29 December 2012

A lesson for American palaeoconservatism, with reference to the Great Rebellion

Battle of Antietam - Army of the Potomac, Kurz and Allison, 1888

As someone with roots both in the Deep South (my father’s family hailing from South Carolina since the War of American Independence) and the Deep North (my mother’s family being New Englanders going back well before then), I approach the topic of the Civil War with some trepidation. I think it is reasonable for people to question official narratives of the Civil War (on both sides). I realise full well that the problems of the antebellum American Republic, the slave system and racism both, had long been perpetuated by both regional factions, and that industrial wage-slavery in the North was to be preferred only by degrees to the outright chattel-slavery in the South. I also realise that the aftermath of the Civil War and the triumph of the North was problematic for a number of reasons: the imperialistic genocide of and mass land-grab from the American Indians of the West, the mixed record of Reconstruction towards the South’s blacks, the rise of the corporation, money power and the Gilded Age. But at the same time, there is a clear wrong in this history – that of slavery – that needed to be righted, and it sullies the good name of traditionalist (or ‘palaeo’) conservatism (which ought to stand for truth and virtue no matter where it comes from geographically) that so many that claim to adhere to that philosophy engage in whitewashing or even defending that wrong, either out of sectarian loyalty, or (worse) out of a misguided ideological dogmatism.

First, to borrow the Confucian terminology, we need to ‘rectify names’: that is, to have a clear definition of what palaeoconservatism actually is, before we proceed further. I dare not presume to any comprehensive palaeoconservative creed or manifesto here, but rather point to several criteria inherent to any cogent definition of palaeoconservatism: a.) a preference for the concrete (real communities, real institutions, real rites-and-music) over abstract principles; b.) an inherent respect for lived traditions, following from this preference; c.) a recognition of original sin and its consequences; d.) a recognised need for an organic order rooted in the natural law, with justice and the inculcation of the classical virtues as its primary ends, to countervail however imperfectly against the effects of original sin; and e.) a basic suspicion of any and all grand ideological attempts at perfecting or making the world anew through human efforts alone. I would hope that my fellow palaeoconservatives would agree to these stipulations, and that I am not distorting the essence of the political philosophy.

Why does this definition matter? my gentle readers may justifiably ask. Because I intend to turn this definition to the service of the question which continues to haunt American palaeoconservatism to this day: namely, federalism or anti-federalism? Those familiar with my writing are probably very easily able to guess which side of the fence I fall on, and how hard. But we have to first start by pointing out that neither American tendency – neither federalism nor anti-federalism – should be perfectly satisfactory to a palaeoconservative holding to the tenets listed above. The centralism and Hobbesian mythology of ontological violence inherent to the federalism of Adams and Hamilton (borrowed from Burke, and as expressed in the Federalist Papers) prevent it from being sufficiently radical, and arguably leave it open to perversion in the service of empire and grand make-the-world-anew schemes. On the other hand, however, anti-federalism is even worse: if we take Jefferson as anti-federalism’s primary theorist (even though he was only marginally involved in the original Anti-Federalist movement), we have to view the philosophy as being essentially tainted by the disorders and excesses of the French Revolution. Abstract principles matter more in anti-federalism than situated ethics, particularly that great gilded calf of Liberty (to which too many good things palaeoconservatives ought to value are all too often sacrificed). The recognition of original sin and the need for an organic order to countervail imperfectly against it find no welcome in anti-federalism. Indeed, for Jefferson:
The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c. [are all] artificial systems [which have been used to deceive and mislead people regarding] the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist [to wit, Jesus Christ]
Jefferson’s legacy as president is problematic enough (his support for Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and his furtherance of American empire with the Louisiana Purchase). But if one looks at the legacies of Jefferson’s two most prominent political disciples (and mutual enemies), Andrew Jackson and John C Calhoun, the ironies and problems of some palaeoconservatives’ uncritical embrace of anti-federalism are thrown into sharper relief. Andrew Jackson’s embrace of the politics of the mob (‘popular democracy’) and his forced removals of American Indians from their lands should have been greeted with the utmost horror and revulsion by advocates of natural law and defenders of tradition. And John C Calhoun’s embrace of some of the worst tendencies of classical liberalism – the nullification principle and ‘free trade’ – should likewise meet with disgust from defenders of tradition and rooted communities, as they provide direct ideological support to libertinism and the moral chaos of radical individualism. If we examine the track record of the ‘free trade’ ideology and the way nullification worked in practice, we should note that both principles resulted more often than not in communities’ economic and moral corrosion or outright destruction through political violence.

All talk to this point, of course, has been ignoring the elephant in the room: chattel slavery. Between Jefferson, Jackson and Calhoun, this was the strongest ideological link. And, as I have noted numerous times previously with reference to Samuel Johnson, Beilby Porteus, Pope Gregory XVI, William Wilberforce and so forth, the Old World traditionalist conservatives of the 18th and early 19th centuries saw themselves as obliged to oppose slavery, firstly because it was physically and mentally degrading and secondly because it was destructive to the virtues of both master and slave. Further, they saw chattel slavery and ‘free trade’ both (and it would be a mistake to separate the two, so closely were they linked) as being anathema to the cause of rooted, local, organic order. Chattel slavery uprooted communities, it destroyed families, it sowed dissension and distrust in the societies where it was practiced.

Palaeoconservatives, if they truly do value the concrete and the personal over the abstract and the theoretical, ought therefore to regard the Southern rhetoric of nullification and ‘states’ rights’ (itself an ideological abstraction meant to cover over the exercise of the ownership of slaves) with the highest suspicion. Yet somehow, these concerns generally get glossed or ignored in favour of outrage against Abraham Lincoln as a ‘tyrant’ and a centralist – the latter of which he most certainly was, but the former of which he was not.

Here is where my Yankee colours start showing. I grant in all earnestness that Lincoln was far from a perfect president. His support for the big steel and coal industries in the North paved the way for the Gilded Age and the huge monopolies which came to dominate American economic life, and for that he deserves censure. He took a number of wartime measures over the heads of Congress which overstepped his Constitutional authority (like the suspension of habeas corpus, something the Confederacy under Davis also did, and the direct mobilisation of militia volunteers), and also ignored the courts on occasion. But, if he truly was a ‘tyrant’ as all too many palaeoconservatives claim, rather than a man of character, he would have retained indefinitely these wide-ranging powers that he was granted, arguably in violation of the Constitution. Instead, Lincoln relinquished those powers voluntarily at least once, reinstating writs of habeas corpus on his own initiative in February 1862. To me at least, this speaks great volumes about his humility and self-awareness. As for his actions prior to the war, many of them were not of his own choosing, but were rather the result of the political circumstances (John Brown’s famous abortive raid on Harper’s Ferry being one such). The Great Rebellion had been a long time in the brewing well before Lincoln made his entrance on the national stage, thanks to the poisonous influence of the institution of slavery on the nation’s politics.

But what of all those other causes of the War Between the States, one might ask, like the crushing tariffs (so Tom DiLorenzo and the Ludwig von Mises Institute claim) the Big Bad Abe had forced upon the long-suffering South? Well, what about them? Protectionist economic measures are championed in our own day and age by Patrick Buchanan (see also here), Jeremiah Bannister, Ian Fletcher and the many other fine contributors to The American Conservative: all palaeoconservatives of one stripe or another whose concern is for the Rust Belt communities the global ‘race to the bottom’ has managed so effectively to erode. Looking through the lens of the era, if your region controls a great quantity of a highly sought-after raw material (cotton) and a mass of labour for whom the wages are set indefinitely at zero, of course you’re going to want ‘free trade’ because no other labour market can compete with you in production of the same goods. A ‘race to the bottom’ is made a no-brainer when you start at the finish line, as the South did – but it does no favours to any other part of the country, particularly smallholder agriculturalists, or even to the communities where slave labour was employed. Today, palaeoconservatives are rightly concerned about the effects of illegal immigrants’ near-slave wages and of globalisation undermining the wages and benefits of native labour.

Remember, a palaeoconservative is one for whom the concrete and the particular is to be valued above the abstract and the universal, and one who is sceptical of any grand attempt to make the world anew. Appeals to big, idealist, globalist notions like ‘free trade’, however much they might sway neoliberals and classical liberals like the von Mises set, should have no pull whatever for us palaeoconservatives. Appeals to the integrity of communities, on the other hand, should. Here, it strikes me that we palaeoconservatives should be lining up in droves behind the federalist economic (or, as we say in development-speak, import-substitution) programme represented by Lincoln… even though we should simultaneously be critiquing that model for the way it became so easily unbalanced and abused in the decades following.

That same unbalancing and abuse is happening today – and it is being aided in this case by the same acolytes of ‘free trade’ and other neoliberal big concepts (e.g. Ron Paul and son), with whom much of the Old Right today finds itself unequally yoked. There is no inherent need for palaeoconservatism to subscribe either to the standard Whig history of the Civil War, nor to the even more insane and repugnant Lost Cause mythos (embraced notably by the Clintons, no friends at all either to working-class or to morally or socially conservative concerns). Indeed, it might find itself more palatable both to the patriotic Northern Rust Belt and to the black working class if a critical mass of palaeoconservatives repudiated the latter in particular.

