Thursday, May 25, 2017

Walls

The Great Wall of America is in the news again, after a series of distractions regarding Russian influence in the election and poisoned gas in Syria. President Trump started clamoring for funds for the Wall. That didn't happen and emergency funding to keep the Government running until September was passed without money for the Wall. The Mexicans haven't stepped up to fund it.

New distractions have emerged in the French elections, the push for Trumpcare in the House of Representatives, and the firing of Comey, but talk of the Wall may not go away for the next three years.

Walls have been around for a long time. While there is common agreement that prostitutes comprise the world's oldest profession, second place being contested between spies and pimps, coming from a related profession, I would argue that wall makers constitute the third oldest profession. Walls keep out the elements and provide for support for roofs in the case of building walls, as well as keeping out unwanted guests and other pests. Walls divide properties from adjacent ones, public from private spaces and sometimes define political boundaries. Low walls are largely symbolic but no less important in that they provide strong visual identities to some of those borders and boundaries in a less absolutist gesture.

Robert Frost is known for saying “good fences make good neighbors”. Oops, I think that was “fences” not “walls”. Actually he was arguing against both walls and fences with a neighbor who liked them. Fences are more or less lighter, more permeable versions of walls. Bill Clinton and George Bush built a big one along 831 miles (almost half) of the 1,954 mile long Mexican border. Preliminary estimates of the cost of the wall for the entire border are $21 billion but we all know what happens to preliminary estimates.

My granddaughter, her father and friends
 visiting the Great Wall of China last winter.
The Great Wall of China was built over several dynasties but much of it between 221 BC and 206 BC to keep out Mongolian nomads who were stealing the crops of Chinese farmers. Some of it was built by paid labor but slave labor and prisoners also contributed to its construction. A million workers died in the process. Depending on what source you consult, the wall extends for 13,000 miles or 31,000 miles. Whatever figure you accept, that's a lot of wall. Much of the wall is still there and it may have worked, or perhaps the Mongolians just renounced their nomadic ways.

A remaining fragment of the
wall around Acqualoreto
Walls abound in Europe. Here in Italy remnants of them are everywhere. When my brother first visited us in Umbria and saw Todi, I expected the usual tourist reaction, such as “how lovely!” Instead, his first comment was “My God, what awful lives those people must have lived”. Todi, like most old Italian cities, had many large portals, whose enormous doors were closed at night to keep out invaders from nearby Orvieto.


Porta Orvietana
in Todi
Thinking it over for a moment, I realized there was some truth in his observation but I also took note of the irony in his saying it since he lived in a gated community on Hilton Head Island where the gates were always closed and protected by armed guards. All the world's a village, as they say here, but at least the portals of Todi, Rome and everywhere else in Italy, have had the big doors removed. They've been replaced by cameras which record the presence of cars which have no right to enter. Intruders are dealt with, not by the sword or boiling oil, but with exorbitant fines.

seriously guarded gates
on Hilton Head Island
The Chinese may have been among the first to define a national border with a large wall but in more recent times we usually associate that sort of wall building with Berlin and East Germany. Such walls can be effective. The Berlin Wall certainly was. It penned in half of a major European capital for nearly three decades, necessitating a major airlift to provide food and other staples of life to the walled-in residents. 239 people died trying to get over or through the wall but it did staunch the flow of refugees from East to West Germany. The wall did not come down until the regime that had built it collapsed. Will the US effort be as successful?

President Trump wants a wall, a big one, to divide Mexico from the US. This can be dismissed as overly extravagant, impractical, ecologically and aesthetically horrible but the idea of a secure national border is not really outrageous. The US, like virtually all other countries, does have border guards at airports and crossing points to control who is entering the country. At Newark's Liberty Airport, the guards have apparently been indoctrinated and trained at the “rape table” to develop a properly truculent demeanor. This came out in one of the many recent daily scandals so their function may now be fully privatized, with United Airlines a leading candidate to provide future airport security.

in the wake of the invasion of Libya 
While the government of the USA may now favor an absolutist approach to border security on its own borders, it seems remarkably oblivious to the sanctity of other country's borders. In joining with France and England in bombing Libya into medieval anarchy, it committed the equivalent of bombing the border crossing points at Tijuana, Nogales, Juarez and Laredo and opening up the roads into California, New Mexico and Texas. No apologies, reparations or remedial suggestions have come from either the Obama or Trump Administrations. What the French and English were thinking defies imagination. They didn't recognize their own feet when they started shooting. The Democratic half of the American public seems shocked by the isolationist implications of the Brexit and the Trump victories yet, along with the other half of the population, seems totally unmindful of the consequences of American policies.

Berlin wall and no-man's land
During the presidential campaign Donald Trump kept insisting not only that he would build a really big wall but that he'd make the Mexicans pay for it. Such talk was met with derision by the media and most of the population. Where did he get such a bizarre idea?
divided Berlin


The Walled Off Hotel facing
 the wall in the occupied
West Bank and run by the
artist Banksy.
He may have been thinking of Berlin, where the Soviets ordered the wall and got the East Germans to pay for it. 

