29 April 2015

Police action and nonviolence

Cross-posted from The Lanchester Review:

Though it should have been obvious with Ferguson, Baltimore has now proven that we – even and especially the liberal whites of the East Coast – ignore the recent spate of not exclusively but predominantly black deaths at the hands of policemen in the United States at our own peril. We have an urgent need to restore a language of common interest and common good with the people who are even now protesting – some peacefully, some less so – in the streets of Baltimore. This need cannot, and will not, be encompassed by a simple unilateral demand for one side to lay down its arms and submit. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in his piece for The Atlantic: ‘When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.’ He goes on to ask, rhetorically, where the calls for restraint were when the actual instances of police brutality were happening.

Coates doesn’t quote Chesterton, but indeed here he might well have been able to. ‘They preach,’ Chesterton wrote, ‘that if you see a man flogging a woman to death you must not hit him. I would much sooner let a leper come near a little boy than a man who preached such a thing.’ What so galled Chesterton about the preachers of nonviolence of his day, was precisely that their hypocritical moralising served as cover for an utter lack of sympathy for the weak when they are bullied by the strong. That is precisely what galls Coates here and now about the preachers of nonviolence in Baltimore. As the best representatives of the pacifist tradition will tell you, though – and this includes disciples of Chesterton such as Mohandas Gandhi – it isn’t enough simply to insist on peace as a negative ideal, let alone a self-serving one. ‘Violence is any day preferable to impotence,’ wrote the Mahatma. And here Gandhi was speaking in concert with the Church Fathers and the sainted Greek authors of the Philokalia, who interpret anger as a dog capable equally of biting wolves and sheep. The dog needs to be trained upon vice and wickedness, and must not be led to attack the weak, the innocent and the good – ‘be angry and not sin’; or as S. Isaiah the Solitary put it, ‘without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy.’

Where Coates, Chesterton, Gandhi and the Church Fathers all tend to agree, is that anger, the root of violence, must be directed against injustice; and that a pacifism that ignores the weak, that is deaf to the demands of justice, is in actuality not opposed to violence but is actually a form of impotence, a moral sloth. It is frankly impossible to speak intelligibly about violence or the evils thereof, in Baltimore or elsewhere, without first having and using the grammar of justice. It is impossible to read the writings of Chesterton, Gandhi or the Church Fathers as atomised individual practice; in fact, they make no sense if they do not apply equally to individuals and to societies.

But what has all this theorising to do with Baltimore?

Simply put, the state’s right purpose is justice. The ruler is the minister of God for good, and a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil – so says S. Paul. It is the job of the Christian to uphold the law and to support the state in its capacity, as the great Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov put it, as ‘collectively organised pity’. But what do we do when this ‘collectively organised pity’ becomes indolent, indifferent to suffering, and indeed pitiless to the weak, as here and now, in Baltimore? What do we do when another Freddie Gray dies? What do we do when the agents of the state overstep or wilfully ignore their right purpose?

As Coates, Chesterton, Gandhi and the Church Fathers would have it, anger is not only an understandable reaction when one encounters a wrong – it is a necessary one. But revolutionary violence and the untutored anger it enshrines always has been, and is still, a feral dog which bites wolves and sheep alike. The right reaction to events like those in Baltimore falls somewhere in between. Those who preach nonviolence selectively at the powerless fall directly under Chesterton’s condemnation, and rightly so. Freddie Gray is dead, like a dozen other black men throughout the country, with no sense or reason behind his death. This must be answered somehow, and will be. But likewise, those who use acts of injustice to undermine the authority of the state and indulge anarchistic rebellion against even the right use of authority are clearly also wrong. There can be no excuse for rioting, arson and banditry, because even if those are directed against the powerful, the weak will still be made to suffer for it. The residents of Baltimore themselves, in fact, are indeed struggling to channel their anger into more spiritually-useful directions, peaceably, and against the state’s injustice rather than against the state itself. But they appear to be doing so not because of the hypocritical pacifistic moralising being levelled at them, but rather in spite of it.

Pretty much every Christian tradition – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant – has historically emphasised that, as a rule, we have to obey our secular civil governments. But no Christian tradition worthy of the name will say that a blind eye must be turned to injustices when we see them, and especially not those injustices in which we ourselves are complicit. Even those who are angry at the injustices they see, and allow their anger to escape untamed are, in fact, better off than those who have grown passive and indolent, and allowed their anger to be choked off at its root by impotence.

24 April 2015

The Medz Yeghern, 100 years on

On the 24th of April 1915, the Turkish government rounded up around 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, and ordered them to be taken to holding camps in Syria and in the Turkish interior. This action left the Armenian community leaderless, confused and incapable of resistance to the heinous, hideous enormities that were being planned against it by the Young Turks leadership, as its answer to the ‘Armenian question’. These actions included robbery, torture, rape, mass killings and death marches into the Syrian Desert; the death toll amongst the Armenian community at the hands of the Ottomans was as high as 1.5 million. In addition, hundreds of thousands of other ethnic Christians – Assyrians and Greeks living under Ottoman rule – likewise perished at the Ottomans’ hands. This much is the history, and it is very well-documented. The Armenian Genocide – and it very much is a genocide, as Pope Francis made very clear recently and as His Beatitude Patriarch Kirill has held for a long time – was a definitive event in Central Asian history, if not world history. Other genocides in history, including the Holocaust of the Jews, were made possible only by reference to the Great Crime against the Armenian people.

