Forgetting Venezuela’s Animals

They liked to call it the “Revolucion Bonita” – the pretty revolution. It was not going to be a 21st century version of “Cement”, that old soviet realist novel by Feodor Gladkov which was all smelly children and factory floors and crumbling grey homes. Iron smelters, foundries, great smokestacks with thick oily black smoke billowing up into the morning sky – a sign of progress, advancement, of socialist productive success.

Venezuela’s socialist revolution was going to be pretty; environmental. Clean. Quaint. And why not? Funded by oil (most of which was refined elsewhere), couldn’t they lay back, rake in the money and let other countries struggle with industry and business. Couldn’t they turn their country – an Eden of sorts, it really was – into a paradise? “We have been witnesses to the endless deforestation, the deterioration of the land, desertification, the overuse of our fresh water reservoirs, the over-fishing of our seas, the contamination and loss of our biodiversity. The survival of our species hangs on the conscience of humanity,” Hugo Chavez said at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2012 – that singular moment, that great achievement of the Bolivarian Alliance where they defeated President Obama, sending the Americans home empty-handed. It didn’t go far enough, they said. Back when their political project had energy – buttressed by idiots at home and abroad – and the animals in their zoos still had flesh on their bones.

There was a sense of mission and urgency to Chavez’s environmentalism; a cultural Marxist vehicle for advancing socialism, consolidating power, destroying enemies and establishing one-party rule. After all, according to him, capitalism had destroyed life on Mars, “Listen! It would not be strange that on Mars there was a civilization; but maybe capitalism and imperialism arrived there and ended life on that planet,” he was fond of saying. If the capitalists destroyed the Martian civilization, well they must be stopped here on earth before they repeat the same. Yes, Chavez was entertaining, back then.

Nobody is laughing now. Drowned out by the incessant, pounding advance of humanitarian catastrophe in Venezuela, it is easy to forget about the animals. That would be cold, right? While 3,000,000 people flee – while children die of hunger – while businesses close and hyperinflation reaches more than 1,000,000% and wealth is eliminated faster than the zeros can crawl across the tops of their bills in that most shameful parade; while the human tragedy unfolds before our eyes, how do we think about the animals? Except, of course, that its not their fault. And let’s be honest, it’s hard to feel totally sorry for Venezuela’s hapless revolutionaries and their equally hapless opposition enablers. Didn’t Chavez and his cronies win more than 15 national votes legitimately, before having to start ballot-stuffing? Isn’t the Venezuelan opposition still talking about elections? Didn’t the commie marchers hurl insults and mockery against our elected leaders; against our installations and embassies and diplomats. Didn’t they and their friends all over USA fill our social media accounts with sewage, call in to our talk shows to insult us, protesting against our sacred parades and belittling our heroes? Didn’t the hemispheric movement of morons march across highways in places where they were certainly not welcome; wasn’t the hubris during the heady days of $150 oil hard to stomach? And now that its over, don’t you – be honest – say, if only to yourself, “I told you so.” Don’t you read to your children the little story of the Red Hen, and as you get to the end and say to your son “If you don’t work, you won’t eat” – aren’t you thinking of Venezuela, sort of smug in the satisfaction that, indeed, the laws of economics are irrefutable, even for those with oil.

I do. Oh, sure, its sad. But its their own damn fault. Do you know what really makes my blood boil? Pictures of Venezuela’s zoo.

