29 February 2016

Remembering the God-bearing Abba Cassian the Ascetic


During my trip to China recently, I made an effort to complete my reading of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, as translated by the Anglican nun Sr Benedicta Ward. It was, frankly, a tough read for me – the more so when trying to reflect on and process Patristic sayings, parables and anecdotes which can have a surface-level simplicity but which carry deep truths which are not always apparent at first glance.

One of the few Latin Fathers (along with Abba Arsenius) treated in Sr Benedicta’s alphabetical collection of the Apophthegmata, is the Venerable and God-bearing Father John Cassian, whose feast day we are celebrating today on the twenty-ninth of February. Abba Cassian was born on the Danube Delta in the region of Dacia Pontica (what is now southeastern Romania), to wealthy parents who had him classically-educated in both Greek and Latin. When he was twenty-two, he made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem and there entered a monastery, before being granted permission to accompany his friend and fellow Dacian Abba Germanus to study the monastic life as it was practiced in Egypt and in Syria. He later recounted his experiences there in his famous writing the Institutes of the Cœnobitic Life, and the interviews he and Abba Germanus had with the monks and Fathers of Egypt and Syria were compiled into his Conferences.

Abba Germanus was ordained as a priest and Abba Cassian as a deacon by the Holy Father John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople; they joined his circle of clergy and during his exile from Constantinople pleaded his case both before the elders of Constantinople at the Synod of the Oak, and before Saint Innocent, Pope of Rome. Later, Abba Cassian settled in Massalia (now Marseilles, France) to spread the Eastern monastic life among the Gallo-Romans there, and spent his life teaching, cultivating two monasteries in southern Gaul (one for women and one for men), and writing. Both his humble way of life and his writings on monasticism had an indelible impact, particularly on the Benedictine Rule in the West.

The brief sayings of Abba Cassian in the Apophthegmata reveal two aspects of the monastic life which were important to him: renunciation of one’s desires and renunciation of one’s will. Abba Cassian, though he upheld and endorsed the renunciation of wealth and status common to the monks of the Desert, had no use at all for rigid legalism. His sayings highlight two monks who forewent the usual fasting rule in order to be hospitable to him and Abba Germanus during their interviews; and another Desert Father who lived in a chaste friendship with a holy virgin and showed himself to be pure, even when men whispered about him that he was not. Legalism was, to Abba Cassian, the mark of someone who hadn’t yet fully renounced his will, in the same way the senator who held back some of his own wealth when he entered the desert had not yet renounced his desires and become a monk. Both the aversion to legalism, and the need for taming and renouncing the will, would figure into his later indirect critiques of the excesses of Blessed Augustine.

The Church of the late fourth and early fifth centuries, when Abba Cassian and Blessed Augustine lived, was rocked by a number of different heresies – one of which was that of Pelagius, who infamously taught that human beings could be perfected (and thus saved) without the aid of God’s grace. Pelagius was justly anathematised, but he also caused a number of other Christian writers – Augustine included – to swing far too far the other way: toward an outright denial of human freedom of will, and an overemphasis on the determining power of God in the world and in history, to the detriment of God’s personality. It should hardly need emphasising, that the dangers in this swing to the opposite pole were not merely those of speculation or theological theorising. After all, theory has consequences! As Fr Stephen de Young points out on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, the extreme Augustinian anti-Pelagian position actually caused a crisis in monastic practice – after all, if you are saved or damned based only on a predetermined action of the Holy Ghost on the passive substance of your soul, then why bother with monastic discipline or asceticism? Why renounce one’s will when that will doesn’t exist in the first place? Why renounce one’s desires when doing so will have no effect? Thus, Abba Cassian’s writings in the Conferences were in fact an exhortation and a comfort to the monks and nuns he served, without indulging in the heresies of Pelagius. The Holy Ghost requires the cooperation of the human will, which comes from its renunciation. As Fr Stephen puts it: ‘The Divine Energies are the beginning, end, and basis of salvation, but do not negate, overpower, or snuff out the human.’

Western theological thought had unfortunately progressed so far toward legalism by the 16th century that Abba Cassian’s work could be actively and viciously attacked by the Picardian lawyer Jehan Cauvin and his followers, who saw his work as an affront to the middle works of Blessed Augustine, and accused Holy Father Cassian of ‘semi-Pelagianism’.

It is very fitting, actually, that this year the Feast of Holy Father Cassian comes so soon after the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, because the tale of the Prodigal Son in fact illustrates quite well the subtle distinctions Abba Cassian was trying to make. In fact, Abba Cassian explicitly chooses this particular parable for commentary in his Conferences. When the young son takes his share of his father’s inheritance, leaves for a far country, squanders it in dissolute living and thereupon is compelled to sell himself into servitude to Gentiles in the wake of a famine, he is unaware that what sustains him in his self-imposed exile are the goods that come from his father. But bereft of all those goods, yearning after the pods eaten by the swine he is forced to herd, he came to himself (εις εαυτον ελθων) and realises that even his father’s servants live better than he does in his plight. He resolves to turn back and ask forgiveness of his father, and seeing him at a distance his father runs into the street to welcome him home.

This is not in any way a Pelagian, or even a ‘semi-Pelagian’, parable. There is illustrated here the reach and accessibility of God’s grace – both in the father giving his young son his share of his goods without question, and in his running into the street to greet him on his return. The young son would have died if it had not been for his father’s generosity, and his remembrance of his father’s life that he once enjoyed at home. But neither is it at all a Calvinist parable. The father does not come himself into the far foreign country, into the fields with the swine, and shake his son out of his stupor. Nor does the son stand irrevocably cast out by his father’s actions. Rather, the young son comes to himself: the Greek phrase has a beautiful double layer of meaning, but it does highlight quite clearly that the son has an active role in choosing to turn back, and choosing to ask his father’s forgiveness.

As it stands, not only monks can take comfort from the teachings and the life of Abba Cassian. I find myself broken enough and sinful enough and angry enough, especially these days, that I constantly need that reminder that I can turn back if I choose to, and that God will always be there.

