Kaplan on Order

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.

How will we answer her knocks?

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Robert D. Kaplan’s “The Tragic Mind”

This short book is one of Kaplan’s most personal. Kaplan has been a foreign correspondent and has written many books about the struggles of politics under the tyranny of geography in faraway places. Unlike most of his other works, “The Tragic Mind” is about himself. It is not an autobiography; instead mostly an essay about what Kaplan learned about human nature and world politics during his decades with a front row seat to humanity’s struggle.

Kaplan’s conclusion, the world is (and has always been) in a seismic struggle between two forces: order and chaos. Drawing deeply from the ancients, he identifies the Dionysiac and the Apolline. As soon as we recognize this, we must immediately begin to understand that the world really is one large Greek Tragedy. Not a catastrophe (we mis-diagnose what a tragedy is). A tragedy is the realization that the world is imperfect, that there are no heroes and villains, just people trying to do the best they can for the interests they are trying to preserve, and that Dionysus is waiting around every turn. Or to put it simply, to walk humbly because the “unknown unknowns” are many and every decision we make can unleash the chaos which might consume us.

“While civilization is the culmination of our struggle to realize our humanity and to rid ourselves of our propensity for violence and the iron grip of fate, we can only achieve this by never losing sight of our origins. But that is only possible by deliberately cultivating insecurity, whose broad basis is a respect for chaos: something impossible unless one thinks tragically.”

This book is about danger, the danger for the United States and the world as the wealthiest, most protected, most isolated generation that ever existed – who know no wars or no depressions or any real danger product of battle – saunter onto the world stage with only opinions and prejudices and without any sense of the tragic that their actions might evoke. I know exactly what Kaplan is talking about here; while he huddled in trenches as a correspondent, I spent more than 20 years in dangerous places running programs against Hugo Chavez and ISIS and Putin. I went out, early on, copy of Natan Sharansky’s “Case for Democracy” under my arm, convinced my struggle was “Freedom against Tyranny” AND I WAS THE GOOD GUY!! That didn’t last, as I came to understand that the danger was not a mismanaged election but the “Arriving Ordeal” as I saw it in West Africa, Kaplan’s Dionysus present everywhere and rapidly advancing.

The preservation of order – we in the US Government called it “Stabilization”.

Kaplan wrote about the coming anarchy in his books, and they touched a chord with me. Because, having been around the world and had my teams attacked by terrorists, people I knew killed or died, hunkered in place with my 3 year old while bullets flew – I know the fear Kaplan honestly talks about; I know what disorder looks like. I also wrote about it, mostly in novels where the main characters were somehow always the bad guys. Not anti-heroes, nor villains, but victims of the chaos and responding in the only way they were able. Because that is something that is also true, that Kaplan doesn’t talk too much about, but the chaos comes because options are so very limited for the poor in the world. We in the US see democracy as about choices – choices for everything: what I should wear or watch or play with, even now to the bizarre ‘hmm what gender am I today?’ (which itself is Dionysian in the most profound, Nietzschean sense).

At the end of Val Kilmer’s rendition of “Island of Dr. Moreau”, David Thewlis channels H.G. Wells, “…and those times I look around me at my fellow man and I am reminded of some likeness of the beast people, and I feel as though the animal is surging up in them, and they are neither wholly animal or wholly man but an unstable combination of both, as unstable as anything Moreau created, and I go in fear.”

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On Conservative Reaction

It’s hard for me to imagine the excitement people must have felt when they first got their hands on John Locke’s “First and Second Treatises of Government”. Emerging from tyranny, the wickedness of a vile nobility, absolute monarchy, the horrible bent excesses of a corrupt church – this last one the worst, because they were supposed to protect the poor.

Emerging into the light, to think about natural rights of man, to contemplate those three basic rights that we all possess, no matter where we are born – those of life, liberty, and property. It caused an explosion, of thinking, of prosperity, of kindness.

