27 July 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Hordes of Chaos (a Necrologue for the Elite)’ by Kreator

Ah, Kreator, prodigal sons of thrash metal, the melodic elegance of the searing rage that your music has lent to a truly sucky news week in human affairs (terrorist shootings in Norway, more terrorism in India, train accident in China with the usual initial evasions of responsibility, starvation in Somalia) is worthy of great praise. It is a good thing that my chosen vice is heavy metal; I am not certain how I could stay sane in a truly insane world of ‘everyone against everyone’ without it.

One of the great titans of Teutonic thrash, Kreator made several highly ill-received ventures into Gothic metal before returning to thrash with their album Violent Revolution; it looks like they’re working out the kinks in their style, as they’ve been playing a progressively more melodic style of thrash since Violent Revolution, and Hordes of Chaos is no exception to this rule.

Lincoln and the Confucians


庄子曰:‘周闻之,儒者冠圜冠者,知天时;履句屦者,知地形;缓佩玦者,事至而断。君子有其道者,未必为其服也;为其服者,未必知其道也。公固以为不然,何不号于国中曰:“无此道而为此服者,其罪死!” ’



Zhuangzi visited Duke Ai of Lu. Duke Ai said: ‘In Lu there are many Confucians, but few of your own followers, sir.’ Zhuangzi replied: ‘Lu has few Confucians.’ Duke Ai said: ‘All over the state of Lu people wear Confucian clothes; how can you say they are few?’

Zhuangzi said: ‘I have heard that Confucians wear round hats to show they know the seasons of heaven; they wear square sandals to show they understand the earth; they hang crescent-shaped jade discs from their belts to show that they can make firm decisions. A gentleman who has found the Way may not wear such clothes, and someone who does wear such clothes may not have found the Way. Because your Grace does not believe this is the case, why not have it proclaimed in your state that: “All who have not found the Way but wear these clothes shall be put to death”?’

Within five days after Duke Ai proclaimed this, no one in the state of Lu dared wear Confucian clothing, except one man who wore Confucian clothes and stood at the Duke’s gate. The Duke summoned him and asked him about state affairs, and though they talked of many things, he did not waver. Zhuangzi remarked: ‘In Lu there is only one Confucian, how can you say there are many?’

From 《庄子专田子方》 Zhuangzi, Tianzi Fang; manga version below courtesy Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume II

What was the point of this story, one might ask? Well, people certainly do put on clothes and act in a way which is not suitable to them, which is rather the point. I do not pretend to be a Confucian but rather hold to the High Church rites of the Anglican Communion, even though Confucius and Mencius both have made profound impacts on my own philosophy and theology. Yet even today, there are those who go about in Confucian clothing but do not understand the Confucian way, and who would be put to the executioner’s sword in the state of Lu.

I daresay that reading Confucius and Mencius, we can understand how they both were wont to think. They valued honesty and virtuous comportment in government. They were for humane expression in both one’s personal and one’s political life. They believed in proper, caring, proportionate relationships between people and excoriated those who abused their relationships. They believed in peace, but also recognised that peace was not possible without a just and harmonious social order, characterised by a respect for holistic dignity of persons rather than property rights (as evidenced by Confucius’ asking in the Lunyu after the servants when the barn caught fire, rather than after the horses). They sought to reunite the warring states under just such a humane order. They believed that the acts of the just were guided by Heaven – but they were for mercy and leniency in the execution of the laws. There is one elegant English-language quote that captures the Way of Confucianism rather better than any other I’ve heard, and it goes like this:

‘With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’

These words were spoken by one of the most famous, and simultaneously one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned, presidents in American history. I am referring, of course, to one Mr Abraham Lincoln, from whose second inaugural address these words come. I admit to being more than slightly defensive of the historical honour of Mr Lincoln, as a Tory radical and as a fervent opponent of slavery, racism and exploitation of the lower classes.

The Confucians, valuing honesty and the scholarly virtues, were naturally very careful historians (particularly Ban Gu and his sister Ban Zhao), and though their history was always viewed through a lens they were not particularly friendly to revisionism. I have recently noted the way in which libertarians have misread Confucian philosophy for their own purposes. The petty and partizan revisionist view of Mr Lincoln, of which this particular author, of the same crowd (and axe-bait for Duke Ai of Lu if anything can be) is a notably rabid proponent – which, in the most unhinged and immoderate terms, claims he is a tyrant, a war criminal and a usurper of power, which claims that his only end was to seek power and that he was a hypocrite over the issue of slavery, which claims that the Union over which he presided attacked the seceding states and which claims that he paid no heed to the civil rights of the people of the North – should rightly be treated with scorn and ridicule.

The truth of the matter is that Southerners pre-emptively attacked Fort Sumter under an imagined provocation, which was and had been the rightful territory of the United States government when its commission was made. It should, if we are being technically accurate in our history and in our rectification of names, be considered a war of Southern aggression.

