Author Archives: Cody Boutilier

Cody Boutilier: “Semyon” (Excerpt from ‘Scarlet Field’)

(The following is an except from the novel-in-progress Scarlet Field):

As far back as he could remember, Semyon always wanted to see the Empire State Building. He knew those five syllables before he knew his patronymic. Some of his earliest memories were of gazing at the Sea of Okhotsk, looking out from his cold world of perpetual hunger, waiting for the merchant ships to come ashore so he could ask the sailors to take him to the empayr-steyt-beeldeeng. He had only made the summer trek to the shore a few times, maybe twice – each time his mother was trudging close behind, hastening to bring him back to the kommunalka where they’d been enjoying a midday portion of black bread a few minutes before. In those starbursts of euphoria that followed the bellow of the ships’ horns, Semyon was oblivious to his mother’s calls and the perilous terrain of the beach. He’d have swum out to the ships if he’d only known how. Instead he’d cup his hands to his little mouth and call in his piccolo voice: “Take me to New York City! I want to go! Take me to see the Empire State Building!” He’d have strained his voice to the point of muteness if his mother hadn’t snatched him away each time, carrying the screaming little body back to the kommunalka with strength that her withered frame could never have summoned under less urgent circumstances.

It was early 1954 then. Semyon was four, his mother forty-three. Semyon’s conception, not to speak of his birth, was a small miracle. It had been decades since she thought in terms of religious mysticism, but she intuitively knew that Semyon’s very existence was too extraordinary to end prematurely in some meaningless accident. This knowledge didn’t mute her protective maternal instinct, and she kept herself alive in the frozen wasteland of Kolyma for Semyon’s sake only. She had already lost a son and daughter to an orphanage, and barely clung to the hope of recovering trace of them. Her life thus far had been an incessant spectacle of mass death – by bullet and bomb, by starvation and cannibalism, and by cold and fatigue – and Semyon’s miraculous birth had infused her with faith in the ultimate triumph and transcendent power of life over death. It had been a late-term, unlikely reprieve from her life’s bitter cup of misery and betrayal.

The Hustings

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Cody Boutilier: “Jim meets Yusuf” (Excerpt from ‘Scarlet Field’)

(The following is an except from the novel-in-progress Scarlet Field):

Jim had arrived in Sochi’s Lazarevskoye Microdistrict the previous night. The train ride from Moscow took a day and a half. The proprietors of his guesthouse were a family of three generations (four counting the baby girl), and the matriarch’s daughter readily obliged to drive the mysterious young American back to the city center. Jim wanted to swim in the sea; he wanted to find hot mineral springs like the ones he’d bathed in outside of Kislovodsk a year before; and most of all he wanted to meet people. He strode into a doorless shawarma shack and asked for a beer, resting on a stool.

What do you recommend eating?” he asked the cook, a wiry Central Asian about his age, after taking a swig of Baltika 9. The cafe’s walls were a garish sea-blue stucco. The heavy aroma of grease-soaked meat hung precariously in the open summer air of the shack. The hit of the summer, Natali’s “O bozhe, kakoi muzhchina,” wafted from a speaker in the ceiling corner, the singer squealing, “oh God, what a man, I want a son by you.” Jim chortled. He turned around on the stool and contemplated the boardwalk. Families with small children, a dying breed in Russia, strolled by in their beachwear. Blacks appeared to be common here – mostly young African men, presumably students, and pretty half-Slavic girls, presumably locals.

Taking the chef’s advice, Jim ordered a lamb sandwich. Most of the people in Lazarevskoye, Jim had noticed, were Russians and Armenians. The cook seemed out of place.

“Where are you from?” Jim asked.

“Andijan. You?”

“USA. California. Where is Andijan?”

Oho! Amerikanets!” He shoved a greasy shawarma plate onto the counter. Jim started with the pickled vegetable garnishes. “Andijan is in Uzbekistan – Ferghana Valley. You know Babur, the conqueror of India? He came from Andijan.”

Jim nodded enthusiastically. “Quite a history! What’s your name? I’m Jim.”

“I’m Yusuf,” said the Uzbek. His Russian was accented but intelligible, much like Jim’s.

The Hustings

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Cody Boutilier: How to stop the robot revolution

Yesterday in National Review, James Sherk wrote a staggeringly disingenuous rebuttal to fellow economist Michael R. Strain’s automation jeremiad. The following exercise in flippancy shatters his argument: “almost as quickly as technology has eliminated some jobs, it has created new ones. Like developing smartphone apps (as if the average American worker were capable of mastering advanced computer science). Or shuttling Uber passengers (as if Google’s driverless car won’t complicate that prospect). Or moving inventory in Amazon warehouses (as if stocking and transport can’t go the way of manufacturing).” [italicized phrases mine]

The impending robot revolution places conservatism at a pivotal crossroads. Confronted with the dramatic social upheavals that will follow automation and mass unemployment, conservatives have to decide whether they are first libertarian free marketeers or communitarian social conservatives. Hitherto, capitalism has thrived on the collective benefits derived from Smith’s invisible hand, but when technology fails to replace the jobs it destroys, conservatives must either accept a pronounced degree of government regulation or embrace radical Randian individualism.

