23 June 2017

The Austrian roots of the regressive left


It’s commonly acknowledged that one of the major hallmarks of the (re)activist postmodern identitarian campus left, or the regressive left, is that it assumes the ‘social construction’ of certain facts – including, but not limited to, the scientific method and biological gender. Many of the opponents of the regressive left, particularly those on the political right, assume that the idea of ‘social constructivism’ comes from Karl Marx via the Frankfurt School (hence the intellectually-lazy snarl of ‘cultural Marxism’).

Unfortunately, the Frankfurt School of critical theory offers itself up as an easy punching bag given the schoolmarmish, sourpuss commentary of people like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer about everything related to the production of culture, or the over-the-top activist pose of Herbert Marcuse (which is often linked to modern campus-activist praxis). And red-baiting is of course an old and venerable sport in American politics – the new Birchers baying after ‘cultural Marxism’ don’t even have to put away their Cold War paranoia! But for all its flaws, the Frankfurt School never actually gave itself up to the insane ‘narrative’ relativism in morals or to the subjectivism in epistemology that have become the hallmarks of the regressive left. Nor was its rationalistic social critique directly responsible for laying the groundwork for ‘social constructivism’. (Heck, these days the foremost representative of the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, has become a vocal defender of the Christian religious tradition as a repository of humane civilising habits – can you imagine a campus leftist doing the same?) Of course the hardline Marxists have been far too wedded to dialectical materialism to even consider ‘social constructivism’ as anything but an annoying distraction, spurred by frustrated radicals’ inability to achieve actual revolutionary goals.

The actual roots of social constructivism lie elsewhere, though. But the actual history of the ideas of social constructivism is not a comfortable one for the American political right, though, because several highly-revered intellectual figures of the American political right are much more directly responsible for the rise of subjectivism, relativism and the idea of ‘social construction’ itself.

As with any intellectual genealogy, it’s best to start with the first known instance of an idea. The idea of the ‘social construct’, and with it, the sociological theory of constructivism, first appeared with the libertarian sociologist Peter Berger and his co-author Thomas Luckmann in their book The Social Construction of Reality, which has been a key text in American sociology departments and classrooms since it was first published in 1966. The text’s conceit was to take ‘taken-for-granted realities’ and deconstruct them as projects or fictions sustained by iterated interactions between individuals, but not possessing any reality of their own. Also notable about the text was that it downplayed the role of the scientific method as just one stream of social knowledge among many, and at that one whose source was largely controlled by a small group of privileged experts. (Sound familiar?) The philosophical traditions cited by Berger and Luckmann as intellectual inspirations for The Social Construction of Reality were, in a word, not Marxist. Berger and Luckmann invoked the names of Scheler, Heidegger, Husserl, Weber and Mead – none of whom were Marxist, and two of whom utterly hated Marx (for different reasons). We can see here that the philosophical traditions of American pragmatism and European postmodernism (which at the time of Berger’s and Luckmann’s book was busily reorganising itself into poststructuralism) have left indelible marks on social constructivism. But the biggest direct intellectual influence on The Social Construction of Reality was the thinking of Peter Berger’s doctoral advisor, Alfred Schütz.

Schütz, like Berger himself, was born in Austria. But he was a member of the private seminar, and a very close friend of, a certain Austrian œconomist named Ludwig von Mises. Schütz’s early sociological work was deeply influenced by von Mises’s praxeology, and was largely an attempt to reconcile Weber’s sociology with von Mises’ a priori, subjective and individualistic approach to œconomic theory. The parallels are not exact, of course, but one can easily see how Schütz’s attempt to deconstruct certain data-based approaches to the sociology of œconomics to suit radically anti-evidential Austrian-school assumptions of the way œconomies are supposed to work, works in the same way as regressive-left attempts to deconstruct empirically-based approaches to other fields of knowledge. Indeed, the ties between social constructivism and Austrian praxeology have been made explicit by both historical (including Friedrich Hayek) and modern proponents of Austrian School œconomics. The real problem with the regressive left, with its emphasis on social constructivism and identity, is that in its origins and in its behaviour, it isn’t a ‘left’ at all.