It is noteworthy that the Great Crime happened under the watch of a ‘modernising’ government, which espoused the nationalist and liberal ideology which characterised the rising bourgeois class of 19th century Europe. The Armenian genocide was of an entirely new class of crime, but it was one which was made possible by an entire preceding century of colonial warfare, which saw, among other things, the ignominious invention of the concentration camp by the British Empire in South Africa. World War I was ultimately a war between the rival empires of Germany and Britain, and the logic which led to the Ottoman Empire’s attempted extermination of the Armenian people was an imperialist logic.

And the Armenian genocide cannot be considered in isolation from the First World War, nor from the rest of 20th century European history generally. Though Turkish Muslims figure prominently among the guilty, the Great Crime cannot be written off as a sin unique to the Islamic world. The crime was undertaken by Ottoman Turks, but it was undertaken primarily by Westernising Ottoman Turks – the Committee of Union and Progress – who espoused first free-market and then German national-liberal economics, who espoused the positivism of Auguste Comte, who sought to politically reform Ottoman Sunni Islam through itjihad, who sought access to European institutions, and who committed themselves to same legitimating ideological force of nationalism that defined the European order after 1848.

Though many Armenians themselves participated in the earliest efforts of the Committee, it was precisely out of such nationalist concerns that Armenians came to be seen as potential traitors to Russia. Also, it was precisely out of this positivist ideology of the Young Turks that Armenian life came to be considered expendable – a necessary sacrifice to Turkey’s scientifically-guided material and social evolution. Islam, insofar as Islam was a cultural marker of Turkish national awareness, is also responsible, but its doctrines are not implicated nearly to the same degree.

In addition, the genocide was committed with the knowing, willful complicity, and in some cases active cooperation, of their German and Austrian allies. It is imperative to hold modern governments responsible for recognising and atoning for the genocide, including the modern governments of Turkey, Germany and Austria, because these modern European nations were built upon the same ideologies and historical forces which ground so many Armenians into the desert sands. There is Armenian blood in the foundations of the Turkish state, and of the European supra-state order insofar as that order includes, prefigures and legitimates the Turkish state as it was formed from the ashes of the Ottoman one.

Turkey denies that what happened was genocide, precisely because it fears its own foundations upon a wholly-secular nationalist ideology are too brittle to hold up under such critique. Turkish national pride would not then, fearing Armenian disloyalty, allow them to live; Turkish national pride will not now, fearing the justice of Armenian claims, permit them to be spoken of. But nations cannot be built or sustain themselves upon lies in this way. Either Turkey will admit the truth of the historical crimes on which she was built and shift to a sounder foundation, or she will fracture and splinter. As the fundamental antinomies in a secular order founded upon ethno-religious genocide become ever clearer, either Turkey will crack down further upon free expression, or the truth will come to light. Though Europe’s guilt – including Germany’s and Austria’s and even Britain’s – is clearly lesser than Turkey’s, her problem is nonetheless far thornier in some ways. How does one address having been a willing accomplice in such a crime? How does one address having been an instigator? How does one address being a bystander, but one which perpetuates the lies and the distorted anthropology through which the crimes were allowed to happen?

I get a strange and nagging feeling that Solzhenitsyn’s storytelling in particular would be of use in this question. His writing usually carries with it the theme which he himself expressed pithily in 1974: ‘[Violence] does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.’ Neither Europe nor the United States should take this as an opportunity to beat Turkey over the head with its moral superiority and smug self-satisfaction, wrapping itself in the hypocritical smokescreen of ‘human rights’. The Armenian genocide, as the template of genocide from which all others since it have drawn, needs to be treated with greater depth; doing anything less would be complicity in the same falsehoods which allowed it to arise.

EDIT: President Obama has elected not to recognise the Armenian Genocide at its centennial commemoration. Jack Quirk sums up my attitude toward this sheer and wilful act of cowardice perfectly.
Turkey’s denial of the genocidal nature of the Ottoman actions against the Armenians is simply absurd. The decision of the American administration to acquiesce to the absurdity is craven. Suppression of truth cannot be justified in terms of pragmatism. Whatever short term inconveniences may attend angering the Turkish government by stating a simple fact, the United States, in the long term, doesn’t need an ally that refuses to face reality.

22 April 2015

Pointless video post - ‘Stonebreaker’ by Corrosion of Conformity

Corrosion of Conformity with some really solid, bluesy, whisky-drenched Orange Goblin worship here. Or is that the other way around? CoC has been doing the whole biker stoner-rock thing a trifle longer than Goblin have, after all. But the entire In the Arms of God album is just… immense. No other real way to put it. They have had a lot of practice blending thrash, doom and Southern rock in just the right proportions to have the maximum explosive potential, never getting stuck in any rut but always driving relentlessly, belligerently forward. I’ve been listening to some of their older, more politically-charged material as well; they’ve certainly matured musically since the age of Blind, but they’re no less angry and socially-conscious, it seems, if ‘Dirty Hands Empty Pockets / Already Gone’ is any indication. Brilliant stuff. Enjoy!

