Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The problem is, we really do live in a democracy

Note: This first appeared as an op-ed in the Valley City Times-Record. I saved it here, and took my family to Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse Mountain for the Labor Day Weekend.

While I was distracted, John McCain chose Sarah Palin, a real-live budget cutter, as his running mate. Palin has made encouraging noises, backed by action. about getting the state of Alaska off the federal teat.

So whaddaya think folks?

I'm still skeptical. A small state like Alaska, or a small country like the Czech Republic, has a lot less momentum than a country of 300,000,000 that hasn't yet bottomed out to the point where the economy has to be fixed.

But we shall most assuredly see.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
George Santayana

“It's not that history repeats itself, it's that sometimes she screams, “Won't you ever listen to what I'm trying to tell you?” and lets fly with a club.”
John W. Campbell

The longest election cycle in the history of democracy is finally entering the home stretch. Thank heaven, just a little longer and all this will be over. One side will be ecstatic, and another convinced the world is coming to an end.

Then one faction will have four years of steadily growing disappointment, and another will have the satisfaction of being able to blame an irredeemably evil (or stupid, if you're charitable) individual for all the woes of the nation, and much of the woe of the rest of the world.

And I will have the grim satisfaction any pessimist gets from being the perennial wet blanket.

Every American of voting age knows there is a list of problems we have to, as in HAVE TO, deal with sometime, and sooner rather than later.

The problems include: the solvency of Social Security, health care costs, education, welfare, infrastructure maintenance and repair, and modernization and restructuring of the military to meet emerging threats.

In four years, few of these problems are likely to get significantly better. We'll be doing good if we manage to hold the line on most of them. More likely, most or all of them will be worse, no matter who gets elected.

The fact is, our ability to deal with all of these problems is compromised by a massive, and growing, national debt, caused by out of control government spending.

We know if government spending is not controlled, eventually all the other issues candidates argue about will be moot.

Government spending is not going to be controlled, not by either party.

Honest men and women regularly get elected, determined to do something about pork barrel spending. Of course, to do anything about the problem you have to get elected in the first place, and re-elected regularly thereafter.

To get elected, you have to bring home the bacon to your constituents.

Of course, you could buy votes in your own district, and vote against pork in everyone else's. But practically speaking, you have to trade votes, “I'll vote for your pork if you'll vote for mine.”

Anybody see a way around this?

Anybody want to step up and campaign on the slogan, “I'll give up my district's pork first”?

We're always ready to condemn the other guy feeding at the government trough. But in a democracy, everybody is somebody else's other guy.

The problem is, we really do live in a democracy, and the government really does listen to the voice of the people.

And we the people want our pork.

Excuse me, “our fair share.”

Look at the face of evil

The French say, "By the time a man is 30 he has the face he deserves."

If you go here:


You'll see the face of one Joseph Edward Duncan, at the hearing where he was sentenced to death for the murder of 9-year-old Dylan Groene.

Dylan and his 8-year-old sister Shasta were kidnapped by Duncan.

Duncan murdered the two kids' family: 13-year-old Slade Groene; his mother, Brenda Groene; and her fiance, Mark McKenzie with a hammer to do it.

He sexually abused Dylan, shot him in the head and burned his body.

No doubt he had something similar in mind for Shasta, he has admitted other murders of children and is a suspect in more, but a customer in a restaurant recognized them and called the police, just in time.

This is a sample of the evil bastard's writing they reproduced in the article.

"I have once again become a medium of violence in the world."

(A "medium of violence"? Nothing like a perpetrator?)

"There is "love in my heart and yet at the same time there is a huge reservoir of hatred (evil). ... I am driven by my hatred for our society ('the system') while at the same time tortured by my own compassion. ... I don't know what God wants for me, I just don't know."

"God has shown me the face of evil.... Evil is real only because we make it real. ... Evil can live in a person and society as well. ... I have been inflicted by an evil 'demon' that is nurtured by our so-called Criminal Justice System .... But know I'm still fighting."

