Sunday, December 10, 2017

Poverty of the Soul and the Common Good

I recently (belatedly, really) read the rather brilliant article 'What is Poverty?' by 'Theodore Dalrymple.' Written all the way back in 1999 for the City Journal, this piece attacks the presumption that what ails the Western poor more than anything else is their poverty, and that their most positive improvement must come from ameliorating economic conditions. He makes the argument that, in spite of the massive progress in the living standards of the poor, the fundamental issues that afflicted the poor a century ago have not only not been eliminated, they have instead crystallized into deeper and more debilitating problems.

Where do these problems come from? From an apathetic culture that rewards antisocial and nihilistic behaviour; from a philosophical tolerance that supposes every wrong to be not the fault of the individuals who make bad decisions, but of the social conditions in which those individuals were born and bred.

To make his point, Dalrymple uses the example of doctors from vastly poorer countries such as India and the Philippines visiting the hospitals and streets of East London:

[T]hey are at first impressed that our care extends beyond the merely medical: that no one goes without food or clothing or shelter, or even entertainment. There seems to be a public agency to deal with every conceivable problem. For a couple of weeks, they think this all represents the acme of civilization, especially when they recall the horrors at home. Poverty—as they know it— has been abolished.

Their judgment changes, however, when the doctors become familiar with the kinds of problems the London hospitals try to resolve, and with the attitude of the patients, who exhibit no sense of thankfulness for the care they receive, but instead view it as their inviolable 'right,' something that they own by nature.

Dalrymple tells the all-too-typical story of a young woman who has deliberately overdosed. When they interview her about her history, they learn that she has been robbed and beaten by her ex-boyfriend, whose unborn child she wants to abort. She has had two children from two other fathers, neither of whom she sees (one was a one-night-stand and the other she left because he had sex with 12-year old girls). After explaining what will happen to the depressed and damaged woman, namely that she will be moved to a new flat with all the 'necessary' amenities of our age, Dalrymple asks a doctor from Madras if he thinks this was 'poverty':

He said it was not: that her problem was that she accepted no limits to her own behavior, that she did not fear the possibility of hunger, the condemnation of her own parents or neighbors, or God. In other words, the squalor of England was not economic but spiritual, moral, and cultural.
It turns out that a culture that is based around individual desire, and is entirely neglectful of communal relationships, creates individuals who do not have any consideration for the community, or how their actions affect their fellow man. It is said that massive welfare programs create a sense of 'solidarity' among the different classes; how, then, does it happen that the recipients of this redistributed wealth are invested only with selfishness and a sense of ingratitude? People who are on the receiving end of benefits their entire life are not edified by any kind of social belonging; on the contrary, they are inculcated with the idea that society owes them more and more, regardless of their own contributions (or lack thereof) to their neighbours. 

Dalrymple goes on, telling how he would walk with these foreign doctors through the 'neighbourhoods' instituted by social housing, which he describes as being full of litter, where even the private lawns are overgrown and cluttered with refuse. A doctor from Bombay asks, 'Why don't they tidy up their gardens?' 

A good question: after all, most of the houses contain at least one person with time on his or her hands. Whenever I have been able to ask the question, however, the answer has always been the same: I've told the council [the local government] about it, but they haven't come. As tenants, they feel it is the landlord's responsibility to keep their yards clean, and they are not prepared to do the council's work for it, even if it means wading through garbage—as it quite literally does. On the one hand, authority cannot tell them what to do; on the other, it has an infinitude of responsibilities towards them.
That is what happens in a society where there is no give-and-take, where there is infact only take (which applies to every social class, of course, albeit in different ways). The common good exists only as a spectre used to justify the parasitic activity of a growing underclass.

Another important point that Dalrymple makes is how all this trash that's tossed around as though the world is full of food is demonstrative of how the real problem is not 'poverty' at all. If people were truly impoverished, they would not be so carefree with the things that we really need to survive; they would infact cherish every meal as a gift from God. 

I ask the doctors to compare the shops in areas inhabited by poor whites and those where poor Indian immigrants live. It is an instructive comparison. The shops the Indians frequent are piled high with all kinds of attractive fresh produce that, by supermarket standards, is astonishingly cheap. The women take immense trouble over their purchases and make subtle discriminations. There are no pre-cooked meals for them. By contrast, a shop that poor whites patronize offers a restricted choice, largely of relatively expensive prepared foods that at most require only the addition of hot water.

The fact that both groups are economically comparable means that the problem goes well beyond 'poverty'; it goes into how differently they approach the essentials of our world. People who come from a society where you have to do things yourself, where there are traditions of fellowship and community, tend to put more effort into the most important things intrinsic to our nature: food and drink, health, family, and the spiritual life. When you cut off your relations with the social whole, when your entire existence becomes centred around what you want and how much you can get, these things suffer proportionately.

By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries. They come to realize that a system of welfare that makes no moral judgments in allocating economic rewards promotes antisocial egotism. The spiritual impoverishment of the population seems to them worse than anything they have ever known in their own countries. And what they see is all the worse, of course, because it should be so much better. The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food should be liberating, not imprisoning. Instead, it has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.

Whatever merits that our material abundance afford to us, they cannot be worth the 'spiritual impoverishment' that accompanies it, nor can it be worth the fragmentation that occurs between the giving and the receiving classes. In the Middle Ages the beggar, who was truly in a state of poverty, responded to his benefactor by praying for his soul. Conversely, the giver, by his act of charity (his 'alms'), participates in the virtuous life thereby.

This relationship is reversed in the welfare state: the giver, the state, is virtuous only in the eyes of a socialist intelligentsia (which seldom gives its own money), and instead of prayers receives demands for more, while the receiver, the 'lumpenproletariat,' instead of being content with the basics of life grows increasingly covetous. What was once a very personal relationship imbuing both parties with a natural connection becomes a systematic process which dehumanizes the giver and the receiver. 

