30 January 2013

Pointless video post - ‘Vejte Snegovi (Zana Cover)’ by Heaven Rain

What’s this? A female-fronted Bosnian-Serbian symphonic prog-power band, favourited by Forever Storm frontman Stefan Kovacevic, covering a Yugoslav pop number from the ‘80’s in a clear and self-professed gesture of Yugo-nostalgia? On that, stat!

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Heaven Rain fall a little bit to the light-and-fluffy side of what I usually find enjoyable in power metal (and no wonder; amongst their main influences are Nightwish, Sonata Arctica and Ayreon!), but they bring a lot of raw energy and heart and soul to this offering, and Miona Graorac’s alto is a welcome refresher from the sorts of prima donnas who are often drawn to the subgenre (Ms Graorac reminds me a bit of АнДем’s Yuliana Savchenko at points, and believe me, coming from me that is high praise!). The atmospheric, melancholy synthesiser prelude, far from being a song-killer right off, sets the stage admirably for what turns into a credibly solid heavy metal reinterpretation of the original. The guitar work calls to mind some of Galneryus’s work (particularly 2008’s Alsatia / Cause Disarray), though the requisite neo-classicalish solo is (thankfully) reasonably subdued.

All in all, I’m liking what I’m hearing from this band. I’ll continue to check out more of their work; in the meantime, though, please do enjoy this dulcet ditty!

29 January 2013

Blessed Charles, King and Martyr, pray with us

Today is the anniversary of the martyrdom at the hands of a cruel dictator (the first, indeed, of modernity) of the only person ever to be sainted by the Church of England after its break with Rome. Incidentally, through the Divines who to this day carry Blessed King Charles’s name, he was also a champion of a more just and more egalitarian social order than the one portended by the rise of the Puritans. As Fr John Alexander of S Stephen’s Church in Providence, RI notes: his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, fought the enclosures movement in the Court of Star Chamber; he championed the Poor Laws to provide state relief and jobs for those victimised by enclosure; he promoted an economic policy of firm economic regulation through the patents system and through Crown monopolies (the beginnings of a modern ethos of public ownership); and he was a dedicated patron of the fine arts, in ‘[witness] in a thoroughly medieval way against the stark utilitarianism of the Puritans who condemned such pursuits as so much frivolity’.

The fight King Charles I waged against the economic anarchy which was fast congealing into a spirit of greed, Mammon-worship and primitive capitalism was far from an unconscious or merely self-interested one, in spite of the claims of Puritan-sympathetic Whig historians to the contrary. Indeed, his fight was expressly one oriented to what he saw as the common good of the kingdoms he ruled, as against the abuse he witnessed against farmers and tradesmen by a rising capitalist class. It is perhaps best in such an instance to allow King Charles I to speak for himself on the matter, as in this 1639 Proclamation Revoking Certain Patents and Commissions:

Whereas divers grants, licences, privileges and commissions have been procured from his Majesty, some under his Great Seal of England and some under his privy seal, signet or sign manual, under pretences that the same would tend to the common good and profit of his subjects, which since upon experience hath been found prejudicial and inconvenient to his people, contrary to his Majesty’s gracious intention in granting the same...

Forasmuch as his most excellent Majesty (whose royal ear and providence is ever intent on the public good of his people) doth now discern that the particular grants, licences and commissions hereafter expressed, have been found in consequence far from those grounds and reasons wherefore they were founded, and in their execution have been notoriously abused, he is now pleased of his mere grace and favour to all his loving subjects (with the advice of his Privy Council) by his regal power to publish and declare the several commissions and licences hereafter following, whether the same have passed his great seal, privy seal, signet and sign manual, or any of them, to be from hence utterly void, revoked and hereby determined...

and all proclamations, warrants or letters of assistance for putting in execution of the said commissions or licences to be henceforth declared void, determined and hereby revoked to all intents and purposes.

