Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Looking Back, Literarily

A legendary reclusive filmmaker. An enigmatic cook and restaurant proprietor, who is clearly more than he seems. Two mysterious deliveries to be made behind the Iron Curtain. A desperate search for a long-missing old friend. An unexpected love affair on the coast of Normandy. Dallas Green’s life has only gotten more interesting in the years since his wild youthful adventure in Mexico, as told in the novel Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. In the year 1980, he is now a photographer, living and working in San Francisco, where he adjusts to a world very different from that of his rural roots. He may be older, but that does not necessarily mean he is any wiser, as his continuing romantic misadventures attest. Lautaro’s Spear is Scott R. Larson’s third book, following the fantasy novel The Three Towers of Afranor.
—Blurb on various web sites that are, or will soon be, selling my new book
Yes, this means that another book is done and dusted. Officially, the release date is September 29, but I see the Kindle version is available already from Amazon’s US site. Other digital and paper versions should follow shortly. Links to the various sellers around the globe will be updated on my book blog, so check there if you are interested.

Lautaro’s Spear
Unlike the last book, this one takes place in the real world. Well, at least in a world as real as what goes on inside my head. The year is 1980, and the action moves from San Francisco to France to Germany and back again. This is a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead and follows the progress of that book’s misguided teenaged protagonist, Dallas Green, a few years later, as he negotiates his late twenties.

I sometimes regret making Dallas the narrator of these books. It is actually a lot of work to write in character for nearly 300 pages while, at the same time, keeping the prose halfway readable. The reason I wrote the original novel in the first person was that I saw the book as my own personal Huckleberry Finn. If Mark Twain could write in Huck’s dialect, well, then I could write in Dallas’s. Instead of a raft on the Mississippi, Dallas and his friend Lonnie explored the world from the vantage point of a ’65 Chevy traveling the roads of California and Mexico. In the new book, Dallas goes on another journey, but he is a bit older and, hopefully, wiser—although not that much wiser. He is still a bit innocent, so he can also be compared to another seminal literary character, Voltaire’s Candide. He is something of a blank slate when it comes to politics, and he finds himself a bit out of his depth as he wanders into different political and social environments.

For some readers of a certain age, I suppose it will be an exercise in nostalgia. For younger ones, I flatter myself in thinking it might be some sort of history lesson.

I hate it when writers try to impose their opinions about current events onto some past era, although I understand it is a very hard temptation to resist. Writing about America in the 1980s, I could have easily have been lured into drawing parallels between that year’s presidential election and the one that occurred last year—if only I could have actually made heads or tails out of what happened last year. The comparisons, though, wrote themselves anyway. History now looks back at Ronald Reagan very differently from the way many people now look at Donald Trump yet, before he was elected, Reagan was seen by many as quite scary and his election came as a genuine surprise. This is not to say that Reagan and Trump are by any means similar human beings or that Trump will ultimately be seen as successful as Reagan was, but it is worth trying to keep some long-term perspective while in the middle of day-to-day political passions.

If there is a political theme running beneath the surface of my novel, it is the way people tend to divide themselves politically, sometimes with disastrous consquences. Dallas’s journey not only involves the late 20th century culture wars in America but also the residual rift in Europe after World War II and how political divisions in South America led to horrible violence.

Well, look at me, trying to make my silly old book sound profound. I hope some interesting insights did slip into the story but, in the end, my tale is ultimately about how we—mainly young men—get into all kinds of devilment out of boredom, confusion, and just trying to make some sort of sense of this crazy world.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Bolivarian Oblivion

“What’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created … The transformations that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact”
 —Linguist/activist Noam Chomsky, in 2009

“These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who’s the banana republic now?”
 —Senator Bernie Sanders, on his web site in 2011

“The election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
 —Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, in 2012

“[Venezuela president Hugo] Chavez showed us that there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice and it’s something that Venezuela has made a big step towards.”
 —Soon-to-be UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, in 2013

