Memorial Day and Freedom

Two weeks ago Felix Maradiaga received the Geneva Summit for Human Rights award for courage. This award was sort of personal, because I’ve known Felix for more than 10 years and for the last two I worked with his wife and others to try and get him released from Daniel Ortega’s (the Nicaraguan dictator) gulag. After two years in jail, he was one night unceremoniously loaded onto an airplane with another 221 Nicaraguan political prisoners and flown to Dulles on what has become known as the “Freedom Flight” (we cannot help but think here of the famous “Philosophers’ Ship” of dissidents being expelled by Lenin from Russia).

This year CATO Institute gave its 2023 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong retail billionaire turned freedom advocate who dared to defy Beijing.

A few weeks ago I attended the International Republic Institute 2023 John McCain Freedom Award which was given to the women of Iran in honor of their struggle to be free.

A month ago I attended Grammy’s on the Hill celebrating Afghanistan National Institute of Music with Dr. Ahmad Sarmast and honored the school’s flight to freedom in Portugal (in which I played a small part) and the struggle of the girls of Afghanistan to continue to play music despite the Taliban’s totalitarianism.

The idea of freedom is baked into the American experiment. And today, Memorial Day, is a day when we remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers, often the ultimate sacrifices, who fought and sometimes even died to keep us free.

Its for that reason, with not a little bit of sadness and frustration we see these days the word “Freedom” becoming overused, and in that overuse rendered meaningless. It has been profaned to sell beer and cars and widgets; it has been appropriated by everyone to use for their political agenda, whatever that agenda may be. Even in our own land, it has been emptied of meaning by libertarians who have become libertines (Patrick Deneen writes about this eloquently in his book “Why Liberalism Failed”) and used to advance the idea of “you do you”, a pastless, futureless idea empty of any responsibility except the satiation of the immediate desires of now, whether they be right or wrong; helpful or harmful – even those ideas themselves now seen as discrimination against the ‘liberty’ to do exactly as I damn well please.

Liberty has become license.

Liberty is complicated. It gets caught in difficult arguments about debt-ceiling limits; about adequate tariff policies to protect domestic industry; about the role of decentralization and the separation of powers; about what I have the right to do living tightly packed in cities with other people who might not want to see that, and might feel it is an infringement of their liberties. Because liberty, true liberty, is about restraint. It is about freedom from my baser instincts, with the help of God and family and community. It is about living a life of sacrifice. All of this is lost in the modern discussion of liberty.

But that does not mean that liberty has failed. The United States shows us this; as we continue to inspire the world. Whether its Nicaraguans, Iranians, Afghans or anyone else living in a place not where people have to show restraint, but where they cannot go outside without fear of arrest, cannot assemble in peace, cannot expect any due process when they feel they are wronged. Those people are not protesting to live a licentious life, they are protesting to be allowed to exercise their discipline, restraint, and committment to building their futures which has been denied them. Felix was denied a Bible by the oxygenless totalitarianism of Ortega. Afghanistan’s girls are denied, well everything, but in the case of ANIM the right to play classical music.

My final point, we hear a lot about China these days, as an alternative model to the United States and our free society. But is that really true? How many people have you talked to who say “Wow, I wish I could move to Beijing?” How many border guards do they employ to try and keep migrants from overwhelming their country? How many times do you hear “Wow there’s a new Chinese novel…” or “Hey we gotta go hear that new Chinese band…” or “Hey there’s a new Chinese movie that really touched my heart…”

Never. Not once, not ever. Because civilizational ideas – like the United States’ free society – are ones that inspire; and totalitarianism inspires no one.

That does not mean that we should not have the discussions about tariff policy; about protection of domestic industry; about the importance of morality and propriety in our society. About how to protect our environment; about how to control ‘fast fashion’ and other damaging business activities that produce waste and damage the world. We should not, as Deneen has outlined, let our free society fall pray to its own success; or put differently, be victimized by its own ideas. And above all, today Memorial Day, we need to remember to honor the soldiers who gave everything to allow us to keep having these pernicious debates in freedom.

So thank you!

