Moron Clusters

Michael Gorbachev has died in Russia. He was a key node in a ‘Genius Cluster’, groups of men and women who somehow magically appear during monumental moments in history to help see humanity through. As the Soviet Union was coming to its messy, inevitable end Gorbachev was joined by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul and Mother Theresa, Mandela and De Klerk to help humanity avoid the apocalypse in the waning days of the empire.

There have been genius clusters before. Eisenhower and Truman and Churchill during WWII; Jefferson and Washington and Madison and Adams and Hamilton during independence. Momentous figures who define the tone of the times, paving the way and setting the table for all the unsung junior geniuses who also worked to bring about tremendous change.

I often wonder why today we are so bereft of great minds. Today we have a moron cluster. Putin and Biden and Trump and Trevor Noah (Whoever the hell he is, appearing unwanted on commercials with uninformed, unfunny comments as I’m trying to escape it all through reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond – which is actually funny. There really is nothing more tiresome than somebody who thinks he’s funny, but isn’t). In sports we’ve got Briner the basketball and weed aficionado (Note to self don’t take marijuana to enemy countries where it’s illegal, no matter how entitled you think you are); we’ve got that short gymnast who quit the Olympics, walking off at just the last minute to become a Subway sandwich salesperson (I guess winning, or even competing, is no longer important for our moron cluster. The metrics for our sports figures somehow got rewritten – I must have missed the day when winning become second to, well something else). Or there’s Messi the soccer playing serial tax evader; joined by Shakira in the music industry. Or that purple haired ‘star’ who prefers over the field, the microphone and her own opinions, perfectly curated through a process developed by Hegel called “Mental Hygiene” where you only read your own work and listen to your own voice. I think that’s what the ‘experts’ on CNN – Fareed Zacharia and his ilk do. God forbid they should have to entertain an alien thought; that’s how actual geniuses are made and they are certainly unwelcome these days.

One of the main problems with our moron cluster is that, like the genius ones before them, they also set the table for society at large. They articulate the priorities; they create guardrails for the debates; they define the terms. Under them, and within those parameters, the debates rage. Case in point, the Pope. John Paul talked about freedom and faith; Francis talks about victimization.

We live in an age of victimization – this is what our moron cluster has bequeathed us with. It’s what allows a society to celebrate an Olympian not as a winner but as a victim of ‘mental health problems’ – how Orwellian is that? Now, the mini-Morons are in a death-struggle to out-compete each other to define who is the most victimized; it’s how the idea of ‘intersectionality‘ was mainstreamed. Overlapping victimizations that no longer even have anything to do with behavior, they are in your blood and genes (of both the victims and victimizers), and this ‘fact’ will suffer no debate.

Gorbachev did not see himself, his nation as a victim – unlike the vision Vlad has of Russia. “Passionarity“, the glorification of victimization as the singular contribution of Russian civilization to the world. Victimization on an epic, Tolstoian scale! Mandela, 27 years in prison did not come out as a victim intent on sticking it to the whites (though he, of all people, surely had cause); unlike Julius Malema South Africa’s guru of victimization who talks about “Slitting the throat of whiteness…” keen on using rage to seize power.

None of this is a recipe for civilizational success. It is a recipe for war. Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of war (I know, appeal to authority is a logical fallacy of the kind that has gotten us into this mess). But it’s hard to say “believe me”, when our society no longer has judgment to identify good thoughts from bad ones; thanks to our moron clusters and their unstoppable Twitter feeds.

Posted in International Affairs | Tagged | 3 Comments

The Misery of 47 Years

The facts are in, the research is done. The “social scientists” (note my quotes) have identified the age of 47 as the saddest, most depressed year of your life. Not the worst, not the poorest – just the one when you’re the most miserable.

Now to be sure, I’m not quite 47, but I’m getting there. To that end, I’m looking forward to my continued grumpiness and am oh-so grateful to Dartmouth economist David Blanchflower for the excuse. My wife is less appreciative, but notwithstanding, the petulance can continue – at least for a while.

Yup, 47; the magical age when you’re firmly settled in the last half of your life (if you’re lucky), and during which you’re reluctantly coming to the conclusion that it’s not shaping up to be the best half. Gone is the euphoria of discovery, when grand ideas (communism, libertarianism, perhaps religion) shock you. “Nobody else has understood this!” you probably said. “If only the world knew…!” has been replaced with “I hope the metro shows up on time,” or “Hey, I ordered these eggs over-medium.” “I used to read Bernard-Henri Levy,” you might find yourself saying over the top of a Clive Cussler novel. “I just can’t find the time anymore.”

