On Destroying New Nobilities

To protect us from the formation of a new nobility.”

I’ve been watching lots of mini-series lately about the royals, as I mentioned yesterday. The one I just finished was “The Last Kingdom” which is the story about how Saxon King Alfred of Wessex defended his kingdom from a Danish invasion to become the principal King of a united England. I followed this up with “Crown”, about the rise of the current Queen of England, Elizabeth II. These series got me thinking about continuity and change and the preservative power of the nobility juxtaposed against the liability of having people you can’t get rid of making laws. The England of Alfred was a medieval place; Alfred’s palace not much more elaborate than a large wooden house; to say nothing of his subjugate kings of lesser kingdoms. Cue the Windsors, Buckingham Palace and Parliament and all the trappings of an elite nobility that had become enormously wealthy as they cemented themselves in place over a millennium.

The British don’t appear to mind this; it seems that an entrenched nobility has somehow lent stability to the Island and given England the ability to deal with the constant shocks that come from being too close to Europe, with its wars and its absolutism. The gradual shift to a constitutional monarchy has been done while still protecting the trappings of their royals and keeping the nobility somewhat happy, if a little bored. Again, an arrangement that works for them.

But that way is not our way. The American founding fathers had a different idea. There is a natural rebelliousness that is part of the American experiment, a flaunting of authority and a refusal to accept that there are people who are intrinsically our superiors. We believe it is the value that people add to society which makes them rich or poor; important or irrelevant – that is the American way. I suppose this comes from the fact that we are a nation of immigrants who came from all over (Germany and Netherlands and England and Poland and so many other places) because we were nobody back home. “Huddled masses” as lady liberty calls us. And a little tired of huddling – and not in any hurry to do so again.


But nobilities are a hard thing to avoid. Alfred in Wessex didn’t become a king because somehow it was ordained by God at the beginning (despite what I’m sure he believed); but because he was wealthier and more powerful than others. Through the generations his family accumulated land, gained vassals and patronage and built armies and conquered neighbors until his line assumed the title “King” and made others bow to them.

In the Old Testament book of Leviticus God put in place for the land of Israel the “Year of Jubilee”. “But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.” That is to say, every fifty years land was returned to the original owner – reapportioned so that feudal societies with Lords and eventually Kings could not crop up.

To protect the Israelites from the formation of nobilities. God wanted a more egalitarian society – to be able to commune directly with his people without the need of having kings getting in the way.

We have our own Jubilee, courtesy of the founding fathers – a political jubilee that has become also an economic one as our government becomes increasingly commingled with our not-very-free-anymore market. Not every fifty years, as is laid out in Leviticus. Our jubilee comes every four years, when the power is returned to the people – not en masse, mobs hanging out in the big cities but literally back to the land itself; so that the representation of our country would come from the forests and the hills and the lakes just as much as from the skyscrapers and condos.

This election the democrats forgot this, focusing as they like to on top-down “change”, using political power in an attempt to alter society in their image. But that is not how our republic works, and in our country that isn’t how change happens. They thought too much about the presidency and forgot the states and the municipalities and the counties – lower prizes that do not create so great a nouveau nobility are not important enough to seek after with any enthusiasm. Of course, that was a tremendous mistake and misstep – something they might be coming to realize, although I doubt it judging from their ongoing meltdown. The new nobility that had been forming for the last eight years is broken – their economic power, derived from their political station and their access to those in the hallowed halls in Washington evaporated the morning of November 9th like an early morning fog.

I certainly hope they find their way.

Because jubilees are a good thing. Power corrupts. And America’s political class has so much power that it is hard not to let the corruption consume everything – independent of the party. And change is also a good thing – the new elites that might form now will take some time to dismantle the old, and build something that is their own. Sure, many won’t like it – but many of us didn’t really like the last eight years either.

I recently read a blog by Robert Reich, laying out the strategy for “civic resistance” as if he was a college student in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. It was comical, coming from a former Cabinet Secretary; it was a little pathetic, reading his final point ‘sit down with your family at your table and come up with your own resistance’, as if the majority of the country were not celebrating so great a change; and it was refreshing. Because if somebody who was at the top of American power is reduced to conspiring over a bowl of cheerios at their kitchen table as a result of the decision of a bunch of ordinary folks on a brisk November morning, then there is hope for America yet!!!

