Their Passing Will Not Be A Whisper

After finishing his novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” I was reading up a little on D.H. Lawrence. An elementary school teacher, married, afflicted with tuberculosis at a relatively young age. He moved: England, US, Switzerland – he ended up in Italy. Barely scraping by, writing for magazines or journals for the occasional payment. His story isn’t unique. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn fighting with the soviet censors, moving, fleeing – poverty. Gabriel Garcia Marquez selling his typewriter to afford the postage to mail “One Hundred Years of Solitude” to the publisher.

Self-publishing their books, suffering ridicule and often abuse.

But what would life be without “Lady Chatterley,” or “Love in the Time of Cholera” or “In The First Circle”? How would the richness of our times be passed on to future generations? How would great words pervade our thinking, acts of wisdom and experience showing us the way and discouraging the dark paths?

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I’ve always wondered why they bothered – why they fought; why the written word meant more to them than destitution and fear and abuse and the terror of uncertainty. And, more than the destitution, the fear of mediocrity – their own often crippling worry that they were “no good”. In my own novel “Lords of Misrule” Salif, the anti-hero who becomes the villain discusses meaning with his friend Aliuf, the protagonist:

“I had a brother,” Salif said. “He was a good man and a good Muslim. He prayed five times a day, he gave to charity, and he went to mosque on Friday to debate with the Imam. He wanted more, and he went to the big city at the end of the river to find a future for himself. He got a job first as a guard and then in a store and was even studying at the university at night. One day some money went missing from the register, and the police arrested him. Said he was a thief, even though a good Muslim cannot steal. He sent a message that he needed money to leave prison. The fee for the guards to look the other way was more than he had accumulated, but we had none, and my father stood and silently walked from the city to his herd—selecting the cow that would fetch the greatest price at market the next month, a blood price to free his oldest son from those who barter in human souls. But by the time the sale was done, we received word that my brother had been stabbed in prison to rob him of his shoes. My father walked to the river, the fistful of papers in his hand—papers that were worth more to his firstborn’s jailers than honor and dignity and law—and threw them into the churning brown waters. He never once said a word about it, never once shed a tear, never once mourned. We never talk about him—my brother. It is as if his passing on this earth was only a whisper.” Salif turned to look at Aliuf, steel in his eyes. “I will not play by their rules, and my passing will not be with a whisper.”

I suppose that’s what I think – meaning. To last; kings have their names etched in stone for eternity. Inventors who change the face of the world, soldiers who carry out great acts of valor, freedom fighters who shake nations and topple regimes. All these people have one thing in common – and in common with the writers – they will not play by arbitrary rule-books they are handed in their cradles at birth. They have a spirit that will transcend; and just as the Gauguin painted and Mozart composed – these men write.

And the world is better for it.

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“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” – A Book Review

The story goes that DH Lawrence and Earnest Hemingway were friends of sorts. The Belle Époque was raging; Paris was full of artists and dreamers. Brawling and drinking and dreaming – and writing. Hemingway was a “man’s man” who would get roaring drunk and make fun of Lawrence, himself quiet and somehow soft.

I’ve often thought of Paris in the 20s before war and occupation. Must’ve been grand – exciting and full of purpose. It’s occupied again these days, Paris is – albeit by her own soldiers. Boys from Nice and Bordeaux who enlisted to see the world and ended up guarding the Louvre and walking swagger style down the Champs Elise. Today the literary scene has moved on – but I’ll be damned if I know where. Chain coffee shops in the suburbs mostly. No wonder modern literature has no soul.

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I digress.

I just finished Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s not hard to understand why Hemingway mocked him; Lawrence is a better writer. Hemingway’s stuff has always seemed to me a little pretentious – like I should feel privileged to read the great man and not complain that the writing is, well bad really. Not so with Lawrence. His writing flows smoothly and the story is coherent and cohesive. Very Victorian England too – which I like.

The content of this novel could be considered a little rough by any standard. Parts of it I felt went too far, although I understood the point – but it’s no wonder it was declared pornography a hundred years ago. Nevertheless the message is clear – love, physical and sensual and animal is a force of nature that cannot be stopped; and Victorian English nobility was being false in its pretensions to a refinement that denied one of life’s great motivators.

