23 October 2014

Black Lagoon

I really can’t say I’m as much of a weeaboo as I used to be. Politically I’m not a Japanophile at all. Actually living and working in East Asia – China and Japan – cured me of that. And going to college pretty much turned me off from most Japanese cultural exports. There’s a plasticity and sterility to them which, to tell the truth, kind of rubs me the wrong way. Nowadays I mentally sort Japanese anime and manga into four broad categories:
  • Art. Anime and manga with endearing characteristics that can pass for a soul on something deeper than a cursory inspection. Generally has one creator with a consistent, clear creative vision, who wants to do his own thing regardless of what the market pressures him to do – which in Japanese culture makes him or her essentially a megalomaniac or a crazy outcast bastard. Generally also has a storyline which doesn’t succumb to plot clichés and cardboard-cutout characters. Examples include: Last Exile, Jûni Kokki, Cowboy Bebop, Hakujaden, Samurai Champloo, Haibane Renmei, basically anything with Miyazaki Hayao’s name attached to it (and possibly anything by Studio Ghibli generally).

  • Cheap, hackish commercial schlock. Anime and manga that blatantly and shamelessly ride the crest of some popular trend or obviously try to cash in on something. Usually accompanied by a collector card game or a line of overpriced plastic toys. Generally has a predictable paint-by-numbers plot populated by paint-by-numbers heroes fighting villains-of-the-week. Often accompanied by unrealistic huge piloted robots. Or unrealistic huge piloted robots capable of space travel. Or unrealistic huge piloted robots that can join together to form even more unrealistic, huger piloted robots. Or katanas. Or katanas that can destroy in one swing unrealistic huge piloted robots capable of space travel which can join together to form even more gAAAAHHHHHHggguurrrggggl… you get my drift. Basically heartless, soulless brightly-coloured crap, made as cheap as possible and animated, directed and produced by committee for maximum possible payout. Examples include: One Piece, Naruto, Yû-Gi-Oh!, Digimon, Fushigi Yûgi, Full Metal Alchemist, Cardcaptor Sakura, Transformers (the originals and especially the Michael Bay remakes), practically anything with Gundam in the title, practically anything that played on FOX Kids, and so on. Yes, I’m prejudiced. Go cry me a river.

  • Cheap, hackish commercial schlock with a certain sense of comic self-awareness. Plays the irony factor occasionally. Slightly hipsterish in orientation, or at least comical in a certain sense. May have cardboard-cutout characters but at least plays them off each other, breaks the fourth wall for laughs, or undermines them in certain ways which are amusing for the viewer. May or may not have certain mo lei tau tendencies. Usually authored by at least one artist with a sense of humour, though probably also with a profit motive and a massive ego. Examples include: The Slayers (self-aware low-budget D&D-styled schlock par excellence!), Excel Saga (utter mo lei tau brilliance), FLCL, the original Dragon Ball (not any of the sequels), Dr. Slump and Rumic World.

  • Pretentious poseurish bullshit. My very least favourite form of anime and manga – truly the bottom of the barrel. Tries to be deep. Fails miserably. Clearly influenced by the original run of Eva. Too much so. In all the wrong ways. Often to the point where it may include quotes by or allusions to Greek, German, French or Danish philosophers it clearly doesn’t understand (bonus points if it uses the original language in a flowery cursive font; triple points if it has Engrish misspellings; tenfold points if at any point it includes sakura flower petals floating by). Tries to be dark and edgy. Comes off as boring, mopey and emo. Features plots which are needlessly drawn-out, don’t make sense, or both. Features characters which are cardboard-cutouts but which tries its hardest to convince us they aren’t. Probably has an intentionally-misspelled title, a title with capital letters in the wrong place, or over- or misused punctuation marks. Has a single artist or author on medications, who is also possibly a suspect in multiple child molestation cases. Textbook example and my personal nemesis: DeathNote – which holds the distinction of being the only anime ever to make me actively root for the Chinese state censors. Other examples: SaiKano, any of the spinoffs or remakes of Eva (the original is debatable), Witch Hunter Robin, Rurôni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal, Code Geass.
Which leaves me with the question of what to do with Black Lagoon, which I just recently watched. After having watched it, I still can’t decide if what I watched fell into the category of art, pretentious poseurish bullshit, or maybe a new category – self-aware pretentious poseurish bullshit.

What it is is remarkably entertaining and darkly funny. If Quentin Tarantino (complete with his brand of vaguely left-wing politics) directed Pirates of the Caribbean set in modern-day Southeast Asia, with an artistic style that is clearly trying to ape Cowboy Bebop, the result would look very similar to this. And one of the main characters is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, blue-streaking, dual Beretta-wielding, hotpants-rocking tattooed Chinese-American badass raised on the wrong side of Manhattan. How badass, you say? Put it this way: anytime she opens her mouth or twitches her finger she can roundhouse kick Chuck Norris before shooting him in the damn face.

Citizen of the fucking year.

The series can’t avoid being political, though I’m not decided yet whether it’s a good thing or not. And because of its following the main character Rock, who as a low-ranking young Japanese salaryman is a minnow thrown into the shark pool that is Tortuga the fictional Thai port town Roanapur, its politics come off at first as vaguely quasi-anarchist. He gets kidnapped by pirates and his bosses essentially try to get him killed in order to prevent the pirates from completing their contract, but after he learns of and then foils their plan, disillusioned with the Japanese corporate world he turns pirate himself.

