31 March 2016

Mother Maria Skobtsova, Saint of Sobornost’

Cross-posted to The Dorothy Option:

On the 31st of March, we celebrate the dies natalis of Mother Maria (Skobtsova), a beloved martyr and witness to Christ among the Russian émigré population in France. Her Essential Writings are particularly recommended during this Lenten season, as her essays, though brief, are spiritually and personally challenging on a number of levels. They should also certainly be of interest to the good folks of Solidarity Hall and The Dorothy Option, given the close association she has with the radical Roman Catholic Servant of God with those who have studied her life and martyrdom. My apologies in advance to my readers – but if I quote Mother Maria directly once too often herein, please understand that it is not due to a lack of reflection on my part so much as an awe of the depth of her work, that I cannot bring myself to express her ideas better than she expresses them herself.

But the association Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (which hosts a considerable collection of resources on her life and works) makes between her and Dorothy Day is not at all coincidental. Her life, like that of Dorothy Day, was decidedly not what one might expect of a saint, though of course no two saints are ever completely alike. She had been in her youth a member of the left-populist, peasant-driven Socialist-Revolutionary Party which had been outlawed by Trotsky, and lived its fate in an all-too-personal way. She narrowly avoiding execution in late 1917 after her party was disbanded, was talked out of attempting to assassinate Trotsky, ended up the deputy mayor of the small town of Anapa in Krasnodar, was captured by the White Army and put on trial as a Bolshevik, and saved again from the gallows by Daniel Skobtsov, a judge who would become her second husband. Their family fled first to Georgia, then to Yugoslavia, and finally to Paris. Even though she had no taste at all for Marxism after her run-in with Trotsky, and though she came to abhor the brutalities she witnessed in her role in the Russian Revolution, as Olivier Clément writes, she ‘became a Christian without ever having stopped being the socialist revolutionary, an intellectual of leftist bent’.

Her exile and the tragic death of her daughter to illness led her to take monastic vows which, though canonical, were nevertheless highly idiosyncratic. She lived the ‘new monasticism’ in an unfurnished rented house, amongst her fellow émigrés in the world, which she took to be her cloister. She dedicated herself to an active nonpossession, and kept the door of her house always open to the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the orphaned, the homeless, the mentally-ill; she gave of herself and everything she had to those who needed her help. She also organised discussions on philosophy and on the Orthodox faith from her house, and she maintained close friendships with a number of people in the Russian émigré community of Paris: the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, her confessor Fr. Sergey Bulgakov, and the historian Georgiy Fedotov. During the Second World War, her house became a refuge for Jews, and she and Fr. Dmitri Klepenin, another spiritual son of Fr. Sergey Bulgakov and the chaplain of her house, would give baptismal certificates to Jews who sought to flee the country. Eventually the Gestapo shut her down and sent her, along with Fr. Dmitri, her son Yuri, and her friend Ilya Fondaminsky – all of whom eventually met their martyrdoms in Nazi concentration camps. Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbrück, and was eventually put to death in the gas chambers. It is said in some of her hagiographies that she took the place of another woman, a Jew, who had been assigned to be killed that day.

During her life and in her martyrdom, the faith she lived in service to the poor and the faith she discussed in the émigré circles were one. She was devoted to the Mother of God, and even painted an idiosyncratic variant of the ikon of the Mother of God Akhtirskaya, portraying the Holy Theotokos embracing the crucified body of Christ her child. Perhaps drawing upon her own experience of losing her daughter, she offered her motherly kindness, as a nun, to a suffering world without reservation or exception. She was insistent that the love of God could be lived only through a radical openness to the sufferings and the struggles of one’s neighbour – that only through keeping the second commandment of Christ in the Gospel could the first even become possible. And throughout her writings, she holds up and defends from a Patristic basis the Russian religious-philosophical idea of sobornost’, of radical dynamic community which is at the same time freeing and completing of the person who participates in it.

Her writings attest deeply to how her radical Socialist-Revolutionary ideals stuck with her. She gave up the idle hope that human revolution could achieve anything on its own terms, but she never gave up hope that all things could and would be achieved through Christ. Indeed, she excoriates both capitalism and communism by name for their mutilation and violent enslavement of the human person, and ends up advocating something that looks very much like distributism:
In fact, mankind has enough experience of the two opposing systems of coercion and violence. The old coercion of the capitalist regime, which destroys the right to life and leaves one only with the right to labour, has recently begun to deprive people of that right as well. Forced crisis, forced unemployment, forced labour, joyless and with no inner justification—enough of all that. But try going to the opposite system. It turns out to be the system of communist enforcement: the same joyless labour under the rod, well-organised slavery, violence, hunger—enough of that, too. It is clear to everybody that we must seek a path to free, purposeful and expedient labour, that we must take the earth as a sort of garden that it is incumbent upon us to cultivate. Who doubts that?
Her leftist bent extends to her personal ethics as well as to her social ones. She was highly critical of the tendency she saw within the Church to withdraw into one’s own shell of piety, to take only the vertical beam of the Cross descending from God to the individual man, and to leave behind the horizontal beam which embraces the other men and women around him as well. For Mother Maria, not only the crass and obvious impiety of greed, but also the much more subtle and insidious impiety of a philanthropy that is only seen as an occasion for the improvement of one’s own virtue or an exercise for the good of one’s own soul, is a form of selfishness which runs contrary to the Gospel. She writes:
A person should have a more attentive attitude to his brother’s flesh than to his own. Christian love teaches us to give our brother not only material but also spiritual gifts. We must give him our last shirt and our last crust of bread. Here personal charity is as necessary and justified as the broadest social work. In this sense there is no doubt that the Christian is called to social work. He is called to organise a better life for the workers, to provide for the old, to build hospitals, care for children, fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness. In principle the value is exactly the same, whether he acts on an individual or a social level; what matters is that his social work be based on love for his neighbour and not have any latent career or material purposes.
The social element of Christianity is, indeed, for her so inseparable from the core of Orthodox spirituality and the Gospel message, that she even criticises those Christians of like mind to her, who base their actions and their programmes not on the basis of an authentic Orthodox Christian (or Catholic, or Protestant) witness but instead upon the false ground of secular humanism.
The most doubtful, disputable and unsatisfying thing about all the concepts of… ‘social Christianity’… is their secondary character, their incommensurability with the idea of Christian life understood as communion with God. … All the trends of social Christianity known to us are based on a certain rationalistic humanism, apply only the principle of Christian morality to this world, and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for their constructions.