You’ve given up on your epic dreams. You’re not a millionaire; if you’re lucky – really lucky – you have paid off your student debt and perhaps own a home (that is to say have entered into indentured servitude to your local bank). Your tiny nest egg, held gingerly in your imagination for a retirement that is looming in front of you, like you are the crash test dummy in the Subaru accelerating toward the brick wall, looks less impressive than it did from afar. You’re probably not Secretary of State or President; you were not a baseball legend or a rock star or a famous actor. Maybe you’ve had some accomplishments, from the days when you were young and risk-taking was within your ‘manageable interest’; maybe you even thought you did something great once or twice, which was met with a colossal yawning shrug. Perhaps you published a book or two, a feat of epic courage wed to countless hours, the greatest work of your mind thrown into the dark well of public opinion never to be seen again. You’ve given up learning guitar, or violin, and the only songs you listen to (in a closed loop) are on old scratched CDs or streamed from YouTube, comfortable old friends, between commercials for gender inclusive, diversity sensitive toasters – to your utter confusion. You have arrived at a point when your difficult decision to abandon a career in widget assembly (or visa processing) in exchange for what you’d assumed was a more intense significance is niggling at your sense of regret; the number 47 bringing you to wonder if you’d have been smarter to sell your 20 years of servitude in exchange for a pension – at least, like a prison sentence, your time would soon be up. You look over the hill at 62, wondering if you can make it – and wondering what eight hours standing in front of a Walmart mechanical door might be like.

You don’t feel as good as you once did. Your iron stomach which could digest lead pipes or Soviet cheese blocks now balks at the carefully curated plate of fruits and nuts measured out in front of you. To say nothing of drinking, you can’t do that anymore. Except for the one or two of you who fell into the deep pit of addiction – bleary eyes and rancid breath above thin frames and the twitchy energy of the alcoholic trapped in a cage of his own making – long gone are the days of bar-hopping into the night, springing back the next morning raring and ready to go. Now you go to bed at 9:30, only minutes after your son, hoping your bladder holds until the morning (note, it won’t). You’ve realized after countless sit-ups that the six-pack is never coming, and you’ve settled for fighting off the protruding midriff; which doesn’t matter because the sidelong glances you once got from the fairer sex are no longer turned in your direction. Anonymous, you are, monkish – unless you have fallen for the allure of a dashing chance encounter (aimed at your wallet, which is thinning quicker than your hair) and in doing so dashed your fortune and your future and your family to the ruins of the ephemeral – you’re committedly if boringly married.

Yes, this is the pit. The trough. The nadir. They say it gets better. The grind becomes less grinding when Jr. goes off to college; and maybe you’ll travel again, or simply wake up after the sun. You will by then have accepted your lot, with the accompanying peace of resignation. You will know the end is approaching, and with that a certain relief that will be interpreted as contentedness. You have what you have – even if it’s only social security; let’s make do. You made it through without a terminal disease, if you’re lucky, and are gratefully awaiting a (relatively) facile death. You’ve caught up with the great cloud of witnesses, and can spend time in the quiet contemplation of the hereafter or of those that came before with that singular relief, “This is no longer my problem.” Jr. is gone; Jr. in fact might have his own Jr. and you can enjoy watching him suffer, as he once made you suffer. What goes around comes around, and there is a smirking satisfaction in that too. You’ve rediscovered your faith, because you have to – the years of atheistic invincibility are well in your past, and your own mortality is something to be seriously considered. It can’t end here, right? No, to be sure, it must go on! Let us prepare. Or you shrug and turn on a rerun of “Ancient Aliens” to lament being confined to this primitive planet with only others like yourself to pass the short time that is left.

Yes, the end might be better, happier, less fraught, more peaceful – that’s what they say. But as we approach 47, that is for then, because for right now the realizations, the truths, the facts are now hitting us. And middle age is difficult to swallow, somewhat constipating and not something your aging gut can easily process. 

