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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The First Man

I’ve never been a fan of Albert Camus; I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. I found Plague and Stranger interesting, but not particularly noteworthy. I am changing that impression for the record here. I just finished reading “The First Man”, a fictionalized auto-biography of sorts of Camus’ time growing up in French Algeria. It was found among his things after his death, and is published unpolished and occasionally missing pieces and words.

This novel is an extraordinary work of art, of fiction, of literature, and of life. It is imbued with a passion for life and nostalgia for a childhood of poverty and squalor which was nevertheless not dehumanizing – as poverty is for so many people – but instead somehow formative. We think a lot about money, to control it and thereby be controlled by it. Best I can tell Camus sought the opposite, to not think very much about it and thereby not be controlled by its presence (or lack). Granted, a tremendous feat if there is not enough food on the table or if the souls of your shoes are wearing thin. But to live a life more abundant, to seek out a more intense significance where we are placed by chance or providence – that is a trick, the trick perhaps in a world where we have all become jealous and mean, even the most prosperous of us.

But note to reader, meanness does not produce good literature, or good art. An overflowing heart (overflowing with gratitude mostly) is the fount of all blessings, including amazing novels like “The First Man”. The plot is simple, it is the search of a boy-become-man for the spirit of his father, who he never knew because the man died in the trenches of the first world war, in the place from whence he came – Algeria. French Algeria – rubbing up against Berbers and Arabs but not in that “colonial against oppressed” narrative of now but in the bitter poverty of the settler. A boy who was extraordinary, from a family that could not read or write. A mother’s love, a grandmother’s presence – a father’s absence. The simple joys of childhood made more heady through privation.

The lack of any bitterness – that is the amazing thing here. Our world has become jealous; maybe it has always been so but I am feeling it more acutely these days. Everything seems to be zero sum. I guess that is the way of the world; if you are not besting somebody, you are not making your mark. Even in my career, as I think back over the years in places not unlike Camus’ Algeria, every achievement I have had has been at the expense of others who saw my successes as their failure. Even when I assumed I was right, for who fights for what they thing is wrong – except the truly wicked – so too they… And who knows which side history will favor. I once beat Hugo Chavez in an election, a new constitution meant to pave the way for communism. His most bitter defeat and darkest night, until the cancer. I successfully laid the seeds of peace in Mali, finally arriving at a peace process – the Tuareg rebels’ lasting defeat of their so-desperately desired homeland. I held off ISIS in Nigeria, forcing the overthrow of their commander. Building a path to the rehabilitation of their soldiers; their caliphate again unfulfilled by the disturbances of the meddling west. And my defeats – Romney pumping his own gas the morning after a crushing defeat to the forces of incompetence and prejudice; that was a hard day. War returning to Armenia, befuddling the dreams and hopes of the reformers. But these are the grand games; there are also the private ones, a book unpublished (or worst published and unread). The hopes of a job that went to another, of an opportunity passed by for those I deem inferior. Powerlessness, and in that can come bitterness – which is why I read Camus.

Because this is all life, the jockeying and push-pull of significance. And that is the life for which Camus has such a great love; a love that comes seeping out of this his greatest novel (for which he received no praise, for he was dead) – but yet which he bequeathed to us to remind us that the joy is to be found in the journey, in the wonder and magic of an Arab night sky or a Caucasian mountain range at dawn. The crispness of a walk in the snow and the love of a beautiful woman. The pleasure of a good book that makes our heart stop for a moment, reminding us that we are alive now and that our best task would be to live our lives, the ones that we have – not hoping instead desperately to somehow live somebody else’s, through the shadow existence of envy.

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Burnham on England

As I continue to digest the far-reaching impacts of James Burnham’s magnum opus “The Managerial Revolution“, I keep stumbling upon things that require at very least a cursory reflection; an organization of thoughts as I try (like Burnham did) to figure out “What is Going On?” in the world.

Specifically, I’ve been chewing on something the author said about the post-WWII geo-political organization of the world. Burnham saw three poles arising to dominate the world at the end of the conflagration. These would be the United States, Japan and a united Europe. He believed that Russia would split, due to the dissimilarities between Europe-facing Russia and Russia of the far east. And he never really considered China.

He was, as most prophets of foreign affairs, only partly right. But his analysis of Europe is by far the most interesting. Because he considered that a Europe whose borders had been broken down by the war would never again return to Westphalia. The failure of the Maginot line and the reality of fortress Europe united was something that was far too powerful in the imaginations of the policymakers. However, he assumed that a united Europe would exist under the tutelage and supervision of a powerful Great Britain. It was his belief that the great island kingdom would bring its extraordinary power of order to bear on the organization of continental affairs, creating a world power par-excellence.