I’m reminded why I return to the classics often – books that remind us of the immutability of the human condition. For that Lawrence is one of the greats.

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The Rise of Un-Ideas

The other day my little four-year-old boy was chatting with Grandma and Grandpa over Skype. We are teaching him to write, so the grandparents were giving him words and he was trying to spell them out. I wasn’t paying much attention until I heard a kerfuffle and tuned in. He had written down the entire left-hand side the paper, and instead of turning the page over he had started writing right to left on the other side of the sheet. The words had also become gibberish. “No,” Grandma was saying, “You have go from left to right.” “No, no, no!” my little boy said emphatically. “These are un-words!”

First of all, wow. The fact that his little four year old brain understood (and came up with himself) an entity that represented the negation of something. Somebody call MIT!

The urban dictionary describes antimatter as, “literally matter which is the inverse or opposite of matter; particles which have charges opposite of regular matter.” Now, antimatter exists in physics, and rudimentary atoms have been made by man for brief periods of time before they degrade. All of this is very experimental, and I’m not a physicist, but it certainly seems like my son might become one!

At any rate, it would appear that we’re living in the age of anti-words: un-words as my son would say, un-ideas. Un-philosophies. I read about the newest one yesterday, intersectionality. It’s evidently the newest thing on college campuses, sort of a “meta-analysis” that combines multiple theories of discrimination (race, gender, etc.) into one overarching doctrine of oppression. “On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power,” as Andrew Sullivan has described it.

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Of course, this is essentially tribal – the glorification of un-ideas. The belief that everything about us exists in our blood and genes and experiences derived from our physical characteristics alone – divorced from the intellectual or cognitive. The divorce of great ideas from their imperfect vehicles has been part of the nature of philosophical inquiry since the beginning of time. It’s called Objectivity, and it takes us back to Plato – and the very foundations of western thought“Plato argued powerfully in favor of the objectivity of values such as truth, good and beauty. Objective values are those that lie outside of the individual and are not dependent on his/her perception of belief.” (The opposite of course are relativists – but even relativists have to allow legitimacy to values emerging from ‘agreement of cultures’, and wouldn’t accept the apriori rejection of one part of culture simply because that segment did not fit into what Orwell called a “smelly little orthodoxy.” As the above article indicates, this is more what a religion would do, not a philosophy.)

Yes, Jefferson owned slaves and we all knew that was wrong but that doesn’t make the “Declaration of Independence” any less grand. Yes the agora-democracy of ancient Greece extended only to landowners and men, but that does not mean this was not a revolutionary game-changing idea. “If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of ‘white supremacy,’ (as an example) you are complicit in evil,” the un-idea of intersectionality states.

Un-philosophy.

Of course this isn’t new – I’m reminded by an excellent book I read by Leonard Peikoff, “The Cause of Hitler’s Germany.” In this book Peikoff describes the advance of un-philosophy and un-knowledge across the Wiemar Republic’s intellectual landscape. Glorification of music that was not melodious, of novels that were nonsense, of philosophies like nihilism and Gnosticism that were really also un-philosophies. Into the vacuum, the state – nature does abhor a vacuum after all. By the time Hitler showed up the entire country was a bunch of know-nothings and easily fell to the idiocy.

Un-ideas. Of course it gets worse, because these un-ideas are not only held, but due to the peculiar nature of the ideas, their neo-Marxian focus on oppression through the warping of ideas of ‘morality’ to fit their ends, the holding of un-ideas means you are forbidden from engaging with any ideas outside their “classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered.”

I really do feel sorry for these kids – and if it wasn’t so sobering apropos of our nation’s future, I would feel compassion. It must be sad to be denied the awesome works of the mind – Tocqueville and Melville and Augustine and St. Bede – because for one or another reason, their race or their opinions or their beliefs or their faith, they didn’t pass the filter test. It must be a dark world where nothing makes sense and everything is askew; it must be scary. But, given that they are our future – I feel sorry for us a well.

As Yaron Brook has said, “We are entering a very scary period.”

