It Was a Very Good Year

On the surface, I feel much like John Oliver did in bidding farewell to 2016. It was an ugly year.

But hope can’t be kept down, even in the heart of the realist. The American philosopher Richard Rorty had a fancy way of putting this. He said even if we live lives of private irony, we must rise to achieve public hope.

What did he mean? In our deepest selves we can never be 100 percent sure our beliefs are correct. We can spend our whole lives racking up evidence in their favor, but we can never rule out the possibility of (a) a disconfirming case that comes careening in from left field, or (b) the appearance in our lives of a new perspective that compels us to go back and re-interpret all the evidence that led us to where we are. The inner acknowledgment that we will never come safely to harbor is what Rorty means by private irony.

It is a willingness to live with incompleteness.

But the thing is, we can’t stay ironists all the time. We have to get up each morning ready to face the world on our own terms, not waiting slackly for the advent of new evidence or fresh perspectives to overthrow our basic beliefs. We have to at least hope that we’re right, even as competitors to our best ideas constantly rise up to challenge us. This is what Rorty means by public hope. Our mechanisms for coping with incompleteness should be optimistic ones.

It’s a paradox, like so much of philosophy. There’s no safe harbor out there, but by God, you take the wheel and turn your ship into the wind. And like Conrad’s Captain McWhirr in Typhoon, you sail as if there were a harbor out there, on the other side of the gale. “Facing it, always facing it,” McWhirr tells his first mate. “That’s the only way to get through.”

My public hope is that more and more people will be persuaded that cruelty is the worst thing we do. Not blasphemy, not disloyalty to an idea, nor any other kind of thought crime. Shooting, clubbing, bombing, gassing and flaying each other alive are far worses than insulting the the gods that demand such sadism. I’m not sure I’m right about that, but I hope I am. Until something better comes along, the principles of liberal democracy are the most life-affirming ones we have.

Reading is vital to me because it cuts straight to the place in my mind where private irony and public hope fight for balance. To be fully alive, I think, we have to routinely expose our deepest beliefs to competition. We have to take the risk of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. I think Socrates said something to the effect that an untested belief is not worth having. So reading is, for me, the crucible that tests beliefs and decides which one are worth having. For now.

portrait-of-edmond-maitre-the-reader
Portrait of a Reader, by Renoir

With so much at stake then, reading is always, for me, something more than just picking up one damn book after another. Or is it? I don’t really have a reading plan. I do, in fact pass the years by picking up one damn book after another, and I heartily enjoy it. Self-discovery is no less reawarding, I find, for being haphazard.

If Rorty is right—if we do live in a contested equilibrium between private irony and public hope—it follows that even random book choices should carom back and forth between the two poles to converge on a point that indicates, roughly, one’s present location.

So here are the books I read in 2106, more or less at random, that tested my ideas or at least tickled my fancy and helped indicate my present location.

Harlot’s Ghost, 1,300 pages by Norman Mailer, is what I read in February after two months’ work on a proposal for a fellowship I did not win. It brought me back to literature after too long away. I wanted a splurge. Sometimes a good spy must piss on a live man hanging on the wall of an underground gay-drag bar in postwar Berlin, Mailer tells us. It’s the kind of thing he says a lot.

In The New American Militarism Andrew Bacevich warned that our pursuit of military supremacy is becoming an obsession.

Psmith Journalist, by P.G. Wodehouse, was raucously funny and gave me a line I thought I’d like on my gravestone: “I stagger on. I do not repine.” I’d love to have something funny on my gravestone, but on the other hand, repining would be precisely what I would be doing under the circumstances, my staggering days having come signally to an end. It was just a thought.

Francis Fukuyama’s two longish books on the formation and subsequent decay of political insitutions were mind-blowing in their scope and liveliness. Tomes is the dreadful word that usually comes to mind for big books about politics, but these snapped like a string of firecrackers you want to keep going.

Speaking of long books, Orhan Pamuk’s meditative novel A Strangeness in My Mind, told a humble, beautiful love story inside a trenchant social history of modern Istanbul. Entrancing and political.

I struggled manfully through Henry James’ long, wearisome The Golden Bowl only on the promise I would write a very profane review of it. Which I did.

The revelation of the year was Don Delillo’s Underworld. It shook my view of American literature. It is unquestionably an American masterpiece, a book that stands up to a century of competitors. All the while the voices of Underworld tell a towering cultural history of Cold War America, subliminal signs gather to point like a prophet to the advent of 9/11. Delillo sings new harmonies.

Can a journalist write the Great American Novel? Theodore Dreiser tried, with An American Tragedy. He told a heartbreakingly good story but still fell short of his mark. Every sentence in a great novel must be excellent. Dreiser stumbled.

Jessica Mittford’s memoir, Hons and Rebels, was a triumph,  and a surprising pleasure. Today we have the Kardashians, big-boobed celebrities-becase-they-are-celebrities. The six Mittford sisters of mid-century English aristocracy, though, glowed with wit and brio; ran away to the Spanish civil war, had a crush on Hitler, contemplated killing him. That sort of thing. Jessica wrote about it all with side-splitting humor.

I read Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now with high expectations. Although it has satisfying moments where villains, large and small, get their commeuppance, it doesn’t burst with anything new. Eight hundred odd pages without a single quotable passage.

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, easily lived up to its reputation as one of the 20th century’s funniest novels. Anyone who has ever been annoyed by anyone or anything must, at some point, gaze on this, the malcontent’s Ark of the Covenant.

I read Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter because Orwell gave it such a bad review. I wanted to see what the trouble was. Although it was bad for all the reasons Orwell noted, it was also my first ticket to Greeneland. And once you’ve visited, you can’t not go back.

Greeneland is the universe of conflicting romantic and idealistic impulses as navigated by the guilty religious conscience. In Greeneland, men turn up the collars of their trenchcoats, string up mosquito nets in their jungle camps, drink too much, and too early. Something is assailing them. Although they may not know quite what it is, they are usually trudging straight toward it. They know they are doomed. Orient Express was a thrilling, dark journey to its center.

Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh: the best novel ever written about journalism.

In Ending Up, Kingsley Amis tried to tease humorous morals out of the increasingly difficult last quarter of human life. He possibly succeeded, and possibly caused me to lose an ultramarathon.

Kingsley’s son, Martin, presented a book of exquisite, in some ways consoling, essays on 9/11, The Second Plane. Only now can I read them.