The very quotes which such petty people and partizans use to scorn Lincoln as a hypocrite actually show a highly complex, intelligent human being of likewise complex morals whose first priority was social harmony in the state he governed, a Confucian goal if there ever was one. And, as GK Chesterton was careful to point out, if Lincoln was fully in the right about any one thing, it was that America, if it was to survive at all, was one nation and not two – just as he recognised the ultimate futility of the barbarous institution of chattel slavery having any place in a harmonious nation. When the opportunity presented itself in late December of 1863, Lincoln made his feelings known on the subject unambiguously by calling for a Constitutional amendment that would end slavery. As for his being a tyrant and a usurper of power, the record stands that he was fairly and democratically elected. Twice. Even in a nation which was embroiled in a war for its very survival, Mr Lincoln never lost sight of the fact that he was answerable before Heaven and before the people. In his second inaugural address, he by extension made himself answerable to the people of the defeated South, offering leniency and mercy instead of retribution and harsh punishment. Unfortunately, he was treacherously assassinated before he could fully put these words fully into practice, and his successors were not keen to honour the work Mr Lincoln had begun.

As for the impingements on civil rights: yes, Mr Lincoln did suspend habeas corpus in 1861. And then he willingly, on his own accord, restored it in 1862. It is not, as a rule, a defining mark of tyrants that they willingly relinquish powers they have given themselves. However, after a second imposition later that year, Congress then took it upon itself to suspend habeas corpus by law in 1863; Lincoln did not, naturally, veto this bill, but neither did he exercise it to its full extent. Compare and contrast this with the actions of one Mr Jefferson Davis, who not only suspended habeas corpus indefinitely but also declared martial law throughout his stolen half of the states, and who ended up having to put down counter-secession movements in several states using brutal military force.

Let me be clear: I am not partial either to modernism or to Americanism, and I abhor the way in which Northern industrial and financial interests ultimately gained control through the consolidation of power in the federal government which followed (but such was hardly Mr Lincoln’s purpose, nor was it his doing alone; indeed, the lion’s share of the blame belongs to Taft). But I do also have several clear and distinct Catholic convictions (I use the term broadly) – among them: that God looks upon faith and makes no distinctions based on race, gender or economic status; also among them: that the Triune God is a social God wishes people to live in harmony with one another. Dr Samuel Johnson was clear that chattel slavery as practiced in the Americas was an innovation of colonial conquest, a great destroyer of both virtue and harmony in personal relationships, not just for the slave but also for the master; and a cultural and social order that was devoted primarily to the cause of not only defending, but spreading slavery to its neighbours (the American West, Cuba, Mexico and Brazil) either by political pressure or by imperial conquest, was doomed to failure from its outset.

As a Tory radical in the tradition of Dr Samuel Johnson, Richard Oastler and Bp Beilby Porteus, I cannot help but look at the massive, industrialised factory farms and dehumanising conditions under which the majority of slaves in the antebellum South worked with contempt and revulsion, and at the hypocrisy of the false gentlemen (I borrow the expression from the Chinese weijunzi ‘伪君子’) in revolt, who claimed to be acting in the best interests of their country (the more so because they put on a tremendous pretence of being in continuity with tradition – and yet the cotton industry, so dependent upon European markets and expendable uprooted human beings with no legal standing, was thoroughly capitalist and globalist in the worst of all possible ways). Interestingly, such revulsion was common amongst other contemporary Tories as well. The stridently traditionalist Pope Gregory XVI issued the bull In Supremo Apostolatus condemning slavery and the slave trade in general, but in context specifically against the institutionalised enslavement of black people in America, an evil which the Confederacy was established to propagate and perpetuate and which Mr Lincoln sought to limit and to end. (Unfortunately, his pious but muddleheaded and legalistic successor lacked Pope Gregory’s profundity and keen insight on social issues and foreign affairs.)

Thankfully, there has been one person, who (though I have reservations about the particular and uncompromising brand of republicanism he championed) by rights may be considered an actual Confucian (even if he didn’t wear the Confucian garb), and who had a proper appreciation for the contributions of Mr Lincoln. Sun Wen’s Three Principles of the People, on which much of subsequent Chinese political philosophy (good and bad) has been based, paid homage to Mr Lincoln’s borrowed phrase in the Gettysburg Address: ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’.

Well, end of this defiant Tory radical’s latest rant. Back to normal reflections on life in China soon, I promise.

24 July 2011

Prayer for the north

I have been deeply anguished these past few days over the violence that shook Norway last week, and my heart goes out to the souls of the departed, and to everyone who lost a family member or a loved one in the attack. I’ve been at a loss to come up with words suitable to describe the tragedy. (This is not to de-emphasise in any way the even greater inhuman horrors that have been visited upon the people of Somalia or Mumbai in recent times or the sympathy I feel for them, but this story in particular has just stuck with me.) This man wilfully attacked and killed 92 people, many of whom were children. He shot them down with an automatic weapon – he must have looked at each and every one of them even as he mowed them down. What bothers me even more is that he, in spite of appearing clear-headed, shows absolutely no remorse for his actions. He’s so morally certain in his beliefs that he thought that killing children (whose sole wrong was being associated with a political party with opinions different from his own) on an island camp was the ‘necessary’ thing to do – in fact, he shows very little difference from the fanatical Islamists he professed to hate.