And, not to give away spoilers, but the ranking superpower on the world stage often makes its weight felt in this series. When the main characters aren’t Tarantino-ing neo-Nazis in the style of Inglourious Basterds, that is. Or getting into fights with unstoppable Colombian ex-mercenaries, busting the heads of Philippine Islamists, protecting a one-woman international counterfeiting ring from Cuban-American Mafiosi or abetting the massacre of entire yakuza clans by ex-Soviet gangsters. It’s a real mixed bag that way.

Where it gets into the pretentious bullshit territory, though, is when Rock ends up in a sort of pointless existential crisis on account of a sympathetic Heidegger- and Sartre-quoting villain-of-the-arc. Philosophically it is literate (unlike so many of Eva’s countless imitators) and it makes sense both for him and for the villain, but in terms of the story I’m not entirely sure it tells us anything we didn’t already know about Rock – and it certainly doesn’t resolve anything. (Though maybe that’s the point. Argh.)

I’m not undecided on the quality of this series. It is remarkably well-made. Gratuitous? Gleefully so. But even the gratuitousness has a point to make. And the characters really do grow on you, even the ones who would be the most unlikeable in real life, and that’s all to Rei Hiroe’s credit. The artwork is pretty derivative, but the story is better than decent! I’m giving it my recommendation.

17 October 2014

We’ve always been at war with Eurasia

The Washington Post has come out, it seems, with a fresh read on Russian history that, for a change, appears to be as self-aware as it is cynical and Nietzschean. ‘It goes to show,’ writes Ishaan Tharoor, ‘how much the politics of an era shape its conversation about cultures and peoples. That's no less true now than it was almost two centuries ago.’ Sadly, yes. And none seem to be taking full advantage of the fact more than Mr. Tharoor and his neoconservative employers at the Washington Post.

Let me be clear: I am very demonstrably not a fan of Bill Maher. Even less am I a fan of vulgar neoconservative proselytes like Sam Harris. But in responding to the idiotic, fact-free generalisations about Islam the two of them were making on Real Time, which led Ben Affleck and even humanitarian bombing-enthusiast Nick Kristof to call them out for what they were, it seems the American propaganda machine has found its opportunity to turn this internecine conflict amongst militant liberal interventionists to its geopolitical advantage.

Sam Harris is indeed a rather sad little figure who finds himself helplessly behind the times since Hitchens’ death. As far as his other neoconservative idols are concerned, bashing Islam is so 2002. Because regardless of what American liberals and neocons think about Islam, at least they can all agree on what the Party tells them: Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

And that is what Ishaan Tharoor seems to be capitalising on here. ‘Russia represented,’ Tharoor informs us, ‘a backward, superstitious society where peasants still labored in semi-slavery and monarchs ruled as tyrants, unchallenged by parliaments and liberal sentiment. The Ottomans, who were embarking on their own process of reform, looked favorable in comparison.’

Oh, indeed. I’m sure that for the sanctimonious liberal Victorians of the day, the actual chattel slavery practiced by the Ottomans was preferable by far to the ‘semi-slavery’ of the Russian peasantry (which had itself been imposed on them by a Germanising aristocracy). And I’m sure that quintessential sanctimonious liberal Victorian David Urquhart, who gets quoted approvingly throughout Tharoor’s article, had absolutely no problem with the male sex-slaves who were part-and-parcel with the Turkish bathhouses to which he credits the Ottoman Empire’s public cleanliness.

And, after all, someone needed to keep all those ‘warring Druze and Maronites in the Levant’ and ‘feuding Greek Orthodox and Armenians’ in line! Why, all these backward Armenians ought to be on their knees in gratitude to the Ottomans for having taught them tolerance and moderation, right?

Tharoor states, apparently without any sense of irony, that ‘the history lesson above is not meant to denigrate the Russians and praise the Ottomans’. Is that so? For all the pearl-clutching among neoconservatives and ‘decent’ liberals over the ‘moral equivalence’ less-‘decent’ Western leftists supposedly engage in, it’s clear that they are as wont to engage in moral relativism as anyone else in American discourse, in pursuit of their own agenda. Now that it is politically expedient for them to do so, the ‘decent’ liberal interventionists want to whitewash the debaucheries, decadence and genocidal brutality of the Ottoman slave state – even to its own fellow Muslims, let alone to its Christians – in order to highlight the shortcomings of the markedly and demonstrably less-debauched, less-decadent and less-brutal Tsarist Russia, from the ashes of which looms America’s evil enemy du jour.

Tharoor claims by the end that his piece is meant to ‘show how much the politics of an era shape its conversation about cultures and peoples’. This is highly debatable, but if that was the true aim of this piece, it succeeds only as a deliberately-ironic postmodernist art project. Because in despite of his protestations to the contrary he is clearly appealing, in the grossest and most cynical way, to the anti-Russian cultural narrative which inheres in the political conversation of this era.

