31 March 2015

Bad news from Idlib

Syrian rebel insurgents from Sunni extremist al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa, now joined in a local alliance calling itself the Jaish al-Fatah, have taken Idlib, which in recent months had been a site for internally-displaced persons and refugees from other parts of Syria, especially Christians. Now they are forced to flee again, both the local Christian minority and the refugees; in Idlib as in the rest of Syria where the Sunni extremists have been successful, it seems Christians and Shi’ites have suffered the same outrages at their hands, death threats, beatings and lynchings.

I hope our hearts are not hardened to the plight of the Syrian people; in this case, I feel we should pray for the swift success of the Assad government - the only legitimate force in the country, and the only one that can be counted on to protect the innocent with any degree of confidence - with as little bloodshed as possible. The Syrian people have suffered so much, and it looks like they will continue to suffer yet more, even as our hearts grow hard and apathetic toward them; but if anyone deserves a just peace, they do. And to their enemies - I pray that they will swiftly be converted from their insane violence and bloodshed, and do repentance. In the meantime, they must be stopped.

Lord, have mercy. .ܡܳܪܰܢ ܐܶܬ݂ܪܰܚܰܡ

30 March 2015

Filial piety: you’re doing it wrong

This story is incredibly saddening, and actually rather infuriating and insulting.

If you have to moralise to people and hold up perfect, superhuman role-models to guilt them into being filial, chances are something is very deeply wrong already in the society, that is being ignored. As Mencius himself noted, in the parable of Zengzi and his father:
That those who do not fail to keep themselves are able to serve their parents is what I have heard. But I have never heard of any, who, having failed to keep themselves, were able notwithstanding to serve their parents.

Keep in mind also that Mencius isn’t emptily preaching here. He is talking about ability and will. When he uses the word ‘able’ (能) elsewhere (as in the first book of the Mencius), it is most readily in the famous incidence in the first chapter:
In such a thing as taking the Tai mountain under your arm, and leaping over the north sea with it, if you say to people--“I am not able to do it,” that is a real case of not being able. In such a matter as breaking off a branch from a tree at the order of a superior, if you say to people--“I am not able to do it,” that is a case of not doing it, it is not a case of not being able to do it.

We ought to take Mencius at his word with what he implies in saying that he hasn’t heard of someone who was able to be filial without taking care of himself; shaming someone for what they are not able to do is like faulting Liang Hui Wang for not picking up Tai Mountain and leaping over the North Sea with it.

Filial piety, care for parents and family members, is something that ought to develop naturally, even in untutored people. This is not something peculiar to Confucianism, either. Our Lord taught the same thing, albeit in a slightly different way: ‘For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ Obviously Our Lord Christ was not countermanding the commandment to love one’s parents but rather to perfect it in love for others. Clearly, both in Christianity and in Confucianism, there is a definite thread which runs from self-preservation to filial piety. But if it is made prohibitively difficult for people to ‘keep themselves’ in the sense that Mencius meant, we ought not to be surprised that filial piety is something of which we see less, as a social outcome. For example, if you have to go to Guangzhou to work in a sweatshop for 11 hours a day, 6 days a week assembling iGadgets to make sure you and your kids don’t starve? Chances are your 70-year-old grandparent back home is not dining on meat every day or wearing silk.

That’s part of what makes this Sichuan Modern Filial Piety Culture Museum somewhat insulting, as I think the museum’s founder seems rather well-aware, particularly when he diplomatically brings up the fact that social security in China is somewhat lacking, and gives voice to the worry that the museum’s mission may be seen as hypocritical. (This was my wife’s first reaction to this story, by the way.) Of course filial piety should be respected and valued and encouraged wherever it is found. But it isn’t enough to preach filial piety or to make people feel guilty who have no material basis on which to build such practices; the rites and music - not to mention the social conditions and the institutions - must be attended to as well! Inequality must be addressed: particularly rural-urban inequality. Unfair and exploitative labour practices must obviously be addressed; this is one of China’s greatest social shames. Lack of concern for the unborn must be addressed: how can a generation which has been raised as little emperors, at the expense of hundreds of millions of their brothers’ and sisters’ lives, be expected to show humaneness to their parents when their time comes? And remember that Mencius went to the king of the state to see that they were addressed, both by individual example (something on which China’s political and wealthy magnate classes have not historically proven too keen, but we shall see). I can understand why many Chinese people nowadays are cynical about state-led action in these areas, but these aren’t problems which will be solved through philanthropy or individual volunteer initiatives alone. A deliberate, and deliberately anti-capitalist and alter-globalist, Confucian counter-culture is needed - along with a sympathetic state.

