Hate building has a long history, far longer than I can even remember personally. Hitler eventually murdered millions of Jews and others but not before he roused most of the populace of his highly developed country to hate the Jews and blame them for the country’s woes. Mao did much the same in his campaign to eliminate the Chinese professional and intellectual classes. The German campaign was reciprocated in the US by demonizing the Axis leaders. It’s difficult to fight a war successfully if you can’t get your people to hate the enemy. Sometimes it’s easier than other times. Hitler made it easy. Not to win the war but to summon the will, the determination, and the sense of sacrifice to fight to the end.
Tuesday, March 1, 2022
Wednesday, February 9, 2022
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Wednesday, May 5, 2021
I have kept a diary for some sixty-two or sixty-three years. That’s about 22,000 short pages. Why? Basically, for two reasons. In college I realized that we knew almost everything that famous people such as Winston Churchill or FDR did every day of their adult lives but that often I couldn’t remember what I had done the week before, or even the day before. We only have one life to live and if we don’t remember living it, who will? Does a tree falling in a forest make a sound if there’s nobody there to see it or hear it fall?
Another reason was that it seemed to me that my parents had never been young, that is, my age, so I wanted to record what I did and thought at the time so that when I got older and would have my own children, I would retain some insight of what it was like to be their age. Was it worth the trouble? I think so. When I want to write about something in my earlier life, I can find times and dates and details that would not exist otherwise. As for me relating to my children’s lives and times, the result has been less clear. Sometimes I have the impression that they remember their own youthful attitudes less well than I remember mine.
Besides the diary, I’ve written a lot while I was working, from building specifications to reports, letters and schedules. In the nearly two decades since I was last gainfully employed, I’ve had more time to write what I want, and when I want, which is usually when I should be sleeping. If I kept a pen and paper next to my bed, perhaps I’d be a prolific writer but I have to rely on my memory carrying over to morning when I can write down what seemed so clear during the night. It doesn’t always work and is probably an unhealthy way to live but I’m not the only person to be able to think better in bed than during the day’s routine.
Over fifty years ago I married a lovely Italian with great language skills. We have always spoken English with each other and her insistence on precision and her curiosity about the meaning of words has helped my English more than any school ever did. However, when we had children, we agreed that I would refrain from speaking Italian with them to avoid corrupting their Italian and retarding their learning of English. This led to limited verbal communication with them, since at mealtimes conversation would be in Italian and I would remain both silent and sometimes out of the loop altogether. Perhaps this pushed me into writing more. Now the process is repeating itself all over again with grandchildren, who are scattered in three countries.
Technology has brought us incredible advances in communications possibilities. We have Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp and other similar apps which can connect us, usually at no cost, to anyone anywhere in the world. It’s wonderful but during the covid pandemic we’ve learned both the advantages and the limitations of all this connectivity. Group meetings can be a disaster. It’s nice to see people and hear their voices but when there are more than two voices it isn’t long before none are really heard and a frustrating chaos ensues.
Communication possibilities change all the time. On the downside, my hearing, like that of many of my peers, has gotten worse over time. Hearing aids help but along with audial decline, my Italian language skills, never good in the best of times, continue to atrophy. Whatever language they speak, children speak differently among themselves than they do with adults. For that matter, many sub-groups do the same. Slang is developed to exclude outsiders and create a bond with a reduced group of insiders with similar attitudes, age, identities or whatever else they think they have in common. If your mother tongues are different, the isolating effect is magnified. I mention slang as an agent of exclusion, but professional jargon is much the same. It keeps the layman out. Architects, doctors, lawyers, art dealers and investment advisors all do it, not so much as to eliminate communication as to maintain their superior status. When overdone, communication does fail.
Recently, the sister of my American son-in-law described in her own blog the difficulty of learning the younger generation’s elaborate standards of etiquette for texting shortcuts and emoji use. Her children are beyond college age so I was perplexed. Why would a fully grown and articulate person bother to try to understand the wilful subversion of language by people seeking to limit their communication to their peers?
With my American grandchildren, it is lovely to see and hear them so easily from across the ocean but the group nature of the electronic connections limits communication largely to waving and smiling. My English grandson is remarkably erudite for his age and uninhibited in speaking. However, he speaks with an accent used mostly by the Queen and people in certain parts of Westminster and Chelsea, which together with his pre-adolescent voice, largely in frequencies which my hearing aids try to augment, sometimes make our vocal exchanges as difficult as those with the Italian grandchildren, mumbling in Italian childspeak. Their Italian is virtually incomprehensible to me, and sometimes even to their parents, but ironically, when they speak in English, they are far easier to understand than their English cousin. George Bernard Shaw is usually credited with saying that the English and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language although Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell and Dylan Thomas all expressed similar sentiments. People tend to forget it but the English colonized the US before the industrial revolution and the languages in each place have evolved separately ever since.
