It’s Ink They Worry About

I read a lot of Russian literature. Sharanksy, Solzhenitsyn. Dostoevsky. As I become involved with their work a relationship develops which is helped along by learning their stories. Reading their biographies – trying to understand what shaped their visions of the world, why they would say and do what often times seems so counter-intuitive. It’s noteworthy that so many of these stories involve the Gulag. “66 million lives from 1918 to 1950” – 66 million deaths it should read. That immutable specter of Russian landscape – a genocide of thought and ideas and dreams.

The irony is that when you read this crushing fact in an author’s bio, it usually takes only a line. “Then Stalin sent him to the Gulag.”


Unlike other Americans, I’ve never been able to think antiseptically about the suffering. It’s been too much a part my life. Even if I’ve never myself been forced to flee; been arrested for writing what I see or think – I’ve known folks who have. And I’ve fought for them. I’ve fought for them because I have that privilege – yes that’s the right word. In America we’ve created a place where authors and playwrights and musicians haven’t had to think about the gulag – 250 years, a quarter millennium. That’s an amazing statement; and its more astonishing because you who read this probably don’t think it so.

And I fight for them selfishly too; because I know that this can change – if we let it. Rights are only protected through their use. Just as a muscle grows strong from labor; or a mind becomes sharp through study – so our rights are only strengthened as we exercise them. Freedom dies not in an epic explosion of violence, an assault against those who defend her, but instead with a shrug as the lazy stop caring and wander off. Free societies, we forget, are a luxury; made of free people unsupervised by a sovereign or a big brother, interacting with each other in our perfect spontaneous order which has led to great prosperity product of those liberties.

But this prosperity has made us complacent; and it has placed the gulag too far from our consciousness. Starvation, frostbite. Saying goodbye to families before they got on their train or their bus – not knowing if they would return. How would their family eat? How would their children pay for school? Would they go hungry? And the self-doubt. Wasn’t their first job to provide for their children? And didn’t their quest for the written word take them far from safe shores into infested waters, dangerous not only for them but for their charges? And isn’t that selfish? And aren’t these considerations those that the dictatorships revel in – to make people choose? To have them make a decision between their passion for ideas penned and preserved; and their duty to their family and the responsibilities that God has given them.

Alas, this is not only an ancient consideration – it is an issue faced every day even now. Salman Rushdie in hiding from the Mullahs; Abdul Rahman Munif banished from his homeland. Raif Badawi’s health destroyed by flogging. Fighting with the censors; fearing that dreaded knock on the door; worrying about the spray of assassin’s bullets on a warm afternoon. So what can we do? For those of us who know that to raise our voice is the first right of humanity, and the most fleeting, the answer is simple – we keep writing. We entreat our God and our fellow men to listen, to remember, to resist – and we continue.

“Oh, and to make sure that you understand, I’m going to send over some of my men. You know, just to take a look at things before they go into print. For your protection, of course; I’d hate to see you print something wrong and, well, and have a rough time of it.” He gestured down to the chained men who were being led from the salt fields back to their tents. “I’m not afraid of blood. It’s ink I worry about,” Machado said menacingly. – The Burning of San Porfirio, Joel D. Hirst

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The Rolling Road of Wonder

Do you ever feel just a little bit dirty after scrolling down your Facebook feed, or through the articles of your favorite news aggregator, reading the headlines from rags like Huffpo or the NY Times (yes the Grey Lady has chosen to dress down)? Does your heart sink over morning coffee – a bagel and Nietzsche declaring himself Dionysus, god of drunkenness and ritualized insanity with every click of the mouse?

I certainly do. I’ve found myself dreading opening my computer – knowing I am inviting into my quiet tranquility assailants in the form of “friends” who have no compassion, no reason, and no lucidity – only outrage. Nowadays, people prefer to read propaganda or the knee-jerk ‘needs’ driven by advertising. Sites dedicated to feeding their discontent; new novels popular as “what everyone else thinks everyone else reads”. Freed Zacharia with a side of Harry Potter. “Ideas” hastily pasted all over cyberspace product of “safe” educations and winner-take-all politics, echo chambers that reverberate through peoples’ consciousness, gyrating them toward the cliff over which Dionysus has convinced everyone else that everyone else is jumping.