And thus, continues Fr John Alexander:

Against this background, we can begin to appreciate the full significance of the beheading of King Charles on January 30, 1649 as more momentous than even the crime and sin of regicide. In its constitutional dimension, it represented the severing of the head of state from the body politic; and in its social dimension it signaled the final unraveling of the web of mutual relationships and reciprocal obligations that had bound English society together for centuries. Henceforth, it would be everyone for oneself. It is in this sense, I believe, that we discover the fullest meaning of Gregory Dix’s remark that medieval England came to its final end on the scaffold outside Whitehall.

The veneration of Blessed King Charles thus does not solely represent an earnest desire and thankfulness for the continuation of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in England, complete with its episcopacy. Though it certainly does that, it also extends the hope that through the witness of that Church, one, holy, Catholic and apostolic, and of its martyrs, a more just social order marked by reciprocity and mutual giving might be realised over-against the ruthless and anti-human logics of the market and of naked power.

Blessed Charles Stuart, King of England, of Ireland and of Scots, Martyr for Our Lord and his Church, pray with us.

The Feast of the Angelic Doctor

This time last year, I was working on my master’s thesis, whose topic was the influence of the physical presence of public school facilities on civic participation in Homewood. My topic, which started off far too broad and had to be narrowed down drastically in order to be workable, was in no small part inspired by reading De Regno, a treatise on government by St Thomas Aquinas which also touched on the art of good urban living. St Thomas, as the official theologian which the modern Roman Catholic Church takes as its guide, has an undeserved reputation in this unenlightened age as being stodgy and conservative (even boring), when in truth he was anything but. His work was a monumental and indeed politically radical attempt to reconcile the thought of Aristotle with contemporary Catholic theology, an attempt whose success is enshrined in his designation as a Doctor of the Church in 1568. He also inspired and embodied an entire tradition of apologetics which involves standing in the shoes of the other, and truly following the Pauline exhortation to test all things, and to hold fast to the good no matter the source.

Indeed, much of his work has not lost its radical bite, especially in our age where many injustices and acts of cruelty are tolerated and even encouraged openly. He denounced lending at interest (that is, usury) as being a violation of the natural law, in a straightforward way which makes me surprised that he was not employed regularly by the Occupy movement:

On the contrary, it is written (Exodus 22:25): “If thou lend money to any of thy people that is poor, that dwelleth with thee, thou shalt not be hard upon them as an extortioner, nor oppress them with usuries.”

I answer that, to take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice. On order to make this evident, we must observe that there are certain things the use of which consists in their consumption: thus we consume wine when we use it for drink and we consume wheat when we use it for food. Wherefore in such like things the use of the thing must not be reckoned apart from the thing itself, and whoever is granted the use of the thing, is granted the thing itself and for this reason, to lend things of this kin is to transfer the ownership. Accordingly if a man wanted to sell wine separately from the use of the wine, he would be selling the same thing twice, or he would be selling what does not exist, wherefore he would evidently commit a sin of injustice. On like manner he commits an injustice who lends wine or wheat, and asks for double payment, viz. one, the return of the thing in equal measure, the other, the price of the use, which is called usury.

On the other hand, there are things the use of which does not consist in their consumption: thus to use a house is to dwell in it, not to destroy it. Wherefore in such things both may be granted: for instance, one man may hand over to another the ownership of his house while reserving to himself the use of it for a time, or vice versa, he may grant the use of the house, while retaining the ownership. For this reason a man may lawfully make a charge for the use of his house, and, besides this, revendicate the house from the person to whom he has granted its use, as happens in renting and letting a house.

Now money, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 5; Polit. i, 3) was invented chiefly for the purpose of exchange: and consequently the proper and principal use of money is its consumption or alienation whereby it is sunk in exchange. Hence it is by its very nature unlawful to take payment for the use of money lent, which payment is known as usury: and just as a man is bound to restore other ill-gotten goods, so is he bound to restore the money which he has taken in usury.