Is this just sheer incoherence, or is there some evil logic in it?

Evil exists. The denial of this elementary fact is one of the greatest illusions in this lucky civilization of ours - one that may yet lead to our undoing.

As far as I can tell, Duncan has no other motive than malice. His pleasure is to cause pain.

Look at the face. I think you can see the evil of it... but am I rationalizing after the fact? If I didn't know the story, would I see a wrongness in it?

We like to think we can see evil in the face of an evil man, at least when the mask is down. But then again, I don't think you could see it in Stalin's face, there's nothing really distinguishing about it. He could be somebody's grandfather from the pictures.

I wonder if the mask ever slipped in private?

There are pictures of Hitler making speeches when his eyes look like a madman's. But then, a whole lot of people at the time listening to those speeches evidently didn't see it.

Now look at Duncan's face again. The mask is down. The bastard is full to the brim with self-satisfaction, because he knows there is nothing we can do to him that could remotely equal the harm he has done.

There is no pain we can cause him to feel that would equal the pain he has caused, to the living and the dead.

Nonetheless, I find that I passionately want him dead. And I think it's the face, not the record of his terrible deeds. It's that look of smug self-satisfaction.

I am offended that I have to live in the same universe as this thing that looks like a man.

I want him to leave my reality.

I realize that there are people and organizations who will try to save this thing's life - pro bono.

I want someone to tell them to back off - or else.

And even more than that, I want him dead, and yes, I'd be willing to do it myself. And I'd like doing it. In the most dreadful way possible I'd like it.

And then he'd be inside my head forever.

So for God's sake, let it be done. But do it quickly, dispassionately, even mercifully, though he doesn't deserve it.

But let it be done.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Poland wants “one British soldier”

Note: This appeared as an op-ed in the Valley City Times-Record

Poland and the U.S. just signed a deal to base 10 interceptor missiles in Poland, designed to defend against attacks by medium-range nuclear missiles from “rogue nations,” meaning Iran.

Signing for the U.S., Condoleeza Rice said, "I believe that the administrations of the future will recognize both the threat that we face and the substantial commitment that our allies have now taken for missile defense."

The missiles will operate in conjunction with radar facilities in the Czech Republic.

Poland was wavering on the issue of whether to enter into the agreement, but resolve hardened after the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Russia reacted by openly threatening to target Poland for nuclear strikes.

By now some people are wondering, what the heck is going on?

Why is Russia concerned about a measly 10 missiles, whose effectiveness is uncertain at best, and which could be overwhelmed by Russian missile superiority anyway?

And why is Poland willing to put itself at such terrible risk, and for what?

The short answer is, Russia wants its sphere of influence respected, and Poland doesn't want to be in Russia's sphere of influence.

(The long answer goes back a few hundred years. Perhaps another time.)

Poland doesn't want the missiles per se, Poland wants “one British soldier.”

There is a story that in the days before the outbreak of the First World War, a very pro-French British officer visited with the French General Staff.

At one point, the officer asked the French generals what help they needed from Britain in the event of a war with Germany.

A French general replied, “One British soldier – and we will make sure he is killed.”

Poland is now part of NATO, but they've seen what that is worth a number of times since joining. For example when no NATO country backed Britain up when their sailors and marines were captured by Iran. Not with economic sanctions, not even with pro forma diplomatic protests.

Poland wants the commitment of American troops in harm's way. The same harm Polish soldiers and civilians have always lived with.

But the Polish government is exposing its people to the threat of nuclear annihilation!

Poland was always under the threat of nuclear annihilation, throughout the Cold War.

Col. Ryszard Kuklinski of the Polish General Staff, passed information to the CIA for ten years before being extracted with his family, because he found out the Soviet plans for the invasion of Western Europe included writing Poland off if the war went nuclear.