But it was not to last. Slowly our Tocquevillian decentralized, spontaneously organized communities were replaced. Brick by brick a prison was built around the free, for our re-enslavement, this time not to a king but to a stifling mono-culture which, in the name of ‘diversity’ bans all dissident thought. Our rights, hard won and given to us by Locke came to mean the fundamental protection by a super-state of each bent and depraved act that man could imagine. It meant the end of reason; beetle-men not only saying that man can be woman if he wants, that right can be wrong, that up can be down – but those who do not bow down and repeat the chant with the others will be destroyed. The firemen are busier now than during the days of Stalin. Our ‘liberalism’ failed, due to its tremendous success of telling people what they want to hear, giving people tremendous prosperity to live as they will without consequences, and then turning on the dissenters to force them, brutally and wickedly, to assent. “Blue is in fact yellow, say it, say it louder!!” – and woe to you if you don’t.

Our liberalism killed itself – spawning culture wars and then real wars as Nietzsche said it would. Its suicide was not in an epic explosion, though that is coming. It is, right now, in the most dramatic race to the bottom the world has ever seen. Recently, I was exploring job opportunities at “William and Mary” university in Williamsburg. I like that town, and in my mind’s eye I have always through it would be fun to end up there, living in a rural house and hosting smart kids who want to think. I went on the site – only to find – not one – but half a dozen teaching jobs focusing on diversity, inclusion and grievance studies. A $400,000 degree in self pity. I, who have worked in foreign policy and government for many years and would really enjoy trying to pass some of that on, brushed aside for a Ph. D. in “Poor You!” A zero sum decision by the Dean, I suppose, to focus on victimization and not performance – how is that a recipe for success? But success is not in doubt anymore, that’s what we learned from Fukuyama – we have arrived, there is no need anymore for that annoyingly disturbing discussion of how we got here (to say nothing of how we stay here). No, those are unimportant topics juxtaposed against a search for utopia so resoundingly applauded. Everybody likes to be applauded, after all.

Our mono-culture is not only here – but we are using the tremendous political and military and economic power of the republic, a leftover of centuries of hard work, strict discipline, and Judeo-Christian ethics to impose our wickedness on other, weaker countries – choosing winners and losers in their societies through the power of our purse. Massive states, deep and wide, reaching into every segment of society, their only perceived role to stamp out any preference; because preference leads to difference which leads to inequality which leads to discrimination – in their mind as direct cause and effect – standing in the way of the new idea of a monograph utopia of the victims, which really isn’t new at all, is it? These are the same people, same ideas who gave us Chavez and Lenin and Mao and Pol Pot. And the only metric for ‘winning’ is a huge pile of money, awarded by a dark hand the market no longer controls. No altruism, or professional achievement, or personal story, or act of goodness can exist outside the clarion call of cash.

“Thinkers Against Modernity” is about this self-destruction, told from the perspective of people who lived 150 years ago in Europe. Brief essays about G.K. Chesterton and Ernst Junger and others. Now that modernity is dead, and so too post-modernity, an analysis of what some writers, who were right about some things, would say about what comes after.

I would say there are difficult times coming, but they are already here. We don’t recognize them, because we are too busy watching the increasingly bizarre ‘show’ played out on our television. We don’t realize our liberalism is dead; that its premise is being re-examined even as we speak; that its excesses judged and its prophets found wanting.

We of course need to be careful, we can’t replace our nihilistic nonsense culture of ignorant hate with more rage and anger; besides the fact that recipe never works, its exactly what they want. They now control the power of the state and they are keen to use it to destroy those who will not say “Blue is in fact yellow” for all to hear. This is where I probably side with Chesterton and Tolkien of the old European right, one of balance and of depth and of propriety and discipline – one which sees value in difference, in nobility and aristocracy and faith, and in the restraint which is product of an old society comfortable with itself and willing to admit that there is much still to be learned. Even in Locke, because he – too – is now one of those old conservative reactionaries; as am I.