It was a good year for topical books. I found Kevin Kruse‘s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America highly revealing.

I preceded Kruse with Upton Sinclair’s little-known diatribe against religion’s pact with organized money, The Profits of Religion. Every American should read it.

Not every American will be able to stomach the book I read next, Mikhail Bakunin’s God and the State. He does a number on both. I read Bakunin not because I have any sympathy with anarchism, but because I wanted to see if the idea had a coherent argument behind it. The short version: I doubt anyone actually understands anarchism today, as Bakunin and fellow founders Proudhon and Kropotkin articulate it. We are allergic to reading books that are pre-judged as offensive or wack-o. Test yourself, though, I say. Pick up a copy of any of these guys from Amazon for free.

Ok, I’ll have to kill a few birds with one stone here. I discovered Evelyn Waugh this year. In addition to Scoop, I binge-read Decline and Fall, A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and Put Out More Flags. I think Waugh may be the greatest English stylist of the 20th century. His ability to subvert ethical matters large and small with killing wit is simply overpowering.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali poured out a shot of anti-Islamism, neat, in Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. The core beliefs of Islam, she says, are sharply at odds with the human rights revolution that has definitively shaped the West since 1776. If Islam wants to catch up, it will have to ditch its basic principles, as Christianity did when it reformed.

I also read Gore Vidal’s Empire. It tells of the fateful historical moment in 1898 when America stopped being a live-and-let-live republic and started going abroad to seek monsters and add territory.

There are so many Wodehous novels about Wooster and Jeeves: where to start? Right Ho, Jeeves, The Code of the Woosters, and Joy in the Morning make up the (nicely sequential) heart of the series. I finally read the last one this year. Timeless and perfect.

While grandstanding a bit about my own brand of atheism in this blog, I read A.C. Grayling’s wonderful book The God Argument, which establishes him firmly as the Fifth Horseman oft he Apocalypse (joining Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins and Harris).

Impressed, I went on to Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities, which makes a powerful case that the Allies (mainly the British) were wrong to bomb German civilians in World War Two.

Among the Dead Cities led me to read Günter Grass’s Crabwalk, in which Grass does what perhaps only he has the moral authority to do—open an honest conversation about German war grief.

The Stoics figured prominently and helped lead me beyond the half-century point, nobly, I hope. Marcus Aurelius’s Medtitations was excellent in places but distractingly repetitive. Cicero’s On the Shortness of Life was bountiful. For my money, Epictetus’s Enchiridion (sometimes “translated” as How to Live) delivered the gold standard in Stoicism.

John Grisham should have left the sex scenes out of Gray Mountain. It was otherwise a good muckraking novel.

I ended the year with Steven Pinker’s monumental 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Rather than gushing now about how every educated person needs to read it, I’ll keep my powder dry for a proper review sometime in the new year. See you then.

 

 

 

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Failing the Mirror Test

How different the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind!

Oscar Wilde

 

I admire the rare act of presidential humility.

In 1992, only a year after he ended America’s Viet Nam Syndrome by winning the first Persian Gulf War in wham-o style, George Bush senior admitted a fatal flaw. He didn’t have the Vision Thing. Thus, despite his status as a conquerer and national exorcist, he was not elected to a second term.

Bush’s predecessor by two, Jimmy Carter, was the first president to grapple with our nation’s post-Viet Nam inferiority complex. A brooder by nature, Carter approached our funk as a Hamlet, though, not a Caesar. In a highly unusal move for a president, he tried to put his introspection to good public use.

Almost everyone born before 1970 remembers, or has at least heard of, Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he diagnosed a national malaise. The country’s mood, Carter said, was sliding downward into a mire of anomie and materialism.

First, take about 10 seconds and absorb the astonishing fact that a U.S. president in living memory gave a speech to the nation that was a cross between a sermon and a philosophical harangue. (In many ways Carter was channeling the existentialist philsopher Soren Kierkegaard.) Try that today. Carter actually seemed to believe the spiritual desire to find meaning in life was part of our national character and deserved a political nudge. Weird, bracing stuff. No wonder someone wrote a book about it all called What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?

Even if you remember the speech (or just take a few minutes to Youtube it), hardly anyone recalls what preceded Carter’s moment of doubt and fear. In a veritable carnival of humility, Carter sequestered himself at Camp David for a week to troop in citizens, of high station and low, to unload on him about what was eating the nation. He listened intently to economists, pollsters and schoolteachers, among many others. It was perhaps the greatest reverse carpet call in the history of the presidency.

Both Bush’s and Carter’s acts of public abasement signaled something fundamental about the presidency. Both men were deferring to the unspoken principle that there are objective standards of excellence by which they felt they could be fairly judged. And by “objective” I don’t mean set in stone. I mean standards that are not determined by their subjective intuitions. Other people, institutions, or even ideas could hold them to account.

Indeed Bush underlined the role ideas play in the office of the presidency. The president must have not just intuitively good ideas, but the kind that can mobilze resources and large coalitions behind a coherent, appealing cause. Love it or hate it, LBJ’s Great Society was an example of this kind of thing. Poor ideas, though, get no political traction, and Bush learned this the hard way. While he was an able president, he wasn’t a great one, and he knew why. The Vision Thing: not . . . his . . . forte.

Carter demonstrated a related presidential virtue—the obligation to listen. A president’s democratic accountability does not end after the election, especially when he’s called on to resolve a deep national crisis. Good listening, furthermore, enhances legitimacy. Dictators are the arch non-listeners.

Well, how far we have come. Although neither Bush nor Carter is remembered as a great, or even good president, if they were miraculously transplanted onto today’s political landscape, they would shine forth with presidential virtues so brilliant we could barely look on them.

What Trump promises is presidency off the cuff. His innate self-worth guarantees he can effortlessly break the constraints of political reality and do fabulous things without pausing to inform himself on technicalities or cultivate legitimacy through feedback. He’s got this thing, because he is Donald J. Trump. Those of us who hoped he might approach his new job with less flippancy than “The Apprentice” have much to fear, and loath.

There is a famous psychological test for animals’ self-awareness that has come to be called the mirror test. In it, nature’s more complex mammals (so far just us and a few other large primates) recognize a face looking back at them in a mirror as a locus of selfhood (theirs, in particular), and not another primate or a meaningless color blob. To me, the mirror test is extraordinary because it accesses life’s deepest mystery—the dividing line beween mere material existence and the world of actuated ideas that give meaning to existence. We are the only blobs of matter on the planet that contain discursive thoughts.