God save us all – myself included – from such sinful, self-imposed ideological blindness and hatred. Stå fast, Norge. My prayers and thoughts go with you.

Confucius: he was who he was

One of my pet hates is the way in which some Western thinkers, such as Alan Watts and Friedrich Hayek, have attempted to pigeonhole traditional Chinese thought (such as the Daoist thinkers) into culturally-irrelevant categories (libertarianism / anarchism). Now it appears that one of Hayek’s disciples attempts to do the same to Confucius and his followers. I am not going to go into an exhaustive point-by-point rebuttal of Long here (his article being 70 pages in length!), only show where his methods are faulty and where he overlooks or misinterprets significant aspects of Confucian thinking.

I cannot fault Long’s choice of source material – he uses all of the Confucian Books, in addition to Xunzi, the Shiji and the Yantielun (the only one at which I had to raise an eyebrow; why this specific instance and not some other early example of Confucian-Legalist debate?). It would be wise, though, to accord to the Lunyu and then to the other three Books (Daxue, Zhongyong and Mengzi) preferential treatment, as they are the primary foundation for all subsequent practical Confucian thought, particularly after Zhu Xi. However, I do take issue both with Long’s imperial hermeneutic of Chinese philosophy, setting libertarian (specifically Hayekian) thinking as the standard against which they ought to be judged, and with the way in which he selectively quotes them in translation in such a way as to make it sound as though they support libertarian concepts and modes of thinking. To do Long justice, I think he does have a few good points about where libertarian and early Confucian social philosophy tend to overlap. They are as follows:

  1. Confucian attitudes toward the military and toward imperial expansion. Long does a fairly good job of detailing Mengzi’s dim view of territorial expansion; later Confucian scholars like Ban Gu would expand on these early anti-militarist sentiments in their social thought. By the time of the Song Dynasty, you even had the Confucian- and possibly Buddhist-inspired aphorism ‘好铁不打丁,好汉不当兵’ (‘Good iron isn’t needed for nails, nor good men for soldiers’).

  2. Confucian attitudes toward punishment. Confucius himself in one of the most famous passages of the Lunyu describes the behaviour of people who are led by harsh punishments rather than by example: ‘子曰:道之以政,齐之以刑,民免而无耻。道之以德,齐之以礼,有耻且格。’ (‘The Master said, if the people be led by laws and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame and moreover will become good.’ Lunyu 2.3 – sorry about the Legge translation…)

    However, I think it is more appropriate to say that the Confucian attitude toward punishment has more in common with the rehabilitative tradition in Christian leftist thinking than with libertarianism. There is an emphasis on the correcting and transforming potential of virtue, particularly that of what the Catholics call caritas and what the Confucians call 仁, which is notable for its absence from almost all of libertarian thought.

  3. Individual accountability for actions. Once again, Long details some of the ways in which Confucians attempted to insist on holding individuals rather than entire families responsible under the law, as opposed to the Legalist punishment of 族. One sees examples of this individual accountability also in the Lunyu (6.4), where Confucius defends Zhonggong from charges that his father was a man of bad character by saying, ‘犁牛之子锌且角,虽欲勿用,山川其舍诸?’ (‘If the calf of a plough-ox is red and horned, even though men will not want to use it, will even the mountains and the rivers put it aside?’)

However (and this is relevant given the above quote), I think Long descends into some fairly tendentious hermeneutical misuses of Confucian writing when he tries to use quotes to establish an affinity with libertarianism on the subject of ‘spontaneous order’. It would be ridiculous, firstly, from an historical-critical point of view for Confucius to defend such a concept – he was living, after all, in an age of near-anarchy! Reading the texts themselves on their own terms, for Confucius and his followers, order is not something that springs forth out of nowhere. Order is not something that springs forth out of social conditions oriented to the individual pursuit of profit (what is referred to as 利 in Confucian literature), which is what libertarians mean by the concept of ‘spontaneous order’, but in Confucianism order is always, always something which springs forth out of social conditions oriented to the cultivation of virtue (德) whose end is justice (义).

Given the above, there are several other points at which Confucianism stands in direct opposition to libertarian (and more specifically Hayekian) concepts, conceits and policy prescriptions.

  1. Confucian attitudes toward government in general. The Confucians actually tended to be fairly paternalistic in their conception of government, viewing it as an analogous extension of the family unit (see the main text of the Daxue below). Though it could be argued that they wanted devolution of power ultimately to family units (which would overlap with some strands of libertarian thinking), it is more appropriate to characterise the Confucian view of power as evolutionary. As the Daxue makes plain, one must attend to the root to ensure the branches are healthy – this does not mean, however, that the branches are not needed in caring for the whole plant.

