Harsh Times

There’s a tragedy in Mario Vargas Llosa’s writing that is hard to endure. A brutality that is too common; a ridiculousness which might be funny if it were not so harsh and wicked. They are joyless novels, at least the ones I have read; with lust but without love – camaraderie without friendship – nature without wonder – politics without hope. Vargas Llosa’s novels are profoundly political, because Latin America is a profoundly political place. Politics as cancer; politics that destroys families – politics as a desperate race to the bottom – without philosophy except some tired Marx thrown as an excuse for the lack of thought. Envy advanced through the politics of greed. Position, the politics of repression.

Mario Vargas Llosa with a copy of my “San Porfirio” novels

I recently read Vargas Llosa’s auto-biography from birth to his run for the presidency. It answered a lot; Peru is not an easy place to grow up, now or then. Velasco or Castillo, what’s the difference? Who cares? Nothing changes – except more animals die; more generations are lost; more marriages destroyed by alcohol and drugs and the constant gut-wrenching violence of every day life that leaves the people exhausted.

Nothing has changed in Latin America either. Vargas Llosa’s book, which I’m reviewing here “Harsh Times” is about Guatemala in the 50s and 60s. Could very well have been written about Venezuela or Nicaragua today. Drugs and stupid self-dealing soldiers and a population struggling to make their way. A lost generation, then another and another and another again – the only ones saved because they flee to the United States and abandon the morass. Like Vargas Llosa, saved – in his case by Europe. Paris and Spain, dragged back into the mess to run for President, and thankfully to lose. Because politics in Latin America does not change, and politicians become all the same – but we have Vargas Llosa’s books! And that is more important.

I can’t wait until I read a Latin America novel brimming with wonder. If you know of one, please send it along. Hope and wonder are the only things that will save those 600,000,000 souls. And their leaders are a wonderless lot indeed.

Oh ya, and on “Harsh Times” – it’s now my favorite Vargas Llosa novel. About Guatemala in the 1960s and how the US and the Dominican Republic intervened to oust President Jacobo Arbenz. About the personalities involved, mistresses and soldiers and spies all. How they died and some lived, as the world turned and everything stayed the same in their wonderless lands.

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Musa Dagh

Musa Dagh is a tabletop mountain on the Mediterranean in southern Turkey or northern Syria where 5000 Armenians set to be marched to their deaths in the 1915 genocide decided to make a stand. It is a true story, and one of the few cases of Armenian resistance against the Turkish plans of ethnic cleansing. There they held out, enduring privations and many assaults from the Turkish regular army attempting to dislodge them from their mountain until they were finally rescued by the French navy. It is a remarkable tale of heroism against the face of tremendous evil.

Fighters of Musa Dagh
Armenian Resistance on Musa Dagh

“Forty Days of Musa Dagh” is a fictionalized account of the ordeal, though it holds tightly to the historical events. It is written by Franz Werfel, an Austrian Jew, and published in 1933 following extensive journeys by Werfel through Turkey and even up the mountain. The book itself was banned and burned by the Nazis as “offensive to their (erstwhile) Turkish allies” but the real reason was it gave the Jewish communities in Germany and German occupied territories an example of and motivation to successful resistance.

I wonder if Werfel knew that only a few short years after publishing his novel on genocide, he himself would have to flee a genocide. I imagine he saw lots of parallels between the Young Turks and the Nazis (Hitler certainly did). I suppose the old axiom “First they came for the Armenians, but I am not Armenian…” applies well here. It still applies, doesn’t it? “First they came for the for the Uyghur…”? Or closer to home “First they came for our faith; then they came for our history.”

“To be an Armenian is an impossibility” ends the novel. The weeping nation, a kingdom that once extended from the Mediterranean to the Caspian now clutching tenuously to a patch of South Caucasus mountains – even last year losing yet another chunk of their historic homeland.

