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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Michael Palin Calls Retreat

Scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.


Yes, in his misspent youth, Uncle Cephas used to watch Monty Python's Flying Circus.  Yes, and I'm aware how a lot of it could get downright blasphemous.  However, as a lover of documentaries, I couldn't help myself with the minor theme in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with the "Noted Historian" commenting in best documentary manner on the Arthurian legends, only to be cut down in mid-sentence by one of the subjects of his talk, and then having snippets of police questioning his widow, hunting clues, and, in the end, in the midst of a great battle scene, swooping onto the battel field to arrest several of King Arthur's stalwarts. 
Now, Michael Palin, one of the Pythons, has come out to state that his old crew would never mock Islam.  Why?  There are a lot of humorless people out there and they're well-armed.  Apparently, Sir Michael is a good disciple of Bertrand Russell who'd rather live on his knees than die on his knees, and is now living on his knees.  Brave,brave, brave Sir Michael!

So, how do you address a bold iconoclast of yesteryear?
Stick your thumbs in your armpits, flap your arms, and say, "Buck-buck-cluck-AAAAH! Buck-buck-cluck-AAAAH!"


Happy New Year

Happy New Year to one and all!

Mi khwam sukh bi him!

Frohlich Weinacht!


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

Although a Christian, I don't make a big to-do about Christmas.  I have long shared a tradition which was suspicious of all holidays save the weekly Lord's Day; and have the greatest sympathy for the position of the Second Helvetic Confession, which sees those traditional holidays--such as Christmas--that are based on the life of Christ as adiaphoric.

However, having a little time on my hands, I feel I ought to share a few thoughts about Jesus Christ and his work.

The Gospel of John tells us:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  Al things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  The same came for a witness, to bear witness to the Light, that all men through him might believe.  He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.  That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.  He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  But as many received him, to them he gave power to become sons of God, even to those that believe on his name: Which were born not of blood, not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.  John barewitness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spoke, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he ws before me.  And of his fulness have we all received grace for grace.  For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.  No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (John 1:1-18).

This I firmly believe, and pray that all may come to believe it this Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Surrealism in Guangzhou, 1994

During the 1970's, when I was in college, Nixon was almost universally hated.  Radicals, extolling the simple virtues of "Third World" revolutionary states from Albania and Bangladesh to Zimbabwe, with thunderous applause for Mao's China and Ho's Viet Nam on the way, saw Nixon as the epitome of The Man, and the Watergate affair as proof that the capitalist system was starting to devour itself, paving the way for the glorious revolutionary dawn. Authors who had lived and worked for Mao's revolution prior to 1949 were much in demand, and greatly admired.

And then, in 1994, Nixon the statesman and radical idols of the 1970's became closely intertwined in Uncle Cephas' small world.

I actually got to meet Richard Nixon in the flesh a few months before his death in 1994.  He was traveling through the country, doubtlessly reminiscing about the breakthroughs he made in establishing formal diplomatic relations between the PRC and USA.  He came by the US Consulate General in Guangzhou, where the entire staff got to shake his hand.  I came away from my meeting with the distinct impression that Nixon was a fundamentally shy person who never really liked the flesh-pressing required of American politicians, or the petty banter that passes for discussion among political junkies. And, at the same time, it was hard to remember at the time that I was shaking hands with the one President of the United States to resign office in disgrace.

Most of the work of a US vice consul in Guangzhou, China back in the early 1990's involved processing visa applications.  Refusals of most non-immigrant applications were fairly easy, because most Chinese were really too poor to be casual travellers and too eager to leave the socialist paradise their fathers had fought for (or against) for greener pastures. Immigrant visas posed their own problems.  Most were issuable, but there was still considerable fraud about relationships and the problem of meaningful membership in a totalitarian party, namely, the Communist Party of China.