To make social Christianity not only Christian-like but truly Christian, it is necessary to bring it out of flat soulfulness and two-dimensional moralism into the depths of multi-dimensional spirituality. To substantiate it mystically and spiritually. It seems to me that this coincides precisely with what Orthodoxy—which has not yet spoken in this area—can and must say; it will give greater depth to Catholic and Protestant attempts to turn a Christian face to the world.
Throughout Mother Maria’s work there is always this similar challenge. Typically of Russian religious philosophy, Saint Maria places upon herself the demand of complete commitment, and will brook no compromises or comfortable lies. The Christian life is not truly or fully Christian until it ‘faces the desert’, an image to which she, being well-versed both in the Desert Fathers and in the ‘holy fools’ of the Church, continually returns. The reality of the Russian exile haunts her every page, and she is keenly aware of it. She writes with very few comforts for those Orthodox exiles who want to withdraw and take refuge in the old trappings of the state, of ritual, or of the æsthetic forms of Church life; she calls them instead – lovingly, but insistently – to the radical witness to Christ’s life and death in their own lives.

And yet there is also all too much in Mother Maria’s writings to discomfort and disorient those who are expecting to see in her a liberal and an œcumenist. She was neither. Early in her life she was a penpal of the arch-traditionalist Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church himself, Konstantin Pobedonostsev; Olivier Clément alludes that it was from him that she learned the personal ‘love of neighbour as opposed to love of those far away’. The three authors she alludes to most fondly are Aleksei Khomyakov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Solovyov, and it’s clear that she has absorbed much of their romantic-conservative Slavophil temperament. She has some notably harsh words for ‘godless and giftless… cool, uncreative, imitative… secular democracy’, which in her mind amounted to a form of ‘mystical totalitarianism’.

In the fog of the Second World War, she sees straight through those who claimed – and indeed, still claim in modern times, in the case of the EU and NATO – to be ‘defending the right cause, fighting for the liberation of national minorities, or for the federal organisation of Europe, or for democracy’. Not only does she bluntly say that these things are ‘not enough’, but she deliberately likens them to those pitiable flights of fancy to which Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was prone, and further posits that no one truly wants to or should die for such milquetoast abstract ideals: ‘your life is greater and your death is greater’ than the sum total of these things. She speaks with dismay of the ‘religious League of Nations’ whose highfalutin, carefully-worded statements of unity were totally inadequate to halt the advances of fascism and Bolshevism – both ideologies which she deems, referring to the Brothers Karamazov, to be ‘Smerdyakovism enthroned’. And she has some critical things to say – perhaps, from the point-of-view of many readers here, too critical – of Pope Pius XI, whose ‘diplomatic subtlety and refinement’ in addressing German Christians she deemed fatally ill-suited to the spirit of the times, and whom she likened to a ‘sympathetic acquaintance at a funeral’ who is unaware of how the gates of eternity opened at the cataclysmic catastrophe being faced by Europe.

And perhaps under the influence of Solovyov, she sees in consistent pacifism ‘something egoistically vegetarian… which makes one sick at heart’. In truth, she rejects, just as Chesterton and Solovyov did, the idea of wars of choice, pre-emptive wars, wars of aggression; she holds the ‘motivation of the robber’ to be utterly incompatible and at odds with the Christian life. But ‘much more complicated’ for Mother Maria, ‘is the question of enduring war, of passive participation, of war in defence’. She is not unaware of the terrible human and civilisational costs of war, and clearly sympathises with the pacifist denunciation of the same. But her maternal compunction is what leads her to pity the most powerless in war and those who come to their defence, and it is what leads her to point to God’s presence even in the worst desolation.

Mother Maria’s understanding of freedom is complex in a similar but perhaps obverse way to her thoughts on war. Clearly she is influenced here by her reading of Dostoevsky: freedom is a vital necessity to the Christian life; in all things free participation is called-for, and there is no part of the Christian life that can be forced. Her excoriations of capitalism and communism for their totalitarian demands on the human person are evidence enough of the value she places on freedom, rightly considered. And yet at the same time, she understands what a terrible thing, what a privation, the prescription of the ‘freedom’ of exile has been for the Russian émigrés. ‘We have lost our weightiness,’ she writes, ‘lost our corporeality, acquired an enormous mobility and lightness, become unbound… we are almost like shadows.’

