19 December 2014

Sanctions are (still) breathtakingly stupid

Even if you’re not a fan of President Putin, the easiest and most effective way to ensure his recalcitrance to cooperate with the West on the world stage whilst simultaneously driving more and more Russians into his welcoming arms (including ones who weren’t already there) is precisely this way that the US Congress, President Obama and his minions in the State Department have been going about it: using sanctions. In spite of all the salivating articles you’re likely to find strewn about the Anglophone blogosphere gleefully predicting Russia’s impending doom – and, indeed, partly because of them – Russia is going to become a far more hostile place to America, Americans and American interests, both real and imagined, than it has any need to be.

It’s really not that tough to figure out why sanctions don’t work. America has created a situation where ordinary Russians are being made to feel the effects of having a government that doesn’t bow to America’s every whim. The Russian people understand quite well that they are under attack by the West: these sanctions are creating a siege mentality which builds ever greater sympathy for Putin and his government. The neocons can continue to scream ‘false consciousness’ in the press all they like; the reality of the matter is that Putin has played his domestic political cards masterfully even in the midst of what is likely to be a very tough economic crisis.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the stated aim of these sanctions against Russia – to get Russia to reverse course on Ukraine and Crimea – not only is not going to be fulfilled. Ukraine is likely to suffer far, far more on account of these sanctions than it would have if the American government had simply taken a more realistic stance on Russia’s security issues. Russian sympathy for the Novorussian fighters in Donetsk and Lugansk is likely to skyrocket, pushing Putin to be more and more open about giving them both military and financial aid. In the meanwhile, the Ukrainians in the west of the country are going to continue to be beggared by a venal, corrupt, illegitimate regime which privatises all the country’s state-owned assets and sells them at bottom-rate prices to European and American plutocrats, and bullied by that regime’s neo-Nazi enforcers.

Nothing good can come of this new sanctions regime, which has found support from across the American political spectrum: whether the progressives, the neocons or the supposedly-peaceable, supposedly free-trade-supporting libertarian right. The most recent round of sanctions, coupled with an authorisation of lethal military aid to the Ukrainian junta, was a notedly bipartisan effort – and, like all too many such bipartisan efforts, combines Republican sadism with Democratic cluelessness. The only dissent here has come from contrarians like Dennis Kucinich on the left and Daniel Larison on the right.

It is a sad day indeed – the cool heads are now to be found only outside the American political mainstream. One day, hopefully sooner rather than later, the American people will awaken again to the wisdom of foreign-policy realism.

15 December 2014

Torture and tortured logic

In reaction to the recent CIA report, with regard to the renewed debate over the rightness or wrongness of torture, the Holy Orthodox Church has spoken down the ages with one mind and one voice. Holy and Right-Believing Prince S. Vladimir, Baptiser of the Rus’, abolished torture as one of his first acts following his baptism. As the Orthodox Peace Fellowship puts it:
God reminded Israel, “You shall not enslave others because you were slaves in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, 23:9) Likewise we, whose community includes so many victims of torture, should feel a special obligation to prevent torture because we know what it is like to be tortured. As a communal Church, each of us is included in the experience of our co-communicants and is accountable for protecting others from torture. Every time we enter the church building, see the icons, light a candle, we are including ourselves in the great flow of the Orthodox faith. When we prepare ourselves for the Eucharist, we acknowledge that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses,” many of whom were tortured and degraded. When we include ourselves in the Church, we are incorporating the lives and struggles of the apostles, martyrs, and saints into our own experience.
And in the words of the Basis of the Social Concept:
The Church insists on the need of humane attitude towards suspects, persons under investigation and those caught in criminal intent. The crude and improper treatment of these people can either fortify them on the wrong track or push them on it. For this reason, those awaiting a verdict should not be disfranchised even in custody. They should be guaranteed advocacy and impartial justice. The Church condemns torture and indignities towards persons under investigation.
No ifs. No ands. No buts. And this is in a highly nuanced and thoughtful document which, in good Orthodox mindset, is willing to speak to multiple conditions and scenarios in a broad scope, with the discretional humility of œconomia. There are no extenuating circumstances in Orthodox thought which can be brought to justify the torture of criminals or of criminal suspects, let alone of innocents. Zero. Torture is not only a gross sacrilege and degradation of the ikon of the living God in the human person, and therefore inherently, categorically wrong; it has the potential to warp and deform the spiritual development of all parties involved – policy-makers, perpetrators and victims all – making forgiveness and reconciliation prohibitively hard. The communicants of the Orthodox Church are all called to stand in solidarity with those who have suffered torture, no matter what other wrongs they have done.

