Saturday, 29 November 2008

An Apology for the Human Person in History

I have, of late, been reading H.G. Wells' The Outline of History, which was kindly loaned to me by a dear friend. In covering the annals of ancient Mesopotamia, I was struck particularly by the following passage:

"The story of the Tigris and Euphrates civilizations, of which thus far we have given only the bare outline, is a story of conquest following after conquest, and each conquest replaces old rulers and ruling classes by new: races like the Sumerian and the Elamite are swallowed up, their languages vanish, they interbreed and are lost; the Assyrian melts away into Chaldean and Syrian, the Hittites lose distinction, the Semites who swallowed up the Sumerians give place to rulers of these new Aryan tribes from the north. Medes and Persians appear in the place of the Elamites and the (Aryan) Persian language dominates the empire until the Aryan Greek ousts it from official life.

"Meanwhile the plough does its work year by year, the harvests are gathered, the builders build as they are told, the tradesmen work and acquire fresh devices; the knowledge of writing spreads; novel things, the horse and wheeled vehicles and iron, are introduced and become part of the permanent inheritance of mankind; the volume of trade upon sea and desert increases, men's ideas widen and knowledge grows." (H.G. Wells,
The Outline of History, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), pp. 143-144.)

These paragraphs put me in mind of much which I had heard during my undergraduate studies. For most of human history, great lords and priests have been the historian's focus. In large part, the everyday affairs of the lower classes were left out of the annals, simply because they weren't viewed as critical. In a very Nietzschean fashion, they were simply the substratum whose labour made possible the great and worthy achievements of more important people. Starting on a large scale in the 1960s, this changed profoundly. American and European academia were heavily infiltrated by Marxism, and a sudden upsurge of interest in 'everyday' people seized history faculties throughout the Western world. From this arose such disciplines as "social history", which eschews the "great man" theory, and focuses on wide social analysis of the mode of life of ordinary folks in past civilizations. Political history entered a marked decline.

Wells originally authored The Outline of History in the space between the wars, but the passage I have quoted could, in many ways, be read as a forerunner of that change. (It is worth remembering in this context that Wells was an avowed socialist--indeed, he was a member of the Fabian Society.) It seems to imply, as university professors have tended to do for the past fifty years, that the works of rulers are, in some sense, superficial. They gloss back and forth over the surface, depositing a thin veneer of history on a much more substantial layer of everyday activity. For Wells, as for the later Marxist historians, it is in the economic and familial affairs of the peasant that we will find the clues to the real forward march of the human race.

I have no wish to challenge the assertion that the study of the lives of ordinary people is essential if we are to create a reasonably holistic vision of our past. I do, however, wish to contest the thinly veiled notion underlying much of this work. The fact that an event persists for only a short time, or is undone shortly thereafter, should have no impact on our understanding of its cosmic significance. If it does, we have fallen prey to the sort of mass-importance reasoning against which Kierkegaard tried so hard to warn us. We seem to believe that because something is bigger, in the number of people affected or the duration of the effect (which are, for obvious reasons, intimately related), it should be accorded more significance. We regard the transient comings and goings of princes and prelates with a snobbish derision, certain that we are now sufficiently enlightened to see through their pomp and circumstance to the really important people. The fact is, the evanescent joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats, of any little Sumerian prince from long forgotten ages, are no less significant from the standpoint of our humanity than the greatest grassroots changes to societies.

We, of all the generations who have ever lived, are uniquely positioned to appreciate this fact, because we alone enjoy the perspective of a four-dimensional understanding of unified space-time. In this way, it is easy to see that it is no more sensible to regard one petty noble's achievements as being less noteworthy for having only occupied a year's time, than it is to view the glories of Persian civilization as less noteworthy for having only occupied the territory of Persia. If we can conceive of time as an extension of space, we might imagine that, for that little lord's brief victory, there is always a 'place' in the annals of the world where, no matter how briefly, a human person triumphs. As historians, what could be more important to us than that?

Thursday, 30 October 2008

American Censorship as Class Warfare

"But it was no wonder that I was thus carried toward vanity and was estranged from thee, O my God, when men were held up as models to me who, when relating a deed of theirs--not in itself evil--were covered with confusion if found guilty of a barbarism or a solecism; but who could tell of their own licentiousness and be applauded for it, so long as they did it in a full and ornate oration of well-chosen words."

These words are the beginning of chapter XVIII of the Confessions of Saint Augustine. They are also, it would seem, the standard of American censorship. Tune into any rock station in America and you will hear the word "fuck" bleeped out of half a dozen songs in the space of an hour. While the FCC does not maintain a list of legally proscribed words, it makes no secret of which words it does and does not approve of. It claims to consider the context of use, attempting to censor only that material as "indecent" which is "intended to describe or depict sexual or excretory activities and organs". On this basis the FCC's enforcement bureau deemed Bono's use of the word "fucking" as an intensifier at the live broadcast of the Golden Globes in 2003 not to be "indecent". This decision was, however, subsequently overturned by the FCC's central office. Given this, it is no wonder that stations self-censor in order not to run afoul of the Feds. There are, in practice if not in law, words you are simply not allowed to say on the air here.

If, then, you are a poor, uneducated American, and you have a limited vocabulary with which to express yourself, you will be censored. Your context does not matter, your ideas do not matter, because it is your words that we wish to take from you. The content of your song, for instance, may in fact uphold standards of decency and morality to which most of us aspire, but we will fill it with holes or ugly screeches, and so detract from its artistic impact. On the other hand, if you were fortunate enough to afford a good education, you may extol any manner of vile and obscene behaviour, by virtue of the fact that you know how to couch it properly in lovely phrases. John Lennon's Working Class Hero we simply can't have in its original text on the radio, but if someone wanted to read a selection from Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil, such as the section "...if rape or arson, poison or the knife / Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff / Of this drab canvas we accept as life - / It is because we are not bold enough!", this would be perfectly acceptable.

