Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Drawing People

I've been drawing people all my life. Why do we draw people? I don't know, any more than I know why we make music, play games, or have pets. It seems to just be a part of human nature. Prehistoric men drew on the walls of caves, although from what's been left, they were apparently more interested in other animals than their own kind.

One of the better things about the school system here in Italy is that in elementary schools kids learn to draw, just as they learn to read and write and count. Drawing is perceived as another basic skill and means of communication. I don't recall much of that emphasis on drawing in the USA. As a kid, I went to church with my father every Sunday and spent the hour, or at least the parts where we weren't supposed to pray or sing hymns, drawing on the borders of the church bulletins. I tended to favor images of football players in action over Biblical figures.

After quietly accepting her abject failure in trying to teach me to play the piano, my mother went with the flow and sent me to an art school in my early teens. Although I was eager to paint, the school insisted that first we learn to draw, so I spent many afternoons learning how to render geometric shapes, from fruit to vases to classic busts. The discipline was good and there was even some satisfaction in it. However, drawing people (and other animals) is both more challenging and more fun. The subjects move, which creates much of the challenge, and they also change expression, which has a lot to do with the added satisfaction.

Many drawings of people are simply made up, based on observation and some acquired knowledge of anatomy, while others are remembered images. Both approaches can be enhanced by drawing people live. Shown here is the frontispiece of the book 90 Secondi all'inferno, with images drawn by Francesco Chiacchio, one of the best, among people I've met, at spontaneous drawings of remembered images.

Over a lifetime I've found a few ways to indulge my predilection for drawing people. Many years ago I visited my friend Ed Wallace in Germany, where he was studying in Tuebingen on a post-graduate fellowship. As I was assisting his research into the remarkable diversity of German beers, I occasionally pulled out my sketchbook to capture the likenesses of fellow researchers. Seeing the results, some on-lookers asked if they could have their images immortalized too. Presaging his triumphal career in the law, Ed jumped up and said of course they could but they would each have to buy a round of beers for our table. Thus, my unfortunately short-lived career as a semi-professional portraitist got started. Ed was the closest thing to an agent that I've ever had. Sadly, that ended when we both returned to our studies back in the US. Nevertheless, for a short time our research was accelerated, our spirits lifted, and my artistic self-confidence boosted.

It's not easy to find a way to carefully draw people, other than by asking them to pose for you, and you don't know most of the people you would really like to draw. Except for remarkable people like Francesco Chiacchio, drawing takes time. If you start to draw people you don't know, they will probably wonder why you're staring at them. They might be offended; they may go away; but in any case they will rarely stay in one position for long. When by-standers notice that you're drawing someone, they tend to gather around you, sometimes even offering compliments, but the anonymity and immediacy vanish and self-consciousness grows, making the drawing ever more difficult. Photography has largely replaced drawing and painting in the capture of human images and photographers, especially if unburdened by inhibitions, have few such problems. They can just poke a camera in a subject's face, click and be off., leaving the subject to wonder if that was a new incursion by the NSA or something else.

Snarling Dick
The trick is to find a captive subject.   Television is one place where the subject can't object or leave, but good TV directors work hard to see that camera angles keep changing, just to make the imagery less monotonous. Drawing faces quickly can lead to caricature and I've ventured into cartooning after years of drawing faces. Some faces lend themselves to caricature more readily than others. Dick Cheney's asymmetrical snarl was perfect. He seemed to be designed by a caricaturist and he inspired me to devote more time to that aspect of drawing. C-Span is the cartoonists dream. It features talking heads with little moving other than the mouths. Unfortunately , it's not available in Italy but I will be visiting the Rogue Nation this winter and C-Span should help to pass the time.

The most obvious chance to draw people live is in life drawing classes. I've done a good deal of this at times but living in a small rural community severely limits the opportunities, since such classes tend to be located in big cities and college towns. Years ago, professors in the collegiate centers seemed to be always spouting the obligatory apology that life drawing had nothing to do with sexiness or eroticism. It's true that when one is busy trying to understand the nuances of anatomy, perspective and foreshortening, and trying to capture all that on paper, the process is about as erotic as rendering the effect of light on a peach. Nevertheless, I still think the professors exaggerated a bit. After all, people have been paying to look at nude women through the ages, from Las Vegas to Timbuktu. While many drawings from life could just as well be of stones or of fruit, there are artists, such as Milo Manara, whose sketches are as sensuous and erotic as any images can be. If it's true “that beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, then Manara's eyes are a divine gift.

In drawing the nude, one tries to objectively capture the essence of the figure but I find myself either trying to idealize the form or else tending to emphasize the divergence from the ideal, depending on whether the model conjures images by Renoir or instead puts one in mind of Francis Bacon. The world being what it is today, I'm seeing people more and more resembling the images of George Grosz, from another very similar era.
Grosz nudes
Renoir nude
Francis Bacon nude

Drawing nudes is something like painting flowers. You try to capture the beauty of the bloom but if the flowers are too wilted, the emphasis shifts to pathos and decline. Portraiture tends to focus on how character and life experiences have molded the face, with clothes, backgrounds and other props filling out the narrative. Bodies tell their own stories too, from the dancers who often model at life classes, recognizable by their muscular legs, to others, too desperate for the modeling fee to even care that people see them in their current sad state.