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The 2016 Election and a Tale of Two Articles

I consume an enormous amount of information, as I’m sure that you do. Not from television anymore, #FakeNews masquerading as “Nightly News”, CNN’s Fareed Zacharia pretentiously preaching nonsense and calling it wisdom. “I want to get the viewers to understand the world around them.” Thank God there aren’t many of them – viewers that is. Orwell would be proud.

No, instead I read a lot. And from many different sources. Also not usually Washington Post or the NYT; although the Journal’s (WSJ) Peggy Noonan has managed to keep her finger on the pulse of the national mood – so I do like her. But mostly I read the online “rags” – they don’t try as hard to hide their true intentions which makes for more honest writing and by association more insightful reading (although you really do have to sift through a lot of sand to find that golden nugget).

At any rate, this year I read even more than usual – it was a bewildering election year, wasn’t it? So much emotion, so much vitriol, so much angst. A year when all of us at one point or another went nuts and posted something to social media or had a fight with some friend (who might now be a former friend) that we knew was a mistake and would probably like to undo. So as we prepare for the inauguration of our 45th President I’d like to take the liberty to distill down the election, arguments, debates – fears and frustrations and yes – hate – into two articles that I read and found most enlightening; one from either ‘side’ of the aisle.

“The Stranger” is a weekly newspaper in Seattle representing the grunge, hipster, progressive, tattooed topless transgender coffee shop crowd. In 2004 the editors ran an article called “The Urban Archipelago” in which they laid out their plan for the country. It could have been President Obama’s playbook (who knows, maybe it was). “Citizens of the Urban Archipelago reject heartland “values” like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country. And we are the real Americans. They–rural, red-state voters, the denizens of the exurbs–are not real Americans. They are rubes, fools, and hate-mongers.” The article goes on – in equally poisonous prose about what they feel about the “flyover states” and how they will go about destroying them. Again, cue the Democratic playbook for the last eight years, because they did indeed try.

Now the other side. In March of 2016 there appeared on blogspot.com a common blog that called itself “The Journal of American Greatness”. It was, boiled down, intellectual Trumpism. As The New Yorker saidThe most cogent argument for electing Donald Trump was made not by Trump, or by his campaign, but by a writer who (…) called himself Publius Decius Mus, after the Roman consul known for sacrificing himself in battle…” In September of 2016, a month after the journal went offline (for those who like spontaneous expression and the amazing ability of ideas to find their way, this itself is a wild little anecdote) their greatest writer, Publius Decius himself did one more curtain call, published of all places in the Claremont Review of Books. It was titled “The Flight 93 Election”. “One of the Journal of American Greatness’s deeper arguments” the article reads, “was that only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise. It is therefore puzzling that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying. That possibility, apparently, seems to them so preposterous that no refutation is necessary. (…) 2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”

This was the election when the “basket of deplorables” – those (but obviously not all) who the week before the election saw the country headed in the wrong direction (63%) took a look at Clinton’s third “Seattle Stranger” term and rose up to rush the cockpit with the best leader they could find – a controversial and bombastic candidate who promised to fight for them, to turn the tides and bully their tormentors.


So the dust is settling on 2016 and most people are coming to terms with the new reality. The Democrats of course continue to complain about the Electoral College. This is because to a certain extent their “Seattle Stranger” strategy was effective and they received a large popular vote victory. The urban echo chambers of the elites have grown, as have their majorities in those places. Now, isn’t that exactly what the founding fathers were worried about, when they set up our checks and balances in the first place? I’ve been watching lots of episodes of “Henry VIII” and “The Crown” and “Reign” on Netflix recently and have been struck by just how isolated the nobles and their royalty are from the commoners. Those who live on the money collected through taxes to fund their wars and their lifestyles and their parties seem to be generally baffled during the occasional peasant revolt, or when they hear about a famine or crop blight. They really can’t find a way to understand (remember ‘Let them eat cake’?). Their confirmation bias is sealed tight against anything trickling in that their thick layers of advisers can filter out.

The founders knew this – their experience with monarchy was fresh. They set in place the Electoral College so, at least every four years, those who wished to rule would have to walk the country. They would have to wander through the villages; eat meat and potatoes with the “deplorables”, saying grace first of course; tour the abandoned factories amidst the tears of the unemployed; and hear the concerns, fears and frustrations of a wide and diverse citizenry.

To protect us from the formation of a new nobility.

The Democrats and their “Seattle Stranger” strategy willfully forgot this, and they paid the ultimate price. So doesn’t that mean the system still works, even after 240 years? And isn’t that a remarkable thing?

