28 September 2013

Dude, Patriarch Kirill completely slays! He even has a Viking beard!

You seriously don’t want to mess with this guy. He knows his Augustine.

The Russian Orthodox Church might get as bad a rep (if not worse) in the secular West than the Catholic Church did under Benedict XVI. It’s certainly as badly misunderstood. The media of the West settled on the figure of Patriarch Kirill only after his statements about Pussy Riot, and then only to descend into uninformed and bigoted histrionics like these about how corrupt the Orthodox Church was (with as much attention lavished on Patriarch Kirill’s left wrist as on Pope Benedict’s ankles) and how it served only as a doormat for Putin. But viewing Patriarch Kirill in this way is simplistic and wrong-headed in the extreme. I had been only vaguely aware of how Kirill was breaking open dialogues between Russia and Georgia and with Syria back in 2011, but I didn’t know he was gaining a reputation as an aggressive peacemaker.

His resume along those lines is quite impressive. He has been very active in the Middle East and in the Balkans at their most dangerous, making visits as an Archbishop to the Levant and to Yugoslavia (also here) as a mediator. Just as his predecessor Patriarch Alexiy II had done, he has expressed repeated concern for the Christians of the Middle East, and more recently has entreated President Obama to back off of his sabre-rattling in Syria. He has also been active in the World Council of Churches and in correspondence with Benedict XVI (with whom he had a warm relationship), and was instrumental in drafting the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in many important ways brought Russian Orthodox social teaching closely into alignment with the Catholic.

But he hasn’t been unwilling to criticise Russia’s economy or its internal policies at all! Take a look at what he said on Interfax-Religion.ru:
‘Современная экономика построена в значительной степени на очковтирательстве, создании денег из воздуха. [Деньги - это] эквивалент человеческого труда и ценностей, которые Бог дал нам, таких как уголь, руда, нефть, наш интеллект, физический труд, культурный и духовный. [Однако сегодня] каждое предприятие выпускает свои собственные деньги в виде акций, которые, поступая на вторичный рынок, превращаются просто в не понятные никому ценные бумаги, которыми можно торговать и спекулировать. Если на этих фантиках зарабатываются миллиарды, не подкрепленные ни трудом, ни реальным капиталом, то как такая экономика может существовать? Вот и расплачивается сегодня простой труженик, который ценности производит, за весь этот мыльный пузырь! [Нам необходино] справедливой экономической системы, чтобы деньги и капитал являлись эквивалентом и выражением реального труда.’

‘The modern economy is built largely on fraud, creating money out of thin air. [Money is] equivalent to human work and the riches God has given us: namely coal, ore, oil, our intellect, our physical labour, our culture and our spirituality. [But today,] every company produces its own money in the form of shares, which in the secondary market, rather than acting as simple securities, are used as items of trade and speculation. If these spectres earn billions, not being backed by real labour or capital, how can such an economy exist? And what becomes of the simple worker, who produces the value behind this entire bubble! [We need] a fair economic system, where money and capital are equivalent and are the expression of real work.’
And not only that! Take a look at what he said ten years ago, highlighting both the responsibilities of the individual and of the state in light of the teachings of the Church, as well as taking a shot at the Russian government and lawmakers (and he even made my inner existential personalist squeal with glee by quoting Nikolai Berdyaev!):
Any person on the street whom you ask about the reasons for the public confusion in the country, will point first to economic problems. Indeed, the material component largely determines the social, cultural and even partly the spiritual dimensions of human life. It is clear that poverty provokes vice. A system which unfairly distributes material goods, which are accumulated as a result of the labour of society’s members, can also create social and political tensions, and thereby provoke vice in both public and private life.

Thus, the region’s economy is not merely to be considered in terms of material interests. The outstanding Russian philosopher N. A. Berdyaev outlined both projections of economic relations in the sphere of our lives in this way: ‘Bread for me is a material question. Bread for my neighbour is a spiritual one.’

[ … ]

The modern value-system, which encourages people to apply greater efforts to the continuous improvement of private material consumption, is sinful and depraved. The Church reminds people that economic activity can be justified morally and religiously only if the person is working not only for themselves and for their loved ones, but also to help the needy. This motive for working may be called the spiritual dimension of the economy. The Church encourages people to work effectively for maximum return such that the surplus may be transferred to those who are unable to earn a living, or whose labour for public benefit ought to produce no material gain. The ethics of Orthodoxy postulates a very important principle: the economy must be efficacious and fair.

[ … ]

How is it possible today to transition into morally justifiable and efficacious economic relations? Education should play an enormous role in this process. Our Church’s participation in the learning process will help equip children with the high ideals of the Orthodox work ethic. One of the goals of teaching the ‘Bases of Orthodox Culture and Ethics’ is to familiarise students with the moral norms of Orthodoxy, which embrace not only the rules of private and family life, but also are able to develop a moral approach to participation in public life, including politics and economics.

