23 November 2022

It’s an unreal world that we’re forced to live in

Yves Smith over at naked capitalism recently reposted an interview between Nomi Prins, the author of several books about central banking, and Lynn Parramore of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. It’s a disturbing and in many ways disheartening read, in part because it describes a fictional economy of pure finance and manipulation of money that has become increasingly severed from what Prins calls the ‘real economy’ – that is to say, the economy in which real people exchange real goods and real services. The inflection point for this divorce, in her view, was the 2007-2008 financial crisis under the George W Bush administration and the Federal Reserve’s choice to insulate in perpetuity the investment-finance sector of the economy from any real-world consequences of their actions.

In many ways, what Prins is describing is a terminal stage in what Christopher Lasch called ‘the revolt of the élites’. Lasch talks about the divorce of élite segments of the society from their neighbours in terms of both values (with the élites being distinguished by New Age spirituality, a therapeutic self-help mindset, and carefully-cultivated lifestyle habits that are meant to serve as status markers) and space (with élites caging themselves off into exclusive universities, upscale neighbourhoods and gated enclaves away from everyone else). And Lasch’s prescription was for a rediscovery of certain community norms that would encourage cross-class contact. Unfortunately, the attempt by the élites to further distance themselves from working- and even middle-class people has only accelerated—a fact pointed to by more sociologically-minded (and less politically-correct) leftists such as Catherine Liu (who aims her guns as much against the élite-wannabe professional-managerial class as against the élites themselves) and Angela Nagle (who indicts the consequences to online communities of the élite betrayal of the commons).

Nomi Prins, on the other hand (as a former manager at Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns), has a unique look into the inner workings of the economic side of the élite revolt. She talks about ‘wealth accumulation without accountability’, in which the creation of money, as decided largely through policies of the Federal Reserve meant to benefit the wealthiest fraction of the one percent, is increasingly unhinged from the creation of actual wealth. She notes that public policy initiatives, and indeed any attempts to influence the real economy for the better, are fundamentally impeded by the behaviour of this fictitious, purely monetary economy. This economy operates by processes which are irrational and opaque. One might almost say that this purely monetary economy is occult.

Prins still unfortunately places too much faith in fictive ‘decentralist’ solutions which are in fact not solutions at all. Cryptocurrencies, as we are currently seeing with the collapse of FTX and now possibly also Genesis, are not the transparent and stable alternative to checkbook-money that they promised themselves to be, but instead are themselves fuelled by the same occult processes that fuel the fictitious checkbook-money economy. (But honestly, we didn’t need FTX to collapse to figure this out. The evidence was there all along, and there were people and organisations warning us about the fundamental instability of crypto from the very start.) And the nature of exchanges in massively multiplayer online gaming spaces like Minecraft and World of Warcraft offers several intriguing possibilities, but they still ultimately cannot take the place of exchanges in the real economy. But taking Prins’s analysis alongside Liu’s analysis of the virtue-signalling élite-pretensions of the professional managerial class, and Nagle’s analysis of how online spaces have been warped by new (even nihilistic) configurations of value… it becomes clear that the Laschian emphasis on élite revolt in terms of social-ethical values, and the economic side of élite revolt in terms of the complete unmooring of the money economy from any sort of real-world accountability, cannot be divorced from each other.

Alongside the real world of actual ecologies and people and things, there now exists an alchemically-conjured financial world of unreality, which is governed by laws that are nearly completely resistant to rational analysis—even by those who have conjured it. And the élites who have conjured forth this unreality, are constantly seeking new ways to leverage that unreality to extort more and more control over the real world and its resources away from the rest of us. And the rest of us are thereby forced, to varying degrees, to live in both the real world and its simulacrum.

Among the reasons that the Fathers of the Early Church—people like Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John Chrysostom—preached so strongly against the practice of usury was that usury was based on a lie: producing what seems to be wealth out of the misery and debt of the indebted, or planting money in the backs of the poor and expecting it to grow out of itself. Consider what the Fathers of the Church would have to say about the way the Western form of capitalism is currently run: in which central banks—all empowered to do so by lending at interest—can conjure money out of thin air and flood it into various sections of the economy practically at whim, distorting the outcomes in the real economy of real people, real ecologies and real things as it pleases! Would they not see at work in this the hands of demonic powers? I understand how much he is (unjustly) hated in the West (because the West now blindly, unthinkingly, reflexively hates everyone and everything Russian); even so, I think the person who gave best voice to the suspicion of the way the current economy works is Patriarch Kirill of Moscow:
The modern economy is built largely on fraud, creating money out of thin air. [Money is] equivalent to human work and the riches God has given us: namely coal, ore, oil, our intellect, our physical labour, our culture and our spirituality. [But today,] every company produces its own money in the form of shares, which in the secondary market, rather than acting as simple securities, are used as items of trade and speculation. If these spectres earn billions, not being backed by real labour or capital, how can such an economy exist? And what becomes of the simple worker, who produces the value behind this entire bubble! [We need] a fair economic system, where money and capital are equivalent and are the expression of real work.
I don’t think it is entirely coincidental, either, that Russia has been placing so much emphasis on building up its dacha agrarian economy, its ability to grow its own vegetables, over the past decade and a half—or that this food security has been of great use to Russia in weathering and combatting the effects of Western sanctions. Or that Russia’s banking sector, with some input from the Church of Russia, has been exploring ways to organise itself in ways that don’t resort to usurious lending. These are healthy trends which deserve to be encouraged, which attempt to ground the economic life of Russians in the real world rather than in the simulacrum.

Ultimately, the West must do the same as Russia is doing now. We must choose to live in the world that God created, rather than in the simulacrum over which we fancy ourselves little gods—but within which we are at the whim of powers which we do not understand. And in order to do that, it strikes me that we need to be listening to those thinkers within the West, like Lasch and Liu and Nagle, who in pointing out the élite revolt against reality are in fact also pointing the way back to reality.

21 October 2022

Stand with Haiti: ‘to the next Insurrection’

We’re at it again, it seems. The Atlanticist empire is not content with the prospect of turning Eastern Europe into a blighted post-apocalyptic wasteland, with forty billion dollars of spending on weapons to the Ukraine (the profit of which will ultimately accrue to Silicon Valley and Acela-corridor defence contractors). Sleepy Joe and Shoe-Polish Justin are shipping out US and Canadian warplanes and armoured vehicles to Haiti in order to prop up the failing neoliberal government of Ariel Henry (installed after the assassination of President Jouvenel Moïse at the hands of US-backed Colombian mercenaries last year), and it seems the Haitian people are justifiably unhappy with the prospect of yet another US intervention. The following excerpt from the Life of Johnson gives us a strong impression of where our good scrivener of dictionaries and lover of language would stand on this particular issue:
Upon one occasion, when in company with some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, “Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.” His violent prejudice against our West Indian and American settlers appeared whenever there was an opportunity. Towards the conclusion of his “Taxation no Tyranny,” he says, “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” and in his conversation with Mr. Wilkes he asked, “Where did [Jamaica plantation owner William] Beckford and [Boston merchant Barlow] Trecothick learn English?”
Note that Haiti was founded in 1804 precisely by the ‘next insurrection in the West Indies’ which Dr Johnson toasted in front of that room full of stuffy Oxford dons in 1777. Haiti was the first country, at least in the Western world, to permanently ban slavery when it declared its independence from France. For the unforgivable sin of opposing colonialism and slavery, the French government has been extorting and impoverishing the Haitian people since 1825—to the tune of 150 million francs. The imposition of this horrific indemnity upon the newly independent nation, crippled Haiti’s ability to invest in its own people, infrastructure or education. Haiti’s government was only able to pay off the entire amount—including interest—in 1947.