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Its bad enough to starve your people – but endangered animals wasting away, eyes clouding over as a great lion or a once-powerful tiger struggle to their feet to limp over to the muddy green pond to take a drink, lapping up the muck, their only sustenance, till they no longer have the strength even for that. Imprisoned unto death while the revolutionary government abdicates its role in their care and the corpulent dictator imbibes fine wines a world away, where the zoo still has visitors and the animals, flesh. A prize stallion, whinnying in terror as the mob steals in at night to slaughter him – noble flesh bred for strength and endurance now adorning the business end of a kebab over a fire set in a rusted garbage can. The botanical garden, once a luxury amidst the hustle and bustle of Caracas, “Dead palm trees and a dried-up lagoon are what you see when you enter Caracas’s botanical garden.” Down in the darkened silent jungles of the “mining belt”, illegal miners are working to strip-mine away the jungles, pouring mercury into the water and slashing ancient primary forests in what some are calling “ecocide” in order to get at the gold and coltan and diamonds under them; to be ferried away to Guyana where they are sold on the black market by soldiers-turned-smugglers.

Venezuelan socialism is in the process of destroying the biodiversity of that once-amazing place. And the aforementioned are what we know about – because of brave people who have gone in to document if only for posterity the socialist disaster. But what about Hato Pinero, that famed jaguar preserve? Have they eaten all the jaguars? Sold their pelts onto the global black market for a few dollars? How are the playful pink river dolphins doing, as the river is overfished by starving peasants who once enthusiastically lifted their fists high at Chavez’s marches? Have the toucans flown away, terrified of being caught and sold for a few pennies or exchanged for a dry maize-patty (nobody has seen butter for years)? Who knows. Environmentalism requires safety – just ask the rangers who fight off poachers in Ngoro-Ngoro or Tsavo. Ask the Coast Guard of Iceland seeking to stop illegal whaling. It requires rule of law. It requires that the authorities exist under the control of a government which itself responds to the consent of the governed. Venezuela is a narco-drug-crime state where everything, including the black pumas, are for sale to the highest bidder.

It is a land without a soul; why should we be surprised it no longer revels in its beauty? An empty belly has no room for such considerations. That, my friends, is communism.

What am I saying here? I’m simply repeating what Indira Gandhi once said, “We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” It should not be surprising that socialism, which has a record of wealth-destruction unparalleled even by war and natural disaster, should ravage the natural world upon which it feeds for a season, to be extinguished in an act of violence and sadness – and silence.

Back to Chavez; socialism; capitalism; Mars and “pretty revolutions” which have become ugly and smelly and tragic. Because the truth of the matter is that wealth is the greatest environmentalist. Because wealth allows enough excess runoff (in the form of taxes, and disposable income, and opportunity costs which are not existential) to exist to funnel it into activities which make our surroundings more beautiful. The Saguaro National Park near Tucson; the bison that have returned to wander our prairies; the wolves and bald eagles which are finally off the endangered species list and our great forests which are again expanding. Wealth – product of capitalism – has made that possible in America. And it has allowed us to study and learn about the importance of our environment and its affects in helping us live a “life more abundant”; while Africa and Brazil and China and India – and Venezuela – perpetrate the sixth great extinction.

So don’t be bamboozled by the socialists who tell you it is they who care more about our amazing planet – they are only words, a bait and switch to make a case for their perpetual power; until the poverty (intellectual, financial and moral) of their political project is extinguished among the trees of a great and ancient jungle which is oddly and disturbingly silent, until they too are cut down to make room for a mud hut and a little maize garden.

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“Brave New World” – A Book Review

I think it’s interesting that the 20th century became the age of the dystopian novel. That would seem counter-intuitive, given the dramatic advances in technology and wealth and prosperity that the greatest of all centuries brought us. But, then again, it was also the century of Chairman Mao, Stalin, Enver Hoxha and Pol Pot. And Hugo Chavez, lets not forget about Hugo Chavez (though the effects of his utopianism are only now rattling a world order which had thought it had seen the last of the idiocy).

