31 December 2023

Yinxu on the Mississippi——密西西比河边殷墟

As mentioned in my blog post about Ulysses S Grant yesterday, I got to visit Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site together with my in-laws. Cahokia. Immense, monumental ancient step-pyramids and earthen mounds that date back a thousand years… right at the southern tip of the American Midwest.

Cahokia, located just on the other side of the Mississippi River from St Louis, in Illinois, is a thousand-year-old archaeological site consisting of a number of large raised earthen structures, as well as the remnants of a wooden stockade and a ‘Woodhenge’—a now-reconstructed ring of 49 wooden posts which archaeologists believe to have functioned as an immense solar calendar, used to calculate the equinoxes. Monks Mound is the largest pyramid north of the Mexican border, with a base measuring 13 acres in area (equal to the Great Pyramid at Giza), 955 feet across and 775 feet wide, and currently reaching a height of 100 feet.
The Cahokia Mounds were the site of a massive urban settlement between the years 900 and 1350 AD. From the archaeological evidence it can clearly be seen to have been a thriving centre of trade, with a distinct social hierarchy, metalworking and sophisticated astronomical and agricultural methods. (Woodhenge attests to the astronomical sophistication, as does the fact that the mounds and the plaza are constructed in an ‘hourglass’ shape bounded by two strict east-west lines of construction.) It could thus be said with ease, that the middle Mississippian polity which built and lived among the mounds was a civilisation in the true sense of the word.

It was a fascinating experience to walk in the shadows of the mounds… and then to climb Monks Mound with its sweeping vistas. There is something truly numinous about standing in Cahokia, a kind of awe that I have only twice or thrice felt before in my life: at the Yinxu Archaeological Site in Anyang; at Tianzi Jia Liu in Luoyang; and standing inside the old city walls in Luoyang and Xi’an. This is not the same as religious awe, the sense of standing in the presence of the Divine. For that, I go to Divine Liturgy, or pray before icons of Christ and His Mother. It is a very different, very human and this-worldly sort of awe—the sense of standing on a spot that you knew (not just felt, or fancied, but knew) that others had stood, three, five, ten thousand years before you. Call it civilisational awe.
It is standing in just such places—yea, even in places where mass human sacrifice was conducted—that one begins to understand what Konstantin Leont’ev understood in between the lines of his philosophical and medical writings. Cultures are alive; they have life-cycles. And even when they pass out of earthly existence and memory, they leave traces behind them that one can’t help but feel. However much our modern sensibilities, our religious and humanitarian scruples (which have been not so much earned on our own merits as entailed upon us by bitter experience of past ages), might turn back upon us at the contemplation of a civilisation perpetuating itself through the infliction of violent ritual death upon its own… there is nonetheless something truly splendid and grandiose about it, a kind of stoic and sanguine beauty which pervades the remains.

It was fascinating to walk amid this ancient monument, this millennium-old testament left by a pre-contact Indigenous civilisation, together with three Chinese people who are very near and dear to me. What was interesting in particular to me was how close the ancient sites of their own intimate knowledge were to the fore of their minds as we walked together.
Their first thought, also, was to liken the place to Yinxu, and also to the Bingmayong. The cruelty—the picturesque cruelty, the cruelty of fell beauty—of a Shang state perpetuated by mass human sacrifice, or of the First Qin Emperor who built a great Wall partly with the blood and bones of the men that he ruled, posed a ready parallel to what one might see at Mound 72. Hundreds of virgin maidens, exquisitely arrayed in marine shells, and then slain and arrayed at the southernmost point of the complex, their remains aligned in perfect reverence with the cardinal directions, the eternal tracks of sun and moon and season, giving life and death in their turn…

And what right have we, we shallow and arrogant children, we neonates in the grand scheme, to pass judgement upon this civilisation or those who inherited it? What do we know of what is sacred, or of what is true or what is correct? What price have we paid for that knowledge? Let’s give Nietzsche his due and acknowledge it: nowhere close to a price high enough, assuredly. Today we palefaces wax sentimental and lachrymose over the fate of the idealised Native American, with his fading ethic of spiritual and environmental harmony… yet we have no deep understanding by what route, by what autochthonous root in fact, the Indigenous peoples of this continent have come to such an ethic.
The stately, bloody grandeur of the Cahokia Mounds, even in its ruined current state, speaks still in resounding echoes of its former colossal resplendence, followed by its equally titanic collapse… this was the price, these were the conditions under which the Dakota and their cousin-nations learned what wisdom they still hold about the necessity of humility in the face of nature, about the need to honour one’s connectedness to others before the Creator. And the ancestors of the Lakota and Dakota, of the Kansa and Ponca, of the Ho-Chunk, the Choctaw and the Creek—they earned that wisdom, and carefully tended it down the generations, easily over 150 years before the white man ever laid eyes on the silver banks of the Mississippi.

The posited prehistoric connexions between the Han Chinese and the Indigenous peoples of this continent may be vastly overstated. But what is true, is that the Chinese civilisation and the heirs to the Cahokian civilisation (let’s not be coy and pretend that we don’t know who they are, or that they aren’t still with us today), share a great deal in common, when it comes to having dealt with the life-cycle of their civilisations. Let’s not whitewash those similarities, and still less downplay them or sentimentalise them or moralise them. Let us face them as they are.

If these ruminations on Cahokia strike one as too pre-Christian, too radical-reactionary, too culturally-maximalist, too elegiac of premodern brutality—in short, too Leont’evian—good. I want people to feel at least a glimmer of the mingled discomfort and awe that I felt as I led my feet and legs carefully along the tended paths, between and among the mortuary grounds and the hallowed heights of those ancient mounds.

30 December 2023

Ulysses S Grant: fighter, lover, honourable profligate

I am currently writing this blog post from the great south Midwestern town of St Louis, Missouri, where my family and I are planning to bring in the New Year. It had been our hope—to this point, not a disappointed one—that the stratospheric conditions would be amenable to a mild and restful holiday. Today, we visited (a safe distance after the winter solstice) the Mississippian holy site of the Cahokia Mounds—which may be the subject of a blog post in the near future. We also visited the farm which belonged to Civil War hero and former US President Ulysses S Grant.

I am prompted to write this post on account of the fluctuating posthumous historical fortunes of a number of American figures in public life. It’s a foregone conclusion, for example, that the reputation of Alexander Hamilton is far more positive in the present day, on account of a certain neoliberal Broadway non-talent, than it was thirty or even twenty years ago. (And this: for one of the right reasons and a hell of a lot of wrong ones.) It strikes me that Grant is another, similar victim of the historiographical ‘swing’ which began in earnest in the Obama era. And the national monument dedicated to his memory seems fully committed to this ‘swing’ and a revisionist view of its subject… for better and for worse.