At the same time, we must recognise that the same desires in the human heart which lead to torture and to its justification are there in every person. The line between good and evil runs, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn sagely remarked, through every human heart. And the heart which cannot recognise its own evil is usually far, far closer to it than one which can. As bloggers and consumers of social media too many of us speak in a rarefied atmosphere divorced from practical knowledge – I myself am as guilty of this as any. But we are all called upon to look straight into the dark corners of our own souls and our own lives, and to look upon them with repentence and seeking mercy from the only one who can heal them.

The findings of the CIA report are grim indeed, but they will likely come as a surprise to too few of us, and too many of us will be all too likely to excuse them however they can, or brush them under the carpet if they can. I wish that we will find it within ourselves as a nation to peer into this very dark corner of our collective national soul; I confess, however, that I find myself pessimistic about the prospects. The hard questions about how we got to this point, and how we – Democrats and Republicans both! – need to repent of it, are already being forgotten in the saddening game of political dodgeball which has followed it. We’re still too quick to blame everyone for our ills but ourselves.

For this, as an American citizen, speaking for myself and for my own country even to that very small degree which I am able and competent to speak for her, I am truly sorry and can only ask that the Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner.

13 December 2014

Oligarchy no more?

Russia is not an oligarchy, according to New York Times op-ed contributor Masha Gessen. Also according to Masha Gessen, President Putin is the man responsible. What I don’t understand, though, is: this is a bad thing… how, exactly?

With regard to Gessen’s stated concerns about Russia’s poor, yes, inflation is a problem and will probably remain so for some time. This is to be expected in a market economy like Russia’s with a strong state presence as it weathers a changing political and economic climate, and there is of course room for a certain angle of critique there. However, current oil prices are being made artificially low primarily by political manipulation between the US and Saudi Arabia, in ways that certainly won’t be sustainable in the long-term; so in Russia there are not likely to be mass unemployment or starvation or out-of-control austerity measures from above the way there was under Eltsin and the oligarchs whose loss Mr. Gessen is here mourning. And not to be underestimated is the passion of Russia’s population for the political ‘outer self-determination’ (to use the terminology from economist Jaroslav Vanek’s text The Participatory Economy) of their country, even if it is at the cost in the short run of a certain degree of political ‘inner self-determination’. Given that the oligarchical class has historically been destructive both to ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ forms of Russia’s political self-determination, their present absence is not likely to be mourned even in the face of an economic rough patch.

From a purely political perspective, though, it is generally considered a good thing for the wealthy in a particular state to be subject to the requisite laws and authorities of that state’s government, rather than the other way around. That this development is now finally happening in Russia is in fact something to be grateful for, yes?

01 December 2014

Ferguson redux

The grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, formerly of the Ferguson Police Department, in the shooting death of Michael Brown this past summer, has reopened the wounds in the most spectacular ways possible – with riots, with tear gas and with a stunning reticence on the part of ‘white’ America to grapple with its legacy of racism. This legacy lives on in too many ways to count – to give but one example, the American state and its agents assume black children are ‘guilty’ in ways that they do not consider white children to be.

This legacy has troubling and often tragic implications. A twelve-year-old black youth playing with a gun was shot to death by a police officer who did nothing to confirm the threat, the way he almost certainly would have done had the victim of this shooting been identifiably ‘white’.