But I digress, as philosophers will.

Bush’s and Carter’s acts of self-reflection suggest there is something like a presidential mirror test as well, which works in reverse. When a president gazes on the political landscape, he must implicitly acknowledge that it is a world authored by other agents and cold, hard realities. (If this sounds peculiar, recall that human infants only start to recognize the world’s externality after several months of life abroad in it.)

Bush passed the mirror test. His trials told him in highly certain terms that ideas populate the political landscape, against which the president must measure his own. Carter passed too, by a gaudy margin. His week at Camp David flooded him with the cacaphony of voices that also go to form the political landscape. A president who can’t hear the full spectrum of voices is tone deaf. Such external realities as these are countenanced by any normally functioning president.

Every morning Donald Trump wakes up and fails the mirror test. He scans the world that his policies must engage and he sees only an extension of himself. There are no objective realities or minority voices threatening to constrain his acts of fiat.

From Bush (and many others, of course) we learned that a president’s ideas must be explicable and practicable if they are to be judged as good. So far, Trump has shown himself to be comically innocent of these constraints.

Let’s take a moment to score a few of Trump’s ideas on the Bush scale:

  1. I’m going to bomb the shit out of ISIS.
  2. I’m going to bring steel back to Pennsylvania.
  3. I’m like, a really smart person, and I can go without regular intelligence briefings.

It hardly merits pointing our that the first idea is inexplicable. The president could dial up every factor of military attack (on ISIS or any other enemy) to the maximum and have no means (other than the subjective feel of effort expended) of determining whether the shit is being bombed out of anyone. It is a formula for a farcically pointless war. (I suspect, though, incoming National Security Advisor Mike Flynn likes the idea, just as he liked the vigilante gusto with which an armed alt-right lunatic “investigated” a pizzeria recently for signs Hillary Clinton had been molesting kids there. Well, anything to protect our precious bodily fluids, as another “general” of Flynn’s temperment might say.)

Idea number two reveals the depth of Trump’s delusions. Not only does he think he can undo several decades of policy-making and diplomacy that underwrote the free trade practices which (yes) did help “remove” steel from Pennsylvania, he also thinks he can reverse the very market forces that created the incentives for all that free-trade policy making. He will undo history. Trump’s nuclear option on this issue, as recently pointed out, would involve imposing a 35 percent tariff on steel imports to the United States. Ruinous, multi-front trade war, anyone?

In idea number three we see the decisive role Trump assigns to his native intellect. If he is unwilling to listen regularly to the country’s best-informed specialists on critical policy issues, what chance is there he will ever cock his ear toward the ordinary citizen? In another dramatic failure of the presidential mirror test, Trump hears only himself. His decision-making process—whatever else it turns out to be—is an echo chamber of his own infallible opinions.

Did you ever know a kid in school who could burp the alphabet? Well, here we have Trump doing a similar trick. He can actually fart things that mimick ideas. And this is what he has been doing.

Let me explain myself by way of historical analogy. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini perfected the art of the idea-like fart. When he announced in 1940 that his armies would soon be invading north Africa, what he actually said was, “My armies are hungry for glory.” This flourish sold well in Italian newspapers (but not in Berlin; the field marshalls knew they would soon have to go rescue Italy’s armies), and mostly because it was an idea-like fart.

trumpolini

Like a fart, it had little real substance. How would you prove, one way or another, that an army was “hungry” for something as abstract as glory? (Or that a country was missing something as abstract as its greatness?) This absence of content lets a fart drift any which way. If there’s an angry mob about, why not aim it at something they dislike and see where it goes?

When push came to shove, Mussolini’s decalaration turned out to be impracticable because it was flatly false. None of Mussolini’s armies actually wanted “glory.” Five years earlier they had been hard pressed to subdue African tribesmen with spears in Abissynia (Ethiopia), and they could not have welcomed the prospect of going up against the tanks and machine guuns of the British Eighth Army, which was waiting for them in north Africa. Contemporary reporting about the fighting performance of Il Duce’s armies indicated they would have much preferred sipping campari in Rome to being dehydrated and gutshot in a Libyan desert. They surrendered by the tens of thousands.

The fart-idea, whether from Trump, Mussolini or any other blowhard, is in certain respects like the humble real thing. It is meaningless, malodorous and (luckily) evanescent. We have already seen, even before Trump takes office, that all that was necessary to escape the stink of some of his bad ideas was to wait a day or two. Obama Care was upgraded, with a mere air-clearing waft of the hand, from a disaster to the working foundation of Trump Care. The stench of a potential show trial against Clinton also dissipated, just by waiting for the wind to shift.

Still, the grimness of the times cannot be escaped, when one’s hopes hang on the prospect that the president does  not really mean the most malodorous things he says. But the problem goes deeper than that. Trump’s failure to grasp the externality of the political world is, in a profoundly worrying way, connected to his off the cuff style. His tendency to fart out fake ideas is made possible by a basic corruption of the mind. The Trump mind erases the boundary between its own impulses and the world they engage. He can literally say anything.

It is worth recalling that fiat—the act that typifies Trump’s kind of delusion—is a Latin construction that means roughly, “Let it be done through saying.” That’s what Mussolini throught he could do—make things happen just by saying them. Many of his ideas were farts, like the ill-fated north African campaign. Unfortunately, though, his worst ideas were real pieces of shit. Let us hope Trump produces nothing of such substance.

 

 

 

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The Meaning of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

For the record: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a comet in the sky of public intellectuals. She is a modern-day Thomas Paine, a passionate, deeply informed advocate for reason, freedom and human dignity. In her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, she also shows herself to be a Clausewitz in the struggle against religious violence, zeroing in on the very centers of gravity that sustain the most dangerous version of the world’s most backward-looking faith.

My usual style of persuasion is to throw out an intriguing hook, present some appealing evidence, perhaps cite the thoughts of Great Ones, and only after this warmup, get to the main point. So why do I come charging straight at the battlements today?

Because there is nonsense to be dispelled. A growing chorus of Hirsi Ali’s critics label her as vain, amateurish, reckless, and culturally insensitive. In due course I will reject all these accusations. But first I must admit I had put off reading her books for several years precisely because I had drifted toward this same dismissive attitude. I sensed the frisson around her personality hid a lack of substance.

