25 June 2009


I have recently discovered and fallen in love with СЛОТ - an incredible Russian alternative band! 'Two Wars' has been stuck in my head all day, I kid you not. And the music video's not bad, either - check it:

23 June 2009

An Eastern thinker's view of Western Christianity

I confess to being a complete tenderfoot when it comes to philosophy that comes from outside the Continental and early Analytical traditions, and even more of one when it comes to understanding Eastern Orthodoxy. To begin rectifying my ignorance (an utterly reprehensible one given where I am going to be serving for the next two years), I introduced myself to the thought of Nikolay Aleksandrovich Berdyaev (Николай Александрович Бердяев) through one of the only books our library system had by him, The Russian Revolution - which I enjoyed thoroughly. It was an education into Russian history through a religious perspective which was treated somewhat cursorily by the history classes I took at K College - it examined Russian political radicalism and Bolshevism as phenomena which were, at heart, fundamentally religious, with pedigrees in the Raskol schism of the late 1600's, and began thoroughly critiquing the whole of Marxist thought as though it were in itself a religious argument. The case Berdyaev made was strong and convincing - though militantly atheistic, Communism engaged the creative energies of the Russian intelligentsia and inspired the same kind of zeal as the religious Great Awakenings did in the US during the formative years of our history. As Berdyaev viewed it, Communism organised itself around dogmas, had sacraments and a clergy, even espoused an eschatology (though they called it 'the Revolution') and a belief in a Messianic class ('the proletariat').

Though highly critical of the internal inconsistencies of Communism and the way in which it stifled existential creativity, Berdyaev saw the rise of Communism itself as a judgment upon Christendom, which had failed to capture the public's imagination and creative energies and which had failed to fulfil its promises of sowing the seeds of social justice and economic equality, to culminate in the harvest of a Kingdom of Heaven. One wonders, when Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his speech on the Vietnam War that:

[C]ommunism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every moutain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain"

he was hearkening back to Berdyaev's criticism of Russian Christianity, or whether he had simply come to the same page from another direction.

So, with great interest, I read the translation of Berdyaev's essay 'Unifying Christians of the East and West'. As much as The Russian Revolution had inspired me to delve deeper, 'Unifying Christians' challenged me. Coming from a Protestant Christian background with a fiercely individualistic and egalitarian streak born of the Teutonic temperament (a temperament which made Kierkegaard so appealing to me), Berdyaev's essay needled me to reconsider some of my basic presuppositions of what being Christian really meant.

Berdyaev did begin his essay showing appreciation for the diversity within Christian thought, but no sooner was this done than he began diagnosing the cultural fractures in the Christian project. He saw the Western (Catholic) Church as the logical heir to the demands of empire starting with the fall of Rome, and the result was a reflection of Imperial ways of believing and doing within the Catholic Church itself. The doing was in the clear hierarchies and highly regimented formal structure of the priesthood, and in 'a striving after power upon the earth, after deeds in history'. The believing was in Augustinian, later Thomist doctrine, which strove after proof and solid logic, the 'arming of thinking for battle, defense and attack'.

At first, I was a bit stunned by this characterisation of Western Christianity. I'm certainly no Thomist, and as I said before my Christianity has informed my belief in egalitarian social and economic praxis - and I come out of this tradition of 'Western Christianity'. But at the same time, Berdyaev makes some points about Western Christendom which strike quite near to home. The social Gospel which I hold dear, coming out of this Germanic Protestantism, though it is a reaction to power politics and spiritual and economic exploitation, still makes some of the same assumptions as the Roman Catholic Church about what being Christian truly means. At some level, even the Quakers, the Mennonites, the entire social justice movement within American Christianity are still 'striving after deeds in history'; we still have this very Western, very Roman conceit that we must be the ones who will change (and save!) the world.

Berdyaev, though he is far from denying the responsibility of Christians for their project of social and economic justice, rather gently reproves our cultural hubris. Berdyaev insists that the Orthodox way, the contemplative emphasis on potentiality, can be more freeing to the creative spirit than the Western insistence on action, on the dynamic exercise of political power in history. In terms of what this means for ecumenism, I read that he sees the West as too eager to break ground in political treaties, to have something actual and politically relevant to show for our efforts; he insists that this is an Unrealistic Expectation. Berdyaev sees ecumenism as a worthy goal, but it is something that has to be done 'vertically' (in organically cultivating love, empathy and understanding between faith communities) rather than 'horizontally' (in brokering deals and making treaties on an abstracted political level).