But France’s partner in (as Samuel Johnson called it) robbery, the United States, invaded Haiti in 1915 and subjected it to a nineteen-year-long military occupation. Woodrow Wilson sent 330 US Marines to Haiti at the behest of the National City Bank of New York, where they proceeded to establish and then act as the enforcers for a military dictatorship that murdered over 15,000 Haitians. The US government stole $500,000 from the Haitian national bank and kept it in the City Bank in New York, thus rendering the Haitian government politically dependent on the US. In 1919, the Marines assassinated a Haitian freedom fighter named Charlemagne Pérault—and then stripped him naked and photographed him hanging from a tree in what was clearly a lynching. They then disseminated the photograph around the island in order to discourage any further resistance. However, the US literally rounded up Haitian villagers and used Haitians as forced labour in building schools and roads in the US. The American government very literally plundered Haiti’s labour and wealth, condemning it even further to poverty and inescapable debt. The occupation only ended in 1934 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt withdrew the last of the Marines, but he left in place a US-dominated gendarmerie that brutalised the Haitian populace until 1941.

Successive short-lived governments under Sténio Vincent and Elie Lescot attempted but failed to stabilise the society. There was a military-led revolution in 1946 that briefly established a populist, socially-minded government under Dumarsais Estimé: but Estimé was himself betrayed by the same elements of the military that had swept him into power. The military essentially imposed itself as a domestic dictatorship over Haiti until protests and street actions forced the military puppet president from office in 1956, paving the way for the Duvalier dictatorship: a right-wing government which used death-squad style paramilitaries, psychological and physical terror—including mutilation and rape—over the population in order to maintain power.

The United States had a rather two-faced relationship with the Duvaliers. On the one hand, François Duvalier himself was part of a US-based public health programme that combatted various tropical diseases—this is how he got the nickname ‘Papa Doc’. As an anti-communist (and friend to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista), Duvalier was someone whom the US was keen to cultivate as a potential ally. When he made his initial bid for power, the US Marines directly provided the training for Duvalier’s rural paramilitary death squads, the Tonton Macoutes. The public revelation of American complicity in Duvalier’s reign of terror, however, caused a scandal, and the Kennedy Administration suspended aid to Duvalier in 1962 on the grounds of human rights abuses (of which it was probably already well aware).

After this, the relationship between Papa Doc and the United States turned sour. Papa Doc’s rhetoric became more and more heatedly anti-American, although his government retained a right-wing nationalist and anti-communist position. However, the US was keen to renew ties with François Duvalier, as well as his son and heir Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka ‘Baby Doc’. American military ‘aid’ for Haiti (actually aimed at repressing the Haitian population) resumed in secret in 1973, the US Marines went back to Haiti in order to train up a new generation of Baby Doc’s rape gangs and death squads. The Duvalier dictatorship ended with Baby Doc being overthrown in a popular uprising in 1986—though being notoriously corrupt, Baby Doc absconded with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Haiti’s wealth when he fled to France.

What was left in Haiti was a series of unstable governments that ended only when a former Catholic priest, liberation theologian and anti-Duvalierist named Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in a landslide in 1990, in the ‘first honest election’ of Haiti’s history. Aristide had campaigned on a platform of improving health care, education, infrastructure and low-cost housing; returning land to farmers; cracking down on sexual violence against Haitian women; and doubling the minimum wage. He also led a campaign to rein in the military with the constitution, and replace some of its functions with a publicly-accountable civilian police force.

The Haitian army, under the newly-elevated commander Raoul Cédras, overthrew Aristide in a bloody coup and instituted a three-year reign of terror over Haiti. The US actually tried to play both sides of this coup: on the one hand, they supported Aristide’s overthrow through covert channels like the CIA, who were advising the Haitian army in 1991. On the other hand, the US State Department offered Aristide a lifeboat through the embassies, and allowed him to flee to safety. When conditions in Haiti got so bad that a ‘humanitarian intervention’ was demanded, the Clinton Administration used American military force to re-install Aristide as President of Haiti—but with some conditions attached. Instead of running on the liberation-theology platform that had gotten him elected in 1990, the US forced Aristide to enact neoliberal policies on Haiti that ran it into even further debt and rendered it completely dependent on American food aid.

Aristide himself, however, realising how badly his people had been treated by American interests, ran for the presidency and won a second term in 2000. This time he pledged to fight for Haitian interests rather than American ones, and for his trouble he was again ousted in another bloody coup, in 2004, this time by George W Bush’s neocons. But the interests that drove that coup were the same corporate interests that drove American intervention in 1994. These are the same interests, bent upon keeping Haiti subservient, dependent and miserable, that are driving calls for another ‘intervention’ now.

As a follower of Samuel Johnson’s especially in this line of his thinking, I stand with Haiti. And I too will toast, against our equivalent of the ‘grave Oxford men’ of Johnson’s time, ‘the next insurrection in the West Indies’ that has human flourishing, rather than financial-military-corporate domination and slavery, as its end.

05 September 2022

The twin geniuses of Creedence and Pesnyary

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Recently I’ve been listening to the folk-tinged rock music of Creedence Clearwater Revival, on the one hand, and the rock-tinged folk music of Pesnyary on the other. Creedence were a Bay Area band who emerged out of, and came to exemplify, a certain strand within the sixties counterculture—though they usually composed lyrics about, and were influenced by the folk culture of—Greater Appalachia, the Bayou, the American South generally. Pesnyary, by contrast, were a Soviet state-sponsored VIA (vokal’no-instrumental’nyi ansambl’, literally ‘vocal-instrumental ensemble’) who played acid-rock and progressive-rock arrangements of traditional folk songs as well as their own compositions. They were also one of the very few Soviet bands to actually tour in America—specifically in the American South. Creedence had split up by 1972; Pesnyary were then just getting started: officially, there are two bands calling themselves Pesnyary now and four or five others borrowing the name without licence, but most people agree that Pesnyary’s classic period ended in 2003 with founding member Vladimir Mulyavin’s death. Despite their very different origins and ‘stances’—the lyrical and thematic difference between ‘Proud Mary’ and ‘Ave Maria’, as it were—I’m finding I’m enjoying them for very similar reasons.

One of the reasons I find both of these bands so enjoyable to listen to, is because they invest these deceptively simple melodies and chord progressions (these are rock groups, after all) with a great deal of dynamic and emotional depth. Creedence Clearwater Revival build on a basis of swamp blues—the harmonica was there from early on—and diverge from there in various directions, adding more and more rock instrumentation, as well as elements like Hammond organ. By the end of their career, as one can hear on songs like ‘Sweet Hitch-Hiker’, they were veering very close to hard rock or even proto-metal. CCR’s tunes are catchy, instantly-recognisable, iconic: ‘Suzie Q’, ‘Down on the Corner’, ‘Fortunate Son’, ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’, ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door’.

As important as Creedence Clearwater Revival are for a certain generation of Americans, I’d say that the Pesnyary are equally as important for a certain generation of people from the former Soviet Union. The Belarusian group, led by Vladimir Mulyavin, took its influences both from Western rock music (particularly the Beatles) and from traditional White Russian folk melodies. Pesnyary songs blend guitar melodies, drums, keyboards and even saxophones with traditional folk instruments (wooden whistles, fiddles, flutes, accordions, hurdy-gurdies) in a unique way. The VIA was signed to the state-owned label Melodiya in the Soviet Union (the only real game in town, as it were), and their albums sold millions of copies. Their unique approach to making accessible music with depth and feeling—with hits including ‘Aleksandrina’ and ‘Belovezhskaya Pushcha’—and Mulyavin’s ability to seek out and recruit talented multi-instrumentalists and singers, made the Pesnyary very literal rock stars in the Soviet Union.

John Fogerty and Leonid Bortkevich are, obviously, two very different vocalists—but even here there are some interesting similarities. Fogerty gives a very nasal delivery, with occasionally having a hoarse or a hard edge to his tenor melodies. There’s definitely a ‘country’ or ‘Southern’ inflection to this delivery, but it’s easy to hear the lasting influence on rock—even hard rock and heavy metal—that Fogerty’s voice had. Leonid Bortkevich was a much more traditional tenor: clean-toned, pectoral delivery, like a classically-trained singer. On the surface, he sounds much more like John Denver than John Fogerty. But Bortkevich deploys some interesting flourishes in his singing—a breath’s delayed approach to the note, a glide or a back-throat catch, that can make his vocals sound grittier, or ‘folksier’ (a good example of this being ‘Do Tret’ih Petruhov’).

