Monday, December 17, 2012

Blind Justice

Pfc. Bradley Manning's trial moves ahead- slowly. He has agreed to plead guilty to various charges of releasing classified information, while not accepting a guilty plea for charges such as espionage or aiding and abetting “the enemy”. The information he released revealed criminal and unethical activity by personnel within the Department of Defense and the State Department, as well as criminal activity by private military contractors. No evidence has surfaced that Manning profited in any way from his actions, or that he was motivated by any prospect of personal gain. Rather, he felt compelled to act to reveal evidence that he had access to of outrageous activity of the part of people working for the US Government. Some of the activities revealed were simply routine diplomacy, i.e. duplicitous acts and statements by diplomats of the US and countries it deals with, and the revelations may have caused some embarrassment all around. However, more central to the activities unveiled were torture, murder, incitement to torture, and official cover-ups of criminal acts. For his actions Manning was held in solitary confinement without charges for a year and a half and he remains in custody today, with no possibility of bail. While his living conditions have improved significantly after a public outcry over his treatment, which a number of psychiatrists have said amounted to torture, he now faces formal charges which could lead to life imprisonment, if not the death penalty that some members of Congress and other media luminaries have called for. The formal charges were only lodged in late February of 2012, nineteen months after his arrest. To the best of our knowledge, there has still been no prosecution of any of the perpetrators of the crimes that were disclosed, and there seems little desire on the part of the Department of Justice to investigate.

Against that backdrop, the news has emerged that HSBC, one of the world's largest banks, has agreed to pay a large fine, described by different sources as either $1.25 billion or $1.9 billion, for illegal banking activities over a three or four year period in which the bank laundered money on behalf of Mexican drug cartels and Al Qaeda Given that the US is in a permanent War on Drugs and another permanent War On Terrorism, this would seem to qualify as aiding and abetting the enemy, if anything can ever be considered as such.

Loretta Lynch, US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, issued the following statement:
Loretta Lynch: We are here today to announce the filing of criminal charges against HSBC Bank, both its U.S. entity, HSBC U.S., and the parent HSBC group, for its sustained and systemic failure to guard against the corruption of our financial system by drug traffickers and other criminals and for evading U.S. sanctions law. HSBC, as you know, is one of the largest financial institutions in the world, with affiliates and personnel spanning the globe. Yet during the relevant time periods, they failed to comply with the legal requirements incumbent on all U.S. financial institutions to have in place compliance mechanisms and safeguards to guard against being used for money laundering.
HSBC has admitted its guilt to the four-count information filed today, which sets forth two violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, a violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA, and violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act. As part of its resolution of these charges, HSBC has agreed to forfeit $1.256 billion, the largest forfeiture amount ever by a financial institution for a compliance failure.
The Justice Department has allowed the bank to avoid prosecution. Old habits die hard. None of the top officials of the bank will face charges, much less be seized and thrown into solitary confinement. If you want to see more detail on this case, see the entire Matt Taibbi article here.

It seems that Pfc. Manning's worst crime was to not make enough money through his whistle-blowing disclosures to buy his way out of jail. With the government strapped for cash these days, $1 billion clearly buys a lot of immunity. Who knows, perhaps a few million would have been enough to swing our laissez faire Department of Justice. Maybe, with a little more cash, Manning, like HSBC Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver, could have just apologized for his actions, handed over whatever profits he'd made through his actions, and promised to do better in the future.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

It's the Imagery Stupid!

In the aftermath of the US elections, as my friends were celebrating and I was breathing a sigh of relief, I couldn't help but wonder how it could be that nearly half the voters of the US actually voted for a vulture capitalist and a sociopath, paragons of the forces that have consigned most of those same voters to the economic scrap heap. Why do so many people vote against their own interests?

Tastes may explain the phenomenon as much as do economics. My aesthetic preferences could have as much to do with my being a Democrat as do any ethical, economic or practical concerns. As a kid, without any real political considerations, I thought that elephants were much more appealing, both as symbols and as animals, than jackasses, so my early instincts pushed me toward being a Republican, but with time I've gotten over it and learned to draw Republican leaders with elephant feet. I guess if cats were the Republican symbol and dogs were the Democratic symbol, I'd still be calling myself a Republican, no matter how I voted.

Growing up in a white Protestant family in a white Republican suburb, I may now be considered by some in the family as a traitor to my origins but it didn't start with politics. The pop culture of my youth focused on movies starring Doris Day and John Wayne, and cartoons by Walt Disney. Despite the heavy handed indoctrination, I grew up with a lasting distaste for professional virgins, white-hatted cowboys, and rodents. From about the age of 14, I was bored to death by the sylvan suburbs. The persistent images I keep from there are of the acres of perfect lawns, battle grounds of the on-going War on Crabgrass, and the twice daily parade of gray-suited, briefcase toting men walking between home and the train station.

More interesting memories remain from visits to grandparents in industrial Paterson, where one grandfather terrorized the family with required Sunday afternoon country drives in his gorgeous pre-war Packard. Once he even drove it through the back wall of the garage. The other grandfather would take me to the magical firehouse where he had worked to see the two-driver hook and ladder. While nowadays everything from video games to Twinkies is described as “awesome” by children of all ages, the Passaic Falls did inspire awe in me, and the Victorian silk mills were far more imposing than the stateliest of homes in Ridgewood's fabled heights. Grandma's Sunday chicken came from her chicken coop, not the supermarket, and how could anybody not love a grandma who shot rats off the chicken coop fence with a b-b gun from her kitchen window and who had made dandelion wine through the dark days of the Prohibition era.

We're all exposed to a constant array of images and most Americans, indeed most people, seem to prefer bright, sunny, happy images, especially when surrounded by a grimmer reality. Perhaps, growing up in the privileged suburbs, I craved exposure to the earthier side, just as many of my fellow Americans living in tornado ravaged trailer parks in the plains states may need a sunnier vision. “My Favorite Things”, which I believe was introduced by Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”, became one of my favorite things only when I heard it played by John Coltrane. No matter how often I've heard Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” I still get goose flesh when I hear it, and I keep going back. No one will ever confuse her with Doris Day singing “Que sera sera”.

