15 December 2011

Homeownership, rental and other matters: a distributist defence

The following was submitted by yours truly as an answer to one of the final exam long-answer questions in his neighbourhood planning and community development course. Hopefully it will manage to be thought-provoking!

The question of whether homeownership should continue to be encouraged over rental in the United States is both a contested and needful one at this point in our history as a nation, particularly in light of a financial crisis centred around the securitisation of risk in a speculative housing market. Quite understandably, a number of authors and commentators in the fields of planning, development and policy studies have weighed in on the topic. John Landis and Kirk McClure pose the problem most directly, and link the systemic problems in the current housing market to an ideologically-driven desire on the part of federal policymakers under Clinton and Bush 43 to expand homeownership as broadly as possible – they advocate instead a return ‘to what works’: a mix of rental housing vouchers, tax credits and federal housing initiatives (including HOPE VI) which have met with success under different administrations and economic conditions (Landis and McClure 2010, 340). Susan Saegert, Desiree Fields and Kimberly Libman answer this question – that homeownership has certainly been ‘oversold’ – and go on to pose a deeper one: to what extent is homeownership construed as a social duty in an ideological environment which privileges autonomy and consumption as central to the ‘American Dream’, and to what extent does it serve interests other than those of homeowners and prospective homeowners?

Though both papers are in some respects persuasive – the one from a pragmatic and the other from a more radical perspective – they each tantalisingly but only briefly touch on what this author believes to be the central issue. Landis and McClure believe that part of the current problem is that government assistance to homeowners is diverted in various ways away from those who need it most, and that renters find themselves systematically excluded under the current regime. Saegert et al. see the problem in a financial-government system that supports homeowners only to the extent that it serves the interests of lenders and insurers (Saegert et al 2009), and only to the extent that it ensures that risk is passed on to the ‘end consumer’, i.e. the homebuyer. These are both useful insights, but they both point in a direction partially belied by the conclusions of both authors: toward the heterodox economic philosophy of distributism. A third-way political-economic philosophy inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum (‘Of New Things’), distributism was developed by the work of several ex-Fabian socialists and radical Catholic thinkers, with Arthur Penty, Gilbert Chesterton, Fr Vincent McNabb, Hilaire Belloc and Fr José María Arizmendiarrieta being the primary authors and theorists associated with the movement. In short, it calls for the broadest possible distribution of productive property; economic protection of small and cooperative businesses; restructuring of the wage and banking systems; and generally a more direct relation between the laws and social norms governing property and the right purposes of that property (Distributist Review 2011).

As planners and developers of communities, we are, first and foremost, interested in creating and developing places balancing public and private affairs, where people can live, work and play. We are – or should be – normatively very closely concerned with the right use of property, and our policy agendas should certainly reflect that. To paraphrase contemporary American distributist John Médaille: the purpose of public policy is ‘to provide the conditions under which all… communities that make up the social fabric can flourish’, beginning with the family unit (Médaille 2010). Issues such as gentrification and sprawl, as well as the fatal cupidity of various agents in the financial sector which eased (perhaps too greatly) but did not support people’s acquisition of homes, arise primarily from lenders and insurers – as well as homeowners, to be sure – considering housing as something other than a place for a family to live.

It is noteworthy that the 30-year mortgage, enabled by the National Housing Act of 1934, was a working assumption of some of the most successful federal housing programmes of the past century: the loans insured by the FHA and VA were targeted primarily at new families in the wake of WWII. Homeownership was successfully expanded under these programmes and default rates were very low; and though these developments were plagued by the inequalities resulting from discriminatory practices such as redlining, the extension of the same opportunities to families of colour was accomplished under the 1968 Fair Housing Act (Landis and McClure 2010). During the 1970’s, however, houses became instead investments and objects of resale. There was a paradigmatic shift from the real estate as a place for a family to settle down and for a community to thereby develop to real estate as an instrument for making money. Not only homebuyers were affected by this shift, either – because speculation in land creates only rising prices in the long-run (until the bubble bursts), renters are also adversely affected by an intolerable rising pressure on rent (Médaille 2010).

In addition, the concomitant relaxation of the mortgage regulations targeting single-person, divorcee and other non-family households for the federal subsidy programme had a double consequence: the market for homes could steadily increase (and private lenders and insurers thereby benefit immensely) and federal money was made accessible to people whose primary interest in houses was, in fact, speculation. Further relaxation of housing-mortgage regulations followed on ideological grounds, beginning under the aegis of the Reagan Administration (Carlson 2009; Sternlieb and Hughes 1980; Saegert 2009). Though it is shamefully common for lending institutions and the ideological partisans of the neoliberal innovations of the past 30 years (e.g. CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s 2009 on-air rant) to lay the blame at the feet of undereducated consumers (Saegert 2009), it should be quite obvious to the astute observer that there is a path dependency at work involving far more systematic elements.

On the surface, therefore, it does appear from a policy perspective as though ‘homeownership’ as such is a problem, and privileging it over rental more so. But it is important to note that the reason for this is not that ‘homeownership’ qua homeownership is something overrated – rather the regulatory structure governing mortgage practices encouraging homeownership has been stripped not only of its powers but also of its normative content. At the same time, the interests both of eligible, working-class first-time homeowners and of underserved populations for whom rental may be a more viable option are paid lip-service but not truly served. To give just one example, research has been done at the University of Pittsburgh’s economics department suggesting that loosening local-level regulation against subprime lending and usurious lending practices, ostensibly in the name of ‘spur[ring] financial innovations that broadly benefit low-income households’, not only do not widen the total amount of credit available to homebuyers, they also have the undesirable effect of increasing default and foreclosure rates (Xu 2011).

The impact on communities as well as their working-class residents generally likewise continues to be severe. Urban sprawl had already become a problem in the post-war society, due in part to the ascendant ubiquity of the private automobile and the demise of the family farm under subsidised agribusiness, and definitely due in part to white flight, but it was certainly intensified and accelerated by a housing market increasingly characterised by speculative practices and short-term leasing rather than long-term mortgaging – by the early 1990s, ‘unprecedented’ amounts of what was previously farmland were still being developed for new housing tracts in the United States (Pendall et al. 2005). Among the responses aimed at conservation of the traditional community (particularly in an urban setting) have been the ‘smart growth’ and the ‘new urbanist’ movements, which call for mixed housing as well as zoning practices which encourage more active community life. Obviously, the issue of the neoliberalisation of housing policy has very far-reaching implications and not just for individual homebuyers.

Thus, the response to the question of how government agencies are best to provide assistance to homeowners and renters is best addressed not necessarily by one or two isolated policies, however subtle and pragmatic such policies may be. Instead, it appears that a broader policy platform – a distributist platform – is needed, one which reforms lending practices and specifies a proper use for real estate. Smarter regulation of the financial sector along the lines outlined above – and tougher enforcement of existing regulations – would appear to be a start.

Going further, however, encouraging more local, place-based, cooperative alternatives to traditional credit sources (such as credit unions) would ensure that property is disposed in ways which are actually beneficial to the community, as well as ensuring that the well-being of the person(s) or family purchasing the property is respected. Creating a subsidy system that privileges small farmers over-against large agribusinesses will also help to naturally constrain the onslaught of sprawl and discourage speculative housing markets in greenfield construction areas (though this must be accompanied by a legal reform which discourages abuse of eminent domain laws, at the expense of farmers in the interests of housing-and-transportation developers). Supporting mixed-use zoning initiatives will likewise encourage greater and more responsible homeownership by creating more opportunities for small, specialised home businesses – so much the better, if they are organised in the cooperative-syndicalist model of the mediaeval guild! Devolving more financial and economic regulatory powers to the local level (and preventing state-mandated deregulation such as happened in Cleveland) could also be of massive help in encouraging and protecting local development. Dismantling the highway system would be a bad idea at this point in our economic history, though we could certainly do with creating a system of weight-based tolls on public highways to eliminate the non-competitive advantage enjoyed by ‘big box’ stores and strip malls (Médaille 2010). In addition to rethinking public-sector subsidies for homeownership and rental, creating alternative housing schemes which discourage speculation, such as resale restrictions, cooperative land trusts, mutual housing associations or even something as simple as an option for outright purchase of rental property by instalment remain tantalising alternatives to the status quo (Carlson 2009; Stone 2008).

The question of homeownership vis-à-vis rental in public policy terms, then, is still an important one. However, though Saegert et al. identify a number of salient problems with the current system and though Landis and McClure set out what appears to be a good direction with regard to a fair and egalitarian policy agenda, that policy agenda could be greatly enriched by again placing a normative emphasis on the ends of homeownership – to benefit families and to allow the communities which make up the fabric of our society to flourish – and adjusting policy to meet those ends. It could also be further enriched by being made a part of a broader policy platform whose ultimate aim is the widest possible redistribution of the means of production.