It has been customary to view Grant, possibly under the influence of the Dunning school of American historiography, as a drunkard, a butcher, a fool and a failure. To its great credit, the Ulysses S Grant National Historical Site here in St Louis does a thorough and creditable job, drawing from primary sources, to deflate some of these caricatured assessments.
Apart from one unfortunate bout in his younger years as a distinctly-unhappy minor officer stationed far away from his beloved family at Fort Humboldt, Grant’s relationship with alcohol was a distinctly moderate and temperate one. Far from being a fool, Grant had a natural cunning and understanding of military strategy, as well as a distinct streak of stubborn tenacity, which manifested itself in his victorious career during the Civil War. And as for being a failure… that is a distinct matter of perspective. Certainly Grant’s efforts to manage Southern Reconstruction met with less than stellar results. And as for economic policy… well, we’ll get to that later. Suffice it to say for now, that I do not share the National Park Service’s rosy view of Grant in that regard. However, he did manage to bring the American military campaigns against the Plains Indians to a satisfactory close, and began the slow, fitful, rocky and still-incomplete process of finding a tolerable place for the Indigenous peoples in postbellum American society that did not involve genocide.

But the National Park Service, aussi dans l’air du temps, swings far, far too hard in the opposite direction. They portray Grant in what I would consider to be nigh-hagiographical terms, according to a certain civic-religious sensibility. A saint—yea, a racial visionary far ‘ahead of his time’ in terms of his treatment of the African-American, a stoic patriot of monumental proportions, a military genius, an even-handed diplomat of a distinctly liberal temper, and a devoted gallant and family man whose final and overriding concern was for his beloved wife and children. If he had certain flaws, they are incidental failings, ones which can be explained by temporary quirks or established habits of the culture he grew up in… or else they are endearing, mild faults, like being too trusting of political allies and business partners too eager to take advantage of his largesse for their own ends. The picture which the National Parks Service paints of the man begins with his manumission of William Jones, and ends with his deathbed bequest of the proceeds of his dictated memoirs to his faithful Julia and their four precious children.
Insofar as one can draw something like this picture from the primary sources… well and good. And I certainly understand the desire to portray a beloved native son in his very best possible light. But bringing my own ‘lens’ and background knowledge of Grant and his times to bear, I came away from his monument with a rather different picture of man and legacy than the one which the National Park Service sought to impress upon me. For me, President Grant is neither blackguard nor saint, neither bleary-eyed dullard nor Moses on the interracial mountaintop, but indeed precisely a man of his time and his culture—with some very distinct and (again, to my own view) highly blameworthy and inexcusable flaws.

What is interesting to me is how, culturally, Grant comes off very much so as a man of the backcountry South. More specifically, he comes off as an Appalachian—a ‘born fighter’ after the ethnographic portrait of his tribe painted by former US Senator Jim Webb. Grant’s father Jesse Root was born in the solidly-Appalachian Pennsylvania hinterland, and he married and sired Hiram Ulysses by a Scots-Irish Presbyterian girl, Hannah Simpson. Grant himself was born in Point Pleasant, which belongs solidly in the Cincinnati foothill zone of southern Ohio and is probably best considered a part of the American South in its own right.

In his early life especially—though his early habits foreshadow in many respects his behaviour in later life—Hiram Ulysses talks, behaves and reacts like a hillbilly (in the very best and noblest of senses). Our young Ulysses demonstrates many of the best characteristic features of Appalachian culture: aggressively independent; highly opinionated; dedicated to a deep individual internal sense of right; fiercely and even fanatically devoted to his friends, family, faith and flag. One sees this intriguing mix of traits particularly in his relationship with the (Deep Southern) Dents. Ulysses was deeply committed to his friendship to Fred Dent, enough to stay for extended periods of time with Dent’s family and work there. He grew even more closely, and touchingly, devoted to Fred’s younger sister Julia—whom he later married. Yet he often got into heated, even explosive, arguments over the subject of slavery with his host (later father-in-law). Ulysses had inherited both his father Jesse Root’s abolitionist convictions and a particularly hotheaded way of expressing them: for both of which Dent, slave-owning plantation patriarch that he was, had no use whatsoever. Very often young Julia was the one left mediating these arguments and preventing them from coming to blows.
Ulysses and Julia Grant enjoyed probably one of the most touchingly tender and enduring romances ever to grace the White House. Their initial attraction was probably born out of common interests: Ulysses Grant had a deep and abiding love for horses, and Julia Dent was an avid equestrian in her youth. But—‘for ought that I could ever read, could ever hear by tale or history, the course of true love never did run smooth’—and this of old Bill’s observations certainly held in regard to these two. First of all there was the age gap: when they met, Ulysses was 20 and Julia 16; at his first proposal Julia turned him down because she felt she wasn’t mature enough to reciprocate his feelings. Then there was the problem of their families. Initially neither the Dents nor the Grants gave the union their approval—owing largely to the differences in class and political convictions between the two fathers. Grant’s failures in business placed the young family under considerable financial strain, and later his placement at various military postings often drew him away from Julia. But their bond was strengthened by the fact that they carried on regular and frequent correspondence, of which many of the letters from Grant’s side survive.

Ulysses took the characteristically Appalachian career choice of joining the military in his youth, graduating from West Point with no particular academic distinction, though he did devoted and admirable service in the Mexican War (which he later recalled with some chagrin as a pointless imperialistic adventure). Yet being posted far from his beloved Julia took a toll on him—prompting his one youthful alcoholic bout which sadly dogged his later career. It was in his military career, in the Mexican War as well as later in the Civil War, where he displayed yet another pair of typically-Appalachian traits: tenacity and vengefulness.
Grant had written on his bones the law of the feudal Scots, which dictates that if someone hits you, you hit them back harder so they can’t do it again. He lived his military (and, in some instances, later political) career by this principle. He distinguished himself at Fort Donelson by staging a ruthless and unrelenting counterattack against a Confederate sortie, against his superior officer’s orders, and would not be satisfied with anything less than an unconditional surrender of the fort by its Confederate commander. His performance in the Battle of Shiloh also followed this pattern. The first day of the battle, on 6 April, commanded on the Union side by Sherman and Prentiss and McClernand, was an utter débâcle and a total human waste: the single bloodiest battle, in terms of American lives, of this or any other American war. Grant noted in his writings that one could walk across the clearing from one end to the other treading only on fallen bodies, with one’s feet never touching the ground. Yet, in Grant’s typical style, his order for Buell and Wallace the following morning was: to hit the Confederates back at once, and hit them hard. And early in the morning on 7 April, that is exactly what the Union troops did: surprising the Confederates at the captured Union camp before breakfast, and fighting them to a bloody rout throughout the afternoon. At the end of the day, over 23,000 soldiers lay dead at Shiloh.

