30 June 2012

The spot where God became man


David Lindsay weighs in on UNESCO’s decision after the application from the Palestinian Authority to secure World Heritage status for the oldest Christian church in continuous operation in the world (with the delegates of modern Israel and the United States being predictably incensed at the inclusion):

The Palestinian Authority has managed to secure World Heritage Site status for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which the Israelis had wanted to demolish in favour of a Wal-Mart or something.

The Israelis are incandescent that the PA has secured World Heritage Site status for what, whether or not you believe (as I do, because I can see no reason not to) that it stands on the site of the Birth of Jesus, is undeniably the world’s oldest Christian church in continuous use.

How was it not already a World Heritage Site? Who has been stopping that designation? And why would they not want it to be so designated? What else do they want to do with the site? One really does shudder to think. But it is academic now, so they may as well tell us.

The howling over the impending prospect of a Palestinian State also includes, as if it were self-evidently a bad thing, the possibility of World Heritage Site status for the Tomb of Rachel and for the Tomb of the Patriarchs. But then, the present Israeli Government wants to denaturalise the ultra-Orthodox Jews as well as the ancient indigenous Christians.

The war that Israel ordered up in Iraq has already turned the Shrine of Ezra the Scribe, who invented both synagogues and the square Hebrew script, into a mosque. The Shrine of Ezekiel, featuring some of the oldest Hebrew inscriptions in the world, is next on the hit list.

Across the border in Iran, whatever regime the Crazies sought to install would be just as conservative of the Shrine of Habakkuk, of the Shrine of Daniel, and of the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai. It says in the Bible that those figures were Persian. Where did you think that they were buried? Or did you just not believe it...?

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to the UNESCO decision that the body ‘is motivated by political and not cultural considerations’. Riddle me this: if the very birthplace of Our Lord and Saviour is not of overriding cultural significance to the nation and to the world he came to save, let alone religious, what possibly can be?

29 June 2012

The Great Diploma Hunt

It was a balmy summer in the Year of Our Lord 2012, when our hero first set out upon his quest to earn the rank of Master of International Development from the mysterious academy deep in the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania known only as the University of Pittsburgh. It must be made plain that our hero would do nothing by halves, but rather foolishly insisted upon being set upon three impossible tasks by the wise masters of his programme at the University. Well, not technically ‘impossible’; after all, he did accomplish them, but very difficult and not in the least because they all had to be completed within the same term: the Thesis, the Capstone and the Independent Research Paper. These he stalked in the long, dusty, collapsible corridors of the second floor of the arcane and freshman-infested Hillman Library, through stacks of venerable and ancient tomes inscribed in the language of Cathay, chased through far-off lands such as Homewood neighbourhood in Pittsburgh’s East Side, and aided a band of noble heroes and heroines in seeking ways to improve the plight of southwestern Pennsylvania’s electronic waste. At long last, after the epic struggle with the guardians of the Electronic Theses and Dissertations website to upload and publish his work, his journey came to an end. He returned home to his native country in Rhode Island, to await the arrival of his certification.

Weeks passed, and still our hero had received no word from the University. Weeks dragged into months; eventually, he returned to Pittsburgh to attempt to track down his diploma, on an Odinic ride fuelled by carbonated maize-based beverages and set to a soundtrack consisting primarily of Tad Morose. The kindly staff of the University had already sent out his diploma, and asked if he had checked with the post in Rhode Island. Sadly, he had. The ride continued to the post office in Oakland, where they too informed him that they had seen neither hide nor hair of the package he sought. Dejected, he finally arrived at the doorstep of his former home. He found the door slightly ajar, and after looking carefully around he found no packages - until the letters ‘PLOMA - DO NOT BEND’ caught his eye from behind the radiator grill on the landing. Indeed, they had sent the diploma to the wrong address, and it had sat half-obscured behind the radiator God only knows how many days before our hero chanced to unearth it. In the end, however, our hero emerged triumphant.

27 June 2012

我丁老端 (or, How to be a public intellectual in China, in five simple lessons!)

Duan Hongbin is snarking in high form on Weibo (original post here):
Lesson 1: Why become a public intellectual?

Simply put, you attract a lot of attention as a public intellectual. Your fans will increase geometrically. You can make a microblog post about there not being any toilet issue when you used the bathroom, and several thousand persons will forward, comment upon and share your post.

Secondly, you will be able to hold the moral high point. That is to say, you can curse and smear anyone you want, and your target won't be able to do a thing to refute. You may even have the privilege of "rumor mongering" at will without bearing any legal responsibility. If anyone tries to stop you, that person will be assaulting freedom of speech.

[...]

Moreover, if you do your job well, the American Embassy may invite you over for tea. Maybe some democracy foundation will offer you a sizeable subsidy in American dollars.

[...]

Lesson 2: The minimum requirements to become a public intellectual

With technological advances, the minimum requirements to become a public intellectual has reached historical lows. In terms of hardware, you only need a crappy computer and an Internet connection. In terms of software, you need to know the basic skills of typing, making comments, posting to blogs/microblogs, forwarding and using PhotoShop.

But you don't need to know too much about logic and reasoning. This is the reason why public intellectuals come mostly from the humanities. But you must know enough about psychology, because you must try to understand the attitudes of your fans: What do they want to read? What do they hate? What do they respect? What are they jealous of? If you don't even know about these things, you will be going naked into battle.

Lesson 3: Seven keywords for entry-level public intellectuals

In the past, it was necessary to read a lot of books and documents in order to become a public intellectual. But nowadays you only need to use seven keywords effectively in order to become an entry-level public intellectual. These seven keywords are:
  1. Freedom
  2. Democracy
  3. Human rights
  4. Political system
  5. Constitutional politics
  6. Vote
  7. Universal value
As long as you keep bringing up these keywords in your blog/microblog posts, you are a public intellectual in form. To the ordinary Internet user, you have instantly acquired sufficient reasoning, you have transcended cheap vulgarity and you are a person with independent character and thinking. In your thinking, you need to be highly conscious that these seven keywords can solve every problem in China. You need to be totally convinced yourself before you can go out to convert others.

But it is not enough to invoke these keywords. You must also deploy them effectively. For example, there is the method of comparative shopping. So you must regularly compare China with USA. Here are some examples:

You went to the bathroom and you found that the toilet issues have run out. An ordinary Internet user would surely write: "Fuck! The tissues ran out just when I went to the restroom, damn!" A silly Internet user would write: "I went to use the restroom, but there were no more tissues. There must be something wrong with the way I use the restroom!" A photo would then be uploaded to show the situation. But as public intellectual, you cannot write that way. The proper way of writing is:
Chinese restrooms run out of toilet issues frequently. When I was in America, there was always toilet issues in the restrooms. What is wrong with our society? There must be a problem with our political system. Why are the expenditures for the restrooms not transparent? Where do the taxpayers' money go? Trillions are spent by government workers on eating and drinking, but they won't pay for a roll of toilet issue? I haven't even gotten into a detailed discussion of China-made toilet issues, because the inside story is too frightening ...

[...]

Lesson 4: The self-improvement of a middle-level public intellectual

As a middle-level public intellectual, you need to promote your own ideas. But more importantly you need to deprecate everything about your opponents. There are three natural targets, and you can do no wrong when you debase them. These are:
  1. Despotism
  2. Totalitarianism
  3. Tyranny
You need to mention these three words all the time, as if they are your most hated enemies. You denounce them day and night, year in and year out. Even if there is no provocation, you must bring them out for a thrashing.

