29 July 2012

The Doan Gang

My family doesn’t have particularly many claims to fame and fortune. One of my uncles on my father’s side (the Coopers) was John Broadus Watson, who invented behavioural psychology (and of the infamous ‘Little Albert’ psychology experiment, doubtless one of the reasons IRBs were created). However, my aunt, coming back from a Doane Family Association meeting in Massachusetts, told me that the Doane family (my mother’s side) had a branch which was also rather infamous and deserving of their own Wikipedia page. Naturally, I was interested to see who they were, and how we were related to them.

The relationship is pretty distant, though they are certainly present in the Doane family genealogy. My great-great-great-grandfather Adelbert Doane was the scion of three generations of Benjamin Doanes, then Simeon Doane, then Samuel Doan, then John Doan, Jr and Deacon John Done of Plymouth, Massachusetts (who had immigrated there in 1630 from London; prior to that he was very likely a shoemaker from Alvechurch, Worcs). One of John Doan Jr’s brothers was Daniel Doan, who went on to have a son and a grandson both named Daniel, the last of whom lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (a Loyalist Quaker enclave where the Coopers, my father’s family who came over later, were also fairly prominent). Daniel Israel Doan (the third one) had a son, Joseph, whose sons became quite infamous in Bucks County as the Doan Gang.

During the War of American Independence, these Doans were fiercely loyal to the Crown, particularly Moses Doan, who had quite a colourful history. Apparently a rather stubborn and wilful teenager, he had a falling-out with his father in 1770, after which he left home, defended a settlement from an attack in defence of a girl, Mary Doremy, who spurned his suit, and later briefly joined the local Wolf Indian tribe. By 1774, the local Committee of Safety was imposing taxes on the Quaker farmers of Bucks County to support Boston after the closure of the Harbour by the government; this action was outrageous enough that it caused Moses Doan’s brothers to join him in harassing and robbing the collection agents who were extorting money from the Quakers there. The career of the Outlaw Doans had begun; as legend has it, they inaugurated it by raiding the Doremy family – Moses’ brothers were beating Mary Doremy’s father when Moses walked in on them, stopped them and promised his former crush that they wouldn’t bother her family again.

This band of outlaws quickly attained the status of folk heroes in Bucks County, though they were just as quickly vilified by the rebel colonists as demons and debauchers. They grew infamous for robbing wealthy Whig families and particularly for stealing horses and selling them to the British; Moses Doan also earned a reputation as General Howe’s ‘Eagle Spy’ for the detail and accuracy of the information he supplied. Moses Doan in particular seemed to have taken on a kind of knight-errant code: he beat one of his own gang senseless for trying to rape the wife of one of the men they were robbing, and later he would assist a young woman whose husband had taken up the rebel cause at Valley Forge in obtaining flour (ultimately, by gunning down one of the British sentries to clear a path for her back to her home). His gang also was responsible for freeing a number of British prisoners-of-war from the rebel stockade in Lancaster, to the point where a Major Lee at the stockade himself posed as one of his own prisoners in order to uncover the spy ring by which the Doans were freeing them. On another occasion, Joseph Doan audaciously impersonated Lord Rawdon (a popular and distinguished guest among wealthy Pennsylvania residents on both sides of the conflict), in order to relieve one of Lord Rawdon’s hosts of his money and silverware. On one raid near Elizabeth, New Jersey, however, Abraham Doan (a cousin of Moses Doan) shot the local minister’s wife to death in her home, with her nine children huddled around her – however chivalric Moses Doan may have been, his gang was generally prone to excesses of all sorts. Their most infamous exploit, however, was the heist of £1,307 (about $2,000,000 today) from the Newtown Treasury in Bucks County, supposedly in retaliation for the surrender of Cornwallis three days previous. They buried the money near Wrightstown, but it was never recovered.

After the war was over, the Doans were relentlessly pursued. The new government had confiscated all of their father’s property in retaliation for their actions, so they could not return home, nor could they count on Loyalist support for their actions. Moses Doan was tracked to a tavern, where he fought with one of his childhood rivals, a Colonel William Hart, before surrendering to the authorities. However, after having been arrested and disarmed, he was shot lying prone by one Captain Robert Gibson. The others of the Doan gang were either arrested and hanged (Levi and Abraham Doan) or disappeared (Mahlon Doan) or fled to Canada (Joseph Jr. and Aaron Doan).

It’s always interesting to uncover this sort of family history, particularly when they were engaged in causes one sympathises with. (My own direct branch of the family tended to be, by all appearances, fairly apolitical, with a live-and-let-live philosophy.) It also leads me to wonder, given that the Coopers were also located in Bucks County, what relationship they had with the infamous Doan Gang – were they robbed by them, or did they support them? It might be interesting to find out.

28 July 2012

Pointless video post - ‘Gryning’ by Fejd

So I have recently come across, via their page on Encyclopædia Metallum, the Swedish neofolk metal band Fejd, which features several members of the power metal outfit Nostradameus. Actually, it would probably be better described as ‘metal folk’, since it is all-acoustic music with what I would describe as a very metal sound: grooving bass leads, a pounding drumline, a generous filling-out from the other strings and wind instrumentation. It is really entertaining stuff, and I highly recommend this song in particular: ‘Gryning’ from their 2010 album Eifur. Keep an open mind and give it a spin; it truly is worth it!

26 July 2012

Why I am a monarchist

It’s rather interesting to me, actually – the Jiang-Bell New York Times article, as well as several of the related discussions on the matter, have gotten me thinking about exactly why I have such a fond attachment to monarchical systems of government, and doctrines like the Mandate of Heaven and the Divine Right of Kings. I was rather intrigued to find that many of the reasons I have for being a monarchist are the same reasons my father has for being an American liberal (that is to say, economically interventionist and socially liberal). I don’t intend to put forward an entire apologia here, but rather just to lay out some of my own personal reasons for believing the way I do.

Firstly, as ironic as it may sound, I am a monarchist because I believe in the rightness of economic and legal equality (though I do not think either can be perfectly achieved). Every economic system has to have a set of rules which govern interactions and the distribution of what most people call ‘goods and services’, but which is really only physical energy. Not only ecosystems and geological tectonic systems, but also social structures which build themselves from the distribution of energy all align themselves along gradients; you will always have people who are higher up on the gradient and who are lower. The job of legal egalitarians is to ensure that the same set of rules applies to everyone on the gradient; the job of economic egalitarians is to ensure that the gradient is as ‘shallow-sloped’ as possible. Under a traditional system wherein one has kings and nobles and gentry and commoners, the institutional rulebook is all out in the open; even though there is ample opportunity to subvert it (as the British are particularly fond of doing), every person is knowledgeable of the rules they are playing by. You do not have the poor labouring under the falsehood of being (to paraphrase John Steinbeck) temporarily-embarrassed millionaires, nor do you have the millionaires (and heirs and heiresses of millionaires) pretending obscenely to be the hardworking salt of the earth, having pulled themselves up by their bootstraps with nothing more than the work of their own two hands.