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Father,
For you took up the Cross and followed Christ.
By so doing you taught us to disregard the flesh for it passes away
But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal.
Therefore your spirit, venerable John Cassian, rejoices with the angels.

24 February 2016

The ultimate post-modern candidate

This past week witnessed the much-mourned passing of the great Italian social theorist and novelist Umberto Eco. This passing makes the following analysis all the more poignant, as he would have been among the first to warn of it. He understood as few others do, the preference Americans seem to have for ‘the ultimate fake’, untethered by any grounding in history, to a reality which is either inaccessible, incomplete or damaged. He saw it particularly in Disneyland, but he would have recognised the search for ‘the ultimate fake’ in all too much of our modern consumer culture. A search for meaning that isn’t necessarily available, and is therefore supplanted at a cost by a full-scaled facsimile.

I mention this because I value the real. I want to see a society that has a surer sense of itself, of the best of its own traditions, which holds as valuable the wisdom of its common people – the ones who stay in one place, work, go to Church, marry, have children and generally live ordinary and decent and real lives, perhaps occasionally subject to the ordinary and decent and real vices. I want to see a society that, at the risk of an overwhelming irony that is not lost on me, is not averse to kneeling before its Frodos. I believe many Americans want the same things. But what is frustrating to see is that they are turning instead to something that only bears a resemblance to the real, that is more ‘reality show’ than reality. They are turning to what Eco would no doubt recognise as the ‘ultimate fake’.

Trump does stand for some policies that I think are worthwhile: economic nationalism, foreign-policy realism, a robust immigration policy with sensible limits. He makes some populist noises (mostly unsubstantiated by what I would recognise as a genuine populist politics, but even so) which are of vague interest to me. And – Lord Christ, have mercy upon me, a wretched sinner – I truly enjoy, with unabashed schadenfreude, the way in which he is leading the GOP establishment and the American news media around by the nose. But towering above it all (uh, no pun intended) is the persona which he puts forward for their benefit in particular, and this is what is most troubling about him.

This persona has been deliberately cultivated, over a period of decades, and it is the persona which is both touted as the biggest draw, but which repulses me the most deeply. The major broadcast media are drawn to this persona as moths to a flame – Trump makes a ‘yuuge’ display of his distrust for the media, but he uses them like an expert, and that’s precisely because he is a media expert. And because it takes one to know one, he uses the narcissism of the American journalists and punditry to feed his own. He is entirely a creature of the media – he understands self-promotion as very few others in American life do. He understands perfectly well that his outrageousness gets him free publicity. He understands that contrition and shame are punished in the modern public sphere, and thus he refuses to show any. In a broad field of fake statesmanship, Trump is the true ‘ultimate fake’, in the full Ecoesque sense: Trump’s presence in politics is not as a politician, but as a reality TV star.

The appeal in this is not hard to understand. America’s elite class has failed, hard, on multiple fronts: failed to achieve a decent standard of living for the mass of Americans; failed to deliver functional public services; failed to ensure the security and well-being of the elderly or of the very young; failed not only to improve school outcomes but even to measure them effectively; failed to kick the country’s fossil-fuel habit; failed to keep American interests safe at home or abroad; failed to effectively care for the soldiers they sent abroad to do it; and failed to tell us the full extent of the truth about any of these things when it might have mattered from a democratic standpoint. And they continue to posture as though they still know what’s best for the country. This angers people. It angers me. And I can understand the reasoning: why not vote for someone who has the guts to call out their failures in the way they’ve fully earned, who is willing to tell them ‘you’re fired’ from us? (By the way, to say my sympathy is limited for someone like Ezra Klein, who complains about Trump’s popularity and says he’s dangerous in the field of ‘real live politics’ when Klein himself – and those like him, like Chait, Savage, Pollack, Friedman and Zakaria – in ‘real life’ has the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his liberal-hawk hands and has never been held to account for it, would be an incredible understatement. The political establishment who oversaw the murderous folly of 2003 are precisely the wrong messengers about the dangers of Trump-as-president.)

And yet, Klein has a very salient point to make. Trump seems more ‘real’ to us because in actuality he’s playing the political game by a very different set of rules than what we’re used to from politicians. He seems more understandable to us because we’re familiar with the ‘zero-sum’ logic of Survivor, and we tend to think it’s more ‘honest’. We like the fact that Trump doesn’t care about push-polls, focus groups and campaigning in the traditional sense. Liberals and establishment conservatives like to make fun of the excuse that ‘he says what he’s really thinking’, or else intimate darkly that it represents some racist-sexist-xenophobic undercurrent in American thinking – but that’s not the appeal at all. The character he plays is enjoyable. But at the same time, we fully understand that Survivor is entirely acting. It’s a facsimile. (Pass the popcorn.) Do we understand that Trump’s presidential bid is likewise factitious? The worry for me is that, because it’s being played by a different set of rules, it acquires a self-protective layer of irony. Why shouldn’t we take Trump seriously, even if he’s a fake? The whole system, after all, is fake! It’s better to have a ‘real’ actor as president, so the logic goes, than any of the other bad actors occupying the stage with him.

And yet. I keep coming back to this classical analogy – Kleon was an entertainer too. A highly successful one, at that, if we are to believe Aristotle. And Athens and her political situation suffered immensely when Kleon gained power.

As a nation, we cannot live healthily on the illusions of acting. It is truly tempting, particularly for us Americans with our short history; our ever-clearer dearth of genuine civic traditions; our veneration of celebrity; and our preference for the ‘hyperreal’, to punish the bad acting of the establishment conservatives and establishment liberals alike by lifting a ‘real’ actor into their places. When politics fails to deliver for the common good, both the methodological and teleological bases for that politics are brought into question. This is, not just a, but the post-modern temptation. And this temptation is something to resist. Trump makes for an entertaining campaigner – and why wouldn’t he? He’s the ultimate post-modern candidate. But, as the ultimate post-modern candidate, he won’t make for a good president.

