28 February 2012

Pointless video post – ‘Vid Rosornas Grav’ by Falconer and ‘Upon Raging Waves’ by Mithotyn

My gentle readers will likely be aware that I am a Falconer fan. Stefan Weinerhall has a great depth of creativity in his compositions and a style of songwriting all his own (though it may indeed be an acquired taste), and Mathias Blad’s singing is truly incredible: it is not often in metal that one comes across a theatre- or opera-trained baritone who hits each note perfectly and still comes out sounding like a rocker, yet this is precisely Mathias’ blessing. The two others I can think of off the top of my head are Powerwolf’s Attila Dorn and Saviour Machine’s Eric Clayton. And here, on ‘Vid Rosornas Grav’ (‘By the Rose’s Grave’), from their most recent album Armod (Poverty), all of Falconer is really playing at peak capacity (and entirely in Swedish this time, as opposed to the mostly- or wholly-English lyrical content of their previous releases). These sorts of bands really hit all of the right notes for me - with both a sense of the melodic and beautiful (and wistfully melancholic in the way few outside Scandinavian can truly pull off without sounding corny), without sacrificing the metal (the solid, chunky riffs and the relentless, aggressive tempo).

Guitarist Stefan Weinerhall’s and drummer Karsten Larsson’s (and Mathias Blad’s sister Heléne’s) former band Mithotyn, as well, was also an incredibly awesome band. Here is their song ‘Upon Raging Waves’, from their 1997 album In the Sign of the Ravens:


Just came across an interesting story on National Public Radio recently, about an evangelical activist who is attempting to identify unregistered Christians in the United States and get them registered to vote by using data-mining techniques. This story does tend to reflect the habitual blind spots of NPR when it comes to Christianity (namely, associating Christianity solely with American ‘conservative’ evangelicalism and fundamentalism), but it does end up being somewhat edifying. Some of the variables used by the evangelical activist organisation ‘United in Purpose’ are relatively straightforward: being on an anti-abortion list, for example. But others of them are a bit stranger: Home schooling? Being an angler? Being a NASCAR fan? How do one’s sporting or entertainment habits or educational preferences have anything to do with one’s faith? Are Christians not to be found either in state or in private schools?

This is one of the major problems in American Christianity, and one of the major roadblocks to recovering and reasserting the latent, radical-orthodox Jacobitism and suspicion of unrestrained capital and empire which undergirded much of the early discontent of the American colonies. Our civic religion runs completely at cross-purposes with classical Christianity; instead of destroying idols and interrogating the uses of both state power and private wealth, we have come to a point where we are mostly apathetic about accumulations of private wealth and pathological in our relationship to state power (enthusiastic about using it abroad to enforce an ideological hegemony, but mortally afraid of using it at home to regulate moral issues - whether ‘economic’ or ‘social’). And we have erected idols in place of Our Lord. I read the comment by one of UIP’s volunteers with great irony: she prays that America will face ‘a Red Sea experience’, but it seems to me that her invocation of the Mosaic tradition is misplaced. The Hebrews, being led about in the desert for forty years, were later subject to ‘a Mount Sinai experience’, though instead of accepting the laws of the God of Israel, they erected in his place the image of the Golden Calf. That UIP could mistake NASCAR fandom for strength of Christian faith as such, or that they would seek out Christians acting in accord with the Gospels or with the Pauline exhortations in gated communities and amongst people who home-school their children, is actually quite mind-boggling to me.

27 February 2012

The legacy of Mao – it’s kinda complicated, actually

Mao Zedong is, was and will continue to be one of the most controversial figures in all of Chinese history for many years to come. To many (including most commentators in the United States and Europe), Mao is a total, unredeemable monster – someone for whom the deaths of millions were to be counted as a blessing if they fell in with the pursuit of his goals, someone who sacrificed all of the best things in Chinese culture upon the altar of his own ego. To a handful of others (increasingly few in this day and age), Mao is to be regarded as a great hero and a patriot: a man whose vision paved the way for all of modern China’s triumphs. The Chinese Communist Party maintains (as in everything else) a sort of neutral, offend-no-one balance, painting him as a well-intentioned revolutionary whose thought was – according to Nicholas Kristof – 70% correct and 30% mistaken. And the Chinese Communist Party, as in everything else (or so it seems), believes and does exactly the wrong things for all of the right reasons: in this case, upholding the main bulk of Mao Zedong’s thought and merely revising the terms of his involvement in the economy – when, on the contrary, they ought to be praising his great economic accomplishments and dumping his ideology. They do this, purportedly, to promote ‘stability’ and ‘harmony’ – yet Mao’s ideology (as expressed in the Cultural Revolution) devalued nothing so much as the stability and harmony of the family, calling on children to insult their parents, students to berate and shame their teachers, all in the name of rooting out the ‘capitalists’ and ‘rightists’ who ended up being the penultimate beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution.

I was recently reading an article by Noam Chomsky on the subject of the Vietnam War which made a rather startling claim with regard to Mao’s China. The conventional wisdom about Mao in the West, of course, is that the economic policies during the early part of his reign were unmitigated disasters that led to the starvation of millions of people. (Thankfully, my high school Chinese area studies teacher, Mr Mjaanes, was a bit too dignified to follow the conventional wisdom on… well, much of anything, really.) And yet, the statistics show otherwise – the Noam Chomsky article cited a paper in Science magazine (written by Peng Xizhe of Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University) which showed the total death rate in the country falling from 14.0 per thousand in 1953 to 11.6 per thousand in 1964 to 6.5 per thousand in 1982; with the bulk of this decrease in death rate happening between 1950 and 1975 – precisely the years of Mao’s ascendancy. Peng attributes these decreases to purely economic accomplishments: development of industry, mass education and improved health services, as well as the public hygiene campaign which accompanied the Great Leap Forward. The primary beneficiaries of Mao’s economic reforms were precisely the very young and the very old. By the end of the 1970’s, infant mortality was cut to a third of what it had been in 1950 (and was cut in half again between 2000 and 2010). This campaign was so successful that by the time of Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms – 1978 and 1979 – the Chinese Communist Party had come to see the rise in population as a burgeoning threat, and implemented the One Child Policy alongside the market reforms. It should be noted as well that the crude death rate (not counting the abortions or sterilisations accompanying the One Child Policy) actually rose again during the ‘reform and opening’ period, and is now at 7.1 deaths per thousand population.

