23 February 2011


We have established fairly definitively that Jesus would have been a metalhead. I’m not just observing that he had long hair, partied a lot and drank a lot of wine, either. He belonged to a tight-knit counterculture which spurned the religious and political elites of his day and preached an egalitarian, working-class message in terms ordinary people could relate to. He railed not only against the Sadducees and Herodeans, however, but also against the show-offs, the poseurs and the sellouts (though he called them scribes and Pharisees). In turn, they accused him of being in league with the Devil (sound familiar?). He went into the Temple and started mixing it up with the corporate suits (robes?) inside with a whip of cords. He might not have bitten the head off of a live bat, but he did drown an entire herd of pigs in a lake. He didn’t take any guff about his fans being too noisy; indeed, when the Pharisees told him to shut them up, he came back: ‘I tell you, if these were quiet, the stones would shout out’. (I can imagine him doing this in a thrash-metal shriek, by the way.) Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber got it – Jesus was voiced by Ian freaking Gillan on the original soundtrack, for His sake!

Now to my mind, the more interesting question is: what kind of metal would Jesus have listened to? The fun (and, to my mind, only fair) way to establish this would be to just go down the list of subgenres.

True metal. Well, there is certainly the Ian-Gillan-is-Jesus connexion – though many would argue that Deep Purple isn’t metal at all, let alone true metal. That said, Mr Gillan was briefly a member of Black Sabbath… Be that as it may, classic heavy metal is generally about rocking hard, partying hard, wandering around, having a good time and standing up for the little guy – all of which Jesus would have endorsed (see the Cana story in the Gospel of St John and the Beatitudes). The lyrics are generally simple and accessible to the point of crudity, much like the language Jesus used in the Gospels. Jesus would probably find a lot to like in true metal.

New wave of British heavy metal. Much as I would like to think Jesus would be a fan of the same genres as I am, I have to admit that Brit metal starts to get slightly elitist in both musical style and in lyrical content. Judas Priest usually keeps to love, sex and sci-fi monsters, but the lyrical themes of Iron Maiden wax highly literary, philosophical and even esoteric at times, though Saxon certainly keeps their feet firmly in the party-hard-and-die-rocking ethos of earlier metal acts. Brit metal bands like Avenger, Satan and even Maiden and Saxon at times (I’m thinking ‘Two Minutes to Midnight’ here) got political – usually speaking from the left end of the spectrum, against political and economic elites, against (some) wars and sometimes in solidarity with downtrodden groups like Native Americans (‘Run to the Hills’ by Maiden, ‘The Great White Buffalo’ by Saxon)… but these were rare occurrences overall. Still a possibility.

Thrash metal. Now here is where we start getting extreme. Thrash took a lot of its cues (musically and lyrically) from hardcore punk; the subculture was highly and radically politicised, to a much greater extent than Brit metal. Kreator, Pariah, Sodom, Xentrix, Megadeth, even Metallica in their earlier days… there are too many examples to even count properly. I think when Jesus was being serious, he probably would have been in a mindset to enjoy thrash (as when he entered the Temple and drove out the moneychangers).

Power and speed metal. Vikings and dragons, hobbits and Templars, daemons and warriors and wizards and sometimes other things generally populate the world of power metal. Jesus did dabble more than a bit in mythology and parables and confrontations with daemons, but on top of that he was concerned with the social questions of keeping people fed and bringing them into a community. I could potentially see Jesus rocking out to Masterplan, Gamma Ray or Blind Guardian, but I think he’d likely laugh aloud at the over-the-top militaristic machismo of bands like Manowar, Turisas or Hammerfall. (That said, he did travel with a close band of twelve men, some of whom were observed to carry swords…)

Death metal. Didn’t Jesus have a habit of saying that the Son of Man must die, and that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood? Didn’t he curse a fig tree to barrenness outside Jerusalem? Jesus was certainly also no stranger to really extreme imagery, like saying you should tear out your eyes or tear off your hands if they cause you to fall into bondage. Major problem with Jesus-as-death-metalhead is, Jesus probably wasn’t really blond or Scandinavian in any way (despite what the Lutherans tell you!), and he usually made sure that people could understand what he was saying…

Black metal. Well, ahem, uh… ahhh, screw that, I’m not even going to try defending this one. A genre that owes its creative impetus really to being against Jesus in the first place probably wouldn’t go over too well with the man himself. He might like Borgazûr or Antestor…

Folk metal. Same issues as with black metal; all too much folk metal gets way too much mileage out of being explicitly anti-Christian. Call me crazy, though, but I can see Jesus taking an interest in Orphaned Land.

