31 December 2010

Pointless video post - ‘Time to be King’ by Masterplan

‘Time to be King’ by Masterplan (power metal from Germany / Norway).

Good stuff, really. Was actually introduced to them via the FTGG music blog, which particularly recommended their antiracist anthem ‘Crystal Night’ (which is an awesome song, though my favourite on that album has to be ‘Enlighten Me’). Their newest album is quite good, and this song in particular - got to love that bell tolling in the background. Course, Jørn’s vocals are also refreshingly powerful (and not mind-bendingly falsetto like most power metal singers out there), and I for one am glad he’s back.

Happy new year, everyone! Resolve to party hard...

26 December 2010

A reflection on nation, part 2

In my last rumination on the subject of nationality and patriotism, I expressed the opinion that nations were neither something to be dismissed nor to be blindly celebrated. The nation, in its most positive manifestation, is a natural stage of human affection, of the extension of love outward from the family and from the circle of friends to encompass people who have a shared conception of the Good. However, nation has the capacity to become destructive when one considers one’s nation an extension of Right rather than simply an expression of the Good.

Actually, it is rather ironic that I have trod bravely out onto these grounds only to find a larger set of footprints leading the way ahead. Once again, the good Mr Chesterton has beaten me to it, and has expressed himself far more eloquently than I have. As he puts it in Orthodoxy:

The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. A man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end… by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason—because he has a reason.

This, though seemingly paradoxical, is in fact quite astute – indeed, it strikes one as drawing near to Kierkegaard in his meditations on the nature of love (though it should be noted that Kierkegaard, for all his similarity to Chesterton in his passion for the edifying power of the faerie-tale and the parabolic image, reached all the further for making every emotion personal rather than general). If one truly loves, one simply cannot explain it away; otherwise, what he loves is not the beloved, but the reason for loving (if he holds even the courage for that!). The fortunate lover knows this because he lives this. He might find something similar to himself in his beloved, and might be surprised and remark upon that similarity, but that is no reason for love. (It helps that I happen to be so fortunate a lover!)

But when it comes to nation – yes, then things become tricky. Is nation merely an idea; or worse yet, an ideal? This cannot be true for Chesterton; to him England-as-character is far more real (and thus worthy of love) than England-as-theory or England-as-empire. He brings England from the realm of the unreal to his own level; once he can look England square in the eye and admire it for its finitude, he then may proceed with the work of transforming it through love, as in the faerie-tale of Beauty and the Beast (which he references quite frequently in Orthodoxy). There is, and rightly so, the expression of ‘Little England’. The same cannot be true for a nation whose essence is not a character, finite and flawed (and lovable for being both), but an ideal. This brings me to the very difficult and delicate problem of the existence of the United States.

We have, in this country – about which I must be exceedingly cautious about using the word ‘nation’, for reasons which will become clear momentarily – two parties which claim patriotism but which hold different attitudes toward the United States, both of which seem rather misinformed. They style themselves ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, though both are (in point of fact) more similar than they are different, having roots in the same kind of backwards-thinking. The former will often express a form of ‘tough love’, unflinchingly critiquing the country for failing to live up to its standard – the ‘liberal’ in this case conforms to GK Chesterton’s model of the pessimist (though an honest one). The latter will insist that it has been and remains the most perfect fulfilment of the standard, and will brook no argument to the contrary – the ‘conservative’ conforming to the model of the jingo optimist. Both, however, accept the Docetic nature of the standard: the secular Whiggism shared by its Founding Fathers that all citizens (however one chooses to define the word, which was a problem in itself) possess the same negative liberties and entitlements under the social contract. As I have said before, liberty is a fine and worthy thing, but what is the content of this liberty? You are never truly free, unless you have proscribed that freedom by deciding what to do with it. Indeed, this attitude that we can build a common expression of the Good only from a set of negative liberties and protections from the vices of others reflects a confusion about even the origins of the word ‘free’ (coming as it does from the Old English frēo, originally meaning ‘beloved’ and having the same root as the word ‘friend’). The object of freedom was to love and be loved, not to be party to an impersonal contract against a hostile world.

[As an aside, one of the things I have come to realise about why I use British rather than American spelling in my written work is that I find a deeper kinship with Dr Samuel Johnson and his eloquent love of the English language as spoken by the common people, than I do with Mr Noah Webster and his notion that language must be made to conform to an ideology propagated by society’s elites. It strikes me as no accident that Dr Johnson was himself a High Churchman of wit, humility and generosity; while Mr Webster was a true convert to Calvinism in all its grim, dour hauteur: the British usage to me reads as familiar, well-used and well-loved, comfortable in all its spacious vowels and voiceless consonants, at home in the hands and mouths of lord and peasant alike and yet personal for each; whereas the American spelling smacks to me of a cold, sterile, impersonal austerity and stinginess, brooking no personality or humour.]

However, back to the topic at hand – can a nation (the easiest, but not final, extent of that familial sentiment which Axel Honneth termed ‘solidarity’) be proscribed within an ideal, or a contract? I think, at the very least, we must be very careful with the notion that ideological contracts can make nations, for it can lead us into idolatry. We already are far too eager – ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ alike have been guilty in this – to foist our ideals and institutions upon other peoples without regard for practical circumstance, morality or real human need. We are already too quick to claim reasons for the supremacy of our institutions which do not stand the test of fact (the claim in bad faith that America must be or is ‘number one’ in every endeavour and in every field of commerce, education and social achievement). We are already too insistent on the idea that nations can be ‘founded’ like businesses or ‘built’ like office complexes, rather than grown like living, breathing creatures. It may very well have been that by the time Thomas Jefferson had put the finishing flourish to the Declaration of Independence, we were already on that ‘passage broad, smooth, easy, inoffensive down to hell’, sectarianism and empire. England survived that hell because she was not just a theoretical construct – there was and is within her the ‘Little England’ that could be redeemed. In America’s case, I think it wiser to say, as Zhou Enlai did when asked to comment on the outcome of the French Revolution, that ‘it is’, in fact, ‘too soon to say’.

EDIT: It seems I am not the only one who has been ruminating along these lines. Russell over at Obsidian Wings has been giving his own quite astute impressions of this issue.

24 December 2010

A pointless video for the occasion

Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season to all!

EDIT: My apologies to my Facebook readers; the embed isn't showing up right. A link to the video is here.

21 December 2010

Do we have to keep bringing up old stuff? Apparently, yes.

Let me be upfront with my gentle readers. I cannot rightly be considered a Southerner, though I have some fairly deep Southern roots on my father’s side. My grandfather Franklin, and my great-grandfather Oscar, and my great-great grandfather Thomas, and so on all the way back to the War of American Independence – that entire side of my family were poor tenant farmers in South Carolina. I had an ancestor, Joseph Delan Cooper, who was apparently a veteran on the Confederate side of the Civil War. But – here I understate vastly – I hold no love for the Old South. Indeed, I consider the entire socioeconomic system under which my ancestors lived, underpinned entirely by chattel slavery, to have been a brutal, exploitative, vicious, hollow mockery of the communitarian ideals I hold dear. It is, in my opinion, certainly no cause for celebration. So why was there a Secession Ball being held in the state where my great-great-great grandfather, one of the many who were imposed upon to fight after said secession, lies buried? (I actually learned of this through Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore, who have a brilliant take on the entire affair – I highly encourage people to watch.)

