Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Dec/17

1

What Does Being Male Have To Do With It?

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Haaretz has published an article that takes an odd potshot at male leftists for their alleged denial of war crimes. Yes, just male leftists. Putting the hefty topic of genocide and mass murder aside, what the hell does being male have to do with the arguments made by people like Glenn Greenwald, John Pilger or Noam Chomsky on the issue of conflicts in Serbia and Syria? At no point in the article does (the likewise male) author Oz Katerji explain what being male has to do with anything. It’s just a lazy anti-dude slant thrown in for bad measure.

I can think of at least one female fellow traveler in tow with the likes of Greenwald and Chomsky: Abby Martin.

Listen up, dudes! I’ve got a message for you: you’re dudes!

What’s being male but a quaint old-fashioned notion? 

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Nov/17

12

Bolsheviks, Millenarians and the Reformation

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Writing in the Hedgehog, from, it seems (but perhaps that’s just me), a hard left perspective, Eugene McCarraher takes a look at the millenarian aspects of Bolshevism, and, more specifically its connection with the Reformation:

Shortly after the Bolshevik victory, the young German philosopher Ernst Bloch suggested an even longer historical lineage for Lenin. In The Spirit of Utopia (1920), Bloch sketched a genealogy of revolution that included the Jewish prophets, St. John of the Apocalypse, medieval heretics and millenarians such as Joachim of Fiore, and radical Protestants such as Thomas Müntzer and John of Leyden (John Bockelson). Speaking the language of theology, this pre-Marxist vanguard had imagined the kingdom of God as a communist paradise. Bloch linked the Protestant and Soviet moments even more pointedly in Thomas Müntzer as Theologian of the Revolution (1921), whose protagonist envisioned “a pure community of love, without judicial and state institutions”—in marked contrast to the conservative and submissive Luther, who by supporting the German nobles’ suppression of the peasants’ rebellion of 1524–25 had consecrated the “hard and impious materiality of the State.”

Two cheers for the hard and impious materiality of the State, I reckon, but I interrupt.

 If Müntzer’s political theology was mired in mythopoeic conceptions of time, Lenin’s scientific appraisal of history ensured the fulfillment of Christian hope. The Soviet state heralded “the time that is to come,” Bloch declared with eschatological flourish. “It is impossible for the time of the Kingdom not to come now,” he concluded; hope “will not be disappointed in any way.” (“Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem,” Bloch would later write in The Principle of Hope.)

Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem.

Elsewhere in The Principle of Hope,  Bloch was to claim that “the Bolshevist fulfillment of Communism [is part of] the age-old fight for God, ” even if, as the Christian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev observed (as I noted in a post yesterday) they did not know it themselves.

Müntzer (1489-1525) was to become something of a hero in that ‘pure community of love’ better known as East Germany.  The regime even made a film about him.

Then again, as McCarraher makes clear, however pretty its label, Müntzer’s ‘community of love’ had its rough edges too:

[Lenin and Müntzer] both insisted on the necessity of an intrepid and steadfast revolutionary elite. Müntzer and his associates set up the Eternal League of God after failing to win election to Mühlhausen’s town council, while Lenin believed that only a vanguard party could identify and direct the proper course of revolution. And both men had no scruples about wielding violence against opponents. Because the bourgeoisie posed a threat to the party’s trusteeship of proletarian dictatorship, Lenin insisted in “The State and Revolution” (1917) that “their resistance must be crushed by force,” an edict that echoed Müntzer’s dictum that “a godless person has no right to life when he hinders the pious.”

Müntzer’s rejection of election results is something else he and Lenin had in common.

