30 October 2016

Rod Liddle gets it


I have been thinking these days more and more about Dr. Strangelove, and how the attitudes and rhetoric in the American centre-left-to-centre-right with regard to Russia more and more resembles the anti-human arithmetical logic of General ‘Buck’ Turgidson in that film. And the reasoning we give for this idiotic sabre-rattling, all woven from the same century-old ideological tissue of Wilsonian Whiggery and interventionism which this blog has opposed from the very start, all drawing from the same tainted wells as the boosters of the horrific wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, resembles nothing so much as the unbalanced obsession of a certain fictional general over the imagined threat to the purity of his bodily fluids. But the ramifications of this rhetoric, risible as it is, are deadly in tenor, and this brinkmanship game against a power which is not directly threatening our national interests (but which is fully capable of defending itself) on the part of NATO and the American elites heading it, is an act of sheer strategic stupidity.

It seems no one gets this as well as the notably-cantankerous British Labour journalist Rod Liddle at the Spectator, who understands both the moral stakes and the history in the current dust-up (again) over Syria. He understands perfectly well that
  1. There is no competent governing authority in Syria apart from Assad;
  2. Russia’s actions supporting Assad may be heavy-handed, but they are in fact defensive, have standing historical precedent, and are well within the realm of international law;
  3. Our governments’ actions supporting a fantasy of ‘nice moderates’ (but a reality of head-lopping Wahhabi extremists), on the other hand, are not;
  4. Those actions are ‘done in the name of dippy, well-meaning, liberal evangelism’; and
  5. These actions have ‘cost far more lives than can be laid at the door of the Russkies and Vladimir Putin’; and
  6. The quickest way to end this most uncivil war with the least possible loss of human life is to ensure an Assad victory.
But it’s clear that our bourgeois élite class, mired as they are in a narcissism which defies reality every bit as much as the fictional Jack D. Ripper’s delusions do, have no interest in a peace that would help to stabilise the region, balance power between (again, a non-threatening) Iran and her hostile Sunni neighbours, and lessen the risk to the American populace of terrorist attack in the future. No – they want a free hand to shape the region according to their ideological whims, which are obfuscated in a haze of self-serving rhetoric about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ – rhetoric whose emptiness is revealed by the bland evasion of responsibility for listening to actual Syrians on the ground about what they want or about what would be best for them.

Or rather, they want to go back to the more comfortable black-and-white logic of 1964, when there was a clear-cut ideological enemy that really was out to destroy us. Such logic, however convenient, is not without its flaws – as Rod Liddle points out something quite important: ‘[y]ou cannot divest a country of its empire, its political system and raison d’être, its industry, its jobs, its money, its prestige and world stature in five or six short years and not expect some sort of rebound, some sort of hankering after the old way of life … a hankering after Putin’. But here’s the thing. Putin was not, at first, an anti-Western politician. He was part of the Eltsin administration; and he took over in the hope of reaching some kind of conciliation with the West. But the West repeatedly frustrated his hopes with the needless provocations of a recklessly-expanding and increasingly-hostile NATO. Putin simply arrived at the same conclusions as any self-respecting national leader would do after meeting with incessant insults, provocations and military encroachment. I say this as someone who has never been entirely convinced of the goodness of Putin’s policies. But Putin now has a ready and willing base of support in the shape of eighty per cent of the Russian populace, which he never would have had if we hadn’t continued our arrogant hegemonic policies in Russia’s near-abroad, which any Tory worth his realist salt back in the day would have told you was a bad idea.

27 October 2016

The limits of Mencian statecraft?

As critical as I have been of Barack Obama, there is one positive aspect to his presidency that has been commented on recently, and that is: Barack Obama is actually a decent, caring family man. He clearly loves his wife and his two daughters, and he hasn’t abused his power in office to go chasing skirts. He’s generally a man who exercises most all of the smallholder competencies to a fairly significant degree. This I generally take at face value and hold to the president’s credit. Now, according to the Mencian theory of government, as a man who takes care of his family and cultivates the virtues, he should in fact be a relatively successful leader, one who is able to convince others by moral suasion rather than by the force of law or fiat. But that being the case, why is President Obama more dependent on his executive powers and military and police force to achieve his goals rather than his own virtuous example? Why have our ‘likeable’, ‘relatable’ presidents – the ones with good manners and good natures – been the ones quickest to quash protests, silence whistleblowers, expand police powers, shoot first and ask questions later? In short, why would our presidents who would most recognisably suit a ‘Confucian’ temperament end up behaving like Legalists? And what would Mencius – or indeed any classical philosopher – say about this apparent contradiction?

It’s fairly predictable what the two American political tribes would say about the situation. For conservatives and libertarians, Obama is simply engaging in the rankest sort of hypocrisy – blaming Bush for his actions and then turning around to do the same thing himself. For liberals (as the New York Times piece opines), the blame lies with Congress for indulging in ‘obstruction’ and forcing any ‘progress’ to be made through the executive branch. Nowadays, some of the apologists for Trump are even saying explicitly that the smallholder competencies are overrated, and sometimes we need a brash, brutal and vulgar Herodian (or a Qin Shihuang, if we’re using classical Chinese examples) to take charge and lead with a wholly different set of excellences exclusive to those fit for ‘greatness’. And I am forced to wonder if these Trump apologists, in fact, have a point. After all, the facts are as stated above: clearly, if we are to go by the example of Obama, one can genuinely be a devoted husband and doting father, and still order deadly drone strikes on civilians outside of war zones from a position of high office.