Thus, indeed, Mao Zedong has done some incredibly great things for China. He put an end to polygamy and child marriages, thus giving Chinese women an unprecedented degree of freedom and dignity. He introduced universal education, such that anyone could be given opportunities to which, up to that point, only a small fraction of people had access. He brought massive material benefits to the Chinese people in ways even the Qing Emperors could only dream of, and improved the lot of China’s peasantry to a massive degree through the breakup of large estates. The great problem with Mao Zedong – the exact point where the hero becomes the monster – is to be located precisely within his ideology, what came to be known as Maoism.

Mao believed – wrongly – that the revolutionary potential within the peasant class, which has made itself manifest at numerous points in Chinese history, could be harnessed to an ideology of infinite progress along Marxist lines. When Mao read Shi Naian’s Water Margin 《水滸傳》 and the legendary feats of the bandits who resisted the excesses of Song officials and robbed the wealthy to benefit the downtrodden, he noted with disdain that the heroes were ‘capitulators’ to the Emperor, and thus robbed their own movement of its revolutionary potential. But this is precisely wrong: the very revolutionary potential of the movement itself was predicated (in the novel) on the categories of Confucian morality and reciprocal duties which the Song government – particularly at the level with which Song Jiang and his compatriots were dealing with it – was busy neglecting or trampling over. Though 《水滸傳》 is semi-fictional, the revolutionary sentiments it portrayed are indeed far from it – the Chinese people have not, as a rule, suffered tyrants lightly, not since Shang Zhouxin, and neither have they had (historically) a great tolerance for greed or other abuses of power. Confucianism (at least under the influence of Mencius and Zhu Xi) has proven – time and again – that it is quite capable of very deep and persistent critique of both state power and private interest, and of mobilising people to take action on the basis of these critiques. And yet, in his zeal for demolishing all remnants of the old society, Mao Zedong not only broke the lives and livelihoods of millions of his innocent countrymen, but he also tore up the social fabric and paved the way for the cronyism and gangster capitalism that was to follow and made much more difficult the restoration of this ancient and venerable tradition of virtue-ethics with radical potential. It would be more accurate to say that Mao himself – though unknowingly so – was ‘capitulating’ to Deng and Jiang in pursuing the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, the agrarian, distributist, traditionalist and ritualist nature of the ‘old’ Chinese society (and the political instincts of still quite a few of its people, it should be noted) is now at odds with both of the loudest strains in modern Chinese political thought – those pushing for a return to Mao and those pushing for further economic ‘reforms’ in the spirit of Deng. And all the while the ruling class is pursuing a middle course which may prove untenable, unless it makes a radical return not to either Mao or Deng, but to the Doctrine of the Mean.

But this will require acknowledging the accomplishments of Mao whilst disavowing his ideology, rather than the other way around.

26 February 2012

Sofa-sitting on Google+

Oh, dear.

President Obama’s Google+ page is apparently experiencing a massive shortage of sofas. They’ve all been claimed by Chinese internet users, a sadly remarkable high percentage of which are the same sort of newbs we have over here who take to spamming forums and comment threads with ‘first’ comments. Also sadly remarkable is the high percentage of mei fen dang yuan and general idiots posting there, in jest or not, asking the President to ‘liberate’ China the same way he did Iraq and Libya. Not funny, dudes. Our military men and women are not toys – something all too many of our own politicians forget on a regular basis. You didn’t hear me asking the PLA to invade the US back when Bush was president, did you? And we all know, of course, that post-Saddam Iraq and post-Gadhafi Libya are such shining models of freedom, human rights, democracy and liberation in today’s world…

Oh, well. Boys will be boys, and trolls will be trolls, no matter what their nationality.

25 February 2012

China, Iran and Reality - the undiscovered countries

An excellent article by John Feffer in Foreign Policy in Focus may be found here.  It is indeed quite worth reading, particularly given that it offers a coolly realistic counterweight to the idealistic and borderline-arrogant rhetoric of American and European news outlets such as the Economist, the New York Times, CNN and Auntie Beeb. (Though, just in case some idiot accuses me of being a wu mao dang yuan, it’s very much worth noting that we don’t do this just for China at all. It’s quite a longstanding pastime in Eastern Europe as well.) Here is the money quote:

This latter point, that China has its own national interests, invariably eludes Western observers no matter how often Chinese leaders repeat it. Sure, a Chinese leader might like American basketball or admire American business. But the essential fact is that he leads a political, economic, and military apparatus dedicated to preserving itself and the country’s territorial integrity. The same can be said for the leaders of most countries, including the United States. Certainly no one in Beijing expects the 2012 U.S. elections to produce an American president who embraces state capitalism, a global trade order that disproportionately favors Chinese economic growth, or a ceding of U.S. military position in the Pacific to the up-and-coming superpower. And yet for some bizarre reason, U.S. observers expect the latest Chinese leader to suddenly tear off his clothes and reveal a Captain America suit underneath.