The aforementioned are invisible enemies. But you may also have visible enemies, such as Internet users who make critical comments on your blog/microblog.

If this critic is young, you can call him an "angry young man," you tell him to go and read more books and you can ignore him thereafter.

If this critic supports a certain existing government policy, then you can do no wrong by calling him a "fifty-cent gang" member. You can add a rebuttal such as: "You get fifty cents to make a post, but will it help you to buy a house?" If this person persists, you tell him: "Running dog, you eat shit!" Then you blacklist him from reading/commenting your blog/microblog and you can ignore him afterward.

If this critic is nostalgic about the China 30 years ago under Mao, you can call him "Maoist leftie" and add: "How come your dad wasn't starved to death?"

[...]

Actually, only entry-level public intellectuals go into debates themselves. Higher level public intellectuals will have a bunch of followers to carry out mass brawls. But you still need to learn these basic methods, just so you don't slip up in case you have to chime in.

Lesson 5. Public intellectuals must learn some psychology

A must-read book is Gustave LeBon's The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. As individuals, people can have low or high intelligence. As a crowd, people have relatively low intelligence. A crowd is immune to reason; it is only affected by "emotions."

With respect to motivating, mobilizing and inflaming crowds, no one is better than Mao Zedong. Peers are rivals, so Mao is the biggest enemy of public intellectuals. If you want to seize turf from Mao, you must thoroughly negate him. The good thing is that Mao is disadvantaged by the fact that he is dead. Nowadays young people won't bother to read Mao's works. Therefore their understanding of Mao is based upon your presentation. You are advantaged by the fact that Mao has transgressed against many people in his time, and so you will have countless allies who will provide you with free promotion.

When you want to go against the government, you need to use populism as your weapon in order to fuse with the netizens. But when your personal interests are in conflict with the people, you will negate populism totally and you invoke the rule-of-law and the inviolability of private property to defend yourself. For example, the government raises the salaries of public service workers and the state-owned enterprises are dispensing benefits to their employees. You must immediately attack them with populism. But when you are ready to divvy up state-owned properties among yourselves, you know that people won't be happy. So you drop populism and you promote the rule-of-law and private ownership. You tell the people that private ownership is the most efficient economic system.

Public intellectuals fall into different levels. Senior-level public intellectuals want to take every advantage within the system while pretending to the unpaid spokesperson for the people. But no matter what their levels, public intellectuals have the same goal: to pay the minimum price to procure the maximum public goods. So you should never criticize for the sake of criticizing. You must always remember to procure public goods from which to maximize profit.

Finally, I want to remind you that there are five things in the world that you can attack and smear at will: China; the Chinese government; the Chinese people; Chinese officials; Chinese state-owned enterprises. You can do no wrong no matter how you attack them; you will be able to seize the moral high point. But you must never provoke Fang Zhouzi. You can't complain that I didn't tell you. How can you be more awesome than Han Han?

Now that you have become a qualified public intellectual, I recommend that you apply your knowledge and write your first "public intellectual"-style blog post to condemn this society and gather fans. You may just be the next Han Han!

24 June 2012

Pointless video post - ‘Again Will the Fire Burn’ by Lost Horizon


A recent discovery, I like these guys only a little bit less than I like their fellow Swedes Falconer and Tad Morose, which, coming from me, is no mean compliment. A melodic power metal band originally founded by the people who would become the members of Hammerfall, they straddle that fine, fine line between ridiculous and profound (their lyrics are pretty heavily influenced by existentialist philosophy) which leads straight to awesome. The fact that they have delivering the vocals Ethereal Magnanimus [Daniel Heiman], one of the best ‘wailers’ since Geoff Tate, merely adds to their heavy metal panache. (Also, I don’t know about the other members of the band, but the drummer Preternatural Transmogrifier [Christian Nyqvist], leans pretty firmly toward the left, politically, in a way which it seems influenced the lyrics of their first album, Awakening the World.) This song, however, comes from their second album, A Flame To The Ground Beneath. This is some top-notch power metal, folks; enjoy!

23 June 2012

Forbidden fruit


Ms Sahar Sabet, 19-year-old Iranian student, denied iPad by Apple Store

At least as far as Iranian teens in Georgia are concerned. To be blunt, this is appalling. It could merely be the local store being discriminatory against Ms Sabet, or, if indeed this is a larger corporate policy, it could be Apple attempting to marginalise the Iranian (and Iranian-American) population in order to curry favour with an American government it sees as wanting a war with said country. I have the same reaction as Naj does here; I am greatly ashamed to have supported this company by buying and using its products (just an iPod, in my case, but still)…

Basic principles

Daniel Nichols at Caelum et Terra has a couple of utterly brilliant posts on the subject of the ‘real problem’ with American nuns; and the language he uses I do not think I can top:
Meanwhile, though, the more traditional orders, the ones who wear habits and attract young women to the convent, like the sisters in this photo, are, many of them, bowing to the god of Americanism. There are too many instances of American habited sisters swooning over the late candidacy of Rick Santorum, defender of torture and assassination as foreign policy.

What I want to know is whether the Vatican is going to wait forty years before doing something about this. One can’t help but worry for the young minds in the care of teaching sisters whose first religion is America, who endorse candidates whose political positions fly in the face of Catholic social teaching.
And:
For conservative Catholics, rejecting the Church’s clear teaching on war, nationalism, torture, economic justice, etc comes too easily. They fall back on the claim that these things are “not taught infallibly”. But this magisterial minimalism leaves them in a very precarious position, for they have long denounced those on the left who make the same “non-infallible” argument when rejecting the ordinary magisterium on birth control or women’s ordination.

[...]

In fact, the Church teaches that the ordinary magisterium is to be received with faith, and this includes not only things like liturgy and traditions of prayer, but the clear Mind of the Church on social issues. Catholic social teaching is just applied moral theology.

[...]

[N]o one is claiming that Catholic social dogma can only result in one particular social order. It can be interpreted in many ways. I personally interpret it in the most radical way, but I don’t argue that other, more moderate interpretations can be valid. However, there are basic principles that cannot be denied. You may argue for social democracy and be in accord with those principles, or you may argue for distributism. You may wish to see a well regulated market economy. But nowhere in Catholic social teaching can you find justification for the sort of free market ideology that has ruled in this country, and increasingly around the world, for thirty years. You can nowhere in the Catholic tradition find justification for torture, or assassinating foreign enemies, or invading a country because you claim that they may be a threat.

If you claim otherwise, excuse me for doubting your faith.

22 June 2012

Rave at the wall

Qu Yuan 屈原

Qu Yuan of the Kingdom of Chu was an upright official who worked tirelessly for the common people of his kingdom, and ended up proposing and defending an alliance between Chu and its neighbours to withstand the growing, overpowering hegemony of the Kingdom of Qin (whose ruler would go on to unite China under a single brutal, authoritarian and blessedly short-lived rule). Slandered by jealous, greedy and vengeful fellow-officials in Chu, he was exiled for his troubles and eventually committed drowned himself in the Miluo River in protest after Chu was conquered by Qin. An honest and faithful official who is revered by history as a patriot and whose holiday, the Dragon Boat Festival 端午節, is celebrated in Korea, Japan, Burma, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and the Overseas Chinese Communities as well as on the Mainland, he is unfortunately without equals today. Equally unfortunately, we know precisely why. Any official who nowadays dares to rave at the wall, to challenge corruption within the party apparatus in any visible or politically inconvenient way, is removed through political theatre, through slander and through carefully orchestrated transmission of rumours.

