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?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘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.’

‘True.’

‘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.’

‘Proceed.’

‘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.

05 December 2017

A quote from the Laws

For they mean by ‘the rich’ the few who have the most valuable possessions, although the owner of them may quite well be a rogue.

And if this is true, I can never assent to the doctrine that the rich man will be happy--he must be good as well as rich. And good in a high degree, and rich in a high degree at the same time, he cannot be. Some one will ask, why not? And we shall answer--Because acquisitions which come from sources which are just and unjust indifferently, are more than double those which come from just sources only; and the sums which are expended neither honourably nor disgracefully, are only half as great as those which are expended honourably and on honourable purposes. Thus, if the one acquires double and spends half, the other who is in the opposite case and is a good man cannot possibly be wealthier than he…

For he who receives money unjustly as well as justly, and spends neither [justly] nor unjustly, will be a rich man if he be also thrifty. On the other hand, the utterly bad is in general profligate, and therefore very poor; while he who spends on noble objects, and acquires wealth by just means only, can hardly be remarkable for riches.


  - The Athenian Stranger, Plato’s Laws (742e-743c)

The loudest yelps for liberty


The fact that the slave trade is alive again in Libya is now rightfully turning heads, with government figures and international celebrities issuing calls for action. But at the same time, with most of the mainstream media ignoring the elephant in the room, it took a rapper – T.I. – to point it out:
So… I'm wondering if Khadafi was such a horrible dictator why wasn't this happening when HE WAS in power? One has no choice but to conclude his absence made this possible.
T.I. is absolutely right, of course. Let’s be honest: it was the intervention in Libya – the removal and brutal killing of Gadhafi – that destroyed the country and all state apparatus, leaving the power vacuum in which these slavers are free to operate. But even further than that, NATO as a whole was responsible for dæmonising and dehumanising black Libyans based on their race. The insidious canard that black Libyans were ‘foreign mercenaries’ operating on Gadhafi’s behalf was invented specifically as a pretext for ousting Gadhafi, and was spread assiduously by NATO organs and spokesmen, and their respective governments, both for domestic manufacture of consent and for propaganda purposes within Libya itself.

It is only in the context of the removal of Gadhafi, and of the ‘black mercenary’ myth that accompanied his removal, that the modern slave trade in Libya can be rightly understood. Black people in Libya are seen as chattel because Western media, NGOs and the NATO alliance all did their level best to dehumanise them, and then to remove from them the most secure legal protection they had. What threat Gadhafi ever posed to trans-Atlantic security eludes me – and this led me to ask some questions about NATO’s mission creep and its remarkably-quick transformation away from being a defensive alliance into an offensive instrument of American imperium in, in this case, Africa. Which, in this case, perpetuates itself at the expense of black lives and black freedom.

Ironically, merely for pointing all of this out on Facebook, I was immediately attacked as a ‘Russophile’ and a ‘geopolitical fundamentalist’ by certain of NATO’s defenders. The greater cause of keeping Russia down and answering the ‘yelps for liberty’ from places like the Ukraine, apparently, has to take precedence over actual black lives and black freedom. Samuel Johnson is still right, in this case both about NATO itself and about the lawless, brutal beneficiaries of its Libyan largesse.

03 December 2017

Beijing needs a new Jane Jacobs


The Beijing municipal government has touched off a pretty significant firestorm of online criticism by evicting entire communities of migrant workers from their homes (substandard makeshift apartments, one of which recently burned down in a fire, causing a number of deaths) in the Daxing district in the south of Beijing, and sending them literally packing during some of the coldest months of the year. The criticism is coming not only from left-wing (in the Chinese sense) commentators and public intellectuals such as Hu Xijin and Sima Nan who have been generally supportive of the government in the past, but also from Beijing’s middle class (which has in the past been fairly indifferent toward the concerns of the migrant workers).

This well-justified outrage has been exacerbated by some fairly callous language used by Beijing’s city authorities designating the migrant workers as ‘diduan renkou’ (低端人口, literally ‘low-end population’). This smacks fairly heavily of the regional and œconomic prejudice that inland Chinese people have faced for a long time from the residents of the great metropolises of the coast. But seeing it in official documentation has given this discrimination a kind of reality for many, to whom it had been previously a matter of intellectual concern.

