Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Catholic Church: A Short History - Hans Küng

Personal politics is of decisive importance for longer-term changes for the Vatican as for any political system.

Quite succinctly, The Catholic Church: A Short History is exactly that: a brief summary of the Catholic Church's History. From the beginning Küng is quite transparent regarding his background and his intentions: he is a catholic trying, at the same time, to demistify Catholicisim and to describe the good things that, despite all its failure, the Catholic Church has given to the West and to the World. Throughout the book, Kung also mentions specific doctrinary and practical aspects in which Catholicism has either misinterpreted Christ's word or has departed from his teaching or from Christianity as practiced by the first communities. For the general public, a selected list of examples provided by Küng is available at the end of this post.

One thing that Küng says loud and clear from the beginning, and that the reader (particularly Catholic readers) should come to terms with is that the Vatican and Catholicism are human creations, hence with errors in design and institutional patches, and hence perfectible. Küng is a reformer of Catholicism, not a rupturist or even a revolutionary. This is actually a good thing: instead of a rosy or manichean picture of History, Küng provides well-balanced opinions and uses concepts such as Realpolitik quite masterfully. He is not naive or condescendent with the Curia's atrocities. As Matthew says that Jesus Christ said , Küng is as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove. 

The book is really well crafted: it is not easy to summarize 2,000 years of History and a prospective (wishful) panorama in less than 300 pages. The book, however, could do a better job trying to explain the theological debates that have ravaged Christianity throughout History. The non-specialist will have to look on Google why not allowing laymen to drink from the chalice during the mass is such a big thing.

And this brings me to my overarching comment of the book. Towards the end, Küng shows his worry about Catholicism survival prospects in the medium term. Quoting declining attendancy rates and trust on religious institutions, he suggests that two reforms can save Catholicism: reform the law of celibacy, a measure that in theory would reduce pedophilia, and reform the episcopal ministry, a rather dry topic for outsiders. Küng is wrong. Catholicism will not disappear: despite all its failure, the longest-living institution of Earth is still the only hope of many dispossesed around the Earth with the exception of Europe, where Welfare State has taken up the social activities formerly performed by the Catholic Church. For some people, especially in the Third World, and thanks partly to the vocation of some priests, the Church is still the patrimony of the poor, a term used extensively by priests during the social revolutions of the mid-19th century.

I always hate when somebody quotes Marx's famous dictum "religion is the opium of the people:" quoters usually just stay with the Jacobin part of Marx's line of thought. But, in what is probably the most scandalous case of decontextualization in History, people forget the first part of the dictum, which explains why the Catholic Church will never disappear, or will morph quite successively into something equally hierarchical with some cosmetic touches: people need religioin. Marx's full quote is:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The biggest problem of this book is that Küng doesn't take into account the specific weight of Catholicism in the developing World -something Küng himself acknowledges and is a. Of course, if one focuses on Europe and even with the United States, Catholicism and religions in general are likely to perish. But if one leaves the old ruminating West, Catholicism is still quite vibrant. It should come as no surprise that Francis, the pope at the time this post was written, comes from Latin America, a place where the Church has traditionally been close to its people, sometimes despite policies coming from the Vatican.

In a recent interview, 12 years after the publication of The Catholic Church, Küng has acknowledged that Francis "embodies my hopes for the Church" (this link reporting the same news is quite hilarious).

Catholicism will be there for a long time. As long as people need a religion, the institutional supply will be there. This doesn't dismiss the value of this book. It is actually a quite good volume and I recommend it for everybody, including the general public.

