Third-World-Ization

I’ve been writing about the arriving ordeal for a while now; an ordeal which arrived and which announced itself via a pandemic that was first created and then mismanaged by the center – though the peripheries (as usual) will pay the highest price. “The Coming Anarchy” Robert Kaplan called it, 25 years ago when it was at once a vague threat and a clear and present danger. We had a season of “End of History” utopia – the 90s – my generation, when we were gently Camus existentialists in that pleasant “live and let die” sort of way. Before the nihilism came, nihilism which always follows the loss of meaning and which always leads to mayhem. “The Cause of Hitler’s Germany” was also the cause of the West’s malaise. In our case, not through war and genocide were the underlying incongruities in philosophy laid bare but instead through a ‘capitalist’ housing meltdown (fun fact there was nothing capitalist about that) and a global pandemic (which still rages). The third-world-ization of the formerly developed world. That which is accelerating as the West’s culture ossifies and calcifies, becoming more plutocratic in control and aristocratic in administration, a new old power structure of the winners against those now-permanently excluded and broken into camps to wage war against each other on the streets of Portland or the hallowed halls of the capital in the hopes they don’t notice something is seriously wrong and make a real effort to identify the culprit.

I once had a friend to whom I sent a synopsis of my ‘ordeal’, so taken was I with the impressions I had as a spectator of the unraveling of the peripheries (3 years in Nigeria, not to put too fine a point on it. The epicenter of the anarchy that came and like a gangrene is spreading). “You need to come back and spend some time in the suburbs” he said, lightheartedly (but pointedly) brushing me off. “It can’t happen here” as the subtext. “Didn’t you hear? History ended.”

But did it? I stumbled across an extraordinary essay yesterday in American Affairs Journal – a site I frequent, as the newest magazine that writes about our post-post-historical period (the rest mostly fighting with each other about the ordering of the deck chairs on our Titanic which has begun to take on serious water and list dangerously to the left – and sometimes right) – and which offers tremendous insight into the post-post-modern world. The essay, called “The Brazilianization of the World” is a long and involved but extremely insightful analysis of what is happening. Namely, the developing world, the second world, is not in fact developing. The West is un-developing. We are meeting each other somewhere in the messy middle – the encroachment of the peripheries has advanced just the entropy of our own misrule has extended.

I have dedicated what has been (so far) my career to the ‘end of history’, and only recently have come I come to realize my mistakes. It’s not easy for me to admit, not only because admitting errors in thought is humbling, but also because most of my erstwhile colleagues are still firmly ensconced in their ‘end of history’ ideas having totally missed ‘the end of the end of history’ – and would strenuously object to my assertion that the train has gone off the rails (mostly because admitting this is also to a degree admitting blame, which is harder still). To be sure, it’s not all their fault; it takes some courage and clarity to look up from the daily grind to see that things have changed – and not for the better. The water still comes out of the pipes, the electricity still works (well most of the time) and the internet still allows us to stream the endless pipeline of increasingly tawdry ‘content’. Isn’t that what Fukuyama promised we the victors of the end of days?

Yes, my career rested upon the philosophical certitude that the ‘recipe’ had been identified and honed over the generations: free market economics was going to meet representative democracy in an upward spiral to utopia. It was a nice idea. In my work, we were only one judicial training program, one electoral observation, one decentralization seminar away from exporting our model to Mali and Burma and Burkina Faso. That is still the assumption – if there is an assumption; nowadays the philosophy of “buying time” is the most en-vogue. Kicking the can is the best hope of successive “administrations”. Let the next guy (or gal) deal with it, let the political fallout accrue to them (or their party). And the blackouts? The debt defaults? The wars? The “…doomed future, not just of social exclusion and savage capitalism, but also the end of the state’s monopoly on violence, the emergence of powerful non-state actors, criminal gangs”? We’ll muddle through. And that is what we have gotten – our partisan debate meeting the dramatic expansion of the puissance of the state, an entity become so large and so intrusive that fighting over its control has become an existential exercise in the West. Especially for those who eschew classical morality for the positivist, Platonic idea that right emerges from the pen of he in power. Also the cause of Hitler’s Germany, incidentally.

And in this fight, we have all become Maoists. Because there was at least something grand about Stalin’s oxygenless totalitarian state – it was (though corrupt and inefficient and brutal) tremendously productive; they challenged the free world for five generations. Maoism does not build, seeking instead through ‘rectification’ and peripheral insurgency to destroy and level not through growth and fertilizer but through the bulldozing of everything. Cue Portland and our culture wars. New socialism is less Gramsci, and more Pol Pot. It is a temper tantrum; mindless rebellion – and its the only ‘communism’ that we are left with – the communism of the killing fields.

The peripheral problems are meeting us now where we sit, in our protected zip codes with decent wifi under our nuclear umbrella. Because the West cannot forever endure its own misrule; and the misrule of great states, when it arrives, is extraordinary indeed. The solution? The West’s aristocracy has already found it – though they won’t tell you. Admitting it would demand that they surrender their right to rule (and the benefits derived from money stolen mostly in taxes and control of the productive sector of economies and the purse-strings of the world), “The ‘revolt of the elites‘ – their escape from society, physically into heavily guarded private spaces, economically into the realm of global finance, politically into anti-democratic arrangements that out­source responsibility and inhibit accountability (…) polities closed to popular pres­sures but open to those with the resources and networks to directly influence politics.”

