31 May 2014

Misogyny and the flight from feeling

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

In the wake of the recent tragic mass killing in Santa Barbara this week, I had promised followers of my Facebook account and blog that the only comment I would make on the topic of the killings in Isla Vista was essentially: ‘please read Christopher Lasch – particularly The Culture of Narcissism’. I hereby want to apologise in advance to all that I am going – sort of – to break this promise, because I really want to elaborate on this recommendation in the hopes that it will spur the conversation in a productive and hopefully more thoughtful and less reactive direction.

On the twenty-third of May, Elliot Rodger, the twenty-two year-old biracial son of a Hollywood director and filmmaker, stabbed to death his three Chinese roommates and then went on a killing spree outside a sorority house at UC-Santa Barbara that left seven dead (including himself), and thirteen others injured. Much has been made, and with good reason, of the ‘manifesto’ and YouTube videos which the killer posted online just before all this happened. Both featured rants against all women for failing to sate his frustrations, loneliness and sexual desires, and against Asians and blacks for their successes with women in spite of their ‘inferiority’ to Rodger.

In light of the violently misogynistic nature of his online leavings, the ‘Yes, All Women’ Twitter hashtag has gone viral, showcasing the vast scope of the banal sexism that ‘yes, all women’ have to live with every day. It has prompted several conversations – some helpful, thoughtful and carefully laid-out, several much less so – about how screwed up our culture is (very, it must be said) with regard to how women are treated. There has been some said as well on the topic of mental illness, and the inescapable resurfacing of America’s polarised gun politics in the wake of another mass shooting. But for every point each of these angles sheds much-needed light on, it seems there are another two that get obscured or brushed aside.

One of the big things that struck me about the entire case was the prevalence – particularly in Rodger’s chilling video and manifesto – of ‘the flight from feeling’, to borrow Lasch’s phrase. The entire culture, not just men and not just Hollywood, pretends to elevate sexual pleasure by casting it as something to be relentlessly pursued and attained and coveted. It does this by casting sexual intimacy, not as something good in its own right directed to procreation, proper childrearing and proper marital ascesis, but as the ultimate reward for proper participation in the capitalist-consumerist lifestyle.

In a society where celibacy is automatically subject to suspicion and virginity scorned (particularly in men), sex is weighted down beyond proportion with the demands of emotional fulfilment and of existential self-worth. Lasch notes these progressions inherent to the triumph of late capitalism and teases out their conclusion: an intensified form of ‘sexual combat’ in which all of the niceties and ‘courtly convention’ which had previously governed relations between men and women have been stripped bare.

Even, as we have seen in Isla Vista, to the point of literal bloodshed.

I have noted before that the feminist critique is on very strong grounds here and I continue to maintain that view. What Rodger expressed was literally the internalisation of a certain set of cultural norms, imbibed straight from Madison Avenue, namely: that sex is something college-age youths are expected to do; that men’s self-worth is and ought to be determined by their degree of sexual access to women; and that sex is a reward that girls ought to give to ‘well-behaved’ men. Feminists do seem to have a blind spot regarding how these exact same norms also affect social relations amongst women themselves, but they are indeed every bit in the right to show the misogyny in each and every one of these cultural norms, and to speak of the disastrousness of their consequences for, ‘yes, all women’.

Feminist critique is on much weaker ground when it comes to the history of these norms, however. The democratisation and capitalisation of the West led feminists to attack first those ‘courtly’ sexual conventions which, problematic though they may have been, nonetheless afforded women some measure of cultural-moral protection against male brutality, spanning from the heinous extremes of rape and murder to the more complex ground of the ‘male gaze’. In this, the feminists were merely following the spirit of the democratic revolutions which refused to tolerate any whiff of acknowledgement that social intercourse involves dialectics of difference – and ‘chivalry’ was nothing more and nothing less than just such an acknowledgement of that dialectic between the sexes. As it has fallen by the wayside, though, with no more useful and less problematic norms to take its place in the male ideal self-image, the ugly vestiges of male domination have begun expressing themselves around the edges of society (as, for example, on the Internet) through direct forms of barbarity against women: insults, threats, rape, murder. As Lasch astutely notes:
‘Democracy and feminism have now stripped the veil of courtly convention from the subordination of women, revealing the sexual antagonisms formerly concealed by the “feminine mystique”. Denied illusions of comity, men and women find it more difficult than before to confront each other as friends and lovers, let alone as equals. As male supremacy becomes ideologically untenable, incapable of justifying itself as protection, men assert their domination more directly, in fantasies and occasionally in acts of raw violence. Thus the treatment of women in movies, according to one study, has shifted “from reverence to rape”.’
Lasch notes also that the culture’s exaltation of sexual intimacy (which is made to serve as a stand-in for emotional, intellectual and spiritual intimacy) has been accompanied by its cutting or devaluing all the legal and psychological-cultural-moral obligations which make such intimacy realistically possible.