As a result, it is much harder to be a legal egalitarian in an American-style republic than in a monarchy. We have a society where the wealthy are playing by an entirely different rulebook than the rest of us are, even though we have to piously pretend in public (and in dealing with other countries) as though everyone under the American legal system is already equal. If these gross perversities of the American culture are translated to a more traditional, ceremonious society where such roles are already out-in-the-open, the effects would be laughable, and would fool no one for even an instant. The end effect is that one can more accurately understand and describe the effects of luck and of hard work in determining social standing – and there is better basis for arguing for better and more humane treatment of poor people. Take Canada, for example: a nation founded on the basis of the monarchist political convictions of the United Empire Loyalists, which adopted for itself the ideology of ‘peace, order and good government’, which (as a result) does far better than we do on issues of legal, social and economic egalitarianism.

Second, the monarchy is a visible, living touchstone for civic engagement. My country does have a civic religion, but ironically it is a civic religion which celebrates detachment. The ideological commitments of the founders of the American republic make it much easier to articulate the ‘lone cowboy’ as the ideal American: someone who plays by his own rules and pursues his own self-interests (as crassly defined as possible), and screw everyone else who gets in his way. What makes this possible is the lack of any reference to common commitments outside of the rights due to each person under the law; the legal system, ultimately, is the only sacred scripture of the American civil religion – note the reverence with which both modern American liberals and modern American conservatives refer to the Constitution.

By contrast, one of the central elements of a civil religion where monarchy occupies a central place is the notion that there are common commitments. One is not just a constellation of negative rights and immunities; one is a subject (in both the philosophical and the political sense of the word), and a member of a community transcending the legal system. The position of a royal family within a society provides a ready reference to the kinship demands between one member of the society and another. This is not to say solidarity is impossible within a republican system (see Finland or Switzerland or Germany), or that it is automatic for a monarchy (take your pick of the Gulf states for examples of completely dysfunctional monarchies) – but the onus is upon republicans to create a mythology which encourages solidarity rather than detachment. The inequality and state of civic education within our own social experiment should serve as a useful cautionary tale to republicans about the need for such a mythology.

The third point is the notion of popular sovereignty. I addressed this briefly before in my previous post on the Jiang-Bell NYT piece; suffice it to say that the Iraq War, a murderous folly supported (at one point) by nearly three-quarters of the American public, utterly shattered my belief in the innate desirability of popular sovereignty. How popular an idea is, is no true measure of how good it is. Democratically-elected governments are capable of doing utterly heinous things: the Lord Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, the plebiscitary dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, the election and re-election of Andrew Jackson. The more so since they can point to the popularity of their heinous acts for justification. Monarchies may appear to be far less constrained in how far they are able to abuse their power, but tradition can make for a powerful check on would-be tyrants: none of the modern European states which have retained their monarchs have had much trouble with the monarchs abusing power (though their elected heads of government often do) in the past two hundred years or so.

But, just as with civic religion, it is not just having a tradition; rather the content of the tradition is what matters. In a state where apostolic Christian (or Muslim, or Confucian) authorities are constantly reminding the monarch that her power is temporary and contingent on her favour with God or with Heaven (and thus on their treatment of the poorest in society), that monarch is less wont to abuse her power within the state. A monarchy (or, for that matter, a republic) which does not have its share of Menciuses and Saint Sir Thomas Mores and other such dangerous radicals and prophets is all the more apt to become a tyranny. The doctrine of popular sovereignty has no such check. Whatever evil the elected leader does, is justified on the basis that the masses have demanded the leader, and thus whatever actions he takes. The opinion poll is the oracle of our times – but it is an oracle which demands no self-reflection.

Monarchy is not an easy thing to argue for in my own day and age, particularly from a left-leaning vantage point like my own. It comes loaded down with a lot of historical baggage, but ultimately I think it tends to be both realistic and moral – particularly the way it is practised in Western and Northern Europe and Japan.

24 July 2012

Reclaiming sin?

On haligweorc Derek Olsen has a brilliant post concerning the way in which the Episcopal Church approaches (or rather, does not approach) the topic of sin. The author comments that he sees the language and ideational references to sin and redemption in a good deal of pop music, but doesn’t hear much on the topic within the Church as a whole, unless it is to speak collectively in reference to economic and governmental structures. Have we indeed lost the ability to speak about sin in the ECUSA, having sacrificed that ability upon an altar of ‘inclusivity’ and moralistic therapeutic deism? (Not to say that inclusivity is a bad thing, but it certainly isn’t the only thing worth keeping, of course.)

It is a valid worry, and one I tend to share. I can certainly see where Dr Olsen is coming from, and he makes a number of very good points about why we need an awareness of sin. But part of the reason I believe we tend to shy away from publicly talking about sin in (some realms of) the ECUSA is precisely the way it already tends to be handled in the popular discourse. And Dr Olsen does address this, I believe, when he says:
The cultural view is fuzzy and, I’d suggest, often wrong because it lacks Jesus and accompanying concepts of virtue and sanctification, but to say that people don’t “get” sin is factually incorrect.
But it goes further than this. Even if the ECUSA tends to talk only about social or structural sin, our society doesn’t have the vocabulary for dealing with the concept, which is an important one. Evangelical (and a good deal of mainline) Protestantism has acculturated itself to this dearth in the American self-awareness with rhetoric about having a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus (defined in wholly therapeutic, ‘me’-centred, health-and-wealth terms, naturally), and the way we talk about sin in atomised, aestheticised terms has followed suit. If there is a need for a reclamation of the language of sin, it has to start with the assertion that sin is not just you doing naughty things or thinking naughty thoughts. I think Dr Olson has it right that a good way to reintroduce a proper understanding of sin may be to use it to supplement our language of ‘right relationship’, provided that we do this in full awareness that each relationship has two sides, and that we need to introduce the language of ‘sin’ specifically to describe cases in which relationships become exploitative or unhealthy.

Actually, aside from these minor caveats, Dr Olson’s piece is quite unexceptionable, and well worth your time to read in full! I recommend checking it out.

EDIT: I may be offline and inactive for several days, as I will be heading up to see my grandfather and uncle and aunts in Vermont between now and Saturday night. I will update and comment if I can!