Archie Shepp in SF 1966
I've probably spent as much time listening to jazz as I have drawing so it's unsurprising that at some point I would start sketching musicians as I watched them perform. You can't get better subjects to draw. You've paid to see and hear them and you can watch them as they work, sometimes up close. While they may object to photographers popping off flashes in their face, they can't object to someone looking at them too intensely, and they're too busy to notice. Better yet, they're not just sitting there; they are at work creating music and the effort, intensity and joy of making music can be seen as well as heard. There are problems in drawing at live music venues. Usually, performances are at night, and while the musicians are well lit, the audiences are not. Drawing in the dark is difficult. Maybe Ray Charles could have done it (he could do everything else in the dark) but for most of us, it's not worth the effort. Sitting up close to the stage sometimes resolves the problem but intimate outdoor afternoon concerts are as good as it gets. People often ask if I miss New York. In truth, not very much, but I do miss Caramoor, and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Tompkins Square Park almost as much as Minerva's drawing studio in Soho, all great places to draw.
Amina Myers at Caramoor

Roy Haynes at Charlie Parker Festival
Musicians have become technically more proficient over the years I've been drawing them but there has been a significant decline in the visual appeal of their performances. Dizzy Gillespie's ceiling- aimed trumpet may have had acoustic motivations but I suspect it was as much a stylistic affectation as his beret and goatee. Miles Davis paid almost as much attention to his appearance (perhaps more in his late rock star years) as he did to his music. Thelonious Monk, whose spiritual home was light years away from Madison Avenue, was always impeccably turned out in a suit and tie. This served to heighten the contrast between his attire and his unconventional music and demeanor. The extreme exemplar of theatricality in jazz was the Modern Jazz Quartet, whose musical director, John Lewis, insisted that they perform in dinner jackets. Jazz musicians, especially black jazz musicians, had not been taken seriously by the (white) public and their dress code was a highly successful stratagem to change that. They created an unforgettable visual impression to go along with their splendid music.

Marsalis brothers
In subsequent decades musicians came to regard themselves as artists rather than entertainers and many felt that people should simply come to hear the important art that they were creating. That worked for a John Coltrane, whose intensity was riveting, but there was only one John Coltrane. In keeping with romantic and popular notions of eccentric artists, many musicians showed up looking like they'd they'd just crawled out of the cellar they were sleeping in. Sometimes they created fine music but more often than not, audiences at live music venues want to be entertained as well as being privileged to be in the presence of art. Times are changing again and many musicians, following the lead of the Marsalis brothers, seem to be rediscovering the importance of the visual aspect of their performances.


Raphael Madonna
Raphael woman
Italian 1400's
Fashions come and go. When I first came to Italy I was astounded by how good people looked. Young men seemed to resemble the images of their Tuscan ancestors painted in the 1400's and the women often replicated the sensual beauty found in the Rafael's madonnas. Italians like to be trendy. With the arrival of Yul Brynner on the big screen and Telly Savalas on the TV, they got accustomed to totally bald men, but when Michael Jordan came along, instantly all Italian men wanted to look like him. This led to a dubious experiment in baldness. If shaving one's head could make you look like Michael Jordan, why would it not also turn you into a world class athlete? (The butterfly tattooed on Serena Grande's thigh has stimulated a comparable effect among Italian women.) Among jazz musicians, Tony Scott was 
Tony Scott (hairless) at Mississippi Jazz Club
Tony Scott (with hair) at Iridium
ahead of the curve, both in the bald look and in the return to hair. (as well as in pioneering modern jazz on the clarinet) In recent years many more people have gone through chemotherapy than in the past, and I wish them all the best outcomes, including that their hair grows back more luxuriant than before, but if all the people in Italy who look like they're in the midst of chemotherapy actually have cancer, there's an epidemic that the press just isn't reporting.

Among the many impressions I've taken away from this year's inaugural Jazzit Fest is a sense that hair seems to be coming back. (I have nothing against drawing bald musicians but hair is one of the distinguishing traits of people, even if long hair and untrimmed beards can create an anonymity not so different from bald heads.)
Given the dismal economy that we're experiencing, it's understandable that a certain amount of scruffiness is also in evidence, but at least it's a more virile sort of scruffiness. I've even detected in a number of musicians (among the more than 400 in attendance) an increased self-awareness about how they appear. Whether the subjects are bald or hairy, well groomed, elegant or scruffy, I'll continue to seek opportunities to sketch musicians as they perform. UJ in Perugia, with most of its concerts located in the huge stadium, no longer offers many opportunities, but UJW in Orvieto at New Years, still features musicians up close. I'm especially hopeful about drawing while listening at the Jazzit Fest in Collescipoli next year. See you there. I might even draw you.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Signs of Life

My last couple of posts haven't been monuments to the Power of Positive Thinking, but that's nothing new. At my college graduation, Norman Vincent Peale, who coined the phase, or at least made a ton of money from it, nearly caused me to throw up when he spoke at the baccalaureate service. Even then, I had little stomach for militaristic expositions of American exceptionalism. Not wanting to end what had been four good years on an openly bitter note, I resisted the impulse to walk out in protest. Maybe that was the kind of mistake that people of my generation made too often.

