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The Blog is Moving!

August 25, 2014

A quick update: I’m migrating the blog to, so update your bookmarks/subscriptions and enjoy the (slightly) improved aesthetic. It’s not complete, but it’s getting there, so excuse the mess and missing information for a few days.

Today’s post covers a road trip through eastern Kentucky.

The Second City of the Czech Republic

August 22, 2014

Brno has a reputation for being more laid-back than Prague, and it seems to be true.

Prague doesn’t let anyone breathe. You constantly chase the bus or tram;  the crowd carries you wherever it pleases; you take a brisk walk to the next sight or meal to cram in everything. You’re fresh and excited the first few days, then frustrated and stressed from interacting with the other tourists. Escaping that scene isn’t bittersweet, especially if you don’t live in a large city.

Brno doesn’t do that. It’s welcoming if you approach it, but won’t go out of its way to cater to you. It sets a nice pace. You can find a place to visit or a neighborhood to explore, but there’s no pressure. If you get to it, so be it. Enjoy yourself.

Brno isn’t architecturally comparable, but it has a long list of interesting sights. Moravians have more curiosity about tourists instead of Bohemian disdain. Perhaps some slight confusion as to why you’re there, but welcoming.

Špilberk Castle and St. Peter and Paul Cathedral dominate the postcards. Špilberk isn’t an architectural wonder, but it’s much less crowded than Prague Castle. Plus, Špilberk had a Balkan Music Night, and Prague didn’t. So until those pictures surface of myself dancing, Špilberk wins.

St. Peter and Paul Cathedral from Špilberk Castle.

St. Peter and Paul Cathedral from Špilberk Castle.

There’s a stronger language barrier, but almost anyone under 40 speaks some English. Regardless, struggling a bit to order goulash never hurt anyone. It might be bias from my personal experience, but you’ll find a lot more Slovaks here. Granted, if you visit Prague, you barely find local Czechs. Brno is a large university city, and being less than 100 km from the Slovakian border, Slovaks flock here to study. Also, Slovaks understand Czech better than Czechs understand Slovak. Czech-language media programs aren’t dubbed in Slovakia, but Slovak-language media programs are in the Czech Republic.

With all the rain, it feels like I found the Moravian Seattle. It beats the heat and humidity of Ohio, though. I can wear pants and a button-up without battling heat exhaustion. It’s wet, but it’s magical.

Ever-threatening rain.

Ever-threatening rain.

Underground walkways in America smell like vomit, regret, and petty theft. In Brno, baked goods and roasted nuts dominate the smells in the walkway from the Galerie Vaňkovka to the train station. It’s delightful. Sure, the place is crammed with stalls hawking cheap riffraff and shoes that aren’t always in pairs. But the rain doesn’t penetrate. Tradeoffs.

It’s a city that’s best explored with a local; events and interesting sights are well-advertised, but without that local knowledge, it’s difficult to find the monthly bluegrass jams, the obscure and delicious food, or the intangible character of a neighborhood. When in doubt, follow the smoke. Brno is free in that smoking in bars, or most any public place, is tolerated and enthusiastically exercised.

I have a theory about public clocks in Brno.

Communist nostalgia or bureaucratic incompetence must keep these monstrosities in place.

Communist nostalgia or bureaucratic incompetence must keep these monstrosities in place.

Throughout the city, clocks like that are everywhere. Why they’re rotating cubes, I’ve no idea (unnecessary effects to distract from the ugliness). However, few of them are synchronized within the clock-cube. I think that, in every neighborhood, one is accurate and synchronized. However, the rest are deliberately slow, fast, or off-the-wall wrong, so as to train residents never to trust in the accuracy, quality, or timeliness of city services.

It’s a nice city to use as a base for central Europe. Prague, Vienna, and Bratislava are close. Krakow and Budapest aren’t far off. Hiking opportunities abound, and Moravia has great towns and villages for day trips and weekend stays. So find the squares throughout the city, the weird public “art,” and the beautiful architecture trying to distract from the communist blocks. It’s a scavenger hunt without the stressful competition.


