27 June 2016

Was Sh‎yńǵys Khan Chinese?

Sh‎yńǵys Khan (元太祖)

When we were still living in Baotou – a city which, by the way, has a booming trade in ‘regional items’ and Mongolian specialities – one of the ways in which I would at times annoy my wife Jessie was to pick debates with her about whether she considered Sh‎yńǵys Khan, the Supreme Ancestor of the Yuan Dynasty 元太祖, whose face adorned practically every other pillow and wall-hanging in every other local-style restaurant and curio shop in Baotou, to be Chinese. (Naturally, whichever side she picked, I would always play devil’s advocate for the other.)

The reason for this, of course, is that there are good arguments to be made for either side. Sh‎yńǵys Han (and his descendants Ögetay and Qubılay) shared little culture in common with the people they set out to conquer. They were nomadic pastoralists who spoke a language very different from Han Chinese. They valued very different skills, knowledge and forms of technology than the Chinese did, and had very different cultural outlooks. They are also claimed as the historical fathers of the (modern) nations of Mongolia and Kazakhstan. And – a point not entirely without relevance – they killed a lot of Chinese people during their conquest of China! On the other hand, China, as was, accepted at least Qubılay Han as its unquestioned sovereign, upon whom had fallen the Mandate of Heaven. Qubılay subsequently conferred Chinese Imperial titles and status upon his ancestors. Many of Sh‎yńǵys Han’s Mongols who entered China essentially became culturally and linguistically Chinese – or at least, Chinese enough that they could govern the Chinese state effectively for several generations after Qubılay.

I go to such lengths to point this out, simply to show that such a nationalism is essentially ad hoc; particularly as it pertains backwards to times and places where the modern ideology of nationalism simply does not apply. China was never a nation-state until at least 1689 (with the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which established the first Chinese-Russian border), and arguably not even until 1911 with the Xinhai Revolution and the ascendancy of Sun Yat-sen’s ‘nationalist’ ideology (which was itself arguably ad hoc). There are a number of points at which the formation of China as a nation may be interrogated, as they were by Dr Wang Hui in his excellent literary-social-historical treatment of the transition. If nationalism simply consists in a shared culture, shared values, shared print-literature, why, asks Wang, didn’t the ‘nationalist’ Sun seek to form ‘China’ from the Han, together with the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Burmese? Why instead did he insist on forming ‘China’ from the culturally, linguistically disparate peoples of the Han, the Manchus, the Mongols, the Uyghurs and the Tibetans – whose commonality lay, rather, in their common rulership by the Manchu Qing? His argument in answer is somewhat interesting: he argues that the formation of the Chinese nation-state out of the remains of the Manchu empire rests in certain canons of Confucian political argumentation and methods of legitimation (the ‘heavenly principle’ 天理). Here Wang’s ‘leftist’ intellectual history points, ironically enough, to the traditionalist political theory of Jiang Qing, Kang Xiaoguang and others.

Even in modern Europe, questions of nationalism are very difficult to answer – even in the very places where nationalism could first be said to have arisen. It would seem on first glance hypocritical, for example, for the advocates of Brexit in our own time to deploy arguments about national sovereignty versus the supranational European Union, but turn around and declare the question of Scottish nationhood irrelevant. But it would not be hypocritical to do so, because the European Union is not a state. It doesn’t serve the same common good of collectively-organised pity which the state is meant to serve. On the other hand, the United Kingdom herself is a state so-organised (with a long and continuous history of institutions, organisations and services to prove it), in spite of its being a similarly-supranational project, the fruit of a personal union in the Stuart line of kings, and of the personal efforts of those same kings to foster unity between the Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish nations, all under the state they ruled! Even if there was never any such thing as a single ‘British people’ in the narrow sense (unless, by argument from etymology, only the Welsh are so indicated), there was certainly a single, shared British solidarity that came from long personal rule under the same state. Even the wars which led to the unjust overthrow of the Stuart kings were themselves transnational in character: Catholic and Anglican Scots, English and Irish all banded together in support of their native king, to fight off a foreign Dutch usurper backed by Puritan Scots, English and Irish.

The question of the relationship between nation and state becomes even stranger and more convoluted when applied to polities like Russia. Like China, the modern state of Russia (though naturally imbued with the character of its majority constituency), still sways the loyalty of a number of different narody: Tatars, Chuvash, Bashkir, Chechens, Karelians, Siberians and half a dozen others. And yet the Russian narod itself, together with its civilisational influence, spans the borders of Belarus and the Ukraine, along with parts of non-Russian states such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Moldova.

Susanna Rabow-Edling talks about a distinction, which she goes on to critique from within, of the difference between political and cultural forms of nationalism. Even though I think she overstated her case a little bit in portraying the Slavophils (Russia’s nascent cultural ‘nationalists’) as crypto-anarchists in a Herderian mould, I still believe her book on the Slavophils to be essential reading, if for no other reason than that it illustrates so nicely some of the essential differences in tenor between the nationalism that makes an explicitly-political project of engaging the people, and the ‘nationalism’ (possibly a misnomer) that engages the people outside the state. Even though their instincts could be thought of as localist, democratic, distributist, radical or even anarchist, Khomyakov, the brothers Kireevsky and the brothers Aksakov did not seek to involve the Russian people in a constitutional or a parliamentary project. They felt both that statecraft would corrupt the people, and that pandering to the people would introduce evil aims into statecraft. Ivan Aksakov went so far as to develop the idea of obshchestvo, wherein the people developed a shared customary consciousness outside of and in parallel to the state.

