20 June 2013

Some clarifications

In the debate over same-sex marriage, it seems that both sides use some incredibly sloppy and bogus argumentation. I have no time or sympathy for the arguments which hold that same-sex marriage will lead to some form of divine retribution (or that it already has); I think the readings of Leviticus and the Pauline condemnations of same-sex acts used by evangelicals are simplistic in the extreme and do not reflect the intentions of the authors, and which ignore or gloss over the social and religious contexts within which same-sex acts were performed in ancient Hebrew and in ancient Roman times; and of course any form of hatred against people with homosexual orientations is straight out in my book, including arrogating to oneself the prerogative of God alone to stand in judgement of them and condemn them to hell. These are things the people on the con side of the same-sex marriage have to police amongst their own ranks, which some of them have attempted to do with more or less success (for example, the redoubtable Mark Shea).

However, I have grown increasingly sceptical of certain bad arguments put forward by the pro side. So here are a few clarifications.
  1. All bullying is wrong. Full stop. What you read, what TV you don’t watch, how wealthy your parents aren’t, your style of speech, not least your skin colour and family background, let alone whom you are attracted to, should never be reasons to suffer through middle and high school, or any time afterward. No one should have to go through it, and equally culpable as the children and teens who perpetuate the ‘pecking order’ are the adults who excuse it as some kind of preparation for the ‘real world’, where the pecking orders continue. (Personal aside: this is what made me, in my youth, a socialist.)

  2. Political disagreement does not constitute bullying. This is the other side of the equation. If you are against gay marriage, you are not by that fact a bully. If you make ad hominem arguments, that’s bullying, but merely holding the belief that gay marriage is wrong can be a rational belief to hold. It seems to trivialise actual bullying when one equates a free expression of social conscience in the public square with, say, beating someone up or tying them behind a truck.

  3. Marriage is not like ordering a sammich. I saw this one on Facebook, where someone compared being against gay marriage to being against the guy ahead of you in line at Subway who doesn’t order exactly what you do. Because selecting a lifelong partner is exactly like selecting something off a menu at a big corporate fast-food joint, and nothing says ‘public commitment of perpetual love and devotion’ like ordering a roast beef and provolone on Italian herb-and-cheese bread. Further…

  4. Marriage is about love, but… Marriage is about love; speaking as a happily married man, I completely understand that. But the way late-capitalist society understands ‘love’, as a utilitarian kind of individual therapy (and therefore marriage as a ‘market’, an HR search for a significant other with the right ‘requirements’… or like ordering a freaking Subway sandwich), is completely irresponsible. The ideal of marriage is and has been historically about a certain kind of love, a committed and self-giving love, which is intimately connected with procreation and child-rearing. It has been in place ostensibly in recognition that each child born to a woman can be taken care of by her partner who sired it as well.

    Now, I think SSM supporters are absolutely right to point out that we heterosexuals have done a fine job of making marriage, thus understood, institutionally irrelevant in practice, particularly with no-fault divorce. We heterosexuals are the ones who distorted the concept of marital love in the first place, and we do deserve censure for that. But the anti-SSM folks have a point that same-sex marriage completely changes the parametres of what marriage entails as a social institution for love and care not just between a couple conceptually capable of procreation, but also of any potential offspring of that couple; this is a point I have yet to see a pro-SSM arguer address in a way that doesn’t engage in a kind of special pleading fallacy. That said…

  5. Same-sex marriage can be considered a denial of diversity. I remember a discussion I once had with a friend of mine in Providence. The question came up of whether marriage is an appropriate institutional reflection of committed same-sex relationships, and the answer wasn’t nearly so cut-and-dried as I had until then assumed it to be.

    Homosexual relationships are different in kind than heterosexual ones, not least because of the perspectives involved. There are multiple reasons why gay men in China are called tongzhi 同志 – ‘comrades’, literally meaning ‘united in will’. There is a kind of camaraderie among homosexuals which I do not think can rightly be said to exist between heterosexual men and women (as attested by the existence of and historical need for feminism). So my friend wondered if an alternative institutional arrangement, something like a ‘blood brotherhood’ or ‘sworn sisterhood’, would be more appropriate to a committed homosexual relationship than a marriage (which has historically connoted the union of two disparate biologies and perspectives) would.

    This led me to think that uniting same-sex couples under the same institutional umbrella as opposite-sex couples seems to go some way toward flattening and erasing difference, not celebrating it. But as soon as that argument is advanced, someone will inevitably step up with a comparison with segregation and the ‘separate but equal’ ruling. To which I say:

  6. The gay rights struggle is NOT like the American Civil Rights Movement. So stop equating the two. Seriously. This is emphatically not to demean the real struggle for same-sex rights in the slightest, in which real gains have been made which should be celebrated on their own account. And this is not to say that society has (EDIT: sorry, doesn’t have) a long way to go in recognising the full humanity of homosexuals. But speaking as a man of the left here, the comparison is incredibly problematic and does belittle the struggle that blacks have had to make for basic human rights in American society.

    Homosexuals have never been enslaved on account of their sexual orientation. There have never been straight-only water fountains or bathrooms or train cars or seats in restaurants. Homosexuals have never been forced to sit at the back of public busses. There has never been a systematic policy denying gays loans for houses in certain neighbourhoods. There has never been an ‘urban renewal’ campaign which relegated homosexuals to ghettoes. No police forces have ever turned water hoses and attack dogs on protestors for same-sex rights. There have indeed been lynchings of homosexuals, but never on the same scale and never organised in the same way that lynchings of blacks and civil rights supporters had been.

    Men and women of colour in the US have faced an ordeal which is utterly without parallel in American history, and SSM supporters need to check their privileges, and respect that their struggle was strongly different in kind. But given the ubiquity of this lazy comparison, it ought to be little wonder that African-Americans, especially those who were directly involved in the struggle for civil rights, have traditionally been fairly unsympathetic to the cause of same-sex marriage.
To be honest, in the argument about SSM I’m still in the process of struggling after the truth. I can understand and sympathise with the arguments on the pro side, once having firmly been in their camp. But listening to the con side (especially John Milbank, who has been an incredibly deep influence on my thinking) I have to admit that they do have several very strong and valid points. I am certainly not out to condemn anyone for holding honest beliefs on either side, but if they hold those beliefs for wrong reasons, that should be pointed out.