American censorship does not, in fact, have anything to do with upholding decency; it has everything to do with suppressing the speech of the poor while giving the wealthy complete licence. Words are but the brute capacity for expression. It is ideas, and not words, which are decent or indecent, pure or wicked, and it is ideas, and not words, that ought to be censored. It is not what comes out of a man's mouth which defiles him, but what comes out of his mind.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Measure of Success

A friend recently loaned me a four-part BBC documentary called "The Century of the Self", which I recommend highly to everyone. It deals with the ways in which the theories of Sigmund Freud, through his relatives, permeated every aspect of modern economic and political life. His American nephew, for instance, Edward Burnays, invented the discipline of public relations, and almost single-handedly created the modern 'consumer society', convincing businesses that they could increase their profits by preying on the subconscious desires of consumers, rather than simply appealing to rational arguments for the usefulness of their product. The last installment was of particular relevance for us today, talking about how Bill Clinton in America and Tony Blair in Britain used business techniques of 'lifestyle marketing' and focus groups to tailor a message that they knew voters wanted to hear, undermining the traditional values of their respective parties in the process.

All of this talk about Freudian theory, with its emphasis on the irrational desires which drive human behaviour in the subconscious, and our rational conscious minds bobbing along on top like a cork on the ocean got me to thinking. I put it together especially with my favourite Herman Melville quote: "Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but, man, in the ideal, is so noble and sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes." (Moby Dick, Chapter 26) All great human thought has recognized this dichotomy within us. This is the crux of Paul's discussion in Romans 7 about the law of his flesh, warring against the law of his mind. It is the distinction between the various chakras in Indian thought. It is the tension between ren and wu in Confucianism, between matter and spirit in Manichaeism, between ignorance and knowledge in Gnosticism. It is the basis of the Islamic notion of 'Greater Jihad', the struggle against the base elements of oneself. And, of course, it is the struggle of the id with the ego and super-ego.

The implications of this idea go well beyond the psychological and the spiritual, however. It is of the utmost importance for political thought. After all of these centuries, three basic schools have developed, which I would classify as Left, Right, and Centre. (Note to my American readers: these are not Left, Right, and Centre as you are wont to understand them in your politics. American Left, Right, and Centre are in fact all Centre. My examples will help you to understand what I mean.) 

In the Left camp, among other doctrines, we find Communism, Islam, and Gnosticism. These Left ideologies hold that each man has it within him to overcome the base elements of himself and to become a superior form of human being. So the Russian communists were fond of speaking of the 'New Soviet Man', who would overcome our greed, our avarice, our fear, and our degeneracy. He (and the 'New Soviet Woman') would be the result of children well-educated and raised in a just and equitable society, which would reinforce their better natures while enlightening them in ways which would overcome the evils of our irrational instincts. The good Muslim is meant, likewise, to be reformed by adherence to Islamic law, and to internalize its precepts in order, through submission to God (and with His aid), to triumph in his 'Greater Jihad' against his animal nature. The emphasis in both cases being that, with effort and support, every human being can make the transition.

The philosophies of the Right, including Romantic Nationalism, most sects of Christianity, and some varieties of Neo-Platonism, have a very different focus. They do not believe that most people are capable of this 'self-overcoming'. They are simply too mired in their animal natures to achieve that degree of enlightenment. Their only hope, therefore, is to identify themselves with something larger and nobler than themselves, and attempt to model themselves as closely as possible to that exemplar. In Romatic Nationalism, for instance, the greatest individuals in the history of the nation, along with the distinctive language and customs of the people in question, are used to create an ideal form of a member of that nation. There is, as it were, an ideal of German-ness, Slovak-ness, Chinese-ness that exists in the Platonic realm. The form of the ideal German who sits at the ideal desk on the ideal chair, if you will. Every individual German, although never able to become something so noble themselves, can make the effort to reflect that ideal to the greatest extent that they can, and so partake in its nobility. Likewise, in most forms of Christianity, we are all sinners incapable of deserving salvation on our own. Only by internalizing God, and taking up our crosses to follow Jesus, can we receive the Grace which redeems us. We have here "The Imitation of the Christ" in much the same way as we had the imitation of the ideal German. Those who doubt that this is a central tenet of Western Christianity may review the dispute between St. Augustine and Pelagius, in which Pelagius argued that the works of men could earn them title to salvation, while Augustine responded that men could be saved only by the Grace of God, and no action they took could possibly deserve that. Augustine won, and Pelagius was declared a heretic.

Lastly, there is the Centre position, which is held by Secular Humanism, Classical Liberalism, and modern Capitalist Democracy. In this school of thought, men are dominated by base irrational instincts, and we should all just get over it. Men cannot be made better either through education and personal enlightenment, or through the effort to reflect nobler ideals; the best we can hope for is to harness the baseness of mankind for practical benefit. So it is that, in the United States, James Madison (writing as Publius) urged the orchestration of government to harness the evils of faction, rather than trying to suppress them. (Federalist #10) Likewise, the US has, throughout its history, championed an economic order based on 'enlightened self-interest', and the harnessing of greed as a means to increase productivity, rather than attempting to reform individuals to make them fit for a less greedy system (a la the New Soviet Man).

