28 May 2012

Pointless video post – ‘Low’ by Testament

Low is a fairly unappreciated album in the Testament library, often eclipsed by the much better-acclaimed (among my thrash metalhead acquaintance, anyway) The Gathering, but it still very much manages to be one of my favourite albums from one of my favourite metal bands. Chuck Billy’s death growl vocals mesh seamlessly here with the thrashy instrumentation and a crisp, balanced production in a style I can really appreciate; and of course the anti-war, anti-corporate-capitalist and anti-imperialist lyrics on the album (not just this song, take a listen to ‘P.C.’!) don’t hurt it a bit in my humble estimation. One thing is sure, though, I’m very much looking forward to the release of their new album Dark Roots of Earth later this summer. Enjoy!

27 May 2012

Rather says it all, doesn’t it?

Photo courtesy the Daily Mail

Purple Library Guy over at Peace, Order and Good Government, Eh? has this to ask:  how did that Libya thing turn out, anyway?  Well…
Every so often a new intervention by NATO and the usual suspects gets proposed, and there's always an argument all over again about whether it's a good idea. Generally, there is little real information available about just what's really going on, but there's plenty of propaganda, some of it nuanced and plausible, and often some genuine complexity to the situation. Even intelligent, well-meaning progressives are frequently persuaded that this time, maybe it's a good idea.

It never is. Even the best cases you ever get for imperialist intervention always turn out to be terrible. The more such events I see, the more convinced I become that knee-jerk opposition to such action is pretty much always justified. Say, I was going to talk about Libya, wasn't I?

So let's talk Libya. The poster child for "humanitarian intervention". Ruled by a dictator who was certainly eccentric, even a weirdo, and could plausibly be called "crazy". Resisted by protestors who seemed to be part of the celebrated Arab Spring. Threatening to massacre his regime's opponents. How could anyone possibly oppose intervention? And, partly persuaded by this basic frame of events, many progressives, even on boards such as "enmasse.ca", argued in favour of UN/NATO military intervention. I didn't, but for a while I temporized, was luke-cold in my opposition, agreed that with all the ambiguities it was difficult to be sure . . .

Fast forward a year or so.

Tens of thousands of deaths later, what was the African country with the highest standard of living is now falling apart. The "government" is vicious and authoritarian to the extent that it's in charge of anything, which it mostly isn't. Militias and mercenaries fight it out in miniature civil wars. Bagmen pocket the oil wealth. Far more people have died than ever would have if Gadhaffi had just crushed his opponents, and we're really still just getting started. The government has a law granting immunity to anyone committing war crimes in the service of the revolution, and what with all the torture and ethnic cleansing they need it. And it has a law mandating jail terms for anyone who says nice things about the previous regime; way to institute freedom, NATO!
in recent weeks government buildings - including the Prime Ministerial compound - have come under fire by 'rebels' demanding cash payment for their services. $1.4billion has been paid out already . . . Corruption is becoming endemic - a further $2.5billion in oil revenues that was supposed to have been transferred to the national treasury remains unaccounted for . . .

Law 37, passed by the new NATO-imposed government last month, has created a new crime of 'glorifying' the former government or its leader - subject to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Would this include a passing comment that things were better under Gaddafi? The law is cleverly vague enough to be open to interpretation. It is a recipe for institutionalised political persecution . . .

Law 38. This law has now guaranteed immunity from prosecution for anyone who committed crimes aimed at "promoting or protecting the revolution". Those responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Tawergha - such as Misrata's self-proclaimed "brigade for the purging of black skins" - can continue their hunting down of that cities' refugees in the full knowledge that they have the new 'law' on their side. Those responsible for the massacres in Sirte and elsewhere have nothing to fear. Those involved in the widespread torture of detainees can continue without repercussions - so long as it is aimed at "protecting the revolution" - i.e. maintaining NATO-TNC dictatorship.
On the plus side for the US at any rate, the article goes on to point out how the removal of Gadhaffi has drastically weakened the African Union, making it far easier for the US to move in Africom and go all neo-colonial on the Africans. Not such great news for Africans, or for progressives who aren't wild about imperialism.

So I'd like to suggest that next time around, or for that matter this time around (Syria) we just keep in mind how, no matter how good the spin for any given military intervention seems to be, it is almost certainly a really horrible, evil idea, insane from the perspective of anything except advancing imperialism. The complexities of such situations are dwarfed by the mindboggling nastiness that will be the result of imperialist intervention. There are vanishingly few situations so bad that military intervention by the US and hangers-on such as Canada can't make them heartbreakingly worse. I plan to remember that in future discussions whenever a new flavour of the year pops up and people are being fooled all over again.
I have nothing meaningful to add, really, except my wholehearted agreement. I was roughly in the same place PLG was, way back when, and am now as well. I certainly wasn’t supporting intervention (particularly when we still had troops in Afghanistan et al.), but nor was I opposing it with the rigour that I ought to have done, particularly given the complete wrack NATO has made of what once were functional governance institutions. Particularly given, as PLG puts it, the ‘vicious and authoritarian’ nature of the current regime - hardly any improvement over Gadhafi.

Remember Libya.

UPDATE:  California Constantian has a link on his blog to a very intriguing story regarding a regional autonomy movement in Cyrenaica with a decidedly monarchist bent (being led by Ahmed al-Senussi).  We shall see how this shapes up, but another constitutional monarch in North Africa to join Morocco’s could be a welcome change.

25 May 2012

‘Three cheers for the [Ultramontanist] abolitionist Pope!’

One of nineteenth-century Rome’s greatest minds, was Pope Gregory XVI. From the 1832 encyclical Mirari Vos:
This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. “But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error,” as Augustine was wont to say. When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. Then truly “the bottomless pit” is open from which John saw smoke ascending which obscured the sun, and out of which locusts flew forth to devastate the earth. Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws -- in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty.