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Solzhenitsyn, Writing and Our New ‘Curtain’

I’m in the middle of “The First Circle” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (review to come, hopefully this month). Concurrently – although unrelated – I’ve been somewhat discouraged of late. Success is a crafty little minx; at once flirtatious and elusive. And I’m getting a little tired of writing books nobody reads. Alas, of course I know that nothing comes easily – nor should it, lest how would we be worthy of it? Would you want to live in a skyscraper if the architect had skated through some Ivy League school on their family name, drinking and fornicating their way to a diploma? How about being the first patient of an affirmative action medical school graduate? For sure not – we want people to compete for the right to our business, even if we ourselves would like success handed to us.


At any rate – I’m reading Solzhenitsyn; whose obstacles to success seem incredible up against my whiny generation. We have social media where we can connect with the world; we can publish our own works (books and blogs and articles) in the hopes of gaining an ear. Our education systems are – well not great but they are what we make of them. Most of us can go to university. We have the great books at our fingertips to read (if we were only to bother) – all translated into English as the only world language. Now consider Solzhenitsyn. I surely can’t imagine that he wanted to be born in Stalinist Russia. Or to spend years in the gulag; didn’t want to be banished to teach primary school in Kazakhstan and certainly didn’t want to waste his time negotiating with some mindless censor the ‘acceptable’ content of his novels.

Yet he wrote.

And he wrote. And he wrote more. He wrote without the hope of leaving that oxygen-less country. He wrote without dreaming of being published – of being widely read. And he wrote in a great deal of fear – his first visit to the gulag was because of what he had put in a private letter; to say nothing of a novel. But he wrote anyway. About what he thought. He made fun of Stalin; he created a world where the people around him were flesh and blood with problems and pain but also dreams and passions. He told the stories of the gulag, and peoples’ eternal fight to be free not in an epic way but more an everyday fight for occasional dignity in a world denied self.

So how could such a powerless man – a nobody, born behind a curtain of iron, become a somebody? A Nobel Prize winner? The answer is I don’t know. I’m supposed to say “It’s because of the raw power of his talent.” Except is it? Was there nobody else in Russia in the 1960s with so great a prose? Are his ideas so monumental that they cut through the double-speak and rendered even his minders mute?

Probably not.

I sort of wonder if there isn’t a new type of curtain these days. There’s so much being written, by so many people, that it’s also difficult for great minds to be ‘found’. Not in the same way as for Solzhenitsyn; an impenetrable insurmountable obstacle between himself and the free word. Today it’s more like Murkwood forest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination. The darkness of irrationality in our post-truth world; the swamp of “celebrity” like a sort of toxic sponge sucking up pages and word counts and column inches; the spiders’ webs of political correctness where our fearlessness gets snagged and sucked dry – our new censors all.

But I guess that’s the point – and perhaps the answer. Solzhenitsyn is who he became, first and foremost, because of his persistence; I think. And therein lies the lesson for the rest of us.

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“Mi opinión – El teniente de San Porfirio, de Joel D. Hirst” Por Alexander Copperwhite

“He de confesar que no suelo leer novelas con fondo político, puesto que lo que me apasiona son las aventuras, el misterio, el terror, la ciencia ficción, y dichas novelas no están entre mis preferidas. Pero nunca me niego a probar cosas nuevas. La Crónica de una Revolución Bolivariana me sonaba mucho a lo que estamos acostumbrados a ver en la televisión, y de nuevo me sorprendí al estar equivocado.41lk8c6kf1l-_sy346_

Lejos de un contexto revolucionario o de un intento de adoctrinar, Joel D. Hirst nos presenta un paisaje de contrastes, ideologías, aventuras, desventuras y una telaraña de emociones encontradas que nos guían en la desconocida realidad de un país tan hermano nuestro, como sus gentes y sus costumbres.”

Lee toda la resena aqui.


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Our Belle Époque Blows

This last summer I was passing through Washington DC on my way out west; and during my layover I took a few hours to visit with an old friend. It was a warm summer morning as we sat on the outside furniture of the hotel patio drinking coffee and talking, as we always do, about topics far and wide. That day we kept circling back to the same theme, the wasteland that America’s literary scene has become. Oh, I don’t mean there aren’t writers – there are more than ever. And I don’t mean there isn’t talent, that is always there; even in such unlikely places as oxygen-less soviet Russia.

Our remunerations were more on the nouveau aloneness of writing.

Gone are the days of a hungover Hemingway wandering into “Shakespeare and Company” to commiserate with Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach; the smell of pigeon still on his breath.