“Run away, run away!” So, when I can I turn to the classics to recover.

“Classics are books that everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read,” so the saying goes. They are complex friends who are no fun at a party but who are wonderful to talk to over aged single malt on a rainy day. As you engage with them slowly, getting to know them – internalizing the way the great writers think and reason and argue and work out the answers to the complicated dilemmas of life, they become a “mentor who speaks to you across the ages”.

So too the obscure works of modern enlightenment written in dusty digital journals tucked away in desolate corners of the internet – yes, there’s even wisdom in cyberspace, although it requires a quest of sorts. Christian’s temptations from Pilgrim’s Progress. But you can find it – and you will be better for it. I read a lot of The Imaginative Conservative because I find there a special nexus between beauty and clarity; family and faith and tradition – and wonder – fused by lovely prose and sentimentality that is nevertheless not maudlin. They feature a lot of J.R.R. Tolkien – which brought me there first; I’ve always liked that greatest of fantasy authors because of his clear descriptions of the battle of good against evil. Not simplistic or reductionist – only true.  “The issue is now quite clear,” said G.K. Chesterton on his deathbed. “It is between light and darkness and everyone must choose his side.”

I certainly hope my own last words are even a fraction as memorable.


I was reading again today – a post on pride and humility. Pride predisposes us to a sense of ingratitude for our existence, and not only our own existence but the existence of everything else. Such ingratitude succumbs to the sin of cynicism, blinding us to any sense of wonder, thereby preventing contemplation and promoting mindless distraction in its place, closing the mind to reality. Pride, ingratitude, cynicism, distraction, and the closing of the mind: This is the five-fold order of misperception which numbs our senses so that they are no longer able to sense or see the presence of the Real. Cue! Now isn’t that so much of what is wrong today? Dionysus has been working hard indeed. The way of humility leads, via the rolling road of wonder, to the heaven-haven of the reward. The way of pride leads, via the thorny path of prejudice, to a hell of one’s own devising. Chesterton was right. Everyone must choose his side.

Which side do you choose?

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Venezuela After the Politics

It’s been a while since I’ve written about Venezuela; though I follow the news every day. Bread lines turning into “Brownie Wars”. A starving nation sending “flood relief” to Peru, echoing the days when Idi Amin sent food to Britain – although the Venezuelan government doesn’t know that. Banana Republics tend to “rhyme”; following the only poems written at the end – those by politicians.

A life free from politics – that’s what the Venezuelans want now. For a time, when Hugo Chavez swaggered over the mountains and through the valleys the people surged behind him like a wave, filling cracks and crevices and holes. The revolution was everywhere – t-shirts and banners and marches. Red, a red tide inundating the nation. For the poor, the people in makeshift orange-brick houses clinging to the side of hills it must have felt a tremendous vindication; after so long in obscurity.

“Socialism or Death”. Turns out they got both. Turns out “participating” when you’re told, where you’re told, how you’re told really isn’t participation at all. Its enslavement with energy; servitude with verve. “It is true that the virtues which are less esteemed and practiced now–independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors–are essentially those on which the individualist society rests. Collectivism has nothing to put in their place, and in so far as it already has destroyed then it has left a void filled by nothing but the demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to what is collectively decided to be good,” as Friedrich Hayek puts it.

To be sure, it is true that they remember the heady days of Hugo Chavez with nostalgia – when they had both the power and the money; the marches followed by free beer and food. But those days are gone – they did not prove sustainable, and the revolutionaries are left with only that last slow death march of a bread line. Most do not know what happened – we who have been the caretakers of wisdom were unable to make the case for classical ideas of liberty that do abide; shouting over Hugo proved impossible. And the “They didn’t do it right” crowd is already busy making their case – Leopoldo Lopez reading Piketty from jail, his wife Lilian emphatically defending his party’s membership in the Internacional Socialista; as if it wasn’t the Internacional Socialista that threw her husband in jail.

