The Kings of West Africa

A petty noble emerges; a void or a vacuum, leftovers of a great war or famine is filled by his dominion and something new is born. It grows, consuming all in its path, for stability in empire is mostly secured through violence – expanding out in glory and power until it becomes unwieldy and unstable, obese and arrogant and finally brittle, collapsing in upon itself.

And another emerges.

Human history has been dominated by these cycles, the rise and fall of empire; patterns repeated in the north and south, in the east and the west. Everything was the same for everyone in the pre-modern world. Empire, built by kings through invasion and conquest. Stratified society, kings and nobles and serfs and slaves: with artisans and merchants slipped between like lubricant which made the civilizations move. And this was the same the world over, from the Persians to the Inca; from the Vikings to the Celts and the Garamantians and the ancient Egyptians. Lords and peasants; Divine Right of Kings meeting noblesse oblige to the brief bitterness of the peasants.

Humans most usually consider our own histories, the stories of us and ours. Its natural, and there’s nothing wrong with that; which doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from the paths of those who are foreign, though they are not our paths. Sometimes, unfortunately, this ignorance leads to contempt, for we humans are a judgmental lot, aren’t we? This is often the case with Africa. A history-less place of tribal wars until the arrival of the Arabs, of the colonists. Right? Wrong. Truth of the matter is that medieval Africa is not that different of a place from medieval Europe, or medieval India, or medieval China. Empires and civilizations and the waxing and waning of significance. West Africa, Western Sudan as it was initially called, had all of this; linked more closely to the fate of the East – though the little Arab children in Riyadh probably don’t learn this. Islam and the caliphates of old – the Almoravids and the Almohads, the Berbers and Tuaregs and Arabs. Jihads to expand the reach of the Abbasids. Western Sudan is part of all these ancient stories.

I’ve been re-reading “The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay”. This simple book is about three kingdoms we rarely read about in America – the old kingdoms of Western Sudan. Kingdoms which were built in gold and slaves and salt; kingdoms that expanded and shrank, invaded others and were themselves invaded. It’s a fascinating story. Of Mansa Musa, one of the most imposing emperors in world history, the richest monarch of all time with a kingdom larger than western Europe that rivaled the great Khans of Mongolia; decentralized and administered by civil servants, taxation and conscription. A Muslim king taking an entourage of 60,000 to Mecca with so much gold that it sparked a twelve-year inflationary period for Cairo. Stories of a privileged city beyond the sand which inspired 400 years of explorers.

Of course that was then; Mali and Ghana these days are desperately poor West African countries; Songhai disappeared, although Gao is still there, empty but for jihadis and a contingent of Chinese peacekeepers peering nervously through concertina wire to a desert they cannot understand.

So why the great divergence? Why did some societies recover from empire to build strata-less places that respond to the consent of their people, while others just fell away – never experiencing the benefits of modernity which itself has already passed away? Why did enlightenment create prosperity for so many; while others languished? Those, of course, are the greatest questions of all time. This book won’t answer them, no one book will because there is no one answer – but being reminded that 400 years ago almost everybody was miserable, cargo on the same brutal boat, should serve as a starting point to ask ourselves, “Why the divergence of our fates?” Especially for those who of us who would have been peasants and wish not to return the old days of empire.

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GenZ: Hegel and the Anti-Millennials

We never consider ourselves to have gotten old. Age creeps up on all of us, that proverbial ‘thief in the night’; and before you know it you are deep in online calculators, counting the days until your little boy goes to college (and how the devil will you pay for it…?) while he stares at you from behind his play McDonald’s uniform.

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KidZania – you should take your little boy!