Accidentally bumping into Paul Gauguin and Henry Matisse beside the Seine painting over-and-over again the same foul waters. Fighting with F. Scott Fitzgerald over prose. Taking an angry drive down to the Riviera to drink absinthe as an excuse for the madness and the folly of those times; all sponsored by the powerful, rich yet colorless aristocrats who subsidized the erratic lives of those authors and artists as a way to enliven their own dull lives.

Where can I find the pub where those of us who want to can go listen to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as they get drunk on warm English beer and argue about religion and faith and its role in literature?


Alas, the answer is unsatisfying. Because nowadays that contest happens on social media. Creepy people stalking each other in “Secret” Facebook group pages, hitting ‘like’ as the greatest expression of our artistic passion – or that new little frowny face as the ultimate articulation of our rage. Authors are famous for their emotional outbursts – are they not? Dramatically hitting “frowny, frowny, frowny” as our definitive act of antimony. Crawling out of bed in our tiny condos to walk over and switch on the laptop, stopping for a bowl of Cheerios before we dive into our online worlds; sigh. I have become nostalgic for the days of dressing up, elegant balls and late-night trysts and the midnight motorcar rides with like-minded enemies; Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez drunkenly brawling in a Madrid bar – never to speak again.

And I think of my other virtual author ‘friends’, who I’m sure would agree with my assertion that our generation’s Belle Époque sucks. They, I’m sure, also ask that most prescient of questions: where are the generous sponsors of art-for-arts-sake? The nobles and aristocrats and elites whose drawing rooms overflowed with novelists and poets in the books of W. Somerset Maugham? The answer – such as it is – is that now they fund politics, the rich colorless people do. The Koch brothers supporting cardboard online ‘journals’ and George Soros pouring money into amplifying the whines and temper-tantrums of the unenlightened. To be sure, the government hasn’t helped – not that it should. Filling out those online applications for funding at the ironically named “National Endowment  for the Arts” where my application, filled out in triplicate upon carbon paper and stamped with the appropriate seals and signatures, is analyzed by a bureaucrat for whether I am of the requisite gender, race, minority and political background to be considered. As if a government bureaucrat can identify art; as if that’s what the government should be doing in the first place.

To say nothing of the “publishing houses” that produce volume after volume of Clive Cussler and Dan Brown for the lining of their pockets and at the expense of the next generation of great American novels. Is there anywhere for us to go, in a generation where the world’s greatest literary prize, the Nobel, is gifted to a wealthy peddler of three-minute-jingles? I often wonder if Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Edgar Allen Poe and Jean Paul Sartre would have made it in the world of Harry Potter?

Back to my friend – invariably our conversation drifted into the territory of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if only’. I do have a ‘what if’, perhaps it’s actually more of an ‘if only’. So here goes: there’s a remarkable hotel in the foothills of the Venezuelan Andes. At about 12,000 feet, it was built in the 1600s by the Franciscans as a monastery and a refuge for travelers, sitting as it does equidistant between the sweltering valley below and the great colonial city of Merida; upon a footpath that was haunted by the ancient ghosts of that old place, making night travel impossible. The wary travelers would move expeditiously up the path to wait out the perilous night under the protection of the monks; then on they would go the next morning. It is a magical place.


Such an impact did it have on my imagination that it figures prominently in my 2nd novel, “The Burning of San Porfirio”.

‘If only’ I sold ten million novels, or a movie was made of “Lords of Misrule”. If only I had the wherewithal to sponsor my own époque; I’d buy that monastery and turn it into the epicenter of a new literary movement – we’d call it the époque de liberté. Sitting around the wood-paneled bar at the ceiling of the world nestled in a crevice in the Andes, fighting out the ideas of liberalism and talent and authority – faith and freedom and religion. ‘If only’, of course, Venezuela itself hadn’t become a totalitarian dictatorship.

Now wouldn’t that be better than sitting in ruffled pajamas with day-old coffee in a Santa Clause mug staring at your Facebook account?