In Berdyaev's view, the West (at its very best) still sees itself at the Crucifixion, as taking the Cross alongside our Saviour up to Golgotha; the East tends to spend more of its time and creative energy staring at the empty tomb, contemplating the mystery of the Resurrection. I think a better analogy - and I hope Berdyaev would agree, given his imagery of tilling 'spiritual soil' in his last paragraph - would use St Mark 4:26-29:

He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

Maybe we in the West need to beware of being too eager to reach for the sickle. As well as setting before us the task of sowing the seed, Mark holds for us a promise. The earth produces of itself, gradually: the stalk rising of itself, followed by the head budding of itself, followed by the grain ripening of itself. It's a hard lesson, particularly for someone like me - an AmeriCorps, soon-to-be Peace Corps volunteer who wants to see the seed he's scattering bear fruit, who wants to know what he is doing is worthwhile, who wants to strive after deeds in history. It is part of our AmeriCorps mission - 'getting things done for America'. But perhaps Berdyaev is right - maybe we do need to take our hands, and our minds, off the sickle, and wait until the grain is ripe.

It is something to consider as I leave AmeriCorps and join Peace Corps.

22 June 2009

20 years is a long time...

... to have rule over the world's ninth-largest sovereign territory. Nursultan Nazarbaev came to power as First Secretary of the QKP/ҚКП (Communist Party of Kazakhstan), replacing Gennady Kolbin, on 22 June 1989, and has his 20th anniversary as Kazakhstan's leader today.

EurasiaNet has a story on the subject, as does Radio Free Europe.

The Big Bread himself, then and now. Photos courtesy Associated Press and Radio Free Europe.

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21 June 2009

Abay and related thoughts

As part of my process of getting familiar with Kazakhstan before spending the next two-plus years of my life there, I've been reading some from one of the country's most famous poets and Islamic philosophers, Abay Ibragim Kunanbaev. I don't know how the old fellow sounds in the original Kazakh, but in translation he's a bit edgy (I like that) and he seems to have a healthy, almost Kierkegaard-like exasperation with silly and frivolous people and a remarkable talent for self-effacement (also both points in his favour).

I enjoyed his Poem 9 from the McKane translation of The Book of Words:

I don't write poems for amusement,
and not to gather together tales and fables.
I write to give an example to the young,
whose hearts are sensitive and tongues flexible.
These words are available not to the thick-skulled, but to the seekers
who have a reasonable heart and a clear mind.

Come directly, no straying, no looking for devious ways.
You cannot recognise the essence from outside.
In the beginning my words seem strange,
since you've grown up not hearing such words.
I am amazed at people who cannot comprehend what has been said.
They demand new words after new words.

I have told my tale without the fabled Hasret Ali and the dragon,
and there is no beauty with a gold chin.
I don't revile old age, calling death down on it,
and I don't call the
dzhigits to dishonour.
Do not turn away, considering my words not colourful enough.
Convince yourselves somehow that the most valuable word is the deepest.

The noisy rustlers are born from knights.
They are bustling people, given over to women and empty fun,
without honour, reason or jobs,
well known as stormy drunkards.
If I arouse laughter from a pitiful group of madmen,
then, my tongue, don't make the effort, be silent.

My brother who has the gift of poetry and fine speech,
I curse--don't waste good words on us.
There's no use in them for us, for you.
Priceless words sink in the emptiness.
Dandy, phrase-monger, womaniser, proud one,
what joy can they bring to you?

This poem is amazing because it cuts straight through the nonsense and aims right at the heart of the matter right from the first line. Though it's a bit light on the imagery, Abay's respect and reverence for language and the power of the spoken word comes through palpably - and yet, by the end, he's employing his best sense of irony with regard to that same reverence, almost daring his audience to prove him wrong. Though he was active the better part of a century before Habermas, he's throwing down the gauntlet in almost the same way - 'come directly'! Don't beat around the bush, looking for ways around me! Are you brave enough to try to comprehend me, to communicate with me? Is there any use even in my asking?... and then he turns the whole force of the poem back on himself in the last stanza. Maybe he is the one wasting words on us? Maybe we're the only ones who can answer that; maybe that's the challenge.

