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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My Greatest Creation

It’s impossible to force yourself on others. That’s the trick, isn’t it? The only way, is through control of the levers of government – which is why the fight for those cavemen’s clubs is so vicious, the better to beat each-other with.

And so what do we have, instead – bereft of the club, or any desire for it? The work of our imaginations, thrown into the void in the hopes of making a difference. Empathy – that is the greatest casualty of our age of unrest. It was murdered upon the sacred altar of, oh maybe we’ll call it the eternal quest for victimization.

But your victim is somebody else’s oppressor.

Apropos of that, my best work – “I, Charles, From the Camps” is the story about a young man who joins the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. Written in first person, my way to empathize with those who have so few options in life.

Last week Uganda had elections again – and Chairman Norbert Mao (former Governor of Gulu District, birthplace of the LRA and somebody I consider a friend) lost, again, to the dictatorship of Yoweri Museveni. The quasi-eternal frustration of those who would challenge dictatorship; but you’d never know it. Mao has charm, humor and aplomb as he fights his tyrant. Would we were all possessed of the same character.

Here’s what Mao said of my novel:

“I have read through the book, I Charles. It is very well written. I take this as your wreath to honour our people who perished in the tragedy visited upon us. Thank you for writing this heart wrenching story. Yes, heart wrenching even for those of us who saw it all. I lived through this dark episode in our country’s history and can testify that this book is painfully honest. It tells the kind of truth that can only be told through fiction. The bizarre story of human cruelty and the triumph of man’s soul over evil is emotionally and intellectually captivating. Addressing you personally, let me say this also. To me this is a continuation of your mission to shine a bright light on certain events that some people want hidden. This is a story written in blood. It is a lyrical lament and a testimony crying out for a verdict from an indifferent world. A gem of a book…witty, wise and rueful. It is heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful. It outrages as it teaches. This is not just a book. It is a testament. Nobody should miss a chance to read it.”  Norbert Mao, former Chairman of Gulu District, former Presidential Candidate for the Democratic Party of Uganda

So I invite you, buy my novel and find a way to make common cause with the trials of people an ocean away and living in desperate poverty. I can’t force you, nor would if I could because it would not change you, if I did (isn’t that refreshing, in these days of the cavemen’s club). And anyway heck – what will it cost you – for a dose of empathy; $4? Price of a cup of coffee, or half a beer? Compare that to what it cost me. I lived in Africa for 10 years, fighting to stop five wars; and the novel took me years — to write down what I saw for you too to experience it. And my friend Mao? He continues to fight on. I feel like $4 is a fair exchange for that all that and what is, quite simply, my best work which just might change your life. It certainly did mine.

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Agent Sonya – A Book Review

Its easy to think of Europe as we know it today. Boring and dull. Sticky cheese and over-priced wine; but oh so comfortable. Old and nostalgic. Its that way on purpose, because the first half of the 20th century was so fraught. The 2nd industrial revolution had created new economies, that nobody understood and sprinkled wealth and opportunity around enough to cause the scramble for it to become violent. And the backlash against those who were rich and powerful by those who could not seem to get ahead led to a new world order which lasted for the better part of a century. Communism – I wonder if communism would have had its appeal if not for the fascists. Sure, the Soviet Union arose because of the wickedness of the Tsar. But it was the fight against fascism that gave international communism purpose and drive. This book is about that. About a German Jew who was a communist and became the Cold War’s greatest spy because of her drive to fight Hitler and the fascists. Anti-fascists, is what they called themselves – to not have to call themselves communists (though that is what they were). Its what they still call themselves today, pretending they are against something or something else; but anti-fascism is not a new phenomenon, harkening back to the day when there actually were fascists to fight.

The part that makes me laugh about this story – the same for Arthur Koestler (also a Jewish communist, for a season, though he had the smarts to reform himself when he saw that the system was as wicked as the one he was fighting), was their love for England. England does prevail, doesn’t it? It weathers the mayhem, its rolling hills and pub-dominated villages providing continuity in seasons of turmoil. To be loved and give peace, even to a soviet spy sending nuclear secrets to Stalin.