  2. Confucian attitudes toward civil service specifically. This one actually ought to be a no-brainer, and indeed Long’s attempt to establish a Confucian affinity with libertarianism in its disdain for civil service turns out to be pretty flimsy. Of course Sima Qian is going to be critical of civil servants who abuse their offices and behave dishonestly, but that does not translate into being critical of civil servants in general! In the Lunyu (6.6) Confucius commends three of his disciples (Zhongyou, Ci and Qiu) to civil service on account of Zhongyou’s judgement, Ci’s intelligence and Qiu’s ability, and Confucius frequently advises his students on practical matters concerning government; it would be a dire mistake therefore to assume Confucius shared the libertarian scorn for government officials!

  3. Confucian attitudes toward the merchant class. Long is correct that there was a definite divide among Confucian thinkers as to how much respect merchants ought to be accorded, but he only outlines (very briefly) the attitudes of Sima Qian and Xunyu, completely ignoring other influential Confucian thinkers like Ban Gu, who defended his construction of the Four Occupations (仕农工商) by asserting that the scholars and civil servants (仕) were those who studied and transmitted literature and culture (文) and thus had the highest rank, while the farmers (农) produced food and thus deserved the second highest rank, and the artisans (工) merely added value to raw materials and thus deserved the third highest rank. However the merchants (商) only traded goods and did not add value, thus they deserved the lowest rank. It is possible, however, that Long excluded Ban from his analysis because he did not consider his Confucianism ‘pure’ enough, as he came well after Sima Qian.

    Such considerations aside, however, Confucius himself (as well as Mencius) held a very dim view of the profit motive, considering it one of the marks of the 小人 (petty human being, lacking in virtue).

  4. Confucian attitudes toward distribution of wealth. Now here, there is much that Long leaves out from his analysis, which is mainly limited to a rather one-sided discourse on Mencius’ well-field system. Firstly, he completely ignores the concept of sufficiency, which is central to Confucian political thought. Confucius was no radical egalitarian, of course, but he nonetheless recognised the need for distributive structures which would aid the poor (which libertarians reject in an almost knee-jerk reaction). These were to establish a level of sufficiency of food and arms among the people (足食足兵), which Confucius saw as two of the requisites of government (Lunyu 12.7; the third and most vital being trust in civil authority). When Confucius heard that Qiu was using his post to bleed the poor of his county in order to benefit an extravagantly wealthy family, he denounced Qiu and instructed his other disciples to ‘beat the drum and assail him’ (11.16). The commentary by Zengzi on Confucius’ Daxue (10.9) makes it clear that ‘the accumulation of wealth is the way to scatter the people; and letting wealth be scattered among them is the way to collect the people’. There are, in addition, numerous references to the 君子’s duty to uplift and nourish the poor, often in the context of good governance (Lunyu 5.15 and 6.2, for example).

    Likewise, Mencius had zero use for governments which cared more for the personal property of the wealthy than for the welfare of people on the bottom rungs of the social ladder, calling such governance 兽而食人 (leading on beasts to eat men, Liang Hui Wang Shang, 1.2).

  5. Confucian respect for empirical observation and scientific inquiry. Here Long basically hangs on a very thin thread stemming from a rather contorted reading of Xunzi to establish an affinity with the Hayekian so-called ‘praxeology’ (by which the Hayekian system rejects empirical observation in favour of subjective axioms). However, the Confucians actually placed a very high value on the empirical examination of things (格物) as evidenced in the primary text of the Daxue: ‘古之欲明明德於天下者,先治其国;欲治其国者,先齐其家;欲齐其家者,先修其身;欲修其身者,先正其心;欲正其心者,先诚其意;欲诚其意者,先致其知;致知在格物。’ (‘The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue in the world first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lies in the investigation of things.’)

    It would be a mistake to claim that Xunzi would discount empirical observation even though he claims that a sage would measure others by his own measure – it would require, in fact, an imperial Western hermeneutic which determines the affairs of nature to be qualitatively separate from the affairs of men. In Confucian thought (even Xunzi), as in Daoist thought, all are interdependent, even man and nature – there is no support for the dualistic, even solipsistic ‘praxeology’ of Austrian School economics to be found here.

It is always best, I believe, to discuss a work of philosophy on its own terms, rather than attempting to shoehorn it, like one of Aschenputtel’s elder sisters, into one’s preconceived pet theories. That’s what I’ve always found, anyway. On their own terms, Confucians did have a high respect for government (though, like most contemporary supporters of government, a superlative distaste for its misuse) and its potential for cultivation of virtue. They were not fond of punitive laws or taxes, but they also felt that the wealth gap was indication of moral failure, and were not averse to redistribution of property.

21 July 2011

Pointless video post - 'Higher' by Edenbridge

Edenbridge's first music video, featuring the song ‘Higher’ from their 2010 album Solitaire.

I have a definite soft spot in my heart for the Austrian quartet, largely because they helped serve as my own bridge between Nightwish and other forms of metal; I consider them a formative influence on my musical tastes. They bring to the fore all the grandiosity of the symphonic arrangement, as well as the sweet, sterling mezzo of Sabine Edelsbacher, all without sacrificing power (which is a problem I have noticed with other European symphonic-metal formations).

