Discover more from Leaves in the Wind
Thoughts In and Out of Season
Occasioned by the times
[Those of you who already received this post, which went out a few days ago, please pardon the redundancy. As a result of some technical issues across the Substack platform, it did not go out to everyone.]
1. I was sent a screenshot of someone’s comments on Twitter—directed at certain persons (myself among them) who had condemned Patriarch Kirill of Moscow for his support of Putin’s war—rebuking us for presumptuously “choosing martyrdom for someone else.” Now, it is true that it requires no very great reserves of courage on our parts, living far away from Russia, openly to deplore Putin’s mass murder of Ukrainians; and it is equally true that it would indeed be an act of extraordinary bravery for any prominent person in Russia publicly to denounce the war. That, however, does not matter in this case. No one has chosen the path of martyrdom for Kirill; he chose it for himself when he consented to become patriarch. He chose to accept the rôle of a vicar of Christ, and in doing so implicitly chose to bear Christ’s cross. That absurdly vulgar gold lamé piece of millinery that sits atop his head when he is fully tricked out in the sumptuous finery of his office may be a crown of glory, but it is also—if the situation warrants it—a crown of thorns. In the case of most persons, yes, it would be wrong to demand more courage from them than they have or can afford to give. In the case of a patriarch—or, for that matter, any bishop or priest—it would be wrong to do otherwise. From them, in certain situations, martyrdom is the very least that one should expect.
2. Of course, the fiction here is that Kirill is actually in any sense a Christian. He is, it seems fairly obvious, basically a satanist (even if he has somehow gotten some of the names in the story confused). His failure to denounce Putin is not the dereliction of a coward. Would that it were. It would be more pardonable then. Instead, he is simply a deeply evil man who has long been not only an accomplice of Putin’s, but an ideological influence on the little monster as well. When he calls for the eradication of Ukraine, he does so not as a concession to his fear, but out of the exuberance of his convictions. Nor is he in any sense unique in the current Russian church. Consider the words of Archdeacon Vladimir Vasilik, who is a professor and a member of the Synodal Liturgical Commission:
"We can say that those who are being released from Ukraine are not very happy to be released. Of course, especially now, when they have to sit in the basement, expecting rockets and bombs, to suffer deprivation and various sufferings, the death of loved ones. It is natural for people to want peace and not think about big politics and the future. But no surgery is devoid of blood and pain. The patient may murmur before the doctor, ‘I was better off with the tumor before.’ But then he will understand that his life has been saved... ”
It puts one in mind of that Billy Joel song—“You’re going to kick off before you even get halfway through;/So when will you realize Gehenna waits for you?” (It goes something like that, I feel fairly sure.) In any event, the Russian Orthodox church of the Moscow patriarchate is now officially a fascist cult of blood and soil—a cult to which every diocese and parish anywhere in the world that elects to remain under the authority of, or in communion with, the patriarchate of Moscow now also belongs.
3. Some commentators on television, in print, and online have expressed surprise that Xi Jinping would be considering anything so imprudent as giving Russia military or financial assistance. Surely, the reasoning goes, he must be aware that China’s GDP depends almost entirely on good trade relations with the West, and that Russia’s economy was scarcely impressive before the current regime of sanctions was imposed. Why would he want to encumber his growing and thriving nation with the moldering corpse of a gigantic empire? Such questions all seem to presume that Xi is self-evidently a more rational and practical man than Putin. And no doubt there is something of an “orientalist” expectation out there that China’s leaders are always subtler, more cunning, more deliberate, and more “inscrutable” than those of the West (though the Cultural Revolution ought to have disabused us of that fantasy long ago). Well, Xi may be less delusional than Putin, but it is only a matter of degree. He too is a dictator who has wielded absolute power long enough to begin to believe his own mythology. He, no less than Putin, sees himself as the man who will establish his nation’s greatness and ultimate supremacy in the world. His cult of personality rivals that of Mao; indeed, he is the only Chinese premier other than Mao to have assumed the title of “Leader of the People.” He has also been dubbed “The Great Helmsman” of the country and the “Eternal Heart” of his party. He is celebrated constantly in popular media: popular songs, television extravaganzas, traveling dance troupes, books, children’s comics, and so forth. Nor can he bear mockery. The figure of Winnie the Pooh is now illegal in Chinese media because Xi was once unflatteringly compared to the Disney image of Pooh-bear. (Mind you, I think the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh should be illegal as well, as an abominable blasphemy against the original books, so I cannot entirely fault him there.) His political philosophy—known by the lapidary title “Xi Jinping Thought”—was adopted into the constitution in 2017 as the “essence of Chinese identity.” It is impossible to say how seriously Xi takes Putin’s “Eurasian” vision of the future; but he certainly shares Putin’s dream of seeing the centers of the world’s economic, military, and cultural power shift away from North America and Western Europe.
