30 December 2016

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 1: starting with the end

Καλλίπυγος Αφροδίτη

In a private communication, I got some interesting pushback on my recent blog post which attempted to demonstrate, pithily, how certain traditionalist ends required a certain radical logic to reach them – and vice-versa. In particular, this gentle reader of the blog noted that when discussing the pelvic issues – pornography, prostitution and their relationship to ‘rape culture’ – I seemed to be importing categories, language and reasoning from social constructivism and 1970’s second-wave feminism (through Hedges). He wondered, in particular, how I squared that importation with the otherwise thoroughgoing realist High and Radical Tory categories I was using to describe the other forms of reciprocation and symmetric duties.

I had thought a bit about the best way to approach this question, and wondered if it wouldn’t be better to explore the realist resources on these specific topics and work my way from the back end, instead of trying to reason myself into an ad hoc agreement with positions with which I might sympathise, but whose philosophical assumptions I don’t share. After all, I have on this blog posted both qualified support for, and qualified criticism of, the feminist position; suffice it to say, I have very little sympathy for feminist censoriousness, joyless prudishness or sublimated Puritanism. I should be sorely dismayed should my own criticisms of pornography or the sex ‘trade’ fall into the same category.

Let’s start from the basics, then. What did the first realists think? What were the attitudes, firstly, of Plato and Aristotle toward sex? Plato and Aristotle certainly did not live in a polis which disdained, censored or irrationally feared expressions of sexual appetite, and therefore it would not be fair to either of them to categorise them as prudes. (Personally, I lean toward Plato more, so please do not take it amiss that I privilege his treatment of the subject here.) In Plato’s case, even though ‘platonic love’ is now a byword for a wholly-celibate kind of love, what he says about the erōs between a man and a woman (or between two men) is more interesting. He has, in fact, a deep and thorough appreciation for the erotic urge – far deeper and more thorough, in fact, than his predecessors, who saw it primarily as the means by which men begot heirs. The sexual drive is a powerful creative force which can inspire the greatest and most sublime works of art and poetry and philosophy. Alternatively, it can drive a man or a woman to the depths of madness and isolation.

This kind of madness at first appears, and indeed can be, a highly-destructive evil. But in the cases of divine or oracular inspiration which outwardly appears to be madness (or rather, beyond the reach of human reasoning), it serves the good. The way in which erōs serves the highest good, Plato argues, is if it is yoked to a kind of philos: if the pre-rational, divine/animal appreciation of the flesh can evoke, toward the same person, a rational appreciation of the soul. The classical Platonic view, therefore – which indeed was adopted by classical Christianity – is that sex and sexual desire serve purposes beyond the merely biological. It is indeed procreative, as the pre-Socratics were wont to teach. But it is also an urge which comes from a part of the human soul beyond the reach of reason, which can touch the divine, and bring forth all manner of good from the soul. But all the better, if it is further yoked to a kind of friendship and companionship that unites two souls as well as their bodies!

This realist, and, dare I say, Tory view of sexuality, is hardly Puritanical or censorious; the appreciation of the flesh – pre-rational, animal, ecstatic, playful, Dionysian – is very much there and at the forefront. But there is still a philosophical appreciation of what sex is for, what purposes it serves, and how it can build people up as well as getting them off. And there is an understanding that there’s more than a bit of danger involved, when we touch on matters that go directly to a person’s most private nature – directly, that is, to where they withdraw from society, and become (if I may be allowed to abuse Aristotle’s observation a bit) either a divinity or a ravening animal. Or either, depending on the mood. Or both.

What we are really asking when we speak of prostitution on ethical grounds, is this question: is sex a form of labour which can be likened to other forms of labour? Should having sex be considered a ‘job’ or a ‘trade’ like being a plumber or an electrician or a farmer? Or, considering the dangers of venereal disease, abuse, exploitation, and so forth: should having sex for a living be considered analogous to being a factory worker or a miner, who are subject to similar forms of exploitation and grievous bodily harm? Let’s consider, then: what is at stake for the factory worker or the miner? ‘On the job’, the coal miner’s body is indeed exposed to the dangers of injury and chronic illness, such that their lives are drastically shortened and the ends of their lives are often a choking, gasping misery. But when he is working, is he ever deliberately exposing to his fellow miners, to his boss, or to his boss’s clients, those private and vulnerable aspects of his pre-rational divine/animal nature, that would appear to a lover during an act of sex? Is that vulnerability ever put on display?

Even to ask the question is to point out, in part, the absurdity of the analogy. Those who follow my blog know full well that I don’t want to trivialise the travails of the working class, particularly not those who have been as badly-treated and abused as coal miners. But there is a definite difference in kind between sex ‘work’ and the sort of bodily abuse they are subject to ‘on the job’. Coal miners do not have an enviable job, but many would say that there is a dignity in what they do, and they guard that dignity fiercely.

But with a very, very few exceptions (and those notably in societies where received wisdom about sex, traditional gender roles and so on have been actively suppressed by majoritarian demand), women and children in the sex ‘trade’ do not have and cannot claim that same dignity. Leaving aside trafficking: physical assault, rape, shell-shock in proportions seen only in combat veterans – and the fact that nearly nine out of ten women and children in the ‘trade’ want to leave it – point to a reality that the sex ‘trade’ is not one comparable to and analogous to other jobs. Taking the most vulnerable and most private aspects of a woman’s personal life and the most private parts of her body – which can and ought to be a source of divine madness and inspiration in the men who would pursue her! – and making them a commodity to be consumed in the marketplace to whomever would pay, is an egregious capitalist abuse of erōs, rather than any expression of it a philosophical realist is obliged to acknowledge as healthy or desirable!

Slightly trickier is the depiction of sex in art. After all, erotic imagery, and appreciation of the visually- and audibly-arousing, does indeed have a place in that ‘divine’ inspiration Plato’s Socrates esteemed so highly, from which flows forth art and poetry and philosophy; and one needn’t delve very far into the history of the Western visual arts and poetry to figure that one out. From a realist perspective, there’s nothing wrong with art that hints at, or even drips with, sensualism and erotic longing (otherwise, we’d have to take entire books out of the Bible, for one thing). But there is a quality that distinguishes erotically-charged art and literature and so forth, from pornography, that is not merely the presence or implication of ‘naughty bits’. But what is it?

Referring back to the ‘realist’ position above, I wonder if the distinction to be drawn is not, after all, a kind of ‘short-circuit’ or a level-confusion that happens. Just as there is a distinction between the ideal form and its representation; just as there is a distinction between philosophy and poetry; and just as there is a distinction between the object of artistic inspiration and the work of art representing it, surely there is also a distinction between the object of sexual longing and the depiction of that longing? If the depiction of sexual desire becomes the object of sexual fixation, are we not doing violence to our own sexual drives, in the same way as we would do violence to our reason if we pretend that a landscape painting is actually a mountain range, or to our faculties of enjoyment if we refuse to suspend our disbelief when watching a movie? Again leaving aside the questions of sexual exploitation explored in brief above, there strikes me as a kind of cheating that occurs with pornography, that does damage to our own reasoning and capacity for true æsthetic appreciation, that doesn’t happen when we read Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example.

So where does this leave us? Hopefully, in a position where we can take principled stands against the chattel exploitation of the bodies of the poor and vulnerable, and against the commercialisation of our sexual natures which belong within the intimate society of the home. But also, hopefully, where we can avoid the opposite extreme of prudishness and Puritan prying and censuring of others’ sexual tastes, desires and private lives.

25 December 2016

Kristos sa rodí!

Oslávujte ho! Veselé Vianoce, a šťástlivý Nový Rok!

