Will Our Passing be a Whisper?

Our lives are like a pebble thrown into a placid pond – the ripples of which expand to reach even the distant ends of the waters, touching the lives of people great and small as they extend out. Some of us are stones of great mass and the waves created are epic; others of us are small like a grain of sand that nevertheless accumulate over time to change the dimensions of the waters.

A few years ago I was doing work in Mali, in West Africa. Engaging with isolated communities perched precariously on the banks of the Niger, that oldest of rivers; silent and quiet, mud houses and mud mosques, knowing only the dust and the poverty – bubbling with hate. Trying to pull them up and out of the nasty little abyss they’d dug for themselves. As part of our work, we did a survey to understand the opinions and experiences of community members. What stuck with me – there were a few folks, young men, who had never even heard of the internet.


Let that sink in for a minute.

Fast forward a while – the Radisson Blu. Murder, mayhem – significance, for the right crowd at least. More than twenty killed – an adviser to Hillary Clinton, a Jewish Venezuelan man who had become Israeli, who had been a childhood friend of somebody I have known in a different life, a different world. Young African men who seized a gun, and whose lives had quickly become boulders – and the waves they created traveled far and wide and are still lapping up upon very foreign shores indeed.

In my novel “Lords of Misrule”, the villain Salif, talking to his friend Aliuf says, “The old ways are dying, my young friend. We cannot preserve them, even if we wanted to. New times are upon us, times of struggle and meaning. I aim to make my place in our new time, by the powers. There are many who will know of Salif Dicko before I leave this world.”

We are all products of our environments, our past – aren’t we? We hear a lot about glass ceilings in the United States – outside forces that rob us of our birthrights. Mostly by the whiners; as if the natural state isn’t poverty, but instead wealth and leisure. As if there isn’t an immediate ceiling over the top of every child who is born. As if the ceilings in Africa aren’t so low as to force even the strongest, smartest into a perpetual stoop.

And then we wonder in angst and confusion why they sometimes use guns to try and shatter them.

“If you were young, you just set your teeth, bit on and held on,” D. H. Laurence once said. But what happens when you’re old, and you realize that you have to make peace with that closet of dusty opportunities and moldy chances, disintegrating into the cluttered parts of your consciousness? When you realize that “it’s no secret that the both of us are running out of time,” like Adele says.

That is harder.

There’s a fake quote going around the internet that says, “In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of the things not meant for you.” Fake because it’s probably not actually quoting the Buddha – instead coming from Jack Kornfield – not because it’s not true. I suppose the older we all get the more truth we find in those words. But how do we do that, gracefully let go? When for some reason fate, destiny, history – dumb luck conspired against us when all should have been flowers and rolling fields of opportunity?

I guess there’s no answer; but there is some comfort I think. For it is only those who have not really lived who haven’t tasted the bitter fruit of failure. And anyhow fate is often unpredictable, and at the oddest times too. I’m old enough to know that – to have watched the changing of fortunes in a flash of violence or prospect. The great men often fall; while the unlikely rise to great heights upon the wings of what seems mostly like chance. J.K. Rowling unemployed in a coffee shop; Harrison Ford as a set carpenter – and yes Hugo Chavez wracked by disease, Hillary Clinton destroyed by arrogance.

So we work and we watch and we wait – and those of us who are so inclined write. “As for me” says Salif, “I will not play by their rules, and my passing will not be with a whisper.”

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“Lords of Misrule” – A Joel D. Hirst Interview in Istanbul

I gave an interview to an Istanbul, Turkey based journal on my new novel “Lords of Misrule“. You can read it below – and if you speak Turkish you can go here.

1) How did you decide to write this story?

I write as part of my exercise in living. To experience the world around me, to translate what I see and hear to understanding; and to try to make sense of things that seem contradictory. But specifically, for this story I wanted to tell the tale of reason in Islam. As Aliuf says is his final speech inside Djinguereber Mosque, the challenges within Islam are not religious – they are philosophical. So I wanted to use a story to tell the tale of how the dearth of reason infiltrates societies and leads to violence; and how men and women can be saved through its re-discovery. My stories are also about people – about what motivates them to make the decisions they do, and how they can sometimes go wrong. And I write to honor those who seek freedom, even at the greatest of all costs. 