I do not know which of these philosophies is the most accurate description of the reality of the mass of mankind, which troubled me for sometime. However, I have come to realize from this the true import of what people say about knowing what your definition of success is. I have always felt hemmed in by the darkness which lurks in my own soul, and the souls of my neighbours. I have watched so many otherwise good people be driven by their irrational subconscious desires into substance abuse, abusive relationships, and mountains of debt which ultimately claimed the precious hours of their lives, one by one. These things weigh on me heavily. I cannot, obviously, consent to that Centre position, which bids me simply accept this darkness as a fact of life, and be content with that little bobbing cork of consciousness, as with the feeble flickering of matchheads in the night. The Right position is much better, but it is still not enough for me to fix my attention on a lantern, trying to hold at bay the thought of the darkness which still hems me in if I move my eyes from that one magical point. No, I refuse to give the dignity of the title 'success' to anything short of throwing on the light switch, and beaming that sweet illumination into every corner of our being. As long as I live, it must be my mission to chase that darkness out of each of us entirely. Perhaps it is not realistic, but nothing less will do. I don't have all the answers, and I know that many good men and women of intelligence will choose to sit in the Centre with their matches, or to crowd around the lantern on the Right. As for me, however, I will always be found on the Left, fumbling for the switch.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

A Commentary upon John 1:1

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Or, in Luther's phrasing, which is in fact the phrasing of the original Greek (ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος), "Im Anfang war das Wort, und das Wort war bei Gott, und Gott war das Wort."

I have often asked myself if there is, in actuality, a God. I told my fiance that my problem was that I only believed half of the Shahaddah; I believed Mohammed was the Prophet, but I wasn't sure that there was an Allah for him to be the prophet of. By this I meant simply that I believe in principles which I found the Koran to embody, but wasn't wholly willing to attribute them to a personal creator deity. Of the existence of these principles, however, I have never doubted. Truth, beauty, goodness--these are constant. Nothing which lacks one can possess either of the others. They would exist even if nothing else did. If nothing existed, it would still be true that nothing existed; this fact, by virtue of its being true, would be beautiful, and therefore good. Yes, in these principles my belief had always been unshaken.

So we return to John, and we recall that John was, whoever he was, probably writing between the years 90 and 100. The expulsion of the Christians from the synagogues is already a theme in his work, and he is expecting a substantially Greek, if not mostly Greek, audience. The Greeks, of course, came from a vey different spiritual background than the Jews. The Greeks turned to their philosophers, rather than their priests, for answers to questions about the origins of the world and the meaning of life, and many were devotees after some fashion of the Prime Mover of Aristotle's works, or the One mentioned by Plato. These were remote, non-personal concepts of divinity, without personality or interest in human affairs, and the anthropomorphisized Yahweh likely seemed ridiculous to many. (See Karen Armstrong's "A History of God" for an excellent discussion of this.) John foresses that objection, and heads it off at the pass. "God was the Word" he says, but of course not saying 'word' but rather 'logos'.

Logos is a complex word, carrying in ancient Greek the basic meaning of something said, but secondary meanings also of reason and intelligence. Aristotle used it in discussing rhetoric as one of the techniques of persuasion, specifically the one that demonstrated a claim from facts--the truth. It had a long history in the hands of Heraclitus and the Stoics also, referring to the essential animating principles of the universe. The fact that some Chinese translations use 道 'tao' sheds some light on this understanding. John wrote that verse for me. He wrote it for all of us who, raised in the traditions of Western thought, greet with a disbelieving smirk tales of divine personalities who stoop to notice the little things we do. John wanted us to understand that we should not take the story he was about to tell as a simplistic fairy tale about a man living on a cloud with a big, white beard. Rather, we should understand that the anthropomorphisms of the Jewish tradition were simply his culture's way of expressing what we are used to thinking of as abstract principles after the Platonic fashion.

Many of us today have trouble believing in God because we just don't feel that there is somebody looking over our shoulder. But if we read the prophets, or the Gospels, or the Koran again carefully, and we take John's advice, we will find that we can readily substitute 'Word' for 'God' and do no violence to their poetry--or their wisdom. I don't believe in the God of most evangelical American preachers, or the Taliban, or even those harmless folks who pray that God will balance their cheque book or bring them a new tricycle for Christmas. I do believe, however, like John, in the Word. And there is no God but the Word.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Reflections on my Beloved's Absence

There once was a woman who was beloved of each one she met, and who brought joy to every one blessed enough to be the recipient of her smile. She moved with an easy grace amongst men, and played muse to their delirious dreams. Each sought to conquer her, and yet all ended conquered. In our cascading procession we presented ourselves as suitors one after another, like the unfolding feathers of a peacock's tail. We invented games for her amusement and arts for her diversion, and crafted all the sciences that we might impress ourselves upon her mind. There was not one of us but tried to demonstrate his superiority in trials of strength or wit, and in this way there was not one of us but became the best iteration of himself for her sake.

Yet at the same time, what fools we were! Such shameless poets' coquettry, such hamfisted boasting was our chosen medium. Never did men seem smaller than they did beside her, their fine accomplishments as candles beside her blazing lantern. When she sang it was the beauty of the forest's silence, and her dancing sent shivers through the spine of the earth. Grown men buckled at the knees under her gaze, as though the shimmer in her eyes might vaporize them. The few who dared to meet even her glances were driven mad, if indeed it were possible for us to be any madder.

But oh what sweet madness! Those who have never felt reason as an oppressor, those who have never known rationality as a simulacrum of death cannot comprehend it. The madness made all things clear. It crept through the mind like the rays of the sun cresting the mountains, and evaporated the mists. It dissolved all accidental forms, pierced all illusions, and laid bare the hearts of men. Odin would give his eye for such madness, Faust gladly bargain his soul to rave with our lunacy.

It's not that there weren't other options. An endless panoply of courtesans of wealth and taste was always present but we, like Sadko, paid them no heed as they passed. What gold could glitter like her flaxen hair? What refinement could compare with she who was mercy itself? We kindled our souls with every trailing ember of her divine spark, and the smoke blinded us to all else.

She is gone now, and we struggle in vain to recollect her name. Perhaps it was religion, or art, or life itself. In any case, all that keeps us alive today is that we once loved her.

