30 December 2017

Star Wars, religion and tradition

The usual SPOILER ALERT stands here, of course.

It seems to be a common theme in commentaries (both praising and critical) I’ve seen of the new Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, that it makes a great deal out of devaluing tradition and religious belief, and instead gives us a variant of New Age spiritualism that deliberately scoffs at established religious texts, forms and heritages. But this is a theme that left me wondering if we were indeed watching the same film. I would not by any stretch call The Last Jedi high cinema. And indeed, this entire review (because that’s what it is, really) puts me in the awkward position of defending some aspects of a movie that I didn’t feel too strongly about one way or the other. But where others seemed to be seeing a film that denigrated and flouted tradition, whether that of Star Wars specifically or tradition in a broader sense, I saw a film that stood solidly within tradition whilst firmly disavowing the excesses of traditionalism. To borrow Mahler’s old saw: what The Last Jedi disdained was the ‘worship of ashes’, but it stood in clear support of the ‘preservation of fire’. (Indeed, Mahler may actually have been foremost in Rian Johnson’s mind, as the characters kept referring to the ‘fire’ and the ‘sparks’ of hope.)

First off, let me echo Damon Linker that the cultural obsession with Star Wars and our having turned what has always been and ought to have remained children’s entertainment into a kind of surrogate religion itself, is profoundly unhealthy. If you enjoy these films, fine. If they let you ‘take your first step into a larger world’ and explore the works of Carl Jung and the masters of Eastern philosophy, great. But to confuse the world of the films with the ‘larger world’ itself of philosophy, theology, folklore and mythology that they indicate is to insist that the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave are real. The cultural obsession with Star Wars is a kind of mass refusal of metanoia. And certain entries in this class of gripes about the movie seem motivated as much by this puerile confusion of the artwork with its broader meaning, as they are by the broader meaning itself. The obsession with ‘canon’ in a work of fiction seems particularly pathetic when compared with the source from which the term ‘canon’ truly derives, but it points to a truth that we seem to care, more religiously, about the fictional shadow-world of ‘long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away’, than we do about our actual religious heritage in the real world. If I come off as sneering here, that’s because this literally-idiotic obsession (one ironically proven and demonstrated by the asininity of the editors of Intellectual Takeout themselves) is something well worth sneering at. Only a self-obsessed and self-important group of man-children can attach such world-shattering importance to a film that was neither particularly bad nor particularly great.

So pardon me for not taking the first-order religious critiques of The Last Jedi too seriously. Though there are some interesting religious critiques to be made, the atavistic squawking over ‘canon’ and naïve one-to-one comparisons of the world of Star Wars to historical Christian debates over doctrine are not among them. I’m Orthodox. When I say I don’t belong to the Church of Lucas, I mean it.

Anyway: about the film. When Luke Skywalker shows up, he is shown to be a broken and embittered man, disillusioned with the ‘hubris’ of the Jedi ways, disdainful of the idea that there’s anything special or particularly praiseworthy about the Skywalker blood, convinced that the Jedi religion offers only a false hope to the universe and needs to be extinguished. He repeatedly tells Rey, and none too politely, to get lost – so convinced is he that the Rebellion doesn’t need a Skywalker and that the galaxy would be better off without the Jedi. He openly mocks the idea of showing up with a laser sword and facing down the First Order alone (so guess what he ends up having to do – at least in a ‘projection’ through the Force – by the end of the film?). He is riven by guilt that the family drama he’d sought to end by saving his father Anakin, is repeating itself with Ben Solo’s fall to the Dark Side – and that it was his own pride and blindness that had brought it all about. He came to the remotest place in the galaxy, in his own words, ‘to die’: to take the Jedi and all their failures with him. The title of The Last Jedi thus contains multiple layers of irony. It’s Rey – not Luke – who speaks, albeit naïvely, with the voice of tradition. She’s the one who believes that the Rebellion is worth fighting, that there is hope to be found, that there is something in the Jedi religion worth saving. This is something to be borne in mind.

Rian Johnson (director of Looper, an excellent dark dystopian science-fiction film in its own right) is actually to be credited for again returning the Force into something numinous, mysterious and even unknowable at bottom, rather than as a genetically-carried power that can be measured in positivistic terms through a ‘midi-chlorian count’. And I’m happy that he put that squarely in Luke’s mouth when Rey haltingly recites the demystified ‘Jedi special powers’ version of the Force, and he replies: ‘Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong.’ The Force which Luke has Rey ‘reach out’ and experience is something like the cosmic Dao, the Taiji: the balance between positive and negative cosmic principles; life and death; rise and fall; light and dark; ‘surrounding’ and ‘binding’ all living and non-living things. If you understand Star Wars’s roots in Kurosawa’s filmography, and thus at least the pop-culture understandings of bushidô, Daoism and Zen Buddhism, this part of the film is a treat, not a betrayal. It is nothing if not a return to tradition – at least as far as the original trilogy was concerned. The original Star Wars trilogy was always bound up with New-Agey appropriations of Eastern religion and philosophy; there’s no use pretending that it wasn’t. Likewise with Rey ‘from Nowhere’ (speaking of echoes of Zen Buddhism and Daoism). The fact that she isn’t related to the Skywalkers or the Kenobis has the grace of saving the Force from being a kind of genetic determinism or the basis for a kind of caste system which only select families of a warrior élite can use.

The other scene which had Star Wars fanboys and ‘traditionalists’ howling was the one in which Luke, having finally chased Rey off his near-deserted island hermitage, means to set the ancient Jedi temple there on fire and burn it down – but is beaten to it by the apparition of none other than Master Yoda himself. But again, this is a reaction which is driven by the worship of ashes and the pigheaded immersion in the ‘canon’ of a fictional universe, which refuses to see how deeply-informed this scene is, not only by a Daoist-Zen understanding of ‘unlearning’ which is completely consistent with Yoda’s character but also deeply drenched in imagery which should resonate with a Christian, or even more broadly Abrahamic, audience – namely the prophesied destruction of the Temple in the Gospel of Saint John, or the rending of the Temple veil in the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Here again, Johnson is being truer to the tradition of the original Star Wars trilogy than the fanboys are.

What makes this scene particularly profound is that Yoda is still teaching Luke, out of his own failures and his own painful, failure-ridden learning process in teaching both Obi-Wan and Luke. Yoda failed to recognise Luke’s own strength in The Empire Strikes Back, himself refused to ‘let go’ when the time came; that’s what made Luke’s return to Dagobah in Return of the Jedi so touching. Yoda telling Luke now essentially to trust Rey despite her having left her training unfinished to save her friends – just as Luke himself had done, long ago – was actually something close to a masterful touch, and again more in touch with the substance of the original trilogy than the critics give it credit for.

Indeed, the voice most hostile to tradition in The Last Jedi is that of a fallen Ben Solo, who nihilistically suggests to Rey to ‘let old things die… Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the rebels: let it all die’. Here we’ve got a ‘dangerous youth’ who is willing to dispense with everything – the order of the past, the unfolding of the present, even the ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ themselves – for the sake of power. A would-be galactic tyrant divorced from all fellow-feeling, for his family, for his master, for anything out of the past, credibly renders this version of Ben Solo more of a threat than the previous movie’s tantrum-throwing teenager had been.

Now, having said all of this, let me get to a final evaluation of The Last Jedi itself. It was good but not great. It was much more original than The Force Awakens. There were significant plot holes, cumbersome and ultimately-inconsequential side stories and a fairly clunky overall structure – but these were all (or should have been) valid complaints about not only the prequels, but also Return of the Jedi, which had four subplots going on at once, some of which got fairly tedious. On the other hand, we’re introduced to several new characters (like Rose, a low-ranking technician who had a strong Deep Space Nine Chief O’Brien appeal) and begin caring quite a bit more about characters like Poe Dameron, who had been introduced but somewhat underused in the previous instalment. I liked those elements.

But if we want to talk about religious interpretations of Star Wars, Damon Linker’s is still the best, and it’s one I share. Star Wars fandom is atavistically stuck in childhood. It wants movies that evoke the same magic, the same wonder, that they experienced when they saw the original trilogy as children. It attends these movies with all of the enthusiasm of a religious revival and treats the actors as though they are demigods. When the new movies fail to meet these subjectivist, emotional requirements of what Star Wars actually is per the individual fan’s tastes, the fans protest it. They become fanatical textualists and get into bitter disputes over the ‘canonicity’ of each new instalment that they never fail to demand. And the ‘fandom’ which once looked to the horizon with the hope of a young Luke Skywalker, becomes as embittered and cynical as the old Luke in this film.