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The Silk Roads and Slavery

There was a thread running through “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” that demands attention: the issue of slavery. Slavery as a constant. The empires of the past all became wealthy on the slave trade; and it was the primary ‘commodity’ of the traders going back and forth on that ancient stone path. Parthians and Assyrians and Persians – Ottomans and Romans, the Greeks before them, all were enriched by the trafficking of people for sale in the markets of the powerful. And the greatest slave-trade in history? The sale of Caucasians, Slavs and Tatars, rounded up by the Mongols and the Golden Horde given to the Genoese in Crimea to be sold into Asia Minor. A silk road of human misery, stretching backward in time. Slaves making empires great; an industry as ancient as it is modern.  

I was recently watching a debate between Steve Bannon and Bernard-Henri Levy about the future of globalization, when I was struck by Bannon’s central thesis. “The fundamental reality that the world is unwilling to come to grips with,” he said (I’m paraphrasing), “is that the dark core of ‘globalism’ is a slave economy that is destroying the wealth and opportunity of free workers. That is what we were trying to fight against.”

“The liberal elites,” he continued, “the oligarchy, the new aristocracy – the party of Davos (as he is fond of saying, gesturing at Henri Levy who has become globalism’s greatest advocate) – you know this, but it is an uncomfortable truth which you are unwilling to accept. Because it would affect your pocketbooks.” I was transported to a visit I made to Monticello, the slave plantation of the world’s greatest liberal who knew well in his heart of hearts he was doing wrong, that he should have the courage of his convictions, but who found the price too high, literally. For Jefferson, too, was enamored with the finer things.

China is a slave economy. That at least we now know. Enslavement is always about the forced labor of ‘others’. To be sure, the feudal system in Russia or the indentured servants in the United States are a form of forced labor, but in those systems there remained a certain amount of noblesse oblige, limited as it might have been, a recognition of the symbiotic relationships between the nobles and their peasants. True enslavement recognizes no obligations, however limited. China’s serf economy – exploiting the workers of the rural areas to serve at the pleasure of the cities – provided the initial inputs of cheap labor. That lasted only until education, ‘entitlement’ and organization increased – and with them hourly wages. The nobility who make up the Chinese Communist Party was forced to bend. They then had a choice. Accept limited growth, improve the quality of their products, reduce the avarice of the nobility – or resort to slavery. They chose poorly, doubling down on the enslavement of the 11.6m Uyghur population. Uyghurs, who since the days of the Mongols have always been ‘others’ – a Turkic nuisance to the political project of the Han Chinese.  

Uyghur slavery is making China great.

This is hard for us to accept, especially because the cold truth is that we have plenty of “Made in China” on the labels of our clothes and on the underside of our children’s toys, and this makes us complicit – though we are not a part of the “Party of Davos”. And we know that at the other end of the ever-shrinking chain is a miserable human desperate for somebody to set them free, even if it will cost me an additional dollar at Walmart.  

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The Wilder Shores of Marx

In the twilight hours of the Soviet Union’s disastrous political and economic experiment Anthony Daniels (who now writes as Theodore Dalrymple) began a unique project. To travel to the scraggly peripheries of the USSR, to get a feel for life in the client states not part of that ill-fated union but depending upon it wholly for support. He wanted to try and understand life lived in the oxygenless totalitarian regimes that pretended to be all about ‘the masses’.

What emerges is a remarkable book, “The Wilder Shores of Marx”, in which Daniels in travel-writing style gives us Albania, North Korea, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba as they were – and some (Cuba and North Korea) as they still are, having weathered the breaths of liberty that blew for a season and found new solace in a new communist totalitarianism – this one singing songs to Mao.

In an acerbic, biting fashion Daniels identifies and highlights the inconsistencies and incongruities of socialism and communism; rarely missing an insight in a prose that drips with sarcasm and distain. Stores selling plastic fruit; monumental constructions by peasant kings – the tremendous narcissism of men who become, after forty years or more of absolute power, as whimsical as they are wicked. And the carefully crafted pantomime of the oppressed who must understand well the dance and identify the cues lest they miss one and be tortured for it.

Fear – that is the one word that comes across every page, every paragraph, every sentence even. The absolute terror of those living within these bizarre regimes. Forced to read the poetry of Enver Hoxha, the god of the atheist Albanians; to entertain the ‘musings’ of Nicolae Ceaușescu the peasant king of Romania or to listen to the tired vapid rants of Fidel Castro. To applaud when demanded, to recite when appropriate. Above all to stay silent at all times. Unlike other writers, Daniels does not contain his contempt, and rarely hides his rage. His only response to the violent propaganda, the purpose of which is not to attempt to convince – because that is not possible or even really necessary – but to humiliate. To get people to say something that they know to be abjectly untrue, thereby robbing them of their dignity.

