The Joy of Jamaica!

There’s a little island a few hours south of the US, in the Caribbean, where people are wont to go to relax. Thick green jungles that climb five and six stories high, dark but not menacing – a fertile goodness that shows the perfect anarchy of nature, punctuated by the delicate purples and pinks and blues of the hundreds of flower species pollinated by the butterflies and the bees – a roiling of life. Crystal waters hugging white-sand beaches, coral reefs hosting life abundant and wild, octopuses and sharks and eels. A brackish pond where the water sparkles and glows as you swim in the night, magical and luminescent.

Bob

Food – jerked pork; music, Bob Marley on the street corner and in the buses and on the minds of everybody. “Have you heard of Bob Marley?” asked a gardener at an old slave plantation, the one where the national hero was born, that was now owned by a Jamaican man and employs dozens of locals freely and graciously in the ultimate act of revenge against the slave-owners of old. “Of course,” I said, listening closely trying to wade my way through the pidgin. “Usain Bolt?” “Yes,” I said, smiling again, his own grin infectious as he exclaims. “They are from Jamaica!”

Joy – Jamaica is a joyful place. I’ve noticed this trait in many African countries where I’ve visited or lived – that joi de vivre, that ability to find something to smile about despite the hardship. Jamaica has this, but perhaps even in greater measure; Africa’s anguish is still fresh and bloody while Jamaica looks back to the past in remembering, using that ancient misery as a bedrock for a national motto that sounds a lot like “Don’t worry about a thing, cuz every little thing is gonna be all right” but could just as easily be, “They will never again rob us of our joy!”

Slavery – the story of Jamaica is the story of slavery. What is a beautiful and fertile atoll to the modern tourists was at one point a prison island, much like Cuba is today. Where people served at the pleasure of the masters and could say nothing, do nothing for fear that somebody would come for them in the night. The stories of defiance are in every breath of Jamaica’s national joy. A freedom hard-won and well-cherished. Samuel Sharp (whose plantation I visited) and the Christmas Rebellion. A burned down house, left untouched to be reclaimed by the jungles as a permanent reminder of the fight to be free. The tireless work of William Wilberforce an ocean away who nevertheless thought of nothing but Jamaica’s slaves. Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley.

Yet Jamaica has managed to move beyond the hatred and resentment – finding a joy in sharing their experiences with the wandering tourists, like me. It was nice for me to be a tourist for a moment, usually my sojourns in foreign lands take me to places where I stand out too much; but in Jamaica I was just part of the herd, ferried from resort to beach to restaurant and listening to the stories and the music of the islands.

Jamaica

Now an admonition to those of you who have lost your joy – who think only of retribution, of redistribution, of revolution; who look at the world around you and see only injury and offense (you know who you are). Go to Jamaica. They need your visit, their majority industry is tourism. You need it too – to see in a green jungle and a white sandy beach a limitless expanse of opportunity; and to listen to music of meaning and freedom which is a lesson to us from a people who suffered and who have decided that suffering would not be the end of their story, but instead the beginning as they transformed it into their gift to the world – joy.

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Lords of Misrule, Joel D. Hirst

A new review of my novel “Lords of Misrule” – please share.

RedheadedBooklover

Aliuf Ag Albachar, born into the noble Tuareg ancestry, is just thirteen when he crests a dune with his mother, looks down from atop his camel onto the ancient fabled city of Timbuktu, and contemplates the day it will finally be his. Unfortunately, Aliuf has no idea that misfortune will soon force him to flee across the desert away from everything he has known and toward something greater than he ever imagined.

