Monday, November 21, 2016

Giving Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Italian Cutting Edge Politics

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

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

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

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


De Mita


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

Gabbard for President 2020

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Race to the White House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Thiel
Roger Ailes

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

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

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

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Before You Flee the USA

We’re hearing a lot of vague talk about people leaving the USA if Donald Trump is elected president, a prospect that most pundits and pollsters view as being as unlikely as the passage of Brexit.  As someone who left the US at the time proceedings to remove Richard Nixon from office were underway, I thought I might offer some perspective and some advice to potential self-exiles.

Richard Nixon resigned on August 9th, 1974, 249 days after I moved to Italy. His place in the White House was taken by Gerald Ford, the only American President never to have been elected to either the presidency or the vice-presidency, having been appointed to replace Spiro Agnew, who left the vice-presidency under federal indictment for corruption. Ford’s one memorable achievement as President was to pardon Nixon of all criminal charges for which he might be indicted.

Despite his 2008 campaign slogan of hope and change, once elected, Barack Obama modeled his presidency on that of Gerald Ford. Fearing that prosecution of Nixon on burglary charges might tear the country apart, Ford had pardoned Nixon before any indictments were even prepared.  While Bush had never been impeached or indicted, his crimes, rather than burglary to steal political secrets, consisted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Obama chose to pursue a policy of looking ahead rather than behind in order to secure cooperation from Congressional Republicans.

His appeal for unity and non-partisanship appears not to have borne the desired fruit, other than sour grapes. Indeed, he has opened the door to Donald Trump, who openly boasts that his war crimes and disregard for the Constitution and international law will be bigger and bolder than those of George W. Bush. This kind of speech was unthinkable only a few years ago. Bush even took considerable measures to keep his criminal activities secret. When some of the grimmer details leaked, President Obama went to unprecedented lengths to prosecute the leakers and to steadfastly avoid prosecution of the criminals.

Now we’re faced with the prospect of a President Trump, although he is still considered an underdog, due to his monumental unpopularity ratings and the fear that he inspires. Standing between him and the White House is Hillary Clinton, whose own unpopularity rating only trails that of Trump by a few percentage points and who may still have legal problems lurking. She may have the ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain overwhelming victory despite Trump’s trashing of the Republican Party establishment. The Obama Administration has managed to delay or completely omit any prosecution of his ordained successor for breaches of security related to her private web server and there has been no mention of the many violations of electoral law throughout the primaries. This complicity has enabled Clinton to stay in the race for the Democratic nomination and win it but the growing perception of a conspiracy between the Obama Administration, the DNC, and the mainstream media to anoint the Clinton candidacy could lead her to defeat.

As prolific author and old college classmate of mine, Frederick Ramsay, recently put it, we’re now faced with the choice of a Benito Mussolini and an Eva Peron.

Before you give notice at work or put your house on the market, you might want to consider a few facts regarding life abroad as an American ex-patriot.

  1. The USA is the one major nation in the world that taxes its citizens based on their citizenship rather than on their place of residency.   US taxes are low but there’s no escaping them unless you’re rich enough to be able to afford a Panamanian business adviser. Demonstrating the exceptional ability to have it both ways, the US also taxes non-citizen residents based on their residency, rather than their nationality.
  2. The US has recently made a considerable effort to make life difficult for US citizens residing abroad through what are mostly referred to as FATCA provisions. Among other things, these require that foreign banks report accounts held by US citizens to the Internal Revenue Service. Banks don’t want to incur this responsibility and for the most part they are simply refusing to open accounts for US citizens, or to close those already open. The FATCA regulations go beyond this so before you start packing, you should probably check them out. Brokerage houses are also canceling the accounts of US citizens living abroad, although we suspect that if the account is sufficiently large, they may make an exception.
  3. It is possible to renounce US citizenship but the fees for doing so have recently been tripled to something over $2000. That might be a reasonable investment but it will almost certainly result in a thorough audit of your tax returns to examine your motives. We all know that people all over the world are begging to become US citizens, so what is your criminal motivation for going against the universal consensus? We risk stating the obvious by reminding you to obtain a desirable citizenship before giving up the passport that got you there. Being a stateless person is not a desirable option.

Now, if all these warnings haven’t dampened your desire to escape the asylum, there remains the big question--- where to go?

