19 November 2014

Puritanism and the bullying of Matt Taylor

So, ‘Shirtstorm’, as they’re calling it. On 12 November, a brilliant but absent-minded astrophysicist named Matt Taylor (who happens to sport hipster beard and ink) celebrates the landing of the Philae probe from the ten-year-old Rosetta spacecraft on a comet on live TV. Not only is this an important landmark achievement in physics in engineering – landing a probe successfully on a comet has never been done before – but they are doing some very interesting analysis on the composition of the comet nucleus that could have far-reaching implications. But a certain segment of Twitter commentators decided that what was important was not the scientific achievement of Dr. Taylor and his team, but the bowling shirt that he decided to wear for the celebration: a kitschy shirt in the style of ‘50’s and ‘60’s pulp sci-fi, featuring scantily-clad women wielding guns.

And practically all of the easily-offended white Anglophone lifestyle-left on Twitter descended upon the hapless physicist (read: nerd) for his ‘casual misogyny’, starting with these people. Demands were made by these twits for Dr. Taylor to be fired. Two days later, Dr. Taylor broke down in tears as he apologised for his choice of shirt. Keep in mind, this shirt was not only a gift, but it was handmade for Dr. Taylor, by a friend of his who happens to be a woman, who was also baffled and upset by the Twitter-mob attack, which she characterised as ‘unreasonably cruel’.

A few thoughtful people called the white Anglophone lifestyle-leftist Twitter mob out for what they were: bullies. They attacked Dr. Taylor not for saying or for doing anything monstrously sexist, but simply for wearing something which symbolised his socially-marginal identity as a nerd. But because nerds are not and never have been viewed by the white Anglophone lifestyle-left as such, Taylor was both politically-safe as a target for their bullying, as well as being powerless enough such that they felt they could get away with showing him exactly where they thought he belonged in the pecking order.

Like most bullies, they weren’t satisfied with Dr. Taylor’s having caved to them, but rather demanded further groveling from him. And, like most bullies, they could dish out an ‘unreasonably cruel’ Twitter mob attack of their own, but when they got called on it by another group of Twitterers, they couldn’t take it, and characterised it as ‘backlash misogyny’. I recognise these exact tactics from middle school – they knew just where to be and just what to say when the teacher stepped in to make sure they could dodge the blame for having shoved the physics geek into the locker.

(To be clear, there are very real problems with misogyny amongst nerds; GamerGate and the ‘fake geek girl’ epithet being only the two most obvious. And these are truly worthy of critique. But wearing a kitschy T-shirt is clearly not quite on the same level as doxxing or stalking female game authors, threatening to shoot up schools or actively ostracising women from events.)

On one level, the critique of ‘Shirtstorm’ can and probably should stop there.

On another level, though, the substantive prudery (there is no better word to use, however loudly certain portions of the Twitter mob deny the charge) which underlies the criticism of Dr. Taylor’s pulpy T-shirt is reflective of a distinctly white, distinctly Anglo-Saxon, distinctly American, distinctly Protestant and distinctly Puritan theological manner of policing the proper boundaries of sexual expression – and not only for men. The Protestant suspicion (and abandonment) of the celibate rule and the specifically Calvinist abandonment of the doctrines of synergism and free will led the Puritans of New England to characterise natural human sexual desires as a defiling and pervasive ‘perversity’. Yet possibly as a coping mechanism, the ‘perversity’ the Calvinists sought to discover in their quest to root out and expose (or, in Chauvin’s term in the Institutes, ‘study to admonish’) sexual sin led them straight to the sexual-psychological releases found in the punishments of torture and public shaming.

Certainly on the core principle of the matter, there are some incredibly massive problems with singling out risqué or suggestive clothing as a marker of responsibility for socio-sexual reactions aroused in bystanders. Either it promotes a double standard, or it carries with it some massively unfortunate implications, particularly from a feminist point-of-view. But it is worth considering that the same Puritan inheritance, the same repressed impulse that underlies classic ‘slut-shaming’ behaviour amongst right-wing Protestants, underlies also this need for these waspish faux-radicals to publicly police and ‘study to admonish’ male ‘perversity’, and to send offenders (particularly ones with distinctly countercultural markers like Dr. Taylor’s) to the figurative stocks. The liberal culture-warrior and the fundamentalist culture-warrior here also mirror each other very closely.