But – let’s be clear about what this actually is. This is an urban renewal drive, very similar to the sort carried out in Pittsburgh in the 1950s or the sort carried out in New York under the management of Robert Moses. (And to judge from the Beijing authorities’ attitudes, they took his infamous ‘meat ax’ quote to heart.) As with the mid-20th century American slum-clearing urban renewal projects, the end goal is to establish higher property values and spark investment. The means for achieving it are similar – the working-class population is evicted, their homes are seized under eminent domain law and then demolished. And of course, the people who suffer most are precisely the working-class people least able to defend or speak up for themselves – those without a Beijing hukou.

My wife, a mainland Chinese who has a degree in public administration and who has studied the housing problem in great detail, was deeply horrified by this story and thinks that the government behaved cruelly toward the workers. More importantly, though, she thinks that there are at least two necessary (but not sufficient) conditions that have to be met before the migrant workers’ problems can be solved. She says that the government has to start either building public housing projects or directly subsidising low-income workers’ rent checks, so that they wouldn’t have to live in these kinds of illegal and unsafe buildings to begin with. And, as a union (and former CCP) member herself, she says that there has to be some kind of organisation for migrant workers, beyond that of the ACFTU. She’s doubtful about even the efficacy of the last, in part because she fears that automotion will be replacing many of these migrant workers’ jobs in the future at any rate, and because she is uncertain about the long-term œconomic effects for migrant labourers from becoming organised.

To be clear, I agree with my wife completely, on all counts – including the point about housing subsidies and unionisation being necessary but not sufficient conditions for a dignified life on the part of migrant workers in Beijing or other major cities. I suspect that the ghost of Robert Moses has to be exorcised from the municipal government planning offices. To be fair, I’ve felt this way for a long time – at least since I was in Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics. But this recent, brutal pressure on migrant workers gives the question a new-found urgency. Beijing needs fewer spiritual adepts of Robert Moses, and far more of Jane Jacobs and Fei Xiaotong.

Even then, though, Beijing was home to any number of ‘strips of chaos’ with their own ‘weird wisdom’ that a modern-day Jane Jacobs would be able to understand, appreciate and – hopefully – defend tooth-and-claw. That having been said, it’s all too possible to caricature Jacobs and domesticate her into a ‘small-is-beautiful’ petite-bourgeois idealist (which she certainly wasn’t, any more than Grace Lee Boggs was). Jacobs herself would emphasise, repeatedly and without hesitation, that the answers to these problems have to be somewhat collective in nature, and that we can’t fall back on neoliberal ideological dogmas or mealy-mouthed pieties about a ‘rule of law’ which, anyway, too often serves the interests of the same developers that profit from these slum-clearing urban renewal boondoggles. The ‘dark age’ that Jacobs warned about can be seen already in the rubble of Daxing, though China has not yet solidified around the kind of neoliberal dogmas that made it possible.

To that effect, then, the voices of outrage currently issuing from the Chinese hard left – those of Sima Nan and Hu Xijin, among others – are every bit as needed as the ‘third-force’ voices. Between them, they might yet conceive another, hopefully equally-radical Jane Jacobs to speak on behalf of China’s cities and the ordinary people, absolutely including inland migrants and newcomers, who have come to live there.

02 December 2017

Apostle to the Carpathians


Our Venerable and God-bearing Father Aleksei of Khust

On the second of December, the One, Holy, Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church commemorates, as well as the Holy Apostle Matthew, our Venerable and God-bearing Father Saint Aleksei (Kabalyuk) of Khust, who served as an apostle to the Carpathian Rus’ under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Together with the Saints Alexis (Tovt) of Wilkes-Barre and Maksim (Sandovich) of Gorlice, he is one of the three great Rusin saints of the modern time. The material that follows borrows and paraphrases heavily from the hagiographical work of Father Edward Pehanich of ACROD, so it is with thanks and credit to him that I post this!

Father Aleksei was born Aleksandr Ivanovich Kabalyuk in 1877 in the small Rusin village of Frasin in Bukovina to a Uniate family. He did military service as a youth, and also developed a keen interest in religion, visiting the monastery of Biskad in Romania, where he received the blessing from the starets Arkadiy to enter the novitiate, and entered the Holy Orthodox Church on a visit to Mount Athos in 1908. He was tonsured in 1910 at Yablokhino where he took the name Aleksei.

