Category Archives: The World

The Birth of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was not born in 1905.

February 2nd of that year would be remembered as her birthday, a day in a year marked by bloody revolution as Russia’s starving masses rose to strike at the Czar and his autocracy.  Change was coming; by 1906 the rebellion was sated, and Czar Nicholas appeased the angry hordes by creating a representative body known as the Duma.  It held little power, but represented a step in the right direction toward empowering the disenfranchised population.  It wasn’t enough.  The seeds that would spawn the Bolshevik revolution and the establishment of the Communist Party and Soviet Union were already sown, their roots already shaping the next uprising.  But on February 2nd, 1905 the citizens of St. Petersburg, Russia’s great, western- inspired city of hope, had more immediate concerns, and held their breath as whispers of massacres and death in the countryside wafted through the streets.  And on this day, one chemist and notable shop owner Fronz Rosenbaum and his wife Anna welcomed their first daughter Alice into the struggling world.

In twenty years, Alice would leave the Soviet Union on a visit to the United States from which she would not return; her itinerary was a visit to a relative in New York City, but her vision was an escape to what she would later call “…the greatest country on earth.  No…the only country.”  She would change her name to protect her family from the backlash her words might engender in her home country, and possibly to distance herself from her Jewish roots.  She would become an infamous name in fiction, her work hallmarked by characters hewn from epistemological granite and delineated into marble slabs of individualism and achievement, defiant of forces that would question their motives or reason, and set within a world drawn in contrasting colors of capitalist and collectivist ideologies clashing like chromatic dragons above disintegrating social landscapes. Her supporters would be legion, and her detractors still greater in number.  Her philosophy would birth a major political party, and her extremist axioms would have her labeled both genius and heretic.  She would die at age 77 of lung cancer.  Even to the end she would be resolute in her defense of the habit that killed her: a cigarette to man was “fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips.”  In 1910, however, she was still young Alice Rosenbaum, a mentally precocious and physically awkward little girl, staring mesmerized out the window of an affluent apartment building at the streetcars, lights and bustling energy of St. Petersburg.

From an early age, Alice’s advanced intelligence was apparent, and one of the few character traits that endeared daughter to mother.  Anna made it a habit to show Alice’s intellect off at parties, a memory Alice would recall amid less savory details; “I never wanted children at all!  I look after you because it’s my duty to do so,” her mother told the children once.  By then Alice had two younger sisters, Natasha and Elena (who went by Nora).  In hindsight Alice expressed no anger or dissatisfaction with her mother for this emotional rejection; it seems that she began early to emotionally detach from such disapprobation.  She also found little in common with her sisters or children of her age, who to her seemed childish and uninteresting.

Her father, however, appears to have been a beacon in her early years.  Fronz was of a vanishing type in Russia at the time; he was a self-made man, having seized a rare opportunity as a Jew to receive a university education.  Upon completing his studies in chemistry, he opened his own successful chemist shop and reached a level of mild affluence.  He was a man of few words and high integrity, a rugged individualist unconcerned with the petty frivolities of station and social standing that occupied his wife’s mind.  Though he wouldn’t engage his daughter in political discussion until her teenage years, when their relationship at last became one of intellectual collaborators, her father became her model for the heroic.  Anna’s materialism is immortalized in incarnations such as Lillian Rearden, a weak and despised character Alice would create to castigate the trappings of the callow soul.  But Fronz’s quiet, powerful spirit would permeate the essence of each of her protagonists as she began writing fiction.

Though to her materialism was a vice, the privilege that came with wealth was never an evil to Alice.  In her early years, the family vacationed in a Crimean resort which held, among other attractions, tennis courts on which the children could play.  Though she was clumsy and disliked physical activity, Alice vividly recalls watching an English girl of twelve years named Daisy on the courts.  Tall and blonde, lean and graceful, the image of the girl was etched into Alice’s mind.  “It was a creature out of a different world, my idea of what a woman should be,” she would later recall.  This model would serve as the template for her female characters in her books, most notably Dagny Taggart, heroine of her masterwork Atlas Shrugged.  It’s of note the contrast between herself and Daisy: one awkward, brown-haired and averse to activity, the other fair and lithe, an athlete in motion.  Alice named her ostensible opposite as the peak in female form, and held to this ideal throughout her writing career.

When it became time to enroll in school, Alice’s anticipation was palpable; the idea of school was exciting for her, as she sought ever greater challenges for her mind to overcome.  She excelled in all subjects, and took particular joy in mathematics.  Her only struggles came socially; one of her earliest memories of the first few days of school was a young girl approaching her, suggesting that they become friends.  Alice very much wanted a friend, but found that for some reason she couldn’t make the connection.  “I felt I had failed her in something she wanted, I had no idea what,” she would recall.  After a week the girl stopped talking to her.  The distance she felt with others her age became a theme that followed her throughout school: she was too serious, or too intense, or too shy to make friends.  She never even approached Daisy, whom she held is such regard, preferring to watch from afar.  So instead she turned her attention to reading and writing.

It was the summer of 1914 when she encountered a story that would prove a great milestone for the young writer.  A lover of mystery and adventure, Alice pored over stacks of illustrated French magazines and uncovered “The Mysterious Valley,” a story about British officers captured by a malevolent Indian raja. Cyrus is the story’s hero, a long-legged, tousle-haired statue of a man, defiant and fearless in the face of his tormentor.   “Cyrus was a personal inspiration,” she said, “a concrete of what…a man should be like.  He was a man of action who was totally self-confident.  He helped me to concretize what I called ‘my kind of man’ – that expression, which I carried thereafter, began with that story. Intelligence, independence, courage.  The heroic man.”  Paired with the traits of her father, the template for her iconic male characters, such as Howard Roark, Hank Rearden, and John Galt, was taking form.

It was in this same year that another unique experience shaped her future fictional worldview.  She traveled abroad to Vienna and then Switzerland for a large portion of a summer.  While in Switzerland, she met a young boy, daring and intelligent, and spent much of the summer with outdoors, playing and skinning her knees.  She had never before known joy from physical activity, and she spoke fondly of it and the boy, even to expressing a desire to see him again.  Her experience crystallized into an idyllic but significant summer spent by a young Dagny Taggart and Franciso D’anconia years later in Atlas Shrugged.

An often lonesome childhood would come to a close in 1916 as revolution shook the Czar’s grip on control again, in a stroke that this time would prove fatal to the monarchy.  Names of Vladamir Lenin and Leon Trotsky began to circulate in gatherings throughout St. Petersburg, now re-christened the more Slavic Petrograd, as the Duma took temporary control of the country.  The forces championing democracy in Petrograd were led by Alexander Kerensky, an impassioned young idealist whose speeches caught the ear and eventually the heart of the young Alice.  “My infatuation with Kerensky had a very important influence on me in one respect,” she observed.  “I decided I could never be in love with an ordinary man…I have to have a hero.”  Though his words and appeals were not enough to stall the Bolshevik juggernaut looming on the fringes, it began a pattern for Alice that would serve as a thread throughout her life and work: accept nothing but the idealistic and heroic in any man.

If Alice’s father and Kerensky were her living monuments to man’s great potential, it was Victor Hugo that served as paragon for her pen.  At this time Anna Rosenbaum, determined to improve her daughter’s French skills, gave Alice Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, and another great milestone in the history of the writer was reached.  Alice had little love for the popular Russian writers at the time; though at the age of twelve her eloquence may have not yet been developed enough to encapsulate this, ultimately she would denounce writers such as Chekov and Tolstoy as naturalists.  To her, naturalism embodied a philosophy edifying the banal, the average, and the dark sides of the human soul, primarily concerned with painting the world as it was, in lackluster shades of gray.  “I cannot stand Tolstoy,” she once wrote, “and reading him was the most boring literary duty I ever had to perform, his philosophy and his sense of life are not merely mistaken, but evil.”  She considered Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina the most evil book in serious literature, attacking it for its condemnation of human happiness and its sacrifice to conformity.  It was instead to the romantic element in writing, to the sense of how man should be, to which she became a disciple.  To her, the essence of and purpose of art – literature, music, architecture, or art of any kind – was to serve as a concretization of the abstract, a way in which man could visualize his potential before achieving it.  In Hugo, she found her first taste of this element in literature.

It was not merely the philosophical ideals evidence in Hugo’s writing that stirred her; she would observe that even then, Cyrus still held the highest station to her with regard to an epistemological sense of life.  It was instead Hugo’s writing style that she found uniquely arresting.  After The Man Who Laughs, she turned to Les Misérables, and a new world was opened to her.  “Les Misérables was the big experience.  Everything about it became important to me, holy…the personal inspiration to me was that I wanted to match the grandeur, the heroic scale, the plot inventiveness, and those elegant dramatic touches.”  It was not toward the dynamic but flawed characters of Jean Valjean or Marius, whom she saw as average, that she gravitated.  It was rather the implacable and singular minded Enjorlas, whose passion for liberty and little else would make an indelible mark on Alice. This steadfast leader of the insurrection  and his valiant death on the battlefield would cement in Alice the image of the ideal protagonist: fearless and unfettered in devotion to her purpose, and unquestionably ready to die for it — unable and unwilling to accept any less than the end that drives her.  With Hugo’s influence, the framework on which she would craft her works was taking form, hardening from clay to stone.

