21 August 2017

Dustup in Dok-La


Given my interests in geopolitics in general, Asia in general and China in particular, the gentle reader may with some justification ask: where the hell have you been all this time on the Dok-La question? You delivered yourself of some fairly strong opinions on North Korea of late! Are you simply indulging an America-centric view of the world which ignores problems in which America has no direct stake?

There is some justice to these charges – particularly the last one. It’s true, I don’t read or speak Dzongkha or Hindi, and thus haven’t been as nearly exposed to one entire side of the dispute. It also hasn’t appeared as urgent to me as the threat of a nuclear war, which has since fizzled out into yet another by-this-point paint-by-numbers predictable domestic squabble inside the Trump Administration. But, in my own defence, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been following the story, that I don’t have any stake in it, or that I don’t have my own views on the subject.

My familial ties to China are well-known at this point. But I do also have a significant sympathy for Bhutan, for political-philosophical as well as cultural reasons. I have written before with guarded praise for the idea of the Gross National Happiness, an idea pioneered by King-Father Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan. Following David Bentley Hart’s excellent essay, I posted this comment to Facebook in June of last year:
Bhutan does have very strong environmental protections and is carbon-negative.

Not mentioned in the video is that it is also a traditionalist, monarchical and confessional state (though not a theocracy) which places a strong emphasis on retaining local traditions.
Which I then followed up with:
[With the exception of its treatment of the Nepalis,] Bhutan’s kind of got it together. Environmentally-friendly, Anglophile, traditional agrarian kingdom in the middle of South Asia. Doesn’t go stirring up trouble with India or China, but basically minds its own business and leaves everybody else alone. Conserves over 50% of its land area with federal park protections and state ownership. Has a distributist, scale-free œconomy and mostly trades locally (something like 83% of its trade is with India, and much of the rest with China and South Korea). Exports sustainable energy. Doesn’t put emphasis on growth-at-all-costs.
Even though they are a confessional monarchy belonging to the same branch of Buddhism as their northerly neighbours in Tibet, and even though the Bhutanese people deeply respect Tenzin Gyatso as a religious leader, both they and their political leadership tend to turn off the Dalai show when the subject of Tibetan politics arises. That’s probably not surprising, given that Tibet historically treated Bhutan and her kings as subservient clients, giving them fewer political considerations than Tibet herself received from the Qing Chinese government. Little wonder, given this history, that they treat the cause of Tibetan independence with so little sympathy (and Tibetan white émigrés with a certain degree of scepticism).

That very history, actually, is precisely the background one needs to have in order to understand Bhutan’s seemingly-complex interests in Dok-La. Like the Qazaqs, Bhutan’s people understand perfectly well the perils that come from being a small country wedged between two regional great powers, and the strategy they embrace is a parallel one: retain close and friendly diplomatic ties with both, but never too close with either one.

In general, then, but certainly in Dok-La and the Tri-Junction, Bhutan has several key interests at stake which must here be enumerated:
  1. Bhutan is simply not going to relinquish her territorial claims to the area. Not only is this in her own national interest, it’s also simply good strategy. It would set a bad precedent if she yielded a historical claim to a much larger territorial power on her border.

  2. Even less than contesting territory with China, Bhutan does not appreciate having her foreign policy essentially usurped by India – this is the part that reminds Bhutanese all too much of their days as a de facto vassal state of Tibet.

  3. Bhutan does not want a war between India and China. In particular, she does not want a war between India and China on her own territory. And she does not want to lose key elements of her national sovereignty to the victor in such a conflict.
Sadly, in the current situation, Bhutan has become something of a political football between Chinese and Indian great power interests. There is far more to be said on the subject, of course. Modi’s aggressive, religiously-tinged revisionist brand of Indian nationalism is obviously not helping matters, and is pushing things in a predictable direction. And Japan’s LDP government acting as an accelerationist element on India’s behalf, unctuous and disgusting as it is, is obviously no surprise to me either. But for the present, for Bhutan’s own sake, it’s necessary to look for and work for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Dok-La.


EDIT: I seem to have made a fairly egregious omission, which would leave the reader with the wrong impression if taken the wrong way. Bhutan has been continuously independent since the 900’s at the very latest, although the country has had a treaty of friendship with India since 1949 that allowed the latter to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy. Tibet and India have at various times in history exerted strong influences on Bhutan’s culture and politics, but never to the point of establishing total suzerainty over them. Still, Bhutan has jealously guarded her own independence from both nations for at least 1100 years, and they aren’t about to start compromising now. More power to the Dragon Kingdom.

19 August 2017

Alt-right? All ‘lite’


From The Death of Major Peirson, John Singleton Copley, 1783

It’s as I’ve been saying for awhile now. My biggest problem with the nouvelle nouvelle-droite, or the ‘alt-right’, is that they’re philosophically weak. I believe I had them pegged as a ‘rancid mixture of free-speech absolutism, postmodernism and white identity politics’; to that I’d add that they haven’t gone anywhere far enough down their rabbit hole. Certainly not as much as they like to pretend they have. Nothing bores so much as a poseur, and the ‘alt-right’ are pretty much all low-calorie fizzy drinks.

Think about it this way. If the ‘edgiest’ thing they have on offer is the idea that the races are not equal, then there’s no real difference between the views they’re offering and the original formulations of, say, Kant or Hume (and arguably Locke as well, though it seems from the primary sources that Locke was less doctrinaire in his ‘race realism’ – or at the very least inconsistent in it). Kant and Hume both posited ‘scientific’ hierarchies of the races, which look remarkably similar to those proposed by the ‘human biodiversity’ people today – with whites being blessed with superior intelligence and blacks with inferior intelligence but greater ‘brute’ strength. So, if anything, the nouvelle nouvelle-droite are really just peddling weak tea from the used teabags of the original Enlightenment. If your only, or even most prominent, objections to Enlightenment liberalism are based on race, then you don’t actually have any.

The easiest way to understand the fundamental insipidity of the alt-right and the milquetoast, limpwristed nature of their intellectual pretensions to ‘reaction’, lies in the confluence of the alt-right’s intellectual lodestones with transhumanism, eugenicism and technological utopianism, primarily through the LessWrong crowd. The fact that there are so few teleological differences between the alt-right’s ideal society and the ideal society most ‘progressive’-minded Americans of the 1910’s and 1920’s envisioned, should drop a massive hint that these guys are all guff. There’s very little of Voegelin’s belief in epistemic limitations in any of the nouvelle nouvelle-droite, less of the characteristic caution of Kirk (whom Vox Day, speaking for the alt-right, explicitly rejects), still less of the ‘small-is-beautiful’ sensibility of Carlson, and nothing at all of the tragic classical sensibilities of Strauss or Bloom. For someone whose introduction to the American tradition of classical conservatism was through the anti-fascist poet and historian Peter Viereck, the nouvelle nouvelle-droite strikes me as so thoroughly lacking in any of the vital, creative or self-reflective elements of this tradition as to be a complete non-starter.

Then, consider that the opposition to the growing infatuation with Enlightenment ideas at the time was basically on the other side of the contemporary argument about race. The Anglo-American Tory moralist tradition (represented by such people as Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Beilby Porteous, Richard Oastler, John Strachan, William Wilberforce, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, enriched by dialogue and practical coöperation with the Quakers) proceeded from the belief that black people were not ontologically inferior to whites. And all of these people, in one way or another, were also strident critics of what they saw as a sustained assault by Scottish and French philosophes on the traditional social strictures of Church and state.

But to these voices were joined, on the Continent, the Counter-Enlightenment thinking of – in particular – Johann Gottfried Herder (‘Notwithstanding the varieties of the human form, there is but one and the same species of man throughout the whole earth’), Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (who took an admirable linguistic interest in South Asia) and August Franz von Haxthausen (a devout Catholic and counter-Enlightenment thinker, whose sociological work in the German East and in Russia was aimed squarely against the anti-Asiatic racism of Custine). The work of the Orthodox Slavophils, in particular Khomyakov with his opposition to British imperialism in China, may be seen in this vein as well. Clearly there was something in the return to the Church that both the Anglo-American Tories and the Continental Counter-Enlightenment thinkers that strongly militated against racism and colonialism.