Bibliography
  • Carlson, Allan. 2009. ‘Servile World: How “The Big Business Government”, “The Loathsome Thing Called Social Service” and Other Distributist Nightmares All Came True’. Front Porch Republic. http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=4903#_edn7 (accessed 12 December 2011).

  • Distributist Review. 2011. ‘Classic Reading List’. The Distributist Review. http://distributistreview.com/mag/test-2/recommended-reading/ (accessed 12 December 2011).

  • Landis, John and Kirk McClure. 2010. ‘Rethinking Federal Housing Policy’. Journal of the American Planning Association 76(3): 320-1, 335, 340-1.

  • Leo XIII. 1891. ‘Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labour’. English translation online at Libreria Editrice Vaticana. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum_en.html (accessed 12 December 2011).

  • Médaille, John. 2010. Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits and More, pp. 110-1, 155, 188-9. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

  • Pendall, Rolf, Arthur Nelson, Casey Dawkins and Gerrit Knaap. 2005. ‘Connecting Smart Growth, Housing Affordability and Racial Equity’, in The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America by Xavier de Souza Briggs. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

  • Saegert, Susan, Desiree Fields and Kimberly Libman. 2009. ‘Deflating the Dream: Radical Risk and the Neoliberalisation of Home Ownership’. Journal of Urban Affairs 31(3): 299, 300, 309-10, 312.

  • Stone, Michael. 2008. ‘Social Housing’, in The Community Development Reader by James DeFilippis and Susan Saegert, pp. 67-78. New York, NY: Routledge Press.

  • Xu Yilan. 2011. ‘Does Mortgage Deregulation Increase Foreclosures? Evidence from Cleveland’. University of Pittsburgh Department of Economics: Job Market Paper, presented 18 November 2011 at the University of Pittsburgh Centre for Social and Urban Research.

14 December 2011

A brief comment on the Wukan protests + pointless video post: ‘OCP’ by Gama Bomb

A village in China’s Guangdong Province, Wukan 廣東烏坎, is now in open revolt against the local government; see ChinaGeeks and The Telegraph for the full story as it develops. The Party has been laying on the censorship rather thick for this one, methinks; one may count on them to do precisely the wrong thing (censoring any news about Wukan and doing nothing to help the villagers) in a situation such as this. For some of the political background, may I humbly offer this assessment from a couple of weeks back:

In the meanwhile, in China, Bo Xilai and Wang Yang have been using local models in China in an attempt to shore up support for the more interventionist, public-good provisionist, actively anti-corruption Chongqing model and the more developmentalist, neoliberal, laissez-faire Guangdong model, respectively. Although both appear to be equally divergent from China’s current authoritarian-capitalist status quo (Mr Bo in the direction of greater economic democracy and a social safety net, Mr Wang in the direction of more authoritarian-capitalist ‘reforms’), in actuality Mr Bo is the more open to the guidance of democratic principles (willingly taking the advice of social democrats such as Dr Cui Zhiyuan, for example) and true exposure of the inner workings of the Chinese government to the public eye, whilst Mr Wang appears to be merely another rehash of Jiang Zemin: gleefully adopting the advice of market ‘reformers’ and technocrats and gutting public goods provision, and shielding those very same technocrats from any real sort of public scrutiny.

And, naturally, the same principle applies to public protests. The Chinese government under Jiang Zemin sounded a hasty retreat from Tian’anmen only for the 1989 protests to disappear quickly and quietly down the Memory Hole; the same sort of dynamic appears to be holding true for the Wukan protests under Wang Yang. (How long before that Google search is blocked?)


Apparently I am not alone in the opinion that this development does not look particularly good for Mr Wang, though naturally I tend to take a far more… some might say ‘cynical’, but I prefer the term ‘realistic’, view of Chinese liberalism. As long as its primary theorists continue to follow the sorry, intellectually-bankrupt roads trodden by the likes of the Austrian school (Liu Junning) and the neoconservatives (Liu Xiaobo) rather than the more humane liberalism of, say, EF Schumacher, authoritarianism will continue to be a mark of Chinese politics (especially among those who make the biggest show of being against it) for a long time to come.

And speaking of ‘realistic’ views on liberalism, particularly in its more extremist forms, a great comment by John from Economics is for Donkeys on my last post (I really appreciated this one, gave me an excuse to post another thrash metal video):

I am glad the interview with the libertarian quotes Hans Herman-Hoppe. Hoppe is often praised by Christian monarchists because he has argued that monarchy is the ultimate private government. Apparently, Hoppe's concept of monarchy would be OCP from the RoboCop movies, but with a crown.


Dick Jones! Dick Jones!



Ah, Gama Bomb. We respect you, too! Best of luck to the villagers of Wukan. Stand strong, and thrash on, my gentle readers! \m/

13 December 2011

Two very worthwhile articles

Very fine article up at The National Interest by Dr Amitai Etzioni.

‘[T]he nations of the euro zone must prepare the ground for fiscal federalism via a major community building drive, aiming to bestow on the zone the kind of loyalties so far only commanded by national communities—or they will have to scale back their conjoined activities, especially the common currency. A sociologist notes with much regret that there have been no successful drives to build communities composed of nations and that such a development—if it can be accomplished—would be slow and very demanding. It is too early to write a eulogy for the euro zone, but it is time to prepare the family for the sad state of the patient—and what is prescribed for him.’

And, on Naked Capitalism and The Distributist Review, the first part of a promised six-part series by Harvard postdoc Dr Andrew Dittmer, a warning worthy of George Orwell against the excesses of ideological libertarianism. Though extraordinarily witty, it cannot rightly be considered parody since a great deal of it consists of actual quotes from the work of an ‘economist’ of the Austrian school; definitely worth a read!

My apologies to my gentle readers; finals season being what it is, I should be as brief here as possible. Hopefully once I resurface I will be able to post something more substantive!

10 December 2011

A few words regarding the public role of faith


Lincoln Chafee, Governor of RI

It all started when the good governor of my home state of Rhode Island, Gov Lincoln Chafee, put up a holiday tree in the state Capitol building, causing something of a furore from the American religious right. I did not join in this conversation because – and I believe that my fellow Rhode Islander Fr Bill Locke put this quite nicely – I do not believe that Our Lord or his disciples or the Church Fathers would have cared overly much about what we call a tree, so much as they would have cared about the weightier matters of social and economic injustice which haunt our society these days. If there is one thing I have learned about the culture wars, it is that being a conscientious objector pays off… most of the time. On other, weightier issues than these, however, the battle must certainly be joined.

That said, it rather baffles me how thin-skinned American Christians, particularly on the religious right, can be. As secular and (in religion as in everything else) as privatised as the society may have become, we are not a society which actively persecutes Christians. And for this we should be thankful, for there certainly are such societies in the world which do persecute Christians: Egypt (particularly after the Arab Spring) and the (northern) Sudan being the most high-profile examples. In the Middle East, safe havens for Christians, particularly of the venerable indigenous communities, have historically existed – such as Syria and Iran – but they are undermined by the foreign policy of the US-led West with disheartening regularity; these Christians deserve, at the very least, our efforts at creating a more dovish and more humane foreign policy. In the Balkans up until very recently it was very dangerous to be a Christian (particularly Orthodox) in certain parts of what once was Yugoslavia – as in, one’s very life (let alone one’s livelihood) being at stake. As such, it strikes me as somewhat petty that certain segments of far-right Protestantism in this country will gripe about a Christmas tree being called a ‘holiday tree’. What awaits them is hardly the fate of St Stephen.

Indeed, the political climate is such in the United States that far-right Christianity is so far removed from oppression that it is, has been, and probably will be for the foreseeable future, used as a political tool by the opportunistic. Rev’d Eugene Cho has posted an incredibly thoughtful response to the political advertisement by Rick Perry by two young women who sought to create a more constructive public voice for religion. They – and he – get my thanks for seeking to articulate a radical stance that seeks to avoid both the extremes of the ever more pervasive privatisation of religion on the one hand, and ressentiment-filled religious identity politics on the other.

Good cheer to my gentle readers, and my thanks for your forbearance upon reading my latest rant!

