30 January 2012

Blessed Charles, martyr for God and his Church, pray with us

This day, three hundred and sixty-three years past, was a dark day in English history – the regicide and martyrdom, at the hands of an illegal and unconstitutional kangaroo court, of King Charles I, the only person ever to be sainted by the Church of England. King Charles made a number of enemies in his support for such clergymen as Richard Montagu, who attacked the anti-humanist doctrinal excesses of the non-Conformists of his time (including the ideas that the mass of humanity was predestined for eternal torment whilst only a select few were assured places in heaven), as well as William Laud, who was a persistent and outspoken advocate on behalf of the legal and economic rights of tenant and smallholding farmers, against the arrogant and inhumane practice of enclosure. Though his enemies attacked King Charles as an overbearing absolutist, the point should be made very clearly that each of his actions – including the invocation of the feudal privileges of the monarch to the service and financial support of the landed classes – was very much in line with the constitutional balance between the rights of Parliament and the privileges of the monarch. Indeed, when Charles was defeated and dragged before the ‘court’ which ultimately took his life, his own defence was perfectly aligned with the principles of constitutional government, as David Lindsay notes here:

But didn’t Charles I believe in the Divine Right of Kings? No, he did not. Or at least he certainly expressed no such view at his grotesque “trial” pursuant to a Bill of Attainder, and before 80 of his carefully selected parliamentary and military enemies under a second-rate lawyer, John Bradshaw, created “Lord President” because all the proper judges had fled London rather than have anything to do with the wretched proceedings.

There, Charles declared repeatedly that, by denying the authority of the “court” to try him, he was simply upholding the law as it then existed, including the liberties of the English people and the parliamentary institutions of the English State. No law permitted the trial of the monarch, he argued. On the contrary, the law of treason then in force provided for exactly the opposite, namely that any attack on the monarch’s person was itself an offence. Simply as a matter of fact, he was right.

And the subsequent behaviour of the Cromwellian regime fully vindicated him.

And this pattern has held true for many a regime which followed. The ideological heirs of the roundhead landlords and merchants who ended up executing the sainted king – these Parliamentarians who would not put up with a king who exercised his traditional prerogatives to marry a faithful Catholic wife, to appoint sensible bishops and to tax the wealthy, but who welcomed an unbridled dictator in his stead – did not express any qualms about upholding oppressive and dictatorial regimes in Africa or Latin America or Asia, so long as those regimes posed no threat to their continued economic and political hegemony. King Charles I as a saint of the English Church could very well be the patron in Heaven of such constitutionally legitimate leaders as Mohammad Mosaddegh and Salvador Allende, and of such faithful reformers as have had to struggle against the dictatorial regimes which replaced them, without partaking of the militarist and materialist ideology which painted itself as the only alternative.

Blessed Charles, please continue to pray for us now.

28 January 2012

WaPo: Chinese liberals fail history

In a small village in Switzerland which serves as host to an organisation dedicated solely to the interests of the increasingly detached (in every possible sense of the word) global financial and economic elites, the Chinese ‘reform’ clique present (including Hu Shuli and Xu Xiaonian) expressed some very… shall we say naïve views of the history of the nation a ways north of them, as well as of their own. They attempted to paint their regime as inherently violent and unstable by casting the roots of their government back to… Otto von Bismarck.

Yes, you read that right. The very same Otto who under his chancellorship dedicated himself to picking up the pieces of the Concert of Europe which had been scattered in the revolutions of 1848 (and as a result gave Europe 20 years of peace), even to the point of his being hounded out of office by a militarist young Kaiser Wilhelm II; the very same Otto who devoted himself to building a social order which could resist both the extremes of laisser-faire economic liberalism and totalitarian communism (and made enemies of the partizans of both ideologies); the very same Otto who, in the effort to do so, built up a very enviable welfare state and an increasingly prosperous Germany in the attempt to bridge class strife and contain the extremes of German and Slavic hypernationalism. Okay, perhaps there are quite a few parallels to be made here, but the Chinese liberals here are engaging in some very specious history in order to advance their own questionable ideology at home.

State capitalism is not something new. When Bismarck invented this idea in 1870 it gave Germany impressive performance over the main superpower of the time, Great Britain… But 20 years later, it was the First World War.

That’s right, Xu Xiaonian apparently blames Otto von Bismarck for the First World War, in spite of the fact that the First World War was the direct result of the ‘badly brought-up boy’ responsible for von Bismarck’s resignation disregarding practically all of the careful, measured foreign policy advice given to him by von Bismarck and treading on various British and Russian toes in the process. Oh, and some South Slavic assassin might have had something to do with it, too. But that’s actually small potatoes to what comes before it.

Bismarck as the inventor of state capitalism? And what was that East India Company whatsit that the British were on about, eh? A capital venture chartered by said superpower, I believe, in 1599, and which was administered directly by the British government after the passage of the Regulating Act of 1773. And this doesn’t count as state capitalism… how, again? But let’s not mind that, let’s move on to this notion that Bismarck had ‘invented’ an ‘idea’ that had already been fully put into practice and had already met with astounding success a hundred years before he assumed the Chancellorship. What did Bismarck have to do with this idea? Oh, that’s right, he erected tariffs to help shelter domestic industries in the wake of a huge stock-market crash in Vienna. Even worse, he created the first welfare, pension and universal health care systems in Europe. And Heaven forbid that we should associate this terrible, terrible concept of ‘state capitalism’ with that Anglo-American golden age of imperialism colonial rapine free trade that brought us John Locke and Adam Smith! No, no, we must associate it with those evil protectionist Germans with their welfare laws, led by the big scary Hun with the big scary moustache. And then, the inevitable invocation of Almighty Godwin:

Even Nazism was a form of state capitalism, and what the Third Reich brought to the world we all know.

Because remember children, erecting tariffs to protect fledgling and vulnerable industries and providing a safety net for workers and retirees is every bit as bad as rounding millions of Jews into death camps, gassing them and tossing them into ovens. And anyone who tells you otherwise is a commie and a fascist. It’s amazing how much sheer Goldberg-style wingnuttery a Chinese econ professor can pack into just three lines of speech; and the fact that his audience was apparently receptive to such rubbish does not speak well either of their collective intelligence or their honesty.