Missing the point

The recent theatre shooting in Aurora was a profound tragedy for the country as a whole, as each and every one of these assaults is. Each time something like this happens, whether the Giffords shooting or the Fort Hood shooting, the old feelings of disbelief, followed by grief and outrage, come back just as strong. And yet, each time, the same political actors continue to trot out the old arguments, with only minor variations on the same themes invariably regarding gun violence, video games and rock music, particularly in the United States. Though in this case, I have actually seen some novel examples when it came to the politicisation of this tragedy. You really kind of just have to shake your head and wonder about the sort of people who believe that the proper response to people abroad sincerely expressing their disbelief, grief and outrage over a tragedy like this one (as we ourselves do when it happens in, say, Norway) is to throw your chest out and say, ‘well, your country has mass murderers too, and at least MY country has a free press’ (as Justin Mitchell seems to think).

That rather misses the point, in a rather profound way. Expressions of this kind of defensive, knee-jerk chauvinism do not address the point that, as the statistics show, we are a brutally violent country when it comes to assault deaths per capita, right alongside Estonia and Mexico, and far out of proportion to our economic status and development, though it would seem that we are slowly but surely getting better (H/T to Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber for the link and statistics). (The assault deaths rate for China is not included here as China is not an OECD member, but China usually has between a quarter and a third of our intentional homicide rate per capita according to the UNODC data - between 1.12 and 2.0 per 100,000 as opposed to our between 5.0 and 5.6.)

The proper response to a tragedy on our own shores, then, is to ask what sorts of reasonable measures we can take to improve our society (because bragging to the China expat community about how we have it so much better over here because we can print the word ‘murder’ in a headline is probably not going to stop the next one from happening). Gun control, sadly, is likely the only issue that will end up being discussed - and it also has the vice of being the issue which is inevitably preëmpted by lobbies on both sides of the aisle with deep pockets matched only by shallow argumentation and lack of scruple. It also happens to be, if not irrelevant, then a single consideration among many: Canada has more guns per capita than we do, but a mere fraction of our per capita violent crime rate. Other equally or more relevant aspects - like the economic woes which only serve to exacerbate people’s sense of desperation and existential unease; like the lack of support for decent policing in many municipalities; like the dysfunctional way in which our society treats the poor and the mentally ill; or (indeed) like a sensationalistic free press corporate media oligopoly which, driven by profit and the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality, delights in telling us that we all need to be scared of each other, all of the time - are less sexy and less controversial, and thus more liable to slide under the public radar.

For now, though - grief and outrage are the justifiable reactions. Let’s just be sure that we can put them to use in the long haul, toward improving our culture and our economic structure so that it leaves fewer people out in the cold and dark. The survivors (all of us included, in the theological sweep of things) as well as the victims need our remembrance.

22 July 2012

The candle needed in the home shouldn’t burn in the mosque

A few thoughts before church this morning. Naj has a spirited post up here on Neo-Resistance, regarding what (in her experience) Iranians truly value:
Democracy is just an "idea". In implementation, it is mediocre and full of fallacy!

What it produces is numbed and dumbed populace; who shy away from responsibility by casting a "free" ballot ... and then shying away from the havoc the elected politician is wreaking in the history of humanity... Democracy CANNOT come to be implemented even in its most pathetic form, when a country is under THREAT. So shed the hypocritical lamb skin--it doesn't fool anyone in Iran!

If you hear ANY Iranian condoning the sanctions, if you hear anyone rallying behind a neo-con, make sure you take a mental note of a Neo-Resistance stamp on them:

A S S H O L E !

And, to all the Americans (journalists, activists, congressdudes, spouses of some disgruntled Iranian, or career activists) who are so concerned about the violation of HUMAN RIGHTS and FREEDOM in Iran, I suggest you utilize your zeal to prevent massacres at your country, executed in the form of shooting rampage by constitutionally free men who kill in churches, cinemas, schools, and etc. Ok?
I approve of the neologism ‘congressdudes’, for one thing. But Naj is one of the most anti-regime Iranian bloggers in the ‘sphere - and because she is such a thoroughgoing opponent of Ahmedinejad, she is rightly suspicious of the liberalising power of democratic political institutions, particularly those institutions imposed by force.

Naj also recommended this post by Bill Woollam. Right now the pattern seems to be bearing itself out, and I do think profit is ultimately the end goal of such geopolitical pinball games (and perhaps silencing organised political dissent from neoliberal globalisation in sensitive regions), but it is not necessarily just the oil. In Yugoslavia, for example, it was to privatise and then buy up the remnants of the countries’ industries. Still, it is worth taking a look at his analysis of the process.

And Naj’s quote of the Iranian proverb, ‘The candle that is needed in the home shouldn’t burn in the mosque’, is quite a propos here. A bit like ‘first take the beam out of your own eye’. If we truly value the political self-sufficiency of the Iranian people, then we must have respect for Iranian institutions and rule of law; and the most valuable support we can give to those attempting valiantly to change the regime in Iran is to build horizontal relationships, and to listen to what it is that reformers in Iran actually want (and very few of them want help in the form of sanctions and bombs).

21 July 2012

Dr Russell Arben Fox on same-sex marriage

Dr Fox of In Medias Res has a beautifully-written, eloquently-argued post up, exploring the arguments for and against same-sex marriage from a communitarian perspective (and eventually coming down on the ‘for’ side). It is very much worth reading in its entirety, but one of my favourite passages was here:
Yes, I can imagine, and can even find slightly persuasive, arguments which assert that same-sex marriage buys into an individualization of sexual identity, disconnected from larger wholes like families, and thus can only further contribute to a culture which already plays into male sexual independence and irresponsibility, which is almost invariably to the detriment of women. God knows I have see almost nothing good whatsoever in the world of hook-ups, out-of-wedlock births, child-abandonment, and male infantilization which I see around me, even here on my fairly conservative and religious college campus. But then the Marxist in me speaks up: Really? It's the individualization of sexual identity which has played the primarily role in the breakdown of effective, sexual-responsibility teaching norms? It's the fault of women entering the workforce and asking for a little sexual parity, and the legal and technological tools they made used of to achieve it, which has given us family breakdown and the feminization of poverty? You don't think it might also have just a little bit to do with, you know...JOBS?