Monday, 1 September 2008

A Psychological Critique of Capitalist Economy

Capitalist economy is, in essence, a confluence of two separate but reciprocally interactive psychological disorders. The first, manifested amongst capitalists themselves, is a form of chronic anxiety disorder, while the second, exhibited by large portions of the working class, is technically known as an impulse control disorder.

In the first case, we have the capitalist. Under normal conditions, a rational human being will work to provide the things which they and their family require, and thereby be satisfied. Once a roof is over their head, food is on the table, and a little bit tucked away for entertainment and rainy days, the job is done. The capitalist, however, is not satisfied here. His reaction, when he has secured enough money to satisfy all of his needs, is to use any surplus money that remains to make more money. If someone eats their fill, and then continues to eat without cessation, we say they have an eating disorder. If someone has all the money they need, and then works to make more money, we call them an entrepeneur.

As regards the working class, the derangement is subtler, but equally destructive. Let us start with a familiar example. We have all had experiences with teenagers who think bad things will never happen to them. They can try a drug without becoming addicted; they can drive fast on wet roads without getting into an accident. Fortunately, as they grow, they eventually learn to better assess these kinds of graphic immediate risks. Adulthood does not, sadly, improve the assessment of longer-term or more abstract risks. This was the case in East Germany. Lured by the temptations of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, millions of otherwise rational adult human beings told themselves that when the market economy was implemented that single mother working three jobs to support her family 'won't be me', that factory worker who loses his job and doesn't know where his family's next meal is coming from 'won't be me'. They threw away a system which guaranteed each person a job, a living wage, and a college education for their children (if they passed the exams) in pursuit of 'opportunity'. If a man stakes his house and his children's college fund on a 1 in 100 chance (and those are much better odds than you would ever actually receive) of winning a million dollars, we would say he has a gambling addiction. If a man stakes all that and more on a 1 in a 1000 chance (and those are much better odds than anyone actually received) that the new market economy will make him a wealthy man, he's striking a blow for freedom. The government of East Germany wasn't overthrown, it was lost by 16 million people with a gambling problem.

The behaviours of all participants in a capitalist economy are easily classifiable along the spectrum of recognized (and treatable) behavioural disorders. Yet these individuals receive no help, and are often enabled by those closest to them. It is time that not only OCD sufferers and compulsive gamblers received attention and treatment, but those on the economic right as well. After all, they are people too.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Obama's Acceptance Speech

I just finished watching the live stream of Senator Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention. Certainly it was eloquent, and its ideals were high-minded, but like all of the Senator's speeches, it failed to outline any real solutions. He talks about making college more affordable, but never about eliminating tuition the way they have in Germany and Scandinavia. He talks about providing truly universal health care, but his plan amounts to little more than the government subsidization of a bloated and ineffective private system, rather than the institution of a functioning single-payer system like the Canadians have achieved. Senator Obama talks about ending partisan divisions and representing ordinary Americans, but I have yet to hear him lend his support to any form of proportional representation or instant run-off voting. He makes grand soliloquies about ending the outsourcing of American jobs, but not one word about leaving the WTO, which decries our "unfair market practices" when we attempt to levy tarriffs on goods made by sweat-shop child labour. (For more on the WTO's effects on American policy and economy, read up on Thea Lee.) When all is said and done, I can do no better than to paraphrase the great Malcolm X's remarks about the speech which the Sentaor commemorated. While Senator Obama is having a dream, the rest of us Americans are having a nightmare.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Toward a True Communist History of Nations

My fiancee's uncle, being a man both kind and learned, recently loaned me Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, which I, in these past days of my infirmary, have set myself to read. He opens it by discussing the unforgivable crimes of the Stalinist regime against the culture of the people of Mongolia during the 1930s, during which time monasteries were destroyed and over 30 000 Mongols were executed by one means or another. (p. i) This campaign was undertaken for fear of an upwelling of Mongolian nationalism which, in Stalin's eyes, would have been a challenge to the maintenance of Communist rule there, and a threat to the relationship between Mongolia and the Soviet Union which he had so carefully crafted. As a further precaution, the area legendarily associated with the Great Khan's birth and death, known in Mongolian as the Ikh Khorig (the Great Taboo) was cordoned off as a "Highly Restricted Area"of approxiamtely a million hectares, administratively separated form the local province and placed under Moscow's direct authority. This, in turn, was fenced in by a "Restricted Area" of roughly equal size. The entrance gate was sealed by a tank base and artillery ground, and the space between this and the capital in Ulaanbaatar was filled with a MiG base and, in all probability, nuclear weapons. (pp. xxi-xxii)

If all of this seems excessive, it's because it was. The Stalinist regime in particular tended to see any interest in national identity and history as a challenge to the internationalism of Communism, and to violently repress it. To this end, any serious scholarly research into the life of Ghengis Khan represented a danger to the state, and therefore to the researcher, and many an inquiring mind was sent into prison or exile. A quick reading of Weatherford's book, however, demonstrates how grossly someone in the Party's PR department missed their opportunity.

As Weatherford amply demonstrates, the career of Ghengis Khan is one of emancipation. He tore down the semi-feudal aristocracy which had ruled the steppe, and refused to acknowledge their old titles. (pp. 112-113) He paved the way for true meritocracy, attending scrupulously to the searching out of talent, and even prohibiting his own relatives from taking up the succession without the approval of a khuriltai, or general convocation of the Mongol tribes. (pp. 67, 70) He established the rule of law as binding even upon the sovereign. (p. 70) He raised the position of women, by forbidding their kidnapping or sale as brides (p. 68), as well as by openly acknowledging their services to the state (p. 121). He abandoned the traditional system of looting, whereby each commander seized as much as he could get, and kept as much of it to himself as possible, with a system of just redistribution, in which all of the captured goods were divided equally by rank, with a share set aside for the maintenance of widows and orphans. (p. 50) He then went about reorganizing the tribal army into squads of ten, in which each man, without regard to his race, religion, or tribal origin, would be as a brother to each other, arguably culminating in the Baljuna Covenant (p. 58)--a grand expression of the fraternal cosmopolitanism of the emerging Mongol empire, and its nascent supranational conception of citizenship.

