“I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen” by Leon Surmelian

Can an epic be simple and full of longing and nostalgia? Can it be gentle and childlike, growing with the reader as the protagonist also grows. Childhood and the fits and bursts of young love, frustration and that small bitterness of adolescence. Showing the reader what it must have been like, how things must have felt in a place so far and so different but yet nevertheless the same. “I mean that men have the same noses and eyes and hair. They are uniformly and monotonously alike in their outward appearance, and little physical differences that may exist are of no significance to the artist. But we all differ very tremendously in our thoughts, in our inner life, in our mysterious and true existence.”

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So similar, but also so different. Because tremendous, perilous and petrifying tragedy leaves its permanent mark upon people. “I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen” is an extraordinary novel. It is written from the perspective of an Armenian child growing up in a Black Sea town of western Armenia, under the control of the Ottoman Empire. In a simple, childlike way it presents eloquently what a young man must have experienced, lived and seen and heard in the run-up to a genocide. Children are naïve and innocent and yet full of such grounded wisdom and persistent hope and faith; things to them do not seem to be strange, for they have nothing to compare them to and have entered into life with no assumptions. Those all are for the elderly – bitter and envious and greedy.

“The good world is renewed in children. In them takes place the miraculous resurrection of the race. The soul of the child is like the crocus that blooms in the sun. Therein lies the secret of that world-state we’ve been hearing and reading and thinking about.” In his epic, simple novel Leon Surmelian follows the protagonist through childhood and then into genocide, when his father and mother are murdered. And then the madness of what came after – displacement, disappearances, flight – to Batumi, to Dilijan, to Yerevan. Revolution, as the Red Armies advanced. Panic and the seeking out of refuge by young minds unable really to understand the gravity of their situation or the extraordinary moments in which they have been immersed. All this in a beautiful, simple prose that evokes the yearning of a man for his land – the deep canyons and grand mountains of the Caucasus and the ancient feasts of a people who existed upon the stony patch of ground since the time when Noah marched down off the mountain.

Truly, and I say this as a well-read fellow (and a writer myself), “I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen” is one of the most powerful, beautiful, haunting novels I have ever read. We writers learn early that a good book must start well, must have good beats, capture the imagination but – above all – must end in a triumph. “I Ask You” ends with a majestic explosion, and Chapter 24 – written directly from Leon to the reader – evokes all the power of the written word to channel the profound longing of a refugee for his homeland.

This afternoon, when I started reading that penultimate chapter, I called for my wife – who is Venezuelan, and is too a stranger forced to be far from the land where she was raised: the deep jungles and storied white-sand beaches, the festivals and the songs – and I read it to her out loud. It was hard to keep from tearing up, and neither of us were fully successful, for in these pages Surmelian captures the beautiful drama of flight and the terrible, desperate knowledge not only that one cannot go back, but even if one could – the past is long gone; and with it the places we once knew so well.

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History Has Started Again

I never expected to have a ringside seat to the end of an order. Edward Gibbon live-streamed on YouTube; Cicero in 140 characters. “The enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly…”  You always read about the passing of things told in history books, ancient characters oddly dressed, high-English or rough translations accentuating the distance: how backward they were indeed. Stories narrated in documentaries with the glorious comfort of hind-site, safe and sterile and warm. Gracing the walls of my home I have full glossy pictures, printed on aluminum, of places old and once-powerful that have fallen away to become artwork well after the angst and the tragedy long ceased to elicit sorrow. Timbuktu, Tiwanaku, the Hagia Sophia now a museum, the ancient stone monasteries of Armenia that still host priests though the thousand year-old order that built them has long since become a part of the story of an ever-changing planet. Civilizations layered upon each other as they turn to dust and carbonize by the force and power of events.