I suspect – and here I am certainly open to correction – that a consistent follower of Mencius would say of Obama that his personal attention to the domestic virtues and smallholder competencies is laudable, but that his self-cultivation (修养) and investigation into the nature of things (格物) was incomplete. But that sort of logic strikes me as somewhat ad hoc; it’s somewhat difficult to critique a person’s self-cultivation except on the basis of its results, and to do that one has to import a set of a priori values and moral axioms that are not implicit in the self-cultivation aspect of Mencian thinking. A consistent follower of Dong Zhongshu or Xunzi might here have a more robust political critique to make than our hypothetical Mencian would, that Obama, in spite of his interior cultivation, has neglected the ‘outer kingliness’ (外王) and instead embraced a Legalistic method of governance, using rewards and proscriptions to make people comply with his agendas. Going a bit further, perhaps, a more thoroughgoing follower of Dong Zhongshu (like, for example, Jiang Qing) might say that the fault rests as well in our institutions, which in their value-neutrality do not provide the proper moral guidance for the people who inhabit them, and therefore encourage bureaucratic and legalistic solutions to problems that are better solved through suasion – or militaristic solutions to problems better solved through diplomacy and deal-breaking.

The glimmer of hope I can see for the Mencian critique of domestically-virtuous rulers doing evil or insufficiently-good things in their realms is actually in the opening chapters of the Mencius itself. King Hui of Liang keeps his domestic household well-stocked, but is excoriated by Mencius for failing to show the same parental concern toward his people. Later, Mencius tells King Xuan of Qi that he is capable of governing benevolently because he took pity on a sacrificial ox and spared it – but that he wasn’t yet governing benevolently because his will (为) was not equal to his capability (能). Here, perhaps a similar critique of Obama is possible. He clearly has the capability to rule benevolently, exercising fidelity to his wife and compassion toward his children. But he has not yet trained his will, either to discipline himself and take a limited, realistic position in foreign affairs, or to exert himself on behalf of genuine reforms (including politically-plausible ones like a public health insurance option) which would clearly have been beneficial to the poorest of his people, whereas the market-friendly reforms he has championed are leaving people behind. This can also be described as ‘leading on beasts to devour men’.

I am, however, interested in hearing what my other gentle Chinese philosophy buff readers have to say on the subject!

25 October 2016

Roots of British (and American) Radicalism: not what you think

David Lindsay remarks, in the context of a forthcoming book about the Levellers by John Rees, that the Radical tradition in Britain has its roots not in the revolutions of 1688, 1776 or 1789, or indeed even in the regicide of 1649, but instead in something far older, and at the same time far more amenable to the claims of High Toryism.

What we now consider the ‘hard left’ (as opposed to the bourgeois lifestylist, identitarian movement falsely identified as the ‘left’) actually traces its provenance back past all of these bourgeois revolutions and into the long, coöperative and collectivist peasant resistance against the enclosures movement. By which standard, of course, such a traditionalist and High Tory icon as King Charles I of England himself can and ought to be regarded as a forerunner of the ‘hard left’ alongside Gerrard Winstanley.

He is also quite right to trace this Radical-Tory confluence (with its backing of causes like the abolition of slavery, factory reform, extension of the franchise, action against substance abuse and gambling) into the campaign of Jeremy Corbyn (a flawed messenger for a grand tradition), into the Stop the War Coalition, into the left-wing case for Brexit and into other forms of resistance to the neoconservative war agenda and to the neoliberal economic order.

All of this is quite true. And what’s more, it’s true not only in a British context but in an American one as well. Many of the Quakers who took up a neutral stance after 1776, and the Germans, Hungarians and Scots who took up the opposing side in favour of the Crown, drifted westward along with their fellow-settlers in the wake of their defeat, and later took an active role in the radical political awakening of the prairies. What’s more, the radical American greenbackers made common cause and shared ideas – important concepts like social credit, distributism, coöperative economics – with British and Canadian radicals, who were their natural allies, collaborators and ideological and literal kin.

There is indeed a strong Middle American tradition which blends the best of British radicalism and the best of British High Tory moralism, and which serves as a natural analogue of the Canadian Red Tory tradition, should we ever see fit to recover it. Bernie Sanders has already provided – similarly to Jeremy Corbyn on the other side of the pond – a partial, imperfect voice to this noble tradition and shown us how deeply it appeals to even the staid and conservative areas of Midland America; it will be up to those of us locally in the Plains states not only to carry on the Radical torch but to set the prairies ablaze again.

20 October 2016

This blog’s policy on Islam

… is quite simple. Follow the Fathers. Full stop.

When Islam first arose, the Church Fathers were not silent on the matter, and they did not leave us without guidance. Orthodox Christians should not by any means shy away from making the same critiques of Islam that Holy Father John of Damascus made – namely: that the Koran is a dubious, private revelation; that it continues both the heresy of Arius that Christ was only a man, and the heresy of the Docetists that Christ did not die; and that it posits a false (or, as Saint John would say, ‘mutilated’) understanding of the God of Abraham.

On the other hand, we are not to go beyond what the Fathers in their wisdom and in the examples of their lives have laid out for us. This pertains especially to those of us living in America many generations and thousands of miles removed from first-hand contact with Muslim societies. We are not to regard Muslim people as irrational, inherently violent or sub-human (because even ideologies and heresies do not completely damage the icon of God in the person). We are to eschew praying together with Muslims (though, even then, there are certain noteworthy and honourable exceptions); we are not to eschew working with them or living alongside them, as many of us have had to do for centuries (Saint John’s father Sergius, and possibly Saint John himself, served as administrators in Muslim governments). We can and should counter any propaganda by which certain Muslim governments and polities deliberately misrepresent themselves (and, of course, defend ourselves when we have been attacked), but we are not to spread canards about Muslims that are not demonstrably true or that Muslims do not speak or show of themselves. It goes without saying that we are not to support bombing them for ‘democracy-‘n’-human-rights’ or some other such equally-ideological nonsense.