Canada seems to be the first place Americans think of when contemplating an escape from the NRA or other US excesses. Donald Trump plans to build a tall wall along the Mexican border but if more Yankees start crossing the Canadian border than people crossing that US border from the south, will the Canadians do the same? At least there’s the risk that they may become less welcoming. There are many lovely places in Canada, at least in the summer, but realistically, how many people can Vancouver absorb?
Umbrian olive grove

I have never regretted moving to Italy. After forty-three years, I still think it’s the best place in the world to live but such views may have been distorted by its abundant and wonderful wine. There are some drawbacks. For example, if you need to work, Italy is a difficult place to live. The country is very welcoming to anyone who is financially  self-sufficient and who can thereby help the national economy. However, your education and professional credentials will not be acknowledged. Steady employment is difficult to find, even for Italians. Self-employment is also difficult due to the bureaucracy, unless one can find a way to work abroad while living here.

Housing in major cities, where there may be some possibilities of employment, is expensive. However, there are splendid opportunities to live in rural settings. Property taxes are low and the medical system is both very good and accessible. In some parts of the south, houses are being given away by local governments to people who pledge to restore them and live in them. If you have the means to be economically independent, you can probably live well in most countries, even in the USA, and there are less expensive places live than Italy, but none have the cultural and culinary advantages of this blessed country.  

Between writing this and posting it to the blog, we have witnessed a catastrophic earthquake in central Italy, proving that no matter how wonderful a place may be, none is immune from natural or unnatural disasters.  So among the drawbacks of Italy, I suppose one would have to include the threat of earthquakes.
Go paint the Irish coast

Language is a consideration for anyone contemplating relocation. Americans are not very adept at other languages and beyond a certain age, usually around thirteen, most of us can kiss our linguistic ambitions goodbye. That helps explain the allure of Canada, despite its climate. There are some other options in the English speaking world worthy of consideration. Ireland is a beautiful country with a mere four million people, most of them charming.. Artists pay no taxes there on their art income, so if you’re an artist, you might want to give it a look, unless climate is important to you. Other options include Australia and New Zealand, both places where work is legal. Bermuda is a beautiful small island with 65,000 people, in the middle of the ocean, the perfect place if you own a company with profits to shield.
Bermuda, population 65.000

England is a country I wouldn't have considered to be much of an option for US exiles, given as how Tony Blair converted it into an American colony of sorts.  I mean, if you want to leave on political grounds, why go to a State Department subsidiary?  However, post-Brexit, everything needs to be reevaluated.  A few years ago, prices for almost anything were insanely high, but then one pound was worth $2.  Post-Brexit, the pound has slipped to about $1.35 and if the trend continues, the UK may not be so impossibly expensive.  On the other hand, British residency may no longer confer unlimited access to the rest of Europe, but there are still quaint pubs, beautiful gardens, a Queen and lots of history. While some parts of the country may confront  Americans with a language barrier as impenetrable as that of France, there is little risk of being subjected to younger people saying "I'm good" or "I'm like....."

Malta, population 450,000
If Americans speak a language other than English, chances are that it’s Spanish, which is good because Spanish is the language of many countries in the world, most of them with better weather than Canada. Generally, the smaller the country, the the easier it will be to get by with English. Big countries, such as France, Germany and Italy, have many millions of people who speak their own language, so if you don’t, you will remain something of an outsider. There aren’t many people in the world who speak Dutch, Finnish, Greek or Maltese. Those who do may be just as proud of their language and culture, but a higher percentage of them will speak English, making your exile a bit easier.

Two other rules of thumb:
  1. If you have enough money to live comfortably, the poorer the country, the better you’ll be able to live. This is probably the reason that American oligarchs and their politician employees are working so hard to devastate the American economy. Slavery is out of fashion these days but multitudes of low wage workers can make life so much more comfortable for the affluent or even the moderately well off.  
  2. The political climate of a country is largely dictated by what the people have lived through a couple of generations back. Thus, countries which have suffered through decades of Soviet communist rule tend to swing to the right, often the extreme right. Poland and Hungary are two prime examples but Austria, which is far enough east to have felt the pressure, has also flirted with the far right recently. Germany, Spain and Italy, having lived through the worst of the fascist dictatorships, have tended left in the post war era, although after seventy years that phase may be ending. Latin American countries, having virtually all been under the thumb of American-imposed fascist military dictatorships, keep struggling to go left, except where those dictators remain in control. There are exceptions, such as Cuba, which was and still is under a communist dictatorship of sorts. We don’t know where that will end up but Cuban refugees in the US have produced a font of ultra-right politicians such as Ted Cruz and Mario Rubio, along with thousands of rabid right wingers in the Miami area. They are pushing hard to validate our theory.