Sigh – people sure do love their captors, don’t they?

But I digress.


The politics has become for Venezuelans like an albatross; and folks are looking back to remember what it was like before with lamentations. Days at the beach. Parties in their humble homes – to be sure they might not have had black label whiskey, but they did have beer. They might not have had imported salmon but they did have pernil and cachitos and arepas. But more than that they remember when their nation still had a soul – brotherly love to a measure – the pride in a beautiful country that didn’t come from its political prominence but from good baseball and beautiful Miss Universe contestants and lovely scenery; from the freedom of life lived for family and get-togethers and religious festivals that existed independent of the politics of the season.

That’s the reason that we fight the socialism so much – that political ideology demands a monopoly on national life. It is in the shower with you, in your cereal in the morning and in your soup at night. It demands subservience; it demands thought and focus and action; it demands attention – even when your intention is to fight it. Venezuela learned this – and deconstructing the mess is proving to be hard. Totalitarian regimes have a reach that is not only broad but deep. Don’t believe me; ask Yeonmi Park.

Venezuela will never again be the land that she was in the ‘80s; most people are coming to terms with that now. Just like a Cuba free from the Castros will be a fundamentally different place – Venezuela free from the Bolivarians will be sadder, more guarded, more suspicious. It is only natural – everybody after they are assaulted is left with scars that are unseen; and the damage upon the psyche is irreversible.

And the ongoing assault by the Bolivarians has been bloodcurdling indeed.

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History is Rhyming

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” So the saying goes in an essay I read a short time ago. The article is about the rise of nation states, the separation of church from the state and the placing of the kings under law – all of it at least in theory, in practice the whole thirty years war leading to the Peace of Westphalia was messier. And it’s about their collapse, as a world order founded almost four-hundred years ago breaks down around us all.


While history now is not repeating itself, it certainly does appear to be rhyming. The points are interesting: comparing the establishment Catholics with their twenty-five year round-table, the Council of Trent, to the new nobility at Davos World Economic Forum – shorter, we have terrible attention spans these days and always have someplace else to be, where the medieval Catholics probably were fine wasting a quarter century on a meeting. What else were they doing anyhow? The Protestants are the “Tea Party” or the “Resistance” I suppose; Gutenberg becomes cyberspace; of course in this picture I’m terrified to ask, who is Frederick V? Has the war only started? And who will bring about our new peace?

Westphalia, its enlightenment and reformation and renaissance were profoundly liberal – the expansion of access to knowledge and new rights; the containing of the kings and nobles; the advance of literacy and prosperity; more importantly, at long last the mastery of man over himself, self-ownership – responsible only to his reason and his discipline, drawn together in a ‘modern’ world that he was stitching together using pieces of a fabric frayed by a thousand years of war and poverty.

Modernity brought us eventually art and literature and science; man on the moon, nuclear fusion, light at the flick of a switch, controlling our environments – even in Africa – the cat scan and MRI, measles vaccines. The computer and the internet. Tools product of the opening of the human mind.

But what happens when that mind closes? Post-modernity is shaping up to be remarkably illiberal. We lost our nerve, our confidence, our discipline – started throwing bad money after good: layer after layer of debt paving over the ruins of institutions that no longer even bother trying. Why would they? It never worked for most folks anyway, they did not prove sustainable – those systems built painstakingly over time. Tools of oppression, they are now called – although that was never the intent. Anti-trade, elitist – new nobilities all over, fighting for their lives. Totalitarian religion – again. This time a different religion, but with the same problems. Replacing fact with feeling; debate with canons; investigation with doctrine – “nasty little orthodoxies” protected by thought police controlling our centers of learning. The death of truth and fact and objectivity – our Westphalian nation states are tired and burned out; political innovations that brought us democracy also brought us constipated congresses unable to make decisions and constituencies unable to think about the common good, the long game, or entertain the idea of sacrifice. And why should they? When it is always they who have been asked to sacrifice – to give their lives for the nobilities who prefer to eat in Paris, France than Paris, Idaho; of course within the ring, tourists snapping pictures of the Eiffel tower trying to ignore the soldiers.