29 December 2017

From the underground

I confess, I lost much of my respect for Pankaj Mishra after having read his execrable New Yorker piece from February prescribing the writings of erstwhile Czech president Václav Havel, and his ‘parallel polis’ as the antidote to Trumpism. Mishra’s writing betrays a vast intellectual lacuna, one of which it is impossible he himself is unaware, one which he comes close to addressing but one which he leaves, shamefully, untouched and unexplored. Mishra thus betrays his fundamental dishonesty regarding his subject, which is all the more ironic when one considers that we are discussing how to resist a ‘lying Twitter bully’. Examining his writing is still worthwhile, however, since it elucidates quite nicely why it is so necessary to be hard and even condemnatory of ‘dissidents’ who embrace only that half of the truth that suits them, or indeed who throw up many small truths as a smokescreen to conceal a larger.

Let us get this out of the way at once. Mishra portrays Havel hagiographically, as a heroic ‘dissident, who takes upon [his] own conscience the burden of political responsibility and action’ in defence of ‘trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, and love’. All very good things to be sure (who would be against any of those things?), but even Mishra’s description of this conceals more than it illumines. Why, for example, does the average Czech now grumble about him and criticise him, where once the average Czech adored him?

The answer isn’t hard to find, but Mishra makes a great display of avoiding it. Havel may have said that ‘truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred’, but when it came to the Big Lie of the oughties, the cause of the Great Hatred of the twenty-tens, Havel embraced it with both arms wide open. This is precisely where Mishra loses my respect, because he mentions Bush’s lies in Iraq explicitly in this piece, without mentioning Havel’s active rôle in supporting and spreading those lies. Indeed, one would come away from Mishra’s dishonest article with the false impression that Havel was a critic of the Iraq War rather than a supporter.

Thus, instead of hagiography, we should be left with questions: searching questions, questions of fundamental relevance to our current age of distrust and anger. How could this happen? How could someone who was so sensitively attuned to the untruths of the Soviet propaganda machine, someone who knew the unholy power of ‘ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans’ fall for – or, worse, knowingly propagate – just such an untruth expressly propagated by the former Soviets’ opponents? Making matters worse, we know that Havel’s embrace of Bush’s Big Lie leading to war in Iraq was not naïve. We know (or should) that he knew that the case for intervention was based on totalitarian lies; he supported that intervention anyway. The question must be asked, not calmly, but with rage: Why?

Indeed, if we are to learn anything from Mishra’s article, it must be precisely this: Havel understood how ‘a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction… can rationalize anything without ever having to brush against the truth’. He knew, intimately, how governments manipulate and fabricate truths for themselves through the exercise of power, and he understood how to resist such manipulation. When he came to the exercise of power for himself, he could still identify and recognise those fictions – such as that tying the leader of the World Trade Centre attacks to Iraqi intelligence – as fictions meant for the purpose of stifling and misdirecting political dissent. But when it came down to the final question of intervention, Havel embraced the lie that Iraq prior to 2003 posed a ‘major threat to many nations’, and embraced violence and hatred.

This was not the first time that Havel had embraced or committed such fabrications, of course. It was Havel himself who coined the Orwellianism of ‘humanitarian bombing’ in the context of the Yugoslav Wars, and then later strenuously denied doing so. How are we to approach seriously a ‘dissident’ in the service of ‘all that is sublime and beautiful’ if he is capable of mouthing such sophistries and then trying to walk them back when he is criticised for them? Is he then not himself just such a man ‘from underground’ – the very sketch not of a heroic ‘underground’ dissident, but an ‘underground’ coward lifted from the pages of Dostoevsky? Havel presents us with a good case for banishing the dramatists and tragedians from the city in speech along with the poets.

Mishra assiduously, and shamefully, avoids these questions. If we wish to truly resist the spirit of the age, we cannot. We must go further; we must face our past and present honestly: without euphemism, without sophistry, without the utterly contemptible clichés of Mishra’s funerary oration. If we are to take seriously the demands of ‘truth and love’ – that is to say, if we are truly to attempt citizenship in a ‘parallel polis’ – we cannot be satisfied with their shadowy political simulacra as proclaimed by modern-day sophists, statesmen and tyrants, nor can we be satisfied with the dealers of such simulacra – Havel very much included. We have to try to escape that cave.

If you want to understand why I am so bitter in my denunciations of the supporters of the War in Iraq and their admirers, even now fifteen years on, please go right ahead and read Mishra’s piece with these admonitions firmly in mind. What Mishra misses, and what makes his piece so ironic, is that the tyranny of the sort he claims to deplore, is built upon the mythic hero-worship of the sort he indulges in in the first place. What is it that causes young men like me to question the nature of political justice, the way Glaucon does in the Republic? What is it that makes us so susceptible to what the Catholic Church might call our ‘disordered’ loves? What is it that causes us to turn to anger in the first place? (Make no mistake: I, for one, am still fucking pissed.) Funerary oration won’t save us from ‘make America great again’. Self-serving hack playwrights-turned-politician won’t stop the star of The Apprentice. Lies – even well-intentioned ones – cannot drive out lies, which is why it is so important that we not live by them.

28 December 2017

Ha-Joon Chang on Confucianism and development

Ha-Joon Chang

Reading Ha-Joon Chang’s entertaining book Bad Samaritans, I came across an interesting section.

Dr Chang is an old-school institutional œconomist in the mould of Friedrich List and Gunnar Myrdal, though he has taken on a number of Keynesian influences (Hyman Minsky, Nicholas Kaldor, Charles Kindleberger II and, of course, Baron Keynes himself). As such, even though he comes from a country (South Korea) where Confucianism has been critically and even definitively influential and speaks of it with the familiarity of one who has lived within and alongside it most of his life, he is not himself Confucian and often views the Ru tradition with a critical eye; even so, his insights hit the mark with distinct regularity:
Ever since the East Asian economic ‘miracle’, it has become very popular to argue that it was Confucian culture that was responsible, at least partly, for the region’s economic successes. Confucian culture, it was pointed out, emphasises hard work, education, frugality, co-operation and obedience to authority. It seemed obvious that a culture that encourages the accumulation of human capital (with its emphasis on education) and physical capital (with its emphasis on thrift), while encouraging co-operation and discipline, must be good for economic development.

But, before the East Asian economic ‘miracle’, people used to blame Confucianism for the region’s underdevelopment. And they were right. For Confucianism does have a lot of aspects that are inimical to economic development. Let me mention the most important ones.

Confucianism discourages people from taking up professions like business and engineering that are necessary for economic development. At the pinnacle of the traditional Confucian social system were scholar-bureaucrats. They formed the ruling class, together with the professional soldiers, who were second-class rulers. This ruling class presides over a hierarchy of commoners made up of peasants, artisans and merchants, in that order. But there was a fundamental divide between the peasantry and the other subordinate classes. At least in theory, individual peasants could gain entry into the ruling class if they passed the competitive civil service examination (and they occasionally did). Artisans and merchants, however, were not even allowed to sit for the examination.

To make matters worse, the civil service examination only tested people for their scholastic knowledge of the Confucian classics, which made the ruling class scornful of practical knowledge. In the 18th century, Korean Confucian politicians slaughtered rival factions in a row over how long the king should wear mourning following his mother’s death (one year or three years?). Scholar-bureaucrats were supposed to live in ‘clean poverty’ and they actively looked down upon money-making. In the modern setting, Confucian culture encourages talented people to study law or economics in order to become bureaucrats, rather than engineers (artisans) or businessmen (merchants) - occupations that contribute much more directly to economic development.

Confucianism also discourages creativity and entrepreneurship. It has a rigid social hierarchy and, as I have noted, prevents certain segments of society (artisans, merchants) from moving upwards. This rigid hierarchy is sustained by an emphasis on loyalty to superiors and deference to authority, which breeds conformism and stifles creativity...