That the grand jury procedure would have engaged primarily in trial procedure rather than determining, as they should have done, the sufficiency of the evidence against the defendant to go to trial, with the prosecutor demonstrably failing to do his job, was reason enough for outrage. It should also be reason for deep introspection about the way the American society fails to value black life as equal with white life. And the saddest and most damning part of it, is not that we remain a racist society, and not that we have failed to repent adequately of it, but that we cannot even bring ourselves to see that we have a problem, but must instead discredit and eliminate all those who have that effrontery to bear witness to our sins even simply by existing.

Lord, have mercy upon us all.

29 November 2014

A blessed Feast of Holy Apostle Matthew

I would by highly remiss if I allowed yet another year pass over without remarking upon the Holy Apostle Matthew, the first of the Evangelists and witness of Christ to the Partians, the Medes and the Ethiopians, whose feast day we celebrate today in the Russian Orthodox Church. Being the saint for whom I was named would be reason enough, but Holy Apostle Matthew is noteworthy in these days in particular, and to Americans in particular, for several other reasons.

Firstly, that Holy Apostle Matthew was a Gospel witness to the Iranians is of great importance. Iran and her people, specifically magi, feature prominently in the Gospel which the holy Saint authored. Iran, the land where Prophets Daniel, Esther and Mordechai still keep their repose, was also the land from which the wise men hailed who first saw the signs of the birth of Our Lord and knelt down before him in adoration. Iran has long been a nation which has thirsted after the timeless and transcendental truths, before gold and land, before power and fame, and before worldly honour and glory; in her way, she was the one nation outside of Israel which was most receptive to the idea of one God, without form, whose overriding character lies in His goodness and His care for the weakest and most vulnerable members of human society. Her zeal, her thirst for truth and her expectation of God’s justice all continue to this day. Is it any wonder the wisest men of this land would, as in Holy Apostle Matthew’s telling, look for God (and indeed recognise Him!) in a lowly manger, in a poor town, born to vagrant parents in the occupied client state of Herodean Israel? And is it any wonder that, after the victory of Christ over death, Holy Apostle Matthew would fare eastward with the good news, to proclaim it there?

As Christians - as those who have heard what was preached by the Holy Apostle Matthew and others - those of us living in America and in the West generally should recoil in shame and horror before we would allow our governments to engage in the military destruction they so often threaten against that country, over an Iranian nuclear weapons programme that is continually fretted over but which never quite manages to materialise. Also, we are duty-bound to pray for the success of the diplomatic ventures that would both ease the fear on our side of an Iranian nuke and ease the material deprivation from sanctions on their own.

Secondly, that when Holy Apostle Matthew recounted the Beatitudes of Our Lord Christ, of the poor in spirit being blessed, he was speaking of a spiritual discipline against the illusions of pride and self-sufficiency. He was emphatically not giving licence or sanction to the wealthy to oppress the economically poor for any reason. Indeed, such oppression and such pursuit of wealth are grave dangers to the soul, as wealth is a cruel and callous master who will brook no such spiritual discipline oriented toward God. No one could possibly have a greater awareness of this than Holy Apostle Matthew, who was himself formerly a tax collector who would have known all too well the temptations of greed, and who recounts Our Lord saying clearly: ‘No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.’ Not only is it a gross distortion of the meaning of S. Matthew’s Gospel to justify the naked pursuit of wealth and the neglect of the economically poor by stressing the spiritual dimension of the Beatitudes in his account, but it runs directly counter to that very same spiritual dimension. My favourite Orthodox philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, put it thus: ‘The question of bread for myself is a material question; but the question of bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question.’

Thirdly, that it is wholly reasonable to expect that Holy Apostle Matthew, whose concern with the genealogy of Our Lord and the signs of his sacral kingship in the line of David are evident in his very mode of writing, and would have been shared by his fellow Hebrews but not by Greek-speaking Gentiles, would almost certainly have been writing in Aramaic first rather than in Greek. That S. Matthew’s account agrees in large part, even to the point of being identical to that of S. Mark’s, is not evidence that he copied his account from S. Mark, or that they both copied from some other source whose existence stands on much flimsier rational grounds than the Aramaic original text of S. Matthew. The Church Fathers beginning with Papias and Irenaeus assert that S. Matthew wrote his Gospel before S. Mark did; and there is no independent reason to cast doubt or suspicion on their understanding of the history of the texts - particularly not for the sake of modernist scholars of higher-criticism suffering from acute cases of chronological snobbery.