As a result, sex is approached not as the fruition but casually, as the precondition to a relationship, and the relationship itself is expected to fulfil all of the emotional and existential needs of both partners. Private relationships are forced to take on more of that burden as the public sphere atrophies and as work becomes ever more detached from its rightful meaning: the restoration to Sophia (to use a term from Orthodox theology), the participation in God’s work of loving creation.

At the same time, the pursuit of private relationships is burdened down with ever greater risks, ‘most obviously, because they no longer carry any assurance of permanence’ – either partner can break off a sexual relationship for any reason: especially when his or her demands, however excessive, are not met by the other. However ‘sexually liberated’ the society might be (and, indeed, to the degree it is ‘sexually liberated’), it forces both men and women to cultivate a defensive demeanour of detached indifference toward any potential partner and even toward their peers.

Rodger, the son of just such cultural elites (his father being an international film-maker and, tellingly, a divorcee), demonstrates exactly this sort of demeanour, taken to an extreme, in his videos, leading many to liken him to Patrick Bateman, the main character of American Psycho. Even Rodger’s self-hatred as a half-Asian man, and his blatant racism against all other non-whites, Lasch explains:
Whether or not the actual incidence of impotence has increased in American males— and there is no reason to doubt reports that it has—the specter of impotence haunts the contemporary imagination, not least because it focuses the fear that a played-out Anglo-Saxon culture is about to fall before the advance of hardier races.
Lasch acknowledges and indeed endorses the justice of the goals of feminism, but finds that when it comes to resolving the tensions it sets out to solve, feminism inadvertently ends up adding to them when faced with the ‘flight from feeling’. The ‘defensiveness’ feminists decry in the ‘not all’ men who hasten to exclude themselves from what we, in our collective irrational anxiety about our own sexual status and adequacy, perceive as an existential attack cannot, for obvious reasons, simply be attacked and thereby made to disappear.

This is not to prescribe to women what they should do, how they should behave or dress, how they should protect themselves, how they should humour creeps and ‘take one for the team’. No, there’s been already far too much of that. We need to face it: Rodger was a bloke. As men, he (and others like him) is our problem, and we need to fix it. We need to bring back, if not chivalry, then at least some set of norms which approximate it, at least insofar as they are able to give men some measure of self-worth apart from prudential calculation, pursuit of sexual pleasure and brute conquest. Clearly, Rodger did not have this.

Traditionally men were supposed to base their sense of self-worth on their physical prowess, liberality of manners and moral courage. Men today are also given ideals of physical prowess and moral courage through popular culture, but are afforded with vanishingly few ways to realise them in their habits without first literally buying into the idea of self-worth through consumption. Physical prowess is channeled into a narcissistic ideal of ‘fitness’ for its own sake. Liberality of conduct has been watered down into a purely negative ‘tolerance’, which has been tailored specifically to the idea that even public morality is little more than a matter of consumer taste. And so rare have tests of moral courage become that many young men (and young women as well!) have failed to learn the difference between such a test and merely overcoming minor social or environmental obstacles.

What we need now is an ethic of resistance. We need to take the seething anger and frustration that underwrites our fragmented and hemmed-in existences as men, and channel it not into mindless violence against women or against society at large but into building, into gardening, into reflecting and writing, into deliberately refounding our social existences. Furthermore, we need to radically re-appropriate positive virginity – as in monasticism – as one of the two male ideals. For the other, we need to re-adapt norms from historical standards of chivalry as appropriate, and work to gain them broader acceptance.

And we do need to have a deeper conversation about gender norms that does not devolve into the usual one-sided denunciations. It needs to involve men being willing to listen to the just demands of women without hearing it as the entirety of their self-worth being under threat. But, in the end, men aren’t perfect. We should also invite women to try to tolerate at least some of the less-egregious coping mechanisms that we men tend to deploy in response. Lasch concludes his chapter about ‘the flight from feeling’ thus:
The abolition of sexual tensions is an unworthy goal in any case; the point is to live with them more gracefully than we have lived with them in the past.
As a personal aside, Rodger’s case makes me feel particularly queasy, not least because not only have I heard such misogynistic comments and feelings about women spoken outright, but I have occasionally thought and given voice to them myself – particularly in college, after one rejection that I took very hard. I don’t wish to excuse or defend myself here; it’s a personal sin that I wholeheartedly wish to repent of and correct. And naturally, it goes wholly without saying that there can be no excuse at all, social or otherwise, for what Rodger did.