In short, we should be realists. We should be measured, calm, truthful and reasonable to and about Muslims, but we shouldn’t be blind to, or naïve about, the ways in which Islam attempts to conceal certain political and theological truths about itself. And we should look first, always, to our own intentions and passions and iniquities, and make sure we are not giving vent to those when we speak about others.

13 October 2016

Remembering Gregory Photistes, Equal-to-the-Apostles


Holy Father Gregory, Enlightener of the Armenians

During this same era of warfare between Rome and Parthia when many Christians were made martyrs for the faith, one scion of the Parthian house earned the for Christ by working tirelessly to atone for the sins of his family, laying down his life for the sake of his friends, and bringing to Christ the first among the nations - Armenia, along with her king, Tiridates III. This fervent son of the faith was our father among the saints Gregory (Pahlavi), later given the cognomen Photistes for his having baptised the Armenian people. Today (on the old calendar) we honour his memory.

Gregory was born to high nobility and easy life. His parents were Anak Pahlavi, a member of a cadet branch of the Aškānīān dynasty which had once ruled Parthia, and Okohe, a Parthian noblewoman. Anak Pahlavi, though he was a great warrior, nonetheless allowed himself to be goaded by Šapur, the ruler of Persia, into attempting to usurp the Armenian throne (to which he had a claim). He feigned to flee from the Persians, seeking refuge with Armenia’s king Khosrow II. Khosrow welcomed the Parthian into his hall at Vagharshapat, where Anak then stabbed him with a dagger, along with his wife. He fled the court, pursued by Armenian soldiers, and drowned in the Aras River.

Anak’s infant son, in peril of his life for the treacherous crime of his father, was rescued from execution by a Christian nobleman named Euthalios and his sister Sophia, and taken to Cæsarea in Cappadocia. He was raised there and given a very good education. He married a pious Armenian woman named Miriam, who bore him two sons: Vartan and Aristak, both of whom would later become saints in their own right. After some time, Gregory and Miriam decided between them to retire; Miriam to become a nun, and Gregory to make his way eastward in an attempt to atone for the sins of his father. It was there that he met Tiridates, the son of the same Khosrow II whom his father had murdered.

Tiridates was, as Matthew of Tokhat describes him, a giant of a man, fiendishly strong and well-practised in the arts of war. Matthew of Tokhat describes how he challenged the king of the Goths to single combat, bound him and brought him before the Roman Emperor as a prisoner. Yet even as a heathen, Tiridates was also remarkable for his fair dealing and honour: ‘sensible, prudent in his discernment, brave in council and just in his judgement, wise in his government, and in his whole conduct civil and correct, according to the light of nature’. He won for himself his slain father’s kingdom of Armenia, and expanded its borders, but he was eager to bestow honours upon the friend who had come to render him many years of selfless and faithful service: Gregory. He gave to Gregory the honour of sacrificing to the goddess Anahita, which naturally Gregory (being a Christian) refused to do. Gregory would have rendered any other service to the son of his father’s victim, but never once to his idols.

Tiridates became angered at this, and imprisoned Gregory, and subjected him to a number of cruel and degrading tortures, including forcing him to run on all fours with weights upon his back, beating him with switches, suspending him bodily with sharp wires, suffocating him in ashes, mutilating his legs in a vise, and pouring molten lead over his body. But Gregory would neither once curse his tormentors, nor even once yield to their demands to worship Anahita. Gregory was then thrown into a foul pit in Ardašat, full of venomous snakes, and left there to die. The venomous reptiles did him no harm, however, seeing that he was protected by God and by the angels. He spent fourteen years in that dungeon.

During that time, however, a virgin from Rome, named Rhipsime, was fleeing the persecutions of the wicked emperor Diocletian and sought refuge in Armenia, where she built a convent where other holy virgins would be welcome. Diocletian, however, sent a missive to Tiridates to find and return her to Rome, where he would take her as a concubine. However, Tiridates began to desire her for himself, and he came personally in great pomp to overpower her with his majesty. But Rhipsime, having forsaken worldly goods and desire for wealth and ease and prestige, spurned him. Outraged, Tiridates kidnapped Rhipsime’s fellow-nun and foster mother Gaiane and had her beaten and tortured, but, being given courage by Gaiane’s exhortations to her to keep her faith in Christ, refused to yield. Tiridates then tried to rape Rhipsime, but she, being given strength from the Holy Spirit, fought him off for several hours and left him wounded and bleeding in his throne-room. She fled back to her convent to warn the other nuns there of what she had done, and the reprisals they would soon face. Tiridates had indeed sent his soldiers after her, and they tortured her and burnt her alive; and put all the nuns they found there to the sword. Thus the Saintly Virgin Rhipsime, the Saintly Virgin Gaiane, and their thirty-five companions, together met their martyrdom.

After this, Tiridates began to suffer fits of madness, losing all his former formidable faculties of reason and the use of his tongue. In the legend related by Matthew of Tokhat, even his powerful body began to be misshapen, until he resembled nothing so much as a pig; for he had swinishly treated Rhipsime and dealt with her and her companions with total and irrational cruelty. The madness began to spread in his court, until the sister of Tiridates, named Khosrowdokht, told him that she had seen in a vision that he must send for the holy man that he had imprisoned fourteen years before in Ardašat. The courtiers moaned on hearing this; they thought that man had long since perished from the poison of the snakes that lived there. But Gregory was sent for and brought out whole from Ardašat. The courtiers and the king rushed before him and begged him to heal them of their madness and their king of his muteness and deformity.

The saintly Gregory took pity on them, and prayed for them, and instantly his prayers had effect. Tiridates stood before him, and was moved to tears in shame at his ill-treatment of the friend who had served him so faithfully; thus he was healed of his sickness of mind, and his body began to recover. Gregory then told the king and his courtiers to find the thirty-seven virgins they had put to death, to make them decent and to prepare a burial-place for them; they brought out the richest garments they could find in the palace, but Saint Gregory clad the virgins in the very clothes they had worn when they were killed, and so they were buried.