Another precedent comes to mind. In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli Government has continued to build walls to separate and protect its ever-expanding settlements, which the world entire, even the US Government, acknowledges as illegal. Have they gotten the Palestinians to pay for those walls? No, but Israel, with its population of less than 9 million people and its territory slightly larger than New Jersey and slightly smaller than Massachusetts, gets more US foreign aid than any other country. Much of that aid comes in the form of military support but all that aid allows Israel to devote its resources to wall-building on stolen land, so it's not much of a stretch to say that the US is paying for those walls.
an Israeli wall in Palestine

Yes, walls can and do achieve some goals. Those in the West Bank by now have probably ended the possibility of a two state solution for Palestine and guaranteed that Israel will not survive as a democratic nation.

What will become of the Great Mexican Wall? Let's look for its advantages. It may bankrupt the United States enough to limit its ability to invade and occupy other nations around the world. Perhaps in a century or two it will become as much of a tourist attraction as the Great Wall of China. Remnants of the Berlin Wall now fetch a good price as people seek to keep a piece of history.


We always need to look on the bright side. Everything has its unintended consequences, occasionally positive ones. It's just that sometimes it takes more time for good things to emerge than most of us have left.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Smoke



A couple of decades back, in conversation with an Italian architect friend and colleague, he insisted to me that in the absence of exploitable resources Italians had mastered the art of selling smoke. I was skeptical about the concept that Italy lacked resources, given its long coastline, extensive mountains, abundant supply of artists, artisans and skilled workers, as well as having, according to a UN report, something like 45% of the world’s acknowledged treasures of art and architecture. Nevertheless, he cited concepts such as “Italian Design” and “Made in Italy” in evidence of his theory. Had “Slow Food “ been invented then, he might have added it to the list of concepts which boost sales and add value to products, despite having the consistency of smoke or incense. While Italy does have forests, some geothermal facilities, abundant sunshine and wind, it does not have a large supply of traditional fossil fuels such as petroleum or coal.

My friend was right. Italy is the land of smoke sellers. The art of convincing people that the superfluous is the necessary is widely diffused throughout the population, from shoe sellers to butchers, waiters to seamstresses. It’s only the politicians whose smoke nobody wants to buy anymore.

Just as Italy’s 1987 ascent to being the world’s fifth largest economy ended abruptly in 1997, its status as a leading seller of smoke has succumbed to American leadership. Apparently Italy is not selling enough smoke or anything else, since its GNP has fallen behind those of the UK, India, France and Brazil. While the US population at large does not have the Italian gift for selling smoke, at the top of the heap there are major masters at work.

Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and Albert Lasker were two
pioneers in advertising, who are credited with convincing women to smoke in the post-WWII years, thus enabling them to attain equality with men in levels of lung cancer mortality. Bernays took Uncle Sigmund’s theories of psychoanalysis and applied them for commercial gain. Besides cigarettes, he promoted Ivory soap, disposable cups, books, ballet, and Dodge cars. He developed the use of third party advocates when he recruited doctors to testify that Americans would benefit from heartier breakfasts, which would also benefit Bernays’ client, the bacon industry.

He argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy. His civic advocacy showed up in the promotion of the fear of communism and the successful overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala on behalf of the United Fruit Company.

Lasker was no slouch either in the molding of public opinion. Besides promoting Palmolive, Pepsodent, Kotex, Sunkist oranges and Lucky Strike cigarettes, he helped engineer the 1920 landslide election of Warren Harding. At the time of his Sunkist campaign, orange groves in California were being uprooted due to lagging sales, a process he succeeded in halting.

While Bernays and Lasker were pioneers, they have had legions of effective disciples in both commercial and political realms. Bernays had a big influence in promoting the Cold War to assure the health of the military industrial complex, but he did have help from the Soviet Union, which flaunted its militarism.

Just who is the architect of the current Cold War revival is harder to determine. After all, following the collapse of the USSR, Russia stumbled into a period of rapid demographic decline, Mafia-style oligarchy and internal violence. NATO, i.e. the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, aggressively expanded its membership to Turkey and several former Soviet states, moving troops to within a few hundred miles of Moscow, despite assurances to the contrary by the first President Bush. Putin rescued Russia from its downward spiral and restored a degree of nationalistic pride, but the country remains a superpower only in that it retains a sizable nuclear arsenal, along with a lot of gas and petroleum. How then the current red scare, or better, the red white and blue scare, given Russia’s current flag, and why? Militaristic regimes, such as the USA, need enemies to justify their arms budgets and while Islamic terrorists may instill hatred and fear, they hardly constitute a credible military threat.