For many centuries, records of what went on in the world were kept in libraries. Andrew Carnegie became as famous for all the libraries he built as for how he made all the money used for them in the first place. Many of those have survived but many have been repurposed. Libraries everywhere are struggling and often being defunded. What will happen to the society’s collective memory? Will Google keep everything?
That brings us back to computers. Within my family we have differences of opinion there almost as strong as in politics, except that the alliances are reshuffled. In the past few decades there has been a duopoly in computer software as absolute as the monopolies over a hundred years ago of Standard Oil and US Steel. The proprietary systems of Microsoft and Apple have dominated everything. Recently Android has moved in on cell phones, creating autocompletion nightmares even worse than those of its predecessors. Open systems essentially refer to Linux, which is used by few people but by many, if not most, governments. Public agencies, such as NASA, cannot afford to be tied to one dominant monopolistic company. The battles of Facebook and Apple begin to be reminiscent of the battles between streetcar producers and the car and tire companies a century ago. As then, it’s usually the public that loses.
The systemic divisions are reflected in those of many families, whose members go with the system they prefer. Microsoft and Apple have been forced by economics to make compromises with each other and with other systems to avoid the sort of fiasco we witnessed a few decades back with video systems. I still have many videos in the Betamax format which I haven’t seen since they lost the competition with VHS. Will half of our computers also go extinct soon?
Many Apple users love their devices despite, or maybe because of, their very high prices. Microsoft dominates much of the market but seems more willing to collaborate to maintain its dominance. I find Linux simpler and easier to use but it requires a computer expert to keep it updated and there are few of them around. I certainly don’t qualify. The grandchildren show promise but will they learn anything more than Microsoft wants them to know? Will any of them want to devote their lives to studying the workings of computer operating systems?
How the collected wisdom of the world is to be preserved is beyond my grasp but within families and groups of friends, the sharing and storing of data will continue to be a problem with so many incompatible programs already in existence and more emerging every day. We will have to learn to be versatile and knowledgeable with regard to all the systems, their defects and limitations. Our many devices can now be synchronized but what happens when the sync doesn’t work? Who do we ask, Google, Apple or Microsoft, or is it up to the browser? It doesn’t really matter. Nobody is listening. A website will put you in touch with other members of the public who may be able to offer advice, as well as asking “was this article helpful?”.
When computer use and the internet got going on a wide scale, it seemed to be mostly about the sharing of information. Increasingly it appears to be driven by advertising and entertainment and the sharing of information sometimes means texting people who are standing right behind you instead of turning around and talking to them. The sharing and saving of information, other than that by government security agencies and advertisers, seems to have withered away. Sharing cat and dog videos can be enjoyable and perhaps we may even be helped somehow by governments knowing our whereabouts but how many books can be stored with the same number of bites as yesterday’s forgotten phone video of us waving from the Eiffel Tower.
If the i-clouds and our computers are all full of selfies and the libraries are all turned into discos or restaurants, where will the books go? Maybe it’s time for the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt, the trustbuster, to appear and make his presence felt. The monopolies have gotten out of control again.
Sunday, February 21, 2021
Do people make a name for themselves, no matter the name, for example a John Smith, or do they grow into their name. We all receive a name at birth but we can shape it or change it. Most movie stars had fake names that somebody in marketing thought sounded better. A young man in the Midwest named Frank Wright called himself Frank Lloyd Wright by inserting an old family name in the middle and went on to become the best and most famous architect in the world. Talent drove all that but it included the talent to design his own name.
James Earl Carter, Jr., with exaggerated American informality, went by Jimmy and was elected President of the US, a trend continued by Bill and now Joe. No George would go by Georgie and Barry never caught on for Barack but little George was often called Shrub.
I was named Robert, the most popular name in the US for eleven straight years and I took it as an offense, as though a coin had been flipped and it could only be Robert or Richard. Worse still, I was called Bobby, Bob and Tubby, all horrible although the latter was also weird since I was a skinny kid. It could have been worse; nobody wants to be called a dick.
Eventually I learned that I had been named after both an uncle who had died as a child and a great-grandfather who had emigrated from Prussia to avoid the on-going wars of the Kaiser, only to find himself in the US as young men were being conscripted to fight in the Civil War. You could pay someone to take your place in that war, which he did, making him a trans-oceanic double draft dodger. We apparently had more in common than our name, both of us seeking a better life across the pond. He was a dyer in a silk mill mixing colors, something I have done all my life in a different context and he brought beer home in a bucket from the brewery. I haven’t done that but the affinity is there and yes, I was told that I even looked like him, except he was bald. Robert Kinner, I’m proud to bear your name.