Confucianism, it can also be argued, hampers the rule of law. Many people, particularly neoliberals, believe that the rule of law is crucial for economic development, because it is the ultimate guarantor against arbitrary expropriation of property by rulers. Without the rule of law, it is said, there can be no security of property rights, which, in turn, will make people reluctant to invest and create wealth. Confucianism may
not encourage arbitrary rule, but it is true that it does not like the rule of law, which it regards as ineffectual, as seen in the following famous passage from Confucius: ‘If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover become good.’ I agree. With strict legal sanctions, people will abide by the law out of fear of punishment, but too much emphasis on law can make them feel that they are not trusted as moral actors. Without that trust, people will not go that extra mile that makes their behaviour moral and not just law-abiding. Having said all this, however, it cannot be denied that Confucian denigration of the rule of law makes the system vulnerable to arbitrary rule - for what do you do when your ruler is not virtuous?

So which is an accurate portrait of Confucianism? A culture that values ‘thrift, investment, hard work, education, organisation and discipline’, as Huntington put it in relation to South Korea, or a culture that disparages practical pursuits, discourages entrepreneurship and retards the rule of law?

Both are right, except that the first singles out only those elements that are good for economic development and the second only the bad...
Again, Dr Chang comes at this subject from a point-of-view which I share only in part. As an Orthodox Christian, there are elements of Confucianism that I value and esteem regardless of whether or not they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for œconomic development. (It can even be said that the Confucian view of œconomy may prioritise things other than growth for its own sake, which, in my view, is fine.) I don’t mind the preference of virtue to law, and I don’t even mind hierarchy that much. At the same time, it is refreshing indeed to see Dr Chang defend some of its virtue-ethical elements from an œconomist’s point-of-view.

Ha-Joon Chang has performed an even more valuable service, though, one which should be appreciated from a Confucian point of view particularly. He has offered a realistic lens through which Confucianism may be observed from the outside. Just as Chen Duxiu and Cai Yuanpei were wrong to point to what Ha-Joon Chang calls the ‘Mr Hyde’ view of Confucianism, blaming it for all of China’s œconomic ‘backwardness’, it is similarly wrong, unbalanced and inharmonious to present solely a ‘Dr Jekyll’ view of Confucianism which renders it entirely consonant with the demands of modernity and developmentalism. (Against the ‘culturalists’, too, Dr Chang opposes the view that Confucianism, or any other cultural or philosophical-religious formation, is somehow immutable or unchanging, and remarks instead that œconomic conditions and cultural attitudes play off each other in complicated ways.) Dr Chang is, here, being a better Confucian than the more naïve advocates of so-called ‘Confucian capitalism’, because he is doing the actual hard work of ge wu 格物 or ‘investigation of things’ demanded in the Great Learning.

26 December 2017

A few reminders

It is worthwhile to remember that classical British High Toryism has long had a suitable interest in the old, operatic China for its own sake. The appropriation of Ji Junxiang’s The Orphan of Zhao as a broadside against Horace Walpole may have been a fairly crude example of the orientalist genre, but one must argue that it was at least well-intentioned (insofar as it opposed rather than supported British imperial projects), and certainly more respectful of the source than Voltaire.

It is also worthwhile to remember that classical British High Toryism has long had a suitable interest in the old, philosophical Russia, for reasons which were not purely mercenary. Many of the Jacobites found themselves fighting on behalf of Tsar Peter the Great and Tsarina Catherine I. It is worthwhile to remember, additionally, that the interest of the old, philosophical Russia in classical British High Toryism has been heartily reciprocated in several quarters.

On the other hand, classical British High Toryism has historically wanted very little to do either with the United States of America, or with the Confederate States of America. British enthusiasm for the Southern cause was primarily a Liberal phenomenon led by Gladstone and Lord Palmerston, for profiteering reasons which do neither statesman much credit. Southern statesmen like Calhoun justified themselves on grounds that were, quite frankly, Whiggish and utilitarian. Any kind of modern Toryism which looks back on the antebellum American South with a kindly eye is, quite frankly, delusional.

In the modern day, then, conservatives that consider themselves classically-oriented, whether or not they are sympathetic to my (ahem) idiosyncratic œconomic views, should at least consider these historical trends, if they claim to value history at all. Say what you like about the Soviets, but Russophobia is not conservative, particularly not in its sillier contemporary forms, dripping with patronisation. Say what you will about the Chinese Communists, but opposition to Chinese sovereignty or cultural or territorial continuity is not particularly conservative either. And say what you will about the idiocies of Antifa over Confederate monuments and statuary, but Confederate nostalgia is also not particularly conservative; or rather, it attempts to conserve the wrong things. See George Grant on the subject of Barry Goldwater. At the very least, a good conservative who can differentiate culture from politics should not fall into the vulgar trap of mistaking a certain political formation, even a political formation in power, for the deeper civilisation beneath.

There are plenty of opportunities to articulate the conservative canons; dear readers, let us at least see some decent level of creativity in their application. The consistent idiocies of the neoconservative and neoliberal tendencies on the modern Right are annoying enough as it is; it would be nice to see the palæoconservatives at least not add to them.

Is the personal the political?

My Moravian-Jewish immigrant great-grandfather

There is a certain feeling I can’t really shake, and I have to wonder if my political attachments aren’t somehow identity-political in a certain way, and a certain irony that these silly reflections of mine should fall on the feast remembering the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, and that remembering Saint Constantine the Jew. For example: I can’t pretend that my sentimental attachments to Yugoslavism and to Czechoslovakism (both region-building, agrarian-rooted, authoritarian Slavicist movements with complicated relations to monarchy) are entirely free of awareness of my South Slavic and Moravian-Jewish heritage, or of my awareness of the fact that both have been attenuated by at least two generations of American assimilation, with all of its attendant illusions.

It’s easy enough to say, of course. I was waving the Czechoslovak per-pairle and drawing lions rampant as soon as I was old enough to understand that, okay, this is where Grandma was from. That’s basically the kind of kid I was. And certainly part of my early attraction to socialism was reading about Czechoslovakia and its œconomy in my parents’ old Encyclopædia Britannica. I immersed myself in the legends of the pagan Přemyslovci. I read about Good King Václav, and idolised him as a proto-socialist Robin Hood-type hero. I devoured what I could of Czech folklore – like the story of the cunning-but-good-hearted peasant girl Manka, or the tale of how Intelligence and Luck made a bet that toyed with the fate of the hapless plough-boy Vaněk. I memorised a couple of phrases in Czech. I ate sauerkraut and bratwurst as proudly as any good Wisconsin boy of West Slavic extraction would. In short, I just did what annoying white Americans normally do, right?

Here’s the thing, though. It both is and isn’t that simple. And I learned just how complicated that entire complex, so common to the ‘hyphenated-American’, actually was when I picked up George Grant’s essays in college. (Grant, of course, strove to be more English than the English, which made him Canada’s most ardent defender in the hopeless cause against American cultural and military imperialism.) It became more complicated, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty, when I read about relations on that side of the family who had died in the Shoah, both in the ghettos and at Kaufering. That knowledge did not make me more patriotic or give me the easy answers the standard American history sees fit to glibly give. It became even more complicated when I picked up Metamorphosis and The Trial by my cousin-by-marriage (and fellow political radical) Franz Kafka, who always felt his own identity to be under interrogation, even in the middle of Europe which was his home, and himself never felt quite at home as a German, as a Czech or as a Jew.

But what are you to do, hyphenated-American? You, too, are on trial. You are guilty. You are facing condemnation regardless of which way you turn. You dare not throw out your chest and toss your weight around as the Celts do with their ‘giddy self-assurance’ because, after all, you were a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’. You see the flags waving – not yours, never wholly yours – and can’t help but whiff the gas chambers and the smoke of the incinerators. Yet you play footsie with nationalism like it’s a harmless pastime. Take your belated outrage on behalf of your persecuted kin, and shove it. Dare you to speak of doyikayt? Hah! What an idle dream was that, when the Nazis and their collaborators came for you and your kin, and those who survived crept into Stalin’s shadow accordingly, or else defected to an illusory safe harbour amongst the Americans? Wake up. Dare you to critique your people’s own state, once they won it? Don’t you know what company you keep in so doing? Dare you to sympathise with the enemy? What business did you and your family have converting, anyway? And yet, none of these questions apply to you, hyphenated-American. You are already guilty – you, and your whole family – of taking the illusion that the post-war consensus offered you, and slipping quietly into the oblivion of assimilation. You, hyphenated-American, are guilty. Take that hyphen as a sword, and throw yourself upon it.