Undoubtedly, modern regressive-left activists and ‘social justice warriors’ would be horribly offended (so much the better!) by my intimation that they are engaging in what is fundamentally a neoliberal capitalist project. But, by claiming both biological and social realities like gender as ‘constructs’ and dissolving them from there into an endless array of mutually-incommensurate consumer ‘identities’, that’s exactly what they’re doing. That’s not only true from the history-of-sociology perspective which traces the concept of the ‘social construct’ back to its partially-Austrian School roots. It’s also from the perspective of practical politics that deconstructing social and empirical realities like gender has the concrete effect of atomising society according to identity, and making genuine dialogue about the common good prohibitively difficult in the process.

If the left is to regain its footing, it needs to take better stock of its own principles. In order to build a broad-based movement on the principles of œconomic fairness and equity, we need to look at facts. We can’t go haring off after these libertarian bread-crumbs in an attempt to sound more-radical-than-thou, on a trail that leads into the intellectual wasteland of moral relativism and epistemic closure.

21 June 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 5.2: où est la différence?


It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that yours truly has more than several weaknesses – several vices – several flaws, both intellectual and moral. Part of the reason writing this portion of the series on realism and the pelvic issues has proven difficult is that it does explore several of my vices in depth and rather lays them bare. But a young man who aspires to be a lover of truth, and who thus allows himself to be interrogated by Plato’s Socrates (or, indeed, by Christ!), must eventually run up against the limits of his own nature, personality, habits and thinking, and be confronted with the questions his own soul poses to him. The questions must be put forward honestly.

I put forward the argument in the previous section of this series, that sexually-arousing and -exploitative images and scenarios are examples of dishonest mimēsis that substitute themselves for reality, that present themselves to the ‘belly’ in ways which directly bypass the discursive faculty. In addition to degrading the displayer, they also thus make sōphrosunē impossible to achieve for the viewer. But as, for example, a listener of heavy metal music, what right have I to make such a claim? Isn’t that kind of distorted, asymphonic music an even greater danger to the soul, particularly in light of Simmias’s argument to Socrates in the Phædo (and one no less intuitively true for Socrates having found its flaws) that the soul is a dynamic harmony? Is it not also a mimēsis that distorts reality, bypasses reason and engages the ‘belly’? Plato himself, after all (if we are to take his indictments of the poets, musicians and rhapsodes in the Republic and Ion at all seriously) understood quite well the effects that music can have on the impressionable soul.

Let’s continue, then, with our assault upon metal as a genre, and play it in its heaviest and most downtuned possible key (pardon the riffs). Music – the name itself, deriving from the Muses, the givers of an inspiration which is not the result of ratiocination or physical practice, but instead of a form of ‘divine madness’ (compare Phædrus) – is a gateway to the soul that likewise bypasses reason in the listener. Plato understood this. In the Republic Socrates argues against the presence of lyres (or of any other such many-stringed or curiously-harmonised instruments) in the beautiful city, because ‘rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful’. If musical harmony will impart grace and self-control, inward harmony, to the soul, need it be spelt out what the asymphony, bombast and anger of heavy metal music will do? When put this way, how is a transgressive aural titillation of the wrathful thumós any better at all than the transgressive visual titillation of the epithumía?

Personally, I’m not sure it is. I find I have but few grounds for preferring my own vices to those of anyone else. The best I can do is point to the honourable exceptions: to those bands which specialise in deeper, complex harmonies and themes which speak to those higher, philosophical aspirations of the soul than the expression of anger and extremity of pain. (And in heavy metal, at least, those bands are not few.) I’m thinking here of Threshold, Tang Dynasty, Hammers of Misfortune, Edenbridge, Queensrÿche, whose music may stand on its own harmonic and lyrical merits without any need of a defence from me.

But would there not be exceptions to the realm of erotically-charged art, as well? I would not deny the possibility. In fact, going all the way back to my rapidly-escalating tiffs with Mr Cal P— in the comments section of my very first entry in this series, I showed myself more-than-willing to make exceptions even where erotic depictions were concerned. Can certain sensually-appealing, physically-beautiful examples of the human form arouse us to an awareness of the higher things? I would actually argue, yes. In fact, I might even go so far as to point to Plato himself – to the Symposium – for an argument to the same. It’s not enough, as commentators on Plato from Jowett to Bloom have made clear, to look only at what Plato’s Socrates says, but also what he does. And Socrates does erotically admire sensual, physically-attractive young men: Alcibiades, Charmides, Agathon, Glaucon and Adeimantus. He is not averse to seeing them naked in the palæstra, and remarks on the physical beauty of Charmides’ body before he proceeds to make his soul known by questioning him on the nature of sōphrosunē. And then, what are Socrates’ speeches in Phædrus if not a kind of new, philosophical love-poetry to replace the older, self-serving odes? Could we not imagine also a new, philosophical form of sensual art, one that directs our vision upward rather than downward? (And would not some of Plato’s own myths and depictions of the afterlife count?)