Now, let me be clear. State capitalism - actual state capitalism, with government providing shelter to big rentier corporations and dominating the economic playing field with anti-competitive regulatory measures - is not an admirable thing. That the People’s Republic of China is still, to a great extent, a state-capitalist society is beyond question; but the comparisons with Bismarck’s Germany are facile at best. There is no safety net for labour in China: no welfare, no pensions, no public health care plan, no legal unions outside the state-run one. Such apparently trivial matters are clearly the last thing on these self-styled reformers’ minds, except insofar as such pesky measures might mean raising the tax rates on the sorts of people they represent (those who might take holidays in Davos, for example). And China’s economic protections are of a most peculiar sort: they have been somewhat (and understandably) wary of unhindered foreign direct investment over the past fifteen years or so, but their development model does not appear averse to manufacturing for foreign-owned industries as eagerly as they manufacture for domestic ones. In the terms of geopolitics and foreign relations, some Chinese intellectuals may have a fascination with Bismarck and may even fancy themselves as taking his queues, but this is a case study in how every analogy has its limitations.

26 January 2012

Whose universe? Which values?

Apologies to Alasdair MacIntyre for the title of this post; though I hope he would agree to at least some of the content. This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a long while, and I hope it goes some way toward further elucidating my position, which is inspired partly by Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh and by Anglican theologian John Milbank, and partly by the longer ‘minority-report’ tradition of Tory democracy in Europe, which I believe shares a distinctly common element with trends in Chinese neo-leftism and Confucian palaeo-conservatism.

In 2008, deliberately following in the footsteps of the 1977 group of Czechs and Slovaks who authored a tract opposing communism in Europe, a group of Chinese liberal intellectuals authored the document Charter 08. The foreword of the document begins as follows (translation in English, courtesy the New York Review of Books):

2008… marks the sixtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the thirtieth anniversary of the appearance of the Democracy Wall in Beijing, and the tenth of China’s signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student protesters. The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.

The authors then go on to articulate their vision of the society they want, which includes most if not all of the guarantees of the American system of government: procedural democracy; separation of powers; separation of church and state; privatisation of all state-owned property and enterprise; a free-market economy – in short, a liberal, democratic nation-state. The reaction of the Chinese government to this document was immediate, and it was harsh – a number of its authors were tried and gaoled, the most (in)famous of these being Liu Xiaobo. In the wake of this charter, the term ‘universal values’ has been greeted with suspicion by most Chinese nationalists as a vehicle of Western neocolonialism.

It appears to me that the issue suffers from fundamental misframing. Seriously, who doesn’t like ‘freedom, equality and human rights’? These are values for which, once upon a time, the Chinese Communist Party also fought (and are still proud of so doing!). These are the values which inspired all the great social movements in the Third World (and in the First and Second as well) which have blunted the forces of political and economic domination time and again. But even as they are articulated, they are at once coopted by those very same forces of political and economic domination, whose vehicle for the past four centuries has almost invariably been the liberal, democratic nation-state (or something attempting to disguise itself as one, in the grand tradition of the French Revolution). Both the Indians inspired by Gandhi and Badshah Khan, and their British occupiers, lay claim to these ‘universal values’. Both the Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh and their French oppressors lay claim to them. Civil rights leaders in the United States and their opponents both cited these values in their own causes in the 1960’s. How can these ‘universal values’ be at war with each other so often, even within the same communities?

The fundamental mistake of Liu Xiaobo and those like him is to see an American-style liberal nation-state, divorced from any positive concept of the common good (and from any transcendental normative end of human endeavour from which the common good must flow), as the be-all end-all solution to China’s problems. But (just as China’s current regime must trace its philosophical pedigree back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and all the problems that came with his philosophy) the liberal nation-state must trace its own back to John Locke, to Thomas Hobbes, to Niccolò Machiavelli – the apostles of greed and naked power. The liberal nation-state is designed as a kind of civilised battlefield, upon which competing, individual values vie amongst themselves in a ‘marketplace’, supervised by the watchful eye of a neutral government with a monopoly on force. All value-claims are equally valid, collapsed downward into mere material interests, and all are equally subordinate to the value-neutral brute force of the government (which constrains itself from making any kind of value-claim). All society takes place through a ‘contract’ between individuals with co-incidental (rather than co-operative, or based on common family or common locality or common vocation) value-claims; a ‘contract’ which (even in Locke’s version) inevitably collapses upwards into the nation-state. Civil society – the parish church, the university, the labour union, the town hall – all are proscribed by the central authority of the nation-state through its legal system, overriding traditional privileges and customs; whether liberal or authoritarian, the difference is a matter of degree than a matter of kind.

The ‘universal values’ advocated by Charter 08 are really neither universal, nor are they really actually values. They are code for the nonregulation through the threat of violence of very particular values, values which cannot (in the Hobbesian-Lockean perspective) be reconciled with each other. And the more universal a value-system claims to be, the less a liberal-democratic order will tolerate it, and the more violent and restrictive the action of the liberal state and its champions will take in response. One need only make reference to the incredibly violent secular nationalism of the likes of Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens (as Dr Cavanaugh does here) against any form of public religious expression, the enthusiasm for ever-more-dubious American military interventions on the part of the late Václav Havel (architect of Charter 77), or indeed, the unapologetic pro-Bush neoconservatism and anti-Islamic bigotry of Liu Xiaobo, which all too many Western liberals either gloss over or wilfully ignore (but which have been duly noted by both palaeoconservatives like Daniel Larison and anti-Trotskyist leftists like Tariq Ali).

