For those who are interested, I HAVE FINISHED MY ARMENIA NOVEL!!!! And it is glorious! Now just trying to find a publisher (I was told so far “Good writing, nobody wants to buy a book about Brezhnev Armenia”. Or I self-publish – saving some $$ – it ain’t cheap if you need to edit.) Any ideas welcome!
This essay represents a failure, not complete for I remain optimistic but certainly a success deferred. I should be writing my Armenia novel. Each passing day, it gets a little harder. My parenthesis utopia is moving deeper into the past, joining the rest of my memories nestled in a bed of nostalgia. “Nostalgia is memory with the pain removed,” wrote Fred Davis in ‘Yearning for Yesterday’. Sometimes it’s harder to excise the pain – for Nigeria, I may never be able to accomplish that feat – but there are other times when you discover something so grand and magnificent, so surprising that you lose your breath for a moment, for a time, for a season. That’s what Armenia was for me. Perhaps it was the more remarkable because it was juxtaposed against six years in West Africa, an anti-utopia. An apocalypse. A glimpse into the anarchy that is coming –…
In 383 A.D. when the Roman legions pulled out of their centuries old occupation of the British Isle, there were about 3.6 million people living in England south of Hadrian’s wall. Four hundred years later, when at last people started counting again (circa Doomsday Book) there were about 2 million. What happened in between was a story of apocalypse and dystopia – clans and tribes living in burned out Roman mansions, fighting each other for access to their scraggy patches of farm-earth. It was a story of Viking invasions and sackings; of a return of disease – and poverty.
It was dramatic; I can’t even imagine the stress. But that was only in England. Something special is happening right now; for the first time in recorded history the world population is starting to fall. Fifty years before the United Nations said it would. The planet will not reach 10 billion, like they thought, by the end of the century; but likely by then we will be at 7 billion. Or maybe less. But that number hides an even more dramatic re-orientation. Japan, China, Korea, Russia, France – all will decrease by half, or even two thirds (in the case of China). And those who remain, will likely be old, and in China (due to the one child policy and the corresponding femicide) likely old dudes.
This collapse will not be like post-Roman England; just like our Great Pandemic was nothing like the ones of the past. In some ways mechanization and technology really have changed things forever. We will not return to vertical chicken coops on our roofs and bean-growing in our back yards. Monsanto will produce what we need to eat. Like our Great Pandemic, it will only be quiet.
Countries will weather the coming desurplussing differently. Ones that have not captured people’s imagination, that have not been able to attract immigration – like China and Korea and Russia – will see the dependency ratios go through the roof, and their governments will turn into massive membership organizations (like AARP) orienting the full power and might of their overextended states to the task of building old folks homes, delivering three meals a day to geriatrics, and figuring out how to spread around the few nurses to make sure that the old receive care. The few closed countries who surged out of the middle income gap in time – Japan mostly – decided to mechanize. Robot waiters serving centenarian dementia patients (Japan has the highest rates of dementia in the world, 25%).
Europe will continue to be a museum to its own past, and continue to attract capital from tourism; retirees floating down the Danube stopping at castles. Their own life force spent in the pursuit of what they believed was important, they now have the means to travel and remember. And Europe is a good place for that! Europe’s economy will become a service economy: hotels and restaurants and hospitals. Meanwhile, the global economy will undergo radical changes. Old people don’t buy things. They know that life is short and the newest bauble is irrelevant. They buy experiences, if they have excess money. They eat at restaurants; they travel; maybe they golf. In point of fact, they “un-buy”. Downsizing from their big houses to smaller ones, easier to maintain. Selling their cars as their eyesight becomes less reliable, opting instead for UBERs. They go through the bric-a-brac collected over a lifetime and carefully curate that which they want to pass on, selling the rest at a garage sale to fund a trip to Paris or just driving it all over to the local Goodwill.
