23 June 2017

The Austrian roots of the regressive left

It’s commonly acknowledged that one of the major hallmarks of the (re)activist postmodern identitarian campus left, or the regressive left, is that it assumes the ‘social construction’ of certain facts – including, but not limited to, the scientific method and biological gender. Many of the opponents of the regressive left, particularly those on the political right, assume that the idea of ‘social constructivism’ comes from Karl Marx via the Frankfurt School (hence the intellectually-lazy snarl of ‘cultural Marxism’).

Unfortunately, the Frankfurt School of critical theory offers itself up as an easy punching bag given the schoolmarmish, sourpuss commentary of people like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer about everything related to the production of culture, or the over-the-top activist pose of Herbert Marcuse (which is often linked to modern campus-activist praxis). And red-baiting is of course an old and venerable sport in American politics – the new Birchers baying after ‘cultural Marxism’ don’t even have to put away their Cold War paranoia! But for all its flaws, the Frankfurt School never actually gave itself up to the insane ‘narrative’ relativism in morals or to the subjectivism in epistemology that have become the hallmarks of the regressive left. Nor was its rationalistic social critique directly responsible for laying the groundwork for ‘social constructivism’. (Heck, these days the foremost representative of the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, has become a vocal defender of the Christian religious tradition as a repository of humane civilising habits – can you imagine a campus leftist doing the same?) Of course the hardline Marxists have been far too wedded to dialectical materialism to even consider ‘social constructivism’ as anything but an annoying distraction, spurred by frustrated radicals’ inability to achieve actual revolutionary goals.

The actual roots of social constructivism lie elsewhere, though. But the actual history of the ideas of social constructivism is not a comfortable one for the American political right, though, because several highly-revered intellectual figures of the American political right are much more directly responsible for the rise of subjectivism, relativism and the idea of ‘social construction’ itself.

As with any intellectual genealogy, it’s best to start with the first known instance of an idea. The idea of the ‘social construct’, and with it, the sociological theory of constructivism, first appeared with the libertarian sociologist Peter Berger and his co-author Thomas Luckmann in their book The Social Construction of Reality, which has been a key text in American sociology departments and classrooms since it was first published in 1966. The text’s conceit was to take ‘taken-for-granted realities’ and deconstruct them as projects or fictions sustained by iterated interactions between individuals, but not possessing any reality of their own. Also notable about the text was that it downplayed the role of the scientific method as just one stream of social knowledge among many, and at that one whose source was largely controlled by a small group of privileged experts. (Sound familiar?) The philosophical traditions cited by Berger and Luckmann as intellectual inspirations for The Social Construction of Reality were, in a word, not Marxist. Berger and Luckmann invoked the names of Scheler, Heidegger, Husserl, Weber and Mead – none of whom were Marxist, and two of whom utterly hated Marx (for different reasons). We can see here that the philosophical traditions of American pragmatism and European postmodernism (which at the time of Berger’s and Luckmann’s book was busily reorganising itself into poststructuralism) have left indelible marks on social constructivism. But the biggest direct intellectual influence on The Social Construction of Reality was the thinking of Peter Berger’s doctoral advisor, Alfred Schütz.

Schütz, like Berger himself, was born in Austria. But he was a member of the private seminar, and a very close friend of, a certain Austrian œconomist named Ludwig von Mises. Schütz’s early sociological work was deeply influenced by von Mises’s praxeology, and was largely an attempt to reconcile Weber’s sociology with von Mises’ a priori, subjective and individualistic approach to œconomic theory. The parallels are not exact, of course, but one can easily see how Schütz’s attempt to deconstruct certain data-based approaches to the sociology of œconomics to suit radically anti-evidential Austrian-school assumptions of the way œconomies are supposed to work, works in the same way as regressive-left attempts to deconstruct empirically-based approaches to other fields of knowledge. Indeed, the ties between social constructivism and Austrian praxeology have been made explicit by both historical (including Friedrich Hayek) and modern proponents of Austrian School œconomics. The real problem with the regressive left, with its emphasis on social constructivism and identity, is that in its origins and in its behaviour, it isn’t a ‘left’ at all.

Undoubtedly, modern regressive-left activists and ‘social justice warriors’ would be horribly offended (so much the better!) by my intimation that they are engaging in what is fundamentally a neoliberal capitalist project. But, by claiming both biological and social realities like gender as ‘constructs’ and dissolving them from there into an endless array of mutually-incommensurate consumer ‘identities’, that’s exactly what they’re doing. That’s not only true from the history-of-sociology perspective which traces the concept of the ‘social construct’ back to its partially-Austrian School roots. It’s also from the perspective of practical politics that deconstructing social and empirical realities like gender has the concrete effect of atomising society according to identity, and making genuine dialogue about the common good prohibitively difficult in the process.

If the left is to regain its footing, it needs to take better stock of its own principles. In order to build a broad-based movement on the principles of œconomic fairness and equity, we need to look at facts. We can’t go haring off after these libertarian bread-crumbs in an attempt to sound more-radical-than-thou, on a trail that leads into the intellectual wasteland of moral relativism and epistemic closure.

21 June 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 5.2: où est la différence?

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that yours truly has more than several weaknesses – several vices – several flaws, both intellectual and moral. Part of the reason writing this portion of the series on realism and the pelvic issues has proven difficult is that it does explore several of my vices in depth and rather lays them bare. But a young man who aspires to be a lover of truth, and who thus allows himself to be interrogated by Plato’s Socrates (or, indeed, by Christ!), must eventually run up against the limits of his own nature, personality, habits and thinking, and be confronted with the questions his own soul poses to him. The questions must be put forward honestly.

I put forward the argument in the previous section of this series, that sexually-arousing and -exploitative images and scenarios are examples of dishonest mimēsis that substitute themselves for reality, that present themselves to the ‘belly’ in ways which directly bypass the discursive faculty. In addition to degrading the displayer, they also thus make sōphrosunē impossible to achieve for the viewer. But as, for example, a listener of heavy metal music, what right have I to make such a claim? Isn’t that kind of distorted, asymphonic music an even greater danger to the soul, particularly in light of Simmias’s argument to Socrates in the Phædo (and one no less intuitively true for Socrates having found its flaws) that the soul is a dynamic harmony? Is it not also a mimēsis that distorts reality, bypasses reason and engages the ‘belly’? Plato himself, after all (if we are to take his indictments of the poets, musicians and rhapsodes in the Republic and Ion at all seriously) understood quite well the effects that music can have on the impressionable soul.

Let’s continue, then, with our assault upon metal as a genre, and play it in its heaviest and most downtuned possible key (pardon the riffs). Music – the name itself, deriving from the Muses, the givers of an inspiration which is not the result of ratiocination or physical practice, but instead of a form of ‘divine madness’ (compare Phædrus) – is a gateway to the soul that likewise bypasses reason in the listener. Plato understood this. In the Republic Socrates argues against the presence of lyres (or of any other such many-stringed or curiously-harmonised instruments) in the beautiful city, because ‘rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful’. If musical harmony will impart grace and self-control, inward harmony, to the soul, need it be spelt out what the asymphony, bombast and anger of heavy metal music will do? When put this way, how is a transgressive aural titillation of the wrathful thumós any better at all than the transgressive visual titillation of the epithumía?

Personally, I’m not sure it is. I find I have but few grounds for preferring my own vices to those of anyone else. The best I can do is point to the honourable exceptions: to those bands which specialise in deeper, complex harmonies and themes which speak to those higher, philosophical aspirations of the soul than the expression of anger and extremity of pain. (And in heavy metal, at least, those bands are not few.) I’m thinking here of Threshold, Tang Dynasty, Hammers of Misfortune, Edenbridge, Queensrÿche, whose music may stand on its own harmonic and lyrical merits without any need of a defence from me.