But I can understand the insecurity, the isolation, the loneliness and the desire for intimacy which give rise to such twisted projections. We need to change. And with us, a culture which fosters these desires and then exploits them in college libertinism, deodorant adverts and Judd Apatow films also needs to change.

28 May 2014

Read the old

Cross-posted from The Lanchester Review

Lord knows I’m no fan of Michael Gove. But in the most recent dust-up over the national English curriculum, he has matters exactly right – though seemingly for all the wrong reasons. It is believable that he did indeed object to the leftist bent of authors like John Steinbeck and made his decision accordingly, as many academic commentators have suspected. But this being the case, why on earth would he have favoured authors such as Shakespeare and Swift and Austen and Dickens – each and every one of whom had a satirical streak and a profound sense of moral outrage against the establishments of their respective times lying simmering in their prose?

To tell truth, I feel that modern writers and left social activists alike in America as well as Britain stand to benefit more from King Lear, A Modest Proposal, Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of Two Cities than they do from anything by the minimalistic and economical Steinbeck. Does Gove truly fancy that the man who fashioned Ebenezer Scrooge to mock everything that is un-Christian about Victorian Whiggism stands in his government’s ideological corner? Or a man who took pains in his plays to highlight the tragic and self-destroying propensities of the machiavel, that character type now so ubiquitous in neoconservative political circles both British and American? Or a man who castigated in the strongest terms the English nation for its abysmal and inhumane treatment of the Irish, in the name of ‘sound principles’ of political economy? Or, for that matter, a woman who clearly sympathised most with the poor and penniless, and whose pen so deftly skewered the pretensions in manners and law of the propertarian bourgeois society in which she grew up?

That will make the Rt. Hon. Secretary of State for Education’s situation at present more pitiable, but it will have no effect on her.

Or, indeed, on any of them.

So why this backlash from the academic left, of all people, against making the works of 20th century America, of all things, optional for high-school study?

The secondary-school teacher I loved and respected most was a woman named Mrs. H—, who taught English and the sciences. Being a Dane County state-school teacher, she was as ‘progressive’ politically and economically as anyone else I knew, and that is saying a great deal. But Mrs. H— was also an Anglophile, deeply enamoured of William Shakespeare, and this showed readily in her teaching. She took the entire class to performances of Macbeth and A Comedy of Errors at American Players’ Theatre in Spring Green, and even had us act out Macbeth for our school. Of the many things she imparted to me, one that kept with me was best articulated by C. S. Lewis: ‘if [a reader] must read only the new or the old, I would advise him to read the old’.

So I do fully agree with Michael Gove that these English classics ought to enjoy cultural privilege and priority – particularly in Britain! – over the newer and less-challenging works of modern America at the height of its imperial prowess, even if I find his reasons for doing so on every level mystifying. Has he simply not read the works he is advocating for, or is he truly cynical enough to believe their social and political significance will be lost on secondary-school students?

And Gove’s critics are quite right to frame the issue as an ideological one, as an issue of values. The assigned reading lists of state schools are, whether intentionally or not, statements of what those schools find valuable – so much so, indeed, that they believe them indispensable for a child’s moral, emotional and intellectual formation.

But this consideration makes the reaction from English academia equally baffling if not more so, because these people with their literary training ought to know better than Gove. Do they truly think learning Shakespeare – whose plays still have such enduring appeal across generations – ‘will just grind children down’, as Bethan Marshall of King’s College remarked? Do they truly have so little faith in their own chosen profession that they can cast such aspersions on the ability of Shakespeare (and Swift, and Austen, and Dickens) to engage and even electrify the imaginations – including that theo-political imagination from which flows all manner of demand for radical social reform – of young people? Has the warning that Lewis himself advanced ‘against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet’ already lost so much of its currency?

These questions need to be asked of the self-appointed academic defenders of the Americanist canon: What exactly is it that makes 20th century American literature so indispensable when compared with the English classics? What precisely is it that they imagine Arthur Miller can do for the moral, emotional and intellectual upbuilding of young Britons that the Bard cannot?