EDIT: Thank you, Julie Bindel!

13 November 2014

Báječně, Prezident Zeman!

Saying something like this, especially as the president of a NATO member country, takes some real smělost. I love it!
The Czech president says he has no reason so far to consider Khodorkovsky a political prisoner, although this is a wonderful pretext for cleansing oneself. He instead believes that Khodorkovsky was a swindler. The only thing that Zeman does not like about the Putin regime is that Putin did not imprison other oligarchs together with Khodorkovsky.
Moreover, Mr. Zeman has been an outspoken supporter of the territorial integrity of the Chinese nation and has pursued a strong cooperative stance toward China, which has earned my in-laws’ approval of the man! And whereas the Western press have a pretext for concern-trolling Viktor Orbán’s government on trumped-up human rights, well, ‘concerns’, in the case of Mr. Zeman they have little choice but to complain about his potty-mouth (when in truth, the only real vulgarities he used were the name of PR itself and references to their lyrics). At this point, it is quite easy enough to mock the Western press in its double-standards on free speech and political autonomy, but I do worry that when the raw ragged edges of NATO begin to fray, the colour-revolution handbook and the IMF-imposed austerity handbook will be broken out on the dissenting governments, and things could get quite ugly.

In other news, though, at least a few people seem to be engaging in some level of introspection on the matter over what this subtle shift in central European politics will mean in the short- to middle-term.

In the meantime, a big hearty bravo to Mr. Zeman, a man who isn’t afraid to talk common sense! I would pay good money to have a pivo or three with the guy!

08 November 2014

So much good stuff recently!

Where to start?

Well, logically, let’s start at the beginning. Let’s start with President Putin’s recent clarion call at the Valdai International Discussion Club to the recognition of the contradictions and collapse of the neoliberal world order, a collapse which he hints could (God forbid!) lead to another world war. Putin speaks measuredly, with care and with precision here, but delivers his blows against the reigning hegemon with all the acuity of a master fencer. He speaks like a classical European conservative, of the dangers of imposing order on the world by ‘universal diktat’. He details the threats facing his own country, and of the threats facing the world order: terrorism, organised crime, extremism of both political and religious varieties, piracy, trafficking in drugs and human flesh – all encouraged by breakdowns in the social order, and often ones following a direct or an indirect intervention by the United States government.

It’s well worth reading in its entirety, as one may do in English here. But the money quote is as follows:
We are well aware that the world has entered an era of changes and global transformations, when we all need a particular degree of caution, the ability to avoid thoughtless steps. In the years after the Cold War, participants in global politics lost these qualities somewhat. Now, we need to remember them. Otherwise, hopes for a peaceful, stable development will be a dangerous illusion, while today’s turmoil will simply serve as a prelude to the collapse of world order.

Yes, of course, I have already said that building a more stable world order is a difficult task. We are talking about long and hard work. We were able to develop rules for interaction after World War II, and we were able to reach an agreement in Helsinki in the 1970s. Our common duty is to resolve this fundamental challenge at this new stage of development.
On the other hand, we have this brilliant postmortem by veteran journalist Patrick L. Smith on the American news media’s non-coverage, or rather selective coverage, of this speech. Here’s one particularly enjoyable highlight:
Here is Schmemann on the Ukraine passages of the presentation: “In Mr. Putin’s version of the Ukrainian crisis, the United States was the instigator of the protests in Kiev that led to a ‘coup’ against President Viktor Yanukovych and the subsequent fighting. One American participant told Mr. Putin she was hard put to recognize her country as the one he was describing.”

