Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Building a Wall of Hate

 

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. 

WWI was an insane war which had no reason to be fought other than the desire for a fight that all the participants displayed. It could easily be seen as similar to gang wars of opposing teenage thugs who show up on a designated playground to wreak whatever damage their available weapons can inflict. A good deal of hatred was generated before, during, and after that war. A minor example, of which I have a smattering of knowledge, was the vandalism of German-American shops, the renaming of sauerkraut into liberty cabbage and the transformation of frankfurters into hot dogs. 

Hate prevailed at the end of WWI and victory was not enough to assuage the blood lust of the victors. The enemy had to be humiliated and dragged down into misery. They were. Unfortunately, hatred tends to be reciprocated. Germany had an educated and energetic population and despite the crippling reparations, it managed to rebuild its industries, along with a newly ambitious military sector under the direction of a populist hate-building political leader. We all know how that played out. 

We are also familiar with a bunch of aphorisms such as: “if we don’t learn from history, we’re destined to repeat it.” Miraculously, there appeared a number of influential people in the USA who did learn from it. Was this just a freakish miracle, a gift of God, this streak of intelligence in high places, rarely seen before in the US after the passing of the founding fathers, and never seen again in the past half century? However it happened, and we have to mention that the fear of our WWII ally, the Soviet Union, and the more generalized fear of Marxism did play a role, the unexpected wisdom of people such as General George Marshall did steer the US into helping its defeated former enemies, Germany, Japan and Italy, to rebuild themselves into democratic societies, ironically even more democratic and more prosperous than the US itself. 

As enlightened as the foreign policy of the US may have been, at home Senator McCarthy and the newly emerging Military Industrial Complex were fostering a climate of fear and hate. It was officially designated a fear of communism but in concrete terms it translated into fear of the USSR, understood as Russia. It extended to countries which bore little of no resemblance to Russia, either culturally, economically, or militarily. There certainly were some reasons for western concerns. We fought and lost wars that we associated with the Soviet Union but somehow, the hatred that might have persisted toward the people of Viet Nam, Cambodia and Korea never really took hold, whereas the anti-Russian rhetoric was so persistent as to cloud the minds of even people born after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1989 the Berlin Wall went down and the Soviet Union collapsed. The Cold War was over and we won it. The Warsaw Pact was dead and NATO had served its function. It could have been disbanded, but alas, the military industrial complex discovered its utility as a money-making operation. Mikhail Gorbachev had graciously decided to step aside from further confrontation with the west by not opposing the unification of Germany and the concurrent withdrawal of Soviet troops. He thereby received assurances from the highest US and German authorities that NATO would not move one foot further to the east. Unfortunately, although the accord was witnessed and attested to by various participants on both sides, he did not have this formalized in a treaty, although, given the history of written agreements that the US has entered into, it might have made little difference. 

The US had the opportunity to help Russia grow into a democratic society but could not bring itself to do so as it had done with Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers. The lone important voice in the west who decried the lack of effort by the US to promote a democratic Russia was that of George Soros, who put some of his own money where his mouth was. For that he has been subjected to anti-Semitic vilification throughout the world but especially in Hungary, his  birthplace. To the old Cold Warriors, who are by now mostly dead, and to the new ones, who were not even born then, Russia was, and always will be, the enemy. Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian post-collapse president, even flattered the US by building a new society on the recent US model: oligarchy. He privatized much, if not all, of the Soviet economy and handed ownership over to friendly oligarchs. Russia collapsed even faster than the USSR had and turned into a latter stage version of what the USA has recently become, a country with a precipitating birthrate, a diminishing life expectancy, and alarmingly high rates of alcoholism and suicide. All this while the American big shots of industry and in the military chuckled and licked their chopped at the prospects of increased East European arms sales and markets for its other monopolies until the enfeebled Russian bear breathed its last. 

