29 May 2011

More thoughts on Beijing, The end of the revolution and the antinomy of the American Christian

Well, it’s all pretty much coming back to me; I’m getting back into the swing of things here, I hope. I’m home alone here at least for a few days; my housemate is travelling out and about in Hong Kong, but I have a phone and a decent working knowledge of the neighbourhood. I think my Chinese is improving a bit – or at least, I hope so. Also, I’ve gotten past the first bout of traveller’s sickness. The culture is coming back to me too; it took me awhile to recall that the traffic laws in Beijing are more guidelines than actual rules. Drivers cannot be expected to stop for pedestrians, so it behooves one to be a defensive walker, as it were. Thankfully, the bus makes my workplace quite accessible from home; each station is about three to five minutes’ walk away from my destination in both cases. As I said before, the air here is much cleaner than it was the last time I was here, such that I was quite pleasantly surprised. However, around Tian’anmen one can still find very aggressive street salesmen and –women for photographs and Mao watches… the more things change, I suppose, the more they stay the same.

I’m also making some decent progress on Wang Hui’s book, The end of the revolution. Though he is a consistent advocate for an egalitarian form of liberal democracy – he himself does not wish to abandon the term ‘liberal’ to his rhetorical opponents on the neo-liberal and neo-conservative right, for reasons I can quite understand, given the political context – he also has an almost conservative high respect for historical modes of thinking and a unique perspective on international relations theory. For example, he decries the separation of knowledge from moral education, and sympathetically presents Chinese political philosopher Liang Qichao’s [梁启超] Neo-Confucian emphasis on broad education [大学] in a way which reminds me strongly of George Grant’s critique of Western education’s preference for acquisition of technical skills over cultivation of personal potential. Also, Dr Wang critiques the way in which the sciences and social sciences secure a place for themselves in society and exert power by a process which John Milbank calls ‘policing the divine’: erecting inviolable distinctions between fact and value, nature and humanity, matter and mind, and so forth; in this way, they create for themselves a privileged, ‘objective’ viewpoint which separates them from and elevates them above the rest of fallible, subjective humanity. (I also find it fascinating that he ties in both critiques with a deep-cutting deconstruction of modern Chinese nationalism, which he views as an insufficient reaction to the West presuming the universality of Western values.)

He borrows concepts quite freely from the international-relations theory of Wallerstein, but he uses them in quite unique ways. I honestly think he should be in dialogue with theologians like William Cavanaugh and John Milbank (at the time he wrote Theology and social theory); it would be interesting to see how they would construct each other’s arguments. Like Dr Cavanaugh and Dr Milbank attempt to do, Dr Wang’s ability to take two principles, concepts or ideologies supposedly in tension and deconstruct them to reveal their common assumptions and internal contradictions is highly enlightening. Wang Hui also arrives at many of the same conclusions as the radical-orthodox theologians: for example, that the positivism on which the social sciences are founded, despite being a revolt against metaphysics, cannot disentangle itself from its own metaphysical commitments. Ultimately, I think Milbank was right that modern socialists ought to be talking to classic conservatives.

I particularly enjoy the way Dr Wang attempts to dredge up old historiographies; however, unlike an anthropologist who will subject them to a microscope in an attempt to deconstruct them, he will put them on like a pair of old and well-loved shoes, to see what the world looks like through them. Indeed, Wang’s lengthy, historically-inspired exposition on the false antinomy between empires and nation-states, particularly in regard to today’s world, has made me reconsider some of my arguments on nationalism before. Now that I look back on them, they strike me as slightly naïve.

GK Chesterton once wrote something to the effect that being a nation means standing up to one’s equals, whilst being an empire merely means kicking down one’s inferiors – obviously and understandably, his sympathies were with nations rather than empires. This sympathy was not lost on some of his admirers (particularly Mohandas Gandhi), and we can certainly acknowledge the progress that has been made as a result of this distinction. But we can say that, looked at from one point-of-view, Britain of his time was a nation-state. She conformed to all of the principles of the Westphalian system, and at least on paper viewed her fellow European states as equals. But at the same time, she was most certainly an empire, one whose frontiers spanned oceans. She certainly did not view India as her equal, or China, or any of her African colonies. Likewise, America today may be considered an empire – though we have constructed systems wherein our legal standing is the same as that of any other nation-state, no other nation-state has the presumption ours does to station its troops all across the globe, or to take on a mission of global security. As more and more aspects of the nation-state system are subverted, and as more and more aspects of the inequality of nations, of the poverty of nations, are exposed, this antinomy will have to collapse and some other system will have to replace it.

And this brings me to one burning question that has plagued me ever since I was a small child. Is it possible to be a good Christian, and at the same time be a good American (paying respects to all of the requisite idols of civic religion)? Jeremiah Bannister has an article on The distributist review on the topic which I believe approaches the question from a useful perspective. I recognise, of course, that I am American. Don’t let the spelling fool you; I respect and even love aspects of my country’s history, the way in which societies of responsible smallowner farmers banded together and cooperated to forge a living for themselves, particularly in New England, the Middle Atlantic and the Midwest. That’s the way my mom’s side of the family in northern Vermont still lives, for the most part; independence and interdependence, responsibility and fair play all going hand-in-hand. At the same time, I find frustrating the ways in which American history tends to lionise this ideal while at the same time relegating it further and further to the sidelines (along with all of its other forms of face-saving historical revision). I believe it is massively hypocritical for Americans to take their own country as the universal template for what a functional democratic state should look like. I also do not believe America to be in any way more ‘special’, ‘extraordinary’ or ‘exceptional’ than any other political entity – that would be to elevate it to a status of worship which is due only to Our Lord.

It’s a struggle for me – my Radical Reformation- and Tolstoy-influenced anarcho-syndicalist streak still runs deep. All the same, I appreciate Mr Bannister’s attempt to clear a space for a genuinely patriotic Christianity, by pointing to the divine root of temporal power as recognised by St Paul. I suppose it is only from such grounds that abuse of temporal power can be most adequately and most rigorously exposed and criticized.

No comments:

Post a Comment