And yet it is a privation in which an even more terrible and urgent call is present: the call to again live the Gospel in a meaningful and creative way, without seeking refuge in the pieties of a motherland they no longer lived in, and without succumbing to the ‘spiritual philistinism, spiritual mediocrity, lukewarmness’ of the deadening liberal culture sheltering them. Even more so than when the first Russian monks set out into the wastelands of Siberia, she comprehends the call to a ‘new monasticism’ among the Russian émigrés in the streets and apartment complexes of the totally-foreign cities in which they’ve landed. But even as she sympathises maternally with the plight of her fellow émigrés – ‘hard as it is to say to impoverished people, “become still more impoverished”’ – she still holds forth bluntly the ‘inner command’, that ‘our God-given freedom calls us to activity and struggle’.

And Mother Maria was active and struggled to the very last. She was, as Jim Forest rightly notes, a great comfort to those who were imprisoned with her in the ‘hell’ of Ravensbrück. Even in a place where human dignity had utterly stripped away from everyone, even in a place where – to borrow Forest’s description – obscenity, contempt and hatred were as commonplace as hunger, illness and death, Mother Maria provided the inmates with a family and a refuge. She organised discussion circles and kept evening prayers, brought French and Soviet prisoners alike together, and shared even what little food she got with those who had still less, until her health failed and her friends would not allow her to give away any more.

Mother Maria pointed to God’s presence even in the worst of places and in the worst of times; in many instances, she herself was a great testament to that presence. She lived under regimes of great turbulence, depravity and cruelty, and yet in spite of them witnessed throughout to a much higher ideal toward which to struggle: that of the Kingdom of God as realised in sobornost’.
As witnesses of truth and preachers of piety,
Let us worthily honor through divinely inspired chants:
Dimitry and Maria, George and Elias,
Who have borne the sufferings,
The bonds and unjust judgement,
In which like the martyrs
Have received the imperishable crown.

29 March 2016

Pointless video post - ‘The Last Station’ by Kahtmayan

Now for some mellow, groovy, proggy, folksy, instrumental Iranian heavy rock, my gentle readers, from one of Iran’s seminal heavy metal albums, Exir, by Kahtmayan. There is certainly some thrash and some NWoBHM influence to be heard in Kahtmayan’s output, but these aren’t the primary or most notable influences. They demonstrate a very notable talent for dynamics. There is a definite direction to the energy of their music, a definite folksy Middle Eastern flavour to a lot of the melodies they use. It is innovative but it isn’t inaccessible at any point, and certainly not on this song, which is the album’s clincher. Melodies with soul, that’s what they’ve got! And in this humble listener’s opinion it’s fun just to be along for the ride. Do give it a listen, gentle readers!

Our Muslim neighbours

His Holiness Patriarch John X of Antioch, speaking with Syrian Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Badruddin Hassoun

Christians, including my fellow Orthodox, need to be more discerning on this issue.

St John of Damascus argued strenuously against Islam as a doctrine. In fact, practically all of our intellectual resources against the Islamic heresy find their source in St John's writings. And yet he lived in a society that was conquered by Muslims, in his secular office he served (and was almost martyred by) a Muslim ruler, and he didn't advocate armed conflict between his fellow Christians and his Muslim neighbours.

We need to follow his example. Muslims, qua Muslims, aren't the enemy. Daesh is doing horrific things in the name of Islam. And yet, the great majority of Muslims in the Fertile Crescent are our allies on the most practical and basic of levels. Shi'ites and Alawites - and, yes, Sunni moderates - are fighting alongside Christians every day to retake Syria. Hezbollah, supposedly a terrorist organisation, is actively defending Christian homes and villages in southern and western Syria. Palmyra was recently retaken by the Syrian Arab Army - most of whom are Muslims.

The Christian presence in the Middle East has been made practically untenable by a perception - completely unwarranted - that Christians are the existential enemies of Muslims. This perception was bolstered by the war in Iraq. It continues to be fanned and spread by the likes of Daesh and al-Qaeda.

If we Christians in the West want to be of any service or help to the Christians in the Middle East, we need to have our priorities straight and our message needs to be clear. We need to disavow and repudiate all claims that Muslims are our enemies. We do have a deep and perhaps irreconcilable doctrinal dispute with Islam that is not going away anytime soon, but we also have to deal with the practical implications of the fact that Muslims are our neighbours, and that in many cases we share in their struggles.

The fact that this is the official position of my Church, the Roman Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, articulated countless times in many different venues, spoken and written (for example, this one), should be proof that this is not feel-good moral posturing. This is not liberal handwringing. This is not armchair SJW-ism. This is not about political correctness. This is about survival. Christians, Muslims and Jews live alongside each other in the Levant and have been doing so for centuries. Now the Muslim community has been torn at the seams by a vicious and inhuman hothouse-radicalism, lab-grown in Saudi- and Qatari-funded Wahhabi madrassahs and backed up with the weapons of American imperialism smuggled through Turkey, that is threatening women, religious minorities and people of conscience across the board throughout the Fertile Crescent.

And again, as a merely practical and realist question, as a question of survival, the very last thing Middle Eastern Christians need is their Muslim neighbours thinking that we're the enemy. Enough of them know we aren't, to keep fighting against those who insist that we are.

26 March 2016

Remembering St. Christina of Persia

Holy Martyr Christina of Persia

Back in 2012, Steve Hayes at Khanya posted this brief article about St. Christina of Persia:
… since the 13th March is the feast day of St Christina of Persia, it seemed appropriate to look at her role in the history of Christianity in Persia, or, as it is more generally known nowadays, Iran.