But would there not be exceptions to the realm of erotically-charged art, as well? I would not deny the possibility. In fact, going all the way back to my rapidly-escalating tiffs with Mr Cal P— in the comments section of my very first entry in this series, I showed myself more-than-willing to make exceptions even where erotic depictions were concerned. Can certain sensually-appealing, physically-beautiful examples of the human form arouse us to an awareness of the higher things? I would actually argue, yes. In fact, I might even go so far as to point to Plato himself – to the Symposium – for an argument to the same. It’s not enough, as commentators on Plato from Jowett to Bloom have made clear, to look only at what Plato’s Socrates says, but also what he does. And Socrates does erotically admire sensual, physically-attractive young men: Alcibiades, Charmides, Agathon, Glaucon and Adeimantus. He is not averse to seeing them naked in the palæstra, and remarks on the physical beauty of Charmides’ body before he proceeds to make his soul known by questioning him on the nature of sōphrosunē. And then, what are Socrates’ speeches in Phædrus if not a kind of new, philosophical love-poetry to replace the older, self-serving odes? Could we not imagine also a new, philosophical form of sensual art, one that directs our vision upward rather than downward? (And would not some of Plato’s own myths and depictions of the afterlife count?)

As I attempted to make it clear before, Plato is not a hater of erōs or the physical body as such. The example and lifestyle of Socrates shown in the Symposium ought to be ample proof of that, even if it is followed by the Phædo! He is, after all, a realist, not a prude. He understands that in the harmonised man, the reasoning part of the soul must dialectically convince (not bludgeon or starve or suppress) the willing and desiring parts of the soul, and bring them to an agreement. I don’t think he’d object in a blanket way to sensuality or eroticism in art, but I think he would absolutely question the purposes it serves, even (and especially) in those instances where a more noble aim is intimated. And so should we. I’m more than happy to grant a small handful of ennobling exceptions. But when a hundred-billion dollar industry – fuelled by drugs, torture, emotional and physical abuse, and leaving behind it the human detritus of shell-shock, impotence, divorce, emotional flight and worse – those questions of what corporate eroticism and titillation is doing to our souls, both individually and as a polity, become pressing.

20 June 2017

An intriguing electoral study

Here are the data for those who still see themselves as the ‘reality-based community’ to consider. And here are some interpretations of the data that I think follow logically.
  1. Populists form a key constituency. We are legion. The major divide is still between liberals and conservatives, but those of us on the œconomic ‘left’ and the social-cultural ‘right’, according to this study anyway, form 28.9% of the electorate (whereas libertarians, who unsurprisingly have a lot more clout among rich donors, make up only 3.8% of the total voter base). We, not the libertarians, are the great, silent group of swing voters. And this time, much to my own chagrin as one of the few ‘other’ voters, we swung hard for Trump.

  2. The donor class is libertarian. Or rather, more accurately, both parties are dragged in a libertarian direction by their wealthiest campaign contributors and lobbyists, who are uniformly more œconomically neoliberal and socially more liberal than the rank-and-file. One need only look to the Koch brothers and Adelson on the Republican side, and to Soros and Bloomberg on the Democratic side, for anecdotal suspicions. These data, however confirm that suspicion. Sanders supporters were right to suspect that big money and corporate campaign contributions do skew our politics.

  3. Sanders would have won, or at least have done far better in terms of popular vote than Clinton did. Interestingly (and perhaps counter-intuitively), there wasn’t that much difference between Sanders and Clinton voters on œconomic issues. But Sanders had greater appeal among the populists – among the culturally-conservative, union-member inland working class – than Clinton did, which is precisely the demographic which caused her to lose ground to Trump in the ‘blue wall’ states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Clinton lost four out of ten of us populists who had voted for Obama. That speaks to a catastrophically poor campaign strategy and something like malicious neglect.

  4. The disconnect between the Democratic establishment and voter base lies in social issues. Traditional Democratic voters care about addressing inequality. This study shows, in fact, that we care a lot about it. Quite a few ‘red’ states would be more-than-receptive audiences if universal health care, full employment and other bread-and-butter issues were floated. But the more Democratic politicians piss on the third rails of identity politics, the more they lose us. The more bile they spew at œconomically-egalitarian folks who ‘cling to guns or religion’, who think unborn babies should be protected or who have no problem with traditional gender roles, the more they lose. The more they shove crappy trade deals down our throats and the more jobs they ship abroad, the more they lose. The more they encourage gender ideology and the identitarian trend in politics, the more they lose. And they will find that the more they blame Russia for these completely-solvable problems with their campaign strategy, the more they will lose.
A big hat-tip to the Realist Left blog for the link to this study; it is most intriguing!

19 June 2017

The response of the awakened East

Reading the second of Blessed New-Martyr Ilya Fondaminsky’s Ways of Russia essays, I am struck immediately by two impressions. The first is that he imbibed some of the more controversial elements of the Slavophil historiography neat. He is convinced that Russia is the spiritual (and material) descendant not of mediæval Greece alone, but of the pre- and proto-Slavic Iranian-Scythian culture. This conviction he takes straight from leading Slavophil philosopher Aleksey Khomyakov. He finds in this legacy a source of great, but raw and untapped, spiritual and creative energy, one which the actual Slavophils failed to unearth and use fully. The second impression is that – along with Berdyaev – he wants to retrieve the key insights of the Slavophil legacy, and even retain the civilisational ‘messianism’ for which they are subjected to much scepticism, but (particularly confronted with the rise of the Bolsheviks) without the optimistic assurance in Russia’s destiny which has led them to be charged with a certain degree of nationalistic naïveté. He believes that the Eastern character of Russia, together with its post-Petrine openness to the West, will combine and reconcile themselves in a grand synthesis within the Russian soul. Then – and only then – will Russia have its ‘new word’ to speak to the world. But the moment for that synthesis is ‘not yet’, and ‘not soon’.

Saint Ilya takes a very long view of the history of civilisation. In order to shed meaningful light upon the ‘reawakening’ of the East in his own day, he draws on the clashes between East and West going back to the Classical world and the conquests of Alexander the Great; he stands in awe of the civilisational heights to which Classical Greece ascended; and he understands that even the spiritual life of the Greek-inflected West has not yet been fully finished or played-out. At the same time, his sympathies are clearly with the civilisations of the East. He is convinced of the ancient vitality of the Indian and the Chinese lifeways: ‘Their accumulated values were so great, their spiritual foundations so deep, that only for a short time did they submit to the influence of the West’. In his view, ‘Christianity’ itself ‘is the response of the awakened East to spiritual enslavement by the West’. He notes and applauds the ‘revival’ of traditional spiritual culture that is still taking place in both the Near East and the Far East:
There is work to clear the layers [of dust] from religious and philosophical systems from their periods of decay; to learn old art, old literature, to revive them to newness of life. Just as with the renaissance in the West, a renaissance in the East is not only a rush for the new. First of all it is a return to the classical period of the past, it is immersion in the fountainheads of the national spirit. As yet there is no genuine spiritual creativity. But it will happen; it must… The awakened East creates its own, reveals its soul, reveals its understanding of the world. ‘The Night of Asia’ is passing. The ‘one’ ‘universal’ civilisation is being torn apart before our eyes. To shreds. The world again becomes diverse and colourful.
He even cites Gu Hongming in the defence of this ad fontes project of renewal! And he identifies the creative genius of the Russian people with the Iranian-Scythian earth out of which the Slavs sprang. Saint Ilya passes harsh judgements upon the Greece of Alexander and the Western colonial powers who seek to build a ‘universal’ civilisation – seeing in the pretensions to universality and globalism, no matter how well-intentioned, the signs of creative exhaustion and civilisational decay. For him, the unrooted, atomistic bourgeois liberalism of the modern West, much like the all-homogenising pretensions of the Imperium Rōmānum, is a lawless impulse which can never rightfully be realised.