Name changes, whether self-chosen or imposed, may bring advantages such as pronounceability, simplicity or familiarity but they risk a loss of historic richness and traceability. One side of my family was named Meyer and they were from the Netherlands. Only in recent years when I tried to find out more about their origins did I learn that Meyer is not a Dutch name and that their name in Holland was almost certainly Meijer. It would be an easy mistake for immigration authorities, or any bureaucrats, to make.
As a fan of Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali throughout his career and life, I was disappointed when he changed his name. For perspective on that event I recommend the fine new film, “One Night in Miami”. Many Americans were unhappy, most of them because he was changing to a Muslim name. I could understand that under the circumstances but the new name seemed super generic whereas Cassius Marcellus Clay dripped with historic reference, from ancient Rome to Louisville, his birthplace. It also sounded good. Few people anywhere start life with such a rich name.
We all have our preferences in names. I happen to like Roman names, perhaps because I live in Italy, as well as the fact that they usually denote sex, a function currently out of favor.Like so many Americans, I have recently been caught up in some name controversies, owing to the fact that I am a graduate of Washington & Lee University. The school started in a small building on the back campus and was known as Liberty Hall Academy in the mid 1700’s. Years later, George Washington endowed the school with money that continues to help the University, which had become Washington College. At the end of the Civil War Robert E. Lee was pardoned by President Lincoln for his role in leading the Confederate Army, and he spent the remaining five years of his life as president of the college, setting the curriculum and standards and bringing the school back to life after the long and devastating war. For that he was honored after his death by renaming the school Washington & Lee University.
Recently I was shocked to discover that there was a movement afoot to change the name of the school and that a majority of both students and faculty favored a change. A majority of alumni did not. I’ve been shocked by almost everything going on in the USA for the past two decades, with the shock growing out of control over the past four or five years so the “little” controversy in Lexington sort of went unnoticed here in Italy. Several major committees were formed to study the issue and reports were issued.
When I was an undergraduate, there were no black students. That was unfortunate but it was also the norm in the South, part of the nation’s tragic legacy of slavery. There were also no women, which was part of the reason I went there, having seen what being in class with a lot of teenage girls had done for my academic performance in high school. Diversity is now an unexamined and ill-defined cliché in American life but it struck me that there was a lot of diversity in the student body in those days. There were rich and poor, southerners and northerners and people with many different interests and ambitions. The Dean of Students knew all 1000 students by their first names and he guided us in imparting a sense of community. The student body now has grown to 1800, less than double what it had been. There are now students of all colors, ethnicities, nationalities and religions. Is there more diversity? On the surface it would appear so but more than half enrolling students now come from private schools so how deep is that diversity? There is now a five-member Office of Inclusion and Engagement, all ministering to a number of specialized sub-groups. Dean Gilliam assured a high degree of inclusion. For sure, certain non-fraternity kids in my day may have felt excluded from some of campus life but with the new Office of advisors to the fragmented identity groups of the student body, how much less inclusive must the place feel?
However, I digress. This started out as a discussion of the importance of names. With all the studies and calls for name change, the one thing never mentioned is what is to be changed and what name/s would be the alternative? Is Lee the offending name or must Washington go too. Both were southerners and both owned slaves. Some commenters have focused on Lee being a traitor, turning against his country. He did not favor secession but he was a Virginian and would not fight against his own people. He may have been guilty of sedition but the president of the US pardoned him upon surrender. Washington also engaged in sedition and had he not won his war, would probably have been hanged as a traitor by the King he led a a war of independence against.Having heard no suggestions for an alternate name in any of the solicited comments, I’ve tried to come up with a few on my own. Given that it all started with the Liberty Hall Academy, Liberty University would have a nice ring to it along with some historic resonance. Unfortunately, Jerry Falwell got there about thirty years ago with his ever-expanding right-wing holy roller university in Lynchburg. His less holy son now runs it and being a businessman open to every sort of deal, might be open to letting W&L become a regional affiliate, let’s say Liberty University Lexington, or LUL for short. Would that appeal to alumni donors or student applicants? They would have to answer that. Another option would be to go by a semi-secret name, “Woke and Libertine University”, which could avoid making obsolete all the W&LU gear already stocked and sold in the college book shop.
That the faculty in what I remember as a first-rate liberal arts college could advocate the rewriting of history is disappointing but given that liberal arts curriculums are being deemphasized for more entrepreneurial and vocational training, we shouldn’t be too surprised. It’s all about money now.
The origins of the uproar seem to have been generated by the presumed discomfort of black students having to live amongst reminders of the racist past. Some say they feel that deeply and are disturbed while others are not. Lee died a century and a half ago which raises the point of where and when do we develop an acceptance of history. I remember the first time I visited Rome and was entranced by walking between buildings that had stood in the same place for two thousand years. For centuries the Romans had slaughtered Christians or fed them to lions as entertainment. But I, who had been brought up as a Christian, felt no sense of horror or outrage. Maybe because the Christians had eventually taken over Rome, or perhaps because I’m just naturally insensitive. When I got to the segregated W&L I felt more or less the same lack of outrage and I’ve never been able to muster much anger over the founding fathers’ failure to eliminate slavery two centuries before I arrived on the scene with my own moral failings.