Here We must include that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamor. We are horrified to see what monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors are disseminated far and wide in countless books, pamphlets, and other writings which, though small in weight, are very great in malice. We are in tears at the abuse which proceeds from them over the face of the earth. Some are so carried away that they contentiously assert that the flock of errors arising from them is sufficiently compensated by the publication of some book which defends religion and truth. Every law condemns deliberately doing evil simply because there is some hope that good may result. Is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available and those who use it may be snatched from death again and again?
And from the exquisite 1839 In Supremo Apostolatus:
Placed at the summit of the Apostolic power and, although lacking in merits, holding the place of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who, being made Man through utmost Charity, deigned to die for the Redemption of the World, We have judged that it belonged to Our pastoral solicitude to exert Ourselves to turn away the Faithful from the inhuman slave trade in Negroes and all other men.


[D]esiring to remove such a shame from all the Christian nations, having fully reflected over the whole question and having taken the advice of many of Our Venerable Brothers the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, and walking in the footsteps of Our Predecessors, We warn and adjure earnestly in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favour to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold, and devoted sometimes to the hardest labour. Further, in the hope of gain, propositions of purchase being made to the first owners of the Blacks, dissensions and almost perpetual conflicts are aroused in these regions.

We reprove, then, by virtue of Our Apostolic Authority, all the practices abovementioned as absolutely unworthy of the Christian name. By the same Authority We prohibit and strictly forbid any Ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this traffic in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse, or from publishing or teaching in any manner whatsoever, in public or privately, opinions contrary to what We have set forth in this Apostolic Letter.
The traditionalist-conservative opposition to the slave trade and, indeed, to slavery itself is something which goes well beyond a handful of English Tory radicals like Samuel Johnson, Beilby Porteus, Richard Oastler and William Wilberforce. Indeed, it seems rather remarkable nowadays to find an historical personage with so thoroughly anti-liberal a political bent as Pope Gregory XVI come out with so ‘progressive’ a view on race relations and slavery, that white Christians ‘should regard [black people] as their brothers’. And yet, it makes perfect sense that a man who favours restrictions on freedom of speech for the reason that ‘[e]very law condemns deliberately doing evil simply because there is some hope that good may result’ would also condemn the slave trade and the practice of slavery, which on these shores were regarded first by its ‘liberal-minded’ defenders (notably Thomas Jefferson) as a ‘necessary evil’.  But indeed, before and during the Civil War, In Supremo Apostolatus gave notable comfort and intellectual ammunition to Catholic adherents of the abolitionist (and later Union) causes.

It is an historical irony, particularly given the fact that the Civil Rights Movement in American history is still very much considered the progressive cause par excellence, that so many of the people most in favour of freeing blacks from slavery and giving them rights tended to be classical conservatives in the High Tory or Ultramontanist modes, whilst the defenders of slavery, the slave trade and slave regimes tended to be the ‘reformists’ and ‘modernising’ dictators.  Not just Jefferson, but also Andrew Jackson.  As mentioned before, Napoléon III and Maximilian of Mexico, probably following in the footsteps of the first Napoléon’s attempt to quash the Haitian Rebellion, then the latest in a line of slave uprisings toasted presciently by Samuel Johnson.  And also, sadly, the ‘reformist’ Pope Pius IX, whose modernising compromises, political impotence and general feeble-mindedness eventually handed the Papal States over to the liberal nationalists of Italy, and was responsible for some rather embarrassing and impolitic informal overtures of recognition to the illegal, slave-based Confederacy.

The most interesting part of Pope Gregory XVI’s encyclical, however, was the history behind it.  The British government, having committed itself in the wake of Wilberforce’s campaigns to the abolition of the slave trade, had attempted to get the Pope on their side for some time before, including an overture from Lord Castlereagh to Pope Pius VII which produced an encouraging, if non-binding anti-slave-trade brief; though Gregory was keenly aware of the political difficulties which could arise from taking queues from the Protestant British Empire, he was notably sympathetic to the anti-slavery cause (probably, as Dr John Quinn surmises, due to the Pope’s previous service in Propaganda Fide and his enthusiasm for evangelising in Africa, Asia and Latin America).  In Supremo Apostolatus was notable, moreover, because Pope Gregory chose to issue his condemnation of the slave trade publicly, showing that this issue mattered a great deal to him personally.  Sadly, though, in spite of In Supremo’s notable influence on abolitionists such as Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell and Yankee radical Orestes Brownson, the self-interested political wiffling of the American bishops (particularly in the Southern states) prevented it from becoming an influential force in the development of American Catholic political thought.

24 May 2012

Boris Malagurski’s The Weight of Chains

Though Twelfth Night may indeed have been a comedy, in modern history the fate of the Southern Slavs in whose homeland Shakespeare’s comedy was set is a tale which should provoke outrage and a profound sadness for the promises which have been broken.  The case of mistaken identity which drives the farcical action of Twelfth Night is repeated as tragedy, as the Southern Slavs were torn apart and set against each other not by tensions preexisting but by hatreds carefully lighted, tended and fanned into violent blaze by conquerors bent on casting themselves as heroes, and wrongly scapegoating the Southern Slavs generally - but the Serbs in particular - as the villains of the piece.  The narrator of this tragedy, not a Thespian so much as an incisive and devastatingly-sarcastic Serbian-Canadian version of Michael Moore (according to the daily newspaper Политика) is Boris Malagurski, director of The Weight of Chains.

Malagurski’s sweeping subject matter makes for an incredibly dense film, difficult to unpack.  But the history of the region is his starting point:  the significance of Yugoslavia as a united, multi-ethnic polity is punctuated by its success in building bridging social capital between Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim Southern Slavs.  A market-socialist economy with significant social safety nets and publicly-owned enterprises, Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia was at one point the single European Communist state where people actually wanted to live.  Malagurski narrates his own experiences as a young child in Yugoslavia, and contrasts this with the poverty, division and violence which was to follow, and which preceded Broz.