I have my own copy of “40 Days of Musa Dagh” on the shelf holding my Armenian library nestled beside the “Book of Sadness”, a 1000 year old book of poetry filled with Armenia’s yearning to be free and at peace, and above a framed quote by William Saroyan, because that is where it belongs:

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

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A Christmas Blessing in Troubled Times

It’s been a little bit hard getting into the Christmas spirit this season. Perhaps COVID fatigue, it has us all down – the level of death compounded by stress of uncertainty and the rage we all experience against the limitations of our freedoms or big-government mandates (mine is masks). But it feels more than that, somehow the mayhem exacerbated by good old-fashioned human wickedness.

I spent a lot of time this fall, in fits and bursts, trying to help save the Afghan National Institute of Music from the hands of the Taliban after the fall of Kabul. A violin, or a forced marriage to an old bearded pervert – those appeared to be their options. Rescued from poverty by Dr. Ahmed Sarmast, given hope and a skill and a passion for something beautiful and timeless — and subsequently abandoned by Uncle Joe. We were ultimately successful, a feat of tremendous creativity and teamwork (that story is coming out soon, Voice of America is doing a remarkable documentary, stay tuned). And while I am thrilled that ANIM is out, in Portugal and building the school in exile, thinking of them and the daily drumbeat of famine stories about post-Biden Afghanistan only makes me rage and sorrow. Usually famines happen despite America’s best effort. This one is our fault – we own the mess of war and now we own Taliban totalitarianism and the famine we left behind. None of that matters, whose fault it is, because the babies will still starve either way.

I was reading to my son this evening, as I always do. We’ve switched to Christmas stories for the season, there’s no reason he should be bogged down in my funk. “A Christmas Carol” by Dickens. Today we finished “The Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke. My own father used to read me this story many years ago. It’s the remarkable tale of a Magi who sought to join the other three in presenting his gifts to the King, but was constantly waylaid. He used his time to heal a sick Hebrew along the way; he used his treasure to save the life of a baby during Herod’s Slaughter of Innocents. He wandered, looking for the King in all the right places, never to find him. Slave boats, orphanages and charities for the desperate and destitute. Finally, he is in the right place, close to the Messiah and with the thoughts of using his last jewel to buy the King’s freedom from the cross when he is again sidetracked, to buy instead the freedom of a slave girl. An unknown and unimportant child, or the savior of the world. But again he made his choice, to do what he could for those put in his path instead of the utopian dream of presenting a pure gift to the son of God.

And he was struck down, in his mind a failure after a long life of fruitless search spent among the ‘least of these’. Except was it fruitless? “We feel like we should have lots of money and spend our time trying to be rich and powerful and famous. But that isn’t the right thing to do.” I told my little boy tonight. “Why not?” he asked. “Because,” I thought for a moment, as always having to distill things down to their core. He makes me smarter, and more thoughtful. “Because those things don’t matter. Our job is to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. It’s what we are put here to do; because it’s what Jesus told us to do; because it’s what Jesus did. More than that,” I went on. “It might feel frustrating. We can never save everybody; in fact our impact might be so limited that it only makes us sadder…” (I was thinking here of course of Afghanistan and the starving children tonight) “But we have to trust that to God and help those within our power, however small that may be. That is what life is about.”

The benefit, I suppose, is that I actually believe that. More than believing it, it’s what I’ve spent my entire adult life doing. Which I suppose (coming full circle) is where my Christmas funk has come from this year – war and disease have wiped it all away, 25 years of work — poof, ashes and dust. Just like one bad decision by one selfish and arrogant president ended 20 years of music learning. But we move, we pick up, we rebuild and we try and find that next person to help.

That’s what I think, during this worn out Christmas season. So my question, if I am allowed, I guess is “Who is in front of you that needs your help?” And as we answer that, we can begin the long journey again together in making our worn-out Christmas a blessing even in troubled times.

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To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #12 – Chile)

Latin America never misses a chance to miss an opportunity. How do you take the most prosperous nation in the region and ruin it? It’s a story that is told over and over until the telling is really not even interesting anymore. Argentina in the 20s; Mexico in the 40s; “Saudi” Venezuela in the 70s. Now it’s Chile’s turn, waves of instability and stupidity that ricochet around the hemisphere but never seem to lose energy.