Hiking South Bohemia: Šumava National Forest

August 20, 2014

Running 20 minutes behind schedule as the metro passed the second station, I remembered the map.

That is, I remembered that I forgot the map.

I was in Prague for a week as part of a summer seminar on classical liberalism in philosophy and economics, then leaving for Brno until November. Before I caught the bus, I realized I had Saturday free, and wanted to leave the city. Persuading some friends, I arranged a 15-km hike in Šumava National Forest along the German border. Šumava is called the “Green Roof of Europe,” as it connects to the Bavarian Forest in Germany to create the largest area of protected forest in Europe. In the summer, locals forage the area for mushrooms and various herbs.

Excellent Map

Note the artistic talent.

Hoping that another map would turn up en route, we piled in a van and set off. The 2 1/2 hour drive from Prague to Churáňov is filled with villages, towns, and calming views of hills or an occasional lake. Seeing the Czech countryside by train and car, it isn’t terribly diverse, but it’s almost universally charming and pleasant. Repetition is its worst feature, which is an asset.



Droll and pedestrian.

Droll and pedestrian.


Horrible, right?

We stopped in Katovice on the way, as a friend’s bladder demanded a detour. It would’ve been unremarkable, except for a (superior) Czech version of a honey bun at the grocery store, and a memorial stone marking the day when General Patton liberated the town May 6, 1945. The Americans didn’t push much farther than southwest Bohemia and Plzeň, but it’s still commemorated in a few towns across the region.

Might have been the first American there since 1945.

Might have been the first American there since 1945.

After finding a map in Strakonice (buying it through charades and mispronounced Czech), we arrived in Churáňov and plotted the hike (again). The trail took us across three small mountains, through a village, and, as we discovered later, a cow pasture where the bovines do not appreciate passers-by. Utilizing the green, blue, and red trails, we constructed a 15-km loop.

A rare moment when following the map worked.

A rare moment when following the map worked.

The problem in Churáňov, despite the map, was finding the trailhead. Asking a local won’t be helpful unless you bring a German phrasebook: In the former Sudetenland, it’s more common than English. For the trailhead, walk past the Sporthotel Olympia and Penzion U Lencú into the forest. The trail begins by sloping upward until the top of Přilba (1,219 m), with pine forests enclosing on all sides.


Emerging from the forest, an electric fence separates the forest and a cow pasture, ski lifts lining the hillside. When dozens of steer came to investigate our presence, their horns menacing along with distrustful stares as they lined up behind us to prevent our escape, the paranoia could only be distracted by the northwestern view.

That steer was the scout for the others to investigate en masse.

That steer was the scout for the others to investigate en masse.

Hoofing it off the hillside and into the village of Nové Hutě, the main road led us past a church, cemetery, and some restaurants and penzions. It’s a nice, albeit early, spot for a drink or snack. The trail then loops Pasecká slať, a peat bog, and curls around Nad Pasekou (1,041 m) to retreat again into the forest. At one point, before Hrb (1,074 m), the trail passes what appears to be a bunker. Information online is scarce, but apparently, they date to the first Czechoslovak Republic, a defense network built in the late 1930s. They’ve since served as habitats for various species of moths.

Slight disrepair.

Slight disrepair.

At Hrb’s peak, a badger statue has a few medical supplies and a notebook to record your visit.* A long stretch through the forest and the steep hike up and down Výška (1,117 m) returns you to Churáňov.

When hiking in the summer, boots, water, snacks, a map, and a compass should cover the necessities. Don’t count on cell reception. And don’t be foolish enough to think a map superfluous; while trails are well-marked, the map is only 79 CZK (<$4), and national forests aren’t nice places to know after sunset. We finished the loop in 6 1/2 hours taking a moderate pace (2-3 km/h with a 45-minute stop in Nové Hutě).