Yes countries will weather differently the next fifty years. The anglophone countries, with more liberal immigration policies, well-entrenched retirement bureaucracies, well-built infrastructure will probably continue to grow due to those who can, leaving their countries of origin to find stability. For the United States, this will be mostly Latino immigration (although significant Indian migration will also occur). People from Honduras and Mexico and Argentina will leave their countries – which are already also experiencing the demographic collapse – and come to the United States. This migration will be Zero-Sum, emptying out South America. The continent will echo in silence, like it did after the wars at the end of the Inca empire burned out. Canada will continue its policy of “poaching”, actively hunting out and offering benefits to key careers they need – nurses and manufacturers and doctors – to Nigerians and Chinese and Indians. The UK will become a majority Muslim country, as Pakistanis move to the Island. Australia will take in more people from Indonesia and the Philippines.
The only place where population growth will increase over the next 50 years is Africa. Africa, a continent already over-populated, will go from 1.5 billion to 3 or even 4. Nigeria will grow to over 1 billion. This will be the most fraught problem. Africa, as it stands, does not have the needed infrastructure for its existing population. They have no schools, no hospitals, no roads. No social security systems, no electric grids, no ports. There is not even any “middle income trap” anymore, which caught China. Those days are over – because there is no way to get the foreign exchange needed to build those things in a world with shrinking economies. China benefited from the “liberation” of hundreds of millions of new workers in the 1980s and 1990s – those freed from behind the Iron Curtain and the peasants who moved from the villages to the Chinese mega-cities to work in their mega-factories for slave wages producing cheep crap for Walmart. But Walmart doesn’t need African labor; and won’t have the energy to battle the entropy to build their infrastructure – like they did in China. They will be busy closing stores and closing factories.
So what fate then will befall Africa? I see only one scenario, and it is not good. Civil war, and state-on-state war, as the powerful in those countries rape and pillage to protect their small groups. Since ‘independence’ (or de-colonialization) Africa has not been able to articulate the ‘noblesse oblige’ which once existed during Borno-Kanem or Songhai dynasties; the rapaciousness introduced by the strict adherence to the imposed western model of elections and constitutions and courts and central banks has only empowered the worst of the continents despots. Those despots, seeing the writing on the wall, will become more voracious as they seek to protect their own. This leaves the rest of the people; what will they do? They will likely try to move north, across the perilous sand sea of the Sahara and then the Mediterranean to Europe, where the infrastructure exists as in a time capsule – empty schools and unused roads. Europe, which will be empty but for the tourists. How will Europe respond? That is probably the most important question of our time. Will they engage quickly to try and build out a future for Africans in Africa? Will they erect a tremulous fence down the middle of the Mediterranean sea, drones flown by geriatrics sinking migrant vessels with hellfire missiles? Or will they accept that the only way to get the labor they need to keep their markets moving is allowing the Africans in? That is hard, the reactionary nativism that exists in all countries exists too in the countries of Europe.
These are strange times indeed, and people of my son’s generation will experience some of the most momentous changes in human history. The de-population of the planet. There is one thing, the animals will be happy. Soon they will breeding their cubs in the empty apartment buildings of once powerful cities – like they do now in ancient temples of Mesoamerica hidden under the dark green jungle canopies which too have rejuvenated.
Just like there are places that we stumble upon and are struck by the sudden reality that we have found a home for our hearts, and it is elsewhere, so to times. Some people pine for the old American West, actors in Tombstone re-enacting the OK Corral for tourists and kids with popsicles or big fluffy balls of cotton candy. Others for Imperial Russia, imagining the Tsar and the Tsarina strolling around the gardens of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg during the brief summer as they themselves rummage through the valuables of the past in the palace-become-museum (the Hermitage) long after the last Tsar is dead. I’ve always thought that I really belong in Edwardian England. Those days when the British empire was at its apex, and beginning its decline but in a comfortable, dignified fashion. Everybody knew their place, there were no Twitter bots and Facebook pages where you could hurl wicked insults at your betters with impunity.
I would have been part of the comfortable, new(ish) middle class; certainly not a peasant or a laborer in the mines or the terrible factories. A bookkeeper, a shopkeeper, maybe a tradesman of some kind. My ancestor, the first Hirst who came to America from York in the 1850s was a wheel-maker for carriages. Maybe I would have been his son, and carried on the family tradition, within the comfortable certainty of a middle class content having so recently escaped the perils of poverty.