Charity plays an important role in the redistribution of surplus wealth. From the history of pre-Revolutionary Russia, we see the importance of the place occupied by charitable organisations in the public life of the country. However, it must be recognised that to achieve an equitable redistribution of wealth to support the poor, to provide programmes in the public interest, to requite those whose activities do not produce economic value, through charity alone is impossible. Here, a special role belongs to the state. The state should assume responsibility for a just distribution of the fruits of labour – which is to say, for the realisation of the spiritual dimension of the economy.

Taxation and fiscal policies take a special place in this process, which is designed to redistribute public goods for the benefit of the weak, and to support institutions which are required for a normal existence in society. Therefore, the upbuilding of such policies is an obligation which is not only economic, but moral and even religious. By developing fair and effective legislation, state officials are performing a godly duty, and their actions have an obvious spiritual dimension.

The Church calls upon her children to abide by the law, but it cannot be denied that compliance in good faith with all the laws, regulations and administrative statutes drives the entrepreneur to the brink of ruin. The Church reminds legislators that their duty is to create a system of laws which do not impose upon the people ‘heavy burdens, hard to bear’. But until then, a man cannot create surplus wealth without breaking the laws on the books.

But if the current legal code pushes even the most decent of people to cheat the state, is it even possible to call the prevailing economic system in Russia moral? The situation does not help Russian entrepreneurs to form concepts of business and economic ethics. If the situation remains unchanged, in five or ten years it will be difficult to find an entrepreneur who wants to do business openly and honestly!

[ … ]

We need to remember that, from the religious point-of-view, the sole legitimate owner of all earthly blessings is God, who is Creator of the world, and we only temporarily make use of them. We should not forget that, since God has given us these blessings, He can take them away from ‘he who lays up treasure for himself, but is not rich towards God’.
This is real heavy theology. Patriarch Kirill is not only critiquing the mainline of Russian business practice and public policy together, and defending Russia’s small businessmen (it’s notable that he uses the word людей in the original, with all its populist shades of meaning) with more than a bit of Chestertonian flair. He obviously has no objection either to non-exploitative business practices, or to government which understands its obligations to enforce justice. But he’s no worshipper of state power, as the latter part makes clear, and he’s certainly no ally to the Yeltsinist Russian right (SPS, Yabloko and so forth)! And as with his close collaborator Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, his perceived support of Putin aside, he holds economic views considerably to the left of the President – particularly with regard to his support for progressive taxation and fiscal policy. And that last part? It’s pure, sweet, unadulterated Saint Augustine, with all its native radicalism intact.

We need to start paying attention to this guy – and certainly to more of him than just his left wrist!

26 September 2013

Why are we surprised?

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has merely articulated the position that Iran’s government has held for a very long time. Our government and news media have done the people of America a grave disservice by pretending otherwise, that the views of Ahmedinejad on the Holocaust, on the Jews and on Israel were the position of the entire Iranian government or people. Even within Iran, Mir-Hossein Mousavi condemned Ahmedinejad’s statements about the Holocaust. The Iranian government had not denied the Holocaust before Ahmedinejad, and the surprise that it is not doing so after Ahmedinejad is either ignorant or in bad faith.

Remember that the Iranian Jews have reserved permanent representation in the Majlis – alongside the Christian Armenians and Assyrians who have lived there for millennia. By and large, Iran is a country whose Jews do not want to leave, in spite of the repeat attempts on the part of the Israeli government to resettle them. Iran still preserves the burial sites of Esther, her kinsman Mordechai, the prophet Daniel and Ezra the Scribe – holy to both Jews and Christians (or rather, the Christians of the region who know and care about them). Neither Iran’s Jews nor Iran’s Christians want any war to ‘liberate’ them, since any such war would have disastrous consequences for them in particular, of the very same sort as we have witnessed arising from Western meddling in the homes of other ancient Christian communities, Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the oldest Christian nation on the face of the Earth, Armenia, shares a deep and long cultural affiliation with Iran, and wholeheartedly supports the efforts of that government to pursue peaceful applications of nuclear power.

Iran, being the primary route of the Silk Road, has been for millennia the crossroads of cultures, and the loom upon which the warp of the East has met the woof of the West. From these threads was created a beautiful tapestry which has enriched and inspired civilisations on either side for almost as long as human civilisation has existed.

The Iranian Zoroaster was among the first prophets, along with Abraham and Zhou Gong Dan, to articulate 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. Zoroastrian magi were the tutors of Pythagoras, and through Pythagoras Socrates, Plato and the entirety of classical virtue-ethics. Zoroastrianism also spread east along the Silk Road and went on to inform parts of Chinese Buddhist and Daoist philosophy. The Zoroastrian ethics of sacral kingship motivated by a preferential option for the poor managed to transfigure the raw libido dominandi of early Islam into a faith with not only a deep respect for scholarship but also a radical social dimension – including the ‘Red Shi’ism’ of Dr Ali Shariati.

