Wind in the Willows

Is there anything for little boys like the adventure of Mole and Badger and Rat – and of course the ineffable Toad? Of Toad’s exuberance, Mole’s gentle loyalty, Rat’s wisdom, and Badger’s bravery? Up against the evil weasels who have seized Toad hall?

I just finished reading “Wind in the Willows” to my little boy; we’re making our way through as many classics as we can while he still has the patience to put up with me; while he still eagerly awaits the nightly chapters before bedtime; while he still stands the sound of my voice and my moralizing. I want to give him these works of literature, of wisdom and culture and civilization as stepping stones he can cling to as he seeks to pass the turbid waters of adolescence and adulthood – waters that will seek to wash away everything he knows. Only these classics, firmly rooted to the bedrock of who we are, can last. The cartoons, the pop-modern books of now (and there’s nothing wrong with them) can’t anchor him, and without roots you cannot have wings.

This book was magnificent, magical – a story of friendship and loyalty, but fun and lively and so extremely well-written it at parts took my breath away. This is a year of misery and frustration, of politics and pandemic both of which are guaranteed to make us all miserable. It is only in classics that we can escape the nonsense into something of our past that remains as true and good today as it was when it was written. More and more I turn back, to the olden works that never change as I realize what really matters and come to the conclusion that things that others say matter actually don’t that much – that nothing is so important as my little boy giggling at the antics of Toad.

And that is good.

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“Song of America” by George Mardikian

There is something extraordinarily good, tremendously fresh and clean and pure about “Song of America” by George Mardikian. Mardikian is a now-famous Armenian-American restauranteur and philanthropist who became successful despite the ‘old world’ difficulties – genocide by the Young Turks and Sovietization of his homeland by the Russians – that besought again and again his beloved Hayastan (the local name for Armenia).

“Song of America” is an ode to America by an immigrant who knew the perils of life lived in unfree lands and found out that with hard work and good cheer he could make the life he wanted for himself (and in the meantime become one of the great defenders of his people). “Song of America” is cheerful, but not naïve. It is filled with good food and deep relationships that marked Mardikian’s life; and it is filled with purpose that is derived from an existential love of people juxtaposed against the morally hazardous cynicism of today’s “humanitarians”.

That is, I think, what makes the difference. There is no “virtue signaling” in Mardikian’s telling of his extraordinary life. He’s not seeking to tell you how good he was, or how the way he sees the world is better than yours – his words do not drip with judgement and bitterness. Because he is grateful, and above all else he wants to tell you who read his only book (he wrote another, but it is a cook-book – his true love) about how thankful he is for the life he was given by America. The undercurrent being, please take better care of her.

Our poor country could use a dose of Mardikian these days – his book was like a fresh draught from an alpine Armenian mountain stream, refreshing and invigorating. And lets be honest, we who are Americans really aren’t making anyone proud these days – are we? Even (or perhaps especially) the current lot, those who “look fairer and feel fouler” to quote another great, prescient writer. We should all read “Song of America” to see her through Mardikian’s eyes – fleeing as he did Turkish thugs. We should work hard, not to gain power or to “influence” others through banal emptiness of social media but instead roll up our sleeves and love her again through anonymous sweat and silent tears.

Finally, and on a completely different note, I wanted to say a word about George Mardikian’s Armenia. I have spent the last two years here – under the silent supervision of Ararat – cowering from Covid and raising my son. Though I am not an immigrant, I am a guest – I have nevertheless learned from mother Armenia what George Mardikian went 6000 miles away to also teach us – the silent quiet beauty of the land, the goodness of a hard-working people yearning to be free but beset by one tribulation after another after yet another – here I have healed from some of my own bitterness and I have found beauty and love and meaning. I have become quiet, at last, and again grateful for the Lord and what He has given me; and that He allowed me a sojourn in this most extraordinary of lands, placing me in communion with thousands of years of uninterrupted struggle which produced the painters and sculptors and wine-makers – the writers and cooks – whose tremendous goodness spilled over to all the world and brought people like George Mardikian to our own shores. Now, would that we would only listen to them.

