We visited Moscow twice, in late 2010 and mid-2011. I remember a clean, buzzing – if a bit intimidating – metropolis, rich in signature sites. I thought to share that where we stayed, Ukraine was all over: Across the street was located the Hotel Ukraina, one of the “Seven Sisters” (skyscrapers of the Stalinist era). Ukrainskyi bulvar, a pedestrian walkway run along our block. It featured a small park with a statue of writerLesya Ukrainka. Down the green walk was the Kiyevski railway terminal, a badass station (it was in good company, I prefer no 5, Yaroslavsky station) that serviced metro lines and trains to the Ukrainian capital (Kiyv/ Kiev, see relevant link below).
Here be few links on the Ukrainian front, not of the “latest headline” kind. The discourse at least here in Greece is polarized, and geographically we are close enough that the infamous Chernobyl disaster haunted our parents when we were kids.
Without noticing it, I heavily built my reading schedule this year around of what one might call a “post-liberal reading list”. The idea, that the demise of social institutions might be the inevitable consequence of an ongoing individualization of society struck me as initially convincing. I am currently in search of good examinations on the ultimate effect Liberalism has on the development of social institutions. Hopefully, Steven Horwitz’ “Hayek’s Modern Family” will provide me with some compelling arguments to refute the post-liberal agenda.
Not directly being post-liberal, but pointing towards the importance of “homecoming and belonging”, Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribe” has had a lasting influence on me. I found the following observations of a war refugee voluntary reentering Sarajevo during its siege both fascinating and devastating.
“What catastrophes seem to do – sometimes in the span of a few minutes – is to turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. […]
“‘I missed being that close to people. I missed being loved in that way’, she told me. ‘In Bosnia – as it is now – we don’t trust each other anymore; we became really bad people. We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with humans being close to you. The best way to explain it is that the war makes you an animal. We were animals. It’s insane – but that’s the basic human instinct, to help another human being who is sitting or standing or lying close to you.’
I asked Ahmetašević if people had ultimately been happier during the war. ‘We were the happiest,’ Ahmetašević said. Then she added: “And we laughed more.'”
Albert Camus is the most influential writers to me (See here why). This passage is from his third “Letter to a German Friend” (1944), depicting his unbroken love for European culture in the dark times of the second world war.
“Sometimes on a street corner, in the brief intervals of the long struggle that involves us all, I happen to think of all those places in Europe I know well. It is a magnificent land moulded by suffering and history. I relive those pilgrimages I once made with all the men of the West: the roses in the cloisters of Florence, the gilded bulbous domes of Krakow, the Hradschin and its dead palaces, the contorted statues of the Charles Bridge over the Vltava, the delicate gardens of Salzburg. All those flowers and stones, those hills and those landscapes where men’s time and the world’s time have mingled old trees and monuments! My memories have fused together such superimposed images to make a single face, which is the face of my true native land. … It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. And even now, at certain moments of rage and despair, I am occasionally sorry that the roses continue to grow in the cloister of San Marco and the pigeons drop clusters from the Cathedral of Salzburg, and the red geraniums grow tirelessly in the little cemeteries of Silesia.”
The most omnipresent slogan of libertarianism in the digital age is the one that argues, or maybe just declares, taxation is A, theft is B, and A is B. Everyone has a gut feeling about being stolen from or coerced into losing his or her property, and so whether it’s extortion or theft anyone is apt to understand what “taxation is theft” means on a primitive level.
Even if anyone can understand what it means, it seems there’s little agreement about what it encourages — since, “the government’s up to no good again” doesn’t really have a telos behind it and pitching a preferred state of arrangements is useless without appropriate connected action.
I was thinking about this, and ran into a short essay by Gina Lunori that looks to answer the question, with the same frustration.
I heard someone praise a conscientious objector who refused
to fight in Iraq, and I asked him if he was still paying taxes. He told
me that the government hadn’t created a “conscientious objector”
category for taxpayers, so he was sorry to say he wasn’t able to
stop paying. As if you only have a conscience when the
government issues you a permit for one!
I told him I know people who’ve stopped paying their taxes
without waiting for permission, just by lowering their income and
living below the tax threshold. He told me that he wasn’t prepared
to make that kind of sacrifice. If I had a pocket calculator I could
have told you the maximum price of his conscience. If I had a
quality postal scale I probably still couldn’t discern its weight.