In these and many other respects, Geghis Khan could rightly be viewed as a prototypical Communist leader. His emphasis on egalitarianism, equal distribution of the newly-acquired wealth of his conquests, and the transcendence of ethnic divisions speak to the most cherished principles of Marxism-Leninism. And yet Stalin, rather than using this example to bolster those values, and so convince the Mongols that their own history had led them inexorably to Communism, as the modern embodiment of the principles by which their ancestor had first raised them to greatness, instead trampled upon this history, and engaged in an unjustifiable repression of learning and culture of which no civilized person can approve. In their urge to be international, so much of the Party sadly chose to extinguish the nations of the Soviet Union, rather than transcend them. Communist internationalism is not, and cannot be, the mere rejection of nationalism, it must be the recognition that the heritage of all nations is now the common wealth of all mankind. After all, does Marx' historical dialectic not tell us that in each of these histories we will find the inexorable movement of the whole world toward Communism?

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Finnish Education

As my fiance is preparing herself for an internship in a Finnish school, I have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about their widely-regarded educational system from her research. My most recent revelation has been that, besides providing free university tuition for their qualifying students, they also give out a 440 Euro stipend (as of 2006)--roughly $655-- for those students' expenses. To Americans, this may seem extravagent, but it is the obvious means for the Finns to get the most out of their investment. They recognize that they want their children to pursue higher education, because that will put them in higher positions in the global economy. In those higher positions, they will earn more money (often from outside the country), and in turn they will pay more taxes back to the Finnish state. When all is said and done, they will more than repay their tuition and their stipend, and the country turns a profit.

If you don't trust my economics, consider that we recognize the same priciple in the United States. We sell student loans on the grounds that better educated students make more money in the end, enabling them to repay their student loans plus interest. All we have done in the United States is allowed unscrupulous financiers to reap the profit while saddling our children with debt, instead of keeping the profits for the country and providing a clear, unencumbered path for our students.

On a related note, Finland (like most European countries) provides an opt-out from high school to a trade school at 16 years of age. Forty-five percent of students take this option. Besides simply being nice to provide extra choice for students, this has a more important social consequence. In Europe, plumbers and electricians are respectable people. They made a choice which carries no stigma. In the United States, however, these individuals are regarded as failures; they are the dropouts who couldn't make it through the system. The dignity of labour is lost when we regard getting off the educational bandwagon at any point short of six-digit salary professional as simply being unable to 'go the distance'.

Some will say I'm unamerican. I say that Americans deserve better than they're getting.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Troubles of Western China

A Response to an article posted at

Just about everyone in the West is by now familiar with the dire consequences which have accrued to us for turning a blind eye to the Maoist invasion of Tibet in 1950. For the past five decades, the CCP has ruthlessly ground out any and all resistance to their gross violation of the sovereignty of a traditionally free people. The language, culture, and religion of the country have been systematically discriminated against, culminating in China's latest effort at what might be called 'ethnic cleansing by numbers'. The central governement built a grossly uneconomical rail line into Lhasa, for the sole purpose of flowing Han Chinese into Tibet and demographically overwhelming the existing population. Although we in the West certainly have earned ourselves no credit in the eyes of posterity for actually doing anything, at least we can't be accused of totally ignoring events there, as our constant meetings with the Dalai Lama demonstrate. Of course, if we really cared about the people of Tibet, we would give him a pass entirely. Don't get me wrong, I have a great deal of respect for the man as a spiritual leader, but that's not what Tibet needs right now. Only political action will bring an end to the suffering. When Catholic Poland was overrun by the Nazis, we didn't protest it by meeting with the Pope.

Right next door to Tibet, however, is a similar travesty--one which we can be accused of ignoring. How many Westerners have ever heard of the Uighurs? How many could find their lost country on the map, subsumed under the deluge of Maoist Chinese? They too wage a war for their independence. They too put their lives on the line to drive out a monstrous oppressor, but we do not meet with their leaders. No Uighurs appear in photographs with the German Chancellor, or shaking hands with the Presidents of France and the United States. Why not? I understand that resources are limited; there is too much evil in the world to truly fight all of it at once. However, this is no excuse to shirk our duty of decrying the evil when we see it.

Some will accuse me of bleeding-heart rhetoric. They will say I worry too much about humanitarian affairs and that I ought to pay more attention to realpolitik. But in fact, it is precisely the realpolitik which I wish to add to US and EU policy towards the situation in western China.

China is not our friend. On the economic front it has artificially manipulated its currency to maintain a positive balance of trade against us, it has flooded our markets with cheap goods--goods which are cheap because they are produced without the slightest semblance of regulations for environmental protection or worker safety--and so dragged our working conditions slowly down toward their level. We wage a war against runaway pollution (which is important all issues of global warming aside) and they pump out clouds of toxic dust which shut down towns in Korea and Japan. (here and here) All of this could be written off as poor China's chronic underdevelopment. I am not entirely insensitive to the arguments of developing countries relating to their industrial pollution, for instance. But just when we are inclined to feel a little sympathy, we are reminded that they are planning to kill us. It is no secret on either side of the Pacific that in the event of a conflict between China and the US, which many senior Chinese officials consider nearly inevitable, the Chinese navy plans to quickly strike and destroy US bases in Japan, Korea, and the Phillipines, and then use these areas as a buffer zone, so that US troops can be killed while destroying the land of America's allies, rather than China itself. (see this article - or, if you want the knock-down drag-out version, this) I hardly think I need to mention the human rights abuses. Suffice it to say, they serve to put Reagan's infamous "evil empire" quip about the Soviet Union into its proper ludicrous perspective.

