31 January 2011

Why ideologues should not be teachers

Okay, rant time. Any of my readers who disapprove of me when I go straight into ranting mode, please stop reading now.

I’m still in somewhat a state of denial about this experience. Part of me is screaming that what just happened did not, cannot, must not have happened at one of the premier graduate institutions aimed at producing independent, critical professionals in the field of public policy. But my eyes and ears did not deceive me. My ‘Political Economy of Property Rights’ course really did just happen, and what time was not spent covering the theoretical basics of institutional change was pretty much a sustained ideological harangue by my professor on the evils of Congress and government intervention in the American West. Of course, it seems, the government is to be blamed for every failure of the Forest Service to protect public forests, yet no mention was made of the successes of the National Parks and Monuments system or the initiatives of Mr Theodore Roosevelt, because those were obvious flukes. All official aid, following an extreme interpretation of the arguments of Mr William Easterly, is a failure and no countries ever recovered as a result – and the Marshall Plan was, naturally, useless because Germany and Japan were going to recover anyway and were in no danger of succumbing to Mr Joseph Stalin at all. Sarcasm aside, I fully admit that my poor eyes began to glaze over when the professor made a completely uncritical and unironic endorsement of the crank notions of one Mr Friedrich Hayek.

The entire spat between Sachs and Easterly, which I mentioned awhile back, strikes me as yet another iteration of the antics of Hudge and Gudge, GK Chesterton’s sadly-neglected parody of the extreme ideologies of state and market, respectively. It should come as no surprise that I’m no great fan of either one. And I’m immensely sorry to say it, but I’m afraid my professor seems to have followed to a ‘T’ the characterization of Gudge. I am rather embarrassed for my institution of higher learning to recount that the theoretical and historical objections I raised were hand-waved away, with a politeness that failed to dull the rather obvious sting of condescension. I felt that my ears must have been deceiving me when my professor declaimed that it was not a good idea to be too critical of neoliberalism and (what amounts to) oligopoly, as though said ideology and its defenders had not been in the business of justifying the pillage and pollution of the lands of ordinary folk (whether Native Americans or of small farmers in the American East), passing off said desecration as a positive good!

I was never convinced, of course, that Gudgeans would make good teachers – now I am quite convinced of the contrary. Having had several Hudgean teachers in my time, I am not altogether easy with the idea that they are that much better. Though they do light on some good ideas from time to time (like the idea that men and women should be equal in importance), the way they tend to organise said ideas often leads them into saddening self-caricatures (like what feminism has sadly become and the ease with which it accepts neoliberal assumptions about human nature, which do not empower women). I think it is telling that among my greatest academic influences was my eighth-grade history teacher, Ms Angela Abbott: who deliberately took a contrarian line on United States history in challenge to the reigning narrative, in order to get us to question our own assumptions about the way the world worked.

Naturally, I have no intention of turning into a crank myself – I hope it is not too late for that. But I’m starting to find it an increasingly urgent calling to begin articulating an alternative to these most recent iterations of Hudgeanism and Gudgeanism; one which takes into account not just economic but spiritual wellbeing, and one grounded in the liberating, revolutionary social call-to-arms of the Gospel. And if ever I do end up returning to teaching, rest assured that I will endeavour never to dismiss the criticisms of my own students!

27 January 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Bloodstone’ by Judas Priest

Judas Priest’s ‘Bloodstone’, from their classic 1982 album Screaming for Vengeance! Has to be one of the catchiest riffs in the history of Brit metal (even though I realise they’re not necessarily a ‘canonical’ NWoBHM band); I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for days. Thanks a lot, Pandora Radio...

Still on an internship search; completed another application just today. Also looking at the Mayor’s Office internship here in Pittsburgh, though.

16 January 2011

Blessed Martin, prophet and martyr, pray with us

‘Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.’

‘We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing"-oriented society to a "person"-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.’

‘I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast between poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "this is not just". It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "this is not just". The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world.’