None of this is a recipe for a successful period in human history. But nobody knows what will happen – how it will turn out, although if our new philosophers with their new philosophies are any indication, it will be a dark period indeed. “If the timeline leading up to Westphalia is even an approximate indication, the question of what the new world will look like is for people just being born today to explore. The Hobbes and Rousseaus of the internet era are still in diapers. The adults of today can at best provide live commentary for them to study in 2048.”

That commentary is being written online – and in tremendous quantities. While the nobles grasp white-knuckled to their crumbling institutions, their decrepit creaking countries, their debt-ridden under-performing services – their propaganda powering into high gear – the men and women who will remake the world, boys and girls really, have already begun. “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.” As John Perry Barlow has said in his “Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace” (sort of a 95 thesis for the digital age). The obvious problem with this is that cyberspace is a vehicle, a tool and a medium. It depends on the minds of those who engage in her. Those people – children now – need more than ever the perspective of history and civilization and culture, classical knowledge and education to understand their past so they can write the future.

Denied truth and understanding, what kind of world will they build? That, I suppose, is the real question.

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The Drug War

Yes – the war on drugs. Just like the war on poverty gave us more poor people; the war on terrorism gave us more terrorists – all we got from this one was more drugs. And the human costs? Incalculable. Generations of war, endless war, total war. War by children, by mothers and grandmothers. Commies and terrorists and paramilitaries – all paid for by the drug money, encouraged by the drug money, fighting over the drug money in a giant self-licking ice cream cone of death. If communism is above all a colossal criminal enterprise, the drugs fit in quite nicely – for Latin America certainly does love her commies!! While the world moved on and the nasty little ideology hung up its jersey – not a win to its name – down south they still persevere. Gotta give them credit for their persistence; drug running with a side of Marxism. Colombia and Peru and Panama. Now Venezuela. I wrote about this in my 2nd novel – how could I not? There is nothing in Venezuela besides the drugs.

“But for Machado, Ciudad de las Nubes had a more significant and important position within his domain. Like the conquistadores so many years ago, Machado had also arrived looking for treasure and had been rewarded in his search. He had found his own gold—white gold that he too used the waters of the great lake to transport to the old powers of Europe and now America. For years, the high plains had been the center of Machado’s ever-expanding drug empire.”

Money earned honestly brings peace and wellbeing. Money earned illicitly only brings misery. Corruption and violence. Case in point, Venezuela – a failed drug state, an assertion that is no longer even controversial. Manuel Noriega, eat your heart out. These kingpins of Bolivarian communism? They’re the real deal. The “Cartel of the Suns” – named for the patch on the uniforms of generals in the Venezuelan army. You wonder why there will never be a coup? You can count the answers in neatly wrapped cellophane packages. Night flights from the Amazon jungles to Central America and from there overland, spreading in rivulets of blood money into the towns and villages in ever-widening circles. The Mexican cartels beheading people in acts that make even the Islamic State take notice. Boats and submarines – the occasional Boeing jet.

The libertarians want the drug war ended. “It is only with legalization that we can end the cartels’ power”. They are not wrong – basic economics would suggest that with so great a demand, supply will find its way. The Republicans want to double down, proving as Einstein once said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. The Democrats – well who knows…

For my fellow Americans, those of you thinking about the children displaced, the families destroyed, the lives lost. For those concerned about the toll that the violence wreaks across a fragile world; and the price the innocents are paying. For those who fret, and hem and haw and pontificate. For those of you who care, what can you do? It’s quite simple really, and let me quote from Jim Carey, “Stop breaking the law asshole”.