Cold War II is not the only currently successful propaganda campaign. Bernays and Lasker operated in the mid-twentieth century. In 1980 Ronald Reagan came to power and he unleashed some campaigns which are still going strong. He famously declared that the “government is not the answer to our problem, government IS the problem”. Think about that! This sentiment might be appropriate in much of the world. Kings have first of all looked after themselves and their courts. Dictators have always looked out for themselves, keeping Swiss banks flush with cash in the process.  But the USA? American flag-waving patriotism is almost without precedent, unless you count Germany in the 30’s, or today’s North Korea, but there has always been an element of compulsion in those other places. The US has vast pride in its democracy, the oldest surviving (?) democracy in the world. If our democracy is a source of pride and this is the government of the people, by the people and for the people, how does one explain President Reagan’s proclamation that it is THE problem? If the democratic government is the problem, what is the suggested alternative? Sadly, we’re beginning to get a look at the option.

Going hand in hand with the rejection of democracy, has been the religious embrace of privatization and the deification of “the market”. Many sophisticated people are skeptical about an omnipotent God, not to mention the infallibility of the Pope, but a surprising number of them are susceptible to a blind and absolute faith in the infallibility of “the market”. Who sold this bill of goods? More important, will it have the same disastrous consequences as the Lucky Strike campaign? Once all public resources are sold off to cronies of the people in power, what will become of the public? We can see some clues in the Russia of Yeltsin and now in the American rust belt. It has taken a dictator (strong man is the currently preferred term) Putin, to bring back Russia from terminal decline. Will that be the fate of the US? Many now fear Trump is that figure, but what brought us to this point?

After Flint, how many other cities will be fed poisoned water to increase profits? Many of the past and present propaganda campaigns have been the work of Republicans. Remember that 1920 campaign which gave us Harding and the Teapot Dome scandals! Guatemala was not the only country run by United Fruit. Arguably, ALEC is the most subversive organization in the US, and while some turncoat Democrats show up there, it is a largely Republican enterprise.

However, Democrats have played a major role in our current travails. Selling the inevitability of globalization with its attendant race to the bottom, was a bi-partisan effort. Democrats bear the brunt of the blame for the predominance of identity politics, hawking the idea that soon the assembled minorities would constitute a majority. Of course, if you include women in the list of minorities, they already do, even if some of the people involved don’t see themselves as part of a minority.

Concerns for the rights of homosexuals were reasonable enough, but then homosexual became gay and lesbian, the coalition kept gaining letters and turned into LBGTQ, leading an unsuspecting reader to figure that all these combined groups were just short of forming a majority. Add another B for bigamists, a P for pederasts and an I for the incestuously inclined and we’re practically there. Perversely, this is being informally proposed, in a nod to furthering the anti-regulation agenda, by Milo Yiannopoulos, formerly of Breitbart News, President Trump’s favorite news source.

In a time of infrastructure collapse and a growing neo-feudal gap between rich and poor, the principle concern of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party has seemed to be the the toilet access rights of transgendered children. I’m too old to be up to date on this but I tended to think of pre-pubescent children as being essentially neuter. I’m not sure what a transgendered child even is, much less what’s to be done about it. Is this really affecting more people than the lack of healthcare, homelessness, climate change, the obesity epidemic, gun violence, student loan debt, poisoned water, decreasing life expectancy, racial violence or herbicide laced food?

Democrats are electing a new chairman of the Democratic National Committee this week. The main contenders are, in the populist corner, the only Muslim in the US Congress, while in the establishment corner is a Wall Street, big Agro and bank friendly, TPP boosting, Latino former Secretary of Labor in the Obama Administration. The dark horse, in case the two main factions can’t compromise, is the gay mayor of South Bend who was a Harvard educated, highly regarded officer in the US military. He advises a love-in with all factions setting aside their differences. The other five in the race have little chance of being considered. Democrats may have been nurtured on identity politics but Trump has played every sort of dark, minority vilifying card in his deck to get to his unlikely election. Whatever the outcome of the DNC election, we can count on him and his GOP cohort to twist the knife of identity politics back into the Democrats’ innards.

Many of us are eager to see a radical change of course charted by the 2020 congressional elections but if the Democratic establishment, which gave us Republican control of the presidency, both Houses of Congress and full legislative control of twenty-five of the fifty states, is not removed from power in the party, our hopes for 2020 are just fatuous dreams. Things can get worse and there are plenty of clever GOP smoke sellers who will see to it that they will. Depending on the outcome of this election, we may bear witness to the birth a new major political party.



Monday, November 21, 2016

Giving Thanks

In a few days the USA will celebrate the holiday formalized to carry on a tradition established by the Pilgrims when they had made it through their first hard years after arriving in New England. They ate a lot of local food, such as turkey, potatoes, yams, cranberries and corn with their Indian neighbors and thanked God for their survival in a harsh terrain, for the food they shared, and for their families and friends. Assuming it really was turkey that they ate, we’ve kept to a similar diet and continued the celebration, with some modern additions such as bourbon in the pumpkin pie and nine hours of football games. Despite having moved to Italy more than four decades ago, our family has always maintained the tradition, since we find Thanksgiving the best of the various holidays celebrated in the US. No competitive gift giving or super patriot bluster with militaristic overtones, just the family getting together over a large meal and appreciating what we have. This description would seem to make Thanksgiving more of an Italian holiday than an American one, since Italians do just that with much greater frequency. We don’t depend on an Act of Congress here. Weddings, first communions, confirmations, birthdays, saint’s days, Christmas and Easter, all provide an occasion for a similar celebration, although the menu is different from the usual American Turkey Day fare.