Would I too have made a jaunt to Paris, like all the characters in W. Somerset Maugham’s books do? Would I have drunk a glass of beer on the Seine looking out over Notre Dame? Would I have had a forbidden tryst with a woman of the night in one of Paris’s famous cabarets? Would I have reveled in the seedy underbelly of Parisian life, so different from that of London but so accessible? Would I have decided in a flash to become a writer myself or (God forbid) a painter?
Or would I have returned to my comfortable island stability and packaged and filed carefully my wild days in Paris into my imagination to be called upon on demand during my long days of stuffy English respectability?
Probably the latter. That is what Christmas Holiday is about. Maugham is my favorite Edwardian writer (“Of Human Bondage“, his signature work, is one of the best novels of all time. He should have won the Nobel Prize for it.) Christmas Holiday was fine, not his best work but still – in every way – Maugham.
A year and a half ago I was caught up in a wild effort to spirit the Afghanistan National Institute of Music from Kabul. For days while HKIA (the airport) was protected by US Marines, and besieged by panicked mobs fearing exactly what happened and a ring of Talibs looking like the dog that caught the car, we worked. Busses full of students, force protection (former special forces guys engaged for the perilous extraction). Trying to identify which gate would open, trying to get word to the Marines on the fences through Central Command (who had a file open with manifests and all the data of our precious cargo). Calls to senior US military officials; calls to the White House. A cat and mouse game with the Taliban – how to get the academy through the perimeter.
We failed, which led to an idling 747 on a dirt runway south of Kabul and a failed attempt to get the academy down dirt roads during the chaotic first days as the Taliban consolidated their power.
We failed again. Months of diplomatic effort ensued. Calls to the Qatar Ambassador and to Doha. Calls to half a dozen embassies looking for travel documents or temporary passports to allow the students safe passage. Pressure on the Taliban to issue the last passports that we needed. Diplomatic efforts with Portugal to secure asylum. Finally, in December of 2021 – four months after the fall of Kabul – we were successful. Four airplanes from Doha. ANIM was the biggest single consolidated evacuation from Afghanistan. It was the last emergency flight out. And it was the biggest evacuation of a music group in history.
ANIM (as they are called) was under particular danger. They are what the Taliban hate most, fear most, in the world. Little adolescent girls with violins. Playing Beethoven or Mozart. Their school (which had been painstakingly built over 10 years with donor money, building by building, piece by piece) was seized by the Haqqani network for a security headquarters. Instruments were destroyed. A priceless collection of antique Afghan instruments lost, probably forever.
The young men and women of ANIM have been in Portugal for more than a year now. Learning Portuguese; going to school; learning how to be refugees; experiencing all the growing pains of adolescence – dreaming of home. And playing music.
Yesterday, for International Women’s Day, they released an orchestra version of a simple song that filtered out of Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Two women, shrouded in burkas, singing a song of rebellion against their captors. This is all the more sad, because most Afghans (it is a young country) had not lived under tyranny. They had lived under the security umbrella provided by a very willing United States and NATO. They were doing what we encouraged them to do, building a free society. “Go forth, build theaters, study Shakespeare, travel, connect, engage with the world – play music,” we told them. “We’ve got your back!!” But we were unfaithful, and Afghanistan has been returned to the most brutal tyranny, even worse than Cuba and North Korea.
But they are still fighting. And they are still playing music. Please share this video, make it go viral, show the world that there are girls inside Kabul who didn’t plan on living in tyranny and who dream of being able to play the violin, and there are kids who made it out who still want to go home, to their dry high mountains and the comforting aroma of kebab and burning wood and the haunting melodies of the Rubab drifting over the passes.
Twenty years ago I marched into Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, copy of Natan Sharansky’s “The Case for Democracy” under my arm, determined to be part of that epic fight of democracy vs. tyranny. Bush called it the “Freedom Agenda”. Sharansky’s was the book that Bush read to get him there. Sharansky was an extraordinary figure, a Russian Jew who spent time in the gulag, one of the famous “refuseniks” who was freed by Reagan and Gorbachev. He went on to become a cabinet official in the Israeli government.
“The Case for Democracy” is simple, in it Sharansky divides the world into “free societies” and “fear societies” with the litmus test being whether you can go onto the street corner and say pretty much whatever you please.