It is said that Aldous Huxley wrote “Brave New World” as a parody of H. G. Wells’ utopian novels. If so, there’s certainly nothing funny about “Brave New World”. In his seminal work, he might have set the table for all dystopian writers to come – although that assertion is not settled, as there were a few before him already experimenting with the genre, if a genre it really is. “Brave New World” is set in the distant future when the world, under the careful management of a world government, controls its population through social engineering and drugs – and fear – leaving them happy (not joyful) but in the end banal and empty. Cogs in a machine, but not in the “Hunger Games” sort of way, our dystopianism in the 21st century has taken quite a dark turn indeed. “The 100”; “Resident Evil”; heck I even wrote a dystopian novel about socialist Venezuela in the not-too-distant future; I titled it “The Burning of San Porfirio” but it should probably have been titled “The Starving”.

The lesson I got from Huxley’s masterpiece is that attempts by man to organize society to utopia will ultimately fail. A lesson I wish today’s utopians (often called “Democratic Socialists”, an Orwellian construct if ever there was one) would learn once and for all, so we can move on. Jesus once said “The poor you will always have with you.” This was not a condemnation of an angry God against a rebellious world, nor was it a recommendation to abandon our efforts to fight against war and misery. It was a reminder that, though we have the best intentions, we cannot succeed and our salvation is to be found in the struggle. A reminder that humanity is fundamentally flawed, and so too our solutions must be. And a call to the only utopia which exists, which will be in heaven. Huxley’s book surprised me in that it was deeply religious and the protagonist – the only man to stand against the planners’ ‘perfect order’ – did so because he wanted to suffer, to struggle, to feel uncertainty and sadness; because you have to feel these things if you will ever feel joy, victory and achievement. And he wanted to believe, to fill that place in his soul with something greater than himself and his petty carnal urges; to sit alone and contemplate ‘so great salvation’ and the savior who brought it to us.

There are many planners today, who believe we are only one technocratic “fix” away from a new utopia. They are part of the 9.9% – James Burnham’s ‘managerial elites’. They are dangerous, because while they believe they are creating Huxley’s “World State” where people are free from work and hunger to have limitless sex and take drugs with no hangovers; we now know from our experiences in the 20th century that their efforts will end in Gulags, death marches, famines and mass exodus. Humans are a messy lot; and a spontaneous order governs our behaviors which produces tremendous bounty but only if set free – any attempts to harness it, to plan it and to control it (and us) will lead to catastrophe.

To you, read “Brave New World” and think about the planners in your own life. Because there is a day coming when they will re-emerge in America, for they are already among us, and we must be ready for them.

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Book Review: Lords of Misrule -A Novel by Joel D. Hirst

New review of my 3rd novel, — “It was sad to see how easy it is to twist any ideology and destroy humanity in the name of religion. Hirst portrayed ‘the mob mentality’ in a brilliant way; how a vast majority of people follow their leaders blindly and would unleash their inner demons easily to commit crimes against humanity.”

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Genre: Literature & fiction, war, coming of age

Length: 304 Pages

Publishing Date: September 28, 2016

Buying Links for Lords of Misrule

Amazon

Kobo

Author Website:

http://www.joelhirst.com

Twitter: joelhirst

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From the Blurb:

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

Propelled by restlessness and the indomitable spirit of his clan, Aliuf bravely pushes onward through a dangerous coming-of-age journey that leads him through a barren land. While following his heart through the vast expanses of the Sahara, he becomes a student enthralled with the great works…

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Book Review: I, Charles, from the Camps by Joel D. Hirst

New review of my 4th novel “I, Charles” — “if you like good books; no, not the formula best-sellers that you can read in a sitting or two, but the real books that you like to read in leisure, the books that make you think about the grim realities of life somewhere far away in other land, the books that fill your thirst for reading, this is the book for you.”

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Genre: Literature & fiction, war, coming of age

Length: 222 Pages

Publishing Date: April 21, 2018

Buying Links for I, Charles, from the Camps

Amazon

Kobo

Author Website:

http://www.joelhirst.com

Twitter: joelhirst

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From the Blurb:

Charles Agwok never asked to come into the world as a poor black African on the most terrible of continents. It seems especially unfair to him that it is a matter of chance whether he will sleep in a bed, find a job, marry, or die of hunger and disease. Yet although he never asked for his fate, now he must somehow find a way to survive it.

