RCTV – The Day the Music Died

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That’s what communism gives us; those who preach ‘progress’ in order to seize power give us instead a stale sort of stasis. Eating and re-eating the same saltine cracker. That’s what Venezuela has become – the endless marches one indistinguishable from the previous and the next. Some red, some multi-colored. Filling streets for a season in order to then go home and stare out the window as life trudges on. The same speeches – although the orators are older; speeches against the communist government by people I have known in my youth when they also were in theirs. Forget we are now both middle aged. Diatribes by aging communists, who have grown fat and bald with disease and bile until they finally keel over to be replaced by another, also growing fat: leeches all. The same elections; where the outcome is never in question. The same debates: socialism, the ‘poor’ and the ‘people’ and the ‘indigenous’, the oppressors and the oligarchy and the empire and the conspirators – a script written a century ago that varies little.

Beneath it all, the military and the gangs. It’s really just an organized criminal enterprise fermenting under the façade of ‘public administration’. “Here the public owns everything” which of course means the public actually owns nothing – it’s those with the guns who command. And the end result is always the gun.

Democracy rarely ends in a bang; usually the last cry of the oppressed is a whine. A whimper. Venezuela’s democracy has been dying for 19 years. Maybe 25, depending on how you count it. Two generations, people staring at the television screens as one by one they go black.

Ten years ago now – ten years. Maybe that was when it ended. It certainly was dramatic. Hugo Chavez had just won a landslide re-election in a contest that was free but not fair (a distinction without a difference, thanks Jimmy Carter!). Rapid change was going to begin. 2007 – that was the year; nationalizations of Venezuela’s oil fields, collapsing Chavez’s own tri-color support base into one monolithic political party called – wait for it – the Socialist Party. A referendum on a new constitution that would do away with democracy once and for all. And, some payback. Ending the last public TV station whose editorial line did not bow to the whims of the despot.

Forget that RCTV was the most famous in the country’s history. Forget that for more than half a century it had seen the rise and fall of politicians and dictators. Forget that it was not the news or the opinion pieces that the people watched, but the Soap Operas – so famous I have seen them on Malian television dubbed into French.

That was ten years ago now – 10 years. A decade. While across Latin America new movies are being made, new ways of filming tried, new producers and directors and actors are making names for themselves, in Venezuela it’s still the same socialist speeches live-streamed on the seized airwaves. They can’t even be bothered to make their own soap operas anymore; oh they tried but it didn’t go well. Socialism is just as boring on the big screen as it is in real life. Socialist Realism the soviets called it – noble tractors plowing rebellious fields; faceless men standing, and dying, in stoic service. Russian Futurists – novels and movies written by and for the Borg. Yawn.

After a while they fell away. Nobody noticed.

Ten years since that year; since we left – my little family. Zanzibar and Cairo and Obidos and Istanbul. Birthdays and anniversaries – celebrations. Surgeries. Campaigns, wins and losses. I wrote four novels – my little boy, who has never been to Venezuela, now chastises me about the real meaning of photosynthesis.

All the while the Venezuelans have sat there in their “socialist paradise” staring at that blackened screen. For them, the day the real music died was ten years ago – leaving them only with another fat tyrant shoddily playing a piano, bread and circus for the enslaved.

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“Living to Tell the Tale” By Gabriel Garcia Marquez – A Book Review

I once had a friend, a Cuban/American professor of governance at Georgetown. We would meet occasionally for lunch in the elegant faculty lounge to discuss the affairs of the day in Latin America; what the future of his imprisoned birth island would be; how the changes of the 21st century would sweep across the continent after the ‘pink tide’ was spent.

“The problem with Americans,” he would often tell me, as we talked about the waves of communism and dictatorship that never cease to buffet the continent’s shores, “is that they don’t understand Latin American culture is not ‘western’, at least not in the way you think.” It’s a hard concept – we have so much of Latin America running through our veins; through our history and our imagination. The Spanish Mission of San Xavier sitting like a shining pearl in the desert south of Tucson; signs in Miami declaring proudly “English Also Spoken Here” – didn’t American soldiers also fight beside Simon Bolivar? Isn’t the United States the world’s 5th largest Spanish speaking country?