The reason why I put the Slavophils’ cultural ‘nationalism’ in scare-quotes is because even though they were as concerned with the narod (if not more so!) than the narodniki themselves, and even though they were concerned with preserving the privileges and powers of the Tsar – hence my reticence at labelling them ‘anarchists’ of any sort – it blessedly never occurred to them to make the one dependent on the other. The life of the people and the life of the state were to be kept in their separate realms. Though Ivan Kireevsky in particular with his anti-Roman qualms might be mortified by my saying so, the Slavophils did evince some of the Byzantine mentality which approached the basileus in one way, and the ethnos in another way entirely. Put another way: I get the strong suspicion that the Slavophils would not hesitate to agree that Sh‎yńǵys Khan was the tsar of the Chinese land and the papa of the Chinese household – but they would revolt against any further claim the Chinese narod would make upon him as demeaning to the Chinese people themselves, and they would detest his being made a political icon in modern Chinese culture and society. I can imagine they might advise the Chinese people to seek their political awareness, their obshchestvo, in other and healthier directions.

25 June 2016

For and against Milbank

The title of this post is not an accident. It deliberately references chapter titles in Milbank’s masterwork Theology and Social Theory: ‘For and against Hegel’ and ‘For and against Marx’. I confess to having a similar scepticism of Milbank now that he had of Hegel and Marx in 1990. It is indeed a sad thing to see such a respected scholar and social theorist as John Milbank of the University of Nottingham reduced to a state of entirely one-sided rage at the prospect of the British populace voting to leave the European Union. Considering his countrymen who fall into the like-minded ‘high Tory’, ‘red Tory’ and ‘blue Labour’ camps, who have already weighed in on this question with a far more Eurosceptic eye than Milbank himself has (people like Lord Maurice Glasman, Peter Hitchens, David Lindsay, Neil Clark, or on this side of the pond, John Médaille – none of whom are ‘dupes’, and certainly none of whom are even remotely ‘small-minded, bitter, puritanical, greedy’ or ‘Unitarian’), I think Milbank may want to reconsider his position on this particular issue once he’s sat down and gotten through a brandy-and-soda or two.

There were, and are, two kinds of protest against the European Union which were given voice on Thursday. The first one Milbank very correctly identifies, and scours with considerable justice. Farage and UKIP are indeed taking issue with the European Union for not being nearly Whiggish (or Reformed, Roundhead, Nonconformist, Puritan, capitalist or liberal) enough for their tastes. They detest the European Union for supposedly coddling immigrants from abroad, and for pushing regulations on Britain which hamper what they feel to be Britain’s business. Their ludicrous and craven actions in the wake of the referendum – reneging on their promises to the British public to refinance the NHS, whilst going back to Brussels with open hands for a new free trade agreement – indeed show that they are completely ‘deluded’, as Milbank claims. The casual racism (and no, I am not afraid to call it that), the bigotry against Eastern and Southern Europe, the nostalgia for Empire, the desire to drag Britain back to what it had been before the Wars of the 20th century (one presumes, in UKIP’s view, before Clement Attlee screwed everything up), these are all very ugly motivations which have fed into Brexit, and ought to be opposed with all due diligence.

Where I disagree with Milbank and other left-Remainers is that Brexit is not and never was a referendum on these particular issues, regardless of whatever other motivations people had for voting this way. Indeed, some Remainers themselves have been insistent on this purely-factual point, that the Leave campaign would have no impact on immigration from non-EU countries. And more to the point, other motivations for leaving have come to the fore. I myself have been a Eurosceptic of the Left for a long time, for economic, for geopolitical and even for theological reasons. My theological Euroscepticism, actually, should be readily apparent, and it ties in very closely with my economic Euroscepticism. Does a supranational polity driven by an ironclad, one-sided, nominalist logic which enforces austerity and punishment, and rigidly refuses to forgive debts even when doing so would be beneficial to both parties, indeed have anything in common with the theology of grace which prevails in the Christian East (or, indeed, among Latin Christians at their best)? Indeed, does the official policy of the European Union bureaucracy toward nations like Greece (or Italy, or Portugal, or Spain) not also recall certain Calvinist attitudes toward debt and judgement?

Keep in mind that this is not some ivory-tower academic argument. Structural long-term unemployment, cuts to social programmes, flight of the intellectuals, poverty, depression, drug use, suicide: these are the fruits of Eurozone recalcitrance and insistence on Greece being punished for what is actually the result of a trade imbalance with Germany. One can indeed chalk the utter disaster and failure that is the German and Eurozone approach to Greece (or half a dozen other countries facing disastrous austerity measures imposed from above) up to bad policy or bad planning. Orthodoxy should furnish the tools to understand the depth of the sin, both structural and personal, involved in the entire European Union economic project, that comes from an unwillingness to examine one’s own faults, and in typical Calvinist fashion ‘study to admonish’ others, and particularly those who are weaker, poorer and less powerful. Just as Saint John the Forerunner withdrew over the River Jordan to call the people of Judæa to repentance, so too some member of the European Union had to be the first to withdraw to call the rest of Europe to repent. In this case, that member was the United Kingdom.

I would indeed like to see the old Milbank return, the one who was far more careful about drawing out subtle philosophical distinctions often within the same academic or philosophcial movement (such as the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages). If he were more attuned to the breadth and depth of some of the alternative voices – with many of whom, as I have said before, he would find himself in broad agreement on a host of other issues – he might be far more careful about characterising this British revolt against the European superstate. A revolt which, I am pleased to note, is already kicking both British and German neoliberals and Whigs right where it counts, and making it easier for Eastern and Southern European voices to be heard without dismissal.

24 June 2016

Brexit as repoliticised politics

Cross-posted from The Lanchester Review:

What a morning to wake up to in Saint Paul! Not only do we have the news that fifty-two per cent of Britons have voted to leave the European Union, but also that David Cameron is tendering his resignation. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised by the first result. I was – pleasantly so. And I’d also be lying if I said Cameron’s resignation as PM didn’t make that surprise all the sweeter. This is indeed a watershed moment, but not for the reasons the politicians most concerned are wont to claim.

