29 August 2012

One lesson from Apple v. Samsung (and other recent events)

An interesting lesson from the entire Apple v. Samsung affaire was that there are certain things that cyberpunk got right. And there are other things that the literary-cultural movement got wrong. But it got much more right than it got wrong.

The movement in computer technology drifts not, as technoutopians (including many cyberlibertarians) would have it, toward greater openness, greater flow of information and ever-increasing substantive degrees of personal freedom, as government structures founder ineffectually in a rusty, industrial-age obsolescence. Instead, the apostles of personal computing and networking have ushered in the same Coke-and-Pepsi choices that have characterised the rest of late-capitalist modernity. The vast majority of computer users have the choice of Windows versus Mac OS, PC versus Apple. And that choice constrains to a significant degree what you can and cannot do, unless you have a degree of willpower and technological savvy which allows you to do end-runs around proprietary structures and programmes which govern not only your machine, but the potentially infinite number of other terminals and users to which you are connected. Rather than being empowering, this level of technology only erects another dimension of illusory choice.

Aesthetically, as well, Apple in particular set the trend toward a superlative form of modernist design: sleek, monolithic, monochrome capsules which exude ‘trendiness’ and ‘convenience’, which less-enlightened megacorporations are seeking to emulate. Note that, for the Apple product, the end user is of secondary importance, even an afterthought – Apple Corporation tells you what is and isn’t ‘cool’, what is and isn’t ‘hip’, what is and isn’t allowed. What do you mean, you want to use Adobe Flash? What, you want to add more memory to your white-and-chrome monolith than the extra 512 MB that the Corporation very generously deigns to permit you to purchase built-in? That would totally throw off the design, man! Begone, vile square (pun intended)! Megacorporations may not have taken up the brutalist glass-and-steel-ziggurat visual style in the exact way envisioned by, for example, Blade Runner and The Matrix, but Apple’s vision is every bit as hypermodernist, consolidated, monolithic and dictatorial, even if the sleek, smooth curves put a slightly friendlier face on the aesthetic.

But the real audacity of Apple was to tell its consumers through a clever and insidious advertising campaign that by conforming to its consolidated, top-down, end-user-optional vision of computing, they are being ‘rebellious’ and ‘countercultural’ (just like Einstein, Dr King and Gandhi!), and generally ‘thinking outside the [PC] box’. Put this way, of course, the technoutopian vision looks downright naïve.

To their everlasting credit, the likes of William Gibson, Philip K Dick and Edward Neumeier did envision a future where this level of interconnectivity and corporate dominance served to keep people quiescent and constrain people’s choices in a sort of dystopia, rather than liberating them. They fell prey to the same error as the technoutopians they critiqued, however, in that they thought that government would be made obsolete as networking increased and computing became more ubiquitous and sophisticated. (OCP doesn’t run the cops, per se, but they do have free run of the courts and the legislature, as the concerted efforts to pass SOPA and PIPA, as well as DMCA-prompted crackdowns on file-sharing websites, have borne witness!) Coming from the other angle, of course, we have Evgeny Morozov pointing out how networking and social technologies are tools which determined and savvy authoritarian governments can potentially use to their advantage. There are certain elements of Facebook, indeed (particularly the ways in which it compromises user privacy), which could very readily adapt themselves to a corporatist form of authoritarianism.

There are a number of other things we have seen cyberpunk get right in the meantime, one of which is the rise of activist forms of cyberanarchism, represented by the likes of Julian Assange and Anonymous. They aren’t exactly hard-boiled, hard-drinking cybernetic ninjas… that I am aware of. But even so, they do seem to be motivated by a sense of rather understandable dissatisfaction with and alienation from the (increasingly consolidated, increasingly opaque, increasingly unaccountable) direction technologies and their applications have taken.

28 August 2012

Pointless video post - ‘Dust to Dust’ by Sinbreed

What is it about Germany? Seriously. They always seem to churn out these unspeakably talented bands, including relatively new ones like Sinbreed (see also their Encyclopædia Metallum entry, here - sporting members of both Blind Guardian and Seventh Avenue? I’m in). They are not an explicitly Christian band, though their lyrics do tend towards Abrahamic meditations on fate, free will, sin and redemption, with a few darker Orwellian and Lewisian themes thrown in for good measure; not quite Threshold, but still a bit more weighty and philosophical in terms of subject matter than most power metal bands of this style. More to the point, though, these guys are holding high the raw, thrashy Teutonic power-metal torch of bands like Accept, Paragon, Grave Digger and Rage, pumping out chunky, thundering riffs with total conviction whilst still remaining open to a bit of keyboard experimentation more along the lines of Lost Horizon or Sabaton. Some melodic ear-candy here for those of my readers who got tired of me posting thrash videos in my PVPs; enjoy it!

羽翼已成 (Wings fully grown)

Sir Nick Young, OBE, at the China Development Brief has a very broad-ranging, constructive and thoughtful critique of non-governmental organisations and foreign aid in China. For one thing (though such a characterisation hardly does it justice), it studiously avoids both the tired old Hudge and Gudge (or, should I say, ‘He and Ge 何與葛’?) critiques of aid which are sadly still all too common in development parlance, and places a deliberate focus on the ‘homegrown’ aspect of civil society which a right-thinking distributist ought to admire as well as on the correct relationship between civil society and government which ought to be the concern not just of distributists but also of, for example, Tocquevillean liberals. (And the fact that he favourably cites the work of Cambridge University institutional economist Dr Chang Ha-Joon in his section on the Washington Consensus and modernisation theory very much further endears him to me.)