Glam and hair metal. Jesus was indeed fairly theatrical with his miracles, but other than that, no. He told his followers, indeed, not to be flashy or worry overmuch about how they will dress. Simon Magus might have been a fan of glam, but by and large Jesus didn’t have that much use for poseurs.

Groove metal and new wave of American heavy metal. Well, Jesus was the Lamb of God… I’m not sure he would have been too keen on the way too many of the bands in this subgenre sold out to MTV, though. For very similar reasons, I simply can’t imagine Jesus being a nü-metal fan.

Industrial metal. Jesus did often make provocative statements and perform provocative stunts (as described above), much to the consternation of the political and religious authorities. I tend to think that if the Parents’ Music Resource Centre and the Family Research Council existed back in Jesus’ day, they would have been among the foremost attempting to shut him up. Other than that, I can’t really think of any good links between industrial metal and Jesus other than ‘du hast mich gefragt, und ich hab’ nichts gesagt’.

Progressive metal. See power metal above for anything regarding prog-power. Jesus might have taken issue with the technical wankery, the obscurantist lyrics and the elitist tendencies that tend to characterise the genre and its fanbase, but somehow I think he would have gotten along quite well personally with Devin Townsend and Geoff Tate.

In the final analysis I think Jesus would likely have been a true or a thrash metalhead. He wasn’t afraid to tell things as they were, in a way ordinary people could understand. He was a radical who wasn’t afraid to be extreme and trample over all sorts of social taboos, but he was also often seen at parties getting out the good wine (or making it from water!). He didn’t have much patience at all for the hypocrisies of the ruling class or of the ‘respectable’ middle classes. So remember, my gentle readers:

22 February 2011

A brief discursive continuation on the topics of cheese and proletarian rage…

The Gov Scott ‘Just a Letter Out of Place’ Walker budget proposal to roll back public sector union benefits and destroy their ability for collective bargaining seems to have people up in… well, not arms, really, but up in a very righteously angry place… in my old hometown. For one thing, I think people have a very legitimate right to be upset at the sheer staggering hypocrisy of our newly-minted governor after having given some rather costly corporate welfare (in the neighbourhood of $140 million) going largely to multinationals with state presence, and more than a little licence to look askance at ‘budget repair’ that really does very little more than patch over the public costs of Gov Walker’s own political agenda. For another thing, it shows the utter intellectual bankruptcy of the ‘Tea Party’ movement that they will approve any deficit expansion which benefits them politically, even though reducing the deficit is supposedly their raison d’etre. Moreover, I do sincerely believe any erosion of collective bargaining rights for labour unions, in whatever sector, bodes ill for other political freedoms often enough to be of legitimate concern (though whether primary- and secondary-school teachers should be in public-sector unions in the first place is a very different question).

However, a major caveat here. I was born in Madison, and lived there for most of my life. So trust me on this one – it just isn’t Cairo or Tunis or Tripoli; and Walker may be a total douchebag but he isn’t a dictator. These kinds of inane, hyperbolic comparisons really don’t do credit to anyone, as they both cheapen the North African regimes’ struggles for basic dignity and political participation and distort the true purpose of these protests. Yet keep in mind also: the people here know exactly what they want and why, and are asking for it in a generally logical and civil manner. There has been no violence, no guns, no race-baiting, no government-overthrow fantasy at these protests (though a highly regrettable overabundance of Star Wars nerds)…

We shall see how things continue to unfold. My sympathies at this point, as if it weren’t already abundantly clear, are solidly with the protesters. I may yet have more; my apologies for ending my most recent blog posts in such a disappointing and tentative manner.