We now live in a secular society where fewer people are traditionally religious and many, perhaps most, of our acquaintances describe themselves as agnostics or atheists. That makes the idea of thanking God for our blessings a bit awkward but I would suggest that the concept of giving thanks is basic to humanity. All but the most boorish among us, and some spoiled children who never get enough of anything to arrive at gratitude, thank their benefactors. Whether our benefactors are known to us or not, the feeling of gratitude is there. It has little relation to the bounty we enjoy. Wealth, and all that it brings, does not seem to accompanied by a particularly heightened sense of gratitude. Whatever our theological outlook, we can join together to voice an appreciation for what we are blessed with.


Gerry
When you get to know them well, you realize that all families are complicated and have their unique problems. I am extremely thankful for my relatively serene family, which includes a granddaughter whose seventh birthday we will be celebrating on Thanksgiving Day. She likes to draw pictures of her grandfather and his cat, which means she has a future as either an artist or a diplomat. There are six other grandchildren, their mothers and fathers, all of whom I am also proud of and happy with. My beautiful wife, besides presenting me with our three lovely daughters, has given new vitality to the Thanksgiving tradition by preparing tastier turkey than I ever experienced in the US in my youth. Her daily reminders that I should constantly thank God sometimes create a whiff of tension but our mutual respect is enhanced by our shared devotion to cats. Hers is more inclusive than mine, despite my pretensions of being democratically inclined. That has led to our currently having nine cats, and I am almost happy to have them all. My two brothers-in-law help maintain our house and grounds; one of them even built the house. You can’t ask for better than that. My own brother travels all the way over here almost every year from the US to upgrade and maintain the functionality of the computer I’m producing this blog on, despite my propagating political views on the blog which he vehemently opposes. He must have been listening to the counsel of Gandhi or some such wise person. I give thanks to all.

Although our rural village has something like 150 official residents, we also have a large community of people who spend the more pleasant half of the year in the area, and there are a few fellow ex-patriots from all over the world who live here full time. Living in New York and Rome for many years, I never enjoyed such an extensive and varied group of friends. Most of them have now returned for the winter to the cities from whence they came and we will miss them through the damp, dark and foggy months but this year, in the wake of all the theatrical post-election whining and wringing of hands, I will even be grateful for a brief period of solitude and quiet.

The USA has gone through the most traumatic electoral fiasco in its history, leaving an ignorant and incurious man of limited intellect in charge of the most powerful government in the world. Unsurprisingly, this has led to war and the near collapse of the economy of the nation and the world, along with the ravaging of democratic institutions. That was sixteen years ago!  Not all the Plymouth Rock pilgrims survived those first tough years in Massachusetts, but like the ones who got to eat the turkey, I thank God for our survival through trying times. I might hope to say the same thing in another sixteen years but simple demographics suggest otherwise. At least I harbor the dream that all our grandchildren will still be celebrating Thanksgiving then with both gratitude and optimism.

After living through sixteen years of Bush II and Bush Lite, we are now moving on to something different and possibly worse. We waited in vain over eight years for hope and change and now we await despair and change. I’m already tired of the despair but it may prove to be more tangible than was the hope. The new regime is still waiting in the wings. Before we burn down the polling stations, perhaps we should get an idea of what will emerge. The first three appointments are not reassuring but I remind myself that Justice Hugo Black, one of the greatest champions of civil rights ever to sit on the Supreme Court, had been a member or sympathizer of the KKK in his youth. It’s harder to find a glimmer of hope in the case of war loving generals and thoroughbred fascists.

