Monthly Archives: April 2006

Moldova’s Drastic Population Drop

Since it became independent in 1989, Moldova’s population has dropped by about one quarter, due mostly to mass emigration, according to a report by Randy McDonald on demography.matters.blog. Why might this concern anyone outside Moldova?

Moldovan emigration is important on its own terms, not only for the effects of this massive emigration on Moldova but for the effect that it has on receiving countries. Moldova represents a sure pool of potential migrants for central European countries suffering population decline; already, something like one percent of the population of Romanian citizens are Moldovans. Moldova also should be studied as a prototype for rapid population decline in peripheral states; the Moldovan example has been echoed in the independent South Caucasus, arguably also in an East Germany where the population has shrunk by a quarter since reunification. Moldova’s example demonstrates that, when economic conditions become sufficiently bad and/or when the benefits accuring to emigrants become sufficiently great, regional and national populations can contract at speeds more reminiscent of wartime depopulation than anything else. Where Moldova goes now, perhaps any number of relatively small and relatively impoverished states (Serbia, Paraguay, Cuba, Laos, Lesotho) in the future, perhaps–who knows?–even much larger countries.

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Nyazi v. Gatsby in Tehran

“This book preaches illicit relations between a man and woman. First we have Tom and his mistress, the scene in her apartment—even the narrator, Nick, is implicated. He doesn’t like their lies, but he has no objections to their fornicating and sitting on each other’s laps, and, and, those parties at Gatsby’s … remember, ladies and gentlemen, this Gatsby is the hero of the book—and who is he? He is a charlatan, he is an adulterer, he is a liar … this is a man Nick celebrates and feels sorry for, this man, this destroyer of homes!” Mr. Nyazi was clearly agitated as he conjured the fornicators, liars and adulterers roaming freely in Fitzgerald’s luminous world, immune from his wrath and from prosecution. “The only sympathetic person here is the cuckolded husband, Mr. Wilson,” Mr. Nyazi boomed. “When he kills Gatsby, it is the hand of God. He is the only victim. He is the genuine symbol of the oppressed, in the land of, of, of the Great Satan!” …

“Gatsby is dishonest,” he cried out, his voice now shrill. “He earns his money by illegal means and tries to buy the love of a married woman. This book is supposed to be about the American dream, but what sort of dream is this? Does the author mean to suggest that we should all be adulterers and bandits? Americans are decadent and in decline because this is their dream. They are going down! This is the last hiccup of a dead culture!” he concluded triumphantly.

SOURCE: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2004), pp. 126-127

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Sam Harris on Religious Moderates

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God. Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question—i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know that he wants from us—religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.

SOURCE: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris (Free Press, 2005), pp. 20-21. The beginning of of chapter 1, Reason in Exile, is available online.

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Religious Trends in Tokugawa Japan

Religion was a particularly thorny issue that Ieyasu’s two military predecessors, Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, had already begun to address. Collectively the policies of the three successive generalissimos led to the following situation. First, the upstart religion from the West, Christianity, was banned. The small numbers of Christians who refused to renounce their faith had to go underground. The squelching of the Christian movement in Japan was the precursor of closing Japan off from almost all contact with the outside world. This policy was initiated in 1639 and officially continued through 1854. Second, the Tendai Buddhist main temple on Kyoto’s Mount Hiei had grown to be the most powerful religious institution in Japan. In 1571 Nobunaga burned down the complex, destroying its three thousand buildings and its army of ten thousand warrior monks. Third, the most populist Buddhist religion of the time, the Shin Buddhist Honganji sect, had assembled a huge peasant army of its own that Nobunaga defeated in 1580. The sect then underwent a schism in 1603, breaking into Eastern and Western Honganji, thereby dividing the unity of this Buddhist group. And fourth, under Ieyasu the shogunate began to monitor the philosophical-religious schools of scholars, hoping to maintain at least some control over new developments and ideologies. Accompanying these four political events were intellectual circumstances equally important to the future of Shinto.

The key factors of intellectual change came to a head in the late sixteenth century when something philosophically new took hold in Japan. Throughout Japanese history there had been periods when Japanese groups (mainly religious or diplomatic) made the dangerous journey across the stormy Sea of Japan to the mainland, bringing back home cultural innovations and artifacts. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries especially, groups of Japanese Buddhist monks, mainly from the Zen tradition, went to the mainland to study. When they returned, they brought with them not only further materials related to Buddhism but also books from other philosophical traditions popular in China at the time. For our present concerns, the most significant items in their cargo were works of Chinese Neo-Confucianism. Although Zen Buddhist monastic scholars were studying the texts and introducing them to Japan, the books contained a philosophical system that would ultimately undermine the intellectual hegemony of Buddhism in the country. Neo-Confucianism was a sophisticated syncretistic philosophical movement in China that enriched traditional Confucian teachings with ideas from Buddhism and Daoism. By incorporating key ideas from these traditions into its own, Neo-Confucianism had disarmed the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist criticisms against Confucianism. As a result, from about the twelfth century up to the early twentieth century, Neo-Confucian philosophy (in various forms) generally dominated the Chinese intellectual scene.