Good families are important to any society, and the remarkable closeness of family ties have always been China’s greatest strength and pride as a nation. But it strikes me that if the Chinese family is to be preserved, they may have to rediscover that humane reforming zeal in Confucius and Mencius, to which the likes of Kang Xiaoguang and Jiang Qing are pointing now, and for which a strong shared platform with Chinese neoleftist intellectuals like Wang Hui and Gan Yang may yet prove direly necessary. Let’s see it happen!

29 March 2015

Remembering Holden T. Doane

It is a blessed and wonderful thing, for a relative to inspire in one both love and awe. And I loved and awed my grandfather, Holden.

Influences and echoes can come from the strangest of places, but not at all strange in this case - Papa was a man who loved deeply. He respected and cherished the land he worked and lived on. The farm house at Sunday Brook that he and Nana made was always warm, always welcoming - to his children and later to his grandchildren, to neighbours, to fellow churchgoers, to hired hands, to strangers - and the love between him and Nana was the heart of that house. He was a mainstay of the Bakersfield community; he didn’t say much, but those words he did speak were unfailingly kind. To me, on those rare but cherished occasions when I got to visit him and see him and speak with him, he always showed to me - again, never so much in so many words - his faith, his decency, his strength, his perserverence, his peaceableness, his industry, his hospitality and caretaking of all that was entrusted to him.

That respect in me that I have for things stable and durable, for things proven by time and care, for stories and ties of blood that nothing on earth can replace - that I imbibed from many places, but chief among them, I learned that respect from Papa, and the family and the home that he built. I am thankful that I knew him when I became an adult, and could appreciate his wisdom.

In a blessed falling asleep, grant, O Lord, eternal rest unto Thy departed servant Holden, and make his memory to be eternal!

25 March 2015

Troubles in the borderlands

Who could possibly, possibly have guessed that plutocrats running their own private armies for personal gain could have gone so wrong? After all, in the libertopia, wasn’t the Hans Hermann-Hoppe model along these lines supposed to bring an end to coercion and maximum possible freedom for everybody? But I guess things just don’t really work out that way in real life. From the Christian Science Monitor:
Some experts have warned that enabling economic oligarchs to effectively transform themselves into warlords was storing up trouble for the future. Kolomoisky, a banking and media mogul, cracked down hard on rebel sympathizers in Dnipropetrovsk, and funded several private militias who’ve played an important role in the war. Rumors suggest that he controls as many as 10,000 armed men.

President Petro Poroshenko has ordered all such private battalions to be integrated with the official armed forces. But in a strong indication that may not have happened, he found it necessary to repeat himself in a meeting with military commanders Monday. “Territorial defense will be subordinated to the strict military vertical. Our governors will not have their own armed forces!” he said.

“Kolomoisky isn’t a separatist; this is a very different kind of challenge from what we face in Donbass,” says Yury Yakimenko, an expert with the independent Razumkov Center in Kiev. “This is basically about division of influence and assets, but Kolomoisky should understand that he's a political figure and not just a businessman. It is to be hoped that the parties to this conflict will realize the stakes, and come to some agreement. This is about the survival of the state.”
(Ihor Kolomoiskyi, if you will recall, gentle readers, is the same member of the Tymoshenko clique who finances the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and the Aidar Battalion, which has been accused by Amnesty International and OSCE of widescale human rights abuses. Of course he isn’t a separatist, but of course it doesn’t follow that he isn’t out for his own interests. The Maidan protests were never truly about securing the interests of the Ukrainian people, after all, but rather about enriching the few well-connected wealthy Ukrainian businessmen and financiers, like Kolomoiskyi, with strong ties to the EU.)