- The Rev’d Martin Luther King, Jr

Today is also the feast day of Anglo-Catholic bishop and theologian, the Rt Rev’d the Lord Bishop Charles Gore of Oxford. Blessed Charles, pray with us.

These are the good Bishop’s four propositions from a lecture in 1927.

(1) That the present condition of our society, our industry and our international relations, though it presents encouraging features, yet, on the whole, must inspire in our minds a deep sense of dissatisfaction and alarm, and a demand for so thorough a reformation as to amount to a revolution, though one which the teaching of experience, no less than the teaching of Christ, leads us to believe can only be brought about by gradual and peaceful means.

(2) That the evils which we deplore in our present society are not the inevitable results of any unalterable law of nature, or any kind of inexorable necessity, but are the fruits of human blindness, willfulness, avarice, and selfishness on the widest scale and in the long course of history; and that therefore their alteration demands something more than legislative and external changes, necessary as these may be: it demands a fundamental change of the spirit in which we think about and live our common life, and conduct our industry, and maintain our international relations. The cry must be "Repent ye -- change your minds," if "the kingdom of heaven" is to come as a welcome gift of God and not as a scathing and destructive judgment.

(3) That we should not look for such change of spirit to arise from any simultaneous conversion of men in masses. If we accept the teaching of past experience, we should expect the general alteration to arise from the influence in society of groups of men, inspired probably by prophetic leaders, who have attained to a true vision both of the source of our evils and of the nature of the true remedies; and who have the courage of faith, which can bind them together to act and to suffer in the cause of human emancipation, till their vision and their faith come to prevail more or less completely in the general mind and will . . .

(4) That Jesus Christ is really the Saviour and Redeemer of Mankind, in its social as well as its individual life and in the present world as well as in that which is to come: and that there lies upon those who believe in Him a responsibility which cannot be exaggerated to be true to the principles which He taught, and by all available means to bring them to bear upon the whole life of any society of which they form a part, especially when it professes the Christian name.

It is a terrible injustice that the Church has perpetrated on her Saints, that she cuts out their tongues and does not allow them to speak for themselves as they would want to be heard - as radicals, as revolutionaries and as subversives. It thus strikes me that the best way to honour them is to pay tribute to their thoughts, their words and their deeds.

15 January 2011

Heavy metal theology

Okay, this post was bound to happen sooner or later. One of my best friends at Pitt describes me (in good humour) as an intriguing bundle of contrarianism and contradictions, and – let’s face it – she’s probably right. I’m a Sinophile and a democratic socialist who also nevertheless holds a deep and abiding love for England and her culture, in spite of her shameful imperial past. I’m a Christian who rejects both theological liberalism and fundamentalism, ultimately for not being existentially authentic enough. But more than that, I also happen to be a metalhead, and supposedly heavy metal and Christianity mix like oil and water. I personally think this is more than a bit simplistic, but let’s explore the issues a bit (I believe Mother Rachel made a valiant first attempt, but I think we can look a little more closely at the places where the two really may have some dissonance).

Heavy metal was, in its original formation, a musical expression of revolt against the excesses of mainstream society. It tackled philosophical, theological and political issues which were considered gauche or even taboo at the time, yet it did so not in a spirit of peevish rebellion but with an eagerness to explore those intangibles which drive people and societies into darkness. It was from the start primarily associated with the working-class youth of English industrial towns like Birmingham (the birthplace of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest), Sheffield (very near the home of Saxon) and London (Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and Motörhead). One of the frequent targets for criticism and mockery by heavy metal artists was, indeed, Christianity – but it was the tendency of the cultural institution to keep people complacent rather than necessarily the teachings of the religion itself. In its place, heavy metal has tended to favour an ancient pagan ideal of manliness and independence (hence the focus on chivalry and heathenism by many metal bands), though there are as well some hints of existentialism in the lyrics of much early metal. (A form of music which finds something true and aesthetic appealing in the downtuned and the distorted would seem to make an existential attitude necessary…)