Apparently, the organisers of this gala considered it to be about ‘self-government’ and ‘independence’. But these are cheap buzzwords meant to give the Southern cause a liberal ideological veneer, which even the slightest effort at critical thinking would question thus: whose ‘independence’ was being fought for? Whose ‘self-government’? One simply cannot escape the fact that the people who signed this document were unapologetic beneficiaries of chattel slavery, whose primary concern – explicitly stated in the secession documents! – was the ‘independence’ to own people, to have the unquestioned, absolute power of life and death over people, and to reap the entire benefit of their labour. Secession served the interests of owners of the large factory-farms (which to this day receive the entirely too-romantic moniker of ‘plantations’), who felt no obligations to respect the lives and dignities of the people exploited on such farms, and justified themselves in their rejection of such obligations by regarding blacks as less than human. That then they cloaked their capitalistic avarice and pride in the language and trappings of chivalry was and remains a mortal offence to the ideals of chivalry (which entailed self-sacrificial moral obligations to the weak and to the poor); that now they cloak their envy in the language and trappings of liberty and independence ought to be a mortal offence to those ideals. Particularly in light of the fact that, had the South succeeded in her bid for secession, my great-great-great grandfather would still have been a pauper without any proper voice in his ‘self-government’: a slave in all but legal status.

That the Confederacy fought to defend the institution of slavery is a matter of historical record; claims which seek to deny or downplay this fact are easily debunked. I think James Loewen has it right that the question of why the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ lives even to this day has little to nothing to do with historical record and much more to do with contemporary attitudes. Thanks to the way our national discourse has developed, there are now a number of competing narratives and counter-narratives which work not on the basis of objective historical fact, but on the basis of ressentiment. It is an intriguing exercise to read, for example, the Guardian’s coverage of the secession ball, then to read the article by Emily Badger on Miller-McCune, and finally to read some of the comments posted to both articles (which actually go a significant way toward proving this point). I believe it demonstrates significantly the insecurities and spiritual deficiencies of a certain segment of the American white middle class, that so much Confederate imagery and ideology is being adopted by the neoliberal right.

Perhaps our country does need a history lesson from James Loewen. But perhaps we need more than that. Dr Loewen has an undisputed mastery of fact, this I will not deny; that we could use more of him is beyond question. He can continue, in the noblest tradition of his profession, leading us to that sea of knowledge, and attempting to get us to swim. For my own part, though, I fear that simple information will not be enough. Dr Loewen will not, and I fear cannot, convince through rational argument the devotees of the ‘Lost Cause’ that they are wrong (which I agree with him they most certainly are). The more burning question, as Dr David Blight (sourced in Ms Badger’s excellent article) puts it, is ‘what purpose does [your interpretation of the history] serve in your lives now?’

With regard to the deeper questions of political philosophy and theology, I doubt anyone would deny that ‘self-government’ and ‘independence’ are in themselves bad things. Freedom, like security, is a good – a source of potential, and there is nothing wrong with wanting it. But is it possible for freedom to be an end in itself? Is not the deeper question to be probed here, given ‘self-government’ and ‘independence’, what would you do with it? And what are we doing with it?

Yes, we need a history lesson. But still more direly, I feel we need a theology lesson.

14 December 2010

A reflection on nation

The question of nation is one that has been troubling me throughout my left turn into Toryism, particularly in recent days, and I felt it was high time to dedicate a few lines here to the subject. A number of authors I have been reading of late have been dedicated patriots – Samuel Johnson, GK Chesterton and Mohandas Gandhi were all very much dedicated to national ideals, and very much believed that a nation embodied a certain set of ennobling values. Others, such as the Fürst von Metternich, regarded the idea of nation with disdain: to him, ‘nation’ was a means of dividing one people from another on the basis of language and ancestry, without reference to common values; for him, hope lay rather in the common ideals encouraged by Catholicism. Confucius, even though his legacy has been co-opted by later Chinese nationalist movements, seems to have anticipated Metternich more than Gandhi: the Analects describe that at one point he wished to live among foreigners (the Nine Yi 九夷), and one of his followers criticised him for the desire (‘陋,如之何?’ ‘They’re uncultured; how could you [want to live among them]?’) to which Confucius replied: ‘君子居之,如陋之有?’ ‘If a gentleman were to live among them, how could they possibly be uncultured?’ – Confucius thus believed that the virtue ethic he articulated was not limited to the Chinese*.

The modern temptation is to yield to either a simplistic, shallow universalism on the one hand (faulting nation for fostering parochial concerns and posing a barrier to a discourse between all human beings) or an even shallower liberal individualism on the other (faulting nation for articulating any kind of common cause that might ask individuals to commit to a moral vision beyond ‘rational’ self-interest). This twinned temptation should be resisted, even when the concept of nation is being critiqued and appraised. Nation is an extension of the family unit in a real sense, not merely by analogy. As the Western Marxist philosopher Axel Honneth had it (incorporating the pragmatist insights of George Herbert Mead and inadvertently following in near-perfect parallel Confucius’ concept of 推爱 extended affection), a child learns how to recognise and feel affection for other human beings by receiving the affection of her parents, and learns to apply that recognition negatively to others through interaction with playmates and friends. Solidarity – the form of recognition dialectically incorporating familial love and love between friends – can be extended across wide groups of people (nations) through the articulation of common values. I do not think that this natural wellspring of recognition is something that should be shut off or dammed up in favour of an abstracted notion of love. We should beware, however, that value-articulation is still necessary to make sure that this wellspring of recognition flows as powerfully and as broadly outward as possible (and is not misdirected into linguistic or ethnic exclusionism).

So what does this have to do with nation? I think the answer to this question lies in how these authors all perceive nation. Both Johnson and Chesterton loved England with an unquestionable burning ardour – this did not stop Johnson, however, from expressing eloquent sympathy for the plight of Africans and Native Americans, and excoriating his countrymen (including Americans) for their rapacious abuse of both; and it did not stop Chesterton from advocating an India for the Indians, rather than for the British. To them, to be ‘English’ was not to support English institutions or English progress or English might or English empire: as Chesterton put it, ‘[b]eing a nation means standing up to your equals, whereas being an empire only means kicking your inferiors’. It meant something deeper; what moved Johnson and Chesterton was a peculiarly English expression of the Good, but a Good no more or less good simply for being English. If this is what we mean by ‘nation’, then we could certainly use more of it.

The problem is that such expressions are all too often not contented with themselves. As soon as expressions of the Good begin crossing over into expressions of Right, we find ourselves making the Napoleonic turn, and getting into those notions of nation of which Metternich (very rightly) made himself a nemesis. It is sadly all too easy to move from the healthy expression of a vision of the good life peculiar to a certain tradition- or language-community, to elevating the privileges and rights of one group of people over another through official languages, loyalty tests and notions of exceptionalism; asserting the superiority of one nation over another; fostering competition and contention between and within nation-states; et cetera. It is almost certainly true that resisting these unhealthy and destructive notions of nation requires an existentially-healthy spiritual life. This was Metternich’s justification for proclaiming, in relation to the downfall of orderly states, that ‘religious belief, the first of virtues, is the strongest power’… though the good Fürst would likely find it appreciably ironic that a convinced Anglo-Catholic socialist, Fr Kenneth Leech, would come to nearly the exact same conclusion as he sought a basis for fighting far-right racism in Britain a good 150 years later!

In short, I believe that nations in the former sense are a healthy and a good thing. The world would be quite a boring place without them. They are at their best when they offer freely conceptions of the Good by which we can articulate commonalities. Sadly, the much more common form of nation, which expresses itself rather in terms of its own Right over and against other nations, is something to oppose, as did Metternich and Confucius before him, with every fibre we can summon.

* Mr James Legge, whose rather antiquated translation I am for the sake of my modern-day readers scrupulously avoiding, has in his footnotes that Confucius was here not expressing a sincere desire to live among the Nine Yi, but rather making a provocative comment to express his displeasure about not finding a broader audience in China. I do not think, however, that this interpretation negates the more literal layer of meaning in the text - Confucius would not say such a thing in the first place without subverting his audience’s assumption that the Nine Yi could not have among them ‘cultured’ men.

10 December 2010

To the Honourable Mr Thorbjørn Jagland...

... and the esteemed members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, with regard to the recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo.


If I may be perfectly frank, your historical selections of Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat were embarrassing enough, and even President Barack Obama's award (however much I may admire the man personally) was of a highly dubious and political nature. But if we must award this prize in particular to noted bigots, corporate tools, supporters of indefensible wars and seditious imperialists, I have a modest proposal for the Committee to consider. Next year, someone ought to place a posthumous nomination for a man every bit as accomplished in furthering the cause of international peace as Liu Xiaobo has been, and I look forward to congratulating the memory of Mr Vidkun Quisling.

