29 December 2021

On Jo Rowling’s cultural and gender politics

I still consider myself a Harry Potter fan, though nowhere close to as obsessive a one as I once was. My daughter is only now getting into the books, which she dearly loves, and small blame to her. They do immerse and fire the imagination of a nine-year-old in ways that few other books can. And having grown up reading the books myself I can still see their intrinsic merit. Who doesn’t love a good story about an orphaned underdog experiencing the pain of growing up ‘weird’, and finally entering a community of similarly-‘weird’ people where he can make friends, discover his roots, risk his life, fall in love and start his own family? There is a great deal in the Harry Potter books still to love, and I disagree strongly with the detractors who are now, belatedly, saying otherwise. I’m not going to deny my daughter a much-needed degree of literary escapism on account of any real-world political disagreement I might have with the author.

Having said that, looking back on them as an adult, it is a lot easier to spot their flaws. The series certainly isn’t written in high prose. And upon re-reading the series after having come back from my study abroad year in college, I found I had developed a keen and heartfelt detestation for certain aspects of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in particular. Not only was said book a trend-setter in terms of being a turgid doorstop, but I also discovered (again, only with the perspective afforded to me by travel and hindsight) that it featured some truly patronising and retrograde cultural politics.

Although the villains of the set piece themselves are essentially the equivalents of ultranationalist soccer hooligans, the entire Quidditch World Cup was an extended exercise in a certain Little Englander nationalism on Rowling’s part. The ‘international’ backdrop serving largely to point out how backwards and funny-looking all those foreign-looking types are. (Arab wizards use magic carpets and cheat people! African wizards do voodoo! American witches are from Salem!) And unfortunately, even after the QWC is over, the Triwizard Tournament doesn’t give us a break from the cultural politics either. The textual treatment of the French characters from Beauxbatons is pure cringe, as kids say these days. They all seemingly speak with John Cleese’s faux-French ‘outrageous accent’ from Holy Grail. The Beauxbatons young women (and occasionally young men) all act like coquettes when they aren’t behaving like snoots – as though all people from France behave like the worst stereotypes of parisiens. And the treatment the Eastern European characters from Durmstrang get is seemingly worse. Again, they all speak in thick, exaggerated Rocky & Bullwinkle accents. But those of them who aren’t greasy, chauvinistic, thick-headed or displaying wretched table manners are dark and sinister, and certainly not to be trusted.

Despite her oft-stated internationalism, Rowling’s cultural politics as expressed in Goblet of Fire essentially seem to boil down to: England is best because England is normal. An odd sentiment indeed from an author with a clear sympathy for the underdog and the outsider. (Speaking as a fan, the thing that most drew me to the books in the first place was the portrayal of a Britain that was idiosyncratic and countercultural.) To be sure, she does redeem this in later books. Fleur Delacœur is shown to be both passionate and principled in Half-Blood Prince, and Viktor Krum shows himself to be a man of character in Deathly Hallows. Personally, I tend to credit this to Jo’s greater exposure to an international fandom.

However, even after the later books were published, Rowling’s internationalism still had hard and fast limits. Her comments about Palestinians and BDS in the wake of Palestinian-Scottish actress Mia Oudeh’s fan letter were more than just condescending; they were thoughtless and insensitive to the point of cruelty. And then there was her voluble public excoriation of Jeremy Corbyn on Twitter because he dared to talk to Iranians, of all people. Rowling has continued to have a serious blind spot when it comes to any sort of ‘internationalism’ outside the comfortable zone of the OECD nations, and unfortunately that blind spot has shown itself consistently.

