31 December 2010

Pointless video post - ‘Time to be King’ by Masterplan

‘Time to be King’ by Masterplan (power metal from Germany / Norway).

Good stuff, really. Was actually introduced to them via the FTGG music blog, which particularly recommended their antiracist anthem ‘Crystal Night’ (which is an awesome song, though my favourite on that album has to be ‘Enlighten Me’). Their newest album is quite good, and this song in particular - got to love that bell tolling in the background. Course, Jørn’s vocals are also refreshingly powerful (and not mind-bendingly falsetto like most power metal singers out there), and I for one am glad he’s back.

Happy new year, everyone! Resolve to party hard...

26 December 2010

A reflection on nation, part 2

In my last rumination on the subject of nationality and patriotism, I expressed the opinion that nations were neither something to be dismissed nor to be blindly celebrated. The nation, in its most positive manifestation, is a natural stage of human affection, of the extension of love outward from the family and from the circle of friends to encompass people who have a shared conception of the Good. However, nation has the capacity to become destructive when one considers one’s nation an extension of Right rather than simply an expression of the Good.

Actually, it is rather ironic that I have trod bravely out onto these grounds only to find a larger set of footprints leading the way ahead. Once again, the good Mr Chesterton has beaten me to it, and has expressed himself far more eloquently than I have. As he puts it in Orthodoxy:

The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. A man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end… by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason—because he has a reason.

This, though seemingly paradoxical, is in fact quite astute – indeed, it strikes one as drawing near to Kierkegaard in his meditations on the nature of love (though it should be noted that Kierkegaard, for all his similarity to Chesterton in his passion for the edifying power of the faerie-tale and the parabolic image, reached all the further for making every emotion personal rather than general). If one truly loves, one simply cannot explain it away; otherwise, what he loves is not the beloved, but the reason for loving (if he holds even the courage for that!). The fortunate lover knows this because he lives this. He might find something similar to himself in his beloved, and might be surprised and remark upon that similarity, but that is no reason for love. (It helps that I happen to be so fortunate a lover!)

But when it comes to nation – yes, then things become tricky. Is nation merely an idea; or worse yet, an ideal? This cannot be true for Chesterton; to him England-as-character is far more real (and thus worthy of love) than England-as-theory or England-as-empire. He brings England from the realm of the unreal to his own level; once he can look England square in the eye and admire it for its finitude, he then may proceed with the work of transforming it through love, as in the faerie-tale of Beauty and the Beast (which he references quite frequently in Orthodoxy). There is, and rightly so, the expression of ‘Little England’. The same cannot be true for a nation whose essence is not a character, finite and flawed (and lovable for being both), but an ideal. This brings me to the very difficult and delicate problem of the existence of the United States.

We have, in this country – about which I must be exceedingly cautious about using the word ‘nation’, for reasons which will become clear momentarily – two parties which claim patriotism but which hold different attitudes toward the United States, both of which seem rather misinformed. They style themselves ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, though both are (in point of fact) more similar than they are different, having roots in the same kind of backwards-thinking. The former will often express a form of ‘tough love’, unflinchingly critiquing the country for failing to live up to its standard – the ‘liberal’ in this case conforms to GK Chesterton’s model of the pessimist (though an honest one). The latter will insist that it has been and remains the most perfect fulfilment of the standard, and will brook no argument to the contrary – the ‘conservative’ conforming to the model of the jingo optimist. Both, however, accept the Docetic nature of the standard: the secular Whiggism shared by its Founding Fathers that all citizens (however one chooses to define the word, which was a problem in itself) possess the same negative liberties and entitlements under the social contract. As I have said before, liberty is a fine and worthy thing, but what is the content of this liberty? You are never truly free, unless you have proscribed that freedom by deciding what to do with it. Indeed, this attitude that we can build a common expression of the Good only from a set of negative liberties and protections from the vices of others reflects a confusion about even the origins of the word ‘free’ (coming as it does from the Old English frēo, originally meaning ‘beloved’ and having the same root as the word ‘friend’). The object of freedom was to love and be loved, not to be party to an impersonal contract against a hostile world.

[As an aside, one of the things I have come to realise about why I use British rather than American spelling in my written work is that I find a deeper kinship with Dr Samuel Johnson and his eloquent love of the English language as spoken by the common people, than I do with Mr Noah Webster and his notion that language must be made to conform to an ideology propagated by society’s elites. It strikes me as no accident that Dr Johnson was himself a High Churchman of wit, humility and generosity; while Mr Webster was a true convert to Calvinism in all its grim, dour hauteur: the British usage to me reads as familiar, well-used and well-loved, comfortable in all its spacious vowels and voiceless consonants, at home in the hands and mouths of lord and peasant alike and yet personal for each; whereas the American spelling smacks to me of a cold, sterile, impersonal austerity and stinginess, brooking no personality or humour.]