Little wonder I’m drawn to the less-deadly alternatives. Perhaps Yugoslavism and Czechoslovakism represent, too, the promise of a ‘melting pot’ without the necessity of such a derangement of rootlessness and paranoia; perhaps there is something psychological in my attachment to them. But that doesn’t stop them from being attractive. Czechoslovakism represented peaceable coexistence and œconomic justice, for that brief window of its ascendancy. And Yugoslavism the same: a crowned and shining brotherhood which later formed the nucleus of the great non-alignment, which held out high hopes for a more just, multipolar world order: a global resistance to the triple evils of racism, capitalism and imperialism – one which seems all the sweeter when NATO expansion and all its attendant evils go marching under the Orwellian banners of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘dignity’. It isn’t wholly attenuated ethnic pride, or paranoia.

There can be no salvation in ideology, that much is true. I can take some comfort in the notion that it’s not the ideological aspects of Yugoslav and Czechoslovak regionalisms that attracted me, rather the Byzantine (and peculiarly Orthodox) theological heritage that lay behind both: the insistence on a multivalence that witnesses to the political ironies of the Cross; that doesn’t boil down political belonging to an ethnic identity or to a mere matter of procedure.

24 December 2017

Христос рождается, славите Его!

С нами Бог, разумейте языцы и покаряйтеся: Яко с нами Бог.

Услышите до последних земли: Яко с нами Бог.

Могущии покаряйтеся: Яко с нами Бог.

The Confucian populism of Liang Shuming

Liang Shuming 梁漱溟

I’m currently reading Guy Alitto’s biography of the New Confucian thinker and activist Liang Shuming, whose intellectual-political-literary career is of deep interest to me for a great number of reasons. Even though he marked himself as a Chinese cultural conservative (similar to Gu Hongming, whom Alitto mentions a couple of times in comparison) who believed Western political institutions and intellectual traditions to be nearly wholly incompatible with the humane trajectory of Chinese civilisation, he nonetheless positioned himself politically as a socialist, as a mover-and-shaker of the Rural Reconstruction Movement championed by leftists such as the Christian Jimmy Yen and the Deweyist Tao Xingzhi, and as a leading voice within the China Democratic League (which would be the political vehicle for others, like Carsun Chang and Fei Xiaotong, who sought a left-alternative to both the Guomindang and the CCP). One of the points of interest in the narrative, is how many of the reforms Liang championed were themselves similar to later Communist educational and land-reform initiatives – at least externally. Inwardly, the meaning of Liang’s Confucian-collectivist reforms was entirely different; he had no desire to stir up conflict, exaggerate contradictions or tear up age-old familial relations. But it remained a form of collectivism: Liang’s recovery of the Song-Ming teacher-student discipline of jiangxue; his insistence on the rich students subsidising the educations of the poor; his disdain for the bourgeoisie (particularly those of Shanghai and other coastal cities); his repeated squabbles with Hu Shi – all told of an extreme distaste for Western liberalism. The surface resemblances of Liang’s reforms to those of Mao Zedong later are not accidental.

Alitto likens Liang repeatedly to the Slavophils and to the conservative voices within the Russian Empire a generation or two previously – people like Dostoevsky and Pobedonostsev – in part because, like them, Liang’s political commitments are difficult to express in Western terms. Liang’s Eastern and Western Cultures appealed with a notable regularity to the lower levels of the intelligentsia – the schoolteachers and the county clerks – who had not yet been subject to embourgeoisement and who were tied to the Chinese interior. (Liang’s family hailed from Guangxi – a region that still has a strong ‘red’-traditionalist streak!)

Alitto mentions that he comes by many of these tendencies honestly. Liang Shuming’s father Juchuan started off a follower of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao – a ‘radical’ New Text reformist who had little patience with the intransigent elements of the conservative Qing court. Yet, frustrated as Liang Juchuan was with the old guard and their political impotence and growing irrelevance, he viewed the rising revolutionary class with a sense of profound alarm and revulsion. Taking notice of the Chinese revolutionaries’ open greed, their wanton disregard for tradition, their shameless corruption and political opportunism, and their amoral disregard for the poor and vulnerable, Liang Juchuan tried expressing his political disgruntlement through opera (as Kong Shangren had done before him) before ultimately taking his own life after the mode of Qu Yuan. The irony of Liang Juchuan’s life was the same as Kang Youwei’s. Although he had never been much of an advocate of the Qing, and indeed had championed many of the sea changes in Chinese culture that had come to pass, he found himself a martyr for the royalist cause. (Though even this characterisation was something of a misunderstanding! It was not for Puyi that Liang Juchuan had committed suicide, but instead for a deeper ethic he felt had been lost with the demise of the Qing.)

In the background of this political drama was a family one, one which Alitto takes great pains to highlight. Liang Shuming, Liang Juchuan’s favourite son, had started off a convinced utilitarian and advocate of everything Western, and grew increasingly enamoured of revolution just as his father was growing increasingly disgusted by the very idea. Liang Shuming had already undergone a deep psychological crisis in his adolescence that led to his jettisoning his atheistic utilitarianism in favour of Buddhism; his father’s death had an additional impact on young Shuming, and shaped his later intellectual life in deep and subtle ways. Certainly Shuming’s adoption of a Confucian-inflected conservative radicalism was owing in no small part to his father’s influence.

Unlike his father, though, Liang Shuming himself had little patience or love for the ‘religious stink’ (as he called it) of Kang Youwei’s projects, or for the New Text school in general. (More’s the pity. The two complement each other nicely, as I hope to demonstrate in a future blog post.) Instead he appealed back to the Ming radical-idealist Wang Yangming, whose idea of the ‘unity of knowledge and action’ (zhixing heyi 知行合一) provided inspiration for Liang Shuming’s social activism. Liang developed an intricate (and in some instances frustratingly vague) philosophy of culture and civilisation, which divided humanity broadly into Western, Chinese and Indian civilisations. The defining characteristic of the West was its voluntarism: its need to project the will (broadly stated) into an all-encompassing conquest of nature. The defining characteristic of Indian civilisation was its renunciation of will, its inversion of desire: the impulse of Indian civilisation was to reject desire and to show it as illusory. Chinese civilisation, Liang placed in a happy intellectual mean: that of harmony and balance between will and nature. Only the Chinese sages of ancient times, Liang postulated, had discovered a way to be truly human, taming the will with the demands of lixing 理性.

Liang thus differentiated himself solidly from both the liberals and the communists, both of whom advocated for a wholesale Westernisation of China. He also differentiated himself from the ‘blenders’, foremost among whom was Liang Qichao: he couldn’t see any good resulting from a ‘blending of cultures’ (though many of his own proposals came, as Alitto notes, remarkably close to this position themselves). And lastly he differentiated himself from China’s cultural conservatives – he understood that China couldn’t simply take refuge in the dead, empty husks of Qing cultural output, and required some form of adaptation to modern exigencies.

From their bases in Zouping and Dingxian, Liang Shuming, Jimmy Yen and Tao Xingzhi began setting up rural education circuits specialising in basic literacy, civics and practical education. In addition to these, they attempted to set up bottom-up socialist coöperatives: consumer coöps; marketing coöps in food, silk, cotton and basic manufactures; and credit coöps meant to break the clutches of local loan sharks (gaolidai 高利貸). They also set up self-defence militias meant to protect villages from banditry, violent landlords and local bullies (tuhao lieshen 土豪劣紳), but the militias also went after vagrants, swindlers, pimps and other exploiters of the poor. There were real results from the rural reconstruction experiments in Shandong, but sadly the rural reconstruction efforts of Liang, Yen and Tao were cut short by the Japanese invasion.