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“I Want To Live” – by Shukshin

It is through the simple stories of writers like Vasily Shukshin that we get a glimpse behind the iron curtain into the world of everyday citizens of the Soviet Union. The struggles with poverty, the community frustrations, the attempts to create a life out of the land in a country that suffered no personal ambition — simple boldness like presiding the commune or traveling to the city.

Shukshin, like everybody in the Soviet Union, suffered personal tragedy. His father was murdered by the regime for alleged attempts to oppose collectivization. Shukshin himself was banished, rehabilitated – like so many others – only after Stalin’s death. But rehabilitation to what – that is, to the daily travails of the unfree? These stories are interesting for the total absence of politics – Shukshin had of course learned the hard way not to discuss that which was forbidden. But also because its a reminder that people are people, and the struggles of people behind curtains iron or otherwise are not that different from our own struggles – just infinitely more difficult.

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A Defeat Better Than Many Victories

“A Defeat Better Than Many Victories”

Because that is what, at the end, life is about. And what better time to learn this simple truth, than these the worst years of all. For it is in the victories which you so desperately seek that you will find only your devastation, and that, through the terrible destruction of others. Yes, it is only through your defeat that you will find your victory; the defeat of petty prejudices, of carefully drawn utopias, of epic feats and fits of imagination that will lead you to the poorhouse. All that which makes life miserable – juxtaposed this most dreadful of years against the simplicity of caring for your little boy, creating a cushion for him lest he realize the raging world that burns around and the delicately thin bubble of childhood is popped, rending asunder his right to live as he is now, a life which he has been given and which we have no right to take from him. Yes, the simple defeats – the defeat of happiness’s pursuit against contentment and peace; the defeat of ambition against the understanding of our place a world, though we wish it were not so; the defeat of lust gazing solemnly at the silent duty of matrimony.

This is all what “Of Human Bondage” by W. Somerset Maugham is about. It is about a bondage that liberates, but only when we accept it; a bondage that will set us free as we come to terms with the utopian idealism of youth, and quietly set it aside for the glorious reality of defeat. For in the defeat of these pretensions, only that is where we find lasting victory. The novel is of course Maugham’s best work, his lasting opus. The story of Philip Carey, born to tragedy – a deformity, orphaned from birth, alone and unloved. A coming of age story, of how Carey advanced and grew, of his many mistakes – how he managed insecurities, his fits and bursts at ambition that left him empty, his disastrous experiments with passionate love that left him destitute. About poverty, the special kind of middle-class poverty of Edwardian England where success and failure balanced upon a knife’s edge of chance and opportunity.

I don’t know why Maugham did not win a Nobel prize for this, the greatest feat of literature of the Edwardian era. This was a novel which I read the first time twenty years ago and which sharply honed the empathy which I still enjoy to this day, that I have returned to in days of pandemic not to find it trite or simplistic or vulgar as we so often do of the literature of our youth, but in fact with a deeper sense of meaning; a more significant depth of life and more pressing lessons for our times than I ever would have thought possible. If I could, I would force each American to read this novel – it would change them forever, as it did me. And that would not be a bad thing; for America is full of Philip Careys, but without the wisdom imbued by a writer so great as W. Somerset Maugham.

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My Name is Aram

There is something earthy, well-connected to the land in Armenian literature. The golden sunsets across the mountains, the pale white powdery snow, the gentle goodness of the tastes close to nature – figs and grapes and nuts, occasionally meat when times are good – and bread, always and forever the bread.

The interesting thing is that they take this with them wherever they go. Though perhaps they know little of the “old country”, they know that which is good and true comes from the land and transmit this through literature and stories, of lands even in the new country – lands which were not theirs until they were made theirs by hard work and discipline, the deep roots of community that have characterized tragic people accustomed to violence, and sadness.

William Saroyan is Armenia’s greatest diaspora writer. American, in the way that all great Americans are American – recognizing the opportunity of their adoptive land and making of it their future, not wallowing in victimization and bitterness such as is the mood of today. Saroyan writes simple prose, full of California as he knew it. Not the California of today, ruined by entitled elites – but the California of yesteryear, of immigrants working hard and miners and farmers and merchants from all over making their bounty in a land that was truly bountiful.

“My Name is Aram” is a collection of short stories by Saroyan of a boy who grows up in California as a California American whose sense of self is still defined by the old country. They are simple stories of poverty and mischievousness and rebellion, good stories that reflect back to us the character of our own country and our own personalities in how we respond to them.