As I attempted to make it clear before, Plato is not a hater of erōs or the physical body as such. The example and lifestyle of Socrates shown in the Symposium ought to be ample proof of that, even if it is followed by the Phædo! He is, after all, a realist, not a prude. He understands that in the harmonised man, the reasoning part of the soul must dialectically convince (not bludgeon or starve or suppress) the willing and desiring parts of the soul, and bring them to an agreement. I don’t think he’d object in a blanket way to sensuality or eroticism in art, but I think he would absolutely question the purposes it serves, even (and especially) in those instances where a more noble aim is intimated. And so should we. I’m more than happy to grant a small handful of ennobling exceptions. But when a hundred-billion dollar industry – fuelled by drugs, torture, emotional and physical abuse, and leaving behind it the human detritus of shell-shock, impotence, divorce, emotional flight and worse – those questions of what corporate eroticism and titillation is doing to our souls, both individually and as a polity, become pressing.

20 June 2017

An intriguing electoral study


Here are the data for those who still see themselves as the ‘reality-based community’ to consider. And here are some interpretations of the data that I think follow logically.
  1. Populists form a key constituency. We are legion. The major divide is still between liberals and conservatives, but those of us on the œconomic ‘left’ and the social-cultural ‘right’, according to this study anyway, form 28.9% of the electorate (whereas libertarians, who unsurprisingly have a lot more clout among rich donors, make up only 3.8% of the total voter base). We, not the libertarians, are the great, silent group of swing voters. And this time, much to my own chagrin as one of the few ‘other’ voters, we swung hard for Trump.

  2. The donor class is libertarian. Or rather, more accurately, both parties are dragged in a libertarian direction by their wealthiest campaign contributors and lobbyists, who are uniformly more œconomically neoliberal and socially more liberal than the rank-and-file. One need only look to the Koch brothers and Adelson on the Republican side, and to Soros and Bloomberg on the Democratic side, for anecdotal suspicions. These data, however confirm that suspicion. Sanders supporters were right to suspect that big money and corporate campaign contributions do skew our politics.

  3. Sanders would have won, or at least have done far better in terms of popular vote than Clinton did. Interestingly (and perhaps counter-intuitively), there wasn’t that much difference between Sanders and Clinton voters on œconomic issues. But Sanders had greater appeal among the populists – among the culturally-conservative, union-member inland working class – than Clinton did, which is precisely the demographic which caused her to lose ground to Trump in the ‘blue wall’ states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Clinton lost four out of ten of us populists who had voted for Obama. That speaks to a catastrophically poor campaign strategy and something like malicious neglect.

  4. The disconnect between the Democratic establishment and voter base lies in social issues. Traditional Democratic voters care about addressing inequality. This study shows, in fact, that we care a lot about it. Quite a few ‘red’ states would be more-than-receptive audiences if universal health care, full employment and other bread-and-butter issues were floated. But the more Democratic politicians piss on the third rails of identity politics, the more they lose us. The more bile they spew at œconomically-egalitarian folks who ‘cling to guns or religion’, who think unborn babies should be protected or who have no problem with traditional gender roles, the more they lose. The more they shove crappy trade deals down our throats and the more jobs they ship abroad, the more they lose. The more they encourage gender ideology and the identitarian trend in politics, the more they lose. And they will find that the more they blame Russia for these completely-solvable problems with their campaign strategy, the more they will lose.
A big hat-tip to the Realist Left blog for the link to this study; it is most intriguing!

