From Zanzibar to Timbuktu

“What will become of Africa?” That is the most common question asked by anybody who has spent any meaningful time on the continent. It is realism, not racism – that facile solution which is so common today in the minds of the know-nothings, a scapegoat that offers no real answers but only interrupts any questions, leaving them stuck like a jagged pill in the throats of people like me who have lived for so long in Africa, and who have the right to ask the questions. For we have suffered with Africans.

So too Anthony Daniels. “From Zanzibar to Timbuktu” is a travel book by Daniels, written in the late 80s as his sort of ‘farewell’ after serving for several years as a village doctor in Tanzania. Back then a lot of people, Peace Corps or aid worker or missionary alike finished up a season in Africa by making the treks across the continent. A former boss of mine went from Zimbabwe up to Khartoum. Anthony Daniels went from Zanzibar to Timbuktu.

The extraordinary thing about Daniels’s travel book – for me – is that I’ve been to most of the places he writes about. Zanzibar and Bujumbura and Gisenyi and Kigali and Goma and Butembo and Beni and Kisangani and Kinshasa and Maiduguri and on to Timbuktu. I’ve been to all of them. The thing that strikes me is how little they have changed. Daniels’s descriptions of the environmental degradation, the poverty, the ignorance, the corruption, the ragged dirty decay of everything – that is the same. Outside a few 5 star hotels and luxury condos existing at the inverse side of African entropy, the continent has not changed.

Except in one way – the violence.

Anthony Daniels could never make his cross-continental trek today. He would have been abducted perhaps a dozen times. He would have been murdered in his sleep for his shoes. The bribes he paid to get through, $3 here and $.25 there become five-and-six-figure ransoms. He might have been blown up by a jihadi bomb. Perhaps he would have strayed into the line of fire in one of the civil wars that rage now out of control.

Yes, I too have walked where Daniels walked. Zanzibar, on R&R from Uganda, much as it always was; there, at the beginning at least the entropy has not yet taken over. Stone town and Livingston’s cross and the caves under the church where the slaves were held. In Bujumbura I sheltered in a hallway surrounded by other aid workers as tracer bullets and mortars and RPGs flew over my house, a gun battle raging between the rebellion and the Tutsi army. I served in Goma, feeding centers filled to bursting with starving children. Bullet holes in the vehicles I sent from village to village on errands of mercy. Pulling a local woman off a Rwandan army truck before they had a chance to drive her into the forest to rape her. Running from a rebel attack on a market one step ahead of the bullets. I have driven the road between Goma and Butembo under the protection of two Canadian mercenaries driving a UN APC. Beni, under siege now by the Allied Defense Front (ADF), a Ugandan jihadi group linked to ISIS. You cannot ride the Congo river; my trip to Kisangani in a UN airplane, into Kinshasa where an ICRC woman had recently been pulled from her vehicle, raped and murdered.

Maidurugi where I also have been under the protection of three US Embassy security vehicles and 6 personal SSS bodyguards; body armor and modern weapons at the ready. Abuja, hostile surveillance and concertina wire. I flew into Timbuktu on a charter plane a few times, the first American back in after the French military chased Al Qaida away. A personal bodyguard beside me, an advance car with 12 UN soldiers from Burkina Faso and a BearCat as my chaser. In Bamako, sheltering in place with my 3 year old as terrorists attacked my neighborhood.

Robert Kaplan wrote about the coming anarchy, only a few years after Daniels took public transportation across Africa. He recognized that after the great power competition fell away, Africa would be left to its own – to flap in the wind, fraying as the weather and neglect tears away at the fibers that might one time have held things together.

Now Africa is in real trouble; the violence is spreading along with population growth and environmental degradation. I spent 10 years on the continent so I, at least, have earned the right to my observations. I have many friends there and have extraordinary memories laced with tremendous significance. I raised my little boy there, and I am grateful to Africa.

But I am not optimistic about what the future holds.

Incidentally, I also wrote about my wars in Africa, in a novel – “I, Charles, From the Camps”. It is by far my best work, but it is not an easy read. How could it be?

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To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #16 – Russia)

I read a lot of Russian literature and history. It is after all the great unknown; a land that lies behind a snowy curtain long after the Iron Curtain fell. A place of philosophy as deep as the cold dark winters, of misty characters and murky ideas and shadowy dealings across great windswept plains. The cultural glorification of suffering – passionarity Gumilev calls it. A land of epic abuse, causing the suffering which so defines them in a circular story which would seem to have no end. Did you know that Russia’s slaves (they were called serfs) were freed only two years before Americas? And while America had 3.9 million, in Russia they were 43 million. Russia’s problems are always epic, like the land upon which it sits.

I’m reading a history book “In The Shadow of the Winter Palace”, about the period between the December revolution and the October revolution. 100 years that shaped modern Russia – defined by Nicholas I and II and Alexander II and III. Their struggles to balance the tension between liberalism and tradition; between industrialization and nobility and autocracy. Ultimately unsuccessfully, leading to revolution – but not always in bad faith. I’ll do a review later.

