30 March 2010

Siracusan foray

Well, now that I've had some time to catch my breath after my couch-surfing excursion to Syracuse this past weekend (which was the welcome weekend for prospective grads at the Maxwell School) I can start writing a bit about it. It was a fairly long trip, by train there and by bus back (the train having been delayed six hours). When I got into Syracuse, I was picked up by my host student, Andrea, and her significant-other Karsten, and immediately taken to a party which uncannily resembled an undergraduate party (complete with drinking games and mixed drinks of dubious origin and composition). I quickly found, though, that the students were a congenial and welcoming group on the whole - not just at the party, but afterward as well (when we finally got back to Andrea's flat, which she shared with three other students).

Friday I spent up on the main campus, at the Maxwell complex (second photo down). I admit to being impressed with the school - it was set a bit apart from the rest of Syracuse, but they had some cool old buildings (and newer ones which looked like bunkers, in the brutalist 1960's reinforced concrete - but I'm used to those, since I did go to Classical High School for a year). The Maxwell staff in charge of the welcome weekend were very welcoming indeed; they fed us and then gave us a few lectures / forums / q-and-a sessions with staff and current students. I was a bit surprised, though, to find that the Washington schools were not held in very high repute there - though their Washington semester (which they do in concert with U Pitt-GSPIA and a couple of other schools) was very highly touted.

The campus felt very Midwestern in character (even though New York State is kind of a bridge between the Mid-Atlantic East Coast and the Midwest, and where Syracuse lies between those regions, loosely-defined, really depends on whom you ask). There was a lot of emphasis on the student community, which was readily apparent. The students were very helpful and eager to talk about their projects - though for much of the weekend we were just kind of goofing off together (which is fine too), they assured me that they did do a substantial amount of work. In all, I was strongly reminded of the Kalamazoo College student body. That might be an endorsement, but I keep hearing that master's programmes are not undergraduate programmes, and what I should look for should be, to some extent, much different. The Washington schools are still in the running for me, since they have the greatest opportunity for internships, building professional skills and finding job offers in my area - but they are also significantly more expensive.

Some photos I took of the campus:

The train station at Albany-Rensselaer, where I spent a good portion of my trip inland

The downhill view from the Maxwell Complex - not taken from the best time of day, I'm afraid

A side shot of the famous statue of Honest Abe in the Maxwell courtyard, with Tolley Hall's orange brick in the background

Evening shot of nearby Lyman Hall

21 March 2010

After-action report

As my gentle readers may be aware, I applied to graduate schools (specifically master's programmes in international relations) this past winter, and have now heard back from them all. Long story short, I was admitted to six of them: the University of Minnesota, Syracuse University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Washington, American University and George Washington University. Overall, I'm incredibly happy with my results! Now I have some majorly tough decisions to make (like blue and buff, blue and red, blue and gold)...

Over the next few weekends I'll be going out to Syracuse, DC and Pittsburgh to visit a few of these schools; after doing so I may have a clearer idea of what my preferences ought to be, or at least what I want to look for in the courses of study I've been admitted to. So far, the certificate option at Pittsburgh and area studies concentration at American look the most flexible when it comes to fashioning a course of study involving foreign relations in both Central Asia and China, but the career services and professional development and training courses at GWU look amazing...

Also, weather around here has been on the warm side of comfortable, perfect for walking, and as of yesterday (20 Mar 2010) it is now officially spring. That can only mean one thing:

19 March 2010

Pointless video post - 時間 by 唐朝

From the album Epic 《演義》 by Tang Dynasty (唐朝). An oldie but a goodie - video quality's not the best, though. A bit more subdued than other brands of metal, but that's definitely not a bad thing here!

12 March 2010

'Social Justice' Christians - you're in good company!

Just to bolster the point that 'social justice' is a biblical mandate which has been passed down to us in the traditions of the Holy Church and carried forth by many throughout its history, here are just a few relevant figures in the Christian narrative (with a particular emphasis on, but by no means limited to, the English Church - thanks to this fine website for many of the pointers and resources used herein) who have been associated with the struggle for economic equality throughout the centuries:

JESUS OF NAZARETH (6 BC - 30 AD) - not (strictly speaking) a Christian, but rather a Jewish radical whose doctrine, ministry to the poor and ill and civil disobedience campaign against the Roman Empire led to his death by crucifixion in the year 30 AD. He spoke up on behalf of the widows and orphans, and on behalf of those considered 'unclean' by the Temple authorities (lepers, prostitutes and tax-collectors). To us he is the Messiah, the Human One as prophesied by Daniel and the Son of God, of one substance with the Father.

Blessed SIMON KEPHAS, later known as PETER (1 BC - 68 AD) - apostle of Christ and controversial early leader of the Church who demanded the equal sharing of property among followers (Acts 5), and (though originally opposed to the idea) ended up ministering to the Gentiles. Later executed in his mission to Rome, being crucified on an inverted cross.