Venezuela was a fear society. During my four years fighting Chavez, I saw friends and contacts arrested (another wave of political prisoners), their offices raided, many expelled from their jobs for being “opposition”, many appearing on massive government lists for having signed a recall referendum to remove Chavez from power – lists which were spread around the country on an excel sheet, searchable, so that any government service (public medical care, notary services, pension, public school for their kids) was denied them. This, incidentally, was called first the Tascon List named for the evil congressman who prepared it, and later the Maisanta List (one of Venezuela’s liberators, dictatorships’ irony knows no bounds). People were tortured, duped, arrested and released and rearrested in a perverse game of cat and mouse. Many learned to keep their heads down – to not say that which they knew might get them in trouble, them or worse their families. And the fight goes on still today.
Fear societies. We have quietly built one, haven’t we? Or, maybe, not that quietly. The litmus test? I dare you, go out onto the street and say something in defense of traditional marriage. Announce loudly that hormone injections for children and that torture of adolescents to try and change their bodies is a crime that should probably be punished by jail time. Say that you don’t think the worst thing in this country is a lack of “equity and diversity”, that in fact we are quite diverse and had no problem with it until the left weaponized it. That there is no such thing as “original racism”, it is only something we learn, not something we are born with or inherit from somewhere in our misty past. That we have nothing to apologize for, except the sins we commit against our fellow man within a justice system which must be colorblind. See how well that goes.
“Oh, but look at you,” you might be tempted to say. “The fact you can write this is proof you are wrong.” Is it? I, who after giving over 15 years in service to my country – fighting Chavez and Al Qaida and ISIS and Joseph Kony and, yes, even Vladimir Putin – I who have been in ambushes and terrorist attacks and locked down and in car crashes and Ebola quarantined, who have fought for the cause of freedom all over the world in support of the defenseless, was passed over five times – FIVE TIMES – by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for promotions (Where, incidentally, I no longer work. After 15 years, needing to return home, all they offered me was a part time job doing their paperwork). I, with more wins for my country than a room full of ambassadors or diplomats, don’t fit into their ‘diversity matrices’. And I am uncomfortable. “Oh, right, you, we don’t want you to vote,” my boss once told me during a review. It’s called discrimination, and it is alive and well at USAID; at the State Department; and across the institutions which are meant to protect us all equally but who now take sides and make excuses. Servants who are no longer public, but partisan.
Fear society? Yup, we’ve built one. Not in the Soviet sense, not yet – but in the Gramscian one. But it is, nevertheless, just as real. Just go out on the street corner – or worse, so much worse, your university campus, and say what you really think – and await the thunder. All that remains to be seen is if we respond now or wait for the physical gulag (the symbolic gulag already exists). We honor Natan Sharansky, or the Venezuelan kids I saw go to jail to be tortured in “the tomb”. We honor them, but if we don’t want to be them, best speak up now.
Things move slowly, for a long time, and then very fast. Europe has long become a museum to its own past; which is why we love it. We walk the cobblestone streets; dine in the ancient taverns under empty castles drinking wine that was made when life was lived then, raging all around and not in the rear view mirror. When people looked to the future, not the past for their ideas of the west.
But that museum has become volatile. We are aging, all of us. France and Italy and Japan; Russia and China and – yes – the United States. Democracies reflecting the voters around them; dictatorships mirroring society, octogenarians with their bent fingers on long-unused buttons, finally being pushed. What do we have to lose? Just our order, which is over anyways. We all know that, it has been announced over and over and over again. In literature, movies and articles – long gone are the days of Verne, looking to what man might achieve. Or of Maugham, sanding over the jagged edges of empire. Now we read Kass Morgan, those who read. Most don’t, preferring to watch “Resident Evil”, stockpiling food.
Civilizations rise and fall with ethnicities; some of which become powerful and dominate the world, before they fall away usually in an explosion. These are not once-and-done, but reflect ambition unto strength unto complacency unto decadence in a rise and fall as systematic, as predictable as the sun. Parthia and Persia and Assyria; Greece and Rome. America. China won’t make it, the numbers outpaced the ambition – demography and debt writing the epitaph long before the imagined glory had arrived.