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On “Gulag Archipelago”

Most writers have one masterpiece. Everything else that they do is leading up to, or trying to explain, their one great work. A flash of brilliance. It is also likely that the work is not the one they themselves identify as their most significant creation. Vladimir Nabokov thought “Invitation To A Beheading” was the best – in point of fact its almost unreadable. Aldous Huxley probably thought “The Island” was his most important work, but it too was tiresome. Gabo is famous “One Hundred Years of Solitude“, when in reality “Love in the Time of Cholera” is his best work.

Sure, those could only be my own impressions – and I’m certainly not in the majority here – but I am entitled to my own thoughts. At least till the firemen arrive at my door (they are knocking, only down the street now).

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is considered Russia’s most important 20th century writer (I think I would probably give that title to another as well – maybe Vasily Grossman). “Gulag Archipelago”, his most important work. Now, I have tremendous respect for Solzhenitsyn. To have endured the gulag but retained the moral clarity to reject both Soviet Internationalism but also what he saw as the vapid missionary immoral universalism of the “West” took tremendous courage.

But, we also have to “say it like we see it”. In that, the truth is that the book, for which he is most famous, “The Gulag Archipelago”, is hard to read. Solzhenitsyn’s best book is his simplest, his shortest: “One Day In the Life Of Ivan Denisovich“. It is very short – unlike “Gulag” or, worse, “1914” (both unreadably long) – and it is full of power. Read that one!!

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Did China Discover America?

We are all living in a narrow interglacial period of an ice age which has been going on for more than 2,000,000 years. In all likelihood, another glacial period is just around the corner and the frenetic fixation on “global warming” will be followed fairly soon by a concern about “global cooling” as glaciers again start to march down Canada into New England and the ancient isle of Britton surrenders itself to the ice.

15,000 years ago, when the last glacial period started its slow thaw, there were likely few humans. There might have been a highly civilized nation, small and advanced, living in one of the more temperate areas by the equator. Plato thought so; so did Moses; and it’s in the Epic of Gilgamesh too – to say nothing of so many other myths and legends. But nothing really lasted from that period, and that shouldn’t surprise us. Unless something is built in andesite or granite, it is unlikely to endure. “Oh, it should last 70 years,” my realtor said of my $400,000 house in Arizona – now sold. Seventy years?

We don’t even remember the great accomplishments which have happened during our sliver-thin interglacial period. The Hittites? Archeologists said they were a myth, until their capital was discovered in Turkey and it was found to be dominating, powerful – the most imposing empire of its period. King David? The most important Hebrew King? Only recently have people found an old stone with his name on it, the only non-Biblical source for his story (I’m not sure what’s wrong with the Biblical stories – but atheists will be atheists). Who built Tiwanaku? Who were the Olmecs? Who constructed the Antikythera device?

It doesn’t help that we’re always burning our libraries and burying our history. The Library of Alexandria? The House of Wisdom? The Mayan codices? Bonfires for the stupid. Even today, we’re in a new era; knocking down statues and cancelling our classical prose. “Never again” the book burners say, as they light a match. They mean “I will selectively protect only what I think others should know.” Did you know that, right now, as you read this, there is an ancient library of 500,000 books and scrolls from the 30 private libraries of Timbuktu, rescued by an unsung hero (WHO I HAVE MET!), that are molding in a warehouse beside the Niger River? Turns out that, far away from the Timbuktu Sahara, the delicate pages can’t handle the moisture. What is in the books – from that 700 year old city where a book was more valuable than a bar of gold? Who knows, they are written in ancient Bambara, Songhai, Tamasheq and Arabic using classical Arabic script. Do you know how many people can read old Songhai and Classical Arabic? — 4 —

What is my point? Gavin Menzies wrote a book called “1421 – The Year China Discovered America”. His assertion was that during the waning years of the Zhu Di reign of the Ming Dynasty in China, a fleet of massive Junks were sent out by the ambitious emperor to explore, make contact with foreign nations, establish relations, establish trade networks, and bring them under Chinese supervision. But, due to overextending himself financially and the incompetent management of palace intrigue (and a pre-mature death as he was chasing down the remnants of the Mongols), the adventure was aborted even while the boats were on the water, and the conservative “deep state” in his court burned all the books and scrolls and maps about the voyage.