20 July 2011

A visit to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, and some random cultural observations

It’s gotten to the point where I’ve stayed too long in China to say anything intelligent about it, as the common saying I alluded to earlier goes. But I will make an attempt nevertheless; I’ve managed to make my first genuine tourist stop this time around, going to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a sterling example of Ming Dynasty architecture, renovated by the Qing when they moved into Beijing in the 1600’s (and more recently after the Cultural Revolution). It is a public park now, but one very well worth visiting… in spite of the crowds. My landlady told me that when she was growing up, she used to come there to play, and there would be very few people around – but now it’s hard not to run into massive tour groups (you know, the kind which are characterised by all the people wearing the same baseball cap or T-shirt, following a guy holding a banner, walking backwards and toting a megaphone) either from abroad or elsewhere in China. While in the Temple, I heard people speaking Spanish, Russian, German, English and a couple of languages I couldn’t make out.

I’m afraid I don’t know as much about the Ming Dynasty as I should – the same way my sister is a bit snobbish about ‘late’ Egyptian history (when the Hellenistic influence began to make itself known) as opposed to earlier Egyptian history, I’m a bit more about the Warring States, Three Kingdoms and Tang periods than about the ones which came after it. My girlfriend has kindly offered to further my education, and I felt I should rise to the occasion of making her job easier, doing a bit of self-education while I’m here.

Of course, my first instructor in all things Ming was my high-school area studies teacher Bruce Mjaanes; my second was Larry Gonick and his Cartoon History of the Universe. Though he didn’t treat Zhu Yuanzhang with the same kind of reverence with which he treated Li Shimin, he made it very clear that the founder of Ming was an Important Figure. Indeed, his story is as impressive as it is bloody – at first a beggar in the streets, he became a brilliant military commander, a great visionary and social reformer (being the first to attempt to ban slavery in the Chinese Empire, among many other things), and ultimately an Emperor as he led an uprising against the Mongol Yuan emperors and established an enduring and highly functional social order… but he left a gruesome trail of millions of dead behind him to do it. His legacy is probably destined to elicit the same mixture of admiration and opprobrium as that of similar leaders, such as Mao Zedong. The Temple of Heaven, though, was built during the reign of his equally-ruthless son, Zhu Di, who continued to build on his father’s social reforms (along with reinstituting the civil service), but also moved the Ming capital back to Beijing to better defend against a revanchist Mongol invasion.

For one thing, though, the Ming architects who built this Temple had impressive artistic taste, and it shows. They had a great love for the subtle details – the inch-raised platform, the delicately-carved rails, the guardian decorations on the roofs – which all serve to highlight the grandeur of the composition as a whole. The Temple of Heaven was built on a very high point in the city – even today (on a good day) one can see out across the park into the distant skyscrapers. The 祈年殿 itself (that’s the round building with the three-tiered roof) was built by fitting together solid pieces of wood, without using a single nail.

But I should allow the photos to speak for themselves.

In general, in China, people tend to like their parks well-paved; even some lawns are covered with bricks. That isn’t to say they aren’t green – there’s one gnarled old juniper tree (九龙柏) on the grounds of the Temple of Heaven which sprouted in the middle of the Ming Dynasty and is still going on strong, and that’s only one of the many trees which are growing there – though I observe that all of them (even the old ones) were planted on purpose, probably by the leading lights of the Empire themselves.

A couple more cultural notes:

I am currently in the office, drinking 统一 orange drink and eating kimchi-flavoured potato chips… perhaps not the height of culinary perfection, even in snack choices. One of the many refinements I discovered first in Beijing, and later during my stint in Almaty, was the customary evening snack of what the residents of the latter city call шашлык в пиве or кәуап және сыра, and what the residents of the former call 串啤. It is a very fine custom to have, and we could use a lot more of it in the West. It is a snack consisting of meat shish-kebabs or chuanr 串儿 (preferably pork or lamb, marinated in vinegar and roasted with hot peppers and cumin – though a good Kazakh might do without the peppers) and beer. A good 600 mL of Yanjing (燕京啤酒) light lager works best, but Шымкентское will certainly do in a pinch. This is a first-class, though quite inexpensive ticket to staving off the pangs of late-night hunger in Beijing – the kebabs being, in my experience, one kuai each and the beer being four kuai for a 600 mL bottle. It is pure deliciousness, wrapped in spiciness and washed down with refreshment. And thankfully, I go to a local mom-and-pop streetside restaurant to get them, so my distributist conscience is assuaged. But, one can also go to a da pai dang 大排档.

These are basically open-air buffet-style food courts, surrounded by tables with umbrellas; it’s a shame that I never got the opportunity to take a picture of one. They look and feel very European – which is no surprise as I understand they originated in Hong Kong. They are pricier, and one has to pay with a prepaid card and a 10-kuai deposit, but the chuanr are large, juicy and delicious and the Yanjing is on tap. I couldn’t afford to go to one every day, but it’s still a good place to go and put your feet up for awhile, drink beer, maybe chat a little bit.

That’s all for now, my gentle readers. I’ll be back in the states soon, and hopefully will have more and better opportunities to share my experiences here!

13 July 2011

And, in July of the Year of Our Lord 2011, Rupert Murdoch suddenly withdrew his bid for BSkyB

… and there was much rejoicing.