It’s true that a robotic workforce will drive down the cost of consumer products to practically nothing, but when most of the human workforce is unemployed, this silver lining is nugatory. Progressives, envisioning an unprecedented redistributive apparatus, herald the New Man to emerge in the wake of obsolesced labor. Considering that more Americans seem to watch the Kardashians than have a working knowledge of the Bible, let alone Shakespeare, a massive welfare regime will coarsen rather than elevate the human spirit. Our hellish, welfare-plagued inner cities should put such utopian speculation to rest. Just as man does not live by bread alone, so does the value of work exceed basic sustenance.

The solution is to ban technology whose steep social costs outweigh its limited benefits. I’m frankly surprised that I’m the first commentator I know of to tend this obvious proposal. If the government can regulate tanks and nuclear missiles, then driverless cars and robot waiters should be no exception.

Questioning laissez-faire economics unsettles some conservatives more than the looming death of human dignity. This is the natural consequence of disparaging social conservatism in favor of libertarian fiscal policy. As social conservatives cognize the adverse consequences of the new wave of automation, they will have to abandon the fiction that humanity can absorb an unlimited degree of technological progress without attendant radical damage to the social fabric. Without impugning the well-meaning Mr. Sherk, it’s worth noting how much libertarians, in their worship of the abstract Baal of Progress and disregard for human impact, echo communists with their omelets and eggs.

The Hustings

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Cody Boutilier: The myth of “Jewish solidarity”

I recently finished Menachem Begin’s White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia. It’s one of the most remarkable and unforgettable books I’ve read. Early in the memoirs, Begin recounts a conversation with sympathetic Polish officers in an NKVD holding cell in Vilnius. They complain of Jewish solidarity, that tenacious and pernicious anti-Semitic canard. Begin’s response is timeless: “If only!”

One of the principal arguments of Israel’s leftist detractors is that Israel cannot be considered a Jewish state, simply because it doesn’t enjoy universal support among the world’s Jews. I may be wrong, but this notion presupposes that Jewish solidarity is both possible and necessary, when in fact unanimity in any group is illusory and transient at best. It’s also essentialist, to use academic jargon: it suggests that the default state of world Jewry is “rootless cosmopolitanism,” to use Stalin’s phrase.

I am not accusing those who hold this position of anti-Semitism or “Jewish self-hatred” (Karl Marx syndrome). But it does correspond with classic anti-Semitic logic, and it’s simply wrong, to boot. Predominantly Jewish in population, Israel has the world’s largest Jewish community. Unbeknownst to most of Israel’s critics, the first Jewish settlements in littoral Palestine were founded by Sephardi Jews in the nineteenth century, before the word “Zionism” existed. Hebrew is an everyday spoken language, rather than merely administrative. If Israel has no legitimate claim to being a Jewish state, then Armenia and Ireland, which each contain less than half of the global population of their titular ethnic groups, cannot be called Armenian and Irish states.

Israel doesn’t profess to represent the world’s Jews in any substantial sense. When the Knesset passes a law, it applies only to the citizens and territory of Israel. Such is the custom of nation-states.

Jakub Berman was a fanatical Stalinist who played a key role in the establishment of communism in Poland. Beset by anti-Semitism in Poland and in the Kremlin, he vehemently denounced Zionism and even denied that the Holocaust was separate from the greater total war against the Soviet Union. Considering so much anti-Semitic sentiment is directed towards the State of Israel, it seems rather disingenuous to deny its status as the Jewish state. It effectively allows anti-Semites to set the parameters of the debate, and suggests that the existence of Israel is the sole source of global anti-Semitism.

Jewish solidarity is a myth. But we should all stand in solidarity with Israel, the Jewish state.

The Hustings

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Cody Boutilier: Perfidious America

The editors of National Review explain that Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski’s assessment of American alliance as “worthless,” while true at the time he made the statement, has been disproved by our response to the Ukraine crisis.

It may be that the token shipment of troops and materiel to Poland has stemmed the full scope of Putin’s geopolitical scheming, or will even ultimately leave Russia in a weaker position. This would not necessarily negate Sikorski’s assertion. He could very well have meant that the United States is an unreliable ally, which is absolutely true.

Such is among the vagaries of democracy in a superpower. 318 million people, preyed upon by demagogues, are not going to commit to a coherent, consistent foreign policy. Compared to, say, the Soviets in the Second World War, or nearly every Third World country in the wake of decolonization, the American public has been relatively untouched by its own wars in the Middle East. And yet Barack Obama was elected largely on the premise that Bush’s military overreach had been catastrophic. Suddenly, the American people found themselves wedded to the fanciful policies of reset with Russia, an outstretched hand to Iran, and the interesting notion that the internal and external crises of the Muslim world could pretty much be pinned on Israeli intransigence and the person of George W. Bush.

The foreign policy of the GOP’s isolationist wing differs in style, but not in substance.

American foreign policy will always follow a pendulum motion, because the leaders who shape it are answerable to an easily persuaded, emotionally volatile public. Great Britain, the birthplace of modern democracy, earned the epithet “perfidious Albion” because it was considered untrustworthy in foreign relations. The difference in foreign policy between Disraeli and Gladstone was far more pronounced than between, say, Tsar Alexander II and his son Alexander III (expand at an average rate of one Belgium a year).

Therefore, I will have to disagree with the analysts, including the FSB operatives who likely leaked it, who find Sikorski’s revelation earth-shattering. He might as well have said that there are four seasons.

The Hustings

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