Is this possible? Sure. Menzies makes a good case, not scientific necessarily, a lot of it is anecdotal and weaves together multiple anomalies into one tapestry (if one more conspiracy theorist claims that THEY KNOW WHO BUILT THE BIMINI ROAD, I’m gonna scream). Nevertheless, it certainly is plausible. Heck, it is only in my lifetime the archaeologists (a conservative lot indeed) admitted the Vikings had reached the new world. I imagine there was probably a lot more happening in our thin interglacial period than we care to admit – we are an amnesiac lot after all. And there is still a lot to learn about what we’ve forgotten even about our recent history. Which is why this was a fun read.

I think the valuable part of this book was the approach to discovery using cartography. There’s lots of ways to think of the past. Archeologists study what they stumble across buried in the ground; philologists look to ancient words hidden in our language and where they come from; mythologists study our old stories. Pulling these together, and trying to untangle what really happened is fun.

Last point. There are certain unknowable things; that everybody takes credit for. The Rhode Island Tower; the Piri Reis Map – and everybody sees their truth in these mysteries (confirmation bias, or ‘if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail’). That is where these types of analyses fall down; make one massive leap of conjecture and build a castle atop it. For Menzies – the Chinese sailed around the world in 1421. Every anomaly and mystery met along the way, was left there by them. But that’s OK.

P.S. My favorite part of this book is the ‘discovery’ of a conspiracy orchestrated by Christopher Columbus and his brother to defraud Ferdinand and Isabel of lots of money by leading them to believe the new world had not been discovered when in fact the Portuguese already had colonies as far as Puerto Rico. It might be true – but if so, wow, that was the greatest fraud of all time!!!

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Ozymandias (Harry Melling in Buster Scruggs)

I have become haunted by this poem by Percy Shelley, particularly as read by Harry Melling in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”.

Melling is a genius, probably the only good thing to come out of the Harry Potter series. Shelley is also a genius. Buster Scruggs is an anthology of six short stories centered around the old west – and well worth your time. But the one with Melling I can’t stop thinking about (spoiler alerts).

He plays an armless, legless man, an intellectual, driven around old west towns in a cart by his handler (Liam Neeson), where he regales the crowd with readings (recited from memory): Shelley, the Bible, the Declaration of Independence. Delivered powerfully and with confidence, to the visages of the uncomprehending dregs of old west society. And slowly, the crowds start to thin out; after the sensation of an armless, legless man reciting poetry becomes mundane, nobody wants to stay for Shelley. They turn their attention to a chicken, who can peck at numbers correctly. The Melling character is replaced, thrown into a pond by his handler when the money stopped flowing, too much of a hassle to be bothered with despite his soaring intellect.

What struck me was the extraordinary vulnerability of the Melling character; a rare intellect at the mercy of his handler, and of the attention span of idiots. And it seemed to me a metaphor for the vulnerability of civilization itself, especially given that the Melling character was reciting Ozymandias, about an ancient Egyptian pharaoh and the wreckage of his empire, to a people who represent the wreckage of ours.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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When We Cease To Understand the World

This last year two scientists working on Quantum Mechanics won the Nobel Prize. Quantum Mechanics was invented by Heisenberg as part of his “uncertainty principle”. It is a bizarre field. How is it possible that, at the quantum level, the ‘real’ world around us breaks down? That effect can come before cause, that time can move in either direction? That something is not anything until it is measured, observed, at which point we give it substance. But only for a second (a second, being much too long a length of time).