Chile has been one of Latin America’s success stories. The first country I can think of in the region to participate in the visa waiver program with the United States (enjoy that while it lasts). A stock market that is secured by blockchain, the first in the world I think. A privatized pension system which is the envy of everybody, including the United States. Santiago – I’ve been there a few times – is an amazingly modern city, resembling somewhere in Europe. Rule of law, safety and security.

Perfect time to ruin it all. Which is what the Chileans decided to do in yesterday’s elections. “I have an idea,” say the ignorant, “lets take everything we’ve built and just flush it into the sea!!” I said the same thing about Venezuela, 20 years ago when Chavez was alive and popular and oil money was covering over some seriously bad economics. I told of Venezuela’s upcoming discovery of hunger; of the suicide that was slow-moving. Nobody was listening. Who wants to talk about the hangover when you are a few beers in? What a downer!

Chile, which since the days of Allende’s overthrow and the righting of their economic ship has been doing very well indeed. “We’ve had enough of prosperity,” they seem to be telling themselves. “Let’s do misery for a while!!” And the justification? Inequality. Like Mario Vargas Llosa has said in is auto-biography A Fish In Water; “Redistributive policies don’t work. Others do work, the ones which, since they take into account an inevitable inequality between those who produce more and those who produce less, lack the intellectual and ethical fascination that has always surrounded socialism, (…) but egalitarian-oriented economies based on solidarity have never raised a country out of poverty; they have impoverished it even further.”

Cuba, Market, Souvenir, Multicoloured, Che Guevara
Latin America’s Premier T-Shirt Mogul

That is what will now happen in Chile. The do-gooders will have the first crack, enacting policies hatched in a café, street protests raging outside, based upon the ideas of the mass-man that Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote about 100 years ago, “Once for all, he accepts the stock of commonplaces, prejudices, fag-ends of ideas or simply empty words which chance has piled up within his mind, and with a boldness only explicable by his ingenuousness, is prepared to impose them everywhere”. Through violence. The mass-man knows only violence. “Today (…) the average man (…) has lost the use of his hearing. Why should he listen if he has within himself all that is necessary? There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life, in which he does not intervene, blind and deaf as he is, imposing is ‘opinions’.”

But slowly, the self-dealers will take over – corruption, that is the second phase of ‘revolution’. The thieves will realize that without institutions there is no way to stop them. They will push out the flower-minded utopians, most often violently. Then, after the thieves, come the criminals – aren’t they one and the same? Those who seek power through violence over others realize there is no restraining wall; those who seek unlimited money through the employ of the whole state as a criminal enterprise will stop at nothing to control that greatest of prize. Don’t ask me – ask Chavez or Lula or Stalin or Hitler, to name only a few.

And who will suffer? The people who voted for redistributive (retributive) policies in the first place. What makes Chile’s case more significant, more dramatic, and probably faster is that the institutions that one would assume would protect the property-holder and the poor from their predators are already being riven asunder by a constituent assembly currently seated in which the conservatives don’t even have a veto. What Castillo wants in Peru, or AMLO in Mexico, what it took Chavez two years to secure in Venezuela the Chilean commies already have in their hot little lands – the means to undermine all institutionalism.

Hold on to your seats, it’s going to be epic. And Miami bankers, get your people ready to work overtime as all Chile’s property owners desperately hurry to send their money abroad before Chile enacts the first paper cut in their suicide, currency controls. The upside? You can sell your nice Santiago apartment today to an excited revolutionary, sending the money to Miami to put it in a CD. In twenty years, you’ll be able to buy it back for a song after the economy has collapsed (unless you’re unlucky and Chile is the next Cuba, it’s been known to happen…).

It might need a little maintenance though…

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Goodreads Year In Review – 2021

I like to look back upon the books I read during a given year. A sense of accomplishment, a feeling that I’ve learned something. To remember things that moved me; where I was or what I was doing. Sitting in a little café in springtime Yerevan reading Camus. Carving out all of Thanksgiving day, somehow, and reading Hunger in a single sitting over piles of food (the irony is not lost on me). Finding my sense of the fight again with Hunger Games; the joy of a fresh perspective in Song of America; rediscovering something epic and grand in Of Human Bondage.