Also, this from Crooked Timber.

21 February 2011

Pointless video post - 'Teutonic Terror' by Accept

So we drive through the night, with the howling wind at our backs -
Riding our Teutonic terror, we will
give 'em the axe!

Okay, they're cheesy and they're no poet laureates - even for '80's style true heavy metal. But damn it, they're ACCEPT - they have both the right and the responsibility to kick arse and take names. Angry blue-collar beat-'em-down rock-music-with-balls is an imperative on Monday afternoons for me these days, for me to vent my commonsensical rage...

Speaking of which, expect a cheesehead post from me soon on the entire union / budgetary kerfuffle in Madison in the very near future.

‘Good working rules’? Huh?

I find I’m having something of a love-hate relationship with the new institutional economics of Douglass North and Elinor Ostrom (the reading material which makes up the bulk of our ‘Political Economy of Property Rights’ class). On the one hand, this is a branch of economics which treats institutions, rules and social behaviour as important – and we always need more serious economic work that does that. On the other hand, these economists (and particularly Douglass North) seem to be slowly following that route to conclusions that have been long apparent to various schools of social scientists and philosophers in the tradition of Hegel; that there is a dialectical relationship between ideology, thought structures, social structures and basic economic behaviour. However, new institutional economics has historically tied itself to the working assumptions of neoclassical economics regarding human nature, and now has to actively struggle to break out of those brazen chains for good.

I have previously argued that human nature is a convenient fiction – our commonalities take the form of common limitations and social conventions. Beyond that, there is a paradox underlying human nature that is profoundly explored in the pages of Genesis. The standard Christian theology behind the Genesis story is that God gave human beings a choice and free will, and that as a result of human beings making the wrong choice, evil entered the picture. But I argue that there is a deeper irony that such a reading does not take into account - before Adam and Eve ate of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they knew what was good (to eat the fruit of any tree in the garden save one, to be fruitful and multiply and so forth) and they knew what was bad (to eat of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). The irony of the story is that after they ate of this tree, that knowledge was lost to them. There is a basic confusion about what is good, what is useful, even what makes us happy which underscores the entire human experience.

We can thus describe neoclassical economics in terms of heresy: the undergirding assumption of neoliberalism, and accordingly of early new institutional economics, is that people always know what is good (a heresy compounded by the ridiculous, if convenient, notion that what is good is to be defined as what produces the maximum utility or maximum profit for the individual, either in the moment or over an extended period of time), and will always behave accordingly, at which point an optimal outcome will be achieved. Indeed, the most damning contradiction in neoliberal ideology is precisely this: ‘the people’ (as producers and consumers) can always be trusted to make ‘good’ (egoistic) decisions in the presence of market rules, but they cannot (as moral agents) be trusted to actually have a say in making those rules – which is why the acolytes of Friedman and Hayek seem to have a compulsive need for trigger-happy dictators like Pinochet, Fujimori, Ríos Montt and Yeltsin to implement their policies throughout the world. It is a strange and distressing tendency that when market fundamentalism is allowed to theoretically flatten human incentives to mere utility- or profit-maximisation, it somehow ends up deploying starvation and tank treads to actually flatten real humans: hardly an optimal outcome by any standard.

Of course, the logic of the new institutional economics can be levelled against both neoliberalism and neoclassical economics. Firstly, Douglass North seems to have rediscovered the basic principles of John Ruskin’s Christian socialism with his newfound insight that preferences and behaviours simply cannot be modelled merely on utility or profit; one must take account also of concepts such as duty and honour. Secondly, one can examine the incentive structures of neoliberal capitalism as it currently occurs and find conflicting incentives at work – ironically, vindicating Marx in some of his critiques of capital and credit. As the economic collapse proved, the incentives of investment banks to a.) safeguard their investors’ wealth by managing risks and b.) maximise their own profits by taking drastic risks, contained a catastrophic contradiction, one which Keynesian intervention might only temporarily submerge and ameliorate. The sad truth of the matter is that privatisation and market fundamentalism simply do not produce ‘good’ working rules for the majority of people – as such, regulation from relevant authorities, held accountable by a democratic political structure and practice, is required.