McCarraher:

The two currents of communism that appeared in the Reformation align with two forms of eschatological expectation: one, represented by Müntzer, in which the “godly” or the “elect”—theological precursors to the secular “vanguard”—must clear a path for the impending beloved community by enlisting any means at their disposal, however coercive and cruel; and a second, exemplified by Winstanley, in which the love of the people’s republic to come must leaven its apostles and their actions. Müntzer’s belief that the ungodly have no rights augured Bertolt Brecht’s rueful principle that those who seek a world of kindness cannot themselves be kind. Winstanley’s conviction that the sword embodied “an abominable and unrighteous power” betokened a nonviolent revolutionary tradition. The yearning to see heaven on earth is at once an imperative and an impossible desire, and its political articulations stem from how the tensions of eschatological expectation are resolved. If Soviet communism was a secular parody of Müntzer’s millenarian hysteria, Winstanley’s “realized eschatology”—his insistence that the love on the other side of the eschaton can appear in the here and now—offers a more modest but also more generous and humane revolutionary vision.

Needless to say, Winstanley (Gerrard Winstanley, one of the founders of England’s mid-17th Century ‘Diggers’, someone who McCarraher discusses at length, and admiringly) got nowhere. Nor will his successors. Communism is impossible without collective psychosis, coercion, or both, and, as a millenarian creed, it (as, according to the story, did Jesus) insists on a reckoning, which will be anything other than peaceful—something that has undeniably always added to its appeal.

Ubi communismi, ibi infernum.

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Nov/17

11

Bolsheviks and other Millenarians

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If I had to choose one book to read about the Bolsheviks this year it would be The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine.

Writing in the New York Review of Books Benjamin Nathans focuses on the most important theme that runs through this monumental study, Slezkine’s view that Bolshevism was not an assertion of the new, but a reformulation of the old:

[Slezkine] places the Bolsheviks among ancient Zoroastrians and Israelites, early Christians and Muslims, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Puritans, Old Believers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rastafarians, and other millenarian sects. As sworn enemies of religion, the Bolsheviks would have hated this casting decision and demanded to be put in a different play, preferably with Jacobins, Saint-Simonians, Marxists, and Communards in supporting roles. Slezkine, however, has claimed these groups for his story as well, insisting that underneath their secular costumes they too dreamed of hastening the apocalypse and building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Bolsheviks, it seems, were condemned to repeat history—a history driven not by class struggle, as they thought, but by theology.

Slezkine is, of course, by no means the first to detect the religious impulse lurking within Bolshevism. As early as 1920, Bertrand Russell wrote that Bolshevism “is to be reckoned as a religion, not an ordinary political movement.” Nathan notes comments made by the Christian philosopher (a description that doesn’t do justice to the breadth of his writing) Nikolai Berdyaev in July 1917 months before the Bolshevik putsch (my emphasis added):

 “Bolsheviks, as often happens, do not know the ultimate truth about themselves, do not grasp what spirit governs them.” By laying claim to “the entire person” and seeking to provide answers to “all of a person’s needs, all of humanity’s sufferings,” Bolshevism drew on “religious energies—if by religious energy we understand not just what is directed to God.”

Remarkably Berdyaev survived imprisonment by the new communist regime and, with many other leading Russian philosophers, was exiled abroad in 1922.

Nathans is not entirely convinced by Slezkine’s arguments, which he clearly finds overly reductionist, not least for this reason:

Wouldn’t one have to posit an epidemic of false consciousness to account for so much religiosity on the part of the militantly antireligious Bolsheviks? Why do some analogies refer to quintessentially Catholic practices and others to quintessentially Protestant or Russian Orthodox ones? How can any of them account for the motives of the many Jewish party members?

But then, as Nathans concedes, Slezkine doesn’t link millenarianism to any one religious tradition, and he’s right not to.  In many ways, that’s the point.

By rhetorically collapsing the distinction between Bolsheviks and their biblical predecessors, The House of Government signals its ultimate aim: to grasp the meaning of the Russian Revolution sub specie aeternitatis, to suggest an abiding element in human history, something very old of which we have not freed and may never free ourselves, precisely because we are human.

And if Slezkine is right about this (I think he is) the only conclusion to be drawn is that, rather than being some sort of aberration, communism was merely another expression of ancient millenarian beliefs, beliefs that clearly have appealed to enough people over the generations for us to be confident that they are not going away any time soon.