20 December 2016

On converting from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy

A brief quote by philosopher Richard Swinburne:
I don't think I changed my beliefs in any significant way. I always believed in the Apostolic succession: that the Church has to have its authority dating back to the Apostles, and the general teaching of the Orthodox Church on the saints and the prayers for the departed and so on, these things I have always believed.
Though attaining the mind of the Church is indeed incredibly important to me, I want to be clear that Dr Swinburne has here better expressed than I could, my own attitude toward how and why I believe what I do, and why I consider myself Anglo-Orthodox. I am a member of, and a committed believer in, the One, Holy, Sobornyi and Apostolic Church. Full stop. But I still do not regard the Anglican Communion (or the West more generally) with anything less than a brotherly, familial fellow-feeling. And I still do not think even a whit less of the many good and thoughtful people who still make their spiritual homes there. But such reflection only deepens my consideration of why I had to leave it. Looking back, I find I did not change even a particle of what I believed. I felt only that such a belief was better expressed in a community which experienced that belief as a continuous, organic, living and incarnate reality.

18 December 2016

The Incarnation matters

Today is (on the New Calendar) the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ, here represented on a Greek icon. It is a Sunday on which it is good to reflect on both the social and the subversive reality of the Incarnation – the reality in which the Word of God, God Himself, became a flesh-and-blood human being; interposed Himself within and interrupted history; and recapitulated within Himself all three of Old Israel, the Roman Empire and the philosophical truths of the Greeks.

The Incarnation matters, because in honouring the forefathers and righteous (and, indeed, often not-so-righteous) ancestors of Christ, we pay tribute to the fact that Our God is in every respect like us, and indeed in every respect like the least of us – with the exception that He does not sin. We in the Orthodox Church acknowledge that Jesus Christ had a name – Yehoshua, ‘God is salvation’. That He had a sex – He was a man. That He had a birthplace – Bethlehem – and a birthday, which we celebrate each year at this time. That He had a human mother – Our all-holy, immaculate, most-blessed and glorified Lady, the Mother of God and the Ever-Virgin Mary. We acknowledge that He had a tribe, the tribe of Judah. We acknowledge and celebrate the descent of Christ from Abraham and David the king. We acknowledge that He had a community – Nazareth; and we acknowledge that He was a political subject of the Roman Empire. We acknowledge that He had a trade – that of a carpenter. The Incarnation means that Christ was not only a man, not only a Jew, but a working man, a labourer, one of the common people – born not to wealth and luxury, but to the sweat of His brow and the fatigue of His back, the ache of His feet and the callus of His hands.

And, to be clear, we are talking about God. The Source of all Good. The uncreated, all-powerful and all-knowing. The Maker of all that is, seen and unseen, known and unknown. God made Himself humble and mortal and vulnerable, placed Himself squarely within every single one of the dependencies and limits human beings are subject to as contingent, created beings, subject to weakness, illness and death. In the words of the late, great Robin Williams: phenomenal cosmic powers – itty bitty living space. And we of the Orthodox faith in particular, believe that because God became this limited, dependent, mortal human being, named Jesus Christ – that we human beings, even in our limits, dependencies and mortality, are capable of becoming like God – if we take up our Cross and follow Him.

Being like God and taking up the Cross does not mean we must abandon completely our earthly homes for some kind of pie-in-the-sky Gnostic vision. Just as Christ laboured in His life in His native country and in his own village – among His people and also amongst the foreigners – so also must we labour where we are, and love the places where we live. Just as Jesus honoured His mother and loved her even until the end when He was nailed to the Cross, so also must we love our families. As the Apophthegmata have it, even cœnobites who forswear the world and all its goods, who leave their homes and birth-families for the cloister, must still be obedient to their brothers (or sisters) in that cloistered life. And even hesychasts who flee to the wilderness in emulation of Christ must still live lives of self-giving love for the strangers to whom they find themselves nearest, just as Saint Herman did.

But for most of us ‘in the world’, the Incarnation still calls upon us, not only to live as the heathen do, by ‘taking care of our own’ – though we must do that as well. If we would seek to become like God in the way God has become like us, then the Incarnation necessarily calls us to solidarity with the lowest and the least or, as the daily prayers of the Church would have it: the sick, the suffering, the sorrowing, the afflicted, the captives and the needy poor. The Incarnation has cosmic and ontological implications: God not only condescended to what we are, but also overcame the results of our sin in the reality of death.

As such, we are likewise called not only to charity for the least of our fellow human beings (as even the Pharisees gave charity in condescension!), but to seek for them the due of justice. The cosmic justice and the forgiveness of debts implied in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion of Christ is spelled out in the accounts of the righteous Forefathers of Christ. As the Lord spoke of Abraham as the latter begged Him to spare Sodom for the sake of even one innocent life: ‘for I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgement; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.’ For this reason Abraham was chosen to be called out of what is now Iraq, and in his great old age to be spared the misery of childlessness – which would be a death-sentence to slow starvation in such a society, in a strange land with no kin. But even in this wretched state, he and Sarah showed great kindness to three strange wayfarers (who, in Orthodox iconography, turn out to be the Trinity disguised).

As for King David, the egregious episode of adultery and murder with Bathsheba and Uriah (and the internecine conflict that followed) unfortunately overshadows a life – public, private and military – which was for the most part devoted to justice and equity. He defended his people from a brutal seafaring aggressor when he was only a boy, defeating a powerful general. He refused to indulge revenge against his enemies among his own people, such as Abner; and he showed great kindness and forbearance to both Saul and his family even after Saul tried, multiple times, to have him killed. He distributed the spoils of his military victories not only among his armies but among the common people of the tribes of Israel. For these reasons, and because after the death of his son Absalom he truly repented of his grievous injustice against Uriah, he is still regarded kindly by the authors of Scripture.

The radical promise of the Incarnation, and the examples of the Holy Forefathers of Our Lord, point us to a way of life in emulation of a God who, in the words of the Psalmist himself, ‘executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry… [who] sets the prisoners free… [who] opens the eyes of the blind… [who] lifts up those who are bowed down… [who] loves the righteous … [who] watches over the sojourners… [who] upholds the widow and the fatherless’.

These things are to be kept in mind as we celebrate the miraculous birth of Christ Our God, in a cave, in a manger among the animals, to a wayfaring young woman and her woodworking husband who could find no better lodgings.

The future of the left is local

The Democrats’ loss on the eighth of November this year can, and still should, be made into a teachable moment for the American left and left-of-centre. The Democrats thought that they could win an election, under our current electoral rules, on the strength of a coalition of professionals, plutocrats and the traditionally-‘underrepresented’ minorities (blacks and Hispanics). But they lost, in a major way, among their traditional bases in rural areas and among white working-class voters; and this cannot be attributed solely to factors like racism (even though, yes, racism still is a real thing and we need to take real steps to counter it). Nor, it must be noted repeatedly and insistently, did the Russians have anything to do with why the Democrats lost, except indirectly.

No – there are three big reasons that the Democrats lost big in these distressed (but not minority) areas. The first one is the economy, and this is where the Democrats’ rears got handed solidly to them, with Clinton making less than no effort to appeal to working people in ‘old economy jobs’, cosying up to the big banks, and backing the same big corporate-friendly trade policies that hurt American workers throughout the entire election. The second one is foreign policy, where most white voters (and most voters in general) wanted a drawdown from wars that never seem to end and never seem to be winnable. And they particularly took a more doveish view on Syria than Clinton did.

But the third reason that the ‘left’ lost so heavily in these areas, is because they just didn’t bother with them. ‘Flyover country’ got written off. The people who live here got called ‘deplorables’. Those of us who supported Bernie in the primaries (again, most of us coming geographically from the rural North and Rust Belt areas) were accused by Clinton proxies – wrongly – of being ‘privileged’ and ‘entitled’. In short: locality (and in particular locality based in those parts of America which have been traditionally anchored in the ‘old economy’) no longer mattered to a Democratic Party, which now seems to value its jet-setting cocktail-party set, and its control over the commanding heights, over any other considerations.

Rediscovering and reappropriating the politics of the local, the politics of community, the politics of subsidiarity and sobornost’, therefore, has to be a top priority for those of us on the left. Sanders pointed imperfectly, and incompletely, to this direction. Two thinkers who are even now pointing in a similar direction are the high-elder of political communitarianism Amitai Etzioni, and the idiosyncratic American socialist Gar Alperovitz.

Gar Alperovitz has written directly to this effect in The Nation, where various visions of a localist left turn were floated. Alperovitz’s vision is particularly interesting and attractive, in that the development of worker-ownership and local experimentation with providing official support to urban credit and producer cooperatives, can (if it succeeds!) provide an institutional impetus for rural Midwesterners in particular to rediscover for themselves a populist legacy which capitalised on similar ideas.