As a brief aside: poor Schlegel is emphatically not to blame for that later, perverse Franco-German interest in South Asia. Schlegel, like Tolkien later, was interested not in race ‘science’ but instead in linguistics, and attempted to show how European languages, and ‘Eastern’ Indo-Iranian languages like Sanskrit and Farsi, derive from a common root language. Rather, that Franco-German perversion is what happens when you try to bastardise the Romantics by attempting to fit them into pseudo-scientific categories of thought, of the sort pioneered by Carl Linnæus.

But let’s consider a group of ‘alt’-thinkers who actually did threaten the thought-establishment – to the point where the CIA took actions against them. Whatever their other faults, it is not an accident, and should not be seen as such, that many of the twentieth-century voices for pan-African regionalism and the non-aligned movement migrated to Apostolic Christianity – likely following the example of Broad Church Anglican convert and abolitionist Quobna Ottobah Cugoano. Many were either Roman Catholic (Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Kambarage Nyerere) or Orthodox (HM Haile Selassie I, Bp. George Alexander McGuire, Fr. Raphael Morgan, Bp. Christophoros Reuben Spartas Mukasa Mugimba Ssebanja). These pioneers of African political philosophy and religious thought saw clearly the links between liberal Enlightenment thinking and the oppression they were then still under, and hearkened instead to the classics of Christian thought, which offered a far truer account of the human person and the virtue-oriented potential for freedom.

Speaking of the last, the great classical virtue-ethical philosopher Plotinus was born on the African continent, and should rightly be considered as much part of the legacy of Africa as of the West. The ‘conservative, reactionary and right-wing’ (in the elder sense) Imperial British poet Lawrence Durrell even made reference to Plotinus’ ‘great square Negro head, reverberating with the concept of God’! Take special care to see that it’s a British Old Rightist speaking up against the notion of black intellectual inferiority, in the context of the classical Western world.

To tie all this up: this recent comment from the excellent modern-day Roman Catholic High Tory commentator, David Lindsay, not only rings especially true, not only echoes Herder and not only cuts straight against the current gender-ideological and identitarian silliness on both sides of the political moment, but it is fixed quite firmly in the spirit of Johnson’s High Toryism. A spirit I profoundly endorse.
Any two human beings, no matter how divergent their ethnicity, can produce a child. Provided that one of them is a man, and the other is a woman.

All human beings belong, not only to a single species, but to a single subspecies, with less biological difference between any two than there is between a Labrador and a
dachshund. The differences that there are, have been changing constantly ever since they first began to emerge, since they have not always been there.

But the difference between the two sexes has always been there, and it is written into the chromosomes of every cell of the body, no matter how the tissue may or may not be cut up.

On the first of these realisations depends every past and future achievement of the anti-racist movement. On the second depends every past and future achievement of the women’s movement. There must be no compromise on either as a matter of political principle. There actually can be no compromise on either as a matter of scientific fact.
Well said indeed.

17 August 2017

Silly rabbit, Dixie’s for Whigs


Some further thoughts on Charlottesville here.

This war over Confederate statuary is in fact a war over symbols that themselves do not stand up to scrutiny. The defenders of Confederate statuary sadly continue to play-act as defenders of a deep Southern ‘tradition’, ‘roots’, ‘heritage’, ‘pride’. It is on this basis that they appeal to elements like the right-wing protesters that met at C-ville this past weekend. Meanwhile, the boosters of removal, such as Black Lives Matter, continue to pretend that the war was solely a contest between progress and slavery, humanity and racism.

The thing is, the entire war over Confederate symbolism, is two separate movements of organised forgetting. This organised forgetting has absolutely nothing to do either with defending real traditions, or with advancing true racial equity. It has everything to do with two competing idealisations of what the American experiment ought to have been. Because the devil’s often in the details, reality sadly gets short shrift between these two.

Allow me to present two or three very inconvenient facts about the geopolitics and ‘big principles’ behind the Civil War. The first inconvenient fact is that the Confederate cause was sustained overwhelmingly by British guns, and thus by the largest imperialistic military-industrial apparatus of the day – and that at the behest of Britain’s Liberal Party, whose leadership (Palmerston and Gladstone) were enthusiastic supporters of the Confederacy, for wholly mercenary œconomistic reasons. The British material support for the Confederacy was based on the entirely natural presupposition that, with the war’s close, the American South would provide raw materials for British industry and British capital. The American South was poised to become a willing outpost of what was, at that point in history, the most ‘progressive’ liberal-internationalist maritime empire the world had ever seen.

Among the Tories of the day, among whom interest in the Civil War overall was much less pronounced, Benjamin Disraeli was far more circumspect and opposed any intervention (military or œconomic) in the American Civil War; and while Lord Salisbury did support the South in private, he thought nonetheless that the Liberal commitment of materiel (let alone British naval power) was foolish. It might be somewhat simplistic to say that the mercantile, business-loving Whigs favoured pro-Confederate intervention, while the landowning, genteel Tories favoured non-intervention – but from an investigation of the secondary literature, that isn’t a bad overall characterisation of the British political landscape between 1861 and 1865.

The second inconvenient fact is that the Union’s best friend in Europe during the Civil War was not a force for democracy or radicalism or ‘progress’ at all, but indeed the last true autocracy there: the Imperial Russia of Tsar Aleksandr II. The reasons for this support and show of friendship for the Union from Russia were grounded, not in ideology, but instead in geopolitics and classical realism. Lincoln had stood for the principle of state sovereignty over the Polish question while the Western European powers howled for ‘humanitarian intervention’. Tsar Aleksandr II, by sending a fleet to defend San Francisco from Confederate raiders, was returning the favour: supporting the principle of state sovereignty whilst thwarting British and French designs in the Western Hemisphere. True, Lincoln’s intention to emancipate the slaves appealed to the Slavophil sensibility and to Aleksandr’s ‘reformist-autocratic’ personality. But it’s hard to tell whether these concerns were ever placed on the front burner, so to speak. Geopolitics was complicated even back then.

Now, let’s talk about Lincoln himself. Time was when I considered Lincoln an overrated president, but the more I read about him, the more respect I have for him. Partizans of Confederate honour – particularly those adhering to an idealistic libertarian œconomic philosophy that historically had nothing to do with conservatism – tend to characterise Lincoln as a ‘tyrant’, or else a ‘despot’ or an ‘emperor’. But ‘tyrant’ is the word of choice that gets plastered all over the place among the Lost Cause partizans, whether at Lew Rockwell’s site or the Ludwig von Mises Institute or elsewhere.

But it’s common for liberal idealists of the centre-left as well to label anyone who dissents from neoliberal œconomic or geopolitical ‘consensus’, particularly from a realist view determined by genuine national interest, as an ‘authoritarian’. Why should we be surprised to hear the same from the liberal idealists of the right, about a leader who dissented from the liberal free-trade empire of the day? That’s reason enough to give Lincoln a second view. A more balanced, realist and (I dare say) High Tory understanding of Lincoln would look much more like that given to us by the last generation’s dean of conservative foreign-policy realism in America, Hans Morgenthau:
Statesmen, especially under contemporary conditions, may well make a habit of presenting their foreign policies in terms of their philosophic and political sympathies in order to gain popular support for them. Yet they will distinguish with Lincoln between their “official duty”, which is to think and act in terms of the national interest, and their “personal wish”, which is to see their own moral values and political principles realized throughout the world. Political realism does not require, nor does it condone, indifference to political ideals and moral principles, but it requires indeed a sharp distinction between the desirable and the possible—between what is desirable everywhere and at all times and what is possible under the concrete circumstances of time and place.
The partizans of Confederate statuary claim that removing the statues is tantamount to ‘erasing history’. I would argue that they’re already doing a bang-up job of that on their own, without any help from BLM or the Antifas or anyone else – and they’re doing it by creating glib narratives that seek to link up the money-driven aims of the Confederacy with grander causes. But – whether in Britain or in Russia – the forces of the Old Right wanted nothing to do with the Confederacy, which they rightly saw as an ideological experiment every bit as suspect as the Revolution which had preceded it.

16 August 2017

Plato on democracy, tyranny and freedom

‘Does tyranny come from democracy in about the same manner as democracy from oligarchy?’

