29 March 2011

A man whom I respect has a few words on the subject of the Libyan intervention

I encourage my gentle readers to listen to Dr Andrew Bacevich, professor of IR at Boston University, on the military action in Libya here; it’s well worth it.

As with the great majority of what Dr Bacevich has to say, it takes an insightful, broad view of American foreign policy. He is definitely cautious (to say the least) about the applicability of hard power in creating positive outcomes in the world; and he falls firmly into the growing ‘anti-war realist’ IR camp. Even though I challenge the primary assumptions of realism (it assumes in its political-scientific model a misreading of original sin which one may find in Machiavelli or Hobbes, what Dr John Milbank would call ‘ontological violence’ - the idea that the world exists in a state of anarchy wherein states must compete for power or perish), I think it is certainly offering a number of valuable insights now. If we are virtuous, we would do well to listen.

27 March 2011

A good question

Fr Donald Schell over at Daily Episcopalian. Though I feel Adam Smith’s emotivist expression of morality already leads in that direction (away from the ancient virtue ethicists Socrates, Plato and St Augustine), I have a deep appreciation for Fr Donald’s reading of the American church’s history of decline.

It seems to me that the first two of Fr Donald’s questions find ready answers in Scripture and in the traditions of the Church. Given Jesus’ assertions that wealth and the service of Mammon were problematic, that landlords should share their produce freely with the poor, and that relief for the poor was not to be found in the marketplace but rather through common pooling of resources (as in the Feeding of the Multitudes), Jesus would certainly have been a socialist, but in the anarcho-mutualist varietal rather than an orthodox Marxist; and the Christian position on taxation is repay to Caesar what you owe to Caesar (and without a doubt the rich owe much more to Caesar - in both proportional and in absolute terms - than the poor do).

The third question, of ‘how can Christians renew a vision of the Common Good?’ is Fr Donald’s most difficult - and most pressing - one. I have a suspicion that the answer could involve a public return to mediaeval thinking about virtue and what it means to lead a fulfilled, examined life. I have a stronger suspicion that the answer must involve tearing down the idolatrous consumerist illusions of ‘the American Dream’.

On the topic of persecution

From the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 5, verse 11:

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.


Witness the treatment of Dr William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A highly-distinguished environmental historian who, unfortunately, I previously knew only by association (his daughter was on the same soccer team in elementary school as my sister), he recently made a contribution to the New York Times editorial page which has already made the very thorough rounds of the blogosphere. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it – I am very sympathetic to the argument. Our state does indeed have this proud tradition of supporting social reforms, in part because of the German immigrant population carrying forward the reform traditions of the European Continent after 1848. But further than that, I would argue – as it seems Dr Cronon is close to doing – that the ‘reform’ tradition is motivated by what I would term a Tory-radical sensibility: the notion that we are and must be held accountable to each other across generations and across the narrow boundaries of our interest group (as Dr Cronon aptly puts it, ‘common problems deserve common solutions’). Dr Cronon concludes that the assault by Governor Walker on collective bargaining for public employees ended up driving a deep wedge in the body politic, and runs completely roughshod over this small-‘c’ catholic participatory-political tradition of his state and of the historical Republican Party.

The response from the state’s Republican Party was swift and predictable: when the message goes against the official party narrative, always attack the messenger. A representative of the party, Stephan Thompson, made a request under the Freedom of Information Act for all of Dr Cronon’s emails going back to the beginning of the year containing a number of different keywords (including ‘Republican’, ‘union’, ‘recall’, ‘collective bargaining’, ‘rally’ and a number of names of related people). The obvious aim is very similar to what was sadly done to the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit by less legal means – use carefully-edited and massaged selections from Dr Cronon’s e-mail account to, if possible, publicly embarrass him and dismiss him as a partizan hack who violated the university’s policy of using his professional e-mail for political purposes. You can read Dr Cronon’s own account of these events here.