The last time I was working in New York, I was called on the carpet twice for being too honest with clients. “When they ask you something about schedules, costs, etc., never admit that we don't know. Just make something up. You may be wrong but we'll cover you.” That was good advice, probably even better in medicine or politics than in architecture. People just want to be reassured and they like reassuring images.

In the earlier phases of the overlong presidential election campaign, I was concerned that Mitt Romney would get the Republican nomination. Not because he was more misguided, stupid, or repulsive than Rick Santorum, Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich, but because he was better looking (Rick Perry may object) and might actually win. Mitt is one inch taller than Barrack Obama and, although a long career as a vulture capitalist has left him looking a little like a caricature of an undertaker, at sixty-five, with his whitened temples and jutting jaw, he still conforms to popular notions of a handsome man. His wife, despite a history of serious health issues, retains the classic look of the pretty, untroubled blond American, which recurs in cheerleading squads, centerfolds and popular telefilms more often than in real life. In a country where 3/4 of the population is overweight and about 1/3 is morbidly obese, a couple like that is reassuring. We all want to be like them, tall, handsome or blond, and rich.

The people at Fox News have understood this better than most. While they have their share of celebrity repulsives, most of the routine propaganda is read by remarkably good-looking young women, more or less out of the same mold as Mrs. Romney. The Wall Street cable channels have all emulated them. No matter how many Gordon Gecko-like swine appear on them, virtually all their shows are hosted by shapely, well-dressed, soulless thirty-somethings.

At reunion time every five years or so, I get a number of emails starting with: “remember when.....” followed by images from the 50's and 60's meant to conjure up happier times, although I haven't yet seen Charlie Parker appear in any of them. I do remember these images and artifacts; they just don't stimulate the intended nostalgia. Among the Americans I've most admired were Thomas Jefferson who, besides being father of the Declaration of Independence, the separation of church and state, and the University of Virginia, also apparently fathered a long line of less than pure white Americans, and then, from my own lifetime, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jim Brown and Michael Jordan, all IMHO the best ever in their respective fields. Later, my personal American Idols were headed up by Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane so it may not be so surprising that, unlike the majority of my old white male American peers, I would support a man for president who is only half white (although the media continue to insist, per American tradition, that he is black).

Changing demographics are blamed by many Republicans for their recent lack of success at the polls. They are partly right but I'd say that the only thing that's kept them in the game at all is the old imagery and appeals to the values of Ike's America, which the oligarchs, the new owners of the GOP, have been able to bombard the public with, courtesy of Citizens United. If you live in an area where most of your neighbors are cows or pigs, you may prefer old Saturday Evening Post images of America to the ones likely to show up on the evening news.

For their part, if Democrats want to help poor people, unemployed people, homeless people, and there are still a few Democrats who do, then they'll have to realize that desperate people aren't usually as photogenic as Mrs. Romney or the Foxettes, so their images will have to be used discretely. It can be done! We've all been moved to compassion by images of beautiful Afghan waifs with missing parts; not so much by images of older Americans subsisting on cat food, or educated young Americans, debt-ridden, unemployed and angry. Maybe the party is more savvy than I give them credit for. Neither poor people nor global warming were ever mentioned at the Democratic National Convention, nor were they mentioned during the campaign. While morally reprehensible, that may have been tactically sound. Nobody wants to see nasty images or hear bad news or be associated in any way with the unfortunate. While we're at it, I see we've kept those messed up suicidal war veterans mostly out of sight while the NFL military flyovers and musical tributes to America's heroes keep getting bigger and more frequent.

Both major parties have spewed an amazing quantity of phony optimism this year. Thank God the election is over. Now it's time to see if the Republicans will continue to create obstacles to the economic recovery or if Democrats will grow a spine and stand up for the people they've been elected by. With a little luck we might yet get to see some positive images derived from reality rather than hype. There are signs of hope. Rand Paul, of all people, has taken a big step to burnish his image. He gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor last week calling for the elimination of American citizens being subjected to unlimited detention by the government without trial. Amazingly, the Senate voted with him, cleaning up their own image a bit as well.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Case for a Two Class Solution

In most of human history, there were the rulers and the ruled. Very few of the rulers were elected. Most of them clubbed their way to power and eventually some had the luxury of passing on their position to their heirs. That's the historic norm. The rise of a middle class, while an aberration, was useful to the development of an industrial economy, since the possibility of social mobility kept the workers from becoming demoralized and unproductive. However, with the industrial age finished and globalization opening up vast new supplies of cheap labor in Asia and Africa, there is no longer any further need to appease the working class, or to allow a middle class.

Throughout the ages, middle classes have supplied the base for bloody political revolutions which disrupted the ruling order in places as disparate as the United States, France, Russia, China, Iran and much of South America. Working people, when kept sufficiently poor, are too busy with survival to create such problems for the ruling class, so social stability and tranquility can flourish.

People are now living well past their economic usefulness in the western industrialized world, and creating a drain on the society's resources. Furthermore, the wasteful lifestyles of the middle class in the US are ecologically unsustainable over the long haul, and if used as the model for the world's developing economies, will prove even more catastrophic. Extravagant and wasteful lifestyles must be newly confined to the few if the planet is to survive. There still is a possibility of refining and improving the lifestyle of the rich, but only if the middle class is suppressed. We can all see that poor servants are better and more obedient servants, as well as being more aesthetically pleasing when hungry than when over-fed.

Some positive steps have already been taken. Higher education has been put out of reach for most of the working class and much of the middle class. Over-educating the working class can only lead to trouble. They can be trained less expensively by their employers and unnecessary education occasionally risks leading to independent thinking, the proprietary domain of the ruling class.

