28 October 2010

A short reflection on the benefits of local booksellers

a.) They’re local. For me, a young man without means of independent transportation beyond his own two legs, that is a definite plus. To be sure, there is also a Borders within walking distance, but from my house – not from campus. That would require going in the other direction. Also, sometimes I just need to get out of Posvar and into a used bookstore; it’s really a meditative experience for me.

b.) They’ll cut you a break. I arrived at Townsend Booksellers yesterday about three quarters of an hour before my part-time job started (at 9:45), but they didn’t open officially until ten. I saw one of the proprietors outside and asked him if I could come in. He asked me what I was looking for, and I said ‘something by G K Chesterton’, and he asked if I’d wait for him to open up (which he did) so I could look around. He also helped me locate the sections where he knew works by Chesterton could be found.

c.) They have really top-notch material, which often you can’t find in chain stores. The hardback 1985 edition of As I was saying: a Chesterton reader (an anthology of some Chesterton excerpts); an old clothbound copy of Chesterton’s Autobiography; a book of his poems (priced far too dear for my blood, since it was apparently signed by Chesterton – it was still fun to read for awhile, though). Townsend also had Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Niebuhr’s Christian Ethics and several books by Tillich, Yoder and others in the religion section. Their philosophy section was likewise marvellously represented, from Plato to Merleau-Ponty. I bought two of the Chesterton books mentioned above; I’m currently enjoying each line of As I was saying.

d.) They are beautiful. Like I said, being in Townsend Booksellers, even for just half an hour, was a meditative experience – the dense-packed books of various ages on real wooden shelves, sitting on a real hardwood floor, giving off the comforting odours of a private library, all have a very calming effect. The fact that the proprietors knew what was in their stock, and could state (either affirmatively or negatively) whether something was there, also impressed me greatly – they obviously put a great deal of care into their business.

On another topic, two days more until the Rally to Restore Sanity, which I shall be attending. Sanity is as worthy a cause as any, though I suspect my own rather eclectic political inclinations will be slightly oblique with reference to the majority of the people who will be attracted to a Jon Stewart-hosted event. Even have my own demonstration poster printed off and all! Hope to bring back some good pictures…

14 October 2010

Pointless video post - ‘The Final Frontier’ by Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden is something of a guilty pleasure for me, but their music videos certainly are entertaining. Enjoy!

‘The Final Frontier’

EDIT: Just as a sidenote, this has to be one of the out-and-out nerdiest music videos ever. I counted four - wait, five - references to various sci-fi, fantasy and horror blockbusters, and I get the feeling I'm missing quite a few more...

12 October 2010

Some further thoughts on Marx, the Tories and Confucius

As we probe further into issues of national and international administration in our courses at GSPIA, I have noticed that we are being increasingly exposed to an ideology of the global elite which has become dominant in the international affairs discourse. I am gratified to note that some of my professors are willing – nay, even eager – to entertain contrary views, though I wonder if these views have not yet been formally structured into a logical system which can form the basis for a deep critique of this ideology. One such logical system is derived from the thought of Karl Marx, though Marxism itself has some interesting problems and contradictions of its own (to which various schools of thought have responded differently). George Grant made the penetrating observation that Marx’s initial impulses were traditionalist (even religious!), as he rejected the contractarian narrative of the time and gazed back into human history to grasp at the threads which bound the human condition together (namely, our gregariousness and our ability to alter our environment to create goods of value) and follow them up through the various paradigms of economic division of labour and exploitation of the powerless, and makes an almost Tory-sounding critique of the dominant ‘enlightened’ ideology of his day by saying the licences it grants are made to serve the values and economic interests of the wealthy. So far, so good. But because of the recommendations he wants to make, however, in laying hold of these threads there comes a point where the tapestry he wants to weave begins to unravel. The Russian existentialist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev laid his finger on that very spot when he asserted that orthodox Marxism divided history into two – the deterministic era of cyclical exploitation, contradiction and collapse composing the entirety of human history to this point, and the liberated era to come when the classless society would take root. He then asserted that this narrative then ceased to be a ‘scientific’ philosophy and became a religious dogma: the only salvation humankind would have from its chains would be through the messianic class of the industrial proletariat, though there is no assurance exactly wherein this liberating power exists.