But it would be a mistake to characterise him as a narrow nationalist. (Small wonder: Saint Ilya detested fascism with a vengeance, and gave his life in solidarity with the Jews under fascist oppression.) In Saint Ilya’s thinking, Russia’s placement on the world stage, situated on the basis of the old, Eastern Iranian-Scythian culture and in constant contact with the Black Sea outposts of the Greek and Latin West, gives it a unique and uniquely-cosmopolitan outlook. Russia is marked with certain Iranian civilisational principles: a ‘solar’ monotheism (matched with a ‘solar’ monarchism); personalism; a communitarian ethos; a preference for the spoken word, the слово. These characteristics – so precious and so needful in Saint Ilya’s thinking – were, ironically, reinforced both by contact with Byzantium and by contact with the Mongols; only to be buried in their penultimate expression in the Petrine reforms. ‘Now,’ Saint Ilya writes, ‘[the old Eastern culture] must be sought in the very depths of the life of the people.’ But they can be brought out, ironically, only with the help of interaction with the intellectual ferment of the West, to ‘adapt some of the Western spiritual conquest to the Eastern worldview’. The clashing interactions of the Iranian-Scythian and the Byzantine-Roman worlds which birthed the kaleidoscopically colourful, brilliant and in many ways deeply radical culture of Kievan Rus’ where the two overlapped, are not things to be thrown aside thoughtlessly, either in the name of universalism or of parochialism. If an all-embracing, all-expansive, rootless globalist homogenisation is the sign of spiritual death of civilisations, no less so is the externalised, self-isolating homogenisation of the modern nation-state. Instead, the primary cultural ferment happens locally, on the borders, on the peripheries, in the ‘wilderness’. The product of Black Sea localisms and Silk Road transnationalisms, buffeted by Byzantine, Mongol and Polish colonialisms, the Russian civilisation has the potential to unite within herself the civilisational principles of West and East—but, as Saint Ilya was speaking, ‘not yet’.

The questions Saint Ilya asks about the ‘ways of Russia’, and his subsequent historical and cultural analyses, find some ready parallels in the Sinosphere not only with the slightly-earlier eclectic conservative radicalism of Gu Hongming, but also with the Daoist-inflected neoleftism of Wang Hui. This should not be a surprise, since they approach many of the same questions about the destiny of their respective cultures, from a counter-hegemonic perspective conditioned by long historical awareness. But in Saint Ilya’s thinking, a somewhat Tolkienish turn is taken in that the grand civilisational narrative begins from very local sources, even sources most scholars would think unworthy of note! He writes:
Only in adjacent areas was a mixed Scythian-Hellenistic form of culture created. The closer to the Greek cities and shores of the Black Sea, the stronger the Hellenic influence. The further into the interior of the country one went, the stronger the influence of the East…

This culture is weak, ‘provincial’; it did not create large independent values. It cannot be compared, not only with the ‘great’ cultures of the Near East and of Greece, but even with the smaller Hellenised cultures of Western Europe. But its importance for the history of Russia is enormous. It was the cultural foundation for the civilisation of Kiev. Scythia helped organise the Kievan state. When the movement of peoples in southern Russia ceased and a certain calm was established, the old culture revived and served as midwife to the new Kievan civilisation.
Some very interesting historical and cultural insights from a profound New Martyr of the Orthodox Church. He offers a Slavophilia shorn of Katkovite expansionist and triumphalist dreams; a Slavophilia of the margins of civilisation; a Slavophilia that looks to ‘peaks in the distance’ from the standpoint of a Russia-that-was. Even if the liberal perspective would no doubt judge Saint Ilya Fondaminsky as far too fond of what it would no doubt term ‘Oriental despotism’, he nonetheless argues with passion for a renewed culture, a just culture, that can draw from Oriental sources.

18 June 2017

Has this blog shifted left?

On my Facebook page, I got a comment from a deeply-respected reader of this blog to the effect that it seemed I was going ‘soft’ on socialism. I had actually described myself as ‘Orthodox, monarchist, socialist – in that order’, and in light of my recent post on RH Tawney, this seemed to be a cause for concern.

Let me clarify my position, then. I don’t think the shift, if there has been one, has been that drastic; it’s more a shift in emphasis than in conviction. To some of my gentle readers, it may confirm what they had long suspected; to others, it may allay some of their concerns. As long as this blog has been active, I have considered myself a ‘man of the Left’, albeit one with a strong Tory streak. My biggest objections to socialism in the main, were its tendencies toward materialism and toward urban chauvinism, but I’ve also had a long-standing appreciation for the post- (or non-)Marxist socialisms of people like Ruskin, Morris, Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Vonnegut, Fei, Wang and Miyazaki. The fact that there are Orthodox saints and martyrs like Blessed Ilya Fondaminsky and Mother Maria Skobtsova, whose socialist-revolutionary instincts never really went away on conversion, but in fact led them to a self-sacrificial embrace of Christ in the concentration camps, heartens me quite a bit as well.

I still do have a significant level of respect for distributism – and particularly for Chesterton and Mihalache. At the same time, the cliquish tendency among distributists to artificially distance themselves from their closest cousins (the guild socialists and the social-credit movement) has become somewhat irritating to me. I do understand the differences and their importance – I have, after all, read Mitrany’s book and understand its critiques, even of the ‘democratic’ socialists who threw peasant movements under the bus for the sake of ideological rigour. I also understand the ideologically-motivated, malicious and dishonest desire on the part of distributism’s ideological foes to tar it with a ‘red’ brush. I know exactly how this causes a certain level of defensiveness on the part of distributism’s committed defenders. At the same time, it strikes me as equally dishonest to understate or ignore the importance of the Oxford Movement and the left-radicalisms of Cobbett and Morris on distributism’s development in the West (Chesterton did, after all, love him some Cobbett!), or of narodnichestvo on its development in the East, through transitional figures like Svetozar Marković in Yugoslavia and Constantin Stere in Romania. German revisionists like Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein were notably influential on the most successful distributist statesman of the Green Rising, Bulgaria’s Aleksandar Stamboliyski.

The other reason my thinking has taken a more Fabian turn of late is precisely this: distributism requires a far fuller and more cogent awareness of its radical roots if it is to retain its character. Allan Carlson, in his book Third Ways (a read I highly recommend, by the way), not only engages fruitfully and in interesting ways with the legacy of Karl Polanyi and the forgotten story of how Ellen Key’s ‘Swedish socialist housewives’ battled against the creeping ideology of defamilialisation. He also issues a stern warning to the would-be torchbearers of distributism and Christian democracy in our age. He notes the sharp turn of the Christian Democratic parties in the 1950’s away from the Catholic personalist radicalism of Emmanuel Mounier and Stephen Borne toward a bureaucratised, bourgeois ethic:
As early as the 1950s, Christian democracy as a vital worldview entered another period of crisis. The youthful excitement, energy and sense of positive Christian revolution evident in the 1940s dissipated… In Italy and West Germany, Christian democratic parties consolidated their hold on power at the price of their vision. By the early 1960s, they were increasingly pragmatic and bureaucratic, self-satisfied defenders of the status quo. Ambitious office-seekers, rather than Christian idealists, came to dominate the parties. Movements for ‘moral and spiritual renewal’ became simply mass parties of the right-of-centre. When a new ‘crisis of values’ hit Europe with particular force in the 1960s, the Christian democrats were unprepared to respond. They appeared by then to be old and discredited guardians of a new kind of materialism, the very opposite of what the movement’s visionaries had intended.
It’s precisely this turn in the Christian democratic movement in this country – the American Solidarity Party – that I’m most coming to fear. The party builders in many of the state-level outfits seem more concerned with building a big tent of the centre-right, than with challenging the Lockean presuppositions of our mainstream politics and articulating a genuine alternative to the two big parties. My explorations into Tawney and Cole, and my turn toward the saintly Bunakov for inspiration, comes straight from Carlson’s warning and example. Perhaps a good hard shot of Fabianism (of the localist, industrial-democratic variety which also takes virtue ethics seriously) is just the thing needed.