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Drugs and Politics

I once was doing some tourism in La Paz, Bolivia; that bizarre capital city, the highest in the world nestled in a crevice that falls from the ‘altiplano’ – a highland plane some believe is Atlantis and where the Quechua Indians and their Inca ancestors thought life originated. Titicaca, a lake perched atop the world – sunken Spanish galleons with gold preserved deep in the oxygen-less waters. Ruins of a mega-civilization rivaling the Egyptians and predating the Incas, sitting in silence unnoticed along the highway from lake to city. Bolivia is a weird place – and incidentally the home of the coca leaf; cocaine. There’s a ‘Coca Museum’ in the center of town – as the country’s indigenous government places that old shaman’s leaf at the center of their political project. As if the Spaniards didn’t use it to enslave the Indians centuries ago. As if cocaine wasn’t a new type of slavery for consumer and producer alike. The museum is interesting – and funny. Posters of Hollywood stars in the 20s raving about cocaine. Newspaper articles on Coca Cola’s cornering of the market (they claim there’s no longer coca leaves in coca cola – I believe them…) Doctors and drug companies lauding the health benefits of its use. Its eye-opening.

coca leaf

Because of course, then people realized the dangers – but it was too late. Leaving our politicians to grapple with a decades old struggle on that one, all-consuming American problem. Drugs.

Our two-party government isn’t working very well as a system for problem-solving these days though, is it? It’s a little frayed, which I suppose shouldn’t surprise us; the world has become complicated and our ‘administrative state’s’ reach has become too broad and too deep to nimbly swerve to avoid potholes product of human nature. We seek protection in a tribe, a membership organization we believe will shield us from the worst of our adversaries, not promote the best of our interests. That’s not really a recipe for successful policy-making though.

There’s a lot I like about all the parties. I appreciate the Democrats’ focus on issues of poverty and human suffering. To be sure, I have differences of opinion as to the policy prescriptions proposed to reduce these problems, but I’m immensely glad they continue to raise the issue to the top of the American people’s consciousness. I’ve spent my life among the poor and the destitute, to a certain extent their travails have become my travails – though I myself am not destitute, by the grace of God – and consequently businessmen flitting from Michelin restaurant to five star hotel without a thought to the poor confuse me. And I like the Republicans’ care for the family and the traditions of a great country; the focus on individual responsibility and discipline and character and faith – so missing these days. The Libertarians have the best economics, “Austrian” free market ideas that existed at the beginning before they were corrupted by redistribution; coming from Adam Smith and through Hayek and Mises and Mencken and Friedman all the way to modern day intellectuals like Pedro Schwartz. Even the Greens – reminding us that this planet is our home and we should care for it; that it should be at the forefront of our considerations, because without it we have nothing.

But drugs – the social issue of our times, the cancer that is eating away at the soul of America – on that issue I agree with no one. The Libertarians want to pretend that doing drugs is not wrong; a party built on the ‘absolutism’ of the free will of individuals, yet without a ‘natural law’ that guides decision-making? This baffles me – and it certainly isn’t a ‘winning’ recipe for civilizational renewal. This is why libertarianism descends so quickly to libertinism, isn’t it? Humanity free from supervision – state or divine – that’s the world they would give us. Scary. The Democrats want to pretend that drugs are yet another agent for the victimization of the ever-victims. As if the drug user or seller has no role or responsibility, made no decision to engage in that harmful activity – robbed as they are of free will by their genetics and their birthplace and their race or whatever – agents of oppression all. Of course the Republicans come the closest; at least they admit it’s wrong, that it’s a choice made – a bad one – and want to see it stopped. But policies that see ‘non-violent offenders’ perpetrating ‘victimless crimes’ sent to Sing-Sing to commune with rapists and murderers? Costing the taxpayers $19,000 per year in the perfect socialism of the prison system? Seeing the US prison population balloon to 2,200,000 – with 50% of Federal and 16% State prisoners on drug offenses? Robbing people of their lives and giving one in three Americans a criminal record, making it impossible for them to get a job – even if there were jobs? Pushing them back to a life lived outside the law?