For example: pace Nigel Farage, Brexit was not – and never was – a referendum on immigration policy. Regardless of the strong presence of an anti-immigration element among the Leave campaign organisers, whether Britain stays in or withdraws from the European Union will have absolutely no immediate impact on the levels of immigration from non-EU members such as Syria. It will not do to say that the current vote heralds a hostile, racist or xenophobic stance toward – as the more hysterical of the Remain camp have begun to claim – either Britain’s non-white populace or foreign nationals who are already living and working there. Still less does it mean a return to British imperium or pre-WWI economic power. It is actually rather comical that UKIP are now seeking ‘free trade’ with the European Union after going directly afoul of the banksters who run it, but that goes somewhat to show how out-of-touch they were with the ramifications of their own campaign.

Likewise, pace Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond, Jo Rowling and the other doomsayers in Remain, Brexit is not, and should not be taken as, a referendum on Scotland’s standing within the United Kingdom. However, Brexit may end up making it the case that within Britain regional concerns will take on far greater importance.

The reason for this, is that Brexit was in fact a moment at which the same phenomenon which lifted Jeremy Corbyn to power, was voted on by the British general public and influenced the course of the entire United Kingdom. Corbyn was elected to his current seat as the head of the Labour Party on two principles: that policy matters more than narrative, and that the same impersonal market forces and bureaucracies which have emptied politics of its content do not need to dictate those same politics.

Dr Wang Hui – professor of literature at Tsinghua University and leading scholar of the Chinese New Left – coined a phrase which he used extensively in his book on Chinese modernity, The End of the Revolution: ‘depoliticised politics’. In his case, he used it to refer to the formal dominance of the Chinese Communist Party in Chinese political life, whilst at the same time the content of politics was emptied of all its former meaning and a naked neoliberal logic of markets was used to fill the void. The collective action of human beings – as in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – was barred from consideration as a force for change. Although no single party rules the European Parliament in the same way the CCP rules China, it is still the case that the European Union project represents this same kind of depoliticisation of politics. Collective action and organisation at the local or national level are ignored in favour of a faceless and democratically-unaccountable technocracy operating out of Brussels: the Commission, the Central Bank and the IMF. This technocracy justifies itself in exactly the same way, it should be noted, as the Chinese Communist Party after Deng Xiaoping has justified itself: without us, there will be no growth, no good times, no economic stability.

Britain has now delivered a stunning popular rebuke, both to the argument that they need the European Troika and the technocratic structure it represents, and to the underlying principle that the collective action of people at the grassroots is subservient and subject to neoliberal market logic – the latter of which would have dictated that British people stay in the Union out of pure consumeristic self-interest. Without denying that some degree of this rebuke was issued for less-than-admirable reasons – to wit, the reasons of nativism, xenophobia, nostalgia for Empire – the end result is something which ought to be cheered by the Left at large. Brexit is at its core a ‘repoliticised politics’, a statement that Thatcher was wrong – there is an alternative to neoliberalism, and a different kind of statecraft is indeed possible.

23 June 2016

Procreative peasants, Dionysian distributism?

One of the themes that keeps coming back in Allan C Carlson’s so-far excellent book on distributism’s successes and failures in European history, Third Ways – and I don’t know if he is intentionally highlighting this or not – is the return to a primal, chthonic veneration of sex and fertility among the advocates of family and peasant economy.

Whether it’s the earthy, bawdy public-house songs of GK Chesterton’s Distributist League; or George Jackson’s dismissive commentary about the Green Rising being a ‘reversion to the fertility cults of the past’; or Alexander Chayanov’s strong-necked, broad-shouldered, full-breasted Utopian women with their classical features, ready to raise families of nine children each with their beaus; or Ellen Key’s Nietzschean, Teutonic överfru, ‘guardian of the fire and cultivator of the fields’, whose ‘pure and beautiful’ ‘erotic longings’ were most sublimely realised in motherhood - there seems to be a distinctly pre-Christian element to these calls for the return to the family.

And I’m personally unsure whether this is a good thing or not. Actually, wait, scratch that. Sexual love and parenthood are very good things, and not only Scripture but many of the best among the virginal, monastic Holy Fathers weren’t ashamed of saying so, but how much of good things are they, and are we contextualising them correctly?

On the one hand, there is absolutely something admirable and tantalising in the family-centric approach, that sees the dichotomy of the sexes as something to be celebrated, and that sees sex itself as something colourful, exuberant, adventurous, kenotic (and kinetic!), outward-looking, procreation-oriented, a long-term project open to the Other – in short, something gloriously complicated and ecstatically ‘unsafe’.

It’s a definite step up from the grey, dreary, prophylactic, clinical and androgynous vision of Alva Myrdal and other like-minded social engineers, which seems to be the endgame of modern gender ideology. I’ll be among the first to admit that it would do nothing but good, injecting our post-Christian culture with a good dose of the ol’ heathen fire and danger – or, for us more historically-minded Americans, let us have more of the scandalous, ‘obscene’ Tory Woodhull and far less of the priggish and puritanical Maggie Sanger. This is a preference for which the Latins have been blessedly vocal.

