Darkness at Noon – A Book Review

“The Party denied the free will of the individual – and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives – and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one. It denied his power to distinguish good and evil – and at the same time it spoke pathetically of guilt and treachery. The individual stood under the sign of economic fatality, a wheel in a clockwork which had been wound up for all eternity and could not be stopped or influenced – and the Party demanded that the wheel should revolt against the clockwork and change its course. There was somewhere an error in the calculation; the equation did not work out.” P208

We all are the imperfect vessels of ideas that have come before; works of art and literature that the masters perfected long before we were born, who we dare to impersonate in the attempts to add value to that which is already complete. I learned about “Darkness at Noon” after doing some research into Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451”. While “Fahrenheit” is a dystopian, cartoonish impression of a future totalitarian America, “Darkness” is a fictionalized account of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Therein lies its power. Though the account is fiction, it could have happened; it did happen actually, millions of times. Because it is about the execution of one who was a party leader who rebelled against Stalin’s random brutality and was killed for it. But not before he was asked for a final surrender to a revolution that had given him nothing and taken everything. A revolution that did not think its role was, in fact, to make lives better. Its role was to upend the system; to prepare the way for something that would come after. Something, of course, that never came after – that can never come after, because brutality, blood and self-denial are not adequate conditioners to the soil from which a civilization might grow.

This novel is extremely well-written, conveying the inner struggle of a Party leader who worked for revolution; who believed in the denial of self, in the idea that the ‘ends justifies the means’, in what Rubashov – the protagonist – says many times in the novel, repeated by his torturer to him at the end, “…For us the question of subjective good faith is of no interest. He who is wrong must pay; he who is in the right will be absolved. That was our law…” The idea that the ‘right’ will triumph and the ‘wrong’ will be punished, the insecurity that forced Rubashov to admit that Stalin might be right and that he might be wrong and that only history would prove who was, ‘absolving’ them – as it were. Ideas which in the end forced Rubashov to deny his own beliefs and experiences and in the twilight of his life, after his torturers had exacted their revenge, made him publicly sacrifice his mind to the party a final time, into eternity.

On a personal note, for me who has worked so hard to advance the idea of human freedom, I am always astonished by man’s ability to endure suffering; and other men’s impetus to compel it.

“Don’t listen. I will tell you in time when they are coming… What would you do if you were pardoned? Rubashov thought it over. Then he tapped: ‘Study astronomy’.”

To all the would-be commies out there, I beseech you. Read this book, and then study astronomy.

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Our Republic of Second Chances

This morning I met an old gang banger in the play area at the mall. Teeth capped, tattoos decorating his neck, plaid shirt buttoned at the top over low pants and a scar down his arm that looked like it might have been a knife wound. Seated on the benches, he would occasionally get up to gently wipe his daughter’s nose or to re-assemble his son’s Transformer robot. There was a certain gentleness about him as he cared for his children that often comes from somebody who has experienced and perhaps even perpetrated great evil and lived, to look back upon that part of his life certainly not with nostalgia but perhaps with a sense of remorse salted with acceptance.

Redemption.

America is a land of redemption; a Republic of Second Chances, isn’t it? It’s what makes us such a remarkable land. I have traveled the world over, as I’m sure you’ve ascertained, and what always strikes me is the existential and final nature of decisions, of situations in the lost corners of the world where you only ever get one opportunity – if you get one at all. One injection of money; maybe from a charity or a government program. One opportunity to study; one good harvest – maybe one loan, although not even that for most. One child might live – that’s why you have so many. If you are elected to public office, one chance to steal, often the only way to build a cushion between yourself and desolation for you and your loved ones. This fact breeds desperation and makes the societies more predatory; more corrupt. Harder. Less forgiving.

Not so in America. Somehow here our sense of humanity is perhaps healthier. A respect for the law that brings us to accept those who have transgressed and atoned for it. An understanding of the failings of human nature; risks rewarded sometimes with great wealth but most often with heartache; and a system to catch those who stumble. It comes from our faith too, channeled through our churches to overflow out into society – that spirit of forgiveness and renewal: rebirth.

I watched the old banger’s son play with mine; a lovely little boy who might go to the same schools as mine and who has every chance to grow up to be a what he wishes, and I’m proud of America’s egalitarianism; where we historically have not had elites or nobles or castes. Where your little boy might play at the mall with the grandson of a president or the child of a repentant gang banger. People ask what makes America great? Among other things, this does.