At this time, Rusins in the Austro-Hungarian areas of Carpathia were returning home to the Orthodox Church, and being persecuted severely for it. Peasants were beaten ruthlessly by the gendarmes, and one of them, Ioakim Vakarov, was beaten to death for professing Orthodoxy. The focal point of both the returns and the persecutions was the village of Iza in the Maramorosh Region. It was to this village, with all of the danger that entailed, that Aleksei arrived, in the back of a hay-cart, to serve as the village’s first Orthodox priest. He supported himself by working with the wood lathe, as he travelled around the surrounding villages in the Maramorosh, founding 28 Orthodox parishes and overseeing the return of 14,000 former Uniate Rusins to the Holy Orthodox Church.

For his pains, Father Aleksei was ruthlessly persecuted by the Austro-Hungarian gendarmes. They broke into his house, searched and seized his icons, prayer-books and devotionals. The persecutions against the villagers and the new converts worsened: Orthodox Rusins were lynched – hung up on trees and left to bleed. He left to America to serve the Rusin flock in America, but returned back to Maramorosh when he heard that 93 members of his flock had been arrested. Upon his arrival, he was arrested himself and stood in solidarity with the accused. This trial, the infamous Maramorosh-Siget Process, drew an outraged reaction from across Europe at this religious tyranny. The accused Rusins were defended by an array of Hungarian, Slovak, Serbian and Jewish lawyers, but to no avail – the Austro-Hungarian government, fevered with the pre-war rage and hatred against all things Russian, was bent on persecuting the Rusin Orthodox converts. Father Aleksei was given the most severe sentence: four and a half years in prison and a fine of one thousand crowns.

After the war, the persecutions against Orthodox Christians eased, and Father Aleksei was released to continue his missionary and church-building work. He founded an Orthodox monastery in Iza, which was consecrated to Saint Nicholas, and he headed a Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church which fell under the jurisdiction of the saintly New Hieromartyr Dositheos of Serbia, and which received the attentions and support of a number of great Orthodox churchmen and saints: including Metropolitan Antoniy (Khrapovitsky), Saint John (Maksimovich) of Shanghai and San Francisco, New Hieromartyr Gorazd (Pavlík) of Prague and Saint Justin (Popovich) of Chelije. The Mukachevo-Preshov Diocese blossomed under Saint Aleksei’s care, and at its peak had 127 churches and over 140,000 members.

However, the twin evils of Nazism and Communism overshadowed the Maramorosh, and Saint Aleksei was forced to watch as the fruits of his hard work and faithfulness eroded. He sadly would not live to see the third flowering of Orthodoxy bloom across the Carpathian mountains, in a garden he had tended with such loving care. He took on the Great Schema in November of 1947 and reposed in the Lord on the second of December in that year. His relics were exhumed in 1999 and found to be without corruption; he was therefore glorified formally in 2001 by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) as the Apostle to the Carpathian Rus’.

Holy Father Aleksei, a faithful and self-emptying man in the service of his long-suffering people, a working man unafraid to undertake manual labour to support himself, unswerving in his commitment to the faith of his fathers and unflinching in the face of unjust judgement and ruthless persecution from the Austro-Hungarian landlords, secret police and wartime tribunal, was truly a great saint of whom the Rusins may be justly proud. Holy Father Aleksei, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
Let the mountains sing and all the trees of the forest make glad,
O Holy Father Alexis, Apostle of Carpatho-Rus,
Beaten and banished by tyrants, O living martyr,
You shone forth like gold refined in the crucible of this world.
And as you did guide your people by your wisdom and suffering, so also guide us,
for you intercede for the salvation of your people and Orthodox everywhere.

01 December 2017

Hodné!


The city of Snina in eastern Slovakia now has a new cathedral, built in the traditional Carpathian Rusin style, dedicated to Holy and Right-Believing Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia.