14 June 2017

Some thoughts on From Up on Poppy Hill

WARNING: This post contains movie spoilers!

Miyazaki Gorô’s From Up on Poppy Hill is a fine piece of animated cinema. It is not usual Studio Ghibli fare, of course. The soundtrack alone, heavy on 1960’s kayôkyoku 歌謠曲 jazz-and-blues tunes, is already far removed from the epic, sweeping orchestral compositions of his father’s films, and sets the tone for a film which is much more subdued in tone and substance. But it certainly has Ghibli hallmarks (and those of Gorô’s father Miyazaki Hayao) stamped all over it. A sweet, innocent young romance; a spirited female lead with a strong sense of responsibility; the lack of a clear villain among the characters; the tragic interplay between old traditions and new technologies; a wistful love for the life-ways of an earlier age; the fascination with and enchantment of mundane details in a unique kind of magical realism. And also, very much like in his father’s work, there is a subtle-but-persistent left-wing critique of modern Japanese society which runs through the film, and a sensibility (albeit one refreshingly devoid of postmodern cynicism) regarding the deprivations associated with œconomic ‘development’ which calls somewhat to mind the filmography of Jia Zhangke.

The plot revolves around two interconnected themes: the fate of two children of war-ravaged naval families in the decades immediately following the Second World War and the Korean War, and the planned demolition and replacement of Konan Academy’s Quartier Latin clubhouse, an ancient, decrepit (but well-loved by its members) school building, to make way for new facilities in light of Tôkyô’s hosting of the Olympic Games. High school senior Kazama Shun publishes a poem about junior Matsuzaki Umi (called by her French cognate nickname ‘Mer’) in the school newspaper, about the signal flags she raises every morning in memory of her dead father, which he sees flying every day as he takes a harbour tug to school. Later the same day, Shun leaps off the clubhouse roof as a stunt designed to draw attention to the student-activist ‘cause’ of keeping the old clubhouse intact (something which fails to impress Umi). The two eventually bond and develop a romantic interest over their shared work in that ‘cause’; but their relationship becomes complicated by their war-torn family pasts.

Kazama Shun turns out to be a war orphan who was adopted by the local electrician in order to keep him from ‘falling between the cracks’. After hearing about how Umi’s own military father Sawamura was killed (by a mine off the coast of Korea during the war) and seeing an old picture of Sawamura with two of his shipmates, Shun begins to suspect that he and Umi are biological siblings. Shun tries to distance himself from Umi on discovering this, but their feelings for each other continue to grow. When the board of the school votes to tear down the clubhouse and they have to travel to Tôkyô together to argue to the school chairman for it to be kept, Umi confesses her love to him, not caring about the incestuous implications. And Shun reciprocates.

Shun’s story, though, gets ‘a little complicated’, as Umi’s mother Ryôko later reveals to her. Shun’s family was wiped out in the atomic blast that incinerated Nagasaki, his mother died in childbirth, and his father Tachibana, Sawamura’s shipmate, was killed in a similar accident several years before. In the MacArthur years, Shun had to be adopted ad hoc by the Matsuzaki family in order to avoid being sent to an orphanage, at which point he was given to the Kazama family (who had recently lost their own child). Umi is moved to tears at finding out Shun is not her biological brother, and Ryôko arranges for Shun to meet the third serviceman in the photograph. The Quartier Latin is saved from destruction by the chairman, who is impressed both by the students’ dedication to their old clubhouse and particularly by Umi’s manners. The final scene, where the last living friend of Umi and Shun’s respective fathers greets the two children as though ‘seeing [his] old friends again’, ends the film on a bittersweet-but-hopeful note.

Despite these complications, the sweet and natural relationship between Umi and Shun is never once presented in a prurient, fetishistic, exploitative or transgressive way. Instead, it may be best to see it as a remark on how traditional Confucian morals and right relationships – even those between friends and siblings – were literally blown apart by the wars and the social and cultural upheaval of its aftermath, with the pieces left to be retrieved as best the survivors could. Indeed, the anti-war themes and broader cultural commentary can be seen poking out in multiple places, some quite obvious.

There is a school debate scene early in the film in which Shun denounces the pro-demolition students as being ‘just like the old men who run this country’, and declaims that ‘there is no future for people who worship the future and forget the past’. For defending an old building on grounds of historical and cultural memory, Shun is branded an ‘anarchist’ and dragged down from the stage by the pro-demolition crowd. The debate devolves quickly into fisticuffs after that (stopped only by the school president in order to fool the teachers who come to investigate). But the scene illustrates very nicely how, in East Asia, particularly in Japan and particularly in the wake of the Meiji era, the concerns of the hard left and the concerns of the traditionalist right have gone merrily hand-in-hand against the presentist, liberal-‘conservative’ bureaucratic-corporate-military-political establishment. Miyazaki Hayao’s films also show the same kind of confluence of leftist anti-militarist and anti-capitalist concerns with perennial traditionalist ones, though seldom in such a forthright way as here.

The artistry of the film is, as to be expected from anything put out by Studio Ghibli, wonderfully intricate, lovingly crafted with great attention to the realistic small details, from the rusty old tugboat to the lush greenery of Coquelicot Manor’s backyard, from the rice fields and beaten-up old shops with their hand-painted placards standing alongside dirt roads to the newfangled neon-lighted neighbourhoods with new trolleys rolling through. They are presented side-by-side, without judgement and with equal care. But there is some true love, inspiration and Ghibli magic aplenty bestowed on the old Quartier Latin, a Victorian mansion with ornate wood panelling, stairways and railings, balconies and stained-glass windows, an old clock-tower with a kanji clock face, subdivided ramshackle, overrun with dust and cobwebs, overflowing bookshelves and lined with stacks of old newsprint, with bits and pieces of every high-school student boy’s hobby one can imagine. The clubhouse is practically a character in its own right, and one you come to care more and more about as the film goes on, and the main characters put more and more work into renovating it… and, of course, this intimate love for the old fits very well with the theme of the film.

From frame one, From Up on Poppy Hill is not your ‘typical’ Ghibli film. It was not received as enthusiastically by foreign audiences as Miyazaki Hayao’s other films. But it’s by no means to be considered a ‘lesser’ one for its lack of fantastic supernaturalism. Indeed, the domesticity and historical grounding of the story allow the film to delve deep, and ask questions as trenchant and meaningful as those Porco Rosso, Nausicaä and Mononoke-hime did.

13 June 2017

Random thoughts on the UK elections

  • Many heartfelt congratulations to Mr. John Baron, MP of Basildon and Billericay, on his electoral win! It’s immensely gratifying to me that one of the very few actual Tories who actually deserved to keep his seat, in fact did.

  • From the perspective of Labour: Mr. Jeremy Corbyn’s showing in these Parliamentary elections, though slightly disappointing, still demonstrated what I have been saying for quite some while, e.g. in my open letter to my cousin across the pond two years ago. Labour voters – particularly younger ones – want a party with principles. And Corbyn, who is not my ideal candidate for several reasons, nonetheless gives voice to a firm set of Labour principles – things like generous welfare benefits, renationalisation of utilities, people’s QE, détente and armed neutrality. These may have a retro, Old Left flavour to them, but if there’s one thing heavy metal has taught me, some things never die. The party of Blair is dead and gone, and – frankly – good riddance. Long live the party of Corbyn.