23 May 2014

Our fathers amongst the saints

Our Fathers amongst the Saints, Ss. Cyril and Methodius, Equal-to-the-Apostles

Holy and Right-Believing Rastislav, Prince and Confessor

A blessed feast of the brotherly Ss. Cyril and Methodius, Enlighteners of the Slavs and our spiritual fathers amongst the saints; and of the holy right-believing confessor Prince S. Rastislav of Great Moravia, pupil of these two wise and tireless Saints and the father of our nation!

Methodius (known in the world as Michael) and Cyril (in the world Constantine) were two brothers, whose father Leon was a member of a respected Greek senatorial family, and whose mother Maria is believed to have been Slavic; both brothers thus grew up with a command of both languages as well as a thoroughgoing education. Constantine became a wise philosopher, and indeed a professor at the University in Constantinople; Michael entered and devoted himself to the monastic life, where he became known as Methodius. They were sent at the behest of the Emperor of New Rome Michael III to the Slavic lands in answer to a request by King Rastislav to bring Christianity to his people. Rastislav, even though he ruled over what was then a vast and diverse territory, was nonetheless pressured both externally and internally. Internally he had to confront the ignorance and pagan superstitions of his people, and externally he was trying to secure his nation’s independence from the superior foreign power of the Eastern Franks. It is likely that in his early life he was held as a hostage for his uncle Prince Mojmír at the court of the Eastern Frankish king, Louis II. However, once he became prince of the Moravians, he entered into an alliance with the Bulgarians and rebelled against the Eastern Franks, scoring several important victories but also leaving himself in a vulnerable position.

Louis began sending Frankish missionaries into Rastislav’s territory in a political attempt to undermine his rule from within; after which Rastislav sent ambassadors both to Old and New Rome asking for missionary aid which would not leave him again vulnerable to Frankish rule. Old Rome ignored his request, but New Rome (Emperor Michael III along with his uncle Caesar Bardas and Patriarch S. Photius the Great) ‘responded by sending Constantine [Cyril] and Methodius, many gifts, an imperial letter, and Constantine’s recent invention of a script for the Slavic tongue’ – Glagolitic, which evolved into the modern Cyrillic alphabet.

The brothers fell prey to the politics of the time. The German king, furious at the brothers’ interference in what he considered his territory, directed his vassal bishops (chief among them Dietmar of Salzburg) to attack the brothers’ orthodoxy on account of the fact that they did not preach or deliver the Liturgy in Latin but rather in the Slavic tongue. The Pope of Rome who heard their case, Adrian II, was not swayed by the self-serving sophistry of the Franks and, once he ascertained the right belief of the two brothers, quickly granted them permission to continue their missionary work in Moravia. Constantine, however, returned home to take holy orders (whereupon his name was changed to Cyril) and meet his repose.

Methodius, however, continued his work amongst the Slavs – though he still faced stiff opposition from the machinations of Salzburg. Rastislav was betrayed by his nephew Svatopluk into the hands of the Franks led by Louis’s son Carloman, who had his eyes put out and cast him into prison in Bavaria, where he died. Methodius also was taken prisoner by the Franks – though Adrian II managed to secure his release and declared him, contra the claims of Salzburg, the legitimate archbishop within the territories of Moravia and Pannonia. Later popes were less sympathetic: John VIII appointed a German adjutant, Wiching, to Methodius to undermine him; after Methodius’s repose, Stephen V refused to recognise Methodius’ successor Gorazd, appointed Wiching as archbishop, and had the disciples of Methodius driven out of Moravia.

Though the mission of the two brothers in their earthly life was plagued with political intrigues and machinations against them, their hard toils in Constantinople, Rome and Moravia bore most wondrous fruit after their deaths. They ignited a great wave of religious, literary and cultural illumination across all of Eastern Europe, which enlightened the Bulgarians, the southern Slavs, and later the Kievan Rus’ and all their daughter nations – rightly indeed are they called our fathers amongst the saints, since it is thanks to them that the Slavs have their civilisation! For this reason they are remembered fondly even in those Slavic nations, such as my great-grandparents’ homeland of Czechia, where the Orthodox legacy has been interrupted.

Dearest fathers in faith, holy and wise, please pray with us and intercede with the All-Holy to enlighten us, in our own age also!

15 May 2014

Bring back...