What about now? If students are agitated about centuries old symbols of oppression, how do they live with what’s been going on now. The ex-president has been making racist statements and doing racist acts non-stop for four years. I realize that the epidemic of police killings of people of color has created fear and bitterness but is it all to be unleashed on the ghost of Robert E. Lee? In 2003 our then president, after a build-up to war based on a foundation of orchestrated lies, attacked and destroyed a country of twenty-three million people which had nothing whatever to do with our problems or with the 9/11 attack on the WTC and the Pentagon. Today’s students were just being born then but what about the agitated young faculty? Rather than advocate for destruction of historic names and relics, what have they been doing to strip that president, who unlike Lee, is still alive, of all honors, pensions and benefits. I would aim a little higher and push for a trial but trials in the US haven’t been going well lately. The American “leadership” couldn’t even muster the courage to convict the recent occupant of the WH after he incited of riot of his more violent followers to cancel the presidential election in which he had just been voted out of office. What are our sensitive students and faculty doing to correct such horrors?
Is this a southern thing? Yes, the South was built on slavery, but slavery was legal throughout the US in its early days. We’ve mentioned the lives and contributions of Lee and Washington but the founder of Yale, Elihu Yale, was a British-American merchant and slave trader who was affiliated with the East India Company, an entity the American Revolutionaries were fighting against every bit as much as King George. What will be the new name of Yale, East Ivy University?
Some names leave a major imprint. Washington is one of the biggest. Our capital is Washington DC, Washington is also a state and many educational institutions bear that name. Another is Columbus and the related term Columbia, as in District of Columbia. That appears on the banishment list too just as many of the people trying to change our university’s name hope to see DC become a state. I hope they succeed but how do they push statehood for a place named after two “unacceptable” historic figures? With most of history to be cancelled, do we just use numbers identify places and institutions?My wife and I always wanted to have a child named Tiberio, the Italianized form of the name of the Emperor Tiberius. We both like the name, the sound of it, and maybe the fact that that he was associated with Capri, one of the most beautiful places in Italy. Still, he was a nasty piece of work, though an effective general and good administrator. He remained in power as Emperor for much longer than most of the people who followed him. When he felt that his underlings were becoming a threat to his control, unlike the recent American would-be dictator, he didn’t fire them or insult them; he just had them killed. He could fairly be described as a cross between Charles Manson and Jeffrey Epstein. Nasty fellow but we still like his name. Two thousand years is a long time. Maybe it’s time to deal with the issues of the day and lighten up a little about figures of the distant past.
Friday, February 5, 2021
Sunday, November 29, 2020
What went wrong? Oh yes, the monster has been routed, whether he agrees to go quietly into the night or not. He even pre-announced his intention of not accepting his own firing. The abject cowardice of his obsequious Congressional enablers is more troubling. The man has trashed all national and international standards of decency, morality, honesty and diplomacy while showing nothing but contempt for science and the rule of law. That he would be removed was largely a foregone conclusion, but beyond that, how do you explain what would otherwise be a Republican victory?
The paid punditry has rushed in to say that it was the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that pushed too far left. Rubbish!! The Democratic Party is now significantly to the right of Richard Nixon's Republican Party of fifty years ago. The absurdity of the pundits' claim was best seen in Florida where the voters went for Trump by a sizable margin on the same ballot that they supported a referendum mandating a $15./hour minimum wage, a policy opposed by the entire GOP, as well as by Biden, the corporate Democrats and the oligarchy.
After wondering how a man who. inspires so much undiluted disgust could remain in contention in a national election, I realized that anyone so hated by the Establishment would automatically prove popular to a sizable portion of the populace. Americans have always had a soft spot for renegades, criminals and other outrageous characters, from Billy the Kid and Bonnie and Clyde to the boys from Enron and Michael Milken.
Thinking further back, way back, to my own adolescence, I recalled the times I went to exhibitions of pro wrestling where I loudly cheered on the nefarious deeds of the villains and reveled in the shock I induced in the dim but sentimental matrons in attendance. The rebellious spirit of my inner brat did not readily fall in line with fake establishment heroes and the sight of John Wayne in any movie filled me with contempt. My cinematic heroes at the time ran to type-cast knife wielders such as Jack Palance, Henry Silva and Charles Bronson. Who knows how I avoided growing up to be one of the Proud Boys?
While some of our youthful enthusiasms live on into old age, usually adolescent rebellion is overcome with time. Not always. In all those pick-up trucks trying to run a Biden campaign bus off the road in Texas, it seems like there were a lot of sixty-year-old adolescents brandishing their guns and their battle flags.