Mr Feffer also very calmly and very objectively speaks of Iran’s military capacity, as well as its willingness to come to the table and negotiate. Given that the only regimes in the region that they truly trust are Syria and Turkey (cultivating much closer relations with the Christian world power in Russia and the secular-agnostic world power in China than with any states in the Sunni Muslim world), it is really not difficult to see that their behaviour in all this mess has been quite rational (at least from a foreign-policy perspective). Perhaps it is time that we demand from our leaders that our foreign policy reflect a similar grounding in reality; though that would almost certainly mean throwing away all of the exceptionalist and jingo rhetoric which has been a sad, dull and predictable staple of American political oratory for every president (Democratic or Republican) since Reagan.

21 February 2012

Pointless video post – ‘Honigtraum’ by Totenmond

Totenmond. Are they crust punk? Are they thrash? Are they metalcore? Are they death metal? Are they doom? One thing is for sure; this power trio is awesome! (An opinion not very widely shared, sadly.) These guys are known for making massive, aggressive, blunt songs with quite frankly baffling lyrics; but that doesn’t stop their music from being strangely alluring. ‘Honigtraum’ is one of their earlier songs, from the EP Väterchen Frost; it has a more ‘punkish’ vibe than much of their later work, which veers into the doomy side of things. I was actually introduced to them through their self-described links-anarchistischen Propaganda (left-anarchist propaganda), their album Auf dem Mond ein Feuer (which consists primarily of covers from classic Deutschpunk bands: Slime, Chaos Z, Inferno, Razzia, OHL and Ton Steine Scherben), which is a massively enjoyable maelstrom of crossover thrash. Only later did I get into their other material, which is equally enjoyable if not more so. Solid band, greatly underrated.

A brief history of Hong Kong housing on chinaSMACK

Time Out HK has a highly interesting article on chinaSMACK recently, on the topic of the housing market (or sad lack thereof) in Hong Kong, which increasingly is appearing to be a case of laisser-faire capitalism gone bad on each possible level: a highly-unregulated housing market that eventually fell into the hands of a very few people, who in turn used their newfound wealth and influence to cultivate close relationships first with the British colonial and then with the Chinese communist government in order to stifle both economic competition and political action that could limit their activities in the public interest. Definitely worth a very careful read, even if Time Out HK’s prescriptions ultimately end up sounding a bit… shall we say, resigned.

It is a very thorny problem, and it is not one (it should be noted) which has remained confined to Hong Kong. In the mainland, large developers have been following exactly the same pattern; protected by the government, they acquire massive tracts of agricultural land often for dirt-cheap prices from cooperative local administrations for new urban developments. These are generally seen as good investments because they are sponsored by the local governments as a good source of revenue and because the rising population of China (and the social norms which have come to demand that young people attempting to attain any kind of social status - to get married, for example - must purchase a house and a car) ensure that demand for these new developments will always be there. Meanwhile, prices continue to inflate, and the people who end up out in the cold are the new homeowners and, of course, the vagrant peasants whose land was expropriated in the first place, often on remarkably unfair terms.

Mainland Chinese and Hongkongers are, if truth be told, really on the same page here (or rather, the Mainlanders will be arriving on that page quite soon). And yet, now more than ever, there seems to be a growing, completely misdirected resentment between the two groups. Whipping up ethnic- or linguistic-nationalist sentiment (and all the epithets that come with, ‘locusts’ and ‘dogs’ and so forth), in the end, serves no one’s true interests except for those who benefit by the broken systems on either side of Shenzhen Wan.

Thanks to Aaron Posehn and Rob Klugerman for the link!

19 February 2012

‘Thank god for Russia; without Russia we are doomed’

So says the Christian woman in the streets of Damascus. Minorities are bearing the brunt of this civil war.

And the fact that the ones who would place us there, square in the middle of it all and supporting the other side with arms, are the neo-conservatives John McCain and Lindsay Graham, as should come as no surprise. Let this be remembered the next time either Graham or McCain attempt to pander to get the votes of Americans who claim the same religion as the churches being shelled by the Free Syrian Army. And Obama is doing only marginally better; his administration has been doing its damnedest to ‘isolate’ two countries (Russia and China) for supporting the current Syrian government. Let us insist upon hearing the stories from all sides before backing the dominant narrative of our government.

16 February 2012

Why are we not having these discussions instead?

In the current American debate over the (im)morality of contraception availability, we have been subjected to what I have come to see as an entirely inane debate (featuring Mr EJ Dionne and Rep Darrell Issa’s crowd) over rights and freedoms, on both sides of the fence. The ‘liberal’ side believes that contraception should be as widely available as possible in order to accommodate freedom over the body. The ‘conservative’ side believes that institutions shouldn’t be obliged to provide a service that violates the freedom of conscience of those in charge of the institution. The problem is not that both sides are wrong, but rather that both sides are not even asking good or decent questions, since each side in insisting on freedoms which have no content tend to sideswipe the entire ethical debate. Thankfully, quite a few other people in the public eye are making good arguments and asking the pertinent questions. On the ‘liberal’ side, here is Garry Wills:

The opposition to contraception has, as I said, no scriptural basis. Pope Pius XI once said that it did, citing in his encyclical Casti Connubii (1930) the condemnation of Onan for “spilling his seed” rather than impregnating a woman (Genesis 38.9). But later popes had to back off from this claim, since everyone agrees now that Onan’s sin was not carrying out his duty to give his brother an heir (Deuteronomy 25.5-6). Then the “natural law” was fallen back on, saying that the natural purpose of sex is procreation, and any use of it for other purposes is “unnatural.” But a primary natural purpose does not of necessity exclude ancillary advantages. The purpose of eating is to sustain life, but that does not make all eating that is not necessary to subsistence “unnatural.” One can eat, beyond the bare minimum to exist, to express fellowship, as one can have sex, beyond the begetting of a child with each act, to express love.


There was broad disagreement with Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical on the matter. Pope Paul VI set up a study group of loyal and devout Catholics, lay and clerical, to make recommendations. The group overwhelmingly voted to change the teaching of Pius XI. But cardinals in the Roman Curia convinced Paul that any change would suggest that the church’s teachings are not eternal (though Casti Connubii had not been declared infallible, by the papacy’s own standards).