15 April 2015

Pan, Xu and the perpendicular politics of China

A highly-important study was recently released earlier this week by SSRN, by Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing of Harvard University and MIT, respectively. This study is the first attempt to gauge the ideological spectrum of Chinese society, and the results are… interesting, to say the least. They shouldn’t come as any surprise, though, to people who have been studying Chinese society carefully since the mid-1990’s. The study is based on the zuobiao.me survey, a Political Compass-style quiz based on the Chinese context. Of course, there are some massive and, as the authors of the study freely admit probably insurmountable, external-validity problems when relying on a self-reporting survey; random sampling is all but impossible in a Chinese political context. But the data themselves are still immensely valuable. The key finding that Pan and Xu have identified is that the Chinese political spectrum is largely one-dimensional – but in a way which runs exactly perpendicular to the political spectrum in the Anglo-American West.

As Pan and Xu put it:
Individuals who are politically conservative, who emphasize the supremacy of the state and nationalism, are also likely to be economically conservative, supporting a return to socialism and state-control of the economy, and culturally conservative, supporting traditional, Confucian values. In contrast, political liberals, supportive of constitutional democracy and individual liberty, are also likely to be economic liberals who support market-oriented reform and social liberals who support modern science and values such as sexual freedom.
Western politics is no stranger to the idea of the sexually-libertine, secularist free-market libertarian, so the Chinese ‘right’ is not something which will take many in the West by surprise. But the idea of a socialism which is also socially-conservative (in spite of the efforts of yours truly), might still take a number of Anglophone readers by surprise.

Part of the reason China is so fascinating to me is precisely because it is in such a good position to examine, explore and critique the antinomies of Western political thought. Ideology is something foreign to Chinese society generally, but as the society has already developed several antinomies and pathologies distinctive to itself, ideology has begun to emerge on a completely different set of assumptions than it has in the West.

It has developed in accordance with a ‘depoliticised politics’ of the sort critiqued by Wang Hui in The End of the Revolution, and the current ideological debates can be thought of as two differing reactions against the state-driven authoritarian pragmatism of current official circles. (What so many outside observers still get so wrong about the Chinese government is that they call it fascist, communist, or state-capitalist when in fact the reality is much more banal. The Maoists are gone. The Chinese government consists of the technocratic, antidemocratic disciples of Dewey and James.) Ideology in such a context derives its force from the way in which a people who have long been disconnected from their own public sphere need to negotiate this depersonalised and depoliticised state, and in which they need to legitimate, compare and contrast their own experiences to those they find on the outside.

The two political ‘sides’ run perpendicular to Western politics. Whereas Western politics are divided between a liberal left and a conservative right, Chinese politics are divided between a liberal right and a conservative left. In America we are broadly used to seeing leftists as urban, upper middle-class, college-educated coastal cosmopolitans, and rightists as rural, working-class, relatively uneducated, agricultural interior parochialists. The exact inverse holds true in China. Leftists in China tend to be rural, working-class, agricultural and from the interior. The coastal cosmopolitans, on the other hand, hold views similar to American libertarians.

Choropleth map of China’s provinces from Pan and Xu’s paper

On one level, this should not be surprising. Western politics taken as a whole, is the norm which the Chinese ‘right’ by and large embraces, and against which the Chinese ‘left’ militates. It is only natural and understandable that the Chinese ‘left’, with its critique of the modern West and its scepticism about the applicability of Western political categories to a Chinese context, should draw upon traditional resources, shore up traditional structures of authority, uphold the nation-state as a bulwark against unwanted foreign influences and hold culturally-conservative positions. But on the other hand, it is possible – and indeed necessary! – to analyse this entire construction with a critical eye, as Wang Hui does. Adopting nationalism as a medicine against liberalism is, as the Chinese say, to tear down one wall to build up another (拆東墻補西墻). The modern Chinese nation-state is unfortunately always already the instrument of a secular understanding of social anthropology and all the political realities associated with it.

I don’t say this unsympathetically. I’ve taken the zuobiao.me test before, and came off as an ‘authoritarian conservative welfarist’: (-0.4, -0.8, -1.0). I’m rather an oddball in the West with my blend of economically-leftist, culturally-conservative politics. But, given my Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan fandom and appreciation for political Confucians like Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang, I fairly solidly identify with the culturally-traditionalist Chinese Left, although my localist, religious qualms about concentrated state power render me a rather mild authoritarian by Chinese standards. But at some level, it’s precisely these localist and religious qualms that I feel the Chinese Left and the political Confucians will have to adopt as they run up against the hard limits of their nation-state.

Still, the question of Chinese politics is an immensely interesting one. There’s now a site to watch – Chublic Opinion – which will be exploring some of the implications of the raw dataset from zuobiao.me, as well as analysing the paper by Pan and Xu later this week. It’s run by someone who appears to be my political opposite, but I do highly encourage my gentle readers to give it a look! It’s sure to be very interesting. Also, I imagine the Sinica Podcast will be running a discussion on this topic soon, so stay tuned for that as well!