The problem with this is that very little is known about St Christina, other than the manner of her death…

St Christina was whipped to make her renounce her faith in Christ, and when she refused to do so her persecutors carried on beating her until she died, some time in the 6th century.

She may have been the daughter of Yazdēn, governor of Nisibis.
The lack of attestation of her life is probably best witnessed both by the brevity of Mr. Hayes’s article, and by the fact that this is the longest and most complete attestation I’ve yet found of this elusive saint on the Interwebs. However, she is honoured in the Russian Orthodox Church particularly, and I managed to locate a very lovely Russian-style icon of her, shown above.

Holy Martyr Christina, noble sufferer and confessor of Our Lord Christ, pray to God for us!

24 March 2016

Khomyakov’s Russian Orthodox High Toryism

In my recent review of Dr Susanna Rabow-Edling’s book on the Slavophils, I may have picked some nits with her ‘anarchist’ reading of Herder. I gladly, however, give her a massive amount of credit for her sound, solid and spirited defence of the Slavophils, as a force which is not intrinsically or prejudicially opposed to the West. Indeed, the portrait she paints of Aleksey Khomyakov is one of an unabashed Anglophile, one whose cultural nationalism for all its ‘conservative’ eagerness to take what was best in the age-old national character and constitution was at the same time ‘progressive’ in its social outlook. Both aspects of this intellectual portraiture Rabow-Edling makes of him have distinct merit.

Khomyakov, though committed in his zeal for the Russian Orthodox Church to which he belonged, also kept up a lively and friendly correspondence with Mr William Palmer, an Englishman and defender of the Anglican tradition. (This correspondence is cited in Rabow-Edling’s book, and is also directly available in part in Boris Jakim’s anthology of the Slavophils, On Spiritual Unity.) The Anglican interest in Eastern Orthodox Christianity goes back arguably to the Caroline Divines – in particular Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury, though that interest has been but seldom reciprocated on our part (though the Fellowship of Ss Alban and Sergius has been keeping that intellectual direction open on both sides). However, Khomyakov’s interest in England had a much more specific cultural bent to it – indeed, he was an admirer of the very selfsame cultural and political tradition of English Toryism which arose out of the Cavalier and Jacobite causes, and with which Archbishop Laud after his martyrdom would come to be associated. In Khomyakov’s own words:
The two intellectual forces of the nation were broken asunder, and entered into conflict with one another. The one, organic, living, historical, but weakened by the decline of village community life and by the scepticism of Protestantism, which it had unconsciously admitted, constituted Toryism. The other, individualistic and analytical, not believing in its past, prepared for long previously by the same decline of village community life, and reinforced by the whole of the disintegrating force of Protestantism, constituted Whiggism…

In reality every Englishman is a Tory at heart. There may be differences in the strength of convictions, in tendency of mind; but the inner feeling is the same in all. Exceptions are rare, and are as a rule found only in people who either are altogether carried away by some system of thought or beaten down with poverty or corrupted by the life of the large towns. The history of England is not a mere thing of the past to the Englishman; it lives in all his life, in all his customs, in almost all the details of his existence. And this historical element is Toryism. The Englishman loves to see the beafeaters guarding the Tower in their strange mediaeval costume ... he likes the boys in Christ's Hospital still to wear the blue coats which they wore in the time of Edward VI. He walks through the long aisles of Westminster Abbey, not with the conceited vanity of the Frenchman, nor with the antiquarian delectation of the German, but with a deep, sincere, and ennobling affection. These graves belong to his family, and a great family it is; and I am not speaking now merely of the peer or the professor, but about mechanics and cab-drivers … his sports and games, his Christmas decorations and festivities, the calm and sacred peace of his family circle, all the poetry, all the sweetness of his daily existence. In England every old oak with its spreading branches is a Tory, and so is every ancient church-spire which shoots up into the sky. Under this oak many have enjoyed themselves, and in that ancient church many generations have prayed.
The sympathy of Khomyakov with the Tory philosophy did not simply end with an at-a-distance philosophical appreciation, however! No, Birkbeck, who wrote the introduction to this particular volume of Khomyakov’s correspondence with Palmer, makes it clear that Khomyakov’s entire intellectual-religious-social project of Slavophilism is in fact ‘a great revival of religious self-consciousness in many respects analogous to our Tractarian [read: Anglo-Catholic] movement’, as well as being a project of cultural-national awakening. The two for him go hand-in-hand, for Russia’s structure itself is well-suited to the Tory suspicion of the secular. In addition, Aleksey Khomyakov’s hostility to capitalism and to the ‘paralysing aridity’ and ‘sterility’ of Whiggism which attacks and destroys everything old and home-grown, directly and probably deliberately parallels that deep and abiding English High Tory mistrust of capitalism which finds its expression in the writings of (among others) Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Beilby Porteus, John Strachan, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Oastler, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris, Gilbert Keith Chesterton and George Parkin Grant.

The principle of sobornost’ for which Khomyakov is most renowned, ought not to be construed as something culturally-specific or peculiar to Russia, though naturally it was given a Romantic, cultural-national and distinctly Russian meaning when Khomyakov, Kireevsky and others of the Slavophil school associated it so closely with the Russian obshchina. But it does have distinctly High Tory overtones: the Orthodox sobornost’ ideal is agrarian, paternalistic, monarchical and what most of us Westerners would consider ‘High Church’, but it is also gift-economic and personalistic. It is not and cannot be satisfied with the proceduralism, superficiality, fungibility and alienation of modern market relations, but instead seeks to satisfy the thirsts of the person for genuine meaning through a more ‘organic’ understanding of culture and of the self.