14 October 2014

Pointless video post – ‘Healing Tongue’ by Spirit Caravan

Wino Weinrich is my kind of guy. Not only does he have one of the most awesome metal voices since Lemmy Kilmister, but as one of the leading visionaries of doom metal from his time in The Obsessed and Saint Vitus, a fighter against and survivor of addiction, there has always been a spiritual bent to Wino’s music (well, maybe not so much in this song - this one is just plain awesome from a musical perspective). But he does seem to have led a charmed life, and being an outspoken, contrarian, curmudgeonly left-wing peacenik and fan of Dennis Kucinich I do find myself in broad agreement with his social and political priorities!

Anyway, Saint Vitus’s Born Too Late is a great album, as is everything he did as the headman of Spirit Caravan. The Hidden Hand is less heavy and a bit more progressive than Spirit Caravan (to judge by Devoid of Colour and The Resurrection of Whiskey Foote), but lyrically it is much more direct. Basically Spirit Caravan showcases his artistry of fuzz, his ridership of the heavy riff and his mastery of the gravelly blues-rock vocal kick. Do enjoy ‘Healing Tongue’ here (from The Last Embrace), and give a listen to... well, anything the man has ever done. I guarantee you it will be time well-spent!

13 October 2014

Peter, Paul and Putin

Cross-posted from Oriental Review:

Since having been back in the United States, I got to make a visit to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. It was an awesome experience – and I say this not in the colloquial way but in a heartfelt way. It was one of my first ever visits to a monastic community; the sublime sense of peace about the place, and amongst the people (both monks and other visitors) there was the real sense that we had stepped into another world. I will be the last to deny that upstate New York has its own salvific charms and beauties; but Holy Trinity was something else entirely. Unfortunately we could not stay for the Divine Liturgy since we were on the road home at the time, but the museum at Holy Trinity was equally impressive.

It was a collection of relics, books, icons, altarpieces, personal devotional items, mementos, historical documents and photographs, all preserved by the white émigrés who had fled Russia in the wake of the liberal and Bolshevist revolutions of 1917. It was a truly breathtaking collection, and it was all laid out chronologically, from a 16th-century psalter to family photos of white émigré families taken in their new homes in the US. And it was accompanied by the history of the Romanov royal family all throughout that time, from Mikhail Fyodorovich down to the martyred children of Ss. Nikolai Aleksandrovich and Aleksandra Fyodorovna. It was an incredible learning experience for me, but as I read about each of the lives of each of the Tsars in turn, one subtle trend kept coming to the fore.

In the wake of Tsar Pyotr I, there was a marked alternation between Western-leaning rulers of Russia who sought to strengthen and enrich themselves by importing anything and everything German and French, and those who sought strength in the people and spirit of Russia itself. Following the ‘enlightened’ despot Ekaterin ‘the Great’, who entrenched the institution of serfdom and stripped the monasteries of their traditional privileges whilst all the while proclaiming the liberation and dignity of the individual mind, there was her tragically short-lived son Pavel who restored some of the privileges of the Orthodox monks and the common people whilst reining in the ‘enlightened’ Frenchified nobility. The Westernising Aleksandr I was followed by the more traditionally Slavophil Nikolai I. Aleksandr II, ‘the Liberator’, was on friendly terms particularly with the United States and saw in us a kindred spirit of political freedom; it was his son Aleksandr III, however, who propounded the conservative political doctrine of pochvennichestvo (‘back to the land’), and of course the last of the Russian Emperors, Tsar S. Nikolai II the Passion-Bearer, had a very strong Slavophil streak.

So much was treated in Holy Trinity Monastery’s museum. But one can certainly argue that this trend, alternating between Western-facing and inward-seeking cultural politics (or, if one likes, between zapadnichestvo and slavyanofil’stvo) has continued well into modern times.

More recently, too, the Soviets began as extreme Westernisers following in the footsteps of 19th-century radicals Aleksandr Herzen and Vissarion Belinsky, despising the backwardness of the traditional Russian clergy and the traditional Russian peasantry and wishing to adopt wholesale both the material culture and the philosophy of their German counterparts. Lenin and Stalin both evinced a Westernising attitude to varying degrees. Despite his mode of assertion that socialism could be attained within a single nation, Stalin’s nationalism was selective, and not particularly Russian in character. In addition to the class-enemy status of the Russian kulak, the less-well-off peasantry came to be regarded with suspicion as forced industrialisation became the order of the day. And although Stalin would later sanction the Orthodox Church as a useful tool in controlling the populace, he never afforded it any true honours. Later Soviet rulers beginning with Brezhnev began recognising the need for an independent geopolitics and began, if not outright reassessing the value of the Slavophil legacy, at least understanding that Russia had a unique position in the socialist world, and perhaps even a spiritual mission in it (even if ideologically such thinking was forbidden).