  • From the perspective of the Conservatives: these elections were a completely-avoidable humiliation which they should have seen coming a mile off, polls notwithstanding. Twice now, first in Cameron’s referendum on Brexit and just recently in the new elections called by May, the British electorate have meetly and rightly punished the Conservatives for their smarmy, self-important, hubristic and completely-misplaced confidence in the outcome. Ms. Theresa May basically assumed that, with Corbyn as her opponent, she didn’t actually have to campaign at all – and Rod Liddle aptly called it ‘the worst Tory election campaign ever’.
    Still more remarkable was the decision to force demented people to sell their own houses, if they can remember where they are, to pay for their own care. Followed very shortly by an embarrassing U-turn. This was passed off by the Tories as an example of pristine honesty, of nettles being grasped in an admirably transparent manner. But, like much of the current Tory campaign, it smacked to me of two things — complacency and arrogance. It suggested yet again that Theresa May called this election convinced that almost nothing she could do or say would prevent the inevitable landslide. I think she was horribly wrong about that.
    And, of course, she was. Just as the Conservatives did not forgive Cameron for Brexit, nor will or should they easily forgive May’s stunning, Dunning-Krugeresque display of arrogance and incompetence.

  • Further reasons for rejoicing: Nuttall, true to his name, failed to win a single seat, thus permanently consigning him and his party to the electoral rubbish heap in the wake of the EU referendum, and Salmond and Sturgeon got their richly-deserved drubbing as Scots turned back to both the Conservatives and Labour. Nothing but good in the fact that the ethnic-nationalist parties have not only not gained, but have actually lost, from throwing themselves to each extreme side of the argument on the EU referendum.

  • Again, this election and its outcome were not a surprise to those of us who were paying attention. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to the media who have been covering the populist resurgence in Europe or the upset politics of Trump and Brexit from the beginning. Ordinary people – not just May Day activists – are tired of austerity. Ordinary people – not just Stop the War and Media Lens – are tired of the torrents of blood and treasure being spent on endless wars of choice, and the torrents of propaganda being used to gin them up. Ordinary people – not just Britain First and UKIP – are tired of politicians importing right-wing Islamist radicals from countries we’ve invaded, having those radicals attack them, and then having politicians turn around and call them bigots when they complain. Ordinary people – not just the fringe elements – are tired of having their genuine concerns dismissed in favour of cosmeticised élite politics-as-usual.

  • For the record: I am not, here, taking the side of the ‘ordinary people’ in every instance. I understand that the many can and often are on the wrong side of the argument. But I do note that the now-open conflict between the democratic and oligarchic elements in the polity, on both sides of the Atlantic, opens the door for some very distasteful elements that cannot be easily contained. British politicians would be wise to take note and adjust, not only their rhetoric but their whole orientation toward their constituents.

Iraqi Christians are still being treated like dirt

This is utterly vile.

The neoconservatives in the Bush Administration lied bald-faced to the American public, lied to the world, destroyed Iraq as a united country, and in so doing placed the vulnerable ‘living stones’ of the region in mortal peril.

The Great White Hope of Real America that Never Was, with many of those same Bush-era neoconservatives at his side (people like Pence, Sessions, Haley, McMaster, Powell, Bolton, Billingshea, Sullivan), is now committing the same acts of grave and heinous evil on some of the most vulnerable displaced people on the planet. People whom he has promised to defend. And now he’s throwing them straight under an oncoming bus – now that they’re no longer politically convenient and now that he thinks no one is watching.

These people’s lives matter. They are our brothers. They are our sisters. And yet they have no home, no means, no protection. They have only their faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ, and for that they are hated and despised, beaten, mutilated, shot, stabbed, blown up by their neighbours, and they are coldly shut out and thrown to the dogs by our government. Ours. How much longer must these blameless people suffer for our sins, we who would claim a common faith with them?

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us sinners.

12 June 2017

Irony, holiness and machiavels (or, why Moscow?)

Ivan I Kalita ‘Moneybag’ of Moscow

In my arguments online with various Central European nationalists and Uniates (yes, I know, total and unhealthy waste of time – but occasionally entertaining in a ‘they say the darnedest things’ kind of way), there seems to be no sorer point than the fact that Moscow, rather than Kiev, is the acknowledged ecclesiastical centre of the Slavic Christian East. Usually – but wrongly – this is blamed on some kind of political shenanigans or on that eternal bogeyman of ‘Russian imperialism’. Naturally in the current-day political climate such misreadings of history become ever more common.

Never mind, of course, that ‘Russia’ as a united polity, let alone as an empire, did not even exist until 1721, or that Moscow as the diocesan centre of the Rus’ predates that polity by nearly 400 years, when Moscow was still a third-rate city-state governed by a knyaz rather than a tsar. The claim that the Patriarchate has historically been the handmaiden of ‘Russian imperialism’ is even more amusing when one considers that the last few early-modern Patriarchs of Moscow were a constant hamper on Tsar Pyotr I’s ambitions for a unitary centralised and cæsaropapist state, and after an argument on the subject of beards he had it broken back down to a Metropolia and converted into a bureau of government. The mundane, often comic realities tend to toss buckets of cold water on Central European nationalist persecution fantasies.

But it’s still an interesting historical question: why is the centre of the Orthodox Church of the Rus’ (that is to say, of the East Slavs) in Moscow, and not in some other city? Why not in Tver, or Vladimir, or Novgorod? Indeed, why not in Kiev? The answer, as it turns out, has its amusing points, though it’s hardly a convenient one for nationalists of various stripes – whether Polish or Ukrainian or even Russian. But then, the ideology of nationalism generally has an insufficient appreciation for irony, and the ecclesiastical history that begins in Kiev and ends in Moscow is nothing if not ironic.

Romanticism about Kievan Rus’ aside – a romanticism I myself sometimes indulge in, by the way – the vast bulk of the rulers of Kievan Rus’ who came after Saint Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise (with a handful of honourable exceptions, such as the stern-but-fair Andrei I of Rostov) were, shall we say, not the very best of men. For the most part, they were petty, quarrelsome, greedy and duplicitous princelings. The want of quality in these bickering rulers, particularly in light of the shining virtues of their predecessors, was a particular cause for lament in the Tale of Igor’s Armament:
  Усобица княземъ
на поганы я погыбе.
  Рекоста бо братъ брату;—
“Се мое, а то—мое же”.
И начаша князи про малое
“Се великое” молвити, а сами
на себе крамолу ковати.
а поганіи со всѣхъ странъ
прихождаху съ побѣдами
на землю Рускую.
О, далече зайде соколъ
птиць бья къ морю.
  А Игорева храброго полку не кресити!

  The discord of the princes
ruined them against the Pagans.
  For, brother spake to brother;—
“This is mine, and that is also mine.”
And the princes began to pronounce
of a paltry thing, “this is great”;
and themselves amongst them to forge feuds;
and the heathens from all sides
advanced with victories
against the Russian land.
Oh, far has the hawk followed,
smiting the birds into the sea!
  And Igor’s brave host will rise no more!
Kiev’s importance as the political centre of a united Rus’ quickly declined as local princelings began taking control of their own postage-stamp states (usually centred on one of the fortified cities that gave Garðaríki its name); the result was something not entirely unlike the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods of Chinese history. The political-cultural centrality and primacy of the Kievan state among the Rus’ was reduced to a symbolic role. Even that centrality and primacy soon transferred, on account of Saint Andrei’s brilliant rule, to the city of Vladimir, although the ecclesiastical seat remained – in spite of Saint Andrei’s efforts to the contrary – firmly in Kiev. Vladimir’s power was in turn broken by the onslaught of the Mongols.