‘If only…’

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My Viral Interview for CNN Arabic on my novel “Lords of Misrule”

I’m always intrigued by what attracts people’s attention – and why. This week I did a written interview for CNN Arabic on my new novel, “Lords of Misrule” (or the Arabic title, “Princes of Sedition”). The interview focused on some of the motivations of why people join terrorist organizations, based on my experience and study. It goes into Islamic theology and Tuareg tradition and the history of Muslim Caliphates that have defined wide swaths of North Africa and the Middle East for a millennium. I’m not sure what it was, either the topic or the geographical focus or perhaps the fact that few Americans know enough about this topic – but this interview was picked up from CNN and repeated in dozens of local media outlets, from Morocco to Algeria and Egypt and on. Given the interest generated on the “Arab Street”, I figured I’d share it with you as well in English. Happy reading!
1) Can you summarize in a few words the events of your novel?
“Lords of Misrule” is the story of a young Tuareg from Timbuktu in Mali who becomes radicalized through a series of events outside of his control. Forced to flee his homeland, he moves; first to Tamanrasset and then to Marrakesh where he studies Islamic Law, eventually becoming a Qadi, before he returns to Mali to fight in a Tuareg rebellion. There, in Timbuktu, he discovers reason and a love of tolerance and understanding through some hidden manuscripts from the Timbuktu libraries spirited from Baghdad during the sacking of the House of Wisdom.
2) Who are the heroes and villains of the novel?
Aliuf Ag Albachar is the novel’s protagonist. He’s the youngest son of a clan leader from the high Sahara, by Taoudenni. The novel begins when he is 13 years of age and visiting Timbuktu for the first time and takes him through his life into adulthood. While he is in Timbuktu he meets Salif Dicko, a young half-Bozo half-Fulani boy, and they become friends as they flee misfortune to cross the sands together. But Salif takes another path, deciding to carry out Jihad in the Middle Eastern wars; returning to Timbuktu and becoming Aliuf’s nemesis. The story doesn’t really have “villains” – none of my novels do. Each person is a rational actor, making decisions based upon what they believe will advance their own interests – and often suffering the consequences. But these decisions do cause conflict, as the paths each of the characters take is mutually exclusive of the other; bringing Aliuf and Salif into conflict.
3) How did the idea come to you to write the story? Is it simply inspired by reality or is it a true-life story?
I was living and working in Mali while the conflict was unfolding between the north and the south, as well as during the infiltration of terrorist elements; I was even there during the Radisson attack. I was captivated by the story of Mali. As I read and learned more about Tuareg culture and civilization I was inspired by something so ancient and epic – and how they have lived in such a harsh environment like the Sahara and how their culture adapted and advanced to protect their society. And also, as I worked, I was intrigued by the process of how extremist Salafis infiltrated the Tuareg society through missionary work and other activities until terrorist ideas began to gain a foothold. At the same time, I spent a lot of time researching about Timbuktu, and this took me to learning about the Abbasid and the Umayyad Caliphates – as well as the Almoravids and the Almohads and the various Berber dynasties and the important role of Morocco and Algeria in the story of Islamic civilization. It was fascinating – and I wanted to weave it all together in a story that captured the epic struggles and ancient ideas and brought them back into the discussion about what was happening, that I was watching unfold.
4) How long did it take you to write?
The novel took me three years to write. The first two were spent researching. Reading about the Tuareg culture, where the language came from and their history and civilization. Their relations to their Berber cousins. About Tin Hinan and the stories about their first queen and the empire she strove to build. And I read books on Islamic civilization and law. About the caliphates and how they ebbed and flowed and advanced across the Maghreb and into the Sahara. Language and ideas and the trade routes. Walking through the ancient places in Timbuktu or Djenne and studying a mud building that is 800 years old. After my research, and acknowledging that I really only scratched the surface of so great a history, I began to write. A process that took me another year.
5) Why did you write “Lords of Misrule”?
The struggle to be free is the central motivating factor of human decision-making. Everywhere I have lived and worked I come across so many amazing people fighting to make their worlds a better place for their families, and against such great odds. I write to honor them.
6) Can you tell us little about your work in Mali?
I have worked on social issues for many years. First as a humanitarian aid worker for years in Congo, Pakistan and Central America. Then, more recently on peacebuilding. I was working in Mali supporting the peace process between the rebellion in the north and the government; hoping to put an end to the war.
7) What is the main message of “Lords of Misrule”? And who should read it?
Lords of Misrule delves into how ordinary people can become radicalized, and end up making common cause with terrorism. People are not born extremist, they become so because often that is where life takes them. But this is also a story about how a young man is de-radicalized, how it is possible to escape from the motivating power of hate and violence and become renewed. I wrote the book in English, for audiences in the United States and Europe who often times over-simplify the motivations for terrorism and forget that all people have their own fears and desires and motivations. It is easy for folks from the “west” to forget that even somebody born in Timbuktu has the same desires and emotions and fears. The power of love, the anger at impunity, the great motivator that is faith. All these things we all share – and I wanted people to reflect on this. But also, the book is being translated into Arabic by the Arab Center for Scientific Research in Morocco. Because it also tells the story about how a young man finds a way to see through the hate and discover reason – which helps him free his mind from the terrorists’ ideological straight-jacket.
8) What can you say about radicalization in Sahara and its causes?
There are many reasons that people choose to become terrorists. Sometimes it’s economic, trying to escape desperate poverty. Sometimes it’s out of powerlessness, seeking to find a way to have their voices heard in a world that doesn’t seem to listen to them. Sometimes it’s out of a misplaced religious fervor, believing as we are often told that for us to truly hold our faith we must force others to do so as well. But there is more than that. The modern “world order” that was set in place first with the acknowledgement of the sovereign nation state in the 1600s and then on to that which was established after World War II has never really worked for lots of folks living in poor countries, for example in Africa. What they see is that the elections and the central banks and the foreign assistance and the parliaments are all mechanisms to cement the elites in their power and promote corruption, and which do not allow opportunity for others to climb out of their poverty and their desperation. Islamism is an attempt to remake this world order, much like communism or fascism were. It is an attempt to rewrite the rules and recreate a world order that does not respond to orders from the West (Washington DC, London or Brussels) but instead to leaders who have their own legitimacy, not that which is derived from their association to the west. For this reason it motivates young people, rebellious people who want to “upend the apple cart” in order to create something that works for them. Of course we all know that it doesn’t, and that in this case the “solution” is far worse than the “problem”. But by the time young people learn this, it is too late.
9) How can de-radicalization succeed?
Radicalization is an individual process. A recent report from Quilliam Foundation says that it takes more than 400 hours of individual discussion (usually over an instant messenger platform) to convince somebody to become a jihadist. De-radicalization must also be individual. It is the process of re-awakening people’s minds through the use of reason and thought and understanding and debate. And it is a process which begins with a central tenet, “You have no right over the life of another.” All forms of extremism and terrorism start by convincing people that not only are they right, but that they have the responsibility to force others to act the way they know to be true. But force is never right. Just as you are free to believe what you do, so am I. If you think I’m wrong, you must convince me – and I you. And upon these rules, civilization is built. If we result to violence, not only does the power of our ideas evaporate but we build our societies on blood. And those are places where nobody wants to live – even those who started building them in the first place.
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Book Review: “Ceremony” by Leslie Silko