As we look ahead with apprehension, there are a number of things in the political realm that we can celebrate this Thanksgiving.
  • TPP is dead. This means that a President that I voted for twice can slip out the door as America’s first black president, rather than as the president who nailed the lid on the coffin of democracy. However, as anyone who has ever watched a horror film knows, monsters don’t always remain dead. The TPP monster may reemerge with a new name.
  • The new Republican president will be Donald Trump. (Are you crazy, you say?) I remind you that a year ago, there were eighteen contenders for the Republican nomination, all but one of them more ideologically pure corporate fascists than the winner. Trump may qualify as an oligarch but he is less indebted to the other oligarchs than his former competitors, virtually all of whom were, and are, paid corporate shills.
  • The President-elect has consistently expressed a preference for not seeking war with Russia. Whether he can withstand pressure from his own party, the DOD and the entire military industrial complex, remains to be seen, but his position is a radical departure from standing US policy. Whether he will be as eager to avoid war with Iran is less clear but at least there seems to be a rethinking of the prevailing idea that weapons are the main tool of foreign policy. (an extension of prevailing Republican domestic policy, which sadly, has not been criticized by the in-coming administration).
  • Paul Ryan will almost certainly not be the GOP candidate for president in 2020, given that sitting presidents almost always run for reelection. The WaPo and the NYT editorial boards, perhaps under the influence of some new hallucinogen, continue to describe Ryan as a right-wing economic conservative, while they have no hesitation in describing Donald Trump accurately as a racist, misogynous narcissist. In today’s tract I am thanking God for all the blessings I enjoy, so it may be overreach to ask for further divine intervention. However, I call on God to touch those two important bodies to either open their eyes or to put them into an incapacitating coma. There is nothing vaguely conservative about the serial liar and sociopath, Paul Ryan, America’s most influential acolyte of Ann Rand. I live among many priest-eaters and assorted critics, even enemies, of the Church. I’m the last one qualified to defend the Church or any other religious institution, but it is one thing is to criticize the Church, quite another to oppose the teachings of Jesus Christ while posing as a devout Christian. Paul Ryan is the closest thing to the anti-Christ that we’ve seen since Dick Cheney.
  • Donald Trump stood before the Republican leadership at various debates and at the GOP National Convention and told them to their faces that they were wimps, puppets of special interests and fools who had put together disastrous invasions in the Middle East. These are all things that we “liberals “ and “progressives” have been saying to each other at cocktail parties and happy hours for years. He gets no style points but let’s give the man some credit for speaking truth to power.
  • Not the least of the bright notes for those of us living in Italy, all snide comments about Berlusconi and the Italian government will henceforth be banished. There will be no forced exile or public flogging of offenders but they will be forced to live out their years in the light of public ridicule.

I will end on some more personal and particular notes. Half a century ago, when applying for a university travel grant, I had to declare where in the world I would want to go. My application to study the hill towns of Umbria may have been more hedonistically than academically motivated and I did not receive the grant. Nevertheless, I’ve had a house on a hill in Umbria for thirty-six years. It and our immediate surroundings have been spared the earthquake damage that has ravaged so much of Umbria just 70-80 km to the east of us.

As the dust settles on the American elections and many Americans consider where to move to, I give thanks that I am already here, where I’ve always wanted to be. The Bush years left us dramatically less financially secure than before but I am thankful that even if the Trump era should bring similar hardships, we will still have medical care available to us.

Last week I was disturbed by the anguished braying about the American President-elect, which just seemed an extension of the same non-stop character assassination that we’ve been exposed to by both sides in an overlong and ugly electoral campaign. For me the election had been over for four months, at which time I heard little of today’s shock and disgust, when it would have been more appropriate. My focus was sidetracked by the sad news that Mose Allison had died.
Mose Allison
 For all of my adult life, I have been extremely grateful to have had my time on this planet overlap with that of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Not only on the planet but we were even in the same city at the same time. I’ve had the privilege to experience the presence and the music of those three giants along with a vast number of other wonderful musicians in the golden age of American music. One of those other musicians was Mose Allison, not only a singer/pianist, but a songwriter with a philosophic and witty bent. He lived to see his 89th birthday, not a bad span, especially for a jazz musician. Along with all the other things I have enumerated above, this year I give thanks for having had the opportunity to see and hear Mose Allison.


Was

(Mose Allison)
When I become was and we become were
Will there be any sign or a trace of th' lovely contour of your face
And will there be someone around
With essentially my kinda sound
When am turns to was and now is back when
Will someone have moments like this
Moments of unspoken bliss
And will there be heroes and saints
Or just a dark new age of complaints
When I become was and we become were
Will there be any Susans and Ralphs
Lookin' at old photographs
And wondering aloud to a friend 


Happy Thanksgiving!


***

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Italian Cutting Edge Politics

In my last post I spoke of options for Americans thinking of moving away from the United States. Several of my correspondents asked what country or countries I held in high regard for their political systems. They all acknowledge Italy’s prestigious standing in the worlds of art, style and food but tend to regard Italy’s political traditions as something of a bad joke. The record needs to be corrected.

Throughout human history Italy, or what is now known as Italy, has often been at the vanguard of political innovation. Some examples from the distant past to the present:

1. The Roman Republic- While Plato had written “The Republic” in Greece, the Roman Republic still gets some points for durability and growth, expanding from the city of Rome to most of Italy and parts of France and Egypt in its 482 years. Legal structures developed there evolved into the Justinian and Napoleonic Codes. The Republic turned into an empire when some successful generals made their triumphal returns, a model that has served countless other places. Both George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower rejected that scenario but it may have taken hold in the US in spite of Ike’s protestations.