Amitai Etzioni puts forward a cultural rather than an economic argument for solidarity, and even on economic issues he tends toward a kind of New Deal and postwar-settlement arrangement. But he still points in a similar direction to Alperovitz, arguing that progressives need to focus on strengthening local institutions like schools and post offices, even if they may be less efficient on a macro level than regional ones. He argues for many of the same things the new urbanists want, too – discouragement of sprawl, and better design of public spaces (parks, sports fields, walks and bike paths) to make them more liveable for people. But most of all he argues that progressives need to stop disdaining people who don’t share their globalist priorities. ‘[N]obody can bond with seven billion people,’ Etzioni writes, ‘and almost everyone feels more responsibility toward those closest to them. People have profound needs for lasting social relations, meaning, and shared moral beliefs.’

We need to focus not so much on technocratic tweaking from the commanding heights, but on strengthening local institutions at the grassroots where they already exist (including labour unions, environmental protection groups, clubs, schools, post offices, and – yes – churches, particularly those of the traditional Apostolic faith), and building them where they do not. We need to rekindle old strategies for political organising at the local level. And, yes, we need to be able to articulate economic policies that directly benefit the people who voted for Trump, and as we must on foreign policies that don’t send their sons off to die needlessly. And we may need to organise outside of the established parties to do so. But it is certain: the future of the left is local, if it is to have a future at all.

12 December 2016

It’s all connected

A few hard truths:
In truth, my gentle readers, it’s all connected. And here’s another hard truth:

This will all remain equally true under Trump, as it has under Obama.

06 December 2016

A philosophical fragment on the saints

If we are to believe Fyodor Dostoevsky, the big question for political philosophy is a spiritual one.

Do we strive to become the man-god, or do we humbly seek the God-man in pilgrimage?

Most, if not all, of American politics does not even approach this question. The comfortable, middlebrow, middle-class, suburbanite mind, whether ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, is mired in moralistic therapeutic deist categories which sever man from all gods, from all consideration of the absolute, from the Platonic forms. The ‘good’ is a matter which is assumed, not sought after, and with very few exceptions the bourgeois centrist thinking on the matter is settled. Is not man better left to ‘be good’ whilst ‘making good’, without any true or honest consideration of what ‘good’ actually is? The assumptions even just beneath the surface of life go unchallenged. The soul of the bourgeois centrist is lulled and disoriented, as in a dreamlike state; it is asleep. Worse than asleep—it is as though dead.

But in the soul of the radical, the revolutionary, the reactionary, ah! Here—where that dreadful and fundamental question, ‘Chto delat’?’ is asked—here is where the spiritual forces begin to play. And (let us be as clear on this point as Ransom was!) not all of the spiritual forces are good or angelic. Once that terrible and fatal question is asked, once that seal is broken, once that trumpet sounds—not only are the angels roused to battle but also the demons awaken and begin to attack the soul. Here is where prophets true and false begin to preach of a Kingdom of Heaven drawn near. Here is where the very ground is split open and Hell pours forth upon the earth. Ideologies and grand ideas represent only the surface of this fight, however, and even within ideologies (as within nations, states, cities, churches and peoples, even within the person herself), the battle is fought at a feverish pitch.

The Satanic and sodomite impulse, the impulse to pervert and mutilate what is true for the sake of the will to power – the impulse of Shigalev and Smerdyakov – this impulse so often associated in Dostoevsky’s mind with the revolutionary, can be found at work in the reactionary mind as well. It is not just in Stalin, Pol Pot and other extremists of the left. How else, indeed, can the throwing of innocent men and women from helicopters be justified? Or the concentration and extermination camps of the Germans? Or the mass starvation of the Bengalis? How else can the horrific atrocities the Japanese visited upon the long-suffering Chinese people even be contemplated?

Looking at the crimes of the twentieth century in particular, an age in which ideologies of left and right reigned supreme, one is led to conclude that the reactionary mind is tempted, just as the revolutionary mind has been, to strive toward man-godhood. Particularly and especially if it kneels in total obedience to power, if it exalts worldly Caesars beyond the possibility of rebuke, and if it builds up Towers of Babel for itself.

And on the other hand, there have been revolutionaries, redeemed Raskolnikovs – even, yes, among the socialists and the communists – who have felt the stirrings to seek Christ, to look in the humble and ordinary places for the God-man.

Dorothy Day was one such. Righteous Martyr Maria Skobtsova and her fellow-martyrs, Blessed Ilya Fondaminsky and Priestmartyr Dmitry Klepenin, were three others.

And I would argue that Gilbert Chesterton, Simone Weil, George Parkin Grant, Father Sergei Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdyaev and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – while not saints – are in the same spiritual vein, as are John Milbank, Hayao Miyazaki and Alasdair MacIntyre. These are all people whose radicalism led them to the idea, not of universal unity through universal slavery, but of the idea of unity through a free and self-sacrificial spirit, even through a single act of self-denying and self-emptying gift: in other words, their search led them to seek the personal essence and will of the incarnate God-man.

The line is not, and never has been, between radicals and reactionaries. If I may borrow shamelessly the conclusions of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and of Simone Weil, the line between good and evil is drawn down the middle of every human heart, and the freedom to choose between obedience to the I Am that leads to being, and disobedience that leads to destruction, lies before every single one.

05 December 2016

Racism - not a problem of ‘deplorables’

William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat

Racism is a reality that still exists in American society today. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement, yet it is – and not only controversial, but one which many people simply check out in response to, because it has been addressed in all the wrong ways to all the wrong people. But here’s the reality: in regards to access to credit, access to housing, payday lending, schooling, policing, prisons, military recruitment – black Americans still face an inordinate number of institutional hurdles and potholes that simply don’t exist for ‘white’ Americans. Heck, even on health care – where are all the community clinics which should exist in black neighbourhoods? And why does Planned Parenthood primarily target black communities, if not because (just like the payday lenders and petty usurers they truly are) they understand full well that the family and economic situations of black Americans are more likely to lead them to seek abortions?

Here’s Dirty Little Secret #1. All of these racist institutions are, to a one, run, maintained and upheld by urbane, well-meaning, polite, cultured, liberal, ‘white’ Americans who in all likelihood never so much as uttered the ‘n’-word in their lives (or at least, never in public). And all of these urbane, well-meaning, polite, cultured, liberal, ‘white’ Americans would assuredly take umbrage at being accused of racism (that’s a failing of the rural, ‘deplorable’, uncouth, uncultured, wrong kind of ‘white’ people, don’t you know?), even as they continue to uphold and entrench it.

And here’s Dirty Little Secret #2. There is no grand ‘conversation’ that needs to be had on this. There is no great ceremony of racial reconciliation that we need to entertain. There is no intellectual scourge we privileged ‘white’ folks need to whip ourselves with often enough in penitence – if that would even help! We could start taking practical actions, from the local level on up, to fix a number of these racial problems tomorrow, if we were so inclined. Obama has had eight long years to bring these issues to the table, and he’s sadly only just started to address two of them (prisons and policing), and even then in ways which are not particularly productive.

We all know that these racial problems won’t go away under Trump, because he isn’t interested and his supporters simply aren’t interested; and to the extent they do pay attention to these problems, they focus solely on the most narrowly atomistic and individualist possible level. Unlike his erstwhile European counterpart, the American conservative is, by and large, a bourgeois creature most closely concerned with his bottom line, to whom spiritual and moral exhortations have diminishing effects. But the ‘deplorables’ aren’t the first ones to blame! Take a look at the list of the most segregated cities in America – LA, Boston, Miami, Philly, NYC, Milwaukee, Detroit. Look at how many incidences of police brutality happen in LA, NYC, Baltimore and the like. And then tell me with a straight face that racism isn’t actually a white liberal problem. (Our problem. My problem, as it were, if I’m being honest!)

But I’m not here to argue for more self-flagellation or mea culpas. Seeing our own sins can be healthy, but there’s been far too much virtue-signalling on the topic of racism and far too little productive action. So I’m here to talk about practical, common-sense measures.