As her views on character and style began to solidify, so did her own guarded assurance of her own values and who she was.  Though cherubic as a young child with bright, dark eyes and a mischievous smile, she was growing into the woman she would become: an awkward and seemingly clumsy physique pared with features that were owlish and striking, but not traditionally attractive.  She recalled a children’s story she read of Catherine the Great, whom was considered a sort of ugly duckling as a child; intelligent, but homely and without grace.  In the story, a fortune teller was summoned to read the futures of the young German nobility.  The seer passed over the more favored children and instead saw the mark of not one, but two crowns on young Catherine’s head.   “I thought that I was exactly like Catherine,” she remembered.  “I didn’t fit into their schemes, and they didn’t know that there was a mark on my forehead – and how I wished that someone would see it.”  The dichotomy between how Alice saw herself physically and how she described the ideal female figure is telling of her sense of inferiority in that regard.  So often misunderstood and without friends, with a sense that she was not pretty or fetching, she became rigidly protective of that with which she was confident: her mind.  With these myriad rejections she faced: from her mother, from girls she couldn’t connect with, from a world prizing beauty she didn’t possess, and a country prejudiced against Jews, she learned to hold fast to her own ideas, those things no one could touch.  Ultimately, to disagree with her was a greater affront than any insult one could levy, and she tended to value only those people with whom she found intellectual kinship.

By the fall of 1918, the Bolshevik forces, called the Red Army, were at constant war with the White Army, the nationalist and anti-communist sect.  Petrograd was collapsing under the weight of the fighting, beleaguered by poverty and deserting soldiers who brought violence and looting into the once pristine city.  Anna decided it was time to move the family away from the danger, and in a scene detailed in Alice’s first novel We the Living, the family boarded a rickety train crammed full of starving citizens, comrades, and soldiers bound for the Crimea, heads doused in kerosene to kill disease-carrying lice, and frightened of an uncertain future.

On the second day of this journey, the train rumbled to an unscheduled stop; the tracks had been destroyed in battle or by bandits and the passengers were forced to abandon the train and continue toward the Crimea on foot.  Alice’s family was able to hire a horse drawn cart to take them toward Odessa, but on the road shots rang out and the cart was ordered to a halt.  Men wearing the ragged uniforms of ex-soldiers surrounded them, held them at gun point and took their supplies and money.  They arrived at their destination without many of their possessions, though Fronz had been wise enough to hide most of their money in the straw of the cart.  This terror was only the beginning of what they would face in the city.

At the time they arrived, the Crimea was still held by the Russian white army.  Fronz was able to open a small shop and earn a meager living; but soon the fighting found its way to them again.  The city changed hands four time in three years, the seat of constant fighting which led to crippling poverty.  Scurvy and slow deterioration became harrowing realities for the families that lived there.  “Finally, we began to starve,” she recalled.  “Food was unobtainable.  At last we ate only millet.”  The family began selling any and all valuables that remained; they kept jewelry and other items as long as they could, frightened that if a change of currency came they would be the only thing with exchange value.  At last it was the Red army that took the city, and as the Bolsheviks won more and more victories, it became clear which side would triumph.

If there was a highlight for Alice in her time in the Crimea, it was in her high school classes.  Her favorite subjects were mathematics and logic, so much like her ostensibly greatest character John Galt, who was a student of engineering and philosophy.  She valued these highly, but encountered another entity at this point that would have at least as much impact on her: The Declaration of Independence.  She took classes on American History and for the first time was made aware of a place which prized the greatest potential in man.  “I saw America as the country of individualism, of strong men, of freedom and important purposes.  I thought: This is the kind of government I approve of.”  It was the beginning of her love affair with the United States and all things associated with the west: capitalism, freedom, and individualism.

School was no bastion from the horrors of war and destitution, however.  One day a dress taken from the house of a murdered industrialist was offered to her class during what was known as a “week of  poverty:” houses were ransacked to redistribute what little remained among the poorer elements of the city.  Soldiers had burst into the Rosenbaum’s residence and many other houses taking whatever surplus they determined the family didn’t need.   The dress that was presented to her class that day belonged to one of her classmates.  “I can’t tell you the horror I felt,” she remembered, as the girl saw her own dress being auctioned off in the wake of her father’s death.  No one wanted it; but one “socially minded” girl spoke up, saying she had a right to it because she was poor.  It’s not difficult to imagine Alice’s contempt for this situation; as would be reflected in her fiction and philosophy, her opinion of those who believe themselves entitled to the property of another were amongst the lowest form of life.  It was in the Crimea when she first felt the hand of the Communist party tightening its grip on the throat of the country; it was here that her hatred of political and social ideologies championing collectivism was born.

When at last the revolution of the White army was put down, and the hammer and sickle raised over the Crimea, order returned.   A new currency was established, and all existing money, the “White” rubles, were declared invalid.  Penniless and weary, the Rosenbaums returned to Petrograd to attempt to rebuild their former life under a new regime.  The city was in no better position economically than when they had left; people were forced to stand in long lines daily for food, using ration cards to received whatever stores were carrying.  The only wealth in the city was in the hands of speculators who ran private shops smuggling in food from the countryside or from back-alley deals with party members.  These men were envied and hated by the people; such a man saw incarnation as Leo in Alice’s novel, We the Living.  Forced into such shady speculation, this sympathetic character becomes a scapegoat for the Communist party, his will and spirit ultimately broken by the forces that drove people to crime in order to survive.

Alice enrolled at this time at the University of Petrograd.  Though fascinated by mathematics and philosophy, she chose history as her major, despite her father’s protestations.  History, she felt, would give her the social and political background she would need as a writer.  At the time, Petrograd was split as a campus, pro-communist vs. anti-communist, but as the Communist Party gained footing among the people, so did the University begin to sanction those opposed to it.    Alice witnessed purges at the university regularly, as undesirable elements and non-conformists were summarily expelled, all trace of the non-proletariat element being expunged.   One prominent anti-communist member of the student council sent to a Siberian prison, and one by one the dissenting voices were silenced.  Though Alice narrowly missed expulsion, the fear that gripped her and other students with parents of once high social standing was omnipresent.

It is around this period of time in her life that she would center the story of Kira Argounova, her alter-ego and the young protagonist of Alice’s first full-length novel We the Living.  Alice called this book the closest thing she would ever write to an autobiography.  The details of the character’s lives were different from her own and those she knew, but she insisted that the conditions she described and the tragedies that befell the characters were in strict accordance with life in the newly formed Soviet Union.  She named Kira for her hero of youth, Cyrus, Kira being the female variant of that name in Russian.  Kira refuses to associate with the communist faction at Petrograd, and their rallying cries for the proletariat, though she suffers for her idealism.  She, along with the character Leo, is expelled in a purge targeting children of bourgeois parents.  The scourge Alice witnessed was designed to permanently eradicate the social influence of the bourgeois, which was essentially anyone who owned a business before the revolution.  Few if any of these people retained any wealth or influence; by this time poverty was ubiquitous.  But this backlash against the bourgeois was as much philosophical as social, and slowly but surely even their children were being systematically marginalized.

This war existed as much outside the university as within; owning a store or factory of any kind was prohibited by the new regime, and those who did had their businesses seized by the government.   Kira’s father sees his factory nationalized; Alice experiences not once, but twice the Communist state taking her father’s chemistry shops.  The last time, the circumstances surrounding the nationalization drove Fronz to the brink.  The economy of the nation struggled greatly under Communist rule, and the government found itself unable to provide properly for even basic human needs.  Because it was unlawful for one man to own a store, the government made provision for groups of men to band and open necessary shops.  Fronz and four other former chemists collaborated together to open what quickly became a successful chemist shop.  The Rosenbaum’s experienced a temporary relief from hunger for a year as the shop flourished, but another wave of nationalization began, and all successful businesses opened under this concession were again seized by the government.  “I won’t work for them,” Fronz told his family, in response to have his store taken again.  “Not now, and not ever.  Not if we all starve.” It is clear that both Kira and Alice struggle watching their fathers, men they hold in the highest regard both as parents and as self-made individualists, suffer and wilt under the oppression of a government that takes from them what it wants when it wants it.

It is, however, deep in the main characters themselves that Alice reveals the most. As many of her letters and notebooks have been preserved and published, her sketches of Leo, and especially Kira, give remarkable insight into her frame of thought at the time.  She describes Kira:

Rather cold and indifferent to everything that does not interest her deeply.  Absolutely proof against all influences.  Always alone and, to most people, aloof.  Disliked by women.  No girlfriends.  No “beaux.”  Indifferent to men.  Dimly conscious of her tremendous sexual power- if she wanted to use it.  Misunderstood.  A strong determination and disdainful pride- and sometimes, beneath it an indefinable, charming, feminine weakness and helplessness – something of the frightened child, which she is to a great extent.

In describing this character, Alice offers both her vision for a heroine, and a candid glimpse into who she was at the time, or wanted to be.  Though her characters seldom show their cards, appearing stoic and without vice or Achilles heel, Alice reveals here that this facade masks a vulnerability that is not immediately apparent for any of her archons.  She has taken the traits and circumstances that have shaped her own life, even the ostensibly negative ones which caused her pain, and galvanized them into a suit of armor worn with unflinching pride.  Leo himself, in his very name, represents one of these painful wounds-turned-shields.

Leo was modeled after a young man Alice knew in her university days; his parents were dead, and the one detail she recounts about him was that he opened his home at one point to two political refugees looking to flee the country.  Much like We the Living’s Leo Kovalensky, who makes an attempt early in the book to smuggle himself and Kira into Europe, she describes him as charming and intelligent, capable and fearless.  And Alice fell desperately in love with him.  It was an unrequited love; though he spoke with her at times, she feared the intensity of her feelings for him ultimately pushed him away.  The effects of that unfulfilled longing left its mark on her.  “When it was over, when he stopped asking to see me, that was the most prolonged period of pain in my life,” she said.  “You see, perhaps it’s not easy to understand when one has only known the freedom of America – Leo was, to me, life in the present, and the only life I had there.  The only human being that mattered to me in a personal way.”  She would later express gratitude that things never worked for them; if he would have loved her, she admitted, she never would have left the Soviet Union for the United States.

