Monday, November 29, 2010

A Call for a Red Rose Party

Please don't read on me, eh?

The Harper Conservative government has really fouled up on the question of landing rights for Emirates Airlines.

Of course, the decision to refuse those rights has cost the taxpayers lots of money, and hindered the work of our soldiers in Afghanistan—something unpardonable in any government to begin with.

It is also an obvious betrayal of Conservative principles. They're supposed to be the party of free markets and less government.

But the government's justification for refusing landing rights is wrong in the first place, and obviously wrong. The government claims that Emirates is subsidized, and therefore represents unfair competition for Air Canada.

First, the charge that Emirates is government subsidized is false. The Economist magazine, a neutral source, says so. It is run at a profit, and does not even get government backing for loans. Second, restricting landing rights is, in fact, a government subsidy to Air Canada. Not to mention that, until not so long ago, Air Canada was government-owned. Could there be, therefore, a more hypocritical claim?

The government goes on to claim that letting in Emirates would “cost tens of thousands of jobs.”

It wopuld not. If Emirates really can, as ther government claims, mop the floor with Air Canada, that means the cost of international travel will soon be much lower. That means there will be more international travel. That means there will be a lot more jobs: in airlines, in airports, in travel agencies, in the hospitality industry, and, not least, in any and all individuals or businesses trading between Canada and the UAE.

In the meantime, cheaper international travel boosts the real living standard of all Canadians.

If, indeed, this were due to the government of the UAE susidizing Emirates airlines, the proper response would be to thank them for the foreign aid, not to complain about it.

Wouldn't it also seem to be a worthy foreign policy objective to want to increase our influence in the booming oil patch of the Gulf—as opposed to alienating its people and governments?

So, let's see: the Harper desision violates his claimed principles, costs jobs, costs taxpayer money, hurts the economy, and hurts Canada's reputation overseas. Is there an upside?

Only for the unions representing Air Canada employees, and the shareholders of Air Canada. A small, already privileged minority.

But a group that, no doubt, has money to spend in Canadian election campaigns; possibly even nice jobs on the board for retired Prime Ministers.

What this shows most clearly is that we need a Canadian Tea Party. Maybe we can call it the Red Rose Party. As it stands, every government seems to soon become corrupt once in power. Turner's Liberals lost on a patronage scandal; indeed, one could reach back further to scandals in Pearson's and Diefenbaker's cabinets. Mulroney came in vowing to clean things up. By the time Kim Campbell took over, the Mulroney conservatives were smelling well past due; but the Liberals under Chretien and Martin in their turn ended up looking entirely corrupt.

It has happened so regularly that we must conclude that something is wrong with the Canadian system. I suspect it may be because Canadian politics are not ideological. Since nobody can get in wanting to change things or get anything in particular done, the one reason to try for and to hold onto power in Canada ends up being to feather one's own and one's buddies' nests.

In addition, the Canadian upper class is and has always been, since the days of the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique, extremely close-knit and interconnected. They tend to work together, by gentlemen's rules, to keep the unwashed rabble from actually having a say. This is intrinsically corrupt, and leads to all else in time.

The Reform Party sought to be the solution; it made things worse, by splitting the opposition vote. The NDP is an earlier failed experiment, on the other end of the spectrum.

Something like the Tea Party might work better. The idea would be not to form a new party or run a separate slate of candidates, but, as in the US, to organize on specific issues and to participate in nomination meetings to ensure that the most honest, most principled, least baggage-encumbered local candidate won.

Only in America?


Sunday, November 28, 2010

On Chuang Tsu's Butterfly and the Gospel of Matthew

Michelangelo's little doodle in plaster on the Sistine Chapel end wall.

Today's gospel is another funny one. Jesus is speaking about the end times, “the coming of the Son of Man.” He tells us it is urgent that we stay awake. Why?

“For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

So, let's get this straight: the Second Coming of Jesus and the End of Time will be like nothing so much as --- a thief robbing your house.

Hope you weren't drinking anything.

This seems calculated to be the least appropriate analogy possible. Do I need to ring through all the changes on the contradictions here?

Jesus is the rightful lord and owner of everything; how is he a thief—and we the master?

He is supposed to descend from the Heavens “in glory”; how is this like sneaking in the night?

The master, in the parable, can stay awake for the thief if and only if he is aware of the hour at which the thief is coming; yet we do not know the day or hour. How then is the comparison useful?

Not last and not least, the analogy is in the past tense. (I don't read Biblical Greek, but I checked multiple translations.) Why so, since the analogy is supposed to be to something in the future—indeed, the ultimate future event? Any good writer, for clarity, would make this match, surely—unless he were trying to kid us.

Comedy has been defined, formally, as “the reversal of expectations.” This is comedy plain. It portrays the Second Coming itself as the ultimate reversal of expectations, the ultimate deus ex machina. The whole thing is a gag. Whatever we expect the Second Coming to be, it will not be.