Alternatively, you could do us all the favour of resigning.

All too sincerely,
M F Cooper

08 December 2010

My apologies for a long absence, but I'm making up for it!

Indeed, I haven't updated this blog since Thanksgiving! Gracious. My sincerest apologies to my gentle readers; I do intend to rectify this. My only excuse at this point must be the final exams which loom darkly on next week's horizon.

I've been following the WikiLeaks / Obama Administration with some considerable interest, but I have to admit to being not entirely sympathetic with either side. On the one hand, I detest the way that all too many commentators on the political right have been calling for Assange to be punished with every possible punishment short of 凌迟 (execution by slow torture); though a few of the more repugnant commenters have not strayed too far from such a prescription: here is a particularly egregious example of such disgustingly hyperbolic vindictiveness from noted neo-'conservative' arse-trumpeter Jonah Goldberg, and an only-slightly-less disgusting example from Marc Thiessen.

On the other hand, I also cannot help but look askance at the complete lack of accountability and the distorted worldview promoted by WikiLeaks and by Assange himself. All of the media coverage has led me to view him as a practiced manipulator: he uses his Internet presence and high media profile to portray himself as the victim of an international conspiracy to cover up the misdoings of the US government. However much his followers rail against corrupt politicians, though, it seems like Assange has elevated political linguistic manoeuvre into a high art form: every action Assange is taking, every word he says, seems perfectly tuned to undermine the basic functioning legitimacy of his opponents and to cover his own arse from criticism. That is worthy at least of my own grudging admiration of his 1337 5k1llz.

Let's be clear here: I myself am not that great a fan of everything the United States government does, and I'm certainly not a fan of the neoliberal economic ideology espoused by its habitual establishment, but at the very least I recognise the necessity of having a government which can function with some guarantee of the privacy and integrity of its civil service. And I tend to prefer political leaders we get, at least nominally, to choose by virtue of the communities in which we live - and however much people like Assange may loathe Obama, he was in fact duly elected. Assange was not. WikiLeaks is not a democratic institution; the body politics affected by any particular leaks do not have say in whether the leaks are leaked. Therein lies the fundamental contradiction of the kind of info-anarchism represented by Assange - though they claim the mantle of participatory democracy, they nevertheless exercise a form of political power for which (unlike governments) they are not ultimately held even indirectly accountable. It's the 'who watches the watchers' watchers' question.

EDIT: I started writing this article before I was directed by Bill, one of my friends from S. Stephen's Episcopal Church (and also a blogger), to this op-ed piece by Thomas Watson (author of the book CauseWired), which reflects many of my own concerns. Good to know I'm not alone on this one!

22 November 2010

Economists are hyperinflated

My profoundest apologies to my gentle readers for the terrible, terrible pun in the title, but I really needed to find a snappier and more appropriate way to vent my frustration at our required course content than ‘Jeff Sachs and Bill Easterly are both completely full of horseshit, and we would do well to give them each their fifteen minutes of infamy and move on to useful things for a change’. One unexpected benefit, I suppose, to having been overexposed to the Sachs-Easterly debate, though, is that it is helping me to realise just how deeply our own discourse has been pruned down and confined within the stifling space of Whiggism – and that within that space we are given Coke-or-Pepsi options (which are really no option at all). As with the fratricidal theological-Whiggish offspring of liberalism and fundamentalism, we here face a non-choice between two rather perverse economic ideologies with the same pedigree.

Sachs’ argument, in a nutshell, is that with better policies in place, better coordination, more efficient operations and more concerted efforts to solve multiple problems at once, we can overcome all the trials of poverty in one ‘big push’. It presents a truly global perspective, and indeed a truly appealing one: the idea that we can lift all people from poverty through the concerted efforts of the well-intentioned of the ‘developed’ world. It is merely a problem of forming the right strategy, and bringing together the right organisations for the right goals. It is a highly technocratic vision as well as being highly optimistic – and it has roots in the High Modern theology of Schleiermacher and his spiritual descendants. There is a point on which I actually do agree with Easterly’s diagnosis in White Man’s Burden – such promises have been made before by governments, both national and supranational, of the ‘developed’ world, and they simply haven’t been fulfilled. Historically speaking, the grand schemes to rid the world of poverty have ended in varying degrees of tragedy and farce. I think it may be all too likely that such an approach now will ultimately serve first the values and assuage first the consciences of a wealthy liberal ‘new class’, rather than those of the starving poor they set out in their good intentions to help.

But that’s precisely where my agreement with Easterly ends, because – to put it as politely as I may without resorting to the invective common to such economic parlance – the man obviously hasn’t looked in a mirror and noticed the great honking plank in his own eye before groping Sachs’ face for a mote. The problem with Easterly is that somehow in all his hagiographical panegyrics of the ‘Searcher’ and vituperative scorn of the ‘Planner’, he fails to notice that of both Platonic ideals, he himself more closely resembles the latter rather than the former. He rebukes Sachs for promoting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to poverty, though his own solution falls squarely under the same rebuke. Though he claims not to be a ‘Planner’, his plan in actuality is indeed far broader and at the same time far more banal, unimaginative and unworkable than that he accuses Sachs of having: in short, to end aid as we know it and allow markets and free enterprise to take its place.

Okay, let’s have a show of hands – how many of us haven’t heard this one before?

This is purely ideological: economic Whiggism at both its most egregious and its most patronising, in all its Calvinistic glory. Underneath the argument that there needs to be greater entrepreneurship, ‘free markets’ and ‘free trade’ in the global South for broader prosperity to take root is any or all of three assumptions: a.) this approach hasn’t been tried before, b.) it hasn’t been a total bloody disaster for the poor or c.) if it was, it has been because people living in need, in countries needing aid, have been too [corrupt / stupid / backwards / lazy / insert patronising colonial stereotype here] to implement it properly or appreciate its benefits. Easterly’s arguments, needful though some aspects may be for the advocates of conventional aid measures, all very conveniently dodge the matters of historical record that aid money from the Western world has been for the vast majority of its history either a.) contingent upon the adoption of the very market-fundamentalist measures Easterly champions or b.) palliative care for the economic fallout upon the poor from those very same measures.

While I agree that we do need aid-critical scholars, particularly in this most uncritical of times, can we find some more durable ones, please? The current model represented by Easterly and Moyo seems to have an expiry date of roughly 1815 – and I do consider it a market failure (or at the least a failure of common sense!) that they continue to be taken seriously. It is my hope that people continue to listen to the likes of Phillip Blond, John Milbank, Cornel West and Amitai Etzioni; it would be good to see some socialists, high Tories or real critical theorists come out of the corners and offer a more thorough alternative critique of current aid policies.

12 November 2010

A few thoughts on how the left should conduct its discourse

So, what are my thoughts on the election a good week after the fact? To an extent, I am still attempting to figure them out. On the one hand, I recently got some instruction on how not to react, tempting though it is, and as often as I have indulged in such reaction myself. Complaining about how moronic people are, particularly in an attitude of self-satisfied cynicism, is a.) not a winning strategy, b.) not good for the public discourse and c.) not healthy for one’s own spirit (I use ‘spirit’ in the broadest and most expansive possible sense here, as Kierkegaard did – referring to intellectual, emotional, physical and existential health). On the other hand, refraining from such complaints should not mean we must cease struggling for greater justice – reforming existing structures where possible and resisting them where necessary.

