11 April 2014

Enemies of the paranoid? (I hope not!)

I am just going to preface the following rant by making it clear that Russia is not perfect. In my view, it’s nowhere even close to it; it’s juddering vaguely in the right direction about fifteen degrees off-course after an entire short century of being misgoverned, plundered and left by the wayside of the world community to die - but it’s at least up and walking. Even so (and in light of this history), I still can’t help but feel that the historical Orthodox paranoia about Catholicism is in some measure justified by Catholic powers’ sketchy geopolitical history.

The Crimean War was portrayed by Catholic archbishops in France as a crusade against the Orthodox. Never mind that Algerians and Ottoman Turks were party to this crusade, or that Christians were the target.

In WWI, Austria’s demands against Serbia were deliberately calculated to start a war which they knew would involve Russia. And the Armenian genocide during the war was carried out with the connivance, material and military support and possibly direct participation of Germany and Austria.

From Italy’s independence until the end of WWII, they were at the throat of Ethiopia. They liked to use Muslim Somali and Eritrean ascaris as their shock-troops in their wars of conquest.

In the Balkans, the unholy alliance of Tudjman, Izetbegovic and Albanian terrorist groups to tear Yugoslavia apart has resulted in massive human suffering throughout the region. Milosevic was hardly blameless in the whole affair, of course, but at the very least he was trying to preserve a common and multi-ethnic polity!

And now, it seems that the “Ukrainian” “Greek” “Catholic” “Church” (as aptly named as the “Free” “Syrian” “Army”, and just about as politically defensible) and the Crimean Tatars are trying their hardest to provoke a reprise of the first Crimean War.

I have nothing but admiration, respect and high regard for the consistent Catholics who have been my steadfast friends and coworkers these past years. And to their credit, many of them have been consistently questioning these policies of nominally-Catholic nations and powers for a lot longer than I have. But I have to ask - and, dear Catholic readers, please do not take this in any spirit other than that of brotherly concern! - what is it going to take to get Catholic countries to give up persecuting their Orthodox brothers and sisters?

10 April 2014

Unite to fight!

Image courtesy Mother Jones

Very few things warm my jaded, curmudgeonly, contrarian heart like seeing people on the economic left and on the social right advancing a common cause against the establishment. But this is exactly what happened! Mother Jones, a flagship periodical of genuine left thought in the US, has long been voluble on the topic of worker rights, up to and including paid maternity leave. (The United States is one of six countries which does not have an explicit national paid maternity leave policy; the others being Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Swaziland and Samoa.)

And this week, The American Conservative published an article suggesting that the equal-pay campaign was actually using statistical sound-bites to paper over deeper structural inequalities in the American workforce designed to place women in particular at a disadvantage, including - you guessed it! - the absence of a paid maternity leave policy:
We need to remove the stigma that treats pregnant women and new mothers like pariahs, and the economic structures that punish childbearing... If we want to help women, we should start by fully understanding the complexity of the challenges they face.

The American Conservative in agreement with Mother Jones on a matter of (rightly considered) feminist, egalitarian and pro-family concern; I love it! (Old) Left and (Old) Right, unite to fight!

07 April 2014

Symbols and signposts

I used to say that the Left was mostly right about economic and foreign-policy issues, and that the Right was mostly right about cultural and social ones. To some extent, I still believe that. But as I’ve looked more closely at American politics, a disturbing thought has struck me again and again. Regarding Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Mali, Syria and now Russia I’ve noticed party-line Democrats ratting their sabres as bloodthirstily as Bill Kristol and the neocon crowd did in Iraq, and calling for the heads (whether literally or figuratively) of Pvt Manning and Edward Snowden. Regarding economic issues, I’ve seen Democrats cravenly defending the Citizens United decision and dishonestly sweeping the deep failings and inbuilt flaws of Obamacare (notably its prominent lack of a public option) under the rug.