This book is a fictionalized account of individual stories of great men of the mind who were working, mostly 100 years ago when things were still invented. People whose work we are still trying to understand and replicate 100 years later? It’s almost as if humanity pushed and fought its way to an apex, a ridge of sorts at which point fate or destiny or providence or God gave us a group of people who had the answers. I went parasailing once in the Andes, and my guide (I’m not very good) said “We are going to sail here, just above and on this side of the ridge. If we go too far that way,” and he pointed “the wind, like a wave, will pummel us over the other side.” That moment, those ideas – our singularity. Sail high, risk the winds, or float leisurely and come to rest on the same valley floor we had just driven from. Or, better said, we could either shoot for the stars (literally) or fall back into ourselves.

We fell back into ourselves. “China wants to get to the moon by 2030. But we will beat China to the moon!” NASA just announced, confidently. Weren’t we supposed to be to Mars, at least, by now? Um, the 1950s called – they want their space race back.

Nicola Tesla (not in this book), at the very beginning of electrification, was building a wireless electric grid. He also had built an electric car (I’ve seen it, you can see it – or something like it – at the car museum in Luray caverns in Virginia). Wireless electric power, harnessed from the unlimited electric power in the atmosphere to power cars? Something like the electricity imagined in Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” that powers Galt’s Gulch. But instead, we started burning dead dinosaurs – and thanks to the tremendous corruption of Edison and ‘big oil’ we still are, 100 years later. But only after filling the atmosphere with carbon and sparking war after war after war in the third world. But dead dinosaur juice won’t take you to Mars – although we just might beat China to the moon by 2030!!

The main premise of this book (which is fiction), and which I accept, is that there is something, some guiding principle, some “heart of the heart” – which all physicists who are basically our scientist philosophers – are looking for. They are men and women gifted specially by some spark inside them that causes them to be able to see things; how they see it, where it comes from – that is unclear. A mixture of luck and hard work, I’d guess. But also something inside them that allows them to see further, deeper. But it is something that inevitably destroys them; it is an idea that is too big, too profound, too singular. They end up, like Tesla, mad. While the rest of us just wander around, smart monkeys watching reality TV shows and complaining when the internet – which we don’t even understand – slows down for a minute.

Back to my original point, and a previous post I wrote. Our world is much more cyclical than we believe. Progress is (mostly) an illusion, and personal (moral) progress is actually wrong – we don’t progress as people, we digress – we become more corrupt – we become more wicked (don’t believe me just read the Bible; start in Genesis, that is what pretty much the whole book is about). But each cycle finds humanity trying to push beyond that “singularity” (for lack of a better term); to overcome diminishing returns as they settle in, to overcome the entropy of large populations. This time, our moment was likely in the 1920s and 30s – when the best minds to ever exist were meeting in Europe and the US discussing the nature of things. They were making radical discoveries, and if ever there were to be a breakthrough – into the stars and beyond, it was then. Instead, we started WWII and killed everybody.

This is why our writers are no longer Jules Verne, highlighting in fiction what our scientists were actually achieving. They are instead, Susanne Collins and James Dashner and Kass Morgan – dystopianism reigns – while our greatest minds spend their limited time and money trying to make Twitter profitable as the world comes apart.

But that’s OK we’ll try again in about 110,000 years.

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Mud and Stars (or maybe ‘A liberal in Russia’?)

Sara Wheeler’s book about Russian writers could have been great. She is a good writer, when she can get out of her own way, and clearly knows the subject matter well. In this book, Wheeler takes the reader on a journey through Russia, and brings Russia’s greatest writers along for the ride. Turgenev and Lermontov and Dostoevsky and Herzen and of course Tolstoy. She visits their estates and landholdings, the places they were imprisoned or exiled, and the amazing Russian expanses that inspired so much talent and vision.

Russia is special, and Russia’s writers are also special. Russia, which sees itself as the natural counter-balance to western decadence. A place where legacy and nobility are achieved through suffering – not stuff. Lev Gumilev called this ‘Passionarity’.

But you have to approach Russia, and her writers, with a sense of wonder. Liberals, however, replace wonder with cynicism. Scoffing, and mocking are their answers to anybody who does not think like they do. And Wheeler is clear on her position, on social issues which a deeply conservative and religious place (rightly) considers anathema; or political ones (Trump and Reagan and Thatcher join Putin as the book’s villains – how ‘openminded’ is that?).