Barack Obama is still sounding like Norman Vincent Peale. Nevertheless, there have been signs of hope recently. I can recall from trips to Florida, long before my college years, seeing rugged men wrestling alligators.
They would turn the alligator over and rub its belly, inducing a sleep-like trance. Those gators still had big sharp teeth but for the moment they were rendered innocuous. Last week Vladimir Putin seemed to pull off the same trick with President Obama, tranquilizing Obama's inner Fascist just as he was about to launch another ill-considered attack in the Middle East. In addition to Putin's firm hand, the President may have felt the weight of the polls which showed that his imperial appetite had the backing of fully 8% of the American public. Whatever it took, we can all be relieved that the gator sleeps.

Now we've gotten the news that President Obama has been on the phone with Iran's new president, Hassan Kouhari. That makes Obama the first American president to speak with an Iranian chief of state since 1979 when Jimmy Carter spoke with the about-to-be-deposed Shah.

In other upbeat news, the Senate has removed the extension of the Monsanto Protection Act out of an appropriations bill. It's still in the House version of the bill but there has been so much public outrage at this stealthily inserted provision, which had granted Monsanto immunity from all legal action brought against it, that the chances of killing it remain fairly high.

Larry Summers, President Obama's favorite financial adviser and one of the chief architects and beneficiaries of the Great Recession of 2008, removed his name (or had it removed) from consideration for the position of Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the post Ben Bernanke is stepping down from in January. Although he had his supporters in the White House and on Wall Street, Summers faced opposition from politicians in both parties, as well as from virtually all non-comatose members of the general public.

The other big story of the week is that the Tea Party Taliban is plotting a terrorist attack on the US Government through its Congressional jihadis refusing to fund all government activities (already approved by Congress). Their main target appears to be Obamacare, but some seem determined to cripple Social Security as well. Better to collapse the government than to see the masses having access to health care. If they get as lucky as the nineteen terrorists of 9/11, they could manage to reverse the slow economic recovery and plunge the nation into a sea of rising debt and accelerated collapse. The 9/11 guys probably exceeded their wildest dreams when they brought down the twin towers. Do you suppose that any of them could have imagined that they would end Constitutional democracy in the USA as well? When terrorist strikes begin, it's hard to know where they will end or where they will lead to. Even McConnell and the Congressional loner, John Boehner, seem a little spooked by the jihadis in their midst, but they've lost control.

This story may not appear to fit in with the upbeat nature of the earlier items. I may be simply succumbing to a bout of irrational optimism. The crocuses are coming out of the ground; I've recently experienced a wonderful new jazz festival growing out of the ashes left behind by the “austerity” ordered up by the plutocracy; and despite the planet being under unremitting attack environmentally, economically and politically, I've received the news that I have another grandson on the way. Unprecedented optimism or not, I'd like to believe that the GOP jihadis will just blow themselves up (politically speaking that is) without too much collateral damage. I doubt that Ted Cruz will set himself aflame on the Capitol steps if Obamacare isn't repealed, and if his fiery rhetoric does cause him to ignite, he'll get the best health care the country can provide.

It seems that even without this debt limit bomb going off, Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader of the Senate, has only about a 50-50 chance of being returned to the Senate in the next elections. If the bomb creates unanticipated havoc, he and his co-conspirators are toast. With people like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor still on the loose, the defeat of one McConnell won't restore the country to political health but it would be a start.

Please take a moment to call or write your Congressman to urge that the Republican National Committee be added to the State Department list of terrorist organizations.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Wreck