Interestingly enough, later Marxists and New Leftists seem to have become aware of this contradiction, and have come amazingly close to overcoming it. Among the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth have all done admirable footwork in finding new and creative ways to subvert and critique the social-contract narrative through various adaptations of Anglo-American pragmatism, existentialism, developmental psychology and the philosophy of language. They affirm the intrinsically social nature of human beings, but leave room for liberation through systemic social critique (though for the most part, they thankfully elide the utopian promises of orthodox Marxism).

But I wonder if there might be an alternative all the same, which follows a parallel path and draws inspiration not only from Marx, but also from points of contact in axial, early Christian, mediaeval and classical Tory thinking. I think the interrupted tradition of radical Toryism gives us some tantalising insights:

- Whiggism (the progenitor of most of the dominant ideologies in modern political discourse, both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’) in insisting on the social contract narrative of the individual’s relationship with society, fails to recognise a.) that human beings are deeply and organically rooted in their social surroundings and b.) that such belonging is a fundamental human need rather than merely an option (even a preferable option)
- Because human beings are so deeply socially situated, there is basis for conversation about a common conception of the Good
- A common conception of the Good requires some articulation not only of norms and formal institutions, but of common governing priorities and values arising out of this social situation
- A common conception of the Good cannot, therefore, refer only to and be measured only by individual happiness and satisfaction of desires (as the more sophisticated Whigs such as Bentham and Mill would have it, and as the modern human rights regime does now), but also to the traditions and obligations both formal and informal which gave rise to the means of expression for these desires

Ironically enough given the respect I have for such insights, I have taken as much inspiration in my left-Toryism from studying Confucius and his followers as I have from reading the radical Tories and Anglo-Catholics of my own adoptive tradition (William Laud, Mary Astell, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, William Wilberforce, Beilby Porteus, Charles Gore, Frederick Denison Maurice, George Grant and Kenneth Leech). Though Confucius claimed (and I believe him sincere) that he did not invent anything but merely related what he believed in and loved from generations past (述而不作,信而好古), I think in setting forth this relation he has indeed broken new grounds, often neglected, for deep social critique. Even as he defends the forms of the existing order through such principles as the central moral importance of ritual 礼 and the rectification of names 正名, he turns the content and organising principles of the existing order on their heads by insisting the importance of human love 仁 and social justice 义 rather than profit 利 in all relationships (「君子喻于义,小人喻于利。」). (Implicit in these priorities, also, is perhaps embedded a substantive critique of modern capitalism!)

It should be noted, I think, that radical Toryism (like Confucianism) did leave room for a certain level of formal inequality in its emphasis on respecting traditional forms of social organisation (note that even Mary Astell, the first English feminist, was a pious High Churchwoman and a fervent supporter of the Stuart monarchy). But it should be remembered that while many early Whigs did little to resist the slave trade and the ownership of slaves (in the notable cases of Locke and Berkeley, though of course later the Whig party was responsible for passing the act abolishing slavery in the Empire), various Tory and High Church voices – including Johnson, Swift, Porteus and Wilberforce – were among the loudest detractors of the practice. Why is this? If the early Tories believed, as Johnson put it, that ‘subordination… [is] most conducive to the happiness of society’, why then would they object so vehemently to the practice of slavery?

The answer, oddly enough, might be hinted at in Dr Johnson’s dictionary, in his definition of the word ‘caitiff’ wherein he cites a Homeric saying that ‘so certainly does slavery destroy virtue’ – though Johnson meant it not as a thrust at the lack of virtue in slaves but at the lack of virtue in their owners. It is impossible to demonstrate any meaningful kind of human affection to a piece of property; what is demanded is a recognition (in the sense meant by Western Marxist philosopher Axel Honneth) between people, even people of differing social backgrounds, of common humanity and common values. As Johnson demonstrated in his etymology of ‘caitiff’, such shared values simply cannot exist when one person is allowed such total control over another person’s labour, means of sufficiency and dignity. There is a significant distinction made in Johnson’s thinking between belonging to a community as a subject (meant in two senses of ‘subject’: a being with free will and a citizen of a monarchy), and belonging to a person as an object.