But note that Jo Rowling was never ‘cancelled’ from polite society for any of her stances on international politics, whether right or wrong, well-informed or (more often) ill-informed. She was never disinvited from fan events. There were no calls to burn her books from Scottish independence types or ‘Leave’ supporters. She never received mass hate mail of any sort, that I could tell, from Palestinian activists or comrades of the Palestinian cause. (Mia Oudeh was, throughout her entire exchange with Rowling, unfailingly polite and diplomatic while still standing up for her position – and she herself rejected the ‘cancellation’ of Rowling explicitly in her second fan letter.) In general, those of us who paid attention to what she was saying at the time largely attributed her stances to a kind of studied ignorance. She was speaking about things she didn’t understand.

Contrast that to the reactions now, to when Jo Rowling speaks about things that she does understand on a personal level. To wit: the abusive treatment of women by men.

These days she is called ‘hateful’, ‘bigoted’ and ‘transphobic’, and deluged with hate mail, sexist abuse, rape threats and death threats, because she offers her support and considerable cultural clout to such evident irredeemables as Maya Forstater, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Julie Bindel, Rosa Freedman, Kathleen Stock and Marion Millar. What is the difference here?

Well, the first difference I can see is that here, Rowling actually knows what she’s talking about. That makes her dangerous. Rowling has never (to my knowledge) been to Palestine or Iran. Therefore she poses no threat to the prevailing mainstream logic on those topics, in anywhere close to the same way that Mia Oudeh or, say, Abby Martin or Rania Khalek do. But when she speaks about the physical and material vulnerability of women, and when she speaks up on behalf of working women like Forstater who are in danger of losing their jobs over free speech issues, she is speaking from experience as a formerly working-class single mother and as a victim of abuse.

The other difference is that Rowling is here taking a stand that runs counter to the neoliberal shibboleth that the person in all her aspects is fungible, interchangeable and marketable. Rowling is in trouble for essentially saying that there are certain aspects to being a woman that cannot be bought or sold – that there is a depth to the adult female human that goes beyond the performative (and therefore marketable) aspects of ‘gender identity’, and that goes beyond the synthetic means available to men to Polyjuice-potion themselves into women. Women having bodies, having natural bodily functions, having families, having communities or having any other kind of social networks not mediated by market forces—these are all things which the current capitalist order cannot abide and is working to erode.

Now, Jo Rowling has taken some truly admirable stands on other issues. Like Dolly Parton, she has donated herself out of the billionaire class, largely by giving back to people in need in places like Haiti. So please understand that I say the following out of respectful disagreement and not out of rancour.

I will note that Rowling did not take this stance regarding snooty French, sinister Bulgarians, shifty Middle Easterners and all those other funny-talking non-Britons in Goblet of Fire (though, again, to her credit, she bought a lot of this back in her later books). Note that she did not take this stance over Dumbledore’s ad hoc Korrasami sexuality, or over Hermione’s ambiguous blackness. Note that she did not take this stance regarding Palestinians over BDS, or Iranians over nuclear peace talks. Note that she did not take this stance regarding the support Corbyn organically enjoyed among economically-disaffected young people in Britain. But further: note that in all of these cases where Rowling sided with (or at least did not side against) the neoliberal capitalist order and its contempt for personhood, economic dignity, organic community, indigenous cultures and so on, she did not get into any serious trouble with the broader culture and its gatekeepers.

It is important to defend Rowling now precisely because, like Dave Chappelle in The Closer, on this issue she is putting skin in the game, she is speaking from experience, she is not being hateful but instead speaking out of genuine compassion. But it’s also necessary to keep reading her books and discussing both their strengths and their flaws honestly with younger readers.

26 December 2021

The spirit of Patriarch Pavle lives on

A couple of weeks back, the Romanian website Iubesc Ortodoxia posted the above photograph of Archbishop Theophanes (Kim) of Korea, riding the bus. At a time when bishops of certain other jurisdictions are toodling about in Holden Caprices and such, at least the spirit of humility that motivated Patriarch Pavle of Serbia still lives on among the bishops of the Far East. May God grant Archbishop Theophanes many years!

25 December 2021

The depth of the Nativity icon

The Nativity icon is a true wealth of theological depth.