It's a good time to be in Umbria. It's festival season and people are visiting from all over the world, setting off a long cycle of dinner parties, concerts and varied food fests. We also have to prepare for our our village festa. I have lines to learn for the play in the piazza and an art show to organize. That's more than enough to fill my day, even without a paying job to make demands on my time, but somehow it's been hard to find enough time to get these things done. I just can't break away from my computer. Getting through my emails these days is like creeping along on a highway past a particularly gruesome series of car wrecks. You feel bad about gawking but you just can't bring yourself to turn away. Should you stop and help or would you only be getting in the way? Among the things that have grabbed our attention in just the past few days are the following:
  • Daily Kos reported that on July 12th as the Texas State Senate voted on an anti-choice measure, state troopers ordered all women seeking to attend the session to surrender their tampons and diabetic supplies. Guns were permitted inside as long as their owners held a concealed weapon permit.
  • The trial of self-appointed security man George Zimmerman, who fatally shot unarmed 17 year-old Trayvon Martin, ended with an acquittal on second degree murder and manslaughter charges.
  • CNN reported that in another case in Florida, a young black woman, Marissa Alexander, had fired a warning shot into the ceiling to discourage her husband from attacking her again (she'd already had a restraining order against him after prior assaults). She was denied the “Stand Your Ground” defense afforded Zimmerman and was convicted of aggravated assault, for which she is now serving a 20 year term in prison.
  • Also in Florida, a 51 year-old black man named Alan D. Hicks suffered a stroke while driving along a highway. His car came to rest against a guard rail and police arrived at the scene. When asked for his documents, he couldn't manage a reply but tried to point at the compartment where he had put his wallet. He was dragged out of the car, hand cuffed and deposited in a jail cell overnight lying face down in his own body fluids. He was taken to a hospital the next day, where he fell into a coma and died three months later.
  • The defense rested in the Bradley Manning trial, conducted in a partial news blackout due to the judge denying access to real reporters, as well as to the unwillingness of the main stream media to cover the story.
  • Edward Snowden remains in a transit lounge of the Moscow airport after being granted asylum by a number of countries, but not the means to get to them, since the US has threatened retribution on any country assisting the whistle-blower's movement.
  • The list of jailed and/or persecuted whistle-blowers grows. The ex-CIA agent John Kiriakou, now in prison, wrote an open letter to Edward Snowden advising him to never, never trust the FBI.
  • The official plane of the President of Bolivia was hijacked and illegally searched in Vienna after a coterie of European states, including France, Italy, Spain and Portugal were cowed into denying the plane entry into their airspace. This act of war (or piracy if you prefer) was initiated by President Obama.
  • Student loan interest rates in the US have been doubled from 3.4% to 6.8% as Congress failed to act to avoid the increase.
  • The Iowa Supreme Court upheld a ruling that a dentist acted legally in firing an assistant when he found her too attractive to resist and claimed she was a threat to his marriage.
  • The New York Times reported that the nation's Surveillance Court (FISA) has created a secret body of laws giving the National Security Agency (NSA) the power to amass vast collections of data on Americans.
  • Bloomberg News reports that all eleven members of the FISA Court have been appointed by one man, Chief Justice John Roberts, without a confirmation process conducted by Congress or any other body. All but one member are Republicans and they serve seven-year terms. From 2001 to 2012 the court approved 20,909 surveillance and property search warrants while rejecting ten.
  • Der Spiegel reported an interview with Edward Snowden, in which he claimed that despite protesting US espionage against their country, the German intelligence service works closely with the NSA. Indeed, the NSA has a special department, the Foreign Affairs Directorate, to coordinate spying activities with other nations, most notably Germany and the UK.
  • Salon reported that a 38 year-old optometrist, Sal Culosi, was killed by a SWAT team in a raid instigated by Detective David Baucum, who had talked Culosi into raising the stakes on friendly sports betting. When Baucum arranged a meeting at the victim's house to collect his winnings, he brought along the SWAT team.
  • It's come to light that back in 1998, another Virginia SWAT team had killed a security guard, Edward Reed at a private club being raided.
  • Dave Lindorff reported that according to a Houston FBI document, in October 2011 as Occupy Houston demonstrators took to the streets, the FBI had obtained knowledge of a plot to kill leaders of the movement (by sniper attack). None of the targets were warned. Nor was anyone named or charged in the plot.
  • 80% of processed foods sold in the US are banned in other nations, for using ingredients such as Olestra and brominated vegetable oil.
  • Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared to testify under oath before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on March 12th, 2013. When asked by Senator Ron Wyden “Does the DSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Director Clapper replied “No Sir”. Although we now know from documents released by Edward Snowden that this was an unambiguous lie, no perjury charges have been lodged against Clapper.
  • From William Boardman we hear that a working 18 year-old in Texas, who was a bit of a wise-ass, was jailed for making a tasteless joke on Facebook. Bail is set at $500,000 and he's been charged with making a “a terroristic threat” with a potential penalty of two to ten years in prison and/ a $10,000 fine.
  • Journalist Barrett Brown faces 105 years in prison for reporting on files hacked from private intelligence firms.
  • A 20-year-old female student at the University of Virginia was arrested in a near fatal mix-up with police. Alcoholic Beverage Control agents thought the sparkling water she was carrying out of a store was a six-pack of beer. One agent jumped on the hood of her car and another pulled a gun as she tried to flee in panic. She grazed two agents with her car, was charged with three felonies and jailed overnight. The charges were dropped the following day.
  • Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling had his sentence reduced from twenty-four to fourteen years. His company went from No. 7 on the Fortune 500 to bankruptcy amidst waves of fraud.
  • According to Bloomberg News, the big banks are being subsidized by the federal government to the tune of $83 billion per year by way of the lower interest rates that they pay due to their “too big to fail” status. The food stamp program, which feeds tens of millions of hungry Americans, receives $76 billion.
  • Abusive offshore tax havens cost the US Government more than $150 billion every year, i.e. more than ten times what Obama's proposed cuts to Social Security, via the chained CPI, would save the Treasury.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is to allow consumption of toxic fracking wastewater by wildlife and foodstock. The proposed permits ignore the EPA's own rules requiring the listing of the types of wastes to be treated or dumped.
  • Paul Buchheit writes that while the US is near the top of the developed world in average wealth, median level adults get a lower percentage of their country's wealth than in any countries other than China and India.
  • The Treasury Secretary of the US is lobbying on behalf of the big banks to persuade European countries not to levy a financial speculation tax, despite overwhelming public support for such measures.
  • Private corporations in the security/intelligence/surveillance field make up a growing sub-sector of the Military Industrial Complex, and it's now a $56 billion a year industry. The leading contractors are all heavy contributors to politicians from Barack Obama to John McCain.
  • Corporate tax rates are now at a 60 year low. Corporate profits are now at a 60 year high.
  • More news keeps emerging of the the “leukemogenic” properties of the pesticides found in many of the foods that Monsanto, with the help of the Department of Agriculture and the State Department, is trying to force into the diets of people all around the world.
  • Wells Fargo got $8 billion in tax breaks although its subsidiary Wachavia admitted to laundering more than $378 billion for Mexican drug cartels. None of the bank's officers have been charged or prosecuted.
  • The exact proposed location of the KeystoneXL pipeline is not known to the State Department, where approval of the pipeline is currently under consideration.
  • The Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Several states, including Texas and Florida, immediately moved to restore voter suppression laws that had been considered unconstitutional prior to the decision.
  • The TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) is being secretly negotiated by the US and eleven other countries to give more money and power to corporations while threatening food and environmental safety regulations of the sovereign states.
  • The City of Detroit has filed for bankruptcy, in what is by far the largest US city bankruptcy is US history.
  • On July 18th, in the Bradley Manning trial, despite Manning's guilty plea to releasing classified information, Judge Denise Lind refused to drop the “Aiding the Enemy” charges against him.
  • At a meeting in Atlanta sponsored by Atlantik Brueche, a German association established to create stronger ties between Germany and the US, former President Jimmy Carter said that “America at the moment does not have a functioning democracy”. His remarks were not picked up in the American media but were reported by Der Spiegel.