Dear Josh Shahryar, Kelly Fox and other outraged-at-the-outrage-at-the-outrage members of the liberal left:

Firstly, thank you for caring. Thank you for your open hearts which note a definite lack of justice in the world and are working to correct it! It is very true that the mass-kidnapping of nearly three hundred Chibok schoolgirls in West Africa is an atrocity, a monstrous crime against countless persons and families which deserves to be righted as swiftly and as thoroughly as possible. I applaud you for supporting this as thoroughly as you have, and hope and pray that you continue to use that energy and enthusiasm to its best effect.

That said, the direction of all that energy and enthusiasm should serve the cause. What do I mean by this? Well, not to get into a full-on rant about it, but there are useful things that can be done about the crimes of Boko Haram against the Chibok, and not-so-useful things. Petitions can be signed, donations can be made, and time can be spent researching and disseminating useful information through proper channels to the public. Those, I think, may rightly be considered useful contributions to the dialogue. Twitter hashtags and solidarity-selfies, tempting though they are to a generation of slacktivists (of which yours truly is as guilty a member as any), do not elevate the conversation, or include in it the people most in need of inclusion – at best, they are methods of starting a conversation, not of continuing or propagating it. It depresses me when people like Michelle Obama or David Cameron sign onto such things, because they are essentially engaging in a vanity exercise: unlike your average Western bloke or gal with a webcam and a Twitter account, they actually have significant public platforms to serve political movements they identify with.

And regarding social media: recall the shortcomings and the ultimate failure of the Kony 2012 campaign. It is a worthy cause to ‘bring back our girls’, but if it turns into a morally-dualistic crusade via the linguistically-flattening influence of Twitter, it stands in danger of being warped into something entirely different.

Which brings me to my next point – namely, that of the role of American imperialism in Africa, and how it is relevant to the discussion of the kidnapped girls and Boko Haram.

Josh, Kelly, I agree with you that turning aside the discussion of the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls into a debate about drone policy was at best misguided and self-serving. But, Josh, when you say ‘[i]f Whites tried to divert #BringBackOurGirls, we’d be up in arms calling ‘em a colonialist, and yet brown people doing it is OK?’, and when, Kelly, you agree that ‘derailing a conversation about black girls to talk about… victims of US imperialism is an expression of anti-black racism and sexism’, you are both wrong (though for different reasons).

First off, whites have been diverting the conversation in highly predictable ways. To imperially-privileged American eyes, all international problems are problems to be solved with… well, military intervention, with all the usual white-faced suspects (such as John McCain and Bill Kristol) lining up to say how ‘something must be done’, with that ‘something’ inevitably involving uniforms, guns, planes and bombs. It’s true that Obama has so far been careful and measured in his response, but it is highly disingenuous not to recognise that the question has been far diverted from its original intent. White men have been interposing themselves, unasked, as the military saviours of black women. From your point of view, is this not problematic?

Secondly, black voices have been active in drawing attention to the some of the broader issues and pointing to the dangers of further American intervention in North and West Africa. Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report, for example, laid out fairly broadly the background against which this mass kidnapping happened. Glen Ford rightly notes that the Nigerian government and army have been engaging in horrific mass killings of traditionally-Muslim tribes in the country, which has led to the radicalisation of many Nigerian Muslim youth and the rise of Boko Haram in the first place.

Thirdly, Ford also points astutely to the role that the Obama Administration and the British Tory-led coalition government have played in having empowered Boko Haram in the first place by removing the linchpin against extremist Islam in North Africa: Muammar al-Gadhafi! (A similar point has been made by Brendan O’Neill over at Spiked Online.) As Ford puts it:
Most relevant to the plight of Chibok’s young women, Obama led “from behind” NATO’s regime change in Libya, removing the anti-jihadist bulwark Muamar Gaddafi (“We came, we saw, he died,” said Hillary Clinton) and destabilizing the whole Sahelian tier of the continent, all the way down to northern Nigeria. As BAR editor and columnist Ajamu Baraka writes in the current issue, “Boko Haram benefited from the destabilization of various countries across the Sahel following the Libya conflict.” The once-“shadowy” group now sported new weapons and vehicles and was clearly better trained and disciplined. In short, the Boko Haram, like other jihadists, had become more dangerous in a post-Gaddafi Africa – thus justifying a larger military presence for the same Americans and (mainly French) Europeans who had brought these convulsions to the region.
These Chibok schoolgirls are firstly victims of the kidnappers. But Boko Haram could not have gotten the materiel, the training or the support they needed to pull off the kidnapping, if the three overwhelmingly-white nations America, Britain and France hadn’t ganged up to remove the only bulwark against Islamic extremism in North Africa, subjecting the black population of Libya directly to genocide at the hands of the NATO-supported rebels and the rest of the black population of the entire region to risk of the same. Imperialism is playing a role here. I can only hope that your commitment to ‘intersectionalism’ is deep enough that you guys can ‘talk about multiple issues at once’ – including American imperialism and its victims – not only for the sake of the young Chibok women still in captivity, but for the sake of all vulnerable populations across North and West Africa.