Though Alice and Leo were not to be, Kira and Leo fall in love, finding each other as disenfranchised members of an already struggling society.  After their expulsion, they are forced to search for any menial task to earn money for food, though because they were not Communist party members, they were thwarted at most every turn.  As Alice managed to find some work tutoring illiterate Soviet soldiers, so did Kira finally find a small administrative job for bread vouchers.  Leo wouldn’t have it though; it wasn’t enough to slave for scraps, bringing home for Kira just enough to live on.  His pride wouldn’t allow it.  He chooses the risky path of the speculator, working behind closed doors with corrupt Communist officials as the only method to fund a successful shop and rise above impoverishment.  The deception ultimately destroys Leo; once a man of the highest integrity, the nature of his illegal business erodes his happiness, leads him to drink, and ultimately to abandon Kira.

Kira’s recourse is that with nothing further tethering her to the country, she must escape.  It is worth noting that unlike the heroes and heroines of her later works, Kira herself remains unable to act, to effect to world, or to live with any measure of autonomy.  In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, and the United States’ captains of industry, the literal movers of the world, fight the powers that would loot them of their physical and intellectual property.  They wage a war of omission, a strike of the great minds, and they win.  But long before that book, We the Living sees its heroes fail, impotent in a cold, barren country, doomed to a fate worse than death in the hands of a government that crushed its country’s great men and women.  Alice sees no victory for her characters, only despair.  Kira sets her mind to a singular purpose: to free herself of this despair.  But for all her intellect and hope, potential and ability, she is murdered at the border by a common soldier.  Though Alice herself would break free of the Soviet Union’s bonds, Kira, like so many others, is forced to pay the highest price for her attempt.  On an epistemological level, to Alice there is no escape from that philosophical cesspool; where collectivism rules, man dies.

Fated to a different destiny, Alice graduated from the University with the highest honors, grandfathered because of her time in service, and allowed to pass on despite her bourgeois background.  She found employment shortly thereafter as a history lecturer and tour guide at the Peter and Paul Fortress in Petrograd.  It was a job she hated, but she took it for survival, not for enjoyment.  It was while she was employed at this position that the most significant event of her life would occur: a letter came to the Rosenbaum residence from the United States.

The letter came from Sarah Lipski, a cousin to Anna, their family having left Russia some forty years before.  They had lost contact during World War I, when the mail was interrupted during the fighting.  Now, the family huddled around the crisp, white envelope with the return address marked from Chicago, Illinois.  Alice was frozen as her mother read the letter, inquiring of their family’s well being and telling of their own circumstances.  Something overwhelming gripped her as the reality of relatives in the U.S. unfolded.   Thoughts and possibilities flooded her mind; she had heard of people being allowed to visit if they were lucky enough to receive a visa.  As the wisps of fancy she’d grasped at congealed into something solid, she reached.  “Write them mother,” she blurted.  “Write and tell them.  I have to go to America. Ask them to help.  Do it today.  Do it now.  I have to go to America.”  Her insistence was unshakable.  Her mother understood, and she agreed.

The correspondence was slow and inconsistent.  They learned that with the proper paperwork and vouchers, travel to the United State from the Soviet Union was possible, though there seemed no way to predict whom would be allowed to go, and whom would be forced to stay.  Randomness seemed the rule.  Undeterred, Alice went about preparing as if it were already a reality: she began taking English lessons from a friend of the family, and enrolled in a small film school to study screen writing.  American films were slowly making their way into the country, and Alice had fallen in love immediately; though in many films the dialogue was gutted and replaced with communist propaganda, she still glimpsed America through the lens: the skyline of New York, the iconic figures and actors, the glamour.  “My real enthusiasm for America, apart from its political principals, was formed then,” she recalled.  “I saw the essence of what Americans could be and ought to be.”  If she wasn’t already obsessed, that was the final catalyst.  She would need a career in America; film would be that career, she decided.

At last, in the fall of 1925, all the documents were in order, and she would have one final, towering hurdle to clear: the American consulate in Latvia.  Because the U.S. did not recognize the Soviet Union as a nation at that time, she would have to visit the consulate in the neighboring country to receive her visa.  She was warned that only one in a hundred visitors was granted a visa, but planned the trip as though she would never return.  And that was her aim; even if her visa expired, she would find a way: live in Canada and reapply until they let her back, or whatever it took.  “I don’t want to stay here illegally,” she would say.  “Someday I will be famous, and it would be discovered.”  And as she attended her farewell party, she knew that it would be the last she would see of her family.  If there was one regret, one last thing that might have kept her, it was Leo.  He was invited to the party, and he made no gesture for her to stay.   He would not be part of her destiny.

Latvia was bitterly cold in January.  Alice reached the consulate carrying a suitcase, an old Remington-Rand typewriter, three hundred dollars the family had managed by selling their last valuables, and her passport.  She was held up at the consulate and nearly denied; her dossier suggested she was engaged to and American, which meant she planned not to return, and the clerk was going to reject her.  “It’s a mistake!  I’m not engaged to an American.  There’s a young man in Russian whom I intend to marry when I return,” she lied.  He looked again; there had been an error, and he apologized.  She would be allowed to leave for the U.S.

Most of her money vanished as she made her way across Europe and through Paris, and finally booked passage in Le Havre to New York.  The eight day voyage left her weakened as seasickness tormented her, leaving her unable to eat until the final day of the journey.  She was able to reach the top deck to witness the ship pulling into the harbor on the Hudson River.  As she entered her new country, the one of her dreams, she did so with a new name: Ayn, a name she found beautiful, taken from a Dutch poet.

Her time in New York was short; within a week she was traveling again to Chicago to meet the family she didn’t know, whom she would be staying with for her six month visa.  They welcomed their cousin from Russia with open arms, and did their best to introduce her to the city.  But Chicago didn’t interest her.  “I disliked Chicago enormously,” she said.  “I felt like I was not yet in an American city.  And after New York, I felt like I had no right to anything – now it’s life or death, I’ve got to sell something.  I’ve got to establish myself.”  And so she did; she kept her new family up nightly until the early hours with the clacking of her typewriter, desperately struggling with English, which she was still months from feeling comfortable with, writing story after story to sell to the film industry.  Film and writing became her life; she was either at the movies or busy writing one.  Her surrogate family found her kind but odd; her germophobia from living in Russia translated into baths that ran for hours, her insistence that the water wasn’t clean until it had run for quite some time.  She was social, but only when someone did what she wanted.  She was singularly focused on what she wanted.

Ayn’s young cousin Fern was quite taken with their new guest; she sat watching Ayn in awe as she crafted screenplays late into the evenings.  Fern herself, inspired by the owlish foreign girl writing at her table, would take up the pen and begin writing stories of her own.  She later would try unsuccessfully to reach out to her famous cousin to share her work, excited for her feedback.  But when Ayn left for California a few months later,  her cousin was gone much as she came.  “One is simply born into a family.  Therefore it was of no significance,” she once observed.  She was appreciative of the Lipskis nonetheless; “They saved my life,” she said.  But her destiny was pulling her to the west coast where she would encounter her favorite director, the famous Cecil B. Demille, and begin work as a writer for his studio.

Ayn wrote them regularly at first; but soon the letters became fewer and father between.

It felt to them that she had forgotten them.  But Fern regarded her cousin fondly, remembering the few short months Ayn was with them wistfully.  “One day, she was sitting at the typewriter and she called me over,” Fern recalled.  “She said, ‘I’m going to be called Ayn.’  ‘That’s pretty,’ I said.  ‘It’s different.  How do you spell it?’  And she wrote it in her slanty foreign handwriting:    A Y N.  ‘But I need a last name,’ she said.  I want it to begin with an R, because that’s my real initial.  She was writing down different possible names, and then she looked at the typewriter — it was a Remington-Rand — and she said, ‘Ayn Remington . . . No that’s wrong.  I know — Ayn Rand!’  And that’s how she got her name.”  Fern, later Fern Brown by marriage, became a well known children’s book author.  And her cousin became Ayn Rand, a name she chose to reinvent herself and shed her troubled past, and to protect her family in the Soviet Union from the books she would publish — books that championed what she saw as the highest values in man: his autonomy, his reason, and his mind.

Works Consulted:

Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words.  Dir. John Little,  Robert Anderson.  Entertainment One, 2010.

Branden, Barbara.  The Passion of Ayn Rand.  New York: Random House, 1987.

Heller, Anne Conover.  Ayn Rand and the World She Made.  New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009.

Rand, Ayn and Robert Mayhew.  Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A.  New York : New American Library, 2005.

Rand, Ayn, David Harriman, and Leonard Peikoff.  Journals of Ayn Rand.  New York: Plume, 1999.

Rand, Ayn.  Letters of Ayn Rand.  New York: Dutton, 1995.

Rand, Ayn.  The Romantic Manifesto.  New York: Penguin Putnam, 1971.

Rand, Ayn.  We the Living (75th Anniversary).  New York : New American Library, 2009.


Leptis Magna, Jewel of Libya

            Why this emptiness after joy?

            Why this ending after glory?

            Why this nothingness where once was a city

            Who will answer? Only the wind

            Which steals the chantings of priests

            And scatters the souls once gathered.

              – Sidi Mahrez, from In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar

 

Man is a fickle creature by nature; he spends his days toiling for the future, one eye on the greater and grander, yet always with the other trained on his past.  The future is uncertain, but the ruins of his forebears hint that what he leaves behind may escape the void of oblivion.  Perhaps this is why we cherish and protect the husks of ancient kingdoms and civilizations when we exhume their skeletons from the reluctant earth; in them we hear the whisper of immortality.  Snow covered grounds hold their icy secrets firm and the tropics hide their water-logged treasures deep.  But the desert with her arid heat and shifting sands protects her artifacts with a delicate hand and covers them with just enough sand to preserve.  The Pyramids, Palmyra, and the Ruins of Carthage are well traveled and documented, but few know of or have seen the heirloom she relinquished in just the last century: the pristine ruins of Ancient Rome’s Leptis Magna.