As he embarks on a coming-of-age journey to find meaning within a world that only recognizes violence, Charles does his best to endure the horrifying conditions that he and the other displaced people of Odek must face every day in the sprawling camps of northern Uganda. When a…

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“Open City” – A Book Review

Its always interesting to see something common through the eyes of somebody who finds it strange. Yet things become less strange, the more we interact with them, the more we learn about the foreign the more it slips neatly into folders in our mind prepared for just such situations as we encounter on our own road of life’s journey.

“Open City” by Teju Cole is about this, its about a Nigerian man, studying psychiatry in New York City. But it is a New York which has grown common to him, for he has lived there for many years and the bizarre or powerful or compelling have since merely faded into the background of the life of a migrant. This novel is about nothing. There is no plot, nor is there any great conflict, nor is the character involved in any struggle which brings in the reader and allows us to make common cause with him. He wakes up, walks through the park thinking about the park. He has some vacation time so travels to Brussels, the old country, and there meets a Muslim from Morocco who is a Salafist but not in the violent way; the post-terrorist age is already well advanced in this novel. It is almost a stream-of-consciousness relating of events and the author’s thoughts about those events.

I realize at this point I have not sold the novel well, as if that were my job. Truth is the novel is well written, which is its only salvation. The use of language is good, some phrases are even quite poetic. And the reader easily flows through the pages understanding what the protagonist is thinking and even at times affording the character sympathy.

Down to style; a good novel is defined by beats, by emotive dialogue, by a story that draws the reader in, and above all by conflict. A good novel must pull the reader into an inescapable conflict and engage with him/her as they seek with the protagonist to find a solution to that conflict. Finally, a good novel must have an ending that is a “homerun”; that leaves the reader’s ears ringing and their heart singing. Alas, this novel does none of the above. In fact, you will have forgotten you read this novel the second you put it down.

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Two Cities of Books

When I was a young man in high school and early college I would often drive down to the local Borders or Barnes and Nobles bookstore to peruse the shelves; spending an afternoon reading entire books while seated on the comfortable sofas in the air conditioning – it was Phoenix after all – occasionally standing to walk to the little café for a croissant or a cup of coffee. And I would pass an afternoon, for I was poor and the entertainment free. Shelves and shelves of books; endless reels of stories to play in my imagination. Tolkien and Lewis; W. Somerset Maugham and Pearl S. Buck; Kierkegaard and Burke.

That, it would seem, was then. Things have changed for this generation. Borders, Barnes and Nobles are now gone – mostly – from our lives. They could not survive Kindle and the advent of America’s new age of illiteracy. America is said to have published more books last year – over four million – than at any time in the history of humanity. One would not guess that were so after a simple conversation with the average college student – or, still worse, a voter. Adolescents still though their time passed, adults glued to iPhones scrolling through profiles, crafting that most clever of post to satisfy the tiny endorphins product of the next “like” or “heart” or – the most coveted of all, the “retweet”. Flitting from screenshot to screenshot, tapping their devices more than 2500 times a day. Illiterate, blanking at any treatise longer than 140 characters.

Buenos Aires

There are only two cities I’ve visited – and I have visited many cities – that still preserve the literary spirit of old. Where being called a writer is still a coveted title and you may even encounter people sitting around the café or the confiteria, paper book in hand actually spending time with the author. These cities, incidentally, are Paris and Buenos Aires.