23 February 2016

On Liang, Gurley and the fragmentation of identity politics


The recent conviction of Peter Liang, formerly of the NYPD, in the wrongful shooting of Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, has – unfortunately – provoked a storm of protest. The bare facts of the matter, and the verdict reached, are pretty straightforward: Liang had his gun out when he should not have. His gun discharged when there was no clear present threat. And an unarmed father of two, innocent of any crime, is dead as a result. Liang may not have intended to shoot to kill, and there is no evidence to show that he did. But negligence can still be criminal. Any civilian would be held accountable under the law, when an accidental discharge of his weapon results in a death. Liang deserves the penalty meted out to him for second-degree manslaughter. Moreover, the decision is important as a precedent in convicting on-duty policemen who abuse their authority or behave in an unprofessional way.

But the matter is not left to rest there. Liang is a Chinese-American, and many of his fellows suspect that Liang was convicted, where a white policeman would not have been, simply on account of his foreign heritage. As a result, Chinese-Americans are insisting that Liang has been made a ‘scapegoat’ of the American justice system. They are indeed right to point this out. But it is very wrong to go further and to demand that the verdict – handed down, notably, by another Asian-American judge, Danny K. Chun – be reversed, or for District Attorney Ken Thompson to be thrown out of office. The complaint that because white police officers were not similarly brought to justice on account of wrongful deaths, that Peter Liang should not be either, is not motivated by an interest in impartial justice. Instead, it seems to be an effort to secure for Asians the illusory benefits associated with the ‘model minority myth’, benefits to which black (and working-class white) Americans have never been entitled. Those who want Peter Liang to be let off are not (as they are claiming, even as they use all the available campus-radical buzzwords of structural oppression and microaggression which are the reigning protest fashion) kicking upward at the injustices in the system they are claiming to oppose, but instead downward at wrongful and disproportionately-black deaths-by-cop. Those who are calling to overturn the verdict are not seeking a much-needed reform of the justice system, but instead seeking a special race-based exemption from that system – a legal reinforcement, as it were, of their status as ‘model minority’.

I do actually sympathise far, far more with the Asian-American protesters’ worry that Liang will receive a sentence disproportionate to his crime. There, possibly, the charge that the criminal justice system is ‘scapegoating’ him might have some grounds in reality. But the problem is that these protests – wherein protesters use SJW-speak to white journalists, but turn around and hurl racist epithets in Chinese at black counter-protesters – are playing, whether deliberately or not, into an age-old strategy of racial division which precludes even the concept of a common good. The ends of the fragmentation of identity politics, which is being accelerated by certain elements of culture-and-lifestyle liberalism (and whose language has been eagerly appropriated in this case), never serve justice. And without a concept of the common good, there is no chance of a just verdict or a just sentence being reached.

David Lindsay (whose writing I respect and admire) says occasionally, ‘identity politics (as if there could be any other kind)’, but he also notes that they can and should be appropriated and transcended. Whether the Asian-American community of New York City likes it or not, they have the legacy of the ‘model minority’ behind them, and are now in a good position to use that legacy to show some generosity to and solidarity with the family of the victim, that goes beyond the cheap talk of condolence. These protests – at least, until they can get on a consistent message and behave themselves with courtesy and respect to the bereft – don’t seem to be the way to go about it.

20 February 2016

Two post-Marxist paths


Fr. Sergey Bulgakov

Marxism is a creed which holds the two tenets simultaneously that: the working classes, which have been exploited since the beginning of recorded history, are entitled to justice; and that their ultimate victory is an inevitability dictated by the laws of historical progress. Karl Marx was, of course, an incredibly brilliant man, and it would be futile to deny the fact, as many do, by pointing out after his passing where he has been proven wrong. (And man alive, has he ever been proven wrong.) His thought pointed straight toward the ‘problem of economy’, which the overwhelming majority of his critics fail to grapple with in any kind of seriousness. How is our material world organised? How are its benefits distributed? What processes of form, organisation, action and thought govern the entire economic process? Marx delved with his incredibly astute philosophical mind into these questions, and in the end, tragically mistook what he found there to be the whole of reality. He began with a question of how the worker may at last come into his own and be free, and ended with a triumphalist millennial eschatology which casts all of humanity into the fetters of a materialistic determinism.

It must be remembered that all heresies – and this includes materialistic heresies like Marxism – contain a grain of truth. And Marxism’s grain of truth lay in its unmasking of the hideous realities of exploitation that had been hidden away and smoothed over by arguably five whole centuries of bourgeois sentimentality and false piety. It is well for us not to underestimate the drawing power of this truth; as George Grant (himself no Marxist!) put it, Karl Marx was no crude ideologue or bumbling egghead, but indeed ‘a social theorist of the first rank’, who managed to highlight all the streams which bore along the ideology of progress. But, as with the doctrines of all heresiarchs, no matter how brilliant, ultimately the centre of their thinking cannot hold, and a follower either takes the grain of truth and flees the heresy, or crushes it under the weight of the overbearing one-sided logic of the heresy itself. Thus there are two paths out of the Marxist house, but they are not alike in dignity.

The first post-Marxist path we may call the path of Bulgakov. I do not choose the name of Fr. Sergei Bulgakov at random, as I feel his journey away from Marxism is exemplary of the type I wish to describe. But there are any number of other philosophers, economists, artists, poets and men and women-of-letters who have emerged along this path or along parallel ones: Nikolai Lossky, Nikolai Berdyaev, Dorothy Day, Fei Xiaotong, Jacques Ellul, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alasdair MacIntyre, Christopher Lasch, Gar Alperovitz, Miyazaki Hayao, Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang. This path seeks to preserve the initial question of Marxism, and the drive for justice behind that question. As Fr. Sergei Bulgakov himself put it:
The fact of economy has always aroused philosophical “surprise” in me, and the problem of the philosophy of economy—of man in nature and nature in man—has in fact never left my spiritual horizon but only turned about to show various aspects… And although [Marxist] theory quickly ceased satisfying my consciousness, as the perceptions of childhood cease to satisfy it, yet the questions that it answers in its own way have retained all their force.
It should be noted that this Bulgakovian post-Marxist path still accompanies Marxism through its unveiling of the hidden brutality of bourgeois liberal ideology and capitalist organisation. Fr. Sergei’s critique of Marxism in his Philosophy of Economy applies in spades also to capitalism. But precisely for that reason, those following this path could not be satisfied with the materialist answers proffered by Marxism in the main, or by scientific positivism more generally. It seeks other modes of being; it is not satisfied with levelling all to a bare-minimum of material goods defined in bourgeois terms. It is no accident, indeed, that those following this path tend to end up turning to traditional religions, or to localism, distributism, populism, anarchism or some mixture of all of the above, or else holding to a non-Marxist socialist ideal. Personalism, as opposed to individualism, is a key philosophical commitment in Bulgakovian post-Marxism. Those who follow it tend to be disenchanted with the ‘flattened’ material anthropologies they find in bourgeois thought, and end up seeking an affirmation of the depth of human personhood in community, and particularly those spiritual forms of community that have been attenuated and forced underground by a capitalist mode of exchange. The traditional peasant, with his local, grounded and integral ways of knowing, is not for the Bulgakovian so much an obstacle to be removed as a tutor to be heeded. One sees that the fact and substance of authenticity is of particular interest to the Bulgakovian post-Marxist, much more so than its outward political potential.