The article closes with Dalrymple revealing how he had the same experience as the Asian doctors, only from the opposite direction. When he was in Africa, specifically Tanzania, he was at first appalled by the physical conditions and the political corruption that ailed the country. Scarce food and medical care, rampant tuberculosis and various forms of cancer, children suffering and dying from snake bites, emaciated villagers and fat party men, these things characterized the African society, these things characterized true poverty. 

Yet nothing I saw—neither the poverty nor the overt oppression—ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live, that I see daily in England. In a kind of pincer movement, therefore, I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England—and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.

If we are going to advance to a real understanding of what avails our civilization, we might start with our true impoverishment, which as Dalrymple says is more spiritual than material. We do not mean here merely to attack the lower classes, which, being destined to follow the intellectual and political currents of the day, are in truth those which possess the least moral and social agency. We mean to attack the culture emptied of real solidarity and community that allows rapacious overlords to charge their renters and patrons the most and pay their workers and employees the least amounts possible. They do this because they make more money this way, and our prevailing economic ethic presumes this to be a fundamental good. This is behaviour that is no less antisocial and even more reprehensible than the selfish and parasitic activity of what we might call the 'slave' classes of the corporate 'elite.'

There is no one villain in this story; the society we share is the product of a conspiracy of classes, all equally self-serving and insulated from one another. It is moreover the effect of a long intellectual tradition that subordinates the needs of the community and the common good to the 'rights' that allegedly belong inherently to human nature, 'rights' that increasingly look like desires. 

When 'poverty' is defined as being drastically poorer than the wealthiest of their neighbours (who really exhibit an obscene state of luxury and should not be used as a frame of reference for anything) in a society which is enormously wealthier than anything else in human history, we lose the real meaning of the word. While the members of any community deserve to share in its success (and indeed there should be a reduction in the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest), it is futile and misleading to pretend that 'poverty' is our first concern when the richest nations in the world still exhibit all the symptoms of a diseased social body: suicides, drug dependency, illegitimate births, divorces, atheism, abortions, sodomy, low birth rates, etc.

It is clear that, in spite of rising living conditions, state subsidies, and a more or less uninterrupted period of peace, modern and modernizing countries have only experienced a corresponding growth of the malignant tumours that attach to all our attempts to create a world without God at its centre. The crisis of 'poverty' is thus the ultimate red herring, because it distracts us from the real crises at work in our culture. To obsess over the 'miserable' state of the poor in our societies, to suppose that unconditionally sharing more and more wealth with them will do anything else than create further dependents on the productive classes, is to do the same thing as the laissez-faire capitalists do in reverse and consider society as first and foremost a product of merely economic relations.

This attitude is in fundamental opposition to the common good, which, according to Pope St. John Paul II, 'is not simply the sum total of particular interests; rather it involves an assessment and integration of those interests on the basis of a balanced hierarchy of values.' This means that our own interests, which in the limited perspective of the individual usually amounts to an increase in wealth and social prestige, are subsumed into our real interests, which are ultimately communion with God and our fellow man. As men are made in the image of God, we intrinsically desire social justice (in the real sense of the term), however much this desire may be warped by our fallenness. Therefore, when people receive their 'just deserts,' whether great or small, we are inwardly satisfied, because justice has been done.

When we operate according to our own interests alone, something which is vindicated by our utilitarian ethical system, the common good gives way to an irremediable conflict between different groups in society, which results in 'class warfare' and 'identity politics.' Each individual or group of individuals is imbued with a desire to gain more for themselves, irrespective of whether their increase is just or not, and irrespective of the effect that their actions may have on the whole.

The fact is that total equality is just as much of a myth as is the total abolishment of poverty. This does not mean that we cease finding ways to palliate the conditions of the poor; far from it, acts of charity to the suffering are central to the social teaching of Christ's Church (something which the higher classes tend to be forgetful of in their lavish and frivolous spending).

It does mean, however, that we cease chasing dreams of an equally privileged community based on a homogeneous distribution of wealth, not only because this is utopian, but because it completely misses the real errors of our age. We have established modes of living that have far surpassed anything we have known in history, that certain parts of the world still do not know. In doing so, however, in sating our most pressing physical needs, we have opened up new existential challenges that cannot be overcome by merely economic salves, but by radically reëvaluating our interior livelihood. This is why we have to stress the fact that it is not our material 'poverty' that is principally responsible for the malaise of our communities and the ejection of Christ from the social plane, but our poverty of the soul.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Picture of Providence: Christopher Dawson and the Conversion of Scandinavia

Upon reading Christopher Dawson's lectures on the development of the Christian religion in the early periods of European history, which are compiled in the text Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, I was particularly struck by the beauty of the passages on the conversion of the Scandinavian peoples. The splendour of God's work, in this case the increase of the Church's membership through the evangelization of the Northmen, attaches itself to anything that replicates it (in however diluted form), so it is in this spirit that I humbly submit my reading of Dawson's work.

While the plain logic of what transpired in this episode of Christian history according to Dawson leaves nothing to question, there is nevertheless a distinct providential aura about the series of events depicted. The frigid and most resolutely pagan regions of Europe went from being the most serious threat to the survival of the Christian faith in the British Isles, France, and the Germanies to a thriving Christian society alive with the liturgy of the Mass and informed by the lives of the Saints; they went from being constituted by a divisive array of warring tribes to being united in the form of kingdoms ruled by strengthened executive powers in the persons of their respective kings.

What gives this story another dimension, however, is that these were not defeated peoples succumbing to the religion of a foreign conqueror; the conversion of the Vikings happened more or less internally. The result of their contact with the monks and missionaries of the lands they raided led to an introspective change in the soul of the Northern man while his rule over subjected Christian nations left an indelible mark on his patterns of social and political behaviour. When Canute was recognized as King of England in 1016, 'he dismissed the Viking army and ruled England "under the laws of King Edgar" according to the traditions of Christian kingship' and committed himself to the patronage of Christian institutions. This radical shift is exemplified in his adorning the sepulchre of St. Alphege of Canterbury, whom his fervently pagan father had slain! 