Once free of his madness and infirmities, Tiridates gladly reconciled with his friend and former servant, and accepted to hear the teachings of the Christian faith. For sixty-five days Gregory withdrew to the winepress of the convent and there kept a strict fast as he catechised Tiridates from the Scriptures, and the good news of Christ who heals all infirmities even unto death. At the end of this catechumenate, Tiridates assented to be baptised by Gregory, along with all his court; he then went into the countryside on a campaign to destroy the idols he and his people had once worshipped, accompanied by the long-suffering Gregory and his prayers. The old Iranian holidays, however, were still kept and respected by Gregory and by the Armenian Church; but they were changed to honour holy men and women, servants of Christ, rather than the idols of the older religion. Holy Father Gregory then commissioned the great cathedral at Etchmiadzin, near the very same site where Tiridates’s father Khosrow II had held court. In later days Holy Father Gregory’s blood-sons, Saints Vartan and Aristak, would join their father, and themselves become righteous bishops and shepherds of the Armenian flock; whilst Gregory himself retired to a hermitage in Daranali, there to live the rest of his days in peaceful contemplation and prayer.

Thus was the first Christian kingdom established by the feats of the steadfast and virtuous Gregory, who more than atoned for his father’s infamy but brought out instead through his humility, patience and love for his enemies, an even greater glory. Holy Father Gregory, pray to God for us!


The baptism of King Tiridates and his wife, Queen Ashken
By sharing in the ways of the Apostles,
You became a successor to their throne.
Through the practice of virtue,
You found the way to divine contemplation, O inspired one of God;
By teaching the word of truth without error, you defended the Faith,
Even to the shedding of your blood.
Hieromartyr Gregory entreat Christ God to save our souls!

As insane now as it has ever been

Father Stephen Freeman, of Glory to God for All Things, writes this prophetic missive on his Facebook page:
Prior to 1989, the political test for American parties was often measured by how strong their opposition was to Soviet Communism (i.e. Russia). Reagan called them the “Evil Empire.” The Democratic party was considered far too soft and willing to compromise, and was even accused of being sympathetic to the interests of Communist philosophy.

When B. Clinton took office, he sounded a stronger note of a willingness to wage war. Of course, the Soviet Union had fallen, so a surrogate was found: Serbia. In what has now been shown to be a war largely based on propaganda and false flag operations, Serbia was beaten into submission, and a new Muslim state, backed by NATO, was established in Eastern Europe.

The Democratic party was also established as a party deeply committed to the American war machine. The American incursions into Iraq and Afganistan were supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Both wars have resulted in massive devastation but with no substantive change in terror operations. The purported reasons for those wars have either been ignored, or must be counted as defeats for our military.

The recent administration gleefully supported the “Arab Spring,” in what was reported to be popular uprisings against various governments of the Mideast. Time is gradually showing those uprisings to have been largely engineered by America, with much the same result as our operations in Iraq and Afganistan. We have not made the world safe for democracy, we have simply made some places unsafe to live.

The so-called Civil War in Syria which now occupies our attention, is not a true “civil war.” The various groups which make-up the opposition to the government are all financed, trained and equipped by America and Saudi Arabia. But it has been the place where the Arab Spring Project of America's war industry came to a halt.

And this brings us back to Russia. Both parties seem hell-bent on showing how strong they are by posturing themselves as the champions of freedom standing up to the demonic threat of Putin. The only threat to which they can point is found in Ukraine, where another American/NATO-sponsored color revolution failed to produce its desired result. Russia refused to renounce its own national interests.

Sadly, and dangerously, our rhetoric has ramped up to such a pitch that we actually speak of war with Russia. This is the same Russia with the same nuclear and conventional forces that have existed for a long time. War is as insane now as it has ever been.

And strangely, there is no evil ideology to which we can point, such as communism, that is somehow behind a dark Kremlin. The worst charges we can bring are Russia's defense of its Church and its lack of hospitality towards the social agenda of the gender revolution. If there is any ideology that is being nurtured among its people, it is Christianity.

What has not changed is the American military-industrial complex. A legacy of WWII and the Cold War, America remains mired in a war economy in which over $600 billion is allocated to the military per year. Our recent wars have cost trillions.

What gets overlooked is the simple fact that fortunes are being made. The American war machine is the American cash machine. We cannot point to ideological or political success - only to destruction and mayhem, and yet we continue to rattle the swords. That noise is a signal to the cash machine that the business of America is war and will remain so.

How did we become this nation?

Please urge your elected representatives to resist the call to arms and the insanity of more war. No good can come from it - and much evil will result.

We are not being threatened. Russia is not an enemy.
Indeed. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Thank you indeed, Father Stephen! Let us pray as the Church prays, for Russia, for Syria and Egypt and all the peoples of the Middle East, for our civil authorities, for the armed forces and for the peace of our nation; but beyond that, let’s get organised and make sure that the former two do not abuse or destroy the last. This is important. Join an anti-war movement. If you’re in the Twin Cities area, join us at the Anti-War Committee. Get loud. Get seen. Get heard. Tell Washington that their war machine is not being run in our name, and we won’t permit it to run with our consent no matter who gets elected in November.

10 October 2016

Ordinary Russians still say нет

to this entire farce of a ‘democalypse 2016’. Among Russians, 57% polled say they don’t know whom to support, don’t care who wins or just flat refused to answer the poll.

In other words, October has changed nothing and will change nothing. Ordinary Russians – apart from the liberals and the hardliners – really don’t see much to choose between the two evils.