And while this goes on, while we know about all of it in declassified documents, we grant them Most Favored Nation status for trade. We urge Boeing into contracts that require them to teach the Chinese how to manufacture all of the advanced aerospace components Boeing builds in Chinese factories. We open ourselves more and more, hoping to see positive movement for the Chinese people, only to be rewarded with increased repression, increased militarization, increased jingoism, and increased belligerence. China is no less our enemy now that fifty years ago in Korea, the only difference is that we have made them wealthy and powerful, "the better to attack you with, my dear (right after we get through with these Falun Gong practitioners)."

And this brings us back to western China. Here we have two captive nations, two peoples struggling for freedom. One we pass over with platitudes, the other we ignore completely. The fact is, we should be arming them. We should be funding them. We were willing to arm violent Muslim heretics in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, and we were ready to pour weapons into the hands of tinpot dictators all over Africa and Latin America to fight Marxist rebels, but we will not equip honest men and women who ask only for the right to live in peace in their own country? Thomas Jefferson once said that "he who would be free must himself strike the first blow." Yet we 'liberate' Iraqis who never asked for our help, and leave those who are willing to risk their lives for freedom to fend for themselves. Jefferson is rolling in his grave, and we are standing by while the Chinese send the heroes of Tibet and Xinjiang to theirs, and ready themselves to put us in ours.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

The Situation in South Ossetia

God bless President Medvedev.

As many of you have doubtlessly seen, Georgian forces invaded South Ossetia Thursday night in a surprise attack aimed at restoring central control over the region, which has been de facto autonomous for fifteen years. Russia, which has maintained a peacekeeping force in the area since disputes between newly-independent Georgia and the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia last erupted in violence, moved to counter the Georgian strike. Lest anyone think, however, that the Russian manoeuvre was purely humanitarian, it should be borne in mind that there is some self-interest involved; a large portion of the residents of both regions are Russian citizens.

Let us not get lost in the squabbling over how many civilian deaths there are and who caused them, the bottom line is this: the diplomats of the post-war world created a monster. In the aftermath of the Second World War and the painful process of decolonization in Africa and the Middle East, the world's great powers instituted the doctrine of inviolable 'territorial integrity'. No line they had drawn could be moved, removed, or shifted without such an act being regarded as a crime against the international order. Such was the power of this ideal, that the so-called champions of democracy, like the US and Great Britain, routinely allowed 'territorial integrity' to supercede even the right of a people to self-determination, no matter how much lip-service they paid the latter.

Herein lies the source of most of the bitter conflicts of the last fifty years. A few examples may be asked for. The Kurds, treated as second-class citizens by Turkey, their language restricted by law, surely deserve the sympathy of every freedom-loving Westerner. However, regardless of how degreading their treatment is, no matter how the Turkish authorities attempt to extirpate their culture and forcibly assimilate them, no Western power will countenance the Kurds dividing the territory which a series of treaties have determined 'belongs' to Turkey. Bosnia, which even a decade after the war lies in the grip of paralyzing ethnic animosity, has been reduced to this sorry state by the fact that thousands of ethnic Serbs, who petitioned to have their border towns incorporated into Serbia after the war, were compelled against their will by the NATO forces to remain in Bosnia, to ensure the territorial integrity of a state whose borders' ink hadn't dried on the map yet. (This fact is a major justification used by the Serbs to mock NATO's pretensions of caring for the right of self-determination of the Kosovars, most of whom are actually Albanian refugees from WWII and their descendents, who ought to have been repatriated.) The biggest case, of course, is Iraq. Iraq is, simply put, a fake country. During most of the past five centuries, the Ottoman Empire treated what is now Iraq as three entirely seperate administrative provinces: one for the Sunnis, one for the Shiites, and one for the Kurds. The English, inheriting this territory after the Great War, amalgamated it for their convenience into a single unit, Iraq, in the 1920s. Today, of course, the American government is willing to pour the blood of thousands of our children across its sands to preserve Iraq's 'territorial integrity'. God forbid a people should have a land to themselves! Unless, of course, they're Jews.

Georgia, the US, and the EU now hurl accusations at Russia for violating the 'territorial integrity' of Georgia. Of course this is a sham. The whole concept of a country's inviolable 'territorial integrity' is an excuse for minsters and diplomats to chuck centuries of history out the window and turn a deaf ear to the cries of oppressed peoples. It is a fig leaf to cover the nakedness of their scheming ambition, and all the free world has worn it for fifty years. Though I deplore the suffering of innocents on both sides, I cannot help but rejoice at the outbreak of this conflict, hoping (let it not be in vain!) that it represents the first chink in the armour of this tyrannical international order. Let all the world take a lesson, that when 'free' America and 'progressive' Europe turned their backs on the downtrodden to further their own geopolitical interests, Mother Russia alone dared to speak for those who would not otherwise be heard, and to put first in her heart the principle of freedom which, as has been justly said, "no honest man gives up but with life itself."

Addendum 18.08.08 - If anyone doubts that today's politicians defend 'territorial integrity' with the kind of religious fervour which I have described, they need only read Sen. McCain's responses to Pastor Warren's interview at Saddleback Church:

"And now the Russians are coming in there in an act of aggression. And we have to not only bring about cease-fire, but we have to have honored one of the most fundamental rights of any nation, and that is territorial integrity. We must respect the entire territory of Russia -- excuse me -- the Russians must respect the entire territorial integrity of Georgia. And there's only 4 million people in Georgia, my friends. I've been there. It's a beautiful little country. They're wonderful people. They're suffering terribly now."

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Thoughts on the Capitol

I recently unearthed a travel log of mine from a trip to Washingotn DC and its environs which I took with some Honors students at my old university. Most of it was rather mundane, but I thought these selections worth looking at again.