It’s a bit strange. I’ve explored a lot of the musical differences between the two bands here. If we take account of their analogical positions within their respective cultures, the countercultural and ‘oppositional’ political nature of CCR’s music (‘Fortunate Son’, ‘Effigy’) more closely aligns with the career of the alternative rock / new wave band Kino headed by Viktor Tsoi. Pesnyary, meanwhile, despite the influence they took from the Beatles, probably more closely aligns with the folk-revival artists like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives and so on than with the later tail of the folk-rock trend in American music to which Creedence belongs. But somehow it seems more natural to my ear to connect these two bands. Both of them evince a vitality and a creativity that tends in a similar direction. Both CCR and Pesnyary seek their inspiration in the deep roots of their respective countries—not without a critical eye in each case—and both draw them out to infuse them with the sounds of their contemporaries. Certainly both bands are worth listening to and appreciating.


The Legendarium according to Smaug

A meteoric dumpster fire

I’ve watched the first two episodes of Rings of Power. Even though I promised I wouldn’t.

It’s bad. And I mean really, holistically bad.

Let’s get the trivial concerns out of the way first. Casting Black actors and actresses to play hobbits, dwarves, men and elves isn’t at all a problem for me. If anything, Tolkien’s dwarves are supposed to be swarthy-skinned and dark of complexion, which for some reason they weren’t in the Jackson movies; and the hobbits were envisioned as being just as diverse of physical appearance as humans. The question is whether the actors and actresses can act well. (Sir Lenny Henry and Sophia Nomvete can and do act well here. Ismael Cruz Córdova? Not so much.) Also if it isn’t done cynically, which is a bit more questionable. Race politics have nothing to do with why I think Rings of Power is a full-on betrayal of Tolkien’s work.

What does, then? One word: Galadriel.

In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, Galadriel was originally a stubborn, headstrong and adventurous girl—this much is true. She did have something of a growth arc. The reason she came to Middle Earth at the end of the First Age was because she was intrigued by the place. She was tempted, in part, by Fëanor’s promises of glory, and longed to see the shores of an unknown land and even to rule them as queen. But she refused to join Fëanor’s quest for revenge against Melkor for the death of his father (Galadriel’s grandfather) Finwë, and she (along with her father Finarfin and her eldest brother Finrod) refused to engage in the political quarrels of the Noldor which ended in the slaughter of the Kinslaying and the Burning of the Ships.

That is as much as to say: she was stubborn and adventurous, but neither brooding nor vengeful—she was of like mind with her father and brother, not having sworn Fëanor’s oath of revenge. Further, it is highly hinted by Jack himself that the reason she stayed in Middle Earth was because she loved it. She loved the people, she loved the living creatures, and she especially loved the forests. The reason she stayed in Middle Earth was because she found hope there.

Melian said: ‘There is some woe that lies upon you and your kin. That I can see in you, but all else is hidden from me; for by no vision or thought can I perceive anything that passed or passes in the West: a shadow lies over all the land of Aman, and reaches far out over the sea. Why will you not tell me more?’

‘For that woe is past,’ said Galadriel; ‘and I would take what joy is here left, untroubled by memory. And maybe there is woe enough yet to come, though still hope may seem bright.’

In Rings of Power, there is no love at all in the character upon whom they wrongly bestow the name of ‘Galadriel’. There is no joy. There is not even a trace of hope. Her reasons for staying in Middle Earth have nothing to do with any kind of attachment to Middle Earth, land or creatures or people—and everything to do with hunting down her brother’s killer, Sauron. The makers of Rings of Power have made this ‘Galadriel’ into precisely a bitter, brooding, violent woman who is dead-set on revenge: in short, they have made her into Fëanor Mark II.

These are not the same character. Not even at different ages.

This is partly ideological. There is a current in the corporate culture machine’s interpretation of feminism, that thinks that in order to pander to women viewers they should make all female characters ‘strong’ by putting weapons in their hands—by making them ‘action heroines and corporate girl-bosses’. But this isn’t good writing, and arguably it isn’t even good feminism. Let me be blunt: Éowyn wasn’t a badass just because she picked up a sword, delivered a one-liner and stabbed a wraith in the ‘face’. If it had been just that, she wouldn’t have gotten any of the cheers she did. Éowyn was a badass because of the context of that action: she cared about Merry and her father enough to protect them.

This ‘Galadriel’? She doesn’t care for anything or anyone except her dead brother—and not even Finrod himself, but his ‘task’. This ‘Galadriel’ would never have been found worthy of the option of returning to Valinor in the first place—the pardon that the Valar bestowed only upon Finarfin and his children, among all of the Noldor. The only reason Galadriel was allowed to return to the Elf-home was because she wasn’t as vengeance-obsessed as Fëanor, and hadn’t taken Fëanor’s oath! Rewriting ‘Galadriel’ as another Fëanor doesn’t strengthen her—it diminishes her in ways that are frankly blasphemous.

And what’s worse, Rings of Power tries to make her Fëanorish vindictiveness a sign of her sagacity. Like Cassandra she warns of Sauron’s known-to-the-audience return when everyone around her, High King Gil-Galad and ‘Elrond’ particularly, disbelieve her and tell her she’s overreacting (the mansplaining chauvinist bastards). Never mind that in the book, Galadriel was the one urging Gil-Galad to show caution, not the other way around—and she was right to do so!

I’ve got other grievances with Rings of Power that operate on a similar level. The portrayal of ‘Elrond’ as Gil-Galad’s political staffer and speechwriter is particularly offensive. As is the notion that Celebrimbor would be worried about the size of the elves’ ‘workforce’ in building his Super-Duper Mega-Forge—sending ‘Elrond’ off to literally hammer out (and I do mean with a literal hammer) a labour contract with Durin’s dwarves. Tolkien would be appalled at this! His elves and dwarves had their flaws, but they were not industrialists and capitalists. Their crafts, were crafts. Capitalism was personified in Lord of the Rings by Saruman, and assembly-line Fordist industrialism metonymised by Isengard. They were certainly not valorised the way they are here.

But this should not come as a surprise. Both my gripes against ‘Galadriel’ and the characterisation of the elves and dwarves generally stem from a much broader complaint. That is: Rings of Power is nothing more and nothing less than the Legendarium according to Smaug. It’s Tolkien’s universe as interpreted by Jeff Bezos—born on third base, mega-polluter, war hawk defence contractor, exploiter of the poor—someone who doesn’t even value Tolkien or his œuvre and has nothing to do with Tolkien’s own ecological-minded Christian Tory-anarchist mythopoesis. Of course any interpretation he sponsors in order to garner a greater market share for his streaming service, is going to run dead against the logic of Tolkien’s universe.

Tolkien often expressed his own view through the words of Faramir. And this was Faramir’s view: ‘I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.Rings of Power, so far, takes the opposite view: trying to dazzle with special effects, battle sequences, blood and fire—while holding the substance of their source material, the characters and the setting, in utter contempt.

Give this one a hard pass.

25 August 2022

For Faina

I looked truth in the eye today,
in both of her lake-green eyes:
pools in whose depths
too much wordless fear and
anguish had been anchored.

And then I heard her speak.
She had a child’s voice,
soft and high and sterling-clear.
Such a voice should not belong
to eyes which have seen so much,

to tear-stained eyes which have taken
in from the tender age of five
the explosions of the shells,
the shredded bodies in rubble,
the flowers laid at infants’ graves.

But, even more than that,
when one hears such a voice
from a face with such eyes,
it is hard to turn away from.
And so, many choose not to hear.

Truth speaks, and she writes.
Her mind is full of starships,
and her heart is full of cats;
for that I’d praise her courage
but my throat catches on such a word.

Not for any lack in her of courage!
No! I balk at the obscenity:
no thirteen-year-old girl
should ever have her ‘courage’
tested under shell fire for eight years.