Its ironic, and sad but just also a reality that it was Germany and France who came to dominate the continental project (not England and France), with England after Brexit returning to a status on the peripheries. Not that this is bad – a glimmer of a new England can be seen in the vaccine rollout and the dramatic quashing of a virus that still ravages a Europe that cannot even manage a vaccine rollout strategy – much less a world empire. And what a United Kingdom unencumbered by EU nonsense can achieve is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, the UK never played anything more than a back-seat role in the European Union.

I often wonder why this was – why is it that post WWII England did not take her rightful place as the indispensable European nation. Could be it was Charles de Gaulle’s successful blocking of England’s EU membership (in that case it was the common market) until 1973. It might have been British fatigue at war after war after war; or maybe imperial malaise after the dissolution of their empire which left them without the energy to embark upon the massive organizational efforts of forging a new alliance. It probably has not-a-little to do with the fact that British Labor Party has always been too close to communism (as exemplified in the Corbynites), making them unable to engage in the construction of union under the imposing threat of the USSR (I wonder if this isn’t why de Gaulle kept them out).

My point, if I have one – things are not always as they seem they will be. England’s status of world domination was so secure following WWII and was lost, squandered, puttered away or perhaps just abdicated. Although to be sure, nothing is eternal – England has been written off before – and I for one have hope that an England returned to her roots can find again her voice in the world without the dour ‘supervision’ of the technocrats in Brussels – but we’ll see.

My final thought on this, there has been a lot of debate on how its a shame for the UK to have left the EU. How it will diminish them. The reality is that the real shame is that the UK was not given its rightful place at the core of the European project. I was talking with an Armenian friend yesterday, a wide ranging discussion about the pandemic and the war and the future. “The problem with Europe,” he said – in relation to the conflict with Azerbaijan, “is that they cannot project power.” This statement, alas, sums up why the EU has failed as a geo-political block. They assume that their tremendous prosperity (brought by capitalism) and the security provided by the United States’s nuclear umbrella, along with their newfound humanitarianism product of apologetic revisionist moralizing as a lament for their role in colonialism will give them the clout they desire in world affairs, to have their word heeded. But this is still a world of guns and bombs (and now cyberattacks). England has always been a martial island – it has had to be. What would Europe have become, under the supervision of England not afraid of power and its use? It certainly would have been a better world for the US. We are tired of global dominion – it would be so nice to share it with a positive actor in the world for a change.

For heavy weighs the crown…

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Springtime In Yerevan

It’s springtime again in Yerevan. The crisp early-morning air smells like croissants and coffee and cigarette smoke over cologne or perfume wafting from a wandering passerby on a labor of purpose. A bustle of movement, new-construction around which deliveries – milk and meat and cheese parade hurriedly. The streets start to fill, Yerevan is a late riser – only the most dedicated or industrious out before the shops open, and those only after 10:30. A flower-vendor laying out his assortment – for Yerevan is the city of books and flowers after all. A minstrel plays his accordion and I stop to drop in 1000 Dram – two bucks and he nods as he keeps up the playing. “Please, come see,” a salesman standing on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant beckons me inside, but I refuse. I too have someplace to be.

Yerevan is waking up from its dark night of the soul. 2020, that worst of all years – I remember when the borders slammed shut, when the airlines stopped flying. This island in the Caucasus somehow gathering up its determination to accept a year with no tourism (like so many places, a lifeblood here) – a year with no diaspora visits for weddings and funerals and christenings – a year that we all knew would be like no other. And it was. There is nothing like the feeling of isolation, perched precariously on a mountain in the South Caucasus. Would the food run out? Would the imported gas be allowed through? What if we got sick – and there were no flights? But we kept our heads down, and weathered the lockdown – and began our glorious Armenian summer of 2020, strange to say because it was also tragic and hard but surrounded by the beauty of an ancient land that had seen so many plagues before, it became my summer with my little boy. And that made it epic.

But that was then; because then came the war. An unfriendly neighbor, an existential fight – that Armenia lost. A winter of sadness and mourning and loss. I will write more about that later, for it is still foremost in the imagination of everybody I talk to here – and rightly so. This year, they are again – as Armenians do – shrugging it off, ready to start fresh. To rebuild, as they so often have – isn’t Yerevan even older than Rome, after all? Were not people building their lives and going about their flower businesses when Romulus and Remus were still crawling inside the wolf’s lair? Yes, they build, and rebuild, and build again – and you can feel it. New hotels, people polishing their restaurants, painters out under the trees – it is springtime in Yerevan. Because they are ready to shrug it all off, remind themselves that the ancient story of Armenia has a lot of ups and downs – where the downs outnumber the ups – and see what the fresh new year will bring. I, for one, wish them well. Things are changing, yet the more they change, the more also the old ways remind us of why they are important and unchanging – family and faith and hard work and friendship. BBQ on a Friday afternoon, a cold stone chapel black with the smoke from the candles that took a millennium of prayers to God.