At the same time, for all I know the positive view the Church has always had of the mystery of marriage, the Orthodox Christian in me is left doubting if this strong Dionysian streak in the peasant economy is ultimately compatible with our emphasis on askesis, or that runs aground of our insistence – a completely correct insistence, to be sure, of this Vladimir Solovyov has managed to convince me – that sex is something inherently post-lapsarian, something which points to a betrayal of our forefathers and the ontology of physical death. In Orthodox anthropology, marriage isn’t just about fulfilling our ‘natural’ urges (though it is certainly that), or making and raising children (though it is certainly that too); it is a space for askesis, another kind of monastic cell, in which husband and wife lift each other closer to God. Orthodoxy and the Fathers all seem to be saying: marriage is good; intercourse in marriage is good, within limits; families – even big families – are all good. But far better is holy virginity and eremitical solitude!

My problem is this, though. Our society has already so decoupled sex from its proper moorings in marriage, procreation and family life – has already dragged up the plant by the roots and left it to wither and die a cold and cynical death – that it seems to me that our first job is to stick the stalk back in the pot before we find the right shelf to place it on. Baby steps back to sanity.

I hope I am not too far afield on this point, and I welcome my Orthodox brothers and sisters to correct me on it, if need be. And, naturally, I am interested also in hearing commentary from my Latin, Protestant, Heathen, Zoroastrian, Daoist, Muslim and non-religious gentle readers on this topic as well!

21 June 2016

More thoughts on Orthodoxy and nationalism

It is common enough in Latin (and, sadly, even some Orthodox) polemics, particularly in light of the recent Great and Holy Council being held as we speak in Crete, to see Orthodoxy as a backward religion hopelessly mired in, and in thrall to, the brutish political vagaries of nationalistic feeling. The advocates of the Council have made it one of their most bandied-about critiques of those churches which have withdrawn from it (well, one in particular), that they are being guided not by the Holy Spirit but by concerns which are all-too-earthly. Leaving aside the questionable justice of these critiques, particularly as they concern the Patriarchates of Antioch and Georgia whose withdrawals from the Council were not motivated at all by nationalistic feeling, it cannot be denied that they do proceed from some basis in truth. As with all polemical characterisations, it is indeed based on a kernel of reality, and it is needful to recognise this fact: nationalism in Orthodox countries, and indeed in Orthodox churches, is indeed very strong.

There are two very important historical and ecclesiological reasons for this tendency toward nationalism in majority-Orthodox polities. Firstly, Orthodoxy has historically cultivated a very close relationship – too close for comfort for many in the West who are used to thinking about a ‘wall of separation’ – between the Church and the state. This ideal was articulated by two emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire, Emperor Saint Constantine the Great and Emperor Saint Justinian, as the ideal of symphonía, or ‘harmony’ between Church and state. Secondly, Orthodoxy recognises as a matter of praxis the natural solidarity that exists between people who speak the same language, and validates and celebrates this natural solidarity by embedding the Church in the life of the common culture, rather than keeping the knowledge and participation in the Church on the rarefied level of the learned intellectuals. Hence, why the Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian churches hold their liturgies in Church Slavonic or English; why the Phanar, Greek, Antiochian, Alexandrian and Jerusalemite churches hold their liturgies in Greek or Arabic; why the Georgians Georgian; why the Romanians Romanian; why the Finns Finnish; and so on.

It should be remembered clearly that in the times of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Church’s relationship with the state was something distinct and separate from its relationship with the common people of the nation, with what the Slavs with their typical insightful linguistic concision call simply the narod. The Roman government oversaw a large number of distinct and separate narody, each of which had a subject relationship to that government, rather than being the sole legitimating force for that government. Nationalism, as such, did not exist. There was no practical basis for it. Nationalism arose in the West, specifically in England and France, also on account of two factors. The first and less immediate was that the Western Church had been vying for political power with the state for several centuries. The second and more immediate was the concentrated effort on the part of the kings of these countries to build for themselves a popular dimension of legitimacy which could bolster war efforts that were being waged largely by common people.

Nationalism as a political doctrine did not become popularised, however, until the advent of mass communication and mass politics which followed in the wake of the French Revolution, and thereafter spread to all the countries affected by the wars of expansion undertaken by Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. When nationalism struck the Orthodox world, however, it struck with full and disproportionate force. Rebels and statesmen among Orthodox nations sought, largely with admirable intentions, religious freedom, political sovereignty, economic and social liberation for ethno-linguistic and religious minorities (such as the Greeks and the South Slavs) from the tyranny of the Ottoman Empire – in short, they sought the creation of their own nation-states. The Orthodox Churches, closely tied as they were to the nation and open as they were to active collaboration with the state, became enthusiastic supporters of various nationalist projects, particularly in the Balkans. Likewise, for their part, secular leaders (such as Ioannis Kapodistrias in Greece or Nikola Pašić in Yugoslavia) made ample use of popular Orthodox piety and strong affiliation among the peasantry for the Church as a social cement in their nation-building projects.

This much is common knowledge, of course, but I highlight it here to show that the doctrinal and ecclesiological conditions for support of nationalism among Orthodox Christians, which are real enough, are in fact historically contingent and conditioned rather than an essential or built-in component of Orthodox theoria itself. Indeed, Orthodox hierarchs have been quick to disavow and condemn the more noxious forms of nationalism that began to surface in the nineteenth century: the go-to example here is the 1872 Council of Constantinople which condemned as heretical the idea (ethnophyletism) that each nation is entitled to its own jurisdiction on the same political territory. In such ways as this, the Orthodox Church has proven doctrinal precedents for distinguishing clearly between the separate claims of the nation – the narod – and the governing authorities, military and legal bodies which constitute the state. It is worthy of note also that the Russian Orthodox Church, which is too often unfairly accused both by the Latins and even by her sister Orthodox churches of nationalism, actually separates out its social approach to the nation on the one hand, and to the state on the other.