What we are seeing now in President Hassan Rouhani and the ‘charm offensive’ is a confluence of these strains, which have been so long obscured from the Western public consciousness – both by the Iranian regime’s own extremism and by the attempts going all the way back to the ‘50’s by American hegemony to exclude and isolate the country from international discourse. Hard though the Grey Lady tries, there is no real distinction to be drawn between the Rouhani who didn’t shake Obama’s hand and who spoke up on behalf of Palestinians and against the American imperium, and the Rouhani who decried Nazi crimes against humanity on American television.

We should welcome Rouhani. And with that welcome we ought to take the opportunity to re-evaluate our stance on Iran more generally. It would be, quite frankly, uncivilised of us to do otherwise.

23 September 2013

Pointless video post - ‘Beneath a Veil of Crying Souls’ by Tad Morose

Yes! It’s finally here! The whole song! It’s been ten years since they released their last album, Modus Vivendi, but now they’re back with more mindblowing melodic thrashpower with extra power to spare! Okay, yes, I am nerding out here. But this is Tad Morose here, one of the greatest groups of unsung (at least in the US) geniuses in heavy metal! The new vocalist, Ronny Hamlin, has some big shoes to fill since Urban Breed left the band, but his Dio-esque hard rock wailing fits Tad Morose’s musical phrasing perfectly. And all the raw energy and thick bass-drums groove we came to expect from their previous albums is here in spades on this song - they were most definitely not slacking off this past decade!

20 September 2013

Do yourself a big, big favour

Please, gentle reader. Don’t go to the New York Times, with their misleading headlines and watered-down excerpts, served up expressly for an audience with a notoriously narrow hearing range. Please go to America magazine and read the entirety of their interview, ‘A Big Heart Open to God’, with Pope Francis. It is deep, wide-ranging and - most importantly - gracious and intellectually beautiful, and it shows us that, though the Roman Church had lost in the former Holy Father Benedict XVI a man of sterling intellect and analytic acuity, they have also gained an intelligence which, though it works in a very different style, is hardly inferior. And it absolutely tickled me pink as an expat and Chinese history geek that he mentioned the Chinese rites controversy within the Society of Jesus (over whether or not, essentially, Confucianism was a religion) - perhaps the task of exploring that anti-capitalist and alter-political common ground between Confucianism and Catholic social teaching hinted at by Han Thomas Hong-soon is not as far off as I had thought, at all!

It is disheartening to me, incredibly so, to see that, just as most American news media just don’t get it when it comes to religion generally, the New York Times just doesn’t get it when it comes to Catholicism. The central message of Pope Francis - which is one that Jesus has already saved us, and that the job of the Church is to follow his example, to actively go out and seek out that salvation in every person, and to cultivate it even in the midst of great uncertainty - appears lost on the Times, which engages in a textbook case of projection when it obsesses pruriently over Pope Francis’ stance on sexual ethics. On which topic, by the way, as he makes clear in the interview, he is simply following the Catechism and does not diverge from the Church of which he is head at all. But the Times sees a Papal praxis whose essence approaches grace, and - failing to understand that it is the orthodoxy of the Church which inspires and informs that praxis - attempts to squash it into the indifferent and static mould of ‘tolerance’.

The fact remains, though: this Pope is bringing a fresh breath to Catholicism, the same way (to me) first Kierkegaard, and then Lewis and Chesterton brought a fresh breath to my faith in Christianity. He is living an adventure that is orthodoxy; to him, the Papacy is something dynamic and challenging. To him, God is all promise, and that promise is there for all people, where they are.

God bless Pope Francis! May his reign be long and fruitful, and may there be many more like him.

19 September 2013

Are we NIMBYs?

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall

This past weekend, after finishing up my college exams I decided to help my best mate here in Baotou, R—, and his wife move into their new apartment. This apartment is located in Binhe, a brand-new development on the outskirts of Baotou, in the middle of what used to be farmland; their complex is a collection of 25-storey high-rises each made up of 2-storey units, the exterior in the usual Brutalist style of so much of modern Chinese architecture, albeit painted in a glaring Fauvist palette. The gardens are as yet incomplete, yet they look as though they will finally be a heavily-manicured affair, dotted with concrete-and-glass modernist sculpture, fountains and waterfalls and carefully-trimmed flowerbeds. My friend asked me if I would like to get in on the development, as there were still a few units up for sale; I politely but definitively demurred.

