27 October 2013

Orthodox England’s last stand

Ealdgýð Swan-Neck discovers the body of Harold the Martyr

Harold II of England, son of Earl Godwin of Wessex and the last of the Saxon Kings, was on this day nine hundred forty-seven years ago martyred in battle at Hastings by the conquering Norman army of William the Bastard. Thus began what has come to be known as the ‘Norman yoke’ – a memory of an England whose traditional language and traditional folkways were repressed by the imposition of foreign laws and a continental nobility. The Norman yoke was no fiction, and they wasted no time in laying it upon Saxon shoulders: within three years of King Harold’s death they had laid waste to the entire north of England and reduced it to starvation and beggary. Within twenty, they had effected a massive upward concentration of wealth, through force consolidated the holdings of over 4,000 Saxon thanes and earls into the hands of some 200 Norman lords, clamped down tight on minting to ensure their control over the developing monetary economy, introduced a more rigid form of feudal administration, introduced usury through fresh arrivals of Jewish financial families from Rouen, and took their payment by bleeding off the English economy to finance infrastructure in Normandy. The common English folkways crushed and driven underground in the aftermath of King Harold’s death still found expression through, for example, the popular mediaeval legend of Robin Hood, who championed simple folk and the commons against a ravening nobility.

Regrettably, during the Reformation and through the English Civil War, the ‘Norman yoke’ came to take on an anti-Catholic and anti-apostolic flavour as English Protestant nationalists attempted to marshal the Saxon heritage to their cause. In actuality, the deep irony of the ‘Norman yoke’ legend being invoked by the radical Calvinist Roundheads, was that their ‘reformed’ heresy was every bit as much a legalistic, repressive and regicidal Norman import as William the Bastard had been! (Jean Chauvin hailed from Picardie.) And, of course, in the end, those same English Protestants who bemoaned the ‘Norman yoke’ gladly welcomed with open arms yet another continental invader named William, who harrowed the Scottish, Irish and northern English every bit as brutally as his eponym had harrowed the Saxons.

In truth, Old England was not heterodox in any way, even if there was a backsliding in the moral life of the Church its twilight years. Much, much less were they wont to treat their kings with the dishonour their heretical offspring shew theirs, the doom of Saint King Edward the Martyr not withstanding. (Even that regicide was treated as a hitherto unheard-of and nigh unforgivable crime.) And, as Archpriest Andrew Phillips put it: ‘England of the Old English with all its faults was also a land of hallowed bishops and holy kings, of martyr-priests and confessors, of noble princes and princesses, saintly abbesses and humble cowherds, meek hermits and lowly monks, righteous families and silent nuns, faithful queens and gentle abbots, who hallowed it from North to South and East to West’. Just as the English people were generally loyal to their own kings, the English Church and people were highly loyal to Rome in all things beginning with St Gregory the Great and St Augustine of Canterbury. But, as Vladimir Moss put it in his book, The Fall of Orthodox England, ‘the “Romanity” to which the English were so devoted was not the Franco-Latin Catholicism of the later Middle Ages. Rather, it was the Greco-Roman Romanitas or Ρωμιοσύνη of Orthodox Catholicism’. The English maintained a special relationship with Byzantium not only on account of St Gregory the Great’s Byzantine apocrisiary post, but also as a consequence of so many Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Danes faring thence to serve in the Varangian Guard - a connexion they upheld and even intensified after the Norman Conquest.

The only true peculiarities, which came to be regarded as a faults from the perspective of Rome, pertained to matters of ecclesiastical governance. Rome detested the Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury for having failed to receive the omophor of his office directly from the Pope, even though no English archbishop had done so since 735. The Roman Church, in its quest to reform itself and to take up the mantle of secular and political power in its own right, in imitation of and over-against the kings it consecrated, was beginning to tread a dangerous path which would ultimately result in the heresies of nominalism, voluntarism and the moral plagues of the Reformation. Vladimir Moss makes the case persuasively, that even if it was by ecclesiastical-political happenstance rather than by a deliberate upholding of traditional doctrine, the English Church found itself in the position of being more orthodox than Rome.

The papacy of Alexander II, having rejected Stigand as non-canonical, was left hearing only the Bastard’s side of the story. The Bastard, aided by Prior Lanfranc of Bec, insisted to the Pope that: a.) Harold was the son of a murderer (though even if Earl Godwin of Wessex had killed Ælfred Æþeling, there was no right cause to hold his son to account for it); b.) St King Edward the Confessor had promised to make him his heir (though in this, we have William’s word alone); c.) that Harold had been crowned king against canon law by an illegal Archbishop, Stigand (even though this is not attested from English sources); and d.) that Harold had broken an oath sworn over holy relics to support William the Bastard’s claim to the English throne (even though, as hostage of the Normans, he was clearly under duress when he made the oath, and had no knowledge of the relics he had sworn that oath upon, since William had made shameful and blasphemous use of them by hiding them from Harold’s view). The Pope, however, in the absence of any delegation from England or the English Church, lent his full support to William and even proclaimed it a holy war to save England from error.

