26 October 2012

A late reply to Erik Loomis on LGM

My dear Dr Loomis, let me just first say right off the bat that I am a great fan of your writing on Lawyers, Guns and Money generally, and that I appreciate the point you are trying to make with this post. That said, my absentee ballot has been written up and is waiting to be mailed in, and my fill-in-the-blank for President / Vice-President does not read Barack Obama / Joseph Biden, but rather Jill Stein / Cheri Honkala. I do this with my eyes wide open to the implications, and with full appreciation of the meaning of my act and its place in the broader scheme of American politics. Because of this, I must respectfully demur from the conclusions you are drawing. First of all, you quote djw:

The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no matter how much politicians and other demagogues claim otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world. Unfortunately there’s a lot of it, and democracy’s pretty clearly an insufficient tool to address it, but that’s no reason not to use the tool, when and where you can.

Let us stipulate that this definition of the moral purpose of democracy is correct. Who is presently abusing that power in the United States with regard not just to drone strikes, but also with regard to civil liberties and economic structures at home? I agree that Mitt Romney will be far, far worse - indeed, I have explicitly said so right here on this blog multiple times. But the person whose abusive power we need to curb, ultimately, is that of Mr Obama. In the American political system, there are two ways of influencing a politician’s behaviour in the public sphere, which really ultimately boil down to one: a politician is after votes, and a politician uses money to buy advertisements in order to essentially buy votes. So we can either choose to not favour Obama with our pocketbooks (in which case he merely goes to the nearest investment banker who will give him orders of magnitude more than we could have hoped to do in the first place), or we can choose the more direct method of not favouring him with our votes.

If we continue voting for him, all the protests and all of the strongly-worded letters to the editor and comments on news websites, that is all merely (as economists like to put it) cheap talk. The institutional Democratic Party knows this, and indeed banks on it. It is an oft-bemoaned fact that the Democratic Party does not respect left-wingers: the reason is, because we left-wingers are always won over with the same logic - and that is, where else can you go? You know the only other ‘viable option’ in our current system is far worse! So, instead of campaigning to change the rules of the system, we merely buy into it more, with both our pocketbooks and our votes. Behaving thus on the grounds that it is the only ‘realistic’ option on the table has gotten us... where, exactly? A Democratic president who behaves only superficially differently on the world stage than the last Republican president did.

That’s completely messed up. But there’s nothing I can do about that with my vote. There are other issues where I wish greater differences separated the parties. Agricultural policy, defense spending, etc. But on these issues, I have to accept that I sit in a deep minority here. I could file a protest vote but that’s pure narcissism unless one is truly committed to building party structures that would transform American politics.

However, there are very real differences between the two parties and their candidates on a whole host of issues where my vote might matter.

Hear that thumping? That was the sound of my head hitting the desk. Repeatedly. Dr Loomis, I expected better of you than this sort of argument.

Like you, I am a Rhode Islander. And I am sure that someone as well-educated and well-spoken as you is not unaware of the fact that Romney’s chances of winning Rhode Island are somewhere south of zero. Yes, the election is close, but there is not a single thing either you or I can do about it with our votes! If I were still voting in Pennsylvania, sure, I would be taking the above logic into account and voting for Obama, because Pennsylvania is a battleground state. It would indeed be reprehensibly selfish of me to vote the way I am voting - if I were still a registered PA voter. But really, Dr Loomis - pretending, as a Rhode Islander, that ‘your vote might matter’ is truly more narcissistic (not to mention delusional) than anything I am doing over here. In Rhode Island, the only thing I can do is file a protest vote. And there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that my vote will count as half a vote for Romney; not here, nor in a good three dozen other states where I might register. So why not file it to help someone from a third party gain more prominence, and perhaps a greater airing for views on changing electoral institutions and campaign finance rules in the United States such that we are not always faced with this dilemma of voting for the lesser of two evils?

This is not about making myself feel morally pure or holier-than-thou. I have said already that the way my vote goes would largely depend on where I live and what my situation is. This is a legitimate question: what is wrong with casting a protest vote in an election district where the outcome is already a foregone conclusion?

25 October 2012

A couple of cartoons...

