Meme Away, Oh Fearsome Warriors

There’s a lot of debate these days about the future of America, our values, and our place in the world, isn’t there? The agora it certainly is not, to be sure. Sage figures expounding logic has been replaced by Facebook memes and 140 characters – but I suppose ittle have to do in our virtual world. Outrage and hate – faux mostly, prejudice masquerading as indignation. What is certain is the outcome of this fight will decide our fate – and because we are having it means we are a nation that has already changed.

I’ve been accused of being a romantic; which is especially true when it comes to America, my land which I have scarcely known. Not a ‘realist’, not a ‘pragmatist’. A dreamer, a seer of things as I prefer, not as they are. Of how they should be. “Rose-colored glasses” as if America were as it appears on the glossy pages of Arizona Highways and in the black-and-white stories of Bob Hope and Cary Grant.

Guilty – I suppose. Maybe knowing more about traffic patterns in Prisren than Portland. About where to buy the best meat in Bamako more than in Boston: maybe that has made my nostalgia fictional, nestled as it is among so many stories of human suffering.

What my critics forget is that it is we – the storytellers – who inspire imaginations and motivate people to see things as we see them; to push people to see beyond to what could be as sort of lights illuminating in order to instruct and guide. That’s what I try to do – albeit poorly, as if from a great distance I feel, or from behind a thick veil.

The pristine towns and idyllic villages and exciting cities that we drive through and visit, that end up gracing the pages of our novels or as the backdrop for stories of faith and family – they exist. Sure we clean them up, give them purpose and passion – make them meaningful to fill them with value. But we cannot breathe life into something that is already dead. Corpses hold no allure in the minds of men.

The problem is not, as some say, with the land and the lakes and the people.

Wellesley Girls College teaching generations of women about dignity and propriety. Out of the way diners at the crossroads of old roads feeding men drifting from town to depression town looking for work – unwilling to surrender. Pastors calling together men and women, who come from the farms or apartments or condos, from their hardware stores and office buildings, to hear the gospel and remember the importance of faith and the goodness of God.

The old ways are not defunct; despite the devil’s greatest efforts to pull off the greatest scam of all: a bait and switch which labels them instead tired prejudices in order to discard them definitively.

The problem is we’ve stopped telling the stories, becoming embarrassed in response to the assault of the shameless. No more; because as is the cyclical nature of things, the old has become new again. Celebration!! The debate is not over – “the science is not settled” as it were. And at last, we’re winning again – so now is certainly not the time for temerity. So meme away, ye fearsome warriors, meme away on the online agora for idiots. Extend your voices across a land that you are fighting for. As for me, I’ll keep trying to tell the story of America as she was, as she is and how she will be.

meme

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Venezuela’s Ongoing 25 Year Coup

Explosions and gunfire rattled through the early morning Caracas silence. “Coup” they said as we stumbled into the living room, and they turned on the television. A tank was knocking down the doors of a palace. Armed figures were flitting from shadow to shade. We watched for what might have been hours as slowly the gunfire became more sporadic. The President went on the television to assure the people that he’d not been killed – after all. “It is said they are holed up in the museum in ’23 de Enero’”, the rumor flowed through the backstreets of the city.

chavez-golpe

“It is said they have surrendered,” and the city slowly exhaled. Finally, they had him. They said his name was Chavez – young and thin; a full bird Colonel, a paratrooper not yet 40 years of age. “We have failed to meet our objectives, for now.” The thin soldier said; and the words reverberated between the skyscrapers of the great city and out into the countryside. A country, a continent. A hemisphere.

From the “for now” of an angry, defeated soldier to “it still smells of sulfur” as a tyrant defied a superpower – there’s a reason that this 25 year story has enthralled the world. There’s a reason that the communists felt a tingle travel up their leg as that unknown revolutionary first spoke to his country. To the world. Six short years, from being arrested for attempting to kill the sitting president, to swearing his own oath of office upon, as he called it, “this moribund constitution”.