I can recall radical regime changes in Cuba, Iran, Chile, Spain, Portugal, the Soviet Union, South Africa and more recently in Iraq, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. I've watched them all with curiosity but not very much involvement because they were not my countries and I had little contact with them. After abrupt government changes, with the notable exception of the Soviet Union, most countries kept their names, languages and their territory. Some of these coups, revolutions, wars and revolts have been bloody, others not so much, but although life goes on in the affected countries, the changes have been real and often dramatic. Now it's my country's turn. I have no idea how it will turn out, any more than I can know the future of Syria. I only know that the government of my country, like that of Syria, has lost all credibility, and appears to have been taken over by sociopaths, intent on its self-destruction. There is no longer an operational constitution; the three branches of government are all now in the hands of the multi-national corporations; the regime is the most heavily armed in history and it can track our every move and communication. The USA has become unrecognizable to anyone who has grown up there more than thirty years ago. We can expect to experience growing pressure for revolt as the country's spiral into Third World status accelerates, but the fantasies of gun enthusiasts, who worship the Second Amendment while having little regard for the other parts of the Constitution, will prove small consolation in dealing with the military might of the corporatist regime. The landmass isn't likely to change soon, except perhaps for the immersion of the southern half of Florida, but what will emerge in the post-Republic phase of the United States of America remains to be seen.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sexual Politics

Here in Italy our recent parliamentary elections featured as many as 16 different political parties offering up full lists of candidates for the 918 seats in the two houses of Parliament. While this may represent a wide range of political opinions, issues and interests, it more realistically results from the fact that electoral expenses of all the parties are paid for by the Government. The fragmentation of the electorate has led to coalitions of parties under the umbrella descriptions of center-left and center-right, in order to allow the possibility of alternating administrations, such as the two-party system has historically created in the United States.

Meanwhile, in the US people are clamoring for a third party, or even a move to a multi-party system. Based on the Italian experience, this may not be a fruitful as imagined. The two party system has been made up of Democrats and Republicans since the latter replaced the defunct Whigs in 1860. Republicans traditionally represented business interests and the wealthy, while Democrats have represented put-upon minorities, the term minority originally associated with all people of non-British descent.

Three of my grandparents were of Dutch origin. The two best-known Dutch names in the US are Roosevelt and Rockefeller so I can't say I ever felt the sting of minority status. Nevertheless, I always tended to identify with the underdogs, possibly influenced by my Uncle Martin, a union carpenter who may have been regarded as the black sheep of the family, but who had democratic tendencies rare among his siblings. Our WASP Republican family lived in the New Jersey suburbs, well within the hegemony of the NY Yankees. It must have been my contrarian nature that led me, from an early age, to become a life-long fan of the Boston Red Sox, and equally a foe of the dominant pin-striped Yankees.