Leptis Magna stands sentinel over the shores of Libya’s Mediterranean coast, east of Tripoli, in the District of Khoms.  Recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the most significant anthropological relics of North Africa, its excavation, begun in 1920, has for years brought archeologists from around the globe to study its wonders, many of which remain unearthed.  The UNESCO World Heritage Convention calls the city “a unique artistic realization in the domain of urban planning. It played a major role, along with Cyrene, in the movement back to antiquity and in the elaboration of the neoclassical aesthetic” and “incorporates major monumental elements of that period. The forum, basilica and Severan arch rank among the foremost examples of a new Roman art, strongly influenced by African and Eastern traditions.” (2011)  Leptis Magna reached the height of its prominence around 200 C.E. as the seat of power for Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, who brought neoclassical Roman influence to the Phoenician port.  Severus was a native of the city, and under his guidance it grew into one of the most important kingdoms in the Roman empire, at the time rivaling Carthage and Alexandria.  It was sacked by the Byzantines in the 4th Century, and after changing hands a few times it was finally swallowed by the desert where it lay forgotten for over a thousand years.

Statue of Septimus Severus in Tripoli Square

Leptis Magna has again become an important city, but now its significance is of a different kind to a different people.  A statue of Leptis’ native son Septimus Severus now stands in Tripoli’s principal square, and regardless of Severus’ ancestry, Libya scholar Frank Golino (1970) notes that “this statue has become a symbol of national identity in post-independence Libya.”  For Libya, the emperor and his ancient city stand as a source of pride, representing a time when her streets and arches were a beacon of cosmopolitanism and free trade.  Today, its identity is in flux.  Though its people and their tribes can trace lineages back hundreds of years, Libya as we know it is a yet a young country, claiming its independence from the British only in 1951.  But since staking its claim, it has spent many years in internal turmoil and cloistered from the international community, especially countries in the West, keeping many of Libya’s treasures a secret.  For foreign citizens wishing to bear witness to the majesty of Leptis Magna’s arches, temples, baths and circus, their only recourse has been to view photographs and hope that one day the draconian visa restrictions would lift.  In the last decade, however, many have finally realized the dream to see the city with their own eyes.

Tourism is in its nascent stages of development in Libya, whose government has in recent years opened the doors for foreign investors and private citizens from around the world to visit and cultivate her shores, cities, and ruins in an attempt to modernize and bolster an oil-dependent economy, though obstacles await the potential traveler.  In researching the materials available online, one will scarcely find a tour or travel log that omits Leptis Magna as an essential place to explore in Libya; in fact many regard it as the premier attraction in the country.  Many sojourners draw attention to how empty the ruins are when visiting: because Libya is so untouched by mass tourism, one is able to have a more intimate experience in the majestic city lost to time.  Many tourists also note how eager Libyans are to share their country and its history with visitors, and eager to make contact with those who might in turn share their memories and experiences of Libya with the rest of the world.

 

A Diamond in the Rough

            Buried beneath sand for a millennium and largely obscured from the world since its revelation, Leptis Magna remains a largely unexplored relic though this isolation has led to some positives for those still wishing to visit.  World traveler Tom Coote (2010) observes, “If Leptis Magna was in Tunisia or Morocco or Egypt, then it would be crawling with thousands of tourists. As it is, it receives remarkably few foreign visitors.” For those who have experienced the kind of mobs that swarm tourist attractions in Egypt, Greece, or Rome, it’s worth noting how many travelers found particular enjoyment in experiencing a piece of history in a relatively private fashion.  As Colin Hepburn (2010) recalls his experience with Leptis Magna, “This is one sight in Libya not to be missed. Try to get there as early as possible: I went there shortly after the gates opened at 0800 and had the entire place to myself for an hour and a half, with not even a security guard in sight. It was absolutely magical.”  Traveler Annabel Simms (2010) comments, “We all felt that the best moments in Leptis were those when we separated to wander on our own through its orderly grid of streets, some still with stone public benches, without another human being to disturb the silence.”  The opportunity to have a personal experience with a piece of human history is a rare find in modern tourism, and is a common theme throughout for those who have had the chance.  Matteo Carri (2010) shares similar sentiments when commenting on his encounters with the people: “Libyans are proud and friendly people, generally well educated and, unlike other countries in this area, unspoilt by mass tourism. You will not find overly enthusiastic vendors harassing you to make a purchase while you are trying to enjoy the wonders of Sabratha or Leptis Magna.”  Carri alludes to the fact that a culture steeped in rampant tourism may negatively impact the experience of travelers; the disposition of the local vendors and guides they encounter in such environments tend to become mindful of profit rather than the cultural experience of the tourist.

Carri’s comments also touch on the important issue of the welcoming nature of Libyans to those visiting ruins like Leptis Magna.  Referring to his preconceived notions of Libya as a strict Muslim nation bearing the ideals of Gaddafi, Carri (2010) notes that he found instead a “friendly people, fascinating culture and archaeological sites which rival Machu Pichu, the Pyramids or Petra.”  Tour guidebook writer Victor Borg (2011) shares the sentiment and notes that while such archeological tours are expensive due to mandates that guides must be present with all travelers, “The upside is the complete absence of touts (solicitors) and the legendary hospitality of the Libyans, who treat tourists more like guests than clients.”  Professional Photographer Herb Schmitz (Meral, 2009) encountered complications on his voyage to photograph Leptis Magna, but observed that “once you actually pass through the red tape and mix with locals it’s actually a wonderfully warm experience.”  It’s clear that often expectations do not match the reality of visiting Libya and her ruins; most foreigners have preconceived notions of what it will be like to visit the nation notorious for Gaddafi’s iron fisted regime.  Instead of a prejudiced populace untrusting of the outside, visitors meet a warm and inquisitive people who in most cases will not even accept tips; their hospitality is a gift freely given, and they are eager to share their treasures.

The Consequences of Isolation

            Though the people wish to see more visitors experiencing what Libya has to offer, tourism to Leptis Magna among other Libyan sites has suffered the effects of the country’s rocky past.  Libya’s truculent disposition toward its neighbors and often the world at large have often persuaded travelers to choose other destinations.  The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 by Libyan forces over Lockerbie, Scotland over thirty years ago has left a lingering cloud over the region.  At the time, this and other terrorist attacks were devastating to tourism world-wide as hundreds of thousands of flights were cancelled out of fear.  Graham Norton (1987), in his study “Tourism and International Terrorism,” observed:

It is this fear which now must be fought both by counter-measures, and by making plain to the vacationing public, particularly the American public, that to allow oneself to be panicked into becoming terrified is to play into those tainted hands, giving them a gigantically multiplied bonus, which will encourage still further terrorist attacks of the same type. This is a difficult task. For the tourist is, all too often, buying a dream. He will not buy if there is a chance that, instead, the holiday of a lifetime may turn out to be a nightmare.

Since the bombing, the state of Libyan politics has done little to bolster the confidence of the increasingly wary tourist looking to experience such a dream on Libya’s beautiful Mediterranean shores.  Though Libya officially opened her doors to international tourism in 2006 after a hiatus of almost three decades, travel is not easy: visas are difficult to obtain, and impossible if a traveler’s passport has a stamp from Israel.

Visitors must also be accompanied by a sanctioned tour guide and police escorts to travel anywhere in the country.  Though this requirement may arise more from a concern for the safety of the tourists than from suspicion on the part of the Libyan government, the lack of freedom to wander the country has taken its toll on the budding industry.  Eamonn Gearon (2007), writer for Middle East reports:

For many people, especially those used to independent travel, the idea of travelling as part of an organised group, to be shepherded from one ancient sight to another, runs contrary to the entire point of journeying in the first place: to enjoy that freedom of movement that is so often denied to them in their ordinary, workaday lives. Rather than subject themselves to timetables, schedules and the unnecessarily high charges made by tour companies, these people would rather not travel at all.

Complicating what is already a tenuous relationship with the world, Libya’s hands-on approach to the experience of its visitors will continue to deter a percentage of the most intrepid sojourners.

In spite of these hindrances, efforts of political progressives such as Gaddafi’s second son Saif al-Islam saw a slow but steady  increase in tourism through the late 00’s until political strife again threatened to derail the fledgling industry.  Journalist Sudarsan Raghavan (2010) traveled to a nearly deserted Leptis Magna in April of 2010, in what should have been high tourism season, to report on the failing tourist efforts by the Libyan government.  “The Leader (Gaddafi) has called for a jihad against Switzerland,” Leptis Magna tour guide Salah Krima admitted1. “Now, no one wants to come here.  We need to tell the world of our heritage, to bring tourists here.”  Raghavan observes that while Leptis Magna has remarkable tourism potential as a UNESCO site, there are no luxury hotels in the vicinity because investors are discouraged by the instability of the region. Until foreign interests see a Libya free of strife and unrest, they will continue to invest their capital elsewhere.

            1 In November 2009, Switzerland passed a law outlawing the construction of any new minarets, the tall spires built near or attached to mosques designed to perform calls to prayer.  The move has drawn scrutiny and backlash from both Swiss citizen and the international community. (Cumming-Bruce, 2009)

The Price of Revolution

            The past has taken its toll on tourism and international trade; but more recent unrest, specifically the revolution against the Gaddafi regime which began in February 2011, has had an especially devastating effect on the region.  China news source CCTV+ (2011) reported the harm befalling the nearby city of Al Khoms since the fighting began: “The war has brought great looses to the tourist industry of the city. There were averagely [sic] 300 tourists coming to Leptis Magna before, but now, it only hosts less than 30 tourists a day since the end of February. Ticket for each admission is 3 Dinar, so altogether the loss of ticket fee is over 800,000 Dinar in three months.”  The war has closed more than just doors to the outside; many residents rely on a certain amount of traffic for their livelihood, which is now being threatened.  Leptis Magna Guide Khalif Hwuita agreed.  “Now all the area is collapsing because we depend on such work,” he said  (Raghavan, 2010).