Daniel Nichols over at Caelum et Terra has been on a roll lately. Here are a couple of his excellent finds (click to enlarge):


Still her true character

Over the ten-minute break between classes, I was having a conversation with a fellow teacher at Baotou Teachers’ College, Vivian, which managed to be quite broad-ranging. We started off discussing student behaviour in class: though a number of my classes are quite well-behaved and attentive, this one in particular is rather… shall we say, ‘active’. This being still basically my first month, we still need some time to get used to one another, though this certainly isn’t as fubared a situation as Peace Corps was for me. Vivian remarked that when she was a student, they would still treat the teacher with some measure of the deference due to age and status, but that that respect was slowly disappearing. I remember saying that it was a similar situation in the United States, where teachers were often, in spite of having a very difficult job (a fact which it took me entering and leaving Peace Corps to truly appreciate), blamed for all of their students’ failures and underappreciated for having supported those same students’ achievements.

We ended up talking about labour rights in both countries. Vivian remarked that although in China all teachers do have the benefit of union representation, the union system does not really work in favour of the teachers. I told her that the situation in the United States was better in some respects but not in others: teachers’ unions are under concerted siege in the popular press, and their legal rights are being steadily eroded. Moreover, the welfare of teachers, students and families varies widely from district to district – you can have a perfectly functional, healthy district situated right next to a district where the union, the administration and the parents are at each other’s throats. Vivian indicated that such a system might still be preferable, given that the unions actually do something, but was nonetheless appalled that teachers might be fired at the drop of a pin, despite having taught for most of their adult careers, on the basis of their students’ rote performance on a standardised test.

And then we talked about the nature of education, at which point I made a reference to how Confucius would not necessarily have endorsed the culture of standardised tests and rote learning, whether in China or in the US (the Analects has it that 「誦詩三百,授之以政,不達;使於四方,不能專對;雖多,亦奚以為?」 - ‘Though a man may recite three hundred Songs by heart, yet if when trusted with a task of governance he cannot achieve it; or if he is sent to any of the four corners of the world, but cannot reply without assistance; though his learning is great, what real good does it do?’ [13:5]), and she was surprised (as a number of my colleagues are) that I was familiar with the Analects. She noted that in spite of all of the recent changes, most Chinese people still respect and appreciate Confucius, and hold to traditional ways, particularly in Baotou. In Beijing or Shanghai or Guangdong, she said, people might be ‘a little more cosmopolitan, a little more “open-minded”’ (I could hear the quote-marks), but most of China still espoused (at least publicly) a far more traditionalist ethic. At that point our ten-minute break was over and we went back to class.

Much is made of how China is changing. Much more is made of how terrible the Cultural Revolution was. Let us not deceive ourselves – it was indeed a terrible tragedy for Chinese culture and education, let alone for the Chinese people. But as Mao himself acknowledged, he only managed to change Beijing and perhaps the areas around it through the Cultural Revolution – and Mao was nothing if not determined to change China’s institutions. So, indeed, were his successors Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, who were determined to ‘modernise’ China by adopting all of the norms and vices of gangster capitalism. But have they succeeded in winning minds and hearts, either the old laoban or the new? In Beijing and Shanghai and Guangdong, perhaps. But if what Vivian told me is to be credited, they have faced an uphill battle in China’s countryside these past sixty years – a battle which it seems has yet to be won or lost.

Confucianism promotes an ideal of education which produces virtuous people: in that, it is comparable to the classical Greek ideal of paideia, of liberal education; and stands opposed to the functionalist techne ideal which sees education as merely a toolbox of skills to be acquired (on the cheap, if necessary). Confucianism also promotes an ideal of moral economy: in that, it is comparable to the radicalism of Catholic social teaching when it insists upon fair wages, strong unions, just regulations and opposition to monopolistic business practices; and stands opposed both to Marxism and to neoclassical economics, both of which discount any role of moral behaviour in the marketplace, and both of which reduce the human being to homo oeconomicus. And the true character of the Chinese people in places like Baotou is apparently still very much sympathetic to these ideals, despite all that they are taught by their own media and by the behaviour in their own public spaces to believe otherwise. I do not deny that there are still massive hurdles to overcome in creating a civic space in China, but I am not an unshakeable pessimist about the moral state of Chinese society; far from it.

There is yet quite a good deal of room for hope.

24 October 2012

Pointless music post - ‘Happiness Machines’ by Revolted Masses

Been listening to a bit of Greek anarcho-punk and thrash lately; one of the better examples of the latter has been the (relatively) new group Revolted Masses, whose album Seeds of Revolt is actually quite stunning. They enthusiastically layer near-Eastern melodies and death vox over a basic structure of deep, heavy, grooving thrash riffs; the closest comparison I can think of at the moment is Suffocated, though Suffocated tends to be given a bit more to weirdness for weirdness’ sake than these guys are. Also, their politics are quite overt, and they are well to the left of mine. It’s something of a shame (though, as mentioned before, not uncommon in the metal world) that they are also opposed to theism, but given that they sing primarily about society and economics, I have no problem rocking out to them.