While I was spared from minority discrimination myself, I did hear stories of how my German grandfather's delicatessen had been vandalized and my mother's German language lessons curtailed during WWI. For a time Germans were also considered a minority, although I believe their contributions to the US gene pool were even larger than those of the English. In any case, Irish, Italians and Jews all had it much worse, and people of African descent had it worse by another whole magnitude. All have been embraced by the Democratic Party, although for blacks the embrace wasn't extended for a century, until FDR and LBJ came along. I've felt solidarity with them all, with a possible asterisk for the Irish resulting from their unsettling over-representation in local police departments. In any case, I've been proud to call myself a Democrat and vote accordingly.

With the three decade long transformation of the Republican Party from a bastion of the middle class to a single-minded advocate for the richest 1%, one might suppose that the GOP (Grand Old Party for the non-American readers and the very young) would be facing extinction but the One dollar-One vote policies recently enshrined by the Supreme Court have gone a long way toward keeping the party afloat. Most of the above-mentioned groups no longer consider themselves minorities, nor are seen as such, so their Democratic roots have withered. We just don't hear much about Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans or other hyphenated Americans any more. That is not the case for blacks (of all shades) whose stubborness in voting for Democrats at something like a 95% rate has made it easy for them to be gerrymandered or disenfranchised out of political relevance, allowing the outnumbered Republicans to seize the White House in 2000 and 2004. Most humiliating of all, they've been tricked into providing the margin of support needed to get a half black, big business Republican, disguised as a liberal Democrat, elected President, twice. None of the certified GOP Toms, from Alan Keyes to Herman Cain, managed to pull off that trick, but it seems they didn't really need to.

The mainstream media have taken to lamenting that there is no bi-partisanship in government and nothing can be achieved. Whether this stems from naivetè or collusion we can't say but there is bi-partisan agreement on most of the main issues that the US faces today. The need to keep the big banks safe from their own colossal gambling mistakes, the need to keep our military expenditures above those of the rest of the world combined, the need to slash all civilian services and programs; the need for de facto adjustment of the Constitution to accommodate the growing demands of the surveillance state, with the concomitant suppression of whistle blowers; the desirability of preemptive remote-control bombing of possible enemies worldwide; the need to open up trade to obtain the benefits of slave labor; the need to slash taxes and, of course, the need to balance the budget, are all accepted on both sides of the aisle, with minor differences in the details. With President Obama in the White House, Jack Lew at Treasury and Penny Pritzker at Commerce, the big banks are safe.
So with all this unprecedented bi-partisanship around, what can the Democratic Party do to restore its traditions and keep the two-party system alive? There is a fast growing Hispanic minority, exploited and discriminated enough to qualify as Democrats, but it
looks like they will be represented by rich emigrè Cubans, most of whom belong to the GOP.  Eminent Senators have declared, and a number of Supreme Court justices have suggested, that there is no longer any need or justification for affirmative action legislation since the US is now free of racial discrimination.
With racial and ethnic discrimination a thing of the past, in an effort to find new minorities to represent, the Democratic Party has now become the refuge of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender) coalition. The party's entry into sexual politics is hardly a new thing. It's been the standard bearer for all feminist issues for several decades.

The Democratic embrace of the LGBT coalition has been fully reciprocated. In a move reminiscent of that historic moment a decade ago when Colin Powell and Condolizza Rice showed the world that the US Government was no longer just a bunch of old white men lying to and misleading the public, the SF Pride Board Chairman, Lisa Williams, organizer of the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, declared that no demonstration of support for gay whistle-blower Bradley Manning would be tolerated, thus putting the LGBT alliance solidly into the ranks of the political mainstream. Manning, who is currently on trial for whistle-blowing, had been named Grand Marshall of the parade but that decision was rescinded, setting off some demonstrations. This event may prove to be closer in nature and historic relevance to the 1968 Democratic Convention, where Chicago Mayor Daley came down heavily on anti-war demonstrators, paving the way for the phoenix-like rise from the ashes of one Richard M. Nixon.

While I welcome the LGBT folks into the fold and I'm happy to see the rights of gay friends as keenly advocated as were those of previous minorities, I do have a few concerns. This embrace does have some electoral logic since the foot soldiers of the oligarchy, as well as its voting base, tend to come from the ranks of gun nuts and non-Muslim religious zealots. Neither of these groups has shown much solidarity with the LGBT movement. Unfortunately, the LGBT vote, even if as solidly Democratic as the black vote, probably doesn't reach 15%, maybe not even 10% of the electorate. Why not build a bigger tent?

Much discussion of same-sex marriage has been mislabeled as “marriage equality” Who's kidding whom? Ask Mitt Romney. His grandfather was run out of the country for his religious beliefs and personal practices regarding marriage. Who knows what might have happened had Mexican-born George Romney, Mitt's father, won the 1968 GOP primary? Republicans may consider Mexico to be an American colony, much like Panama, John McCain's birthplace, but apparently haven't extended such imperial blessings to the State of Hawaii, the birthplace of the current President. What about all those Bin Laden family members spirited out of the country the day after 9/11 during the air traffic lock-down. They may have had special treatment getting out but were their marital rights respected when they entered the country? I doubt it! The US has suppressed the traditional customs of polygamists for centuries, be they Mormons, Muslims or hippies. Let's call them “pollies”. Why don't pollies have the right to marry those they love?