I am reading “Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere” by Lev Gumilev, a Russian Soviet writer who spent 14 years in the gulag, son of Anna Akhmatova the famous poet. Likely the book that radicalized Putin; about where civilizations come from and how they are to be defended. But the Russian is, like the Italian or the Japanese, a geriatric civilization on the wane. There are now almost as many Muslims in Moscow as Orthodox; just like there are more in Brussels than Catholics. Paris is a city of Africans, outside the ring where we all go to drink expensive wines of yesterday and buy used books imagining the days of Hemingway and James. Gumilev outlines the rise and the fall of ethnicities, and the special vital energy – he calls it passionarity – that gives them transcendence.
We don’t like to talk about ethnicities anymore, it smacks of something we don’t think is quite kosher.
The young people gave us that, the few that there are anyways. They are searching for meaning. For a fight of their own – for a war of their own. Nobody wants to sit in front of ROKU watching stories of their parents’ wars – wars to defend museum continents, wars of ethnicity that marked the apex of our elders’ generation. No, they want no part of the old men’s wars, memories and nostalgia weaponized not as a pathway to greatness but the last violent gasp of a dying way of life which too was violent. Instead they envision utopia – who does not? I was utopian, at one time, as were you. Utopia, according to the scarce young, is to be found in undoing any ethnicity, once and for all – ethnicities that caused wars past (and, yes, present). They are post-religion, so no need to fight any reformation, any counter-reformation. They are post-ideology, socialism is accepted as our states become massive, confusing, intrusive, and the inequality they created gives us a permanent aristocracy. Well, post-ideological, except the perpetual ideology of race which they are desperate to eliminate. Race, not ethnicity, because ethnicity has very little to do with race – it is instead about geography and experience and mutual protection; joint language; unified destiny. A permanent, global mono-ethnicity of the aggrieved; that is the young people’s war and it very well might go hot.
Except, for now, they do not control the red buttons. Those are controlled by Putin – Xi – Biden – Trump. Men from another age sending soldiers to die for a memory.
Everything is changing very quickly now, it is not liberty or prosperity that is what we strive for. It is order. The enemy is not the gulag, it is Mad Max. A wild, workless, workerless, ungoverned world that creeps closer as the anarchy inches in from the peripheries hic sunt dracones towards places once cold and clean and now where one does not care to venture out at night. War returned to Europe, starting in Armenia and extending, a slow creeping across the continent taking with it lives of the young people, who don’t seem to have a future anyways. A great replacement is in full swing, but it’s not on purpose, it’s not a conspiracy – it is an ethnogenesis, as Gumilev states; one order replacing another just as Rome replaced Greece, not ending the Hellenistic but absorbing it into something else. Something greater? Or something more depraved? Only time will tell us that; and it is not that it may not be guided. We are not the pawns of fate – we do have a hand in our own destiny, we do have a role in the world we build. We do have free will; limited thought it is by our means, our environment, our geography. How will we guide that which is just over the rolling edge of the horizon? That is the important question of today.
Science fiction movies portray the discovery of extra-terrestrial life often as a slimy goo, a microscopic bacteria in an asteroid. Either that or an advanced interstellar civilization bent upon conquest. Believing there are aliens out there is a release, an escape valve. If we are not alone, we’re not that important. Our little planet is probably even quite mundane if you compare us to Pandora. And we are wicked. But that’s OK because we are just one in an entire United Federation of Planets, of which we are not yet even members.
I just finished “The Biggest Ideas in the Universe“, a book about physics (A topic that interests me, though it is well out of my ‘comfort zone’. I even had to buy refresher basic math workbooks to try and keep up, which I failed to do anyway). Physicists refer to “systems”. Interlocking parts working together, likely unseen except some outward manifestation. A clock. Who knows the little gears and workings going on behind the face, except that the two hands tick off on time.
Life on earth is a system. En ecosystem, enclosed in a radiation shield (or else we would all die), with plants producing oxygen and us producing CO2 and the earth producing nitrogen. Food, waste, water. The moon causing the tides. Fermi’s paradox “Where is everybody” solved by the “Rare Earth Theory” which states that finding the right planet with plate tectonics and water and a big moon in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ with a molten core etc. etc. is extremely rare and yet essential for complex life. Our world is a perfect system.