North America – at least the northern part (excluding the American South, which was partially the cause of our great war) – has never been feudal. Great families controlling land and with it the destinies of their ‘peasants’. Latin America, on the contrary and up until recently, has been a feudal place. In Venezuela they were called the ‘Amos del Valle’ – the Lords of the Valley (of Caracas) – thick and rich, and white: they are still there, despite Venezuela’s own modern ‘Violencia’. In Venezuela it was the pitiless dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez that transformed the country from its feudal agrarianism to the makings of a modern nation. That, and the discovery of oil, kept Venezuela from descending into a confrontation between the landed aristocracy and the peasants – between the rich and the poor – between the white and the afro-indigenous – between the past, and the future. At least till Hugo Chavez.

For Colombia, this reckoning came earlier; and it was bloodier because there was nothing to smooth over the carnage. It came in the form of a 1000 days war at the center of five decades of simmering conflict – lasting even through today. It pitted Colombia’s ruling families – Restrepos and Santos and Pastranas and others – against a restive peasantry itching for opportunity.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was part of this peasantry. And “Living to Tell the Tale”, the autobiography of the first half of his life (I think he planned a 2nd part – one that never came), is the story of a young man, journalist and writer who was straddling this tumultuous period in Colombian history. He was trying to cover it as a journalist; he was trying to understand it and write about it; and he was trying to survive it. The assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán; “La Violencia”, a decade of violence following this event. Coups and counter-coups. The beginnings of Colombian communism – which spawned the FARC when the war between the Conservatives and the Liberals was not conclusively won; a communism like that of the Soviet Union, not the proletariat against the bourgeois but a peasant uprising against the nobles.

Gabo lived all of it – and that’s what makes this story incredible. It’s the story of the coming of age of a great writer born of poverty in the course of the coming of age of his country.

Gabo had communist sympathies – because he was from peasant stock and revolution seemed the only way out. Not that he was a revolutionary himself (he was not quick to pick up a gun after witnessing the murder of Gaitan); he was, first and foremost, a writer. And anything that got in the way of that calling was discarded. He probably had bad ideas – certainly communism was not the answer to Colombia’s nasty oligarchy (as it hasn’t been the answer in Venezuela). But I can see how a poor boy would have a soft place for those who tormented his oppressors.

“Living to Tell the Tale” did give me a better understanding of Gabo’s writing. He is, above all, extremely provincial. He is a village boy from pre-modern Colombia; and even as he traveled – Paris and Mexico and farther – he could not shake his roots: they were everything he was. Which I suppose makes his success that much more astounding just as it makes his writing that much more genuine.

I’m still not a fan of “100 Years” – and Gabo isn’t my favorite novelist – but I’m immensely glad I read his auto-biography. It is the story of a writer, told by a writer, and has given me tremendous encouragement for my own writing. For that, I thank him.

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If You Don’t Read Books…

Is the current bloodshed in Syria the final battle of the First World War; or the first battle of the Third? And related to that, why is the House of Saud the center of the Arab world, and not the Hashemite Kingdom descendant from the Sharif of Mecca? Do you know where the word ‘assassin’ comes from, and why a death cult hidden in a fortress high in the Persian mountains caused the Mongol invasion of Baghdad, the sacking of the House of Wisdom and the end of the Islamic Golden Age? Is Iran to be trusted, or are they engaged in Kitman with the United States, with us playing the role of the “miserable blind man shut off from the true path whose existence (we) do not suspect?” Why does socialism always fail, in spite of making us feel so good; and why do intellectuals ignore this? What is Austrian economics; and why are the “Austrians” never part of macro-economic syllabi? And what were Hugo Chavez’s hemispheric plans and how were they inspired by a 200 year old legend?