But what makes China such an intriguing case, is that it is even now searching for exactly such a concept of the common good and a transcendental normative end of its endeavours. Communism’s promises showed themselves to be empty. The promises of post-Deng crony capitalism, and the social and moral decay which accompanied them, are likewise showing themselves to be empty. The promise of economic and financial laisser-faire under a technocratic state apparatus has shown itself around the world to be empty. Many amongst China’s down-but-not-out intellectual class will not be satisfied with such a solution, and are looking for a positive moral direction – and the wiser ones amongst them are taking creative hints (knowingly or not) from Duke Dan of Zhou, from Confucius, from Mencius, from Zhu Xi. This older, humanist virtue-ethical tradition, a product of the Axial Age notable for its similarities with the traditions of Zoroaster, of Socrates and Plato, of the Hebrew prophets, and later of kerygmatic and classical Christianity, may not yet be lost as new generations of Chinese students are exposed to them. What came to be called Confucianism did indeed touch upon universal human values: the inherent dignity of human life (and its need for sustenance); the belonging of human beings to communities beyond place, blood and economic interests; the pursuit of transcendental truth rather than worldly power or gain.

What results from the political application of this tradition, if and when it is rediscovered, may indeed be a democracy – indeed, it is my hope that it retains some democratic properties, such as a radicalisation of Confucian virtue that extends to women and to the poor. But, if so, it will be a democratic model which, rather than wilfully repeating the mistakes of the late-capitalist West, might provide a peaceable, proportionally equitable and virtuous countervailing model and example by which Western culture may correct itself. Even Chinese nationalists needn’t fear the language of ‘universal values’, if they only learn to look for them in the right places.

25 January 2012

Kong Qingdong has a point… of sorts

This news is about a week old now, but Confucius’ much-put-upon seventy-third generation descendant, Professor Kong Qingdong, actually does have a bit of a valid point about Hong Kong – if you’re willing to look past his habitual foul-mouthing and the rather incendiary way in which he made it. I have struggled very much with the notion of nationhood, and whether or not it can be healthy; partially due to the teachings of Professor Kong’s illustrious ancestor, who (though now a notable symbol of Chinese nationhood) nonetheless insisted that his ethics and his teachings could be easily understood and practised by non-Chinese. To be honest, I was also incensed by the behaviour of the Hongkonger on this train as he basically called the law down on what appears to be a seven-year-old child for eating instant noodles on a train. (I happen to think, as well, that what Dr Kong said was completely correct – if that seven-year-old had been a Hongkonger rather than a mainlander, the response would have been drastically different, if a response would have been made at all.)

A healthy expression of nationhood is a shared expression of values and of the Good; it makes reference to the common aspirations of a community. At the very moment where nationhood is reduced to a sense of superiority for having a specific lineage or mother tongue, that nationhood becomes destructive – and it appears to be the case that, for many of the areas of the world that have been subject to British colonial rule, this reductionist and violent form of nationalism is all too common, encouraged by administrations which were interested only in extracting resources rather than in defending and developing communities. It is an incredibly sad consequence of imperialism that it has shaped Hong Kong identity in this way: as GK Chesterton put it, ‘Being a nation means standing up to your equals, whereas being an empire only means kicking your inferiors.’ And apparently, in the eyes of still a few Hongkongers, mainland Chinese are inferiors deserving only of the force of their boots. Overcoming prejudices such as these is a key part of the long, hard work of undoing the legacy of the Opium Wars and British colonialism in China. One can certainly make the claim that Dr Kong’s televised rant about Hongkonger ‘dogs’ (and his reference to the decidedly anti-Confucian author Lu Xun in making such a statement) was counterproductive to this goal, but one cannot rightly dispute his analysis of the cause.

This is not, of course, the sort of discussion that the news media, either in Hong Kong, in the West or in mainland China, want to have. Recriminations sell better.

24 January 2012

A rousing (High Tory, Catholic) defence of the welfare state

The writing of Mr David Lindsay keeps getting better and better (or perhaps it was always this good!); this post was completely on-the-mark:

“With this sword do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect the holy Church of God, help and defend widows and orphans, restore the things that are gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform what is amiss and confirm what is in good order.”

So says the Archbishop of Canterbury as he hands the Sword of State to the monarch.

Shaftesbury and Wilberforce used the full force of the State to stamp out abuses of the poor at home and slavery abroad, both of which are now well on the way back in this secularised age. Victorian Nonconformists used the Liberal Party to fight against opium dens and the compelling of people to work seven-day weeks, both of which have now returned in full. Temperance Methodists built the Labour Party in order to counteract brutal capitalism precisely so as to prevent a Marxist revolution, whereas the coherence of the former with the cultural aspects of the latter now reigns supreme. But not in the House of Lords. Long may it remain.

As in most European countries, and as in anywhere having the British monarch at the Head, our State is in and of itself an institutional expression of Christianity, whether or not there is an Established Church. Therefore, our Welfare State and other social democratic measures, as in those other countries, are in and of themselves expression of Christian charity and of the Biblical, Patristic, Medieval, Catholic and classically Protestant understandings of society as an organic whole.

American critics of the Welfare State as secular and secularising are not only rather ahistorical in their own terms and somewhat out of touch with the profound Christianity of rural, working-class and black America. They are also captive to the theory of the constitutional separation of Church and State, which has nothing to do with Britain any more than with, say, Germany with her church taxes and her Kirchentag, or Italy with her Crucifixes in the courtroom and the classroom. The solution is not to remove the expressions of Christian charity and of the Christian concepts of organic society from the American civic order, but to remove the American civic order’s formal repudiation of their basis.

What we have seen in today’s nominally conservative media has been what we also saw when the neoconservative wars were most enthusiastically promoted by media moguls who, far from being conservative figures, were somehow all and yet none of Australian, American and British, or somehow all and yet none of Canadian, American and British. Those media have been the prime movers in turning first New Labour, and then also its imitators who have taken over the Conservative Party, into what most of Britain’s supposedly conservative newspapers have long been: more loyal to the United States and to the State of Israel than to the United Kingdom.

A position as unconservative and as far removed from Labourism as it is possible to imagine, and without parallel in any comparable country, if in any country at all. In short, wannabe Americanism, and an abstract America at that, not the really existing country. The sort of thing that the Founding Fathers had in mind, “free” from Christendom and therefore from the principles that begat social democracy in the industrial and post-industrial age.