During this Dragon Boat Festival, please remember Qu Yuan’s legacy. A more humane system of government, peopled with more humane officials, ought to be fought for, even if it went unrealised then and goes unrealised now.

19 June 2012

Points of contact

Mencius 孟子

The latest Sinica Podcast, as well as reading continued posts on The Useless Tree, have gotten me thinking over the last few weeks. I have made the case often that Confucianism is not as far-flung from traditional Western philosophy as many (both in the West and in China) are fond of arguing. The philosophical discussions between Confucius, his students and their rivals on humanity, nature and morality bear a striking resemblance to ongoing discussions in modern Western philosophy. In some cases, the discussions and the resulting political orders may be taken as cautionary tales for Christian theology and the secular disciplines of philosophy and the social sciences. Confucian philosophy is in the difficult yet worthwhile position of providing for us a view which is at once radical (providing a vision of just society with vast grounds for social critique and mass action) and orthodox (holding to a set of evolving-yet-traditional disciplines which ultimately provide an ‘aim’ for human life and endeavour). What is interesting to me is that the deviations from Confucian philosophy have some very dire repercussions in the field of social policy. This topic is certainly worth a longer paper than I am about to write here, but I can at least attempt to provide a rough thumbnail sketch.


Original sin and Confucian-style statecraft

The first, most useful and most appropriate point of contact with which we ought to start should perhaps be that of original sin. Of course, the concept is closely allied with the question of human beings and their place in the world, so Confucius and his followers would naturally have been interested in it. Confucius himself has little to say on the matter, though his students Mencius and Xunzi certainly go about addressing it at length. Mencius argues:
所以謂人皆有不忍人之心者,今人乍見孺子將入於井,皆有怵惕惻隱之心。非所以內交於孺子之父母也,非所以要譽於鄉黨朋友也,非惡其聲而然也。由是觀之,無惻隱之心,非人也;無羞惡之心,非人也;無辭讓之心,非人也;無是非之心,非人也。

When I say ‘all people have a mind which doesn’t bear others’ suffering’, I mean this: if today any person was to see a child about to fall down a well, each one would feel fear and alarm. This is not because she wants to seek favour from the child’s parents, not because she wants praise from her own neighbours and friends, and not because she fears her own reputation would suffer [because she failed to be moved by the child’s situation]. From understanding this it follows: compassion is human nature; shame is human nature; patience is human nature; a sense of right and wrong is human nature.
His insistence that human beings have innate compassion, shame, patience and morality is contradicted by Xunzi, who wrote:
人之性惡,其善者偽也。今人之性,生而有好利焉,順是,故爭奪生而辭讓亡焉;生而有疾惡焉,順是,故殘賊生而忠信亡焉;生而有耳目之欲,有好聲色焉,順是,故淫亂生而禮義文理亡焉。然則從人之性,順人之情,必出於爭奪,合於犯分亂理,而歸於暴。

People’s nature is evil, all their goodness is false. The nature of today’s person is thus: once born he will desire to benefit himself; this causes the contentious to live and the patient to perish. Once born he has envy and loathing; this causes the cruel and the greedy to live and the loyal and honest to perish. Once born he has sensual appetites and lust; this causes the lecherous and disordered to live and the proper, the righteous and the reasonable to perish. This being the case, human nature must proceed from contention, must seek out chaos, and must return to violence.
It would seem from a surface reading of these passages that Xunzi is arguing in favour of what Christian theologians term original sin, and Mencius against it, though this is not exactly the case. Sadly, in the Western world the concept has been so distorted out of its right sense both by Christian heresies seeking to make individual persons directly responsible for the sin of Adam, and by secular philosophes attempting to pillory the doctrine, that it probably bears a close and exacting definition right from the start. Original sin does not mean that human nature, as such, is evil (though this is a popular straw-man of the doctrine, conflating original sin with the heretical Gnostic conception of creation-as-evil). It merely means that human nature is handicapped, that all humans participate in the sin of Adam and its consequences. The original doctrine is much more dramatic than static, and more tragic than cynical: human nature like the rest of creation is good, and in addition to that goodness created in God’s own likeness, but that that image has been defaced by Adam’s pride and his progeny have reaped (and continue to reap) the consequences of sin and death.

What Mencius and Xunzi are truly contending over is not original sin (though that follows later), but rather over the moral nature of the universe, and the place of human beings within that universe. This is what later Scholastic philosophers and theologians would see as the distinction between voluntarist (Xunzi) and intellectualist (Mencius) metaphysics. Xunzi refuses to ascribe any moral or intellectual dimension to 天 (tian: God, nature, the cosmos), saying ‘天行有常,不為堯存,不為桀亡’ (‘Tian is fixed in its ways, not allowing Yao to live and not causing the cruel to die’). He thus severs ‘Heaven’ from having any influence on or relevance to ‘secular’ politics. For Mencius, by contrast, intellect (and therefore morality) is a central and vital characteristic of 天, imparted to human beings: ‘此天之所與我者’ (‘These [human senses and rationality] are given to us by tian’). In this respect, Mencius (rather than Xunzi) is not only in full accord with his own teacher (‘天生德於予,桓魋其如予何?’ – ‘Tian gave birth to my virtue; what can Huan Tui do to me?’), but also with St Thomas Aquinas (and, through him, with Catholic and Anglican doctrine). The respective explanations of human evil follow logically in each case: for both Mencius and Xunzi, the physical and social environment shapes the moral behaviour of persons both good and evil; but notably Mencius leaves room for divine (that is to say, of tian) grace, whereas Xunzi does not. Xunzi’s way of explaining the emergence of good from an evil (or at the very least amoral) ‘state of nature’ is likewise completely unsatisfactory.

More problematic, however, is the emergence of Legalism as a political philosophy directly from Xunzi’s philosophy, by way of his students Li Si and Han Fei. As Xunzi himself quoted, ‘不知其子視其友,不知其君視其左右’ (‘If you don’t know a man, look at his friends; if you don’t know a prince, look at his advisors’). The metaphysical voluntarism of Xunzi gave way very quickly to a semi-totalitarian ideology which ignored completely any questions about tian, and which justified rule through uniform force of law (法) and through trickery (術), and which dispensed with all forms of civic order in exchange for a purely bureaucratic order (the job description, not the moral quality of the one occupying it, was to be the only consideration). Legalism may, in this sense, be seen as an Eastern harbinger of Weber’s liberal sociology (or equally of Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and Johann Fichte). It is ironic, but not necessarily surprising, that Mao’s enthusiasm for Legalist philosophy-in-practice ushered in what we are now seeing in the post-Deng era: state capitalism, integration of the Chinese economy into global markets and the growing inequality and disregard for the poor which accompanies both.


Confucianism, Christianity and citizenship

Another pressing question, at least as far as contemporary China goes, is how Confucianism is to relate to the growth of other religious traditions in what it sees as its cultural heartland. One aspect of this question is whether or not Confucianism itself can (or should) identify as a religion. Having taken a position on that question, one may then ask what its relation to other religions can or ought to be. This latter question is already being asked, by such people as Renmin University’s Dr Wen Haiming, China Evangelical Society’s Dr G Wright Doyle, Rome’s Fr Charles Pan and New Confucian scholar and blogger Yang Wanjiang. How Confucianism relates to Christianity (and how Christians globally should respond to Confucianism in its religious manifestations) will also depend – as the Sinica Podcast participants rightly noted – upon how Chinese people interpret and practice Christianity, and whether or not it bears any semblance to actual Christian doctrine.

