25 August 2015

Madame Butterfly’s offspring: the irony of Japanese traditionalism

I recently posted a storyi to Facebook about the grassroots resistance to Abe Shinzō’s current legislative plan to rearm Japan and to alter Japan’s military doctrine to something resembling what they had prior to WWII, and I did so with a supportive (of the protesters) comment to the effect of ‘it’s a good thing certain segments of the Japanese populace are still more sane than their government’. To which a traditionalist friend of mine, currently living in China, replied simply: ‘are you joking?’

Well, no, in fact, I’m not. But explaining why this is the case takes far more space than would make sense on Facebook.

First off, though, let me be clear about my own commitments. I am Orthodox, monarchist and populist – in that orderii. Both Orthodoxy and monarchism presume a level of respect for traditional folkways and received forms of wisdom which make me more sympathetic to Japanese attempts to reclaim their own cultural distinctiveness and ancient practices. On a certain level, I would be happy to see Japan reclaim its status as a sovereign state and a sense of its own civilisational aspirations. But for reasons which have grown increasingly clear to me, these cannot take place without a serious and critical examination of Japan’s current political commitments, her highly-schizophrenic relationship with her own history, and the critical pathologies of her culture. The irony is that the people who are currently most vocally eager to reestablish Japanese geopolitical sovereignty are also the most deliberately deaf to any consideration that Japan might even have a historical or cultural crisis.

Let’s start with the obvious, then. Japanese tradition is Sinophile. This is historical fact; it would be impossible to overstate the Chinese influence on Japan’s growth as a culture from the reign of the Sinophile Soga regent Kamitsumiya forward. Both the Buddhist religious deposit and the adoption of Confucian ethics and norms of government left indelible marks on Japanese societyiii, and both Buddhismiv and Confucianismv were imported along Chinese or Chinese-tributary pathways. So deep was this influence that even the resistant aboriginal tradition of Shintō ended up adopting not only Chinese styles of religious art and calligraphy, but also even deeper philosophical justifications (e.g., from the Yijing)vi. Japanese writing (including both poetry and prose), architecture, agriculture, religious and political thought – all either originated in a Chinese cultural import or adapted themselves to those that were already there.

The sole, partial exception to Chinese influence was the class of mounted warriors who served as retainers to the Japanese emperor and his generals, who proved highly resistant to Chinese cultural imports, often seeing them as effeminate and decadent. But in the end, even they found it useful to adopt certain Chinese beliefs and practices – most notably bushidō, the famous samurai warrior code which shows a clear adaptation both of Confucian morality and of Buddhist indifference toward deathvii.

However, Japanese society underwent a catastrophic and geometric change beginning in 1868. The taproot of Chinese cultural influence on Japanese society was suddenly cut off for reasons of political expediency as the government under the Meiji Emperor reoriented itself from building on a Chinese template to building on a more ‘rational’ Prussian oneviii. Though the Westernising principle of Japanese government had a definite logic to it – namely, they were eager to undo the economic damage brought about by the unequal treaties they were forced to sign with various Western powersix – and although it brought about a significant degree of material benefit, it immediately produced a cultural crisis. The warrior elites of Japan, who had previously resisted Chinese cultural influence, now found themselves among the Chinese cultural deposit’s few remaining defenders – and the new bureaucratic class, realising this, moved to strip them of all their former powers and privileges. The dramatic culmination of this crisis was the Satsuma Rebellion, in which General Saigō Takamori made his last stand against a bureaucratising government bent on stripping the samurai of their established place in societyx.

From this point forward, the Meiji government would wrap itself in the cloak of a traditional legitimacy whilst simultaneously undermining the basis for any Japanese traditionalism worthy of the name. This led Japanese cultural traditionalists to begin making common cause with the more radical elements of Japanese society to resist such geometric cultural changes as character simplificationxi, which were being proposed by industrialists, the liberal press and members of the new class of bureaucrats. In this case, what the traditionalists – the remnants and the defenders of the traditional samurai class – and the radical assorted agrarians, proletarians and internationalists had in common was a respect for, and desire for closer and friendlier relations with, China. This was symbolised concretely by their championing the use of the traditional Chinese character set.

More broadly, the appalling conduct of the Meiji government on the continent of Asia, showing how eagerly they’d taken to heart the lessons of Western colonialism, shows further the contempt this government had for tradition. In particular, the assassination and defilement of the Empress Myeongseong of Korea by Japanese soldiers under General Miura Gorō in the autumn of 1895, followed by official pardons from the Meiji government for all implicated parties, shows in the starkest possible terms the limits of the Meiji government’s respect either for the sanctity of monarchical persons or for the Confucian norms of monarchical legitimationxii.