24 December 2012

Home by another road

Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

One of the stories of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew is that of the magi – the Zoroastrian priests of Iran who follow the star to where it had been prophesied that the Heir of David would be born. Unfortunately, this became known to the Roman puppet king of Judaea at the time, Herod, who sought to have him killed. The magi, who were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, instead returned to their native land by another road, whilst Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt.

Iran has been and remains a vital cultural and political centre of the Abrahamic religions and their kissing-cousin Zoroastrianism. Arguably the first recorded guarantees of freedom of religious worship come from the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’ instated by Cyrus the Great of the officially-Zoroastrian Achaemenid Empire. The principle of kingship in Zoroastrianism, khvarenah (or farr فر, in modern Iranian) signified not the absolute right to rule, but a form of favour bestowed by the Wise Lord (Ahura Mazda) upon a moral exemplar, who then has the sanction to rule. If a ruler loses his khvarenah by committing evil acts, oppressing and impoverishing the common people or propagating untruths, he no longer has any claim upon the allegiance of his subjects, and may be replaced – in this, khvarenah is a concept directly coincidental with the Mencian reading of the Chinese concept of tianming 天命 (the Mandate of Heaven). In Zoroastrianism, social justice, personal virtue and governance are all intrinsically linked. This concept survived in Iran even after its conversion to Islam, and continued to exercise its influence upon Shiism. The Shiite tradition combined with the social-justice, righteous kingship and scholastic traditions of Zoroastrianism in Iran to create a highly-cultured and -scholastic, but at the same time egalitarian-trending theological tradition which has lasted in that nation to this day – and whose colourful history includes the Zanj Rebellion, the Qarmatians and the Iranian democratic and nationalist movements.

Shiism – the religious school of the ‘followers of Ali’ – has harboured since its founding both a radical, streak (which takes the side of the oppressed and the downtrodden over that of the political elites, even at the risk of humiliation, violent repression and death) and a conservative one (recognising only the descendants of Ali and the family of Mohammad as valid imams), which more often than not have worked in tandem. However, Iranian-British sociologist Ali Shariati’s essay ‘Red Shiism’, recommended to me by the ever-redoubtable John at Economics is for Donkeys, distinguishes the trend in Shiism of ‘red’ martyrdom in defence of the masses against exploitation, humiliation and foreign aggression, from the ‘black’ trend in Shiism to take refuge in the trappings of power (as Dr Shariati argues it has done since the Safavid Dynasty). He notes that, for their radicalism and their distrust of worldly leaders and conquerors, they were reviled, tortured and murdered by the Turkish and Mongol conquerors and their Sunni courts.

The modern state of Iran is characterised by what Dr Shariati calls ‘black Shiism’: the logic of worldly power, carefully hedged about with counsels of passivity and stasis. And yet, the people of Iran, according to historian Stephen Kinzer, still harbour a number of ‘red’ desires: that their country should again be truly democratic and that they should live in friendship with the West, but most importantly of all that they should be independent, not only politically but ideologically. The Islamic Revolution was motivated by the idea that a better world was possible than the one dominated by the double-headed beast of godless, repressive communism on the one hand, and godless, exploitative capitalism on the other. That idea is still strong even today in Iran, though it finds only sporadic expression in public policy or debate through the veil of clerical rule. Even today, Kinzer notes, the Iranian reformists do not want any ‘help’ from American politicians, not even in the form of official endorsements (for fear they could lose popular legitimacy), let alone bombs.

Still, even today Iran retains its ancient character. A multiethnic empire to begin with under the Achaemenids, today Iran remains a deeply cosmopolitan nation. Only about sixty percent of Iranians are ethnic Persians. Eighteen percent of Iranians speak a Turkic language as their first; Iran is home to up to twice as many Azeris as is Azerbaijan. Iran has substantial Kurdish, Arabic and Baluchi minorities as well, and a Jewish population with permanent representation in the Majlis. Historically it has been the safe refuge of choice for Armenian Christians fleeing from ethnic persecution in Russia and genocide in the Ottoman Empire. More recently it has been one of the safe refuges of choice for Christians fleeing post-invasion Iraq, along with its closest regional allies, Syria and Lebanon. (The ancient Chaldean Church is one of Pope Benedict XVI’s primary focal concerns this coming year, largely on account of its all-but-destruction in its native Iraq.)

The magi went home by another road to Iran to flee the persecution of Herod and his masters in Rome; as Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt. But today, Iran faces the combined military and economic threat of the modern state of Israel, armed with as many as two hundred nuclear warheads, and its most powerful military patron the United States, armed with over five thousand of them. Iran has a grand total of zero – its only weapon as I write this is an elaborate game of bluff. Egypt is presently in the midst of a constitutional crisis between its new president Mohammad Morsi and the ‘National Salvation Front’. Nearby Syria, to which many Iraqi Christians had fled, is now embroiled in a not-quite-civil war, with the embattled Alawite (a syncretic sect of Shiism) president facing off against a Saudi- and Qatari-financed, largely foreign Wahhabi terrorist organisation, misnaming themselves as the Free Syrian Army, whose motto has been and continues to be ‘Christians to Beirut; Alawites to the grave’.

Day by day, there seem to be fewer safe roads home for the Christians and the Shiites of the Middle East.

This Christmas season, please do pray for the peace of the Middle East and Central Asia, and especially for the safety and welfare of the religious minorities in these regions.

All ye faithful

David Lindsay writes:
This Latin original of Oh Come, All Ye Faithful was written to celebrate the birth of the future Bonnie Prince Charlie, and contains many coded addresses to the Jacobite “faithful” in England (“Bethlehem”, with Pope Saint Gregory the Great’s Angles/Angels pun repeated and so forth), so that its singing neatly balances that at Easter of Thine Be The Glory, the tune to which is See The Conquering Hero Comes, from Judas Maccabaeus, Handel’s oratorio in celebration of the Hanoverian victory at Culloden.

Who are the fideles today?

They are all those who identify with the tradition of those Catholics, High Churchmen (subsequently including first Methodists and then also Anglo-Catholics), Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others who, never having been convinced of the full legitimacy of Hanoverian Britain, of her Empire, and that of Empire’s capitalist ideology, created the American Republic, fought against slavery both there and in the British Empire, transformed the United Kingdom into a parliamentary democracy, founded the Labour Movement, and opposed the Boer and First World Wars.

And they are those who identify with largely subterranean ties binding these Islands, and thus also the Commonwealth to which all of these Islands properly belong, through the vast Jacobite diaspora, to the all those touched by the financial centres of the Continent, by the trading ports circling Europe, by the Russian Navy, by the Swedish East India and Madagascar Companies, and by so many other things besides.

Adeste, indeed.
To which it seems fitting to add only:

A blessed Christmas to all, and in the name of the child who is to come again, keep fighting the good fight!

20 December 2012

Some reflections in the wake of Newtown

The tragedy in Connecticut this past week, with the deaths of nearly thirty people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, left me dumbstruck. I suppose one is never really prepared for these things, and one never really can be. Every time I attempted to write something, it always came up short – every sympathy sounded vain; every condolence lacked conviction; every attempt to find meaning in the event in the end came off as monstrously officious and insensitive. In the end, I merely wrote, ‘I share your grief and outrage’, which seemed the best thing to do. Every time I look at my own daughter now, I can’t help but imagine the depths of the grief and the outrage that each parent and each friend of the victims of Sandy Hook must be feeling now, and pray fervently that Ellie remains fortunate, safe and healthy every day from now on.

And this brings me to the reaction to them. Not politicising the tragedy is perfectly sound advice in this case for humanistic reasons: no mourning family deserves a lecture on the merits of gun control or on the need for more teachers to pack heat, on the dangers of violent movies and video games or the need to protect free speech, from the mouths of the bobbleheads on any cable news network they would care to watch. I know I certainly wouldn’t appreciate such, even from my own ‘side’. But on the other hand, there is ultimately no avoiding the fact that these tragedies are inescapably political events, in that they are consequences of the way we have chosen to order (or not) our society. The murders at Sandy Hook were carried out by a young man with Asperger’s, a treatable disorder, who had easy access to high-powered weaponry from his mother (the first among his victims). These are social facts. Another such fact is that, concurrently with this rampage murder, another rampage assault (this one with a knife) took place in Chenpeng, Henan Province, a ways southwest of my wife’s hometown. However, this rampage has so far resulted in no deaths, because the Chinese kids’ knife wounds turned out to be treatable in ways which the American kids’ multiple puncture wounds from .223 cartridges fired in three-round bursts from a Bushmaster M4 carbine were not.