My oldest daughter will probably have one more year at home, and then she'll be heading out into the world. She appears to take her religion--our family religion--seriously. She also appears to like boys. And most importantly, she has confidence and ambition and some real intelligence leading her on. When I look at what surrounds her, and the sexual snares and family dysfunction that she already knows plenty about through her friends, I see, for certain, the negative consequences of the Sexual Revolution. But I also see the ravages of globalization and financial capitalism, which have eviscerated the socio-economic basis for the post-Industrial Revolution family unit (a family unit that was, for certain, itself a historical construct, but for good or ill it was a workable one, one which carried us through most of the 19th and 20th centuries in good shape), erected in its place a--in my opinion--deeply condescending and class-reinforcing and service-oriented meritocracy, and then provided plenty of porn and computer games for all the men (and women...but mostly men) who have found themselves unable to climb that ever-shifting and frankly corrupt ladder... Opposing same-sex marriage will not only not do anything to address this situation; it will--again, in the case of the arguments I myself at one time found persuasive--rather oblige me to buy into a ideology of marriage and female happiness that would prevent me from preparing my daughters for this unfortunate world as equals. I can't do that. And with that realization, the realization that I cannot wink at sexual inegalitarianism...my ability to articulate a case against same-sex marriage disappeared. Just like that.
Now, this speaks to me very closely, because the side of the argument against same-sex marriage with which I sympathise most is precisely the cultural one and what it signifies, that one’s sexual identity can be divorced so completely (no double entendre intended) from one’s social identity in ways which have reductively individualistic consequences as to allow for it. Regardless of one’s position on the implications of natural-law and virtue ethics, Dr Fox is doing yeoman’s work here following up on the work of Phillip Blond, in attempting to separate and sift through the detritus of both paradigm shifts: the way modern Americans think about (and do, so to speak) sex and the way we think about and do economics. He deserves a lot of credit merely for taking on this task. And the case he ultimately ends up making amending his former stance is a convincing one.

But Dr Fox is right that the debate over same-sex marriage, and the question of the way in which we as a society treat homosexuals (and what sorts of contributions and responsibilities we will ask of them in return) is not going away anytime soon. He is absolutely right that we will still have arguments. My hope is that all of the arguments we have will be of this high calibre.

20 July 2012

Pointless video post - ‘Pakanajuhla’ by Moonsorrow

Some rather upbeat blackened pagan folk metal (and no, that is not a contradiction in terms) here for you; the relentlessly catchy ‘Pakanajuhla’ courtesy Finland’s famous folk-metal fighters Moonsorrow (they call it ‘party music’, hah!). Truly, if the main melody is not stuck in your head for days after hearing it, there may be something seriously wrong with your hearing and / or memory - this is some truly excellent music from their debut album Suden Uni (or Wolf-Dream). Enjoy, gentle readers!

Der Kreisauer Kreis

I am afraid this is going to be one of those tedious ‘on this day in history’ posts, largely because this one is way, way too good to pass up. On 20 July, 68 years ago, there was an attempt to put an end to one of the greatest malignancies ever to afflict Europe, the rule of Adolf Hitler, by planting a bomb in Hitler’s Eastern Front headquarters. The Abwehr plots to assassinate Hitler are most famous amongst American mainline Christians for having involved Dietrich Bonhöffer. Sadly, this attempt was unsuccessful, and the resulting purges led to the deaths of thousands of resistance members and other anti-Nazi dissidents. The plot was organised through the German military, though they worked through and had contact with civilian resistance groups, notable among them the group around Helmuth James Graf von Moltke and Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, the Kreisauer Kreis.

The Graf von Moltke’s courage and conscientiousness are not to be understated. He never joined the Nazi party. He himself opposed the 20 July plot not out of pacifism, but on the grounds that if it succeeded it would turn Hitler into a martyr and make Germany’s transition to a more peaceable and just society that much harder to achieve in the aftermath, and if it failed it would provide the Nazis with a pretext to crack down violently on dissent and consolidate their control (in the latter case, it turned out that he was correct). But prior to that, he used his position in the Abwehr to smuggle information about the war effort and about the concentration camps to the Resistance and (through them) to the Allies. At the Graf von Moltke’s manor in what is now southwestern Poland, met a small and motley group of intellectuals: Jesuits, Lutheran pastors, conservatives, radicals, socialists, noblemen, monarchists and ex-trade unionists.

The fascinating thing about the Kreisauer Kreis was that its membership, though loose, was notably both leftist in its economic thinking (courtesy of union organisers like Hermann Maaß and persecuted democratic socialists such as Adolf Reichwein, Julius Leber, Gustaf Dahrendorf and Theodor Haubach) and conservative in its social thought (many of its members, including its founders von Moltke and the von Wartenburgs, being noblemen and -women, and having involved devout Catholics such as Alfred Delp and Gereon Goldmann). As such, the Kreisauer Kreis was spurned by the Allies for being too conservative and ‘blue-blooded’, and had a very uneasy relationship with anti-Nazi German liberals like Carl Gördeler for being too socialist. The vision von Moltke had for a free Germany is tantalising for its similarities to distributism and syndicalism:
The Kreisau papers describe a decentralized society anchored by organic institutions, in which regional autonomy and an independent local leadership class would impede the ascendancy of any totalitarian demagogue. This decentralist ideal flowed from Kreisau’s Christian orientation, which translated practically into an emphasis upon localism and small communities. Such communities based upon “naturally occurring ties between individuals” – i.e., the organic ties which bind families together and neighbors to one another – were in Moltke’s view the key to a sustainably sane society.
It has become sadly fashionable in the studiously idiotarian lines of American right-wing discourse (Glenn Beck, Andrew Breitbart, Jonah Goldberg, as well as all too many vulgar libertarians) to equate anything smelling of economic egalitarianism with fascism; just as it became fashionable in the idiotarian New Left circles of the 1960’s to tar traditionalist conservatism with that brush. These caricatures deserve to be dismantled at every conceivable opportunity. The social Darwinist, racial-nationalist and anti-union elements of the fascist ideology make it irrevocably incompatible with socialism. Likewise, the militarist, techno-fetishist and make-the-world-anew elements of the fascist ideology make it incompatible with traditionalist conservatism.

The Kreisauer Kreis serves as an historical lesson, both that committed socialists and committed conservatives not only can oppose fascism, and that they are often the most reliable anti-fascists, on the socialist side because of their commitment to egalitarianism and justice in a society, and on the conservative side because of their suspicions of military expansionism, technology worship and grand plans to bring the whole world under a single unified rule.

(As a side, it is worth remembering that the most odious elements of the Nazi ideology can be traced directly back to the secret student fraternities, the Burschenschaften, which promoted both radical racial-nationalist and classical liberal ideologies. As noted Israeli political scientist and Hegel scholar Shlomo Avineri put it, ‘The forces unleashed by the student fraternities and their academic mentors were those same forces that ultimately culminated in the victory of Nazism in Germany more than a century later.’)

EDIT: I am also pro-thrash.

18 July 2012

Interesting article on Grist

On the topic of political polarisation in the United States. Very interesting discourse on the effects of this polarisation on liberals, conservatives and independents; and, of course, on the tendency in the media to view political polarisation as symmetrical when it is clearly not so. The Grist article shows that Democrats are, on the whole, far less radical and radicalising than the Republicans are. One study found that over the period between 1973 and 2004, elected Democrats shifted leftward by a mean of six points, whilst elected Republicans shifted rightward by a mean of a whopping twenty-two points. Republicans have grown more partisan at a four-fold pace, when compared with Democrats!

