30 November 2012

Sympathy for the devil (and relief at its defeat)

Daniel Nichols writes (and I agree, mostly):
As a Catholic radical, one who is religiously and morally ”conservative” but deeply concerned about the concentration of wealth and power and the steady erosion of the working class, President Obama’s reelection is a mixed bag. Yes, he is no friend to the unborn, to understate it, though in the news today I saw that abortion is at an all time low since legalization. And no, he is no friend to religious liberty, however hypocritical many Catholic institutions have been in protesting his policies; you know, like the Catholic hospitals who do sterilizations or the Catholic colleges that dispense birth control to students. And he has reversed himself and now endorses the metaphysical impossibility of gay marriage. And he has continued Bush’s policies in concentrating presidential power.

On the other hand, he is taking baby steps against the thirty years of policies that favor corporations and the rich; nothing radical mind you, but a far cry from the attack on workers and the poor that a Romney administration would almost certainly have launched. And there is no reason to believe that a Romney presidency would in any way affect the status quo regarding abortion, except perhaps to increase the number of abortions as social programs were slashed.

But I was thinking yesterday about those who are both religiously conservative and economically “conservative”; ie, classically liberal.

To them there is nothing redeemable in the President’s reelection. It is all bleak. While it is hard for me to imagine that many sincerely believe that deregulating finance and industry and lowering taxes for the wealthy really would bring about prosperity for all, despite the results of doing just that for thirty years, let us give them the huge benefit of the doubt.

Blindsided and bewildered, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth on the right. And finger-pointing, lots of finger-pointing.

The world must appear bleak and hopeless. Despair must eat at them like a worm in a tomato.

I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them. Really, I do, however deluded they are.

Which does not in the least diminish my relief at their defeat.

29 November 2012

Dorothy, Servant of God and Revolutionary of the Heart

Dorothy Day, labour activist, distributist, Catholic convert and the mother of the Catholic Worker movement, passed away 32 years ago today, as I was reminded by the excellent Subversive Thomism blog earlier today. The cause of her sainthood is also being avidly pursued by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, on account of her ability to bridge the gap between the American ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings of Catholicism (fragmented as they have been by America’s secular politics). Though her sainthood would certainly come as more than welcome to many American Roman Catholics (and even a few non-Roman Catholics like myself), I rather doubt that she would have embraced such a cause for herself. As her most famous quote goes: ‘Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.’

Her politics are not to be so easily dismissed, either, by trying to shoehorn them either into modern American welfare-liberalism or into modern American pseudo-conservatism. She was (very much unlike me, I should add) an anarchist, who distrusted the will and ability of secular authorities to contribute to the cause of justice. She disliked the reliance of so many upon ‘Holy Mother State’ for relief, but (contrary to what her American pseudo-conservative admirers would like to believe) she never castigated the poor for going on welfare. Indeed, the Catholic Worker movement often went with people going on the dole to advocate for their fair treatment by the government! The Catholic Worker newspaper, started by Day and her colleague Peter Maurin, would run articles critical of welfare, not for creating habits of ‘dependency’ and servility amongst the poor, but for welfare institutions’ contempt of the poor they were supposed to serve, and the inadequacy of the benefits they received. She castigated relief offices for advocating birth control, seeing it as a renewed form of eugenics. She detested the fact that the ‘welfare state’ would treat poor people who went on the dole as criminals and cheats, but would unthinkingly and unquestioningly provide bailouts (though that term was not in use then) to huge corporations.

She and the Catholic Worker movement she birthed were adamant that a just society was one in which labourers earned a fair wage, and could speak on their own behalf on an equal basis with rich and powerful corporations interested only in their own profits. She even dared to stand up to the authorities within her own Church when their actions did not align with their own social teaching, even going so far as to support a gravediggers’ strike against a local parish. (At the same time, though, she remained every bit as faithful a Catholic as, say, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.)

She was no ‘rugged individualist’; indeed, the Catholic Worker scorned such Americanisms as destructive of personal responsibility: particularly that personal responsibility to care for the poor. She believed also that the government should take greater responsibility for the brutal facts of poverty on account of the great power it wielded, but was insistent that there had to be a revolution of values, a revolution of the heart, for that to occur - a revolution which could transform the state and its secular logic of violence into something quite different.

Dorothy Day, Servant of God and Revolutionary of the Heart, pray with us.

Letter to an aspiring democrat

To be translated and cross-posted to The Tocharian Rider when time permits.