The policy brief is very much worth reading in full, but to sum up, Sir Young is much concerned with setting out a proper history of development aid in China, and from there using the history to set out his major criticisms. These have to do (roughly) with a.) the degree to which adoption of foreign-imported institutions (and, to a lesser extent, technologies) is possible and desirable; b.) the historical differences in policy approach between countries which have toed the Washington Consensus line and those (like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) which were more flexible, and the degree of success in each model; c.) the role of NGOs in challenging, carrying out and being shaped by official, neoliberal aid policy on the donor front; and d.) the nature of the relationship between ‘governance’, ‘government’ and ‘civil society’ on the recipient front (including whether or not the role of ‘civil society’ is always to oppose ‘government’ power and interference). The gist of his argument carries several shades of nuance, but Sir Young does take note that (firstly) as a result of several economic sea-changes, the amount of foreign aid which goes to China from OECD nations is likely to decline, and with it the foreign-funded sections of the ‘civil society’ are likely to dwindle. In their place, though, NGOs which have managed to find and cultivate a sustainable local funding base may find their wings fully grown (羽翼已成, to quote the Chinese aphorism), and are likely to take up the slack. There is reason to hope, furthermore, that these NGOs will, once freed from a Western paradigm in which ‘civil society’ serves a ‘regime change’ function of agitation against government, be able to scout their own way forward - neither dependent on government nor actively seeking to undermine it. And government will respond by lightening up their suspicions of civil society as an instrument of foreign-imposed political instability (a topic on which the Chinese have good historical reasons to be concerned).

This last thought seems to be the punchline of the brief, and there is much in it that strikes me as both intuitive and true. But I would like to see it further fleshed-out, perhaps in further briefs. China Development Brief is certainly something to check back on!

27 August 2012

Winds shifting over the borderlands (and other news)

Another Ukrainian election is looming, and the current president and leader of the centrist, federalist Party of Regions, Mr Viktor Yanukovich, is turning his sights toward the east, notably seeking for his country observer status within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a loose economic federation which includes Russia, China and several Central Asian nations. This should not really come as any surprise; despite the complicated love-hate relationship between the heirs to the Principality of Kiev and to the Principality of Rostov-Suzdal and Grand Duchy of Muscovy, and the often-infuriatingly retrenched language politics (see also here for the opposing view) endemic to Eastern Europe, the Ukraine and Russia see eye-to-eye more often than not. It is practically a form of sibling rivalry: though a few Ukrainians might gripe about the ‘Muscovites’ and their ways, opinion polls show a (perhaps grudging?) mutual respect between the two old principalities and their people; and many Ukrainians still prefer the old, familiar rival on their doorstep to the even more foreign EU and NATO powers.

There have also been a couple of very worthwhile China articles this past week: one by Maj Gen Chen Zhou on how the ABM programme (not quite my area of expertise) is actually a detriment to global (and to American) security; and by Mr James Traub on Foreign Policy (by his own emphasis, not an old China hand) on how the US needs to get serious about infrastructure planning, and on how China is an instructive example in this case. Though China’s infrastructure planning itself has problems, the lesson should be well-taken that the United States should return to its emphasis on making, building and producing things, notably things of lasting value (meaning, not missiles, but rather steel and silicon consumer manufactures, real food, schools and libraries, bridges and trains), and it should be building them here. We should regain, or begin building from scratch, an appreciation for ritual and tradition. We should place more faith in soft power than in the instruments of political and economic sabotage, coercion and war. We should cease denigrating all forms of public service and begin appreciating the value of job security. We should recognise that, though each individual human being is fallible enough, human beings in general are resources for the Earth as well as consumers.

The American Conservative, in fine form today

There are times when I wonder if I should be worried that I am linking to so many stories on The American Conservative, but I can’t really help myself when the writing is this good and the arguments this right-headed (no pun intended). Daniel Larison is busy doing his noble work, to wit: the American equivalent of calmly and logically deflating wumao netizen conspiracy theorists, the conspiracy theorist du jour being Dr William Martel of Tufts University. Dr Larison’s arguments, of course, are fairly commonsensical for those of us who have studied both Russia and China - world powers which have their own economic and national security interests which do not always overlap. (Indeed, for all of our complaints about Chinese and Russian industrial espionage against the United States, they do not seem too averse to doing it to each other, particularly where military tech is concerned.) North Korea, Cuba and Iran are ludicrous additions to this supposed ‘axis’, as the only reason these nations do so much business with Russia and China is because, on account of sanctions, there is literally nowhere else to go. This is not an indictment of our economic policies toward them (well, maybe in Cuba’s and Iran’s cases it could be), but merely a statement of fact. The Chinese attitude toward North Korea nowadays is a notably ambivalent one, as many keen China-watchers have pointed out already. Likewise, these nations are not the sole bastions of ideological authoritarianism in the world: notable for their absence from Martel’s list are nations like Turkmenistan, Georgia, Albania (or its outpost of fundamentalist thugs in Kosovo), Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and practically all of the Gulf states. These nations are all amply authoritarian, yet are for all practical purposes aligned with the geopolitical agendas of many countries in what Dr Martel considers ‘the West’ (though this concept is also deconstructed adeptly by Dr Larison).

On a purely empirical basis, then, the ‘Authoritarian Axis’ model fails. Dr Larison does an excellent job of demonstrating this much. Going a bit further, though, one can readily see the appeal that the ‘Authoritarian Axis’ model would have for anyone seeking to create a normative space for a neoconservative policy agenda. Though Martel distances his model explicitly from the Bush-era ‘Axis of Evil’, it is noteworthy that he is actually broadening this category and turning it into an ideological one rather than one based on supposed threats to national security. Because it is now (rightly) rather passé to declare that the United States is under the immanent threat of attack (whether of the ‘smoking gun’ or the ‘ticking time-bomb’ varieties) from any of these countries, the neocons will be forced to adopt the language of existential threat, precisely as Dr Martel is doing here.

Another excellent article by author and former Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren on TAC concerns the way in which traditionalist conservatives ought to be questioning creeds such as vulgar Calvinism and Social Darwinism, and how they ought not to fear revolt from below but rather revolt from above, from an elite which are (to quote the Chinese pun) 和尚打傘--無發無天 ‘monks bearing umbrellas--without hair [law] and without Heaven’. This is an age where the working classes, having been denied it by a global order where capital is free to float about wherever its owners choose, desire stability most of all (for themselves, for their families and for their communities), and where the people who desire economic stability least are the ones in positions of power. As Mr Lofgren very aptly puts it:
If a morally acceptable American conservatism is ever to extricate itself from a pseudo-scientific inverted Marxist economic theory, it must grasp that order, tradition, and stability are not coterminous with an uncritical worship of the Almighty Dollar, nor with obeisance to the demands of the wealthy.
Great stuff. There is a lot of material on The American Conservative which can appeal to us lefties these days. Perhaps we should always have been taking this sort of thing seriously.