First, on the subject of complaining about how stupid people are: let me begin by saying that the results of the Pennsylvania elections were disheartening to me, but not surprising (we now have fringe Republicans as senator-elect and as governor-elect). That said, I took some strong exception to a recent blog post I read on the subject, whose initial reactions to the election were quite similar to mine but whose lessons drawn from the election seemed to me precisely the wrong ones: in essence, that we live in the best political system possible and that (I think) we need to live with bad consequences from that system because a large percentage of our population are ‘lazy, selfish, self-centered, egotistical, uneducated, easily manipulated idiots’. On the contrary, it is not that we have foolish and perverse people at the helm of a good system for which there is no alternative; it is rather that we have people prone to sin, who are encouraged in it by a highly-flawed system. There exist those in the present age who will assiduously create a ‘need’ for the latest fad, who will espouse fashionable notions of ‘progress’ which serve only their interests, who benefit from sowing the seeds of avarice, apathy and ressentiment; our political system and social values have evolved to the point where it caters shamelessly to such pedlars of despair. Though saying so outright does little good, and direct action little more, it is far worse to resign oneself to the conviction that we humans are intrinsically bad and incapable of receiving grace.

That said, where do we go? There exists sin, and those willing to exploit it. What to do about it? If I were to tell you there is nothing to do about it, that one is either damned or saved from the beginning of time, I would be as deep in sin and as blind to its true nature as those I criticise. Confrontation does no good either – a man sitting in Plato’s cave all too easily dismisses the freak, the crank, the lunatic with his wild nonsense of moonlight and fresh grass, which no one has ever seen. They are justified when this unfortunate soul takes to repeating his memories just a little louder. Only through pointing to the shadows on the wall of the cave can one ask of the man that he imagine just a little bit more.

This is why I refuse to take Peter Beinart’s tack on Jon Stewart and his endeavour (which I attended and thoroughly enjoyed – there are some photos below, for the interested). If I may speak directly, I believe that Jon Stewart is in the process of pointing to the shadows on the wall – he did his part to try to demonstrate (through comedy and through direct communication) that there can be a productive, respectful dialogue between those who disagree. It is not condescension to point to the shadows on the wall when the shadows are needed. Nor is it really condescension to scream at the men in the cave about moonlight and grass (though it may well be arrogance, and it certainly isn’t polite). It is condescending, on the other hand (and a measure of how deep in the cave one oneself is), to claim for one purpose or another that men in the cave have no way out.

For a good example of what productive and respectful dialogue can look like even when people disagree and have good reasons for disagreeing, I refer the gentle reader to Jon Stewart’s Rachel Maddow interview.

Second, I do not believe that insisting that there be a dialogue means that our job is done. There is a way out of the cave, a way to greater social justice, to equality, to liberation, to wisdom, to the Kingdom of God (if you will grant me the Christianism). The job of those closer to the mouth of the cave is not just to insist that there be a shadow-play, but to use that shadow-play to describe the world outside and to point the way. The questions we must raise about our present age are: whom does it benefit (if anyone)? Whom does it exclude? What tendencies does it encourage and what values does it serve? We have no shortage of false prophets of the present age, preaching a religion without sacrifice: salvation through ‘free trade’, through ‘growth’ (stipulated incorrectly as expansion of consumption and GDP rather than as the nurturing of broader human potential and durable institutions), through the marketplace, through the acquisition of the Next Big Thing; leading the American people into the lower depths of the cave and the rest of the world in a race to the bottom. We need to start asking hard questions – indirectly. Are this state of affairs and all the consequences attached to it truly of our own choosing? Are they something we truly want, or are they something we have been prodded and cajoled into wanting? Is there, as Margaret Thatcher insisted, truly no alternative? Can we not look to history for other answers instead of blundering blindly forward?

Something to think about, perhaps. And now, some photos from the Rally:

02 November 2010

Pointless video post - ‘Two Minutes to Midnight’ by Iron Maiden

Some vintage Maiden for my gentle readers; one of their classic anti-war numbers. Kind of reflects how I’ve been feeling all day.

28 October 2010

A short reflection on the benefits of local booksellers

a.) They’re local. For me, a young man without means of independent transportation beyond his own two legs, that is a definite plus. To be sure, there is also a Borders within walking distance, but from my house – not from campus. That would require going in the other direction. Also, sometimes I just need to get out of Posvar and into a used bookstore; it’s really a meditative experience for me.

b.) They’ll cut you a break. I arrived at Townsend Booksellers yesterday about three quarters of an hour before my part-time job started (at 9:45), but they didn’t open officially until ten. I saw one of the proprietors outside and asked him if I could come in. He asked me what I was looking for, and I said ‘something by G K Chesterton’, and he asked if I’d wait for him to open up (which he did) so I could look around. He also helped me locate the sections where he knew works by Chesterton could be found.

c.) They have really top-notch material, which often you can’t find in chain stores. The hardback 1985 edition of As I was saying: a Chesterton reader (an anthology of some Chesterton excerpts); an old clothbound copy of Chesterton’s Autobiography; a book of his poems (priced far too dear for my blood, since it was apparently signed by Chesterton – it was still fun to read for awhile, though). Townsend also had Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Niebuhr’s Christian Ethics and several books by Tillich, Yoder and others in the religion section. Their philosophy section was likewise marvellously represented, from Plato to Merleau-Ponty. I bought two of the Chesterton books mentioned above; I’m currently enjoying each line of As I was saying.

d.) They are beautiful. Like I said, being in Townsend Booksellers, even for just half an hour, was a meditative experience – the dense-packed books of various ages on real wooden shelves, sitting on a real hardwood floor, giving off the comforting odours of a private library, all have a very calming effect. The fact that the proprietors knew what was in their stock, and could state (either affirmatively or negatively) whether something was there, also impressed me greatly – they obviously put a great deal of care into their business.

On another topic, two days more until the Rally to Restore Sanity, which I shall be attending. Sanity is as worthy a cause as any, though I suspect my own rather eclectic political inclinations will be slightly oblique with reference to the majority of the people who will be attracted to a Jon Stewart-hosted event. Even have my own demonstration poster printed off and all! Hope to bring back some good pictures…

14 October 2010

Pointless video post - ‘The Final Frontier’ by Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden is something of a guilty pleasure for me, but their music videos certainly are entertaining. Enjoy!

‘The Final Frontier’

EDIT: Just as a sidenote, this has to be one of the out-and-out nerdiest music videos ever. I counted four - wait, five - references to various sci-fi, fantasy and horror blockbusters, and I get the feeling I'm missing quite a few more...

12 October 2010

Some further thoughts on Marx, the Tories and Confucius

As we probe further into issues of national and international administration in our courses at GSPIA, I have noticed that we are being increasingly exposed to an ideology of the global elite which has become dominant in the international affairs discourse. I am gratified to note that some of my professors are willing – nay, even eager – to entertain contrary views, though I wonder if these views have not yet been formally structured into a logical system which can form the basis for a deep critique of this ideology. One such logical system is derived from the thought of Karl Marx, though Marxism itself has some interesting problems and contradictions of its own (to which various schools of thought have responded differently). George Grant made the penetrating observation that Marx’s initial impulses were traditionalist (even religious!), as he rejected the contractarian narrative of the time and gazed back into human history to grasp at the threads which bound the human condition together (namely, our gregariousness and our ability to alter our environment to create goods of value) and follow them up through the various paradigms of economic division of labour and exploitation of the powerless, and makes an almost Tory-sounding critique of the dominant ‘enlightened’ ideology of his day by saying the licences it grants are made to serve the values and economic interests of the wealthy. So far, so good. But because of the recommendations he wants to make, however, in laying hold of these threads there comes a point where the tapestry he wants to weave begins to unravel. The Russian existentialist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev laid his finger on that very spot when he asserted that orthodox Marxism divided history into two – the deterministic era of cyclical exploitation, contradiction and collapse composing the entirety of human history to this point, and the liberated era to come when the classless society would take root. He then asserted that this narrative then ceased to be a ‘scientific’ philosophy and became a religious dogma: the only salvation humankind would have from its chains would be through the messianic class of the industrial proletariat, though there is no assurance exactly wherein this liberating power exists.