2) What kind of a research process have you gone through?

I researched this book for two years. I was lucky, I was living in Mali during those years and so I had the raw material all around me. Tuareg friends and Muslim scholars who helped me think through so many things. The Tuareg and their great sand seas, the culture that has allowed them to hold their land against all odds; the ebb and flow of Muslim tradition and history over north Africa and how it has influenced everything. Mythology and faith and legend. I read books, and I read a lot on the internet too. Making notes as the story progressed.  

3) Can you tell us about the protagonist, Aliuf Ag Albachar?

Aliuf could be any of us. We all make decisions based upon what we know, what we learn, who our influences are and what opportunities are presented. Aliuf was not a bad boy, and he is not a bad man. Neither perhaps is he a remarkable man. He is a boy who becomes a man under the most challenging of circumstances; poverty, violence, loss – geopolitical toil. Each decision he makes, you who read the novel could see yourself also taking, no matter what you believe. Aliuf is all of us. And his epic sacrifice, at the end. Well, maybe in that he was great – because how many of us would give the ultimate prize to right wrongs that we commit? Perhaps not too many. 

4) Aliuf’s life changes with books he reads in the library. He reads Islamic scholars such as Ibn Tufayl, of Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd. Old works of Al-Ghazali and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. What about you? How did you obtain information about those scholars? Which resources have you used?

I have a degree in theology – in my case Christian theology. Many of the arguments are the same; the role of God in the world and man’s responsibility to his own free will. How He reveals Himself, and what our responsibility is toward that revelation. I knew what to look for. So I read. And when I read one thing, often times in the margins there was something else, another name, and I would write down that name and look it up later. Studying the next scholar, and the next and the next – back into history. So much is available in English, thankfully. While I speak English and French and Spanish, I do not unfortunately speak Arabic. But I was able to read parts of the great philosophers and theologians. And in this process I came upon the Mu’tazila, which appeals to my Aristotelian ideas of individual responsibility and our special nature as beings created in the image of God.   


5) Salif, a friend of Aliuf, is very effective on Aliuf’s decisions. What does Salif represent in the book? 

Salif represents the other choice. While Aliuf’s choices were made to embrace the work of his mind, his rational thought and allow himself to be led wherever it would take, Salif on the other hand chose violence and hate and embraced that journey. They were both the same, as children, but grew apart as they continued down making decisions based upon the options presented to them by life.                                                                             

6) In recent years, ‘so-called’ jihadist movements are on the topic of the world and you wrote about it. Why did you choose an African country instead of Middle East?

That is easy, its because I was living in Mali at the time and had the opportunity to research everything firsthand for years. I suppose if I’d been living in Syria or Iraq, my story would have been about a young man from Sham. That being said, as I studied Tuareg culture and history I found that I really enjoyed learning about something so old and so unique. The Tamasheq language is one of the oldest, the culture and people are unique, alone sailing their sand seas. Yet with deep traditions and roots that pre-date Islam. In another life I might have become an anthropologist, because I love to learn about things that have been lost. Mali, the oldest of places, fed my imagination. 

7) What can you say about radicalism and its roots in Africa? 

Radicalism in Africa isn’t different perhaps than other parts. There are so many reasons people choose jihad. Poverty. Anger. Revenge. Lack of opportunity. Fundamentalist religion that provides easy answers to everyday problems. Violent Islam gives it a direction, a purpose. As part of the next wave of ‘global revolution’, after fascism and communism, it inspires especially young men who feel powerless or ignored and gives them purpose and direction and gives their lives meaning. All this is true in Africa as well. Add this to the tremendous corruption, governments propped up by the “west” that no longer feel the need to respond to the consent of those they govern – and violent Islam gives them the tools and the narrative to try and change this. That’s where the violence comes from. 

8) In your book, You tell how an ordinary person suddenly can be radicalized. What kind of measures can be taken? How can young people be saved?