And we’ve been busy, the “Generation X” crowd; those of us who graduated from college in the late nineties or early 2000s. Ours was a world of opportunity without any great personal or national struggle. The Cold War was over; segregation was finished, and though it had been important in the consciousness of our boomer parents we never even considered it; race-relations were something for the sixties, communism was something for the past; socialism was communism. Ours was “the end of history”. Our great venture – if we had one – was to end poverty. Not in that “YOU MUST OBEY ME AND DO THESE THINGS OR YOU ARE SCUM” way. We are a generation that refused moral judgments on the lives of others. Our generation was not very moral at all really as David Brooks says in his seminal 2001 article The Organization Kid, “When I asked about moral questions, they would often flee such talk and start discussing legislative questions.” Growing up in the houses of their hippy boomer postmodern parents, they – we – had become positivists. Keen to follow the rules as they were established but absent any talk of ‘natural law’ which would have grounded those rules in a source of right and wrong. No, not a universal moral prerogative to end poverty – we were relativists, and nothing was universal – but instead more in the “To whom much has been given…” way. And not in America, not necessarily: Reagan had built us an economy that led to, “…the sweetest job market in the nation’s history.” No, we were the generation of third-world poverty, of listening as children to “We are the World” and then as teenagers watching on the nightly news (which we still believed, before they had all become #FakeNews) the Ethiopian famine and the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica.

I like to read old articles when I can find them. In this case Brooks, and his sweeping review of college age GenX. “At the schools and colleges where the next leadership class is being bred, one finds not angry revolutionaries, despondent slackers, or dark cynics but the Organization Kid. (…) They are professional students, (…) Their profession for these four years is to be a student. That doesn’t mean that these leaders-in-training are money-mad (though they are certainly career-conscious). It means they are goal-oriented. An activity—whether it is studying, hitting the treadmill, drama group, community service, or one of the student groups they found and join in great numbers—is rarely an end in itself. It is a means for self-improvement, résumé-building, and enrichment. College is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement, and they are always aware that they must get to the next step (law school, medical school, whatever) so that they can progress up the steps after that.”

I remember the days that Brooks describes. Studying theology (which is perhaps more rigorous than most other ‘Liberal Arts’ curriculum, more closely related as it is to the ancient disciplines studied by Burke and Jefferson and Kant and Locke), preparing to enter what my Moody professors scoffed at as “the social gospel” (but which was nevertheless my response to “much is required”). Preparing for a career ending third world wars, introducing the dark places of the globe to democracy and prosperity (our own GenX utopianism). Naïve, guilty as charged – but that was our mission. Waking at 7:00am, classes till 1:50pm (with 10 minutes for lunch). Work from 2:00pm to 6:00pm (the days before the debt epidemic when we were expected to ‘Go to the school we could afford’); study from 7:00pm to midnight. Then do it all over again. I developed a habit of taking Sundays and studying for about 8 hours finishing all my homework for the following week – buying myself a week of cushion in case tragedy struck in the form of a cold or a pop-quiz. Broke – dates with my erstwhile girlfriend were the 99 cent chicken sandwich at Burger King or the occasional “Free with your student ID card” theater production in downtown Chicago (where Moody is located).

Hard work; no time for complaining – respectful, deferential to authority because I was taking 21 credits a semester, perfectly calculated out – because the budget implications of one “F”, one “INCOMPLETE” would be catastrophic. We were said to be existentialists; but more in a ‘live and let die’ Guns N’ Roses sort of way. Nirvana and Green Day and Semisonic “Closing time: Time for you to go back to the places you will be from. Closing time. This room won’t be open ’til your brothers or you sisters come…”

Turns out our brothers and sisters are mean, and sort of stupid.

Cue IGen; or Generation Y or the Millennials (although the tail end of that phenomenon – most Millennials are nearing 30 and are different than the college-age crowd of ‘safe-space’ tantrum throwers). The current crop of entitled, bitter know-nothings who hurl insults at professors and wage pitched battles at everything their ignorance perceives as prejudice. Far from my days, when “…students have no time to read newspapers, follow national politics, or get involved in crusades”; the current generation has nothing but time. A recent survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics highlights this, “One major conclusion from the survey is that on an average weekday, college students spend 3.3 hours engaged in educational activities—that’s just 3.3 hours a day out of the 24 available to them.”

Of course, why bother hurrying? The bill – footed by their parents who at the beginning end of GenX (I was on the tail end) saved and are now paying through the nose. And the job market? Well, the Trump Economy is proving to be one of the best in history, but these things take time to work themselves into the national consciousness. IGen is firmly set in the Obama Malaise, the period from 2008 to 2016 when there were no jobs, there was no opportunity, the only thing to latch onto was identity – “College graduates (…) liv(ing) out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life,” as Paul Ryan once said.

