Towers of Trebizond

This is how Rose Macaulay described the Black Sea in her masterpiece “Towers of Trebizond”, a:

“…long strange, frightening, and romantic drama for which the Black Sea and its high forested shores seemed to me to be the stage. Some tremendous ancient drama long since played, by Argonauts, by Jason and Medea, by the Greeks, by the Ten Thousand, by Imperial Rome, by the Goths, by an army of Christian martyrs, by Justinian and Belisarius, by the Byzantines, by the Comneni, by the Latins, by the romantic last Greek emperors commanding the last Greek corner of the Euxine, and ultimately by the Turks who slew the empire; and still the stage was set, and drama brooded darkly in the wings. The deep ravine, shaggy with woodland, the high ruined palace and keep, the broad shining of the sea beyond the curve of the littered shore, the magnificent forested mountains that ranged to right and left behind…”

We in the west tend to think of the Mediterranean as the ancient roots of civilization after it crept west out of Mesopotamia to find trade upon the waters of the Mare Nostrum. Perhaps the Mycenaeans or the Minoans, the ancient Tuaregs of the Maghreb who may have built the pyramids. But actually the Med came afterwards – it was the Black Sea, deep into prehistory, where the Greeks first went, where Jason and his Argonauts sailed in search of the Golden Fleece six centuries before Homer wrote down the tale. Upon whose ringed mountains Prometheus was chained after giving man fire.

Trebizond, the “gateway to Armenia” that most ancient of lands where Noah walked. Erzurum and Lake Van, who came before the Hittites. The gateway of east and west, of ancient trade along silken roads; north and south, of Circassian slaves and pelts from deep in the Russian forests long before the Slavs or Vikings – Amazon and Iberians, the tremulous mountain tribespeople about which legends are still written and read. Trebizond, the first of port-towns; the last seat of empire extinguished, still holding the ephemeral remains of luxury for a few last, desperate years of Byzantium. These places are to be approached with a sense of magic and mystery – they command a nostalgia born of unknowing that is a product of legend and myth still wrapped in the beautiful forested mountains and crystalline alpine lakes where you can still find traces of the ancient – amazingly untouched – which connects us with the unending line of history. The sense of continuity that lends meaning.

Incidentally, I feel the same as Rose – now long dead as well – about the Black Sea and its extraordinary basin – though I have yet never bathed in her waters. There is something so conservative – in the civilizational sense, meaning quite literally that which is worth saving – that it’s hard not to walk down the mountains upon which a petroglyph is written or into a monastery black with the soot of two millennia of candle-smoke without not the sense of one’s insignificance (like so many say) but instead the sense of tremendous human significance (and our part in that), of the struggle still un-fulfilled. Because it never will be.

And who best to introduce this to us than Rose Macaulay – a novelist of such prodigious talent that she captures you to transport you to the silent shores of the sea; with the power of prose to be sure but also with such a sparkling wit and joi de vivre that I often found myself laughing out loud. “Towers of Trebizond” is a story, set in the cold war, of a woman who accompanies her aunt on a trek to Trebizond and then into ancient western Armenia; where Aunt Dot escapes across the Iron Curtain in search of the ancient churches and high mountains of the Caucasus. It is a clever story of religion and compassion and brimming with so much humanity and charm that the humor is contagious even in these the humorless days of the perpetually offended.

Capped off with the final admonishment, which I also feel about the Black Sea basin: “Still the towers of Trebizond, the fabled city, shimmer on a far horizon, gated and walled and held in a luminous enchantment. It seems that for me, and however much I must stand outside them, this must for ever be. But at the city’s heart lie the pattern and the hard core, and these I can never make my own: they are too far outside my range. The pattern should perhaps be easier, the core less hard. This seems, indeed, the eternal dilemma.”

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Maoism: A Global History – A Review

Given the attempts at rehabilitation of Mao’s reputation being undertaken by the Xi regime of the Chinese Communist Party, it is warranted a better understanding of who Mao was and his global legacy in the second half of the 20th century (and through today). One need look no further for a comprehensive introduction than Julia Lovell’s meticulously researched and well written account of global Maoism and its ramifications.

What emerges from this extraordinary work of scholarship is the picture of a tremendously gifted politician, his genius trumped only by his wickedness. And Lovell does not pull any punches. Mao is presented here in all his personal and moral failings, a sociopathic figure bent on wreaking the maximum destruction possible – at home and abroad.