But our world cannot exist alone. Nor can our solar system. We need gravity and entropy and light. Our sun is dependent upon the galaxy; the galaxy on other galaxies. It is likely that the full mass of the universe is necessary to host our little solar system, our little planet, balanced in perfect harmony to allow our life. The entire system working together, on our behalf.
That is somewhat unlikely, which brings me to faith. I expected the physics book to challenge my faith as it posited ‘solutions’ outside the realm of the unmoved mover. But it did the opposite. Our amazing minds, bright spots among the darkened panoply of humanity who nevertheless are so special in themselves, cannot even decide on the basic things regarding our universe. Does math hold it together? Or is math just the elegant explanation of rules that are deeper? The uncertainty principle; black holes; quantum mechanics (spooky action at a distance); entropy giving us directionality; the wave function – all of it just desperately trying to explain a system that hangs on itself and each other. For our benefit.
I think we are alone here. The moving hands on a massive clock that spins and whirrs unseen as the hands tick and tick and tick away for some cosmic purpose we don’t understand. That is humbling, and a little scary. And not too encouraging – if it was all made for us, we sure aren’t living up to the effort, are we?
But on the other hand, it’s also a relief. I don’t want to be a smart monkey on a rare earth. I want to be the moving hand on a perfectly perfected timepiece, ticking away my time until my cog is worn down and needs to be replaced; in this case by my little boy. Under the supervision of a master plan – an entity who can set all this in motion. That is reassuring.
I have been struggling, as a ‘layperson’ for a while now trying to wrap my head around how the universe functions. And, beyond that, if there is some great master design that we just can’t see or if we are simply smart monkeys on a rare earth. And at the end what does this do to our faith? Modern worshippers of ‘scientism’ would say those things are unrelated, but the ancients knew they were connected.
I read Sean Carroll’s book as part of this quest. It is an excellent introduction to how physics built upon itself over the last 200 years, the names of the geniuses who each added one idea to the top of the pile, and the math that underpins it. I’ve never been great at math, and I’ve used that statement as an excuse to “run away, run away” (like the Monty Python sketch). Now, I say ‘introduction’, but there is nothing introductory about the math in Carroll’s book. Which sent me to Amazon to buy a refresher math workbook, which I’m working my way through hoping to get through Algebra and Calculus. But you have to love the math – like Sheldon Cooper said “I wanna do the math!!”
It is a pretty tight knit group, working over many hundreds of years – each putting in thousands and thousands of man hours to, hopefully, maybe, one day, add a tiny thought or new idea to the pile and be counted with the greats. Everybody else just tries to understand Einstein or Heizenberg or Schrodinger, tries to replicate their experiments, tries to catch a tiny glimpse, a blurred reflection of what they might have seen.
The things that still blow my mind-hole are the basics. Gravity, entropy, and spacetime. Light speed, the constant and consistent pull of gravity and the inevitability of entropy as the three constants around which our universe is built. Spacetime giving us distance and location, gravity giving us the bend into general relativity and entropy giving it all directionality. I find that remarkable.
All of this is still part of a massive argument. Even at the basic level, does the math show us the nature of the universe or is it all just a mathematical trick to describe the way it works. Is the math only an immense Van Gogh painting that tells us nothing of the reality of that being drawn, only what it looks like? And the book didn’t even start to address quantum entanglement or dark matter (or the lack thereof) or the universe’s unexplained ‘inflation’ and other ideas we invented to try and explain what we see (or don’t see).
And none of this does anything to faith, except reinforce that there is a lot going on out there which doesn’t seem to be coincidence, that the likelihood of something working as well as this cosmic machine works on the macro level to give us gravity and the micro-level to give us mitochondria is, well, unlikely. And, like Fermi’s paradox, we might be more special and more lonely than we would like to admit. That, for us to exist, we not only need food and water and air (which require a global ecosystem), but we need gravity and entropy and light (which require a universal one).