If you don’t read books, you won’t know.

That is the contention of Peggy Noonan’s commencement address at Catholic University in Washington DC. “History is human,” Noonan says in her eloquent, folksy fashion. “History is not dry dates and data, and it is not gossip or cheap stuff, it is human beings acting – sometimes heroically, sometimes inadequately or wickedly – in real time.”

True. But, of course this begs the more important question – why do you need to know? Wouldn’t we all be just as happy watching episodes of “Two and a Half Men” with a pint of ice-cream before going to bed? Noonan’s answer, “If you cannot read deeply you will not be able to think deeply. If you cannot think deeply you will not be able to lead well.” Because, “…all of you deep down, in whatever areas and whatever ways, hope to lead.”

Scary!

The truth of the matter is that modern universities are not in the business of leader-making. Our leaders these days come from other places, or other times; because our institutions of higher learning have turned their energy to licensing managers to serve as the officers of our managerial oligarchy. According to Patrick Dennan, students these days are “…the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.” But why, why are our ivory towers these days busy molding their charges into perfect “know-nothings”; devoid of opinion and culture and preference and innovation and curiosity? The answer is because we are preparing our young men and women to slip seamlessly into the massive bureaucracies of our colossal planned world. We are training them to receive the highest marks from the human resources department; for outstanding “360 degree” reviews and to have the perfect habits necessary to be highly effective. In managerial bureaucracies there are no leaders, because there is no need for leadership. Inertia will do; momentum – because the direction is no longer in doubt, at least so say the elites. Its effective managing we need. The inhabitants of “the end of history” can be found sharply dressed in perfectly pressed suits sitting for just the right amount of time in their pristine cubicles before lunch, eating a turkey wrap in their immaculate cafeterias.

My main contention, no offense to Peggy, is that we all need to stop telling the “know-nothings” that sitting anxiously through four years of “safe space” discussions and “anti-racist sit-ins” entitles them to lead. We must tell them the truth – at best they will be the next generation of managers; for that is the certification to which they are preparing. Leave the expectation to leadership to those who are willing to say uncomfortable things and think uncomfortable thoughts – to be sure many of which are, indeed, found in books.

So my suggestion, not that anybody should care. Read books – not because you want to be a leader, but because you want to understand, to make common cause with the world around you. Because you can’t really feel without having read Robert Frost. You can’t truly love without knowing Emily Dickinson. You can’t really sorrow ignorant of Poe. And you can’t really believe without reading the Bible. Read because you have a natural curiosity – because you do not accept the version of things you are given by other know-nothings on the assembly-line of your education. Because enlightenment is found along the rolling road of wonder, a road paved by words in print upon a sea of white. Because nothing is new under the sun; and because castles are layers upon layers upon layers of stories, like Peggy says, of humans. Blood and sweat and the acrid stench of fear; violence and defeat and victory – from those who were not content to be managers.

Then, whether you lead or not, your lives will be enriched by the only hunger that becomes more voracious the more you feed it. The hunger to know.

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An Old Library in Timbuktu

No, you probably won’t be leaders. You won’t be writers either – that requires way too much failure and self-doubt than the know-nothing’s can muster. But you might very well be line managers for the new world order. If you read books – you’ll begin to understand why.

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The Caveman and the Boorish

I don’t have Cable TV – or subscription TV of any sorts. Overseas, as we are, we make do with Netflix. So to a certain extent I am fortuitous to be somewhat sheltered from the boorish: “Nightly News” I think they used to call it.

I do have social media – Facebook and Twitter; although I’ve found myself going on them less and less. It’s a little hard not to – stuck as I am constantly in a faraway land, they are effective tools to stay connected with family and friends. But I don’t scroll anymore, you know that weird little finger spasm up, up, up as the clock ticks by – Facebook has become boorish; people have become boorish, haven’t they? Boorish, like the way the English used to mean it, lip turned up. Soren Kierkegaard said it best, “I begin with the principle that all men are bores. Surely no one will prove himself so great a bore as to contradict me in this”, followed quickly by the wisdom of Voltaire “The secret of being a bore… is to tell everything”.