Also, any song which samples Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator this effectively gets an eager thumbs-up from me. Enjoy!

23 October 2012

The other half of the ‘Southern strategy’

Population cartogram of the US showing Republican and Democratic bases of popular support

Before I had gone over the wall, both John at EifD and David Lindsay linked a very interesting article from Hamiltonian historian Michael Lind at Salon on the real dimensions and aims of the ‘Southern strategy’, an economic arrangement devised by that region’s elites which emphasises wage slavery, low corporate tax rates and little to no regulation on big business. Read the article in its entirety; it is a good one. Most people are familiar with the election maps which demonstrate a complete role reversal of the Democrats and the Republicans between the 1920’s and the 1960’s in terms of which regions and which ideologies they represented; Mr Lind shows that the states which comprised the erstwhile Confederacy are essential to the Republican constituency. As such, it is to be expected that the Republican platform will reflect the political will of the elites in the region.

There are some notable exceptions to the rule, of course: Lind’s map shows that the ‘tidewater states’ of Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina are becoming ‘bluer’ rather than ‘redder’. Possibly this is because they retain an Anglican character from the days when they were settled by Jacobite exiles, and though they do tend to have a more aristocratic mindset, they also value classical education: in my experience many Virginians and other highly-educated near-Southerners are appalled by the anti-intellectualism that defines the modern American ‘conservative’ movement.

For many of the same reasons, the soft spot that many of my fellow palaeoconservatives harbour for the antebellum South still utterly baffles me. I take them at their word that they value an organic order and natural hierarchies; that they prefer the local over the global; and that they prefer the logic of the community over the logic of the market. But the actual structure of the antebellum South (and the proposed structure the current Republicans champion), flies in the face of every one of these things. Yes, the Old South was hierarchical. But it was a total mockery of the natural hierarchy, as it involved the destruction and rape of organic communities in Africa, the soul-harrowing and culture-destroying Middle Passage forced upon them by early capitalists, and ultimately the wholesale commodification of human beings. And far from being an idyll of rural life, the plantation was every bit as much a soulless mechanical monstrosity, a part of the global capitalist system of the time, as any Northern factory or sweatshop: it consumed human lives for the sake of a raw material (cotton) which was then exported around the globe. Not only that, but the South didn’t ‘just want to be left alone’, as all too many of its apologists claim: they actively sought the exportation of their economic system to the American West, to the Caribbean and to South America (where, as slavery was still practised in Brazil, they hoped to be ‘greeted with open arms’), and they deliberately forced their political will upon a North which was all too reticent to return escaped slaves. So much for ‘states’ rights’, I guess.

On close inspection, the economics of the pre-war South were startlingly close to what would now be considered neoliberalism. Indeed, why else would so many libertarians (like Ron Paul, like the Ludwig von Mises Institute and so forth) so readily embrace the so-called Lost Cause? Even more troublingly from a palaeoconservative point of view, why would openly neoliberal politicians like Bill Clinton actively patronise the neo-Confederate cause by laying wreaths at the Confederate Memorial in the Arlington Cemetery and sending supportive letters to neo-Confederate organisations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy? Hmmm...

Indeed, if one looks for assertive expressions of local culture and community in the United States, I have long had the sneaking suspicion one is as likely (if not more) to find them in small-town petty-bourgeois New England, in the farming and mining communities of the Midwest, and (of course) on the Native American reservations of the American West as one is to find them in the South (the birthplace of Walmart and the strip mall). So why is palaeoconservatism so readily drawn to the prima facie conservative (but actually neoliberal) obsequies of neo-Confederate politics?

Possibly it is because of the coalition politics that arose out of reaction to the New Left in the 1960’s which aligned the economic left with social liberalism, and conversely the economic right with social conservatism. Indeed, you are likely to find as much of culture-warrior politics in the popular defences of the Confederate legacy as anything else. But those coalition politics are in the process of dying a long, drawn-out and likely very messy death. The Democrats are rediscovering a politics which aligns economic populism with everything the palaeoconservatives claim to value: respect for life, respect for locality and respect for a transcendent order. Meanwhile, the neoliberals and libertarians amongst the Republicans are winning (with the faux pro-life Romney and the Ayn Rand-worshipping Paul Ryan heading their presidential ticket), and their socially-conservative supporters are being rather blind about the writing on the wall.