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Stress is not something we handle well as humanity, we are a panicky lot and prone to mob-mentality and herd-decisions. Toilet paper packed high into upon carts become battering rams to push through the melee; fortress-cans of beans and chili safeguarded in bunkers beside minute-rice and oil lamps over which we peer, rifles locked and loaded. And it’s never the enemy you expect. Nuclear apocalypse rained down from heaven; terrorist bombs bringing down great edifices – these are transient, ephemeral threats because they demonstrated not the weakness but the resilience of our order, carefully built as it was by the mighty; with clear roles on what we have come to expect from friend and foe alike, roles accepted by all. Yes even jihadi bombs are rational in their own way; because we may understand them. For there is nothing new under the sun. No, calamity does not just suddenly transpire; it must have its genesis in the tedium of daily affairs made safe by so great a prosperity; a mighty wellbeing that rendered everything inconsequential.

But as I watch the ticker spike, counting up and up and up in a relentless spiral of sadness, I wonder how did we arrive to this place? Surely these were signs along the path down which we sped; of which we are all guilty, until in panic we spotted something underlyingly rotten, crumbled or eaten through by termites unseen in the heady days of hubris. Because it is not a shock that lays waste to a world. A tsunami, and people rebuild. A civil war, and they reconcile. A pandemic; they bury their dead in sorrow, mourning their loved ones and a generation interrupted before setting again their shoulders to the plow.

Unless the shock reveals a system-wide malfunction; a crack from a faulty design which could not support the additional stress as layers upon layers were added to a building. Foolishness, banality, moral hazard. It is that silent, nameless anonymous foe which has proven more of a challenge, laying bare the soft underbelly of our world and challenging everything we thought we knew about our great order. Howard Roark’s perfect community-service building grotesque and contorted by one after another and another tiny modifications stripping the construct of its purpose; finally dynamited as the monstrosity no longer served its original function. Elections served up as punishment; hate and a special kind of Godlessness masquerading as ‘inclusion’; foolishness and an angry arrogance that states boldly, naked before history “We no longer need you, you who inhabit our past! For you have nothing to teach us.” But we are at last learning again…

“The end of history is upon us, and we are its champions!!” So the saying went by the oh-so-confident. “Strength, single-mindedness, national resolve. We need these not!”, as we descended into the tar-pits of our own design, bathing in the exquisite viscosity. No, history does not finish, there is no “happily ever after”; it is instead an epic constantly in the writing and what we are witnessing are simply chapters which, as all good novelists know, always end with a call to the reader to begin the next one: not “And nothing else mattered” or even, “happily ever after”; but instead perhaps with “however it was not to be.”

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Stories For Which One Could Die

Great talent rarely appears alone, silent on a hill or sitting solitary in an ancient monastery contemplating life and god and that which has come before. Gifts grow in a specially cultivated ecosystem prepared and set into which the seeds of tremendous art can germinate. Renaissance Italy – Donatello and Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo and Rafael; années folles Paris, Hemingway wandering down to Shakespeare and Company to drink with Ezra Pound after receiving the criticism of his newest novel from Gertrude Stein.

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But there are also two kinds of environments, and this is where it perhaps becomes a little complicated. The 1920s in Paris, an open society, a boom of wealth in a town famous for its permissiveness in allowing the free flow of people as they came together to walk along the Seine. Florence, beautiful palaces and landscapes and the great largesse of the Medici’s, lovers of art who attracted talent as a moth to a flame. But Yerevan, Tbilisi – the Caucasus and Crimea in the early days of communism. A perfect venue for the writers – utopians all, of different stripes – poets and novelists who imagined that the arrival of the Bolsheviks meant for them a dawning of a new age. Was not the Tzar dead? Was not the great war over? Yegishe Charents and Gurgen Mahari and Zabel Yesayian and Vahan Totovents. And Aksel Bakunts. All sitting around the inner rooms of Aipetrat Publishing House in Yerevan discussing each other novels – the Inklings, who nobody ever heard of.

Because though moments can be propitious environments can turn toxic. Yerevan, a tiny pre-soviet town, backwater of a great empire, poor and speaking an almost undecipherable (though olden and beautiful) language. A great iron curtain slams down over them, oxygenless and sterile and denying them the avenue, Paris perhaps or Berlin, through which their talent would reach the wider western world. Then came the reigning years of Stalin’s paranoia, the Great Purge it was called, and the glorious spark of creativity was silently snuffed out.