Dear Alice,

I recently had the pleasure of reading your ‘Civics Lesson’ on Sina Weibo, and firstly I would like to applaud your efforts and congratulate you upon what looks to be an eloquently-stated and heartfelt political manifesto. It is a fine document which I think all Chinese people should read and reflect upon – though, for reasons which will become clear shortly, it is one which I think they ought to take with more than a few grains of salt. As someone who comes from a nation – the United States – which prides itself perhaps unduly on its civic freedoms and its democratic processes, I feel like you would be doing your readers an even greater service if, rather than attempting to copy wholesale the institutions and procedural structures which have caused our nation and the world so much grief over the past forty years (and arguably the past two hundred and forty), you instead took it upon yourself to fashion a clearer alternative model of ‘citizenship’ to the one we espouse, one more appropriate to Chinese experiences and values. After all, as you yourself very ably put it, ‘being an independent person requires you to have an independent will and the ability to make free decisions rich in creativity’ (‘獨立人格是指有獨立意志,能自主決策,富有創造性的一種人格’). If I may, I would like to structure this letter as an ‘advanced civics lesson’ drawing upon ways I believe China can do better than my own country has.

An advanced lesson in civics

It does not take any great skill or responsibility to be a good customer. You wait in line; you pay when (or, in the case of a vending machine, before) your services or goods are delivered; you complain or sue when you find your goods or services are defective in hopes of getting your money back. It takes much greater skill to be a good citizen – a concept which, in the sense you mean it, has its roots in the ancient Greek poleis and thus carries upon its shoulders the immense philosophical burden of virtue ethics. It is necessarily much more difficult to be a citizen than to be a customer at a vending machine, because when you are in the public sphere you are behaving as a member of your community, which is not something you buy fizzy drinks from, but is your father, your mother, your brother and sister, your teacher, your coworker, your lover and your friend. You do not treat these people as your vending machines if you want to be a citizen.

One. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

You say that to use the word ‘citizen’ smacks of equality, peace, rule-of-law, unity, toleration and the paramount importance of the individual. Whatever free-and-equalness is conferred by the word, though, is built upon a tremendous foundation, caked with the blood, sweat and tears of those who struggled to create a system of shared values within which all of the above could work. As Norman Mailer once said, ‘democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labour of maintaining it’.

When that foundation is damaged (as it was for both of our countries during the 1960’s and 1970’s), and then destroyed (as it was for both of our countries during the 1980’s), speaking of ‘citizenship’ in a meaningful way becomes impossible. In the United States, corporate-driven media narratives allow people to fashion their own realities out of only those select pieces of information they want to believe. China has a very similar problem. Asking the great mass of the ‘citizens’ to think for themselves in such an environment is equivalent to asking an untrained five-year-old to perform brain surgery.

Two. Patriotism versus nationalism.

I have struggled with this concept for practically all of my education. I still don’t pretend to have all of the answers. All I can do is point to an analogy which has made sense to me: you love your nation like you love your family. You didn’t choose them, but you love them anyway. You don’t even necessarily have to agree with them all the time. You can remonstrate with them, you can fight with them, you can even move away from them, but they are still your family.

I think GK Chesterton put best the difference between patriotism and nationalism: ‘[the imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling] admires England, he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but we love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.’ The Chinese shouldn’t admire their nation because it endures or because it is dynamic or because it is powerful; they should love it because it is theirs.

Three. A citizen must have a strong sense of responsibility.

A citizen is aware not only of his own rights, but of how the exercise of those rights will affect himself, his loved ones and the society around him. A father might be within his rights to smoke cigarettes around his children, but he is not being a good father by allowing his children to breathe in the poisonous fumes. In some countries a person might be within her rights to do drugs or to have unprotected sex with a whole bunch of people, but she is not being a good citizen by risking the spread of disease or by wasting her own basic dignity.

Four. Rights without responsibilities will die away.

We are seeing that even now in the United States. Our rights are currently being corroded because of the way they have been abused.

Some said individuals have the right to fund elections however they want; now elections are costlier, dirtier, more corrupt and less accessible than ever. What we have is not genuine policy debate, but the pre-scripted ideological poses of the two official candidates.

Some said we had the right to say whatever we want in public; now the American news media (mainstream and independent alike) are clogged to the brim with sound-bites and gladiatorial matches between polarised viewpoints. This is the reason The Daily Show and The Onion are so popular nowadays. Very rarely are we treated to the facts and insightful, informative analysis on those facts – except on the state-run networks like NPR, PBS and Britain’s BBC.

Some said we should have the absolute freedom to believe whatever you want; it has led to the cancerous growths of Protestant fundamentalism and the equally dogmatic reaction of ‘new atheism’. More insidious, it has led to people questioning the very nature of fact, and denying truths such as biological evolution, global warming, the disastrous consequences of a war of choice in Iraq, or the failure of a completely deregulated housing market. A society where people cannot even agree on a certain basic set of scientific facts is a society that is in danger of collapse.

Formal constitutional rights cannot protect themselves, as we are seeing even now; they require a solid foundation of shared values and principles, which everyone participates in building anew.