It is necessary for us to keep all of the above in mind. Holy Apostle Matthew’s life and works should never be forgotten, and still less what they all mean for us today, particularly we white Christians living sheltered lives under secular Western governments. Those whom we consider our enemies, we are called to love (S. Matthew 5:44). That the wealth and security which we hoard unto ourselves, even as S. Matthew himself did before Jesus called to him at Capernaum, can be a prohibitive spiritual barrier to our entry into the eternal Kingdom (S. Matthew 19:23-26). And that we ought not to trust in our own righteousness and wit and self-sufficiency, and demand signs and wonders in our comfortable self-satisfaction, but rather fast and repent in sincerity as did the men and women of great and proud Nineveh when the same sign was given to them (S. Matthew 16:4). Yet the life and works of S. Matthew show us the same thing that he tells us outright through the words of Our Lord: that with God, all things are indeed possible; as they were possible for him, they are possible too for us!

Holy Apostle Matthew, please pray with us, and entreat merciful God that He may grant our souls remission of our transgressions.

26 November 2014

Culture wars and the non-West

Cross-posted from Oriental Review:

In the United States we used to talk about the ‘culture wars’, as though the ‘culture’ was the battlefield, the undifferentiated contested space on which the wars were fought. Indeed, many of us still seem to think and speak this way. Our political and pundit classes will still often talk about a ‘war on Christmas’ or a ‘war on women’ in the public sphere. It used to be the case – and again, for many people, it still is – that such cultural battles were considered zero-sum existential battles between an almighty evil and the few brave, virtuous and true who were willing to stand up to it. The fights are, in their view, about the right to shape the public space in ways which reflect their deep-seated values, values which they believe ought to be universal. There is a certain tempting logic in this thinking, a certain comforting naivety taking its refuge in the trappings of myth, a certain idea that if only a few specific kinds of thinking could be purged from our national consciousness then the culture would be renewed.

I do not speak as a neutral voice here, if such a thing could possibly exist. I speak, firstly, as an American – and as one of the millennial children born to late baby boomer parents. I speak, secondly, as a ‘left-wing conservative’ – one whose respect for traditional lifeways was fostered by a succession of experiences in Indian Country, in a history class taught by an Anglo-Irish Tory, in a Beijing that was busily being bulldozed for the sake of Olympic showmanship, in Kazakhstan, in the thought of the Slavophils and in the embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church. (I would much sooner call myself a Miyazaki-ist than a Marxist.) As such, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the idea of culture as contested space, and I would love nothing better than to see traditional societies and communities make efforts to reclaim their own cultural spaces on their own terms.

But the issues pointed out by American ‘culture warriors’ both liberal and fundamentalist, are not even close to the entire reality that we face. They certainly don’t approach the hard realities we face now in the United States. Or even in and around the other centres of globalist culture.

What we have begun to see is that the boundaries of acceptable cultural output have begun to narrow and accentuate themselves in very strange and distressing ways – the landscape itself shifts under our feet; the battlefield becomes a bottleneck. It has sadly become the case that it is no longer ‘extreme’ to exhibit one’s body in public – for example, in a ‘pride’ parade – in ways which self-respecting protesters (even counter-cultural ones!) would have thought shameful and entirely beneath them, only twenty or thirty years ago. The infantile antics and language of the so-called ‘Tea Party’, though less explicit than the average ‘pride’ parade, likewise cater to the vulgar Caesarism of their political constituency.