As for Moscow: the grasping, thieving, petty and opportunistic nature of the later Rus’ princes, poetically summarised by the anonymous author of Igor’s Armament, was certainly reflected in the early history of Moscow as well. Russia historian Robert Crummey writes:
The early princes of Moscow are shadowy men. [V. O.] Kliuchevskii, a lecturer renowned for his verbal portraits of historical figures, remarked, ‘All princes of Moscow up to Ivan III were as similar as two drops of water so that the observer sometimes has trouble deciding which of them was Ivan and which Vasilii’. He then went on to describe them collectively as cautious, calculating, petty men with no soaring visions and no morally edifying qualities. There is some truth to his observations. The sources give us very little direct evidence of the personal features or ideals of Moscow’s rulers. Moreover, their actions – and those of their rivals – suggest that they were all, to some extent, greedy and ruthless men. A world of incessant warfare and political intrigue required such unpleasant qualities for survival.
Among these vicious princes, it so happened that one of them was in the right place at the right time, and – more importantly – behaved in an uncharacteristically generous way to the right person (and afterward never stopped bilking that act of generosity for all it was worth). Ivan I ‘Moneybag’ of Moscow was certainly of a piece with his contemporaries, and he is described thus by Dr Crummey:
To generations of historians, Ivan I has been the epitome of the early rulers of Moscow. His actions reveal him as a crafty and ruthless opportunist, an ambitious and grasping landowner and tax-collector. In his career, we see little of the visionary and absolutely no signs of a chivalrous crusader. He pursued limited goals by devious means. Yet his unattractive personal qualities equipped him well for the political struggles of his day.
The aforementioned ‘right person’ for whom he stepped out-of-character was a Galician hermit by the name of Piotr, who had been elected Metropolitan of Kiev (against his wishes) by Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II and Œcumenical Patriarch Saint Athanasius I, under the following circumstances:
When the office of metropolitan became vacant in 1305, the Patriarch of Constantinople rejected Michael [of Tver]’s hand-picked candidate and instead selected Peter, the abbot of a monastery in Galich in south-west Russia. From the Patriarch’s point of view, the appointment made very good sense, for in addition to Peter’s strong personal qualifications, the choice headed off an attempt by the ruler of Galicia to set up a separate ecclesiastical hierarchy. Under Peter’s leadership, the Eastern Orthodox Church would remain united throughout the Russian lands.
I’m shocked, shocked that a Galician prince would seek to subvert the Orthodox Church and set up his own. It’s not like that ended up happening over and over and over again in the coming centuries. Sarcasm aside, though, instead of accepting the decision of the Œcumenical Patriarch meekly, Michael of Tver made himself an enemy of the new Metropolitan Piotr and attempted to have him deposed by fair means and foul. Even though Piotr had taken the omophor unwillingly at Yuri’s behest, he still did not take kindly to assassination attempts or having his authority undermined, so he did what any self-respecting Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church would do in such circumstances. He made a deal with another prince who was willing to offer him protection, settled down and continued his work. And that prince was Ivan ‘Moneybag’. The result was predictable:
In 1325, after years of cooperation with the house of Moscow, Metropolitan Peter moved his residence to Ivan’s capital and prepared a tomb for himself in the new stone Church of the Dormition. Peter’s acts had lasting significance. From that time on, Moscow was the residence of the head of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and its princes played the role of primary protectors of the Church. Moreover, in 1339, Peter’s successor Theognostus canonised him. Moscow became a pilgrimage centre and even Peter’s patron, the unscrupulous Ivan I, acquired an aura of sanctity in the eyes of later generations!
Metropolitan Saint Theognostus, in fact, was the one who really put the last nail in the coffin of Kiev’s ecclesiastical status and the political ambitions of the Princes of Tver to succeed Kiev; as the glorification of Metropolitan Saint Piotr along with the fact that Theognostus himself took up Piotr’s residence essentially assured that all future Metropolitans of Kiev and All Rus’ would rule from the Kremlin as long as the title lasted.

But that process had been started far earlier by Metropolitan Saint Piotr himself. And Piotr would not have been elected Metropolitan if Yuri of Galicia hadn’t been a particularly impious selfish jerk and threatened the Œcumenical Patriarch with schism. Which means that ‘Ukrainians’ – and not just any, but Galicians – are to thank or to blame, depending on your perspective, for the fact that Moscow rather than Kiev (or Tver, or Novgorod, or Vladimir) is the ecclesiastical centre of the Rus’. And as you choose, you can attribute this result either to the scheming calculations of Ivan I, or to Blessed Metropolitan Piotr’s peacemaking and church-building labours in and from Moscow, without which Ivan I would be little more than a footnote.

The logic of the world and the logic of the Church thus often intertwine, intersect and contrast themselves. Symphoneia is not always pretty, and it can be both ironic and remarkably messy that way, but it’s still the most preferable way of ordering the political lives of the Church and the State.

11 June 2017

The Christian radicalism of early Kievan Rus’

Prince Saint Vladimir Svyatoslavich of Kiev

On the day commemorating Prince Saint Vladimir’s coronation, it’s needful to remember the distinctions between Vladimir’s early reign as a pagan prince and his reign following his baptism in 988. The adoption of Byzantine, Orthodox Christianity in the lands of the Rus’ meant a profound shift, a metánoia, not only in Saint Vladimir’s notorious sex life, but much more broadly in the political and social institutions of Kievan Rus’. Here is what Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia says about the legal, institutional and systemic changes implemented by Saint Vladimir:
Vladimir placed the same emphasis upon the social implications of Christianity as John the Almsgiver had done. Whenever he feasted with his Court, he distributed food to the poor and sick; nowhere else in medieval Europe were there such highly organized “social services” as in tenth-century Kiev. Other rulers in Kievan Russia followed Vladimir’s example. Prince Vladimir Monomachos (reigned 1113-1125) wrote in his Testament to his sons: “Above all things forget not the poor, and support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man” (quoted in G. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia). Vladimir was also deeply conscious of the Christian law of mercy, and when he introduced the Byzantine law code at Kiev, he insisted on mitigating its more savage and brutal features. There was no death penalty in Kievan Russia, no mutilation, no torture; corporal punishment was very little used…

The same gentleness can be seen in the story of Vladimir’s two sons, Boris and Gleb. On Vladimir’s death in 1015, their elder brother Svyatopolk attempted to seize their principalities. Taking literally the commands of the Gospel, they offered no resistance, although they could easily have done so; and each in turn was murdered by Svyatopolk’s emissaries. If any blood were to be shed, Boris and Gleb preferred that it should be their own.
The case gets put even more starkly in the original book Metropolitan Kallistos quotes here, Eurasian historian George Vernadsky’s authoritative book on Kievan Russia:
As we know, Vladimir the Saint was a pioneer in this field [of public welfare] as in many others. Even granting that the chronicler exaggerated the neophyte prince’s Christian zeal, we must admit that he laid the foundation of public charities in Kievan Russia. At least some of his descendants followed his lead and the distribution of food to the poor became an essential feature of every important state and religious festival, even if not made continuous. As an example, on the occasion of the transportation of the relics of the martyr princes Boris and Gleb (1072) the sick and poor were fed for three days. In 1154 Prince Rostislav of Kiev distributed all of the estate of his uncle, which the latter had bequeathed to him, among the churches and the poor.

That the princes generally considered the care of the poor as part of their duties may be seen from the words of Vladimir Monomach’s “Testament”, already mentioned, in which he advises his children: “Above all things, forget not the poor, and support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man.” From the last phrase it may be seen that a new idea is here expressed: not of mere charity but of a social policy having as its object the protection of the underprivileged. As we know, Vladimir Monomach himself entered upon such legislation.
The example of the profound, deep-reaching way in which Orthodox Christianity transfigured the Kievan Rus’ and its institutions in a more humane, welfarist and pro-poor direction should itself be informing the social thinking of the Orthodox Church today. Indeed, in several contexts, it already is. But from those Christians, particularly American Christians who value abstract notions of liberty over a more classically-Christian understanding of the responsibilities, prerogatives, right relationships and natural limits of the state, some deeper reflection is required. Saint Vladimir the Great was well aware both of his own weaknesses and sins, and also of the need to cultivate virtue, not merely for himself or among the boyars, but generally. He radically restructured the laws of his state such that they would not indulge his vicious propensities for cruelty, and also such that his people would have moderate means enough to pursue their own virtues adequately. And he pursued his own prerogative as necessary, even against the bishops of the religion he had taken on, when it came to capital punishment, torture and mutilation.