Specific examples where the Catholic church deviated from the original doctrine or misconceptions about Catholicism as mentioned by Küng
"(...) according to all the evidence Jesus did not found a church in his lifetime."
"The original meaning of ekklesia, 'church', was not a hyperorganization of spiritual functionaries, detached from the concrete assembly. It denoted a community gathering at a particular place at a particular time for a particular action."
"Be it as it may, it is no anachronism to claim that Jesus was anything but the representative of a patriarchal hierarchy."
"[T]oday even Catholic exegetes accept that the famous saying about Peter as the rock on which Jesus will build his church (Matthew 16.18-19; the statement is in the future tense)-of which the other gospels know nothing-is not a saying of the earthly Jesus but was composed after Easter by the Palestinian community, or later by Matthew's community."
"In the earliest church Peter doubtless had a special authority; however, he did not possess it alone, but always collegially with others. He was far removed from being a spiritual monarch, even a sole ruler. There is no trace of any exclusive, quasimonarchical authority as leader (jurisdiction)."
"There is no reliable evidence that Peter was ever in charge of the church of Rome as supreme head or bishop."
"The earliest Christian community did not want in any way to part company with the Jewish community or nation, but to remain integrated into Judaism."
"[I]t must also be said quite inmistakably that the anti-Judaism which can already be found among the Jewish Christians, and which in a lamentable way is already recorded in the gospels of Matthew and John, had its decisive roots in the peersecution of Christians and their exclusion from the syangogue."
"The word 'catholic' (Greek katholikos, 'related to the whole', 'general') is not used anywhere in the New Testament. Nowhere is the 'church' called 'catholic'. The expression 'catholic church' was used for the first time by Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, in his letter to the community in Smyrna."
"Paul was not the real founder of Christianity-though this is constatly asserted by those who will not be taught."
"The presbyteral-episcopal constitution of the church is said to have been instituted by Jesus Christ, even to be a divine institution and therefore unchangeable divine law (iuris divini). However, it is not as simple as that. A careful investigation of the New Testament sources in the last hundred years has shown that this church constitution, centered on the bishop, is by no means directly willed by God or even by Christ, but is the result of a long and problematical historical development. It is human work and therefore in principle can be changed."

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Global Cold War - Odd Arne Westad

The Cold War was a continuation of colonialism through slightly different means

"Truly seminal", "eye-opening", "sharply observed and deeply researched", "excellent book". Those are some of the definitions provided by some reviews of The Global Cold War by Odd Arne Westad. For some reason, the book-review industry is full of laudatory expressions, and this blog is not the exception. In this post, and to the extent of my abilities, I will try to write a review without adjectives and completely fact-based:

  • Westad does an extracts a lot of information from the Soviet archives. In fact, this was one of the first books ever to do it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the American archives, even though they have clearly been open to the public for longer.
  • The first two chapters of the book summarize the founding ideologies of the USA and the USSR and their changes throughout history. I recommend this part to all readers.
  • The rest of the book is recommended mostly to European and American readers, who obviously have an Euro-centric view of the Cold War. Enlightened audiences from the developing World (or, as people used to call it before, the Third World) should be well aware that the main scenario of the fight between the USA and the USSR was not Europe, but the rest of the World.
  • In a context where the cinicism and simplism of the so-called Realist theory permeates academia, it is quite refreshing to read Westad's argument that USA and USSR interventions throughout their History have been at least partly driven by ideologies. 

Rest determine - Bruno Raya

I've devoted my last two posts about Mauritius to talk about the dark side of the island. This post follows the same line: in addition of being a fantastic place for vacations, Mauritius is also a place where identity issues, AIDS, and cannabis-related imprisonments permeate society. Rest determine by Bruno Raya serves as a reminder that Mauritius is connected with the rest of the planet.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Insan - Twais

Insan (Human, in Arabic) is a great album recorded by Twais, a Syrian quartet belonging to the musical movement that permeated Damascus in the first decade of this century. At the time, every foreign policy wonk and practitioner thought that Bashar Al-Assad would be the guy who'd bring democracy and prosperity to Syria and would influence the rest of the Arab World. Few remember it now, but Barack Obama even tried to broker an Israel-Palestine agreement through Al-Assad. Today, it is clear that we were all wrong (in fairness, it was clear that Obama was wrong on Bashar and Palestine even back in 2008).

Predictably, the band dismembered. Based on the information available online, Essam Rafea (oud) is now touring around the World. It is unclear what happened with Firas Charestan (Qanoon) and with Muslem Rahal (nay). In the case of Rahal, the latest youtube clips date from 2010. There is no presence online of Ragheb Jbel (percussions).

You can still buy the album online on the traditional retail stores, but for all practical purposes, the presence of Twais online has vanished almost completely. This blog lists all the tracks of the album and presents a broken link where the tracks could be download. The website presented on the album's booklet is now full with what I think are Chinese characters. In 2009, shortly after the album went out, some enlightened soul, posted all the tracks on youtube. I can't recommend you enough to take a look at them.