“The Wilder Shores of Marx” is an opus written in honor of the millions upon millions of people who grew up, lived, and died – generations of them – robbed of their innate human right to live free. A right that we all take too lightly.

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The Silk Roads: A New History

We in the west study Western European history. There is nothing wrong with this, it brings the epic story of mankind into manageable chunks, into which we can then delve deeply. And western history is our history, America was made mostly by western Europe – England and Denmark and Germany. Spain and France before. To be sure there are plenty of Russians and Hondurans and Nigerians here, but they participate in a project, as we do, designed out of the West. Specifically out of western philosophical enlightenment (Locke and Hume and Smith) and Anglo-Saxon ideas of consent and order (mostly our justice system, which is the most important aspect of American governance) meeting Roman martial ideas and Greek experience of debate.

However, as Europe disappears and Eurasia coheres (as Robert Kaplan has eloquently written) it’s essential to remember that Western Europe and Eastern Europe and Eurasian history all flow together, across the great steppes into Ukraine or down the Danube and the Volga into the Black and Caspian seas to meet with traders connected by the Silk Roads. That European history could not be written absent the Visigoths (who were Vikings), the Huns (the original steppe nomads), the extraordinary Mongols on the march (the greatest story in history not told very well) and their interactions with the Romans and the Islamic Caliphs, the Persians and the Ottomans.

“The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” is about this interaction. It is epic and sweeping, starting in the Common Era (anno domini for those who still respect history) and marching steadily forward from the ancients into the present, laying out the interactions of Asia and Europe that molded our modern world.

We forget often, at least I do, that Europe was always a backwater to the real story out of the Eastern Mediterranean east into the holy lands and the fertile crescent into central Asia. Constantinople, the crossroads of empire, with a longer and even more prosperous story than Rome – to say nothing of London or Berlin or Paris which came only later. I myself got a sense for this while living in Yerevan, in a land just east of where Hadrian stopped the advance of his armies. Lands where before Alexander the Great had marched (east, not west, toward the wealth). You get a better feel of the interplay of empires when you live in a place that has had waves of armies crash upon its fragile shores and – when your neighbors talk of history – talk of Urartu and Parthians and Persians and Mongols and Romans and Greeks and Ottomans and Caliphs with the familiarity of “they were also here”.

The actual silk road – Armenian highlands

You should read this book. It is important, perhaps now more than at any time in recent history, we need to know these stories. They are being relived and re-litigated, and we should be familiar with what people are talking about.

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The Moon and Sixpence

This is not the first time I’ve read “The Moon and Sixpence” by W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham is England’s best Edwardian novelist, living in that turn of the century period when imperial decline was just visible on the edges, but the anarchy that was coming had not yet made it to the center. That would come in war.

The Moon and Sixpence is a fictionalized account very loosely based on the life of painter Paul Gauguin. Charles Strickland was the fictionalized painter’s name – an Englishman who abandoned his family at middle age to try to paint; who received no accolades in life and died diseased and alone in a far away land; and who was later found to have been a genius.

Strickland epitomizes that search for meaning, detestable but courageous, that we rarely see in life. Life, adult life, is about compromise and balance and responsibility. Strickland recognizes none of these obligations, jettisoning everything in his life that was not directly related to appeasing that demon within his soul that yearned for expression. There was a vision in Strickland’s mind, some perfect image, some fully complete truth that tormented him. His only response was to give up his life in the single-minded pursuit of perfection, as he saw it.

This is not to say Strickland is a hero. Or even an anti-hero. Charles Strickland is a rogue and a ruffian and a cad. Not a character to be emulated in any way; nor is his despicable life enviable in any way. No images of fame, of ballrooms and crowds of adoring fans. Those things are for the purveyors of tepid creation, who seek to seem rather than to be.

Strickland sought to be.

The end was an explosion, and finished in the only way it could (spoiler alert). Diseased and old and poor and blind, bereft of any canvases left in his refuge he paints – blind and in considerable pain and discomfort – filling the walls of his hovel with a primitivist Sistine Chapel, a paean to man and nature and beauty. Then he died and had his hut burned to the ground. I don’t know if this is true of Gauguin – the artists did die infirm (Strickland had leprosy, Gauguin probably had syphilis) and did spend time in the South Pacific. It is, nevertheless, a remarkable salute to creation. To not give a two-penny damn about clients, to be satisfied only with releasing that demon inside that is desperate to get out, that is what all true artists seek to achieve.