And any Pole, Czech, Hungarian, etc would naturally assume they'd spearhead the invasion, with Soviet soldiers behind them to remind them which side they were on.

After resettling in America, Kuklinski's two sons were killed in highly
suspicious accidents. Whatever they call it these days, the KGB still has a long arm.

Remember Putin's previous profession, before he took the job of power-behind-the-throne?

About three years ago, the Polish government released the Soviet battle plans for the invasion, in violation of agreements signed by the Warsaw Pact members when it was officially dissolved. The documents make it plain that for the Soviets, the invasion was a when, not an if. The Russians are furious, the Poles could care less.

Did you read about this in the U.S. or European media?

Thought not, neither did I. I read it in the Polish press.

So do you wonder the Poles, and other East Europeans, want concrete guarantees, not bluster and promises of friendship? They want that “one British soldier.”

Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's gotta be tough to be a terrorist these days

I was watching the pre-convention news about the choice of Joe Biden (D-DE) as Obama's running mate, and indulging myself in the exercise of trying to think like a terrorist.

This has got to be a tough time, decision-wise, for terrorists in the runup to the election.

The news says Obama way out-polls McCain on the question of who's most likely to effect change. (One presumes the question of whether the "change" is positive or not is assumed.)

On the other hand, McCain wa-a-a-ay out-poll Obama on the question of who'd be the better commander-in-chief.

Now, if terrorists pulled off a major operation (major meaning newsworthy)against America, it would virtually assure McCain's election.

If I were a terrorist, I'd wait until the Obama administration was comfortably in place, then mount a major operation and humiliate the U.S. a la the Carter Iranian hostage debacle.

On the other hand, that might assure a Republican, or at least hawkish, administration for some time to come. Remember who trounced Carter after a single term?

On the other hand, who is more likely to pop off and do something really drastic? Like nuclear drastic?

McCain, with his famously short temper?

Or Obama, with his sense of omnipotent capability to change reality to something more to his liking?

O-o-o-o-o that's a toughie.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

As below, so above: the Hermetic theory of foreign policy

An idea I've wanted to explore for a while now, has to do with the basic premises of how I view relations between nations and how to conduct foreign policy.

My basic premise is a version of the principle of Hermetic philosophy, "As below, so above."(1)

How I apply this could be stated, "What's true for the street, is true for countries."

Remember what your mother told you about bullies?

"Just be nice to them and they'll be nice to you."

"Ignore them and they'll leave you alone."

If you bought into this, I've got some rather bad news for you.

Your mother lied.

There are a fair number of thugs out there, who regard "nice" as weakness, and who flat won't let you ignore them.

"As below, so above." There are in this poor old world of ours, thug nations who regard expressions of good will as contemptible weakness.

I was going to write a whole article about it, then I remembered that Canadian martial arts teacher Ted Truscott had written it already.

"Lies to bleed for" it's called, and it's divided into three sections:

-Myths your parents told you

-Street Myths

-Dojo Myths

The article has been reproduced in a lot of places on the Web, in somewhat different versions. You can find Truscott's site here:


I post some excerpts below to whet your interest. Go there and read it. Later we might explore how they apply, "As below, so above."

*1. Just be nice to them and they’ll be nice to you.
Remember this one? Didn’t work in the sandbox either, did it? Or in the cafeteria?

Hey guys - let me speak to your parents here for a bit, ok? Thanks.

Why the horse puckey did you teach this to your kid when you knew it was totally inadequate? It did not work for you when you faced the bullies in life and it will not work for your kids either! The message should be, “Be as nice as you can until the time comes to be not so nice.” You can’t take your child’s independence and awareness of the situation from him! Help him to understand the difference between "nice" and "not nice" and then let him practice and make mistakes, yes?

Ok, rant mode off.

Be warned, there are people out there that interpret your niceness as weakness and naivety and therefore will either terminate you just for the fun of it or jack you up. That nice guy may just be setting you up for a sucker punch.