What strikes me so far is the role of the novelists in Russia’s liberation story (a stillborn liberation, to be sure). How Herzen and Turgenev and Tolstoy and Pushkin served well the role of shepherds and voices. They were very often the only opposition to the disastrous policies of the Tsar. And they suffered.

I recently finished “Dr. Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak. As I look back upon the novel with an appropriate distance of time, I find that the fulcrum around which the entire story rotates is a period when Zhivago is trapped by winter inside a broken down old house, finding utopia at last through inspiration as his pen begins to write of its own. He was hungry and cold and had no future. His life was a wreckage. There was no publisher for his poems; he had no hope of any readers, any fame – he was not working under a deadline. It was just him. I’m reminded here of the real life story of Osip Mandelstam who was banished (thanks to Pasternak’s intervention not immediately killed) over a poem he wrote about Stalin – and who Stalin eventually did killed, Pasternak’s opposition notwithstanding. Mandelstam, who was betrayed by somebody, perhaps Anna Akhmatova (Gumilev’s mother) or perhaps not (Russia’s dictators have spies everywhere). A private poem, the scrabbling of a man who Stalin thought might be a genius (in a famous call to Pasternak, that is what he asked) but whose work was unlikely to ever reach anywhere. It certainly was no threat to Stalin, or was it? Here I insert a line from my own book “The Burning of San Porfirio”, in which the dictator addresses the owners of the newspapers as he threatens them “We are not concerned with blood; it’s ink that we fear.” The Tsars, perhaps more than any other royal line, exemplify this statement.

It is extraordinary that it is still Russia that dominates our thinking. More than 100 years after the last Tsar. More than 30 years after the fall of the USSR. The empires of the United Kingdom; of the Sultans; of Napoleon; of the Shahs of Persia; the Austro-Hungarians – the German empires of Bismarck and Hitler have all fallen away making way for an American empire of sorts – and still it is Russia, Russia that we have always feared. Immutable, inscrutable Russia – reckless and violent and proud.

We do hope for better times for Russians and a better set of leaders who can help Russia be a part of the solution – Russia that forever has been part of the problem. Imagine being able to harness the depth of discipline that gave us Pushkin and the broadness of vision that gave us Turgenev and the incredible talent that gave us Tolstoy and unfathomable sacrifice that bequeathed to us Solzhenitsyn and unleash these forces for the good of humanity. We could change the world.

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On Home

We are all born for somewhere else, I think. While we all have a sense of place coded deep within our DNA, a source of conflict and anger to be sure but also something that gives a tremendous sense of meaning – we also all have a doppelganger land that constantly calls out to us, a beacon to somewhere long lost or not yet discovered. It is that, which makes our feet itch and our imaginations run wild. That keeps us looking through used travel books and flicking through blogs on somewhere else. Each place, another life, another opportunity, another chance to find that sense of peace that answers the question “Am I home?”

I think for my wife, who is from Latin America – the answer is Africa. I took her there, fifteen years ago for the first time, Uganda specifically and it resonated with her. The colors and the chaos, the music. The Caribbean and Central Africa, perhaps they define the poles of her personality. I never really liked Africa. It was fine for a season; I have good friends and did meaningful work. But I don’t miss it and if I never went back, that would be OK.

I spend my time, these days, ping-ponging in my imagination between two places: my deep Arizona deserts, and my Armenian highlands. Arizona, where I was born. Tombstone and Bisbee and the crisp Flagstaff winters. Tiny families of quail running after each other in the warm Arizona mornings; a road runner zipping across the gravel path as I hike, before the thick desert sun is lain like a blanket forcing flight indoors. The smell of it, clean and sterile with a hint of cows; the big sky and the freedom and the sense of standing alone. That, and Armenia. Until I got to Armenia, I did not consider it. I had not even heard of Yerevan. Yerevan, that ancient town older than Rome, layers upon layers built one atop the other. An opera house in the center; soviet apartment blocks; ancient monasteries. High mountains silent except for the sheep and their minders; the buzzing of bees in the orchards, peaches and apricots and cherries. Silk road history that resonates, that still vibrates with a thousand years of commerce, of stories, of intrigue and some violence.

 

Now I think of her quite a lot; at my desk or while vacuuming, when doing things I know must be done but that don’t fill me, don’t quite answer the yearning in my heart for significance.

Significance is such a personal thing. Some people are placid like a deep lake between forested mountainsides; some are like a raging river cold with the runoff from the spring melting; while others are shallow and transparent like a bubbling brook emerging clean from somewhere underground. We are all different; and we find significance through different sources. The possibility of a chance encounter; the danger of new discovery; Shangri-La or Shambala where we can at last find rest. It is why we travel, I think; why we pack our families into our cars and head out for the open road.

I was accused in my youth of being dissatisfied. Even my wife, the one who loves Africa, told me time and again “You bring your dissatisfaction with you; and you make peace in your heart no matter where you go!” That was before I got to Armenia. Joke’s on her, I suppose. Because she was wrong; at least for me. I know what home is, a starry desert night sky and a winter snowstorm across the wild south Caucasus mountains.