I have a little porcelain statue of Pushkin I bought at an antique shop in Yerevan, featuring a young curly-headed Aleksandr with a plume pen writing upon a round table. It is from the Soviet period, made in the Lemonosov porcelain factory of Saint Petersburg. It is sitting beside an iron Don Quixote figurine, also made in the USSR, and nestled among books published by Moscow Progress Publishers. I have a tidy little collection of them. Progress Publishers was Soviet Moscow’s major foreign language publishing house, focused mainly on getting Russian classics into the hands of foreigners, and also for approved literature students of the Soviet Union could use to improve their English and French.
For Russia it all starts with Pushkin. He wrote at the beginning, 200 years ago and leading into the explosion of Russian literary greatness with others like Lermontov and Turgenev and Tolstoy. Pushkin came from Russia’s nobility. His family was an ancient one, and had been of great service to the empire, which secured Pushkin’s exile (not execution) during the purges in the aftermath of the December revolution. Alexander I’s men found his poem “Ode to Liberty” among the Decemberists’ things – a Kantian discovery of individual freedom – and Pushkin was exiled and forced to remain silent, at least for a while.
Beside my Pushkin statue I have a metal one of an African girl sitting on a log reading a book. It would seem out of place, we don’t consider Africa as the epicenter of modern literary tradition. I bought it in Nigeria at a little outdoor market. Pushkin’s great-grandfather was African; some say he was Ethiopian but more probably he was from the Lake Chad region of West Africa (Cameroon), and had been sold into slavery by the Borno Kanem Caliphate to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople where he was discovered by visiting Russian dignitaries and sent to Saint Petersburg to the Tsar. There he became one of the Tsar’s most trusted soldiers.
Literature holds a special place in the story of Russian resistance and renaissance (or maybe just naissance). It was the only way to resist – there was nothing akin to a ‘civil society’ in the Russian Empire. There was the Orthodox Church, which usually marched in lock-step with the Tsar; and there was writing. Which is why writers, most of them born into the nobility but who recognized the condition of the serfs was unjust and untenable, led the charge for Russia’s freedom movements long before politicians ever could. A freedom movement that still exists, but should not be confused for western-funded activists. Russia’s story is older; its experience with authority deeper; and its literature better. Which is why in the opposition to Vladimir Putin and his new Imperium, we should really be looking to Pushkin and Turgenev – not Pussy Riot – as the voice of a more fair Russia.
200 years on, Pushkin’s dreams remain unfulfilled – but the fight goes on, and maybe that is really what matters anyways?
Continuing on, adding some thoughts here about “The Tragic Mind” by Robert D. Kaplan, the issue of order continues to weigh on me. When I was a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, and before, I was part of an ideological movement that believed that the fundamental drive of every human on the plant was the desire to be free. Democracy, we were told, gave us the greatest approximation to complete freedom, because it was the system under which its participants had the greatest opportunity to do exactly as they chose; and married with ‘imperial capitalism’ allowed them also the widest amount of choices. It was called the “Freedom Agenda”, and I participated enthusiastically.
Now, it’s not that I no longer believe in those ideas. The issue, however, is more complicated. Occam’s Razor applied to geopolitics has gotten the world in a mess; that being, “Everybody should do what they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else” (or my favorite, “My freedom ends where yours begins”) – the libertarian mantra, the gold standard to which democracy (devoid of virtue and restraint, as liberalism became un-moored from its guiding principles) has aimed.
Libertarianism, libertinism, is anarchic. It is unruly and disorderly. The classical economic principles of spontaneous order and the denial of scarcity only apply to the powerful, who are able to use their economic, political and military might to live while not only having their own cake and eating it too, but having other people’s cake, and finishing up with the cake of their children and their children’s children.
Modern geopolitics has re-discovered scarcity.
But it’s the issue of order which is most prominent in Kaplan’s most recent book. “The Coming Anarchy”, which he wrote 30 years ago, is still my favorite. Because it announces the arrival of disorder. Like it or not, the Cold War period was a period of relative order in the world. It was into that order (sure, paid for by the slavery of hundreds of millions of people) that the west built their utopian democracies, giving the breathing room to several generations of people who now have no life experience as it relates to real disorder. Most Americans (and modern Europeans) consider disorder to be a thing of the past, and the worst thing that can happen is the internet glitches for a few minutes. And cue the chaos.