This news tickles me pink for a variety of reasons. Firstly and most importantly, any new Orthodox cathedral in Slovakia is a welcome sign that Rusin Orthodoxy is healthy and growing in its own homeland. I hope that more and more Slovaks and Rusins can come to discover the beauty of the elder faith here! Secondly, as a Moravian Ashkenaz by ethnicity and a convert to Orthodox Christianity myself, I’ve got a good filial reason to be glad that the new cathedral has been consecrated to recently-sainted Prince Rastislav. The ties that bind all the peoples of the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius together in bonds of brotherly love are to be encouraged and deepened – and I have political as well as religious reasons for desiring this. Thirdly, the use of traditional architectural principles in the structure of the building – apart from the roof and tower, entirely without nails – serves the purpose of harmony and shared beauty with the churches in surrounding villages. It’s consistent with an urbanism of proportion, which exists in continuity with, rather than at war with, the surrounding countryside.

May the prayer of Vladyka Rastislav be fulfilled, that the cathedral may never be empty! Holy and Right-Believing Prince Rastislav of Velka Moravá, pray to God for us sinners!

30 November 2017

Žižek, modern-day Critias


*sniffle*

I’ve always been of two minds or more about Slavoj Žižek, because he has a peculiar talent for sounding erudite and occasionally saying things that make sense, but always lacking a certain depth of understanding. He has a particular ‘critical’ frame in which everything must be made to fit and of which he himself is the sole guardian and gatekeeper. There is a reason that it is not the International Journal of Lacanian-Hegelian-Marxian Idealist Studies, but instead Žižek Studies, tells one that one is dealing with, let me put this bluntly, a fetish. I mean, my God, the man’s alive and running his own Ruhnama reading club. So of course he criticises ‘Western Buddhists’ and the cult of pseudo-anti-capitalist motivational reading and ‘awareness’; they’re competing for the same gig.

Reading Žižek often – not always, but often – makes me feel like Charlie Brown running up to kick Lucy’s football. He does hold the football in place, for most of his writing, holding out the hope of a more ‘emancipatory’ political dream that can be realised through critique and examination of various ideological formations, but in the end he pulls the football away. At the end of the day, he’s still the man who, all the while protesting and proclaiming his leftist radicalism, willingly served the nationalist and national-liberal forces that tore apart his own native Yugoslavia, for what turned out to be a neoliberal pittance. He’s still the man who supported Trump, despite knowing (correctly) Trump to be essentially a ‘centrist liberal’ with a façade of risque jokes and cheap populist kabuki theatre. He’s still the man who ragged on us opponents of the Iraq War for doing precisely what he advocates, that is ‘demanding the impossible’. He can’t pass up a chance to look more-radical-than-thou even though many of his public policy positions are dollar store knock-offs of Habermas.

Note the ambiguity and contradictions in his position. He gets to defend himself on the topic of 2016 in one of two ways – or both ways simultaneously. Firstly he can take refuge in the (to my mind, true) claim that between Trump and Clinton, Trump was the one who presented himself more ‘honestly’: not in the sense that he told fewer outright lies, but in the sense that he presented himself as a ‘nonpartisan’ force which in the US has been the traditional ground of independents and political moderates. Secondly, he can take refuge in the opposite, contradictory, heighten-the-contradictions claim, which can also be held as true in a sense, that Trump is actually the ‘radical’ candidate who will shake up the system.

So even though Žižek is saying things that are true, he presents himself to us as a kind of Critias of the Platonic Dialogues. Although I differ slightly from Bernard Suzanne in his punchline on the Critias itself (as well I might, being at best a Christoplatonist rather than, can I say palæoplatonist?), here is what he has to say about the character of Critias as he appears in the Charmides:
Definitions, in the hands of Critias, are like statues of Dædalus, which run away unless you tie them down, and which are used as an example by Socrates to help Meno understand the difference between true opinion, which may be true only by chance, and knowledge, which is tied by dialectical reasoning. By playing sophist with a sophist, Socrates is trying to show us that Critias may be able to recite all the right answers, like a good pupil reciting a lesson, but that he is unable to stand by them, because they are no more than opinions to him, and he will change them as he sees fit to please his interlocutor. You may have the words, but it doesn't mean you have the meaning behind them; you may speak the truth (by chance), but it doesn't mean you understand it.
Žižek does, you will note, much the same thing with his dialectical games. He will give us a great number of theoretical analyses and definitions which are true and which make – at least on the surface – a good deal of sense. (If one leaves aside the contradictions between them, naturally.) He will build up an Atlantean mythology, as Critias does in the Timæus-Critias, which draws us in and appeals to some ‘primal’ urge for emancipation (located, tellingly, in some distant Ur-West of a long-lost, ruined Enlightenment past). But – like any ‘good’ Athenian tyrant – he will always leave himself an escape route with a ship waiting at the docks for the deluge. And the thing is, we let him get away with it because he himself is aware of it. He lets us see the escape routes. Like Trump, he spells it out ‘honestly’.