When Paul reaffirmed the ban on birth control in Humanae Vitae (1968) there was massive rejection of it. Some left the church. Some just ignored it. Paradoxically, the document formed to convey the idea that papal teaching is inerrant just convinced most people that it can be loony. The priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley said that Humanae Vitae did more damage to the papacy than any of the so-called “liberal” movements in Catholicism. When Pius IX condemned democracy and modern science in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), the Catholic historian Lord Acton said that Catholics were too sensible to go crazy every time a pope does. The reaction to Humanae Vitae proves that.

And then, on the ‘conservative’ side, we have Patrick Deneen:

The Church’s argument – made at a time when it was believed by many that the Church had no choice but to update itself to be relevant to changing times – was articulated forcefully by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” and is addressed not only to Catholics, but to “all men of good will.” As nicely summarized recently by Brendan Patrick Dougherty and Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry, Humanae Vitae articulated four discrete areas of social and political concern that they believed would become manifest with the widespread use of birth control:

1. General lowering of moral standards

2. A rise in infidelity, and illegitimacy

3. The reduction of women to objects used to satisfy men

4. Government coercion in reproductive matters

The first three – unarguably evident in our time – concern the social implications of transforming sexuality from its intimate and natural link to reproduction to a “recreational,” hedonic activity. The Church understood that the cumulative decisions of individuals – not intended to “harm” anyone – would nevertheless lead to manifest and extensive social ills. Liberalism begins and ends with the view that individual choice is paramount, and social costs can and should be redressed by government alone, leaving as much latitude possible to individual satisfaction of desire; Catholicism (echoing Aristotle) holds that society is an intricately woven fabric in which autonomous actions aimed at the satisfaction of individual desire will often prove destructive of that fabric. The Church holds this to be the case in all realms of human activitiy – sexual as well as economic, a point that is too often missed by American Catholics who allow their partisan identities to define their understanding of their faith (are those who oppose abortion and pornography any less “Social Justice Catholics”?). Liberalism holds that the State must be indifferent to the personal choices of individuals; Catholicism holds certain choices not only to be inherently wrong (even if they do not result in the immediate and evident harm of others), but, over time and cumulatively, socially destructive.

I think this highlights a few of the points at which, as an Anglican, I feel obliged to point out some broad areas of moral ambiguity regarding contraception. I have stated before that I dislike the rigid and reductive way in which Catholic theology traditionally expounds ‘natural law’, and feel that it would be a stronger argument to make if certain elements of the natural law were kept deliberately numinous in application (making Catholic doctrine more Chestertonian in its orthodoxy, as it were) in order to ride to the rescue of a virtue ethic which better aligns good means with all possible good ends. This is certainly true of sex, as Dr Wills rightly notes. In order to forge the strong link which one presumes (in good faith) that the Catholic Church wants to forge between the phenomena of sex on the one hand, and love and procreation on the other, through the institution of marriage, it seems to me that one must place an equal emphasis on both love and procreation as ‘good ends’ of sex, not incompatible with one another. Otherwise, one sets Catholic doctrine on a very dangerous Kantian-Hegelian-Marxian path toward reductionism and brute materialism in the same way its clergy accuse liberation theologians with doing in the realm of economics. Though I am fully aware that the comparison Dr Wills makes between eating and sex is profoundly limited and problematic, it bears pointing out that in Church doctrine, the physical act of eating and drinking has been sacramentalised and made the means of communion with God through the Holy Eucharist in light of the conviction that man cannot live on bread alone. Likewise, as sex truly is much more sacred act than eating for its close connexion with human dignity, Church doctrine should reflect the idea that the physical acts of sex-conception-childbirth (though good things in their own right) are insufficient without the spiritual gifts of passion and exclusive erotic love between two lovers which become the seed of parental love for their offspring. This point I do readily concede to Dr Wills.

At the same time, Dr Deneen brings up the very real concerns of a large and increasing number of people, particularly among people in the working class, whose opportunities to lead a dignified existence have been eroding for decades under the sustained assault of economic neoliberalism and the dearth of physical attachment (to place or to another human being) that economic neoliberalism demands, concerning the perceived indifference of the government to their plight (despite appearances of state power and presence growing ever-more pervasive). Promoting healthy relationships, let alone healthy families, cannot be done simply by throwing condoms around, and the first ones to be fully cognisant of this point should be the liberals themselves, particularly the ones purporting to act in the interests of working-class women. By refusing to make the distinction between a healthy, stable relationship and a purely hedonistic affair, there should be some realisation that the technocratic apparatus is contributing to the social sins (NOT purely individual sins, as some disgustingly chauvinistic secular ‘conservatives’ in the vein of Charles Murray might have it) of single-parent homes, of mothers working two full-time jobs to take care of children who are left unsupervised, of increasing divorce and suicide rates among an increasingly jobless working class.

These are tough questions of collective responsibility and proper social action; I do not expect either Dr Wills or Dr Deneen to come up with all the answers right away, or even twenty years from now. To me, contraception is not a fully black-and-white issue, even coming from a standpoint which is Anglican, orthodox and generally concerned with social and collective (as well as individual) well-being. Yes, the Malthusian and Spencerite leanings of contraception’s greatest historical (and some modern) proponents are not only creepy and factually wrong, but downright immoral. Yes, most arguments in favour of contraception are individualistic in ways I do not like. Yes, there are good moral hazard arguments to be made regarding contraceptives and sexual health. But that does not mean that some of the premises do not have some worth, or that all arguments coming from the other side of the debate are valid straight-out-of-the-box, as it were. We orthodox-leaning Episcopalians and Catholics should not let our distaste for the individualistic, therapeutic, self-serving and (ironically) male-centric predilections of modern culture push us into a bizarre kind of Feuerbachian functionalist materialism which sees human sexuality only in terms of its procreative capacity, and reduces women to mere incubators (and men to mere fertilisers, as it were).