And those of us (myself very much included) who are not committed to either party are not exempt from this phenomenon, at all: ‘Independents who say they lean — but are not committed to — either party have grown further apart from each other, particularly in their views on the role and effectiveness of government.’ People are sorting socially and geographically to match their political preferences. Interestingly enough, the author traces these changes back, ultimately, to the ‘Southern strategy’ of the Republican Party under Nixon. But the best insight to be found here is that technocratic Beltway centrism is a tribal phenomenon in spite of its pretensions to the contrary.

And the conclusion is spot-on:
The U.S. cannot address its political challenges — and they are many — until its pundits, public, and politicians understand the shape of the situation we’re in. Asymmetrical polarization is the defining feature of American political life. As George Will might say, “deal with it.” The sides are drifting farther and farther apart, one far out into the choppy waters of reactionary lunacy. Those attempting to find a place between them are increasingly, well, at sea.

Quite. Hat tip to Dave Brockington on Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Egyptian Christians ‘snub’ Clinton

Apparently, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox leaders are under the distinct impression that our Secretary of State is friendly to Islamists, on account of her visit to the recently-inaugurated Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. My word, whatever could have given them that idea?

Naturally, the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo perpetrated by her husband (and her subsequent and highly visible support of the government of Kosovo, led as it is by a heroin- and cocaine-smuggling Wahhabi pimp who attained his current status by ethnically cleansing Kosovo of anywhere between 30,000 and 60,000 Eastern Orthodox Serbs); the displacement of 600,000 Chaldean Christians (and the killing of at least 2,000 more) at the hands of Islamist anti-Saddam militias in an illegal war whose authorisation she supported in a floor speech; the ethnic cleansing of blacks in Libya by the heavily-Islamist anti-Gaddhafi rebels in the wake of a war backed by Ms Clinton; and the ongoing conflict in Syria where Ms Clinton has done everything in her power to lend political support to the Islamist-heavy and virulently anti-Christian and anti-Shiite Free Syrian Army (whose terrorists have recently killed off the Syrian Defence Minister, a Greek Orthodox Christian, in a suicide bombing) have nothing at all to do with such a perception. Right?

15 July 2012

Releasing the snakes

A month and a half ago, a group of Chinese Buddhists from Beijing took a convoy of 8 vans and one Mercedes-Benz sedan in order to release a large number of snakes (between 200 and 1000, depending on who is asked) into the wild. This was meant to demonstrate compassion and to gain good karma; but this gesture was supremely misguided – in that the location they chose to release the snakes was Miao Erdong village (苗耳洞村) in Hebei Province. The snakes took up residence there, much to the annoyance and chagrin of the villagers. Their supposedly-compassionate act ended up causing a good deal of distraction and possibly danger to the village, creating suffering where suffering was supposed to be alleviated.

A few weeks ago on the Sinica Podcast, the discussants used this story as an example of how Chinese modernity has the tendency of not ‘doing’ religion appropriately. What ends up being followed are trends or snippets of folk practice, whereas the values behind them are either misinterpreted or not transmitted at all. This story, and the Sinica Podcast’s treatment of it, came to my mind as I was reading the painfully-softball New York Review of Books interview with Chinese activist and Christian proselyte Yu Jie – someone who supposedly takes Christianity seriously, and yet just as seriously misinterprets it in ways which could be annoying, distracting and possibly dangerous to Chinese Christendom. His championing of Liu Xiaobo is one such point.

He says (regarding Liu Xiaobo’s bloodthirsty cheerleading for the Iraq War) that ‘[y]ou can’t just put him in the European environment and say that everyone who supported that war was a bad person’. Now, it is worth keeping in mind that even bad people may be imprisoned wrongly. But leaving aside Yu Jie’s hypocrisy of going on just after this declaration to compare Liu Xiaobo to European figures such as Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, the war he supported was not fought in Europe, any more than in China. It was fought in Iraq – and Iraqi Christians are among the ones who suffered the most for it. Over half of Iraq’s original population of 1,400,000 Christians was forced to flee the country, mostly to Syria; over two thousand more were killed as the result of targeted violence and pogroms against them, carried out by the anti-Saddam militias allied to the United States (see here). Does Yu Jie care a whit for them? Given his glowing treatment of Liu Xiaobo, comparing him not only to Havel and Michnik but also to Russia’s Sakharov and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela (and what did he have to say about the Iraq War?), he seems all-too-nonchalant about the war’s supporters (Liu among them) being responsible for having unleashed many huge convoy-loads of snakes in their villages.

Yu Jie’s prescriptions for Chinese Christianity are a bit more to the point, however, and they are less troubling only in that the stakes are nowhere near so high. He apparently sees the churches as the means to a political foundation for Western-style liberal democracy, as they once were in the Anglosphere (he sees this as missing from the analysis of Hu Shi). But this is to use them as sacrificial animals, not existing for their own sake but as the Trojan horse for the new, secular capitalist order. Such a course would only expose them to needless political persecution in pursuit of highly dubious political goals, their own demise included.

Theologically as well, this is greatly suspect – the Church should exist on its own merits with the Cross as its guide (rather than the Anglo-American deists and self-styled champions of ‘liberty’ who would cut it down to its component parts and keep only the pieces they like). In this interview, Yu Jie does not engage with the traditions of the Church at all except where they intersect with his preferred right-liberal political philosophy. He almost scoffs at the idea that the Church in China might be a vehicle of ‘Chinese folk religion’ (‘like the Boxers but with a new foreign nameplate’), but he ignores the fact that Christianity, coming out of Jerusalem and out of Rome as it had, became a ‘folk religion’ of the peoples it converted: a Frankish folk religion, then a Continental Saxon and Thuringian folk religion, then an English folk religion and so on and so forth. And these developments, as far as he is concerned, were wholly positive ones.

‘Releasing snakes’, indeed: the Chinese Christian communities deserve far better advocates (not to mention the ex-Iraqi ones).

The ironic fate of liberal Christianity

Ross Douthat has an editorial which has sparked much discussion elsewhere in the liberal Christian (and specifically Episcopalian) world, not least in the Episcopal Cafe (see here and here for the news body’s responses), concerning whether or not liberal Christianity is ‘savable’ or salvageable. This is a valid question - or would be, rather, if it had not already prompted torrents of spilt liberal Christian ink. But it seems to me that Mr Douthat misses a critical aspect of the question he raises: he takes for granted the value and appeal that liberal Christianity has, and its distinguished place in American history (as Fr Gary Dorrien, cited in the article, has documented very well), without taking into account the cultural shifts which have given rise to the likes of Bp John Shelby Spong. There is an irony to liberal Christianity’s collapse which lies in how it approaches the role of faith in public life.