And for the rest of us? Would that we could return to the city states – as was intended, in the Toquevillian sense where “nothing is more opposed to the well-being and the freedom of men than vast empires”. Isn’t that after all what American division of powers was about? Three branches within the central government; and the states against the center? That is after all what the 10th Amendment was written for. Power destruction. Alas, nobody who seeks power ever believes less of it is the answer. That, at least, is probably uncontroversial. So what to do? We should all move to Dubai. Or Yerevan. Or Reykjavik. We can become Prester John or Abgar the V of Edessa. Maybe Peter Thiel’s ‘Seasteading’ is the answer. But for those of us locked as subjects of empire – or worse (so much worse) governed by the peripheries, the future doesn’t look all that bright. So buckle up – because if you thought that an economic meltdown and a pandemic were all that the 21st century has in store for us, you’re in for a surprise.

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The New America?

“Go see the new America,” I was advised by a not-altogether-well-meaning friend. “See how America has changed.” “America has changed a lot in the last nine years,” said another friend, “and not all for the better.” And yet again, “America is a different place,” coming this time closer from home.

So I decided to follow their advice. Now, I’m not some immigrant or some booze-soaked expatriate who has lost touch with the world – I have worked for America for twenty years, I have fought her wars, I have advanced her agendas, I have cajoled and pressured her enemies and I have fought in her own elections. Nevertheless, I have always been thoughtful – so I recently embarked upon a 2200 mile trek across America. Eight states, starting in the sun-drenched west (from whence I hail) and ending up in Washington D.C. Trump country, lots of it (and frankly by far the most pleasant). Because that is also God country (though naturally I am not conflating the two, don’t misunderstand).

“It’s gettin’ too busy here,” said an aged convenience store manager in Pine, AZ. “Now, you should see my 400 acres in Wyoming. That is freedom!” Pictures of hunting successes on the wall behind him. “And Phoenix – that is a disaster.” Pulled pork BBQ sandwiches along the back roads of Oklahoma; a catfish fisherman in the beautiful Ozark lakes beside a hollow which smelled of moonshine, a rusted double-wide on the lot adjacent to the mega-mansions of the rich, down from St. Louis perhaps for a week of fun in the sun.

And what did I see? I have no conclusions; America is a vast place and time moves about in waves ebbing and flowing and it’s sometimes best to let the tide carry you along though often life itself demands the full effort of paddling against currents destructive or counter-productive: and therein lies the art of living. In that spirit I do have some thoughts, of course. When have I not?

America is coming out of a once-in-a-century event. You could feel it everywhere, some places still panic stricken – New Mexico comes to mind; other places (Texas anyone?) finally releasing the facemask-dictatorship, defying the remaining vestiges of the managerial bureaucracy and emerging from a year of cringing to the glorious caress of spring winds in America. It will take a while for us to recover – this last year and a half was a singular life event, and the trauma of fear and uncertainty and stress will only be healed through time and reflection. Which doesn’t mean there won’t be trouble ahead – there is a reckoning coming. America did not do well in this trying season; not only did the administrative state fail us (Fauci emails anyone?) but it turns out that the tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists were right – we did this too ourselves (please read Vanity Fair’s opus: “The Lab Leak Theory“). Hubris and stupidity and moral hazard meeting Chinese duplicity, a toxic mix indeed. What could go wrong? And then 10,000,000 people died while everybody else in the world was sent to sit in their underwear watching reruns of Friends and phoning in their work. If they were lucky. Yes, there will be a reckoning – for those who do not fear nature and consider themselves the masters of the universe but don’t know where water goes when you flush or how to change a tire, they have a lot for which they must answer.

But its not just a pandemic. America’s new aristocracy has settled upon a strategy to cement their perpetual power. The consolidation of the new economic model is complete, now the question becomes, ‘How to control the masses?’ The losers. Those who do not rule. Virtue signaling is the activity of the day; led by the aristocrats and their managed economic model, a revolving door of also-aristocrats who no longer need fear the consumer (name the last time a good boycott worked?) for America is no longer a capitalist nation (and has not been for a while) and therefore the corporations have other masters than ourselves. They take orders now not from the purchasing decisions of main street but instead from the aristocrats who control the capital and write the regulations. This virtue signaling is a modern manifestation of Mao Zedong’s ‘rectification’ ceremonies, breaking people into small groups (like Churches used to do in Bible study) to confess to each other their inherent biases and promise to do better. Sound familiar? Except that in modern America, you can’t be executed. De-platformed or harassed or fired, sure, but you’ll probably escape with your life.

The purpose of this Maoist Millenial onslaught is not a better life, a happier life, a life more abundant. Conflict is the root of the human experience. If they, through their sand-paper friction upon society can pit people against each other upon the streets of Seattle or down the National Mall, they can rule forever from their equestrian centers in Fauquier County (drove through there yesterday in my little used car – it’s lovely…) They don’t watch TV to see the commercials they are now ramming into our children’s minds. They don’t troll Facebook, comparing themselves to their betters. They are the ‘betters’ – best not advertise that too loudly.

And it is a great science fiction – like Fauci’s cancelled memoir or the story of the Wuhan Wet Market.

