Cuba and the Yanqui Dollar

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Now that the United States has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, the communist government is insisting that the US pay reparations for the gigantic economic losses allegedly caused by America’s long refusal to trade with the island state. Undoubtedly the Obama administration is hard at work figuring out how to provide disguised subsidies to the communist regime and to crony capitalists who would like to make money on “free trade” with the kleptocracy. “I feel very much at home here. . . . We wish each other well,” proclaimed John Kerry, at his August 14 lovefest in Havana. When American officials say things like that, communists and their capitalist shills hear cash registers starting to ring.

It’s highly unlikely that “reparations” will be openly paid. Nevertheless, the demand for reparations illustrates some of the global Left’s most mesmerizing fallacies. These fallacies have nothing to do with the interesting question of whether economic embargoes ever “work,” in the sense of penalizing those whom they’re supposed to penalize. That’s a matter for empirical research, which no ideologue can bear to do, except to “prove” some pre-existing notion. I’m talking about the perennial war of faith — faith in the state — against logic.

Of course, it’s always helpful to have someone else to blame for this morally stimulating poverty.

Every communist state has initially justified itself as an economic enterprise. That’s the point of communism, isn’t it? It’s an economic philosophy designed to deliver economic prosperity. Soon, however, there comes a surprise. Who woulda thunk it — communism turns out to be economically disastrous! But, this having been established, the communist state doesn’t slink off to the side and wither, demoralized by its failure to do what it proposed to do. Instead, it loudly justifies itself on opposite principles — heroic endurance of poverty, disdainful rejection of the good life, the prosperous society.

Of course, it’s always helpful to have someone else to blame for this morally stimulating poverty. For Cuban communists and their sympathizers around the world, and for many unthinking noncommunists as well, the United States is the one to blame. First the US was to blame for ruthlessly exploiting Cuba, by trading with it and investing in it; then, and still worse, the US was to blame for ruthlessly refusing to trade with it or invest in it.

It’s useless to say that you can’t have it both ways. Of course you can, if you refuse to think. In fact, if you’re an American leftist, you can even have it four ways: Cuba is prosperous; Cuba is impoverished; isolation from capitalism made Cuba prosperous; isolation from capitalism made Cuba poor. With these comforting thoughts packed away in all relevant heads, pity for Cuban communism and outrage over US imperialism can continue, with no reduction of self-righteousness. They will come in handy whenever the New York Times notices that post-embargo Cuba is cursed (like pre-embargo Cuba) with that worst of all evils, income Inequality. Again we will witness the catastrophic effects of exploitative free enterprise.




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Hong Kong in Context

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Taking a casual survey of American political rhetoric, one would suspect that we were at the dawn of a new age — or at least that this nation had a poor memory. Somehow everything has become unprecedented. Unprecedented healthcare reform; unprecedented opposition to healthcare reform; unprecedented Republican victories in the midterm elections; unprecedented demonstrations in Hong Kong. But China has a long memory.

The recent protests in Hong Kong have adhered to the choreography of Chinese politics in at least one important respect: the Communist regime has accused its political opponents of being unpatriotic. Xinhua, the state news agency, recently published a commentary denouncing celebrities who supported the protests for the putative crime of challenging the authority of the Party, and — by a heroic leap of logic — of betraying a lack of love for the motherland. CY Leung, the Chief Executive, has accused foreign actors of orchestrating the demonstrations. He did not specify who these foreign actors were, but we all know that he means the United States, as if we weren’t content with the existing friction in bilateral relations and decided on a whim to make life more difficult for the Chinese government.

The democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong should be framed, by them and by their friends abroad, not in terms of their unique identity, but in terms of universal values that all Chinese can share.

Such hamfisted tactics could be dismissed, were it not for the real danger that the accusations might actually be taken seriously. There is an ugly history of antagonism between the people of Hong Kong and their estranged brethren on mainland China, inspired by subjects ranging from the status of the Cantonese dialect to patriotic education to reports of tourists doing unseemly things in unseemly places in Hong Kong. To people from mainland China, the aloofness of people from Hong Kong often smacks of arrogance and snobbery. But the Chinese can put up with snobbery. It plagues Beijing and Shanghai, and nobody seems to mind. In the case of Hong Kong, the danger is that the protests may be viewed in light of this antagonism and interpreted as a posture of “more-democratic-than-thou.”

Hong Kong has always been viewed as an enclave of wealthy, westernized Chinese, enjoying a wide measure of civil liberties that have been resolutely denied to people from the mainland. There is a significant possibility that they will be regarded as spoiled children, not content with their privileges and clamoring for more. The Communist regime will avail itself of every opportunity to cast aspersions on the pro-democracy demonstrators, and any indication that this is a struggle for Hong Kong’s exclusive rights will only serve to alienate it from the rest of China.

The democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong should be framed, by them and by their friends abroad, not in terms of their unique identity — for that would invite references to their former status as a colony of the West — but in terms of universal values that all Chinese can share. To Americans nurtured on the idea of universal values, this should not seem unprecedented.

/p




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Kennedy and Communism

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On November 22, it will be 50 years since I sat in my typing-for-infants class and heard a radio voice coming over the PA system. “There are reports,” it said, “that shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, Texas.” My teacher, a model of business efficiency, concluded very plausibly that someone in the principal’s office was playing around with the equipment. Unfortunately, she was wrong.

I can’t say that I regard Kennedy’s death as a world-historical event. He was a brighter and, to me, a much more interesting and sympathetic personality than his kinfolk or most of the other political figures of the time. Several times in his life he faced the virtual certainty of death, and faced it with courage and cheerfulness. He learned enough about economics to advocate a large tax cut that vastly increased the nation’s wealth. He also helped to get us into the Cuban missile crisis — and then rather skillfully got us out of it. I don’t know what he would have done about Vietnam. I do know that he fostered a cult of military masculinity (fifty-mile hikes!) that produced some very sorry thinking and acting. He believed that Robert McNamara was a real smart guy; he had a soft spot for can-do fools like that. The scion of a gangsterlike family, he plotted to make his brother Robert and then his brother Edward presidents after him. He lied habitually and outrageously about almost every aspect of his own life. He accepted the Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn’t write, and became angry when people suggested that he hadn’t written it. There is reason to believe that in 1960 he was able to defeat his good friend Richard Nixon because his allies in Texas and Illinois stuffed the ballot boxes for him. Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

About the assassination I have little to say. To my mind, David Ramsay Steele made a conclusive case for Oswald as the sole assassin; see his article in Liberty in November 2003. Since then, no evidence has been discovered that threatens Steele’s argument, and much analysis has confirmed it. I am bothered, however, by something closely connected with the assassination (but not with Kennedy himself), something that appears not to bother anyone else. It is a strange idea: the idea that communism was never of any significance in America; that either there weren’t any communists or they never really did much of anything (such as killing President Kennedy). Even intelligent and well-disposed people believe this.

Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

But of course there were communists, and they did lots of things. They were very busy bees. It’s not for nothing that the 1930s were once called the Red Decade in American intellectual life, or that a ton of intellectual autobiographies were written from the standpoint of “I was a communist although later I quit.” About communist influence in the popular media during the 1930s and 1940s, take a look at Red Star Over Hollywood by Ronald and Allis Radosh — and even the Radoshes couldn’t get all the red influences into a book. In 1948, the Democratic Party was split by a conflict between anticommunists, communists, and communist stooges; out of it came the Progressive Party, an outfit managed by communists and their friends. Its presidential candidate was the former vice president of the United States, Henry Wallace. In 1956, there were still American intellectuals fighting it out over the issue of whether Khrushchev should have trashed the memory of Stalin.

How does all this connect with Kennedy? The connection is that the person who shot him, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a communist activist. Oswald defected to the Soviet Union and upon returning to the United States became a professional defender of Castro. He denied being “a communist” but proclaimed himself “a Marxist.” He had his picture taken holding a gun in one hand and militant literature in another; his wife wrote “Hunter of fascists” on the back of it. Oswald lay in wait for and attempted to murder Edwin Walker, a rightwing general. When the fervently anticommunist President Kennedy came to Dallas, Oswald succeeded in murdering him. Now, why do you think he did that? Do you think that communism might not have had something to do with it?

According to most conspiracy theories, however, Oswald either didn’t shoot Kennedy at all, or he was the least important member of a murder group that had nothing to do with communism. The theorists believe that Kennedy was murdered by rightwing CIA operatives, or rightwing oil companies, or rightwing militarists — anyone on the right will do. Even sensible people have trouble with the simple notion that Oswald was a freak for communism. Consider Fred Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post on November 14. Kaplan says that he himself, in his callow youth, accepted various conspiracy theories, only to discover that they weren’t decently based on fact. (I can say something similar about my own intellectual development.) But then he says:

The only remaining mystery, really, is Oswald’s motives — and yet, here too, no convincing evidence has emerged that links his action to the Mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, or anything of the sort. The most persuasive theory I’ve read — first put forth in a New York Review of Books article by Daniel Schorr (later reprinted in his book Clearing the Air) — is that Oswald killed Kennedy, believing the deed would earn him favor with Castro. But who knows? The mystery at the heart of the matter (why did Oswald do it?) remains unsolved.

“Really”? Do people talk this way about Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley because Czolgosz was an anarchist and McKinley wasn’t? Do people talk this way about Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield because Garfield failed to gratify Guiteau’s insane idea that he deserved to be appointed ambassador to France? Do people talk this way about John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln because Wilkes was a supporter of the Confederacy and Lincoln had just destroyed it? Do people talk this way about . . . oh, why go on? If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

The real mystery is why even well-meaning, well-educated Americans can’t just accept communism for what it was (and is): a political movement capable of interesting people and inspiring them, even inspiring them to violent action — which it has often praised and rewarded. Oswald killed Kennedy because Oswald was a communist, and acted up to it.

So silly is the cover-up-the-communists routine that the hosts of movies on my beloved Turner Classics are always alleging that someone was “blacklisted” or otherwise injured by “accusations” of communism, without ever wondering — just as a subject of curiosity, now that we’re discussing old so-and-so’s difficult life — whether he or she may actually have been a communist.

And speaking of cultural authorities, I recently (don’t ask me why) looked up the Wikipedia article on Ed Sullivan, the prune-faced impresario of early television song-and-dance shows, and discovered that its account of Sullivan’s life occupies itself mightily with the question of whether Sullivan excluded communists from his program. I have to admit that I am an agnostic on this grave moral issue. If I were Ed Sullivan, maybe I’d have had communists on my show, and maybe I wouldn’t have. I probably would have, if they were good enough dancers — but if you substitute “Nazis” for “communists” in this thought experiment, fewer people would say that my decision should be obvious. But look at what the Wikipedia entry says: “[A] guest who never appeared on the show because of the controversy surrounding him was legendary black singer-actor Paul Robeson, who . . . was undergoing his own troubles with the US entertainment industry's hunt for Communist sympathizers.”

If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

All right; I guess so. But Robeson didn’t need to be “hunted”; everybody knew where he was on the ideological spectrum. And his politics ensured that he had other troubles, of the intellectual and moral kind, troubles far worse than not getting on the Ed Sullivan show. The facts are simple. Robeson had a great voice. He could even act. He was also America’s best-known communist. He was proud of this morally repellent role. Accepting the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953, he said, among many other things:

I have always insisted — and will insist, even more in the future on my right to tell the truth as I know it about the Soviet peoples: of their deep desires and hopes for peace, of their peaceful pursuits of reconstruction from the ravages of war, as in historic Stalingrad; and to tell of the heroic efforts of the friendly peoples in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, great, new China and North Korea — to explain, to answer the endless falsehoods of the warmongering press with clarity and courage.

For Robeson’s tribute to the “deep kindliness and wisdom” of Joseph Stalin, go here.

Wikipedia’s own page on the “Political Views of Paul Robeson” does its best for him, but it concludes, “At no time during his retirement (or his life) is Paul Robeson on record of mentioning any unhappiness or regrets about his beliefs in socialism or the Soviet Union nor did he ever express any disappointment in its leaders including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Moreover, only a few sources out of hundreds interviewed and researched by two of his biographers Martin Duberman and Lloyd Brown agreed with the claims made in the mainstream media of Robeson's supposed embitterment over the USSR.”

Why bring these things up? Mainly because there’s a significant historical question at stake: were there communists or not, and were they important or not? That’s enough, but there are political reasons too. The abolition of communism from American history has been a way of arousing sympathy for the authoritarian Left and any ideas or people associated with it. It has been a way of keeping the Left from self-criticism, the kind of criticism that, one is given to believe, would automatically lead to such excesses as “witch-hunts” against “alleged communists.” Denying the presence of communism has been a way of obeying the old slogan, “No Enemies on the Left.” There is a danger here, similar to the danger of forgetting the sometime appeal of fascism.

This month witnessed another anniversary besides that of the Kennedy assassination. Thirty-five years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, a man named Jim Jones engineered the murder-suicide of more than 900 people, mostly Americans, at Jonestown, Guyana. People think of Jones as some kind of offbeat Christian who got a little more offbeat. What he did is regarded as a warning against religious cultism. But he wasn’t, and it isn’t. Jones was a political agitator who used a pretense of religion — and it was a pretty feeble pretense — to sell what he called “revolutionary communism.” This approach enabled him to become a major player in San Francisco politics. Some of his fellow politicians covered up for him, ignoring or denying his communism; others were actually inspired by him — by his politics, not by his “religion.”

If you go to yet another Wikipedia page — “Peoples Temple” — you will learn a lot of things about this, although you won’t learn why the Jonestown episode isn’t seen as Americans’ most impressive and also most disastrous attempt to build a communist utopia. Yet the take-home message can still be found. It appears in the clichéd slogan that was posted behind the speaker’s stand from which Jones delivered his death decrees: “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It.”




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Confessions from China II

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I just had lunch at the local food court in Guangzhou, a city of 1.3 million people in southern China. The price of the regular meal was 25 Yuan. I did not want rice, so they politely returned 10 Yuan, despite the fact that I didn’t ask for it. My meal cost me about $2.25. This is my sixth visit to China over the past three years; each one has been for about a month. I have traveled to many cities. While I have not been to many rural places, I have travelled enough to have my own views on China.

My experience of the food vendor returning me 10 Yuan no longer surprises me. I cannot think of a time when I have been cheated in China. I speak no Chinese. When I am stuck at restaurants, I am often offered eager translation help by other guests. Success in business is evidently exerting a strong influence, making people civil, honest, and compassionate.

I indulge in haggling at local shops and manage to pay what a regular Chinese would. Were I not to haggle, I would leave the shopkeeper dissatisfied. Taxis seldom overcharge me. When a shop is open, the well-dressed shop-assistant comes to me to get my business. She smiles and greets me. If her shop isn’t open, she ignores me and sometimes waves me off, a bit rudely.

People in many parts of the world refuse to acknowledge the rapid progress of China, because they see it as a communist country. Libertarians and those with free-market inclinations are particularly prone to this. They don’t want to accept the idea that an officially communist country has achieved human progress at a combined scale and rate that is unprecedented. But ignoring something does not change the reality.

Although China is a dictatorship of the “Communist Party,” that does not make it economically communist. No, China is not a democracy. People have a habit of imagining “democracy” as synonymous with “freedom,” but these are totally separate concepts. “Democracy” is a form of government, and government is by definition anti-freedom. “Freedom” is a word that applies to what is allowed by the institutions and culture of a country.

Libertarians and those with free-market inclinations don’t want to accept the idea that an officially communist country has achieved human progress at a combined scale and rate that is unprecedented.

I actually find myself very free in China. You can drink openly in public (as you can in most of Asia). You can trade, and even scam people, right in front of the police, who are not trained to be busybodies. In many places cute girls approach you with scams, offering to take you to bars. They talk openly within hearing distance of the police. In major cities, there is a rampant market in fake diplomas or ID cards. At night, I often saw several business cards shoved under the door of my hotel room, offering the service of an evening rendezvous.

Chinese traders always seem to say, “Yes, I have what you want. Now, tell me: what do you want?”

There has been much talk about the X-ray machines that check your bags at Chinese subways and at the entrance to Tiananmen Square. In my experience, the authorities are never serious about checking your bags.

“But you can’t protest against the government in China.” There are hundreds of thousands of recorded protests every year in China. You ought to see the Chinese protesting. I have seen them hurling abuse at policemen, shouting and screaming, throwing their arms and legs around. Yes, they can’t make a democratic change in China. But in Canada, my vote — one among millions of other votes — wasn’t worth spare change. In my view, “democracy” is a farce at best. It has a strong tendency to degenerate into the dictatorship of the masses. Compared with that, Chinese protest is real. People who protest in Canada mostly lobby for government favors — they protest to steal from me. And people like me are always on the sidelines, refusing to make jackasses of themselves, worried about any inconvenience their protests might cause to others.

Every time I deal with a bureaucrat in China, I am offered the chance to participate in a quick electronic assessment of his performance: Was he courteous and efficient? Where else in the world are you asked to evaluate a public servant? When I don’t care to participate in the survey, I often see the hand of the bureaucrat himself coming out of the window to do the assessment on my behalf — ironic proof that the surveys have real value.

Having been in Guangzhou for a week, I have seen virtually no foreign tourists. Yet downtown Guangzhou is among the most modern cities I know. Its skyline competes with the very best in Hong Kong, New York, and Singapore. Yet a closer inspection of those modern buildings shows that a lot of them are partially or fully empty. And the quality of buildings falls off rapidly once you are outside the downtown area. BMWs and Audis parked outside the grim apartment buildings in the outskirts show how important the public face is for many Chinese. The hazy air, the expensive shops, where rich people likely won’t shop unless they overpay, and the massive Pearl River, which for all practical purposes is the main sewage and industrial-waste artery, all remind me that I am in China.

Chinese women have probably shed their clothes faster than any other women in history, so much so that during my initial visits I thought more than once of asking them if they had forgotten something. Yet ugly buildings are often hidden behind massive posters or some other kind of façade. Packaging is more important than substance in China. The well-dressed people on the streets often share a room with several others — no air-conditioning, and the bathing facility in an adjoining building, with hot water carefully rationed.

The ultra-modern subway systems and extremely modern buildings calibrate people’s thinking, leading them to assess China as if it were a fully modern economy. Alas, China is still a developing economy, which can best be judged by comparison with where it was (a mere) two decades ago.

There is much talk about increasing nationalism in China, yet it is hard to believe that a society that had grown as fast as China would not at the same time grow nationalistic. A local acquaintance tells me that a mere 15 years back there were cows roaming the streets of what is now the modern city of Guangzhou. You can see how Guangzhou changed over the last few decades using the time-function on Google Earth.

This is a society that thinks in herds, and I have had neither the occasion nor the courage to discuss these issues in a group.

Was there a lot of pain involved in these sweeping changes in the city? Yes. Of course. The property of poor people was confiscated for little or no compensation. Such people increasingly protest, sometimes with violence against public officials. And property confiscations can be worse in democratic countries, where short-term politicians have incentives to cater to their corrupt connections, fund-providers, and lobbies.

The Chinese do have a visceral anti-Japanese sentiment. They are heavily indoctrinated, through movies and the educational system, to hate Japan. But when I challenge people about their views, I have never seen an individual refuse to engage in a rational discussion. I say “individual,” because this is a society that thinks in herds, and I have had neither the occasion nor the courage to discuss these issues in a group.

The political systems of China, the Koreas, and Japan have been heavily influenced by Confucian culture. In these hierarchical societies, creative thinking doesn’t have much place. Their culture and social systems make people shining cogs in a big machine, the better for them to work diligently and unworryingly in their boring jobs and studies. Even in Vancouver, the library is packed with Chinese students, cramming away from books. Libraries in China are similar.

But one must take a walk to the multi-story bookstores in China. They have scores of self-improvement books, proving that Chinese people increasingly read outside assigned academic works. You see covers showing the faces of Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Dale Carnegie, and Stephen Covey. In a country where illegal copying is believed to be rampant, there must still be considerable profit from legally marketed translations. Could the Chinese be becoming more creative? I have no doubt they are. Even if you look through the lenses of “communism” (with all kinds of fancy connotations) that you might wear in China, you cannot ignore the fact that there are many modern, creative solutions to be found in predominantly Confucian countries.

People are forever comparing China with India. Thirty years ago, when China had a per capita GDP that was lower than India’s, this would have made sense. It no longer does. Today, an average Chinese is three times richer than an average Indian. And strangely, I find India a lot more expensive than China, and a lot less free. India is stagnating. China continues to grow. China wants to make money.

But am I not over-romanticising China? I witnessed an old lady, who was selling fruit at a corner in the small city of Lijiang, being hit hard on her stomach by Chengguan, government goons — a vivid reminder that all is not well. It is very hard to trust the quality of food in China. I love the 30 cent, nicely-cut pineapples, but I do ask myself if they are unnaturally sweetened. Cheap massages, usually for less than $10, are great for me. But what about the people who render those services? What about all the people who live in extremely congested spaces? What about all the people who work in extraordinarily exploitative situations under “greedy” businessmen? What about the sweatshops? What about the ruthless abortion of the second child?

Governments, irrespective of whether they are democracies or single-party dictatorships, are institutions of heartlessness, inhumanity, and freedom from accountability. State and nationhood are unnatural concepts, designed by crooks and sociopaths to control the sheeple. The smaller the state, the fewer the regulations, and the better the society. I am not in a situation to compare China with truly stateless societies, because today’s world offers no examples. But China has very little regulatory control — the biggest reason behind its low costs. And, yes, I do feel for small children living and working under tough situations, or my masseurs who work for a pittance. But I gladly use their services, for the choice they have is not between a good job and a bad job. If they had that option they would have chosen the good job. Their choice is between a bad job and hunger. Trading with them, I get my massage and they get food. China understands this concept well. And that is the only way to move up economically.

China has moved up. Chinese salaries are rising much faster than the nation’s growth rate or inflation rate, meaning that the benefits of continued growth are accruing increasingly to the workers. Workers are fighting for better conditions. People are increasingly resisting work in factories where other people have been used like automatons. In fact, the increasing worry is that as China becomes a more expensive place to operate, some manufacturing is moving back to the West. A lot of clothing factories have already moved to Vietnam and Bangladesh. This is how human conditions improve. Not by increasing demand, in the way that Keynesian Western governments think things happen, but by working hard, by slogging along and creating the supply first. Sweatshops then go away naturally.

Governments, irrespective of whether they are democracies or single-party dictatorships, are institutions of heartlessness, inhumanity, and freedom from accountability.

My guess is that manufacturing that is moving back to the US is not necessarily doing that for economic reasons but to keep Obama happy and possibly to access earmarked money. It would be erroneous to think that China had lost its competitive advantages and that the short-term, democratic Western world had learned anything, for that world continues to do more of what created its current problems. I continue to be bullish about the future in China.

Except in Beijing and Shanghai, I usually pay $10 for a hostel bed or $30 for a three-star hotel. My fabulous hotel in Guangzhou has a price tag of $30, but it does offer some kind of, I think very strange, cup of coffee for $30. Only a nouveau riche Chinese or someone with a company account will pay for this. I of course don’t abuse the latter. A full meal costs $10 or less. The subway, one of the best I have seen anywhere, costs between 50 cents and 75 cents. Unless I fall for the temptation to waste money, I can live a luxurious life here for less than $50 a day.

But China is not only a place for cheap goods. It is a treasure trove for anyone seeking an education in economics. Just be prepared to accept a few Chinese idiosyncrasies. And don’t let the “communist” tag on China stop you from going there.




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North Korea: A Mirror unto Myself

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I went to North Korea.

Why?

I travel to self-reflect, to challenge my own conditioning, and to question my irrational beliefs and patterns. The more extreme my new surroundings, the more challenges my psyche gets. Laughing at others and considering them backward might be a self-satisfying reason to go abroad, but mostly futile.

Do I accept paying half of what I earn in taxes, making myself a slave for half my life and a bit more, filling up forms and chasing bureaucrats, and then make fun of others who slave under a different pretext?

Do I find women wearing veils in Islamic cultures deplorable but not girls who wear virtually nothing while lining up outside discos in the frigid night of Canada?

At the death of Princess Diana, whom I had always considered rather stupid, hundreds of thousands of people in England, a relatively sophisticated society, went into hysteria. These were exactly the same people who until a day before had lived for the next issue of the tabloids so they could practice voyeurism on the intimate details of Diana’s life. Of course there was another subgroup — of do-gooders — that was more interested in watching Diana photographed with starving African kids, while she was flying around in the most luxurious jets. Unable to see the contradictions, that subgroup firmly believed she was doing a service to society.

When Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Canada, thousands of girls wanted to touch them. When Kim Jong Il died, virtually everyone in North Korea mourned.

My question is why North Koreans should be made fun of if they grieve over the death of someone they consider their savior? The shallow thoughts of starving people are perhaps more understandable than those of people who live in comfort.

Apart from always trying to provide myself tools for understanding my own thinking as rationally as possible, I went to North Korea assuming that this last pure Communist country was not going to last for long, so I should see it while I could. And I was in for a treat, an educational one.

By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not difficult to visit North Korea. Also, I had enough to eat and felt very safe. There were spies all around, but I never felt threatened. They were normal human beings playing out their indoctrinations. Despite my initial, strong worries, the fact is that in virtually any dictatorship, you are safer than you would be elsewhere.

North Korea is developing missile and nuclear technology. I am not sure why this should merit moral condemnation, at least by the United States. I recall that not too long back, the US promised Gaddafi that he would not be attacked if he gave up biological and nuclear weapons. The promise was forgotten the moment the risk of those weapons went away.

I find it remarkable that North Koreans have partly developed such high technologies. North Korea has a population of only 24 million people; it occupies a hilly part of its peninsula, making agriculture difficult. Under sanctions it has very limited trade with outsiders, something that seriously harms and constricts its economy. And it is forced to spend an absolute fortune to defend its border. The military expenditures of its enemies at that border may be higher than the GDP of North Korea (so far as it is possible to estimate that).

I was told that I would meet very heavy-handed soldiers in North Korea. In contrast, I found it easy to have a laugh with them. And even at the DMZ, they allowed quite a bit freedom of movement. I had my arms on the soldiers when photographing with them. At the least they are just normal human beings.

It was a week later, when I went to exactly the same part of the DMZ, from the South Korean side, that I faced heavy-handedness. American soldiers dictated our moves in minute detail; we were asked not to smile at the North Korean security, because that might be taken as a hostile signal. The drama Americans create at the DMZ is their way of instilling fear in people and perhaps their way of legitimizing their presence in South Korea. By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Ironically, the room you visit at the DMZ when coming from the north is exactly the same one you visit when coming from the south; it is just that the control of that room keeps changing between the two countries. Of course despite their denials, both sides talk with each other to orchestrate events at the DMZ. The televised posturing that they do at DMZ — with alert army men — is only a show, for there is only one side present at any point of time, all based on negotiations. In the end, I could not shake off the feeling that it is not the North and the South that are enemies; it is as if the two governments and their allies ganged up together to keep fear and hostility between the two forcibly separated societies.

North Korea is a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

People keep talking about the huge size of the North Korean army. In truth, a lot of work that would be classified as civilian jobs is done by the army; for example, all construction and infrastructure work is army work. You could easily halve the size of the North Korean army to compare like to like.

So do I think North Korea is a great place? Actually, it is by far the worst country I have ever visited. Its personality cult is water-tight. Its government has perfected tyranny. North Koreans have virtually no access to outside information. Even the North Korean air hostesses on their planes bound for Beijing are not allowed to leave their planes when they land there.

For a tourist, it is not possible to travel in North Korea independently. You must be escorted by two “guides” provided by the state-run travel agency. I joined a tour group from Beijing. This was almost a year ago, in April 2012, when Kim Il Sung’s centenary celebrations were being held. Wherever we went, spies followed us. We had no freedom of movement.We could not even leave our hotel unaccompanied. In fact, whatever we did was closely monitored.

Not allowed into local shops, we had to use euros or US dollars at foreigners-only tourist shops at highly elevated prices, making it impossible for any local to convert his currency into dollars and to put it to any good use. Locals not only cannot go to another city without a permit but they usually cannot even move within their cities freely. The army is everywhere and it keeps checking ID cards.

Army units are not allowed to travel much — they don't have much means of transportation anyway, making any coup almost impossible. You often see army men walking from one city to another. The nice looking vehicles that you see on TV seem mostly for propaganda purposes. The army trucks I usually saw were the broken-down old vehicles on the side of the roads.

There is virtually no concept of private property. Everyone works for the government, in a position decided by the government. Every hospital is owned by the government. Every house is owned by the government. People can own cars, but you don't see vehicles. Sometimes you can go a kilometer within the capital and not see a car.

Most North Koreans have no money left to save at the end of the month. They have no incentive to save anyway, as they can keep their savings only at the bank — remember there is no other means of investment possible — where it can be devalued at any whim of the government. Some people might save in gold, illegally, but imagine the repercussions in a country where 50% of the people have at one point or another denounced their family or friends. You can imagine what moral effect the lack of possibility to save would have on you.

Many houses have pots of beautiful flowers, particularly of the two kinds named after the Kims. They look very bright and nice. On closer inspection I realized that a lot of them are plastic.

We were taken to a laboratory filled with colorful chemicals, but all evidence showed that they were never used. It was the same with the big computer room. The keyboards had never been used.

A year or so back, all the universities were closed. Students were asked to report for road work. You can see families — parents and kids — mending roads and electricity poles outside their houses. They are asked to do this, under threat. But really they just accept it as normal life. They don’t seem to know of any other way.

All fun activities have a strong dose of patriotism and Kim-ism in them. There are statues of Kim Il Sung all over the country, statues that must be kept sparkling clean at all times. Early in the freezing morning, I could see tens of thousands of people everywhere descending, on foot or on their bikes, to the statues of Kim Il Sung to pay their respects. You might encounter a group of women singing praises of Kim Il Sung in front of a spellbound audience of locals, while I stood shivering. If one is a local, one must either sing or join the audience or go to the gulag. The system offers none of these people the option of distinguishing between enjoying what they are doing or doing it as a compulsive action. Their thinking and emotions are certainly very numbed, making North Korea a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

A North Korean citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state.

Locals are mostly kept out of the way of tourists. But sometimes actors and actresses appear to create a fake environment for outsiders. You might see a group of locals playing “tourist” at the DMZ, when you know you did not see any tourist bus apart from yours. At the store, you might see a couple of women in traditional clothes browsing the books — all of them “written” by the Kims — and when you turned back after leaving you would see them switching off the lights. At the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, everything is new and fake. The furniture, the cutlery, the walls and the thatched roof cannot be more than a few years old. But perhaps everything touched by Kim Il Sung defies aging.

North Korea is a true 1984, and may even have exceeded it. Piped revolutionary music from loudspeakers installed all over the city is virtually compulsory for everyone. You wake up with it. The same music runs on the TV and, it seems, the locals must switch it on as soon as they wake up. The only vehicles that look in decent shape are propaganda vehicles, with loudspeakers on top of them. A citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state. He must from his birth learn thought control, or life would be unbearable and a continuous reminder of humiliation.

I have been to Myanmar (in 1996 at the height of its military dictatorship), Laos (where I traveled with early-teen insurgents), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Belarus, and so on. But none has the kind of perfect tyranny and lack of personal freedom that North Korea has established.

I feel sorry for North Koreans. I don't travel to feel better than other people. I do it to understand human nature, mostly mine. And it is sad that in North Korea virtually everyone has been made a puppet and a parrot. It is a totalitarian state on top of cultural Confucianism. The elites have structured it so well that I can see no way for any revolution to happen. And people's minds have been so indoctrinated and their development so constrained that they would feel hugely insecure about not having a firm leader. But that is exactly the path the West is increasingly on now, isn't it? The irony is that Western people laugh at North Korea but cannot see themselves in the mirror.




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Democracy: A Western Religion

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On November 21, a Mumbai political goon, Bal Thackeray, died. His party, or gang, is so formidable that the state has, for decades, bent its rule to accommodate its members. If they want the city closed, the police take the lead in closing it, to avoid violence. If you challenge the gang, the police put you under “protective custody.” For decades his gang has extracted protection money. You cannot speak his name without showing the highest possible respect, unless you want to get beaten up, sometimes very ruthlessly.

When Thackeray died, his gang instructed the city to be closed. Everyone who was someone in Mumbai — actors, sportsmen, businessmen, politicians (even of the opposing parties) — had to go to his funeral to pay his condolences. If any had not, he would have had to explain to the gang or leave Mumbai and see his career destroyed.

One girl posted this message on her Facebook page and another “liked” it:

With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians? Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.

The two Facebook girls were arrested, their faces covered by the police, and the court asked them to be imprisoned. Unless they want to be raped and then beaten up, they are unlikely to return to Mumbai. Even their extended families might have to leave Mumbai now. Not easily given to tears, I had some. These girls deserved the respect of society. For me they are heroes despite the fact that they erroneously believed they were “free-living Indians.”

These were two cute, educated, middle-class girls, so their case came out in public. In rural India, however, events like these are non-events. There the normal guy lives in utter fear of the police and the local strongman and must grovel. He talks with folded hands and bent head. He has no sense of his rights. He accepts what he can get away with. He concedes what the local strongman wants.

Those Westerners who visit only Mumbai and who can never stop comparing India’s democracy (with some mystical favorable connotations) to Chinese dictatorship (with only evil connotations) should have seen that India is not a country of the rule of law, unless you employ million-dollar lawyers.

Really we see what we want to see, what fits in with our pre-conceived notions. Given that Western people fanatically believe in their religion of democracy, they will rationalize the Mumbai incident as a case of India’s “aggressive” democracy. There are hundreds of recorded protests in China every year. The same people who have very romantic opinions about India call protests in China a sign of the fragile nature of its “dictatorship.” Then they proceed to contradict themselves by saying that there is no freedom of speech in China. They find reasons why China’s economic progress is not real or why China is not a free country, as it would be, were it a democracy.

Recently in China, a very well-known, successful businessman, who was taking me around rural places, told me why he did not want his country to become a democracy. He said that if local democracy were encouraged in China, it would very rapidly make China a place run by strongmen. He described how this would void whatever “rule of law,” predictability, and stability now exists. China is not a perfect country, and I do recognize that my guide wants dictatorship to continue for his personal interests, but I couldn’t agree with him more.

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Cambodia: Not to Be Forgotten

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The Nazis killed Jews, Gypsies, gays, Polish cavalry, retarded people, and assorted other specific groups, intending to annihilate them. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone and everyone, indiscriminately, to make “ecologically sound” fertilizer.

First, the raw materials for the fertilizer — human beings — were made to dig a giant trench. Second, they were made to kneel along the edge. Third, Khmer Rouge soldiers went from one to another ”useless mouth” delivering a sharp blow with an axe to the nape of the neck — to save ammunition.

Over the first layer of bodies, rice husks would be spread, followed by a sprinkling of gasoline. This procedure would be repeated, layer upon layer, until the pit was full. It was then set ablaze. After the pit cooled, the bones were separated from the ashes, ground on giant mortars and pestles, then recombined with the ashes and packaged in jute sacks to fertilize paddy fields.

Denise Affonco, an ethnic Eurasian French citizen, was convinced by her husband, a Vietnamese Communist, to stay in Phnom Penh and welcome the liberators. She lost everything, including her entire extended family, except one son. Hers is a story of a miraculous four-year survival under the Khmer Rouge’s countryside resettlement policy.

What makes this book special is that there aren’t many Cambodian genocide survival stories in English. It is a miracle that the story has been written and published. Days after they arrived to liberate her, the Vietnamese insisted — and paid her — to record an account of her four years in hell, to be used in a subsequent trial-in-absentia of Pol Pot and Ieng Sery. She did; and as an afterthought squirreled away a carbon copy of what she had written. Twenty-five years later, in Paris, she heard an academic opine that the Khmer Rouge did “nothing but good” for Cambodia. She then realized it was time to publish her account.

The book has the immediacy of something written on the fly. There are quite a few translation and run-of-the-mill typos, but they do not detract — you’ll not easily lay it down. Reportage Press is a small UK outfit. A portion of the proceeds are contributed to a scholarship fund, set up in memory of Affonco’s daughter, who died of starvation. The book is available from Amazon and Amazon.uk.


Editor's Note: Review of "To the End of Hell: One Woman’s Struggle to Survive Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge," by Denise Affonco. Reportage Press, 2005, 165 pages.



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Defending Capitalism against Ayn Rand

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The titles that Ayn Rand assigned to the three parts of Atlas Shrugged proclaim her insistence that logical contradictions cannot exist in reality. By contrast, the title of the magnum opus of the ultimate charlatan in Atlas Shrugged, Simon Pritchett, is The Metaphysical Contradictions of the Universe. Francisco d’Anconia and Hugh Akston explain to Dagny Taggart that whenever someone thinks he has encountered a contradiction, he must check his premises, and he will find that one of them is wrong (I.9, 7, 10).1

In this essay, I will follow d’Anconia’s and Akston’s advice. I will show that a fundamental contradiction pervades Atlas Shrugged because Rand failed to check her premises. She thought that the heroes she created were exemplars of pure, uncorrupted capitalism. In fact, the heroes she created in Atlas Shrugged came from her sense of life, which was not only un-capitalist but anti-capitalist. I will also show that this contradiction is extremely fortunate because it illuminates why capitalism is the most efficient and humane economic system ever implemented.

Rand often emphasized the importance of a person’s “sense of life” and of art as its expression (e.g., Rand 1975: 31, 33, 44). She defined her sense of life and its artistic expression most clearly in an essay she wrote on Victor Hugo (1975: 153–61). In it she said, “Victor Hugo is the greatest novelist in world literature” because his characters are “a race of giants,” who are not concerned with “penny ante.” “‘Grandeur’ is the one word that names the leitmotif . . . of all of Hugo’s novels — and of his sense of life.”

The heroes Rand created in Atlas Shrugged came from her sense of life, which was not only un-capitalist but anti-capitalist.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand created heroes who embodied her sense of life and described how such heroes would fulfill their heroic natures if they engaged in economic activities. She thought that the sum of their economic activities and interactions provides a template of what laissez-faire capitalism would be like. She was wrong. When the heroes who embody her sense of life engage in economic activities, they function like Communist administrators, not capitalist businessmen.2

To paraphrase Rand, “Grandeur is the one word that names” the sense of life of Communist economies. They had no concern with anything “penny ante.” In the 1980s, when the economy of the Soviet Union was disintegrating, it was producing between 1.5 and two times more steel and cement than the United States and generating more electricity; it also had 2.5 times more machine tools. However, buttons, clothespins, babies’ pacifiers, and thermometers were always extremely difficult to find in the Soviet Union (Shmelev and Popov 1989: 82, 132, 144). Toilet paper and toilet seats were such rare and precious commodities that when McDonald’s opened a restaurant in Moscow, in 1990, its employees had to guard its restrooms to prevent customers stealing toilet paper and toilet seats (Goldman 1991: 166). The Soviet Union’s heroic economy also did not provide contraceptives or a single practical guide to contraception. As a result, Soviet women averaged at least four legal abortions during their lives; and the average was higher in the non-Muslim regions of the Soviet Union. In addition, large numbers of illegal abortions were performed. Anesthetics could be obtained only by a large bribe (Feshbach and Friendly 1992: 208–9).

In Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the villain, Ellsworth Toohey, completely destroys Catherine Halsey’s soul, and the visible sign of her corruption is that her mouth has adapted to giving orders, “not big orders or cruel orders; just mean little ones — about plumbing and disinfectants” (IV.10). Toohey has turned her into the opposite of a Communist. The Communists gave big, cruel orders and had no concern with mean little considerations. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are heroic because, like Communist bureaucrats, they produce or maintain impressive products, not mean little ones. It would be unimaginable for a Rand hero to be a manufacturer of “penny ante” products, such as disposable baby diapers, menstrual tampons, or dependable contraceptives. But these distinctively 20th-century inventions improved the quality of life immeasurably by freeing people from preoccupation with brute, animal existence.

Most services would be included among “mean little” occupations. The Communists’ heroic obsession with production caused them to ignore services, which, with a few exceptions, they did not even include in their gross domestic product statistics. In fact, Marxists always used the term “the means of production” as a synonym for “the economy.” In modern capitalist countries, most businesspeople provide services. With one exception that I will discuss below, the only service that a hero in Atlas Shrugged provides is running railroads. This is clearly not a “mean little” occupation, and it was one of the few services that the Soviet Union included in its gross domestic product statistics (weight of freight times kilometers carried).

Moreover, Rand ignored all services in her representation of history (1963: 10–57) as a battle between Attila and the Witch Doctor and their antithesis, the Producer. Indeed, her practice of using “industrialist” as a synonym for businessperson excludes businesspeople who produce “penny ante” products, along with those who provide services. In his long speech in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt (i.e., Ayn Rand) says, “Productiveness is your acceptance of morality . . . productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of . . .  shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values;” and, “the industrialists, the conquerors of matter” “have produced all the wonders of humanity’s brief summer” (III.7).

It would be unimaginable for a Rand hero to be a manufacturer of disposable diapers, tampons, or dependable contraceptives.

It is true that the great philosopher Hugh Akston owns a diner and cooks its food, which he does with extraordinary skill, making “the best-cooked food she [Dagny] had ever tasted” (I.10). However, Rand does not let this fact affect her conceptualization of productive work when Galt tells Dagny, “We take nothing but the lowliest jobs and we produce by the effort of our muscles” (III.1).3

In her short story “The Simplest Thing in the World” (1975: 173-85), Rand depicts a writer of fiction who cannot make a living because he has the same sense of life as Rand. The writer decides he has to create the type of story that will sell: “a simple, human story,” which consists of “lousy bromides.” “It mustn’t have any meaning,” and its characters must be petty because “[s]mall people are safe.” However, he is incapable of writing such a story. Every time he tries, his sense of life thwarts his conscious efforts, and he starts composing a story about heroes. The reason, as Rand explains in her introduction, is that his “sense of life directs . . . and controls his creative imagination.” To exemplify this fact, he begins to write “a story about a middle-aged millionaire who tries to seduce a poor young working girl.” He is “a big tycoon who owns a whole slew of five-and tens [i.e., discount stores].” But the author cannot write this story. As he develops the story in his mind, his sense of life makes him forget about the girl and transform the villain into a hero. As part of the transformation, he says to himself, “to hell with the five-and-ten!” The hero now builds ships because he is driven by “a great devotion to a goal.” He is motivated by “a great driving energy . . . the principle of creation itself. It’s what makes everything in the world. Dams and skyscrapers and transatlantic cables.” “[H]e wants to work — not to make money, just to work, just to fight” (emphasis added). So, an author with Ayn Rand’s sense of life could not make the hero of his works a retailer, no matter how successful he might be; not even Sam Walton, who founded Walmart and built it into the company with the greatest revenue of any company in the world.

Because the Soviets had the same sense of life as the author in this short story (i.e., the same as Rand), they were extremely proud of the enormous hydroelectric dams they built, and their retailing was horribly inefficient. In the Soviet Union, people had to wait in long lines for any purchase. If someone had time to spare, he would wait in a line to buy something he did not need, in order to barter it with someone who had waited in another line to buy something else. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, it set all records for number of customers: 40,000 to 50,000 a day, even though its food cost twice as much as the food in state-run cafeterias. It had twenty-seven cash registers. In Communist countries, the length of a line of customers showed how valuable the merchandise was at the end of that line. So, McDonald’s had to have ushers to tell customers not to go to the longest line (Goldman 1991: 166–7; Blackman 1990).

The opening of this first McDonald’s — an event that, as much as any other, marked the end of Communism — illustrates another serious defect in Communist-Objectivist ideals. A small notice in a Soviet newspaper drew 27,000 applicants for jobs as counter clerks, even though the anticipated salary was only average by Soviet standards. Those who were chosen had to be trained to smile at customers and speak politely to them. Their training was so successful that customers could not believe that the clerks were Soviet-raised Russians (Blackman 1990; Goldman 1991: 166–7).

An author with Ayn Rand’s sense of life could not make the hero of his works a retailer, no matter how successful he might be.

Rand used “grocery clerk” to symbolize the antithesis of her ideal (1964: viii; 1975: 84). In her first novel, We the Living, when the heroine, Kira, sees her future lover Leo for the first time,she observes that “[h]is mouth . . . was that of an ancient chieftain who could order men to die, and his eyes were such as could watch it.” However, Leo says to Kira, with bitter humor, “I’m nothing like what you think I am. I’ve always wanted to be a Soviet clerk who sells soap and smiles at customers” (I.4). Again, Rand reversed Communism and capitalism. Men who could order others to die and watch their death calmly characterized Communism. Smiling clerks, who sell unimpressive products, characterize capitalism.

When Nathaniel Branden was the official Objectivist expert on psychology, he wrote, “[P]roductive work is the process through which a man achieves that sense of control over his life which is the precondition of his being able fully to enjoy the other values possible to him … [P]roductive . . . achievements lead to pride” (“Self-Esteem: Part IV,”The Objectivist, June 1967). Branden, as he himself later realized, was exaggerating. But he was exaggerating a truth. A feeling of control over one’s life and pride in productive achievements are certainly wonderful feelings. They can derive directly from the type of work done by Communist administrators and the heroes of Rand’s novels, especially if, like Howard Roark, they have an uncapitalist indifference to money and accept only those projects that appeal to them. However, a feeling of control over one’s life and pride in achievements do not follow directly from the type of work that most people in a capitalist society do: salesmen, accountants, insurance brokers, bank clerks, and manufacturers of “penny ante” products, like clothespins and underpants.

Nearly all readers of Rand’s novels, even those who disagree with her philosophy, recognize that she was a brilliant novelist. But not even her brilliance as a novelist could have made a gripping, inspirational novel about the work that is done in distinctively capitalist occupations, occupations that do not exist in Communist countries, such as advertising or being a real estate agent. In fact, the first jobs of the odious Wesley Mouch were in advertising (Atlas II.6).

Let us consider briefly the novelist whom Rand (1975: 119) regarded as the best of the naturalists, Sinclair Lewis. When Lewis wanted to write novels about admirable protagonists, he made them a dedicated research scientist (Martin Arrowsmith) and the president of a car company (Sam Dodsworth), who began his career as assistant manager of production. When Lewis wanted a pathetic protagonist, he made him a real estate agent (George Babbitt). Babbitt, like Dodsworth, is successful at his work. But Lewis says in the first chapter that Babbitt “made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry;” and he “detested the grind of the real estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself for disliking them.”

The discussion so far illuminates a crucial benefit of the love of money. It entices people into occupations that they may not find interesting or inspiring, but are socially necessary; and it exerts constant pressure on business owners to provide what the public wants, not what they enjoy doing.

In all of Rand’s novels, only one business owner completely embodies the capitalist ethos. That is the press tycoon Gail Wynand, in The Fountainhead, who becomes fabulously rich through selfless service to the public, by providing it with what it wants: a lowbrow, sentimental, lurid newspaper. As he says (IV.11), he has led a life of “[s]elflessness in the absolute sense.” He “erased [his] ego out of existence” by following the principle, “Give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.” However, according to Rand, Wynand is guilty of the most horrible sin in her moral universe: betraying himself.

Men who could order others to die and watch their death calmly characterized Communism. Smiling clerks, who sell unimpressive products, characterize capitalism.

Wynand’s opposite is Nathaniel Taggart, in Atlas Shrugged, who is supposed to be the archetypal capitalist. As Dagny recalls (I.8), “He said that he envied only one of his competitors, the one who said, ‘The public be damned!’” Nothing could be more antithetical to the motivation of a successful business owner in a capitalist society. This is the ethos of the head of a production unit in a Communist economy, who derives exhilaration and pride from productive achievement without regard to providing the public with what it wants.

Rand’s story “The Simplest Thing in the World” is an excellent illustration of this point. It assumes that an author with Rand’s sense of life is compelled to create a protagonist who does not work for money and therefore chooses to build ships instead of discount stores. This contrast is factually accurate. Someone motivated by money would not consider shipbuilding as a business career since, in economically advanced countries, shipbuilders can stay in business only by means of tariff protection or government subsidies or both. But he would certainly consider the business of discount stores, since they have proved to be the most profitable (i.e., socially useful) branch of retailing.

The economic role of money in constantly driving economic participants to provide the public with what it wants is related to an admirable moral attribute of the free market. It is completely democratic and non-coercive; no one can interfere with other people spending their money on what they want. In her essay “What Is Capitalism?” (1967: 17, 20) Rand showed that she was fully aware of this fundamental attribute of capitalism (the italics are Rand’s):

[T]he works of Victor Hugo are objectively of immeasurably greater value than true-confession magazines. But if a given man’s intellectual potential can barely manage to enjoy true confessions, there is no reason why his meager earnings, the product of his effort, should be spent on books he cannot read.

The tribal mentalities attack this principle . . . by a question such as: “Why should Elvis Presley make more money than Einstein?” The answer is: Because men work in order to support and enjoy their own lives — and if many men find value in Elvis Presley, they are entitled to spend their money on their own pleasure.

It is the Gail Wynands who provide true-confessions magazines and Elvis Presley CDs.

At this point, many readers will object that Ayn Rand appreciated the value of money. She ended Atlas Shrugged with its hero tracing the sign of the dollar in space, made a gold dollar sign Atlantis’ “coat of arms, its trademark, its beacon” (III.1), and herself often wore a gold dollar sign pinned to her dress.

Yet in The Fountainhead, Toohey asks Peter Keating about Roark (II. 4), “Does he like money;” and Keating replies No. But long before that, the reader has learned that Roark’s abnormal indifference to money is one of the essential characteristics that make him the hero of this novel. Indeed, in “The Simplest Thing in the World,” Rand assumed that an author with her sense of life must write only about heroes who do not care about money.

Rand assumed that an author with her sense of life must write only about heroes who do not care about money.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand sometimes has her heroes claim that their goal is to make money. At the opening of the John Galt Line, which is by far the greatest achievement of both Dagny and Hank Rearden (I.8), a reporter asks Dagny her “motive in building that Line.” She answers, “the profit which I expect to make.” Another reporter cautions her, “That’s the wrong thing to say.” But she repeats it. Yet before her trip begins, she looks at the crowd that has gathered and notices that they are there, not because these people expect to make a profit, but “because the sight of an achievement was the greatest gift a human being could offer to others.” The description of the ride on the John Galt Line is the most exhilarating fiction writing I can recall reading; and I have read a great deal of narrative fiction, in ancient Greek, Latin, English, and French. For Dagny, “It was the greatest sensation of existence; not to trust, but to know.” “She felt the sweep of an emotion which she could not contain, as of something bursting upward.” And what about the engine drivers? Every one of them who was available volunteered to drive the train despite persistent warnings of danger. Surely, they were not motivated by money.

At least in their economic interactions, money should be the primary consideration of the heroes of a novel that ends with the dollar sign traced in the air. In Part I, Chapter 1, Dagny’s parasitical brother James says to her, “I don’t like Hank Rearden.” Dagny replies, “I do. But what does that matter, one way or another? We need rails and he is the only one who can give them to us.” James Taggart, typically of him, replies, “You have no sense of the human element at all.” This conversation crystallizes capitalist and uncapitalist mentalities.

Nevertheless, the economic decisions of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged are constantly motivated by the human element. That is true even of the one major character in Atlas Shrugged who is a pure capitalist, Midas Mulligan. He says he joined the strike because of a vision, in which he “saw the bright face and the eyes of young Rearden . . . lying at the foot of an altar . . . and what stood on that altar was Lee Hunsacker, with the mucus-filled eyes” (III.1). In Part II, Chapter 3, Francisco asks Rearden: did you want the rail you made for the John Galt Line used by your equals, like Ellis Wyatt, and by men such as Eddie Willers, who do not match your ability but who “equal your moral integrity” and “riding on your rail — give a moment’s silent thanks”? Rearden answers Yes. Francisco then asks, “Did you want to see it used by whining rotters?” Rearden answers, “I’d blast that rail first.” Francisco then explains that by "whining rotter" he means “any man who proclaims his right to a single penny of another man’s effort.” But no economy, whether socialist or capitalist, could function for one day if producers acted in this way. In Part II, Chapter 10, Dagny says that Nathaniel Taggart, supposedly the archetypical capitalist, “couldn’t have worked with people like these passengers. He couldn’t have run trains for them.” But no one running a train line, even in a socialist economy, could possibly consider the moral worth of its passengers, or any consideration besides their paying for the ride.

No one running a train line, even in a socialist economy, could possibly consider the moral worth of its passengers, or any consideration besides their paying for the ride.

I will conclude with the most frequently quoted explanation of why the market is the most effective means of providing people with what they want. It is by Adam Smith, in Book I, Chapter II of The Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest. We address ourselves . . . to their self-love.” Butchers, brewers, and bakers had a very low priority in Communist countries. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, it had to train its own butchers (Goldman 1991: 166). It is also unimaginable for an Ayn Rand hero to be a butcher, brewer, or baker. The self-interest and self-love that induces people to become butchers, brewers, and bakers and to perform those jobs well is totally different from the heroic self-love of Rand’s heroes. It is an unheroic desire to support themselves and their families in comfort and security.

In her essay “What Is Capitalism?” Ayn Rand showed that she understood as well as Smith why love of money is wonderfully socially beneficial. In her fiction, however, her anti-capitalist sense of life obliterated that knowledge.

***

Footnotes
1. I cite passages in Rand’s novels by the part of the novel in which they occur and the chapter in that part. I do not cite page numbers because there are many editions, and each has different pagination from the others.
2. I write “Communist” with a capital “C” to indicate a member of a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party. Many people have championed a communist society (with a small “c”), beginning with the first two extant projections of an ideal society: Plato’s Republic and Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, both from the 4th century BC.
3. Several of the heroes provide services while they are in Galt’s Gulch. But these jobs are merely stopgaps until they return to the world and use their talents again in their real work.

Bibliography
Blackman, Ann 1990: “Moscow’s Big Mak Attack.” Time (February 5).
Feshbach, Murray and Friendly, Alfred Jr. 1992: Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature under Siege. London: Aurum Press.
Goldman, Marshall 1991: What Went Wrong with Perestroika. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Rand, Ayn 1963: For the New Intellectual. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1964: The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1967: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet.
Rand, Ayn 1975: The Romantic Manifesto, revised edition. New York: Signet.
Shmelev, Nikolai and Popov, Vladimir 1989: The Turning Point: Revitalizing the Soviet Economy, translated by Michele A. Berdy. New York: Doubleday.


Editor's Note: This article is part of a much longer monograph with the same title. It can be obtained from the author at stevenfarron@gmail.com.



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The Metamorphosis

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When the Cuban people awoke last April 2011, they did not find themselves transformed into giant insects. That change had already occurred. Over the course of the previous 50 years, Fidel Castro had transformed the island into one giant beehive or ant colony laboring single-mindedly for his vision of a Caribbean utopia. What they did wake up to find was something entirely novel: a vibrant options market in 1950s vintage Detroit automotive classics.

In “Cuba: Change We Can Count On?” (Liberty, December 2010), I reported the passage of enabling legislation by the Cuban government to guide the Congress of the Communist Party in implementing far-reaching reforms to the economy. Though the fine print of implementation had yet to be worked out, a big change was decreed. It included the legalization of self-employment in ”dozens” of areas, the privatization of many small state-owned businesses as cooperatives, and the establishment of limited property rights in real estate and some bits of movable property such as cars, boats, and appliances, many of which can now be bought and sold.

The impetus for all this hope and change was money. Cuba’s economic and fiscal health was dire. The reforms hoped to eliminate one-fifth of the government work force (thereby cutting expenditures); incentivize former government employees into joining taxable petit-capitalist enterprises (thereby raising revenue); and — along with liberalized foreign investment reforms — stimulate the economy and improve Cuba’s fiscal prospects.

In April 2011 the details of the new legislation were announced. In a recent paper entitled “Economic Impact of New Employment, Tax and Financial Policies in Cuba,” presented at the XXI Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (Miami, August 2011), Luis R. Luis, former director, Latin America Department, of the Institute of International Finance and chief economist at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, applied macroeconomic analysis and a crystal ball to predict the effects of the reforms.

To a populace that has never paid taxes, much less dealt with the fine points of business expense deductions and tax accounting protocols, the entireexperience must have been far from “liberalizing.”

Given the market sophistication of the Congress of the Cuban Communist Party — akin to that of the Creation Science Institute, sequencing the malaria genome — the reforms are still a work in progress. They aim primarily at improving state finances, but the use of price controls, size limits on firms, confiscatory tax rates, complicated monthly payment requirements, and petty regulatory activity “could result,” as Luis drily observes, “in even larger evasion than is usual in developing countries by single proprietorships and the self-employed, [and] will also result in many activities taking place wholly or partially underground, limiting tax revenue and fostering operation of undersized and inefficient activities.”

The very first modifications to the April bill were made a scant few weeks later, following a strike by cocheros (horse cart drivers) in Bayamo, Granma Province (née Oriente Province). The provincial capital is immortalized in Cuba’s national anthem as the birthplace of independence. It is a place redolent with symbolism, and a situation best handled with care. Bayamo cocheros, members of one of the newly privatized occupations, discovered that when they added their new tax liability to their clients’ bill, demand plummeted. So they went on strike.

The new self-employment taxes consist of four categories: social security tax, personal income tax, sales tax, and payroll tax. Let’s look at each.

1. The social security tax is levied at 25% of the tax base (in the US, it’s about 13% — with half paid by the employer). So far, so progressive.

2. The personal income tax gives a whole new meaning to “taxing the rich.” Marginal rates rise to 50% for annual incomes of $208! When combined with the social security levies, the personal tax nears 60%. Mindful of the reader’s attention span, I will skip all the qualifying fine print, ceilings, and permutations that complicate the base tax rate — except for business expenditures, aka deductions. These are limited to 20% or 40%, depending on the enterprise.

As Luis notes: “These rates discriminate against enterprises whose cost of inputs exceed[s] 40%, which will lead to curtailment of activity, firm creation, and widespread tax evasion.” Cocheros, for some unknown reason,were limited to a 20% business expenditures deduction.

To a populace that has never paid taxes, much less dealt with the fine points of business expense deductions and tax accounting protocols, the entireexperience must have been far from “liberalizing.” It was reminiscent of a farcical zarzuela, the Spanish version of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, with a dose of Monty Python thrown in for gravitas. The Congress responded by raising cocheros’ allowable deductions from 20% to 40%.

3. Sales taxes for all products are levied at 10%, except for farm products, which are taxed at 5%. Simple enough.

4. The new payroll taxes are not only complex; they (along with the other taxes) actually, as Luis observes, “pose a formidable constraint on employment.” The following summary — through no fault of Luis — is beyond this author’s ability to make intelligible, much less fun:

A new 25% payroll tax is instituted. The base of the tax is the overall wage bill except that there is a minimum taxable amount equal to a multiple of the average wage for specific workers calculated by the appropriate local labor office. The base is made progressive as the minimum taxable amount increases with the size of the payroll. Thus for firms with 1 to 9 workers, the minimum equals 1.5 times, rising to 2 times for those between 10 and 15 workers and to 3 times for those firms that have more than 15 employees.

So much for the new taxes. Will Cuba’s vision of self-employment provide the fiscal salvation the government so desperately needs, or is it just a tempest in a teapot?

If the government succeeds in shifting 250,000 government workers into self-employment, and they pay all their taxes, Luis estimates a $40 million revenue windfall for the government (not to mention all the supplies and material that would not be pilfered or stolen from state companies and offices, as supplements for employees’ meager salaries — a point important enough that Luis footnotes it in his report). But so far, no more than 50,000 state employees have taken the bait.

The eminent French art critic and father of surrealism, André Breton, visiting Cuba in the late 1920s, observed that, “Truly, Cuba is too surrealistic a country to be livable.”

Furthermore, it’s impossible to predict the tax compliance rate, which, worldwide, is low for the self-employed. “However,” Luis observes, “it is expected that the fiscal authorities will enforce the tax code with some vigor. Undoubtedly, the high tax rates will act as an incentive to evasion and to a reversion of business to the underground economy. Sizeable underreporting of revenues is to be anticipated.”

In 2011, Cuba’s population was 11 million. As of mid-May 2011, about 300,000 people were self-employed (excluding farmers); or (with slightly different numbers), never more than 3.5% of the labor force. Though the passage of the new legislation doubled the number of self-employed, a large percentage of them were people who came out of the black market closet and hope to become legal.

Luis’ analysis bears some contextual elaboration because, as Miguel Bretos, author of Matanzas: The Cuba Nobody Knows, has stated, “Those seeking to understand Cuban history in conventional ways are doomed to frustration.” He was referring to the eminent French art critic and father of surrealism, André Breton, who, visiting Cuba in the late 1920s, observed that, “Truly, Cuba is too surrealistic a country to be livable.”

What makes the details of the reforms so surreal is their schizophrenic set of objectives. When first proposed, the reforms were compared to the Chinese model: an infusion of capitalism to build wealth, with the Communist Party retaining absolute power. But, as the Chinese are discovering, when laissez faire markets infect a regime of total power, the liberty virus proves hard to cure.

The Chinese are a practical people with few Maoist ideologues left among them. No one, from the highest party apparatchik to the lowliest peasant, objects to becoming richer. Meanwhile, power is being incrementally ceded through a phenomenon usually foreign to absolutist regimes: limited but sensitive responses to popular dissatisfaction with corruption, judicial arbitrariness, environmental degradation, out-of-control eminent domain, and even — very slightly — the transfer of some political power. (For example, provincial officials in Wukan, Guangdong Province, are allowing local elections to take place.) Moreover, the Chinese are rather comfortable with duality; witness the Taoist concept of yin and yang.

It’s not quite so simple for Cubans.

The competing objectives of raising capital through economic liberalization while retaining absolute power are — in Cuba — complicated by a third factor that tips the reforms from the bipolar into the surreal: an anti-capitalist idealism so fervent that it equates private employment with involuntary servitude, profit with depravity, and self-employment with crimes against society. These attitudes not only saturate the nomenklatura — with their source and apogee in the moralist-in-chief, Fidel — but also pervade the majority of the Cuban population. Cubans are poor and unhappy; they sense that something is wrong with the system; they are starving for change. Yet they idolize St. Fidel’s idealism and venerate him as the conscience of the Revolution.

As the Chinese are discovering, when laissez faire markets infect a regime of total power, the liberty virus proves hard to cure.

National character, along with its kinfolk — ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial character — has fallen into disrepute as a way of defining a population. Whatever validity it might once have possessed has evaporated. It has been dismissed for its oversimplification, unscientific methodology, racist undertones, and complete absence of political correctness. But it retains a great deal of insight and literary utility, when considered informally. Hedrick Smith was definitely onto something when he described the Russian character as a cross between German and Mexican temperaments.

Cuba was ruled by Spain for over 400 years — longer than any of its other colonies. During the Latin American wars of independence in the 1820’s, Cuba remained staunchly Spanish. By the time it won its independence in 1902, it was considered an integral part of Spain. That date is so recent that in 1966 the last surviving Afro-Cuban general of the War for Independence, Generoso Campos Marquetti (by then living in the US, in exile from Castro’s revolution), was asked to testify before the US Congress during hearings investigating the nature of the Castro Revolution. It’s as if Nathanael Greene or Henry Knox had still been alive within our living memories, to comment on US current affairs.

The Cuban character is a diversely spiced mélange. Settled by immigrants from Galicia, Asturias, Catalonia, and the Basque Provinces in northern Spain, Cuba was infused with a strain of rigid, dour, doctrinaire, and humorless temperament. Fidel Castro is a second-generation Galician — he can’t dance, carry a tune, or tell a joke. Though he would reject the comparison (in spite of his early flirtations with Falangism and Fascism) Castro has much in common with the long-lived and long-ruling Francisco Franco and his Minister of Propaganda, José Millán-Astray — both Galicians.

General Millán-Astray was a serious parody of himself. Founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion and a decorated war hero who’d lost an arm and an eye, he personified Spanish fascism. He was obstinate and ruthless, yet impulsive; flamboyant, reckless, and self-aggrandizing. At rallies he resembled the mad Dr. Strangelove. Wearing one white glove and a black eye patch, he would exaggeratedly throw out his one arm in the Nationalist salute, while shouting his telltale mottoes, “Viva la muerte!” ("long live death") and “Death to intelligence!” ("death to the intelligentsia").

Cubans are poor and unhappy; they sense that something is wrong with the system; they are starving for change. Yet they idolize St. Fidel.

Ladino and Canary Islands immigrants added cunning, perspicacity, and some levity to the Cuban national character; Andalucians, Valencian gypsies, and West African slaves tempered the whole with rhythm and a wry sense of humor. Provincial and (in the case of the West Africans) tribal clubs, mutual aid societies, and other ethnic affiliations lasted well into the 1960s.

The Spanish component of the Cuban character alone suffices to explain the paradoxes inherent in holding multiple contradictory perspectives. Pepe Azcarraga, a 91-year-old Spaniard from a small village in Aragon (but now a retired college professor living in the US), personifies this Weltanschauung. He recounts that once, as a teenager, he accompanied a friend to the dry goods almacén to buy towels. On the way back, he helped her carry the goods, stacked on his doubled arms. As he passed by his own house, his mother, perched on the second-floor balcony, spotted him on the cobbled street below supporting the pile of towels in front of him as if they were the Blessed Sacrament and he was leading an Easter procession. She beckoned to him angrily. Puzzled, he detoured into his house.

Once inside, she asked him what the diablo he thought he was doing carrying a pile of towels for all the world to see. Before he could answer, she walloped the fear of propriety into him, moaning that “the whole town will think the Azcarraga family needs towels!”

Pepe tells the story without a hint of irony, as if his failure to anticipate the finer etiquette of towel buying in a gossipy small town were an obvious sign of his stupidity. At different times, depending on the context of the conversation, he’ll call himself a socialist, a capitalist, a libertarian, or simply a man of the left. He and his immediate family sided with Franco during the Civil War — for the sake of order and stability. Yet as members of the local militia guarding the frontier against infiltration from Republican guerrillas holding out in the French Pyrenees after the war, Pepe and his friends, when off-duty, would cross over and (avoiding politics) socialize with the enemy, many of whom were friends, family, and acquaintances. They shared snacks, smokes, stories, and beer. A devout Catholic who attends Mass every Sunday, he is nonetheless skeptical of the existence of an afterlife — and he harbors a sense of unworthiness that keeps him from communion.

Pepe stands on the shoulders of giant, original, way-outside-the-box thinkers: surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, whose melting clocks epitomize the persistence of memory; philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who introduced doubt to faith, and found that they got along just fine; writer Miguel de Cervantes, whose Don Quixote — the patron saint of hopeless causes — made tilting at windmills not only intelligible but honorable; and Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada (literally, twist and burn), whose auto da fés melted heretics in order to save them. To an Anglo-Saxon who can only shake his head in perplexity, like a mental centrifuge spinning to separate the conflicting strains, little of this intellectual anarchy makes sense.

Fidel Castro, the Cuban Communist Party, and their recent economic reforms embody this cognitive dissonance. Luis’ assessment is not sanguine: “It is evident from the multiple constraints, prohibitions, regulations and high taxes involved in the new measures the authorities are striving to maintain tight control over the liberalization process. These controls will dampen or even fully contain the output and consumption gains from market opening.”

And the controls are extensive. One-hundred-and-seventy-eight self-employment occupations have been legalized (up from 157); most require little or no capital (animal caretaker, hairdresser, locksmith, plumber, mason, mattress repairman). A few others, such as room renting (though not to foreigners, and no subletting) and transportation services (truck and taxi driving) imply greater use of property or equipment. Restaurants are now allowed 50 tables, up from 20. Capital investment is capped at $800.

Even the most touted reform, the buying and selling of real estate, is less than meets the eye. Ownership is limited to domiciles — one residence and one vacation home — and possession is limited to citizens or foreigners permanently residing in Cuba.

Additionally, the domestic portion of the reforms requires that all transactions take place in nonconvertible pesos. (Cuba has dual currencies: convertible and non-convertible pesos — one for tourists, the other for Cubans — both highly controlled.) Foreign investment in the newly allowed enterprises is forbidden; as are family and personal remittances (also subject to taxes), which must only be used for personal consumption. Wholesale activities, inter-provincial trades, and most intermediation among firms are also forbidden.

“Intermediation” — a fancy word to describe the place that banks (among other entities) hold between savers and investors: they take deposits, then lend them out to entrepreneurs. Cuba’s (official) private savings rate for the last six years is about 2% of income — not an important source of financing for new enterprises, though probably understated because of non-bank and in-kind savings. As Luis again drily notes, “Most bank loans are made to state enterprises. A vibrant self-employment sector would be helped greatly by access to credit from the banking system. This would require building-up a credit system, with an important role for micro-credits by local branches of banks with appropriate credit expertise . . . [as in] Asia.”

Fidel Castro is a second-generation Galician — he can’t dance, carry a tune, or tell a joke.

Any reforms along those lines are unlikely, because they would undermine the institutionalized apartheid system that attempts to minimize economic fraternization between Cubans and foreigners. Very few of the newly approved occupations affect the export or tourist sector, and the government monopoly on labor for joint venture and foreign enterprises has not been affected. It is surprising that the new employment and tax measures do not address Cuba’s external accounts, even though more foreign investment — under the pre-existing framework — is being attracted.

Luis boldly sums up his report with an estimate of the impact of the reforms on Cuba’s GDP. He admits he’s on shaky ground — with disclaimers, caveats, weasel words, and the assumption that many more black-market enterprises will come into the open. Despite the effects of government controls, he broadly predicts a 2% GDP increase as a low estimate, with a 6.4% GDP increase if all the hoped-for 250,000 state employees become successful entrepreneurs, make lots of money, and pay all their taxes.

The Cuban reforms are a tug-of-war among various conflicting objectives: on the practical level, increasing state revenue while maintaining total state power; on the philosophical level, allowing enough “human action” (in the Misesian sense) without diluting the “social justice” objectives of the Revolution by introducing greed, ambition, and a subversive focus on individuality.

On that last point — to paraphrase Charles Darwin, who, at the conclusion of The Origin of Species, foretold that “light will be thrown on the origin of man” — the Cuban reforms will shed much light on how far the capitalist goose that lays the eggs of prosperity can be starved, strangled, and robbed, without killing it.




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Rising Star

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Liberty is always delighted to acclaim the artistic success of libertarians. Our delight is increased when they are Liberty’s own authors.

Today it is my pleasure to introduce a book by one of my own favorites, Garin Hovannisian. The book is Family of Shadows, it’s published by HarperCollins, and it’s causing a stir on several continents.

Family of Shadows is the story of Garin’s family — who were by no means vague or ghostly people. They were vivid presences, taking their part in some of the most interesting events of the 20th century, from the massacres in Armenia during the time of “the breaking of nations” to the destruction of the Soviet Union. The book is a story of survival, and of the individual freedom that makes survival worth the effort.

It’s also a story told with great style and insight. All historians deal with “shadows,” but a good historian makes them more substantial than the ostensibly real people who surround us daily. And a good historian, like a good novelist, makes us wiser as we read. While reading Family of Shadows, I kept thinking, “This is a very good novel.” But it’s not fiction, nor is it fictionalized. It’s an exhaustively researched history, free of the shallow assumptions, inane theorizing, and formulaic prose of normal historical writing.

Read it for yourself. You’ll find that you won’t be able to put it down. In the meantime, I thought you’d be interested in knowing more about the author. So I asked Alec Mouhibian, himself a writer for Liberty, to interview his friend Garin.

Here’s a look into the writer’s workshop.

 — Stephen Cox

***

AM: Stories ask to be told. But some stories prefer to be left alone. Why, and how, did this story call to you?

GH: It's strange; I can remember exactly when and where it happened. It was in the fall of 2007. I was all alone in a computer lab on the eighth floor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. I was a student there, writing my master's thesis about a group of magicians who had been meeting in secret for generations. . . . I'm not sure that's important. But what happened to me that afternoon is, I think, what writers waste their lives waiting for, one of those cosmic events — when stars seem to align into a constellation. . . .

What I mean to say is that I discovered, suddenly and for the first time, that all the details and metaphors and meanings of my family history somehow belonged to a great narrative.

My great-grandfather Kaspar had survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and escaped to the vineyards of California's San Joaquin Valley. My grandfather Richard had left his father's farm to pioneer the field of Armenian Studies in the United States. My father Raffi had left his law firm, the American Dream itself, to repatriate to Soviet Armenia, where he went on to serve as the new republic's first foreign minister.

So I realized that the family story was about three men who left — individuals who cheated their destinies — but it was also about men who, unbeknownst to them, had been serving a pattern greater than themselves. A homeland lost, remembered, regained — it was a perfect circle!

Then I knew I would have to write Family of Shadows.

AM: You mentioned how this story hit you as you were wandering the world of magic. You're quite the magician yourself. What connection is there between your history with magic and the discovery that led to this book?

GH: My father gave me my first magic set when I was five, and I knew immediately that I would become a magician. I loved to make the impossible happen, to play at the border of reality and fantasy. Of course I also loved to watch the reactions of people — the astonishment spread upon the faces of strangers. Anyway, I long ago gave up the wand for the pen, but not, I think, the passions that run through both of them: mystery and vanity.

AM: Explain where you had to go to write this book, what you had to explore, and how this vastarray of settings get along with each other in the story and in your mind.

GH: I didn't know, when I decided to write the book, just how far I would have to travel. I couldn't imagine that I would have to spend countless hours at the National Archives in Washington or the Armenian academy called the Jemaran in Beirut or the National Library in Yerevan or the Tulare Historical Museum in the San Joaquin Valley of California. But I think it was that other kind of travel — not through space, but into lost time — that was the most exhilarating. I realized that if I were to tell my story straight, I would have to conduct some difficult interviews — to go deep into the minds and memories of my living characters, where so many details of my story had been trapped for decades.

AM: Your book is evenly divided between the histories ofthree men. Before we go further, explain your process for choosing what to include and what to leave out of their story, and the stories of the many characters surrounding them.

GH: The book, as I first wrote it, was about 450 pages long. The one you'll find in bookstores today is 300. You know very well that you were in part responsible for this. I remember the first time you read the manuscript. I was sitting across from you, minding my coffee, pretending not to notice your reactions. You were quiet, mostly, but every so often, you would emerge from silence to sing the blues, and I knew this wasn't a good sign.

AM: I never thought my rendition of "My Baby Ain't No Baby No More" could be so pregnant.

GH: Oh, it was — and actually it made me realize just how big my own book had become. The truth was that those 150 pages were important — they told so much history and gossip — but they weren't important for this book. So I began to cut. It was slow and deliberate and painful at first. But then you remember what happened to me? Suddenly, I was slashing away at my pages — reversing months of labor. I bet I lost a lot of good lines, too, but it was necessary and, ultimately, deeply liberating.

AM: Homeland. Patterns greater than self. These fall under the greater concept of "Armenia," toward which all the dream-roads in your book lead. Define Armenia — in your own terms — for those (including Armenians) who have no idea what it might mean.

GH: To begin with, Armenia is an actual land — stretching between the Black and Caspian seas — where the Armenian people have lived for thousands of years. We used to have our own empire, but for most of history we were content merely to survive the rise and fall of neighboring empires — the Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Arab. Armenia was where kings came to do battle. And so the blood, the ethos, the mythology of countless civilizations is in our soil.

Armenian history forever changed in 1915. Western Armenia was cleansed of all Armenians by the nationalist Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire; those who survived the genocide scattered to new diasporas across the world. Eastern Armenia, meanwhile, was absorbed into the Soviet Union as the smallest of the 15 socialist republics. That tiny sliver of land is the Armenia you'll find on modern maps.

But for much of the 20th century, Armenia existed mostly as a dream. My father and my grandfather before him spent their childhoods yearning for a "free, independent, united Armenia." Forgive me, I do have to be poetic, because the truth is that for us, the millions of Armenians living in exile and dispersion, Armenia had become something like a poem: a spiritual landscape blossoming with metaphor and mystery and apricot. It is there that Family of Shadows is set.

AM: Mmm, metaphor. That strangest and most bitter Armenian crop.

Let's talk about Liberty, and its own role in the soil. I've known you for years, but I never really wanted to know you until your byline appeared in this magazine at the tender age of 17. How does individual liberty figure in the Armenian-American dream? How does it contend with the shadows that haunt every corner of the real and imagined Armenia?

GH: You're testing me. "Let's talk about Liberty" — wasn't that the slogan of the Cato Institute conference we attended in San Diego ages ago? That's where we first met Stephen Cox — followed him into literature and then into Liberty. It was our breakthrough!

Now you know as well as I do that Family of Shadows isn't a libertarian manifesto. But it is, I've long secretly believed, a kind of allegory of individualism and rebellion. At its deepest level, it is the story of three men who were born into times and places where they did not belong, who defied the great forces of history, who defied destiny. My great-grandfather defied his destiny of death during the genocide of 1915. My grandfather rejected his destiny on his father's farm. My father abandoned his destiny in the American Dream.

Maybe that's not fair, though. For my father, I think, the American Dream was never about achieving and enjoying liberty for oneself, but about spreading liberty across countries and continents.

AM: Is there no tension between the spread of liberty and the participation in an ethnic-national heritage, which might be at odds with individualism? How can this be reconciled in Armenia?

GH: Governments don't have ethnicities. People do. So I confess not to feel the tension. I don't see why an individual, living in a free society, shouldn't feel free to seek his private solace or meaning or peace wherever he pleases — in philosophy, religion, even national heritage. You build yourself a free country, but then what? You still have private problems. You still have to deal with death and salvation.As the great poet sings, "you're still gonna have to serve somebody."

AM: Classic Milton. Always comes through. Now of course your book is a powerful human drama, and should therefore matter to anyone who ranks himself among the humans. But perhaps you can explain why Armenia should matter to America.

GH: After the genocide of 1915, an unprecedented human rights movement swept through the United States. American citizens collected more than a hundred million dollars to help the surviving refugees; kids who didn't finish their suppers were told to remember "the starving Armenians." The most important witnesses and chroniclers of the genocide had been American ambassadors and consuls, and now it was the president himself — Woodrow Wilson — who was proposing an American mandate to safeguard Armenia.

In those years, the American people invested their spirit in the Armenian struggle — and I think the mysterious logic of that investment has revealed itself slowly through time. It's been forgotten, but in February 1988, half a million Armenians gathered in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, to launch the first successful mass movement against Communist rule. Independence followed in 1991. That's when my father, an American citizen, returned to Armenia. That's also about the time when a million Armenians left a newborn Armenia to seek more certain destinies in the United States.

The stories, the histories, the Armenian and the American Dreams, were in conversation long before I tried to capture that conversation in Family of Shadows.

AM: The Russians have a saying: “Every grandmother was once a girl.” Perhaps it can also be said that every answer was once a question. So...any questions before you go?

GH: You know, I have been wondering: who is John Galt?




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