Nice is good but it isn’t enough when you don’t know the rules, the players or the action. A good teacher can save a lot of learning the hard way but every teacher has his price that you must pay. That older guy who warns some punks to leave you alone may just be grooming you for his own criminal purposes.

Lesson: Don’t be naive and waltz into places you can’t handle. If there is anything about the place that gives you pause, listen to yourself - it is your brain trying to keep you alive! Fade into the room, step sideways to get your back out of the door and casually look things over. Take your time.

*Variation 1.a Just Ignore Them, and they will leave you alone.

Ignoring a fox locking onto him is not going to do a rabbit any good at all, now is it? Rabbit just means ’victim’ and even tough guys get to be victim sometimes. Tough can be beat by sneaky and nasty. Puffing yourself up to scare off any predators around will be seen for the false bravado it is and alienate you from those who might otherwise be inclined to help is it goes sideways on you.

*2. Just stand up to a bully, and he’ll run from you.

Some guy is giving you the eye or some lip so you stand up to him. “Bullies are looking for victims, not a fight,” is current social wisdom. What they don’t tell you is that bullies may in fact be motivated by fear, insecurity and other manifestations of low self-esteem but they are also very practiced at being themselves, They have spent years perfecting their style at home and school and bars. They practice knocking down those who stand up to them every day.

How many times do you get to practice standing up to a bully?

*Variation 3.a. The cops are your enemies.

Just as silly as hoping a cop will save from your own foolishness is thinking that the cops have nothing better to do than dust you off for being alive. Man, they will let the jackals do that. Playing silly bugger with the police, harassing them for fun and frolics can get you in their scope. If the nasty boys decide that you must go, no cop will do a favour for the one who spends his time giving them trouble. Street enemies are enough, why make enemies of the cops just to show off? Even career criminals don’t make it personal with the cops because it is just too dangerous. If you aren’t planning an anti-cop lifetime, don’t start or you may not be able to quit later.

*5. It’s a free country, I can do what I want.

Other ways of saying this are: “If you believe in yourself you can go anywhere and do anything,” and “Trust your feelings and just go with them.”

Surprise, guys, (ladies included), your feelings, desires and motivations don’t mean a thing to anyone else out there but you. They are not the definition of reality or of right or wrong, and they shouldn’t be, either. Who made you God? Sure your feelings are rampant and important and your hormonal desires are a forest fire but if you expect the world to lay at your feet so you can indulge your little self on them then you are so immature as to be a social liability to those of us who are still sane!

(1) Wikipedia puts it: The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, in the words "That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above, corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing."

Yes, I have tongue firmly in cheek. Sort of.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Our vacation is over, from school – and history

Note: This appeared as an op-ed in the VC Times-Record.

“The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.”

We were watching the news the other night, when they reported that the Russians appeared to be ignoring the cease fire with Georgia brokered by France.

My wife laughed heartily, “Gee, ya think?”

As in, do you think the Russians are acting like... well, Russians?

I thought I heard a bitter edge in her laughter though. My wife grew up in Poland, during the last years of the Soviet occupation.

Western Europe is wringing its hands and doing nothing. The NATO Alliance, minus the United States is a military pygmy, and too much of Europe's natural gas and oil comes from Russia.

The U.S. is blustering, but in the end will probably do nothing that matters. American power is overextended, and who among us is willing to go to war with a really formidable power over a county that is, “far away, of which we know little,” as Neville Chamberlain said about Czechoslovakia?

The blame the victim game is starting already. The Rose Revolution that brought a hopeful degree of democracy to Georgia is only five years old.

The argument will run like this: Georgia has an imperfect democracy. Imperfect means not worthy to survive. Therefor they should not survive. Now go back to sleep.

The strongest protests are coming from Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They are of course, motivated by the thought, “We're next.”

But in this fat, happy, lucky country, we forgot the lessons of history.