I’ve refrained from comment on the News of the World mobile-hacking scandal over the past week or so, largely because I wasn’t quite sure what I had to add, other than ‘why should we be surprised over this?’ Though it is true that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, the difficulty was that the press has wielded massive power – the distorting power of advertising – over those who could hold them accountable: to wit, the public. Is it really any wonder that, in the rush to be ‘the last to get the message, but the first ones on the scene’ (as American folk musician John McCutcheon aptly put it), they would put aside any considerations of respect, of dignity, of privacy of the people on whom they were reporting, even if said people were murder victims or members of the armed forces? Add to that the entire self-enclosed and self-enforcing culture of victimhood which pervades at the opinion outlets of News Corporation, and you have a perfect recipe for the corporate equivalent of sociopathy. (Indeed, the response from News Corporation was predictable: instead of expressing contrition and rooting out those responsible for the phone tap all the way up the hierarchy, there was the mandatory boilerplate apology. When Rebekah Brooks [former editor of News of the World] was called to task having been in charge during this breach of ethics, Murdoch leapt to her defence, blaming it on a vendetta by her ‘political enemies’.)

I don’t mean all this as self-righteously and sanctimoniously as it is no doubt beginning to sound, so let me try again. A free press is generally a good thing to have, particularly when people of limited means can have access to it. I am happy to have a space to type out my thoughts where people can read and comment on them. But the free press is not a panacea for the problems of a democratic society – and, indeed, can become a problem (as we have seen). If one gives too many powers to too few people, they are naturally subjected to far many more temptations, more opportunities for abuse and a greater sense of entitlement. This is true even if these people have the very best of causes and motivations, as I imagine some of the people working at WikiLeaks had. Transparency is good, but not when lives are ruined or put at deadly risk.

In short, to bring this a little closer to home, I think what we can hope for at this point is a set of checks and balances on the fourth estate: a fairness doctrine, a journalistic ethics commission and advertising regulations strike me as the most commonsensical places to start. Hopefully, we won’t wait for another murder victim’s mobile to be tampered with before these reforms come about.

10 July 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Hiroshima’ by Legend

Been awhile since I’ve done a pointless video post, so here is one straight from the glory days of Brit metal - in themselves not exactly wonderful, except for the musical talent they inspired. These guys are Legend - a sadly underrated, underground Brit metal band from the Channel Islands which broke up in 1984 but came back in 2002 with the album Still screaming. A little bit more laid-back, a little bit more progressive-sounding than Maiden or Saxon in terms of musical style, but the lyrics of ‘Hiroshima’ give Maiden’s ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ or Saxon’s ‘Fire in the Sky’ a run for their money in terms of anger at nuclear holocaust (a very popular topic in Brit metal). Apologies for the poor video quality; but the song is quite good.

06 July 2011

Christianity – why don’t we get it?

I’ve been reading Economics is for donkeys again, specifically the most recent entry on why America is not a Christian nation (but not for the reasons we on the left generally tend to think). As EIFD often does, it got me to thinking: what is it about Christianity that Americans have historically found so difficult to get? Why is it that heterodoxy (in all its various forms) has so much pull here, going all the way back to the original Deists and New England Unitarians on these shores (who were really just Arians under a different guise) who broke away from their Calvinist forebears? It is said in the Gospel that Jesus speaks to those who have ears to hear… why is it that American ears tend to be more deaf, even if our hearts tend to be more enthusiastic about religion in general than those in other corners of ‘Christendom’?

Actually, perhaps I’m being rather unfair. This is a lack of understanding which affects not just America but a lot of the traditional West (with the notable exception of Latin America, where Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are embraced as forces of social justice). But when your run-of-the-mill NPR commentator begins talking about ‘religion’ or ‘Christianity’, what they mean is not people like me or even people who might disagree with me but still uphold a common structure of orthodoxy, but rather that peculiarly right-wing, peculiarly ultra-nationalist, peculiarly Southern American form of hyper-Calvinist Protestantism of the sort associated with the ‘evangelical voter’. It is a form of religion which is, whether by habit or by design, alien to the exhortations to hospitality for the outsider, to the blessings upon the meek, the poor and the peacemakers, to God-as-man who came not for the sake of the obedient sheep of the flock but for the lost.

Partially I think we’re here in this position because it is in the interests of certain political elements for us to be here. Of course the representatives of this ultra-nationalist hyper-Calvinism (Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Richard Land, James Dobson et al.) enjoy the political prominence and prestige that such an assumption affords them, and will make as much of it as they can! But also, those elements of secular liberalism which are openly hostile to religion – including the nouveau atheists Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris – certainly wouldn’t want to have to deal with those pesky and inconvenient elements of the Christian religion which exhort and inspire people to act in the interests of the common good, so a false setup which privileges a priori a conception of Christianity which is habitually reactionary, violent and self-interested suits them quite nicely. And this leaves plenty of room for us Christians with a sense of historical perspective and irony to complain about having been shut out of the conversation… but this is not the whole picture at all. Indeed, it cannot be (tempting though it is to think so)! The duelling mirror images of militant secularism and militant evangelicalism must have had something to work upon for each of them to have attained to this level of strength and political significance in the first place.