Lonely Planet’s 2010 guide (Czech & Slovak Republics) was a greater asset than their 2012 version (Prague & the Czech Republic)Per the 2010 guide, Sumava and Czech Mountains are useful sources for information in English. Czech Mountains also gives recommended routes and webcams of different areas. The two routes highlighted from LP 2010 are the Bear Trail and Povydří Trail, both about 14 km long; Bear Trail is the oldest in Šumava, and Povydří is supposed to be “easy and scenic.” Most foreigners to the Czech Republic won’t make it out of Prague (I didn’t until my fourth trip), so it makes sense for a guidebook to focus there and eliminate the rest. Regardless, more visitors should see the rest of Bohemia. If you’re restless in the city, Šumava is a great day trip to escape the hectic pace and crowds of Prague.

*Before the top of Hrb, if you veer off the trail northeast through the trees, you’ll find another great view looking toward Zdíkov.


Reflections on the Moravian Landscape

August 18, 2014

Moravia reminds me of the Appalachian foothills in southeast Ohio. The mountains are higher and provide better views, but they’re frustrating when I’m lower and want to get lost in the landscape. Like Bohemia, the sky expands. I’m not sure how that works, but the hills and trees don’t block everything. It keeps developing until the clouds and the horizon make you dizzy.

In Ohio, the hills surrounding Athens hem you in and make a cover, like a quilt on a cold winter. Near Štramberk, above a rock-quarry-turned-nature-preserve, the view is magnificent. At sunset, the sky becomes a palette of mixing blues, yellows, oranges, purples, and reds striking one another.


You can see Rybí, Nový Jičín, Kopřivnice, and most of the Lachian Gate. Štramberk spills out between two hills as if a flood carried the houses and deposited them as it receded.

Stramberk from the Castle Tower

Driving at night, the moon illuminates hills and mountains, and the towns light up, tucked away among fields of corn and wheat. No rivers dominate. Small streams split a village or carve a town. Every decade or so, Nový Jičín’s streams fill the houses with mud. So it goes.

When it rains, the fog is thick and miserable. The area looks deserted and isolated. Houses disappear and no castles remain. One gets carried away from Moravia to a Stoker-like Transylvania. Cemeteries appear and town squares vanish. Paranoia about getting lost creates a sense of wariness, even though towns only have a main road and three or four side roads.



Fog and rain in Kopřivnice robs it of 40 years. Stalinist apartment blocks return. The square, small and unattractive with a quaint fountain on a good day, becomes morbid. A small building, formerly occupied by communist bureaucrats, dominates the town again. Everything looks dirty and decaying.

Rain over towns in the countryside makes one drowsy and vaguely sad. It’s as if an old friend broke a promise. Despite the rain, the drooping fog over pine trees on the hills behind a church building adds a monotonous splendor. Though, when the religiosity of Czechs is considered, the disused church building loses some romanticism.

Above all, nature and landscape draw me. My perennial problem with cities is the dislocation I feel when surrounded by towers that don’t offer an escape. When cities carve the land instead of the land carving cities, no number of parks and squares can correct the imbalance. It’s why Prague is nice to visit, but the thought of living there makes me apprehensive. The crowds, the pace, the mandated lifestyle that results from the layout might encourage culture and business, but it can’t fix an intrinsic flaw.


Over-Romanticizing Travel Ruins It

July 16, 2014

Don’t see 50 cities.

As Robert Reid said, “shoulds” or “must sees” make travel into a contest. Which diverts your interest from what you desire to someone else’s judgments.

See what interests you, be it Berlin or the small town 45 minutes away. I’ve lived in Athens, Ohio for 6 years and history interests me, especially Appalachian history, yet I haven’t been to the historical society’s museum, a block away from my office. That makes me a worse traveler than not making it to expensive or remote cities around the world, if travel is understood as revolving around a person’s interests and goals instead of a checklist passed down by trendsetters.