When the Soviet Union collapsed, American economists and political leaders ensured that all the political and economic power of that union fell into the hands of the extreme shock-therapy beneficiaries and zapadniki under Eltsin. In the decade of rapine by Russia’s richest (and starvation by Russia’s poorest) which followed, it was natural that the Russian people would turn to Vladimir Putin. Putin has evinced, at least in the eyes of the Russian public, a much more Slavophil sensibility, even if his Slavophilia is inherited second- or third-hand from the conservative thought of Pyotr Stolypin and Ivan Il’in. Putin promises, as did Tsar Pavel I before him, to restore to Russia’s people a sense of the dignity they’d lost under a generation of oligarchs whose greed and gluttony were matched only by the cold, practically bestial apathy with which they treated their poorer countrymen. In spite of his tragic assassination, Pavel had it relatively easy. Those oligarchs were unabashedly German. The modern criminal class of oligarchs like Khodorkovsky and the late Berezovsky who tried to stare down Putin and lost, brazenly proclaim themselves to be the true voice of Russia even from their remarkably cushy exiles.

Russian society and government today is riven by the same oscillations. One might remark that these oscillations are its natural doom, given its geography. Historically, when it has not been threatened and overrun by Tatars and Mongols, it has been threatened and overrun by revolutionary French or fascist Germans. Being a nation which must face simultaneously west and east, caught at a crossroads between civilisations and cultures and religions, there will always be cross-pressures exerted on Russian society from West and East.

But lest we forget: the Russian civilisation has a character all its own. It is a relatively new civilisation, of only a thousand years. But it bears a resemblance and a relation, as the protophilosopher of Slavophilism Aleksey Khomyakov pointed out, to the Iranian civilisational ‘type’. Russia, like Persia before it, must be understood as a lettered and lyrical civilisation. It is therefore also a spiritual civilisation. And, like Persia before it and alongside it as well, it is given both to the depths of philosophical pursuit after truth (and theological pursuit after the one uncreated Source of that Truth) and to the urgent calls of radical social action, driven by the conviction that even the lowest and poorest in society must be dignified as agents of language. As such, the deepest and truest and grandest manifestations of the Russian soul are not in sculpture and monument, the static depictions of earthly power and force, but rather in rhyme and verse and prayer – the free and living expressions of truth.

There is a great deal of truth in Khomyakov’s likening of the Russian civilisation to the Iranian, but this Slavophil (dare we say Parsophil?) account is somewhat too simplistic. There is always the Daoist Chinese turn in the traditional Russian mind as well. The highest truths cannot be spoken or sung aloud, and if they can be prayed they must be prayed in silent attention. This is evident, ironically enough, in the works of the Slavophils themselves, who always pointed to the theological ideas of sobornost’ (catholicity) and of integral knowing in their works but never directly spelt them out. The Iranian civilisational principle (imparted to the Slavs at their genesis by way of the Alans) which Khomyakov identified as central to the Slavic spirit, was never proclaimed from the rooftops with a Cyrus cylinder or a Shahnameh, but rather kept in a very Chinese humility in the common life of the family and of the obshchina (traditional peasant commune). Khomyakov understood that China was not merely a tyranny like unto all the other tyrannies around the world, but carried within itself a refinement which defied both Tatar rapine and British opium-fuelled befuddlement.

This peculiar and worlds-defying civilisational expression, both Western and Eastern, we may imagine was a block on which power-hungry Tsars might ascend, but which would always cause them to stumble and bruise and break their feet. A Westerner, approaching Russian history from a Whiggish perspective, might find baffling this idea that tyrants like Pyotr and Ekaterin might be Westernisers; that is, that they would espouse a philosophy of bourgeois freedom and secular political science against the grain of the civilisation they ruled. They might find it paradoxical, even mad. Surely ‘Russian autocracy’ must account for their dictatorial methods, and nothing else! Thus the flaws in the Western perspective may be covered over and magicked away by attributing the attachment to it of a Pyotr, or an Ekaterin, or an Eltsin, to the personal insincerities, hypocrisies and foibles of a nobility spoilt by a decadent and backwards culture.

But this cannot be the whole story. Eltsin is a trickier case, but clearly Pyotr was not mad; nor was Ekaterin. Serfdom was introduced and entrenched under a series of Westernising monarchs and a Westernising state apparatus. Those who railed loudest for its abolition included the Slavophil theorists and the narodniki (populists). It must be acknowledged: the bearded, praying Russian peasant was the threat to the Westernising absolutist, and needed to be broken; this newfangled Whiggish enlightenment philosophy, on the other hand, in despite of its democratic protestations, could be too-easily tamed to an absolutist will.

Because Western reason – not Russian reason and not Iranian reason – admits only one principle for the necessary and rational legitimation of government. Nowadays, that principle is ‘democracy’, the popular will. But Pyotr and Ekaterin and Boris all found it easy enough to locate that one principle in their personal whims. They found it easier to govern as tyrants, a people who have had all the lyricism and the prayer beaten out of them, and who have had both replaced with the formulas of rights and gain. Slavyanofil’stvo may have openly supported an autocratic monarchy, but it cannot be ignored that in practice the Tsars found it easier to implement serfdom, subjection of the Orthodox Church and other tyrannical measures with zapadnichestvo!