And yet still that voice comes:
soft and high and sterling-clear,
defying those who would consign her
to darkness and to silence.
Truth has always spoken thus.

- Matthew Cooper, 25 August 2022

14 August 2022

A letter to the OPF listserv

As a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship mailing list, I get to see a lot of e-mails from people with a lot of different perspectives on global affairs. Sometimes the discussion gets somewhat spirited. This time I was moved to respond. A certain member of the group, responding to this story on NPR, held it up as an example of how our government was ‘empowering an adversary’ and ‘exacerbat[ing] the threat’ of an ascendant China to world peace. I was compelled to respond in the following way (sans the links):
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I have deep concerns about labelling China as an ‘adversary’. And not only because my wife is Chinese and my children are half-Chinese by ancestry.

In the Orthodox Church, we must consistently remember that ‘we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’. The factory worker in Dongbei who puts together a vanadium redox battery is not my adversary. The engineer who designs the battery isn’t my adversary either. It seems to me that both of them must work to eat. It seems to me that neither of them is motivated, at least prima facie, by lust for power or desire for dominance over others. They are not the enemies. It seems to me that the enemy in this story is not China at all, though of course NPR will nowhere acknowledge this because NPR is state propaganda. Gary Yang tried to get American banks and American companies to invest in his batteries but couldn’t. They were looking for a quick turnaround. The enemy here is instead a system that looks for instant gratification and short-term returns on investment, and which prioritises profit over the common good. In short: the enemy is of this story is not godless Chinese communism, but godless American capitalism. And it is precisely this concern American companies and American banks have with gaining advantage, gaining profit, gaining power over others, that requires us to participate in the spiritual struggle against ‘wickedness in high places’. Blaming China might feel good, but it fixes nothing about our own flaws. If it wasn’t China, it would be India, or Brazil, or South Africa.

Furthermore, I think that the inability of Americans to look inward, to search out their own faults, to understand the failures of their own spiritual laziness of habit and their own comfort with ‘the way things are’, is at the root of many of the world’s problems right now. We blame Russia for the war in Ukraine, and to a certain extent rightly so, but this is a lazy stance, which is why it is so popular. It costs Americans nothing to condemn Russia. Scapegoating Russia and no one else means that we don’t have to look at the long-standing debt politics of the IMF (which has operated this way since the 1960s and 1970s, putting poison-pill terms in their loan agreements to rob governments of their ability to provide social safety nets or discipline international capital in the national interest) that turned Ukraine into, essentially, a puppet government of Western corporations who have no interest in the well-being of the Ukrainian people. We don't have to examine how over a quarter of Ukraine’s total arable land is now in the hands of Monsanto, Dupont and Cargill corporations, rather than in the hands of Ukrainian people themselves. And we don’t have to examine our own culpability in participating in and upholding a predatory system of international finance, and supporting policies which continue to rob Ukrainians of the same agency we praise them for supposedly defending.

It strikes me that there are not enough Saint Moseses among us, who are willing to look at the leaky sack on our own backs with our own sins trailing behind us. It strikes me that there are not enough Alexander Solzhenitsyns among us, reminding us that the moral universe is never so simple as the ‘bad people over there’ in Russia and China doing evil things, but instead that the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. It strikes me that there are not enough Saint Marias among us, to take us to task for the social sins we are engaged in every day, while we blithely condemn and disparage our brothers. It strikes me that there are not enough Saint Tikhons among us, to encourage us to love each other beyond artificial boundaries erected by power politics, or indeed by domestic ‘blue vs. red’ politics.

If we wish to quote Franklin's old yarn about ‘an ounce of prevention’, it strikes me that first we ought to follow his advice regarding civic virtues: fasting; imitating Jesus and Socrates; not wasting anything; not injuring others; not practicing deceit; avoiding extremes; avoiding excessive worries; not despairing over common setbacks; avoiding hurtful speech and trifling conversations; keeping all of our things to their own places; promising to do what we ought and doing what we promise to do. Worrying about what China is doing, and not about what we are doing--this is emphatically not what Benjamin Franklin would advise us to do. (And please, let’s not be unkind and point out those places where Franklin failed to follow his own advice. All of us are hypocrites - myself foremost of all.)

With love in Christ,

07 August 2022

One German musician’s wise perspective on the Ukraine conflict

I have reposted this from the public Facebook profile of a German industrial-rock musician, a certain Mr J—, with whom I share a mutual contact. I am providing here my own translation of his post. Speaking for myself, I think his perspective here is quite wise, and should be shared broadly.
For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.
- Job 3:25

If this war has shown us anything, it is primarily that each side invested in it has achieved with its actions, the exact opposite of what it wished to achieve.

Putin (likely) hoped for a ‘liberated’ Ukrainian (brother-)people, who would throw themselves around the necks of the Russian soldiers as soon as they marched in. Instead, he got embittered enemies who only hated his people even more, and wanted even less to do with him than they already had. He also wanted ‘less NATO’. But now, he has even more NATO countries around him: an even more cohesive NATO with greater manpower.

The Ukrainian state leadership, politically driven by ultra-nationalist and Russophobic white supremacists such as Azov, who honour as Ukrainian national heroes war criminals and Jew-murderers like Stepan Bandera, name boulevards after them and depict them on postage stamps, wanted economic prosperity (especially for their oligarchs and corrupt political elites) and territorial integrity. They will get – as it currently stands – a country in even greater ruin, and even more lost territory.

The USA wanted to crush their rival Russia and expand their global hegemony. Instead, they have damaged themselves economically and politically, and promoted an alliance between Russia and arch-rival China, thereby finally destroying their chances for hegemony. The arch-rival, China, is thus ‘the laughing third party’. In turn, the West in turn wanted to harm Russia, but have primarily harmed themselves, politically destabilised themselves and further damaged confidence in their political leadership.

Hopefully, this will prove to be a lesson for all, that conflict is better off being settled peaceably, than ‘rendering evil for evil’ (1 Peter 3:9), and it will hopefully lead to the realisation that war is simply ‘not worth it’. Anyone who is involved in it in any way, only loses.

06 August 2022

Pointless video post - ‘Как болит голова’ by Август

What month is it again? Oh yeah:

The Saint Petersburg formation August (or Август) was one of the first-ever Soviet rock bands, and they shared a label (Melodiya) with other acts like Black Coffee, Master and Cruise. At first they played a rather eclectic mixture of pop-rock, art-rock and heavy metal (in part due to the Soviets’ disapproval of certain styles of rock music), but later on their style congealed into something similar to Rainbow or Deep Purple or Uriah Heep. Their first album, from which this song comes, was a runaway success. Enjoy!

26 July 2022

Good general wisdom from VK

A Belarusian woman, Marishka B—, whose account I follow on VK posted the above two images to her public feed. I thought they made some very profound points in general, not just with relation to this war, so I’m resharing them here on my blog with a quick-and-dirty translation.
  1. Any war will end.

  2. Every nation is made up of different people. Not everyone participates in war. Don’t insult everyone in one group.

  3. The politicians will end up agreeing. And you? You’ll be left with the mud you fling at your ‘ideological opponents’.

  4. In wartime, EVERYONE lies. Don’t spread info that you're not 101% sure (or can’t verify) is true. If you want to write something, write only about what you saw with your own eyes. That’s being honest. The rest is participation in lies.

  5. If you want to express your attitude to politics, express it. It’s not necessary to insult someone [while doing so].

  6. You don’t like somebody else’s opinion, but you really want to speak out? Then speak out - about the opinion and not about the person. Because most often you don’t know them personally.

  7. Hating people you don’t know is pathological.

  8. People’s relationships are very complicated, even at the level of a family or a work group. [Relationships] between states are still more difficult. Only to idiots is everything clear and simple to understand. Don’t be an idiot. Don’t jump to conclusions.

