The High Priesthood

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Americans could be forgiven for thinking that a high priesthood existed in our government. Regardless of the office to which politicians aspire, they seem to be running for high priest. Politics and religion have become so enmeshed that it’s impossible to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

This can’t be constitutional. Nor does it benefit either politics or religion. It’s especially degrading to the latter.

Those who would serve the people would, if responsible, bid us to examine our own behavior — “our own” including their own and their voters’. If they were genuinely concerned about morality, they could do nothing else. Our politicos, however, constantly focus our obsessions on the behavior of other people. Government is all about making people do things or forcing them not to do them. There is no way to square that with “Take the plank out of your own eye before you take the splinter out of your neighbor’s” (Matthew 7:3–5).

Regardless of the office to which politicians aspire, they seem to be running for high priest.

President Trump is a strange choice for high priest. Cheating on his (third) wife with a porn star, then paying the woman to keep quiet, is hardly the sort of behavior the religious Right claims to countenance. But Trump is their man, so they’ve backed themselves into that corner. They have revealed that their real priority is not holiness but power.

Personally, this leaves me cold. I’m not interested in whether people addicted to political power think I’m a sinner, or whether they believe I am a Christian. Their opinion means nothing to me, nor should it.

The moralizers tell us that “society” needs morality. But “society” does not reason, and makes no rational decisions on its own. Only individuals do that. Individuals need morality, but politicians can do nothing to give it to them. Politicians deal not with the individual, but with the collective.

And in those dealings, they are profoundly immoral. Politics are all about lying, coveting, and stealing. But we members of society are also at fault. We dare not examine our own consciences if we’re going to be influenced collectively. We must concentrate on the splinter in our neighbor’s eye.

Our politicos constantly focus our obsessions on the behavior of other people. Government is all about making people do things or forcing them not to do them.

Democrats are not learning from the religious Right’s mistakes, but merely copying them. They want to make people do things. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is staking his reputation on his “progressive” Christianity. His big idea is a year of national service for every young adult in the country — “if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody after they're 18 spends a year in national service.” Having begun as a crusade against slavery, “progressive” Christianity now advocates slavery.

I must admit to a certain satisfaction when I hear an openly gay man boldly and unapologetically attest to being a Christian. I’m openly gay, and I am also a Christian. My faith has been hijacked by identity politics, and I like to see someone outside the religious Right standing up to claim it. But Pete Buttigieg has merely claimed it for another tribe, just as bound by identity politics as those of the religious Right. I, on the other hand, don’t want to make anyone do anything.

How do we reclaim our faith without permitting someone else to copyright it? The answer, it seems to me, can be found in the libertarian response. We are individuals who have no right to impose our religious strictures on others. That’s the way to peace. It makes harmony between individuals possible.

Religion remains the plaything of politicians and lobbyists, to the neglect of the individual and for the benefit of the tribe.

Government has no business deciding who can or cannot be Christian. Politicians can’t answer the question, regardless of which side they take. They shouldn’t conscript biblical principles for the sake of secular policy. Nor should young people be conscripted into involuntary servitude for the sake of a political vision, however public spirited it claims to be.

The religious Right still dominates the politics of religion. “Progressive” Christianity merely plays by the rules established by its adversaries. Religion remains the plaything of politicians and lobbyists, to the neglect of the individual and for the benefit of the tribe. No politician, of any stripe, can remedy this problem.

The one good thing to come out of Pete Buttigieg’s embrace of religious faith is that it shows those who support him are tired of the religious Right. The conversation has been broadened. But only when it’s tired of the politics of religion will the public remove a plank from its own eye.




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Some Dare Call It Treason

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On May 17, President Trump sent forth the following idiotic tweet:

My Campaign for President was conclusively spied on. Nothing like this has ever happened in American Politics. A really bad situation. TREASON means long jail sentences, and this was TREASON!

The president’s tweet responded to the constant, equally idiotic accusations of his highly placed enemies that he himself was guilty of treason — supposedly for colluding with the Russians, actually for committing lèse majesté against the political class. But that doesn’t mean he’s right to take up their theme. “Treason” has a definition, and one of the worst things that can happen to the republic is for definitions to be widened by people in power until suddenly, anyone can be accused of anything.

It’s not a complicated matter. Anyone who can read the Constitution can understand the treason clause.

In The God of the Machine, Isabel Paterson pointed the significance of Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution:

The treason clause remains unique in all the long record of political institutions. In the first place, it declares that there is no such crime as treason in peace time. “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Nothing but armed rebellion or joining with an enemy nation — and nations are, by definition, enemies only when at war — can be treason.

That’s it. It’s not a complicated matter. Anyone who can read the Constitution can understand the treason clause. As recent years have shown, however, practically no one in power has ever read anything more challenging than slogans and donor lists.




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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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Libertarian Party Optimism

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I believe that within the next 50 years the Libertarian Party will become a major force in American politics, taking 20 to 30% of the vote nationally and electing a wide swath of candidates.

One reason is that the Millennial generation and the so-called Generation Z will live to see the day when Social Security runs out of money, and they will seek an alternative to the establishment out of sheer survival instincts. Another may be that if Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez becomes president and socialism destroys the economy, Generation Z will flock to the LP.

But today, unlike the tomorrow of the future, the Libertarian Party is held together by duct tape, some sticky half-chewed gum, and some old frayed shoe laces. This was evident at the 2019 convention of the Manhattan Libertarian Party. A lot of people were there, old and young, party stalwarts and people new to the LP, but the event was cozy and unpretentious, lacking the grand pomp and pageantry of a Democrat or Republican rally. It was held in a giant room in the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant in Manhattan, in what seems to be a Ukrainian state building. I would not have been surprised if Russian spies were listening to every word said in that room. The centerpiece of the event, other than the election of the 2019 Manhattan LP officers, was speeches given by Matt Welch of Reason magazine and Larry Sharpe, LP gubernatorial candidate. Sharpe got enough votes for the New York Libertarian Party to become an officially recognized party in the state, with full ballot access, after waging a courageous yet doomed campaign against Democratic juggernaut Andrew Cuomo and his corrupt New York political machine.