When the revolution began, in the middle of February 2011, the rhetoric surrounding Libya and Leptis Magna quickly became cautionary as fighting sprang up across the country.  The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)  was one of the most vocal on the subject of tourism, discouraging all but essential travel to Libya.  Gemma Bowes (2011), writing for the UK Guardian, posted a warning on March 5th:  “No one should travel to Libya at present. Foreigners are still being evacuated, and the country is in a state of crisis.”  As all adventure tour visits must be booked through a tour guide, the article quoted Frances Tuke, public relations manager for the Association of British Travel Agents, who stated that: “Travelers who have booked a package are entitled to rebook alternative destinations or dates or, if they are not available, a refund.”  When an announcement urging travelers to forestall or seek refunds on their vacations reaches a population already wary of visiting the secluded nation, the danger to that nation’s tourism industry rises significantly.

The budding adventure tourism industry in Libya is also being stifled by the inactivity of the government in the area of archeological development.  The Gaddafi regime had done little to support the excavation work in Leptis Magna and other UNESCO site started early in the century.  Hafed Walda, a Libyan advisor on the nation’s board of antiquities observes: “[Archeological excavation] has been neglected by the regime for quite a while.  At one time it was seen as not Libyan heritage as such but imperialist.  I’m hoping attitudes will change — we want the department of antiquity to be seen as part of the Libyan identity and the future of Libya.” (Gumuchian, 2011).  Mirroring what seems to be the sentiment of many modern Libyans, Walda sees Leptis Magna and other significant Roman and Greek ruins as national treasures although he notes that at one time they were associated with imperialism.  This reflection may offer some insight into why tourism to these sites is still limited.

Archeologists face some of the most significant fallout from the revolution, as they attempt to free more buried relics from the sands.  “Libya is my second home and all this is the worst nightmare,” said British archaeologist Paul Bennett, who was at work when the fighting began (Butler, 2011).  Headlines splashed across the web and news stations as archeologists were evacuated from the embattled nation by the score as fighting pressed closer and closer to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Leptis Magna, Cyrenaica, Aracus, and Sabratha.  What was believed to be the last group of foreign researchers in the country found themselves stranded in early March 2011, far from safe transportation and without means of communication as the ruling regime locked down internet and phone systems.  Savino di Lernia, head of the international team, recounts: “We were hundreds of kilometres from an airport, with the entire country to be crossed to reach it.” (Butler, 2011).  Di Lernia was able to contact Salah Agab, chairman of the Libyan Department of Antiquities by phone before he and ten others left the country in a C-130 Hercules military aircraft, and Agab assured them that all museums and sites were unharmed.  It would fall then to the civilians to defend their treasures.  Bennett, for one, was reassured by rumors circulating:  “I suspect local militia are keeping control in villages and towns,” he said.  “There are roadblocks . . . local people are protecting their property and their neighbors and in doing so are looking after the cultural heritage as well.” (Butler, 2011)

A Treasure at Risk

            While the future of archeological tourism was to some degree uncertain, it was becoming clear that as the fighting became more intense, the safety of Leptis Magna was in question.  As tanks moved closer, the world became suddenly aware that one of its wonders was surrounded by violence with little to protect it.  As the fighting pushed into July of 2011, The Washington Post proclaimed, “Leptis Magna, Libya’s most important archaeological site, has not been engulfed in fighting as the country’s conflict enters its fifth month. But airstrikes have been carried out nearby, and Libyans on both sides of the battle worry that the U.N. World Heritage Site could sustain damage if rebels in the east push toward Tripoli” (Londono, 2011).  It seemed, however, that both sides of the conflict — loyalists as well as revolutionaries — were committed to protecting the cherished Roman ruins.  In early June, a team of Libyan government officials escorted western reporters to Leptis Magna to prove that they had the area under control and that it was not in danger from the conflict.  Two weeks later, however, the rebels reported different findings.  “We received information yesterday that Gaddafi’s forces are hiding inside Leptis Magna,” said Abu Mohammad, the overall commander of rebel forces for the nearby town of Zlitan (Coghlan, 2011).  He continued, “There are more than five Grad rocket-launcher trucks among the ruins. They are inside the old buildings because they know that NATO will never destroy the area.”  Suddenly, a site that few outside Libya and academic circles had heard of before the revolution had become a focal point as the desperate forces of Gaddafi sought to use the ruins as a shield.  Time magazine (2011) weighed in as the circumstances became desperate:  “NATO officials overseeing the aerial bombing campaign against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya could target positions nestled within [Leptis Magna].   With NATO having escalated its efforts to topple the Gaddafi regime, no archaeological treasure — not even a UNESCO heritage site such as Leptis Magna — may be entirely safe.”  With NATO considering the possibility of striking among the ruins, the survival of the remains of the great city became uncertain.

Whether NATO would truly put Leptis Magna at risk was unknown, but the rebel forces within Libya made it clear that they wouldn’t put the lost city in jeopardy.  “This is not our mission, this is a mission for NATO,” said rebel spokesman Ibrahim al-Betalmal in regard to the airstrikes, distancing himself from the allied offensive.  “For now we are far from Leptis Magna, we have not yet captured Zlitan, but our fighters would not fight inside Leptis Magna because these are historical buildings.”  Al-Betalmal was just one of many of the revolutionary forces who expressed concern for the health of Leptis Magna.  “For us as Libyans, these ancient monuments are part of our proud history,” rebel spokesman Mohamed Ali said, referring to the erstwhile seat of Septimus Severus. “They are more precious to us than oil.” (Coghlan, 2011)

The Future of Leptis Magna

            Leptis Magna’s history with the modern world will always be tied in some ways to this revolution.  It stands as a beacon of pride to the people of Libya, who long to share their culture with the outside world.  Tourism is one of the few ways in which they have been able to draw the eyes of the outside world to their nation in a positive light, and just as visa restrictions were lifting, opening doors to the economic and cultural boost that was hoped would come with tourism, their doors banged shut again, violently.

In the years and months leading up to the revolution, the outlook was positive.  As a UNESCO site, Leptis Magna had become a part of every tour offered in the country, the beauty and history of its ruins first a draw from those in neighboring counties, and finally to the rest of the world, millions of whose citizens are eager for a new link to the past.  The secluded, intimate experience one could enjoy amongst the ruins became a theme among travelers who yearned for respite from the crowds that dilute the traveler’s experience in so many other places.  With travelers having been inundated, at other destinations, with hawking salesmen and tour guides eager to push them quickly past artifacts they had spent fortunes to see, many tourists found the peaceful serenity of Leptis Magna an unexpected boon.  Though both arriving at and moving through Libya was difficult, for many of the foreign travelers I studied, these struggles were quickly forgotten in the face of the  magical experience offered by the ancient ruins.

What is more, travel to Leptis Magna opened the eyes of many travelers to the welcoming arms of the Libyan people.  Tourists were shocked to find their illusions about Libyans shattered as they shared their stories, their food, and their history freely with the hospitality of a neighbor, rather than with the cold-eyed distance and intolerance associated with Gaddafi.  In all the accounts I read, none reflected a negative experience with locals.  Safety and goodwill marked the experiences off those traveling before the outbreak of the revolution.

Individual experiences such as these can have some impact on the world’s perception of Libyans, but many challenges remain for Libyan tourism in a broader sense.  Tourism articles are dotted with warnings from different time periods to avoid Libya due to the political climate, such as the Jihad announced on Switzerland in 2010.  This rhetoric suggests a sense of frustration from the people who have watched investors regularly pass over areas such as Leptis Magna because of the uncertainty surrounding Gaddafi’s regime.  In no case was this more evident than when the revolution began in 2011, and foreign governments began warning their people of the dangers of traveling to Libya for any reason.

Leptis Magna’s primary draw is for those interested in adventure tourism, and web searches on the ruins after February become marked with notes of how tourism is declining to the area and more specifically how the archeologists are being evacuated.  The archeologists themselves painted a fearful picture of the country as the regime began locking down telecommunications and travel; without the ability to communicate they were effectively blind and deaf as they tried to move from the remote archeological sites to safety.  They begin also the rhetoric of concern over the safety of the ruins, further implying that tourists may soon have fewer and fewer reasons to visit Libya.

Rhetoric published online about Leptis Magna during the first six months after the revolution began was the most alarmist, as almost every occurrence of the UNESCO site on the web involved its potential danger.  By indicating that they had not ruled out striking targets in the area, NATO forces created a global concern as the world watched anxiously in fear that a modern conflict could destroy a priceless piece of the past.  But Libyan civilians and revolutionaries seemed the most concerned; they feared for their historical sites and were doing what they could to preserve them, distancing themselves from any initiative that might cause harm to Leptis Magna.  Tourism was no longer an option as tanks and missiles were moved among the ruins, although government officials proclaimed the ruins safe.

Revolution has brought Leptis Magna to the world’s awareness during the site’s most precarious hour; external forces interfering with the affairs of the Libyan people have left the ruins in a more peril than ever before, as NATO airstrikes loom.  The Libyans, especially those leading the rebellion, seem dedicated to the preservation of Leptis Magna, a symbol of their heritage and source of national pride.  Tourism ground to a halt following the revolution’s inception, and the future of tourism to Leptis Magna remains uncertain.  The worldwide outcry over the potential of Leptis Magna’s destruction has brought the ancient city to the forefront of global discourse for the first time in centuries, and as to date it remains unharmed.  Perhaps when peace returns to Libya, the world at large will have more of a reason to visit the shores of the Mediterranean and the ancient Roman ruins that stand as the crown jewel of the Libyan people.