With regard to the credit problem – the huge elephant in the room when we talk about racism – we can start by advocating for non-profit credit cooperatives and Raiffeisen societies that specifically work for and are run by black people and minorities without access to credit. Microfinance was a big thing for the fashionable ‘white’ liberal crowd when it was pioneered in India and Bangladesh; but we have plenty of neighbourhoods and people here at home, in the US, who could use services like that first. We can start funding and crowdsourcing urban farms in black communities to help provide cheap, healthy food. Or, heck, let’s encourage rural farming, too! Call it ‘forty acres and a mule’, updated for 2016.

With regard to policing – police face a tough and often-thankless job that is made even tougher and more dangerous by a(n often deserved) lack of trust. The most promising ways of dealing with that lack of trust – ways which both reduce racial tension and make it easier for the police to do their jobs well – are actually being pioneered already in places like Providence, Rhode Island. Community-police collaborations are pretty humdrum, not at all a sexy, tech-savvy front-page kind of policy. But ultimately these collaborations seem the most promising avenue of building trust and defusing resentments before they boil over, and avoiding the kind of high-profile deadly race-fuelled confrontations that seem to be plaguing so many police departments around the country. Black lives matter – and black lives are best served and protected by institutions that take the time to earn their trust.

With racially-predatory institutions and market actors like payday lenders, Gosnell-style abortion clinics and for-profit prisons, though: a far harder line is needed. And this is where bourgeois ‘white’ liberalism really needs to take some much-deserved heat, because they have been active, even instrumental, in defending every single one of these predatory practices that victimise black and minority communities every single day.

Those of us who are on the left have to face these problems head-on, as they exist on the ground, and put some ‘skin in the game’ rather than hiding behind the usual political bromides and academic theories. Unfortunately, it seems too many of us want to continue blaming the usual scapegoat of the rural bumpkin, who – whatever his own attitudes and level of knowledge might indicate – has very little to do with the real, daily-life problems many black Americans face today (and who is sick of being blamed for them).

27 November 2016

Remembering Holy Great-Martyr James the Persian

Great-Martyr James the Persian

Today in the Church we remember James the Sawn-Asunder, the great-martyr of the Persian people and a towering spiritual model of fidelity, truthfulness, courage and perseverance for the Holy Orthodox Church, along with the luminary saints of his illustrious nation who followed in his footsteps, such as Ražden, Dometius and Eustace.

James was a high-ranking military officer in the service of the Persian Šāhanšāh Yazdegerd I and his successor Bahrām V, born into a well-to-do Christian family. He married a particularly devout Christian woman and loved her dearly; they had a number of children whom they raised dutifully in the Christian faith. He was mild-mannered and good-natured, and did good and honourable service under both kings, and his services to the Persian nation were well-honoured and beloved; he was so dear to both Yazdegerd and Bahrām that they kept him in their retinue constantly and showered him with gifts and gratitude.

Like most mild-mannered and good-natured men, he had a certain weakness: James was unwilling to ‘rock the boat’. Both Yazdegerd and Bahrām had plied him with riches and honours for so long that he began to waver in his faith, being seduced not only by ease and wealth but also by the understandable desire to be genial. In the end, he offered sacrifices in the Zoroastrian temple in the presence of Emperor Bahrām, to the shame of his faith.

When his wife and his mother heard of James’s weakness, both women were quite put out. They sent him a missive berating him for shaming his nobility, for exchanging falsehood for truth, and for defrauding the Christian faith in pursuit of glory and temporary rewards; they told him bluntly that they would disown him if he did not repent of his sins and return to his former observance. When he read this letter, James, greatly distressed, began openly lamenting and weeping, imploring Christ to forgive his iniquities, ‘in imitation of Manasseh and Peter’s repentance’. He studied the Scriptures and contemplated his end; and he could not stop the flow of tears, of which jealous and wicked officials in Bahrām’s service took notice, and discerned the reason for his distress. Seeing an opportunity for advancement in James’ downfall, they reported to the Emperor that James had not abandoned his former faith. Infuriated, the Persian Emperor summoned James to him in Gondēshāpūr, and inquired if he were a Nazarene. To which James answered boldly: ‘Yes – I am a servant of my Lord, Jesus Christ.

As he had done formerly, Bahrām again tried to ply James with gifts and favours, but to no avail. When this failed, he threatened James with horrific tortures and punishments – but James would not again falter in the faith he had professed. James spoke boldly to Bahrām:
‘O King, do not waste time importunely. Do not frighten me with torments, nor insincerely compliment me with tributes and gifts, because I despise from my heart all temporal enjoyments, empty glory, decaying riches and bodily sensuality, in order to inherit the true wealth and the honour, inexpressible delight and bliss. Wherefore, gladly I divest myeslf of wealth and glory, friends and relatives, mother, wife and all the pleasures of the body. And not only these things, but I am prepared to meet with ten thousand deaths, only not to injure my sweet Christ, the Beautiful One among the sons of men, Who fashioned the sun, moon and the remainder of creation, and Whose divine will is equal to His power. He who denies Him goes to endless death.’
Bahrām, hearing these words, became enraged, realising that no inducements of pain or pleasure could be brought to bear upon the Great-Martyr. One of the wicked counsellors who had betrayed James recommended to the king that he be dismembered by the joints, starting from his fingers and working back to his limbs, and the impious and ungrateful tyrant agreed to this sentence – but James himself did not flinch or cower on hearing this judgement, but went to his death with joy and eagerness.

Even as he was at the execution-ground and his arm was placed on the anvil to be subjected to the hideous punishment, and the executioners themselves tried to persuade him at the last moment to abandon his faith, he berated them and told them to weep not for him but for themselves, as their idols and temporal pleasures would not avail them in the end. He prayed to Christ before the sentence was carried out, that he would be strengthened in the struggle.

As the body of the Great-Martyr James was destroyed in this heinous manner, however, he did not utter a single word of anger or hatred toward his executioners, but instead offered at each cut a prayer to God, a verse from the Scriptures or a song of praise. When they had dismembered his fingers from his hands, his hands and his feet from his limbs, and his limbs from his torso, he still remained alive, but the executioners and the counsellors and the emperor who beheld him were all unnerved and frightened by his not having uttered one cry of hurt or anger or rage. When at last they ordered him to be beheaded, the Great-Martyr bowed his head and gave thanks to the Holy Trinity that he had been able to endure all, and prayed that even he, having been made a ‘branchless tree without roots’, might not be abandoned in the final moment.

The worldly leaders of the Sasanian kingdom ordered the martyr to be put to death at last by beheading, having had their worldly powers put to shame by the Great-Martyr’s uncomplaining perseverance. His family and his fellow-believers came to Gondēshāpūr and collected the relics of Saint James, where they interred them with the reverence befitting such a spiritual athlete.

It is meet and fitting and important to remember such a martyr and saint in his own right, because he was subject to all manner of ordinary and understandable struggles with which the ordinary believer can easily identify, in addition to the horrific tortures which ended his life. But it is also important to remember not the king and counsellors who destroyed him but rather the fact that the spiritual principle of the Iranian people – the great uncompromising, truth-seeking, poetic and personalist genius of that great civilisation – shines with great brilliance in her saints of the Orthodox faith.

You listened to your faithful wife
And contemplated the judgement of God, holy James;
You despised the threats and commands of the Persians,
Accepting the cutting of your body as though you were a vine.
Therefore you were revealed as a martyr worthy of honour.