The Millennial generation and the so-called Generation Z will live to see the day when Social Security runs out of money, and they will seek an alternative to the establishment out of sheer survival instincts.

Hearing Mr. Sharpe speak, I found that he was a real libertarian, a smart man, a good public speaker, and a fighter, and he seemed to have a firm grasp of important issues. That having been said, it is clear why he did not, and could not, win: he simply lacked the network and political machine and fundraising dollars of, for example, an Andrew Cuomo or a Hillary Clinton. He also lacks the raw charisma and the hypnotizing, mesmerizing rhetorical skill of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and other populists. If you are not a member of the elite and can't be a populist, it is tough to win. Just being a nice guy is not enough, as Sharpe, Gary Johnson, and other Libertarians have learned every time they’ve run for office.

There is an important question, as the Libertarian Party matures, of whether it will evolve into a populist party or try to be seen as a respectable mainstream party fielding "real, legitimate" politicians. That tension was present at the convention, perhaps never more palpably than while Matt Welch of Reason spoke. I am not going to rehash what he said, but instead reflect on the role of Reason in the current moment of libertarianism. Reason projects an image of a libertarian version of the mainstream media, full of polished experts with extensive knowledge who come across as highly professional and whom it is easy to take seriously. Indeed, Reason is a libertarian medium that wants to be taken seriously by the establishment and the political elites, to move the needle on policy and to be read by the intellectual and educated classes. So, too, within the Libertarian Party, many of us want candidates who will be taken seriously by the voters and fit in with the political elites and the real politicians and not be a mere joke or token candidate who can't win.

But there is a catch. Core libertarian policies, such as abolishing the income tax, ending the Federal Reserve, putting currency back on a gold standard, terminating Social Security, legalizing the wide range of drugs, are not taken seriously, and will not be taken seriously, by the American public, and certainly never by the elites and the establishment. There are simply too many ways the government helps the rich, too many Wall Street bailouts, too many efforts of educated elites to use government to control the great unwashed masses of the public, for the educated class or the political elites to turn libertarian. So if the LP runs real candidates who want to be “taken seriously,” it loses something of its credibility and its integrity with its original ideals. Each Libertarian must grapple with what to sacrifice — principles, or being accepted by the establishment.

It is clear why the LP gubernatorial candidate did not, and could not, win: he simply lacked the network and political machine and fundraising dollars of, for example, an Andrew Cuomo or a Hillary Clinton.

You see the problem. Matt Welch even had to cut his speech short at the end because he was scheduled to appear on Kennedy’s show later that night. She and John Stossel do a lot to fold libertarianism into the Fox News vision. There is a certain type of person I think of as a Reason reader — affluent, young, male, highly educated, and very angry that he has to pay taxes and isn't allowed to smoke weed. He reads Reason with a sense of rebellion, yet as a member of the middle class or upper class he is himself a part of the establishment. Such people will one day face a choice — stay true to being real libertarians, or be taken seriously by the educated class and take their rightful place among the elite.

Still, by putting up a fight to be taken seriously as libertarians, Reason and people like Matt Welch slowly but surely shift the public's conception of what is to be taken seriously, and I am optimistic that in about 50 years it will shift enough for libertarians with integrity to our core principles to be taken seriously and be viewed as legitimate and get elected. If and when that happens, the tension and contradiction between being a real libertarian and being a member of the political class or the mainstream media establishment may end, and being libertarian may become mainstream.

This is a long way of explaining why I viewed Matt with caution and a sense of tension, despite the fact that he gave a fun, enjoyable talk about himself and Reason, and shared an interesting anecdote about Ayn Rand threatening to sue Reason in its early days after it acquired Nathaniel Branden's mailing list.

Core libertarian policies are not taken seriously, and will not be taken seriously, by the American public, and certainly never by the elites and the establishment.

There will never be a one-size-fits-all answer for a group as diverse as libertarians. During Q and A with Mr. Welch and Mr. Sharpe, there was some talk of whether libertarians should be radical or be moderate and seek the space between Left and Right. The consensus seemed to be that the moderate center is an illusion and radicals are more likely to get elected. Moderate or radical, freak or conformist sell-out, is another way to frame this question.

For decades, my other tribe, the LGBT community, has been grappling with whether to go mainstream or persist as proud to be freaks, and we still have not decided as a movement. There is still a cold war between the advocates of gay marriage and those among us who oppose marriage as an institution. So, too, may it be with the libertarian movement: an unending war between radicals and pragmatists.

The future of the Libertarian Party looks bright. Although the party today is small and splintered, check back in 50 years. I believe my prediction will prove correct.




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The Trump Cuba Chronicles

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On April 17, 2019, the 58th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, John Bolton, America’s National Security Advisor, announced what may turn out to be the death knell for Cuba’s socialist government. (By contrast, at the same time NPR recounted and gushed about the 60th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and his visit to New York and Harlem in April 1959.)

No matter the ultimate outcome of Bolton’s announcement, this policy change will create the mother of all litigation, securing full employment for lawyers throughout Europe and the Americas on multiple lawsuits of greater length and complexity than Charles Dickens’ fictional Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Truth is stranger than fiction.

This saga began in January 1996, when José Basulto, head of Brothers to the Rescue, flew into Cuban airspace — twice — and dropped half a million anti-Castro leaflets over Havana. Basulto hated the regime. He was a Bay of Pigs veteran and had spent two years in Castro’s prisons. He had founded Brothers to the Rescue, a group of volunteer pilots, to scour the Florida Straits for wayward “rafts” (crafts often no more than inner tubes cobbled together with twine) overloaded with refugees escaping Cuba — the sort on which Elián Gonzales was found.

No matter the ultimate outcome of Bolton’s announcement, this policy change will create the mother of all litigation, securing full employment for lawyers throughout Europe and the Americas.

But this time his hate got the best of him. Fidel was not amused by the leaflets caper. He ordered the next incursion of Cuban airspace neutralized. The following month, on February 24, Brothers to the Rescue flew a routine search mission. While outside Cuban territorial waters — and without warning — a Cuban Air Force Mikoyan Mig-29UB shot down two of the Brothers’ unarmed Cessna Skymasters, killing 3 pilots. The third Cessna, piloted by Basulto, escaped.