The other path out of Marxism I will describe as the path of Popper. Karl Popper, having started off as a member of the SDAPÖ during its formative radical stage, abandoned both it and the Marxist ideology very early on in his youth. But even though he discarded the central question of Marxism, and with it any real interest in the problem of economy, he continued to think with the logic of a Marxist. Even though historicism was (in part rightly) the primary object of Popper’s attack, he nonetheless ascribed a final-and-ultimate historical significance to the ideal of the ‘open society’ – by which is meant: bourgeois individualism, legal formalism and procedural democracy – and dedicated his efforts to the ideological proscription of its ‘tribalist’ enemies (most especially Plato, Hegel and Marx). Popper attacks historicism and yet cannot recognise his own peculiarly-Whiggish variety of it, in the sense that he believes individualism, formalism and democracy are inescapable and inevitable once they begin to develop, and that efforts to reintroduce ‘tribalism’, even on a cultural rather than a political level, are not only inherently immoral but doomed to failure. As such his is a direct antecedent of the ‘end of history’ thesis forwarded (and then walked back) by Francis Fukuyama.

American neoconservatives are thus the archetypal Popperian post-Marxists. They tend to be (ex-)Trotskyists who are drawn toward the globally-expansive logic and form of the ideology, rather than to its existential origins and goals. Neoconservatives in particular take Marxist doctrine and invert it such that the bourgeoisie are the messianic class and the ultimate victors of the inevitable world revolution. I would thus then characterise Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz as Popperians, as well as the ‘respectable’ and ‘decent leftists’ of the school to which Oliver Kamm and David Aaronovitch belong – in whose view the American military-industrial complex is seemingly the last best hope of the world proletariat, and for whom the ‘idiocy of rural life’ is still something to be eradicated. I would also consider ‘democratic’ Trotskyists of the Cliffite variant as being halfway out along Popper’s road.

With Marxism the centre cannot hold. But, from Nikolai Berdyaev’s insight that Marxism is simply a materialist Christian heresy, it follows that there is a way of recovering for Orthodox Christianity that which was good and true in it, but refuse to follow its one-sided logic to its hellish conclusion, in hegemonism and imperialism, and in the denial of the person. I am still very much of the mind that we must keep David Mitrany’s work in mind, tracing the fatal mistakes of the early socialists – yes, even and particularly the early ‘democratic’ socialists – in their hostile, overweening and censorious approach to the traditional peasantry, and thus ensuring their demise at the hands of more totalitarian elements on both the far left and the far right.

18 February 2016

On protest voting


Living in Rhode Island does clarify a few things for me.

Allow me to be perfectly clear up front, though. Rhode Island is a wonderful, beautiful state, small as it is. Old things are valued here, particularly old architecture. There is a marked æsthetic appeal to Benefit Street that warms my Tory heart. There is a strong sense of community particularly among the immigrant populations: the Italians, the Portuguese, the Arabs are all very tight-knit, and even the elder Yankee caste stick strongly to their own in ways which I find admirable. People here are remarkably polite - just today I was called ‘sir’ at the public health clinic where I went to have blood taken. But living in this state very quickly dissolves any notion that your voice matters in the democratic sense. Nothing in Rhode Island is so futile as voting in state or national elections.

Allow me to explain. Because we are so small, and because we are politically so homogeneous, no candidate on the national stage in either party, in their right mind, would bother to campaign here – not even a five-minute stop on the road from New Hampshire to South Carolina. Our state goes with regularity not only to the Democratic candidate, but to the establishment Democratic candidate – and there’s literally nothing I with my vote can do about it, whether by voting for a non-establishment Democrat, by voting for a Republican (even if I were so-inclined, which I’m not) or by voting for a third-party candidate. Even our state primary comes so late in the day that we have exactly zero influence (collectively, as a state) on the outcome of the nomination process.

Which, I suppose, is why the charges from the Clinton machine that votes for Bernie (let alone votes for a third-party candidate) are selfish forms of ‘white, young, privileged’ self-indulgence which will wreck the Democrats’ chances in the general election and therefore ruin the country, rankle me so much. For one thing, the supposed ‘privilege’ of Bernie supporters just simply doesn’t exist. Frankly, the reason so many of us are ‘feeling the Bern’ is precisely because we’re not ‘privileged’, and we’re getting sick of all the SJW doublespeak that Clinton supporters and, for example, Daily Beast contributors try to shove down our throats. But more importantly, the entire thrust of that argument is simply irrelevant to someone living here, where the Democratic establishment practically owns the state – and what’s worse, the Clinton supporters know perfectly well that their candidate has machine backing, and rub it in the faces of those the machine doesn’t benefit anyway.

It should be clear by now that even though I can’t in good conscience support any of the mainstream candidates for the Presidency, I do have my preferences. I’m convinced that on foreign and particularly economic policy, Sanders would be a far, far better president than Clinton – he has certain conservative (or rather, ‘progressive’ in the word’s right sense) instincts about the direction of our society that CS Lewis would have admired. I’m equally convinced, however, that on cultural issues, Sanders would be just as devoted as Clinton is to a Panglossian acceptance of our reigning hedonistic ethic. Trump makes certain realist, protectionist and pro-limits noises in his interviews that I can’t help but agree with – the problem is that he’s a tawdry demagogue whose national-security policies are inimical to human dignity. And to a one, the rest of the Republican candidates for president are such preening, atavistic, tone-deaf head-cases that one hesitates to describe them accurately for fear of being accused of caricature.

