Friday, July 29, 2016

A Modest Proposal for the Refugee Problem

While Donald Trump and his GOP rivals were competing to claim who would take the most extreme measures to keep refugees out of the US, from the liberal side we’ve heard a stream of platitudes about what a boon to the country the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees will be, and how the diversity of the population has been a source of strength and variety.

Yes, it’s true. We now get to eat pizza, hot dogs, tacos, spring rolls and even soul food at adjacent stands in shopping mall food courts throughout America. We forget how long it took, or is taking, for the groups who brought these foods to be fully accepted by the mainstream population.

People seem to prefer to live among people like themselves. It’s not just blue-haired ladies with matching eyes in the gated communities of South Carolina. Urban liberals in NY or  LA, who insist on eating in a restaurant of a different ethnicity every day, don’t really want to see or talk to people who shop at Walmart or vote Republican. The US may be a great melting pot but the ingredients are only amalgamated up to a point. The segments of the population remain segregated and stratified to the point where most districts and most states are never politically subject to change.

Here in rural Umbria we have an ex-pat community of people from all over the world, but their similarity in tastes and attitudes is far greater than any of their national differences. While some may be more economically conservative than they let on in public, they are all rigorously socially progressive. Social conservatives and people with strong religious views are looked upon askance.  As for the local people, there is a similar degree of conformity, however superficial.  Being hunters, most wear the same camouflage outfits, drive the same Suzuki jeeps, and share a predilection for becoming prematurely overweight.  Whatever their political views, they all display the same paralyzing level of cynicism about politics and politicians.

The local and ex-pat communities seem to get along well, given that the latter bring money and work. Refugees can be seen in the nearby towns and cities, mostly begging in the supermarket parking lots, but in the countryside, they are rarely visible. Our immigrant foreigners are predominantly women from Eastern Europe who have come to be live-in help for aging people who can’t manage on their own. They blend in. Interest in the cultural diversity they bring is minimal but they are certainly well integrated. Italy was accommodating and assimilating immigrants fairly well until the French, English and Americans decided that Colonel Gaddafi had to be overthrown. Since then, not so well.

In theory, liberals and conservatives may be split on whether to welcome or send back potential refugees but their visceral reactions are probably not all that different.. Those reactions will depend on whether they can find some common ground and reciprocally advantageous dealings, or whether the newcomers simply come to be seen as “the other”.
Aren't they cute
less cute

Before considering what to do with the refugees, it might be worth considering why there are suddenly so many of them, and where they’re coming from.

In the US, where Donald Trump wants to build the Great Wall of Mexico, Mexicans have been coming to the US to pick crops, tend gardens and do a number of other jobs that Americans citizens don’t want to do and that agribusinesses and other businesses want done on the cheap. It’s a Republican nightmare. Republican voters resent competing with illegal immigrants (now officially referred to as undocumented workers) for low wage jobs while big Republican donors want the cheap labor. This dilemma crosses party lines but the redder the state (e.g. Texas), the more strident the hypocrisy. Working conditions on both sides of the border are fairly bad and from the latest statistics that I’ve seen, it appears that about as many Mexicans are now going back to Mexico as are entering the US. There are still lots of people coming illegally, so what’s going on?

Much of the flow of refugees across the US border consists of people fleeing what were often referred to as the Banana Republics, i.e. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. What those countries have had in common, besides bananas, are brutal fascist regimes, either installed by, propped up by, or trained by the USA. Some of our politicians are referring to the border crossers as murderers, rapists and drug dealers, while more kindly disposed politicians tend to call them people seeking the American dream. Rather than seeking the “American dream”, I would tend to see them as people fleeing a universal nightmare. Young women are being raped and slaughtered in those countries.

A US backed coup in 1954 installed the first of a long series of military dictators in Guatemala. A civil war between the government and Mayan and Ladino peasants lasted from 1960 until 1996, with a death toll of 250,000. The Guatemalan Government earned recognition as the first Latin American country to “disappear” its opposition in large numbers. Former leader Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to eighty years in 2012 for genocide but his conviction was overturned quickly when he was deemed too old for such a sentence. In recent years corruption seems to have superseded genocide as the country’s major problem.

El Salvador has the closest relationship of all Central American states with the USA. Oligarchy dominated the 19th Century, to be displaced by military dictatorships in the mid-20th Century. El Salvador’s civil war was shorter than that of Guatemala, lasting from 1980 to 1992, during which time El Salvador actually made news in 1989, even in the US, when a US-trained death squad murdered a group of Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Many El Salvadorans live in the US. A significant number of them joined US street gangs and were deported back to El Salvador, where they joined up with armed survivors of the civil war to establish street gangs at home. They deal in extortion, kidnapping and drug trafficking and have infiltrated the government, the police and the military. The murder rate is El Salvador is just over 100 per 100,000, the highest in the world.

In 2008 Manuel Zelaya was elected President of Honduras. He was deposed in 2009 by a coup financed by CEAL, a business group in Honduras, represented by Hillary Clinton’s friend Lanny Davis. She prevented Zalaya from returning to Honduras and helped arrange the elections which he was kept out of. The US immediately recognized the new government and provided military assistance to it, despite the law saying that the US can not assist a government established by a coup d’etat. The State Department simply claimed that it was not a military coup. Since then Honduras has become a militarized state and by 2010 it had the world’s highest murder rate. We don’t know whether that title is currently held by El Salvador or Honduras but people are fleeing for their lives from both countries.

There seems to be little talk about this flight from terror in the American media, just that a lot of people are illegally crossing the US border. Ending US support for the Banana Fascist military regimes wouldn’t solve the crisis overnight but with time, the people would regain control of their countries. They might then be the ones to build walls-- to keep the gringos out.

The subject of refugees from the Middle East comes up a bit more.  Here again, there are decidedly different takes. I have a friend who talks about his wonderful doctor from Syria. Others don’t want to see any damned Muslims. Does anybody ask about why there is now an abundance of refugees from the Middle East? Perhaps they know but just don’t want to think about it.