Such a cause for visa refusal and referral back to the legal section in the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the immigration service happened at Uncle Cephas's visa window.  The petitioner was Ms. H., a hefty young Eurasian and the daughter of an American author who witnessed and aided Mao's work of revolution in the waning years off the Chinese Civil War on the Mainland.  The author wrote several books known to almost all students of China of my generation, whether we agreed with his adulation of Mao Zedong or not.  The beneficiary of the petition was a young man from Jiangxi who belonged to China's ruling party.  So sorry, US immigration law does not permit immigration of aliens who belong to a totalitarian party without special considerations and dispensations by Washington.

And then Nixon died.

Every American officer stationed at AmConsul Guangzhou was expected to put in a certain amount of time babysitting the official condolence book in the lobby.  When my time came, the hefty Ms. H. was sitting across the room, looking daggers at me, having closely noted me as I refused her fiance's application.  Doubtlessly she hoped to complain about me to my superior--even if the most he could do for her would be to note that his lowly subordinate had done no more than apply the immigration law.  Of course Ms. H. did not sign the condolence book, although the page to which it was turned had those of numerous other Americans who had been passing through Guangzhou at the time.

I wondered what would happen if the story got out in the media.  A mere consular scut dared to deny a visa to the prospective son-in-law of a major radical icon! Imagine!  A mere bureaucrat poking his finger in the eyes of a family whose patriarch had been one of the prescient minds extolling the wonders of the People's Republic!  Perhaps I would get to be a villain in some Hollywood production--or, at least the picture of the gray-faced banality of evil that can happen only on the central or right portions of the political spectrum.

In time, Ms. H. entered the recesses of the citizens services section while I sat resplendant in white shirt and striped tie beside the condolence book.

Then entered an ordinary-looking Chinese man in early middle age.  In halting English, he asked who would see the condolence book.

"The US Government, Mr. Nixon's family, and probably a library holding his presidential papers," I replied.

The Chinese man looked around furtively, then bent over the book, picked up the pen, and wrote.

After he left, I looked down on the page:

"Thank you, Mr. President.  Without your visit, we Chinese would have been left with nothing but that stupid Little Red Book."

I noticed that the man had signed himself as a professor at a local university.  I have wondered if in the time after the signing my Chinese counterpart in either SF or LA has stopped by the Nixon Presidential library, noted the names in the condolence book, dutifully reported them back to his masters, and gotten the professor sent to ten years of Laogai for daring to criticize the founder of what Ms H.'s father and his admirers touted as the finest example of participatory democracy and social justice ever.

It's my understanding that the radical author whose son-in-law was denied a visa at my hands went to his grave extolling Mao Zedong and the politics that Chinese leader practiced.  Clearly, he had not grown up even after 1989 and the early 2000's.  Yet I learned shortly after Nixon's death that nations, if not radical authors, grow and change.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela, RIP

Nelson Mandela, who led the first post-Apartheid South African government, is gone.  Editorials and broadcasts will laud his achievements and shore up his legacy as a statesmen and liberator.  Certainly he sought to lead all South Africans, regardless of race, worked to reign in the justice-as-vengeance element in his African National Congress, and, remarkably for a sub-Saharan African leader, stepped down when his term of office was done.

Yet Uncle Cephas wishes to register a dissent. South Africa is today a country on the decline, suffers from the flight of not only its white population but its capital as well, and is infamous for corruption. Criminality, including murder, has gone way up. Its troops serving in eastern Congo under the UN banner as "peacekeepers" were notorious for rape and looting. It remains an open question whether or not it will follow the path of decline and racial vengeance blazed by Mugabe's Zimbabwe--nay, by Lumumba's Congo. True, post-Apartheid South Africa could have been a much worse place than it turned out to be.  The history of African independence was never an encouraging one; and that of Marxist revolution even less so.  But these are reasons why Mandela's legacy remains an open issue.