Thus, it was at the height of their power that the Vikings submitted to the God of their enemy. Dawson says that 'the incorporation of Scandinavia into Western Christendom was due, not as in Central Europe to the power and prestige of the Western Empire, but to the conquest of Christian England by the barbarian who brought back Christianity to the North with the other spoils of invasion.' The Northerners did not need a Charlemagne or a Cortes to forcefully initiate them into the Church; it was the work of their own heroic leaders, which included Canute in Denmark, St. Olaf in Norway and St. Vladimir in Russia. 

The relationship between state and Church was hardly one way either; just as the extent of the Church was lengthened and deepened by the inclusion of the Northern converts and their lands, the formerly pagan kings were enabled by the universal power and prestige granted them by the Christian religion to consolidate their authority and attain the support of the provincial territories and their minor lords. 

'In this way,' Dawson says, 'the victory of Christianity coincided with the attainment of national unity and was the culmination of the process of expansion and cultural interchange which had accompanied the Viking movement. The mixed culture of the Christian Viking states across the seas reacted on the culture of the Scandinavian homelands and led to the breaking down of local particularism alike in religion and politics. Indeed it seemed for a time as though the whole of the Nordic culture area from the British Isles to the Baltic would be united in a northern Christian empire under the sovereignty of the Danish king. Ruling from his court at Winchester, surrounded by English ecclesiastics, Scandinavian mercenaries and Icelandic poets, Canute brought the Northern lands for the first time into real contact with the international life of Western Christendom. The North had never before known a king so rich and so powerful. As Toraren the Icelander wrote: Canute rules the land / As Christ, the shepherd of Greece, doth the heavens!’ (p. 95)

It was not Canute, however, 'who became the type and representative of the new ideal of Christian kingship in the Northern lands.' While he was an excellent statesman and a veritable wizard in how he acquired and utilized financial resources, he was not a true hero in the old Northern sense. This role was instead fulfilled by Olaf Haroldson, who 'was an authentic representation of the Northern heroic tradition, like his predecessor Olaf Trygvason (995-1000). He completed the latter’s work of Christianizing Norway, breaking the stubborn resistance of the pagan chiefs and countryfolk with fire and sword, and died like the other Olaf in an heroic battle against hopeless odds. But the battle of Stiklestad (1030) differs from that of Svoldr (1000) in that it was a civil war against the king’s faithless subjects who had been bought by Canute’s English money. Thus it was an historical realization of the dominant motive of the old epic poetry – the tragedy of loyal heroism defeated by treachery and gold.' (pp. 95-96)
There go the prince’s foes Bringing their open purses,Many bid dearly in metalFor the head of our king.  
Every man knows that he who sells His own good lord for goldWill end in black hellAnd of such is he worthy.
~Olaf’s friend, the poet Sighvat 

There has never been a clearer example of the sublime synthesis between the transcendent truth crucified on the Cross and the natural truths belonging to all human order. The primitive, warrior spirit of the natives is elevated into the new context carried by the Gospel; the self-sacrifice of the warrior is universalized into the self-sacrifice of the God-man; the links between Odin and Baldar and Christ are immortalized.  'As Olaf’s retainers kept their faith with their lord, so Olaf himself kept faith with the Lord of Heaven. And thus the new religion became the object of a deeper loyalty than the religion of the old gods had ever evoked.' (p. 96)

What happened next defies the ideals of the kind of 'master morality' espoused by the likes of a Nietzsche or a 'Ragnar Redbeard' as well as those consecrated by the indigenous pagans. Instead of following the victor and celebrating the winner, the Northerners took the fallen St. Olaf for their patron and protector, and throughout Norway there are innumerable accounts of his miracles alongside the telling of his legendary end. The virtues of might and conquest are no longer absolute; there is a higher power in which heroic men like St. Olaf may participate in and share with their people. The glory of the warrior is aligned with Christ's glory. Dawson moreover tells us that 'Even [Olaf's] former enemies acknowledge this power and accepted him as the patron and guardian of the Norwegian monarchy, as we see in the fine poem called “The Song of the Sea Calm” which Canute’s court poet Toraren wrote only a few years later. Although the poem is dedicated to King Swein, the Danish usurper, its real hero is the dead king who still rules the land from his shrine at Nidaros': 

There he lies 
Whole and pure  
The high and praised king
There the bells  
May ring aloud 
Of themselves,  
Above the shrine  
For every day  
The folk to hear  
The clanging bells  
Above the king.  
Hardly had Haroldson  
Got a home  
In the heavenly realm  
Ere he became  
A mighty man of peace.  
A host of men  
Where the holy king doth lie  
Kneel for help,  
Blind and dumb  
Seek the king,  
And home they go  
Their sickness healed.  
Pray thou to Olaf 
The man of God  
That he grant thee 
His holy spirit.  
With God himself  
He seeks 
Success and peace 
For all men. 

Dawson continues:

'Thus the popular canonization of St. Olaf in 1031 is important not only as one of the first and most spontaneous instances of the way in which the new peoples consecrated their nationality by adopting a royal saint as their national patron, but still more because it marks the final reconciliation between the Nordic and the Christian traditions. St. Olaf quickly took the place of Thor as the patron of the farmers, their champion against trolls and witches, and the ideal type of the Northern warrior. The national code of law became known as the laws of St. Olaf, and the kings of Norway were regarded as the heirs and representatives of St. Olaf, almost in the same way as the kings of Sweden in the heathen time had been the successors and representatives of the God Frey. The wholehearted acceptance of Christianity in Norway and Denmark gradually transformed the spirit of Scandinavian culture.' (p. 98)

One of the most profound records of this 'spiritual transformation' is found in the Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis of Adam of Bremen, friend of Denmark's King Sweyn Estrithson, which reads: 

'But after their acceptance of Christianity, they have become imbued with better principles and have now learned to love peace and truth and to be content with their poverty; even to distribute what they have stored up and not as aforetime to gather up what was scattered…. Of all men they are the most temperate in food and in their habits, loving above all things thrift and modesty. Yet so great is their veneration for priests and churches, that there is scarcely a Christian to be found who does not make an offering on every occasion that he hears Mass…. In many places of Norway and Sweden, the keepers of the flocks are men of noble rank, who after the manner of the patriarchs live by the work of their hands. But all who dwell in Norway are most Christian with the exception of those who dwell far off beside the Arctic Seas.' 
Adam later on expounds on the newfound 'charity' of the Northerners: 

'Blessed is the people, say I, of whose poverty no one is envious, and most blessed in this – that they have now all put on Christianity. There is much that is remarkable in their manners, above all Charity, whence it comes that all things are common among them not only for the native population but also for the stranger. They treat their bishop as it were a king, for the whole people pay regard to his will, and whatever he ordains from God, from the scriptures and from the customs of other nations, they hold as law.' 