Yours sincerely, Matt

13 May 2014

Chris Hedges goes palaeo

I just had the pleasure of reading a very interesting and powerful piece by Chris Hedges on Truthout. Chris Hedges is always worth a read; he first came to my notice for his critique of fundamentalism, followed by his critique of the nouveau atheists. He is very much a man of the Left, but here his emphasis on imagination and noblesse oblige, and their devalued place in modern and postmodern society, has some very tantalisingly Tory overtones, in which I see a lot of similarity to my own development of Tory sympathies (particularly in his emphasis on the traditions of the Iroquois and the Lakota). His read on Shakespeare as the prototypical anti-modernist over-against the Puritans is also highly interesting, and shares some similarities with Allan Bloom’s read of the Bard. Lastly, I do wonder if Hedges’ theme of the importance of imagination is deliberately Kirkian...

At any rate, a brilliant and noteworthy piece! Please do give it a read!

06 May 2014

We’re number one!

With all apologies to the excellent Aaron McGruder, this story reminded me of these Boondocks comic strips:

I’m sorry, Muslims and immigrants, but it would appear that you’re no longer the world’s greatest threat to Western civilisation. At least, not according to that great defender of Western civilisation, Carl Bildt:
Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and one of the architects of the EU Eastern policy, thinks Russia has changed for the worse in the past several years. While it demonstrated attachment to western values in the first decade after the Soviet Union fell apart and tried to impose them on its citizens, Russia’s current leadership takes a firm stand against the West, the Russian agency REX reported.

In the words of Mr Bildt, Vladimir Putin demonstrates attachment not to world but to Eastern Orthodox values, which becomes clear from a Twitter post of his [Bildt’s].

”The new anti-west and anti-decadent line [of conduct] of Putin is based on the deep conservatism of Eastern Orthodox ideas,” Carl Bildt is convinced.

The Swedish minister explains the striving to destroy the Ukrainian church and bring the Ukrainian autocephaly back into the fold of the Moscow Patriarchate with Putin’s striving to gain control over Ukraine. But precisely Eastern Orthodoxy, according to Bildt, is the main threat to western civilisation.
Suffice it to say that if Holy Mother Church is, in fact, causing someone with the record of Carl Bildt to view us with this kind of dread, she must be doing something right!

Sacraments of empire

Cross-posted from The Lanchester Review:

I never thought I would see myself typing these words, but: poor Sarah Palin.

The former Alaska governor is finding herself more and more a pitiable and tragic figure, even on the right. As governor, she tackled corruption in Alaska’s infamous energy industry, cooperated with Democrats and moderate Republicans to raise taxes on the big oil and gas corporations and helped to set her state on the path to finical stability. Sadly, that moderate, principled administrator seemed to vanish into thin air once someone bearing her name made her début in national politics during the 2008 election. Armed with her undeniable good looks and formidably charismatic stage presence, Palin immediately threw herself headlong into the Washington spectaculum, making a name for herself as the ‘mama grizzly’, the backcountry defender of ‘real America’ and its values. She found herself well-suited to becoming a cultural marker, a touchstone of identity politics particularly for rural Western whites. Once the 2008 election was lost, unfortunately, Palin decided to keep playing her Washington persona rather than returning to the state politics where she had undoubtedly done the most good. As time has gone on, she has grown increasingly shrill and noisome, and she has thrown herself further into the sort of insidious invective the spectaculum invites.

Recently, at the NRA’s national meeting, Sarah Palin made the following comment: ‘Oh, but you can’t offend [jihadists], can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgeon. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptise terrorists.’ The NRA crowd erupted in applause and cheers.

At once, a significant contingent of Christians – including Christian conservatives like Rod Dreher, Mark Shea, Mollie Hemingway and Joe Carter – decried Palin’s comment as sacrilegious and even blasphemous, which it was. Likening a life-giving Mystery of the Holy Spirit, imparted by the our Holy Mother Church upon those who are willing to free souls from sin, to a torture technique employed by the government to extract information forcibly from those in captivity, is inexcusably wrong. The ex-governor replied as might be expected – by defending torture, by calling her critics ‘overly sensitive wusses’ and by wrapping herself in the flag.

