Georgia May 2019

In May 2019, I spent a bit over a week in Georgia, in the Caucasus, east of the Black Sea and bordering Russia, Turkey and Armenia. I went under the auspices of First Things Foundation, an Orthodox economic development charity, which raises a little money taking people to places where they have (or in this case, were placing) field workers.

I had to wait until after the Spring Concert of a group I sing in, but then off to Chicago, on to Lufthansa, and Tbilisi about 16 hours later after a Frankfurt transfer. Most of my mates had already been knocking around a few days.

First Things Foundation isn’t a travel agency or tour guide and it was not a fancy tour. We stayed in no proper hotels, and one of our places was up four flights, no elevator.

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May 11, overlooking ‎⁨Tbilisi⁩, ⁨Georgia⁩, from Turtle Lake Ascent, where we …

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… feasted at our first “Supra,” where tradition calls for 16 (I think) toasts. I was fewer than 4 hours on the ground at this point, after a long flight, and am not a big drinker anyway. But I survived pretty well.

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These Kool-Aid pitchers are wine. There were many of them …

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… and they lasted into the night — but not too late to keep me from Church on Metekhi ascent, where (alas!) I have only a video which won’t embed, apparently.

Later, we made our way toward Stepantsminda, but stopped, too close to Tbilisi for the geotagging to specify, for this old church:

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It’s a long, long way to Stepandsminda, on the Russian border, but for one thing we didn’t need our guides, as it sported the World’s Best Ideogram (zoom in if necessary):

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Spring in this region comes late.

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Our destination was Qazbegi, which I think is probably a regional name, which includes Stepantsminda (named for St. Stephen). Georgia is northern neighbor of Armenia, the oldest Christian nation, and became Christian soon after Armenia – in the early 4th Century. It is reportedly (but you know how those Chambers of Commerce are) the birthplace of wine. We have it on greater authority that it is the birthplace of Stalin, but never mind.

We were in Stepantsminda two nights, to attend a wedding and reception for one of the First Things Foundation fieldworkers. He was marrying a Russian doctor, who he met in Central America, and they chose Georgia to minimize visas and other hassles for Russian and American friends and family.

The wedding was in a monastic church, up the mountain, a mere stone’s throw from Russia.

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The bride was late, coming from Tbilisi in bad weather, with the vocal ensemble that sang sacred Georgia Chant for the wedding, popular songs (even Hotel California) at the reception, so we had ample chance to look around, and the breaking weather made for a spectacular photo of the couple.

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Area scenery. The monastery church is visible near the top of the near mountain in the first photo:

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That was my boarding house to the right in the last photo.

Breakfast place (Shorena’s Bar in Stepantsminda) and company, I’m on the right.

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The day after the wedding, we made our way to Svetitskhoveli in Mtskheta, the old capital of Georgia. Our Boarding house was a durn siight nicer than the one in Stepantsminda …

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… but the highlight for me —not just of Mtskheta but of the whole trip — was the old cathedral (where I believe Patriarch Ilya still resides on the grounds) and making the acquaintance of St. Gabriel, a Fool for Christ, who reposed in Christ in 1995.

Saint first (I couldn’t resist buying this icon), Cathedral photos follow. There are many more I didn’t publish here and many more on the web, some better than any of mine.

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Two very Georgian-style icons:

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We hung around Mtskheta and environs for much of a day, including a nice alfresco lunch.

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Georgia seems to have churches everywhere you turn, many of them a thousand or fifteen hundred years old. I could not keep track and geotagging isn’t very specific in rural Georgia. So here’s a little scenery and a lot of church from later in the trip.

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St. Nino, a woman, is virtually the founder of Georgia’s Church, and is venerated quite highly. Her distinctive cross is a Georgian marker:

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Back in Tbilisi, more sightseeing, including a Georgian Family Day celebration on the plaza of the new Cathedral.

A haberdashery for monks and clergy.

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Family Day festivities:

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Careful color-coordination:

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A luscious dish we should cook here: “Madame Bovary.”

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I was plenty ready for home after almost 8 days in Georgia, mostly passively going where I was driven, but getting some solo Tbilisi walking in at the end. (By the way: I recommend Lufthansa very highly.)

I was raised Evangelical by parents who got their adult-convert Christian formation in a fundamentalist baptist church. In the 50s and 60s, our kind of Evangelicals followed the fundamentalist taboos: smoking, drinking, dancing, playing cards, and secret societies.

I say that to put in perspective my discomfort with Georgian-level drinking — not just the wines but a sort of moonshine brandy they call Cha-cha. A lot of my pleasure in this trip was attenuated by that discomfort, which involves some collateral stories best left untold.

My overall impression of Georgia and the Georgians is an ancient people and culture, deeply and historically Christian, but in a manner that confounds Church and nation to an extent unknown in the U.S. Similar confounding is found in Greece and Russia. Oh: they don’t do Fundamentalist/Evangelical taboos — for better or worse.