There are, to be sure, better and more important forms of civic engagement than voting, which in fact is probably the least important thing one can do. But in this case, from my current political vantage point, the only purpose it can possibly serve is as a form of protest. I’ve toyed with the idea of not voting at all, but that sends the wrong message and unfortunately affirms the quarter-educated politically-minded, of my parents’ generation in particular, in their contempt for my generation in particular. Thus, I’m tending to look toward candidates with populist and radical platforms, who stand to shake up a sclerotic electoral system. I’m highly tempted, as I was tempted in 2012, to cast a ballot for Jill Stein, but there are a number of other interesting minor candidates out there who are just as good (if not in some cases better) on the issues which I tend to care about – reining in our amok foreign policy, reining in Wall Street cupidity and reining in our cultural proclivities to a nominalist and atomist libertarian social ethic. Henry F Hewes, who is running as a Democrat on a paternalistic Peace and Life platform, and Joe Schriner, who is running as an Independent on a radical Catholic platform, are each of particular interest to me – though any of the above will have to be written-in on our state ballot, I believe.

Voting here is therefore only useful as a form of protest. I do hate to sound pessimistic, but the 2016 election is overwhelmingly likely to go to a candidate who will do precious little if anything to curb the long idealistic-militaristic slide of our foreign policy toward the brink of World War III; who will continue to support the Gulf States in despite of their utterly wretched and debauched deportment; who will do nothing to break up the big banks and institute a fairer and more just monetary policy; who will preside over the continuing slow, quiet death of organised labour; and who will do nothing to check the drift of our culture into paralysing, isolating individualism and its attending licentiousness and despair. All I can say is that in any event, the best I can hope to do in the near future is to do better work on-the-ground than I have been doing, both in advocacy and in more mundane ways. It strikes me that bringing my family over and caring for them here, engaging in local action, shoring up the institutions we’ve inherited and rebuilding ones we’ve lost, and attempting to live a reflective life are ultimately more formative in the long run.

13 February 2016

What exactly is wrong with socialism?

In the wake of the recent electoral victory of Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, it has been common to see Christians of an apostolic bent wondering if it is wrong or right to support Bernie Sanders. These conversations (see Micah Conkling here and here, Fr Dwight Longenecker here, Barbara-Marie Drezhlo briefly here, an older piece by Metropolitan Nicholas of Mesogaia here, some of the tangential discussion on George Michalopulos’s post at Monomakhos here) are interesting, in part because they are trying to draw clear distinctions between ‘totalitarian’ and ‘democratic’ socialism, saying that the former is what stands under religious condemnation – whether of Papal pronouncements or of Orthodox social teaching – and that the latter is not only supportable but may even be preferable, from the standpoint of Christian social ethics, to other forms of economic and political organisation. I’m not going to comment on the advisability of an Orthodox Christian in America voting for Bernie Sanders, but I would like to offer a little bit of pushback on perhaps a couple of the directions the political-philosophical discussion is heading.

Let’s take a look first at the common objections to socialism one sees. From the American side, a particularly common (and most particularly common among American Protestants) objection to socialism is the abstract and idealistic political-philosophical stance that all charity ought to be ‘voluntary’, or else it doesn’t count as charity. This is often coupled with an argument that state involvement in programmes which benefit the poor are necessarily coercive (and therefore irredeemably bad), and detract materially from the voluntary exercise of charity. These don’t quite constitute a cogent objection to socialism in the first place – by which a public or communal ownership of the means of production is indicated – but rather to welfarist or progressive forms of taxation. Further, the latter claim is an empirical one, and it does not seem to be true even on its own merits. The countries which are most generous on an individual level (as defined by the World Giving Index) include nations like Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with very high levels of government consumption as a percent of GDP (which implies high national tax rates), and which have historically been marked by relatively robust redistributive transfer payments.

But even looking at the principles we can see these are also flawed. For Orthodox Christians particularly, from the historical point of view, there has been no objection at all by the Church to the idea of progressive and redistributive taxation, neither to their receipt of tax funds for charitable use, which were ‘coercively’ collected by the state. Both in Byzantium (even from the early days of Emperor St Constantine the Great), and even in the decentralised and decidedly less-brutal Kievan Rus’, tax funds were distributed by the government either to the Church to aid the needy, or directly to the poor. This economic setup whereby the state would share its tax funds with the Church was justified largely through the principle of symphoneia, or cooperation between the Church (whose duty was charity) and the state. The modern idea that charity is something which ought to be wholly private and voluntary, is a notion which arises from the highly un-Orthodox view that government and religion ought to be completely separate. Though it is now aimed at ‘socialism’, the logic of this argument is at odds with the historical development of the apostolic, Christian faith.

The second objection to socialism is that it ‘doesn’t work’, and that it is not based on ‘sound economic principles’. The often-unspoken corollary to this, is that capitalism does ‘work’, and that it is based on ‘sound economic principles’. It isn’t really necessary to refute this objection, so much as to question the entire premise. What is an economic system supposed to ‘work’ for? Or rather, for whom is it supposed to ‘work’? Capitalism, particularly in its extreme late form, has delivered massive growth in overall productivity, true – but it has also: consolidated power over finance and capital in the hands of a rootless, cosmopolitan, globalist very-few; accrued most of the growth it is responsible for to the same few; continued to plunder cheap labour and cheap raw materials from underdeveloped countries; undermined the principle of the living wage; subjugated the natural family to the corporation; caused untold ecological damage globally; polluted our politics with lobbying, special interests and ‘soft money’; and brutally destroyed uncooperative polities and actors. If you have no problem with these outcomes (as, indeed, most defenders of capitalism don’t), then sure, capitalism ‘works’. And if you don’t demand of economic principles that they account for these externalities, then it’s very hard to convince you that the principles are ‘unsound’. But even the logic of this particular objection to socialism, that it ‘doesn’t work’, hides two philosophical commitments: the first is to the ethical theory of consequentialism, and the second is to the metaphysical theory of materialism. Those who claim that an economic system ‘doesn’t work’ are judging the means solely on account of the ends by which it can purportedly be held responsible, and these ends are always, always based on a metric of material well-being. Those who object to socialism on this particular ground point specifically to the lack of consumer choice in states with planned economies, or to other metrics corresponding to a lower standard-of-living, defined materialistically.