Ironically, it was precisely for this archetypically Southern personality trait in Grant, that later Southern historians would revile him as a ‘butcher’. Yet I do not count this as sin on his part. Grant fought his fights with honour and tenacity. Intriguingly, particularly from a monument in Missouri, it is not for these traits that he is chiefly remembered now, but instead for his (equally-controversial) policy of accepting African-American recruits under his command. The National Park Service credits this to Grant’s racial egalitarianism, and there is indeed a good case to be made there from Grant’s letters. Yet it needs to be remembered also that Greater Appalachian culture was broadly (if imperfectly) equalitarian in this respect—if one could handle a gun, black or white, he was welcome to join a fight.
From the other side, I think, certain assertions of Grant’s ‘bigotry’ against various groups—Irish and German Catholics, for example, and Jews—fail to take this aspect of his personality into account. Grant was liable to lash out, often unfairly and in sweeping terms, against people whom he thought had wronged him. He joined (for the length of a single week, before walking out in disgust) the ‘American Party’, better known as the Know-Nothings. This happened after, and because, he was precipitously rejected from a civil service vacancy in St Louis, which Grant attributed to a conspiracy on the part of the Irish and German Catholic residents of the town. And his indefensibly antisemitic General Order 11 during the War, expelling all Jews from the states under his military command, was issued in response to certain specific unscrupulous Jews like the Mack brothers who, unfortunately, actually were in the business of smuggling Confederate cotton into the North and undermining the war effort. Adding a personal angle to this order, Grant may have been particularly incensed that the Mack brothers had inveigled his own father, Jesse Root Grant, in their shady business.

What fascinates me, rather, is Grant’s magnanimous posture toward Lee and toward the Confederate armies, after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. His terms were more than generous. If there was any basis for considering Grant a saint, that basis would be best in evidence here: his offer to the Confederate soldiery to keep their horses, their arms and their freedom after their surrender and demobilisation was practically unprecedented anywhere. Grant’s offer of peace to Lee was a gesture of noblesse oblige more easily credited to a medieval chevalier, or a particularly-saintly Kievan Rus’ boyar. One is tempted to think that Lincoln’s vision of a lasting peace without rancour between the North and the South reintegrated under the same Union made a deep impression on Grant.

Grant’s overall plan for Southern Reconstruction was, in my view, also saintly—though that plan’s actual implementation considerably less so. It’s true that this vision was considerably hampered by Andrew Johnson’s far less-egalitarian model for Reconstruction, and later by the politics of racial backlash and domestic terrorism which undid much of Grant’s work. But it’s generally true that Grant’s continuous desire was to lift up the South in an image of reconciliation and racial equality-of-opportunity, coordinate with Lincoln’s direction indicated in the Second Inaugural. This high value that he set on reconciliation and peace is one which followed him into his negotiations with the Plains Indians and the wise (if belated) halt he put on the extermination campaign the US Army was waging on them in the American West; and into his foreign policy endeavours elsewhere in the world. His attempt to resolve the standoff between Qing China and Meiji Japan over the Ryûkyû Islands, though ultimately unsuccessful (much to the sad fate of the Ryûkyûan people themselves), was nonetheless guided by the high value he set on peace and mediated agreement.
Now… up to this point my interpretation of Grant’s cultural background and its influence on his decisions sits together fairly comfortably with the National Park Service’s view of him, though it offers a somewhat different colour to the Union general’s rationality and decision-making process. When it comes to Grant’s presidency, my assessment of him notably diverges from that which the National Park Service provides. I do not view Grant as a particularly successful or praiseworthy president.

My assessment rests primarily on account of his stubborn attachment to the gold standard, and his concurrent hostility to the greenback movement. What is true is that the popular perception of Grant as personally corrupt simply does not stand up to scrutiny. On the other hand, it is undeniable that as president, his policies viciously squandered the brief window for a truly democratic economy which President Lincoln’s far-sighted soft-money policies opened, rendered the Panic of 1873 inevitable… and inescapably favoured corrupt interests, plutocracy and the concentration of Money Power in the United States. Both the right-wing racist Democratic backlash in the Deep South, and the left-wing Populist insurgency in the Midwest and Upper South, can in some measure be attributed to Grant’s blockhead approach to economics. What’s more, Grant’s late-life personal financial misfortunes, which the National Park Service presents tragically as the result of Grant’s trusting nature, mirror precisely his poor management of the national economy.

Grant simply did not have the same experimental temperament that Lincoln did, a willingness to play with new ideas. Lincoln was open and welcoming, for example, to the advice of Illinois Col. Dick Taylor in 1862 when it came to financing the war effort with greenbacks (government-issued promissory notes not backed by specie in precious metals), in a way that Grant evidently had not been the year before. What Abraham Lincoln, along with his ingenious Treasury secretary Salmon Portland Chase, handed to the American people, was a currency system that could be responsive to their own growing productive capacity, rather than hitched to a commodity medium that fluctuated in value, and whose price fluctuations stood to benefit primarily the (wealthy) holders of the medium. Sadly, the holders of specie—and the industrial and usury-financial caste they represented—militated against this pro-producer, pro-farmer, pro-labour currency system from the very beginning.

Grant’s understanding of economic and monetary policy, unfortunately, was always fairly shallow. He understood it in the same moralistic terms that many other ordinary people, both North and South, did. Gold was gold, and had to be honoured as such anywhere, whereas the promises of a government printed on a piece of paper were considered to be somehow dishonourable. When considering his Appalachian cultural proclivity toward a certain valence of honour, in timocratic terms, this interpretation of specie-versus-greenbacks gains further force. Just as with General Order 11, this explanation is not meant to stand in as excuse, but perhaps to shed some light on its psychological meaning for him.
Unfortunately, this attitude toward gold as the only acceptable basis for an American monetary policy created a series of escalating problems for Grant that only worsened as he tried to correct course. His attempts to break the Johnsonian gridlock over the greenback question and steer the American economy back toward a ‘sound-money’ basis, resulted directly in a legislative demonetarisation of silver in 1873, which later produced a bank run that same year. This ‘Crime of ‘73’ was seized on by advocates of silver currency (themselves no better on this question than the goldbugs, largely being silver mine owners in the far West and other middle- to upper-middle-class holders of silver specie) as proof of Grant’s economic incompetence. Several subsequent legislative ‘fixes’ meant to ease the nation into a ‘resumption’ of payments in gold specie, served only to kick the can down the road, and send the nation into a prolonged economic slump… despite several (vetoed) attempts by soft-money advocates and their sympathisers (dismissed and derided as ‘inflationists’) to jumpstart the national economy by tabling the specie question and queueing a fresh legislative injection of greenback currency into the system.