However, back to the topic at hand – can a nation (the easiest, but not final, extent of that familial sentiment which Axel Honneth termed ‘solidarity’) be proscribed within an ideal, or a contract? I think, at the very least, we must be very careful with the notion that ideological contracts can make nations, for it can lead us into idolatry. We already are far too eager – ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ alike have been guilty in this – to foist our ideals and institutions upon other peoples without regard for practical circumstance, morality or real human need. We are already too quick to claim reasons for the supremacy of our institutions which do not stand the test of fact (the claim in bad faith that America must be or is ‘number one’ in every endeavour and in every field of commerce, education and social achievement). We are already too insistent on the idea that nations can be ‘founded’ like businesses or ‘built’ like office complexes, rather than grown like living, breathing creatures. It may very well have been that by the time Thomas Jefferson had put the finishing flourish to the Declaration of Independence, we were already on that ‘passage broad, smooth, easy, inoffensive down to hell’, sectarianism and empire. England survived that hell because she was not just a theoretical construct – there was and is within her the ‘Little England’ that could be redeemed. In America’s case, I think it wiser to say, as Zhou Enlai did when asked to comment on the outcome of the French Revolution, that ‘it is’, in fact, ‘too soon to say’.

EDIT: It seems I am not the only one who has been ruminating along these lines. Russell over at Obsidian Wings has been giving his own quite astute impressions of this issue.

24 December 2010

A pointless video for the occasion

Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season to all!

EDIT: My apologies to my Facebook readers; the embed isn't showing up right. A link to the video is here.

21 December 2010

Do we have to keep bringing up old stuff? Apparently, yes.

Let me be upfront with my gentle readers. I cannot rightly be considered a Southerner, though I have some fairly deep Southern roots on my father’s side. My grandfather Franklin, and my great-grandfather Oscar, and my great-great grandfather Thomas, and so on all the way back to the War of American Independence – that entire side of my family were poor tenant farmers in South Carolina. I had an ancestor, Joseph Delan Cooper, who was apparently a veteran on the Confederate side of the Civil War. But – here I understate vastly – I hold no love for the Old South. Indeed, I consider the entire socioeconomic system under which my ancestors lived, underpinned entirely by chattel slavery, to have been a brutal, exploitative, vicious, hollow mockery of the communitarian ideals I hold dear. It is, in my opinion, certainly no cause for celebration. So why was there a Secession Ball being held in the state where my great-great-great grandfather, one of the many who were imposed upon to fight after said secession, lies buried? (I actually learned of this through Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore, who have a brilliant take on the entire affair – I highly encourage people to watch.)

Apparently, the organisers of this gala considered it to be about ‘self-government’ and ‘independence’. But these are cheap buzzwords meant to give the Southern cause a liberal ideological veneer, which even the slightest effort at critical thinking would question thus: whose ‘independence’ was being fought for? Whose ‘self-government’? One simply cannot escape the fact that the people who signed this document were unapologetic beneficiaries of chattel slavery, whose primary concern – explicitly stated in the secession documents! – was the ‘independence’ to own people, to have the unquestioned, absolute power of life and death over people, and to reap the entire benefit of their labour. Secession served the interests of owners of the large factory-farms (which to this day receive the entirely too-romantic moniker of ‘plantations’), who felt no obligations to respect the lives and dignities of the people exploited on such farms, and justified themselves in their rejection of such obligations by regarding blacks as less than human. That then they cloaked their capitalistic avarice and pride in the language and trappings of chivalry was and remains a mortal offence to the ideals of chivalry (which entailed self-sacrificial moral obligations to the weak and to the poor); that now they cloak their envy in the language and trappings of liberty and independence ought to be a mortal offence to those ideals. Particularly in light of the fact that, had the South succeeded in her bid for secession, my great-great-great grandfather would still have been a pauper without any proper voice in his ‘self-government’: a slave in all but legal status.

That the Confederacy fought to defend the institution of slavery is a matter of historical record; claims which seek to deny or downplay this fact are easily debunked. I think James Loewen has it right that the question of why the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ lives even to this day has little to nothing to do with historical record and much more to do with contemporary attitudes. Thanks to the way our national discourse has developed, there are now a number of competing narratives and counter-narratives which work not on the basis of objective historical fact, but on the basis of ressentiment. It is an intriguing exercise to read, for example, the Guardian’s coverage of the secession ball, then to read the article by Emily Badger on Miller-McCune, and finally to read some of the comments posted to both articles (which actually go a significant way toward proving this point). I believe it demonstrates significantly the insecurities and spiritual deficiencies of a certain segment of the American white middle class, that so much Confederate imagery and ideology is being adopted by the neoliberal right.

