29 November 2014

A blessed Feast of Holy Apostle Matthew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 November 2014

Culture wars and the non-West

Cross-posted from Oriental Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 November 2014

Puritanism and the bullying of Matt Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EDIT: Thank you, Julie Bindel!

13 November 2014

Báječně, Prezident Zeman!

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

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

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

08 November 2014

So much good stuff recently!

Where to start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 November 2014

Just asking

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

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

Again, just asking.

Pointless video post – ‘Ride’ by Cathedral

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