In order to keep the band's memory alive, I can only copy the description available on the booklet:

Twais was the first singer of the Islamic era, and was praised both for the beauty of his voice and his originality, as he introduced Iqaa (beats) into singing in the 7th century. It is Twais' spirit of innovation and originality that the Quartet aspires to and strives to reproduce. The musicians' aim is to create a unique style of music, by investigating the roots of Arab and Oriental Music, with specific focu on instrumental music, and integrating these traditional standards within contemporary forms, by using different musical schools and contemporary compositions. Following the tradition of the classical takht (oriental quartet), the musicians' instruments of choice include the Oud, the Qanoon, the Nay, and percussions.
Created in 2004 by Essam Rafea, the Twais ensemble gathers some of the best musicians of their generation in Syria. It has performed in Syria, the Arab countries, and Europe, and has contributed to records by German accordion player Manfred Leuchter, and the French Baroque music group, Musiques des Lumières XVIII-21, led by Jean-Christophe Frisch.

I sincerely hope the band members haven't been bombed or killed. They are quite good musicians and they are, after all, humans.

This is the last Arabic/Sephardic/Oriental music album I will review in a while. It's time to close the cycle and travel elsewhere...

Kant: Political Writings - H. S. Reiss

When the first edition of this book was published (1970), Kant's political thinking was mostly overlooked by the experts. Twenty-one years later, and after the Rawlsian revolution of political science, Kant: Political Writings became a reference text for undergraduate and experts alike.

As H. S. Reiss, the editor of this volume summarizes in the postscript (p. 272), "Kant's political principles (...) express basic human aspirations". Do you want to know how George W. Bush perverted the idea of democratic peace? You only need to know Kant's Perpetual Peace. Do you know that Ghandi's idea of civil disobedience is partly based on Kant's ideas?

As great and influential as Kant's thoughts are today, I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, and as a matter of principle, I am against the idea of "selected works" volumes. If you want to know about an author's ideas, you should really read everything that person wrote. There is no escape around that. However, academics can do a pretty decent job summarizing and picking up pieces of an author's work for general and mid-level expert consumption. And they are partly paid for that. In other words, if you want to get an idea about an author's view of the World, go for this kind of books.

Experts on Kant's ideas may also want to read the introduction and the postscript of this book, which are basically Reiss' interpretation of Kant's works. I found particularly interesting his opinions about Kant and the right to rebellion, a topic Reiss wrote about and about which I would like to talk about for the remainder of this blog.

Democratic transitions were one of the most important subjects of study in political science in the second half of the 20th century. Samuel Huntington, Barrington Moore, Francis Fukuyama, Juan Linz, and more recently Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, just to mention a few, devoted at least part of their to study how one country goes from autocracy to democracy. All the democracy theoricians were, whether they admit it or not, influenced by Immanuel Kant, whose biggest contribution to political science was the idea that democracy (he called it republicanism) would bring perpetual peace and that democracy was inevitable. Kant, however, opposed the idea that democracy could be brought from abroad -and that's why Bush's Iraq War is a travesty of Kant's original theory- and he also opposed rebellion against government.

The reason why this is important is because, in practice, democracy has always been copied or implanted by some external power; the only country that was born fully democratic was the United States. Also, democracy has never been brought about peacefully by a benevolent dictator, as Kant wished. Democracy theoricians and practicioners like Freedom House, the Open Society, and NGOs like HRW or Amnesty International before they were coopted by communists, base their action plans on a theory that works magnificently on paper but has barely worked as expected in reality. Does this hinder Kant's contribution to political science?

The answer is complex. On the one hand, Kant could never foresee things like a dictator gazing his own people, or the degree of surveillance and repression exercised by modern totalitarian regimes. Kant lived before the Industrial Revolution; Hitler, Lenin, Saddam Hussein, and all the dictators of the 20th century were a direct product of industrialization and modernization. On the other hand, one could argue with some legitimacy and a high degree of speculation that the logical modern corollary of Kant's politica thought would be a rejection of totalitarianism and even some vindication of the right of rebellion.

Kant's political ideas became obsolete with the passing of time. That's the fate of most ideas, when you think about it. However, if we want to understand why we are where we are today, we need some minimal understanding of the ideas that brought us here. Two hundred years after Kantt, Rawls vindicated republicanism and the categorical imperative, and Michael Walzer tried to square the Kantian circle of democratic transition by force. Civilization is nothing else but a set of building bricks...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

De una orilla a la otra - Samira Kadiri

En De una orilla a la otra, Samira Kadiri nos presenta canciones de los períodos musulmán y morisco de España. Alguien ya se tomó la molestia de copiar el contenido del booklet aquí.