Interestingly enough, later Marxists and New Leftists seem to have become aware of this contradiction, and have come amazingly close to overcoming it. Among the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth have all done admirable footwork in finding new and creative ways to subvert and critique the social-contract narrative through various adaptations of Anglo-American pragmatism, existentialism, developmental psychology and the philosophy of language. They affirm the intrinsically social nature of human beings, but leave room for liberation through systemic social critique (though for the most part, they thankfully elide the utopian promises of orthodox Marxism).

But I wonder if there might be an alternative all the same, which follows a parallel path and draws inspiration not only from Marx, but also from points of contact in axial, early Christian, mediaeval and classical Tory thinking. I think the interrupted tradition of radical Toryism gives us some tantalising insights:

- Whiggism (the progenitor of most of the dominant ideologies in modern political discourse, both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’) in insisting on the social contract narrative of the individual’s relationship with society, fails to recognise a.) that human beings are deeply and organically rooted in their social surroundings and b.) that such belonging is a fundamental human need rather than merely an option (even a preferable option)
- Because human beings are so deeply socially situated, there is basis for conversation about a common conception of the Good
- A common conception of the Good requires some articulation not only of norms and formal institutions, but of common governing priorities and values arising out of this social situation
- A common conception of the Good cannot, therefore, refer only to and be measured only by individual happiness and satisfaction of desires (as the more sophisticated Whigs such as Bentham and Mill would have it, and as the modern human rights regime does now), but also to the traditions and obligations both formal and informal which gave rise to the means of expression for these desires

Ironically enough given the respect I have for such insights, I have taken as much inspiration in my left-Toryism from studying Confucius and his followers as I have from reading the radical Tories and Anglo-Catholics of my own adoptive tradition (William Laud, Mary Astell, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, William Wilberforce, Beilby Porteus, Charles Gore, Frederick Denison Maurice, George Grant and Kenneth Leech). Though Confucius claimed (and I believe him sincere) that he did not invent anything but merely related what he believed in and loved from generations past (述而不作,信而好古), I think in setting forth this relation he has indeed broken new grounds, often neglected, for deep social critique. Even as he defends the forms of the existing order through such principles as the central moral importance of ritual 礼 and the rectification of names 正名, he turns the content and organising principles of the existing order on their heads by insisting the importance of human love 仁 and social justice 义 rather than profit 利 in all relationships (「君子喻于义,小人喻于利。」). (Implicit in these priorities, also, is perhaps embedded a substantive critique of modern capitalism!)

It should be noted, I think, that radical Toryism (like Confucianism) did leave room for a certain level of formal inequality in its emphasis on respecting traditional forms of social organisation (note that even Mary Astell, the first English feminist, was a pious High Churchwoman and a fervent supporter of the Stuart monarchy). But it should be remembered that while many early Whigs did little to resist the slave trade and the ownership of slaves (in the notable cases of Locke and Berkeley, though of course later the Whig party was responsible for passing the act abolishing slavery in the Empire), various Tory and High Church voices – including Johnson, Swift, Porteus and Wilberforce – were among the loudest detractors of the practice. Why is this? If the early Tories believed, as Johnson put it, that ‘subordination… [is] most conducive to the happiness of society’, why then would they object so vehemently to the practice of slavery?

The answer, oddly enough, might be hinted at in Dr Johnson’s dictionary, in his definition of the word ‘caitiff’ wherein he cites a Homeric saying that ‘so certainly does slavery destroy virtue’ – though Johnson meant it not as a thrust at the lack of virtue in slaves but at the lack of virtue in their owners. It is impossible to demonstrate any meaningful kind of human affection to a piece of property; what is demanded is a recognition (in the sense meant by Western Marxist philosopher Axel Honneth) between people, even people of differing social backgrounds, of common humanity and common values. As Johnson demonstrated in his etymology of ‘caitiff’, such shared values simply cannot exist when one person is allowed such total control over another person’s labour, means of sufficiency and dignity. There is a significant distinction made in Johnson’s thinking between belonging to a community as a subject (meant in two senses of ‘subject’: a being with free will and a citizen of a monarchy), and belonging to a person as an object.

It also seems to be the case that the early Tories viewed poisonous inequality and poverty as unacceptable blights. Dr Johnson wrote extensively on the subject, and nearly always came off in solidarity with the poor, and of course Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal likewise scathingly castigates the callous mindset of the English middle and upper classes with regard to the poor of Ireland.

So we have an interrupted tradition of political philosophy in the English-speaking world which combines cultural conservatism, religious piety and deference to tradition with a radical critique of contractarian / propertarian capitalist ideology and the dire inequalities which followed hard on its heels. George Grant attempted, if not to resurrect it then to remind the world of it, by making careful points of contact with mediaeval and Platonist thinking; I am of the opinion that this interrupted tradition shares more than just a superficial kinship with Confucian thinking (whose interruption in China is a lot more recent, and probably far less substantial than radical Toryism has been in the English-speaking West) in their concern for the Good. However, how the similarities are to be reconciled with the belief in the danger of rationalising values upon communities which do not necessarily share them is perhaps a hurdle too high. It is unwise to demand of people more than they can imagine.

Though I personally have found Confucianism both persuasive and an immense wellspring of inspiration, it would probably be better to promote the social-justice values and use the language of the Anglo-Catholic Christianity I espouse, than to attempt to marshal the thought of Confucius to this task.

10 October 2010

One of the central conceits of Christianity, and why it matters

Elisha refuses the gifts of Naaman, by Pieter Fransz de Grebber, 1637 (from Wikimedia Commons)

For the numerological-minded out there, today is the 10th day of the 10th month of the 10th year of the 21st century (that’s 10.10.10). That ought to be reason enough to celebrate with your beverage of choice. (Had a gin and tonic yesterday which was quite good; for my own part that ought to be enough.)

Just got back from church for the first time in the better part of a month (having been ill, and thus both unable to sing and unwilling to get out of bed by 9:00 on a day off of classes), and the lectionary today was enlightening as it sort of coincided a bit with the sort of thinking I’ve been doing of late. There were two leprosy healing stories: the military commander Naaman by Elisha, and the ten lepers of the border region between Samaria and Galilee by Jesus, and the week’s sermon was on the subject of gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude, Christianity is peculiar among world religions in that it focusses very heavily upon the interpretation of the human condition as sustained. Scientifically, this is a truth we have known for a long time: human beings are highly-sophisticated thermodynamic mechanisms which produce massive amounts of entropy, constantly taking in energy from the environment and using it imperfectly to further our endeavours of living. Other religions do indeed acknowledge this truth and even its importance, yet Christianity in particular tends to be very emphatic that this scientific truth has a very specific theological significance: the universe, and thus God, is pouring itself out that we might continue to live. There is nothing that we can do that does not come first from what we eat and what we drink and what we breathe; all of which is furnished by the extravagantly effusive fusion reactor that is the Sun. We are all of us born into an energy ‘debt’ and remain indebted throughout our lives, sustained constantly by a lavishly generous universe. Christianity teaches that the only appropriate subjective response to the objective truth that our existences are sustained is, indeed, gratitude – and that gratitude is to be demonstrated by both altering the organisation through which our resources are distributed, and spending our own energy to improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves.

Yet, in some ways, have we lost sight of this truth somewhere? The morality du jour, courtesy of a contemporary pop-ethics which holds aloft the marketplace as the site of salvation and celebrates the liberation of individual passions (violence, sex and greed), encourages massive concentration of wealth and conspicuous consumption. This pop-ethics, moreover, likes to pretend that as individuals, we are completely self-sufficient and that freedom therefore consists in the indulgence of such passions. Our corporate media consistently venerate the ambitious, the greedy and the extravagant (that is to say, the ungrateful) over the reasonable, the kind and the generous – and when, on the rare occasion that they they do mention the reasonable, the kind or the generous (Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi or Mother Teresa), they always manage to downplay the promise of deep change in their messages for the benefit of the existing complacent imperial order. Very few in our public discourse are willing to speak of or even consider ‘duty’ or ‘responsibility’ unless it is to castigate the poor – those with the least bargaining power or influence in a market economy. Our imperial society generally venerates (to quote Gandhi) pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity and religion without sacrifice.