So we must give Žižek his due. He is a penetrating thinker. He gets very close to the truth. He even speaks the truth – or rather, several different versions of it. (He’s not even averse to acknowledging the radical potentialities of Christianity, which is refreshing in its way, but we’re deluded if we think it means he’s questioning his own religious commitments!) And even though he won’t say as much, he wants us to believe that in merely speaking these truths, he has a certain set of radical bona fides, but he won’t stand behind them. Chomsky, though quite correct to call Žižek to task for his Lacanian recitals, was still being a bit too heavily Chomsky for his own good. That is to say, he ought to have engaged a bit more dialectic, as Socrates did to Critias in the Charmides, to show the emptiness of the ‘theory’ from the inside.

25 November 2017

Worst in human history


The Guardian now reports that the cholera outbreak in Yemen is the worst one in human history.

One of the doctors described it thus:
The war is a big problem for us, it’s a wound. But with the cholera, you have the wound and you put salt in the wound. It hurts. I hope this war can be stopped. We need peace for the children of Yemen. Our situation before the war was not good, but it was not like this.
There are now some commendable NGO efforts to send antibiotics and clean water to Yemen. Commendable, and yet misguided. As the doctors themselves are saying, the medicine might wash the salt out of the wound, but the wound won’t be healed until the war stops. And let’s be clear. Though the Guardian is coyly agnostic about which side is truly to blame for the conflict, there can be no doubt that this is a true war of aggression by a powerful and filthy-rich petroleum-based power against some of the poorest people in the world. The onus is not on the Houthis. The onus is on the extreme right-wing Sunni states who are perpetuating these atrocities; the Saudis who are dropping the bombs and blockading the ports; the American drones and British-funded planes which are striking people who have nothing to do with terrorism abroad.

If you have any humanitarian qualms at all, shut up about Russian hacking or shadow-boxing in the Ukraine, and for the love of Pete shut up about Iran, and pay attention to this. The Saudis are killing the Yemenis en masse through starvation and disease, backed by some of the worst actors on the Arabian Peninsula, and the American government, first under Obama and now under Trump, have been helping them do it without question.

This is what evil looks like. And however well-intentioned, and indeed necessary, those NGO-funded antibiotic packages might be, they’re useless (and possibly worse than useless, if they assuage American consciences without changing American policy) as long as the bombs still fall. The doctors on the ground aren’t asking for more money for medicine. They’re asking for the bombs to stop, for the blockade to stop. You wonder why I am still so hard on the trigger-happy ‘humanitarians’, that I call them dogs and carrion birds? This is why. There is no question on this subject. In absolute terms, the Communist Chinese are objectively better at being humanitarians, when it comes to Yemen, than we are. The war has to stop. At the very least, our involvement in the war has to stop.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

And upon my country.

21 November 2017

Legacies of Plato and Confucius – an observation


A mosaic of Plato with his students at the Academy

In my experience, it’s been next to impossible to read anything by or about Plato without stumbling, in one form or another, onto that tired ‘series of footnotes’ saw coined by Alfred North Whitehead. And yet, we can identify, in the annals of Western thinking, discrete figures and groups of people who are broadly considered to have been ‘Platonists’. In the classical world: the Middle Platonists (of whom Plutarch was the major figure) and the neo-Platonists (epitomised by Plotinus). In early Christian times, several of the Church Fathers (but certainly not all of them!) were influenced deeply by Plato: Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Irenæus of Lyons, Saint Basil of Cæsarea, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Saint Maximus the Confessor. Later: Mary Astell and the Cambridge Platonists. And in our own age: Vladimir Solovyov, Leo Strauss, George Grant, Simone Weil and Alain Badiou. I haven’t even mentioned the Islamic Platonists, because I’m not familiar enough with them, although I’m quite aware of their existence and influence.