It is well and good to decry blasphemies against the holy Mysteries, but we ought to be wise enough to recognise that what needs to be opposed is not just one woman speaking blasphemy, nor just one party or contingency defending it. What we are looking at here is a resurgence of neo-paganism in our nation’s civic religion. When the Fathers of the early Church decried the dramas, ritual races, wrestling matches and gladiatorial exhibitions, the ludi, of the Roman Empire, they were largely concerned with two things. Firstly, they feared that the ludi gave rise to base and unholy passions, tutoring the onlooking crowds in adultery and violence. Secondly, they were concerned with the votive and sacral origins of the ludi, and their connexions with the rites of the Imperial cult. (The ludi, after all, were first employed as rituals of thanksgiving and satisfactions of debt to the pagan gods, particularly after a military victory or imperial conquest; and even after the rise of the Empire they did not lose that significance.)

These concerns should not be lost on those watching American politics today. It is true that we have always had a party system and a representative government; that many of our politicians have been theatrical and flamboyant in their public appearances; and that vicious partisan rhetoric is by no means a novelty. But the modern American public sphere, aided by cable television and the Internet, has taken on a more-than-passing resemblance to the Roman games and ludi to the point where the descriptor ‘gladiatorial’ has entered common use among critics of our post-2000 political process.

Much too much like the ludi of the bygone era, the modern political process is designed to stoke passions very similar to bloodlust. On cable television in the vein of FOX News, the hosts and guests very deliberately calibrate their language to stoke self-justification and disdain for dissenting political views in their audience. Debates on cable and radio talk shows are engineered not to inform, but to reinforce the loyalty of the cultus and to inflame self-righteousness and opprobrium. Internet comment boxes are very regularly filled not with careful and thoughtful commentary, but with violent invective. It has become alarmingly common for both sides to engage in homicidal fantasies. And on both sides of the aisle – ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ – the symbols of the civic religion are never far out-of-reach. The spectacula of cable news are routinely sanctified in the high-budget graphic liturgy of flag and Constitution and 1776, justified in the name of ‘free speech’ and clothed in the public pieties of remembrance of (especially military) sacrifice. One can see resort to all three sanctimonies in Ms. Palin’s response to her Christian critics.

And as with ancient Rome, it would be irresponsible not to connect the domestic spectacle which has taken the place of an active and healthy public sphere, with the excesses of our government on the world stage. Just as the ludi were originally designed to bless and attain support for Rome’s imperial adventures abroad, so too do our political spectator sports serve to bless and attain support for the excesses of our own imperium. The sacraments of our empire, which sees itself as exceptional and indispensable as a matter of its public faith, do lend themselves to the sanctification of waterboarding, along with wars of choice, covert operations abroad, indefinite detentions, drone strikes, police brutality and experimentation on death-row inmates – if as nothing else, then as grim necessities for maintaining our liberties in a hostile world.

We rightly ought to oppose all of these things done in our name, but also ought to recognise their roots and their continued support in a resurgence of paganism masquerading as republican virtue. This is not, of course, a call to replace the American political system with a Christian theocracy. Far less is it a Russell Brand-style clarion call to abandon the vote; far from it! Though let it be understood that voting ought to be the least of our political concerns. Within the procedures and ‘background noise’ of that same political system, we should certainly be called upon to understand the points at which the expected political praxis becomes agonal to the human dignity and the justice proclaimed in the Gospel, and irreconcilable with Christian orthopraxis. Though we ought to act as always in keeping with the law of the land, we ought always to be on the lookout for points of resistance to empire, and then use them to proclaim the Gospel – as precisely such an act of resistance.

The feast of S. George the Trophy-Bearer

‘We believe he was a great martyr for his faith who defended the Christian faith and values… By making sacrifices for his faith he was able to defeat evil. We take St George as a patron for people living here - and as he was born in historic Palestine, we pray to him to remember us and this holy land.’

- Bishop Atallah Hanna, as quoted in Pravoslavie.ru

S. George of Lydda is remembered fondly in the Holy Land, as well as in England and in many other nations around the world, as a dedicated soldier, as the personal guard of the Roman Emperor and as the famed slayer of the dragon. The manner in which he met his martyrdom, though, was not through any great feat of arms nor through any military triumph for the Roman state; no, indeed, it was through a non-violent act of conscientious resistance against that very same Empire which employed him and had brought him so near to the Emperor.