“Expropriate it,” he would thunder away during his seven hour tirades as his enemies trembled. Dancing to Mexican music, hurled insults pregnant with vile innuendo at any who would dare oppose him, man or woman. Opponents who would disappear. Former allies who would quietly flee, having somehow aroused the ire of the unstable despot.

25 years ago – all the people of Venezuela have known since is Hugo Chavez. Chavez in the morning, Chavez at night. Chavez in the soup and on the ricebags and stamped across the ever-scarcer toilet paper. Dressed mostly in red – until the occasional blue became necessary to bury a political rival. Then back to red. The visage of the man fattening out before the ever-watchful eyes of the cameras as his grip upon power solidified; until he swelled with disease that seemed to mirror the bloated, infirm county he refused to release from his wicked grasp. His every absence a source of controversy; his every word a promise and a threat. He seemed to stand across the very top of the continent – calling all the people unto himself as some sort of mestizo messiah of the poor and the destitute and the angry and the jealous. And come they did; from Argentina and Chile and Brazil and Mexico, more powerful countries but without so great a leader. They came out of fear lest he find in them an enemy and seek their downfall. They came for opportunity; because they too had hate in their hearts. They came for handouts; they came to take advantage. All that Hugo Chavez really cared about was that they came – to pay homage to him, that poor boy from that mud house in the Venezuelan Great Plains.

It was a great party indeed, for those who like that sort of thing – until the morning-time; because national hangovers are an awful thing.

I won’t go into much detail on the tremendous damage done. Figures are boring; and so great figures as represent the suicide of Venezuela are hard to hold in your imagination. A trillion dollars missing – a trillion dollars? Ten percent of the country emptied out – that’s three million people. An entire mega-city, gone, dissipated like a vapor into New York and Miami and Madrid; taking with them what they could, what they might, what they were permitted; burning the rest. 300,000 violent deaths; a civil war really. 80,000 businesses gone, “expropriated” and abandoned or simply swept away amid the powerful tides of revolution. The exchange rate went from 5 Bolivares to the dollar – to 4.5 million. Two generations of lives lost marching and resisting and voting and conspiring and fleeing; in a closed loop that has extended – even after the dictator died. Can you carry such things in your consciousness?

I sure can’t. 25 years – the slow, agonizing murder of a country at the hands of one evil man married to a defunct idea. 25 years. 25 years, and the story still goes on.

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Death and Taxes…

So it’s that time of year again, and I’m doing my taxes. Reminding me just how complicated life is and how much time was spent last year in slave labor. This year is sort of my halfway mark – if I’m lucky. More if I’m really lucky; and almost the end if I’m really, really lucky. Not of filing taxes. Like death – taxes are the only other inevitable thing; but more powerful, because even after I die they will keep coming for my money.

I was recalling this morning where it all started. Do you remember your first pay? Not by your parents, who gave you an allowance to do chores, or your grandparents sliding a crisp five dollar bill into a birthday card. But the first time you worked hard for something and were paid for it?

I’m a missionary kid, and missionary kids have a weird relationship with work and money – I have found out. Those two things are not related in our minds, because they are not related in the realities of our parents’ lives. In point of fact we grow up thinking that work itself is not worthy of pay – I wonder if missionaries know this about their children? Missionaries have to raise their money – which itself is work (ask anybody in ‘outreach’ or ‘sponsorship’). Work – for the privilege of doing more work. Hard work in terrible places. Running hospitals in Kashmir; managing schools deep inside Virunga and teaching in seminaries lost in the foothills of the Andes – suffering illness and violence. The violence is a natural part of life for missionaries; because it is a natural part of the lives of the people missionaries serve. It’s everywhere – in the noisy explosions of war or silent and stealthy in the dead of night; it comes. Like when I was a child in an Argentina controlled by a military junta – who banned public events and gatherings and arrested people at their discretion. Soldiers on the street. Go-bags packed fearing the expulsion by the junta; Hugo Chavez’s warplanes bombing the city. Strip-searched by narco-military as a 13 year old; I guess they were worried about competition. When the embassies were emptying out and folks were headed for the airport, we hunkered down – what good would we be to the people we served, if we ran away during the times of their greatest distress? Who would be a witness to the darkness – if the light became afraid of it and fled?