Given this paradoxical historical dialectic to which Russia has found herself prone since the eighteenth century dawned, it becomes necessary for our public sphere to re-evaluate Vladimir Vladimirovich. It should be readily apparent by now that the constant drumbeat of the Western news media across practically the entire political spectrum (from FOX News to MSNBC and from the Wall Street Journal and Reason Magazine to Vice News), to the effect that the only relevant fact is that Putin is an evil neo-Stalinist tyrant who must be done away with, is naïve and intellectually suspect at the very best. Clearly the nation he governs is complex enough that no such facile characterisation will stick very well. And when one examines the undercurrents in the history – that the tyrannies of Pyotr and Ekaterin, but also of Lenin and Stalin, and later Eltsin, have been accompanied and supported by Westernising influences; and that beneficial reforms, like the abolition of serfdom, have come largely at the hands of churchmen, Slavophils or quasi-Slavophils doing damage control – it becomes somewhat clearer why Putin enjoys such high rates of support, rates which tend to baffle or frustrate Western news audiences (when they aren’t refusing to believe them outright).

It also becomes clear that Putin’s project is precisely not a neo-Stalinist or any kind of neo-Soviet one. When he ‘acknowledge[d] that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century’, he did so in the context of a speech which attempted to articulate a new way forward that was neither totalitarian nor gangster-capitalist. When Putin says he wants neither the ‘take away and divide by all’ revolutionary past, nor the ‘careless reforms’ which resulted in oligarchic control of the media, mass poverty, economic stagnation, unstable finances and paralysis of the public sphere, he should be taken at his word. Any sane, realistic Russian leader with any career hopes at this point would be seeking to bolster his own domestic support by at least sounding like a Slavophil, at a point at which many Russians have come to see Westernisation as a total non-starter.

And so we have Putin at least saying in public that he is committed to defending Orthodox Christendom, including that in the Middle East, supporting the secular government in Syria and offering visas to Middle Eastern Christians under threat from Islamic extremists. We have him expanding upon Medvedev’s land reform programmes guaranteeing all Russian citizens a small plot of arable land, in order to encourage smallholder and community agriculture. We have him openly criticising big ag and genetic modification corporate giants like Monsanto and Syngenta, and his Duma imposing severe legal restrictions on GMO seed trading inside Russia. We have him proposing to reconstruct Chudov Monastery and Voznesensky Convent in the Kremlin, which had been destroyed by Stalin in 1930. And we have him critiquing American foreign policy whenever it seeks to pressure Russia or make its immediate backyard a more unstable and dangerous place (which is, sadly, often).

This is not to say, of course, that the United States must write off Russia as an ally or as a potential partner in certain areas. Russia’s looking inward to fix its own problems, even though it might use an oppositional, combative language against America and the West more generally, will in fact ease the pressure Russia places on Western governments in the long run as its geopolitics reorient themselves eastward. From such introspection a new Russia may emerge: one which can be trusted to oppose the extremes of political Islam, of radical rightism in Europe and of the encroachments of the cultural imperialism of the liberal elites of the current global hegemon – and to assert in its place a spiritual, a more personalistic vision of the potentials of human society. This Russia will naturally and unavoidably have some elements of authoritarian rule, but these will be worn openly and the limits of authoritarianism will be made legible to observation both from within and from without.

But this Russia may not emerge under Tsar Pyotr’s dialectic. As long as Russia keeps measuring itself against the West, whether trying to be Westernised (as Ekaterin wanted) or whether trying to rebel against the West (as Pavel rebelled against his mother), it cannot awaken. It should be noted that Putin himself falls under Pyotr’s dialectic, in his attempts to clean up the mess left by Gorbachev and Eltsin. And Putin cannot hope to build, solely under the power lent to him by a rebuilt Russian state and by an enthusiastic generation of Russians, the Russia that is to come.

The Russia that is to come, if it is to emerge, will emerge suddenly and under a kind of otherworldly hope. It will be a bridge between West and East, a friend and support to both, and subservient to a personalist ideal rather than to the worldly political leaders and economic elites of either.

09 October 2014

Politics of character

Cross-posted from the Lanchester Review:

The issue of traditional versus simplified Chinese characters has historically been quite a contentious one, though in an age of global communications and computerised typing the debate has come to be more symbolic than anything else. But even symbolic disputes still have to symbolise something. What can confuse many observers of the traditional-simplified debate is that the political actors that have come to champion each (the mainland Chinese favouring the simplified set; and Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Overseas Chinese favouring the traditional) have for their own purposes obscured the history of the characters and the actual reasoning behind their use.

It is commonly believed, and commonly asserted by both sides of the debate, that simplified characters have a leftist raison d’être – as an effort by the Chinese Communist government either to (depending on whether you are a detractor or a supporter of the effort) distance the Chinese people from traditional classical education and traditional culture, or to promote greater functional literacy amongst the Chinese populace. But character simplification was not exclusively or even first promoted by the Communists. The shinjitai simplification scheme was promulgated first by the post-war Japanese Ministry of Education in 1946 – many of these simplifications (such as xue 學 -> 学, luan 亂 -> 乱 or tai 臺 -> 台) were adopted without alteration by the mainland Chinese government ten years later.

The simplification scheme was not, as is popularly believed, imposed by the American occupation. It was a compromise between existing literary and political blocs: those arguing for continued traditional character use on the one hand; and those arguing for restriction, simplification and even elimination of kanji from official Japanese on the other. Indeed, plans to simplify or even eliminate the use of Chinese characters in Japan had been in the works since the 1880’s. The primary impetus for altering or restricting the number of Chinese characters in use came from liberal intellectuals and newspaper executives (particularly from the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun) who stood to gain a higher readership by broadening their reading audience, to include Japanese people without a classical education.