As Dr Pia de Solenni pithily put it: ‘Something’s wrong when women’s issues and women’s health are reduced to making sure that women don’t get pregnant’. Or do, as the case may be. But this issue is connected to far too many others near and dear to the cause of social justice to be such an open-and-shut case as either side wants it to be, and we should be having those discussions as well.

15 February 2012

Pointless video post – ‘Battle Cry’ by Forever Storm and ‘Волонтёр’ (‘Volunteer’) by Ария

Some more Eastern European heavy metal for my gentle readers!

Forever Storm are a newer, younger band from Kragujevac, Serbia who play a downright infectious (if none too subtle) blend of classic and power metal. ‘Battle Cry’ comes off of their first album Soul Revolution, an album which features lyrics with some environmental and patriotic themes but for the most part is just good, straightforward, honest heavy metal.

Ария were the first Soviet heavy metal band, as I mentioned before, and their music takes some fairly heavy cues from Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and the Scorpions. However, they played around with these influences (particularly on their first album Мания Величия, or Megalomania) in some rather interesting ways. ‘Волонтёр’ here borders on being a progressive metal song at times, actually, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its very Maidenish structure and rhythm.


14 February 2012

The Feast Day of Saint Valentine – funny way history works

On this day, 1,742 years ago, a zealous if somewhat rash and overly-optimistic Umbrian bishop, famed for healing the sight of a blind girl, was flogged and beheaded outside Rome on the command of the Roman Emperor Claudius and the Prefect of Rome for preaching the Gospel – to the Emperor himself. This bishop, who later became identified with several other martyrs of the same name, was beatified as Saint Valentinus of Terni. As his reputation as saint grew, he became the patron of young lovers and happy marriages.

By sheer coincidence, on this day 66 years ago, precisely such a happy marriage was concluded between the Governor and Company of the Bank of England and His Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the fruit of many years’ work and preparation, primarily of Baron Norman and his cooperation with the government during the Depression and during the War (particularly in putting the final nail in the coffin of the gold standard, which had long been holding back the productivity of the British nation). I say a ‘happy marriage’ in that it enshrined the role of the venerable Bank as an actor in the public interest, rather than only in the private interest – for the first time in its long history, the Bank of England’s job was to oversee a fair(er) dispersal of capital and income rather than to act as a magnet for its concentration in the hands of a few. For a while during the postwar era, the Bank was a key partner in a government which saw itself as a positive moral actor in society, and oversaw a period of wealth and prosperity: one committed to full employment; one committed to a strong and independent unionised labour movement; and one committed to public ownership of key low-profitability infrastructure and assistance to the least able.

Sadly, into every love story there comes a period of hard times – in this case, in the form of a tightly-disciplined movement led by one Baroness Thatcher, a movement which placed little if any value upon love or loyalty (and would prove it time and again: by severing the Tories from their traditional values; by making divorce progressively easier and more convenient; by regarding children as contractual rather than moral obligations). The relationship between Thatcher’s government and the Bank, governed by Baron Richardson of Duntisbourne (a World War II vet and a classical High Tory if ever one was to be found) was an incredibly icy one as Thatcher and her henchmen jockeyed for greater control over the nation’s monetary policy. Part of the conflict was one over values – Thatcher, radical that she was, wanted a clean break with the past and a complete redefinition of the role of the Bank in its relationship to the government; a change which Richardson resisted as naturally as anyone with his stature might. Thatcher thought in terms of ideological dogmas and correctness; Richardson (even in instances where he might otherwise have agreed with Thatcher) in terms of institutions, order, balance and proper, transparent rules. The fight over monetary policy has had some far-reaching consequences since – rather than solidifying the role of the Bank of England, it created confusion. Where there had been a balance in the old system between independence and accountability by splitting powers cleanly between the two bodies, that old system had been disrupted. In a swing in the opposite direction from Thatcher’s time, the Bank of England was given control of interest rates in 1997, a privilege which had previously been the role of the Treasury – and (by giving the Bank of England control over both money supply and over the nation’s supply of credit) allowed the Bank of England to operate more in the role of the American Federal Reserve, a body notorious for its lack of accountability to the government.

Of course, this coincided with the abdication by government of anything resembling a moral presence in the society. Gone is the commitment to full employment. Gone is the commitment to public ownership of key infrastructure. Gone is the commitment to a strong and independent unionised labour movement. Some bodies of the welfare state do remain (notably the NHS, which remains the envy of Europe – and, if I may be so bold as to speak for some of my fellow countrymen, of America), but the cultists of both Blair and Thatcher are dead-set on ridding the grand Union of those as well (by degrees, naturally, and slowly to ensure people who depend upon them are not sufficiently outraged until the life support has stopped). The marriage isn’t quite dead yet, though. There are still some sparks of passion between the Bank and the Government, and between the Government and its people.

Perhaps what is needed today is a group of zealous if somewhat rash and overly-optimistic group of saints and martyrs to bring sight once again to Britain’s conscience, better nature and love of institutions, order, balance and proper rules, in order to bring this love story to its proper conclusion.

12 February 2012

More press shenanigans in Syria and Russia

What is clearly more than 100,000 Russian protestors in Поклонная гора

Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch has a wonderful diary entry up on said website, firstly regarding selective reporting and a hype machine kicking into overdrive in Syria whilst turning a blind eye to the brewing human rights disasters in Libya, and secondly regarding the one-sided (if not blatantly false) reporting concerning protests in Russia. Though the counter-protestors in evidence are hardly enthusiastic fans of Putin, they apparently like the alternative quite a bit less. And he very kindly provides links for photos courtesy Other Points of View’s Patrick Armstrong! Whom are you going to believe? Obviously, The Globe and Mail, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the New York Daily News, the Murdoch media empire, ABC, CBS, NPR and so on would all prefer not to put any trust in their own lying eyes. But, as one lone upstanding journalist put it, long ago in a galaxy far, far away from our barren planet of 24-hour cable news: ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’.