Current progressive thinking is that people are born straight, gay or bi-sexual but no one seems to have considered that some people are born asexual. Asexuals may not have readily identifiable needs nor prominent issues but still, what political entity is speaking up for “Aces”. Without getting into another nature-nurture argument, we can see that people are living longer, eating and drinking more while exercising less, enduring more daily stress, suffering more and more from prostate ailments, and becoming aces at an increasing rate, regardless of their sexual status at birth.  Perhaps people who are more interested in money than sex just naturally gravitate to the GOP, but why should Democrats concede this growing slice of the electorate without a fight?

Once we tended to think of aces as being mostly priests and nuns, as if all aces were born Catholic, but does anyone speak for Protestant and Jewish aces? In recent years it has emerged that many priests haven't been the aces we thought they were. While our culture now glorifies sexuality in all its splendid variety, it struggles to accept that priests have needs too, and that sometimes their love extends to young people of all sexes.  Lonely football coaches have also come in for harsh approbation when their affections or private parts have been exposed. The term pedophile carries heavy negative connotations. Offering sweets to their sweeties has gotten many older men into deep trouble, even though our laws are confusing and conflicting.
Some young women in the teaching profession are now in prison because in addition to algebra they taught their young charges about love. “Sweets” would be a far less negative term for people whose love knows no age limits.

Much has been made of accepting or rejecting gay Boy Scouts. As I recall, the entry age for Boy Scouts was twelve. When I was rejected, it had nothing to do with sex. I simply failed to memorize the Boy Scout Oath or the Boy Scout Code, I can't remember which. With all the chemicals and hormones in the environment, kids are reaching puberty earlier these days, but is sexual identity cast in stone at twelve? The age of consent in the US ranges from 16 to 18 with some states providing exceptions from prosecution when, for example, the older offender is not more than two years older than the “victim”. Girls can now get over-the-counter day-after birth control bills at any age, a big step toward protecting them from unwanted pregnancy but who is working to decriminalize their partners?

Nymphomaniacs, the patron saints of adolescent boys, and another unprotected sexual minority, are often targets of verbal abuse. Calling them sluts or hos should be just as unacceptable as using other terms of derision such as wop, kike, nigger and faggot, but what is the Democratic Party doing about it? With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder becoming an epidemic and more American soldiers committing suicide than being killed in battle, the government could be mobilizing our “nymphs” to restore morale in our ailing troops and letting them live to fight another day. We haven't even mentioned the rights and problems of our professional sex workers but they vote too.

Even with an expanded sexual campaign, the Democratic Party still needs to widen its base. The fastest expanding demographic group is made up of the morbidly obese. “Bigs” are still a minority for the moment but they need representation. Campaigning for larger airline seats and fighting Mayor Bloomberg's anti-soft drink crusade could go a long way toward rescuing this group from the clutches of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie while creating a permanent Democratic majority.

With the expanded battle for full sexual rights and privileges, and support for Big issues, I believe the Democrats can regain control of both Houses of Congress and perhaps even the Presidency. If not, America may see the growth of one issue splinter parties howling in the dark about bank regulation, the environment, habeas corpus, economic justice, job creation, climate change, infrastructure collapse, social security, immigration, war crimes, education, unending war, corporate personhood and any number of other wedge issues. The US could even end up as politically fragmented as Italy finds itself today.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Italian Election- Part II

The People Have Spoken

And what exactly did they say? They said “Va fannculo”, which more or less translates to “Go fuck yourself” or “fuck off”. This was the campaign slogan of the populist ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, who frequently exhorts his public to say it while flashing a “V” sign with forefinger and middle finger. My apologies for the language but that's Grillo, whose sensibilities run parallel to those of the late George Carlin, never one to use a polite word or phrase when there was a more off-colorful option. Grillo's new party, the Five Star Movement (M5S) led the field, getting 25.5% of the votes for the Chamber of Deputies, leaving 25.4% for the pre-election favorite Partito Democratico (PD), 21.4% for Silvio Berlusconi's Polo della Libertà (PDL), and 8.3% for Mario Monti Lista Civica.

Italy has 20 regions and each has a proportional election to select a bunch of Senators and another to elect a bunch of members of the Chamber of Deputies. Nobody gets to vote for a person. You vote for a party with a list of candidates. Here in Umbria, one of the 20 regions, we had thirteen lists competing for seven seats in the Senate (curiously divided into twenty-two national voting districts) and sixteen lists competing for nine places in the Chamber of Deputies (even more inexplicably divided into twenty-six voting districts) Those seats are apportioned more or less in proportion to the percentage of votes the party receives but clearly most of the smaller parties or lists get no seats at all. The small parties tend to team up with the larger parties, presumably to agree on policies but, if I understand correctly, also to share in the number of seats awarded to the group. How candidate lists and the apportionment of seats are determined remain mysteries to me and, I suspect, to the majority of Italian voters. Thus, while the M5S got a high percentage of votes throughout Italy, the PD, which had the higher totals in central Italy, and the PDL, which won decisively in the northern regions, both took far more seats in both Houses of Parliament than the M5S. That was due in part to their having three or four smaller lists affiliated with them, while the M5S ran alone.