The Ottoman invasion of the region and the defeat of Principality of Serbia at the Battle of Kosovo resulted in mass forced conversions (on pain of impalement) to Sunni Islam; whilst the occupation of Slovenia and Croatia by the Holy Roman Empire resulted in significant Roman Catholic populations.  These populations were then pitted against each other in a number of conflicts:  the assassination of Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand by a young Yugoslav nationalist named Gavrilo Prinzip was used as a pretext for Germany and Austria to attack Russia, beginning World War I.  In World War II, the Allied and Axis powers used proxies (the fascist Ustase regime in Croatia, the monarchist Chetniks in Serbia and the radical Partizans throughout Yugoslavia) against each other in the Balkans.  The Partizans, being the party backed by the Allies in the end, won the day, and their young, charistmatic Croatian leader Josip Broz took command of Yugoslavia - and immediately embarked on a very Qazaq-like policy of playing the great powers off of each other through the Non-Aligned Movement.  Malagurski does treat Tito with more than a bit of scepticism, particularly his self-aggrandisement and motivations for building a multi-ethnic state and the extent to which he was willing to pursue it (for example, attempting to win favour over Hoxha’s Albania by allowing Albanians to colonise Kosovo), but for the most part, he is fairly sympathetic to the project of Yugoslavia.

The outpouring of grief from every part of Yugoslavia when Tito died was unprecedented, but - and this is where Malagurski’s tragedy really begins to unfold - there was no friction between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Albanians through this time.  That friction was manufactured by a group of experts from an organisation called the NED (the self-styled National Endowment for Democracy - you may remember them from the discussions of Chen Guangcheng and the White Ribboners previously), which began handing out copious amounts of money to journalists, to radical nationalist and anti-union movements, and to private companies and economic advisors wishing to implement the neoliberal model in Yugoslavia.  This had several effects:  Yugoslavia’s traditional safety net was destroyed, and its economic regulations were re-written to the detriment of all of its domestic enterprises, which were then sold off at rock-bottom prices to foreign interest groups.  As a result of the economic decline and the growing despair of the Yugoslav population, the radical nationalist groups began to gain broader hearings.  Each splinter state was soon host to self-serving politicians spreading messages of victimisation and revenge:  not just Slobodan Milosevic, but also Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman and Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic.

Street violence and paramilitary groups popped up in each of these splinter states, often supported, armed and egged on by NATO, whose member states could then jump in on the pretext of keeping the peace (as was the case in the Bosnia conflict and in the Kosovo conflict during the Clinton Administration).  The film explores the chicanery of the Western powers - particularly the United States and Germany - in hyping up Serbian war crimes and downplaying those of Bosnians and Albanians in order to make a case for unilateral intervention.  But it also uses effective interludes - stories of ordinary men and women (Croatian policeman Josip Kir, Croatian activist Milan Levic, Serbian paramilitary Srdjan Aleksic, the Serbian and Bosnian residents of Vrhbarje who were separated unwillingly by the Dayton Peace Accords, Blasko Gabric of the ‘Fourth Yugoslavia’) who gave their lives and their freedom for speaking the truth to their own ethnic interests and for defending minorities in their own lands - in order to present the case that these ethnic conflicts were not inevitable, and that there were real prospects and opportunities for peace which were left unexplored.

The military interventions in Yugoslavia, instead, were aimed at turning Yugoslavia into a colony of the United States and Western Europe:  supplying cheap resources, cheap labour and cheap manufactures for the benefit of large multinational corporations.  During the Kosovo War, as well as the infamous bombings of the Nis hospital and the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, NATO bombed a cigarette factory (later sold to Philip Morris), routinely bombed civilian infrastructure in Serbia in order to starve the civilian population into submission (and to be rebuilt by Western developers) and occupied a coal mine in Trepca (later sold to the American concern Washington Group International). To add insult to injury, the IMF would step in with unrepayable loans and the EU would dangle the carrot of membership in front of the noses of the politicians in each of these smaller states, the better to undercut their domestic economies with subsidised consumer goods and buy up the remains at bargain-bin prices.

Malagurski, far from a pessimist, reminds his audience continuously that a better solution does exist and that peace and reconciliation are not only possible now, they always have been.  But the temptations of extreme ethnic nationalism, scapegoating, greed and servility to the hollow promises of the EU must be overcome.

Many thanks to Vuk Stefanovic for recommending this movie; it is a must-watch!

23 May 2012

Postmodernism, irony and the ontology of violence

I seem to be engaging more and more with Sam Crane’s Useless Tree these days, in a fairly critical fashion; though it is absolutely a compliment to him and to his writing that it remains so thoroughly thought-provoking. Recently he addresses a comment from the (likewise thoughtful and thought-provoking) melektaus of Hidden Harmonies on this blog post, which goes thus:
All this talk of imposing or importing outside values on China but there is little talk I hear of importing Chinese values to the west. I believe that the west needs more of Chinese values, especially Confucian values, than China needs western values.
Which is perhaps true; I would prefer to say that I believe that the West more usefully could take reference from more of its own traditional values and virtues, particularly those values which overlap (more or less) with Confucianism, particularly those from the apostolic Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox traditions.  This is because I am in favour of a society which treats people more equally and with greater dignity (in all senses of the word, social, economic, cultural and political), and which treats opinions and values strictly and rigidly hierarchically.  But I digress somewhat.  Mr Crane has, in reply, a careful reply here (though one with which, naturally, I tend to disagree - as I am very unabashedly one of ‘those who want to hold on to a more traditional “Chinese” notion of Confucianism’), which makes reference to the backdrop of a post-modern world within which this debate over culture and ‘soft power’ is taking place.