The birth of Christ takes place in a cave. He is surrounded by animals - most notably a donkey and an ox. The Theotokos is reclining at His side, clad in a garment with three stars upon it. Joseph is sitting afar off, looking doubtful, and listening to a shabby character. To the left we see three travellers on horseback, faces turned skyward toward the light of the star shining into the cave; to the right we see two shepherds, clearly startled and afraid as an angel speaks to them. At the bottom right we see a woman pouring water to wash the Christ-child.

The cave deliberately evokes the imagery of the tomb and the mortality of Christ - and so too does the manger in which He lies (in the shape of a coffin) and the white swaddling-clothes he’s wrapped in (the image of His burial-shroud). The donkey and the ox at His side are both witness to the humble status of His birth, and also symbols of the Gentile and the Jewish nations respectively.

The Theotokos’s garment, and three stars upon it, are testament to her perpetual virginity - before, during, and after the birth of the Christ-child. Her gaze is turned toward Joseph, who looks distracted and doubtful, as a demon in human form plants doubts in his mind about his wife's virginity.

The visitors on horseback are clearly clad in the garments of foreigners. Their attention is on the star whose light leads to the cave. They are carrying gifts of gold, symbolising Christ's Kingship over all creation; of incense, symbolising Christ’s Priesthood after the order of Melchizedek; and of myrrh, a flammable oil which evokes Christ's role as the penultimate Prophet.

The shepherds are notable for their simple, poor garments as well as for the look of cringing fright upon their faces and in their stances before the awful apparition of the angel - even though the angel is giving them tidings of joy. A third shepherd is seated on a rock, having understood what the angel has said, and his playing the flute expresses this joy.

At the bottom right of the icon is the image of Salome who, accompanied by a midwife, came to wash Christ after His birth. This expresses that Christ is fully human, and partakes fully of human nature in everything except our sin. He was covered in amniotic fluid coming forth from the Virgin’s womb, the same as any other tiny human has been that comes into the world, and required washing.

And note who IS and who IS NOT in this icon. The people in this icon who are partaking in the good news of the Incarnation are all from the lower ranks of society. Foreigners - that is to say, Gentiles. Rural poor. Women. A doubting stepfather. There are no rabbis. No senators. No legionaries. The respected, the strong, the powerful and the exalted among men are nowhere to be seen here. Note that those closest to Christ, apart from His Mother, are the lowly beasts of burden.

The mystery of the Incarnation, therefore, however incomprehensible it might be to the doubting Saint Joseph (as to many of the rest of us!), is in fact a good news which is given to all regardless of age or wealth or nationality or sex, and not only to a select few. With all creation, then, right down to the lowliest donkey and ox, we are privileged to say: Christ is Born!

18 December 2021

What lies behind Singaporean educational success?

Interesting news from the educational realm in Singapore. Singapore’s educational system is widely regarded as one of the best in the world, and its students routinely outclass other nations in test results on standardised international assessment tools like the PISA exams.

Intriguingly, Singapore has ceased standardised testing entirely for primary 1 and primary 2 students, and also switched to giving whole-point test scores and GPAs for students in older grades in order to de-emphasise competition. Singapore’s Minister of Education (now Minister of Health), Ong Ye Kung, has even stated that ‘learning is not a competition’ and therefore the system should not encourage students to think of it as such.

Why is this important? Well, for one thing, it’s a surprising volte-face for a country whose education system has, until fairly recently, been incredibly keen on high-stakes standardised testing. And Singapore’s education system, despite its high outcomes, is not to be considered perfect. Students in Singapore’s school system often report high levels of stress, and mental illness sometimes results from this stress. But there are still a number of other things that Singapore’s educational system does well that we could stand to learn from.

