flush toilets and internet access) without the massive pollution. And the scenery is nice, too (not that it isn’t from Almaty, of course – just that it can’t always be seen).

I talked for two hours with my entire family yesterday, which was awesome (thanks, Skype!). Dad’s birthday was yesterday – I sang John McCutcheon’s birthday song. Mom’s birthday is on the same day as both Halloween and the Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony, so on the one hand it will be really hard to forget and on the other hand it will be really hard to contact her with everything that will be going on.

My full day of teaching three classes is over; it tired me out, but not as much as I thought it would. Two of the classes went well, one went very poorly. I am in the unfortunate habit of assuming the students know more than they do, and as a result one of my classes (for 8th form) was unreasonably and unrealistically difficult – based on a Robert Lewis Stevenson poem in Step 10 of our unit in the Kuznetsova textbook, with a lot of bookish vocabulary and weird constructions – and I was asking them to do critical thinking exercises based on their own feelings and experiences, which they weren’t yet ready to do (in English or in Russian!). Emiko suggested that it might have made a good university-level lesson plan, but not a good idea for 8th form in a Qazaqstani school; that lesson plan definitely goes in the mental recycle bin (it also didn’t help that I was teaching two groups instead of one and that they were being rowdy and noisy throughout). But I did learn a few things from that class (the first of which being to choose level-appropriate material for lesson planning, and not from the local textbooks). My other classes went okay, though – they were level-appropriate and the activities were good, but I still need to work on making my instructions clear for the activities I do. Today is Health Day and Game Fair, and I’ve got my activities prepped and ready to go. I’ll be monitoring Health Day activities and taking pictures at Health Day for the counterpart presentation during teacher training – hopefully I’ll post some of them on this blog. The same group of students who were at English club are likely to come to Health Day – and it’s entirely likely that Health Day will turn out to be a slight variation on English club, but I’m sure it will be fun all the same.

30 September 2009

Busy day

And I don’t mean just for me. Today it seemed like the entirety of the Peace Corps staff in Almaty were descending on Saimasai; that can’t have been easy. I was teaching eighth grade today – the same grade I will be teaching for my unit plan – and I was being observed by Natalya (one of the Peace Corps regional managers and one of our technical trainers in Saimasai) who came here along with Ufilmalik to observe classes. Thankfully, this lesson was one of the smoothest I’ve had yet, with some of the best-behaved students; I got through my entire lesson plan, as James Taylor might say, ‘like a Swiss watch’. Natalya had some very positive feedback for me: the only real criticisms she had were my use of Russian in the lesson and my lack of clarity in giving instructions for one of the practice activities. But the students were enjoying themselves and doing the work gladly (I saw no reason not to give every one of them a daily ‘5’ – the highest grade possible – though one Qazaq girl was doing so well with the exercises that she should have gotten a ‘6’).

Secondly, Dr Viktor arrived from Essik and decided to pay me a visit, just to check up on my mental health status. His visit was also generally useful – I think he was able to understand me a bit more, and it seemed like he could identify with some of my hangups, he himself being a perfectionist with regard to his own actions. Thirdly, Paul and Ekaterina arrived to do site placement interviews. Paul took my interview, and we had a pretty long chat about pretty much everything, from Qazaqstani history to education to life in С— to paranoid rumours about Peace Corps’ modus operandi. (And we got around to site placement somewhere in there, too.) Basically, I had two major requests for site placement: that I be at a site where both Qazaq and Russian are spoken, and that I have access to a young, inexperienced counterpart who wasn’t set in his or her ways (and would thus be more open to new ideas). I had thought I wouldn’t be able to cope with not having full access to running water before coming here, but a couple months in С— disabused me of that misconception about myself. I mentioned this to Paul, and he basically told me that people can adapt to pretty much any kind of situation – and we’re going to be in places where people live and enjoy relatively happy existences. I think it goes to illustrate Bill McKibben’s point that up to a certain point, affluence and development correspond positively with happiness, but beyond that point there is zero correlation. We also discussed the rumours that occur with Peace Corps – I told him about one in which Peace Corps assigns sitemates whose personalities don’t match in order to facilitate better site integration, and Paul laughed and said that that consideration was incredibly far down the list of factors, and that even if there were such a consideration, the end goal would be the same: to ensure a successful service for the Volunteer. He said there would be no point in the Peace Corps staff screwing Volunteers over to make their service more difficult, because all that would do in turn would be to make the jobs of Peace Corps staff more difficult.