The United States of America has developed an almost perfect health care system from a Social Darwinian point of view. Young and healthy workers are kept in top condition by a highly profitable health insurance industry, assuring minimal loss of production. The captains of industry and the political leadership are kept in vibrant good health well into their 80's and 90's by the world's best doctors, using cutting edge technology. When workers pass the age of economic productivity, suffer major health problems, or they are no longer employed for one reason or another, the care that kept them fit to produce, cuts out immediately and they are allowed to depart the ranks of the unproductive 47% sooner, rather than later. It's obvious that Obamacare must not be allowed to interfere with this ingenious system.

Just as sick old cats resist being put into their carriers for their final trip to the vet, all living creatures, even human beings, resist making that sacrifice for the common economic good. Nevertheless, more drastic steps must be taken if the economy is to flourish. Some of us anti-social rebels have resisted by moving to more sentimental cultures, where unproductive old people are irrationally kept in relatively good health. While this puts an unconscionable burden on the host nation's economy, we haven't yet detected a major negative impact on the lifestyles of the nation's elite. We must be missing something.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Opiate of the People

Religion, according to Karl Marx, was the opiate of the people. Although not a Christian himself, he lived in a Europe where the Christian doctrine of a better life after death for those who accepted Christ had been used by governments of all stripes to keep the populace docile and accepting of their earthly fate for nearly two thousand years. Christ taught other things regarding the temporal life, but many of these teachings, such as those dealing with turning the other cheek and doing unto others what you hoped they'd do unto you, also tended to help rulers maintain their rule. Ironically, while Marx excoriated religion, many of his own prescriptions were not so far removed from those of Christ.

Religious institutions tend to foster conservatism, if by conservatism we mean resistance to change and the preservation of the existing order. After all, if you believe in eternal truths, handed straight down from God through one messenger or other, why would you want to see any modification of those truths, as interpreted by your tribe, sect or nation.

In modern times we have come to use the terms liberal, or sometimes lately, progressive, for people who welcome change or actively seek it out. They tend to be artists, intellectuals, feminists, immigrants and other disreputable types. In Europe there is an exception to this usage in that liberal is often a term referring to laissez-faire economics, an approach which leads, not so much to change, but to a reinforcing of the existing order.

The USA has developed a political system built around a two-party system, aligned around class, race and religion, but typically holding to the division between liberals and conservatives, with the Republicans most often representing the conservatives and the Democrats usually representing the liberals. Race was the anomaly in this equation, since it was Lincoln's fledgling Republican Party, described by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book Team of Rivals as “that curious amalgamation of former Whigs, anti-slavery Democrats, nativists, foreigners, radicals and conservatives”, which favored the abolition of slavery. For a century after that, southern whites remained solidly in the Democratic column until LBJ upset the apple cart by passing civil rights legislation, which together with Richard Nixon's southern strategy, assured a solid Republican majority in the ex-slave states for years to come, as well as assuring an even more lop-sided adherence by people of color throughout the country to the Democratic Party.

Conservative groups like to proclaim that America is a Christian nation, or when they're looking for Jewish campaign contributors, that it is based on Judeo-Christian values. Liberal groups insist that the US is a secular institution, based on separation of church and state. Both are correct. Colonists and early European immigrants were overwhelmingly Christian, of various sects and movements. The Pilgrims ventured over largely to escape religious persecution, only to set up their own forms of religious intolerance toward other denominations. Jefferson and his allies noted this and insisted that religion be kept separate from government interference, and vice versa, and they prevailed.

Until very recently Protestants comprised the majority of the US population, with Roman Catholics not far behind. The influence of the traditional Protestant denominations has waned and their numbers have dropped sharply but some of the slack has been taken up by the growth of the evangelical sects whose pastors light up the passion, if not the intellect, of their flock. The fastest growing religious preference in the US is now “unaffiliated”. Whereas the RC Church has traditionally emphasized God's love and forgiveness of all us sinners through confession and penance, traditional Protestant doctrine emphasizes that God's chosen people can be identified by virtue of their good deeds. Both approaches have yielded a lot of good works and civil behavior by the faithful, and even by the not so faithful, who want to be seen in a good light by their peers.

Belief in the devil is now at an historic low and with scientists telling us ever more about our universe, faith in heaven and an afterlife is waning as well. It's become fashionable in liberal circles to speak badly of the Catholic Church, especially since the dreadful pedophile scandals emerged. Of course, most of the critics never set foot in a church. It remains to be seen if the major pedophile scandal in the football program at Penn State will unleash as virulent a protest again major intercollegiate sports programs, certainly a world every bit as venal and corrupt as the Church ever was, but one in which a fair number of both liberals and conservatives revel.

The two party system has served the country reasonably well for a long time. The Democrats have pushed for change and have championed labor unions in their struggles for a better deal for workers and have rallied round leaders such as FDR and Martin Luther King. Changes did happen. When the changes started to appear too rapid or frightening to a majority of the population, that middle slice of the voting public turned to the Norman Rockwell imagery of the country that gave us apple pie and Doris Day movies, which the Republicans like to conjure up as the real America. This back and forth worked to allow a degree of social change while avoiding radical dislocations.

Then, a few decades ago, things went badly wrong. The Democratic Party lost much of its base as immigrant groups worked their way up to suburban comfort and moved from aspiration to a defensive mode. American manufacturing disappeared to China and its former workers to unemployment or fast food outlets. Seeing how well GOP fund raising had gone in the financial world, Democratic party leaders decided to compete for support from Wall Street. This abdication left the traditional Democratic constituency, the workers and the poor, without meaningful representation, as the party decided to emphasize sexual issues and ignore economic problems. Meanwhile, control of the Republican Party moved from the prototype mid-west conservative banker/small businessman types to a new breed of sharks, trained at the Harvard School of Business to devise new ways to relieve grandmothers in California of their savings. Close colleagues included propagandists following the Josef Goebbels model. They were joined in their efforts by neo-cons (sometimes called neo-liberals) determined to bomb the world into acquiescence to American economic control. There was nothing either liberal or conservative about any of them. Neo-fascists might be a term closer to the mark, but fascists at least strove for an advanced industrial base. These people sought only reams of money for themselves and their cronies, while making the middle class an endangered species.