‘How?’

‘The good that they proposed for themselves,’ I [Socrates] said, ‘and for the sake of which oligarchy was established, was wealth, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes.’

‘And then the greediness for wealth and the neglect of the rest [of the people] for the sake of money-making destroyed it.’

‘True,’ [Adeimantus] said.

‘And does the greediness for what democracy defines as good also dissolve it?’

‘What do you say it defines that good to be?’

‘Freedom,’ I said. ‘For surely in a city under a democracy you would hear that this is the finest thing it has, and that for this reason it is the only
régime worth living in for anyone who is by nature free.’

‘Yes indeed,’ he said, 'that’s an often repeated phrase.’

‘Then,’ I said, 'as I was going to say just now, does the insatiable desire of this [freedom] and the neglect of the rest [of moderation, shame, order] change this
régime and prepare a need for tyranny?’

‘How?’ he said.

‘I suppose that when a democratic city, once it’s thirsted for freedom, gets bad winebearers as its leaders and gets more drunk than it should on this unmixed draught, then, unless the rulers are very gentle and provide a great deal of freedom, it punishes them, charging them with being polluted and oligarchs.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s what they do.’

‘And it spatters with mud those who are obedient, alleging that they are willing slaves of the rulers and nothings,’ I said, 'while it praises and honours—both in private and in public—the rulers who are like the ruled and the ruled who are like the rulers. Isn’t it necessary in such a city that freedom spread to everything?’

‘How could it be otherwise?’

‘And, my friend,’ I said, ‘for it to filter down to the private houses and end up by anarchy’s being planted in the very beasts?’

‘How do we mean that?’

‘That a father,’ I said, ‘habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents—that’s so he may be free; and metic is on an equal level with townsman and townsman with metic, and similarly with the foreigner.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s what happens.’

‘These and other small things of the following kind come to pass,’ I said. ‘As the teacher in such a situation is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers, as well as of their attendants. And, generally, the young copy their elders and compete with them in speeches and deeds while the old come down to the level of the young; imitating the young, they are overflowing with faculty and charm, and that’s so that they won’t seem to be overbearing and despotic.’

‘Most certainly,’ he said.

[…]

‘Then, summing all of these things together,’ I said, ‘do you notice how tender they make the citizens’ soul, so that if someone proposes anything that smacks in any way of slavery, they are irritated and can’t stand it? And they end up, as you well know, paying no attention to the laws, written or unwritten, in order that they may avoid having any master at all.’

‘Of course, I know it,’ he said.

‘Well then, my friend,’ I said, ‘this is the beginning, so fair and heady, from which tyranny in my opinion naturally grows.’

‘It surely is a heady beginning,’ he said, ‘but what’s next?’

‘The same disease,’ I said, ‘as that which arose in the oligarchy and destroyed it, arises also in this
régime—but bigger and stronger as a result of the licence—and enslaves democracy. And really, anything that is done to excess is likely to provoke a correspondingly great change in the opposite direction—in seasons, in plants, in bodies, and, in particular, not least in régimes.’
- Plato, The Republic (562a-e, 563d-564a)

15 August 2017

To be sure


At the Divine Liturgy for the Dormition of the Theotokos earlier this morning, the reading was from the Gospel of Saint Luke. It was the story of Mary and Martha, and a segment afterwards from when Jesus healed a dumb man possessed by a dæmon, that a ‘certain woman from the crowd’ praised Jesus highly, by way of praising His mother the Theotokos: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!

From my time as a Mennonite and then as an Anglican, I have been accustomed to hearing Jesus reply to the woman from the crowd with a kind of rabbinical rebuke – a sort of pietistic tut-tutting to an all-too-worldly woman who would be so gauche as to mention wombs and breasts in her praise of Him. Jesus would always say to her, ‘rather’ or ‘but’ or even ‘on the contrary’! It was as if Jesus was attempting to deny or to downplay the biological facts of His birth, the particular place and person from which He came – in favour of a more ‘spiritualised’ and otherworldly understanding of what it means to be ‘blessed’. But that was not what I heard today from the Gospel as it was read aloud at Saint Herman’s! This time, Christ replied to the woman:
To be sure, and blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!
To be sure!’ The Greek word μενουν can mean ‘but’, but it very rarely occurs at the beginning of a sentence the way it does in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Christ was not contradicting or correcting or rebuking the woman from the crowd. Still less was He denying His mother or ungratefully downplaying her care for Him. The μενουν here means ‘and moreover’ – the KJV comes closest to the meaning with the phrasing ‘Yea, rather’. ‘To be sure!

I have to admit that that was a bit of a shock to my system. Jesus’ relationship with His mother was kind of transfigured there, just as He himself was transfigured a week ago. There was a much greater warmth in Jesus’ words this morning, not just to His mother, but also to the ‘certain woman from the crowd’ who praised Him (and her also). Jesus was adding to her praise, glorifying His mother for the one act by which she brought Him into the world. Because she had heard the word of God, and she said ‘yes’ to it! ‘Be it unto me according to thy word.

But she was no angel, no cælestial power or principality, no goddess nor demi-goddess of the sort the Greeks were used to acknowledging, nor was she at all like Leda or Europa or Alcmene or any of the other mortal consorts (mostly unwilling or unwitting) of Zeus. Like them, though, she was a mortal human being, a woman in every meaningful way like the woman from the crowd who praised her Son and blessed her womb and breasts – though one who was a virgin and remained one even in childbearing. But she was no passive agent, no mere consort. She was not hoodwinked. Her free will was never violated in any way. Through that freely-given and knowing ‘yes’ of hers, in bearing God Incarnate unto the world, she had – in some mysterious sense, a sense defying the logic of time and space and the reality of death – some hand even in the first Creation. In that way, to be sure, being the Mother of God she is the Mother of us all, the Mother of Life itself.

But because she was no angel nor any sort of cælestial being, but every bit as much a woman as the ‘certain woman from the crowd’ who called out to Jesus – that is to say, every bit as much a human being as any of the rest of us her children through Christ – there is something of a warning and a reminder in that ‘to be sure’: to us, to warn us from thinking wrongly of the Theotokos. That is why we celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, rather than the Assumption. We do not hold that Mary was somehow more than human in nature. Her advantage over us sinners, is that she actually did hear the word of God and kept it; and then went on to bear Christ, to care for Christ, to feed Christ, to love Christ the Son of God as her own son. She was not preserved from toil or weariness or worry or the bitterness of sorrow, seeing her Son crucified on the Cross and suffering the death that every single one of us is subject to. And at her end, she was not preserved from falling asleep herself.

They speak wrongly, and unworthily, of the Theotokos who say that she was transported to Heaven without first falling asleep. To be sure, she was taken to Heaven, living in body and spirit. But by making the Ever-Virgin Mary something ontologically more-than-human, they lessen her humanity and they lessen (every bit as much as the predestinarians) the honour which is rightly due to her, that she freely chose to hear the word of God and keep it. By ‘forgetting the body’ of the Ever-Virgin Theotokos in the wrong way (and thus daring to do what Christ did not, in correcting or contradicting the woman from the crowd), they actually do her a grave injustice. It then becomes all-too-easy to forget that she was Jewish; that she was a woman of Nazareth; that she was working-class; that she was a subject of the Roman Empire and their Herodean client kings; that her father and mother Saints Joachim and Anna remembered the Hasmonean Kingdom with fondness and no doubt prayed for its restoration. In short, in forgetting the Dormition it becomes easier to forget the Theotokos as she was: an obedient daughter, a loving mother, a humble woman magnified by her love.

To be sure: she was every single one of those things.
Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos,
The unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection.
As Mother of Life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb
Transposed her to life.

The Dormition of the Mother of God

Въ рождествѣ дѣвство сохранила еси,
Во успеніи міра не оставила еси, Богородице,
Преставилася еси къ животу, Мати сущи Живота:
И молитвами Твоими избавляеши отъ смерти души наша.

In giving birth you preserved your virginity,
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O
Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
And by your prayers you deliver our souls from death.