The cultivation of hate has not only persisted but has been given new impetus in recent decades. Ronald Reagan did his part by saying that “government is not the solution, it’s the problem”, a statement which has been true in much of the world, but which in a democracy could rightfully be described as seditious. Either it was an attempt at undermining democracy or an admission that the USA was not a democracy. The hatred of government, especially democratic government, has continued its growth for thirty years until its apparent culmination in the Trump Administration, which not only denigrated democracy but did its best to eliminate it. From the blustering, racist, hate campaigns of Rush Limbaugh and his clones to the constant anti-democratic propaganda of Fox News and the unending vulgar stream of Trumpian tweets, the campaign to make hate not only acceptable but even a source of pride, has been remarkably successful. 

One might have expected to see a huge backlash to all this from the self-identifying liberal or democratic side, but no, it was easier to match it than to oppose it. While Fox News has set the tone, the New York Times has noticed that hate sells, and it has upped the ante. Its readers have managed to emulate the Fox crowd in hating anyone they disagree with rather than engaging in debate.

The hate-Russia campaign has been growing rapidly since the 2016 US elections, this time led by the Democrats. Trump appeared to go soft on Russia, not a complete surprise, given his ambition to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and the importance of the support for his real estate projects by the newly minted Russian oligarchs. Democrats insisted that the insidious Putin had influenced the 2016 election which brought us Trump, while studiously ignoring the presence of Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking, at the invitation of the Republican leadership, to a joint assembly of the US Congress on 3 March 2015, in the midst of the Presidential primary campaign, days before US-Iran nuclear treaty negotiations began and just weeks before Israeli elections, the most egregious foreign meddling in American elections and foreign policy that I can recall. I can barely remember instances of US meddling in the elections of other countries. They have become as common as the summer appearances of house flies in the kitchen. You don’t remember them and you can’t tell them apart. 

Last week, La 4, an Italian TV channel, broadcast a very long interview with Vladimir Putin conducted by Oliver Stone in 2016. While Madeleine Albright referred to his almost reptilian coldness, in the Stone interview he comes across as serious, cool, polite, diplomatic and intelligent. His presidency has run as long as the combined reign of four US presidents. He stated his national security concerns in 2016 and he has repeated them again and again. Although he inherited control of a failed state, he has brought back Russia from its predicted demise to a state of renewal, despite dealing with sanctions handed out by Uncle Sam as freely as candies and gift certificates are handed out by department store Santa Clauses. All this while the four American presidents have presided over a continued decline in virtually all statistical measures of public well-being, i.e. those unrelated to the wealth of the top 1%, and the US has not been under sanctions by another country. 

Any intelligence agency, staffed by rational people, which saw the growth of weapons emplacements surrounding its borders, would sound an alarm and seek to take precautionary measures. Putin has stated his concerns, consistently and rationally. He has requested negotiations and guarantees. Most recently those requests were rejected by President Biden with the tone of an assistant principal of a junior high school responding to a kid complaining that a larger kid had stolen her lunch and threatened to beat her up. “Don’t worry. He’s not really a bad boy and anyway, you’d be better off eating a little less.” Putin is not a little girl. He’s the head of a very large country which besides having a rich cultural legacy, happens to have the second largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. Unlike most of the recent US presidents, he appears to be fully cognizant of the dangers and responsibilities this entails. 

The time of stalemate finally ran out. There are limits to anyone’s patience. Despite being subjected to heavy sanctions already, Russia will be hurt by even more sanctions, but it has energy resources and earlier sanctions have already pushed them to be more self-sufficient. Putin can turn to China for closer economic relations. Much of the pain inflicted by the sanctions will really be felt by Europe. Ukraine will be crushed and there will be yet another refugee crisis. One can hope that the country will not be devastated and destroyed as Iraq was when the US and its co-conspirators invaded. Biden has ruled that the US will not fight to defend Ukraine but along with the UK, he has sent plenty of weapons to that country to assure that the invasion will be as bloody and destructive as possible. Was Biden as clueless as it seems?  Was he unaware or uninterested in the consequences of his flippant humiliation of Russia? Maybe Smilin’ Joe is really a sly SOB after all, who saw an opportunity to weaken both Russia and Europe in one seemingly casual move and thereby increase American hegemony and arms sales. 