IMG_1292I spent some time in Paris recently, visiting “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore which is now too famous to be cool. A tourist trap along the Seine, hordes of Chinese snapping pictures – people from all over trying to look introspective and thoughtful but mostly preening for – wait for it – their Facebook timelines. “Look, I am at Shakespeare and Company”: like, like, like, like, like, like, angry face. Nevertheless it was fun to visit, to think about the days of Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway and Jean Paul Sartre (who, these days, would I’m sure find the place annoying and go elsewhere); and I bought a copy of the auto-biography of the store (yes, the store wrote a book) and rushed back through the refreshing spring rains to my little hotel room on the Rue de Mars by the Eiffel tower to drink a bottle of cheap wine and read about Paris’s literary tradition, personified – come to life in one small rundown bookshop along the Seine.IMG_1275

Then of course there is Buenos Aires, La Ciudad de los Libros – where my first novel was published in Spanish by a local publishing house in a place where the grand ideas are still hotly debated. Where people sit on Plaza de Mayo reading; where every third storefront along the storied streets of that old forgotten city that never changes is a bookstore. Where the sizzling smells of milanesa, the busy bustling of the servers dressed in a white shirt and black bow-tie as they lay down the hearty meals of meat and potatoes and local wine, still waft through the high thin colonial double-doors opened onto the street.

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I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those two cities have survived, as they have, revolutions and coups and invasions and economic collapses relatively unscathed if somewhat bedraggled, a little bit rough and crumbling around the edges but with tremendous personality and a secure sense of themselves and their place in history. Germany they are not, bombed out and rebuilt pristine and new and clean – and boring. Washington D.C., a greedy, grasping city of global nomads, transients attempting to build a world upon the shifting sands of politics using only stolen money and pull – no time for reading, except perhaps the latest headline. Caracas, where when I was there a book in that little underground bookstore on Sabana Grande would cost maybe $100 or $150. Cedice Libreria desperately seeking to find a way to subsidize copies of Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand in a city which read only free copies of Karl Marx and Heinz Dieterich until the stolen money ran out and the ideas lost their appeal and the books were used for kindling to cook the sad beans, the last gift from a government spent and tired. Africa – Bamako and Abuja and Abidjan; poverty so profound it allows no place for the written word. An illiteracy consuming Timbuktu, that ancient library town which once protected the greatest library between the House of Wisdom and Oxford.

No, Paris and Buenos Aires have muddled through – have withstood times of madness to endure as imperfect protectors of words. I too have some utopianism, like these old cities; for I too am a romantic. And, for that reason I also imagine myself not here, but instead there: a simple day in the belle epoque when people could still sit, and think, and debate, and write it all down. And when that was considered a gift to society, far from the maddening grasp of reality.

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Salammbo: A Book Review

It is often said that, for modern novelists, the field can be divided into periods of time “before” and “after” Flaubert. It is said that his influence on the modern novel is so all-pervasive that it is almost indistinguishable.

I can certainly see that in Salammbo; Flaubert’s historical fiction about a mercenary revolt in post-Punic war Carthage. In the novel, the protagonist Salammbo is a Carthaginian priestess of extraordinary beauty who falls in love with the mercenary barbarian general. Written almost 200 years ago, it still has the graphic descriptions, the beats and the forward momentum which we have come to expect from a (well written) novel today.

Interestingly enough, it has the same defects. Albert Camus used to complain about American novels, that they were the simple retelling of events and did not inject the protagonists state of mine, perceptions and impressions and hopes and dreams into the narrative. Camus can blame Flaubert – at least in the case of Salammbo. I believe the famous novelist was going for a “Helen of Troy” or a “Romeo and Juliet” experience by adding the fictional maiden corrupted by forbidden love, with death as the only possible outcome. The challenge is that, without letting us into Salammbo’s heart; without giving us her feelings and her anguish and her desperation the character becomes somehow cardboard and the love – less impactful.

Maybe I blame Flaubert for America’s chronic lack of personality in our characters, which has extended into Hollywood and beyond. More than likely its our own fault. Either way, I did not like Salammbo – the scenes of graphic “realism”, the genre for which Flaubert is given credit, were too brutal, too gory and not ‘cut’ or softened or rounded out by characters with whom the reader connects and which would make the reading experience beautiful and excruciating.

Nevertheless, it was a well written book by one of the masters. For that reason, alone, its worth spending time on.

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