While the Cuban pilot exulted, “We blew his balls off! He won’t give us any more fucking trouble,” the US populace, Congress, and President Clinton were outraged. Two Republican Congressmen, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Representative Dan Burton of Indiana had, two years previously, introduced legislation to tighten the screws on the Castro regime. But the Helms-Burton Act, as it came to be known, was tabled following Democrat filibusters in support of President Clinton’s efforts to improve relations with the island.

Following the downing of the two private planes on a humanitarian mission, Helms and Burton immediately reintroduced their bill. It was passed by both houses of Congress on March 6, only ten days after the cold-blooded murder.

Fidel was not amused by the leaflets caper.

Helms-Burton was the latest installment on a trade embargo first declared in October 1960 by the Eisenhower administration in retaliation for the nationalization without compensation of American-owned oil refineries on the island. The Cuban regime responded with the nationalization of all remaining American businesses and most American privately owned properties. Again, no compensation was offered for the seizures. Additionally, a number of US diplomats were expelled from Cuba. The US then severed diplomatic relations with the socialist regime.

Title III of the Helms-Burton Act authorized US nationals whose property in Cuba had been confiscated to file suit in US courts against persons who might be "trafficking" in that property. However, the act granted the president the authority to suspend the lawsuit provisions if it was necessary to the national interest of the United States and would expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba.

Private European companies, which had been investing in Cuba through joint ventures with the Cuban government, raised holy hell, creating a serious European Union trade dispute with the US. In response, President Clinton exercised the suspension authority through a nonbinding declaration of intention, approved in April 1997 in order to settle the brouhaha. That suspension has been renewed by every US president since.

And then along came Donald J. Trump. In June 2017, he impetuously declared, "Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba."

The Cuban regime responded with the nationalization of all remaining American businesses and most American privately owned properties. No compensation was offered for the seizures.

But before making any changes, President Trump and Vice President Pence decided to meet with the members of the Cuban exile community in Little Havana, especially the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. According to Carlos León, the second youngest member of the invasion Brigade 2506 and later to become the Association’s historian and Interim president (he was already this author’s cousin), Trump and Pence met with a select group of the veterans for four hours — much longer than the meeting had been scheduled for.

Very few of the veterans had supported Trump during the election but, according to Carlos, they found Trump and Pence to be good listeners and receptively involved in the give-and-take of the discussions. Most of the vets had supported most of Obama’s Cuba policies. They succeeded in tempering Trump’s proposed changes down to two minor initiatives all could agree upon.

The policy changes tightened US citizens’ travel to Cuba by more closely vetting the already approved travel categories — a step that in practice meant little, especially for the independent travelers flouting US regulations by departing from Mexico, Canada, and the Bahamas. And they sought to curtail American spending on the island to prevent proceeds from benefiting the Cuban military, government, and intelligence services. The latter basically made it illegal for US citizens to stay in government hotels, a change that benefitted the island’s burgeoning private B&B industry. The litigation suspension clause was not mentioned.

Until now.

Proposed policy changes (even under the unconventional Trump administration) are usually discreetly floated, to test reaction. When Carlos heard about the change to Title III of Helms-Burton, he invited John Bolton to officially make the announcement at the Casa de la Brigada in Miami. Ambassador Bolton accepted and, on April 17, the 58th anniversary of the failed invasion, before the assembled surviving veterans of the Bay of Pigs, he opened the floodgates of litigation against entities profiting from the uncompensated stolen properties in Cuba by the Castro regime.

It’s not just today’s joint ventures that are in Helms-Burton’s crosshairs. Past joint ventures and foreign companies with management contracts are potentially liable.

I asked Carlos his impression of Bolton. “For such a giant mustache, I expected a big man. Instead, he’s surprisingly small [5’7”].”

“Coño, Carlos! I mean his character,” I groused.

“The man is a straight-up guy — listening, engaged and transparent,” he answered.

Foreign private company joint ventures with the Cuban government — which always retains a 51% interest — have roller-coastered since they were first proposed. The 1990s were their heyday, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba was desperate for cash. In the early 2000s, after Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela and began subsidizing the Cuban economy, Cuba reverted to centralizing its economy, and foreign investment dried up. About 200 foreign joint ventures folded. In 2010, some 300 Spanish firms were begging for the payments they were due. As of 2011, about 250 joint ventures remained viable.

But it’s not just today’s joint ventures that are in Helms-Burton’s crosshairs. Past joint ventures and foreign companies with management contracts — any entities profiting in any way from expropriated properties — are potentially liable.

On May 2, Miami-based Carnival Cruise Line became the first US company sued for using property confiscated six decades ago by Cuba’s revolutionary government.

"There could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims . . . and that value could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

According to the Washington Post, “The actions, in federal court in Miami, were filed by two U.S. citizens whose parents owned commercial docks in Havana and in the southeastern Cuban city of Santiago. ‘The communist government,’ the claim said, ‘nationalized, expropriated, and seized ownership and control’ of the properties when their families fled the island in 1960.”

Kimberly Breier, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters last month, “The most recent estimate we have from 1996, at the time that the law was enacted, [is] that there could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims . . . and that value could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

With Venezuela imploding and the specter of the liability of billions of dollars facing foreign investment in the island, Cuba faces a second “special period in Time of Peace” that will test the regime’s survival.




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Votes Nix Free Digs

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I see that voters in Denver have rejected a ballot measure that would allow homeless the right to eat, sit, sleep, and camp out in public parks and highway rights-of-way, and on public sidewalks. Voters rejected it by a vote of 81% to 19% — four to one! — despite its warm endorsement by the local Democratic Party, the local American Civil Liberties Union, and a group called Occupy Denver.

I guess the voters of Denver didn’t want to be occupied. I don’t want to be, either, except that I live in Seattle, a city that already is. Here the homeless eat, sit, sleep, pitch tents, park their ramshackle motor homes, steal grocery carts, and chuck garbage in a lot of places. At the park near my house the cops do clear them out from time to time, but they come back. Around some freeway interchanges near downtown their trash-strewn encampments seem to be permanent.