Most give up along the way, the worst of them settling for fame and money and half-creations, horrific little abortions of lazy minds that scream from out of the book aisles, crowding out true magnificence and appeasing those who, too, have developed half-way and are always only too happy for a little fake art to wile away their meaningless days on earth, after they have given up.

Somerset Maugham was not one of these, nor was his creation – Charles Strickland.

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Afghanistan’s Republic Within the Republic

Republics fail, and then they fall. To be sure, sometimes they just fail and then stay on life support. And then, by the time they have fallen nobody remembers that they had been a republic in the first place. Most often this occurs through national suicide. The suicide of Venezuela is the most dramatic example. Who can recall that it was ever a republic – that is, that it was governed by the people? Closer to home, California is also committing suicide, a gangrenous limb that is now contaminating Arizona and Colorado and Nevada as people flee the effects of their bad ideas but retain the core malady to infect their new hosts.

But I digress. Republics fail. But to see a republic fall, that is something wild. One year ago Afghanistan fell. Afghanistan, which for a brief window of time, twenty glorious (if messy) years was a republic. The case can be made that it had been failing for a long time before the fall. Or that it was born failed and destined to fall. Those are arguments for parlors in places cold and clean. Because Afghanistan fell, and most people in the world have moved on.

There can be democracies within democracies; republics within republics which retain the semblance of liberty long after the national mood has changed. Sanctuaries where they still read the great books or listen to music long after the countryside has been laid waste by the vandals or the cities host only the macabre rituals of power. Afghanistan had that – that is the main takeaway from the twenty-year-long period of liberty. Liberty is always the gift of the few unto the many. As Walter Lipmann once said, most people will exchange liberty for security. But not even security, what I’ve come to learn recently is that people will exchange liberty for almost anything, as long as it seems to them exciting or important or morally superior. Liberty, true liberty, is safeguarded by a precious few from the terrible currents of totalitarianism that swirl around us. And then always at a cost which comes difficult to bear.

In Afghanistan, that liberty was held by groups like the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Children playing Mozart and Bach behind razor wire and high walls while around them the bombs fell and the bullets flew. That didn’t make their exercise in liberty less remarkable, it made it more so.

When Afghanistan fell, I found myself – as I often do, usually through no effort of my own – immersed in the thick of things. Specifically trying to rescue people from the grasping clutches of the Taliban. For three feverish weeks I worked, morning till night, trying to identify which gate was open, getting info to the guards on the walls, helping guide groups through the hurdles. ANIM was one of these groups. They were on three busses, guided by force protection with radios and Christmas lights so the soldiers could identify them. CENTCOM had a special file on the institute, and each morning I would call and try to figure out how to get them through. The attempted evacuation took place over the frantic weekend close to the pullout of the troops. It was ultimately unsuccessful, and at the end the girls were told to stand down and go home. There was an abortive attempt at a large charter on a dirt airfield south of Kabul, but it had become too dangerous. So we ramped up diplomatic pressure, with Qatar and the Taliban themselves – in those delicate days before they were fully in control and still subject to influence.

Those were the early days during which the Taliban (like the dog that caught the car) was still willing to give some travel documents (though that took months as well, and I spoke to a half dozen foreign embassies trying to get them to help with travel papers of their own, papers of refuge which were never forthcoming), in exchange for legitimacy which they subsequently have realized they no longer need. But who would take the orchestra, even if they had papers? Portugal, it turns out. Through some personal connections and some smart realpolitik Portugal now has one of the treasured gems of Afghanistan.

Portugal’s gain is Afghanistan’s loss. The republic within that messy republic, which had been protected by American soldiers and high walls, has now mostly fled or gone completely silent. But the orchestra will keep playing, reminding the world that the work of building a free Afghan society was only half done when we got bored and wandered off. That people can appreciate Beethoven even if they were born poor and in Afghanistan. And that a free society is held first and foremost in our heart of hearts, and it knows no passport.

Posted in International Affairs, Liberty | Tagged | 2 Comments

On Prophets and MISRULE

I have been feeling these days more often like my namesake, that grand Hebrew prophet of old seated atop a mountain decrying the wickedness around and imploring people to seek God. They never do, seek God. Wickedness is way too much fun, and rewarding!! People like to be surrounded by nonsense, makes their own nonsense feel more relevant – they will even pay for the pleasure of that type of company. But who will pay the prophets? A stoning is what they usually get, and good riddance – right? A tiresome lot, always pointing out the inconvenient.

Today it was Haiti. Forget that the gangs are seizing the city, that little by little the anarchy is taking over and there will soon be no more food to buy, even if people had money to buy it and jobs from which they might earn their money. Everybody knows the mayhem is upon us, but nobody can be bothered. Eventually there will be five million boat people – plenty of time then for recriminations. When the army of the Dominican Republic is mowing down waves of hunger-migrants, we an accuse them of human rights abuses and thereby assuage our own guilt. Put them on a list. Wag our long fingers, turn up our pointy noses. Nothing is easier than signaling virtue. To be sure there are solutions. Soldiers, from any number of nations. Seizing the port, the airport, the government buildings, the power grid and the manufacturing centers of Port au Prince. But I don’t command soldiers; and those that do are pushing them through gender-bending courses or diversity trainings or looking under rocks for ‘domestic extremists’. No, I don’t command soldiers, so here I am on my hill.

It is not going swimmingly, is it? ‘Desgobierno‘ is what we call it in Spanish — MISRULE. “There is no more right and left” a friend told me over coffee yesterday. “No more ideologies,” and I nodded my head in agreement. “You are right,” I responded. “Today we have a group at the top who believe governance is an attempt to manage the hordes; and elections about grading the populist who can more effectively entertain the mob.” Commodus anybody? There once was a dream that was Rome…

No, things aren’t great. I had a conversation today with a book agent. She told me, in a sufficiently apologetic voice, “Nobody gives a shit about what you did last decade, last year. Stories of olden refugees or epic fights of yesteryear against tyrants long forgotten. People only want the most recent scandal; the most recent name.” And then “Write something,” I was told, as if my five novels and plays and essays were not already there. “Unless you’re Michelle Obama, who can put a fingerprint on a piece of paper and it will sell.” Yes, that is true. Nobody cares about my ancient tales; epic fights in the quiet; silent nights long forgotten in places unpronounceable with only myself as guide and companion. When I started writing, I was told “Good writing conquers all.” But that too has gone the way of the MISRULE.

Tomorrow the Misrulers will give us Iran hurling mushroom clouds at Israel, and they will pretend they know not from whence they came. Or perhaps reappearing gulags in the frozen Russian tundra. Camps, that is what the Misrulers ache for; for the re-education of the unconvinced, who still somehow say that man is man and woman is woman and God is God. How tiresome.

So I will keep writing, I suppose. Though nobody is listening. I am not Michelle Obama, after all, am I? Nor am I an ancient Hebrew prophet, though he would be much better company. I often envy Nietzsche (and I’ll end with this, I promise). Up there, in Sils Maria hugging his miniature statue collection as he fought off the madness. Or Yegishe Charents drunk at the Intourist Hotel in Yerevan trying to convince all those who would listen of his greatness (Yes, he was great. No, nobody told HIM to ‘forget his old stories’.) Or Borges; or Neruda; or hell even Leon Surmelian who only wrote two books but composed an ode to immigration so beautiful it still echoes, though he died as well in silence. He isn’t Michelle Obama either.

I experienced a brief moment, a parenthesis utopia (yes, I realize I promised to be done – this my last point I promise – again). Hiding in the mountains of the South Caucasus. Like Nietzsche, but without the madness and instead of statues I had ancient Soviet books printed in English. But beware a utopia achieved – for the shock of real life is a bitter pill indeed. So I’ll return to being Joel – talking about Haiti for the benefit of, well nobody, it would appear. At least I’m in good company.

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A Letter from Stalin

Some people do only one thing, and that if they are lucky. Given the cacophony of life and the myriad people vying for meaning and significance against each other – 8,000,000,000 souls – how to stand out and be counted becomes a challenge.

Henry C. Cassidy received two letters from Stalin, in the run-up to the 2nd front. Around these letters, he built a tour; he built a book; he built a whole life. Cassidy was the AP bureau chief during the German attack on the USSR. The war started for the Russians while he was in Sochi on the Black Sea coast, and he lived in Moscow during the two years before the allied 2nd front was opened. The years when Hitler turned his war machine against Russia in the hopes of seizing ‘living space’ for his imperial project.