Here is my year in review of books. My target was 30, I managed 49. I’m gonna try for 40 in 2022 – please follow me on Goodreads. And also set up your own challenge, and pick your own books for this new year (why don’t you pick some of mine?). Everything has changed, and I don’t say that lightly. We need to read, to know where we are going and be ready for it.

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On Vargas Llosa and Writing

What makes great writers great? I’ve often wondered that. I’ve stumbled across dusty stories once-translated and lost to time in the ancient bookstalls of Armenia that are breathtaking; then I try and re-read Hemingway every other year, realizing that life is not fair. Why should Gurgen Mahari be deprived of 16 years of writing time in the Siberian gulag only to return, and have his masterpiece burned before his eyes on the streets of his beloved Yerevan, and die of a broken heart unknown while Hemingway drinks himself to a Nobel prize and an early grave? Who knows, life is not fair.

None of that has anything to do with Mario Vargas Llosa, Latin America’s greatest living writer. Vargas Llosa is of course up there with Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Jorge Luis Borges; Ruben Dario; and Pablo Neruda. His name will live on after he leaves us; as it should be.

I just finished his autobiography of the first half of his life. From childhood to his run for the Presidency of Peru. How he became a writer, and how writing and politics held a contest for his soul and writing won, thank God. He is thankful too, Vargas Llosa was always a reluctant politician. Men of letters don’t suffer the madding crowds too well, and this makes the process of retail politics necessary to win at best unpleasant. This comes out in Vargas Llosa’s book “A Fish In The Water”. He doesn’t really hide his contempt for Peruvians who chose Alberto Fujimori over him.

His book reminds me of the line from the Russell Crowe move “The Gladiator”, when Senator Gaius says “I don’t pretend to be of the people, but I do try to be for the people.”

Vargas Llosa is one of the most prominent defenders of Classical Liberalism in Latin America. Hayek and Mises and Rothbard. The principles of liberty, utopian (aren’t all writers utopian?) but a utopianism of liberty. The discovery of freedom against communism. Would that all novelists completed their journey, like Vargas Llosa did. So many get stuck in communism, in socialism – a labyrinth out of which there appears no escape, especially for those who lack the courage. But at the end of it all, after all the planning has been tried and has failed – “Death in the Bread Lines” could perhaps be Vargas Llosa’s next novel – we must return to liberty. Because it is the last principle which has never been tried.

Incidentally, back to my initial point, it’s difficult to understand why some people “make it” and others don’t. However, sometimes it’s opportunity. Apropos of that, I recently gave my first two novels (the San Porfirio series) to the great novelist when he was on a trip to the United States. Maybe he reads them. Maybe he likes them. Maybe he calls his publisher and says “This is the next voice of freedom”. One can only hope and sometimes dream.

Mario Vargas Llosa

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Midnight at the Pera Palace

“Everybody is writing their Turkey books,” said Rose Macaulay in “Towers of Trebizond“. The Black Sea region of the world is the oldest. Jason and his Argonauts – the chaining of Prometheus. The confluence of empires: Russian and Ottoman and Persian. Trade from the black forests of Siberia through the Bosphorus and to the empires of Rome and Carthage. Istanbul – Constantinople sits at the center of it all, the center of the world. For those who have been there (read here about my last trip) it’s easy to see why. Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace and all the wonders of the bazaars. Supervised from Galata tower where the first flight took place hundreds of years before the Wright brothers.

“Midnight in the Pera Palace” is a book about the transition between empire and republic. Between the Ottoman Sultans and Ataturk. In the messy disintegration of world order during the First World War and the re-building of a new order following the Second World War and how Turkey managed this dangerous process. Great cities survive, built upon foundations as stepping stones to what comes next while taking into account what has been. Paris and London and Rome.

Constantinople is a great city. Right now we think about the Turkey of the moment. But Constantinople is old. Older than Erdogan. Older than the Ottomans. Older than the Islam. Older than the Turks. Older even than Rome. The bones upon which the modern city is built are still there. And for that it will last.