In addition, notably, a plurality of Palestinians (42%), and large minorities in a number of Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries, would choose neither candidate. Hardly surprising at all, given the stance of each candidate on Israel.

America: please listen to what Ivan Petrovich Sidorov of Uriupinsk, and Fulan al-Fulani of Gaza, are telling you; also level-headed British Tories like Peter Hitchens and level-headed American realists like Col Andrew J Bacevich. This election year has been, to use a term one of the candidates inordinately loves, a disaster – both for this country, and for those areas of the world most likely to be impacted by American foreign policy.

EDIT (14 October): I do enjoy Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s non-comments about our election. They are a guilty pleasure. But I enjoy them very much indeed.

09 October 2016

Remembering our Father among the Saints, Hieromartyr Tikhon of Moscow


Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow and All Rus’

This Sunday we commemorate the glorification, on 9 October 1989, of a particularly great and holy Russian-American saint and martyr for the Orthodox faith – Holy Father Tikhon (Bellavin), Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’. Tikhon’s life, though it began in Pskov, ranged far to the east, to Alaska, to San Francisco, to New York, and everywhere he went he was a tireless, humble, self-giving labourer in God’s newly-sown fields, who worked not out of fear or in the expectation of reward, but out of a true filial affection for God, and a paternal affection for those of us who were (and are) still taking our first struggling steps in the faith. Vladika Tikhon’s great and good influence in North America has touched us even here in Minneapolis and Saint Paul in a very personal way; he was present at the founding of our own St. Mary’s Cathedral, and was a staunch and enthusiastic supporter of our parish school.

Tikhon began his life as Basil Ivanovich Bellavin, the son of – as has been common in Russia throughout her history – a poor country priest from a rural village in the Pskov region on the northwestern march of Great Russia, close to Latvia. As is also common in Russia, as the son of the parish priest, he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. But he did take to his education either resentfully or grudgingly: from an early age he showed great love for the Liturgy, and was blessed with a meek and uncomplaining disposition throughout his youth, as well as a very clever mind. His fellow-students, who came to him for gladly-given help with their schoolwork and compositions, took to calling him ‘bishop’ and ‘patriarch’ – though what they said in friendly jest would turn out to have a far deeper truth. He attended seminary both in Pskov and in Saint Petersburg, and was a teacher of moral and dogmatic theology at the seminary in Pskov before he took the tonsure at Kholm at the age of 26. He became the Bishop of Lublin (a diocese now located in eastern Poland) at the tender age of 34, and later the Bishop of Kholm, where he served with great affection not only the Russians who lived there, but also equally the Lithuanian and Polish Orthodox parishioners. Very soon afterward, Patriarch Tikhon was transferred to the Aleutian Islands and Alaska to minister to the mission there that had been founded and tended by Saint Herman the Wonderworker.

Similarly to Saint Herman, Father Tikhon devoted all of his energies single-mindedly to the service of his flock, and through his great love for the Aleutian and Alaskan people he won many converts, and moved successfully to redesignate his bishopric as the ‘Diocese of the Aleutians and of North America’. He was even well-liked (as Saint Herman had not been!) by the local government, such that he was given citizenship in the United States. He was involved in founding and blessing many churches on the North American continent, including Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in New York, and also the Saint Nicholas Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in the same city, led by the sainted Bishop Raphael (Hawaweeny) of Brooklyn.

Saint Tikhon’s collected sermons, letters and missives to various Church bodies from his time in America have recently been translated into English and published; these are very much worth reading. They display the gentleness of soul the good Bishop possessed, the deep and patient and self-emptying love he showed for his flock. But they also show that he was neither silent on matters of contemporary importance, nor even particularly convenient in his political convictions.

Saint Tikhon despised the racism he encountered, both within the Orthodox diocese he served, and within the broader American culture, which saw the American Indians and Alaska Natives as ‘less civilised’ and therefore unworthy of being treated as children of God. When poor Native parishes in Alaska were suffering from a very hard winter, and he was attempting to get aid for them from Orthodox believers in richer and more comfortable parishes, Vladika Tikhon had this to say to his flock in San Francisco:
The compassionate Christ told His disciples, ‘Give them something to eat yourselves’. We must help our brothers in the Faith. It does not matter that they belong to a different, less civilised race. It is not civilisation at all—which is shamefully preached by some—wherein the sole idea is that the white race must not only be prevailing in the world, but must wipe out the other ‘coloured’ races…

True civilisation consists in giving as many people as possible access to the benefits of life. Since all people originate from one man, all are children of the one Heavenly Father; all were redeemed by the most pure blood of Christ, in Whom ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free’. All are brothers and must love one another—love one another not only in words, but in deeds as well!
Saint Tikhon was also, as many Orthodox priests (including Father Saint Alexis Tovt) were at the time, highly sympathetic to organised labour and the labour movement, in which so many recent converts – many of them miners with origins in Rusyn Subcarpathia – were involved. When it came to disputes between the working men of America and the capitalist class which oppressed them, Saint Tikhon did not hesitate to come down firmly and resolutely on the side of the suffering workers! But he didn’t just give homilies on the matter. He wrote, for example, the following letter to the newspaper Svet about the anthracite strike of 1902:
The strike is still going on, our parishioners endure everything and become poorer; and it is not known when there will be an end to this onerous situation. But the saddest part is that even if an accord is reached (between the group of capitalists and the representatives of the workers), still it will bring only temporary calm and satisfaction.

Without a doubt, in the future, life will become more expensive, supplies and goods will increase in price, while wages will remain the same and therefore will be insufficient. This means, with the way things are around here, it will again become necessary to resort to a strike, and suffer again, and continue to live in poverty.