Blessed SAUL OF TARSUS, later known as PAUL (5 BC - 67 AD) - early convert to the Way, and much misunderstood by later historians, both those favourable and those hostile to his contributions. He made it his mission to include believing Gentiles in the community of Christ, facing down and resisting debt and purity codes and taboos against the 'unclean'. In the seven letters definitively attributed to his authorship, he proclaimed equality between Jews and Greeks, rich and poor and men and women (Galatians 3), defended the authoritative role of women in the Church (Romans 16) and exhorted wealthy believers to manumit their slaves and treat them as brothers (Philemon). Decapitated in Rome in 67 AD.

Blessed JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (= Golden-Mouth), Church Father and Bishop of Constantinople (347 - 407 AD) - so named for his eloquent public speaking (which probably means today he might be considered an 'elitist'?). Was outspoken against the practice of lending at interest and in favour of the equal distribution of property, which he thought was the social extension of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist to the wider society:

Week by week you come to the Lord's table to receive bread and wine. What do these things mean to you? Do you regard them merely as some kind of spiritual medicine, which will purge your soul, like a laxative may purge your body? Or do you sometimes wonder what God is saying in these simple elements? Bread and wine represent the fruits of our labor, whereby we turn the things of nature into food and drink for our sustenance. So at the Lord's table we offer our labor to God, dedicating ourselves anew to his service. Then the bread and the wine are distributed equally to every member of the congregation; the poor receive the same amount as the rich. This means that God's material blessings belong equally to everyone, to be enjoyed according to each person's need. The whole ceremony is also a meal at which everyone has an equal place at the table.

Also (according to the scholarship of current Pope Benedict XVI!) vehemently believed that almsgiving was not enough to fulfil God's plans for a more just society, but that egalitarian social programming was required, according to his Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Was banished from Constantinople to modern-day Abkhazia and died en route; canonised shortly thereafter.

Blessed BASIL OF CAESAREA (330 AD - 379 AD), Church Father and Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca - renowned for his sympathies to the poor, for his ascetic lifestyle and for his opposition to Arianism. Made a scathing critique of the drive for the acquisition of material wealth as an obstacle to the commonwealth of God:

While we try to amass wealth, make piles of money, get hold of the land as our real property, overtop one another in riches, we have palpably cast off justice, and lost the common good. I should like to know how any man can be just, who is deliberately aiming to get out of someone else what he wants for himself.

Blessed HILDA OF WHITBY (614 AD - 680 AD), Abbess at Whitby of the Celtic monastic tradition - though she was often sought for advice by wealthy and powerful men, she was nevertheless famed in Bede's history for her strict obedience to monastic rule, for her advocacy of holding in common all goods and property and for her generosity to the poor. Most famously, she encouraged and supported the cowherd Cædmon to take up the discipline of holy music.

Blessed ÆLFHĒAH OF CANTERBURY (954 AD - 1012 AD), Archbishop of Canterbury - known for his life of simplicity and service to the poor, and for his dedication to just peace. Negotiated a peace with the invading Danes in 994, a peace which resulted in the conversion of Olaf Tryggvason (along with his promise that he would no longer attack the English). In a later invasion, Ælfhēah was captured, and a ransom of 3000 pounds sterling was demanded. Ælfhēah refused the ransom, and was beaten to death by the Danes.

Blessed WULFSTAN OF WORCESTER (1008 AD - 1095 AD), Bishop of Worcester - advocate for the rights of the Saxon peasantry after the Norman conquest and leader of a campaign of civil disobedience against the slave trade. Made a discipline of washing the feet of 12 poor people every day, and held a banquet at which he insisted that the Norman dignitaries serve the hundreds of poor he had also invited.

Blessed FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1182 AD - 1226 AD), deacon of the Church and founder of the Franciscan Order - dedicated himself to a life of simplicity and service to the sick and poor, and to the care of nature. One story has it that he was scolded by his father for giving all he had to a beggar who asked for alms. Undertook a famous mission to the Middle East during which he sought a resolution to the Crusades and a peaceful accommodation between Muslims and Christians.

HUGH LATIMER (1487 AD - 1555 AD), Bishop of Worcester and one of the Oxford Martyrs burnt at the stake for his faith under Queen Mary's reign - worthy successor to Wulfstan, Bishop Latimer inveighed heavily against the exploitative economic practices of the landowners and lords of his time, both Catholic and Protestant. Once said that '[t]he poor man hath title to the rich man's goods'.