And I go in peace.

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Our Age of Un-Ideas

Listening to the United Nations General Assembly today, which I do out of habit not interest, was uninspiring. The Iranians blasted ‘hegemony’ (whatever that means); the Argentines complained about how the U.S. treats Cuba (and demanded the Falkland Islands back). Then came the U.S. President. What struck me was just how bereft of fresh thinking and new ideas we are as a human race. How stuck in a cyclical pattern of problems exacerbated by inertia, by diminishing returns, by increasing populations and decreasing resources from which to pull. Some call this the singularity – not when humanity transcends, or when AI takes over, but when we reach the pivot point of scarcity in solutions and we begin to fall from the apogee, a fall that will probably be spectacular. When entropy takes over. The heat death of cognitive reasoning.

When the President talked about how the Russians should not have used force, he could have been talking about Nicholas or Peter or Catherine or Alexander just as easily as Putin. He talked about how Venezuela needs to return to the negotiating table, channeling 2003. He talked about how the US would not allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapon – repeating talking points from the last decade or the one before that. Repeating Clinton’s assurances that North Korea would not be allowed to gain that dreaded technology, long after Kim Jung-the-latest flaunts his arsenal with impunity.

Africa will be free of disease. We will distribute more food aid.

The grand ideas? Break the deadlock at the United Nations Security Council by opening it up to include Brazil, India and Nigeria, reviving the stillborn idea from the turn of the millennium when people talked about BRICS, before that illogical construct stagnated. We will provide more health care aid to Africa. Forget we’ve been doing that forever, with little impact.

It was mostly about money, as American policy speeches tend to be. “We’ll give a billion for this; we’ll give ten billion for that; we’ll give a hundred billion for the other”. Forget it is never about money. Money follows invention and solutions and innovation – it follows answers; it does not create them. Besides, whose money, from where? The irony is surely lost on the President, who doesn’t have to worry about money, that today is the same day that the FED announced the end of the American Housing Era. There will be no more cheap housing; no more flipping; no more HGTV shows about fixer-uppers. And as interest rates spike in the US, they will be accompanied by a massive sucking sound of American dollars fleeing emerging markets and risky investments to flow back home, leaving poor countries poorer.

It has all been said before, been done before.

The irony is that these are times of tremendous consequence. Our world order, the one we built and that so many of us – myself included – have defended with our hearts and our minds and our guns, with our lives; the world order that lifted hundreds of millions from poverty and ended the slavery of billions – THAT WORLD ORDER – is dying. It is being killed by bureaucrats ‘raising the ladders as they ascend’ as they try to build for themselves an aristocracy; by the ‘deep state’ self-dealing; by Hollywood stars bribing entry for their stupid kids into Ivy League schools, those same schools faking numbers to place higher in rankings to get better bribes by the elites in a circular cul-de-sac to nowhere — by the sad realization by the downtrodden that their reality has not lived up to our soaring rhetoric – that their votes hard-won were only periodic events between scarcity and violence and dashed dreams.

America’s Aristocracy, or the ‘Party of Davos’ as some say, are fond of declaring that history ended. That the recipe for a perfect utopia has been discovered, and now it is only an issue of implementation. A better educated judiciary; a higher paid civil service; more Tasers and body armor for the police; a peace deal more carefully drafted – in an ever-improving virtuous circle to heaven.

But what if the discovery was not true? What if, as Patrick Deneen once wrote, liberalism actually failed – and what we are living is the aftermath, the consequence of that failure. What if the ghosts in the machine can never be exorcised, no matter how many successfully executed electoral observation missions? If that is the case, the question is what next?

Bringing me back to UNGA. Because UNGA this year was a full-throated denial of the failure of our world order. The President’s speech was a robust defense of business as usual; of a doubling down on the tired recipes of yesteryear.    

We can do better; now is the time. For the decreasing number of us with children, whose main work is now to leave for them a home in which they may live, it is now or never. In 325 in Turkey, Christian bishops met at the Council of Nicaea to harmonize church doctrine, cementing the Roman Catholic Church. In 1648 Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Sweden and France negotiated the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the thirty and eighty years wars and set a foundation for modern Europe. In 1944 delegates from forty-four countries, meeting in New Hampshire, established the Bretton Woods international monetary and financial system and ushered in the Pax Americana. In all these instances, brave men and women thought creatively, took some risks and did something bold that changed the world.

The time is neigh for something like that again. Just don’t invite the aristocracy.

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On Fatherhood and Faith

Raising a little boy in troubled times is a tremendous feat. They say marriage makes you a better man; but it is not a wife that improves you. Being a father makes you a better man, or it should. Carefully protecting the heart and spirit and the delicate balance of wonder and curiosity all the while working on the transformative power of discipline – that is a hero’s task indeed. It is in that spirit, that I have some thoughts this crisp fall morning. Those without children should, out of humility, refrain from opining. They don’t know anything.

———-

Thousands of years ago there was a great flood, that at least is for sure. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes it, as do the ancient pre-Incan legends on the altiplano of Peru. The Bible says it was because man had become wicked in all his thoughts, inclinations, and actions, he was a curse to the land and the Lord regretted having created him.