Because I did not see a racist nation. Of course I didn’t! A nation build on the Christian faith cannot be. In Tucumcari I watched news from Amarillo about a boys center giving a place to the disadvantaged, teaching them to balance a bank account and hold down a job. In Russellville it was stories about food drives. News-anchors from local stations as Tocquevillian members of their own communities, mouthpieces of monumental unsung efforts to improve the lives of those in their areas of influence who are having a rougher time of things than others. From the beaches of Maryland, where the Bachata music thumped over the evangelical sermon in Spanish; where the frat-boy and his polished girlfriend jogged, weaving around the woman in a full niqab wading through the salt-water after her son – to the Native American trucker from Gallup happy to be home after a long trip – this land is our land, all of us. The flow of commerce and do-gooderism unsung, the un-frayable fabric of America the final defense of those who always advise “Don’t bet against the United States!”

To be sure, there are pockets of tremendous wickedness, which ironically are some of the most homogenous places I saw (urban gentrified DC comes to mind, where I was two days ago). Places in that Tolkienien way which “Look fairer and feel fouler”; places where the aristocracy does not go, but nevertheless places that the administrative state has honed in on, to try and use their corporate bullying and their misplaced sense of guilt, using words like “diversity and inclusion” as a Maoist chant for a new utopia which replaces faith at the center of that massive hole where God and community used to be. The people in those places should go to a truck stop in Tennessee or a church service in Phoenix.

Jim Burnham used to enjoy most of all his trips in car across these great United States. Eschewing Lausanne or Munich he would drive with his family through Tulsa and Tucson; giving him the chance to take the temperature of the nation and get a feel for the direction things are going. I would recommend this to the aristocracy of America – because things are changing indeed, and fast. Their virus leak has seen to that. Best they rectify their rectifications, before their cultural bait-and-switch slips out of their control like a lab-cooked bug (too soon?) and they lose their privilege forever.

So has America changed? Of course. The world changed, why should America be any different? Like September 11th; like the fall of the Berlin Wall; like the civil war; like ‘I Have A Dream’ (incidentally I took my son to stand where Martin Luther King Jr. once stood) – post-pandemic America is a different place. But nihilist or cynical we are not, not through the lack of some trying to push us in that direction. But because America is a place of individual effort and responsibility and such, as always, America will be the land we make it.

Let’s get to work!!!

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It Came From a Lab…

I’m not really accustomed to quick posts on current events, my writing being focused mostly on culture and politics and art and travel – civilizational writings meant to inspire wonder. However Vanity Fair just published the most extraordinary piece of investigative journalism for which they should win a Pulitzer but instead will most likely be ignored – if they are not forced to pull it down or retract – and I have felt the need to amplify. My version of a “share’ or “retweet” since I do not participate in social media, seeking out as I do the more thoughtful reader.

Short version – the greatest story of our lifetime. Not only did we just live through a hundred year pandemic (which is still burning, 10,000+ a day are still dying – 7.1 million and counting if you believe the ‘excess deaths’ data) – but we created this pandemic ourselves out of hubris and contempt for nature and her power, and then tried to cover it up. The biggest cover-up in the history of history.

It reads like a bad ‘B’ movie that I would watch on the SyFy channel at 2:00am after eating too much spicy food unable to sleep. Read here and share – for it took courage to write, and we should respect that effort. Vanity Fair: The Lab-Leak Theory.

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Night – by Elie Wiesel

“No, not in the twentieth century,” was the flippant answer of the Jews of Sighet in Transylvania when told of the ongoing holocaust by the Nazi German Government. “Not in the 20th century.” The century when I was born. Three genocides – Armenia, the Holocaust and Rwanda. Much more violence than the world should have accepted.

But it was the genocide against the Jews that captured our collective imagination – for its special wickedness, it’s tremendously efficient brutality. And rightly so – because it was against God’s chosen people, who brought us salvation and who we are bound by duty and faith and morality to protect and defend. Not that we, of course, don’t defend everybody. But like Francois Mauriac wrote in the forward, “…that connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in which the faith of his (Wiesel’s) childhood was lost.” What is the “Response to Auschwitz?” Wiesel asks in the new forward – that is it. Jesus’s suffering – an apology of sorts to all the human suffering that has come down the line since creation. Recognition of that fundamental flaw in the human condition that makes us sentient, gives us tremendous powers of creation – to glorify Him or to be wicked. And to die, in recognition that we most often will choose the latter.

I find it interesting that “Night” reads so much like “Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” that it is tragically uncanny. True, “Night” is a first person account, and Denisovich is a work of fiction. But is it? The gulag was just as real as Auschwitz – except longer. There was no hope of foreign liberation like the Jews of Auschwitz had with the Russians or Americans. That did not make their suffering less wicked – nor the victims of Stalin either. They are the same.

“But that was the 20th century. This is the 21st century. Not this time.” – Except the mass camps in the People’s Republic of China holding the Uighurs; the political death camps of Kim Jong the next and Kim Jong who comes after that. Tigray in Ethiopia – ironically orchestrated by a colleague Nobel winner of sorts of Elie. So too the Rohingya in Burma – another Nobel Prize winner. The bombing of Libya and Syria and Afghanistan by yet another Nobel Prize winner; 250,000 lives lost in Iraq – maybe more. The 21st century isn’t the 20th? Its not worse, nor is it better. It’s the same.