The bishops did not persuade the House of Lords that there should be no cap whatever on a household's benefit entitlement, but only that it should not include Child Benefit. The universal payment of Child Benefit to mothers is a very strong argument for the restoration of the tax allowance for fathers, and with it for the whole series of measures necessary for the State to do its Christian duty of securing paternal authority, including the economic basis of that authority in high-wage, high-skilled, high-status employment.

And Child Benefit is one of the means whereby the State acknowledges that the procreation of human life is a good in and of itself, in obedience to the first commandment of God to Man in Scripture. Our civilisation, including its social democracy, was built and can only be sustained on that very high, Biblical view of human demographic, economic and cultural expansion and development. We must understand climate change in that light: over thousands of years, our species has demonstrated its God-given capacity to meet environmental challenges and to overcome environmental obstacles. We have to retain our full confidence in that capacity. One small way of doing so is by retaining universal Child Benefit while not counting it towards any - in itself, necessary - cap on entitlement.

It is true that the welfare state and the labour movements owe their very existences to Christian social movements, going back even to the anti-enclosures movement spearheaded by Archbishop William Laud and what would later become the High Church. Even here, Social Security and many other elements of the New Deal would have been dead on arrival without the support activism of various religious social democrats. We are not - yet - an out-and-out laicist state the way France or Turkey have been in the past; but, for the sake of even the trappings of the social safety net so many of us have come to take for granted, we must ensure that the genuine concerns of the (still largely Christian, increasingly Catholic) working class continue to play a prominent role in our political discourse - and not get muscled out entirely by secular and neoliberal forces.

22 January 2012

Happy New Year! 新年快樂!

Well, I already missed the Western one on this blog, so I’m not about to let the Chinese one pass me by. Already got to watch the New Year’s show put on by the Pitt CSSA, which was as entertaining as ever! So to all my Chinese-speaking friends, 萬事如意,大吉大利, and to all my English-speaking friends, I wish you much happiness and health in the coming year! And also:

It just isn’t a good Chinese New Year without some Mo Yi. Happy music for a happy new year.

19 January 2012

Busy day yesterday…

… in spite of that Internet blackout. In this case, I agree wholeheartedly with the cause inspiring this ‘Internet strike’: intellectual property protections at this point in history are utterly ridiculous in their extent, and at this point, they serve only the interests of huge corporations, particularly Hollywood and the big record labels. It is sad that our elected officials are willing, in their rush to make obsequies to (in particular) the entertainment industry, to make such huge sacrifices of transparency and public access to very needful information. Crooked Timber’s John Quiggin has some decent commentary some of the underlying issues at stake in all the Protect IP and Stop Online Piracy fuss.

Elsewhere on the Internet, The European features a very useful interview with none other than Dr Etzioni. I swear, the more I read from the good sociologist, the more I find he has his head screwed on truly straight. I am not sure I agree with him on the way in which ‘humanitarianism’ or a philosophical romanticism are acceptable substitutes for religion qua religion, but I could not possibly agree more with his critique of consumerism (and the materialist assumptions underlying it) and his foci for an alternative mode of thinking which focuses more solidly upon the family, upon friends, upon artistic and aesthetic pursuits and upon the public life.

Along with a growing number of other public intellectuals these days (including some with whom I have disagreed more often, such as Fareed Zakaria), Dr Etzioni is tackling some of the thorniest problems with the modern question of liberalism. Here he addresses a very common criticism of communitarianism (to which the European very bluntly gives voice):

The European: The idea of community interests has often been invoked to justify repression and exclusion. The states with good human rights records tend to be states on the liberal end of the spectrum, the peaceful history of Europe since World War II is also the history of liberal governance.

Etzioni: Communities exist everywhere. It is mistaken to think that they only exist in Communist China or in the left-leaning democracies of Latin America. One complaint that my colleagues from economics departments have about German workers is that they don’t like to move. These economists see that capital has become more mobile and respond by saying that labor needs to become more mobile as well. It does not work that way. Workers like to remain close to their families, to the burial sites of their ancestors, to their friends. That is true across the world, not just in individual countries. In Southern Europe, the Catholic Church is an important provider of a sense of community and social services. In Berlin, Turkish communities provide similar services. These communal ties are not dead. They can be oppressive but there is nothing inherent to communities that puts them at odds with human rights.

To which I would add, a similar criticism may be made of those states which privilege not ‘community interests’ or values, but rather the ‘liberal governance’ and process above all else. True enough, the peaceful history of Europe since World War II is the history of liberal governance… but then, so was the history of Europe since 1848, leading straight into the nightmare of world war. In governance, it would be naïve to ignore the value-laden nature of political institutions or to anticipate outcomes, value-judgements and, indeed, community interests, which are either threatened (directly or indirectly) by liberal process or which seek to take advantage of the liberal process to produce violently illiberal outcomes. In Europe, the most visible example of this is the startling and disconcerting rise of various xenophobic and ultra-nationalist groups (exemplified by the likes of Geert Wilders and Anders Breivik), emboldened by increasingly tone-deaf and inhumane decisions out of Brussels and the public discontent which has followed from them. Indeed, community interests must be seriously considered and defended, and democracy requires a firm commitment to a core set of humanistic values, if it is going to survive in a sustainable form.

Indeed, this question may come to a head much sooner than we anticipate, if Neil Clark’s warning here is any indication. The incredibly process-oriented and economically- and politically-liberal (but decidedly undemocratic) European ‘Troika’ have been forcing incredibly unpopular fiscal policy on a number of EU member states, and it is looking very much like a critical mass of people are angry enough about it to take to the streets (as in Romania).

On a tangentially-related note, it is worth reading first Michael Hudson’s latest blog post (thanks, John!), in tandem with a recent Global Voices Online article ostensibly in support of sex-workers’ rights in China. Here we have a country in which a similar population-control policy was imposed, not by the World Bank, but by the central government – along with an unbalanced ‘opening and reform’ which integrated the country into the neoliberal global economy while uprooting tens of millions of farmers, mostly in the poorer provinces of the interior. As a result, we have a huge, disproportionally male and aging migrant worker population, many of whom have no social safety net whatever, and very few means of gaining one. Quite frankly, prostitution (legal or otherwise), at best, provides only superficial and palliative care to a group of men condemned by their society; at worst, it both obscures and obstructs a true solution to the problem, whilst at the same time exploiting and degrading the labour of the women who participate in the system. What the Chinese rural poor need (and in their history have routinely been denied) is not access to condoms or paid sexual gratification. Much less do they need mandates handed down to them, either by the World Bank or by their own government, artificially controlling their reproduction! What they need are opportunities for stable employment, for marriage and for having families with children (who, in countries like China without social security or a pension system, often represent the only possible means of their parents’ dignified existence in old age)!