On the other hand, the Republicans have never shown any conviction on abortion, and their having run for office Romney, who had been staunchly pro-choice (before his candidacy) and had invested in a company which profited from abortions, merely shows how they use culture-war issues as cynical ploys to win conservative voters. Increasingly more Republicans are either bailing on their opposition to same-sex marriage, if not switching sides outright as publicly as Obama had. Now more than ever, with a very few blessed exceptions, I suspect that ‘left’ and ‘right’ in American political terms refer merely to constellations of symbolic lifestyle and faux-cultural consumer choices rather than any deep differences in principle.

Both what passes for an American ‘left’ and what passes for an American ‘right’ are completely fine with whatever you choose to do so long as it doesn’t affect them. Unless you happen to be poor, in which case neither side will lift a finger to help you (by, say, raising the minimum wage or ending corporate subsidies for big unaccountable MNCs or offering tax benefits to poor families) – the only difference is that the ‘left’ will patronise and there-there you and the ‘right’ will revile you as lazy. If you happen to be poor and brown, the ‘left’ will patronise you even more before they shut you out of their schools, and the ‘right’ will threaten to shoot you (if they don’t actually do so) before they shut you out of their gated ‘communities’. If a white man commits a crime against you, both ‘left’ and ‘right’ will let him off with a wrist-slap, but if you commit a crime, the ‘right’ will cheer as you’re electrocuted and the ‘left’ will do nothing to stop it. If you’re poor, brown and unborn, you’re even more SOL. The ‘left’ will have you cut to pieces in a vacuum without a qualm, and the ‘right’ will make a big show out of wringing its hands whilst it does so. If you happen to be poor, brown and foreign, well, you’re really SOL. The ‘right’ will drone-bomb you into oblivion without a qualm, and the ‘left’ will make a big show out of wringing its hands whilst it does so.

An oversimplification? Probably. Unfair? Possibly. But I’ve had a couple of friends on the ‘left’ unfriend me on FB for opposing the war in Syria, and at least one friend on the ‘right’ unfriend me for posting anti-abortion literature. It might be possible that I’m becoming more extreme in my views, but I seriously don’t think so. I have never attacked Obama in the way or in the terms in which I once attacked Bush, for example. I have even ‘defended’ him on occasion, from the clearly wrong-headed and vacuous charges of his being non-American, Muslim or (most laughably) socialist.

I have this nagging suspicion that the most serious argument to be made against gay marriage is a left-wing, feminist one: it makes mutual sexual attraction the only philosophical basis for marriage and turns the norm of reproduction into a loveless contractual exchange on the open market, reifying the bodies of women (and the sperm of men) not even as labour but as productive capital – as machines, in other words – with the final product, the body of a child, to be designed with the self-interest of the homosexual ‘client’ parent in mind. But I am convinced also that, in the final analysis, the most serious argument to be made against capitalism generally is going to be a non-Marxist, personalist, even a conservative one: that it presupposes a materialist version of the cosmos wherein everything can be reduced to its symbolic, monetary value.

If there is any signpost to a new kind of politics in the US, it will be built on the instincts that are already there in much of the Democratic base, particularly amongst non-whites and blue-collar whites. These instincts were what propelled Obama to triumph in the ’08 primaries over Clinton, though he has long since abandoned them. These instincts are populist, anti-war, anti-police state and anti-racist. But they are also heavily traditional – even distributist – and pro-life. The big question now, is whether those instincts will be retained in the coming generations, or whether they will be ‘educated’ out of existence by the dominant party line.

In the meantime, when people talk about the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ in America – ignore them. America has no ‘left’, apart from Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich and several more marginal political figures (like Jill Stein). And America’s ‘right’ is only that insofar as its fusionist ideology conforms to the standards of Anglo-American liberalism.

02 April 2014

Enthronement of corruption

… would be a really good thrash metal album title. If it hasn’t been done already.