Best to all; sorry for the long absence. I shall return soon!

04 February 2011

A neo-Baroque theological-political programme

Contained herein are some loosely related thoughts through which I hope to honestly convey my own political convictions, and perhaps some justifications thereof. As my readers will probably be aware, I dislike the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ and what they have come to mean. I do identify quite favourably with the modern democratic-socialist ‘left’, insofar as it goes, but for reasons which have more to do with the ‘conservative’ writings of Bp Richard Hooker, Fr Jonathan Swift, Dr Samuel Johnson, Mr Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mr Richard Oastler than with those of Mr Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Though the motives of the modern left are attributed so often to envy (a true charge in some cases), there is a current which is existentially healthy, which takes an almost religious joy in small things and rejoices in the colourful vibrancy of the pagan traditions. I equate this tendency from my own perspective with the social Catholicism of the sort which equates a fully-sensory worship, a wild soul brimming with pagan energy beneath all of the bells and smells and trappings, with a desire to spread the same joy as broadly as possible among the people. Such a faith must see something profoundly offensive in human suffering, counselling not sullen forbearance and weak resignation to fate as the Calvinists did, but swift direct action against the sources of suffering. Though I don’t believe such a colourful and exuberant faith is exclusive to Christianity in the slightest – for example, I am convinced that Confucian thinking carries with it many of the same tendencies. My girlfriend, Jessie, certainly wouldn’t describe herself as ‘religious’, but I find she lives by many of the most admirable tendencies of Confucianism in her own life; as a result, she values herself and her friends very highly and has a very well-developed sense of justice and fair play. I very much admire and love her for it.

Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev, the Russian Orthodox existentialist whose writings and thought had a profound effect on my own, once compared the Western church to an imperial army – indeed equating it with Imperial Rome – with its formal hierarchies of the priesthood and the regimenting of thought ‘for battle, defence and attack’ under the thinking of St Thomas Aquinas. Of course, since writing that article I have grown more familiar with the thinking of St Thomas, and find that my own thinking is very much in accord with his. Now, following GK Chesterton, I might answer Berdyaev that perhaps Western Christendom’s blossoming of rules and formal institutions of the Church has been more an expression of our vital and creative energies than a need born of a frightened, corrupt hierarchy (both Church and secular) to stifle it. After all, the Catholic discipline has somehow managed to maintain itself in spite of many Popes and priests who did very many shady, nasty, ill-tempered, undisciplined and atrocious things. Even in England (where the Catholic Church was attacked by the gluttonous, adulterous and murderous King Henry VIII and his sycophantic nobles, where its early defenders were put to the torch and where its later defenders, like said King’s eldest daughter Queen Mary, responded with similar atrocities) the Catholic discipline has been maintained in the Church – even if as just a dissenting voice crying out in the wilderness.

So, what would this neo-Baroque programme for modern politics (as I implied in the title) involve? It is broadly inspired by Catholic social teaching and distributism, Confucianism, the work of Christian socialists such as Mr John Ruskin, Fr F D Maurice and Dr John Milbank, and of course the second-generation Tories I alluded to above.

On foreign policy, the self-determination of people within communities would need to be stressed. Cultural and economic imperialism – that is, the systematic imposition of structures, institutions and practices on one community by another for the material and political benefit of the imposing community – are to be completely disavowed. Violence, whether incidental or systemic, is to be avoided wherever possible; take non-intervention as the starting point with possible space for just war addenda in Bonhoefferian worst-case conditions. Insofar as discussion of ‘human rights’ and ‘free trade’ are insincere political ploys by which the global North can impose and further hegemony over the global South, such discussion is to be avoided. The conditions of global capitalism are to be either disrupted or fundamentally altered in the interests of the most impoverished.