23 November 2016

Remembering Holy New Hieromartyr Grigol of Georgia

Holy New Hieromartyr Grigol (Peradze)

On the 23rd of November we commemorate a brave monastic, scholar and abbot of the Georgian people, Archimandrite Grigol (Peradze), who resisted the Bolsheviks in his own country, and later suffered under the brutal persecution of the Nazis, and died protecting his fellow inmates from an unjust reprisal for the murder of a prison guard. Archpriest Zakaria (Machitadze) gives his hagiography in the Lives of the Georgian Saints thus:
Archimandrite Grigol (Peradze) was born August 31, 1899, in the village of Bakurtsikhe, in the Sighnaghi district of Kakheti. His father, Roman Peradze, was a priest. In 1918 Grigol completed his studies at the theological school and seminary in Tbilisi and enrolled in the philosophy department at Tbilisi University. Three years later, in 1921, he began to teach at the university, but the Georgian Church soon sent him to Germany to study theology. From 1922 to 1925 Grigol studied theology and eastern languages at the University of Berlin, and in 1925 he transferred to the philosophy department at the University of Bonn, where he received a doctoral degree in philosophy for his dissertation ‘The Monastic Life in Georgia from Its Origins to 1064’. Grigol continued to attend lectures in theology at the University of Louvain until 1927.

In 1927 Grigol moved to England to continue his career in academia, and there he became acquainted with the old patristic manuscripts that were preserved in the library collections of the British Museum and Oxford University. In July of that year Grigol was named an associate professor at the University of Bonn, and he returned there to lecture on the history of Georgian and Armenian literature. In 1931 Grigol was tonsured a monk, ordained a priest, and appointed dean of the Georgian church in Paris. A year later he was invited to Oxford to lecture on Georgian history.

A new period in St Grigol’s life began later in 1932, when the Metropolitan of all Poland, Dionysius Waledinsky, invited him to be a professor of Patrology and the chair of Orthodox Theology at Warsaw University. He often delivered lectures at academic conferences and in academic centers throughout Europe. He sought tirelessly for ancient Georgian manuscripts and historical documents on the Georgian Church. His searches took him to Syria, Palestine, Greece, Bulgaria, Austria, Romania, Italy and England. As a result of his labors, many long-lost Georgian manuscripts surfaced again.

Humility and industriousness characterized the Hieromartyr Grigol throughout his life. In difficult moments he often repeated the words of St. John Chrysostom: ‘Glory be to God for all things!’ In the 1920s, as the Red Army was securing its occupation of Georgia, the nation’s treasures were carried away to France for safekeeping. Later, in the 1940s, Georgian society was unaware that, due to St Grigol’s efforts alone, many treasures of Georgian national culture were spared confiscation by the Nazis in Paris. Risking execution at the hands of a firing squad, St Grigol wrote in the official documentation presented to the Nazis that these items were of no particular value but were precious to the Georgians as part of their national consciousness.

Nor did most of Georgian society know that, in Paris, Archimandrite Grigol had founded a Georgian church in honor of the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Nino and a parish journal called
Jvari Vazisa, or ‘The Cross of Vines’.

In May of 1942 St Grigol was arrested by the Gestapo. The priceless Georgian manuscripts he had preserved and many sacred objects that had been crafted by ancient Georgian masters and collected by St Grigol during his travels (in hopes of returning them to Georgia) disappeared after his apartment was searched.

Archimandrite Grigol was arrested for sheltering and aiding Jews and other victims of the fascist persecutions. He was incarcerated at Pawiak Prison in Warsaw, and deported to Auschwitz at the beginning of November.

In the camp an inmate killed a German officer. The guards drove everyone out of the barracks absolutely naked, forcing them to stay in the below-freezing temperatures until someone confessed. St Grigol decided to take the blame for the murder, thus saving innocent prisoners from freezing to death. The guards let loose the dogs on the martyr, poured gasoline over him, and lit him on fire. Then they said, “Poles, go warm yourselves around him, your intercessor.” According to the official German documentation, Grigol Peradze died on December 6, 1942 [November 23, old style], at 4:45 in the afternoon. In the end, like Christ Himself, Archimandrite Grigol died for having taken upon himself the sin of another.
Thy soul rejoices with the holy Apostles,
O Father Grigol, crown of the martyrs.
Through thy prayers make us worthy of everlasting joy!

22 November 2016

Sobornost’ and the state – a partial correction

The recent Social Matter essay by Mark Citadel on the topic of sobornost’ is an interesting one, though there is a certain level of misunderstanding which pervades it regarding the key theorists of sobornost’: Aleksey Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. One would walk away from this essay thinking they were in total agreement, and indeed in ideological lockstep, with the likes of Count Uvarov and the ‘official nationality’ which Tsar Nicholas I propagated throughout his Empire. Yet far from being taken in by the state, the Slavophil theorists – every one of them, from the elder of the movement Khomyakov down to the youngest of that generation, Yuri Samarin and Ivan Aksakov – were hounded and censored by Tsar Nicholas I. Why is this?

I have written, in fact, a mild critique of Dr. Susanna Rabow-Edling’s thesis along the same lines as Mark Citadel has here. I have some deep misgivings about hewing too closely to the line that the Slavophils were devoted anarchists – even Berdyaev (devoted anarchist that he was!) was willing to credit the Slavophils with some subtlety, and did not shy away from the reactionary-hierarchical tendencies within Slavophil thought. But decontextualising Khomyakov and Kireevsky from the intellectual and social ferment that Chaadaev set off with his philosophical letters as Citadel does in this essay, is to do them a grave disservice. Chaadaev had issued a challenge to the entirety of the Russian lettered classes in the wake of the Decembrist Uprising, that Russia had nothing to offer the world in the way of moral or technological or civilisational advance, and that Russia’s duty now was to fall in line with the received wisdom and habits of the West from which they had been so long divorced. The entire idea of sobornost’ as a key contribution of the Russian genius to human civilisation came forth out of these intellectual disputes.

On one aspect at least, Mr Citadel gets the idea of sobornost’ very much right. The original focus of the Slavophils, inspired by Saint Isaac of Nineveh and by the Optina monks, was indeed on the Orthodox Church, as an organic collectivity based on mutual love and dynamic participation in a life built on a shared, common experience. But if they had left their analysis here – that is, if the Slavophils’ intellectual frenemy (the proto-Westerniser) Aleksandr Herzen’s barb about them ‘seeking the living Rus’ in the Chronicles the way Mary Magdalene sought Jesus in the tomb’ were indeed true – then the Tsar would not have any reason to consider them a threat. But in truth, they carried sobornost’ a great deal further than that, and began to read their concepts into Russian history in a creative and even subversive way, which is precisely why they fell squarely under Imperial scrutiny.

Pace Citadel, the basic unit of organic society to which the Slavophils pointed as the living and breathing archetype of sobornost’ was not the state, but the commune (or obshchina). It is not possible to understand the ideal of sobornost’ without first understanding the Russian peasant commune, the organic and dynamic collectivity of the village life which was described in such intricate and loving sociological detail by August Graf von Haxthausen. For all its meticulously-documented faults (the illiteracy, the superstitions, the child marriages and so on – Haxthausen was, after all, possessed of the typical German perfectionism), Haxthausen recognised in the Slavic peasant village the very principles of dynamic free participation, of love, of living collectivity, of customary life enriched by each generation’s living in it, of a truly organic communism in land and property ownership persisting down generations, that the Slavophils were at pains to highlight. And though Haxthausen saw in the communes a patriarchal power vertical at play with the batushka as the undisputed head and ruler of the household wherein everything was held in common, he also noted a definite disconnect: an independence of the life of the commune from the hierarchies of the state. This disconnect was also taken up by Khomyakov in particular as evidence that servile obeisance to lords and rulers was something foreign to the Slavic Russian national character – and Khomyakov and Kireevsky both looked to the Chronicles to confirm the fact that their rulers had indeed originally been foreign adventurers from the Nordic countries.

Citadel incorrectly reads Kireevsky when he asserts that the state was held to be an organic mode of collectivity. Indeed, reading Kireevsky’s essays in On Spiritual Unity, he attacks nothing with such gusto as the idea that the state and its laws are ‘given’, and he insists on nothing so strongly or so stubbornly as the idea that the laws of the state must be brought into harmony with the unwritten, customary constitution which is written on the hearts and in the elder ways of its people. For Kireevsky, the state is simply a shell and a shelter – it is not a living organism, but the object of that living organism’s free creativity which best expresses that organism’s character. And for Kireevsky and Khomyakov, Tsarist autocracy was not a supreme good in its own right (not in the same way that, in their view, the obshchina was a supreme good), but rather it was a contingent good conditioned by the demands of Russian history and the Russian character. The Tsar was Russia’s batushka, but his authority was given by the weight not only of divine command but also by the whole weight of Russia’s history down from Ivan III., and the whole weight of Russia’s popular custom, of its narodnost’. Though the Slavophils may have agreed with the letter of ‘Orthodoxy, autocracy, populism’, they weighted these concepts in such a way that they in fact subverted the Westernising pressure that same autocracy was bringing to bear on Russian society.