We often joke about the “sausage-making process” in Washington; of the ways which our laws get crafted by a strange cabal of lobbyists and think tanks and elected leaders and celebrities and charities. But on this issue, which is so prescient for America’s future, we are letting people down. Sure, drug use is a failure of individual people – but isn’t its perpetuation a failure of our system as well? Isn’t that what representative government means?

Food for thought.

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Do You Think the Pioneers Cried?

Do you ever wonder if the pioneers cried? If those men, tough as nails, riding high on their wagons traversing plain and prairie sat over God’s planned paradise beside their wives – children playing under the cover behind with a rag doll or an old wooden toy, as children always do – and wept? Did they become suddenly misty, turning from their partners to look across the empty lands as they recalled the failures that inadvertently drove them into danger? Did they shed a tear for friends lost – for dreams abandoned? Did they mourn their own poverty and misery and discomfort – the humiliation of shepherding their family into so great a tribulation?


I’ve thought a lot about the settlers; their existential decisions leading them to lives lived upon the precipice of calamity. A fire; a bad harvest; an accident – there, vulnerable and alone they would die, and often did. Unsung, unknown. While I’ve respected their role in the forging of our country, I’ve always wondered why they did it – what they felt – how they made that, the toughest of all decisions? And I’ve wondered if they cried.

The trouble with adversity is that we never know if we will endure it, when we are at last called to it. Would you melt away, if your wealth was lost in one tremendous gamble? Would you perish if your children did, following them to the other side in despair? What if you lost your love? Or were cast aside from that job that was yours? If your country were to turn against you viciously and deliberately?


It’s a word best used for others; for other circumstances; for other countries. As a way to admire great strength from afar – antiseptically and without insight. A world without adversity – that’s what we’ve been trying to build, isn’t it? If we’d only admit it. Resilient societies – where nothing is ever that serious, no choices are existential and no problems will ever do that much harm, right? Isn’t that what we all want? And what’s wrong with that, anyway?

I suppose we forget that resilience is made through a hardening process the cement of which is adversity.

Resilience in the making is unpleasant. The wreckage of destroyed companies that fertilize great industry; sure we call it ‘creative destruction’, academic terms meant to take away the bitterness – but it is still bitter to the man standing beside his shuttered store, “Foreclosed” sign plastered in red crookedly taped. Sad little ceremonies of remembrance for a lost land; a love left behind; looking into the eyes of a man – your son – who you have not known, for you did not watch him grow up and wondering who he is, who he has become, and who he would have been – if not for your adversity.

Adversity is a tiny room on the backside of a warehouse in Dubai filled with bunk beds; Pakistani men driving taxis 12 hours a day, 7 days a week to send money home. Adversity is a Syrian man trembling against the cold staring down in silence at the tiny grave beneath packed dirt; a child he could not feed – because there were too many mouths and he had to choose. Adversity is a Congolese woman, nine months pregnant fleeing town when the rebels attack, walking forty miles until night falls, going into the ditch beside the road to give birth, and then turning around the next day to return the forty miles after the war front shifts. Adversity is sitting in a jail – convicted but not guilty – watching prison guards probe your wife and seeing your children grow in two hour chunks every month, every two months. Knowing the damage you are doing to them is something that they did not ask for and that you did not want.

Adversity, it’s fun to commend it in others, isn’t it? It makes us feel good – recognizing their plight; like somehow we can participate in their misery but without the peril. But our own predicament? When we are living the nightmare? That’s another story altogether…

So, let me ask you again, do you think the pioneers cried? I’d like to think that they did – that the milk of human frailty ran through them too; and that they hurt from the wounds of a world that was hard. That makes them flesh and blood and within our grasp. And somehow, that’s important for me – especially when I get scared.

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