This is a particularly-crucial insight when it comes to examining such concepts as the ‘Russkiy mir’, which is so often wilfully misunderstood and vilified in the West. The ‘Russian world’ and the ‘Russian idea’ is not a nationalistic concept – that is, it is not tied to any one particular political expression, to any one state or governing power – but is instead a civilisational concept that belongs exclusively to the narod. One may, with some justice, look askance at its being propounded directly by agencies of the modern Russian state under President Vladimir Putin, but it is both unjust and historically naïve to consider the concept itself a nationalist concoction. When the Slavophils, or the French-Ukrainian existentialist-personalist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, or the Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, talked about the ‘Russian world’ or the ‘Russian idea’, as often as not they were using it to criticise and oppose the designs of the Tsarist or Soviet state in its consolidation of power, and to empower in its stead a more local, more distributist, more human-scaled, more familial, more participatory, more (for lack of a better word) narodniy expression of Russian public life. The ‘Russian idea’ is one which pertains to the role of the Russian people, civilisation and culture, rather than the Russian state and government, in the world.

It would be wrong even to call the ‘Russkiy mir’ a wholly religious concept, although (and because) religious concerns and convictions permeate it at every level. The practice and theory of sobornost’, of free fellowship through love, is implicit in the Eucharist; it is implicit in the fellowship of Christ and His disciples. And sobornost’ is at the root of the Russian idea. Far from being an ‘Orthodoxy without Christ’ (as the First Things crowd might tell you), an Orthodoxy embedded in the life of the narod after the manner of the ‘Russian idea’ is a leaven, one local culture (pun intended) of it, in precisely the way Christ told His followers to be, within the warp and woof of society rather than withdrawn from it or above it or apart from it. Or, if I may borrow and somewhat reductively reverse-engineer a certain counter-modern Daoist conceit which runs parallel with the Russian philosophical experience, the ‘Russian idea’ is a cultural yin (naturally not the only such culture, but a unique and uniquely valuable one) which receives and contains the yang of Our Lord and His Church.

As I have remarked before, secular nationalism is an ideology of the nation-state which, at its most dangerous, welds together Pilate’s self-interested calculation and pride of power and the raw passions of the crowds yelling ‘give us Barabbas!’ – the same forces which stood in judgement of Christ and had Him crucified. It is something to be resisted at the deepest level. Yet it is important to remember also that Our Lord was incarnate, both as ‘an Hebrew of the Hebrews’ and a Roman by citizenship; He never called upon His followers to resist the Emperor with violence; still less did He renounce Jerusalem or its people, His own people, whom He had come to save in spite of their rejection of Him. Well are we advised both to respect the right purposes of the state, and also to love our neighbours, even to the point of laying down our lives for our friends. It would be a mistake to silence the witness of any Church, most of all the Russian Church which has put such great creative thought and energy into the nature of the Orthodox witness in the world.

18 June 2016

Hallelujah for Fallujah

The Iraqi Ground Forces have retaken about eighty percent of Fallujah from Daesh, including the city centre and Fallujah General Hospital. The Fallujah assault has been in the works for months now; slowly but surely, the Western-created monsters of Daesh are being driven back and some semblance of order is being restored, at least on the Iraqi front of the war. Good news is a most welcome guest in the East.

Unfortunately – and I know I sound like a broken record saying so – the American government is still shielding the terrorists—uh, sorry, ‘moderate rebels’—on the Syrian front of the war, in preparation for a renewed military involvement in Syria under a Clinton (or Trump) government. Once again, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that our government has a vested interest in creating as much instability as possible to the detriment of truly moderate and secular government forces in the region (and certainly to the detriment of the region’s native Orthodox and Catholic Christians), in the interests of the murderously-ideological Saudi régime and the Turkish Islamists, both of whom have vested interests in destroying Syria and decimating its populace: Shi’ites, Christians and sane Sunnis alike.

Now is not the time for fatigue and apathy to set in (though I know it has for me several times before now). Now is the time for anti-war activists and anti-imperialists in the United States to be more active and more vocal than ever. At this point, barring a massive third-party insurgency (which I am not, by the way, ruling out), whichever nominee is elected, the inertia and deep-state impetus will be toward renewing and escalating the bloody civil war in Syria. This has to stop.

11 June 2016

Game over, man

Meet the old boss. Same as the old boss, funnily enough.

There is no conservative candidate on the red team in this election. Just as there is no progressive candidate on the blue team. Each major-party candidate represents, respectively, the most crass and vulgar aspects of our culture, and the most selfish and conniving aspects of our politics.

Why, you ask?

With the honourable exceptions of the First Nations and the Loyalists who were excised bloodily in the Revolution (and among whom were, not coincidentally, quite a few American Indians), American conservatism is an exercise in futility. We as a culture do not have the instinct for preservation of the old. We do not live in lands to which we have deep and religious ties. We do not have a nobility with a generations-old link to the land and to the people; what we have instead are haute-bourgeois speculators who treat both as commodities. (The reason I am so hard on the American South, by the way, is the same reason George Grant was so hard on Goldwater: they actively perpetuate the lie that they are conserving something other than an illusion, an illusion ultimately bought at the expense of millions of broken black lives and families.) With even red-state Americans embracing all manner of simplistic ideologies, and being unable to identify what is worth conserving, even ‘movement conservatism’ has turned out to be a worthless chimæra – an ill-fated attempt to tie together the faith-family-and-flag crowd with the nihilistic apostles of creative destruction, both political (neocons) and economic (libertarians). Trump, the nihilist apostle of – this time cultural – creative destruction par excellence, the candidate of strippers and blow, is simply the apotheosis of the late realisation that movement conservatism is a self-conscious fraud.