Harold himself should be considered here. He was, by all accounts, a good king and a good man: ‘wise, patient, merciful, courageous, temperate and prudent in character’. He repeatedly showed courage, loyalty and compassion - he saved two men from quicksand when he was a hostage of the Normans. In the wake of the death of St King Edward the Confessor, he ascended to the throne without any opposition from the Saxon witan. Vlaidmir Moss cites Florence of Worcester’s glowing account of his short reign:
[Harold] immediately began to abolish unjust laws and to make good ones; to patronize churches and monasteries; to pay particular reverence to bishops, abbots, monks and clerics; and to show himself pious, humble and affable to all good men. But he treated malefactors with great severity, and gave general orders to his earls, ealdormen, sheriffs and thegns to imprison all thieves, robbers and disturbances of the kingdom. He laboured in his own person by sea and by land for the protection of his realm.
Given his evident piety, the news of Pope Alexander II’s excommunication of him and support for the Bastard doubtless came as a great blow to Harold and to his men. Yet, as Moss recounts, Harold still fought bravely, and many of his men, including men of the Church, fought stalwartly at his side. Moss wonders:
Why did they stay, knowing that they stood to lose, not only their bodies, but also, if the anathema was true - their eternal souls? Very few probably knew about the schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople or about the theological arguments - over the Filioque, over unleavened bread at the Liturgy, over the supposed universal jurisdiction of the Pope - that led to the schism of 1054. Still fewer, if any, could have come to the firm conclusion that Rome was wrong and Constantinople was right. That Harold had perjured himself in coming to the throne was generally accepted - and yet they stayed with him.

In following King Harold, the Englishmen who fought and died at Hastings were following their hearts rather than their heads. Their hearts told them that, whatever the sins of the king and the nation, he was still their king and this was still their nation. Surely God would not want them to desert these at the time of their greatest need, in a life-and-death struggle against a merciless foreign invader? Perhaps they remembered the words of Archbishop Wulfstan of York: “By what means shall peace and comfort come to God’s servants and God’s poor, but through Christ and through a Christian king?” Almost certainly they were drawn by a grace-filled feeling of loyalty to the Lord's Anointed; for the English were exceptional in their continuing veneration for the monarchy, which in other parts had been destroyed by the papacy.

The English might also have reflected that this day, October 14, was the feast of St. Callistus, a third-century Pope who was considered by many Roman Christians of his time (including St. Hippolytus) to be a schismatic anti-pope. If that Pope could have been a schismatic, was there not much more reason to believe that this one was schismatic, too, being under the anathema of the Great Church of Constantinople and presuming as he did to dispose of kingdoms as he did churches and blessing the armed invasion of peaceful Christian countries by uninvited foreigners? And if so, then was it not they, the Normans, who were the schismatics, while the true Christians were those who refused to obey their false decrees and anathemas? In any case, after the battle very few Englishman fled to Old Rome, the traditional refuge of English exiles. They preferred, as we have seen, the Orthodox capitals of Constantinople and Russia!
We beseech you, Harold, Holy Martyr and Strastoterpets, intercede for us with our Heavenly Father, that we may also find the kindness to insist upon his justice and the courage to fight for his truth, even when all the forces of the world, of empire and of worldly gain are arrayed against us. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages; amen.

The golden dragon of Wessex

26 October 2013

Birth parents of Greek ‘mystery girl’ Maria found

The story of a young girl who was taken from her Romani parents by the Greek authorities on suspicion that she wasn’t really their child has just taken an interesting twist: her actual birth parents have been found, confirmed through genetic testing. And they are Romani. To be completely frank, I am angered and disgusted that it needed to come to this.

This doesn’t really prove anything yet, of course. We still don’t know all the circumstances of little Maria’s case, and we should forbear from judging either her parents or her foster-parents. But the case has unmasked part of the depth of the race-based resentment, suspicion and phobias against the Romani that still undergirds a lot of European culture, including (to my chagrin as an Orthodox catechumen) Eastern European culture, even if it hides under a humanitarian gloss and pious opposition to child trafficking. (Always the rich and the settled blame the destitute and the outcast for the problems their avarice creates! How truly blinded do we have to be, to attribute the very real problem of child trafficking solely to the assumed moral failings of the Romani? Or of the poor generally?) Neither her birth parents nor her foster parents benefit at all from this sort of posturing, much less the young girl herself! As such, this resentment, suspicion and fear must be exposed, addressed and repented thoroughly. Thankfully, the facts of the case as they stand have gone some way toward discrediting the typical anti-Romani canards, and that is to the good. As Christians we are wayfarers (or, more accurately, Wayfarers), and if we are serious about following the words and example of Our Lord in all things, we are obligated to treat other wayfarers with generosity and hospitality, and not to cast them off, mistreat them or prejudge them.

Ultimately, though, we need to hear from little Maria, and from those who best know her and how to take care of her.

Most Holy and Ever-Virgin Theotokos, blessed among women, our sweet hope and source of our salvation, please hear and deliver our prayers to your Son our God, that he may for love of you save our souls. Watch over and protect this young girl who bears your most glorious and magnified name. Protect her from all who would do her harm or use her for their own selfish or hateful ends, and please see her delivered safe back to where she is loved and where she truly belongs.

23 October 2013

Huge statue of Our Lord erected in Syria

In the war-torn country, on a hilltop near Saydnaya, there has been erected an immense statue of Christ, taller than Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue and in progress since 2005, entitled ‘I Have Come to Save the World’, the work of Yurii Gavrilov and Artush Papoian. The director of the St Paul and St George Foundation, Samir el-Gadban, had this to say: ‘We hope that this sculptural composition brings peace and love to the hearts of people and that our work will help restore peace and calm in this long-suffering region.’ And the Moscow Spiritual Academy: ‘The ensemble with the blessing Christ in its center, seen from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, is designed to bring peace, mutual understanding, and hope for common salvation to a region engulfed in the flames of war.’