But even within Japan itself, the ground continued to shift rapidly. The forces of modernisation, in this way, were and are bound up with the forces of militarism and conquest. The goal of Japanese accession to a world system defined on the basis of industrial, financial and military power necessitated, in the eyes of the new class and the new military, a thoroughgoing rationalisation of Japanese society and business structure. Far from being the voice of the values of tradition, the voice of the military throughout the Meiji and Taishō eras, all the way up to the Mukden Incident, was one of consolidation, bureaucratisation and territorial expansion, particularly at the expense of China and Korea, and occasionally Russia. The liberal Meiji-era reformer and educator Fukuzawa Yukichi, a vocal proponent of the views of Herbert Spencer, rendered the advice that ‘we must behave in the same way as the civilised countries in the West are doing… we would do better to treat China and Korea in the same way as do the Western nations’xiii – that is, invade them and treat them as colonies.

Japanese conduct during the Second World War is well-known and need not bear repeating here. But the material point is that even in the aftermath, when Japan’s military had been disbanded, the zaibatsu had been broken up and the businesses and government turned to the tasks of reinvestment and reconstruction, they still had not fully cast off their attitudes toward the rest of Asia. The Western-looking Japanese government, with very few exceptions between 1952 and now, tacked into the winds of neoliberal ideology and American geopolitical leadership, thus putting even greater distance between its own leading values and the traditional values of the society prior to the Meiji Ishin, which have been preserved primarily, albeit imperfectly, in the countryside.

For a long time, the leading cultural critics in Japan from the ‘left’ and from the ‘right’ – Mishima Yukio, Kurosawa Akira, Miyazaki Hayao – have lamented this cultural shift. Miyazaki Hayao’s last full-length feature film is, in short, a broadside against the sort of militaristic nationalism that he sees affecting Japan’s public policy and international strategy now; and it attacks these nationalists from the standpoint of traditional concern. According to Miyazaki, the nationalists’ demands for a strong military are, in fact, neglecting Japan’s disease of the lungs, of the spiritxiv. Mishima himself, long the most strident voice of a uniquely-Japanese traditionalism, one year before his suicidal last stand at Ichigaya, penned a withering critique of the Japanese ‘nationalist’ right along these lines: ‘A group of Rightists, who had their own special stock-in-trade of nationalism snatched away from them, tried to counter a Leftist demonstration against a port call by the American nuclear carrier Enterprise by sallying forth with the Stars and Stripes in one hand and the Rising Sun in the other, just as if they were Madame Butterfly’s offspring on an operatic stagexv.’ The fact that middle-aged Okinawans themselves appeared to be so prominent in protesting Abe Shinzō’s recent, supposedly-‘nationalistic’ plan to modernise Japan’s armed forces, shows these selfsame dynamics at work, 45 years later.

In fact, I do agree somewhat with my traditionalist FB interlocutor about the question of the rearmament of Japan. In the long run, it may be that the rearmament question is not one of ‘if’, but rather one of ‘when’ and ‘how’. A Japan rearmed, yet without a sense of her own character, history and national destiny, is highly dangerous. Abe’s current approach to history and geopolitics may appeal strongly to the uyoku dantai crowd, a constituency which in any event has still failed to understand its idol Mishima’s derision of their predecessors. But it doesn’t serve his nation’s long-run interests or health. Japan needs to rekindle her long historical love-affair with the China-that-was, and in doing so she needs to set aside also her Western-inculcated sneers of disdain and her reactive distrust of China (and Korea) today. Ironically, to achieve any kind of national self-respect, Japan needs desperately to be delivered out of the hands of her misguided ‘nationalists’.