It also seems to be the case that the early Tories viewed poisonous inequality and poverty as unacceptable blights. Dr Johnson wrote extensively on the subject, and nearly always came off in solidarity with the poor, and of course Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal likewise scathingly castigates the callous mindset of the English middle and upper classes with regard to the poor of Ireland.

So we have an interrupted tradition of political philosophy in the English-speaking world which combines cultural conservatism, religious piety and deference to tradition with a radical critique of contractarian / propertarian capitalist ideology and the dire inequalities which followed hard on its heels. George Grant attempted, if not to resurrect it then to remind the world of it, by making careful points of contact with mediaeval and Platonist thinking; I am of the opinion that this interrupted tradition shares more than just a superficial kinship with Confucian thinking (whose interruption in China is a lot more recent, and probably far less substantial than radical Toryism has been in the English-speaking West) in their concern for the Good. However, how the similarities are to be reconciled with the belief in the danger of rationalising values upon communities which do not necessarily share them is perhaps a hurdle too high. It is unwise to demand of people more than they can imagine.

Though I personally have found Confucianism both persuasive and an immense wellspring of inspiration, it would probably be better to promote the social-justice values and use the language of the Anglo-Catholic Christianity I espouse, than to attempt to marshal the thought of Confucius to this task.

10 October 2010

One of the central conceits of Christianity, and why it matters

Elisha refuses the gifts of Naaman, by Pieter Fransz de Grebber, 1637 (from Wikimedia Commons)

For the numerological-minded out there, today is the 10th day of the 10th month of the 10th year of the 21st century (that’s 10.10.10). That ought to be reason enough to celebrate with your beverage of choice. (Had a gin and tonic yesterday which was quite good; for my own part that ought to be enough.)

Just got back from church for the first time in the better part of a month (having been ill, and thus both unable to sing and unwilling to get out of bed by 9:00 on a day off of classes), and the lectionary today was enlightening as it sort of coincided a bit with the sort of thinking I’ve been doing of late. There were two leprosy healing stories: the military commander Naaman by Elisha, and the ten lepers of the border region between Samaria and Galilee by Jesus, and the week’s sermon was on the subject of gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude, Christianity is peculiar among world religions in that it focusses very heavily upon the interpretation of the human condition as sustained. Scientifically, this is a truth we have known for a long time: human beings are highly-sophisticated thermodynamic mechanisms which produce massive amounts of entropy, constantly taking in energy from the environment and using it imperfectly to further our endeavours of living. Other religions do indeed acknowledge this truth and even its importance, yet Christianity in particular tends to be very emphatic that this scientific truth has a very specific theological significance: the universe, and thus God, is pouring itself out that we might continue to live. There is nothing that we can do that does not come first from what we eat and what we drink and what we breathe; all of which is furnished by the extravagantly effusive fusion reactor that is the Sun. We are all of us born into an energy ‘debt’ and remain indebted throughout our lives, sustained constantly by a lavishly generous universe. Christianity teaches that the only appropriate subjective response to the objective truth that our existences are sustained is, indeed, gratitude – and that gratitude is to be demonstrated by both altering the organisation through which our resources are distributed, and spending our own energy to improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves.

Yet, in some ways, have we lost sight of this truth somewhere? The morality du jour, courtesy of a contemporary pop-ethics which holds aloft the marketplace as the site of salvation and celebrates the liberation of individual passions (violence, sex and greed), encourages massive concentration of wealth and conspicuous consumption. This pop-ethics, moreover, likes to pretend that as individuals, we are completely self-sufficient and that freedom therefore consists in the indulgence of such passions. Our corporate media consistently venerate the ambitious, the greedy and the extravagant (that is to say, the ungrateful) over the reasonable, the kind and the generous – and when, on the rare occasion that they they do mention the reasonable, the kind or the generous (Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi or Mother Teresa), they always manage to downplay the promise of deep change in their messages for the benefit of the existing complacent imperial order. Very few in our public discourse are willing to speak of or even consider ‘duty’ or ‘responsibility’ unless it is to castigate the poor – those with the least bargaining power or influence in a market economy. Our imperial society generally venerates (to quote Gandhi) pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity and religion without sacrifice.

In such a society, authentic gratitude (and the simplicity and generosity which must follow from it) becomes a profound act of resistance. The Lord’s Prayer – ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread’ – becomes radically subversive literature.