09 December 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Breakdown’ 『崩潰』 by Suffocated 窒息



Well I’ll be... a Chinese retro thrash band that actually sounds like thrash! I kowtow gladly before these dudes and their deathrashy awesomeness. Admittedly, here they sound a bit green. Their style is incredibly straightforward, well-executed, but also a bit... unpolished, shall we say. Not a bad thing at all: ‘Breakdown’ is pure thrash front to back, and the guitar solo is definitely horns-worthy. On their 2010 album, 《紛擾世界》 World of Confusion, though, they manage to have hammered out a style which brings massive doses of pure slayage. And by hammered out, I mean hammered out: they shift easily and effortlessly between melodic thrash in the vein of Overload, to a more traditional deathrash with very heavy influences from early Sepultura and Testament, to straight-up death metal and more grueling, grinding crossover numbers (like the epic 『使命召喚』 ‘Call of Duty’) that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Toxic Holocaust album. Throughout it all, they maintain a progressive mentality (if not an actual progression) which allows these variations to mesh together more-or-less seamlessly, though in actuality the progressive influence is a common trend I have noticed among a number of new Chinese metal bands. Great, great stuff.

Enjoy, my gentle readers!

08 December 2011

Full of grace

A happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin to one and all!

I’m still feeling slightly frazzled from final projects (one concerning a game-theoretic analysis of Greece and the EU, one concerning Brown University’s Asian student body, one concerning school impact on Homewood civic engagement and the last concerning the developments of Chinatowns on the East and West Coasts), and need to begin preparing soon for exams, as well as getting a visa for another China visit. To me have been now imparted several skills, including how to make maps with ArcGIS 10 and how to design a research proposal; as well as several old skills being further honed, such as how to scramble and slam out multiple papers during the last couple of weeks of term. And I am rereading Utopia. Such is graduate school; wouldn’t really have it any other way.

06 December 2011

Please, sir, I want some More


I have covered in this blog a number of historical English thinkers, authors and public intellectuals whose work I believe reflects a subtle, traditionalist and Platonic strain of socialist political-economic thought in the Anglosphere: Laud, Astell, Johnson, Swift, Oastler, Porteus, Ruskin, Morris, Chesterton, Grant, Lewis. Not long ago I did a brief not-quite-hagiography of Fürst Metternich. Yet, I have neglected – to my everlasting shame – one of the very giants upon whose shoulders all of these proto-, Christian and Tory socialists have stood. As the Chinese would have it, ‘I have eyes, yet I did not recognise Mount Tai’. This giant, of course, was the Tudor-era classicist, lawyer, parliamentarian, polemicist, philosopher, poet, Lord Chancellor, martyr and saint, the matchless Sir Thomas More.

Probably best known for his opposition to the annulment of the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon which cost him his life and gained him the Beatific Vision, and perhaps only slightly less well-known for his fantastical treatise Utopia, which set out his communistic political ideals (borrowed quite heavily from Plato) as well as skewering various European practices and institutions (including the injustices of the creeping enclosures movement, the burden and bane of many an English peasant) upon a rapier wit, there was yet a good deal (if you will pardon me) more to Sir Thomas than first meets the eye. A precocious teen, he very early caught the eye and ear of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Morton, and was made his page as well as being recommended to Oxford University at the age of fourteen. He became proficient in Greek and Latin and versed himself in the early Church Fathers, and went on to become a lawyer and a parliamentarian for Norfolk – where he promptly drew the ire of Henry VII for his outspoken opposition to new levies for personal royal use. This same outspokenness and frankness of temperament would serve him well in his later career, though it would prove often to be to his own detriment, and ultimately his death. As a lawyer, though, he was very scrupulous in the types of cases he took, and he never demanded fees from the poor or widows or orphans for his legal services.

He married twice – the first time to his younger pupil Jane Colt in 1505 and the second time after her death in 1511 to an older widow, Alice Middleton. Both marriages (toward which his attitudes were blessedly insular) were by all accounts happy. Sir Thomas proved a faithful and devoted husband, as well as a doting father both to his own daughters by Jane and to Alice’s by her first marriage. His advocacy for women’s education (later shared by his contemporary humanists Erasmus and Elyot) would later prove an inspiration for Mary Astell’s own.

From all appearances, the young Henry VIII took as quick a liking to More as his father took a dislike to him. He rose quickly in the ranks of Henry’s service, was knighted and appointed a member of the Privy Council. He eagerly joined Cardinal Wolsey’s sadly-abortive legal crusade against enclosures (up until Wolsey fell out of favour with the King) and very quickly took up his pen in jousts of letters with Protestant thinkers both on the continent and in England, including Martin Luther, William Tyndale and Simon Fish. He was able and more than willing to respond to the particularly acerbic prose of Luther in kind. Given that many of these Protestant missives were aimed as much at the King as at the Church, More proved his loyalty to Henry as well. In his later career it is arguable to what degree power changed him, and led him to alter his humanistic principles, but the fatal epilogue of his story shows clearly where his loyalties lay… even if, as long as he could, he attempted to reconcile his friendship with the King with the radical departure the same King was making from communion with the Church in Rome.

Sir Thomas More is yet another case study in how one should not easily dismiss saints, for they have a tendency to be unruly, troublous, inconvenient and generally obnoxious to those seated on the highest thrones of worldly power. The saint is a friend neither to tyranny nor to capital. And one can quite readily see how his influence – or at least his idealism – long outlasted him. He is remembered as a saint both in the Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion. William Morris modelled much of his own political economic thought on Sir Thomas More’s work. Fr Jonathan Swift hailed him as ‘the person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced’ (and Dr Johnson concurred!). GK Chesterton likewise declaimed that he ‘may come to be counted the greatest Englishman’… though perhaps the most surreal testament to his memory is the stele in Moscow which lists him among eighteen other thinkers who ‘promoted the liberation of humanity from oppression, arbitrary rule and exploitation’.

Count me with Swift and Johnson and Chesterton, though. I likewise see Sir Thomas as a great (and a good) Englishman, both profound and humane. Would there were more like him.

03 December 2011

Jonathan Freedland: ‘It is democracy itself that the markets seem to despise’

Well, two final projects down for the term, and two more to go. Guess I have a little bit of time to work on a blog post now.

There was a very interesting piece in The Guardian by Jonathan Freedland a couple of weeks back. Though he does (along with the rest of the Guardian’s commentariat, not to mention that of the New York Times, the Washington Post and other American print) tend to draw distinctions in ways which are (I believe) a little bit too hard-and-fast between authoritarian and democratic (is Singapore as ‘authoritarian’ as the mainland? is Russia – where women very much have the rights to drive, vote and show their faces in public – anywhere near as ‘authoritarian’ as Saudi Arabia?), I believe the point he makes is a very sound one. Though the neoconservatives and the libertarians have long pretended otherwise, for the sensible and the attentive it has long since been the case that globalist, neoliberal capitalism and democracy make for very fidgety bedfellows indeed.

But in the light of the economic crisis, the strain in that relationship is starting to show more than ever. A referendum in Greece over the austerity measures being imposed on it from without was cancelled; pan-European technocrats have taken the reins of the Greek macroeconomy and are hell-bent on riding it roughshod over the working class, pensioners, civil servants and any other plebes who have the temerity (nay, the effrontery!) to take a train or a public bus to work, or to fall ill and take up precious hospital space.

In the meanwhile, in China, Bo Xilai and Wang Yang have been using local models in China in an attempt to shore up support for the more interventionist, public-good provisionist, actively anti-corruption Chongqing model and the more developmentalist, neoliberal, laissez-faire Guangdong model, respectively. Although both appear to be equally divergent from China’s current authoritarian-capitalist status quo (Mr Bo in the direction of greater economic democracy and a social safety net, Mr Wang in the direction of more authoritarian-capitalist ‘reforms’), in actuality Mr Bo is the more open to the guidance of democratic principles (willingly taking the advice of social democrats such as Dr Cui Zhiyuan, for example) and true exposure of the inner workings of the Chinese government to the public eye, whilst Mr Wang appears to be merely another rehash of Jiang Zemin: gleefully adopting the advice of market ‘reformers’ and technocrats and gutting public goods provision, and shielding those very same technocrats from any real sort of public scrutiny.

And, naturally, the same principle applies to public protests. The Chinese government under Jiang Zemin sounded a hasty retreat from Tian’anmen only for the 1989 protests to disappear quickly and quietly down the Memory Hole; the same sort of dynamic appears to be holding true for the Wukan protests under Wang Yang. (How long before that Google search is blocked?) By all means one may examine his motives, but even though Mr Bo Xilai appears prima facie to be more heavy-handed, we should keep in mind that thus far he has consistently moved in favour of truth-to-power, rather than in favour of erasing truth by momentarily constraining power.