And yet, it becomes not only ‘extreme’, but so beyond the pale as to be worthy of outright dismissal and ridicule, to question the priorities of the American foreign policy establishment, whether from the left or from the right. Speaking of the ramifications of our current foreign policy stance for America’s budget, security and public good is practically a taboo; let alone for the people of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Mali, Syria and the Ukraine.

What we have begun to see is that a genuine civil discourse over public values and political priorities has been progressively displaced in favour of vulgarity, transgression and titillation – in ways which cannot simply be mere accidents of the times. The enemy is at his strongest when he convinces us he is not there. But there are, of course, beneficiaries to an impoverished public discourse which pushes further into the margins genuine considerations of culture or economy; namely, those who control the culture and the economy. Vulgarity, transgression and titillation all make good copy. They all sell. The very last thing they are is genuinely threatening to the grasp of the elites over public space. And they are readily exported.

This phenomenon of a radically-atomistic, depoliticised politics, of a public sphere characterised by commercialism, vulgarism, voyeurism and self-display, is one which has been quietly cultivated by the globalist elite over the past two decades throughout the world. Witness, for example, the rise in the troubled Ukraine of both radical feminist and neo-Nazi ideology, each displaying vulgar and exhibitionist, even violent, public sphere tactics parallel with the American gay ‘pride’ and anti-tax movements.

In China, there are certainly voices outside the reigning narrative of government authoritarianism versus liberal capitalism put forward by the Anglophone media. Wang Hui, though a thoroughgoing democrat, commits himself to two propositions which fundamentally offend the neoliberal globalist project. First, he argues forcefully in defence of the public rights of traditional communities (such as the Tibetans), in a way which relativises or suspends the formalism of an individual conception of rights. Second, he undercuts this very concept of ‘depoliticised politics’. He critiques, albeit from the left, a political sphere which edges out genuine political discourse whilst providing distractions in the forms of commercialism and spectacle. And he self-consciously adopts an idiosyncratic Daoist philosophical perspective which exposes the fundamental likeness and identity of popularly-perceived opposites, particularly with regard to Anglophone Western perspectives on Chinese history.

Perhaps not accidentally, the two countries which receive the most vilification in the Western press for their political ‘repression’ – China and Russia – are the two countries where a wider variety of political perspectives running counter to the dictates of the global hegemon are most actively striving to make a certain degree of headway. In China, both the thought of the New Left (represented by Wang Hui, Cui Zhiyuan and Wang Shaoguang) and the thought of the traditionalist-conservative, institutionalist branch of the New Confucians (represented by Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang) both attempt to offer authentic and thoroughgoing alternatives to formalism, to legalism, to atomistic individualism and to faceless neoliberal globalism. And in Russia, the older strains of authentic counter-hegemonic thought dating back to Khomyakov and Herzen – Slavophilia, populism, back-to-the-land – are all very much alive and relevant. Modern public figures as different in perspective and methods as Aleksandr Prokhanov and Archimandrite Tikhon are attempting to forge a path forward for Russia that doesn’t fall into the anti-cultural abyss that threatens the Anglophone West.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra, quoting sociologist Clifford Geertz, remarks on the ‘pervasive raggedness’ and the ‘shattering of larger coherences’ in the wake of the age of ideology. He speaks on how the ‘long-term losers’ of history are attempting to bow out of a game that they are beginning to realise has always been rigged against them. Parts of his analysis are somewhat overly-hopeful about the prospects of the non-West in the near future. On the whole, though, he is doing us Westerners a great service, by pointing to a healthy instinct in the non-West to seek solutions of self-rule after the example of Gandhi rather than after the example of Nehru.

One thing in particular is something that is difficult for us Americans to imagine, but equally important for us to realise. Our battles are not the world’s battles. ‘Culture war’ means something very different here in China, to the point where speaking about the American ‘culture war’ seems like a quaint exercise in parochial anachronism. Here the war is against an invading anti-culture, one which still fancies itself the best of all possible worlds, in whatever world it happens to find itself. The strength of these non-Western thinkers lies in their recognition that culture – specifically their culture – is not merely a neutral battlefield.

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!