Likewise, faith in progress is at this point an exercise in insanity. We have no idea where we are progressing or how, but we are making good time. Or so we tell ourselves as we combine unprecedented levels of environmental destruction, free-trade madness, waste, inequality and imperialistic hubris with unprecedented forms of decadent sexual libertinism and experimentation. Climate change is happening, but we’re looking for more and better ways to wring the last drops of fossil fuel out of the ground before it all goes belly-up. Corporate profits continue to rise – and yet the American middle class hasn’t gotten its fair share since the ‘70’s. And we’ve been at war across the globe non-stop since 2001, and given that we’re no closer to stamping out terror now than when we began, I’d say we’re losing. Pace the Nation’s recent arse-covering, Clinton not only doesn’t represent an ‘incremental’ shift away from any of the above – she’s been busy stepping on the gas, ripping out the steering wheel and cutting the brake lines her whole career. And, to add insult to injury, we’ve got the nauseating display of her jackbooted supporters wagging their fingers at us ‘privileged’, ‘bratty’ young people, telling us to get with the programme or – essentially – the gays get it.

The Democrats (since the ‘60’s the refuge of the anti-war and anti-corporate voices in America) have been morphing for a generation now, under the influence of the liberal-interventionist Clintonites, into the party of war and Wall Street, with a social-liberal gloss. The Republicans (since the ‘60’s the refuge of the voices for social stability and the nuclear family in America) have been spending roughly the same time, under the influence of the libertine wing of the Reaganites, morphing into the party of bunga-bunga. Tweedledee and Tweedledum; the monkey and the lizard – what we are looking at now is simply the full fruition, disappointing as that is, of that entire evolution.

Keep an eye out for the rise of the third parties in America, and a massive revolt against sitting officials in 2018. Hold onto your hats, because the sixth party system is coming down around our ears.

08 June 2016

In (partial) defence of the liberal arts degree

One of the articles which recently crossed my desk was an interactive online presentation from Georgetown University’s Centre on Education and the Workforce, highlighting which college majors are the most (and least) economically-valuable. The list is unsurprising: every last one of the most lucrative college degrees belongs to a scientific, technical, engineering or mathematics (or STEM, as we call it in the ‘ed biz’) field. On the other hand, the least-lucrative fields overall – with the one notable exception of early childhood education – belonged to the arts, the liberal arts and the humanities. This presentation, along with a couple of recent articles I’ve been reading about Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame, the social media-savvy populariser of technical and skilled-trade education, prompted me to a meditation on the sad fate of the liberal arts.

The popularity of Mike Rowe is not at all difficult for me to understand. Encouraging more and more high-school age youngsters to enter trades and to acquire practical skills is a worthwhile and laudable goal, and I have nothing but the most profound respect for it. I’m speaking here as a former AmeriCorps volunteer who worked with low-income and first-generation students, many of whom wanted to know which degrees would help them get decent-paying jobs as soon as they left. Technical schools and community colleges were very often the (only) reasonably-priced options.

Taking a somewhat broader spiritual view, Rowe is performing a truly valuable service in making the skilled trades again a competency that has social currency – that is, giving the youngsters who don’t get into the liberal arts schools of their choice a decent shot at self-respect and competence in skills, which have become criminally undervalued in a ‘cognitive’ age ruled by the digitally-nomadic ‘symbolic analysts’ (to use the term coined by Robert Reich and borrowed subversively by Christopher Lasch). Rowe, a good populist at heart – and who doesn’t love a good populist? – is doing yeoman’s work and he is doing it well: re-establishing the self-respect and self-awareness of the working classes. He’s trying to spare working-class families money and humiliation by not having them and their children chase degrees they aren’t economically-equipped to use effectively, when their wealthier and better-connected classmates are able to live on their parents’ cash while they pursue career-starting unpaid internships, and so on. He’s trying to help them build respectable conditions for themselves on their own terms. For this he deserves three very hearty cheers.

Well, if I were feeling particularly uncharitable and cantankerous, I might give him two-and-a-half. Because Rowe’s work is propped up, in part, on a devaluation of the four-year liberal arts degree. This is a devaluation for which neither he nor the political tendency he represents – a political tendency I share, by the way – is responsible. All the same, it is there. Our age does not trust the liberal arts degree. It isn’t immediately applicable. It doesn’t come with a guaranteed cash pay-off at the end. Think of the stereotype of the English-major barista saddled down with six-figure student loan debt, and also of the derision this tends to draw. Many of us tend to view the liberal arts degree as impractical, an unwise indulgence of the sons and daughters of privilege, which lands them in a penury fully-deserved on account of their naïveté and lack of foresight. Mike Rowe’s success is built, partially, on a very real cultural desire to avoid, not necessarily even the poverty but the social stigma that comes with failure: a social stigma measured in the dollars and cents you could have been earning and saving and accumulating, but are instead using (if you can get them) to pay off the interest in a debt that might hound you to the grave. The sad reality: in America there is no crime more unforgivable than that of being poor.

The blunt truth is that Rowe is reacting to these social and economic realities in a wholly level-headed, understandable and sympathetic way. No, if we are to understand the devaluation of the liberal arts degree, we have to look for the deeper roots, and these roots are many-layered and overlapping.

This is indeed a major theme in the opus of the great social historian Christopher Lasch. In his book The Revolt of the Élites, he turns to the conflicting aims, the built-in contradictions (considered almost in a Marxist fashion), between the myth of meritocracy on the one hand, and the self-perpetuation of a managerial and professional élite on the other whose hallmarks are mobility and managerialism. The academy has come to serve both. It does this firstly by extending the promise of social mobility – if you get a degree here, you will have a limitless future, boundless opportunities! Secondly, by entrenching professional status and expertise as the primary (if not sole) marker of social worth, it ensures that children born into families which already have a professional background have a leg up. Thirdly, the meritocratic norms of the academy effectively shield the perpetuation of professional class privilege from serious scrutiny. Advanced degrees and cushy managerial jobs, so the reasoning goes, go to the people who are smarter, who are more ambitious, who are harder-working, who have earned said positions rather than inherited them.