19 June 2017

The response of the awakened East


Reading the second of Blessed New-Martyr Ilya Fondaminsky’s Ways of Russia essays, I am struck immediately by two impressions. The first is that he imbibed some of the more controversial elements of the Slavophil historiography neat. He is convinced that Russia is the spiritual (and material) descendant not of mediæval Greece alone, but of the pre- and proto-Slavic Iranian-Scythian culture. This conviction he takes straight from leading Slavophil philosopher Aleksey Khomyakov. He finds in this legacy a source of great, but raw and untapped, spiritual and creative energy, one which the actual Slavophils failed to unearth and use fully. The second impression is that – along with Berdyaev – he wants to retrieve the key insights of the Slavophil legacy, and even retain the civilisational ‘messianism’ for which they are subjected to much scepticism, but (particularly confronted with the rise of the Bolsheviks) without the optimistic assurance in Russia’s destiny which has led them to be charged with a certain degree of nationalistic naïveté. He believes that the Eastern character of Russia, together with its post-Petrine openness to the West, will combine and reconcile themselves in a grand synthesis within the Russian soul. Then – and only then – will Russia have its ‘new word’ to speak to the world. But the moment for that synthesis is ‘not yet’, and ‘not soon’.

Saint Ilya takes a very long view of the history of civilisation. In order to shed meaningful light upon the ‘reawakening’ of the East in his own day, he draws on the clashes between East and West going back to the Classical world and the conquests of Alexander the Great; he stands in awe of the civilisational heights to which Classical Greece ascended; and he understands that even the spiritual life of the Greek-inflected West has not yet been fully finished or played-out. At the same time, his sympathies are clearly with the civilisations of the East. He is convinced of the ancient vitality of the Indian and the Chinese lifeways: ‘Their accumulated values were so great, their spiritual foundations so deep, that only for a short time did they submit to the influence of the West’. In his view, ‘Christianity’ itself ‘is the response of the awakened East to spiritual enslavement by the West’. He notes and applauds the ‘revival’ of traditional spiritual culture that is still taking place in both the Near East and the Far East:
There is work to clear the layers [of dust] from religious and philosophical systems from their periods of decay; to learn old art, old literature, to revive them to newness of life. Just as with the renaissance in the West, a renaissance in the East is not only a rush for the new. First of all it is a return to the classical period of the past, it is immersion in the fountainheads of the national spirit. As yet there is no genuine spiritual creativity. But it will happen; it must… The awakened East creates its own, reveals its soul, reveals its understanding of the world. ‘The Night of Asia’ is passing. The ‘one’ ‘universal’ civilisation is being torn apart before our eyes. To shreds. The world again becomes diverse and colourful.
He even cites Gu Hongming in the defence of this ad fontes project of renewal! And he identifies the creative genius of the Russian people with the Iranian-Scythian earth out of which the Slavs sprang. Saint Ilya passes harsh judgements upon the Greece of Alexander and the Western colonial powers who seek to build a ‘universal’ civilisation – seeing in the pretensions to universality and globalism, no matter how well-intentioned, the signs of creative exhaustion and civilisational decay. For him, the unrooted, atomistic bourgeois liberalism of the modern West, much like the all-homogenising pretensions of the Imperium Rōmānum, is a lawless impulse which can never rightfully be realised.

But it would be a mistake to characterise him as a narrow nationalist. (Small wonder: Saint Ilya detested fascism with a vengeance, and gave his life in solidarity with the Jews under fascist oppression.) In Saint Ilya’s thinking, Russia’s placement on the world stage, situated on the basis of the old, Eastern Iranian-Scythian culture and in constant contact with the Black Sea outposts of the Greek and Latin West, gives it a unique and uniquely-cosmopolitan outlook. Russia is marked with certain Iranian civilisational principles: a ‘solar’ monotheism (matched with a ‘solar’ monarchism); personalism; a communitarian ethos; a preference for the spoken word, the слово. These characteristics – so precious and so needful in Saint Ilya’s thinking – were, ironically, reinforced both by contact with Byzantium and by contact with the Mongols; only to be buried in their penultimate expression in the Petrine reforms. ‘Now,’ Saint Ilya writes, ‘[the old Eastern culture] must be sought in the very depths of the life of the people.’ But they can be brought out, ironically, only with the help of interaction with the intellectual ferment of the West, to ‘adapt some of the Western spiritual conquest to the Eastern worldview’. The clashing interactions of the Iranian-Scythian and the Byzantine-Roman worlds which birthed the kaleidoscopically colourful, brilliant and in many ways deeply radical culture of Kievan Rus’ where the two overlapped, are not things to be thrown aside thoughtlessly, either in the name of universalism or of parochialism. If an all-embracing, all-expansive, rootless globalist homogenisation is the sign of spiritual death of civilisations, no less so is the externalised, self-isolating homogenisation of the modern nation-state. Instead, the primary cultural ferment happens locally, on the borders, on the peripheries, in the ‘wilderness’. The product of Black Sea localisms and Silk Road transnationalisms, buffeted by Byzantine, Mongol and Polish colonialisms, the Russian civilisation has the potential to unite within herself the civilisational principles of West and East—but, as Saint Ilya was speaking, ‘not yet’.