  9. Always be human and remember point 1.
Some very sound advice from Ms. B—, to always be human no matter what side of an argument you fall on. I won’t pretend I’ve always been (or still am) a model of good online behaviour according to these nine points, but with God’s grace I can try.

18 July 2022

Woo Yee Sing, Liang May Seen and Minnie Wong

Chinese language class at Westminster Presbyterian Church
Minnie Wong is seated third from the left in the back row

This past Wednesday, I went with Fr John Schroedel to the Lakewood Cemetery, where several members of his extended family are buried, as well as the remarkable Father Anthony Coniaris of blessed memory, who founded Light & Life Publishing and was responsible for the translation and publication of some of the first Orthodox theological materials in English on the continent of North America. Orthodoxy in this country owes a great debt to Father Anthony. Although I never made his acquaintance in life, I am happy to have been given the privilege to visit his grave and offer prayers there.

One of the other grave markers that I saw in the cemetery, not that far away from the Greek section where Father Anthony is buried, belonged to a certain Minnie Wong. Minnie Wong is a name which deserves to be better-known in the Twin Cities. She was as important in her way for the Chinese community here as Father Anthony was for the Greek community. It is only on account of my work for Global Learning Alliance and Minghua Chinese School that I became aware of her in the first place. However, Minnie Wong’s history is closely intertwined with that of another outstanding Chinese woman here, Liang May Seen.

Chinese people have been coming to North America for a long time. Many Chinese folks worked as ship-hands on Spanish galleons operating out of Manila during the Age of Sail, and some of them ended up in Mexico and California in the 1500s and 1600s, where they worked primarily as hairdressers for the Spanish. These Chinese communities ended up as a part of the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. But there are interesting archaeological finds indicating that Chinese trade goods—belt buckles and beads made out of bronze—ended up in the hands of Alaska natives long before contact with the Europeans. (This doesn’t exactly prove the wilder theories of Gavin Menzies, but it is tantalising, and should force a massive rethink of the way archaeologists think about the region.)

The first Chinese woman in Minnesota, though, came here a different way. Born in Kaiping in Guangdong Province, Liang May Seen was essentially lured onto an America-bound ship by a human trafficker, who promised her a wealthy marriage to a Chinese-American businessman but sold her into a brothel instead. This happened in 1885. She managed to escape the brothel in 1889 and took refuge at the Presbyterian mission in San Francisco, where she availed herself of the opportunities to learn English, housekeeping and mathematics.

There she was introduced to Woo Yee Sing. Woo Yee Sing, originally a laundryman, had come to Minneapolis in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act in order to escape the persecution, harassment and violence that Chinese people faced in San Francisco. Together with his brother Woo Du Sing, he opened the first Chinese restaurant here, the Canton Café, in 1883. Woo Yee Sing had come back to San Francisco in 1892 to look for a bride, which is how he met Liang May Seen.

Liang May Seen and Woo Yee Sing

Liang May Seen took an active role in building relationships in her new town. Thanks to her excellent study of English, she befriended many white women through the Presbyterian Church—among whom was women’s suffrage activist, Urban League director and state congresswoman Mabeth Hurd Paige—and opened a curio shop in 1904 to bolster her family’s income and to broaden her network of friends. More importantly, though, she took the lead in welcoming other newcomers of Chinese descent to Minneapolis. Through the Presbyterian Church she established a Chinese Sunday school and an afterschool programme for English language learners to help recent Chinese immigrants acculturate to their new home.

It was in this capacity that she met and befriended Minnie Wong, the wife of George Wong Gee. Minnie Wong was also from Kaiping, and evidently hit it off immediately with Liang May Seen. She excelled in her own English studies. The two women’s shared interest in promoting the welfare and advancement of Chinese women in Minneapolis led them to found and co-teach the first ELL classes specifically for Chinese women in the state. The two of them collaborated on a number of charitable and advocacy projects together.

Unfortunately, Liang May Seen was unable to have children of her own with her husband. (This isn’t attested in the actual history, but reading between the lines, her infertility is likely on account of the sexual violence she experienced during her involuntary servitude at the San Francisco brothel.) She and her husband adopted a young boy from San Francisco, named Howard.

Even though they had come eastward to escape the organised anti-Chinese violence and racism that characterised life on the West Coast, life here in the Twin Cities was still hard. Canton Café changed its name to Yuen Faung Low (遠芳樓) or ‘John’s Place’, and it became famous as a restaurant which was open to everyone regardless of race. As Woo Yee Sing put it in an interview with the Minneapolis Journal: ‘They are men like you or me. They have got to eat and there must be some place for them to do so… They are all brothers, and there is no room for race prejudice.’ (It is worth remembering that at this time, even though Jim Crow didn’t exist de jure in Minnesota, segregation was still the de facto norm and was enforced extralegally.) Despite this, in 1912 Yuen Faung Low fell victim to a bomb attack, probably motivated by race prejudice. Woo and Liang’s foster son Howard, in another interview, also recalls being attacked and taunted with anti-Chinese slurs on the street when growing up.

Yuen Faung Low, however, expanded—a second-floor tearoom was built to accommodate more upscale clients, and the restaurant continued to operate until the 1960s. Woo Yee Sing passed away in 1925, and Liang May Seen twenty years later in 1946—by the end of her life she was able to see the end of Chinese exclusion.

Things have certainly improved for AAPI people in the United States since the days of Woo Yee Sing, Liang May Seen and Minnie Wong—and these improvements are largely the efforts of precisely such people who were active in their own communities. It is with gratitude, then, that we should remember these three people and their contributions, and continue working to ensure that the current atmosphere of anti-Chinese bigotry in the United States is dispelled. For this I ask the added prayers and intercessions of Fr Anthony Coniaris of blessed memory, whose own experiences as the son of Greek immigrants assuredly parallel those of Howard Woo.

17 July 2022

Neither Fordham nor Montanica!

Christ confronts the pride of the disciples, Russian icon

Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.

Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
- 1 Corinthians 1:10-15, 21-25

The divisions currently evident in American Orthodoxy are entirely American in character, and not one whit Orthodox. They are reflective of the culture war priorities in American politics and, as such, represent parochially American concerns. The Fordham and Butte sects in American Orthodoxy represent a ‘liberal’ and a ‘conservative’ pose within American culture, respectively, which neither liberates, nor conserves. They are, in fact, like most heresies which come in pairs, both heretical.

By the Fordham Sect, I mean the culture-war liberals which centre on the so-called ‘Orthodox Christian Studies Centre’ at Fordham University. This ‘Centre’ is squarely under the thumb of the Catholic Jesuits, share entirely the Jesuitical cultural-political priorities, and are entirely adept at performing an Orthodox step-‘n’-fetchit ‘minstrel show’ for the sake of the grant money their Ignatian ‘Massa’ provides. George Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou, the elders of this ‘house-Ortho’ greekface minstrel-show act (along with First Things contributor, Michael Novak apostle and all-around pretentious popinjay David Bentley Hart, Notre Dame-based scion of effete Tidewater plantation-gentry, replete with a ready arsenal of affected transatlanticisms and sesquipedalian highfalutin puffery which he, his indefatigably-miserable elder brothers, and his sycophantic clique of pseudointellectual toadies routinely mistake for wit), have assembled around themselves a veritable rogues’ gallery—Nathaniel Wood, Nicholas Denysenko, Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, Paul Ladouceur, Cyril Hovorun, Paul Gavrilyuk, Sr Vassa Larin, Antoine Arjakovsky, Inga Leonova, the defrocked Giacomo Sanfilippo—of well-manicured academics and experts whose sole purpose in life seems to be to mock and denigrate the hoi polloi of Orthodox believers both here and abroad; to pay a crescendo of degrading obsequies to the American war machine; and to ‘push the envelope’ of acceptable practice, particularly with regard to sexual ethics, in directions which have never been acceptable at any other time in Church history.