And also on the topic of the right ends of ownership and the proper distribution of property, and whether taking without consent is lawful in cases of need, also from his Summa Theologica:

On the contrary, in cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another's property, for need has made it common.

I answer that, things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man's needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man's needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): “It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom.”

Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.

It is especially on the feast day of the Angelic Doctor that we should be reminded of the thread of radicalism running through his work, echoed also in De Regno (which could serve as inspiration, as it did for me, for many other communitarians, environmentalists and advocates of ‘smart growth’ against the soulless anti-aesthetics of suburban sprawl and high modernism). There is great wisdom in the West’s middle age, and most of it to be found amongst the works of St Thomas.

28 January 2013

Mr Brecher’s flawed Twit-rant for intervention in Mali

Ordinarily I have a very high respect for the Exiled’s Gary Brecher (a.k.a. the War Nerd), but here he’s playing the pot against the kettle. Apparently, in his view, having a basic demographic knowledge of Mali is sufficient to formulate an educated opinion on whether or not an intervention is needed - every bit as much of a ‘childish binary processor’ as Greenwald’s. (50% + 1 of the natives say they want an invasion? Saddle up and LOCK AND LOAD, baby!!) But then, I'm a monarchist and not a majoritarian, so I don't fall prey so easily to such idiocy.

It is also, very uncharacteristically for WN, historically illiterate. Well, at least he got it right that the political instability in Mali’s north, which al-Qaeda found readily exploitable, is the direct outcome of the American-backed Anglo-French ‘intervention’ in Libya, but his new logic seems to be - well, it was a total bloody genocidal disaster once, let’s do the exact same thing from the other side and hope the outcome will be different. Well, I guess it is already different - after all, it isn't Touaregs and black Africans who are being indiscriminately massacred and piled into roadside mass graves by NATO and its allies this time around... oh, wait, yes it is. Never mind.

But he REALLY doesn’t wonder where all of those unemployable rich Salafi kids in North Africa actually came from? They were trained by the CIA back when they were fighting NATO’s proxy war in Afghanistan, and they were supported by the Malian government for a long time as a way of discrediting the Touareg separatists in the north of the country, who had been kept in check by the presence of Gaddafi’s Libya. And the real aim of France in all of this appears to be to radicalise the Malian populace in just such a fashion as WN points out, so they can better reassert the colonial privileges of la Françafrique (see also here, here and here for a bit of background, apologies in advance for the paywall). The modern Malian government’s proper analogue would be the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam, who were using French ‘volunteers’ (fighting for strictly liberal and enlightened ideals, of course) to fight off both the Khmer and the peasant rebels led by the populist Nguyen Hue (later Emperor Quang Trung). It ended, of course, in the total annexation of Vietnam (and the Khmer) by French colonisers.

And what’s this? We also have noted humanitarian and friend of democracy Rupert Murdoch getting this fluffy puppy and unicorn-hugger to write in support of it. That’s right; that Tony Blair, one of the unrepentant leaders of the murderous folly (amongst a great many others), rather than being just one of its less-important cheerleaders.

See, War Nerd? Stop playing with the small fry. This is where the real supporters of the Iraq fiasco are coming from. And if that's not reason enough to oppose intervention in Mali, I don't know what is.

24 January 2013

Japan’s Let ‘Em Die Party

The problem won't be solved unless you let them hurry up and die.

And what problem is that, Mr Asō? Why, naturally, it’s the problem of health care for the Japanese elderly! The same elderly who now make up nearly a quarter of Japan’s total population, who are not being replaced fast enough by their own populace due to the neoliberal orientation of their economy (encouraged by Mr Asō’s party, the Liberal Democrats), and who are hardly being replaced at all by immigrants due to the massive public xenophobia of the Japanese political class and the growing antipathy toward the Japanese government by pretty much every other East Asian nation of note (both also encouraged by Mr Asō’s party, and indeed by Mr Asō himself on numerous occasions - see also here).