Then the “break” – every four years. Furlough it was called – which sounds nice, doesn’t it? Beach, water lapping on a dock. Log cabins beside pristine frozen lakes buttoned up tight in the winter, chocolate and marshmallows and fudge. Television and movies and restaurants after so long without electricity.

Not exactly.

More like itinerant gypsies roving from church to church tin cup in hand. Charity cases. “The Lord will provide,” my parents would always say, except that He didn’t – and we abandoned the foreign field. HUD housing, not as glamorous as it sounds. I wish Ben Carson luck! Yup, the idea of an hour’s work for an hour’s pay is, well a little foreign to the missionary kid. Took me some time to get used to. To be sure, my ideal is not to sell my time for money – job security doesn’t really interest me. Financial security, that’s another thing altogether. Maybe someday… But I digress.

I remember my first hard-earned money. I was fifteen I think, and back in Phoenix, and there was an abandoned lot that needed mowing. So there I was, with a push-lawnmower trying to hack down grass that was knee and sometimes waist high. Pushing and lifting and hacking in the hot Phoenix summer sun, when I saw it glistening under a piece of grass – a twenty dollar bill. I felt a king! Twenty unexpected dollars to my name I walked down the road to the Circle K to buy one of those huge Slurpees. My decision, with my money – not having to ask permission, to give account to God for my extravagance.

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But that was then – twenty-five years ago. A quarter century of work: busing and waiting tables, selling books, filing papers. Learning – working during the day and studying late into the night. Moving food around the world, managing staff, learning languages. Building schools, running campaigns, writing books, defying dictators, ending wars. Marriage, family. Mortgages. All the while counting pennies, counting the cost. And watching life build itself into a great edifice of character.

It’s a long process – isn’t it, life? Prosperity? But as I sit here downloading papers and scanning documents I realize just how blessed I have been. Because if there was one thing being a missionary kid taught me, it has been that a life in search only of money and power and position is a life misspent. Service, the value we add. The people whose lives we touch; the difference made in a nasty brutish world.

Nevertheless sometimes in the dark of night – or when I’m doing my taxes – I again sense the fluttering in my chest of that fifteen-year-old boy. And I am nostalgic for the feeling of immense opportunity that a twenty dollar bill clutched by a sweaty adolescent walking through a Phoenix minimart brought.

Then I realize it’s probably heart palpitations of the middle aged. Death and taxes…

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Immigration and Christianity (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Back to my friend’s question, the “conundrum” of immigration. Because he is a Christian, as am I. And does not Jesus say all over the place how important it is to help the needy, to feed the poor, and to clothe the naked? Wasn’t Jesus himself a refugee for a few years? Haven’t we seen those words in every meme from the “know-nothings”, just back from their massive march, who – putting away their little pink cap all of a sudden found religion?

The answer is that of course Christians are to have compassion; love overflowing. Sacrifice and even sometimes martyrdom (there’s more stars on the back wall of my university than there are at Langley). But, and let me write this slowly, these only have value to God if they are voluntary. We only find our Christianity, our faith, in individual decisions as a response to the pull of the spirit on our heartstrings. The progressives seem to want to give government that role, the great god in Washington that can legislate “morality”. Replacing of God with the State. Which is where the freakout is coming from, isn’t it? The other side took over the state, and the gun; now they are left with only the power of their ideas – which they are finding are not very powerful after all, rooted as they are in a very limited understanding of the world around them or even their own history.

And of course it should go without saying that Donald Trump is not Jesus’s emissary in the White House, as neither was Barack Obama or George W. Bush. Their job is not to take Jesus’s teachings and apply them in policymaking. Oh, I know that’s controversial for my Christian friends. And of course I’m not saying that we should not strive to have our leaders be moral, God-fearing people with faith of their own. But their job is to seek out policies that are good for the country. I’d just as much want Trump to unthinkingly take in a flood of folks that exceed the carrying capacity of our “carnaged” country; than I would want him to “turn the other cheek” when the terrorists hit.