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Leopoldo Lopez Is Home – For Now, That’s Enough

Venezuela’s most renowned political prisoner is home. Not free; not yet. But home; that will do for now. For him – to eat food mixed with love by his wife instead of excrement by his hostage takers; to talk on the telephone with his father; to read his children books, giving them a bath before putting them to bed with a prayer of thanks. To start to heal: his body, from torture physical and psychological; his soul, from the godless cruelty of the kidnappers; his family, finding a way to reconnect with his wife, remember his children, make peace with his God.

Leopoldo Released

The narco-government of that communist state botched it this time. Badly. First, they created a martyr when one need not have been be made, then they showed he is stronger than they are. Leopoldo went into the gulag a young mayor-activist, wrongly accused to be sure – but how many of those aren’t there in the world? And how many of their names do you know? He could have rotted unperceived. But they botched his trumped up trial; they created for him a platform; they put his name on the lips of Presidents, Secretary Generals and Foreign Ministers and Nobel Laureates. Because of all this, Leopoldo will be the end of the regime; they know this – but what else can they do? In the opaque halls of illegitimate power somebody made a calculation that the situation was not tenable; that some pressure needed released. Maybe they hope that pictures of Leopoldo at home, surrounded by his wife and watching television with his children will usher him into the long list of ‘former problems’ dealt with and forgotten. Maybe they think he will help them quiet down the raging street.

Who knows…

The same calculations have been made in the past. A long time ago the Soviet Union tried to release Natan Sharansky hidden within a throng of spies, a feeble attempt to shadow his moral superiority; Reagan refused, and negotiated with Gorbachev the refusenik’s solitary walk to freedom. The Soviet Union is no more; while Sharansky does abide.

When Aung San Suu Kyi won the Burmese election in 1990, from house arrest, the military junta nullified the elections and kept her at home. 22 years later she was elected to parliament, and today she is Burma’s President. When the Apartheid regime attempted to silence Mandela by taking him from Robin Island and sending him to house-arrest in the country, it was in the waning days of their stranglehold on power. Mandela was delivered the presidency in short order.

There are many stories such as these – going back in time as far as written history allows. While prisoners rot away in the gulag or are murdered in the night there is a doubt that their sacrifices will bear fruit. But history shows that when a regime is forced to bend, even if only a little, it opens a tiny crack in the dam; ruining the structural integrity of the construction forever. Venezuela’s edifice of hate and violence and stupidity has been breached, and is coming to an end – they have known this for a long time; but only with Leopoldo’s release have they shown the world.

So, for now we rejoice with the Lopez family not only for the return of Venezuela’s favorite son home, but more importantly for what it means to a nation struggling to be free.

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Fahrenheit 451 – A Book Review

I now remember reading this book during high school, although that fact had escaped me when I saw the novel perched alongside Ayn Rand in a bookstore in Arizona. I had actually been thinking about reading it, and I knew it was a dystopian exploration of a totalitarian world – so I picked up a copy.

Re-reading this novel twenty-five years later was interesting. It is not a particularly well-written book, and does not set alight the soul as does Rand, although there is some prose at the very end, after Montag jumps into the river and emerges “on the other side”, that is beautiful – and certainly worth getting through the book for. The novel itself will only take a practiced reader two or three days to finish.

Fahrenheit 451 is the story of a “Fireman” whose job in the future is not to put out fires, but to burn books. A society in search of vacuous pleasure has discovered that ideas are uncomfortable, especially those that challenge and take people outside of their comfort zones. Books, as the most effective tool for the delivery of ideas, are to be destroyed for the distress that they cause to their readers. Montag rebels, betrayed as he is by the burning for knowledge which cannot be extinguished, and – well I’ll let you read the book.

Of course all dystopian literature is supposed to make us think of a not-too-distant future when things have fallen off the rails. When society has been nudged and nudged and nudged again to a very dark place indeed. Bradbury is said to have been motivated to write this book by the specter of communism, and specifically the novel “Darkness at Noon” by Arthur Koestler. Bradbury once said in a speech, “The best response is Arthur Koestler… Only a few perceived the intellectual holocaust and the revolution by burial that Stalin achieved… Only Koestler got the full range of desecration, execution, and forgetfulness on a mass and nameless graveyard scale.” I wonder what Bradbury would say about our current university climate and the tyranny of the know-nothings and their un-ideas? Banning speakers, refusing to read books that make them “uncomfortable”, and assaulting those who believe differently. I imagine he’d say “I told you so.” To be sure, we have a long way to go as a society before firemen rush to the rumors of a library, matches in hand. However, but by the grace of God…

This book, like other dystopian literature, is worth reading (or if you are like me, rereading). Because it reminds us that things can go badly, encouraging us to stay true to our ideas of liberty lest they are lost forever for want of those who would defend them.