Finally, Dawson explains the aftermath and the profound contributions of the new Germanic converts to the spiritual and cultural climate of Christendom: 

'With the fall of Anglo-Saxon culture, the Scandinavian world became the great representative of vernacular culture in Northern Europe. And it was, above all, in Iceland that the scholars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took up the tradition of King Alfred and founded the great school of vernacular historiography and archaeology to which we owe so much of our knowledge of the past. We are apt to regard medieval culture as intolerant of everything that lay outside the tradition of Latin Christendom. But we must not forget that the Northern Sagas are as much the creation of medieval Christendom as the chansons de geste and that it is to the priests and the schools of Christian Iceland that we are indebted for the preservation of the rich tradition of Northern mythology and poetry and saga.' (P. 100)

Thus a very succinct history of the conversion of the Northmen to the faith of their erstwhile enemies. Even in this abbreviated form, however, the beauty, the mystery, the drama and most of all the providential character of the experience is patently evident, which is why I figured Dawson's rendition of events to be worth copying and sharing. In these dark times may the memory of our historical turning towards God help us return to him again.

As a bit of a post-script, we are reminded by the above of what Hilaire Belloc had to say of the Normans, that famous mingling between the Christian Gauls and their former Viking conquerors. This powerful new race, whose creation was made possible by the imprint of the Christian ethos on the once-marauding Northmen, left a remarkable impression on the structure of European civilization on multiple levels. We leave Belloc's commentary here as a very brief but still sufficient introduction to the character of the Norman race, a kind of parallel if more adventurous and impactful culture to the Danes and the Norwegians:

'These "North-men," the new and striking addition to the province, the Gallo-Romans called, as we have seen "Nordmanni." The Roman province, within the limits of which they were strictly settled, the second Lyonnese, came to be called "Normannia." For a century the slight admixture of new blood worked in the general Gallo-Roman mass of the province and, numerically small though it was, influenced its character, or rather produced a new thing; just as in certain chemical combinations the small admixture of a new element transforms the whole. With the beginning of the eleventh century, as everything was springing into new life, when the great saint who, from the chair of Peter, was to restore the Church was already born, when the advance of the Pyreneans against Islam was beginning to strike its decisive conquering blows, there appeared, a sudden phenomenon, this new thing—French in speech and habit and disposition of body, yet just differentiated from the rest of Frenchmen—the Norman Race.

It possessed these characteristics—a great love of exact order, an alert military temper and a passion for reality which made its building even of ships (though it was not in the main seafaring) excellent, and of churches and of castles the most solid of its time.
All the Normans' characteristics (once the race was formed), led them to advance. They conquered England and organized it; they conquered and organized Sicily and Southern Italy; they made of Normandy itself the model state in a confused time; they surveyed land; they developed a regular tactic for mailed cavalry. Yet they endured for but a hundred years, and after that brief coruscation they are wholly merged again in the mass of European things!

You may take the first adventurous lords of the Cotentin in, say 1030, for the beginning of the Norman thing; you may take the Court of young Henry II. with his Southerners and his high culture in, say 1160, most certainly for the burial of it. During that little space of time the Norman had not only reintroduced exactitude in the government of men, he had also provided the sword of the new Papacy and he had furnished the framework of the crusading host. But before his adventure was done the French language and the writ of Rome ran from the Grampians to the Euphrates.' Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith

All excerpts quoted from Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1991, New York: Doubleday) and Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith (2007, Cosimo)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Vladimir Putin: Rebuilding Russia

Disclaimer: I wrote this entry-level English essay for a Berkeley student in exchange for a few shekels. The directions were to argue an opinion over a controversial persona, so I chose Putin. As this was for a school highly Marxist school, and because I was getting the student in enough trouble by arguing for Putin, I took it a bit easy. I didn't press against homosexuals, for example, and neither did I press the (((ethnic))) character of either the Bolsheviks or the oligarchs who inherited their empire.

I also kept it very basic, meaning that I didn't go into the problems with the Moscow Patriarchate, but maintained a positive attitude towards Putin's cozy alliance with the newly powerful Russian church; neither did I go into Putin's friendship with the oligarchs of his own choosing, but restrained myself to lauding him for crushing the worst of them. The writing, the ideas, and even the format of this paper are basic as well, seeing as this was for a first year course.

I nevertheless stand by the essential idea of this paper, which is that Putin, despite his many issues, is fundamentally a force for good in the Russian universe, and that he really aims to institute a lot of Solzhenitsyn's ideas — that's why I decided to republish this here.

‘Time has finally run out for communism. But its concrete edifice has not yet crumbled. May we not be crushed beneath its rubble instead of gaining liberty.’ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

While Solzhenitsyn made the observation above in his 1990 essay Rebuilding Russia, it is essentially as true as ever today. Sure, the ‘concrete edifice’ has made way for something different thanks to more than two decades of kleptocratic practises and democratic innovations in Russian politics, but the rubble remains. This is evident not only in the continued corruption among the ruling classes (even if they’re now private rather than public), but in the continued social mores of the Russian and post-Soviet peoples. Abortion, alcoholism, divorce rates, illegitimacy, etc., are all still highly prevalent factors in the Federation. Moreover, while Russians have again identified as Orthodox after the fall of state atheism, they have not fully returned to Orthodoxy in a meaningful way that reflects a return to authentic belief; indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, only 5% of men and 9% of women attend religious services at least once a month. If Solzhenitsyn was right when he said that Bolshevism is an example of what happens when men ‘forget God,’ it remains as crucial as ever that Russia rediscover her Orthodox identify in order to prevent and finally reverse the ills that currently afflict her.