The example of Kievan Rus’ is one which must prick our consciences and stir us to self-reflection. What sorts of men does our society produce in abundance? What sorts of men do we want our régime to encourage, or to discourage?

10 June 2017

The sparse words and long reach of Han Yu

Han Yu 韓愈

Han Yu is a literary giant of China’s Tang Dynasty with whom I have dealt only briefly, and actually should have dealt with far more prior to now. I’ve read some of his essays in translation. Not for nothing is he considered the greatest of the Eight Masters, an equivalent (if my gentle Chinese readers and friends will pardon the ‘barbarism’) to our Chaucer or Shakespeare! Even in translation, the elegance, the brilliance and the moral power of his work comes through clearly. Unlike prior writers of prose and official essays, Han Yu’s writings are concise and written in a down-to-earth language, but his words carry a great deal of weight.

The prosaïst’s best-known work in English, the ‘Memorial on the Bone of Buddha’ 諫迎佛骨, doesn’t quite catch him at his best, but is still quite powerful. It is an anti-Buddhist polemic which takes the form of a memorial to the Emperor, warning him to be afraid of the un-Chinese superstitions, theatrics and excesses of the followers of the ‘barbarian’ faith. Specifically, he warns that the Buddhist creed will lead young men to neglect their parents, in violation of their filial obligations. Buddhist monasticism will lead them to a selfish celibacy (and Han Yu had a similar critique of Daoist eremitism). It will lead them to turn their backs on the world, to forgo the use of meat in ritual sacrifices, and – worst of all – to cut their hair and mutilate themselves (‘burning heads and searing fingers’), thus dishonouring the bodies that Heaven and their parents gave them. Han Yu accuses the Buddha (not entirely unfairly, in light of Gautama’s personal life), that ‘he did not recognise the relationship between prince and subject, nor the sentiments of father and son’.

And in the veneration of the relic of Buddha’s finger-bone in particular, he saw something of a sacrilege. Like Orthodox Christians, it must be said, the Chinese classical culture frowned on cremation or on any way of disposing the body that would lead it to decay. It was commendable, from a classical Confucian perspective, to inter the body of a loved one quickly. There were strong prohibitions against disinterment. Preparing thick coffins and dressing the dead body with jade so as to preserve it from decay were common practices. The ‘dry and rotten’ (kuxiu 枯朽) member of the body, even of a holy man, exposed to the air and to direct view, was ‘loathsome’ (xionghui 兇穢) to Han Yu’s sensibilities.

It’s understandable, but somewhat unfortunate, that one of his more eristic essays (and he was indeed capable of delivering some real jeremiads when his hackles were up) has earned this greatest of prose masters the greatest fame. Other of his essays, like the ‘Farewell to Poverty’ 送窮文, and the ‘Ultimatum to the Crocodiles of Chaozhou’ 祭鱷魚文 show a highly imaginative mind and a ready and active – if quite dry – wit. And he cared deeply, as a true Confucian gentleman ought to do, for the students under his tutelage. But it was the ‘Memorial on the Bone of Buddha’, along with ‘On the Origin of the Way’ 原道 which sparked something of a revolution in later, particularly Song and Ming Dynasty, Confucian thinking. His engagements with, and his moral indictments of, the Buddhist and Daoist traditions shaped and influenced practically the entirety of the Song-Ming ‘mind Confucian’ or lixue 理學 movement that would follow him. Equally importantly, he placed his stamp on Confucian philosophy by showing a marked preference for the writings of Mencius to those of Xunzi or Yang Xiong. Comparing the three Confucian philosophers, Han Yu said: ‘When Mengzi died, [the Way] did not succeed in being transmitted. Xunzi and Yang Xiong grasped parts of it but not its essence; they spoke of it but not in detail.’ This was a preference on his part, not a prejudice – he was versed in all three authors, had a high opinion of them, and believed they all carried deep insights. But Han Yu’s preference for Mencius over Xunzi would come to influence those of later neo-Confucians of the Song and Ming Dynasties – particularly Zhu Xi, who codified the post-mediæval Confucian canon and gave Mencius a place of honour among the Books.

Han Yu’s wit and breadth of learning, and the depth of his concise prose, are all worth appreciating in their own right. He could be pugilistic in defence of what he considered the Chinese cultural legacy, but he was never partizan-minded. But to me, his long reach in the development of Confucian philosophy, particularly neo-Confucianism is also of great interest.

09 June 2017

Beauty Wang and Poet Wang

Wang Zhaojun 王昭君

Wang Anshi, the great Song dynasty reformer who had a deep influence on Henry Wallace and the New Deal reforms here in the US, was far more renowned for being a prosaïst than a poet, and indeed was ranked among the Eight Masters of his age, alongside many of the early neo-Confucians (including the pioneer of neo-Confucianism, Han Yu, on whom I will write a later blog post). But early in his career, he wrote two poems in praise and sympathy of Wang Zhaojun, the Western Han-era beauty who brought peace between the Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu Federation through her heqin with Huhanye Chanyu. These two poems, intended to be read together, were titled the Mingfei Qu 明妃曲; here they are in the original:


The English translations, by Notre Dame’s China classics expert Dr. Yang Xiaoshan (with a very minor cosmetic alteration in brackets by myself), are as follows:
As Brilliant Lady just came out of the Han palace,
Her tears moistened [the] spring breeze, her temple locks drooping.
Pacing up and down, gazing at her own shadow, so pallid.
She still caused her lord-king to lose control.
Turning back, he blamed no one but the painter:
When have I ever seen anything like this in my life?
mien and manner could not be captured in paint,
At once causing Mao Yanshou to be wrongly killed.
Once she departed, she knew in her heart she would not return;
Sadly, she wore out her dresses from the Han palace.
She wished to send a messenger to ask about things south of the border,
But year after year there were only wild geese flying by.
Word came from home ten thousand miles away:
Take care in the city of felt tents—don’t think on us.
Haven’t you seen how Ajiao was confined in the nearby Changmen Palace?
In life’s disappointment, there is no south or north.


When Brilliant Lady was just about to be married to the barbarian fellow,
There were a hundred felt-canopied coaches, all with barbarian maids.
Wishing to talk about feelings, but with absolutely no one to turn to,
She conveyed through the
pipa what only she knew in her heart.
As she plucked the golden plectrum with her hand of spring breeze,
She watched the flying geese while playing,
  and called for more barbarian wine.
As maids from the Han palace shed tears furtively,
Passers-by on the desert couldn’t help turning around:
Han’s favour is shallow and the barbarian’s deep;
The joy of life is to be with your heart-to-heart intimate.
Sadly, Green Mound has disappeared beneath the weeds;
Still, the sound of the sorrowful strings lingers on to this day.
Yang remarks that some of the lines in these poems were considered ‘morally problematic’, though he also makes clear that the ‘moral’ critique of these poems seems to have arisen later in Wang Anshi’s career, as the more ‘mainstream’ neo-Confucians of the day began criticising his New Policies on ideological grounds – these poems were considered proof of Wang’s ‘treachery’. But it’s interesting that the passages that Yang discusses as being ‘scandalising’ – namely: ‘In life’s disappointment, there is no south or north’ in the first poem, and ‘Han’s favour is shallow and the barbarian’s deep; The joy of life is to be with your heart-to-heart intimate’ in the second – are considered so because they contradict the contemporary principle of Hua-Yi zhi bian 華夷之辨, the ‘separation of Chinese and barbarian’. To the sensible mainstream poets of the day, the heqin of a Chinese beauty to a barbarian prince was an unmitigated tragedy. Wang Anshi takes a slightly different view. He does emphasise Wang Zhaojun’s sorrow as she makes her way out past the frontier, but he also drops hints that her life among the ‘barbarians’ wasn’t wholly a bad one, and that they appreciated her in ways that the Han nobility did not.