13 August 2017

Saint Tikhon the Wonderworker of Zadonsk, Bishop of Voronezh and Elets


Saint Tikhon, Bishop and Wonderworker

One of the easier reads I’ve done this year – easy, but by no means ‘light’ or shallow; it was full of profundity and wisdom – was Journey to Heaven: Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian (original title: «Наставления о личных обязанностях каждого христианина»), a collection of writings and homilies by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, Bishop of Voronezh. Saint Tikhon, an academically-trained philosopher and rhetorician, offered up in his writings the truths of Christian doctrine, written (and presumably spoken) in a way that ordinary folk can easily grasp. This sterling simplicity – by no means indicative of a lack of learning or, worse, condescension – was one of the marks that earned him the moniker of ‘the Russian Chrysostom’. The other such mark was, of course, his steadfast sympathy and solidarity with the poor.

That solidarity came very easily and naturally to Bishop Saint Tikhon, of course. He had been poor himself, and had come from a poor family. Born Timofei in 1724 in the small village of Korotsko in the Valdai Hills southeast of Veliky Novgorod, his father, a sexton named Savelii Kirillov, died when he was still a very young child, leaving his family in dire financial straits. He was one of six children growing up in the house of their widowed mother, who, when the family had nothing at all to eat, considered giving Timofei up for adoption to a rich but childless coachman who lived nearby. However, his eldest brother Piotr intervened and implored their mother not to give him up, believing little Timofei to be better-suited to reading and writing than to being a coachman, however rich.

That belief was well-placed. The Kirillovs had to work hard, long days for even meagre food in the fields of richer peasants, young Timofei included. Timofei’s mother enrolled him in the parish school to keep him from being conscripted for the military by the government of Empress Anna; there he had to work in the vegetable gardens in order to earn his tuition – and the rest of his time he spent in study. His schoolmates made fun of him and mocked him, both for his serious and scholarly bent and for his ragged clothes. However, he passed his examinations in the top fifth of his class and earned a state grant to study at seminary in Novgorod. There he gained a deep knowledge of Greek, classical philosophy and rhetoric as well as church learning. He finished his course of study in 1754 and became a lecturer.

His hagiography shows that two incidents from his life as a student left a deep impression on him. At one time he went up to an old, decrepit bell-tower and leaned over the railing, only to be shoved backwards by an unseen force and thrown clear just as the railing gave way, saving him from a deadly fall. At another time, when he was studying at night, he saw the heavens open up and felt a light shining on him. After leaving school he became a monk, and took the tonsure under the name of Tikhon, and was appointed the rector of his monastery on account of his learning. He was the first to give lectures on theology in the vernacular Russian rather than in Latin, and his plain manner of speaking and the topics he would speak on drew such interest that he drew crowds from outside the monastery.

At this time, at Peterburg, the Synod was deciding on a new bishop for Novgorod, and they threw lots. Saint Tikhon’s name was providentially drawn three times in succession. When he came to Novgorod, he received the local clergy with joy and love – among them several of the students who had teased him at school, whom he readily forgave. He found his eldest sister, sick and impoverished, living there in Novgorod – he tended her during her last days with a younger brother’s love, and when she died he tended to her funeral. It is said that she smiled to him from her coffin.

His tenure at Novgorod was not long – he was soon transferred to Voronezh in Russia’s southeast, a see where, in his words, ‘the harvest was great, but the workers few’. Voronezh was a vast but poorly-organised see with few clergy, lax discipline and a populace in which the dvoe verie was still quite strong. The young bishop set to work with zeal, often on horseback. Caring deeply about the education of the common folk, setting up schools was one of his priorities. He also castigated the local nobility and wealthy peasantry and exhorted them to share what they had with the poor. However, he is renowned for delivered a fiery homily impromptu, to break up a heathen festival to Yarila in the square at Voronezh. In addition to this, knowing the state of his bishopric, he wrote prodigiously for the benefit and edification of the clergy and the laity, often staying up very late nights at his desk.

He himself was remarkably kind to the poor. Remembering his own childhood in poverty, he distributed his possessions, the gifts he received, and even his own pension to those who needed money and even shared his supper with those who had nothing to eat. He went out into the town clothed as an ordinary monk, to ask which townsfolk were in need of assistance, and even gathered orphans and poor children to him to share bread and give small change to them. He loved to be of service, particularly to the people of the town of Elets and to the peasantry who lived around the monastery of Zadonsk. When someone was injured or fell ill, the saint often let them recuperate in his own bed.

As an abbot, he maintained good friendships with the monks as well as with notables outside, but he led a fairly austere life. The workers at the monastery, who didn’t understand his discipline, would sometimes laugh at him, but Saint Tikhon would take it in stride. He sometimes stayed with the laymen Iakov Rostovtsev and Kuzma Sudeikin. At one time, he saw the schemamonk Mitrophan – one of his good friends at the abbey – dining together with Kuzma: even though it was Lent, they were eating fish, since Kuzma would not be with them on Palm Sunday. The two men were frightened and ashamed, but Saint Tikhon did not rebuke them. Instead he told them, ‘love is higher than fasting’, and shared the fish with them to put their minds at rest. Toward novices and toward other laymen he was similarly lenient, forgiving and understanding, even though he kept a strict ascetic discipline himself. He often advised parents not to let their children become monks, particularly not at early ages – though he was equally ready to put great trust in new monastics whose devotion was genuine.

Saint Tikhon acquired the gifts of healing and foresight through his humility, though he was careful not to publicise them. He healed one of his cell attendants who had a serious illness, with the words: ‘Go, and God have mercy upon you’. He had several visions of the Holy Theotokos, and prophesied several important events, including the victory of Russia over Napoleon’s armies in 1812.

As he neared his end, Saint Tikhon withdrew almost completely into solitude, permitting no one to see him except his close friends and cell attendants. One night he heard a quiet voice speak in his ear: ‘Your end will be on the Lord’s Day’; and at another time: ‘Labour yet another three years.’ Fifteen months before his death he was stricken with paralysis; at this time he had a vision of having to climb toward Heaven upon a ladder, with many people behind him encouraging him and lifting him upwards. These people, he knew, were the people who had heard him and who would remember his life.

He reposed on 13 August, 1783 – a Sunday. The new bishop of Voronezh presided at his funeral, and mentioned in his eulogy that no matter how hard his passing would be for him, it would be yet harder for the unfortunate, poor and oppressed – at which point he and all those listening to him broke into sobs. However, the schemamonk Mitrophan had a vision of Saint Tikhon’s glorification, and his relics were uncovered in 1845 and discovered to be incorrupt. He was formally glorified in 1861.

Reading Saint Tikhon’s writings, it is easy to understand how deeply appreciated he must have been. But even more so when one considers that he lived in an age where sæcular learning and humility didn’t often coincide in one person, and in which most learned men didn’t bother to write or preach in Russian. Fedotov did not write about holy men from the early modern period, though I suspect – given his work on earlier periods – that the historian would see in him a sterling example of the kenotic spirituality that was strongest among the Novgorodian clergy. From Journey to Heaven, here are several of the better quotes I found. This one is on the providence and great love of God:
God is our provider. He takes thought for us and cares for us. He gives us our food, clothing and home. His sun, moon and stars give us light. His fire warms us and we cook our food with it. His water washes us and refreshes us. His beasts serve us. His air enlivens us and keeps us alive. In a word, we are surrounded with His blessings and love, and without them we are not able to live for a moment. Then how can we not love God who loves us so? We love a man who does good; all the more should we love God Who does good, Whose we are and everything we may possess. All creation, and man himself is God’s possession. ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.’
On love of neighbour, as a sign of love for God:
A sign of love for God is love for neighbour.

He who truly loves God also loves his neighbour. He who loves the lover loves what is loved by him. The source of love for neighbour is love for God, but the love of God is known from love of neighbour. Hence it is apparent, that he who does not love his neighbour, does not love God either.

As the Apostle teaches: ‘If a man say, I love God, but hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God Whom he hath not seen? And this commandment we have from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.’

These are the signs of love for God hidden in the heart of a man.
On God’s mercy and forgiveness of sins:
Do not despair of whatever sins you may have committed since Baptism and find yourself in true repentance, but await God’s mercy. However many and however great and however burdensome your sins may be, with God there is greater mercy. Just as His majesty is, so likewise is His mercy.
On the differential duties of rich and poor:
Works of mercy are exalted before the whole world by Christ, the just Judge and in other places in Holy Scripture. Christian! If you wish to partake of this blessedness, be merciful and generous to the poor.