How wrong I was. Hiris Ali is a penetrating social critic and a clear-eyed champion of conscience of the highest order. Her latest book, Heretic, is a manifesto of enlightened common sense that echoes, in many ways,  Thomas Paine’s eponymous essay, not least in its force and clarity.

heretic

Born in Somalia, raised as a strict Muslim in in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, Ayaan Hirsi Ali joined the political, dogmatic Muslim Brotherhood as a teen. But disappointed by conservative Islam’s refusal to answer (or even acknowledge) internal criticism, Hirsi Ali’s faith began to flag in her late teens.  In 1992, when she was 21 years old, she fled to The Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage. After learning the Dutch language in record time, Hirsi Ali won asylum, earned two college degrees, and was elected to the Dutch National Parliament. All that in not much more time than it takes to say it. She was a very quick study.

Hirsi Ali’s fast rise to the top of the Dutch cultural elite was fueled by her passion for the political culture she found in her new homeland. She was transfixed by the secular state’s legitimacy and power to protect individual rights and freedoms.  In her new country, people asked for good governance and got it. And they left God conspicuously out of the equation.

Coming from a culture that promoted rote obedience to Islamic law and accepted poverty, violent death and the subjugation of women with abject passivity, Hirsi Ali was transformed by the life-affirming existence she found in The Netherlands. In Heretic she recalls how surprised she was, in her early days as a Dutch immigrant, when nightfall routinely announced a hush of peace and calm sociability rather than outbreaks of wrath and violence.

Hirsi Ali made enemies just as fast as she climbed the rungs of Dutch society. Turkish and Moroccan immigrants who had led unintegrated, second-class lives in The Netherlands for decades resented her success and outspokenness. She pandered to the natives, they said, she found shortcuts to high status, she became an idol of the feminist cause, and so on.

Hirsi Ali also made deadlier enemies. In 2004 she collaborated with controversial filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (a descendant of the painter) on Submission, a film that featured scenes of Koranic verses projected onto the bodies of abused women. In November of that year, Muhammed Bouyeri, a young Islamic extremist, murdered Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street and used a knife to skewer a note onto the filmmaker‘s dying body. The note said Bouyeri and his fellow Islamists were coming after Hirsi Ali too. Submission was an act of blasphemy, they said,for which the penalty was death.

For years Hirsi Ali had been a vocal critic of Islam’s role in enabling violence against women, but the death threat dramatically raised the stakes of the debate she stirred. The government of The Netherlands protected Hirsi Ali with special security measures until 2006, when a right-leaning nationalist party won its way into a new government coalition. In an act of get-tough political theater, the new interior minister ran Hirsi Ali out of The Netherlands based on a technicality that nullified her 1992 asylum application.

The cheap stunt was the first sign that it was not just reactionary extremists who disliked Hirsi Ali, but even members of the cultural elite she had so recently, and improbably, joined. Many European liberals objected to her direct style of criticizing Islam, saying it unnecessarily stirred up trouble. Exhibit A was Van Gogh’s dead body. European elites liked freedom in the abstract, it turned out, but they were clearly afraid of a muscular liberal narrative that might upset the (clearly fragile) multicultural balance. That balance, they seemed to believe, was the main thing keeping extremists sulking quietly in back rooms and obscure mosques rather than knifing artists and other blaspheming intellectuals on the street.

The liberal elite also accused Hirsi Ali of missing the nuances of “Islamic” violence. When you look at the socio-economic factors behind “jihadist” terrorism, they lectured, there was really nothing essentially Islamic about it. (George Packer wrote this trenchant analysis of the paradigm case of this debate, on social delinquency in France’s banlieus.) Besides, many Muslim commentators objected, Hirsi Ali was not an Islamic scholar. What qualification did she have to comment?

The ideological ground softened up, some critics began to aim their darts straight at Hirsi Ali’s character, calling her a self-serving attention hog. In the media frenzy after Van Gogh’s murder, a Dutch imam dismissed Hirsi Ali’s critiques of Islam with the laziest of slanders: she was “hypnotized by all the attention. I feel sorry for her.” Yes, of course, the poor, misguided thing had forsaken her homeland and family, beautifully mastered two foreign languages, been elected to high office, attracted death threats by confronting a murderous ideology, and authored several (now five) exquisite books documenting her journey, all in a tawdry attempt to become a star. The scams some people will pull!

In 2006 Hirsi Ali emigrated to the United States. Her reception has been a triumph but one sporadically dogged by ideological farce.  As a fellow of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, Hirsi Ali leads seminars on Islam, politics and violence. This appointment is a fitting apogee for one who has risen so deservedly to the top of the realm of public intellectuals. Hirsi Ali could ask for no higher puplit for her message and deserves no lower one.

But she has brought both her classes of adversaries with her. One was to be expected. Hirsi Ali recounts in Heretic how Muslim men in her seminars routinely rise to their feet to “correct” her opinions, with all the presumptive self-assurance that conservative Islam endows the male gender. Dogmatic Muslims of both sexes try to shout her down or openly refuse to read her reading list, declaring its contents non-Koranic and therefore wrong by default. Whatever you think of Hirsi Ali’s critique of Islam, you cannot doubt that it is touching a real nerve somewhere in the community of believers.

Discouragingly, the chorus of the faux-enlightened elite has also followed Hirsi Ali to America. In just one instance of elitist mischief among many, Hirsi Ali was uninvited to receive an honorary degree from Brandeis University in April 2014, because, university officials said, her critique of Islam clashed with their core values. “I have been deemed to be a heretic, not just by Muslims—for whom I am already an apostate—” Hirsi Ali wrote, “but by some Western liberals as well.” One’s head droops in shame to think this happens in the land of Jefferson.

Heretic is the culmination of Hirsi Ali’s critique of Islam, begun in her other books. Although her particular complaint is against the odiousness of jihad and sharia—desired only by an extremist minority—she singles out ordinary, pious, non-violent Muslims as her target audience. In this sense, Heretic is indeed a critique of all of Islam, not just its most barbarous subgroups, and is therefore a book very ambitious in scope. (Thomas Paine’s repudiation of the divine right of kings in 1776 was likewise a pushing against an entire political culture that seemed deeply unjust but nowhere near teetering, a point I will come back to.)