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Why Not A Jubilee?

There’s nothing that highlights the coming financial debacle like the news I read this morning: Costa Rica is considering open-pit gold mining and deep sea fracking to cover the epic, yawning, gaping hole in their finances.

Um, say what???

Now, I lived in Costa Rica, on and off. When I was one (my parents were there learning Spanish); in 2004 for regional work – I bought an apartment there that I owned for several years, to have a place in the sun away from the mayhem of everywhere and everywhere else. I consider Oscar Arias as one of my heroes, I even met him once when I was working on freeing Venezuela from the Chavistas (one of my many failures – not the meeting, that went swimmingly – the efforts to avert a suicide that is still playing out). Costa Rica, a land of firsts. The first (only) Latin American country to abolish their army, ending the banana cycles of thugs (from the right and left) periodically upsetting democratic and economic gains. The first to join the International Criminal Court (whatever you think of that institution, the search for justice is something we’re all for). Setting aside 25% of its national territory into national parks. The first to vie for carbon neutrality (whatever you think of that newest propaganda agenda of the redistributionist left, and I don’t think much of their base politics, who can object to trying to be better to our little planet? Read ‘Apocalypse Never’ before you scream at me). Now, they’re gonna dig and frack. HELP!!!!

And like Costa Rica, so many others. A 10% increase in global public debt – to 103% of global GDP this year. To say nothing of private debt, a way that China and the USA and Europe (and everywhere else) camouflage our fiscal insolvency pretending that our explosion of ‘private debt’ is not a result of bad government; in systems which have neither been ‘communist’ or ‘capitalist’ in a long time – but something in between, the brainchild of Moreau’s island.

This is the damn cycle. Bad governments come to power – and rack up stupid debt (entitlements to buy votes and corruption to buy leer jets and mansions in the Swiss Alps). They are then overthrown or voted out, with good governments coming in and taking steps towards being responsible (Macri in Argentina). Fiscal discipline and sound financial management meets the partisans of the previous bad government, the good government is overthrown product of the hangover after the excess, and we start again – only deeper this time. This example is so commonplace as to be boring. Argentina, of course, is the poster child. Nigeria. Brazil. South Africa. India. In USA we haven’t had a fiscally responsible government since the ’90s. Too big to fail, except we are – that at least is heartbreakingly apparent. Nigeria spends more than 60% of its revenue on servicing its debt. USA’s debt servicing costs between 500 and 600 billion dollars. Want universal healthcare? That would pay for it.

So what should we do? There is a concept in ancient Hebrew law, specifically the Mosaic codes of Leviticus – the year of Jubilee. Every fifty years, land was to be returned to its original owners (or their children); indentured servants were to be set free – debt was to be wiped away. The ancient Hebrews knew what we also know, that the powerful use money and debt as tools to cement their position and those who suffer the most are the poor. No, I’m not a communist – sounds sort of Karl Marxy, I know, but its true. The pandemic, at least, has showed us that – the elites in America made new-billions and the desperate poor got a $600 check. How the elites got rich (I for one am grateful for Amazon, if not for Bezos himself. Oligarchs should be excluded from politics… Oops, there I go again) is not ignored, nor is the fact that our new Aristocracy has taken inter-generational elasticity in America to its worst point ever. As Angus Deaton writes, the rich have “raised the latter as they ascended” – and some of this is through debt; debt they benefit from, as the first to have access to the newly printed money.  

“But this will benefit the rich!!!?” the socialists will say. “This will give those no-good lazies a pass on their own irresponsibility” the other side will respond. “Maybe we should just set up a voucher program,” somebody will suggest. “Naw, we can just send them a check for $600, like, perhaps every month. That will calm them down!” says another, licking lobster juice from her fingers in a restaurant beside a beautiful old bridge.

STOP!!! ALL OF YOU!!!