They needed help putting in the flooring, and since the staircase in their unit hadn’t been installed yet, the labour involved shovelling the sand which was to go under the tiling, and tossing it up onto the second-floor balcony. This was heavy work, and we required a large number of breaks, during which I would look out the window. My mate’s wife pointed out the view, which was indeed impressive, of the Yellow River, which could be seen in the distance from where we were once the sun had burnt away the morning smog. But my eyes always drifted down toward where Binhe was still being constructed. Not all of the new developments were in the ‘traditional’ Brutalist style so typical of post-Mao China – indeed, quite a few of them were clearly more upscale, imitating colonial American architecture with large windows, balconies and square fronts with columns, though the bright blue roofs were scalloped and sloped in a style clearly meant to recall more traditionalist Chinese architecture. Clearly, though, the residents of these new developments were quite a few cuts above a mere English teacher’s paygrade (quite generous though that is in Baotou).

Then, looking off across the street from that, were a collection of one-storey houses, flat-roofed, some aligned in a siheyuan style and others standing singly. Obviously the inhabitants were not wealthy, but they looked as though they had been very recently disturbed. Debris and piles of loose dirt were scattered about the unpaved streets and driveways, though there were several brand-new signs for restaurants and small shops.

R— asked me what I thought of the new apartment and development. I remember I hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before replying, ‘If this development were in the United States, I would have some serious moral objections to it. For example, those folks out there—’ I said, pointing to the old houses across the street, ‘what do they do?’

‘Well, they used to be farmers, I think. But they ended up selling this land to the Binhe developers. Nowadays I think they work elsewhere, here in construction or else they’re opening up shops.’

‘So how do you think they regard these new developments?’

‘Well, they probably aren’t too happy about it,’ R— said, ‘but ultimately Binhe is going to house a whole lot more people, offer a lot more jobs for them, develop the local economy. So it seems that these sorts of objections are really not that far removed from NIMBYism, the old rich people who complain about how the new developments are spoiling the view from their backyard and so on.’

So that got me thinking quite a bit. I remember I half-defended my position by saying that we merely needed a more holistic way of figuring out which developments were valuable and conducive to human flourishing, and which were not – and I remember R— responding with scepticism to my idea that smallholder farming like that the former owners of the land on which Binhe did was more intrinsically valuable than these urban residential developments. It made me wonder if and how those of us who post at Solidarity Hall – people who do, presumably, value the small, the local, the organic, the productive and the communal over the large, the artificially-cosmopolitan, the isolating, the merely consumer-oriented and the reductively individual – can be easily distinguished from NIMBYs, the sort of people who insist merely that development be ‘not in my backyard’. And then it struck me that perhaps in framing the question in that way I had already hit upon a partial answer.

NIMBYism, at least in the way I understand the term from my time in studying international development, tends to be individualistic and economistic in its logic – the reason they object to new developments tends to be not out of a sense of communal duty but rather out of a sense that they personally would stand to lose something from the new development, and would not oppose that development if it were located somewhere where it did not inconvenience them personally. This is probably not the sort of mentality we want to encourage; in spite of our localism, we still do place a high value on localities which are not our own. At the same time, NIMBYism raises the question of what is objectively valuable in a way which is seldom if ever made clear by the interests of developers.

My mother’s side of the family comes from Vermont – has been there since the early 1800’s when the Doanes moved up from Massachusetts, pretty much farming the same piece of land for six generations. The land is such that it works best for dairy farming and maple sugaring. However, there are worries that climactic changes have made maple sugaring in northern Vermont much less profitable, and current US corporate farm policy makes being a small farmer much, much harder than being a large one. The pressure is greater than ever for farmers to throw in the towel and sell their land to make way so that developers can ‘grow’, as folk singer John Gorka put it, ‘houses in the fields’. I’m speaking largely as an outsider, of course – I visited the farm with my family every summer, and more-than-occasionally (but not much more) worked stacking bales of hay or canning syrup. But I observe and lament, as my parents observe and lament, the loss of an entire culture, an entire way of life, with which I am intimately connected through familiarity with place and through the stories I hear from my mother and grandfather. In the developers’ view (and in the government’s), the only thing that is seen is the cost-benefit analysis, and particularly the benefit side of what they are doing. At the same time, something real and objectively worthwhile falls between the cracks, and is papered over by such an analysis.

The label of ‘NIMBY’ can be (and sometimes is) a legitimate critique of a self-interested hindrance of a worthwhile project undertaken for the common good, but I suspect that equally as often if not more so, it is a rhetorical bludgeon to be wielded against those who are listening for the intimations of true deprival which accompany the wholly-private development which occurs and justifies itself beneath the banner of Progress. And when those who are being so deprived are, like all too many landless farmers and migrant labourers in the country I currently call home, without a political voice in a system which regards them as mere instruments to be used and tossed aside, the label of ‘NIMBY’ becomes something very close to an obscenity. The people being so deprived have no backyards left, if indeed they are left with anything permanent at all.