There are some elements of Confucianism and Christian doctrine which overlap very nicely. The emphasis on obeying the Golden Rule, treating other people humanely and loving (or revering) God (or 天) goes somewhat without saying. The emphases on feeding the hungry, caring for the young and elderly, valuing human life above all else are further points of contact. The common insistence upon a greater responsibility from those with wealth and secular power, and for the exercise of that responsibility, with promises of divine judgement (revolution in Mencius’ case, the outer darkness in Jesus’) if that responsibility is shirked or abused, is perhaps the strongest point of contact. But the way that Confucianism and Christianity treat time and space (and thus related concepts such as national identity and citizenship) is the sticking point which most requires resolution. It is writ large in Wen Haiming’s ‘warning shot across the bow’, in his recounting of the protest by Confucian scholars to the construction of a Gothic-style cathedral in Confucius’ hometown of Qufu, itself home to 10,000 Christians.

It is useful to understand, in broaching the Confucian concept of citizenship, how Confucius himself regarded it, how his students regarded it, how the concept itself changed (and how Confucian thought adapted), and how New Confucianism relates to cultural nationalism. Confucius himself was no nationalist in the modern sense of the word: he believed his own virtue ethics could be as easily applied to ‘barbarians’ as to the Chinese. However, Confucius (in his admiration for and transmission of the Zhou rituals and values) lent endorsement (and thereby theoretical basis and legitimacy) to the Zhou cosmology of tianxia, whereby the Emperor of China was situated at the centre of the physical and moral universe, with his divinely-gifted influence radiating outward over his vassals, his tributaries and finally the barbarians. This wasn’t nationalism still. Being ‘Chinese’ was not a matter of speaking the same language (not all Chinese did!), or a matter of birth, but rather a matter of following the appropriate rituals and paying deference to the ‘centre’. As China faced external threats throughout her history, however, and was more or less forced to adapt to the nation-state paradigm during the Qing Dynasty, this concept had to adapt or collapse. For awhile, at the beginning of Chinese modernity, it appeared as though this construct had collapsed – Kang Youwei held onto it in a heavily-modified form through the Confucian ideal of 大同 datong, and Sun Yat-sen rejected it in favour of a more modern nationalism (as would the Republican government after it, and as would – with the caveat that Marxism formally disavowed nationalism as an abstraction from class struggle – the Communist government after that). More recently, nationalists have adopted Confucius as a symbol of all that is good in traditional Chinese ‘national’ culture. The schizophrenic struggle for New Confucians now is to articulate a message which is both authentically Confucian and responsive to the reality of the demands of the Chinese nation-state.

Christians are also somewhat schizophrenic as a result of modern nationalism. Christians have had to confront, adapt to and reconcile themselves to a nation-state which increasingly took on the traditional roles of the church, and to a populace which increasingly identified itself with the nation-state over the church. Where the Church was once the primary means of provision for the poor, the elderly, the infirm, the orphaned and the widowed, it became inadequate as people began attending and donating less and less of their time and effort. The traditional religious fraternities and guilds offered workers the ability to stand up for their rights, but those too were corroded or disbanded as a result of the expansion of the role of the state. The welfare state, tariffs and trade-union protections were all direly-needed compromises, and gave the nation-state a moral dimension to which it was hitherto alien. Though traditionally Christianity has been a religion proclaiming dual-citizenship, both to the temporal power under which one lived and to the Kingdom of Heaven to come, it soon became clear that the nation-state’s demands were infringing more and more upon the dictates of a Christian conscience. Like Confucianism, Christianity rejects the (Legalist, or liberal) notion that there can be no mediation between state and subject; between Caesar and the poor widow at the Temple. And yet, we remain with an acknowledgement of the necessity of dealing with worldly power. The Christian dilemma and the Confucian one mirror each other uncannily.

And yet, how we relate to space and time differs fundamentally. Confucianism gravitates toward a physical and cultural centre in its concept of the sacred, the zhongyuan, the birthplace of Huaxia. Temporally, it gravitates toward the reigns of 堯 Yao, 舜 Shun, 大禹 Dayu and 周公丹 the Duke of Zhou. It is not quite the same, not quite as demanding as the Abrahamic compulsion toward Jerusalem, but it is comparable. Jesus’ reformulation of the centre of worldly and spiritual power away from the Temple and away from the Herodian state into ‘where two or three gather in my name’ is a radical shift away from the notion of an immanent physical centre, and allowed for the shift of Christianity away from being a splinter sect of Second Temple Judaism and toward being another light unto the Gentiles (and the lepers, and the unclean and so forth). In these days where there is no longer an Emperor in the mould of the Emperors of Zhou (let alone the Sage-Kings) and where not the zhongyuan but the profit-driven coastal ports are the centres of Chinese cultural production, we should not be asking whether Confucianism should be reconciling its values to the dictates of pseudo-Western liberalism (in another formulation of 儒表法裡 rubiao fali – Confucian outside, Legalist inside), but rather how Confucianism can radicalise its conceptions of place and time in order to allow for a broader hearing and a more complete and encompassing understanding of its datong.

In that, perhaps, a Christian church in Qufu is among the least of the New Confucians’ concerns.


Truth, beauty, justice and harmony?

The Platonic Transcendentals made their way early into Christianity, perhaps first explicitly through Saint Augustine, though one could well argue that they had always already been there. They certainly do resonate with the eschatological promise of God’s Kingdom come near, in which the face of God will be revealed to the world and all will bend their knees to him. But does Confucianism involve an acknowledgement of transcendental truth, or beauty, or justice? Certainly Confucius emphasised all three at length – the pursuit of knowledge about things (格物), the stress on the proper use of terms (正名), the insistence on human-kindness-justice-and-propriety (仁義禮). But he emphatically did not speak of transcendental ends or beginnings. If you could not understand life, how could you hope to understand death? If you could not serve your parents and grandparents, how could you hope to serve the spirits and gods?

And yet, even given the ‘敬鬼神而遠之’ (‘respect ghosts and gods but keep your distance’) attitude of Confucius, the transcendental is always lurking in the background. There is no creedal statement about the will of Heaven in the Analects, nor is there much at all by way of statement of belief. (But then, neither was there much of that in Plato.) Confucius was not concerned with a Kingdom of Heaven come near. But Heaven (at least in the Confucian-Mencian-neo-Confucian lineage) was always regarded as the eternal source of the Good, in what may as well have served as a Platonic sense. The ideals of Confucianism found their expression through myth-building, often around the historical figures of the Sage-Kings and the early kings of the Zhou Dynasty. The ideal ruler was apparently one of Mencius’ favourite topics, particularly when critiquing a ruler. Though the least important member of the country he governed, Mencius’ prince held the highest moral responsibilities to his subjects, and could be removed by force if he did not live up to those responsibilities.

In spite of these revolutionary remedies, the Confucian ideology was concerned much more with keeping society running smoothly and harmoniously. Avoiding conflict. Maintaining dense, vertical hierarchies with a clear proper use of terms. Curbing the profit motive and advancing the public-service one through education. Drawing upon wise and humane people to be leaders. Though the current Chinese government (for obvious reasons) shares the end goals of Confucianism, it doesn’t really bother with the means. Conflict is downplayed, but apparently only ever from one side. Corruption is rampant along a hierarchy which is neither dense nor particularly well-articulated. Material growth is emphasised (there, as here), often at any cost, and often public service ends up being self-service. Education’s moral component is downplayed in the service of ‘getting ahead’ (there, as here). As a result, the people who end up becoming political leaders are the most ruthless, the most cunning and the least trustworthy (there, as here). If Confucianism wants to maintain the stability of this government, it needs to find some way of quietly changing the official culture rather than becoming a tool for propagating it.