It consistently boggles my mind that so many liberals (who, in addition, often like to pretend that prostitution can, in a capitalist economy, ever be a purely consensual – let alone joyful or healthy! – act without severe adverse social consequences) routinely consider the poor, and children, as a problem to be solved rather than as human beings with human needs and human dignity, and thus that these (quite frankly) deranged Malthusian fantasies continue to have such massive currency in the public discourse.

… Anyway. Just a snapshot of what I’ve been reading recently.

18 January 2012

Pointless video post – ‘Corporate Masters’ by Tad Morose

Tad Morose is one of those bands, like Rage, whose music simply ‘clicked’ with me on first listen (and to say they are criminally underrated would be an exercise in gratuitous understatement). They play an enthralling blend of old-school heavy metal with the melodic direction of the best of progressive power and neoclassical metal (and their ex-vocalist Urban Breed could certainly match Geoff Tate at his peak in terms of power, vocal range and emotion), but at the same time featuring a depth and a merciless driving rhythmic sensibility which seems to be lifted straight from the playbooks of Teutonic thrash metal. ‘Corporate Masters’ here is on the breezy, ‘happy’ side for Tad Morose (to the point where it almost seems out-of-place on Undead), a fairly ‘traditional’ power metal number, but I get the impression that such was a deliberate choice on the part of Christer Andersson et al. A remarkable song all the same – it would not be Tad Morose if it weren’t absolutely first-rate, though.

16 January 2012

Positive developments in Wukan?

Okay, so far the situation in Wukan has ended up much better than I expected it would. The paucity of reporting from Wukan and the social media crackdown inside China on any searches relating to the village worried me quite deeply; and I have seen first-hand that treatment of protesting villagers in land-expropriation cases in rural China is often a very far cry from gentle. But this (reported in the Asahi Shimbun), if it truly is the case, is an incredibly positive development for the village: the 65-year-old de facto leader of the protests, Lin Zuluan, was named village head by the CCP (though he has said he plans to step down at the soonest possible opportunity), and new village elections will be held. In addition, there is an ongoing investigation into wrongdoing by the previous village administration; we shall see if it turns up anything or if substantive action is taken by CCP higher-ups.

It is unlikely that this is indicative of any kind of substantial systemic change, but even small victories like this one are welcome.

Breaking the silence: understanding Dr King and nonviolence

A paper originally written in January 2008, when I was still at Kalamazoo College. I believe that much of it still bears true; though we are no longer at war in Iraq, we have since gone to war in Libya and are threatened with grim prospects in Syria and in Iran. Though my own views have since drifted a few degrees from their Anabaptist wellspring, I still believe that ‘the apathy of conformist thought’ remains the single greatest enemy of a just peace, and the single greatest asset of those who would condemn our nation to a state of perpetual war, and that saints and prophets are not to be taken lightly, particularly not in this day and age. It would be a profound disservice to Dr King’s memory if we remember only his comforting words of equality, so often quoted by the comfortable liberal establishment, and forget the more radical call in Beyond Vietnam to ‘rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society’, that the triple demons of racism, materialism and militarism may be the more swiftly vanquished.

It often seems that the common doom of the prophets of the Hebrew tradition – Moses, Nathan, Isaiah, Jeremiah – was that when they spoke, what they spoke was true and profound and relevant, but fell on sleeping ears which neglected them, scorned them or simply misunderstood them. Such prophets, in principle, were to be venerated, but in practise welcome for prophets was rare, and rarer still any kind of serious consideration for their message. Considering the Hebrew prophets, the resemblance the tale of Martin Luther King, Jr. bears to them is striking. Every American schoolchild hears of the accomplishments of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement and how they led the way to the end of racial segregation in law. They learn to honour him as a great man, even a martyred saint of sorts – a man with a dream, which in the end was realised.

But one problem with making Dr. King into such a saint is that it becomes all too easy to turn his veneration into a kind of pious somniloquy, to slip back into the slumber and apathetic silence which Dr. King had been trying to break. His iconic image has become complacent in its beatitude; the radical edge of his message of non-violent civil struggle has been dulled. The anxiety of Søren Kierkegaard that his work would ‘be conveniently skimmed during the after-dinner nap’ is difficult not to feel now on King’s behalf, especially during this season, when his name and legacy is certain to be preached in hagiographic reverence from pulpits whose voices will then shy away from speaking out against the war in Iraq and all the grievous social injustices accompanying it.

As an Anabaptist, I feel that the methods and philosophy of non-violence, as taught by Christ, Menno Simons, Ghaffar Khan, Gandhi, King and many others, are both invaluable and viable; I try my best to understand them, to articulate them and to live them. Though I have not experienced the discrimination and persecution and hardships that Dr. King and those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement faced, I have often been disappointed and frustrated at how often and how sorely non-violence is misunderstood, even among my peers. It is rarely met with contempt; more often it meets with infuriatingly patronising forbearance, of the sort reserved for mistaken idealists and hopeless daydreamers. It is largely dismissed as a nice dream, but one which could never work in ‘the real world’.

Upon reading Dr. King’s sermons, however, it becomes clear rather quickly that he may have had a dream, but the man was no idle dreamer. Having lived through economic and racial injustice and having seen the anger and resentment that it bred, he set forth a vision from which he expected true and lasting results. He realised that it wasn’t enough that we simply end a war overseas, but that we must take it on ourselves to build a peace, we ‘must with positive action seek to remove… conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice’. To this end, he articulated not the kind of love that is just a nice dream, just a ‘sentimental and weak response’, but the kind of love that demands dedication to a ‘long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world’ , the kind of love which understands and undertakes, in the words of G. W. F. Hegel, ‘seriousness, pain, and the patience and work of the negative’.