Ethically, Dr Cronon has the right of the matter. Having used his own resources (his own computer and his own e-mail address) in pursuit of the research that went into his blog post and into his NYT editorial, he has been very conscientious in following UW-Madison’s policies. The spirit of the open-records policy is that it is meant to be used as a safeguard against suspected wrongdoing by professors; it is not meant as an instrument of intimidation and blackmail against academics who fail to conform to a particular political narrative. As Dr Harry Brighouse notes over at Crooked Timber, if student-professor confidentiality is subject to these sorts of political football games, it could have profound detrimental effects on the tenor and ethos of the academic community.

I actually tend to think that as a result of Dr Cronon’s prophetic outspokenness on these issues, and as a result of such efforts to intimidate and silence him through open-records requests, his ideas and his input are going to gain a lot more traction in more than just the blogosphere. I certainly hope that this is the case, and that the blessings of Our Lord on those who speak the truth as they see it, and who are persecuted for doing so, may be so demonstrated.

EDIT: Fixed the links.

23 March 2011

The purple bear

For the record, I now officially approve of Dmitri Medvedev, who has apparently earned his chops as a space truckin’ highway star. From the Guardian:

Dmitry Medvedev, a big heavy metal fan, has fulfilled a lifelong dream by getting to meet his favourite rock band, Deep Purple.

Classic rock bands enjoyed immense popularity in the Soviet Union, even though Soviet press in Cold War times would describe such a music as an attempt at spreading West's “imperialist pop culture”. The band members had tea with the Russian president at his residence outside Moscow on Tuesday, where he told them they had been his favourites since he was 12.

Medvedev, 45, is known as a fan of rock bands such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, while his predecessor and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, was reported to be a fan of the Beatles and Abba.

"When I started listening to Deep Purple, I never imagined I would be sitting with you at this table," Medvedev, now 45, told the band in remarks televised Wednesday.

He also revealed that as a DJ at his school in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, he would play rock music at discos, after first getting the approval of the Communist youth organisation. "We had quite a strict system then, you know," he said.

Medvedev's 15-year-old son, Ilya, brought out his electric guitar and used the opportunity to jam with his dad's favorite band, RIA Novosti news agency reported.


I don’t really understand how we on these shores, particularly more conservative Americans, can be so severely paranoid about an ABBA fan. We should just sic Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan on him – and we needn’t even equip Agent 007 with a Walther PPK, since his singing voice is deadly enough…

But seriously, why is it Russia gets all the awesome politicians? We, on the other hand, get Joe Lieberman. ‘Nuff said.

18 March 2011

Once again, the question of intervention arises

I have not yet posted on Libya or any of the North African and Middle Eastern uprisings, largely because my knowledge of these regimes is rather casual; however, I will say that I support wholeheartedly the endeavours of people to throw off such dictatorships. With the UN having sanctioned air-strikes against Libya and with Gadhafi having called for a ceasefire, however, once again the question of military intervention is rearing its ugly head. Is it called for here? If so, when and to what degree, et cetera?

Time was when I considered myself an absolute pacifist, but I think I may be growing more pragmatic in this regard, and I am somewhere in an ill-defined territory between pacifism and a very stringent application of traditional Augustinian just war theory (applicable only in the sorts of extremes Bonhoeffer faced, in which case it must be possible for us, as CS Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr would have it, to paradoxically love someone while at the same time committing oneself to the necessity of killing them). I think we have to be keenly and painfully aware of the limitations of our own capacities: both physical (as in, we have only so much military power) and rational (as in both, we can only know so much and we have a tragically flawed sense of morality as the result of original sin). In Libya, we face a very difficult dilemma (as we would have in Iran or in Egypt): to allow Gadhafi to massacre his own people in reprisal (as he has shown himself willing to do), or to rob the Libyan people of the legitimacy of their own cause.