Sources Cited

Bowes, Gemma (2011, March 4). Libya.  The Guardian.  Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/mar/05/middle-east-travel-advice-libya.  Accessed     10/23/2011.

Borg, Victor (2011).  Libya — Destination Guide: Overview.  Retrieved from http://www.triporati.com/guides/Africa_Middle+East/Libya/country.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Butler, Declan (2011, March 2).  Nature. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110302/full/news.2011.132.html.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Carri, Mateo (2011).  Libya Uncovered.  Retrieved from http://www.exodus.co.uk/feature/enewsarchive/libya-uncovered.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

CCTV+ (2011).  Libya Tourism.  Retrieved from http://newscontent.cctv.com/news.jsp?fileId=111972.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Coote, Tom  (2010).  A Short Break in Libya.  Retrieved from http://www.tomcoote.net/libya.html. Accessed 10/22/2011.

Coghlan, Tom. (2011, June 14).   Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi hides Grad missiles from NATO raids   in the ruins of Leptis Magna.  The Australian.  Retrieved from      http://www.theaustralian.com.au/in-depth/libyan-leader-muammar-gaddafi-hides-grad-missiles-from-nato-raids-in-the-ruins-of-leptis-magna/story-fn7ycml4-1226074787510.  Accessed    10/24/2011.

Crifasi, Meral (2009). Libya opens Leptis Magna to the world.  Retrieved from http://heritage-key.com/blogs/meral-crifasi/libya-opens-leptis-magna-world.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Cumming-Bruce, Nick (2009, November 29).  Swiss Ban Building of Minarets on Mosques.  New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/world/europe/30swiss.html.      Accessed 12/3/2011.

Gearon, Eamonn (2007).  Mass tourism or mass confusion?  Middle East, Oct. 07, 40-41. 

Golino, Frank Ralph (1970).  Patterns of Libyan National Identity.  Middle East Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3,      338-352.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4324616. Accessed: 11/20/2011.

Gumuchian, Mary Louise (2011).  Libya’s Roman sites unscathed by unrest so far.  Reuters.  Retrieved  from http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/27/us-libya-protests-heritage- idUSTRE71Q0M520110227.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Hepburn, Colin (2010).  Libya’s Star Attraction.  Retrieved from http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g424912-d323961-r83042272-Leptis_Magna-Al_Khums.html.  Accessed 10/22/2011

Londono, Ernesto  (2011, June 14).  Fear for Libya’s Roman ruins.  Washington Post.  Retrieved from             http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle-east/fear-for-libyas-roman-ruins/2011/06/15/AGlDYTWH_story.html.  Accessed 10/23/2011.

Matar, Hisham (2006).  In the Country of Men. United Kingdom: Dial Press.

Norton, Graham (1987). Tourism and International Terrorism. The World Today, Vol. 43, No. 2, .     30-33. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40395889.  Accessed: 11/20/2011.

Raghavan, Sudarsan (2010, April 14). Libya’s efforts to build economy, tourism snagged by its own             capriciousness.  Washington Post.  Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-            dyn/content/article/2010/04/13/AR2010041304526.htm.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Simms, Annabel (2010). Leptis Magna, Libya: Rome by the sea.  Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/activityandadventure/8167751/Leptis-Magna-Libya-Rome- by-the-sea.html.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Tharoor, Ishaan (2011, June 14).  With Roman Ruins Under Threat, Libya’s Ancient Past Presses Against    Its Present.  Time.  Retrieved from http://globalspin.blogs.time.com/2011/06/14/with-roman- ruins-under-threat-libyas-ancient-past-presses-against-its-present/#ixzz1PSXvaZia.  Accessed 10/23/2011.

UNESCO (2011). Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna.  Retrieved from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/183.  Accessed 11/13/2011.


Our Flawed Democratic Model

Caution:  This is an extremely long post.  If you’re looking for lighter fare, you may want to skip ahead, but  if you’ve questions about the efficacy of our U.S. democracy or how other democracies approach representation, read on.

Government of the people by the people and for the people is no new concept in the modern era,  as it saw its birth 2,500 years ago when the great thinkers of ancient Greece first put it into practice.  The direct representation model in which the individual cast his vote on specific policies and pieces of legislature  – democracy by its truest definition – gave way to the more representative format that we now recognize.  Today that model continues to evolve, manifesting distinctly in over 30 well defined models around the globe, varying from majoritarian to consensus and from unitary to federalist.  The culture and politics of each democracy shape its governmental design, and in most cases the conventions of each are tied strongly to those particular parameters which drive a nation toward its desired ends: large and complex systems often proliferate a greater number of parties to accommodate their diversity, while smaller more homogenous groups tend toward fewer.  The majoritarian model was the early choice of the authors of American government, and at the time of it’s development it represented one of the most progressive governmental designs globally, especially with regards to separation of powers and federalist leanings.  But in the centuries that have followed, more cooperative democratic models which lean toward enfranchising political and cultural minorities have flourished, raising questions as to the efficacy of our seemingly dated system of combative partisanship and winner-take-all electoral system.  It is the position of this essay that certain aspects of the United States government, in particular its partisan and electoral systems, must become more dynamic and cooperative to effectively represent and govern a population that is growing both with regards to its need and its diversity.

It is not in dispute that Americans’ participation in the voting process is less than satisfactory, and its difficult to overstate the significance of this fact.  The power of the democracy as a model of government is dependent upon the participation and faith of its constituency, and at one time U.S. voter turnouts were almost universal.  Though certain factors facing U.S citizens, such as change of residence and the difficulty of travel, made complete participation difficult, “late-nineteenth century voter turnouts were virtually complete” (Kornbluth, 2000).  Since then, voter turnout has dropped dramatically; only 56.8% of the U.S voting population cast in 2008, which, as anemic as it was, were the highest since 1972.  According to the International IDEA Voter Turnout Database, these numbers are conspicuously below most democratic U.S. contemporaries.  The following percentages represent the most current data in eligible voter participation for select democracies in recent parliamentary elections: Austria, 81.7% (2008); Belgium 91.1% (2007); Finland, 65% (2007); Germany, 77.7%, (2005); Japan, 67.5% (2005); Netherlands, 86.4% (2006); Sweden, 82%, (2006).  The gradual but consistent downturn in voter participation suggests two potential causes: either U.S. voters don’t care to vote, or they feel their vote is irrelevant or insignificant.  There are several attributes of our current system that appear to negatively affect the attitudes of voters, but perhaps none is so indictable than the nature of our electoral system, especially with regards to the presidential election.

The executive branch represents a significant portion of the legislative authority in the United States, including the power to declare war as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and to veto legislation against a two-thirds majority in each house.  Voter turnouts in presidential election years average 18% higher than in non-presidential elections, reflecting a strong political identification to the election of the executive office.  However, due to the plurality, or First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) electoral system, in which the electorates in each state cast all their votes for the candidate winning the majority or plurality of the state’s popular vote, minority party ballots cast in a strongly Democrat or Republican leaning state are often viewed as (and ex post facto are) wasted.  This system prompts presidential candidates to focus their campaigns on moderate swing states with no predictable political trend.  It takes no great logical leap to ascertain how the Republican in California or the Democrat in Texas feels disenfranchised, when literally millions of voters are ignored and their votes rendered null.

The frustration and controversy over the nature of the electoral college system to elect the  executive in the United States is well documented.  The 2000 Presidential race had to be decided by  the Supreme Court after questionable vote-counting methods brought doubt to the outcome and forced a recount.  The initial results were overturned and Bush was declared the winner, though Gore won the popular election.  Polls at the time indicated that a majority of Americans wanted the electoral college replaced with a direct elect-system (Washington Post Poll, 2000), unlikely as it may be for the incumbent parties to propose a change in the current model.  Exacerbating the sense of voter insignificance was the rogue elector in same election who, because electors are not bound to vote with their constituency, chose to cast his vote for Bush instead of Gore.  Regardless of popular opinion,an  elector who answers ultimately not to the people he represents (in some cases over 500,000), but to himself represents an inherent flaw in the democratic process.  If the FPTP system isn’t alienating enough for the modern voter, this sanctioned capriciousness is a prima facie breach of their faith.

As great a threat that a constituency’s diminishing confidence in the strength of its vote poses to a democratic model, there is a greater underlying problem in this model: the impotence of third parties and their candidates.  The FPTP electoral model forces a third party or independent presidential candidate to compete with the dominant party candidates in a winner-take-all electoral arena, unable to gain a single vote’s worth of validity without taking an entire state.  Because of this almost insurmountable electoral obstacle, third party candidates must overcome not only the trepidation of the sympathetic voter to “waste” their ballot, but also the backlash of members of the dominant party with which they most idealistically align, which invariably accuse these candidates of generating more “wasted” votes which would have otherwise gone to their “legitimate” party.  This was evident in the 2000 election as well when  Ralph Nader, who has in the past declared both Green Party and Independent affiliations, entered the election and met heavy opposition by Democrats who, surmising he had no realistic chance for victory, denounced Nader for threatening to pull critical votes from Gore that could cost him the election.  After Bush captured the victory, current Vice-President Joseph Biden told the New York Times, “Ralph Nader is not going to be welcome anywhere near the corridors [of Capitol Hill].  Nader cost us the election.” (Dao, 2000).  Such high-profile rancor at a third party candidate, which appeared to reflect the sentiments of many high-ranking democratic officials, represents the political climate such candidates face.  This sort of political grandstanding is intended to push on-the-fence-voters into aligning with the safer, dominant party selection versus casting the riskier vote for a candidate they prefer.  Such a strategy further erodes the faith voters have either in getting non-dominant party candidates elected or in their effectiveness post-election when faced with such adversarial counterparts.