But even on principle, the real-life example of a breakdown in government competency in the Ukraine leading to a secessionist movement (though this secessionist movement actually is concerned with restoring certain powers of state), and its replacement by people like Kolomoiskyi whose private interests are seen to conflict in certain elemental ways with the public good, rather puts the lie to the utopian libertarian idea of handing government-like powers of security over to private actors and insurance agencies. Historically, also, this would seem to be the indication - as fellow China expat and Orthodox convert William D. noted on my FB page, private armies don’t seem to have worked out too well for Pompey either.

21 March 2015

Happy Nowruz! ... with a handful of quotes from Vladimir Solovyov

A very happy Nowruz, and much love and respect, to all my gentle readers and friends who are celebrating the holiday in the Iranic and Turkic nations of Central Asia (including Iran, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan)! Wish you all a most auspicious, felicitous, peaceful and successful New Year; may you be blessed with all you need and may you strive ever after the truth in your own lives!

Speaking of truth. I have of late been reading the great Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s The Justification of the Good: an Essay on Moral Philosophy, and I think I have been thoroughly annoying all of my Facebook friends by posting quotes I think are particularly poignant. Solovyov often gets misread, and the only remedy for such misreadings is, well, to read the man!

On utilitarianism:
It is clear that the supposed connection between the good which each desires for himself and the true or real good, as the utilitarians understand it, is simply a crude sophism based upon the ambiguity of the word "good".

First we have the axiom that each desires that which satisfies him; then all the actual multiplicity of the objects and the means of satisfaction is designated by one and the same term "good". This term is then applied to quite a different conception of general happiness or of the common good. Upon this identity of the term which covers two distinct and even opposed conceptions the argument is based that since each person desires his own good and the good consists in general happiness, each person ought to desire and to work for the happiness of all. But in truth the good which each desires for himself is not necessarily related to general happiness, and the good which consists in general happiness is not that which each desires for himself.

A simple substitution of one term for another is not enough to make a person desire something different from what he really does desire or to find his good somewhere other than where he actually finds it.
On ‘job creators’ (note that, when Jakim’s translation of Solovyov uses the word ‘profligate’, it never means anything good):
One may quite well admit the fact of the oneness of the human race, universal solidarity and the consequences that follow from it in the natural order of things, and yet not deduce from it any moral rule of conduct. Thus, for instance, a rich profligate, who lives solely for his own pleasure and never makes the good of others the purpose of his actions, may nevertheless justly point out that, owing to the natural connection between things, his refined luxury furthers the development of commerce and industry, of science and arts, and gives employment to numbers of poor people.
On the purposes of the state:
Altruism at its highest religious stage compels us, therefore, actively to participate in the universal historical process which brings about the conditions necessary for the revelation of the Kingdom of God. Consequently it demands that we should take part in the collective organisations - especially in that of the state as inclusive of all the others - by means of which the historical process is, by the will of Providence, carried on. Not every one is called to political activity or to the service of the state in the narrow sense of the term. But it is the duty of every one to serve, in his own place, that same purpose - the common good - which the state ought to serve also.
On the moral dimension of Antigone by Sophocles:
It is impossible to agree with the usual view of Antigone as the bearer and champion of personal feeling against a universal law, embodied in the representative of the state - Creon. The true meaning of the tragedy is entirely different...

Antigone had heartfelt affection for both her brothers, but sacred duty bound her to the one who needed her religious help. Being the pattern of a moral individual, Antigone at the same time is the representative of true social order, which is preserved only by the fulfilment of duty. She does not in the least conceal her feelings, and yet as the motive of her action she refers not to her feelings but to a sacred obligation which has to be fulfilled to the end.

This obligation is not of course an abstract duty, but an expression of the eternal order of reality: ‘I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living; in that world I shall abide for ever. But if thou wilt be guilty of dishonouring laws which the gods have stablished in honour...’

As for Creon, he certainly does not represent the principle of the state, the moral basis of which is the same as that of the family, though with the advantage of a fuller realisation. He is the representative of the state that has become perverted or has put itself into a false position - of the state that has forgotten its place...