Vague claims of media bias are easy enough to dismiss, but it is difficult not to come away with the impression that what we have going on here is little better than a very well-oiled propaganda machine, all aimed at fighting the next war before it begins. Recall that in the run-up to the Iraq War, our own protests against the official foreign policy line were likewise ignored. As in all things, insist first upon the facts.

10 February 2012

The ‘Romantic anticapitalism’ of Iron Maiden

I recently came across a highly-interesting article on the Marxist-Leninist blog Histomat regarding the politics in Iron Maiden lyrics. It doesn’t really come as news to me that much (the Coleridge quotes in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ being the most obvious example), though I find it very interesting indeed that Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson were influenced by GK Chesterton, particularly on their Piece of Mind album (the same one which, ironically, put them under fire from fundamentalists for purportedly hiding Satanic messages in their music). As a fan of both Chesterton and Maiden, I find myself heartily ashamed that I hadn’t picked up on that earlier, having listened to Piece of Mind for quite awhile now.

The article, in spite of the somewhat annoying expectation that Iron Maiden should have the answers to class warfare writ large in their lyrics (made all the more annoying by the author’s presumption that those answers would have to lead them directly to Leninism), rang fairly true for me. Iron Maiden, despite Steve Harris’ assertions that his band doesn’t do politics, still do seem to allow social themes to seep into their songs, which can be incredibly deep at points. Many of their songs come off very much as anti-war, anti-colonialism and anti-greed – and they do occasionally give vent to some conservative sexual ethics (on songs like ‘22 Acacia Avenue’, for example). A good example of their reaction to the rampant usury and speculation that heralded the 2007 financial crisis comes in on their most recent album (The Final Frontier) in ‘El Dorado’:

I just love that line, ‘I’m just a clever banker’s face, with just a letter out of place’. Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith are incredibly witty songwriters, as is Steve Harris – just one of the many, many virtues of Iron Maiden as a band. And of course, there is the broadly anti-war tone of songs like ‘For the Greater Good of God’ and ‘The Trooper’:

Naturally, the reason I got into Iron Maiden had more to do with my Anglophilia than with their political views. But a highly interesting article all the same; puts a fresh perspective on the band for me. Up the Irons, friends!

A fine piece of American economic patriotism, and a meditation upon being American

Sadly, I did not catch the Superbowl this past weekend; I was in Cleveland watching the Cavaliers win a very close game of hoops over the Mavericks (given my Stuart inclinations, three guesses to the person who can guess which team I was rooting for, and the first two don’t count), and got back too late to catch the game or the Halftime show. However, I did catch one of their advertisements this past week:

A highly refreshing, highly moving piece of American economic patriotism, brought to you by (what Chrysler probably rightly hoped was) a credible voice for the American public, Mr Clinton Eastwood, Jr. Though Clint is a man with whose public vision and image I very often differ, here it seemed to me he struck precisely the right note here – the way for the United States to step back into economic health will be through its industry and the brotherhood amongst its people. This message, not necessarily a political one, is needed in its own right, but two more very good reasons to enjoy and appreciate it are that Karl Rove and FOX News hate it because it supposedly celebrates the marriage of big government with big business (when, of course, it does nothing of the sort – except at the very end when Chrysler reminds the viewer that they were the ones making the ad). Very interesting accusation coming from a multinational news conglomerate based in Australia which has married itself with numerous governments wherever convenient, featuring a strategist who held a prominent position in a government which did more to expand the influence and prestige of private defence contractors, and put our homes under official surveillance and our young men and women abroad fighting and dying in wars of a highly dubious nature for the sake of our ‘security’.

But the video, I think, does show two very important sides to the American character. That we are an enterprising, individualistic and hard-working people is generally well-known for it being trumpeted at home and abroad by various officials, news media and politicians as proof of our nation’s exceptional qualities; that we have a tendency to band together in cause of our own accord is something a bit less well-known, though acute observers like Alexis de Tocqueville have observed it from time to time. But neither quality is intrinsic to us or to our ‘culture’, insofar as we have one. Rather, we borrowed these traits from the English, from the Scots, from the Germans, from the Haudenosaunee, from the Algonquians and absolutely from the citizens of the nations of the interior of the African West who were kidnaped, sold and shipped to these shores by early English and Dutch capitalists and their coastal partners-in-crime. Indeed, it is only because many of these people remembered (or tried to remember across the yawning cultural abyss of the traumatic Middle Passage) and clung to the traditions in which they had been raised that these admirable traits have survived. I am very proud to count myself American in this sense.

The ‘official’ American culture is sadly more of an anti-culture, however, rooted in either the neglect or the rejection of these traditions, wrongly seen as limiting. The lawyers and intellectuals who founded this country insisted that we were not a monarchy and that we were not a religious state (in spite of borrowing wholesale a number of institutions birthed by the Church and midwifed by the monarchy), but that we would tolerate and facilitate the usurpation of political and economic power by plutocrats and economic elites (most of whom, in those early years, being slaveowners). Later, another country (drawing upon this very same anti-culture) would be founded on the contradictory principles that chattel slavery, one of the pinnacles of human wickedness, depravity and exploitation, was actually a good thing, and that discussion of the Good was meaningless because deciding upon the Good was solely a matter of individual ‘liberty’ (by which they meant, naturally, only the individual ‘liberty’ of the slaveholders holding the reins of power). Since then, we have had good periods and bad ones with regard to common cause. Sadly, the idea today that the government should not have a moral voice but should function only according to what is most ‘efficient’ once again shows that we have not yet moved sufficiently away from this anti-culture.