Young people need something exciting. People talk about “empowering moderate voices” but moderate voices are not exciting; do not inspire those who are looking for meaning and energy and purpose. But there is an answer; because the fight for liberty is not moderate. It is radical and scary; and it too gives life meaning and energy and purpose. Empowering young people, not to seek violence over others but to help in the global fight to set each other free – and in the process setting themselves free. This is the most exciting of ideas; and this is the answer. Giving young people a way to escape their oxygen-less dictatorships and write and paint and fight for what they believe in; making music and finding a way to experience their faith that acknowledges that we are all created by God. Those are the challenges for those who wish to see the violence end.  

9) As an American writer, how much effective do you think the West on this radicalization? Many Muslim countries see the western countries responsible about that. What do you think about it? 

It is not controversial to say that violence begets violence. When the west responds to violence by our own violence, we legitimize the violence and create more jihadis. This is a mistake. But this is against western values as well; when we remember what they are. Values of family and faith and individual responsibility and liberty to make decisions as we see them, as long as they don’t harm the lives of others. The west should remember this, to tell the story about opportunity and individual power to take control of your own life. I know many Muslims in the west, and they too love the ability to provide for their families and give meaning to their lives. We should remind people that is what the end goal is – and live by those principles. 

10) Do you have any new book project?

I am finished with a 4th novel, called “I Charles, From the Camps”. It is about northern Uganda and a young man’s journey that makes him join the Lord’s Resistance Army. This is another terrorist organization, that one ‘Christian’; the story is a hard one, perhaps without a happy ending and comes from my time living in Uganda almost a decade ago.

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The Recipe for Revolution

I lived and worked for seven years inside Hugo Chavez’s revolutionary Venezuela. Mostly during the times when it still had energy and purpose and when the revolution was still exciting; to the committees and clubs and marchers and voters but also the “second hand dealers” who would arrive every few weeks from Miami to pay homage to the man they hoped would finally make communism work.

How could he not? Venezuela has more oil than Saudi Arabia. If he just handed out the oil money to the people from the back of one of those trucks painted red with huge speakers on the back blasting Reggaeton music, it would have been $12,000 a year per family. No frills – isn’t that what some call “universal basic income”? And couldn’t he then do exactly what he wanted? Who would oppose him? They’d all be sitting home watching TV or at the beach drinking beer. Throw open the borders to multi-national companies looking for markets, and just sit down to rest.

Silly me. I learned quickly that wasn’t the point at all. Chavez’s communism wasn’t about eliminating poverty – he could have done that simply and cleanly. It was about Chavez – it was about the violence. It was about the formation of a new culture – built using the symbols and images of the past to entrench a new governing model that was stifling and complete and guaranteed perpetual power. It was about revenge. And it was totalitarian – control of actions and opinions and eventually the mind itself. “Within the revolution, everything goes. Against the revolution, nothing,” is what Fidel Castro used to say.

But forget Chavez for a minute, “Universal basic income”, isn’t that what the people wanted in Venezuela? Do away with poor, with (most) rich, everybody is the same. Equality of conditions – at least at the bottom rung? At least starting out? Wasn’t it just a mis-managed implementation of a great idea? Um, no – turns out that’s not it at all. How do I know that? Because Manuel Rosales, when he ran for president against Chavez in 2006, proposed exactly that – with a debit card called ‘Mi Negra’ automatically topped up monthly by a government deposit. He was ‘shellacked’, by more than 20 points.  Turns out that without the hate – redistribution alone is just as boring as cashing a social security check at the local pawn shop.


Turns out what Chavez was doing was exactly the opposite. He gave people a father; gave them a new culture; gave them pride and purpose – and he gave them an enemy to hate. Then he took away their money.

I recently read an insightful article on this topic. You see, the process of civilizational suicide in the United States is advancing quite well, led by the social justice warriors and the know nothings and the second hand dealers as they leave behind Lenin and Marx and instead read Gramsci to their children at night before bed. Yet as they infiltrate the universities and the churches, they are confronted with a weird predicament. As the article says:

“(…) without a healthy culture, people are not natural Marxists but natural couch potatoes. With no extended family, no effective church, and no healthy local community to support their lives, people don’t form revolutionary cells: they buy a case of beer or renew their Xanax prescription and spend their non-working hours watching NFL games and the Lifetime network and various types of pornography.”