Lasch makes the point with startling and brutal effectiveness, that ‘social mobility’ is a recent ideal and an ameliorative one, which arose after the Great Depression to replace the older ideal of American producerism which economic disaster had depreciated. In the older tradition of American producerism, the concept of the ‘producing class’ was expansive enough to include (in the words of social reformer and Unitarian minister William Channing) the ‘professional, commercial, manufacturing, mechanical, agricultural orders’. It was an ideal in which wealth and productive property were not entirely out of the reach of the poorest of the producing class, yet honest work – even manual work – not yet beneath the wealthiest. This producerism was also somewhat anti-capitalist insofar as it had precious little use for usury, speculation and the manipulation of money, and sought to discipline all three through collective action and government regulation. However, as Lasch takes pains to highlight, the ideal also allowed for a broad distribution of intellectual assets. Even poor workers and farmers were not excluded from the realm of the fine arts, of music, of literature, of philosophy. Whether rightly or wrongly, Americans of the nineteenth century prided themselves on the fact that their poor workers and farmers were better-educated – in the classical, liberal-arts sense of the word – than Old Europe’s!

The post-Great Depression doctrine of social mobility undermined this ideal irrevocably. When it became clear that work and productivity alone were no guarantee of the ability to enjoy a sufficient existence, the old ideal that a liberal education was meant to supplement work gave way to the idea that liberal education was meant to supplant it. For the first time, a life of manual labour became something the successful student was expected to escape. Or, as Lasch put it, ‘it was only when the hierarchical structure of American society became unmistakable that opportunity came to be widely associated with the achievement of superior standing in an increasingly stratified, money-mad, and class-conscious society’. And the education system inevitably became the vehicle by which the ordinary worker or farmer could hope to improve his economic lot in life, or – more likely – the lot of his children.

From here, it’s not difficult to piece together the trends which followed. When the purpose of education shifted from the supplementation of labour with learning, to the escape from labour by learning, learning itself increasingly took on an ‘economic’ character. Knowledge itself became something specialised and managerial. This trend Lasch ties, with some rhetorical flair, into other broader social trends: ‘the concentration of corporate power, the decline of small-scale production, the separation of production from consumption, the growth of the welfare state, the professionalisation of knowledge, and the erosion of competence, responsibility and citizenship’. And from the interactive web feature put out by Georgetown, it’s hard to argue with his conclusions. The most-lucrative degrees are all ones which mesh neatly with the specialised demands of large-scale production and entrenched corporate power: petroleum engineering; pharmaceutical sciences and administration; metallurgical engineering; mining engineering; chemical engineering. The least-lucrative ones are those degrees which are meant to facilitate social consciousness and the building of basic spiritual, intellectual and emotional competencies in the young: early childhood education; human services; studio arts; social work; normal education; visual and performing arts; theology and religious vocations.

It’s difficult to look at these results – and there’s no reason to deny their factuality – and not come to the same sobering conclusions Lasch did about the choices we’ve made as a society. We have decided, first-order, that accumulating wealth, in the crassest and most materialist sense, is of overriding concern. On another level, we have decided that any effort spent on cultivating spiritual or æsthetic pursuits is a waste of time and energy, and we compensate those engaged in such cultivation accordingly – both in terms of social respect, and in terms of the wealth we have deemed all-important.

Needless to say, though, this is a worrying prospect. When, as Lasch claims, our élites are indeed in revolt against not only democracy, but the very basis for any kind of high culture, we have run up against a civilisational crisis. No civilisation has long survived in any meaningful way, which has so devalued its arts, its literature, its pursuits of the great humanistic questions, or the men and women responsible for inculcating their appreciation in its young. And as much as I endorse the need for low-income students of working-class backgrounds to look to technical training and the skilled trades in the current social and economic climate, I can’t help but worry that this is a greater indication of the unsustainable direction of our culture.

07 June 2016

Remembering Holy Bede the Venerable

Our father among the saints, Bede the Venerable, is the saint we commemorate today. As a father of the Orthodox Church, he is an exemplar for the monastic rule followed by Orthodox monks. A diligent and kindly oblate to the monastery at Jarrow, Bede devoted himself to Scriptural studies for the benefit of his brothers and enjoyed teaching them. He was obedient in his disciplines of prayer and keeping the offices of the choir. To all accounts he was a highly sensible Englishman, fair-minded and devoted to the service of others, whose virtues include his heartfelt piety and liberal manners. Such, indeed, was the depth of his knowledge and love that he began to be regarded as a saint even within his own lifetime. Of himself (being the chief source on his own life), Bede speaks thusly:
With God’s help, I, Bede, the servant of Christ and priest of the monastery of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul at Wearmouth and Jarrow, have assembled these facts about the history of the Church in Britain, and of the Church of the English in particular, so far as I have been able to ascertain them from ancient documents, from the traditions of our forebears, and from my own personal knowledge.

I was born on the lands of this monastery, and on reaching seven years of age, my family entrusted me to the most reverend Abbot Benedict, and later to Abbot Ceolfrid for my education. I have spent all the remainder of my life in the monastery, and devoted myself entirely to the study of the scriptures. And while I have observed the regular discipline and sung the choir offices daily in church, my chief delight has always been in study, teaching and writing.