Maoism differs in many (and significant) ways from Stalinism. Stalin was above all a bureaucrat in search of order. His ability to create a massive administrative state that encompassed eight time zones and hundreds of millions of people was prodigious – and thats what Stalinism is. Attempts at order – totalitarian and brutal, to be sure, but above all oxygenless and clean in its implementation. Maoism, on the other hand, is the installation of a permanent peasant revolution against the cities. An insurgency of the body and the mind that knows no limits and seeks no end. It is a celebration of blood and violence and destruction with the hopes that somehow at the end of it all a spontaneous birth of equality will emerge. And it did – to a degree – the equality found in death and misery.

Maoism was also international, finding allies in a world that was rapidly de-colonizing following the end of WWII. The justification of peasant violence against the center was attractive in a post-occupation world where insurgencies were gaining legitimacy as colonialism waned; in places like Cambodia and Indonesia and Tanzania. While Soviet communism was the expression of the semi-Europeanized, semi-industrialized; Maoism was the rebellion of the third world. Maoism was however significantly more violent. One anecdote from the book has stuck with me as particularly enlightening. Upon successfully exporting Maoism to Cambodia in support of the Khmer Rouge, Mao receives Pol Pot. In a private meeting, Mao tells Pol Pot he is thrilled with the Cambodian genocide – because that was the approach he wished to prosecute in China but had been stymied by reactionaries.

The utopia of Maoism is to be found in the killing fields.

This book is also particularly relevant in the United States today; because the debate in the public arena around ‘socialism’ fails to explain that the hard left progressives in our country are not Stalinist but actually Maoist. In the celebration of violence, the iconoclasm leading to the rewriting of history, the attempts at ‘brainwashing’ (this word itself is actually taken from Maoism, or more specifically those seeking to explain what he was up to) through the creation of ‘safe spaces’ and trigger warnings and Maoist style ‘rectification’ ceremonies where the hopes of shaming and purging those who think incorrectly is stymied only by rule of law and free speech rules defended by our constitution, for now. This is all very Maoist, so reading Lovell’s account of the genesis of this approach to control is important.

A final quick point. In the introduction Lovell (inaccurately) compares Trumpism to Maoism. “Intriguingly, the rebellious repertoires of Leninism and Maoism seem to appeal to the architects of Trumpolitics. Steven Bannon sees himself as a ‘tsar of agitation’, as (in his own words) a Leninist plotting to bring the political system crashing down. The Australian sinologist Geremie Barme has compared Trump (‘the Great Disrupter’) with Mao: for his erratic populism, his scorn for bureaucratic establishment, his predilection for brief earthy statements, his rhetorical obsession with national autarky.” In this analysis, Lovell fails to understand that the desired end states matter, as does the approach – to be sure there is a certain amount of iconoclasm in the Bannon/Trump playbook. The desire to see the “deep state” disrupted; however the purpose of this disruption for the Trump crowd is to set people free from what they see as the shackles of the state; it is if anything anarcho-libertarian (a celebration of spontaneous order), and certainly not an overture for the killing fields. There are Maoists in the United States, operating in the far fringes of the left (ANTIFA, for example) – not saying this wrests credibility from Lovell which she is trying to pursue as a neutral observer. But alas it is often most difficult for analysts to see what is going on in their own house – confirmation bias and echo chambers being what they are.

Nevertheless, “Maoism: A Global History” is an extremely important book, especially today. I highly recommend you read it.

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The 100

I rarely write reviews of television. If the makers don’t put much thought into creating it, why should I try to find meaning where there is none? I will invariably become disappointed. More so for Netflix – Obama’s pet Gramscian project, another institution to march through. As if the wasteland left behind wasn’t enough already; the pandemic was a golden chance for the culture programmers to push what they hope to sell as normal behavior to an increasingly un-skeptical public.

Of course for every rule, there is its exception. And “The 100” for me meets that criteria. I like to watch dystopian movies; the signs of our times really, that we all seem to find solace in the ‘end of the world’. My novels, at least the “San Porfirio” series, are also dystopian to a sense – but in the Latin American magical realist category, more fun and absurd than vicious and brutal.

Most dystopian stories end in one of two ways. Either in the final extinguishing event, onto silence – or the “new heaven and new earth” where after the purging, the trial by fire the utopia finally arrives. The latter is by far the most satisfying. It is after all the story of Christianity and hard-wired into our souls as good and true. Our utopia deferred till the suffering has sorted the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats.