I get the feeling, though, that this poem reads a lot better in Kazakh. As much as there is to appreciate here, perhaps in its original tongue there might be more.

A haunting, sickening image

I was not alive during the Vietnam War or when the Kent State shootings happened, and I was less than three when the Tiananmen protests happened. But, like most other Americans my age, I've seen the images that reified both traumatic events for the American public: the young man lying face down in the middle of the street as a young woman kneels behind him, crying out; the little girl screaming in pain as she runs naked down a dirt road outside Trang Bang; the VC officer being shot in the head by a South Vietnamese general; the protester facing down the column of tanks. They were moments that, long afterward through these photographs, still have the power to bring us down to zero, to sear into us with raw emotion, to shock and sicken us, to make real for us the suffering of an event we are likely to consider otherwise only in abstraction.

The gory video taken in Tehran yesterday, of a sixteen-year-old girl who had been shot through the heart by a Basij militia sharpshooter, had the same effect on me – like a slap to the face. This isn’t just about a change in Iran’s government anymore, this isn’t about some abstract, hyper-rationalised geopolitical struggle anymore – a healthy young woman has been senselessly shot dead, her life ended. I wonder whether, back then, on seeing those other photographs, people felt the same kind of sadness and frustration and rage that I can't help but feel now, having seen her lying spread-eagled in a pool of blood on the side of some road in Tehran.

I don’t like quoting other bloggers, but echidneofthesnakes captures well what I’m feeling about now:

She died in front of my eyes, on a video from Iran, a video I hadn't intended to click on and then it was too late. I'm bent over double with nausea. She was a young woman, demonstrating against her government. Now she is a young woman, dead. It's not a movie and she will not rise again, laughing while wiping off all that ketchup from her face. It's real. It's for good. And it's wrong, on so many levels.

My nausea is unimportant. But not the general nausea of these events, the nausea elicited by those Americans who use all this for political gamesmanship, turning it all against Obama or for Obama, checking first on blogs which side they should be supporting, checking if they should be for the demonstrators or for Ahmadinejad, based on the overall political value of each package. And I wasn't that far removed from those types of thoughts. Because on some level the total package does matter, of course, and on some level it's the clerics who are going to keep almost all the power, whatever the results of this election. And I wasn't at all certain that women's rights in Iran would be improved from their current level, whoever won the election.

But then she dies in front of my eyes and it doesn't matter how much I tell myself that people, women and men, are killed all the time for their political beliefs, all over this damn planet. She got butchered on the street, just like that, for demonstrating. And still the Iranian women go out there…

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20 June 2009

Thoughts on the full 18 June Stewart / Huckabee discussion

I just watched the full discussion from Thursday between Jon Stewart and Mike Huckabee on the issue of abortion. It’s really a joy of mine to watch Stewart sit down to serious interviews like the ones he has with Huckabee, because even though he’s a comedian (rather, because he’s a comedian) he has the ability to make tough, principled arguments and ask insightful hardball questions without putting his guest into a siege mentality. The result is probably the most civil discourse you’ll find anywhere on cable television. Of course, Stewart has his good days and his bad days, but this interview gave me a lot to think about.

Huckabee’s assertion that pro-choicers ‘haven’t thought through the implications and the logical conclusions’ seems ironic and more than just a bit absurd, since he is asking three different questions (‘is it a life?’, ‘at what point is it a life?’ and ‘at what point is it our responsibility to give it the same protection [as an adult human being]?’), which don’t necessarily have the same answer, and are far from being self-evidential truths – as Huckabee does some serious question-begging when he says ‘I believe that life begins at conception’. When he starts using distinctly Kantian language like ‘intrinsic value of human life’ in connexion with these kinds of dogmatic assertions, my Socratic daimonion starts whispering in my ear in a voice that sounds a lot like Hegel: ‘yeah, it’s a great thing that you’re talking about intrinsic value, but – how did you come by all these assumptions? Were they on sale?’