So too do I hope! And that this massive statue may serve to inspire others to do the ordinary works of mercy and care, still greater in Our Lord’s sight, in a land which so desperately needs it, I also pray.

21 October 2013

Pointless video post - ‘Nothing to Save’ by Sunless Rise

Now, I’m not the greatest fan of melodeath. But Sunless Rise know how to do melodeath and extreme power metal properly - clearly they were looking to the masters amongst their neighbours to the west: Finland’s Children of Bodom and Sweden’s Skyfire... and then wasting no time trying to outdo them in every aspect! It’s not just the frenetic keyboard and shredding guitar solos - overdone, those can be needless frippery - but the sheer relentlessness and ultra-technical prowess of these powerful Peterburgians is a phenomenon to listen to, even on the slim four tracks they’ve released on their 2009 demo. Everything fits together like clockwork: the clean and death vox, the incredible drumwork, and of course the duelling keyboards and guitars! The first track, ‘Nothing to Save’, is a masterwork! If that weren’t enough reason to listen in awe, though, it’s clear that this band is looking in a very interesting direction in terms of their lyrical themes, which deal with disillusionment from a capitalistic-consumeristic world of material distractions, and the discovery of deeper permanent and spiritual truths. Do have a listen, gentle readers - hopefully they are as much to your liking as they are to mine!

17 October 2013

Their problem, never ours

Don’t be suckered by Greenpeace’s ‘Arctic 30’ campaign. It isn’t about pollution.

The Saker calls it a ‘political judo move’, which is precisely what it is. The reasons why outlets like the Guardian are busily drumming up the usual Russophobia and negative spin from all the usual corners (the French calling Russia ‘implacable’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘repressive’, charging their own government with supposed weakness on challenging Russia’s human rights record; the British with the typical slurs of a ‘nationalist strongman’ who is ‘crude, combative’ and ‘no gentleman’ while making the usual snide predictions about Russia’s inscrutable brutality and immanent decline; the Germans as always trying to make themselves out as the voice of reason and moderation without challenging at all the official line; the Poles displaying their perennial paranoias and Pharisaical attitude on economics; the Italian contributor seems the only one taking a realistic and rational line), is simply to cover their arses from criticism over this. The charitable view is that Greenpeace has been played like a violin by the UK and US petrol industries, who are motivated only by getting their piece of the Arctic action. At the very least, the environmental movement’s loudly-stated concerns over the environmental impact of Russia, in this case as in all too many others, seems far too selective to be fully sincere.

Oh, and the police in that most enlightened and tolerant of nations, the Netherlands, seem to have matters well in hand, breaking and entering the apartment of a Russian diplomat without a warrant, beating him up, detaining him and so forth. What, as Lord Peter Wimsey might put it, an awful, bitter, bloody farce.

It strikes me that the gentle reminder of Our Lord to pick the beam out of our own eye before reaching for the mote in our brother’s is a bit of advice most of us in the Anglo-American West (and aligned countries) could take more carefully to heart. Heaping odium upon a nation which is struggling and muddling forward with as much grace as it can from its traumatic communist past and equally-traumatic post-communist transition is both unfair and unkind. If the problems we see in the world are always the fault of ‘those people over there’, and never our own, that is a hint that, both as a society and as individuals, we need to take a long, hard and careful look at our own priorities and perspectives.

16 October 2013

The heirs of Jackson

John at EifD links to an intriguing analysis of the Tea Party and its place in American political history by Salon contributor Michael Lind. Lind argues, contra the mainstream liberal consensus which declares the Tea Party to be irredeemably irrational, that this is merely the latest expression of a Jacksonian faux-populist politics. It is meant to service and sate, quite rationally if we are defining rationality as the use of beliefs to satisfy material desires, the economic gluttony of Southern elites (the ‘local notables’) and some of their class allies from elsewhere. He notes that in that attempt, they even use the same demographic-electoral and tactical toolkit that they have been using for centuries now: the ‘Solid South’, the filibuster, voter-ID and voter-registration initiatives to disenfrachise non-whites and privatisation of public works.

Lind’s analysis is compelling, and these are important insights. The Tea Party may try to speak on behalf of working-class whites, but the statistics show that they are more likely to be educational and economic elites, and that they are more likely to be regional. And it shows clearly that we traditionalist conservatives (particularly, but by no means solely, those of us who live outside the American South) need to tread with extra caution regarding the Tea Party. Though we might with reason share some of their critique about government overreach, we simply cannot afford to give licence or turn a blind eye to what Dostoevsky would doubtless call the ‘vanity’, in that sort of cynical rabble-rousing the Tea Party elites engage in, and in the idea that we might sustain ourselves and our society upon bourgeois self-satisfaction and material prudence alone (however selectively applied).