Cue politics.

Have you noticed that everything in our lives is getting better… except for politics, which is in turn making everything worse? Our computers are faster, our diets are better, our entertainment is more varied. There are more books being published; more options for shopping (Farmers markets, Whole Foods or that awesome Mexican Grocery called Ranch Market in downtown Phoenix). Movies are getting more sophisticated – we can still watch “XXX: The Return of Xander Cage” if we want; but now we can temper that with Amelie or Timbuktu.

Even the world over – more people have access to entertainment, poverty has been halved and places like Bollywood and Nollywood are making new movies and creating new opportunities. Even where there are problems like food crises, these are man-made created by the boorish for political reasons, and not some Malthusian disaster we were warned about. Hills are being reforested, beaches are being better protected. We may even be slowing the mass slaughter of the species called the 1980s. But politics – bitter and angry; taking everything we’re attaining, and turning it upside down. I write a lot about Venezuela – those few of you unfortunate enough to read me frequently know quite well. Politics is what ruined that country – Hugo Chavez in the soup and slapped on the side of rice bags and in hours-long television takeovers: now HE was boorish; marching, marching and more marching, boorish rivers of red to the closest voting booth to vote, and vote, and vote again. Families turned against each other; businesses going under; boycotts enacted; money wasted.

And what was all the politicking about? We have been told that politics, that process by which we choose upon who to bestow that most perilous right of holding a gun against us, is important because we must make collective decisions to make our lives better. I could sort of buy that, if it were true. But those things are not exciting or controversial – where parking meters should be installed, how many lanes a road should have, how many police officers to deploy at a parade. What kind of school system makes for a more educated citizenry. “Public Administration” this is often called – and it’s boring (not boorish, do not mistake me).

So what are people fighting about? Turns out everything – because it’s tribal now; that’s what politics has descended into. The possession of a blunt object with which to beat random strangers as we walk down the street or troll their social media accounts. That’s what happened in Venezuela – they took a messy and uneven democracy where people spent their weekends at the beach and partying in night clubs and poisoned everybody – making them all boorish.

So – we need to stop.

My advice, such as it is – understanding I’ve probably bored you too – I’ve taken from Harlan Coben, “When I’m writing (or in our case posting), what I pretend subconsciously is that we’re cavemen, we’re sitting around the fire, and I’m telling you stories. If I bore you, you’re probably going to pick up a big club and hit me over the head.”

#WordsToLiveBy

caveman

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Politeness and our Struggling Democracy

A few years ago, on what is popularly called our “baby-moon” (that special trip you take with your wife before the hurricane descends in the form of a squealing, squeaking, energetic little boy who these days sits at the dinner table fighting with me over what a “map” should look like and what “X” should mark), my wife and I left our bustling capital to drive into the interior of Virginia. Monticello – to walk through the house where Jefferson slept. “He would read all morning, eat lunch with three glasses of wine, play with his grandchildren all afternoon and then read again all evening,” the tour-guide said. Montpelier, that little room on the second floor where Madison wrote the constitution, “He asked for every book available on how to organize society; starting with ancient Greece and moving forward through time, learning from the past and the lessons given to us by history.”