During our conversation, R— made a good and well-taken point that most of Baotou has been built on what was originally agricultural-use land, as state-led developments which deprived people every bit as much as Binhe is doing now. And that it was done for largely political purposes as an industrial centre and as a cultural beachhead against Soviet influence. I acknowledge the irreversibility and indeed desirability of so much such development – I’m not in the slightest for returning Baotou to what it was when the general Lü Bu of Three Kingdoms infamy lived here – but I simply cannot buy the logic that sins of the past, no matter their benefits, should be allowed to shape in perpetuity our demands for more, all in the name of Progress. Many adherents of the ideology of Progress, liberal and conservative alike, would ask where the line is to be drawn – where development becomes an evil to be resisted – as though the uncertainty and implicit arbitrariness of such a line was enough to argue against one being drawn at all.

But as GK Chesterton once remarked, ‘art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere’.

18 September 2013

Back from the edge of the abyss, but still tottering

The indefatigable Drew Bowling taking on American foreign policy at length on Catholic Vote is very much worth a read. Please do give it more than a few minutes of your time; he may wax a bit caustic at points, but his position is well-argued and eminently reasonable. And he is ultimately right: our current Administration confuses telegraphed threats of attack which it does not have the political capital or the support to back up with a show of strength. And the President’s loyal cadres lining up to heap praise upon his wisdom in preventing a war notwithstanding, if very few Americans were fooled by the display, imagine how incredulous a foreign observer must be now watching this from afar!

Please do read the entire thing. Believe me, it is well worth your time!

12 September 2013

Pointless video post – ‘Chameleon’ by Masters of Metal

Killer thrashpower, and therefore objectively superior music. 2013 has been a good year for thrashpower so far, all things considered - first Tad Morose announces a release date for their new album Revenant, and then, just when I thought Agent Steel would disappear into a multidimensional vortex of litigation and production hell never to be heard from again, they reform as a four-piece called Masters of Metal and produce this gem of an EP, rife with science fiction, aliens and conspiracy theories galore. Everything an Agent Steel fan could want - I love it! (As I remarked to one of my co-workers, they had to have been supremely sure of themselves if they were releasing an EP under such a cheesy name, even if it is derived from their own lyrics on Sceptics Apocalypse!) Do indeed give ‘Chameleon’ a listen, gentle readers: Juan García and Bernie Versailles haven’t lost their touch yet; indeed, they sounds like they’re just getting started!

The difference is obvious

Now that a certain Eastern European president now has a high-visibility op-ed penned in the New York Times, I’m using this post to head off the following question. But even before now, I sometimes got asked this – either implicitly or explicitly – in some form:

‘But Matt! How can you possibly compare our president to theirs? Don’t you know he’s an evil, brutal dictator, who violates his own citizens’ human rights and ignores their cries for Freedom™? Can’t you tell the difference?’

Sure I can. What do you take me for, an utter ignoramus?

Obviously, one of them is the head of an opaque, oligarch-funded political machine, part of a system which structurally disenfranchises third parties, who is supported in many instances by a creepily unreflective and unquestioning cult of personality, who occasionally poses shirtless for the paparazzi, who continues his nation’s history of throwing suspects into gaol indefinitely without trial or legal representation in the name of ‘national security’, who uses his shadowy internal security apparatus to spy on his own citizens, who uses excessive police force to crack down on protests, who may be using the tax system to harass dissidents, who uses the legal system to maintain a chilling and undemocratic culture of secrecy, and who seeks to use his nation’s military might to restore and reassert a past golden era of imperial hegemony.

The other, of course, is Vladimir Putin.

  1. http://www.opensecrets.org/pres08/contrib.php?cid=N00009638
  2. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Political_Reform/Third_Parties_America.html
  3. http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/10/26/a-letter-to-obama-supporters/
  4. http://www.newser.com/story/56768/buff-shirtless-obama-graces-mag-cover.html
  5. http://www.salon.com/2012/09/17/obama_fights_for_indefinite_detention/
  6. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-06-07/the-justice-department-says-nsa-surveillance-is-legal-but-it-wont-tell-you-why
  7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/28/warrantless-electronic-surveillance-obama_n_1924508.html
  8. http://www.juancole.com/2011/11/police-crackdowns-on-ows-coordinated-among-mayors-fbi-dhs.html
  9. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/nov/25/shocking-truth-about-crackdown-occupy
  10. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2013/05/truth-justice-the-american-way/
  11. http://www.factcheck.org/2013/06/irs-probe-so-far-yields-partial-partisan-facts/
  12. http://www.pdcnet.org/ijap/content/ijap_2009_0023_0001_0095_0104
  13. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14650045.2012.749241#.UjHLJX-UP7F

10 September 2013

Five tips for pro-GMO types: how not to sound like a douchebag

Hey you. And you, and you, and you.