15 October 2013

Words of hope from Gar Alperovitz

Members of Ohio Solar Co-Operative, image courtesy Axiom News

Writing in The Nation, co-op proponent Dr Gar Alperovitz outlines some of the ways in which a distinctly American form of economic democracy might come about - and indeed, some of the ways in which it already is. A broad alliance between the petit-bourgeois of the public service sector and the traditional proletariat - of the new NGO sector and the unions - for the sake of placing greater productive power in the hands of ordinary citizens, seems to be already underway. Dr Alperovitz takes care to stress that this effort will be ecumenical in terms of ideas and institutions as well as classes: the resources (particularly real estate and credit resources) and purchasing power of various instruments of the state, particularly at the local (city, county, state) levels, will have to be marshalled to the task, as will private and non-profit resources. Of course, the instruments of civil society will have to take the active role: traditional credit unions and trade unions are already mobilising in the wake of the credit and jobs crises, respectively. Dr Alperovitz turns to the examples of Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio, to show how even in the wake of big steel and big automotive leaving their American workers out in the cold, church and labour leaders were able to build up enough grassroots support to open the mills again, now run by around 500,000 worker-owners. (His reference to the collaboration between the big traditional American unions and the Basque Mondragon Corporation for establishing worker co-ops is particularly interesting!)

Do read the whole thing, gentle readers. It is incredibly heartening to see!

12 October 2013

A personal announcement

For a long time now – since the very beginning of this blog, actually – I have given serious consideration to joining the Orthodox faith. Searching my conscience, I cannot pretend that my own motives have been entirely pure or that they were always motivated by right. It was idle curiosity more than anything else that led me to pick up Nikolai Berdyaev’s The Russian Revolution and ‘Unifying Christians East and West’. It was the eager, naïve xenophilia of one about to embark on the mission of Peace Corps which led me first to the Antiochan Orthodox Church of St Mary’s in Pawtucket, and then to the Russian Orthodox Church of Aleksandr Nevskiy in Saimasai. I can only bow my head in gratitude to Fr Isaac and Fr Valery for the patience and kindness they showed to me, in gently leading me toward the truth in spite of my cultural (and in the case of my conversation with Fr Valery, linguistic) biases and barriers.

But the more I continued to read, and the more I continued to search, the more I was led back to that crossroads which stood before me in Kazakhstan. And just as I was taking note of the life that the Russians of Saimasai led – even in the midst of the spiritual darkness and bondage I was in at the time – I have no doubt that God was taking note of all as well. And as S. Cyril did not throw such students with internal turmoil and doubt and ulterior motives out of his congregation, but welcomed them to return, so I always found Orthodoxy beckoning me to return, back to that lonely crossroads. From the news and press releases from the Patriarchate of Moscow, or from the pleas for peace and stability in the Middle East joined by the Catholic Church, or from the pages of Berdyaev or Bulgakov or Plato even.

At the same time, I was finding Anglicanism to be incomplete and floundering on the whole, particularly the ECUSA whose ‘lightweight modernism’ has long been a source of discomfort and frustration to me. Notwithstanding the exception of the wonderfully smart and kind clergy and laypeople of S. Stephen’s (to whom I owe a tremendous debt in my spiritual recovery and growth), the liturgy of the Anglican Church was a comfort, but I found there was very little reflection in the broader church upon what the liturgy meant. (I’ll be blunt: Bp KJ Schori’s homily in Caracas was a tipping-point for me.)

And even as I was beginning to accept more and more of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church as true, I found within her the same regimenting Aristotelian tendencies, her need to classify everything down to its last detail, her need not only to reach for God, but to take him apart to see what made him tick. As much as I admire Pope Francis, the unseemly wrangling within Catholic circles over what he and his message mean to the Church – and the need for every side to grasp at some sort of certitude over it – managed always to hold me back from conversion. The warnings of John Milbank and George Grant loomed always in the background. Always the rebuke of Christ to S. Peter stood baldly before his throne, and the question left standing: ‘who do you say that I am?’

And always, somehow, Orthodoxy seemed to be there, speaking in her quiet and contemplative voice. And more and more, she began to make sense.

I am beginning my catechesis into the Orthodox faith, under the guidance of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos Church in Beijing. Your prayers and your well-wishes would be greatly appreciated as I undertake this journey.

11 October 2013

‘You can still see their blood’

Human Rights Watch has issued a report accusing the Syrian rebels (particularly those in ISIS, al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham) of systematically slaughtering the Alawite communities in their 4 August assault on Latakia Province, in mass executions and indiscriminate shooting sprees, leaving (at latest count) over 190 dead, many in mass graves, with 200 more having been abducted and held hostage. These figures are as yet still incomplete. The rebels are no longer even pretending to give lip-service to continuity even with the demands of the early protests for democracy in Syria; these fanatical murderers are no longer even trying to cover the evil they are wreaking upon the Syrian people. Any claim they may once have made to being the legitimate voice of the Syrian opposition lies utterly discredited by their actions and by their calls to that action (however rapidly backpedalled). The idea that the rebels are in any way committed to peaceful living with their non-Sunni neighbours is now as phoney as a three-dollar bill (or Liz O’Bagy’s doctorate).

The Alawites and Shi’ites are not the only ones being targetted in Syria. The Christian community native to Syria has long been one of the main targets of ISIS in particular. When ISIS and al-Nusra occupied holy Maaloula, they turned it into a ghost town, driving all the Christians out and desecrating all of its churches and reliquaries. As the refugees continuously point out, this is the very cradle, the heartland and historical centre, of Christendom which is being torn asunder today.

Please pray for Syria and all of her people - Orthodox, Catholic, Alawite and Sunni alike! Please pray that peace once more comes to the Holy Land, and that the leaders of the world may be guided by God and his gifts of reason and compassion, to forge a diplomatic solution which respects all of her people. And please give generously and with discernment to those groups which are actively seeking to help Syrian refugees.