The radical love that Martin Luther King, Jr. made a part of his life and a part of his ministry, the love that transcends sentiment, can be neither silent nor somniloquent. If we decide (as a community and as individuals) that we want to represent social justice and human dignity, that we want this kind of love to be made manifest in our words and in our actions, silence – not speaking when something has to be said – is self-betrayal. For my own part, this means that mere pacifism is not enough. The kind of pacifism that sleeps through peace-time, only to awaken itself to outrage when war’s trumpets shatter that slumber, betrays itself. Wars like these in Vietnam and Iraq may spring from inflamed injustices and inequalities, whether real or perceived, but in democratic societies they thrive on ‘the apathy of conformist thought’. Any pacifism that sinks into such apathetic, conformist quietude, which opposes war but does nothing to prevent it, must be seen as ultimately self-defeating. Truly, in the spirit of Dr. King, we must and we shall continue in our principled opposition to this war in Iraq, which has been the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths, and which has blinded the society to other urgent issues of social and economic justice. However, if pacifists – myself and my fellow Anabaptists included – truly value a lasting peace as a positive end, out of moral respect for human life and dignity, then it becomes an imperative that we practise not merely pacifism, but an actual, effective discipline of non-violence in the service of social justice, even in times when war is not occupying our attention.

Indeed, like the Hebrew prophets of antiquity, Dr. King spoke a prescient, profound message which still rings true. This truth, in his message of non-violence, deserves to be taken seriously and understood, at a level deeper than simple sentiment. Here we are, forty years after he delivered the sermon at Riverside Church in New York. In this time of war, we again wander the Mosaic wilderness of our own social conscience. The time has come when we must ask ourselves whether we undertake the seriousness and pain, whether we with patience and work take up the struggle for social justice, and speak for a peace that will last. As Dr. King himself put it: ‘This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response.’

On culture (and those laying claim to it)

Three months ago, President Hu Jintao of the PRC wrote an article in the periodical of the Chinese Communist Party, Qiushi, regarding China’s culture and its status on the international stage. He seemed to be under the distinct impression that ‘hostile foreign powers’ are attempting to lay siege to Chinese culture, to undermine it and to Westernise it, dividing China against itself, by ‘conduct[ing] long-term infiltration’ in the ‘ideological and cultural sphere’. More recently, several responses have been made to Mr Hu’s article, including one by Sam Crane of The Useless Tree, one by Charles Custer of ChinaGeeks. These responses do make some decent points, but the larger issues are somewhat evaded. What is culture? What is driving its change? To answer these two questions is to pose two further: who produces it and who benefits from it?

Sam Crane’s argument goes straight down the liberal-libertarian line of folks like Hayek and Friedman (and yeah, let me tell you… when I think ‘culture’, first thing that comes to mind is the economics department at the University of Chicago): culture is ever-changing, a market-driven artefact of the creative individual, and anything a government does can only serve to stifle and disrupt its creation. I am sure this would come as news to the beneficiaries of the National Endowment for the Arts, among other people, but I get ahead of myself. Sam Crane identifies ‘culture’ only with its reified products – in this case, rock-and-roll music – and its worth only with the popularity or economic success of those products. This is, to say the least, an incredibly narrow view which does skirts around the fears of folks like Hu Jintao and Rick Santorum rather than addressing them head-on, and does no justice whatever to his own side of the argument.

After all, culture is not just our consumption habits. At least, for me it isn’t – and I say this as a metalhead and a fan of Renaissance and Baroque church music (not as contradictory a set of tastes as one might imagine). If heavy metal as a genre were to sink or swim according to its popularity and economic success, it would have died in the ‘90’s and been replaced by grunge or whatever the hell Metallica turned into with the Black Album. But it didn’t die. People were drawn to the music on a deeper level; its artists played it and its fans listened to it for love, not because they wanted to get rich or because they wanted to be seen as ‘in’ (and if they did, they were very quickly outed as poseurs). There is a healthy culture (a ‘subculture’, one might say) surrounding heavy metal, because there is a real community surrounding the music, there are real values (loyalty, fraternity, steadfastness, defiance to the bitter end, overcoming even overwhelming adversity) associated with the music, and there is a musical history which each metalhead is bound to respect or at least acknowledge. Is this culture ‘driven by creativity’? Naturally it is. Does it ‘change’? Sure. But such a glib description of culture does it a vast disservice, because (to continue with my previous example) it is possible to distinguish good heavy metal from corporate shit – and such judgements are not just the domain of ‘elite intellectuals and impresarios’. The culture that endures is defined by the values which inspire people to create; and if your sole value is what is profitable, what you produce is not healthy cultural output at all.

Speaking of creativity, though, as a writer and an artist, let me tell you that I’ve written, drawn and painted both for love of the subject, and for marks (‘profit’, as it were), and I can tell you right now which end results were better. The greatest artists’ motivations were never profit (else they wouldn’t be artists!), but rather a love which transcends the self. If the artistic inspiration that drives culture is not something that can be forced (as Mr Crane very rightly notes), neither is it something which can be bought and sold in a market, appealing only to love of self. It is, in the end, only in the numinous realm of the sacred that the aesthetic can be healthily understood and realised.

On the consumption side as well, cultural production can be either healthy or unhealthy. You can either watch or listen to or otherwise support cultural productions which you like, or you can support cultural productions which someone else (usually someone with orders of magnitude more money and power than you have) tells you to like. Advertisement is the reigning example: huge corporations would not spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising campaigns if they did not alter people’s consumption habits in their favour. Sadly, reigning economic orthodoxy is completely and wilfully blind to the root causes of a person’s preferences. To use Sam Crane’s example, the college-rock band Carsick Cars played at a club where 200 people were still waiting outside the doors to get in when they closed. Now, were all of those people there because they genuinely wanted to be, and really enjoyed and were inspired by the music? Or were they there because the Carsick Cars were on 97.4 FM all the time (I don’t know if this is actually the case) and they thought going to a concert would make them look ‘cool’? In other words, were the people going there fans or poseurs? The liberal-libertarian position does not care about this distinction, and indeed goes to massive lengths to deny its existence (all revealed preferences being equal); the people who are served by this are not, of course, consumers or even the majority of producers, but rather only the large producers who have the capacity to command higher market shares through advertising. This is as true of cultural output as of anything else.