“The 100” is the story of friendship above all. “We do what we have to to save our people,” Clarke (the heroine, who is sort of an anti-hero as well) keeps saying, as little by little the number of people dwindles, as she kills them off in ones and twos and hundreds, forced to choose who to save since humanity, even after the apocalypse, is at each others throats. “Save our people” becomes “Save my friends”. There is no morality whatsoever, the show is a study in utilitarianism. Salvation, the most important thing – at what cost? Turns out there are no limits. “What happened here?” asks Raven appearing through the portal to a pile of dead bodies. “We killed them. It’s what we do.” Says Octavia, Bellamie’s sister who had become for a time the cannibal queen Bloodreina (evoking images of heart of darkness – ‘the horror’). And salvation from the anarchy? “We do better” Kane says, as he is forced to fight in the death arena. “We do better!” Bellamy, Clarke’s best friend, keeps saying, echoing Kane. Till she shoots him too.

Spoiler alert, they never do better.

It is the struggle that defines this movie series. Situational ethics meets philosophy of the struggle, perhaps. “We survive,” they say quite often as one mishap after the next accosts them. “What is the survivor’s move?” John Murphy (my favorite character) asks often. None of this is particularly new or imaginative – the movie series comes from a book series (which I have not read but is now on my not-insubstantial list) by Kass Morgan. And had the series ended (spoiler alert) in humanity being subsumed into the alien utopia, that consciousness of the universe which absorbs all worthy beings after they pass the test of life, I would have shrugged and moved on. An entertaining story. Another paene attempt at meaning, utopia through dystopia (which is more Maoist than Stalinist) which is what the anti-nuclear apocalyptic environmentalists are selling.

But it didn’t. In the final scene (another spoiler) Clarke (of course, our disastrous heroine) breaks through to the final alien test meant to gain admittance for all humanity to the utopian consciousness. Of course she fails, instead of answering the questions she rages against the alien judges, “What gives you the right to judge us? If we fail, you kill us? How is that any different from our own genocides?” She has a point, but misses the fact that there are times when decorum is the better part of valor and when you are representing all that is left of humanity (most the apocalypse killed and the precious few left Clarke did her best to wipe out to defend her ‘friends’) perhaps that is the time to bite your tongue. She scores a rhetorical point – genocide is genocide after all – but she loses the test. And humanity is only saved by Bloodreina averting the last human war, showing that there is something redeemable about us after all. Though frankly that case is a little hard to make after eight seasons of brutality and bad decisions.

But here comes the interesting part. Clarke is of course denied entrance into utopia, though the human race is saved (but only through ascension, if they had been left to themselves they would have kept destroying worlds and planets one after the other – like they did to earth: twice). She is sent alone to earth to die there of natural causes, the end of her race. Only to be met by her friends; who chose a finite time on a regenerating planet instead of an eternity in nirvana, to be together at the end of it all, watching each other age and one-by-one pass away leaving a beautiful, empty planet behind for eternity. “You will have no children, you are the last of your kind,” the alien says to Clarke before leaving.

There is something of Albert Camus joyful nihilism about this ending. “Life is to be lived now.” A beautiful sunset, an extraordinary friendship, a wonderful novel. And Camus found something glorious in this transience that he succeeded in instilling in all of us through his literature (The First Man being his best, read it if you haven’t). But this only works if you believe there is nothing else out there. However what if, having been offered utopia, you turn it down in an act of rebellion and defiance – or an act of existentialist sacrificial friendship?

Utopians, modern and ancient, justify the violence with the belief that after the blood will come peace. This has been what has always bothered me about communist utopians: whether Leninist or Trotskyist or Maoist (I’ve just finished a tremendous book on Maoism, review coming soon). While Christianity offers “a new heaven and a new earth” after the suffering into which we will graduate after we are tested; these atheistic utopian religions cannot offer that. To those who die promoting the utopia, what’s in it for them? And even if they achieve it, after all the violence, for how long? Or is it for the children? Modern environmental apocalyptic utopians would deny us even our right to a better world for our children, preferring as they do a beautiful planet empty of all humanity – green and lush but without sentience to judge it as so.

So what is “The 100” then teaching us, what lessons? A tremendous act of self-harm against our immortal souls, justified by our defiance of a greater power who would judge us for we consider them unworthy – though that is irrelevant because, in the Nietzschien sense their power to destroy worlds gives them the authority to do so: for are not Nietzsche and Camus the two sides of the same coin? Food for thought.

At any rate – all that to say, “The 100” – though certainly not for the faint of heart – gave me pause to think. And for that I’m grateful, coming as it did from our entertainment world which is so deficient in ideas and thinking. I put it up there with “Hunger Games”, which also made me think. I’ll read the novels next, and write a review of them. Stay tuned.