The questions Saint Ilya asks about the ‘ways of Russia’, and his subsequent historical and cultural analyses, find some ready parallels in the Sinosphere not only with the slightly-earlier eclectic conservative radicalism of Gu Hongming, but also with the Daoist-inflected neoleftism of Wang Hui. This should not be a surprise, since they approach many of the same questions about the destiny of their respective cultures, from a counter-hegemonic perspective conditioned by long historical awareness. But in Saint Ilya’s thinking, a somewhat Tolkienish turn is taken in that the grand civilisational narrative begins from very local sources, even sources most scholars would think unworthy of note! He writes:
Only in adjacent areas was a mixed Scythian-Hellenistic form of culture created. The closer to the Greek cities and shores of the Black Sea, the stronger the Hellenic influence. The further into the interior of the country one went, the stronger the influence of the East…

This culture is weak, ‘provincial’; it did not create large independent values. It cannot be compared, not only with the ‘great’ cultures of the Near East and of Greece, but even with the smaller Hellenised cultures of Western Europe. But its importance for the history of Russia is enormous. It was the cultural foundation for the civilisation of Kiev. Scythia helped organise the Kievan state. When the movement of peoples in southern Russia ceased and a certain calm was established, the old culture revived and served as midwife to the new Kievan civilisation.
Some very interesting historical and cultural insights from a profound New Martyr of the Orthodox Church. He offers a Slavophilia shorn of Katkovite expansionist and triumphalist dreams; a Slavophilia of the margins of civilisation; a Slavophilia that looks to ‘peaks in the distance’ from the standpoint of a Russia-that-was. Even if the liberal perspective would no doubt judge Saint Ilya Fondaminsky as far too fond of what it would no doubt term ‘Oriental despotism’, he nonetheless argues with passion for a renewed culture, a just culture, that can draw from Oriental sources.

18 June 2017

Has this blog shifted left?


On my Facebook page, I got a comment from a deeply-respected reader of this blog to the effect that it seemed I was going ‘soft’ on socialism. I had actually described myself as ‘Orthodox, monarchist, socialist – in that order’, and in light of my recent post on RH Tawney, this seemed to be a cause for concern.

Let me clarify my position, then. I don’t think the shift, if there has been one, has been that drastic; it’s more a shift in emphasis than in conviction. To some of my gentle readers, it may confirm what they had long suspected; to others, it may allay some of their concerns. As long as this blog has been active, I have considered myself a ‘man of the Left’, albeit one with a strong Tory streak. My biggest objections to socialism in the main, were its tendencies toward materialism and toward urban chauvinism, but I’ve also had a long-standing appreciation for the post- (or non-)Marxist socialisms of people like Ruskin, Morris, Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Vonnegut, Fei, Wang and Miyazaki. The fact that there are Orthodox saints and martyrs like Blessed Ilya Fondaminsky and Mother Maria Skobtsova, whose socialist-revolutionary instincts never really went away on conversion, but in fact led them to a self-sacrificial embrace of Christ in the concentration camps, heartens me quite a bit as well.