11 April 2015

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Glory to the risen Lord! Wish all my friends and Orthodox brothers and sisters a great feast of Holy Pascha today!

The importance of reading August

Cross-posted from the Oriental Review:

If one wants to understand the sociology of the American people, the book which still tops the list of those recommended for the subject is Democracy in America by Alexis Charles Henri Clérel de Tocqueville. Published between 1835 and 1840, and based on the French author’s forays into the country in 1831, the volume at once became a foundational text, based on de Tocqueville’s remarkably astute and far-sighted awareness of the nature of American civil society, representational government and institutions, cultural tendencies and racial divides. He extols the democratic culture for its practical abilities in provision of common services, critiques the tendencies of representative institutions for their tendency to arrogate too much power to themselves, and still manages to keep a realistic eye on the tendencies toward a lowering of standards in the public sphere, the rise of American mass society and the possibilities for alienation within it. He foresees the brutal impact which chattel slavery would have on the social fabric and political landscape in the coming decades, and the possibilities – alarming to him – of a strong central government developing a kind of soft despotism.

The irreplaceable services de Tocqueville provides both to America and to its observers in Europe, in articulating its basic tendencies, cannot be overstated. But he is very widely recognised as the first authority on American culture, and it would be a strange thing indeed for an expert on civics in the United States never to have read Democracy in America. An analogous, remarkably-astute outside perspective exists also for understanding Russia – though its author unfortunately is not as well-recognised outside of Russia. It seems to me that more American self-proclaimed experts in Eastern European affairs (and on Russia specifically) could stand to read a certain underrated German aristocrat’s record of his travels in that country: specifically, Studies on the Interior of Russia by August Franz Ludwig Maria von Haxthausen-Abbenburg.

August von Haxthausen is in several ways the mirror image of Alexis de Tocqueville. Both were writing at around the same time, for the benefit of audiences back home, about oft-misunderstood rising political powers whose culture and institutions were at that time in a transitional, developmental state. Alexis de Tocqueville was a reform-minded aristocrat who tailored his writing to the experiences under republican France, who felt that democracy was an inevitable and in many ways welcome development and who advocated for constitutional government. August Franz, on the other hand, was older and had a very different experience of the French Revolution and the Bonapartist government. He observed the anti-French resistance of the peasants in his native Westphalia, and inspired by their example fought with the Hanoverians against Napoleon. He developed a very keen appreciation for German peasant culture, folklore and folk songs, and forged out of their shared interests a fast friendship with the Brothers Grimm1.

His politics were deeply reactionary, in the classical sense. He had a thorough distrust of the rising bureaucratic class, of the impositions of Napoleonic and republican institutions, and felt – very much unlike de Tocqueville! – that the revolutionary republican tendency was something to be resisted. But he saw the greatest resistance to these new tendencies not among the aristocracy, which he believed had already acquiesced to the new bureaucratic order, but among the peasantry. His peasant sympathies were very communitarian, even populist. The ‘statistical’ studies he undertook in his native Westphalia, and later in Prussia, reflected these sympathies. He developed a keen enthusiasm for the Slavic agrarian communes he found among the Prussian Pomeranians, which he felt contained the seeds for a strong social order that was at once egalitarian and communal, and at the same time anti-revolutionary2.

Certain factions within the Prussian government were, to put it mildly, less than impressed. A mixture of jealousy and ideological disagreement amongst the liberalising bureaucratic class so scorned by von Haxthausen, led them to lobby the government successfully for his dismissal. But his work was noticed by the Russian diplomat Pyotr Kazimirovich, Baron Meiendorf, who invited him on behalf of Tsar Nikolai I to continue his studies on Slavic agrarian communes within Russia. This he undertook in 1843, and his Studies, a series of fourteen essays published between 1847 and 18523.

His Studies were incredibly well-received in Russia and abroad, and were popular both among left-wing radicals like Aleksandr Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin and Jules Michelet, and cultural conservatives like Aleksey Khomyakov and Konstantin Aksakov4. Of particular interest to both were his accounts of Russian agrarian-communal life; for the radicals, the holding and leasing of property in common was of particular interest. The conservatives, however, noted with interest that the Russian agrarian commune was solidly based on the peculiarly religious understanding of the Russian peasants – ‘the earth belongs to God […] Adam and his descendants, or mankind, hold the earth in fee’5 – and the organic, patriarchal system of management whereby the father of the household disposes of all land-use rights within the family.

August von Haxthausen’s work is, in part, a ‘statistical’ anthropology of the type popular among Prussian scholars of the time. But though statistical figures do feature prominently throughout in his discussions of the various regions he visited, this is a fundamentally humanistic work. He shows throughout his work an unvarnished sympathy and admiration for the Russian peasant, though both are appraised realistically in full view of the flaws he observes. He does not observe among them a simple, ‘Oriental’ servility, but rather a healthy extension of the natural familial relationships to the realm of government and to the realm of religion. At the same time, he notes that the Slavic communal expressions were never fixed or geographical, but instead centred on the people. The German peasant makes reference to his village and to his landmarks as signifiers of ‘home’; the Russian peasant makes reference to his relatives – among whom are included, ultimately, all other Russians. Attachments to place are not as deep as attachments to family, even adopted family. There are traces of an ‘Oriental’ sensibility in this approach, but not in the pejorative way meant by Marx and Custine. Rather, the fluidity of the geographical and associative bonds Russian peasants von Haxthausen describes, echo in certain ways (but not in all ways; Russian familial ties are elastic almost to the point of universality, and inculcate a universalistic sensibility) the ‘differential mode of association’6 articulated by Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong in reference to the rural peasant life of his own country. But von Haxthausen himself seems to attribute this to the pastoral roots of the Slavic peoples7.