But why the hate? Because, unlike my generation who are Camus existentialists, the Millennial/GenY crowd are Nietzsche nihilists. A nihilism which is exacerbated by the Social Media narcissistic quest for ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ which has made them miserable indeed.


There is a silver lining, as there always is. It seems that this generation – the generation of my little McDonald’s boy – is reaching back, way back. “Gen Z (the generation that comes immediately after IGen), those born in 1995 or later, is possibly the most conservative generation since World War II (…)  on issues like gay marriage, marijuana legalization, transgender rights, and even tattoos, 59% of Gen Z respondents described their views as ‘conservative’ and ‘moderate’. This is a radical change from 83% Millennials and 85% of Gen X who state that their views are ‘quite’ or ‘very liberal’ on those same issues.” They are retirement savers, avoid their Millennial older siblings’ penchant for debt, and they are smarter – less susceptible to propaganda (#FakeNews), more prone to researching things before they make a decision. More independent.

Hegel’s famous dialectic “compris(es of) three dialectical stages of development: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction; an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis; and the tension between the two being resolved by means of a synthesis. In more simplistic terms, one can consider it thus: problem → reaction → solution.” Wouldn’t it be funny if the “solution” to slippery slope of the baby boomers post-modernism was found in a return of the Greatest Generation?

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The Story of Two Minds


Artwork by Simon Hirst

They say that together two minds are much better, a fact that I have known as true;
And this my dear friend is the truth I defend as to why I am grateful for you;
For success we’ve been praised on life’s long pathways, but something is most oft unheeded;
Our achievements have been thanks to your acumen, of genius I’d never been treated.
To arrive at this shore without even an oar, with no brain has been really quite hard;
So I’ll tell you the story of my startling glory, from days when my work was not starred;
It began long before, at the ripe age of four when I realized that something was wrong;
Sticker-stars ne’er shown, ‘top my tests were unknown, and I knew that my brain was not strong.
It is said that a sloth who is rarely aloft learns his burden is to compensate;
But for boy who is dim, yes his chances are slim and requires an egghead first rate;
Peggy Sue she was called, twas the girl I did fall for to extricate me from my pickle;
I’d not intuition which said disposition of said ugly girl was so fickle.
The first demand she did bring was for me to sing silly songs at the top of my lungs;
Of Robin the scary and Oscar the hairy, unusual tunes by me sung;
And then she requested that I should be bested by troll from the deep forest green;
But I of this task was delivered at last for a troll Peggy Sue’d never seen.
Nevertheless when the time came for tests Peggy Sue did live up to her word;
And she sat right beside me and her hand did guide me through questions I found quite absurd;
And thus’ly the dawn of my unrefined con was announced in the loutish of ways;
With me songs a’grunting and for trolls a’hunting for fully the length of the days.
Now things got unsteady though they thought me ready, arriving the headmaster’s note;
“So proud, our star student go forth and be prudent and follow your mind,” the man wrote;
But a sage adolescent who’s naïve and pubescent is something that no-one has seen;
Worse for brainless boy-man, alone with his boy-plans expected to act like a teen.
Now unlike before when I’d needed succor from the brainy but plain Peggy Sue;
I knew that a’cheatin while some girl a’sweetin was something I’d rather not do;
For, being quite honest, with future upon us – to college I’d never go;
Instead I divined, with small brain I opined ‘haps my muscles could steal me the show.
With plan hatched in my head, at last I was wed on the plot to become very strong;
And as I grew in size I would catch someone’s eyes; the fame, oh what could go wrong?
So morning till night I’d work out with my right and then night till the dawn on my left;
Slowly, and with vigor I’d lift with such rigor, ev’ry weight I could find would I heft.
But time it fled by and I tried not to cry as I came to accept my fool gaffe;
Despite the great bout I had started to doubt, for my size it had dwindled by half;
Now there’s those as who say that a boy with no brain, he is easily gay never glum;
But alas as for me, at the age of sixteen twas the saddest of those who are dumb.
Yet I never surrendered, my will I then rendered to liberate me from my plight;
What to do on this earth for a boy of dim birth who was also in many ways slight;
To answer this query, so challenging very I settled myself on a quest;
At the end of long journey, a task or a tourney I would finally have found my rest.
The army I joined a new soldier was coined and my government sent me to war;
To slog through deep trenches and fight for the Frenches as millions had done so before;
I was quite ecstatic, the work here was matic and simple for those wit deprived;
So to make a good private, and war to survive it was everything for which I strived.
My instructors did witness, first order of business was readying me for the fight;
But picking potatoes, and peeling tomatoes – no something quite didn’t feel right;