Como todas las producciones de música sefardí y musulmana que se han reseñado en este blog, De una orilla a la otra es una producción independiente, hecha de manera casi artesanal. Esto no quiere decir, sin embargo, que el material sea de baja calidad; todo lo contrario: acaso porque saben que se juegan el todo por el todo en cada canción, tanto Kadiri como el ensamble Arabesque, todo el disco es de muy alta calidad. Así lo atestigua, por ejemplo, el inicio de "Li Habibi".

De una orilla a la otra es un disco sumamente recomendable, pero tras haber escuchado y reseñado alrededor de diez discos del género sefardí/arabesco, debo aceptar que lo empiezo a encontrar repetitivo y cansino. Ojalá más grupos redefinan la música sefardí como lo hace Arkul. Ojalá también la música que se hace en lo que todavía se conoce como mundo árabe finalmente se reconcilie con la modernidad como lo hace Oum y dejen de lado, aunque sea por un momento, el folklore.

Mientras tanto, no nos quedará más que disfrutar, hasta que, literalmente, nos hartemos, refritos de canciones hechas hace más de mil años...

Carbon for Water - Evan Abramson & Carmen Elsa Lopez

Carbon for Water is a movie about a project aiming to make Kenyans from the Western Province boil water using plastic filters donated by Vestergaard, a company manufacturing public health tools such as mosquito nets and water filters.

Though the project may sound like charity, Vestergaard would make money in the carbon finance market: Vestergaard PR team was smart enough to convince the Gold Standard Foundation (one of the two major accrediting bodies) that the carbon dioxide issued by Kenyans was enough to be offset by issuing carbon permits.

Carbon for Water won the Best International Short Film Award in the Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival (2011), Best Short Documentary in the California International Short Festival (2011), was picked as the official selection of the Festival international du film d'environnement (2012), and was "highly commended" at the Development & Climate Days Film Competition, a side event at COP 17 in Durban, South Africa. The film and the project were also praised by the good-doers of the World Bank.

From a public relations point of view, Vestergaard's project was tremendously successful: a movie, kudos from development partners, and carbon-finance money. The development community, in its relentless search for funds, and in the context of has been recently joined by NGO people and other kind of characters with people skills who are very good at marketing ideas and concepts -Carbon for Water is a sign of the things to come...

However, from a public policy perspective, it is unclear whether Carbon for Water had any significant impact on the lives of the people this project was supposed to help. To begin with, this project is one more in the long list of well-intentioned initiatives that compete with the State as a provider of public services. There is a reason why "public services" are called that way, and ample evidence indicates that public services tend to be under-provided by the private sector. Water being the ultimate public good, I am afraid that Vestergaard's project will eventually fail.

Also, a quick google search shows a tremendously high number of laudatory comments from NGO people and only two critical comments by a guy named Kevin Starr. I was unable to find any impact evaluation, peer-reviewed article, or anything that really tells me whether this was a good idea. I personally don't think it is, but beyond my personal preferences, I would really like to see anything measuring the impact of this initiative on the Kenyans' living standards, not on the pockets of Vestergaard's shareholders -I'm sure they made a lot of money out of this.

Journal articles, randomized trials, and impact evaluations are boring and imperfect. They are also the kind of things that NGO people (mostly school dropouts or people with the white man's guilt) and donors (bureaucrats who actually hate under-developed countries) hate. But they are a better tool to know what works than a movie.

I am unable to recommend this movie until I get some serious evidence about the benefits it brought to the Kenyans in the long run.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Aliens - James Cameron

Commando movies were very popular in the U.S. in the late 70's and throughout the 80's. Movies were the main way the U.S. dealt with the Vietnam War trauma. When you really think about it, making entertainment movies is a very weird catharsis, but I guess different peoples deal with their tragedies in different ways.

Aliens is, among other things, a metaphore about Vietnam: a group of elite soldiers with sophisticated technology enter a hostile territory thinking they will wipe out the enemy in less than 5 minutes, just to discover that their rival is infinitely superior to them.

So, according to that, and contrary to its predecesor, Aliens is an action movie, though the horror component is still there. Aliens has rightfully been praised as a 2-hours shot of action, and is actually one of the best movies of the genre. The negative side is that Aliens banalized the omnipresent and ruthless monster of the first part. In the first part, one alien killed seven people in less than 24 hours; in this part, an entire army of aliens were not able to enter a compound defended by 5 people, one of which was a little girl.