A real, effective palaeoconservative politic has to take a careful account of its basic priorities before entering into such alliances. As, it probably goes without saying, should a real, effective left-wing politic. As Michael Lind states, the working class of the South, black, white and Hispanic, may be very responsive to either sort of politics, but first we have to mount an effective opposition to the opportunistic elites who wish to take advantage of anti-union, low-wage, low-corporate tax, low-regulation neoliberal economics whilst pretending to be conservative.

21 October 2012

Of cheeky Chinese, randy Russians, bawdy Brazilians and hedonic Hellenes

Sadly, along with the common canard that Christians are inherently misogynistic comes the equally common and equally misguided canard that Christians fear and hate sex - that Christian morality sees sex as unclean or sinful, and that we are taught to be ridden with feelings of sexual guilt, envy and repression. The facts, however, show this to be more than a rather silly charge. Though I may have several deep disagreements with the overall editorial slant of the New York Times, they do indeed have a significant amount of quality reporting, some of which even manages to be fairly interesting: a recent op-ed they ran linked to a blog called Ranking America, which is devoted (just like it says in the title) to all manner of statistics which determine America’s ranking along various metrics and indicators. One of these worth note was the frequency of sex indicator. Without looking at the indicator, which countries would you think were the most sexually active? The Netherlands, with its liberal outlook on prostitution and drugs? Or perhaps the pornography capital of the world, Japan? Or the good old U S of A, which consumes so much of said material?

In fact, the most sexually active country in the world, according to this survey, is Greece, with a whopping 87% of adults unleashing the beast with two backs on a weekly basis, followed by Brazil (82%), Russia (80%) and China (78%), then Italy (76%), Poland (76%) and Malaysia (74%). Greece, of course, is overwhelmingly Orthodox (being the third most pious country in Europe behind Malta and Cyprus), as is Russia. Brazil, for all it may encompass Rio de Janeiro, still retains a Lusitanian-flavoured Catholic piety unmatched anywhere else in the Southern Cone, with over 85% of adults reporting some form of Christian belief (Italy and Poland are also solidly Catholic, and Malaysia devoutly Muslim). China is rather the exception to the rule given that most people are still officially atheist, but it is currently experiencing an under-the-table boom in religious fervour, after it had been banned for decades under Communist rule.

So the question stands: if traditional (Catholic, Anglo-Catholic and Orthodox) Christians are as neurotic about sex as our reputation might suggest, how come we are having so much of it? Conversely, if agnostics, atheists and other such free-thinking folk are more liberated, what gives with these figures? In the Netherlands, where only 34% of people profess to believe in a God, only 63% of adults are getting in their weekly hokey-pokey. In the UK (38% theistic), that figure is an anemic 55%. In the US (which looks pious at first glance, but where less than 40% of people attend regular services and which has never been particularly friendly to Catholicism or Orthodoxy), that figure falls to a pathetic 53%. And we’re not at the bottom of the barrel yet: Hentai Central itself is sporting a completely dysfunctional 34% rate of regular raunch.

It is true that the study itself has some rather glaring design flaws, one of which being that it is an online survey (which, like telephone surveys, reaches only a highly specific and specialised audience in some countries). It would be nice to know, also, the actual questions that were asked. Even so, the data are quite tantalising (so to speak). Even more so when one accounts for divorce rates. If one leaves out Russia (the third-highest divorce rate of any country in the world), an inverse pattern holds true. Greece and Italy, along with Spain, Ireland and the former Yugoslavia, sport the lowest divorce rates in Europe. China ranks just slightly below Poland. The Netherlands falls just below the EU average, and Japan falls just above that line, but the UK and the US have sky-high divorce rates.

But why is this? Why is it that Christians in devout countries, with our archaic norms concerning sexual conduct, are generally going at it like crazed rabbits? It could be argued along Nietzschean lines, as many are wont to do, that it is merely a case of sexual repression that has snapped: the degree to which we censor and suppress and regulate sex reflects the degree to which we have inverted (but not quashed) our carnal desires, which are then redirected in unhealthy ways. This is a possibility, certainly more than likely in some cases. But it is not a particularly fair representation of Christian doctrine or practice (and at any rate, it is hard to imagine the Mediterranean cultures as being to any excessive degree censored, suppressed and inverted in their desires or indeed in anything else). It bears repeating that Christian doctrine holds that sex is an intrinsically good thing, following from the Old Testament imperative to ‘go forth and multiply’. But it follows from that that Christianity treats sex with something approaching a sacramental reverence: an act of both great creative and destructive potential. By linking it with love, with marriage and with childrearing, Christianity is not trying so much to limit sex or to discourage it, but acknowledging its power and attempting to ensure that its ability to cause hurt, whether physical or spiritual, to people (whether the partners or the potential offspring), is reduced.