Yegishe Charents was arrested and released and arrested again to disappear. Nobody even knows where his tomb lays. Gurgen Mahari, sent to Siberia for seventeen years. Aksel Bankunts – executed in 1937 after a twenty-five minute trial. The crimes of these once-extolled soviets? “An excess of nationalism”. They loved their religion, their language, and their little patch of land. They were not sufficiently loyal to soviet globalism (yes, that idea is not new). They still considered first the rugged gorges and darkened forests and ancient monasteries in which they rested their ideas of home.

I just finished Bakunts’ “The Dark Valley”, a collection of short stories only recently translated (2008) and available to the English-speaking world. It is exceedingly difficult to even find novels, poems and other works produced by these writers in English. I’ve found Mahari’s “Burning Orchards” (but can’t find “Blossoming Barbwire” in English, only French – to say nothing of his three-part autobiography). Bakunts has unfinished novels and some books of poetry – Yegishe Charent’s epic poem Dante, Gevorg Emin’s poetry – slammed behind a heavy iron curtain to never be seen again. Did not even Antonina Mahari attempt to sell the rights to “Barbwire” out of her poverty, and was told it was worthless?

“The Dark Valley” stories are best probably described as postcards from a century-old Armenia. They are simple stories about the animals and the valleys and the legends of the villages nestled timelessly, forever in the hinterlands of the southern Caucuses. There is something edgy, bitter about Bakunts. His stories are sad and often brutal, not love poems but ones of abuse and violence and death. His prose is not flowing, flowery and epic as is Mahari’s – his sentences are short and his style choppy, reminding me somewhat of Hemingway in his curt delivery. But there is so much about Armenia in his stories, about his desperation at how things are too slow to change and his love of that which still stays the same. After reading the stories, its clear why Stalin murdered him – for Aksel Bakunts had a rebellious streak that comes out clearly even in his stories; and he is not friendly to the hapless soviets and their attempts to create order out of societies who have spontaneously organized for so long in their mountain lands.

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“The Dark Valley” deserves to be read; we must honor the writers of 100 years ago who dared to make their voices heard, who together wrote prose and threw out their seeds upon the infertile land of the Bolshevik revolution to have them there wither away and die. Bakunts was murdered for these stories, but Bolshevism is now also dead, and the stories have survived and have found new life!!! And for that we must let them live within us.

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To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #9 – Coronavirus)

“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick.
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”

There’s a new resoluteness, a steadfastness, a single-mindedness that is gripping America in the days of virus.

America does not handle prosperity well. It might be said that nobody does. So great a prosperity has made us soft and banal and wicked; single-focused on trivialities and the oh-so-bizarre theories of an elite class gone mad, trapped inside themselves with no way out and only able to scream “help!” up through the funnels, but like a black hole – like a tornado all things were absorbed back in upon itself and compressed into one singularity of bitterness. Escaping from this mess would have been hard.

But suddenly there is a new war to be prosecuted, and America is at her best when rallied together to fight for our way of life. Things that define us, that have always defined us matter again. Borders; it has been comical though painful in its whiplash to see the modern ‘globalist’ pretenders throw up barriers and even swipe the airplanes from the sky in that singular admission, “It is only here, on this patch of earth, that we can affect change. That we can protect ourselves,” and in the process laying bare for the world the differences in societies. China, totalitarian in every way could only do what those who seek power do, lie. And in this great lie, gave the world calamity. There will be a reckoning for that, but that is for another day. Europe, a Europe of ease and welfare aged and soft assuming all its battles had been fought and never again would they see the misery of pestilence and war has been forced to face the fact that history never ends. And in such, the design of the EU is woefully inadequate to address the wars of humanity which rage, whether we like it or not.

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There are other things that are returning. Faith; as people see the numbers of dead mount and hear stories of morgues overflowing and hospitals overwhelmed it is only natural to return to that most fundamental of questions, “So this was it? And now what?” Americans had increasingly been flirting with utopia, built off so great a prosperity as we have known that everything seemed possible – and that final day of reckoning? Maybe, just maybe, that too could be postponed indefinitely. Why not? Yet it is back. “Pray,” we hear from our politicians, most often as a means to find ‘clingers’ and convince them they have a powerful ally. This time, when we hear ‘pray’ it rings true.