The original thought behind transforming travel into a contest or composing a bucket list is very American. Who doesn’t love competition? It’s a challenge and a motivation. It turns vague goals into actionable steps. “Visit Berlin and Paris” becomes “Save $30 from each paycheck to visit Berlin and Paris next fall.” Without that challenge, some people wouldn’t travel.


Those lists make a challenge into a fetish. Thus, no one is a “tourist” anymore; everyone who is anyone is a “traveler.” Most travel blogs consist of beach and mountain pictures with insipid quotations plastered on them in italicized fonts. All are driven by “wanderlust,” and few have useful information or an interesting narrative.

That over-romanticizing makes travel exotic and puts it out of reach. Trips have to be once-in-a-lifetime experiences, which is a tall order to fill.

Travel can be local as much as international. Day trips through Appalachia are as exciting to me — in various ways — as a trip to Germany. I lose the challenges of a language barrier, unfamiliar food, etc., but I gain a better understanding of neighbors or folks a few hours away. I still get perspective, meaningful moments, and the excitement of reaching a new town. Traveling shouldn’t have a narrow lens of the exotic and distant. It should be thought of as a perspective, a willingness to leave the home.

I’m curious as to how widespread this over-romanticizing is. How influential is this sort of thinking outside the United States? Or Americans in homogeneous areas compared to Americans in diverse neighborhoods? In Europe, flights are cheap, and culture shock more accessible. I imagine the oceans separating America worsen the trend in thought here.

Where to Find Jazz in Prague

July 8, 2014

Jazz in the Czech Republic has a rich history, and its modern scene carries the tradition. Prague remains the focus, and if you want to experience it, visit these four stages.


Tucked away near Old Town Square, AghaRTA jazz club is in a 14th-century basement. The name stems from a 1975 Miles Davis album. Shows start around 9 pm and carry an entrance fee of 250 CZK (~13 USD). Along with drinks, the bar sells t-shirts and CDs. AghaRTA also hosts an annual jazz festival. If you’re wandering through the Old Town and want to relax before ending the night, AghaRTA is a perfect spot to visit.

U Malého Glena

The music starts in the basement around 9:00 pm, but if you don’t have dinner in the restaurant, you miss half the appeal. The food is delicious and reasonably priced. Arrive early; the restaurant has plenty of room, but the jazz & blues club in the basement is cramped and fills fast. When I visited, the Libor Smoldas Quartet played a great set. Every night has a specific theme (blues, acoustic, jazz, etc.), and it hosts a jazz jam session on Sundays.

Blues Sklep


Every jazz club in Prague might be below ground. A bit hard to find, Blues Sklep (basement) features blues, rock, and jazz acts at 9 pm every night. The English acoustic blues flooding the basement when I visited weren’t exactly earth-shaking, but it’s a place that’s worth your time regardless. Cover varies from 100-200 CZK (5-10 USD) for the most part.


The oldest and most popular venue in Prague, Reduta books jazz, swing, dixieland, latin jazz, funk, soul, reggae, and other acts. In 1994, Vaclav Havel presented Bill Clinton with a Czech saxophone, which Clinton then played at Reduta, again proving just how weird the 1990s were. Ticket prices are higher here, but remain at a reasonable 250-350 CZK (13-18 USD). When I tried to go last time I visited Prague, the show was sold out, but Reduta’s reputation precedes all others.

Of the three I’ve visited, AghaRTA has the most impressive location, U Malého Glena is the most intimate, and Blues Sklep is the trickiest to find. None of these are obscure places, but if you value obscurity over quality, no one wants your hipster attitude around here anyway. For more information on the history of jazz in these parts, see here, here, here, and here.