The social justice warriors are learning what Hugo Chavez already knew – they have to give people an enemy, and then they have to take away people’s money. Why else would certain (large) segments of America’s political class be proposing policies that have never worked – unless those policies have actually worked perfectly; if only folks were honest about their goal.

Long live the revolution.

I mention this because I’m concerned about the United States – that all we are focused on is politics, anger and hate; and in doing so we are perhaps inadvertently doing the bidding of those who would control us. Politics dividing friendships and families. Politics on the front pages of the newspapers. Politics all over Facebook and Twitter. Politics in the soup and the wedding cakes and the topless coffee shops; preached from the speeches of artistic award ceremonies and from sports luminaries and from the seats of the highest churches in the land. Lumped into sides, our ‘leaders’ telling us who the enemy is and who to hate; spinning us up and pointing us in the direction of a strange-hatted march or a Jewish cemetery or a family-friendly bakery and off we go. This is not a recipe for peace and prosperity – it is a recipe for revolution. Gramsci knew this – Chavez knew this – would that we would learn it too, before it’s too late.

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Who the Hell is Milo?

Pop culture is not something that occupies my concerns a great deal. I do not live for the latest story of who is sleeping with whom; my imagination is not seized by the lifestyles of this or that know-nothing with a microphone or a bully pulpit.

Shock for shock’s sake – outrageous and false and dangerous. Impropriety dressed up as avant-garde; pornography as art; willful ignorance as tolerance – civilizational destruction masquerading as progress.

All that is the domain of the ‘progressives’, and I shun it. It holds no place in the tales of nations – no, not even in the footnotes.

Oh sure, sometimes things seep into my twitter feed and I inadvertently read a blathering quote from a know-nothing and I (sometimes reluctantly, usually not) am forced to stop watching his or her movies (their books I have never read – for know-nothings rarely write, it takes too much effort. Which is a good thing). Incidentally I’m really enjoying Netflix original series, they are very well done and bring together new talent which – wait for it – are not so self-involved as to think that I care one iota what their opinions are about things of which they are not informed, and whether they subsequently want to move to Canada or not.

Then came Milo. I hadn’t really heard about him – maybe the name. As usual I didn’t care. The Berkeley thing caught my attention – more because the closing of America’s academic space has become something that I follow. As America shutters her mind against unwanted ideas, ideas that might indicate a preference for one thing over the other – because we all know preference is the gateway drug for discrimination – somebody needs to occasionally think, reason and respond. If only to a limited forum such as this.

CPAC. A political forum to discuss the fate of our nation, to debate the ideas that have proven themselves in the kiln of history and come out refined and purified, as Zachariah in the Old Testament has said, “And I will put (sic) into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested.” CPAC is not supposed to be an episode of Real Housewives of Republicans. It is not a Howard Stern assault.

Which brings me to my point, have we lost our minds? CPAC, the greatest forum for conservative political debate reduced to the status of a 12 year old girl, chasing around after a shock-jock celebrity in the hopes that something “cool” might rub off?

For shame.

I read a lot of The Imaginative Conservative. Their own description of themselves is as follows, “The Imaginative Conservative engages readers in a reflection on the great ideas, the great books and the great persons that make up our Western Tradition.” Dead white men – I suppose – as Berkeley know-nothings say. One of the frequent visitors to the page of the online journal is J.R.R. Tolkien. That British writer who gave the world fantasy – and thereby single-handedly made his indelible mark in the community of civilization. Tolkien’s fantasy is beautiful, and it is profoundly conservative. At the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo and Sam return home to the Shire. The scene is called “The Scouring of the Shire”, and they find Frodo’s home, which he went to the fires of Mount Doom to save, defiled by Saruman. Frodo realizes, in shock and dismay, that even after defeating such a great evil as he has vanquished in Sauron, he must undertake one last fight to save his home which is being ‘destroyed’ by ‘progressive progress*’.

I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you.


Tolkien was a true conservative – a romantic of the past – who understood that the value of our lives comes only if we understand the great ideas and epic struggles – those that the fires of time have purified – and learn from them, putting them to use in our own time, sprinkled with stardust product of nostalgia. But he was also of this world. The scene has always bothered me – the previous scene ends on such a high note that I’ve always felt that the story should end there. But Tolkien had one last lesson for us. The “Scouring of the Shire” it is said is taken from his experiences returning home from the Great War**; of how his Oxford countryside was changed forever by rapid industrialization, war-mobilization and a traumatized population. Of how things must change – and of how our fight to preserve that which is good in them is never-ending.