Like Walter Mitty these armchair peaceniks burn their draft
cards in their daydreams, meanwhile the people who serve in the
military in their place are equipped, and shipped, and paid for by Walter Mitty’s tax dollar.
The biggest obstacles to change aren’t the few who are
abusing the government, but the many who are submitting to it and
facilitating the abuse.
A government that loved liberty would be trying at every
opportunity to expand and protect that liberty. Our government
tries everything it can to evade the few protections that have
survived since its founding. Look at how shamelessly it has
whisked people off to Cuba — Cuba! — in order to sweep them out
from under the protection of the Constitution.
A person who loves liberty would not shovel coal into a
tyrant’s engine just to earn a higher salary. Why does a person in
the United States who claims to love freedom, and who is
intelligent enough to understand that the government is freedom’s
enemy, still feel that it’s worthy of respect to be a taxpayer, and the
more salary — and therefore the more taxes — the more respect?
If you love liberty, if you hate war, you should at once withdraw
your support from the government. Withdrawing your moral
support isn’t enough — it’s your practical support that the
government feeds on — it doesn’t give a damn what your opinions
This is something you must do because you know the
difference between right and wrong and you know, when you look
the facts straight in the face, that when you willingly give practical
support to the government you participate in its wrongs. But this is
more than a matter of personal integrity.
Imagine the power of this statement. What if every person
who felt that the government had lost their moral support also
withdrew their practical support? What if only one in ten did? It
would be the beginning of the end. It would be that nonviolent
revolution we’re praying for.
Maybe the best tests of intellectual integrity are consistency and hypocrisy. How do the people that swear off voting as aggression feel about funneling taxed income to the government to enable its aggression? How do the people that mantra “taxation is theft” feel about surrendering their goods, each and every year, in a way they would never, ever tolerate from a burglar?
In 1991, sixteen Khmer families from Cambodian refugee camps (mostly from Khao I Dang) received asylum in the Netherlands. This Saturday, November 5, we will celebrate the 25th anniversary. To commemorate our stay in the Netherlands, I would like to share some of my early childhood memories about being born in a Cambodian refugee camp in 1986.
I understand that my story is just one small, but essential part of my family’s overall journey for safety from the civil war (1967-1975), Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) regime, and the subsequent Vietnamese occupation. According to some estimates, 2 million out of 8 million people died during this long period. This figure has been contested many times. I don’t think anyone knows how many people have actually died, but if I look at the family members of my parents’ households: 40% from my mum’s side died and 25% from my dad’s side.
Khao I Dang, the refugee camp where I was born
My parents were forced to work in labour camps in the countryside in Battambang by the Khmer Rouge. They eventually met each other while fleeing from Battambang to the Thai border when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. As with most fleeing Cambodians, my parents decided to get together – not out of love, but more out of the need and desire to share their hardships. This was after all, a months-long journey through the heart of the Cambodian jungle in which my father lost his father, the granddad I never came to know. My mother lost her brother and her father. As my mother was separated from her brother early on during the Khmer Rouge regime and never witnessed his death, she had always held hope that one day she would find him again.
My parents’ long journey towards Thailand brought them to the Sa Kaeo camp which was the first organized refugee camp that opened in 1979. Within just 8 days, the refugee population grew to 30,000. The camp eventually closed down half a year later, because of unfavorable conditions. The drainage in the campsite was for example so poor that several refugees, too weak to lift their heads, drowned from a flood as they laid on the floor in tents made of plastic sheets.
One month after the opening of Sa Kaeo, the Khao I Dang camp was opened and many people were repatriated into Khao I Dang. My parents eventually ended up there as well.
Khao I Dang was a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border where I was born. It was a bamboo village with dirt roads, barbed wire, and armed guards. Within just 5 months, the camp’s population reached 160,000. Population wise, this would make the camp the 11th largest municipality in the Netherlands.
Although the camp gave us more safety, violence and theft ran rampant.
Religion and death
People continued their religious activities and some houses were transformed into places for Buddhist ceremonies. In this picture you see my two brothers, my father, and I wearing our best clothes. We just came back from a visit to a local ‘temple’. The husband of my aunty, who had just been allowed to find refuge in Australia, had recently died in the camp.