10 October 2013

The curse of the political independent

We are the largest political contingent in the United States. In recent years we have quite reliably made up more than a third of the voting electorate: in 2011, as many as 40% of American voters identified themselves this way. We don’t like attaching themselves to the political parties, and with good reason. We (quite rightly) see the political parties as so much institutionalised theatre, driven by groupthink and rancour, either to dysfunction or to extremism. We would rather rely upon our own good sense, and take our stands upon each issue as it comes to us.

Many of my best friends and mentors growing up were political independents. I understand how they think and why they think what they think – in part because I myself have come to sympathise with them so heavily now. Like them, I am not a fan of either the mainstream Democrats or the mainstream Republicans. (Though, there are quite a few Democrats in recent years with some incredibly decent ideas: Elizabeth Warren, Dennis Kucinich, Kathy Dahlkemper. Republicans with good ideas are harder to find, admittedly, but they still have a Sisyphean battle to fight for those ideas to even to gain attention within the ‘big tent’.) But we independents have our own problems which we must sort out.

The first of which is the curse the non-label label puts on us. ‘Independent’, in the popular imagination, summons up the image of a lone cowboy, someone beholden to no tradition and no value, someone who does and thinks as they please with reference to nothing outside themselves. This is regrettable enough when it characterises popular social reaction to being ‘independent’, but it becomes truly dangerous when those amongst us who do not subscribe to the entire programme of either major political party begin to believe it of ourselves. The lures of libertarianism lie down that stream – the cheap anti-establishment, individualist rhetoric which masks merely a vulgar defence of the corporate status quo. Libertarianism is a temptation to which, sadly, all too many American ‘independents’ are vulnerable, because it arises straight out of (and appropriates shamelessly) the Americanist civic-religious mythos which surrounds the term ‘independence’.

What we independents have to remember is that this mythos is as much to be distrusted as the narratives put forward by both major parties. Indeed, they all stem from the same source. And we must recognise our curse and political label as a potential mark-of-Cain, because no man or woman is truly ‘independent’, ever. Everything we are is dependent. Physically and bodily, we are dependent upon our parents for having birthed us, and upon them and the communities in which we have lived for having cared for and nourished us. Intellectually, we are dependent upon our teachers and mentors, and upon countless influences from our society. The paradox of the doctrine of predestination is that we are free – we have free will – but that even that freedom is dependent upon the goodness of the power that created us. This is a paradoxical formulation which is coming to be adopted (albeit in a necessarily methodologically materialistic way) even by some within the scientific and sociological communities in response to the nouveau atheists and others who cannot reconcile freedom with the fact that we are physically and causally contingent beings.

The problem stems from our political label being, ultimately, a negative: ‘not dependent’. In a sense, it is not a label of our choosing, but rather a means Democrats and Republicans have of saying: ‘okay, you’re not one of them, but you’re not one of us either’. And the negative descriptor carries with it the implication of a concession, that the sum total of American political reality is meant to be defined by allegiance to one party or to the other. I’m going to call the approach that demands such concessions nomicohoplichrimatian pseudo-communitarianism – NPC for short – after the habit of certain bloggers at Lawyers, Guns and Money of deriding those not-(vocal-enough-)Democrats with commitments to the common good as reductive atomists, hyper-invidusalists and narcissists. I can’t really improve that much upon Dr Russell Arben Fox’s deconstruction of the NPCs (also here), but I’d like to add my agreement to his point that it rarely strikes those advocates of NPC that elections do take place in different contexts which are not entirely dictated by the logic of partisan politics, and that some of us might have politically-meaningful commitments outside the structure of the DNC or the GOP, which might demand that we occasionally make stands on issues not in line with the party platform. (A commitment to a church, say. Or to a union.)

Party politics is indeed part of the social reality of modern America. But if we independents continue to define ourselves by what we are not, or allow ourselves to be defined by what we are not, and thereby concede to the NPCs that the sole or the ultimate expression of community and solidarity is within the established corporate party structures, we will fall victim to the social pathology they promulgate. We will essentially be proving their point for them that there is nothing to political non-alignment except reductive atomism, hyper-individualism and narcissism.

For many of us, perhaps, it is simply a matter of orienting ourselves to more local forms of political expression. But regardless of the solution they choose, self-declared independents who are dissatisfied with the current political status quo quite simply cannot afford to keep calling themselves ‘independents’. We know what we’re against, but what are we for?

09 October 2013

Pointless video post - ‘Машина’ by Есхатон

I really don’t know what it is about the former Yugoslavia.

For some reason, they make some truly top-class traditional heavy metal: Forever Storm, Heaven Rain, Tornado, Avven (though they edge more into folk metal), Alogia. You could chalk up their love for heavy music up to the Yugoslav Wars, but that doesn’t explain the sheer awesomeness that is Дивље Јагоде, who’ve been doing their thing since the seventies!

Anyway, suffice it to say that the South Slavs make some kick-arse music. But I recently came across Belgrade’s Есхатон, who turn out some truly haunting, epic melodic heavy metal with a Gothic tinge - probably due in no small part to the rich and soulful baritone of the vocalist, Hadži Nikola Mijović, whose voice carries definite tones of Saviour Machine’s Eric Clayton. The parallels do not stop there: the band’s lyrics are solid white-metal fare: all about Serbian Orthodox Christianity, Judgement Day and the second coming of Christ, the sacraments, opposition to war, Serbian patriotism (their EP was dedicated to Kosovo, after all!) and all that good stuff. But they all sound so much more badass when sung in Serbian! In an era when retro heavy metal bands are crawling out of the woodwork all over the globe (but particularly in Europe), it is very difficult to make this sort of music sound fresh, but do they ever pull it off! Do give their songs a listen, gentle readers, enjoy ‘Машина’, and don’t forget to immanentise the Есхатон!