Guns are not the main problem, but – as Dr John Médaille pointed out – they do have a tendency to exacerbate all of our other social problems. Mental disorders are made less manageable by guns; gang violence and organised crime are made much more deadly by guns; the drug culture is made more dangerous by guns. The bromide that ‘such people’ would have found a way to kill anyway seems to ring particularly hollow in this case; if they have to work harder to kill, there is a greater chance for them to be stopped without such a massive loss of life. Likewise, if we had a better and less costly health-care system, one not so heavily dominated by big insurance companies and big pharmaceutical corporations, we might not have so many ‘such people’ in the first place, since so many mental disorders are treatable and need cause no harm to the broader society – but both big interest groups, as a result of their incentive structures, want to privatise their profits and socialise the costs of treatment as much as possible.

For now, silence and honour for the dead, and reflectiveness and prayer, are the appropriate responses. But dealing with the hubristic social root causes of each successive tragedy should not be long delayed.

17 December 2012

Pope Benedict XVI on individualism versus the dignity of the person

Yet one more reason to admire and revere the opinions of the regnant Holy Father; he is one incredibly sharp fellow. Via Daniel Nichols over at his excellent blog Caelum et Terra, an excerpt from the Bishop of Rome Benedict XVI’s address to the Plenary Assembly of Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:

By accepting Jesus Christ and his Gospel, in addition to in our personal life also in our social relations, we become bearers of a vision of man, of his dignity, of his liberty and relatedness, which is marked by transcendence, be it in the horizontal be it in the vertical sense. The foundation and meaning of human rights and duties depend on the integral anthropology that derives from Revelation and from the exercise of natural reason, as Blessed John XXIII reminds us, in fact, in Pacem in terris (cf. n. 9). In fact, the rights and duties do not have as their sole and exclusive foundation the social conscience of peoples, but depend primarily on the natural moral law — inscribed by God on the conscience of every person — and, hence, ultimately, on the truth about man and society.

Although the defense of rights has made great progress in our time, today’s culture, characterized among other things by a utilitarian individualism and a technocratic economism, tends to devalue the person. The latter is conceived as a “fluid” being, without permanent consistency. Despite being immersed in an infinite network of relations and communications, the man of today often appears paradoxically as an isolated being, because he is indifferent to the constitutive relation of his being with God, which is at the root of all other relations. The man of today is considered in a prevailingly biological key as “human capital,” “resource,” part of a productive and financial mechanism that surpasses him. If on one hand, we continue to proclaim the dignity of the person, on the other, new ideologies — such as the hedonistic and egotistic one of sexual and reproductive rights, or that of an immoderate financial capitalism that prevails over politics and alters the structure of the real economy –, contribute to consider the worker dependent and his work as “minor” goods and to undermine the natural foundations of society, especially the family. In reality, the human being, constitutively transcendent in relation to other earthly beings and goods, enjoys a real primacy which makes him responsible for himself and for creation. Concretely, for Christianity, work is a fundamental good for man, in view of his personalization, of his socialization, of the formation of a family, of the contribution to the common good and to peace. In fact, because of this, the objective of access to work for all is always a priority, also in periods of economic recession (cf. Caritas in veritate, 32).

A new humanism and a renewed cultural and planned commitment could derive from a New Evangelization of the social context. It would help to dethrone the modern idols, to replace individualism, materialistic consumerism and technocracy, with the culture of fraternity and gratuitousness, of solidaristic love. Jesus Christ summarized and gave fulfillment to the precepts in a new commandment: “love one another; even as I have loved you” (John 13:34); herein lies the secret of every fully human and peaceful social life, as well as the renewal of politics and of national and world institutions.

16 December 2012

CT and EifD on an anti-neoliberal roll!

John hasn’t been particularly active recently over at Economics is for Donkeys, much to my chagrin, but when he came back he came back with both barrels fully loaded: he links to a piece by Peter Radford about the destruction of the economy of the vital centre, and to a brief by Gavin Rae which finds that mass privatisation is statistically linked to a rise in the death rate, producing what might be over 13 million excess deaths. Yet somehow, neoliberalism is given a Get Out Of Gaol Free card where communism has been routinely (and justly) reviled for similarly destructive famines.

In another corner of the blogosphere, Crooked Timber plays upon the same theme, describing the ways in which the Economist both acknowledges, and then tries to weasel out of its support for, the role of free trade policies in creating and then perpetuating the Irish potato famine, which was responsible for at least one million Irish deaths. The verdant island was a net exporter of food throughout the early years of the famine, whilst people who could not buy food locally were starving to death.

Not the lightest of reading, true. But important reading, all the same.

14 December 2012

Pointless video post - ‘Let It Loose’ by Savage and ‘Don’t Break The Circle + Father Of Time’ by Demon

Been listening to a lot of NWoBHM recently - the old standbys of Saxon and Maiden and Priest, of course, but also some Legend and a couple of old gems which to yours truly are newly-unearthed: Loose ‘N Lethal by Savage, and Night Of The Demon and The Unexpected Guest by Demon. Both Savage and Demon have flirted with more mainstream rock sounds in their careers, but both bands have impeccable metal credentials: Savage with their speed-metal stylings was a primary influence on early Metallica, and Demon (much like their better-known contemporaries, Saxon), despite various flirtations with glam and college rock, managed to stick by their heavy metal guns and hold out until even now. Both bands also have proven themselves willing to tread topical ground: Savage’s newest album, Sons Of Malice, has a definite pro-Occupy bent to it, and (once they got over their original fascination with the occult) all of Demon’s albums since The Plague have been arguably political (unsurprising when one considers that they swapped members with the hardcore punk band Discharge on and off throughout the 1980’s).

Anyway, here’s ‘Let It Loose’:

And ‘Don’t Break The Circle’ and ‘Father Of Time’:


EDIT: I happened to hear also, via SEK at Lawyers, Guns and Money, of the manufactured outrage in the right-wing blogosphere over a concert held eight years ago by PSY of ‘Gangnam Style’ fame wherein he covered a song with arguably anti-American lyrics by South Korean ‘progressive thrash / power / heavy metal / hard rock’ (according to their Metal Archives profile, anyway) band N.EX.T. And, guess which phrase in that popped out the most to me? Overrated K-Pop star? ... No. Eight-year-old concert? ... No. American right-wingers wetting their panties over said concert? ... No; that has become SOP for them. South Korean progressive thrash / power / heavy metal / hard rock with controversial lyrics? Quick, to the Taobaowang!

If I find they are any good, expect more pointless video posts from me in the future.

12 December 2012

The errors of Chinese liberalism and of Chinese neoleftism

As Xi Jinping finishes up his tour of Shenzhen to the unvarnished adulation of a great many of China’s right-liberal ‘public intellectuals’, it bears remembering that these ‘dissidents’ are really anything but. Xi Jinping declared, seemingly in all honesty, that China must ‘keep on the correct path’ laid out for it by Deng Xiaoping – the course which, naturally, has resulted in massive corruption at local levels of government; which has caused the wealth gap to balloon past that of even the United States; which has caused public ownership and basic welfare services to atrophy practically to uselessness; which has caused millions of farmers to be evicted from their lands under the ‘household responsibility system’, in reality a new enclosures movement guaranteeing a steady flow of landless migrant workers to keep wages depressed. The right-liberals applaud all of this – indeed, they keep asking for more of it. The only thing that makes them unhappy, it seems, is that China is not even more the ersatz-democratic crony-capitalist war-mechanical monstrosity that the United States has become.

The right-liberals are emphatically not to be believed that what they want is greater transparency and greater personal freedom of conscience. Theirs is a completely Nietzschean exercise: they are willing to countenance the ‘artwork’ and ruffianism of Ai Weiwei, the Islamophobia and neoconservative warmongering of Liu Xiaobo, and the Randian crypto-Satanism of wannabe-teabaggers Liu Junning and Mao Yushi; but they cheer when the government arrests Bo Xilai and his wife on murder charges which (for all we know) are and always have been trumped-up, or detains and silences the owner of a small bookstore who also happens to be a Maoist (misguided, true, but if the liberals were being consistent, they would have to stand up for his free-speech rights as well). They unequivocally (and rightly) condemn Han Deqiang for roughing up an old man and calling him a ‘hanjian’, but they are all too quick to make excuses for the mob beating of Wu Danhong (who doesn’t share their ideology), led by right-liberal journalist Zhou Yan. As demonstrated by their public statements and actions, they have no problem with the violent censorship of ideas and religious expressions they do not agree with. Furthermore, they even have no problem with mob rule and the tactics of the Cultural Revolution, or (to hear some liberal intellectuals or Reform-era grad students on the topic of filial piety) even with the actual aims of the Cultural Revolution.