Well, confused American participant, you make an interesting point. Washington has created a version of events in Ukraine that amounts to a parallel reality, and people such as Schmemann are paid to perpetuate it. If it is of any help: There was a coup, there were neo-fascists among its leaders, the State Department backed it, and the evidence of all this is indisputable.
And speaking of the lovely Grey Lady. She is quite put out, very clearly distressed and seemingly confused, the poor dear, about how to interpret Viktor Orbán’s successes in Hungary. Is it an atavistic regression toward the Soviet bloc, from a man who won his fame fighting the same? Or is it a new, dark and dangerous ‘right-wing populist’ star rising over the Magyar lands? Saying both at once leaves one with the impression that she doesn’t quite know which way to jump. Well, whatever it is, it is quite clear from her tone of distress that our dear Lady Grey simply doesn’t like it. Which is all the more reason for us to like it – those of us Americans who prefer our nation to be peaceful and law-abiding, that is!

Speaking of peaceful and law-abiding Americans – which is to say, Americans abiding by the eternal law of God rather than by the dictates of tourism-obsessed city governments gone mad – all hats off indeed to the inimitable nonagenarian Mr. Abbott of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who has received his second criminal citation under a new city ordinance for the horrific crime of feeding homeless people. Bravissimo, Mr. Abbott! And Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has an incredibly profound piece discussing this case.

Lots of positives for today, actually – little glints of hope amongst the flotsam! I’m in a pretty positive mood right now – just finished up with a conference in Nanjing on the topic of the New Silk Web. It was very productive; got to meet a lot of very smart, interesting and good people from China, from Pakistan, from England, from Germany and from my own country, and discuss with them everything from halal food to techno-anarchism, and from Thomas Piketty to Han-dynasty traditional Chinese thought. It’s been an exhausting but remarkably rewarding day.

05 November 2014

Just asking

How is it that certain ideologically-driven elements of American court historiography (usually and unconvincingly self-describing as conservative), after rightly decrying the brutal and inhumane practice of mass human sacrifice by the Aztecs, then go on to excuse American race-based chattel slavery in historicist terms as a temporary glitch and a product of the times (and hey, everybody else was doing it too!)?

Amongst such ideologically-driven elements, one must wonder: do such historicist and moral-relativist excuses apply only to Americans and their forebears?

Again, just asking.

Pointless video post – ‘Ride’ by Cathedral

One of the traditional doom metal bands (well, not quite traditional) that I have come to really enjoy recently is Cathedral. Lee Dorrian, after a brief stint as the frontman for Napalm Death of grindcore fame, very clearly turned in a completely different direction after he formed the band. I have to admit, I have a certain guilty appreciation for all the instances of ‘hey’, ‘come on now’ and ‘alright’ that pepper his lyrics, but other than that this band takes its lyrics quite seriously. While they might not be as playful and pun-happy as, say, Skyclad, there’s definitely more than a bit of clever wordsmithing going on in these songs. One can look quite a bit deeper, of course, but the song titles themselves are quite tantalising in their sesquipedalian glory, with tracks like ‘Phantasmagoria’, ‘Karmacopia’ and ‘Fangalactic Supergoria’. And the tunes themselves are heavy and catchy as hell, to boot, with an old-school rock-and-roll vibe and more than a bit of psychedelia for good measure. Enjoy the ‘Ride’, gentle readers!

31 October 2014

The illusion of ‘whiteness’

One of the biggest scams ever pulled on us so-called ‘white’ people – the one which has destroyed the great basis of our wealth and communal health in exchange for what has largely consisted of the illusion of power, the one which angry ‘white’ people should be really, really angry about – was rich landowners telling them that they were white. The white race is, in actuality, a nakedly artificial political description, and the sorts of conservatives who say that white people should be proud of their achievements are in actuality anything but conservative. What they are conserving is an imaginary norm rather than a real community of people and lifeways. They are perpetuating a scam, among the several aims of which is to dissolve the sense of communal belonging which ties the vestiges of Old World immigrant traditions to modern life.

In 1600, there was no such thing as the ‘white race’. One of the reasons why I am adamant that racism is a historically-circumscribed and explicitly-modern phenomenon is precisely because people had no grounds to think in ‘racial’ terms prior to their invention. Discrimination in one form or another may have always been a problem, but it is not only lazy but downright wrong to say that racism has been. I say this because the historical proof is in the texts themselves. The ‘white race’ was essentially legislated into existence by the Virginia colonial government in 1691. And it was legislated into existence as an act of class warfare not only against blacks but also against white people whose families had been brought over as uncompensated labourers – in other words, slaves – from Ireland and Scotland. Specifically, it was done to prevent poor Gaelic whites from commiserating with enslaved Africans, and to prevent the solidarity and collaboration of uncompensated labour across ‘racial’ lines.