My first impulse as a patriot of the English-speaking community, is always to examine first our own moral standing – and it is wanting on a number of levels. Morality is applicable only within a political community, yet politics (as it is further and further abstracted from authentic wants of lower-level communities) too often works to distort morality. In addition, modern politics has lost the language we need to even begin to discuss morality. Sadly, we do not ask the reflective and virtuous questions of what sort of society and what sort of people we want to be; too often, such questions are considered fixed within the immutable (if empty) voluntarism and materialistic individualism associated with ‘the American Dream’. One of my gripes with Obama is that, while he is attempting to give some normative content to the language of ‘the American Dream’ in ways which do him great credit (neighbours looking out for each other, sharing common values of tolerance and goodwill, &c.), he is unwilling all the same to ask Americans to challenge the basic principle.

But how does this relate to our foreign policy? Very simply put, the West in general and America in particular places such fervent belief in our hands-off, liberal-democratic model of social organisation that we are willing to betray its principles in order to replicate its forms, and this leads more traditional societies to view us as insincere and hypocritical (or to exploit our insincerity and hypocrisy for political gain). China’s government is very willing to play this game – and in some cases, such as that of Mr Liu Xiaobo, they did have the moral high ground (at least, before they overreached themselves by throwing him in gaol). As Mr Bertram points out with the usual keen insight I have come to expect from the authors at Crooked Timber, we may expect Gadhafi to do the same should NATO or the UN choose to intervene. (I agree with Mr Bertram on this one – at this point, from what I gather it may be better that the rebels should have such a Pyrrhic victory and live, rather than losing and being completely massacred by vindictive pro-Gadhafi forces.)

My own preference is for a society with greater ability to examine itself and a lesser propensity to export its own malaises. The historically-evident tragic flaw of American-style liberal democracy is that, in the name of allowing its citizens greater freedom to deliberate upon and decide the Good, it actually abandons discussion of the Good. American-style liberal democracy is founded upon a heretical, Calvinistic political-theological framework in which greater priority is given to the ability of the individual to choose a course of action than on the actual content of the action itself. (I say ‘Calvinistic’ because this framework mirrors Calvin’s heretical insistence on the primacy of God’s will or ‘sovereignty’ over the revealed content of God’s rationality.) Dignity and character are considered of secondary importance. To give one highly-tangential example, one sees this in the revision of the historiography of the Civil War: the ‘Lost Cause’ revisionists, despite being rabidly anti-liberal in political orientation, nonetheless take full advantage of the liberal abandonment of discussion of the Good to place higher legal and moral priority on the right of states to self-determination than on the loss of virtue associated with the dehumanising nature of the choice enabled by such self-determination (namely, chattel slavery). Even if one takes this view of the history, the Confederacy collapsed under not only the superior force and resolve of the North, but also under the weight of its own ideational contradictions (i.e. states began seceding from the Confederacy when they felt their self-determination was being violated).

Again, my apologies for the very loose structure of my thinking here. Regarding armed intervention in Libya: my exhortation at this point is that if we do intervene, it should be solely for the right reasons and in full knowledge and awareness of our own limitations. (One of these limitations is our continued and insupportable presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

14 March 2011

Pointless video post - 'March of the Varangian Guard' by Turisas



What was that, you ask? That was Turisas rolling out the electric violin and accordion on a wave of pure awesomeness, going Byzantine on everyone's arse with a high-power ode to the Varangian Guard and proving once again that working in a Scandinavian country does not stifle one's creativity in the slightest. (Skip ahead past the introductory speech if you'd like to about 2:00 for the beginning of the actual song.)

The album Stand Up and Fight was released five days ago; I nabbed the last copy from the Exchange and have been enjoying the hell out of it since then. Enjoy!

07 March 2011

在吾鞋里

在吾鞋里 要往何遍
何长走路 足疲之前
能见同涯 能应暴风
寻明日泉 渴过心疼
面对街叉 要选道路
标都没看 粗心无图
顾你之星 缥缈之声
其之情调 以上孤匉
抓其光亮 汩而灭之
自劝不管 暗藏诚实
血也嚎叫 峭壁之上
吾都爱你 霎眼永恒
- 郭明正 (Matt Cooper), 2011年3月6日