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Mi Novela Sobre el Sahara

Una vez, hace casi 10 años viví en Mali. Un pueblo desértico, pobre pero con una tradición antiguísima de un Islam Sufi, una riqueza casi sin fin, y una tradición intelectual y académica sin precedentes en África. Éste es una novela sobre eso, sobre un niño Tuareg que busca entender a su mundo y encuentra la violencia y el salafismo; pero con la ocupación de Tombuktu, encuentra las bibliotecas. Y con ellas, finalmente, la paz. Es una verdadera épica.

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Una Épica Sobre La Venezuela Chavista

Vivi siete años en Venezuela. Lo conocí en la época ‘buena’; es decir, los tiempos de Carlos Andres Perez “2”. Y después los años de Hugo Chavez. La única manera de contar la historia de la Venezuela Chavista es atraves de una novela. Tipo Vargas Llosa o GABO. Sobre la energía de la revolución y cómo termina, con violencia y pobreza.

O, en muchos casos, como es el caso de Venezuela – nunca termina.

Esta es mi novela, es LA novela definitiva sobre los años de caos. Comprenlo; para sus hijos que nunca van a entender lo que paso si no leen los cuentos.

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The Lost History of Christianity – A Review

There once was an ancient Christian Church in the East, which was destroyed by the advance of Islam.

That is basically the story line of this book. And it’s not wrong, Islam is an expeditionary religion, like Christianity, and it’s challenging for these to co-exist. Especially before the advent of the modern “secular” state which is, allegedly (with all its positives and negatives) a state that does not choose sides in issues of faith. “Congress shall make no law” and other such statements.

Back in the day, faiths relied upon state support and vied aggressively (sometimes viciously) for the attentions of the sovereign.

I must admit I was somewhat disappointed by this book. There is something wondrous about the fact that, long before the Catholic Church had its power and way back before the Vikings and while Europeans were still poor peasants farming the ground there was a massive, organized, powerful church that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. In important places like Edessa and Samarkand there were monasteries and theology schools and guesthouses and traveling preachers. Icons and deep acts of contrition.

The Church of the East looked nothing like modern air-conditioned Baptist sanctuaries with their pews and their songbooks and their one-hour-long-on-the-dot services with a buffet at Golden Corral afterwards. It was more mystical; more full of ‘smells and bells’; repetition and sacred trances – it looked a lot like Islamic Sufism. It was expansive. It spoke Syriac and Armenian and Coptic. Edessa, the holy city, had centuries of monks go forth to preach. It was wealthy, which is why the Muslims targeted it. There are some sparks, some vestiges that can still be seen. Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai peninsula where they have been saying prayers for more than 1500 years.

The Eastern Church was buried for two reasons. The first, as the author goes into a lot, was the march of Islam. We in the West love to say things like “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” and “Persecution advances the faith” – we don’t like the idea that the church was wiped out by a rival religion and so fully destroyed that nobody has even heard of Nestorians or Monophysites; and know of Arius and Nestorius only in the context of ‘heresy’. Which brings me to my second point; we have forgotten the Church of the East because the Pope early on called their theology “heresy” and they were branded unfaithful, almost pagans, and they got what was coming to them. God’s judgment on improper theology.

Internecine theological debate is part of the Christianity. Are you pre-mil, or post-mil (or God forbid a-mil!)? Are you a dispensationalist or a covenant theologian? Do you believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation? Upon such arcane arguments real nasty fights are built. We wrote off the Church of the East, because their theology was weird and their worship was weirder. But they were probably closer to the early apostles than we are now – their thinking, their styles, their approach were derived directly from Jude and Thomas.

I am haunted by the Eastern Church, since my days discovering it in Armenia; sitting in the quiet old stone chapels that are 1700 years old listening to the liturgy and looking at the frescoes depicting Jesus and Mary, a Jesus I know so well and have seen all over the world, there in the faded two-dimensional art of the ancients. This book does not tell me who they were. I will have to keep looking.

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On Grammys and Afghanistan

A while ago I wrote about some work I did, more than a year and a half ago, during the fall of Kabul, to help evacuate the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.

That effort, laid out very well by Daily Mail in this article, this year was recognized by the Music Academy in their ‘Grammys On The Hill’ celebration.