And by the Butte Sect, I mean the opposing culture-war conservatives and reactionaries which have nucleated in several places around several increasingly-radical Montagnard cults of personality. Fr Josiah Trenham seems to be the (ahem) ‘Tren-setter’ in this regard along with Fr Johannes Jacobse, though he has of course been joined by the increasingly-unhinged political pugilist Abbot Tryphon, the disgraced former metropolitan of the OCA Archbishop Jonah Paffhausen, YouTube chuds and social-media gadflies like Jay Dyer and (at the fringes) ‘Brother’ Nathanael, and bloggers like George Michalopulos and the cartoonishly-camp Rod Dreher. They claim to be the true defenders of Orthodoxy in America, and yet they rally around open heretics and political lightning-rods like pill-popping kvetch and Pelagian pedlar of penny-ante Jungianism Dr Jordan Peterson in their misguided pursuit of purity-through-far-right-political-action. I call them the Butte Sect because several of these figures are planning to meet later this month in Butte, Montana at something of a ‘constituent assembly’, if you will: the so-called ‘Patristic Faith Conference’.

It may seem strange to you, readers, that I take such pains to describe the ‘liberal’ side of this cultural divide using descriptors which would seem to belong to the ‘right wing’, and that I take such pains to describe the ‘conservative’ side of this cultural divide using those which belong to the ‘left wing’. But there is a reason for this.


The Fordhamites fancy themselves to be ‘open-minded’ and ‘tolerant’, but in reality their cultural attitudes give inadvertent voice to forms of white supremacy and Eurocentrism that should have been left behind with the death of Jim Crow. One example may suffice here as an archetype. Hovorun, writing for Fordham’s blog Public Orthodoxy, speaks of Africa like a latter-day apostle of Cecil Rhodes and Leopold II of Belgium would. Lamenting the departure of ‘the Western democracies’ (by which, one presumes, he can only mean Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium) from their putatively-benevolent colonial overlordship of the African continent, he points the finger at Russia and China—the ‘Eastern authoritarian regimes’—for a ‘recolonisation’, a ‘second Scramble of [sic] Africa’ which depends on infrastructure and investment on the Chinese side, and patronage of ‘murderous regimes’ on the Russian.

Never mind that the typical characterisation of Russia as an ‘Eastern’ dictatorship falls right in line with a long litany of tired Orientalist tropes (many perpetrated by the Jesuits), or that the characterisation of China in equally insidious terms is meant to recall the Yellow Peril. Never mind that the attempt to ascribe demonic motives to China falls particularly flat given Debt Justice UK’s explanation that China is emphatically not to blame for the current debt crisis on the African continent—private Western concerns hold three times more African debt than China does. The true point here is that one searches in vain to find anywhere in Hovorun’s essay, any attempt either to ascertain or place value upon the inherent well-being and dignity of the peoples of Africa. For him, Africans are relegated to the status of pawns, and his preference is merely for a (presumably benevolent) Western colonialism over an (evil and insidious) Eastern one.

This is not a one-off phenomenon for Fordham, nor is it indicative only of the usual bigotry with which Ukrainian nationalists routinely discriminate against and attack Africans and Asians. I have mentioned before how there is more than a germ of genteel liberal cultural discrimination against Middle Easterners by the contributors to Public Orthodoxy, such as Katie Kelaidis. And, of course, more recent essays by different PO contributors have doubled down on Orientalist and Yellow Peril scaremongering, in service of the foreign policy goals of the American military-industrial complex.

Which brings me to Fordham University’s current toast of the New York Times booklist, Sarah Riccardi-Swartz. It is a truism in the Orthodox deposit of spiritual wisdom that accusation is a kind of confession: as Saint Jerome said in his epistles, ‘When you believe you are excusing yourself, you are accusing yourself.’ So when Riccardi-Swartz goes around ROCOR parishes in West Virginia and sees there only white supremacism and fascism and Lost Cause mythology, one ought to suspect that she is merely confessing, in bad conscience, to the faults of which she and her own academic peer group are already guilty. One can hardly blame ROCOR for the widespread nature of the veneration of Tsar Nicholas II, for example—whose blessed feast is upcoming. On balance, given that he is perhaps (from a more objective standpoint) one of the more humane and forward-thinking figures in modern Russian history (or of his era in general!), attributing nothing but the darkest motives to such veneration appears to be a classic case of Freudian projection. The academics at Fordham and their associates are quick to signal their alliance with sexual minorities to burnish their liberal bona fides, and then promote and join witch-hunts against what they view as openly racist elements in the Orthodox Church—so that no one will think to scrutinise their own discriminatory tendencies, their own Eurocentric lenses of interpretation, their own enthusiasm for America’s wars of choice on the other side of the globe.


Now let’s talk about the other side of the coin: the Butte side. Even if ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’, Riccardi-Swartz isn’t wholly wrong in her diagnosis of a certain subset of ‘vocal’, ‘digitally-savvy’ Orthodox converts who flock to far-right political causes. The effect of these digital communities, which tend to propagate themselves around self-promoters like Jay Dyer and Rod Dreher, can be felt even within fairly ‘normal’ Orthodox parishes. Ironically, given how much they like to inveigh against ‘the Left’ (which is to blame for every manner of social ill from mass shooting to pornography to transsexualism), in truth their programmatic tactics resemble nothing so much as those of a revolutionary vanguard party in a Montagnard or Trotskyist vein.

There is an irreducible germ of Gnosticism or Kabbalah in the œuvre to which Dyer, Dreher and (sadly, increasingly so) Abbot Tryphon belong. The entire conceit of this œuvre is that an occult They (Hollywood, the ‘Cultural Left’, the Jews) are seeking to control society and control the spirits of the people through esoteric-occult means, and only by knowing the code can one hope to defeat them. This promise of a key to hidden knowledge, of initiation into mysteries, acts as the lure by which people gain entrance to the ‘inner circle’. This is analogous in many ways—and follows from—the phenomenon of being ‘redpilled’ or ‘blackpilled’ on online message boards. And of course, once one is gifted with this initiation, this occult hermeneutical ‘key’ to the inner workings of the hidden Them, one is essentially primed to be handed the Programme. And it is similar in many ways to the initiation practices of many secret societies and revolutionary cadres throughout history; the irony is that many of those thus initiated do not see it—they believe instead that they are counter-revolutionaries.

It is not, therefore, an accident that classic fascism and other far-right ideologies have a draw on such people. Fascism has historically held great appeal for those who believe themselves privileged with a degree of superior knowledge into a mythopoeic-symbolic order, to combat the degeneracy of their surroundings. It is well-known—and one can cite authors like Goodrich-Clarke on this—that fascist movements drew heavily on and even grew out of an idle middle-class fascination with esotericist movements such as Theosophy and the Thule Society.

Likewise, this preference for ‘keys’ that break into a mythopoeic-symbolic order creates synergies with the half-baked pseudo-Jungian pop-psych claptrap bandied about by Joseph Campbell, Jordan Peterson and the like. Of course, there is nothing particularly Christian about any of this, as evidenced by Peterson’s completely Pelagian understanding of Christianity – or, as my friend Dan DeCarlo aptly described him, ‘[an] anti-Tolstoy who has rewritten “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” but changed the ending’. That doesn’t prevent it, however, from being alluring. As St Paul warned us, false teachers will never go wanting for itching ears. And some of those itching ears, sadly, claim for themselves the mantle of Orthodoxy.


I must beg the pardon of friend and kinsman Luke L—, who coined the slogan ‘Neither Fordham nor Montanica’ for precisely this purpose. I must also beg your pardon, readers, if my wording here seems a bit eristic, in the tradition of the aforementioned Saint Jerome and the more recent Saint Alexis of Wilkes-Barre. I have always held to this point. Also, I have long since run out of patience with both sides, and in this case, proper Christian love for adherents of these twin, very public, errors requires a certain public sharpness. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this split in Orthodoxy between Fordham and Montanica seems to be a repetition-as-farce of the errors of the Hellenisers and the Judaisers, respectively. The pride of Fordham’s scholarly sect is in its philosophical erudition, its professed adherence to the norms of modern academia, and its greed for the simulacrum of virtue which passes for currency in elite circles. And the pride of the Butte sect is in its purity and holiness as those possessing the true revelation, fancying themselves its sole inheritors and upholders, through initiation into its secrets. Yet the fullness of truth rests with neither of them.