17 June 2013

Never forget, the ‘decent left’ are anything but

Wanton death, destruction and fundamentalist-motivated sacrilege
brought to you by the ‘Free’ ‘Syrian’ ‘Army’

On occasion, I like to look at what goes on in the minds of the old Trot tendency in the socialist movement, the Eustonites who like to call themselves the ‘decent left’. You know, the ones who, having proclaimed the dialectically-material obsolescence of everything from religion to the family to the labour union and back, now find themselves staring down that very same obsolescence and are doing everything they can to stay relevant, picking up all the old culture-war discards, the middlebrow bourgeois nouveau-atheism and hare-brained adventurism they figure are popular with the kiddies and tagging them to their banners hoping to hide the fast-fading red beneath.

They’re the sorts who like to playact as feminists when on the subject of misogyny in Islam (or in the SWP, or amongst the defenders of Julian Assange) and then show themselves as the pudgy privileged white men they are when clamming up on the subject of the very deep-rooted misogyny (and occasional sexual assault) in nouveau-atheist circles. Of course, it goes without saying for such people that the only people who can truly be working-class are those who forsake and spit on the religious convictions that an overwhelming majority of the real working class worldwide look to not just for otherworldly comfort but for inspiration for this-worldly social reform.

Speaking of which, these are the sorts who love playacting as liberal advocates of religious freedom for the poor oppressed Islamic fundamentalists when the same are arrayed against countries the US and the UK happen at the moment not to like (like Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and now Syria), and then as hardcore laïcists and anti-jihadists when (oops!) those same Islamic fundamentalists turn out not to have the liberal ideals of the US so closely at heart. Huh. Real shocker, I know – can you really blame these guys for going for the kick every time Lucy whisks away that football?

Of course, they don’t have to be old fogeys, and many of them aren’t, but they jumped aboard that fast-sinking Titanic and are now desperately trying to bail it out. To be clear, this is the constituency which includes the likes of Oliver Kamm, David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Norman Geras, Marko Attila Hoare, Michael Totten and so forth. These are precisely the people GK Chesterton warned of when he remarked ‘how quickly revolutions grow old; and, worse still, respectable’.

So it was on just such an occasion that I popped onto the Shiraz Socialist blog to see if they had anything new or interesting to say about Syria. Turns out I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. First thing that comes up from the ‘Raz on Syria is a YouTube video of Charles Lindbergh and a snarky comment directly comparing the people who dare to point out trivial little things like the massacre of entire Christian villages by the rebels to Hitler-appeasing racists and closet fascists. Looks like the rule still holds that you can’t be a member of the decent left if you aren’t willing to pre-emptively demonstrate the coherence of Godwin’s Law at every available opportunity.

It doesn’t get better.

Before writing off for no particular reason the editor of the New Statesman as ‘smug’, ‘shallow’ and ‘sanctimonious’, it essentially descends into, well, smug, shallow and sanctimonious Rumsfeldian territory (through a lengthy blockquote from another ‘decent leftie’ blogger) to the effect that, well, you gotta do something! (And somehow ‘something’ always translates into carpet-bombing or landing troops in a puny little country on the other side of the Atlantic.) Smug, because it begs the question it raises in assuming the cost of doing nothing to be greater than the cost of doing precisely that something; shallow, because it really ain’t necessarily so (and hasn’t been demonstrably for the past five or six conflicts we’ve been dragged into, for anyone except those brave and upstanding stalwarts of the international working classes, the military contractors and private security firms); and sanctimonious because it expects every right-thinking person to arrive at the exact same conclusion on the exact same reasoning.

Which, of course, many don’t. And won’t. And shouldn’t.

Not least because not everyone in a free society is willing to toss our experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan down the Memory Hole as easily as Hopi Sen is willing to do. (My cultural-anthropologist friends tell me they have observed that ‘decent lefties’ take childlike glee in references to the works of Mr Eric Blair, because of their creation-mythological superstition that said author was the founder of their tribe.)

And many more of us (I suppose the ‘Raz would never call my benighted Augustinian ilk ‘right-thinking’) believe that intervention is not a decision arrived at by cost-benefit analysis. It should be a decision arrived at using much sounder – I would certainly say more ‘decent’ – logic and reasoning.

It hardly needs pointing out that this is not World War II and Syria is not Nazi Germany, however desperately the ‘Raz and those who think like him want and need it to be. And the case for intervention in Syria, on the facts as they have been uncovered over the past two years, simply doesn’t hold up.

14 June 2013

‘To the end of history’...

‘social orders will probably destroy themselves in an effort to prove they are indestructible.’ So said mid-20th century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

So now, we are officially arming al-Qaeda in Syria, and in doing so declaring war against ‘80% of the Syrian people’, including all the Christians. Based on the supposed evidence that Syria’s government has used chemical weapons on its own people. Evidence that Jeffrey Lewis didn’t accept one and a half months ago, and which has not looked more convincing with age. Evidence the Russian government also doesn’t accept, but what do they know? They only warned us about the Boston bombers, so why bother listening to them, right? Oh, and I’ve got Dubya on the line from 2002; he wants his flimsy pretext back.

But who needs Dubya when you’ve got Bill Clinton calling you a wuss and a fool for doing something so cowardly and unmanly as listening to the American electorate when there’s a puny little country on the other side of the Atlantic which needs a good carpet-bombing fuelled by Hitler comparisons and pants-wetting hyperbole of appeasement against naysayers. The road to Damascus leads, apparently, through the blackened, smoking ruins of Belgrade, as if it could ever have come from anywhere else. The other Clinton, along with the usual suspects Power and Rice who precipitated the genocidal debacle in Libya (and by extension Algeria and Mali), have sadly not packed up and gone home yet. And you have John McCain bawling that we aren’t causing nearly enough remote-control destruction. Now there’s one guy I won’t be sad to see go.