One can easily imagine from this how people reacted. Grant’s Reconstruction policies, however well-intentioned, were viciously attacked by racist demagogues in the South who seized on the worsening plight of poor farmers with nothing but greenbacks to their name. They scapegoated blacks and Northern educators as agents of Grantian corruption, and these foul parasitic ‘Redeemer’ Democrats waged an unremitting campaign of beatings, rapes, murders and organised domestic terror against them, destroying the Reconstruction governments of their respective states through brute violence.
Elsewhere in the nation, third-party advocates of the greenback and the democratic promise behind it struggled to get their message out regarding the causes of the economic slump… with limited electoral success largely confined to the Midwest American states. But a consistent pro-greenback message would be sent only in the 1880s with the rise of the People’s Party (which enjoyed considerable popularity in the American South when plain people started to realise that the race-baiting Democratic promises of ‘redemption’ were no better than Republican ones).

Grant’s reputation suffered in his second term, not on account of any corruption on his part (the accusations of corruption were always only a politically-convenient distraction), but rather on account of his invincibly-clueless approach to the monetary question. The golden bullet-wound to the leg with which Grant was determined to hobble the American economy continued to bleed through the rest of his term and into that of Hayes. Yet, stunningly, and continuing in the same vein of economic illiteracy and idiocy that Grant was mired in, the National Park Service lauds him for having ‘paved the way for the resumption of specie payment, reestablished a sound currency, and provided the basis for the orderly growth of the American economy’! Yikes. I suppose this is one way to sidestep the problem of America’s lost decade, especially if you’re out to determine that Grant was a man ‘ahead of his time’.
In his private life, too, Grant’s gormless but ‘honourable’ approach to questions of finance left him an easy mark for dishonourable men to come and cheat him. Grant’s son Buck introduced his father to a certain Wall Street broker (and, as it would turn out, notorious con man) Ferdinand Ward, along with a certain banker who underwrote his schemes named James Fish. Grant was convinced to lay out most of his personal fortunes in Ward’s shell game, and even used a personal loan from Vanderbilt to keep Ward’s firm afloat when it was clear it was going belly-up. Ward absconded with all of Grant’s money and left him penniless and in deep debt at the very end of his life. The only way that Grant, dying of throat cancer, could manage to keep his family solvent and out of penury, was to sell his memoirs (a task with which he received significant help from a certain modestly-successful author and satirist by the name of Sam Clemens).

There is much in Grant’s biography for one to admire. One may, and should, point to his ability to take principled stands even when doing so affected him adversely, as a mark of his high character. One may also point to his tenacity and cunning as a strategist and a fighting man, a true son of Appalachia. And one may justly point to his tender relationship with Julia Dent and his manifest devotion to his children. But the man was not without certain critical blind spots and flaws particularly on economic matters: flaws for which his presidential reputation has, to a certain degree deservedly, suffered.

30 November 2023

Six Walks in a disappearing wilderness

Cross-posted from Silk and Chai:

I just finished reading Palestinian Walks—a poignant and tragic memoir by human rights lawyer, author and Palestinian activist Raja Shehadeh about his work in the Holy Land over the course of nearly four decades. Shehadeh, who is an ethnic Palestinian Christian, makes numerous Scriptural references owing to the simple fact that he lives where Scripture was written, and where the events of Scripture took place. But his spirituality is not of an overt, apologist or confessional nature; indeed, his attitude toward organised religion in general is self-avowedly ‘cynical’. Living in a land which is riven by communal factionalism and self-serving zealotry on the part of the settlers, does understandably tend to leave a bad taste in the mouth when it comes to theological questions. But rather, we can see that spirituality most clearly in his meditations on the shifting ecological balance and the fragile disappearing landscapes he loves so dearly. He is very much so a lover of the land and its people, a fact which comes through painfully in every chapter. Glimmers and moments of his faith in Christianity do emerge, however—particularly in his visit to the Monastery of St George Choziba in Wadi Qelt.

To get a good grasp of the tenor of the book, it’s necessary to quote Shehadeh at length about the nature of these walks he would take. Here is his description of the sarḥa (سرحة), which is the term he uses for the sort of walk he would do:
It was mainly young men who went on these expeditions. They would take a few provisions and go to the open hills, disappear for the whole day, sometimes for weeks and months. They often didn't have a particular destination. To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wonders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. But not any excursion would qualify as a sarha. Going on a sarha implies letting go.
Shehadeh’s evocation of the sarḥa rather mirrors the false etymology that Henry David Thoreau posits for ‘saunter’ (from ‘sainte-terre’) as a sort of pilgrimage, though one without a fixed aim. I have little doubt that this choice was intentional on Shehadeh’s part, even if it’s left unsaid. Shehadeh demonstrates a firm command of English-language literature regarding his home country, and an enviable degree of appreciation for its artistry—even as he chides figures like WM Thackeray, Herman Melville and Mark Twain for their unappreciative, imperialist’s-eye view of his country and his people.

Shehadeh describes a landscape in which every ridge, crest, rock, dry riverbed and hill-slope has a name—in Arabic, most commonly, but with the occasional Canaanite and Aramaic epithet arising. He describes an austerely exquisite panorama, not to everyone’s tastes, but with life and vibrancy enough to one trained in the ability to look for it. His careful—yet lively—descriptions of the geological features, of the local plant and animal life, and the ways in which his fellow Palestinians (and their goats, their grapevines and their earthen houses) came to a modus vivendi with their near-desert surroundings, all bear witness to the personal stake he has in the well-being of this place.

Yet despite this naturalist, travelogue feel, Palestinian Walks is very much so a memoir, a personal text. He describes the effort his maternal uncle, Abu Ameen, put into constructing a qasr, essentially a cottage, in the wilderness of Harrasha—and the quirky romance he enjoyed with his hardworking bride, Zariefeh, as they spent their honeymoon hauling rocks and setting them into place. We get to see some of the family dynamics, too. Raja Shehadeh belongs to that educated class of Palestinians, who were drawn into the British administration at Jaffa… although they all hailed from Ramallah. He describes the differences in attitude between his two uncles: one who went off to Jaffa to become a ‘successful’ administrator; and the other who stayed behind and lived stubbornly in the desert hills outside of Ramallah, neither knowing or needing any other kind of life.

A personal streak runs throughout each of these sarḥât. Raja describes one of the first land cases that he took up on receiving his law degree, defending the title of a certain Palestinian named François Albina (who was referred to as ‘the Christian’ landowner by his Muslim neighbours in Beit ‘Ur, in contradistinction to another large landowner nearby whom his neighbours called ‘the Jew’). He details much of the history behind this case, including how the Israeli settlers—with the entire machinery of the Israeli legal system and seemingly bottomless foreign pockets behind them—resorted to practically every trick of legal chicanery and sleight-of-hand in order to undercut Albina’s claim to the land… and even essentially blackmail him into abandoning that same claim by demanding compensation for its use. Raja also describes how this served as an almost perfect test case: the defendant was an independent landowner who was not a Muslim. Yet the Israeli judiciary, despite being forced at every turn by Raja’s argument to acknowledge that Albina had an incontestable and continuous presence on and claim to his own land, ultimately decided on an expansive interpretation of an Israeli military order that gave the go-ahead for settlers to take it and build on it anyway.