Sobornost’ is ultimately a doctrine of communities, of families and villages. It is not a doctrine of states. In the doctrine of the Slavophils, states serve a needed purpose, but they are static, necessitarian, objects. The life of the narod is not to be found in dusty lawbooks or beneath gavels. It is to be found instead in the rites, in the songs and stories told by the elderly to the young, in the love of a husband for a wife, in the care of a mother for her children, in the honour of a host for his guests. That is where sobornost’ is born and can thrive.

It is therefore necessary to resist, as the Slavophils themselves did, the temptation to absolutise loyalty to the state (to say nothing of that insatiable, amorphous and inhuman idol of the ‘market’), or to view politics as the final battleground. And if we want to recover sobornost’ we will not do so by professing loyalty to some abstract bureaucracy or to some cult of personality, but instead we must do so by privileging the local, the immediate and the particular over the national, the abstract and the falsely-universal.

15 November 2016

A queue for the realist left, from Slovakia

The Right Honourable Róbert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, is someone I consider to be a (fairly) successful leftist, and one whom more on the left in America and elsewhere should seek to learn from. Fico (the leader of the Direction – Social Democracy party) came to my attention a little over a year ago, in 2015, after he was mentioned on Bill Mitchell’s blog as a critic of Germany’s austerity policies which reduced Greece to the status of an ‘EU protectorate’.

Even though his early policies accommodated the EU financial and foreign-policy line to a very significant extent (including, sadly, joining the Eurozone), Fico has proven himself to be a competent steward of Slovakia’s social and business environment, as well as a staid defender of welfare-state policies which many of Europe’s other nominally ‘socialist’ or ‘social-democratic’ parties have abandoned. He built his base of support on an unabashedly populist platform, mostly by loudly condemning the business élites of his country and their enablers in the Dzurinda government for their aggressive neoliberal postures against wage labourers and the elderly.

Prior to Fico, Slovakia had a regressive flat tax on income, which Fico changed (drawing the ire of libertarians and foreign businessmen) to a rather more progressive two-tier income tax supplemented by the more Western European-standard VAT tax. Largely under the influence of his party Direction’s agitation, Slovakia also implemented a Robin Hood Tax on bank liabilities. On matters of health insurance, even though Fico was blocked from instituting a public health mandate, he nevertheless instituted punitive legal measures which would prevent private insurers from price-gouging (a component which is notably missing in Obamacare). He has also done a great deal to protect the elderly on the public pension system. On transportation, Fico has pushed for what might almost be called a distributist cost-accounting measure – raising tolls on (especially international) freight whilst not levying tolls on passenger vehicles. Unfortunately, he was able to implement this measure only after negotiating a fuel subsidy with a truckers’ association. He has made some similar compromises on austerity measures, but for the most part maintained his status as a critic of the austerity regime on the margins of Europe. In spite of these populist stances, though, Fico is still very much a left democratic socialist rather than an agrarian or a Tory. He has fought to keep food prices down in the cities (a stance which represents one of the unfortunate breaks between ‘red’ and ‘green’ in the united Czechoslovakia under Antonín Švehla).

Be that as it may, overall he has managed to implement a broad array of real, old-school leftist goals, even as the broader trend of the European Union has been towards neoliberal ‘reforms’, privatisation and marketisation, at the expense of the weakest members of society. At the end of the first Fico cabinet, Slovakia had one of the lowest rates of income inequality in the world (alongside Norway, Belarus and the Czech Republic).

In terms of foreign policy, Róbert Fico has taken some truly brave and moral stands. He has been instrumental in withdrawing Slovak support from the Iraq War, a venture which he called ‘unjust and wrong’, and ‘only motivated by oil’; at the same time, he emphasised that Slovaks would serve in Afghanistan only in a non-combat capacity. Channeling the independent spirit of Canada’s ‘Red Tory’ premier John Diefenbaker, Fico refused to accommodate any part of a revamped American missile shield in his country – and has also denounced plans to build the missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland. He lambasted Mikheil Saakashvili (Georgia’s former right-wing dictator) for committing acts of aggression against Russia in 2008 over South Ossetia. Though he was silent on the subject of the Crimea referendum, Fico has nonetheless been a vocal and unrelenting opponent of EU sanctions against Russia.

He has had to walk a fine line between preserving the Catholic, Christian culture of Slovakia in the face of unbridled immigration on the one hand, and the rise of right-wing nationalism both in Slovakia and elsewhere in Europe on the other – and many of his Western colleagues would argue that he hasn’t been very good at walking it. It is true that Fico has said some fairly harsh and uncompromising things, on the topic of Islamic immigration into Slovakia. But Fico has also unfailingly denounced vigilantism and the perpetration of violence upon immigrants in Slovakia by right-wing groups – and most of his supporters (correctly) say they want to help Islamic populations by opposing the imperialist policies which create refugee crises in the first place! As a result, many of these right-wing parties, which are driven by hatred rather than by realist concerns, want nothing to do with Fico (and the feeling is evidently mutual).

Last but not least, Fico’s strongest and most consistent base of support is in Slovakia’s far east – among one of Slovakia’s national minorities, the Rusins of Transcarpathia. The Rusins have a cultural and religious identity which is quite distinct from the Slovaks – linguistically, they speak a language which is on the Czechoslovak continuum but which shares many elements with Russian and Ukrainian, and which is written in Cyrillic. Religiously, they belong either to Uniate (Byzantine-Catholic) communities or, increasingly, to the Orthodox Church in the Czech Lands and Slovakia. Politically, the question of why the rural and heavily-Rusin areas of Svidník, Stropkov and Medzilaborce in Prešovský kraj lean so overwhelmingly toward Fico is an interesting one, and I have a couple of educated guesses. The first is that these areas have a strong historical, cultural and religious affinity with Russia, to which Fico has appealed strongly with his foreign policy of ‘Slavonic solidarity’. The second may be that many Rusins, particularly the older ones of working-class and peasant background, remember fondly the interwar arrangement and land reform under the early red-green coalition of Švehla which allowed their families to own and farm their own land rather than working for a big landlord or corporation, and therefore have warm feelings toward the populist and left-wing politics that Fico and Direction represent.

Obviously, America is not Slovakia. And left-wing realism will take on a far different shape here than there. But Fico, for all his flaws, is a good example to have in our back pocket, so that we can learn from both his failures and his successes.

09 November 2016

Dear Democrats

I know you’re feeling pretty bummed today. Well, I don’t blame you. You just lost the House, the Senate and the White House – all three in the same night. But you’re not alone: I feel the same way. And I bet the last thing you’ll want to hear right now is an angry lefty blogger telling you ‘I told you so’. But if you don’t want this to happen again, please, please hear me out.

I’m a ‘white’ (see below) male Christian millennial and an economically left-of-centre Wisconsin native on the very bottom rung of the middle class (for clarification: I live in an apartment, have no credit score, and spent the last year and a half functionally unemployed and separated from my family). I am exactly the sort of voter you couldn’t afford to lose, and you not only lost me, but you actively chased me away for genuinely believing in the important things (a realist foreign policy, a rejection of needless austerity measures and voodoo economics, universal health care, a fair and stable economy that works for everyone rather than just the privileged few) that Obama represented when he came to office in 2008. As such, I went third-party. But at certain points I was tempted, and could very easily have, gone over to the bloviating orange-faced grifter in anger and frustration, as many in my respective demographics did.

For a little bit of personal context, I write this as, last night, I got a letter back from my DFL senator Amy Klobuchar, who – when I wrote expressing my concerns that either this administration or the next would get us into a potentially disastrous war with Russia, and asking her what she planned to do about it – sent me back a form letter that says absolutely nothing pertinent about my question, but talked about the need for ‘targetted strikes’ against Daesh and the need to welcome Syrian refugees into Minnesota. As a result, I went to sleep thinking the Democrats deserved to lose all the way across the board in this election. And boy oh boy, last night did you ever get it. And you know what? I’m nowhere near close to happy about that fact.