25 August 2012

Rableh and the rebellion

Over the past two weeks, the town of Rableh in Syria, home to over 12,000 people, most of them Christians, was being held under siege by FSA insurgents. They would not allow in either food or medical supplies, so those inside were subsisting on bread and water, and could not treat their wounded and dying. Anyone daring to leave the town would be shot at by insurgent snipers, as would anyone attempting to bring food or water into the town. Only earlier today were the Syrian regulars able to chase the insurgents from Rableh, and allow for the infrastructure of the town to be repaired.

Progressive Catholic and evangelical voices had been calling for some international attention to the situation in Rableh. However, I could find no secular sources outside Russia Today, The Voice of Russia and the Canadian National Post which would even touch the subject. It is not one which fits in with the preordained Western media narrative of the hip, peaceful demonstrators being mown down senselessly by the bloodthirsty, iron-fisted Assad regime. But this incident, and the lack of coverage, is indicative that a good deal more is going on in Syria than we are being allowed to see. If we truly want to aid the causes of peace and human rights in Syria today, we need to look far more carefully before we leap toward actions we may have good cause to regret.

24 August 2012

Pointless video post - ‘Native Blood’ by Testament

There are multiple reasons why Testament continue to completely kick arse. Most of them are amply demonstrated on this year’s album Dark Roots of Earth, including this track, ‘Native Blood’. Testament are at their best when their music edges toward the political, I find - one of the reasons I enjoyed Low so much, in point of fact - and it is good to see they haven’t lost their touch, and the not-so-subtle note of native defiance that one can find on, say, ‘Allegiance’. This song in particular shows the more melodic direction they have been heading in arguably since The Ritual, but they haven’t lost the ability to throw down a few mean riffs in the meanwhile. Great stuff here - enjoy, folks!

For the late great Alex Cockburn

Very strong praise yesterday from an (on its face) unlikely corner, The American Conservative’s publisher, Ron Unz - including a favourable comparison with William F Buckley, Jr. Indeed, the fact that a dedicated ‘left-contrarian’ like Mr Cockburn could attract to his fine publication CounterPunch a number of equally dedicated conservatives, even of the movement variety who had grown disgruntled with the ideological rigidity and the changes that were taking place under their feet, as it were, says a great deal about the man. Even more so when one considers that he also has been defended by anti-establishment left-liberal thinkers of a more recent vintage, like Corey Robin.

I won’t do my readers the intellectual disservice of making the point that every supposedly Very Serious left-of-centre commentator and his mother thought it necessary after his death to drive home with a sledgehammer about Cockburn’s apologetics (if they can be so called) for Stalin, long past when it was fashionable for leftists of any stripe to do so, at least in public. Knowing right from wrong is easy in such a case; I feel no need to pile on yet more sanctimony. What is more important and noteworthy about Alex Cockburn (and of the political project of CounterPunch more generally) is that he was one of the ‘old socialists’ who, to quote Dr John Milbank, ‘[began] to realise that [they] should talk with traditionalist Tories’, and did not, unlike his former colleague Chris Hitchens, decide to slide uncritically in with the New Right (which itself was made up mostly of Trots). He provided a much-needed forum for classical conservatives, socialists, radical liberals and the like to compare notes and to critique the mushy centrism of the Powers That Be. Anyone who can make space for a synthesis between, and who can be fondly remembered by, the likes of both Ron Unz and James Wolcott, is certainly worthy of adulation on those grounds alone.

23 August 2012

On Alisa Rosenbaum and ‘legitimate rape’

Susan McWilliams, writing for the Front Porch Republic, has an article which very deftly handles the turgid bodice-ripping prose of Ms Alisa Rosenbaum (better known under her pseudonym Ayn Rand), and points out precisely why it should be considered an unworthy inspiration for any decent human being, let alone any politician. Ms Rosenbaum’s fetishistic (to put it politely) view of human sexuality comes, apparently, from her fascination with serial killer William Edward Hickman (as uncovered in the Michael Prescott article), whom she described as having ‘[t]he best and strongest expression of a real man’s psychology [she had] heard’: namely, the idea that ‘what is good for me is right’ (including, apparently, armed robbery, forgery, and the kidnapping, murder and dismemberment of a twelve-year-old girl), and her indignation not at the hideous and heinous crimes that Hickman had committed against a defenceless young girl, but against the public outrage against him! From there, it follows that all of the heroes in her body of published works are one long extended exercise in putting leather pants on Draco (before having him take them off again in her rape scenes). To say that her philosophy suffers from a certain degree of inherent misogyny would be something of an understatement.

As I remarked earlier, all one really needs to understand about Ms Rosenbaum’s philosophy, political or otherwise, is pretty much encapsulated in her attempts at fiction (and, for that matter, tracts, though she herself seems to have had some significant difficulty distinguishing between the two). And all one really needs to understand about her fandom as well.

Two very important articles by Dr John C Rao

The first, here, should serve as a general primer on the project Dr Rao seeks to pursue through a Catholic lens, and this more recent one is Dr Rao’s missive concerning John Dalberg-Acton, Lord Acton, and the toxicity of the enduring elements of his thought upon Catholic doctrine and certain sections of the Catholic body politic. Both are worth reading in full. I tend to think that Dr Rao’s treatment of Acton, though cursory, is pretty much dead-on: the distinction to be made between power and authority is an important one, particularly today, and it is precisely that distinction which Acton and his acolytes tend to most muddy for self-serving reasons. What Lord Acton sought to achieve by limiting ‘power’ (and authority), was the expansion of licence, which actually does more to encourage corruption than authority wielded justly can. As Dr Rao quotes Jesuit theologian Carlo Maria Curci:
And the truth is that this freedom, as any other unlimited liberty not circumscribed by anything, is nothing other than the privilege agreed upon for the strong to assassinate the weak. In this case, the freedom of the strong is offended, since he is given the arbitrary ability to abuse his faculty, and the freedom of the weak is offended, as he remains the undefended victim of the abuse.
There is quite a bit of truth to Dr Rao’s thesis. Ronald Reagan was swept into office on the premise that ‘government is the problem’, the idea that government lacked authority to govern justly over a capitalist order (an idea which Lord Acton would have approved, and which his cultists still mantrically regurgitate). The actual result of his policies, after all moral authority (for example, that to direct tax money toward programmes for the destitute, the young and the mentally ill) was stripped away, was the expansion of government and the bloating of the public debt: not on welfare programmes for the needy, but on military contracts, missiles and fancy satellite-based defence systems which were completely unworkable. ‘The beast’, as it were, was not starved, but rather bloated: force-fed with junk food and prevented from getting the exercise that it needs. Only when we truly engage with the question of authority rather than the brute power with which the Actonians tend to equate it, can we imagine and then create a government which understands its limits and acts within them.