So what to do? We keep raising our voices. To remember the Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust – to call it by name and not shy away from the fact that we could have done more – that we still should be doing more. Because like Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “Our lives are no longer our own. They belong to those who need us desperately.”

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The Maze by Albert Likhanov

This was a curious novel, by one of the Soviet Union’s most famous children’s writers. It is simple, as it is written from the POV of a young boy struggling through pretty normal problems in life unfortunately. Problems in the family; friendship issues; troubles at school – how to grapple with that process of growing up which we all must go through.

I think the most interesting thing for me was the portrayal of these challenges, living as the boy did inside the Soviet system. And how that system made all the normal problems that much more difficult to resolve. The conflict in the family is between the grandmother and her daughter’s husband, the latter which is forced to live in granny’s house because of the severe rationing of housing in the USSR. He works a job, forced to surrender all his wages to her – until he rebels and leaves. Granny, who forces the little boy to write first to the Soviet ‘worker management’ of the company where his dad works and then the town Soviet to try and force him back – landing them all in court. The impossibility of him to find other lodgings.

And money. Socialists would tell you that the dream of that economic and political model is to make money less important. In reality, money (and its lack) become center stage, taking an all-consuming role in the lives of the everyday citizens. Its all people can think of, because it is so scarce and so difficult to come by but still so important in the struggle to secure the normal privileges that we in free societies have come to take for granted.

Likhanov is still alive – he’s still an important figure in post-soviet intellectual circles. I wonder what he would say about all that has happened over the last 30 years. I bet that would be a conversation worth having!

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My Last Night in Yerevan

The quiet hum of Ashtarak highway reverberates in the background; the wind rustles the trees, new leaves – excited to show them off after a long cold winter. The city, away down into the valley buzzes with life: restaurants and some night clubs; a couple sits together on chairs outside of a cafe, sharing a secret. He says something in her ear, she laughs. A boy walks with his girl through lovers park, holding her close, its darkness under the cover of the trees now making their intimate rendezvous somehow forbidden. The booksellers are putting away their earnings for the day, stacking their books – covering them with tarps or into boxes; nobody will steal their livelihoods. Tomorrow will come another day, and there will be more opportunities – books are eternal after all, timeless as are those who seek them out — always coming, though never in a torrent the slow trickle never does abate despite the changing winds of world affairs. To escape into something epic and old – after all ambition has burned away is an unchanging fact and these ancient denizens as immutable as the bronze statues of the Cascade are willing to wait.

Tonight is my last night in Yerevan. That sentence was hard to write – I never expected to fall in love with a place and a people as I have here in Armenia. One of those special things that is all the more grand because it takes you by surprise, sweeping you away in a torrent of emotions. I remember my first night in Yerevan, just over two years ago. It was cold then, I walked the outdoor shopping mall – stopping for street food at midnight watching the children at play, “What are they doing out?” There was no pandemic then – there was no war – the “weeping nation” was filled with an almost youthful optimism, exuberance. So too was I. Coming from my wars in Africa, I found the fog that had closed in around my dark night of the soul temporarily lifted. Until the pessimism returned – unexpected and unwanted. But even that did not take away from my time here in Armenia. For Armenia saved my life, and for that I will always be grateful.

To be sure, it was not a euphoric time – as it started out to be. It is unwise, unkind to be too happy in such a time as this; and when the global catastrophe meets an ancient war rekindled… I spent the time – when not in lockdown – in communion with my little boy. I got to know him, really know him – and he grew into a boy here. “Goodbyes are hard” he said to me today, tears flowing freely down his cheeks as he bade farewell to schoolmates. Then it was off, to hunt down the elusive water-snake of the pond. We hiked mountains and made dams in rivers and trekked forests – we ate BBQ and dolma and fruit — so much fruit. Watermelon then cherries then apricots then peaches.

It was a quiet, somewhat lonely time – my time in Armenia. I developed good friendships that remained stillborn upon the shuttering of the world; leaving me with that feeling of wanting, of not being fully satiated like during a meal when they take away the main course before you can partake. I wish I could have spent more time here, debating ancient authors – discussing olden myths – praying in the monasteries black with the soot of a millennium of candles each one’s delicate smoke-trail taking the supplication up to God. And I lit not a few of my own; hopes that went upwards and left their tiny mark upon the intrados of the ancient houses of worship making common cause with so great a cloud of witnesses as this place has.

Tonight is my last night in Armenia. Life is transient and sad; we must come to grips with that. Things come and go and come back around but they are never the same – life is to be lived now, in the fresh pomegranate and the snow-ball fight and the ski adventure; in the moment when your little boy says “Daddy lets listen to music while we throw the frisbee” and though you are tired you pick up the toy and out into the glorious Armenian afternoon you go to revel in life lived now. Because it will never be again.

To be sure, there will be other moments. I will write about them – for those who care to read. And I’m excited about them too; swimming the coves of forgotten beaches – trekking the forests of my land – experiencing the vastness of the place that is my home and that I have never really experienced, not the way I plan to. But I will always take Armenia in my heart; and if I find myself comparing a golden valley high in the Rocky Mountains with a beautiful highland south-Caucasus pass – you might grin and forgive me. For I once lived in Armenia – and that changed everything.