Propelled by restlessness and the indomitable spirit of his clan, Aliuf bravely pushes onward through a dangerous coming-of-age journey that leads him through a barren land. While following his heart through the vast expanses of the Sahara, he becomes a student enthralled with the great works of Islam’s golden age, a warlord who leads his army of angry men through the colossal dunes of the Sahara to battle the enemy, and finally an Islamic judge who makes a…

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#GrahamCassidy – Reason and Experience

A while back, during a previous presidential campaign, I wrote an article about America; about unity and values and a common culture, – about cooperation within the vision of America institutionalized by our founders in our constitution. I know, big words oft-repeated which have become meaningless – even as I read them I know that they no longer inspire, but what else can I say? I bring this up today, reverting back to those selfsame old ideas, naïve perhaps and somewhat used up, like “butter spread over too much toast” – in the hopes that there is still some reason left out there in the minds of men who can see beyond tribe and clan, beyond Twitter hashtag and Facebook trolling – and who can be appealed to with words. Because words are all we have, in a free society of equals. Notwithstanding the ANTIFA fascism and the Occupy mayhem, we are a society that recognizes the importance of common ground, and which has a profound love for each other.

“Most Americans love their country,” I wrote, “want a better world for their children, and a place where we can be free from violence, oppression and tyranny to live our lives in peace. We look at the world around us, going from tyranny to chaos and back to tyranny, and we recognize just how important this is.” I bring this up in the current context of #GrahamCassidy and our attempts to get healthcare right for our children and our children’s children. Because it is something that we cannot afford to ignore, or relegate to the partisan wars on the streets of big cities and to the dark nasty corners of cyberspace.

healthcare

Now, I’m not a healthcare policy expert – as neither are any of the people debating the fate of our hospitals and doctors, nor you who are reading this. But I do know a thing or two about governance, about federalism and how to make things function. Turns out in this case the way things function is not particularly new and should not even be controversial; “It should be the states, closer to the challenges and more attuned to the problems, which should address them according to their own constitutions and charters. The role of the Federal government, as seen by the forefathers, should be to arbitrate conflicts and provide for the common defense. Occasionally a state will violate the social contract set in our Bill of Rights (think of segregation in the South); in which case the Federal government can and should move in temporarily to sort out the issue (as it does). If a state over-reaches, the Federal government can step in. To whom do we turn if the Federal government over-reaches? If states are left to decide their own balance to the conflict above, America will be the winner. States will compete against each other; and people (and companies) will ‘vote with their feet’ based upon their beliefs, concerns and interests. Ideas can be tried at the state level with relative ease, jettisoned if they don’t work or adopted by other states if they are successful, and on we go.”

Now, it is in that spirit that I return to the #Obamacare fiasco with this question; “Why the fear of #GrahamCassidy?” If #Obamacare is such a winner, all fifty states will rush – sooner or later – to adopt their own version of the law. Right? Sort of like Massachusetts did, and first (as I was reminded ad-infinitum while working on Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign). And instead of a one-size-fits all, once and done approach (which is obsolete before the ink dries), we might even see something better as systems improve, responding to the competition of policy-making at the state level as legislators vie for the best healthcare for their residents, and citizens move to and fro seeking a better deal (incidentally this is how things work in the much-vaunted “Swedish socialist” system where socialism is not national but municipal).

I turn here to an article in an online magazine I often visit, in which can be found a particularly insightful analysis of European power. “In brief, Europe’s political fragmentation spurred productive competition. It meant that European rulers found themselves competing for the best and most productive intellectuals and artisans. The economic historian Eric L Jones called this ‘the States system’ (…) The ‘abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame’, Gibbon wrote, adding that ‘republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation; and some sense of honor and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times.’ In other words, the rivalries between the states, and their examples to one another, also meliorated some of the worst possibilities of political authoritarianism.”

This was the way the United States of America was organized – and it has worked for us, much better than even for the Europeans of the renaissance; because we managed to build a true federation without nobles and without kings and also without internecine wars (except of course one big nasty one, which was also essential for the future of our republic and is a perfect example of the Federal government stepping in when required – but which nevertheless cost a great deal of blood and treasure). Our policymakers should remember this – our courts should issue rulings with this in mind – and we the people should constantly be advocating the return of decision making closer to where decisions affect the lives of citizens.