The election rules threw the Va fannculo back in Grillo's face, as you can see from the following:

In the 2013 voting for the Senate the results were:
Grillo's M5S, with 23.8% of the vote, got 58 Senate seats, (19.2%)
Bersani's PD and allies, with 31.6% of the vote, got 113 seats (37.5%);
Berlusconi's PDL and allies, with 30.6 %, got 114 seats (37.8%) and;
Monti and friends, with 9.1 %, got 16 seats (5.2%) for a total of 301 Senators, not counting a small number of Senators for Life, a sort of golden parachute program for respected senior citizens.

In the Chamber of Deputies the breakdown of votes and seats went like this:
M5S 25.5% 110 seats (17.8%)
PD+ allies 29.7% 340 seats (55.1%)
PDL+ allies 28.9% 121 seats (19.6%)
Monti + allies 10.6% 46 seats (7.4%)
617 seats

All this adds to a robust total of 617 deputies deputies in the highest paid parliament in Europe and perhaps in the world. (Note: The charts showing the pre-election division of seats show 291 senators and 580 deputies as opposed to the new totals of 301 and 617. We don't know if the discrepancies represent delegate creep or just that the newspapers have just lost track of how many MPs there really are.)

While we have similar discrepancies in US elections between the numbers of votes cast for a party's candidates and the number of those elected, this result would seem to exceed the wildest gerrymandering dreams of Karl Rove and Scott Walker. The American system confers two Senate seats on each state, whether they be the size of Rhode Island, or of California. In the US House of Representatives the disproportion is even worse, based mostly on gerrymandering, i.e. the manipulation of electoral districts to bundle like-minded voters into a few districts while defining other districts to include just enough of the traditional partisans of the gerrymanderers to assure their control. However corrupt this may be, Americans at least get to vote for a person with a name and a face against another known person. In Italy if you mark a ballot with the name of a person on a party's list, that ballot is annulled. Other than family and friends, nobody in Italy has any idea of who these people on the lists are or how they got there.

Following the election results, all the pundits, parties and newspapers declared Italy ungovernable. Grillo was to meet with Mario Monti, the unelected head of the recent government of technocrats, i.e. bankers, rather than career politicians, whose aim had been to impose on Italy some of the currently fashionable austerity, which has done so much to restore the virtue, if not the efficacy, of governments in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and the UK. Grillo apparently would support an interim government headed by Monti to pass measures limited to two areas, election reform, and anti-corruption reform, before new elections would be held.

His objectives start with his party's own rules for the election:

  1. All candidates on his list must not have had past affiliations with existing political parties.
  2. All M5S candidates had to agree to accept no more than 25% of their parliamentary salaries, with the rest going to a fund to promote small businesses.

Among his more dramatic and attention getting getting proposals are:

  • referendums on Italian adherence to NATO, the EU, the Euro and Free Trade Agreements.
  • A citizenship salary of €1000/month.
  • Default on the public debt.
  • Nationalization of the banks.

However, he also calls for a vast number of measures to save energy, reduce corruption and make the government more responsive to the electorate. Among them are:

  • Abolition of provincial governments and the combining of comunes (townships or counties) with fewer than 5000 residents.
  • Abolition of governing funding of the election expenses of the (many) political parties.
  • Limits of two terms for elected officials.
  • Elimination of special privileges for Parliamentarians, including their pensions after two years served.
  • Prohibition on parliamentarians from holding outside jobs, or additional political offices, while serving in Parliament.
  • Parliamentary salaries to be brought in line with national norms.
  • People found guilty of serious crimes shall not be eligible for elective office nor for managerial positions in publicly listed companies. (Many convicted felons, besides Mr. Berlusconi, occupy high office in Italy, although he represents a pinnacle of sorts.)
  • All laws must be self-financed when enacted.
  • New laws must be published on the internet three months before taking effect.
  • Referendum results must be enacted into law regardless of the percentage of voters participating in the referendum. At present they are advisory and non-binding if less than 50% of the voters participate.
  • Free internet access for everyone.
  • No one person shall be allowed to own more than 10% of any national publication or TV channel.
  • There will be only one public TV channel and it shall have no advertising.
  • Executive salary limits on all publicly traded corporations and for those with government participation.

How successful Grillo's populist efforts will be remains to be seen. We do have strong doubts about the likelihood of any of the three other competing groups getting anything done to resolve Italy's major problems. The Italian press, and even more the international press, writes of both Grillo and Berlusconi as buffoons unworthy of consideration. We're pleased that, unlike the US, where politicians all seem bent on creating false problems, crises and deadlines while ignoring real problems and running the country into the ground, Italy seems to have at least one political leader who is proposing bold solutions where they are needed.