In these circumstances it is necessary to come to help the needy. Why not establish a special fund specifically for the purpose of helping during strikes?—since many of our parishioners now work in factories, and, not taking part in the present strike have a certain income. It would be sinful not to remember the needy and the suffering during the well-to-do times! Likewise, when the needy attain what they want, why should they not set up at least a small reserve for a ‘rainy day’ in the future?

How to pay the dues in order to establish the fund, how and to whom to distribute funds from it—the [unions] themselves can discuss these things at their meetings. The fund may be opened under the patronage of the Board of the Mutual Aid Society, which could contribute to this cause from their funds. To start this undertaking off, I am sending 100 dollars from myself to the Board of the Society. May God grant that it will be successful!
As we can see, then, on contemporary matters of race and class, the blessed Bishop Tikhon was neither silent, nor neutral, nor indifferent, but approached these situations practically, and took a side and a stand with the same self-giving love and fatherly concern that he always had. On other political matters, though, he stood just as boldly against the current of the entirety of American society at the time. He called upon his fellow Russians not to be ashamed nor to be shy of defending, when it was attacked, either the person or the institution of the Tsar, for whom and for which Bishop Tikhon always had a high esteem:
We who live far from the motherland, in a foreign land, among people who know little or nothing at all about our country and its regulations, quite often have to hear criticism, censure, and ridicule of the institutions that are native and dear to us. These kinds of attacks are most often directed against the autocracy, which is one of the foundations of the Russian State. To many here it seems to be a sort of ‘scarecrow’, an Eastern despotism, a tyranny, an Asian thing. All of the failures, shortcomings and disorderliness of the Russian land are attributed to it.

We cannot dissuade all those who wish to remain under delusion--those whose eyes do not see and ears do not hear. But on you, who live abroad and love your native land from this faraway place, lies a special duty to explain and acquaint the local honest thinkers with what the autocracy in Russia really is.

Autocratic power means that this power does not depend on any human power; it does not draw anything from the latter, is not limited by it, and has within itself the source of its being and strength...

This means the Tsar’s power must guard the law and righteousness, protecting the subjects from violence and especially those who are destitute and crippled, who do not have any other intercessors and protection. And for this reason it has to be autocratic and independent, not limited by either the powerful or the rich. Otherwise, it would not fulfil its purpose, since... it would have to please the rich, the powerful and the influential, and to serve the truth in the way it is understood by the latter, to deliver the judgement of men and not of God.
Bishop Tikhon wished Tsar Nicholas II well throughout his tenure both in Russia and America, supported him firmly, and viewed him, rightly, as an agent of peace in Europe and Asia, during an age sadly inclined toward war. ‘The closer the nations come to Christian ideals,’ he said in a homily, speaking here of Russia’s progress toward building peace in Europe, ‘and the more they become imbued with Christ’s commandments, the less hostility, division, and warlike vehemence is in them.’ Bishop Tikhon had to leave us, sorrowfully, in 1907; he was transferred to the Diocese of Yaroslavl, and after that to Vilna, where again he displayed the same humble and gentle forthrightness with his flock, and undertook the same charitable, material and activist support of the poor that he had done here. When World War I erupted on the continent, Bishop Tikhon made it a point to minister and provide shelter to the homeless and to war refugees from the Eastern Front.

Small wonder, then, that as the war ground on and as the society erupted into revolution, the men and women of Moscow would turn to him for spiritual guidance. He was called to Moscow to advise the Diocesan Congress, to serve them as bishop, and to make plans to restore the Patriarchate of Moscow and All Rus’, which had been abolished under the Petrine reforms nearly two hundred years before. The three candidates for the position of Patriarch were Archbishop Antony (Khrapovitsky) of Kharkov, greatest in wisdom and learning; Archbishop Arseny (Stadnitsky) of Novgorod, renowned for piety and strictness; and Metropolitan Tikhon (Bellavin) himself, who was humblest and kindest in temperament. The ballot for the patriarchate was held in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour before the Vladimir ikon of the Holy Theotokos; and it was determined by the monks there that Metropolitan Tikhon had been chosen to become Patriarch. He was thus consecrated as Patriarch by Metropolitan (later Hieromartyr) Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky) of Kiev. After this happened, Patriarch Tikhon, referring to the Prophet Ezekiel’s scroll which read ‘lamentations, mourning and woe’, foresaw that his tenure as patriarch would be one filled with hardship; yet he let neither the status nor the hardships he foresaw change his character – he continued to surprise all those who met him with his meekness.

The Russian Revolution, after all, was well under way. Even though he had not shied away from making politically-outspoken statements in America; the situation in Russia demanded that the clergy take, to protect their flocks and indeed the witness of Church itself, a much more circumspect approach. ‘I can’t bless civil war,’ Patriarch Tikhon said, refusing to condemn either the communists or the counter-revolutionaries. ‘Red or White… all are children of the Church: sometimes faithful, sometimes straying. The only thing that I can do is to pray for reconciliation among our people.’ Rather than blessing or assenting to the bloodletting, Patriarch Tikhon used his position to call his people to repentance and to spiritual rebirth. He donated many church valuables to the aid of famine victims in the Volga basin, but he would not assent to the confiscation of Church property which was later demanded by the new Soviet government – for this he was thrown into prison, and many priests and believers were either imprisoned or executed. Likewise, he protested and resisted the ‘Living Church’ schism which took place under Soviet auspices in 1922, though when many of the schismatics repented and returned to the Orthodox Church, he met them with open arms and without recriminations – just as twenty years before he had been welcoming Uniates with similar joy and simplicity back into the Orthodox fold in America.

The upheavals in the Church and the repressions of the Soviet government took their toll on the good and generous Patriarch’s health; he worked and prayed through many sleepless nights. In 1924 he took ill and had to be admitted to a hospital – though he would leave it on Sundays and feast days to hold the Divine Liturgy, even to the very end of his life. He held his last Liturgy on the 23 March (OC), and two days later he was visited by Metropolitan Peter at the hospital, where they had a long conversation. He fell asleep, then awoke during the middle of the night; he crossed himself twice with the words ‘glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee’, and thus met his repose.