Talkin’ Praha Blues: Czechoslovak Jazz Under Communism

April 30, 2014
Drawing in Two Colors

Drawing in Two Colors – Winold Reiss


Jazz in Czechoslovakia was inspired, experimental, and popular. It was also subversive. The Nazis attempted to regulate jazz, and the communists suppressed it. Jazz threatened basic principles of the totalitarian powers: it was hyper-individualistic, improvisational, and innovative. Josef Skvorecky detailed this in “Red Music,” from Talkin’ Moscow Blues:

When the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled … then creative energy becomes a protest. The consumptive clerk of a working-man’s insurance company (whose heart had reportedly been moved by the plight of his employer’s beleaguered clients) undergoes a sudden metamorphosis to become a threat to closely guarded socialism. Why? Because the visions in his Castle, his Trial, his Amerika are made up of too little paper and too much real life, albeit in the guise of non-realist literature. That is the way it is. How else explain the fact that so many titles on Senator Joe McCarthy’s index of books to be removed from the shelves of U.S. Information Libraries abroad are identical to many on the one issued in Prague by the Communist party early in the seventies? Totalitarian ideologists don’t like real life (other people’s), because it cannot be totally controlled; they loathe art, the product of a yearning for life, because that too evades control—if controlled and legislated, it perishes. But before it perishes—or when it finds refuge in some kind of samizdat underground—art, willy-nilly, becomes protest. Popular mass art, like jazz, becomes mass protest. That’s why the ideological guns and sometimes even the police guns of all dictatorships are aimed at the men with the horns.

Art attempts to reflect certain truths of life. When those truths conflict with a regime that demands reality conform to ideology, it is intolerable and “a crime against really-existing socialism.”* Outbursts such as the John Lennon Wall in Prague or the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania are art, but they are an expression of an authentic sphere in life against the official lie about reality. They’re antithetical to the Lenin, Marx, and Stalin statues that crept over the continent. Those stood as reminders of the state, symbols of raw power: this is reality, here is the line, and you shall not cross it.

The first jazz club, Reduta, was established in Prague in 1957. The Prague International Jazz Festival started in 1964, and musicians formed a Jazz Section in the Czechoslovak Musician’s Union in 1971. The communists cracked down on the section in the 1980s, disbanding it in 1984 and convicting five of its leaders in 1987. Regardless of attempts to exert control, jazz remains. The statues of Lenin, Marx, and Stalin do not. By rejecting accepted ideology and power, jazz threatened it and was threatened by it. In those circumstances, art cannot avoid politicization. As the personal becomes political, we can lose the personal to get along, or embrace authenticity through art. The totalitarian aspect of communism that could not admit a private sphere of life could never tolerate a difference of opinion. Without the right of the individual to stand alone, or the community to order itself, differences of opinion becomes class warfare.

James Padilioni Jr., writing on the origin of jazz, noted that the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1921 warned that jazz was an “expression of protest against law and order.” Indeed. In Czechoslovakia, it was an expression in the best way: against a deadly farce that proclaimed men to be law and suppression to be order.

*Skvorecky in”Hipness at Noon.”


On Travel Writing and Writing Well

April 15, 2014

Good travel writing doesn’t come from exotic locations. Any place can spark insight, nuance, or inspiration. Appalachia provides as good material as England, Ukraine, or Thailand.

To write well requires a mix of entrepreneurial spirit to act as historian, journalist, tourist, guide, and sociologist. It leads to historical quirks or overlooked towns for subject material.

It’s difficult to condense history, perspective, or the political outlook of a country into 1,000 words. Most travel blogs don’t bother, writing a chronological narrative instead: arriving, finding the hostel, eating lunch, visiting an old castle, getting drunk at night. None of that makes for an interesting post. I can buy a guidebook from Rick Steves or Lonely Planet for all of that, without clichés about a city being cheap/friendly/beautiful.

My writing gets better the more I travel, which comes from jarring my perspective. It informs me and makes me realize my limitations. As Bill Buford said in the introduction to The Best American Travel Writing 2010, “place defines us more than our habits allow us to know.” Leaving a familiar place allows for self-examination and comparison.

Robert Kaplan, in Balkan Ghosts, declared that “at its very best, travel writing should be a technique to explore history, art, and politics in the liveliest fashion possible.” Approaching travel writing as a technique, rather than a genre, loosens restrictions to allow an examination of the self, the foreign culture, or the native culture the writer leaves.