Throughout history, many people have opposed the Church but few have openly opposed the teachings of Christ, even when their actions ran counter to His words. Ayn Rand changed all that. There is no shortage of atheists in the world. Many seek an ethics based on the best philosophical thought rather than on fear of divine punishment. Ayn Rand was unique among atheists in not only opposing a belief in God but in turning the teachings of Christ on their head, preaching that greed is good, the masses should be left to their own miserable fate, while the elite should work for their own betterment and to hell with everybody else. She could and would be dismissed as a tedious, mediocre writer were it not for the fact that among her acolytes were people high in the Republican ranks such as Alan Greenspan, Ron Paul and Clarence Thomas. For a deeper analysis of this phenomenon, see Jeffrey Mikkelson's fine article.

Mitt Romney personified this school of thought in his remarks about the 47%. Nobody really knows what he represents because he's advocated on each side of every issue. However, the most telling clue may be in his selection of a sociopath vice-presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, the most avid Rand disciple on the American political scene, and the most consistent liar since Guinness kept records. Ryan also calls himself a Roman Catholic and recently said, with a straight face, that President Obama is leading the country away from Judeo-Christian values. Meanwhile he's concocted a budget that would throw grandma under the bus while exploding the deficit by giving additional massive cuts to his billionaire buddies, and curtailing most vital public services. A Catholic bishop even admonished him for a budget which was anything but Christian.

Evangelicals, who had some reservations about the Mormon Romney, love his science denials, and they're supporting Israel, no matter what, because the rapture, where Christ returns and carts off the true believers to heaven, won't happen unless and until Israel is safe in the Holy Land.

Lincoln's Republican Party may have been an ill-sorted bunch, but nothing compared to the present version. The party that claims to represent conservatives has everything except conservatives: neo-cons who would discard all international agreements the country has entered into; radical deregulators who have crashed the economy twice in this century and are ready to do it again; banksters; anti-tax zealots who would happily bankrupt the nation; traitors who publicly wished to see the government fail so they could take it over; science deniers; vulture capitalists, and even Roman Catholics who preach and live the anti-Christ dogma of Ayn Rand.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Like fresh air and clean water, you aren't aware of decorum until it's missing. My wife recalls that as a girl she was reprimanded by the parish priest for attending mass in a dress with short sleeves. She was even sent home to change. Nowadays, one encounters the gum-chewing faithful wearing low-riding shorts or skirts designed to show off their navel rings, a display which might be considered redundant, given that the bellies on display are often protuberant enough to draw one's gaze without any embellishment.

From my own childhood, I remember travelling carnivals with freak shows which featured dwarfs, hermaphrodites and “the tattooed lady”. While dwarfs and hermaphrodites don't seem to have proliferated in the interval, tattooed ladies can now be seen, free of charge, in every small town supermarket.

About twenty years ago, one of the young bachelors in the village made a habit of perusing large hard-core pornographic magazines on the steps of the village bar/general store. The old ladies, who have always made up a majority of the local population, would either pretend not to notice, or would walk away in disgust, while the children mostly giggled. At the time, these magazines were crowding out other publications on newsstands throughout Italy. The news dealers scrambled to create large, out of public view, areas to stock such publications, but a certain aura of sleaze permeated all the major outlets. With the arrival and wide diffusion of the internet, this assault on decorum received a fatal blow, as pornography became easily available in every household. Italian newsstands have been restored to the days of old, where the most widely sold magazines are those showing remarkably tanned TV and film celebrities cavorting with their new loves in the chic resorts of Sardinia. These magazines, which feature bosomy stars in low cut dresses and small bikinis, despite being reliably present in every barber shop, seem to be mostly sold to women, which I find strange, but upon reflection, may be no more strange than men reading magazines about heroic sports figures, another top category. We all keep brooding about what (we) might have been.

This summer, which has been characterized by long family visits, hellish heat and a hectic village festa, has brought the notion of decorum to mind on multiple occasions. My grandchildren, all six of them, were present for a part of the summer, and while they are all above average, even exceptional, in every imaginable category, from beauty to intelligence, musicality to cuteness, their progress toward decorum may be lagging slightly behind. I have suggested that navel rings may be out of place in church but, at the same time, toy cars are every bit as foreign to the reverence of the ceremony. I could go on to lament the presence of dogs in church as well, but I'm treading on thin ice here, as I very rarely attend mass myself. However, the church is not the only locale where some concept of decorum should reside. I regard the dining room table, not to mention the living room floor, as being as sacred in its way, as any part of the church. Toy cars, dolls and electronic devices have no place there. Perhaps when introduced to alcohol and other pleasure inducing substances, the children may give up their addictions to plastic and electronic toys, but I fear that addictive behavior itself tends to become a personality trait, rather than just being associated with any one substance.

Among my own addictions, one of the most serious is watching sports. Sky Sports allows me to indulge my habit at little cost, but I have noticed that decorum in professional sports has taken a major hit. When I moved to Italy four decades ago I was shocked to see sports venues here littered with advertising. This cancer has spread, and now the once pristine wall boards of the Madison Square Garden hockey rink are plastered with ads for McDonald's and other commercial graffiti. It gets worse! During the long TV breaks for commercials, disco music is now piped into the arenas at NHL and NFL contests, as well as Major League baseball games. I wonder that there are any live audiences left but I suppose they are mostly recipients of free tickets from corporate sponsors filling their tax write-off boxes.

This summer brought us more tennis than usual, due to the Olympics. While I prefer the blood sports, I've always thought of tennis as being a little bit classier than some of the other sports. After all, at Wimbledon, players all wear white, and the public eats dainty sandwiches in the presence of royalty. However, at the US Open the other day, I noticed that during the breaks, they were piping in the same disco babble that the more proletarian sports have adopted. So much for tennis! I'm calling for Roger Federer to stage a walkout. There's too much money at stake for that, but will Roger, always a paragon of decorum, start learning to do back flips and a little victory dance ritual a the conclusion of a successful match?