Five. The seven social sins and the seven virtues.

Borrowed shamelessly from Mohandas Gandhi:
  • Wealth without work
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Science without humanity
  • Knowledge without character
  • Politics without principle
  • Commerce without morality
  • Worship without sacrifice
Thus, I counter-pose my version of the seven heavenly virtues:
  • Handle property with charity
  • Handle debt with temperance
  • Handle knowledge with humility
  • Handle privacy with courage
  • Handle liberty with prudence
  • Handle politics with justice
  • Handle worship with faith

Six. Basic quality of the citizen #1: Deference to authority.

By this, I do not mean allowing someone else to reason for you. By this, I simply mean that not all opinions are created equal, even if all people are created equal under the eyes of the law. Some opinions are more authoritative – in the sense of being more trustworthy – than others. If I want to seek knowledge about the climate, I go to a climatologist. If I want to seek knowledge about the origins of life, I go to a palaeontologist. If I want to seek knowledge about the divine and about the inner workings of the soul, I go to a priest. Being a scientist, or being a priest, means adhering to a specific ethic of deference: in one case, to facts arrived at by scientific methodology; in the other case, to the revelation of the will of God through the Gospel and through the works of the Church. Citizenship requires a similar ethic: you may be welcome to your own opinions, but you are not welcome to invent your own facts.

Seven. Basic quality of the citizen #2: Respect for the family and the community.

As we are all individuals, we are all imbued with a basic level of dignity. Any abridgement of human life ought to be regarded as a monstrous wrong, whether it comes from abortion or starvation or euthanasia or execution or war. But individuals do not exist in a vacuum. The crucibles of human virtue, including the civic virtues, are the family and the village (as in, the kind it takes a whole of to raise a child). To have functional citizens, you need functional families and functional communities, and vice-versa. Therefore, citizens have an obligation to work toward the ‘common weal’.

Eight. Basic quality of the citizen #3: Pursuit of public justice.

I have nothing to amend here – only to second and expand. Citizens have a duty to speak out against any injustice, no matter whether it is committed by the government, by a corporation or by a private individual. And they have a duty to stand in solidarity with the society’s most vulnerable: those without property; those without jobs; those without homes; those who have been separated from their families; those who are sick and infirm; those fleeing and seeking shelter from war and repression.

Nine. Basic quality of the citizen #4: Loving your neighbour.

And that means loving her in the concrete, not just in the abstract. I speak from experience: it is all too easy to be a universal lover of all humanity – and because it is easy, it is more likely to be fake. Trying to love actual humans is a hell of a lot harder, but in the end it is a lot more rewarding.

Ten. Basic quality of the citizen #5: Respecting the common good.

A ‘free society’ which has no conception of the common good very quickly degenerates into an unfree society, because if our entire public discourse consists of an aggregate of individuals and special interests competing in a political market, eventually the richest and strongest individuals take power, and (human nature being what it is) they will not want to give it up to anyone else. The global ultra-wealthy have no interest in being good citizens; and nor do they have an interest in creating good citizens. The citizen’s interest in maximising concrete freedoms for everyone – a decent job with a just wage, low barriers to ownership of the means of production – therefore requires a central notion of transcendent order which values both procedure and outcome.

Eleven. Basic quality of the citizen #6: Being active in public life.

Again, nothing here to revise – I agree completely. This one is pretty self-explanatory. But being active in public life means more than just voting and more than just exercising free speech.

Twelve. The duties of the citizen.

Obeying the law is a big part of it, as is contributing to the country’s defence and safety and common welfare. But that requires something beyond mere brute individualism: you cannot ask people to do this if they are so intent on securing for themselves individually everything they feel they are entitled to.

Thirteen. On economic patriotism, anti-corruption and liberalism.

Alice, I agree with you completely on this one, but it strikes me that if your true aim is building up a nation which is independent and free and prosperous, what you want is not more economic liberalism, but less. My country became prosperous precisely by protecting its own small industries when it was young; I find it hypocritical that it now goes around telling everyone else that it is in their best interests to do exactly the opposite.

Fourteen. Rule of law, rule of man, rule of God.

There are three sorts of government, as imagined by Max Weber: that of tradition, that of charismatic leaders or demagogues, and that of bureaucrats. However, where I depart from Weber is in his designation of bureaucracy – ‘the rule of law’, where what matters is the office and not the person holding it – as the supreme form of government. Charismatic leaders like Hitler, Lenin and Mao, might be able to sway public opinion to achieve their goals for a short time, but they have a difficult time designing enduring institutions. Rule of law, like that under Qin Shihuang, where what matters is the office and the universal application of rewards and punishments, also may be able to work for a short time, but left to its own devices it will fail. Only a virtuous person obeying Heaven and protecting human dignity – in the West, the divine right – will be able to ensure a lasting and just rule.