There is also a distinctly Chestertonian (or arguably Kierkegaardian) dimension to this seeming-paradox. Where sex is treated as a holy and transcendent act, people tend to have healthier and more robust appetites for it, and indeed seem to enjoy it more. But where it is treated merely as appetite, it has a tendency to gorge itself, and then bore itself, sickening and withering away.

An interesting tidbit of information, anyway. I would like to get a second opinion on these tendencies, though.

19 October 2012

Confucius and Catholic social teaching

One day, when I was freshly arrived in Baotou, I was poring over the Hidden Harmonies blog and came across a well-written and well-argued post by melektaus, one of that blog’s authors, regarding the several wrongheaded myths about Confucius which pervade in the Western media. I wrote a response in Chinese at the Tocharian Rider, here, and here is the translation:

Hidden Harmonies’ melektaus and I share quite a number of views, though I tend to be slightly more conservative; this holds true also on the topic of Confucius. In answer to his essay ‘Defaming Confucius’, I have a few friendly corrections.

Firstly, I agree entirely with melektaus’ critiques of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Regarding the Bible, Hegel and Plato, however, I think his reasoning tends to be a bit unfair. None of them is necessarily totalitarian. As an Episcopalian, I can claim with some certainty that the character of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament are quite different. In particular, St Paul’s views tend to be anti-slavery and anti-discrimination whether on the basis of gender or ethnicity (for example that famous passage in Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’). Plato perhaps had some deep scepticism toward Athenian-style democracy, but this was because he feared that a democratic system without controls would soon devolve into a tyranny; Plato’s preferred style of government was an aristocracy (which is to say, a rule by the best, what we would often think of as a meritocracy), then a timocracy, then an oligarchy, then a democracy, and his least-preferred was tyranny. Hegel also came in for some rather gross mischaracterisation: unfortunately, melektaus referred us to Karl Popper’s ridiculous anti-Hegelian histrionics. To be clear, Hegel’s thinking absolutely had some very deep problems; the first of which is probably his teleology - though his best critic on this facet is almost certainly Kierkegaard. History certainly has an ‘end’, a telos, but human knowledge will, to the end of time, have its limitations; and Hegel’s mistake lies in his optimism (regarding human knowledge), since it precludes any possibility of faith or hope. His writing style was esoteric and bloodless, and is difficult to understand. But Popper’s attacks on him are superlatively naïve: Hegel’s defence of ‘the State’ certainly did not apply to all states, given his insistence on the function of the state as pursuing justice - his model certainly provided the means to distinguish good states (those which could pursue justice) from bad ones (those which pursued only power and profit). Hegel was no supporter of slavery, and certainly no supporter of the abridgement of human dignity. Not only did he refuse to defend the totalitarians amongst his students, but he also was the first German idealist to articulate the importance of the bürgerliche Gesellschaft (that is to say, the ‘civil society’) to the State and to human development more generally.

However, regarding melektaus’ main points on Confucius:

Myth One: I believe melektaus has it mostly right here. Confucius did not support tyrants or dictators one bit. Confucius and his student Mencius (along with Plato, I should add) were virtue ethicists: by right, governmental authority should belong to a ‘superior person’, a junzi, whose governance style can be referred to as wuwei (creative inaction). But this wuwei is not to be confused with the Western liberal doctrine of laissez-faire: the first duty of the junzi is to love her family; thereafter she is better-disposed to love her subjects. Mencius taught that a good farmer can resist tugging on his plants to make them grow, but also that a good farmer should clear the weeds from his plot. The junzi’s power is likewise not to be considered unlimited: a junzi is responsible to Heaven, to the earth, and to the people. Perhaps melektaus exaggerates a bit when he claims Confucius was arguably an anarchist (the Confucius of the Analects certainly was not, as he believed government was a good thing and encouraged his best students to seek official positions), but his criticism of Huntington and similar authors is spot-on.