I highly recommend this book. The Black Sea basin is my favorite part of the world; full of mystery and intrigue and so much history. So much it has to be told not in chapters of books but in chapters of volumes. This book does just that, telling the story of Istanbul’s transition away from the caliphate through the lens of one old hotel, that does abide even as the republic itself is coming apart.

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To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #11 – Armenia and Azerbaijan)

It has been just over a year since Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire to end the ’44 Day War’. A war started by Azerbaijan in order to gain back land they lost more than 25 years ago following a defeat to Armenia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Land which was given to Azerbaijan by Stalin in his efforts to divide and conquer. This is all very controversial and any way one explains it risks offending somebody of the opposite opinion in a situation which is still extremely sensitive to Azerbaijan who suffered greatly during the last war and Armenia, a tiny nation surrounded by enemies, enemies who once carried out a genocide. 

Tank, War, Hills, Mountains, Army, Countryside, Armenia

But because things are complicated does not mean that the United States should not engage. The reality is that Russia uses divide and conquer methodology in the South Caucasus the same way the Soviet Union did, and for the same reason. To guarantee their permanence in their buffer zones. When the USSR collapsed, Russia lost its buffer zones in the South Caucasus meant to ward against attacks from Persian and Ottoman imperial ambitious. Over control of the Black Sea – Russia is, above all, a Black Sea nation. Vladimir Putin used the 44 Day War to humiliate Armenia’s new reform-minded Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and to guarantee the deployment of Russian Armed Forces to their buffer zones – the natural fortress of Nagorno Karabakh (the place the Armenians call Artsakh). From their bastion, the Russian Army can now patrol and secure their southern flank.

The Russians have been allowed to take advantage of the instability because the West has been unable to make any meaningful progress on peace. Specifically, the Minsk Group, led by United States, Russia and France and created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in March of 1992 following the first NK war has failed to achieve the desired end. In fact, they quickly crystalized the problem into a “frozen conflict” and forgot about it. Furthermore, now they work at cross purposes, micro-managing from Foggy Bottom any attempt by our Ambassadors in the region to creatively solving the issue on a bilateral basis while offering no solutions. Even worse, Russia now uses the Minsk Group as an opportunity to pretend they are neutral – inviting in the member states when they need to whitewash Putin’s maneuvers.

We need new policy in the South Caucasus, which will advance the cause of peace which is the only way to loosen the grip of Putin in that part of the world. First, we need to reassure Armenia of their territorial integrity, and their security. Following the genocide, so much of their decision-making is security based. 80% of their borders are closed, and the hate-speech between the Armenians and Turks (the Azeris are Turkik peoples, who buy into President Erdogan’s Pan-Turkish agenda) makes any negotiation impossible. Second, we need to put pressure on Turkey to make peace, open its borders and cease supporting the Azeri war (including the deployment of drones and mercenaries from Syria). This is hard, Turkey is a treaty ally. But without Turkish support Azerbaijan might sue for peace. Finally, we need to work with our French allies to find a lasting solution to the status of Nagorno Karabakh – what the Armenians call Artsakh. The Azeri solution of integration into Azerbaijan will not work while cultural and historic vandalism take place, including attempts to rewrite history. Also a Russian protectorate in the region, with 2000 Russian ‘peacekeepers’, will also not work – Putin does not seek peace, only position. Some have mentioned the model of Kosovo, which has been for the most part successful. Others have proposed reunification with Armenia proper – which could only occur with guaranteed security and a safe-corridor for movement.

Armenia will have to make concessions. They must accept that outside of Nagorno Karabakh, they have no legitimate territorial claim to land recently retaken by Azerbaijan. They cannot spend the next twenty years preparing for the next war. And they must negotiate with Turkey, who are said to be willing to establish trade relations and even diplomatic relations while opening the border. And they must find a way to allow for some connectivity between Nakhichevan, the Azeri enclave and Azerbaijan proper. Only this will allow them to eliminate the draft which is a tax on the youngest generation and reduce the military expenditures to an acceptable level allowing them to invest in education for the children and facilities to support a rapidly aging population.