The flood might have been caused by an asteroid that hit Greenland about 12,000 years ago and immediately ended the last ice age (which had itself lasted for many thousands of years). God often uses the natural world that He created to carry out His designs. It might have been another event. Nobody really knows, we have only the record written in the crusts of the earth to tell us of what it was like before the great flood that filled Lake Titicaca. And we have one story – the story of a utopia lost.

Whether you believe that the tale of Adam and Eve, two naked people frolicking in a garden somewhere in southern Armenia or Eastern Anatolia or Northern Mesopotamia is a true story or an allegory is irrelevant. Because the principles of that story ring true, and are consistent with the principles, ideas and teachings of our great philosophers and our great religions which stand in stark defiance against the nihilism of now. Nihilism is after all not a philosophy, its an anti-philosophy.

God created humanity in a perfect balance, with nature and with God and with each other – a binary balance, male and female, right and wrong, positive and negative, God and the Devil. A harmony of existence played out in a secret garden. But it was not to last. Because, in His incredible attempt to lend sentience to the flesh, God allowed a ghost to slip into the machine. A fundamental flaw that keeps reappearing, a ‘bug’ that no amount of ‘patching’ can seem to fix. “Every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil…” the flood story tells us – far from the garden utopia rejected in pursuit of greater knowledge, forbidden knowledge. It had to do with sex, we are after all hot-blooded mammals (maybe God should have made us from the reptiles). It had to do with a defying of the natural order as well (sex between ‘sons of God and daughters of men’, whatever these strange verses mean). It also probably had to do with technology. Nobody knows how advanced the pre-Noah civilization had become, but it is arrogant to think they were banging sticks together or sitting around a cave. Most of modern humanity’s greatest technological advancements have come in the last 100 or 200 years. Imagine a world where people lived 800 years (and generations after generations after generations of them – amounting to thousands and thousands of years), during which they continued to learn and grow. Even for myself, now approaching middle age is when I am finally finding balance and learning true discipline and the ability to focus and make linkages. What if I were not already dying? What if I had another 600 years of study? – More to the point, what if Einstein or Tesla had? Even more to the point, what if Hitler and Goering had?

Technology advances, we know, building from one generation to another thanks to the written word. But human morality does not. Which is why as our tech gets better, the growing technological power of un-improving beings creates imbalances and distortions that grow, exacerbating the disorder. Entropy.  

We get a hint of this in the next great story, the Tower of Babel (only 5 chapters after Noah). Humanity has moved south, from the Mountain of Ararat into Mesopotamia. The weather changed after the great flood five chapters before; people were living much shorter times; life was harder; crops did not grow like they did and the cyclical patterns of the rains were less constant, less reliable than the heavy dews before the “windows of heaven were opened.” “Let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other,” because “if they can do this (build a huge tower), then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” God could not destroy humanity with another flood, the rainbow that occasionally graces the sky still today was a reminder of that promise. He could not use fire, that comes later. He was committed (for whatever reason), the die was cast – humanity, machine ghosts and all, would have to do. Bill Gates probably felt the same way. After Microsoft was in its third patch, the sunk costs were too great. Who cares that the program is fundamentally flawed, glitchy and hackable – it’s the best we have. Starting from scratch was not an option.

Today feels a lot like I imagine the days before the great flood felt. When “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart is only evil”, as it is today. When I have to screen my little boy’s cartoons for him and read his elementary school curriculum and opt out of school offerings meant to befuddle my little boy and make him miserable, because the Godless are miserable, and misery does love company – that at least I know. When with pills and an operation scientists can play God; men of the mind who might well be using their knowledge for good, can change even the most fundamental natural order of things with impunity, expanding the sadness. People who are not even bad, the modern wicked – that is the extent of the evil, it is no longer a malevolent force, it is just empty – filled only with the ideas of others unto the greatest cul-de-sac civilization has seen since the flood. As Patrick Deneen has said, “My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation.”

And the know-nothings have destroyed the world.   

It is ironic that modern ignorant-wickedness has appropriated the rainbow to their own purposes. Man’s evil is only exceeded by our cynicism, it would seem. The signal of God’s commitment to not destroy man again; usurped to represent the ruination of the greatest civilization known to man. An apogee, because there is nothing like a fall from great heights. The world, however, does not end in a nuclear explosion, an epic fight of good against evil. “Head for the bunkers!!!” and “We will prevail” read out by commentators as Russian subs rise to prepare their payloads and newscasters shed tears for so great a world as we have made snuffed out in a blaze of radiation. It ends with two people, childless, sitting in front of “The View”.

The sad fact is that as “Everybody does what is right in their own eyes” upon the promise of a fun-filled impune utopia, we have only gotten more and more miserable. The extraordinary joy which I found in Armenia; poverty steeped in family and hard work, a BBQ on a Sunday afternoon beside an ancient monastery where a robed priest still lights the candles and the smoke floats upward to leave its smudge as a prayer beside the millennia of others that blacken the roof in a deep layer of faith? A joke, to be mocked by the know-nothings. Instead the opulence of limitless wealth swallowed with the daily pills we need to get up in the morning, to “turn this frown upside down” as we trudge through a joyless life without good and bad, without mom and dad, without God and certainly without the devil. Because the devil is to be found inside; yes, we have no need of him, because – far too often – the devil is us.