Fifteen and nineteen. On the perils of for-profit and state education.

I say this with some trepidation, because I understand how fraught the fight between private and public schools is in the United States and how many other issues it involves – labour rights for teachers and gentrification of neighbourhoods as well as student achievement. But the real issue here is that education should not be run as a business. The profit motive is not appropriate, because the purpose of education ought to be to inculcate virtue, critical thinking and self-reflection in students, not to make a profit off of them. I don’t care whether it’s the state or charities doing this, though if the state runs education one has to be vigilant that brainwashing and indoctrination do not result.

Sixteen. The government is not just there to sell you things.

Going back to my introduction, where citizenship requires more than just being a good customer, likewise government requires more than being a good salesperson. Transparency should be par for the course, but not because it is good business practice! Government should be transparent, local, open and accessible, because that is the right thing to do, and a government’s motto should be ‘justice’, rather than ‘the customer is always right’.

Seventeen. Historical awareness requires more than self-blame.

It is true that every government should face up to its own historical misdeeds, but this is not just Germany’s problem, or just China’s problem, or just Japan’s problem or just America’s problem. Looking at Germany is not instructive, because even though they have apologised for the Second World War, they have failed to learn the principal lesson from the victors: that economic justice is important for social stability and democracy. They have heaped all sorts of blame upon themselves, but (upon becoming Europe’s primary economic powerhouse) continued to exploit poor economies in the south of Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal) and leave them mired in inescapable debt – as a result, fascist parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn are again on the rise. And the last people to get the historical irony will inevitably be the Germans.

Likewise, if you truly want to get over the great mistakes of the Cultural Revolution, you shouldn’t be so eager for the Chinese government and people to start organising new rounds of struggle sessions, self-criticisms and purges. That would be only replacing one kind of Cultural Revolution with another.

Eighteen and twenty. Freedom of speech and of the press.

Formal freedom of the press is no guarantee that news will be reported accurately, just as formal freedom of speech is no guarantee that all speech will be equally protected. One need only witness the coverage in the run-up to the Iraq War, where every single mainstream media outlet (with the exceptions of a few local papers owned by Knight Ridder) reported wrongly on Iraq’s capacity to build nuclear weapons without checking their sources. This is not a bug, it is a feature – corporate media outlets in a ‘free press’ such as we have will not dare criticise the government too loudly, lest they lose access to the halls of power.

Twenty-one. Who best understands the spirit of contract?

I promise I will limit myself to only, say, three Chesterton quotes – a very difficult task for me. But: ‘Thieves respect property; they merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.’ Likewise, who better understands the spirit of contract than swindlers and gangsters? ‘You pay me, and I don’t kill you’ is a perfect example of contract logic – indeed, it has been the exemplar of contract logic since contracts were first invented. Insisting on ‘the spirit of contract’ without also accounting for differences in economic, social and military power is not only naïve, it is a recipe for disaster. Citizens ought to be much wiser than that – to have the cunning of serpents, as well as the innocence of doves. They ought to insist on the spirit of virtue, not the spirit of contract.

Twenty-two. Let’s not imitate Hong Kong…

Particularly when Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have been doing so much better. Hong Kong has the biggest wealth gap of any industrialised country (with a Gini coefficient of 0.537 in 2011) and the world’s most unaffordable housing. Four families own half the wealth of Hong Kong, whilst 300,000 elderly people have to rely on picking up recyclables to survive. The government of Hong Kong – supposedly ‘independent’ judiciary included – is run by the Chinese Communist Party and by the local billionaires. Only half of the seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council are elected; the other half are appointed by ‘functional constituencies’ consisting of private interest groups. By any objective factual measure, Hong Kong is less democratic than countries such as Russia and Iran. It is obvious that it is more unequal, and their judiciary, however independent, has not helped matters any.

Twenty-three. Be independent thinkers, and don’t copy us!

We’ve made enough mistakes for the world without an entire fifth of the world’s population following unthinkingly in our footsteps, parroting our worst ideas and copying our worst institutional set-ups. The value in independent thinking lies in the improvement of your own soul; and your soul cannot improve if you are ever focussed on attaining what others have attained, the way they have attained it. We (in the modern West) always like to complain about China’s exports being unsafe, but from where I’m standing it seems like you’ve gotten the rawer deal: we’ve already exported to you the destructive ideologies of social Darwinism, of racism and eugenics, of extreme nationalism, of Marxism and now of neo-liberalism, libertinism and soulless consumerism. It isn’t too late yet, though: China’s heart has been broken again and again by each and every successive government it’s had since the fall of the Qing Dynasty, but that only goes to show that it still has one. I have seen it. I have talked with it, eaten with it and drunk baijiu with it, in the backcountry roads of Kangding, in the hutongs of Beijing, among the Zhuang in Guangxi and with my in-laws in Luoyang. And it is beautiful.