The problem is, we have built an extremely complicated world. A world with “a million moving parts” all of them lined up and needing to work in tandem. Grids; laws; ‘rights’ protecting each random opinion of each fringe group; thin digital signatures attached to electronic bank accounts – rules and orders and registrations, it is befuddling. No longer is 12 years of education enough, how we need 16 or 20. And that is at the center; in the peripheries where we peddle our fragile systems in the name of “Democracy” and the “Freedom Agenda”, there is no the rock-solid Anglo-Saxon (that is old English, its not a racial thing but a cultural one) commitment to what we call “rule of law”. Which is why constitutions, judicial training programs, anti-corruption workshops don’t work in Africa. The African experience with order is a different one altogether than ours.
The West’s fundamental misunderstanding in what people are asking for; answer the pleas of the desperate and vulnerable for “order” with an anarchic libertarian “democracy” was a poison pill, a ghost in the machine that has been unleashed on the world. I just finished a book about Africa called “The Fate of Africa”. It read like a horror novel – but not a good one. It read like the most sadistic prose of the most bent novelist imaginable; if it had been fiction I would have put it down and written a complaint letter to the publisher. But it was not fiction, it was fact – well researched fact – a tale of 60 years during which the African people cried out for order and were answered a utopian panacea from well-meaning, ignorant diplomats and aid workers and World Bankers and the like. “Oh, Africa’s birthing has been messy,” they might joke, over expensive Champaign around a pool in a compound with 15 foot-high walls guarded by security teams. But the reality is it is our fault – my fault, I spent 10 years peddling this stuff too.
Our world disorder is accelerating. Nowadays elections aren’t even about ideology, they are explanations by ‘populist’ candidates about who can more easily manage the massive apparatuses of the state for the benefit of those who are most vulnerable to the disorder. Rule of law means nothing if you can’t control the gangs. Our governments are slow and clunky, compared to criminal entities that can move money from here to there in the blink of an eye. When Nigerian hackers can steal Colorado COVID relief money in the billions, and there’s not anything anybody can do.
“The Tragic Mind” encourages policymakers to see that things can go really wrong; that if you fund ‘gain of function’ research in a dirty Chinese lab you might release a pandemic that kills 30,000,000 people. That if you push NATO further and further east you just might freak out an aging tyrant who has been reading Russian history books at night. That if you encourage “freedom” in Egypt, you just might end up with a crazy Islamist president that you will have to overthrow. It encourages those with deep pockets and access to powerful people to think humbly about what their naïve idealism might do in countries they know nothing about and to people whose suffering they don’t have to witness.
These are all hard lessons to learn. Kaplan was distressed because Bill Clinton read “Balkan Ghosts” and was so depressed he did not engage sooner to stop a genocide; and he was also distressed because he advocated for a war in Iraq that went badly. Neither were his fault – Balkan Ghosts is a brilliant read; and Saddam Hussein was evil. I understand well Kaplan’s desire to help, to do good, to get things right. In Mali I supported an election that brought to power IBK who organized Dogon death squads against the Fulani. I encouraged an Armenian president who became hubristic and caused a war with Azerbaijan. But you do good things too. Kaplan has inspired a generation of diplomats and foreign policy workers – people like me – to think better about America’s oversized role in the world and how we manage it with more restraint and delicacy. I helped end a war in Uganda that gave Acholi an unprecedented 14 years of peace – a whole generation. We do good things, and we do bad things, and motivations are not enough and neither is pedigree. It is only with experience and humility that, sometimes, we get things right.
Kaplan’s warning in “The Tragic Mind” left me a little cold, regarding the stumbling approach to how to respond to Putin’s war. And he’s not wrong – the same people who so badly misjudged what was happening in Afghanistan and gave us our worst national military embarrassment in history (it was much worse than Vietnam) are now facing off with a nuclear armed Putin. Did their Afghanistan debacle give them restraint, or humility? It doesn’t appear so. Yet the fate of the world balances right now on a knife’s edge, more so than at any time since maybe the Cuban Missile Crisis. These are times of tremendous disorder, Dionysus is right behind the door, and knocking hard.