4. This is good reminder that there is real wisdom in the policy of most stable republics and functioning democracies of imposing term limits on state executives. They should always be forced to vacate office before they have a chance to grow deranged. For myself, I would like to see term limits on every office of power in our system, including seats on the Supreme Court and, of course, Commissioner of Baseball.
5. A decade or two ago, there was quite a lot of talk of the “Anglosphere,” and of India’s emerging importance within it. Now, under the sordid government of Prime Minister Modi, India has grown close to Putin’s Russia. Admittedly, much of that has to do with India’s reliance on Russian arms; the subcontinent is situated in a dangerous neighborhood, as the saying goes. But it is a tragic thing to witness, and one cannot help but feel that India’s national policy at present is simply preparing the way for the country’s gradual assumption into China’s regional hegemony—despite India’s nuclear arsenal and all that Russian weaponry that Modi keeps buying.
6. There is really no greater mystery in human affairs than the willingness of men and women to surrender power to men of mad ambition and then to keep them in power no matter the consequences. Of course, every government is a complex and intricately coordinated system of powers and constraints, and once someone has been installed in the highest position within the hierarchy of state powers it becomes difficult for any one person or one faction to imagine that he, she, or it might be able to remove that person from his position again. And yet it remains the case that the most powerful of dictators preserve their rule as much by institutional inertia as by any actual quantum of power in their personal possession. A dictator’s subordinates obey him because of their perception that he has the authority to command them; but he has the authority to command them only because they continue to obey. As a matter of practical reality, he could easily—isolated as he is there at the top of the pyramid—be toppled from his high eminence should those below him in the hierarchy choose to act against him. But they are too busy looking from side to side, at all those other subordinates whose loyalties they presume he holds, to look upward to where he stands, precariously balanced at the apex of power, and see him for the unimpressive thing he is. It is all very curious. It is especially baffling when one realizes that dictators are invariably mediocrities; great minds do not aspire to become despots. Those who assume absolute rule have always profited from certain fortuitous circumstances, and then taken advantage of them out more of low cunning than of high policy. That is why, sooner or later, such a man will—oh, I don’t know—invade Russia while fighting a war on several other fronts, or send a military whose only skill is the mass murder of unarmed civilians into an indomitably immense country like Ukraine.
7. I resent the events of the last half decade and more for having forced me to take voting much more seriously than I used to do. When Groucho Marx resigned from the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, he did so by sending a wire in which he explained that he did not care to belong to any club that would accept him as a member (at least, that is one version of the story). It is a line I used to like to plagiarize, though in an inverted and far less amusing form, to explain my aversion to electoral politics: I do not care to cast a vote for any person who has the temerity to run for high office. That is not to say that I did not vote in past years, but only that I rarely did so with anything resembling enthusiasm. I take it as axiomatic that anyone who actively seeks power should probably not be trusted with its exercise. He or she is too likely to prove a deranged egomaniac or a moral simpleton, and should be presumed emotionally or ethically incompetent for elective office unless there is absolutely incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. A reluctant Cincinnatus should always be favored over an ambitious Caesar; but our system does not have a place for the former. Consequently, I have never been a member of either of the two major political parties in America. For many years I tended to think of them simply as “The War and Wall Street Party” and “The Other War and Wall Street Party.” But now, in the past six or so years it has become impossible to ignore the reality that only one of the two continues to function as a party at all, or even as a collection of adults, if not very impressively. Republican lawmakers are now drawn almost exclusively from the stupidest of the evil and the evilest of the stupid. A party that visited Donald Trump on the world—a party whose congressional delegation comprises the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Louis Gohmert, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz—a party that clings to its rule by trying to prevent certain historically disenfranchised voters from having access to the polls—well, all in all, it is clearly headed for perdition. And one horrifying thought that has been recurring in my mind ever since Russia invaded Ukraine is how much worse things would have been had Trump still been in office when it happened. In my heart of hearts, I want to vote for someone whose entire political philosophy is derived from John Ruskin by way of Kenneth Grahame, with lashings of William Cobbett, Gilbert White, and William Morris; failing that, I want to enjoy the luxury of writing in Wendell Berry on every ballot. But the imminent collapse of the civil order of the entire world doth make pragmatists of us all. I long for the day, however, when I can return to my posture of airily insouciant disdain for the whole system and can again cast votes only for hopeless third party candidates with a clear conscience. But I suspect I will die before that day comes.