The ethico-psychological basis of the bad law lies of course in Creon's bad will. This will, however, is not merely senseless and arbitrary but is connected with a general although a false idea according to which the power of the state and the laws of the state are higher than the moral law. Creon formulates this false idea with perfect clearness: ‘Whomsoever the city may appoint, that man must be obeyed, in little things and great, in just things and unjust.’
On social versus individual morality (or rather, why they are not opposed to each other):
The moral will must be determined to action solely through itself... But the organisation of social environment in accordance with the principle of the absolute good is not a limitation but a fulfilment of the personal moral will - it is the very thing which it desires.

As a moral being I want the good to reign upon earth, I know that alone I cannot bring this to pass, and I find a collective organisation intended for this purpose of mine. It is clear that such an organisation does not in any sense limit me but, on the contrary, removes my individual limitations, widens and strengthens my moral will. Every one, insofar as his will is moral, inwardly participates in this universal organisation of morality, and it is clear that relative external limitations, which may follow therefrom for individual persons, are sanctioned by their own higher consciousness and consequently cannot be opposed to moral freedom...

It is clear that in subordinating himself to a social environment which is itself subordinate to the principle of the absolute good and conformable to it, the individual cannot lose anything.
On the limits of the ‘right to property’:
As to property, to recognise it as the moral foundation of normal society, i.e. as something sacred and inviolable, is neither logically nor, in my own case (and I think in that of my contemporaries), psychologically possible. The first awakening of conscious life and thought in our generation what accompanied by the thunder of the destruction of property in its two fundamental historical forms of serfdom and slavery. And this abolition of property, both in America and in Russia, was demanded and accomplished in the name of social morality. The alleged inviolability was brilliantly disproved by the fact of so successful a violation, approved by the conscience of all. It is obvious that property is a thing which stands in need of justification, and so far from containing a moral norm, demands such a norm for itself.
And another on a similar theme (note the overlap with distributist thinking!):
General equality of property is as impossible and unnecessary as sameness in the colouring or in the quantity of hair. There is one condition, however, which renders the question as to the distribution of property a moral question. It is inconsistent with human dignity and with the moral norm of society that a person should be unable to support his existence, or that in order to do so he should spend so much time and strength as to have none left for looking after his human, intellectual and moral improvement... A society that desires to be morally normal cannot remain indifferent to such a position of any one of its members. It is its direct duty to secure to each and all a certain minimum of well-being, just as much as is necessary to support a worthy human existence.
On the depth of binding moral norms being more important than the breadth (particularly apt for a discussion on globalisation):
However sincerely a man may recognise the absolute demands of the moral ideal, he cannot, in real life, apply these demands to all human beings, for the simple reason that the "all" do not concretely exist for him. He cannot give practical proof of his respect for the human dignity of the millions of men about whom he knows nothing; he cannot make them in concreto the positive end of his activity...

The solution of this contradiction is that moral relations ought to be fully realised within a certain limited environment in which each man is placed in his concrete everyday existence. This is precisely the true function of the family. Each member of it is not only intended and meant to be, but actually is, an end for all the others; each is perceptibly recognised to have absolute significance, each is irreplaceable.
At any rate, I must second wholeheartedly Vladimir Putin’s recommendation of this book! It is amazing; please do pick it up and have a read. Solovyov is a very careful and discerning thinker (albeit very much a man of his time), and even though I think he hews far too closely to Kantian thinking even when he is critiquing Kant, which he does often, I can certainly see why he is now being reappraised and more highly valued in the country of his birth.

18 March 2015

Values and economic institutions go hand-in-hand

In no state can a minimum-wage worker afford a two-bedroom unit at fair market rent, working a standard 40-hour work week.