Perhaps our country does need a history lesson from James Loewen. But perhaps we need more than that. Dr Loewen has an undisputed mastery of fact, this I will not deny; that we could use more of him is beyond question. He can continue, in the noblest tradition of his profession, leading us to that sea of knowledge, and attempting to get us to swim. For my own part, though, I fear that simple information will not be enough. Dr Loewen will not, and I fear cannot, convince through rational argument the devotees of the ‘Lost Cause’ that they are wrong (which I agree with him they most certainly are). The more burning question, as Dr David Blight (sourced in Ms Badger’s excellent article) puts it, is ‘what purpose does [your interpretation of the history] serve in your lives now?’

With regard to the deeper questions of political philosophy and theology, I doubt anyone would deny that ‘self-government’ and ‘independence’ are in themselves bad things. Freedom, like security, is a good – a source of potential, and there is nothing wrong with wanting it. But is it possible for freedom to be an end in itself? Is not the deeper question to be probed here, given ‘self-government’ and ‘independence’, what would you do with it? And what are we doing with it?

Yes, we need a history lesson. But still more direly, I feel we need a theology lesson.

14 December 2010

A reflection on nation

The question of nation is one that has been troubling me throughout my left turn into Toryism, particularly in recent days, and I felt it was high time to dedicate a few lines here to the subject. A number of authors I have been reading of late have been dedicated patriots – Samuel Johnson, GK Chesterton and Mohandas Gandhi were all very much dedicated to national ideals, and very much believed that a nation embodied a certain set of ennobling values. Others, such as the Fürst von Metternich, regarded the idea of nation with disdain: to him, ‘nation’ was a means of dividing one people from another on the basis of language and ancestry, without reference to common values; for him, hope lay rather in the common ideals encouraged by Catholicism. Confucius, even though his legacy has been co-opted by later Chinese nationalist movements, seems to have anticipated Metternich more than Gandhi: the Analects describe that at one point he wished to live among foreigners (the Nine Yi 九夷), and one of his followers criticised him for the desire (‘陋,如之何?’ ‘They’re uncultured; how could you [want to live among them]?’) to which Confucius replied: ‘君子居之,如陋之有?’ ‘If a gentleman were to live among them, how could they possibly be uncultured?’ – Confucius thus believed that the virtue ethic he articulated was not limited to the Chinese*.

The modern temptation is to yield to either a simplistic, shallow universalism on the one hand (faulting nation for fostering parochial concerns and posing a barrier to a discourse between all human beings) or an even shallower liberal individualism on the other (faulting nation for articulating any kind of common cause that might ask individuals to commit to a moral vision beyond ‘rational’ self-interest). This twinned temptation should be resisted, even when the concept of nation is being critiqued and appraised. Nation is an extension of the family unit in a real sense, not merely by analogy. As the Western Marxist philosopher Axel Honneth had it (incorporating the pragmatist insights of George Herbert Mead and inadvertently following in near-perfect parallel Confucius’ concept of 推爱 extended affection), a child learns how to recognise and feel affection for other human beings by receiving the affection of her parents, and learns to apply that recognition negatively to others through interaction with playmates and friends. Solidarity – the form of recognition dialectically incorporating familial love and love between friends – can be extended across wide groups of people (nations) through the articulation of common values. I do not think that this natural wellspring of recognition is something that should be shut off or dammed up in favour of an abstracted notion of love. We should beware, however, that value-articulation is still necessary to make sure that this wellspring of recognition flows as powerfully and as broadly outward as possible (and is not misdirected into linguistic or ethnic exclusionism).

So what does this have to do with nation? I think the answer to this question lies in how these authors all perceive nation. Both Johnson and Chesterton loved England with an unquestionable burning ardour – this did not stop Johnson, however, from expressing eloquent sympathy for the plight of Africans and Native Americans, and excoriating his countrymen (including Americans) for their rapacious abuse of both; and it did not stop Chesterton from advocating an India for the Indians, rather than for the British. To them, to be ‘English’ was not to support English institutions or English progress or English might or English empire: as Chesterton put it, ‘[b]eing a nation means standing up to your equals, whereas being an empire only means kicking your inferiors’. It meant something deeper; what moved Johnson and Chesterton was a peculiarly English expression of the Good, but a Good no more or less good simply for being English. If this is what we mean by ‘nation’, then we could certainly use more of it.