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“Managerialism” in America

I think it’s safe to say that Karl Marx would not have recognized the mystical lands behind the iron curtain. I think it’s also fair to say that Adam Smith would not have recognized 1950s America. I do however believe that James Burnham would recognize our current world order.

We are trained to think of only two mechanisms of social organization. Capitalism and Marxism. Capitalism, which started in the late middle ages (circa 1300s?) and ended in 1914 in a tremendous explosion of violence; and Marxism which was never more than a utopian idea. There’s a reason for this, capitalism provided a more natural division of power, wresting from one group of oligarchs and giving to another in a process of power-destruction which led to a greater period of freedom and the accompanying prosperity. Marxism was too easily coopted by the powerful and didn’t last the first few bursts of collective farms or worker-managed factories before it was centralized into communism, the first baby-managerial ideology (which itself only lasted about 70 years).

Which is all moot, at any rate, because both of those methods for social organization are now over. We are in a new mechanism, what James Burnham called a “Managerial Society”. That is what his book “Managerial Revolution” is about. And we are now firmly in Burnham’s “Managerial Society”. Now, I don’t really like the moniker – as you don’t. But this book is careful to remind us that what we call things is less important than the mechanisms by which our current society is organized. Capitalism, that method of social organization which dethroned feudalism and created a world of such tremendous prosperity and newly discovered liberty that it destroyed itself out of excess stuff, is now over. It could not survive the consolidation of economic power that was the end result of the incredible revolution of productivity (the industrial revolution) in which the division of labor engendered a powerless class manning the assembly lines and a group of – wait for it – managers, who controlled the mechanisms of production responding to the extraordinary economies of scale.  

It is, however, more the philosophical child of Plato than Aristotle. Incidentally this is why modern managerialism fits better in the Democratic party than the Republican – Democrats are the more natural inheritors of collectivist political projects (‘New Deal’ and eugenics and Planned Parenthood and minimum wage and other attempts at social class-creation), they fit more neatly and are more comfortable with the herd (and know best how to manage it); whereas republicans – the offspring of Aristotle – have a more libertarian “leave me the hell alone” strain to them. But it should be mentioned that neither the .1% nor the 9.9% are necessarily party-affiliated. It is about class, not party and certainly not about ideology. Ideology is only deployed as a useful weapon by individuals vying against their competitors to join the 9.9% (or to hold their perch, at all costs there).

A few years ago I wrote a piece called “What is going on?” In this piece, I identified much of the current  political project of the ‘managers’ as they seek to build permanent power for their class. However, I erred in that I also used the knee-jerk vocabulary which we are accustomed to hurling at each other: “socialism” and “communism” and “fascism” and other isms which are of course meaningless. And in that, I argued from one side of the ideological food-fight (the one I am most sympathetic to) – in doing so I lost the ability to more fully articulate not what I feel about what is going on, but what is actually going on. I am fully willing to remedy that, but probably not here. It would require some additional work. The point is, the “Managerial Society” is now a fait accompli.

So what is the “Managerial Society”? It is, to put it simply, the New Aristocracy so eloquently outlined by Matthew Stewart. Specifically (and this is where Burnham, writing almost 100 years ago, gets some things wrong), the current “Managerial Society” is a plutarchy controlled by – as Stewart says – the .1%. They control the means of production and the vast portions of planetary wealth. They have realized that to preserve their exalted positions they must control the state; coercive weaponry of power is what all monarchs of the world know they must possess, and the plutocracy is no different. In this, Burnham is also wrong – he identified the state takeover of the means of production as the beginning of managerialism. But that is his own Marxist underpinnings (he was a Trotskyist in the 30s before abandoning it to join William Buckley, like so many did in the heady days of ideology); the reality is that the Plutocracy and their massive productive machinery took over the state. But, now that they have it, they have no interest whatsoever in managing their sprawling empires. They are too busy at their private islands or in congress with each other – and you’ve probably never heard of them. They are not politicians, or actors, or sports figures. Those figures come from the “Managerial Society”, either as direct managers or the jesters meant to pave the way for the aristocracy’s permanent power by mining the debate by pulling at the heart-strings of their foot-soldiers on their Gramscian “march through the institutions”.