In the US, the mainstream media have raised the volume level on the hate channel. The NYT has resisted the temptation to rehire Judith Miller, its chief cheerleader and propagandist for the invasion of Iraq, but that’s as far as their discretion has extended. It even published a piece by Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, in which she writes about an earlier interview with Putin: Whereas Mr. Yeltsin had cajoled, blustered and flattered, Mr. Putin spoke unemotionally and without notes about his determination to resurrect Russia’s economy and quash Chechen rebels. Flying home, I recorded my impressions. “Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” Ms. Albright is mostly famous for her reply to this question from Leslie Stahl of CBS: “We heard that half a million children have died (as a result of US sanctions on Iraq)....that’s more children than died in Hiroshima...is the price worth it?” “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price- we think the price is worth it.”  

Putin has had to make hard choices too but at least he has to know the sort of people he’s contending with. Albright wrote to say that Putin’s actions were unacceptable. The comments in response to her article were mostly in line with the sentiments of the day.  A sampling:

 “we are still reaping the harvest of failing to contain the USSR after WWII.” “Few countries are as dependent on one industry as Russia. It's almost all petro. Cripple that industry, and we cripple them.” “In 2022 expansionism in the middle of Europe is not just a throw back from Hitler, it's a sign of insanity.” “Appeasement didn't work with Hitler. Why would anyone think it would work with Putin or any other autocrat?” “Secretary Albright has a personal history that gives her sensitivity to the perils of nationalism and armed aggression, especially where notions of ethnic identity are involved.” “Putin wants Trump back in the Oval Office so Putin can move ever more aggressively in expanding his reach across Europe with Donnie's slavering approval.” “Russia is nothing more than the largest and best run criminal organization in the world.” “If Ukraine really wanted to put waste to the invasion it would burn the crops, blow up the crop storage and shipping lines, blow up the manufacturing centers and the gas line.” 

The comments went on and on by the hundreds. There were some rational observations and they did reflect a split between typical Republican (Biden isn’t aggressive enough) and Democratic (pure anti-Putin hate bound to wishful thinking) positions but the common thread is hate. The propaganda machine has succeeded all too well. 

What’s next? Traditionally, entering a war has been a tactic used by politicians in trouble to gain public support. Will that work for anybody in the next few years? I would guess that all governments will be at risk from the aftermath of this conflict. In Europe, all the political leaders have gathered in an orgy of virtue signalling, wishful thinking and impotence, denouncing Russian aggression after hardly sounding a peep when the US invaded and destroyed Iraq, Syria and Libya, bringing heavy consequences not just to the Middle East but to all of Europe. That may have been due to the fact that many of them participated in those invasions. Not one of them ever stood up to the US and said “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Most of you are probably aware of the leadership problems in the UK and France, i.e. even apart from their leading the charge in the catastrophic destruction of Libya.  Those "leaders" are gone.  Has there been any improvement? 

Here in Italy, there is a similar problem, compounded by the fact that the Italian Parliament is engaged in a semi-permanent work stoppage. All the parties, from those on the far right to those on the not-so-far left have tacitly agreed to agree on everything so as not to have the government fall. Thus, the Prime Minister, Draghi, could conceivably do anything, sell off Sicily if he could find a buyer, attack and seize Lichtenstein for its assets (the EU would intervene), or sell off all Italian assets to German banks, which is not so far-fetched, and he would face no opposition in Parliament. All this because when new elections are called, the size of the Parliament will be reduced by 40% and salaries and benefits (the world’s highest) will also be cut. Most of the newer members will be without a job. Those elections will not be called until the last moment required, which is late next year. 