Behind me is a grave of him. My father hired a photographer to take this picture so that he could send it to my aunty. I am the one barefooted.
My father worked at the hospital. The hospital was a large hall with beds placed next to each other. I remember that I visited the hospital where I was given a doctor’s gloves to play with. I would blow it and enjoy a child’s kick out of it.
I remember that during some nights, rebels with guns would raid people’s houses to steal their belongings. Often, the word about night raids spread faster than the rebels themselves, and so most of the times we were warned before the rebels reached us. I remember very well one incident when we did not flee early enough.
My brothers and I ran after my father, while my mother took my baby sister in her arms to flee in separate directions. My father brought us into a nearby canal to hide there. When the Thai patrolling soldiers within the camp arrived at the scene, shooting between the two groups erupted. When I think back to this moment, I can still clearly feel the fear I had. I wanted to cry, but my father put his hands tightly on my mouth so that I would not make any sound. We then fled to the hospital where my father was working, and stayed there during the night. We were too afraid to go back home, and waited until the next morning.
In another incident, our neighbors were too late to flee and somehow for reasons unknown, a rebel threw a hand grenade inside their little home that killed the whole family.
Despite the violence and misery, people tried to rebuild their normal lives. I went to kindergarten and remember so well one incident that I played hooky.
I was 4 years old and walking to school by myself, I stopped and decided to return home to my mother’s small shop. This is an incident that I am personally extremely proud of. As long as I can remember, I have always detested school. I hated to sit still and to be told what to do and what not to do. I took this attitude with me to the Netherlands, and still today I am very critical of schooling. My mother, a soft young woman, let me stay with her at the shop. But then my father came by, got angry with me, and spanked me for not going to school. Until this day I still don’t think that I did anything wrong.
Our little shop
Trade went on. Although it was illegal, industrious people were trying to make money by starting small businesses. This shows to me that entrepreneurship is natural to us human beings, and that economics and trade are naturally emerging processes as people are always looking for ways to improve their lot and to fulfill their needs.
Thai merchants would come to the fences, away from the Thai soldiers who were patrolling, in order to sell food to the refugees inside. Such activities occurred during night-time. When Thai soldiers would find out that we were trading with outsiders, they would beat us and take away our belongings. We, refugees, were also not allowed to get outside of the camp or we would risk being shot dead by Thai soldiers.
During day-time, people inside the camp would expose their new belongings and small shops would emerge. My mother sold small products of convenience. Some of it was smuggled by Thai people into the camps that we, Cambodians, were selling to other Cambodians. Other things like oil and sugar were given to us as part of a food relief program that we used sparingly so that we could sell it further. With the money we earned, we could then buy other goods that we needed more.
Other ways through which we made money was by brewing alcohol made from rice and apples. Although alcohol was illegal, it did not stop my parents from brewing it. Whenever a Thai soldier would come to our house for inspection – I don’t think you can really hide the alcoholic odor that was surrounding our little house when we were brewing alcohol – my parents would bribe him with money so that he would leave us alone.
These are some of my childhood memories of our lives in Khao I Dang. Maybe next time I can tell more about our life in the camp, share some of my older brothers’ memories, our cat that was lost, killed and eaten by someone or my first encounter with inspiring Superman and Spider-Man comic books. Maybe, I will also write about our continuing journey to the Netherlands and the psychological impact my experiences in Khao I Dang had on me. I can tell about the nightmares that haunted me until my teenage years, how I always felt alienated from the people here and the inferiority complex towards Dutch people that I developed as a little child for feeling different. Feeling different made me feel insecure. Every time I met someone, and I think it lasted until my later teenage years, I would always ponder whether the person would kill me if he would be put in similar circumstances as those many killers from the Khmer Rouge period. In other words: as a child, I already wondered excessively about the “banality of evil”. These thoughts were of course extremely unhealthy, especially when you are as young as 4 or 5 years old.
The biggest lesson I have learned from my childhood is that both good and bad experiences are important in our lives. Happiness, in my opinion, is very much overrated and hardship is at least as valuable.
I have not written this so that people pity me. Pity, and in particular self-pity, is an extremely damaging emotion. It multiplies our suffering and reveals an extremely pathological egoism. When I look back at the hardships my family has overcome, I like to remind myself of Haruki Murakami’s saying that “only assholes feel sorry for themselves”.