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Mission to Circassia

Circassia is an ancient country on the Black Sea coast between Crimea and Georgia, in the heart of the Caucasus. We’ve all heard of Armenia and Georgia and Ukraine; but Circassia has been integrated into Russia following the Russian/Circassian war during which 90% of the local population was killed. The Russians loved the Caucasus – they do to this day. Maybe its the dramatic geography; the extraordinary antiquity of the tribes, an antiquity that predates their own; the privileged weather – the wild places full of adventure and promise. Sure, geopolitically also the Caucasus have always been a buffer area between Moscow and Constantinople – where successive generations of Russian soldiers made a name for themselves fighting in the endless wars of the tribes. Wars that have continued to this day, in places we all know like Chechnya.

Mission To Circassia is about the Russian-Circassian war, about a British man who leaves England to try and fight with the tribes, and his experiences living in that most remote of places. Slavery, the Ottomans – the most committed slavers in history who took the girls, famous for their beauty, to their harems. Violence, clan-on-clan and against the oppressors. Strange, syncretistic religion which is not really Christian, or Muslim, or even pagan but a mixture of the three. All against the backdrop of the Black Sea basin’s dramatic natural beauty.

I have grown enamored by this part of the world. The world of Jason’s Argonauts; of Prometheus and Noah. The wilderness which is untamable and the indominable spirits of the people who continue to strive for self-determination. I spent a season in Armenia, a land which features heavily in all the stories of the Black Sea, due to the transient and merchant nature of the Armenians – and their ongoing struggle to build for themselves a place free of oppression and violence. My time in the South Caucasus was an enchantment of sorts, where all else can be forgotten, time and the petty maneuverings of men, as you walk the leafy streets of Yerevan beneath the indomitable presence of Ararat.

The Black Sea – magical and mysterious – its no wonder the Russians fight so over its control; and no wonder either that those who have always called it home are never fully defeated.

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I’ve been writing about the arriving ordeal for a while now; an ordeal which arrived and which announced itself via a pandemic that was first created and then mismanaged by the center – though the peripheries (as usual) will pay the highest price. “The Coming Anarchy” Robert Kaplan called it, 25 years ago when it was at once a vague threat and a clear and present danger. We had a season of “End of History” utopia – the 90s – my generation, when we were gently Camus existentialists in that pleasant “live and let die” sort of way. Before the nihilism came, nihilism which always follows the loss of meaning and which always leads to mayhem. “The Cause of Hitler’s Germany” was also the cause of the West’s malaise. In our case, not through war and genocide were the underlying incongruities in philosophy laid bare but instead through a ‘capitalist’ housing meltdown (fun fact there was nothing capitalist about that) and a global pandemic (which still rages). The third-world-ization of the formerly developed world. That which is accelerating as the West’s culture ossifies and calcifies, becoming more plutocratic in control and aristocratic in administration, a new old power structure of the winners against those now-permanently excluded and broken into camps to wage war against each other on the streets of Portland or the hallowed halls of the capital in the hopes they don’t notice something is seriously wrong and make a real effort to identify the culprit.

I once had a friend to whom I sent a synopsis of my ‘ordeal’, so taken was I with the impressions I had as a spectator of the unraveling of the peripheries (3 years in Nigeria, not to put too fine a point on it. The epicenter of the anarchy that came and like a gangrene is spreading). “You need to come back and spend some time in the suburbs” he said, lightheartedly (but pointedly) brushing me off. “It can’t happen here” as the subtext. “Didn’t you hear? History ended.”

But did it? I stumbled across an extraordinary essay yesterday in American Affairs Journal – a site I frequent, as the newest magazine that writes about our post-post-historical period (the rest mostly fighting with each other about the ordering of the deck chairs on our Titanic which has begun to take on serious water and list dangerously to the left – and sometimes right) – and which offers tremendous insight into the post-post-modern world. The essay, called “The Brazilianization of the World” is a long and involved but extremely insightful analysis of what is happening. Namely, the developing world, the second world, is not in fact developing. The West is un-developing. We are meeting each other somewhere in the messy middle – the encroachment of the peripheries has advanced just the entropy of our own misrule has extended.

I have dedicated what has been (so far) my career to the ‘end of history’, and only recently have come I come to realize my mistakes. It’s not easy for me to admit, not only because admitting errors in thought is humbling, but also because most of my erstwhile colleagues are still firmly ensconced in their ‘end of history’ ideas having totally missed ‘the end of the end of history’ – and would strenuously object to my assertion that the train has gone off the rails (mostly because admitting this is also to a degree admitting blame, which is harder still). To be sure, it’s not all their fault; it takes some courage and clarity to look up from the daily grind to see that things have changed – and not for the better. The water still comes out of the pipes, the electricity still works (well most of the time) and the internet still allows us to stream the endless pipeline of increasingly tawdry ‘content’. Isn’t that what Fukuyama promised we the victors of the end of days?