The solutions are apparent, though difficult to achieve. Allies we have in our French colleagues independent from the constraints of the Minsk group. Now however is the time. Things are in play, relations that were frozen for decades are becoming fluid again. Let’s use this to our advantage to advance the cause of peace. The future will thank us.

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To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #10 – China)

But wait a bit,’ the Oysters cried,
      Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
      And all of us are fat!

Today we obsess about China. Much like for the last twenty years, it was ISIS bombers in our malls, and before then the Soviet Union – air raid and nuclear strike drills. Before then Nazis, before then the Spanish empire I guess. Through it all COVID or Spanish Flu or AIDS. Americans are nothing if not obsessive.

Today we obsess about China.

Maybe the obsession is good. It allows us to muster our national imagination against a foe, to build consensus about what needs to be done to vanquish them, to get a single-mindedness to our national decision-making process in order to marshal our tremendous power to meet the challenge. Cue WWII, there was nothing in the world like that American war effort.

And on the face of it, we are not wrong. The Nazis were really, really bad. The Soviets even worse – I just spent two years in Armenia, where the scars of Soviet oppression are still visible in the dead buildings and the traumatized populations who had to endure generations of enslavement. To think freely after so great a tribulation is a challenge, and the older people – those who lived under the dark shadow from the north – are still wary. Terrorism was bad too, but never a threat the way we made it out to be. It is existential for Mali or Burkina Faso or Afghanistan, but for the United States with our privileged geography it was never something that was going to require national mobilization.

But China is; and is a serious threat. They have the longevity of the Soviet Union, learning that enslavement of a population works, that fear is a tremendous motivator – but also learning that as long as they make our cheap widgets and “flash fashion” apparel we are stuck with them. “Flash fashion” to pay for the Uighur death camps, because China is a nasty combination of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The experiments they are doing on the Uighurs, or political dissidents, or Falun Gong practitioners are nothing short of crimes against humanity. Like the Nazis against the Jews and the Gipsy.

And China is more dangerous now than they have been; but not for the reasons you might think.

They are dangerous now, because they are weakening very noticeably and very quickly. They are facing two very real and very existential problems. The first is their economic model no longer works. It was predicated upon the creation of cheap detritus, taking advantage of the massive glut of labor available in the last decade of the 20th century (globalist economics was build on the movement of Chinese cheap labor to the cities and the liberation of those behind the Iron Curtain). They used this cheap indentured servitude to addict the west to their cheap crap, greased by their WTO membership, to give them massive amounts of capital (capital the USSR in its day could only dream of). But that is over – Chinese costs per worker have increased sixfold over the last years. They have had to literally enslave the Uighurs to keep the costs down. To pay for it, China’s economy was hardwired to force the savings of the enslaved either into cash or real estate to pay for the tremendous building boom of modernizing their country. They leveraged this until the white elephants strewn around the country became too apparent, and then they have sought to export this surplus production of construction to the world via what they call the “Belt and Road Initiative” (and maybe enslave some neighbors in the process). Their debt has now reached 300% of GDP, they are leveraged to the hilt, no longer have any money to pay for anything just as the world has gotten wise and started to increase the costs via tariffs and divestment orders.

The second Chinese problem is demographic. When they instituted the ‘one child’ policy, population growth was already slowing in China as it does everywhere else and for the same reasons: families that urbanize and increase their education levels have fewer children. Period. Their dramatic overreaction has led to a demographic collapse which is starting now, and will continue for the next 75 years. Over that period, China’s population will be cut in half – of what remains, it will be older – and will be made mostly of men. Angry geriatric Chinese men sitting in apartments in empty condominium complexes on the outskirts of a dead town, that is the future of the “Middle Kingdom”.

The pressure valves which address these things in free societies: civil society, church, political debate. None of them exist. And real answers, immigration, do not fit with Han Nationalism – besides nobody would go to totalitarian China, even if they were allowed.

China has, probably, twenty years before collapse becomes precipitous. The problem is Xi knows all this. But Xi is no Gorbachev. Xi is Mao, who once told Pol Pot “Congrats, you’re doing what I want to do here but they won’t let me” (referring to the killing fields); Mao who once said that he welcomed nuclear war with the west because China had more people “And probably a third will survive, and that is enough to rebuild and take over the world.”