Likewise with Paul Theroux in Travel Writing: The Point of It: “The job of the travel writer is to go far and wide, make voluminous notes, and tell the truth. There is immense drudgery in the job. but the book ought to live, and if it is truthful, it ought to be prescient without making predictions.” Combine the practical and the literary; that is, write to enhance the understanding of a foreign culture.

All that said, travel writing need not be about place. Many stories could be in any city and it wouldn’t lose value in the transition. Yet I’m obsessively interested in place, almost fanatically. Place shapes culture, preferences, political ideals, moral convictions, and economic and social mobility. Place presents problems and provides solutions, and that’s what I aim to discover: place as an extension of the past, the control of the present, and the shaping of the future.


Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches: The German-Catholic Counties of Ohio

March 25, 2014

Kalida, Ohio is the sort of place you notice because the train crossing makes you wait five minutes.



And then you wait again, 10 minutes down the road.

That section of northwest Ohio — between the Indiana state line and I-75 through Lima, Findlay, and Bowling Green — doesn’t attract crowds. Dull green signs mark flat farmland with three houses and a crossroads as a village. A few towns claim county seats, such as Defiance (30 minutes north of Kalida) and Bryan (30 minutes north of Defiance). Manufacturing drives the economy of Defiance, and a small liberal arts college makes it a prototype of the Midwestern town. If you’ve heard of Defiance, it’s probably from the band of the same name (but formed in Columbus, those liars). Bryan postures as “perhaps the finest small town in the State of Ohio,” which sounds like some haughty Eagletonian talk. However, the Spangler Candy Company produces Dum Dum suckers there, so maybe that claim is justified.

Bryan has a beautiful county courthouse, as well as many of the surrounding towns in that corner of the state. Traveling through the area, it’s well worth a stop.

Why would you travel through the area?

Its history and architecture. If you’re German and Catholic, it’s even better. Putnam and Mercer counties were founded by German Catholics during the early 19th century. Due to low population and the strength of agriculture in the area, the influence remained dominant. The two counties are the most Catholic in the state, 74 and 72 percent respectively, while only 24 percent of Ohioans identify as Catholic, according to a 2008 Pew Forum poll. Delphos, Ohio provides an example of the area’s Catholic colonization:

The colony at Delphos was begun in 1836 when a German priest, Fr. John Bredeick sent his brother Frederick to America to establish a German Catholic community. Frederick Bredeick purchased 92 acres for the future Delphos in an area that was already being settled by planned German Catholic communities. The first group of 42 people left Germany in August of 1842 and began clearing land for the future town the next spring. Fr. Bredeick, who was himself unable to leave Germany until 1844, had sent a second group of colonists in 1843, and he himself finally arrived the next year with a third group. Although from an early date non-Catholics have lived in Delphos, even today the Catholic high school, St. John’s, is larger than the public high school.

The area remains an enclave, much like northeast Ohio’s Amish communities. I noticed more signs about abortion, religious freedom, and the Holy Father than I did road signs.

You don’t pass any welcome signs, though; the church towers looming in the distance would pre-empt them. St. Michael’s in Kalida breaks the horizon six or seven miles before you reach the town. Designed in a Gothic or Romanesque style, the churches reside near schools, farms, or convenience stores.


It’s striking on a clear, sunny day.

Mercer and Auglaize counties have roughly 25 Catholic church buildings scattered about; including Putnam, Van Wert, and Allen counties, it’s probably closer to 50.

map clip

Multiply the dots by two, if not three. Or, if you head southwest more…

The reluctance of anything, natural or man-made, to bump the horizon makes the churches striking. Spires and silos from the German Catholic community bookends the state with another religious community on the other side, the Amish with their buggies and barns. As Peter Williams of Miami University (OH) describes it,

In a time of increasing cultural heterogeneity around the country, enclaves like this are more and more unusual … it is an island of exception to broader American trends.