But you didn’t hear it from me, gentle readers. Take a gander at this story by Seth Wessler at NBC News.
The growing ubiquity of families like the one that Bridges and McCann have crafted is tied in part to changing values and norms. But these shifts are intimately connected to the reordering of economic institutions that once underpinned middle and working-class family life, scholars say. As industrial sector and professional jobs that a half a century ago provided men with enough income to support a family disappear, so has the attachment to marriage as a prerequisite for an economically stable life.
It is increasingly obvious, and increasingly necessary to observe, that the shift in values and norms and the ‘reordering of economic institutions’ are intimately connected with each other at every conceptual and analytical level. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s and the radical cultural change that accompanied it were ultimately oriented toward the decoupling of sex from all three of love, marriage and reproduction, and the pursuit of sexual pleasure as an end in itself. It would be naïve to think that the ‘liberation’ of eros from all its institutional strictures and from all expectation of self-control or sublimation into long-term projects (loving relationships, bearing and raising children) would have no weakening effect on such projects in the economic sphere. Much of the moral grammar that underwrote labour movements in the first place – including that which fuelled the outrage at practices like child labour! – was based upon the aspirations of the working class to the very same long-term projects of family independence that the sexual revolution sought to invalidate or make merely optional as consumer choices. (In this, some recommended historical reading ought to be the proudly-Wobbly Frank Tannenbaum’s work, The Labor Movement: Its Conservative Functions and Social Consequences.) The weakening of the moral grammar around sex must be considered part-and-parcel with the weakening of the economic institutions that protected the rights of the working class.

It is no surprise, either, that the project of ‘liberating’ eros would inevitably give rise to the project of ‘liberating’ other forms of cupidity. It is not only in The Wolf of Wall Street that greed and lust are so intimately tied together, and it should come as no surprise that the same people who participated in and spearheaded the sexual counterculture also voted for Reagan. For another contemporary example, though, one may cite Heather Havrilevsky’s excellent and devastating critique of Fifty Shades of Grey. E. L. James’s vision of her protagonist couple’s sexual excesses, one which has garnered so much appeal amongst bourgeois American women, is inextricably tied up (so to speak) with an equally-banal vision of consumerist excess and greed, along with which goes power over the working class (who are – very noticeably – not presented by James as having either erotic or family lives of their own). If Havrilevsky is to be believed, none of this is questioned within the text itself, which further demonstrates the point: in the American society shaped by the counterculture, lust is so closely intertwined with greed that the connexion goes undisputed by those who don’t have the self-awareness to disentangle them.

So we can say that Ross Douthat of the New York Times is half-right when he says regarding the social crisis amongst America’s working poor, that ‘however much money matters, something else is clearly going on’, and he is certainly right to point to the ‘60’s counterculture and sexual revolution in making his point. Where he misses the point, though, is turning the question of the social crisis of working-class families into an ‘either-or’, instead of a ‘both-and’.

‘If I were my parents’ age, I’d have married, then had kids, and had the same job for my whole career,’ says Michael Bridges in Seth Wessler’s NBC piece. ‘But that kind of work just isn’t around.’ The notion ought to be more widely entertained that the reason that kind of work isn’t around, is precisely because the idea of a job that can support a family has long been considered an option, and one that is not owed to the working class; and that what made it so was precisely the defenestration of family life as normative.

I’ll give the last and most important word, of course, to the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church. The document reads very clearly that values are very closely intertwined with economic life. Note the judicious and careful use (a use which would most certainly not be wasted upon a post-Soviet audience!) of the economically-inflected language of ‘the professional field’, ‘alienation’, ‘antagonism’, ‘exploitation’ and ‘trade’ below, in their treatment of the contemporary issues facing the family.
The experience of family relations teaches a person to overcome sinful egoism and lays the foundations for his sense of civil duty. It is in the family as a school of devotion that the right attitude to one's neighbours and therefore to one's people and society as a whole is formed. The living continuity of generations, beginning in family, is continued in the love of the forefathers and fatherland, in the feeling of participation in history. This is why it is so dangerous to distort the traditional parents-child relationship, which, unfortunately, have been in many ways endangered by the contemporary way of life. The diminished social significance of motherhood and fatherhood compared to the progress made by men and women in the professional field leads to the treatment of children as an unnecessary burden, contributing also to the development of alienation and antagonism between generations. The role of family in the formation of the personality is exceptional; no other social institution can replace it…

The physical relations between man and woman are blessed by God in marriage in which they express chaste love, complete communion and the ‘harmony of the minds and bodies’ of the spouses, for which the Church prays in the celebration of wedding. What actually should be denounced is the tendency to turn these chaste and appropriate relations as God has designed them and the human body itself into an object of humiliating exploitation and trade to derive egoistic, impersonal, loveless and perverted pleasure. For this reason, the Church invariably denounces prostitution and the preaching of the so-called free love in which physical intimacy is completely divorced from personal and spiritual communion, selflessness and all-round responsibility for each other, which are possible only in the lifetime conjugal faithfulness.