For one thing, greater attention has been paid to the STEM subjects in Singapore than in many other countries. From an early age students are trained to think mathematically and approach problems from a practical point of view. Students are encouraged to retain their curiosity about the natural world by gaining experience in hands-on experiments and projects. This actually helps them to think more creatively across the board. I don’t agree with the late lamented Carl Sagan on everything (to put it mildly), but I do agree with him on this, which he was saying back in 1994: unfortunately, this retention and encouragement of curiosity and wonder in students is something that is being neglected in Western educational systems.

I will also note, to anticipate a possible objection to this, that Singaporean classrooms are infamous for their strictness, marked by demanding uniform codes, emphasis on teacher talking time, lots of drills and memorisation, and even corporal punishment in schools. Now, I’m not a big fan of corporal punishment – or of learning-by-rote, for that matter. However, it is worth remembering that strictness, per se, is not incompatible with cultivating curiosity. In order for experiments to yield results worth observing, a highly-regimented formal procedure and cautious painstaking observations, often iterated over a considerable period of time, are necessary. Curiosity requires, and thrives off of, discipline. The two are not necessarily at odds.

In Singapore, all teachers employed by the Ministry of Education are represented by the Singapore Teachers’ Union. The unionisation rate for teachers in Singapore is virtually 100%: a proud distinction they share with that other high achiever in international education metrics, Finland. The median income for teachers in Singapore is about $8,000 a year higher than in the US, despite American GDP per capita being $4,000 per year more than Singapore’s. In general, teachers who are unionised are better-compensated, better-supported and happier, which leads to higher achievement and more consistent outcomes for students.

The other thing that Singapore does well – and the thing which seems to receive the least attention in English-language media on Singapore’s education system – is the fact that there has been a sustained, decades-long push for collaborative educational models in Singapore. The recently-voiced sentiment of Mr Ong Ye Kung that education should not be a competition actually has long standing and precedent in the city-state, as the collaborative model was first introduced around 1985 and has been elaborated upon ever since. Students are encouraged to work together in groups to solve problems rather than compete against each other or hide their results from each other.

The cohort of kids that took the test this past year were raised from primary 1 in an environment that encourages teamwork, collaborative problem-solving, and the understanding that ‘I do well when we all do well’. This is important because the PISA exam, as well as having questions formatted to gauge individual performance, also has a collaborative problem-solving section. But the results would seem to indicate that even on the individual questions, the collaborative problem-solving model of approaching science, engineering and math enhances the results. Human beings are social creatures – and children are no exception! We are often at our best when we are able to learn and discover together, as part of a team. And our experiences with team learning can often help us frame or approach questions creatively even when we’re left on our own to answer them.

To reiterate: Singapore’s school system has definite problems. However: the cultivation of scientific curiosity; the insistence on student discipline; the high unionisation rate and strong collective bargaining stance of teachers; and the strong emphasis on collaborative problem-solving – these are all things that the American school system should learn from and try (within reasonable boundaries) to emulate. Particularly the latter two: strong teachers’ unions and collaborative learning.

13 December 2021

The billionaire class and the quest for man-godhood

Evidently, we now know that Jeff Bezos consults with psychic mediums. Elon Musk has a strange fascination with the eighteenth-century occultist and alchemist Giuseppe Balsamo. Peter Thiel and Larry Page have a long-standing association with modern-day occultist and alchemist Ray Kurzweil. What does this all mean? Is it simply that GK Chesterton’s observation is true, that when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing but rather believe in anything?

This may indeed be part of it, and a very significant part at that. However, I’m not fully convinced. The behaviour of the billionaire class indicates that they do indeed believe in something: the acquisition of more and more material wealth and resources at the expense of everybody else. They already own so much of it that their continuing efforts to grab as much of the capital, as much of the real estate, as much of the infrastructure as they can is not an exercise in mere greed. It is rather an exercise of power and political control. But there’s even more to it than that. The willingness with which our hypercapitalist tech elites – Bezos, Page, Thiel, Musk, Gates, Zuckerberg and I’m sure quite a few others as well – have for over 20 years now been investing heavily in cryonics (Alcor), consciousness transference (Neuralink), private space travel (SpaceX, Blue Origin), virtual realities (Meta) and aging reversal through ‘biohacking’ (Altos Labs) is indicative of something else. They are using that wealth that they are sucking up in such great quantities, in an attempt to achieve the goals of mediæval and early-Renaissance alchemy: transmutation and immortality.