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The Coming Storm

It’s already here actually – the storm is. It caught up with us when we weren’t paying attention, too focused on ourselves, our narcissism playing second fiddle to no one – even the destitute. When I mean “the storm”, I mean we’ve marched resolutely into the past. The greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II; yes that war after which we set up an entire world order to make sure never again would humanity fail itself. Refugee agencies caring for people forced to flee their lands for political reasons; food agencies so there is no more famine, at least; international courts trying to end war; conventions and resolutions and declarations – joint advocacy, the power of the great nations thrown against the despots to tell them in a single voice that we weren’t gonna have it anymore, that those days were over.

Then the fall of the Soviet Union and finally the last piece of the puzzle – the end of un-freedom. “The end of history,” as Fukuyama once said. A world exploding with NGOs accessing at last even the final quiet corners of the world with the message of prosperity and liberty and that foreign idea of “rights”, hardened by the kiln of a millennium of western experience in blood and violence.

Then we stumbled – something happened. 60 million refugees on the move; famine like we haven’t seen since WWII; new totalitarianism emerging in unlikely places like Venezuela; the death march of the unfree is accelerating, again – Freedom House calls it a ‘democratic recession’ but that is too polite.

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way, why are we here? It’s not that we turned inward, as some complain. We didn’t. And it’s not that we didn’t care. We did. I think maybe we lost confidence – in ourselves, that we were still the “shining city on the hill”, ironically because while we doubted this, to the world we are still the last best hope for mankind. We lost confidence in our faith, our families, our history, our past no longer buttressing and interpreting our place in an increasingly complicated world. And we lost confidence in our institutions; not just the post-war ones but our own, those built by Jefferson and Madison to make sure that we – at least – we always free; were always prosperous. All surrendered to the know-nothings product of our civilizational insecurities. What did we rely on instead? Money – good money after bad, redistributed in greater and greater quantities until our collective debt passed $200 trillion, and continued. A debt is a mortgage against the future – but what future are we mortgaging? Has anybody asked that?

Yet despite the figures, it’s a silent storm, isn’t it? We are still at an apex of human history – when it comes to technology, medicine, freedom, purchasing power. “A life more abundant”. Food enough to feed the world; knowledge enough to end most diseases. Of course there is inequality, which the know-nothings whine about constantly; but they aren’t talking about the refugees or the byproducts of the ‘storm’ – they are talking about themselves. It’s not that 5 million Syrians are sitting in the cold on foreign soil, but that the know-nothings are a jealous little bunch, measuring themselves against those who they consider their peers – not against the war victims or the refugees or the hungry.

Which is why the ‘storm’ is accelerating – our aforementioned lack of confidence turned against ourselves has given way to a system, a world order unable to make the important decisions which will stave of the apocalypse. Incidentally this is why I write – and work – and worry. You see I have a little boy – but even he is not safe in a world that has turned its back on reason and compassion and human dignity. It is said that a hurricane can be started by the flap of a butterfly’s wings across the oceans. And I wonder if the butterfly wasn’t already flapping away twenty years ago in Congo – or East Timor or Kosovo or Tunisia. And I wonder when, and how, and where the storm will end.

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Sorry, You’re Not a #Resistance

Words matter – they transmit meaning to help us make sense of the world around us and communicate our intentions and fears and needs to others. Consequently, one of the things that frustrates me most about the US over the last years has been the attempts to undermine our language. Morphing the word “liberal”, which used to mean “free from restraint in speech or action” and instead making it a totalitarian political mantra policed by know-nothings. Or taking “capitalism”, the system that gave the world the greatest prosperity in history and lifted billions from poverty and converting it to an insult insinuating greed. I could go on, but you get the point.

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Resistance. Now I know a thing or two about resistance. Night flights from darkened airports; graves populated by the ‘disappeared’. I one time worked with a group of war crimes investigators who were piecing together bodies – exhumed from a mass grave – trying to make the legal case to try a heinous crime against those who resisted the regime. Do you know what the “stench of death” really smells like? I do. A good friend of mine from Argentina once told me the story of how he had to flee from the Junta after being disappeared for three days – daring to study and to read, and think – freed only by the pressure of the priests, running to Peru with only the clothes on his back. Leopoldo Lopez, who I have known, continues to languish in a Venezuelan jail – for speaking against those who would have preferred him silent. At least you’ve probably heard of him. Lorent Saleh – a student activist who angered Venezuela’s regime – is in a place called “The Tomb”, underground, where they keep the temperature in the fifties, the lights on all the time, feed him at random intervals and play loud music at him. In Nicaragua one time I spent a morning listening to the stories of a woman who was selling thimblefuls of coffee on the plaza – in Leon, famous for the student uprisings against the Somoza dictatorship – she showing me the scars of torture from cigarette burns and car batteries. I have written letters to US immigration courts helping those who made it to our shores fleeing tyranny to find safe-haven.