Ceremony was hard to read; but I’m glad I did! It is the story of Native Americans from New Mexico and their experiences as they traveled through their lives. Participation in World War II; and how that changed people fighting as they were for a government that many certainly did not love and for a country that so many feel they had lost – and rightly, obviously so. And how hard it was when the war ended and many returned home, changed, to a situation that is as unchanging as the petrified forests of the southwest. It is also a little hard to read, because it doesn’t follow the normal pattern of fiction, with a beginning, a plot and an end. It is almost a series of anecdotes and reflections that are not pegged in time but in the impressions of the main characters as they bounce around – thinking of their lives. It is very much the story of the Indians of America. The story of Native Americans is a hard one and a sad one – it goes without saying. We all recognize that in equal measure as the immigrants thrived in the United States, the Native American communities suffered. Not only military defeats as tribal armies lost against the superior numbers and weaponry of the newly arrived; but also as civilizations collapsed and spirits were broken. I say this, because this is what this novel is about. The struggles of a people who have had their spirits destroyed, and all the terrible social consequences this entails. Alcoholism, rape, stigmatization, violence. The “pure socialism” of the reservations denying any need or opportunity to overcome. Often times these days in the United States the progressives and their “social justice warriors” are focused on righting past wrongs, real and perceived. The case for the Native American communities is perhaps the most stark – and complicated, because the past is already written. Certainly, in the fight for control over the continent the European immigrants won and the tribes lost. History moves about in tidal waves of power and purpose and violence and loss. Tales of conquest, the advance of civilizations across the world and the building of empires juxtaposed against the travails of the vanquished. This is the nature of the world, whether we like it or not. That does not keep us from feeling sorrow and wondering what we can do; how we can work to improve the lot of people in a country that should be inclusive but remains a hard place for so many who very truly were defeated and sidelined. I am from Arizona, and have come and gone from the reservations; and I certainly mean no offense as I recognized that this is the hardest of topics. And I have no easy answers either. For all this reason I applaud Leslie Silko for writing this important novel – and I encourage you all to read it. Leslie does a great job of telling the story, with sadness and bitterness and a sense of loss which is natural and pure.


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