In 2003, the USA, under President George W. Bush, invaded, occupied and destroyed Iraq, one of the few secular countries in the Middle East, for no rational, strategical or defensible reason. Members of the Baathist Party, made up of the dominant Sunni sect, were dismissed from the military and all government positions, and declared to be unemployable. Just imagine Ohio and Pennsylvania being invaded and occupied by an unstoppable superpower which decreed that anyone who was a Roman Catholic or a registered Republican was not fit to be employed in any capacity! It has taken some time but after being pushed out of their jobs, their homes and their neighborhoods by the invasion and the ensuing civil war, the younger and more energetic Sunnis have emerged, with Saudi money and US weapons, as the new ISIS or ISIL or DAESH or the Islamic Califate. The older or more pacific Iraqis have fled to whatever adjacent country they could escape to, mostly Jordan and Syria. Those countries, flooded with refugees, are in dire straits. Syria’s dictator, who has kept a lid on sectarian strife, however ruthlessly, now faces internal opposition, reinforced by personnel from Al Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups, while also receiving support from the US (which, led by Senators John Mc Cain and Lindsay Graham, always seeks to find the good guys, i.e, the “moderate rebels” and ply them with advanced weaponry) and “America’s best ally in the Middle East apart from Israel, Saudi Arabia”. This alone would have been enough to set off a huge flow of refugees, but alas, the neo-cons struck again, following Sarkozy’s lead, to support the overthrow of Col. Gaddafi. Sarkozy at least admitted to having a motive. He was after a large share of Libyan oil, but what were Cameron and Obama/Clinton thinking? Oh wait, it was destroy them to save them, that recurrent American theme.

Let’s put aside the tall walls and the cheerful platitudes. We all know the china shop policy: break it and you’ve bought it, but we prefer to adhere to supermarket policy. That bottle of ketchup that fell and shattered as you reached for something else is just a small bit of the supermarket’s overhead, so don’t worry, somebody will be there to clean it up before anyone can track ketchup all over the store. Life and shopping go on uninterrupted. Comforting, but let’s be serious folks. It wasn’t a bottle of ketchup. We brought a whole herd of elephants into the china shop, or to reshift the analogy, we set off a containerful of explosives in the supermarket. They’re out of business! Surviving customers and employees are fleeing the wreckage.

We Americans don’t deal with moral debts too well, partly because we have trouble acknowledging them in the first place. We did eventually get rid of slavery but it took a very bloody civil war. There was talk of forty acres and a mule for the freed slaves but neither the forty acres nor the mules ever materialized.

We did better with war reparations and war crime trials when imposing them on other countries, but somehow, the laws we established in Nuremberg have never been applied to our own misdeeds. Our moral debt to the world is growing even faster than our our balance of trade deficit. What’s to be done about all these refugees that we’ve displaced?
cat skulls being cleaned by bugs- photo by Trip Advisor

Among the adventures of my distant youth, I spent a number of months in the State of Oklahoma undergoing military training. I can vouch for the terrain being every bit as challenging as the Arabian desert, where fate also led me to spend a significant amount of time. Oklahoma in those days was notable for countless little Mom and Pop museums featuring large snakes, scorpions, centipedes and God knows what other poisonous denizens of the desert. Among my most vivid memories there was the ten day period when the temperature never went below 41°C (107°F), day or night. Then there was the bug epidemic in Oklahoma City. Large brittle bugs were all over the streets and sidewalks to where you couldn’t take a step without crunching one. Some people have made a life for themselves in Oklahoma- mostly football coaches- but it is a challenge. If Syrian and Iraqi refugees have survived through the destruction of their desert kingdoms, they can thrive in Oklahoma.

Jim Imhofe proves climate change is a hoax
Oklahoma’s most important political leader is Senator Jim Imhofe. Americans are terrified by fanatical Islamic terrorists and the widespread rejection of refugees from the Middle East is largely a function of the this fear. I would suggest that refugees in America have as much to fear from our homegrown religious fundamentalists as the other way around.

I hereby propose that one half of the territory of Oklahoma, excluding that already set aside for Native Americans, be set aside as a new colony for refugees from the Middle East. If they survived under the bloody regimes of Saddam Hussein and Assad, they can make it in the desert fiefdom of Jim Imhofe. The more fervent Islamacists believe that 72 virgins await each martyred jihadi in Paradise. Jim Imhofe believes that the environment of this planet is in God’s hands and that it’s presumptuous to think that man can influence it. That could be seen as a standoff between two rival belief systems, except that while there is no scientific evidence confirming or denying the existence of Paradise or the presence there of compliant virgins, there is actually a broad scientific consensus that man is mucking up our climate and our atmosphere.

I see the settling of a few hundred thousand refugees in Oklahoma as a win-win situation. If they quietly assimilate, we’ll just see more Arab specialties in our food courts.
shawarma may be the new pizza
If they turn out to be mostly hard-core religious fanatics, they’ll have to compete with the very tough and well armed locals. We’ve seen competition between rival sects before. Jehovah’s Witnesses vs. Seventh Day Adventists, Scientologists against everybody. Look at Utah. Mormons were thought to be a subversive group. Mitt Romney’s grandfather was driven out of the US for his polygamous views, but by 2012 Mitt got to run for President, the dream of every aspiring American.

Our views of marriage have opened up a lot recently so we should have no trouble accommodating traditional Islamic customs. We’ve seen Irish terrorists, German terrorists, Italian terrorists, southern white terrorists, so why the unique obsession with the Islamic faction? The IRA was largely financed in Boston and New York, the Likud in NY and LA. It may be tough but it’s time to move on. I can understand and even feel the widespread aversion to the Other, having just watched parts of the Republican National Convention, but I’m betting that all those Syrians and Iraqis will make Oklahoma a better place.

Sunday, January 31, 2016


The political establishment in the USA is peeing in its pants. Normally, the two political parties have colluded to not rock the boat in which the corporate fascist oligarchy cruises. The parties keep their public differences limited to things such as which public services to cut first, opportunities for prayer in public schools, and the availability of abortions, guns, and union representation. The parties theoretically agree on equal pay for men and women, with a subtle difference in emphasis. Democrats want to guarantee that women are paid as much as men for similar work while Republicans strive to assure that men are paid as little as women. Most Republican and many Democratic politicians join to support trade agreements which enrich a few corporate patrons while effectively disenfranchising entire nations, starting with the USA. CEO's, vulture capitalists and hedge fund managers keep getting richer and most everyone else poorer. 2016 was supposed to follow the same script. The Koch brothers pledged to spend a billion dollars to maintain the desired result.
Clinton II?
Bush III?