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Ideas of Home

I know I haven’t written for a while. I have been reacquainting myself with America; a process that does not lend itself naturally to a pen and paper. Smells and sounds; my land, my people – my desert. We all have our ideas of home nestled deeply within our consciousness, whether we like to admit it or not. Like a beacon they call to us, at first faintly but with increasing insistence as time eats away our outer shells; layers of rebellion and ambition slowly wearing thin, cracking before they are discarded. They did not prove to be lasting. Our true selves are always under there, beneath the painfully painted veneers of who we pretended to be, who we wished we were, what we thought was our birthright. Passing flights of fancy all.

I went to a memorial service the other day. An old friend who I had not contemplated for years – and who probably would not remember me even if he’d been able to greet me at his farewell. There I sat in the auditorium at the front of which I had stood as a child, missionaries on furlough – painted faces on parade. But that was then, this time I was anonymous, unpainted. One of three hundred who had come to offer gratitude in exchange for a life lived in honor. Two hours to repay a lifetime of dignity and sacrifice and faith. Yes, faith. It was a deeply Christian event – though the people there were from all walks of life. Some doctors and some ministers, some janitors and others teachers – together to remember a young man of substance.

What struck me was the goodness of it all – the wholesomeness of the relationships; the discipline of the commitments; the rectitude of lives lived facing outward and upward. Not inward, not self-seeking and certainly not self-dealing. People confronting their joy and their pain; their loss and their rewards with a sense of composure and joy – even at that saddest occasion.

I found myself wishing that the unpretentious event could have been live-streamed across the country; that the simple healing of a family and friends gathered to mourn their private loss could be taken as an example to the rest of the country of how to deal with adversity and where our eyes should be focused anyways. Because isn’t that what America is about? And isn’t that what Christianity has always been about?

As you can probably tell, I am currently in one of the flyover states. Despite what many would have you believe, they are not hateful places. They are not places of ignorance and darkness and envy. In fact – that is the one emotion I have not sensed, not once, despite the fact that flyover America must work harder for less – places where opportunity is earned, not bequeathed and where money is not freely redistributed because people here know its value and where it comes from. It’s ironic to me that those who talk so much about redistribution and inequality have so much more themselves; and yet still seem to resent those who have less. Could it be that it is not wealth that they really want redistributed, but peace and fulfillment, and joy?

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The monsoons are upon us, and so I must go; the rains cleanse and refresh and I will not miss them. But as I put down my pen I do so with a renewed sense of, well I guess the only word is spirit. My departed friend returned that to me – a last gift before he went on his way, to a stranger he probably did not remember. For you, who are reading this – I admonish you, look to the flyover states; and look to yourselves. Have the courage to light your own beacons and then allow them to lead you to that place where you too nestle your own ideas of home.

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Our Disappointing Online Agora

I’ve given up on Facebook. And Twitter. I never LinkedIn – wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be linking to; nobody that I know has ever found anything worth finding by connecting with other ‘professionals’ desperately trolling social media in our post-work world. I don’t WhatsApp (whatever that is); or Flipboard (I did try that for a moment). To be sure – I still write, as you are certainly aware, so WordPress is important. I suppose I could just jot down things on a yellow legal pad, ripping out each sheet to place under my pillow – but what good would that serve? No, I use a computer – a complete troglodyte I am not; not for lack of desire mind you. I should caveat all this, saying that I still use some of the aforementioned tools to share my work with others. A writer has to be read – that’s sort of the point after all. But a life lived “online”? It didn’t last.

My epiphany came when my little four-year-old poured a bottle of a “potion” he was making, containing mostly baking soda and water and food coloring, onto my computer. The apocalypse!!! I was upset, naturally – it is where I write, after all (since then I’ve been squatting till I can get back to America). But then after my vision faded from red, slowly and steadily I began to experience – wait for it – tranquility. I realized that my newfound avoidance of the equivalent of a drunken argument at 7:00am over morning coffee left me in a better mood for the day – #RiddleMeThat (see, I can even #hashtag. Maybe I’m not a total brute…). I learned long ago that my writing is superior in the early morning, Wi-Fi turned off, coffee in hand. My best writing is when I’m jetlagged – at 3am things are quiet and calm, night is dark and channeling the great minds with which I must connect to write is easier then; for one glance at the angry ejaculations of the know-nothings rends asunder the stillness. I have since extended this serenity to other areas of my life owing to a waterlogged computer – and with tremendous result.