Civility? Dare we say it? Dare we even think it? It was only oh-so recently that some in government were continuing on their three year mission to upend an election. Today that mission seems silly, what were they so upset about really? Didn’t get their way? The abrogation of a revolution pursued? It is very clear now that these are not the days of revolution. We are in the fight to defend our way of life, laid bare by so great a challenge as is our unseen foe; and that has served as a colossal mirror to remind us of who we are, what we have done, and what we have left to do. Hell even CNN (Cuba News Network as my Florida friends call it); I was watching the White House press conference yesterday with amazement for even the famous acrimoniousness has somehow been tempered and returned to decorum.

America is at her finest when engaged in epic struggles of resistance. Its in our DNA. Sometimes these are foreign wars, WWII comes to might – just-wars that rally the nation. They are a hard sell these days, the wars are, for there is no parity nor are they existential; chasing jihadis around the desert has no sense of urgency nineteen years after the towers fell, long after the war on terror ended (though nobody noticed). But this fight, against a silent and unseen foe? It is clear, it is well defined, and it is one we can win; and build the future again when it is won. But a different nation will rise from this mess, a better one for those who have been marked by personal struggle, have come-face to face with personal loss and have realized that the prosperity is not fore-ordained but is in fact oh-so-ephemeral will return to their taverns and forests and shopping malls with a sense of relief and gratitude. Things really weren’t so bad, were they, before the pestilence?

And gratitude is the antidote for hate; another pernicious virus which will soon also be destroyed in America.

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“Burning Orchards” – by Gurgen Mahari

Is a classic really only a novel still read 100 years after its publication? And is it true that history only chooses the works of literature that will stand the test of time from the ‘winners’? From those novels that reverberated upon the lips of contemporary intelligentsia? Because if so this does not bode well for Gurgen Mahari’s novel “Burning Orchards”.

And that is a tragedy.

For Mahari was a master, one of Armenia’s great novelists from the genius cluster of writers born around the turn of the 20th century and writing during the ‘Armenian Boom’ around the 1920s and 1930s (Yegishe Charents, Aksel Bakunts, Gevorg Emin, etc.). But, alas, Mahari is not one of history’s winners. Born in Van, modern-day Turkey (but that area of land called western Armenia), he fled to “Soviet Armenia” (the modern-day national boundaries) in 1915 during the Ottomans’ first assault on that ancient, fabled city. He became an orphan, living in homes in Etchmiadzin, Dilijan, and then Yerevan. He found his mother only after he became an adult in Tbilisi.

“Burning Orchards” is an extraordinarily beautiful book; a work of such genius that it would certainly have joined it peers – Feast of the Goat; One Hundred Years of Solitude; For Whom the Bell Tolls; Lord of the Flies – and so many others in the oft-read works of our modern literary tradition, except that history did not shine upon Mahari. In fact it is likely you have never even heard of Gurgen Mahari. A young writer behind the Iron Curtain, Mahari, like so many others who sympathized with the Soviets found himself betrayed. In 1936 during what has become known as the “Great Purge” when Joseph Stalin’s paranoia waxed full Mahari was sent to Siberia. He only returned in 1954 to Yerevan, with his wife Antonina Mahari, a Latvian dissident also exiled to Siberia where the two met and married (Antonina lived in Yerevan for the rest of her life).

Gurgen Mahari, for the intervening years, became a pig farmer.

Even upon return home, Mahari’s was not to be an easy fate. In 1966, despite doubts, the ‘softened’ soviet censors allowed the publication of “Burning Orchards”, Mahari’s account of the 1915 “Siege of Van”. The book was met with wide-scale rejection in Yerevan, controversial as it was. The book’s description says it best, “Burning Orchards offers a version of events leading up to the siege of Van different from the received, politically charged accounts, even daring to reflect something of the loyalty many Ottoman Armenians had felt towards the former Empire.” For this reason, the 1966 edition was banned by the authorities in Yerevan and copies were collected and burned in front of the author’s house (I managed to find a single un-burned copy in an outside used-book stall). Against the wishes of the fiery Antonina, and surrendering to popular pressure, Mahari attempted a rewrite to polish over the “offending” parts, but died before it could be finished. According to his wife, he died of a broken heart. This book is one of the few to be found in English. You can find “Barbwire in Bloom”, a short novel based upon his experiences in Siberia (much like “Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”) only in French. The rest – Titanic or his autobiographical trilogy – are unavailable in anything but their native Armenian; much to my dismay, and that of anybody who loves canonical literature.