I think what is most obviously meant by all this is a point we seem to have seen in the gospel before: the Second Coming is not a future event. This is necessarily true, as we have noted, for philosophical reasons: eternity is not an infinite progression of time, but a state outside of time. It is therefore equidistant from all moments, not a point following in sequence immediately after the last moment.

That immediately makes sense out of putting the analogy in the past tense. So does saying it is all “As it was in the days of Noah”--this almost more than implies, it almost states plainly that the essence of the Second Coming is already in the past, and has been with us since the day of Noah.

Tintoretto: The elect rise at the end of time. Your results may vary.

This also makes it necessarily true that we do not, cannot, “know the hour” at which Jesus will come. We cannot know, because it is not a future event. So long as we think if it as a future event, we are going to be wrong.

It also makes sense of Jesus's exhortation to “Stay awake!” On any obvious interpretation, indeed, this advice is meaningless. First, we do not know the hour—so how can we be sure of being awake at the hour? If it is all deus ex machina, how is being awake at that moment going to make a difference?

But if it is all always and eternally happening, Jesus's advice makes perfect sense. He is saying, in the present tense, “Wake up!” Wake up, that is, and you can see right now the Son of Man descending in clouds of glory.

Really? We can? Where?

Let's examine the other clues Jesus gives.

First, it is something or someone who appears to us, from our present perspective, more like a “thief in the night.”

Second, there's the striking image of people suddenly disappearing from daily life:

So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.

Has this sort of thing ever happened to you?

Death? That it is describing death is an obvious possibility; but it seems a but hyperbolic, a bit melodramatic, to describe death as a part of everyday life. That doesn't quite seem to pass the test. Nor is death, for most of us, all that sudden.

But what about sleep?

It indeed comes mostly in the night. While pleasant, it certainly does take us away from our daily work, in the fields or at the mill, and in doing so can easily be seen as a thief of our livelihood. It is certainly indeed a part of daily life. A person “disappears” from the field when he falls asleep.

Sleep as a metaphor for death? No—I summon Occam the Barber. Why not sleep as sleep? We can dream, can't we? Or, in an even more common and sudden circumstance, any of us can “disappear” from the surrounding scene when we slip into a daydream—as we commonly do, or ought, in prayer.

And by the way, one might interject here another puzzle: the end of time is supposed to involve the descent of heaven to earth, right? The merger of heaven with earth; no more separation of the two. So where in the passage is the person being left behind staying, and where is the person “taken” taken? Yes, I know the theory of the “Rapture,” but that sounds a lot too complicated to me. Occam again.

We perceive eternity, then, and the Kingdom of Heaven, when we dream or daydream. This sounds trivial, but perhaps only because we are inclined to see dreams as trivial. Dreams are surely not heaven itself—they are not, after all, uniformly and supremely joyful. They can even be quite hellish. But they may yet be an image of heaven, or of the afterlife—either a solid metaphor for it, or true heaven perceived now through a glass darkly, later face to face.

I think Occam would prefer we take the latter premise. When we engage our imaginations, then, as we do when we dream, daydream, or read a good novel, or watch a good play, or write one, we are not simply “making things up,” but imperfectly perceiving the real, existing, spiritual world, including Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell.

This world does, after all, have the interesting characteristic of being eternal. In our imaginations, time is completely fungible. We can be any age; we can revisit scenes from our distant youth, and they are right here now; we can imagine a completely realized future; we can walk and talk with the departed. We also seem to have a perfected body: we can, like the resurrected Jesus, walk through walls, rise in the air, or be in two places at one time.

Of course, this does not matter, because we know the world we imagine is not “real.” Right?

Do we really know this? How do we really know this? True, to some extent we seem to be able to actually influence events in the imaginary world—we can choose to imagine a large green peach, and it appears in the mind's eye. What of it—shouldn't such things be possible in heaven? After all, we also seem able to manipulate the physical world to a certain extent.

Another obvious argument for the imaginary world not being real is that there are no mutual dreams. If we stand beside someone in the field, and discuss the physical field, it is clear that we are both perceiving the same field. But if we sleep beside someone in the field, and discuss the dreams, it turns out we do not have the same dream.

Tissot: Two Women at a Mill. Choose one.

Or does it? Doesn't this all presuppose that the field is real and the dream not? After all, if you dream of being in a field with someone, and discuss the field with them in the dream, aren't the two perceptions likely indeed to correspond? But would this person in the dream be able to describe to you the room in which you are sleeping? Probably not.