For a better policy analysis, make sure to read Lanhee Chen’s Wall street Journal article, “Republicans Get One Last Chance on Obamacare Reform” (admittedly not the most inspirational title). Chen is a friend, and also a Romney 4 President Alum; and is a voice of thoughtful reason on so many policy issues that his word should be considered. I add my own small voice to the debate – because its my right, and because I want to leave my son a country that is not bankrupt, either morally or financially, but is in fact, dare I say it? … Great Again 🙂

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Balance, Sovereignty and Trump’s #UNGA

“Be sure when you step, step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s a great balancing act.” Dr. Seuss

Balance, hard choices – opportunity costs as the economists call them; managing scarcity in a world of want. Life is mostly about balance, I know people say this but the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve realized there’s great wisdom in the oft-repeated ideas of our elders. The problem is that people are not naturally drawn to balance; “Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terror, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities…” said Anaïs Nin.

Our world order has lost its balance, America has lost its balance: how to respect the cultures and ideas and experiences of a diverse world while also guaranteeing those basic ingredients of humanity which make us all the same. Accepting divergent models for organizing our societies, taken as they often are from the hills and valleys, from the stories of the land in the places where we rest our ideas of home and measured against the universal protections needed to keep us all safe from each other and those who would do us harm, especially those in power – sovereignty and accountability, liberty and restraint.

UN

President Trump’s speech at UNGA was about this – a careful attempt to walk that narrow ridge, on one side the abyss of unaccountable utopian global governance and on the other the surrender of natural rights to nation-states, pieces of land that entrap instead of freeing, like Cuba’s prison island. “It is important to see Trump’s speech in the broader context of utopian ambition generally. In a memorable passage at the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant evokes a soaring dove that, ‘cleaving the air in her free flight,’ feels the resistance of the wind and imagines that its flight ‘would be easier still in empty space.’ It is a fond thought, of course, since absent that aeolian pressure that dove would simply plummet to the ground.” Says Roger Kimball in a brilliant article.

Utopianism – the sin of the naïve that seems to be reinvented with each generation; more so these days as we lose our common story and our universities fail to teach us about the failures of those who came before. The post-Soviet, post-modern world has been a place of rampant often thoughtless globalization. “Progress” it is called, but toward what nobody can really articulate. That dream of global government, global institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court and the European Union which do not consider the valleys and the hills and the rivers, the old traditions that have protected people’s sense of self and safeguarded their place in a world that seems so strange and suddenly dangerous. There are those who paint these fears as ‘bigotry’, using such emotionally charged words so as to poison the well in order to end all discourse. As Kimball has eloquently said, “Noticing the imperfection of our societies, we may be tempted into thinking that the problem is with the limiting structures we have inherited. If only we could dispense with them, we might imagine, beating our wings, how much better things might be.” These projects are, however not only futile but also dangerous, “…we are tempted to imagine that our freedoms would be grander and more extravagant absent the countervailing forces that make them possible.” Or, channeling that thought into a reality that has become a living nightmare in Venezuela, “The separation of powers weakens the state.”

Back to the president’s UNGA speech, it was a hard sell – it was always going to be, because of that natural tension upon which the United Nations was founded so long ago. Sovereignty not only as a right but as a responsibility, the competition and cooperation between nation states meant to improve prosperity and liberty always runs into that outlier, Venezuela or Cuba or North Korea, the “wicked few” as Trump said; and those who seek power always conjuring the catastrophic to cement their position. To a certain degree it is a traditionalist vision, Trumps is – taking the idea of “Responsibility to Protect” away from the United Nations, which had handed it over to the same “wicked” through a coup which required no effort on the part of the evildoers – and re-appropriating it to ourselves and other sovereign nation-states who cannot stand by and watch the supervised suffering.