i The Japan Times, ‘United in outrage, protesters printing Anti-Abe posters in a nationwide campaign of dissent’, 19 July 2015, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/07/19/national/politics-diplomacy/anti-abe-posters-raised-across-nation-protesters-rally-security-bills/#.Vdxoz_kufyb.
ii Wikipedia, ‘Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality’, last modified 1 December 2014, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orthodoxy,_Autocracy,_and_Nationality.
iii Walk Japan, ‘Chinese influence’, 2014, http://www.nakasendoway.com/chinese-influence/.
iv Japan Buddhist Federation, ‘A brief history of Buddhism in Japan’, A Guide to Japanese Buddhism, 2004. Accessible online at http://www.buddhanet.net/nippon/nippon_partI.html.
v Mark Schumacher, ‘Confucius and Confucianism in Japanese art and culture’, 2014, http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/japanese-confucianism.html.
vi Encyclopedia of Shinto, ‘Shinto and ancient Chinese thought’, 9 December 2006, http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=825.
vii Nitobe Inazō, ‘Sources of Bushidō’, Bushidō, the Soul of Japan, 1905. Accessible online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/bsd/bsd07.htm.
viii Ōno Ken’ichi, ‘Meiji (1): key goals of the new government’, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, http://www.grips.ac.jp/teacher/oono/hp/lecture_J/lec03.htm.
ix LK, ‘Industrial policy in Meiji Japan’, 14 April 2012, http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2012/04/industrial-policy-in-meiji-japan.html.
x Wikipedia, ‘Satsuma Rebellion’, last modified 19 August 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satsuma_Rebellion.
xi Matthew Franklin Cooper, ‘Politics of character’, The Lanchester Review, 9 October 2014, http://lanchesterreview.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/politics-of-character-by-matthew-cooper.html.
xii Matthew Franklin Cooper, ‘The dangers of ideological monarchism – Japan’, 25 October 2014, http://existentialmusingsofmatt.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-dangers-of-ideological-monarchism.html.
xiii Frank E. Smitha, ‘Imperialism to 1900’, http://www.fsmitha.com/h3/h48japan5.htm.
xiv Matthew Franklin Cooper, ‘What is Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises really about?’, Solidarity Hall, 30 June 2014, http://solidarityhall.org/what-is-miyazakis-the-wind-rises-really-about/.
xv Mishima Yukio, ‘Okinawa and Madame Butterfly’s offspring’, New York Times, 29 November 1969. Accessible online at https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/25/specials/mishima-okinawa.html.

17 August 2015

A few things to remember…

… in light of the recent careful non-apology by one Mr. Shinzo Abe, and the resulting whataboutery which will inevitably be aimed at China (which was, at the time of the Japanese war crimes in question, led by Jiang Jieshi and not by Mao Zedong).

A few hard facts about Japan during and after the Second World War:
  • According to Werner Gruhl’s recent estimates (2007), Japan slaughtered over 20 million civilians in the Pacific Theatre of WWII, including 13 million Chinese people, 1.5 million Indochinese, 500,000 Koreans, 3 million Dutch East Indians, 500,000 Filipinos, 170,000 Burmese and 100,000 Malays. Unlike Rummel’s estimates of the same, Gruhl’s exhaustive statistical analysis takes into account civilian deaths from the beginnings of the Manchukuo puppet government in 1931 to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, as well as those which occurred during the war itself.
  • Among other Japanese war crimes were abduction into sex slavery, mass rape, forced labour in concentration camps, grotesque human experimentation, torture and numerous other heinous crimes. (Links contain graphic content; you have been warned, gentle readers.)
  • The vast majority of the Japanese military men who were suspected of carrying out war crimes were either not brought to trial or were pardoned by the occupying American forces. General MacArthur refused to prosecute the men responsible for Unit 731 because he wanted their biological and chemical weapons research, much of which turned out to be useless. Other Japanese war criminals were granted a presidential pardon from Harry S. Truman himself in 1952.
  • Kishi Nobusuke was one of those pardoned in 1952, being one of Tojo’s closest deputies, a notorious drug lord and money launderer in China and a suspect of Class-A war crimes. He went on to found the Liberal Democratic Party, an unbelievably corrupt corporatist political machine whose ideology since its origins has been focussed on rearmament and reassertion of an ‘autonomous foreign policy’.
In light of these facts, the entire prime ministry of Shinzo Abe, and in particular the emphasis on rearmament, coming out of a party founded by a war-crimes suspect which housed a significant number of acquitted war criminals, is very rightly a cause of major concern for those people in East Asia (particularly China and South Korea) who don’t want to see another bloody war break out.

16 August 2015

Pointless video post – ‘Stargazer’ by Rainbow

Just some classic Ronnie James Dio-era Rainbow for you! I’m somewhat ashamed of myself that I was introduced to this song via Rachel Barton Pine’s and ex-Trouble bassist Ron Holzner’s band Earthen Grave’s cover of the same, but then, that is indeed what happens when you get into modern doom metal before you get into its classic rock antecedents. Yes, yes, I know I’m still listening to music that is far older than I am. (Though in my own defence, my wife does like Dio about as much as I do, if not more.) There is just so much going on in songs like these, so much depth, and Dio’s vocals of course give the song exactly the sort of epic quality the lyrics would demand. They don’t make ‘em quite like this anymore, that’s for sure! Do enjoy, gentle readers.