These Neo-Confucian arguments against Buddhism entered Japan just before Tokugawa stability and peace brought rapid urbanization. The growth of city life supported schools of learning outside the traditional Buddhist temple complexes that had trained monk-scholars. The samurai (who needed job retraining to find a useful place in the peacetime society of the Tokugawa bureaucracy) and the aspiring merchant class (who needed to acquire culture fast) frequented such urban schools. Furthermore, the increasingly literate urbanites created a demand for widely distributed, printed publications. By the late seventeenth century, literary culture, including philosophy, was thriving in the cities.

SOURCE: Shinto: The Way Home, by Thomas P. Kasulis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2004), pp. 106-107

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Imelda’s Still Imelda, 20 Years Later

Sunday’s Japan Times carries an exclusive profile by David McNeill of Imelda Marcos, who seems to have changed very little since she and her husband were ousted from power twenty years ago.

By the time the brilliant ex-lawyer and his beauty-queen wife boarded a U.S. helicopter on Feb. 25, 1986, they had become synonymous with the corruption and cronyism that made the Philippines one of the poorest nations on the planet. To his eternal credit, Marcos ordered his army not to fire on Manila crowds before he left, but then he expected to be back within days. Instead, he was to die in Hawaii three years later, leaving Imelda to carry on the Marcos legacy.

Today, astonishingly, Imelda is back in Manila and again a force in Philippine politics. Many believe the beautiful young country girl who caught the eye of the ambitious Marcos and helped him win a million votes in 1965 was the real power behind the throne by the end of their reign, when Ferdinand was desperately ill. Her political survival “makes a mockery” of the 1986 revolution, according to one of her biographers.

Now living on the 34th-floor suite in one of Manila’s most exclusive apartment blocks, the former first lady seldom gives interviews because she is invariably skewered by incredulous journalists when she brandishes her innocence and new poverty. She was, after all, once one of the 10 richest women in the world….

When Ferdinand died in 1989, aged 72, Imelda had to fight U.S. federal grand jury charges alone: principally that the couple stole over $200 million from the Philippine treasury and spent it on a real-estate spree in New York. After enjoying the backing of five U.S. presidents, and the close friendship of Ronald and Nancy Reagan (with whom she shared an interest in astrology), the shock of America turning on her was profound.

“They did this to me when I was alone, widowed and orphaned,” she says, on the verge of tears. “Even the Bible says there are special places reserved in hell for those who persecute widows and orphans. And it was not individuals who did me in, it was governments and superpowers.”

Though acquitted, few expected Imelda to survive the humiliation of being ditched by the White House, lampooned in the media and chased across the world by prosecutors who accused the pair of plundering the Philippines of $ 10 billion or more. But showing the irrepressible energy and brazenness that made her a legendary force in Philippine politics, Imelda bounced back, returned to Manila in 1992 and won a senator’s seat in 1995 after a failed bid for the presidency.

Today, she is again the matriarch of a minor political dynasty. Her son, Ferdinand Jr., is governor of Ilocos Norte Province in the north of the country, where daughter Imee is a congresswoman. Her nephew, Alfred Romualdez, sits in the congressional seat she vacated, and her brother is mayor of Tacloban City. She has been acquitted several times on domestic charges of corruption and extortion and, of the 901 separate cases she claims were filed against her family, she is now down to the last three. Considering her regime was recently ranked as the second-most corrupt (after Suharto’s Indonesia) of the late-20th century, it is not a bad end to a life. “I am still standing up at 76, fighting superpowers.”…

It is not difficult at times like this to imagine the young, naive, fun-loving Visayas beauty dazzled by the ambitious senator Ferdinand Marcos and the jet-set life he promised; much harder to put this tearful, almost childish woman together with the picture painted of her in many biographies. Did she really offer her archrival Benigno Aquino $1 million to stay in U.S. exile, then order his 1983 assassination in broad daylight and in front of the world’s press when he returned? Would the money she and her husband embezzled really, as many say, pay off the Philippines foreign debt?

And the biggest mystery of all: why have the people who threw her out accepted her back?

“Some people look at the chaos now and think things were probably better then under Marcos,” says taxi driver Mike Avila. “He was strong and kept people in line. Things don’t seem to have improved much since they left.”

An interesting profile, despite the always irritating deus ex imagina taxi-driver quote at the end.