However, there was also mingled in a political element. The primary proponents of character simplification, of whom Prime Minister Hara Takashi may be taken as a chief representative, were members of what we would now call the ‘new class’, who were openly hostile to the old military class and to the traditional Confucian understanding of humane government. They were angling also to protect the gains of a Western-style parliamentary democracy in Japan. Broadly, the initial advocates of simplified characters were advocates also, for closely-related reasons, of a technocracy based on merit, of an expansive capitalist economy and of militarism – particularly against China.

These militaristic, technocratic liberal arrivistes were opposed at the time, it should be noted, by the proletarian and social-democratic Japanese parties and movements of the time (the Social Democratic Party, the Labour-Farmer Party, the Communist Party and the related leftist student and labour movements), which wanted to popularise Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles and to retain friendlier relations overall with, then Guomindang-ruled, China, as well as by the old-guard cultural conservatives and traditional feudal-military families.

The positions shifted only when the Mukden Incident of 1931 led the military and its associated news organs to demand greater freedom to print materials borrowing heavily from Chinese, particularly to describe place-names and people.

Of course, it would be highly insulting to many advocates of simplified characters to insinuate that they are perpetuating what is essentially a Japanese militarist-bureaucratic project – in any event, nowadays it simply isn’t true. For better or for worse, the people and government of the Chinese mainland have taken the simplified Chinese character scheme as their own.

But Japanese history should make it clear that the use of traditional Chinese characters has not in the least been associated with anti-leftism. Still less is the logical transposition true, that the use of simplified characters necessarily implies leftist politics! I know of few people who would claim Lee Kuan Yew as a leftist, and even fewer who would claim the government of Malaysia under the Barisan Nasional as such. Japan’s history of character simplification should illustrate at the very least that there are more dimensions to East Asian politics than merely tradition versus modernity, and that the Left, broadly considered, is capable of being more sympathetic to concrete expressions of Chinese tradition than the Right, broadly considered.

But it is in China and amongst Western expats and China-watchers that this lesson needs to be taken most to heart.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution finds very few defenders these days on the Left. None in the CCP are actually willing anymore to claim it as a good idea, let alone anything like a success. Though it is a depressingly popular canard amongst right-liberal ‘public intellectuals’, netizens and Western observers that the Chinese New Left (新左派) are trying to bring back the politics of the Cultural Revolution, no one of any stature in the movement will lay claim to it in any substantial way.

Indeed, Dr. Wang Hui is a stout advocate of greater protections for the traditional collective rights, land claims and life-worlds of China’s ethnic minorities – including in Tibet. It can be further argued that his cultural critique owes more to Daoism than it does to Marxism. Dr. Cui Zhiyuan, architect of Bo Xilai’s ill-fated and much-maligned Chongqing reforms, does not cite Mao at all but draws his inspiration from James Meade and, it is to be presumed, from the non-Marxist British Labour tradition more generally. Though there are liberal-democratic motions within the Chinese New Left, there are also interesting areas of overlap with the Burke-tinged institutional Confucianism of Kang Youwei, now represented by Kang Xiaoguang and Jiang Qing.

Mainland China is very rapidly becoming a far more interesting place, intellectually and politically, than most outside observers (with their focus on officialdom and its official right-liberal ‘dissidents’) tend to realise themselves.

And although the debates of character politics have cooled, the larger political debate over the fate of China’s concrete traditions is simply not going away anytime soon. And that debate still has the capacity to take a variety of interesting strokes.

08 October 2014

Eastern Orthodox, not anti-Western

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

It was with some surprise that, when reading Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart’s article on the ‘Myth of Schism’, I found that my initial reaction was one of affront. It was odd. Why on earth should I be affronted by a philosopher’s critique of the tradition into which I had been baptised, particularly when he himself is a member and an invaluable interpreter of that tradition? His article was certainly well-argued, and the claims he made were audacious but made with rigour. Is there an ‘anti-Western’ passion in Eastern Orthodoxy which is spiritually harmful to us, and harmful to constructive dialogue with the jurisdiction of Rome? Are we indeed ‘incapable or unwilling to acknowledge any recognizable distinction between substantial and accidental differences, between real and imagined difficulties, between obvious and merely suppositious theological issues, and between matters of negligible import and those that lie at the heart of our division’?

First, Dr. Hart’s account of the substantial differences, real difficulties and obvious theological issues at the heart of the East-West Schism needs to be adjudged. His insistence that young Orthodox converts read S. Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas I can’t fault at all. Perhaps I ought to count myself lucky to have read both before my conversion! I’ve often defended Augustine’s legacy – full stop, he’s an incredibly keen intellect and one who deserves to be read far more widely, if for the sole reason that he tends to get misinterpreted across the board on matters ranging from the first sin to sex to the state.