No aspect of the GOP strategy is more central to its success than its ability to provoke the prolongation of adolescent rebellion in its electorate, all in unwitting service to the oligarchy. The "you can't take our guns" of these aging dudes sounds exactly the same, in tone and emotional intensity, as the bleating lament of our entitled fifteen-year-olds, " you can't take my iphone!".
Identity politics has nearly killed the Democratic Party. We hear over and over that white people will soon be a minority. Nobody wants to hear this except some people who identify with a minority which has no chance of ever becoming a majority. We may vary in complexion, language, ethnicity and traditions, but we're all one big complicated family. Family life can be difficult at times but denying the bond is not the answer. The Republican Party has shamelessly magnified our differences to foster hatred and contempt in order to maintain minority control of the government but Democrats, whether from misguided idealism or simple stupidity, have jumped at the bait, continuing to foster racist terminology, dividing people into arbitrary categories, serving no purpose other than making us lose sight of our common interests.
Following the election, this phenomenon reached comic depths as Kamala Harris was heralded as the first woman of color, the first Asian American and the first African American* to ever be elected to the vice presidency. She already brought a lot of identities to the table and she even has a seldom mentioned Jewish husband.
* Her father was Jamaican. Does that count extra, or a little less, given the size of the island?
In an earlier post here about five years ago, I decided that I would not run for public office, no matter how good the perks. While probably seen by others as a WASP, I tend to reject such classification. My family was mostly Dutch, of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed faith, and I've felt little in common with the real WASPS, the British, whom I hold responsible for everything from colonialism to overcooked beef to the lack of of mixing taps in household bathroom fixtures.
Had I not renounced any political candidacy, what would my political identity be? Religion and national origin were clearly of no help. However, since early childhood I've always been a Boston Red Sox fan and since adolescence a LA Rams fan. Although I haven't seen a baseball game for several decades, I still identify as a Red Sox fan. Would that bring me political support? Some people who might agree with my political positions might also be NY Yankees fans or SF 49ers fans. Worse yet, I fear some Red Sox fans might even be in the MAGA camp.
The "racial" categories commonly used by pollsters and the media in the US are white, black and Hispanic, the latter term sometimes being exchanged with Latino, or even the mysterious and totally confusing "Latinx". The European Union has made some headway in defusing the resentments that have divided the Germans, the French, Greeks, Scandinavians and the Italians over centuries, but if if weren't for Bill Clinton, the affable Irish would still be killing each other over the family religion. If Europeans have had so much trouble getting their act together, what can we expect from the Spanish speakers from all over the world? Do Battista Cubans, a powerful force in the politics of Florida and New Jersey, identify as people of color? Do they have anything in common with people fleeing rape and murder carried out by CIA-backed regimes in Central America?
Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish sociologist, studied race in the US in the 1940's and concluded that while Americans persisted in seeing race as a binary distinction between black and white, something like 80% of the what is known as the black community was actually made up of a combination of black and white ancestry. That was seventy-five years ago. By now, both the black and white gene pools have been spiced up by infusions of genes from other minorities that we weren't even aware of seventy-five years ago.
While it may be in vogue for politicians liker Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and even Elizabeth Warren to identify themselves as women of color, they are doing no favor to democracy or the Democratic Party. I'm sure that they meant no harm so let's bail them out. We're all people of color. I'm sort of a jaundiced pink myself. Just don't make me a part of any sallow pink voting block.
The character of a candidate and the candidate's position on the issues were traditionally the basis of election choices although how your father voted and how well you got along with him may have had a more tangible effect.
Over the past four years the concept of "character" has been erased from public discourse. In theory issues should therefore matter more than ever. In this election year there were two issues of overriding importance: climate change, and the rapidly expanding gap between rich and poor. After Jay Inslee was out of the race, climate change was barely mentioned again, although our grandchildren's future is very much in play. Once the Establishment had crushed the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, discussion of the wealth gap was off limits and the election devolved into a referendum on the unfitness of Mr. Trump to occupy high office, in effect, a national impeachment referendum to supersede the failed effort in Congress. Once again, the public was out ahead of the Senate. Issues played even less a part than did the abandoned concept of character.
There were and are many other issues about which people can disagree, sometimes with great passion and conviction. Most of them will not determine the survival of the planet, the civilization or the country but they will continue to be a basis for political discussion, activism, compromise and legislation. A quick. and partial list of such concerns might include:
Abortion, Anti-trust laws, Border control, Campaign finance, Capital punishment, Corruption, Deficit spending, Drug legalization, Environmental protection, For profit prisons, Fracking, Free speech, Free Trade, Gerrymandering, Gun control, Immigration, Law and Order vs rights to protest, LBGT rights, Military deployment, Military spending, Parental rights, Press freedom, Public Education, Single payer health care, Student loans, Taxation, Voter suppression, Whistle blower protection.