After all, suppressing facts and silencing critique from those who mean well (and I don’t mean NED funding recipients) do not make for a harmonious society. Profit motive, ‘free’ markets and the drive for infinite, unbalanced growth do not make for a harmonious society. Education for advancement’s sake rather than for its own does not make for a harmonious society. Encouraging local officials to be greedy and to take as their brazen rule ‘Thou Shalt Not Get Caught’ does not make for a harmonious society. Confucianism, if it is to survive, must be ready and willing to become a bit more radical in its conservatism, and take as their first priority the criticism of intellectuals, public officials and businessmen. It would be wise for the proponents of New Confucianism to reach across the aisle to the postmodernist elements of the Chinese New Left in so doing.

18 June 2012

Pointless video post - ‘Trot Out the Dead’ by Hammers of Misfortune


Firstly, my apologies for the advertisement-like nature of the visuals on this Pointless Video Post, but the audio is just so amazing that it is well-worth it: some of the most creative, musically intricate, intense and original-sounding American power metal for which this past decade is ever likely to be known, courtesy Slough Feg guitarist John Cobbett and drummer Chewy Marzolo’s band Hammers of Misfortune. The fact that it also happens to feature some of the most caustic anti-war lyrics I have yet heard in a metal song (except perhaps for some tracks on Lamb of God’s Ashes of the Wake) is also very much an endearing factor, at least to my ears, and the mix of Mike Scalzi and Jamie Myers (and occasionally pianist Sigrid Sheie) on vocals makes for a riveting listen. This album gets my very high recommendations. Enjoy, gentle listeners!

A legacy needing more than just a prize

Aung San Suu Kyi

Daw Suu is perhaps one of the most important figures in post-independence Burma.  In spite of her family’s chequered past as collaborators with the Japanese military government during WWII, she herself has been a relentless populist agitator for human dignity and representative government against the current military government in her own country, and she has made tremendous personal sacrifices to see that her activism bore fruit.  She has also (unlike many other ‘democracy’ advocates in Asia) not been particularly shy about treading on Western toes to speak her mind.  She has been close to the left-wing populists of Thailand’s (unfairly-reviled for daring to provide rural debt relief, cheap credit and universal healthcare to Thailand’s poorest) Shinawatra family; indeed, her first state visit outside Burma was to current Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra.  In addition, her comments at the World Economic Forum meeting in Thailand suggest that she is healthily sceptical of the neoliberal prescriptions by the IMF for her country, and particularly what they would do to low-wage earners in Burma.  Not only has her advocacy of human rights and democracy in Burma been wholehearted, sincere and just, but so has her clear-sighted vision for what comes after:  an independent Burma that treats its own poorest with compassion.  The fact that Daw Suu is now a free woman is absolutely a cause for celebration.  Remembrance of her Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps a bit less so.

Of course she accepted the prize; indeed, what else could she do?  Having been recognised for her efforts by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in 1991 obviously meant a great deal to her, as it might to anyone in her position.  But, in this observer’s opinion, Daw Suu deserves much, much better than the indignity of being cast by the Norwegian government, by means of a politically-tarnished prize, into the same dubious company as notorious proponents of international aggression such as Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama and Liu Xiaobo.

16 June 2012

He’s back

David Lindsay writes:
He is over here again.

The present Dalai Lama was born hundreds of miles outside Tibet. The Tibetans themselves migrated to what is now Tibet from further east in China, but huge numbers of them never did and never have done. The Dalai Lama comes from one such family.

Before 1959, Tibet was not an independent state ruled benignly by the Dalai Lama and given over almost entirely to the pursuit of spirituality. Tibet was certainly ruled by the Dalai Lama, by the lamas generally, and by the feudal landlord class from which the lamas were drawn. “Dalai” is a family name; only a member of the House of Dalai can become the Dalai Lama.

Well over 90 per cent of the population was made up of serfs, the background from which the present rulers of Tibet are drawn. That system was unique in China, and existed only because successive Emperors of China had granted the Tibetan ruling clique exactly the “autonomy” for which it still campaigns from “exile”. Life expectancy in Tibet was half what it is today.

There has never been an independent state of Tibet. Likewise, the presence of large numbers of Han (ethnic Chinese in the ordinary sense) and other Chinese ethnic groups in Tibet is nothing remotely new. The one-child policy does not apply in Tibet, so the Han majority there is the ethnic Tibetans’ own fault, if they even see it as a problem. It is totally false to describe the Dalai Lama as “their spiritual leader”. Relatively few would view him as such. In particular, Google “Dorje Shugden” for, to put at its mildest, some balance to the media portrayal of the present Dalai Lama.

Moreover, he has never condemned either the invasion of Afghanistan or the invasion of Iraq. For more on Buddhism as no more a religion of peace than Islam is, see Sri Lanka, Burma, Mongolia, Japan, Thailand, and beyond. In fact, an examination of the relevant texts shows that violence in general and war in particular are fundamental to Buddhism, admittedly a difficult thing to define, in the way that they are to Islam and at least arguably to Judaism, but simply are not, as a first principle, to Christianity. Tibet is particularly striking for this. It is also more than worth noting that the Sri Lankan war criminals were among those on whose behalf Liam Fox was treasonably running a parallel foreign policy out of his office and via his fake charity.
The Dalai Lama is no longer a threat to any government, as far as the political climate inside China goes.  Most Tibetans within China do recognise that their lives today are much better off than they were under the old Buddhist theocracy, even if their economic condition remains wretched on account of the only-partial decollectivisation mixed with market reforms which has characterised the rule of the post-Deng CCP.  Tellingly, by unofficial polling most Tibetans simply do not identify with the Dalai Lama, the former lama-slaveowner-dominated ‘government’-in-exile, or with their political cause.  The only persons the Dalai Lama is capable of harming inside China seem to be the tragic souls who demand the Dalai Lama’s return to China, and who burn themselves to death in protest as a result.

In the Anglosphere and in Europe, the Dalai Lama’s political efforts are pernicious in a different way.  He serves as the lightning rod of all manner of politically dubious causes (including Uyghur separatism and, by extension, Japanese far-right militarism and territorial expansionism - at China’s expense).  Simultaneously, by way of his deft counter-propagansiding against a government as singularly inept at presenting its own case before a world audience as China’s, managed to have made of himself an icon of ‘nonviolent’ resistance to authoritarianism in the process.  Recently, though, his efforts at attracting Western sympathy have drawn some scepticism, and by no means just from Chinese netizen-fenqing with axes to grind.

More attention to the rights and dignities - political, social, economic, cultural - of the Tibetan people in China, is an urgent and, I would say, dire necessity:  if for no other reason than against the encroachment of the faceless, all-consuming cultural black hole which ‘reform and opening’ continues to, well, open.  But the idea that the Dalai Lama or his ‘government’-in-exile are the right people for the job seems to me to be slightly unwarranted.  Why not have leaders and advocates for the Tibetan people who were, for one thing, actually born in Tibet, and who have actually lived in Tibet over the last sixty years?