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Nov/17

1

“Natural Rights” and Other Myths

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Writing in the American Conservative, Will Collins reviews  Against the Grain,  “James C. Scott’s new history of humanity’s transition (devolution may be the more appropriate term) from hunting and gathering to sedentary farming challenges the very foundations of this narrative. After finishing the book, one can’t help but wonder if our nomadic ancestors would have been better off slinking back to the hills and forests and giving up on the idea of ever settling down.”

In Collins’ view,  Against the Grain “may not include much in the way of original research, but it presents a comprehensive and convincing case that the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to permanent, agriculturally dependent settlements was a complete disaster for humankind.”

I haven’t read the book, which does indeed sound interesting, but it appears that (judging by the review) Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ has cast a long shadow over its contents:

[W]hat if Rousseau was right? Scott persuasively argues that sedentary agriculture is a critical prerequisite for state formation and all its attendant miseries, from slaving to war-making to the spread of pestilence and disease. For hundreds of thousands of years, a period that encompasses the vast majority of our existence on Planet Earth, man was born free, into groups of mobile hunter-gatherers who, if the fossil record is to be believed, lived longer and healthier lives than their civilized successors. It was not until comparatively recently that we were chained by the plow, the ox, and the overseer. The historical record of our earliest ancestors is the most compelling evidence yet that there is something deeply unnatural about being socialized into a rules-based, hierarchical society.

To banish that shadow, read of Lawrence Keeley’s excellent War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage. 

Here’s what the Oxford University Press had to say about it:

For the last fifty years, most popular and scholarly works have agreed that prehistoric warfare was rare, harmless, and unimportant. According to this view, it was little more than a ritualized game, where casualties were limited and the effects of aggression relatively mild. Lawrence Keeley’s groundbreaking War Before Civilization offers a devastating rebuttal to such comfortable myths and debunks the notion that warfare was introduced to primitive societies through contact with civilization.

Building on much fascinating archeological and historical research and offering an astute comparison of warfare in civilized and prehistoric societies, from modern European states to the Plains Indians of North America, Keeley convincingly demonstrates that prehistoric warfare was in fact more deadly, more frequent, and more ruthless than modern war. He cites evidence of ancient massacres in many areas of the world, and surveys the prevalence of looting, destruction, and trophy-taking in all kinds of warfare, again finding little moral distinction between ancient warriors and civilized armies. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, he examines the evidence of cannibalism among some preliterate peoples.

But Keeley goes beyond grisly facts to address the larger moral and philosophical issues raised by his work. What are the causes of war? Are human beings inherently violent? How can we ensure peace in our own time? Challenging some of our most dearly held beliefs, Keeley’s conclusions are bound to stir controversy.

Indeed. They did.

Bottom line: we’re not a nice lot.

Just before the paragraph that I quoted above, Collins wrote this, words that should be carved in stone in some suitably disconcerting venue, opposite a  church perhaps, or across from the Jefferson Memorial:

Take natural rights, a venerable political tradition that has largely been banished from our public discourse. Rights are socially constructed, a product of contingent historical circumstances, a tarnished artifact of Western culture. Only the truly gauche—hardcore libertarians, say, or Christian conservatives—believe that we are endowed with certain inalienable and unalterable rights. Rousseau’s famous dictum, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” sounds like something you might hear from a particularly obnoxious teenage Objectivist.

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Oct/17

28

Halloween, Elsa and the Index Simulacrorum Prohibitorum

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Cross-posted on the Corner.

Kyle has already discussed the controversy over Halloween Moana here, concluding as follows:

The Left used to insist on seeing people as individuals, not as members of groups. The goal used to be that kids of different races would play together oblivious to one another’s superficial differences. This was commendable, and many a race barrier has fallen. Now the Left is determined to put those barriers back up, to teach kids to obsess over race. It is adamant that pigmentation has to be of overriding concern to you, and if it isn’t to your children, your children must be indoctrinated to divide people based on skin color, to calculate varying levels of “sensitivity” and “privilege” based on melanin. It’s not only ludicrous, it’s alarming. Don’t let this diseased mindset take hold. Go ahead and dress your kid as Moana this Halloween.