And then we have, as Mr Freedland deftly points out, the peculiar breed of neoliberal / liberal-interventionist commentator in the United States which yearns for this country to ‘be China for a day’; and by China Mr Friedman evidently means Guangdong rather than Chongqing. Even though he is very quick to hedge his wish about with all the right liberal-democratic verbiage, this should tell one all one needs to know about where the sympathies of the neoliberals lie where issues of democracy, economic self-determination and the rule of law are concerned.

Be ye not fooled: the champions of the invisible hand are themselves apparently quite eager to equip it with a very visible steel gauntlet. Let us hope that our nations have the resilience to – to paraphrase Mr Freedland – assert that people, rather than markets, are sovereign.

EDIT: Here is an article describing Mr Bo’s drive to open official CCP archives to the public and focus more attention on the actions of government and Party members. One may argue that it is little more than Mr Bo blowing his own horn, but it does highlight one of the ways in which he represents a massive change for the People’s Republic, in a far less authoritarian direction.

28 November 2011

Pointless video post - ‘World Chaos’ by Holy Moses



Holy Moses is another one of those criminally-underrated German bands (like Tankard), dating back to the infancy of this newer and more aggressive style of metal that came to be known as thrash, that deserve a much more hallowed place in the annals of metal history than they often receive. Sabina Classen slays so much it’s crazy; given that female vocalists in thrash are so seldom found, you just know they have to be that much more epic than the rest. Ms Classen simply never disappoints here. Even though World Chaos (for which this is the title track) is very much a work of ‘crossover’ thrash (as the punkish lyrics readily attest) and doesn’t quite live up to the sheer, consistent kinetic force of, say Finished With the Dogs or New Machine of Liechtenstein, it still ranks among my favourite thrash metal albums, full stop.

Enjoy, my gentle readers! \m/

25 November 2011

A few words on Metternich


Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Fürst von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein

Happy turkey day, gentle readers!

People who know me well are usually not surprised to know that I’ve had a fascination with the historical figure of Klemens Wenzel, Fürst von Metternich, since before I graduated from college: a bundle of contradictions (or seemingly so) drawn to another. Metternich has garnered in much of the world the reputation of an arch-conservative, even an absolutist reactionary, seeking quixotically to hold back an inevitable tide of progress, which finally saw him defeated in the liberal revolutions of 1848. During his heyday, though, he was the bogeyman of many a ‘free-trade’ liberal, nationalist and free-speech advocate in his day, with the anti-nationalist Karlsbader Beschlüsse being the primary symbol of the censorship and repression with which Metternich was associated. As a personal figure, as well, he appeared to exemplify at once both the worst and the best of the old European nobility. Peter Viereck describes him as a ‘Frenchified German dandy… witty, pleasure-loving and arrogant’, which is perhaps not an unfair description. Continental in his attitude toward marriage (to put it politely, given his affairs with a number of high-profile women including Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister) and almost hubristically confident in his (formidable, to be sure) intelligence and abilities, he nevertheless dedicated those very same talents of which he was so cock-sure entirely to the service of his emperor and to the ancien régime.

Yet, under the international system he engineered, Europe enjoyed over a generation of peace – and what is more, it was not a peace enforced by the hegemony of a single economic or political regime, but rather a participatory and (largely) communicative system wherein powers were balanced with each other. He did not always get along with Emperor Francis; indeed, he opposed the most egregious forms of domestic censorship, advocated moderate local self-rule for Italians and Hungarians, was an ardent defender of the rights of Jews across the Continent in an era when they were still massively unpopular even amongst liberals, and was a consistent advocate for constitutional reforms within the Habsburg Empire. He attempted to bridge the gulf between the serfs, the growing proletarian class, and the landed gentry through his ‘socialisme conservateur’ – a vision of political economy which shares in its cosmopolitan reconciliation of the classes a great deal of overlap with later Catholic social theology, and by which the Prince made himself the ‘enem[y] of anarchy, moral and material’. In a time where liberal thought was converging upon the nation-state as its greatest vehicle of political empowerment, Metternich turned his vision at once upward to a greater international order and downward to more local forms of order.

One may argue the finer points over whether or not what he did was ultimately best for Europe as a whole, but there are many points that I think one can successfully take from his thought. For one thing, Metternich was far-sighted enough to see that the ethnically-homogeneous ideal of the nation-state was a horrible idea (a hearty thank-you to California Constantian for the link!), and that the secret societies within such ideas were allowed to manifest themselves in violent extremes were not a healthy development but rather a ‘gangrene of society’. Though one may decry that the Karlsbader Beschlüsse themselves were an extreme and repressive measure, one must remember that out of the ‘liberal’ Burschenschaften against which they were primarily aimed arose many of the aggressive hyper-nationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies which ultimately plunged the European continent into another total war, a genocide. By contrast, it is well to remember that Prince Metternich’s socialisme conservateur was at once the fountainhead of his support for the traditional monarchical state, as well as being the very source of his defence of the basic dignities of the Italians, the Hungarians and the Jews in Europe.

In keeping with the season, in addition to the other parts of my life for which I give thanks, I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to the intellectual inspiration of Fürst Metternich – a flawed but nevertheless incredibly profound political theorist as well as master diplomat.

23 November 2011

Yan Xuetong: ‘China must display humane authority in order to compete with the United States’

I’ve been linking to the Hidden Harmonies blog a lot these days. There’s a good reason for it, however. Although Hidden Harmonies gets a pretty bad rep in the China-expat blogosphere for being basically (an ‘angry youth’ 憤青 outlet / a five-dime 五毛 corner store / a bunch of supposedly-ignorant ABCs venting about American media bias and international relations / all or any of the above as the detractor’s narrative demands), and even though the commentary on many of the articles does sometimes get a bit heated, they truly are an invaluable resource when it comes to the analysis, translation and dissemination of critical research from within China, partly because of their enthusiasm for the subject at hand. It also doesn’t hurt, from my humble perspective at least, that they have a rare, sensitive and often penetrating scepticism of the ways in which the neoconservative foreign policy agenda of the Bush Administration (and to a certain extent, Obama’s as well) has shaped both our foreign relations and our journalistic best practices; this is a sensitivity which a number of other China expat blogs very much lack.

So it was with considerable interest, nay, enthusiasm that I read the redoubtable DeWang’s link-up to and commentary on a New York Times editorial which was translated from an essay by Yan Xuetong, Dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University. Dr Yan’s thesis boils down to the argument that what is needed right now in China is a healthy dose of actual Confucianism, rather than the current government’s fad use of Confucius and his students as mascots of Chinese culture and CCP rule. In short, the Chinese government needs to be more focussed on developing local, domestic institutions than on its foreign PR, shift away from developmentalism to focus on social and economic equality, and serve as a better moral role model for the rest of the developing world rather than attempting to compete in terms of hard power and economic influence.

It is a profoundly, indeed unabashedly, palaeoconservative argument (Dr Yan speaks approvingly of the traditions of virtue ethics and the independent civil service in China going back past the Tang Dynasty – one might cite approvingly his parallels with the political thought of George Grant, though his positing China as an alternative vision of ‘nation’ rather than Canada will result in a very different-looking philosophy), with just enough of a hint of Chinese New Leftism in his prescriptions of social safety nets and economic justice measures meant to collapse the growing wealth gap to get an ovation from me. Though Dr Yan is a self-professed realist (and I have no reason to doubt him), here he hints at a normative international relations approach which mirrors and encompasses the profounder insights of realism without succumbing to Reinhold Niebuhr’s heretical interpretation of original sin; marking a moral dimension to power itself rather than merely to its uses.

I very much look forward to reading more of Dr Yan’s work to see how he fleshes out more of these ideas.

20 November 2011

月氏歌

天山路叉選一條
颳北風示吾歸遭
颻雪被戎血泮燒
聽遠西漠中慨號
追赤鹿者凡等儼
劃江船并遊凍原
酷滄長晦鍛煃魂
寒黑中聽烔義論
- 郭明正, 2011年11月20日

Translation:

Song of the Tokharians

I choose a path from a fork in the Tian Shan road,
As the North Wind whispers to me, 'turn back'.
The driving snow is melted by the heat of my barbarian blood
As I hear the distant lament from the western desert.
Among the followers of the elk, all are equally glorious,
The river-boat rowers and the tundra wanderers.
Bitter cold and long nights forge hearts afire;
In the winter dark one hears the scalding word of justice.
- Matthew Cooper, 20 November 2011

19 November 2011

Localism, finance and federalist legalism + pointless video post – ‘River of Rapture’ by Death Angel

In the past couple of days, I have attended a heavy metal concert featuring thrashers Testament, Anthrax and Death Angel, as well as a brown-bag talk from Pitt economics PhD student Xu Yilan and her paper on the effect of financial deregulation on home foreclosures. Her paper was very well-conceived, painstakingly rigorous in methodology and quite interesting both in terms of its own argument and in terms of the history it uses to tell its story.