23 May 2006
I did not care for the Holocaust Museum. It contained little to no coverage of the German resistance, and precious little regarding any of the Germans who perished in the camps for their support of the Jews, homosexuality, or simply political dissent. I could not help but feel that the exhibits were intended to stereotype the German people, and suggest that the Jews were unique victims of a tragedy which engulfed almost as many again of gentiles in Europe.

25 May 2006
The Jefferson Memorial is probably my least favourite site in D.C. I believe it to be symptomatic of most of the troubles of modern America that this mere man (a man who drove his family into debt with his compulsive spending habits, and who, while opposing slavery, failed to free his slaves, and quite possibly his own children, from bondage even after his death) is memorialized with a marble temple along the Potomac, as though he were some Hellenic deity of old. It is precisely this sort of blind reverence for "heroes" of past ages that Hamilton erroneously believed the American people had finally escaped from, and the very same fault is what is today driving this country into the ground, as Americans believe there is nothing to be learnt from the progress which modern democracy has made in other parts of the world, because nothing may be allowed to shatter the ethos of infallibility which has settled thick around the stone divinities lining the river.

26 May 2006
The National Museum of the American Indian I found to be disappointing. The majority of the building is given over to the rantings of native poets who think they are becoming progressively more profound with every natural disaster they can find to compare the white men to. After having my heritage maligned at the Holocaust Museum through the blatant omission of all redeeming facts, to now have it assaulted by a crop of Native American 'intellectuals' who wish to impugne me for deeds committed by men long dead, half of which evils could not have been foreseen even by the wisest of men (the spread of European diseases against which Natives had no natural resistance, for example), infuriates me. This cancer of reverse racism has become endemic, spawning hatred amongst minorities, and unseemly mia coppa breast-beating amongst white Americans, and it will only be a matter of time before someone of white European ancestry who is less obsequious than the majority (and less sagacious than might be wished) initiates a campaign of racial violence in return. We should be trying to nip this sort of animosity in the bud, not encourage it in museum displays.

27 May 2006
Arlington I found to be much like cemeteries elsewhere, a place of rest and reflection filled with looky-loos who approach it with all the morbid curiousity of a person slowing down in the hope of catching a glimpse of injured people being pulled from a car wreck. But then again, we must not expect a society with no respect for life to have a respect for the dead.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Philosopher's Confession

The hardest part in the development of a philosopher is the acceptance of the first-person plural pronoun. It is so sweetly tempting to establish a little distance, as to say: the Americans do such and such, the world is this way, humanity acts thusly. Eventually, however, simple intellectual honesty compels the philosopher to admit his own culpability, and then he must speak the facts plainly: we are wrong, we are wicked, we are fools.

Friday, 1 August 2008

A Linguistic Proof of Total Depravity

In virtually every religion with a dualistic soteriology (i.e. a heaven and a hell), there is a much more graphic depiction of the eternal torments than of paradise. Laymen are wont to write this fact off as evidencing the coercive nature of religion; the point is more about scaring the peasants than providing any actual edification.

I would submit, however, that this fact is merely reflective of a more general principle. We, as human beings, have much more specific ideas about evil than we do about good. When we say that a man or an action is evil, although some of us may dispute the assessment, we all have a pretty solid idea of what we're talking about. But if we say that a man or an action is good, the first question out of anyone's mouth is liable to be, What does that mean? By the time we reach notions of the ultimate good, we have created a meaningless abstraction. If you tell me you believe in God, the term itself is sufficiently vague that I still have no idea what, exactly, you believe (see the works of Rabbi Sherwin Wine). The history of philosophy is an argument over what it is to be good, but discussions of evil have generally been restricted, like Aquinas', to whether good is simply an absence of evil or a thing existent by itself. As to what that thing would be, most thinkers have never thought it necessary to say. Might we infer from this that our natural domain is, in some way, evil? It could be that we are so much clearer in our notions of evil for the simple reason that it is closer to our natures. We are not, of ourselves, terribly disposed to good, and so see it only from afar, never quite able to distinguish the outline.

Some modern philosophers might contend with my misanthropy by suggesting that 'evil' is a leftover word--an artifact of folk philosophy which has no place in a modern, scientific discussion. Indeed, some modern philosophers, like Daniel Dennet, have proposed similar means of discarding 'consciousness'. My admittedly limited linguistic background, however, inclines me to reject this notion. Languages are, by nature, terribly efficient. No word or grammatical structure that doesn't serve a real purpose in communicating someone's thought lasts very long. This is one of the primary reasons that almost all living languages exhibit a general collapse of noun declension and verb conjugation to a minimal number of forms which depend on sentence structure for their meaning rather than changes to the word itself. This may be readily seen in our own English language, as well as Afrikaans, when compared to more complex languages like German or Russian. Even these are highly simplified compared to older languages, like Old Norse or Church Slavonic. Languages lose excess vocabulary in a similar fashion.

If there were no such thing as evil, there would be no word for it. And yet there is a word--a word that we understand much better than its antonym. Could this be a vindication of Calvin? Do we have here a proof, however circumstantial, of the doctrine of total depravity?

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Meaning of Democracy

A reflection on Kierkegaard's journal entry "This is a fine world!" reproduced from "The Last Years: The Kierkegard Journals 1853-1855" edited and translated by Ronald Gregor Smith.

"Imagine a prison, with all the prisoners gathered together - and a man steps forward and addresses them thus: 'My right honourable gentlemen, I request the favour of this respectable assembly's attention and lenient judgement' and so on, then is it not true that all the prisoners would burst out laughing and regard the man as mad for calling them a respectable assembly?

The ludicrous element lies in the contradiction between prisoners and 'this respectable assembly'.

So they laugh at the ludicrous side of it, and they will have their fun with this speaker; but they will not think of anything else.