Jesus may be making the same point. What that bit about one person disappearing, and one person staying, reminds me of, actually, is waking up from rather than slipping into a dream. It is waking from a reverie that is most likely to be that quick—it can be a jolt. At one moment you are dreaming you are working away in a field in the First Century AD, next to some companion, and in the next you are somewhere else entirely, in your own bed, in your own room, with its soft sheets and blue walls.

Except, of course, that what Jesus describes would be someone suddenly awakening from a dream as it would appear to the characters in the dream. Logically enough, when you wake up, and the people and the place in the dream disappear to you, to them it would appear instead as though you have disappeared, while the dream continues with them in it—if the dream world itself is real.

Jesus is saying, then, it rather seems, that the world of dreams is a real world--_the_ real world.

This seems to me to accord well with both the systematic inversions in the analogy and the repeated calls to wake up and to stay awake. They seem like arrows pointing in this direction. But the inversion is that it is the one left standing in the field who is truly awake, the character in the dream, while the one “taken” is falling asleep in eternity, since the perspective of eternity on these things is the opposite of our physical perspective.

If this seems difficult to understand, watch the film “Avatar.” It speaks truth in spite of itself.

So, in sum, on this reading of the gospel:
  1. the world that we experience in dreams is real, and
  2. it is the eternal world.
Put another way: “the kingdom of heaven is within.”

While what Jesus is saying is really fairly simple and plain, it is complicated by being close to the very opposite of the way we usually think of such things.

Mt. 24: 37-44

Jesus said to his disciples:
“As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.
They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.
So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Merry Christmas

On the Right to Move

My son is studying Ancient Greece; we are homeschooling, which means I get to read some things right along with him. An essay by Edith Hamilton claims that the concept of human freedom and human rights emerged in Greece. A bit debatable, but a common and defensible claim. It immediately occurred to me—though Hamilton not say it—that the reason it arose in Greece and not in Egypt, Persia, China, the Indus, or elsewhere was that the ancient Greeks were, uniquely, organized into small city states, and were mobile sea traders. I grasp what this means in a visceral way, because I have experienced the life of city states in the Persian/Arabian Gulf.

When you have a collection of small states, all close by and all sharing the same language and culture, with a mobile population, you automatically have both freedom and democracy. There is no way to avoid it. This is because, if a government becomes oppressive, each citizen has the simple option of moving to the next city.

That's a pretty strong guarantee of one's rights—the worst the government can ever do to you is exile, and exile to a place that looks and feels a lot like home. Yes, Athens executed Socrates: but the philosopher could have saved himself by simply moving to Thebes. He refused for philosophical reasons. You wouldn't have that option in Persia or Egypt.

No matter what the official form of government, therefore, this made all Greek states, for the wealthier classes, democracies, and purer democracies than we have now. In fact, even better if there were a variety of forms of government on offer—if democracy did not work for you, you could personally opt for an oligarchy or a monarchy.

In effect, this was a free market in government. Each polis had to compete with the others for citizens.

This seems to have produced not just democracy and human rights, but the explosion of art, ideas, and science—of culture—that made Greece the foundation civilization for all of Europe, the Antipodes, and the Americas. It gave Greece a massive advantage in human development, which in turn allowed it to race ahead of all rival cultures, including in a military sense. This was put to the test and proven by Alexander the Great.

I would posit that this was because the brightest and most creative are among those most likely to be oppressed by government. They are most likely, like Socrates, to appear to be a challenge or a danger to the authorities, and so to be put down. Only a free market in government protects them from this, and leaves them able to do their best work undisturbed. For this reason, creative types seem very much inclined when able to live much of their lives in exile: Picassos, Hemingways, Joyces, Einsteins, Hesses, Hitchcocks, Teslas, Kubricks, and so on.

To test the hypothesis, we can perhaps look for situations similar to Ancient Greece elsewhere, and see if they seem to be associated with the same effects.

I have already mentioned the Arabian or Persian Gulf. Observe the booming city states of Dubai, Qatar, and Bahrain to see something similar. It's all because of oil, you argue? Consider this: Bahrain and Dubia have next to no oil. Iraq and Iran are swimming in it. So why are the boom cities not Tehran and Baghdad?

Answer: Dubai, Qatasr, and Bahrain are small city states competing with each other and their neghbours for the allegience of their citizens. Iraq and Iran are large nations.

Compare, again, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—small city states; mostly sharing a culture. And still doing better than the mainland monolith.

Let us turn now, if we may, to other historical examples. Consider the Jews. Their wandering has been traditionally considered a hardship; but it can also be seen as their greatest good fortune. Jewish culture is international and not tied to any one land. Being traders, not farmers, Jews were the folks who could quickly pick up stakes and move if a government became oppressive. The visible result: almost everywhere they have lived, despite official restrictions and sometimes outright repression, the Jews have had greater wealth, greater learning, and greater personal accomplishment than the surrounding population. One might almost call them a light unto the nations.