After weeks of preparing and to the men bearing the meals for to keep up the clash;
I began to say, to myself anyway, that my choice of crusade had been brash.
Now such as it was, I continued my cause for a paper of law I had signed;
But at every shot, whether questioned or not, to the generals I freely whined;
Until at long last my commander, harassed, demanded the problem with me;
“Stop your complaining, your wailing is draining! JUST GO!” and at last I was free.
Now you who are reading might think it exceeding’ly lucky that I was set loose;
But between you and me, I had nowhere to be so instead I just caught a caboose;
There are those who, eavesdropping, say life of train-hopping is glamorous and quite a treat;
To you man and maiden I dare you to trade-in, for the life of a vagrant’s not neat.
But nevertheless I did do my darn best to endure till the end of the road;
Down the great plains and wide to the town of Van Eyes I was riding as part of the load;
Arriving on train to Van Eyes in the rain I had nothing but my little dog;
A mangy and scraggly exceedingly shaggy and smelly small dachshund I named Gog.
Now the first rule of thumb if hobo you become is to find yourself somewhere to rest;
For there’s nothing much worse – it might drive you to curse – than to sleep without even a nest;
So, Van Eyes is a ville at the foot of a hill which is nestled beside of the sea;
Thus I had to decide – absent logic – which side, in hot or in chill should I be.
Decisions for tramp who is senseless and damp are not painless, both options I toyed;
But in lieu of hard thinkin in rainstorm a’blinkin a very small coin I employed;
It rose through the air from my thumb as I dared it to carry me home to my burrow;
But instead of solution I got more confusion for it settled upright in a furrow.
And to make matters worse to return to my purse silver piece that had jilted me so;
I reached down resigned, only to find that the coin in the gutter did go;
Now that was not funny, it’d been my last money and now I had naught to buy dinner;
And that moment, my friend, I screamed “THIS IS THE END”, and resigned to becoming much thinner.
That was a low, I had nowhere to go and I probably couldn’t get wetter;
Next morn I awoke and I shook off my yoke and I vowed that the things would get better;
First thing on my mind, of the limited kind, I resolved to go find me employment;
A real job would I seek, p’haps something quite meek and give up my fools quest for enjoyment.
Now where should I start, from where to depart for a dull lad who knew only scheming?
For no paper, list printed for surly, contrary, and worse for posh life only dreaming;
I went to Goodwill and I found to my thrill some free pants and old tie I could wear;
Then walked I door to door, to establishments score and ask for a job I did dare.
It was there in Van Eyes that my lot was revised, down in a joint by the beach;
Where I tended with care each and every pair who ice cream of me did beseech;
T’was where we at last met and our futures were set, and my life was quickly transformed;
That was the beginning of my days of winning as the ice-cream world we stormed.
It was one sunny Sunday, a genuine fun-day for weather was warm and was grand;
Outside near the water it only got hotter, and there was and fete and a band;
In came you a’needin, in fact you were pleading for popsicle ice-cold and sweet;
We started a’talkin as music was rockin and us swayin’ hard to the beat.
We became quite good friends, in fact friends to the end, though you were so desperately shy;
You rarely could speak, to stranger barely squeak, if it wasn’t ice cream to buy;
Now time went along, I was working headlong, determined to save me some cash;
When you asked for a walk, for you wanted to talk, and out of the store we did dash;
“I’m quite good with math” you said on the path, as something in your thoughts you weighed;
“Its ice cream I know!” and I almost did glow, for a dozen new flavors I’d made;
“We should open a store, sell ice-cream on the shore, for your opuses are quite delicious!”
“And you’re good and kind; while the numbers I mind, our business could be quite ambitious!”
From then on t’was smooth sailing, there was no more flailing, for our stores they did multiply;
One became two became four and then more as together we reached for the sky;
Though my brain was quite modest, and you, folks find oddest – together discovered the trick;
We each have our talents, and when joined they balance, as we built a business quite slick.
Each of us, see, reach moment when we must relinquish the ruin we cradle;
At that instant surrender our hearts become tender and grace is doled out with a ladle;
So my life, as you see has its morals of three for to carry me on my way;
And here they are, and I’m happier by far, as I’ve learned how to seize the day.
The first lesson my friend which I did comprehend, make peace with who you were born;
Don’t scheme and don’t whine, or seek shortcuts to find, or good old hard work don’t you scorn;
The next lesson, don’t cheat and don’t lie, I entreat! For though you might fool for a season;
A moment will come when they’ll realize your dumb, and you will be left with no reason.
The last moral I’ve charted is the one where we started, the most vital thing I have known;
Is when you work together, no matter the weather, amazing things you’ll have grown;
So there, now go forth, find your skills, find your worth, and finding good friends win the race;
And you’ll find that the earth is in fact full of mirth and is really not that bad a place.
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The Nostalgia and Sorrow of the Southwest