Aquinas, I think, is useful insofar as he represents a style of theology from which we can take many valuable insights, particularly in the Summa Theologiæ and De Regno. Aquinas is wonderful for his bulletproof theological syllogisms, particularly against sins like usury or in defence of the poor and hungry! Also, De Regno, for its clear articulation of the ends of human life and government particularly in an urban setting, ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the fate of the modern city, or in politics in general – Orthodox very much included. And I certainly don’t want to attack the entire tradition of Scholasticism of which Aquinas is the prime representative in the West – the same tradition which gave us S. John of Damascus’s Exact Exposition. How Aquinas gets used popularly by later Roman Catholic thinkers is another story entirely, however… and not (as many Orthodox, myself very much included, sometimes tend to forget!) the fault of poor Thomas himself!

Regarding the filioque, Dr. Hart does treat it as a serious doctrinal difference, though one also subject to a good deal of fetishism on our end. At certain points I think Dr. Hart tries to make the filioque controversy into something of a well-intentioned misunderstanding, albeit one of tragic long standing which cannot be solved by theological quibbling but only by a purging of the filioque from the Symbol of Faith.

His understanding of the doctrinal issue is clearly far deeper by leagues than my own – and I would say the same of many Catholic theologians as well. Thus, I must take him at his word when he asserts that post-Losskian Orthodox accounts of the Trinitarian oikonomia have the potential to be theologically disastrous, particularly if they do indeed claim that ‘the Trinitarian relations as revealed in the economy of salvation are distinct from the eternal relations of the immanent Trinity’. I wouldn’t know personally as I haven’t read either Lossky or Romanides, but even I’ve read enough to figure that such formulations of the Orthodox position are nonsensical.

But given that the filioque itself represents a wound inflicted on the unity of the Church, I think he is right that it needs to go, not to be altered, not to be amended, not to be bargained over. To the Roman Catholics it may be a minor and even a trivial difference, but they of all people ought to be sensitive to the argument that even minor and trivial differences can have profound and dangerous implications! To the Orthodox, the filioque represents an attempt to peer inside the divine oikonomia, to take it apart and see what makes it tick – a human presumption, in other words, to understand and therefore master the essence of the divine. Perhaps it is indeed much too convenient, much too fetishistic, to see the filioque and the turn in theology it represented as the West’s ancestral sin, the root and the beginning of the era in the West of man’s quest for mastery over man and nature – of the Renaissance, of ‘exploration’ and colonialism, of the Reformation, of the enclosures, of the Baconian worldview, of the ‘Enlightenment’ and of the twin revolutions of modernity. But for an Orthodox believer it remains a tempting view all the same, the more so when it has a fairly plausible historical justification!

And here is where I think Dr. Hart’s statements to the effect that ‘ultra-Orthodox’ types tend to approach Roman Catholic dialogue with a ready list of bitter recriminations in hand start to strike home. I am a Westerner. No part of my cultural background is non-Western; the closest I come is through my Bohemian grandmother. I’m not even a self-hating Westerner! I love unconditionally the Western world, the authentic Western tradition and what it represents – or at least those quiet, contemplative and Platonic parts of it, those which are content to live and let live, those which are reminiscent of Tolkien’s Shire and not of the White Wizard’s Isengard. I converted to Orthodoxy primarily because of my personal encounters with it, but certainly more on account of S. Bede and Nicholas Berdyaev – both of whom I have read, and of whom the former is unquestionably Western and the latter very arguably so by means of his heritage, his upbringing and his exile – than on account of Vladimir Lossky or John Romanides. And I have absolutely no desire to see the West decline or fall.

It need hardly be said that Dr. Hart’s final exhortations against the ‘soothing and saccharine nihilism’ which seems ascendant in a consumerist and capitalist post-Christian West, and his clarion call to the rest of the Eastern Orthodox communion to bring its spiritual witness to the aid of Rome and of Western Christendom, ring too true to my ear for comfort. If I have felt affront, is it because of my own neglect? Rome has for too long now been fighting, largely alone, the nihilistic tides which have followed from the ideology of conquest mentioned above. Are we content to cling in our dotage to our historical grudges and to the last scraps of our failing kingdoms, or do we indeed ride for Gondor in its hour of need, in spite of our history of division?

I do think we Eastern Orthodox need to be consistent, insofar as we are socially engaged, in opposing the fruits of nominalism wherever we find them, whether they are in the wanton destruction of the natural environment, or in the wanton destruction of human lives. We ought to uphold as much as we are able the dignity of the human person as she is embedded in her community and in her social context, with as much fervour as the Romans have done. We certainly ought to join with consistent Roman Catholics in opposing the appalling abuses of society’s most vulnerable members: the unborn, refugees, widows and orphans, the elderly, wage labourers. We ought to bring our witness firmly against the machineries of unjust warfare and of the obscene gap (within countries and between them) between the wealthy and the poor.