Italy has already been grievously damaged by illegally imposed US sanctions on countless trade partners.  By next year the effects will be many times worse.  As in all NATO member states, all the Italian political parties have joined in the obsequious licking of Uncle Sam’s boots. What will the voters do by next year when the economic damage follows upon the damage done by Covid? In the US, I doubt that either Biden or Trump will be running for president in 2024. What sort of new monster will emerge?  An authoritarian weapons merchant from the right or an authoritarian thought police captain from the left?  Perhaps they can join together in a new Have Arms To Export Party to form an emergency unity government.


Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Reasons Why We Need NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in 1949 by the North Atlantic Treaty, signed by the UK, France and the US, Canada, Italy, Portugal, Norway, Denmark and Iceland to provide mutual military protection for countries in what came to be known as the North Atlantic region from Soviet aggression, which showed itself to be a real threat with its takeover of Czechoslovakia. The treaty was briefly preceded in 1947 and ‘48 by the Treaty of Dunkirk and the Treaty of Brussels both of which involved a growing number of European countries in mutual defense. The presence of NATO forces largely prevented further aggression in Europe, and with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the rapid subsequent dissolution of the USSR, it could be said that its mission was complete. However, we must remember that any time an effective organization is created to take on a challenge, part of its mission is to find new missions and purposes which it can serve. While a few rogue voices might suggest that NATO has outlived its mission and therefore is no longer needed, we cannot overlook the fact that there are a number of good reasons for the continued existence of NATO. 


 1. NATO has a proven record of success. It was established seventy-three years ago to combat Soviet aggression and more than thirty years ago the Soviet Union, crippled by the arms race, ceased to exist. No other organization is so well equipped to neutralize any other hostile power, even one which hasn’t emerged or been identified yet. 

 2. NATO provides gainful employment for thousands of people and corporations, not only in the United States but throughout the world. With wages lagging behind productivity gains in the US and the cost of education growing beyond the ability of workers to pay, this is a major benefit. High ranking officers and defense contractors are thriving as never before. 

 3. While the US pays a disproportionate share of the costs of maintaining a huge military to defend the expanded North Atlantic zone, member nations provide a number of the foot soldiers needed for a military entity crucial to the imposition of American foreign policy goals. 

 4. The co-involvement of our many “allied countries” in our military operations reduces the likelihood of those countries raising objections to our military, commercial or social objectives. While there has been some talk in civilian courts in obscure places of bringing American leaders to trial for war crimes involved in the invasion of Iraq, there has been little or no such talk in the countries of NATO which participated in the invasion. Similarly, there has been little objection in Europe to the unrelenting expansion of NATO which has finally provoked an international crisis in Ukraine. 

 5. The continued presence of the US Military in most countries of the world helps spread familiarity with American products, trends, customs and values, from Halloween and Black Friday to gender flexibility, fast food and the Easter Bunny. NATO provides the cover for such an important presence by imparting the prestige of being an international organization. 

 6. Although the United Nations was established to provide a forum for all the countries of the world to air their concerns and complaints, its effectiveness has been diminished by the presence of so many conflicting outlooks. NATO has filled the void, providing military strength under the direction of a unified vision. While attending to vital activities such as pipeline systems, Air Traffic Management as well as Air Defense, oceanography and meteorological studies, NATO has provided us with a de facto world government, not something to be undervalued.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Ritual Elimination of Jon Gruden

On Friday October 8, 2021 word leaked that emails had been found where Jon Gruden expressed
unacceptably racist and homophobic sentiments. By Monday the New York Times expanded the
coverage and Gruden was gone, faster even than Al Franken or Garrison Keillor. Whereas Franken and Keillor were alleged to have engaged in inappropriate touching and gestures, there were no known complaints against Gruden. For anyone who is not familiar with American football and may not even have heard of Jon Gruden, I might first explain who Jon Gruden is. Until he resigned on October 11th, Gruden was the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders football team in the National Football League.  He had coached them earlier in his career when they were in Oakland and had then moved on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he had won a Super Bowl at the end of the 2002 season. After dropping out of coaching in 2008 he went on to being a TV analyst for ESPN and other sports TV outlets until the Raiders lured him out of retirement with a ten-year $100 million contract in 2018.