‘Confucianism’, however, is something at once more conceptually discrete, and also more diffuse, than ‘Platonism’, in spite of the well-founded parallels between the two philosophers otherwise. On the one hand, it would be profoundly silly to assert, as Whitehead did about Plato, that all of East Asian philosophy is a series of footnotes to Confucius, for the simple reason that Confucius’ contemporaries, the zhuzi baijia 诸子百家, existed, and that many of them went on to become profoundly influential. To be sure, many Western commentators attempt to do this anyway, by applying Confucianism as some kind of a priori cultural rubric onto everyday practices in East Asian business, etiquette, everyday life and so on. On the other hand, individual Confucians or groups of Confucians in Chinese intellectual history tend to be harder to identify than Platonists in the West, precisely because it was a philosophy that was heavily tied up with political legitimacy and class status. Anyone who passed the civil service examinations had to be familiar with the Classics and would be judged according to the depth of their understanding; thus, if one isn’t careful, one could wind up judging any post-classical Chinese thinker with official status as being a ‘Confucian’.

We can still try to draw some parallels. Confucius did have an academy, and many of his students went on to become philosophers in their own right. Mencius (a pupil of Kong Ji) and Xunzi each represented a branch of classicist thinking that relied heavily on Confucius’ teachings. Later, the schools of Dong Zhongshu and Yang Xiong represented a further split in Confucian thinking. Han Yu and his philosophical writings in response to Buddhism mark the definitive ‘neo-Confucian’ turn in classicist thought, and by the time you get to Zhu Xi the Confucian canons have been standardised and Confucianism fully transformed into a state ideology. (Ironically, Dong Zhongshu too often gets unfairly blamed for the process of institutionalisation perfected by Zhu Xi, the less-‘political’ thinker.)

After Zhu Xi it becomes much trickier to tell the difference between ‘Confucians’ (those philosophers convinced of the rightness of Confucius’ ideas and proponents of the classical canon) and the general class of scholar-officials tied to the Song, Ming and Qing states, and several Confucians were sympathetic to other modes and forms of thought (particularly those who rebelled and remonstrated against the official culture and order). There was no such ‘institutionalisation’ of Platonism, which makes it slightly easier to identify thinkers in the course of Western and Islamic history who were genuinely drawn to Plato’s ideas, despite the fact that Plato’s fingerprints are all over Western and Islamic philosophy.

I don’t think there’s any essential difference between the East Asian and Western-Islamic worlds that necessitated these shifts. I agree completely with Dr van Norden about the necessity of taking each seriously and on its own terms; and I find it atrocious that we don’t already. I further don’t think it’s conceptually impossible to find thinkers in modern times whose ideas and thinking were closer in spirit to Confucius than others – in the same way we can tell which thinkers in modern times are more influenced by Plato than by, say, Aristotle, the Pythagoreans, the Stoics, the Cynics or the Epicureans. I merely happen to believe that the Confucians who are truer and closer in substance to Confucius’ own thought are those that haven’t tried to definitively resolve the self-ritual dialectic with conceptual imports from German idealist or Buddhist philosophy. Confucius himself leaves that question, of whether the institutional rites come first or whether the self which cultivates them in itself does, as a problem for his own students. He doesn’t set out to solve it himself, at least not in the Analects, and it’s therefore inappropriate to cast Confucius as a definitive individualist or as a definitive collectivist.

At any rate, just a random observation here about some of the difficulties in doing genuine comparisons between the historical legacies of Plato and Confucius. I am still convinced that the two thinkers have much more in common with each other, than either of them do with the modern societies that lay claim to them.


Confucius teaching his students

18 November 2017

The greatest criminals


In the annals of American decline, the Iraq War under George W Bush and Dick Cheney will, I am certain, come to be remembered as one of the great tipping points – if not the tipping point – at which we sacrificed any semblance of respect for truth in the pursuit of… precisely what is still not clear, and has become less so the more the war and its motives are examined. Revenge? Oil? Corporate privilege? Wilsonian ideology? Democratic idealism? The ‘end of history’?