Is it going to work? Is it the right idea? I’m not sure – our post-modern world has already fallen off the rails. Globalization is a reality, as are the global problems it has created. Is this the last stand of the nation state, or a global realignment of power back from the center? Only time will tell; what I do know is that this chapter in human history – unlike the last chapter which was written by a privileged global class – is going to be written by the ‘little man’, for better or for worse. “The Rise of the Unprotected” Peggy Noonan wrote. I will venture this however as we stride bravely into the future, we must do so in a balanced way, understanding the excesses of our past which led to such suffering. The only way to do this is to read, to learn and to know. Books – those which the minders of our ‘safe spaces’ are trying to deprive us of – are the only things that stand between us and the darkness.

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Trump and the Truth about Communism

I was once talking to a wise old friend about communism – specifically about its enduring nature in the imaginations of men. “The problem,” I said, “is that, unlike the Nazi ideology which we defeated forty years earlier and then relegated to the waste bins of the human mind as an aberration, for some reason we let the equally evil ideology of communism off easy. We never engaged in the destruction of the idea, when the regimes that defended it had fallen away. Why do we have Holocaust museums, but no Cultural Revolution ones? Why have we preserved Auschwitz in horror but not the gulags of Siberia in equal disgust? Why did we leave the work unfinished?” His answer, “We are Americans, we are never ones to humiliate a defeated foe. It is unsportsmanlike.”

soviet

I’m not so sure. Truth of the matter is we have become so accustomed to being lectured, to being told that we who think as individuals and who have eyes to our families – who love our own lives and dream of our own futures and serve our own Gods; we who do not accept that we exist at the mercy of one group to be put to the service of another have developed a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality, an inferiority complex. From “You didn’t build that” to “Now is not the time for profit”; from Hugo Chavez’s tirades to Michael Moore’s temper tantrums – from Bernie to Francis we’ve endured the tongue lashings. We’ve endured while Venezuelans starve; we’ve endured while factories are shuttered, while history books are rewritten, and while our sacred values are rubbished. And all the while we look quietly back over a hundred years of madness and murder, baffled as to why nobody can find the courage to say “This idea is stupid and wrong”.

Cue President Donald Trump, “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems. America stands with every person living under a brutal regime. Our respect for sovereignty is also a call for action. All people deserve a government that cares for their safety, their interests and their well-being, including their prosperity.”

And then he chuckled.

I’ll admit it was grand. It was grand watching the ashen faces of the communist dictatorships – Venezuela and Cuba and North Korea – having their failures highlighted on that greatest of all stages. It was grand thinking about the apoplectic fits of rage that must have been rippling through academia; the cultural Marxists of our own land assaulted in their safe spaces by the truth, truth we all know but for some reason cannot find the courage to say lest we be called out as unfeeling in a hurting world, a world to whom we have given only prosperity.

Confucius once said, “The object of the superior man is truth”. Well folks, Mr. Donald J. Trump just told the truth. And I for one am grateful for it.

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War and The Quiet American

War mixes everything up. Or maybe everything is already mixed up and war just jumbles it around. Love and lust and vulnerability; ambition and power and youth. Ideologies and instincts, all shaken together and served upon a platter before a backdrop of steamy jungles or quiet dehydrated mountains in the third world.

War is a third world affair; it has been now for generations. Theaters collapsed in upon themselves; fire-bombed towns; grand old cities occupied by crisply dressed soldiers drinking Champagne and dancing with elegant ladies dressed in white – concentration camps filled with the college educated, those were the wars of our grandfathers. Our wars, the wars that our fathers started are the wars of villagers against peasants – the under-trained against the poorly armed. Child soldiers with bloodshot eyes pointing an AK-47 at a passing car; an explosion planted in a market to kill vendors sitting cross-legged in front of a pile of dried fish. With an occasional drone strike to accent the difference, making it somehow absurd.