My own short and unremarkable diplommatic career occurred during those heady days when the Cold War had just ended.  It was followed by a time sporadic employment, a Ph.D. degree in political science, and another round of teaching English in Taiwan--plus a lot of other reading, including the Prophets of Israel, George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant", and Liu E's Lao Can You Ji (老残游记)This leads me to believe that a South Africa for which there is still hope may owe more to a kindly providence (and, as a Calvinist Christian, I don't use this word lightly) than to Mandela's leadership. Perhaps someone very near to the heart of the Almighty was praying for God's blessing on his or her country.

Mandela's ANC was a strongly pro-Soviet, pro-Communist, anti-capitalist, anti-Western organization.  At least it was during the decades prior to its triumph. Many of its members were Libyan- or PLO-trained terrorists, and its ties to Qaddafy's regime and the intelligence/security organs of the Eastern Bloc were close. Observers who saw it closer up than I have noticed it was permeated by an idea of justice as vengeance and poor in ideas about how it would create, rather than redistribute, wealth in a post-Apartheid South Africa.  Mandela's own admiration for Castro's Cuban dictatorship never wavered. Mandela's former wife Winnie was notorious for a violent streak, and it was a reasonable expectation that a post-Apartheid South Africa could well turn into one more subsaharan combination of greatleadership with kleptocracy liberally seasoned with ethnic violence. Such was the case with many other Soviet clients in subsaharan Africa.

Yet as Mandela emerged from prison and moved towards power, his Soviet sponsors were collapsing.  Even the stability of the Chinese Communist regime remained precarious in the 1990's, with the scars of Tiananmen still fresh and the economic takeoff still limited. Any outside help that a post-Apartheid South Africa might get would have to come from a Western world that was both loathed by Mandela's power base and in a position to leave a new non-Western dictatorship-cum-kleptocracy (the story of much of Mandela's continent) high and dry.  It was an era in which a Communist Laos that once boasted of its triumph over American imperialism begged for aid from its old adversary,and had to be satisfied with being bought bit by bit by Thai businessmen, later to be joined by their Chinese counterparts, instead.

Mandela thus found himself caught between the justice-as-vengeance, African socialist expectations of his followers and a course of events that did not favor such a development.  In the end, he recognized that he could not be a president-for-life and master redistributor of extant wealth in the world into which he emerged from prison.  He was perhaps also wise in countenancing his followers' slide into widespread petty corruption following their political victory.

And such corruption, as noticed by Liu E more than a century ago, is a small mercy to peoples living under countries with either no constitutional tradition (as late-Qing China) or very weak ones (as much of Africa and the post-totalitarian world). The ANC's own tradition has always been far more Stalinist than Jeffersonian, and hence a very real potential danger to its citizens of all colors.  The corrupt official is someone into whom ordinary people might sink a handle; the incorrupt one unconstrained by a strong limited government tradition is someone who feels free to bully and oppress.

In the Taiwan of the early 2000's where I taught English, there were many South African migrants working either as small businessmen or as--surprise--my competition.  They were not only white, but also Asian, Colored, and even Bantu.  Generally, they were of the mind that their country was in decline, was far less safe, and far more likely to threaten its citizens.  True, they were by-and-large people formed by Apartheid.  Yet although many were not supporters of the old regime, they did not feel secure with the new.

We do not know which direction South Africa will take.  Hopefully, it will be spared the great leaders who have plagued much of the continent between the Limpopo and Mediterranean.  Hoepfully, it will recognize that the model in which Mandela, its pioneering leader, once hoped is a dangerous temptation and certain to fail, and follow the better lights of the Western tradition to which South Africa is at least partly tied.

Yes, Mandela was brave, and exhibited real wisdom at a crucial time in his country's history.  But it is also true that a slightly different timing to recent history may well have led him in a different direction. As Orwell noted in his Burmese memoir, rulers and leaders often are carried along by the expectations of the governed, and make their decisions accordingly.  In Mandela's case, the timing and flow of events may also have given him a legacy far better than the one he might have left had he been completely free to follow the ideological models in which he initially believed.