Myth Two: Here I think melektaus gets some points completely correct, and others a bit wrong (much as I would dearly like to agree with him). As virtue theorists, Confucius and Mencius certainly would not have approved of social systems which divided wealth too unequally, and would have seen members of the working class treated with the dignity they are due. For example, the passage in the Analects which goes: 「子退朝,曰,傷人乎,不問馬。」 (‘Confucius asked after a fire: is anyone hurt? He did not ask after the horses.’), shows his attitude clearly. The meaning of the passage is, he cares for the human welfare of the grooms (servants, normally poor people) who might have been hurt in the fire, over the property of wealthy people (the horses). Mencius takes it still a step further when he says: 「庖有肥肉,廄有肥馬,民有飢色,野有餓莩,此率獸而食人也。」 (‘In your stores there is fat meat, in your stables there are fat horses; but the people have the look of starvation, and the land is barren. This is leading on beasts to devour men.’). This ‘leading on beasts to devour men’ passage demonstrates even more clearly Mencius’ primary concern with the well-being of common people. In the ideal Confucian society, every person of seventy will have good meat to eat and silk clothes to wear, and the masses will be neither cold nor hungry. In this aspect it would not be a far cry to describe the Confucians as egalitarian.

However, their social outlook is predicated somewhat on the notion of authority: a child must listen to his parents; a younger sister must listen to her older sister; a student must listen to her teacher; a vassal must listen to his lord. Again, though, this authority does not correlate with authoritarianism: the motivation must always be care, and parents, older siblings, teachers and lords must all have responsibilities which arise from care. It is well to think of this sort of authority as the same sort of authority supported by Dr Johnson and Pope Gregory XVI. Both of the latter men are notable for having detested (against the grain of their time) slave systems and authoritarian government with a burning passion, but as Dr Johnson said, ‘Government is necessary to man, and where obedience is not compelled, there is no government.’ Pope Gregory XVI was even more blunt: ‘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.’ The subtle dialectic, lost on careless readers, is that because they detest the abuses of absolute power, they support that gentler form of power which manifests itself in authority, in trustworthiness. Confucius may be said to think in a similar way.

Myth Three: Here melektaus’ argument is mostly right. But again it is useful to point out the distinction between authority and authoritarianism. There is no conflict between recognising a superior’s authority and remonstrating that same superior, because the very moral reasoning which prompts that remonstration comes ultimately from authority (a child’s from her parents, for example) - in this way authority can critique itself. Though the recourse to remonstrance is important to understanding Confucian thought, it is also circumscribed. A child or a younger sibling or a student can remonstrate their (parent / elder sibling / teacher) in private, personally, but should not humiliate them in public. (EDIT: it should be noted that Christian doctrine in the Epistles takes the same form. Remonstrance by the sinned-against to the sinner should be undertaken personally before it is done publicly.) Again, the most important thing for Confucius and Mencius is that these relationships are characterised by love and care, and publicly behave as such.

Myth Four: Yeah, here melektaus is absolutely, unquestionably right. Foot-binding was introduced during the Southern Tang Dynasty, a good thousand-some years after Confucius’ death, and only in the decadence of the Song Dynasty did it become (like the Western corset) what may charitably be called an idiotic popular fad, though one which sadly did not disappear until the late Qing Dynasty. Confucius and Mencius had nothing to do with the fashion. As for the broader point, my Chinese teacher put it this way: just because Confucius didn’t talk to or about women, doesn’t mean that he was maligning them.

The above is my considered opinion, but I would still like to strongly recommend melektaus’ piece, as he makes a number of incredibly good points and is doing a much-needed service in clearing up Western misconceptions about Confucius and Confucianism.

I checked again the comments section, and what should I find but an interesting link from one of the commenters (perspectivehere) to the work of one Dr Thomas Hong-Soon Han, an economist at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies; specifically the article ‘Catholicism and Confucianism in Dialogue for Corporate Social Responsibility’, which details the similarities between the economic thought of Confucius and that of Catholic social teaching (particularly in the ideal of datong 大同), and which is directed at laying some groundwork within the ‘spacious room for dialogue and solidarity between Catholicism and Confucianism’.

Of particular interest is Dr Han’s argument that Confucianism, like socialism and like distributism, argues for an economy which is harmonised with ethics. It does not see wealth as problematic per se, but it does see as superlatively problematic the naked pursuit of profit at the expense of virtue and at the expense of everyone else in the community. It shares with Catholicism its firm beliefs in the organic unity of nature, the society and the individual; in the paramount importance of the family as the crucible of virtue; in the need for solidarity between classes of people; and in the need for a preferential option for the poor. Though Dr Han makes it clear that it would be wrongheaded to speak of a Confucian ‘theology’ as such (Confucianism not being a creedal religion), he certainly points to a broad body of shared belief and shared basis for social organisation and action. The article is worth reading in its entirety, though - he ends with what amounts to a clarion call for both Catholics and Confucians to practice what they preach regarding social teaching and to animate the discussion with concrete proposals for social reform.