I feel sorry for Wheeler – there is something epic and marvelous in Eurasia, if only you can find a way to defy your own petty prejudices and embrace something grand and old. An ancient land, poorly governed forever but still serving as a balance against the mono-culture Wheeler and her ilk would like to impose on the world. Places marinated in Christianity and timeless continuity can save your life – I recently spent two years in Armenia, and I certainly am better for it.

But we must be humble.

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Was There A Pre-Flood Civilization?

About 2,400,000 years ago the earth entered into an ice age. This ice age is likely still going on, there having been at least 17 interglacial periods which represented a warming of the planet, a receding of the ice caps, and then eventually a re-freezing. The glacial periods were likely about 100,000 years long, with the interglacial periods lasting about 20,000 or 25,000 years. The current interglacial period for the earth started probably around 15,000 BC.

But the current interglacial period was not like the others. Something dramatic happened, an apocalyptic event sometime around 12,800 BC, a few thousand years into the warming which simultaneously slowed down the warming (another cool period for 1000 years) while at the same time causing a massive melt-off and a massive flood. This dramatic event was likely a meteor, about 1.5km across that smashed into Greenland right around that time. This meteor would have been apocalyptic, causing a darkening of the sky, volcanos and tsunamis and earthquakes. The great flood. Noah’s flood.

None of that is very controversial. Most is well-established and increasingly better understood through the geological record.

The question is, was there a pre-diluvian civilization of any sophistication at all? An “Atlantis” lost in the rubble of the cataclysm?

Humanity, evolutionists would say, in its current form (Homo Sapiens) came onto the scene maybe 50,000 years ago. Or during the last glacial period. They were likely a result of an older competition between Neanderthals and Homo Floresiensis and Denisovans (and a few others). A sort of “Middle Earth” where various species were living together and vying for dominance, upon a world which was much colder and in which the land available was significantly less. We won. Then, we were almost wiped out in the catastrophe and the ensuing fallout.

The question that this book looks at is, before this catastrophe hit – that is to say during the last ice age – and presumably within the last 50,000 years, was there a civilization that we don’t know about? Now, that question is more controversial than it would seem. There do appear to be hints at this civilization: in Plato and in Genesis and in Gilgamesh (and many other cultures). But it’s hard – we have even lost track of major civilizations in our own time (the Hittites, for example) to say nothing of what might have happened before the meteor hit Greenland. So, how do we learn about ancient cultures? Archeology is the study of random stuff you find buried in the ground. Philology is the study of words, etymologies, what they mean, in what other languages they appear and the attempt to follow them backward. Mythology is the study of ancient stories. A good researcher tries to blend all three.

This book is mostly about mythology, and in that it is interesting. Why do all cultures have a flood legend? Why do the legends of the Bolivian Altiplano seem so similar to those of mezo-America? It is the study of ancient stories in ancient manuscripts like the Popol Vu and the Peri Rais map in Istanbul and the Epic of Gilgamesh, of carvings on rock. And there is a lot to wonder about: why were the Incas waiting for white European looking people as their saviors? Same for the Aztecs? Why did Olmec statues look like Africans? And how did the Mayans have such an advanced calendar but no wheel? Etc.

That is the first 200 pages, which were riveting. Then Hancock went to a very dark place, where most conspirologists go – looking for a master designer of all myths; dabbling in the kabala and seeking meaning in random numbers seen here because that same number appeared over there. Finding star charts in everything and extrapolating some mathematical master-code in odd buildings and random foundations. Confirmation bias, when we look for something we can usually find it. And this is why Hancock gets called a quack.

The reality, however, is extraordinary. And it’s good enough. Was there a pre-diluvian civilization? Probably. It was probably small, and pretty sophisticated, and wiped out by an asteroid. Survivors hid in the mountains, away from the waters – the remainder of the human race. And they became our ancestors: Urartians from Ararat; Tuaregs descending from the High Atlas Mountains; Mongols coming down from the Altai; Tiwanaku people from the Altiplano of Bolivia. All these cultures talk about how their ancestors came from high mountain valleys.