Because that is the whole point – for the Bible also says “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike” – whoever your just and unjust are (and your opinion is probably different than mine), a jubilee does not discriminate between human opinions of each other. Therein lies its power. It eschews social engineering – and isn’t that what has gotten us into our mess in the first place? But… But… what about?? I mean, shouldn’t they… It’s the fault of…

Just let them go, the “…stock of commonplaces, prejudices, cigarette-ends of ideas or simply empty words which chance has piled up within (your) minds.” (Yes, I’m talking to you). Let them go, its OK. Embrace the ‘local knowledge problem’ that confounds all economists, surrender to our extraordinary spontaneous order, and above all eschew your efforts at planning – they fail. You’re not smart enough.

Let’s start over. Lets wipe it all away.

Now, my economist friends will object. They, who pretend they are ‘scientists’, will talk about their curves and their models and their inflations. But isn’t it they who have brought us to the brink in the first place? Playing politics with the lives and livelihoods of others – Paul Krugman playing the role of Iblis, as he tests God again and again?  

Because what they forget, is the nature of money. For what is money anyways, the repayment of which has resulted in the hobbling of nations? It is a store of value and a unit of measure. It is a means of exchange, the best of your mind for the best of mine. It allows a potato farmer and a computer designer to interact with each other across boundaries and over oceans – because the potato farmer needs accounting software and the computer wizard wants a curly fry. An intercourse ruined by toxic debt. Without debt, what will remain? Productivity. Productivity which will be set free; whether in the unruly slums of Lagos or the soy fields of the Pampas, those who can create will do so and those who can only engage in usury will find themselves powerless, at least for a season. And the alleviation of debt can even allow now-strangled countries to free money to pay park rangers, or invest in nuclear energy (the only solution to our global energy demands).

But how do we stop our downward spiral from happening all over? Well, first of all, we don’t. The Hebrew jubilee happened every fifty years; and the national (granted rural) economy adjusted for it. They knew that humanity has a tendency to repeat stupidity over and over in a cyclical race to the bottom. “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage,said Alexander Tytler. And that is not only true of a democracy, as our modern world has shown us.

But specifically, we could start to engage in real governance. Perish the thought!!!! Things like balanced budget amendments to our constitutions. A new Bretton Woods which denies loans to countries who do not balance their budgets or who go off the rails (incidentally this works well – take as example Mali in 2012, denied ECOWAS currency until the coup-captain was ousted. The ‘dictatorship’ lasted only a number of weeks, deprived of money). A return of real competition – not over greenbacks and who can print more but on who can make the best appliance or the cleanest form of dense energy source (renewables lack energy density, which is why they are a fad, not the future). Maybe these are the moments for bold, non-partisan ideas to be batted around. And why not??

For, lets be honest, the current debate is stale and boring indeed.

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Resurrection

Towards the end of his life, and after more than 25 years of silence, Leo Tolstoy returned. He had something, one last thing perhaps to say. “Resurrection” was Tolstoy’s reflections upon a long life in Tsarist Russia. The book is revolutionary – so much so that the Tsarist censors cut more than 2/3 of it when he first tried to print it in Russia (as in a lot of literature in Russia, both during the Tsar and then during the communists, it has to be printed elsewhere – Paris or New York or Berlin – only to make its way back to Moscow when the author is dead and the dust has settled). “Resurrection” is, however, not revolutionary the way that the Bolsheviks wanted us to believe (or that the Tsar feared). It is non-political, in the same way that Jesus was non-political (despite the now-Pope’s desire to make him a mean politician).

“Resurrection” should probably have been titled Redemption. Because that is what the novel is about. It’s the story of Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov who in his youth gets a young peasant woman – Katyusha – in trouble, pushing her down a path of perdition. He goes along his merry way, rediscovering her a decade later when he is called to sit upon a jury for a woman of the night who has been (falsely) accused of poisoning a customer in a house of ill repute. And his attempts to save her. Katyusha represents for Nekhlyudov – for Tolstoy – the entirety of Russian peasantry and Nekhlyudov the archetypal noble.