Please consider these admonitions from a citizen of the United States, who cares deeply what happens to China.

God bless, Matt

27 November 2012

Hungry years

An excerpt from Biff Byford and John Tucker’s Never Surrender:
I have to say that I hated the Thatcher years. I think Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet of yes-men totally destroyed the country. She certainly completely wiped out whole communities. I feel really sad about it, actually. I hated her for it. I thought she was an absolutely evil bitch. The whole thing around the Miners’ Strike, and her determination to crush it and the people who worked the pits… I was involved in the first miners’ strikes when I was at the mines – back in the late Sixties, I think – and it was horrendous. I mean, I wasn’t a fan of Arthur Scargill either, I thought he was a Communist stooge, but even so a lot of my friends were still coal miners, and a lot of people died in the mines, and their memory, their contribution to the country, was just being discarded by Thatcher and her Government. I don’t think you can overstate it: Thatcher destroyed the country. The coal mining industry, the steel industry too, all over South Wales and the North East. She had this stupid advisor who told her to let it all go, with a mantra that the free-market economy will look after itself. Madness really; absolute fucking madness. Everybody was encouraged to set up their own businesses, and then they failed. And it’s in this period of economic doom-and-gloom that Saxon became popular.

All the “Stand Up And Be Counted” songs, “See The Light Shining”, all those early songs, the lyrics I wrote were about standing up for your rights and being strong, never giving up, never surrendering… All of that was based on the early Thatcher years when she destroyed the North of England and South Wales. But they are all songs of hope – stand up, stick together, be strong, get through it – they’re all based on that mentality really. And we were having massive success in the early Eighties when all this was happening so we were very lucky really. To my mind, the country was going down the pan and all we – the people – had was music, and I think a lot of people got into Motörhead and Saxon and Iron Maiden and Def Leppard because it was a release from real life.

I think back then that people did think that music was a way to get off the dole queue. A lot of music came out of the industrial Midlands and North, a lot of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal came from those regions. But I don’t think it’s the ‘industrial towns’ thing; I just think that a lot of young people were into music and rebelled – rebelled against everything through music because there was nothing else for them. And some of our popularity stems from that because we too were rebels in those days, rebellious against the police and every form of authority. We were just ‘fuck you’ basically. Going to the Dole Office to sign on for unemployment benefit used to be horrendous. They’d have a concert poster or flyer there and when we went to sign on they’d say, ‘oh, I see you played last night. How much did you make?’

‘About a quid each.’

‘No, you didn’t. You’re lying. How much did you get paid?’

So we’d go, ‘OK, stick your money up your arse then’ and walk out. People thought we were sponging off the state but we weren’t actually – we did try but they wouldn’t give us anything! So it was quite a sacrifice. Now it’s much easier; in the digital world it’s easier to access music and to record, and there are more outlets at school and college for music. It’s also seen as a massive export too and a legitimate profession to be a musician. But in those days it was horrendous. You were considered to be an absolute bum and a drop-out hippy, which was awful because we hated hippies. When punk came along we liked it because it was aggressive rock music against the system, and we were against the system as well, we just weren’t fashionable at the time (and didn’t like being spat at). We hated the police because we saw them as an extension of Thatcher. And that was the environment we were in and the backdrop we became successful against. We were lucky; for many people it was a horrendous time.

It is always worth remembering what heavy metal was to the working class back in an era when the working class didn’t have much hope, and moreover when they kept being told by the same people robbing them of hope that they had never had it better. Ronnie James Dio had it right: heavy metal is a distorted form of music because it reflects the social distortion around it. It isn’t brainless the way so much pop is brainless, and it isn’t glib and hypocritical the way mainstream rock-and-roll has pretty much always been.

EDIT: It strikes me that I would be highly remiss if I didn’t include this!

18 November 2012

Clear-sighted no more?

In a land which used to contain the Frankish-ruled Principality of Antioch and County of Tripoli, allied with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (with said Franks then having fought to defend the rights of Christians in said land), the Church’s wayward first daughter is now regrettably supporting the ‘Free Syrian Army’, which is none of the above and whose battle-cry has long been ‘Christians to Beirut and Alawites into the sea’, as the sole legitimate voice of the Syrian people against their president Bashar al-Assad, and now more clearly than ever taking the wrong side in a civil war in which it had little business to begin with – right alongside such leading lights of human rights and religious tolerance in the Middle East as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Lovely.