22 August 2012

Hands off Belarus

Let us be perfectly clear.

Belarus is not a ‘Soviet-legacy’ state. Whatever legacy the Soviet regime left to them, they have deliberately sloughed off under Lukashenko. They are one of only four countries worldwide (the others being Ukraine, Kazakhstan and post-apartheid South Africa) to have completely, unilaterally disarmed themselves of nuclear weapons. For this courageous action they deserve high commendation. It is indeed much more courageous to hand over control of all of one’s nuclear weapons than to, say, fly light aircraft illegally under the radar into another country to drop (however well-intentioned) teddy bears on them. And now the EU is slapping further sanctions upon the beleaguered country. Whatever did they do to piss off the EU so much, besides divesting themselves of their nukes?

Well, we might begin by looking at their economic indicators, like the less than two percent unemployment rate. Or their incredibly low levels of wealth inequality (with a Gini coefficent ranging between 0.217 and 0.272). Or the 99.7% literacy rate (behind only Estonia and Latvia in Eastern Europe, fourth-best in the world). Or the generously state-funded social security programme. Lukashenko may win elections time after time, but there is little to indicate that he does so with any other method than by retaining a high degree of popularity for his economic policies. And all of this has been accomplished largely in defiance of the neoliberal privatisation regimes which popped up everywhere else in Eastern Europe. No wonder the EU cannot stand them!

Or perhaps it is because of their foreign policy. Belarus leans fairly heavily toward Russia geopolitically (for rather obvious cultural reasons), and has good working relationships with many countries the United States government does not like, including Iran (to whose invasion by our country they stand in steadfast and principled opposition). In addition, Belarus also maintains good relations with the Vatican. As David Lindsay put it,
Belarus is so critical of her Soviet past that she has given up her nuclear weapons, while at the same time so critical of the decadence of the Postmodern West and its bloodthirsty globalisation that she is explicitly recognised as an ally by the Pope.
Funny, that.

Here is a nation which has dedicated itself in the international sphere to an active international peace - giving up its own nuclear weapons, ensuring the economic dignity of its own citizens, extending a hand to nations which have been alienated by the rest of the world, standing up against unjust wars. And yet, they are consistently described in the Western press, following the Dubya administration’s ignorant usage, as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’. Ever-tighter sanctions against them are imposed, and ever-shriller rhetoric is employed against their government and people by neocon shills like Nick Cohen and craven privatisation cultists like Guido Westerwelle and Carl Bildt. If such people really cared about democracy and human rights, they would pay more attention to the institutional destruction their own political programmes have wreaked on the democratic structures at home, and the human rights catastrophes their beloved foreign wars have caused in places like Iraq and Libya... and they would keep their bloody hands off Belarus in the meanwhile.

20 August 2012

Pointless video post - ‘Falling Knives’ by Bad Mamasan

Bad Mamasan, a group of expats living in Beijing who formed a band to play Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Motörhead covers, put out an album last year with all-original songs and a thrashier, speedier style. Definitely a different dish than the youngsters in Suffocated or Dinkumoil or Lacerate are serving up, but still mighty tasty; got an older, rougher, meaner thing going on with Jeanine the Wolverine (or, as they call her, in classic acronym-happy thrash style, ‘J. T. W.’)! No frills to be found here, just straight up, stripped-down, pissed-off ‘pure heavy metal’. Enjoy, lads and lassies!

More silliness: the theological orientalism of Sojo

I liken my own position on Pussy Riot to that of Dr Barry Sautman of CUHK on Liu Xiaobo. I oppose the two-year gaol sentence as excessive and unmerciful, but I do not think that they deserve to be hailed as heroes of any sort, particularly when their domestic champions are kleptocrats like Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, or racist cockroaches like Alexei Navalniy. Moreover, I object to their (and their white-knights’) targeting of the Russian Orthodox Church (or any of its sister churches) and the theological orientalism which usually goes into such arguments. What do I mean by theological orientalism, you ask?

As John from EifD commented on my last post about Pussy Riot, Russia is today being treated with the same contempt and condescension in Anglo-American academic circles as the Byzantine Empire once was: to them, Russia is irredeemably backwards, corrupt and tyrannical, with an ah-so-inscrutable, mystical religion doing the Tsar’s bidding by keeping the populace in a state of meek, stupefied subservience. The more I read the comments about the case, the more valid the charge against Anglo-American theology seems. For example, the recent article by Mr Christian Piatt in Sojo (usually a fairly progressive evangelical publication) runs straight down the line on these stereotypes. In Mr Piatt’s reckoning:
this state church has been in the pocket of the government for quite a long time, it turns out. In reading up a little more, the choice of such a church for their protest seems less shocking and more concertedly poignant, given the church’s complicity in promoting the agenda of the Powers that Be. Rather than standing up in the face of authority as an advocate for the poor and oppressed (arguably one of the principal responsibilities of a church), they have joined in the subjugation of human rights in Russia.