It is often sadly forgotten that this was not the sole prevailing opinion of how a state ought to be run. Conservative, monarchical Frenchmen and Englishmen, not all of them by any stretch of the imagination elites, fled northward in the wake of this cultural revolution in order to found a second American nation based on the principles of ‘paix, ordre et bon gouvernement’ – ironically professing solidarity with both a mother country (Britain) which was in the midst of implementing by slow degrees the same Whiggish cultural revolution and another mother country (France) which would try to implement it all at once, through force and terror. Canada has at each step of its development as a country attempted to cultivate both an independent, active civil society and an ‘official’ norm of civic republicanism in its government institutions (informed by the Catholicism of the Quebecois loyalists of the ancien régime and by the Anglicanism, Quakerism and so forth of the United Empire Loyalists) to reflect that; resulting in an early abolitionist sentiment which found its bloodless expression in law seventy years earlier than ours did. I find myself, as I have found myself from a very young age, drawn primarily to the Canadian model of government and vision of what it means to be American – partially for aesthetic and partially for moral reasons.

Hope for the continued health of our own society, though, is likely to be found in and through the expressions of communitarianism and common enterprise given voice (rather ironically, in my humble opinion) in this Chrysler advertisement. The potential is there, certainly, for a politic which is informed by a common interest, which better serves the economic, political and religious needs of ordinary Americans than the template we currently have.

‘It’s halftime in America’, indeed. If we can finish the first half in an expression of solidarity, I am greatly looking forward to the next two hundred years!

08 February 2012

Pointless video post – ‘Палаши’ (‘Executioners’) by Мастер and ‘Молитва’ (‘Prayer’) by АнДем

In addition with keeping abreast of Russian politics of late (both at home and abroad), I’ve also been listening to a lot of Russian heavy metal recently, both old and new. Here are a couple of my favourites:

‘Executioners’ by Мастер, from their 1989 album С Петлёй на Шее (With a Halter Around [His] Neck). Four of the founding musicians of Мастер (bassist Alik Granovsky, drummer Igor Molchanov, guitarist Andrei Bolshakov and keyboardist Kirill Pokrovsky) were originally part of the Iron Maiden-inspired rock band Ария, but they left partially due to arguments with the manager and partially because they wanted to play a harder, faster style of metal with more of a socially-conscious edge. This is more or less straight-up fist-pumping thrash, albeit with a distinctly different flavour than their contemporaries Metallica and Anthrax. It does sound a bit dated, but that is the way I like it.

‘Prayer’ by АнДем (a newer female-fronted band which started out playing Nightwish covers in Moscow clubs but branched out and started writing some pretty high-calibre speed / power metal of their own) is perhaps one of the grandest power ballads I have yet had the pleasure of hearing. Emphasis on the power. Makes you want to go out and buy a lighter to wave every time it comes on. Do listen to their album Дочь Лунного Света (Moonlight’s Daughter); it is quite an experience.

Where stands the Church?

In issues of social justice, individual dignity and distributions of power, the Church cannot be silent. The one question which, for me, bore asking in light of the Russian protests is: where does the Church stand? What is the Church saying and doing? The New York Times, though one must naturally take everything said in the self-proclaimed paper of record with several grains of salt, has a very interesting story on the role that the Russian Orthodox Church has played in the wake of the Russian elections. From the way it seems from the direct quotes in the story, the Church is taking the balanced position that non-violent protests should be allowed to occur unmolested as a legitimate outlet for free expression, and that they should have a definite voice in the political sphere, but deliberately stopped short of endorsing any particular platform. Since then, Patriarch Kirill I has been exhorting Orthodox believers to prayer and political moderation. (Neither the current Patriarch Kirill I nor the former Patriarch Aleksei II have exactly been silent on social or political issues, though; for example, both were very stoutly, along with the heads of the Roman and the English Churches, against the murderous folly in Iraq.)

It should be noted that there are two separate protest groups. The one is in favour of political reform; the other is in favour of greater political autonomy for Russia. Both of them, it should be noted, support election reform. Each of them has attracted some rather unsavoury characters (such as the Natzbols). There seems, sadly, to be some NED involvement in funding the political-reform protests. However, it strikes me as immensely interesting that the ‘anti-Orange’ protests drew a large number of scientists and intellectuals to speak for them, including philosopher and geophysicist Sergei Kurginyan, anti-globalisation activist and historian Natalya Narochnitskaya, and Valentin Lebedev, the leader of the Union of Orthodox Citizens. Interesting indeed.

In the coming months, don’t look to the radicals or to the paid operatives (whether NED or United Russia) on either side. Look to the common believers. What they do and say may be much more influential in the long run than what presently appears.

07 February 2012

A thought-experiment

Suppose there were two countries, often seen by each other and by the international community to be rivals, each very powerful and each with wide-ranging, often conflicting security concerns. A comparison of these countries is as follows:

  • Nation R is a country with a very strong Christian heritage, which is recognised in its civil law and in its public schools. It is very expansive and very rich in mineral resources, including oil. It has a government many would consider authoritarian, but in recent years it has not waged aggressive warfare against its neighbours and has maintained some public order at home. Instead, it is threatened by terrorism, by an alliance of diametrically-opposed nations on its borders and in the international community, and by economic instability. At the same time, they dedicate what foreign resources they have to defending vulnerable populations against Islamist extremism and the extremisms of fascism, radical liberalism and communism. They may be doing so out of realistic concerns, or they may be doing so out of humanitarian and religious obligation; different officials and different people in this nation will tell you different things.