Raja’s description of the wall that went up, straight through Albina’s property, is heart-wrenching. Instead of a gentle hillside shaded by pine trees, there was a garish, sixteen-foot concrete wall separating a nestle of villas in a gated community for Israeli high-tech IT employees, with a highway running to the coast, all lit by electric floodlights, overshadowing what remained of the Palestinian community in Beit ‘Ur. He describes both the intrusion of the built space, and all of the architectural choices which accompanied it, as perfectly keyed to stir up animosity and hatred between the two sides, assuring that violence would become an issue later. This point is driven home as, later, in the same vicinity, Raja and his wife Penny end up being shot at by Palestinian militants (Raja doesn’t say Ḥamâs specifically) even after calling to them in Arabic to stop.

Raja Shehadeh makes no bones about the fact that he refuses to consider violence as a legitimate tool. His weapon of choice is the law. His reasons for this are not religious at all, but primarily secular and practical: he knows full well that the Palestinians will not be able to outgun or outkill the Israelis; and he also understands that no peace arrived at through bloodshed is capable of being permanent. He also takes a long-term, generational view of the conflict… though to what extent this view is the product of hindsight in view of the Oslo Accords (which undermined practically all of his legal work defending Palestinian land claims) is unclear.

The Oslo Accords loom large in Shehadeh’s narrative as a kind of classical nemesis. In his view, the Palestinians who came to Oslo were essentially lulled into a false sense of security by the theatrics of hospitality put on by their Norwegian hosts, while the Israelis essentially walked away with the legal rights to the proverbial lock, stock and barrel. Although Shehadeh clearly, and for very good personal reasons, shuns and deplores the violence of the militants, still he views the political opportunism and low cunning of Fataḥ and the PLO more generally in still-bleaker terms: having sold out the patrimony of their people in exchange for aid money and pats on the head from Western governments. (In this, he echoes a sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly in Antiochian and Palestinian Christian circles, particularly with regard to Mahmoud Abbas.) One sees a lot of this frustration in his third sarḥa down to the Dead Sea, which he takes in the company of a young PLO member who talks about the Oslo Accords with a nigh-intolerable rose-tinted naïveté. Here he also describes with alarm the disappearing biome and impending ecological catastrophe which can be observed in the lowering line of the Dead Sea, as Israeli interests divert the fresh water of the Jordan.

In another rare flash of religiosity, Raja Shehadeh describes his pilgrimage to the Monastery of Saint George Choziba in the chapter which follows. He is more comfortable, it seems, referring to figures of the Old Testament (like King David and the Prophet Isaiah) than to the figures of the New—but given where he lives and what his context is, perhaps this is not so strange. Again: his attitude toward religion in general is a negative one. Given what he has described of the overt religiosity of the Israeli settlers, which somehow coexists with callous disregard for neighbour, with casual violence and with absolute comfort in the one-sided and prejudicial use of the machinery of law… this is understandable. And yet he approaches the monastery, sixteen centuries old, with its fortified walls, its dark incensed cloistered interior, its candle-lit icons, with an attitude of deep respect and admiration, if only in the sense of inspiration for the ordering of one’s own life, or the attitude which a people under siege need to adopt.

Raja Shehadeh’s cloister of choice was a modest home with a courtyard in Ramallah… though even this was not inviolate of Israeli brutality, as he learned the hard way when his town came under siege and later occupation. More to the point, perhaps, is that writing became the discipline through which he could manage the defeats, the insults, the violence and the hopelessness which had become the common lot of his people. He discusses, in the context of a sarḥa which the two of them took together, the long friendship he has with Dr Mustafa Barghouti of the PNI Party, and the differences which their lives took. Raja Shehadeh began as a lawyer and ended up as a writer; Mustafa Barghouti began as a medical doctor and ended up as a politician. Yet the two men share a conviction that the Palestinian struggle must be waged in civil society and in terms of generations rather than intifadas.

The final chapter is a harrowing one, but it’s one which I think Shehadeh relates masterfully, simply from a literary standpoint. He describes getting lost right around Dolev, where he grew up—not because of his failing memory, but because the landscape itself had changed so much as to be unrecognisable to him. He ends up finding his way back to Ramallah by process of elimination: all the places which are blocked off to him by Israeli settlements, border walls or checkpoints. He describes a tense encounter with a young, armed Israeli settler who has snuck out of Dolev in order to smoke hashish. The conversation between the two is narrated excellently: a confrontation between two views of the same place that have been shaped by different values and different realms of knowledge. Placing this conversation at the end of the book, after we have been given this personal history of legal struggle and attempts to conserve some semblance of legal consideration for both the landscape and its original inhabitants, was a shrewd choice on Shehadeh’s part: we can see the clear delineation between his view and the ‘settler’ view. Shehadeh is a conservationist and a believer in the rule of law; the settler he encounters is a believer in material progress and victors’ justice. Yet in the end the two of them come, if not to an understanding, then at least to an uneasy truce over the nargileh (punctuated poignantly by the sounds of distant gunfire—whose ‘side’ it is, neither can tell).

Palestinian Walks is a book that I would strongly recommend as a means of understanding the (both literal, figurative and historical) lay of the land in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the common experience that shapes the convictions of the Palestinian side of that conflict. The author—a nominal Christian and a functional pacifist—is nonetheless an authoritative voice for a people who are predominantly Muslim and who are committed to a resistance which can turn, as we have seen, violent. It’s also valuable as an English-language travelogue. However he might chide and wag his finger at the likes of Melville and Thackeray and Twain, what Shehadeh has given us could easily be placed alongside them as a companion-piece, painting in intimate colours the intricate but endangered desert ecology and human communities of the West Bank.

One last note. My own view is that it’s a grim necessity, in these days, to engage in such intentional book-reading as a counterpoint to the prevailing media narratives over the recent conflict. You are not going to get the truth about this or any conflict abroad from CNN, from Fox News, from the New York Times or from the Wall Street Journal, which are all mouthpieces for the State Department and committed to a singular liberal ideology and historical myopia which colours their entire editorial perspective. The benefit of reading books like Shehadeh’s, is that such reading can help someone who is distant and removed from the conflict gain a sense of context, a sense of historical grounding, which is not otherwise available in our information landscape. Although Shehadeh is somewhat self-deprecating about his chosen means of coping with political defeat and the disaster befalling his people, his writing does serve this very needful and, dare I say, God-pleasing purpose.

Raja Shehadeh

25 November 2023

Russia, Palestine and ‘moral equivalence’

With regard to the war in Ukraine, I’m in a relatively strange position. When the most recent phase of the war began in February 2022, I was firmly opposed to Russia’s incursion, though I reserved a series of criticisms of the Ukrainian government with an eye to the injustices against Russophone Ukrainians and ethnic minorities in places like Bukovina and Transcarpathia which preceded it. My reasons for opposing the Russian war effort were, in retrospect, perhaps a trifle naïve. I thought the initial attack by Russia against Kharkov was inhumane and inexcusable, given that Kharkov was the site where Russophone Ukrainians first came under violent attack from the Ukrainian SBU back in April of 2014.