People from Ireland and Scotland in the early colonial period were generally of two kinds. Some were political prisoners and debt slaves who were sold into forced servitude in the New World as a free and mobile labour class. Others were political and religious dissenters, often with Jacobite sympathies. However, political refugees and servants under indenture did not provide a broad enough labour pool for the needs of conquering a new continent – a gap which the Atlantic slave trade rushed in to fill.

Black slavery and ‘white’ Gaelic indenture were aimed toward the same end, but broadening the pool of rootless free mobile labour brought with it its own problems, the first of which was numerical strength. Early on in the history of the Middle Passage it was far from unheard-of for black and white slaves to raise joint insurrections. The solution to this problem devised by the Virginia colonial legislature, brilliant in its diabolical subtlety and simplicity, was to sow distrust between them by granting special privileges to the Gaelic slaves and denying them to the black slaves… on the basis of skin colour. The Marxist analysis is largely correct on the merits, that the ‘white race’ was a political wedge driven straight down the middle of the nascent working class, one that could disguise itself in a ‘natural’ camouflage.

‘Whiteness’ as a standard of informal and legal access to the mainstream American body politic demonstrably varied from generation to generation – and it could be granted or rescinded depending on the political climate. At the beginning of the century, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe – classified ‘racially’ as Slavs and Iberians – were denied access to the American mainstream on the basis that they had ‘poorer physical and mental equipment’ and ‘radically different ideals and standards of living as compared with the Celtic and Teutonic races’. (I’ll be honest, it blew my mind that my Bohemian immigrant grandmother’s family would not have been considered ‘white’.) However, even the Teutonic ‘race’ was not exempt from exclusion – over the course of the twentieth century Americans of German descent were denied access to the American mainstream on the basis of political fear.

Thus far went the traditional leftist critique of race. But a potentially rich traditionalist-conservative critique of race lurks on the other side of the equation. Whereas old-guard leftists have been concerned with the economic inequalities associated with unequal access to the American mainstream, traditionalists are and should be concerned with the character of that mainstream. After all, one side effect of the political invention of race was that it served as an unspoken and infinitely flexible solvent of traditional communities as they immigrated in waves over to the United States. Even though Slavs and Iberians were denied access to the American mainstream on account of their foreignness and especially their Catholicism and Orthodoxy, assimilation to the bland liberal Anglo-Saxon Protestant norm was always an option. Heads could be kept down. Noses could be kept to the grindstone. Names could be changed. Languages could be forgotten. Religious practices could be kept under the table or outright abandoned.

Certain elements of the liberal project still seek to extend the cultural normativity of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism across the entirety of modern American society – as such, they are still having difficulties getting minorities, especially traditionally-conservative black, Irish and Eastern European working-class enclaves on-board with their project. But traditionalist conservatives themselves have no such weakness, since they tend to value the cultural uniqueness and close ties of each of the ethnic enclaves, whether they are rural Appalachian Scots-Irish, Midland Eastern European, northeastern Italian or even (especially in the case of some traditionalist Catholics) southwestern Latino.

The weakness of the traditionalist conservative position is that too many of them misdiagnose ‘whiteness’.

The ‘white’ identity is not under threat. Indeed, under the influence of modern mainstream liberalism, the ‘white’ identity has expanded to include a number of those previously considered racial minorities. The ‘white’ identity, being an identity with no reality outside of power politics, is infinitely flexible. Rather, because of this, the ‘white’ identity is a threat, precisely to the cultural uniqueness, religious values and informal communal ties of each ethnic enclave. ‘Whiteness’ is and always has been a political invitation into the American mainstream, deracinated, globalised and undifferentiated. And it has always been an invitation extended in bad faith.