The only topic on which the right-liberals deserve to be taken seriously – and viewed as even more dangerous on that account – is when they insist on fazhi 法治 (often mistranslated into English as the ‘rule of law’, which conjures images of an Anglo-American jurisprudence which has never been and likely never will be applicable in China). In actuality, what they mean is a bureaucracy in which only the technical competencies demanded by the post are considered, rather than the quality of the person occupying it, and whose compliance is guaranteed through a universally applicable system of rewards and punishments. The ‘fa’ 法 in their ‘fazhi’ is not the ‘fa’ of the Anglo-American legal tradition, but rather the Legalist (法家) ‘fa’ of Han Fei and Qin Shihuang. The resemblance is coincidental, but not insignificant: the post-Enlightenment strain of liberal political philosophy beginning with Machiavelli and Hobbes has always shared a certain degree of ideological overlap with Han Fei’s conception of government. Because people are intrinsically depraved, greedy and incapable of altruistic behaviour (a key tenet shared by Legalism with liberalism going back to Machiavelli and Hobbes, though these vices were transformed into virtues by the work of Adam Smith among others), they have to be controlled through the power of Leviathan, or by a Prince who appears virtuous but who is willing to use ruthless tactics to maintain his control. Chinese right-liberalism shares a great deal in common with these early proto-liberal theorists of totalitarianism; sadly, far too many Western China-watchers are either lazy or wilfully ignorant of these distressing tendencies (though some thankful exceptions exist, such as Daniel Larison, David Lindsay and Hansen Ding).

The left-liberal ‘neoleftism’ of theorists such as Wang Hui, Cui Zhiyuan and Wang Shaoguang would seem a tempting solution in comparison. Wang Hui’s The End of the Revolution, a compilation of the English translations of several of his essays, following the theme of the political development of China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and the Reform and Opening periods, is a stupendous and insightful work of political philosophy. He deserves a great deal of credit for being one of the most unique Chinese political thinkers of the modern day. He draws upon a number of critical historical insights which need to be further explored: the mutual dependence of the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’ upon each other going much further back than the dawn of ‘modernity’ being just one example. His insights into how the Chinese political system works (a critical one being the continuity between Mao and Deng, which is often ignored), and how ideologically-distorted misperceptions of history continue to foment misunderstandings of critical events within it (like the protests in the Square), are utterly invaluable. The spectre of the Cultural Revolution continues to haunt enough memories that it can be used as a political weapon, by the party which perpetrated it and then renounced it, against those (like Bo Xilai and like his supporters) agitating for economic reforms which might have a chance at reducing the wealth gap and giving China’s economically-distressed classes (not least of whom are the owners of small- and medium-sized enterprises) a shot at a dignified existence.

It would be a critical error to call the neoleftists in the vein of Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan Marxists, let alone Maoists. Cui Zhiyuan describes himself as, and is to all appearances, a ‘liberal socialist’ in the vein of John Stuart Mill (in spite of having been accused of being a reactionary earlier in his career). Wang Hui’s ideological disposition, on the other hand, draws equally from Daoist and from Hegelian insights. And therein lies the great problem: neoleftism’s basic message should have a great deal of appeal to a great number of Chinese people, but that message gets lost in the medium. Daoism and Hegelianism both have aspirations of exploring universal truths, though naturally they speak in different philosophical dialects, one of which nears on incomprehensible even to German ears (let alone English or Chinese ones!). To be sure, where Wang Hui’s neoleftism borrows from Hegel, it does so in intriguing ways: his excavation of lost traditional counter-histories as narratives antithetical to modern developmentalism carries with it overtones of an almost Milbank-esque left-conservatism which I believe the New Confucians would do well to emulate. He blessedly does not fall prey to Hegel’s end-of-history hubris, as his analysis is very – I might even say frustratingly – open-ended.

On the other hand, it is easy to see where, if the neoleftists are not careful, they might begin falling prey to nihilism, as certain students of Hegel did, and as Daoism sometimes trends. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final chapter of The End of the Revolution, which is essentially a tribute to Lu Xun – whose revolutionary fervour arguably did wind up staring out over the bleak and barren landscape of nihilism. A nihilistic foundational philosophy should not be an attractive prospect for any honest leftist, as in the levelling of all value the good values are rendered helpless: namely, that of life and the quality thereof, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable, who have the least ability to defend themselves. I am unsure of the reason for this turn, however. Perhaps it is because Wang Hui approaches his topic as a political philosopher rather than as a theologian, or perhaps it is because he finds himself wary to embrace the radical-communitarian and -traditionalist elements of Confucian virtue-ethics and risk being branded as a reactionary himself (by China’s Old Left, amongst others); ultimately, though, only Dr Wang himself can answer that question.

I honestly think that there is a vast and fruitful territory for dialogue, mutual learning, and shared social action between China’s Christians (especially her Catholics), her Confucians and her more thoughtful neoleftists. Perhaps China’s liberals could get in on that conversation as well, but first they need to do some careful self-examination and police their more objectionable elements: namely the agents of avarice, debauchery and hatred who reside safely in their midst.

09 December 2012

Here we go again

Via Zuo Shou at Sweet and Sour Socialism, we have this from Peter Hart and the watchdogs at FAIR:
The message could hardly be clearer: According to U.S. intelligence, Syrian government could very well be preparing to use chemical weapons to put down the long and bloody rebellion against ruler Bashar al-Assad. That was the signal from the TV networks and other major media. Should anyone believe they're right?


So where did all of this new information [coming through ABC, CBS and NBC] come from? Anonymous government officials talking to outlets like the New York Times.

On December 2, Michael Gordon and several others reported in the Times that
Western intelligence officials say they are picking up new signs of activity at sites in Syria that are used to store chemical weapons. The officials are uncertain whether Syrian forces might be preparing to use the weapons in a last-ditch effort to save the government, or simply sending a warning to the West about the implications of providing more help to the Syrian rebels.

"It's in some ways similar to what they've done before," a senior American official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. "But they're doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It's not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities."
That somewhat sketchy take was reiterated the next day in the Times (12/3/12), where readers learned that "what exactly the Syrian forces intend to do with the weapons remains murky, according to officials who have seen the intelligence from Syria." By December 4, the Times was reporting on Obama's explicit warning to Syria:
The White House said it had an "increased concern" that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to use such weapons, effectively confirming earlier reports of activity at chemical weapons sites.

Absent any further details, that would seem to be a strange standard for confirmation: U.S. officials make anonymous claims, and then different officials say on the record that they are concerned about what those anonymous sources are claiming.
A strange standard? That is true in the sense Mr Hart clearly means it, but this should hardly come as a surprise to anyone with a memory lasting longer than ten years, since this was precisely the puppet show the Bush Administration used to push its phoney casus belli in Iraq. Of course, the anonymous sources which were used in the justification for that war proved rather less than trustworthy under close scrutiny. As David Lindsay writes (and how I dearly wish I could say the same of my own country, but I am all too painfully aware of how gullible we have allowed ourselves to become),
Not that I, or 90 per cent of other people in this country, were fooled the first time.

Weapons of mass destruction in Syria? Seriously? Is that really the best that you can do?

"They are the ones that were spirited out of Iraq." Course they are, dear. Course they are.
Please, friends, Americans, countrymen: protest and resist the complicity of our news media in cheerleading yet another horrific, bloody tragedy in the Fertile Crescent, whose victims will not solely be the vulnerable-but-perpetually-unfashionable Christians and Alawites, but also ultimately the ordinary Sunni Syrians whose first desire is to see the conflict end.

03 December 2012

The matter of Monticello

Wow, wouldn’t that title make for a great 1960’s musical number?

Ahem. Anyway, the phrase ‘the Monster of Monticello’ appears prominently in this New York Times op-ed, ‘The Real Thomas Jefferson’, by Dr Paul Finkelman, who writes a devastating critique of the man for his practice of slavery, and how it made him into a ‘creepy, brutal hypocrite’. Dr Finkelman was rebutted by David Post here, who was in turn rebutted by Corey Robin of Crooked Timber, here. The argument between Finkelman and Post (or rather, the argument Post wants to have with Finkelman) is basically a retread of a retread, an unending Nietzschean struggle-drama between memory and pride, and so has rather limited interest to me. Corey Robin’s post is far more interesting because it delves so much deeper into the underlying debate over political philosophy.

Firstly, I should make it clear that I agree with Corey Robin’s conclusion, and with part of Dr Finkelman’s article linking the political philosophy of Jefferson with that of Calhoun. But I also believe that Corey Robin overstates his case more than slightly by trying to link both with fascism. He is only slightly mistaken about the history of racism - rather than being a counterrevolutionary ideology specifically designed to combat abolition (abolitionism not having been a formidable force at the time), it was an ideology designed by the merchants and industrialists who profited from slavery, to prevent poor whites from identifying with blacks. But this slight mistake is indicative of a greater one which he makes: attempting to show racism to be fundamentally conservative, or counterrevolutionary.