Orthodoxy in Russia has a number of very, very deep resources to draw upon. Perhaps it is the vain imagination of an insufficiently-acclimated Westerner who seeks parallels with Orthodox thinking and the incomparable mind of the Church in his own culture, but I cannot help but see the comparative health and beauty of certain Platonic tendencies in English thought – both theological and social – as something to be appreciated. I’m happy to note that Khomyakov, for one, felt the same way!

23 March 2016

The people of Esther yet live

The holiday of Purim, which began tonight at sundown, will be celebrated by the world’s Jews until tomorrow evening. It is a very long-established holiday in the Jewish canon, having been celebrated by the Jews at least since the first century CE (having been recounted by Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews), and the story which it commemorates is well-known and well-loved among us Christians as well: the story of Esther, Mordechai and Ahasuerus (Xerxes), and the deliverance of the Jews of Persia from the clutches of the evil advisor, Haman the Agagite. It is the story of a young woman of great faith, devotion and perseverance, who shows great bravery on behalf of her endangered people, by going in to her husband unbidden when doing so was a capital offence. For Jews, Esther is very justly considered to be a holy prophetess and a national and religious heroine. Among Christians, Esther, who was in all things obedient to God and to her husband, was considered by the Fathers of the Early Church a prefiguration and type of the obedience, bravery and self-sacrificial love of the Most Holy Theotokos, whose Annunciation we celebrate on the day after Purim ends.

Esther demonstrates for us, in fact, a heroism which derives in no small part from being an exile who is culturally out-of-place. She was, indeed, not only a stranger among the Persians but also an orphan being raised by her uncle Mordechai. Esther could very justly be considered a highly vulnerable woman, being both a member of a small minority in the Persian Empire, and one without a great deal of extensive family support apart from her uncle. She entered the palace as a servant, and her only claim upon the Shah was that of her beauty and physical attraction. Even with the favour of the Shah, she was still liable to be divorced like Vashti – or worse – if she displeased or angered him. To do what she did, in fact, required a great deal of faith.

Here’s the thing about the Jews of Persia, though – if we may also have the faith enough to understand the full depth of the history, which has not yet ended. The Jews, who at that time were the people that Esther called her kin, and for whom she pleaded before Xerxes, still live there. What’s more, the Jewish communities of Iran are well-established and even happy there, with a deep cultural and political attachment to what they consider in justice to be their homeland. (These Jews have been incredibly supportive, in fact, of the Iranian nuclear deal.) The tombs of Esther and Mordechai are located in Hamadan, in Western Iran, and these are still a popular destination of pilgrimage for the country’s Jews.

Just a few things to remember during this feast. Chag purim same’ach, everyone!

20 March 2016

Happy Nowruz, and Blessed Sunday of Orthodoxy

To all of my friends in Greater Iran and Central Asia:

Наурыз құтты болсын! !نوروز مبارک

Happiness, prosperity and good fortune to all my Iranian, Kazakh, Azeri, Georgian, Armenian and Kyrgyz brothers and sisters! May your dastarkhans be plentiful and your houses be warm with love and good fellowship! I wish you all one hundred more happy new years!

And not only is it Nowruz for my friends in the greater Iranian world, but it is also for us in the Orthodox Church the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, when we celebrate the victory of the Iconodules under Empress Saint Theodora (whose icon I have posted below) over the Iconoclastic vandals.

This is the Faith of the Apostles,
This is the Faith of the Fathers,
This is the Faith of the Orthodox,
This is the Faith which has established the Universe!

16 March 2016

Populism, Loyalism’s long-lost cousin?

The political geography and sociology of colonial Loyalism, a philosophy with which I still have strong sympathies, has been of interest to me since reading Woodard’s book. In fact, my strongest and most pointed disagreements with Woodard concern precisely his treatment of Loyalism as a political and a cultural phenomenon. Good Yankee that he is, Woodard is none too sympathetic to the Loyalists: in the broad strokes, he views particularly the ‘late Loyalists’ as being largely opportunists and tax-dodgers driven by economic motives to seek shelter with the Crown, rather than as having any real cultural affinity either with the mother country or with each other. Woodard sees Upper Canada as therefore belonging to an anti-governmental, peaceable, diverse and politically-quietist Midland culture rather than having any real identity of its own, and devotes considerable space to debunking the ‘Loyalist myth’, though he never quite manages to make an argument for rejecting it. After all, Loyalism was a political phenomenon which the Germans, Dutch and Scots he describes did take part in – it wasn’t simply to be considered as apathy writ large. A grain of it did take root in Canada as the Red Tory political persuasion. In the process of his treatment of the ‘late Loyalists’, however, Woodard does bring up several good points and shows how we of the American Midlands do share a number of cultural affinities with our Canadian cousins across the Great Lakes.