  • Nation U is a country which makes no formal acknowledgement of a religious heritage, and instead enshrines an economic and social ideology of perpetual class warfare. It is also very expansive and very rich in mineral resources, including oil. It has a government widely hailed by its allies as democratic, but it is controlled to an unseemly degree by corporate interests and has engaged in aggressive warfare far afield. Though the government loudly proclaims to be against terrorism and extremism in all its forms, the recipients of this government’s aid include ultranationalists, radicals and extremists abroad, usually through private foundations or through its intelligence agency. If you ask the officials and citizens of this society what they believe the foreign-policy motivations of their government are, a solid majority will believe that their nation is guided by democratic principles rather than by security interests.
It should be apparent that I am speaking of Russia and the United States here, but the debates I have seen on Syria (and indeed on Russia herself) have been saddening in terms of their lack of critical thinking regarding who the protesters are and what they actually want. It is entirely possible that what the Russian protestors want is something positive, just as it is entirely possible that comes out of such regime change in a handful of the nations affected by the Arab Spring will ultimately be positive, if some semblance of public order can be maintained and liberties for vulnerable minority groups can be protected (and in Ægypt that appears the most likely at present). But unless we know for sure what ends we want to achieve by our protests, we will continue to be manipulated the official narrative: a manufactured rather than a sincere idealism which sees a formalistic procedural liberalism at the expense of all else (including the religious freedoms of minorities and the economic rights of all to a decent living) as the ultimate aim.

The Islamists who, as I write, are committing atrocities in Libya and who are awaiting their chance to do so in Syria are hailed as the heroes of a narrative of reform driven by high-minded democratic sentiment.

On the other hand, the peaceful protestors in Greece, in Spain, in Romania and in the United States are portrayed as greedy, resentful, filthy, ignorant moochers who don’t know that the suffering caused by neoliberalism and fiscal austerity mandates from on high build character and should getajobdammit.

Some perspective, please. Please. Please.

05 February 2012

A sensible and promising direction for British politics

may be found in Mr David Lindsay’s Lanchester Declaration, here. I wish him the best of luck in building the base for such a national party, and will continue to dedicate this blog to a parallel direction in American politics.

Here is the declaration in its entirety:

  1. Our common position is one of absolute commitment to the Welfare State, workers’ rights, trade unionism, the co-operative movement and wider mutualism, consumer protection, strong communities, conservation rather than environmentalism, fair taxation, full employment, public ownership, proper local government, and a powerful Parliament.

  2. That is fully compatible with a no less absolute commitment to any, all or none of the monarchy, the organic Constitution, national sovereignty, civil liberties, the Union, the Commonwealth, the countryside, traditional structures and methods of education, traditional moral and social values, economic patriotism, balanced migration, a realist foreign policy, an unhysterical approach to climate change, and a base of real property for every household to resist both over-mighty commercial interests and an over-mighty State.

  3. Our common position as set out in 1 above requires a truly national party. In the service of that common position, a truly national party would respect and take account of all of the commitments set out in 2 above, though without requiring any of them.

  4. A truly national party would be profoundly sensitive to the interests, insights and aspirations of agriculture and manufacturing, small and medium-sized businesses, each and all of the English ceremonial counties, each and all of the Scottish lieutenancy areas, each and all of the Welsh preserved counties, each and all of the traditional Northern Irish counties, each and all of the London Boroughs, and each and all of the Metropolitan Boroughs.

  5. A truly national party would be profoundly sensitive to the interests, insights and aspirations of the countryside, local government, the trade unions, mutual enterprises, voluntary organisations, and social and cultural conservatives.

  6. A truly national party would be profoundly sensitive to the interests, insights and aspirations of people who cherished ties throughout the world, most especially within these Islands and the Commonwealth, but also to the Arab world and Iran, the Slavic and Confucian worlds, Latin America, and elsewhere, in principle including any country on earth, and ideally including all of them.

  7. None of the above would be to the exclusion of the interests, insights and aspirations of financial services, the presently favoured parts of the country, the towns and cities, social and cultural liberals, or those who cherished ties to Continental Europe, the United States of America, and the State of Israel. But it would exclude any new Cold War against Russia, China, Iran, or anywhere else.

  8. A truly national party would always give priority in international affairs to the ties within the Commonwealth and within these Islands, and could have no truck with any idea of the American Republic coercively imposing utopianism. It would reject that idea’s rewritten Marxism in which the bourgeoisie is the victorious class, because it would reject all class-based politics in favour of what Aneurin Bevan called “a platform broad enough for all to stand upon”.

  9. A truly national party would fight every seat as if it were a knife-edge marginal.

  10. A truly national party as a vehicle for our common position would draw deeply on a heritage variously trade unionist, co-operative and mutual, Radical Liberal, Tory populist, Christian Socialist, Social Catholic and Distributist, and so on. Integral to that heritage is a valiant history of opposition to all of Stalinism, Maoism, the Trotskyist distinction without a difference, Nazism, Fascism, and the Far Right regimes in Southern Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. Those who have never recanted their former Stalinism, Maoism or Trotskyism, or their former support for those Far Right regimes, admitting that that stance had been wrong at the time, can have no part in a truly national party.
I note with distinct pleasure that, aside from Mr David Lindsay, Dr Martin Meenagh has formally endorsed this declaration and Mr Neil Clark has given it an honourable mention as well!

Again, the very best of luck, gentlemen!

02 February 2012

Pointless video post – ‘Conspiracy in Mind’ by Communic

I’ll be the first to admit that Communic’s brand of extreme progressive metal is something of an acquired taste and may take a couple of listens to really get into; but ‘Conspiracy in Mind’ is really nothing less than brilliant. If I were to sum up the sound here in a single word, ‘haunting’ would be a good one: Oddleif’s melancholy wails and forbidding baritone interludes ride upon a stripped-down thrash riff which can turn either into a sudden stop or a calm, almost peaceful melodic interlude. The bridge is breathtaking; epic, even, as it reincorporates both the melodic and the thrashy elements toward the close. Powerful song indeed.