It may be fortunate, then, that in Vladimir Putin Russia has one of Solzhenitsyn’s most ardent admirers entrenched in the Kremlin. Thanks to the Russian president’s efforts over the long course of his rule, there are no fewer than three of Solzhenitsyn’s books that are currently required reading in Russian schools, including The Gulag Archipelago. In 2006 Putin awarded the Nobel-prize winning author the Russian Federation state decoration for outstanding achievements in the cultural and educational spheres, and then met privately with him in Solzhenitsyn’s own house, during which time Putin stressed the ideological compatibility between himself and Solzhenitsyn wherever possible.

The relationship was not at all one-sided either, as Solzhenitsyn, however reservedly,
expressed praise for Vladimir Putin as well. According to the former US ambassador to Russia William Burns, who visited with the Soviet dissident months before the latter’s death, ‘Solzhenitsyn positively contrasted the eight-year reign of Putin with those of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, which he [Solzhenitsyn] said had “added to the damage done to the Russian state by 70 years of communist rule.” Under Putin, the nation was rediscovering what it was to be Russian, Solzhenitsyn thought.’ While he also conveyed criticism of the nepotistic and plutocratic status of Russian corporations and big money oligarchs, Solzhenitsyn clearly had favourable impressions of the way that Putin’s Russia was going.

Contrary to the ongoing demonization of Vladimir Putin in the West, there is little that connects him to the likes of Hitler or Stalin that the media try and compare him to, certainly not in religious affairs. On the contrary, Putin has improved the lot of his people in various ways, which includes (1) the stabilization and the increase of influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia; (2) the restoration of a semblance of an identity to the Russian people that has been distorted and molested since the Petrine Enlightenment; and (3) the cleaning up of the vampiric oligarchs that installed themselves as quasi-rulers in Russian society during the Yeltsin era. None of these things were achieved in a wholly positive nor even lawful fashion, and infact they often meant compromising on crucial issues or resorting to plainly barbaric actions. Nevertheless, the net result of Putin’s leadership has been a serious improvement in areas that have long been debilitated, which has led to a small revolution in terms of the moral and economic health of the nation.

The Russian Orthodox Church suffered an unprecedented trauma in the Soviet era, particularly under Lenin, pre-WWII Stalin, and Khrushchev. The official ideology held that the Christian religion was a relic of feudalism, and that the Orthodox Church was a superstitious institution that preyed upon the Russian people. The advance of revolutionary socialism is alleged to free the country from its priestly grip and share the enlightenment of materialistic atheism with everyone. This led to the closing of churches, the killing and torture of priests, and the banishment of Bibles everywhere; the public space went from being littered with icons and host to regular processions to a sea of red and gold in the form of Soviet banners and propaganda posters. In a letter to Molotov in 1922, Lenin made the following command: ‘The more representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we manage to shoot on this occasion, the better.’ Many of us are familiar with how the state attempted to indoctrinate the next generation at an early age. There is, for example, the anecdote of Russian officials telling schoolchildren to ask God for sweets and subsequently, when the sweets failed to materialize, telling them to ask Stalin for the same thing. We can imagine their confusion, as well as their delight, when all sorts of little treats were immediately brought in by more Russian officials while their prayers achieved nothing.

The Russia that Putin inherited may have started to reassert its Orthodox identity on the surface, but it was far from doing so in any meaningful way — something that he aims to rectify. From the beginning of his rule Putin has trumpeted a ‘return to Christian values,’ and this has accelerated with his resumption of the presidency in 2012, which has meant censoring theatres showing plays at odds with Orthodox teachings, blocking major porn sites from Russian servers, and reaffirming the traditional Christian idea of marriage.  In early 2013 Putin met with delegates to the Russian Orthodox Church’s Bishops’ Council, where he made the following statement that succinctly summarizes all his efforts in the relationship between church and state: ‘We want to continue our multifaceted and positive partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church and will do everything we can to help the Church as it rebuilds itself. We will work together to consolidate harmony in our society and strengthen our country’s moral backbone.’

Putin himself associates his political image with the national religion. In May 2016, Putin and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, went together to the monasteries on Mt. Athos, one of the holiest sites of Eastern Orthodoxy; the fervour that many in the East have for Putin as a representative of their Christian culture is shown in the fact that a shirt with Putin’s visage printed on it was selling fast at souvenir shops on the mountain. While this image does not really correspond to the personal life of Putin, who has likely been romantically involved with ex-gymnast Alina Kabaeva for some time now, the fact that Putin is continually staging public events at divine liturgies, alongside the visit to Mt. Athos, demonstrates his desire to be seen as a leader with a strongly spiritual and devoted character — because what Russian nationalism wants is a ‘holy leader.’

There are more profound indicators of Putin’s effect on Russian society. One of the most impressive is the decline of abortion over the course of the ex-KGB man’s reign. While a disheartening ratio of 32% of all pregnancies end in abortion as of 2014, this is roughly half as high as it was when he first took over in 2000. Although this decline can certainly be attributed to rising living standards, it’s also signalling the success of Putin’s anti-abortion measures such as the one signed into law in October 2011, which limited abortion to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. This correlates with the rise of birth rates, which have risen significantly from an abysmal 1.2 (total fertility rate) in 2000 to 1.75 in 2014. In light of the falling birth rates across the Western world, this is a substantial achievement, as the greater the population growth, the less of a burden an aging population will be on the next generations.