Yang attributes this largely to Wang’s personal penchants for originality, contrariety and competitiveness, and his liking for the contemporary ‘volte’ (fan’an 翻案) fashion in Song poetry: what Yang calls his ‘poetics of disagreement’. And Yang is certainly correct: Wang was as markedly an ‘eccentric’ in his literary life, and this was genuinely held against him later. But I have to wonder if there isn’t something else going on. It is easy to overstate the differences among literary men of the same age, of course. Like most of the neo-Confucians of his generation, Wang Anshi dearly loved the Mencius 孟子 and preferred the thought of Mengzi to that of any other classicist following Confucius. But when it came to writing and defending his New Policies (which he had begun working on as early as 1058 with his Ten Thousand Word Memorial 萬言書 but which didn’t begin to be implemented until 1067), Wang Anshi borrowed from a broader array of sources, and turned to a synthesis of Old Text (Zhou li 周禮) and New Text (Gongyang zhuan 公羊傳) sources, in contradistinction to his contemporaries’ growing preference for the Zhongyong 中庸 and the Daxue 大學. (The reason for this general turn of preference away from the Han-era classical scholars and toward Mencius, traceable to that superlatively sublime prosaïst and moralist of the Tang Dynasty, Han Yu, is something I will approach in a later blog post.) This also might be explained by Wang’s contrarian personality, if not for the fact that Wang genuinely believed that his approach was more in line with the thought of the ancients.

So I have to wonder if his approach to the legend of Wang Zhaojun doesn’t also partake, even if indirectly, of a certain New Text School sensibility which blurs the distinctions between Chinese and ‘barbarian’ when it came to his treatment of Wang Zhaojun’s emotional state among the Xiongnu tribes. The influence of Han-era classicism on Wang Anshi’s early worldview is something I definitely want to look into further.

07 June 2017

Linking three systems 通三統: a Confucian cosmopolitanism

The Qing army during the Taiping Rebellion, flying the wuseqi 五色旗

Zi Zhang asked whether the affairs of ten ages after could be known. Confucius said, “The Yin dynasty followed the regulations of the Xia; wherein it took from or added to them may be known. The Zhou dynasty has followed the regulations of Yin; wherein it took from or added to them may be known. Some other may follow the Zhou, but though it should be at the distance of a hundred ages, its affairs may be known.” (Analects 2.23)
In Wang Hui’s masterful China from Empire to Nation-State, the excellent Chinese neoleftist historian explores the question of why China did not become an ethno-state after the fall of the Qing Dynasty – which, after all, had held together a collection of different ethnicities (Manchu, Mongol, Han, Tibetan and Uyghur), all of which spoke different languages and practised different faiths, largely through the force of military discipline and personal loyalty to the Emperor. In terms of linguistic affinity, why did the Han Chinese not join forces with the Vietnamese, the Koreans and the Japanese – all of whom could be considered part of the linguistic Sinosphere as all of them used Chinese characters? Why instead did they choose a policy of racial integration: to keep all the old Qing-era ties with their non-Han subject peoples? Wang Hui argues persuasively that the post-Enlightenment European understandings of ‘nation’ and the assumed principles of modernisation which are supported by those understandings, are insufficient to explain China’s choice. He argues instead that there was a Confucian-influenced moral impetus behind the wuzu gonghe 五族共和 policy; the same as the Qing themselves had used to legitimate their rule over a vast multiethnic empire.

Wang Hui puts it this way, looking at the Qing-era sources:
For example, during the mid Qing period, New Text scholars reexamined the principles laid out in the Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu fanlu) that honour ritual and stress trustworthiness, value trustworthiness over place of origin, and hold the importance of ritual over that of oneself to emphasize that any standard of deciding whether or not something was “Chinese” that was based on geography or “person” (ethnic identity) was out of line with the principles of ritual.
There’s our good old friend Dong Zhongshu again. Dong’s hermeneutics were back in favour during the Qing Dynasty, in part because those Han Chinese scholars sympathetic to the new dynasty and particularly the dynamic new emperor (who was emphatically not an ethnic Han, but who had adopted many Chinese practices and customs and who had cultivated friendships among the Chinese during his time on the throne) required a theory which allowed them to acknowledge his Chineseness. They turned to the Analects, particularly to passages like this one (a favourite of mine which I’ve quoted on occasion):

The Master was wishing to go and live among the nine wild tribes of the east. Some one said, “They are rude. How can you do such a thing?” The Master said, “If a superior man dwelt among them, what rudeness would there be?” (Analects 9.14)
They also quoted the Analects passage at the top of the page, and placed it in light of Dong Zhongshu’s theory of ‘linking the three systems’ (tong santong 通三統). The scholars who followed Dong Zhongshu and his read of the Spring and Autumn Annals were particularly concerned with maintaining a certain cultural and political continuity that could hold between dynasties and minimise the threat of instability which naturally accompanied the transfer of the Mandate of Heaven (as it did between the Xia, the Yin and the Zhou), even if a ‘barbarian’ dynasty happened to possess it. The idea of racial or ethno-national continuity, something like which had come to the fore particularly during the Ming Dynasty (and later among its loyalists) was downplayed in favour of the idea of civic continuity (to deploy another slight Western anachronism) as expressed through ritual, music and institutional life. Wang Hui again:
References in their works to important themes from classical texts appear frequently in their work: “When Chinese become barbaric, they must be treated as barbarians” (Zhongguo [ru] yidi, ze yidi zhi 中国入夷狄,则夷狄之); “When barbarians enter China, they become Chinese” (yidi ru Zhongguo, ze Zhongguo zhi 夷狄入中国,则中国之); and “China is now completely barbaric” (Zhongguo yi yi xin yidi ye). All of these statements emphasize that ritual and culture (rather than geography or ethnicity) define the importance of “China” and offer a pointed critique of the view of China promoted by Song-dynasty neo-Confucianism that called for “separation between Chinese and foreigners 華夷之辨.”
Also, from the longer-form work by Wang Hui (The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought), for which China from Empire to Nation-State serves as an introduction:
The statecraft theory of the New Text school took rituals as a basis and placed the political practice of the empire at the centre. When they revived the themes of the Confucians of the early Qing, they did not clearly differentiate between Chinese and barbarian, nor did they have the tendency to rebel, which lay concealed beneath early Qing orthodoxy. Rather, the New Text school scholars developed their theory based on the presupposition of the legitimacy of the empire and the transformation of history. This change in the emphasis of scholarship undoubtedly reflects the political reality of the Qing minority being rulers of a multi-ethnic empire.
Of course, this internal logic of breaking down ethnic barriers and emphasising the civic role of ritual was shaken grievously, as Wang Hui notes, by the sudden and jarring arrival of the Westphalian nation-state paradigm in which the Qing Empire quickly found itself forced to participate. It also led Kang Youwei, the leading New Text scholar in the mad new world of the Chinese nineteenth century, to undertake some bold leaps of philosophical thought which placed him on the far left fringe of contemporary politics. But his civic vision of a multi-ethnic China was somehow compelling enough to be embraced even by Sun Yat-sen’s Han-centric revolutionaries, even if the rooted grounding in Confucian ritualism Kang favoured had sadly fallen into disuse after the May Fourth movement.

Once again, though – the moral, cultural and intellectual resources for Chinese intelligentsia and people to resist Han chauvinism don’t have to be imported either from Maoist thought, or from liberal pluralism. The ritual, ‘institutional’ classicism of Dong Zhongshu itself contains a certain cosmopolitan outlook and character. Its detractors (and perhaps some of its supporters, as I suspect Wang Hui may be) might call it ‘progressive’, but I get the feeling Dong himself would prefer ‘humane’.