I still do have a significant level of respect for distributism – and particularly for Chesterton and Mihalache. At the same time, the cliquish tendency among distributists to artificially distance themselves from their closest cousins (the guild socialists and the social-credit movement) has become somewhat irritating to me. I do understand the differences and their importance – I have, after all, read Mitrany’s book and understand its critiques, even of the ‘democratic’ socialists who threw peasant movements under the bus for the sake of ideological rigour. I also understand the ideologically-motivated, malicious and dishonest desire on the part of distributism’s ideological foes to tar it with a ‘red’ brush. I know exactly how this causes a certain level of defensiveness on the part of distributism’s committed defenders. At the same time, it strikes me as equally dishonest to understate or ignore the importance of the Oxford Movement and the left-radicalisms of Cobbett and Morris on distributism’s development in the West (Chesterton did, after all, love him some Cobbett!), or of narodnichestvo on its development in the East, through transitional figures like Svetozar Marković in Yugoslavia and Constantin Stere in Romania. German revisionists like Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein were notably influential on the most successful distributist statesman of the Green Rising, Bulgaria’s Aleksandar Stamboliyski.

The other reason my thinking has taken a more Fabian turn of late is precisely this: distributism requires a far fuller and more cogent awareness of its radical roots if it is to retain its character. Allan Carlson, in his book Third Ways (a read I highly recommend, by the way), not only engages fruitfully and in interesting ways with the legacy of Karl Polanyi and the forgotten story of how Ellen Key’s ‘Swedish socialist housewives’ battled against the creeping ideology of defamilialisation. He also issues a stern warning to the would-be torchbearers of distributism and Christian democracy in our age. He notes the sharp turn of the Christian Democratic parties in the 1950’s away from the Catholic personalist radicalism of Emmanuel Mounier and Stephen Borne toward a bureaucratised, bourgeois ethic:
As early as the 1950s, Christian democracy as a vital worldview entered another period of crisis. The youthful excitement, energy and sense of positive Christian revolution evident in the 1940s dissipated… In Italy and West Germany, Christian democratic parties consolidated their hold on power at the price of their vision. By the early 1960s, they were increasingly pragmatic and bureaucratic, self-satisfied defenders of the status quo. Ambitious office-seekers, rather than Christian idealists, came to dominate the parties. Movements for ‘moral and spiritual renewal’ became simply mass parties of the right-of-centre. When a new ‘crisis of values’ hit Europe with particular force in the 1960s, the Christian democrats were unprepared to respond. They appeared by then to be old and discredited guardians of a new kind of materialism, the very opposite of what the movement’s visionaries had intended.
It’s precisely this turn in the Christian democratic movement in this country – the American Solidarity Party – that I’m most coming to fear. The party builders in many of the state-level outfits seem more concerned with building a big tent of the centre-right, than with challenging the Lockean presuppositions of our mainstream politics and articulating a genuine alternative to the two big parties. My explorations into Tawney and Cole, and my turn toward the saintly Bunakov for inspiration, comes straight from Carlson’s warning and example. Perhaps a good hard shot of Fabianism (of the localist, industrial-democratic variety which also takes virtue ethics seriously) is just the thing needed.

14 June 2017

Some thoughts on From Up on Poppy Hill



WARNING: This post contains movie spoilers!

Miyazaki Gorô’s From Up on Poppy Hill is a fine piece of animated cinema. It is not usual Studio Ghibli fare, of course. The soundtrack alone, heavy on 1960’s kayôkyoku 歌謠曲 jazz-and-blues tunes, is already far removed from the epic, sweeping orchestral compositions of his father’s films, and sets the tone for a film which is much more subdued in tone and substance. But it certainly has Ghibli hallmarks (and those of Gorô’s father Miyazaki Hayao) stamped all over it. A sweet, innocent young romance; a spirited female lead with a strong sense of responsibility; the lack of a clear villain among the characters; the tragic interplay between old traditions and new technologies; a wistful love for the life-ways of an earlier age; the fascination with and enchantment of mundane details in a unique kind of magical realism. And also, very much like in his father’s work, there is a subtle-but-persistent left-wing critique of modern Japanese society which runs through the film, and a sensibility (albeit one refreshingly devoid of postmodern cynicism) regarding the deprivations associated with œconomic ‘development’ which calls somewhat to mind the filmography of Jia Zhangke.

The plot revolves around two interconnected themes: the fate of two children of war-ravaged naval families in the decades immediately following the Second World War and the Korean War, and the planned demolition and replacement of Konan Academy’s Quartier Latin clubhouse, an ancient, decrepit (but well-loved by its members) school building, to make way for new facilities in light of Tôkyô’s hosting of the Olympic Games. High school senior Kazama Shun publishes a poem about junior Matsuzaki Umi (called by her French cognate nickname ‘Mer’) in the school newspaper, about the signal flags she raises every morning in memory of her dead father, which he sees flying every day as he takes a harbour tug to school. Later the same day, Shun leaps off the clubhouse roof as a stunt designed to draw attention to the student-activist ‘cause’ of keeping the old clubhouse intact (something which fails to impress Umi). The two eventually bond and develop a romantic interest over their shared work in that ‘cause’; but their relationship becomes complicated by their war-torn family pasts.