Those are stories of resistance.

Resistance is fleeing from North Korea’s monstrous regime (buy this book!); resistance is a Tuareg man in Gao, Mali boldly going on television to demand that his clan, his people put down their guns; resistance is dousing yourself in gasoline as a final desperate act of violence in protest at a seemingly endless dictatorship, not because you want to die but because the police just seized your entire livelihood and you don’t know what else to do; resistance is joining a pro-bono law firm, running around behind the tens, hundreds of people arrested by Venezuela’s totalitarian regime, trying futilely to bend the regime to the law through the force your will and your righteousness alone – and sometimes even paying the ultimate prize.

No, sorry, you aren’t a resistance, because USA is not a dictatorship. Nobody is persecuting you; none of your rights are being violated; no illegal purges enacted; no tortures and disappearances. You didn’t like the results of an election – and want to pretend it is illegitimate, because you don’t want to do the hard work of rebuilding a constituency alienated, “Because you thought correcting people’s attitudes was more important than finding them jobs. Because you turned ‘white man’ from a description into an insult (…) Because you cried when someone mocked the Koran but laughed when they mocked the Bible. (…) Because you kept telling people, ‘You can’t think that, you can’t say that, you can’t do that’,” as Brendan O’Neill has said. Alas, the only people losing their legitimacy are you; who wear little pink hats and take off all your clothes and wander through public spaces offending friend and foe alike; who vandalize coffee shops and write little slogans misspelled on cardboard. No, you aren’t a resistance, and you don’t get to have that word.

For those who have fought and suffered for their liberties, it is far too sacred to let it – too – be defiled.

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Perspective

Last night I was putting my little boy to bed – as I always do reading him a chapter of the “Cars Book”, Mater and Lightning McQueen followed by the Bible and a prayer. Last night’s devotional was about God always being available – which took us, as all conversations with 4 year olds tend to do, on a literal exploration of the topic. “He’s always near ready to listen to you,” I told my son. “But I don’t see him.” “Yes you do,” I answered. “He shows Himself in His creation – flowers and mountains and doggies – and He reveals Himself through His Bible and the way He speaks to us when we are quiet. Besides,” I went on, “it doesn’t matter because He sees you.” “Right now?” My little boy asked, eyes going wide. “Yes, always,” and he looked around the room, at the ceiling covered with night-light stars and the walls covered with big rocket ships and planets. “But why?” “Because,” I said “He cares. He loves you. And He needs you, because He has something He wants you to do.”

That blew him away. “Me??” he giggled. God, who was everywhere and made the planets and the butterflies needed him? No way.

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We are imperfect tools of God’s design, aren’t we? Messy and smelly and angry all the time. Greedy and blind and lusty – and vicious. I sure wouldn’t depend on us, if I were He. We’re certainly not to be trusted.

But maybe He wants it that way?

I spend a lot of time on issues of human evil. Totalitarian Islam, civil war, communism – violence begetting violence in an endless downward spiral into the black abyss below. 20 years running from ambushes or hiding from terrorists or playing cat-and-mouse with secret police. Fighting these things would seem a much better task for the angels or the djinn – we humans are weak and easily confused, easily sidetracked.

I think of my little boy, the world I brought him into and wonder what I’ve done – then I remember the truth, that timeless truth that came to us from God’s own son: God gives us children to remember what is good and perfect and pure; what we are fighting for, and how. I’m reminded of the Michael Card song, “When we in our foolishness thought we were wise, He played the fool and He opened our eyes; when we in our weakness believed we were strong, He became helpless to show we were wrong.” To remind us that the games that we play with each other are the real foolishness – that worldly power is passing, so why fight for it? And that the strength that we vindictively inflict upon each other is in fact weakness.