At this point, I feel I must put forward what may be a rather unpopular and certainly un-Mennonite opinion: that it is the iron-cast separation of Church from state which is at least in part responsible for these distortions and misunderstandings. If we think of the state as that which is responsible for securing and enforcing the common good, it stands to reason given the nature of the Gospel that the Church ought to have some interest in that. Jesus was executed not solely as a rebel against the Temple (Caiaphas), but also as a rebel against Rome (Pilate) and against the Herodian state (um, Herod) – all three of which perceived him as a threat to their authority! Jesus’ actions raiding the corners of fields for grain, healing on the Sabbath and driving the moneychangers out of the Temple were not just religious critiques, but political ones as well. He was concerned that the poor did not starve, did not die of disease and did not become outcasts in their own society! Nowadays, such questions fall within the realm of ‘secular’ politics, though as Dr John Milbank reminds us (and he is right), once there was no ‘secular’. It is the duty of people of faith to be involved – as people of faith – in the political process; not to establish for ourselves as people of faith any kind of privileged voice, but rather to bring the state into better alignment with the values of justice for ‘the least of these’, which are informed by the fountainhead of Abraham’s God as embodied incarnate in the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Once you intrude into the life of the society with a hard-and-fast distinction between the public ‘secular’ and the private ‘religious’ (or, worse, conflate the two altogether!), you end up contorting both public life and private religion in ways previously unthinkable. All of this is personal for me, since I went through this process myself – I wore one masque as a student, one masque as a public citizen, one masque as a youth questioning his faith and his purpose in life (and seldom the three did meet!). To me, it often felt like cheating. Existentialism and neo-orthodoxy appealed to me immensely because they offered me a resolution which my otherwise Kantian-trained mind could not have otherwise imagined, but even as Kierkegaard set to work as my Socratic daemon, he was already deconstructing himself.

Yes, I am an individual who bears the full weight of and full responsibility for my own reality, and part of that weight is the contingency of being in a reality which involves the other. That religious realisation having been made, though, there can be no staying ‘in the wilderness’, in the state of anxiety that consists of the sum total of all my personal fears and insecurities and inadequacies and sins. It is not healthy to sit howling at the culture from without; rather, it is healthy to come back into the world, transformed and ready to transform. Existentialism is a powerful tool of orthodoxy – when properly understood. But the danger, pointed out by Ched Myers, is that, improperly understood, it can drive religion into a private, personalist paralysis – it can turn a perfectly well-meaning man or woman into a world-denying Essene.

That’s one of the dangers: secularism has the potential to force religion into the dark corners of the society and of the soul, there to be compartmentalised, policed, rationalised away. Is it any wonder that, so constrained, religion develops within itself, and under its own terms, a rebellious pride of Luciferian proportions? Is it any wonder that, having so developed, it might break free and seek to chain society under its own fetters? Is it any wonder that, society having dismissed religion as a bloodthirsty beast in need of restraint, religion itself adopts that selfsame thirst for blood in a perverse defiance of society’s predictions? Resentment is a powerful and dangerous thing, and well in evidence in the public face of the religious right. Religion is either cowed into world-denial, or else under the torturous weight of the secular it becomes twisted into a reactionary and self-righteous mockery of itself.

The other danger is in what happens to the state without the leaven provided by some kind of religious guidance. If the state decides upon substituting its own religious symbolism in place of faith, the results can be disastrous: nationalism – distilled to its crudest forms – has the dubious distinction of being the most spectacularly destructive and murderous religious ideology in the history of humankind. I am personally loath to trust even milder forms of nationalism (such as American civic religion and American exceptionalism) not to fall into similar patterns of violence. More likely in our day and age, though, the state is likely to prop up the religious demands of global capitalism, though residual Abrahamic considerations will likely urge some consideration of treatment of the poor (resulting in a metastable but ultimately unsatisfactory welfare-state arrangement).

I look to the legacy of my own branch of the Church, and wonder if perhaps Good Queen Bess had the right idea all along: not a theocracy or a laicist state, but an establishment characterised by a Middle Way which is at the same time more radical than either of the alternatives. Church and state, ideally, share a set of institutional ties – not enough to make one wholly dependent on the other, but enough to guarantee that the Church has a public life and a public voice, while the State is not inured enough to avoid listening to it before, say, plunging us into ‘murderous folly’ in the Middle East. (Suffice it to say, this arrangement had long been lost in Britain by the time Tony Blair came to power.) The dangers Kierkegaard warned against, of a soul-devouring cultural Christendom, are still present. However, looking at the alternative pathologies before me under the American model of laicism (namely, the aimless, mindless, unfulfilling keeping-up-with-the-Joneses encouraged by the religion of global capital, or the daemonic martial spectres of Robespierre on the American religious right), I tend to view the pathologies of European establishment churches with no small wistfulness.