Culture wars are not spiritual wars, despite what the combatants themselves might think. Culture wars by definition divide humanity into warring camps. These camps then fight over things which are decidedly not spiritual: wealth, power, prestige, glory, conquest, the adulation of men, the warm fuzzy feelings of being on the ‘right side of history’, the thrill and passion of being a ‘chosen one’ in a cataclysmic battle between light and darkness. Academics are jealous of their ‘seats of honour’. YouTubers and social media personalities are driven by the cash generated by ‘likes’. There is no room for the great mass of humanity in either of these formations (the great majority of whom are geopolitically non-aligned). And it goes without saying that there is no room for Jesus Christ in either of these formations. Orthodox Christianity as a whole must therefore stand up and cast aside such divisions within itself, because they are not of Christ.

14 July 2022

Rereading the Armament of Igor in a time of war

Were it not seemly to us, brothers,
To begin in ancient diction
The tales of the toils of the army
Of Igor, Igor Svyatoslavič?

Or to begin this song
In accordance with the ballads of this time,
And not like the invention of Boyan?
One of the few stabs I’ve made at reading again so far this year has been a reread of The Tale of the Armament of Igor. This poetic lamentation of a failed attempt by a prince of Rus’, Igor Svyatoslavič, to stage a raid on the attacking Cumans is the earliest extant example of literature in the Old Russian language, dating to the late 1100s. In addition to the themes of heroism in hopeless battles, grief and exile, the Tale also spends a great deal of time exhorting the princes of Rus’ to put aside their personal ambitions and greed, and unite in the face of a common enemy.

I found a great deal more in it on this third read-through than on my first. The poem rises and falls in mood, between the high triumphant martial imagery of Igor’s exhortations to the defence of the Russian land, and the vast desolate lamentation of Yaroslavna on the walls of Putivl, and finally returning again to a tone of hope in the voice of the poet Boyan. There is much in this poem that is still obscure to me, and that may be owing to my poor Russian.

However, I am still struck by the beauty of the natural imagery of the poem. One can almost hear the cries of falcons, the calls of magpies and crows, in the verse itself. The rivers speak, especially the Donets River with whom Igor converses in his Cuman exile (and which is today still the site of tragic bloodletting and destruction between brothers). The poet invokes the sun and the aurora borealis. Yaroslavna invokes the wind and the sky in her lamentations.
For brother spake to brother: ‘This is mine, and that is also mine!’
And the princes began to pronounce of a paltry thing, ‘This is great,’
And themselves amongst them to forge feuds…
I have found myself unable to write, and increasingly unable to read productively, on account of the war. I am caught between a love of Russia which rebukes their paranoia, and a love of the Ukraine which reproaches their pride and greed, and to see them fall upon each other with this insane bloodlust—Ukrainians against the civilians of Seversky Donets; and Russians against the Ukrainians—breaks the heart. Once again, ‘Kiev groaned with mourning, and Černigov with disasters.’ I find that I resonate much more, given the state of current events, with the lamentations of Svyatoslav over the deaths of his sons, and that of Yaroslavna over the fate of Igor.

This is a conflict which would not have happened, if the Russian leadership had not, under the fear of a threat to its borders, been goaded into an attack by the provocations of the Western powers on the Black Sea. This is also, much more so, a conflict which would not have happened if the Ukrainian oligarchs who foisted the Maidan upon them in 2014 at the instigation of the same Western powers, had not said to the people of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, ‘this is mine, and that is also mine’—and then sent in the SBU and the fascist paramilitaries to destroy them. I hate that the people of the Donbass have been dying needlessly for the past eight years at the hands of their own government, and I hate more that Ukrainians are dying still in numbers equally great, at the hands of an attacking army. Most of all I hate the injustices and machinations and engineered policies of division and exploitation in Washington and London that brought all of this about.
Then in the time of Oleg, Boris wrought for evil: feuds were sown and grew apace.
The life of the scion of Dažbog was wasted,
In the factions of the princes and the generations of mankind were shortened.
What more can be said now? Perhaps the Russian band Aria said it already with their elegiac ‘Ballad of an Old Russian Warrior’:

Or perhaps the anonymous poet in the tradition of Boyan said it best: Далеко! Ночь меркнет.

26 June 2022

Thick as a BRICS?

Interesting news recently out of Moscow: evidently the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are attempting to build a shared infrastructure for ease of payments that may end up including a new reserve currency as a rival to the dollar. This move comes as a response to Western financial sanctions on Russia which froze its foreign reserves in response to the escalation of the Ukrainian war.

It became clear very soon after this war heated up that the global financial system was even less of a level playing field than it originally appeared. As such, the BRICS nations all seem to be interested in finding ways to reduce reliance on Western institutions that enforce financial and economic dominance, such as the IMF. As a leftist, the only thing I can say is this: more power to them. To say that such a strong challenge to the financial hegemony of the Washington-London-Tôkyô Triad is welcome would be a strong understatement. And there are several aspects to this new reserve currency that sound particularly intriguing.

The first is that it would be based on a basket of the five BRICS nations’ currencies: the ruble, the renminbi, the rand, the rupee and the real. This seems like an interesting ‘middle way’ that avoids the pitfalls of the euro. Allowing each of the member nations to retain control over its own monetary (and thus also trade) policies in ways which the Eurozone didn’t seems a good way to avoid internal friction between the member countries.

Also, the money not being tied to a commodity (like gold) helps keep the supply flexible and reduces the possible exploitation of agricultural communities. America’s experiment in gold-backed reserve currency turned out to be a disaster for the working poor in this country, and it seems like the BRICS countries are not eager to repeat that mistake. However, this structure does seem to come with its own risks. It would be interesting to see how the banking-oversight mechanism for this currency would work.

The other big news this week is that Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court in the US. This is also welcome news to me, and I make no bones about it. The Mississippi law upheld in the court’s decision actually seems to be a fairly moderate law which places the same restrictions on abortion access after the first trimester that most modern Western European countries have. However, I have some strong reservations about the long-term results of the overturn.

First and foremost, we simply don’t have the same supports for new and expecting mothers that Western Europe does. Placing restrictions on abortion parallel to those that exist in, say, France and the UK, without enacting the parallel social safety net provisions, is going to have a wantonly and cruelly punitive effect on childbearing women. The Democrats (using the excuse provided them by Manchin and Synema) completely punted on the Build Back Better Act, which would have included provisions for an expanded child tax credit, paid family leave, medical care subsidies, universal pre-K, new affordable housing and school lunches: all of which would have directly benefitted new mothers. And of course not one single Republican supported the BBBA, which shows effectively that they’re not and never have been the pro-life party that they claim to be.

Second, the overturn hands the decision over whether (and how) to restrict abortion access entirely over to the individual states. We’ve seen this movie play out before under different circumstances. It didn’t end well. It’s very likely that we will start seeing nullification arguments and secession movements begin to take shape in the near future as the divides grow sharper. I have seen multiple pro-life women in my social media network refer to the Roe overturn as a ‘Pyrrhic victory’. I think they happen to be right about that.

However, one thing that the Roe overturn is going to clarify, and quickly, is the degree to which Americans who claim to care about human life actually do. I fully expect the vast majority of so-called ‘pro-life’ Republicans will continue to sit on their hams and oppose any sort of humane legislation that would make life for new mothers and children more possible and bearable, and I would unfortunately say the same about so-called ‘pro-life’ Democrats in the mould of Joe Manchin. The Solidarists are probably going to continue to mealy-mouth their way into conversations about how we should create pie-in-the-sky ‘decentralised’ legislative solutions which stand no chance of garnering popular support anywhere and which wouldn’t work even if they were passed. The necessity of socialist fixes to the American economy, I expect, will become a lot clearer to a lot more people in the coming months, and I hope that these fixes can attract the support of at least a handful of pro-life types who are uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance their Republican allegiance has hitherto imposed on them.