Quite.

I’m not sure that Sachi Feris (who “identifies as White”) blogging over at Raising Race Conscious Children would agree. Her views on Moana are predictable enough, but (as Charlie has noted) it turns out that there’s another character to be careful about, Elsa from Frozen:

Since [Feris’ daughter’s] 2017 Halloween choice was, in fact, Elsa, I returned to this costume choice and shared…

Shared

There is something ghastly about the soft, pious condescension of that verb, which well…

But back to the sharing:

“There is one thing I don’t like about the character of Elsa. I feel like because Elsa is a White princess, and we see so many White princesses, her character sends the message that you have to be a certain way to be “beautiful” or to be a “princess”…that you have to have White skin, long, blonde hair, and blue eyes. And I don’t like that message. You are White, like Elsa—if you dressed up as a character like Moana, who has brown skin, you would never change your skin color. But I’m not sure I like the idea of you changing your hair color to dress up as Elsa—because I think Elsa’s character could also be a short, brown-haired character like you.”

“No,” my daughter refuted. “I want you to make be a long, blonde braid like Elsa’s.”

“We can do that,” I agreed. “When we are dressing up as a made-up character who is White, it is OK to change how your hair looks, but I just want you to know that if you wanted to, you could dress up as Elsa and not change your hair.”

My guess is that a five-year-old might well have worked that out for herself. Nevertheless Feris’ daughter has clearly understood that the best way to dress up to try to look like someone else is, well, to dress up to look like that someone else.

Later on, we read that Ms. Feris, like a devout person scrabbling through holy books to find out what is or is not ‘permitted’, is still bothered by Moana and has thus turned to her smartphone to see what might be, as the enforcers now say, ‘okay’.

She tells shares with her daughter that:

“I’m trying to find more information about if a (White) person can dress up as another person’s culture in a way that honors the culture, without making fun of the culture or using the culture in a way that uses stereotypes or makes people who identify with that culture feel uncomfortable…” Through some additional back and forth, I elaborated on the idea of stereotypes (click here for a conversation about stereotypes from when my daughter was much younger) and the concept of cultural appropriation, though without using this phrase.

The word killjoy doesn’t begin to do justice to this miserable little anecdote.

But, wait, there’s more.

In a follow-up post Ms. Feris and Lori Riddick (who “identifies as Black/Bi-racial/Multi-racial”), entitled “Halloween as an Opportunity to Dismantle White Supremacy: Three Things We Believe This Halloween”, advise their congregation concerned parents what can be done:

  1. White parents who want to dismantle White supremacy have a special burden to check their entitlement on Halloween—and make sure that their children’s costume choices are not reinforcing a culture of racism.

Again, the distinctly ‘religious’ aspects of this are unmistakable, ranging from the assumption of guilt (“entitlement” ), to the distaste for the existing state of the culture (“a culture of racism”) and the reminder that neither they nor their children must fall, even accidentally, into the sin that is always out there (“make sure…not reinforcing”).

2. Dressing up as a White person (from the dominant culture of power and privilege) is not cultural appropriation—but consider the development of children’s healthy racial identities on Halloween.

We learn that Ms. Feris’ conversation sharing “with her daughter also aimed to push back against an image of beauty that values Whiteness in addition to a specific body type and hair color/style. Many children, both White children and people of color, do not fit into this image of beauty.” No opportunity for a sermon should ever be wasted. And on that topic:

3. Halloween is an opportunity to have a conversation with your child about race, power, and privilege

More trick than treat, I reckon.

Note to any surviving citizens of the Roman Empire: No disrespect is intended by the clumsy and doubtless inaccurate appropriation of your language contained in the title of this post.