15 June 2012

Nation and the left

Roweena Davis has an excellent and thoughtful blog post at The New Statesman:
The left has always been wary of nationalism. Owen Jones tweeted last week “The more that nationalism rears its head, the less we talk about the tidal wave of austerity hitting working people across Britain”. People are worried about past atrocities we’ve committed in the name of the nation. About people carrying the flag for the wrong reasons. About the apologies we never made. There are good reasons to be skeptical.

But there are also good reasons to be positive about Britain. If you’re a lefty, you have to give people a reason to care for one another, to vote and pay their taxes even when times are tough. A collective national identity is one reason to do that. It’s a story we tell to bind us together. It wasn’t a coincidence that the National Health Service was born out of the spirit of the war. We wanted to care for each other. We continue to volunteer thousands of hours. It’s part of who we are.

If you want an example of positive nationalism, look at the picture Obama has painted in the United States. To him, national identity wasn’t bigoted or irrational; it was a reason to believe in green energy, health care and hard work (the Chrysler advert still sends lovely shivers down my spine). Nor was it about being introverted. To know what role you want to play on the world stage, it helps to know who you are and why you care.

[...]

[T]here’s something British about the way we approach this struggle. It’s not simple or easy to articulate, but there’s the gentle way we don’t give up. The quiet determination and common decency, the “caring as well as competing”, as Ed Miliband put it last week. The tolerance, the awkwardness, and the humour.

[...]

The left worries that putting one nation above another is immoral. But that’s what we do with family. Someone once told me that family is not who we share blood with, but who we’d give up blood for. In Britain, we share blood for one another, whether that’s through the army or donating through drips on the NHS. It doesn’t mean we’re justified in treating others badly. It just means there are bonds we just can’t break.

And people care. Do we really want to dismiss the 6 million people who participated in the Jubilee as suffering from false consciousness? Or the military wives that got to number one? They brought more people together than politics has recently. Dismissing the thousands turning up in the rain at the Thames doesn’t sound like the love and respect the left should show others. The Olympics. Team GB. The Euros. We should try and understand and work with it.

I think it’s worth noting that the firm sense of solidarity which comes from common tradition, common language, common culture as embodied (however artificially) within the nation, is indeed very real, and it is something the left should indeed embrace. The left has always been about, in an existential sense, the creation and the defence of the common good. Nation is one of the few phenomena in modernity which has managed to provide a basis for that common good; while it is absolutely prone to abuse, there is little reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as it were.

13 June 2012

Expats, barfights, nationalism and Yang Rui

The Beijinger has an article here on a recent incident in a nightclub in the (in)famous Sanlitun 三里屯 district of Chaoyang where an American national was reportedly struck in the back of the head with a sharp object and beaten by the nightclub’s bouncers. For the most part, the article advises for expats just the plain basic commonsense of the sort which any junior going abroad from Kalamazoo College gets drilled into her stateside the year before: don’t get completely wasted in public. Don’t go looking for trouble. If someone wants to pick a fight with you, defuse the situation as quickly as possible and walk away. In short, don’t do anything that would embarrass you if you did it in any major city in the United States. Unfortunately, the fact that it has to be said over and over again seems to indicate that the message sometimes has a difficult time getting through to people.

My cohort from Kalamazoo College during my time at Capital Normal University were on the whole a pretty well-behaved bunch; but even we kind of bent the rules from time to time. Once, being charged with caring for a friend who got so drunk he couldn’t stand on his own, I had to defuse the situation when the cab driver we were with attempted to charge us extra because my friend had vomited whilst in the car (in his defence, most of it was discharged out the window), and then made a fuss of it when we tried to talk him down. Is there a point to this story? Well, I suppose if there is any, it can be said that we expats (well, ex-expats in my case) aren’t necessarily saints. Alienation, isolation, cheap vice, the language barrier and the halo of US governmental protection are a weakening influence on the expat soul (I do speak from experience). Gilman Grundy at FOARP made a similar point some time ago, here and here. In addition, there is the fishbowl effect and the knowledge that every action you take will be scrutinised and will reflect in the eyes of your beholders upon your mother country as a whole; Peace Corps was (very understandably) very concerned about this, and rumours travel faster than lightning in rural Qazaqstan, even if they are unsubstantiated.

The bigger story is that after Yang Rui of CCTV Dialogue made his incendiary comments about al-Jazeera’s Melissa Chan and about foreigners in China generally, there has been an outpour of pious concern from the expat community and from the West more generally about the safety of travelling abroad in China. His comments, of course, were uncalled-for, xenophobia being an ugly and vicious thing regardless of where it comes from. But there is far, far more to the story than merely just a xenophobic talk-show host mouthing off in response to two isolated incidents in Wudaokou and Sanlitun (areas which by virtue of their primary mode of business have higher rates of crime in general than most other areas of Beijing). There is, of course, more to the story than just Chinese people being stoked to fury by a cynical government and news media attempting to drum up support (or at least to distract from other major issues) through cheap nationalism.

It’s the equally-ugly comments in the English-language Chinese blogosphere about ‘stupid cab drivers’ and ‘neo-Boxers’ (ignoring the historical context that, while the Boxers committed many heinous crimes, they had genuine and valid concerns about unequal trade status and extraterritoriality of foreign nationals). It’s the passive-aggressive ‘see, Chinese can be racists too / are the real racists’ line (as though that excuses racism coming from any other quarter). It’s the subtle classist undertone that uneducated, lower-class Chinese people are ‘really’ the ones to blame for the woes of the expats, and that expats are entitled to be there because their degrees make them ‘the best and the brightest’, taking up the white man’s burden help the backwards and benighted ingrates to learn their language, et cetera. Illogical and bigoted fenqing are a phenomenon that is far from unique to China; the sooner we acknowledge that as the case, the easier it will be to talk to (rather than just shout past) each other.

Что написано пером, не вырубить топором

Александр Исаевич Солженицын

The Harvard address given in June 1978 by the famed Soviet exile-literatus Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (may he rest in peace) is one of those works which ought to be read carefully, and repeatedly, by anyone inside or outside the modern West of 2012 seeking to understand its pathologies. Solzhenitsyn’s critiques of the Western ‘free’ press, of Western law, of Western politics and of Western economy – though indeed they come from a friend – are biting; however, because they come from a friend, they are well-intentioned and mostly correct (calling to mind the Qazaq saying, ‘дос жылатып айтады; душпан күлдіртіп айтады’ – ‘your friends will make you cry; it’s your enemies who make you smile’). To be sure, Solzhenitsyn was prone to some hyperbole. Coming as he did from the horrors of the gulag and from the constant drumbeat of disinformation surrounding him, he was wrongly convinced of the unity and resolve of the entire Communist bloc; this led him honestly and forthrightly, though nonetheless mistakenly, to fault America’s lack of resolve (rather than the Soviet-Chinese split) for the brutal massacres in Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnam War. But his underlying point is one which deserves to be read, and to be made, over and over again – for it rings just as true forty-four years after it was made.