A lot of us, even if we aren’t die-hard pro-lifers, have thought through the assumptions and the implications. Even Kant recognised that when we talk about human dignity and the intrinsic worth of human life on his terms, we aren’t trying to nail it onto a physical heartbeat or onto a complete, unique set of 46 chromosomes or onto a face the way Huckabee repeatedly tried to do in the interview. Even at Kant’s most infuriatingly idealistic and transcendental, his ‘intrinsic worth of persons’ was something attached to a real quality human beings had that not every other living creature (whether with a heartbeat, a complete set of chromosomes or a face) was thought to have – Kant believed that intrinsic worth lay in the capacity of a human being for rational decision-making and ability to take responsibility for her actions. Even that is unsatisfactory, though, since (long story short) Kant is at a loss to explain how rationality occurs in the first place.

Personally, I’ve come to take a route through Hegel, Honneth and Habermas. Human rationality – what is of ultimate and intrinsic worth in a human being – is developmental and it is linguistically structured: we grasp at the world through how we describe it, and (in a rather Biblical fashion) we begin to understand ourselves when we are able to name and communicate with the world around us (even something as simple as ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’), and when we can begin narrating our beliefs and desires and marshalling them into a linguistic framework. That’s not something that (to the best of our knowledge) an embryo can do.

I agree with Huckabee, wholeheartedly, that terminating a human life for the sake of convenience or for the sake of someone else’s peace of mind is morally repugnant – it’s why I’m against the death penalty, for example. But on abortion, I think my own position is, much like Stewart’s, somewhere in the middle. I also struggle with this issue: I still feel that most elective abortion is morally problematic, but really more because of the social narrative in which so many unwanted pregnancies occur rather than because of any intrinsic value of the embryo.

My apologies to my readers that this has nothing to do with Peace Corps. Also, my apologies if this got a bit technical – I can go into ‘philosophy mode’ on issues like this sometimes. I still think it's an issue worthy of deep thought.

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19 June 2009

New blog, and review of The Nomad

Welcome to my new blog. I am a graduate of Kalamazoo College with a BA in Philosophy, and currently an AmeriCorps volunteer working out of Brown University. My service up until this past week was as a college guide in the Newport Public Schools: I worked with high-schoolers, mostly with low-income and first-generation upperclassmen, on college access - basically acting as a helping hand on college essay and resume writing, college applications, SAT registration and prep, financial aid, senior projects, &c., &c. I have also spent the past five months volunteer tutoring twice a week in adult literacy classes in public libraries in Pawtucket and East Providence.

All this in preparation for Peace Corps! I'm really excited to have been invited to teach English in Kazakhstan, and I've been preparing in several ways - doing research online, reading the Lonely Planet guide to Central Asia, buying and reading the Book of Words by Abay Kunanbaev (Абай Кунанбаев). This past week, though, I rented Көшпенділер (The Nomad), a 2005 high-budget period piece produced by the government of Kazakhstan about one of its founding fathers, Abylai Khan (Абылай Хан).

I did watch it with some trepidation - I looked it up first on Rotten Tomatoes to see how it had been reviewed by American audiences, and I found that it had been pretty widely panned by most American critics (getting a 6% rating! Not even Dragonball: Evolution scored that badly!). The critics seemed to like the scenery and the historical and cultural flavour, but complained largely of poor acting and a plot that made little sense without relying on the main characters being idiots.

I was in for a surprise, however. It was a decent, exciting action movie, even if the writing did tend to rely heavily on the heroic monomyth and even if some characters (notably Gauhar and Yerali) tended to be foolhardy well past the point of stupidity on some occasions. Jason Scott Lee was amazing as Oraz, the Obi-Wan-style wise mentor to Mansür and Yerali - he even got Sir Alec Guinness' half-smile down pat! - and Mark Dacascos made for a plausibly sinister enemy general. I still don't really understand why they chose Latino soap-opera stars from this hemisphere (Kuno Becker and Jay Hernandez) to play the two male leads, but they worked well in the roles they were given.

Special effects were used sparsely, which was somewhat refreshing given the current trend in action movies to green-screen and CGI-enhance any and every visual element of the film (a la Zack Snyder). Where they were used, however, they were suitably epic (as in the final battle outside Turkestan), though I kind of eyerolled at one of Mansür's 'trials', in which it seemed like the SFX director had been watching The Matrix once or twice too often - Mansür does a backbending bullet-time dodge of five arrows aimed at him on horseback. But the hats and costumes were great, the horses were great, and the scenery was breathtaking - if this was meant to be a tourism advertisement for Kazakhstan, it worked! Overall, it's not the best period-piece action film ever, but it's a movie I'd gladly watch again.