In November 2006, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned a city ordinance issued by Cleveland, heavily regulating loans originating at interest rates higher than 4.5% above the T-bill base rate in order to discourage usurious mortgage lending practices, on the basis that they were more restrictive than state laws governing mortgage lending, and thus violated the ‘home rule’ provision of the Ohio State Constitution. Maryland’s Supreme Court slapped down a similar county-level ordinance at about the same time. As a result, according to the study by Ms Xu, subprime lending practices took off (subprime loans increasing by 30%, and total loans by subprime lenders by 40%) even though overall credit was unaffected. In addition, there was a nearly 50% increase in loan foreclosures! This study suggests, quite tellingly, that:

  1. local regulations do impact the housing market, often to a higher degree than higher-level regulations,

  2. heavy regulation does not necessarily have a deleterious impact on the total amount of credit in the market, and

  3. lenders will take what slack they are given – that is to say, if subprime and usurious lending practices are deregulated, you will find more of them in the market as a result.


It also demonstrates a rather uncomfortable tendency in American political discourse to limit our discourse on federalism to merely the relationship between states and the federal government, getting bogged down in arguments about ‘states’ rights’. I must confess that, despite my distributist and pro-subsidiarity inclinations, I am heavily sceptical to the point of dismissive of the common run of ‘states’ rights’ arguments in American political discourse given the way that they have been aligned with some incredibly ugly race politics in the American South, predating the Civil War. That is an important argument, but separate from the one I want to make here, however – and it is the case that the amount of legal leeway given to states has, granted, resulted in some remarkable institutional experimentation. It is certainly not an empty reputation of the federalist system that it allows for a significant degree of regional autonomy and difference, to the point where states may be justly thought of as ‘crucibles of democracy’.

At the same time, though, states have proven that they can be every bit as tyrannical as the federal government in terms of enforced conformity, if not more so. Jim Crow is only the most egregious historical example. Cleveland created its own laws and apparently had some success in enforcing them; as a result of state-mandated deregulation, however, predatory lending practices boomed again within the city itself. It strikes me as a structural weakness of our political system that local politics are bound up entirely in their relationships with the relevant state authorities, whilst the ‘federalist’ arguments are relegated to the national stage and concern only ‘states’ rights’ rather than the rights of cities, towns, counties and communities. Additionally, the corporate news media, also hoping to create news with the broadest possible audience in mind, focusses disproportionately on this higher level. Small wonder the American public care so much more about presidential and congressional politics than what goes on in their own backyards!

Thus, it strikes me that in such cases as Ohio and Maryland, ‘states’ rights’ as commonly advocated by libertarians and palaeoconservatives with national political aspirations, are in fact the bane of truly distributist and localist concerns. This is just my interpretation of the paper, however. I highly recommend reading Ms Xu’s work on its own merits – as presented, it was a very interesting economics paper in its own right.

The night before, however, I attended an epic concert on the North Shore by Testament, Anthrax and Death Angel. My gentle readers may be familiar with my Testament fandom (and Anthrax aren’t bad at all either!), but their fellow Bay Area thrashers Death Angel are also worth an honourable mention and pointless video post here. As a live act, the Filipinos pull some massive weight, and in terms of their energy and presence were able to stand toe-to-toe with the renowned brethren for whom they opened. Their new album Relentless Retribution not only has some of the most awe-inspiringly ferocious album art I’ve seen on a thrash album in a long time, but also has some awe-inspiringly ferocious music as well, such as ‘River of Rapture’ here:



My favourite song on the album is still probably the opening track, ‘Relentless Revolution’, though: classic thrash metal at its peak, spirited, aggressive and incendiary (this one they did play at the concert!). I certainly appreciated hearing Death Angel for the first time – amazing stuff.

10 November 2011

Authority, intelligence and the IAEA


Cartoon courtesy China Daily cartoonist Luo Jie 羅傑, via Hidden Harmonies blog.

The IAEA released its report on Iran earlier this week, and it was followed by the all-too-predictable chorus among the EU calling for more sanctions, as well as the all-too-predictable objections from Russia and China (though China’s was carefully massaged and muted). There are authority and credibility problems abounding, however, that go far beyond the anticipated objections of international political players. For example, the entirety of the first eight pages of the recent report, whilst in some respects quite alarming, refers solely to:

45. The information indicates that prior to the end of 2003 the above activities took place under a structured programme. There are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.


The entire report, in fact, is littered with this sort of highly-qualified and very vague language – high on incidents and accidents, hints and allegations (some of which are in excess of ten years old), yet somewhat low on current facts; much more suited to a press release for an elected official than to an internal policy document of a respected international agency. What facts there are, are facts referring to activities that are at least eight years old. And yet, how is this news being reported?

Report: Iran developing nuclear bombs (and later, Iran’s nuclear programme alarms world powers)
Iran ‘months from building atomic bomb’, claims atomic agency report
The truth about Iran
IAEA report: Iran has been working toward nuclear bomb since 2003

At this point, it appears that both the news media and the IAEA itself are actually being used as ready-to-hand tools of the foreign policy agendas of a few national governments. The New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan and Emptywheel’s Jim White each cover in some detail the ways in which IAEA has been institutionally compromised and made a tool of the foreign policy priorities of the United States in particular with this report. One of the difficulties of being a member of an Abrahamic faith in an age such as this one, is that the sorts of truths and authorities one wants to be able to take for granted (like those responsible for our physical security) appear to be, in actuality, the fear-spreading tools and playthings of the powerful where most they should be the goods all people can hold in common. This is a theological and philosophical argument, but the way the assumptions are being hashed out in practice could very well end up placing a lot of real people – Iranian, Israeli, British, American – in harm’s way.

09 November 2011

Pointless video post - ‘No Fear’ by Rage



Since 2005, the Rhenish-Belarusian power trio Rage has been on the warpath, so to speak, against the post-Bush foreign and economic policies of the United States, and delivered three albums which contained outraged political broadsides against the military-industrial complex, corporate greed and neoliberalism: 2006’s Speak of the Dead (with Mike Terrana of Masterplan on drums), 2008’s Carved in Stone and 2010’s Strings to a Web. ‘No Fear’, from Speak of the Dead, was perhaps the trendsetter in this regard. In addition, the song is a sterling example (alongside, say, Angel Dust’s ‘Bleed’) of what power metal should sound like - hard, crunchy and heavy whilst at the same time losing as few of the melodic or emotional elements as possible, something at which Peter Wagner and Victor Smolski are both rather ingenious. The album is slightly schizophrenic, which is by no means a bad thing, since it features also a lengthy symphonic arrangement (‘Suite Lingua Mortis’) with the Belarusian Inspector Symphonic Orchestra accompanying. Rage unfortunately also has a twinge of the knee-jerk anti-religious sentiment to which heavy metal in general is often prone, and their lyrics aren’t necessarily the deepest around, but in the face of their sheer all-around awesomeness I think a great deal can be forgiven.

Enjoy, gentle readers!

08 November 2011

於貔抱者、於龍戡者(下部) – Of panda-huggers and dragon-slayers, part 2

As with ChinaGeeks, Lawyers, Guns and Money is one of those blogs I read not so much because I agree with it all the time (though I certainly agree with LGM’s social-democratic commenters more often than I agree with the neoconservative-tinged cast which frequents ChinaGeeks), but because one can generally count on the opinions expressed therein to be both thoughtful and provocative. Dr Robert Farley manages to hold the line on that front with his insightful piece on the GOP’s attitudes toward China; though he focusses, by his own admission, primarily on Mitt Romney the staff of his campaign. (Also noted by Dr Farley: Hong Bopei Dashu, though experienced in the affairs of the Middle Country, is nevertheless not a front-runner in this race, likely not so much on account of his Mormonness as of his moderation.)

I think Dr Farley’s analysis certainly holds water. There is a very definite split within the Republican Party corresponding to the differing attitudes between the libertarian (read: pro-tobacco, as here, and other harmful drugs) and the neoconservative (read: pro-military-industrial complex) camps. The businesses which primarily leverage the most votes for the Republican Party tend to be against war with China, as (following the example of the East India Company) they see China as a huge export market for American exports. On the other hand, the influence the neoconservatives have had on the Republican mainstream has made it nearly impossible for the Republican leadership (including the current crop of presidential candidates) to express themselves in anything other than an American-exceptionalist and democratic-utopian idiom. (The exceptions, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul – for whom I don’t otherwise harbour any sympathy whatsoever – have been deliberately sidelined by the party as a result of their dissenting opinions.) But this sort of two-faced approach is very much on full display within the Romney campaign.