In such a society, authentic gratitude (and the simplicity and generosity which must follow from it) becomes a profound act of resistance. The Lord’s Prayer – ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread’ – becomes radically subversive literature.

It is not that I object in the slightest to worldly order: St Paul was quite adamant that those who bear the sword do not do so in vain, that kingdoms and principalities and governments have a positive moral role to play in enforcing and distributing justice. But in my own view, the organising principles of our present order must change; indeed, they must reverse course, in some cases to pre-Enlightenment norms. Though it leaves a foul aftertaste in my mouth to use the now-castrated-with-overuse contemporary language of ‘sustainability’, it and related principles like ‘stability’ are much to be preferred to the blind worship of endless growth and so-called ‘free trade’ by a number of respected contemporary economists. We must replace the blind pursuit and immodest veneration of mammon with an appreciation for what T S Eliot called ‘the permanent things’ – and some creative means of doing so may be hinted at in Western Europe’s current forms of social organisation (where family time is more carefully balanced against work than it is here). Our best physical sciences must once again pay some measure of respect (ideally the Confucian-inspired respect of distance - 敬鬼神而远之) to the transcendental moral order of the universe – and begin to turn away from the destructive and divisive opinions of pop-lit nouveau-atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. We must make some serious, even if unilateral, efforts to solve some of the more pressing environmental concerns of our own making, such as global warming. We must make some attempt to restore some modicum of intelligence, restraint, civility and common humanity to our public discourse (and kudos to those rare public figures like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who make some brave attempts to do something about it from their seats in the claque). And last (but by no means least), we must begin to dismantle the imperial apparatus that has us engaged in extravagantly costly foreign adventures, in which the foremost victims are the civilians of South and Central Asia and the lower-ranking members of our own military (many of whom come from backgrounds of dire economic distress), but in which the general civilian public is made to feel no obligation in terms of finances or lifestyle.

Just a short list of simple tasks, really. In seriousness, though, I do not think we can depend on the existing order to self-correct, not without significant input in terms of social and political behaviour from the bottom (though even there I have some doubts). Just a few thoughts – have a happy 10.10.10, everyone, and try not to get too drunk! Also, I hope to see some of my readers in Washington, DC at the Rally to Restore Sanity.

02 October 2010

Some thoughts on George Grant, modernity and a brief sketch of China with some hints at its current dilemma

From left to right: Dr George Parkin Grant, OC, FRSC; Confucius 孔子; and Dr Sun Yat-Sen 孙中山

My apologies again for having neglected my blog for so long – I have been incredibly busy in recent days, and this has not let up at all in view of a dreaded Public Administration midterm on Monday, along with statistics homework and a summary of the Baylis and Smith chapters on terrorism and nuclear proliferation for Global Governance.

My fun-reading, not wholly unrelated to the questions being asked in Global Governance, has been George Parkin Grant’s Lament for a Nation. In it he poses some very hard, very searching questions – it was very similar in effect for me as reading Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man in that it made me question very deeply my own place in the universe and how to negotiate it with the social-justice ideals I claim to profess. I am, for better and for worse, a male white upper-middle-class American with a bachelor’s degree – this places me very firmly in a position of privilege, a beneficiary of modernity and empire. Using Ched Myers’ literary-historical method of reading the Gospel as a guide, I would have to read myself into the story in the position of the wealthy young man and in the position of the scribes and teachers of the Law – people who derived benefit from their statuses within the Roman Empire. Likewise, George Grant’s book made me question my own place in the world.

Grant is adamant, having drunk deeply the waters of the Socratic-Platonic well and of the existentialist well also, that we are shaped in our thinking and in our doing by technology, that we are seduced by the promise that we can have final mastery over the workings of the universe. Grant sees this promise as something to resist, since it has a nasty habit of destroying local, grounded modes of being. The promise of technology is wedded to its offspring in corporation capitalism, which itself is the instrument of American imperial influence worldwide, and it is wedded to the ideology of ‘liberalism’ (by which he means the tradition of Locke and Smith more than the tradition of Rawls), which emphasises the liberation of the passions of the individual (defined as a constellation of ‘natural’ negative and property rights) and the inevitable progress of history toward said liberation. Liberalism, Grant argues, places no checks on the desire for imperial dominance and sees no need to offer grounds for any transcendent notion of the Good; as such, it is the perfect ideology for a humanity which wants to divorce itself from nature and pursue its own selfish ends individually without reference to anyone or anything else.

Grant sees Canada succumbing to the dynamic American world empire on all fronts, having given over control of its own foreign and defence policies, having handed over to a corporate elite all of its wealth and culture, and having forsaken its founding Tory values of tradition, of social welfare and of the common good. He sees Canada now occupying the space of the ‘little brother’ in the American imperial project, reaping many of the benefits while shouldering but few of the responsibilities.

So now I’m left thinking – as an American, very few if any traditions make any kind of real claim on me; instead what I have done is cast back much further along a thinner line to a connexion with British traditions and culture and with the kerygmatic Palestinian community of the followers of Jeshua ben Josef of Nazareth through the organic structure of apostolic succession, wilfully subjecting myself to such traditions through my religion (the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Communion). Yet this, in many ways, is not enough. Repentance starts with self-searching, and I find that much of what I do (and what I plan to do in the future) is also dependent upon the promise of technology, and also dependent upon the patronage and privileged position empire has given me. What I do now and where I go from here are now questions to which an extra dimension is added, particularly given my interest in working in China.

Now here is a country which historically took as foundational a traditional mode of social thought – fundamentally different culturally but with some striking intellectual parallels to the radical Tory tradition Grant cites as Canada’s founding philosophy. This mode of social thought belongs to one philosopher by the name of Kong Qiu 孔丘, better known as Confucius 孔子, who claimed to be transmitting a tradition of humanist thought going back to the Duke of Zhou 周公旦 for future generations. Confucius’ philosophy was dedicated almost in its entirety to promoting good social relations between people, and building a society in which human beings, rather than wealth or individual gain, held ultimate value. (Notable is one episode in the Analects wherein after a barn fire he asks after the well-being of the servants but not of the horses, which symbolise material wealth: ‘厩焚。子退朝,曰:“伤人乎?”不问马。’)

The tale of China’s recent intellectual history, however, is a highly troubled one. Most Imperial dynasties (with some notable exceptions) tended to favour Confucianism as it was easily adapted into a pro-establishment philosophy, though in many cases in history it also provided grounds for social critique and even ‘revolution’ 革命 wherein an Imperial family which had abused its power and caused people to suffer, having lost the tianming 天命 (the divine mandate), could be overthrown and replaced with a more virtuous and compassionate family. This changed with the most recent revolutions, however, which really were revolutions in that they replaced more than just the reigning family.

The Xinhai Revolution辛亥革命opened China’s intellectual class to Western ideas through the thought of Sun Yat-Sen 孙中山, whose own philosophy was difficult to define – even though he was highly critical of both imperialism and Western market influences, he was nevertheless highly influenced by his own Western upbringing and education. Western ideas and political leverage continued to play a role in China’s politics and economy through both Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong (though Mao Zedong was borrowing ideas rather from Marx and Lenin). The attempt to oust Confucian thinking and values from the consciousness of the Chinese people, having started with Sun Yat-Sen, was brought to a head under Mao through the disastrous Cultural Revolution 文革. How successful this attempt has been, I do not believe I am the right person to ask, nor do I think it is yet clear. I think it can be argued, however, that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of the late 1980’s, done in the wealth-first spirit of Western market liberalism, were (ironically) made possible only by the values upset of the Cultural Revolution.