Somewhere, the train of inevitability got derailed. The chosen heiress to the presidency now trails an older democratic socialist senator from Vermont in the polls in New Hampshire and may also fall behind in the coming Iowa caucuses. Bernie Sanders wants to break up the bailed out banks too big to fail or jail, but his name has virtually never been mentioned in the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the four national TV networks over the last six months of 2015. Despite the blackout, his rallies have consistently outdrawn those of his rivals in both parties and he has risen steadily in all polls. He's projected as an easy winner over any of the Republican candidates and running stronger against all of them than Hillary Clinton. The Democratic Party establishment is aghast that a pretender to the throne has stepped forward.
Bolshevik Bernie

Meanwhile, the big noise is on the Republican side. Most of the Koch millions have gone to Jeb Bush but with the Jeb! campaign having peaked with the support of about 3% of the party faithful, some of that money is now being funneled toward Marco Rubio, who makes a strong case for being a malleable enough establishment puppet. Currently in second place is the radical right wing fanatic, Ted Cruz, the man most hated by his peers in the Senate, on both sides of the aisle. Many of the original seventeen GOP candidates have fallen by the wayside as The Big Noise, Donald Trump, has emerged from reality TV to take a commanding lead for the Republican nomination. While spewing hate in every direction in mono-syllabic tough guy rants, he's the only Republican in the race who doesn't want to destroy Social Security and Medicaid and who acknowledges a need for health care available to all.
Il Duce II?

Last week I spoke for the first time in years to an old friend who has known Donald Trump for most of his life and worked with him over several decades. He believes that Trump entered the race on a lark, primarily to gain a lot of free publicity which would enhance the value of his many properties. Having no particular ideology beyond the art of the deal, and no significant goals beyond making more money, he probably never dreamed that he'd get so far in the campaign. He may have never wanted to either, and his increasingly truculent statements may have been a tactic to be eased out of the contest. He has offended a wide array of people, from former GOP standard bearer John McCain to Latinos and Muslims. With each new outrage, rather than being drummed out of the party, Trump has seen his popularity surge. His recent endorsement by Sarah Palin has brought yet more support from beyond the lunatic fringe, while stirring more fear at party headquarters. How much further does he have to go, or can he go, before he's finally squeezed off the stage? A few days ago, after insulting Fox News host Megyn Kelly, and by proxy, all women, he chose to self-exclude himself from the stage by boycotting the GOP “debate” on Fox, the unofficial propaganda organ of the Republican Party. Whether or not Trump ever really wanted the job, or has ever actually been a Republican, the man does have a huge ego, and his success in the polls is no doubt feeding it.

I watched the Trumpless debate and came away with two impressions. First, the candidates all fully collaborated in the media blackout of Bernie Sanders. Every one of them said how much he looked forward to running against and defeating Hillary. Bernie's name was mentioned once, and that in a feeble jest about him being a good candidate for Sweden but not for America. Apparently Sweden is a hellhole. That was one more mention than climate change got, or the state of the economy for that matter.

Secondly, the absence of Trump gave the remaining candidates more time to display their mind-boggling ignorance and other endearing traits. Rand Paul, the only source of rationality in the evening's festivities, mentioned that arming both sides in an expanding civil war didn't seem like a particularly clever or conservative idea, but that was lost on the herd of belligerent fools he shared the stage (and the auditorium) with. They see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys but can't tell a Sunni Muslim from a Shiite, much less a jihadi terrorist from somebody just terrorized out of his home. Nevertheless, they want to arm all the good guys, whoever they are, to kill all the bad guys. If they can't get it done, Ted Cruz will carpet bomb them all, although he might not wait. The good guys are us, (Republicans) while more or less everybody else, except those aspiring to legally emigrate to the US and become Americans, just like Ted Cruz himself, are the bad guys.

Witnessing this spectacle must make those urine drenched seats of power particularly uncomfortable now. Trump could cost the party not only the presidency but the congress as well. Cruz could put the party in the freezer for generations, if not in the morgue. Various types of remedial action are under consideration. Efforts to exhume the Jeb! campaign will continue. After all, the original plan was for a Hillary-Jeb! election to maintain the Bush I- Clinton I- Bush II- BushLite- Clinton II or Bush III line of succession. Jeb's mild public persona may lure many to ignore his rabid ideological bent, most evident in his efforts to suppress public schools while governor of Florida, and to ignore his important role in getting his dimwit brother appointed to the presidency in 2000. However, his recent defense of Gov. Rick Snyder, who knowingly poisoned the 102,000 residents of Flint Michigan, as a good man trying his best to solve an awkward problem, may not help his chances in a general election. Still, if he can let his inner nastiness shine through that bland facade, he might still have an outside shot at the nomination.

They've done it before
Weeks ago we heard rumors of a plan to draft Mitt Romney, should the convention become deadlocked. Unless Trump proposes something unimaginably hostile to the base, such as ending all aid to Israel or contracting his planned Tex/Mex wall construction out to China, a deadlocked convention seems increasingly remote. Just the other day, a Republican Congressman suggested that a non-controversial candidate, such as Paul Ryan, should be persuaded to step in. Paul Ryan? Non-controversial? The same Paul Ryan who occupies the Koch funded Dick Cheney Chair in Applied Sociopathy at the American Heritage Foundation? Perhaps Gov. Rick Snyder would be ready to step down and join the ticket as VP.

None of the above options looks plausible at the moment so what's the Establishment to do? If it comes down to a narcissistic Mussolini-style real estate tycoon running against a democratic socialist who thinks this is Sweden, somebody must step up to keep the Empire safe. Michael Bloomberg is considering a run as an independent to save New York and the rest of the country from the fascists and Bolsheviks. Can he do it? He has the chutzpah and, more important, the money to undertake this quest. A few years ago he gained an illegal third term as mayor of New York City by buying the City Council's vote to make an exception of him. As mayor he launched a successful campaign to convert Manhattan into a millionaire ghetto.