The thing that struck me about this book is how bone-weary Tolstoy came across. A man of tremendous talent and extraordinary character, the novel Resurrection is his final lasting indictment of Russia’s political system. It is full, pages and pages and pages full of the digressions into the stories of this or that prisoner, this or that peasant, this or that broken commercent unable to provide for his family. It is a tour of all the social ills of a Russia that refused to change; and the system (feudalism) which kept it so. It is full of disgust; maybe even cynicism but one that still has pity.

It’s no wonder at all the Tsar hated it.

However it is not a call to revolution. It does not end with the murder of the Tsar and the call to violence. In fact the end surprised me quite a bit, for it ends with Nekhlyudov in his small hotel room reading from Matthew: “Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all else will be added to you” as the single solitary recipe for “social justice” in a broken world.

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Apples of Immortality

For those who love medieval literature – Chaucer or the Brothers Grim – for those who love faerie tales from Ireland – you will love Apples of Immortality. Stories that come from the olden Armenian traditions, handed down from father to son (or more probably grandfather to grandson); tales of giants and the devilish Divs who abduct fair maidens and the wicked kings who steal babies and the fights of the knights or the peasant heroes against injustice. In this rendering, Leon Surmelian – Armenia’s arguably greatest (English speaking) writer brings his characteristic style to the retelling of the lore of his ancient patch of earth nestled between the seas, above Persia and below Colchis along a ridge of mountains that is still rising, the meeting-grounds of worlds. Buy this for your medieval collection; read it to your little boy (as I did, editing out some of the saltier stuff – the world 1000 years ago was a rough place) and use the stories to answer his question, “What’s the lesson from this story daddy?” ‘Three apples fell from a tree: one for the listener, one for the teller of the tale and one for he who heeded its lessons’.

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The Gift of Empathy

Literally, in fact. For Christmas this year, marked by really quite a bit of hate and bitterness, give the gift of empathy.


“It is Charles that is speaking in the first person. This I found to be an important distinction. It is not Joel D. Hirst talking. It is how Charles is talking about how he feels.  It is his passion and his black and white views we meet. Indeed, Joel. D. Hirst gives Charles a powerful voice. We get to know Charles, identify with the way he interprets things.  Especially we identify with his love of reading! Charles, however, is not a character that causes great fondness and admiration.  That is not attempted. Of course not, one might say. Yet Charles makes an impression in your heart. He is a prototype. You know that this fictional character exists in multiple forms in the real world. And circumstances make a difference. They matter. Luck too.”

Read the whole review here.

Then, buy the book for somebody you care about this Christmas. Because 2021 is gonna be a rough year for those who are from the camps; learn to see the world through their eyes, the precursor to doing what you can to help. 

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A Short Story Worth Dying For

Sometimes you stumble across something that is majestic. That’s what happened with “Farewell Aylis”, by Azeri novelist Akram Aylisli. Specifically, of this “Non-Traditional Novel”, the second short story – Stone Dreams. Stone Dreams is a story of an Azeri man who is assaulted in Baku after attempting to protect a group of Armenians during the Sumgait Pogroms in the early 1990s. And his deliriums and dreams as he passes away. About his town, Aylis, in Nakhchivan, a tiny enclave of Azerbaijan on the west side of Armenia beside Turkey. A place that, before the genocide 100 years ago, was a place where Azeris and Armenians lived together; and the tremendous destruction of Armenian property and heritage and lives by the Turks and their Beys during the genocide.

This book is special, because Aylisli is an Azeri Muslim and was Azerbaijan’s most important novelist. I say was, because after the publication of Stone Dreams Aylisli was stripped of his honors, his books were burned, and he was put under house arrest. His crime?? Empathy. Daring to make common cause in his imagination – in his literature – with the Armenian “enemy”. “Stone Dreams” bleeds, it is a tragic lament of a man who recognizes what hate has done to his society, and how while the stoking of that hate might be good for politics, it represents only lasting harm to the civilizational aspirations of his co-citizens.

Stone Dreams is an extraordinary short story — a novel to die for.

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