That we have a purpose – His weak and fragile errand-boys sent along life’s darkest paths on His good and perfect projects.

This is important for me sometimes to remember. Because I’m often tired these days of the evil. It has left an indelible smudge on my soul that annoys me – it has robbed me of my invincibility, reminding me that there is only security in our God – and that, not for this lifetime. A little tired of the fear and insecurity; I often have that weird little yearning in the pit of my stomach for pure power that I imagine would come with money and impunity. Until I am reminded by my little boy of the excitement of discovery as we realize that God needs us, but He can only use us if we are “foolish” and “weak”.

And that gives us the energy to press on!!

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Could the Industrial Revolution have Happened Today?

I read an interesting article about Uber recently – regarding some of the growing pains that company is having and how they’re trying to deal with them. The history-less, context-less analysis is par for the course in today’s 24 hour news cycle when a blog about misogyny (certainly something for a professional HR department to investigate) or a video of one of Uber’s CEO’s being mean (let he who has never ‘lost it’ cast the first stone) threaten an $80 billion company.

And I wonder if the Industrial Revolution would have survived these days?

The Industrial Revolution was a mess. Historians divide the revolution into two phases – or maybe two revolutions. The first was roughly from 1760 to 1850 and the second from 1850 to 1910. These two periods could not have been more different. The first phase of revolution was brutal, harsh – bitter; especially for those living in the cities. Introduction of machines had not yet increased productivity and wages, conditions in factories were complicated and sad. As measured by height (a good indicator of nutrition and lifestyle) – as measured by life expectancy there weren’t many improvements – at first. But then came the second, the machines were improved – made to work more efficiently and safely and productivity exploded. From the 1850s the well-being of the British citizens as measured by almost every indicator; from life expectancy to per capita income to family size and height dramatically increased. Deflation and purchasing power – the costs of goods that the ordinary people could previously only dream about was now within their reach!

Of course – imagine if we’d had twitter and Facebook and pundits and blogs and 24 hour news cycles and reactionary politicians during the first half of the 1800s. Would they have shuttered the factories? Would they have jettisoned the machines and returned people to the fields – or to the tremendously labor intensive jobs such as blacksmiths or tailors, taking them days or weeks to make what the machines could in minutes or hours? Probably – there’s no outrage in a 20 hour day pounding metal over a hot flame – that had been done for millennia; it was misery understood. But this new misery – oh that is certainly an abomination.

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Does anybody remember Napster? I do – that first, nascent attempt to break the back of the CD/Music Store monopoly on music. 1999 was the year – and we were partying like, well like it was 1999. Y2K was going to destroy the world. The digital revolution was beginning! Sure, it wasn’t exactly legal – and was eventually shut down. And fair enough – musicians, artists need to be compensated for their labor if they are to continue to write the songs that give meaning to the turbulence. Imagine how the world is changing – over the last 18 years since Napster. When I went to Congo for the first time (in 1999) – at the beginning of the civil war – there were no cell phones. We were connected by a Motorola Radio to a base station as the only lifeline to protection. There was no internet. Email was done through a weird unit on our Codan base station that received the emails (no attachments please!) over VHF (took 8 hours, if it didn’t timeout in which case we had to start all over again). Fast forward – I’m back in Africa, sitting here with my smart phone with all its apps connecting me in real time to the world.

Turbulence is a good word. Will Uber survive its human resource challenges? Who knows; but like Napster which gave way to iTunes and Amazon video and streaming – the technology is here to stay. We aren’t yet into the second part of our digital revolution (if we assume it started in 1999, we have a long way to go) – and things are still messy and stressful. But the world has already changed – the old ways are not coming back. Driverless cars; drone delivered packages; private space travel – it’s all on the horizon. We can just as soon shut off streaming video as we can return the blacksmiths to their forge. Anyways, would you really want to?

Back to the article. The author towards the end takes a funny little turn, linking the Silicon Valley revolution to a well-known 20th century novelist; claiming Uber was only one of many companies that adopted “ideals popularized by Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand — that greed, selfishness, and winning at all costs are okay as long as they’re put toward the goal of changing society.”

Sure, it was an insult, but Rand is applauding in her grave. Being given credit for the digital revolution? She would never have imagined that. And isn’t that really the point of her novels in the first place?

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