Take for example the model minority du jour, the Asian-American minority. They are being used (most recently by one Mr. William James O’Reilly, Jr.) as a mascot to deny the very idea of ‘white privilege’ – because they work hard and play by the rules of American mainstream society, so the argument goes, they are rewarded with success. The failures of blacks and Hispanics to attain the same successes are, so the corollary goes, totally due to their own lack of initiative and shortcomings as measured by the standards of laisser-faire capitalism. Wait, what was the phrase again? Oh yes, ‘poorer physical and mental equipment’ and ‘radically different ideals and standards of living as compared with the Celtic and Teutonic races’. Asian-American ‘success’, which as Ms. Haruka Sakaguchi explains is to a significant degree the result of selective immigration policies, is being used to shield the wealthy from a systematic critique.

We’ve sacrificed our names, our cultural practices, and even our religious convictions in this attempt to ‘act white’ – and when we finally get there we’re no better off than when we started. Except our one-percenter overlords give us more opportunities to kick the black guy. Maybe it’s my ‘poorer mental equipment’, but to this stupid lazy bohunk it looks a lot like we slightly-more-ethnic newfangled whiteys have been getting played this whole time. We’ve sold off our birthrights, and not even for a mess of pottage. We didn’t even get the pottage! Instead we got to think of ourselves as ‘white’, as equal in an illusory way to the Teutonic Protestant norm – the norm of capitalist ‘success’. And we are now seeing the results of Asian-Americans having made the same Faustian bargain.

This should upset traditionalist conservatives as much as it upsets leftists, even if it is for different reasons. The last remnants of the organic communities of the Old World, and the transcendent values they brought with them, got sacrificed by their children for the sake of conforming to an imposed, nakedly-political community.

28 October 2014

Hanfu – a tale of traditionalist resistance

 Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

In 2003, a power-company worker named Wang Letian in Zhengzhou, Henan Province began doing something unprecedentedly strange, almost unthinkable in Chinese society with its subtly conformist pressures. He walked down the street, in broad daylight, wearing traditional Chinese clothing. And not just any traditional Chinese clothing – he did not choose, for example, the tangzhuang which was common during the Qing Dynasty. Mr. Wang chose to wear a pre-Qing hanfu (漢服) – and was the first person to do so in a public setting in 358 years. He may or may not have intended it, but his small act sparked a significant subcultural interest in reviving traditional Han clothing in China. Amongst many Chinese people, particularly young people, there is a desire to assert some material form of local, national and cultural pride which finds a ready expression in the hanfu.

The location here is significant. Zhengzhou is the capital of Henan Province, China’s cultural (and agricultural) heartland. Henan is home to Luoyang, Kaifeng and Anyang, three of China’s most important historical imperial capitals from the Xia, Yin, Zhou and Han Dynasties all the way down to the Song Dynasty. And yet, in recent years, Henan and its people have faced various difficulties. The famine of 1942 during the Sino-Japanese War hit Henan hardest of all, to the point where children were sold to other families so that they wouldn’t starve to death. In the wake of ‘reform and opening’, Henanese farmers were some of the hardest-hit by the corporate-driven land expropriation that followed hard on the heels of Deng’s privatisation programme – only the farmers of Anhui Province to the southeast suffered more. As a result, many migrant workers (mingong 民工) came out of Henan to work in urban centres of capital like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Henan was routinely (and unfairly) portrayed and ridiculed in Chinese popular culture, particularly during the early 2000’s, as violent, criminal, backwards, superstitious, given to vice and (worst of all) poor.

It would be more than somewhat naïve to dismiss the class or regional origins of the hanfu subculture out-of-hand. Wang Letian was not, of course, a migrant worker, but in 2003 he was a proletarian power-plant worker in Henan’s biggest urban centre. And as an element of material culture, the hanfu of course hearkens back directly to a time when Henan was China’s centre and had not been left behind by the post-Deng rush to riches. Wang himself speaks of his gesture in nationalist and aesthetic terms, though: ‘In the end beautiful things will meet with people’s approval,’ he says. ‘Not to mention, the hanfu has always been our thing… in the great family of China’s 56 ethnic groups, only the Han do not have their traditional dress. Following [our] tragic history, only the Han traditional clothing style died out; we need to revive [this tradition].’