Liang Shuming was also active in building up the China Democratic League as a ‘third force’ in Chinese politics against both the Guomindang and the Communists. Ironically, in fact, because Liang had little faith in democracy – he thought the question of constitutionalism was a non-sequitur, and also felt it was unsuitable to China’s condition. Liang thought a one-party dictatorship would be more effective and better able to bring the change China’s peasantry needed: just not the one-party dictatorship of the Guomindang. Similarly to Carsun Chang and Fei Xiaotong, Liang understood early on that the Guomindang were little more than amoral thugs, bullies and gangsters – quick to embrace violence and Legalist solutions where a lighter hand was, in fact, needed. Liang’s fruitless struggles to advocate for the peasantry to the Guomindang, and to reform the conscription system in a fairer direction, embittered him permanently against Jiang Jieshi’s government. His experiences in north China during the war against the Japanese, with Guomindang deploying secret police and assassination to undermine a united front, further alienated him from the Guomindang and shifted his thinking in favour of the Communists.

His criticisms of the Communists were more specific, but no less trenchant. He apparently felt that in a number of ways, the Communists were better than the Guomindang: they went directly to the peasantry and worked to improve their conditions in real, measurable ways. The problem with the Communists was that they embraced class struggle and the heightening of contradictions among the peasantry even where such means were not appropriate. Rural China, Liang understood, was not amenable to the logic of class struggle or violence; often, it was impossible to distinguish the ‘propertied’ peasants from the poor ones, precisely because what mattered for peasant welfare was the network of family relationships that they could draw on in times of difficulty. Alitto stresses that the Confucian Liang Shuming and the Marxist Mao Zedong were often quite similar in their outlook, and understood each other better than their liberal and Guomindang critics understood either. Liang could come off as more ‘leftist’ than Mao precisely where his cultural conservatism demarcated him from the latter. As I said before about Fei Xiaotong, Liang’s Confucian anthropology was more thoroughly collectivist than Mao’s; even though he embraced socialism (of a localist, guild-friendly form), Liang understood that China’s peasant œconomy was far more complex than individual exploiters and individual exploited, and was more sensitive at first to the grim ‘on-the-ground’ realities of Chinese peasant life than the Communists were.

Alongside Jimmy Yen and Huang Yanpei, Liang Shuming founded a series of political associations meant to provide a ‘third force’, an explicitly-socialist and explicitly-democratic counterweight to both the Guomindang and the Communists. The first, the Association of Comrades for National Unity and Construction (Tongyi Jianguo Tongzhihui 統一建國同志會) was founded as a ‘non-partisan’ mediating organisation which later reorganised as a formal party, the League of Democratic Political Groups (Zhongguo Minzhu Zhengtuan Datongmeng 中國民主政團大同盟), later the China Democratic League (Zhongguo Minzhu Tongmeng 中國民主同盟, or Minmeng 民盟) – a ragtag group of rural reconstruction workers, schoolteachers, skilled labourers, youth counsellors and various other small parties and working groups. Though he was no fan of democracy or of constitutionalism – thinking the former a foreign import and the latter a distraction from more important cultural work – Liang wound up ironically promoting both. His political programme in 1941 called for China’s political sovereignty; for relentless, total warfare against the Japanese; for an end to one-party rule; for protections of freedom of speech; and for a sustained and thorough anti-corruption campaign. The Guomindang was hostile to the new political group from the beginning, and unsurprisingly the vast bulk of the new party leaned toward the Communists – particularly after the political assassinations of the CDL-affiliated activist and teacher Li Gongpu and poet Wen Yiduo in 1946. Liang Shuming investigated their deaths himself and personally condemned the Guomindang for the murders, but did not follow the rest of the CDL into the waiting embrace of the Communists.

Liang Shuming chose retirement instead, though the Communists wouldn’t let him enjoy that retirement. Perhaps he was too close to their position for comfort, or perhaps they feared the legacy of the rural reconstructionists as rivals to their plans. But despite Liang’s carefully-worded self-criticisms, he refused to renounce his previous theories on Chinese civilisation, his commitments to Confucianism or Wang Yangming’s thought. He quickly became a target of political witch-hunts. He had all along been denounced by the Guomindang as a ‘dupe’ of the Communists, and by the liberals as a fusty old rustic. But in the 1950’s he was to be denounced by Mao himself as a reactionary. Alitto explains this psychologically. Mao’s insane, vicious and spittle-flecked denunciations of a harmless old man were all the more vehement because they had touched a raw nerve: Liang with his Confucian theorising had touched on precisely the point where Maoism diverged from Marxist-Leninist ‘orthodoxy’ and the Soviet model. The loudness of the Communists’ denunciations betrayed precisely how much they themselves had borrowed from Liang’s rural reconstruction models.

Interestingly, the only public intellectual who refused to condemn Liang – whether from the ‘left’ (as Mao did) or from the ‘right’ (as Hu Shi, the Guomindang’s CC clique and even the other New Confucians did) was the grandee of New Confucianism himself, Xiong Shili. Even thus isolated, when the Criticise Confucius and Lin Biao campaign came about and he was pressured by the authorities for a contribution, Liang openly defied the government, and adamantly refused to pen or say anything against Master Kong.

Alitto’s book is a fascinating look, not only into the intellectual depths and idiosyncrasies of China’s ‘Last Confucian’ himself, but into China’s intellectual climate during the tumultuous eras of warlordism, anti-Japanese struggle and civil war more broadly. As for Liang himself, Alitto’s treatment has given me nothing but respect, admiration and awe for a man – an intellectual hero – who clearly understood the precariousness of his own situation and still held fast to what he held to be true and right, even as everyone around him took to the easy and expedient answers. Liang himself, every bit as fervent in his critiques of capitalism and in his conviction of the necessity of socialism as his rival Mao, was nonetheless equally adamant that such a deep revolutionary transformation in Chinese culture as he sought could not be brought about through violence, least of all against the fabric of the extended family and the embedded collectivity of Chinese life at its roots.

22 December 2017

No democracy at the Nativity

I have been sadly remiss this season, as an Orthodox Christian – and not only in terms of the fast and the prayers. (Some excuse is to be made for me there: I’ve been suffering from flu and strep throat these past two weeks.) Even the expectation of the season has been distant from me, and I’ve had to fight off the more-than-occasional bouts of seasonal depression and ill temper with a vengeance. Even so, rare as the occasions have been, the knowledge and joy of the one who, through the Theotokos, is expected has intruded upon me.

‘Intruded’ may be the appropriate word. It was never something I asked for, let alone merited. The Gospel intrudes. It throws you off balance. It doesn’t take your opinion. It doesn’t take polls. It doesn’t evaluate you first (Lord knows if it did, I wouldn’t be found worthy of it). Christ has come whether we wanted Him to or not, and whether we were ready for Him or not.

As I’ve said before, there is precious little about the Nativity that is democratic. The Messianic hope that Christ came to fulfil was an explicitly monarchical one. Christ came to us, as an heir of David and a direct threat to the legitimacy of the Hellenising Herodian puppet-state. Without doubt, the Theotokos and her kin expected a king who would restore a prisca Hasmonæa, an independent kingdom to resist Greek and Roman civilisational dominance. In truth, though, the Hasmonean kingdom itself was but a shadow, a type and prefiguration, of the justice that the kingship of Christ would restore in eternity. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy. The soldiers (that is to say, the demos) of Christ do not vote. We kneel before the throne of God. The victory of the Kingdom of Heaven, is precisely the spiritual victory and revenge of the autocratic, solar-monotheist, communitarian and ‘verbal’ civilisational principles of the Iranian East over the republican-despotic, polytheistic, individualist and ‘carven’ civilisational principles of the Græco-Roman West. This victory did not demolish the West; instead, it transfigured the West from the inside. The Christianisation of the West was its subordination before Asian spiritual precepts.

The Gospel story of the Nativity contains pedigrees; it contains processions; it contains portents and marks of kingship. It contains shepherds and priests alike bowing before the infant Prince of Peace in adoration. If there is any political meaning to the Gospel story at all, that political meaning is not democratic; it is firmly and authoritatively monarchist. True enough: it is a monarchy of an unexpected and peculiar type. Christ was born in ignominious conditions to impoverished parents. No sooner was He born than He was forced to flee His home for a foreign country, because the puppet-king Herod considered Him a political threat. But there was no vote on whether or not He was the Messiah.

These are facts to remember and ponder as we enter another Nativity season. We don’t live in a polity which treats these facts kindly, or at all seriously. Monarchists are considered persona non grata in polite circles; our ideas are thought of as threats to the reigning imperial order, or else we are brushed off as kooks not worthy of consideration for our small number and our lack of political power. Yet who in modern America looks to Christ? Indeed, who at America’s founding looked at all to Christ, when they fell upon their brothers in the great fratricidal bloodletting which we consider our ‘revolution’ – unless it was the Tories?