We are not a theocracy – and Jefferson was very, very careful about assuring this was not so. We are a majority Christian country, to be sure – and it would behoove us to stay that way because so much of our values and our common culture comes from a common faith. But public policy is not made by scrolling through Matthew or Leviticus or Revelations. It is made by understanding the situation of the country (which actually means visiting it often and – yes – even talking to us ‘red state rubes’); and by using experience and our shared history to decide upon policies that are more effective; choosing them against policies that have been proven by history and time to have been less effective.

But what about Christianity? I must be a heartless, heathen bastard – wanting to let people starve to death. Think what you will – but anybody who knows me, who has read about or listened to my stories of 20 years in the trenches from Eastern Congo to Pakistan to Uganda and Mali and Nicaragua and on would know that is unfair, and untrue. I am a natural product of a country that cares a great deal. America has been the greatest defender of the unfree in the history of history. Fighting the Axis powers, the Soviet Union, the Bolivarian Alliance and radical Islam; sending piles of our own money ($300 billion in private donations) uncoerced to sponsor children and fight hunger and disease. Did you know it was the Rotary Club that ended polio (although, unfortunately, wars have brought that dreaded disease back)? It’s the government’s job to keep us safe – and our job to show our compassion, as a product of our individual faith. It’s the government’s job to keep us strong and united; so we can continue to fight not only for the wave of 60,000,000 refugees so hurting right now; but those after the next war, and the next war, and the war after that.

I once gave a speech for a fundraiser in the Midwest called “Charity should remain in the church”. Boy the “know-nothings” were upset about that one – the idea that Christianity (and other faiths) should ‘own’ do-gooding. That the government – with its gun – doesn’t really have a role in our national story of compassion. Recently I’ve even heard some “know-nothing” friends saying we should tax the church, as if it was some sort of corporation – as if government ‘charity’ cannot be swiftly turned against the needy as a result of one vote-gone-wrong.

Alas – complicated topics all, and I hope my reflections and thoughts – hard earned – have added some value. If not don’t troll me. I’d go on, but fitting this into 800 words has been a challenge. So instead I suggest you read something yourselves. Pick up a copy of “Western Civilization”, and then read “Acts” – but, for the love of God, please stop reading your Facebook feed, leading you as it seems to be doing right over a cliff.

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Immigration and the Know-Nothings (Part 1)

Continuing sort of on the theme of, oh let’s call it ‘America’s strategic reorientation’; I suppose it’s time to touch on the topic of the day. Immigration. A friend of mine recently asked “What do you think?” because for him, as well as for me, it’s a bit of a “conundrum”.

There certainly is a lot of outrage on this topic, isn’t there? I refer back to Patrick Deenan’s viral essay. “My students are know-nothings,” Dennan writes. But this ignorance is “not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.”

In the context of immigration, what does that ignorance look like? The “know-nothings” would like us all to believe that America has been a borderless, cultureless fluid entity – admitting people willy-nilly as they ran from here and there and from near and far. “We are a nation of immigrants” says every politician on the campaign trail. Doesn’t even the plaque beneath Lady Liberty read “Give us your tired (…) your huddled masses”? And isn’t that beautiful – and isn’t it what made America what she has become?

immigration

And all that ended last Friday when Donald J. Trump slammed shut the doors of America, right?