Hirsi Ali’s analysis in Heretic is crystalline. The world populace of Muslims, she says, can be usefully divided into three groups: (1) fundamentalist, violence-prone reactionaries who envision a strong public role for religious law; (2) ordinary, peaceful Muslims who are content to keep their faith a matter of private devotion; and (3) reformers—believers or former believers who seek to take Islam into the 21st century by assimilating the first group with the second. The goal of Hirsi Ali’s Islamic reformation is to denude the faith of any claims to violence-wielding public authority. Jews did it, Christians did it, Hirsi Ali argues, and Muslims can do it too.

The brilliance of Hirsi Ali’s appeal to the Christian Reformation consists partly in this placement of the social burden of Islamic reform on Muslims. Although non-Muslims are too often the target of Islamic extremist violence today, they cannot bear the main responsibility for decommissioning it. Muslims themselves will have to do away with jihad and the idea of a sharia state. Hirsi Ali appears to assess U.S. counterterrorism operations as a miserable and largely ineffective sideshow to the real war, which is about ideational change. U.S. drones are killing only the tiniest fraction of extremists; meanwhile the extreme ideology marches on, bringing in more than enough recruits to keep holy war going indefinitely.

Writing out a clear explication of what will have to be undone in mainstream Islam is where Hirsi Ali breaks ground. Although she lacks the advanced sociological training of some of her elite critics (a fact they visit often, and happily), she succeeds in doing something crucial but which elites tend to shun: placing unimpeachable facts on display for the consideration of her target audience and drawing a compelling political moral. (Again, a parallel with Thomas Paine: he wrote his pamphlets not to win academic arguments but to move the masses.)

When one examines Christianity’s retreat from coercive violence, Hirsi Ali writes, certain causal factors pop straight out as the ones that mobilized reform. Textual and historical analysis of the Bible eroded claims that it was the inerrant word of God. Economic prosperity in Europe led people to prioritize well-being in the here and now over the abstract hope for a luxurious afterlife. Literature induced Christians to imagine what it was like to be tortured for their faith (or lack thereof). Science overturned basic metaphysical claims implied in scripture or enforced by the church, such as the geocentric model of the universe. Under the broad advances of enlightenment, Christians quietly stopped believing several outlandish things they had earlier professed, noisily and often violently.

Hirsi Ali, by the way, is in very good scholarly company up to this point in her analysis. In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker characterizes the threat to social peace posed by most religions’ articles of faith with these words:

“A broader danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means. People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power.”

But without objective standards of evidence by which to adjudicate our clashing beliefs, Pinker concludes, we resort to the raw exercise of power—physical violence. When Muhammed Bouyeri shot, stabbed and slashed Theo Van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004, he was standing up to an accute offense against the “dignity, standing and power” of Islam, or at least his version of it.

The list of Isamic beliefs today that still actuate violence, Hirsi Ali points out, are exactly the kinds of things that Christians stopped believing in modern Europe. No one in Christian Europe has believed for a very long time that it is permissable to kill someone for mocking their faith, or, for example, that conversion to the faith under torture is genuinely preferable to allowing a heretic to follow his conscience to hell. The last time a blasphemer was stoned to death in Europe was in the 17th century.

Certainly no one can envision how the forces of social change will have to act to roll back Islam’s dangerous and outdated dogmas. But a key step is to draw up a clear list of offenders—the ideas that keep Islam stuck in the adolescence of what historians call the civilizing process. Without fundamental reform of these things, Hirsi Ali argues, Islam will continue to menace its practitioners and neighbors with the chronic threat of violence and repression.

Taking their cues from Christianity, Hirsi Ali argues, Muslims must learn to repudiate five core beliefs:

  1. the status oft he Qur’an as the last and immutable word of God and the infallibility of Muhammed as the last divinely inspired messenger;
  2. Islam’s emphasis on the afterlife over the here-and-now;
  3. the claims of sharia tob e a comprehensive system of law governing both the spiritual and temporl realms;
  4. the obligation on ordinary Muslims to command right and forbid wrong;
  5. the concept of jihad, or holy war.

Hirsi Ali’s thinking on this matter is essentially Clausewitzian. The famous Prussian war theorist wrote that the first job of the general is to identify those things that an enemy cannot do without, the indispensable sources of his power. Then you go after them. It’s the only way to win a war.

These days Clausewitz is criticized for his limited vision, for only going so far as defining war in the abstract. He didn’t venture any deep thoughts on how to win particular wars. The analysis of how would have to wait on other thinkers, such as Jomini.

In a way, a similar criticism applies to Hirsi Ali’s Heretic, and in a way, it doesn’t matter. It’s true that once Hirsi Ali has identified the centers of gravity of reactionary Islam, she only makes a gesture at what do about them. In the last part of the book she identifies a broad, leading role for Muslim reformers as the next generation’s thought leaders. But she is no Jomini herself; she doesn’t point convincingly to any particular strategy for pacifying and privatizing Islam.

This sort of move is one of the reasons Hirsi Ali’s critics sometimes describe her as reckless—one to set off sparks she knows full well could ignite a firestorm. It is clear, however, from the collection of all her thoughts on growing up Muslim, becoming radicalized, and leaving the faith for secular enlightenment, that she is speaking out as a duty of conscience, not to start fights. From this perspective, the criticism of her incompletenes in Heretic is irrelevant. The Clausewitzian task Hirsi Ali accomplishes is enough. And besides, as an atheist, she lacks the in-group credibility an Islamic Jomini would need. She points out very clearly in the book that the vanguard of change will have to be filled out by Muslims.

I cannot leave my review without two asides. First, I highly recommend Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin as an in-depth meditation on a theme she only glances off in Heretic—conservative Islam’s prurient (I would say sadistic) obsession with male access to sex. From Mohammed’s injunction that a wife must be receptive to sex “even on the back of a camel,” to the now well-known belief inculcated in suicide terrorists that they will attain a harem of 72 virgins in paradise, Islam presents the lurid sexual subjugation of women too consistently as a desireable article of faith.

To the chorus of predictable objections that the sex talk is all allegorical, and increasingly marginalized by the actual empowerment of Muslim women, Hiris Ali proffers the stark reminder that “actual” female empowerment still has a very long way to go in the Muslim world, and that the ideological fight is well worth keeping up when its objective is to abolish the very idea that sexual predation can thrive in the doctrinal heart of a major religion.