China’s modern society, as a result, contains a broad mixture of deep organic tradition and cooptation of technological modernity (and the resulting logic of empire). Given the amount of control their society has, I’m not sure Grant would be over-quick to lament the death of their nation in spite of this creeping homogenising influence. I hope – and would very much like to think – that China’s recent spiritual shift toward Buddhism is indicative of a desire to return to a deep organic tradition that can provide a sense of meaning and stability and humanity in a world run amok with the pursuit of wealth at the expense of people. But that is certainly not for me to decide; and if I should choose to work in China, I need to gain a deeper awareness of this history while continuing to ask myself the really hard questions. What are my own purposes? What do I want to accomplish, and for whom? Can I accomplish this in ways which are mindful and respectful of the depth of tradition where I am?

Next up on my fun-reading list: A Dream of John Ball by English socialist author and high-fantasy pioneer William Morris, and hopefully something by Richard Hooker.

18 September 2010

Some thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI's speech at Westminster

Full text of the Holy Father's address here.

It is certainly quite a diplomatic piece of writing in the first few paragraphs, managing to establish common ground with his hosts on their own historical terms while still asserting the mythology associated with martyrs such as S. Thomas More; Prince Metternich would indeed be proud. However, one sees here the sheer driving power of this Pope's considerable academic intellect at work as he addresses the mutual need of social systems for the leaven of moral norms - in his case, arising from Christian thinking and those norms associated with Catholic social teaching. I'm certainly happy that the Pope is devoting his attentions to the need not only for humanitarian aid but also for effective implementation of that aid. It's a message to which I am immensely sympathetic, and which I think needs to be heard on a much broader scale.

One of the problems - and I say this as a party sympathetic to the Roman Church - is that the Pope's own moral voice (and this Pope's in particular) has been compromised by the grievous ethical breaches that have taken place within the Roman Church over the past several decades. For evidence of this one need only examine the protests against the papal visit. There is certainly a great measure of just cause in those protests emphasising the child abuse scandals, and I would like to think that the Pope, in beginning to actively cooperate with secular authorities to bring the criminals in the clergy to justice, is making an earnest and wholehearted endeavour at repentance. I say this because I want the Pope to be recognised for the worthy message he has to offer here about the need for a fairer and more egalitarian economic playing field in which labourers and small landowners are not subject to the avaricious whims of big investment banks, and I want him to be recognised for his contributions outside the clique of his own faithful (as his predecessor Pope John Paul II was).

Anyway, just a loosely-organised collection of thoughts here. I'll probably have more to add later.

17 September 2010

Pointless video post - 'To Holmgård and Beyond' by Turisas

Who is ‘I’ without a past?
A river without a source?
An event without a cause?


That’s where the winds will us guide!
For fame and for gold,
Set sail for those lands unknown!

12 September 2010

Tired old meme

Apparently there's an old Internet meme called Wikipedia names your band that I came back to recently during a study break. The rules are as follows - do a random search on Wikipedia; the first page you come to will be the name of your band. (This was what I got.) Then do a random search on quotationspage.com and take the last few words of whatever quote comes up at the bottom of the page (which turned out, for me, to be this quote from Sr Mary Corita Kent). Finally, take a look at the past seven days on Flickr and use the third image you come across as your album cover. I can't link again to the photo I'm using, but I can display the finished product:

Turned out sadly well, actually, since it actually suggests the sort of band I might listen to in real life.

Choir went pretty well today, actually. First Sunday in choral vestments - I forgot how sweaty those things could get... but the songs we were singing were fun: William Byrd in The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems.

06 September 2010

Labour Day in the US + some photos

(American) Labour Day’s an interesting time in Pittsburgh, that’s for sure. The buses are infrequent this weekend – certainly understandable, but it meant yesterday that I missed church and the first hour of WMA / heavy weapons practice. It should be noted that I don’t object to being grounded as much on a Monday.

Just in time for ALD, though, came a report from the Freedom House on labour rights in the countries of the world. The United States comes in as a ‘Mostly Free’ country with regard to labour rights (lagging somewhat behind most of the countries of the European Union, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea), but the report makes note of the substantial and alarming weakened state of American trade unions (from 35% of employed labourers to below 8% over the past 50 years), the steady judicial erosion of collective bargaining rights, the measures taken against managers who violate labour laws which amount to little more than slaps on the wrist, and the public hostility toward any manifestation of labour activism or civil organisation. As an industrialised society with great power and wealth, more ought to be expected of us in both generosity and in concern for the common good, particularly as we run up against problems of resource scarcity in a rising multipolar era.

I wasn’t able to get out and take a great number of photographs, but here are some that may be of interest within my own neighbourhood:

The house I live in, currently. Overall a fairly nice place.

The five-way intersection at Liberty and Baum where I catch my bus most often. Note the Cathedral of Learning in the distance in the first photo, as well as the no-pedestrian-crossing sign which is conveniently ignored by drivers and pedestrians alike.

The centre of Morrow Triangle, with a monument to those who lost their lives in the Second World War.

The First United Methodist Church on Centre Ave and S Aiken Ave. Not the best example of the sooty patina on old buildings, but you can tell the stones used to be a lighter colour, particularly on the tower and beneath the windows. Oh yes, and they do spell ‘Centre Ave’ correctly. Just one of the things I love about this place!

See; wouldn’t lie to you!

Some better examples of the Pittsburgh patina effect: Evaline Lutheran Church (top) and another house on my block (bottom). Evaline Church in particular is quite striking; makes it look quite ancient, in fact.

And here’s a modest example of the terrain in Pittsburgh. I’m taking this shot from the top of a slight incline (Penn Ave), looking downhill and then up toward the cemetery.

That's all the photos I have for now; I’m sure I’ll be back with more soon!

26 August 2010

First week in Pittsburgh – some impressions

I wouldn’t say that I’m very much acclimated at all yet to the city – I’m sure I shall be eventually, but I’m still in my honeymoon stage of culture shock yet with the cliff of the distress-disorientation phase looming on the horizon. I exaggerate here somewhat – the culture here actually is refreshingly similar to my farther-Midwestern roots; but unlike the Midwest or Rhode Island, there’s terrain in Pittsburgh. Terrain which does not accommodate itself easily to city planning, that is. There are hills and valleys which require overpasses and sharp climbs (the busways and train tracks all require bridges of some sort – in this sense it reminds me almost of Beijing, except the necessity of such bridges is natural rather than synthetic, and the oppressive all-pervading road traffic is missing here), the roads seem to change names, disappear, bend in excess of 180 degrees while crossing themselves, &c. to appease the landscape. My own neighbourhood is in a rhombus-shaped ‘grid’ of roads, the vertex at which my daily bus ride arrives being home to a six-way intersection (only four of which have usable pedestrian crossings). That said, much of the city is still very accessible thanks to the extensive public transport system. So getting around is tricky but inexpensive; the same cannot be said of buying groceries (the local Giant Eagle is very nearby, but prices are a bit higher than I imagined they would be).

The air here is supposedly some of the most polluted in the country, but the only evidence of this that I have experienced in any depth is in the black patina of coal-soot that coats a certain number of the city’s edifices. (My gold-standards for air pollution are still Beijing and the major cities of Shaanxi Province in China.) That said, I have been exposed to some aspects of the city’s culture: I have gone to a game in PNC Park to watch the Bucs go up against the Marlins (the park was beautiful; the game was… less than inspiring), and I have gone to numerous restaurants and pubs in the area and tried the Yuengling (the local lager, which is quite good) and the German-inspired fares at the Hofbräuhaus (where I met some of my fellow GSPIAns – they seem like a good group, all told). As far as local history goes, the (not-so-)little Anglophile in me fell head-over-heels in love with Pittsburgh when he learned that it was among the only cities to resist the Americanisation of place-names at the turn of the century by the US Board on Geographic Names, restoring the name from ‘Pittsburg’ to the more correct (Scots-)English ‘Pittsburgh’ in 1911. I still have yet to visit old Fort Pitt, the redoubt from the Seven Years’ War, but that’s certainly on my list of things-to-do here.