Beyond the issue of waning voter interest and a flawed executive electoral process, the two party-system entrenched in the United States presents a number of other obstacles in the way of representation at the congressional level, most notably in the majoritarian model it follows. This model of politics, represented by The United States, The United Kingdom, and Australia, among others, favors a rule by the majority or plurality, often represented by the dominant of fewer than  3 major political parties.  In the UK is it is the Labour and Conservative parties.  In Australia, the Australian Labor and Coalition parties.  In the United States it is the Democratic and Republican parties.  In each case, these two parties represent liberal vs. conservative politics respectively, and have successfully prevented any third party from seriously threatening dominance in parliament/congress.  The United States differs from many contemporaries, however, in that its electoral system has prevented non-dominant party candidates from capturing more than two of a combined 535 seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and those who have been elected  are declared as “Independent” rather than representing a particular party.  Contrast this to the UK, in which 92 of its 646 seats in the House of Commons are held by non-dominant parties, most notably the growing Liberal Democratic party, the progress of which could ultimately lead to a more balanced, cooperative legislature.  Under the current regime, there is virtually no chance in the United States for a party such as the Libertarian or Green party to establish a comparable foothold due to our lack of proportional representation.

Proportional representation, or PR, has become the hallmark of the consensus model, the chief rival to the majoritarian model in modern democratic systems.  In this model, multiple parties (usually between 3.5 and 6) must work cooperatively to achieve initiatives and pass legislation, as generally no single party is strong enough to muscle bills through parliament alone.  In Europe, 21 countries practice proportional representation within a consensus system, including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

The PR model is designed to provide a proportional number of representatives or seats to the number of votes each party receives, with minimal percentage requirements (5-10%) at the-point-of entry.  The most common form of PR, employed by countries such as The Netherlands and Israel, is a national list system, in which candidates are selected from party lists and seats are distributed based on the number of votes each party captures.  While this model provides the most accurate ratio of seat/party distribution, critics argue that it can be less effective at local representation.  In order to provide a stronger local political presence, a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) model is being used in countries such as Germany and New Zealand.  In this hybrid system, half the members in each district are chosen by in winner-take-all single member elections, while the other half are elected from party lists, providing the advantages of both regional and proportional representation.

Yet another progressive system is being employed in Ireland and Malta, know as the Single-Transferable-Vote (STV) model.  Unlike other PR systems, in STV elections votes are exclusively cast for candidates, but each district elects more than one candidate (up to as many as five).  On the ballots, voters rank candidates in order of preference.  Depending on the number of seats, winners are chosen based upon benchmark percentages in diminishing scale, and second- and third-tier (and beyond) voter preferences are applied respectively as seats are filled.  This way, a proportionality is achieved without party-preference voting, and each voter has a greater influence on their representation.

As a nation grows and becomes more diverse, the need to represent minority interests becomes more and more critical, and the necessity for a democracy to provide for that representation greater and greater.  Arend Lijphart, in his definitive work Patterns of Democracy, examines thirty-six modern democratic governments, and finds that all but one, Portugal, are moving toward a greater number of national parties.  His study finds an almost universally positive relationship between the number of significant political parties a country balances and its performance in key indicators of governmental success, favoring the most diverse and multiparty consensus models (Lijphart, 1999).

Perhaps one of the most significant findings of Lijphart’s study with regards to a particular nation’s party system is the direct relationship between the number of issue dimensions which play heavily in inter-party conflict and the number of its effective political parties.  These issue dimensions are: socioeconomic, religious, cultural-ethnic, urban-rural, regime support, foreign policy, and post-materialist (environmental).  The mean of effective political parties (calculated with a specific algorithmic formula over the course of 4-21 elections) ranged from as low as 1.35 to as high as 5.98, with insular, more homogenous groups scoring the lowest (Bahamas – 1.68, Barbados – 1.76, Trinidad – 1.82) and cosmopolitan, more diverse nations scoring the highest (Switzerland – 5.24, Finland 5.03, Italy – 4.91), with an overall average of 3.16.  The United States, an internationally conscious, highly populated and religiously diverse nation, with a heavy focus on foreign policy and environmental issues, scores well below the average with 2.40 effective parties, and significant inter-party conflicts limited to only two of the seven issue dimensions, that of socioeconomic and cultural-ethnic.

This data suggests one of two things: either the population of the United States is not concerned enough with issues such as environmentalism, foreign policy, and governmental/regime reform to invest in them politically, or the two-party system is not capable of representing such a broad spectrum of issues effectively enough.  An examination of the social complexities of the United States’ 300 million-plus people, suggest that the later scenario is most likely the case.  Lijphart states simply that “two-party systems cannot easily accommodate as many issues as multiparty systems,” (Lijphart, 2000 p. 87) and it is apparent that the current electoral model’s systemic entrenchment of the  existing U.S. regime renders the potential for a proliferation of effective parties very unlikely, whether the will of the people drives it or not.

The present harm in the lack of diversified issue-dimension indicators within the two-party system is three-fold: first it generates a potential conflict to the voter, second it makes candidates and parties easy targets for corporations and interest groups, and finally it sets up an adversarial and one-dimensional point of conflict in partisan politics.

The most basic and logically evident flaw with having only two effective parties representing limited dimensions can be most easily exposed in two examples: the Christian environmentalist and the  capitalist member of the gay community.  In both cases, the constituent will be forced to choose one of their own ideological convictions over another, as neither the Republican nor the Democratic party represents them without conflict.  Even beyond such extreme examples, the reality is that with the vast number of issues facing a nation with such a large population and land mass to manage, important issues such as foreign policy and environmental concerns become lost in the political shuffle.  Instead, candidates campaign on the more emotionally volatile economic and moral platforms, while other issues fall by the wayside.  The only solution to this conundrum for the discriminating voter is to find candidates that are backed by special interest groups supporting causes they champion.  This state of affairs has created its own monster, and leads to the second problem that limited dimension two-party politics has manifested, that of corporate and interest group corruption.

One of the factors Lijphart examined was the nature and number of as well as the relationship to  the government of interest groups in majoritarian versus consensus model government, and found two consistent correlations.  In a consensus models with multiparty systems, interest groups are large but few in number, and operate in a manner known as democratic corporatism.  Corporatism refers to a structured hierarchy within the interest groups that is integrated into the political system at various levels, coordinating and cooperating with the policy makers they influence as well as other interest groups with compromise and mutual accountability.  In contrast, in majoritarian systems such as the United States, interest groups follow a plurality model, in which a vast number of smaller groups work independently and in direct competition with each other for the attention of lawmakers (Lijphart, 1999).       According to the Encyclopedia of Associations, the number of interest groups in the United States grew from 5,000 in 1956 to 20,000 in 1996 and the number of lobbyists in Washington jumped to the tens of thousands (Schier, 2003).  Because our electoral system mandates that constituents cast votes for individuals instead of parties, candidates are forced into the role of entrepreneurs, raising exorbitant sums of money for costly campaigns.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Senate public records indicate that an estimated $3.47 billion was spent by lobbies and interest groups in support of U.S. campaigns in 2009.  The implications are obvious: when elected, candidates owe these groups something.

It’s not difficult to surmise how the rapid multiplication of these interest groups may effect voter confidence in the integrity of their government.  Professor and political analyst Steven Schier observes:

In recent decades, the interest groups have clogged the electoral system with their own     advertisements and activation strategies aimed at their members and swing voters.  The result is a clutter of messages at election time and lobbying pleas when Congress is in session.  Proliferating messages, endless interest group conflict, and extensive group advertising during elections contributed   mightily to public exasperation with politics, helping to drive down  [voter] turnout (Schier, 2003).

Beyond a growing frustration with the political processes themselves, it seems that there is no small amount of unrest growing in a populace that is becoming increasingly distrustful of and disengaged from their government.  A 1999 report by The National Association of Secretaries of State announced that sixty-four percent of voters surveyed believed that “the government is run by a  few big interests looking out for themselves, not for the benefit of all.”  Fifty-eight percent believed that “you can’t trust politicians because most are dishonest.”  The report ultimately concluded that due to a lack of faith, “America is in danger of becoming a nation of voters and non-voters” (Huffington, 2000).  Falling election turnouts appear to collaborate this theory.

The third danger in our current limited-dimension bipartisanship is the adversarial nature of the relationship between the two parties.  As either party has carved out its own territory on one side of each issue, it then draws strength from pointing out the negative aspect of the opposition to gain political ground. To witness this debacle in action, one needs to look no further than the recent health care reform bill which held Congress hostage for a year during a time when the ostensibly more pressing matters of unemployment and economic instability face the nation.  Partisanship over the bill reached what may be an all-time high in U.S. politics, the lines sharply drawn between Democrat and Republican with accusations and insinuations hurled from congress to the executive and back, with a red-state, blue-state mentality trickling down into the population.  Because no compromise could be reached between the parties, the Democratic party began leaning heavily on its own membership to follow the party lead to pass the bill, even to the point offering financial incentives to states such as Louisiana in the form of a $400 Million Medicaid cost cut, which appeared very much like a bribe.  The heavy-handed attempts to muscle this bill into law at all costs drew a massive amount of national scrutiny to the inner-workings of the government, regardless of party affiliation.  It is becoming clear to both those involved and removed from government that the unbridled animosity between the parties is antithetical to progress and solid lawmaking.  Former U.S. Senator and Governor of Oklahoma David Boren warns:

One thing is clear: public impatience with partisan bickering has reached the boiling point.  It is feeding the cynicism Americans feel about their government.  It is tragically contributing to the sense of pessimism about the future of our country and the quality of life for our children.  We must break the cycle of partisanship or face inevitable decline as a nation (Boren, 2008).

It appears that this two-party juggernaut is driving itself onto increasingly deadly ground, and is so entrenched by its own design that attempting to reform it maybe be impossible.