18 October 2012

Teuton tantrums

Sorry. As a fan of obscure Swedish metal bands Agony, Omnitron and Comecon, I couldn’t resist making the reference, even though it is a bit tangential to the topic of this post.

But, it is fascinating to see the way that the economic landscape lies now in Europe. Germany and France have long been the twin centres of the EU, and now they seem to be at a bit of an impasse over the issue of fiscal unionism. Merkel is doing her damnedest to try and push through what sounds to this listener like a de facto European fiscal union in the form of a ‘budgets tsar’ in the European Commission – an unelected official responsible for overriding and revising the budgets of individual national governments. And her (and, to hear her side of the story, the ‘whole German government’s’) biggest obstacle in this endeavour is none other than François Hollande, the current president of France – who wants to limit the current European summit to monetary and banking issues.

To attempt to dismiss President Hollande as some sort of left-wing loony would be laughable, though that hasn’t stopped neoliberal rags like The Economist from doing just that. The data show that Hollande won his office on the support of the largely traditionalist, still largely Catholic, largely non-langue d’oïl speaking France profonde, particularly in the southwest of France, through national policies which would protect and support minority language groups. He seeks to expand support to small and medium-sized enterprises through lowering corporate tax rates on such businesses and creating specialised lending programmes for them to compete. He seeks a drawdown of French troops from the war in Afghanistan. Though he runs under the Socialist banner, his platform seems about as close as one may find under such a political banner (with the noted exception of Blue Labour in Britain and the possible exception of Austria’s SPÖ) to a distributist one. As such, it should come as little surprise to anyone who has been paying attention that he detects a source of danger to democracy in Europe, and to the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity which the EU (at least on paper) espouses, in Merkel’s federalised budget plans. And thus, he puts his foot down: the only topics of discussion which should be on the table are monetary ones; the current summit is no place for further political experimentation.

At this point, Hollande’s additional request that the terms of any bailout for Spain be spelled out in advance before one is requested also seems eminently reasonable, given what utter political disasters past offers have been for the countries which have received them. But the German government appears unable to face reality on this matter. The current uncertainty which European institutions are causing is troubling to both ‘creditor’ and ‘debtor’ countries: during the Greek credit crisis, Finland (so my Greek-Finnish friend informed me way back when) was concerned about how much it would actually have to end up paying under the end plan. If Hollande had his way, in all likelihood the Finns might not have been any happier about it, but at least they would have known up front what they were getting into.

Germany’s government should take the hint (though in all likelihood they will not, so long as Merkel remains in power) that the cause of European federalism is losing even moderate leftists and centrists like Hollande. Given that the moderate left was in fact the primary base of support for creating a project of uniting Europe in the first place, this hint should be a strong one. But more than that, there is the existential problem that the project of European federalism is currently doing far more to divide Europe than to unite it: wealthy countries which have benefitted from the trade gains the EU has provided are wondering which poor and indebted countries they will have to bail out next; the poor countries are outraged that the wealthy countries have been receiving the benefits of common monetary and free trade policies all this time and are now unwilling to pay it forward. The far-left and the far-right, who (though they are grotesquely and heinously wrong on a variety of other issues) have been promising from the beginning to resist European integration, find themselves rising in popularity across Europe, even as they have been taking more seats in the European Parliament than they are due. Impoverished, humiliated, angry and in a state of inescapable debt, Europeans in struggling countries are seeking solace in political extremists who offer easy answers. It strikes me that Germany in particular ought to be sensitive to this irony, given that the entire project of European federalism was supposed to prevent it from ever happening again.

In Britain, among the three major parties the Labour Party is the most healthily wary of what is laughably termed European federalism, as Mr David Lindsay has helpfully pointed out on numerous occasions (including once very recently). Likewise in France – it is now the Socialist Party and its leader who are urging restraint upon European federalism run amok.

15 October 2012

Despatch from The Tocharian Rider

Why do I use traditional Chinese characters? (14 October 2012)

Using Chinese characters on the mainland often feels like I’m making some kind of political statement: a regrettable state-of-affairs, but not a completely illogical one. To be perfectly honest, my primary reasons for using traditional Chinese characters are habit and aesthetics. I started off learning traditional characters, and for this reason they tend to be fairly nostalgic for me, still carrying the wonder of first learning a new language, rather than having to re-learn the same language with a different set of characters. The aesthetics of traditional Chinese characters are also a primary reason for my continued use – their appearance is very pleasing, with regular, well-balanced and complete square shapes; each character constitutes (in a literal fashion, originally) its own work of art. Perhaps it is bias on my part, and I am aware that a lot of the simplified Chinese character set is descended from calligraphic conventions, but I still always feel like they are a little… off-centre.