But it’s essentially what the Supreme Court has just done now, in removing many of the limits to individual campaign contributions, allowing individuals to contribute up to $3.6 million to federal political campaigns each election cycle. This decision may have been, like most other legal precedents, a long time in the making, and it may be but one decision in a long list of decisions giving big money the Constitutional protections of free speech. But it will certainly further restrict whose voices get to be heard in our political system, who gets to have access and who gets to sway votes when each election comes around. The McCutcheon decision might not be anything new, but it is a perfect example of the direction the United States has been taking. The prohibitively narrow definition of corruption stipulated by this decision essentially makes corruption a de jure reality in the United States – even if the opinions of legislators and other holders of elected office cannot be purchased on a vote-by-vote, bill-by-bill basis, what this SCotUS decision means is essentially that legislators and other holders of elected office themselves may be bought by the highest bidder.

Chief Justice Roberts euphemistically calls the effects of such purpose ‘general gratitude’. Because gratitude is only owing, in the Republican juridicial view of the world, to the wealthy and to the powerful, and clearly in direct proportion to the size of their patronage.

Let me be clear: this is one of the reasons I am a monarchist. Why? In great part because you will never find today, nor will you very likely find in history, a monarchy which is so brazen about the ‘general gratitude’ the political process owes to its nobility. No: monarchies and other traditionalist societies at least have the decency to forego this Americanist fiction that wealth and power aren’t ever accidents of birth and circumstance, and they do (at least in the British case) often treat their nobilities with a noted lack of seriousness.

Ironically, it seems to be only in republican forms of government where the undisciplined, unlimited, unaccountable rule by the ultra-wealthy is made respectable under an ersatz gloss of meritocracy.

28 March 2014

Slavophilia and the Russian idea

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

I began reading this article on the Washington Post with some level of annoyance, not exactly befitting the Lenten season. I found Antoine Arjakovsky’s argument – sadly in no wise rebuffed or even questioned by the author of this article which quotes him – that our Patriarch, His Holiness Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, has ‘invented’, in concert with Putin’s government, ‘a new mythology, the new ideology… of the Russian idea, which would invent a new theology of politics’ to be, even on its very face, absurd. Our Patriarch is a kind, gifted and intelligent man, and of course I am happy to see him invite others to explore these ideas, but it is a great insult to the saints and philosophers who came before him to claim that it represents some sort of novelty on his part. But rather than fall prey to my grievous wonted sins of anger and verbal abuse over it, I thought it would be a good opportunity to offer another perspective, and meditate a bit on the history of this idea – certainly a far longer one than His Holiness’s reign as our Patriarch.

There is an affinity between the history of the Slavs and the history of the Jews. The story of each is a story of nomadism, of slavery, of foreign domination, of the uncertain quest for a homeland. Slavs were always subject to the clashes of great empires: the Franks and the Huns, the two ‘Roman’ Empires, the various Turkic, Iranian, Ugric and Mongolic pastoralist empires which raged across the Slavs’ eastern frontier. They were settled on, but did not hold, the great bridge between East and West. At many times during the history of the Slavs, all they had, it seemed, was their common tongue and their faith. And that faith was a fault line, particularly after the Great Schism. The Czechs, the Poles and Pomeranians, the Sorbs, the Ruthenians, the Slovenes and the Croats all embraced the Old Rome; the Russians of Novgorod, Moscow and Kiev, the Bulgars and the Serbs all embraced the New. Broadly speaking, the Slavs have a tragic sense of history, married ironically to a patient and enduring messianic hope – to which the clearest and purest voice was given by the witness of the Church as it approached them from Byzantium.

My encounter with theo-philosophical Slavophilia (a Russian movement which could be inclusive of, but which was very different from, the political pan-Slavism which took hold all over Eastern Europe) has been largely second-hand, through the works of Orthodox lay philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, who was deeply influenced by the fathers of the Slavophil movement, Aleksey Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. Indeed, one of the most influential books of his later life was entitled The Russian Idea.