The masterminds of the war will have much to answer for. The blood of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent Iraqis will cry up from the ground in accusation. But even more so, the willing tools of those neoconservative masterminds: the ‘liberal hawks’, the bleeding-heart interventionists whose good intentions would pave the way for a great utopian upwelling of Middle Eastern democracy and freedom. These people must stand accused and accursed. The greatest criminals are the ones who begin committing their crimes with the monstrous lie on their forked tongues: ‘we are your friends’.

Hillary Clinton. John Edwards. Joe Lieberman. Christopher Hitchens. Thomas Friedman. Jacob Weisberg. Paul Berman. Michael Ignatieff. Jonathan Chait. Bill Keller. Fred Hiatt. All of these people must be condemned, again and again, over and over, for each and every one of the half a million deaths, the rapes and the tortures, the infant deformities from depleted uranium, the displaced families, the persecuted Assyrians, the human blood that they wilfully plunged their hands into, the hypocrisies they indulged, the lies they perpetuated, the people of the world that they deceived, all in their support of Bush’s Folly. And not only them. Also Lech Wałęsa. Also Adam Michnik. Also Václav Havel. Also Liu Xiaobo and Yu Jie. Also Chen Shui-bian. Also Koizumi Jun’ichirô. Also Mikheil Saakashvili. Also Garry Kasparov. Also André Glucksmann. Each and every such native informant outside the West who backed Bush. Even though Hitchens, Havel, Glucksmann and now Liu are dead, their whited sepulchres deserve no honour, and the people who still honour them in defence of their ‘cause’ perpetrate the very same lies that they told in that ‘cause’.

These people are not heroes; they are not paragons of civic virtue and democratic idealism; they are moral cowards. They are dogs, carrion birds and maggots. From actual defenders of democracy in particular, they deserve condemnation and censure at every turn, not for their support of ‘democracy’, but for their wilful support of totalitarian untruths, in the name of ‘democracy’. Such people destroyed my faith in ‘democracy’ as an ideal, and I will not go back to the tyrannies they cherish and represent, their graven Inannas soaked in sacrificial Iraqi blood.

Upon the heads of such people, horrified though they might be by his rise, belongs the brunt of the blame for the relativism and cynicism of the Age of Trump in their disdain for truth and their hatred of just critique – precisely because they were not punished for their lies. If not ‘fake news’ itself, then the warranted distrust of the traditional news media, began with Judith Miller’s tall tales of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and the immanent threats he and his nation posed to democracy, peace and the liberal order. The fact that no single liberal commentator lost a job over his support of the war, and that prizes were given instead and backs were patted, speaks volumes about the spiritual death of our entire modern political order, and its impotence in the face of the very authoritarianism it ostensibly set out to destroy. Those whom God would destroy, he first makes mad. The supporters of the war in Iraq, and especially the liberal ones, bear responsibility for the crisis of political legitimacy we are in today.

I am in dead earnest.

We are where we are now because democracy failed. And the failure is not the current administration’s. The failure belongs to the supporters of Bush. Even and particularly his liberal, democratic and idealist supporters.

And all this deserves to be said now more than ever, precisely because of Bush’s rehabilitation at the hands of liberals, democrats and idealists, showing that these people have learnt nothing from the rise of Trump.

17 November 2017

China’s pilot ‘slow food’ village in Sichuan


Anren, Dayi County, Sichuan Province 四川省大邑县安仁镇

Last month, the South China Morning Post ran a story on Sun Qun’s initiative for ‘slow food’ villages in southwest China, specifically in Sichuan. The pilot village will be the ‘ancient town’ of Anren in Dayi County. The ‘slow food’ movement, initiated in Italy on principles that could largely be considered as ‘distributist’, has apparently made common cause in this case with the Chinese New Left and the New Rural Reconstruction Movement. That movement itself is a legacy of the original Rural Reconstruction Movement kicked off by Jimmy Yen and Liang Shuming, and of which a young Mao Zedong was a notable member. As I am fond of saying: I’m certainly no apologist for the last, but his legacy is far more complex than many of his modern-day detractors are willing to admit.