One highly interesting aspect of heavy metal – the thing which drew me first in that direction, actually, through symphonic and progressive metal bands like Nightwish, Edenbridge, Pagan’s Mind and Tang Dynasty – has been its near-constant flirtation with baroque and classical music. This may be reading too much into the intentions behind the music, but the rejection of the direction which pop music was taking may have led them to look to the distant, meaningful past for a more authentic form of expression, something we may have lost. Sometimes this shift of direction is very explicit. Take Saxon’s The Inner Sanctum for example: not only does the album artwork suggest in blue, sad tones the ruins of an ancient English church, but the opening number, ‘State of Grace’, starts with a monastic plainsong, after which they launch straight into a lament for the lost glory of mediaeval Europe (‘Sacred towers standing tall / Built in times of guilt and gold / Ancient knowledge lost in time / Forgotten now in hearts and minds’). This tendency is not limited to Western metal, either – Tang Dynasty’s debut album is entitled A Dream Return to the Tang Dynasty 《梦回唐朝》 and features lyrics which are just about as nostalgic as the title suggests (and to top it off, much to this Sinophile socialist’s delight, featured a metal rendition of ‘L’Internationale’; rock on! \m/).

This logic takes metal in an even more curious direction philosophically, when one thinks of it. The metal subculture generally holds that society is (along with mainstream music) basically corrupt, and that most people are held in thrall to inauthentic consumerist desires which take a hold of them before they’ve had a chance to truly question them (just look on any metal forum for a discussion on ‘poseurs’ or the phenomenon of ‘mallcore’ to get a rough idea of what I’m talking about). In short, metal essentially subscribes to a neo-Augustinian theology of fallen humanity; the artefacts of metal music and culture thus take on almost sacramental significance as liberating symbols of political and quasi-religious resistance to mainstream norms and practices! Although many metalheads would likely never acknowledge this, they are in fact working in parallel with the cultural aims of early Christianity. (Though this article is rather tongue-in-cheek, it gives a good example of the ways in which this model holds true.)

This brings us to the topic of Satan. As a Catholic Christian, I naturally identify Satan with the powers of oppression and dehumanisation that keep the world in a state of un-freedom – I could go further in the mode of CST and liberation theology and identify Satan specifically with the sinful urges underpinning unchecked capitalism and consumerism. Yet it seems that some strains of metal embrace Satan (quite ironically, to my mind) as a liberating figure, struggling against an authoritarian, oppressive God and his cowed conformist followers. I think this response is highly misguided, given my cursory analysis above of the convergence of aims between radical Christianity and the metal subculture. But over-squeamish Christian commentators do themselves an immense disservice when they criticise metal for sympathising with the fallen angel as an artistic statement; after all, one among our own number did this first, in a piece of doggerel (I say this with the greatest affection) entitled Paradise Lost.

Though I think Mother Rachel is indeed a bit quick and uncritical in her dismissal of Satanism in metal as ‘play-acting’, I think she essentially has the argument right – most metal artists (along with other cultural figures like, e.g., Jo Rowling) do get a bad rap from critics who haven’t made any attempt at independent research or critical thinking. The most famous example I can think of is when Iron Maiden was unjustly accused by Christian conservatives of Satanism for their (excellent) 1981 album The Number of the Beast. This criticism is downright bizarre in context: I guess the critics must have missed the cover art for ‘Run to the Hills’ which features their mascot Eddie in a fight against Satan, or that for the single ‘The Number of the Beast’ itself, which features Eddie holding up Satan’s decapitated head (!). They must also have missed the lyrics to the song, which describe a nightmare Steve Harris had.

It’s worth noting that Iron Maiden responded to this criticism with both barrels, putting a backmasked nonsense message from Nicko McBrain on Piece of Mind, and recording ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ on Powerslave. However, their best response to their censorious critics has probably been the album A Matter of Life and Death: the entire album (laced with more than a few shots at the foreign policies of Bush and Blair) is basically a composition meditating on questions of theodicy, on the nature of good and evil, on human self-destruction, on the nature of religion and war. I find it highly intriguing that they arrive sympathetically at the image of Jesus on the Cross at the end of ‘For the Greater Good of God’. (For an alternate interpretation of A Matter of Life and Death, this is an excellent website.)