One of GK Chesterton’s more remarkable journalistic insights was that, as outright brutal as imperialism may be in other countries, the more troubling and insidious aspect of imperialism is the effect it has on the people within the empire. In Tremendous Trifles, he recounted a conversation with two Belgians of his passing acquaintance, a country which, though they were members of a country in which speakers of one language neither understood nor respected the speakers of the other, still aspired to imperial glory and all the trappings of a modern, European state. Chesterton noted that the humanistic optimism of the bearded Little Belgian (meant in the same way he would speak of a Little Englander) and the hubristic grand sweeps of the bewhiskered Belgian Imperialist, were both quintessentially French, though in different ways. To the one, an intellectual notion of human justice must triumph, and to the other, education and science must transcend all the boundaries of humanity, including religion and death (and the enlightened European must force himself upon the ‘savage’ who still holds to religion). Though the Little Belgian and the Belgian Imperialist discussed humanity in such broad, sweeping terms, Chesterton juxtaposes their conversation with a vignette in which he loses his way in the Belgian countryside, only to have the way pointed out to him by a Flemish farming family which cannot speak any English or French. It is here he finds the greater expression of Humanity-with-a-capital-‘H’. Imperialism has a similar destructive effect in America – we who, while aspiring to this abstract ideal of Freedom-with-a-capital-‘F’ for ourselves, tend to see no inherent problem in trammeling freedoms in the concrete down for everyone else in the process.

The truly disheartening thing is this. Chesterton still very deeply respected the French for being clear-minded about what it is they speak. It was the case, so he said (also in Tremendous Trifles), that in France Catholicism was attacked for being Catholic and defended for being Catholic; in France Republicanism was attacked for being republican and defended for being republican – he juxtaposed this unfavourably with the state of England, where the experts on poverty were all amongst the elite, and where the experts on democracy were all in the House of Lords. Is that true anymore (in France)? Why should President Hollande claim that the Free Syrian Army – which, I must again note, is not an army, not Syrian, and certainly does not seek freedom for anyone who is not a Sunni – is the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people’? In the spirit of democratic self-determination, should it not be perhaps considered – if I may be so bold – that the Syrian people might make that call? Perhaps a group in which both Syrian Christians and Shiites are not only adequately represented, but also protected? Even William Hague seemingly felt that this announcement by Hollande was more than a bit presumptuous.

Let us hope that Chesterton was ultimately right about the French penchant for taking things as they are – and further, that they continue in their role as the first daughter of the Church in their support of the truly downtrodden, both in Syria and elsewhere.

EDIT: I wrote this article on the 17th, when my VPN was still AWOL. Since then, France has been joined in their folly, unsurprisingly by the likes of Albania and Egypt, but more unfortunately by Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

12 November 2012

Islam, foreign policy and useful idiocy

Ali ibn Abi Tahib, looking particularly badass

The election season is finally over, with a result which turned out to be not quite the clincher I expected; President Obama won handily, and with him came a government which is capable of entertaining multiple views, including the mix of social conservatism and economic populism which I favour (though this is not likely to be the reigning philosophy of the Obama Administration, at the very least the conservative Democratic voice will not go unheard). In his recent address he noted, with more than hints of the liberal internationalism that we should generally come to expect from his foreign policy, that in distant lands people were still risking their lives in order to argue about substantive policy issues (or at least pretend to do so in incredibly extravagant and intolerably lengthy shows of orchestrated posturing every bit as fake and emotionally manipulative as pro-wrestling, the way we do). This certainly is true, but the big question to be asked is who exactly these people are and what the substantive expressions of that argument will end up being. The nations most closely affected by the Arab Spring were doubtless at the forefront of his mind when he said this – it remains a reasonable question what course of action the newly-elected governments and coups which have taken place in the region will set their countries on. Of course, the role of religion vis-à-vis the state will be, there as much as here if not more so, a most prominent issue. Islam – in various forms – will be the religion in question.

I have not talked much about Islam on this blog, partly because there are those who are infinitely more qualified to do so than I am – Naj at Neoresistance, for one. But the more I read about Islam in its public expressions, the more complicated the picture of it appears to be – unlike those who read about Islam only to find things about it to hate and revile (people like Pamela Gellar, Geert Wilders, Bruce Bawer, Robert Spencer, Anders Behring Breivik and so forth), I recognise a multifaceted religion when I see it.

There is an Islam which produces magnificent and beautiful works of art; and an Islam which demolishes them. There is an Islam which promotes good scholarship, careful study and critical thinking; and an Islam which eschews all three. There is an Islam which speaks and appeals to women; and an Islam that silences them. There is an Islam which preaches justice to God’s poor and needy; and an Islam which plays power politics at their expense. Generally, there is a lot to admire in Islam: their hard-nosed stance against usury – something which much of Christianity, to its detriment, has lost; their emphasis on daily devotion and practice as a central component of faith; their requirement that faithful believers donate a small portion of their income (zakat) directly to the poor. The cultural achievements of near Eastern countries like Iraq and Iran are practically unparalleled anywhere in the world. But then I look at places like Syria and Libya, like East Turkestan and Albania and Yugoslavia, like Russia and Pakistan – and I think: is this the same religion?