Needless to say, this “know-nothing” version of America’s immigration ‘problem’ could certainly use some context. Now, to be sure America is indeed a nation of immigrants. But that doesn’t mean that the first arrivals have ever made it easy for the latest arrivals. The first wave of ‘western’ immigration to the United States was in the 1600s, famous for the Pilgrims and those seeking a new world to worship as they saw fit (estimated 20,000). This gave way in the 18th and 19th centuries to immigrants seeking greater economic opportunity – although the price for the fares were expensive which resulted in 50% of all European immigrants in those times arriving as indentured servants – white slaves, the “know-nothings” never knew about these. Isn’t slavery only black? White people can’t be the victims of injustice, can they? There was also massive African immigration in the form of slavery (estimated 650,000), which ended (the immigration part did) in 1807 – with slavery itself lasting another sixty years or so. In the 19th century five million Germans came over fleeing misery mostly. To this day, more Americans claim German ancestry than any other – did you know that? The “know-nothings” don’t. During the Gold Rush a lot of Chinese came over. And during the troubles of Eastern Europe a lot of Jews came, fleeing the pogroms and the like (watch ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ – for the “know-nothings”, it’s an old movie. No, it doesn’t star Brad Pitt). In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, hundreds of thousands (more than a million?) Cubans were admitted into the United States and given legal status via the “wet-foot, dry foot policy” which lasted until Florida voted against Hillary Clinton and President Obama cancelled that policy. Evidently voting isn’t the only ‘best revenge’. The first modern wave (modern meaning post-federal government involvement. Up until the 1892 opening of Ellis Island the states regulated their own immigration) started in the late 1800s and led through the 1920s. The biggest immigration year in American history was 1907, when 1.5 million immigrants were admitted. The second great wave started in the 1970s and led through – well it would seem up until President Trump, but it’s still too early for the historians to weigh in although the “know-nothings” already have. During the first great modern wave foreign-born residents of the United States reached 15% of the population. Right now, it’s about 13.5%. To say nothing of illegal immigration which has reached perhaps 12 million people.

Of course all of these waves were met with resistance. The first immigrants, who had arrived a long time before over a previously existing land bridge, fought the new immigrants with bows and arrows. Immigration of Africans was ended on ‘moral’ grounds in 1807 via the “Slave Trade Act”. In the 1850s the American-born protestants organized to try and keep out the 4.5 million Irish Catholics (fleeing famine); they even ran a presidential candidate Millard Fillmore on an anti-Catholic platform (he won the presidency two decades later, no longer an anti-catholic). The first federal law banning immigrants was the “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882”. The “Immigration Act of 1924” (or the Johnson-Reed Act) created a quota system which admitted entrance to the United States of only 2% of any nationality already represented (i.e. if there were 100 Micronesians in the U.S., only two Micronesian immigrants would be admitted each year). Carter banned Iranians and Shiites; Obama banned Iraqis. It’s all very confusing.

Through all of this – the problem was of course assimilation. America doesn’t want to end up like Europe, with pockets of languages and nationalities hating each other until they finally go to war. We want folks to assimilate, adopt our values and learn our language and integrate. My classical liberal economist friends would remind me here that this can’t happen at the point of a gun; and that immigration is actually not a political issue, it’s a market one to be solved not by legislation but by the laws of supply and demand. That’s really the problem in Europe, all these folks fleeing war to countries where there are no jobs (like Spain, with 45% youth unemployment). When they finally arrive, they sit around and become bitter and start plotting against their hosts and imagining how with the help of the Caliphate they will exact their revenge for being born poor. And it isn’t even the immigrants themselves – they are usually quite happy to have gotten the hell out of Dodge and very grateful to whoever received them. It’s their kids, growing up in limbo, who begin to conspire. Without jobs – without opportunity. Without identity, old or new.

All of this is politically charged – especially when different sides try to take the moral high ground from each other and try to pretend that they care more than the other and that they are the most compassionate and that the other side is the devil. The progressives decry Trump for not letting in 60,000,000 refugees; the other side reminds them that there are 5,000,000 Syrian refugees in part because of Obama’s incompetence at dealing with the Arab Spring, and that the US is already at carrying capacity after eight years of ‘growth’ that never reached 2% and a federal debt of $20,000,000,000,000.