There is something special for me about Native American literature.

Maybe it’s because so many of the stories take place in lands that I also have known. For I too am a child of the southwest and have the desert sands, the hostile wildness and the frightening monsoons raging through my own tempestuous soul.

Native American

In my own youth I would explore the wildness of our lands. Wildness which the soft people of the east don’t really understand. A world of grand distances, of dangerous animals and deadly insects. Of guns and a war both against nature and each other and salted by the recent reminders of life scraped out at the very fringes of civilization. Tombstone: The Town Too Tough To Die. Photographs of Geronimo and Big Nose Kate and Wyatt Earp not imported by the elites but because that’s where they were taken, and its where they belong. Jerome, a city lost now in its own past as well after the mines dried up, the resting place of the lost ghosts of our past. The tribal lands that we pass through often stopping to eat some food – fry bread perhaps – while looking at a monument sacred and enduring. The Navajo and the Pueblo and the Apache. The Hopi with their amazing artwork; in silver and turquoise, delicate like the desert mountain flowers, the spirits of the land awakened by the expert care of the craftsmen.

Life out west is filled more with nature – we are closer to our forests and our lakes and our mountains; we remember days when they were not fully contained in the national imagination, when they were still empty and unconquered; they often still are. “The French have romanticized the Tuareg, like we have our own western history,” an uncomprehending easterner once told me, his voice thick with the sneer of the calcified supervised societies of New England. We were working together in Mali, and he couldn’t understand it – just as he didn’t understand my desert and the indomitable spirit of its wanderers. “They don’t realize that those times have moved on forever, that the past is gone.” Except its not gone, because it still lives in the caves where we find the remnants of ancient fights; in the guns we still carry because the distances are too great and we are responsible for ourselves. Where we still look out over a vast free open space, big skies and indomitable mountains and we contemplate the wildness and the freedom.

But there’s the other side too; that which makes Native American literature haunting. The stories are so full of sorrow and nostalgia; of a past long lost and forgotten, stories of defeat without future, of a futility and sadness that has become such a part of the lives of the people from the ancient tribes and clans of American pre-history. To have lost everything; but yet to still abide – that is the great dilemma; and it is the job of the good writers to capture it. My writing is also full of desperation and hardship and trials, from places I have been and things I have seen; of past and meaning and loss. It is for the sensitive writer to fill pages with this; not with adventure and sex, but instead with yearning.

I just finished The Man to Send Rain Clouds. It is a collection of short stories written by Native American authors – and they are lovely and haunting and powerful. Full of the richness of a life lived close to the land and the bitterness of loss. You must read these, if you claim to love literature – to love America. Read them even, or perhaps especially, if you are from the calcified safe societies of the east. You will be better for it.

Posted in America, Book Review, Literature, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Venezuela’s Civilization is Over: What Lessons Have We Learned?