04 July 2011

Some thoughts on movies

Well, the 90th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party has come and gone, complete with an internet blackout, and I am officially back – or so it appears. I have recently watched two movies of note: Founding of a party and X-Men: first class, and am here giving my thoughts on each.

Founding of a party had both the virtues of being historically and cinematographically interesting, and the vice of being theatrically dull. Beginning with the Revolution of 1911 and moving up to the founding of the Communist Party in 1921, they had a lot of ground to cover, a lot of faces and names and dates to mark, and a story to tell – and sadly, that story was a bit disjointed in places. The cinematography was fabulous and some scenes were emotionally moving and gripping, whether it is Liu Ye’s Mao Zedong sharing tender moments with Li Qin’s Yang Kaihui, whether it is the dramatic and visceral war scenes of the Guomindang forces fighting against the troops of Yuan Shikai (played by the always-excellent-even-in-the-horrible-Dragonball-movie Zhou Runfa), or whether it is student protesters being roused into righteous fury by patriotic firebrands after the humiliations forced on China after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (before they are hustled off into prison by the authorities). The tragicomic irony of the movie is that China’s government, though it is politically more independent than it was 90 years ago, still presides over a society which is toxically unequal, and they do so with an authoritarian hand which could give the Beiyang administration a definite run for its money. And then, of course, there is the delicious, delicious irony that an epic film praising the Chinese Communist Party would be produced largely on money straight from the pockets that emblem of global American capitalism, General Motors. I haven’t checked Mao’s mausoleum yet, but chances are he’s rolled over a couple of times by now…

Other than that, there really isn’t that much to say. The only real empathetic characters here are Mao Zedong, his lover Yang Kaihui and her father Yang Changji, and Mao’s boss and tutor Li Dazhao. Other characters don’t really get enough screen time to be that well-developed. Though Zhou Runfa’s Yuan Shikai swaggers and evil-grins enough to give one a cinematic cue that he is a Really Bad Egg, we don’t get to really see it that much… same with the other warlords. On the flip-side, poor Zhou Enlai (perhaps, outside the singular exception of my girlfriend Jessie, my favourite real-life Chinese Communist) is only introduced forty minutes before the end of the film, and when we first see him he’s sitting in a gaol cell and not saying anything! Characters are introduced sympathetically only to die off or never be seen from again half an hour later… which may be consistent with the actual history, but doesn’t really work well from a movie-goer’s point of view. Anyway, that’s my two cents on what is, to my mind, an ambitious but ultimately confused and overdone movie.

X-Men: first class is actually understated – for a superhero movie, mind – yet vastly more successful. It introduces the characters we all recognise and love from the first three movies: Charles Xavier, Magneto and Mystique. But this time, the film subverts all of the expectations we have from the first three movies. Xavier is not the wise old professor here, but a mid-Atlantic child of old money (read: ‘twit’) with no small attitude of entitlement and a penchant for hitting on girls in clubs with bad pick-up lines – who also happens to carry a whiff of hopeless idealism about him. It’s an idealism with which, by the end of the movie, we’ve lost patience (even though we wanted desperately for Professor X’s vision to be made manifest in the first three movies). Erik Lehnsherr – who becomes Magneto – is introduced in a highly sympathetic light as Frankenstein’s monster, a tortured soul scouring the world to take vengeance upon his creator. In the end, though, he’s not so much Frankenstein’s monster as Richard III: he may be a villain, but in a very real sense we cannot help but see the world through his eyes (particularly since, at the end of the movie, he is proven right). Rare is the movie that can pull off this twist in perspective so well.

The movie takes as its backdrop the Cuban Missile Crisis – but it is actually being orchestrated by a group of mutants whose aim it is to either destroy humankind or convert it to mutant-kind through a nuclear catastrophe (that’s never really made clear, nor is the point of how mutants themselves would survive a nuclear war), in a plot which is discovered by the CIA with help from its new mutant division… but the real drama of the movie lies in the friendship-turned-rivalry of Erik and Charles. Charles has been blessed throughout his life with shelter from the inhumanity of man against, in this case, mutant, whereas Erik grew up with it, and that comes across in many of their conversations (as when Erik sees Charles’ home for the first time, for example). In between there is the character of Raven, who becomes Mystique – a young girl who wants desperately to be accepted for who she is, she is put off by Charles’ insensitivity to her desire for acceptance and encouraged by Erik’s preference for ‘the real Raven’.

I enjoyed the way the film nearly turned the franchise on its head, but it almost helps me not to think of it as an X-Men movie – call it the Star wars prequel syndrome (except, this movie was of a similar quality to the original trilogy, rather than being – as the SW prequels were – complete and utter bollocks). There were several welcome wink-nods to the original X-Men movies, mostly in references to Charles Xavier having to shave his head or grow bald or whatnot, though there was one brief-but-memorable appearance by Hugh Jackman (which thus reduces his Bacon number to 1). But mostly, it was just an enjoyable film in its own right.

My sister believes Michael Fassbender would make a good James Bond. I think, after watching this movie, I have to agree.

Cheery-frightfully-ho to my long-suffering and patient readers; please forgive the longish absence; I promise to be more timely with my updates in the future!