The Russian idea, as Berdyaev quotes from the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, ‘is not to be understood by intellectual processes. You cannot take her measurements with a common yardstick, she has a form and stature of her own: you can only believe in Russia’. I might have said in college and after that, that this Russian idea is a very Daoist idea – and there is certainly more than a grain of truth to that. There is an element of 無為 wu wei to the entire Russian Slavophil project, particularly when its two greatest ideas – those of sobornost’ and of integral knowing – are only ever pointed to in the fragmentary writings of Khomyakov and Kireevsky, and not spoken aloud. (As Laozi had it: ‘道可道,非常道;名可名,非常名’ – ‘the way that can be told of is not the constant way; the name that can be spoken is not the constant name’.) And the idea that there is a Far Eastern or a Chinese element in Russian thinking is, as Berdyaev would likely agree, not an idea to be tossed lightly aside. But now I would say that it is more correct to call Tyutchev’s sentiment not Daoist but Patristic.

The Russian idea is a Christian idea, and there is something apophatic in its core, something not to be grasped by the fragile and fallible human mind. One can see through Berdyaev reflections in the Slavophils of S. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite in particular, when they mount their attacks on the ‘triumph of formal reason’ which tended toward an ‘external and lifeless unity’ rather than towards ‘something inward and living’. The positive ideal to which this points, sobornost’, is often translated as ‘catholicity’ or more literally as ‘conciliarity’, carries with it far more dynamic, creative and emotive connotations. Sobornost’ represents the free and loving subordination of individuals to each other in community (under Church, under Tsar, under narod), in response to the same ineffable values.

Khomyakov and Kireevsky, theorists though they were of Russia’s special spiritual and world-historical mission, were not mean-spirited, arrogant nationalists, as their intellectual heirs (such as our Patriarch Kirill who is known to quote Berdyaev, along with Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin and the leading lights of the erstwhile ‘Motherland’ party, Dmitry Rogozin and Sergei Glazyev) are painted in the Washington Post, along with most other Western news outlets, on a routine basis. They acknowledged the deep debts they personally, and Russia generally, owed to a Christian Greece and indeed to a pre-Christian Iran. The Russian idea didn’t point to a larger or more powerful Russia – indeed, power was something which has always sat ill with the Russian idea. The Slavs were always on the receiving end of power – of Frankish power, of Byzantine power, of German power, of Tatar and Mongol and Magyar power. Tragedy and messianic hope touched each other to produce something like anarchism, fierce and uncompromising… and also something positive which found, in the persons of Nikolai Berdyaev and Vladimir Solovyov, a close kinship with Catholic personalism.

Though they sat on this immense bridge between East and West, whenever the Slavs happened to mount the watchtowers themselves they always did so in a spirit of distrust, that in doing so they were taking on the mantle of Antichrist. Berdyaev notes that the Kievan Rus’ did not dare arrogate to themselves the power of life and death over their subjects. Khomyakov absolutely baulked with revulsion at the very idea of capital punishment – a sentiment echoed both by sympathetic pochvenniki like Dostoevsky and semi-Westernisers like Turgenev, not to mention someone like Leo Tolstoy! Indeed, in much of Russian thought there lies not so far beneath the surface a legendary suspicion that beneath the trappings of the Tsar’s worldly power (and in particular that of Peter the Great) lies the mark of Antichrist.

In truth, the Slavophils loved monarchy. They even elevated it along with Orthodoxy and the narod to the status of one of the basic principles of the Russian idea. But it would be wrong to think that they worshipped monarchical power for its own sake! They elevated it only insofar as it was a specifically Russian characteristic, an organic corrective to the tyranny of the Western absolutisms of bourgeois democracy and of enlightened despotism. Because it was not love of power that motivated the Slavophils, or those who came after them, but the power of love: what animated the Slavophil ideal of monarchy was precisely the sobornyi spirit, that of the inner life of the community. Berdyaev notes that there was a radical moment in the writings of Khomyakov, a shunning of the state and an instinct prefiguring narodnichestvo, that peculiarly Russian populism which elevates the lived values of the traditional peasantry and working class to something approaching a civic-messianic status.