Which brings me to the third objection to socialism – which is the only objection I happen to share, as it applies even more to capitalism. Socialism is materialistic. It aspires to the same bourgeois ideals of material comfort and goods that capitalism does, with the exception that it seeks to spread them out through public ownership across a broader swathe of people. As with capitalism, it doesn’t object to environmental devastation per se; nor is it capable of a critique of growth-at-all-costs. As with capitalism, it doesn’t object to agricultural monocultures, to mass extraction or to modernist architecture. It actively cheers the capitalist-led death of traditional life-ways at the hands of the urban market, particularly those associated with rural people and communities, as well as those associated with the natural family.

Note well: this last objection does not make a distinction between ‘totalitarian’ and ‘democratic’ forms of socialism! ‘Totalitarian’ and ‘democratic’ socialisms are both capable of the anti-Christian stance that ‘man liveth on bread alone’; thus, ‘democratic’ socialism does not render itself less objectionable by the fact of its adherence to democracy alone. Note well, that during the interwar period and after the Second World War, the ‘democratic’ socialists even more so than the ‘totalitarian’ ones were at the forefront of crushing the peasant-led Green Rising in the most undemocratic of ways. On the other hand, however, there are socialistic ideas and forms of organisation which are not materialistic in this way, of which the Green Rising itself took full advantage: cooperatives, credit unions and labour unions (or guilds) – are all socialistic modes of ownership (insofar as they constitute communal ownership and management of property), but they do not necessitate a managerial, consolidating, growth-oriented or anti-traditional mode of governance. Nor are they particularly amenable to the materialist world-view.

It is largely for this reason that I don’t necessarily pay too much attention to whether or not a given socialism is ‘red’ or ‘black’ – that is to say, authoritarian or anarchist. What I generally try to pay attention to, rather, is whether or not its insistence on communal forms of ownership is motivated by a striving for material comfort and bourgeois uniformity; or instead by a striving for a just, stable and transcendentally-oriented organic order. Remember that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that great anti-Soviet dissident, did not object to the soviet communes. He didn’t even object to an authoritarian government! What he objected to most strongly of all was the all-pervasive lie of materialism, and how ordinary Russians were meant to go out of their way to deny the very noses on their faces, all to uphold this lie.

What’s wrong with socialism, therefore, is exactly what’s wrong with capitalism. And even for the same reasons. Many people aren’t used to looking at these two political and economic setups as two sides of the same coin, so to speak.

11 February 2016

Rise, fall, echoes of Chinese-school animation


This past week on WeChat, a certain Zhao Haoyang penned a lengthy essay which, using the classic Chinese 1964 animated feature Havoc in Heaven, described both the influence of Chinese animation styles on top-rated Japanese animators and manga artists, and the unfortunate loss of Chinese artistic character in recent output. His thesis centred on the use of traditional Chinese landscape painting techniques, ancient Chinese temple architecture, folk painting, Mogao-style Buddhist art, paper-cutting, opera masques, as well as operatic characterisation in Havoc in Heaven – a style Zhao Haoyang sums up as 丹青靈韻,水墨精神 (red-and-blue visual tones, the essence of water-ink painting) – and how each of these elements went on to inspire Japanese artists of the subsequent generation… before the Chinese animation style itself (exemplified in the 1999 animated remake of the same story) became a faint imitation of the other styles it inspired, became crassly-commercial and lost its own sense of uniqueness and vibrancy.

Among the styles the Chinese school of animation inspired, according to Zhao Haoyang, was indeed the Japanese style of animēshon. Tezuka Osamu, Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao were all directly influenced by Havoc in Heaven, and all were crestfallen, even heartbroken, to see the once-great Chinese school of animation fall into a slump after Deng Xiaoping’s era of reform. Zhao Haoyang attributes the success of the Chinese school of animation to the centralised planning initiatives of the government at the time, and the subsequent laziness and imitation as the result of studios having to rely on a quick turnaround in the open market, thus curbing creativity to pander to the lowest common denominator.

This interpretation probably shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The great masters of the Japanese style of animation were, after all, all committed leftists. Tezuka Osamu was consistently, stridently anti-war, and even flirted at times with the Japan Communist Party. Takahata Isao is well known for the anti-war themes of his movies as well, and has recently been an outspoken critic of revisions to Article 9. Miyazaki Hayao, of course, began his career as a Marxist, and ended up espousing a form of distributism or – in his own words – a ‘local production for local consumption’ form of ‘democratic socialism’, and likewise recently found himself deploring the Abe administration’s belligerence toward China in particular. This pro-China slant among the Japanese left should come as no surprise to those who have studied the history. There is, in fact, a strong and long-standing Sinophile streak in Japanese leftism that is in no way averse or hostile to healthy expressions of tradition, particularly in the visual arts and material culture.

It is very well-known by now, how Miyazaki himself was drawn toward becoming an animator after seeing the Japanese animated version of the Chinese Tale of the White Serpent, which was storyboarded and produced by Hiroshi Ōkawa to ‘strike a tone of reconciliation’, particularly with China, in the wake of the Second World War. But Miyazaki’s own Sinophilia comes off rather indirectly in his own films. The ‘red and blue visual tones’ of the Chinese school (and particularly Havoc in Heaven) find a minor, subtly feminist echo in Miyazaki’s films, which are drawn to an environmental palette of deep blues and greens drawn in contrast with the colourful, red or pink clothing of the female protagonist (even if it’s something as simple as a red bow), or who may have a bright complexion or bright red hair. His fantastic landscapes, which may or may not be literally shrouded in mist (see Mononoke-hime), may also invite comparisons with Chinese watercolour paintings. Whereas in Ponyo Western critics were very quick to note the Wagnerian influences in the story and in the score, the Chinese-operatic influences also showed through particularly in Miyazaki-sensei’s characterisation in his earlier work. Spirited Away in particular uses a Taiwanese villagescape as direct inspiration for the fantastic, dreamlike setting, and I know I’m not the first person to notice the striking similarities between the visual characterisation of Kaonashi and Chinese opera face-paint.