Mr Douthat is, to an extent, correct in dating the crisis in liberal Christianity back to the 1960’s (even though, like a good American conservative, he elides that this crisis extended itself into the ‘70’s and ‘80’s with the growing mania for ‘privatisation’ under Reagan in the United States and under Thatcher in Britain). The radical sexual and spiritual individualism of the ‘60’s hippies, followed up by the radical economic individualism and greed of the ‘80’s yuppies, eroded the assumption that faith must have a public dimension. This eroded assumption produced a tension within American liberal Christianity that, as far as I can see, still has yet to be resolved (though, indeed, we do have a number of people working on that problem). This tension, I believe, accounts for a significant part of the tendencies Mr Douthat is describing.

It is worth remembering that the progressive strains within American Protestantism that led to the crusades against slavery, against drunkenness, for women’s rights and for economic reforms, were all motivated by this assumption that being Christian entailed public service as well as private belief. As belief has grown increasingly ‘privatised’ along with a great many other things, the effects were twofold: the first was, unfortunately, a highly-politicised revival of religious fundamentalism. (It is worth noting that, though the political implications of this revival were both highly authoritarian and highly public, it was motivated by a reductively individualist theology that posited a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus as central and which denied that Christianity had any public duty to society’s distressed - that was a matter which should be left to individual ‘charity’, construed in entirely voluntary terms. It was a theology, in short, tailor-made to support fusionism.)

The second effect was the erosion of precisely those theological aspects of what in the past had been called liberal Christianity which had demanded public action: support of labour unions, of civil rights, of a more generous foreign policy. During and in the wake of the ‘60’s, liberal Christian theology (broadly) split down the middle. One side was pared down to fit a secular, capitalist mould: individualised, apolitical, bland and ‘consumer’-centric - a ‘God without wrath [bringing] people without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross’, as neo-orthodox theologian H Richard Niebuhr (himself a theological heir to liberal American Protestantism) once put it. The other side abandoned the confessional aspects of Christianity and took up an entirely political aspect - what ended up becoming liberation theology.

Of course, I probably am not the best person to address these issues; Dr John Milbank of the University of Nottingham has done it already, and far better than I have, in Theology and Social Theory. But the punchline is this: we Americans have to do better about addressing this question, of what exactly the role of faith in public life should be. Fundamentalism (with its reductively individualist theology) being precisely what we want to avoid, we can afford neither a reductively individualist theology of our own in moralistic therapeutic deism, nor the political flattenings of liberation theology (however much we should sympathise with the goals of the last). One of the things we should demand in addressing this question is a revisiting of the personalist turn in our theological thinking: a universe which is not centred upon the consumerist demands of potential church-goers, but upon the altar and upon the Cross toward which we want their attention to be ultimately drawn.

12 July 2012

Pointless video post - ‘The Getaway’ by Voivod

The Year of Our Lord 2006 was a wretched year overall, but a good year for protest rock, particularly of the anti-war variety. Bob Seger with ‘No More’, Neil Young with ‘Let’s Impeach the President’, Hammers of Misfortune with ‘Trot Out the Dead’, and, of course, French-Canadian thrash legends Voivod with ‘The Getaway’. Voivod are a band well-known for their Motörhead fandom; here they do a very masterful incorporation of that band’s speedy, punk-influenced style. It is a very different sound from their classic works such as Killing Technology or Rrröööaaarrr, but I must indeed approve!

Bring the boys back!
They’re under attack!
Pack up your stuff
Before you get smacked!
The maps are folded,
The trucks are loaded,
The spirit of the troops
By the heat remolded.
The plan was simple
And time was crucial;
Who knows now if
It's still essential?
A sort of revenge
Gone out of hand -
Black gold is worth
A few dead men!

11 July 2012

What of popular sovereignty?

Sam Crane’s The Useless Tree, as usual exemplary of sterling political-philosophical writing, once again has a very interesting and worthwhile post up about the role of popular sovereignty in a hypothetical Confucian government imagined by noted neo-Confucian scholars Daniel Bell (not the recently-deceased sociologist, the other one) and Jiang Qing (not Mao Zedong’s not-so-recently-deceased wife, and indeed a man). And once again, I find myself agreeing with Mr Crane about 70% of the time, and vehemently disagreeing the other 30%.

His clear-minded and charitable critique of Bell and Jiang primarily rests on the idea that taking some of the emphasis off of popular sovereignty is unrealistic in a modern Chinese political context. I think he does an excellent job, per usual, of framing the issue and asking the right sorts of questions. Indeed, both the liberal democratic impulse and the Marxist impulse are very much to champion the idea that ‘the people’ are and should be the undisputed source of governmental legitimacy (and Mr Crane is indeed right that there is an important level-distinction to be made here between ‘popular sovereignty’ and the legitimacy derived from governments holding to that theory). Questioning that, as Bell and Jiang do, is likely to be the most contentious point of their work and theorising - both from a ‘rightist’ (neoconservative or neoliberal) and from a ‘leftist’ (neo-Maoist or postmodernist) perspective. Of course a government should derive its legitimacy from the people! Is that not what has been taught us, drilled into us, from day one of our middle-school social studies curriculum - whether in the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or in the tradition of John Locke?

Mr Crane tracks the argument back to this crux, and places his finger firmly on it. As his political-philosophical sympathies are very much with the Boston school of the New Confucians (Dr Robert Neville, sometime of Marsh Chapel, and Dr Tu Wei-ming of Harvard University), he is inclined to view the more critical project of Bell and Jiang as something of a pipe-dream. He notes that popular sovereignty has been the reigning doctrine within the Chinese nation since the fall of the Qing Dynasty, as it is in much of the rest of the world for this past century at least. Further, he criticises Bell and Jiang for attempting to refashion a set of ‘traditional’ norms and values for a set of political ends which attempt to deconstruct the project of Western-style liberal democracy.

I am sympathetic to the argument of tradition being fuzzy and unbounded as a concept. In fact, one of the most appealing things about any tradition is that ritual manages to renegotiate and reconstitute itself with each repetition, as long as there are people who value it enough to breathe new meaning into it. But once again the main difficulty I have with Mr Crane’s argument is that it lacks a crucial irony: his sole justification for popular sovereignty as a doctrine is that of tradition. Why do we need popular sovereignty? Jiang and Bell ask. Because people have been practicing it in China for over a hundred years, answers Crane. Moreover, it was a tradition invented by a small group of very determined radical intellectuals led by Sun Yat-sen. And reinforced by another small group of very determined radical intellectuals led by Mao Zedong.