I’m still curious to find out where I’ll be placed, but that won’t be decided for at least another week yet. I’ve got some suspicions on where I might be placed, but I won’t talk about those here – at least, not for another week or so. Suffice it to say that I’m not setting any unrealistic expectations.

28 September 2009

No, you live, you teach and you screw up. Then you learn.

I just delivered my first lesson for the week. I can’t honestly say it was a good lesson insofar as it went according to the lesson plan – actually, it felt like that first scene in The Incredibles where Mr Incredible is trying to save everyone all at once and not succeeding very well: first the thwarted suicide attempt, then the vault robbery by Bomb Voyage being interrupted by Buddy and then the bomb exploding on the train track with an oncoming train. First, I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been – I didn’t have tape or markers handy. Secondly, I rushed through my presentation, so the students didn’t get it as well as they could have. Thirdly, my practice activities (one of which was taken straight from the class’s Ayapova textbook) all seemed to be well above the class’s proficiency level, to the point where one poor girl seemed on the verge of tears when I asked her to participate, because she didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing. But, I knew the material I was teaching and I was feeling more at ease at the head of the class than I was during my first week, and that gave me some leeway to step back and try it again, bringing the lesson back to the presentation and seeing what mixture of explanation, mime and Russian translation the kids needed to see and hear in order to grasp the grammar structures and vocabulary and use them effectively. (Actually, my thanks to Aggie Goldsmith at BAE are due here in spades; taking her course made my life here a lot easier than it would have been otherwise.) ‘Flexibility’ and ‘humour’ were the operative words here: Peace Corps weren’t screwing around when they said those traits would be keys to success. I knew this hadn’t been my best lesson to date, but Emiko told me that it demonstrated my growth as a teacher, that I was becoming more flexible and more aware of my surroundings. Interestingly enough, Emiko also told me that since I am a man at the head of a Qazaqstani classroom, I should have far more leeway to be authoritarian than I would have in an American classroom, and I should take it since the students are much more used to an authoritarian teaching style. (Given the opinions expressed in my post a couple weeks back, I’m feeling both incredibly eager to take this advice and a bit fearful that I might take it too far.)

Indeed, the more I think about it and the more I actually do it, the more I am convinced that those who make education their profession are routinely under-appreciated and under-valued in American society. The platitude ‘if you can’t do, teach’ is in every way a lie: teaching is all doing, even if it is something as (apparently) simple as teaching English. A teacher must be a writer, a director and an actor. A teacher must be an observer, a participant and a leader, often all at once. A teacher must be a judge, an entertainer and a therapist. A teacher must be a disciplinarian and a hell-raiser. A teacher must be a nitpicker without ever losing sight of the larger picture. And the fruits of a teacher’s hard labour are never really his own: ultimately, what he does can only be demonstrated in what his students can command.

(And here, a teacher is heavily encouraged to always dress like he works for an insurance company. At least until he can reach a phone booth.)

That was ‘humour’, by the way: requirement number one.

Site announcement comes at the end of next week. It will be interesting to see where I will be placed: I had a lot of comments, but my only real stated preferences were for a site where both Qazaq and Russian are spoken (to get an opportunity to learn both languages) and for service in higher-level English classes (since that is where most of my experience is). But, wherever God (through Paul and Ekat at Peace Corps HQ) sees fit to send me, there I will go gladly.