To grasp the area’s history, explore the Putnam County Historical Museum in Kalida (or Montpelier, Wapakoneta, Celina…). Before you leave, visit Hoyt’s Tavern and order the pork tenderloin (delicious and as large as my face). The lack of traffic in the area lets a maverick driver treat speed limits as guidelines rather than rules.

Sweeping and cosmopolitan it is not, but the humble and unique in rural America remain intriguing.

Useful Idiots and the Defense of Totalitarians

February 26, 2014

Why do smart people support dictators?

Usually, they don’t defend a murderer, and probably oppose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or drone strikes in Pakistan. Yet, when a foreign leader opposes “American imperialism” or upholds a socialist vision, all is forgiven. Who needs freedom of speech, a bourgeois virtue that protects capitalists? What’s horrifying in domestic affairs becomes holy abroad.

When Paul Hollander analyzed the Western defenders of Cuba, China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union in Political Pilgrimshe rooted the attraction in alienation from liberal democracy:

Intense alienation is the single major factor that produced the pilgrimages and the attendant suspension of critical faculties in each period; and as long as alienation persists, emotion will continue to overpower intellect. This is so because intense rejection of one’s society leads to (or entails) such anger, despair, and hostility that it becomes imperative to find alternatives to the social system the critic lives under—hence the growing susceptibility to the claims of other social systems opposed to that which he so despises.

When one country fades as a model utopia, another replaces it. One country will always posture against the United States or the European Union. Venezuela has been a recent country of choice, but similar fools on the Right admire Vladimir Putin and Russia. Or Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Instead of confronting the failure of the United States to adhere to its professed values, a foil is sought. The narrow binary of good/bad countries prompts the search for a magical foreign land, which leads to otherwise sane people defending dictators.

Just as partisans listen to a politician’s speeches and ignore the action, the alienated lose their skepticism when a foreign leader confirms their bias. Saul Bellow wrote that “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep,” and political discussions would bear more fruit if the desire for a moral absolute in politics were resisted.* Politics might be the most difficult arena to live in by truth, but it’s better to attempt the challenge than defend a madman with a red book in his left hand and a gun in his right.

The alienation of individuals within society reflects the society more than the idealized country. Projection doesn’t require an accurate understanding of an imagine society; it only needs a disappointing reality. Hollander again:

…Both the popularity and unpopularity of the Soviet Union among Western intellectuals have more to do with the state of Western societies than with that of the Soviet. Admiration of the Soviet system peaked not when its performance was the most impressive or its policies most humane, but at the time when a severe economic crisis buffeted the Western world (in the 1930s), which helped create a perception of the Soviet Union as an island of stability, order, economic rationality, and social justice. Likewise the attractions of China, Cuba, and North Vietnam emerged and intensified during the 1960s when, once more, a crisis of confidence shook the United States (this time on account of Vietnam and racial conflict), and when both in the United States and in Western Europe rising non-material aspirations were unmet by new spiritual resources. Clearly it is possible to admire countries when one knows little about them political systems can also be detested when there is scanty knowledge about them.

Is it any wonder that Venezuela looked appealing when Hugo Chavez bloviated about defending the poor while the United States sank into economic recession and stagnation? Or when conservatives who worry about moral decline pine for Putin’s defense of conservatism and support of Orthodox Christianity? Never mind that the reality in Venezuela and Russia is abhorrent.

It’s easy to admire the underdog or what failed to be. “Admiring defeated revolutions has the same advantages as worshipping from a distance a beautiful woman (or man) whose charms have never been tested by sharing a bed, bathroom, or kitchen,” Hollander noted. Identifying with the poor and the oppressed does not a just order make. Swallowing propaganda gives you stellar arguments, but it divorces you from reality. To avoid the shame of becoming a useful idiot, any level-headed person must judge action, not rhetoric, and contemplate the causes of alienation in their society.

*Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back.