Patriarch Tikhon was met with nearly a million mourners in Moscow when he was interred at Donskoy Monastery. He had, after all, for all his self-defacement, gentleness and meekness, been a shining beacon of Orthodoxy – his mild forgiveness on matters corporeal and his firmness on matters eternal had steered the Orthodox faithful through one of their most difficult trials in recent history. Not for nothing is our beloved and blessed Patriarch Tikhon, dear to our hearts here in America as I’m sure he is to those in Russia, counted among the martyrs!
Let us praise Tikhon, the patriarch of all Russia,
And enlightener of North America:
An ardent follower of the Apostolic traditions,
And good pastor of the Church of Christ.
Who was elected by divine providence,
And laid down his life for his sheep.
Let us sing to him with faith and hope,
And ask for his hierarchical intercessions:
Keep the church in Russia in tranquillity,
And the church in North America in peace.
Gather her scattered children into one flock,
Bring to repentance those who have renounced the True Faith,
Preserve our lands from civil strife,
And entreat God's peace for all people!

07 October 2016

Eurasian persuasion

Without being anti-Western, I think it is safe to say that a balanced Orthodox theology needs to have its roots in both West and East. Speaking from the personal angle, I’ve found great spiritual nourishment and healing in both Bede and Berdyaev; in both Ambrose and the Abbas of the Desert – and found, often to my surprise, that they came to similar conclusions from different directions. Converting to Eastern Orthodoxy emphatically did not mean abandoning my Tory Anglophilia or my respect for the grand tradition to which my former Communion laid claim. But it did broaden and deepen, and perhaps explained in ways that were not evident before, the real ties that that same Tory Anglophilia had to my (both big-‘R’ and small-‘r’) romantic fascination with the East, broadly considered, both in its Persian and in its Chinese aspects.

It is again worth noting – over and over again, because it never seems to sink in – that a great many of the achievements of the West (and, let’s not fool ourselves, they are many and they are worthwhile!) are rooted in its exchanges with the East – both real and idealised. Greek philosophy, including mathematics and science, was inspired by ideas absorbed by Pythagoras in his tutelage under the Persian magi: ideas such as there being one God, ideal, perfectly good, without form and standing outside and beyond time and space. (Yes, it’s true: theology really is the queen of the sciences, though perhaps it’s more appropriate to say she is their mother!) And, as the Daoism-influenced Chinese social critic and philosopher Dr. Wang Hui points out frequently, ‘Asia’ was at once the source of the material wealth which drove much of the Western Renaissance, and also the idealised enemy against which modern theories of politics were, at the same time, established. The isolation and detachment of the West from the East is a geographical impossibility; it is an artificiality and a fiction. From this it follows, to a certain extent, that the artificial border thrown up by Atlanticist assumption between totalitarian Oriental despotism and virtuous Western republicanism is nothing more than a vulgarisation of this fiction, a doomed war against geographical and cultural reality.

The Slavs – children of East and West – were, after all, stuck in the middle on a gigantic land-bridge between the two. The Slavic peoples themselves have been from the beginning an admixture of Eastern and Western genetic influences, from the Teutonic Goths and from the Iranian Scythians. They were subject to Frankish encroachment and enslavement from the west, and from the east they faced down hordes of Magyars and Tatars. The Rus’ adopted their religion from the Byzantine Greeks and (at that time Turkic) Bulgars to the southeast, and their governors they selected from the ranks of the Scandinavian traders and raiders who came out of the northwest.

Because of this peculiar arrangement, the Rus’ grew into a culture which adopted the most humane, most personalistic, most kenotic and most communitarian aspects of their new faith. Unlike the Byzantines, but much like the Georgians at the peak of their civilisational openness to Iranian culture, the early Kievan rulers Prince Saint Vladimir and Prince Saint Yaroslav both shunned capital punishment and torture. Some among these early Christian rulers embraced an almost pacifistic ethos of martyrdom. The Kievan Rus’, more so even than other mediæval states of the time, embraced welfare provisions from the state and public education, administered largely through guilds and communes. It is little wonder, indeed, that a radical left-wing personalist like Nikolai Berdyaev could point to Kievan Rus’ as a model of the spiritual aspirations of the Russkiy mir, of the Russian idea!

On the other hand, though – though at the local and grass-roots level there was a kind of syndicalist form of social and religious life flourishing, aided and strengthened by the cœnobitic traditions of the Holy Orthodox Church – the life of the government took on a very different flavour very shortly after the era of the Princely Saints, Vladimir, Boris and Gleb, and heroes like Yaroslav and Vladimir Monomakh. Because the life of the state took after its Scandinavian origins rather than embedding itself in the life of the Slavic folk, it could often be vicious, venal and even tyrannical. The Viking warlords, the Rus’ who ruled their Eastern Slavic nation, gathered their close retainers about them, quickly consolidated their power in semi-independent principalities (often ruled by brothers and close kin), and struggled amongst themselves for influence and dominance. This arrangement was in some degree necessary – or quickly became so, as the Slavs were attacked from all sides, and eventually subjugated by the Tatars. However, when they gained their independence, it was under the auspices of Ivan III., the liberator and greatest ruler of the Russian people, who married Sophia Palaiologina (the last princess of the Byzantine line), and began to style himself, under her influence, Самодержец (Autocrat), Государ (Sovereign), Царь (Emperor). Syndicalism and communitarian village life at the grass-roots existed in parallel with absolute power in the halls of government! Let the gentle reader understand the irony. The humane, peace-loving, self-emptying, other-embracing aspects of the Russian soul come from its engagement with Iranian and Egyptian Desert spirituality. The embrace of absolute autocracy, on the other hand, stems from the Greco-Roman tradition and from addressing the demands and weaknesses of Scandinavian sacral kingship!