So, where better to turn the tables over than in the so-called house of God, turned over time into a gilded bed for political opportunism?
One should be led to ask precisely what ‘reading up’ Mr Piatt has done on the subject. Apparently, he touched no material on the matter on how the Orthodox Church resisted the Bolsheviks until the Second World War was practically on the doorstep. Or about how it was brutally suppressed by Stalin up until the 1940’s, and then again (less bloodily) by Khrushchev in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Were they ‘in the pocket of the government’ when they stood up against the scorched-earth shock-therapy ‘reforms’? Were they not ‘advocat[ing] for the poor and oppressed’ when they issued this statement: ‘We have to learn to resolutely reject criminal amorality in economy and refuse to cooperate with dishonest and unscrupulous people. Those who do not pay wages in good time, humiliate the worker and stifle business through red tape deserve persistent and staunch public condemnation. Economy should be not only effective, but also equitable and merciful, addressed to the human being, not only money and goods’? Or what about the longstanding relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia’s trade unions, even abroad where Orthodox faithful joined such groups as the IWW? Yes, the Russian Orthodox Church sometimes advocates a level of respect for temporal authority we in the West might find uncomfortable (even if it is in keeping with the missive of St Paul to the Romans). But the reality of the matter is complex; the Russian Orthodox Church has not lost its sense of economic justice, and not to acknowledge that is to engage in a vicious and insidious form of stereotyping.

Particularly when it comes to Putin. If one really wants to advocate for the poor and the oppressed in Russia, one cannot ignore that Putin has in truth done more on their behalf than any Russian leader before him. Between 1999 and 2008, under Putin’s watch, the real median income more than doubled, and the real median wage tripled. Unemployment fell from 12.9% in 1999 to 6.3% in 2008. The poverty gap index fell from 4.9% of total household income to 1.2% over the same period. Even the Gini coefficient stayed pretty much flat over the period (inequality, even if it did not get better, at least did not get worse). The biggest problem with this was that it was all on the back of the minerals and petrol sector, one of the few economic resources remaining under domestic control after everything else had been sold off under the gangster-capitalist rule of Yeltsin. Neither Putin nor Medvedev have yet engineered viable solutions for these recurring problems.

Has Putin been an ideal leader for Russia? Far from it. Can more be done in Russia for the equality and dignity of the downtrodden, the working class and women? Absolutely, and I would encourage Mr Piatt to continue thinking on how best to do that. But it makes zero sense for him to blame the Russian Orthodox Church for having abrogated its duties in that regard in their support of Putin, particularly when none of the present political alternatives to Putin are even remotely appealing for such a mission. In the meanwhile, using outmoded stereotypes of a detached, mystical, inscrutable and corrupt ‘Eastern’ Church (as opposed to our enlightened, accessible, trendy and politically-conscious ‘Western’ one) is distasteful and silly, as well as being morally wrong. We may be well-advised to take out the logs in our own eyes before we reach for the mote in our Orthodox brothers’ and sisters’.

19 August 2012

Confucius: he was who he was, part 2

Yet another half-arsed attempt to get my thoughts in order here. As usual, the brief disclaimer that I am not a Confucian but an Episcopalian. I have enough respect for Confucianism to recognise that the rituals that I follow are not those of Master Kong or his disciples, and that my masters are the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Paul, Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Augustine, Saint Alcuin of York, Saint Julian of Norwich, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Sir Thomas More, Saint Charles the Martyr, William Laud, Samuel Johnson, Richard Oastler, Dorothy Day and, naturally, Our Lord himself. At the same time, though, I gladly acknowledge that the thinking and teachings of Confucius have had a profound impact on my intellectual development and upon my blend of left-wing and palaeoconservative politics.

This post follows up on a running discussion between Daniel Bell, Jiang Qing, Sam Crane (see here also) and (peripherally) myself. I personally think that quite a few of the details of the Bell-Jiang programme need some revision before they are viable, but that puts me quite at odds with those who want to dismiss them entirely, which I find unfair in the extreme - particularly coming from those who profess to respect Confucianism. Mr Crane argues from the position that their programme is neither viable nor desirable, and he makes claims which are both positive and normative in this respect. In his first post, his punchline is that China after Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong will not want to revert to a model of government which treats popular sovereignty as anything less than paramount, a positive assessment of the model’s political non-viability. In his second post, he takes a more normative tack, analogising the downplaying of popular sovereignty in the Bell-Jiang model to wanting to bring back the misogyny endemic to China’s past. In his view, the Bell-Jiang view is purely reactionary, hearkening back to a more benighted and less liberal time.

There are several points which should be addressed. The first regards the commitments of Confucianism itself. The rulers he spoke with did not want to listen to him speak about virtue, humaneness and justice; they wanted to listen to those who could help them maintain power. Just as today, in certain modern democracies, the people at the top do not listen to appeals about what is right and just from a philosophical point of view - they look at the polls. They maintain power through popularity, and so do everything they can to be popular. The last time an American president dared to speak a conscientious, prophetic message about energy dependence, he was all but tossed by his ears from office in favour of a guy who looked good in movies and proclaimed it ‘Morning in America’ (just before he embarked on a set of economic policies which would gut the middle class, put mentally ill people out onto the streets and sink this nation into massive debt in an insane arms race). Slap leather, baby! (And if Citizens United isn’t a sure recipe for advancing the crooked and setting aside the upright - ‘舉枉錯諸直’ - by inviting unlimited corporate money into politics, I don’t know what else is. I sure wouldn’t wish our political system on anyone else in its present form, as I do not wish it for myself!)

Confucius said that a righteous person should first examine what is right, seek the Good, place her own relationships in a healthy order; only then will people be inspired to follow her example. Mr Crane makes the point that this model is not incompatible with democracy, which may in certain cases be true. But the virtue-ethical reasoning of Confucius is emphatically not the reasoning of democracy, which works from the logical converse, and assumes procedurally that whatever the people follow must be the correct policy choice, simply because people voted for it. The example of Confucius himself shows that the best ideas are not always the most popular ones.