By using traditional Chinese characters, I should make it clear that I don’t and never will oppose Chinese unification. And my use of traditional Chinese characters is not intended as a criticism of the CCP (though even if it were, there would doubtless be far more effective and suitable ways of doing so). I use traditional Chinese characters for the same reason I use British spelling: they represent an unbroken link with traditional culture, and a reminder of a past under siege. To be clear, this is not nostalgia, nor is it bourgeois snobbery, nor is it condescension: in my experience, the people who I am most likely to see using traditional Chinese characters on the mainland are not intellectuals, but rather the owners of small restaurants which make a point of advertising their authenticity. (Also, the rationale for supporting simplification for educational reasons is really no rationale at all: very many poor people in Taiwan can read and write in their own language. It seems to me a bit condescending to blame poor people for not being able to comprehend traditional characters and ignore the inequalities in the education system during the Qing and Republican eras, but this is rather beside the point.)

When it comes down to it, if it wasn’t for the fact that I really am more comfortable using traditional characters than using simplified ones (having used them first and for an equal amount of time) it should probably be considered an affectation, and probably not a very useful one at that. I do realise that traditional character use is not even necessarily associated with some of the least savory aspects of China’s modernisation. But I often feel that a greater interest in recovering some of China’s traditional culture, both from the onslaught of neoliberal capitalism and from the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, ought to be a strong priority for the country going forward.

Turkey’s Syriac injustices (14 October 2012)

After everything that has happened in Syria, is there honestly anyone who believes the ludicrous assertions of their government that Turkey is a country which ‘seeks peace’ there? If indeed there are, they are probably the same sort of people who believe that Georgia was (or is) a democracy, who believe that Russia counts as a dictatorship on account of having imprisoned a group of three feminist punks attention-seeking twits, and who believe that the Eurozone has nothing to worry about. As the Chinese would say, these are the people who ‘see the wind blowing and think it will rain’. Taking into consideration Turkey’s past and present relations with Syria, it is clear that peace is not exactly high on their list of priorities. On the contrary, given the cordial relations between Syria and Turkey right up until the point where the US and the EU decided Syria was an unacceptable political obstacle, it is clear that the primary interest of their government is to perform servile obsequies toward the modern pseudo-West (especially the US and the EU). They can pick up the scent of hatred toward Syria coming from those quarters, and quickly adopt a yet-fiercer hatred (as though the prior ten years of Turkish-Syrian cooperation had never happened). Turkey presently harbours, aids and arms the Syrian rebels and anti-government terrorists within its borders, and Turkey’s president Erdogan is even now complaining to the UN that the Security Council needs to be reformed, on the basis that China and Russia are still able to prevent the authorisation of military force against Syria, and thus prevent an already-tragic civil war from blowing up into another Iraqi quagmire.

Are these truly the actions of a country which ‘seeks peace’? To understate the case, Syria’s government is hardly innocent and pure itself. But in this civil war, there is precious little moral high ground to be seen: among the Syrian rebels are terrorists and radical Sunni Islamists; among global human rights groups, many have criticised the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ for its heinous and brutal treatment of prisoners of war, and for its spread of sectarianism and religious persecution. Which, of course, prompts the question of why exactly Turkey’s government is supporting these scum. Is not their government constantly flaunting its supposedly secular, supposedly democratic society? Apparently here, their interest is not in maintaining their integrity, but in kowtowing to the global hegemons in the US and the EU (in the hopes of currying favour with the former and of joining the latter). But the thing about global hegemons is that they cannot stand countries (like Russia, and perhaps like China) which do not stand for their nonsense, and which try to maintain their political independence. The real tragedy is that it is the Syrian people who will end up paying a high price both for their own government’s stubbornness and for the bloodlust and greed of the EU and the US.

But thank God for China and Russia. After all, someone on the UN Security Council has to stand up for Syria’s Christians, Alawites, Shiites and moderate Sunnis.

13 October 2012

Pointed video post - ‘Over the Wall’ by Testament

I’m sure this one (‘Over the Wall’ from Testament’s debut album The Legacy) needs little explanation. Enjoy! I will try to post updates when time permits; in the meantime, I am still alive and kicking, as is this blog.