I confess to a smidgen of cynicism that led me to wonder if there was a plot hatched to get the Raiders out of this ill-conceived contract. Hearing the Raiders’ owner, Mark Davis react with displeasure that he had been neither consulted nor informed by the NFL before they launched the attack on his coach tends to neutralize the conspiracy theory, which leads us to the more plausible theory that the NFL was taking advantage of the atmosphere spearheaded by the Me Too Movement to eliminate a perceived enemy/liability.

Salaries in sports have reached absurd levels but this was surprising even in this inflated atmosphere, not so much for the amount as for the duration of the contract. Losing coaches are often sacked after only one or two seasons. Gruden had been out of coaching for a decade and while his knowledge of the game is impressive and his earlier coaching record was good, $100 million was a large bet on his belated return to coaching. His first three years into the contract did not produce a winning season but in 2021 the Raiders started off well and appeared headed for success. Indeed they did manage to get into the playoffs and were then eliminated in a close game.

The NFL was conducting its own investigation of what had been the Washington Redskins football organization until the name “Redskins” was deemed politically incorrect and the league forced the owner of the club to drop the name. Concurrently the league was facing lawsuits brought by female employees of the Washington Football Club alleging a hostile workplace and sexist discrimination. It was during these investigations that the league found emails to the Redskins’ General Manager at the time, Bruce Allen, an old friend of Gruden. The investigation reviewed 650,000 emails in all, an effort worthy of its DC neighbors, the FBI and the CIA. That it chose to reveal and publicize the old emails of Gruden, who was not under investigation himself, may have had something to do with the fact that Gruden had often criticized Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL, whose salary is even more generous than that of Gruden.

A man making $10 million a year probably should be smart enough to avoid calling the man who runs the organization in which he operates “a faggot” and a “clueless anti-football pussy”, even in an email to a friend. Most of us learn early in life that insulting people on whom our continued employment depends is not in our self-interest. Then again, $100 million apparently generates a degree of hubris.

The release of a coach’s old personal emails was not one of the league’s shining hours. Gruden was critical of Goodell’s management and his criticisms extended to bashing the hiring of female referees, tolerance of player protests during the playing of the national anthem, pressuring teams to draft gay players, and the league’s drawing too much attention to its injury protocols. I’m unaware of Gruden ever making his criticisms public but I assume that some of them are shared by many people in and out of the league. Beyond his league concerns, Gruden’s emailed criticisms of Presidents Obama and Biden to friends using vulgar epithets similar to those he applied to the NFL Commissioner.

In his place I might have made some comments critical of the league myself, although very different than his, and unlike Gruden, I realize that if I had a job in the NFL, I would probably be forced out for my views. First of all, I find the incestuous relationship between the NFL and the US military highly repugnant. The military flyovers at many games seem more appropriate to the Germany of the 1930’s than to a country that likes to think itself as a model of democracy.

Football and the military may appear to have some affinities. Strategies, discipline, training and
violence are present in both and they relish the high levels of testosterone in the more physical of those activities. From my limited involvement with football and the Army in the distant past, I recall that insults to ones virility were routinely used to inspire greater dedication to unpleasant tasks, from running laps around the field to digging latrines. Despite such affinities, there are differences. Football is a game, a rough game which inspires the natural competitive spirit of boys and young men. As a lifelong fan, I would argue that it is one of the greatest games ever devised, right up there with chess in its deployment of complex offensive and defensive strategies, as well as having specialized players on the field with different roles. The military is about waging war, which is not a game, except in the minds of some of our politicians and generals. It’s about killing people. In theory, it is about defending ourselves from foreign aggression, although to my knowledge the US Department of Defense has engaged exclusively in offensive activities since its name was changed from “War Department” in an early gesture of political correctness.