So we have twenty years of Chinese desperation before they fade away, turning their soldiers into old-folks-homes attendants and their tanks into geriatric vans. Xi has maybe twenty years left, maybe less, before his time too is over. We, as America, need to use those twenty years to avoid a devastating war – for a war with China would be terrible not only for the United States but for Australia and for Indonesia and for the Philippines and for Japan. But it would also be disastrous for our natural world. We need to avoid a war with China over Taiwan (while of course safeguarding their freedom, that should go without saying but I’ll say it anyways); an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the South China Sea bristling with missiles pointed at the mainland, befuddling the attempts of Xi and his planners to build a blue-water navy for the invasion and subjugation of their “near abroad” – the creation of empire, that is the only way Xi can imagine the fix to his demographic problem, Philippino and Malay replacing Uighurs in his factories which will make the inputs of consumption for the bazaars in Jakarta in a modern manifestation of “empire free trade” into perpetuity. And avoiding war will be the hardest thing to do – many say it is already set for 2022 after the Winter Olympics. We need to muster all our power to safeguard Taiwan, not for their benefit – though there is that – but because if we don’t, China might just succeed at empire and then they become a problem we will give not only to our children but our grandchildren.

And while we avoid war, we need to extricate our economy from theirs – insulating ourselves from their coming economic collapse. This means moving our strategic supply chains like pharmaceuticals and personal protective equipment and lithium batteries to friendlier places closer to home. But it also means finally, at long last, getting real with ourselves – making peace with the fact that the rapid consumption, the ‘fast fashion’, the plastic-widget-from-Walmart, the “I need that new piece of cheap plastic crap to make my life better” narrative must fade away. We will have to make due with an iPhone that lasts for years; with clothes that we put away for summer and get back out again for winter, clean them off and re-ware them; with cars that we maintain regularly and pass on to our children when they come of age. With Christmases and birthdays focused on experiences and family and not piles of junk. I know we’ve been saying that forever, but it’s true. Conveniently, this brings us into common cause with the ‘climate change’ crowd – because it is what they are worried about; which allows me, a conservative worried about war with China to make common cause on policies with the progressive left.

See, maybe the obsession is, in fact, good after all!

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I didn’t expect to read “Hunger”, cover to cover, on Thanksgiving. Sometimes a book surprises you, bringing you along, making it impossible to put down. It is fitting, though, perhaps, given the subject matter, the day and the state of things.

Hunger. I don’t know many people who know what real hunger is. Neither do you. The different phases of need; what it does to the body first and then the mind. The madness of hunger, the irrational bizarre behavior accentuated by the gaunt expression. The specter of hunger is haunting the world these days. Afghanistan, a hunger that is shameful not for the Afghans but for the Americans. We abandoned them. Being able to solve their hunger – having done so, and worse, having promised to continue to do so we got bored and walked away. For shame. Ethiopia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Yemen. Places I’ve been.

I remember my first experience with hunger, real hunger. Working in North Kivu province of Congo during the great war. I was running 60 feeding centers (50 supplementary and 10 therapeutic). The therapeutic were by far the worst. In rundown old abandoned Belgian hospitals mostly. Dozens, sometimes more than 100 children, in beds under mosquito nets – you could hear a pin drop. Starving babies don’t cry. They sit there, swollen, staring – ‘why?’ the only question, though they don’t even know they are asking it. ‘Why?’ – a question for which there is no answer.

I read “Hunger” cover to cover on Thanksgiving. It was right to do so, this year. The story, Knut Hamsun’s masterpiece – for which he won the Nobel Prize in literature 100 years ago. Auto-biographical, a starving man in Oslo during the days when Europe went hungry; because how else could he have understood the humiliation of hunger and the struggle of a proud man against such wicked privation? Unless he had lived it? It reminded me of the most important thing on Thanksgiving – to be thankful. Not jealous and greedy, emotions that inspire whole political movements and lead to – wait for it – hunger. But thankful for our daily bread, the opportunity to have a warm place away from the elements, and a nice little meal on Thanksgiving.

For but by the grace of God, there go I.

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