This could shape up as a three way, all Empire State contest: Trump- Sanders- Bloomberg. While Bernie Sanders is a senator from Vermont, he was born and grew up in New York. Hardly a reassuring prospect for The Establishment! Trump and Bloomberg would split the billionaire and wannabe billionaire vote, opening the road to the White House for Bernie.   Will they call in the CIA, or will unlimited money alone prevail to reverse the trend and have Hillary Clinton, another New Yorker, albeit an adoptive one, displace Bernie on the ballot. That should be enough to dry out the seats of power, keep the Koch blood pressure down and keep Sheldon Adelson's hair from falling off. Two NYC billionaires and one NYC multi-millionairess. A win-win-win choice even if The Donald is still not fully house-broken. The plutocracy is accustomed to running the government through well-paid surrogates. Taking on the work directly might be a challenge but seeing the number of volunteers in their midst, they seem to feel they're up for it, but would Donald Trump really want to live in that shabby old White House?


Saturday, December 19, 2015

New Flavor of the Month

The last global trend in S and M economic/political policy was “austerity”. While it hasn't fully run its course just yet, it has yielded many of its desired outcomes. Greece is on its knees, Portugal, Spain and Italy are still reeling and hoping they won't follow Greece into permanent bondage, while Ireland has reclaimed its pre-boom place in the European economic pecking order. In the US, while business indicators seem to be moving ahead, the life expectancy of the white working class has taken an unexpectedly sudden drop. These subjects have reacted to their masters at the IMF and the World Bank in somewhat different ways.

The Greeks protested and voted to oust their dominators and dominatrixes but alas, the new government sold them out, deciding to subject them to further beatings. The Spanish and the Portuguese both seem to want to follow the Greek course by voting against the bondage administrators but it remains to be seen if they will have better luck than the Greeks. While I live in Italy, I have no idea how Italians hope to escape their bonds but they've always been good at international maneuvers. The Great Houdini was, after all, an Italian. 

The Irish, having grown up under the strict tutelage of Roman Catholic nuns, for the most part just told the banks, master we have erred, beat us, hurt us, and so they were beaten some more. There are isolated cases of the Irish growing restive as they learn that their Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, chief lecturer on the joy of pain that austerity brings, even after taking two pay cuts, earns more than the British Prime Minister David Cameron, as do Irish Parliamentarians vs their British counterparts. The Americans, always the ideal passives of the world, don't appear to realize that they are being beaten, unquestioningly accepting media propaganda that the discipline is ordained by God. The coming year will see if there is any awakening of an urge to throw off the chains.

Talk of austerity has faded recently as other concerns have captured the public imagination. Flavors come and flavors go, just as colors change with the season. Two or three years ago every shop window in Italy glistened with violet tones. Last year the orange Guantanamo prisoner uniforms inspired a surge of orange, but it never really caught on. This year it's all shades of gray. As in fashion, so it is in the world of news.

In July 2014, Senate Resolution 498, written by Senators Bob Menendez (NJ) (best known for his determination to maintain bad relations with Cuba and Iran) and John McCain (AZ) (best known for picking Sarah Palin as his presidential running mate), was passed by unanimous (100-0) vote on the same night that Israel launched a massive assault on Gaza, the third since the siege started in 2008. The resolution supported Israeli efforts to defend itself from rocket attacks. They additionally voted $428 million for Israel's Iron Dome missile system and later added another $225 m to replenish the Israeli arsenal, depleted by the three week assault on Gaza, which killed over 2200 of the 1.8 million people penned up up in the 360 square kilometer (about twice the size of Washington DC) strip. For seven years the Israelis had maintained a land and sea blockade of Gaza keeping out products such as shoes, paper, tea, coffee, wood, cement and iron. Food was allowed into the territory to not exceed careful calculations of the minimum necessary per capita caloric intake for the population. In the assault, 18,000 housing units were destroyed, four hospitals, two UN shelters and the only power plant in the territory were bombed. Strong measures!
self-defense measures

Since the UN partitioning of Palestine in 1948 there has been a recurring cycle of violence, with a pattern emerging of Arab aggression met with crushing retribution, interspersed with short-lived attempts to broker peace accords. It seems the Israelis got fed up with the never ending cycle of violence and came around to an unstated policy of eliminating all those troublesome Palestinians. This was perhaps one of the few possible rational solutions to the Israeli dilemma, but surprising in light of twentieth century history, coming from this particular group. The dilemma results from the unworkability of either the two-state solution or the one state solution for Palestine/Israel. The original two state solution, mandated by the UN, is no longer feasible because the Israelis have seized a vast amount of the Palestinian territory and rendered most of the rest unusable by the Palestinians. The one-state solution, i.e. allowing Israel to swallow up the entire territory and its inhabitants, may be the future, but it doesn't promise well for the long term. The Israelis want a Jewish state but the Arab birth rate is significantly higher than the Israeli birth rate so the ruling group would be destined to become a minority. Apartheid, a policy that worked for a while in South Africa, is already effectively in place.

Genocide is a term that we associate with the Nazi campaign to exterminate Jews during WWII but there have been numerous other cases of one national or ethnic group trying to wipe out another. In Rwanda, the Hutu made a serious effort to eliminate the Tutsi; most Armenians were eliminated in a purge by the Turks that the Turks have continued to deny doing to this day. In China, Mao made an all out effort to eliminate the professional classes. In the USA, the Native Americans, or Indians as they were called until recently, were decimated by the new settlers. Many of these conflicts were the intensification of long standing rivalries or revenge for perceived offenses in the past. Hitler viewed the Jews as an inferior race and sought to eliminate them not for anything they might do but because of his own warped perspective on racial purity.

The US Senate has put a whole new spin on mass killing with its certificate of approval on pre-emptive genocide, the new flavor of the month. Once approved, it's become as trendy as those violets or shades of gray, putting talk if not the reality of austerity into the category of yesterday's news.