As for the misogyny which Gruden has been accused of by the NYT, I’ve never quite been able to forget that two current NFL quarterbacks were accused of rape early in their careers. Those charges were either dropped after an out-of-court settlement, or reclassified as sexual assault, that magical term which can be used to mask a violent crime or to conflate an unwanted gesture into a career-ending accusation. Good thing for them. Rape is usually a fairly clearly defined crime, although there are some exceptions, such as when the alleged rapist has been declared a wanted enemy of the state. Those players were suspended briefly, which given their salaries, would appear to most of us as severe monetary penalties. In 2007, the year after Roger Goodell had been named Commissioner of the NFL, another star QB, Michael Vick, who at the time was considered by many to be the best athlete in the league, was found to be involved in a dog fighting ring. He was charged with killing dogs who were not vicious enough, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, as well as being suspended by the NFL. He served his time, interrupting a good career in his prime. I am often out of synch with a great number of my fellow Americans across a wide spectrum of subjects, issues and causes, but am I really alone among my countrymen, or even among football fans, in believing that raping women is a more serious offense than killing dogs?

Did this contrast in consequences of different disapproved activities reflect the values of the NFL or the USA in general? It was after all, a US prison where Michael Vick served his time. Then again, it may just be that it’s easier to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with a cocktail waitress than with a dead dog.

In fairness to Roger Goodell and the NFL, the league has expanded the business on his watch, making a lot of young men of humble origins into millionaires while making all their wealthy team owners into billionaires. To his credit, I’ve never heard Goodell use vile or offensive language but then, I have never read his e-mails or listened to his phone calls.  

If October 11th was a bad day for the NFL, it was worse for the New York Times. The Times, often referred to as America’s paper of record, covers many aspects of the news rather well, especially the obits, and its intelligent columnists outnumber its Neo-Lib propagandists and its presumed if undeclared foreign agents. It also documents and promotes the trendy values of its wealthy and influential NYC readers and the vast legions who would share those values and consumer preferences but just don’t have the wealth yet. Unfortunately, it does have a tradition of cowardly backing of the Establishment at its worst, such as its cheer-leading for the invasion of Iraq and its massive effort to derail the campaign of the most notably democratic candidate for the presidency. While the attack on Gruden may appear to be a small thing, its implications are greater than people seem to realize.

The exposè of Gruden was written by Ken Bolten and Katherine Rosman, who should have known better. You can see it here. Among the long list of all the terrible things that Gruden said to friends in his emails, the article had this gem:

“ Taken together, the emails provide an unvarnished look into the clubby culture of one N.F.L.
circle of peers, where white male decision makers felt comfortable sharing pornographic
images, deriding the league policies, and jocularly sharing homophobic language .”

While we were allowed to read many of the comments in Gruden’s emails, we were not furnished the images, described elsewhere in the article as pictures of women wearing only bikini bottoms, including one photo of two Washington cheerleaders. Did the authors see the photos? We did not. Jon Gruden was born in 1963, well after Hugh Hefner had made his fortune by founding Playboy Magazine, which featured women wearing not even bikini bottoms. Playboy’s decline came as a result of its sweet girl-next-door-photographed-nude features being nudged aside by publications such as Hustler, more open to pubic hair and a grittier sort of eroticism. Since then the USA has grown a huge pornography industry, which proves that the US can still make products for export. Most of the participants don’t get to wear bikini bottoms. When were Bolten and Rosman born and where have they been living?