2. The Roman Empire- It has never really been matched in terms of its control of the world, as the world was known at its time. Much later, Great Britain created an empire extending to the far corners of the earth but it still divided up the world with competing colonial powers. Other attempts at world domination by Germany and the Soviet Union failed much more abruptly than did the Roman Empire. The American Empire may still be expanding (it now has military bases in ¾ of the world’s nations) but clear signs of the decadence that led to the fall of Rome have appeared, suggesting that it will not approach the more than four centuries of the Roman Empire.
3. Emperor Constantine ( The Big Switcher)- After centuries of the Romans persecuting Christians, Constantine accepted Christianity, thereby leading Rome to become the geographical home to (most of) the Christian Church. In recent times we’ve seen other big switchers, even if none had the historical impact of Constantine.
  1. Theodore Roosevelt, the US President and a member of the Republican Party, which has traditionally been the party of Big Business, led the charge to break up huge monopolistic corporations such as US Steel, and Standard Oil , which were getting to have more power than the US Government itself.
  2. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon- From the Civil War on, the solid south had been the exclusive domain of the Democratic Party, controlled by unrepentant white former Confederates. In passing the Civil Rights Act, LBJ knowingly surrendered political control of the South for a generation or two because some things just had to be done. Nixon collaborated with the big turnaround through his southern strategy, converting the party of Lincoln to the party of white racist southerners, and so it has remained for half a century. Nixon qualifies twice as a big switcher since the former red baiter opened up dialog and relations with communist China, something no Democrat of those days could have gotten away with.
  3. Bill Clinton- His changes may have seemed subtle but as a popular Democratic president, he embraced and passed more Republican policies, albeit in a seemingly softer, more humane form, from welfare reform and free trade treaties to draconian drug sentencing guidelines and balanced budgets, than any Republican president in the post-WWII era.
4. The Papal States- For many centuries the Pope ruled much of what we think of as Italy. While Italian unification in 1861 ended Papal rule and the RC Church headquarters has withered away to the tiny Vatican State established in 1929 in the heart of Rome, the Papal State has served as the model for theocracies around the world, ranging from Iran to two of America’s most important allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Il Duce
5. Benito Mussolini- The fascia was an old Roman symbol, also adopted by the USA and still appearing, the last time I looked, on the US 10 cent coin, but it was Mussolini who named a political movement after it, defining fascism as “the militarist state merged with corporate power”. His was a model for the regimes of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain, followed by an endless stream of South American military regimes. More recently, although his name and symbol are never invoked, his precedent is the unacknowledged model for the emerging American unitary superpower regime, although the preferred labels of adherents are now Neocon and Neolib, depending on whether the reference is to foreign or economic policy advisers. While “Italian style” is usually seen in a different light, there is no denying that Mussolini’s posturing has set the style for Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency. Mussolini’s vanity invasions of Greece and parts of Africa to burnish his international reputation as a forceful leader, could be seen as the inspiration for those of George W. Bush, and the results were similar.
Craxi
6. Bettino Craxi- Over a remarkably long stretch in political terms, Craxi developed the art of maintaining personal power and wealth by using fear of the left and disgust with the right to position himself as the inevitable alternative. Posing as a traditional man of the left (head of the Socialist Party) he espoused policies of the right. While his reign crashed to an ignominious exile, his disciples are legion, with such luminaries as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barrack Obama replicating his electoral success. In Clinton’s case, it’s been called triangulation. More recent practitioners are called moderate democrats.
7. Silvio Berlusconi- Starting as a cruise ship entertainer, he went into real estate development, then moved into media, creating a near monopoly of private TV networks and controlling a majority of print media, as well as owning one of Italy’s best known football (soccer) clubs. He then started his own political party, Forza Italia, formerly the rallying cry of the Italian national team, with which he ascended to the premiership of the country. That in turn made him the titular head of the national public radio and TV networks, along with his ownership of very nearly all private stations and the agencies that sell something like 90% of all TV advertising. While Silvio Berlusconi was able to become both Italy’s wealthiest man and the head of its government, the USA may be too large an economy for any one person to put together that sort of influence, but it won’t be because nobody tries. Rupert Murdoch has come closest to seizing control of the media in the manner of Berlusconi, taking over publications worldwide, ranging from the London Times and the Wall Street Journal to the NY Post and other tabloids, while simultaneously starting the Fox Networks. Fox TV has grown rapidly using the Berlusconi model of featuring sports, game shows, good looking, under-dressed women and right-wing slanted, sensationalist news. While Murdoch never entered the politically fray personally (he was after all, an Australian by birth) his political influence has been enormous. The more obvious disciple of Berlusconi at this moment would be Donald Trump. He got his start as a real estate developer and then moved into the entertainment business, much like the original, except for Silvio’s early start in show business. Both men are widely regarded as rude and obnoxious but admired, by some, for their business acumen, as well as for their outspoken manner. They both tend to objectify women and inspire the wrath of feminists everywhere, although both have appointed women, usually young and attractive, to positions of influence. Berlusconi rose to power despite objections over his conflicts of interest. While conflict of interest has never been a concept much contemplated in Italy, it was a subject of serious concern in the US a few decades back. In steamrolling the concept, he seems to have made conflict of interest into an absolute non-issue for all candidates everywhere, including those running in current US elections.
Beppe Grillo
8. Beppe Grillo- While Mark Twain and W.C. Fields are still remembered, the politicians they verbally skewered have mostly disappeared into the trash heap of history. Comics such as Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor all were funny but with a political edge. Recently, Americans have taken to getting their news and politically commentary from comedians like Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and John Oliver, who they trust more than the main stream media. Trusted or not, none of them have started a political movement or a party. Beppe Grillo is just one of many talented Italian comedians with a sharp eye for politics. His profane anger resembles that of George Carlin, and unsatisfied with merely conducting a perpetual rant, he has created his own political movement from scratch, much as did Berlusconi. For legal reasons, he is ineligible to run for office himself. He has a very different constituency, not unlike that of Bernie Sanders. Coming out of nowhere, his Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle or M5S) has taken off like a rocket, upsetting all the political pundits, parties and leaders. His movement calls for the reduction of political salaries and perks, and is based on a list of five stellar issues: public water; sustainable transport; sustainable development; the right to internet access, and environmentalism. The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, is from the M5S.
PM Renzi
9. Matteo Renzi- Head of the Partito Democratico and Prime Minister for 2-1/2 years, Renzi probably should not be on this list of Italian political innovators since he closely follows the pattern established by Bettino Craxi, described above. However, he seems to be taking that model to a whole new level. His party started life as the Partito Comunista Italiana (PCI) and some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall decided that it might be more diplomatic to change its name, so it became the PDS, the Democratic Party of the Left. As the winds of change blew from the right, the PDS shed its skin again and became the PD, Partito Democratico. Renzi is currently pushing a referendum to revise the Constitution, eliminating one chamber of Parliament and replacing the constitution with one devised by JP Morgan, with the assistance of Tony Blair and the full backing of Barrack Obama. Renzi has pledged support for their pet democracy-ending scheme, the TTIP (the European version of the TTP). It only remains to be seen when the party will drop the D from the PD. What’s next, the P? Or perhaps the Partito Unificato (PU)?