14 December 2017

I owe Xu Fuguan an apology

Xu Fuguan 徐復觀

I’ve let it be known before that I’m slightly hostile to that group of scholars known as the New Confucians – the ones who promoted Confucian doctrines in the wake of the Republican revolution. A significant part of my distaste comes from the political fact that many of them were intimately tied to Jiang Jieshi’s Guomindang government, which was both corrupt and every bit as thuggish and dictatorial as the Communists. But, according to some of the reading I’ve been doing recently, the reality is far more complicated than that – and Chinese history during the Republican-warlordist era, the Sino-Japanese War and the Civil War was a remarkably messy time.

Xu Fuguan, for example, was highly sympathetic to socialism and approved many aspects of the CCP’s programme; however, he used these insights to provide Jiang Jieshi with intelligence on the CCP in the hope that the Guomindang could be reformed from within. Upon seeing that this hope had been misguided, it became a matter of deep and intense shame for him after his exile to Taiwan in 1949, and caused him to spend the rest of his career railing – with good cause – against KMT corruption, cronyism, looting and the cult of personality around Jiang; against the moral cowardice of China’s intelligentsia and its liberal élite (Hu Shi in particular); against the CCP’s abandonment of humaneness; and against American imperialism and support for anti-communist dictatorships in Asia. His socialist- and collectivist-leaning ‘democratic Confucian’ critique of the political situation actually sounds very much like Zhang Junmai’s (or my own, for that matter), and I was quite wrong to criticise him as I did. The fact that Xu Fuguan had precious little use for postmodern ‘art’ is equally endearing to me, I must admit.

Xu Fuguan’s later critique of the CCP (that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution essentially continued all the bad points of the feudalism of the ‘old society’ while continuing none of its good points) is also something I can get on board with, though I’m not entirely sanguine about where and how he casts the blame. His distaste for rural peasant leaders and their methods is understandable, but it doesn’t fit well with his general sympathy for the poor; it also doesn’t really accord with fact. The greatest damage done during the Cultural Revolution was in the big cities and in the old centres of culture, where the Red Guards attacked anything that smacked of the ‘Four Olds’. The rural effects of the Cultural Revolution, though by no means absent or harmless, were far more attenuated and less dramatic.

In short – Xu Fuguan was a far more complex and, to my mind now, more sympathetic character than I had originally thought. I was deeply unfair to him before, and I apologise for that. His thought parallels that of Zhang Junmai. He didn’t cling to the lies of the Guomindang once he saw them for what they truly were, and I respect that deeply – nor was his early support for the CCP something that blinkered him either. I still think that the apolitical quietism of his colleagues and their tacit support for the Guomindang’s policies both on the mainland and on Taiwan is something reprehensible, but I’m now much more aware of the difficulties and complexities of the time.

12 December 2017

A year of reading Plato

I’ve had sympathies with Platonic philosophy for a long time – in fact, since graduate school when I started reading John Milbank, George Grant, Simone Weil and Vladimir Solovyov. I knew and could perceive, to a limited extent, the light that was shining behind these towering intellectual figures, all of whom defied easy political or philosophical description, and all of whom had a certain degree of influence on me.

I admit, though, my own personal motivations for going ad fontes this year were somewhat petty and politically-motivated. I desired to understand, through reading Plato’s political theory, the ways in which democratic and oligarchic régimes decay and degenerate into tyranny. And, in numerous of the Dialogues, I found the political critiques both of democracy and of oligarchy that I had been looking toward. But to say that I found way, way more therein would be trite, it would be a cliché, and it would be an understatement.

Reading Plato’s Dialogues was like holding up a mirror to my own experiences and weaknesses, my own vices and insecurities, my own (like Glaucon’s) deep erotic yearnings and hidden love for tyranny and various compelling but ultimately empty visions of perfection. I had to let Plato’s Socrates interrogate me on all of that, and even though I didn’t necessarily like everything I found, I at least attempted to face it with some degree of honesty. Did I come off a wiser man for it? Ehh. Give me a few months and a few more selective re-reads, and check back in with me again. There’s a lot to process.

But there is a reason that I dwelt so heavily on Plato’s investigations into and dialectical treatments of erōs. And it isn’t just because I’m a horndog who, for Freudian reasons, reads something into Plato that isn’t there already. (Okay, maybe partly that. I started investigating Edo Japan and late Imperial Chinese opera this year, too; and I’d be lying if I said they weren’t a propos or driven to some extent by my own ‘Asiatic’ erotic drive, which has no doubt also shaped my politics, my higher æsthetic and moral ideals and even my religious tendencies.) But for Plato, the thirst, the desire for truth and for the really real, is in actuality that same erotic urge, a yearning after a spiritual and physical unity that has been lost and must be recovered.

For Plato, virtue as a whole – and in its constituent ‘pieces’, which Socrates takes pains to get people to rightly understand each – has to begin with knowledge (as opposed to opinion) of things that are, rather than things that only appear to be, true. And indeed, the closer one draws to truth, the more dangerous the seductions of the merely-similar seem to become. Plato had a much higher tolerance for the merely ignorant, than for one who could draw close to the truth but preferred to artfully disguise it with lies instead. As Socrates’ rhetorical bouts with Hippias demonstrated, the skilled liar who understands (at least part of) what is true, is capable of doing far more damage than an unskilled liar who does not understand what is true.

The challenge of ‘curing’ the skilled liar is what draws Socrates – physically and intellectually – to the ‘perilous youths’, the fair faces which conceal possibly monstrous and tyrannical hearts: Alcibiades, Charmides, Phædrus, Agathon, Meno, Glaucon, Plato himself. In one sense, the nihilistic ‘tyranny-loving’ tendency that shows itself in Glaucon and Charmides and Alcibiades puts them as far away as possible from the ideal kingship or aristocracy, and this is one of the points of Socrates’ discourse on the degeneration of régimes in the Republic. In another sense, though, it seems Plato’s Socrates felt the tyranny-lovers to be the ones closest to philosophy, the ones most biddable to it. The tyrannical violence of their erotic loves could be sublimated into a love for wisdom. But this could only be accomplished – in Glaucon’s case – with a Persian myth (if we are to believe Pausanias): the myth of Er to counter the myth of Gyges.

But there is nothing harder and more dangerous than this appeal to young lovers of tyranny, and Plato would have us acknowledge that in many of these cases (Alcibiades and Charmides, notably) his teacher actually failed. Alcibiades (like, we may assume, Menexenus in the Funeral Oration) chose to listen to the flatteries of Aspasia rather than the hard truths of Diotima. (Remember that Alcibiades entered the Symposium, drunk, after Socrates had recounted Diotima’s philosophical discourse on love!) Socrates wasn’t corrupting the youth with philosophy. Instead he was trying, with the bait of higher loves and the more demanding erotic pursuit of wisdom, to reach the ones most prone to the deadliest sorts of corruption. There is something significant also in that he only called young men to the pursuit and the love of wisdom in this way. Tyranny-lovers more advanced in years, like Critias and Callicles, are presented by Plato without this sort of sympathy, without this double pity. This dovetails nicely with Plato’s thoughts, both in the Laws and before, about the distinction between curable and incurable criminal tendencies.

Plato dug deep into the human psyche and held a mirror up to what he found, expressing it through myth and allegory as well as through the psychologically-dense discussions between Socrates and his friends, pupils and enemies. His insights there are unspeakably profound. I can now easily understand why the Greek Fathers, unlike the ill-fated Tertullian, were so unwilling to dispense with Plato completely. It would be fairly simple to draw those lines. Plato’s view of sin undoubtedly coincided somewhat with the early Christian view: as a malady rather than as a debt. He was therefore willing to speak of treatments and cures, of medicines and gymnastic regimens.