Fourthly, dismissing fears of imperialism as mere ploys to ‘bolster the political power of [an] authoritarian regime’, however appropriate it may be in this example, is not a wise move in general. As someone who has spent time amongst the Navajo and Hopi cultures in his youth, I am familiar with the tactics used by those purporting to support their ‘progress’ and ‘freedom’. There is good reason to fear them, as they were subjected to a very deliberate form of cultural warfare. Their traditional economies were undermined at every turn by government-sanctioned theft of their land (and subsequent forced relocation); they were forbidden from practicing their own native faiths; and their languages were actively suppressed in the schools their children were compelled to attend. But I am sure that the present generation of these now struggling cultures are immensely comforted by Mr Crane’s bromides that the cultural changes to which they were subjected were ‘inevitable’, and that ‘foreign bogey men’ were not in the least to blame for their present plight. Though China has been subjected to this degree of outright domination only thrice in her long history, and her culture has survived each time on its own strengths, the purveyors of ‘free trade’ indeed knowingly attempted to curtail Chinese self-expression (to say nothing of their dignity) for their own profit and power, and resorted to force of arms when their attempts were thwarted by the likes of Viceroy Lin Zexu. The fear of domination by imperialist powers (not only Britain, but also the United States, Germany and Japan) is a very real and long-standing one. Hu Jintao may indeed be taking advantage of that fear for political gain, but Mr Crane does no service to his own argument by ignoring the underlying historical rationale. If recognising the destruction which globalised market forces and the governments behind them have historically wreaked (and in some ways continue to wreak) on people who have historically been subjected to colonialism makes me a ‘culture warrior’, then I make no apologies for being one. (I guess it also makes Skyclad and Anthrax ‘culture warriors’, so I’m in some good company there.)

Culture is not only product. It must refer instead to the shared values and norms, passed down from generation to generation, of a community. And it always makes reference to something outside itself; as Zhu Xi put it, culture (or ‘ritual’) is the representation of Heaven-imparted principles (『禮者,天理之節文也。』). Though certainly culture should imply what people are doing now, it is wise to distinguish between what people do that is psychologically and socially healthy for them, and what is unhealthy. Government control may not, in many cases, be the way to go about it. But then, neither is ignoring the systematic aggression inherent to a globalised, hegemonic and equally government-backed culture.

14 January 2012

Rectification of names

Allow me a few moments to get this straight. A civilian scientist working on a project in the interests of the national security of his country is assassinated using a motorcycle bomb by an assailant who did not make himself or his political affiliation known beforehand. What would we call this if it were done within our borders? Terrorism, right? So why are our authorities not calling a spade a spade when it happens to another country, even if that country does not always see eye-to-eye (to say the very least) with us? And should we not be calling out the cheerleaders of such operations (and they are sadly not few) as giving aid and comfort to the terrorists responsible, whether they are part of Mossad or the Mojahedin-e Khalq?

Let’s be a little bit realistic for a moment. The United States will not always remain the world’s sole hegemon, and if we are going to manage our civilisation’s wane in status with anything resembling grace, we are going to have to pay some attention to the moral ground we occupy, because ultimately our nation’s virtue is the sole source of whatever ‘soft power’ we can effectively wield. This was Yan Xuetong’s view regarding China, if you will recall. Part of our behaving virtuously is condemning terrorism and murder of civilians not only when people we don’t like do it, but also when our allies do it. Otherwise, we only lend more moral ammunition to the likes of Iran’s leadership, and weaken our chances of building bridges on real issues of national security with powers such as Russia and China. The ghosts of Cold Wars past need not haunt either our present or our future… but they will, if we continue to behave in the way we are doing now, turning a blind eye to grievous injustices done to civilians of other nations, carried out by our allies.

13 January 2012

Pointless video post - ‘We Drink Your Blood’ by Powerwolf

I was thinking of discussing the history and theology inherent to this song (exposing the insecurities and tensions of the mediaeval nobility between the pacifistic religion they espoused and the inherently violent position they occupied in society, and so forth), but immediately thought better of it when I realised that this is a freaking Powerwolf song. They don’t think through these things, why the heck should I look for anything deeper? Big, blunt, heavy, pounding anthemic German power metal with aesthetic Gothicism and Catholicism to spare in spades (particularly with all that choral and organ work) is what one can expect from Powerwolf, who have been largely a one-trick dog since day one; their newest release Blood of the Saints is absolutely no exception. And yet, just like a big, dumb, loyal puppy (even if that is a werewolf puppy) one simply can’t hate on them for doing what they do; I’m fond of these guys for the same reasons I like HammerFall and Turisas. They know what they want to play and they go right ahead and play it, in spite of all the ironic grins and chortles that they inevitably provoke with their over-the-top theatricality.


11 January 2012

A good reason to switch to Linux-box Samsungs?

In a recent report by Beijing-based NGO, the Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs, Apple ranks dead last on a watchdog survey of 29 global communications and IT companies on transparency on health and environmental issues (British Telecom, Hewlett-Packard and Samsung rate tops in transparency and addressing environmental problems linked to their suppliers; I was somewhat relieved to see that Lenovo wasn’t too far down the list). ‘But’, as Eric Loomis of Lawyers, Guns and Money put it (and thank you, Eric, for the links): ‘at least Apple workers in China are forced to sign pacts to not commit suicide’. Of course, this kind of poor performance on environmental and labour issues is not exactly a new story for Apple (here is the original Daily Telegraph article and op-ed), but it is one that requires much by way of retelling.

To me, the phenomenon of Apple fanboy-ism is a rather laughable one. Apple, partly on account of its top-down corporate structure, poor customer service, closed architecture, et cetera, lives and dies on its image; to be fair, they have projected that image masterfully. Even to the point of convincing its fans that everything they do must be above-board.