It’s all very stressful too, isn’t it? Everybody is a narcissist at heart and wants to be heard because they believe they know best – even the “know-nothings”. What is the solution? Admitting every refugee into the United States? We long since reached the point of diminishing returns, as Publius Decius Mus has said. What we need to do is help figure out how to end the wars and build prosperity abroad. How very neo-con of me? There’s an old adage, “If we don’t fight them there, we fight them here.” There’s a certain amount of truth to that – not just jihadis but poverty and injustice and violence and oppression. Yes, Americans have constitutional guarantees others don’t – a legacy of our forefathers who the “know-nothings” would have us not read. But all humans have natural rights – life, liberty, property. Rights laid out first by God on tablets of stone at the top of a mountain.

Which brings me to Part 2.

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America – In Times of Madness

When I was a little boy I would often go with my family to visit my great granddaddy. As a missionary kid growing up in the ‘foreign field’, it was always a special time – coming home to America. Between visiting churches on the east coast, we would stop in Altoona, Pennsylvania and pull into that little trailer park beside the 7-11 where my great grandpa lived with my great grandma. There were chores a plenty to do, my brother and I scrubbing down the trailer with a broom and a hose, then the cars (something that my nine-year-old self was less than enthusiastic about). When we were done we would go with my great-grandpa to empty the quarters from the laundry machines in the laundromat. After we were finished we would drive up to the horseshoe curve to watch the train pass – or head out into the countryside to look for deer.

horseshoe-curve

Back at home, I would sit out on the little porch of the double-wide on some metal sliding chairs eating a bowl of ice cream while my granddaddy would smoke Marlboro reds and tell stories about when he was a union baker, or when he worked at the circus. The smell of cigarette smoke still takes me back to those days. He was from a different time, my granddaddy was. Not one for displays of emotion, for expression of feelings and Spartan with his words – he demonstrated his love through discipline. Not envious, he didn’t assume that life owed him anything; and he never once talked about inequality or complained about the wealthy. Politicians were to be avoided, as was Washington because it was ‘the swamp’. Instead he looked to family. 60 years caring for my great grandma. Raising children and helping with grandchildren. Powering through the tough times – the depression and the wars, head down and shoulder to the yoke.

I don’t know if he was a Democrat or a Republican, we rarely talked politics – because politicians were not the answer. As a Pennsylvania union man, a man of the New Deal and the war on poverty and LBJ – I suspect he was the former. But I also suspect that this year he would have voted for President Trump. He would not have understood the new America very well. The “you didn’t build that” America. The “votings the best revenge” America. The America that thought about ‘deplorables’ as, well as ‘deplorable’. An America where politics has become something we do to each other, not for each other. Power, not service.

He probably would have voted for President Trump because he would have naturally realized – like so many others did this time – what Publius Decius Mus eloquently observed; “Among the many things the ‘Right’ still doesn’t understand is that the Left has concluded that this particular show need no longer go on. They don’t think they need a foil anymore and would rather dispense with the whole bother of staging these phony contests in which each side ostensibly has a shot.” The show, the contest Decius is talking about is the discussion about values and morality and liberty in a free society. He would have known that Hillary Clinton’s America would have rolled over the America that he’d known – exterminating it for good. His was a generation of propriety and family and dignity and sacrifice; he’d never have understood a country where women dress themselves up as massive vaginas to walk the streets of the nation’s capital flaunting all decency and discretion – and morality.

There’s a word we don’t use much anymore, isn’t it? The progressive left doesn’t like it – because it requires judgement. And “the belief that anything is superior to anything else inevitably results in prejudice, interpersonal strife, and inequality.” In fact the only thing that our post-modern progressives can get behind is their assertion that “The rural, red-state voters, the denizens of the exurbs–are not real Americans. They are rubes, fools, and hate-mongers.”

That America certainly needed reigned in.