But the consolations of pure philosophy are, even if not entirely unsatisfying and unneeded, still quite cold. Even though Plato has some strong personalist tendencies himself, understanding the needed role of each part of the soul in the function and well-being of the whole – his form of the Good in the pure Platonic philosophy is something impersonal. Even though it is eternal and true and beautiful, it is still abstracted past the forms of the Platonic solids and geometric shapes. The Greek Fathers, on the other hand, had Our Lord: the true, the beautiful, the complete and absolute form of the Good embodied completely in human flesh. The presence and reality of an immediate, immanently personal Truth, immortal and yet fully human, allowed them to be even more personalistic than Plato or Aristotle without sacrificing the Socratic method, the Platonic dialectic or the Platonic treatments of the soul.

Forgive these meanderings, gentle readers. It’s been a lot to process, and I feel I may need a few more re-reads. This year of reading Plato has certainly had a profound impact on the way that I think, but it’s hard to gauge at present the full extent of that impact. Other than that, dear readers: tolle, lege! There is some truly deep commentary on the human condition here, and it is not an accident that Plato’s philosophy is considered a cornerstone of Western thought, however fall we may have fallen from his political-philosophical thinking.

08 December 2017

Yet another quote from the Laws

Water is the greatest element of nutrition in gardens, but is easily polluted. You cannot poison the soil, or the sun or the air, which are the other elements of nutrition in plants, or divert them, or steal them; but all these things may very likely happen to water, which must therefore be protected by law.

And let this be the law: If anyone intentionally pollutes the water of another, whether the water of a spring, or collected in reservoirs, either by poisonous substances, or by digging, or by theft, let the injured party bring the cause before the wardens of the city, and claim in writing the value of the loss; if the accused be found guilty of injuring the water by deleterious substances, let him not only pay damages, but purify the stream or the cistern which contains the water, in such manner as the laws of the interpreters order the purification to be made by the offender in each case.

   - The Athenian Stranger, Plato’s Laws (845d-e)

Another quote from the Laws

‘We are quite agreed, Stranger, that we should legislate about such things [as music, dancing and martial arts], and that the whole state should practise them.’

‘And what is the reason that dances and contests of this sort hardly ever exist in states, at least not to any extent worth speaking of? Is this due to the ignorance of mankind and their legislators?’


‘Certainly not, sweet Cleinias; there are two causes, which are quite enough to account for the deficiency [in education in music, dance and martial arts].’

‘What are they?’

‘One cause is the love of wealth, which wholly absorbs men, and never for a moment allows them to think of anything but their own private possessions; on this the soul of every citizen hangs suspended, and can attend to nothing but his daily gain; mankind are ready to learn any branch of knowledge, and to follow any pursuit which tends to this end, and they laugh at every other: that is one reason why a city will not be in earnest about such contests or any other good and honourable pursuit. But from an insatiable love of gold and silver, every man will stoop to any art or contrivance, seemly or unseemly, in the hope of becoming rich; and will make no objection to performing any action, holy, or unholy and utterly base; if only like a beast he have the power of eating and drinking all kinds of things, and procuring for himself in every sort of way the gratification of his lusts.’


‘Let this, then, be deemed one of the causes which prevent states from pursuing in an efficient manner the art of war, or any other noble aim, but makes the orderly and temperate part of mankind into merchants, and captains of ships, and servants, and converts the valiant sort into thieves and burglars, and robbers of temples, and violent, tyrannical persons; many of whom are not without ability, but they are unfortunate.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Must not they be truly unfortunate whose souls are compelled to pass through life always hungering?’

‘That is one cause, Stranger; but you spoke of another.’

‘Thank you for reminding me.’

‘The insatiable lifelong love of wealth, as you were saying, is one cause which absorbs mankind, and prevents them from rightly practising the arts of war: granted; and now tell me, what is the other?’

‘Do you imagine that I delay because I am in a perplexity?’

‘No; but we think that you are too severe upon the money-loving temper, of which you seem in the present discussion to have a peculiar dislike.’

‘That is a very fair rebuke, Cleinias; and now I will proceed to the second cause.’


‘I say that governments are a cause—democracy, oligarchy, tyranny, concerning which I have often spoken in the previous discourse; or rather governments they are not, for none of them exercises a voluntary rule over voluntary subjects; but they may be truly called states of discord, in which while the government is voluntary, the subjects always obey against their will, and have to be coerced; and the ruler fears the subject, and will not, if he can help, allow him to become either noble, or rich, or strong, or valiant, or warlike at all. These two are the chief causes of almost all evils, and of the evils of which I have been speaking they are notably the causes. But our state has escaped both of them; for her citizens have the greatest leisure, and they are not subject to one another, and will, I think, be made by these laws the reverse of lovers of money. Such a constitution may be reasonably supposed to be the only one existing which will accept the education which we have described, and the martial pastimes which have been perfected according to our idea.’

   - The Athenian Stranger and Cleinias, Plato’s Laws (831b-832d)

07 December 2017

In Hunan, the kids are alright

It’s a distinct pleasure to be able to teach high-school kids.

Not that it isn’t a pleasure to teach kids from all age groups. The most fun I had as an English teacher in China was in teaching grade-school students from the Fun Fun English books (a set of Korean English primers which, as a running joke, the Baotou Teachers’ College foreign teachers group turned into a soap opera between two of the protagonists, Sim-soon and Dol-dol). I considered my junior-high teaching to be the most rewarding, and got the most gratification from seeing my students progress in their English skills. But high-school kids are a challenge of an altogether different variety, and it’s interesting to see them tackle the ‘bigger picture’ questions.

Teaching AP Language and Composition is… let’s put this politely… a bit dull unless you can ‘massage’ the curriculum and spice it up a bit. (I’m on record saying how much I hate the entire idea of teaching to the test.) I’ve done my best to massage it, giving my students books that are either classics or head-scratchers or just plain fun (like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or interesting for other reasons (like Brave New World). But it’s also interesting to see them take on the synthetic and persuasive essay questions on what would, on this side of the Pacific, be considered ‘hot topics’. Let’s just say that my students have surprised me, pleasantly, with their thoughtfulness and their ability to ask tough questions.

It’s been slightly disconcerting to me, and at the same time refreshing, to have to defend – if only for the purposes of being a devil’s advocate and bringing out the strongest possible forms of my students’ arguments and lines of thinking – the standard ‘Western liberal’ position encouraged by these questions in how they’re formulated. Usually, I’m the one pushing back against the idea that individual liberty in the abstract is in most or all possible cases a desirable good. But in this case, it’s my students who are making that case for me.

For example, when the question of freedom of speech and political correctness on college and high school campuses came up, my students in Changsha overwhelmingly supported informal (that is to say, peer-enforced rather than administration-enforced) limitations on freedom of speech, to protect vulnerable groups. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at this, but it was a bit disconcerting to see it expressed openly. And I, of all people, was left taking up the cause for freedom of speech and arguing that even people with bad ideas should be allowed to express them. On the other hand, most of my students argued against political correctness when it was applied to comedy and comedians, even though they frowned, on the whole, on comedic routines that ‘punched down’ instead of ‘punching up’.

In another case, when the issue of school uniforms came up, most of the students defended school uniform policies for some surprising reasons. As a group, they were worried in particular about clothing becoming a status symbol, about student expenditures on clothing and about the possibilities of bullying. And on the positive side, they defended school uniforms as being a contributor to a positive esprit de corps in the school. One girl in one of my classes – a bit of a nonconformist herself in her dress – said she hated the school uniforms herself, but understood why the school implemented these policies and agreed with their reasoning. (Of course, I often will show up to class in heavy metal band T-shirts, so I kind of felt I had to agree with her there or else end up looking like a hypocrite.) This kind of reasoning was fairly typical in my classes – and it applied also to national esprit de corps. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy in my classes for protests of the national anthem (like Colin Kaepernick’s); they felt it wasn’t relevant or appropriate to express political dissent at a public commemoration of the country. At the same time, they again felt that public censure rather than legal action or punishment was the appropriate response.

As a whole, though, my students in Hunan tended to be concerned with œconomic equality and support for financially-disadvantaged groups. They gave fairly short shrift to neoliberal œconomic positions and arguments that would sacrifice the interests of the poorest members of society even if it meant supposedly achieving a greater utilitarian goal. Not only on the school uniforms debate but also on the ‘small change’ debate, they tended to show the greatest sympathy to the arguments that getting rid of denominations of small change (whether in China or in the United States) would adversely affect poorer consumers and reduce everyday contributions to charities.