So, given that all tradition is creative (re-)imagination by those who follow it, the argument can pull both ways. Mr Crane states that there is no reason outside the political identification with a particular reading of Confucian philosophy to renegotiate political sovereignty; however, there is no reason outside the political identification with the invented tradition of the Three Principles to want to keep it intact, either. And a small group of very determined radical intellectuals may yet again overturn an order which is now seen as a given.

But the deeper question which needs answering is, is popular sovereignty a good thing? Is it an end in itself, to be desired as such? Mr Crane certainly wants to argue that it is, and that questioning it is comparable to advocating the revival of foot-binding. I personally find, from my own experience (particularly after the Iraq War; the frightening angry rise of the Tea Party at the behest of a few powerful businessmen; and the even-more-frightening long-term expansion of executive power in the hands of an imperial Presidency cheered on, ironically, by the same people who want to do away with more egalitarian manifestations of government) that popular sovereignty is a very dangerous thing. Because it leads people to feel themselves entitled to a public voice, it has a levelling effect on values, making it so that ignorance and bigotry are considered on equal terms with more informed and understanding opinions; simultaneously, it leads to a decidedly widening effect on existing social gaps. Think of the wild support President Andrew Jackson enjoyed under an explicit doctrine of popular sovereignty, and then think on the atrocities he committed under the Indian Removal Act against the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles, running roughshod over his constitutional bounds in the process, and then going on to be re-elected in a landslide victory. Popular sovereignty is far from an unqualified good.

The opinions which gain the greatest hearing under popular sovereignty are not the best opinions, or the most humane, but those which can garner the most support from the political and economic elites. Popular sovereignty leads to the rule of those who crave power (力) and profit (利), and those who are eager and unscrupulous enough to stroke the egos of the public enough to get from them what they want. Under these considerations, from a Confucian standpoint, Dr Jiang and Dr Bell may be seen as justified in their critique of popular sovereignty.

This is a High Tory argument, running along similar lines as that of Jiang and Bell (and others of like mind, such as Kang Xiaoguang), but in the long term, popular sovereignty cannot be the only basis for legitimacy in a functional democracy. Mr Crane brings up the United Kingdom as an example of a government which, in spite of some illiberal trappings, still makes concessions to an ideal of popular sovereignty - which indeed it does. But it also has, to its benefit, a fully-unelected House of Lords, which now ought to be considered much more representative, accessible, open and responsive than the fully-elected House of Commons (thank you, David Lindsay, for the link!). If the Chinese people want a government that represents the mass line rather than only its own officials and big-business patrons, they could do far worse than its own House of Exemplary Persons.

After all, there are things that we want our democracy to do other than reflecting the desires of its people, especially since those desires (as Jiang and Bell note) can be very unhealthy and destructive. We want our government to provide for the common good, to provide well the things which abet the physical and spiritual flourishing of its citizens; popular sovereignty can be no guarantee of these provisions, particularly not in a capitalist society where desires can be easily manipulated through advertising of various kinds.

At least three good reasons not to vote Romney

Namely, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and John Bolton. There seem to be two foreign policies on offer, this election season: neoconservatism on the one side, and neocon-lite liberal interventionism on the other. Neither option is particularly appealing, but in this case it is very clear which option is worse. It would be inadvisable, to say the least, to vote for Romney this time (if that were not already abundantly clear). But never before in the history of the United States has there arrived a moment where creative thinking about foreign policy is so much demanded, and yet where neither of the parties seem to be entertaining any such thinking. Romney has referred to Russia as America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’, ‘typically with China alongside’. On its face, this is a dangerously retrograde Cold War attitude that should have been flushed down the nearest lavatory facility twenty years ago; but on closer inspection, it is an attitude adopted by certain right-wing Trotskyists in this country on the basis that Russia is no longer communist (though all the same, neither hostile to public ownership nor to questioning the laïcist model of public expressions of religion).

Obama’s camp, though not so overtly belligerent in terms of the language it uses, is still stuck in the same confrontational modes. Clinton’s recent comments in Mongolia still make it clear that the State Department sees Russia and China as game-theoretical opponents, problems to be solved with carrots and sticks and made to come around to the neoliberal / capitalist point of view, rather than as a potential partner whose experiences and perspectives could be valuable to the way we approach other very definite problems. Including our economic ones, in point of fact.

All this while, as our mass media, pundits and policymakers continue talking about crises that threaten to expand our engagements abroad (Libya, Syria and Iran), we are still subjecting our troops, over and over again, to an increasingly quixotic exercise in building some kind of advantageous order in Afghanistan. The premises for our foreign policy are a quite frankly untenable mixture of military largesse and economically- and politically-neoliberal ideological interests (given the globally-nomadic nature of the primary beneficiaries of these interests, would it even be appropriate anymore to call them ‘national’ or ‘self’-interests?) which have proven themselves, collectively, a dead end for our working class these past thirty years. The results of our foreign policy (primarily under Bush) have weakened trust in our officials, both here and in the rest of the world.

An alternative is needed - a foreign policy which respects local economies both here and abroad, which uses aid money in smart, targeted ways using the Marshall Plan as a guiding framework (not just Sachs-style big pushes or Easterly-style rewards for adhering to a Washington Consensus ‘free’ market model) and which is characterised by aggressive charity. This alternative might be successfully articulated within the current Democratic Party, but it would require a significant overhaul of the party’s structure, and indeed, the entire rulebook for the way we do politics, starting with a reversal of the ill-conceived Citizens United SCotUS decision.

In the meantime, it is difficult to figure out what to do this time around, in terms of the Presidential election. Most likely, I will cast my vote for whomever the Green Party or Reform Party candidate is on my ballot.

09 July 2012

What China has to deal with + Randy Blythe still in Czech prison

I have been saying it for some time now, but it should be fairly clear by now that many if not most of China’s right-liberals are not the sort of cute fuzzy harmless non-violent dissidents that the Western media enjoys portraying. The public (and, from all appearances, one-sided) street brawl between Wu Danhong and Zhou Yan demonstrates that public discourse in China has reached new lows, and liberals (even the supposedly cute and fuzzy ones like Ai Weiwei) are not only willing but eager to use fists and (supposedly) brickbats where their arguments, so supposedly rational, calm and convincing, fail to gain traction. As Zhang Heci, Australian-based Chinese dissident and blogger, put it:
I’m more and more disappointed at today’s intellectuals in China. Democracy fighter becomes synonym for gangster. ‘I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it’. They know the words by heart, yet they defend using violence….They have become a group that cannot be criticized, relying on asking others to choose a side. Whoever criticizes them, who is a Wu mao. Whoever criticizes the government less severe than they do, who is a Wu mao… Today, the word ‘public intellectual’ has increasingly become a derogatory term.
Or we could go with the more classic (and snarky) Metternich:
A people who can neither read nor write [well], whose last word is the dagger—such a people offers fine material for constitutional principles!
Expect more supposedly well-behaved, liberal-minded Western expat bloggers to cheer on just this sort of thuggery, as some already have. After all, nothing says democratic principles and universal values quite like a public flash mob and gang brawl! Great work, fellas and gals.