The problem is not that he abuses drugs; some of the people in the houses abuse drugs.

Denver’s ballot measure was called the “Right to Survive Initiative.” This “right” included “the right to rest in a non-obstructive manner in public spaces,” “the right to shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces,” and “the right to occupy one’s own legally parked motor vehicle.” All winter, as I went for daily walks, I passed several of these vehicles in the city park. They were in the park for months, conveniently located near the covered cooking areas and the restrooms.

I resent this. Not so much because it is dangerous to the public health. That is the reason politicians cite, but it’s a political reason, a lawyer’s reason. Some of the encampments may be a health hazard, but some of them near public restrooms and garbage cans may not be. Health is an issue, but it’s not the central one. The park near my home is an urban amenity. It is in an area of some of the most expensive real estate in the Pacific Northwest — real estate that is far too expensive to be used as a campground of any sort. Campgrounds belong on cheap land away from the city, in the desert or out in the woods. The park I’m thinking of is surrounded by million-dollar houses. Some of the owners of those houses are paying more than $10,000 a year property tax, to say nothing of their house payments. They need to work, full-time, at intelligent and stressful jobs to be able to live in such houses, and they treat their houses and yards with care. And right across the street, or a few blocks away, some suntanned, unshaven vagrant waddles up with a stolen Safeway cart overflowing with bags, pitches a tent that the welfare people gave him, and sets up housekeeping while paying nothing. The problem is not that he abuses drugs; some of the people in the houses abuse drugs. It’s not that he pees in the bushes. Dogs pee in the bushes. It’s that he’s there at all.

For years there have been signs in the windows of businesses saying, “Now Hiring.” There is a sign like that within a block of my house. Work is available.

I can hear the apologists: “You’re just a bourgeois.” Damn right. And no apologies. But I do not limit my solicitude to the owners of million-dollar houses. My neighborhood has townhouses, condos, apartments, and old houses cut into rental units. There are garages converted to mother-in-law units, some of them legal and some not, and there are houses shared by single tenants. I know of an old junk shop with a room in the back. I don’t object to any of those. I draw the line at sleeping in doorways and camping in the park.

Again, I can hear the apologists: “They’re homeless. Where are they supposed to go?” Hey, that’s their problem. It’s a problem that every adult has, and until recently everyone has been able to solve. It’s not that difficult. You ask, where can they go? The social welfare people regularly visit the homeless and offer them space in shelters — and they refuse to live there. And that’s fine: they can go to work. The unemployment rate in America is the lowest in 50 years, and it’s lower in Seattle than almost anywhere else. For years there have been signs in the windows of businesses saying, “Now Hiring.” There is a sign like that within a block of my house. Work is available. A few miles from my house is a Home Depot where a line of Mexicans stand every day, waiting for work for strangers who drive up in cars. These Mexicans are poorly dressed. Probably they speak only a little English, if any. Maybe many of them are illegal. But they are willing to work.




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Meddle Not!

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . . . that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

That’s the theory of the Declaration of Independence.  This is my deduction: If a government has no just power to exist, anyone is morally free to go to work and try to shut it down. We should not assume, however, that everyone should start trying that stunt, right here and right now. It’s possible that foreigners, for example, should mind their own business. Here’s a principle that used to be honored in America: our government shouldn’t meddle with the affairs of other countries, unless it has a self-defensive reason for doing so.

That principle has been interpreted to mean that all governments are created equal, and that their so-called rights should always be respected. In other words, “We have the Bomb, but, to be fair, why shouldn’t North Korea have the Bomb as well?” I can tell you why North Korea shouldn’t have the Bomb, but you know it already.

Now to my subject. Venezuela is ruled by a socialist dictatorship that is as mean and oppressive and just plain stupid as you would expect a socialist dictatorship to be. Very well. What follows from that?

Does it follow that our government should try to remove the government of Venezuela? That it should plot with the Venezuelan military to remove the country’s dictator? That it should, in effect, wage war against Venezuela as currently constituted?

This, it appears, is what our government is doing.

It’s not as if Venezuela had the Bomb. It’s not even as if Venezuela constituted an economic threat to us, now that we have enough of our own oil not to need any more of Venezuela’s. Besides, the socialists have wrecked the country’s oil industry. If crass self-interest were our guide, we would be happy to lose a competitor, in the political as well as the economic realm. The best advertisement for capitalism and limited government is the hideous failure of Venezuelan socialism.

It is reported that the vast majority of Venezuelans think it’s impossible for them to remove their own government, and that they want some foreign power to do it (guess which). I admit that if I were a Venezuelan, I’d probably be praying for an American invasion. In the current crisis, I probably wouldn’t have enough presence of mind to remember how badly the interference of “international Boy Scouts,” as Isabel Paterson called them, has turned out for some of the intended beneficiaries. But the truth, the truth on which self-interest and moral principle agree, is that the Venezuelans got themselves into this mess, and they need to get themselves out of it.




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Muzungus in the Mist

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Part I: The Slow Cyclists

“Run!”

“Run where, Papa?”

“Into the bush! Now!

Little seven-year old D’Artagnan had no idea what was going on. Was he supposed to run “into the bush” alone? Why? Rwanda had very little “bush”; it was all agricultural small holdings.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time.

That was the evening of April 6, 1994. That afternoon Rwandan Hutu dictator and president, Juvénal Habyarimana, along with Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, also a Hutu, were shot down by missiles fired at close range as their plane was landing at the Kigali airport. Officially, the attackers remain unidentified. Though Hutu extremists blame the Rwandan Patriotic Forces (RPF) — Tutsi and moderate Hutu rebels opposed to Habyarimana’s dictatorship — RPF forces were nowhere near the area. Only the elite presidential guard was nearby, stationed at the Kigali airport, next door to the president’s compound — and they were armed with missiles.