Look, I get it. You respect the scientific community and believe them when they say GMOs are harmless. That’s fine. You don’t like the alarmism and the prevalence of bad science and pseudo-scientific arguments in the public sphere on the topic of genetically-modified foods, and you are offended by what you see as the dishonesty of people who argue for greater control over them. More power to you. You don’t like methodologically spurious studies (like the now-infamous Seralini study) which claim to show health risks from GM foods. That’s great – neither do I. There is an intellectually valid and morally supportable case you can make there, even if I don’t happen to agree with it. But – please take this as advice from a friendly critic who also happens to value decent science – here’s a few tips for arguing in ways that make you sound more convincing, and less like a complete and utter douchebag, to people who might otherwise be sympathetic to you (if you care about that sort of thing, that is).
  1. Stop defending Monsanto. That’s really issue number one. Yes, it is true that one can discuss academically the merits of genetic modification of food crops without mentioning Monsanto. And yes, it is true that Monsanto’s competitors, like DuPont, behave in similarly evil ways. But, given that Monsanto controls a good quarter of the global market in proprietary GM seeds (with DuPont controlling yet another fifteen per cent), from a broader empirical and social perspective it’s intellectually dishonest to take faux umbrage when they get name-dropped, and then proceed to run interference for them.

    Monsanto may not be Weyland-Yutani or OCP or LexCorp, but they really are about as close as you can get in our modern world to a megacorporation whose exploitativeness, crassness and evil actually do extend to cartoonish proportions. Their enforcement of their patents and their marketing strategies, which together reduce farmers to dependency on their products every bit as surely as Walmart’s economic strategy reduces its workers and its shoppers to dependency, is evil. They religiously subscribe to the idea of regulatory capture, given the revolving door they enjoy with the FDA. And now they essentially have their own private army. So if you don’t want to be accused of being in league with Monsanto, stop attacking Monsanto’s critics for being critics. Our concerns have logical and empirical grounds.

  2. Stop pretending GM food is some kind of silver bullet for world hunger. Speaking of alarmism, the population-based alarmism of Malthusian greens is far more prevalent, and far more insidious in terms of intellectually- and morally-bankrupt social applications of science, than anything the anti-GMO crowd could drum up (even though, I grant you, the two do tend to overlap somewhat). Long story short, don’t play into the Malthusians’ hands – it makes you look like looneys and ignoramuses.

    Hunger is not caused by food scarcity. This is a matter of empirical fact (see also here and here if for some reason you’re allergic to HuffPo). Hunger is caused by maladministration and systemic distributional inequities, not by technological limitations or by a population bomb.

  3. Stop defending Monsanto. Seriously. As far as systemic distributional inequities go, they and their IP-extremist business model are simply not part of the solution to the problem of world hunger anyway. They’re part of the problem.

  4. More consumer advocacy is better than less. Always. European countries all demand labelling for GMO products. So does China. And that is a perfectly reasonable demand. Claiming that GM labelling is unnecessary because GM has not been proven harmful to health is disingenuous, given the rationales for equivalent labelling legally mandated by the FDA. Even though everything that goes into a food product is (presumably) already harmless to human health, we still legally demand that the producers put a list of ingredients and health facts on the packaging. The same should be done for the genetic origins of the food used in the product, regardless of the health effects or lack thereof.

    What it really all boils down to is this: if you really value scientific advances for the contributions they have made to the breadth and depth of public knowledge, then actively trying to constrain that knowledge doesn’t just make you look like an arsehat, it makes you look uncertain of the correctness of what you claim is a rational belief. Logically speaking, if GM food has all the benefits its boosters claim it does, and if the detractors of GM have no rational ground to stand on with their criticisms, why not proclaim it loudly and boldly, with bright shiny labels for everyone to see? Advocating for keeping consumers in the dark does the pro-GMO position zero favours.

    (For that matter, neither does doing end-runs around the Chinese Centre for Disease Control in order to test new GM foods on Chinese children. If these particular GM advocates really had the conviction they and so many others claim to about the health risks of GM foods, they would go through the requisite IRBs first. Just so y’inz know, this is the reason my wife refuses to buy GM rice – not because of the health risks, but because of the unethical behaviour of the researchers and companies involved.)

  5. For the love of Science, STOP DEFENDING MONSANTO. Full stop. If you are in favour of GMOs, it’s just not necessary, and it’s just not worth it. Rentier capitalist outfits which bend all existing rules and which are textbook examples of public choice theory in action, are never going to benefit your cause in the end, particularly in such a normatively-weighted controversy like this one.

Just something to think about, here. To be clear, I’ve always held forth that those who deny biological evolution are morons. I think the people who deny that climate change is happening are either dishonest or misinformed at best – though I’m not in the same boat overreacting to it that the green Malthusians are. I’m on record as holding that faith-healing cults like Scientology and Falun Dafa are misguided, if not outright scams. I should be in the prime audience, and an easy sell for the pro-GMO crowd.