Civilization is a fragile thing. Mostly because it is made up almost entirely of people. And people are a mess. Sure, people build monumental buildings or make epic discoveries; they create melodious music and beautiful works of art. Philosophers examine the metaphysical; scientists explore the impossible; theologians examine the supernatural. We like to think of civilization in terms of big buildings; we look at the Colosseum in Rome or the ancient temples of Tiwanaku by Lake Titicaca and we say “ah, this must have been a great civilization indeed!” But without those people – the buildings would mean nothing. Even if they were built, which they likely never would have been.


Truth of the matter is that civilization is more delicate than that. Because the buildings will last, for years, decades. Centuries even sometimes. But that which made the place pulsate with an energy of its own, a life, a future and a past and a purpose; a grand narrative that wove together disparate interests into a common beautiful tapestry, are its free people.

Yes, people are a mess but somehow, left to their own devices, people are also amazing. Therein lies the paradox – when working for each other, people are capable of the most vile wickedness the world has seen; when working for themselves however, they reach for the stars and take us all there with them on their journey.


Venezuela’s civilization has been destroyed. It’s a fact now. Its not a debate about “will this work” or “we are just tweaking the machine.” The tired excuse “These are the growing pains before utopia” aren’t even uttered anymore by the die-hard commies. Everybody is just scrambling to survive, to make it, to endure for today, to fill their belly that one next time. The next glass of milk for their toddler whose eyes are open and yearning; trusting and faithful as if to say “I know that my mama won’t let me die, though I am so very hungry.” Yes, hunger. That most pathetic, ancient itch which we must scratch three times a day. The first thing civilizations do, free their people from the fear of hunger. At the end of all the planning and the meeting and the redistribution and the writing of glorious books to collectivism – what you are left with is distended bellies over thin legs uttering that one pathetic, heart wrenching word “I’m hungry.”

Cultural appropriation. I was sitting during Christmas with somebody who had been in Venezuela and was lamenting Venezuelan food for sale overseas. “Its nice that its available,” she said, “but the cultural appropriation of the arepa by foreigners is a shame.” Really? Is it a shame? That one piece of Venezuela’s civilization has been saved, if only to thrive on foreign soil? That there is something which that destroyed society can still give to the world to add value, when all we’ve gotten from them for twenty years is instability and hate and misery and violence – isn’t that a good thing? Because lets be honest, though Venezuela’s amazing people still exist (I’m married to one) – theirs is no longer the work of, as Chavez like to scream all the time, “Patria”. Fatherland. The discoveries they make, the beautiful pageants they win, the amazing music they write – the great restaurants they start, they do this all in the name of their adoptive homes; places where they are allowed to build away from the madness. Cultural appropriation? At least that is the culture we are appropriating – after twenty years of the Sean Penns of the world trying to get us to “appropriate” their “culture” of communism.

The government of Colombia is preparing camps. Camps – the word makes me shiver. Because I have known the camps; my whole career, starting in 1999. Mostly in Africa, although a few in Albania for the fleeing Kosovars; some in Central America for a short season after natural disasters. Once the camps are part of your national story, you cannot ever extract them. They are a blemish on your soul that you see every time you look in the mirror, even if it is a mirror in the bathroom of the Burj Al Arab. Perhaps after the last grandparents who grew up in the camps are dead; perhaps after the last grandchildren who heard the stories of the camps are also dead – maybe then; maybe then the shame will pass. They are degrading, humiliating, demeaning – standing in lines for foreigners to give you food, for foreign doctors to treat your babies, lines to wash and lines to defecate. They are a nest of social ills, as people destroyed by those who should have protected them only sit, and sit, and sit longer waiting for something – anything to relieve their boredom. Venezuelans, in the camps? Nobody would ever have considered that…

Of course the Venezuelans don’t know what to do. Article 350 of their constitution, the one that the dictatorship wants to rewrite – as if ink on paper means anything one way or the other at this stage of the madness – gives them the right to rebel. The people of Venezuela, faithful to their republican tradition, its struggle for independence, peace and freedom, shall disown any regime, legislation or authority that runs counters to democratic values, principles and guarantees, or that undermines human rights. But how would they rebel? Strict gun laws made sure that the only people armed are the government and the gangs (the former with a legal right to the monopoly of force, and latter which don’t care about laws) – and both have made common cause to turn their weapons away from each other and onto the ever-marching eighteen year-olds. “That could never happen here,” they had said as they dutifully disarmed. “We have been a democracy for decades!” while the dictatorship distributed AK47s instead of food in the slums.