So, yes: I am a Christian; an English Catholic, to boot. I am also a metalhead. Though in the eyes of the culture – and indeed, in many of the eyes of metal subculture – these two identities are necessarily in tension if not in outright conflict, I hope I have demonstrated a few ways in which they may be seen as working in parallel. Perhaps a Chesterton quote might not come amiss here:

Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another… [t]here was room for wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

That’s heavy, GK; keep rocking, folks! \m/

10 January 2011

Pointed video post - 'Broken Heroes' by Saxon

‘Broken Heroes’ by the legendary British metal band Saxon. This one’s for the brave broken heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan, with a prayer for a swift end to the violence in both countries.

09 January 2011


The assassination attempt in Arizona in which 5 were killed and 7 were wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (who is in critical condition), was shocking, grievous and outrageous. Though I know they are little consolation, I offer my prayers for the victims, their families and their friends - no one should have to go through this.

This was to all appearances a politically-motivated shooting. Though I have no doubt some are even at this moment claiming this as the work of a lone individual with mental problems (which, by all appearances, is true), this seems to me to miss the larger picture. People with mental problems generally have a lesser degree of self-control than do sane people, and are more susceptible to outside influence; their actions tend to reflect their environment. And the rhetorical environment within which this took place was incredibly toxic; though ultimately only the shooter is responsible for his own actions, the linguistic context within which this shooting takes place reveals some incredibly disturbing tendencies (primarily a ‘lock and load’ idiom which indulges in paranoid fantasies of an oppressive central government which can only be addressed through violent revolt by armed ‘sovereign individuals’) coming from the far economic right. So to Ms Palin and Mr Boehner, both of whom have come forward with their condolences, I say good on them, but they must go further: true repentance for their own visible roles in fostering a volatile political climate which seems to be growing ever more dangerous. Only time will tell if those condolences end up being anything approaching sincere.

EDIT: I agree with Sheriff Dupnik. Also, Congresswoman Giffords appears to be on the mend. My further prayers for her swift recovery.

05 January 2011

Mass Effect as Marxist allegory (just for fun)

I remarked in an earlier post that Mass Effect was very much like Knights of the Old Republic in terms of plot and storyline – and that one gets the feeling that Mass Effect is the story BioWare wanted to tell without being burdened down by all of the baggage of the Star Wars extended universe. In a certain sense, this also affects the theology of the game – I say this not to be censorious at all, but rather as a form (as Lt Kaidan Alenko might put it) of art appreciation. Mass Effect, like all good speculative fiction, builds a universe as it might be; thus, certain theological assumptions about ‘human’ nature, theodicy, the relationship of man to his creator(s) all filter through.

Without spoiling too much of the storyline, one can note that on the face of it, the view of the universe posited by Mass Effect is cyclical, apocalyptic and dystheistic, even Lovecraftian. The antagonists of the series, the Reapers, are godlike machines which have this nasty habit of accelerating the development of galactic civilisation using FTL technology (the mass relays), only to wipe out that civilisation using both brute military force and brainwashing every 50,000 years or so. The task of Cdr Shepard, however, is to thwart this cycle of technological acceleration and extinction, and in so doing, save humanity and galactic civilisation – one assumes that the arc of the story, therefore, offers a release from a cyclical view of history in a final teleological apocalypse. One sees hints already that there will be an attempt at a final galactic revolution, led by a messianic figure in Cdr Shepard. Given that this revolution against the Reapers will involve all species who have been secretly exploited by the Reapers through mass effect technology, one could imagine that Mass Effect is indeed a Marxian parable (with the Reapers as the capitalist class, the mass relays as industrial technology and everyone else in the galaxy as the world proletariat – or, in the case of the Citadel species, the petty bourgeoisie whose false consciousness in the original Mass Effect prevents them from understanding the depth of their own exploitation). Of course, this interpretation all depends on what BioWare does with Mass Effect 3, but thus far I find that this interpretation a.) works and b.) is highly amusing. It is bolstered by the portrayal of (human) intergalactic corporations (ExoGeni, Binary Helix) as inherently manipulative and unethical – Cdr Shepard is pitted against both of these corporations in the original Mass Effect.