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Oct/17

17

1789 and All That

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It’s not hard to draw a line between messianic Judaism and (obviously) Christianity and from that on to later millenarian variants such as Marxism, but this review in the New Statesman by the British philosopher John Gray of Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia by Francis O’Gorman adds this twist:

The end result of a systematic devaluation of the past, however, is a condition of confusion not unlike that experienced by those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. As O’Gorman puts it, “We may be terrified of dementia because it is widespread and its effects catastrophic. But the fear arises also because we are half-conscious, as dutiful forward-facing citizens of modernity, that we figuratively have it already.” Rather than enabling human beings to fashion new identities, a willed collective amnesia leaves them with no identity at all.

Many forces have combined to create this condition. Acutely, O’Gorman identifies one of the sources of the modern narrative in early Christianity. Announcing itself as the bearer of “good news”, Christianity “splintered the conception of human life based on sustaining a localisable past… The new faith, which must have seemed first of all a new Middle Eastern cult of the son of Joseph the Carpenter, not only discouraged acts of devotion to what had happened long ago… but also explicitly reorientated its followers’ minds to the future.”

Here, O’Gorman elides the original teaching of Jesus, which continued the traditions of charismatic Judaism, with the universal religion invented by Paul and Augustine. Yet the point remains valid. Christianity has always included “instructive rites for rejecting history”, acts of confession and penitence that are supposed to erase yesterday’s sins.

A Christian narrative of redemption in which past evils and crimes could be nullified by a dramatic act of moral renovation has inspired many modern revolutionary movements. “Christianity began the process of moving us toward the future,” writes O’Gorman. “The French Revolution from 1789 to 1815 (which was, ironically enough, violently antagonistic to Christianity as belonging to the past) clinched secular expectations about the relative values of tomorrow and yesterday.” When they sacked churches and defaced graveyards, the Jacobins were re-enacting a Christian rite in which history could be stopped and purified of sin, then begun anew.

And the Bolsheviks?

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Oct/17

13

Ubi Terror, Ibi Salus

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A week or two back, I discussed a review of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey, a book out in the UK, but not due for release in the US until next year.  Back in the old country over the weekend, I took the opportunity to buy a copy, and it’s as good as the review suggested it might be. I read it in two sittings.

Much of the focus of my last post was on the fixation of the early Christians with suffering, a fixation that lingers on in the shape of a morbid belief in the virtue of suffering, a belief that manifests itself in, among other horrors, the opposition of many clerics, as cruel as it is saccharine, to assisted suicide.

But Nixey’s book is, above all, fascinating as an examination of proto-totalitarianism. Nixey, no Dawkins, is not so much concerned with the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus as she is with the behavior of the latter’s followers in late antiquity, whether it’s the iconoclastic fervor that led them to destroy so many of the great works of classical art and architecture, or the creation of a system that dictated so thoroughly what men read (book burnings were a regular feature of these years), how they worshiped and what they thought. The Judeo-Christian God was a jealous god and, unlike the expansive and eclectic collection of deities of the Roman Empire, had no room for any rivals or, for that matter, their followers. There was a sting in monotheism’s tale. To the modern reader, Nixey’s accounts of persecution in the name of the Christian God foreshadow both the furies unleashed on behalf of His Islamic alter-ego and, for that matter, Communism’s supposedly secular millenarians.

The Church, wrote Augustine, “persecutes in the spirit of love”, and, over a millennium and a half before Communism’s slaughtered one hundred million, he claimed that “where there is terror, there is salvation.”

Whatever or whoever had been born in Bethlehem, a rough beast was on the march—and, while its shape may shift,  it marches on today.

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Sep/17

30

Why Trump could murder someone and people would still support him

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In 1683 the Ottoman Turks marched toward Vienna. John Sobieski, the king of Poland, became a hero to all Europe because of his defense of the Habsburgs in their time of need. In contrast, France had traditionally been a rival of the Habsburg monarchy. In honor of their tacit alliance with the Ottomans they rejected aiding the Austrians. But by 1683 pan-Christian feeling was strong enough that the Bourbons received some blowback for their implied approval of the Ottoman thrust into the heart of Europe.