Though there are absolutely minor points where I could nitpick Mr Crane’s lesser arguments, particularly about colonialism and imperialism (NATO and EU actions in the former Yugoslavia over the past three decades spring readily to mind, not to mention Iraq and Libya), Mr Crane’s broad argument, if I am parsing it correctly here, is that modernism:
  1. has impacted what became the ‘West’ just as deeply as it impacted the ‘Rest’;
  2. has inevitably progressed from the centralisation and bureaucratisation of power and the secularisation of mass culture into a phase of self-critical, difference-based post-modernity;
  3. has allowed the West to be open to (fragmentary) cultural influence from the ‘Rest’ in ways it had not previously.
As a consequence:
  1. attempts at unilateral transmission of uniquely Chinese forms of ‘soft power’ are somewhat misguided given the fragmentation of political / social / economic spheres and the celebration of difference which lies at the heart of post-modernity, which (along with the modernity with which it is in dialectic tension) is the dominant global paradigm; and
  2. if Confucianism is to be adopted as a system of cultural thought, it must be freed from its particularistic Chinese moorings and adapt itself to Western-style individualism and liberalism.
I believe that Mr Crane’s conclusions rather reflect his own ideological orientation, and there appear to be several antinomies inherent to his argument which he doesn’t really address. One cannot discuss the fate of modernity and the current dominance of post-modernity without a sense of irony. For example, as Mr Crane puts it:
There will have to be a more democratic understanding of Confucianism, or else it will be seen simply as a crude apology for authoritarianism. There will have to be a more individualized Confucianism, or liberal societies will not embrace it (this is not to say it will have to jettison its familial and social ethics; rather, these will have to be re-imagined in the context of a stronger sense of individual self-possession). Instead of being associated with hierachies of power, it will have to adapt to horizontal network relationships.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not such an accommodation to democracy and individualism destroys what makes Confucianism actually tick as a value-system, there remains the subtle question at the back of every post-modernist mind. If, as Mr Crane says, ‘global cultural flows’ get to consistently redefine and reconstruct not only Chinese cultural categories but also ‘Western’ ones (as I believe he has demonstrated very well that they have), what is it that makes ‘democracy’, ‘individualism’ and ‘horizontal networks’ sacrosanct? If there are no firm, hierarchical structures of values upholding these particular cultural constructions, they are every bit as open to negotiation, redefinition and reconstruction as is Confucianism - in all its traditionalist, particularist and hierarchical glory.  To assume otherwise is to miss out on all of the ironies of which the forerunners of post-modern thinking were all too well-aware.  Democratic norms are very easily dismantled by ‘democratic’ processes; just as easily, in fact, as traditionalist norms are (one need not cite, one hopes, every example of a ‘democratically’ elected dictator in world history).  Post-modernism, indeed, further complicates matters by opening spaces for new and destructive forms of particularism:  fundamentalism, ultra-nationalism and fascism are all very much post-modern constructs, dependent upon a post-modern logic which is parasitical upon the epistemic categories of (not to mention the existential threat implied by) modern liberalism.

The demand that Confucianism adapt itself to this particular construction of the cultural ‘arena’, as it were, where ‘soft power’ is really only an extension of ‘hard power’ and values are only justified by success rather than by their intrinsic worth, leaves us in a very un-Confucian (and, for that matter, un-Christian) place; that is to say, a place which assumes (to use the terminology of radical-orthodox theologian John Milbank) an ontology of violence.  Values, and those holding to them, are thrust into an existential zero-sum game, (un-)regulated by the threat of state power should they fall out of line into real zero-sum games.  No preference is a priori given to values which reflect actual human interests over those which do not; the naked pursuits of power, of wealth and of social dominance are given equal standing, in a liberal framework, with the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of love.  Confucianism sits very ill-at-ease with such a framework; classical, apostolic Christianity rejects it outright.

So is it possible to reconcile Confucianism with Western liberalism?  Perhaps, but only at the expense of what makes Confucianism Confucian, just as modern Western liberalism (distinguished by its usury, its disregard for the poor and the abandoned, its contempt for the stability afforded by families and communities, its reliance on state violence as the preferred and often the first means of solving problems) has completely jettisoned what used to make the Christian order Christian.

21 May 2012

War shrines, Uyghur separatists, poison scarves and douchebags

The excellent quasi-new China blog Rectified.name has an interesting post (also here on Batur’s Autonomous Region) on Uyghur multi-millionaire / separatist leader Räbiya Qadyr having, in a stunning display of far-right douchebaggery, recently visited Yasukuni War Shrine in Tokyo and donated 100,000 yen to an organisation supporting Japan’s claims in the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands kerfuffle.  The current Dalai Lama’s claim that she is a ‘paradigm of non-violence’, is, I suppose, a propos - paying respect to actual war criminals and fanning the flames of territorial disputes seems about the proper fare for the ‘non-violent’ activism of the sort the Dalai Lama tends to encourage.

Speak of the devil, the blog post goes on to cite an article in Wired Magazine about a rumoured plot by the Chinese government to assassinate the Dalai Lama by lacing a scarf or a follower’s hair with contact poison.  Of course, given how numerous Dalai Lamas tended to die suspiciously early deaths, quite possibly due to political infighting (pious mystifications and romanticisations of their own history aside), his paranoia does have at least some precedent.  Yet there are numerous problems with any such attempt:  like the assassin herself dying, let alone the question of why the Chinese government would want to assassinate an old man now when they would have had ample opportunity and motive to do so earlier; say, in 1959, when he was actually relevant.

Let us be clear (and I have tried to stake out this middle ground before).  The economic conditions in Xinjiang and Tibet are wretched, and must be changed.  The Chinese government deserves a great deal of credit for having made several attempts to overcome those conditions, but they could absolutely do more.  They could protect the local industries and local businesses in these regions rather than encouraging further the sort of economic integration which benefits rich Han Chinese on the coasts.  They could do more to dissuade ethnic and regional stereotyping beyond the standard neoliberal ‘we are a multi-ethnic society and those problems don’t exist here’ angle, which is as annoying in China as it is in the United States and elsewhere.  They could enable and encourage regional governments to experiment with different models of governance, particularly ones which do not toe the neoliberal line (*ahemChongqingahem*).  But none of these shortcomings can excuse or necessitate reductionist ethno-nationalism, secessionism or the kind of chauvinist posturing and douchiness (expressive word, that; thank you, Dave Lyons) displayed by, in this instance, Räbiya Qadyr.