This was, to me, quite telling. From my experiences in Baotou and Luoyang, too, it always seemed to be the young people who inclined toward the left-traditionalist tendency, and the older people of the Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin generations who inclined toward the (neo)-liberal tendency, even if it was with some degree of personal inconsistency. My colleague Vivian praised the traditionalist viewpoint to a remarkably high degree, yet still deeply valued her own personal freedom and ability to choose her own romantic partner – to a degree which would likely have been inconceivable under the ‘old society’ and even to a degree that many of her older colleagues were uncomfortable with. On the other hand, one of my other colleagues there, Patrick, who was considerably older than either myself or Vivian, positively glowed with praises for America, our freedom of speech and entrepreneurial ingenuity and free enterprise, and on the other hand had nothing but disgust for, in particular, his own country’s alliance with North Korea. And yet he would swear by traditional Chinese medicinal remedies and dietary advice. But all that only goes so far as to say that actual people are people, embodied in their own personal situations and relationships, rather than ideological abstractions.

And this is all, of course, anecdotal on my part. I teach at a fairly high-end public school. And it isn’t meant to demonstrate anything broader than my own personal observations. But from what I can tell, the kids are alright. They already do, to a significant degree, engage on a deep level with the questions the test poses and that they encounter in Western literature, but they come to conclusions that the average American would be fairly uncomfortable with. The fact that they do appear to trend more collectivist in their approach to these kinds of issues – or at least more collectivist than the AP test or their Western readers expect them to – does not make them defective or incomplete thinkers. They can and do consider all sides and apply their own reasoning to the questions given to them.

06 December 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 8: ‘city in speech’ and world state

Apologies, gentle readers; I had planned to wrap this series up at the end of part six, but each time I come back to the topic it seems there is something more to say. In particular, I wanted to get down my thoughts on Brave New World and the points of similarity I tracked between that work and the Republic.

It strikes me that I really ought to have read Brave New World far, far sooner than I did. Orwell was the preferred dystopian author in my high school and college English courses: Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Burmese Days were all to be found on the curriculum; Brave New World was not. Which is a pity! Brave New World is an endlessly-fascinating work, and remains relevant to our experience in late capitalism today in ways which make Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm seem dated. Huxley’s work seems even more relevant and fascinating when read in concert with Plato’s Republic. It strikes me that there is an element in Huxley’s dystopian work which aims directly at Plato’s ‘city in speech’, even though Huxley himself may not have intended it.

I can’t be the first person to have noticed this (in fact, I know I am not). But there are a number of intriguing similarities. For both Plato’s Socrates and the designers of the world state, communal stability is the primary consideration, and this stability is guaranteed through the use of a ‘noble lie’ about procreation. The ‘city in speech’ and the world state both depend on assigning class statuses to children at birth, and educating them into their assigned rôle in the polity. Whereas in the Republic, the biological facts linking coitus to pregnancy and childbirth are all carefully kept hidden from its guardian class (though not necessarily from the lower classes), in Huxley’s world state they have all become completely untethered: coitus is rendered completely sterile by means of chemical sterilisation and contraceptives; all children are born in factories and assigned a class from the time they are an embryo in a test tube. The ‘lie’ at work in the world state comes from a suggestion that ‘viviparous’ birth is uncivilised and distasteful. The logical sequel is this: in Plato’s ‘city in speech’, women and children are shared communally among the guardian class, as ‘friends have all things in common’; in Huxley’s world state, this abolition of the family is guaranteed by a hypnopædic platitude that ‘every one belongs to every one else’.

Plato notes the influence of music on the psyche; in Huxley this influence is transfigured into ‘hypnopædia’: using poetic rhythm and metre to implant suggestions into children while they sleep. In Plato’s ‘city in speech’, poets are exiled if their work produces social discord, just as Helmholtz Watson is exiled from the world state to the Falklands for his own poetic work. Plato and Huxley also each emphasise the need to educate the citizens not to fear death, or at least to fear death less than other things. In Huxley’s world state, human beings have a ‘planned obsolescence’ at the age of sixty, which is taken in stride by the people who are subject to it.

But here we begin to notice a difference, or at least an inversion. In Huxley’s world state, citizens are cushioned from the reality of death, or at least distracted from its enormity, by means of various forms of bodily pleasure. Plato took the opposite view, that death should be greeted stoically and philosophically. At heart, I think Huxley and Plato are actually agreed on the question of death (and therefore also of erōs), yet the two of them take opposite approaches to highlight it.

For Plato, erōs is both enlivening and dangerous. He sees in the erotic impulse a direct line between the body and the divine that bypasses the mind. Even if as a form of ‘divine madness’, the erotic impulse can’t be controlled, at least it can be tutored by attempting to get the lover to ‘forget the body’ for a brief time. In fact, Plato’s justice, driven as it is by eroticism, requires such ‘forgetting’ to be glimpsed in its ‘large print’ form in the ‘city in speech’.

In Huxley, conversely, we see no such eroticism in the ‘large print’, despite the fact that sex is everywhere in the world state. The genuine erōs in Huxley’s novel is all on the personal level among the characters. Bernard seeks to feel it (but shies away from it repeatedly). Lenina begins to feel erotic desire for John but can’t break through her own conditioning to understand it. And erōs completely overwhelms John to the point where he lashes out – at Lenina and at himself. But for the world state, for Mustapha Mond and the Director, erōs is something dangerous that has to be stamped out and conditioned away, rather than tutored. Thus, in Huxley’s world state, sex has been completely emptied, not only of its procreative meaning but also of its erotic, desiring content! Sex is simply there, suffusing everything. It becomes a product to be consumed like any other, available for a nominal price. It’s a dire mistake to see John the Savage as some kind of body-hating Gnostic, even and especially by the end of Huxley’s novel. He is all embodied erotic impulse, and that frightens the people of the world state – not least Lenina, the object of his desires.

Ultimately what makes the world state a dystopia rather than a utopia is precisely this lack of eroticism, this total dearth of higher striving – and this is how the novel culminates in John’s philosophical conversations with Mustapha Mond (a conversation which quotes, among other people, Cardinal John Henry Newman). Huxley may not ever have referenced Plato either in his original manuscript or in Revisited, but I think he understood exactly what Socrates was trying to do. Huxley fashioned a world in which the ‘policy’ prescriptions of Socrates’ ‘city in speech’ can be and are fulfilled through the use of assembly-line automation, in vitro fertilisation, contraceptives, psychological conditioning and drugs – but out of which all of the erotic longing and tragic sensibility has been emptied. Even the foremost poet of this ‘brave new world’, Helmholtz Watson, cannot understand Romeo and Juliet before his exile to the Falklands – and laughs at it. Plato would have us ‘forget the body’ briefly, but the controllers of the world state would have us forget everything else completely!

Plato’s ‘city in speech’, too, is meant to be something of a comedic distortion of justice (the image of men and women, young and old, training naked together in the palæstra is meant to draw laughter), but one which is necessary to get Adeimantus and Glaucon to understand the demands of citizenship upon them. The ‘city in speech’ can never be realised as long as people have separate bodies and are compelled by erōs. But persons can behave as though they are citizens of the ‘city in speech’, which in turn is but a shadow of justice. To understand this is to begin to turn around and look toward where the light is coming from.

There is no such ‘wiggle room’ in Huxley’s dystopia. The world state, in its concern for happiness on a utilitarian level, does not permit of the dangers of eroticism, and therefore it cannot permit of citizenship. The attempts to ‘turn around’ and see where the shadows are coming from ends up in exile (for Bernard and Helmholtz), in madness and suicide (for John) and in an unspecified (but cruel) fate for Lenina.

At the same time, I still feel that Plato and Huxley would have been in agreement on the nature of justice; they simply took mirror-image and opposite routes to find it. In his Foreword Huxley called, against both the world state and the anarcho-primitivist alternative of Malpais, for something like ‘sanity’: a ‘decentralist’, ‘Kropotkin-esque coöperative’ with appropriate applications of technology and an eschatological religion informed by the Dao and an ethics oriented to the ‘final end’ of man. I’m not sure Plato would have approved all of this; he and Huxley lived in two very different times and we must do Plato the justice of speaking for himself and to his own circumstances rather than shoehorning him into anachronistic projects. Still, it’s interesting to note the similarities when they occur.