As readers of my blog and other Episcopal blogs may be aware, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh was pretty much Ground Zero for the late unpleasantness regarding the controversy over inclusion of homosexuals in Church life, and the schism which followed. The Church I am currently attending – Calvary Episcopal Church on Shady and Walnut – came down fairly firmly on the side of the established Episcopal Church, though in spite of such a catholic leaning the liturgy was a bit Lower than I would have hoped. All the same, I enjoyed the sermon immensely (on the countercultural aspects of keeping the discipline of the Sabbath as a day of rest); more to the point, though, I was welcomed with open arms and promptly invited to join choir practices by three separate parishioners. I think I’m going to greatly enjoy worshipping and singing there.

Started doing some readings for classes, and I’ve cracked open a few of my ridiculously-expensive textbooks, but mostly I’ve been doing fun-reading while I still have the opportunity: Athens and Jerusalem, a collection of essays by and about the Canadian political philosopher and theologian George Grant. I certainly appreciate many of his views on the shortcomings of modernity, technology and capitalism, particularly in their relation to education and the national character of Canada. It’s also interesting to see different authors paint very different views of the man: some see him as a socialist or a social democrat making common cause with the CCF / early NDP over the welfare state, economic egalitarianism and opposition to militarism, while others see him as an arch-conservative attempting to reclaim the nomenclature of ‘conservatism’ for the interrupted tradition of political philosophy which includes Jonathan Swift, Dr Samuel Johnson and the High Romantics, and away from the progeny of John Locke, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. The interesting thing is that they both appear to be true.

… So, that’s what I’ve been up to the past few days. Orientation tomorrow; classes start Monday.

23 August 2010

A kill-switch for intellectual integrity in the humanities

It is incredibly rare that I read a New York Times article that sends cold shivers down my spine the way no horror movie can, but the recent one about how the Wikipedia model might be changing the rules of peer review in academic journals made me literally cringe.

When I think back on my post-high school career, and how differently I thought as I left high school from when I left college, and how AmeriCorps and even Peace Corps changed even those views as I was continually exposed to more and deeper knowledge in communities of people who were struggling with the very same questions and issues (even if I completely disagreed with those people), I’ve come to understand how vital it is from a purely intellectual point-of-view to form those connexions. The sciences and the academic disciplines function similarly – you present a piece of work to your peers: people who have both experience with and an interest in the academic question or the scientific hypothesis you are posing; people who know your real name and who are willing to give you criticism (constructive or otherwise) under their own real names.

There are downsides to the process, naturally. Egos get involved. Academic battles and enmities arise. Though I do not know the specifics of the debate in geochemistry in which my father is primarily concerned, his views are immensely unpopular within his own circles and have extreme difficulty gaining traction. But the downsides of having academic debates contained within communities of people who have an understanding and a material interest in the field are vastly outweighed by the benefits. Criticisms are civil, for the most part. Criticisms conform to accepted standards of logic and reasoning. Criticisms are based in fact and according to the best understandings we have within the field.

Transferring these academic debates out of peer circles and onto the Internet is thus a monstrously terrible idea. Perhaps Dr Cohen, the George Mason University professor interviewed in the article who advocates such measures, would care to instruct himself in the subject beginning with this public service announcement (provided by a group of entertainers with a very clear and cogent understanding of how the Internet works to promote civility, rationality, community and factual debate).

A number of good points to be made here. Wikipedia editors are free to edit anonymously – with some exceptions, they don’t even need usernames, just IP addresses. The only reason Wikipedia is not a total wasteland is because they have bots and an active and dedicated team of professional editors who keep it relatively sane by reversing malicious edits and refereeing flame wars between interested parties on their discussion pages, but even Wikipedia is not really reliable for anything more than the most superficial information on any given subject, unless it is extensively sourced – and if you’re going to keep a dedicated team of professional editors who do just such selection of criticism, you might as well give them a break and keep your articles peer-reviewed anyway.

The deeper issue, though, is that of academia willingly subjecting itself to creationists, global-warming deniers and other such ignoramuses. Thankfully, the article was referencing only a certain number of journals in the humanities (the sciences so far seem exempt, and it is my sincere hope that they are wise, secure, sincere and self-aware enough never to attempt such a misguided stunt as this), but it is troubling all the same. The humanities are ostensibly academic disciplines which pose questions about what it means to be human; God help us all if we allow authority over such questions to fall into the hands of people who are insecure enough in their own humanity to spew vitriol and ignorance anonymously over the Internet.

15 August 2010

Last Sunday in Rhode Island – the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

I’ve finished packing for Pittsburgh, for the most part – I leave for the iron city on Tuesday morning. I am glad, though, that before I had to leave I was able to stay for the Feast of the Assumption at S Stephen’s – I enjoyed the Mass immensely, particularly the procession through Our Lady Chapel to pay our respects to the Blessed Virgin. At times before I had criticised Catholic Mariology as giving Mary too great a Docetic gloss, paying too much attention to her divinity and perfection, and not enough to her humanity; I found, though, that (on the contrary) the Catholic devotions we use in the High Church tradition put me for one in greater mind of her very human vulnerability. The story of the revelation to Mary of her role in the grand design, even her song of praise in the Gospel of St Luke, is brimming with both the existential wonder and terror of her humanity before a God who had placed her very firmly ‘on the spot’. Part of the conceit of asking for Mary’s intercession, as well, is the emphasis on her closeness to us as the ‘advance representative’ of humanity in a state of salvation (as Fr Alexander put it in his sermon today). Of course, the socialist in me is quick to point out that God chose as the vehicle for bearing humankind’s salvation the teenage peasant bride of a lowly working-class woodworker – a socially marginal figure in multiple respects.

Actually it was a bit hard for me to ask her prayers of intercession even today; I feel blessed at the opportunities I do have now with grad school before me, in spite of my own past failed endeavours, and I thought it fit only to seek after just a small portion of the Blessed Virgin’s strength in the event that I too am placed ‘on the spot’. I’m simply grateful for being put in mind of that.

Tuesday: I plan to move in, get settled in, perhaps see a Pirates game with my dad before he goes up to take my sister Catherine back to Beloit College for her junior year. Then to get acquainted with the city and with my future classmates! So far, they seem like a good crew. I’ll be sure to keep my gentle readers in touch with my impressions of Pittsburgh.

08 August 2010

Much ado about nothing

It is incredibly strange to me exactly how much irrational sentiment has been stirred up by the proposed building of the Córdoba House at the Park 51 site in Manhattan. Nate Silver makes some good factual points in his blog post on the subject: Park 51 is not at Ground Zero but rather two city blocks north on a parallel street, nor is it even visible from Ground Zero; and a plurality of Manhattan residents support the project (though majorities of New York residents and American citizens, for one reason or another, oppose it). For my own part, I honestly think it shouldn’t be a controversial issue at all. I can see why some might be upset about it, but the Córdoba Initiative has legal title to the land, and they are guaranteed under the Constitution the right to build a religious community centre there, full stop. So much the better if they want to use their community centre to promote interfaith dialogue between the Abrahamic faiths; I’m always game for that, particularly if there are caffeinated beverages involved.

But sadly, as is so often the case in our political culture, the issue has blown up into a complete drama fest. Radical-right gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino said he would use eminent domain to halt the project even as NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg leapt to its defence; the ADL came out publicly against the project because it might potentially offend the sensibilities of New Yorkers; Fareed Zakaria went on CNN eloquently defending the centre and then announcing that he would return the ADL’s Hubert Humphrey Prize awarded to him in defence of First Amendment freedoms (kudos for integrity, but not for discretion); Abraham Foxman of the ADL declared himself ‘saddened’ and ‘stunned’ by Zakaria’s return of the prize; and so on and so forth.

As amusing as all this political theatre is, may I make a suggestion à la Alan Tudyk that we as a society please start showing some rudiments of maturity and class and start talking about some real foreign policy issues relating to outreach to Islamic nations rather than doing all this pointless posturing over a completely legal religious project at home?

EDIT: Oh, and let’s start reading mediaeval Spanish history properly, what say? (Hat-tip to Michael Bérubé at Crooked Timber.)