Blessed WILLIAM LAUD (1573 AD - 1645 AD), Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr - often remembered as an apologist for High Church practice and for Blessed Charles I, the Martyr King, he was also an implacable opponent of the privileges of the wealthier classes, in particular of the practice of enclosures (which allowed wealthy landowners to 'privatise' lands once farmed by the poor, driving them in starving masses into the cities). This placed him at odds with both the landed upper classes and the growing proto-capitalist urban middle class. A full treatment of Archbishop Laud's agrarian social-justice activism may be found here.

MARY ASTELL (1666 AD - 1731 AD) of Newcastle, Anglo-Catholic author, philosopher and activist for women's rights - known for her book A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (1694), in which she advocates broader education and equal rights for women in English society on the grounds of Christian principles. Her work was not treated kindly by the supposedly-liberal Protestant society in which she lived, but she is (thankfully) enjoying a rediscovery by contemporary feminist thinkers and theologians.

OTTOBAH CUGOANO (1757 AD - ???? AD), Ghanaian abolitionist and member of the Sons of Africa - author of Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787, 1791) and friend and contemporary of OLAUDAH EQUIANO, GRANVILLE SHARP and WILLIAM WILBERFORCE, highly active in the movement to abolish slavery and to promote the emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire. His anti-slavery stance was motivated both by his personal experiences and by his Christian convictions.

Naturally, I understand that this is list is limited in scope, highly Anglocentric and by no means representative of the entire Church or the entirety of the ongoing movement for social and economic justice. But I hope that the point is clear - the label of 'social justice' Christian ought to be worn as a mark of pride, in defiance of the insults of our persecutors in the wider culture. We stand in a proud tradition which has sought and is still seeking to transform society in the image of Christ, in the service of 'the least of these' - not just in modernity, but in antiquity as well. We will not abandon it at the whim of a culture obsessed with the acquisition of wealth and power.

11 March 2010

Pointless video post - Ангел О.К.

I wish I could say with absolute certainty, for Slot's sake, that no ducks were harmed during the filming of their music video - but given all the feathers flying around, you never know. Anyhow, приятного аппетита!

Летит моя душа
на красный свет, на чёрный день;
солнце белый шар:
закрыл на мне, от крыльев тень!
Эй, ну как ты мог, мой ангелок?

From Слот's 2009 album, 4ever.

10 March 2010

Social justice and the revolutionary nature of orthodoxy

I write this in part as a response from a High Church perspective to Revd Eugene Cho's excellent question about the role of 'social justice' and 'economic justice' in the Church. Though we may be very much on opposite sides of the liturgical spectrum, I suspect we are very similar in our social priorities.

The Four Propositions of the Right Revd Charles Gore, from his 1927 Halley Stewart Lectures:

In these lectures I am seeking, not for the first time, to advance the influence of certain ideas, already perhaps familiar to those I am speaking to. They are these --

(1) That the present condition of our society, our industry and our international relations, though it presents encouraging features, yet, on the whole, must inspire in our minds a deep sense of dissatisfaction and alarm, and a demand for so thorough a reformation as to amount to a revolution, though one which the teaching of experience, no less than the teaching of Christ, leads us to believe can only be brought about by gradual and peaceful means.

(2) That the evils which we deplore in our present society are not the inevitable results of any unalterable law of nature, or any kind of inexorable necessity, but are the fruits of human blindness, willfulness, avarice, and selfishness on the widest scale and in the long course of history; and that therefore their alteration demands something more than legislative and external changes, necessary as these may be: it demands a fundamental change of the spirit in which we think about and live our common life, and conduct our industry, and maintain our international relations. The cry must be "Repent ye -- change your minds," if "the kingdom of heaven" is to come as a welcome gift of God and not as a scathing and destructive judgment.

(3) That we should not look for such change of spirit to arise from any simultaneous conversion of men in masses. If we accept the teaching of past experience, we should expect the general alteration to arise from the influence in society of groups of men, inspired probably by prophetic leaders, who have attained to a true vision both of the source of our evils and of the nature of the true remedies; and who have the courage of faith, which can bind them together to act and to suffer in the cause of human emancipation, till their vision and their faith come to prevail more or less completely in the general mind and will . . .

(4) That Jesus Christ is really the Saviour and Redeemer of Mankind, in its social as well as its individual life and in the present world as well as in that which is to come: and that there lies upon those who believe in Him a responsibility which cannot be exaggerated to be true to the principles which He taught, and by all available means to bring them to bear upon the whole life of any society of which they form a part, especially when it professes the Christian name.

As members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we are first and foremost followers of Christ and members in his Body, and because we believe that Christ truly was God Incarnate in this world, of one being with the Father who is in Heaven, and because we believe he came not to condemn this world but to save it, we are irrevocably committed both to the idea that this world is worth saving, and to the methods and priorities exemplified in the life, ministry and death of Our Lord. Just as Our Lord dined with prostitutes and tax collectors and lepers, rode into Jerusalem among a crowd of the disenfranchised on a young donkey, healed the blind and lame, fed the hungry and generally directly served 'the least of these' on the social pyramid, so must our efforts as his followers be directed to such service.