When the US launched its shock and awe invasion of Iraq in 2002 it harbored no thoughts of extermination of the entire Iraqi population. Our PNAC crusaders only wanted to create regime change to allow Saddam's enslaved subjects to taste the fruits of American capitalism and democracy, except that we made the entire ruling Baath Party unemployed and unemployable, which led, unsurprisingly, to widespread ethnic and religious civil wars. A decade later, the battered, beaten and hardened Sunni Muslim groups, have emerged, with Saudi money, American weapons, and jihadi fervor, as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), leaving headless corpses in their wake. What's the answer? We have to wipe them out, whoever they are or call themselves! (They have more aliases than a CIA secret agent, using also ISIL, Daesh and lately IS, for Islamic State) This has played right into the 2016 US presidential campaign and its bizarre coverage in the media. Candidates are falling all over themselves in a rush to declare that they will kill more Islamic terrorists faster than their competitors. While the Republican candidates excel at this sort of rhetoric, the sitting president and his leading pretender to the oval office, do not sit on words alone. The president has taken on the tedious chore of wiping out suspected bad guys by drone attack in the far corners of the world. Former Secretary of State Clinton seems to light up with glee recalling her part in the overthrow and grisly murder of Colonel Gaddafi, another designated bad guy. Her delight in that bloody moment seems to render her blind to the reign of chaos left behind and the vast flow of desperate refugees it has launched on Europe.

The presidential campaign is obviously too long and it needed a lift, which ISIS has provided. Before that, in order to avoid the serious issues of the day, the candidates had to simply rail about the illegal immigrants coming across the Mexican border. Who would be tougher? Donald Trump won that shouting contest and leads the field.
contenders to lead the free world
Now, we've seen Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino breathing fresh air into the campaign. We have entered World War III,” Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, declared. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas said Americans were “just plain scared…..We have an enemy out to kill us, and we have a government we don’t trust anymore.” There's an incursion of Syrian refugees into Europe and a prospect of some getting to the United States. Donald Trump wants all the Muslims already in the country, as well as any newcomers, to be issued special identity cards or other identification, perhaps a number tattooed on their arm. The lesser candidates don't want to see or hear of them at all. We don't need to kill them. Just keep them out.

There is a bit of confusion in the rush to kill. Everybody wants to kill ISIS. Our neo-cons want President Assad gone, preferably dead, and therefore want to arm the people opposed to him. The people who most want to topple Assad are Sunnis, many of whom belong to ISIS or Al Qaeda, that is, the bad guys. The Russians are also out there killing ISIS and we've been taught that Putin and the Russians are among the worst bad guys. The Turks, who belong to NATO, are fighting against both Assad's forces and the Kurds, who in turn are fighting ISIS. Lindsey Graham wants to arm them all, a policy seconded with a bit more caution by some of his campaign adversaries. Most of the candidates want boots on the ground but none are sending their daughters. So, whose boots?

Any discussion of pre-emptive genocide would be flawed if it failed to note that three GOP candidates for president attended a meeting of the National Religious Liberties Conference on the same weekend that they got together for a presidential debate. The leader of the Conference, the Rev. Kevin Swanson, emotionally proclaims that the Bible teaches us that homosexuals are to be rounded up and executed. Debate within the Conference centers around the proper means of execution. The candidates, Jindal, Huckabee and Cruz, were welcomed to the gathering but didn't stay for the speeches or debate. His attendance apparently having done nothing to boost his poll numbers, Bobby Jindal subsequently dropped out, leaving Huck and Cruz to soldier on, almost alone, in the anti-gay crusade. Now Ted Cruz seems to be gaining on Trump and has a shot at becoming the GOP candidate for the presidency.

A word of caution. Ethical concerts apart, and the majority of my American countrymen appear to have no trouble setting aside such concerns if any do exist in their hearts and minds, there is one practical problem with the current penchant for pre-emptive genocide.

The last time a religiously identified group was singled out for extermination, Nazis killed about seven million Jews, drastically reducing the European Jewish population and virtually eliminating it in some countries. By that standard, the number of Palestinians to be eliminated is manageable and the territory is small. The US fervor for the elimination of Muslims is more problematic. Based on the counsel of our Israeli and Saudi advisers, our hawkish congressmen want to get the killing bandwagon rolling in earnest, as opposed to the token drone killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, with a major (nuclear?) attack on Iran, which is the main center of Shia Muslims. Shiites, one of the two main branches of Islam, constitute a 10 to 15 % minority of the estimated 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. At the same time, most of the jihadis carrying out terrorist attacks these days are Sunni Muslims. All western democracies seem poised to respond to the challenge of ISIS by unleashing their military might. Ted Cruz wants to make the sands of the desert glow in the dark while Carly Fiorina appears to advocate taking out Russia at the same time. Simultaneous attacks on both Shia and Sunni Muslims could conceivably result in their reunification, something they haven't been able to achieve on their own in more than a thousand years.

Furthermore, while most of this huge swath of humanity is currently peaceful, or even passive, under all out siege that could conceivably change. In addition to a number of Muslim majority countries there are also millions of Muslims living in Western countries. It might be prudent to consider the fate of Nazi Germany in the wake of its rather efficient killing program of its perceived internal enemies. To skeptics who might protest that Nazi Germany only fell due to being militarily overextended, I would point out that the US currently has military bases in three quarters of the world's countries and has “special forces operations” going on in most of them.

As we are now in the holiday season, I wish you all a Merry Christmas. May we move on to a new and better flavor of the month. As the shades of gray fade, may we skip the bloody red and make blue the color of the year for 2016.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

New Whigs

In 1840 the Whig Party elected its first president, William Henry Harrison. There would be three Whig presidents in all. By 1856 the party was defunct. Will the Republican Party follow them into oblivion?
Harrison- First Whig President

Both the Whigs and the Republicans were formed in response to moral issues. The Whigs grew, at least in part, out of a revulsion with the brutal Indian suppression policies of the populist Democrat, Andrew Jackson. They also wanted to secure minority rights in the face of popular voting majorities. In 1852 the party split over objection to the extension of slavery into the western territories, failing to renominate its own president, Millard Fillmore. The Republican Party was born to take its place and emerged with the election of Abraham Lincoln, who went on to become the Great Emancipator, America's greatest president in the opinion of most historians.