It is springtime in Yerevan.

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Armenia Saved My Life

“That is why I love America,” he said to me this morning, eyes watering. “A land where immigrants are welcomed and can free themselves of the shackles of the past – of the old country which we love so much, with a love that is laced with sadness.”

That is what Armenians feel about America. There is something special about Armenia – about Armenians. You feel this in the Diaspora, people who have found a way to fully embrace the chaotic turbulence of America without losing their serene passion for the “old country” – being both from there and from here, fully a part of both – which is in fact the spirit of America. A spirit which is exemplified in brilliant prose by Armenia’s amazing American writers. Leon Surmelian “I Ask You Ladies And Gentlemen“, the penultimate chapter of which was a sonnet to immigration, to the yearning for the old country that finds itself in a gratitude to the land of the free so beautiful that I had to put down the book and rush to find my wife, sitting her down – for she is also an immigrant to America (she from South America) – and read it to her aloud. Or “Song of America” by George Mardikian, a restauranteur and philanthropist from California who was also from Western Armenia and found upon the slanted streets of San Francisco what he could never find in Istanbul: washing away from himself the misery of Ottoman violence and Soviet oxygenless totalitarianism with all its myopic brutishness to experience the joy of opportunity in making amazing food for a grateful American public.

“I don’t understand this new generation of Americans,” my new friend went on. “They somehow don’t see it, don’t see that even though they don’t feel like they are privileged, they nevertheless are – juxtaposed against anybody from anywhere else.”

“Civilizations rarely survive so great a prosperity as we have known,” I responded. “It makes people think only about stuff, and makes them greedy. And the greedy know only bitterness and theft. They cannot see beauty anywhere in anything, which only makes them angrier and more dangerous.”

This morning I was sitting quietly on a leafy street in Yerevan reading “The First Man” by Albert Camus (review forthcoming, for it is Camus’ best work!) when my new friend approached me, representing as he did for me everything I love about Yerevan, about Armenia – and why it saved my life. “Camus!!” he said. “Great writer!” to which I of course responded. We then got into a wide-ranging conversation about why America was so divided, the sadness of seeing people who have so much, tearing each other down in so terrible ways and our joint hope that we would somehow find our way (we, because my new Armenian friend was American too). “America saved us,” my friend said. “It is a land of so many people, from so many different places!”

Its ironic that I had to fly so far from home, to a tiny land-locked war-locked country trapped in the mountain fastness of the south Caucasus to be saved. What was it that saved me?… you might be asking. Armenia is a conservative place – not in the political sense but in the civilizational one. A place where days are measured by hard work sunup to sunrise, weekends are weighed by the amount of meat on the BBQ and the number of family members at the wedding, and love is measured to the height of the great Mount Ararat that sits in silent supervision upon Yerevan, a reminder both of the timelessness of Armenians’ sojourn on this piece of land and of a bitterness like the black Armenian coffee – for Ararat sits in Turkey (what was once Western Armenia). I was saved by beauty. The painters that sit in Saryan square across from the Opera House (and where I bought not a few paintings); the alpine valleys where the delicate flowers grow beside crystalline mountain springs runoff from the melting mountain snows; the dark forests where the Divs still live and hunt their prey in solitude and mystery. The monasteries still in use by the monks who see the world not in years or decades but still talk about the Council of Nicea, of Gregory the Illuminator and the times when the apostles wandered through these places. I often wonder what Thaddeus and Bartholomew must have thought, replacing the vast open expanses of desert for the alpine mountains and the delicate rivers and the smells of sheep. Did they also look up at Ararat and wonder if the Ark was to be found there? I think they too loved Armenia, which is why legend places their graves here.

I was saved, more than anything, by the literature. Armenians from the Armenian boom days (in the 20s and 30s, behind Churchills Iron Curtain): Gevorg Emin, Yegishe Charents, Aksel Bakunts, Gurgen Mahari. So many others who nourished each other and often met their doom at the hands of Stalin or Beria’s brutes. Those who fled Western Armenia, from the genocide, making their way to America: Leon Surmelian and William Saroyan. Poets and composers like Komitas – the greatest of all composers – who lost his mind in sadness at the wickedness and died in Paris. His olden lament “Krunk” played mournfully, heart-wrenchingly in a recently bombed out church reminding us that the story of the Armenians goes on, that the ‘weeping nation’ continues to weep. “We live in a bad neighborhood,” my new friend says. And he is right, this place is so vulnerable, so weak and yet so resilient and full of the past and surprisingly the future.