However, von Haxthausen also notes that the Russian people, never having developed class divisions or even their own aristocracy – the latter having been imported from the Finnic Varangians under Rurik – and for whom the city was merely the natural extension of the rural commune rather than a separate mode of life in its own right, also never developed a bourgeois mentality the way the Germans had8. Von Haxthausen notes that the imposition by Tsar Pyotr I and Tsarina Ekaterina II of actual cities in the western European style, bourgeois institutions and bourgeois trade (though in von Haxthausen’s own view they were inevitable developments of social progress), turned out to have some detrimental effects – not so much primarily on the lifestyle of the average Russian peasant but rather on the moral character of the Russians transplanted into city life9, as well as on the nobility10. The imposition of bourgeois norms meant in practice an importation into Russian high society of the worst vices of the western European bourgeoisie – usury, speculation, profligacy, hustling, naked exploitation, corruption in various forms – and very few of the virtues. To these ends, von Haxthausen recommends a strong preference for generalising throughout Russia the German institutions as they existed in the Baltic states11.

August von Haxthausen, in painting his picture of Tsarist Russia in 1843, shows a society which is at once communitarian and communistic, but at the same time marked by a strong preference for the power vertical. On the small scale, this manifests in an unconditional love and respect for the father of the house, for the batushka. Owing to the relative looseness of their geographical and blood signifiers, Russians have no conceptual difficulty in scaling this love and respect upwards to the feudal lord, to the Tsar, to God, and their fraternal obligations outward toward all their fellows under the Tsar, and under the Orthodox banner of Our Lord Christ12. It is not merely a figure of speech, in 1843 or nowadays, when a Russian calls an Armenian, a Serbian, a Greek, a Syrian, or a Coptic Christian brat – ‘brother’. It is said with the full depth of meaning.

Though, like the Slavophils whom he influenced so heavily, von Haxthausen’s work definitely looks toward the Russian peasantry and the indigenous institutions of Russia as foundational to any reforms that the Russian state might bring to bear in the future, and though he shares with the Slavophils a number of political concerns (chief among them the abolition of serfdom13), and though he made the friendly acquaintance of a large number of the Slavophils who were active in the 1840’s (the aforementioned Khomyakov and Aksakov, as well as Aleksandr Koshelev, Ivan Kireevsky, Yuri Samarin and Mikhail Pogodin14), von Haxthausen himself is emphatically not a Slavophil. He views the Slavophil historiographical treatment of Tsar Pyotr I and Tsarina Ekaterina II especially as wrongheaded – the modernising reforms they undertook had been, in his view, necessary, and were at any rate irreversible. As a result, he sees the political programme to reintroduce certain pre-Petrine cultural practices and legal institutions amongst the Russian people as misguided and counterproductive, and in light of his own reactionary leanings, he fears that the Slavophil enthusiasm might give vent to revolutionary or republican expressions amongst the Russian people15. Better, in his view, to work within existing institutions – even those which were German or French imports – and integrate them more effectively into Russian everyday life, the better to buttress an already-stout bulwark against the revolutionary and republican ardour that was plaguing his own country.

For all von Haxthausen’s astuteness and Romantic sensitivity to the Russian peasantry, too, there is also a troubling thread running through his work of the somewhat patronising German attitude toward Russia that has existed since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. This thread is expressed for the most part benignly, and with every intention of being helpful to the Russian government and, by extension, the people. But von Haxthausen nevertheless gives voice to the old stereotype – the genius of ‘German diligence, German love of order, advanced culture and morality… can serve as a standard for the government and as a model for all the Russian peoples’16, whereas the Western Europeans can and should learn from Russia’s attachment to its own religious and communal institutions, and from the ‘passive resistance’ of Russia’s ‘national character’17. This juxtaposition of an active, working ‘masculine’ German national principle and a passive, receptive ‘feminine’ Russian national principle is not specific to von Haxthausen, nor did it stop with him. Indeed, it was prominent and general enough that it could be intelligibly critiqued as such by no lesser and no less German-influenced a philosophical mind than Nikolai Berdyaev – who asserts against this imperialistic stereotype the masculinity and heroism of the ‘Russian quest’18.

But von Haxthausen never allows his own native biases to cloud his astute observations. In cases where true differences of cultural expression arose, he is very keenly attuned to them. In Jaroslavl he is careful to distinguish between the free polovnik peasant communes and the more common serfdom arrangements19; and generally also between communes beholden to individual lords and communes beholden to the Russian state. Also, he sees very significant differences between the Germanised, individually-held agrarian practices of Galicia (now in the western Ukraine20), and the wholly-Russian, communal practices of Kursk and Kharkiv in the east21. And far from being a chauvinist about his native German law, he has nothing but contempt for the local landlords in Russian Galicia who have recourse to it, and abuse it the better to oppress their serfs; for them, he reserves his harshest language of ‘despicable bloodsuckers’ who ‘oppress and harass the peasants for their own profit’ and ‘provide the peasants with new reason to hate the aristocracy’22.