It’s a sad, sad day, though, when the sole voice of reason on Syria is Rand freaking Paul.

12 June 2013

A few words of caution about the Great Rebellion

It may seem an obvious point to make, but one of the things we palaeoconservatives need to remember is that our conservatism is defined by what we seek to conserve and for whom, just as any liberalism has to be defined by what it seeks to liberate and from whom. We have to take care to think clearly and closely about what sort of society we are seeking to restore, what brand of justice, what manner of manners. This is not mere idle philosophising, though I am of the school which believes no philosophising, ultimately, to be idle. This cautiousness needs to be applied practically, and principally to the history and public remembrance of the American Civil War. American palaeoconservatives tend to fall into two very common traps with regard to the Civil War, and both of them need to be studiously avoided even as we strenuously assert the principles we genuinely and rightly want to associate with both.

The first trap is the more obvious and thus the easier to avoid, yet too many palaeocons stumble into it anyway: the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography. This is the school which attempts to portray the American South as having fought a brave and noble struggle for states’ rights and freedom from the North (a powerful, ominous and rapacious aggressor characterised by barbarous, crude wants and base lusts) and its utterly irredeemable tyrant Lincoln. It is a school which scoffs at any mention of slavery as a motivating factor in the war and which deliberately silences the voices of the common soldiery both North and South in preference of the grand visions of the politicians and the generals (though these too it is often content to cherry-pick). It is a historiography with a tendency to glamourise rebellion. It is a historiography which takes seriously the idea that victors write the history books, and which actively seeks the overturn of that verdict. It is a conspiratorial historiography which sees at best indoctrination behind any discussion of the facts in good faith, and at worst a Nietzschean struggle of history-as-domination.

A few of the problems for the traditional conservative in identifying with this school should be quite obvious. Firstly, in adopting this Nietzschean, proto-postmodern idea of history-as-domination, history-as-struggle, it relativises truth before power and right before might, and sees truth as contingent upon ideology – in particular the great moral truth about the evils of chattel slavery, which the Lost Causers (wrongly, given the preponderance of primary-source evidence to the contrary) see as a distraction or a non-issue at best, and an ideological weapon against the South at worst. Though I do see the appeal of the ideology of difference in this, conservatives need to be truly wary here. An historiography which discards truth as a transcendental and God-given principle is inimical to any conservatism worthy of the name. Secondly and yet more obviously once said, the project of glamourising violent rebellion – essentially treason – against what all parties prior to secession demonstrably held as the natural, legitimate and lawful government places the Lost Causers firmly in the same camp of political thought as the Jacobins, the Trotskyites and the Maoists.

As the great Catholic conservative American philosopher and man of letters Orestes Brownson put it:
Prior to the Southern Rebellion, nearly every American asserted with Lafayette, "the sacred right of insurrection" or revolution, and sympathized with insurrectionists, rebels, and revolutionists, wherever they made their appearance. Loyalty was held to be the correlative of royalty, treason was regarded as a virtue, and traitors were honored, feasted, and eulogized as patriots, ardent lovers of liberty, and champions of the people. The fearful struggle of the nation against a rebellion which threatened its very existence may have changed this.
In other words, the conservative force in the Great Rebellion – the one championing loyalty, stability and the organic continuity of political institutions under a higher law corresponding to the natural law, the law of God – was that of the North. Traditional conservatives do rightly seek to defend the validity of these ideas, but they need to seriously reconsider if they find themselves attaching themselves to an historiography and a political legacy which loudly and persistently claims the opposite: that loyalty to the Union was the correlative of ‘royalty’ (how often do we hear from them that Lincoln was a tyrant comparable to King George III?), that the treason of the secessionists was virtuous, and that the secessionists themselves were patriots, lovers of liberty and champions of the people.

More importantly, though, if the case that the Confederacy was a conservative force in American politics is to be taken at all seriously, we really have to ask ourselves what it was they were seeking to conserve. Palaeoconservatives have to be wary of the sweeping ideological claims: ‘states’ rights’ is every bit as much of an empty slogan as ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. We must look at the content of the use of those rights, the sort of society they wished to build. Taking at face value the idea that they wanted low (or no) tariffs and free trade as well as slavery, it appears that what they wanted was a Whiggish society in which a pauperised, rootless, fully-commodified labour force, severed irrevocably by the force of law from the natural institution of the family, serves in mines and factory farms to extract raw materials for cheap consumption abroad to benefit an idle and decadent mercantile elite with paper-thin pretensions to Old World nobility. In other words, the Confederacy (in spite of all protestations about localism and the Southern ‘way of life’) was fighting to become a globalist society. It is no accident that Sam Walton and Bill Clinton (who championed NAFTA, dismantled Yugoslavia and propounded a global neoliberal ‘Third Way’ along with some fellow named Anthony Blair) both hail from the Deep South.

There is a great deal to be said, on the other hand, for the ‘brother against brother’ narrative of Wendell Berry and Bill Kauffman. The Civil War was indeed one of the most calamitous and tragic events in all of our history, and there can be no excuse for the excesses in bello against human dignity and against basic civil liberties perpetrated by both sides. And there does need to be some sort of radical counter-narrative with regard to the standard history of the Civil War, which sees it as a just war expiating our nation of its great original sin.

The reason is simply that it didn’t. And it is to the great credit of the ‘brother against brother’ narrative that it recognises this.

The Civil War not only didn’t solve the question of the place of black men and women in American society, the regional enmities which caused that great fratricide were deepened and entrenched by it, and blacks were made the national scapegoat on whom those enmities could be reenacted with impunity. If we look at what happened to the real communities both North and South which were uprooted by the war, and the Gilded-Age corporate monstrosity which took their place, a narrative of senseless loss actually makes a great deal of sense.