Do you have much? Then give much. Do you have little? Then give a little, but give from the heart. Alms are not judged by the number of what is given, but by the zeal of the giver,
for God loveth a cheerful giver. Now you give into the hands of the poor man and the pauper, but you will receive a hundredfold from the hands of Christ. Then give, and do not be afraid. What is given shall not be lost, for He that promised is faithful.

Many Christians do not think that alms receive such a great reward and either guard their property like watchmen or they squander it on their whims and luxuries. Hoarded property will be left to strangers, and often even falls into the hands of enemies. What is squandered into whims and luxury perishes, as you see for yourself, O man! But both of these, hoarders and squanderers, are not only deprived of blessedness, but they shall be cast out by God as wicked servants. Beware of this, O Christian!
On stewardship of wealth and almsgiving generally:
If you have riches, avoid applying your heart to them, lest you thus depart in your heart from God. Ye cannot serve both God and mammon. Likewise avoid squandering God’s blessings on whims and luxury; they are given to you from God not for your sake alone, but also for the sake of other poor people. Remember that you are the steward, and not the master of these goods. The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof. Be a faithful steward of your Lord, then, and not a squanderer of the Lord’s property; and contenting yourself with moderation, thank the Creator of all good things and provide for poor people. Both those that guard their property like watchmen and those that squander it on whims and luxuries will be without excuse and shall be put to shame at the Judgement of Christ. Avoid this lest you be condemned with the wicked servants.

If you have gathered property through injustice, bestow it on the poor, lest it reprove you at the second coming of Christ. In this matter imitate Zacchæus the publican, whom Christ set as an example for all. It is better to live in poverty than in unrighteous wealth. Choose, then, what is better and distribute what was ill-gotten. If you do this, believe the Lord, that He will not forsake you, and that He Who does not even forsake even birds and feeds them and provides for all creatures will give you what is needful for your life.
Holy Tikhon, Bishop and Wonderworker, pray to God for us sinners!
From your youth you loved Christ, O blessed one.
You have been an example for all by word, life, love, faith, purity, and humility.
Therefore, you now abide in the heavenly mansions,
Where you stand before the throne of the All-Holy Trinity.
Holy Hierarch Tikhon, pray for the salvation of our souls!

12 August 2017

Metropolitan Antony and Bishop Saint Tikhon on racism


Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) of blessed memory, the first primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, had this to say against pogroms and against violence toward Jews. Note that he did not only speak out against anti-Semitism, but also placed his own person in between a vengeful far-right mob in Volyn and their Jewish targets.
God’s recompense will fall upon those evil people who have shed blood which is of the same race as the Theanthropos, His most pure Mother, Apostles and Prophets. Do not suppose that this blood was sacred only in the past, but understand that even in the future reconciliation to the divine nature awaits them, as Christ’s chosen vessel further testifies, ‘For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written. There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.’

Let the savage know that they have slain future Christians who were yet in the loins of the present day Jews; let them know that they have shown themselves to be bankrupt opponents of God’s providence, persecutors of a people beloved by God, even after its rejection.

How sinful is enmity against Jews, based on an ignorance of God’s law, and how shall it be forgiven when it arises from abominable and disgraceful impulses. The robbers of the Jews did not do so as revenge for opposition to Christianity, rather they lusted for the property and possessions of others. Under the thin guise of zeal for the faith, they served the demon of covetousness. They resembled Judas who betrayed Christ with a kiss while blinded with the sickness of greed, but these murderers, hiding themselves behind Christ’s name, killed His kinsmen according to the flesh in order to rob them.

When have we beheld such fanaticism? In Western Europe during the middle ages, heretics and Jews were shamefully executed, but not by mobs intent on robbing them.

How can one begin to teach people who stifle their own conscience and mercy, who snuff out all fear of God and, departing from the holy temple even on the bright day of Christ’s Resurrection, a day dedicated to forgiveness and love, but which they rededicate to robbery and murder?
And here is Bishop Saint Tikhon (Bellavin) of Moscow taking on the more fundamental sin behind the phenomenon of racism, in a homily delivered in San Francisco to his American parishioners on 23 June, 1900, exhorting them to come to the aid of the Aleut and Inuit parishes in Alaska, who were suffering from dearth of food and medicine at the time:
We must help our brothers in the Faith. It does not matter that they belong to a different, less civilised race. It is not civilisation at all—which shamefully is preached by some—wherein the sole idea is that the white race must not only be prevailing in the world, but must wipe out the other ‘coloured’ races; and if the natives die, it’s for the better, so it’s not worth taking care of them. True civilisation consists in giving as many people as possible access to the benefits of life, to elevate the lower races to the level of the higher ones. Since all people originate from one man, all are children of one Heavenly Father; all were redeemed by the most pure blood of Christ; in Whom ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free’. All are brothers and must love one another—love one another not only in words, but in deeds as well. And so in the name of this love of Christ, we must help our brothers of the far north.
And lest you think, in error, that this is merely the opinion of two lone Russian bishops, which may be safely ignored, here is the official Church teaching on racism, delivered at the Synod of Constantinople in 1872:
We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which ‘support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness’.
Holy Father Tikhon of Moscow, Metropolitan Antony of Kiev, and the Fathers of the 1872 Holy Synod of Constantinople, pray to God for us sinners. Pray that the spirit of peace and justice may come swiftly to us in America, and to the people of Charlottesville in particular. We ask your intercessions to God, for mercy upon the souls of Jay, Berke and the 34-year-old woman who lost her life at the protest there, that their memories be made eternal.

10 August 2017

Jimmy Yen – left-wing Chinese Christian rural advocate


YC James Yen 晏阳初

‘People are the foundation of the nation; if the foundation is firm, then the nation enjoys tranquillity.’ So taught our Chinese ancients several thousand years ago. With how much greater truth is this teaching charged when applied to the Republic of China to-day! To build a firm ‘foundation’ for this Republic or any other republic, one of the greatest essential needs is the highest possible level of general intelligence for the people.

Go to the people. Live among them. Learn from them. Love them. Serve them. Plan with them. Start with what they know. Build on what they have.

Advocating for the peasantry a half-generation before Fei Xiaotong 费孝通, and working alongside Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 and Tao Xingzhi 陶行知 in the first movement for rural reconstruction, was YC James ‘Jimmy’ Yen, or Yan Yangchu 晏阳初.

Even though they moved in the same intellectual and political circles, and even though they shared many of the same attitudes toward rural development, Dr Fei Xiaotong was a fairly strident critic of the generation of rural advocates which preceded him. It’s been claimed by David Arkush that Fei considered the ‘last Confucian gentleman’ Liang Shuming a romantic and a ‘hopeless old reactionary’. In spite of his insistence on China’s collectivist psychology, Fei was much closer to the thought of the West. For his advocacy of rural industrial coöperatives and local government, as well as for the similarity of his thinking on technology to that of EF Schumacher, I previously claimed him as a Chinese distributist, but as a student of Bronisław Malinowski and of Fabianism in Britain, Fei had a Ruskinite approach to Chinese culture and a preference for deliberative forms of socialism in China’s development.

For related reasons, Fei was also fairly unsparing in his criticisms of earlier generations of Chinese sociology and rural activism – that of James Yen and Tao Xingzhi included. Fei expanded on the criticisms of his mentor, Wu Wenzao 吴文藻, of the Rockefeller-funded studies undertaken by Yen, Tao and others in places like Dingxian 定县: that they were lacking in scientific merit, being mere ‘collections of facts’ without providing hypothetical grounds of inquiry or valid scholarly conclusions. (Ironically, many of the same ‘scientific’ criticisms Fei levelled at the earlier generation of rural advocates, would later be aimed at him and his work in a much more extreme form, during the Anti-Rightist Campaign.)