Later events and revelations caused me to significantly revise my stance. Whereas before I was critically pro-Ukraine in the current conflict for principled anti-war reasons, I am now critically pro-Russia… for principled anti-war reasons. I still think that the Russian armed forces have made significant strategic errors and tactical bungles in the prosecution of the war, and that the political leadership has been… inconsistent. But several factors caused me to change my view. Firstly, there were the revelations from Swiss intelligence officer Jacques Baud that western nations were conducting military exercises in the Black Sea and that the Ukrainian military were ramping up attacks on Donbas before 24 February 2022. Secondly, there were the Russian peace proposals in April of 2022 that the Western bloc, and the United Kingdom in particular, did their level best to scupper. Thirdly, there were the striking admissions by high-ranking European and American officials such as Angela Merkel and François Hollande, that the West never intended to abide by the Minsk Agreements but instead use them as a time-buying pretext to arm Kiev for war.

Although none of these three reasons by itself constitutes a valid casus belli for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (at least, in light of Western Christian just war theory), when taken together as a pattern, they cast Russia’s actions in an entirely different light. Russia was acting in response to a series of premeditated, offensive provocations from the West. And Russia had attempted numerous times to come to a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. These factors convinced me that Russia’s actions were in fact defensive rather than offensive, and that the Ukrainian nation as a whole had been grievously abused by the Western bloc, and made to serve as a catspaw to advance Western plans to weaken and compromise Russia’s political process and territorial integrity. Basically, everything the West accused Russia of doing to Ukrainian society, the West was actually doing (or planning to do) to Russian. I think it is fair to say that my previous critically pro-Ukrainian position was already being revised by July, and was already critically pro-Russian by January of this year.

I can still understand and sympathise, to a limited degree, with the attitude of anti-war moral outrage over the February 2022 Russian incursion. After all, I shared in it! But, as the great British economist John Maynard, Baron Keynes, is often famously credited with saying: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind, sir—what do you do?’ Just as the first impressions of Elizabeth Bennet of Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham had to be revised as enough of the facts became known to her and pointed to an entirely different interpretation and colouring of events and circumstances, so I too all but had to revise my position concerning the events of February 2022.
I also began to notice, in the prosecution of the ‘special military operation’, that Russia’s tactics and overall military doctrine were aimed not at territorial conquest at all costs, but instead at the degradation of Ukrainian military capacity and the protection (insofar as possible) of civilian lives. This was clearly not owing to Russian military weakness and strategical stupidity, but owing to an active choice on the part of the Russian chiefs of staff. Inexcusable high-profile incidents such as Bucha notwithstanding (and in the awareness that a full-scale impartial investigation has yet to be conducted), the Russian armed forces have taken great pains to remove civilian populations from positions of physical danger, and direct their attacks as exclusively as possible at military targets—most of these being along the line of contact.

As of four days ago, the UN Human Rights Office has reported that over the past 20 months, 10,000 civilians have been killed in the Russo-Ukrainian War. This sounds like a lot, and indeed there can be no moral excuse for such death as in any modern war. But for a modern armed conflict, Russia is actually incurring a comparatively low rate of civilian deaths. For comparison: the Iraq Body Count project (which is in fact probably a severe underestimate of civilian deaths) showed that American servicemen were responsible for over 20,000—twice as many—confirmed Iraqi civilian deaths across a similar period of time. (And the Iraq War was in fact a war of choice, and no such tragic conflict of two nations’ defensive claims as the Russo-Ukrainian War is!)

It is also worth noting that there is no active armed resistance to speak of against Russian rule inside the territories that Russia is occupying. There are a handful of far-right neo-Nazi Russian paramilitaries and criminal groups associated with the so-called ‘Irpin Declaration’ in armed opposition to the Russian government. But these seem to operate exclusively out of Ukrainian-controlled territory and enjoy practically zero support in Russian-controlled Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhzh’e and Kherson oblasts. A critical thinker is forced to wonder why this is. If Russia really were behaving as the brutal, imperialistic, homicidal territorial aggressor so commonly portrayed, then why are the civilians in the territories it controls acquiescing to Russian rule so passively and meekly? Why not take up arms against the oppressor?

This context also formed in large part my attitude toward the current war being waged by Israel against Gaza. To engage in any analysis of this conflict is to step into a rhetorical minefield. This is because the Cold War-relic snarl-phrase of ‘moral equivalence’ is again being bandied about with great abandon over the past month and a half, notably by Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Jonathan Tobin, Alan Dershowitz and other such liberast luminaries. Condemnations of ‘moral equivalence’ in this context are very nearly equivalent to a ‘how dare you!!’ non-argument. It’s almost an emotive reflex, to the effect of: How dare you liken us enlightened ones, us democratic and human-rights-respecting heroes, to those unspeakable and irredeemable villains, terrorists, baby-killers and death-cultists over there?

The first and foremost philosophical problem with condemning ‘moral equivalence’, in fact a huge problem on its face, is that all moral reasoning relies to some degree on drawing analogies between disparate situations such that certain equivalencies can be meaningfully derived. Practically all systems of ethics in Western thought going back to Plato and Aristotle rely at their basis on analogical arguments and reasoning. Plato in particular was famous for using analogies (‘the divided line’), parables (the Charioteer, the Cave, the Man chained to a Lion and a Many-Headed Beast) and even myths (Atlantis, the Ring of Gyges) to draw the characters of his dramas—and with them, his readers—into a deeper understanding of the particular point of virtue or knowledge that he was exploring. Plato’s discursive methods were formalised into a system by his student-cum-rival Aristotle.

In a very real sense, all serious moral thinking in the West is an exercise in drawing equivalences, and the ‘how-dare-you’ demand to cease drawing such analogical equivalences is tantamount to demanding that we turn off our brains and toss out the very fundaments of Western ethical thought. In this case, a fortiori, the need for meaningful analogies, and a cogent language for evaluating such analogies, is paramount. For example: I note that these same talking-heads condemning ‘moral equivalence’ seem to have no objections to the rather spurious moral equivalence of Palestinians to Nazis that the Israeli authorities are wont to engage in.

Now, it should be obvious from this example that some analogies are better, closer and more cogent than others. The benefit of accepting equivalency and analogy as a valid method of moral reasoning, is that we are better equipped to say which equivalencies and analogies are invalid. The Germans during the Second World War were in command of their own state, for one thing. The Palestinians have no state. And they have a ‘government’ only in the most risibly loose of senses. The Germans had control over an entire financial sector, an entire industrial war machine, a command structure, including an air force, that the Palestinians completely lack. And, probably most importantly, the Germans were also driven by an ideology of racial superiority and social Darwinism, which, for reasons which should be obvious, holds no endogenous currency whatsoever among the Arabs of Palestine.