With this backdrop of worldwide cultural decadence, I suppose it was too much to expect our tiny village to demonstrate more decorum in our summer festival than major institutions in New York City can muster. Much of the festa went well. As always, the food was good. The home-grown theatrical production was well done and well received, its only defect being that the sound was slightly under- amplified. The following night, that was compensated for by mind rending amplification of the most inane disco pop ever heard since Abba retired. This was Youth Night, youth in Italy being people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-eight. (Before that, they're bambini.) When I complained to the president and other members of the governing committee that the sound levels were grotesque and dangerous, I was told that the youth liked it that way. Possibly so, and perhaps they also like to stand around excavation sites with eight or ten jackhammers in operation. All of these people making that judgment were well over sixty and I'm not sure they know any better than I do what the youth like. Based on twenty year old anecdotal evidence, I would guess that they like porn. Had they decided to put a live porno exhibition on stage in the piazza, would the town elders have shrugged and said “that's what the youth like”?

Times, people and customs change. The fellow who once offended the standards of the village is now an upstanding pillar of the community. I have no idea if his tastes have changed but his hair is now streaked with gray and his comportment is exemplary. Decorum is, after all, simply conformance to accepted standards. Perhaps tomorrow that will simply mean keeping your navel ring polished and lint-free.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Hate Thine Enemy

My early childhood memory seems like a piece of Swiss cheese, more holes than substance. One small and vague morsel remains which concerns some sort of a celebration in the basement of my elementary school. It may have been an end of the school year celebration. Whatever, for a few hours we got to play games. Between logic and arithmetic, I now deduce that the war (WWII) was still on and while I would have been too young to remember very many details, it seems to me that one of the games was to throw darts at three balloons tricked up to represent Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. I suppose that every nation at war feels the need to demonize the enemy. It wasn't difficult to demonize Hitler but my recollection of these figures was that they were more ridiculous than scary. That's another common and useful tactic, one I sometimes dabble in myself. Making the enemy ridiculous may be even more effective than making him the personification of evil.

I don't recall a particularly large campaign of this sort in the major wars of my lifetime, but my mother did tell me of how the windows were smashed in my German great-grandfather's food shop during WWI, how sauerkraut was officially renamed liberty cabbage, and how my mother's German lessons were curtailed at the time. When WWII came along, there was much less of that sort of thing in the US, unless you were of Japanese origin. In the Korean and Vietnamese wars, I can't remember either the Korean or Vietnamese people being subjected to scorn, but of course we were fighting both with and against indistinguishable people in their civil wars.

Counter-intuitively, it seems that domestic battles lead to more elevated demonization than do foreign wars, where both sides tend to go about their business with more detachment. When I went to college in the south, the residue of resentment against people from the north seemed stronger ninety years after the Civil War than that felt toward the Germans and the Japanese who had been bitter and deadly enemies just a decade before. I've never been to Ireland and I doubt that I could tell a Protestant from a Catholic there and yet, somehow the Irish could, and the violence and bitterness lingered. For that matter, I also couldn't tell a Lebanese Muslim from a Lebanese Christian but they seem often unable restrain their hostility towards each other. Shiite-Sunni violence is another of those mysteries. When I moved to Rome in the 70's I experienced that kind of battle up close. Violent hoodlums battled on the streets and kept scrawling graffiti all over the city. Their slogans and their colors differed, but otherwise the militants of the right and the militants of the left didn't seem much different.

Back in the USA we have people of all sorts of nationalities, races and religions. There have certainly been battles but we're so mixed up by now that it keeps becoming harder to draw the lines of otherness. And yet, they do sometimes emerge. Many years ago, I was on assignment in Miami for a couple of months. I found a group of congenial people to socialize with, in and around the motel in Coconut Grove where I was staying, and I was thoroughly enjoying my Florida sojourn. One day the news came of the assassination of Martin Luther King. In the motel bar, comments started flowing freely with the booze, such as, “that bastard finally got what was coming to him”. Suddenly, in front of my eyes, Sam, the voluptuous barmaid that I had lusted after, was transformed into a monster. The place seethed with venomous creatures who only the day before had seemed like normal people. I just wanted to be out of there and never see any of those people again. Fortunately, I was repatriated to New York after only a few more sullen and angry days.

Our Civil War has been over for a long time and one might have hoped we would be getting along by now. Maybe it's not as bad as it seems. After all, I do live in Italy, so perhaps I don't get to see a more complete picture, since my view of the country is basically through family, friends, visitors and the media. Nevertheless, a few days ago I was surfing through the news channels in search of some bit of news when I came across the Gang of Five, or something like that, on Fox News. One older conservative fellow played the role of lion tamer in the midst of a circle of wild and vicious creatures who appeared not to have been fed yet. Except for their aggressive demeanor, the men were nondescript, but the women on Fox are always young and good looking, and these were no exception. The foxes almost make one think of airline stewardesses in the early days of commercial flight, all young, pretty, slim and single, back in the days before age discrimination law suits. One of the women on the show had had her fangs polished by working in the Little George Bush Administration, defending the indefensible. I don't know where the other one came from but she was shapely and exotic, and if she hadn't come from the adult entertainment sector, she certainly could have a future there if Fox goes down. All in all, the crew seem more a pack of rabid ferrets than lions or tigers. They were constantly on the attack. They routinely spoke about President Obama in terms more hostile than ever heard in the American media about the likes of Tojo or Mussolini, closer in tone to that used for the late Col. Ghaddafi or the current President of Iran. While the President of the United States received his share of gratuitous insults, the villain du jour was Chief Justice John Roberts, of all people. Yes, the same John Roberts who led the Supreme Court to rule that corporations are people and money is speech, after pledging judicial restraint at his confirmation hearings. John Roberts had not done his God-given duty by striking down Obamacare, the health care plan borrowed from Mitt Romney. He was clearly a traitor, not to be trusted, and the occasion of his defection from plutocrat orthodoxy had made the need to appoint yet more radical members to the court all the more apparent.