07 October 2013

Talking good sense about Iran and China

Dr Stephen Walt writes on the Foreign Policy blog:
Thomas Friedman had a mostly sensible column in yesterday’s New York Times, in which he endorsed the crazy, dangerous, irrational, doesn’t-make-any-sense-at-all idea of seriously negotiating with Iran. Not only did he correctly note that Iran might see a nuclear capability (if not nuclear weapons) as insurance against regime change (i.e., the same reason that other nuclear-armed states got them), but he also made a useful comparison between Iran today and the People’s Republic of China. Here's his big question:
But how much of their “nuclear insurance” [is Iran] ready to give up to be free of sanctions? Are they ready to sacrifice a single powerful weapon to become again a powerful country -- to be more like a China, a half-friend, half-enemy, half-trading partner, half-geo-political rival to America, rather than a full-time opponent?
This analogy is even more illuminating than Friedman thinks, because back when China was first developing its own nuclear capability, it was described in virtually the same terms that hard-liners now apply to Iran. For example, here’s then Secretary of State Dean Rusk testifying to the Senate Subcommittee on Far Eastern Affairs in 1966:
[The Chinese communists] are now developing nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.… But such weapons need not serve a defensive role. They can be used directly by Peking to try to intimidate its neighbors, or in efforts to blackmail Asian countries into breaking defense alliances with the United States, or in an attempt to create a nuclear “balance” in Asia in which Peking’s potentially almost unlimited conventional forces might be used with increased effect. These weapons can ultimately be employed to attack Peking’s Asian neighbors and, in time, even the United States.
Rusk noted that such attacks would be “mad and suicidal,” but then went on to say:
Peking's present state of mind is a combination of aggressive arrogance and obsessions of its own making.… I would be inclined … to advance the view that a country whose behavior is as violent, irascible, unyielding, and hostile as that of communist China is led by leaders whose view of the world and of life itself is unreal.… They seem to be immune to agreement or persuasion by anyone, including their own allies.
Sound familiar? The language and arguments advanced by Rusk regarding Maoist China are strikingly similar to the way hawks have described Iran for years. Like China back then, Iran is said to want nuclear weapons for various offensive purposes. And like China back then, the fact that any use of such weapons would be suicidal can be of no comfort to us, because we are supposedly dealing with people who are irrational and whose view of life “itself is unreal.” Remember when neoconservative historian Bernard Lewis warned of an imminent Iranian attack on Aug. 22, 2006, based on his belief that Iran was infused with a “culture of martyrdom” and that Aug. 22 corresponded to a supposedly significant date on the Islamic calendar? (I may have missed something, but I’m pretty sure that this date passed without incident.)

The second lesson, of course, is that Rusk was dead wrong. China tested nuclear weapons and eventually built a modest nuclear arsenal, but it didn’t try to blackmail, invade, or intimidate anyone. In fact, the acquisition of nuclear weapons did almost nothing to increase China’s international influence. What did increase China’s global stature were the post-Mao economic reforms (the “Four Modernizations”), which unleashed three decades of rapid economic growth.

And that's the third lesson too. The nuclear issue has dominated U.S. policy toward Iran for more than a decade, and while it is not a trivial problem, it’s probably not the most important one either. Iran is not going to give up control over the full fuel cycle (meaning it will insist on keeping some enrichment and reprocessing capabilities), though it may agree to some limits and to intrusive inspections. If we demand more than that, there won’t be a deal. Put differently, any deal that Teheran will accept is still going to leave it with the ability to produce a bomb if it ever decides it needs to; we are mostly going to be negotiating over the length of time it would take them to do so and thus how much warning we are likely to get.

But over the long term, what really matters is Iran’s overall power potential and not whether it has a latent nuclear capability, a few weapons hidden away, or a fully developed arsenal akin to the ones that Israel, India, and Pakistan already possess. Iran has a large, relatively young population, considerable oil and gas, a lot of well-educated people, and considerable economic potential. As with communist China, sooner or later the leaders who have mismanaged Iran’s economy will lose their grip or change their policies, and the sanctions imposed by the West will be lifted. At that point, Iran is likely to take off rapidly. So the real question is whether a more powerful Iran will be eager to be a “half-friend” to the United States -- which is how Friedman now describes China -- or will it be angry and resentful and looking to push us out of the region entirely? That depends at least in part on us.
I really couldn’t have put it any better myself. Iran and China are both incredibly ancient civilisations with commitments to their past that even utterly destructive revolutions (one Communist, one Islamic) have failed to override or unseat completely. As such, they have strong vested interests in not throwing all of their native riches away. As our imperium strides around the globe like the arrogant bully that it is, we often forget that the nations which don’t always give us our way in every particular behave rationally with regard to these interests. A nuclear-armed Iran, even if that is what Iran is attempting to become (which is doubtful), would, simply put, not spell the end of the world any more than a nuclear-armed China has. Instead, Iran will go on as she has done, defending her borders and the integrity of her natural resources, perhaps upon occasion involving herself more or less mischievously in the affairs of the Levant through proxies like Hezbollah. And generally not posing any overt threat to us or to the world’s stability.