Articles and books have been written advocating different positions on all of these topics. Many of the issues, such as those related to health care and education, are simply derivatives of the major problem of the great economic divide.
Unfortunately, the DNC made fundamentally the same mistakes in 2020 as it had in 2016. Real issues were downplayed or banned from discussion. The candidate selection was just as rigged as the last time except that instead of the Establishment candidate being crowned from the start, his triumph had to be hastily arranged after a panic attack brought on by an unacceptably democratic candidate becoming the surprise (to the DNC) frontrunner. Aided by the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Establishment triumph was engineered in South Carolina, a state which went on to fully back Trump and the worse of his minions in the general election.
Voters had had four years to see that Trump was not just a colorful renegade but a dangerous sociopath whose incompetence was killing hundreds of thousands of people, while Joe Biden was promoted as a nice man, less bloodthirsty than Hillary Clinton, but still capable of bringing a nostalgic return to the normalcy that voters rejected in 2016. Biden is in fact likable. Not many politicians can sustain long political careers without having some sort of innate likability. (There are always rare exceptions such as Mitch McConnell). Biden supported the illegal invasion of Iraq and virtually every other policy favoring corporations over people but then, so did most of the other people in Congress, and some of them have no likability component whatsoever.
One might have expected that the outrages of Trump would have led to the dissolution of the Republican Party but alas, the Democratic Party refused to unlearn its skill at shooting itself in the foot. Not only has it adhered to the divisive ways of racially charged politics, it has informally established a "litmus test" of officially approved positions of the Democratic Party. Many of these policies have been attributed to the "progressive wing" of the party but all the original candidates payed lip service to the approved dogma. Ironically, the progressive candidates, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and a few more, kept their eye on the ball and concentrated of the two big issues of the day. Meanwhile, the Establishment candidates, from Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete to Beto O'Rourke and a dozen more tended to focus on identity politics, abortion rights and gender denial while pushing aside any talk of universal health care or a living wage as being too radical for America.
The new dogma of the DNC centers on a number of philosophic or even theological givens which we don't recall ever being discussed or debated anywhere. One is the divine status of "diversity" as an absolute good. Is diversity a value to be cherished, a goal to be achieved or simply a fact of existence? What constitutes diversity? Those questions received even less attention than climate change.
Another resolves around "rights". Rights have been fought for and expanded over recent centuries and often described as "God given rights" even by people who did not acknowledge the existence of God. The Declaration of Independence was a prime example and we should all be grateful for the audacious use of this linguistic device. There is a danger in such usage, in that whatever some of us may claim, none of us has a direct line to God, even with the development of Skype and WhatsApp. We must be careful when dealing with theological absolutists, whether they be Texas evangelists supporting genocide so that Christ can safely return to the Middle East, pious souls who place the birth rights of fetuses above all other human concerns, or entitled secular teens whose divine right to health care must include free, confidential and unfettered access to abortion, genital mutilation, methadone and whatever other new need comes on-line.
Terminology has its limits. "Liberal" in Europe usually means laissez faire economic policy, i.e. the lack of taxes and regulations, while in the US it has more social connotations, a sort of soft libertarianism with a strong dose of live and let live. With the country and the world facing a dramatic shift toward neo-feudalism, live and let live just wasn't cutting it so progressives and populists came to the fore, pushing for real change. Trump rode this wave to the White House, where he proved to be a complete fraud, dissipating and stealing public resources and subsidizing the oligarchy while oppressing and insulting the needy at every opportunity.
On the other side, real populists have lost their way, opting for binary racist terminology, despite albinos, the real white people, being even more rare in the human community than transgendered people, while rejecting the more tangible binary distinction between people born male or female.
Worse still, the authoritarian mindset of some of the progressives emerged at just the most inopportune moment. While liberal coastal city dwellers may be aghast at the perceived menace of gun-totin' Proud Boys at provincial Trump rallies doing convincing reenactments, complete with recycled Nazi and Confederate symbols, of Nazi mass gatherings in the Germany of the 1930's, they seem oblivious of the fears of many people throughout the country of a "Democratic regime" intent, not only on taking away their guns, but on making unapproved speech a punishable crime.
Protest against genocide is now a crime in California and other liberal states if the genocide is carried out by a nation considered a favored ally. LBGT issues are no longer a liberal matter of live and live let but an activist campaign of indoctrination of children, opposition to which can lose you your job, your business or even your children.
I can't imagine many voters refusing to vote for Democrats out of fear of having affordable health care being imposed of them but I can imagine some being so appalled by hearing of college students demanding safe zones on campus where they can't be exposed to ideas that might make them uncomfortable, that they would consider Trump and cohorts less dangerous than anyone backing such concepts.