People sure are in a tizzy these days, aren’t they? Silliness all around. Re-balancing things is hard; and stomping out madness naturally stresses out the insane. But there’s one thing I do think; I think that my great granddaddy would be amused by the antics of the snowflakes. I think he’d watch the news, and he’d chuckle. He probably wouldn’t say anything – that wasn’t his style; but he’d probably be thinking what we’re all thinking. These odd new Americans with their strange ideas and perplexing behaviors are not really very strong – juxtaposed against the great struggles of feeding a family in depression; of fighting a war; of buying a house in a world where money wasn’t easy to come by; of going to your union job day after day even though it was boring and you were tired and often in pain; and of raising a family during times of limited opportunity. Occasionally he might even murmur the words “grow up”.

I miss my great granddaddy. More than that, America too misses his generation’s stoic wisdom. We sure need it to fall back upon in times of madness.

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Mediocrity Unto Death

Totalitarianism. It’s not a concept that we are very familiar with; those of us who have been born free. The sludge of fear, every decision weighed not against what is good and just and right, but instead against what the ‘powers’ will think; the battle to deny self but not lose your spirit in the process – tiny acts of rebellion unidentifiable to the minders but nevertheless something that is your own, a fake accent or a carefully planned ‘accident’; not sabotage but just orchestrated carelessness when everything around is done with such care. Nothing to call your own, upon which to hang your personality. Boredom, total and omnipresent.

There was a time in the 1960s and early 1970s when we thought the Russians were winning. They were beating us, or so it seemed. Space exploration and the amassing of armies; or at least that was the story that was sold. Of course we all know now that it was propaganda. But we cannot deny the outcomes – nuclear arsenals and rockets flying close to the moon and monumental buildings and epic underground subway stations. “How is it we finally defeated them?” is often the question posed by the experts.

I have always had the opposite question, how in blazes did they make it as far as they did? Their ideology, their planning, their civilization should not have been able to put a man into space. It should not have been able to build a bomb, to invade and annex other countries. To challenge the west. Theirs is a creed of mediocrity unto death. And it’s not that they seized some developed nation; the “Empire of the Sun” controlling industrialized Japan and turning it into an elaborate war machine. They didn’t install Marxism through a worker revolt in the UK – but a peasant revolt in backward Tsarist Russia.

And they took their rabble and whipped them up into the greatest challenge the United States experienced – lasting for 70 years. They shouldn’t have been able to do that. The project should have burned itself out in a matter of years, not lasted almost a century.

All that to say, I’ve been reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s most famous (or certainly longest) novel “In the First Circle”. The first circle he is referring to is the first circle of hell, from Dante. It’s a mystery novel about a group of political prisoners who, because of their knowledge and education are taken from the gulag to a special set of prisons where they are put to work building the technological advancements of the regime. There the living conditions are moderately better; better food, better work, better sleeping, small pleasures such as reading. The book is good – if somewhat tedious, he certainly could have used an editor. But Russian novels are always a little long and sometimes too in the weeds – especially for an American audience.

aleksander

What is most fascinating to me is the portrayal of Stalin’s paranoid totalitarianism and how it played out in society. How they controlled the minds of their prisoner/citizens; how they not only got them to obey but to excel, to produce out of their slave labor incredible technological achievements. They did this through allowing their prisoners to compete – if only in that one special area of life, their work for ‘Mother Russia’. By denying them any sense of individuality or satisfaction in their lives – family, faith, wealth, leisure and the like – and giving them only one outlet for expressing their humanity, their productivity in their slave labor, the Soviet dictatorship figured out how to make them productive.

This was hard for me to understand at first. Why didn’t they starve themselves, why didn’t they refuse to work – denying their captors their minds? But in the interactions of the prisoners on the pages of Solzhenitsyn’s novel I started to better understand how the soviet system functioned for so long. It’s a little ironic that the only way it was able to stabilize and advance was through competition – even the limited competition in the limited avenues available to the oppressed. But humanity does find a way, doesn’t it? Even in the harshest of circumstances, people seek to let their inner light shine through – a lesson that all despots learn sooner or later.

Let us hope we’re done with totalitarianism – although I know that hope is probably empty. So too let us read and reread the works of Solzhenitsyn and Rand and Orwell and the other great novelists of freedom lest we forget what makes those regimes tick forward, and we lose our ability to fight them.

 

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