These people are paid (very well I suspect) to foment hatred and they are masters at it. Just as an Ian Paisley could rouse his rabble to attack Catholic neighborhoods while raising the level of hatred amongst the Catholics for his dreary flock, the Foxters manage to raise the blood lust, or at least the blood pressure, of their Tea Party faithful while producing feelings of disbelief and disgust in any outsiders who wander into the tent. I'm not especially prone to hating people, though I may succumb too easily to disdain or contempt. Neither working in difficult conditions in Saudi Arabia nor having my NYC office destroyed by the 9/11 terrorist attack ever managed to get me to hate Arabs, just as hearing way too many racist slurs directed at every imaginable minority in my childhood never left much of an impression. I even married one of the hated Catholics. Getting me to hate a beautiful woman is an especially arduous and improbable task but, when it comes to stirring up hate, these people at Fox are not to be underestimated. Watching that show was like another Martin Luther King Assassination Day all over again. Every day on Fox has something of that feel.

I don't know how long it will take the country to get over the increasingly bitter oligarchy/anti-oligarchy struggle. It took more than a century to get over the Civil War, a war which killed more Americans than any other. Slavery had to go. Oligarchy will have to go too, and with it the fascist infrastructure that sustains it. We can hope that it will take less casualties than the abolition of slavery did, but pretending that the problem isn't there, or that it will just go away by itself, is no solution.

The effectiveness of the Gang of Foxes, and the many others in their cage, is disturbing. Hatred is a bad thing but indifference isn't much better. Should King Kong miraculously return to New York and throw the whole Gang of Five through a plate glass window on the 32nd floor of the Fox HQ building, I confess that while I might be curious about all that broken glass, I doubt that I'd give a fig about the collateral damage.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Whores, Johns and Pimps

Who do the whores work for?
  • They provide services to the johns.
  • They work to procure money for the pimps.
  • They work for themselves and , if lucky, get to keep some of the money for themselves.

Their loyalties are to whom? Clearly, they suffer from a compound conflict of interest. In my four decades in Italy, the country that gave a name to nepotism, I've marveled at Italians' inability to grasp the concept of conflict of interest. Otherwise, they never could have elected a Berlusconi, or even permitted him to run for office. There are many otherwise intelligent Italians who cannot grasp this, but it's not always simple territory. Triangulated conflicts of interest are hard to control or regulate and the nature of the conflicts is not always transparent.

We've got lots of whoring going on in Umbria. A few years ago we even had a whore-related murder right here in Acqualoreto. One john was murdered and another (presumed) john was accused, tried, convicted of the murder and then acquitted on appeal. No mention of a pimp! Was this just traditional Italian obliviousness to conflict of interest? We'll never know.

Any whore, once paid, may just run off with the john's credit cards while his pants are off. In a similar vein, a pro quarterback who professes total dedication to his team, may decide to hold out for more money and miss training camp, thus hurting his team's chances. A corporate CEO, appointed and paid to work for the benefit of the company's shareholders, may award himself salary and benefits so high as to damage the financial well-being of that company. These are all inner conflicts on the part of one party in a two party deal, a matter of personal integrity. We all face such conflicts somewhere along the line. The real conflicts of interest begin when a third party gets involved.

Whores may face inner conflicts. They may come to like their johns or their pimps too well, or be too disgusted by them for the good of the business. Johns may be conflicted about whether they're doing something wrong, being taken advantage of by the whores, or taking advantage of them. Pimps instead, are unlikely to suffer such misgivings. The entrepreneurial spirit that we assiduously strive to instill in our best and brightest youth is exemplified in its purest state in the pimping profession. The profit motive is unsullied by ethical concerns, legal considerations, pride in one's reputation, or nostalgic personal feelings about the welfare of clients, workers, or the community at large.

Good whores provide a service that makes the johns happy, and their work may even bring in a respectable income. However, they often end up badly after being maltreated by their pimps. As for the pimps, they seem to make out pretty well. None of us wants to see them prosper, just as we recoil at seeing bank CEOs prosper the way they have in recent years, but maybe that's just because we're neither pimps nor banksters.

The triangular relationship is remarkably similar to the situation with our political representatives. Let's just say that they're all whores. (Now, before politicians start a class action libel suit against me, I want to spell it out for them that I'm speaking metaphorically. I do not accuse them of selling sex.) We the constituents are the johns and our whores are well-paid to provide us services, such as writing laws, which hopefully provide extensive public services while providing us with generous tax cuts, or bringing unneeded defense contractors to our districts. But we, the johns, didn't put them on that prominent spot on the street, or slick up their public image. Their pimps created their media display windows and, while our best whores make all the right noises and try to make us feel good, at the end of the day most of our money ends up in the pockets of the pimps, whether they're called media moguls, bank chairmen, or simply oligarchs.

I wouldn't want to push this analogy too far but the only place I see it breaking down is that, unlike our traditional whores, who are often beaten, sold and abused by their pimps, our political whores seem to be very well taken care of by their pimps. When their usefulness in capitol corridors wanes, they are sent out on K Street as senior citizen whores working for lobbying firms, think tanks, Faux News or Pimp Foundations. Unlike their traditional sisters, their income keeps increasing with age and experience.

A current trend in government is to bring in third parties to provide public services paid for by the government. This is happening in everything from parking meters to schools and, most alarmingly, in the military, where mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan are now as numerous as our official troops. It's called privatization. I suggest that it could better be described as bringing in the pimps. Our troops used to do our dirty work for us. They worked cheap but we honored them with patriotic songs and medals. We still pay the bill but now half of them are working for pimps who see to it that they get paid more and decide on the terms of their service.