17 March 2015

Sting? Probably not

If you haven’t read Patrick Armstrong’s thorough and ruthless takedown of the coverage of Putin’s disappearance these past two weeks, gentle readers, you really ought to. Armstrong showcases and proceeds to very justly mock some of the most outlandish, tinfoil-hatted, boggle-eyed, gutter-level tabloid speculation and gossip which has somehow become the stand-in for actual reporting on Russia from some of the Anglosphere’s finest – okay, sure, perhaps one might expect as much from The Daily Mail and the New York Post, but the BBC? The Independent? The New York Times? The Washington Post? The Economist? Aren’t they supposed to be better than this? Armstrong writes:
The West has developed a hysterical obsession with Putin and this “absence” was a chance to display it and make fools of themselves. Certainly, the Western media, losing ground and credibility steadily, will not have gained any from this preposterous performance. I can't help wondering whether Putin and his team (which has shown itself to be much smarter than anybody in the West) didn't concoct the whole fake disappearance to allow the West and its tame sources to be-clown themselves and take their reputation down another couple of points. Now, that would be clever. And fun to watch; a tiny hint from Putin? “Life ‘would be boring without gossip’”.

Also notice the assumption in practically every one of these stories. Which is that Russia is a tremendously unstable place held together by one man. This despite the fact that the Constitutional successor, a long-time member of The Team, has actually been president before and that The Team has demonstrated a remarkable coherence – to say nothing of competence – for fifteen years now.

The second thing to notice is this crackbrained obsession with one man. Putin is the Qaddafi, the Saddam Hussein, the Milosevich, the bin Laden, the Aidid, of Russia. If only he would go, the bear would roll over and expose his tummy. Well, getting rid of those guys didn't work, and getting rid of Putin won't either. It's not just one man, it's a whole country. When are they going to learn this?
When, indeed? I agree with Mr. Armstrong that this probably isn’t a psy-ops sting operation by the Russian government, though that is a fun possibility to think about. Personally, I really have to laugh at the absurdity of this sort of thing. If I didn’t, I’d probably go insane. In other news, it’s truly unfortunate that we’ll be losing Jon Stewart’s presence on The Daily Show. In an age when the instruments of propaganda have abandoned any possible pretext at decency or self-awareness, let alone sanity, the task of being sane will have to fall to the clowns. Thus it’s ever been.

16 March 2015

Pointless video post – ‘There Will Be Consequences’ by Xentrix

Xentrix are back! Well, they have actually been back for some time now (the thrash reunion having become something of an institution by this point), but they now have a new song out. Give a listen! They seem to have somewhat gone the latter-day Lääz Rockit route with a sound that meshes a speed-thrash tempo with a more ‘modern’ groove-influenced instrumental kick; purist adherents of their classic Bay Area-influenced, socially-conscious Shattered Existence and For Whose Advantage? albums may be a bit disappointed by this, but you know what? Screw ‘em. Great as those albums were and still are (for the anti-capitalist and anti-war lyrics as well as the instrumentation), you can’t expect a band as awesome and dynamic as Xentrix to stay in one place for twenty-five years. And there is still enough classic Xentrix riffage here to go around, grittier though it may sound than it did in 1989. Maximum respect for the thrash titans of Albion! \m/