And meanwhile, on the international front, China keeps having to take threats from the usual suspects with regard to its stand on diplomacy in Syria. All I am asking for here is a little better behaviour, a little more civility on the part of my country’s leadership toward China, is that really too much? If right is on the side that Ms Clinton so avidly backs, why resort to these kinds of threats and backhanded insults rather than moral suasion?

Oh yes, and our consistent ally and glowing bastion of freedom and human rights, the Czech Republic, is still holding Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe in gaol pending charges of manslaughter, despite his having posted bail, for having removed a rowdy fan from the stage and then having been in the vicinity when he fell to the floor after having attempted to mount the stage again and died of the resulting brain haemorrhage. Guess nothing says freedom and human rights quite like holding a guy in indefinite detention for a ‘crime’ he demonstrably did not commit, either.

07 July 2012

On divestment, investment and usury

The Presbyterian Church voted (in Pittsburgh, no less) yesterday on the issue of whether or not to selectively divest from certain enterprises engaged in (or with interests in) the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories by illegal Israeli settlers. The motion was narrowly defeated by a margin of two abstentions, but the issue managed to attract a significant amount of attention, with the usual questions floating around about whether BDS (boycott-divestment-sanctions) against Israel is or is not a productive strategy, whether or not it is anti-Semitic, and so on and so forth.

I note (and I was not the first to do so - my father actually pointed it out to me when I spoke with him about the vote) that one deeper issue has been left out; that of what the Church is doing in the first place investing in for-profit companies for the purpose of making money on interest. And this goes both for the for-profit investment in companies like Caterpillar, Motorola and HP which profit from the Israeli occupation, and for the so-called ‘positive investments’ in Palestinian enterprises which have been favoured by the Presbyterian Church’s resolution.

Let me be clear, I am not opposed to churches investing or lending to people who direly need it. But the existential purpose of that investment or lending ought to be made clear up front. Churches should have definite qualms about lending to poor people (for example, poor farmers and single-family businesses in Palestine) at interest, and the first question they might want to ask would be: is the loan for our benefit or for theirs? If the former, the Church must again re-evaluate its place in the society, and question whether or not it can or should function if it is reduced to the methods (and thus status) of a for-profit corporation.

Some creative models of lending focus primarily on the welfare of the loan recipient (such as, for example, the Grace Period model mentioned in last month’s Christian Century, which is meant to supplant the growing usurious industry in payday loans), and these might very well be considered ‘positive investments’, if a similar model and standard were explicitly applied to the Palestinian proposal. (I should say now that I don’t know whether or not this is the case. The news stories I have read thus far have not elaborated on the nature of the investments being considered by the Presbyterian Church.)

But entertaining the much more radical discussion of whether or not divestment is a policy which ought to be implemented across the board (not just in Israeli settlements) sounds like a very solid idea, if the Church is to live up to its promises of being an alternative social order offering God’s good news to the poor.

05 July 2012

Pointless video post - ‘My Prophecy’ by Pertness

The Swiss band Pertness is a recent serendipitous discovery of mine. From the album art you might be forgiven for thinking they were a light-in-the-pants keyboard-laden flower metal band, but actually they sport a blend of power, heavy, melodeath, Viking and folk metal which is unrelenting in its sheer power, and a vocalist who reminds me somewhat of Joakim Brodén of Sabaton. They mostly tend to stick to fantastic, epic and folksy themes, but their last album, From the Beginning to the End (2010), features some social critique and environmental concern as well. Their next album, Frozen Time, should be coming out later this year; I am certainly looking forward to it. Enjoy, folks!

04 July 2012

Know thyself

GK Chesterton, the great man of letters of the last century, said in his introduction to the Charles Dickens book ‘American Notes’:
This old Anglo-American quarrel was much more fundamentally friendly than most Anglo-American alliances. In Dickens's day each nation understood the other enough to argue. In our time neither nation understands itself even enough to quarrel. There was an English tradition, from Fox and eighteenth-century England; there was an American tradition from Franklin and eighteenth-century America; and they were still close enough together to discuss their differences with acrimony, perhaps, but with certain fundamental understandings. The eighteenth-century ... was an age, in short, in which the word “progress” could still be used reasonably; because the whole world looked to one way of escape and there was only one kind of progress under discussion. Now, of course, “progress” is a useless word; for progress takes for granted an already defined direction; and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree.

Do not let us therefore be misled into any mistaken optimism or special self-congratulation upon what many people would call the improved relations between England and America. The relations are improved because America has finally become a foreign country. And with foreign countries all sane men take care to exchange a certain consideration and courtesy. But even as late as the time of Dickens’s first visit to the United States, we English still felt America as a colony; an insolent, offensive, and even unintelligible colony sometimes, but still a colony; a part of our civilisation, a limb of our life. And America itself, as I have said, under all its bounce and independence, really regarded us as a mother country. This being the case it was possible for us to quarrel, like kinsmen. Now we only bow and smile, like strangers.

The thing is worth reading in its entirety. My own worldview being as it is a haphazard mishmash of 18th-century classical conservatism, 19th-century Tractarianism and Christian socialism and 21st-century interpretations of the theories of EF Schumacher through Bill McKibben, John Cobb, Jr and Herman Daly, I still have a strong identification with an English-speaking culture, even as that culture is being disavowed to varying degrees (whether knowingly or out of ignorance) on both sides of the Atlantic.

So in the wake now of 4 July, the date when (according to British history) a group of terrorists and misguided political malcontents broke their ties to their closest benefactors and geopolitical guardians, or if you prefer, when (according to American history) a group of idealistic freedom fighters threw off a tyrannical monarchy to found a grand experimental Republic which would shape the world anew, it is worth asking ourselves what ideals of ‘progress’ we truly hold to. What sort of nation do we want to be? Where are our values? Where are our commitments? Where is our treasure stored? What we will do when our ‘bigness’, as renowned British biologist (and contemporary of Dickens, to boot) Thomas H Huxley once put it, no longer distracts us from ‘the great issue... and the terror of overhanging fate’, namely, ‘what are [we] going to do with all these things?’

Ultimately, to ask these things is to begin to ask what it means to be American.