It ought to be noted that in the present day, the intellectual and political atmosphere of Russia is far more ambiguous. Putin himself takes Slavophilia second-hand, for example, from the works of Berdyaev’s fellow white émigré Ivan Il’in. Though the two overlap significantly, it is also wrong to conflate, as the Western press sometimes does, Slavophilia with the new Eurasian doctrine. There is Slavophilia to be found in the Church and amongst the clergy, but aside from the political platforms of ‘Motherland’ and now ‘Fair Russia’, Slavophilia as such has few outlets in the political realm. Aleksandr Dugin, one of the more prominent Eurasianists, is not so much influenced by the Slavophils as he is by more extreme, even neo-pagan sources. Dugin’s political doctrine bears greater resemblance to that of Konstantin Leontev, and is anti-personalist and anti-narodnik: it brooks no freedom-in-community, embraces power triumphally and not tragically, and clings far too tightly to the nation-state – all three tendencies which would have repelled Khomyakov and Kireevsky, not to mention Berdyaev. Even sympathetic Russia-watchers ought to be highly wary of this direction.

It is nevertheless on one level wrong-headed to equate the Russian civic messianism with that of America, despite their surface similarities. True – both Russia and America have historically and geographically faced vast frontiers leading outward, away from the rest of civilisation. And also true – Russia and America both have used this geographic fact to command great empires driven by ideology. True yet still – Russia and America have embraced their respective empires most unwillingly. But America was and is still, in a very real sense, the New World; the old world with its old gods into which the European colonists set foot quickly vanished beneath our guns, germs and steel. The American colonists faced no great existential threats to their survival, and our approach to power and to progress has been always triumphal, never tragic.

Russia, on the other hand, is a unique bridge between many Old Worlds, all of which have shaped its historical destiny: the Franco-Latin West through the Balts, Poles and Germans on one side, and China through the Tatars on the other. Their ruling class came from the heathen Swedes and Finns, and these were baptised by the Byzantines. The Slavic sense of tragedy has given the Russians a keen and deeply conservative awareness of the trade-offs involved in the precarious geopolitical position they have pretty much always occupied.

But the dissimilarities between these two forms of civic nationalism – now dancing a deadly dance with each other amidst a vortex of misunderstanding, hostility and recrimination – also make the need for understanding all the more urgent. As an American of (Czech) Slavic immigrant extraction, I see more similarities than I see differences in the basic desires and beliefs of the American people and the Russian, in spite of the posturing now being taken by our respective governments. None of us who are sane want to plunge into another cold war that stands such a great danger of heating up. And as someone who is trying to follow in the Slavophils’ footsteps philosophically and theologically, I truly hope and pray that we can learn from and better understand Russian history.

I should note in closing that Berdyaev himself was not a Slavophil – for him, their historical thinking (about the Tsars of Moscow in particular) was too naïve when not downright wrong; their attachment to monarchy too sentimental; their antipathy toward Catholicism and all things Western too simplistic. But Berdyaev also refused to let himself be understood without them. Berdyaev took to heart and made his own the Slavophil concept of sobornost’; with it he mounted his twin attacks on bourgeois individualism and atheistic collectivism. He elaborated on the Slavophil critiques of Catholicism and Scholasticism, particularly in his friendly disputes with fellow Personalist philosopher Jacques Maritain. Most importantly, though, he endorsed and shared the Slavophil faith in Russia’s spiritual mission, which had yet to manifest itself. And still has.

† The famous quatrain by Tyutchev:

‘Умом Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать -
В Россию можно только верить.’

24 March 2014

Trans-Pacific portents

Taking a break from the travails of Kænugård and Taurica for awhile…

It seems there is something of a misnomer about the CSSTA, though an understandable one. If Taiwan is a part of China, then it is not and cannot be considered a ‘free-trade agreement’ any more than is the interstate commerce clause in the American constitution. To frame the issue thus is therefore precisely to beg the central question of the debate over what Taiwan’s status should be. Hence, why both the US government and the Chinese government support the CSSTA, though for different reasons. And also, why US support of the law is seemingly contingent upon its being thought of as a ‘free-trade agreement’.