I have a classmate/friend who just completed his fourth visit to Ukraine in as many years. His blog features descriptions of his travels along with many beautiful pictures. The country is very poor and has a history of rampant corruption but we surmise that it would be a very cheap place to live. It boasts a strong musical tradition, a lovely landscape, except for Chernobyl, and splendid architecture. An undercurrent of fascism and an on-going civil war would seem to be its major drawbacks.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have had some indirect contact with Nicaragua, an economically viable tropical retreat. The weather is hot and hotter, but if you’ve had it with snow, it might be the place to go. The son of a cousin of my wife has opened an Italian restaurant/pizzeria in Leon, Nicaragua called Borgo Italia. Leon is is just twenty or thirty km from the Pacific coast. Sunshine, surfing and Italian food sounds like a winning combination to me.  Tell Navin that we sent you.

It seems that Nicaragua has mellowed out enough to keep the American dogs of war at bay after regaining control from the US imposed regime via elections. It’s hard to predict where the country is headed but it seems to be following the lead of Costa Rica in becoming a new vacation and retirement home for Americans, Canadians and others.

We could speculate further on potential havens for escapees but first should note that while the exodus is largely predicated on a Trump presidency, actions taken by the current president, the “constitutional scholar” Barack Obama, before the inauguration of the next president, could affect conditions in the US and the rest of the world far more than anything a President Trump is likely to do, and which neither a President Trump nor a President Clinton are likely to be able to reverse. If Obama succeeds in slipping through his pet “trade agreements” during the lame duck session, all legislative responsibilities pass into the hands of large multi-national corporations. This in effect will eliminate already lax environmental rules. European food standards will go, allowing the spread of whatever substances the privatized FDA deems fit for human consumption throughout the world. The FDA currently enjoys a reputation roughly on a par with those of the US Congress and the Supreme Court.

Global warming will accelerate as emissions standards are relaxed.   You might want to hold off on your plans for exile until after the lame duck session of Congress ends. Should the trade agreements go through,  consider heading for higher, cooler lands, as those lovely low-lying tropical paradises will come to resemble Hell, with Ireland and Scotland emerging as the new wine countries.

Good luck!

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Modest Proposal for the Refugee Problem

While Donald Trump and his GOP rivals were competing to claim who would take the most extreme measures to keep refugees out of the US, from the liberal side we’ve heard a stream of platitudes about what a boon to the country the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees will be, and how the diversity of the population has been a source of strength and variety.

Yes, it’s true. We now get to eat pizza, hot dogs, tacos, spring rolls and even soul food at adjacent stands in shopping mall food courts throughout America. We forget how long it took, or is taking, for the groups who brought these foods to be fully accepted by the mainstream population.

People seem to prefer to live among people like themselves. It’s not just blue-haired ladies with matching eyes in the gated communities of South Carolina. Urban liberals in NY or  LA, who insist on eating in a restaurant of a different ethnicity every day, don’t really want to see or talk to people who shop at Walmart or vote Republican. The US may be a great melting pot but the ingredients are only amalgamated up to a point. The segments of the population remain segregated and stratified to the point where most districts and most states are never politically subject to change.

Here in rural Umbria we have an ex-pat community of people from all over the world, but their similarity in tastes and attitudes is far greater than any of their national differences. While some may be more economically conservative than they let on in public, they are all rigorously socially progressive. Social conservatives and people with strong religious views are looked upon askance.  As for the local people, there is a similar degree of conformity, however superficial.  Being hunters, most wear the same camouflage outfits, drive the same Suzuki jeeps, and share a predilection for becoming prematurely overweight.  Whatever their political views, they all display the same paralyzing level of cynicism about politics and politicians.

The local and ex-pat communities seem to get along well, given that the latter bring money and work. Refugees can be seen in the nearby towns and cities, mostly begging in the supermarket parking lots, but in the countryside, they are rarely visible. Our immigrant foreigners are predominantly women from Eastern Europe who have come to be live-in help for aging people who can’t manage on their own. They blend in. Interest in the cultural diversity they bring is minimal but they are certainly well integrated. Italy was accommodating and assimilating immigrants fairly well until the French, English and Americans decided that Colonel Gaddafi had to be overthrown. Since then, not so well.

In theory, liberals and conservatives may be split on whether to welcome or send back potential refugees but their visceral reactions are probably not all that different.. Those reactions will depend on whether they can find some common ground and reciprocally advantageous dealings, or whether the newcomers simply come to be seen as “the other”.
Aren't they cute
less cute

Before considering what to do with the refugees, it might be worth considering why there are suddenly so many of them, and where they’re coming from.