13 August 2015

A brief letter to my cousin

Dear Ms. Yvette Cooper,

I do realise that you must be standing rather relieved and vindicated after your recent endorsement by the staff of the Guardian, and I do also realise that unsolicited advice is forthcoming from all quarters especially for politicians, but if you will pardon your distant American cousin to give you some following your recent speech in response to Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, that would be wonderful. Having read it, I did have a few comments to make.

It was a rather hit-and-miss speech, I felt: several misses and one good, solid, convincing hit.

First, the hit. I do indeed appreciate that, true to form, you emphasise the family as the radical and incommensurable basis for society. That is indeed actually far more Blue Labour than anything Ms. Kendall has yet come up with, and I approve of it. As you say quite aptly, any truly radical policy must ‘stop families being stretched and stained to fit round work, and change work to fit round family life’. SureStart is a wonderful idea, particularly if you build on it by letting parents have more control over it and more say in how it is set up and run.

But that only, I fear, is not an entire policy platform.

You are to be congratulated, dear cousin, for actually having bothered to read an economics text sometime during your college years. That isn’t sarcasm, by the way: in doing so you have done far more than most politicians on either side of the pond ordinarily do. Clearly you understand how basic Keynesian finical policy is supposed to work. But Keynesianism when applied with ideological exactness to the abstract principles still has major gaping flaws. For example, with regard to QE, it has to be said: not all spending is created equal. Every prospective homeowner knows this. Money that you pay for rent disappears in a way that does not happen when you make a down payment on a house. Likewise with government spending. You can spend on all sorts of money on military hardware, fancy weaponry and other such R & D that in the worst case actually gets used, and in the best case just stands around depreciating without producing value elsewhere - or perhaps, if you get lucky, it might contribute to a useful non-military technical application which has value to the everyday civilian. Or, alternatively, you can spend on rebuilding roads, levees, dams, bridges, power lines, schools, libraries - things that will ultimately contribute to social and human capital as they depreciate.

It may go against strict economic orthodoxy, but it's neither entirely mad nor ‘illiterate’ (as I believe Mr. Straw put it) for Mr. Corbyn to propose going into debt to rebuild the house when times are good. It’s ultimately better than going into debt just to pay the rent.

As for NATO and the EU. Dear cousin, if you really are yoking the cause of Labour ‘internationalism’ to these lumbering old dinosaurs, all this while tottering on the edge of disaster and all the more dangerous (to the South Slavs, to the Iraqis, to the Libyans, to the Syrians, to the Ukrainians and to the Greeks) for their desperation, then you really do not have that much room to criticise Mr. Corbyn about presenting ‘old solutions to old problems’. Mr. Corbyn is absolutely right, both about the need for Britain to rethink its rather out-of-date alliances and economic pacts, and about the need for renationalisation, and I am afraid you earn extra demerits in this lefty Yank’s book for citing Mrs. Hillary Clinton as an authority on anything.

Also, I’m afraid the ‘power versus principles’ argument is, at this point, something of a dead dog. As you yourself very rightly note, Ms. Cooper, in Europe and in other parts of the world, the parties that are gaining power fastest are the new parties - some of them quite radically left or right. The parties that have been losing power the fastest have been precisely those parties of triangulation and of the mushy neoliberal centre - simply because the policies they’ve been pushing on Europe simply haven’t worked for the vast majority of people. Britain isn’t yet (thank God!) in the same straits as Greece or Spain or Italy or Romania... but I do shudder to think what will happen if it does get to that point. The austerity logic of the EU under Merkel certainly won’t help matters. You are very right to oppose such measures, of course, but would your government in all honesty have any hope of reforming it if the Germans and the French never listen to you?

You haven’t lost me quite yet, Ms. Cooper. But I do confess that I am beginning to see the sound sense in supporting your rival, Mr. Corbyn. Please do take my advice and double down on the family initiatives, and, if you please, open yourself up to a little bit more humanistic pragmatism and commonsense on economic policy.

Yours sincerely,
Matthew Franklin Cooper

12 August 2015

(Why) black lives matter (, and why it’s not a new movement)

In Dallas, Texas, on the 17th of August, 1891, the founding meeting of the Texas People’s Party convened. A radical-left party that stressed farmers’ cooperatives; organised labour-farmer collaboration; soft money policy; a progressive, graduated income tax; and the establishment of a postal banking system, the People’s Party posed a major national challenge both to the plutocratic Republican Party and to the white-supremacist Democratic Party. The People’s Party had very close ties to the (then-waning) Knights of Labor, among whom at this convention was a coloured man by the name of Melvin Wade.