The blind optimism and the faith in human self-sufficiency in modern Western thinking has led, in Solzhenitsyn’s estimation, to a form of cowardice: because human evil was considered a deviation rather than a norm, it could not criticise or reflect upon itself, let alone correct itself. Since human perfection was considered attainable, the doctrines of self-satisfaction and the equality of all opinions became preferred to the classical doctrines of self-examination and the equality of all persons before God. Since freedom was an immanent quality inherent to humankind rather than being a transcendent quality given conditionally by a higher power, choice became enshrined as sacrosanct and the content of the choice was increasingly regarded as irrelevant. (In effect, that meant that political reformers and crusaders were subject to every manner of critique and ridicule, whilst every manner of public depravity and amoral calculation came to be greeted with – at best – fatalistic toleration.) Spiritual ends were discarded for purely material ones, thus leading to a tendency in Western culture to discount all sins but sloth, and to discount all virtues, leaving the sins of avarice, lust and envy in their place. The Christian praxis and ‘moral heritage’ of ‘mercy and sacrifice’ was regarded as the barbarism of a benighted and violent past. The primacy of the state and the primacy of the letter of the law led to the political struggle we see now between the champions of ‘negative liberty’ from the state, and of ‘positive liberty’ guaranteed by the state – both of which are dependent fully upon the state and upon a reductively materialist conception of human welfare, whether they acknowledge that or not.

For the Orthodox Solzhenitsyn, this philosophy was an utter dead end. (There is a reason, after all, why he detested Boris Yeltsin so utterly.) The higher goals of human endeavour which he saw being ‘destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party’ in Soviet Russia fared little better in the United States, where ‘commercial interests tend[ed] to suffocate’ them. In international affairs, he noticed a creeping cowardice and lack of resolve wherein American officials tended to amorally calculate the cultivation of powerful and wealthy friends, but are prone to ‘explosions of anger and inflexibility… when dealing with weak governments and weak countries’. See even now how we deal with the likes of nations like Afghanistan, like Iraq, like Libya, like Syria and like Iran which we have hopes of isolating – and how we capitulate so readily to the whims of Saudi Arabia with its vast wealth and regional power, and its sneering disdain for human dignity. A misguided generation of technocrats who do have the sense that they are missing something their grandparents possessed go abroad seeking demons to slay, but find only rodents – over whom they proceed to puff out their chests and proclaim their moral superiority. Solzhenitsyn’s opposition to American interventions (see also here) in Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan and in Iraq are not inconsistent at all with his earlier condemnations of American lack of resolve in Vietnam; indeed, they spring from the selfsame roots.  He underwent no ‘conversion’, as so many American commentators would have it, to Russian nationalism; indeed, by all accounts the remembrance of his venerable, philosophical, philhellenistic motherland was the wellspring of his opposition to the Soviet regime.

Solzhenitsyn’s critique of the modern Western ‘free press’ is also damning in its prescience. In 1978, broadcast television was still the primary mode of transmission of information; cable news was still a twinkle in Ted Turner’s eye (CNN being founded two years later). He very astutely noted the tendency in the Western press that being first beats being right, and that speaking to superficial fashions and dependence on ‘sensational formulas’ would take precedence over in-depth analysis. The great spectator sport of our time, the gladiatorial indulgence of the public, is the constant left-versus-right, Democrat-versus-Republican banter, which sadly even those claiming to be above the fray (Mr Stewart, I’m looking at you here) subscribe to and depend upon for their daily bread. All issues are reduced to one dimension; all problems reduced to easily-allocated blame; all solutions reduced to catchphrases and politically-convenient bromides. (To be sure, one side is far and away more guilty of cynically exploiting this game than the other, and this fact deserves to be pointed out, but that doesn’t change the wrongness of the game itself.)

I consider it a very sad neglect of my own self-education that I had until recently failed to understand or appreciate Solzhenitsyn, and that I have not yet read enough of Solzhenitsyn’s published works. However, I do intend to correct this oversight as soon as may be – The Gulag Archipelago is next on my reading-list. It is my hope that my gentle readers will likewise give the late literary giant the benefit of the doubt!

09 June 2012

Pointless video post - ‘Воля и Разум’ by Мастер


As a fan of Russian metal band Мастер, I am quite grateful that the Russian bands Ария and Мастер split off from each other. Each one played a very distinctive style of music: Ария continued with Valery Kipelov and Vladimir Holstinin to play a style of classic heavy metal with very strong influences from Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, whereas Мастер under Alik Granovskiy took on a completely uncompromising speed / thrash dimension for its following two albums. But in those early days it wasn’t really quite clear what poor Мастер would do with itself: their first LP was a mishmash of the NWoBHM style with thrash, featuring heavier, slower numbers like this one, the angry apocalyptic anti-Cold War rocker ‘Will and Reason’ (or ‘Воля и Разум’, actually technically an Ария cover, even though most of the members of Мастер were in Ария when the song was written). Turned out Мастер could play both thrash and more traditional forms of metal with aplomb (and their political dimension was present even at this early date)! Enjoy, gentle listeners.

The problem of public morality in China

The Peking Duck (however much I may disagree with its primary author on a broad array of issues pertaining to China) has an excellent link to, and some very insightful comments on, the most recent podcast from Sinica with Tang Dynasty and Spring and Autumn founder and public intellectual Kaiser Kuo, my professor at Capital Normal University Dr David Moser, Jeremy Goldkorn and Didi Kirsten Tatlow on the topic of public morality in China. This podcast is absolutely brilliant, of a calibre one might expect from having several incredibly incisive minds tackle a problem as thorny as this one is, and I would highly recommend listening through the whole thing. They cover a number of topics, including freedom of expression, the historical roots of the ‘moral vacuum’ in contemporary Chinese society going back to the New Culture Movement, the roles of religion and culture in the modern debate, including Maoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and the Confucian revival (including Yu Dan!), the role of schools, the legal culture and many other points.

Of course, the most interesting bits of the conversation, to my mind, were the ones which attempted to delve into the historical questions: can we chalk up China’s suzhi question to the actions of the Chinese Communist Party, to specific events, to economic shifts or to the culture prior to modernity? I think Mr Kuo and Dr Moser make the point strongly that the disruptions in Chinese culture accompanying the advent of scientism, the revolutions (including the Republican, the Communist and the Cultural) and the reform and opening period have had an incredibly detrimental impact on the public sphere, such as it was. On this point I think they are quite persuasive, but on other points I think there could stand to be a bit more parsing. The idea that in the Chinese mindset the ‘public sphere’ doesn’t exist, per se, seems to me a bit off: in the upper echelons of Chinese society, the civil service and those associated with it were the civil society par excellence, of course sanctioned by the government but nonetheless capable of influencing the entire course of government in many cases. Lower down one had the lineage associations – though one could make the argument that these are ‘family’ arrangements, in practice they were much more flexible than that, and could be altered to allow in or exclude people from other families for a whole host of common purposes. Religious associations also performed these functions.

Another point that should be emphasised is the role and significance of overseas Chinese communities. The Chinese communities in California and Indonesia were very close-knit and formed a number of civil connexions (up to and including the political societies – the Baohuanghui and the Xingmenghui – which evolved into the modern Guomindang), and were well-noted in their host countries for the exemplary public behaviour of their members (even if these communities were socially insular whether by intent or by political and physical necessity). The big question that remains, then, is what happened on the mainland? On the one hand, that question has all too many readily obvious answers, most of which were covered by the discussants on the podcast. On the other hand, there are difficulties with placing too much emphasis on any one of these answers – not the least of which are the political ones, and I think this podcast does a good job of pointing out and doing well to avoid some of the many ‘mines in the field’.