We forgot the world is a dangerous place.

We forgot new dangers always arise, even as old ones subside.

We forgot that, “The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.”

And so, as young Americans prepare to go back to school, I wonder how many realize that the most important history lesson is taking place outside their classrooms.

The lesson is, history is not over. We should hold off on beating our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks, and the lion is not ready to lie down with the lamb just yet.

What we should do about Russia and Georgia, I really don't know.

Another thing we've forgotten is that sometimes there are no good choices, only a choice between terrible alternatives with no guarantees of a happy outcome.

I would offer this piece of advice though: when your kids go back to school, tell them to pay attention in history class.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Democracy's soft underbelly, Part 2

OK, so the study shows 40% of the Muslim students surveyed are fairly to very supportive of a world-wide caliphate under Sharia law,and a total of 32% believe in killing in the name of religion to "preserve and protect" or "if it is under attack."

And... the percent answering "not sure" is 42% and 15% respectively.

I have to ask, not sure? You mean like, maybe it's a good idea but I'm not sure?

Like, if all your friends said it's a good idea, would you be more sure?

What if they said you weren't a good Muslim, maybe even a bad Muslim? Maybe even a really bad Muslim, if you didn't favor a Caliphate or weren't willing to kill for the faith?

Do you think that would affect your attitude? Do you think the disapproval of your co-religionists might be a tad... dangerous?

Now imagine what the worst consequence would be of the disapproval of your democratic liberal Brittish fellow-citizens, if you embraced the ideals of the most fanatic in your community?

Now I have to ask, how do you define "under attack"?

Do you mean, say... drawing satiric cartoons?

What would you think of a level of blasphemous satire, say, equivalent to what South Park subjects Jesus and Scientology to?

Now let's get back to the disapproval of your fellow-citizens in the UK, steeped in the noble tradition of democratic liberalism.

(No I'm NOT being facetious. Democratic-liberalism may be the noblest political ideal the human race has ever come up with. I don't like it that the term "liberal" has been hijacked by people who are not worthy to wear it though.)

What would that disapproval mean to you British Muslims?

Thought so, not much to me either.

That's what I mean by the "soft underbelly" of democracy.

And to be perfectly fair, that's what the Brits should have learned from the Irish.

In a democracy, where issues are decided by weight of opinion, a minority willing to use violence has a disproportionately weighted vote.

How disproportionate?

I think that depends on at what point the majority is willing to push back, and how hard.

And what if the answer is, not until too late, and not hard enough?

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Democracy's soft underbelly, Part 1 the case of the UK

If you go here http://www.socialcohesion.co.uk/ you will find a British website for something called "The Centre for Social Cohesion."

It's got some online articles, but mostly consists of downloadable PDF files for lengthly documents, surveys, etc. It looks like a pretty good resource for those interested in what's going on in Britain vis-a-vis the Muslim immigrant population.

I've read the organization referred to as "conservative," and it does at least deal with the problem of Islamism in the UK. For example:

Virtual Caliphate: Islamic extremists and their websites
James Brandon

Virtual Caliphate, published 11 June 2008, shows how Islamic extremists in the United Kingdom have established dedicated websites in order to circumvent British anti-terrorism measures introduced after July 2005. It is the first report to catalogue the content of these websites and to analyse how British extremists use these sites to spread jihadist ideologies, co-ordinate their activities and win new recruits.

But then in other places they sound... well, kinda wussy. See here:

Hazel Blears pledges to do “more work on the ground” with Muslim Communities
Guest blog from James Kitching, CSC research intern:

Hazel Blears today made it clear that she intended to put more work into creating a “critical dialogue” between ministers and young Muslims who are disaffected with the government.

Blears said "part of the challenge is how do we ensure that those young people who are angry about injustice, about poverty...can channel some of that anger through democratic means."

(Blears is something called the "communities secretary" in the UK government.)