06 October 2013

Still a level 4 lawful good human paladin

My D&D alignment, class, race and level, then and now (stats have changed somewhat; given my lack of common sense, and practice carrying Ellie around, this seems to be about right):
I Am A: Lawful Good Human Paladin (4th Level)

Ability Scores:

Lawful Good A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. He combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. He tells the truth, keeps his word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion. However, lawful good can be a dangerous alignment when it restricts freedom and criminalizes self-interest.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Paladins take their adventures seriously, and even a mundane mission is, in the heart of the paladin, a personal test an opportunity to demonstrate bravery, to learn tactics, and to find ways to do good. Divine power protects these warriors of virtue, warding off harm, protecting from disease, healing, and guarding against fear. The paladin can also direct this power to help others, healing wounds or curing diseases, and also use it to destroy evil. Experienced paladins can smite evil foes and turn away undead. A paladin's Wisdom score should be high, as this determines the maximum spell level that they can cast. Many of the paladin's special abilities also benefit from a high Charisma score.

Interestingly enough, my wife turned out to be a level 3 true neutral elf druid-sorceress. Who’da thunk?

05 October 2013

Encapsulated in DC, the modern world

One of GK Chesterton’s best-known quotes goes thus: ‘The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.’ It is among his best-known simply because it is one of the best-evidenced. And nowhere is that evidence prevailing more than in Washington, DC.

The Affordable Health Care Act is a manifestly bad law. It’s an utterly convoluted, technocratic mess whose benefits are not readily visible even to those it purports to cover. It lacks the sort of public insurance option (something like Britain’s NHS) which could have helped most to ensure competitive costs – and the evasion by the Administration that the political capital to pass such an option didn’t exist doesn’t pass the smell test, because the Administration expended exactly zero effort to build it.

But more distressingly, it is little more than a bandage designed to hold together a centralised rentier system, and deepens the collusion between insurance companies, service providers and big pharma in ways which, even though they may cut costs for care in the short-term, will nonetheless fail to control them in the long run. In essence, it is a taxpayer-supported direct subsidy to private insurance companies, who will continue to leverage their status under the law to derive profit. The insurance companies depend upon a base of customers who share costs, and the AHCA essentially assured them a much broader base than they already had. This, in turn, opens up a far broader consumer base for the large pharmaceutical corporations which already do multi-billion dollar business in the United States alone. There is no reason to believe this is a bug rather than a feature.

A law which could break the stranglehold of big pharma and big health insurance over our current health system on the one hand, and ensure protections for local options for direct service provision (a guild system for doctors, perhaps) on the other hand, would have gone a long way in the right direction. This wouldn’t entirely solve the intractable problems of the sort of tremendous medical school debt which drives doctors into the arms of big pharma in the first place, however, or our broken patent system with its insane absolutism regarding intellectual property, which keeps generics from becoming widely available. The American health system is something of a Gordian knot that way, and a comprehensive fix will have to involve a sea-change in the culture such that more focus is placed on preventative care and direct community involvement. And for that to happen, costs have to go down first, which requires a change in the culture towards care… and so on, ad nauseam. But there are good fixes and bad fixes, and the AHCA cannot be said to fall into the first category.

All of the above being said, though…

Shutting down the government over a refusal to fund the bill is simply not the proper response. Not only is it infantile. Not only does it demonstrate to the public a dearth of ideas on the part of the GOP. But it encourages the perception – and therefore influences the reality, in that curiously cable television- and Twitter-influenced postmodern way that ‘seeing is believing’, and therefore ‘being is but being seen’ – that American partisan politics is an existential zero-sum game. What’s more, it is seen to be an existential zero-sum game between institutionalised caricatures of what Americans actually believe and want. The only reason the GOP thought that they could get away with this sort of thing was because they were given the impression that it would win them votes.

And while good people – as many as eight hundred thousand of them, including members of the military – who do honest and productive work in the public sector (yes; such a thing does exist, as do the people who do it) are being furloughed, the same people responsible for this entire mess are still drawing their six-figure paychecks.

A slightly less well-known quote by GK Chesterton – but one which, if this sort of nonsense continues, is likely to become much better-known in the near future – is: ‘It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged.’

EDIT: Although, it appears I may have spoken too soon, and some clemency may be in order; the House has voted to give furloughed federal employees back pay. Still doesn’t excuse what brought about the need for it, though.

Free Wu Guijun

If you would, gentle readers, please consider signing the petition here. Fundamental labour rights in mainland China often go unrepresented by ‘reformers’ and ‘public intellectuals’ (whose interests are visibly more oriented toward the ruling class), let alone by the official trade union federation here, but they are incredibly important nonetheless, and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions is doing an invaluable service by mobilising for Mr Wu.
Mr. Xu Qin, Mayor of Shenzhen City,
Mrs. Luoli, President of the municipal federation in Shenzhen

We are writing to ask the Mayor of Shenzhen City and the municipal federation in Shenzhen to step in and give assistance in cases of Wu Guijun from Diweixin Product Factory in which worker are criminalized for the industrial actions they took to claim their labour rights. Wu was arrested by unknown reason more than 130 days! Illegal detention of WU Guijun for more than a hundred days

On 23 May Wu Guijun and nearly 200 workers from Diweixin Product Factory located in Shenzhen were arrested by the anti-riot police on the way to petition the Shiyan district government. They were asking the government to intervene in the one-month long severance negotiation with their employer which was closing down business for relocation from its Shenzhen plant to Huizhou city. Few days after the arrest, the factory management terminated the negotiation with the workers and sacked all the representatives including Wu Guijun. Since his detention on 23 May, Wu was denied free access to his lawyer and family. He is likely to be criminalized and charged by the public security for “assembling a crowd to disturb public order”.