I think it would be likewise interesting to analyse the Democratic Party’s positions on China. Though the economic incentives are different (with large union support supplanting that of the tobacco and defence industries), I think we are likely to find that opinions are likewise dissonant and distorted by the (if I may borrow Dr Wang Hui’s usage) anti-political institutionalisation of politics. The Obama Administration has taken what may charitably be called a ‘balanced’ and what may less charitably be called an ‘incoherent’ policy toward China; on the one hand taking a hard line on Chinese currency and a strident neo-liberal line on trade policy, but on the other quietly easing off on human rights issues. Also interesting to me is that even within Democratic ranks, there is a certain level of dissent on trade policy – Mr Robert Casey, Jr (our good Senator from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) is quite remote from being a panda-hugger on trade policy, on account of his care for local production and manufacturing – although his free-trade scepticism certainly is not exclusive only to China.

Although I am much more sympathetic to Mr Casey’s localist, scale-free position than to Mr Obama’s, Ms Clinton’s or the average Economist reader’s as a matter of principle, I tend to think that China’s leadership also must consider its own position, and the manufacturing and industrial jobs that are fleeing Guangzhou and the SEZs to take advantage of yet-cheaper labour in Vietnam, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Before the likes of Clinton decry a trade barrier as ‘unfair’ in the kneejerk way they are often wont to do, or before another Casey takes aim at China as a job-stealing bogeyman, perhaps they ought first to take a fuller account of the various levels of unfairness at play on a global scale, in which Vietnamese and Bangladeshi wage-slaves are every bit as much victims as the Chinese and American workers whose jobs evaporated overnight. Chinese workers and American workers need not be enemies – just as the states and institutions which govern them are not.

How do you solve a problem like Medea?


Image of surprisingly-not-alpine-Austria but Mount Damavand of north-central Iran, courtesy Wikipedia

My apologies to my gentle readers; I can rarely pass up an opportunity for a bad, bad pun. This one arises from a comment that one esteemed reader, Mr James P— of Kongming’s Archives (and a man of integrity and courtesy whose opinions in general I’ve come to respect very highly) left for my last blog post on Facebook:

I don’t think there is suitable justification for a war there by a long shot and I believe this is a bad time for what would likely turn into another lengthy, bloody, and costly war. I’m definitely not in favor of this. But an analysis of such a war seems incomplete at best when it overlooks the myriad problems with Iran, it’s government and leadership, and the role they play internationally.


This is true, though the answers are likely not as Mr P— is wont to assume. I believe Iran is problematic. I appreciate and admire the antique humanist strain within Shi’a Islam (which is more or less in continuity with the Zoroastrian, Achaemenid fountainhead of Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian ethics, the monotheistic radicalism of the prophets of Old Israel and, by extension, the radicalism of classical Christianity) to which Iran’s government pays tribute, as in the reservation of seats in the Majlis for religious minorities. I also recognise, however, that there are numerous ways in which that very same government undermines its own commitment to its ideals by violating the dignity of its citizens. There are a number of people who can make that case far, far better than I can – Ms Naj over at Neoresistance is always a reliable advocate for those in Iran who are systematically bereft of power (and, to her great credit, she remains stridently anti-war and pro-economic justice).

Though the problems with Iran’s government, leadership and foreign relations may be myriad, I do tend to think that the hierarchy begins with the inconvenient truths revealed by Operation Ajax nearly sixty years ago. Certain sometimes-dominant elements within the state apparatus of the United States and of the United Kingdom are unwilling to give face to states in the region (even moderate and reformist ones such as the government of Mr Mosaddegh!) which do not acquiesce to their economic colonialism with the appropriate level of servility. The resultant humiliation of having an autocrat who was little more than the puppet of Western petrol interests was, rather understandably, a little much for the Iranian people to bear. Sadly, it also served to poison the social-democratic and constitutional-monarchist vision of the overthrown Mr Mosaddegh such that the (republican, albeit religious) purveyors of the Islamic Revolution were able to paint themselves as the Last Best Hope for Iranian self-determination. This is the ace hand they still hold, and which they still play at every opportunity when the United States and Allies make aggressive noises in Iran’s direction.

This desire for and insecurity about sovereignty issues also informs the movements Iran’s government is making toward becoming a nuclear state. Though Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has been a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency since its inception, its historical vulnerability to foreign attack and hostility from the US and Great Britain (plus or minus Israel) certainly provide an incentive to acquire nuclear energy technology and weaponry, and to build bridges with nations historically less aligned with the Anglo-American West (namely Russia and China). One may react with chagrin to a Russia-China-Iran bloc; one may deplore the acquisition of nuclear arms; but it strikes me as a bad-faith argument to pretend that any of these moves somehow place Iran’s government outside the realm of rationality (if we are defining rationality in terms of foreign-policy realism).

In terms of their international role, on balance I believe it is wrong to stigmatise (as much of the Anglo-American press outside outlets like the Guardian tends to do by default) either the Iranian government or the Iranian people as ‘irrational’ in their pursuit of greater sovereignty, and even nuclear technology, when a significant part of the context is two neighbours – Pakistan to the east and Israel to the west – each with already existing nuclear arms and each with disturbing proclivities to violence and zealotry (whether of an Islamic-fundamentalist or of a secular-Zionist flavour). Even more so when one considers that the two international powers most stridently attempting to isolate Iran are also aiding and abetting Islamic fundamentalist and secular über-Ba’athist elements within Iran. Though I am not (I repeat, not) a fan of the current administration, I fear that an order in which Jundullah or the Mojahedin-e Khalq are given preference on account of their foreign support would likely be much, much worse. All this is dancing around the central issue, though; as Ms Naj notes, 120 noted Iranian intellectuals and human-rights advocates have come out quite stridently against war as a viable option to settling Iran’s current woes.

My apologies, Mr P—: I fear that, even though I may have cursorily touched on some of the thorny issues surrounding American foreign policy toward Iran, this ended up being more of a post on ‘how don’t you solve a problem like Medea’ as opposed to how we do. On the brighter side, though (mileage may vary depending on how likely the Iranian government is to listen), I think quite a number of Iranian citizens (and that number is not insignificant) are amenable to letting bygones be bygones… if we give them a reason to.

03 November 2011

Enough is enough

I shall keep this short.

At times it seems like the American populace is on the tracks facing down an out-of-control locomotive, one which has already claimed thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of lives in the Fertile Crescent, in Central Asia and in North Africa. Now it appears that further fuel is being added to the boiler by a British Ministry of Defence and a hawkish Israeli administration which are pushing ever more shamelessly for a pre-emptive war against yet another ancient, venerable and humanistic civilisation: namely, that of Iran. Such sabre- and shamshir-rattling is not in the interests of the American or the British public, to say absolutely nothing of the Iranian public, on whose territory such a war will doubtless be waged, or of the Israeli citizenry, who will further alienate themselves from their neighbours in a war that will doubtless further devastate their nation’s reputation in the region.

The standards by which we are now considering what comprises a valid just cause for military action, or even a valid authority to declare that cause, are – thanks in part to the neoconservative policy agenda which has now been enshrined in unholy precedent by Bush and Blair, and in part to the increasingly paranoid, increasingly petulant, increasingly amoral and increasingly unhinged foreign policy of the state of Israel – at an all-time low. President Obama, having been elected on a mandate to volte-face on the perversities of the prior administration, now sadly appears to be poised on the brink of yet another (to borrow the words of our august Archbishop) ‘criminal, ignorant and potentially murderous folly’. And the silence from the Anglo-American progressive blogosphere is both deafening and shameful.

Enough, is enough, is enough.

EDIT: Here’s hoping Peter Beinart is right.

01 November 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Battalions of Steel’ by Saxon



A blessed Feast of All Saints to my gentle readers! To celebrate in remembrance of all who have attained the beatific vision and have entered the Kingdom, I present you with ‘Battalions of Steel’ from Saxon! Okay, yeah, I admit, the lyrics are cheesy in the brotherhood-of-heroes-for-metal-honour-and-glory way that only power metal can possibly be, but the musicianship is awesome. If the Son doesn’t throw up the horns as the Church Triumphant rides out with this song, or one like it, blaring from the Marshalls on the towers of Heaven when he returns in glory, this faithful metalhead will be seriously bummed.