17 May 2012

Confucius, Chinese culture, the CCP and Eric X Li

Sam Crane has an interesting post in response to a recent HuffPo op-ed piece by Shanghai venture capitalist Eric X Li which touches on a number of themes of interest to me and to this blog.  A number of big questions are raised by both authors:  is popular consent the only legitimate basis on which to found a government, and if so, is Western-style parliamentarianism the only reliable means of adequately reflecting it?  To what extent does ‘culture matter’?  What is the proper role of civil society vis-à-vis government?  Are there such things as ‘universal values’ and how do they relate to the question of culture?  To what extent does the Confucian philosophy have anything to do with the way the Chinese Communist Party operates?  This is basically the West-versus-China culture argument spelled out in its broadest form.  But, as with most such arguments, I come at it from a view informed by Western culture and philosophy which is sympathetic to some of the critiques of Western culture from Chinese sources, and I think both arguments deserve a bit of parsing from just such a vantage point.

Firstly, the question of cultural (in)commensurability. Mr Li writes:
Cultures are fundamentally incommensurate to each other and that is why the Chinese model is not exportable, neither is the modern Western model. It is no accident that, with a few exceptions due to notably unique circumstances, electoral democracies have not been successful in bringing peace and prosperity to countries outside of the Judeo-Christian West. With all the elections that have been imposed on them by Western conquerors or their own elites, the vast number of countries in Africa and Asia are still mired in poverty and civil strife, causing untold sufferings to hundreds of millions. Perhaps the only thing that is exportable from the Chinese experience is that each culture must find its own path.
To which Mr Crane writes in response:
This shows how useless the term “culture” is. “Chinese culture” is a collection of many, many practices and ideas and beliefs. It is big and vast and complicated. Within it are its own instances of value incommensurability (which is one possible way to understand Chen Guangcheng's stance v. those who seek to repress him). In its vastness, there are similarities and differences with “American culture.” Most aspects of “Chinese culture” are certainly commensurable with “American culture” or other instances of “culture” globally. (I am not quite ready to say all instances of “Chinese culture” are so commensurable - I am open to suggestions for more specific instances of incommensurability operating at something less abstract than the level of “culture”).


But one really needs to be called out: economics.

I, for one, absolutely believe that economic life is a kind of cultural practice. Markets are based upon certain cultural assumptions and, as they operate, they change other cultural practices. Contemporary China is a powerful example of this. Perhaps nothing has changed “Chinese culture” as much as economic reform of the past thirty years. And those changes have increased the economic-cultural commensurability between China and the US and the “West” and other cultural formations. Yes, of course, there are differences in how the Chinese and American economies operate. But mere difference is not incommensurability, which suggests no general standard can be used for comparison and judgment. And we know, obviously, that every day business men and investors and traders and, yes, “Shanghai venture capitalists,” work hard to find ways to make big piles of money from the dynamic pattern of similarities and differences between China's economy and other economies.

Further, economics, as an intellectual discipline, basicially rejects cultural incommensurability. It claims to be a universal science (a claim that I do not really accept because they take it too far, ignoring cultural differences within a broader commensurability). Ask Justin Lin Yifu if China is economically-culturally incommensurable and I suspect he would just laugh.

And there's your irony: if Eric X. Li was right, he'd be out of a job. And the fact that he is a successful transcultural investor demonstrates that he is wrong in his assertion of cultural incommensurability.
I think that Mr Crane overstates his case more than just a bit when he claims that ‘culture’ is semantically useless.  I believe that he could stand to read some Sam Huntington on the topic; even though his own ‘clash of cultures’ hypothesis is a bit overblown as well, he does demonstrate that the nexus of value- and norm-formations which make up the lifestyles of different people worldwide, particularly as regards religion, is not something which can be ‘flattened out’ into explanations amenable to language other than that of culture.  The fact that Mr Crane himself says that culture is something ‘big and vast and complicated’ seems to be, inspected logically, an assertion that one cannot break it down or explain it in other, more useful terms, which makes it semantically useful in this case.  Just because Chinese culture doesn’t necessarily work the way Eric X Li (or the CCP, for that matter) says it does / wants it to, doesn’t make it any less real or any less analytically significant - as Mr Crane’s own argument brings to light.

But the rest of Mr Crane’s argument is keen, insightful and well-reasoned, though I would argue that he does not necessarily take it to its logical conclusion.  Modern, globalist, capitalist economic life absolutely is a form of cultural expression thus broadly stated, but it is predatory.  It invades and replaces value-systems which have a surface commensurability with it, and actively silences or destroys value-systems which do not, backed by the arsenal of the modern nation-state which is its closest ally.  (Think, for example, of the American labour movement, backed as it was by radical Catholic social thought and liberal Protestant socialism, which was first actively crushed by state bodies such as the National Guard, and afterwards appeased into acceptance of capitalist norms by vital-centre dealbreaking.)  The reason modern (neoclassical) economics rejects cultural incommensurability is precisely because it wants to hide the fact that the system it champions preys upon all forms of cultural expression, whether commensurable or incommensurable.  And this is what leads me to agree with Sam Crane’s larger point:  that the Chinese Communist Party is not genuinely Confucian, particularly not Deng Xiaoping or his successors.

Confucianism is not opposed to the pursuit of wealth or power per se.  Having material wealth or physical power is not condemned or censured or seen as problematic in traditional Confucian texts the way it is in, say, the Gospels.  What is seen as problematic in Confucian philosophy is consideration of wealth (利) or power (力) before, or without a proportionate or greater emphasis on virtue (德), as interpreted through a community in the physical form of ritual (禮), as governed by the principles of rightness (義) and loving-kindness (仁).  The danger of reading and taking seriously a work like Mencius is that one can very easily come away from it thinking like a radical virtue-ethicist, the way Kang Youwei and Kang Xiaoguang did.  Both men have offered, with the intellectual armaments of Confucius and Mencius at their hands, exceptionally strong and thoroughgoing critiques not only of modern economic life and its inherent destructiveness to community, but also of the methodological individualism which trains and motivates both it and the broader descendants of the political-economic discipline in the Western academy.  By contrast, we can trace the points where the Marxism-Leninism-Maoism of the Chinese Communist Party has acquiesced to the reigning logic of modern capitalism, beginning not just with Deng Xiaoping but with Mao himself.  The silencing of anti-capitalist political leaders like Bo Xilai and of anti-‘capitalist’ legal scholars like Chen Guangcheng by the Chinese government attests to this fact.