15 March 2015

Despatch from the archives of Chinese Old Labour High Toryism

From the Russian Wikipedia page on Eastern Han Confucian literatus and Gongyang Zhuan 公羊傳 scholar He Xiu:
[He Xiu] was influenced by Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BC). He created the advanced Three Er historiosophical scheme, marking the stages of the historical process. The Spring and Autumn Annals attributed to Confucius are given as an example of the historical flow and ebb in space and time. He gave a detailed description of the ideal society, which supposedly existed in China in the distant past. The ancient Chinese state was allegedly based on the well-field system (described by Mencius) and was characterised by collective labour organised within the community. Families, as members of collective agricultural communities [общину], were given rights in common property (with elders supported by a double allotment). Ostensibly, a system of state social support developed there, along with a multi-tiered education system which selected the most gifted for state posts. There was also strict control over the quantity and quality of labour in the община. These ideas had a decisive formative influence on the utopian theories of Kang Youwei.
Yet more possible contact between Slavophilia and Political Confucianism, anyone? The parallels between Jiang Qing and Ivan Kireevsky were already clear enough to me, but this seems to be a lot deeper an angle! Also, how does that song by Culture Club go again? ‘Commie, commie, commie Confucian…’? No, that’s not it…

06 March 2015

Star Trek, modern conflict and propaganda

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

In light of the recent, lamented death of Leonard Nimoy, the celebrated actor best-known and best-loved for portraying Commander Spock, science officer of the Enterprise, on the original series of Star Trek, I thought it might be a good idea to explore some of the continuing relevance and prescience of the series he pioneered. On occasion, I’ve half-seriously proposed that the original run of Star Trek ought to be required viewing for all American policymakers. But it is sadly somewhat fashionable nowadays in American media and pop culture, particularly that surrounding science-fictional works and space dramas, to rag on Star Trek – even by the people responsible for continuing it, and the people who have built careers emulating it. The vision of Gene Roddenberry regarding humanity, it is far too often said, is far too naïve – the humans he envisions in the future are too idealised, too rational and too pacifistic. Joss Whedon, the creator of Firefly (which he described as an anti-Star Trek), critiqued the universe Roddenberry imagined as far too ‘sterile’, not a place where real people are allowed to live. Even the franchise has become a critic of itself: J. J. Abrams’s rebooted movie series first advertised itself as ‘not your father’s Trek, and it has actively tried to shed the stodgy formulas of the original series and The Next Generation even as it has capitalised on original-series nostalgia.

There are elements of this Star Trek critique that have merit, and that I will readily agree with. All the same, I find this overall trend rather unfortunate, in part because the original series is actually becoming more and more relevant again as our political culture regresses daily to the cultural and geopolitical madness of the early 1960’s. And far from being a series in which human beings (as the Trek stereotype often goes) have already been perfected and purged of all traces of prejudice, the original series very often held up a mirror to the very real human weaknesses it saw around it. In ‘A Taste of Armageddon’, the writers actually did more to examine human frailty and short-sightedness than many of the television shows which came after it. Far from having all his imperfections glossed over, the makers of Star Trek recognised the human being as fallen: ‘a killer first, a builder second; a hunter, a warrior and… a murderer’, and as fighting a protracted ascetic struggle against his own nature: ‘we can admit that we’re killers; but we’re not going to kill today!’

In addition, ‘A Taste of Armageddon’ highlights the very real dangers of a technological war that has been sanitised, that is fought by computerised simulation from a distance, while the ‘casualties’ of each simulated strike are herded into disintegration booths. Given the current debates amongst leftists and civil libertarians around drone warfare, this particular episode could very well have been written last week, and it would have been every bit as relevant and poignant. In the end, Kirk, Spock and McCoy destroy the simulators which regulate the war between the planets Eminiar VII and Vendikar. Captain Kirk tells the administrator of Eminiar after he destroys the simulators: ‘I’ve given you back the horrors of war.’ But more than that, the deeper point is that what Kirk has restored to Eminiar is a basis for solidarity between the warring parties. Though it’s unlikely Vladimir Solovyov’s personalism was directly on the minds of Gene Coon and Robert Hamner as they wrote it, the point they reach is ultimately a Solovyovian one: a just peace (or indeed, any just outcome) can only be reached if war is no longer abstracted from the society that is fighting it, and if human beings on both sides bear analogous human costs and risks.