One constant complaint that the Western media makes of Putin’s Russia is that it persecutes LGBT activists and homosexuals, but this is only because Russia has been moving in an opposite direction than that of the progressive West. As Putin himself says on several occasions, there is no condemnation of homosexuals as such; in an interview with Oliver Stone Putin says that ‘We have no restrictions or harassment based on gender. Moreover, many people explicitly talk about their non-traditional sexual orientation. We maintain relations with them and many of them achieve outstanding results in their activity.’ The reason that Russia disallows homosexuals from getting married is firstly because it goes against the religious values of the country, and secondly because ‘same sex marriages will not produce any children.’ To institute something foreign to both the culture of a nation as well as its well-being cannot be said to be the mark of a strong and prudent leader.  

The rediscovery of Russian religious identity goes hand in hand with its rediscovery of national identity. While ethnos and religion are synergistic in every people, it is particularly true of the Russians, who are said to have a ‘messianic’ penchant that derives from their capacity, their hunger for suffering; Dostoevsky himself said that ‘the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering.’ A suffering soul is a deep soul, and this manifests in a vibrant and virile religious life, such as the one that the Russian nation as a whole enjoyed prior to the Westernization that occurred beneath Peter the Great.

That Marxism and revolutionary socialism took such a strong hold in Russia before any other developed nation, in spite of Marx’s predictions that it would be England or Germany to turn first, can be attributed to the innately religious character of revolutionary socialism itself, which burns with a fire not unlike the spiritual fervour of fanatical fundamentalists of various religions. It is for this reason that Dostoevsky also said that ‘It’s easier for a Russian to become an atheist than for anyone else in the world.’ These kinds of paradoxes or apparent contradictions are immersed deep within the Russian psyche, something that Nicolas Berdyaev noticed when he said: ‘The inconsistency and complexity of the Russian soul may be due to the fact that in Russia two streams of world history — East and West — jostle and influence one another…. Russia is a complete section of the world — a colossal East-West. It unites two worlds, and within the Russian soul two principles are always engaged in strife — the Eastern and the Western.’ This can be plainly seen in the history of Russia of the past five hundred years, with certain factions agitating for stronger relations with the West while other, ‘Slavophiliac’ elements argued for a retreat into the primordial depths of the Russian heritage. The consequence of this debate resulted in the barbarity of the USSR, where the worst of both worlds found their ultimate expression.

In order to recover from this calamity, and in order to preclude any chance of it happening
again, the Russian character must come to terms with itself. In the 1990’s Boris Yeltsin engaged in a mild, all-encompassing sort of civic identity that brought in every different people of the nation into one relation, simply that of being a citizen of the Russian Federation. With the rise of Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, things have begun to swing towards a more nationalistic determination. Whereas at first Putin warned against ethnonationalism as ‘a bacillus’ that, if uncontrolled, may destroy the Russian Federation as it destroyed the USSR, during Putin’s third presidential term there’s been a clear progression towards emphasizing the Russian ethnos as the ‘core’ of the country: ‘The core and the binding fabric of this unique civilisation is the Russian people, Russian culture.’

This trend has culminated in the aggression of the Russian state towards Ukraine, which it feels to be fundamentally one with itself by virtue of their common ethnocultural identity. The dangers of this move consist in how the international community views the annexation of Crimea and the Russian support of Ukrainian separatists in the Donbass as flagrant actions in violation of international law. The benefits, however, not only consist of the economic gains of uniting with the oil– and grain-rich Ukraine, but also in forming a solid bloc constituted by people of highly similar interests and characteristics.

In a nation as large and heterogeneously constituted as Russia, however, there nevertheless has to be a project towards embracing the outlier elements, the peoples who do not correspond to the traditional idea of an ethnic Russian. It is for this reason that Putin has been adamant on stressing unity throughout the nation, saying to a meeting of various members of the Russian ethnic universe that ‘the question of finding and strengthening national identity really is fundamental for Russia.’ Even as Putin emphasizes the role of the ethnic Russian in the creation of the new republic, he’s also drawing in other ethnicities to a central Russian identity that goes beyond ethnos altogether. This is fully in accord with the traditional Russian idea of an empire, which necessarily involves rule over multifarious peoples without treading all over their own identities.

This is the sum of the fine balancing act that Putin engages in: celebrating the historical Russian people as the leaders of the country without distancing other members from the central idea of what it means to be Russian. The international community has every right to be scandalized by any criminal actions on Putin’s part against the sovereignty of nations like Ukraine, but from the Russian perspective such actions are perfectly commensurate with its pursuit of a ‘Eurasian’ bloc that is politically and culturally unified. This is moreover in line with the ideas of Putin’s ‘tutor’ Solzhenitsyn, who argued for the unity between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, saying that ‘We all together emerged from the treasured Kyiv, “from which the Russian land began,” according to the chronicle of Nestor.’ By reorienting Russian identity around this common heritage, Russia may be taking one confident step towards reacquiring its traditional character that preceded the Westernizing perversions and the Asiatic backlashes that have characterized the country for the past several centuries.

One of the first defining moments of Putin’s Russia was his disruption of the corrupt network of private businesses that benefitted enormously from the privatization of ex-Soviet industries in the wake of the USSR’s collapse, and of the subsequent economic development that occurred under his watch. Numerous kleptocrats, who owned their own media that constantly lambasted the positive moves of the Russian state out of Yeltsin’s crime-ridden society, were jailed or exiled for illicit economic activities. Private investors such as Boris Berezovsky who bought for a dollar and sold for hundreds more meant that the Russian people footed the bill; the things which were once basic commodities now became things to be exploited by those who could make money off of them. Without any regulations watching over this freshly freed market, vampires and vultures thrived in an economic wasteland.