Habyarimana was just returning from Tanzania after a regional summit. Three months prior he’d signed the Arusha Peace Accords, a power-sharing deal with the RPF that was supposed to put an end to the long-running civil war between the National Revolutionary Movement (MRND) and the RPF. A cabal of Hutu extremists in high government posts, reluctant to cede any power or spoils, opposed the deal. Habyarimana himself was no fan of it; the international community and the RPF’s military might forced it on him.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time. Machetes imported from China, grenades from France (military support of several kinds had been provided by the French government), and masus, clubs with protruding nails on their heads, had been stockpiled for this moment. Extremist Hutu militias, known as the interahamwe (those who attack together), had trained for this moment since 1990. Within hours of the downing of the plane the interahamwe went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians — including the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana.

We’d gone to Rwanda to bike around the small country, our favorite way of discovering new places. With an undergraduate minor in primatology, I wanted to see gorillas up close. What better venue than the Virunga volcanoes where Dian Fossey had done her studies? And my wife Tina had never been to Africa. It was a bucket list thing.

Within hours the militias went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians.

We signed up for an 8-day tour with Slow Cyclist, an outfit out of Britain. Having been an outdoor guide all my life, hiring a guide rankled. But the gorilla permits are difficult to acquire, there are no adequate maps of Rwanda’s back roads, my Kinyarwandan is non-existent, and Slow Cyclist promised a first-class mountain bike tour with a guaranteed gorilla trek at the end. So I held my nose and signed up for their Kigali to Virunga ride along the steepest, roughest backroads in East Africa (I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo), with custom lodging at tea plantations, private homes, and reservation-only boutique inns.

After the Slow Cyclist tour, Tina and I would traverse the Congo-Nile Trail, a moderately hard world-class mountain bike trail along giant Lake Kivu on the Congo border. Because much of the single-track is difficult to follow and lodging scarce and variable, we planned on hiring a guide from Rwandan Adventures, a custom guide outfit. After that we’d be on our own across the southern half of the country and back up to Kigali. Our full route traced a circle around the western half of Rwanda, starting and ending in Kigali, which is approximately in the center of the country.

Even though we brought our bikes with us, entry formalities were search- and customs-free. The immigration official greeted us with a big smile and declared that we were VIPs. He asked my profession. I said I was a retired teacher. He responded, “My son says that teachers never retire.”

I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo.

On the first day Slow Cyclist took us to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Two hundred and fifty thousand people are buried there. Our guide around the small museum was D’Artagnan. Something about our small custom group — seven participants from the US, Switzerland and Germany — seemed to affect D’Artagnan’s stock presentation. When he recounted the events of that April 6 evening he couldn’t hold back his tears. Neither could we.

“How did you survive?” we hesitantly but anxiously asked.

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated. He added that the interahamwe grabbed small children by the feet and swung them against masonry walls to smash their heads; larger ones were decapitated by machete. No one left that museum tour without physically touching D’Artagnan, who nonetheless left us without ceremony.

In some ways the Rwandan genocide was much worse than the Nazi Holocaust. Patrick Mazimpaka, a minister in the 1997 RPF-led government reflected, “In Germany, the Jews were . . . moved to . . . distant locations, and killed there, almost anonymously. In Rwanda . . . your neighbors killed you. In Germany, if the population participated in the killing, it was not directly but indirectly.”

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated.

Mahmood Mandami, in his scholarly analysis When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, says:

The technology of the Holocaust allowed a few to kill many, but [in Rwanda] the machete had to be wielded by a single pair of hands. It required not one but many hacks to kill even one person. With a machete, killing was hard work; that is why there were often several killers for every single victim . . . The Rwandan genocide was very much an intimate affair. It was carried out by hundreds of thousands, perhaps even more, and witnessed by millions.

Then there are the raw numbers. Rwanda had seven million inhabitants before the genocide. Nearly one million were Tutsis. During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute. That the entire Tutsi population wasn’t annihilated is due to the many waves of Tutsi refugees that found asylum in Uganda, Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania before and during the killing.

The disaster didn’t begin there. The Hutu-Tutsi rivalry became deadly in 1897 when the ruling class — mostly Tutsis — imposed heavy duties on the peasants — mostly Hutus. Then it took another turn in1933 when the Belgian authorities decided to issue mandatory identity cards to all Ruandan-Urundis (as residents of the colony were then called), thereby freezing ethnic and class identity. It was then that infrequent pogroms — by both sides — began taking place. Before then, the Hutu-Tutsi classes were not fixed: a Hutu could become a Tutsi and vice versa. Intermarriage was common, to such a degree that an observer could not visually distinguish an archetypal Hutu from a Tutsi. (Except for the king, who was 7’2” tall; height is a supposedly defining Tutsi trait.) Neither could we make such visual distinctions during our one-month sojourn and 700-kilometer bike ride around the country.

During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute.

Killings began in earnest in 1959, with subsequent waves in 1962, 1963, 1967, and continued periodically until 1994. In 1972 there was a 250,000 reverse massacre: of Hutus in neighboring Burundi by the Tutsi-dominated government (even though the Hutu-Tutsi proportion in Burundi was the same as in Rwanda: 85% to 15%).

The RPF started their advance south from Mulindi, headquarters next to the Ugandan border, on April 7. Though Kigali was only about 80 kilometers away, they began a three-pronged pincer movement targeting Byumba — the first big city on the road south — Kigali, and Butare, Rwanda’s number two city and intellectual capital, with the intent of breaking supply chains and laying siege to all three. They were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius. When government troops faced the RPF advance, they often ran away. The Interahamwe, armed only with machetes and masus, followed them, while the Hutu Power militias evaporated. The Presidential Guard, the best trained soldiers of the regime, put up the most resistance. As Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, stated in his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, “The RGF (Rwandan Government Forces) soldiers were killing for the sake of killing, not knowing or caring why. In this type of conflict, the men fighting for principles they believed in would inevitably win.”

Finally, after the RPF victory on the Fourth of July, 1994, the Hutu militias, Interahamwe, and remnants of the previous government’s army fled to Congo and regrouped there, with hopes of overthrowing the new RPF government in Rwanda. Kagame, the defense chief of the RPF (and later president of the country) would have none of that. He enlisted the aid of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whom he’d helped to topple Ugandan dictator Milton Obote with the RPF forces, to neutralize the génocidaires.