At the same time, we need to be very wary of this narrative. As historical hermeneutics go, what is left unsaid is often as important as what is said. If we hold to the axiom that truth is a transcendental and more than simply a perspective, we cannot afford to remain agnostic on the issue of what form that truth takes – that is a trap of a very different sort. A quarrel between two brothers which comes to mortal blows over a mere misunderstanding or miscommunication is not of the same ethical quality as a quarrel between one brother and another over matters of principle. The distinction we have to make is a subtle one: acknowledging the truth of the Union’s position without asserting the triumph in its martial cause. It is the same subtle distinction we have to make about World War II: fascism and ultra-nationalism were indeed grave moral wrongs which had to be righted, but we can and should criticise the historical memory of our wartime leaders and the role they continue to play in our national mythologies; question the decision to go to war when and how we did; and lament and condemn the way in which we carried out that war, in particular fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, and the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

You could say, then, that I hold fairly closely to the Berry-Kauffman narrative, with the one important distinction being that I hold out the inherent justice of certain aspects of the North’s casus belli (yes, Fort Sumter was Federal property), even if the war itself was further made unjust by the comportment of that war. You may see these as the remaining self-justifications of an ex-liberal Yankee Johnny-come-lately to the traditionalist conservative banner. But even as I was making my Tory turn, I found the Lost Cause to be ever more indefensible once I came to see the incipient postmodernism of its method and the vulgar Whiggism of its assumptions and political conclusions. And the attachment many who proclaim themselves to be traditionalist conservatives show to the Lost Cause never ceases to baffle me.

10 June 2013

Pointless video post - ‘Alight a New Tomorrow’ by Edenbridge

Edenbridge’s album The Bonding is coming out in about two weeks, and I am seriously psyched for it! This is on the same level of awesome as the news that Xentrix were coming out of retirement! The Austrian band which got me into metal to begin with has put out album after album of solid, well-balanced, well-produced, upbeat neoclassically-tinged symphonic rock music; the last four of which (Shine, The Grand Design, My Earth Dream and Solitaire) in particular have been spectacular. (And yes, thank you, I am being a total fanboy. And no, I am not going to stop.) If this music video is any indication, that level of sophistication and quality in Edenbridge’s unique blend of happy metal is likely to be very much upheld on The Bonding. Do please enjoy, dear listeners!

No war in the land of Esther

In the first Gospel, the first people to recognise Christ as King and worship him were magi; that is, the Persian (read: Iranian) followers of the prophet Zoroaster. That they would recognise Christ as King and worship him is fully understandable; they were merely doing so in accordance with Zoroaster’s teachings.

Zoroaster was one of the first prophets to proclaim a single God, transcendent, without form and not contingent upon history or culture. He was the first prophet to proclaim truth, beauty and goodness as transcendent ideals, outside of historical or cultural constraints.

He was also among the first prophets (along with Zhou Gong Dan and Abraham) to preach what was then, and apparently is again now, the radical social doctrine that it is not the absolute and untrammeled private right of the wealthy and the powerful to dominate the poor and the weak. He preached, indeed, that the treatment of the poor and weak, whether good or ill, would have eternal consequences, correspondingly good or ill. He preached a divine right of kings (again, along with Zhou Gong Dan) that is dependent on the righteous behaviour of the king, as measured by how he treats the least of these in his kingdom, and held well before Mencius that it is not wrong to overthrow a tyrant, a ruler without farr. Indeed, he was among the first people to hold that each person is responsible for her own actions (and only her own actions) in her own lifetime. He was also among the first people to proclaim a Saviour of the world, born of a virgin, who would come to judge the living and the dead.

As Pliny tells us, Zoroaster’s followers and priests, the magi, were the tutors of Pythagoras, and through Pythagoras of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the entire Western virtue-ethical tradition. That all too many of our classicists persist in the error of Herodotus in identifying the Persian Empire under the Achaemenids as barbaric, or even more laughably tyrannical, merely because two of their emperors (Darius the Great and Xerxes the Great) opposed the government of Athens in its wrongheaded foreign policy is nothing more or less than a reflection of their dependence on that government’s own propaganda. Socrates also opposed the government of Athens in its wrongheaded religious policy, to his death; would these same classicists render him also a barbarian?

That same Xerxes, by the way, is the same Persian Emperor who married Esther, and who saved the Jewish nation from perishing from the face of the Earth. That Esther, along with her kinsman Mordechai, the prophet Daniel and Ezra the Scribe, are still buried in Iran. To this day, there remain Jews in Iran; these Jews for the most part choose to stay in Iran in spite of repeated attempts by the Israeli government to resettle them, and have permanent representation in the Majlis, where they sit alongside the Christian Armenians and Assyrians who have also historically sought shelter in Iran from persecution, and who also have guaranteed seats there. (Armenia, the oldest Christian country on the planet, also happens to be one of a number of countries which recognises Iran’s right to pursue peaceful applications of nuclear power.) These Jews, and these Christians, emphatically want no war to ‘liberate’ them, as any such war would have disastrous consequences for them in particular.

Is it truly so surprising that from a nation in which lies the fountainhead of Greco-Roman philosophy, and the first inklings and the preservation of Judaic morality, come several priests who come to kneel and worship before the incarnate recapitulation of both? It would not have been so to St Matthew, a Jew who spoke Greek and who was obviously very knowledgeable about both Jewish and Greek history.

Iran is home to the second-oldest continuous civilisation existing in the world today, after China. That civilisation, which stands on the Silk Road and thus not only was invaluable to the intercourse between East and West but in some measure belonged to both, assimilated their Macedonian Greek conquerors, evaded conquest by the Romans and the Huns, resisted conquest by the Arabs, the Turks and the Mongols, and carried the torch of their unique civilisation through the gauntlet of the murderous rapine of each. So deep runs the Zoroastrian-rooted tradition of a transcendental, scholastic principle of justice in Iranian civilisation that it managed to transfigure even the doctrines of Islam into the social-justice and martyr-oriented tradition of the Shi’at Ali – inspiring the ‘Red Shi’ism’ of Dr Ali Shariati.