I have shown previously that many of the conservatives of the time - in particular Pope Gregory XVI and Dr Samuel Johnson - were very much anti-slavery and anti-racist, and this not in spite of their traditionalist conservatism, but rather because of it. To them, racism and slavery were forms of untruth: a white Anglican and a black Anglican immediately have deeper common interests in the promulgation of the Gospel than they have divergent interests in the colour of their skin; and slavery as an institution was destructive to the virtues of both by which the Gospel could be made manifest. This bears (not accidentally) a great deal of similarity with later ‘progressive’ thinking, on account of the fact that such thinking had been shaped along the way by Quakers, Anglicans and Catholics (all of whom tended to harbour high-Tory sympathies, if they were not Jacobites outright). Mr Robin’s argument sheds more light on the ways in which modern American coalition politics informs our historiography, than it does on the political proclivities of Thomas Jefferson.

For, if we were to trace that common thread, it would be along the lines of a form of liberalism, not of counterrevolutionary thought. It was not uncommon for liberals at the turn of the 19th century to be racist in ways which contemporary conservatives were not (witness Metternich, who fought tooth-and-nail for peace in Europe and for the rights of European Jews at a time when the classically-liberal Burschenschaften he was charged with oppressing under the Carlsbad Decrees were clamoring for their ostracism or expulsion in the pursuit of racial purity). The juxtaposition of a classical Tory like Dr Johnson, or better yet a Burkean conservative like John Adams, with Thomas Jefferson is equally enlightening: John Adams detested slavery and refused (along with, or inspired by, Abigail) to employ slave labour on principle, but at the same time argued for a society based on traditional Christian morality and a ‘natural hierarchy’ which sounds, for lack of a better word, like a reconstituted aristocracy. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiast for the French Revolution (and showed a cavalier disregard for its human cost), detested traditional, creedal Christianity to the point that he made his own version of the Gospel which was in line with classical liberalism, and based his own revolutionary ideology upon the Lockean philosophy of greed and upon the denial of the divine right of kings. Slavery was not incompatible with such a system - or rather, Jefferson tried his damnedest (as Corey Robin ably shows) to make it compatible through ‘scientific’ proof of whites’ racial superiority.

The task which all of the above authors (Finkelman, Post and Robin) are attempting either to surmount or to evade - the real matter of the man of Monticello - is the task of reconciling the ideology of liberty of which Jefferson was a supporter, with the brutalities, hypocrisies and ‘creepiness’ of Jefferson the man. Either one does as Post does, and says ‘so what’ to the content of Jefferson’s character and the real suffering the man caused in defence of the ideology he came to embody; or one does as Finkelman and Robin do, which is to claim that Jefferson was not actually such an embodiment, but rather stood for something else. Neither option is really fully desirable, since they overlook a third option: that Jefferson genuinely believed what he did, and that he genuinely did what he did, and that as a consequence something is wrong with the way we as a nation have historically conceived (in both senses of the word), and continue to conceive, of ‘liberty’. If ‘liberty’ is merely the licence of white Europeans to be removed from the social strictures and restraints of traditional creedal Christendom and from the ancien régime of Europe, then chattel slavery (being an institutional artefact of the outward migration from Europe at the dawn of the colonial age, and thus part-and-parcel with the early capitalist and anti-aristocratic ‘arc’ of the Enlightenment) is by no means incompatible with such a conception. Slavery on the basis of skin colour was certainly if not anathema, then at least incomprehensible and alien, to the Scholastic medieval mind.

This way of framing the argument is not likely to be a popular one in American political discourse or historiography, because a.) it explodes the left-liberal mythology of linear historical progress in the direction of greater and more refined morality, whilst at the same time yoking one of the central concepts in that mythology (that of personal licence) with one of its most unfortunate consequences; b.) it directly contradicts the right-liberal, American exceptionalist idea that Jeffersonian ideology has given America a unique place and moral mission within world history; and c.) it does not kowtow to the demands of the evangelical right that the Founding Fathers be recognised ahistorically as the guardians of some sort of Christian moral order. But it is necessary to consider this way of thinking about it if we are to take any edifying lesson away from Jefferson and his complicated place in the American story.

30 November 2012

Sympathy for the devil (and relief at its defeat)

Daniel Nichols writes (and I agree, mostly):
As a Catholic radical, one who is religiously and morally ”conservative” but deeply concerned about the concentration of wealth and power and the steady erosion of the working class, President Obama’s reelection is a mixed bag. Yes, he is no friend to the unborn, to understate it, though in the news today I saw that abortion is at an all time low since legalization. And no, he is no friend to religious liberty, however hypocritical many Catholic institutions have been in protesting his policies; you know, like the Catholic hospitals who do sterilizations or the Catholic colleges that dispense birth control to students. And he has reversed himself and now endorses the metaphysical impossibility of gay marriage. And he has continued Bush’s policies in concentrating presidential power.

On the other hand, he is taking baby steps against the thirty years of policies that favor corporations and the rich; nothing radical mind you, but a far cry from the attack on workers and the poor that a Romney administration would almost certainly have launched. And there is no reason to believe that a Romney presidency would in any way affect the status quo regarding abortion, except perhaps to increase the number of abortions as social programs were slashed.

But I was thinking yesterday about those who are both religiously conservative and economically “conservative”; ie, classically liberal.

To them there is nothing redeemable in the President’s reelection. It is all bleak. While it is hard for me to imagine that many sincerely believe that deregulating finance and industry and lowering taxes for the wealthy really would bring about prosperity for all, despite the results of doing just that for thirty years, let us give them the huge benefit of the doubt.

Blindsided and bewildered, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth on the right. And finger-pointing, lots of finger-pointing.

The world must appear bleak and hopeless. Despair must eat at them like a worm in a tomato.

I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them. Really, I do, however deluded they are.

Which does not in the least diminish my relief at their defeat.

29 November 2012

Dorothy, Servant of God and Revolutionary of the Heart

Dorothy Day, labour activist, distributist, Catholic convert and the mother of the Catholic Worker movement, passed away 32 years ago today, as I was reminded by the excellent Subversive Thomism blog earlier today. The cause of her sainthood is also being avidly pursued by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, on account of her ability to bridge the gap between the American ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings of Catholicism (fragmented as they have been by America’s secular politics). Though her sainthood would certainly come as more than welcome to many American Roman Catholics (and even a few non-Roman Catholics like myself), I rather doubt that she would have embraced such a cause for herself. As her most famous quote goes: ‘Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.’

Her politics are not to be so easily dismissed, either, by trying to shoehorn them either into modern American welfare-liberalism or into modern American pseudo-conservatism. She was (very much unlike me, I should add) an anarchist, who distrusted the will and ability of secular authorities to contribute to the cause of justice. She disliked the reliance of so many upon ‘Holy Mother State’ for relief, but (contrary to what her American pseudo-conservative admirers would like to believe) she never castigated the poor for going on welfare. Indeed, the Catholic Worker movement often went with people going on the dole to advocate for their fair treatment by the government! The Catholic Worker newspaper, started by Day and her colleague Peter Maurin, would run articles critical of welfare, not for creating habits of ‘dependency’ and servility amongst the poor, but for welfare institutions’ contempt of the poor they were supposed to serve, and the inadequacy of the benefits they received. She castigated relief offices for advocating birth control, seeing it as a renewed form of eugenics. She detested the fact that the ‘welfare state’ would treat poor people who went on the dole as criminals and cheats, but would unthinkingly and unquestioningly provide bailouts (though that term was not in use then) to huge corporations.

She and the Catholic Worker movement she birthed were adamant that a just society was one in which labourers earned a fair wage, and could speak on their own behalf on an equal basis with rich and powerful corporations interested only in their own profits. She even dared to stand up to the authorities within her own Church when their actions did not align with their own social teaching, even going so far as to support a gravediggers’ strike against a local parish. (At the same time, though, she remained every bit as faithful a Catholic as, say, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.)

She was no ‘rugged individualist’; indeed, the Catholic Worker scorned such Americanisms as destructive of personal responsibility: particularly that personal responsibility to care for the poor. She believed also that the government should take greater responsibility for the brutal facts of poverty on account of the great power it wielded, but was insistent that there had to be a revolution of values, a revolution of the heart, for that to occur - a revolution which could transform the state and its secular logic of violence into something quite different.

Dorothy Day, Servant of God and Revolutionary of the Heart, pray with us.

Letter to an aspiring democrat

To be translated and cross-posted to The Tocharian Rider when time permits.

Dear Alice,

I recently had the pleasure of reading your ‘Civics Lesson’ on Sina Weibo, and firstly I would like to applaud your efforts and congratulate you upon what looks to be an eloquently-stated and heartfelt political manifesto. It is a fine document which I think all Chinese people should read and reflect upon – though, for reasons which will become clear shortly, it is one which I think they ought to take with more than a few grains of salt. As someone who comes from a nation – the United States – which prides itself perhaps unduly on its civic freedoms and its democratic processes, I feel like you would be doing your readers an even greater service if, rather than attempting to copy wholesale the institutions and procedural structures which have caused our nation and the world so much grief over the past forty years (and arguably the past two hundred and forty), you instead took it upon yourself to fashion a clearer alternative model of ‘citizenship’ to the one we espouse, one more appropriate to Chinese experiences and values. After all, as you yourself very ably put it, ‘being an independent person requires you to have an independent will and the ability to make free decisions rich in creativity’ (‘獨立人格是指有獨立意志,能自主決策,富有創造性的一種人格’). If I may, I would like to structure this letter as an ‘advanced civics lesson’ drawing upon ways I believe China can do better than my own country has.