Melvin Wade was receptive to the idea of a third party. But he did not accept the pat answers to his questions that came from so many of the white radicals in the new People’s Party leadership, including William Lamb. ‘I would like to know,’ he pressed Lamb, ‘what you mean by considering the coloured man’s claims in contradistinction to the claims of any other citizen of the United States?’

Lamb answered him coolly, ‘The chair disclaims drawing distinctions. I have been asked who was entitled to work in the organisation. The committee will proclaim the answer to the world.’ Another veteran radical, Sam Evans, added, ‘Every coloured citizen in these United States has the same privileges that any white citizen has, and that is what is meant.’

Understandably, Mr. Wade was unimpressed. ‘When it comes down to the practice, such is not the fact. If we are equal, why does not the sheriff summon Negroes on juries? And why hang up the sign, “Negro”, in passenger cars? I want to tell my people what the People’s Party is going to do. I want to tell them if it is going to work a black horse and a white horse in the same field.’i

The Black Lives Matter movement is not a new one. Well, that should probably be qualified: this expression of it is new, and it does indeed tackle the timely issues of mass incarceration and police brutality, and how these problems disproportionately fall on black shoulders – but these issues are in fact mere variations on a theme, a theme that has been long playing in the background of American history since colonial times. The above conversation, which was relayed in Lawrence Goodwyn’s masterful book on American populism, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, went to show that the problems of physical survival that faced blacks have for a very long time had added another dimension, an asymmetry, to the problems that poor whites and poor blacks faced together. Dr. Goodwyn puts it thus:

The political problem facing Southern blacks was enormously complex, even though it contained few genuinely palatable options. The economic imperatives were quite real—blacks suffered as much from the ravages of the crop lien and the furnishing merchant as white farmers—and more. The black man, too, wanted to find a way to finance his own crop without putting his economic life in the hands of the Man… He, too, wanted a more flexible currency, higher commodity prices, an end to discriminatory freight rates, and all the rest of the Populist goals. But in an era of transcendent white prejudice, the curbing of the “vicious corporate monopoly” did not carry for black farmers the ring of salvation it had for white agrarians… The rare black farmer with enough capital to stay out of the clutches of the furnishing merchant knew quite well that he was just as vulnerable to the whims of Southern justice, just as unprotected against lynch law, as the most downtrodden tenant farmer. In this fundamental sense, economic improvement gave him not the slightest guarantee of protection.

Now, substitute ‘the for-profit prison system’ for ‘the whims of Southern justice’, and ‘deadly police force’ for ‘lynch law’, and sadly, you have an apt description of the asymmetries in political life now faced by most black people today. And not just in the South but also in places like Seattle. Like his fellow white leftists William Lamb and Sam Evans nearly 125 years ago, Bernie Sanders has, for the most part, been adamant that a lot of these problems have economic root causes, and that these economic root causes affect black and white people alike. Now this is as true now as it was when the Populist Party made the same claims 125 years ago. It is analytically true that the legacy of white supremacism in America stems from a deliberate strategy of class warfare on the part of the white elites back in the 1660’s. But from the perspective of any black man or woman who has to live it, it is only partially true, and it is on the partiality of this truth that the Black Lives Matter movement is now demanding, like Melvin Wade did then, some kind of clarification.

Because the burdens of deadly police brutalityii, of mass incarcerationiii and of abortioniv fall so disproportionately upon black shoulders, a merely economic and analytical answer simply will not do. We cannot be satisfied with a glib, Marxistic explanation that relegates racial issues to the superstructure. The problems and life choices (or lack thereof) that poor blacks and poor whites facev are indeed remarkably similar, and the callousness and cluelessness with which both are treated by American elitesvi is as disheartening now as it was in 1891. But on top of this, there are real threats to survival that poor black men in particular face, that poor white men face to a much less significant degree (though, make no mistake, they do still face those threatsvii), which cannot be accounted for in the first analysis by economic interest alone.