It is not that I object in the slightest to worldly order: St Paul was quite adamant that those who bear the sword do not do so in vain, that kingdoms and principalities and governments have a positive moral role to play in enforcing and distributing justice. But in my own view, the organising principles of our present order must change; indeed, they must reverse course, in some cases to pre-Enlightenment norms. Though it leaves a foul aftertaste in my mouth to use the now-castrated-with-overuse contemporary language of ‘sustainability’, it and related principles like ‘stability’ are much to be preferred to the blind worship of endless growth and so-called ‘free trade’ by a number of respected contemporary economists. We must replace the blind pursuit and immodest veneration of mammon with an appreciation for what T S Eliot called ‘the permanent things’ – and some creative means of doing so may be hinted at in Western Europe’s current forms of social organisation (where family time is more carefully balanced against work than it is here). Our best physical sciences must once again pay some measure of respect (ideally the Confucian-inspired respect of distance - 敬鬼神而远之) to the transcendental moral order of the universe – and begin to turn away from the destructive and divisive opinions of pop-lit nouveau-atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. We must make some serious, even if unilateral, efforts to solve some of the more pressing environmental concerns of our own making, such as global warming. We must make some attempt to restore some modicum of intelligence, restraint, civility and common humanity to our public discourse (and kudos to those rare public figures like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who make some brave attempts to do something about it from their seats in the claque). And last (but by no means least), we must begin to dismantle the imperial apparatus that has us engaged in extravagantly costly foreign adventures, in which the foremost victims are the civilians of South and Central Asia and the lower-ranking members of our own military (many of whom come from backgrounds of dire economic distress), but in which the general civilian public is made to feel no obligation in terms of finances or lifestyle.

Just a short list of simple tasks, really. In seriousness, though, I do not think we can depend on the existing order to self-correct, not without significant input in terms of social and political behaviour from the bottom (though even there I have some doubts). Just a few thoughts – have a happy 10.10.10, everyone, and try not to get too drunk! Also, I hope to see some of my readers in Washington, DC at the Rally to Restore Sanity.

02 October 2010

Some thoughts on George Grant, modernity and a brief sketch of China with some hints at its current dilemma

From left to right: Dr George Parkin Grant, OC, FRSC; Confucius 孔子; and Dr Sun Yat-Sen 孙中山

My apologies again for having neglected my blog for so long – I have been incredibly busy in recent days, and this has not let up at all in view of a dreaded Public Administration midterm on Monday, along with statistics homework and a summary of the Baylis and Smith chapters on terrorism and nuclear proliferation for Global Governance.

My fun-reading, not wholly unrelated to the questions being asked in Global Governance, has been George Parkin Grant’s Lament for a Nation. In it he poses some very hard, very searching questions – it was very similar in effect for me as reading Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man in that it made me question very deeply my own place in the universe and how to negotiate it with the social-justice ideals I claim to profess. I am, for better and for worse, a male white upper-middle-class American with a bachelor’s degree – this places me very firmly in a position of privilege, a beneficiary of modernity and empire. Using Ched Myers’ literary-historical method of reading the Gospel as a guide, I would have to read myself into the story in the position of the wealthy young man and in the position of the scribes and teachers of the Law – people who derived benefit from their statuses within the Roman Empire. Likewise, George Grant’s book made me question my own place in the world.

Grant is adamant, having drunk deeply the waters of the Socratic-Platonic well and of the existentialist well also, that we are shaped in our thinking and in our doing by technology, that we are seduced by the promise that we can have final mastery over the workings of the universe. Grant sees this promise as something to resist, since it has a nasty habit of destroying local, grounded modes of being. The promise of technology is wedded to its offspring in corporation capitalism, which itself is the instrument of American imperial influence worldwide, and it is wedded to the ideology of ‘liberalism’ (by which he means the tradition of Locke and Smith more than the tradition of Rawls), which emphasises the liberation of the passions of the individual (defined as a constellation of ‘natural’ negative and property rights) and the inevitable progress of history toward said liberation. Liberalism, Grant argues, places no checks on the desire for imperial dominance and sees no need to offer grounds for any transcendent notion of the Good; as such, it is the perfect ideology for a humanity which wants to divorce itself from nature and pursue its own selfish ends individually without reference to anyone or anything else.