An advanced lesson in civics

It does not take any great skill or responsibility to be a good customer. You wait in line; you pay when (or, in the case of a vending machine, before) your services or goods are delivered; you complain or sue when you find your goods or services are defective in hopes of getting your money back. It takes much greater skill to be a good citizen – a concept which, in the sense you mean it, has its roots in the ancient Greek poleis and thus carries upon its shoulders the immense philosophical burden of virtue ethics. It is necessarily much more difficult to be a citizen than to be a customer at a vending machine, because when you are in the public sphere you are behaving as a member of your community, which is not something you buy fizzy drinks from, but is your father, your mother, your brother and sister, your teacher, your coworker, your lover and your friend. You do not treat these people as your vending machines if you want to be a citizen.

One. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

You say that to use the word ‘citizen’ smacks of equality, peace, rule-of-law, unity, toleration and the paramount importance of the individual. Whatever free-and-equalness is conferred by the word, though, is built upon a tremendous foundation, caked with the blood, sweat and tears of those who struggled to create a system of shared values within which all of the above could work. As Norman Mailer once said, ‘democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labour of maintaining it’.

When that foundation is damaged (as it was for both of our countries during the 1960’s and 1970’s), and then destroyed (as it was for both of our countries during the 1980’s), speaking of ‘citizenship’ in a meaningful way becomes impossible. In the United States, corporate-driven media narratives allow people to fashion their own realities out of only those select pieces of information they want to believe. China has a very similar problem. Asking the great mass of the ‘citizens’ to think for themselves in such an environment is equivalent to asking an untrained five-year-old to perform brain surgery.

Two. Patriotism versus nationalism.

I have struggled with this concept for practically all of my education. I still don’t pretend to have all of the answers. All I can do is point to an analogy which has made sense to me: you love your nation like you love your family. You didn’t choose them, but you love them anyway. You don’t even necessarily have to agree with them all the time. You can remonstrate with them, you can fight with them, you can even move away from them, but they are still your family.

I think GK Chesterton put best the difference between patriotism and nationalism: ‘[the imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling] admires England, he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but we love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.’ The Chinese shouldn’t admire their nation because it endures or because it is dynamic or because it is powerful; they should love it because it is theirs.

Three. A citizen must have a strong sense of responsibility.

A citizen is aware not only of his own rights, but of how the exercise of those rights will affect himself, his loved ones and the society around him. A father might be within his rights to smoke cigarettes around his children, but he is not being a good father by allowing his children to breathe in the poisonous fumes. In some countries a person might be within her rights to do drugs or to have unprotected sex with a whole bunch of people, but she is not being a good citizen by risking the spread of disease or by wasting her own basic dignity.

Four. Rights without responsibilities will die away.

We are seeing that even now in the United States. Our rights are currently being corroded because of the way they have been abused.

Some said individuals have the right to fund elections however they want; now elections are costlier, dirtier, more corrupt and less accessible than ever. What we have is not genuine policy debate, but the pre-scripted ideological poses of the two official candidates.

Some said we had the right to say whatever we want in public; now the American news media (mainstream and independent alike) are clogged to the brim with sound-bites and gladiatorial matches between polarised viewpoints. This is the reason The Daily Show and The Onion are so popular nowadays. Very rarely are we treated to the facts and insightful, informative analysis on those facts – except on the state-run networks like NPR, PBS and Britain’s BBC.

Some said we should have the absolute freedom to believe whatever you want; it has led to the cancerous growths of Protestant fundamentalism and the equally dogmatic reaction of ‘new atheism’. More insidious, it has led to people questioning the very nature of fact, and denying truths such as biological evolution, global warming, the disastrous consequences of a war of choice in Iraq, or the failure of a completely deregulated housing market. A society where people cannot even agree on a certain basic set of scientific facts is a society that is in danger of collapse.

Formal constitutional rights cannot protect themselves, as we are seeing even now; they require a solid foundation of shared values and principles, which everyone participates in building anew.

Five. The seven social sins and the seven virtues.

Borrowed shamelessly from Mohandas Gandhi:
  • Wealth without work
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Science without humanity
  • Knowledge without character
  • Politics without principle
  • Commerce without morality
  • Worship without sacrifice
Thus, I counter-pose my version of the seven heavenly virtues:
  • Handle property with charity
  • Handle debt with temperance
  • Handle knowledge with humility
  • Handle privacy with courage
  • Handle liberty with prudence
  • Handle politics with justice
  • Handle worship with faith

Six. Basic quality of the citizen #1: Deference to authority.

By this, I do not mean allowing someone else to reason for you. By this, I simply mean that not all opinions are created equal, even if all people are created equal under the eyes of the law. Some opinions are more authoritative – in the sense of being more trustworthy – than others. If I want to seek knowledge about the climate, I go to a climatologist. If I want to seek knowledge about the origins of life, I go to a palaeontologist. If I want to seek knowledge about the divine and about the inner workings of the soul, I go to a priest. Being a scientist, or being a priest, means adhering to a specific ethic of deference: in one case, to facts arrived at by scientific methodology; in the other case, to the revelation of the will of God through the Gospel and through the works of the Church. Citizenship requires a similar ethic: you may be welcome to your own opinions, but you are not welcome to invent your own facts.

Seven. Basic quality of the citizen #2: Respect for the family and the community.

As we are all individuals, we are all imbued with a basic level of dignity. Any abridgement of human life ought to be regarded as a monstrous wrong, whether it comes from abortion or starvation or euthanasia or execution or war. But individuals do not exist in a vacuum. The crucibles of human virtue, including the civic virtues, are the family and the village (as in, the kind it takes a whole of to raise a child). To have functional citizens, you need functional families and functional communities, and vice-versa. Therefore, citizens have an obligation to work toward the ‘common weal’.

Eight. Basic quality of the citizen #3: Pursuit of public justice.

I have nothing to amend here – only to second and expand. Citizens have a duty to speak out against any injustice, no matter whether it is committed by the government, by a corporation or by a private individual. And they have a duty to stand in solidarity with the society’s most vulnerable: those without property; those without jobs; those without homes; those who have been separated from their families; those who are sick and infirm; those fleeing and seeking shelter from war and repression.

Nine. Basic quality of the citizen #4: Loving your neighbour.

And that means loving her in the concrete, not just in the abstract. I speak from experience: it is all too easy to be a universal lover of all humanity – and because it is easy, it is more likely to be fake. Trying to love actual humans is a hell of a lot harder, but in the end it is a lot more rewarding.

Ten. Basic quality of the citizen #5: Respecting the common good.

A ‘free society’ which has no conception of the common good very quickly degenerates into an unfree society, because if our entire public discourse consists of an aggregate of individuals and special interests competing in a political market, eventually the richest and strongest individuals take power, and (human nature being what it is) they will not want to give it up to anyone else. The global ultra-wealthy have no interest in being good citizens; and nor do they have an interest in creating good citizens. The citizen’s interest in maximising concrete freedoms for everyone – a decent job with a just wage, low barriers to ownership of the means of production – therefore requires a central notion of transcendent order which values both procedure and outcome.

Eleven. Basic quality of the citizen #6: Being active in public life.

Again, nothing here to revise – I agree completely. This one is pretty self-explanatory. But being active in public life means more than just voting and more than just exercising free speech.

Twelve. The duties of the citizen.

Obeying the law is a big part of it, as is contributing to the country’s defence and safety and common welfare. But that requires something beyond mere brute individualism: you cannot ask people to do this if they are so intent on securing for themselves individually everything they feel they are entitled to.

Thirteen. On economic patriotism, anti-corruption and liberalism.

Alice, I agree with you completely on this one, but it strikes me that if your true aim is building up a nation which is independent and free and prosperous, what you want is not more economic liberalism, but less. My country became prosperous precisely by protecting its own small industries when it was young; I find it hypocritical that it now goes around telling everyone else that it is in their best interests to do exactly the opposite.

Fourteen. Rule of law, rule of man, rule of God.

There are three sorts of government, as imagined by Max Weber: that of tradition, that of charismatic leaders or demagogues, and that of bureaucrats. However, where I depart from Weber is in his designation of bureaucracy – ‘the rule of law’, where what matters is the office and not the person holding it – as the supreme form of government. Charismatic leaders like Hitler, Lenin and Mao, might be able to sway public opinion to achieve their goals for a short time, but they have a difficult time designing enduring institutions. Rule of law, like that under Qin Shihuang, where what matters is the office and the universal application of rewards and punishments, also may be able to work for a short time, but left to its own devices it will fail. Only a virtuous person obeying Heaven and protecting human dignity – in the West, the divine right – will be able to ensure a lasting and just rule.