But I am on the side of looking at appropriately-scaled technologies to boost crop effectiveness and yield, because I think that ultimately greater power should be placed in the hands of the farmer to grow what she pleases and how she pleases, even – nay, especially – if that farmer is a subsistence farmer in the Third World. I don’t have an aversion to technology, and I don’t have an aversion to applications of science in farming – but I do have a strong aversion to corporate bullying, abuse of the patent system and accumulation of legal and financial power in the hands of a select elite few. As long as the pro-GMO position continues to hitch its wagon to corporate hogs, it’s going to have a tough time convincing me to hop on.

07 September 2013

Please pray for Syria

Pope Francis has called for a day of fasting and prayer today, and to ‘let the cry for peace rise up across the Earth’.

For Syria and for the ancient churches of Antioch and Damascus, for Syria’s Alawites and secularists, for all of Syria’s civilian population now currently living in fear of their lives and of their communities, for peace in the Levant and throughout our troubled world, we pray, in the name of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.

05 September 2013

The amazing anti-child education system

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall

I would like to make a couple of disclaimers about the argument I am about to put forward. First, I am not opposed to public education in principle, if by public education one means merely a taxpayer-funded and -supported curriculum and instruction available to all children between the ages of six and eighteen. In fact I wish American public education would be more expansive, and hold as sacrosanct instruction in a wider variety of subject matter conforming to a classical ideal of education: art, music, civics, philosophy and especially religious instruction. Second, I am by no means placing any additional burden upon that beleaguered in-between class of hard-working and caring individuals, public school teachers, who are always (and unfairly, in my opinion) somehow first in the firing line when it comes to blame for ‘low outcomes’. No, indeed, the main problem with American public schooling is located in the system itself and the ends to which it works. The teachers merely work in that system for a pittance – and in my experience open up much-needed spaces for resistance where they can.

It used to be the case in the Western world that education was the prime concern of the Catholic Church, for which the main motivation was the liberation of souls from bondage to sin. Indeed, in the classical reckoning, education (from the Latin educere, ‘to lead out’) was meant to be the liberation of the soul from bondage in the cave of ignorance; so the Church was never working at cross-purposes with the right aims of education when it tutored boys and girls in the seven liberal arts. The end goal was a person, a soul, able to confront as honestly as possible his own sins and shortcomings, and use his abilities for self-reflection to brighten his own corner of the world. The monastic schools and their guiding Scholastic principles, however, were not well-suited to the absolute monarchs who began to arise at the beginning of the 18th century; it was not until the French Revolution that the Church was discredited enough, however, so that the Kings of Prussia could truly begin to sponsor a thoroughgoing modernisation of education (as they did, under Wilhelm von Humboldt) along far different lines.

The desired outcome in the Prussian system was not a well-rounded individual, versed in such ‘impractical’ matters as art and music, but rather one who could focus on a narrow range of ‘practical’, technical problems – mathematic and scientific ones in particular – without thinking too much about their end purposes. The idea was to turn the student into a pliable tool of the limited-liability corporation or the technocratic state. A student would be versed in skills useful to a certain set of military and technological and ‘business’ disciplines, but not so much in matters of religion or philosophy, let alone art or music. Educational ‘reformers’ pounced upon this model and set to work replacing the monastic ideal with this newer, shinier and more autocrat-friendly one – including educational ‘reformers’ in this country, who utterly adored the efficiency and productivity of the newfangled Prussian model of education. But here, the system doing the educating began to be at cross-purposes with the proper ends of education. Reflective human beings were not what the state desired; the state wanted profitable businessmen, productive workers and disciplined, biddable soldiers.

The pathologies of the American system of education are very difficult to comprehend without knowing this historical background. But we have several specific factors which make those pathologies even worse.

The first of these factors is the way we undertake standardised testing. Standardised testing is handled by two large nominally non-profit corporations, ETS and the College Board, which are rightly considered rentiers because they take advantage of an institutional gulf between a compulsory, taxpayer-funded primary- and secondary-level education system, and a string of (mostly) privately-funded higher educational institutions and academies. As a year-long member of the National College Advising Corps at Brown University, I operated exclusively within this gulf at Rogers High School in Newport, and understand just how broad it can be, and how easy it becomes for these testing corporations to take advantage of it. Privately-funded academies are incredibly jealous of reputation, and reputation is built upon name-recognition and exclusivity. Enter the dread SAT. (A great proportion of my time with my students at Rogers was spent on SAT preparation.)