Millard Fillmore- the last Whig
Whatever the parties were called in America's persistent two-party system, one usually worked to protect the interests of the well-off establishment while the other worked on behalf of the less-well-off. There were other pairings of opposed elements, such as north-south, central government vs. states' rights, agriculture vs manufacturing, liberal vs conservative. The tactics, causes and domains of the parties have shifted over time, as in the case of the Democratic solid south becoming the Republican solid south when LBJ enacted civil rights legislation.

The Great Emancipator
Whigs and Republicans have both represented professional and business interests but central to the Whigs' platform was a policy of tariffs to stimulate manufacturing. They also advocated free public schools to develop an educated and informed citizenry. After the Republicans replaced the Whigs as, in Bill Moyers' clever redefinition of GOP, the Guardians Of Privilege, they also gave the country its greatest trust-busting president ever in Teddy Roosevelt. GOP in those days was shorthand for Grand Old Party.
The Great Trust Buster

In recent years, the Republican Party has stood the policy of fostering industry, education and competition on its head. Today's GOP subsidizes the outsourcing of jobs, cuts funds for education while making giveawaysof public funds to billionaire professional sports team owners, and eliminates regulations against monopoly producing mergers.

At present, the GOP is facing a split, which may threaten its very existence, between its true constituency, the oligarchs that finance it, and its blue state voter base. Both parties have traditionally been made up of strange and seemingly incompatible groups but this time the coalition just may come apart, as in the Whigs' demise. While the party insiders are mostly denizens of the tonier precincts of NYC and Washington DC, the voting base is largely made up of white voters in the poorer states of the south and west. A recent study has shown that the white population with a high school education or less is undergoing a sudden drop in life expectancy. The mortality rate has taken a sharp upturn due largely to effects of alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide. These people have been persuaded for decades to vote against their own economic interests but if they keep dying off or becoming inert prematurely, no amount of gerrymandering may be enough to maintain GOP control. The ultra-right corporate takeover of the major media has been brilliant but the average viewer of the major propaganda outlet, Fox News, is in his sixties and so time is not on their side. No matter how much the NYT uncritically publishes handouts from the State Dept and the DOD, and the Washington Post publishes op-ed from discredited neocons promoting military solutions to everything, people are just not reading newspapers very much any more. In the past, immigrants climbing the social ladder into the middle class have often abandoned the Democrat party to vote Republican alongside their new suburban neighbors. With social mobility now virtually all downward, GOP leaders will have little left to work with except racial and ethnic animus. Divide and conquer! A new influx of refugees should help them there but how far can they work that theme?

Democrats have a deep divide of their own between corporatist and populist wings but only time will tell if they can be reconciled. Perhaps the corporate wings of the Republican and Democratic Parties could merge as a newly minted Democratic Republican Party. Some of us suspect that this happened a while back but simply hasn't been formally announced. Perhaps the announcement will follow the vote on the democracy-ending TPP. Hillary Clinton may be poised to become, like Lincoln, the first president of a newly formed party.

The Republican division has come out in the presidential debates over the issue of immigration reform, with half the candidates taking a harsh public stance against illegal immigrants, while the other half says it wants to find a way to accommodate them. While hypocrisy has always greased the gears of society, this split reflects a fundamental division in the ranks. The voting base doesn't want to compete with illegal immigrant labor. The funding base wants the cheap labor that only only illegal immigrants can furnish. It has nothing to do with nationality or ethnicity and everything to do with legal status. Illegal labor, foreign labor, third world labor, prison labor, slave labor; it's all good, that is, it's cheap! The GOP wants and needs the Hispanic vote so some, at least, are trying to seem concerned. After all, the Hispanic birth rate is the only thing that keeps the national birth rate from going below replacement level. At the same time, Hispanic voters have the biggest stake in avoiding competition with illegals.

America's two party polarity could better be described as the opposition of left and right but more often it is described as the divide between liberal and conservative. Since Reagan, the GOP has tried to turn “liberal” into an unflattering epithet. They've had some success, leading Democrats to shy away from “liberal” and to identify themselves with the more presumptuous term “progressive”. Republicans unanimously define themselves as “conservative”. What, if anything, does conservative mean? The word starts with conserve, suggesting a will to conserve something. Could be a lot of things; health, standard of living, sense of security, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, peace, the infrastructure, the air, the water, the environment, the planet, all are things that come to mind, although none of these things ever seems to rate mention at meetings of the GOP. Conservative also suggests a caution about change and a tendency to slow the pace of change. Change may be good or it may be bad but it is an inevitable element of life. A common distinction is made between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. Social issues are almost all sex-related matters, sometimes interwoven with civil rights issues and interpretations of the Constitution, while fiscal concerns are largely about debt and taxation. At the moment the American population consists of four large groups of people who are either conservative on both social and fiscal issues, on one but not the other, or on neither.

In the midst of the over-long presidential campaign, where does the vast assemblage of GOP candidates for president stand with regard to the public on conservative issues? Social issues have shifted quickly in the United States. The sexual revolution of the 60's has left the country a very different place than it was half a century ago. The South was fully segregated by race in the 50's and that too has changed even if racism persists. The status and rights of women have evolved, perhaps more by changing conditions than by political effort. In 1993 the implementation of “don't ask, don't tell” in the military was seen as a huge progressive step for the rights of homosexuals. It is now considered a landmark of discrimination and the push for gay rights has led to widespread acceptance of same sex marriage, something unimaginable just two or three decades ago. Abortion was almost universally illegal in the US until the Supreme Court decided it was a constitutional right in 1973. Many of these changes have been rapid but most are accepted by the majority of the population. Still, not everyone is happy with all these changes so we can assume that there will continue to be be a political party representing people with such concerns. The battles over social issues are real, with significant numbers of people on each side. What about the current crop of Republican candidates?