And why not? Because as prisoners they are surrounded by a much more numerous world which posesses the power to tell them, You are thieves, etc.

But now imagine the gathering of prisoners as a world for itself, where there was therefore no world round about it which enforced upon them the truth that they were thieves - imagine this gathering of prisoners as a world for itself: do you believe that they would still burst out laughing if someone stepped forward and addressed them and used the words 'this honourable assembly'? No, not in the least. On the contrary, they would understand it thus: it is quite true, we are the world, so we have the power to impose the idea that we are fine, respectable, virtuous men. How should it occur to us to laugh when we are called honourable? No, this is just what we want: to describe us in this way shows that the speaker himself is a serious and honourable man, and to speak in any other way would be ridiculous and foolish.

So also with the world: if this world were surrounded by another world, if it were a little world within a world which compelled us by overwhelming power to see the truth about what we are, namely, rogues, then we would all laugh every time a man stepped forward and addressed us as this honourable assembly and so on. But this world is itself the overwhelming power, and that is why we are not mad enough to laugh; no, we have it in our power to impose the view that we are a fine world."

But that was in 1853, when the failure of the revolutions of 1848 had left so many of the autocrats of Europe firmly seated upon their thrones. How much more have we magnified this madness in the years since then, as the convulsions of history have spread our so-called 'democracy' over so much more of the mass of mankind? A democracy so-called because it was never truly understood by classical liberalism. The framers of the American constitution, the parliamentarians of England, the architects of the French Republic and its many posthumous resuscitations, all sought only that very cozy sort of democracy. They wanted that manner of democracy in which we find the Good by reasoning from numbers; did not Rousseau say that to hear the voice of the people was to hear the voice of God?

Alas, this is to have missed the point! We then find ourselves as Abraham pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah. Are sixty men enough to know the Good? Six hundred? Six thousand? Six and a half billion? No, if the mass of men could find the Good by virtue of their being a mass, we would be forced to conclude that drinking oneself blind ranks quite highly in the eyes of God!

Only the Communists truly understood democracy. It is not, it cannot be, a means of finding the Good. Democracy, properly practiced, is a process of deliberation whereby the mass of men are helped to find the Good, which exists with or without their consent. It is a reminder to overzealous elites who think they can save men merely by compelling them to right action, that none of us are permitted to move forward without the rest. No stable, healthy social order can be brought about except that it regenerate each of us spiritually. If the least of us does not transcend himself, even the best of us can know no peace. It is this self-overcoming which is the challenge of true democracy. Let us not delude ourselves that we have achieved our goal when we pat ourselves on the back, and call it an oracle.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Saudi's Interfaith Conference Displays Cowardice of Religious Leaders

A reaction to the article at

The "World Conference on Dialogue" recently concluded in Madrid. Organized through the Saudi-based Muslim World League, the massive interfaith conference was the brainchild of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who took care to invite delegates representing all of the world's major religions. The king opened the conference with a "a message that declares that Islam is the religion of moderation and tolerance, a message that calls for constructive dialogue among followers of religions, and a message that promises to open up a new page for mankind, in which concord will replace conflict".

Apparently, at least one prominent world leader was willing to take him at his word. Tony Blair said it was "a message that declares that Islam is the religion of moderation and tolerance, a message that calls for constructive dialogue among followers of religions, and a message that promises to open up a new page for mankind, in which concord will replace conflict". He even went so far as to say that the fact that it was Abdullah's intiative gave it its "tremendous significance". While it may be substantially true that Islam, in its pure Koranic form, does preach moderation and tolerance, this certainly isn't true of the Wahhabist extremism which King Abdullah promotes as the state religion of his country.

Let us briefly consider the state of religious affairs in the Kingdom of Saud. All non-Muslims are legally forbidden from publicly practicing their religion within the kingdom (penalties include but are not limited to imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and torture). Non-Muslims are barred from entering the precincts of Mecca, and have special designated highway bypasses. Non-Muslim clergy are forbidden to enter the country for the purposes of conducting religious services, and must come under other auspices in order to illicitly perform any baptisms, holy eucharist, bar mitzvahs, etc. It is forbidden to distribute non-Muslim religious materials (including the Bible), and foreign mail is frequently opened to check for such works so they can be seized. No proivate religious schools are allowed for non-Wahhabists. Conversion to non-Muslim faiths is punishable by death.

Sufis, Shiites, and many non-Wahhabist Sunnis are considered apostates from Islam, and placed under similar legal restrictions. In 2006, a Shiite student was arrested for proselytizing on his campus. The fear of other forms of Islam is so great that non-Saudi imams are legally debarred from leading prayers at the busiest times or from preaching on Friday, regardless of their credentials as Islamic scholars. Shiites are discriminated against in government employment and religious practice, and have even been beaten by religious police for being "infidels" while performing the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Saudi-funded campus of Imam Mohamed Bin Saud University in Virginia teaches that Shia Islam is a Jewish conspiracy. (Congressional Human Rights Caucus, 2002)

And this is the reign of the man whom Mister Blair feels gives the conference its "tremendous significance"? Even worse than the ignorance of politicians is the necessarily knowledgeable conspiracy of religious leaders. Why would any right thinking priest, rabbi, or Buddhist monk even agree to attend a conference hosted by the King of Saudi Arabia? Why not send Nelson Mandela to a conference on racial equality hosted by the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan? Shame on these clergymen who turn a deaf ear to the cries of their coreligionists, and endorse by their presence Saudi Arabia's claim to be a bastion of inter-faith understanding. Shame on them for allowing King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, to sully the faith of the Prophet by pretending to be its guardian.

I agree with Mr. Blair that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance at heart, but it cannot be so in practice as long as the world's leaders, political and religious, continue to keep silent about the abuses committed in its name, and collaborate with the hypocrisy of its bigots.