Aliens (and its behind-the-scenes) is a movie worth watching mostly for prospective movie-makers. In light of the special effects available today, modern audiences may not feel as thrilled about its action scenes, and the gore scenes, though impacting back in the day, would make it to a PG-13 movie today.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Lizard - King Crimson

Lizard is probably the most experimental rock album ever made: A combination of baroque, classical music, jazz, and progressive rock. Robert Fripp used to dislike this album, though apparently he has come to terms with it.

Though the prog community King Crimson hardcore fans were divided about it at the time of its release, most have also agreed that it's a good album (did anyone hear the word "groupies"?). Back in the day, some people thought Lizard was a deviation from the band's style -as if they ever had one other than taking music to its limits; others disliked it because it was too brain-ish. People who like Lizard argue that it deserves respect and praises as an experiment, though divisions remain on whether the experiment was successful or not...

I guess this discussion should at least wake up the curiosity of those who don't know Lizard and come up with an opinion of their own.

I personally think Lizard is the best album King Crimson has ever made, and an interesting window of what the band and rock and roll in general could have become in a parallel world with less drugs, more time to create, and less pressure from music companies to produce albums every year.

This is the last King Crimson album I will write about in a long time. I need to de-tox a little bit. After revewing a couple of albums (and listening a few more I didn't get to talk about), I would like to close this cycle by quoting the following definition of King Crimson from Fripp's text in Lizard's 40th anniversayr edition booklet:

What is King Crimson? Several approaches:
the individuals in the group/s;
the group/s of individuals;
a society in microcosm;
a business structure;
a musical repertorie;
a way of doing things; 
a place where the conditioned and unconditioned meet;
a school of practical learning;
a business opportunity for King Crimson's professional advisers.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Epitaph. Volumes One and Two - King Crimson

For me, the 1969 King Crimson was the best version of the band ever. That formation basically defined what we know today as progressive rock, and got rock and roll closer to blues and, to some extent, to classical music. The eubsequent formations of King Crimson are nothing else but Robert Fripp’s personal projects and expressions of his inner trips.

Epitaph presents the very first and the very last live performances of the 1969 King Crimson, and only because of that, Epitaph is a great album. The versions of the song that gives its name to the album are simply fantastic, and worth the 15 dollars of the disc.

I totally recommend this album for all publics. The 1969 King Crimson is too important in the History of modern music to ignore them.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Alien - Ridley Scott

There are at least two reasons why it's worth watching Alien today, almost 35 years after its original release:

  • It offers a very sand view of the future. Humankind is finally able to travel across the Universe, but social inequalities are still there: the movie is nothing else but the story of a group of miners who have to risk their lives at the orders of their employer.
  • It reminds us that a good horror movie is the one where you barely see the threat. At one point in time, directors of horror movies got the idea that their job was to do fancy stuff with special effects. They're wrong, and they should watch Alien over and over until they understand why.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Great Deceiver: Part Two - King Crimson

The Great Deceiver: Part Two is three hours of King Crimson. In his very particulary style, Robert Fripp himself says this is not for everybody at the beginning of the booklet:
I have anticipated not many Crimheads having Great Deceiver parties and listening to the box set in its entirety. A genuine Crimhead would in any case revel in the repetition, and annotate the variations, discrepancies and addenda. For them, this is a bonus.

Dodo: The Bird behind the Legend - Alan Grihault

Mauritius is one of the best places on Earth. I love it: music is great, people are fantastic, and its cultural diversity is a glimmer of hope in a World increasingly divided along sectarian an ethnic lines. In Mauritius, Blacks, Muslims, Chinese, Indians, French, and other groups have learned to live next to each other.

But, as usual, there is a dark side to it: Mauritius is the first documented humankind-made ecocide. The Dodo is the most famous character of this tragedy, in great part thanks to Lewis Carroll.

Dodo: The Bird behind the Legend is a monography written by Alan Grihault, a former British overseas cooperation worker. Grihault's biography is fantastic. And this is a great book, too. With a lot of pictures (most of which were taken from the items in the private collection of Ralfe Whistler), and extremely didactic explanations, this is a book for children and for adults who'd like to learn more about the dodo.

After writing the book, Grihault set up a website dedicated to the dodo and to the solitaire (dodo's cousin from Rodrigues). Unfortunately, it looks like it hasn't been updated in a while, but it's worth checking out if you can't get the book.