I actually would also tend to be a trifle more optimistic regarding Confucianism’s chances at providing a moral compass for Chinese society. Most of the panelists seemed to agree that, as a philosophy, it had its definite upsides, even if they tended to be sceptical (Ms Tatlow in particular) of its potential abuses by the powers-that-be. I would actually take the opposite tack – historically speaking, Confucianism has been just as much an implement of social critique to the point of outright rebellion as it has been a tool for an authoritarian state to bolster its control. Now, this might be the result of an ad hoc means of self-preservation by a group of scholarly elites, but it has had definite power in creating legitimate and authentic mass movements for social and economic reform. Though the Self-Strengthening Movement and the social upheavals it inspired may have defaced much of Confucius’ moral authority in Chinese culture, I think it is at least arguable that there would be no New Culture movement without the organising principles of people like Kang Youwei. The resurfacing of Confucian spiritualists like Yu Dan and radical-conservative academic political philosophers like Kang Xiaoguang speaks to an enduring place for Confucius in the Chinese moral landscape.

But, gentle readers, please do listen to the podcast. It is certainly thought-provoking!

08 June 2012

Dr Janez Evangelist Krek, Yugoslav patriot and Christian socialist


Dr Janez Evangelist Krek of the Slovene Lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was an influential figure in the movement for Yugoslav autonomy within the Empire, best known for the May Declaration which demanded that Austria-Hungary recognise within its own borders a kingdom of the Southern Slavs in personal union with Austria and Hungary. Beyond this, however, he was perhaps one of the most consistent, articulate and imaginative advocates of the principles of Catholic social teaching in the Balkans (and indeed, in all of Eastern Europe). Having grown up in Ljubljana and having been exposed to the Catholic conservative thought of Croatian theologian Bp Anton Mahnic and to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, Dr Krek began speaking emphatically on behalf of the Slovenian peasantry, whose physical and spiritual condition after the liberal revolutions of 1848 was not much better than outright serfdom. Subsistence farmers dumped without warning into a global money (rather than barter) economy without proper training, capital or acculturation, they faced prices for their goods which were consistently undercut by cheap American imports and conditions where their tenure was unsustainable without high-interest loans with their hard-won lands as collateral. It is not a stretch to say that the average Slovene peasant traded serfdom to a nearby landed lord (who at least spoke a Slavic tongue) for serfdom to a German- or French-speaking banker in a city far too far away - though local usurers were of course all too happy to get in on the action. (And who says history doesn’t repeat itself?)

Dr Krek’s enthusiasm for a socialism based on Catholic thinking very much predates his tenure in Vienna - at his First Mass at the age of twenty-three he gave a toast during which he gave a short speech on the subject; however, once in Vienna he quickly made the acquaintance of the circle of radical conservatives surrounding Karl Freiherr von Vogelsang, and was inspired to begin organising what amounted to a network of credit cooperatives throughout the Slovene countryside. Though these began as rural credit cooperatives, he also branched out into forming trade cooperatives and even cooperative schools. On the political side of matters, Dr Krek favoured greater autonomy and dignity for the Slovenes amongst whom he worked - linguistic and political rights as well as a greater degree of economic self-determination. As such, he was one of the prescient voices calling for a Southern Slavic political movement; though he himself never became an outright nationalist (he believed that the Southern Slavs would be better served by an equal place with Austrians and Hungarians within the Empire), there can be little doubt that he influenced the Yugoslav nationalist movement through his work.

One may justly look askance at some of Dr Krek’s associations with certain other of Karl von Vogelsang’s students (such as the populist, antisemitic politician Karl Lueger), or with Croatian arch-nationalist Anton Starcevic (who headed the political party which would later morph into the fascist Ustase government), but one must judge the great works he achieved within his own tragically short lifetime on their own merits. The trade union he created, the Yugoslav Labour Association, would long outlive him, and would indeed become one of the primary bases of Slovene (and thus, along with the Serbian Chetniks and the Croatian Partizans, Yugoslav) resistance to the Nazis during World War II. Dr Krek’s example might indeed prove to be a healthy inspiration for an anti-capitalist, pro-peace Yugoslav position which does not place too heavy a reliance on the (in some places problematic) legacy of Josip Broz.

07 June 2012

Monarchy, true defence of liberty and equality

In addition to many other excellent points about the socially and economically egalitarian benefits of having a monarchy as opposed to a republic, ResPublica founder, Anglican theologian and Red Tory Phillip Blond, writing for ABC Religion and Ethics, has this to say in defence of the English monarchy in the wake of the Diamond Jubilee (many thanks for the link, Radical Royalist!):
High tories used to argue that because the monarch stood alone, he or she could not be bought off by vested interests or the corruptions of representative politics. Indeed, English monarchs have regularly allied with the people against vested interests - so, when landowners were evicting peasants in the sixteenth century, the king campaigned against enclosure and the landed interest.

Similarly, today Prince Charles sponsors through his foundations and charities political and educational work that is often more radical and transformative than anything state or private endeavour has yet achieved. A populist monarchism also brought Spain out from fascism and monarchy remains central to many European states, precisely because people trust the institution more than they do politics and politicians.

In an era when representative government is so despised and democratic accountability has resulted in the creation of undemocratic and unaccountable elites who are nothing less than a modern oligarchy, do not be surprised that monarchy becomes ever more popular. It is, after all, the real defender of liberty and equality.

02 June 2012

Vivat Elizabeth II, Dei Gratia Britanniarum Regnorumque Suorum Ceterorum Regina, Consortionis Populorum Princeps, Fidei Defensor

And long may her reign continue!


This day marks the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of Her Royal Highness Elizabeth II, and I would be horribly remiss both as a monarchist and as a member of the Anglican Faith of which she is Defender not to pay my respects and my well-wishes. The past sixty years have been trying for civilisation as a whole, it seems, in several different respects, but the institution of the monarchy – not just British and not even just Western but also South Asian, Pacific Islander, East and South African and Caribbean – has been a great source of continuity throughout. Far from a symbol of imperialism now so much as a symbol of the civic and cooperative direction a post-imperialism might take, the British monarchy remains rooted in the blessed pre-modern, apostolic Christian tradition of service. Queen Elizabeth II has filled this role admirably – a trained mechanic and volunteer during World War II, she has maintained her commitment to the service of her realm throughout her entire reign, as Labour leader Ed Miliband made note in his address for the occasion.

The monarchy represents, being a family with a civic function and a strong sense of its civic duties, the truest and most humane confluence of the public with the private. As such, it represents the most serious defence against the insanity of the ideology of privatisation in the Commonwealth countries. The British monarchy, as the representation and embodiment of a stable governing order, can thereby serve as a means of limiting the hubris, the avarice and the lust for dominance to which all too many in ‘republican’ orders are prone. The monarch sates an all-too-natural and -human appetite for authority without the risk of becoming tyrannical. The truly radical (in the full sense, including in the etymological sense of it being located ‘at the roots’) defence of that which is admirable in British society, and resistance to the inhuman inequalities and erosion of humanist values caused by neoliberalism, therefore lies (in good Oastlerian formation) in the Altar, in the Cottage and in the Throne.

So today I toast Queen Elizabeth II, a sovereign who embodies with aplomb British virtue and civic-mindedness with her support of charities numerous and sundry, with her dignified yet deliberately unostentatious public persona, with her grandmotherly care not only to her own descendants but also to the nation over which she presides. Britain could not have asked for – let alone elected! – a better head of state.


Speaking of elections, however, my congratulations both to Fr Nicholas Knisely of Entangled States, Bishop-Elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, and belatedly to Fr Dorsey W M McConnell, Bishop-Elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.  The very best of luck in your new offices; may your bishoprics be blessed!