Andreotti

De Mita
Bossi

Spadolini

















10. At the risk of offending feminists out there, I’d like to end this piece on a much needed cheerful note. Thirty or forty years ago, Italian politicians were almost all old, male and remarkably unpleasant to behold, sometimes even more painful to hear, regardless of their political orientation or their effectiveness. Perhaps it is part of the Berlusconi legacy but in the past decade, there has been a trend, across the political spectrum, to see attractive and often intelligent young women holding political office. Whether or not this will improve the performance of government is yet to be known but what is certain is that the political shows on TV will be less painful to watch. Will the US once again follow Italian trends and make Tulsi Gabbard president in 2020?
Minister Maria Elena Boschi
Mayor Virginia Raggi

Gabbard for President 2020

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Race to the White House

While I am a big sports fan, I confess I’ve never been able to generate much enthusiasm for bicycle racing. However, I do vaguely recall watching on TV some indoor banked track races, perhaps at an Olympic games competition. The singular quality of those races was that nobody appeared to want to win the race. The cyclists meandered along, as slowly as possible, watching to make sure that no one else started to move quickly. Eventually someone started to move and then the chase was on in the dash to the finish.

As the American presidential marathon grinds to an end, I am reminded of such races. Like the Olympics, the World Cup and the European Cup, this competition is held every four years, and as with those other contests, the qualifying events get started soon after the competition declares its current winners.


The presidential primary races got off to the same slow start as the cycling contests, with a huge field of competitors idling along, burning through campaign contributions while generating absolutely no momentum. Jeb Bush blew through $100 million in sponsorship deals without ever accelerating to more than a walk. He spent the most but he was not alone in never getting to the point where the race speeds up. Unlike the bikers, the political aspirants did not all share the same discipline. Donald Trump peddled to the front of the pack and started to pull away immediately, to the chagrin of both the other competitors and the sports press, who had all considered him a non-contender. His bike carried a bullhorn and he yelled “losers” to the audiences as he hurled his water bottles in the faces of the attending fans. None of the other bikers ever caught up and they got together later to agree that this was no way to run a race. His triumph was like no bicyclist in memory. Trump’s victory inspired reactions closer to those generated by Sonny Liston when he was boxing’s heavyweight champion: fear, grudging respect and a desperate wish to see someone eliminate him from the scene.















In the other heat, Hillary Clinton started very slowly but having friends on the competition committee, not to mention all the sponsors, she started three laps ahead of the others in a six lap race. The NYT and the WaPo sent race tracking vehicles to report on her every move, unmindful of the fact that they were blocking the track for other competitors. The TV reporters wearily, though happily enough, reported on her uncontested glide to victory, even as Bernie Sanders unlapped himself time after time as his ride generated double or triple the speed of the preordained champion. With the competition committee hurling sticks at his wheels, his final sprint fell short.
a race gone wrong

We have now moved on to the final race. The race to the White House. The media have done their part to assure that the race is unsullied by any mention of issues, freeing the track for a perfect race based on the character, or lack thereof, of the two approved contenders. Thus it will be Team Blue versus Team Red; the establishment Democrat, vilified by the opposition as a lying, traitorous, liberal, corrupt, greedy, opportunistic criminal against the non-Establishment Republican, vilified by the opposition, along with most of the MSM and much of the Republican Establishment, as being a shallow, dangerously ignorant, corrupt narcissistic boor with the emotional development of a small abused child and the personality of an eighth grade bully.