Why am I not happy? Well, where to begin? Trump has no intention of doing a damn thing to protect the interests of people like me, let alone the folks worse off than me: the white working stiffs who gave him their votes, and who would be well-served by things Trump has no interest in – like a reformed money system that doesn’t take us back to the dark ages, and decent, publicly-managed infrastructure and services. For another thing, I belong to the (((wrong kind))) of white people. For yet another thing, I’m married to a Chinese immigrant who (with some difficulty and no small amount of time invested) came here legally. I know the rhetoric is that Trump only cares about getting rid of illegal immigrants, but for some reason I doubt either he or his supporters are willing to countenance such minutiae in practice. For still another thing, I happen to have a deep affection for Iran, her civilisation, her art and her people, whereas Trump sees them all as terrorists and wants to go to war with them over ‘rude gestures’.

So here’s a bit of real talk from a realist. If you don’t want another election like this one (and I know I don’t), perhaps you’ll listen to me. But I’m going to break it down point-by-point for you.
  1. Cut the ‘narrative’ bullshit. Give us the policies. I don’t want to hear, and I honestly couldn’t care less, about how hard Clinton had it coming up through the Walmart executive ranks, or about how women ‘identify’ with her. But that’s a huge portion of what I heard from the Salon, Vox, Jezebel and New York Times crowd in this election cycle – how she’s always faced a double standard in her career, how she should be given a break because she’s a woman, and how I personally am a sexist for disagreeing with her policies. Well, you know what? I give women way more credit than that. I think (most) adult women can handle a few tough questions about policy, no? Which leads me to my next few points:

  2. Stop supporting the damn bankers. Let’s get back to basics. Stop taking their donations and their endorsements. They’re clearly not doing you any good. Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, CitiGroup and the rest of them clearly don’t give a damn about us in flyover country. So how does it look to us when our representatives and senators do everything they can to bail them out, and don’t lift a finger to help us out with our credit problems? (And believe me, we still have credit problems!) Don’t tell us that Bernie’s plans for reforming the banks and providing public postal savings banking are somehow pie-in-the-sky, or aren’t feasible, or aren’t realistic. I’ve lived in China – I did research on the PSBC for Positive Planet China, for crying out loud. I know how well they work for rural people, especially when they are compared side-by-side with the big privately-owned banks. What’s lacking isn’t know-how; what’s lacking is political will, and the big bankers stole that from you a long time ago with the temptations of lucre.

  3. Take a better stand on providing decent public goods. You know, like health insurance! Practically every other nation with an advanced economy – and even several others without – have universal health care policies that work just fine and that most people are happy with. Hillary Clinton’s new-public-management muddling, triangulation and incrementalism are precisely the wrong kind of signal that needs to be sent in a campaign season when ordinary folks are worried about their premiums going up, and not being able to afford the privatised health insurance plans that you made them buy!

  4. Support domestic manufacturing. And actually listen to the unions while you’re at it. You really screwed the pooch on this one, and let Trump outflank you from the left. If you want to win us back in the slippery Midland states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, well, this is how you do it. Again, it’s not a matter of ‘can’t be done’ – we have plenty of need for actual things in this country that people want to buy. Including high-tech things. We don’t need to outsource manufacturing to make those things for ourselves at an affordable cost; we just need the manufacturers to accept slightly-lower profit margins instead of chasing down the cheapest possible Southeast Asian near-slave labour. We could create a domestic manufacturing boom tomorrow by shunting some of our misbegotten military budget into, say, NASA and space exploration, and give guarantees to laid-off contract workers that they can take their union benefits straight into those space jobs! (And no, I’m afraid extraction-based boondoggles that ship overseas don’t count as supporting domestic manufacturing.) Or, better yet:

  5. Write a job-guarantee policy. Set out a plan to actually implement the Humphrey-Hawkins Act which is already on the books – a solid piece of Democratic legislative craft which deserves to have a far more distinguished legacy than it does. Putting Humphrey-Hawkins into practice will involve some necessary changes to monetary policy, though, be forewarned – and in the short run those changes may be fairly painful. But the long-term benefits will be very, very much appreciated by the people whose votes you ought to be trying to win.

  6. Stop getting us into all these hare-brained wars. Stop rattling the sabre with Russia over a former piece of the Ukraine that isn’t going back anytime soon. Stop funding and arming the Saudis – they’ll just sell the weapons to crazy people. Stop bombing the Houthis, the Pakistanis and the Afghans. Stop supporting colour revolutions and ‘soft coups’. Stop saying ‘Assad must go’ when clearly he isn’t going anywhere. Stop creating needless refugee crises that we then have to ‘fix’ by (selectively) opening our borders. Stop making Trump – a man who wants to go to war with Iran over ‘rude gestures’ – look like a voice of reason on foreign affairs!

  7. Allow room in your party for pro-lifers. You don’t ever need to lose another election if you stop worshipping at the altar of Moloch. I’m completely serious about this. Every single one of those Western European social democracies you profess to admire so much has far more stringent legal restrictions on abortion, particularly late-term ones, than we do – and they provide first-class health care and welfare services for new mothers! The future working-class demographic shouldn’t be artificially and brutally pruned with eugenic family-planning policies designed by the upper class, and we’re not monstrous misogynists or the enemies of women for saying so!

  8. Stop hating on gun owners. I’m all for common-sense restrictions and gun licences that keep guns out of the hands of criminals, the same way and for the same reason we keep cars out of the hands of drunks. But guns are a tool, just like cars are. The fact of owning a gun doesn’t make one a child murderer or a brute or a troglodyte. But generally:

  9. Stop telling people you disagree with to FOAD. Dismissing people as ‘racists’ for failing to conform to the latest highfalutin academic missives on white privilege might make you feel good and virtuous, but for obvious reasons, it’s not good politics in any sort of representative system of government. Same with calling people ‘sexists’ or ‘bros’ for daring to oppose a woman with bad policies, on the grounds that her policies suck. Same with telling millennials that they’re being spoiled brats for supporting a politician with actual values. Same with ganging up on people on Twitter to shout them down for tacky fashion choices. Same with trying to get people fired from their jobs for disagreeing with you. Cut that classist bullshit right out.
Well, there it is. If you don’t want this to happen again, then I humbly suggest get back to the values that you once stood for. Bernie Sanders (who, by the way, would have wiped the floor with Trump in the states you needed to win) left you a signpost, even if he didn’t take that road all the way. It’s up to you to follow it now.


08 November 2016

Oh dear, oh dear

Tenzin Gyatso is at it again.

This time, he’s penned a joint op-ed in the New York Times together with (wait for it) Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, which seeks to address and assuage the ‘angry’ (presumably elderly, presumably laid-off) Trump voter in the American election.

Gyatso and Brooks manage to take a very valid anthropological observation (people need to be needed and they need to be engaged in useful and meaningful labour), and proceed from there to draw some rather frightful conclusions. This op-ed piece of theirs manages to take the white lifestyle-liberal obsession with ‘mindfulness’ and desiccated, domesticated and atomised ‘Eastern’ ‘spirituality’ which Gyatso has proven himself so expert at bilking for moral capital (and which, not coincidentally, capitalist praxis has found an enormous amount of use as a tool for managing expectations downward and coping with the feelings of powerlessness that pervade a proletarianised workforce), and wedded it to a social vision which is – you guessed it, gentle reader – overwhelmingly managerial and technocratic.