We have a direct attestation in Zhao Haoyang’s essay of Tezuka Osamu’s love for the 1964 version of Havoc in Heaven: a sketch by the great artist showing Astro Boy shaking hands with Sun Wukong. In fact, though, Tezuka himself did a version of Journey to the West four years before Havoc in Heaven came out (though, naturally, the most famous animated iteration of Journey to the West, at least here in the United States, remains Toriyama Akira’s Dragon Ball). But returning to Tezuka, he treated the entire enterprise of animation as though it were an operatic stage production or an early Hollywood studio – his Star System reused the same animated ‘actors’, though in different roles in different productions. The features of Tezuka’s Star System character designs deliberately reflect Western animation conventions of the time – think Disney and Warner Bros. in particular – but Tezuka’s vibrant animation and visual design can also be seen to reflect the bombast, the exaggerated mannerisms, the instant impressions of a character’s visual appearance, which are so prominent in jingju and kunqu.

I highlight all this, not at all to belittle Japanese visual or dramatic culture in any way, or to posit it as subservient or dependent on its Chinese antecedents. Indeed, it’s a tribute to these artists that they took their influences and ran with them in unique directions. But it does point, both to China’s vast untapped potential in terms of its much sought-after ‘soft power’, and to an impoverishment in the modern turn that prevents that potential from being realised. The Japanese greats, who were also great Sinophiles, voiced great disappointment and disillusionment over China’s lapse in the character of its visual arts.

As for me, I’m looking forward to watching Havoc in Heaven now.

05 February 2016

Does Hermione Granger have an Emma problem?


No, not that Emma. Well, not primarily. This one:


Last year, in the Cameron Crowe movie Aloha, Emma Stone (a white actress) was cast in the role of a character named Allison Ng, who was supposed to be part-Chinese and part-Hawai’ian. This casting caused an immediate, outraged backlash amongst Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, and hapa haoles in particular against the movie, both because it continued a long and dishonourable tradition of Hollywood whitewashing, and because it contributed to an erasure of Asian identity in American filmmaking. (Cameron Crowe subsequently posted a rather limp-wristed apology for his casting choice, against which there was, unsurprisingly, another backlash.)

What does this have to do with Harry Potter, you ask, gentle readers? Well, the casting of black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in an upcoming theatrical production, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has also sparked a backlash (on account of Hermione Granger’s ostensible whiteness) and a counter-backlash, into which fray stepped the voice of the author herself on the side of the counter-backlash, saying that Hermione’s ‘white skin was never specified’, and that she ‘loves black Hermione’.

Here’s the thing. I object to Hollywood whitewashing myself, and because turnabout is fair play, I support Noma Dumezweni’s casting in the theatrical production and tend to think it’s a good idea. What I object to is that Jo Rowling has now managed to position herself as the Cameron Crowe of her own work. She may indeed ‘love’ black Hermione with a meddling managerial Rawlsian kind of ‘love’, but clearly she doesn’t respect black Hermione, and that’s kind of troubling. What do I mean when I say she doesn’t respect black Hermione?

I will note that, for all I dislike Orson Scott Card (for his neoconservatism and for other reasons), he himself brought up the same complaint about Albus Dumbledore being revealed (after the book series was completed) as gay. He said that ‘[Rowling] didn’t have the guts to put that supposed “fact” into the actual novels, knowing that it might hurt sales’. At the time, I disagreed vehemently with Card and felt that he was wrong on the merits of the argument, because I felt that the events revealed in the seventh book hinted very strongly at a romantic attachment between Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald, on which Rowling was perfectly justified in commenting as the books’ author. Now I’m not so sure that Rowling isn’t proving Card right in his assessment of her respect for her own characters.

Cameron Crowe cast a white actress into the role of a mixed-race character with a Cantonese surname, essentially on the basis that the character was supposed to ‘look white’. In doing so, he deliberately made a character of Asian-American and Pacific Islander history and cultural background into the plaything of white actors and screenwriters. I’m not sure that Jo Rowling comes off any better than he does here, particularly since she demanded as part of her contract with Warner Bros. that British, French and East European actors were to be cast where the roles were thus specified in the books. If she had wanted to do so, it stands therefore to reason, she could have stipulated a Black Briton ought to be cast as Hermione in the films (as had been the case for Dean Thomas) if that had been her intent – but she didn’t. She signed off on Emma Watson instead.

I intend this as no slight on Emma Watson’s acting ability, nor as an objection to Noma Dumezweni’s casting in the play. But the fact that both actresses were cast consciously as the same character makes Rowling’s entry into this particular dispute more than a bit unseemly. Saying ‘white skin was never specified’ for Hermione, now, after the films have come out and entered into the public imagination, is more than just an afterthought – it’s a kind of cheating on her part. It’s almost an erasure of Hermione’s agency, and an implicit denial that being a Muggle-born Black Briton would actually have had any particular meaning for her or any impact on her character development. It’s a tyrannical Rawlsianism taken to a rather ugly extreme, particularly since Hermione’s having lived life as a black Muggle for eleven years prior to her acceptance into Hogwarts might have informed a few things about her experience. It may have shaped her politics in interesting ways, for example! And wouldn’t it have been great if Rowling had pulled a Heinlein, and pointed to Hermione’s blackness in an offhand way somewhere in the books of Half-Blood Prince or Deathly Hallows? That would have been truly interesting, and it would have forced many of us, her fans and readers, to step back and re-examine some of our assumptions about the connexion between the allegorical internal politics of the books and our own. Instead, though, we are left with a squandered opportunity and an implicit Emma problem for Rowling, wherein the casting choice for Hermione Granger is supposed to suddenly not matter (as with Emma Stone in Aloha). Which is a shame. A black Hermione could have been awesome.