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The Approaching Event

The Dogon, who live in cliff dwellings nestled into the sides of a mountain range in central Mali have star charts that show Serius B, the white dwarf star that accompanies Serius A. If you climb the cliff-side (I have) between the square mud huts and the tiny mud grain-storage facilities, going beyond the small child defecating in the alleyway and around the rooftop thatch where the 13 year-olds wait out their convalescence after being circumcised with a hoe by the village elder (horrific!!) you will find a large slab of graffiti-covered rock, with the charts (Dr. Marcel Griaule, a French anthropologist, was the first to discover the hidden knowledge) painted beside images of animals and spirits. The wild thing, of course, is that Serius B is not visible to the naked eye. How did the Dogon, who live frozen in an era thousands of years ago, attain such knowledge?

There was a fascinating article this morning in the Guardian written by a tech consultant who was invited to the Nevada desert by a group of billionaires keen on picking his brain related to what they called “The Event” – the upcoming collapse of civilization. Climate apocalypse, civil unrest, EMPs destroying our computers, failure of our mono-cropped foodstuffs resulting in food-wars, a drying up of the river water, fires burning out of control, nuclear holocaust by the Russians (boy that one feels more real these days, doesn’t it…?). They are unclear about exactly what is coming, but these tech moguls know it is here and that they must transcend to survive it.

Maybe that is why Zuckerberg is building a Metaverse? To upload your consciousness and survive forever as an avatar in a computer program that runs long after humanity has returned to the cliff-caves – powered by a Dyson sphere (no, that would require actual engineering), more likely uploaded onto a satellite’s computer (we already have that tech, no need to stress) and left to enjoy life until the gigabytes run out (wait, didn’t that happen to hologram Sherlock Holmes in 138th episode of Star Trek Voyager?). To exist in a computer program of your own making, perhaps never even aware of the moment you transcend; or crammed into elite apartments within a refurbished Soviet bunker with a bunch of other thick-and-rich drinking each other’s purified urine until the wine runs out. Those are the options of the geniuses who gave us Twitter and Minecraft.   

Civilizations fail and then they fall and we are left with only the last remaining vestiges of monumental acts of engineering and traces of lost knowledge to remind us that ours is not the first go at utopia. The pyramids in Egypt and Tiwanaku. The vanishing traces of knowledge – Serius B star-charts drawn on cave walls and hints at a lost Atlantian island nestled in ancient books. Age-old tech floating in orbit, where neither rust nor decay can destroy them.

The signs appear to be accelerating. Victor Hugo wrote that, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time as come”. When they do, they develop their own momentum and are impossible to escape. Scientifically, it’s called the ‘percolation threshold’, when there is a large enough percentage of people who believe in the plausibility of a concept – enough fissile material to maintain a reaction – and it becomes a reality. Extermination is everywhere, a deep hopelessness married to skepticism of humanity’s ability to find solutions for the problems of today. “Hunger games” meets “The 100” and “The Expanse”. 44% of childless adults planning to not procreate. Surging populism and surging tides; firestorms and wars without ends and the sixth great extinction. Five billionaires in the Nevada desert.

This brings us back to the Dogon and ancient knowledge. It makes sense, to a degree; when the EMP destroys the smart-phones, who will survive – the Washington bureaucrat or the rural Wisconsin farmer? Will the artisanal fisherman in his canoe continue to find ways to eat, or will you in your high-rise? And if you weather the initial violence, where will you go? Likely, you will crawl to the cliffs of Africa and make a life among the Dogon, sharing with them whatever abstract knowledge you had in the hopes of preserving your legacy, convincing yourself that your time on this planet was not all in vain, that you achieved something, some knowledge, something true before it fell away. The recipe for the perfect ceviche – or maybe star charts of a white dwarf star in Canis Major, to be discovered in the future as proof that you lived and learned. And we start all over again.

Maybe next time we’ll get it right.  

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Hotel Bolivia

There was likely no more dramatic place for Jews fleeing the holocaust to end up than Bolivia. But for a small group, that unlikely land is exactly where they found refuge from Hitler’s wickedness. The crevice in the high Andes in which is nestled La Paz, the Altiplano – that massive highland valley which once held the greatest of all civilizations. The Yungus, a tropical lowland jungle where they tried their hand at farming. Cochabamba or Santa Cruz. They called it “Hotel Bolivia“, because they did not intent to stay there. It was too foreign; for the Jews of Austria trading Vienna with its opera houses and elegant restaurants for coca leaves and the immutable gaze of the Aymara – they were nonetheless grateful for a modicum of safety in a world that had become perilous.