Armenia saved my life, because America under the new maoist ‘dictatorship of culture’ has become an oxygenless place, especially for those who don’t really believe in ‘progress’, for those who think of an ancient faith born in Ur as still having the answers, and those who know that a great God sees the suffering of His people and rewards them for the trials they face on earth. Armenia saved my life because it reminded me that prosperity is tyranny in its own way, because it sets us apart from our God and asks us to put our faith in men, and they wicked and self-dealing; because it creates a natural client-body that is grasping and wicked and mean; and Armenia reminded me of the paradox that material wealth and spiritual poverty often go together, and that those without great affluence are more often more in love with the beautiful things and the quiet lovely places, the hope of peace in times of war, the gentle caressing of a pomegranate and the silent mountain vigil, beside a fire and warmed by brandy as the soft grunting of the sheep clustered together for warmth pervades a peaceful mountain night. No gadgets, no iPads, no tunes (Apple or otherwise) – just a man alone with his thoughts.

Armenia saved my life because it reminded me that there are still good places of beauty, good people who love their families and their freedom as a natural reaction to lives of difficulty which they are nevertheless not bitter about, though they are often sad; that despite the rise and fall of countries, empires and dynasties, there are things that remain good and true.

Back to Camus, there is very little of Camus’s existentialism here – to say nothing of the Nietzsche nihilism of America these days; except that one piece of yearning which does pervade Camus’ prose, the desire to live a good life, the discovery of wonder, and the hopefulness for a better tomorrow.

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The Struggle for the World

James Burnham was the most influential conservative intellectual you’ve probably never heard of. Oh, I suppose if you are of a previous generation, or if you are yourself (or strive to be) an intellectual, you probably have run across the name. You certainly have heard of William Buckley and the National Review. The National Review which was as much a brainchild of Burnham and reflected his “war for the world” as it was Buckley’s.

Burnham was the first neo-con. He probably would have objected to that moniker. Neo-con, in that he was a fan of Machiavellian approaches to winning the Cold War, his “world struggle”. He was not a moralist, like so many today pretend to be. Neither was he an ideologue, thank God. The Lord knows we have enough of those, who can only think in terms of random words their “influencers” drip upon them and which stack themselves up helter-skelter in their minds and which they defend to the death, convinced as they are onto something original.

He was instead a realist, an Aristotelian (as all true, good conservatives are) and a cold-warrior who knew that man could not be perfected but by a perfect God, and never in this life. Although Burnham was an atheist, until the end – when upon his death bed he returned to the Catholic Church (everybody is an atheist when they are strong and healthy. But give them a stroke, a heart attack or a battle with cancer, and all of a sudden they can belt out “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” like they were back in Sunday School).

Burnham lived an extraordinary life; and this amazing biography by Daniel Kelly captures it extremely well. It was well documented, written without judgement (pro or con) and gives us an inside glimpse into the man who wrote “The Managerial Revolution” (the analysis, written 80 years ago which – terrifyingly – came true). What a momentous time it must have been, to be living in the United States in the middle of the 20th century. This book drips with the names (not name-dropped in the “oh look at my selfie with Obama” way, but instead as an organic part of the story of a man of true influence) of people we all (at least should) know about. It starts with Burnham’s correspondence with Trotsky (he burned all those letters when he abandoned Bolshevism – what a tragedy!!!). Late night conspiring with Arthur Koestler; editorial battles with Frank Meyer; criticized by Ezra Pound; dinner with Richard Nixon; his eternal friendship with William Buckley – receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan.

Burnham was first and last and foremost an intellectual, of the caliber we have not seen in a generation. A man of learning, whose command of the currents and trends and historical implications of everyday debates and decisions was profound. As many great thinkers, he started out sympathetic to the communists’ political project. And with all clear-headed visionaries he abandoned it with the utopianism of youth when he realized there was nothing to be found in the visions of perfection beyond the blood-soaked breadlines except more tyranny and death. He became conservative, as all smart people do, because he realized that life is cyclical, that things go by only to come around again – perhaps in a different form and dressed up in a new frock but if we sit on the bench long enough we can recognize the patterns of the human condition for what they are, and apply what we have learned to the lazy and inexperienced minds before they bring ruin and disaster. At least that is the hope.

I don’t know what future historians – what future biographers like Daniel Kelly will say about the Burnhams of the 21st century. I often wonder if they even exist; I sure can’t seem to find any of them. Which is a real problems, because the Maos, the Lenins, the Chavez’s, the Pol Pots and the Ivan Marquez’s are alive and well and to be found behind a repainted old slogan atop an old mantra bemoaning the eternal victimization of man and pleading, again, “To each according to his need.”

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