They seem very careful to refer to Muslim "extremists" as a separate category of their immigrant population. Maybe they're being careful not to sound too strident.

Now "extremist" is a question-begging term that ought to be pretty straightforward. An extremist is someone who has views which are, extreme. Which clearly implies views held by a small minority.

It doesn't necessarily have a negative connotation. I am a libertarian, i.e. one who believes political liberty can, and should, be taken to a further extreme than it is today, even in this country where it exists in a more "extreme" degree than any other.

Remember (or maybe you don't, I'm dating myself) Barry Goldwater's "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."?*

The question arises however, of how extreme are the views of the Islamists among the immigrant community in the UK.

The Centre has a report, "Islam on Campus: A Survey of UK Student Opinions" which you can download from the site.

According to the report, "It is based on a YouGov poll of students opinions as well as on the ground research into a dozen university Islamic societies, exploring the views and experiences of Muslim and non-Muslim students on UK campuses during the academic year 2007/2008. The results show that Muslim students hold opinions and attitudes which are broad and varied, giving cause both for hope and concern."

There are about 90,000 Muslim students at UK universities, according to the introduction. That's out of 1,591,000, (or 2.8% of the total population) Muslims in the UK, according to Wikipedia, which also notes that makes Islam the second largest religion in the UK.

At a glance, it would seem Muslims are underrepresented in universities, by percentage of total population. How this relates to views held by university students versus non-university students is not clear.

It is NOT a safe assumption that students will be less extreme and more tolerant in their views than non-students. A moment's reflection on the US should confirm that.

The study polled 600 Muslim and over 800 non-Muslim students, conducted in-depth interviews of Muslims from a variety of backgrounds (including converts), and noted things like books available in reading rooms.

The questions covered subjects such as: membership and level of activity in Islamic societies on campus, attitudes towards Jews, homosexuals, atheists and people of other faiths, attitudes towards other varieties of Islam (Sunni versus Shia and Sufism), Sharia, frequency of worship, friendship with non-Muslims, attitudes towards "Islamism," parents, women etc.

They also asked the hot button questions.

Q: How supportive if at all would you be of the official introduction of Sharia Law into British law for Muslims in Britain?

A: 21% very supportive, 19% fairly supportive, 16% not very supportive, 21% not at all supportive, 23% not sure.

Q: How supportive if at all would you be of the introduction of a worldwide Caliphate based on Sharia Law?

A: 33% very or fairly supportive, 25% not very or not at all supportive, 42% not sure.

Q: Is it ever justifiable to kill in the name of religion" A comparison of Muslim and non-Muslim responses.

A (Muslim): 4% Yes in order to preserve and promote that religion, 28% Yes but only if that religion is under attack, 28% No it is never justifiable, 15% not sure.

The figures for non-Muslims are in order: 1%, 1%, 94% and 4%.

Left open was the question of what constitutes "under attack." Not a trivial question.

If you look at the report in its entirety, there is also a breakdown of that question according to ISOC (Muslim students' society) members versus non-members, younger versus older students, etc.

Perhaps not surprisingly, members are more "extreme" than non-members, and younger students more than older.

First important point: the more "extreme" views, are not.

These are the views of a minority - but not a small one.

Next: Part 2, implications.

*This by the way, may have been written for him by his radical libertarian speechwriter Karl Hess.

Towards the end of his life, the subject of that quote, and how he was flayed for it in the media, came up in an interview.

He asked, "What the hell is so wrong about that?"

I still admire that old curmudgeon. We will not see his like again I fear.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Solzhenitsyn's American friend

“He is gone, where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go traveler. Imitate him if you can. He served liberty.”
Epitaph on the tomb of Jonathan Swift

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn is gone. He died Sunday at the age of 89, at his home in Russia, having outlived the system that tormented him to greatness.