On economic policy, the push should be for scale-free markets and for scale-free government, and a radical form of workplace democracy is to be encouraged. In a workplace democracy, small ventures are to be protected in their access to capital; while large ventures are to be structured such that all employees are automatically shareholders with decision-making power. Independent, trade- and industry-specific cooperatives (modelled on the mediaeval guild) are to be given greater legal protection and encouragement. The price mechanism is to be subject to executive adjustment to account for environmental and social externalities (with the well-being and self-sufficiency of the poorest families being the prime consideration). Institutions are to be structured such that small businesses and big businesses play by the same set of economic rules; also, executive power should be proportionally divided between local, state and federal levels as transaction costs and spread of externalities dictate, according to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Local politics should be as important, if not more, in the lives of the citizenry as national politics. (In addition to these Christian-socialist principles, I view the localist economic proposals as being in line with the Confucian principle of 推爱, and the concept of workplace democracy with the rectification of the four common occupations 仕农工商.)

My proposed social policies are likely to meet with the greatest resistance, at least in the United States, on account of their being philosophically alien to the American ethos. One idea is that independent landowners should be given, in accordance with their presence on and stewardship of a contiguous land holding, and contribution to a community of similar landowners, a token of social respect, perhaps in the form of formal titles (tied to the physical land itself rather than an abstraction such as an agribusiness or a system of credit). Small farmers are the lifeblood of the primary economy: vital to both food production and the sustenance of people and the economy, and to the conservation of the environment. Not only does the humble agricultural worker figure heavily and positively (in contrast to large-scale landlords) in the parables of Jesus; in traditional Confucian thinking, the small farmer 农 as a producer of food was second in importance (at least rhetorically) only to the gentleman-scholar 仕 as a producer of tradition and culture.

Ideally, a (constitutional) monarchy would also be established. Though this does seem to clash drastically with the egalitarian populism I have thus far described in my neo-Baroque system, I believe this to be a necessary step. I do observe that people have a psychological need to worship something greater than themselves; this need has not diminished in any way even under the great levelling of the liberal Enlightenment, and I believe this need must come under some kind of regulation. In the absence of a hereditary nobility with ties to the traditional duties of defence and service, we have witnessed instead the rise of hero-worship of the rich and famous (okay; I risk total self-defeating irony on this, but I seriously can’t resist now – a gratuitous Gamma Ray interlude!). Donald Trump, Paris Hilton and any number of popular entertainers (Tom Cruise? Angelina Jolie? Miley Cyrus? Shia LaBeouf?) elevated to millionaire status mystifyingly remain objects of our popular fascination and envy. Even more disturbing to me is that in the absence of traditional elites, charismatic elites take their place, who hold sway not by any kind of merit or obligation but by the force of their personality and by an ‘image’ that is elevated to cultic status (I’m thinking here of talk-show hosts and televangelists, though Ms Sarah Palin and her ‘fanbase’ might certainly qualify). I think CS Lewis truly put paid to this desire when he remarked:

Monarchy can easily be ‘debunked’; but watch the faces, mark the accents of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach - men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire equality, they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.

On other social issues, I have much to say, but it does attempt to thread a careful moderation between the two warring species of liberalism in our present age. As I have explained elsewhere, I subscribe to neither the ‘pro-life’ nor the ‘pro-choice’ ideology; I believe both contain errors. However, I believe that homosexuals are to be treated equally under the law and within society; full stop, no further elaboration needed.

On the question of women in the priesthood and on feminism in the broader sense… I stand with Ms Mary Astell and Ms Dorothy Sayers in the conviction that women are people and should be treated as such. Because women are, logically, created in imago Dei, there should be no bar to them serving as the heads of congregations and as representatives before God. Jesus argued with a Syrophoenician woman (also a foreigner!), and healed her daughter, in the Gospel of St Mark – something no other rabbi in that day would even have considered. St Mary Magdalene was among those teaching and casting out demons in Jesus’ name. In addition, we owe our integrity and honour as a branch of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to the valour, intellectual prowess and generosity of one woman, the Head of the Church in England, Her Royal Highness Elizabeth I Tudor. Feminism must continue to be careful and self-critical, however, so as not to degenerate into mere ressentiment against men or against the liberating tendencies of the Abrahamic faiths, or to sell out to a neoliberal modernity which instrumentalises women and pits them against each other.

More to follow; for now I need to take a break.