Likewise, though ‘A Private Little War’ was written explicitly – and even somewhat pedantically – with the Vietnam War in mind, the episode could indeed very well have been written about the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or the Ukraine. It is a remarkably and ingeniously ambiguous in its writing – it yields neither to brute calculation nor to sentimental pacifism, and doesn’t attempt to paper over the tragedy at the heart of the story. Though Kirk waxes poetic on how at one point in human history ‘our weapons grew faster than our wisdom’, he nonetheless finds himself essentially honour-bound to supply equivalent (but not superior) armaments to the ‘hill people’ to keep them from being wiped out by the ‘village people’, the interstellar proxies and cultural subjects of the Federation’s adversary, the Klingon Empire. It is unclear in the episode if we are supposed to accept this as a success or a defeat for Kirk specifically, or more generally for Roddenberry’s evolved portrait of humankind. Unfortunately, if we are being honest with ourselves, we have to read ourselves into the shoes of the Klingons in this episode. The American government seems to be the one which wants, through our interventions, business contacts and sales of arms, to transform the peoples of Afghanistan, of Syria, of Iraq and of the Ukraine into our cultural and political proxies. Whereas, as between Tyree and Kirk, there exists a long, involved and very real history between (for example) the Ukrainian and the Russian people – even if that history has been sullied by jealousy and recrimination.

The last episode I want to consider here is another Klingon episode: ‘Day of the Dove’. In many ways, this episode is far more radical in its implications than I’d imagined when I first watched it. In it, we are first led to believe that the Klingons have attacked a defenceless colony; the Klingons, by contrast, believe that the Enterprise has attacked and destroyed their own spacecraft with a new and advanced weapon. Events are carefully engineered and manipulated such that the Klingons and the Enterprise crew are drawn into a close-quarters mêlée onboard the ship, and slowly the entire crew – including the main bridge crew – are subject to increasingly hostile, bigoted and jingoistic attitudes toward the Klingons; on the other side, the Klingons likewise grow increasingly distrustful and belligerent. The bridge crew ultimately discover that their perceptions, attitudes and memories are being manipulated by an alien lifeform that has come aboard the Enterprise, which feeds on their hostility and hatred. ‘Has a war been staged for us?’ asks Kirk. ‘Complete with weapons and ideology and patriotic drum-beating?’ Again, long before The Undiscovered Country or First Contact, the ‘evolved sensibility’ of the Star Trek-era human being is being questioned.

Propaganda, distortion of reality, manipulation of memory and language that deliberately obscures the actual motivations of ‘the enemy’ are the main tools which the alien lifeform uses to keep the Klingons and the Enterprise crew at each other’s throats. And the alien derives sustenance from the violence that results. Even if the parallels were not deliberate, they are close enough for one to wonder if this was a prescient, Vietnam-era form of media critique. It is unquestionable nowadays that commercial news media are driven firstly by the need to turn a profit, and that in the modern 24-hour news cycle (far more so than the days of network television!) exogenously generating and then reporting on conflict is one of the quickest and easiest ways for commercial news media to ‘derive sustenance’. Hostility is generated in the public and political sphere by the selective reporting of reality and by the manipulation of public memory.

It’s clear they didn’t have The Daily Show or Jon Stewart in mind, but the conclusion of ‘Day of the Dove’ somewhat prefigured it – what thwarts the hostility-breeding alien, in the end, is ‘good spirits’. Kirk and Kang each throw down their weapons and begin laughing together. The ending of the episode is indeed a bit too pat for my tastes; the writers still weren’t quite able to jettison the idea that individual independent reasoning (or laughter) alone is capable of overcoming that inculcation.

As I said above, I can sympathise with some of the critiques of classic Trek, particularly as regards religion. But as our country continues down a path where ideology and geopolitics again are becoming all-too-relevant, the leaven of Star Trek, as it was in the 1960’s, is once again very much needed. It may be that the character of our society as it acts on the world stage is too grimly fixed, that we haven’t yet outgrown our own bad habits. Or it may be that the authors of the series wrote better than they knew. Either way, Roddenberry’s voice is still one worth heeding today.