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War, Pandemic, and Depression

It was at the very beginning of my days of adulthood – grad school to be precise – when nineteen terrorists smashed two planes into the sides of two sky-scrapers. I was sitting in the student union at university in Boston, watching people jumping from high windows, firemen running into the ash. I remember it all. It was to be my first war; well not my first war. I’d already done some short stints in Kosovo and eastern Congo. But my first war, the first one about me and mine. The “war on terror” that for Americans was about pictures of bombs mostly on the nightly news and political criticisms of 43 for an ill-fated invasion.

I came of age in the heady times that Francis Fukuyama called the “End of History”. I know, I pick on old Frank a lot; he is just such a perfect lightning rod for all the pent up accumulated hubris of the ‘administrative state’ convinced we are just one worker training program, judicial strengthening grant and Vladimir Putin summit away from utopia. I came of age when wars were to be a thing of the past. I came of age when ‘The era of big government was over’ (that was 42, before 43 brought it back). Government is like a crack addiction; the answer is never less. ‘Nothing else matters’ by Metallica and ‘Live and let die’ by Guns and Roses were the songs of the day – a mild harmless existentialism was ours. Nothing like wretched nihilism of now. But ours was an age when the big considerations were part of the past. Even the EU, I was actually in the EU (Spain) when the single currency EURO was rolled out, epic solutions that would finally relegate all considerations to a box on a form filled out and filed in Brussels.

I did not think the story of my life would be summed up by the three words: war, depression and pandemic. War – of course the ‘War on Terror’ which for me was lived not only on the TV but on the blasted sands of West Africa. For six years I fought the war – against Al Qaida and ISIS and Boko Haram – though I am not a soldier. In point of fact, soldiers – while essential and to be honored – are not the whole story of war. I’ve taken more jihadis off the battlefield than any platoon – 6000, maybe 15,000 – depending on how you count. I’ve had people in harm’s way; I’ve spent many a worried sleepless night. And I’ve also sheltered from the bombs. Of course those wars were to a certain extent mine – but I’ve also participated in other people’s wars. Uganda, Congo, Nagorno-Karabakh. Trying to be the ‘good guy’ – if there is such a thing. I’ve written a novel about the Uganda war, from the point of view of our enemy. Empathy, that is the first casualty of war.

To be sure, those are my stories – but depression? Wasn’t that about dust-bowls and bread-lines and stock market crashes in the deep past. But I’ve lived two of them, well perhaps one and a half. But these, so have you. And in this, I’m exceedingly lucky, as perhaps are you. Because the real victims of the depressions are the generation that people (me included) love to pick on, the Millenials. They were just emerging from college, when the great recession (it was a depression) of 2008 hit. And it almost wiped away the world… Setting us all back years – I remember watching my nest egg drain down to the price of a crappy car. But I at least was gainfully employed in my wars; put my head down and move forward. Not so on your mama’s couch. Then, just as they start to get their legs under them, a few short years later a pandemic wipes away more years. They don’t buy houses – Millenials don’t. Nor are they having children. No wonder they’ve become Maoists – the system sure does feel rigged. Maybe utopia will lie beyond a sophomoric course in “How to be actively anti-racist”.

Which brings me to pandemic – because this one took me totally by surprise!! Perhaps because it was so sudden. I never realized how quickly a pandemic burns – one month I was closing the lid on the last of the Christmas cookies and the next I was engaged in toilet-paper-fights up and down the aisles (OK I wasn’t, that’s an exaggeration). And because it wasn’t supposed to be so. 2020 was for me to be an epic year, after six years of West African wars. It was not supposed to be a year cowering in fear of ‘vectors’ I used to think of as friends. Seven million dead now – the 5th highest death rate for a new disease in history (I’m not counting multiple explosions of the Black Death). A world shuttered, closed for business. A single-story year (which of course had lots of sub-plots) – a year that will give birth to movies and novels (I’m gonna write one) and reminiscences about “where were you when…?” – same as 9-11.

All this has led me to be thoughtful, especially because I’m also closing a chapter of my own personal story. “The unexamined life…” as it were. I think the main takeaway for now is a sense continuity. For those born in the 50s or perhaps the 60s onward, ours were the post-generations. Post-war, post-poverty, certainly post-pandemic. Those were things of the past. The United Nations was going to deal with the wars and our scientists and our CDC the diseases. Sure the Russians were out there, but nobody really believed there would be war. Mutually assured destruction was very compelling. Ya, we knew of the gulags and death camps and killing fields, but that was over there – the West was over all of it. Europe was descending into a nice cozy brew of sticky cheese and overpriced wine; the United States was rapaciously building new houses and bigger cars in which we were consuming our seven-pound-burritos. That all ended, well I guess in 2001 – for my generation; and the last twenty years have returned us to history – to an anarchy awaiting that finally came. My point? Progress is not a reasonable hope.

I’m currently in the former Soviet Union, in Armenia – for a few more days at any rate. I’ve weathered the pandemic and my latest war here. For me, my fifth or sixth (again depends on how you count) – for the Armenians, well they are innumerable. They count their adversaries among names that only appear in codices dredged from the bottom of lakes or inside ancient caves: Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Ottomans. War – for the Armenians – is nothing new. And pandemics? Didn’t the invading Mongols hurl Black Death riddled bodies over the walls of Amberd Fortress to soften the battlefield before breaching the walls?