Was a remarkable night, mostly because of the speech by Dr. Sarmast, head of ANIM, and his humble reminders that the Afghans are still struggling to be free. I wish I could do more to help.

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“The Crossing Place” – A Book Review

There’s a principle in chemistry called “Isotopic Abundance” which is basically the relative proportions of a stable isotope in each element. These isotopes come from the ground, the land, the water and even the air in a particular location and are different everywhere. So studying the proportions of isotopes in elements of organic matter – like cotton plants or fruit trees or bears – you can understand where they came from.

The fingerprints of the land on the elements that make up organic matter. Including people.

There is something mysterious about the connection between people and land. Why is it we all fight over it so much? Wars rage in Europe even right now over land. People have been fighting over pieces of land forever. And I daresay they will continue; because there is something that resonates within people about the land they come from and their need to protect and defend it. Sometimes people leave, intermarry, creating a new ethnicity in a new land – the ethnogenesis that Gumilev writes about; and the cycle starts again. Because new ethnicities also arise connected to the land upon which they were born.

Enter the Armenians, one of the few groups that still hold their land; although it is a sliver now of what it once was in the glory days maybe 2000 or 2500 years ago. When it stretched from the Caspian to the Mediterranean.

It is this connection that Philip Mardsen explores in “The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians”. How Armenians, through patient and careful devotion to their culture, their language, their faith, and their land (even those who have never been there) have maintained their civilization during the hardest times, like the wicked 20th century. The century of their attempted extermination. Mardsen starts in Jerusalem, in the Armenian Quarter, and makes his way around Eastern Europe visiting Armenian diaspora communities and trying to get a sense of how they hold their civilization even separated from their land for hundreds of years.

But it is a shadow; a rough imprint etched on their consciousness; a hollow echoing, a resonance that comes even from the isotopes in elements from which they are made and gets stronger and stronger and stronger the closer they come to Mt. Ararat. The only parallel I can think of is Israel and their Holy City of Jerusalem.

The curious thing about this book, coming from somebody who lived in Armenia for two years (me), is that the book itself starts out fairly academic. Cataloging facts about the diaspora; even the accounts of the genocide lack empathy and passion. But when Mardsen finally finds entrance into Armenia (it was right during the fall of the Soviet Empire when travel in the Caucasus was fraught and complicated) the prose starts to resonate. As Mardsen discovers Lake Sevan and the Khachkars and the monasteries he finally seems to “get it”. It is not about wealth or power or opulence. What he discovers is an aboriginal people on their ancient land which forms a sort of unbreakable connection that generates its own harmony. (It is the same thing I discovered).

And it is an extraordinary thing.

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Now Available My Armenia Novel in Paperback ($8.95) and #Kindle – (I’d Buy the Paperback)

My Armenia novel, “An Excess of Nationalism”, is now available in paperback and kindle. Paperback is best value ($8.95), I personally would never buy a kindle and can’t read kindle books. I need to feel the paper, smell the pages, and then place a book I love on my shelf where I can see it and remember it.

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I Wrote My Armenia Novel!!!

A while ago I published a post in which I said “I Should Be Writing My Armenia Book”. I’m happy to report, now, I FINISHED IT!!!! I published first as a hardcover, in color, because I left some surprises inside – you can only get a feel for Armenia through its beauty and so I have some pictures I took and played with leading each chapter. I’ll publish it in softcover and e-book eventually, but one thing at a time.

Without further ado, my Armenia Novel: “An Excess of Nationalism: A Novel About Armenia”.

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“Return of the Native” by Thomas Hardy

A whole lifetime can be lived on the heath. That’s what the old Victorian masters taught us. From the barrow mound to the river and back again, the entire gamut of the human experience. Birth, love, jealousy and rage. At the end of it all death. But it can have meaning, even if nobody ever leaves the heath. Even if the greatest adventure is had by a wayward son who went to Paris for a season; but didn’t he even come home? The heath was calling, and that is not a call to be refused.

Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy is about this. About all this. It is marinated in descriptions, the colors and sounds and smells of Wessex. You get to know the characters; their proclivities and their fears. The whole range of human existence, even to the accident that ends it all. But was it even an accident? Even those on the heath contemplate suicide; find their lives unfulfilled; yearn for more and fear lest they lose all they have – though to us it might seem paltry. I read a study somewhere that most people in England still live within 50 miles of where they have for generations. If that is true, and we go now to the heath, we will still find people like Eustacia and Clym, locked in a desperate love from which there is no escape and no salvation. And we might even still see the Reddelman, selling his wares lonely and forlorn along the unpaved roads of England.

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Tolstoy and Steinbeck

The first time I arrived to Armenia it was spring of 2019. Still cold, the people of Yerevan were bundled tight, cigarettes poking defiantly out of layers of coats and hats and scarfs. There was a snow storm the first week, it was March I think the last of the season; I’ve always loved the quiet of the snow, and watching it pile up on Republic Square in front of the imposing pink-tufa government houses, on a large oblong island where an iron Stalin used to sit and glare down at his military parades was somehow nostalgic, though it was my first time there.

We took a day trip, I was there for work – I would live there for work later – and we went up into the South Caucasus mountains. Around Lake Sevan which was frigid and covered with a long winter’s blanket of snow and ice; it was a study of steels and muted blues. Then through the tunnel to Dilijan, an old soviet resort town, an older Armenian forest village where the devs still dwell in the deep forests that encompass the town. Devs (or Divs) are Caucasian forest djinn, always abducting pretty girls or causing mischief for loggers. The Caucasus have their own Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel stories, in fact very similar. We visited the high school and the town and had a meeting with the mayor (an old soviet mayor, as wide as he was tall, greasy mustache matching his greased back hair and smelling of stale cigarettes) where we heard of the travails of the towns folk. “We need public lighting in our village,” one villager said. “For in the night the wild animals attack.”

Eurasia is still Eurasia.

I am reading a biography of Leo Tolstoy (review coming). Of his time on his land outside Moscow; his adventures first in the Caucasus (it is where all good Russian writers develop their skill – for Tolstoy the North Caucasus fighting Imam Shemil and his merry band of Chechen rebels), and then in Crimea defending Sevastopol against the invading British and the French and the Turks, who sought control of Crimea (control of the Black Sea has always been the vision of empire, and he who controls Sevastopol controls Crimea). Of his struggles against weakness (women and drinking and gambling) in his wild youth; his attempts at empathy of the muzhiks, his frustration with his own noble classes.

His love of wild Russia.

Sometimes I feel that all the wildness has been tamed out of the world. Or, actually, more accurately put – that the natural wildness, the struggle against mother nature has been won but immediately replaced with a failed struggle against ourselves. We in America no longer fear the wild animals at night, but we certainly fear other people. America too in the past had a lot of wildness; its indomitable spirit came from its vast plains and majestic purple mountains. From the badlands of South Dakota to the painted deserts of Arizona. It is majestic. Maybe that’s why Russia and America have always had such a fraught relationship; two epic countries one old as time and another new and bursting with energy and purpose. Both locked in a never-ending struggle.

Tolstoy wrote in the 1850s surrounded by people like Turgenev and Dostoyevsky; those dramatic 100 years between the December and October revolutions when Russia came of age. We too had a coming of age, though our adolescence was shorter; Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Steinbeck, narrating the emergence of American greatness during the tumultuous turn of the century. “The Cossacks” up against “Grapes of Wrath”.

There is a lot to be said of where the world is going. Monumental changes are taking place; our populations are shrinking, and aging, causing all sorts of stress. Old people don’t consume much. We are coming to terms with the fact that our tremendous explosion of prosperity, led by America and reaching every corner of the globe, might not have been good for the environment or sustainable in any real sense. Like a poor man who wins the lottery and buys a large house in Fauquier County only to realize that the massive tax bill comes due every year at the same time, the light bill is exorbitant and the maintenance of the stables costly; and decides he must either reinvent himself or declare bankruptcy and return to conditions worse than those he had when he started.

I guess my point is, who will narrate the coming world? And, why is it that in times such as these, does our own community of writers suck so much?

Lev Gumilev wrote about civilizational decline and the signs, and one line made me laugh. “They will print millions of books but none of them will be worth reading!” Ha!!!

I imagine my own books are counted in those.

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