Much ink has been spilt over the past eleven years on the topic of how to analyse the Islamic world and faith. Among the most useful analyses has been the discussion by Amitai Etzioni of the distinction between the ‘warriors’ and the ‘prayers’ – and the need to recognise that the illiberal moderates amongst the Muslim faithful are not the West’s enemies, even though they do not share the liberal values of the modern West. This is a very helpful distinction, and I think it does a good job of sketching the outline of an explanation for the appeal Islam is having in a postmodernist, post-secular world. Dr Etzioni is a sociologist, however, and is thus interested primarily in behaviours.

There is also a theological distinction to make, though, which is related. It strikes me that there have always been these two Islams: even the Shia-Sunni split was characterised by a conflict between those who sought a social-justice interpretation of the teachings of the Prophet, and those who sought a power-political interpretation. The followers of Ali (shi’at Ali) were insistent upon an Islam whose primary job was to care for the sick and the lost, and Ali himself gained a very large following amongst the Muslim lower classes. Ultimately, Ali was assassinated by his political rivals, and his son Husayn was killed and mutilated by his militarily-superior rivals when he revolted at Karbala… but that a righteous king would return in the form of the Mahdi to end all forms of oppression and usher in a reign of peace and equality. The Shiite tradition combined with the social-justice, righteous kingship and scholastic traditions of Zoroastrianism in Iran to create a highly-cultured and -scholastic, but at the same time egalitarian-trending theological tradition which has lasted in that nation to this day – and whose colourful history includes the Zanj Rebellion against the Abbasids, the Qarmatians and the Iranian democratic and nationalist movements.

In truth, of course, the distinction is nowhere near so cut-and-dried as all that. Within the Sunni tradition, too, there certainly are a solid majority which are justice-oriented, scholastic and peaceable. But it seems worthy of note that the very strains of revivalist, fundamentalist Sunni Islam (the Salafis most notably) which promote political violence as the preferred means of getting what they want, are the same ones which are most willing to cooperate with the geopolitical aims of the United States when it suits them – playing by the rules of power politics, rather than by the principles of their religion. This was the case in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. And in the erstwhile Yugoslavia in the 1990’s – not to mention in Russia and in China. Then in Iraq with the fundamentalist Sunni insurgents bought off in 2007 to save the face of Bush 43; then what would go on to become the genocidal NTC in Libya; now the ‘Free Syrian Army’, which is none of the above.

Of course, the question will be asked as it always is: ‘which is the true Islam’? Well, if Islam means ‘submission’, then it is a question of whether one submits to the will of the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus – you know, the one who sent all those prophets to tell off his chosen people for abusing the poor, and who sent his only begotten Son to minister to the indebted, the unclean, the sick and the socially-outcast – or whether one submits to the will of the modern-day equivalent of Babylon.

So far, that fundamentalist strain isn’t looking too hot, when it comes to following their Prophet’s dictates about whom to worship, and how, and why.

On the other hand, the forms of Islam which keep open seats at the table (often literally, in the cases of Lebanon, Syria and Iran) for their brothers and sisters in Abraham; those which still preach public ownership of common goods; those which still value the practice of charity and justice over political dominance; these forms do a better job of keeping the common spirit of the People of the Book. However, both the fundamentalist Sunnis who always show up to fight neoconservative wars, and the Islamophobes who repeatedly show up at the ballot box to vote for neoconservative candidates both in the United States and Europe, consistently demonstrate their useful idiocy to that same movement: a Trotskyist tendency which may have gleefully abandoned its former concern for the global working poor, but which has not abandoned its former tactics and tricks.

02 November 2012

A brief history of Wang Anshi

I have recently come across the legacy of Wang Anshi 王安石, one of the most (in)famous names in Song Dynasty history. A Confucian scholar-official from a family of Confucian scholar-officials (jinshi 進士), born in what is now Jiangxi Province in the south of China, from a very early age he demonstrated his talent for governance, as well as an exceptional literary talent (being considered by the end of his life one of the Eight Great Prose Masters of Tang and Song 唐宋八大家). When he was 20 years old, he placed fourth in the national civil service exams, and spent most of his early career in regional government in the south of China. It may be safely assumed that he saw a great deal of corruption during his time in the local and regional levels of the civil service, and felt outraged and disgusted by it, feeling a bond with the common people the served as they faced evermore crushing tax burdens and struggled against a national government paralysed by abuse, nepotism and graft. Whilst serving in the provincial government, he repeatedly refused all manner of promotions; the more he did so, the more fame he earned as a selfless and principled official. He gained a steady friend and advocate in Han Wei, a secretary to the young heir apparent to the Song throne, who introduced his young pupil favourably to Wang Anshi’s policy ideas.