So yes, it needs to be said that Black Lives Matter. And we should not object to it being said, even at Bernie Sanders rallies. One hundred twenty-five years ago or three hundred and fifty years ago—whatever the figure, the asymmetries in treatment, to the point of life-and-death, have gone on far too long. The issues of mass incarceration, of police militarisation and of the destruction of unborn black children, even if they are all symptoms of economic inequality, their impact is demonstrably not evenly distributed among the races by class. And as such, all of them need to be talked about specifically, rather than being treated as economic symptoms per se.

i Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic promise: the populist moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
ii Chang, Lulu. ‘Do police shoot black men more often? Statistics say yes, absolutely’, Bustle, 28 August 2014.
iii Sakala, Leah. ‘Breaking down mass incarceration in the 2010 census: state-by-state incarceration rates by race / ethnicity’, Prison Policy Initiative, 28 May 2014.
iv Dutton, Zoe. ‘Abortion’s racial gap’, The Atlantic, 22 September 2014.
v Tirado, Linda. ‘Why poor people stay poor’, Slate, 5 December 2014.
vi Davidson, Lawrence. ‘Blaming the poor for poverty’, Consortium News, 1 November 2013.
vii Imam, Jareen. ‘South Carolina officer shoots unarmed white teen during pot bust’, CNN.com, 10 August 2015.

07 August 2015

Hefenfelþ and Hiroshima

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

Yesterday, the fifth of August, was the feast day of Saint Oswald, King of Northumbria, who was killed at Maserfield on the fifth of August, 642, in battle against Penda, the heathen King of Mercia. Today, on the other hand, we remember the seventieth anniversary of the nuclear fire that was visited upon the city of Hiroshima, which incinerated ninety thousand people instantly and left perhaps another seventy thousand to die horrible lingering deaths from burns and radiation poisoning. And with this latter commemoration we always return to the questions of grim necessity within the evils of modern warfare, the justifications which were used then and since for these horrors. War is practically universally considered an evil, and yet how is it that Orthodox, Catholics and Anglicans all can venerate on one day a warrior-king who killed thousands, and then spend the next in stunned horror at war’s wickedness? Is this not a grave inconsistency?

Well, first let us consider Saint Oswald. In truth, although Jessie and I named our son Albert instead, for the other great sainted royal Æþelberht of Kent, I’d always felt much closer to Saint Oswald, and not only because the Coopers hail from the same English north country. Raised in Scottish exile from his home country of Beornice, he took a small band of men to fight off the heathen king Cadwallon of Gwynedd who had laid waste to his homeland and treacherously slain his half-brother Eanfriþ. After seeing Saint Columba in a dream, he righted a cross in the ground at Hefenfelþ, knelt down with his small band and prayed for victory against the superior Welsh forces. In the battle that followed, despite their smaller numbers, the English and Scots under Oswald utterly routed the heathen Welsh – twelve hundred of them were slain as they fled, including Cadwallon himself. Oswald ruled the kingdoms of Beornice and Dere together as Northumbria for eight years, before he himself was slain in battle.

Saint Oswald has proven incredibly popular in English folk tradition. So much so, in fact, that he became J.R.R. Tolkien’s primary inspiration for Aragorn son of Arathorn, Gondor’s rightful-king-in-exile in The Lord of the Rings. This, with good reason: he was not only a just king but also remarkably openhanded to the poor of the English north, once holding an Easter banquet and distributing not only all the food but also all the silverware and all the wealth he had upon him to the destitute who came begging. At first glance it is difficult to reconcile this picture with the warrior-king who ruthlessly pursued the fleeing Welshmen for miles from Hefenfelþ, slaughtering them as they ran. But the point is precisely this: in each case we can imagine Oswald’s conscience, his convictions, his moral feelings running away with him – in each case we can imagine his purely human pity being aroused and outraged. Oswald beheld the poor multitudes around him on that Easter feast with such great pity that he couldn’t hold back from them the silver on the tables or the jewels on his fingers. And when he had heard how Cadwallon had treated his brother and his people, likewise it was his pity for them that turned to outrage against their tormentor.

Think on this, then. What is it about the threat of a nuclear explosion that most disturbs us and most discomforts us? Is it the sheer number of deaths it can cause? This would be the most obvious answer, and there is a great deal of truth in it: the thought of destruction occurring on a scale that takes hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of lives, in an instant, is so horrific that it defies even our best attempts at imagination. But that raises another problem. There is still something in human psychology which makes moral imagination more difficult as we have to intellectually process increasing orders of magnitude. (As Mother Teresa said, ‘If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’) Is it contemplating the horrific process of human flesh being turned instantaneously to ash, or the longer and arguably far worse deaths among the ‘survivors’ of the initial blast, from radiation poisoning and cancer? Actually, from the standpoint of minimising personal pain, I might personally prefer an instantaneous death in a nuclear fire, and the long, slow and utterly degrading process of death by radiation sickness and cancer is akin to that of starving to death, from siege warfare and from the torching of farmland, which was common to mediæval warfare of the sort practised in Late Antiquity. Is it contemplating the environmental destruction that would inevitably follow their use? Our concern on this score can’t be that great, given that it has taken a substantial change in climate for us to analyse the strain our own everyday industries are placing on our lived environment, and even this degree of strain is subject to a ridiculous volume of petty bickering within our political caste.