It is worth note that many of von Haxthausen’s observations will look hopelessly dated, and some of his prescriptions and predictions – correct as they were in the case of Tsarist Russia – do not take into account the Soviet revolution… though he does predict correctly that the form such a revolution would take would be foreign in orientation and would be led by the educated upper classes, rather than by the peasantry23. But the Soviet experiment is no longer in place, and the Russian nation and her people still evince many of the same tendencies that von Haxthausen describes herein. He very correctly assesses that any further eastward expansion or conquest on Russia’s part would be folly, and that its relations with China and Iran would be largely peaceable – and that Russia’s future military involvement in Europe would be of a defensive and counter-revolutionary nature. Given that the Atlanticist and European Union projects are fundamentally revolutionary ones at the level of culture, this observation in particular ought to give us pause. And his final paragraph is worth quoting in full:

‘Russia’s thirst for conquest is decried throughout Europe. Yet in the past twenty years she has not conquered a single village. England’s conquests seldom meet with protests or criticism in spite of the fact that she has been conquering territories and subjugating nations for a hundred years and has more than quadrupled the area of Old England and her population. And seldom does a year go by that she does not conquer new lands.24

Though certain parts may need to be taken with a grain of salt, this anthropological work of a seldom-sung German aristocrat is an invaluable resource even today for any Western observer who wants to understand the cultural and political orientation of Russia, as well as its place in world history.

  1. August Franz von Haxthausen. Studies on the Interior of Russia, trans. Eleanore L. M. Schmidt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), x-xii.
  2. Ibid., xv.
  3. Ibid., xliii.
  4. Ibid., xxx-xxxiii.
  5. Ibid., 92.
  6. Fei Xiaotong. From the Soil: the Foundations of Chinese Society (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992), 60-79.
  7. Haxthausen, Studies, 280.
  8. Ibid., 283-4, 290.
  9. Ibid., 28-30.
  10. Ibid., 74-5.
  11. Ibid., 238, 252-7.
  12. Ibid., 288-90, 292.
  13. Ibid., 74.
  14. Ibid., 226.
  15. Ibid., 228-30.
  16. Ibid., 172-3.
  17. Ibid., 291.
  18. Nikolai Berdyaev. The Russian Idea (Great Barrington: Lindisfarne Books, 1991), Kindle edition.
  19. Haxthausen, Studies, 52-9.
  20. Ibid., 202.
  21. Ibid., 206-7.
  22. Ibid., 201.
  23. Ibid., 314.
  24. Ibid., 322.

10 April 2015

I must indeed watch Mr. Giles Fraser…

The Guardian editorialist certainly has some interesting thoughts on theology. His editorial piece on Christianity being ‘a religion of losers’ (meant in the best possible sense) certainly got my attention in a positive way. I am not entirely sure I agree with Mr. Fraser’s conclusions; in fact, I’m fairly sure I’d have to reject a couple of them. It strikes me firstly that it would be as much a mistake to measure the Church by the yardstick of earthly failure as it would be to measure her by the yardstick of earthly success; the Church has a mission of meeting and treating people in their sins and in their brokenness, of preparing them for the life to come as best as she is able, and of advocating for justice on their behalf for the salvation of the powerful. Along these lines her success is measured, not by how many or how few nominal adherents she has, or how deep her coffers are. But Mr. Fraser is very much on the right track with some of his premises: when ‘success’ in its usual materialistic, capitalist dimension is taken as an end in itself, the holy mystery of the Cross is lost, and therefore also that of the Resurrection. Fraser is right that it is impossible for a Church which prides itself on attracting the ‘successful’ (so defined) to successfully preach the Gospel.

Likewise, I have some mixed-to-positive reactions to his most recent piece on the Orthodox Church, and, in light of the Paschal season, how the theological differences in how the atonement of Christ is treated are reflected in modern debates over Greek debt to Europe. There is much in the piece that is true. For example, though a couple of shades of nuance might be helpful here, he has the Orthodox view of the atonement mostly correct. We don’t subscribe to the one-sided ‘iron logic of cosmic necessity’ that characterises the satisfaction, governmental and penal substitution theories which flowed from Anselm’s conception of the Crucifixion; for us the wages of sin is not the judgement of a wrathful God, because that judgement is always already present in the ontological reality of death (Romans 6:23). It is from the power of death, introduced into the world by the first sin, that we must be and are saved by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection - an act which completely inverts the logic of the fallen world which we have inherited! Perhaps Mr. Fraser overstates his case slightly when he says that the Orthodox view isn’t about repaying a debt; certainly the Holy Church Fathers still had much to say about the debt that is owing to the flesh. And this idea that the Orthodox do not take sin seriously is a highly misguided one. What good doctor would not be concerned about a life-threatening illness in her patient, even to the point of obsession? But Mr. Fraser is certainly right that the vision of Christ battering and trampling down the doors of Hell in a ‘prison break’ is very much an Orthodox motif!