Much of our future, if we survive the pandemic, will depend on the actions of a few people, starting with Joe Biden. More than on Biden, our political future may rest with the people of Georgia, led by the resilient Stacey Abrams. If they can replicate their November success, and the insider trading duo of David Perdue and Kelly (Marie Antoniette) Loeffler can be sent to their gilded early retirement, there may yet be hope for the country. It is not a given. Koch Industries is sparing no expense to crush such hopes.
In my youth there was talk of a New South. It's late but maybe now's the time.
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Saturday, October 31, 2020
We are hoping to overcome the coronavirus. What about the corruption virus? Corruption is as old as the human race but it affects some of us more than others. Growing up in an American suburb, I had little awareness of corruption in government. We heard stories of big city political machines, Tammany Hall in New York, the Hague Machine in Jersey City and others around the country but they were something that affected other people. In high school and college history classes, the subject rarely came up except in reference to the administration of Warren Harding. I had a very old uncle from Ohio who had been a friend of Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State. This well respected uncle had a graduate degree from Harvard and spent his life as Superintendent of Schools in Paterson, NJ. He surprised me by speaking of his admiration for Warren Harding, another Ohio native, who I mostly knew about from the Teapot Dome scandal. It seems that Harding had assembled one of the most respected and highly regarded cabinets in record time. His Secretary of Interior, Albert Fall, an old friend, and his Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who had been his campaign manager, proved to be the ruination of his legacy. Fall was the first ever US cabinet member to go to prison after being convicted of accepting bribes. The Department Justice was also corrupt under Harry Daugherty and vast amounts of illegal booze were taken by bootleggers through bribery and kickbacks. Harding had two long term extra-marital affairs which also tarnished his legacy. He has typically been regarded as one of the worst presidents in US history although apart from the scandals of his two corrupt cabinet members, his actions were not notably different or worse than those of any other conservative Republican presidents. In any case twenty percent of his cabinet was proved corrupt.
In the 60’s and 70’s my experiences with corruption, with the exception of a few questionable traffic “violations” in Tennessee and Chicago, were mostly second or third hand. The Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, took a plea bargain to avoid prosecution for extortion in exchange for his resignation from office shortly before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency to avoid impeachment over illegal activities including the Watergate burglary.
At that time I worked for a large Atlanta firm established by George Heery, an architect who specialised in fast-track building and advanced construction management techniques. He established branch offices in many US cities when invited by local authorities to solve their building needs. The NYC branch where I worked was opened because Mayor Lindsey had asked him to design a series of swimming pools in predominantly black neighborhoods to provide summer relief in the stormy aftermath of the season of racially motivated assassinations. Parallel agencies were created by bypass the Byzantine bureaucracy of the Building Department. Permits were expedited and the projects were completed quickly. It took a heavy toll on the NYC budget for years to come but the pools served their communities well. Heery was also asked to do a major project in New Orleans but after looking into the situation, he balked, saying the level of corruption was so ingrained there that he wouldn’t take it on. Deeply rooted corruption can be as hard to wipe out as the coronavirus.
After that we moved to Italy. When we rented a small summer house in the village of my in-laws and there was some delay in getting the electricity hooked up, my wife, following local advice, called up there utility and said “I’m told that if I want the connection made quickly, I should offer a pair of pigeons. (Pigeons are one of the delicacies of local Umbrian cuisine) Who do I have to give the pigeons to?” The man on the phone was deeply offended and insisted on knowing who had said such a thing. “Oh just voices in the village.” The electricity was connected without further delay and no pigeons were involved. Apparently corruption is not as pervasive in Umbria as elsewhere.
Many years later we got to know some people from Ukraine who worked in Italy as house cleaners and care givers. Very nice people. We heard hair-curling stories of how in Ukraine all the most basic needs of people, jobs, apartments, health care and even medicines were available, and only available, through extensive bribery. Americans might foment coups or not, but regardless of the leader du jour, the corruption was solidly entrenched in the fabric of that society, much like New Orleans, only worse.
In the 80’s I spent a couple of years working in Saudi Arabia. Corruption there was very different than in Sicily or Ukraine in that it was a very rich country and most of its citizens, although not always its guest workers, were very well off. Still, executions and lesser punishments were meted out on the Sabbath (Friday) in a main square. The stoning of adulterers was rare. Mostly, it was Pakistani office boys found with their hands in a petty cash drawer getting their offending hands or fingers chopped off. Meanwhile the Prince who served as the Minister of Defense was celebrated as Saudi Businessman of the Year for the multimillion dollar “commissions” he received on the billions of dollars worth of weaponry he bought from the United States.
The costs of building in the Middle East in those days were about double the costs of similar buildings anywhere else. A part of this stemmed from logistical problems such as the severe heat and the long distances from the sources of materials to the building sites, but it was also due to the long chain of open hands which could stop the flow of materials along the way.