Secondly, there is the question of the role played by expedience and relevance. Mr Crane comes dangerously close to arguing (even if it was not his intent to do so) that Confucianism per se is irrelevant to modern policy questions, if not first guided by the political philosophy of liberalism, which shapes the modern global political ‘reality’. The truly fascinating thing about Mr Crane’s argument here is that it relies upon a framework that smacks of what we in the ‘American’ IR tradition call constructivism. Confucianism is what each generation of thinkers and doers has made it - Confucianism in the classical period was different from the 儒表法理 (Confucian-Legalist) synthesis of the Han Dynasty, was different from the Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming; and so Confucianism has to be different today in order to be relevant. Hell, even if one looks at the way Confucianism was actually used in the ‘patriarchal society’ by the likes of Ban Zhao in her Lessons for Women, or in the Tang Dynasty where women enjoyed a degree of legal and social freedom unheard-of anywhere else at the time, one would be hard-pressed to claim that even in antiquity Confucianism was irrevocably marked by misogyny - that would have made for a powerful argument! To shamelessly steal Nietzsche’s quip about Kant, though, Mr Crane is a fox who has managed to break out of his cage and taste the fresh air through his own strength and cunning, but who loses his way and strays right back into the cage. A consistent constructivist would say that there is nothing inherent to liberal, capitalist, globalist modernity which makes it any more ‘real’ in any essential, fundamental way than any of the previous constructions of Confucianism, or to any future constructions - including the Bell-Jiang one! And I don’t honestly believe Mr Crane ultimately wants to go down the road of supporting a quasi-Marxist ‘end-of-history’ thesis, that the liberal domestication of Confucianism is a necessary step for it to progress. That sounds dangerously like post-Deng CCP-style thinking to me.

Parallel to this point, too, is that Confucius himself was counter-cultural in his own time. Confucius (and Mencius after him) did not speak about what would be ‘realistic’ (that is to say, what would be expedient or profitable) for himself, for his disciples or for the rulers he spoke to; he taught these four things instead: 文行忠信 (literacy, ethical behaviour, devotion and truthfulness). Indeed, as Confucius himself put it:

‘The gentleman considers what is virtuous; the petty man considers what is expedient. The gentleman thinks of justice; the petty man thinks of gaining favours.’ (Analects IV.xi)
As such, he was not really relevant or popular in his own time - only in subsequent generations did his followers manage to garner appreciation for him. Indeed, Confucius was not particularly fond of much about his own time. One can practically hear the sarcasm dripping off this passage, mocking his day and age:

‘The people of ancient times had three failings which moderns have perhaps forgotten. The ancient eccentrics disregarded small conventions, but modern eccentrics lose themselves in dissipation. The pride of the ancients was grave, but the pride of moderns is violently quarrelsome. The stupidity of the ancients was straightforward, but the stupidity of the moderns is deceitful.’ (Analects XVII.xvi)
Or this one:

‘[They say] the ancients in their rituals and music were barbarians, whilst the moderns in their rituals and music are gentlemen. When I choose which to use, I follow the ancients.’ (Analects XI.i)
He was certainly no pragmatist, but rather a radical, albeit a radical traditionalist: he did not quiescently resign himself to the ‘realities’ of his age, but sought to fundamentally change it by restoring to it the humane, decorous rituals (and thus the humanistic ethics) of the early Zhou (‘周監於二代,郁郁乎文哉!吾從周。’). In light of this, it seems likely he would view the quiescent ‘New Confucians’ of Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the like as poseurs and sellouts, just as Our Lord would be likely to have a rather dim view of American televangelists, megachurches and proponents of the ‘prosperity gospel’. It ought to be said further that Confucius would be a fan of neither the PRC nor the United States at the present moment, as each are characterised by massive gaps between rich and poor, and poverty and conspicuous consumption are major problems in both countries:

‘When a nation is well-governed, poverty and squalour are things to be ashamed of. When a nation is ill-governed, riches and honour are things to be ashamed of.’ (Analects VIII.xiii)
I think castrating Confucius upon the Altar of Relevance as dictated by a globalist, capitalist modernity does a great disservice to both the man himself and to his intellectual legacy. Just as with Mr Eric Blair and with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, the misappropriation of Confucian symbolism by those who want to use him as a mascot of political ideologies for which the man himself would have had little use is unsightly. Can we not read him on his own terms, with a literary-historical hermeneutic which gives him and his disciples as much room to speak to us in their own voices as possible?

18 August 2012

Quakes and the human cost of sanctions

Naj and Parisa Saranj have blogged recently about the victims of the latest earthquake in Northwestern Iran. The quakes themselves are an immense tragedy: between them over 300 dead and over 5,000 injured. They deserve our prayers and our aid. But the response to them on all sides has exacerbated the tragedy. The sanctions make it extremely difficult for personal monetary charity from the United States to reach Iranian families in need, as both Ms Naj and Ms Saranj had the ill fortune of finding for themselves (and although the US Treasury department officially claims that humanitarian aid is exempt from the sanctions). The governments of the United States and Israel have both officially offered extensions of aid, but these apparently come with strings attached, and the Iranian government has not been well-disposed to accept either offer (though they later changed their minds). Not only that, but the official Iranian news outlets have been downplaying the earthquake in favour of more stories from Syria, and the slow relief response from the government has also drawn criticism (even though the relief response is dependent on money that simply isn’t there because of sanctions).

And the people of Iran suffer most.

On censorship, video games and cultural soft power

I am very ambivalent on the subject of censorship. I am certainly not an extremist either way: I believe Germany’s laws banning Holocaust denial and Nazism are justified, as are the similar laws in Austria and France, given the unique problems each of them has faced with these ideologies; and I also feel that commonsense limitations on free speech ought to be imposed when the safety of innocents is compromised (as in the WikiLeaks affaire). At the same time, though, I do need to make it clear that I think SARFT (China’s ministry in charge of broadcast media and films) completely sucks at what they do. If your country is trying its damnedest to build up ‘soft power’, you need to make it easier for people to sympathise with your culture and history, rather than harder. After having spent many interminable hours watching Chinese war dramas and period pieces with what can best be described as ‘stick-figure’ acting and scripts which are burdened down with the ‘official touch’, I often despair at seeing such a beautiful and rich country and culture so poorly represented in broadcast media.

However, there certainly is hope for China building up the kind of soft power it desires, precisely where it seems it least wants to go looking for it. My wife Jessie was saying that the most beautiful elements of Chinese culture, often the most good and true as well, along with the chivalric (俠義) spirit, are preserved in its video games. She cited as an example the old DOS-based Taiwanese role-playing game The Legend of Sword and Faerie (《仙劍奇俠專》) by Crazy Boyz Group: set in a fictionalised mediaeval China, telling a tale of tragic heroism, romance and self-sacrifice; it became an immediate cult classic both in Taiwan and in the mainland. And - get this - the video game spawned two TV series (the Chinese Paladin series), one of which met with overwhelming critical acclaim. (I have only seen bits and pieces, but if what I saw was any indication, then that acclaim was well-deserved.) When was the last time a video-game spawned any kind of critically successful TV show or movie anywhere else? I can think of exactly one example: Mortal Kombat with Christopher Lambert and Shou Wan Por, and that success only came about because it deliberately did not take itself seriously. Imagine if someone tried to turn the Elder Scrolls series into a movie.