Prostitution is said to be the world's oldest profession and it's unlikely to go away. Many social critics have suggested that the whores should be allowed to ply their trade while the pimps should be suppressed. I would add that this approach makes sense to me for our political whores as well. Simple conflicts of interest may be a fact of life but triangular ones usually lead to bad results. They should be avoided or eliminated.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Roots of Spring

After an abysmal winter, the arrival of spring, with its inspiring explosion of color in the countryside, has helped alleviate the depression fostered by too much time reading the news. On top of that, a series of fortuitous coincidences has brought me closer to my roots.

Rummaging back through my old high school yearbook, I find little mention of my activities there. While more ambitious kids were listed as being on the Student Council, the varsity football team, the Spanish or German club, the yearbook staff, or an endless number of other organizations devised to allow each student the opportunity to compile an impressive resumè of extracurricular activities, I was dutifully recorded as having been a door holder, and my future plans were listed as “undecided”. We each had a quotation affixed to our name. Mine read “I wish I might show the world how to enjoy itself”. Whether this was written by a magically prescient classmate, or was simply a comment generated by my precocious tendency to abuse alcohol, I've never been sure. Since my academic performance was little better than my extracurricular curriculum, it's a wonder that I did get admitted to the college of my choice, but then, that college did have something of a reputation as a party school, and perhaps they saw in me some potential. Indeed, while never destined to be student body president, I did get to be social chairman of my fraternity. In that capacity I tried to organize theme parties and was routinely frustrated by the members failing to show up in sufficiently imaginative costumes. It's gone on that way over a lifetime, in which I've encouraged people to cut loose on Fire Island, go to jazz festivals, and visit Umbria. In recent years I've pushed our growing contingent of foreign residents to get together at the Circolo of Acqualoreto every Wednesday for a happy hour. While it's a hit or miss operation, it's proven more successful than some previous efforts, such as my ill-fated attempt to organize a bocce tournament in the village. Only people from Ireland, Australia and Bermuda participated in significant numbers. Actually, they are also active supporters of the Happy Hour. Very few Italians!

Every now and then, there is some unanticipated success. Once upon a time in my first grade class there was a little girl named Barbara Boo Boo Bagg. She was the cutest girl in the class. As she matured, BooBoo became simply Boo and she remained the cutest girl in the school. While I hadn't seen her for four decades, I have spoken with her, and her affable husband Dick, numerous times by phone, always suggesting that they visit Umbria. One year, on her birthday, I even emailed her a digital file of “BooBoo's Birthday” by Thelonious Monk, whose own daughter Barbara was also known as BooBoo. Miracle of miracles- this year Boo and Dick came to see Umbria. I suggested they come to visit us on a Wednesday so that they could come to our Happy Hour, but after a morning of sight-seeing and an afternoon of eating, drinking wine and talking, Boo was too concerned about their navigating the narrow and sinuous roads back to their lodgings on Mt. Subasio in the dark. We had a good turnout that evening and it was a shame that they missed it. At a certain age, I suppose we should all learn such prudence, and I pledge to work at it sometime soon.

At another of our Happy Hours last September, I met a man named Peter Prinssen, who was a guest of some of our Dutch neighbors up the hill in Morruzze. Having noted my Dutch name, Peter wrote to ask if I would be interested in knowing more about my family history. Apparently all this sort of information is now on the internet in Holland. I sent him what I already knew and in short order he got back to me with considerably more detailed information on the De Graaf family, as well as some information about my grandmother's family in Friesland. More may still be coming. The miracle of Google Maps brought me pictures of both places of family origin and renewed curiosity about why they left. Did somebody do something bad? I suppose most emigration is about economic opportunity. Why else would anybody move to to Houston for example, or why from a the tidy village of Goedereede on the island of Goeree-Overflakkee to Paterson, New Jersey? For that matter, my neighbors and I now live in what we regard as an earthly paradise, only because the area was abandoned after WWII by people fleeing the drudgery of work in the fields for new opportunities working in urban factories.

One of our neighbors here, Lin Widmann, has a daughter Christy who lives in Holland. Last week, between them, and with the help of the Circolo, they arranged a choral concert in the church of Acqualoreto. The group, Doulce Memorire, directed by Felix van den Hombergh, is from Haarlem and was starting a concert tour of Umbria, singing works by Dutch composers from medieval times to the present. The voices of the twelve men and twelve women of the chorus were merged, contrasted and woven together brilliantly. Much of the music, at least on first hearing, didn't seem to me memorable in its own right, but served as a vehicle for the beauty of the voices. During a brief interval, four members of the chorus played a series of wind instruments, three flutes and a bassoon, I believe. The counterpoint was delightful. Following that came the highlight of the concert, an absolutely mesmerizing rendition of Joep Franssens' modern piece, “Harmony of the Spheres”. It's a long droning work with rising and falling voices and pulsing sounds generated by the close harmonies. The acoustics of the church worked well with this music and the effect was spectacular.

After the concert, the members of the chorus walked through the village, paused for a drink at the Circolo bar and went on to a supper, provided by the Circolo, at the ex- school. I have fond memories of my Dutch forebears but if truth be told, they were a dour group. Not these! During the long meal, various groups of them would spontaneously break into song. It was a very happy evening for all of us there. The only slightly sad note of the evening was that the very enthusiastic audience was not a bit larger.

Three days later, to celebrate May Day and the fifth anniversary of the Circolo, another choral group of the same size, the Coro Nomantum from Rome, gave a concert in the piazza. The director was pleased by the acoustics of the piazza, but a piazza is neither a church nor an auditorium and a little of the force and the majesty of the sound is lost in singing the traditional music outdoors. They sung works dating from 1200 through the 1500's to Mozart before turning to modern songs such as Paul Simon's Sound of Silence, Twist and Shout and Barbaram. There was a novelty number about cats and birds in which the lead cat was a girl wearing sunglasses which turned bright green when she raised her head to the light as she meowed. Nice effect! The group has fun with the pop songs but their best work was the Mozart. This concert was well attended, especially considering the weather, which had threatened rain all day but fortunately held off. There was free food following the concert, the universal secret to boosting attendance at events which should, but don't always, attract people on their own merits.