As a personal aside, this is one of those instances where I find myself particularly indebted to my Anabaptist upbringing. In reaching back toward the praxis of the Early Church, albeit from a highly-attenuated 16th-Century German perspective which necessarily carried with it its own historical hangups, the Anabaptists somehow successfully retrieved the Patristic Christus Victor theory of the Atonement, which even when I was still attending Lutheran and Episcopal services had always struck me as the one understanding of what happened on the Cross that corresponded most closely with the personality of Christ. As a former Protestant I find myself still a very long ways off from having acquired the mind of the Church, but I am indeed thankful to my parents and to my Anabaptist teachers that they helped me to clear this particular intellectual hurdle early on.

But getting back to Mr. Fraser’s piece, he is also right that the Crucifixion is not thought of in the Orthodox Church as being an act of ‘bloody cosmic accountancy’. The Orthodox Church’s understanding of it is not juridicial; again, the coherent personality of Christ is a guide. Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses, but He was very emphatically not a legalist. He dined with tax collectors, but He spent his life forgiving poor people debts and sins, and healing the sick of their diseases; and the sin which is common to us all is a sickness unto death. It is tempting indeed, and I can certainly see where Fraser is coming from on this, to read the argument over Greek debt - which itself is also causing massive sickness and death there - as an argument rooted in differing theologies. There certainly is something true in Fraser’s idea that the current Greek leadership sees the problem as a problem of bondage that needs breaking, or a problem of sickness that needs relief and healing; and the idea that the German leadership sees the problem as one of a legal obligation for debts that simply have to be paid.

But the one-to-one theological mapping, tracing a direct line of intellectual descent from Anselm down to Merkel, seems slightly naïve to me. (And thankfully, Mr. Fraser deftly dodges it in Tsipras’s case!) I take it as granted that all ideological formations will be influenced by certain theological positions; it certainly does not follow that the two are identical. The question raises itself: who exactly is the one doing the healing, the exacting or the repaying here? And what is our appropriate response? Naturally theologies will have political implications, but in this day and age when politics have practically usurped all public space and secularised all possible public theological discourse, it isn’t difficult to see how attaching a heretically-political significance to a particular manifestation of classical Christian theology may backfire badly.

Likewise, maybe this is me being a romantic, and certainly I’m not holding out any particular hopes for the IMF or the ECB, but I’m not convinced that either the entirety of Western Christendom generally (or even Germany in particular) is entirely deaf to the idea of debt-forgiveness, however intractable they are proving themselves in the Greek case. At any rate, interesting article by Mr. Fraser; I shall have to read his work more often!

09 April 2015

Great and Holy Friday

Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar. Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away. And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst. And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.
(Gospel of S. John, 19.15-19)

07 April 2015

The promises and limitations of ‘gross national happiness’

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

For those of us who enjoy critiquing the ‘neoclassical synthesis’, homo œconomicus and its associated flattenings of personhood in all its depth, the concept of ‘gross national happiness’, pioneered by former Dragon-King (now King-Father) Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan, has long been considered a corrective worthy of at least some interest. For one thing, it is a culturally-specific, religiously-informed understanding of what constitutes ‘happiness’. The study makes the very interesting presumption that for a person to be psychologically healthy, they have to be spiritually active and devote regular time to prayer and meditation. Trust of neighbours, a sense of belonging to the community, family ties and monetary donation to charity are counted as contributing to individual happiness. In assessing education the study places a high priority on local knowledge: knowledge of folklore, legends, traditional songs and religious festivals (tshechu). Not only this, but participation – for example, through attending cultural festivals and practising a traditional artisanal craft – is considered a vital factor in ‘gross national happiness’!

Some critics of ‘gross national happiness’, like The New Republic’s Deirdre McCloskey, argue that the concept is unscientific. To a certain extent, this is true; many of the indicators which go into the index – but certainly not all! – are qualitative rather than quantitative. But this observation obscures some of the presumptions. Though McCloskey acknowledges the role that a Benthamite understanding of ‘happiness’ necessarily plays in the entire project of economics, she still wants to argue from a perspective that claims a scientific legitimacy for the discipline. Very carefully she treads up to the central question – ‘Bentham, carrying his happiness meter under his arm,’ she illustrates, ‘strides like a ghost through economistic talk’ – but she then immediately retreats to the compromised presumption of the scientific prestige of economics in its neoclassical reinvention as she lambasts the people who are trying to unpack its central conceit. In her stunningly-prolix rebuttal (in which she manages to meaninglessly name-drop practically everyone from Zhuangzi and Aristotle to de Tocqueville and Amartya Sen for what one would imagine is the not-so-demanding purpose of debunking the idea) she repeatedly caricatures the King-Father and his followers as ‘1-2-3 hedonicists’, Benthamite utopians of the worst possible sort who want to transform a subjective report of personal well-being into an objective basis for policymaking. But the irony that this scientific posturing obscures, is that she does exactly the same thing: only that, instead of a self-reported scale of 1 to 3, we have instead an ‘objective’ increase in income which in McCloskey’s view ought to correspond to whatever increased capacity the earner has to dispose of it.