The time to think anything can be done about any of this is over. We all tried, in our own ways – presidents and paupers; artists and intellectuals and voters. And valiant efforts they were – everybody giving their best. Now it is the turn of the ‘humanitarian workers’, feeding the shadow people of the camps. For those who have fought, it is now only a stock-taking exercise in lessons learned: “But by the grace of God,” how do we not repeat Venezuela’s folly. To be sure, there are many who are desperately trying to deflect, to not let us learn the lessons of which they are so embarrassed. No matter – learn them we will. Communism doesn’t work. And socialism is communism. As Trump said at UNGA, “The problem with Venezuela, is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”

Then there is also the issue of 350. How do a freedom-loving people “disown” a regime? We, we Americans, fought a nasty war. Granted, that was a long time ago. But we had our muskets and our sense of rebellion. What about the ‘shadow people’? Should they just march out into the streets naked to be mowed down by the AK47s of the socialists? Perhaps – that is their call. Because truth of the matter is their nakedness is all they are left with. Their desperate need, their total vulnerability, their absolute dependence. If that is their weapon, well they need to use it I suppose. But why is that their only weapon? Food for thought.

Politics. Politics in the soup, at the barbeque; in the music and the movies; upon the dance floor and at the beach and over beer. Politics in sports, in FIFA, in the Olympics. In beauty pageants. Politics upon the church pews and in the shaman shrines of the Maria Lionzeros praying to the bent spirit of Hugo Chavez. That’s what did this all – and that is the most important lesson for us. A tribal world – separated into camps; the revolution dividing people into groups and subgroups and then injecting hate and hate and more hate until the society frothed and bubbled with it; until the time was ripe to unleash it against the school’s piano teacher and soccer coach and local panadero. Against neighbors and co-workers and nannies.

Yes, there are lots of lessons here – and we’ll have plenty of time to learn them as Venezuelans stand upon foreign soil in long lines one after the other with plastic bowls stretched out in front of them, the word UNICEF printed across them in pretty light blue.

Do we have the courage to learn these lessons? I’m old enough now to doubt…

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Why Read the Classics?

It is important for us to read the classics!

“Why?” you ask. “Why should I read the classics? Isn’t reading about pleasure, about what I enjoy? I enjoy Harry Potter so much more than The Brothers Karamazov. I move so much more quickly through Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler than I do W. Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway.”

It’s a fair question. Isn’t reading about enjoyment as much as it is about personal growth? Why would you watch Gone with the Wind when you can instead gaze vapidly at the Kardashians, Doritos bowl half empty and perched precariously on your stomach? Why would you read the Bible when you can instead read The Secret or Chicken Soup for the Soul? Why go to the gym for hours, sweat pouring down your bright-red face, when you can do Seven Minute Abs (quick, before Kardashian comes on again).

So why after all read the classics? Here I defer to Italo Calvino, “The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.”

I recently finished the autobiography of Maajid Nawaz. In prison for jihadist recruiting in totalitarian Egypt, Maajid read the classics. “Reading classic English literature did for me what studying Islamic theology couldn’t; it forced my mind to grapple with moral dilemmas. (…) (In) Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy I couldn’t shake the moral paradox that Gollum-Smeagol came to embody (…) an evil character had thus inadvertently achieved the good that the story’s hero failed at… Lord of the Flies served as a stark warning about the tyranny that could arise from the most innocent of souls…”


I have been reading August 1914 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This book has shown me the inner turmoil of an inferior nation at war against (and which finally defeats) a superior foe. It is a complicated book to read, and I’ll be honest in that I haven’t read all of it, jumping around quite a bit; but it is important to remember the great wars of our past and the people who died in them – and what it means to confront a great evil.

Back to Calvino: “A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise…”

A note here, for the first time Solzhenitsyn reader, please don’t read 1914. It is an extraordinarily tough read, and probably would not have ever been published if it had not been from the pen of one of the greats. Start with “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. An important book, easy to read and reminding everybody what it was like to live a day in the Gulag. Especially for those Millenials who would like to take us all there.