It’s also worthy of note that this slow food village initiative has its nucleus and its pilot project in the deep-‘red’ rural Chinese inland. It also wouldn’t be the first time that traditionalist, rural and working-class concerns have overlapped in China’s recent political memory, though one hopes that these villages and the kinds of preservation they want to effect will be more politically-substantive than the hanfu movement. Ironically, and somewhat sadly, those commentators who do see a political meaning within the hanfu movement, both oppose it and deliberately ignore its working-class roots. I think we can expect to see, in the near future, more such discrediting attacks aimed at the slow food village initiative, even before it manages to take off.

I note also a certain degree of similarity between the slow food villages, and a certain urbanist counterpart, the Forest City Arcology in Guangxi. Both projects involve input from Italian ‘big concept’ thinkers and movements. Both projects are deliberately locating themselves in the Chinese inland. Both projects have an explicitly conservationist raison d’être. Both projects appeal to a specific kind of collective effort aimed at changing the boundary conditions for work, leisure and consumption. Both projects seek to circumvent capitalist waste, environmental destruction and cultural corrosion. (And both projects happen to appeal, to differing degrees, to a certain ex-expat blogger with both leftist and traditionalist sympathies.)

And yet there is a distinction to be drawn, and I’m not sure but it may yet be solely an æsthetic one. I admit to being more enthusiastic about the Slow Food Villages than I am about Forest City; in part, that may be because of my affinity for the Chinese New Left and the Rural Reconstruction movements with which it has consciously associated itself. It may also be the case that I’m attracted to such villages because they build on what’s already there, rather than planting a work of modern architecture ex nihilo. It will be interesting and edifying (uh, pardon the pun) to note what becomes of the arcology project in Guangxi; it will be still more interesting to see what happens with these Sichuanese slow food villages.

16 November 2017

Remembering Holy Apostle Matthew (rightly)


It’s been a habit of mine in past years to mark the feast-day of Saint Matthew by bringing to the fore his love for the Iranian people, both in his telling of the story of the Magi in the Gospel which bears his name and in his preaching the Gospel among that nation. Today as well that emphasis would not come amiss, as Iran struggles with the fallout of a great natural disaster. If possible, gentle readers, consider contributing on this Saint Matthew’s Day to the Child Foundation, a four-star charity which is assisting the victims of the Kermanshah Earthquake.

But it’s worth noting also, that in Orthodox hagiography and historiography, including in the Golden Legend, Saint Matthew was also responsible for evangelising among the Æthiopian people and bringing the Gospel into sub-Saharan Africa. Some parts of Africa, of course (and notably Æthiopia) have been Christian far longer than Europe has; to characterise African Christianity solely as the legacy of European missionaries is not only an insult to Saint Matthew, but also the very crudest sort of intellectual imperialism. Even now it is necessary to point out that the African churches are defending and advancing the whole of the Christian legacy even as Europe is abandoning it either for sæcular liberalism, or for an equally-sæcular race-nationalism.

Turning the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa into a political football for Western sexual identity politics and power projection (the two of which are never as far removed from each other as Westerners may think) has backfired spectacularly. This effort has spurred more Africans – on the whole more conservative than European whites – to begin to realise the importance of virtue ethics and the ethics of care when it comes to protecting themselves from the continuing colonial encroachments of their long-time oppressors. As I have said before – and I plan to get into this in further depth at a later time – African Christianity going back to Saint Matthew has had radical implications. It is not an accident and not some fluke of history that Marcus Garvey, Léopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and other great lights of pan-Africanism and African socialism were also drawn to traditional, apostolic Christianity.

If we’re going to remember the Holy Apostle Matthew today, let us do it rightly. Let us use it as an occasion for reflection and repentance. Let us reach out a hand to a suffering nation, a nation which taught us philosophy and right honour for the one God, many of us now still consider an enemy, but which Saint Matthew considered brothers and sisters in the Lord. Let us think back on our ill-treatment of our black African brothers and sisters, and instead of preaching to them now on what they should do and what they shouldn’t within their own countries, let us listen. They have been our brothers and sisters in the Gospel, since long before our barbarian ancestors living like wild animals in the northern woods of Europe had even heard the name of Jesus, the Christ. Let us remember the Holy Apostle Matthew and his missions to Persia and Æthiopia, then, in a respectful and attentive manner.