Genocide, which is as much about disease as it is about anything else – death-marches into the desert. The Armenians have weathered the pandemic and the next war with stoicism and a certain amount of fatalism; “We are in a bad neighborhood” as my friends here repeat often. Because its true. Being in a place old and yet still optimistic, still looking to the future – confident in who they are even if they feel tremendously vulnerable to the predations of far-more-powerful enemies; that is something that we as Americans could learn from. With no real external enemies, we far too often turn on each other.

I wonder if the new generation of Americans will be different? Those who are just now coming of age, who don’t remember the Soviet Union but will recall the days that the airplanes stop flying. I wonder what lessons they will take, for their own future – what kind of world they will seek to build out of the wreckage of ours? The human story is cyclical – birth, growth, death and rebirth. Creation, debasement, extinction and renewal. While our tech might improve, that should not be mistaken for an improvement in the way human beings reason – if anything the farther away we go from our cultures and traditions the more wicked and violent we become. But faith also renews itself – our great revivals in America put that on display; the rebirth of Protestantism from the wicked debauchery of Rome before that.

These are some of my musings on a quiet Sunday in Yerevan. To those who have stayed with me this long, thanks for joining me. It is, after all, a year for reflection. For none of us has ever lived anything like what this year has been.

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The Commission On Unalienable Rights

One of the most extraordinary things that came out of the 45th President’s Department of State was the Commission on Unalienable Rights (and its subsequent report – find it here). The commission was set up in 2019 and the final report was published in summer of 2020. Given the political turmoil and the pandemic and the election, the report was widely ignored except by those organizations who saw in it a fundamental threat at their attempts at socially engineering our democracies (and each other) using the terminology of “rights” to make their claims on us, our attentions, our affections and our money a moral issue – unchallengeable. All this makes the commission’s reports more important, and more compelling.

This report is probably the State Department’s most important contribution to the debate on fundamental rights in a generation, if not longer. It is an extraordinary work of scholarship by a group of dedicated thinkers who are able to discern with wisdom and clarity through the muck and the morass of the modern ‘human rights’ jargon and debate – by those attempting to muddy the waters to make them appear deep – into the real problem with why humanity seems to be treating itself and each other worse than ever. For not since the soviet times have there been threats to our fundamental – unalienable – rights as there are today. It seeks to answer the question, what are our fundamental – God given – rights as human beings that set us apart from the animals.

And the problem is blatantly, boldly, nakedly clear and made supremely obvious by looking no further than the membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council (allegedly the supreme guarantors of humanity’s rights agenda) — China, Cuba, Russia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and a few other less egregious offenders, USA now included. The cynicism of the United Nations and of their human rights agenda apparently knows no bounds. In the USA we are stuck in the argument between the Republicans and Democrats on whether we should be members of the council or not – the age-old argument about whether we can better improve or challenge an organization by working from the inside or throwing rocks from outside. But neither side of the debate thinks that these members should be the guardians of our rights.

So what happened? It’s complicated. Short version, the tremendous moral power of the idea of Universal Human Rights was so compelling – because it touches again something inside us which makes our hearts sing and inspires our better angels – that it could not be left un-assailed by the adversaries of human freedom. Mostly the damage happened before my lifetime, by the Soviet Union and their minions in all the United Nations councils and conventions, using the soft caress of utopianism to bend and corrupt; the hallmark of socialist or communist or fascist ideologies to push us into collectivities and thereby control us as a herd.

The issue here is something that the old cold-warrior human rights defender from assailed eastern Europe Aaron Rhodes has called “Rights Inflation”. Rhodes wrote a book about the problem, much more eloquently than I ever can explain the issue and I encourage you to read it – it’s called “The Debasement of Human Rights” and my review can be found here.

Back to the Commission’s report. Life, liberty, property – those are our rights. Everything else are goods, and important ones!! Health care or child play time or university education are not rights in the philosophical sense – they are instead negotiations within free societies of the role of the state and their contract (oh no, not Rousseau again!) with the citizens. And these things change from culture to culture, society to society, place to place – some people want socialized medicine for example, others want a market based solution; some people want to talk about culture and decide which cultures have the right to their traditions and who should pay for it, etc. And these are fine debates, to have in free societies among citizens who have an interest in advancing their own wellbeing and the health of their nations.

The problem is that adding all these things in an inflationary spiral represents a bait and switch, which was the ingenious plan of the USSR. And I’ve heard it exposed by the newest addition to global communism, in Venezuela. They repeated the same old statements as the USSR of old, statements like, “What good is it to speak our mind, if we don’t have food? What good is it to have the right to our property if we are too poor to buy anything? What good is it to have the right to our faith if we die of disease?” And it sounds compelling, which is why it is so successful – and has been over history. It is a timeless defense of the dictator who can deliver a bag of beans to a starving peasant. Until of course he can’t… or worse doesn’t want to…

The Commission’s extraordinary report was so powerful that if you google it all you get are pages and pages of denouncements by the human rights community who see their interests assaulted by a reiteration of philosophical truths inimical to their agendas. And they are not bad people, I know many of them and consider friends as lots of them and I even agree with the desired end states. A society where all children can play; where there is food for everybody; where there is free healthcare if you need it and you can find a job that gives your days under the sun meaning??? Count me in!!!!! In point of fact, I’ve been fighting for these all my life in places like Mali, Uganda, Venezuela, Congo – for people whose very diplomats keep them enslaved while gracing the cushioned seats at the United Nations, explaining why theirs is a better model than the one which the United States was built upon.