Regarding the neologism of ‘Islamofascism’, a coinage which circulates promiscuously among the same people who snarl against ‘moral equivalence’, the following must be said. We must speak of the Ikhwânism of Ḥamâs on its own demerits, and these are very real. It is disgusting beyond words that the Ḥamâs leadership lives like kings in places like Dubai and Doha while the Palestinian constituency they supposedly govern gets bombed to hell. But, while Ikhwânism may bear comparison to fascism in some respects, fascism is in a very real sense secular and nationalistic, in a way that even the most brutal and death-loving forms of Islamism are not.

But, having established foremost the need for ‘moral equivalencies’ (in the most basic sense of simply having an analogical method for ethical comparison), I think it may be possible to begin to discuss the parallels between the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian one a bit more cogently. Hopefully a more convincing case can be put forward than Biden’s senile and inchoate conflation of Russia and Ḥamâs as fellow-dastards and enemies of all that is good and decent.

Three such equivalencies, between Russia and Israel, do rise immediately to the surface.
  1. Fraternal conflict.The Israelis and the Palestinians, much like the Ukrainians and the Russians, are quite literally brother-peoples.

    Israelis and Palestinians have been shown by objective genetic studies to share recent ancestry. Both Palestinians and Israelis are largely Semitic peoples with roots in the Levant.

    Likewise, all of the East Slavic peoples—Ukrainians, Belarusians and ethnic Russians—share ‘almost identical proportions’ of Caucasian and Northern European genetic material, making them incredibly close kin simply from the standpoint of heredity.

  2. Defensive justifications. The Israeli case for war is, on its face, similar to the Russian one—insofar as it is justified on the basis of self-defence and security against not merely local but also regional foes.

    In Russia’s case, those regional foes are the eastern European nations which are members of the NATO bloc; while in Israel’s case, those regional foes are the Arab nations with which it hasn’t yet come to a modus vivendi.

  3. Territorial occupation. It must be mentioned that in each case, Russia and Israel in the prosecution of their respective wars hold and occupy territory that, under international law, does not belong to them.

    Russia occupies much of the Donetsk Basin, Zaporozhzh’e and Kherson in defiance of international law. Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza in defiance of the same international laws.
However, there also arise a number of dissimilarities between the two conflicts; mostly historical in their import, though not irrelevant to the current situation in each country.
  1. Religious significance. Palestine is very literally holy ground to all three of the major Abrahamic religions. The Temple Mount, the Tombs of the Patriarchs, the site of Christ’s Nativity, the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives—all exist within the borders of the present Holy Land. There has historically been massive contention over these sites, both among Christian confessions and between Christians, Jews and Muslims.

    The Pontic territories under dispute do contain religious significance for Orthodox Christians. Sevastopol in particular is a place sacred in Russian Orthodoxy, as the site of the baptism of St Vladimir. But there is nothing in Crimea or elsewhere in the territories under dispute between Russia and the Ukraine, which qualitatively resembles in character the holy sites in Palestine.

  2. Settler colonialism. The presence of Russophones in the Ukraine is not, in overall terms, the result of a deliberate concerted policy of colonialism or settlement—even though Tsarist Russia, and later the Soviet Union, did have deliberate policies of colonial settlement in numerous other places. By contrast, Israeli history is very overtly and self-consciously colonial and settlement-oriented: the main organisation for Jewish settlement was literally called the Jewish Colonisation Association; Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky both explicitly framed their project in terms of colonisation.

    Ironically, the use of ‘postcolonial’ discourse to describe modern Ukrainian reality is not endogenous but rather a postmodern (and post-Soviet) borrowing from the West… and this discursive strategy is, to put it mildly, broadly unconvincing to the actual former subjects of Western colonial governments, who (not without reason) see this discursive strategy as self-serving and driven by ulterior interests.

  3. Social segregation. The people who now live in the Donetsk Basin are, by and large, the descendants of the same Don Cossacks that had independently lived among and intermarried with the locals since the seventeenth century. Rates of intermarriage between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine have historically been high enough that Russians and Ukrainians in the Ukrainian East are functionally the same people. No formal segregation policies have separated ethnic Ukrainians from ethnic Russians in the past, neither under the Tsars, nor under the Soviet government, nor under the current Russian Federation.

    By contrast, segregation in Israel has been legal and formalised since its founding. Intermarriages are vanishingly rare between Israelis and Palestinians, and the Israeli state actually erects legal barriers as well as physical ones in order to prevent it.

  4. Economic disparity. There has historically been very little difference between residents of Ukrainian territories and residents of Russian territories in terms of wealth, even going back to Tsarist times. Certain politically-charged famines notwithstanding, Ukrainians were overall about as well-off as Russians throughout most of their history together. The recent disparity between overall Ukrainian wealth and overall Russian wealth has more to do with the policies chosen by their respective governments after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the disastrous shock-therapy of the 1990s, Russia turned toward a mixed economic policy based on self-reliance and food security; while the Ukrainian government largely remained mired in Western neoliberalism with all its attendant ills.

    The marked disparity between Israeli wealth and Palestinian wealth, by contrast, is the product of deliberate design rather than negligence or happenstance. The Palestinians were not only driven off the land they had once owned, but they were directly plundered of their resources of all sorts, by both legal chicanery and outright burglary, under Israeli administration. This was the case both in the 1948 Nakba, and in the wake of 1967.

  5. Violent resistance. Both Ukraine and Palestine do have histories of violent resistance, though these are different in character. Ukraine has witnessed sporadic uprisings against Tsarist rule; it resisted incorporation into the Soviet Union during and after the First World War; and Ukrainian nationalists fought in the Nazi SS against the Soviets during the Second World War. Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule was largely politically rightist and middle- and upper-class in terms of class base, being motivated largely by nineteenth-century nationalist ideas.

    By contrast, there has been armed resistance to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land practically since the very beginning. Palestinians of all social classes began fighting back against the expropriation of their land and the expulsion of their people almost immediately after 1948, and again repeatedly through the Intifadas. The Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and displacement has been ideologically diverse: ranging from left-wing Marxist-Leninist (PFLP) through secular-liberal (Fataḥ, Third Way) to right-wing Islâmist (Ḥamâs).

    Currently there is no real resistance movement to speak of against Russian rule inside the territories it occupies. (The aforementioned Irpin-aligned groups operate within Ukrainian territory and with Ukrainian state support.) Though one may (and should!) deplore Ḥamâs’s ideology and its methods, the fact of its very existence points to the adverse conditions under which Palestinians live, and the continued determination of Palestinians to resist their occupiers. Clearly these conditions of life are not mirrored in Donbass, Zaporozhzh’e or Kherson.