I can sympathise completely with the economic concerns of the protesters; naturally, they don’t want to see depressed wages and a ballooning wealth gap like what the mainland has experienced. And I can agree that if these economic integration measures are taken too fast, out of step with political integration measures, the only people who will be hurt by them in the meanwhile are ordinary Taiwanese. But what the protesters seem to miss is that reunion with the mainland will happen one way or the other; I’m convinced of that. The appropriate question to be asked is: how shall it come about? Shall it come about peaceably, on equitable terms? Or shall it come through a course of protracted geopolitical strife and all the clandestine manoeuvring, violence, hardships and resentment that will entail? And what will Taiwan’s government and economy do then?

Taiwanese independence is, to me, as much a non-starter of a cause as is Southern secession. American liberals and progressives in particular ought to summon up at least a fraction of the scepticism of the former as they apply on a regular basis to the latter, and for some of the same reasons. And even though the Democratic Progressive Party makes all the noises that tend to appeal to the average American progressive, they have been known to take a disturbingly hard-right, historical-revisionist turn when it comes to Japan’s historical role in Asia. (This is just the most egregious example, though. The DPP has shown some disturbing tendencies to cosy up to the whole gallery of Asia’s hard right, including Tibetan and Uyghur ethno-nationalists.)

But there is something quite alluring about the energy these protesters can work up, even if it is wholly misdirected. If only we could summon that kind of energy and careful scrutiny of our own elites when they try to railroad through a real free-trade agreement (along with every ugly consequence to the environment and the job market that entails) written by corporate proxies without any kind of legislative scrutiny, but which might have a huge and negative impact on the quality of American health care, labour rights, environment and civil liberties – let alone the similar impacts such a trade deal will have on all of the other nations looking to join this monstrosity! And the real kicker is: for all their bluster against the current trade deal with China, Taiwan’s pan-Greens support the TPP, and have been making enquiries into Taiwan joining it! (I’m not a great fan of the KMT’s role in this either, by the way. Ma Ying-jeou also supports the blasted thing, but at least hasn’t shown himself eager enough for it to have made any concrete inquiries into joining.)

At this point, to me, the Sunflower protesters come off as dupes – though to be honest, faced with a bad option and a worse one, opting for the worse is in some ways understandable. Even so, the two-faced hypocrisy of the Taiwanese pan-Greens is breathtaking. On the one hand, they are willing to play up the potential harms of the CSSTA to domestic labour-rights and local businesses. But on the other hand, they salivate over the possibility of joining the TPP, and thus selling out those exact same labour and local business interests to an unaccountable cabal of multinational corporate and financial concerns based, one may safely assume, not in Taiwan or anywhere else in China, but in the offshore tax-havens of American and Japanese tycoons.

11 March 2014

Pointed video post – ‘Последний бой’ by Э.С.Т.

Legendary Russian heavy metal band Э.С.Т. (Electro Shock Therapy, fronted by the late great Jan Sagadeev) made this contribution to the 2006 compilation album Мы Победили!, which featured covers of Soviet-era songs from or about World War II, each performed by a different folk, folk-rock, anarcho-punk, ska or metal band. ‘The Last Battle’, originally a 1971 song by composer-poet Mikhail Nozhkin, takes the perspective of a common soldier on the Eastern Front, who wants this battle to be over and done with so he can go home. Sadly, it doesn’t seem as though the last battle is quite over yet: under Yatsenyuk there are still racists, fascists and corporate plutocrats plundering the lands and people which were once on the Eastern Front. Respect to the Eastern Ukrainians and to the Crimean self-defence militias who are still fighting that last battle, and here’s hoping that history may one day finally bury the plague of the radical right once and for all.