When Berdyaev remarks upon the Russian soul, the Russian temperament, this is what he means. On the one hand, there is a pure, an elemental, a perfectionist, an unshakeable and unquenchable passion and drive for justice and truth, the kind of anarchistic drive which levels all before it, and which can only be satisfied in the religious experience of the Messiah, the person of Christ. And on the other hand, there is the resignation and the obedience, the falling down before the absolute, the total subjection before the батька, the ‘father’ of the people. There is a total radicalisation of the ‘both-and’ in the Russian character; there is a total rejection of half-measures and muddling, of bourgeois grasping after the material; there is only the blinding Tabor white of martyrs, shot through with firmament sapphirine and with the vermilion of blood!

If Eurasianism represents, even in the eyes of its critics, a ‘fusion of Slavic and Turko-Muslim’ elements, and ‘interprets [Russia’s] geographic location as grounds for a kind of messianic “third way”’ – it is still a critical thing to consider. Europe and Asia are not truly as separate as some like to think, whether geographically, culturally or politically, and to too many in the West, the Russian nation is a very uncomfortable reminder of this. It goes against the bland, comfortable bourgeois narrative of ‘development’, and speaks to both spiritual and egalitarian values that are present but have gone too long disregarded in Europe. Eurasianism deserves, and will get, a serious hearing… though I confess that my own inclinations are still strongly to the elder Slavophilia, rather than to the ‘newer’ and more Renaissance-inflected theorising of Dugin.

06 October 2016

FedEx (a rant)


Happens more often than you think.

I dread going to FedEx.

Generally, when I go to the post office, I get quick, reliable and friendly service from people who take their job seriously and who will generally treat you well. In nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America post offices were once centres of the community where people would come to hang out, and there’s still something of a cheerful and homey feel to a lot of them; even nowadays when they’ve been ‘professionalised’ the people who work there will still make conversation with you and joke with you while they work. I’ve stopped into the post office on Seventh Street twenty minutes before work to pick up packages, with two women behind the desk and six people ahead of me in line, and still gotten my package with a smile and gotten to work on time. I’ve never had the USPS fail to deliver a package, though there was one time when they delivered my diploma from the University of Pittsburgh and it fell behind the heating grate on the landing of my apartment building, and they (understandably) couldn’t tell me what happened to it. It was a stroke of luck that let me see the corner of the envelope peeking out from behind the grate. So yes, I got my diploma a couple of weeks late, but if we’re being fair, that wasn’t their fault.

Not so with FedEx.

My wife had to get her paperwork for completing an application for a green card from the notoriously-truculent American consulate in Guangzhou. We were at a point in the process where the deadline for her mandatory physical examination was due to expire, and thus the paperwork was somewhat time-sensitive. It seemed that the only way to get the paperwork there on time was to fly it out by courier rather than mailing it by slow boat. However, the woman who worked at the FedEx Office told us that, a.) they were not allowed by law to deliver papers to any residential address in China; and b.) the courier service would not be able to deliver the papers to any address in China before Jessie had to get down to Guangzhou for her physical exam.

Fine. We’d still get them there, even if it was a few days late and had to arrive at the school that I used to teach at, to be picked up by my old colleague, Mr. H—, who would then give it to Jessie. We paid $91.50 for that service.

I checked with Mr. H— to see if my package had arrived on time. No, it hadn’t. Imagine my reaction when I saw on the FedEx website that the package could not be delivered because I’d given them the wrong address. The address that I had worked and lived at for a year. Irate, I called up FedEx, which transferred me to some poor fellow sitting in a cubicle in India, and told them that no, I hadn’t given them the wrong address, and could they try again to deliver the package? The Indian bloke told me he couldn’t guarantee anything, but he’d see what he could do. Long story short, it turned out I was right and they delivered the package to the school—five days after they said they would. For that privilege, I paid ninety-one dollars and fifty cents.

Another time, FedEx couldn’t deliver a package to my house, so they left one of those ‘sorry we missed you’ post-its on the front door. (Note: neither USPS nor UPS has had this problem.) I had to drive all the way up to Roseville to get my package. I was the only person in the room, and the woman behind the desk kept me waiting for a full 15 minutes while she was on the phone, while a queue behind me started to form, then got my package and refused to answer my questions about why it couldn’t be delivered.

More recently – my workplace uses FedEx for all their printing services. I find this an… unfortunate choice, but what can I do? I order 6 copies of a 40-page PowerPoint presentation, spiral-bound, with a clear vinyl cover and a black vinyl back. I get to the FedEx Printing Centre the next morning to pick them up, and what do they give me? 12 copies of some 4-page document I don’t even recognise, stapled! I told them it wasn’t my order, and they didn’t believe me at first, and had to check the computer to figure out that I wasn’t trying to welsh them or something. This was also a time-sensitive document, so there wasn’t anything for it but to wait another 20 minutes while they did the correct print job. (It took three of these middle-aged guys to process my order, and I was worried for a while that they didn’t even look to see if each packet was in the correct order or had the right number of pages!) But they eventually handed me what I’d asked for, without so much as an apology until I was already on my way out the door, and even then only as a grumbling afterthought.

Huzzah for the superior service of the private sector in the free freaking market, huh?

I tell you this much – if not at my employer’s behest, I’m not darkening the doorstep of a FedEx ever again.

EDIT: Hat-tip to my reader Peter Gardner for this amusing article illustrating, for a less-grouchy contrast, the admirable lengths the good men and women of the US Postal Service will go to to deliver all manner of packages. And I really do mean all manner!