Second, I feel compelled to say something against a particularly ugly slander against Hirsi Ali and her book by—surprise!—a credentialed member of the intellctual elite. In a review of Heretic in Time, Carla Power wrote:
“In a book that reads like a home-made intellectual bomb – a cobbling together of the most vicious examples from Muslim societies – she argues, among other things, that Muslims should rethink the status of Muhammad as infallible and question whether the Quran is truly the word of God.”

In the first place, this is a cowardly abdication of the right to free speech. By calling Heretic a bomb, Power clearly implies it is an instrument of violence rather than one of persuasive argumentation. This taking of the extremists’ side—justifying a verbal taboo because words can cause mortal offense—is to give up the idea that individuals may freely speak their conscience. At one time, I feel certain we believed that’s what our country was for. Or should we have shelved the Declaration of Independence because it was “an intellectual bomb”? (Which it was, on Power‘s slanted definition.)

The term “homemade” is obviously meant to pull rank intellectually. An autodidact with only a master’s degree, Hirsi Ali clearly lacks the insight and academic credentials to write a real book, Powers insinuates. One senses in this attack, which does nothing to hide its venom, an echo of the jealousy that has dogged Hirsi Ali at every rung of the ladder she has climbed since leaving Somalia. Her detractors all seem to believe she should have just hunkered down and stayed quiet.

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Not staying quiet

I will be the first to say that anyone who tries to draw conclusions—social, historical, or philosophical—about Islam or any other social phenomenon—must avail themselves of objective evidence and the best scholarly methods. But (much of) the academic world’s reflexive dismissal of Hirsi Ali as an amateur who generalizes too freely from her own case is, I believe, primarily an elitist refusal to engage her ideas based on their political incorrectness.

To assemble a chorus of scholars who respect Hirsi Ali’s work would belabor the point, but I would like to point out one. A.C. Grayling, one of this century’s most rigorous, accomplished and humane philosophers said of Heretic:

“Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one of the outstanding figures of our time. She is a luminous example of enlightenment and courage . . . . Her experience and how she has transcended it shows the way to far better possibilities for human flourishing. Her autobiography is an education and an inspiration: it should be required reading for everyone everywhere.”

Nothing about bombs, cobbling, or lacking scholarly weight. Obviously a battle of ideas cannot be won through competing book blurbs, but I think Grayling’s words help correct a slanted impression one can too easily get of Hirsi Ali’s books (especially Heretic) if you simply Google them.  (I also cannot help but think Power, whose book on Islam sells at a fraction of Hirsi Ali’s more “explosive” output is at least slightly jealous.)

For my part, I can put a name to Hirsi Ali’s greatness, which I’ve been invoking all along: Thomas Paine. I believe that Hirsi Ali, Like Paine before her, has positioned herself through hard intellectual labor and deep personal conviction to help overturn a whole political culture defined by the network of socially reprobate forces it sustains. This was Paine’s project as well, and he carried it off in much the ame style Hiri Ali has grown into. His open repudiation of monarchism, big government, and the religious superstition on which those ideas were based was clearly a project that helped turn the tide permanently in favor of liberal democracy. It was not a one-man job, of course, but anyone who doubts Paine was at the very front of the fight—invoking plain arguments and explosive ideas—needs to go back and re-read Common Sense and The Age of Reason.

Paine, whose formal education ended when he was 13, also got himself into an argument with the political elite of his time, over how hard to push for political change. It culminated in a showdown with the arch conservative Edmund Burke. Burke tried to pull rank on Paine by erecting a tower of overpowering erudition in his Reflections on the French Revolution. The details of the ensuing battle make for a story too long and too absorbing to tell here. (Christopher Hitchens provides an excellent precis.) At the end of his combative career, Paine was marginalized and alienated by the elite, mainly for going too far in attacking the religious foundation of illiberalism. Only six people attended his funeral.

History, though, has a funny way of rebalancing the scales of justice, and today Paine is seen quite rightly as a major enlightement figure in America. In the end, his camp won the fight over the proper role of religion in politics—none. Religious faith was, and is, a fine thing to carry on in private, but it no longer plays a serious role in statecraft, in large part thanks to the writings of Paine, the amateur political philsopher.

I think Hirsi Ali has the same virtues going for her as Paine did, and she is haunted by a similar vision. She perceives an entire political culture as too morally bankrupt to survive rational scrutiny, and she senses a growing demand for change among those the culture harms most.  I will not hazard a guess about whether she will win or lose, but I am rooting for her and I think everyone else should too. Whatever she does next, she should not hunker down and stay quiet.

You Can’t Go Home Again

When I moved to Skopje, Macedonia in November 2002, it looked like this:

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And this:

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And this:

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It was a real city.

Orwell said that by the time you’re 40 you have the face you deserve. Skopje’s face was almost exactly that old when I arrived in 2002. In July 1963 an earthquake had destroyed 80 percent of Skopje’s buildings and killed more than 1,000 people. Famously, the clock at the railway station, which cracked in two, stayed fixed at the precise time of the quake, 5:17.

So the Skopje I landed in in 2002 consistedly mostly of what had been built up since 1963 by Tito’s socialist government, when Macedonia was still part of Yugoslavia. Except for some of the city’s UNESCO-worthy old bones, like the Stone Bridge, built in the 14th century by a Serbian Czar, the Skopje that presented itself to the eye in 2002 was a utilitarian but not quite brutalist downscale provincial capital—lots of rectangular midrise apartment blocks fitted out in plain red brick or weathered, no-color plaster. As I took it all in, the gray November sky hung low with clouds, coal smoke, and car fumes.

I didn’t care. I had come to meet a girl.

You don’t need the long version of the lead-in, but I was 36, just coming off the most depressing year of my life—really the only depressing year of my life. I had been mobilized as a reservist after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but instead of contributing anything useful to the national cause, I was relegated to shuffling papers and pulling guard duty in the middle of the night in Stuttgart, Germany. Necessary things, I suppose, but I rankled at being ordered away from my fulltime job, where I believed I actually was making a difference using my brain.

Other things made that year a trying one too, but I need not go into them. To summarize the feel of the time: listen to “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” by Oasis four times straight through. That was me in a good mood.