The hanfu subculture has not stayed in Henan. It has gained attention and interest from all over China, particularly from young people and particularly from young women. It has also attracted a great deal of criticism, which runs in several related veins. One WangYi (163.com) article from 2012 criticised the movement as ‘attention-seeking’, ‘awkward’ and reminiscent of ‘time-travel’, which covers most of the bases of the criticisms levelled at the hanfu subculture.

The first criticism, the criticism that gets the most air-time, is that the hanfu is ‘awkward’. It is ill-suited, the critics assert, for the practical demands of everyday clothing in modern urban life. The long design is imagined as impractical for the demands of work, school life, play and so on. The second, related criticism is that the adoption of the hanfu is essentially a form of misplaced nostalgia which has no place in modern Chinese society. The third criticism, running somewhat at odds with the first two, is that it is essentially a movement by individuals seeking to show off or an inauthentic attempt at copying a privilege enjoyed by other nations: that the current focus on clothing is superficial and shallow, and does nothing substantial for the spiritual question and the question of national dignity which it attempts to address. Still other critics do not dismiss the importance of the hanfu movement, but rather see it as trending dangerously in the direction of Han ethnic chauvinism, playing to historical victim complexes and potentially alienating China’s minorities.

The first and second criticisms are particularly interesting for their assumption, and indeed assertion, of a set of cultural norms governed by the demands of Western capitalism. In modern China the Western business suit is associated with ‘success’, defined in terms of monetary gain and superior social status. For women, western brands are practically always preferred to domestics. Practically the best thing one can say about a piece of clothing in Beijing or Shanghai is that it is ‘in vogue’ (shishang 時尚), and the types of clothing that invariably receive this assessment are European in design. One of the very last things one would say about the hanfu is that it is shishang – for this reason, it is dismissed as either a mere piece of nostalgia, as something that comes out of a period drama, or as something ‘impractical’ in the terms laid down by capitalist modernity.

The third criticism is somewhat more well-intentioned, but the idea is that the hanfu movement doesn’t go far enough and that it gets mired down in trivia in the quest for the Chinese national soul seems a bit grandiloquent and even misaimed. For one thing, the Bard’s (ironic?) quip in Hamlet that ‘the apparel oft proclaims the man’, though it is now used to enforce modern clothing norms, is not entirely untrue. What you wear does say something, and not necessarily something merely superficial. For another thing, the traditional Chinese classics outright proclaimed this. The Book of Rites states: ‘The son of Heaven, every five years, made a tour of Inspection through the fiefs… he ordered the superintendent of rites to examine the seasons and months, and fix the days, and to make uniform the standard tubes, the various ceremonies, the instruments of music, all measures, and the fashions of clothes. Whatever was wrong in these was rectified.’ Classical Chinese thought saw nothing ‘superficial’ about material culture calendars, weights and measures, music or clothing; all had the potential to either to proclaim or to blaspheme the sacred and transcendent. To limit this quest for the Chinese soul to more abstract pursuits is to reduce the Chinese soul itself to a modernist Cartesian abstraction, in a way that can only be self-defeating!

Nowadays, though, the risks for the hanfu movement are largely internal, and regard its relation to the culture around it. The big question for the movement is: to what extent does it seek to normalise the use of traditional dress? Many of the movement’s leaders, and certainly Mr. Wang himself, would say that they want to make hanfu a common and unremarkable sight in normal everyday Chinese urban life. Others would be content to keep the hanfu merely for important events – especially weddings, graduations, coming-of-age ceremonies. One real problem is touched on by thoughtful articulators of the third criticism, and that is that the hanfu is still sometimes broadly considered a novelty and a spectacle in modern Chinese culture. There is the risk of the ‘hipster’ factor, that hanfu becomes something worn for show in wilful or ironic self-alienation. Very obviously it isn’t a panacea for China’s national anxieties. But hopefully it can become and remain a form of healthy cultural expression in its own right.

That caution having been made. Here’s to the hanfu movement: with its local and proletarian roots; with its assertion of a national identity against the demands of deracinated, global capitalist anti-culture; with its ‘impracticality’; and with its attempt to bring something transcendent and beautiful back into China’s material culture.