Elsewhere in the New York Times, in the same week as the e-lynching of the Raider's coach, there was a glowing tribute to the artist Mickalene Thomas, with her loving appreciation of images of topless women.  Thomas's views were sincere enough but could there have been just a bit too much hypocrisy in the policies of the NYT, which spent so much effort decrying hypocrisy in the NFL?

Gruden was also accused of using offensive homophobic language. His language was certainly
vulgar, but these days does anyone not use vulgar language? After the story of the emails was
published, Carl Nassib, the only currently active player in the NFL who has come out as gay, and who happens to play for Gruden’s team, the Raiders, unsurprisingly declared that Gruden’s comments were unacceptable, but there was no report of his having had any previous objection to Gruden’s speech or comportment as coach.

The article drew more than two thousand comments and was republished at the end of December as one of the most widely read articles of the year. While there were a sprinkling of comments saying that the whole thing was a bit overwrought and out of place, the comments more typically seethed with heterophobic hatred, and a good many exuded racial hatred as well.  Of the thousands of comments, only a handful suggested that the whole episode involved a serious invasion of privacy. None seemed to grasp that their own comportment and attitude resembled that of the lynch mobs of a century ago. Yes, I am aware of the radical difference in outcomes. Losing your job, no matter how well paid, is not the same as being tortured and hanged. Still, the angry mob wanted Gruden to lose his job, and many suggested that others should follow. Were the NYT writers guilty of a hate crime in instigating such a reaction?

Gruden has been hounded out of a lucrative job because he used foul language and made comments in his private emails which were considered by some as racist, misogynous and homophobic. While all people should understand that old emails never die; they just go into a deep reversible coma, he might have been better off if he’d simply vented his spleen on Twitter. After all, the ex-President publicly sent out messages on Twitter far more crude, offensive and vulgar than anything Gruden said to his friends, and he sent them virtually every day of the four years he was in office. The two institutional attempts to remove him from office both failed since the majority of our elected Senators apparently do not regard his behavior as unacceptable to the degree that the majority of NYT commenters regard Gruden’s.

Hate is the major driver of ratings on all the radio and TV networks, and apparently for the major print media as well. Foul language has grown ever more foul. The N-word may have been successfully suppressed, except among black comics, but the F-word is now the most common adjective/adverb in American English. While I would be happy myself to see the use of the F-word banished from more than one instance per published or broadcast sentence, the establishment of a thought police or a speech police to bring about vigilante justice, whether it be brought about by hot-headed legislators or the New York Times readership, is something we should all stand up and fight.

We congratulate the Raiders for making the play-offs despite all the turmoil brought down on them by the Commissioner and the NYT in mid-season.. We don’t agree with Jon Gruden about much of anything outside of his field of football knowledge but we do wish him well with his lawsuits. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Communication and the Internet

 

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

What's in a Name

 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

Incitement to Violence

In recent weeks we’ve come to associate the phrase with acts of the lame duck American President and his most craven lackeys to incite mobs of angry followers into attacking the American Capitol in a quixotic effort to cancel the 2020 Presidential election.  I don’t believe I’m a particularly violence-prone person but I can relate to the ex-president’s frustration.  In these troubled times of the corona virus pandemic we are all stimulated to the edge of violence by many routine events, some of them trivial.

For example, every month I must pay a fixed amount to maintain service on my cell phone.  Over the past several decades communications services have expanded and improved at a pace unimaginable just a few years back.  As if to establish some sort of balance in the universe between progress and decadence, the sales and administration of those expanded services have undergone an inexplicable equal and opposite regression.  Perhaps with the sales of used cars now being taken over by efficient internet programs, all those people endowed with super con man skills have been forced off the used car lots and into the telephone service call centers, unless they are the elite of the elite and have moved into politics.  Be that as it may, I have selected and signed up for a program offered by my service provider, yet each month as soon as I’ve made my payment I receive messages saying “respond yes within 48 hours and you’ll get “zzzzmb” “ and then what?  More charges?  More “services” that I didn’t ask for?  If an app were available to set off a small explosion in the offices of the service provider, I might very well go for it, and I’m no Marjorie Taylor Greene.  These things are minor irritants but they add up and my indignation does rise.