But the old, familiar love of life started to peek through a crack in the clouds a few months before my year-long mobilization was up. My civilian employer rang me up in Stuttgart and offered me my choice of jobs to return to, and I took one in Kosovo. I had struck up an online conversation with a girl in Skopje, which was only an hour away from the U.S. base in Kosovo where my new job would be. Instead of just flying into Skopje for a weekend to get to know this creature in the usual way, I figured I would go big and just move there.  So that’s what I did.

The day I arrived, I caught a taxi to the big parking lot across from the Holiday Inn. It was the one landmark in Skopje that an inexperienced foreigner could be expected to find. The girl was there, right on time, in front of the Gradski Trgovski  Centar, or City Shopping Center. I would find out later that Skopje had a couple other shopping centers with the kind of focus-grouped, commercial-sounding names you would expect them to have—”Pearl,” “Beverly Hills,”—but standing in front of the eponymous Trgovski Centar that day, my first wry impression was of the old socialist mindset that simply named a thing exactly what it was, no matter how simple or unlovely—Shoe Factory Number Five, Central Police Station, that sort of thing.

The girl, though, was a work of art. She had cut-diamond ice blue eyes and was dressed from about two shelves above me. As we sat down to coffee, she began to pre-empt me in a discussion of Balkans politics, a move that sort of back-footed me. First those eyes seemed to guard something unattainable, then she was starting to beat me at my own game conversation-wise. A studious type, the only way I could ever impress a foreigner, especially one from south or east of the Danube, was to flash some pieces of expert knowledge about their country. It didn’t really work that day, at least as far as I could tell.

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The City Shopping Center

Well, even in a gleaming new airplane, takeoff can be the choppiest part. So I just decided to relax a little and be guided around Skopje by this beautiful, shining creature. We walked through the city for about six hours that day. After lunch, we saw the Macedonian Parliament building, a thoroughly socialist, utilitarian hulk with a massive brown marble facade and a blocky portico like a slightly oversized carport.

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Macedonian Parliament Building

Crossing the Vardar River, we were accosted by Roma, or what we used to call Gypsies before political correctness squelched the word. After a time we arrived at the cracked, blinding-white concrete and marble quad of my future love’s old university. Her father professed economics there. The university was named for Cyrill and Methodius, two Macedonian saints who fashioned the Cyrillic alphabet, which I had been studying diligently before my arrival.

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The quad at St. Cyrill and Methodius University

As the day went gloriously on, the slogging physical effort of our long urban tour began to wear down the inhibitions of a first date. I loosened up a little, and a few of my jokes got through, or at least I thought they did. Although I couldn’t quite read this sparkling thing—now pointing out the Old Turkish Castle, now the Macedonian Meteorological Station—I reached the vague judgment at the end of the day that she would not have joined me in so long a march had she found me entirely despicable. That was something.

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Front of the “old” Government

We ended the day by strolling past the offices of the central government, from where the prime minister and his cabinet ran Macedonia. The small cluster of buildings was modest, shading toward shabby, randomly placed air conditioners jutting from windows on the backside, trailing rusty streaks down the sides of the buildings. I took that humble appearance as a virtue, a sign that Macedonia’s most powerful politicians could go about their business without having to plume it in finery. Governments usually took appearances over the top, and I liked it that Macedonia’s masters didn’t.

Just past the Government, with dusk coming on, the sparkling thing deposited me chastely outside my hotel, a rustic, wooden affair on the edge of Skopje’s large city park (yes, Gradski Park—what else?).

Later, in the years after the sparkling thing and I married, in a fairytale ceremony in an old Orthodox Church heavily perfumed with incense, we would frequently walk two new beautiful creatures through Skopje City Park, in baby carriages. I had no premonition on that cold November day that I would become a part of the landscape and indeed add to the inhabitants that brought it delightfully to life.

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Skopje City Park

With massive old shade trees towering 60 feet into the sky, the City Park was at its quiet best in August, I thought, when folks who could afford a vacation were away and everyone staying home in Skopje simply found it too hot to be outside. We would walk, the three of us (then the four of us), under the trees, almost always making our way to the Luna Park. The Luna Park was a chintzy old collection of children’s rides that cost 50 cents. It was a Skopje institution. A few of its rides were too old to work anymore, but the ones that still did were a kids’ paradise. There was also a cafe for parents. If you went often enough to the Luna Park, you would eventually run into everyone you knew in Skopje, and we did.

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The Luna Park

Friends and comrades, if you’re enjoying the gooeyness of my love story—and I know I am—it is with regret that I will revert somewhat to form now. You’ve seen just enough of my heart to understand what comes next—politics and my usual carping about failures of the human spirit.

As I fell in love in Skopje and became part of a family there, I also fell in love with Skopje and, in a certain sense, I became part of its family. A nomad, I don’t have a single place I can call home, but Skopje is undoubtedly one of them. A part of me will always belong to the place. I bought its shoes, used its shoes to walk its streets, walked its streets to buy its vegetables, and brought its vegetables home to big Sunday lunches, always commenced with glasses of rakia, usually concluded with three hours of television news. This cozy nesting happened in and around two mid-rise apartment blocks—ours and the beautiful thing’s parents’—one red brick, the other no-color plaster. No longer a mere observer of the cityscape, I felt very much at home there.

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Olive vendors at the main green market

One night early in our marriage when our first born woke up at two with a fever, hot as a potato, we didn’t know what to do. We called the sparkling thing’s mom two buildings away, and she told us where to find the all-night clinic. Away we went. As I sat in the clinic half an hour later, reassured by the doctor about what to do, actually able to understand her talk in Macedonian, I became convinced I was in a nice place. How good that one could pop down the street a mere five minutes away, walk up the steps of a drab old building and open the door to a brightly-lit all-night clinic dispensing well-being to one’s babies. To adapt Kingsley Amis’s droll understatement, I liked it there.

Indeed Skopje became my favorite city. It was perhaps the most useable place I have ever lived. No matter what you wanted—fresh greens, office supplies, coffee with a friend, flourescent light tube for the lamp above the stove—you could walk to get it. Skopje’s grittiness actually became part of its charm as I discovered the city offered comforts, quirks, and conveniences that no car-bound citizen of, say, greater Washington D.C. could even dream of. I really liked it there.