“Venezuela’s problem isn’t too much socialism—it’s not enough. The country, whose former president Hugo Chavez proclaimed ‘21st century socialism’, is deep in crisis. It has the world’s highest inflation rate—720 percent and rising. Its currency has plummeted to less than 1 percent of its official value, making it hard to import food. Hunger is endemic. Buying food at subsidised shops where price controls operate involves queuing for four hours, only on certain days, and sometimes still getting nothing. Medicines and sanitary products are scarce. Chronic power blackouts have seen factories close and public sector workers move to a two-day week. Growing numbers are emigrating, or depend on products sent by relatives abroad.”
 —Dave Sewell, writing in the Socialist Worker last August
Politicians from all the British political parties—including Labour—have been condemning the chaos, violence and ongoing power grab in Venezuela by the country’s wanton president, Nicolás Maduro. Notably absent among them, though, is Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn. Members of his own party are urging him to speak up. He has not spoken publicly about Venezuela since praising Maduro two years ago. He did, however, recently delete a post from his web site praising Venezuela for “seriously conquering poverty by emphatically rejecting … Neo Liberal policies.” In Spain, by contrast, Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez has said he “strongly condemned the destruction of the democratic freedoms that is taking place in Venezuela.”

In Ireland a group representing Venezuelan citizens living here has gone on record as rejecting the Constituent Assembly whose members were elected on Sunday. The assembly, whose members will come exclusively from Maduro’s Socialist party, will be able to dissolve the congress, which is controlled by the political opposition but which has been stymied by Maduro’s authoritarianism and packing of the courts. A reported ten people died in violence that erupted from protests in the the Venezuelan streets on election day. Two opposition leaders, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, have been arrested in their homes.

In the interest of fairness, on its morning news program today, Ireland’s state broadcaster RTÉ interviewed a recently returned observer of Sunday’s election, Adrian Kane, who is an organizer for Ireland’s Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU). Kane defended the integrity of the vote—which has been criticized by other observers—citing glowing reports of past Venezuelan elections from The Carter Center and other organizations and saying that everything looked fine at the five polling stations he had visited.

He also dismissed the following comment on social media from Luis Rondon, one of five directors of the electoral council: “For the first time since I took up this commitment to the country, I cannot guarantee the consistency or veracity of the results offered.” The quote was from a Reuters report citing mathematical inconsistencies in internal electoral council data reviewed by Reuters and the 8.1-million-voter turnout reported by the government. Kane also seemed unaware that The Carter Center, which he had cited, had issued a statement which read, in part, “We condemn Sunday’s process to elect a National Constituent Assembly. The process was carried out in the complete absence of electoral integrity, posing serious problems of legitimacy, legality, and procedure. The measures taken by the government to prevent freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right to peaceful demonstrations contravene the democratic values of plurality and the democratic and participatory clauses protected in the Venezuelan constitution.”

Kane blamed the violence entirely on the political opposition, saying it was “engaged in acts of terror” and calling the government response “restrained.” He accused the media of spreading a false narrative about Maduro wanting to be a dictator.

I can understand the allure that figures like Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez have for idealistic people who would like to see the world become more fair and just. The problem is that the cascading series of laws, rules and regulations necessary to enforce that fairness inevitably meet opposition from not only sectors of society that stand to lose but also from the very ones who are meant to be lifted up. More critically, as we see in Venezuela, the burden of government control invariably translates into bad economics and a lower standard of living, which mostly afflicts the less well off. The standard ideological response is to blame a colonial past and poverty. The problem for that excuse in Venezuela’s case is that the country is blessed with oil wealth that has been controlled by its own government. Apologists are left to mutter about a period of low oil prices.

Less understandable is why many, though by no means all, erstwhile admirers and defenders of Chávez and Maduro are so stubborn about conceding they made a mistake with their earlier praise. No one likes to advertise the fact they were wrong about something. That is only human nature. Still, it looks even worse to appear more concerned about your own ego than about people dying in the streets and about families suffering from economic deprivation for no good reason.