Of course, Japan being a society heavily influenced by Confucian philosophy and having a high respect for the elderly, one might expect that Asō’s comments didn’t go over too well. Though Confucius supported the idea that a person’s death might be necessary because the virtues of care and justice would demand it (if it were done for the positive benefit of a lord, a loved one or a family member; or if it were done as an act of loyalty), he would have abhorred the idea that one should commit suicide for convenience or because of financial troubles. Suicide, when not aimed at fulfilling a virtue of care or justice, violates the virtue-ethic of xiao (孝, filiality) in several egregious ways. Firstly, the decision to commit suicide for selfish reasons is an abrogation of one’s life-long duties to care for one’s parents and to ensure the continuation of the family. Secondly and more importantly, it is a presumptuous harm to the existence that is given by one’s parents, and is thus an expression of ingratitude. As Confucius said: 「身體髮膚,受之父母,不敢毀傷,孝之始也。」 - ‘Our bodies, every hair and bit of skin, are received from our fathers and mothers; not presuming to injure that body is the beginning of filiality.’ Mr Asō’s way of thinking is triply anathema to Confucian thought, as it holds that old people should die for the sake of pecuniary convenience to the state! Surely, given the context in which this pronouncement occurred, this falls under Mencius’s condemnation of 率獸而食人 (‘leading on beasts to devour people’).

But wait. What’s that, you say? Mr Asō is Catholic? Well, then, in that case, surely there exists in Catholic doctrine some support for Mr Asō’s idea that the elderly should hurry up and die--

The Catholic Church holds as sacred both the dignity of each individual person and the gift of life. Therefore, the following principles are morally binding: First, to make an attempt on the life of or to kill an innocent person is an evil action. Second, each person is bound to lead his life in accord with God's plan and with an openness to His will, looking to life's fulfillment in heaven. Finally, intentionally committing suicide is a murder of oneself and considered a rejection of God's plan. For these reasons, the Second Vatican Council condemned “all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide...” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 27).

Oh. Well, then, what about the current Pope? Surely he must--

the Holy Father once again recalled “the firm and constant ethical condemnation of all forms of direct euthanasia, in keeping with the centuries-long teaching of the Church”.

“The synergetic efforts of civil society and of the community of believers must ensure not only that everyone is able to live in a dignified and responsible way, but also that they can face moments of trial and of death in the finest condition of fraternity and solidarity, even where death comes in a poor family or a hospital bed”.

Society, said the Pontiff, must “ensure due support to families who undertake to care in the home, sometimes for long periods, sick members who are afflicted with degenerative conditions, ... or who need particularly costly assistance. ... It is above all in this field that synergy between the Church and the institutions can prove particularly important in ensuring the necessary help for human life in moments of frailty”.

Oh. Rather blunt, that. ‘Firm and constant ethical condemnation of direct euthanasia’, ‘society must ensure due support’, and ‘synergy between the Church and the institutions’ is important in achieving it, hm. Tough luck finding moral succour there, Tarō-chan.

Indeed, it seems Japan’s problems (and boy, if this recent outburst is any indication, does it ever have problems) won’t be solved, until all of the chauvinistic, neoliberal and anti-life ideas courted by the Japanese political class (particularly in one specific political party, which I oughtn’t need to name) hurry up and die, as they should.

15 January 2013

Pointless video post - ‘Unstoppable Force’, ‘144,000 Gone’ and ‘Hail to the Chief’ by Agent Steel; and ‘Calculation Towers’ by Stygma IV

And now, in the ‘really awesome music older than I am’ category:

It’s Agent Steel, one of the greatest speed-thrash bands ever to grace the Earth, specialising in science-fiction, conspiracy-theory and deep-political type songs in the 1980’s. Their last album, 2007’s Alienigma, was more of a deviation into the dark and discordant style of power metal pioneered by the likes of Nevermore, and the subject matter of the songs changed slightly to match:

And then there is Stygma IV, a progressive power metal band from Salzburg which (conversely to Agent Steel) spent its career flirting with thrash from the other side of the continuum, as evinced by the tectonic ‘Calculation Towers’ here (the opening track to their 2002 album The Human Twilight Zone):

Stygma IV sadly broke up when their drummer’s back problems got too bad for him to play anymore, but the founding members Günter Maier and Alexander Hilzensauer are currently playing in a band called Crimson Cult which for the most part does this same sort of power metal: thick, heavy, doomy riffs riding over thrashy and traditional heavy metal rhythms. Really enjoyable stuff.

The tragedy of liberalism

In my turn from a left-liberal position to a left-conservative (High Tory, Red Tory, communitarian, or ‘feudal socialist’) one, the single influence whom I still consider my touchstone is Samuel Johnson: a rigorous High Church Anglican who, as a result of his rigorous High Church Anglicanism, opposed colonialism, war, slavery, usury and torture with caustic vehemence, exhibited a profound distrust of the quest for personal profit, and maintained the need for a civilised society to provide collectively for its own most vulnerable. Not only did he preach this gospel eloquently, he also practised it: among the heirs to his fortunes upon his death was Francis Barber, a Jamaican freedman and Johnson’s valet and confidant whose education Johnson also took care to sponsor. (Today, Johnson’s behaviour might be seen as patronising, but at the time he was criticised by his close friends and by the press for his ‘ostentatious bounty and favour to Negroes’.) At the same time, he insisted that society be marked with formal ranks, and published scathing critiques of advocates (notably Thomas Paine and the American colonial rebels) of unlimited white male licence to believe and act however they wished without reference to any transcendental religious or secular authority. It was through Dr Johnson, and subsequent repeat encounters with the advocates of scale-free economics (EF Schumacher, GK Chesterton, Arthur Penty), that I discovered the humane social encyclicals and bulls of the great Holy Fathers, Gregory XVI, Leo XIII and Paul VI (not to mention John Paul II and Benedict XVI!).

Two of my primary modern-day influences in this same ‘left-conservative’ tradition were the Canadian political philosopher George Grant and the English theologian-philosopher (though he would likely disavow the latter term) John Milbank. Both pointed to the violent proclivities of liberal regimes, but John Milbank in particular identified the violence as being at the very wellspring of liberalism. Liberalism, seeing society and the state as the battleground upon which various values and opinions must vie for validity and supremacy, sets out only to make procedures ‘fair’ such that all values and opinions have an equal shot at being heard. However, this is a doomed enterprise, since certain popular value-systems (inherent to the monotheistic and Abrahamic religions, but to Christianity in particular) set themselves prior to the state, and assign to the state a different role than liberalism would have it play – that is, making outcomes for people and for communities of people fair (a comprehensive notion of ‘justice’), rather than merely procedures. In order for secular liberalism to guarantee its own continuation, it has to break its own rules: that is, it must make procedures deliberately unfair against the monotheistic and Abrahamic religions.

It does this in a number of ways. The first and most popular (going all the way back to the Enlightenment) is to project its own ontological violence onto Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Christianity – in particular, mediaeval Catholicism – is still often cast in the ‘Gothick’ role of sadistic priests, brutish hooded torturers and fanatical witch-burners (in spite of torture and witch-burning being exclusively secular enterprises, undertaken solely by kings and princes rather than by Church authorities). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Jews were often accused of being dangerous, wicked and subversive anarchists looking to overthrow nations from within – national purity and the national will (then associated very closely with liberal ideas) demanded their assimilation, subjugation, expulsion or extermination. (It has proven invaluable to the continued popularity of liberalism, which - as Israeli sociologist Shlomo Avineri detailed in his book, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State - fostered and encouraged these ideas through the nationalist Burschenschaften, that this stance regarding the Jews was eventually coopted by that most fanatically anti-liberal fusion of ideologies, Nazism.) Nowadays, of course, neoliberal ideologues (and their nouveau-atheist sycophants) have taken to making exactly the same sorts of assertions about Islam that were once made about Judaism: that it is fundamentally opposed to American (or British, or Norwegian, or Western) national values, that it is inherently and irrationally violent, that its followers are the inherently untrustworthy existential enemies of Western civilisation, and that (to hear commentators like Melanie Phillips, Bruce Bawer, Mark Steyn, Geert Wilders, Liu Xiaobo, Pamela Gellar, Robert Spencer, Anders Behring Breivik et al. on the subject) the solution is one of the following: assimilation, subjugation, expulsion or extermination.