01 February 2016

Toward an interior-mainland Sinophilia


Peasants in rural Henan

In my previous post, I castigated the New Confucians for their hypocrisy in presenting themselves as enlightened Western-facing democrats, whilst in reality being all-too-willing to flatter and simper to at least one bloody iron-fisted dictator (as long as that dictator wasn’t Red). And I presented the principled counter-example of the late great Fei Xiaotong, whose intellectual integrity prevented him from wholeheartedly embracing either the Blues or the Reds, and led him to champion the rural poor and his own discipline of sociology. But Fei Xiaotong was not an isolated voice. Mainland Chinese political and cultural discourse operates at two levels – the stultified, bureaucratic upper level, whose representatives are trained in the handling of official buzzphrases and who are granted the megaphone of state approval; and the somewhat more ragamuffin lower level, where authors more-than-occasionally get in trouble for what they write and say in public. It is this lower level on which all the really interesting intellectual footwork is currently being done.

In the interests of full disclosure: I am writing from the standpoint of the sympathetic expat. Well, more than that, really: I’m a Zhongguo nüxu 中国女婿 (a Chinese son-in-law) whose experience has been shaped not only by my studies and personal observations, but also by my relationships with my wife, my in-laws, their friends and my colleagues. And I’ve developed a sympathy with the Chinese heartland, the zhongyuan 中原, which sadly (but unmistakably) finds itself counterposed both culturally and economically against the wealthier, better-connected, more-modernised Chinese coast and islands (Beijing, Shanghai, Fujian-Taiwan and Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong). My closest relations are two generations or less removed from starvation imposed from above and without – with the sacrifices of the Second World War looming as large (if not larger) in their memories as those of the Great Leap Forward twenty years later. Much the same way as Russians and Eastern Europeans of their generation do, they have a complicated approach to the Mao era. (My wife’s paternal grandparents have a portrait of Jesus Christ on one wall of their house and a classic propaganda poster of Mao Zedong on the other. The juxtaposition is very strange.) As far as I can tell from my own conversations with them, they understand as well as anyone else the evils of his rule, on a political and social level as well as in terms of deprivation of the basics of life, but at the same time genuinely value and miss the sense of public service and camaraderie which people of that generation displayed – and don’t appreciate seeing these things devalued and denigrated by younger generations.

The experience of the Chinese interior is something which is addressed only in developmentalist platitudes by the official circles, but even in the ragamuffin lower level of Chinese discourse which still so often looks Westward for inspiration, it constitutes a poorly-understood and marginal voice. Of the few I have read who actively give voice to it (Fei Xiaotong, Wang Hui, Gan Yang, and perhaps obliquely Kang Xiaoguang), only Wang Hui is particularly well-known. Most theorists – especially the theorists of the Chinese coast and islands – see the elder life of the interior as something not to be understood and valued, but as something embarrassing, something to be swept aside before the grand tides of the globalism with which they are already integrated. The fact of the interior’s poverty is ample evidence, as far as the enlightened moderns of the coast (both official and commercial) are concerned, of its backwardness and lack of social or cultural value.

But it’s precisely for those reasons that I love it: literally, viscerally, even romantically on a personal level. It’s a standing rebuke to the apostles of developmentalism and brute-force modernisation. It has a character that shows through with the elder masonry. It has a heart which beats, however faintly, at a different pace than the hubbub of Shanghai commerce or Beijing traffic. It whispers the intimations of its deprival through the postmodern alienation of the films of Jia Zhangke and the wistful Qing Romanticism of Er Yuehe. Its pain echoes in that quintessentially modern Chinese question of the post-Deng moral crisis, whose effects it has felt most viscerally since ‘78.

In short, in the subaltern voice of the Chinese interior there begins to be heard a kind of Sinophilia: a parallel to the early 19th-century Russian Slavophilia of Khomyakov and Kireevsky. This parallel is not accidental at all. Chinese modernism, nationalism (of both the political and cultural varieties) and socialism have already borrowed heavily from the Russian narodniki. Additionally, there is the simple reason that China faces a moment where its national spirit on the one hand, and its desire for greatness on Western terms on the other, stand in stark tension with each other – as they did in Russia after the 1820’s. The official discourse doesn’t (or can’t) recognise this, of course: as long as the economy is running smoothly, the Party has the luxury of pretending in a superficially-convincing way that they can have their (traditional Chinese) cake and eat it too. But some intellectuals – and far from only on the liberal side – feel this tension acutely. This tension informs most of Wang Hui’s historical delvings and attempts to show how certain paradoxes and antinomies in China’s modernity have worked out over time.

But it also shows itself up in the irony of the Chinese coast’s long love affair with xixue 西学 – Western knowledge – and its inability to express that knowledge in an authentic and healthy way. Or even to return to practices from which that knowledge has divorced them. The analogy I have shamelessly stolen from Kaiser Kuo in the past to express this tragic divorce of theoretical-doctrinal knowledge from lived reality (particularly amongst Chinese coastal liberals) has been ‘releasing the snakes’ – a once-valid Buddhist practice of compassion to the animals, which when modern people undertake it in rural areas results in damage to the local ecology and communities. When we look at how Chinese intellectuals have historically adopted ideologies of social Darwinism, nationalism, Leninism, pragmatism and now neoliberalism successively in turn, is it not possible to argue that this also has resulted in ‘releasing the snakes’? It’s hard to argue about the environmental impact of certain Western ideological imports and patterns of consumption, at least. And certainly we can identify a rupture in the social psychology of China, which has made the analyses like those of Zhang Xudong and his contributors in Whither China? possible.

This is what makes the work of Chinese neoleftists, institutional Ruists and rural advocates so valuable. Like the Russian Slavophils, far from being ineffectually anti-modern or blindly reactionary, they are attempting to bring the deep realities of Chinese life and social psychology into agreement with its theoretical and doctrinal knowledge. It’s hard not to see something Romantic in the effort these scholars bring to exposing China’s post-guochi imitations of the Western humanities as pathological, and attempting to draw new life into the Chinese intellectual sphere from the organic grassroots.