The novel “Burning Orchards” is written with the Armenian sense of and passion for their land and traditions; of the high mountains and clear blue lakes, the cold stone monasteries, the hearty food eaten in family and the timelessness of the traditions of a people who have lived clinging ferociously to their small patch of earth since Noah walked down from his mountain. If for this reason alone you, if you consider yourselves scholars (or simply love a compelling story) must read this book.

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A Funny Anecdote…

About eight years ago, when I was a Fellow in Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute doing research, writing and speaking about the ongoing threats to democracy coming from Cuba and Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Alliance”, I was invited to the University of Miami as a guest speaker as well as contributor to a book by U Miami titled “Decline of the U.S. Hegemony?: A Challenge of ALBA and a New Latin American Integration of the Twenty-First Century” by a certain Dr. Bruce Bagley, tenured professor and Chair of the Department of International Studies.

Now, we’ve all heard a lot about bias in the media and academia. I can tell you, its true – my position as a voice of reason and, oh I don’t know truth on the lecture circuit for a while raising awareness of what Chavez and Fidel were up to and why it probably wasn’t a very good thing for Venezuela, Cuba and the people of any other ALBA “member states” – to say nothing of the United States and our attempts to help Latin American countries out of their ongoing cycles of growth, instability and collapse (most of which has been the historical work of Cuba over 70 years and joined most recently by Venezuela – I could point to Chile right now) – brought me into a lot of conflict with academia, the media, and their trolls. But I persevered – who cares anyway, right? History proved I was right in my assessments, and that’s satisfaction enough I suppose.

At any rate back to the conference. I participated, to be sure as the “token critic”, because I’ve always thought that any cracks in the echo chamber that appear should be taken advantage of to try and shine a flashlight inside. Though its awkward and hostile and sometimes not any fun. Its why I wrote a lot for Huffington Post – for example. Telling that crowd of the machinations of Chavez and his minions, who could pass up that chance while it lasted?

Fast forward in time. I just learned that the eminent Dr. Bagley, our gracious host, was indicted in November of last year, as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York said in his press release, for having “Participated in the International Laundering of over $2 Million Derived from Venezuelan Bribery and Corruption”. Evidently yesterday Dr. Bagley decided to plead guilty.

Now, I want to be clear, none of us were paid for our participation in this eight-year old book project (or at least I wasn’t). Which brings me to my second principle, take advantage of the cracks in the veneer, but never take their money! You never know where it might be coming from (I’m not saying this book project was part of a money laundering scheme, but I’m still glad to have written pro-bono).

People like to talk about “victim-less crimes”, to which I respond that there are relatively few of those. Crimes, by definitions, have victims. For Dr. Bagley’s alleged crimes, I can think of three (of which I am not one – though I can’t help but feel a little disappointed): 1) the greatest one, the hungry Venezuelan people. This was their money that was stolen after all, 2) University of Miami, their reputation has suffered a hit. Lesson being, don’t laugh off the ‘oh well he’s an old lefty’ narrative; its not OK. And 3) the hundreds of impressionable students who went through classes over the years ‘learning’ that Cuba wasn’t so bad, that Fidel was just a nice old man, and that communism has ‘never really been tried’.

We – who know – understand that communism and socialism are always and only ever a front for organized crime. Now U. Miami knows it too.

 

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The Day The Music Died (but only for a few…)

I have started this piece a dozen times, each time drawing my cursor back up to the top highlighting and deleting in order to start anew. Because how does one express relief, and not sound naïve? In our cynical world, jaded and tough, our hides scaled and sharpened to thwart the daggers of violence and hatred hurled from the anonymous avatars denizens of the nasty morass, it’s easier to pretend that it does not bother us. This side, or that side – my tribe or that other tribe across a dividing line red or blue who have earned, and continue to earn, all the ill-will I can against them invoke.