The “New Aristocracy”, the “Managerial Elite” are those 9.9% who control the productive capacity of the world; a marriage of the state and its mechanized managerial agenda and the ‘private sector’ which is no longer private but at the command of the “Managerial Aristocrats” through regulation and the revolving door exchange of public/private position. They have been called the “deep state” — too soon?

So who is everybody else? They are, of course, the underclass. The losers. BLM or MAGA – not to put too fine a point on it. Those foot soldiers who the “aristocrats” battling each other for control of the state and its privileges and power send to fight (and sometimes die) on the back streets of downtown Seattle or to seize our most hallowed halls in rage and impotence. “Nor will the bulk of those who have done, and will do, the fighting in the struggle be recruited from the ranks of the managers themselves; most of the fighters will be workers and youths who will doubtless, many of them, believe that they are fighting for ends of their own.” If they are on the MAGA side they are fighting globalism and if they are on the BLM side they are fighting for diversity; words they have been given by the managers which in no way represent what they will achieve should they ‘win’; for the “New Aristocracy” has been working hard to “raise the ladders as they ascend” – as economist Angus Deaton has said. Staying true to James Burnham’s instructions, none of this is a value statement. Capitalism opened the door (through the allure of permanent economic growth) to tremendous inequality and also the ability of the powerful to live well beyond their means, creating environmental degradation that we will be living with for generations. Marxism was never workable, and was discarded almost immediately by those who saw a path to permanent power and became the proto-managerial society until it too fell; for totalitarian managerialism does not have the feedback loops which allowed it to morph and adjust to the winds of popular discontent, natural disaster or scarcity and thereby save itself from destruction. The same is true for Nazi German “Managerialism”, which was of the same shade as the Soviet variety and perished for the same reasons. American “New Deal” managerialism has been longer lasting, because there have been – at least so far- feedback loops which allow citizens to express discontent, to vie for (increasingly complicated) access to the 9.9% and to punish the egregious Aristocrats (and even occasionally a Plutocrat or two), thereby preserving a sense of power where none exists in actual fact. Managerialism is here to stay, it is the way our society is controlled. The incentive structure, the economic structure, the class structure have imposed themselves – and advancement will increasingly follow proscripted methods, outlined perhaps by Dominic Green in his enlightening article “Oligarchy in America”. For those who want to win, they will follow the recipes. In America’s “Managerial Society”, there will be no other way to succeed.

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Adios Hemingway

Writers hate other writers. That’s the secret. Maybe not a particularly well-kept one. Its usually professional jealousy – we don’t want to give legitimacy to the fame of others, happier to accrue their success to winds of fate or connections or something else except that they have actual skill. Incidentally, I’m not exempt from this phenomenon. Read below…

This novel is by Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba’s most well-known writers, and its about Hemingway, one of the world’s best-known writers. Now, anybody who reads my reviews knows what I think about Hemingway. Specifically, he has no skill – his writing is so awful as to be unreadable. Why he is famous is beyond me – except that he existed in a moment in time when there were fewer writers so the bar was lower and he managed to be affiliated with the right club to get his stuff into print. Also he was a commie, and that always helps – communists still control the publishing industry, and so they naturally wanted to give one of their own a hands up. It’s human nature.

Padura goes one beyond me – he humanizes Hemingway. He goes out of his way to deconstruct the Hemingway myth, that of the great virile hunter, turning him into a weak inebriated madman. With all sorts of bad habits. He actually was probably right, the Hemingway myth for me was debunked by reading “A Movable Feast” which, in Hemingway’s own words showed just how un-romantic was his time in Paris. “The Warmest Country” it was not, Yerevan in the winter with the great communist writers (before Stalin had them all killed) arguing in the cafe of the Intourist hotel in front of Aipetrat publishing, the snow falling around in gentle quiet seclusion of life behind the iron curtain. More chasing after Fitzgerald who was evidently a mean drunk.

Now on Padura – this novel is also pretty bad. Not inspiring or uplifting or magical or magnificent. Crude when it didn’t have to be; and I read it in a day and a half without having to miss any parts of it. Perhaps it did not translate – or perhaps a writer writing a mean-spirited book about another writer is not fodder for great literature. Whatever it was, don’t bother reading this book. I myself only received it in the mail by accident… And that is all.