02 June 2022

The Ukraine is not Vietnam: just ask the Vietnamese

One of the more banal and asinine lines of commentary to come out of the online ‘progressive’ and ‘anarchist’ left in recent months regarding the situation in the Ukraine, is the idea that the Ukraine is, or should be, ‘Russia’s Vietnam’, and that the left should support the Zelensky government in its war against Russia for the same reasons the left supported the Vietnamese partizans in their war against America.

You know who doesn’t find this line of argument compelling? The Vietnamese people. Along with the government which actually fought the Americans out of their country.

A few days ago, at Davos, Texas Republican congressman Michael McCaul snapped a picture of what he claimed were the Chinese delegation, sitting down during a standing ovation given to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a speech. He later claimed that they walked out on the speech. The only problem seems to have been that the Chinese delegation was not actually present at Zelenskyy’s speech at Davos. Instead, at that time, they were meeting with the executive director of the International Energy Agency. The people who sat during Zelensky’s speech and left without applauding were actually the Vietnamese delegation.

I think a passing comment may be justified here about Rep. McCaul’s utter and embarrassing stupidity (additionally disgraceful considering he’s somehow the lead GOP member on the House Committee of Foreign Affairs) in leaping instantly to the conclusion that the Asian-looking men in suits sitting next to him had to be Chinese… and his subsequent malevolence in using that photo in an attempt to rile up anti-Chinese sentiment on CNN. This is precisely the same sort of logic which motivates random racially-motivated attacks on, not only Chinese and Vietnamese, but Thai and Hmong people in the US. In a more civilised time and place, Rep. McCaul would probably be forced – at the very least – to resign from his position on the Committee of Foreign Affairs. However, it is sadly unlikely that he will face any professional repercussions at all for his imbecilic race-baiting.

But more to the point: Vietnam—along with other nations in East and Southeast Asia such as China, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia—has taken a position of principled neutrality on the current conflict. Vietnam has steadfastly opposed economic sanctions on Russia, and its statesmen have responded quite negatively (using decidedly undiplomatic language) when the Biden administration tried pressuring them to adopt the sanctions. And, it is also worth noting, the Vietnamese people tend to be far more pro-Russia than the government. It’s common for Vietnamese citizens to refer to the Russian president as ‘Uncle Putin’… an epithet of endearment which deliberately echoes the public veneration for Ho Chi Minh. In general, the citizens of Vietnam tend to see Russia as being a close friend and geopolitical ally during the Sino-Soviet split. More recently, the Vietnamese military has largely been equipped with Russian armaments, and Russia has cancelled 85% of Vietnam’s sovereign debts going back to the Soviet period.

The fact of the matter which the Vietnamese delegation’s non-applause of Zelensky and precipitous exit at Davos symbolise, is that the Vietnamese government—which, by the way, is made up largely of men who were children or service-aged young adults during the War—simply do not see the situation in the Ukraine as analogous to their own. At all. And the Vietnamese delegation happens to be right.

The Vietnamese people were fighting against two overseas colonial powers. They were fighting against two nations—France, then the United States—which sought to keep their population addicted to opium and exploitable as a cheap labour pool, resource mine and tax base. Later, the Vietnamese people were essentially conscripted as proxies in the Cold War, as they saw their interests as more aligned with the Soviet Union than with the United States. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the situation in the Ukraine is nowhere close to analogous.

The history is entirely different. French colonialism in Vietnam began in the 1880s and was replaced, functionally, by American colonialism in the 1950s. The relationship between France and Vietnam was very clearly one of imperial master and colonial subject. By contrast, the Ukraine and Russia are both successor states of the same polity—the Rus’ polity—which was first centred at Holmgarðr (Novgorod) under the Viking prince Rurik and later at Kœnugarðr (Kiev) under his brother-in-law Oleg. The development of a ‘Ukrainian’ identity within the Rus’ actually only emerged by way of the divergence of the areas of Rus’ that were under Polish-Lithuanian rule from the areas of Rus’ that were under the rule of the Golden Horde. Complicating matters is that there was a class division between the Rus’ who lived in the Carpathians versus the Rus’ who lived in the lower areas. However, suffice it to say that the history involved here is much longer and is simply not as clear-cut as the relationship between coloniser and colonised.

In terms of economics, as well, the situation is entirely different. The occupation of Vietnam by France, and their subsequent economic exploitation, left the Vietnamese population in a condition of complete economic subjugation and penury. Vietnamese people were targeted, in other words, for exploitation based on their ethnic and linguistic characteristics. In the later decades of colonial domination by France, Vietnamese GDP per capita barely grew at all (and actually fell off toward the end), and average Vietnamese household income ranged between 5 and 10% of the income of the average French household in France. The gap is pretty stark when you look at the data.

There was also exploitation in the Russian Empire, very much so. However, the data suggest that the exploitation did not differentiate between Ukrainians and Russians… and in fact, the Ukrainians had it quite a bit better than most Russians did. Lindert and Nafziger, authoring a paper in the Journal of Economic History, show a picture of the late Russian Empire which demonstrates that the income gradient in that country was not split between north and south—not split between speakers of Ukrainian / Belarusian / Great-Russian—but instead split between west and east, with the west being relatively wealthier and the east (apart from Moscow, of course) being relatively poorer. Ukrainians were, in general, no worse off than the majority of Russians. In fact, in economic terms (apart from Poltava), Ukrainians were in the top income quartile in Imperial Russian metrics. And—unlike in the French overseas empire toward Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Algerians, Guianese and Cameroonians—there is no evidence of any active attempt by the Imperial Russian government to exploit Ukrainians economically on the basis of a separate identity or racial hierarchy.

And finally, the political character of the governments involved nowadays is entirely different. The Independence League (Viet Minh) in the north and the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) in the south were indeed a movement for national liberation. However, they were also driven by principles of economic fairness and egalitarianism that led them to sympathise with, and ultimately adopt, the ideology of Marxism-Leninism: an ideology which the government of Vietnam still espouses to this day.

By contrast, the current Ukrainian government operates on neoliberal and ethno-nationalist principles. Poroshenko was a Ukrainian ethno-nationalist, and Zelensky is a neoliberal, similar to Russia’s Boris Yeltsin. His landmark legislation, commodifying land for sale on an open market, was wildly unpopular in the Ukraine—but it was encouraged by the IMF as a precondition for loans and was presented as such to the Rada. This is in fact a similar playbook taken to nearly all of the right-wing governments in Latin America in the 1980s. The result of Zelensky’s policies, even if this war had never escalated (though the war is certainly making things worse), is going to be the further impoverishment and demoralisation of the Ukrainian people.

Now, I am not a Marxist-Leninist. I am an Orthodox Christian… an Orthodox Christian with certain social-economic preferences and positions informed by the Basis of the Social Concept. But I can definitely see where the Vietnamese are coming from on this question, and I happen to think their stance on the war is the correct one. I can certainly understand why they wouldn’t out-and-out support Putin in this attack. However, the way the Vietnamese see it, the Ukrainians also aren’t fighting for their own material or political (or, I would add, spiritual) liberation—they’re fighting on behalf a corrupt bourgeois-nationalist government which essentially does the bidding of the US State Department, the IMF and the European Troika. And the thing is: they’re not wrong about that.

Russia and the Ukraine belong, at root, to the same linguistic culture, to the same civilisation, the same Christian religious tradition. Their interests are firmly wrapped up in each other’s welfare—Ukrainians and Russians very often share close family ties which connect them to each other on a personal level. This is one thing which makes the current war, and in fact the past eight years of civil warfare, so appalling. However, if there is to be any kind of lasting peace, then there needs to be first an accord on the basic nature of this reality. That accord is simply not possible if the Ukrainian government keeps attempting to mainline a set of ethno-nationalist fables and pseudo-historical lies in order to forward a neoliberal economic agenda that further enriches the already-wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Just as it is simply not possible if the Russian government keeps attempting to appeal to nostalgia for a lost political order.