There are a couple of massive problems with this interpretation, of course. The first problem is that the universe of the original Mass Effect is nearly (and ironically, given its genre) Luddite in its distaste for some forms of technology. The only examples of AI we are given in the first instalment are: the Reapers (who are the antagonists of the series, evil beyond human comprehension), the geth (who are tools of the Reapers, originally created by the quarians) and a rogue AI whose first and only act before being destroyed by Shepard was to rob the Flux casino and attempt to escape the Citadel by hijacking an outbound ship. The message of the original game was a near-unequivocal ‘artificial intelligence bad’ – that all instances of AI need to be destroyed or tightly controlled.

To my pleasant surprise, they very neatly subverted this expectation in the sequel. As it turns out, the Normandy SR2 is saved by the shipboard AI, EDI, who is ultimately a sympathetic character (despite being highly mistrusted by Joker and Tali in particular). Joker (the pilot, played by Seth Green in both games) carries over the anti-AI mentality from the first game and at first refuses to see EDI as having either dignity or a sense of morality; after EDI saves his life, however, by being ‘unshackled’ from the ship’s AI core and thwarting an attack by the Collectors, Joker begins to see EDI as a full rights-bearer.

A more interesting reversal of the anti-AI bent of the first game is present in the character of Legion – a geth platform whose back-story provides an ironic parallel to the arc of the entire series. The original game placed one in a position of sympathy with the quarians (the creators of the geth), whose creations rebelled against them and drove them off their homeworld. As Legion notes, however, they were created only as labour owned entirely by their quarian masters, who attempted to commit genocide after it became clear that the geth were fully sentient. The geth developed a difference of opinion – the larger group of geth decided they wanted to pursue peaceful coexistence with organics, while the smaller group of geth (aptly called ‘heretics’, as their differences were ultimately theological) wished to accept the technological guidance of the Reapers. The geth represented by Legion rightly saw that the Faustian pact the heretics made with the Reapers represented acquiescence to the very same kind of exploitation they suffered under the quarians. Legion’s insistence that the development of technology ought to be subservient to the moral development of his species, and that placing control over their technological development in the hands of a more ‘advanced’ species would ultimately lead to brutal forms of exploitation, lends a much greater sophistication to the Mass Effect universe’s outlook on technology. Though it confronts and subverts the Luddite leanings of the original game, it is still not really a Marxian perspective; in fact, it is here much closer to the economic thought of Mohandas Gandhi – but I find it very hard to believe it was a coincidence that ‘orthodox’ geth society is portrayed as radically communistic and consensus-democratic.

I think we need to be clear – as Nikolai Berdyaev argued, and I believe the argument to be true – that Marxism is a theology. It is a heretical theology, though one which (like most heresies) provides valuable insights into some much-neglected truths. It is a well-deserved reaction against the inhumanity of that great idol which marks our time: ‘the market’. However, it does have a disturbing tendency to want to swing the other way – in order to wipe out the inhumanity and structural violence of capitalism, it succumbs to the operating assumptions of capitalism in that it advocates even greater violence to make space for the peaceable alternative. This is, of course, the mistake of Mass Effect (though it is a mistake endemic to all first-person shooters, and, it should be noted, to video games in general) – the nature of the universe is inherently violent, and sentient life must make use of overwhelming violence to stop the Reapers from continuing that cycle. The tradition of Christian socialism does provide an alternative, but that is a subject for another post.

Ehh… screw it. I enjoy the Marxian implications anyway, and I’m not going to let my pacifistic leanings get in the way of enjoying a massively entertaining (no pun intended) series of video games for the masterworks they are. Trailer for ME3 is out; here it is: