Notes from the Islamic Republic

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Walking down the street in Tehran, if you’re from the Great Satan, is like starring in a triumphal procession, you attract so much attention. I was there last week and it’s the oddest feeling, nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy. People come up to you, not by ones and twos, but by the scores and hundreds and snap selfies and tell you how much they like Americans. If you happen to pass by a picnic, whole families will wave you over to join them. If it’s close to a mealtime, and it’s always close to a mealtime, strangers will invite you into their homes to eat.

Sometimes Iranians will elaborate a bit and tell you that, although they really do like Americans, they don’t approve of our government . . . which struck me as profoundly sensible, since I feel exactly the same way. Every now and then I’d wax especially geopolitical and opine that, all over the world . . . Canada, South Africa, India, you name it . . . nobody likes their own government. To which they’d reply, “Yes, but we don’t like our government a lot more than they don’t like theirs.”

It’s hard to figure where all this goodwill comes from. Back in the day, a lot of Iranians studied abroad and plenty of them must have brought home warm memories of their time in America. Part, I suspect, has to do with the fact that they don’t see that many of us anymore. I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place. Some of the good thoughts may spring from the very public alternative we provide to the society they’re forced to live in. Whatever, two or three even told me they liked President Trump because “his sanctions force our government to pay attention to the people.”

It's nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy.

For a government trying its damnedest to turn the Islamic Republic into a police state, the mullahs aren’t getting a lot of buy-in at the interpersonal level, at least when the other person is a foreigner. Iranians will tell you right up front, “We like talking to foreigners because we can discuss politics with them.” The unspoken . . . and, sometimes, spoken . . . corollary is that they’re afraid to talk politics with their own countrymen, at least if they don’t know those countrymen well enough to share a drink with. In a society where the strictures of Islam are jammed down everybody’s throats, sharing a drink with a friend is the ultimate act of trust. In fact, drinking itself is an act of trust because, with the borders shut tight and the vineyards at Shiraz long since uprooted, most of the available alcohol is brewed up from raisins.

Public defiance happens in small ways, but small rebellions are the hardest to control. Women — every woman, foreigner and local alike, even female SCUBA divers — have to hide themselves under layers of cloth. Some of that cloth can be astonishingly form-fitting, and the head coverings that go with it pushed so far back on the skull that they become more of a tease, like a very low-cut gown in the West, than anything exemplifying feminine virtue. Once, in a mosque of all places, I saw a woman remove hers entirely. It was early morning and she stood in the light streaming through a curtainwall of stained glass, the colors dancing off her face and clothes, to have her picture taken. Then pulled off her scarf so her hair could be in the picture, too. A guard, who’d been posted in the shadows to protect the mosque from just such an outrage, marched over and ordered her to cover back up.

“Now.”

With the time-honored gesture imperious women everywhere give to dismiss bothersome males, she flicked her fingers at him, he retreated to the dark recesses he’d risen up from of, and she went back to the serious business of having her picture taken.

I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place.

Iranians have rebelled in more substantial ways, too. After the Revolution, when a particularly crazed mullah ordered Persepolis bulldozed, townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the mullah gave up and the bulldozers lumbered away.

Whatever religious feelings individual Iranians have, or don’t have, they pretty much keep to themselves. Or, at least, they don’t make a show of to foreigners. Aside from a lady in the Grand Bazaar in Isfahan who wanted to sell me a tile painted with lovely Farsi script, then commanded not to use it as a trivet because the script spelled out “In the name of God,” religion only came up one time. That was in a park in Tehran when a claque of schoolgirls presented me with a scrap of paper, also lettered in Farsi. It took some asking, but the paper turned out to be a prayer for the return of the Mahdi. It was his birthday and the girls were celebrating by passing out prayers to park-goers.

The Mahdi, for those not versed in the intricacies of the Shia brand of Islam, is the Occulted Imam who, in the fullness of time, will reveal himself and reign over the Latter Days before the Resurrection. Oddly, given the echoes of Christianity in the story, or fittingly, or eerily, or because of rotating calendars, or for reasons known only to the common God our more ecumenical theologians claim we all share, his birthday fell on Easter Sunday this year.

Townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the bulldozers lumbered away.

To believers of a certain ilk, the Mahdi has already taken a stab at revealing himself. This happened in the 1880s when he led an uprising in Sudan. But it didn’t stick. He won a spectacular series of battles, then died and became occulted all over again. His movement fell apart a few years later when his successor in Mahdiship attracted the notice of a British army equipped with Maxim guns and Martini-Henry rifles. Whether he’s planning on re-revealing himself anytime soon has not been communicated to me but, whatever he has in mind, there’s not much doubt what those girls were thinking. Their faces were ablaze with the joy and light of the true believer.

All of which is to say that, whatever tensions exist between America and the Islamic Republic, they’re not on the personal level, or even the religious. Government-to-government is a different story. Citizens of almost any place in the world can pick up a visa to Iran upon arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport City in Tehran. Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even APPLY for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa . . . which means sending in a form four months in advance setting out, among other things, the complete itinerary of our hoped-for visit along with a curriculum vitae for the past 15 years . . . where we worked, what we did, what our employers did . . . and then waiting three of the four months while they check our bona fides. The people who aren’t bona fide, the ones they don’t want in their country, are employees of “certain” US government agencies, and those of us with a history of practicing journalism. That practicing journalism business gave me pause until I realized that scribbling the occasional screed for Liberty is about as removed from journalism as an honest writer can get.

If you pass muster in the government-employee and journalism departments, they’ll favor you with a document granting permission to apply for a visa. This lets you fill out a visa application, slip the document, the application, your passport, a couple of photos, and a money order into an envelope and . . . Iran not having an embassy in the US . . . send the envelope to the Islamic Republic of Iran Interest Section at the Embassy of Pakistan. Which leaves you with the uncomfortable thought that I just sent my passport to Pakistan.

Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even apply for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa

Our government isn’t all that gung-ho about Americans travelling to Iran, either. Here’s what the State Department posts on its website for those of us who might be tempted:

“Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping, arrest, detention of U.S. citizens. There is a very high risk of kidnapping, arrest, and detention of U.S. citizens in Iran . . . .” (Bolds copied directly from the original, State Department font.)

After warning you about kidnapping, arrest and detention, the site highly encourages you to register with the American embassy so that our folks in Tehran will know you’re in town and can help you get back out if things go awry. Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering. One of the ladies who traveled with us did, though, and got a note back instructing her to appoint a hostage negotiator before setting out. She submitted the name of her 14-month-old granddaughter on the ground of, “that girl always knows what she wants.”

In Iran, traveling with a group is pretty much de rigueur on account of you aren’t allowed go anywhere without a guide. (“Guide” is Farsi for “minder.”) After you leave the country, your guide goes down to the Internal Security Police and reports on you. One of our guides told me he hated doing that, not because he felt that he was betraying his clients, but because he never knew what to say. “They ask me where the tourists went and what they took pictures of and what they talked about. I tell them they went to Persepolis and took pictures of the Gate of All Nations, and talked about Alexander the Great, and the Security Police get mad and threaten to pull my license.”

Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering.

At the end of our trip we had to fly from Shiraz to Tehran to catch our flight home. Tehran has two airports. The old airport, for domestic flights, and the new Khomeini Airport for international travel. On a good day, meaning at midnight when traffic is lightest, these airports are an hour and a half apart. Our tour arranged for a cab to take us.

The driver was more than accommodating, even by the standards of an Iranian dealing with Americans. When we arrived at Khomeini, he insisted on carrying our bags into the terminal . . . even though all we had was carry-ons, and the carry-ons had wheels.

Then he insisted on waiting in line with us.

And accompanying us to the ticket counter, and on through to emigration . . . at which point he couldn’t insist any more, so, pulling out his phone, he took a selfie of the three of us with the emigration booth in the background. “To remember you by.”

To REMEMBER us by? This guy was a cab driver.

Or, when I thought about it, something more than a cab driver. The selfie documented the fact that he’d gotten us onto the plane.

Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one.

The mullahs weren’t as queasy about what we were allowed to see while we were in Iran as they were about making sure we didn’t overstay our welcome, and one of the first places we went was the Nest of Spies. Also known as the Den of Espionage or, more poetically, the Museum-Garden of Anti-Arrogance, where we were invited to inspect all of America’s latest (à la 1970s) high-tech computer gadgetry, Faraday cages, and shredding equipment left over from when the place really did harbor spies. So it’s not exactly true that we don’t have an embassy in Tehran, it’s just that we don’t currently have diplomatic personnel serving in the embassy.

A few days later we drove past, but weren’t invited to examine, the uranium processing facility at Natanz with, presumably, stuxnet still whirling away at the centrifuges.

Something else the mullahs seemed a bit lax about was military couture. Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one, which makes Iranian soldiers a lot spiffier in the personal appearance department than baggy fatigues make our guys look.

I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter.

The tailors have a full line of insignia to complete the look and, like merchants all over the Middle East, don’t seem to care whom they sell to. So, if you want, you can walk into one shop and get fitted out in the regalia of a full colonel in the Iranian air force. Or, as I did, come away more modestly accoutered with a black Revolutionary Guard shoulder patch embroidered in gold thread with a hand clutching an automatic rifle. I heard there were Hamas shoulder patches on offer, but didn’t get one.

Despite this military stuff I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter. In the been-there-done-that department, Iran is top of the line. Back in the Eighties . . . almost the whole of the Eighties . . . it got in a dispute with Iraq and refought World War I. Trenches. Machine guns. Gas. Shells. Barbed wire, and a lot of Iranians died. Two-hundred-thousand. Six-hundred-thousand. Eight-hundred-thousand, you can take your choice because nobody believes the official stats. Reminders are everywhere.

On bridges. On lampposts. On sides of buildings. And, especially, down the center lanes of highways leading into towns.

Unlike the men whose names are chiseled beneath the words “We shall never forget” on obelisks and the bases of statues in Britain and America, these dead really are hard to forget. Their faces are on big black-and-white portraits hanging, two at a time, every 20 meters or so along the center strips of highways as you drive into town. Every town, and back out on the other side. Kilometers of young men. Miles of young men leading into Tehran and Qom and Kashan and Isfahan and Yazd and Shiraz and every little village and berg in between, and into the countryside beyond. Hometown kids. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands.

The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

As with people in photographs everywhere, you feel you can look them in the eye, that you can sense who they were, and who they could have been. Skinny, scared boys. Smirking cads. Athletes. Sad sacks. You make up stories in your mind. That one was proud to serve. Or a scholar. Or wishing he were home. Or back in school. Or in his uncle’s shop, or working the farm, or hanging out on a street corner. All . . . because you know what trench warfare is like, because you know what machine guns and gas and shells and barbed wire do to human flesh . . . destined for horrible, filthy deaths. The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

I don’t have any better idea than any other friend of Liberty what really happened to those four tankers that are said to have been sabotaged in the Persian Gulf in mid-May but, to a person of my generation, the news can’t help bring up memories of what we were told happened, but didn’t, in the Gulf of Tonkin. This time feels different, though, and I sure hope it is. Under Johnson we had a president who not only was looking for a fight but was willing to manufacture an incident to create one. Blunderbuss that some people will tell you our current president is, he’s said from the beginning he doesn’t want to get us involved in wars. So, maybe, he won’t.

Whatever is really going on between us and Iran and those tankers, Iranians are not people we want to fight. They are people who, in a different world, would be our closest friends. They are funny and spontaneous and laughing and much more like us than anybody else I know about in the Middle East, than many Europeans, for that matter, but I’m not sanguine about what’s going to happen. Not that I think we’ll get into a shooting war with them, I just can’t see how we can ever get out of each other’s faces.

Two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves.

Nobody who isn’t Iranian wants the Islamic Republic to control the Persian Gulf, and nobody who isn’t Saudi wants Arabia to control the Persian Gulf. The problem from the point of view of those of us who aren’t Iranian or Saudi is that Iran has the best army in the region, is a major industrial power, has a thriving agriculture sector, and is just short of world-class in high tech. Arabia can’t so much as make a ballpoint pen. Heck, Arabia can’t even feed itself. Wheat that sells for five dollars on the world market costs ten dollars worth of water to grow in Arabia. All of which puts America in a classic geopolitical bind.

Unless we want to send our own young people to the Persian Gulf to keep Iran from taking over the whole show, we don’t have any choice but to play balance-of-power, which means sanctions, and scaring away tourists, and pushing every country we have any sway with to keep cranking the screws down tighter.

It didn’t have to be this way. It used to be there was a built-in balance of power, with Iraq sitting on Iran’s western flank, tying up its army and its resources and generally putting the brakes on the Mullahs getting too frisky. But two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves. As one of the ayatollahs, or imams, or mullahs or somebody said at the time, “Allah has blinded the Great Satan into doing our work for us.” Or something along those lines.




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Vietnam Revisited

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I never fought in Vietnam. By the time I was old enough to go, I held a high draft-lottery number and a student deferment, and was never called up. I do remember the war, though. Early on, when Kennedy sent in the advisers, I was in elementary school, and saw the pictures on TV and in Life magazine. When Johnson sent in half a million men, I was in junior high, and we argued about the war in class. When Nixon came to power I was in high school, and we debated it more. When the four protesters were killed at Kent State University, I was finishing my first year at the University of Washington in Seattle. My instructor in German cancelled classes and gave us all A’s so we could go protest. I stood aside, watching the protesters flood onto Interstate 5 and block traffic until the cops pushed them off the exit to what are now the offices of Amazon.

My sentiments on the Vietnam War, like those of most Americans, evolved. In 1975, when South Vietnam collapsed, its government appealing for help and the US Congress and President Ford offering none, I was as coldhearted as anyone. I thought, “To hell with Vietnam.” I had been reading about it, thinking about it, arguing about it since I was a kid. During that time 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what? In economists’ terms, the mountain of corpses was a “sunk cost” — and I was ready to watch the whole damn thing sink into the South China Sea.

I was living in Berkeley, California, when the South fell. I remember standing outside my apartment on May 1, 1975, taking photographs of a parade down Telegraph Avenue welcoming the Communist victory. “All Indochina Must Go Communist,” one banner said. Well, I hadn’t evolved that much. For me the fall of South Vietnam was a day for quiet sadness.

By 1975, 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what?

As a kid in junior high, I had supported the war. Recall the geopolitical situation: Communists had eaten up a third of the world, with big bites in Eastern Europe in 1945–48, China in 1949, North Vietnam in 1954 and Cuba in 1959. They had been stopped in a few places — in Malaya, by the Brits — but once firmly established they had never been pushed back.The Cold War’s rules of engagement were that the Communists could contest our ground — what we called the Free World — but we dared not contest theirs. And the end of that road did not look good.

When I used that argument — and “domino theory” is not a good name for it — no one knew the Communist system was facing extinction. People knew it was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread.

All the old arguments came back as I was reading Max Hastings’ new book,Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975. Hastings, an Englishman, is my favorite military historian; for years I have had his 1987 book, The Korean War, on my shelf, and I breezed through his 752-page Vietnam in a few days. In this book Hastings has undertaken to write the narrative of the war, and not all from the American side, but also in the voices of South and North Vietnam. Hastings reveals that there were arguments and worries on their side as well as ours. Many in the North hated the draft and did not want to trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to fight. Over the years, 200,000 Northerners deserted while in the South. The Northern soldiers also underwent far more privations than the Americans or their Southern allies, living on rice and water spinach (sold in Asian markets here as on choy) and often starving. On one occasion, Hastings says, they killed and ate an orangutan.

People knew communism was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread

Hastings analyzes the assumptions and the strategies of both sides. To the low-level Vietcong, the war was mostly about getting rid of Americans who looked and acted like the “long-nose” French, Vietnam’s late imperial overlords. The cadres tried to indoctrinate the VC in Marxism, but identity politics had the stronger pull.

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side. For a military historian, Hastings makes a key admission when he says that fighting was less important than “the social and cultural contest between Hanoi and Saigon.”

In that contest, the North’s standard-bearer was “Uncle Ho,” the Gandhi-like figure of Ho Chi Minh, who had kicked out the imperialist French. In the South, a society that included landowners, merchants, and bureaucrats who had worked for the French and prayed in the same church as the French, one of the icons was Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. One observer said that Ky, an air force pilot with slick black hair and a pencil-thin moustache, looked like a saxophone player in a cheap Manila nightclub. Writes Hastings of Ky, “He was publicly affable, fluent, enthusiastic about all things American but the taste of Coca-Cola — and as remote as a Martian from the Vietnamese people.”

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side.

South Vietnam was a society rotten with corruption and ill-gotten wealth. “Again and again,” writes Hastings, “peasants were heard to say that whatever else was wrong with the communists, they were not getting rich.” History shows, though, that life is easier in a society in which some are wrongly rich than in one in which the rich are rounded up and shot, leaving everyone else poor. Hastings writes that when the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon, the soldiers were amazed at how much stuff the people had.

The Vietcong were terrorists. They beheaded the village chieftains who opposed them, and sometimes buried them alive. The Americans were told to behave better than that, but with their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm they dispensed death wholesale. American soldiers, Hastings writes, went to war “wearing sunglasses, helmets, and body armor to give them the appearance of robots empowered to kill.” Back at base, “Army enlisted men took it for granted that Vietnamese would clean their boots and police their huts.” And also use the bar girls for sexual entertainment.

Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese still fought and died for their state, and also worked with the Americans. First-generation Vietnamese in my home state are fiercely loyal to the old Republic of Vietnam, and still fly the yellow flag with the three stripes. Apparently they were not a majority of their countrymen, else the conflict would have come out differently.

With their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm the Americans dispensed death wholesale.

As the Pentagon Papers showed, smart people in the US government saw early on that South Vietnam was ultimately not a viable cause. President Kennedy expressed his doubts, but he also believed deeply that his mission was to stop the Communists. “Nothing that came later was inevitable,” Hastings writes, “but everything derived from the fact that sixteen thousand men were in country because John F. Kennedy had put them there.”

Hastings doesn’t buy the theory propagated in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK that Kennedy was on the verge of backtracking when he was shot.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, sent half a million men to Vietnam because he didn’t want to be blamed for losing it, as Truman had been blamed for losing China. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat. For each of these US leaders, the concern was his country’s prestige (a Sixties word) and his own political standing. “An extraordinary fact about the decision making in Washington between 1961 and 1975,” Hastings observes, “was that Vietnamese were seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon it.”

Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were focused on the Chinese and the Russians, and assumed they were in charge in Hanoi as much as the Americans were in Saigon. Hastings says it was not so. The Russians and the Chinese were frustrated at the North Vietnamese aggressiveness, and repeatedly advised them to cool it. Within the North Vietnamese leadership, Ho often agreed with his foreign advisors, but Hastings says that policy was set not by Ho but by Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan, “though the world would not know this.”

Nixon saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat.

By Hastings’ account the Americans were not the only ones who made big mistakes on the battlefield. Militarily, the biggest Communist mistake was the Tet (Lunar New Year) offensive of 1968. Le Duan’s idea was to show the flag in all the Southern cities, spark an uprising among the people, and swamp the Southern government in one big wave. In the event, the South Vietnamese didn’t rise. In Saigon, the Vietcong breached the wall of the US embassy, and in Hue, North Vietnamese regulars occupied the town north of the Perfume River for several weeks and methodically executed all their enemies. But everywhere the Communists were driven back.

The Vietcong lost 50,000 dead in Tet and follow-on attacks, five times the combined US and South Vietnamese military deaths. Largely cleansed of Vietcong, the countryside was quieter in the following year, as the North Vietnamese Army built up forces to fill the void left by the defeated Southern guerrillas. Though Tet was a military defeat for the North, the US press played it as a Communist show of strength, thereby tipping the balance of opinion in America against the war. For the Communists, a military defeat became a political victory.

The journalists had played it the way it looked, and it hadn’t looked like a South Vietnamese victory. American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident, which was used in 1964 to justify the de facto US declaration of war. Of the two supposed attacks on the destroyer USS Maddox, Hastings writes, one wasn’t real and the other was “a brush at sea that could easily and should rightfully have been dismissed as trivial.”

For the Communists, the military defeat of the Tet Offensive became a political victory.

In the case of Tet, US journalists inadvertently helped the enemy, but generally the press gave Americans a more accurate picture of the war in South Vietnam than the government did. The press did a poor job of reporting the shortcomings of the North, but it wasn’t allowed to go there. In 1966, when I was arguing with my schoolmates for the war, I repeatedly heard them say that communism would be a bad system for us, but it was a better one for the Vietnamese. If Americans had good reporting from North Vietnam, I don’t think my schoolmates would have said things like that. We anti-communists were right about one thing: communism turned out to be just as bad as we said it was.

The question remains as to what, if anything, America should have done to stop the Communists in Vietnam. Hastings quotes CIA officer Rufus Phillips describing what America did: “We decided that we were going to win the war and then give the country back to the Vietnamese. That was the coup de grace to Vietnamese nationalism.” But if it was wrong to do that in Vietnam, it should have been wrong in Korea, and it worked there, at least well enough to preserve the Republic of Korea. It can be no surprise that Kennedy and Johnson would try a military solution again.

What was the difference? Hastings touches on this question only briefly, mentioning the obvious: Korea is a peninsula with a border just 160 miles long, while South Vietnam had a border with Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam more than 1,000 miles long, perforated in many spots by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the complex of corridors through which the Communists infiltrated the South with fighters and supplies. The warfare on the Korean peninsula was conventional, with front lines; in Vietnam it was a guerrilla contest while the Americans were there, becoming conventional only after they had decided to go. The physical climate was different, too. The Koreas were divided on the 38thparallel, about the latitude of San Francisco; the Vietnams were divided on the 17th parallel, about the latitude of Belize City. All of Vietnam is in the tropics, with attendant cloudbursts, humidity, bacteria, and bugs.

American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident.

And there were political differences. Ho Chi Minh was a hero of national independence; Kim Il Sung pretended to be one, but had a less inspiring story. Also, in Korea the old imperial masters were not long-nosed Caucasians but Japanese.

A penultimate thought. Hastings quotes without comment Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of capitalist Singapore, to the effect that if the Americans had not resisted the Communists in Vietnam, “We would have been gone.” Call this the “domino theory” if you like. It was a view I encountered in the early ’90s, when I worked in Hong Kong for Asiaweek magazine. Our founder and publisher, a Kiwi named Michael O’Neill, maintained that the American effort in Vietnam had stopped the Communists from pushing on to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, China had junked communist economics, and Vietnam, unless it wanted to remain poor, would have to do the same. And that, O’Neill argued, meant that the Americans had really won the Vietnam War, even if they didn’t know it.

Or maybe, I thought, we had lost the war but in the long run it didn’t matter — because the war wasn’t the decisive contest.

Twenty-one years after the war ended, I traveled to Vietnam with my wife and six-year-old son. In Danang I met a group of men who had fought for the South and suffered persecution from the victors. They weren’t bitter at the Americans, nor were the tour guys who drove us to Khe Sanh and were too young to remember. In the North, at Ha Long, I chatted up the proprietor of a tiny restaurant who said that during the war, when he had been a truck driver for a state-owned coalmine, he had lost his house to American bombing. I told him I was very sorry my countrymen destroyed his house.

He shrugged. “I have a better one now.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975," by Max Hastings. Harper, 2018, 857 pages.



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The Return of Malthusian Equilibrium

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After the departure of Europeans from their colonies following the end of World War II, the Third World rapidly became tyrannical, and their economies began a long decline. The institutional collapse of the Third World has continued over all these years, except that in the past two decades, from an extremely low base, its economies have improved. This economic growth did not happen because the Third World liberalized its economies or adopted any fundamental cultural change in its societies. What enabled synchronous economic progress over the past two decades in the Third World was the internet and the emergence of China.

Cheap telephony and the internet came into existence in the late ’80s. The internet provided pipelines for the transfer of technology and enabled wage-arbitrage to be exploited. Also, many countries — particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Arica — benefited from the export of resources to gluttonous-for-resources China, the only emerging market I know of, and to the developed world, which contrary to propaganda is economically still by far the fastest growing part of the world.

Cherry-picking countries of subsistence farmers and cattle-herders for propaganda purposes tells you nothing about the sustainability of their growth.

It is hard to believe, but many countries in the Middle East and North Africa peaked economically in the 1970s. Their competitive advantage was oil, not human resources. The per capita real GDPs of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite the fact that they have had a relatively peaceful existence, are about half as large as they were in the ’70s. The situation is similar in Venezuela and to a large extent in Nigeria. Except for the personal use of cellphones, the information technology revolution has simply bypassed these and many other countries.

According to the propaganda — steeped in political correctness — of the international organizations, all the fastest growing economies are in the Third World. But simple primary school mathematics helps cut through this propaganda. Ethiopia is claimed to be among the fastest growing large economies. This is quite a lie. An 8.5% growth rate of Ethiopia on GDP per capita of US$846 translates into growth of a mere US$72 per capita per year. The US economy, with GDP per capita of US$62,152, is 73 times larger, and despite its growth at a seemingly low rate of 2.2%, it currently adds US$1,367 to its per capita GDP — 19 times more than Ethiopia. The situation looks even more unfavorable for Ethiopia if its population explosion of 2.5% per year is considered.

Cherry-picking countries of subsistence farmers and cattle-herders for propaganda purposes tells you nothing about the sustainability of their growth, and certainly does not in any way enable comparison with the developed world.

The developed world is growing much, much faster than the Third World. The only exception is China.

Over the past two decades, the low hanging fruit of economic growth has been plucked in the Third World. South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Africa, and Latin America are now starting to stagnate. As the tide of the economic growth rate recedes, institutional collapse will become more visible. It will be seen on the streets as civic strife. What is happening in Venezuela, Syria, Turkey, Nicaragua, Honduras, Pakistan, Congo, and South Africa — where institutions are collapsing, social fabric is falling apart, and tyranny is raising its ugly head — are not isolated events but part of the evolving Third World pattern. Once its institutions have been destroyed, there will be no going back. They simply cannot be rebuilt.

When one looks at the world map, one realizes that all colonized countries were created in European boardrooms.

On a simplistic organizational chart, institutions in the Third World may look the same as they looked when European colonizers departed, but without reliance on the rule of law, respect for individual rights, and a rational approach to problem solving — all foundational concepts propagated by the West. They have been swamped by tribalism, magical thinking, and arbitrary dogmas and rituals.

Without the foundation of rational, critical thinking, formal education merely burdens the mind. The result is that stress among the so-called educated people in the Third World is growing, and no wonder: formal education, unassimilated, can work only in narrow areas, where all you want is cogs that can do repetitive jobs in corner cubicles, without encouragement or reward for creativity. This is not a future-oriented environment; it is a merely pleasure-centric one, in which people become easy victims of cultural Marxism. Democratic politics devolved into the politics of anti-meritocratic mass rule, destroying any institutions of true self-government.

During my recent visit to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, a young Western girl working for a Western embassy told me that she once went out without her security force. The police stopped her car, and she was fortunate that her security arrived before the police could take her away. The negotiation between police and security was about how much it would take not to rape her. Rape is common in Papua New Guinea, as it is in the rest of the Third World; but because this was a girl working for the embassy, rapists would have had their bones broken the day after. But their bones would have been broken the day after, “too far in the future” to be of much concern.

Without institutions of liberty and protection of private property, financial and intellectual capital does not accumulate.

When one looks at the world map, one realizes that all colonized countries were created in European boardrooms. There was no country of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Congo, or even India before the arrival of Europeans. The people who now run these countries simply do not have the ability or impetus to manage such large societies. They have tribal mentalities, unable to process information outside the visible space. The rulers of modern tribes continuously increase the size of their bureaucracies, but this merely creates overcentralization, the ossification of institutions, and massive, though unseen, systemic risks. Of course, tribalism is irrational, and internecine rivalry a fact of existence that is experienced only on a moment-to-moment basis.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, most of sub-Saharan Africa had no written language and few tools, contrary to popular perception of a pre-colonial utopia. Warfare was the order of the day. Eating flesh and brains of an enemy killed in conflict was practiced from Papua New Guinea, to Africa, to the Americas. Cannibalism is not unknown even today. Contrary to politically correct versions of history, 19th-century colonization was a massive, sudden improvement for many colonized peoples, and a paradigm shifting event for the Third World.

Europeans of the 1940s clearly knew that if they left the Third World, entropy would rapidly ensue, the locals would fail to run their countries, and those countries would implode into tribal units. These wouldn’t be self-managed societies that libertarians dream of, but tribal ones afflicted with internecine warfare. That is indeed where the Third World is heading, and much of it has arrived.

Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate now than it was in 1950.

Without institutions of liberty and protection of private property, financial and intellectual capital does not accumulate. Indeed, the Third World actively destroys or dissipates any material benefit that accrue to it. This happens through war, overconsumption, expansion of the exploiting (ordinarily the governing) class, and the active destruction of capital that one sees in the crime, vandalism, riot, and other means of destroying property that characterize the Third World. Despite their extreme possessiveness, people who destroy the capital of other people fail to maintain their own. In many Third World cities, when there is a day of celebration it is easy to assume that it is the day when employees got their salaries — which disappear by the next morning, drunk away. Capital fails to be protected or accumulated; the rational structure of a productive, thrifty, and prudent culture is not there.

While people in the West are blamed for being materialistic, Third World people are often much more focused on their possessions. The great fleet of servants in India, who are destined to forever remain servants, may earn a mere $100 dollars or less a month, but must have the latest smartphone. For me it is impossible to comprehend how they pay their rent, buy food, and still have some money left to buy a phone; but I remind myself that actually they take loans to buy smartphones and are forever in debt.

And now — the population problem is becoming worse.

Consider Africa alone. Africa’s population in 1950 represented a mere 10% of the world population. By the end of this century Africa, the poorest continent, is predicted to have at least 40% of the world’s people. Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate now than it was in 1950. Given that this rate begins from a much higher base, Africa adds six times more people today than it did in 1950.

More important: in the Third World countries, population control has mostly happened within the relatively more educated, intellectually sophisticated part of society. In Northern India, to cite another example, the unstable, uneducated, chaotic, and backward part of the population is exploding in size. Southern India, which is relatively stable and better off, is falling in population.

With ease of mobility, segregation is picking up its pace. The economically best people of the Third World find it much easier to emigrate than to stay home and fight to make society better, or maintain it in its current state. In 2017 alone, 12% of Turkish millionaires and 16% of Venezuelan millionaires emigrated. So great has been the emigration from India that it is virtually impossible to find a decent plumber or electrician. Forget about finding a good doctor. In a survey, only 30% of Indian doctors could diagnose a simple ailment. Everywhere educated people move to cities, while the rest stay on in rural places. Segregation is real, leaving the underclass with a huge deficit in leaders.

There is also segregation by sector of the economy. As the private sector has evolved in the Third World, government institutions have increasingly become brain-dead, for the best brains now want to work for high salaries in the private sector, leaving state power in the hands of the worst brains. Naturally, people have become very stressed and unsure. As an emotional escape, superstitious rituals and religious-nationalism are increasing exponentially, contributing to the elevation of exploitive, sociopathic elements to positions of power.

Perhaps, payments made to people for having children must stop; instead people should get money not to have children.

It is possible that some parts of the Third World simply cannot be “governed.” A couple of years back I undertook what I consider the most dangerous trip of my life. I went to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on my own. Even for DRC, Goma is a lawless part. The Swedish police I was staying with told me one day that a pregnant woman had been raped, her fetus removed, cooked, and fed to other women of the tribe, who had all been raped. Listening to the stories of celebration of such brutalities in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa, I couldn’t but imagine what I would do if I were forced to run the DRC. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to bring it back to relative sanity without imposing the tyranny — for fear is the only restraint available in the absence of reason — for which Leopold II of Belgium is infamous.

This brings us to the terrible predicament of the Third World. Except for China, the countries of the Third World have failed to develop inner competencies and hence internal reasons to accumulate financial and intellectual capital. They have failed to maintain their institutions, which have continued to decay after the departure of European colonizers. The crumbs of economic benefits — the gifts of western technology — have been dissipated. What can be done? How would you deal with the predicament?

There is no hope unless the vast size of the underclass, who are statistically unable to participate economically, particularly in the age of AI, is reduced. Perhaps, payments made to people for having children must stop; instead people should get money not to have children. Even this first step can only happen if the Third World institutions are changed and rational leaders are imposed. But who will impose them?

The end result is obvious. With time — slowly and then rapidly — the Third World will continue to fall apart institutionally. The Third World will implode. This two-thirds of the world population will fall into tribes that, being irrational, will have no way to resolve disputes. They will enter a phase of neverending warfare, with other tribes and within their own tribes. If there is any surplus left, it will be dissipated through population growth and overconsumption. Ahead there is only entropy and a Malthusian future, mimicking the sad Malthusian equilibrium that existed before the colonizers came.




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Trump: Right on Iran?

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On May 8 President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). By doing so he isolated the US diplomatically (only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some small states in the Persian Gulf support US abrogation of the agreement), and drew the ire of globalists, liberals, and the establishment media. But was Trump in fact right to pull out of the agreement?

I should mention that I have advocated détente with Iran since the 1990s. I even published an essay on the subject in Liberty back in March 2007 (“Engage Iran: A Way out of Iraq"). I still look upon the Iranian people as potentially our best friends in the Middle East. Iranians in general are more pro-Western than any of the Arab peoples. Sadly, we derailed Iran’s progress toward a western-style democracy when in 1953 we and the British overthrew the first and only democratic government in the country’s history. The Islamist tyranny that took over Iran in 1979 and still rules there today is the result of the coup d’état staged by the CIA and MI6.

The Iranian people are still potentially our best friends in the Middle East.

Obviously, we can’t turn back the clock. But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome. We did something like this with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, by denying it credits and technology transfers, and by luring it into an arms race it could never win. Trump, by abrogating the 2015 nuclear accord, has begun to take Iran policy in a similar direction.

Despite Trump’s fulminations against the 2015 accord, the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration wasn’t really a bad deal. It ended Iran’s covert program to develop a nuclear weapon. Some 97% of Iran’s nuclear material was removed from the country. The inspection regime was adequate, even robust in some respects. The main weakness of the agreement was that it allowed Iran to resume enriching uranium for peaceful purposes after a 15-year hiatus. Objectively speaking, however, this was not a sufficient reason for us to withdraw from the agreement only three years after it was signed — and particularly so since the other signatories had no intention of leaving with us.

But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome.

A secondary purpose behind the agreement, as the Obama administration saw it, was to promote a thaw in US-Iranian relations, with the hope that before 15 years had passed we would witness the end of the Islamic Republic and the evolution of a moderate, pro-Western regime. It has to be said, however, that the current leadership of Iran has shown no signs of softening its anti-American views. At the same time, the lifting of most sanctions on Iran after the agreement was made provided the regime with some economic relief (the Iranian economy and financial system were definitely hurt by sanctions) — and political relief, too, in that the people felt that their lives would improve once sanctions were removed. The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Moreover, Iran has continued to expand its influence in the region — in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and as supporter of the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Iran’s activities threaten to destabilize the Middle East generally, and are particularly worrisome when it comes to Saudi Arabia, its rival across the Persian Gulf and our most important ally in the Arab world. Although the US no longer needs to import Middle East oil, a crisis in the Gulf or, worse, the collapse of the pro-American regime in the world’s largest oil producer would roil energy markets and indeed the world economy.

Equally important is the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated a program of reform in the kingdom that holds out the prospects of, first, bringing Saudi Arabia into the 21st century and, second, ending the plague of Sunni jihadism that has infected Saudi society and large swathes of the Muslim world. If Prince Mohammed is successful in this, he will have rendered a service not only to his country and the region, but to humanity as a whole. The West has a big stake in his ultimate success.

The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Containing Iran is good for almost everybody – including, ultimately, the Iranian people. The only loser would be the Iranian regime itself. Supporting a reformist Saudi regime against Iranian mischief may help damp down Islamic radicalism and terrorism worldwide. And re-imposing sanctions on Iran, as Trump has done, may be the final straw that breaks the back of a regime beset by enormous economic problems.

I could never be a Trump supporter. His personality, behavior, and many of his policies are anathema to me. He has shown no real understanding of the nuclear agreement that he decided to tear up. That said, abrogating the agreement and reimposing sanctions on Iran seems to me a legitimate geostrategic play which, if it succeeds, will have enormous benefits for the US, the world, and, it is to be hoped, the Iranian people. With his dramatic move on May 8 Trump may very well have stumbled into the right policy.




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Caracas Dispatches

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Mercedes Flanagan — I’ll call her that — a Venezuelan lawyer, television executive, and jurist, and most important, this author’s first cousin, arrived in Miami on December 15, 2017.

Flanagan. A good Latin American name, like O’Higgins or De Valera.

Mercedes was able to get here after acquiring a six-month US visa (months in the making and a miracle) and flying a convoluted route that included Trinidad and Panama City. Direct flights — or flights of any sort — have become increasingly difficult to book because of Venezuela’s paucity of convertible currency. Five days after her arrival we met at her sister’s house in Boca Raton to celebrate the holidays together. Two of her granddaughters were there, having left Venezuela three months before. They too were seeking political asylum. Mercedes had lost a lot of weight but looked good, a result she attributed to the “Maduro diet,” as Venezuela’s food shortage is nicknamed, after Nicolás Maduro, the current president. She dreads returning.

Please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality.

“Behind the scenes,” she said, “Cubans run everything.” A surprising revelation for what was once one of South America’s richest, most sophisticated, and modern countries — and a dark irony. During the 1960s, Cuban military and guerrilla leaders funded and aided leftist insurgents. Though thoroughly defeated, they’ve made a latter-day comeback.

I asked Mercedes about the state of her finances. She answered that she was still receiving her government pension but that one-third of it had been converted into nonconvertible “economic war bonds,” useless savings certificates.

In 2017, the mismanagement of Venezuela’s socialist economy — please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality (a socialist economy is, by definition, a mismanaged economy; to actually mismanage a socialist economy would be to insert market mechanisms into it) — drove the inflation rate of the Bolivar (Venezuela’s currency) to somewhere above 4,000%. Mercedes reported a black-market exchange rate of 102,000 Bolivares to the dollar, circa December 1. CNN now (mid-January) reports 191,000 Bolivares to the dollar.

In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check.

Let’s take a closer look at this money thing. Each day, Venezuelan banks are given a fixed budget dictating how much cash they’re allowed to disburse to clients. Electronic transactions are allowed, but forget ATMs, they’re all out of cash. Outside the banks, the lines of customers waiting to cash checks in order to acquire cash are already long by opening time — translating to about an hour’s wait. In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check. But here’s the kicker: the daily per client check-cashing allotment set by the government is the equivalent of between 6 and 18 US cents — often not even enough to buy a “tit’s” worth of groceries.

Yes, a “tit” or teta, as it is called, because it resembles a droopy breast. Officially, they are CLAP bags. They hold a month’s worth of groceries and toiletries that cost the equivalent of 18 US cents. The government makes them available to the poorest Venezuelans at heavily subsidized prices. But, as CNN reports, “Recently, CLAP bags have gotten smaller or been delayed as more Venezuelans slip into poverty and as the government runs out of money to import essential goods.” How ironic: a shortage of worthless cash.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month, according to Mercedes. One enterprising “Chávista collective” in Caracas representing about 4,000 families has issued its own, parallel currency, the panal, and its own bank, El Banco Panalero, to ease the shortage of cash. The pudgy face of the demagogue former President Hugo Chávez graces one side.

Speaking of iconic faces, renditions of Simón Bolívar’s face have been subtly altered to make him look more creole than European white by pugging his nose and darkening his skin — in other words, to have him resemble Chávez and Maduro.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month.

On the plus side, gasoline runs at about 60 cents a gallon — up from 4 cents a gallon not very long ago — a price that has allowed a lucrative smuggling market to thrive at the Colombian border. And Venezuelan day workers — mostly prostitutes — are now allowed into Colombia to earn some real money.

N.B.: Mercedes requested that her true identity not be revealed, writing: “The situation in Venezuela is now much worse with the cold-blooded assassination of the soldier officer for ‘desertion’ for disagreeing with the dictatorship of ‘twenty-first century socialism’ along with three civilians, one of them a pregnant woman . . . and they're not allowing family to see, identify the cadavers, or bury them. We're awaiting Maduro's announcement of the suspension of all civil rights. . . There the raids by armed ‘collectives’ controlled by the government continue with orders to spread panic so that the real, suffering population won't continue to demand their rights to food, medicine, security and free elections."




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Alas, Zimbabwe!

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I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.




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Alas, Zimbabwe!

 | 

I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.




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Temporization Fugit

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As speculated in a June 7 feature here, President Trump today (June 16) announced, before a packed Miami crowd, a big change in US-Cuba policy. Though tourism to the island by American-based visitors has been technically banned by the embargo for quite some time, the 2014 Obama thaw fudged the issue in a variety of ways. President Trump has just dumped the fudge.

Pre-Obama’s thaw, regulations allowed Americans to visit Cuba under a variety of categories, including a people-to-people category — once their itinerary had been vetted by the Treasury Department. Under that category, only organized tour groups with a detailed itinerary were allowed to visit, with the intent of American folks and Cuban folks getting to know each other.

Compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

On December 2014, President Obama eliminated the vetting process and allowed visitors to vet themselves on an honor system. At the same time, visitors returning from the island weren’t scrutinized, only questioned perfunctorily or not at all, about their compliance with US government regulations.

According to CNBC, “President Trump's policy restricts this form of travel to Cuba for individuals. Americans pursuing this type of travel would have to go in groups.” And their compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

But the ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company, GAESA. "The profits from investment and tourism flow directly to the military. The regime takes the money and owns the industry. The outcome of the last administration's executive action has only been more repression and a move to crush the peaceful, democratic movement," Trump said in Miami on Friday.

The ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company.

According to Fox News, The policy calls on Americans traveling to Cuba to use "private businesses and services provided by the Cuban people, rather than businesses and services provided by GAESA." In effect, government hotels and resorts are out. US-based visitors must use private B&Bs and restaurants otherwise known as casas particulares and paladares.

The new policy does not go into effect until the new regulations are issued. We await the Cuban government’s reaction . . .




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Volo, Veni, Velo, Vidi

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Cosa ni pensi di Trump? (What do you think of Trump?)

It was a question my wife Tina and I were asked our very first day in Sicily and nearly every other day on our 30-day bicycle circumnavigation of the island this February. The question was usually prefaced by apologies, either verbal or physical, as if it were a too-personal intrusion (unusual for Europeans, who generally disdain small talk — unless it’s banter — in favor of meatier fare). It was always asked in earnest, never in a challenging manner.

One Dutch couple in the little town of Taormina combined both approaches. On finding out we were Americans, they kiddingly asked if we’d be able to return home. Trump had just issued his ill-conceived travel ban and we were unaware of it, news being an unnecessary intrusion when I travel. We joined in their kidding about America’s new president until I reminded them of Geert Wilders, the Netherlands’ version of the Donald, at which point they sheepishly concurred and demurred. Ditto for a Polish couple whose criticism of Trump was more earnest until I reminded them of the Kaczynski brothers’ populist policies. They said Poland was a new democracy, subject to mistakes, while they expected more from the US, a mature democracy. I replied that I was glad we were still, at least, young at heart.

The Italians, however, were transparently curious. They didn’t trust their media and wanted an eyewitness opinion. One averred that he’d heard Trump was another Hitler. I told him Trump wasn’t as bad as Mussolini or Berlusconi, with only a pussycat’s handful of “bunga, bunga.”

Taormina is a small, picturesque, ancient town atop an impossibly steep hill. It boasts the best preserved (outside of Greece) 3rd-century BC Greek theater. We were about two-thirds done with our counterclockwise bike tour of the island when we were taken aback by Italian soldiers in full deployment eyeing us at Taormina’s medieval gates. Curious, I approached one and politely asked the way to Corso Umberto I, the location of our lodging. He smiled and said we were on it.

At our B&B I asked our host why the town was occupied by the army. “Trump-Putin summit,” he answered.

Incredulous, I gesticulated, “Today? Two or three days . . . soon?”

When Tina and I had circumbiked Iceland, we’d visited the house where the Reagan-Gorbachev summit was held. We’d lingered long, savoring the very spot where the Cold War had ended. Would Taormina rise to the occasion?

Not a chance, according to The Economist. One anti-Trump acquaintance observed that it was fitting that Trump — a man of business who wants respect — and Putin, a gangster, should meet in the birthplace of the Mafia.

“No, no,” our host answered, “Maggio (May).”

The following morning we headed to the Greek theater. Next door, the Grand Hotel Timeo, an historic old hotel, was closed for renovations. The Timeo counted among its guests Goethe, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Edward VII, D.H. Lawrence, Truman Capote, and now, we assumed, either Trump, Putin, or both. Adjacent, the street was being dug up by workmen upgrading the communications infrastructure — with soldiers overlooking. Yet Italy never ceases to amaze. Between midnight and 6 AM, all the soldiers disappear. Go figure.

Our Thing

Today, according to one source, the Mafia lies dormant in Sicily, having moved what operations it still retains to Calabria, Italy’s boot toe. Many of the business establishments we passed sported a window sticker declaring that they’d joined Addiopizzo, an organization of businesses that refuse to pay protection money and that rally around one another when fingered. Tourist curio shops sell Sono il padrino (I am the godfather) T-shirts and coffee cups, many with your name custom printed. Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone character pictures are everywhere. There is even an anti-Mafia museum, the home of CIDMA (Centro Internazionale di Documentazione sulla Mafia e Movimento Antimafia), in the town of Corleone, 60 km south of Palermo.

Up until the mid-1990s the La Societa Onorata, or Cosa Nostra, was no joke. But then, in 1982, Tommaso Buscetta, a “man of honor,” turned rat when he was arrested. After four years of interrogation under magistrate Giovanni Falcone, 584 Mafiosi were put on trial — the maxiprocesso or supertrial — in a specially constructed bunker in Palermo, Sicily’s capital. The trial took two years and sometimes descended into farce with loud and disruptive behavior, some defendants acting as their own lawyers flamboyantly spouting nonsense, indulging in non sequiturs and endless sophistry, another one literally stapling his mouth shut to signify his commitment to omerta, the code of silence, and another feigning madness with outbursts so disruptive he had to be put into a straitjacket. The trial resulted in 347 convictions, of which 19 were life imprisonments.

It would surprise no libertarian that the Mafia’s roots lie in government failure, specifically a law enforcement failure.

The men of honor struck back, as they had every time in the past. In 1988 they murdered a Palermo judge and his son, then an anti-Mafia prosecutor, and finally, in 1992 Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, another courageous anti-Mafia magistrate. But this time they’d gone too far. In January 1993, the authorities arrested the capo di tutti capi, or boss of all bosses, Salvatore (Toto) Riina, the most wanted man in Europe. He was charged with a host of murders, including those of magistrates Falcone and Borsellino, and sentenced to life imprisonment, effectively decapitating the organization (which might turn out to be a Hydra).

It would surprise no libertarian that the Mafia’s roots lie in government failure, specifically a law enforcement failure. Sicilians had always sought independence and only reluctantly joined Italy in 1861 after Garibaldi promised them autonomy. Between 1200 and Italian unification, Sicily was ruled — usually at a distance and often as an afterthought — by Germany, France, Aragon, Spain, Savoy, Austria, Naples, and England, mostly in that order. Not strong enough to guard their independence, Sicilians would invite an outsider to help them rid themselves of the occupier du jour. The new bosses liked the island, refused to leave, and ruled desultorily, leading to revolt and a repetition of the cycle. It was a prime environment for the nurturing of brigands and private militias specializing in protection.

The word mafia was first used in 1863 to describe that special combination of thievery, extortion, and protection by organized groups. Serious anti-Mafia campaigns began in 1925 with Benito Mussolini, who promised to make government work. It didn’t work, at least permanently. The “men of honor” fought back, joining an unexpected ally: the US government.

Anticipating the Allies’ invasion of Europe through Sicily in 1943, the US wanted to ensure that the landings, launched from North Africa, would be greeted with respect. In 1936 Charles “Lucky” Luciano, capo di tutti capi of Mafia operations in America, had begun serving a 30 to 50 year sentence in federal prison, having been convicted of 62 counts of compulsory prostitution. In 1942 the US Office of Naval Intelligence approached Luciano, who was still running his operation from inside prison, seeking help with the Sicily landings.

Lucky and the Navy struck a secret deal: (1) East coast dockworkers, controlled by the mob, would not go on strike for the duration of the war and would actively resist any attempts at sabotage; and (2) the Sicilian Mafia would grease the skids for the Allies’ invasion through espionage, sabotage, and prepping of the local population. In return, Luciano’s sentence would be commuted and he would be deported to Sicily after the war.

It is worth pointing out here, for context and perspective, that this controversial but successful Mafia-US Government cooperation on national security set the precedent for (and reduced the absurdity of) the CIA’s 18-year-later Castro assassination attempt collaboration.

In 1968, the Italian government again went after the Mafia, following a protracted inter-Mafia killing spree that caught many innocents in its crossfire. However, out of 2,000 arrests only 117 Mafiosi were put on trial and most were acquitted or received light sentences. It was this First Mafia War, its subsequent acquittals — attributed to crooked politicians and policemen — and a Second Mafia War in the early 1980s that galvanized public opinion against the Mafia and invigorated magistrates Falcone’s and Borsellino’s prosecution.

Africans, Greeks, Romans, and Vikings

Sicily is indirectly one of my ancestral homelands. The Vikings, later known as Normans, invaded the island in 1061, only five years before their invasion of Britain. Gerhard, my original progenitor (on my mother’s side, as far back as I can trace) was one of those northern Germanic-Norse warriors who sacked and occupied Rome in the 8th century. His lineage, during Italy’s Norman invasion, became Gherardini and later, during Britain’s Norman invasion, Gerald. Soon thereafter, taking on the Welsh “son of” prefix, it became Fitzgerald, my mother’s maiden name.

The Greek city-states had no formal organization among them; they shared only a language and culture.

Sicily is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Its indigenous people — about which little is known — were displaced and incorporated by invading Sicels, Elymians, and Phoenicians, who later became known as Carthaginians (in present-day Tunisia, only 96 miles away from Sicily, with a stepping-stone island in between). By 800 BC, Greek merchants had established trading posts that soon developed into colonies that later became independent, with Syracuse (the home of Archimedes), Himera, and Akragas (today’s Agrigento) becoming some of the world’s largest cities at the time. In all, there were seventeen major Greek cities on Sicily, entangled in ever-changing alliances and wars with one another, with cities in Greece proper, and with cities in the broader Greek world and even outside it.

It’s important to note the political structure of these entities. Unlike Rome, a unified, centrally administered empire, Greece consisted of independent city-states not only in the area of present-day Greece but extending from the Black Sea all the way to Spain, North Africa, France, and Italy. They had no formal organization among them; they shared only a language and culture.

Enter Rome. Between 264 and 146 BC, Rome fought Carthage (Tunisia) for control of the Mediterranean in the three so-called Punic Wars, eventually prevailing and, to prevent any resurgence, sacking and burning the city of Carthage, condemning 50,000 survivors to slavery. The victors took control of Sicily in 241 BC and turned it into Rome’s first province. Tragically, Archimedes became a casualtyof the conflict between Rome and Carthage.

During the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Sicily came under the rule of German and Norse tribes, first the Vandals and then the Ostrogoths. But as the Roman Empire reorganized itself in Constantinople, Byzantine Greeks returned to Sicily, turning it, for a short time, into the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire at Syracuse in 663.

And then came the Arabs. After defeating the Byzantine Greeks in 827, immigrants from all over the Muslim world settled and intermarried with the Sicilians. Palermo became the second-largest city in the world after Constantinople.

The Norman Conquest, begun in 1061, took ten years, but resulted in a golden age for the island under Kings Roger I and Roger II, until about 1200 when the female heir to the throne married a Hohenstaufen and the island came under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. Under the Normans, Christians, Muslims, Byzantines, and everyone else got along splendidly, imparting to the island its unique Arab-Norman-Byzantine architectural style.

You’d think that with such a mixture of peoples Sicilians might resemble Polynesians. They don’t. They range from white to swarthy (with a few black Africans — recent arrivals — mostly from Nigeria and Ghana), with blonde, red, brown, and black hair. The only physical trait they all seem to share is a so-called Roman nose — large, protruding and sometimes sporting a hump a third of the way down the bridge.

Around Sicily in Low Gear

Sicily is at the same latitude as Salt Lake City. Tina and I chose February for our trip because we’re cheap, hate crowds, and love to bike in the cold and rain. In Milazzo we paid €40 per night for a fully furnished apartment, smack dab in the center of town. We took advantage of the deal and spent two nights there. But not just for that.

Milazzo, a city on a spectacular peninsula on the northeast of the island, is charming, clean, and delightful, with a lively passeggiata, or evening promenade, where seemingly the entire town dresses up and walks the sidewalks, streets, and waterfront, visiting, tippling, eating gelato, marzipan, biscotti, cannoli, and any of the dozens of sweets and pastries that Sicilians love. This pre-Lenten time being Carnevale, the children were outfitted in elaborate costumes.

Inhabited since prehistoric times, the town is dominated by a massive hilltop fortress built, in successive enlargements, by the Normans, Swabians, Aragonese, and Spanish. We were the only visitors to the fort. At one time it had held captured prisoners in its Spanish enclave. Inside, to our complete incredulity, there hung the purported skeleton of an English soldier inside “the coffin,” one of the most prevalent torture and execution methods, often seen invarious movies set in medieval Europe.The victimswerestripped naked andplaced inside a metal cage, roughly made in the shape of the human body.The cage wasthenhung from a tree, gallows,or city walls until the victim died of dehydration, starvation, or hypothermia. Birds and bugs ate the bones clean. No ropes or barriers separated this grisly exhibition from the fort’s visitors. Tina shook the Englishman’s phalanges reverently, not believing she could do so and thereby reach into the past, perhaps even into the poor man’s soul, so easily, spontaneously, and without a mediative ritual.

Was it real? The interpretive sign implied so. The bones were real enough, though the teeth and ribs were reconstructions, with the rib cage ligaments being some sort of plastic; the skeleton was held together with metal clips, as real skeletons usually are. Was it the Englishman’s actual bones, or a skeleton donated for the purpose of illustrating what had happened? Who knows?

 

Nino, the only person we met there, stopped to engage us. An elderly, scholarly gentleman with a wide Van Dyke sans mustache, he introduced himself as the resident historian. When I told him I was an American archaeologist, he invited us into his offices and collection of goodies: theater masks from the Arab period, erasable wax writing tablets from the Roman occupation, authentically-made replicas of trinacrias throughout the ages. The trinacria is the 3-legged symbol of Sicily, with a Gorgon’s head at the center. It graces the center of the Sicilian flag. Go ahead and Google it. Irrespective of what you’ll find there, Nino convincingly demonstrated its Celtic and Indian roots.

Daytime temperatures hovered in the low 50s; rain was not infrequent, though never torrential. We were aiming for 50 kilometers per day, average, including rest and tourist days, for the entire 1,123 km circumference. Traveling across or around a country by bike is to experience the country mano a mano, so to speak, with all its smells, sounds, and sights in slow motion — not to mention the many personal interactions that are inevitable in low gear.

The island is mountainous; we trained hard for two months before the trip, and it paid off, though the roads we chose — secondary, mostly — were expertly engineered for grade. Our objective was to hug the coast all the way around, counterclockwise. At one point, a landslide had obliterated a portion of the via nazionale upon which we were riding. The detour took us up into the mountains on a tertiary road. It was so steep that Tina and I had to push each loaded bike up with both of us pushing the handlebars. On the other hand, the freeways were engineering and construction marvels. One expressway girdles the island, cutting across peninsulas and corners, sometimes receding quite some distance from the coast. It is almost perfectly flat, achieving this miracle with long tunnels and impressively long and tall bridges.

Our biggest concerns were traffic and the problem of booking our lodgings, usually B&Bs or apartments. Many places were closed for the season; those that weren’t almost always presented a language problem. We preferred apartments. Sicilian restaurants don’t open until 8 pm and seldom serve before 9 pm — an impossible eating schedule for all-day bikers accustomed to eating dinner between 5 and 6 pm and getting an early start the next day. But we still sampled some of Sicily’s unique dishes. Here are two of them (don’t say Liberty has never published recipes):

Gnocchi

  • Potato and rice flour marbles
  • Crumbled Italian sausage
  • Chopped almonds
  • Pistachio paté — finely ground pistachios in extra virgin olive oil (pistachio butter?)
  • Garlic
  • Dry white wine
  • Garnish with halved cherry tomatoes and fresh mint

Linguine

  • Ground lamb and ground pork in equal proportions
  • Chopped pistachios
  • Almond paté — finely ground almonds in extra virgin olive oil (almond butter? sans sugar!)
  • Garlic
  • Dry white wine
  • Diced red bell peppers or pimentos
  • Serve with Sicilian Nero d’Avola wine (or blood-red orange juice)

Keep Calm and Pedal On

At Marsala, the town that invented its eponymous sweet wine, we gawked in wonder at the narrow medieval streets paved in marble. Feeling a bit lost, I asked a traffic carabinieri for directions.

Italian traffic cops are very friendly. They’re armed with ridiculous ping-pong paddles with a red circle in the middle, which are holstered in their boot cuffs when not deployed as badges of authority. They do not inspire or command respect. Whenever they wave that silly paddle I’m reminded of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail insisting he’s still effective in spite of his missing arms and legs. These cops are seldom seen except at accident sites and infrequent radar speed traps.

We’d been warned about Italian traffic being a heavy-metal roller derby without rules. In truth, Sicilian traffic was complete anarchy, with cars breaking every traffic rule imaginable, from speeding and running stop signs and traffic lights to double and triple (and even sidewalk) parking to driving backwards down one-way streets and up and down pedestrian-only venues — anything to get an advantage. Most drivers were talking on the phone, texting, eating, gesticulating, and even drinking. Many gas stations included bars! Some drivers drove with their heads out the window while smoking so as not to smoke up the car.

Italian traffic cops are very friendly. They do not inspire or command respect.

But the anarchy, to no libertarian’s surprise, works. Without adherence to rules, every driver is 100% aware of his environment and expects the unexpected at any time. Drivers are also very polite and have quick reaction responses. It’s as if every Sicilian driver had graduated from the Bob Bondurant School of high performance driving. It’s no exaggeration to say that we saw more driving schools in Sicily than we’ve seen anywhere else — by far.

Right of way is not determined by rules (though they do exist) but rather on a first-come basis. It takes nerve as a pedestrian, biker, or even car to gingerly nose out into traffic without the right of way. In the US, cars would honk, drivers flip the finger, and accidents ensue. In Sicily, traffic politely accommodates you.

Essential to this driving environment is the Italian car horn. Mastering its grammar is nearly as difficult as mastering tones in Mandarin. There are special toots and combinations of toots for nearly any situation, but almost none of them aggressive or panicky. When approaching from behind, vehicles would warn us — at a discreet distance — of their approach with a distinctive honk, never varying and never startling. It was different from a greeting honk, which also varied according to whether the greeted person was in a vehicle or on foot, a man or a woman. There were distinctive tootles for dogs, either as warnings or greetings. The claxon language of Sicily is so well developed and intuitive that we identified one honk as a question, “What are you going to do?”, with the anticipated accompaniment of a hand gesture. Traffic jams were not advertised by blasts and blares; they were considered unavoidable aspects of driving in congested conditions.

We couldn’t believe Italian bikers, all dressed identically in the latest biking gear, packed tightly together like a school of minnows, taking up an entire lane, oblivious to vehicles and racing at top speed on wheels skinny as dental floss. They all waved at us and shouted ciao! Even biking pairs would ride side by side taking up an entire lane, ignoring traffic. We never quite adopted that custom, nearly always riding in single file. But traffic would always treat bikes as full-fledged vehicles, passing only when appropriate and seldom crowding them.

One large group stopped to engage us. We’d noticed that no biking group ever included a female, so I asked, “Don’t Italian women ride bikes?” One fellow piped up that the women were home cooking. Everyone laughed.

Greeks, Fascists, Old and New Gods

Sicily’s most impressive ruins are its Greek temples and theaters. The one in Agrigento is where Aeschylus directed and presented his tragedies. It and the one in Taormina are still used annually for Greek play festivals. Most are well preserved and protected yet totally accessible to the public, unlike Stonehenge, which, understandably, is now cordoned off. The Temple of Concordia (440 BC) in the Valle dei Templi is the largest and best-preserved Doric temple in Sicily, and one of the best-preserved Greek temples anywhere.It was converted into a Christian basilica in the 6th century and dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul by the bishop of Agrigento.

Roman ruins are fewer. Their surviving mosaics are protected and cordoned off. Many Arab mosques, on the other hand, were converted into Christian churches, yet retained much of their Moslem flavor.

But it was the Fascist and German pillboxes along the south coast and edging up the west and east coasts that really struck a nerve. There were many, without signs or fences; they were simply abandoned, ignored, and often graffitied. One, outside of Messina, had been incorporated within the waterfront promenade and painted colorfully. The pillboxes recalled for us Tina’s uncle Bernie, who had participated in the US invasion of North Africa and then in the invasion of Sicily. Its south coast is invasion-friendly, with sandy beaches and a level hinterland. Approaching Gela, an old Greek city with a large, decommissioned petroleum refinery on its outskirts, we tried to put ourselves in Bernie’s boots. It was the first Sicilian city liberated by the Allies.

We pedaled across to Syracusa, looking forward to another rest and tourist day in Ortygia, Syracusa’s peninsular core and the nexus of its ancient Greek settlement. Right downtown, in the center, stand the remains of a temple to Apollo. The old gods still rule! Some of the narrow medieval streets can’t accommodate a classic Fiat 500, a smart car or, much less, a Mini.

Wending our way up the east coast, we were distracted by a road closure and detour that set us riding in circles. Finally — as in the old saying about “when in . . . do as . . .” — we cut through the closure, rode against traffic, and found a quiet spot for lunch. Suddenly, faintly visible in the distance but nearly taking up the entire horizon and the hazy sky above, loomed Mt. Aetna. At nearly 11,000 feet, rising right out of the water, it is an overwhelming sight, covered in snow and spewing smoke. Our plans to climb it came to naught: this winter’s snowpack had been exceptionally heavy, and all the approach roads were still blocked.

Just as well — soon after, Vulcan vented, spitting hot ash and lava onto the snowpack and causing spectacular explosions. Part of Aetna’s ski resort was destroyed. This is nothing new: 22 seismic stations monitor volcanic activity to defend Catania, the city at the mountain’s foot, and the surrounding towns. Signs along the road prohibit bikes, pedestrians, and motorbikes during eruptions.

Soon we hit the Riviera dei Ciclopi, where towering hunks of lava rise out of the sea. According to legend, these were thrown by the blinded Cyclops, Polyphemus, in a desperate attempt to stop Odysseus from escaping. One of the bigger blobs, La Rocca di Aci Castello, emerges from an underwater fissure and upholds a 13th-century black Norman castle built on an earlier Arab fortification. Inside, a small museum displays a bizarre collection of prehistoric skulls. From here on up and all across the north shore of Sicily, Norman lookout towers dotted high coastal salients, medieval parodies of the WWII pillboxes along the south coast.

Two days after Taormina we spotted the Calabrian coast, Italy’s boot toe. At the city of Messina, the Straits of Messina are only 1.9 miles wide at their narrowest, but plans for a cross-strait bridge have been put on hold in consideration of the prevalence of earthquakes and the strong currents. Appropriately, a huge and impressive statue of Neptune fronts city hall.

Turning the bird beak’s northeast corner of the island, we entered the mountainous north coast, where we were blessed by a constant tail wind. Cefalù, where we laid over for two days, is a compact medieval fishing town, nestling below the 1,000-foot La Rocca, a sheer-sided limestone mountain upon which previous embodiments of the town were built. Only one line of weakness provides an approach to the top — the endless steps that lead to the old fortifications. Imagine a fully kitted-up medieval soldier, laboring under a barrage of rocks, arrows, and hot oil, scaling his way up the then-stairless acclivity that today (with steps) takes a good half hour to negotiate.

The Moslems conquered the town from the Byzantines in 858, after a long siege. After another long siege, the Normans, under King Roger I, captured the city in 1063. To celebrate his victory, Roger commissioned what is regarded as Sicily’s finest mosaic, Christ Pantocrator, in the apsis of the cupola.

Heading back to Palermo we stopped at the old Greek city of Himera, supposedly one of Hercules’ (or Herakles’) early haunts. Little remains of the once-important and sprawling city-state. For nearly a century Carthage tried to capture the place, and to fend off the attackers — initially 300,000 strong, it is said — Himera had to cede its independence to Gelon, ruler of Syracuse. In 409 BC, Hannibal finally conquered it and razed it.

As we approached Palermo we were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we were energized by our sense of accomplishment and anticipation of celebration. On the other, we dreaded navigating Palermo’s choked and complicated streets — both good reasons to spend a day playing tourist. But bike travel in congested medieval cities is ideal. Not having to negotiate one-way, six-foot wide streets in a car or find parking is a tremendous advantage.

Palermo holds many treasures. Palazzi of past nobility illustrated the fact that, In spite of the long roster of foreign rulers, it was only through the indigenous aristocracy — which, being Sicilian, commanded more allegiance than the actual rulers — that each conqueror was able to exert any control over the island. The Spanish, first as Aragonese and then as subjects of a unified Spain, ruled Sicily for about 500 years, deeply influencing the Sicilian dialect — a boon to my lack of Italian and knowledge of Spanish. But they also brought the hated Inquisition, which targeted the landed gentry, the rich, and the educated in order to try to break their informal control of the island.

Our tour guide (required) through the dungeons of the Inquisition preserved an extraordinary chronicle that required interpretation: the prisoners’ graffiti. Some were simple groupings of four vertical lines with a diagonal slash — tallies of days. Others were elaborate paintings, hiding subtle anti-Spanish messages. One was a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion with the Roman soldiers outfitted as Spaniards. Another was the Nicene Creed in English.

Interrogation, always under torture, was called “a conversation with God.” No prisoner was ever released except for forced labor. All were executed, most of them burnt at the stake. One prisoner managed to kill an Inquisitor, a unique event that ended our tour on a righteously vengeful note. The prisoner’s revenge, for all the outrage it caused, actually prolonged the poor man’s life; the only punishment the prelates could muster was to delay his death and prolong his torture. But demands that the Inquisitor be canonized came to naught.

Sicily has subsequently managed to separate church and state, for the most part, although an actual, physical bridge still exists. Palermo’s cathedral and parliament are connected by two arches. Vaguely reminiscent of the Palace of Westminster, the buildings are a striking example of the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. Inside the cathedral we visited the tombs of the Norman kings, still revered as having presided over a Sicilian golden age.

Walking along the waterfront on our last evening in Sicily, we stood at the seaside railing and gazed out over the Mediterranean, reflecting on a wonderful trip. A woman across the street behind us, cleaning her house, was taken by the sight and snapped our picture with her phone, out the open window. As we walked away she motioned us over. She showed us the photo and indicated that she wanted to send it to us, explaining in Italian that she was “a romantic” and the sight of us touched a chord.

Arrivederci!




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Cashless and Thoughtless

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There has been a lot of push from international organizations to make poor societies around the world copy Western institutions, and recently to go cashless. Blind to differences in cultures, these international organizations have hugely over-estimated the organizational capabilities of people in the emerging markets — in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Anyone who has spent a sensible amount of time in emerging markets — not in five-star settings but as a normal person — knows that in these countries, an organization of two people often has one person too many. It is also evident that the two tends to expand into dozens, hundreds, and thousands, either because of the local desire to subsidize more people or because of the need to instigate a Western-style bureaucracy to control the whole thing.

Erroneously assuming that we are all the same, that specific cultures do not matter, and that all that matters is training and incentives, there was a huge push for globalization.

In these culturally very different markets, companies and institutions — Western concepts, which do not transplant well without the underlying European culture and values — can never stay nimble. To maintain control, internal bureaucracies must grow to provide checks and balances, because workers fail in independent thinking, work ethics, honesty, and cooperation. Creativity stays conspicuous by its absence.

Despite seemingly low labor costs — as low as a couple of dollars a day in wages — the costs of keeping such organizations together grows exponentially with size. Growing bureaucracies require additional checks and balances. Without the cleaning mechanism of European values and the control systems they provide, these organizations invariably accumulate dead mass, which keeps growing cancerously until they crumble under their own weight. Organizations that do not have constant blood transfusions and external subsidies tend to disintegrate rather rapidly. The price of keeping them together is extremely high.

In a climate already characterized by political correctness, a certain wisdom that Europeans had accumulated about the colonized world had evaporated by the time the USSR era ended in the late 1980s. Erroneously assuming that we are all the same, that specific cultures do not matter, and that all that matters is training and incentives, there was a huge push for globalization.

German companies moved their factories to Eastern Europe, a region of relative cultural closeness to Germany. But many factories have since moved back. The anticipated cost savings turned out to be the exact opposite. All kinds of configurations of Western corporate investment in emerging markets were tried, with similar results.

The problem is that these emerging markets’ societies are tribal. In such cultures you need the glue of violence, subsidies, and massive bureaucracies to keep organizations in place. The experiments of the past 500 years with colonization and Western education show that it is not easy — when it is even possible — to wean societies away from tribalism. Bigger and bigger organizations were put in place in emerging markets, but they tended to remain poor and in strife. The intervention of Western economic methods created an unnatural gap between the poor and an entrenched elite, rendered more entrenched by the possession of whatever new wealth was produced.

Many factories have since moved back. The anticipated cost savings turned out to be the exact opposite.

There is only one solution: keep organizations in these emerging markets as small as possible, remembering that tribal instincts ironically propel them to make their organizations big. Never subsidize big organizations, for if you do, besides providing services that add value you create operations that are a massive drag on the economy, full of endeavors that consume wealth instead of producing it.

This brings us to the current drive to go cashless.

India has recently attempted to reduce the use of cash, ostensibly to reduce corruption but actually to further centralize the economy by creating a medium of exchange that the government can constantly monitor. Naturally, it is also creating a national ID card system. Both of these are in direct conflict with what India should do as a tribal, medieval society.

Let’s consider the sequence of steps required to operate an online bank account in India.

Start with slow internet connections and frequent interruptions in electricity. Add extremely unwieldy websites, websites that do not open properly. My browser often gets hung up on these sites. My password has a limited validity and must be renewed regularly by using the old password and a one-time password sent to my mobile phone; and a lot goes wrong during this “simple” process. Once inside the account, however, I may need another one-time password and an additional transaction password to complete my business.

Most people actually walk down to their bank branch to do the so-called online transaction — a clear instance of the fact that trying to modernize any system beyond its natural capacity in a tribal society increases the costs and makes it more difficult. This is the persistent irony of modernization.

My Indian banks charge me fees and commissions I never agreed on. They then top it up with taxes on “services” provided. Bank statements are ridden with so many charges that only the rare person has time or patience to sort them out, particularly when the banks are crowded, and getting someone to talk to you on the phone is extremely difficult. When you get through to an agent, he usually knows nothing.

The frustration of the people has been steadily increasing. Instead of easing their lives, the reduction of cash has added significantly to the burden.

It gets worse, especially if you are the so-called common man. I know my way around pretty well, but I frequently get stuck. And here is a country where 25% of the population is officially illiterate and where engineers and doctors choose to apply for jobs as janitors, mostly because their degrees are no more than paper. It is a country where a large proportion of those who claim to be literate struggle to sign their own names, let alone show themselves capable of reading a sentence. Imagine how they would deal with forced digitalization of the currency system. This will end in disaster.

Even now, in the last six months that India has been trying to reduce the usage of cash, the frustration of the people has been steadily increasing. Instead of easing their lives, it has added significantly to the burden.

Notably, however, none of this means that people have gone against the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. He is winning election after election, and most people simply love him. When not facing banking problems in real time, they are actively in support of Modi’s attempt to go cashless. One must remind himself that this is a tribal, irrational society. People often cannot connect simple dots that are right in front of them; not even the so-called educated ones can do that. They tend to do exactly more of what created the original problem, which in this case is irrational authority.

Any tribal society contains the impetus to make bigger, and more complex systems of authority. Tribal people want nannies. They feel secure in big structures, despite the fact that such structures actually make them less safe. Tribal people demand free stuff, without any feeling of gratitude to any real source of wealth. Governments meet that emotional need, while doing little else for their subjects.

Any rational leader would make an aggressive attempt to counter a tribal society’s willingness to increase the sizes of its institutions. But tribal societies do not easily produce rational leaders. They operate through expediency, not through rationality or objective moral thinking.

The IMF and the World Bank think that these emerging markets need better institutions. They think these countries need to reduce corruption, which is one of the reasons for the push towards going cashless. Locals in these countries agree. The irony is that these locals haven’t a clue about what corruption means — their tribal worldview means that they do not see corruption from a moral perspective. They merely look at the need to end corruption as a tool of expediency to improve their personal lives. They may think that everyone should stop asking for bribes, but they do not include themselves individually in that equation. Any sane, non-tribal person can see that this does not add up.

Tribal societies do not easily produce rational leaders. They operate through expediency, not through rationality or objective moral thinking.

Contrary to the view of many libertarians, even when privatization does happen, there can only be limited improvements. Indian companies — for they have tribal people as ingredients — are instinctively dishonest. They lack a work ethic and, unconstrained by morals, they rampantly abuse their clients. For example, I used an online Indian travel agency to buy an international ticket. After tens of attempts the money left my bank account — but I never got my ticket. The company said I never paid. No one knows whether it was the bank or the agent that was at fault. Eventually the agent refunded my money to the bank, but then the bank blocked that money. I had to run around the bank, which could not trace that blocked money. I shouted, screamed, and threatened, but in this entangled mess, I don’t really know who was the culprit. I do know that big organizations and forced-from-the-top digital money simply do not work.

Given the low-trust culture, Indians prefer immediate exchange of goods for money and vice versa. If you pay for a later delivery, you undertake huge risks that your goods might never arrive, and if they do arrive it is not unlikely that you might receive substandard goods. If you sell goods for payment at a later date, your money might never come. No wonder 95% of Indian consumer transactions happen in cash, with goods exchanging hands exactly at the same time that cash is paid.

India’s attempts to go cashless will end in a disaster. This will become obvious in a few months, not years. But India is merely an example. The situation with most of the emerging markets is exactly the same (with China, perhaps, as the only exception).

The lesson is that poor countries are poor for a reason, despite all kinds of tools of technology — particularly the internet — that are available to make their economies rapidly converge with that of the West. Western institutions worked in the ex-colonies as long as Europeans ran their institutions. With Europeans long gone and European values no longer underpinning them, the institutions have increasingly become hollow structures — what one sees everywhere in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, with the exception of a few small countries. An attempt to go cashless is a tribal attempt to centralize, exactly when their institutions, including the institution of the nation-state, another European import, are imploding.




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