I was ordained deacon at the age of nineteen, and priest at the age of thirty, receiving both these orders at the hands of the most reverend Bishop John at the direction of Abbot Ceolfrid. From the time of my receiving the priesthood until my fifty-ninth year, I have worked, both for my own benefit and that of my brethren, to compile short extracts from the works of the venerable Fathers on holy scripture, and to comment on their meaning and interpretation.
However, in both the religious and the secular world he is also highly regarded as the father of English history, whose History of the English Church and People even today is one of the main primary sources used in the study of pre-Conquest England. His reputation as a scholar and historian, ‘hold[ing]’, in the words of Dr Walter Goffart, ‘a privileged and unrivalled place among first historians of Christian Europe’, is truly well-deserved; his careful and scholarly methodology, taking descriptions of events, as he himself notes above, from multiple written, traditional and first-hand oral sources, set the standard for practically all subsequent work done in the study of history.

Bede himself had a formidable intellect. He had a full command of Greek (in keeping with the heavy Byzantine influence on the English Church of the time, which was felt alongside the Teutonic and the Celtic) and knew a smattering of Hebrew. For the time, he had a remarkable store of scientific knowledge, demonstrating in one of his texts that the Earth was round ‘like a playground ball’ rather than ‘like a shield’. He was incredibly well-versed in the Fathers and had a particular passion for collecting Patristic texts and commentaries, and his texts are sprinkled through with lengthy quotations from the likes not only of Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Jerome, but also classical pre-Christian authors such as Ovid, Horace, Virgil and Pliny the Younger. And yet, he did not set such a great store by his intellect that he fell victim to its worship. As he himself noted:
Better a stupid and unlettered brother who, working the good things he knows, merits life in Heaven than one who though being distinguished for his learning in the Scriptures, or even holding the place of a doctor, lacks the bread of love.
At the end of his life, Bede the Venerable was dictating to his pupils a book – and at the end he was left with one monk named Wilbert, when the book was as yet unfinished. Though Wilbert was unwilling to disturb with this work the elderly holy monk, whose breathing had become laboured, Bede diligently assured him that it was no trouble, and that he should take up his pen and write quickly. When he was done, Bede had Wilbert take the personal effects from his chest – including incense, pepper and linen – and distribute them amongst his brothers at Jarrow with requests that they pray for his soul. He then told them, ‘The time of my departure is at hand, and my soul longs to see Christ my King in His beauty.’

That night, the night of the twenty-fifth of May, Wilbert said there was but one sentence left to write, which Bede bade him finish. When Wilbert had finished, Bede spoke to him: ‘You have spoken truly, it is well finished.’ Being unable to raise his head, he asked Wilbert to do it for him so that he could see the church where he used to pray. He chanted as he reposed in the Lord, the chant that he had been so diligent in singing in his life: ‘Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit’.

The relics of this most holy father of the Church were translated around the year 1020 from his resting place at the Abbey at Jarrow, into a raised tomb at Durham Cathedral alongside the relics of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and the head of Saint King Oswald of Northumbria, where they remain to this day.
Throughout the dark years of thy times, O Bede,
thou didst water the English lands and all the West with outpourings of grace;
and like a skilled sower thou didst cast the seed of divine knowledge
far and wide over the fields of thy Master,
where, springing forth, it hath borne fruit for Him an hundredfold.
Wherefore, having thus acquired boldness before Him, O venerable one,
pray thou unceasingly that our souls be saved.

04 June 2016

Do we need to bring back flyting?

This post is something of a brief follow-up on my treatment of Northern European honour cultures, and how their normative expectations on interpersonal and group conduct run agonal to both libertarian free-speech norms and campus political-correctness culture. It was my contention – roughly speaking – that the dright of Late Antiquity would regard the political-correctness boosters as cowards, and libertarian free-speech advocates as fools. Not long after I posted that, unfortunately, left-wing Providence blogger and former Demos contributor Matt Bruenig got fired from his job for getting a bit salty with Neera Tanden. (And, quite honestly, I find it quite hard to blame him for that.) This was at the behest of Tanden’s defenders – among whom are Sady Doyle, Joshua Foust and Jordan Kay – who had been literally harassing him and his wife at their places of work and attempting to get them both fired, meeting with success with Demos, but (thankfully) not with any further success anywhere else.

It is interesting to me that Tanden’s defenders, who were basically acting from a position of power and using their power indirectly to wreck the careers of two people far less powerful than they were, used the language of honour to justify their actions. Actions which, by the way, I still think are cowardly and gutless (a point on which I am in agreement with Sam Kriss). But if you ask them about their motivations, they would probably tell you that they are acting in the best interests of professional women by removing people who offend them. Taking up where Kriss leaves off, and with reference to my original post about honour culture, I would like to make the following Swiftian modest proposal: we should bring back the noble, traditional English art of flyting.

That’s right. I think we should set aside formal venues where two people can stand up and have a go at each other with personal attacks in verse, including attacks on each other’s sexual preferences, parentage and lack of moves. And the winner has to treat the loser to drinks.

For a bit of historical context: verbal sparring, replete with personal attacks, was essentially one of the traditional honour culture’s most effective safety valves. It was one that prevented arguments from turning into duels and duels from turning into feuds. Flyting, at its most effective (and it wasn’t always effective) would prevent powerful cowards like Tanden’s, um, ‘posse’ from doing exactly what they did to Matt Bruenig. And if this sounds familiar at all, that’s because the safety valve proved so effective that it was adopted by the honour culture that many American blacks inherited from Western Africa, and which was culturally reinforced during the era of slavery.

We’re basically living in an age, now, where half the people are running their mouths without thinking of the consequences and the other half are censoriously trying to police what everyone else thinks—without thinking of the consequences. Our culture has basically been warped to the point that we are expected to hold ourselves always to the standards of angels (at least in public), but this has done nothing but provoke a backlash among people who feel that they are not allowed to express themselves. Holding rap battles like this for people who get into flame wars on Twitter would hopefully bring back some measure of sanity and proportion to a world where such things have outsized real-world consequences.