After all, if we have no ‘scientific’ reason to trust the self-report of an individual’s understanding of her own happiness on a survey, then how does it follow that we can ‘scientifically’ trust the self-report of that same someone’s understanding of her own happiness as it is expressed through the disposal of income in a market? Having $125 a day rather than $3 a day is surely meaningful insofar as one has enough to take care of his family’s basic needs, but beyond that, how is his spending it any more meaningful than his ticking off a 1, a 2 or a 3 on a survey form? Either way, we are actually approaching a ‘black box’ of subjective individual motivations. The entire conceit of neoclassical economics is that individual human behaviour is understandable, that it is rational, that it is aimed at maximising ‘happiness’ however the individual understands it – and therefore that it can be predicted according to ‘scientific’ laws! As we can see, modern neoclassical economics and the ideology of liberal democratic capitalism which it is used to bolster, are both content for the most part to hide the black box behind Oz’s curtain.

Unfortunately, McCloskey has no basis – and implicitly asks us to trust her that it is the case – that an enlightened happiness, corresponding with self-improvement and practice of the classical virtues, is made more accessible and easier by having a higher income (and by having that meddlesome, taxing, nudging, compelling government safely out of the way). Her evidence, such as it is, is that modern museums, concert halls and libraries are fuller. But using Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ argument again against McCloskey: if we take it as given that none of us would choose to live out another, happier person’s life rather than our own, why on earth should a healthy society take greater delight in the artefacts of other societies’ past experiences (whether exhibited or performed or read) than in its own? Why are museum-pieces to be valued above folk culture? Surely this is a reflection of some kind of pathology in the way we relate to our own past? I live in China, and I’ve been to the Qingming Riverside Landscape Garden in Kaifeng. Magnificent though the entire project is, visiting an elaborately-reconstructed museum of traditional Chinese culture is not the same thing as actually living in a Chinese family or community, and my wife’s own moderately-expressed ambivalence over the entire project (‘well, at least it’s ours’), speaks volumes to me. Surely there is greater value in actually taking part in one’s own village’s tshechu than there is in merely observing the performance of one!

So if there is a central value in King-Father Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s ‘gross national happiness’ measure, it is not in its use of qualitative measures. It is that it does attempt in some measure to unpack the black box in a way which articulates some real measure of shared value. It attempts (for better or for worse) to inject some measure of personality and personhood, situated in real communities and histories, back into the discipline of economics. Solzhenitsyn once warned in his novel Cancer Ward against the idea of guiding people toward happiness, ‘because happiness too is an idol of the market-place; one should guide them instead toward mutual affection’. Solzhenitsyn’s objection, then, has something to do with happiness having been abstracted away from the project of living a life in communion, of trusting one’s family and neighbours, of doing things together with them, of creating things of shared value within one’s community.

03 April 2015

Not Selma, rather Salem

So, this happened.

In the wake of the Indiana RFRA law - a debate which has generated far more heat than light on both sides, and on which the best and most realistic analysis I have found so far in terms of the legal ramifications may be read here - it seems that the media have been looking for whatever sensationalist angle they could find on the story. And they seem to have found it in Walkerton. A small mom-and-pop pizzeria owned by a Christian couple, who had never denied anyone service in their restaurant and who had never had any complaints about discrimination before this story, were basically badgered into saying that they agree with the new law and that, even though everyone was welcome to be served at their restaurant, that they wouldn’t cater a same-sex ‘wedding’ if they were asked. Something which, in their ten years of existence, they have never been asked to do. For a straight ceremony or for a same-sex one.

Basically, this led to a deluge of abuse aimed at the restaurant, with thousands of negative reviews of the business and pornographic images being posted to Yelp, as well as a number of death threats against the owners and at least one arson threat against the restaurant, which have intimidated the restaurant’s proprietors, the O’Connors, into closing their restaurant. They have been quoted as saying they were considering leaving the state and reopening somewhere else.

The Memories Pizza incident is perhaps the first of many to come, and that is what makes it so disturbing. Also disturbing is the fact that they were targeted not for any discriminatory behaviour, not for turning customers away from the door, but for voicing a political view that has been deemed beyond the pale by what is essentially a mob. The people who targeted Memories Pizza likely think of themselves as the heirs of Selma, but in this case the pro-gay faction seems to be suffering from analogical dyslexia. The Civil Rights activists were, historically, mostly derived from the theologically Protestant but morally conservative historically-black churches. Also, those who marched with Dr. King were not out to police the thoughts of everyone who disagreed with them or hated them; they wanted only the legal and social rights which were necessary to living a dignified life, and they wanted those rights to be respected by the state. They wanted to do away with the everyday terror of lynch mobs in the Jim Crow South. They had no intention of organising lynch mobs and arson raids of their own.

Let’s be clear, then. The O’Connors were not suspected of breaking any anti-discrimination laws and never have been. In any event, there is no systematic discrimination against homosexuals going on here that is meant to treat them as anything less than human. The mob action against their business isn’t a march for civil rights, it’s a witch-hunt. The convictions here are by mob, they are reached summarily, and they are reached on the basis of what the accused are suspected of thinking, rather than on what they actually do. The analogy to be drawn is not to Selma but to Salem.