Yes, my career rested upon the philosophical certitude that the ‘recipe’ had been identified and honed over the generations: free market economics was going to meet representative democracy in an upward spiral to utopia. It was a nice idea. In my work, we were only one judicial training program, one electoral observation, one decentralization seminar away from exporting our model to Mali and Burma and Burkina Faso. That is still the assumption – if there is an assumption; nowadays the philosophy of “buying time” is the most en-vogue. Kicking the can is the best hope of successive “administrations”. Let the next guy (or gal) deal with it, let the political fallout accrue to them (or their party). And the blackouts? The debt defaults? The wars? The “…doomed future, not just of social exclusion and savage capitalism, but also the end of the state’s monopoly on violence, the emergence of powerful non-state actors, criminal gangs”? We’ll muddle through. And that is what we have gotten – our partisan debate meeting the dramatic expansion of the puissance of the state, an entity become so large and so intrusive that fighting over its control has become an existential exercise in the West. Especially for those who eschew classical morality for the positivist, Platonic idea that right emerges from the pen of he in power. Also the cause of Hitler’s Germany, incidentally.

And in this fight, we have all become Maoists. Because there was at least something grand about Stalin’s oxygenless totalitarian state – it was (though corrupt and inefficient and brutal) tremendously productive; they challenged the free world for five generations. Maoism does not build, seeking instead through ‘rectification’ and peripheral insurgency to destroy and level not through growth and fertilizer but through the bulldozing of everything. Cue Portland and our culture wars. New socialism is less Gramsci, and more Pol Pot. It is a temper tantrum; mindless rebellion – and its the only ‘communism’ that we are left with – the communism of the killing fields.

The peripheral problems are meeting us now where we sit, in our protected zip codes with decent wifi under our nuclear umbrella. Because the West cannot forever endure its own misrule; and the misrule of great states, when it arrives, is extraordinary indeed. The solution? The West’s aristocracy has already found it – though they won’t tell you. Admitting it would demand that they surrender their right to rule (and the benefits derived from money stolen mostly in taxes and control of the productive sector of economies and the purse-strings of the world), “The ‘revolt of the elites‘ – their escape from society, physically into heavily guarded private spaces, economically into the realm of global finance, politically into anti-democratic arrangements that out­source responsibility and inhibit accountability (…) polities closed to popular pres­sures but open to those with the resources and networks to directly influence politics.”

And for the rest of us? Would that we could return to the city states – as was intended, in the Toquevillian sense where “nothing is more opposed to the well-being and the freedom of men than vast empires”. Isn’t that after all what American division of powers was about? Three branches within the central government; and the states against the center? That is after all what the 10th Amendment was written for. Power destruction. Alas, nobody who seeks power ever believes less of it is the answer. That, at least, is probably uncontroversial. So what to do? We should all move to Dubai. Or Yerevan. Or Reykjavik. We can become Prester John or Abgar the V of Edessa. Maybe Peter Thiel’s ‘Seasteading’ is the answer. But for those of us locked as subjects of empire – or worse (so much worse) governed by the peripheries, the future doesn’t look all that bright. So buckle up – because if you thought that an economic meltdown and a pandemic were all that the 21st century has in store for us, you’re in for a surprise.

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The New America?

“Go see the new America,” I was advised by a not-altogether-well-meaning friend. “See how America has changed.” “America has changed a lot in the last nine years,” said another friend, “and not all for the better.” And yet again, “America is a different place,” coming this time closer from home.

So I decided to follow their advice. Now, I’m not some immigrant or some booze-soaked expatriate who has lost touch with the world – I have worked for America for twenty years, I have fought her wars, I have advanced her agendas, I have cajoled and pressured her enemies and I have fought in her own elections. Nevertheless, I have always been thoughtful – so I recently embarked upon a 2200 mile trek across America. Eight states, starting in the sun-drenched west (from whence I hail) and ending up in Washington D.C. Trump country, lots of it (and frankly by far the most pleasant). Because that is also God country (though naturally I am not conflating the two, don’t misunderstand).

“It’s gettin’ too busy here,” said an aged convenience store manager in Pine, AZ. “Now, you should see my 400 acres in Wyoming. That is freedom!” Pictures of hunting successes on the wall behind him. “And Phoenix – that is a disaster.” Pulled pork BBQ sandwiches along the back roads of Oklahoma; a catfish fisherman in the beautiful Ozark lakes beside a hollow which smelled of moonshine, a rusted double-wide on the lot adjacent to the mega-mansions of the rich, down from St. Louis perhaps for a week of fun in the sun.