Free Wu Guijun!

We regret to find that in this case, Wu and other worker leaders were alone in their struggle without receiving support from the trade union. We are concerned that industrial actions taken by workers for claiming their legal rights were put under criminal detention and charged. Although strike is not protected in the domestic laws, freedom of assembly is protected in the PRC Constitution.

Our demands:
  1. Defend the Worker’s Right to Strike!
  2. Protect the Worker leader in the Strike!
  3. Urge to give pressure to the government for the release of Mr. Wu and provide all the needed assistance to Mr. Wu and his family.

致:深圳市市長許勤; 深圳市總工會主席羅莉

深 圳的一千多萬外來工為深圳創造了三十多年的繁榮,但待遇和地位卻不相稱地一直處於弱勢,部份黑心老闆竟公然漠視法規,在政府主導的珠江三角洲地區改革發展 規劃綱要(2008-2020年)中提出的產業轉移和升值的大潮中依然拖欠工資、惡意侵吞工人應得經濟補償金。此時此刻,在中國政府決心邁向國際社會之 際,我們相信深圳市政府、深圳市人民檢察院是不會讓中國製造光環背後的勞動者進一步為資本欺侮。深圳政府必須通過釋放吳貴軍,向這些逃奔責任的投資者傳遞 一個嚴正的訊息:


罷工無罪, 要求捍衛工人合法權利

迪 威信傢俱用品(深圳)有限公司是1998年在深圳成立的 “三來一補”港資企業。2006年,工廠老闆夏海歐在惠州設廠,並逐漸將機器等資產轉移到惠州。2010年夏海歐在深圳另立“迪威信(深圳)傢俱用品有限 公司”,進一步為搬廠方便資產轉移。2013年2月,迪威信(深圳)傢俱用品有限公司 (下稱廸威信)訂單、工人加班的時間減少影響工資等眾多問題出現後,工人逐步減少至 300人左右,剩下的300多工人意識到關廠問題的嚴重性。 2013年初,廸威信工人聯名寫信給深圳當地的勞動部門和法院法官要求行政部門和司法部門要求介入,希望在企業搬遷變動的情況下工人的合法權益能夠得到合 法的保障和合理的經濟補償。然則,廸威信工人連署爭取無果。2013年5月,廸威信把最後的機器搬走。

2013年5月7日,迪威信工人為阻 止工廠把機器搬走,正式開始罷工,要求老闆就搬廠事宜和對工人的處理作出說明和交代,並依法發放因搬廠而需要賠償的經濟補償金。就此,工人多次與工廠、石 岩勞動站和石岩派出所交涉談判無果。在罷工兩星期期間,工人多次要求政府部門和工會介入事件,協助工人爭取賠償。工人也曾兩次集體到該區政府部門上訪,可 惜最後得到的,只是老闆賠償每名工人每工作一年補償人民幣400元的決定,這一標準遠遠低於法律的賠償標準(按《勞動合同法》經濟補償金應以一年一個月工 資的標準發放,而當時工人的月工資是2700元左右)。

2013年5月23日,工人在百般無奈之下向深圳市政府尋求幫助,惟300多名罷工工人往市政府途中遭遇深圳市公安部門圍堵, 200余名工人被抓捕。其中20余名工人被拘留13天,兩名工友被拘留37天,另一名工人──吳貴軍至今仍然被關押,至今已超過100天。

按 中國《勞動合同法》第46條的規定,工廠如果搬離本巿(即案中的深圳市),而工人又不願意跟工廠一起搬遷的話,用人單位應要補償工人經濟補償金。迪威信工 人罷工要求工廠按照法律規定給與賠償, 這是合情合理的。參與罷工的每一個工人只為爭取自己的合法權益, 並非違法行為,本應無罪!工人「有冤無路訴」的時候,工會在哪裡? 如今吳貴軍被起訴,更成為深圳市政府一直推動成立工會,維護工人權利旗幟中的一大敗筆與倒退。本年又正值廣東省總工會成立60年之盛事, 廣東省總工會力當為受屈冤獄的工人代表───吳貴軍頂起頭頂的一片青天。


我們作為在香港及國際社會致力推動 勞工權利的組織,嚴厲譴責地方公安此等抓捕手段, 刑事拘留打擊工人罷工權利的行為!我們看到, 罷工工人以及吳貴軍都只是爭取自己的應有勞動權益,並沒有破壞公共財物和私人財物,我們希望深圳市總工會為證工會保護工人權益的責任,積極介入支持吳貴軍 及其家人,幫助其免於被起訴並儘快無罪釋放吳貴軍!工會最主要的責任是保護工人的權益,我們希望深圳市總工會盡工會之責,亦同時緊急呼籲 廣東省總工會盡速查辦此起工人合法維權反被起訴的冤獄事件。

  1. 保障工人罷工權利
  2. 保護罷工工人代表
  3. 介入支持吳貴軍及其家人,幫助其免於被起訴並儘快無罪釋放吳貴軍