Wang Anshi had already formed the primary basis of his thinking by the time he arrived in Kaifeng in 1058 to present his ‘Ten Thousand Word Memorial’. Upon attaining his post as second privy councilor under Emperor Song Shenzong at the age of 47, he quickly embarked upon designing a set of sweeping institutional reforms (新法, New Policies; also called 一條鞭法 the One Whip Policies by his many political enemies) of: state finances and trade; defence and military policy; and education and governance. These included a number of policies aimed at combatting corruption: cash wages, fair wages for low-level officials, standardised weights and measures, standardised prices on basic goods, and what might be considered the first policy of issuing short-term, low-interest state microloans to needy farmers and small merchants. Though some of his reforms were ‘modernising’ (the substitution of cash wages for the corvée system, for example), he defended many of his policies (like his plan to pay low-level officials a decent wage) by asserting that they had been used during the Tang Dynasty and before: in particular, he referred often to the Rites of Zhou as justification for many of his reforms. In general, he advocated for strong state interventions in Song Dynasty’s economic and social life, though there were a couple of important exceptions.

One was the baojia system 保甲制度 of local militias which Chancellor Wang invented. This system radically devolved military affairs and law enforcement, and assigned greater responsibilities to the most local level and to the lowest ranks, and it met with resounding success where it was implemented. (When it was reintroduced during the Qing Dynasty, however, it met with far less.) Under the baojia system, ten families would be organised into a bao, and one family would be given a wooden placard designating them as the baozhang 保長 (the bao captain). This placard would rotate amongst the families on a regular basis, theoretically ensuring that each family was mutually responsible to all the others. Chancellor Wang wanted to reduce the Song Dynasty’s dependence on mercenaries, but this system was practically distributist in the way it delegated authority - tasks were directed to the lowest competent level of authority, and government was directly involved only in cases that required the organisation of a large number of bao. This system, the way it was originally designed, was very much in line with the social doctrine of subsidiarity; it also located the primary unit of social organisation as the family.

Another aspect in which his thinking was in line with distributism (even if his methods may not have been) was in his hostility to monopolies: he detested the exorbitant prices and speculative lending engaged in by the powerful merchants of his era; as a result, he set firm restrictions on lending practices and prices of basic goods. His educational reforms, which not only broadened the curriculum but also attempted to reduce the influence of patronage and guanxi in the education system, also made it possible for students from lower-class backgrounds to compete more fairly with their peers who had grown up in literati or wealthy merchant families. And his reforms followed in broad strokes the ideals of Zhang Zai 張載 (another Song Dynasty official) who wanted to restore the Mencian well-field system, break up the huge land holdings and create a relatively egalitarian society of coöperatively-organised smallholders: one might even say this looks distinctly like Chesterton’s land-reform ideal of ‘three acres and a cow’.

Chancellor Wang’s reform programme met with a good deal of support from the literati, in particular from Song polymath Shen Kuo, and from Emperor Song Shenzong. However, his enemies, led by the historian Sima Guang, proved even more powerful in the end. A famine which struck northern China managed to create a minor credit crisis with farmers leaving their lands; local officials insisted on collecting the microloans many of these farmers owed. Sima Guang and his Conservative faction pounced on the incident and portrayed the entire situation as being Wang Anshi’s fault. Of course, many of the later studied critics of Wang Anshi’s lending policies (including the neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi, who was then serving as prefect of Nankangjun 南康軍) took aim only at the implementation, whilst at the same time saying that the basic idea was sound and even expanding on it. But at the time, Wang Anshi was thrown into prison, and his reputation even after his rehabilitation and appointment as governor of Jiangning 江寧 (now Nanjing 南京) by Emperor Shenzong was irrevocably tarnished. He was banished from court upon Shenzong’s death in 1085, but continued writing and engaging in scholarly debates until his own death a year later.

Here we have an official who was very roundly ‘progressive’ in a number of ways, whilst being steadfastly conservative in several others. His reform programmes, particularly those to do with education, trade and official compensation, were justified through his interpretation of the Rites of Zhou and of the history of preceding dynasties. It became a fashion of sorts amongst Confucian literati after he fell from favour to denigrate his record as Chancellor, much in the same way as it became fashionable after the demise of Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 to portray her as a maniacal power-hungry she-devil (often by the same people, particularly Sima Guang and his students). However, my wife says she more highly esteems Wang Anshi, largely because, in her words, ‘it was far easier to stay conservative during that time, but much harder to be brave and creative, while still remaining true to Confucian principles [the way Wang Anshi was]’.