The historical record indicates that the Iranian people do not suffer tyrants lightly, be they Huns, Arabs, Turks, Mongols or British. Rest assured that we shall see the green banners again, but though we may and should wish them well, we must never presume that they are our own cause. We must never support the Ba’athist Mojahedin-e Khalq or the Salafist Jundullah, both of whom (though for very different reasons) hold in contempt the civilisation they seek to ‘liberate’, as the standard-bearers of that cause. And most of all, we must never seek to invade that nation, thus damaging perhaps for centuries to come the beautiful tapestry that has taken them five millennia to weave.

07 June 2013

When will we learn?

Russia was right about Yugoslavia. Both times.

Russia was right about Afghanistan.

Russia was right about Iraq.

And now, we seem to be slowly getting around to making the discovery that Russia was right about Chechnya. All along.

Any bets on when the US government will admit that Russia is right and has been right all along on, say, Syria? And when will we learn that a true friend is one who will criticise your mistakes, rather than one which parrots everything you want to hear?

03 June 2013

How to derive radical action for social justice and peace

David Lindsay writes:
"Why do we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?", asked Dr Johnson. Half rhetorically and half not, because you could do that if you were Dr Johnson.

In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, "the special title of moralist in English literature is accorded by the public voice to Johnson, whose bias towards Catholicity is well known."

Johnson told Boswell that he thought Catholicism fundamentally different from other forms of Christianity, and certainly preferable to Presbyterianism, with Mass, Confession, Purgatory, prayers for the dead, invocation of the Saints, and so on, all more objectionable in practice than in principle, indeed in principle hardly objectionable at all.

Boswell records Johnson's saying that he would "be glad to be of a church where there are so many helps to get to heaven," and even that he "would be a Papist" were it not for "an obstinate rationality" which he hoped to be able to overcome "on the near approach of death," of which he had "a very great terrour."

No wonder, then, that (as with Swift, Dryden and Pope) rumours of Johnson's Jacobitism have never gone away. Indeed, they are very much the subject of lively discussion at present, and hardly for the first time.

Far from the centres of power, among the more or less politically excluded subcultures of Catholics, High Churchmen (and then first Methodists and then also Anglo-Catholics, as well as Scottish Episcopalians), Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers, there persisted an ancestrally Jacobite disaffection with the legitimacy of the Hanoverian State, of that State's Empire, and of that Empire's capitalist ideology.

The foundation, and the fullest expression, of that ideology was, of course, the slave trade, to the proponents of which the Lord Bishop of Salisbury has tastefully compared Dr John Sentamu and all the Anglican and other church leaders in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the present and every previous Pope.

To this or any other day, slavery is the plenitude of capitalism, the advocates of which cannot oppose it in principle simply in itself. No wonder that the High Tories Johnson, Wesley, Newman and Wilberforce were so opposed to slavery, along with all the Popes.

Slavery is the ultimate manifestation of the need for political action in, and sometimes against, the market. The present global economic situation fully demonstrates this incontrovertible fact.

That ancestrally Jacobite disaffection produced Tory action against the slave trade, Tory and Radical action against domestic social evils, Tory and Radical extensions of the franchise, the creation of the Labour Movement, and the opposition to the Boer and First World Wars.

It also motivated many of those Maryland and other Catholics, of those Quakers, of those Congregationalists, and of those Episcopalians (a product of the old pre-Tractarian High Churchmanship, and as a separate body a direct offspring of its Scottish namesake rather than of the Church of England), with Methodists and Baptists to follow in such enormous numbers, who adhered to the rebellion of the yelping Deist drivers, but who turned the Republic thus founded into something very different from that which those Founders had envisaged.

James Edward Oglethorpe, a Jacobite, opposed slavery in Georgia. Anti-slavery Southerners during the American Civil War were called "Tories".

Likewise, Radical Liberals in Britain, with their deep roots in the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Methodist and Baptist milieux even when looking to the leadership of the High Church Gladstone, were anti-capitalist in their action against the opium dens, against the unregulated drinking and gambling, and against the compelling of people to work seven-day weeks that have all now returned to the British scene.

What next? Slavery? Forms of it are already upon us, notably in the commercial sex industry that is simply the "free" market in action, irresistible by those who will not resist that system.

The same is true of drugs, which we obtain frankly from slave-drivers. That is but one among numerous examples of how, for the most part, we have outsourced slavery.

As we always did: in principle, and even though those slaves who did arrive here very rarely experienced the slightest change in their conditions, their condition was nevertheless held to have changed entirely, since the ownership of one human being as the property of another was always still legally impossible upon the very soil of This Blessed Plot.

A state of affairs which recalled and recalls the pre-capitalist, pre-imperial, pre-Williamite, pre-Whig order to which Dr Johnson was so attached, like the Romantics, the Tractarians, the Catholic Revivalists, the Gothic Revivalists, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Chesterbelloc after him.

Radical action for social justice and for peace derived from testing the State and its policies against theologically grounded criteria of legitimacy. It still does.

02 June 2013

Harmonising Confucianism (out of existence?), and possible reference points from the fate of apostolic Christianity

Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu 杜甫
Image courtesy GBTimes

I have been reading two very worthwhile blogs of late: the first, Dr Sam Crane’s The Useless Tree, and the second, my friend and colleague at Solidarity Hall Susannah Black’s Radio Free Thulcandra. Recently, they have each touched on the topic of the public role of religion with regard to secular liberalism, and do (on the surface) seem to be saying very different things. As for myself, an Anglican Christian, these are questions of pressing importance, but they should also interest, very much so, followers of the Confucian way. This is because both apostolic Christianity and Confucianism are, at their basis, religions (for those who would contest the point, more on this a bit later) with virtue-ethical traditions which seek to order shared space and time to facilitate the proper ends of human excellence. Both emphasise justice over the pursuit of profit or power, and both emphasise the value of cultivating habits in overcoming the desires for both.

Also, both Christianity and Confucianism are now having to contend with a social reality which has been blown apart by a nominalist and voluntarist ideology (liberalism) entirely averse to virtue-ethical thinking, and a form of ethics which, in ways utterly contrary to both traditions, detaches individuals from their social contexts and, through the logic of the market, encourages them to think first of individual utility – profit and power – over all other considerations.