I submit instead, that in addition to the astronomical number of deaths a nuclear weapon can cause, what most disturbs people about nuclear weapons is that they are impersonal, that they are depersonalising, and that they disrupt the natural sympathies that come with identifying one’s enemy as of the same order one oneself belongs to. Warfare of the sort practised by Saint Oswald, Cadwallon and Penda – all of whom died in battle, it should be said! – requires throwing one’s own body in harm’s way, but also requires confronting the pain and suffering you yourself inflict, as though it could equally be inflicted back upon you. You are confronted directly with the image and likeness of God in your enemy, and your sin is not removed from your sight and your direct knowledge and awareness. Brutal as it might be, a certain level of human solidarity with the enemy is implied with such warfare.

Nuclear warfare is of a far different type. In all modern warfare (drones, aerial bombardment, missiles of every kind) there is a disruption of human solidarity, a warping abstraction, that occurs when one is not brought face-to-face with one’s own destructive capacities. But with nuclear weapons this contrast is brought to its greatest height: a grim pinnacle of destructive power, unparalleled in scale, wielded with a minimum of effort. A word from one man, the push of one button, means the extinction of unknowing, untold, innocent millions. When such great destructive power can be wielded so asymmetrically, the perpetrator is held in check only by the hypothetical threat of a likewise asymmetrical force being wielded against him. Mutually assured destruction does have an ironclad logic to it, but it is the sort of rarefied, Satanic logic that leaves itself open to precisely the sort of dark absurdist humour that produced Doctor Strangelove.

Literal blindness is one of the effects of exposure to a nuclear blast. But more troubling is the spiritual blindness that is one of the effects of considering the nuclear ‘option’, the sort of blindness which removes all the consequences and human costs of our sins into the realm of abstraction, of conjecture, of hypothetical doomsday scenarios that can be discussed calmly at the dinner table. If Saint Oswald sinned in his wrathful slaughter of the men of Gwynedd at Hefenfelþ, at least he had a visceral and personal knowledge of what he had done, and could thus repent of it (as he surely did!). But with Hiroshima and Nagasaki – where do we begin? Such an enormity was so far removed from any of the experiences even of the scientists who theorised the Bomb, of the engineers who designed it, of the President who ordered its use, of the pilot who dropped it… how could they even have begun to repent of it? How can we? Even today, we’re still left speaking of the grim necessity of the nuclear attacks. Of their inevitability. Of the hypothetical lives and suffering that they spared.

We have no other choice. Otherwise we’d run mad.

Though the move was derided by those who understand neither Russia nor her faith, the Orthodox Church consecrated Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and presented the 12th Chief Department of the Russian Defence Ministry with icons of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. Was this only because the monastery Saint Seraphim founded was in the same city (Diveevo) where Soviet nukes were later developed? The choice of Saint Seraphim as the patron of a nuclear arsenal seems, at first glance, to be absurd on its face: he followed in the path of the hesychasts of old, and toward the end of his life developed such a profoundly personal and introspective spiritual approach that he stunned everyone who knew him with his meekness, his openness and all-welcoming grace. It was he who gave us the wisdom, ‘Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.’ What else, then, could the patronage of such a gentle monk be but a prayer that such weapons may never be used? Far from being the nationalist harbinger of an apocalypse of nuclear fire, the peaceful spirit of Saint Seraphim – it is to be hoped most fervently! – will save countless thousands, even billions, from the madness of a single push of a button.

On this day of sombre reflection, Saint Oswald of Northumbria and Saint Seraphim of Sarov, pray with us.

02 August 2015

The political is the personal

I came very, very late to the pro-life camp.

To be honest, it was one of those issues that I’d never given a lot of thought to. And of course my knowledge of how these things worked was presented to me entirely in the abstract. Even as I was beginning to question the language of ‘rights’ as a culturally-determined category, I was still thinking in terms of ‘bodily integrity’, of the philosophical question of when an infant life began, in accordance with highly abstract and rights-bound rubrics. Even when I began to question those rubrics, my fallback was still upon philosophical, rationalistic Hegelian abstractions that allowed me to hedge somewhere in the muddled middle, that allowed me to avoid staking out a conscientious position. The feminist charge that men can only understand these issues on an abstract, detached and intellectual level, and that such abstract understanding is necessarily more attenuated than that of a concrete connexion, applied in spades to me.

It was a woman who changed that for me. Well, two, actually.