Er... sorry about that. Speaking of Mortal Kombat (or rather its soundtrack), have some Napalm Death for brain-bleach.

Actually, Wikipedia has a very helpful list of movies based on video games here, with Rotten Tomatoes ratings provided - the only two movies to get a higher rating than MK were Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (okay, I’ll grant you that one) and Prince of Persia (ehh). And there was the game show of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? with Greg Lee and Rockapella that I used to watch when I was a tyke. But as someone of the ‘video games are art’ school of thinking, I do think it possible (if undeniably tricky) to do great cinematic or television adaptations of stories based on video games; and one of the sole shining success stories in that sector belongs rightly to mainland China. However, SARFT is now seemingly (true to form) trying to ensure that the success of the Chinese Paladin TV series cannot be easily repeated. For the foreseeable future, sadly, I guess we are stuck with the fourth, fifth and sixth CCTV rehashes of Dream of the Red Chamber...

Roundup on Romney/Ryan

Others have said far more and far better on Romney’s veep pick than I am likely to: CA Constantian, Mark Thoma and Paul Krugman via John at EifD, and David Lindsay (here and here) have all done a very fine number on the news, as well as exploring the issues around it, particularly with Mr Ryan’s intellectual flirtation with one Alisa Rosenbaum, an expat hack writer of bad Twilight-precursor fanfiction about Mary Sues who get into dysfunctional relationships with abusive and controlling men. (All you really need to know about her political philosophy comes straight from there, and all you really need to know about her fandom also, which is every bit as creepy, dogmatic, aggressively lowbrow and lacking in critical faculties as Ms Meyer’s.) Ryan’s claims to the inspiration of Catholic social teaching on his budget plans have also rightfully drawn the indignation of those who take Catholic social teaching seriously, notably the staff at Georgetown University and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Add another reason not to vote Romney onto the pile.

But the really interesting thing is the direction the veep pick seems to indicate for the Republican party and for American politics generally. Mitt Romney is as much of a political chameleon as David Cameron, it’s true, but he really doesn’t seem to care about the social issues most people who will turn out to vote for him will care about; in fact, he profited directly from abortion procedures as head of Bain Capital (which his opponent has not done). The abortion issue has become just so much political chaff to the Republican party, a way to turn out single-issue voters against their own best interests both spiritual and economic. On the other hand, thoughtful social conservatives should be (and some already are) looking to the Democratic Party as it begins flirting with concepts of transcendent public and social order which come close to the thought of Pusey and Newman, whilst continuing to hold fast to the left-leaning economic policies which do most to aid the most vulnerable: the unemployed, the underemployed, the working class (particularly working women) and children. In short, this forebodes a shift in the way we think about American left-right politics - we may end up having more conversations about libertarianism and communitarianism rather than liberalism and conservatism.

Which is all to the good. We need those conversations.

17 August 2012

The sentence

Is two years in the big house for the ‘silly women with their silly name’, as David Lindsay describes them. Personally I am not particularly perturbed about the issue; I am not in support of the sentence, but I can see the reasoning for the ruling. Playing bad pop punk in a church is rather a crime against aesthetics, but you don’t go to gaol for those. More serious is the charge that they forced their way up to the lectern to do so and resisted relinquishing it to the parishioners, which would certainly be worthy of a disorderly conduct charge over here.

That, and the fact that the Cathedral which they were disrespecting was essentially rebuilt as a monument against Stalin, who had had it razed. Which prompts the question of what they actually stand for, other than standing against Putin and the Orthodox Church - do they want Stalin back? I don’t think they necessarily do; I have read nothing that indicates that Pussy Riot are Stalinists - though I do think they are (yes, Mr Lindsay put it best) extraordinarily silly. Not quite so silly, however, as the roars of outrage from the Guardianistas and New York Times readership who seem to be under the impression that trying three women for hooliganism and sending them to cool their heads for a couple of years automatically makes Mr Putin a tyrant and a dictator. Oy.

EDIT: A few supporters of Pussy Riot in the Ukraine have begun resorting to vandalism to get their point across, also against a monument erected to victims of Stalin (in this case, those who starved to death in the Holomodor). What better way to protest the court decision (debatable as it was) than by proving it right?

09 August 2012

Fallacies of austerity explained

Dr Mark Blyth, a professor of political science at the Watson Institute at Brown University, explains the so-called ‘commonsense’ logic of austerity, how it confuses virtue with vice, how it engages in fallacies of composition and how it is a masquerade for class politics in this very clever and very accessible video. Enjoy!

08 August 2012

Pointless video post - ‘Тот, Кто Стрелял’ by Fat Monsters

Fat Monsters were a lucky find on my part; I stumbled on them by accident on YouTube. A straight-up thrash metal band with better-than-decent cookie-monster vocals, they mostly sing about modern warfare and how much it sucks (at least, that’s how a lot of the English-language lyrics read on The History of Human Errors); they also seem to be anti-fascist, anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal - all pluses in my book! The band sings some songs in English and others in Russian and Ukrainian, but this is apparently a new stylistic choice. This song comes from their all-Russian 2008 album Останови Террор (Stop the Terror); the name translates as ‘Who Shot’, and it illustrates the band’s talents for both slow, melodic, melancholic passages and for sheer slaying aggression. Enjoy!

07 August 2012

Hugh White on the strategic US-China relationship

Australian realist scholar and security studies professor at ANU, Dr Hugh White (above, known for his critique from a just-war perspective of the US-led war in Iraq) has a fine piece up at the East Asia Forum on the strategic relationship between the United States and China, as well as what the assumptions and ramifications are of the continued relationship, and what needs to be done to maintain it. For all I tend to be critical of each country (often for similar reasons), I do think that a healthy relationship between China and the US is in the best interests (long-term) of both countries. I think Dr White is very astute here, and highlights quite well what the actual stakes are, in a way which does credit to his fellow realists. (Dr Andrew Bacevich made a very similar argument in his book, The Limits of Power.)