Posted in Book Review, Literature, philosophy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Loose Molecules: What Has Ended and What Comes Next…

“There once was a specter stalking the hazy hot corners of our world,” they will say. “For a time it even stalked Europe, America – and presidents blanched, parliamentarians locked their doors at night. Embassies built high their walls; we took our shoes off in airplanes; we rewrote laws; we built coalitions; we fought one war, then another and another and yet another.” The historians of the future might even be nostalgic. We do like to reminisce about the wars of our past, don’t we? Documentaries on Netflix. “Remember what it was like when…”

Then one day we awoke to realize that it was no more, that it was over – the latest chapter in an amazing book written by a free people determined to preserve our liberty. History. They will talk about it, those who consider such things; and many will lament, as there are many who still lament the fall of communism. “What did we do wrong?” they will ask each other over tea. “How could we have made it succeed?” not really wanting an answer. For they too will know that theirs was a fool’s errand.

Maajid Nawaz was a specter, a stalker. One of Robert Kaplan’s, “…loose molecules in a very unstable social fluid, a fluid that was clearly on the verge of igniting.” He did ignite, and with him a generation of his peers in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Theirs was a vision of a new, powerful “Khilafah” – a Califate – which would challenge the west. That ancient abiding idea that there is a better way; that the great edifice of prosperity can be made more equal for all if built in blood. But blood is an insubstantial mortar, not suitable in cementing civilization. Hitler’s “1000 Year Reich”; the USSR’s global communism; the Califate – all plans envisioned by the power-hungry and enacted by the angry and aggrieved, and sold as the bitter politics of envy. Maajid Nawaz was one of the salesman, and “Radical” is his story.

Its over now, the stalking is – we called it the “War on Terror” – and the utopianism of the Maajids of the world has been discarded. The coming anarchy which we did not recognize or address brought it to deposit it for a season upon our doorstep until it became brittle and dry, for it was not really organic, and as a fine powder it was brushed away only to accumulate in the most inhospitable parts of the world – where it still chokes out life.

“Really?” I’m sure you are asking. “When did that happen? When did our latest war end?” It’s often hard in the present to realize when things are changing. Sometimes there are wakeup calls – moments like that time when I strolled down a leafy lane in Boston into my Student Union only to see all eyes fixated upon the television screens where the destruction of two towers was being played over and over and over again to the horror of all. But most usually, things come slowly, one small decision after another after another and you look back only to realize something is over or something new has arrived. The skulking power grabs not in great coups bathed in violence but in incremental slices off the hide of liberty’s carcass, sick and rotting – Hitler, Chavez. Dachau and the ‘final solution and ‘the tomb’; starvation and mass-exodus not in a fire blazing strong but an ember snuffed out.

Yes, most of the time it is an unhurried collapse. For the jihadis, it was probably the fall of Raqqa – their “Khilafah”; though that was only the last dying whimper which caught the news; a tiny supernova of a star that had become insignificant in the affairs of men. Truth of the matter is, with each shrine explosion, each little-girl-abduction, each brutal live-streamed murder they were not bleeding out the lifeblood of their victims, but of their own utopian dream.

Lost Places

Now don’t get me wrong, the “loose molecules” themselves have not vanished – the cancerous free radicals in the organism of our ailing societies. They shoot up day-camps in Norway or high-schools in America; they join ‘collectives’ in Venezuela to loot supermarkets or MS-13 to behead enemies in Maryland. They are skinheads and Black Panthers. We will always have them with us, because our planet has become saturated with discontent product of stagnation and a managerialism which leaves no room for opportunity in a world that has become smaller, where we can see through the windows in the floors above us, into the lives of the “…winners (who) stop others from following them, pulling up the ladders behind them” as they ascend, as Angus Deaton reminds us.

They are the future, and the next problem – but what they represent, how they coalesce, is still unknown.

Maajid’s is the story of a foot soldier in the global war on terror – but a soldier of the wrong side, the losing side; and how he came to realize that. He is now one of the good guys; helping others find their way. He has not betrayed his faith, he has found it – because he has learned that fundamental lesson which we all must learn if we are to build better and more just societies: you cannot build in blood.

Posted in International Affairs, Liberty, Uncategorized | Tagged | 5 Comments