31 October 2011

Vengeance, forgiveness, love, patriotism and care for the common people


Last night I finished the fan translation of Eagle-Shooting Hero 《射鵰英雄傳》 by Sir Louis Cha (better known by his nom de plume Jin Yong 金庸, taken from the character elements of his given name 查良), also on a recommendation from my significant other.

What a ride.

Never mind that the whole thing is only marginally shorter than War and Peace, and that I’ve been reading it on-and-off since July; this book is amazing, even in translation (however rough it may be). The elderly Hong Kong master of letters has a reputation both in China and among the overseas Chinese community that is apparently fully deserved. Not only is this an admirable work of historical fiction in its own right (taking place during the conquest of China by Jingghis Khan, and incorporating historical figures such as the great Khan and his Daoist advisor Qiu Chuji seamlessly with his fictional characters); it tackles philosophical and moral questions as well as an Edith Pargeter novel can.

The primary story follows two sons of renowned Song heroes: Guo Jing 郭靖, son of Guo Xiaotian, and Yang Kang 楊康, son of Yang Tiexin – named by Qiu Chuji after the Humiliation of Jingkang 靖康之恥 when Jurchen soldiers from the bordering kingdom of Jin looted and razed Kaifeng, and kidnapped the Song Emperor and his relatives. The two boys, though their fathers are close friends from the same village, grow up separately from each other and lead very different lives: Guo Jing is raised by his mother and by his martial-arts masters on the Mongolian steppe, whilst Yang Kang is adopted by a Prince of Jin, and changes his surname to Wanyan 完顏. Whilst Guo Jing is crude, unlettered, stubborn and slow-witted, and learns things only through sheer repetition and force of will, Yang Kang is erudite and clever. More importantly, though, Guo Jing, being raised by his mother and by six martial artists of lower-class upbringing (the Six Freaks of Jiangnan), is honest to a fault and brave bordering on foolhardy. Yang Kang, though, with his court upbringing, becomes something of a pathological liar.

Guo Jing is introduced to the world of ‘rivers and lakes’ (the martial-arts world) by his teachers, and sent on a quest by his mother to avenge the death of his father at the hands of the Jin. On this quest he not only has repeated run-ins with his sworn brother Yang Kang, but also meets his star-crossed lover Huang Rong, the overpoweringly-intelligent daughter of one of the most powerful (and cruel) martial artists in the world.

I won’t give away too much of the story here; suffice it to say that this epic explores a number of ethical questions in detail – and in ways which are surprising. Though the book as a whole upholds the virtues of filial piety and loyalty to one’s country, the reader is sometimes left to cheer when Guo Jing is aided by someone acting against the wishes of a parent or of a king – only to be left scratching his head (as Guo Jing eventually does) at the contradiction. Though Guo Jing himself is presented as the Confucian paragon and the ethical centre of the story’s universe (in a rather ironic way, given how he is also presented as half-barbarian on account of his Mongolian upbringing), Huang Rong is a much more accessible character, whose conscience is more readily conflicted by the tension between filiality, upright behaviour and her practically all-consuming love for Guo Jing.

War itself is an ever-present force which is often brought to the foreground – the Jin attack on Ox Village (separating Guo Jing from Yang Kang) and the bloody Mongolian conquests of Jin and the (supposedly Jin-aligned) eastern Iranian kingdom of Horezm bookend the novel. The suffering of common people in war, and at the hands of military leaders and bandits, is likewise emphasised, as is the duty (ever-present in wuxia novels of this kind) of the world of rivers and lakes to come to the defence and aid of the innocent.

Even across the combined language and cultural gaps of the translator and the reader, the book lost none of its emotional potency or its ability to engage. The demands of honour and virtue, pitted against the personal desires of the protagonists, were so well-balanced that one had to feel empathy for Guo Jing even as his sense of honour led him to repeatedly thwart his own and Huang Rong’s desire for a peaceful life together. Sir Louis Cha manages quite adroitly to keep his characters sympathetic without turning them into saints or martyrs… the one possible exception being Hong Qigong, one of the five best martial artists in the world, and the leader of the Beggar Clan.

It is certain, once my workload becomes a little more manageable, that I’ll pick up the two sequels in the trilogy: Divine Eagle, Gallant Knights 《神鵰俠侶》 and Heaven-Reliant and Dragon-Slayer 《倚天屠龍記》 (which are equal in length). But I have a sneaking suspicion that Eagle-Shooting Hero will continue to be my favourite in the trilogy.

29 October 2011

Highly recommended reading

It seems both John at Economics is for Donkeys and California Constantian have been in top form this past week.

John has linked to a great article over at Naked Capitalism, which does an excellent job of cutting past the layers of mendacity surrounding Greece’s fiscal crisis as in, say, the Financial Times: hardly the outcome of an overactive welfare state, the problem in Greece is that a significant portion of its populace (the top earners, to be precise) pays next to nothing in taxes, and (long story short) the current institutional setup is such that the government is powerless to do anything about its own monetary policy.

California Constantian, on the other hand, has touched on matters somewhat closer to home geographically, and in a way which I highly appreciate. The former part, which reduces to absurdity Ron Paul’s claims to anti-corporatism by noting that the policies he favours all have a disturbing tendency in the pro-corporate direction, concludes that measuring one’s own public morality by adherence to the Constitution is ultimately unsatisfactory. He then makes the more radical (or reactionary) suggestion that a written Constitution under the hermeneutic control of a political elite is not going to guarantee for us a just society, and follows up said suggestion with an alternative: a public figure who is exempt not from public life, but rather from the political class itself – in other words, a monarch. I do very much agree with him thus far – indeed, his argument carries valuable echoes of a Metternichesque ‘socialisme conservateur’: constitutions are the work of generations, and have only the authority given to them by tradition and by the people under them – and the American Constitution does not have even the first advantage! However, his argument to this point rests upon the good behaviour and philanthropic spirit of the monarch herself – historically, as monarchs have generally been drawn from the warrior castes of their respective societies (even in such intellectually-inclined societies as China, the imperial families all started off as warlords), I’m not sure this assumption naturally holds. If I may take his argument further; what is needed is a non-political head of state, informed by a religious establishment which emphasises economic justice and the common good.

Actually, my third recommendation for the week is the civic republicanism of Jim Sleeper . This strikes me as a very tempting correction to the ills of a fragmented body politic, but it also seems to me that if it relies over-much on the way American political institutions are currently structured, into an over-reliance on the high interpretive powers of the Supreme Court or an over-reliance on top-down reforms vested in the executive apparatus under the Presidency, such a republicanism may be doomed to distort itself ultimately into the heresies of neoconservatism, ultra-liberalism or identity politics.

Currently reading 1587 by Ray Huang (黃仁宇), on a recommendation from Jessie Zong. So far, it looks to be a very interesting historical work on the beginning-of-the-end for the Ming Dynasty. Hope to do a post on it later.

28 October 2011

無題

傳聲不可知
回答何境意
日日爬山聽
時樂時哀已
坐峰決無遁
終聞仙緲樂
慰偯咷之音
安心歌也悅
每瞠雲雨霽
抱愛水風姮
自沉撫心問
曰者或回聲
- 郭明正,2011年10月28号

25 October 2011

The real defenders of human rights (not who you’d think!)


Lin Zexu 林則徐

The Qing Dynasty – the last of China’s Imperial states – was founded by a Tungusic tribe descended from the Jurchens 女真 calling themselves ‘Manju’ 滿族. Their first king, Aisin Gioro hala-i Nurhaci 努爾哈赤, broke away from the ailing Ming Dynasty and proclaimed himself the king of the Later Jin 後金, claiming continuation with the mediaeval Jurchen Jin Dynasty headed by the Wanggiyan 完顏 family (and made infamous by the Condor trilogy by Jin Yong). It was not long, however, before the nobility of this kingdom, which came to rule all of China under Kangxi 康熙, adopted Chinese culture almost wholesale, as many foreigners who came to rule China had before them. A number of their leaders, nobles, intellectuals and civil servants carried on even more drastic reforms than those of the early Ming rulers: although they could be very the Yongzheng 雍正 and Qianlong 乾隆 Emperors were both highly talented administrators and implacable enemies of corruption, and even put into place a number of prohibitions on the sale and ownership of slaves, far more effective and wide-reaching than even the Ming-era reforms had been.