Reading this book now (summer of 2022) is somewhat strange, because it is full of names upon which we are all right now again focused. Odessa – Donbas – Kherson – Kyiv. The attempts by the German’s to seize ports and grain silos and the oil fields of Baku – an aggressor from the west replaced these days by an aggressor from the east; a new empire in the making (and the very same Russians Cassidy praised).

Life lived under the totalitarianism of Stalin, for Cassidy at least, seems to have been justified by the Herculean efforts necessary to defeat the Nazis. This book, presumably written after he has returned to the United States and therefore not subject to the censors (it was published in London in 1943), still drips with the sort of ‘red sympathy’ that caused the red scare in the post-war period. Not a single word about the gulag or the purges of the previous years. To be sure, the book is not about the ‘Gulag Archipelago’ but about the war – nevertheless the lack of balance must have been grating to the American reader (which probably explains Cassidy’s disappearance – I can find nothing more of him except a grainy photo of a committee hearing. I’ll certainly research that more, stay tuned).

Henry C. Cassidy received two letters from Stalin. Answering six questions. These made headline news those days as American diplomats and Pentagon planners attempted to understand the mercurial despot. From there he fades away from the historical record. Life is wild that way, a flash which sometimes endures, echoing into eternity but mostly is a singular moment adding color to the epic saga of the human race.

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The (Re) Making of the World

Aleksandr Dugin, Russian philosopher and proponent of the idea of ‘Eurasianism’ has often highlighted the difference of what he considers ‘land based powers’ and ‘sea based powers’. In Dugin’s mind, the new war between Russia and the West is really an extension of an extremely old conflict between these two systems.

The original conflagration was started perhaps by the Huns, but the Mongols who created the largest land empire in history brought it to its apex. At its apogee the Mongols controlled land from the sea of Japan to Vienna and from the Sinai to the Molucca Islands. From the catastrophic storms off Japan to the Javanese resistance to Mongol naval advances, the Mongols were stopped only by the seas. From their origins in the Altai mountains around Mt. Burkhan Khaldun, Genghis Khan’s Mongols conquered the world.

But not only did they conquer, they unified, integrated and brought order. They set up a paper-currency system, established one of the largest trade zones in history, introduced the idea of diplomatic immunity, set in place freedom of religion, streamlined public administration and introduced an educated bureaucratic class, and harmonized laws and punishments while reducing their brutality. Order from chaos. Regional autonomy, local systems of public administration overlaid by Mongol order; which was probably the most significant benefit of the Mongols to the world. A Pax Mongolica which lasted for more than a hundred and fifty years and rivaled the Pax Romana or even the Pax Americana; the last a Pax which ended by the advance of the nouveau Eurasianists.

Russian historians study the Mongols. Dugin’s imagination is occupied by them and the empires of the steppes much more than the Westphalian stories of modernity, of contained nations with their boring public servants. Lev Gumilev, one of Russia’s most significant historians who has gained popularity recently for his analysis of Eurasianism and his books on the ethnographies of the people of the steppes talks about the idea of ‘passionarity’ as being one of Russian sacred values. Of sustained super-effort in search of a goal (or, perhaps, Russia’s unique ability to withstand suffering as its contribution to world order). These, Russia got from the steppe tribes, mostly from the Mongols.

“Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford is an excellent introduction to the Mongols and their 700 year civilization. He does well in describing some of their origins and their efforts at order through conquest. It is a tale of tremendous violence and brutality. Not that the stories of Napoleon or Mehmet or Saladin or Hitler or Stalin are not. The Mongol conquests were brutal, and their control short-lived. Unlike Rome, which lasted for more than a thousand years, the central Mongol empire was over quickly; perhaps a hundred. The Pax of Kublai Khan, made famous by Marco Polo. But that does not make their story any less remarkable.

Back to Russia today, and the reason I am reading about the Mongols. History has returned. Vladimir Putin has decided that it is again the time to attempt ‘passionarity’ at the service of world order. Armies are again on the move, marked by the brutality of war. It has only just begun. From the time when Genghis Khan became Great Khan in 1206 to when Kublai his grandson built a Eurasian empire in 1260 was just over fifty years – fifty years of war. We are in our first six months.

There is one more interesting analogy; one more overlap. In 1328 in Shangdu (north of Beijing) the Mongol empire began its rapid collapse. The reason, the outbreak of the Black Plague. Just like that Eurasian Empire was ended by a pandemic, Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian project began with one. History does not repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme. How will the ‘sea based’ powers now respond?  

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