Most of these conservative candidates are sufficiently resistant to social change to satisfy the voting base. Where there is deviation from conservatively correct dogma, it is seldom a product of creeping liberalism. Three candidates recently attended a meeting of the National Religious Liberties Conference whose leader, on the same weekend, made the case for rounding up and killing all homosexuals. Do such policies qualify as conservative? Many good people oppose abortion but does the tacit approval of the murder of people running abortion clinics qualify as conservative? Slowing the pace of social change may be conservative but what about the radical and violent return to an era that probably never existed? Conservative or radical reactionary?
"Bad science! Bad science!"
Is being anti-science conservative? In 1633 Galileo Galilei was tried and convicted by the Inquisition for promoting the Copernican theory of the universe, in which the earth revolves around the sun. Surely, the Inquisition could be considered conservative in its time. Does it make sense 382 years later to consider politicians holding views similar of those of the Inquisition to be conservative? Was the space exploration program cut back due to budget constraints or by concerns of heresy? Does Jim Inhofe count as a conservative? What about the majority of GOP candidates who follow his lead in bashing science? The English language seems to be failing us here.

Greatest friend of the 1% ever
Most establishment Republicans don't really give a damn about social issues, except as a tool to fire up the base. Deep down, it's all about economics, often camouflaged as fiscal conservatism. If fiscal conservatism is about balanced budgets and keeping spending in line with income, how many of the dozen or more GOP candidates could rationally be called fiscal conservatives? One! While he may be way out there in right field on many domestic issues, Rand Paul is the only GOP candidate who has any reasonable claim to being called a fiscal conservative. He has even called out his colleagues asking: Is it really conservative to advocate unlimited military spending without paying for it when our military budget is already larger than the rest of the world's together? Paul is also the only Republican candidate who has ever opposed a war that the US has initiated. Since Ronald Reagan, Republican Administrations have consistently run up record deficits. “Tax and spend” liberal Bill Clinton produced a surplus, which was quickly eliminated by “conservative” George W. Bush by starting wars financed by deficit spending. So much for fiscal conservatives. They have perpetrated a monster hoax for years. All these Republicans holler about deficits but they keep making them bigger through corporate welfare, tax breaks for their rich sponsors and blowing ever more money on the insatiable military industrial complex. All the candidates seem to have a “tax plan”. Rand Paul isn't immune from this. In every case, these plans would drive the country deeper in debt while trashing its public resources, accelerating the decline of the middle class and further reducing the prospects of the poorer classes, into which the former middle class is sliding.
New Leadership.  Conservative enough?

Some of the GOP base is angry and their anger lashes out in all directions, usually misplaced. Such people are referred to as the Tea Party. They may eventually morph into a separate party, something like the Know-Nothings at an earlier troubled time in our history, but they have little in common with the Wall Street insiders and the Karl Roves of the world, who have been using them badly.

The party insiders are getting worried that outsider candidates such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson are still leading the polls, fearing that they may lead the party into an electoral debacle, or worse, that if elected they will drive the country to ruin faster than the insiders' plan called for. The total collapse isn't supposed to come before the sanctuaries of the oligarchy are fully stocked, armed and fortified. Rumors have even surfaced of a plan to draft Mitt Romney. The group of GOP candidates has been frequently compared to a clown car.
Having spent the early and late portions of my career working on zoos, I'm inclined to view the spectacle as something you'd see in a zoo. A large gorilla roaring and pounding his chest, surrounded by smaller, nastier, screeching monkeys and cold blooded, beady-eyed reptiles with darting tongues. There are also some sloths and aardvark types waiting to be prodded into action but alas, there are no lions or tigers or Teddies in this crowd. Will their prayers be answered with an ark to save them from the coming deluge?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A New Season

September is upon us and it's the start of a new season. School starts, vacations end, so it marks the beginning of an academic year and a new work year too. More important, it's the start of a new football season. Of course I'm referring to American football, although I believe that European football, i.e. soccer will be getting started about the same time.

The start of a new season is another unwelcome reminder that our time here is limited and the clock is ticking. While we occasionally acknowledge our mortality, for example when we attend funerals of people our own age or younger, we don't care to be reminded about it. Institutions, whatever else they've been established for, serve to impart a sense of permanence to our lives. Thus, we resist changes to our governments, our political parties, churches, and schools, or else we fail to acknowledge that they have in fact changed. When the all-male college that I attended started admitting women a few decades ago, the considerable resistance by the alumni was fueled not so much by misogyny as by the concern that a beloved institution would no longer be what it had been, seemingly forever.

Among the institutions that have lent stability and continuity to my life are spectator sports, many of them. Besides football, there are baseball, hockey, boxing, and auto racing, just for a start. New athletes come up, play out their brief careers, retire and die but their teams seem to go on forever. Sports do change though. When I was a kid, baseball was known as the national pastime., a status it had earned during the Great Depression, when thousands of unemployed men could spend their afternoons in the bleachers for less than they'd spend in a saloon. The game was long, slow and fairly boring but it was out in the open air and it did pass the time. I got a taste of it at my first summer job, working at a small hotel at the Jersey shore. I was there seven days a week, twelve hours a day, but most of the time there was nothing happening and nothing to do. Most days, the 93 year-old proprietor of the hotel would settle into his big easy chair in the lobby in front of the large TV set, brass spittoon by his side, and spend the afternoon watching baseball games. I got to join him and was indoctrinated into the finer points of the game.

Ted Williams, pitchers' nightmare
Lots of kids played the game or its poor cousins, softball and stickball. I had a catcher's mitt and managed to overcome the terror generated by the curve ball of the left-handed kid who lived down the street but while I learned to catch the curve, I couldn't hit a baseball if my life depended on it, so I never developed much of an attachment to the sport. After the war, baseball became very popular in Japan but where it really took off was in Latin America. Cuba and the Dominican Republic now seem to provide a disproportionate number of players in the major leagues. Perhaps it's no coincidence that those countries appear to be in an extended period of economic depression. Baseball seemed eternal when I was a kid. I became a Boston Red Sox fan for life. My loyalty remains, although I seldom pay any attention to the game. My early hero, Ted Williams, had his body frozen when he died so he could eventually make a comeback when technology permits. Now that's something that would get me out to the ballpark. I wonder how many American kids still play the game. The economy being what it is, maybe baseball will make a comeback, even without Ted Williams.