The West Coast has been something of a hotbed for New Age spiritualism and occult esoterica since the late 1960s, which shouldn’t be surprising given that it rose out of the counterculture that had its epicentre there. Esalen, Druid Heights, Green Gulch, the Waterkin, Soka Gakkai (at least in its US bulwark) and – yes – the Church of Satan, all have their establishment in California, with a significant portion of those being based in San Francisco. (One should also note that this spiritual and social milieu also produced Fr Seraphim Rose; take that as you will.) So it shouldn’t be too surprising that Silicon Valley as a whole has imbibed that same spiritual atmosphere. After all, it’s fairly common knowledge that the æsthetics and design philosophy of Steve Jobs were highly influenced by Zen Buddhism.

The ‘performance artist’ Marina Abramović in her collaborations with Microsoft supporting their innovations into ‘mixed reality’ is something of a case-in-point. Microsoft did pull down the ad with Abramović in it. And Abramović was evidently baited by the ‘conspiracy theorists’ into fervently denying ever being a Satanist. (Honestly, I believe her. I think she’s genuinely a performance artist, doing an act that sells. It follows that she is not likely to be a very happy or balanced person.) But that is really a distraction from the main point. The entire project of ‘mixed reality’, the blurring between what is real and what is virtual, and the idea that human beings will act as their own demiurges, crafting themselves as homunculi in this new pseudo-reality, is very much still a concern. Witness Zuck’s new project Meta, in all its insidious glory.

That’s really what this is about: it’s the choice highlighted by Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. The desire to transcend death is part of the human condition. But the choice before us is this: in seeking after that transcendence do we turn to the living God of the living reality, and the God-man who appears to us in the flesh, embodied within the stuff of our own everyday material lives? Or do we instead attempt, by means of power, wealth, and all the alchemy and extension of life/consciousness they can buy with it, to become as far as possible ‘little gods’ – to become man-gods? This choice is heightened, to almost apocalyptic terms, by the growing grasping control over the reality by the few, and the accessibility (and desirability) of the illusion by the many. As Berdyaev himself put it:
Today the soul of man no longer rests upon secure foundations, everything round him is unsteady and contradictory, he lives in an atmosphere of illusion and falsehood under a ceaseless threat of change. Evil comes forward under an appearance of good, and he is deceived; the faces of Christ and of Antichrist, of man become god and of God become man, are interchangeable. A large number of contemporary people have “divided minds.” They are the sort of folk whom Dostoevsky displayed to us…
If it’s an affectation, the occultism, esotericism and attraction to alchemy by our ruling class is certainly an odd one. To be absolutely clear on this, I do not think (pace QAnon) that the occultism and esotericism and alchemy-dabbling of the ruling class is wilful and orchestrated (at least on the human level). After all, Ayn Rand influenced Anton LaVey, not the other way around, and therefore logically must have preceded him. The cupidity of the elites preceded the interest any of them had in spiritualism and esoterica. When one is driven by the lust for greater and greater degrees of wealth and control over the means of production, the desire to become ‘like gods’ becomes that much more powerful.

Berdyaev—and, by extension, Dostoevsky—must be given his due on this question, though. We are faced with the choice between occult (that is to say, metaverse and mind-hack, a technological illusion of power and control, a façade of freedom from necessity); and the freedom that comes from paying respect to reality on the other. It is increasingly clear what choice many of the ruling class (Musk, Bezos, Thiel, Page et al.) will ultimately choose to make, and we should take care that they don’t make that choice for us.