Eric X Li is very right, though, to say that the approach to dealing with power is different in Confucianism than it is in modern Western thought, which shares certain operating assumptions with Legalism.  ‘Checks and balances’ in modern Western political thought - say, the Federalist Papers, which still enjoy entirely too much currency in popular American political thinking today even if they are not cited - are entirely about extrinsic motivation:  in order to prevent tyranny and approximate something resembling justice, one has to use the ambitions and resources of powerful people and interest groups to constrain would-be tyrants.  Confucius and his students, on the other hand, were entirely about using intrinsic motivation to prevent abuse of power:  only by appeal to, and cultivation of, good habits in princes, in states and in families, can power be rightly checked.  Where Confucius was dedicated to the project of regulating through education and internal cultivation the libido dominandi (the ‘lust for dominion’), modern Western political and economic thinking since Machiavelli has given up that project.  This has been a great loss - traditional Western, specifically traditional Christian thought as exemplified in the communitarian, intellectualist Catholic and Orthodox faiths, has much more in common with Confucius than Eric X Li gives it credit.  And, following Sam Crane’s argument, the modern Chinese Communist Party has far more in common with Han Fei than it does with Confucius.  As does the modern West.

One final thought:  Mr Li is absolutely right to point out the dangers of the existential-moral ‘children of light’ certitude which infects Western democracies, and also right to point out the Leninist roots of that certitude.  The projects to reshape the world anew in the image of America through conquest, awful bitter bloody farces as they have been and unpopular as they have become, have not died out at all.  Their perpetrators are once again making moves to regain public sympathy, and those of us who opposed them from the start must make sure that the neocons and the perfidious liberals who supported them in their murderous folly do not lead us into the same sort of mistake again.

09 May 2012

Pointed video post – ‘The Art of Reason’ by Threshold

I will not let my idle, long-winded bloviations get in the way of such a talented and astute songwriter as Threshold’s Richard West – particularly not on a song like this one.  Best to allow it to speak for itself:
Sorry for being angry, sorry for being numb;
Sorry for all the dreaming I really should have done –
I thought that I was blameless, I thought that I was safe;
I thought that a happy ending would happen anyway.

Shallow the crusader and shallow their crusade,
But deep the ideology that brings them into play.
Political correctness, a foil for our minds:
A false exoneration to cover up the crimes.

I can't believe we never noticed;
I can't believe it took so long
For us to turn around the future,
By standing up for what we all believed in all along.

It was there right before our eyes; we were blind not to realise:
In the rush to be globalised we signed away our freedom.
We forgot how to criticise; we were scared to be demonised.
As the truth was neutralised we lost the art of reason.
It has historically been the case that Britain has put out the highest calibre of ‘thinking man’s’ heavy metal; glad to see that the tradition of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Legend is alive and healthy in Threshold.

Vive la France Hollandaise!

Image courtesy the Guardian 
Well, someone is happy (and rightly so, it seems) about François Hollande’s victory in France.  Paul Krugman writes:
Needless to say, that’s not what you heard from the usual suspects in the run-up to the elections. It was actually kind of funny to see the apostles of orthodoxy trying to portray the cautious, mild-mannered François Hollande as a figure of menace. He is “rather dangerous,” declared The Economist, which observed that he “genuinely believes in the need to create a fairer society.” Quelle horreur!

What is true is that Mr. Hollande’s victory means the end of “Merkozy,” the Franco-German axis that has enforced the austerity regime of the past two years. This would be a “dangerous” development if that strategy were working, or even had a reasonable chance of working. But it isn’t and doesn’t; it’s time to move on. Europe’s voters, it turns out, are wiser than the Continent’s best and brightest.
The Economist article in question is a rather slipshod piece of work, given its espousal of the tired old Calvinist stereotypes of a ‘prudent north’ of Europe and a ‘spendthrift south’, and its affected and studied ignorance of the trade imbalances which have rocketed the growth of urban centres in Germany and France, at the expense of the ‘spendthrifts’ who actually provide markets for their businesses.  But the more interesting analysis should be of which voters are these which catapulted to power France’s first socialist president in over twenty years.

Hollande’s bases of support against Sarkozy (and Le Pen in the primaries a couple of weeks back) were, in short, primarily in la France profonde (‘deep France’ or the French countryside) - notably those parts of the French countryside whose tongue differs significantly from the Parisian langue d’oïl.  The historically Angevin and Anglophile Gascon- (and Basque-) speaking regions of Guyenne, Poitou, Gascony and the Pyrenees.  The Breton-speakers who retain close linguistic and cultural ties with Wales.  The speakers of Languedocien who look southward to Catalonia.  Socialists, take note that the Front National did not perform well in these places, despite (or perhaps because of) the residents’ Catholicism and their wish to retain their local cultural distinctiveness, traditions and languages.  There is still potential for a politics of paradox to take root in France, powered by a left-leaning social Catholicism.

Of things Chen Guangcheng

The Chen Guangcheng story, a drama (like the Bo Xilai one) fit for the movies, I have tended to keep silent on for the simple reason that it is not (regardless of how it is portrayed in either the New York Times or in the People’s Daily) a black-and-white issue.  It involves numerous layers of policy, ideology and logistical considerations, and does not simply devolve on the status and rights of one man (or on the status and rights of one nation, for that matter).  Speaking out on it immediately after the fact, before all facts are known and verified, tends to generate more heat than light; this is a problem just as much in the blogosphere (I am looking at you, both ChinaGeeks and Hidden Harmonies - though some definite kudos to DeWang for posting a reasonably fair-minded summary of the case, with some commentary) as it is on American cable television.