It cannot be stressed enough that this alienation is by no means a novel condition for either belief. Christianity arose in the context of the Second Temple, and of the Herodian client state of the Roman Empire – though the Romans did indeed emphasise virtue ethics, it was a pagan form which oriented the individual agent to the pursuit of dominance, of power; Confucianism arose in the context of the Spring and Autumn period when the influence of the Zhou emperor was on the wane and warlords competed with each other for power, wealth and territory. In neither case was either ideology suitable or ‘relevant’ to the culture it entered, nor did it attempt to make itself so. Christ was crucified for his radical recapitulation of virtue amongst the poor and discarded of the Roman Empire and the Second Temple faith. Confucius, though he faced no such ignominious end, was nevertheless spurned along with his teachings by the feudal lords of his day and age.

Susannah Black, in her piece ‘The Language of Exile’, talks only about the Christian tradition in comparison with Judaism, but she speaks in a way which might have relevance for Confucianism.
The desire for a “land of our own” here, now, visibly: a Christian nation or a Holy Roman Empire that is more than provisional, is an impatience to get on with things. The Zionism that Strauss championed (at least for a time and provisionally) was of this kind; he both supported it, and suspected it as a ducking out of the Jewish responsibility to keep living as a remnant exilic community. He described it as a desire to “to gain access to normal historical ‘reality’ (land and soil, power and arms, peasantry and aristocracy.)” What does one do with this desire, whether one is Jewish or Christian?

One option is assimilation. Assimilationist Judaism is the equivalent of some kinds of post-Enlightenment Protestantism, and it is the religion which is the opiate of the masses: This kind of belief, which is not supposed to have any public or political manifestation, is very problematic. Certainly it is individualist rather than communitarian or political, but that’s the least of it: Ultimately the belief is not supposed to be seen at all: it is acceptable only inasmuch as it makes no difference in one’s words or behavior.
In other words, the modern, liberal-democratic, secular, capitalist society seems to offer the Christian a choice: assimilation or resistance (often taken to be futile). Ms Black includes amongst the assimilationists, interestingly enough, ‘fundamentalism, some of modern evangelicalism, some of dispensationalism’, on account of the fact that they are ‘exiled, disembodied, individualistic, and apolitical’ (at least, I take it, ‘apolitical’ in the sense of not having a politic of its own: being unable to offer an alternative to the electoral politics of the secular society and yet more likely than not to retreat to personal pietism and duck out of participating in that politics altogether). On the other hand, Ms Black notes that the people who want to rebuild the Holy Roman Empire have a tendency to end up in some fairly undesirable places: ‘a somewhat similar appeal to that which sent Paul Wolfowitz on his overseas adventures’.

In other words, we run the risk of becoming either Herodians or Zealots; a choice we must resist with a third way. Ms Black does not offer this third way; instead she tries to sketch out the rough edges of a neo-Augustinian (perhaps Benedictine) theopolitics of exile, one which does not capitulate to the post-Enlightenment secular conquest of public space and public time, but one which also does not claim an immanent political supremacy à la Zionism or Islamism. Neither assimilation and silence, nor Kingdom Now is called for. But Christianity should not relinquish its historic duty to provide real public space and real public time for those seeking sanctuary from the ravages of the cultural wasteland of late liberal capitalism.

So what has any of this to do with Confucianism?

Well, that depends very much on what you take Confucianism to be. That it is not wholly analogical to the Abrahamic faiths is an obvious point: there are no creeds and no formal doctrines; the supernatural is a subject best avoided in Confucianism; and the main concern is with improving society in the here-and-now, rather than extending hope for the hereafter. At the same time, these differences have been vastly overstated in Western orientalist studies going all the way back to Voltaire, whose pontifications on the irreligious nature of Confucianism have sadly influenced all Western studies thereof up until Tu Wei-Ming. Confucianism is very much a religion, even if it is not an Abrahamic one: it has a canon (however loosely-defined in certain periods) of sacred Classics and Books, it has rituals and music, it has teachings and doctrines, it has a transcendent (not a materialist) metaphysics, and its sociopolitical ideals are grounded in faith-based assumptions about the workings of the cosmos. Most important, it anticipates a way of ordering the world, through ritual and music, in ways which do not assume that violence and heterogeneity of ends are the most basic human realities to be recognised – and thus runs counter to the ‘state of nature’ mythology underwriting Hobbes and Locke.

Thus, it appears to me as though liberalism ultimately offers Confucianism the same choice: assimilation or resistance (which is taken to be futile). And this is a choice which Confucianism, if it wishes to remain true to its basic orientation to the transcendent order it champions, must refuse in much the same way Christianity must.

Dr Crane might agree with the first half of this assessment, though he does not assign it the same normative meaning as I do as an indictment of the regnant disorder of liberalism, but rather as an indication of Confucianism’s need to assimilate to that disorder. He makes a set of statements which he means as purely positive and empirical, though (the fact-value distinction being at best a self-serving fiction of the secular social sciences) all such descriptions have embedded in them a set of prescriptive assumptions. Taking a look here:
The US is a liberal society and polity in the sense that a certain individualism, defined in terms of rights and preferences and “lifestyle,” is deeply ingrained. Communitarianism, though an important part of American tradition and political discourse, seems always to be constrained by more powerfully institutionalized principles and practices of liberalism. Assertions of “community” cannot transgress individual rights. I say this not in celebration (I have long had a certain sympathy for communitarianism) but simply as a point of fact (which some might want to dispute empirically...). For example, Christianity has transformed over time in the US. The more communitarian mainline denominations - Catholics, Episcopalians, etc. - have declined in recent decades while smaller sects and denominations that can cater to more personal, individualistic religious preferences have grown. Similarly, a more muscular class-based politics, something more genuinely socialist than the usual American left-liberalism, has never gained much backing here. Culturally and politically, Americans are just too averse to identifying themselves in broad social groups. We talk about “community” all the time. But we are forever acting and thinking as individuals.
I think it is past disputing that the US is a liberal polity, and that this is backed by powerful institutional arrangements, path dependence and civic mythology. However, I do not think this analysis works ‘all the way down’. For one thing, it ignores local and slow food movements, fair trade movements, worker cooperatives, local currencies, and even broader-based political movements like the gun-control and pro-life movements as manifestations of communitarian sentiment, organisation and action – foregoing certain personal liberties in pursuit of some shared good. It ignores the appeal of artists like Bruce Springsteen who have always entreated broadly through their music to communitarian, ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ ideals. It also ignores the role of legal action and outright violence in preventing, for example, a ‘muscular class-based politics’ from nucleating – the entire role of Pinkerton and the various National Guards collaborating with the robber barons in crushing various manifestations of the labour movement in the US. Now, it is likely that all of the above efforts at creating constraints on market liberalism have been fighting losing battles, but that the battles have been fought at all is itself a fact which deserves attention.