This book is a story of refuge by an Austrian Jew born in La Paz. Nostalgia and sorrow and stress mingled with relief and gratitude. The tale of the Jewish people is so extraordinary, of suffering and resilience and the struggle to be free. And this book was extremely moving for all these reasons; but also because in a microcosm of one family it showed the difficulties and the loss of millions upon millions of people.

There is still a small community of Jews in La Paz, despite the instability of the last 80 years in that Andean nation and their flirtations with dictatorship and violence and even some racist laws of their own. While most have left “Hotel Bolivia” for greener pastures in places like Argentina or the United States – or back to Austria – many, perhaps 1000 have stayed on and continue to meet in Confiteria Elis to exchange stories and to remember, until that day when they make their final journey to the Jewish cemetery in La Paz to join their parents and grandparents who found safety tucked away in the Andes mountains.

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I Should Be Writing My Armenia Book

This essay represents a failure, not complete for I remain optimistic but certainly a success deferred. I should be writing my Armenia novel. Each passing day, it gets a little harder. My parenthesis utopia is moving deeper into the past, joining the rest of my memories nestled in a bed of nostalgia. “Nostalgia is memory with the pain removed,” wrote Fred Davis in ‘Yearning for Yesterday’. Sometimes it’s harder to excise the pain – for Nigeria, I may never be able to accomplish that feat – but there are other times when you discover something so grand and magnificent, so surprising that you lose your breath for a moment, for a time, for a season. That’s what Armenia was for me. Perhaps it was the more remarkable because it was juxtaposed against six years in West Africa, an anti-utopia. An apocalypse. A glimpse into the anarchy that is coming – the ordeal that is arriving. None of my friends felt the same; all the State Department morons I worked with were ‘Europe area officers’ and spent their time complaining that sometimes the lights went out or that the sushi was not fresh enough. Those people who travel to somewhere foreign and search only for the familiar. For me Armenia was the most exotic of places.

W. Somerset Maugham once wrote of a certain Abraham in ‘The Moon and Sixpence’: “One morning the ship docked at Alexandria, and from the deck he looked at the city, white in the sunlight, and the crowd on the wharf; he saw the natives in their shabby gabardines, the blacks from the Soudan, the noisy throng of Greeks and Italians, the grave Turks in their tarbooshes, the sunshine and the blue sky; and something happened to him. He could not describe it. It was like a thunder-clap, he said, and then, dissatisfied with this, he said it was like a revelation. Something seemed to twist his heart, and suddenly he felt an exultation, a sense of wonderful freedom. He felt himself at home, and he made up his mind there and then, in a minute, that he would live the rest of his life in Alexandria.” They called him foolish, they said he had no character, because he was set for a prestigious job in London; because he had it in him to be a famous doctor. “Character? I should have thought it needed a good deal of character to throw up a career after half an hour’s meditation, because you saw in another way of living a more intense significance. And it required still more character never to regret the sudden step.”

That is Armenia. And how do I write about that? Especially since evidently I did not have the character required – that is to say, I moved on. I rejoined the ever-flowing river to nowhere; unlike Maugham’s Abraham. To be sure, I have a family – a son – and when you make that commitment, you put an asterisk after your own ambition, a pause while you pave the way for his future. That, too, requires character, I tell myself. Abraham, after all, was young and single.

Nevertheless, Armenia is still back there – the mountains and the rivers; Lake Sevan and the castles and monasteries, unchanged for a thousand years and likely unchanged for a thousand more. Yerevan, that ancient city older that Rome that changes only insofar as the layers of empire sit one atop the other going backward and forward in time. But there is now no empire over Armenia, a tense fleeting stasis while they define their own future, if they can. But it is moving backward into my past, the sharp edges are becoming smoother; the muted pastels of the landscape are fading; the crisp flavors of the cherries and the sweet squishiness of the peaches – all slipping deeper into my memory to join the nostalgia of other places, that were not the same. How do I write about that? So instead, I waste an hour on a Sunday morning writing about not being able to write. At least I could write of it; but instead of penning the first page, which will be joined by 200 others, I write of failure and another wasted day. How is that courage, or character, I ask you??

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More on Money

One (of the many) issues which caused me to quit social media (Facebook and Twitter specifically) was the monetization of ‘interactions’ – likes and shares and retweets. People with many ‘followers’, generating lots of ‘views’ or ‘engagements’ were able to use that to profit from add revenue via product placement or other benefits of their status as an ‘influencer’. That is, essentially, nonsense. All of it. But when this happened, competition became fierce; careers were built and destroyed; mistakes were made and covered up. People began looking for ways to buy or sell ‘followers’ – companies were registered to help manage ‘online profiles’ to create the most sympathetic avatar which would generate more engagement. How often to tweet, how to mix one type of tweet with another, how to curate outrage for the huddled masses.

Sitting atop all this, the computer programmers working in these mega companies who could – if they so wished and with a few keystrokes – simply assign this or that user a million or a billion new followers (or withdraw from another one against whom they objected the same amount). Suspend accounts. Force the retweet of this or that image. Like the ‘proles’ in 1984 competing against each other for the lottery while their betters laughed, the world worked itself into a froth to obtain through the commoditization of ‘engagement’ something that was not only completely artificial but more importantly something that could be assigned willy-nilly by dark forces that the market does not control. So, never wanting to be a pawn in someone else’s game, I quit.