I have three distinct impressions of the case.
  1. Chen Guangcheng is not necessarily an activist. Or rather, if he is, he is a very softspoken one. He is a lawyer. He is a good lawyer, self-taught. He takes on cases which are challenging and politically inconvenient, and he generally takes cases that elicit his sympathy - which is a good thing, because he knows what it is like to live in poverty in China. Forced sterilisations and forced abortions are wrong (particularly when done along class lines) no matter who does them - the heirs of Andrew Carnegie or the Chinese government - and Chen Guangcheng was right to challenge that policy (and it should be noted that he did so under existing Chinese law, even if he did have contacts with the NED). But either demonising him as a tool of American foreign policy instruments or hailing him as some kind of hero and visionary trying to effect systemic change in China would be misguided at best.

  2. The United States can and should do only so much. I take this stance as a citizen of that country and one who cares very deeply about it, and as a Christian. As a citizen, we have no business being the world’s policemen, judges, juries and executioners before we can fix our own society and make it the best it can be. It is patriotic for Americans to be aware of, and to oppose, the activities of the neocon-dominated NED and its sockpuppets in China, who assume that our resources are unlimited and that we should make all of our decisions based on (their) ideological purity. This position got us into massive amounts of trouble and needless debt under the Bush Administration, and it will do so again unless we get a dousing of cold, realistic water. As a Christian, I believe that he who is without sin should be casting the first stone, and that applies just as much to us as to the Chinese government.

  3. China must take responsibility for its own moral growth as a country. This means that, if China is so insistent about not being told what to do by the likes of me (or any other such ‘full-bellied idle foreigners’ [吃飽了沒事幹的外國人], as Xi Jinping once charmingly put it), then they will have to provide some sort of moral direction for their own people which does not leave it beholden to... well, us. Capitalism was a foreign import. So was nationalism. So was Marxism. Though the dichotomy between foreign and domestic may turn out to be unsustainable if we consider even nationalism to be an inappropriate framework for building a moral consciousness amongst the powers that be, it is not the case that China does not have its own philosophical and ideological resources to draw upon in cases like Chen Guangcheng’s. The question must be asked, what would Confucius do?  I do not think it is necessarily clear what he would do in such a case, but at least that might get us thinking about the right kinds of questions.
The Chen Guangcheng case is particularly tragic, because it is increasingly appearing as though no one’s hands are clean (with the exception of Chen’s family, who appear to be used as pawns in this), there is no easy solution, and everyone is pointing fingers.  It is all the more tragic (and all the more dangerous) because those who believe they are right believe so absolutely.

Realism and the Democrats

Via David Lindsay, a highly edifying piece in The American Conservative by Salon’s Jordan Michael Smith.  A few choice quotes:

The beginning of the Truman administration was in many ways the apogee of Democratic foreign-policy realism. With Kennan an influential member of the State Department and Secretary of State George Marshall the most persuasive voice in the president’s ear, Truman reoriented U.S. foreign policy towards containing the Soviet Union. The Marshall Plan that did so much to rebuild Western Europe was, according to Kennan, the quintessential example of his containment theory in practice. The creation of NATO was likewise an essential move for convincing Western Europe of American security commitments. And Marshall nearly single-handedly kept the U.S. out of a potentially cataclysmic war with China, according to the political scientist Robert Jervis.

There is no doubt that the Truman administration also contained significant elements of liberalism and missionary zeal. Expanding the Korean War above the 49th parallel, the Truman Doctrine of aiding any government resisting Communism, a defense build-up beyond what was necessary—these policies lacked the crucial realist element of proportion, as Kennan, Lippman, and others warned at the time.

Yet the Truman administration synthesized a strategy for containing (and eventually defeating) the Soviets without waging war. Despite Truman’s mistakes, even his expanded containment doctrine was more realist-minded than the Republican plan of rollback, a more aggressive, forward-leaning policy than mere containment of the Soviets.

It was only during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that Democrats fully embraced crusading liberalism. As theorized by Kennan, Morgenthau, and Lippman, containment was only supposed to be applied to Europe, but the Korean conflict convinced policymakers that the Cold War was a global struggle. Kennedy and Johnson pursued this notion to its logical conclusion, ensnaring America in futile, counterproductive adventures in Cuba, Laos, and most disastrously, Vietnam. Nevertheless, “the idea that Democrats are the party of human rights and Republicans are the party of realists is just a caricature,” says Joseph Nye, assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration.


With Kissingerism wrongly conflated with realism, it is no wonder the American public associates the latter with brutality. And even apart from that, there are those who argue that realism can never gain a dependable foothold in this country. They point to the messianic aspects of the American character and argue that liberalism is hard-wired into the country’s DNA. “Getting Americans to support realism is something of an uphill battle,” says Walt. “It often becomes popular in this country only when things get bad.”

But that’s why realism has made something of a comeback in the wake of the Iraq War. That misadventure is a prime example of how seemingly noble aims can lead to disastrous outcomes, both for the United States and for those the U.S. intends to liberate. With its doctrine of preventive war, disdain for allies, and disregard for the probable consequences of failure, the Bush administration was “explicitly anti-realist,” the prominent realist Kenneth Waltz said in 2006. He once voted for Republicans, but “like most of today’s realists, Waltz is now a Democrat—a trend that he views as a reaction to the capture of the Republican Party, from Ronald Reagan onward, by remake-the-world ideologues,” the National Journal reported.


Now realists and liberals are increasingly lining up on the same side of the political balance sheet on issue after issue: withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for U.S. pressure to force an Israeli-Palestinian peace, diplomacy toward Iran, cutting the defense budget, and protecting civil liberties. “What you’re seeing right now is realists, the left, and some libertarians acting together in opposition to liberal internationalists and the neocons,” says Walt. Michael Lind goes farther: “Obama comes out of the realist wing of the Republican Party,” he says. “I think he is basically a Rockefeller Republican.”

President Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan runs contrary to realist logic, which says that counterinsurgency and nation-building are doomed strategies. His foreign-policy advisers include numerous humanitarian interventionists, who prevailed on him to intervene in Libya last year. But there are at least elements of realism in the Obama administration, which is more than can be said for today’s GOP. Vice President Biden, for example, has pushed for the president to focus on defeating only Al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, in Afghanistan. “The person Colin Powell called most often when he was secretary of state was Joe Biden,” says Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s former chief of staff. Most realists have been disappointed in Obama, but the alternative—a Republican Party that remains in thrall to hawkish ideologues—may be even worse. Realists might have to get used to putting a “D” beside their names. It won’t be the first time they have done so.

My dad in particular likes to argue - and I agree with him - that Niebuhr is slightly oversold in this day and age. But there is a good reason for it, if for no other reason than that our current situation looks so much like the Vietnam Era - but with the liberal internationalists and the neocons on the Republican side rather than on the Democratic one.  It is interesting, but far from surprising, to see the argument that FDR and Truman were more conservative - more realist - than the Republicans of their time, and that it was only with Kennedy and Johnson that Wilsonian liberalism returned in force to the Democratic Party.

05 May 2012

Victoria y libertad!

Happy Fifth of May!

Now, one might be wondering what business a high Tory might have in celebrating a holiday which is most closely associated with a string of historical events in Mexico which led to the disruption of the Catholic Church in that country and the violent dismantling of the monarchy under the liberal, republican regime which followed the death of Maximilian I.  And that regime was absolutely not blameless, expropriating the property of the Church in a particularly brutal manner reminiscent of Henry VIII.  So I very much realise that I leave myself open to the charge of hypocrisy, given my stance on the War of American Independence, but one must keep in mind that the context and the consequences - despite a few surface similarities - were vastly different.

For one thing, the Fifth of May, in spite of the popular mythology in El Norte, is in fact not a national holiday in Mexico.  It is a local holiday in the state of Puebla; and given that the Battle of Puebla did occur in their own backyard, memorialising the event is a form of local and community spirit that I absolutely endorse.  In fact, the Fifth of May is much more widely celebrated amongst the Mexican-American community here in the United States, for several historical reasons.

Secondly, the distinction between monarchy and empire should be upheld.  Though American popular mythology likes to cast the British regime against which it fought as an empire, there was in fact (in the Proclamation of 1763) a deliberate attempt to rein in the forces of empire by a British government which had grown weary of protecting an expanding border.  The American colonists were British subjects, and therefore obliged to pay in taxation for the privileges they enjoyed as such - including the protection which they asked for in the Seven Years’ War.  Mexico, indeed, also had a number of war debts outstanding to France, Britain and Spain at the time of the French invasion; however, the British and Spanish governments agreed to a reasonable settlement whereas Napoléon III was bent on conquest and the expansion of his empire.  The monarchy he sought to impose on Mexico, unlike the British monarchy in North America (sustained after the WAI and vindicated in the nation of Canada) was not one recognised by the inhabitants or demanded by tradition.  Nor was it particularly friendly to either:  the monarch himself had uprooted himself from his Old World family and seemed hell-bent on continuing Benito Juárez’s policy of curtailing the rights of the Catholic Church in Mexico, ballooning Mexico’s debts to France and opening Mexican resources to French exploitation under Napoleon III’s aggressive ‘free’ trade agreements.  It was clear that Maximilian had every intent of ruling as the Napoleon of the New World rather than as the bastion of Catholicism and the common good which his conservative supporters had hoped he would be, or as the Mexican version of the Meiji Emperor he might have been.  As such, it should come as very little surprise that Maximilian I was rejected even by such conservative Catholics as Archbishop Labastida y Dávalos once he came to power; by 1865 and 1866 most former conservative generals were backing their former archrival Juárez against the detested Maximilian, with only a few entrenched holdouts continuing to back the French puppet monarchy.

Thirdly, there is the intertwined impact of French policy on Mexico and the United States to consider.  The history of the United States might have looked very different had the French intervention succeeded; in spite of - nay, because of - Napoleon III’s economic liberal political bent, he had a very favourable attitude toward the illegal Confederacy, and moved his country toward a recognition of that polity which required one of two things.  The first would be the recognition of the CSA by another European power, preferably Britain.  Failing that, however, the second would be a firm foothold in the Americas, a position which the insurrection of Juárez supporters rather thwarted.  Juárez supporters in El Norte and elsewhere in the United States saw the Union cause and the Mexican Republican cause as being inherently linked, each a front in a struggle against a long legacy of imperialism and colonial rapine.

It is a very interesting bit of history, though certainly tragic for the Catholic Church, which found very few friends either amongst the openly-hostile Republicans or amongst the hypocritical French.  At the end of the day, however, what right there was in this fight was probably ultimately to be found on the side of Juárez and Zaragoza.

04 May 2012

Pointless video post – ‘Screenslaves’ by Paragon

Hamburg’s Paragon are in the same category, more or less, as Grave Digger or Accept in terms of musical style, but they certainly know how to put out simple, catchy, hard-hitting rock anthems.  For the most part, they stick to the dark fantasy and war themes typical of power metal, but they do at times diverge from their preferred path.  This one, the title track from their 2009 album Screenslaves, is a prime example.  Though they caught a lot of flak on this last album for aiming at a more commercial sound (and for doing a metallised cover of the Backstreet Boys’ ‘Larger than Life’ – a highly significant improvement over the original, but still…), on the whole this album is still quite solid.  And the track is pretty a propos; we are a people who have become, to a large degree, slaves to machines.  (That goes just as much for this blogger as for anyone else, it should be said.)  Anyway, enjoy!

01 May 2012

First of May

Happy International Labour Day! Also, happy ‘my thesis is done and I now have a master’s degree’ day, at least for me. It has been an exhausting couple of months, with the end of term, my thesis being wrapped up and my getting married, but I should hope I pulled through it with some measure of grace and gratitude. Well, we shall see what Mrs Cooper has to say about that, but… I for one am a bit relieved. Now it is only a matter of finding a job in a very slow market…