Alas, what the misguided ‘human rights’ community doesn’t realize, however, is that they are playing into the hands of those who do not want the things that we want – they are political tools of China and Bolivia and the Sudan. They have been seduced by a glowing utopia and allowed that seduction to bring them into common cause with Cuba’s totalitarian government which has robbed its people of seven generations of life.

That is why the Commission’s report was so important. And it’s now out there. I wish it had been better received; I wish it had come at a better moment when the world was more ready for thinking. I wish it had come from an administration which was perhaps more empathetic and able to make the case that what we as Americans want is to advance ideas that have results in the real world, to solve the problems of hunger and disease and tyranny which have befuddled us for so long. But nothing is perfect – and such as it is, I am glad that this State Department report was written. It makes the world a better place.

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On Oppression

Last night I was reading the Bible to my little boy – we are now in the life of Jesus – the story about when the Pharisees tried to trick him by asking him whether a good Jew should pay taxes to Rome (the occupying empire of the day). His answer, of course well known (to all who know, well anything really) was “Whose picture is on the coin?” When they Pharisees were forced to answer “Caesar’s,” Jesus responded with “Well then give him what is his and give God what belongs to Him.”

The message was revolutionary (in that period of zealotry and political ferment in occupied Jerusalem) because it was counter-revolutionary. He effectively told the Pharisees “I am not come to challenge the might, authority or legitimacy of Rome. I’m here after bigger things.” God is not particularly interested in the partisan political contest of the moment – His church is old and His work even older; from the times before he called an elder from ancient Ur to trudge across the desert, before he appeared to an ancient pre-flood nobleman in Job (probably the most ancient story of all). All the way back to a flood and the rainbow promise that there would be no worldwide cataclysm again. The politics of oppression? Rebellion against a fat king in a distant capital? Jesus was after way more than that – because there is always a fat king.

Today politics permeates everything; and I’m a little cursed because I work on political issues and the permeation affects my life too much, making me sad – as it does everybody else. These days it’s again the politics of oppression (perhaps it always has been), of who can lay claim to the sacred chalice of ‘most oppressed’ thereby finding the keys which grant entry into the ‘Kingdom of Envy’ in all its glorious misery.

But oppression? I daresay, the mantle for most-often and most-systematically oppressed goes to we, the Christians. Long before the Millennial Maoists of today are trying to take our Twitter handles for speaking ancient truths, we were being oppressed. Iraq has been emptied of Christians. North Korean Christians are put in re-education camps. The real Maoists in China massacred our missionaries in the hundreds; the Lumumba revolutions in Congo did the same. The Sudanese followers of the Mahdi put us up on crosses. The Pilgrims fled discrimination which was keeping them in poverty to a new land where they built a home of faith free from the state (not the other way around, like the modern Jacobians would insist). Farther back, did not Rome itself send us into the catacombs? Did not Nero light his debauched festivities of wickedness and hedonism with the burning bodies of Christians – impaled and covered in tar and set alight?

What did this oppression do? Did it make us bitter, redistributionist? Did it make us whine and complain? Did it make us revolutionaries – as the current Pope would hope? Far from it. We have always taken our cues from Jesus, “Give to Caesar”. No tax revolts against the powers; because who cares about money anyway – instead setting up the first ‘socialist’ societies of early Christians helping each other with the little they had? No slave revolutions; Paul writing to Philemon imploring him to receive back Onesimus (his escaped slave) but as a brother, knowing that it was Philemon’s immortal soul in contest. People of all colors from all background and both genders (yes, there are only two) united under the common story of survival against those who tried to wipe us off the map. I am uninterested, as most Christians are, in the modern politics of oppression unto utopia. My ideas are older, my loves are more profound than the current ferment. I know I have at best thirty more years on this lovely planet, and after that – I will go to where my immortal soul has found a place. Where will yours go? Have you asked yourself that? Beside Stalin and Hitler and Fidel; or beside those people that Hebrew’s calls “our great cloud of witnesses”.

And incidentally, for those who think perhaps ratcheting up the abuse might work – Christians are at their best when persecuted. We do not handle political power well, like everybody else. Corruption seeps into even those who started out well meaning. But push us into the catacombs and we become an unstoppable force.

So to fear the Maoist Millennials and their sophomoric attempts at ‘oppression’; to silence and ‘de-platform’ us? Ha! We will go back to the caves to carve our ichthyses. Because we the inheritors of the spirits of the Desert Fathers know that life is short and our faith is old and we can’t be bothered by earthly intimidations of the wicked. For we are also Augustine the Berber, who will again sit atop a hill while the new Rome burns, again writing “City of God” – if she cannot be saved, though we are trying with all our might!

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Seek Out The Glorious

It has been a rough year, to say the least. Disease and ‘isolation’, those “premodern idea(s) of quarantines, closures, and measured lockdowns.” A way of thinking that is “not just premodern; (instead) turning the logic of modern medicine on its head.” The effects have been catastrophic, not just for our public and private finances (the bill for this mess has been $20 trillion and counting), not just in the knockoff effects of isolation and misery and suicide. In my particular case, or my environment, it has meant war and incompetence. Incidentally, these things go together – they are related. Chaos follows governmental incompetence mostly. They are the ones with the ‘legitimate use of force’ to misuse after all.