In a grim way, it’s really a rather impressive feat. Between them, Gyatso and Brooks manage to trot their way through practically the entire lexicon of lifestyle-liberal buzzwords which presumably make New York Times readers feel all tingly, fuzzy and warm (‘inclusive’, ‘compassionate’, ‘conscious’, ‘tolerant’, ‘mindful’, ‘inner peace’, ‘collaboration’, ‘dialogue’), in the service of a vision of society which is nakedly pro-corporate. They believe it’s important to ‘make sure global brotherhood and oneness’ are ‘not just abstract ideas… but personal commitments that we mindfully put into practice’, but don’t give any practical advice on how that is to be done. Nothing about community, nothing about rootedness, nothing about particularity or propinquity, nothing about extending the love we learn in the family out toward those we meet in our daily lives being necessary to the meaning of labour or of any other social activity. And then they move onto a model for the ‘compassionate society’ which looks suspiciously like the one which left many of these angry and frustrated voters behind in the first place. A ‘compassionate society’, in their view, is one which can ‘create a wealth of opportunities’, which can ‘provide children with education and training… and with practical skills’, but which ‘do[es] not trap people in misery and dependence’ with nasty policies like a safety net, and which can only be built with ‘innovative solutions’. For those of my gentle readers playing along at home, that’s code for ‘private sector’ – because in Brooks’ view especially, only privately-owned companies and individuals can ‘innovate’.

Watching the Dalai show is generally entertaining for a time, for precisely the reasons mentioned above, but it does have a tendency to disturb my own inner peace. The remedy for which, of course, is to simply turn it off.

06 November 2016

A brief, belated warning about Trumpism

This article comes late in the day – I think now perhaps too late. But it needs to be written, and it needs to be written before the election. Part of the reason that I hesitated in writing it is that Donald Trump gives voice to some very valid concerns and worries on behalf of his part of the electorate; another reason is that I genuinely like his stances on trade and (Atlantic) foreign policy. But even though I have discussed before the post-modernist reality-TV nature of Trump’s persona-driven politics, and even though I have likened him in a classical analogy to the Athenian politician Kleon (as opposed to Peisistratos) in the primary season, a blunter and more direct approach is needed.

First, I would still highly recommend the history, Democratic Promise, written by Lawrence Goodwyn about the Greenbackers, the Farmers’ Alliance, and the Populist movement in America. He is excellent at building some of the needed awareness of the bitter struggles of common farmers against bankers and furnishing merchants, and the relation of these struggles to the monetary politics of the time that characterises postbellum 19th-century rural American politics. He relates admirably how the farmers of the American interior were helped by Abraham Lincoln’s and Salmon P. Chase’s policy of providing government-issued credit to them in the form of ‘greenbacks’, and how the post-war decommission of the ‘greenbacks’ and return to the gold standard beggared many of these farmers, who were then forced to turn, hat-in-hand, to furnishing-merchants – essentially petty usurers and loan sharks – for seed, equipment and daily necessities, and who were forced to use their own future crops as collateral. Many of these farmers just picked up and moved west.

The People’s Party was built out of the Farmers’ Alliance – an organisation that was devoted to both educating farmers about economic and monetary issues, and building collective and cooperative ventures (producers’ unions, consumers’ unions, organised boycotts). The Party was a response, in part, to the failure of these collective ventures to bargain effectively with furnishing merchants, being thwarted by the big Eastern financiers who were bent on bringing the farmers in line with their modernis They were not averse to having a strong federal government discipline capital and bring infrastructure (like rail and telegraphs) under firm public control, but their primary concern was farmers’ self-help. They wanted to give farmers the collective and individual tools they needed to escape from the debt trap they were being kept in by the collaboration of both Northern and Southern economic élites. And to do so, they were willing to ally with the urban underclass (in particular the Catholic-inflected Knights of Labor) and with rural blacks, who were doubly oppressed by debt and by Jim Crow.

The growing power of the People’s Party in the American hinterland (and especially the American South) alarmed both the economic élites and the party duopoly. In the South, the Confederate-sympathetic Democratic Party – the party of the furnishing-merchants – took two different tactics. The first was intimidation, violence, property destruction and extrajudicial killing – the self-same ‘tool-kit’ the Democrats and the KKK used against the black Republican vote in the Deep South. The second was co-optation: and here is where the parallels with Trump begin to make themselves apparent.

The politician fielded by the Democrats specifically for the purpose of take the wind out of the Populist sails was ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman, who managed to get himself elected governor of South Carolina in 1890 on a platform which spewed venom against (certain, individual) members of the élite class, but also against blacks. By using this form of demagoguery and directing it toward the members of the Farmers’ Alliance, directing political energy away from the Populist platform (in particular monetary reform and the Subtreasury Plan) and into hatred against specific members of the élite class, he managed to outperform the other high-profile members of his own notoriously racist party, and in addition pursued tactics of voter intimidation and persecution (speaking in defence of lynch mobs, for example) which guaranteed a Democratic victory and a diminished Populist presence in his state for the following decade. Another politician, East Texas’s James Hogg, used a similar tactic of Jim Crow demagoguery to sway potential Populist voters into the Democratic camp. In both instances (and in the election of 1896 as a whole on a larger scale), Populist goals were thwarted and third-party politics were actively crushed by major-party politicos who used populist-sounding language in an attempt to head off genuine organising.

The parallels between Tillman and Hogg on the one hand, and Trump on the other, should not be taken too far. For one thing, even though Hogg put on the same larger-than-life Barnum and Bailey act that Trump does, both Tillman and Hogg were essentially pro-establishment politicians who used fire-eater language to outflank and destroy a genuine third-party insurrection. Trump is a showman through-and-through. Also, Trump’s ‘racism’ (insofar as it exists) is not to be compared with that of Tillman or Hogg; Tillman and Hogg were true blue white-supremacist Dixiecrats, whereas Trump, I suspect, doesn’t have any such beliefs except insofar as they can benefit him politically.

But the danger of Trumpism is that it distracts and detracts, just as the Tillman and Hogg candidacies did back in the day, from genuine populist political goals and methods. The Populists of old wanted not just ‘clean government’, but also public ownership of infrastructure, a transparent and democratic fiat money system, a progressive income tax, a fully-funded pension system for veterans, the establishment of postal savings banks, and an end to large corporate ownership of land in favour of domestic smallholders and nuclear families: these goals were outlined explicitly in the 1896 Omaha platform. And to achieve these goals, they were willing to build a workingmen’s coalition of American small farmers with the urban, domestic working classes.

Trumpism, on the other hand, is a vague, mercurial and chimærical mix of amorphous nativist sentiments and personality-cult politics, and should not be confused with populism. Most distressingly as far as conscientious greenbackers and modern money advocates are concerned, Trump flirts with goldbuggery and has taken on at least one goldbug, (NED director) Judy Shelton, as an economic advisor – which fairly reliably rules him out as a voice of common sense (let alone advocacy for the vulnerable rural working class) on monetary issues. Even on finical issues, his instincts are very demonstrably not populist! Trump has taken stances on privatising pensions and on making income taxes more regressive, with the vast majority of the benefits of his tax plan accruing to the one-percenters. On the subject of infrastructure, the question Trump is tackling is one of spending rather than one of long-term management; and he’s not even talking about bringing telecom and rail back under direct federal control. On issues facing rural Americans in particular, Donald Trump is not a friend to the small family farmer. On the postal service and public credit, the one man who took a leaf straight from the 1896 Populist playbook was one Senator Bernard Sanders. And on more general cultural tactics, Trump is far from bridging the gulf between the urban and rural working classes, but is instead leveraging that gulf for electoral gain. Nothing could be further from the Populist spirit of 1896.

None of this is to say, of course, that Trump’s major-party opponent is much better from a populist standpoint. If the closest analogues to Trump (however imperfect) are to be found among the fire-eating Southern Dixiecrats, then Clinton represents, almost to a ‘T’, the meddling managerial and financier-friendly politics of Woodrow Wilson (the man responsible for the Fed and the First World War – or at least America’s part in it). And Clinton’s cultural politics are every bit as divisive and adversarial as Trump’s. Make no mistake: yours truly still plans to vote third-party.

And, as I said earlier, Trump’s overhauled the ‘free trade’ groupthink, and he’s stuck a thorn in NATO’s paw. That tickles me a bit. But, speaking as a Midwesterner and a populist, the pretense that Trump is ‘one of us’ is as unconvincing and as sickening now as Jim Hogg’s pretensions to the same, a century and a quarter previous. Honest-to-God prairie politics are not being represented in either major party in this election, and Trumpism is nowhere near close to the real McCoy.