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Social media (Note: I’m not extending my rant to all-things internet based. Netflix has saved my life, sitting as I do most nights in unqualified West African boredom; and Amazon has brought my tiny dog her Veterinary Choice Purina dogfood – bless you Jeff Bezos) was supposed to make our lives better. Interconnectedness – that was going to give us a real existence: beyond the limited confines of our flesh and blood, temporal and spatial state of being. The “sharing economy” people like to call it – a misnomer if there ever was one. I’m teaching my little boy to share, which doesn’t involve charging his diminutive friends for the use of his treasured plastic T-Rex. It’s actually sort of the extension of our voyeur economy. But instead of celebrities hawking nude selfies and the stories of their sex lives, it now means strangers on ‘vacation’ pawing through my wedding pictures and eating off my good china. But I digress.

This new ‘virtual’ world is somewhat of a disappointment – the words vapid and self-absorbed come to mind. A world where you can chat with a CEO on social media but can’t get a job interview. Where you can hawk a ride in your car or a room in your house or crowdsource your jerry-rigging of a toilet but your sense of value, that is elusive. Where there is so much ‘news’ that the word has become hollow – where noble old houses have taken to peddling made-up stories in a desperate attempt to increase their CTRs (click-through-rates; see, I did it again!!). It turned out to be worthless – all that information did – our “Tyranny of Experts” whose sense has not been common in a long time. Let me bring you in on a secret – coming as I have from the think tank world. Those people you see on CNN, on Fox News, on MSNBC? They have no idea what they’re talking about; most of them pass the time in the hallowed halls of power in a cold sweat; “hustling” for the next gig, the next appearance, the next “social media mention” to prove their worth. To whom?  They cannot stay. Trust me, I have known many of them; and in our new workless world, they are always the first to go hungry.

At any rate, as quickly as we opened our laptops, we lost our communities. Our relationships became one-dimensional. I’m sort of binge-watching Star Trek right now (Netflix again). The crew spends lots of time in the holodeck – there’s nowhere else to go (Voyager’s Delta Quadrant is probably a lot like West Africa). There they bask in the fake sun on the fake beach for a time; but after a while food that does not nourish, cold that does not burn, drink that does not inebriated – relationships that do not exist lose their appeal. They are empty, because they are not dangerous, are not fulfilling, are not real. Turns out that the conversations, absent the feel of warmth from a fireplace; the smell of a bouquet from a glass of wine; the agitated din of a football game going badly – the look in a friend’s eye that tells us more than does his words – are unsatisfying. Heck, even e-book sales are down; people have realized it’s like reading a long angry email, bereft of the feel of the pages and the smell of the ink and the aged paper.

Back to my post-Facebook peace. Our online Agora too has been a disappointment. A self-selecting – biased echo-chamber has led everybody to the edge of a cliff, lemmings out for a midnight run. Comfortable, #MuteBlockReport for the trolls, the replacing of real discussion and debate with insults hurled over great distances without thought or consequence. I’ve come to realize belatedly what the anti-Trump tantrum has been doing to me. The over-the-top meltdown could have been almost fun if I was accompanying my apoplectic ‘friends’ in an epic bender – beer and shots in the local tavern, a raging hangover highlighting a comedy of frustration to tell people about when they sobered up: cheekily and with not-a-little embarrassment. But absent the brawl, the contact, the context, it only seems adolescent, making people I know and have respected seem smaller. Making me sad and too often angry – too much information that we can’t do anything about – too many people competing in diminishing returns for cyclopean variations of outrage, heavy on hyperbole to try and stand out among the one-dimensional avatar community of the ever-aggrieved. I’d rather be ignorant of that side of things, and people.

Of course the irony that I’m posting this on my FB and Twitter feeds is not lost on me. Of course I still check them for news of loved ones who are far away and causes I care about. It’s about balance, and intent. In Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” there’s an epic scene that takes place in the house of Nastasya Filippovna, the troubled temptress, where a group of St. Petersburg’s noble Russian families vie for her attentions. In England J.R.R. Tolkien would meet every week with C.S. Lewis and the other “inklings” to drink and argue and read poetry. Gabo met at a cafe in downtown Barranquilla with other would-be-writers to commiserate. I can’t imagine any of these scenes playing out online.