My Rangers
Hockey was once a Canadian sport and while four of the six original NHL teams were in the US, about 99% of the players were Canadian. The other two were from Minnesota. Now the league has thirty teams, twenty-three of them in the US, and the players come from all over the world. I barely know who any of the players are but I still feel lifted in spirit when I hear of the NY Rangers winning a game or a cup.
Tony Zale and Marcel Cerdan

Boxing was another enthusiasm of my youth. When my favorite fighter, Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash, it felt like I'd lost a member of the family. For a time it seemed that “Heavyweight Champion of the World” was a title on a par with “President of the United States” but having three or more sanctioning bodies each offering their own titles did nothing to help the sport as an institution. When the best of the best, Sugar Ray Robinson and Mohammed Ali hung up the gloves, my interest left with them.

Toughie floors a rival
Other sports have failed to achieve institutional stability for a variety of reasons. In the eighth grade I was briefly a big Roller Derby fan, even gathering autographs of stars such as Mary Lou Palermo and my favorite, Midge “Toughie” Brashun. This sport featured women with status equal to their male counterparts long before the NCAA push to encourage women's sports. The action was fast and rough enough but the sport had an aura of a staged exhibition, not unlike that of professional wrestling, and it vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared.

My life-long fascination with automobile racing got its start with midget auto racing, which was very popular up and down the east coast before and after WWII, with events scheduled every night of the week on mostly quarter mile tracks. The sport may have been even more popular in the Mid-West but trailers carrying the cars were everywhere along the eastern seaboard.. Typically, each night there would be three ten lap heats, two fifteen lap semi-finals, a consolation race, and the main event, a twenty-five lap final. The better drivers would participate in as many as eight such sessions per week, usually in minor cities such as Paterson, NJ, Freeport, NY., or Thompson CT. It couldn't last. Whether it died out from over-exposure or from the fact that so many of the top drivers were killed in crashes, I don't know, but by the early 50's the midgets were being replaced by modified stock cars, which had more frequent and spectacular crashes in which nobody usually got hurt. It could be compared to introducing toothless lions, or gladiators with clubs in place of swords, into the Colosseum of Rome.
Bill Schindler and Al Keller

Midget racing continues in some parts of the mid-west, but the cars now have large roll cages, which impart safety while totally eliminating the sleek, racy look of the cars. Formula 1, IndyCar and Nascar have fared better, establishing a tenuous institutional presence, which so far has lasted through extensive technological changes. The speeds keep going up but ironically the cars keep getting safer. Still, just last month, Justin Wilson, an IndyCar driver from England, was killed in a race in Pennsylvania. He was the first to die in the IndyCar series in four years. That's a big change from the days of the roar of the mighty midgets. The biggest threats now to auto racing are high costs and environmental concerns.

In America every high school with at least twenty-two boys enrolled has a football team. Nearly every college has a football team. It's been that way forever. “Forever” started in 1869 with the first intercollegiate game between Princeton and Rutgers, played in New Brunswick, NJ, although that game was played with rules more like soccer. By 1875 Harvard played Tufts in the first game more closely resembling football as we know it. Schools and colleges may have other teams for basketball, baseball, track and even tennis, golf and hockey in affluent communities but, except for basketball, few people go to watch them perform. People flock to football games everywhere and pretty cheerleaders urge the crowds on in rooting for their teams. Most kids want to play football. It appeals to the violent nature of the American character and it's a wholesome alternative to gang wars, as well as offering supplementary benefits, such as winning cheerleaders' hearts and college athletic scholarships. For the supernaturally endowed athletes, there's also the remote chance of becoming a professional football player, the only hope for mediocre students to become millionaires at twenty-three, other than by winning a lottery, starting a, or being born into the Walton family.
Crazylegs Hirsh in classic Rams gold

Since my own college gave up semi-pro football the year I enrolled, my football loyalties have remained with the professional Rams, whose existence started the same year as my own. While known mostly as the Los Angeles Rams, they started out in Cleveland before moving to LA, an altogether logical move since Cleveland had anothe team, the Browns, and the Rams' quarterback at the time had starred at UCLA and was married to Jane Russell.  High-jacked to St. Louis twenty years ago for a new tax-payer financed stadium, it looks like they'll be returning to their natural home city of Los Angeles next year. While I have little interest in traveling to the US if I can avoid it, that might tempt me to a trip to the West Coast.
LA Rams cheerleaders

Pro football predates me so it feels as though it's been around forever but until the NFL and the upstart AFL merged in 1960, its popularity never rivaled that of college football. This season will see the fiftieth edition of the Super Bowl, certainly the biggest sports event in the USA and the biggest single sports contest on TV throughout the world. How long will it continue? The NFL, and the whole world of football, faces some challenges. Too many over-privileged young players have been beating up their girlfriends or engaging in other anti-social off-the -field activities. There is a Byzantine history of the Commissioner dealing with alleged cheating by the New England Patriots. The NFL's 40 million dollar man, Roger Goodell, has modeled himself after Oliver Cromwell (or Barack Obama) to deal with “actions unbecoming” to the league. The latest tempest in a teapot involved star quarterback Tom Brady allegedly ordering game footballs to be deflated below the prescribed pressure. For this, the football czar ordered suspensions and fines running to millions of dollars, despite a lack of pre-announced sanctions for “crimes” of this nature, or anything resembling proof of guilt. The penalties were recently struck down in court, leaving open the question of how much of the Commissioner's discretionary power will remain.

A much more existential threat to the game comes from the on-going study of its contribution to brain damage among players. In the off season, the San Francisco 49ers were hit by a number of voluntary retirements among their star players. The most striking of these was by linebacker Chris Borland, who after just one year in the NFL, in which he played at an all-star level assuring himself of a very big future contract, decided to quit the game, citing concerns about the impact of the sport on his future health. His health may be assured but that of the game is not.

My own concerns for the future go beyond that of football. I wonder if the planet will remain habitable for the anticipated lifetimes of my grandchildren and I wonder if they will live to see democracy restored in the United States. Those are things I'll never know. Just as a beloved gas-guzzling finned Cadillac may no longer have a place in our society at a time of energy crisis, the violent game of football may not deserve to survive, but for better or worse, I love it, and I celebrate the start of a new season with the hope that it will survive me, and that the Rams spend the rest of their years playing football back in Los Angeles where they belong.  

While writing this I became aware that the New York Tennis Open will have two Italians in the women's final.  Brava Vinci!  Brava Pennetta!  If football falters before I do, maybe I'll transfer my allegiance to tennis.