But James Yen is well worth considering in his own right. A native of Bazhong in Sichuan (it should be stressed here that all three of the Rural Reconstruction pioneers were inland Chinese – Liang Shuming was from Guangxi and Tao Xingzhi from Anhui), and the child of a Confucian man-of-letters himself learned in the Classics, Yen started learning the Western canon (xixue 西学) at an American high school in Chengdu, run by the Protestant missionary William Aldis. Aldis’s Christianity – and particularly its Social Gospel aspect – left a deep impression on Jimmy Yen, both in his faith and in his social activism. After graduation he would attend Hong Kong University, which he left two years early due to the bigotry he encountered from the British and the local Anglicised Cantonese, and Yale.

Yen served in the Army in France during the First World War. He was originally tasked with supervising workers – northern Chinese peasants enlisted as behind-the-lines ‘coolies’ by the British. These workers were hazed and humiliated by the officers, subjected to grueling labour for pittance wages, and found themselves shell-shocked and homesick. They approached Yen and asked him to write letters to their loved ones back home. Though he initially agreed to this, he soon saw that a better course would be to educate them in basic reading and writing skills. Using a curriculum consisting of 1,000 characters, he began to teach the workers how to read and write in vernacular Chinese (or baihua 白话). In addition, he published the first vernacular Chinese workers’ newsletter, Labourer’s Weekly 《驻法华工周报》, which had a left-wing nationalist and anti-imperialist editorial stance.

Contrary to the received wisdom, Yen was not part of the New Culture or May Fourth Movements in China, narrowly considered. He didn’t return to China until 1920. He’d spent the early years of the New Culture foment in the trenches in France, and upon returning to China flung himself immediately into volunteering rather than joining in Chen Duxiu, Cai Yuanpei and Hu Shi’s scholarly polemics against the ‘Old Society’. But his work did find a strong resonance with the broader aims of the New Culture scholars. Through his work in France he came to regard vernacular Chinese literature as a necessary vehicle for mass education in China – which in turn would be the catalyst for the Chinese peasantry to advocate for themselves and their own interests against an urban capitalist élite. This was the impetus for the development of the Mass Education Movement (Pingmin Jiaoyu Yundong 平民教育运动), aimed at addressing the at that time widespread illiteracy among the peasants, which in the view of the rural advocates was holding the peasantry in a state of cultural and stagnation, as well as opening them up to œconomic and social exploitation by élites both local and distant.

Even though Jimmy Yen’s Mass Education Movement built on the ideas of the liberals and pragmatists in the Dewey-Hu mold (and Hu Shi himself was, briefly, one of the founders), it attracted a far more ‘enthusiastic’ social base, including many members of what would become the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Democratic League. Mao Zedong himself, in fact, was one of the volunteer workers who joined as a rural teacher, and Yen’s curriculum became the basis for the Thousand-Character Primer which Mao used to educate new Communist Party cadres.

The Mass Education Movement was never solely just about education considered in terms of literacy, but also about ‘scientific’ education (this was, after all, the age of Deweyan pragmatism and progressivism), character-building (in the more classically-Confucian sense) and political advocacy. Interestingly enough, the Chinese YMCA got on board and promoted the Mass Education Movement precisely because the Confucian element, that of character education, appealed to the missionary Christian sense of morality. More shocking to the contemporary sensibilities (but not necessarily out-of-step with Confucian tradition), Yen taught girls and women how to read as well as men and boys – and even invited Madame Xiong (whose husband Xiong Xiling had been premier of China under Yuan Shikai and was an intimate friend and partizan of Kang Youwei) to give the commencement address to his first group of graduates in Changsha. But the more difficult part of the project involved ‘going to the people’.

In this, Yen’s experience dovetails very neatly with that of the narodniki in Russia. In Dingxian, he instructed volunteer teachers to share the lives of the peasant families they taught – to eat the food they ate, to work their chores, to live in their houses – just as he had done with the workers in the trenches in France. It was difficult to do: many Chinese intellectuals found the work hard and the conditions unsanitary. But the project was in many ways a success: diseases like trachoma and smallpox were eliminated in Dingxian while many others were curtailed, crop yields boomed, infant mortality decreased, and the peasants themselves, by learning their own written language, gained a significant measure of self-respect and confidence. The Dingxian project provided a template that Mao would later use for the ‘barefoot doctors’ that replicated the medical dimensions of Dingxian’s success in thousands of other villages.

In addition, the farmers created their own credit coöperatives on the Raiffeisen model, to combat the usurious predations upon them of local loan sharks (gaolidai 高利贷) and even other, more ‘respectable’ bankers; and also coöperative ventures for buying stock and marketing produce. These were trends Yen encouraged – and the results were positive: ‘fatter pigs, better seeds, pollution control, more eggs per hen’. Farmers saw their incomes increase drastically, and their debts decrease. The project which had begun as a teaching venture to combat illiteracy had bloomed into a broader social movement – a rural reconstruction. Yen revised his own thinking based on his experiences among the peasants. Education was only part of the picture for rural reconstruction. Livelihood – the appropriately-scaled techniques for increasing yield – became another part. So too did health and civic participation (understood as Greater Chinese patriotism in addition to local community links, collective bargaining and œconomic coöperation).

Yen’s work was interrupted, unfortunately, by Japan’s invasion of China in the Second World War, and then again by the Chinese Civil War. Because of the close links of his project to the Nationalist government – a government Yen neither liked nor respected on account of its corruption and disdain for the peasantry – he had to flee China and build rural reconstruction projects elsewhere: notably in the Philippines. Rural reconstruction and Yen’s ideal of the coöperative farmer-scholar went international. But Yen never forgot about his first projects in China, and the Chinese peasants who had benefitted from his classes did not forget him. Yen was given a hero’s welcome back to China in the thawing political climate of the ‘80’s. And in the late 1990’s, several years after his death, a scholar of the Chinese New Left, Dr Wen Tiejun, took up Yen’s ideas and principles and adapted them to modern Chinese realities in the New Rural Reconstruction Movement.

I am actually somewhat upset I had not heard of him before! (I shall certainly have to give some of his works a closer look. Same with Liang Shuming.) It turns out that Dr James Yen is a highly important figure in the history of Chinese left-wing rural activism, and one to whom the Chinese Communist Party is indebted for a great number of its better success stories. He and his theories of peasant organisation, self-empowerment and education continue to be relevant particularly in an era of uneven development and neoliberal ‘reform’, which still seeks to rob the peasant of his hard-won gains.

09 August 2017

May the cooler heads prevail


Church of the Life-Giving Trinity in Pyeongyang

Not much can really be said for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but I will say this: it does now allow Orthodox Christians the civil right to legally worship in their own church. And that seems to be more than their neighbour to the northwest will do, at least for the present. Indeed, Gim Jeong-il himself permitted and endorsed the construction of the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity in 2003 and its consecration in 2006. (Have mercy, O Lord, on the soul of Gim Jeong-il. Unsearchable are Thy judgements. Let not this prayer of mine be counted as sin, but may Thy will be done.)

So let’s set out the religious stakes and significance here. In the wake of a grim commemoration, on the day of Holy Transfiguration no less, of the blasphemous and unholy use of a weapon of mass destruction on a civilian populace which notably included both Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the threat of use of yet another of these weapons, on a country whose capital is host to one of the most recent Orthodox missions in East Asia under the Moscow Patriarchate, is – from a religious standpoint, anyway – utterly unpardonable and must be condemned. On the practical side, the Russian stance on North Korea is reassuringly cool, professional and diplomatic, as is China’s; let’s hope and pray that the cooler and more realistic heads will prevail and avert a potentially-devastating conflict between the United States and North Korea.

Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos and Blessed Ever-Virgin Mary, Venerable God-Bearing Father Herman the Wonderworker of Alaska (whose memory we celebrate today), Holy Neomartyr Sergei of Rakvere and Venerable God-Bearing Father Seraphim of Sarov, pray to God for us sinners, that a just and lasting peace may be attained.

EDIT (6:52): This post got quite a bit more feedback than I had originally planned for, from both sides. On one side of the argument, some folks were upset that I appeared to be one-sidedly apologising for a ‘crazy fat dæmon’, for making North Korea out to be anything less than a ‘hell on earth’, for not caring enough about the Orthodox Christians that Gim Jeong-eun was threatening in America and elsewhere in Asia, and for wrongly referring to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Feast of the Transfiguration to be ‘blasphemous’. On the other side of the argument, I got some pushback that my concern for the Korean people seemed to be limited to Orthodox Christians, and that I was making the fact that Pyeongyang has a Russian Orthodox mission more important than the fact that there are over two and a half million other souls, each beloved by God and each of infinite worth, living there.