The problem is that such expressions are all too often not contented with themselves. As soon as expressions of the Good begin crossing over into expressions of Right, we find ourselves making the Napoleonic turn, and getting into those notions of nation of which Metternich (very rightly) made himself a nemesis. It is sadly all too easy to move from the healthy expression of a vision of the good life peculiar to a certain tradition- or language-community, to elevating the privileges and rights of one group of people over another through official languages, loyalty tests and notions of exceptionalism; asserting the superiority of one nation over another; fostering competition and contention between and within nation-states; et cetera. It is almost certainly true that resisting these unhealthy and destructive notions of nation requires an existentially-healthy spiritual life. This was Metternich’s justification for proclaiming, in relation to the downfall of orderly states, that ‘religious belief, the first of virtues, is the strongest power’… though the good Fürst would likely find it appreciably ironic that a convinced Anglo-Catholic socialist, Fr Kenneth Leech, would come to nearly the exact same conclusion as he sought a basis for fighting far-right racism in Britain a good 150 years later!

In short, I believe that nations in the former sense are a healthy and a good thing. The world would be quite a boring place without them. They are at their best when they offer freely conceptions of the Good by which we can articulate commonalities. Sadly, the much more common form of nation, which expresses itself rather in terms of its own Right over and against other nations, is something to oppose, as did Metternich and Confucius before him, with every fibre we can summon.

* Mr James Legge, whose rather antiquated translation I am for the sake of my modern-day readers scrupulously avoiding, has in his footnotes that Confucius was here not expressing a sincere desire to live among the Nine Yi, but rather making a provocative comment to express his displeasure about not finding a broader audience in China. I do not think, however, that this interpretation negates the more literal layer of meaning in the text - Confucius would not say such a thing in the first place without subverting his audience’s assumption that the Nine Yi could not have among them ‘cultured’ men.

10 December 2010

To the Honourable Mr Thorbjørn Jagland...

... and the esteemed members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, with regard to the recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo.


If I may be perfectly frank, your historical selections of Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat were embarrassing enough, and even President Barack Obama's award (however much I may admire the man personally) was of a highly dubious and political nature. But if we must award this prize in particular to noted bigots, corporate tools, supporters of indefensible wars and seditious imperialists, I have a modest proposal for the Committee to consider. Next year, someone ought to place a posthumous nomination for a man every bit as accomplished in furthering the cause of international peace as Liu Xiaobo has been, and I look forward to congratulating the memory of Mr Vidkun Quisling.

Alternatively, you could do us all the favour of resigning.

All too sincerely,
M F Cooper

08 December 2010

My apologies for a long absence, but I'm making up for it!

Indeed, I haven't updated this blog since Thanksgiving! Gracious. My sincerest apologies to my gentle readers; I do intend to rectify this. My only excuse at this point must be the final exams which loom darkly on next week's horizon.

I've been following the WikiLeaks / Obama Administration with some considerable interest, but I have to admit to being not entirely sympathetic with either side. On the one hand, I detest the way that all too many commentators on the political right have been calling for Assange to be punished with every possible punishment short of 凌迟 (execution by slow torture); though a few of the more repugnant commenters have not strayed too far from such a prescription: here is a particularly egregious example of such disgustingly hyperbolic vindictiveness from noted neo-'conservative' arse-trumpeter Jonah Goldberg, and an only-slightly-less disgusting example from Marc Thiessen.

On the other hand, I also cannot help but look askance at the complete lack of accountability and the distorted worldview promoted by WikiLeaks and by Assange himself. All of the media coverage has led me to view him as a practiced manipulator: he uses his Internet presence and high media profile to portray himself as the victim of an international conspiracy to cover up the misdoings of the US government. However much his followers rail against corrupt politicians, though, it seems like Assange has elevated political linguistic manoeuvre into a high art form: every action Assange is taking, every word he says, seems perfectly tuned to undermine the basic functioning legitimacy of his opponents and to cover his own arse from criticism. That is worthy at least of my own grudging admiration of his 1337 5k1llz.

Let's be clear here: I myself am not that great a fan of everything the United States government does, and I'm certainly not a fan of the neoliberal economic ideology espoused by its habitual establishment, but at the very least I recognise the necessity of having a government which can function with some guarantee of the privacy and integrity of its civil service. And I tend to prefer political leaders we get, at least nominally, to choose by virtue of the communities in which we live - and however much people like Assange may loathe Obama, he was in fact duly elected. Assange was not. WikiLeaks is not a democratic institution; the body politics affected by any particular leaks do not have say in whether the leaks are leaked. Therein lies the fundamental contradiction of the kind of info-anarchism represented by Assange - though they claim the mantle of participatory democracy, they nevertheless exercise a form of political power for which (unlike governments) they are not ultimately held even indirectly accountable. It's the 'who watches the watchers' watchers' question.

EDIT: I started writing this article before I was directed by Bill, one of my friends from S. Stephen's Episcopal Church (and also a blogger), to this op-ed piece by Thomas Watson (author of the book CauseWired), which reflects many of my own concerns. Good to know I'm not alone on this one!