The RPF were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius.

Counting the killings before the genocide, the genocide itself, and killings that continued in wars directly resultant from the genocide, the death toll topped six million.

* * *

In Kigali, Slow Cyclist ensconced us in the Heaven Chalet, next door but one to President Paul Kagame’s residence and about two blocks from the Hotel Mille des Collines, site of the events depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda. If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads. Each hill is overlaid with a paisley street pattern with connector avenues to the other hills.

Kigali is a spotlessly clean city. In fact, all of Rwanda is litter-free; plastic bags are even outlawed. Not only are the people proud of their country but on the last Saturday of every month all businesses shut down and a general cleanup ensues. Kigali is also a city without slums, beggars, homeless people, bare footedness, potholes, or animals — even dogs. Their curious absence drove home for us, more than anything, including the numbers of dead, how they died, and D’Artagnan’s tale, the enormity of the genocide.

If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads.

When the genocide ended on July 4, 1994, a country of 10,000 square miles was peppered with one million dead. They lay both scattered and in clusters, many piled in churches where they’d sought refuge (although there were a few hastily dug mass graves). Rwanda’s neglected and hungry dogs dug into the corpses. As if carpets of corpses weren’t overwhelming enough, watching hungry dogs scavenging the dead was beyond anyone’s tolerance. All dogs were killed. Nearly 25 years later we encountered only two instances of dogs, both pets of foreigners.

The police, according to all accounts, are incorruptible. One informant told us that when offered a bribe, they are instructed to accept it and keep it — and then to write a citation for bribing. Emi, our driver and guide, said thieves and assaulters were lucky if caught by the police. Woe betide the miscreant who is set upon by witnessing passersby before the arrival of the cops.

Traffic laws are strictly enforced. One practice that wouldn’t pass muster in the US but makes the streets much safer for pedestrians and bikers is that any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge. Motorcycle taxis (moto-taxis), the most common mode of public transportation (along with buses and bicycles kitted up with a back seat), carry a spare helmet for fares. And they are scrupulously honest, with no price negotiation. Just flag one down, state your destination, and upon arrival hand over any denomination of Rwandan francs, and you’ll get the right change. How they figure the correct amount remains a mystery to me, but the fares for similar distances from different drivers remained consistent.

To avoid Kigali traffic — which isn’t particularly fast or outrageously dense — Slow Cyclist drove us to the outskirts of the city, and up the first thousand feet of our first day’s ride. With another 4,000 feet up to go, and 50 kilometers along impossibly steep and rugged dirt roads, we’d have been hard pressed to reach the Sorwathe Tea Plantation in Kinihira, our first night’s lodging, without that initial motorized boost.

Kinihira had been fought over in the civil war launched by the RPF in October 1990. It was here that much of the Arusha Peace Accords had been negotiated. It then became neutral ground and was the site of the official launch of the UNAMIR peace keeping force in October 1993. We slept on hallowed ground.

Any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge.

As avid bikers, Tina and I can hold our own in any group. But the four 26-year-old Swiss and one German, all experienced mountain bikers, made me feel my age; it was my birthday, and I’d turned 69 that day. Still, it was a tough day for us all: two flats, one lost biker, and a crash so bad it forced the German to ride in the four-wheel drive support vehicle for two days with a bandaged forearm. Was it going to be so difficult every day?

Pretty much. Fifty-five kilometers and 3,500 feet of altitude gain on the second day, all on rocky, rutted four-wheel drive back roads. We started, however, with a tour of the tea factory, with full-on hygienic suits. Observing the sophisticated operation, which was literally “in the middle of nowhere,”’ we were amazed that the entire factory was operated by four massive wood-burning boilers stoked round-the-clock.

During that day’s ride, Tim, one of the Swiss riders, and an economist by trade, with a take-no-prisoners approach to development economics, deigned to ride with this old fogy. He was open and friendly, with a confident arrogance that I found attractive. Since both of us were impatient with small talk, I told him I was an admirer of Hayek and Mises. He added Hernando de Soto, confirming that we shared some theoretical premises.

I then asked him what he thought of Jeffrey Sachs, the doyen of development economics. Tim found the man’s views deplorable and unrealistic, but had bought the main book that expounded his views. When he saw that the introduction was written by a rock star, Bono — Tim’s words were now dripping with sarcasm — he put off reading it.

On a roll, he moved on to a rant about “fair trade,” one of his favorite foils. Like the American economist Tyler Cowen, who observed that if you want to help the really poor, you don’t buy “fair trade,” Tim had his own beef with the concept, especially when thoughtlessly lumped in a basket of other trendy ideologies.

Was it going to be so difficult every day? Pretty much.

A friend back in Bern, an advocate of fair trade and sustainability, had been buying a “fair trade” avocado when Tim revealed to her that the inefficiencies behind that import did not fit a sustainable model — on any level. She sheepishly put the avocado back on the shelf. I sensed an opening to have fun by presenting a poser on economic inefficiencies, as follows.

Our biking guides, Olivier and Godfrey, came from Rwanda and Uganda respectively. Both were 23 years old, excellent competitive mountain bikers, personable and sensitive, with good English. Slow Cyclist also runs tours in Transylvania, Tuscany, and Greece that are manned by locals. Savannah, our Slow Cyclist head honcho on this tour, told me that Slow Cyclist was mulling over bringing Olivier and Godfrey to Transylvania as on-the-ground biking guides — initially on a training basis — and bringing Romanian guides to Rwanda. I told Tim about Savannah’s plans, drolly emphasizing how inefficient such a move would be.

Tim looked at me impishly and admitted that there were some things more important than economic efficiency. I could tell by his smile that a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, had found a new friend.

I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted.

During the succeeding days we continued to enjoy various topics in economics. One evening after a couple of banana beers, I brought up a thought about incentives that I‘d been mulling over for a while when he asked me how long Tina and I had been married; a question, no doubt, precipitated by how well — and uninhibitedly — she and I got along.