Hillary Clinton emerged from the Democratic Convention with a bump in the polls and the endorsement of her vanquished rival, Bernie Sanders. She extracted the latter by modifying the platform to bring it slightly more in line with democratic values, such as support for a higher minimum wage. Earlier, in response to similar pressure she had changed her position from pro to anti-TPP. However, just as she started to pull far ahead, she nominated Tom Keane, the former Governor and Senator from Virginia as her Vice-presidential choice. Tom Keane is by all accounts, a nice man with an admirable record as a civil rights lawyer. However, his two most recent public utterances prior to his nomination were in support of TPP and more banking deregulation, arguably the two most vital issues in this election year. (We must admit that issues count for even less than vice presidential candidates in presidential elections.) This came as a dagger to the heart of the small but energetic democratic wing of the Democratic Party.

Donald Trump was not to be outdone. Shunned at the Republican Convention by the GOP leaders (the Bush family stayed away en masse) and ridiculed in the press, he saw a chance to pick up support from angry Democrats and he quickly maneuvered out of that situation by picking Indiana Governor Mike Pence from the scarier realms of the twilight zone. Pence is best known for saying:
  • smoking does not cause death.
  • Climate change is a hoax,
  • a HIV testing center in his state must be closed,
  • he would give personhood status to embryos, and
  • he would keep Syrian refugees out of his state.
A persistent theme emerged arguing that Trump had really never wanted to be president but simply sought to inflate coverage of his name and his brand. Michael Moore made the most compelling case for this scenario but he was not alone. Moore had also written that Trump would win and why.  For a time it seemed that a total blowout was in the works and Trump would be the biggest loser in history.. Matt Taibbi stated convincingly that the race was over but was being prolonged by the media to boost TV ratings. At about the same time, Hillary’s ratings started to plummet and Matt had to wonder what the hell was going on.

People had once again underestimated Clinton’s capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of landslide victory. The Keane nomination had been tone deaf but she followed it by naming former Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar as her transition chief, and thus a top advisor, in her new administration. For the uninitiated, Ken Salazar was the poster boy for corporate rapaciousness with regard to the environment. He never saw a proposal to clear cut a forest or sell off government lands that he didn’t like. She followed that with her own Mitt Romney moment. Mitt had sealed his fate in 2012 by claiming that the 47% of Americans who didn’t pay income taxes (because they didn’t have sufficient income to be taxed) were parasites. Hillary thought, and foolishly said, that half of Trump’s supporters were “the basket of deplorables”, i.e. racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic. She may have been objectively correct, unless she underestimated the percentages, but it was not a politically correct or even politically clever thing to say.

All conventional wisdom would suggest that this would be a landslide election, even if Clinton is an unpopular candidate to a degree without precedent. She has done amazing things to alienate voters,from her failures as Secretary of State to her gaming the primary, but nothing like Trump. He started off last year by insulting everything and everyone that the Republican Party has venerated for the past three or four decades. He has insulted people of every identifiable racial, religious or ethnic group and lately has taken to suggesting the appointment of people to high office that in another time, when there where more institutions available for the mentally troubled, would not have been permitted out on the street. To be fair to Trump, he was the only Republican candidate who said that Americans need Social Security and need to have access to health care. However to counter allegations of sanity, he came up with a tax plan as deranged as anything that Paul Ryan could conjure. When serial sexual abuser Roger Ailes was ousted as chief of Fox News, he was immediately signed up as an advisor to the Trump campaign. Insulting a couple who had lost their son in military action would have appeared to be a sure path for Trump’s exit from the race but no, Donald Trump seems to be unable to lose support, no matter what he does or says. Many people are so disgusted by the political process, by what government has become and what it has done to the country that they would prefer to see it implode rather than see the status quo given new life.
David Bossie

Peter Thiel
Roger Ailes




If indeed, this is a race to see who can lose, Hillary Clinton has an ace up her sleeve. She has tied her campaign to continuing the legacy of Barrack Obama. That legacy is spiraling downhill fast, as Obama campaigns ceaselessly for TPP, the “trade policy” designed to end all legislative democracy throughout the world in favor of corporate rule. Tying her candidacy to him is about as astute as Trump accepting the support of former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke but conventional wisdom, or any wisdom at all, seems to have no bearing on this race.

Another race comes to mind. At the Indianapolis 500 in 2011, a rookie, JR Hildebrand, led the race on the final lap, to everyone’s surprise. He was trailed by another driver, Dan Wheldon, who was also not expected to be in contention. On the final curve of the final lap, Hildebrand lost control of his car , crashed into the wall, slid along the straightaway to the finish line just after Wheldon had slipped by for the win. Will we see something like that? Who is leading? Who will crash?


This race cannot and will not end well. Someone must lose and either way, it will be us, the public. Our best hope is that the country, and the world, will survive for four years and have another chance to set things right.