It’s above my pay grade to judge whether the Christianity suffers in the amalgam, but it certainly is different from being in a minority Christian tradition in the U.S.

Labor Day, 9/4/17

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I heard a podcast homily Sunday that brought me up short.

I have been fastidious about keeping politics out of Church — as in “don’t bring it up at coffee hour, and don’t join in if someone else does.” It’s not worth dividing the church or alienating my brother or sister in Christ. The Church is not a political player.

So why should I do that on Social Media or in blog?

The Right has its Alt-Right problem. The Left has an Antifa that they’ve been as loathe to condemn as Trump was to condemn unequivocally the white nationalists and neo-Nazis. Those of us who are sane, whether leaning Left or Right, have our work cut out healing a mighty rift.

Digital political detox may mean I don’t have much to say for a while. At least if I resume engaging politics, I want it to be considered and principled, not sheer reflex.

You may take it for grated that:

  • I think Donald Trump is an unsuitable President.
  • I was not a Hillary supporter.
  • My party affiliation, not especially strong (as I have minimal hope for politics) is the American Solidarity Party.
  • Until January 2005, I was Republican.
  • I will most rarely vote Democrat because I oppose abortion and the sexual revolution in general.
  • I appreciate Neil Gorsuch and every other Trump judicial nominee I know about.
  • I understand, when I stop and think about it, that there are people in the country for whom Donald Trump was a rational choice, even if it was a forced “Flight 93” choice. Some of that comes from widening gaps in wealth and income, leaving a lot of Americans hurting economically and getting their noses rubbed in it whenever they turn on the TV.
  • I am utterly baffled by anyone who thinks Trump was good choice rather than the least bad choice, but baffled doesn’t imply hatred.

If anything I have written has ticked you off, I can’t truthfully say I’m sorry. But if anything I’ve written has sounded like I was saying “you’re an idiot/fiend/fascist/Nazi,” forgive me.

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There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Trump in Warsaw

It sounds as if the President’s speechwriters gave him some very lofty things to say in Poland. I almost laughed out loud, derisively, at the thought of Donald Trump as the defender of what’s noble in the western tradition.

I wish I could credit him with believing — even understanding while uttering hypocritically — any of the better things he said. But I can’t.

If he follows through, he will enhance my faith in miracles.

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I had every intention of leaving Trump’s Warsaw comment there, with nothing more said. But something bizarre has happened:

The shocking thing here is that this is controversial at all. It shows how decadent we’ve become.

Let’s sample some of the left-liberal freakout, shall we?

Here’s Peter Beinart in The Atlantic:

In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means. It’s important that other Americans do, too.

… The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white.

More Beinart:

The most shocking sentence in Trump’s speech—perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime—was his claim that “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” On its face, that’s absurd. Jihadist terrorists can kill people in the West, but unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, they cannot topple even the weakest European government. Jihadists control no great armies. Their ideologies have limited appeal even among the Muslims they target with their propaganda. ISIS has all but lost Mosul and could lose Raqqa later this year.

Trump’s sentence only makes sense as a statement of racial and religious paranoia. The “south” and “east” only threaten the West’s “survival” if you see non-white, non-Christian immigrants as invaders. They only threaten the West’s “survival” if by “West” you mean white, Christian hegemony. A direct line connects Trump’s assault on Barack Obama’s citizenship to his speech in Poland. In Trump and Bannon’s view, America is at its core Western: meaning white and Christian (or at least Judeo-Christian). The implication is that anyone in the United States who is not white and Christian may not truly be American but rather than an imposter and a threat.

Poland is largely ethnically homogeneous. So when a Polish president says that being Western is the essence of the nation’s identity, he’s mostly defining Poland in opposition to the nations to its east and south. America is racially, ethnically, and religious diverse. So when Trump says being Western is the essence of America’s identity, he’s in part defining America in opposition to some of its own people. He’s not speaking as the president of the entire United States. He’s speaking as the head of a tribe.

Let’s move on. Here’s a tweet by Slate’s Jamelle Bouie:

Here’s James Fallows on the Warsaw speech:

Has Donald Trump ever heard of Leni Riefenstahl?

These are collected by Rod Dreher, who detests Trump about as much as I do. I don’t recall much about Peter Beinart and nothing at all about Jamelle Bouie, but this kind of crap from James Fallows is bitterly disappointing. No, it’s worse than that: it’s unhinged. The real paranoiacs in this story are the deranged eisegetes.

I can’t give Trump credit for playing the media like a violin this time because I don’t think he intended anything provocative. He neither intended nor uttered anything racist or white nationalist, and the grievance-mongers aren’t likely to persuade me otherwise.

Dreher explains pretty well why Trump’s themes are legitimate and timely while David Frum and Ross Douthat explain what really was jarring about the speech (articulating what I had only intuited).

Douthat:

One key to understanding Trump, always, is that he appeals to people by attacking the decadence that he himself also embodies.

— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) July 7, 2017

Frum:

As presidential speeches go, Trump’s address in Warsaw was fair. Ish. If you forget who is speaking and what that person has been saying and doing since Inauguration Day—since the opening of his campaign in 2015—and really through his career.

But if you remember those things, the speech jolted you to attention again and again.

[T]he most troubling thing about the speech was the falsehood at its core; the problem is not with the speech, but with the speaker. The values Trump spoke for in Warsaw are values that he has put at risk every day of his presidency—and that he will continue to put to risk every day thereafter. Trump’s not wrong to perceive a threat to the Euro-Atlantic from the south and east. But the most recent and most dramatic manifestation of that threat was the Russian intervention in the U.S. election to install Donald Trump as president. The threat from outside is magnified by this threat from within—and it is that truth that makes a mockery of every word President Trump spoke in Warsaw.

Maybe this is analogous to the trick bag the Left thought Trump was in on immigration (the one President, in all of American history, forbidden to limit immigration is Donald J. Trump because he promised to do so in terms connected to the religion of Islam): the one person forbidden to defend Western Civilization is Donald J. Trump because we know it’s racist dog-whistles when he does it.

Back to Dreher, who says what I was starting to feel:

If you tell people that to love and to want to defend the culture of the West is a racist act, then they will cease to care about your judgment on the matter, because you are requiring them to hate themselves as an act of virtue. In that regard, Jamelle Bouie’s sentiment here is a much greater gift to the racist alt-right than anything Donald Trump said in Warsaw.

I mean, really, how ignorant and provincial do you have to be, Messrs. Beinart and Bouie, to hear Trump’s speech and think of it as a #MAGA version of a Nuremberg Rally Address? Is the degree of self-hatred of the West required to be a virtuous, woke person such that you cannot tell the difference between Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and the Horst Wessel Song? Do they really think Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (all of which is available on YouTube, starting here) is a plummy version of Triumph of the Will? If standing against this kind of liberal insanity means I have to stand with Donald Trump, well, okay, I’ll stand with Donald Trump. I won’t like it, but at least Donald Trump doesn’t hate his own civilization.

It is necessary to criticize ourselves constructively, for the sake of growing in virtue.But that is not what these people are doing. By anathematizing any and all who cherish the culture and history of the West, they will ultimately force conservatives to embrace Reaction as the only bastion of resistance to their nihilistic crusade. But they don’t see it anymore than the Social Justice Warriors grasp that their militant illiberalism is calling up and equal and opposite reaction from the people they have demonized.

“Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” Trump asked. Maybe he was thinking about Islamic terrorists. I’m thinking about the educated barbarians who cannot create a living culture, only live off the last vestiges of one they inherited, even as they scatter salt in its fallow fields. Donald Trump may be the enemy of culture in many respects, but he is in no way as potent an enemy as these mad evangelists for the Anti-Culture.

But then here comes respectable commenters on the left, like Bouie, Beinart, and Fallows, yammering about fascism, Leni Riefenstahl, and racist dog whistles, and you realize that whether he meant to or not, Trump’s speech was clarifying. I don’t think Donald Trump could write ten meaningful sentences explaining why the West matters, but that’s beside the point. The point is, when talking about the worth and the defense of Western civilization makes you into Hitler McGoebbelsface in the eyes of liberal commentators, then you suddenly see the situation in starker relief.

(Emphasis added)

Finally, I really want to share Dreher’s beautiful response to the “‘Western civ’ is white nationalist and racist” crap:

Broadly speaking, what we call the West are the countries and peoples formed by the meeting of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Hebrew religion. There’s a great deal of diversity within the West, but religion, ideas, art, literature, and geography set it apart from other civilizations …

Go to Istanbul. Turks are heirs to a great civilization; you have to look no further than the religious architecture of the city to know that. But you also would never mistake Istanbul for a city of the West. So what?

Every descendant of Africa and Asia who lives in the West and broadly affirms the values that shaped Western civilization is a Westerner. Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters are as much sons of the West as J.S. Bach and Ludwig von Beethoven. I wrote a book about how reading a poem written by a 14th century Tuscan, Dante Alighieri, utterly changed my life. I have no Italian blood in me at all, but I am part of Dante’s civilization in a way that I simply am not part of the civilization that produced, say, the Analects of Confucius. If not for my mind having been shaped by the Christian narrative, and by Greco-Roman narratives, the poem would not have meant at much to me. Again: so what? This is normal human experience the world over. The civilization shaped by Islam have broad diversity too, but they all share a core belief and experience that binds them.

Thank God that the deracinated, de-Christianized EU elite plan to integrate Turkey into the European Union did not work. And if I were a Turk, I would thank Allah for preserving my Islamic country from that fate too. Elites in both countries wish to deny the religious basis of their respective cultures, and pretend that we’re all a bunch of universalists. We’re not, and never will be.

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.