Eleanore Guiane Dorothy was neither expected, nor planned, nor convenient. She did not happen within wedlock. She happened when the two of us were being ‘careful’, with everything that noisome nominalist sex-educational sense of the word can be taken to imply. I didn’t know how to react when my girlfriend, now my wife Jessie, came into the bedroom with her pregnancy test in hand, and showed me the bright blue stripe that told me she was there. Both of us were graduate students, with more classwork, research and other projects on our hands than either of us knew how to handle rightly in addition to a pregnancy. Neither of us had immediate job prospects. There was the problem of immigration for Jessie. There was the problem of applying for state assistance. There was the problem of paying medical bills. And there we both were, wondering and yet still unable to articulate the depth of the problem we were in. Frightened out of our wits. Still to my shame, Jessie’s parents knew about Eleanore well before mine did.

It was Jessie who told me forthrightly that she didn’t want to terminate the pregnancy, because she was worried how it might impact her health. And I supported her as best I knew how at the time. But it wasn’t until I saw her – Eleanore – for the first time, on an ultrasound screen at a community health centre on Craig Street, that I understood who it was growing inside Jessie. Who. Not what. Not a clump of cells. Not a blob of protoplasm. Not a mistake. Not an option.

I don’t want to make this sound like some instant flash of insight, some thunderbolt revelation, because it wasn’t. It wasn’t some like some stentorian voice from the heavens opened up and told me: ‘Behold, your daughter.’ I’m too much of a blockheaded bookworm to have believed it anyway; the one ‘conversion experience’ in my whole life to which I can legitimately lay claim happened when I was reading Berdyaev. It’s weird to say – it was more of an æsthetic experience than a theological one. It was a feeling that was completely this-worldly, concrete and biological. I’d never really bought into the pro-life rhetoric about fingers or toes or eyeballs being important. (And actually, I still don’t. Still pictures simply don’t convey the emotional impact.) But seeing that ultrasound was like seeing one of the statues at the WaterFire summer festivals leap suddenly, shockingly, to life, and realising that actually under all the polystyrene prosthetics and make-up that there is an actor, a person, beneath it. On the computer screen in that clinic room, the whole and not just the head and hands and feet, what I was seeing was unmistakeably human. Breathtakingly beautiful. And unmistakeably my daughter.

And I understood then that I wouldn’t be able to bear to let her go. Neither would Jessie.

Eleanore, if ever you happen to read this: your mother and I never planned to have you. But you happened. And then you were wanted, very much so. And you are deeply, deeply loved.

Intellectually, this æsthetic, emotional, biological experience began gradually shaping my social thinking. If Eleanore was just as she appeared to Jessie and me, then the same could hold true of all her fellows who were not yet born. Being a consistent leftist and truly valuing equality in a defensible cosmic sense, then, meant being beholden to the idea that every such unborn child was also unmistakeably human, beautiful and connected. Cosmically speaking, there is no such thing as an ‘unwanted’ pregnancy, for the same reason that there is no such thing, cosmically, as an ‘undesirable’ or ‘unclean’ person, or an ‘untouchable’ caste. And from there, I evolved a Dickensian revulsion to the entire language of ‘unwanted’ children.

Even now, my reaction to the ‘reproductive rights’ lobby’s entire model of operation – their latching onto needy neighbourhoods and women in states of financial and personal desperation; their dissection of their progeny; and their ghoulish carting off of the pieces to laboratories for money – is a Dickensian one. If the abortion lobby ever offended me on a theological level, it offended me on a social-justice level first. And the arguments that Richards and company have so far rallied in their own defence are but parodies (and rather shoddy ones at that) of the same sort of Victorian attitudes which sent poor proletarian children, ‘unwanted’ and otherwise, to work twelve-hour days in workhouses with their possibly-lethal conditions all for their ‘health’, for the social good and for the good of their parents. Though many such workhouses, ostensibly public institutions, were being run for private profit behind the scenes.

Just as Victorian England with its Poor Laws thought that the workhouses constituted a ‘solution’ to the problems of the supposedly over-fecund poor created by an industrialising capitalist society, the late-capitalists of post-Roe America seem to think these grisly charnel-houses are some sort of ‘solution’ to the problems of poor women. They are no such thing, however they may present themselves. Honestly, we need more real community clinics which provide real healthcare at no or nominal cost to the patient. We need legally-protected paid maternity leave. We need a living, family wage. We need stronger unions for the working class, which will aggressively promote the interests and benefits of members who are women and married men.

It really is true what they say about the political being the personal. It’s personal for me.