And what did I see? I have no conclusions; America is a vast place and time moves about in waves ebbing and flowing and it’s sometimes best to let the tide carry you along though often life itself demands the full effort of paddling against currents destructive or counter-productive: and therein lies the art of living. In that spirit I do have some thoughts, of course. When have I not?

America is coming out of a once-in-a-century event. You could feel it everywhere, some places still panic stricken – New Mexico comes to mind; other places (Texas anyone?) finally releasing the facemask-dictatorship, defying the remaining vestiges of the managerial bureaucracy and emerging from a year of cringing to the glorious caress of spring winds in America. It will take a while for us to recover – this last year and a half was a singular life event, and the trauma of fear and uncertainty and stress will only be healed through time and reflection. Which doesn’t mean there won’t be trouble ahead – there is a reckoning coming. America did not do well in this trying season; not only did the administrative state fail us (Fauci emails anyone?) but it turns out that the tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists were right – we did this too ourselves (please read Vanity Fair’s opus: “The Lab Leak Theory“). Hubris and stupidity and moral hazard meeting Chinese duplicity, a toxic mix indeed. What could go wrong? And then 10,000,000 people died while everybody else in the world was sent to sit in their underwear watching reruns of Friends and phoning in their work. If they were lucky. Yes, there will be a reckoning – for those who do not fear nature and consider themselves the masters of the universe but don’t know where water goes when you flush or how to change a tire, they have a lot for which they must answer.

But its not just a pandemic. America’s new aristocracy has settled upon a strategy to cement their perpetual power. The consolidation of the new economic model is complete, now the question becomes, ‘How to control the masses?’ The losers. Those who do not rule. Virtue signaling is the activity of the day; led by the aristocrats and their managed economic model, a revolving door of also-aristocrats who no longer need fear the consumer (name the last time a good boycott worked?) for America is no longer a capitalist nation (and has not been for a while) and therefore the corporations have other masters than ourselves. They take orders now not from the purchasing decisions of main street but instead from the aristocrats who control the capital and write the regulations. This virtue signaling is a modern manifestation of Mao Zedong’s ‘rectification’ ceremonies, breaking people into small groups (like Churches used to do in Bible study) to confess to each other their inherent biases and promise to do better. Sound familiar? Except that in modern America, you can’t be executed. De-platformed or harassed or fired, sure, but you’ll probably escape with your life.

The purpose of this Maoist Millenial onslaught is not a better life, a happier life, a life more abundant. Conflict is the root of the human experience. If they, through their sand-paper friction upon society can pit people against each other upon the streets of Seattle or down the National Mall, they can rule forever from their equestrian centers in Fauquier County (drove through there yesterday in my little used car – it’s lovely…) They don’t watch TV to see the commercials they are now ramming into our children’s minds. They don’t troll Facebook, comparing themselves to their betters. They are the ‘betters’ – best not advertise that too loudly.

And it is a great science fiction – like Fauci’s cancelled memoir or the story of the Wuhan Wet Market.

Because I did not see a racist nation. Of course I didn’t! A nation build on the Christian faith cannot be. In Tucumcari I watched news from Amarillo about a boys center giving a place to the disadvantaged, teaching them to balance a bank account and hold down a job. In Russellville it was stories about food drives. News-anchors from local stations as Tocquevillian members of their own communities, mouthpieces of monumental unsung efforts to improve the lives of those in their areas of influence who are having a rougher time of things than others. From the beaches of Maryland, where the Bachata music thumped over the evangelical sermon in Spanish; where the frat-boy and his polished girlfriend jogged, weaving around the woman in a full niqab wading through the salt-water after her son – to the Native American trucker from Gallup happy to be home after a long trip – this land is our land, all of us. The flow of commerce and do-gooderism unsung, the un-frayable fabric of America the final defense of those who always advise “Don’t bet against the United States!”

To be sure, there are pockets of tremendous wickedness, which ironically are some of the most homogenous places I saw (urban gentrified DC comes to mind, where I was two days ago). Places in that Tolkienien way which “Look fairer and feel fouler”; places where the aristocracy does not go, but nevertheless places that the administrative state has honed in on, to try and use their corporate bullying and their misplaced sense of guilt, using words like “diversity and inclusion” as a Maoist chant for a new utopia which replaces faith at the center of that massive hole where God and community used to be. The people in those places should go to a truck stop in Tennessee or a church service in Phoenix.