Cue money – yesterday I wrote a piece about the importance of money. I mean it’s something we all think about, all the time, but like the nobility in Downton Abbey living on their annuities – money is something that we are told we should not talk about. To be “money grubbing” is the meanest of insults. Fair, nobody likes a miser. Besides, what is money after all? I’m reminded here of Francisco d’Anconia’s ‘money speech’ in Atlas Shrugged:

“So you think that money is the root of all evil?” said Francisco d’Anconia. “Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil? “When you accept money in payment for your effort, you do so only on the conviction that you will exchange it for the product of the effort of others. It is not the moochers or the looters who give value to money. Not an ocean of tears not all the guns in the world can transform those pieces of paper in your wallet into the bread you will need to survive tomorrow. Those pieces of paper, which should have been gold, are a token of honor– your claim upon the energy of the men who produce. Your wallet is your statement of hope that somewhere in the world around you there are men who will not default on that moral principle which is the root of money, Is this what you consider evil?

Money is the means of exchange that we use, to trade the best of our efforts for the best of the efforts of those with whom we wish to trade. It makes that interaction easier – a pile of potatoes for an electric vehicle might be a hard thing to accomplish, but when you monetize both then the process becomes more fluid. Money, the kind that I’m saving for my son, must be held to this principle: a store of value, and a unit of measure. Otherwise it’s worthless (just ask the Venezuelans or the Zimbabweans).

Things brings me back to my point above. Monetary policy in most countries mirror more social media than Galt’s Gulch; while we scramble amongst each other for dollars, above it all the dark powers the market also does not control release or sop up ‘liquidity’ through mechanisms they call ‘Quantitative Easing’ (and more recently ‘Quantitative Tightening’), words meant to befuddle the masses. Print away; ok now stop printing – that is what they are!! But wait, if somebody in a fine room drinking from a crystal decanter can assign or reassign these units of exchange, without consideration for productivity or value (as Francisco said), then how is the integrity of those units maintained? How are we not – again – returned to the proles of 1984 jockeying with each other as to who gets to stand closest to the printers as the dollars fly out (fun fact, it’s the big banks who are first).

Francisco d’Anconia advocated for gold – as did Ayn Rand. Gold, at least, cannot be faked (the alchemists tried for a thousand years). It is the closest humanity has to something that stores universal value. However since Nixon pulled the U.S. currency off the gold standard, the genie is out of the bottle and it is difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube (to mix metaphors a little). Judy Shelton wrote an interesting, simple little book a while back called “Roads to Sound Money”. In it she advocated a return to partial bi-metalism; that is to say convert to metals (gold and silver) a certain percent of the FED’s balance sheet (say 10%) and float it on the market beside the fiat paper dollars, making it a unit of exchange alongside the fiat money. This will allow fluctuations of both types of ‘currency’, which will highlight through the principles of supply and demand at what point the imbalance is a result of too extensive a balance sheet, allowing for appropriate corrective action. That is certainly an option that might work – at least it’s an idea.  

In these days of inflation and rampant debt forgiveness, when the dark forces are delinking means of exchange from productive effort, we certainly need some new thoughts.   

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Money

Continuing on my theme, though it has not been universally well received, of a ‘reality’ check – I felt it was important to address the issue of money. There are a lot of misconceptions about money; most hovering around ideas that go something like, “Do what you love and money will follow,” or “Money can’t buy happiness” or “Money can’t buy me love”. You get the drift, you’ve likely heard that nonsense all your life.

“Money can’t buy happiness,” that’s my favorite; the trope of poor people just as much as “Beauty is on the inside” is that of ugly people. And it is of course bullshit; just as I’ve met many beautiful people who are also lovely (and many ugly people who are unpleasant), I’ve known extremely happy rich people and – well – significantly more unhappy poor people. Turns out it’s miserable to be poor, who knew?

Now, I’ve had significant experience with poverty, so it’s not something I treat lightly. Irony is difficult when you’re hungry, and you cannot eat disdain. Personal, as well as professional, I might add. I had the distinct privilege of living in public housing in the latter part of my formative years, in time to graduate from the local gang school where extra-curricular entertainment was watching the Mexican American gangs fight the ‘Wetbacks’ (not my monikers, that’s what they called themselves – hate elsewhere, if you must), usually with fists, sometimes with bicycle chains. One of my friends, a Panamanian, was clubbed with a pipe (his crime, I guess, he wasn’t Mexican American or ‘Wetback’). Ask me if I was thinking about Harvard and whether I would row crew or play lacrosse. The girl fights were the most spectacular. Fast-forward a little, I once became deathly ill – a nutritional problem, linked to my .99 cent McDonalds diet. Turns out man shall not live on one Big-Mac alone; but the wallet wants what it wants. (Knut Hamsun once wrote a remarkable novel called “Hunger”, look no further than there for the full horror). I almost did not graduate college for lack of $2500 for the final semester. Anyway, not to belabor a point but there were no silver spoons in my past.