I told him we weren’t married, but had been together for 30 years and had known each other for 40, adding that we thought marriage was premised on the wrong set of incentives. Tim was intrigued. I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted. Better to promise to leave each other if not treated with love and respect; that way, you’re both always at your best and remain attractive to each other. Remember that love is a marketplace and that potential mates are everywhere and that we’re always comparing what we have to what we could have. So always be at your best so you remain your mate’s number one attraction.

Tim just stared at me, transfixed. There was little under the sun that he hadn’t thought about, but I could tell that what I had just said was new, really new, phrased in his economist’s language.

Tim’s fellow Swiss, all single and consisting of a lawyer, a tech whiz, and another economist — one whose work had been quoted in academic papers — were also of an intellectual bent. The following morning all four rode without their usual vigor; they’d stayed up most of the night drinking beer and discussing my views on marriage. Adrian, the other economist, thought me a bit cold, cynical, and outside the mainstream — hence the long discussion. But Tim was convinced of the soundness of my analysis and decided to approach relationships from a new perspective.

* * *

Our little group was mobbed by locals at every tiny village and water, rest, and regrouping stop. Rwanda is densely populated; there are people everywhere, though white people are very uncommon. As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps. But when the cameras came out, so — often — did their shyness. Adults would also crowd around curiously, inspect our bikes, shake our hands, and try to engage us with smatterings of French or English, such as “Good morning” or “What is your name?”

Tina and I, with Kinyarwandan phrases taped to our handlebar packs, would respond in Kinyarwandan, a difficult and unintuitive language for us. Often, just for fun and to elicit laughs from the kids, I’d respond nonsensically and unexpectedly with some words I’d memorized, such as inkoko (chicken), umukondo (belly button), and ingrube (pig) — ordinary words, but out of the ordinary in introductory conversations. One of the words I memorized was umwirabura, black person, which I’d lob back at being called a muzungu.The pitch-black African faces would break into broad grins with teeth so uniform and white that we began to wonder how such perfect dental health resulted in this third world country. And it wasn’t just the nearly universal perfect dentition that was noteworthy. Like the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, Rwandans — men, women, and children — are good-looking and of above average intelligence. In a month and 700 kilometers, we saw perhaps a handful of smokers and even fewer overweight people. At the risk of losing further credibility, I’ll add that — in our experience — they are all friendly, transparent, outgoing, honest, and helpful. When faced with a hill too steep, roadside Rwandans would pitch in to help us push our bikes. They are a people to fall in love with.

Muzungu: originally a Swahili word meaning “aimless wanderer,” but now generally used as a term for white people. However, it can also be used for any foreigner, including American black people. Emi, our driver, told us he’d driven many American actors, including Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Isaiah Washington (an actor in Grey’s Anatomy)to and from the gorilla trekking. Though singling out Washington, Emi generalized to other American stars (mostly black, but including some whites), saying that they were all nice but had a propensity to use “jive” language that included terms such as “bad-ass,” “fucking amazing,” and other obscenities used as intensifying modifiers for compliments. Emi had to gently censure them. Rwandans are conservative in deportment though generally liberal in attitudes. They found jive language offensive and offputting.

As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps.

On our third day out we approached the Rift Valley in northern Rwanda, with its lakes and volcanoes swaddled in mists that added an air of mystery to our anticipation. After a half-day of riding, which included a single-track section composed of an eight-inch ridge flanked by foot-and-a-half-deep ruts on each side that only Olivier and Godfrey could ride, we arrived at Lake Ruhondo. Two wooden boats with canopies, close relatives of the African Queen, awaited to take our bikes and us to the Foyer de Charité, a Catholic convent on a distant shore. Poor Godfrey and Olivier. They couldn’t swim and were terrified of the boat ride, snuggled in their Mae Wests and begging us not to move from our seats for fear of unbalancing the boats. After their display of expertise on the single-track, their worry was an endearing counterpoint.

The following day began with a walk down to the lake and another boat ride to an even farther shore, followed by a steep 2.5-mile uphill walk to the tony Virunga Lodge for a lunch of pea soup and tenderloin steak.

A mile before the lodge, we hit a newly-built public library, again in the middle of nowhere (yes, I know, it’s getting old . . . all of Rwanda seems to be in the middle of nowhere). It was a modest structure, but well-planned and executed. At least half a dozen people were using the new computers or perusing the stacks. One budding artist was drawing a charcoal portrait of a silverback. They were thrilled to have muzungu visitors. We got a tour. All of us made generous contributions to its upkeep and expansion.

Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation.

The Virunga Lodge sits atop a hill with stunning views of the Virunga volcanoes. We were welcomed by a drummer and two Intore (“warrior”) dancers. It’s only accessible by bike, helicopter, or very long four-wheel drive. You can’t get there by car unless you have a four-wheel drive. Inside, the Dian Fossey map room beckoned.

Louis Leakey was important in recommending primatologists to the National Geographic. He favored women: Dian Fossey for gorillas, Jane Goodall for chimps, and Birute Galdikas for orangutans. But I sought credit in that map room for George Schaller, the pioneer of mountain gorilla studies in the Virungas, and without whose groundbreaking research Fossey might not have gotten anywhere. And, taking pride of place . . . there he was, in a large framed article crediting him with initiating the gorilla studies.

In the afternoon we rode 26 kilometers, downhill, on perfect tarmac to Ruhengeri. On the outskirts we passed the headquarters of Team Rwanda, the national cycling team, and stopped for a short visit. It was a first-class operation, with some bike frames weighing as little as three pounds. Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation. The first set of high-end bikes was donated to the team by President Paul Kagame. When the team rides, either for practice or for competition during the Tour de Rwanda, people line the streets and cheer as they pass — behavior our group experienced often as we rode.

Bikes even played a part in the development of Rwandan coffee (heirloom bourbon of an Arabica strain), to my taste the best in the world, comparable to Jamaican Blue Mountain. In 2002, the world discovered Rwandan coffee. But there was a big problem for the small holders who grew the beans. The beans need to be processed within eight hours of being picked, or they begin fermenting, developing rotten flavors. Some farmers, after picking the coffee in the morning, would have to walk up to 15 miles in the sun, carrying hundreds of pounds of fast-fermenting cherries — the red fruit that contains the beans — on a home-made wooden bike or on their heads, balanced on woven baskets.