Jim Burnham used to enjoy most of all his trips in car across these great United States. Eschewing Lausanne or Munich he would drive with his family through Tulsa and Tucson; giving him the chance to take the temperature of the nation and get a feel for the direction things are going. I would recommend this to the aristocracy of America – because things are changing indeed, and fast. Their virus leak has seen to that. Best they rectify their rectifications, before their cultural bait-and-switch slips out of their control like a lab-cooked bug (too soon?) and they lose their privilege forever.

So has America changed? Of course. The world changed, why should America be any different? Like September 11th; like the fall of the Berlin Wall; like the civil war; like ‘I Have A Dream’ (incidentally I took my son to stand where Martin Luther King Jr. once stood) – post-pandemic America is a different place. But nihilist or cynical we are not, not through the lack of some trying to push us in that direction. But because America is a place of individual effort and responsibility and such, as always, America will be the land we make it.

Let’s get to work!!!

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It Came From a Lab…

I’m not really accustomed to quick posts on current events, my writing being focused mostly on culture and politics and art and travel – civilizational writings meant to inspire wonder. However Vanity Fair just published the most extraordinary piece of investigative journalism for which they should win a Pulitzer but instead will most likely be ignored – if they are not forced to pull it down or retract – and I have felt the need to amplify. My version of a “share’ or “retweet” since I do not participate in social media, seeking out as I do the more thoughtful reader.

Short version – the greatest story of our lifetime. Not only did we just live through a hundred year pandemic (which is still burning, 10,000+ a day are still dying – 7.1 million and counting if you believe the ‘excess deaths’ data) – but we created this pandemic ourselves out of hubris and contempt for nature and her power, and then tried to cover it up. The biggest cover-up in the history of history.

It reads like a bad ‘B’ movie that I would watch on the SyFy channel at 2:00am after eating too much spicy food unable to sleep. Read here and share – for it took courage to write, and we should respect that effort. Vanity Fair: The Lab-Leak Theory.

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Night – by Elie Wiesel

“No, not in the twentieth century,” was the flippant answer of the Jews of Sighet in Transylvania when told of the ongoing holocaust by the Nazi German Government. “Not in the 20th century.” The century when I was born. Three genocides – Armenia, the Holocaust and Rwanda. Much more violence than the world should have accepted.

But it was the genocide against the Jews that captured our collective imagination – for its special wickedness, it’s tremendously efficient brutality. And rightly so – because it was against God’s chosen people, who brought us salvation and who we are bound by duty and faith and morality to protect and defend. Not that we, of course, don’t defend everybody. But like Francois Mauriac wrote in the forward, “…that connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in which the faith of his (Wiesel’s) childhood was lost.” What is the “Response to Auschwitz?” Wiesel asks in the new forward – that is it. Jesus’s suffering – an apology of sorts to all the human suffering that has come down the line since creation. Recognition of that fundamental flaw in the human condition that makes us sentient, gives us tremendous powers of creation – to glorify Him or to be wicked. And to die, in recognition that we most often will choose the latter.

I find it interesting that “Night” reads so much like “Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” that it is tragically uncanny. True, “Night” is a first person account, and Denisovich is a work of fiction. But is it? The gulag was just as real as Auschwitz – except longer. There was no hope of foreign liberation like the Jews of Auschwitz had with the Russians or Americans. That did not make their suffering less wicked – nor the victims of Stalin either. They are the same.

“But that was the 20th century. This is the 21st century. Not this time.” – Except the mass camps in the People’s Republic of China holding the Uighurs; the political death camps of Kim Jong the next and Kim Jong who comes after that. Tigray in Ethiopia – ironically orchestrated by a colleague Nobel winner of sorts of Elie. So too the Rohingya in Burma – another Nobel Prize winner. The bombing of Libya and Syria and Afghanistan by yet another Nobel Prize winner; 250,000 lives lost in Iraq – maybe more. The 21st century isn’t the 20th? Its not worse, nor is it better. It’s the same.

So what to do? We keep raising our voices. To remember the Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust – to call it by name and not shy away from the fact that we could have done more – that we still should be doing more. Because like Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “Our lives are no longer our own. They belong to those who need us desperately.”

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The Maze by Albert Likhanov

This was a curious novel, by one of the Soviet Union’s most famous children’s writers. It is simple, as it is written from the POV of a young boy struggling through pretty normal problems in life unfortunately. Problems in the family; friendship issues; troubles at school – how to grapple with that process of growing up which we all must go through.