Now consider the Renaissance. Long and various have been the arguments about what exactly triggered it. The most common idea is that it was caused by the fall of Constantinople, and the dispersion of Greek learning to the rest of Europe.

By itself, a non sequitor; if so, why did we not have the Renaissance in Constantinople?

What we do know is that it appeared first in Italy, at a time when it was broken up into small city states, and made its living primarily by sea trading. Sound familiar?

And we know that it spread next to the lowlands noth of Germany—again, small city states that made their living primarily by sea trading.

It later spread to larger nations—Spain, France, and England. But only after, and more or less immediately after, the colonization of the New World.

The New World had the same significance as small neighbouring city states, in terms of mobility rights. But in one sense, even more so. Because the New World colonies offered new land, mobility now extended to farmers as well as bourgeoisie. Serfdom, more or less immediately, was dead.

More broadly, the fact that it was broken down into relatively small independent jurisdictions with similar cultures probably gave Europe the vitality to race ahead of China and the Arab world over the past millenium, to the extent that these tiny, divided states rose to become the world's masters.

Even within modern Europe, isn't it interesting that the relatively small, and culturally almost identical, states of Scandinavia tend to do better economically, in terms of general human development, and in terms of order and good government, than the larger and more monolithic states to their South?

Imperial England, in its heyday, worked in about the same way, because those feeling constrained had the option to head off to the colonies for a freer life. British ascendancy within Europe was aided, quite likely, by a British tendency to allow colonies much more self-government than did, say, Spain or France. The Thirteen Colonies were run as separate entities; whereas France unified hers as “New France,” and Spain and Portugal always tried to do the same.

America's dynamism has been a continuation of this principle. It has been fed, on the one hand, by the existence of the frontier, of the eternal option of pulling up stakes and heading west to be free of local restrictions; and on the other by the federal system, devolving power as much as possible down to the state level. As a result, when racial segregation began to bite across the South, blacks had the option of jumping the next bus and heading for the Northeast. When high taxes and restrictions on the right to work began to bite in the Northeast, workers and merchants had the option of jumping the next bus South. This gives America a creativity and a resilience which has served it well.

Unfortunately, of all the established human rights, mobility rights are probably the most neglected and least understood. Moreover, unlike almost all the others, it has been in steady decline. Check the Magna Carta—citizens were allowed much more mobility back then. Restrictions on merchants crossing borders to trade were unheard of, and constitutionally prohibited except in times of war.

I am not talking so much about free and unrestricted immigration. That may or may not be valuable, but it is not really the same thing, because it involves a change of culture. This creates other issues. Real mobility rights exist when those of a given culture and ethnicity have a clear range of jurisdictions to choose from, while keeping their personal wealth and more or less the same culture they grew up in.

If the English-speaking world, for example, wants to preserve its present dominance, as well as its personal freedoms, it has a great opportunity. The best thing it could do is to open up completely unrestricted immigration between the English-speaking countries. There ought to be no fuss or paperwork for anyone wishing to move between England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Anglophone islands of the Caribbean.

Internally, the US has been moving away from States' rights since the Civil War. This is a mistake especially combined with the loss of the frontier. The value of federations is in providing for mutual defense, and in ensuring mobility rights. Anything beyond this is probably harmful.

For other nations, contrary to popular opinion, their best hope of development and competition, Perheven military, is probably to subdivide into smaller units, rather than to unite. Instead of seeking reunification, China should be grateful for the independent existence of Taiwan, along with Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macau. They are probably the secret of its present success, such as it is.

And the Arab world should forget about unifying. The division into separate states is not a weakness. Although it has yet to produce an Arab or a Muslim Renaissance, it is also a very new circumstance. The Turkish Caliphate was shattered less than a century ago. The ferment of independent states pursuing different models is their best hope for the future.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More North Korean Hijinks

A friend of mine, ex-USAF intelligence, has asked me for my opinion of the significance of the recent North Korean bombardment of the South.

I'm flattered. Now I feel obliged to come up with something.

Some day, my son, all this will be yours.

What is pretty certain is that the North Korean government is not trying to start a war. If they were ever to have any chance to win a war with the South, it would only be on a quick and massive surprise attack. They have no reserves, no supply train, no industrial strength to resupply, and virtually no spare parts. Over time once battle was joined, the South would gain strength from new US forces landing, as in the 50s, while the North would be vulnerable to blockade at sea and probably cannot count on China to keep land supply routes open—no raw materials nor fuel. Blitzkreig is their only winning strategy, if they have one. The worst thing to do then, would be to give the South protracted prior warning before full hostilities began.Which is what this incident would do, if it were meant to provoke a war.

So the action is intrinsically irrational, given that it indeed amounts to an act of war by normal measures.