Kazama Shun turns out to be a war orphan who was adopted by the local electrician in order to keep him from ‘falling between the cracks’. After hearing about how Umi’s own military father Sawamura was killed (by a mine off the coast of Korea during the war) and seeing an old picture of Sawamura with two of his shipmates, Shun begins to suspect that he and Umi are biological siblings. Shun tries to distance himself from Umi on discovering this, but their feelings for each other continue to grow. When the board of the school votes to tear down the clubhouse and they have to travel to Tôkyô together to argue to the school chairman for it to be kept, Umi confesses her love to him, not caring about the incestuous implications. And Shun reciprocates.

Shun’s story, though, gets ‘a little complicated’, as Umi’s mother Ryôko later reveals to her. Shun’s family was wiped out in the atomic blast that incinerated Nagasaki, his mother died in childbirth, and his father Tachibana, Sawamura’s shipmate, was killed in a similar accident several years before. In the MacArthur years, Shun had to be adopted ad hoc by the Matsuzaki family in order to avoid being sent to an orphanage, at which point he was given to the Kazama family (who had recently lost their own child). Umi is moved to tears at finding out Shun is not her biological brother, and Ryôko arranges for Shun to meet the third serviceman in the photograph. The Quartier Latin is saved from destruction by the chairman, who is impressed both by the students’ dedication to their old clubhouse and particularly by Umi’s manners. The final scene, where the last living friend of Umi and Shun’s respective fathers greets the two children as though ‘seeing [his] old friends again’, ends the film on a bittersweet-but-hopeful note.

Despite these complications, the sweet and natural relationship between Umi and Shun is never once presented in a prurient, fetishistic, exploitative or transgressive way. Instead, it may be best to see it as a remark on how traditional Confucian morals and right relationships – even those between friends and siblings – were literally blown apart by the wars and the social and cultural upheaval of its aftermath, with the pieces left to be retrieved as best the survivors could. Indeed, the anti-war themes and broader cultural commentary can be seen poking out in multiple places, some quite obvious.


There is a school debate scene early in the film in which Shun denounces the pro-demolition students as being ‘just like the old men who run this country’, and declaims that ‘there is no future for people who worship the future and forget the past’. For defending an old building on grounds of historical and cultural memory, Shun is branded an ‘anarchist’ and dragged down from the stage by the pro-demolition crowd. The debate devolves quickly into fisticuffs after that (stopped only by the school president in order to fool the teachers who come to investigate). But the scene illustrates very nicely how, in East Asia, particularly in Japan and particularly in the wake of the Meiji era, the concerns of the hard left and the concerns of the traditionalist right have gone merrily hand-in-hand against the presentist, liberal-‘conservative’ bureaucratic-corporate-military-political establishment. Miyazaki Hayao’s films also show the same kind of confluence of leftist anti-militarist and anti-capitalist concerns with perennial traditionalist ones, though seldom in such a forthright way as here.

The artistry of the film is, as to be expected from anything put out by Studio Ghibli, wonderfully intricate, lovingly crafted with great attention to the realistic small details, from the rusty old tugboat to the lush greenery of Coquelicot Manor’s backyard, from the rice fields and beaten-up old shops with their hand-painted placards standing alongside dirt roads to the newfangled neon-lighted neighbourhoods with new trolleys rolling through. They are presented side-by-side, without judgement and with equal care. But there is some true love, inspiration and Ghibli magic aplenty bestowed on the old Quartier Latin, a Victorian mansion with ornate wood panelling, stairways and railings, balconies and stained-glass windows, an old clock-tower with a kanji clock face, subdivided ramshackle, overrun with dust and cobwebs, overflowing bookshelves and lined with stacks of old newsprint, with bits and pieces of every high-school student boy’s hobby one can imagine. The clubhouse is practically a character in its own right, and one you come to care more and more about as the film goes on, and the main characters put more and more work into renovating it… and, of course, this intimate love for the old fits very well with the theme of the film.