There are those that suggest that a two-party system is the most capable of quick and efficient decision making, and it is possible that the vision of the authors of our democratic model envisioned that it would remain that way.  A. Lawrence Lowell, one of the earliest political scientists, went on record that a democracy should embrace “two parties, and two parties only” if it wished to survive and govern effectively, asserting that the greater the number of discordant groups, the slower they are able to move and the less like they are of pleasing a majority of the people (Lowell, 1896).  But the merits of moving quickly must be examined carefully; if it is the prerogative for a party that as soon as it achieves the required seats it needs to push through a given piece of legislation, that it does so rapidly and with a blind eye to the rationality and efficacy of it for the sake of expedience, we’ve gained nothing but the ability to pass poor legislation quickly.  A multiparty consensus model forces parties to work together to accomplish goals, as no party is strong enough on it’s own to jam a bill through parliament in the face of detractors.  This necessitates a cooperative parliament and gives voice and influence to even the smallest represented party.

Perhaps the most powerful argument in favor of moving toward a multiparty, proportionally representative system is it’s influence on voter turnout.  Voters in consensus model democracies average  7.5% higher voter turnout than those in majoritarian systems utilizing winner-take-all electoral systems  for obvious reasons: each vote counts and each political party has the opportunity to gain representative seats in parliament or congress.  In a culture rife with distraction in the form of limitless television programming, movies, online gaming, cell phones, Mp3 players and a host of others, it’s important that the population doesn’t become any more disengaged from politics than they already are.  As Joseph Bessette notes of our past, higher turnout years, “Americans of the time, faced with fewer entertainment options, were exposed to more serious political discussions in the form of speeches, lectures, and debates than is the case today” (Bessette, 1994).  Because of this, it becomes even more crucial that the governmental embrace its constituency, the large groups as well as the minorities, give them a vote that counts and a voice that can be heard.  When just over half of the voting populations even bothers to turn out for an election, and the trend continues in the direction of fewer and fewer each year, we risk becoming a democracy without voters.  As unlikely as it may appear, if enough people begin to feel as though their vote is wasted, eventually that is the scenario we will face.

How could such a change occur in the United States, with its doggedly entrenched two-party system?  It’s difficult to envision.  The very electoral system itself exists to prevent independents or third party candidates from gaining any viable territory in our political arenas.  The lack of proportional representation creates a sense of futility in those temped to cast their ballot for the risky political outsider who, even if elected, lacks the weight to push any agenda on her own without the backing of a major party, or worse, potentially faces open contempt from the Democrats or Republicans from which she “stole” votes.  If it ever was, the United States is certainly no longer a homogenous, insular nation capable of being adequately represented by two parties, or the capricious whim of party-appointed electors.  By employing this dated and exclusionary model, we have fallen into the minority of developed democracies, most of which have moved toward consensus models which champion cooperation and non-partisanship. These nations experience higher voter turnout, fewer and regulated interest groups, greater economic growth, as well as less unemployment and violence than their majoritarian counterparts (Lijphart, 1999) while providing a voting platform in which every vote counts. Though the United States is multi-ethnic and multicultural, manifests a large socioeconomic span, stretches a continent of rural and urban interests, deals diplomatically with most every nation on earth, and is proliferating a strong green movement, its citizens are somehow only allowed two realistic choices when we step into the booths. We must not only examine whether this entrenched hegemony is the democracy we want as a represented body; we must question whether it is a democracy at all.

_______________________________________________________________

Works Cited

Boren, D. (2008).  A letter to america. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Bessette, J. (1994).  The mild voice of reason: Deliberative democracy and american national        government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dao, J. (2000, November 8).  Angry democrats, fearing nader cost them the presidential race, threaten     to retaliate.  New York Times.

Kornbluth, A. (2000).  Why americans stopped voting: The decline of participatory democracy and the      emergence of modern american politics. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Lijphart, A. (1999).  Patterns of democracy: Government forms and performance in thirty-six        countries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lowell, A. (1896).  Governments and parties in continental europe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Schier, S. (2003).  You call this an election? : America’s peculiar democracy. Washington, D.C.:   Georgetown University Press.


Did I Make Bail?

The only current buzz phrase more popular than “golden parachute” is government “bailout”, and “bailout” brings one of two images to mind: bucketing water out of a sinking ship and jumping out of a plane, neither of which gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.

My jaw has been permanently agape since the government (read: “the taxpayers”) began throwing massive amounts of cash at businesses that have clearly proven they don’t know what what to do with it.  Hundreds of billions went to banks…with no stipulations as to how they were to use it.  How did that happen?  And do they have to pay it back?

I suppose I can appreciate why banks, who were given the money primarily to lend and stimulate the economy, have locked down their cash, effectively rendering the solution beneficial to no one but the banks themselves.  It makes sense: with the non-existent interest rates and a tumbling dollar it’s hardly in a bank’s best interest to lend cash to anyone, given that any loan may be (and likely will be) worth less in two years than it is now.  While I worked in and around the construction  industry, there were builders with 800 FICA scores couldn’t get a loan to build, because the housing prices were slipping too quickly for a bank to forecast their investment.  So they horded the cash – and that makes sense from the bank’s perspective.

Which is why when we lent them all that money we should have stipulated what they were expected to do with it.

These days, if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.

We all had money in the banks, so most of us could see the advantage of saving the businesses that were supposed to be watching our capital.   But why are we looking to bailout auto manufacturers a second time?  Yes there are jobs at stake, but the United Auto Workers have chosen to run these businesses into the ground by paying virtually unskilled workers salaries close to six figures and rewarding astronomical pensions that they simply can’t afford.  This is not the taxpayers’ problem. When UAW decided to reject the stipulated (and necessary) salary cuts the government attached to the automotive bailout, that should have been the end of the offer.  How have we reached a point that the U.S. Government gets bullied by unions?

GM, Ford, D-C: “Give us money, we’re broke.”

United States: “Ok, but first you need to amend your reckless overpayment of workers, which is why you’re broke (to say nothing of the fact that your cars are a joke).

GM, Ford, D-C: “Nope, we won’t do it.  Give us the money anyway, or we’ll collapse and it’ll massacre the economy.”

United States: “Er, ok.  We were just bluffing.  Here’s the money.”

GM, Ford, D-C (three months later): “We’re broke again.”

Isn’t there an obvious pattern here?  Why do we give money to businesses that are so fiscally backward and poorly managed that we can be certain that their bad practices will bleed them dry again?  Where is reason?  This is our money that is being used for these bailouts, not the government’s money.  We are the economy…there is no separate entity called “government” that is generating revenue.  There’s just you and me.  And our money is being spent very foolishly.

Albert Einstein supposedly once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Insanity has become the American way of life, painted all over the newspapers, the television, and the web, and we as a society are oblivious to the fact that we are losing our minds.

Addendum:  Recently the UAW agreed to drop pay scales from $70/hour to $55/hour to compete with Japanese Auto companies…so salaries drop from $145,000 yearly to $114,000.  So problem solved, I suppose, reductio ad absurdum.


Olly Olly Oxen Free

This is my first blog entry.  I can’t help but be reminded of a rant fictional character Hank Moody let loose on the subject of blogging as I type, and I’ll admit to having had these thoughts:

Why would I read a blog of an uncredited source?  What have I, or anyone, done in the past to give weight or credibility to such a blog?    What life, of the billions living or past, is so unique or interesting to those it does not immediately effect, that its blogged existence is necessitated in the quagmire of web-based vanity publishing?

I found that the answer to these three questions are: why not, it doesn’t matter, and all of them.

We now exist in a world in which anyone can find a voice…and yet somehow, despite all my experiences to the contrary, I had asked myself these questions assuming that only the strongest and most reasonable voices had found a wide forum.  Like most, I had tacitly downed the Kool-Aid mixed up by People magazine and boutique “news” programs.  But at last reality caught up with me: more often than not, the most popular and pandering voices find the most turned ears; seldom do those choirs throwing the ultraviolet light in the hotel room ring strong in the steeples.  Our modus operandi as a culture is to tune in to the talking head that most supports what we’ve already hook-line-and-sinkered.  We love to toe the line that reels us to the filet knife.

When I was young we played kick the can, and at the end-game, those in hiding were given amnesty by the phrase “Olly olly oxen free”, a turn on “all come free”.  Hiding was fun; kicking the can over was transcendent.  But while we thinkers have stowed away in ponder, the media, government, and other deep-pocket interest groups have steel-toed our allegorical Red Bull vessel into aluminum shavings, and categorically denied us our home-free call.

But we have a new voice: the blog.  If “Common Sense” existed today, it’d be in good Tom’s “Paine’s Pain” page, and we could only hope that enough free-thinkers would browse his e-pamphlet to give it the  punch it landed in 1737.  The soul’s trial has deepened and widened since then.  The fronts on which we fight today shift around lines blurred by a global bureaucracy that is a juggernaut that no single shot heard at any distance can wound.

The new battlefield is the profits and losses sheet.  The new general is the CEO.  The new blood spilled is traded by the barrel.  And yet somehow Brangelina takes the headline.

I am a writer and musician.  Once upon a time, our wordsmiths and bards plucked an untouchable human heart-string that no king or merchant-lord could mute.  But of late, art and journalism are bought and sold on the same ledger as wheat and gold, and we’re in danger of losing Common Sense because it simply doesn’t trade well.

I’m no fan of politics, I try to live in the moment, I love people and life, and I endeavor to enjoy every minute I have.  But my future, if I wish to safeguard it,  is dependent on what our collective small voices can accomplish by shouting louder than the sound of the smashing can.

And so I’m joining the few other voices of reason.  What is popular is not often true, and the truth is still in hiding, waiting for it’s call.

Olly olly oxen free.