The historical Loyalists reached their highest concentrations, as Woodard recognises, in the ‘middle colonies’: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, with some smaller and active populations among the Scots-Irish immigrants of the Inland South. Some of them were motivated by religious concerns, being Quaker, German Anabaptist, or High Church Anglican. Middlekauff describes their distribution thusly:
The largest number of loyalists were found in the middle colonies: many tenant farmers of New York supported the king, for example, as did many of the Dutch in the colony and in New Jersey. The Germans in Pennsylvania tried to stay out of the Revolution, just as many Quakers did, and when that failed, clung to the familiar connection rather than embrace the new. Highland Scots in the Carolinas, a fair number of Anglican clergy and their parishioners in Connecticut and New York, a few Presbyterians in the southern colonies, and a large number of the Iroquois Indians stayed loyal to the king.
Woodard characterises Middlekauff’s configuration, not entirely without reason, as an ‘alliance’ between the ‘nations’ of New Netherland, the Midlands and parts of Greater Appalachia. And consider what population elements Middlekauff is describing here: tenant farmers and peasants both North and South; German smallholders; and Dutch New Yorkers – mostly merchants. Consider also that the ‘late Loyalists’ being described by Woodard were ‘farmers … craftsmen … impoverished labourers and sailors’ who were fleeing persecution, expropriation and debt in the wake of the War of American Independence. These ‘late Loyalists’ were content to keep to themselves and allow Britain’s government to manage their public affairs. For the most part, the British government did so, and did so to their advantage.

Now, consider Lawrence Goodwyn’s descriptions of the Populists. The theorists of Populism, the advocates of ‘soft money’ solutions to the mounting debt problem for America’s poor tenant farmers in the wake of the Civil War, were either New Netherlanders (Edward Kellogg; Peter Cooper) or Midlanders (Alexander Campbell; Henry Carey; Sam Fenton Cary). They belonged most often to the small-mercantile and farming classes. Goodwyn notes that soft-money theories ‘had nothing to offer in the way of sectional appeal’, by which he means simply that they could not be used either by the Yankee Republican bloc or by the Dixie Democratic bloc to stir up patriotic or regional sentiment. But the soft-money idea did belong to a very specific place. Kellogg’s and Campbell’s soft-money theories were most popular along that corridor of territory running west-east through the middle of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, which corresponds to the Midlands and New Netherland: precisely the Loyalist ‘alliance’ as described by Woodard. Indeed, greenbacks were commonly referred to as ‘the Ohio idea’, and the first convention of the National Independent Party – which later turned into the Greenback Labour Party – was held in Indianapolis, Indiana. It spread westward in a pattern that looks very similar to the map drawn by Woodard of the Midland region: greenback theory became immensely popular in Iowa and in the Plains states stretching from North Dakota all the way down to North Texas, and the second wave of Populism in the 1890’s, when the Farmers’ Alliance took over from the less-radical (but no less Greenbacker) Grange, of course has its epicentre precisely in these western Plains states.

There are other interesting parallels and cross-pollinations as well. The flight of the late Loyalists into Canada finds an eerie (uh, no pun intended) historical echo in the flight of the impoverished and indebted tenant farmers from the Inland South into north Texas as described by Goodwyn, where they were organised into the Farmers’ Alliance – particularly if Woodard is right and they were motivated by economic concerns about their livelihood rather than by political loyalty! And even though Woodard no doubt considers Saskatchewan and Alberta part of the Far West rather than the historically-Loyalist Midlands, both the socialist-populist (CCF) and social-credit (Socred) movements which arose there were almost certainly of the same nature and cultural origin as the Populist movement here was. Both of them shared a tinge of social conservatism and localist interest that made them close kin to the red Tories, who drew their inspiration from the Loyalists (John Diefenbaker himself was a man of Saskatchewan who was born in Upper Canada). Even their plans to reform the currency in each nation shared a similar theoretical basis.

The difference between the experience of the late Loyalists and the Greenbackers was this: the British government supported the late Loyalists with grants of land, with low land taxes and the promise that they would administer their public affairs – including public infrastructure – honestly, efficiently and in their interests. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that this faith was strongly shaken, resulting in the expressions of prairie radicalism that surfaced in the CCF and the Socreds. The American government, dominated as it was by Yankee bankers and big industrialists on the one hand, and Lowland Southern slaveholders (later speculators and furnishing-merchants) on the other, had no intention of making policy for the relief of the indebted tenant farmers of the inland regions. The Yankees were wont to view the frontier farmers at best as an object of condescending pity, or at worst with the usual Puritanical accusations of sectional treason, vagrancy, laziness and cultural and moral inferiority. And the Lowland Southerners were no better, seeing the frontier farmers as vulgar upstarts and inferior mongrels raised from the dregs of continental Europe, without civilisation or taste and fit only for servitude. Greenbacker theories were met with accusations of moral corruption in the North, and with the suspicion of communism and levelling in the South. Prairie radicalism found a much more fertile environment in America than it did in Canada, if only because the exploitation and – as Woodard would have it – cultural warfare was much more pronounced here.

But it does seem to me that the Populists are something of a late expression of the same kinds of political and economic concerns that motivated the late Loyalists who settled in Ontario. Both the Populists and the late Loyalists were economically hard-pressed or indebted, more likely to be rural, more likely to be ‘ethnic’ (that is, not Southern or East Anglian English in origin) and more likely to belong to marginal religious groups. And both groups were (ultimately, if we’re including the CCF and the Socreds) drawn to forms of radical anti-capitalism which emphasised cooperative, localist, socially-conservative forms of collective mutual self-help, which were not antagonistic to government – indeed, the Canadian forms were explicitly loyal to the Crown! – but which were willing to relegate its importance to a secondary and auxiliary role.