Yet But not all Christians fought with the Habsburgs. The Protestant Hungarian noble Imre Thokoly led a contingent of his followers against Vienna in alliance with the Ottomans. Hungarian Protestants were suffering persecution and marginalization at the hands of the Catholic Habsburg monarchy. In the years before the Ottoman invasion rebellions based on demands for religious liberty were occurring due to the vigor of the re-Catholicization efforts of the Habsburgs.

Red = Catholic and Blue = Protestant

The Hungarian Protestants allied with the Ottomans against all of Christendom because only through that alliance was their existence safeguarded.* To this day the demographic stronghold of Hungarian Protestantism is to the east, where Ottomans held sway the longest, and so shielded Protestants from Royal persecution and conversion.

The general principle here is obvious. If the cost of acceptance and approval is a negation of who you are, then you will make whatever compromises and sacrifices necessary to continue to be who you are. The Greek Orthodox church arguably made this choice when most of them rejected union with Rome as the cost for Western aid against the Turks.

The relevance for modern American politics should be clear. But if it isn’t, I’ll make it clear: many pro-Trump Americans perceive that Trump may protect them and their values, and see that anti-Trump politicians and leaders will never do so. Obviously there are a range of attitudes of people who support Trump, from genuine fondness and loyalty, to resigned acceptance that he is there only choice in a binary world.

Why is he their only choice? Perhaps “it’s time for some game theory.”

Consider a book like Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority. Many center-to-Left Americans look to the year 2050 (or 2042) as a terminal date when a social-political milestone will be achieved: white people will be made dispensable. Not in a literal sense, but the centrality of white Americans will be no more. The coalition of the ascendant will have come into its own.

At least that’s the theory. Even one of the major early theorists of the new Democratic majority is not sure it will ever come to be (count me as a guarded skeptic as well).

But that’s neither here nor there. Many people on the Left and the Right in American culture see that white Christian America will be marginalized. Demoted. They seem that people are picking sides, and you have to stick to your tribe. It’s a matter of existential concern.

Many pro-Trump Americans perceive that the Left and the cultural elite hate them deeply in their bones. Wish they would disappear. Dislike their aesthetic preferences, think their religion is contemptible, and are simply waiting for their expiration date to come due so that history will march onward, and leave them an unpleasant memory.

Some of them see their livelihoods in danger, as they perceive that their political choices and identities will make them targets for being unpersoned, without a way to keep a roof over their heads or food on their family’s table. They accept the narrative of their marginalization, and are terrified of the consequences that will be meted out to them by their triumphalist adversaries in the culture wars.

When elite Americans argue that these voters are supporting a conman, they shrug. First, they don’t trust the elites to have their interests at heart in the first place, so why trust their sincerity? These are the same elites joyfully writing think-pieces about how these middle class white Americans are no longer necessary in electoral coalitions, nor do they set the terms in American culture. The alternative offered is dispossession and marginalization with a smile, and that is not an offer they are willing to take. Better someone incompetently on your side than someone effectively against you.

American society today is in a “you are with us or against” modality. Even if you are on the losing side, there is no incentive to change sides, because no one perceives that there will be charity from one’s erstwhile enemies (notice how many liberals accepted John McCain’s rejection of Republican Obamacare replacements begrudgingly; he may have sided with them in some cases, but he wasn’t on the team). These sorts of tribal dynamics are not surprising in the age of identity politics. In India caste politics is such that plainly corrupt politicians who regularly disappoint their constituents continue to be reelected over and over. Why? Because ultimately their people have nowhere else to go.

We live in a zero-sum world now. Identity is dominant. To some extent it always was, but very few now make the counter-argument that principles matter. Better get used to it.

* A curious fact is that the ancestors of the Polish Lipka Tatars marched with Sobieski.

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Sep/17

27

The cretin shall rise again

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Roy Moore is almost certain to be the Junior Senator from Alabama soon enough. That much we know.