And there are trends in today's world which systemically disenfranchise and exclude 'the least of these' from full participation in society, which must indeed inspire in our minds 'a deep sense of dissatisfaction and alarm', in our spirits repentance, and in our actions resistance. A few of these destructive trends are suggested and explored by the group Progressive Christians Uniting in their excellent series of essays:

a.) consumerism
b.) economic neoliberalism
c.) American imperialism
d.) materialistic reductionism
e.) the factors contributing to climate crisis

To these I might add 'incivility', but otherwise resistance to these trends is a very good place to start. Underwriting all of these trends is the reactionary and deterministic tendency to see human beings as atomised and separate constellations of negative rights and property, rather than as embodied souls dependent upon and responsible for the environmental and social conditions in which they live. This philosophical tendency (which orients our society to the worship of Mammon) leaves us and our ecology vulnerable to exploitation by the powerful, the greedy and the violent, and to despair of meaning in our existence. This is a tendency which is opposed readily by orthodox Christian belief and praxis, and a Gospel which in this cynical age seems paradoxical: the commonwealth of God has come near, and God himself is incarnate among us, in particular among the most lowly and poor and despised of us - for example, the victims of human trafficking in Southeast Asia, the single working mothers on welfare, the uninsured sick with pre-existing conditions and the small farmers afflicted by an increasingly unstable climate.

So is there a place in the Church for 'social justice', so defined? My answer is that there had better be, if we truly do take Jesus of Nazareth to be the Saviour of this world.

02 March 2010

How do you solve a problem like us?

For me, it's another case of 'I like your reasoning, but not your conclusion', with regard to Evan Thomas' article in this week's Newsweek.

I think Mr Thomas is completely on the right track when he diagnoses one of our nation's foremost problems as the 'I got mine' entitlement culture, and he lays out its anatomy quite nicely. The idealism of the 1960's, admirable as it was, also contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The very real gains and improvements within our society, and the creation of a more egalitarian social order, particularly for minorities, was a noble goal and we have the philosophy of modern leftism very much to thank for it. But in the later 1960's, a more militant and less respectful element emerged, less likely to engage in civil disobedience than to riot or to bomb science buildings (like the tragic Sterling Hall incident in Madison). Ironically, the same self-serving victimhood mentality, irrationality, disrespect for rightful authority, incivility and violent Jacobin-style radicalism we once saw on the far left we are now seeing on the far right, in the virulent, insidious and eliminationist Tea Party movement. Though Mr Thomas does not make these parallels explicitly, he follows an acceptable line of logic toward them.

Where he loses me, though, is on the subject of compromise. Compromise, in itself, is not something we have lost in our political system on account of our culture of entitlement. On the contrary, we notice that (on the Democratic side of the aisle, anyway) our leaders are too willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater in order to accommodate the other side. (Nothing is better testament to this than that the public option was originally supposed to be the compromise between a government-run single-payer insurance plan and the current profit-driven insurance model, yet thanks to the Overtonian nature of our political media, those Democrats now pushing for the public option are now seen not as the compromising wing of the party but as the partisans!)

That said, some level of tort reform would be a welcome change, though its economic benefits are negligible in the context of our total annual health-care costs and it would have to be carefully constructed to keep doctors accountable (as Sen Durbin of Illinois pointed out, referencing the CBO estimates). It may be the case that we may make some headway in terms of both the health-care issue and in terms of partisanship by compromising over tort reform, but to some extent that isn't really relevant to the problem Mr Thomas has highlighted.

Compromise in the political scene is not the remedy for which we have to strive if we want to create and maintain a healthier and more accountable culture, since it is all too easy to call for 'compromise' when you don't have any great stake in the discussion or when you are not held to account for the results beyond the next election. As Mr Thomas aptly noted, our politicians are a mirror for the society: here, we are discussing a problem which impacts our economic health as a nation and our collective health (in both the literal, medical sense and the figurative, moral one) as a society. Thus, the remedy must be one which makes demands not just on our politicians, but on us, the problem (guilty as charged)!

Perhaps there are things that we can begin doing in the political culture that may help, but I have my doubts that any procedural changes or compromises undertaken on any given piece of legislation on the floor of the Senate will have any great lasting impact on the entitlement-zeitgeist. Personally, I would like to see moves made to encourage not short-range temporary political compromise so much as respect for rightful authority, for the sovereignty of fact and - dare I hope? - civility in the wider culture; for example, a new Fairness Doctrine with the teeth to hold the memetic, self-absorbed news media to account for both what they say and how they say it.

Probably too much to hope. But such a change would be of greater benefit to our political culture than a tort-reform passage in the health-care bill.