I think it is professionally, however, where my realization of poverty has blossomed into the present-day contempt. I started my career in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where I lived during the 2nd Civil War (often called Africa’s World War) during which more than 5,000,000 died while ten armies ravaged each other for the prizes of diamonds and gold and coltan and wood and influence. I managed 70 feeding centers, most supplementary but about eleven therapeutic. Therapeutic feeding centers are for those children who are extremely malnourished and require special care, being woken up every few hours to receive exact quantities of UNICEF supplied formula, requiring nursing and doctors present, as well as IV capacity, etc. They are clinical facilities, usually located in a hospital – in this case a crappy old Belgian hospital bedraggled and beaten by tropical time. There is nothing in the world like a room full to bursting with children, in which you can hear a pin drop. Malnourished children do not even have the energy to cry, much less play with the broken down used toys donated by the do-gooder army of the west, efforts to empty their children’s unwanted detritus in exchanging for a tax write off.

A feeding center in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo

It perpetuated, over the decades, this war did. And the centers are still there. My wars too, five of them or maybe six, depends on how you count – poverty in the Ugandan camps, whole villages piled one atop another in terror of the nightly raids of the Lords Resistance Army (read my novel on this subject, if you want to get a feel for the mayhem).

Little girl Boko Haram bombers, drugged on fentanyl and sent through the army checkpoints because they are less frequently searched.

Northeast Nigeria

Armenian refugees, who lost everything in the latest wave of Caucasus violence that goes back well before history started writing down the fights – little blond refugees in Kosovo filling up an old tobacco-drying facility, unaware they were of the wrong race and religion.

Prisren, Kosovo

Honduran children in makeshift homes.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras

All of whom would, incidentally, have been helped out with a little money.

Which brings me back to “Money doesn’t buy happiness”. What those who utter this phrase probably mean is “Even rich people can do stupid shit that makes them miserable”. Trudat – but it’s the same stupid shit poor people do all the time. So the money really is not the variable here, it’s man’s limitless capacity to get himself in trouble. And the reality is that money absolutely does buy happiness, considered from every metric. Let’s think of some examples: You want a house. Where would you be happier, public housing in a gang neighborhood or five acres in Fauquier county with your horses? That takes money. You want a college degree. Which is better worth your time, Harvard or Devry? You want to go to the movies. Which is better, having a car (and one that starts and is not always in the shop) or taking the bus? You would like to vacation. Would you prefer a private plane to a private island with its own private beach, or coach to a three-star buffet-line-out-the-door on a public beach ‘resort’? You are sick. The Mayo clinic, or the local public hospital? You want to give to your fellow man. What is more satisfying; setting up a philanthropic foundation and traveling the world identifying amazing people and wonderful causes, or mailing a check to the YMCA? I could go on, but you get the point.

Notwithstanding, I want to focus more on the “Do what you love” argument. Because that is the crux; the ‘chicken or egg’ dilemma; and the one that befuddled me. As if the opportunity cost associated with each decision forces the negation of the other. A fool’s choice. Because the likelihood is, for what you love, you’ll need plenty-o’-cheese. Want to be a professional hockey player? Gonna need the gear and the ring time – not cheap in Phoenix, Arizona (and damn near impossible in Maiduguri, Nigeria). Want to be in politics? You’re gonna need to be independently wealthy to run (and be willing to lose a bunch) in order to maybe win (to say nothing of a few hundred million in campaign money). Want to be a writer? You’re gonna need about $10,000 per book, along with six months off to coax forth your best work. Add $100,000 for a 30 second commercial on TBS during Everybody Loves Raymond. Unless you’re Michelle Obama, as I was recently told by an agent (fun fact, I’m not!). Care about the environment? Poverty is, by far, the greatest polluter. Living a ‘green’ life in America is extraordinarily expensive; to say nothing of saving the whales which costs billions.  

It is more dramatic for those trapped in third world poverty, and don’t assume I am ungrateful for my chance birth. If anything, that is the point of this quasi-rant. We, as a country and as individuals, are missing out on our tremendous bounty through stupidity (rich and poor alike) and our overpowering narrative of victimization. Personally, I’m a little over-the-top as I teach my son to be grateful to God for everything he has (I’m sure it will backfire…). But I’m also putting every extra penny into his 529 (want to contribute? Buy one of my books!!). Because it needs to end. Ending poverty is generational; and involves hard work and some luck. The grandfather will build and (unless he is Henry Ford) it will take his whole life. By the time his children are fifty, perhaps he will have something to pass on to his son, in time for Jr. to reap a more relaxed retirement. Hopefully also a better earning potential product of the 529. But it will only be the third generation where the flexibility – abundance – will come. No need to be tied to a bad school district; to a meaningless job; to a difficult commute. It must start somewhere, that’s the lesson, for my little boy (and which I am learning late). Be grateful, work hard, and save; I’m saving for him, with the hopes that my grandchildren will never know the dry-mouthed panic of an empty bank account. I at least owe them that, though they are not yet born.

Save as if your child’s happiness depended on it; it likely does.

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