“A theme has emerged throughout (the hundreds of years of analysis of government ‘help’): policy officials are quite often ill informed or have bad incentives compared with what individuals, markets, institutions, and society can achieve on their own. Economists have documented how government intervention leads to various unintended economic consequences and even human rights abuses.” What is the answer? “We prefer private governance to public governance. We have applied this logic against socialism, fascism, war, macroeconomic planning, public goods, monetary policy, countercyclical fiscal policy, environmental regulation, and a hundred other issues. We’ve made a solid case for pure freedom.”

We are losing this debate. Or perhaps we lost it, in the face of the overwhelming power of Burnham’s “Managerial Elites”, our new aristocrats so puissant that they brought down a president. The 2020 pandemic is their wet dream, that moment when they have a cart-blanch to order any intrusion on life public and private. Always wanted to shut down churches? Check. Want to censure speech? Check. Want trillions of dollars in unaccountable money to do whatever you want with? Check. Al Jazeera free commercials declaring “there’s a little hero in all of us” as they show a fat man watching TV on his couch? Oh, if we all would just stay home, so many of the world’s problems would be solved – right? Mark my words, the death-eating apocalyptic climate crowd is salivating – just waiting for their turn.

And what did we get for our colossal efforts of discipline? 7,000,000 dead – that’s the #5 pandemic for a new disease in the history of history. And this might very well be the most global, affecting every human on the planet – that has never happened before. For me personally, as I mentioned, it has also meant war. Those seeking to return to violence to settle old scores while the world is preoccupied and the peacemakers are eating Doritos in front of Netflix. And governmental incompetence on such a massive scale it takes the breath away. Hundreds of billions of ‘relief’ payments stolen by Nigerian hackers. Unemployed waiting for weeks and weeks on hold to talk to an agent of government, somebody who can help them cover rent since the normal way was destroyed by lockdowns. Websites crashing. ‘Guidance’, that aristocratic word which has come to replace ‘orders’, it sounds more gentle – though it means the same thing — the ‘guidance’ changing daily, from the ‘scientists’ we are told to worship. It’s airborne, no its not, oh wait yes it is; you can’t have sex, ok now you can go ahead, oh wait maybe not; don’t wear a mask, no wear two; take this vaccine – oh wait maybe not yet, ok now its fine! Teachers abandoning their sacred duty – a lost generation of children some are saying. An explosion of inequality as the ‘aristocracy’ cashes in and everybody else fades away. Not a stellar record to justify this mess. I know, I’m not an epidemiologist nor an economist – just a man with a little bit of common sense and enough life experience to call “bullshit” on those who consider themselves my betters.

Tocqueville warned us about all this. The countries that have done the worst are the big ones. The city states did much better. Perhaps the virus circulated in equal measure (how do you stop a pandemic?), but the societies did better. More humane. Rallying around each other. Meeting each other’s needs. Debating the nuances, calculating risk, giving people choices. Consent this used to be called. All the while the Coming Anarchy Robert Kaplan warned us about came, burying the big countries – India and Brazil and EU and USA. But what about China? You say – buying their propaganda (do you really believe a country of 1.4 billion has 15 new cases in a day?) And even if they did, an oxygenless dictatorship can do a lot. The USSR challenged the USA for 70 years – but they had to turn their country into the largest forced-labor camp in the history of humanity to do it (read Solzhenitsyn for a good summary of that). I sure as hell would not want to live there; stuck in my re-education camp while the Chinese Communist Party harvests my hair.

At this point you are probably accusing me of a bait-and-switch. “What does any of this have to do with anything glorious?” Thanks for asking!!! Because there is only one way to fight the wicked incompetence of the death-eaters. And that is to remind the world that there is nothing glorious there, no life there, nothing there that touches our heart-strings of humanity – if nothing else, the misery of the last year might prompt you to agree with that. There is rarely anything glorious to be found in groups – especially collectivities based on shared ideology – for another word for a group is a mob.

So what to do…? If I might proffer an option, seek out the glorious and write about it!! The extraordinary beauty of a Caucasus mountain valley. The amazing power of book well-written and moving. The pure joy of a little boy at play. The gentle love of man’s best friend at your side as you hike the storied places of your land. The individual stories of resistance and resilience in the face not of a virus – that is not an ‘enemy’ insofar as it has no motivation – but instead in the face of the massive dehumanization that has arisen over the last year, where we all have been reduced alternately to vessels of government ‘economic stimulus’ and vectors of disease. If you do that, and tag me I’ll re-blog those stories here and share them to my (admittedly limited) audience, thereby reminding those out there who think of us only as tools in their attempts to control us – that we aren’t so easily controlled, we who love our lives, our families and the natural beauty of our world. That the aristocracy that eats souls cannot have ours for the price of a few thousand dollars deposited in our account and 17 hours on hold with the Bureau of Labor office. That we will write alone, dream alone and continue to build our world in spite of the thousand-papercut-murder attempts by our betters.

I’ll start (I actually did) – I wrote a post about my time in Armenia the other day, because Armenia Saved My Life – I invite you to read it and make common cause as I have with something ancient and timeless that has weathered lots of pandemics since Noah marched down off the great Mountain of Ararat. And secondly, here’s a picture I took, in the highlands of Armenia, which made me tear up at the natural beauty of our world. Go forth now, and be glorious!!!! The world needs that.

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