Several possible reasons for such recklessness have been advanced:

  1. To show the toughness of young Kim Jong Un, to convince the military that he his fit to lead.
  2. To blackmail the rest of the world into sending more aid.
  3. As a move in some kind of internal struggle over power.

I think Option 1 is the least likely. Is it self-evident that making reckless use of force is going to impress the military? Wouldn't it be just as likely to convince them that Jong Un is nuts? Who knows the odds of winning the war better than the top military? Why do people always assume that military men want war? They're the ones most likely to get killed (or found wanting) when it happens.

Besides, why would anyone near the top or on the street suppose that the decision was really made by Jong Un, as opposed to his semidivine father or some other power behind the throne on his behalf? I note too that the North Korean press has played down the incident internally. If it were meant to build up Jong Un among the public, it would be played up.

Option 2, that it is a bid to get more aid, seems more plausible. That's been the North's standard MO in the past. It would be just another stickup in a series; and it is hard for hardened criminals to break the easy-money habit. Certainly, there seem to have been other recent deliberate attempts to get the world's attention. Last March, there was the actual sinking of a South Korean warship. Just a few days ago, US scientists were gratuitously given a tour of North Korean centrifuges, revealing that the North's uranium enrichment program was far more advanced than previously thought. And I still believe—along, I learn, with Glen Beck, who claims US military sources have privately confirmed this—that the mysterious “contrails” off LA last week were a missile, and I think most likely a North Korean one.

And the government of the South has recently been playing tough, and cut off the aid the North had come to depend on.

That may be enough to explain it. Given that the North has cried wolf before so many times, and given that they are now dealing with a “get tough” government in the South, they may have made the judgement that it is necessary this time to rattle the sabres that much harder.

Still, to me, this smells a bit desperate. How confident can they be that they will not instead provoke exactly the opposite reaction? My thesis, therefore, is that the North's situation might be rather more desperate than we realize—deperate enough that it seems a worthwhile gamble to risk more severe sanctions or even war for the hope of getting more aid.

That, however, leads to Option 3. Frankly, in the past, the government of the North has made it quite clear by their actions that they did not especially care if the people were starving. They weren't. Their only concern was to stay in power. Accordingly, even mass starvation in itself would not matter now. And if the government were worried about unrest in the general population, the thing to do would again be to play up instead of play down the incident in the internal press, to unite the people (and the common ranks of the military) behind the present leadership for fear of a common enemy.

But the people do not matter.

What would matter in a palace power struggle is having goodies to hand out to key supporters, for use or resale at a profit. So the apparent desperation seems to suggest a power struggle with an uncertain outcome is going on, in which a few more bottles of scotch or sacks of aid rice here or there might make all the difference.

We know for sure that Kim Jong Il and Jong Un are on one side in this struggle; we cannot tell who is on the other side. Perhaps they cannot either.

The military is always the body best poised for a coup, just about anywhere, let alone in North Korea, where it is bigger than everything else put together. But presumably any aid coming in would be in the hands of Jong Il, Jong Un, and the present government powers, in the first instance. If the recent military actions are to scare up aid, that suggests instead that at least a significant part of the military is still fully in their control. Helping them acquire aid would necessarily be to the detriment of the opposition faction—so the military, or portions of the military, in energetically helping them acquire aid, must be with them.

The other possible power base is the secret police; they could pull off something by stealth, and here the odd bottle of Johnny Walker or Napoleon cognac could matter most. They might also be able to arrange it so that the aid fell into their hands. Not so easy, though; they could perhaps take down the present leadership, but any new man stepping in would need the instant support of the military to stay in power. Who would have the stature? Wouldn't the response of the top military instead be to immediately enforce their own claims instead? And if stealth is needed for the plan to work, they could hardly be doing something so public as shelling the next country down.

It seems most likely therefore that this is all not about a present struggle, but an anticipated and imminent one. For now, the government of North Korea is apparently still more or less in control. But we already know Kim Jong Il is close to death. This, along with the recent revelation of the centrifuges, and the sinking of the Cheonan, might be a sort of of chess opening for an anticipated difficult struggle for the succession, by the backers of Jong Un. The missile launch, if it was that, could work in the same way—not just to possibly scare more bucks out of the US, but also to scare up some fast buyers for the technology. They may want some money in their hands in time to secure the succession with strategic bribes.

In sum, it looks as though those in power in Pyongyang are expecting Jong-Il to die soon, probably in a matter of a year or two, if not less, and they are expecting all hell to break loose as soon as he does.

Perhaps so should we.

If this ananlysis is correct, I think it is also a bad idea to give in and send any aid. If anyone does, it will not help the general population; it will help the government stay in power. As, no doubt, it always has. Wouldn't it be better for all concerned if the present regime fell, even if that involved a little chaos? Given how bad this government is, don't we have nowhere to go but up?