From frame one, From Up on Poppy Hill is not your ‘typical’ Ghibli film. It was not received as enthusiastically by foreign audiences as Miyazaki Hayao’s other films. But it’s by no means to be considered a ‘lesser’ one for its lack of fantastic supernaturalism. Indeed, the domesticity and historical grounding of the story allow the film to delve deep, and ask questions as trenchant and meaningful as those Porco Rosso, Nausicaä and Mononoke-hime did.

13 June 2017

Random thoughts on the UK elections

  • Many heartfelt congratulations to Mr. John Baron, MP of Basildon and Billericay, on his electoral win! It’s immensely gratifying to me that one of the very few actual Tories who actually deserved to keep his seat, in fact did.

  • From the perspective of Labour: Mr. Jeremy Corbyn’s showing in these Parliamentary elections, though slightly disappointing, still demonstrated what I have been saying for quite some while, e.g. in my open letter to my cousin across the pond two years ago. Labour voters – particularly younger ones – want a party with principles. And Corbyn, who is not my ideal candidate for several reasons, nonetheless gives voice to a firm set of Labour principles – things like generous welfare benefits, renationalisation of utilities, people’s QE, détente and armed neutrality. These may have a retro, Old Left flavour to them, but if there’s one thing heavy metal has taught me, some things never die. The party of Blair is dead and gone, and – frankly – good riddance. Long live the party of Corbyn.

  • From the perspective of the Conservatives: these elections were a completely-avoidable humiliation which they should have seen coming a mile off, polls notwithstanding. Twice now, first in Cameron’s referendum on Brexit and just recently in the new elections called by May, the British electorate have meetly and rightly punished the Conservatives for their smarmy, self-important, hubristic and completely-misplaced confidence in the outcome. Ms. Theresa May basically assumed that, with Corbyn as her opponent, she didn’t actually have to campaign at all – and Rod Liddle aptly called it ‘the worst Tory election campaign ever’.
    Still more remarkable was the decision to force demented people to sell their own houses, if they can remember where they are, to pay for their own care. Followed very shortly by an embarrassing U-turn. This was passed off by the Tories as an example of pristine honesty, of nettles being grasped in an admirably transparent manner. But, like much of the current Tory campaign, it smacked to me of two things — complacency and arrogance. It suggested yet again that Theresa May called this election convinced that almost nothing she could do or say would prevent the inevitable landslide. I think she was horribly wrong about that.
    And, of course, she was. Just as the Conservatives did not forgive Cameron for Brexit, nor will or should they easily forgive May’s stunning, Dunning-Krugeresque display of arrogance and incompetence.

  • Further reasons for rejoicing: Nuttall, true to his name, failed to win a single seat, thus permanently consigning him and his party to the electoral rubbish heap in the wake of the EU referendum, and Salmond and Sturgeon got their richly-deserved drubbing as Scots turned back to both the Conservatives and Labour. Nothing but good in the fact that the ethnic-nationalist parties have not only not gained, but have actually lost, from throwing themselves to each extreme side of the argument on the EU referendum.

  • Again, this election and its outcome were not a surprise to those of us who were paying attention. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to the media who have been covering the populist resurgence in Europe or the upset politics of Trump and Brexit from the beginning. Ordinary people – not just May Day activists – are tired of austerity. Ordinary people – not just Stop the War and Media Lens – are tired of the torrents of blood and treasure being spent on endless wars of choice, and the torrents of propaganda being used to gin them up. Ordinary people – not just Britain First and UKIP – are tired of politicians importing right-wing Islamist radicals from countries we’ve invaded, having those radicals attack them, and then having politicians turn around and call them bigots when they complain. Ordinary people – not just the fringe elements – are tired of having their genuine concerns dismissed in favour of cosmeticised élite politics-as-usual.

  • For the record: I am not, here, taking the side of the ‘ordinary people’ in every instance. I understand that the many can and often are on the wrong side of the argument. But I do note that the now-open conflict between the democratic and oligarchic elements in the polity, on both sides of the Atlantic, opens the door for some very distasteful elements that cannot be easily contained. British politicians would be wise to take note and adjust, not only their rhetoric but their whole orientation toward their constituents.