The Quiet American is about this kind of war – war in third world Asia, Vietnam specifically. Rice farmers fighting street thugs. It is the story of a journalist and his love for a local girl which brings him into competition with a naïve young American. It’s a simple book – a simple story. Perhaps too simple, but well-enough written to elicit emotion.

I made common cause, because we all know the types – those of us who know modern wars. Four of them, I think, for me – the wars I have known. The camps full of fly-covered children, bodies heaped in a pile as their blood drains into a small river seeking an exit. The jaded journalist, the ambitious diplomat, grandiose plans of nations built upon a foundation of the imperfect; like an oil painter swiping away reality with each pass of the brush, making her painting plain; cellophane wrapped like the west sees its wars.

The book did take a surprising ending, especially for those who have seen the movie. I won’t spoil it; but I will say that sometimes a sad ending can also be happy, and vice versa too.

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“Lord of the Flies” – A Book Review

I just re-read “Lord of the Flies”. Like all Americans, I read this book first in High School. Re-reading it twenty five years later was enlightening. And reading it after I myself have authored four novels (and am halfway through my fifth), approaching Golding’s work not as an anxious adolescent but as tradesman attempting to improve his own craft was a singularly transcendent experience. But I’ll get to that below.

First the guts. “Lord of the Flies” is of course a classic. It is an archetypal book – a treatise on humanity through the story of a group of British children marooned on a jungle island (presumably in the South Pacific) after the airplane that was evacuating them from a nuclear attack on the British Isles went down. British, I suppose, because that culture is known as the apex of civilization and therefore makes excellent fodder for a dissertation on madness. Granted, Golding was also British so he knew his subject well. “Lord of the Flies” is the story about how easy it is for us all to lose our civilization, to return to the barbarity that we all have just under the surface of our mores and traditions and laws.

The novel is a study in opposites – archetypes, as I mentioned before. Jack embodies madness, tribalism, and violence. Watching his rapid descent from choir leader to murdering tribal chief is instructive. Ralph is civilization, unable to impose itself after it has been abandoned by the minds of men. Piggy is reason, naked and empty before the violence – vulnerable. The conch is tradition, fragile yet holding a place in peoples’ imaginations, until it doesn’t anymore and is shattered. The beastie is fear and madness, necessary for the manufacture of tyranny; the fire is hope and purpose and responsibility. None of this is new – any High School literature class discusses them as part of our process of understanding ourselves. I like archetypal books; I even used archetypes in my own first novel “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio”. So why did this second reading of “The Flies” impact me so?

“Somewhere over the darkened curve of the world the sun and moon were pulling; and the film of water on the earth planet was held, bulging slightly on one side while the solid core turned. The great wave of the tide moved further along the island and the water lifted. Softly, surrounded by a fringe of inquisitive bright creatures, itself a silver shape beneath the steadfast constellations, Simon’s dead body moved out towards the open sea.” Lord of the Flies

We novelists have a secret, well a two-part secret really. The first part is that we disparage our own work. We are told not to even re-read our novels after they are published, lest we collapse in despair and attempt to cleanse their imperfections in flames. But the second part of that secret is that we actually consider ourselves better than others. Many a time I have sat reading books considered ‘classics’, books like “Fahrenheit 451” or “Housekeeping” or anything by Camus and thought to myself ‘Why is this a classic? My stuff is better’. Even good books like “Lord Jim” do not give me a sense of too great an inferiority. I know, we’re not supposed to say that – hence the secret. So here’s goes for Golding; as I read him, I felt like Wyatt Earp as he is about to face Johnny Ringo, “I didn’t really have time to think about it,” he says to Doc Holiday. “But I’ve had plenty of time to think about this. I can’t beat him, can I?” to which Doc Holiday responds “No”.

There it is, William Golding’s prose, his command of the beats and the crescendo of his story is so masterful that he made me want to put down my pen and pick up a crayon. Alas, I said it – read this book; if you are also a novelist read it with awe and surrender knowing, like I know “We can’t beat him.”

 

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