The Soviet Union perished as a natural consequence of economic reality, hurried to a perhaps premature end by the troika of Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II. But the moral ground was cut out from under it years before, with the publication of “The Gulag Archipelago.”

After the publication of “The Gulag Archipelago,” it was impossible for any intellectual apologist to defend the Soviet Union with any pretense of love for justice and mankind.

The New York Times remarked that Solzhenitsyn had already become somewhat obscure to a new generation of Russians, for whom the horrors of the Soviet regime are becoming a distant memory.

They should know about forgetfulness. The New York Times still proudly displays the Pulitzer Prize won by their star journalist Walter Duranty, who conspired with Stalin to hide from the world the Holodomor, the murder of from somewhere between two and 10 million Ukrainians by deliberate starvation.

Solzhenitsyn's work will without doubt endure. Though in truth his prose can be ponderous and hard to get through, it's worth the effort.

If nothing else, everyone should read his classic of prison camp literature, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.” (And what does it say about a society that it gives birth to such a genre?)

I once had occasion to discuss such matters with a Russian woman in Lithuania. (She's American now, and you ought to see the funny looks I get in Europe when I mention that fact.)

She told me, “To survive in a camp, there has to be something that you will not do.”

I said, “Oh, like in “A Day in the Life” when he says a hungry man who licks his soup bowl won't survive?”

She said, “It doesn't matter what it is, there has to be something that you just won't do.”

It was years before I began to understand that. It may be more before I do fully.

That could be because I'm an American. I didn't grow up in a society where your survival depends on your ability to keep the secrets of your heart from showing on your face.

But I know of one American who did understand, and wrote about it. He has been dead these 22 years now, and his book is long out of print. Used copies can be found, and it is also worth the read for the American perspective on the Gulag experience.

He is the man Solzhenitsyn called “the American Alexander D” in “The Gulag Archipelago” and he was one of the 227 former prisoners whose stories Solzhenitsyn drew on for his work.

His book, written with Patrick Watson, was "Alexander Dolgun's Story: An American in the Gulag," published in 1975, the same year as the third volume of “The Gulag Archipelago.”

Dolgun was the son of a Polish immigrant who went to the Soviet Union to work as a technician to build Soviet industry in the 1930s.

After he brought his family with him, the Soviets refused to let him leave. Dolgun and his sister grew up in the USSR, speaking fluent Russian. When he was grown, he worked at the US embassy as a clerk and translator.

Then one day in 1948, he was grabbed off the street and taken to the dreaded Lubyanka prison in Moscow. There he began what was to be an eight-year ordeal of torture and imprisonment in the Gulag system.

It emerged during questioning the Soviets had observed the typically American irreverence toward higher authority and disrespect towards the rules of this junior file clerk, and concluded from this his actual position in the embassy had to be much higher and top secret.

When he tried to explain he was just being American, they didn't believe him.
“Impossible, we would execute anyone for such behavior,” he was told.

Among other places, Dolgun survived Sukhanovka prison and he is thought to be one of the very few who emerged sane. Solzhenitsyn relied on Dolgun's description of the prison and the ingenious way he devised to measure the dimensions of the cells.

Even in the Gulag there was comradeship, laughter and love. Dolgun made friends, learned skills and even had a girlfriend. He survived, and found ways to keep his humanity.

For a time he was protected by the godfather of the criminal organization, who called him “chelovek” - “a man,” earning his place by telling stories from American movies.

After Dolgun's release during the Khruschev regime, he found his parents had been tortured by the secret police, and his mother driven mad.

Officially forgotten by the U.S. government, he was eventually allowed to leave the Soviet Union with his Russian wife and son, due to the tireless efforts of his elder sister Stella and Ambassador John P. Humes.

Dolgun settled in Rockville, Maryland and worked at the Soviet-American Medicine section of the Fogerty International Center at the National Institutes of Health.

He died in 1986 at the age of 59, his life almost certainly shortened by his ordeal, but well-lived to the end.