This is disappointing to me for the precise reason that Dr Crane, who is usually so astute about critiquing similar culturally essentialist and determinist characterisations when it comes to China, is nonetheless making just such a culturally essentialist and determinist argument here: ‘culturally and politically, Americans are just too averse to identifying themselves in broad social groups’, full stop. It’s ‘fundamental’. Don’t get me wrong – I think he is right that we are an individualist culture under a liberal government hostile to authentic expressions of communitarianism; however, the way he frames the argument is to render the individualism in American culture a non-negotiable vis-à-vis Confucianism and apostolic Christianity. He argues against the model of China as authoritarian cultural monolith impervious to criticism or change, but then erects a model of America as liberal cultural monolith impervious to criticism or change.

In short, for Dr Crane, only one option is left for Confucianism, regardless of place (and, by extension, for those forms of apostolic Christianity): assimilation to the invulnerable liberal order.

This makes Dr Crane’s hermeneutic of Confucian texts incredibly problematic. On one hand, Dr Crane is primarily concerned with this question: how can Confucianism be made to appeal directly to a certain set of American a priori liberal political and cultural preconceptions (for example, democracy)? He buttresses the validity of this question merely by asserting that the Confucianism of Song China is not the same as the Confucianism of pre-Qin China – thus, why should we expect the Confucianism of today to bear any resemblance to either?

It is troubling to me that Dr Crane denies that there exists any meaningful sort of hermeneutic of continuity in the Confucian tradition which needs be respected, that there is some central character to the Confucian philosophical tradition which is retained between Qin and Han, Tang and Song, Qing and modernity. Troubling too, is that he sees Confucian texts as useful only insofar as they do not challenge the (American) reader in her sociopolitical context. Again, to describe is to prescribe. He observes that ‘communitarian’ apostolic Christianity has fallen in numbers in comparison with fundamentalist (see above) denominations which cater to personal preference. And he notes that genuine socialism has never had the (presumably numerical) ‘backing’ in the US that left-liberal progressivism has. By framing the problem thus, he makes an implicit argument that the first-order problem Confucianism faces in America is getting more followers.

Put bluntly, this was not Mencius’s own first-order concern.




James Legge translation:

King Hui of Liang said, ‘Small as my virtue is, in the government of my kingdom, I do indeed exert my mind to the utmost. If the year be bad on the inside of the river, I remove as many of the people as I can to the east of the river, and convey grain to the country in the inside. When the year is bad on the east of the river, I act on the same plan. On examining the government of the neighboring kingdoms, I do not find that there is any prince who exerts his mind as I do. And yet the people of the neighboring kingdoms do not decrease, nor do my people increase. How is this?’

Mencius replied, ‘Your majesty is fond of war - let me take an illustration from war. The soldiers move forward to the sound of the drums; and after their weapons have been crossed, on one side they throw away their coats of mail, trail their arms behind them, and run. Some run a hundred paces and stop; some run fifty paces and stop. What would you think if those who run fifty paces were to laugh at those who run a hundred paces?’

The king said, ‘They should not do so. Though they did not run a hundred paces, yet they also ran away.’

‘Since your Majesty knows this,’ replied Mencius, ‘you need not hope that your people will become more numerous than those of the neighboring kingdoms. If the seasons of husbandry be not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten. If close nets are not allowed to enter the pools and ponds, the fishes and turtles will be more than can be consumed. If the axes and bills enter the hills and forests only at the proper time, the wood will be more than can be used. When the grain and fish and turtles are more than can be eaten, and there is more wood than can be used, this enables the people to nourish their living and mourn for their dead, without any feeling against any. This condition, in which the people nourish their living and bury their dead without any feeling against any, is the first step of royal government.’
In other words, Mencius does not take popularity to be the primary concern of his philosophical teachings, but rather responsible conduct and the imposition of limits on desire in the interests of a humane social order. This is at odds with the implications of the current practice of liberal democracy generally, and particularly with the practice of liberal democracy in the United States, which punishes statesmen for comporting themselves in a way which is responsible for the entire body politic (as opposed to in the interests of their respective parties and special interest groups), and which particularly punishes statesmen for articulating any limit on desire, whether their own or of their constituency. Any doubts on this score should be settled by an examination of the electoral fate of Jimmy Carter in the wake of his infamous ‘malaise’ speech calling for more responsible use of oil and energy resources, which more than any other artefact of American statesmanship in the past half century was Mencian in character.

More generally, though, market and political liberalism have between them been responsible for erecting the model of Homo oeconomicus as the central normative presumption in American public life and policy-making: an actor whose sole trustworthy motivation is the calculation and pursuit of his own utility, his own profit (in Classical Chinese, 利 li).