When the Emperor Diocletian issued a declaration calling for all Christian soldiers in the Empire to be arrested, George spoke out of his own faith against this tyrannical decree, and loudly proclaimed himself a follower of the new faith, not of the pagan gods of Rome. Diocletian tempted George with gold and land and slaves, but George was swayed by none; finally, in a rage, Diocletian ordered George to be tortured and executed. A witness of the just kingdom to come against all earthly empires with their weapons of fleshly torment and death, made futile by the power of Christ - who better fit to be a patron of the Palestinian people, who are so routinely subjected to indignities and death in their own homeland at the behest of the foremost and most-favoured client state of today’s imperium?

Remember S. George today, then: a dignified and worthy soldier in all things, but most of all in truth, who placed the needs of that truth before the tyrannical demands of the Empire he served. George, holy and glorious Great Martyr, Trophy-Bearer and Wonder-Worker, pray with us this day.

01 May 2014

A few brief words on Heimbach

The recent beating on Bright Monday of a protester by a new convert to Orthodoxy with a wooden three-bar cross is a matter of deep shame and deep reflection for the whole of the Orthodox Church, and several people have written already about the incident, such as Inga Leonova here and Maria McDowell here. I can only say that they have responded firmly, graciously and with the sort of gentle, introspective reflection I have come to respect and admire amongst my Orthodox brothers and sisters.

In truth, I can’t really improve on what they’ve already written and do not have much more to add myself, except to reply with a story, really the only one I feel I am fully equipped to tell.

In 2008 and 2009, when this blog was just beginning, I was still very much an ‘angry young man’; angry with Bush and angry with an economy and society that I had the nagging suspicion was fast leaving me and my peers behind without a second look back. I had the good fortune of stumbling across the writings of Nikolai Berdyaev (whom I now consider one of my most formative religious and philosophical influences), who introduced me to a completely different and persuasive way of looking at the ideologies I’d been exposed to in college, and indeed at my own religion. Later on, when I joined the Peace Corps, my anger and dissatisfaction turned inward. In the Peace Corps, I was the outsider to everybody. I didn’t trust my co-workers, I felt I was consistently on the examination table of my supervisors, and the strain of it alienated me from my host family in ways I still feel very bad about. My greatest solace came from the church of S. Aleksandr Nevsky in Saimasai. I fear I treated my visits there much too casually, but Fr Valery was incredibly understanding even as I sputtered and hemmed and hawed in my survival Russian, and the church service and meal afterward were some of the few times in Kazakhstan when I truly felt most at peace.

The non-Russian. The heretic. The wayfaring outsider. The strange and sick in mind and heart, trusted by no one.

I could not, of course, take communion there, but Fr Valery and the matushka of the church made me welcome at the meal after the Liturgy and afterward as well. It took a long while for the impression to sink in, but sink in it did. I kept looking for what I had found there, and Orthodoxy kept beckoning me back.

In light of this, I emphatically do not want to heap hatred or judgement upon the young man who shares my Christian name, or his reasons for converting. Angry, self-disillusioned and sick in mind as I was five years ago, but for the grace of God, there might I also have gone. I can but join my own prayers to those of Ms. Leonova and Ms. McDowell that Mr. Heimbach will open himself to the healing of the Holy Spirit through the baptism he embraced.

It is true that Orthodoxy is a traditional and apostolic faith, and that in its Russian expressions particularly it did stress loyalty to right belief, to autocracy and to the nation, or narod. (Narod more accurately being a concept of ‘the people’ or ‘the masses’ that has historically had more in common with ‘left’ ideologies - as in narodnichestvo - than with ‘right’ ones, but that is another debate entirely.) But Orthodoxy at its best always welcomes the outsider in, and even the Slavophiles (like Khomyakov and Kireevsky), who so cheerfully and zealously proclaimed the special mission of the Slavs and of the Russian nation in the world, took special care to emphasise the brotherhood of all believers in sobornost’. Orthodoxy does not proclaim, at its core, racial distinctions or separations: the Patristic consensus, after all, draws upon Abba Moses and Abba Macarius as well as upon S. John Chrysostom!

Anyhow, these are just my own loosely-organised thoughts on the issue.

UPDATE: The All Saints Antiochan Orthodox Church in Bloomington, Indiana has released a statement regarding Matthew Heimbach, asking publicly that he recant the heresy of phyletism and submit to a period of penance before being readmitted into full communion. Please pray for Mr. Heimbach, for the victim of his beating and for All Saints Church.