Two days later we went to another choral concert, this time in Todi, by the Chorus of the University of Perugia. This was another return to our roots in a sense because two of our daughters sang in this group while at the University and we still knew a few of the participants. Again, the program was varied, with a progression somewhat similar to that of the Nomentum concert. It differed in that it featured a soprano soloist and the chorus consisted of twenty-two women and eleven men. Some numbers were sung by the women alone or the men alone or just by the soloist. They opened with Tourdion by P. Attaignant, a piece which showed off the counterpoint between the sections better than anything else in the concert. An English drinking song sung by the men alone didn't sound robust enough for a drinking song, and I'm not an enthusiast of the music of Donizetti or Bellini. Verdi's Coro dei Schiavi Ebrei was splendid, after which they turned to more recent music by Jobim, Gershwin, and the Beach Boys. Yes, this chorus too, did Barbara Ann, or Barbaram as it sounds to me. They were a little livelier with it than the Romans but their best moments with the modern music came with Siyahamba, an African piece which played the male and female voices off against each other very well, and a brilliant arrangement of Ennio Morriconi's music for the film “C'era una Volta il West” The soprano, Elena Vigorito, soared over the combined voices of the chorus to wonderful effect. The arrangement was by the piano player, Francesco Andreucci, a native of Todi. They sang in the Sala del Consiglio, a magnificent room, which is a joy simply to sit in. This was a free concert in this gorgeous room, well publicized in Todi, a city of possibly 15,000 people. There was a bigger crowd at the concert in the piazza of Acqualoreto, population +/- 150. Nevertheless, the small audience was very appreciative. My wife was ecstatic, and wants to bring them to Acqualoreto for a concert. I will try to make it happen.

The saying goes “you can lead a horse to water but you can't make her drink.” That's the story of my life, except that I deal with people, not horses. Getting them to drink isn't usually so hard. Getting them to eat is even easier. It's getting them to listen, where it really gets to be difficult.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Time marches on. The odometer of life's journey keeps clicking off the days and the weeks without our taking much notice, but at the end of the year, when the big number changes, we usually pause for a moment to consider what's been gained and what's been lost since the last New Year. Kids are delighted because being a year older confers more privileges; young adults look to the new year with the optimism that it will bring a new love or a better job or some unimagined opportunity. We older folk look upon the onset of another year with more nostalgia, and as much anxiety as optimism. Will this be the last one, or how many more do we have left? Is the world (the economy, the environment, the government) going to self-destruct? And will we be around to see it? Watching vulture capitalists and lunar colonialists participate in the circular firing squad of the US presidential primary campaign does nothing to alleviate the anxiety.

This January has been particularly loaded with reminders of time's passage. During the month I watched all ten NFL play-off games, several of which were decided by “sudden death overtime”. In reality, all the games were sudden death because all the losing teams were eliminated. Extinct! Next year there will be a Baltimore Ravens team wearing the same black and purple uniforms but it will be a different team, no matter how many current players and coaches return. The team that lost on that missed field goal is gone. We all cling to the the comforting fiction that there will be another chance, maybe next year. That team, along with thirty others, lost its chance.

The day before New Years Eve we went to the funeral of a village fixture, a 94 year-old woman who spent her last years shuffling around the piazza bestowing blessings upon anyone she encountered. The blessings came with questions such as “Do you like Acqualoreto?” although her impaired hearing precluded any possibility of her comprehending the reply. After four decades here, being a foreigner, I was still regularly posed the same question. It felt like she would be doing this forever.

January brought the news that the brightest kid in my high school class had died after a three year battle with Alzheimer's. I had a series of injections of Vitamin B-12 to correct a deficiency, which doctors suspect could risk leading to a similar outcome. When not visiting medical facilities for shots, tests or physical therapy ourselves, we've been visiting friends recovering in hospitals from largely self-induced ailments.

In one case, we've witnessed the decline and death of a long-time friend who was a regular at our Wednesday foreigners' Happy Hours. A witty and creative person with a wonderfully ironic sense of humor, she was also a fine and sensitive writer, a gourmet cook, a voracious reader, a cat lover, and an organizer of Christmas caroling expeditions, book exchanges and even Halloween celebrations. Best of all, she was one of the few regular readers of, and commentators on, this blog. Unfortunately, she also had a self-destructive side worthy of a rock star or a celebrity starlet. Linda abused alcohol with the best (or worst) of them. Our community, which has many ex-smokers but virtually no ex-drinkers, tends to be tolerant, even when occasionally concerned, regarding that particular vice. It was her unrelenting addition to nicotine that drove her friends away, intensified her solitude, and nudged her health into its downward spiral. In one of her last lucid days, she reminded the woman who had spent years caring for her that her organs were to be donated, to which the woman replied, “but Linda, your eyes, heart, liver and lungs don't even work for you any more. Who's going to take them, or what else is left to donate?” The decline apparently spun faster than she anticipated. Though her intentions seemed kind and generous when expressed in numerous conversations with her friends about her plans to donate her material assets as well as her organs to worthy causes, by the time her sister, her one surviving direct relative, arrived from the other side of the world to see her in the hospital, she was unable or unwilling to inform anyone where her instructions could be found in case the doctors' valiant efforts proved futile.

We've been trying to help her non-Italian-speaking sister and brother-in-law deal with logistical and bureaucratic matters for the past couple of weeks. They need all the help they can get and there is some satisfaction in helping people in such very difficult circumstances. But the inescapable thought arises that the Kafkaesque nightmare that they face could have been avoided. We have gained from this sad fiasco, one powerful lesson.

It's later than you think!

Thanks for the lesson Linda, as well as for all the parties, cookies, blog comments and general zaniness you've brightened our lives with. For the organizational example, not so much.