Again, Mencius would not approve of this ‘basic liberal presumption’. This comes from the very opening chapter of the Mencius:
孟子對曰:「王何必曰利?亦有仁義而已矣。王曰『何以利吾國』?大夫曰『何以利吾家』?士庶人曰『何以利吾身』?上下交征利而國危矣。萬乘之國弒其君者, 必千乘之家;千乘之國弒其君者,必百乘之家。萬取千焉,千取百焉,不為不多矣。苟為後義而先利,不奪不饜。未有仁而遺其親者也,未有義而後其君者也。王亦 曰仁義而已矣,何必曰利?」

James Legge translation:

Mencius replied, ‘Why must your Majesty use that word, “profit”? What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics. If your Majesty say, “What is to be done to profit my kingdom?” the great officers will say, “What is to be done to profit our families?” and the inferior officers and the common people will say, “What is to be done to profit our persons?” Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit the one from the other, and the kingdom will be endangered. In the kingdom of ten thousand chariots, the murderer of his sovereign shall be the chief of a family of a thousand chariots. In the kingdom of a thousand chariots, the murderer of his prince shall be the chief of a family of a hundred chariots. To have a thousand in ten thousand, and a hundred in a thousand, cannot be said not to be a large allotment, but if righteousness be put last, and profit be put first, they will not be satisfied without snatching all. There never has been a benevolent man who neglected his parents. There never has been a righteous man who made his sovereign an after consideration. Let your Majesty also say, “Benevolence and righteousness, and let these be your only themes.” Why must you use that word – “profit”?’
I don’t think Dr Crane is necessarily arguing in bad faith, much the same way I don’t think the people who run the various Confucius Institutes throughout Western academia are necessarily operating in bad faith. He obviously sees a great deal of worth in the Confucian texts, and it is clear he believes that American society can learn from them (though precisely what they are supposed to learn is not always clear). But neither can Ms Black’s admonition be ignored that assimilated faith, the only faith that liberalism can countenance – whether Judaism or Islam or Christianity or Buddhism or Confucianism – is a faith which is ‘disembodied, individualistic, apolitical’ and above all, silent. Public expressions of a faith assimilated to liberalism are ‘acceptable only inasmuch as [they make] no difference in one’s words or behavior’. Confucianism cannot be ‘consonant with liberalism’; what is demanded from Crane’s accommodation is silence and deference.

This is made abundantly clear in Dr Crane’s most recent post, on how elderly folk are now being asked to take care of each other, rather than having their families take care of them. He notes that even a modified modern modicum of Confucianism has become something close to an impossibility in the modern economy. Competitive materialism has reduced the young to competition and uncertainty, and has left the elderly to fend for themselves. And what does Dr Crane suggest is the lesson from all this?
I in no way intend to demean contemporary Chinese experience. Rather, my purpose here is to suggest that the Chinese past is not the Chinese present, and that the Chinese present is becoming more similar to the American present than to the Chinese past.

I have on-going discussions with various friends and acquaintances on the extent to which we might be able to understand China as a “Confucian society.” I think it is not. And the transformation of elder care is, I believe, a prime indicator that it is not. There may be conscientious individual Confucians (i.e. persons who really do fulfill something close to a Confucian morality in their personal lives) in China now but, for most, the competitive materialism of capital-eque society and economy and culture make Confucianism an anachronistic shadow of a lost time.
That is to say, the basic commitments of any Confucianism worthy of the name have been compromised, not only in ‘authoritarian’ China but also in ‘liberal’ Japan, among other places. They have been made impossible, as the basic commitments of all other pre-modern conservatisms have been made impossible, by the dynamics of modern social space, which are a function of the ‘race to the bottom’ and the unbridled worship of profit which liberalism has effectively enthroned. Thus compromised, Confucianism is left as a curious obsolescence with no credibility to critique from the basis of its own native moral orientation the ideology to which it has always needed to assimilate, and which has destroyed it. What is left when it ‘assimilates’ to liberal modernity in the way Dr Crane prescribes is nothing but a series of pseudo-Confucian ‘Confucius-say’ platitudes and pieties, which liberals can then easily dismiss as so much anachronistic hypocrisy when noting as the good professor himself does the impossibility of Confucian virtue being lived out.

Confucianism has thus been effectively ‘harmonised’ out of existence by the soft coercion of globalist economics. And Dr Crane’s punchline (whether he meant it so or not) is TINA, and ‘all hail the conquering market’.

However, I do not think Dr Crane has exhausted all the options. Apostolic Christianity retains the Benedictine option, and (as Ms Black begins to sketch out) our theology allows us to rearticulate the real public space and time provided by churches in the language of alternate citizenship and ambassadorial functions.

Confucianism is a trickier case – Confucianism having been traditionally and stridently opposed to monastic life (whether of the Daoist or the Buddhist variety), the Benedictine option is not really open to it in any obvious way. Confucianism is also a diffused religion, which does not have its own sacral institutional spaces but is acted out entirely in the ‘public sphere’: family, community and state are sacralised by Confucianism. Thus, there exists a stronger conflict between Confucian norms and liberal ones. Liberalism in the West merely ‘polices the secular’ and shunts the realm of religion into its own ‘private’ spaces (the church and the home). However, because Confucianism sacralises the public realm itself, it contends more directly than apostolic Christianity for virtue in the public sphere, and liberalism must displace it entirely from ‘the secular’. Unfortunately, in the encounter with Western liberal ideas, Confucian intellectuals were caught flat-footed and off-guard without their own language to articulate what was happening to their tradition, and the tradition all but dissolved entirely (partly under the weight of the ‘is Confucianism a religion?’ debate in the decades before and after the catastrophe of Xinhai). The task facing political expressions of Confucianism now, in articulating a politics of resistance to capitalism and modernity, is thus more Herculean even than that facing apostolic Christianity.

However, Confucianism has a long tradition of dissent from corrupt governments to draw upon, but at the same time its position as moral authority in society has never been challenged to the same extent as it has been since 1911. In periods where government was corrupt and the social fabric was damaged in the extreme, many Confucians felt the dialectic pull of the hermitage – amply supported in the Analects as an option against a government (and, one presumes, a society) which will not follow ‘the Way’. Here there may be an alternative meeting with Daoist ideals. One among numerous examples of such Confucians was the great Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu. The question is, can such an ethic of hermitage and withdrawal be the basis for an engaging counterculture, an alternate ordering of space which makes living virtuously along Confucian lines possible? In other words, is there space for a post-liberal Confucianism? This may end up being the question for those who would keep Confucianism intact with its radical teeth.