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Macedonian National Bank

In 2006, the year we left Macedonia for Germany, a young, center-right nationalist named Nikola Gruevski won the elections and became prime minister. At first he was a breath of fresh air. Gruevski’s predecessors, Macedonia’s Social Democrats, had governed the country since the denouement of a small but bloody ethnic insurgency in 2001. Although they hadn’t done a particularly bad job of governing, they had made no measurable progress on Macedonia’s main, and emotionally charged goal of being recognized by its consitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.

(Although most countries recognize Macedonia by its chosen name, Greece claims all names”Macedonian” derive inviolably from Greek culture and may not be expropriated for foreign use. In clubs such as the EU and NATO, where Athens wields a veto vote, it continues to block Macedonia’s membership under its consitutional name.)

The young Gruevski’s predecessors, the Social Democrats, were a party that had simply been rebranded from Yugoslavia’s permanent governing class of Socialists. As such, they gave off the air of an established elite who thought they could stay in power just by marking time. They had nothing of what Mark Twain would call go. Gruevski’s election win in 2006 was a repudiation of their attitude.

As a politician, Gruevki has proven incredibly wily. He has taken the Macedonians’ very legitimate grievances about being poor, being kept out of clubs that would help them, and lacking a name they can use freely, and he has turned them into a durable support base. The support, though, is less for a concrete political agenda than for a grandiose spectacle of political theater. Gruevski has not given Macedonians their name, but he has channeled their frustrations into a nationalist delusion that would accept cheap substitutes.

Well, cheap is perhaps not the best word. In 2010, Gruevski decided to renovate Skopje—massively. He called his idea Skopje 2014. He would dress Macedonia’s capital out in the finery it deserved. By 2014, he said he would complete a series of behemoth building projects and public works of art that would magnify and pay proper tribute to Macedonia’s national roots. No one was quite sure where the project was headed, but it had plenty of go.

It began with a statue. No one knows how much it cost, but there now stands a 22-meter (80 ft) high bronze sculpture of a “Warrior on a Horse” in Skopje’s main square. It stares across the old Stone Bridge at an equally imposing statue of Phillip, King of Macedon. Macedonia’s Albanians, desireous of their own national idol, got a statue too: a smaller but still impressive statue of Skenderbeg, their ancient hero, which now stands in a revovated old market area just north of the city square.

There are many more statues in Skopje now. A city that was once dotted with a few modernist oddities and lifesized busts of Partisans now juts with so many sculptures of warriors on horses so large and so lifelike that debate had to be taken up at one point on how accurately to render a raring horse’s genitals.

But the statues were only the frills of Skopje 2014. The heart of the project was the construction of more than 20 new buildings, many of them gigantic, all of them grandiose. Macedonia’s palatial new Justice Ministry building appears capable of solemnly imposing

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The newer, grander Government

law on all the civilized world. The Foreign Ministry could house the overeseers of an empire larger than Spain’s and Britain’s at their height. (In fact, Macedonia has a modest 40 embassies abroad.) The central government buildings–whose modesty I admired back in 2002–got a multimillion dollar facelift as well, all incandescent white alabaster look-alike, with Grecian columns.

The overall effect of the dazzling new buildings is a pastiche of Hapsburgian solidity, Baroque finery, and themepark kitsch. It belies a loss—indeed an abdication—of all sense of history or proportion. Had aliens landed in Skopje with mad plans to mock man’s political sense of self through buildings, they could not have outdone Gruevski.

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Skopje today, a political theme park of kitsch

As the clamorous strains of a Wagner opera build, vaulting and threatening to burst the score, Skopje 2104 fed on its own grandisoity and grew far beyond its intended scope. Two years past its target completion date now, the number of buildings and monuments it envisioned has more than tripled. No one knows how much it has all cost, but well-informed journalists on the spot make their best estimate at €560 million, seven times the original estimate.

I need hardly say what comes next: it is a near certainty that much of this money has gone to fill the pockets of the politicians and dealmakers who have driven Skopje 2014. While I believe firmly and stoically that corruption is a normal, inevitable part of political pork, and can even be tolerated as a

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Skopje’s “Triumphal Arch”

transaction cost as long as it is minimized, the sheer scale of corruption enabled by Skopje 2014 is shameful in a country as poor as Macedonia. The people simply do not have the money to spare for a 100-foot marble “Triumphal Arch” and by the way, what fucking triumph?

In August of this year, 21 people died in flash floods on Skopje’s west side, which is graced with no towering monuments, no grand new buildings. Its cracked streets lacked proper drainage, and the water rose to one and a half meters high, drowning some of the victims in their cars. For months now, Macedonians have been protesting in Skopje at the mad injustice that has been foisted on their country, which helped kill those 21 people and which has slathered Macedonia’s international image over with a thick layer of kitsch.

My complaints are of a smaller scale, though. I no longer have the city to go back to where I met the dazzling thing and produced two beautiful new creatures with her.

The resulting aesthetic of Skopje 2014 is deeply undignified. No adult person would wish to have her city done up from top to bottom in the vainglorious baubles that predominate Skopje today. One or two well thought out statues might have been tolerable, but now to stroll through the city center is to be subjected to a garishly lit juvenile fantasy of Napoleonic grandeur transplanted to a place that shares none of its dimensions or history. Nothing about Skopje 2014 fits.

At the age of 40, Skopje had the face it deserved. I am not saying it was perfect, or deserved to be frozen in time. All things change. Skopjans themselves would be the first to say they needed better roads, sidewalks and drain pipes. And why not some nice new buildings?–all in good time. But the gaudy face they have been given is one carved up overnight by plastic surgery. It is not the face they would have grown into.

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Skopje-Kapistec, where we lived for four years

For me, the defacement of Skopje means that I cannot go home again. The core of familial love is still there, but my visual memories of the place, which I share with my wife and her family and our two daughters, have been robbed of the scenes that produced them. Deeper, the city itself has been robbed of authenticity. My Skopje was gritty and struggling, even glum in places, but comfortable in its own skin.

In the end, my melancholy does not matter. I am just a galivanting foreigner who came to town for four years and then left with one of the country’s more promising daughters.

But I do feel a measure of pity for the people of Macedonia, who worked their $300-a-month jobs for years and paid their taxes, only to see their money disappear down a deep well of corruption and then gush forth in the form of the baroque monstrosities that now tower over their public spaces. They did not ask for it.  Many of them must be thinking even they cannot go home again.

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