Just think what the ex-president must be going through.  With his presidential immunity gone, he will be facing a number of criminal investigations and charges we’d need a huge legal staff just to enumerate, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars of personal loans he has coming due in the year ahead.  As ex-president, he can no longer pressure officials of countries seeking favors to frequent his overpriced properties, which are already hurting financially from the COVID induced slump.  Faced with such a bleak future, how many of us would not resort to desperate measures to maintain our privileges? 

As for his supporters in Congress, the motivation is less obvious. Should they suddenly discover some heretofore unnoticed moral fiber, they will face unwinnable primary challenges from the Proud Boy wing of the party in their next electoral campaigns but despite losing their nice salaries and perks, their economic opportunities as lobbyists would almost certainly be a step up the economic ladder, so what is it?  Is being a seditious celebrity villain preferable to being seen as a normally decent, if quietly compromised, elected official?

I have resolved to stop worrying about the futures of the craven clan and stick to the small problems at hand.  How to get even with my disservice providers!  When my bank upgrades its security measures so that I can no longer access my account on-line, after a learning curve of years to get there in the first place, shall I simply switch banks, or start picketing the bank?  Hire some Proud Boys?

There have been some small satisfactions in the evolving virtual world.  We know that internet companies are invasive in their data gathering and they tailor their ads to our preferences before we know them ourselves.  Not buying anything on-line in combination with a little trickery can yield some positive results.  My actuarial table-generated advertising profile theoretically should include ads for prostate relief, disability insurance, erectile dysfunction cures, elevators to glide up and down the stairs at home and all the other new remedies that pharmaceutical companies urge you to ask your doctor about, but by clicking on ads for lingerie, perfume, sports cars and Caribbean cruises, all of which I have neither budget nor use for, I can assure that my cluttered computer screen is at least cluttered with attractive images instead of the morose stuff.

In the age of COVID, any consolation available to us that makes life a little more pleasant and less stressful, whether it’s respite from the ex-president’s crude tweets or a more attractive computer screen, is to be cherished.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Election Post-Mortem 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.

                                                                    ***

If you enjoyed this blog, you can express your appreciation by sending off a few dollars to the campaigns of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Corruption

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.


I was not around to observe the era when Al Capone and the Mafia controlled Chicago until he went to prison for tax evasion.  His Mafia roots went back to Sicily where with the unification of Italy, property owned by the Church was seized and privatised, driving much of the population into abject poverty, resulting in massive emigration and the growth of the Mafia to fill the void created by a failed state.  The void filled by Capone in Chicago was largely created by the enactment of Prohibition in 1920.  The organization grew powerful enough to continue its criminal activities even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.  Satisfying people’s illegal vices has always been a profitable criminal activity but when not enough things were banned, the protection racket could fill the coffers by offering “insurance” against risks that the insurance provider would also provide.


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.





 
Moscow Mitch, the Horatio Alger of the Senate, is up for reelection to the Senate.  Mitch McConnell has risen from relatively modest origins to become one of the richest people in the Senate over the course of a long career spent almost exclusively in public office.  Yes, he did marry into money but marrying into money is generally beneficial for anybody, even more so for politicians, and he’s not alone. John McCain, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and even Kamala Harris have all enjoyed spousal support for their campaigns, although typically the money hasn’t come from Chinese shipping companies whose activities their spouses were appointed to oversee for the US Government. I suppose even Al Capone had his supporters, mostly people who were afraid of standing up to him.  Kentucky has lagged behind most of the country in a number of statistical categories.  Will this be the year when its voters take the lead in the fight against organized crime or will TV’s Tony Soprano have proved to be such a crowd pleaser that state pride kicks in for their own favorite son, the Big Boss of the Senate?


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.