That is not to say we should not admonish Western polities when they betray the trust they have been shown, particularly nowadays and particularly in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, and particularly where we are members of those polities. The humanitarian and refugee crisis being caused by the new Ukrainian government’s civil war in the east of the country is utterly intolerable. Further, the fact that it was fuelled by a dispute over the fate of local linguistic communities and local industries (in which the Russian Orthodox communities were fighting for principles of federalism, subsidiarity and local coöperative ownership of land, resources and capital) ought to be held up as an example of where Roman Catholics, particularly the Uniates, have cravenly abandoned for reasons of political expediency and power politics the social teaching their own church proclaims. In Syria and Libya as well, where nations of Western Christendom (France and Spain in particular) have been and continue to be instrumental in legitimating and funding insurgencies and newfangled governments which directly threaten both local Catholic and Orthodox populations (in Libya, primarily black) with political persecution, forced conversion, genocide and displacement, there are also certainly grounds for admonition. But it must always be admonition in the spirit of brotherhood rather than of recrimination. Else, we are doomed to a needless war we cannot win, with an unwilling enemy.

In other words, Dr. Hart is absolutely right that we can’t afford to be anti-Western. For one thing, the better side of our own Eastern tradition would not permit it. For another, to withdraw completely from engagement with the West and with sympathetic Roman Catholics would be irresponsible, if not suicidal.

07 October 2014

Where are the Confucians in Hong Kong? (And are they in Beijing?)

So asks Kai Marchal over at Warp, Weft and Way. The terms of the debate set by the Umbrella Movement have not drawn practically at all from the intellectual tradition. Even in places and instances where the thought of, say, Mencius or Dong Zhongshu might be applicable here, the dearth of input from Confucian-influenced sources is very noticeable and troubling. Even though Hong Kong was spared the revolutionary upheaval of 1911 by the blunt fact of British colonial rule, it was by Sun Yat-sen’s own admission the peace, order and good government of Hong Kong (which he compared unfavourably to the corruption of the Qing Dynasty on the mainland) that turned him into a revolutionary in the first place.

The tension between the history of British colonialism in China (along with the liberal free-trade ideology which drove it) and Chinese tradition is one of long standing, particularly in Hong Kong. The fancies of James Palmer aside, a great deal of the traditionalism on display in Hong Kong is as much an expression of independence from Britain as it is a form of resistance against mainland Chinese communism. Traditional Chinese medicine (to give but one example) was banned by the British government in Hong Kong, and stayed banned until 1999. As a result, it was for a long time an underground practice in Hong Kong, one that has only begun to resurface after the handover.

The current protests only manage to scratch the surface of this lingering tension. But they do indeed touch on it. The same concerns I have mentioned above are not lost on many Hong Kongers. Which is why I am incredibly loath to dismiss the current protests out of hand as mere extensions of that imperialism: assertions of Chinese state-run media to the contrary, they simply aren’t. Which leads directly back to Kai Marchal’s question. Where are the Confucians in Hong Kong these days?

For one thing, the critique of New Confucian thinkers of Taiwan and Hong Kong from thinkers like Jiang Qing, that they have unfortunately exempted themselves from any relevant political discussion in East Asian contemporary affairs by reason of their having latched onto Western (specifically German idealist) metaphysical categories and (liberal and democratic) political concepts, is relevant here. The degree to which it is correct remains to be seen, however. Certainly even the institutionalist Confucians would have something to say about these protests; given their well-noted antipathy to entrenched financial and speculative interests, they are likely to express a high degree of sympathy with the protesters. On the other hand, though, they are likely to take exception with the means demanded (Western-style parliamentary democracy) to achieve the ends of greater equality and a higher degree of human dignity. I should note that this is only the idea that I have gotten from having read the writings of Jiang Qing, Kang Xiaoguang and Fan Ruiping. I have not spoken directly with any of them on this subject, though I do look forward to doing so this coming month.

As an interesting counterpoint to the Umbrella protests in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping has given a speech to the International Confucian Association in Beijing which provides some tantalising directions for a possible direction to the new generation of CCP leadership (if indeed they are sincere!):
In the present-day world, human civilization has made amazing progress both materially and spiritually. Material abundance, in particular, is beyond the wildest imaginations of ancient times.

Meanwhile, contemporary human beings face such outstanding problems as widening wealth gaps, endless greed for materialistic satisfaction and luxury, unrestrained extreme individualism, ever-degrading ethics, and increasing tension between man and nature.

Resolution of such conundrums not only entails utilization of the current wisdom and strength of mankind, but also calls for that of the wisdom and strength human beings have accumulated over time.

Some people of insight believe that the traditional culture of China, Confucianism included, contains important inspirations for solving the troubles facing us today.
It may signal a dramatic shift from Jiang Zemin’s governing style to Xi Jinping’s, if indeed he is sincere about bringing Confucian-motivated policy ideas to bear on the problems of ‘widening wealth gaps, endless greed for materialistic satisfaction and luxury, unrestrained extreme individualism, ever-degrading ethics and increasing tension between man and nature’! That he has made a promising start of things is evident, but it is clear that the real bulk of the work cannot be done by the CCP leadership unless it is through setting a good example. Personally, I am highly sceptical of this attempt; it would not be the first time that the CCP has tried to appropriate the legacy of Confucius. But I would be among the first to welcome genuine signs of the manifestation of a more explicitly Confucian style of governance.

It would be best for China as a whole, including Hong Kong, if Hong Kong could bring its (much-needed!) spirit of alarm and revolt to bear upon the adoption of means which are not so overtly aligned with the geopolitical and ideological aims of a post-Christian West, and if the government in China could respond by applying itself to a critical self-examination in the spirit of Xi Jinping’s recent address.