8. I still, by the way, maintain that in most circumstances my attitude is the most prudent, if only because of the narrowness of the options before us most of the time. It is something of a commonplace to observe that, from the 60’s to the turn of the present century, the “right” more or less won the political argument on economic issues while the “left” won the political argument on social issues. In either case, naturally, things now and then dashed forward a mite too precipitously, which led to a predictable but only partial retreat—three steps forward, two steps back, that is—but the general drift of culture during that time was quite inexorable and quite evident. Ours is a libertarian society that rests upon an economic foundation of consumerism. Late modernity is the triumph of a kind of polymorphous voluntarism with regard to material things, and even with regard to immaterial things. Such a culture must necessarily gravitate towards an ever more indeterminate and minimalist view of civic and private ethics, no matter which faction enjoys putative rule at any given moment. Surely it constitutes an altogether poignant paradox that, on account of the vagaries and historical incidentals of political affiliation, many of those who argue most passionately for the unhindered liberty of the free market are also those who most keenly lament the decay of the moral and social consensus of the past (whatever they imagine it to have been), and the rise of an ever more permissive and ever coarser popular culture, and the disintegration of the nuclear family (and so forth). But the modern market is sustained by consumerism, and a consumerist culture thrives on the fabrication of an ever greater diversity of desires that may be guiltlessly pursued; such a culture irresistibly demands that the province of inhibition, prohibition, shame, and confining values become ever smaller. Not to sound too Marxist (or, perhaps, too “incarnational”) about this, but the ideological shape of a society cannot be divorced from its material basis. In the end, politics is the servant of cultural forces, not their master, and political parties are principally decorative conventions. It used to comfort us to believe that, by casting a ballot, we really had the power to determine the course of our society on a grand scale; it was a polite and comforting fiction that to choose between what are essentially two large marketing conglomerates, selling much the same product, was to participate at large in the shaping of the future. It not only made us feel free—in more or less the same way that choosing among advertised goods makes us feel free—but reassured us also that we were involved together in, and were responsible for, the great drama of the nation’s democracy. But, if there is one lesson to be learned from the social history of America over the past several decades, it is that culture will proceed as it will, and that the electoral success of a political party has very little bearing on which elements of its ostensible platform will be translated into civic realities. And once faith in the system disintegrates, everything becomes a pitched battle for the future (or for the past).
9. My general sense of the arbitrariness of the association between certain ideological tendencies and certain political parties may come in part from the happy fact that I am a Marylander—and, for those of you who do not share that incandescent distinction, I understand your envy. (Actually, I am all too keenly aware of both the good and the bad in Maryland’s history.) As Maryland is a southern state (not that one would know it now), even in the early years of my life it was still a state in which the Republicans were the progressive party and the Democrats were segregationists. George Wallace, in fact, won the Democratic primary there in 1972 (mind you, he had also just been shot and rendered partially paralyzed in Laurel, Maryland, so there was perhaps something of a pity vote involved). When Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, the integration of Maryland’s schools went far more smoothly than it did in the lower south in part because, as a border state, Maryland had always had a far more mixed view on civil rights than did, say, Arkansas or Mississippi, but also in part because of the governorship of the extremely admirable progressive Republican Theodore (Roosevelt) McKeldin (1900-1974). That same year, he had defeated the segregationist Democratic nominee Harry C. Byrd, the president of the University of Maryland at College Park who had come to public prominence for his resistance to admitting black students into the UMD program. Not that any of this is particularly germane to anything today, but I just wanted to mention Theodore McKeldin as an example of a politician who was also a genuine public servant, and to pay a small tribute to him as a good man whom not many persons are likely now to remember. He served two terms as governor of Maryland (1951-1959) in between two terms as Mayor of Baltimore (1943-1947, 1963-1967), and retired from public life no richer than he had been when he entered it. His commitment to racial equality earned him Baltimore’s Sidney Hollander Award “for conspicuous service to the civil rights of black Americans.” He was a Republican politician whom one could genuinely admire, both for his effectiveness and his moral character.
But that was all long ago, of course.