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Red Pawn – A Review

This comic book tells the tale of sacrifice. “How can that be?” You will ask. “It is a story by Ayn Rand, after all. Isn’t she only about how to be selfish?” There is no greater love of self than to sacrifice for something – or someone – that we love. Does not Jesus even say “Love your neighbor as yourself and “Greater love has no man than he who gives his life for his friend?

We are told these days that true sacrifice must be only for those we hate. Love has no part in the story of modern sacrifice – for that love makes the effort base and selfish, so say those who would use sacrifice to control us. We should give our lives for speech we abhor; for art we find tasteless; for actions we think are mean, unhealthy or unnatural. But who would do that? “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll give up my life for your right to say it!” – But would you? I sure wouldn’t. That type of sacrifice engenders no joy, for it is born of wickedness. It is joy that the peddlers of sacrifice want to take from the world – even the greatest joy of giving everything for something we care about. As usual, Ayn Rand strikes controversy reminding us that we must sacrifice for what we love; that, above all, ushers in the gloriousness of the human experience.

Now the plot, this is a story about a man sent to a Soviet island-prison for, well for the same crimes everybody else was sent to Soviet prisons. An excess of free thought. Daring to say what was on one’s mind and to hell with the torpedoes. His wife seeks to rescue him, through the ultimate sacrifice herself, and in that act ends up freeing her husband’s captor in the only way that really matters; a liberty of soul.

A brief note, I’ve always contended that Ayn Rand’s genre is what is called “Soviet Socialist Realism”, but turned on its head. What some people complain about as two-dimensional characters is actually a hallmark of this unique style – taking the art that the Soviets wanted to use, “Tractors of the world unite!” to trumpet instead the glory of the individual man and what he is able to accomplish. For this reason, Ayn Rand’s work is particularly effective in the form of a graphic novel or a comic; just as her characters would look amazing etched in relief upon the limestone facades of the theater in Galt’s Gulch.

So read this graphic novel, brought to us by the Atlas Society. It will make you think.

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A River Runs Through It

In days of angst and rage it is to art, and specifically to literature that we return to remind us of the American experience and what it means to be part of each other. “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

It is to Norman Maclean that we return, when our hearts are weary. For he has given us the quintessential American novel. About a Scottish preacher and his wayward boy — united as fly-fishermen fishing the rivers upon the spine of a great continent.

There is so much magic in Maclean’s masterpiece that it is defied only by its own simplicity. Without chapters, short (I read it in a day and a half), sometimes vulgar – because we are sometimes vulgar – often majestic as only is possible through goodness product of character; bereft of the violence of spirit that engenders only nasty vicious little art (like most of the garbage on Netflix these days; and most of the mean little books the publishing houses foist upon us). And no agenda. Maclean does not have any axe to grind – he just wants to tell us the story of his Montana, as he knew it, as he wants us to know it. To share an experience of the land he loves as only an artist, as only a writer can.

And we thank him for it – for in this simple story we can find ourselves, and maybe — after everything — each other. “Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.”

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Scarlet Pimpernel – A Fun Read

We do love England. Stuffy sometimes and royalist to the core; the fog-laden wind blowing the opposite direction bucking trends in politics or culture product of the good-humoured orneriness of the Britt. Safe, quiet vales and hollows away from the ravages of Europe.

Never was this more true than during the French Revolution; guillotines and angry mobs barricading Paris, hunting house-by-house for their hated nobles to lop their heads off to the bizarre gleeful elated cries of the madding crowds. Across the channel and over the impenetrable safety of the white cliffs of Dover, the English could only look on in dismay. There they go again, the “Frenchies”. England as safe haven; England as a land of Anglo-Saxon order from the basement of time, proud that they (mostly) have weathered the madness of the mainland.

That is what “Scarlet Pimpernel” is about – an English noble who makes it his mission to help and save the hated nobility of France from their executioners. A cat and mouse game between the Pimpernel and Chauvelin, the French Republican Government inquisitor keen on assuring nobody escapes the sharp end of the knife.

This is a fun read, well written and fully English, in the best of all ways.

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