Fifteen and nineteen. On the perils of for-profit and state education.

I say this with some trepidation, because I understand how fraught the fight between private and public schools is in the United States and how many other issues it involves – labour rights for teachers and gentrification of neighbourhoods as well as student achievement. But the real issue here is that education should not be run as a business. The profit motive is not appropriate, because the purpose of education ought to be to inculcate virtue, critical thinking and self-reflection in students, not to make a profit off of them. I don’t care whether it’s the state or charities doing this, though if the state runs education one has to be vigilant that brainwashing and indoctrination do not result.

Sixteen. The government is not just there to sell you things.

Going back to my introduction, where citizenship requires more than just being a good customer, likewise government requires more than being a good salesperson. Transparency should be par for the course, but not because it is good business practice! Government should be transparent, local, open and accessible, because that is the right thing to do, and a government’s motto should be ‘justice’, rather than ‘the customer is always right’.

Seventeen. Historical awareness requires more than self-blame.

It is true that every government should face up to its own historical misdeeds, but this is not just Germany’s problem, or just China’s problem, or just Japan’s problem or just America’s problem. Looking at Germany is not instructive, because even though they have apologised for the Second World War, they have failed to learn the principal lesson from the victors: that economic justice is important for social stability and democracy. They have heaped all sorts of blame upon themselves, but (upon becoming Europe’s primary economic powerhouse) continued to exploit poor economies in the south of Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal) and leave them mired in inescapable debt – as a result, fascist parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn are again on the rise. And the last people to get the historical irony will inevitably be the Germans.

Likewise, if you truly want to get over the great mistakes of the Cultural Revolution, you shouldn’t be so eager for the Chinese government and people to start organising new rounds of struggle sessions, self-criticisms and purges. That would be only replacing one kind of Cultural Revolution with another.

Eighteen and twenty. Freedom of speech and of the press.

Formal freedom of the press is no guarantee that news will be reported accurately, just as formal freedom of speech is no guarantee that all speech will be equally protected. One need only witness the coverage in the run-up to the Iraq War, where every single mainstream media outlet (with the exceptions of a few local papers owned by Knight Ridder) reported wrongly on Iraq’s capacity to build nuclear weapons without checking their sources. This is not a bug, it is a feature – corporate media outlets in a ‘free press’ such as we have will not dare criticise the government too loudly, lest they lose access to the halls of power.

Twenty-one. Who best understands the spirit of contract?

I promise I will limit myself to only, say, three Chesterton quotes – a very difficult task for me. But: ‘Thieves respect property; they merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.’ Likewise, who better understands the spirit of contract than swindlers and gangsters? ‘You pay me, and I don’t kill you’ is a perfect example of contract logic – indeed, it has been the exemplar of contract logic since contracts were first invented. Insisting on ‘the spirit of contract’ without also accounting for differences in economic, social and military power is not only naïve, it is a recipe for disaster. Citizens ought to be much wiser than that – to have the cunning of serpents, as well as the innocence of doves. They ought to insist on the spirit of virtue, not the spirit of contract.

Twenty-two. Let’s not imitate Hong Kong…

Particularly when Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have been doing so much better. Hong Kong has the biggest wealth gap of any industrialised country (with a Gini coefficient of 0.537 in 2011) and the world’s most unaffordable housing. Four families own half the wealth of Hong Kong, whilst 300,000 elderly people have to rely on picking up recyclables to survive. The government of Hong Kong – supposedly ‘independent’ judiciary included – is run by the Chinese Communist Party and by the local billionaires. Only half of the seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council are elected; the other half are appointed by ‘functional constituencies’ consisting of private interest groups. By any objective factual measure, Hong Kong is less democratic than countries such as Russia and Iran. It is obvious that it is more unequal, and their judiciary, however independent, has not helped matters any.

Twenty-three. Be independent thinkers, and don’t copy us!

We’ve made enough mistakes for the world without an entire fifth of the world’s population following unthinkingly in our footsteps, parroting our worst ideas and copying our worst institutional set-ups. The value in independent thinking lies in the improvement of your own soul; and your soul cannot improve if you are ever focussed on attaining what others have attained, the way they have attained it. We (in the modern West) always like to complain about China’s exports being unsafe, but from where I’m standing it seems like you’ve gotten the rawer deal: we’ve already exported to you the destructive ideologies of social Darwinism, of racism and eugenics, of extreme nationalism, of Marxism and now of neo-liberalism, libertinism and soulless consumerism. It isn’t too late yet, though: China’s heart has been broken again and again by each and every successive government it’s had since the fall of the Qing Dynasty, but that only goes to show that it still has one. I have seen it. I have talked with it, eaten with it and drunk baijiu with it, in the backcountry roads of Kangding, in the hutongs of Beijing, among the Zhuang in Guangxi and with my in-laws in Luoyang. And it is beautiful.

Please consider these admonitions from a citizen of the United States, who cares deeply what happens to China.

God bless, Matt

27 November 2012

Hungry years

An excerpt from Biff Byford and John Tucker’s Never Surrender:
I have to say that I hated the Thatcher years. I think Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet of yes-men totally destroyed the country. She certainly completely wiped out whole communities. I feel really sad about it, actually. I hated her for it. I thought she was an absolutely evil bitch. The whole thing around the Miners’ Strike, and her determination to crush it and the people who worked the pits… I was involved in the first miners’ strikes when I was at the mines – back in the late Sixties, I think – and it was horrendous. I mean, I wasn’t a fan of Arthur Scargill either, I thought he was a Communist stooge, but even so a lot of my friends were still coal miners, and a lot of people died in the mines, and their memory, their contribution to the country, was just being discarded by Thatcher and her Government. I don’t think you can overstate it: Thatcher destroyed the country. The coal mining industry, the steel industry too, all over South Wales and the North East. She had this stupid advisor who told her to let it all go, with a mantra that the free-market economy will look after itself. Madness really; absolute fucking madness. Everybody was encouraged to set up their own businesses, and then they failed. And it’s in this period of economic doom-and-gloom that Saxon became popular.

All the “Stand Up And Be Counted” songs, “See The Light Shining”, all those early songs, the lyrics I wrote were about standing up for your rights and being strong, never giving up, never surrendering… All of that was based on the early Thatcher years when she destroyed the North of England and South Wales. But they are all songs of hope – stand up, stick together, be strong, get through it – they’re all based on that mentality really. And we were having massive success in the early Eighties when all this was happening so we were very lucky really. To my mind, the country was going down the pan and all we – the people – had was music, and I think a lot of people got into Motörhead and Saxon and Iron Maiden and Def Leppard because it was a release from real life.

I think back then that people did think that music was a way to get off the dole queue. A lot of music came out of the industrial Midlands and North, a lot of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal came from those regions. But I don’t think it’s the ‘industrial towns’ thing; I just think that a lot of young people were into music and rebelled – rebelled against everything through music because there was nothing else for them. And some of our popularity stems from that because we too were rebels in those days, rebellious against the police and every form of authority. We were just ‘fuck you’ basically. Going to the Dole Office to sign on for unemployment benefit used to be horrendous. They’d have a concert poster or flyer there and when we went to sign on they’d say, ‘oh, I see you played last night. How much did you make?’

‘About a quid each.’

‘No, you didn’t. You’re lying. How much did you get paid?’

So we’d go, ‘OK, stick your money up your arse then’ and walk out. People thought we were sponging off the state but we weren’t actually – we did try but they wouldn’t give us anything! So it was quite a sacrifice. Now it’s much easier; in the digital world it’s easier to access music and to record, and there are more outlets at school and college for music. It’s also seen as a massive export too and a legitimate profession to be a musician. But in those days it was horrendous. You were considered to be an absolute bum and a drop-out hippy, which was awful because we hated hippies. When punk came along we liked it because it was aggressive rock music against the system, and we were against the system as well, we just weren’t fashionable at the time (and didn’t like being spat at). We hated the police because we saw them as an extension of Thatcher. And that was the environment we were in and the backdrop we became successful against. We were lucky; for many people it was a horrendous time.

It is always worth remembering what heavy metal was to the working class back in an era when the working class didn’t have much hope, and moreover when they kept being told by the same people robbing them of hope that they had never had it better. Ronnie James Dio had it right: heavy metal is a distorted form of music because it reflects the social distortion around it. It isn’t brainless the way so much pop is brainless, and it isn’t glib and hypocritical the way mainstream rock-and-roll has pretty much always been.

EDIT: It strikes me that I would be highly remiss if I didn’t include this!

18 November 2012

Clear-sighted no more?

In a land which used to contain the Frankish-ruled Principality of Antioch and County of Tripoli, allied with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (with said Franks then having fought to defend the rights of Christians in said land), the Church’s wayward first daughter is now regrettably supporting the ‘Free Syrian Army’, which is none of the above and whose battle-cry has long been ‘Christians to Beirut and Alawites into the sea’, as the sole legitimate voice of the Syrian people against their president Bashar al-Assad, and now more clearly than ever taking the wrong side in a civil war in which it had little business to begin with – right alongside such leading lights of human rights and religious tolerance in the Middle East as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Lovely.