Vladimir Putin’s regime was not supposed to hinder the rule of the ‘New Russians,’ the oligarchs who were birthed by Gorbachev and thrived under Yeltsin; he was supposed to be merely a continuation of the prior weak government. Thus, it was to their immense surprise that he increasingly instituted fairer systems that curtailed their ruthless exploitation. Through the Federation Statute 95-FZ of 2003 all the little fiefdoms created by the oligarchs were standardized, meaning that they were all subject to the same federal law, meaning that they no longer had absolute control over what went on in whatever regions they sucked dry. This not only led to increased consumer spending, but also to an economy strong enough to pay off its debts; this meant that Russia was able to pay off its IMF debt ahead of schedule in 2005 before paying off the Paris Club in 2006 and the United States in 2007. That debt-ridden Western governments can accuse Russia of ‘irresponsible spending’ involves no small measure of hypocrisy.

One more important aspect of the Russian economic development under Putin is how fair it is to small businesses. This is again something that Solzhenitsyn addressed in his final years: ‘Although many fortunes were amassed in Yeltsin's times by ransacking, the only reasonable way to correct the situation today is not to go after big businesses — the present owners are trying to run them as effectively as they can — but to give breathing room to medium and small businesses. That means protecting citizens and small entrepreneurs from arbitrary rule and from corruption.’ Even as he has had to rely on big business for support, especially in the early years, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to be fair to small and medium businesses to ensure a truly competitive market and to foster the growth of a genuine middle class. In September 2016 he announced at the meeting of the Council on Strategic Development and Priority Projects that ‘We should reach over the longer term small business employment level and its GDP share comparable with indicators of countries where businesses, small and medium-size ones in the first instance, are the backbone of the economy.’

Vladimir Putin is no saint — something that we know for a fact due to the constant chirping of the Western media. There is always another side to the story, however, and, as we have seen, this applies no less to the current President of the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin, in league with the teachings of his ‘mentor’ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has helped to transform the Russian state from a weak puppet of international, corporate, and criminal interests into a powerful free agent that’s taking his country on a new course. The Russian people are no longer subject to the persecutions of state atheism and indoctrinated with communist ideas; they are instead exhorted to rediscover their common Orthodox traditions and to practise Christian values. They are no longer defined by an international idea of ‘Worker Solidarity’ nor by the flimsy conception of ‘civic identity; they are being encouraged to return to the organic national and ethnic parameters that define their history. Finally, they are no longer victim of the conspiratorial capitalist oligarchs that leeched off of an already languishing population; they are being helped by a relatively benevolent state to create their own economic destiny.

As Western cultures continue to get drawn into the moral and philosophical abyss that’s been created through secular and progressivist values, Putin’s Russia, with however many bumps along the way, looks to a more solid past to ground itself for the future. Putin himself has a response to the Western societies which unceasingly attack his government, whose values led to a ‘rejection of their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. [Many Euro-Atlantic states] are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that put same-sex partnerships on a par with large families; belief in Satan on a par with the belief in God.’ From the words of the foremost Soviet dissident and the policies of a former KGB man, it can safely be said that the Russian Federation is moving away from the horrors of communism and towards a society once more informed by the Orthodox spirit that created its people. While his actions have often been more than questionable, and sometimes far from lawful, there can be no doubting that Vladimir Putin has played a profound part in rebuilding Russia from the ground up.

Works Cited
Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Russian Idea. New York, 1948
Coalson, Robert. "Is Putin 'Rebuilding Russia' According To Solzhenitsyn's Design?" RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. 02 Sept. 2014. Web. 07 July 2017.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. New York, 1913
Eltsov, P. "What Putin’s Favorite Guru Tells Us About His Next Target." POLITICO Magazine.    Politico, n.d., Web. 07 July 2017.
"Fertility rate, total births per woman." The World Bank. Data. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 July 2017
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. New York, 2001
Goldman, Marshall I. "Putin and the Oligarchs." Foreign Affairs. N.p., 28 Jan. 2009. Web. 07 July 2017.
“Historical abortion statistics, Russia.” N.p., n.d. Web. 07 July 2017.
Johnson, Matthew Raphael. “Vladimir Putin’s War Against the Oligarchs: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Political Ideas and Yeltsin’s Legacy.” N.p., May 2017. Web. 07 July 2017.
Kolstø, Pål, and Blakkisrud, Helge. The New Russian Nationalism: Imperialism, Ethnicity and Imperialism 2000-2015. Edinburgh, 2016, pp. 255-57.
Liu, Joseph. "Russians Return to Religion, But Not to Church." Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, 10 Feb. 2014. Web. 07 July 2017.
"Moscow Cozies Up to the Right." Time. Time, n.d. Web. 07 July 2017.
Neef, Christian, and Schepp, Mathhias. "Interview With Alexander Solzhenitsyn." The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 July 2007. Web. 07 July 2017.
Rees, Laurence. World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. Pantheon Books, 2008
Ries, Nancy. Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika. New York, 1997.
"Vladimir Putin: Inside His Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain." Time. Time, n.d. Web. 07 July 2017.
"Vladimir Putin met with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.", 12 June 2007. Web. 07 July 2017.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Silence (2016)

(Major spoilers)

As every review of Silence has already said, the film is very faithful to the book; the only significant
differences I noticed were a livelier, more charismatic 'inquisitor' and that scene at the end where Rodriguez is holding a tiny cross.(1) So my thoughts are the same as my thoughts on the novel, namely that it depicts a very wretched time for Christians, and it does so without any romanticism: priests are apostatizing, laypeople are apostatizing, and they are being martyred anyway (leading to the question of whether it is really martyrdom then). The question of God's silence, his absence when so many of his people are dying for him is at the front of the film, far from being a damning look at Catholicism, as some claim, only illustrates a very painful truth. There are existential crises of faith in such times, and we don't glorify God by pretending that they do not exist.