Of course, it also ensures future provocations, by rewarding such conduct.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Telegraph Overrules Pope on Catholic Doctrine

Good news for longsuffering Canadians. Or what has to pass for good news in Canada. It turns out our own CTV is not the worst when it comes to misreporting the latest news from the Catholic Church. Here's what the subscribers to Britain's Telegraph woke up to read:

The Pope drops Catholic ban on condoms in historic shift

The Pope has signalled a historic shift in the position of the Roman Catholic Church by saying condoms can be morally justified.

Who knew? 

Certainly not the Pope.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Christ the King

Crucifixion, 15th century, with the Good Thief to your left.

Welcome to the Christmas—that is, the Advent—season. This last Sunday was the Feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, which begins anew with Advent.

The Gospel, from Luke (23: 35-43), tells of the crucifixion of Jesus as “King of the Jews.” A bit odd, at first glance, for the celebration of Christ's kingship at the end of time.

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
"He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God." 
Even the soldiers jeered at him. 
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
"If you are King of the Jews, save yourself." 
Above him there was an inscription that read,
"This is the King of the Jews."

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
"Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us." 
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply,
"Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal."
Then he said,
"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
He replied to him,
"Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise."

Above him there was an inscription that read “This is the King of the Jews.” That's it.

If not humour—not a lot of laughs at a multiple execution--there is obvious irony here. The rulers and soldiers mock Jesus for being quite visibly not a king; and yet this genuinely represents his true coronation as Christ the King, ruler of the cosmos.

Crazy? Not so—the point is, this fact is apparent at the time. Apparent, not to the rulers of this world, but to one of the two thieves executed with him. The second thief says to Jesus, “remember me when you come into your kingdom”--despite the obvious appearances, right then and there, he understands that Jesus really is the King. And right at that moment: “today,” Jesus responds, “you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus (your right) welcomes Dismas (your left) into Paradise.

How is this possible?

Note first that Jesus's reference to “today” does not seem to mean the obvious, that they are both about to die and go to heaven. It is not just that one would expect the thief to first spend some time in Purgatory for his crimes—perhaps dying on a cross means that he has already paid all debts in this life. It is that Jesus himself does not go directly to Heaven—he spends three days harrowing Hell first.

No—“today” in this reading must be the “Eternal Now”--once we get there, all days are today in heaven, including not just days in the future, but days in the past as well—in the same sense that “The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You” at all times. Even on the cross, Jesus was already the Cosmic Christ, and Dismas was already in paradise. The grace of the crucifixion radiates backwards as well as forwards in time.

So it is already and always the Feast of Christ the King.

The Good Thief enters Paradise (your left).

The next obvious question is, how does St. Dismas know? How does this man, despite all appearances to the contrary, know more or less instantly that the man being crucified next to him is the King of the Universe? Would we know, in his position?

As readers here, we know only two things about Dismas—the gospel gives us only two clues to the source of this great insight. First, we know with certainly—he has himself admitted, had we not the authorities' word for it as well—that he is a sinner, a thief. St. Dismas is being executed for an act that genuinely deserves execution in his own estimation. Second, we know that he has a very strong sense of justice, of right and wrong. Even in the face of his own death, he is not as concerned about death as about the question of whether it is rightful or not. And, even at the point of his own death, his first concern is the wrong being done to the man beside him.

It is a question of justice, too, not merely compassion for Jesus as a sufferer. For, were the Good Thief motivated by compassion instead of justice, wouldn't he be equally compassionate to the thief who mocks Jesus? Yet he makes the firm distinction—the other thief deserves his fate. He didn't have to say that, did he?

When Dismas says, “remember me when you come into your kingdom,” therefore, we can be certain, even given the little we know about him, that St. Dismas means this earnestly, not just as a comfortable lie to ease a delusional neighbour's last moments. This is not a man for comfortable or convenient lies, for himself or others.

How does he know? Not because he is a great sinner—welcome to the human condition. It must be, instead, because of this uncommonly strong sense of justice.

Being a moral absolutist, having a clear and inelastic view of right and wrong—even though he obviously did not always follow its direction—St. Dismas

If, then, one sees these unjust rulers put a man to torture and death, at the same time mocking him, as if he were the worst of all possible criminals, and there is no visible, credible reason for them to condemn the man, the case is obvious: this must be the rightful ruler.

This should indeed be equally apparent to us. Christ crucified is Christ crowned as rightful king of the world. It is, accordingly, the height of theological mischief to try to avert attention from the crucifixion.

Given that for Dismas, right and wrong are absolute and inalienable values, they necessarily cannot be made to be otherwise than they are. This is like the doctrine of human rights: the rights are real and absolute regardless of whether this or that government recognizes them. Therefore, regardless of present appearances, Jesus really is king. So Dismas addresses him as such.