We ran across some of these old wooden bikes, more akin to scooters (see picture). They could carry over 100 pounds, but weighed nearly 100 pounds themselves and were impossible on even the slightest incline. In the “Land of a Thousand Hills” they weren’t much of a solution.

In 2005, Tom Ritchey, the developer of the mountain bike — in partnership with Gary Fisher — decided to help the Rwandan coffee farmers. He designed a cargo bike that could haul 330 pounds — two bags of coffee cherries, two goats, or three children. He launched it in 2007, named it the “Hope Bicycle,” and priced it at $110 (still a steep price for a coffee farmer), and sold at a subsidized price.

The bikes were a big success, saving farmers time and effort and allowing them to maximize their profits. However, as is the bane of many development schemes, a shortage of parts — brake pads, derailleurs, chains, etc. — in time made the bikes undependable. And as President Kagame’s emphasis on developing Rwanda’s infrastructure bore fruit, Ritchey’s Project Rwanda’s time came to its end. We were lucky to come across a couple of these Project Rwanda bikes, the Humvees of the bicycle world, still in use. Parts are more available today.

In Ruhengeri — hometown of our guide Olivier, and the past headquarters of Hutu Power, President Habyarimana’s organization that engineered the genocide, we stayed at The Garden House, a private home with five guest rooms, owned by a Brit-Rwandan couple with three pet dogs.

* * * *

We awoke at 5 a.m. to joyous singing and clapping — the cadets’ morning routine at the nearby police and military academies. Today was gorilla tracking day. At Volcanoes National Park we were broken up into small groups according to ability, were assigned a ranger, and underwent an orientation. The park was established in 1925, encompasses five volcanoes, and extends into Uganda and Congo (the Congo side was closed because of rebel activity in the area). Today in Rwanda there are about 600+ gorillas (up from 400 in 2016) in about 30 family groups of about 20 individuals each. Some groups are harder to access than others, hence the division of the tourists into groups by varying degrees of ability. This was about the only place in Rwanda where we saw other muzungus.

At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our group consisted of four Slow Cyclists and one lady from New York. Our objective was the Hirwa or “Lucky” family group, up on “Old Man’s Teeth,” a volcano whose carapace had eroded and only its core, jagged and multi-summited, remained. We were escorted by an armed ranger, three trackers with walkie-talkies, and one porter who distributed hand-carved walking sticks, essential in the steep, muddy, and foliage-thick tracks that passed for “trails.”

A gorilla sighting is not guaranteed, even after one has paid $1,500 per person for the permit, and I resigned myself to our fate, whatever it turned out to be. Along the way the ranger explained that his gun was for protection against Cape buffalo, not gorillas. After about half an hour of uphill trudging, stumbling, machete hacking, losing shoes in the mud, and much walkie-talkie back-and-forth in Kinyarwandan, the ranger gathered us around a large tree and had us remove our backpacks and walking sticks and cache them there. One tracker had reported a member of the Lucky group up ahead. The removal of our extraneous gear made us more familiar to the primates and avoided their snatching our stuff, however playfully. At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our first encounter was lightning fast — a young male surfaced above the undergrowth and gave three or four chest beats directed our way before quickly disappearing. Fiddling with my camera, I’d almost missed him. Nearby, an intermittent procession of gorillas wandered in one direction, a pattern I didn’t discern but which the trackers did. They directed us to a tiny clearing where females and youngsters were congregating. Finally the silverback male — papa — lumbered through, gave us a glance, and sat on his haunches about 30 feet from our little group, which was by now crouched on its haunches. The trackers and porter remained almost out of sight; I suppose to visually minimize the size of our group.

We remained in close proximity for over an hour, watching mothers and children interact, mothers and others groom each other, juveniles brachiate and chase each other around trees, and babies try to get papa to play (a hopeless task). At one point Tina put down her camera and phone in front of her, and lay down on the ground to just enjoy the show. That’s when a young juvenile gave her an impish glance and began approaching within two feet of her. “Take that phone away!” shouted the ranger in a muted voice.

Not a few minutes later, the same juvenile grabbed a stick and approached her again to play. “Do not engage!” came the ranger again. Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens. We were all vetted for coughs, sneezes, or any other visible signs of sickness before going.

Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens.

On the way back I felt the same way I had after listening to the Westminster Abbey choir performing their Christmas service — overwhelmed yet exalted, moist-eyed with respectful elation, quietly contemplative at the remarkable hour we’d just experienced with our closest primate relatives, our extraordinary and compelling creature cousins. Emi, our driver, broke our reverie, asking for our reaction. He’d visited the gorillas eight times, and each time he’d felt the same way we did.

“At $1,500 a pop each?” I exclaimed incredulously. He responded that each time, his clients had paid his way.

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Rwandans love their gorillas. At the base of Old Man’s Teeth volcano a beautiful outdoor ceremonial area has been built to hold “Gorilla Namings.” A three-story high silverback sculpted out of dry vines holds court over a promenade, a manicured courtyard, and other staging ornamentation. When a new gorilla is born, a naming ceremony is held at this arena — the newborn is not required to attend.

We brought up the disparity in gorilla trekking prices between Rwanda and Uganda, where a permit costs only $750. In 2017, Rwanda had doubled its price to $1,500. The price change has hit the Rwandan gorilla tourist industry hard. So the Rwandan Development Board has provided a 30% discount between November and May, the low season. Emi said that Rwanda wants to make its gorilla sanctuary fully sustainable and that the rangers and trackers are well paid. He added that each gorilla family in Rwanda is exposed to tourists for only one hour each day so as to minimize any possible stress. By contrast, in Uganda, even if permits are “sold out”, it is possible to approach “someone” and get a permit outside the normal channels. The result is that Uganda’s gorilla families are exposed to tourists all day, every day. Who knows where those last minute permit fees end up?

Rwanda is a fascinating place to visit — as I continued to find, in the second half of my journey.

...to be continued...




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