The SAT is in many ways a masterwork of technique-oriented training over education. It trains students in mathematical skills and formal logic, both of which are certainly to the good, but it also promotes unthinking regurgitation. It engages critical thinking only cursorily and only in the most rarefied possible way, in multiple-choice questioning and in essay prompts where form takes immediate precedence over the actual substance of the test-taker’s argument. It does not engage a student’s moral intuitions at all. But it does its job well: it assigns students numbers and ranks in percentile form, to give the façade of objective academic merit so highly desired by private and prestigious American institutions of higher learning and to inculcate the final lesson that what gets rewarded is not moral intuition or critical thinking, but the demonstration of technical skill in the deliberate absence of both, in addition to the tailoring of thought to the test designer’s will. What multinational CEO or executive agency could ask for better?

To their credit, many institutions of higher learning are beginning to drop the SAT as an admissions requirement. However, the test is firmly and lucratively entrenched in the pipeline between secondary and post-secondary education. And with the test come the special prep classes and study guides offered at outrageous prices. Following hard on the heels of these come the ‘advanced placement’ curriculum, meant to stand in for college-level courses. The hallmarks of all of these corporate intrusions into public schooling, however, are an emphasis on rote memorisation and an insistence on tailoring the students’ thought to the form of the test. It is incredibly easy to see how students can lose interest, tune out and become cynical at the entire procedure, which is not in any real sense oriented to their intellectual and spiritual needs… but when students begin to drop out, education experts cast about to blame anyone and everyone else (teachers first, of course), and the solution which comes up most often is, naturally, more standardised testing. With greater frequency. At younger and younger ages. To test the efficacy and productivity of teachers and institutions, not just students. This is essentially a rough sketch of the thinking of the corporatist education ‘reform’ movement, whose face was at one point Michelle Rhee of Washington DC public school infamy.

The second factor is the way our public school systems are funded in the first place – that is to say, by the property taxes of those who live in each district. On the face of it, this may look like a soundly distributist solution to the problem of educational funding. The problems come when one considers the costs associated with funding schools in this way. Where property values are not high – which corresponds almost exactly with lower-class neighbourhoods – schools have lower budgets and fewer resources. Because of the already-centralised way in which outcomes and academic achievements are measured, this leads to an uneven distribution of costs to the ‘underperforming’ schools, which must take on a disproportionate level of state intrusion in the curriculum without receiving any additional funds. Students in ‘underperforming’ schools, which happen to be in poorly-funded districts to begin with, get tested more, yet still learn far less.

The gentle reader may already have noticed the third factor underwriting both the first and second. And that factor is the great American myth of meritocracy: the notion that our state, our public sphere, our educational and business cultures are, uniquely in the world, infallibly oriented to each person getting exactly what he or she deserves, the best getting ahead and the rest getting what they can as they are able. This mythology produces an unhealthy interplay between education and business which works something like this. As education correlates with higher incomes in a culture where wages are stagnating, higher education comes to be seen as the sole marker of personal merit, the only way to ‘get ahead’ in life. More and more people enter institutions of higher learning and earn baccalaureate degrees in order to enter a higher-paying ‘job’ market. Faced with this glut of highly-educated applicants, businesses begin making more and more educational demands upon even their most basic and low-paying positions. This leads baccalaureates, in turn, to seek out ever higher degrees at ever greater cost.

The upshot of this unhealthy interplay is that children entering the job market with a high-school education no longer have a stable or secure economic future. Because of the already astronomical costs associated with higher education in America (now considered a necessity for economic success), working-class families might begin to see having children as a luxury, if not a liability on the meritocratic ladder up. It is all too easy to see how this mythology of meritocracy, combined with the way education interfaces with business, bolsters a Malthusian (or, one might even say Puritanical) logic which sees children as a punishment for poor families and an indication of moral defect. The only people who benefit from such a social set-up are the white middle-class interest groups which promote abortion and birth control.

Certainly children do not benefit. Before they enter school, or after.

Note here that I am not favouring private schools (or half-measures like ‘charter’ schools), which as much as the public education system (if not more so) feed into this mythology of meritocracy which poisons our society against its children. And I am not promoting anything like ‘school vouchers’ (the favoured silver bullet of a certain brand of liberal), which assume unlimited physical mobility on the part of working-class families and ignore completely the roles of propinquity and relationships in education at all levels.

But it would be a start to see some monastic disciplines return to primary and secondary public education. A Scholastic-influenced curriculum more oriented toward engaging the imagination, the creativity and the reflectiveness of the student, without sacrificing good old-fashioned pedagogy. An emphasis on teaching moral and religious values for the upbuilding of students’ characters. A system of funding schools which does not prejudice itself structurally against poor school districts. A much smaller institutional gap between secondary and higher education. An end to the myth that the ‘best’ graduates come from the most exclusive academies.

And more broadly, a freer job market wherein one’s level of formal education need not be the sole arbiter of whether or not one can have a decent living.