10 January 2012

Subversive politics and the post-action movie

This post by John (and the Guardian op-ed to which it links) has been on my mind quite awhile, and it is very troubling to my mind as a fan of action movies that part of the culture I am supporting in such patronage is, to borrow the terminology of Methodist theologian Walter Wink, a myth of redemptive violence. Such a myth certainly colours very much of our popular culture, particularly in the wake of 11 September when it very effectively and conveniently simplified for popular consumption a complex problem in international relations which led to the suffering of thousands of innocents – now inflated to millions worldwide as a result of the shifts in our foreign policy (‘cryptofascist’, as it may very well be, or otherwise). America loves the vision of a black-and-white world in which problems are easily whisked away with a twirl of a pistol and a roguish grin, and the Hollywood action movie has traditionally been the way in which the average American could indulge this fantasy. This fantasy is something which I have been rightly trained since childhood (spent in a Radical Reformed community) to resist.

… And yet, in spite of all this, I still love action movies. And the action movies I love most all tend to go against the grain in some fairly fundamental ways: Peter Weir’s Witness. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (thank you, Andreas Modinos!). David Fincher’s Fight Club. Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. Whether they subvert the action film’s fundamental premises, mythic elements or plot arc in order to explore nonviolent alternatives (as Witness does) or whether they deliberately crank the archetypal action plot arc up to 11 in order to poke fun at the pretensions of the genre (as all of Verhoeven’s action movies do), these – I suppose post-action movies is as good a term as any – are certainly worthy of a second and a third glance. Though they are still characterised by explosions and gunfire and special effects, they fulfill the same function vis-à-vis the Hollywood culture critiqued by Rick Moody that the Gospels did to Imperial Roman ‘evangelical’ literature, or that Shrek did vis-à-vis Disney and the traditional fairy-tale: a retelling of a mythic story which seeks to undermine the basic premises of the myth.

Witness is an incredibly powerful film (to which I was introduced by my parents) which explores the nature of violence in ways which it is very rare for a mainstream American movie to do. The hero John Book, played by Harrison Ford, is an investigator on a murder case in which the only witness is a young boy from an Amish community; ultimately, he is shot and forced to go into hiding in the very same community this boy comes from. Without giving away too much of the plot, one of the ironies of the movie is that the lifestyle of violence which has come as second nature to Book only serves to betray him to his enemies, and in the ending of the movie, the primary villain is shamed by Book before the Amish community into giving up his gun and answering for his crimes. Witness is still very much a cop thriller, but it is one which so adroitly handles its own thematic schema that it manages to present a worldview which is very much along Gandhian or Radical Reformed lines – itself a witness against the myth of redemptive violence in which Book (and, by extension, the audience) had been raised scripture and verse.

The Paul Verhoeven movies take exactly the opposite approach. Rather than subverting plot elements, they take these same elements (and the violence which inevitably accompanies them) to harlequin extremes to make their points. RoboCop is a prime example. Bookended by in-universe news reports and advertising for prosthetic hearts (‘And remember, we care!’) and family games such as ‘Nukem’, the primary fear of the film is that human beings themselves have become products; expendable commodities and replaceable cogs in a neoliberalised cyberpunk universe. The all-pervasive power in the movie, and all of its villains, are under the aegis of OCP (Omni Consumer Products), a defence contractor which has taken control of Detroit’s police force and plans to rebuild Detroit along high-modernist lines, allowing gangster Clarence Boddicker (played by Kurtwood Smith) first dibs in keeping the working class quiet and pliable with drugs, gambling and prostitution. This same Clarence Boddicker put to death Alex Murphy, a newbie cop whose remains and resemblance were used in the construction of the OCP’s prototype RoboCop, and whose memories remain in RoboCop’s programming only to resurface as ‘dreams’. The violence in the movie is so over-the-top that it becomes a form of black comedy in its own right, a parody of the very genre of which it is routinely held as an exemplar. The same is true of Starship Troopers, which takes the latent fascist elements of the novel it was based upon and turns them into the basic theme of the film.

Fight Club is something of a different beast entirely. It’s an action movie, but rather than being about explosions or even fistfights, it’s fundamentally about relationships instead. It may toy on occasion with political ideas, but always in ways which are psychological and painfully personal. It is a critique of capitalism and late modernity, and the ways it spells spiritual doom for the exploiting class as well as the exploited, but it goes out of its way to avoid presenting any kind of viable or desirable alternative, leaving the audience to ‘make up their own minds’ (cop-out? perhaps, but then this is also one). Violence is, very deliberately, the mythic escape (but, rather than being a solution to anything or being endowed with any salvific mythic qualities, it exists only for its own sake), and a form of authoritarian personality cult (Project Mayhem) the end result – but it’s one which is rejected by the narrator at the end.

The subversive currents in all of these movies do not, in themselves, add up to an effective countermyth to redemptive violence – but they do elevate these movies effortlessly above the mass of mindless garbage put out by the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer, Zack Snyder and Michael Bay, adding that extra edge that allows someone like me to provide an intellectual defence of the action movie, even if that defence is one which shows how the action movie genre has, at its best, ample room to parody and subvert itself.

I’m back

Returning to Pittsburgh from a voyage in the Middle Kingdom to meet my girlfriend’s friends and family, I finally can update my blog once more. I find myself exhausted, jetlagged and down with a horrific head cold, but nonetheless very much rested and at peace – much more so than last semester. The blog has undergone a name-change (to The Heavy Anglican) which has been a fairly long time in coming… though existentialism and neo-orthodoxy remain very much a part of my worldview, they’ve taken a backseat somewhat to my amateurish interest in matters of political economy, history, development policy, international relations and how those all relate to theology and religion. The thought of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Niebuhr and Barth certainly do touch on all of these (often quite closely), but I am finding that authorities from other traditions can bring insights which are just as interesting and enlightening, and several thinkers whom I have come to greatly admire (Johnson, Swift, Ruskin, Chesterton, Grant and the like) simply do not belong to the existentialist tradition, but rather share with it the common ancient Socratic-Platonic one.

Anyhow, much peace and good cheer for the Yuletide season to my gentle readers, and may we have a joyous Year of Our Lord two thousand twelve. It’s good to be back.