To the first, I can only say this: if I truly did not care about American Orthodox Christians, who would indeed have their lives endangered, to say the least, if a conflict between North Korea and America were to start, then why would I have asked for the protection and intercession of our God-bearing Father Herman of Alaska (the patron of Orthodoxy in North America)? That said, it is true. I didn’t go nearly far enough in my characterisation of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here is what Dorothy Day had to say on the subject:
Mr, Truman was jubilant. President Truman. True man; what a strange name, come to think of it. We refer to Jesus Christ as true God and true Man. Truman is a true man of his time in that he was jubilant. He was not a son of God, brother of Christ, brother of the Japanese, jubilating as he did. He went from table to table on the cruiser which was bringing him home from the Big Three conference, telling the great news; “jubilant” the newspapers said. Jubilate Deo. We have killed 318,000 Japanese.

That is, we hope we have killed them, the Associated Press, on page one, column one of the Herald Tribune, says. The effect is hoped for, not known. It is to be hoped they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers – scattered, men, women and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces, feel them in the rain on the hills of Easton.

Jubilate Deo. President Truman was jubilant. We have created. We have created destruction. We have created a new element, called Pluto. Nature had nothing to do with it.
As to the second claim, I can make only this answer: I was attempting to make the point precisely that there are real, concrete human beings in Pyeongyang, the same as myself or as any of my gentle readers here, that must now worry that their lives might be obliterated in a flash, in a way that I pray I never have to. As the reactions to my piece bear witness, we have gotten far too used to thinking of the North Koreans as brainwashed slaves living grey, miserable half-lives, for whom a death in nuclear fire might be preferable to rule by a ‘crazy fat dæmon’. The reality of an Orthodox mission in North Korea, I had hoped, would be more accessible and understandable to people than a mere number, large though it may be (even though, as I note, Dorothy Day herself used such a number). One of my objections to the use of the atom bomb in my ‘Hefenfelþ and Hiroshima’ piece, after all, was precisely that it was the pinnacle of the abstraction of warfare away from the human level on which solidarity is possible.

08 August 2017

Some notes from China’s New Order


Okay, I’m already enough of a fanboy of Dr Wang Hui as it is, but the man is awesome. Here are a few assorted notes from my reading of China’s New Order – a very dense historical-literary-political work which I’m trying my best to unpack here:

Double movement, double state

There isn’t much here that doesn’t also find expression in Wang Hui’s later collection of essays, The End of the Revolution, but it’s refreshing to see the case put forward the first time with such starkness and urgency. Wang Hui reflects on the 1989 Democracy Movement (Minyun 民运), the various forces and negotiations that fed into it, and its complex relationship to a state that was itself going through various upheavals. He puts forward the argument that the movement was not entirely about ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ in an ideological-political sense, but was instead a reaction to a state whose œconomic praxis had gone out of phase with its ideological posture. And that reaction included both those excluded from the benefits of capitalist œconomic reform, who had suffered loss of wages, insurance, social security as a result, and who wanted reform to stop or to be reversed (workers and other poorer urbanites); as well as those whose families had benefitted from the ‘urban phase’ of capitalist ‘reform and opening’ and wanted it to go further (students and intellectuals – though there were students and intellectuals on both sides of that divide).

There was, in short, a double movement that confronted an increasingly schizophrenic state. And Wang – a participant himself in the Minyun – is clear-eyed that the double-mindedness of the movement itself was a factor in its own downfall: ‘The direct cause of the movement’s failure was violent suppression by the state. However, the indirect cause lay in the movement’s own inability to bridge the gap between its demands for political democracy and the demands for social equality that had been its mobilising force.’ But he points out, to the discomfort of the neoliberal elements of the double movement, that those same neoliberal elements were in fact the closest to, and the beneficiaries of, state power: their relationship to power was far more complex than the simplistic and self-serving Western-media hermeneutic of opposing ‘notions of “popular society” and “markets”… to “a planned œconomy”, “communism”, or the “autocratic” state’ can allow for.

It’s therefore little surprise that Wang has a complex reaction to this. He doesn’t regret his involvement in the movement – but he does understand its ambiguities, and it is clear that he stands to one side of the ‘double movement’. He also (understandably) militates against the conflation of 1989 movement ‘left’ sensibilities with Cultural Revolutionary politics for the sole sake of discrediting them:
In fact, denunciation of the Cultural Revolution became the sole foundation of the moral rationale behind this rethinking. This is a clear demonstration how repudiating the Cultural Revolution has become the guardian of the dominant ideology as well as of state policy, and this mode of thinking has flourished ever since: any criticism directed against the present can be cast as regression to the Cultural Revolution, and thus as being wholly irrational.

On Qing matters and ‘radicalism’

The figures of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, as well as those of their contemporary opponents Zhang Binglin and Sun Zhongshan, all loom large in Wang’s work – as indeed they did for much of the Minyun generation. (Indeed, now I need to get Xiao Gongquan’s works on Kang Youwei onto my bookshelf somehow – even though on my current unemployment budget that’s somewhat impossible!)

Indeed, poor Kang’s legacy is still being fought over in Chinese popular culture as well as intellectual life. In his lifetime he went from being considered the firebrand radical who spearheaded the Hundred Days’ Reform to being considered an irrelevant reactionary and Old Society holdout with the attempted Qing restoration to which he was party. But Wang notes that Kang’s fortunes again underwent a reversal – possibly as a consequence of Mao Zedong’s interest in his utopian work.

After 1989, the Confucian gentleman from Foshan was again being tarred with the label of being a ‘radical’, a ‘grassroots’ activist and a ‘direct democrat’ – this time not by Qing authorities, but instead by China’s nascent neoconservatives (themselves drawn mostly from the student-intellectual wing of the Minyun). What a fate for a Confucian Qing loyalist, to be condemned for being too radically left-wing by student democrats a century later! Instead, gradual reformism from the top was being praised. Wang notes that the turn against ‘radicalism’ in the wake of 1989, by the well-placed intellectuals who had been involved in the movement, was indeed a(n attempted) reassessment of Chinese history going back to the Hundred Days’ Reform, but one which failed to account for realities on-the-ground – and also one which failed to read Qing history with the sort of depth that it merited.

Indeed, one of Wang’s projects, which he hints at both in the preface and in these essays themselves, but only goes on to explore further in From Empire to Nation-State, is to recover certain categories of Qing Dynasty moral and political thought for use by modern-day radicals (and traditionalists). It remains to be seen whether they can successfully be put to good use against globalist neoliberalism as well as ethnic and regional chauvinisms, but it remains a worthwhile project.


Moscow 1993 and the arrival of communitarianism

Russia’s own costly and immiserating experiences with neoliberalism and shock therapy – including Eltsin ordering the tanks to fire on the Supreme Soviet in 1993 – were being watched with significant apprehension from the East. Wang notes that this was a watershed moment in the reassessment of ‘radicalism’ on the part of China’s intellectuals. For many of them, watching Russia’s president use tanks to open fire on a democratically-elected body in the name of promoting market reforms, exploded utterly the fiction that privatisation and the imposition of markets were a ‘spontaneous process’ inextricably linked to considerations of democracy and civil order. The hypocrisy of America’s contrasting postures in China in 1989 and in Russia in 1993 was also made plain.
There was thus a contrast between American support of Yeltsin’s violence and its condemnation of the 1989 violence in China that gave the events of October 1993 in Russia a powerful and long-lasting significance for those who believed that history had already concluded, and for those who considered the Cold War to be long past… Together, these international incidents added up to a profound series of intellectual shocks to those scholars who had been in the midst of explaining the course of Chinese globalisation from the perspective of the Confucian-based ideal of ‘great union’ (datong 大同), the [Kantian] Enlightenment-based notion of ‘permanent peace’, or the notion that the world had been ‘moving in the same direction over the past three hundred years’.
Francis Fukuyama’s infamous ‘end of history’ thesis, against which China’s New Order can be considered something of a broadside, thus stood repudiated in China for many intellectuals (including Wang) by the shelling of the Russian Parliament, almost as soon as the ink had dried on the damn thing. Eltsin’s actions decoupled, in Chinese intellectual discourse, the idea of political reform from that of œconomic ‘progress’. It also opened up a space for discussion of ‘civil society’, which had not been on the table in 1989 (!) or at any time before.