A recipe for misery, a race to the bottom where the loudest voices and those in possession of the largest knife with which to slash and savage their way into my news feed prevail. It isn’t new, really – many recall the famous battle between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton for the presidency and point to that bitter feud as setting the tone for our contests; but is that true? Or have our occasional tournaments resembled more a pro-wrestling match where the match is for the enjoyment of the spectators and the faux sense of thrill, a game where the winners were pre-selected – being ourselves, a free people who battled each other in liberty and for the rights of even those who we opposed.

That sense of joint victory, that single-mindedness; for having engaged in the clash, for having been permitted to by a system which allows our voices to be heard, through our votes – of course – but through our donations and our participation in meetings and our volunteerism, pushing the issues in which we believe and challenging those whose are opposed to our own; a grand arena in which we all have become contestants, anti-gladiators who state bravely before each bout “We, who would live better, salute you!” to the emperors who sit above us – but always by our consent… Yes, they are still emperors, though we choose them through a process that is messy and frustrating but often enough, frequently enough astounding us as to the results to show us that anything remains possible in America. A black man from a broken home. A real-estate mogul with no relevant experience. An actor from when Hollywood had honor. We cherish these stories – because in them we all win, because in their hope lies our hope, in their opportunity, our opportunity. A vicariousness that keeps us all engaged, animated, knowing opportunity might descend upon us at any time and change things forever like the clinks of the slot machines in Vegas that occasionally ring out into their metal bins for all to hear about the life-altering luck of somebody not too far away or different.

This time, our 2016 contest was a little off, but I won’t dwell on that. At least not today. ‘Illegitimacy’ is not a mantle the free winner of a fair fight will easily accept; the rules must be adhered to after all or the joust has no meaning. It’s no wonder that the last years have been so acrimonious. It’s been unfair, simply put. But that is in the past, and things worked out – amazingly. Even, yes even now: I started this piece with the deleted phrase, “An enfeebled specter is rowing its way back to Cuba – the specter of socialism. Like all specters, this ghost was finally shown to be ephemeral, transparent, unreal, fiction. #FakeNews.” And onward, but it seemed facile and mean-spirited; for this is the great story of the season and must not be cheapened by spite or cynicism, for we all have something to celebrate!! American socialism is dead. Ring the bells for all to hear, roll out the carpets and open your homes for your neighbors to eat, wealthy and poor alike, knowing they are not entering to measure the drapes or with an eye thrown askance upon the silver. American socialism is dead, because it never was. We are not a thieving people; we are not a greedy people; we are not a people whose sole motivation is envy and hate. That, at least, has been shown crystal clear, in technicolor HD. For the people were given a chance to self-immolation – presented in fact even with the knife, as they were in Venezuela, and a demonstration of its use – and they responded with a polite, emphatic “No thank you. We have heard you out, but we have determined that yours is not the path to a life more abundant.”

We are returned to the national debate as it was intended, rancorous though it is and somehow more bitter today, between the two underlying principles always in tension which have buttressed our liberalism since the founding of that idea three hundred years ago: the search for liberty and equality. Liberty, freedom to do that which we believe is right, to pursue our happiness in the ways that make our souls sing – and to allow others to do the same; and equality, the egalitarianism which reaffirms that all men are created equal under God and are entitled to the same opportunities as those higher up the ladder. Liberty we have been good at as a modern nation – equality is something we have struggled with, and continue to do so today. And this is not helped by the fact that too many participate in a bait-and-switch replacing equality of opportunity with equality of outcomes. And too many use the chimera of inequality to engage in incitement, “In criminal law, incitement is the encouragement of another person to commit a crime.” In this case, it is most often incitement to grand larceny.

But that is over. The “socialist wave” was not a tsunami, it was only ripples in a park-pond. And why? Because Americans are good people, free people, people who believe in law and cherish their lives. This assessment is not based on social media (or in point of fact the regular media these days), those toxic environments where hate-mongering is encouraged; but is in fact to be found in our HOAs, in the parking lots at our malls, in the lines at Disney World and on our juries. Where real physical people interact with real, physical people. All else is fleeting, on a boat back to Cuba with the few dozen people who proposed that there was a better way until they were drowned out and humiliated by we a people committed to living free!

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