One of the most beautiful moments of the film, however, is infact a kind of 'glorification' of martyrdom, albeit in a very tragic and awful sense. The original Japanese Catholics whom Fr. Rodriguez and Fr. Garupe meet in their search for Fr. Ferreira show fervent faith and devotion, inspiring and lending strength to their new priests. When the inquisitor comes to their village, however, he requires them to trample on the fumie, a board with an image of Christ, in order to show that they are not Christians. Fr. Rodriguez tells them that it is okay to do so, so they do. But when the inquisitor brings out a crucifix, telling them to spit on it and then say that the Blessed Virgin is a 'whore,' three of the Christians cannot do it. They are subjected to dying on crosses out in the water, where the constant waves and rising tide eventually drowns them over the course of several days. Right before the last one dies, he starts singing a hymn, a wonderful, pathetic hymn of sweet joy and brokenness that testifies to Christ's great love. It is a tribute in the traditional style to the faith of the martyrs.

As for the apostasy of Rodriguez, on the other hand, there is no singing, no secret reserves of strength enduring whatever the gentiles can throw at him - instead there is an engima. Is that voice that tells him to trample really God? or is it his conscience, or Satan? The voice later tells him that he was not silent, that he spoke through the suffering around him, so I am not one of those who think that this was Satan speaking now. But then there is the problem of trampling on the fumie, and how the cock crowed three times afterwards, likening Rodriguez's act to the betrayal of St. Peter. How can God tell Rodriguez to do something and then still call it betrayal? This is a highly ambiguous moment, of course, and leads to deep thinking in the seemingly hopeless effort to resolve it. Are we too weak to do God's will? does he forgive us for our failure? can it be a 'lawful betrayal' in that it was divinely commanded? do the lives of other human beings trump our faith? is it truly selfless to surrender our God in order to save other men and women? is that what Christ would do?

The best way to perceive these questions can be found in Kichijiro, the scraggly Smeagol figure who persistently betrays his fellow Christians and then confesses each time in order to be forgiven. One of the most profound lines of the novel reads: 'Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.' Rodriguez says this, he is aware of this, and yet he still treats the treacherous Kichijiro as vile, as unworthy of being part of humanity, and in so doing Rodriguez reveals that he is human himself, that he is not like Christ, that he is incapable of dying for the miserable and corrupt.

Kichijiro himself knows that he is a vile man, that he is weak, hence his invariable return for confession after every sin. He also asks the poignant question why he has to be born in such a time - many other men like himself are born in free, Christian countries and live good, Christian lives. But would they be so good if their faith was tested like Kichijiro's? It is unfair, he says, to be born when his weakness becomes a curse, and not when it would be a blessing. We are meant to identify with him in a way, wondering whether we, in our safe, comfortable, and (supposedly) Christian society where we are free to believe whatever we want, would be able to do better than Kichijiro, whether we would have the stuff for martyrdom or for betrayal and apostasy.

Rodriguez, until his own fall from grace, neither understands him nor takes pity on him. He treats Kichijiro as an enemy, giving him confession almost against his own will. This is a crucial point in the drama, because Kichijiro represents how we might look to God if he had merely human eyes. We continually sin against him; we betray his name; we say we will do good but we do evil; we abuse his teachings for our own ends; we sin and we sin again. If God were Rodriguez, he would be right to regard us as contemptible creatures, unworthy of salvation. But God is Christ, and Christ died for the 'miserable and corrupt.' In his trampling on the fumie Rodriguez appears to Christ as Kichijiro appears to Rodriguez - and Christ forgives him for it.

Fr. Garupe came the closest to being like Christ. Unlike Rodriguez, who permitted the Japanese
Christians to trample on the image of Christ, Fr. Garupe exhorted them not to, since they forfeit their relationship with Christ in doing so. When he is captured along with a group of peasants, we are told that the peasants have already apostatized, but will only be set free if Fr. Garupe apostatizes as well. The priest refuses to give in and swims out to the drowning peasants, dying as he tries heroically to save them. He was aware of their apostasy; he was aware of their weakness, their betrayal, but he died for them anyway. Like Christ, Fr. Garupe died for the miserable and corrupt. Even the Japanese samurai says that 'at least [Garupe] was clean,' whereas Rodriguez has 'no will.'

The theological validity of forgiveness for apostasy aside (we would have to go deep into the Donatist controversy), this film speaks to other powerful human and Christian themes, including both our understanding of God's will when everything points to its absence and the frailty of human nature. God speaks to us in obscure ways, and Silence makes the strong case that he speaks to us through our suffering, that he is right beside us when we suffer; Christ is the archetype of selfless suffering, and so is automatically joined to us when we share in his pain, especially when we suffer for him.

In Kichijiro we see fallen man in all his ugliness, his cowardly and vicious nature laid bare. Who can love a wretch like that? And yet it is always Kichijiro who cries out for forgiveness after, who feels the burden of sin every time he enters into a state of sin; it is Kichijiro, more than any other character, who acknowledges his weakness, and asks sorrowfully for confession. If Rodriguez and his apostate teacher Ferreira represent the idea that any man may fall, Kichijiro represents the idea that all men may repent, that all men yearn to repent, and that it is the only way for man to escape the sin which is native to him. The human condition is a series of spectacular falls, but it is also a redemption tale in which our quest for forgiveness ultimately leads to salvation through Christ's unlimited compassion.

It is perhaps best to think of this film as one that asks questions rather than answers them, allowing the viewer the freedom to meditate and ponder on the content of his own faith. Understood in that light, given its intense imagery and honest insight into deep moral problems, this film is yet another Scorsese triumph, and well-worth viewing for any Christian.

And Jesus was a sailor 
When he walked upon the water 
And he spent a long time watching 
From his lonely wooden tower 
And when he knew for certain 
Only drowning men could see him 
He said "All men will be sailors then 
Until the sea shall free them" 

Leonard Cohen

(1) Bp. Barron astutely pointed out that that image represents just what 'the powers that be' want our faith to be like. When our faith is 'deeply interior,' hidden from the world, ineffectual, innocuous, it makes no difference to the external culture; anti-Christian civilization does not care what our faith is, so long as our faith lets it do its business. This is as true for the Japanese pagans in the 17th Century as it is for the secularists today, who are all too happy to leave us be if our spiritual life is secondary to our life in their secular culture, which is, sadly, what the faith of the director of this film has been reduced to.