14 March 2016

The Woodard thesis, again rearing its head

Over at the Unz Review they are clearly having a lot of fun watching the Trump campaign. (And why shouldn’t they? The Trump campaign is highly entertaining, in a trashy reality-TV kind of way.) There is even an article up there now, attempting to explain how it happens that Trump is showing so poorly in the Plains states and the Upper Midwest. Clearly the economic, class-driven explanation is not good enough in this case, because these states too have been hit hard by hard times, and there is a phenomenon of longer standing whereby the small towns and villages of the Plains states have been, to use Jayman’s phrase, ‘boiled off’ by economic globalisation: those with the means and the will to achieve class mobility leave for the large cities, and those who remain tend to be both poorer and politically more conservative. If the economic vectors of the analysis of the New York Times are to be believed, these voters – whites with ‘old economy’ jobs and not-particularly-high educational attainment – ought to be turning out in droves for Trump as they have been for Sanders, but that’s not what’s been happening.

The Unz article therefore looks (or rather, looks again) to the Woodard thesis, combined with the OCEAN personality test-driven ‘mood map’ of the United States that was published awhile back in Time. (As my gentle readers know, there is seldom an internet quiz of this sort that I, wretched egotistical sinner that I am, can successfully resist: I scored O20-C69-E05-A79-N14 on the personality quiz, and the Time quiz plonked me down in Nebraska, right in the middle of the ‘friendly and conventional’ Plains-and-Upper-Midwest.) I have a love-hate relationship – more an infatuation-quibble relationship, to be honest – with the Woodard thesis. Jayman’s article on Unz is in part a demonstration of one of the quibbles I have that renders the Woodard thesis a possible annoyance: attributing cultural differences to heredity, rather than to ethnic and linguistic pathways.

But it’s a fascinating argument that Jayman assembles, as to why Trump shows poorly in the ‘friendly and conventional’ states and does so well in the ‘temperamental and unhibited’ ones. The long and short of it is: culture matters, and Woodard has a working model for ethno-linguistic and cultural differences on the North American continent which offers a certain degree of explanatory power. Generally speaking, Trump’s abrasive tough-guy New Netherland bluster might indeed play very well among the Scots-Irish of the Inland South, but among us German and Scandinavian flatlanders it comes off as ‘big-city gasbag’. On the other hand, clearly we have been responding well to Sanders: Sanders won big in Kansas, Nebraska and Minnesota, and he even put up a tough fight in the counties of north Texas – it was east Texas which carried Hillary to victory there. I maintain that this is consistent with the radical Populist legacy on the Plains, which is currently dormant but, as witnessed by the enthusiastic embrace of Sanders, far from dead.

At any rate, this is a riveting election to watch, even though I can’t really in good conscience bring myself to support any of the mainstream candidates. (I’m a fan of some of the third party options, though.) The candidates themselves are less interesting to me than their supporters, and how those supporters are showing some of the deep cultural fault lines in American society in some spectacular ways. Very similar to the election of 1860 – where the Democrats fragmented into Northern and Southern blocs, and where the Whigs after their reorganisation as the Republicans also drove some of their disgruntled former members into the Constitutional Union Party – what we may be seeing here is the unravelling of our current party system as some of the old ‘national’ alliances reorient themselves.

08 March 2016

Slavophilia and the state

Dr Susanna Rabow-Edling’s book on Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism is an incredibly rich and valuable scholarly text on Slavophilia, and although it restricts its analysis to the historical social and political context in which Slavophilia arose (a point the author takes significant pains to explain), it serves two very useful purposes. On the one hand, she seeks in this text to countervail against the idea that the cultural nationalism of the Slavophils was an inefficacious, rearguard, obscurantist and, indeed, doomed enterprise. This she does, both with commendable clarity and passion. On the other hand, though, she seeks to place Slavophilia within a broader tradition of European Romanticism in all of its intellectual, cultural and political commitments. Even though she also puts up a very solid and well-argued case here, this is where I depart from her view slightly.

I’m sympathetic to the view that Slavophilia was an engagement with and arose as a result of parallel German thought of the time. Khomyakov and Kireevsky both were well-versed in the idealist thinking of the German Enlightenment, and found themselves battling against it with many of the same critiques that Germans themselves were then using. Schelling and Herder were the most notable influences on the early Slavophils (Schelling in particular insofar as he himself saw clearest the hard limits of Kantian and Hegelian rationalism). And there is no doubt that they began to seek the cultural and civilisational roots of the Russian mir among the Early Church Fathers as a result of their coming to grips with the Romantic challenge to Enlightenment – and particularly what that meant for Russia as a whole. But Rabow-Edling goes even a bit further and posits a similarity between the political projects of the German and German-influenced proto-Romantics, and that of the Slavophils, particularly vis-à-vis education, progress and the state.

Dr Rabow-Edling does particularly well to explode the misconception that Slavophilia was simply a reactive, ressentiment-fuelled rejection of all things Western in an idle hope of constructing an Asian-facing Russian identity. Slavophilia did face eastward with considerable interest: Khomyakov’s highly-sympathetic analysis of Iranian civilisation in particular may be worth exploring in detail at a later time. But Rabow-Edling makes it clear that the Slavophils had a cosmopolitan, world-historical project in which they thought Russia could engage, something with which it could contribute positively to the evolution of Western Europe. She then takes this as an indication that Slavophilia can be seen to have a ‘progressive’ cast – something alluded to by Khomyakov himself when he maintains that conservatives of a certain type have hope of ‘progressing’ in a healthy direction.