27 September 2009

Ups and downs

Anyone who has gone abroad at the behest of an educational or service organisation will be very familiar with the culture-shock ‘W’, a graph that shows that culture shock tends to take a sine-wave form: the honeymoon phase descends into initial shock, and an initial adjustment is made, after which come further shocks and further adjustments. I’d say this week I hit my first real trough on the ‘W’ - though oddly enough it wasn’t the local culture to which I’ve had trouble adjusting so much (that comes in different ways and produces different reactions) but the Peace Corps culture and my fellow Trainees. It is vastly different from what I experienced of AmeriCorps (though I’m sure if I had been in AmeriCorps from the beginning, since North Carolina, I might have thought differently). Even though I wasn’t particularly close with my fellow college guides during my AmeriCorps service, there was a palpable sense of camaraderie in that group – we faced similar challenges, we had a common outlook on our service and we trusted each other with our problems (even though we routinely only saw each other once or twice a week). I still consider my fellow (former and current) NCAC college guides to be my friends; I expected that I would get along as well with my fellow Trainees in С—, but I haven’t found that to be the case at all.

Part of the problem, of course, is the time limitation. We spend a lot of time studying, preparing lessons or just preparing ourselves for the next task ahead of us, so there isn’t a lot of social time full-stop. Another part of the problem is that our reasons for serving in Peace Corps seem to be wildly different, and our attitudes toward Peace Corps service and toward the people we’re working with seem to be wildly different, to the point where it is sometimes completely incomprehensible to me exactly why they are here. It was a culture shock of a much different nature than I was expecting, and perhaps that’s why it hit me so badly: I’m not in Providence anymore, I’m not in AmeriCorps anymore, and my fellows in my language group aren’t at all the intellectual, idealistic, open-minded Yankees I’m used to dealing with – like Leah, Afshan, Miranda and David – around whom I could more or less be my normal self and needn’t beware being sized up, judged and belittled. So I withdrew and didn’t talk about my problems with anyone in the group – until I went outside, lost my temper along with my Mennonite upbringing and punched a schoolyard tree over a relatively minor problem. In hindsight, I am quite ashamed I did it, and it will never happen again, because a.) I gave my word on it to Nagima, b.) my right hand really freaking hurt afterward and c.) I know there are far more positive and effective ways to relieve stress.

I’m not trying to say that they’re bad people, on the whole. They’re not. I think it’s simply that I wasn’t expecting fellow Americans to be more deeply alien to me than my local hosts, trainers and neighbours. (Of course, there are other factors to consider, such as the fact that the lack of a language barrier lends itself to a kind of ‘uncanny trench’ in which relatively minor cultural differences within American culture can be grossly exaggerated.)

So yeah, it’s been a rough week. But talking with Nagima about the problems I’d been having really helped, and I feel much better now – more secure, confident and positive. My lessons are getting progressively better and my relationship with my counterpart is good - our teaching styles are drastically different, but I think given some more time and experience we could complement each other well. Also, I've got an awesome host family and an awesome language teacher watching my back; I've got a lot to be thankful for. As the Qazaqs say, ‘жақсы сөз, жарым ырыс’. (Literally translated: ‘a good word is half your fate’.) And the local flora can breathe easy now; they’re safe from me. Instead, I’m following up on my theological interests: I checked out Dame Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love from the Peace Corps HQ's library in Almaty and am currently reading it. So far, so good – but I’ll write some more about it later. Көріскенше, folks.

24 September 2009

Photo post

From 1 September (First Bell Ceremony):

Our school; rear view...

... and front. This is, of course, during the ceremony itself; it took up the whole parking lot. As you can see, people are dressing to the nines for this.

It's just not a party without the dombyra players.

From Almaty Entry:

Biggest mosque in Central Asia. Impressive as it is here, it's actually even more impressive inside; I'll try to get the photos from the inside uploaded later.

Panfilov Park and the WWII memorial - known as the Great Patriotic War here. WWII history is a really big deal here, since (as bad as Western Europe had it) the Soviets bore the greatest brunt of it in terms of casualties and long-term economic loss.

The Russian Orthodox church at Panfilov Park. Not a bad view of it here - this was the best photo I got of the outside.