It was summer, the birds were flitting through the trees; the morning mists clung to the hills and nestled in the valleys where the founders and framers walked together unpretentiously. There’s a favorite local story about how Jefferson hitchhiked with a farmer one warm summer night, discussing the country, without the man knowing he’d hosted the president until later. As we walked through the gardens, immersing ourselves in the past, our past, we found the old plantations were musty and worn from use and time; but still noble and elegant and exuding quiet dignity of a time when we had respect, not contempt, for each other – friend and foe alike. ‘Politeness’, as Jefferson once told his nephew, is ‘artificial good humor’ – that which kicks in with the muscle memory of the well-bred when amiability flags.

monticello

What struck me was how connected those men of old were to the currents of their times; even as their expansive Virginia estates seem isolated, even today – lost in space and time somewhere on the edge of it all. Imagine what they must have felt like two-hundred years ago when a trip from Washington D.C. took days, not hours? When knowledge that was sought from Paris or London was brought on boats over an ocean, taking weeks – where reading was something that was done in four hour chunks beside the fire, not four minute intervals on an iPhone waiting for the metro? When people thought in poems and prose, not in 400 word opeds?

Walking through the past, that summer which feels so long ago now, was a heady experience for me – engaged as I was in the most consequential of contests – a presidential campaign. Big dinners with Mitt Romney at the Army Navy club; policy papers and documents and working groups – we were going to fix the world, we were going to change everything. We were going to put it right. Because it’s a great responsibility, the mantle of leadership is. Peggy Noonan just wrote, in her singular fashion, an article that captures some of this – although I might widen her target. “Democracy is not your plaything” she writes, and it’s true. What we are fighting over now, in the most adolescent of fashions, is nevertheless the most sacred trust of all; it’s the future for my little boy, the country he will grow up in, the old thoughts he will hold in his imagination as he too walks through musty memories of when our nation had gravitas and amazing men were designing the boldest and most successful experiment in world history.

I’ve never really mourned the 2012 outcome; while victory floats upon a cushion of celebration and reflection, a loss is an existential affair that presages hardship. At some point, I suppose – when it’s all over for me, I’ll think about it; and write about it. These days my little boy occupies my time, as does the business of fighting our nations enemies – which we do regardless of who sits behind a polished desk in a tired old mansion built atop a swamp. But if I were asked, which I was not, I would say that what 2012 represented for me was the death of dignity.

Because it was dignity they took from us – cheap hits by those who only cared about winning. And that sort of seems to have presaged the current “circus”, as Peggy calls it, hasn’t it? I wonder what Jefferson would have thought of our current state of affairs, holding with tremendous responsibility as he did that fragile flame in his open palms lest he inadvertently deprive it of oxygen and kill it? Probably something civil like, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

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A House Divided

Abraham Lincoln once wrote, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Remember that? The civil war was upon us, two dramatically different views of the way to live our lives as Americans – of what rights meant – about what our economy should look like. How the government should behave. Mutually exclusive, one side had to win – the only time in our history that was the case. All the other moments – Vietnam and Civil Rights and Universal Suffrage – were just that, moments. Not existential fights about national survival but instead ways of organizing ourselves and treating each other in a country of laws run by a messy lot like humanity. About living up to our Constitution and our Bill of Rights.

Lincoln

Which, I suppose, is why I’m a little baffled at America these days. The media, the elites, the entitled – joined by the managers in our managerial oligarchy – those who lost a periodic election have embarked upon a strategy of annihilation. It seems that they would embrace national failure, even if it means their own destruction. Their weapon of choice? Poison. Poisoning the well is; “a rhetorical technique and logical fallacy that uses the association of negative emotions to distract a subject from actual evidence in an argument. Poisoning the well is an appeal to hate.”

Sound familiar?

Of course poisoning the well is dangerous – a so called “nuclear option” for public behavior because once the well has been poisoned, it continues to be radioactive for all who would use it – friend and foe alike. Argument, temperament, reason, balance, objectivity, compassion – all these have been jettisoned in an attempt to destroy. 24 hour news cycles all primed and aimed and fired, but at who? Turns out, eventually, at themselves. Ayn Rand said in Atlas Shrugged, “People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked…The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on…There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.