One of GK Chesterton’s more remarkable journalistic insights was that, as outright brutal as imperialism may be in other countries, the more troubling and insidious aspect of imperialism is the effect it has on the people within the empire. In Tremendous Trifles, he recounted a conversation with two Belgians of his passing acquaintance, a country which, though they were members of a country in which speakers of one language neither understood nor respected the speakers of the other, still aspired to imperial glory and all the trappings of a modern, European state. Chesterton noted that the humanistic optimism of the bearded Little Belgian (meant in the same way he would speak of a Little Englander) and the hubristic grand sweeps of the bewhiskered Belgian Imperialist, were both quintessentially French, though in different ways. To the one, an intellectual notion of human justice must triumph, and to the other, education and science must transcend all the boundaries of humanity, including religion and death (and the enlightened European must force himself upon the ‘savage’ who still holds to religion). Though the Little Belgian and the Belgian Imperialist discussed humanity in such broad, sweeping terms, Chesterton juxtaposes their conversation with a vignette in which he loses his way in the Belgian countryside, only to have the way pointed out to him by a Flemish farming family which cannot speak any English or French. It is here he finds the greater expression of Humanity-with-a-capital-‘H’. Imperialism has a similar destructive effect in America – we who, while aspiring to this abstract ideal of Freedom-with-a-capital-‘F’ for ourselves, tend to see no inherent problem in trammeling freedoms in the concrete down for everyone else in the process.

The truly disheartening thing is this. Chesterton still very deeply respected the French for being clear-minded about what it is they speak. It was the case, so he said (also in Tremendous Trifles), that in France Catholicism was attacked for being Catholic and defended for being Catholic; in France Republicanism was attacked for being republican and defended for being republican – he juxtaposed this unfavourably with the state of England, where the experts on poverty were all amongst the elite, and where the experts on democracy were all in the House of Lords. Is that true anymore (in France)? Why should President Hollande claim that the Free Syrian Army – which, I must again note, is not an army, not Syrian, and certainly does not seek freedom for anyone who is not a Sunni – is the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people’? In the spirit of democratic self-determination, should it not be perhaps considered – if I may be so bold – that the Syrian people might make that call? Perhaps a group in which both Syrian Christians and Shiites are not only adequately represented, but also protected? Even William Hague seemingly felt that this announcement by Hollande was more than a bit presumptuous.

Let us hope that Chesterton was ultimately right about the French penchant for taking things as they are – and further, that they continue in their role as the first daughter of the Church in their support of the truly downtrodden, both in Syria and elsewhere.

EDIT: I wrote this article on the 17th, when my VPN was still AWOL. Since then, France has been joined in their folly, unsurprisingly by the likes of Albania and Egypt, but more unfortunately by Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

12 November 2012

Islam, foreign policy and useful idiocy

Ali ibn Abi Tahib, looking particularly badass

The election season is finally over, with a result which turned out to be not quite the clincher I expected; President Obama won handily, and with him came a government which is capable of entertaining multiple views, including the mix of social conservatism and economic populism which I favour (though this is not likely to be the reigning philosophy of the Obama Administration, at the very least the conservative Democratic voice will not go unheard). In his recent address he noted, with more than hints of the liberal internationalism that we should generally come to expect from his foreign policy, that in distant lands people were still risking their lives in order to argue about substantive policy issues (or at least pretend to do so in incredibly extravagant and intolerably lengthy shows of orchestrated posturing every bit as fake and emotionally manipulative as pro-wrestling, the way we do). This certainly is true, but the big question to be asked is who exactly these people are and what the substantive expressions of that argument will end up being. The nations most closely affected by the Arab Spring were doubtless at the forefront of his mind when he said this – it remains a reasonable question what course of action the newly-elected governments and coups which have taken place in the region will set their countries on. Of course, the role of religion vis-à-vis the state will be, there as much as here if not more so, a most prominent issue. Islam – in various forms – will be the religion in question.

I have not talked much about Islam on this blog, partly because there are those who are infinitely more qualified to do so than I am – Naj at Neoresistance, for one. But the more I read about Islam in its public expressions, the more complicated the picture of it appears to be – unlike those who read about Islam only to find things about it to hate and revile (people like Pamela Gellar, Geert Wilders, Bruce Bawer, Robert Spencer, Anders Behring Breivik and so forth), I recognise a multifaceted religion when I see it.

There is an Islam which produces magnificent and beautiful works of art; and an Islam which demolishes them. There is an Islam which promotes good scholarship, careful study and critical thinking; and an Islam which eschews all three. There is an Islam which speaks and appeals to women; and an Islam that silences them. There is an Islam which preaches justice to God’s poor and needy; and an Islam which plays power politics at their expense. Generally, there is a lot to admire in Islam: their hard-nosed stance against usury – something which much of Christianity, to its detriment, has lost; their emphasis on daily devotion and practice as a central component of faith; their requirement that faithful believers donate a small portion of their income (zakat) directly to the poor. The cultural achievements of near Eastern countries like Iraq and Iran are practically unparalleled anywhere in the world. But then I look at places like Syria and Libya, like East Turkestan and Albania and Yugoslavia, like Russia and Pakistan – and I think: is this the same religion?

Much ink has been spilt over the past eleven years on the topic of how to analyse the Islamic world and faith. Among the most useful analyses has been the discussion by Amitai Etzioni of the distinction between the ‘warriors’ and the ‘prayers’ – and the need to recognise that the illiberal moderates amongst the Muslim faithful are not the West’s enemies, even though they do not share the liberal values of the modern West. This is a very helpful distinction, and I think it does a good job of sketching the outline of an explanation for the appeal Islam is having in a postmodernist, post-secular world. Dr Etzioni is a sociologist, however, and is thus interested primarily in behaviours.

There is also a theological distinction to make, though, which is related. It strikes me that there have always been these two Islams: even the Shia-Sunni split was characterised by a conflict between those who sought a social-justice interpretation of the teachings of the Prophet, and those who sought a power-political interpretation. The followers of Ali (shi’at Ali) were insistent upon an Islam whose primary job was to care for the sick and the lost, and Ali himself gained a very large following amongst the Muslim lower classes. Ultimately, Ali was assassinated by his political rivals, and his son Husayn was killed and mutilated by his militarily-superior rivals when he revolted at Karbala… but that a righteous king would return in the form of the Mahdi to end all forms of oppression and usher in a reign of peace and equality. The Shiite tradition combined with the social-justice, righteous kingship and scholastic traditions of Zoroastrianism in Iran to create a highly-cultured and -scholastic, but at the same time egalitarian-trending theological tradition which has lasted in that nation to this day – and whose colourful history includes the Zanj Rebellion against the Abbasids, the Qarmatians and the Iranian democratic and nationalist movements.

In truth, of course, the distinction is nowhere near so cut-and-dried as all that. Within the Sunni tradition, too, there certainly are a solid majority which are justice-oriented, scholastic and peaceable. But it seems worthy of note that the very strains of revivalist, fundamentalist Sunni Islam (the Salafis most notably) which promote political violence as the preferred means of getting what they want, are the same ones which are most willing to cooperate with the geopolitical aims of the United States when it suits them – playing by the rules of power politics, rather than by the principles of their religion. This was the case in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. And in the erstwhile Yugoslavia in the 1990’s – not to mention in Russia and in China. Then in Iraq with the fundamentalist Sunni insurgents bought off in 2007 to save the face of Bush 43; then what would go on to become the genocidal NTC in Libya; now the ‘Free Syrian Army’, which is none of the above.

Of course, the question will be asked as it always is: ‘which is the true Islam’? Well, if Islam means ‘submission’, then it is a question of whether one submits to the will of the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus – you know, the one who sent all those prophets to tell off his chosen people for abusing the poor, and who sent his only begotten Son to minister to the indebted, the unclean, the sick and the socially-outcast – or whether one submits to the will of the modern-day equivalent of Babylon.

So far, that fundamentalist strain isn’t looking too hot, when it comes to following their Prophet’s dictates about whom to worship, and how, and why.

On the other hand, the forms of Islam which keep open seats at the table (often literally, in the cases of Lebanon, Syria and Iran) for their brothers and sisters in Abraham; those which still preach public ownership of common goods; those which still value the practice of charity and justice over political dominance; these forms do a better job of keeping the common spirit of the People of the Book. However, both the fundamentalist Sunnis who always show up to fight neoconservative wars, and the Islamophobes who repeatedly show up at the ballot box to vote for neoconservative candidates both in the United States and Europe, consistently demonstrate their useful idiocy to that same movement: a Trotskyist tendency which may have gleefully abandoned its former concern for the global working poor, but which has not abandoned its former tactics and tricks.