This projection is suitable to the liberal mythology, by which the secular state is the power which allows all these other irrational and violent value-forces to be contained. But it also shows the inherent contradictions (in a Hegelian-Marxist sense) of liberalism: rather than being an equal playing field for all values, the secular state must degrade and subjugate some value-constellations to its service, and will use its own forms of violence (both structural and physical) to ensure conformity to secular values. Thus, rather than being the salvation of an order amenable to various heterogeneous ends, liberalism merely becomes one more ideology amongst all the other warring ideologies it claimed to encompass and govern – and all the more dangerous, since its governing logic is not peace or harmony or justice (in any sense other than the procedural), but the vicious zero-sum competition of the ‘marketplace of ideas’.

It is from here we can see the philosophical underpinnings of neoconservatism. Though neoconservatism borrows heavily from various political-philosophical strains (Straussianism and Trotskyism most notably), its basic conceit is that liberal democratic capitalism is the pinnacle of human good, but that it is constantly under attack by other value-constellations: Christianity (Russia, Serbia et al.) and Islam (Afghanistan, Iran) most notably, but even insufficiently-liberal forms of secular nationalism (like that of pre-war Iraq, Libya and Syria) are considered existential threats. As a result of all of these imminent dangers, a few ‘noble’ leaders of the democratic West are forced, in secret and in public, to abrogate the initially value-neutral principles of secular liberalism in order to save and propagate it. In doing this, they become the very embodiment of their own caricatures of religious excess.

The ‘Gothick’ caricature of torture under mediaeval Catholic regimes cannot hold a candle to what America’s (and its allies’) post-Bush intelligence services now do unrepentantly as a matter of course. The caricature of Judaism as a subversive fifth-column within nation-states is now outstripped by the largely secular and Christian-Zionist Israel lobby (which regime is no longer as fervently supported by practising Jews as it once was, and obviously doesn’t care for the practising Jews, Catholics and Muslims who used to live peacefully in the Holy Land, preferring to supplant them with – among other things – the Russian neo-Nazis of Yisrael Beiteinu, now fully incorporated into a political alliance with Likud). And, of course, the caricature of Islam as being intrinsically and irrationally violent is eclipsed utterly by the Bush doctrine of undertaking simultaneous wars of choice in multiple theatres.

The liberal reaction against neoconservatism – attempting to reclaim for liberalism its lost principles in the name of ‘human rights’, as most modern American liberals and civil libertarians attempt to do (notably Glenn Greenwald, with whom I agree a great deal of the time) – is admirable, but in my opinion ultimately ill-fated. It is admirable to speak of a basic set of ‘human rights’, but these only make sense within a context of shared values and pre-existing social roles. If one tries (in the style of the Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’) to universalise ‘human rights’ in too clumsy a way, one runs the risk of falling into the very same trap that led to the tragedy of liberalism in the first place – policing the sacred and attempting to forcibly flatten difference into something palatable for Western liberal democratic capitalists: turning the world into the ‘It’s a Small World After All’ ride at Disneyland, full of happy cartoon people with different funny clothes and peculiar, quaint-but-ultimately-irrelevant lifestyles and histories, united by (as Rammstein put it in their ‘not a love song’) ‘Coca-Cola, sometimes war’.