But enough of my ramblings. For those who are reading this, some advice. Go to a nephew or grandson with a penchant for science projects and hand him an old water bottle, food coloring and baking soda. He will make your life better. Mine sure did.

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The Ongoing Torture of Leopoldo Lopez

“They are torturing me! Denuncia!!” the cry carries; piercing from the menacing prison perched nefariously on the hilltop above to float across the expanse.

 

How did it come to this? Venezuela’s First Son: descendant of Simon Bolivar; graduate of Harvard; husband to the beautiful Lilian, father of two; mayor of the elites; from a rich and mighty family. Bred and groomed, Leopoldo Lopez was destined to rule. And his enemies? Shrug. A ridiculous political project born of a dead man, an uneducated soldier from a lost state on the border of Colombia. Emerging from poverty, and with only the support of an aged bearded tyrant in Havana? That was not something which would last. Venezuelans are not Cubans, right? Sure he had charisma and charm of sorts and – more importantly – a seemingly bottomless well of cash. He personified an era, and his momentum was unstoppable.

But he is dead – a T-shirt King like El Che before him. Why did it all not simply fall away? Who are Leopoldo’s enemies now? An insipid bus driver; a Hezbollah operative; a bunch of jungle guerillas – seated sweating atop a chaotic narco-regime ruling over a country that has disintegrated… Can’t even really be called a country anymore – not in the classical sense. All semblance of what was has vanished into the jungles and the oceans for want of those who should care for it. 200 years – that’s what it took Venezuela to build towards what it was. An unequal oligarchy maybe; but orchestras and monumental architecture and festivals and traditions and a sense of pride: they were a people of great pride, once upon a time.

I still find it hard to understand how it is they are torturing Leopoldo – and the only people who seem to care are a small group of students protesting – and dying – on the potholed streets of formerly middle class Caracas (and Valencia, and Maracay, and Maracaibo, and Puerto Ordaz)?

The most dangerous thing that any of us can do is underestimate our adversaries (don’t believe me – ask Hillary Clinton). Venezuela’s feckless opposition is guilty of this. Their primary assumption, which girds their protest strategy, is that the torturers – the National Guard, the Political Police – are merely following orders. That they really, in their heart of hearts, want no part of the madness.

That is the Venezuelan opposition’s fundamental and abiding mistake.

Because what I have seen – am seeing on the streets of Caracas is not a security apparatus shy and timid, acting only under duress. They are instead behaving as evil men finally being permitted the violence they have craved for so long. Venezuelan detainees are being beaten with aluminum bats, tortured. Forced to eat human excrement. And why? Did you ever watch ‘Narcos’, or ‘Queen of the South’; have you ever seen news reports of drug-runners in Mexico sawing off people’s heads or cutting off their faces and stitching them to soccer balls? Why the viciousness? It’s simple. They are protecting their business. So too Venezuela’s Narco-Generals, locking down their drug empires from those who would take them away. They are enjoying the killing.

Venezuela’s opposition has always seen in the Chavistas a sort of misguided sense of “social justice” – poorly applied perhaps or taken too far. They’ve always seen the model as legitimate; it’s only the people with whom they have a problem. Leopoldo never understood what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn knew. What Natan Sharanksy could easily have told him. What I have seen in places like Kosovo and Rwanda and Congo: when hate is injected for so long, using so varied means, the end result is an orgy of violence and blood that is usually only satiated when the ground can absorb no more. And when it’s married to a denial of self; a glorification of the collective needs of “others” – it is extremely dangerous. It’s what Ayn Rand wrote about mostly. It’s what my 2nd novel “The Burning” is about, in part.

We should never underestimate those who have stated that they wish to destroy us – lest we inadvertently give them the chance, and they seize it. That is Venezuela’s revolution. Congratulations to all who participated; who made common cause with Hugo; who said that his might be the way. It’s your fault too – and you will not be quickly forgotten, or forgiven.

As for Leopoldo – would that he were free. I cannot imagine the sorrow of his family; for all fathers hope for better things for their sons. And Leopoldo – to him has been assigned the greatest hope of all. And I pray his sacrifice pays dividends, when the Venezuelan ground at last begins to reject the blood.

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