Jesus corrects him, slightly. Dismas imagines this present, physical world as a place of exile, from which Jesus will “come into his kingdom” in the future, as perhaps he departed from it at some past date. Dismas is still speaking from the viewpoint of the present, physical world. Jesus, speaking from the viewpoint of eternity, corrects him: you and I, he explains, are in Paradise today.

So are we all, if God is on the next cross.

And hence this reading is appropriate for the Feast of Christ the King.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Heaven, with the Good Thief entering at the upper right.
All images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As a separate reflection, emerging from the reading, the extent to which Jesus, the rightful ruler, is acknowledged as such is a precisely accurate measure of the legitimacy and moral uprightness of any leader or regime, in any “Western” (i.e., historically Christian) jurisdiction.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

CTV Says Catholic-Bashing Can Be Justified for Journalists

The headline over at CTV today reads, in big blue type,

"Pope says condoms can be justified for male prostitutes"

The full relevant excerpt from a new book actually reads:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.
Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

Seems to me obvious dishonesty to change "first step in the direction of moralization" to "justified." By that reading, if one were to point out that when Himmler started killing Jews with gas, invisibly, instead of shooting them, this was at least a first step towards revealing an awakening conscience, the accurate headline would be

"Blogger Steve Roney Says Gassing Jews Can Be Justified for Nazis." 

I can't believe the journalists are simply too stupid to be able to read properly. No, malice must be aforethought.

Your GOP Ticket Forms

I watch this today, and a few things occur to me:

1. Chris Christie is indeed planning to run for President.

2. He would be a formidable candidate and probably a formidable president. He knows how to communicate.

3. Public school teachers are doomed. Even if Christie does not win, he's painted a big bright fluorescent target on their back as a winning populist issue.

Personally, right now, I think if Christie runs, he's the best option the Republicans have. I think he would run extremely well against Obama. His obvious off-the-cuff ease would make Obama look like a stuffed dummy.

I can even imagine a "Chris and Mike Show," with Huckabee in the number two slot. They'd be awesome. Two funny fat guys; balance north and south, but in other ways rather similar personalities. And both enjoyable to listen to.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Slow Train Coming

My friend the left-wing columnist is stumped, he admits, by the recent US midterm elections. He attributes them to “unfocussed anger” from older people in the US upset over America's supposedly declining power in the world.

No kidding.

This is pretty dramatic evidence that there are two distinct cultures in contemporary North America, and at least one of them is completely ignoring the other.

In fact, my friend's reaction in and by itself seems to dramatically prove the validity of the concerns of the Tea Party.

Unfocussed anger? These elections had a laser focus like nothing I had seen in my lifetime. Not only were the issues laser-clear since early summer, but this election was almost perfectly predicted in the polls. In two sentences, here's the message:

  1. Stop spending money, and
  2. You're not listening and you don't care.

This is so obvious it is in the name of the “Tea Party” movement. Moreover, a nearly spontaneous mass movement like the TP appears to be has to coalesce around something that is pretty obvious to a vast mass of people, or else it is not going to happen. How is it then that, even if left-wingers do not agree with this perception, they cannot even be aware of other people having it? Obviously, they are not in fact listening, and they don't care. That is, they are not listening to anyone outside their own little clique, and they don't care what anyone else thinks if they are outside this clique. They are, in other words, a self-interested ruling class.

Some time last year, MSNBC featured a panel of economic experts loudly disagreeing online; as one often also sees on Fox News.

This, indeed, is the Fox News trademark; it is why they can call themselves “fair and balanced” and why the average person agrees with them. Yes, their commentators are all or almost all conservative-leaning; but that is not relevant. What matters is that they consistently have spokespeople on for both sides of any issue; so that people can feel pretty confident they are hearing all sides of the issue, from the horse's mouth, and any commentary is clearly labelled as such.

Besides getting both sides, and being respected for thinking for themselves [“We report; you decide.”], people love the excitement of hearing such arguments. MSNBC, more recently, has carved a niche for themselves by imitating the Fox format, but featuring star commentators resolutely on the left.

It is striking, and pathological, that the “legacy media,” print or broadcast, rarely does this. If and when they host what they purport to be two sides of an issue, it is usually faked, and this is visible from the plain fact that the two commentators usually agree on most things in their discussion. The permitted grounds for debate have been severely limited before the debate itself can begin. This is a visible attempt to limit public discourse, and it speaks directly to what the Tea Party and the midterm elections were all about.

To get back to MSNBC: one of the speakers, Rick Santelli, during a heated exchange when everyone was offering different opinions on the best economic path to follow, just threw up his hands and started repeating loudly and clearly, “STOP SPENDING! STOP SPENDING! STOP SPENDING!” Then he walked off camera.