Here are some excerpts:
Washington’s message to Beijing is that everything will be fine, as long as China agrees to do things America’s way. If not, America will use ‘every element of America’s power’ to pull it into line. Don’t believe me? Go back and read President Obama’s big speech in Canberra last November, and ask yourself how it sounds to Chinese ears — which are the ones that really matter.

The problem is that China will not accept America’s pre-conditions for a good relationship, and the more its wealth and power grows relative to America’s, the more willing Beijing will be to make that plain. The rest of us might regret that, but we can hardly be surprised by it, and we cannot wish it away.

If America insists on maintaining the status quo of US primacy as China’s power and ambitions grow, escalating strategic rivalry with China is close to a certainty.

There are many different ways for America to stay in Asia over coming decades. The most obvious third alternative is to remain actively engaged, not as the sole primary power in the Asian strategic system but as one of a group of equal great powers. There are a lot of questions about how such a system might be built and sustained, but the essence of the idea is perfectly simple. The US could remain in Asia to balance China’s power and prevent Chinese domination, without dominating Asia itself. And if the two powers could reach a tacit or explicit agreement to respect and accept each other’s position as a great power, then there is no reason why they should not live in harmony.

This kind of order would clearly be in both countries’ interests, and in the interests of the whole region. But it requires big sacrifices from both America and China. China would have to forgo its ambitions to lead Asia itself, and America would have to be willing to relinquish primacy and deal with China as an equal. There is no point pretending this would be easy for Americans.

Eventually, if America is to get China right, a president will have to stand up and explain the alternatives. If Americans will not deal with China as an equal, they will compete with it as an adversary. Dealing with it as an equal would be risky, uncomfortable and sometimes distasteful. Competing with it as an adversary would quite probably be disastrous. The longer the decision is delayed the harder it will become to avoid the worse outcome. America’s China choice cannot long be delayed.
Actually, one may readily note a few of the ironies here; notably the Sinocentric model of international relations which was challenged in the Late Imperial period and the ways in which China was brought up sharply against events which utterly shattered that model fuelled all of its subsequent developments. Now, the tables are turned somewhat. Ultimately, if we as a society do not discard the neocon / liberal-interventionist wet dream of a Pax Americana, dominated by American capitalist and liberal-democratic values, in favour of something more realistic, we may end up finding ourselves in for a relatively nasty shock, same as Late Imperial China had been.

06 August 2012

Well, folks, it’s happened at last.

The Seven Minutes of Terror are over and done with, and mission success has been assured. The fine-tuned automated implementation went off without a hitch against highly unfavourable odds, in spite of expert naysayers predicting catastrophic failure. Now, we shall reap the rewards of patience and careful planning, and humanity as a whole will be advanced by this achievement. Many congratulations to the great nation of France on implementing the 0.2% Financial Transactions Tax! Hourra! Allons-y!

Oh, right! And I believe some rover landed on Mars last night.

05 August 2012

On double standards in Olympic reporting

He Kexin (l) and Ye Shiwen (r)

A blog post from Dermot Hunt on Ye Shiwen’s race a few days back; well worth the reading if you figure sport ought to be paid such attention. I haven’t been keeping really careful track of the Olympic Games this season, though the commentary has been somewhat interesting, including Andrew Gilligan’s jeremiad about how the Olympics have been essentially transformed into a tool to bolster corporate power at the expense of the British people whose games these supposedly are. But that happens to be incidental to the subject at hand, which is sportsmanship.

In 2008, a young woman by the name of He Kexin won gold medals on the uneven bars and team gymnastics events. Instead of congratulating her and her teammates on a spectacular performance, immediately the news media and experts from other countries began floating questions and insinuations about her age (believing she looked too young to compete), usually prompted by pseudoscience of the most noxious sort, something you would expect to find in the journals of racial ‘science’ quacks. The IOC made a full investigation and determined, in spite of a sustained effort from various corners to discredit her, that Ms He had indeed been old enough to compete.

Here again, we have a young female athlete who has broken records and posted a time which broke her personal best by a good five seconds, or almost two percent in the past two years (such things having happened before and will likely happen again, as in the example of Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania, who beat her own time by four percent in one year). Yet Ms Meilutyte was never accused of ‘doping’; instead, she was hailed as an inspiration (and rightly so, by all accounts!). Why is this? Mr Hunt asks the same question, and comes to a rather uncomfortable answer:
Well, it seems that answer depends almost entirely on race. If you’re white, if you have an English trainer, then everyone’s going to be delighted for you. If you’re Chinese, you’re going to face a barrage of cowardly smears and insinuations that will ruin the greatest day of your life. Hurrah for the Olympics!
Rather unsporting, what?

As it turns out, Ms Ye has been repeatedly cleared and tested drug-free. So what it comes down to is this: either you trust the drug tests, or you don’t. Either you trust the Chinese athletes to compete fairly, or you don’t. If you don’t trust the drug tests, don’t use them. If you don’t trust the Chinese athletes, don’t let them compete. Simple as that. But allowing them to compete and win, and then gossiping and slandering them as liars and drug cheats out of jealousy, is disgraceful and dishonourable behaviour.

Also, athletes have been expelled from these Olympic games for making racist tweets on Twitter (also here). Perhaps the corporate media ought to be held to the same level of scrutiny?

02 August 2012

Gawker on the contempt of NYT for its readers

Well, more specifically, Drew Magary on the topic. But I agree completely with every single point made here; the New York Times is absolutely part of the problem when it comes to how celebrity- and conspicuous consumption-obsessed our culture is. I think perhaps some Cetagandan (from the Vorkosigan Saga) body-snatchers may have shown up on Old Earth and kidnapped and replaced the entire staff of the New York Times Style section for the sole purpose of propagating their decadent culture amongst us. Oh, wait - they did that a long time ago; my bad.

Anyhow, read the takedown of the article; Mr Magary does a much better job than I could have of dissecting the multiple layers of privileged douchebaggery than I could.