Actually, in this respect, the parallels of the early Slavophils with the Sinophilia of Jiang Qing become more pronounced, as Jiang’s culturally-nationalist, traditional-tinged constitutional-Confucian proposals have a similarly cosmopolitan raison d’être. But no one ever accused Jiang of being a ‘progressive’ in the modern, Western sense, and this is not without reason. His frame of reference for his political thought is a fusion of Confucianism, Romanticism and Burkean conservatism – in much the same way the frame of reference taken by the Slavophils was based in Orthodoxy, Romanticism and the peasant traditions of the mir. But there is a point at which the two diverge, and that is in their treatment of power, which is to say the elites and the state. Jiang has hope that a governing elite imbued with Confucian learning and values can take the helm of a constitutionally-reformed China and guide it back toward civilisational health; this hope in Slavophil thought is not directed to the elites (who were divorced from the real life of the Russian country and out-of-keeping with their own nation’s traditions and roots), but rather toward the common people – the serfs and, later, the free peasantry. Slavophilia has a marked hostility toward the rule of a Westernising bureaucracy and elite culture, and this colours their attitudes as well toward state power.

Rabow-Edling draws an explicit connexion between this cultural hostility and the ‘anarchistic’ tendencies she notices in the philosophy of Herder. The Slavophils, she argues, were not overly concerned with political engagement because they felt that the politics of Tsarist Russia were centralised, susceptible to corrupting foreign influences, cut off from their taproots of life in the land and the people. The life of the people, thus, is meant to be kept pure and unsullied, apart from any consideration of power, as a tutor for the elites – this is an intellectual tendency the early Slavophils shared with the early Westernisers and the radical narodniki, particularly Herzen. But even though Rabow-Edling is a careful enough scholar that she recognises the potential pitfalls, I still think this interpretation runs a rather strong risk of misreading both Herder and the Slavophils generally on the subject of the state.

There certainly is a reading of Herder which can give his thought an anarchist cast. But it may be more appropriate to say that Herder rather thinks that government is far healthier which can be subordinate and answerable to the background matrix of beliefs, practices and habits out of which it arises. Herder doesn’t think that government can or should be wizarded wholesale out of its context, cut up into bits, processed into some pre-packaged container and exported in that form to whatever people would be foolish enough to take it. But for this very reason, his thought is not opposed to government; he is simply concerned with the institutions (to use the public-policy speak) which are supposed to support it – that body of customs, habits, assumptions, networks and informal rules which determine human activity outside of a legal context. It is probably this attitude toward government which the Slavophils adopted when they took their influence from Herder.

Because the Slavophils were monarchists; what’s more, they were paternalists. Aksakov in particular was adamant about his preference for having the government in the hands of one family with strong ties and commitments to the country they ruled, and thus keeping considerations of power under the check of custom; of keeping the brute force of statecraft firmly under the sway of love and paternal care. The Tsar, as noted by von Haxthausen in his Studies on the Interior of Russia, is thought of as the papa of the household, the father of the people – and monarchs who came after the infamous Decembrist uprising took this role very seriously right up until the dethronement of Tsar Nicholas II. Kireevsky was a notable advocate of the familial view of Russian society, and certainly thought the virtues of the Russian peasant father and mother could be generalised societally. But this principle they had that governments should cooperate in and allow themselves to be guided by the life and faith of the common people, also allowed them to make deep and cutting critiques of contemporary statecraft, both in Russia and elsewhere. States that rested and relied on abstract principles, states that had no inner life or real living connexion with their peoples, states that built up for themselves empty form, or states that – in Khomyakov’s terminology – maintained an outward religiosity rather than being moved by an inward faith: these received the full brunt of the Slavophil critique.

In full fairness to Rabow-Edling, anarchists and radicals of the succeeding generations of Russian intelligentsia did make heavy use of the Slavophil legacy: Nikolai Berdyaev not least of all! And there was good reason for it, at that. The Slavophils have a humane, instinctive revulsion toward the lethal use of power and brute force – a revulsion that, if we are to believe Berdyaev on the subject in his Russian Idea, they come by with historical honesty. But their legacy is far more complicated than that, as Berdyaev was the first to note. Rabow-Edling herself makes the point that their political thinking could at times be considered amorphous, and historically the Slavophils have been treated as an inefficacious and failed movement. Though Rabow-Edling deliberately, and with the good reason that she was concerned with the context in which the thought arose, omits them from her study and focusses much more firmly on Khomyakov and Kireevsky, it must nevertheless be recognised that the later Mikhail Pogodin and Nikolai Gogol were both Slavophils, albeit ones who were not as hostile to the Russian state as the aforementioned. And of course, Dostoevsky and Pobedonostsev both followed in the main of the Slavophil tradition, as later so did Vladimir Solovyov (who was anything but an anarchist, seeing the state anthropologically as an honest expression of ‘organised pity’).

All in all, though, I highly recommend Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism. Bear in mind that I’ve basically spent half this blog post picking political-philosophical nits with what is otherwise a masterful analysis, and one which treats Slavophilia with a remarkable degree of sympathy. It’s certainly a book I look to return to, as I continue to draw the parallels between China’s current moment with its traditionally-minded, institutionalist cultural reformers on the one hand, and the Slavophil legacy on the other.

01 March 2016

Pointless video post - ‘Otterheart’ by Nest

Some awe-inspiring atmospheric darkwave / neofolk from Finland, featuring Aslak Tolonen on the kantele (a traditional Finnish zither) and Timo Saxell on acoustic bass, along with various nature sounds and some deep bass vocals. Great music for calm introspection and accompaniment for reading, and easily evokes images of a misty, chilly coniferous forest in the land of the many Northern lakes, seldom visited by humankind. Came across Nest whilst looking for Bandcamp artists recommended as similar to Fejd, which they’re… um, not, really, except for their general geographical location and some of the lyrical themes. Two very different tempos and styles of folk rock. Still, a highly recommended listen!