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Shinto-Buddhist Syncretism in Heian Japan

Esotericism was central to both Buddhist traditions ascendant in the Heian period (794–1185): Shingon and Tendai. Shingon is an exclusively esoteric school founded in Japan by Kukai (774–835) whereas Tendai, founded in Japan by Saicho (766–835), includes esotericism as part of its grand synthesis of many Buddhist perspectives. Although several Buddhist schools had entered Japan by the end of the Nara period, for the most part none had developed into fully independent, religious establishments in their own right. That is: Shingon and Tendai were the first to flourish and develop as distinctively Japanese independent schools. Furthermore, both schools developed forms of Buddhist-Shinto synthesis. Both Shingon and Tendai arose about the time the capital moved from Nara to Kyoto (called “Heian” at the time). Their success was due in part to the fact that Buddhist esotericism shares central assumptions with early Japanese spirituality. With its centuries of doctrinal and practical development on the mainland, esoteric Buddhism was uniquely positioned to give early Shinto spirituality a full-blown philosophical justification, albeit admittedly a justification in Buddhist garb. Let us consider three points where the worldviews of ancient Shinto and esoteric Buddhism intersected—areas of similarity on which Shingon and Tendai Buddhism were able to capitalize.

First, for both early Shinto and Buddhist esotericism, the world was alive with spirituality, as there is no sharp divide between spirit and matter….

Second, Buddhism and early Shinto both stressed the purely mindful heart….

There is, as well, a third commonality: both esoteric Buddhism and early Shinto assume the sacred can be in the form of celestial deities (in Shinto, the kami deities; in esoteric Buddhism, the celestial buddhas and boddhisattvas)….

Not surprisingly, then, with syncretism as the norm, the term “Shinto” had no popular use in Japan until the development of state ideology in the middle of the nineteenth century. In that era, an essentialist Shinto spirituality was on the rise and the agenda was to separate “real” Shinto from its Buddhist “distortions.” Because of Buddhist-Shinto syncretism, however, it seems that for a thousand years of Japanese history most people did not ordinarily find it useful to distinguish “Shinto” from “Buddhist.” These people did all along refer to kami, of course, but they knew that on some level (perhaps understood only by intellectuals) kami were just alternative forms of buddhas.

SOURCE: Shinto: The Way Home, by Thomas P. Kasulis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2004), pp. 95-102

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Letters of a True Believer, 1937

During the Great Terror, Lev [Knipper], like hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, was clearly going through a personal and political crisis. He was desperately trying to convince himself of the rightness of the Stalinist purges, even when surrounded by the madness of arrests and denunciations all around him….

In early April 1937, not long after the second wave of show trials, Lev wrote a striking letter to Aunt Olya [Knipper-Chekhova]. ‘My life has become a lot more complicated, confused, and harder than it was before, when I still had many illusions of youth, self-importance, young unspent strength and boiling energy which covered up for everything else. And now the time has come to pay the bills. And it’s turned out that I’ve accumulated next to no interest on my capital, and that I will have to pay from the reserve.

‘When I was twenty-three, a new life began for me, thanks to you … I was somehow careless about everything – like a bird which knows nothing of tomorrow, like a creature who, it seemed to me, was “lucky” in its life. And really, I’d soared over dozens of my colleagues, like a rocket. I won’t even say it was undeserved. My talent isn’t a minor one, I possess a huge supply of energy, and my will for life is also not small … Selfishness and a somewhat exaggerated self-assurance are the reasons for my loneliness. And now, thirty-nine years old, I am facing myself, absolutely alone in all senses. And this is the most terrible of all. With all the force of my brain, I desire to be a true Bolshevik, and for this I lack knowledge. This has impeded my development as a composer in the last three to four years … Nothing can ever remove my feeling of guilt towards the party and the Soviet regime about the years of the civil war. “White Guardist” in my presence, it’s like a knife in my flesh, and I always think they’ve said it about me. This is the hardest trauma in my life, and there’re only two ways to cure it – either the party would accept me in its ranks, or death will get me. I am not afraid of it, and I’ve thought of it frequently in the last five to six years.’ …

You see, my dearest Aunt Olya, politics is one of the reasons which make the two of us unable to talk to each other from soul to soul. And the reason for this is that for me politics is something deeply personal, lyrical, exciting. I am fighting for the Soviet regime (and therefore love it, and mistakes are painful for me).’ The ‘mistakes’ he referred to were presumably the millions of false accusations of the Great Terror. But Lev was unrepentant. ‘For me, my personal life, my creative work, absolutely everything is intertwined with the issues of the party life. You don’t want to believe in this, you think that I want to “be this way”, rather than I already am this way.’

He went on to reject ‘absolute’ human values, dismissing them as ‘intelligentsia ethics’. Lev had imbibed the essential ruthlessness of Leninism. ‘More than anything else, I can’t stand people who use “intelligentsia principles” and “humanity” to justify a general, deeply anti-Soviet behaviour.

‘I need to learn what sort of a person one has to be to become, in this decisive moment of the fight, part of the millions giving all of themselves (not from the brain, but from the heart) to the future of humankind.’

SOURCE: The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: The true story of a family torn apart by revolution and war, by Antony Beevor (Penguin, 2005), pp. 144-147

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