Wang notes that the Chinese civil-society discourse critiqued the earlier anti-radical ‘wave’ for its narrow (and, in China’s case, inappropriate) distinction between ‘society’ and ‘state’, which ignored the privileges of certain state-embedded social formations and interest groups, flattened discussions about political reform into a kind of empty proceduralism, and privileged those promoting one-way ‘market freedom’ as ‘political reform’. And:
Most important, this discussion critiqued the process of spontaneous privatisation carried out by force that had already taken place in Russia and was just then occurring in China, in this manner revealing the antidemocratic character of this form of market œconomy as well as demonstrating the contradictions between the various programmes of privatisation that had been implemented recently and a truly democratic system. The discourse also provided a number of new directions for the participation by ordinary people in politics, for ways by which advanced and backward technologies could be allied, and for the reform of enterprises and political institutions.
One of these ‘new directions’ was borrowed from the contemporary communitarian discourse in the Anglo-American world around ‘civil society’. It entered China not as an apologia for ‘capitalism-with-Asian-characteristics’, but instead as a critique of that same capitalism even as it was being constructed. It seems the communitarian discourse around Rawls was understood and internalised, not as a dissenting variant of philosophical liberalism (as it would eventually come to be seen in the Anglo-American philosophical world itself), but instead precisely as an antidote to Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis. This may explain, in part, how Dr Michael Sandel, criminally underrated in his own country, was vaulted to rock-star status in China. The situated, high-context, content-heavy understanding of justice which Sandel had a significant hand in promoting, was a great boon to the mainland Chinese Left, which understood its own interest in continuing to question ‘the end of history’.

Wang notes that the Anglo-American communitarianism of MacIntyre, Taylor and Sandel provided only one avenue for the Chinese Left critique of neoliberalism. The œconomic thought of Polányi and the historical thought of Braudel together provided another avenue. The debates around development ideology and China’s WTO accession provided yet another. And the discussion of nationalism that exploded after the horrendous, hyper-imperialist wars against Yugoslavia and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Beograd provided still another.


Wang takes on the pomos

Here’s Wang Hui’s literary takedown of China’s postmodernists (which they did indeed have coming):
Echoing this discussion were the critiques of the market mentality by such authors as Han Shaogong and Zhang Chengzhi; a number of their insights built an important bridge between the discussion of the spirit of humanism [renwen jingshen 人文精神] and the area of popular culture.

This discussion was attacked by a group of postmodernist critics that arose at almost the same time… In the years between 1993 and 1995, however, the mainstream of the postmodernist movement took the discussion of the spirit of humanism as an
élitist narrative, and they launched a defence of commerce and consumerism by means of a deconstructivist strategy that evinced a wholehearted embrace of the move toward markets… Postmodern criticism and the discussion of the spirit of humanism were both marked by a number of intellectuals who touched on the profound crisis contained in China’s process of reform, but both of these quite different discourses embodied an optimism similar to that of the advocates of the market. It is worth noting in passing the attack on Zhang Chengzhi’s work History of a Soul (Xinling shi 心灵史) by both postmodern critics and commentators who were a few years older: no one paid any attention to the history of the relationships among different Chinese nationalities set out in this work, but took it instead as simply a legacy of the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’, lambasting it as symbolic of the Red Guard spirit in particular.

This case powerfully exemplifies the most dangerous tendency among Chinese intellectuals: in relation to a matter as profoundly important as this, [postmodernist] commentators not only failed to move the discussion forward, but even forgot what that question was in the first place. The discussion of the ‘spirit of humanism’ eventually turned into a debate on idealism, with a consequential abandonment of any analysis of the transformation of contemporary society and its internal contradictions, a direction both sides in the discussion moved toward.
Okay then. I have some more fiction works to add to the reading list: those by Han Shaogong and Zhang Chengzhi. But boy, am I ever sorry I for one moment believed Wang Hui to be moving toward nihilism. That was back when I’d only read one of the man’s books, the necessarily-fragmented The End of the Revolution, and unfortunately I allowed myself to be influenced by reviewers who clearly didn’t understand the thrust of his work.

That said, I find Wang’s take to be an accurate and refreshing one. Postmodernism, with its emphasis on individualising and atomising ‘narratives’, all equally valid and fungible in a marketplace of values, is an apologetic for capitalist consumerism. Indeed, in the social sciences postmodernist thinking shares a corpus of sources with the most extreme fringes of libertarian anarcho-capitalist thought.

And even in those cases where it doesn’t explicitly call for atomisation and the dissolution of solidarity of class, race and gender in common values, postmodernism still misses the plot. It distracts from the hard work of exposing and dismantling the structures of oppression, because it insists that those structures are only as real as the perspectives from which they’re examined in the first place. The difference is, I just figured this out myself these past couple of months. Dr Wang cottoned onto the fact that ‘[t]he postmodernists shared a number of assumptions with the neoliberals: their deconstructivist posture and some of their liberating effects’ based on literary discussions he was party to over twenty years ago. Wang’s take is refreshing in that he has little time or patience for the sillier sorts of denunciations of ‘Eurocentrism’, but he does appreciate that they opened up routes of ressourcement for China’s own native, counter-hegemonic intellectual traditions.


Chinese socialism revisited
As an object of knowledge and as an interrelated, comprehensive concept, Asia is the product of a mixture of colonisation, war, invasion and revolution, and any discussion of matters pertaining to it cannot be separated from [these] specific historical factors...

In the discursive context of contemporary China, raising the questions of Asia, globalisation and the Chinese Revolution seems like part of an historical cycle, but it has already become a critical process… How to achieve a new understanding of the Chinese Revolution, of the legacy of socialism, and of the achievements as well as the tragœdies of this legacy are major questions urgently in need of address from Chinese intellectuals, but to which they have so far been unable to respond. This is because the ideology of neoliberalism and its legitimisation were built on the total repudiation and moral condemnation of this legacy.
There are several points of ambiguity that Dr Wang subjects himself to – to my mind rather needlessly or counterproductively. Wang Hui is emphatic and insistent on the primacy of discursive politics over œconomics as a body of practices – in contradistinction to Chinese (right-)liberals, he is willing to subject market œconomics to sustained political critique à la Polányi (or Ha-Joon Chang), and is more than willing to convict non-state actors of coercion and violence. That is, of course, well and good! I am more than happy that he does this. What’s slightly more ambiguous – since he seems to vacillate a couple of times on the subject even within these two essays – is whether or not Wang is willing to subject politics itself to historical or moral critique.

He points out multiple times that he is not calling for a revolution or for the overthrow of the current system of Chinese governance. This may stem from a deeply-held temperamental conservatism (as opposed to the political neoconservatism he attacks) and his much more vocal scepticism of modernisation theory and of cultural and œconomic forms of modernity generally. Or else it may be a somewhat defensive strategy on his part, within Chinese intellectual circles, to inoculate himself from critics who may level at him the very Cultural-Revolutionary epithets whose use against all forms of social critique he objects to. But he does want to see a more comprehensive (and, if possible, more positive) revaluation of the legacy of China’s socialist era, in place of a neoliberal anti-discourse which merely links genuinely-held concerns over [pensions / healthcare / labour exploitation / wage garnishment / rural-urban wealth gaps / educational disparities / environmental destruction / land expropriation] directly to Mao, and shouts them down as so much Cultural Revolutionary and ‘populist’ baggage, held over from a bygone age. It’s clear that he believes the two should be more closely linked, but whether he believes the heavy lifting must happen within or outside the Chinese academy, in the realm of practical politics or academic history and cultural studies, is somewhat less so.

There’s a great deal of good in these essays, and a lot to digest. It’s not for nothing that Wang Hui has gained a reputation as this generation’s Lu Xun. In my own humble opinion, he’s still one of this century’s most important commentators (if not the most important) on China’s political and cultural affairs.