It seems that our own interglacial period is coming to an end. Why, we don’t know – what these rhythms represent (Einstein thought they had to do with gravity and the Earth’s position relative to the sun and other planets), we can know if we study. What will happen when the glacial period resumes? Will the cataclysm have affected this process? Will our own carbon emissions have any impact? I don’t know. But I am glad to think about these things.

I have fallen in love with our interglacial period. These few 15,000 years – a blink of an eye really – which gave us Tolstoy and Homer and Hercules; which took us to the moon and gave us flat-screen TVs and the World Cup; which gave us Rome and the Persians and the great Armenian Empire of Artashes. I have been glad to be a part of it. I don’t know what happens next; are we able to break through into the galaxy before the next cooling? Or have we reached our own singularity, and we have to start from scratch – with the exception of a few pyramids and a group of men in 100,000 years wondering who put those rocks on top of each other?

Those are the great questions.

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The Indo-Europeans

Philology is the study of languages, their etymology and development and history. It is a sort of linguistic archeological anthropology; and while everyday anthropology is sort of an act of accident (you stumble upon something buried in a hole), philology uses living languages to make linkages with dead ones and even those before to try and identify where a people might be from from the words they use.

Take Greek. Greek is an Indo-European language, that is one of those languages that is descendent from a common root somewhere back in the depths of time. This is known, because there are enough root words that connect Greek with Armenian and Celtic and Germanic and Latin to show that there is a common root, developed out of Indo-European, while also borrowing words from other sources as they came into contact with other cultures (through trade or religion), or were conquered.

So what does Indo-European tell us about its homeland, through the Greek language? An example: the word Greek uses for ‘sea’ or ‘ocean’ is not Indo-European; it appears nowhere else; it is taken from a pre-Indo-European language on the continent. What does this mean? It means that the Indo-Europeans were not from the Mediterranean; if they had been, there would have been the same word for ‘sea’ sprinkled through Greek and Armenian and Celtic. What common words are there? Words for ‘bear’ and ‘wolf’ and ‘beaver’ – which, it would appear, could indicate that Proto-Indo-European might come from a temperate forest zone. That is the discipline, simply put. Dig into words, find their roots, and then find the roots of other words in other languages and compare them; syntax and gender and tenses – languages modern and written in stylus upon clay tablets, arriving closer and closer.

“The Indo-Europeans” by Alain de Benoist is about this. About the attempts of different thinkers (mostly 100 years ago) to identify the homeland of the Proto-Indo-European civilization, and what were their characteristics, and how did they become the dominant linguistic root. This book is fascinating; detailed and well researched and sourced. It takes the reader back and back and back further still until the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago. And it takes the reader on a journey through Anatolia and eastern Iran and Afghanistan and to the Russian steppes and up into the far Lapp lands of Finland, looking for the homeland.

Philologists are extremely intelligent. To marry the disciplines of archeology to anthropology to language as they attempt to write the stories of bronze age civilizations, it’s extraordinary. Even genetics, although Benoist is careful to remind the reader that genetics can say nothing about culture – language is the greatest vehicle for culture – race or ‘ethnicity’ or genetics has very little to add.

Our story, the story of our humanity – that is humanity post-ice-age (we are actually still in the ice age, we are just in one of the periodic warmings) – is extremely short; that is what I took from this book. Only 12,000 years up against an ice age that has been going for 2,000,000 (and, like I said, is still going). What life was like, before our warming, is probably unknowable. Because we can’t even identify the civilization that gave birth to our language, though it was only a few thousand years ago.

And yet, though our story is so short, it has nevertheless been so incredibly eventful giving rise to epic conquerors and terrible tragedies and tremendous acts of goodness (and, of course, wickedness too). And the people who study it all…

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