Ultimately, only by appealing to the true Universal made particular (but by no means contained or ended) by the Virgin Birth and by his death upon the Cross, and only by appealing to the hierarchy of values implied by that Universal – the primacy of life over death, the primacy of the logic of peace and right order over the logic of violence and power, the primacy of a common good over individual profit and piety – can the rights of humanity (qua humanity) be rightly articulated. Various non-Christian traditions can and do approach and point to this Universal and the values it implies – the scholarly and justice-oriented Islam of the ‘red’ Shia revolutionaries and martyrs; the radical tradition of prophecy amongst the Confucian sages; the Hindu-situated (but Christ-inspired) ‘truth force’ of Gandhi; the growing Jewish and Sunni voices for peace in the Middle East. Only just such a universalism (or – let us call it by its right name! – catholicism) can be validating of and validated by human beings, on their own terms and in command of their own Sittlichkeit.

10 January 2013

The awesomeness of Jo Rowling

Evanna Lynch, with a signed copy of Harry Potter

Mark Shea has a piece up over at Catholic and Enjoying It! on the charitable and volunteer work of Jo Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels. The story of Evanna Lynch and her battle with anorexia, and how she was aided in that battle by her mail correspondence with Ms Rowling, is truly an inspirational one. It is exemplary of Ms Rowling’s broader work in philanthropic and humanitarian causes, devoted to battling poverty (particularly child poverty), multiple sclerosis and illiteracy. As Mark Shea eloquently puts it, she is a true class act.

I think Ms Rowling’s place in the literary world, too, is significant, and adds further depth and context to the charitable work she does. Though she would likely rankle at being placed alongside CS Lewis in the annals of fantasy and speculative fiction (and though she was never heavily involved with the Inklings and their work), the Harry Potter books (particularly the last two which dwell heavily upon the traditionally Christian themes of death, resurrection, sin and redemption) do seem to have one foot firmly in the world of the Inklings. As she herself admitted, her Presbyterian beliefs directly contributed to her writing of the books, though (as any good author would) she didn’t want to tip her hand until the series was over.

In her books, too, there is a fairly obvious antifa streak, ideologically speaking. The Death Eaters and their ideology of magical ‘purity’ carry fairly obvious parallels with fascism, and the story of the Blacks very closely mirrors that of the Mitford family (Ms Rowling is on record as being a fan of the good Mitford sister, Jessica). It is arguable that the subtle class commentaries in Harry Potter (focussed primarily around the Weasley and Malfoy families and their places in the wizarding world, contrasted with the aggressively bourgeois Dursleys), along with the more broad-stroked critique in The Casual Vacancy, stands firmly (and deliberately) in the tradition of social criticism most commonly associated with Charles Dickens (the historical author Jo Rowling most wanted to meet, up there with Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and PG Wodehouse). She has been, to her credit, a great friend of Gordon Brown (and a critic of Blair, both for the right reasons), though her taste in American politicians (particularly the Kennedys and the Clintons) is rather questionable to say the least.

Ms Rowling is a remarkably talented and kind-hearted human being, but in order to fully do her justice as a story-teller we have to take account both of her religion and of her politics (which seem to be informed by her religion). The religious themes of her books hint at a deep-seated Pauline orthodoxy rooted in an unflinching (yet at the same time nuanced) understanding of the nature of death and sin, but it is a generous, vivacious orthodoxy which always manages to find room for the misfits, the geeks, the oddballs, the kids from poor families, the ones who generally just never quite manage to fit in.

We need more Jo Rowlings in the world.