Here's the link:

It was a marvellously clarifying moment; it was the Tea Party in one simple sound bite; and so dramatic it was rerun many times, and garnered close to 200,000 hits on YouTube. I've heard the slogan repeated as a catch phrase a lot of times since, in what I think it a deliberate allusion: “Just stop spending.”

Few political messages in history have ever been clearer. Yet, even though it was on MCNBC, their own house channel, the left, and my friend, missed it altogether.

We are in a worldwide recession.

It is the worst since the Great Depression.

The average person is hurting.

A lot of people have lost a lot of money through over-borrowing; that's what happened in the housing bubble.

What do we all do when times get tough? What _must_ we all do? Basic, kitchen-table economics: we cut back our spending.

Yet everyone has recently been watching the US government increase spending and borrowing to unprecedented levels.

Americans know they or their children will be left with the bill.

What about this is hard to understand?

Here's another good video on the issue, as it affects Britain—where the new government has been behaving far more responsibly than the Democrats in Washington.

Granted that the left or Obama or the Democrats may subscribe to Keynesian economics. Keynes may even be right, or partly right—though most economists these days seem to believe he was wrong. Even so, why on earth would the left or Obama or the legacy media think they could go extravagantly against common sense without bothering to present their argument clearly and humbly to the general public every step of the way? This speaks to being out of touch. This speaks to a sense of privilege, of a right to rule.

The second, broader, issue of being out of touch was crystallized recently by an essayist in the American Spectator:

It was picked up and pushed hard by Rush Limbaugh on talk radio; it was rushed into book form over the summer.

I think Codevilla's argument is actually a bit less than coherent; but it picked up on and laid out a growing sentiment in the US public, the same sentiment that generated the Tea Party movement.

The idea is strong and growing, in the US and across the developed world, thanks to the Internet busting what had been an information cartel, that the world is being run by a ruling class that looks out for its own interests, not the interests of the world or the general public, and deliberately limits access to information in order to sustain its power. One important result is that government is not truly representative. Hence the “Tea Party” reference: it's about taxation without representation.

This ruling class, however, seems to me to have sealed their own doom, through a spectacular complacency. The newspapering business is classic: it is not really that traditional newspapers are doomed by the technology. The technology ought to expand the market and boost the business, because it makes the product cheaper. The problem, rather, is that no one wants the product; and they now have alternatives. By contrast, new technology has done nothing to slow down talk radio—a positively antique medium--or Fox News. Instead, news organization after news organization is sinking into insolvency because of complacency and a sense of privilege which prevents them from stooping to see or react to the world as it really is; or indeed stooping to interest themselves in the wishes or needs of their audience.

In systematically choking the flow of information for their class benefit, they have, inevitably, as ruling classes usually end up doing, starved their own members of the very information needed for their survival.

As a result, instead of trying in any way to counter the obvious popular concerns that appeared over the past year or two, the Democrats and the “legacy press” seemed to do, and still seem to do, their darndest to reinforce the impression that they are out of touch and do not care. It was all amazing to watch: like someone standing on a track with a milk train bearing down on him, and no sign of awareness visible on his face at all. It seemed the dramatic final proof that the elite were not in synch with the rest of us, and indeed that they were not competent. Everybody else saw it coming a mile off down the prairie.

Now, even after the election, we are all seeing columns from the left still wondering what happened and positing arcane theories. Frankly, most of them boil down more or less to stating publicly that the average voter is stupid and not competent to govern his own affairs. This is the tone of a ruling class, not used to communicating with the public, and not interested in doing so.

It is all like the apocryphal comment attributed to Marie Antoinette--”Let them eat cake.”

This is an over-generalization, but, on the whole, the Republicans in the US have tended to be the party of the individual, and to have appealed to voters as individuals. The Democrats have tended to be the party of groups and group rights, and to have appealed to voters as members of some special interest group—blacks, women, Catholics, Southerners, the elderly, Hispanics, teachers, unions, auto workers, gays, and so forth.

With the growth of the Internet and the information explosion it has made possible, it is no longer nearly as viable to appeal to voters as members of special interest groups. It is no longer nearly as possible to speak only to their supposed “leaders,” themselves members of your own ruling class, and expect the average member of the group to tug his forelock and vote the party line. People are more able now to look into each issue for themselves and form their own opinion.

And, having the clear impression now from what new information they have seen on the Web that they have been systematically lied to by their leaders in the past, they are very much inclined to do so.

As a result, overall, the Republican Party's approach begins to work better than the Democratic Party's approach. I expect this advantage to grow. The Democrats will have to reinvent themselves as something else to survive. The Republicans, on the other hand, may be supplanted by the Tea Party.

The same dynamic seems to be at work in Canada and Europe. There are exceptions, of course, but traditional voting blocs and deference to traditional authorities are fading.

I see it as a new chapter in human freedom and a further advancement in the democratic ideal, at least on a par with the Renaissance.