That there are no safe spaces anymore.

Tremendous learning, a depth of wisdom and knowledge and experience put to the articulation of ideas that are good and true – would that Tolkien were alive today to speak at CPAC.

Quite obviously Milo – who I have been forced to learn about against my will – is a deeply troubled lad. I wish him well, and I hope he gets the counseling that he needs for the sexual abuse he has so publically disclosed – because there is nothing in the world more evil, with a more consuming darkness than sexual crimes against our children. But I certainly do not accept that he has a place at the podium to “inform” me about my conservatism – studied and tested and researched as I have developed it to become. “Dead white men” (yes, there were some women too, Rose Wilder Lane and Ayn Rand – don’t tell the know-nothings. Yes, there were some Muslims too, Ibn Tufayl who Jefferson used to read and Al Ghazali and Al Jabbar – don’t tell the know nothings). Ideas old and purified through great tribulation, which are also exciting and strong, which have lasted as our common understanding of who we are, of where we came from – of what is right and good and what is wicked and vapid and passing.

Vargas Llosa once lamented that young people would rather run to listen to some TV actor than to a novelist. I have shared this frustration of Llosa’s at the know-nothings; and it appears now that frustration extends into the heart of conservatism.

And I go in fear.

* Some other time about the Orwellian metamorphosis of our language which is causing a great deal of confusion.

** Tolkien has denied that “The Scouring of the Shire” is allegorical. I, for one, don’t believe him.

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Brazil’s Moment of Madness

I wrote this a while back for InBrazil – I thought I’d reblog it here.

“But what can I say about a country that experiences a near miss? Like a distressed man who, in an act of madness cuts his veins – but in his anguish misses the artery and only inflicts upon himself a flesh-wound. Sure it hurts; but he will recover. He will feel foolish – he might even be left with a scar that he will talk about only at parties, displaying for the crowd when he drinks too much; pulling up his sleeve for all to see. But usually he will cover it over with bracelets or makeup or whatever he can find – to not have to repeat the humbling tale.”

You can read the whole article here.

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The Torture of Leopoldo Lopez

Today, Leopoldo Lopez marks 3 years as a political prisoner. I wrote this 2 years ago – and it breaks my heart that it is still relevant today.

Joel D. Hirst's Blog

As I write this, I am sitting in a hospital waiting room as my wife undergoes a routine surgery (she’s now in post-op). Over the last hour we spoke together with the doctor and the anesthesiologist; asking questions and seeking clarifications. Then they wheeled her into the operating room while I went to the waiting room for her procedure to be finished, after which I will meet her in post-op.

What a natural process that for most Americans is second nature. Handing over my most prized treasure to group of experts who act in good faith to help both extend life and make it more abundant. A natural, uncoerced interaction taking advantage of the division of labor and of the liberty of free men and women seeking to add value to the world. A world built on trust, where I trust the men in the custody of my unconscious wife while…

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“Housekeeping” – A Book Review

“And let God purge this wicked sadness away with a flood, and let the waters recede to pools and ponds and ditches, and let every one of them mirror heaven. Still, they taste a bit of blood and hair.”

Children should not have to know the feeling of abandonment. Children should not have to wonder why their parents left them – to die, to commit suicide, to run away. They should not have to spend their quiet nights going over things in their heads, wondering if there could have been another way, if only something had been different. If only…

“Of my conception I know only what you know of yours. It occurred in darkness and I was unconsenting.” Sad; desperately sad.

This book is about a pair of abandoned sisters, whose mother left them with an eccentric old relative before she filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the lake. About how the girls feel – about their lives with their unfit ward who loves them, but that isn’t always enough, is it?

On the literary side, the novel was a little hard to read. It was slow starting and didn’t really draw me in. In fact I almost put it down, but I’m glad I didn’t. The last two chapters, which I won’t give away, were worth the effort to get there. A good novelist knows that you can save a mediocre novel by a home-run at the end. Marilynne Robinson certainly did this. And that makes a novel worth reading.


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