My guess is that the Corbyns of the world, along with the young starry-eyed idealists in the political trenches, will come around to condemning what’s happening in Venezuela—once they have found a way to rationalize an explanation that has nothing at all to do with the government-directed economic policies they themselves espouse.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Macron en Marche

An aide explained that his thoughts were too sublime to be comprehended by journalists, prompting the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné to print a spoof interview with Macron.
 Questioner: “So, it’s all over for interviews and press conferences?”
 Macron: “Affirmative. They will be replaced by the publication every month of a scan of my brain, so that the public may marvel at the complexity of my reasoning.”
 To critics, his lofty attitude recalls a remark made by Napoleon himself to his cabinet in 1804: “We are here to guide public opinion, not to discuss it.”
—News article on France’s new president by Michael Sheridan in the UK’s Sunday Times, July 9
I still do not have a handle on Emmanuel Macron.

The standard narrative of European state broadcasters and the American corporate media was that he was the political savior who brought voters to their senses after a string of witless decisions in Europe and the U.S. A surging tide of unfathomable populism and nationalism had caused a narrow victories for anti-European Union forces in Britain’s referendum last summer and for Donald Trump in November. Fear had been palpable that another unlikely surprise could result in the National Front’s Marine Le Pen ascending to the Elysée Palace in May. When Macron won the presidency handily, there were huzzahs all around. The E.U. and liberal democracy were safe. The epidemic of insanity was over.

Not so fast.

The funny thing is that, had there been a viable Socialist candidate in the race, I have no doubt Macron would have been painted by much of the press as some sort of populist reactionary. No more than the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., the long-running major French parties—the Socialists and the ever-name-changing Guallist/conservatives (currently called Les Républicains)—more or less imploded and/or at least ground to an intellectual halt from lack of inertia. Socialist François Hollande’s term was so disastrous that he did not bother running for re-election. Two other leftist candidates—one of whom was out of the mainstream even by French standards—divided the vote. On the right, François Fillon might well have won if not for an inconvenient scandal involving high-pay/low-duty jobs for his wife and children. So far neither he nor anyone else, by the way, has blamed the Russians for his defeat.

As it is, some have compared Macron to Barack Obama because of his youth, freshness, photogenic image and the fact that he represents a break from the political past. I wonder, though, whether a comparison with Trump is not more apt. After all, he had never before held elected office, he campaigned successfully against all the established political parties, and his agenda was always unabashedly pro-business. Still, all that mattered in the final round was that he was not Marine Le Pen, so he was clearly the good guy. Also, unlike Trump, he was pro-European-Union and did not emit untoward tweets or cringe-worthy off-the-cuff remarks. So far, by the way, Le Pen has not blamed her defeat on misogyny.

Like Trump, however, Macron seems to be finding that, while having no long-term well-established major party support can sometimes be an aid to election, it does not make it particularly easy to govern. Trump, a nominal Republican, arrived in Washington with majorities in both houses of Congress. Macron’s barely-year-old party La République en Marche swept the legislature. Yet, as an article in The Guardian this week notes, in Macron’s first full month in office, there were no fewer than four high-profile resignations and investigations into two separate scandals. His approval rating has dropped from 64 percent in June to 54 percent this week—lower than Hollande’s at this stage. Much of the drop has been among pensioners and France’s sizeable number of civil servants, that is, l’état profond (the deep state), as no one is actually calling it. Why? Because Macron actually seems to be doing what he promised—trying to reform the country’s bloated bureaucracy.

Whatever happens next, it will be fascinating to watch. After the last French election—in which the top finishers were a novice independent and a far-right nationalist—will France’s politics eventually revert back to tradition or will it all have to be reborn? Similarly in the U.S.—where one major party still does not seem to realize how unpopular it is on a national level and the other one is fragmenting into bickering factions—can things ever go back to “normal” again?

The collective sigh of relief over Macron’s electoral triumph may have been just a tad premature.