All quiet on the southern front

The news from this end of the world as of yesterday has it that the Southern Weekend 《南方周末》 has cut a deal with the authorities, after a week-long row over censorship of the paper’s New Year’s ‘special editorial’ advocating constitutionalism by the Guangdong provincial propaganda ministry. Anyone who is surprised by this should not be, in fact, because (in spite of what its defenders say) the Southern Weekend is still as much an instrument of the Party as anything else on offer from Mainland China; all of its vaunted criticism of the Party tends generally to be aimed at the fact that it is still not exactly like the modern, neoliberal-dominated Republican Party in the US. Indeed, its past coverage of current events in the US attests directly to this fact. So my sympathy for the Southern Weekend in particular, and in these circumstances, is quite limited: so ‘independent’ are they, that they do not care to critique those global vested interests which have an impact on the quality of life all over the world, and they spit on the people who protest those vested interests in defence of what little they have.

And, like the Republicans (particularly of the neoconservative variety), they champion ‘freedom of speech’ only for those who share their ideology, as borne out by the fact that Southern Weekly journalists and pro-Southern Weekly protesters engaged in street brawls with counter-protesters. Their rationale? ‘These leftists are paid agitators of the government, twisting the truth with propaganda. We had to do something about it.’ Sounds a lot like the rationales the Red Guards used during the Cultural Revolution against suspected supporters of the ‘old society’.

That said, I agree with the principle behind the protests, even if I feel their object to be wholly undeserving. Freedom of speech is a truly tricky subject for me, because I have seen the absolute form of this liberty abused often enough to recognise its real dangers to people’s life and limb (the Plame affair, as well as WikiLeaks), and because I have seen the chilling effect an environment without such freedom has; each extreme is equally to be eschewed. I feel like Dr Samuel Johnson lay his finger perfectly on the crux of the matter when he wrote in his commentaries on Milton,
The danger of such unbounded liberty and the danger of bounding it have produced a problem in the science of Government, which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve. If nothing may be published but what civil authority shall have previously approved, power must always be the standard of truth; if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his projects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every skeptick in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion.

That said, the political environment surrounding speech rights in China is so far skewed in the direction of bounding and its dangers, that it is impossible indeed not to sympathise with those who demand an accounting. Even a few of China’s home-grown traditionalist conservatives (themselves no warmongerers, free-trade enthusiasts or worshippers of Mammon) have spoken out in favour of Southern Weekly and the constitutional principle of free speech rights (see also Sam Crane’s piece here).

09 January 2013

While there is Hagel, there is yet hope

When I first heard the name of Chuck Hagel, I was still in high school, and it was in the context of the Iraq War: he was among those few brave moderate and ex-Republicans - others (at the time) being Lincoln Chafee and Jim Jeffords - who went on record speaking out openly against the war. Hagel did vote to authorise the war, true, but he very quickly realised his error and spent the duration of the war critiquing most aspects of it. In my mind, he was far from a perfect statesman, but he was in fact a far sight better than many Democrats (including, it should be noted, either of the Clintons). Well, Mr President, if you had wanted my vote this past election (not that you ended up needing it), you ought to have told me you were planning to nominate a Secretary of Defence like Chuck Hagel! For a stolidly anti-war voter like me, that is certainly ‘change I can believe in’... John Brennan, though, not so much.

Predictably, both Obama and Hagel are being attacked, both from neoconservative and from civil-libertarian quarters, over this nomination. The neoconservative smears that Hagel is an anti-Semite over his comments to Aaron David Miller are, of course, so thin, so lame and indeed so clichéd at this point as to be utterly risible; and the claims that Hagel is anti-gay are utterly frivolous and vicious non-sequiturs. If one really cares about legal equality for homosexuals, picking a fight over the confirmation of a Secretary of Defence, who will not be in any position to influence legislation pertaining to same-sex rights, seems (to put it mildly) rather unwise to me. As Richard Cohen put it, ‘Hagel will be an implementer of policy, not its originator’.

At the very least, the fact that Hagel was Obama’s first choice as Secretary of Defence would indicate that no war with Iran looms on the horizon; blessed news in any case for the people who live there, and for the Israelis and Americans who oppose any such war. To quote Pat Buchanan (something I fear I do entirely too much these days), ‘let’s get it on’, Mr President!