I think the most interesting thing for me was the portrayal of these challenges, living as the boy did inside the Soviet system. And how that system made all the normal problems that much more difficult to resolve. The conflict in the family is between the grandmother and her daughter’s husband, the latter which is forced to live in granny’s house because of the severe rationing of housing in the USSR. He works a job, forced to surrender all his wages to her – until he rebels and leaves. Granny, who forces the little boy to write first to the Soviet ‘worker management’ of the company where his dad works and then the town Soviet to try and force him back – landing them all in court. The impossibility of him to find other lodgings.

And money. Socialists would tell you that the dream of that economic and political model is to make money less important. In reality, money (and its lack) become center stage, taking an all-consuming role in the lives of the everyday citizens. Its all people can think of, because it is so scarce and so difficult to come by but still so important in the struggle to secure the normal privileges that we in free societies have come to take for granted.

Likhanov is still alive – he’s still an important figure in post-soviet intellectual circles. I wonder what he would say about all that has happened over the last 30 years. I bet that would be a conversation worth having!

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My Last Night in Yerevan

The quiet hum of Ashtarak highway reverberates in the background; the wind rustles the trees, new leaves – excited to show them off after a long cold winter. The city, away down into the valley buzzes with life: restaurants and some night clubs; a couple sits together on chairs outside of a cafe, sharing a secret. He says something in her ear, she laughs. A boy walks with his girl through lovers park, holding her close, its darkness under the cover of the trees now making their intimate rendezvous somehow forbidden. The booksellers are putting away their earnings for the day, stacking their books – covering them with tarps or into boxes; nobody will steal their livelihoods. Tomorrow will come another day, and there will be more opportunities – books are eternal after all, timeless as are those who seek them out — always coming, though never in a torrent the slow trickle never does abate despite the changing winds of world affairs. To escape into something epic and old – after all ambition has burned away is an unchanging fact and these ancient denizens as immutable as the bronze statues of the Cascade are willing to wait.

Tonight is my last night in Yerevan. That sentence was hard to write – I never expected to fall in love with a place and a people as I have here in Armenia. One of those special things that is all the more grand because it takes you by surprise, sweeping you away in a torrent of emotions. I remember my first night in Yerevan, just over two years ago. It was cold then, I walked the outdoor shopping mall – stopping for street food at midnight watching the children at play, “What are they doing out?” There was no pandemic then – there was no war – the “weeping nation” was filled with an almost youthful optimism, exuberance. So too was I. Coming from my wars in Africa, I found the fog that had closed in around my dark night of the soul temporarily lifted. Until the pessimism returned – unexpected and unwanted. But even that did not take away from my time here in Armenia. For Armenia saved my life, and for that I will always be grateful.

To be sure, it was not a euphoric time – as it started out to be. It is unwise, unkind to be too happy in such a time as this; and when the global catastrophe meets an ancient war rekindled… I spent the time – when not in lockdown – in communion with my little boy. I got to know him, really know him – and he grew into a boy here. “Goodbyes are hard” he said to me today, tears flowing freely down his cheeks as he bade farewell to schoolmates. Then it was off, to hunt down the elusive water-snake of the pond. We hiked mountains and made dams in rivers and trekked forests – we ate BBQ and dolma and fruit — so much fruit. Watermelon then cherries then apricots then peaches.

It was a quiet, somewhat lonely time – my time in Armenia. I developed good friendships that remained stillborn upon the shuttering of the world; leaving me with that feeling of wanting, of not being fully satiated like during a meal when they take away the main course before you can partake. I wish I could have spent more time here, debating ancient authors – discussing olden myths – praying in the monasteries black with the soot of a millennium of candles each one’s delicate smoke-trail taking the supplication up to God. And I lit not a few of my own; hopes that went upwards and left their tiny mark upon the intrados of the ancient houses of worship making common cause with so great a cloud of witnesses as this place has.

Tonight is my last night in Armenia. Life is transient and sad; we must come to grips with that. Things come and go and come back around but they are never the same – life is to be lived now, in the fresh pomegranate and the snow-ball fight and the ski adventure; in the moment when your little boy says “Daddy lets listen to music while we throw the frisbee” and though you are tired you pick up the toy and out into the glorious Armenian afternoon you go to revel in life lived now. Because it will never be again.

To be sure, there will be other moments. I will write about them – for those who care to read. And I’m excited about them too; swimming the coves of forgotten beaches – trekking the forests of my land – experiencing the vastness of the place that is my home and that I have never really experienced, not the way I plan to. But I will always take Armenia in my heart; and if I find myself comparing a golden valley high in the Rocky Mountains with a beautiful highland south-Caucasus pass – you might grin and forgive me. For I once lived in Armenia – and that changed everything.

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