Grant sees Canada succumbing to the dynamic American world empire on all fronts, having given over control of its own foreign and defence policies, having handed over to a corporate elite all of its wealth and culture, and having forsaken its founding Tory values of tradition, of social welfare and of the common good. He sees Canada now occupying the space of the ‘little brother’ in the American imperial project, reaping many of the benefits while shouldering but few of the responsibilities.

So now I’m left thinking – as an American, very few if any traditions make any kind of real claim on me; instead what I have done is cast back much further along a thinner line to a connexion with British traditions and culture and with the kerygmatic Palestinian community of the followers of Jeshua ben Josef of Nazareth through the organic structure of apostolic succession, wilfully subjecting myself to such traditions through my religion (the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Communion). Yet this, in many ways, is not enough. Repentance starts with self-searching, and I find that much of what I do (and what I plan to do in the future) is also dependent upon the promise of technology, and also dependent upon the patronage and privileged position empire has given me. What I do now and where I go from here are now questions to which an extra dimension is added, particularly given my interest in working in China.

Now here is a country which historically took as foundational a traditional mode of social thought – fundamentally different culturally but with some striking intellectual parallels to the radical Tory tradition Grant cites as Canada’s founding philosophy. This mode of social thought belongs to one philosopher by the name of Kong Qiu 孔丘, better known as Confucius 孔子, who claimed to be transmitting a tradition of humanist thought going back to the Duke of Zhou 周公旦 for future generations. Confucius’ philosophy was dedicated almost in its entirety to promoting good social relations between people, and building a society in which human beings, rather than wealth or individual gain, held ultimate value. (Notable is one episode in the Analects wherein after a barn fire he asks after the well-being of the servants but not of the horses, which symbolise material wealth: ‘厩焚。子退朝,曰:“伤人乎?”不问马。’)

The tale of China’s recent intellectual history, however, is a highly troubled one. Most Imperial dynasties (with some notable exceptions) tended to favour Confucianism as it was easily adapted into a pro-establishment philosophy, though in many cases in history it also provided grounds for social critique and even ‘revolution’ 革命 wherein an Imperial family which had abused its power and caused people to suffer, having lost the tianming 天命 (the divine mandate), could be overthrown and replaced with a more virtuous and compassionate family. This changed with the most recent revolutions, however, which really were revolutions in that they replaced more than just the reigning family.

The Xinhai Revolution辛亥革命opened China’s intellectual class to Western ideas through the thought of Sun Yat-Sen 孙中山, whose own philosophy was difficult to define – even though he was highly critical of both imperialism and Western market influences, he was nevertheless highly influenced by his own Western upbringing and education. Western ideas and political leverage continued to play a role in China’s politics and economy through both Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong (though Mao Zedong was borrowing ideas rather from Marx and Lenin). The attempt to oust Confucian thinking and values from the consciousness of the Chinese people, having started with Sun Yat-Sen, was brought to a head under Mao through the disastrous Cultural Revolution 文革. How successful this attempt has been, I do not believe I am the right person to ask, nor do I think it is yet clear. I think it can be argued, however, that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of the late 1980’s, done in the wealth-first spirit of Western market liberalism, were (ironically) made possible only by the values upset of the Cultural Revolution.

China’s modern society, as a result, contains a broad mixture of deep organic tradition and cooptation of technological modernity (and the resulting logic of empire). Given the amount of control their society has, I’m not sure Grant would be over-quick to lament the death of their nation in spite of this creeping homogenising influence. I hope – and would very much like to think – that China’s recent spiritual shift toward Buddhism is indicative of a desire to return to a deep organic tradition that can provide a sense of meaning and stability and humanity in a world run amok with the pursuit of wealth at the expense of people. But that is certainly not for me to decide; and if I should choose to work in China, I need to gain a deeper awareness of this history while continuing to ask myself the really hard questions. What are my own purposes? What do I want to accomplish, and for whom? Can I accomplish this in ways which are mindful and respectful of the depth of tradition where I am?

Next up on my fun-reading list: A Dream of John Ball by English socialist author and high-fantasy pioneer William Morris, and hopefully something by Richard Hooker.