Particularly during their peak, the Qing emperors were masterful politicians who ruled over a cosmopolitan state rivalling that of the Xianbei Tang Dynasty, and used many different means to legitimate themselves. To the Tibetan government and to the Mongols, the Qing Emperors were devout Buddhists who derived their ruling legitimacy from their adherence to that religion. However, to the Chinese people, the Aisin Gioro kings showed a distinctly more Confucian face… though in the case of Yongzheng and Qianlong, this was more than just a façade. They depended on and rigorously upheld a Confucian standard of integrity for their civil servants. This rigour outlasted their reigns, however, among these officials. One particularly (and justly) famous civil servant, Commissioner Lin Zexu 林則徐, would become famous for upholding his nation’s honour and for advocating the same human dignity in China that people in the West enjoyed: particularly life, health, self-determination and freedom from the degradations of opiate addiction at the hands of the drug-pedlars of the British East India Company.

In his famous 1839 letter to Queen Victoria (which the much-esteemed monarch never herself read), the good Confucian Commissioner Lin expressed himself with outrage and eloquence at his people’s ill-treatment at the hands of British traders:

The kings of your honourable country by a tradition handed down from generation to generation have always been noted for their politeness and submissiveness. We have read your successive tributary memorials saying, ‘In general our countrymen who go to trade in China have always received His Majesty the Emperor's gracious treatment and equal justice’, and so on. Privately we are delighted with the way in which the honorable rulers of your country deeply understand the grand principles and are grateful for this Heavenly grace. For this reason the Heavenly Court in soothing those from afar has redoubled its polite and kind treatment. The profit from trade has been enjoyed by them continuously for two hundred years. This is the source from which your country has become known for its wealth.

But after a long period of commercial intercourse, there appear among the crowd of barbarians both good persons and bad, unevenly. Consequently there are those who smuggle opium to seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all provinces. Such persons who only care to profit themselves, and disregard their harm to others, are not tolerated by the laws of Heaven and are unanimously hated by human beings. His Majesty the Emperor, upon hearing of this, is in a towering rage. He has especially sent me, his commissioner, to come to Guangdong, and together with the governor-general and governor jointly to investigate and settle this matter.

[…]

Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries -- how much less to China! Of all that China exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not beneficial to people: they are of benefit when eaten, or of benefit when used, or of benefit when resold: all are beneficial. Is there a single article from China which has done any harm to foreign countries?

[…]

As for the barbarian merchants who come to China, their food and drink and habitation, are all received by the gracious favor of our Heavenly Court. Their accumulated wealth is all benefit given with pleasure by our Heavenly Court. They spend rather few days in their own country but more time in Guangzhou. To digest clearly the legal penalties as an aid to instruction has been a valid principle in all ages. Suppose a man of another country comes to England to trade, he still has to obey the English laws; how much more should he obey in China the laws of the Heavenly Dynasty?


This communication, and the destruction of Indian opium with which the courageous Commissioner Lin followed it up, was met with gunships, which opened fire on civilian ports and looted all livestock from townspeople and villagers who could not pay for ‘protection’. China was subjected, ultimately, to a humiliating defeat and the cession of Xianggang to placate the British East India Company’s desire for ‘free trade’ (meaning, naturally, ‘free trade’ in a dangerous and often-deadly drug).

It is an oft-repeated Big Lie on the part of liberals and neoliberals that human rights and free trade go hand-in-hand; but this Big Lie requires, in China’s case, not only the acceptance of a blatant insult to their experience and cultural history, but also the acceptance on the part of everyone else an incredibly gruesome fiction. The defenders of human rights, in China, were neither the ‘free trade’-supporting Western nations who greeted the British victory against China with their own gunship delegations demanding extraterritoriality and other concessions from China, nor the nations which made blatant use of low-skilled, low-paid labour when the Qing Dynasty was in such a weakened state. Rather, in China’s case, the defenders of a transcendental ideal of human dignity were the very same Confucian officials and ideology that all later Western and Western-influenced thinkers would make the focus of their sustained attacks.

23 October 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Missä Miehet Ratsastaa’ by Teräsbetoni



This band was introduced to me by Andreas - an old friend of mine from grade school days - and his family, who recently visited the United States. Teräsbetoni (lit. reinforced concrete), a recent Finnish power metal act, entered this song, ‘Missä Miehet Ratsastaa’ (‘Where the Men Ride’) in the Eurovision contest in 2008. Their style has been frequently compared with Manowar, but thankfully they do not take themselves too seriously (as the video very clearly shows!). They’ve managed to get a great deal of attention in Finland, and I can see quite clearly why; it sucks, though, that their albums are so difficult to locate in the United States… Anyway, my gentle readers, please enjoy the reinforced concrete (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d see myself typing)!

22 October 2011

One country, many nations?


Colin Woodard, via Dave Brockington. I’m pretty much in full agreement with Mr Brockington on this one; this is an immensely interesting map and a thesis which looks, on its face, to be intuitively convincing. I share Mr Brockington’s concerns, however, that the division of the United States into its cultural regions rather discounts the impact of successive waves of immigrants, and furthermore appears slightly deterministic (which seems to be somewhat the wrong attitude to take, particularly when speaking of phenomena like the Tea Party).

Being fully cognisant of the fact that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’, my own family’s cultural affiliation appears notoriously difficult to pin down. The Coopers were originally Pennsylvania Quakers (authentic Midlanders), before the War of American Independence forced my own branch of the family to migrate into the Deep South, where they stayed until two generations ago, when my grandfather relocated first to Providence, Rhode Island (deepest, darkest Yankeedom) and then to Arlington, Virginia (Tidewater), where my aunt and my father were born and raised. The Doanes, on the other hand, are Yankees through and through – but they don’t fit Mr Woodard’s Weberian ‘ideal type’ at all. Rather than being patrician, Puritan social engineers, they have been and are much more similar in temperament to the Midland ideal type: Methodist and broad-church to a fault with a very strong sense of family and place, my grandfather is a dairy farmer who distrusts big government and big religion as much as he distrusts big business. Somewhat oddly, my own ‘red Tory’ political, religious and cultural attitudes appear vaguely to be those of a High-Church or Catholic Tidewaterman (though I was raised in Madison, Wisconsin – which, according to Mr Woodard’s reckoning, is a Yankee stronghold).

Which brings me to another point. The religious culture of the Midwest is indeed heavily Protestant, but the Calvinist legacy, if it ever existed there, has long since faded to the faintest echo (except possibly in Western Michigan, but there it survived due to Dutch Reformed immigrants, not Puritans of Scotch or English extraction). The culture of the Great Lakes states has been far more closely shaped by immigrants from Central, Eastern and Northern Europe (note the preponderance of German, Swiss and Finnish culture still lingering around places like Stoughton, New Glarus and the mining towns of northern Wisconsin, or the Norwegian culture stretching all across Minnesota), who share in the anarchistic and egalitarian tendencies of their forebears, who fled from their home countries largely during the mid-1800’s (a tumultuous time in Europe). Also (applying Mr Woodard’s implicit assumptions regarding the formation and character of these cultural blocs), if Upper Canada resembles the Midlands at all, it is more likely than not an accidental resemblance, due to the constitutionally-moderate, anti-slavery and communitarian leanings of the United Empire Loyalists who settled there in the wake of the War of American Independence.

I’m not particularly sanguine, either, on a.) the intractability of the Tidewater region in its historical alliance with the Deep South, or on b.) the ease with which El Norte can be comfortably brought into the modern American progressive fold alongside, say, the New Netherlanders. During the Civil War, the High Church Episcopalians and the Catholics of the Coastal border states were heavily divided on the issue of slavery, which really was dying out, particularly in the large cities (which had begun to resemble the economy of the North). Maryland was home to one of the largest populations of freedmen in the entire country, although the vestiges of slavery lingered through the Civil War. Since then, in spite of occasional bouts of Confederate nostalgia, Northern Virginia and the Research Triangle in North Carolina have made them key swing states in recent elections (both having gone to President Obama in 2008). Since the party realignment in the wake of Civil Rights, also, both Delaware and Maryland have been Democratic strongholds.

Regarding El Norte, Catholicism runs very deep within the Hispanic and Southwest American Indian cultural template (although said Catholicism is also quite often very Low-Church, even Charismatic in flavour), and although Democratic candidates have found common ground with them on issues of immigration, they remain very culturally conservative, overwhelmingly pro-life and opposed to same-sex marriage. The faith of the average norteno is still a faith which is (in the words of Mr Lindsay) characterised by ‘compassion for the poor, disgust at wars of aggression, revulsion at the lying of countries into such wars and at gargantuan personal profiteering from them, hostility to drugs and to sexual promiscuity’.

Still, the central thesis is immensely thought-provoking, and I agree with Mr Brockington that the quibbles with Mr Woodard’s thesis do not overshadow his ability to tell an intuitively-convincing tale; and that what remains is to test his model empirically.