A lie – because the fact is things are going pretty well these days. The Supreme Court is whole – and with a remarkable, honest and gentle addition; Assad will think twice about using chemicals again; the economy is booming (yes, it has everything to do with confidence and deregulation); jobs are up, jobless claims are down; companies are reinvesting in the United States (it’s about encouragement); the healthcare challenges of a hastily passed and un-debated law are on the way to being addressed; illegal immigration is way down (no, nothing to do with a wall. Yes, everything to do with application of the rule of law). ISIS is being pushed out of Mosul. And the federal government’s thought war against half of its citizens is over. We should all shrug and go grab a beer, right?!

So why the bitterness, the hate? I return to the article “The Urban Archipelago”, the ‘progressive’ manifesto. “We no longer have to concern ourselves with the survival of the family farm, nor do we have to concern ourselves with saving fragile suburban economies from collapse. They’re against us; we’re against them. This is a war.” An appeal to hate, if there ever was one. Lies, because they require no nuance, no understanding – no feeling, only action.

A house divided. Of course, the ‘liars’ don’t see this, because as Rand says, they have “made that person (to whom they lie) their master” and are now wholly invested in those lies, lest they should prove to be just that – and they become powerless. It’s a scary place to be, no wonder they fret so publicly and transparently. They are the slaves of the world.

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Rage Against the Dying

I’ve always thought that the best writers were those with too much money, or none at all. Both conditions leave the aspiring novelists and poets with the audacity to not give a two-penny damn about what others are saying or thinking. But this constricting, insufferable middle class life that we have all been forced into, willing or not; that I suppose is the real tragedy. The angry fight not against epic enemies or demons of the written word hiding in the rafters of ancient hallowed halls – but bugs in the carpet and a mortgage that ticks down upon you in regular unending rigidity like Chinese water torture. Belts pushed back from hole to hole, fighting the entropy – one hour in the gym becomes two becomes four.

I read often the works of the great authors. To be sure, great authors are those who are still read 100 years after their publication; that is the definition of a classic. Those writers did not know they would be great – but they still wrote. I wonder if they too suffered the pangs of futility, the anger at life that seeks to make the mundane out of the majestic; a marvelous tree used to hang threadbare laundry, a mighty racing horse pulling a plow.

Who knows…

I’m reading right now “Living to Tell the Tale” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I find it one of his most readable books: and if it is to be believed, he’s one who persevered through the frustration. To keep writing, while your country collapses around; assassinations and wars. Poverty. Provincial – that is Gabo’s writing, but it works for him. We like to read stories about Macondo, though stories about Gary Indiana do not find a place in our imaginations. Wars in Colombia – those work, exotic and foreign. I read once about the life of W. Somerset Maugham, though he never wrote an autobiography. He flippantly mentions, that “he tried his hand at writing” and “after his first novel was a hit of sorts, he became a writer.” I wonder if it was indeed that easy? It is said of Joseph Conrad that he hated writing – that he sweated out the agony of his novels word by word. Marx let half his children starve.

Light

Dylan Thomas once wrote, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right, because their words had forked no lightning they do not go gentle into that good night.” It is said he was writing about death – “Rage against the dying of the light”. I’m not so sure, I often wonder if he wasn’t talking instead about something worse than death – that condition where one is still alive despite that the light inside no longer illuminates. “You know when you come across one of those empty shell people, and you think ‘What the hell happened to you?’” Yes, an Under the Tuscan Sun quote – one of my favorite movies of all times. Because it’s about a writer. And it’s about a dreamer who is almost destroyed. And it’s about somebody who finally reminds herself that her life is actually her own – and she, finally, begins to rage.

Lives of great significance can be parochial too – they don’t ever tell you that, do they? A cubicle looks the same – though it’s beset by violence. The piles of paper, filed in triplicate, do not change though they are recording the names of those starving to death or dying at the hands of a great evil. An antiseptic world, that is the heritage bequeathed to us by those whom the rage has left, not in an explosion but in a frustrated shrug of lethargy – the empty shell people.

Toilet bowls and diapers and an exhausted hour of television – then sleep, to do it all over again. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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