  6. Avoidance of civilian casualties. In the present conflicts, there are clear distinctions in the treatment of civilians in war. The best UN estimates of civilian death toll in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict since February 2022 sit right around 10,000; 545 of whom are children. This is over a time period of 20 months. These deaths are not to be minimised in terms of the moral harm done; however, as noted above, Russian forces have been demonstrably willing to sacrifice territorial gains and forward momentum on the battlefield precisely in order to avoid placing civilians in harm’s way.

    By contrast, over the past 7 weeks, Israeli forces have already killed 13,000 civilians; about 5,300 of whom are children. This comes from a deliberate military policy of targeting civilian areas and humanitarian infrastructure with shells and air strikes.
In drawing these parallels, and showing points of similarity and dissimilarity between the conflicts in Gaza and in the Ukrainian East, it is not my primary intention to make a simple and straightforward case of ‘Russia good; Israel bad’—even if one of my secondary intentions was indeed to complicate President Biden’s (and the US State Department’s, and that of the ‘moral equivalence’-shouters) narrative of ‘Russia bad; Israel good’. I have neither the desire nor the inclination to hide or hedge about my sympathy for the Palestinian cause… or my comparative lack of sympathy for the Ukrainian one. But I equally have no desire to fall into a ‘how dare you!!’ trap of my own. There are numerous complexities and tragic historical contingencies to both conflicts that render any such Manichæan interpretation analytically worthless.

In the case of Palestine in particular, no historical reckoning can be complete without a thorough accounting for Western Europe’s colonial designs on the region after the Ottoman collapse, or for its inexcusable and genocidal crimes against European Jewry during the Shoah which lent new urgency to the Zionist plea. And in the case of the Ukrainian problem, one has to navigate the disparate experiences of the Galician west, the maritime south and the industrial Russophone East, and the attempts they did make to live together in peace in the wake of independence. There one also has to navigate the problems of debt politics and the legacy of the same European genocide.

In leaving off this analysis, I think the only truly proper thing to do is to lift it up to the Most High, in Whose hands justice is complete and not partial, and in Whose ultimate reckoning all things will be given their proper place and due, and before Whose Truth I hope I dare not exalt the fruits of my own reasoning or prejudices as rivals.

23 November 2023

Giving thanks today

There is good reason to be thankful, first of all, that a holiday exists in American public life upon which gratitude—not merely a sentiment, but a virtue indeed—can still be, and is expected to be, expressed. Gratitude, which presupposes contentment with the good things one has, and which excludes by its nature expressions of covetousness and of entitlement, is a virtue completely alien to the ideology and the ethos of hyper-capitalism and hyper-individualism which suffuses the vestiges of the American public sphere. If this isn’t good reason to be thankful that Thanksgiving still exists, I quite frankly don’t know what is.

I am grateful, firstly, to God for His manifold blessings, for His creation, for His tireless labour through which creation exists, for His Sabbath rest (undertaken not out of His need but out of ours). I am grateful that God precedes us all and yet still loves us; I am grateful that God chose that we should exist, rather than that we should not. I am grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, for whatever hope I have left in me. I am grateful to my parents, without whose love and support I would not be here, sustained me when I was hospitalised and still sustain me now. I am grateful to my ancestors of whatever country they come—English, Welsh, German, Jewish, Illyrian and Scythian.

One reason why this Thanksgiving is special, is because my parents-in-law have arrived here from China for an extended visit. Their arrival is timely and deeply appreciated. Because I am their son-in-law and they are my parents-in-law, it’s to be expected that we don’t see eye-to-eye 100% of the time. However, I can already tell that my wife is happier because they’re here. I can already tell that my children are happier because they’re here. And they are already making our home a more complete one while they are present. My parents-in-law have been an inestimable help to my wife and me, in getting us physically and financially established in our living situation here in the Twin Cities metro area, and in assisting us with various aspects of our life here together. I am and will continue to be grateful to them for as long as they live and as long as I live.

This reflection on the Chinese side of my extended family, prompts me to undertake an examination of my own weak spot for the Arab cause. The root of the matter is this: my family would not be here with me in the United States, if it were not for the sustained Herculean efforts of the Arab-American community in Pawtucket, Rhode Island prevailing against the legal inertia of the DHS and immigration services. In particular, I want to give thanks for Fr Elie (Estephan) of St Mary Antiochian Church, whose own efforts in helping Syrian and Lebanese refugees find support and shelter here from war and deprivation at home, equipped him to address my own (much less dire) family situation.

In 2015 and 2016, Fr Elie assisted me with a list of contacts and advisers as well as his own introductions and good words, including with Ms Susan Saliba (an immigration attorney in Massachusetts) and Mr Albert Mokhiber (an immigration lawyer in DC), who afterward assisted me pro bono with completing the paperwork and navigating the ‘grey areas’ necessary for my wife and kids to join me here legally and in a timely way. For this reason, ever since that time I have always felt a need to pay it forward. Those same war refugees, who are the main beneficiaries of this legal and financial and physical assistance, and in much greater need than I am, I have come to see in a very real sense as my own family by virtue of our common situation. This is what underlies, to a significant degree, my sympathy and support for the cause of Syrian peace, and for the cause of Palestinian peace.

I am grateful to St Alexander Nevsky Church in Saimasai, Kazakhstan, for introducing me to the Orthodox Christian faith. I am grateful to Fr Sergey (Voronin), one-time rector of Holy Dormition Church in Beijing, China, for educating me and guiding me gently into that faith, and chrismating me. I am grateful to St Herman’s Orthodox Church, and to all of my friends and fellow-parishioners there, for continuing to assist in my salvation. I am grateful to them for putting up with my eccentricities, and for encouraging me to continue learning the Russian language.

I am grateful to the school I teach at, and to the Saint Paul Federation of Educators for being a source of community belonging and a source of strength for me. (Pray that we get a just contract!) I am also grateful to the students I teach—even the ones who misbehave occasionally!—Hmong, Karen and Vietnamese; White and African-American; Ojibwe and Hispanic. I learn as much from them as they learn from me, and I hope that in my classroom at least, they get as many chances as they can to explore how much they have to offer, and to exercise the reserves of strength and wisdom they possess.

And I am grateful indeed to the Ojibwe and Dakota nations whose guest on this earth I am. I am grateful that the Ojibwe and the Dakota are still here and still speaking and still active, and that they continue to bear witness to the sacredness of things like clean drinking water and healthy land. (And if this sentiment is somewhat subversive of the civic mythology of Thanksgiving: so much the better! I was always a bit of a Mary Dyer at heart; that’s something I come by honestly, and am also grateful for.)

To all I wish a Thanksgiving filled with love and gratitude: for the good things that we have been given, and for the one Good One that is given us to expect at the end of the season, through the prayers and labours and faith of our Lady, the Most Holy and Most Pure Birthgiver of God and Ever-Virgin Mary.