Part of me takes pleasure in the victory, as it is true that the Republican establishment of states like Alabama is sclerotic and corrupt (just like the Democratic establishment of Illinois or California). Roy Moore is certainly not a politic individual. And that makes for great entertainment. Cable news programmers just got a gift!

But Moore is also bizarre in his views in 2017. An atavism. His stance on Church-State separation was tenable a generation ago but in a rapidly secularizing America, they are not election winners outside of Alabama that they are inside the state.  In a rapidly de-Christianizing country, the tight identification of the Republican party with Evangelical Christianity is not the broad-based winner it used to be, and Roy Moore manifests all the most uncouth and blunt tendencies which are going to remake the party in his brand….

Sep/17

20

Palmyra’s Earlier Attackers

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From The Spectator, a review of a new book, The Darkening Age, on Christianity’s early centuries.  I haven’t read the book itself (it’s not out in this country until next year), but judging by the review  it looks interesting, no least for the light it throws on the Christian cult of suffering, something still all too evident today in the widespread opposition—across denominations—to assisted suicide.

In the late years of [the Roman] Empire, and early days of Christianity, there were monks who didn’t wash for fear of being overcome by lust at the sight of their own bodies. Some concealed their nakedness in outfits woven from palm fronds. One designed a leather suit that also covered his head. There were holes for his mouth and nose, but not, apparently, his eyes.

There was a monk who spent three years with a stone in his mouth to remind him not to speak. Another wept so hard, his tears dug a hollow in his chest. There were those who went about on all fours. St Anthony, one of the founders of monasticism, chose to make his home in a pigsty. St Simeon Stylites stood on a pillar for 37 years until his feet burst open.

In the reviewer’s  opinion  this shows that “Christianity is a fundamentally masochistic religion”. Despite the cult of suffering (which is real enough) and the behavior of more recent grotesques such as Jean Vianney, that’s too simplistic, but this caught my eye:

[Christianity’s] self-punishing characteristics are a particular product of time and place: not only a reaction against Roman decadence but also, as Catherine Nixey points out in her clever, compelling book The Darkening Age, a response to the end of imperial persecution. The theory goes that, after the Empire adopted Christianity, some felt nostalgic for the enlivening fear of martyrdom, and compensated by metaphorically martyring themselves. This, then, is the essence of asceticism. It was a syndrome that St Jerome dubbed ‘white martyrdom’, to distinguish it from the red kind, which got you killed in front of a baying, paying crowd.

And then there was this (my emphasis added):

Nixey’s book presents the progress of Christianity as a triumph only in the military sense of a victory parade. Culturally, it was genocide: a kind of anti-Enlightenment, a darkening, during which, while annihilating the old religions, the rampaging evangelists carried out ‘the largest destruction of art that human history had ever seen’. This certainly isn’t the history we were taught in Sunday school. Readers raised in the milky Anglican tradition will be surprised to learn of the savagery of the early saints and their sledgehammer-swinging followers.

Here are some darkening dates: 312, the Emperor Constantine converts, after Christianity helps him defeat his enemies; 330, Christians begin desecrating pagan temples; 385, Christians sack the temple of Athena at Palmyra, decapitating the goddess’s statue; 392, Bishop Theophilus destroys the temple of Serapis in Alexandria; 415, the Greek mathematician Hypatia is murdered by Christians; 529, the Emperor Justinian bans non-Christians from teaching; 529, the Academy in Athens closes its doors, concluding a 900-year philosophical tradition…

It’s important not to be tempted into facile point-scoring comparisons between the Christians of the 4th Century and ISIS in the 21st. Nevertheless else, that ancient Christian attack on the temple of Athena is (yet) another reminder that the God of the Middle Eastern monotheisms is a jealous god, and thus someone who could not be added with any ease into the (fairly) relaxed polytheism of the Classical era.

Gibbon  (From The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire):

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

The refusal to play according to the rules  of that system goes, I imagine, a long way to explaining the persecution of the  early Church.

It’s also something of a mild corrective to the praise for the (not undeserved) praise for those monks who “saved civilization”. Their coreligionists destroyed quite a  bit of it too.

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