The Mafia has had a heavy hand in Sicily and its influence spread throughout Italy and beyond with time. However, it may not be fair to blame the corruption that damaged the country in the 80’s and 90’s on the influence of the traditional Mafia bosses and their extended families. Italy briefly became the world’s fifth largest economy and the second largest in Europe after Germany. It thrived through its industrial and artisanal prowess and some good luck. At a time when France and Switzerland invested heavily in nuclear energy, Italian voters vetoed nuclear facilities and were then able to buy electricity below cost after zero investment. A winning lottery ticket! Alas, as with many lottery winners, they blew the winnings. A system known as the partitocracy, also referred to by some as the kleptocracy, came into being whereby the many competing political parties all acquiesced in the division of the spoils and the retention of the status quo. More than fifty major construction projects were built throughout Italy and then abandoned when the money for their completion evaporated. The one I saw close by was the new hospital just outside Orvieto which was started in the 1970’s, sat unfinished for years until thoroughly vandalized, and then redesigned and refinanced around 1993 with construction completed by 2007. Many such projects were not so lucky and have never been completed at all.
In 1992 the Mani Pulite (clean hands) Scandal emerged in Milan. Before it was over, it was said that enough evidence had been gathered to implicate more than sixty thousand elected officials throughout Italy. Most of them escaped prosecution but many did not. The old political parties all either went extinct or changed their names.
Between globalization and corruption the Italian economy was devastated, dropping behind those of France and the UK even faster than it had surpassed them. Was globalization or its implementation another form of corruption? I suspect it was but that’s a discussion for another day. Systematic corruption has taken a toll on Italy but overall the government has tried to give the populace what it wanted and what it needed.
My home has been in Italy for forty-seven years and I believe I love my adoptive country as much or more than most native Italians, Nevertheless, I have not always been totally happy with its politicians. Still, the one time I felt truly proud of the government was when it chose to deny Bettino Craxi the possibility of returning to Italy for medical treatment with exemption from prosecution. Faced with indictment on more than forty counts of corruption, Craxi had fled to exile in Morocco, and there he died.
Craxi was corrupt but unlike many similarly prominent political figures in my nation of birth, he was not a war criminal. Will the US ever show the backbone of Italy? Where did the US go off the rails? Was it the failure to prosecute our war criminals, as we had done so effectively to German war criminals at Nuremberg, opting instead to persecute whistle blowers? Was it the insidious influence of nihilists such as Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan on political figures? Members of Congress discovering that lobbyist perks paid better than their public salaries? The glorification of self and the down playing of community? Letting those responsible for the 2007 economic meltdown off the hook and even bailing out their corporations? Whatever the cause, the US Government has not responded to the needs and desires of the public. Various studies in some of the better universities have shown that the views of the general population have almost no effect on government policies, which instead are established by corporate lobbyists and the whims of oligarchs.
In the wake of all this, large segments of the US population became so fed up that they sought change, radical change. The slogan “Make America Great Again” aligned better with their aspirations and frustrations than the tone-deaf and presumptuous twaddle “America is already great”. They wanted the perceived rot excised and the swamp drained, much as the French had wanted at the time of their revolution. That one turned into a blood bath, with many of its leaders beheaded by the guillotines they had erected themselves. In the US the nihilistic impetus was given a different path. The sometimes inflated but generally effective federal agencies were handed over to mafia bosses, no not those of the Gambino or Gotti crime families. No Sicilian roots here. They were to loot and eviscerate the agencies they were chosen to oversee and most of them did what was asked. There may have been some Russian Mafia connections in the mix but mostly these were home grown American grifters, corporate lobbyists and other white collar criminals, appointed by a president who had established a charity to help children with cancer and then stole from its funds for his own personal expenses. He may someday be indicted for that if Americans can muster some Italian style backbone. Meanwhile he has at least been forbidden from ever again engaging in charitable organizations in the State of New York.
The Trump Cabinet, indistinguishable from a Mob convention, has been well documented by a number of writers but normally escapes the scrutiny of the major media, obsessed as they are by the tweets, the insults and other outrages that provide daily background noise to cover the criminal activities of the regime. One of the best analyses written so far is “Mapping Corruption…” by Jim Lardner. By all means, please read it here. It can be hard to even keep score but I’ve tried, with a chart. Some officials and advisors have been removed by indictment while others have been fired because they haven’t been willing to play along with the criminal enterprise. Others for insufficient obsequiousness to the Big Don, Capo dei Capi. The turnover rate has been unprecedented but there seems to be no shortage of aspiring made men. Years after the collapse of Enron there must be legions of wily, experienced and hardened fraudsters out there somewhere waiting for a second chance.
We are about to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the landslide election of Warren Harding. Twenty percent of Harding’s cabinet proved corrupt, a record at the time. Harding’s three years in office never achieved the level of scandal that we’ve grown accustomed to in any week of the present administration.
Dare we aspire to getting the level of corrupt cabinet officials down to the levels of the Harding Administration ever again? The coming days will tell.