In the US, where Donald Trump wants to build the Great Wall of Mexico, Mexicans have been coming to the US to pick crops, tend gardens and do a number of other jobs that Americans citizens don’t want to do and that agribusinesses and other businesses want done on the cheap. It’s a Republican nightmare. Republican voters resent competing with illegal immigrants (now officially referred to as undocumented workers) for low wage jobs while big Republican donors want the cheap labor. This dilemma crosses party lines but the redder the state (e.g. Texas), the more strident the hypocrisy. Working conditions on both sides of the border are fairly bad and from the latest statistics that I’ve seen, it appears that about as many Mexicans are now going back to Mexico as are entering the US. There are still lots of people coming illegally, so what’s going on?

Much of the flow of refugees across the US border consists of people fleeing what were often referred to as the Banana Republics, i.e. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. What those countries have had in common, besides bananas, are brutal fascist regimes, either installed by, propped up by, or trained by the USA. Some of our politicians are referring to the border crossers as murderers, rapists and drug dealers, while more kindly disposed politicians tend to call them people seeking the American dream. Rather than seeking the “American dream”, I would tend to see them as people fleeing a universal nightmare. Young women are being raped and slaughtered in those countries.

A US backed coup in 1954 installed the first of a long series of military dictators in Guatemala. A civil war between the government and Mayan and Ladino peasants lasted from 1960 until 1996, with a death toll of 250,000. The Guatemalan Government earned recognition as the first Latin American country to “disappear” its opposition in large numbers. Former leader Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to eighty years in 2012 for genocide but his conviction was overturned quickly when he was deemed too old for such a sentence. In recent years corruption seems to have superseded genocide as the country’s major problem.

El Salvador has the closest relationship of all Central American states with the USA. Oligarchy dominated the 19th Century, to be displaced by military dictatorships in the mid-20th Century. El Salvador’s civil war was shorter than that of Guatemala, lasting from 1980 to 1992, during which time El Salvador actually made news in 1989, even in the US, when a US-trained death squad murdered a group of Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Many El Salvadorans live in the US. A significant number of them joined US street gangs and were deported back to El Salvador, where they joined up with armed survivors of the civil war to establish street gangs at home. They deal in extortion, kidnapping and drug trafficking and have infiltrated the government, the police and the military. The murder rate is El Salvador is just over 100 per 100,000, the highest in the world.

In 2008 Manuel Zelaya was elected President of Honduras. He was deposed in 2009 by a coup financed by CEAL, a business group in Honduras, represented by Hillary Clinton’s friend Lanny Davis. She prevented Zalaya from returning to Honduras and helped arrange the elections which he was kept out of. The US immediately recognized the new government and provided military assistance to it, despite the law saying that the US can not assist a government established by a coup d’etat. The State Department simply claimed that it was not a military coup. Since then Honduras has become a militarized state and by 2010 it had the world’s highest murder rate. We don’t know whether that title is currently held by El Salvador or Honduras but people are fleeing for their lives from both countries.

There seems to be little talk about this flight from terror in the American media, just that a lot of people are illegally crossing the US border. Ending US support for the Banana Fascist military regimes wouldn’t solve the crisis overnight but with time, the people would regain control of their countries. They might then be the ones to build walls-- to keep the gringos out.

The subject of refugees from the Middle East comes up a bit more.  Here again, there are decidedly different takes. I have a friend who talks about his wonderful doctor from Syria. Others don’t want to see any damned Muslims. Does anybody ask about why there is now an abundance of refugees from the Middle East? Perhaps they know but just don’t want to think about it.

In 2003, the USA, under President George W. Bush, invaded, occupied and destroyed Iraq, one of the few secular countries in the Middle East, for no rational, strategical or defensible reason. Members of the Baathist Party, made up of the dominant Sunni sect, were dismissed from the military and all government positions, and declared to be unemployable. Just imagine Ohio and Pennsylvania being invaded and occupied by an unstoppable superpower which decreed that anyone who was a Roman Catholic or a registered Republican was not fit to be employed in any capacity! It has taken some time but after being pushed out of their jobs, their homes and their neighborhoods by the invasion and the ensuing civil war, the younger and more energetic Sunnis have emerged, with Saudi money and US weapons, as the new ISIS or ISIL or DAESH or the Islamic Califate. The older or more pacific Iraqis have fled to whatever adjacent country they could escape to, mostly Jordan and Syria. Those countries, flooded with refugees, are in dire straits. Syria’s dictator, who has kept a lid on sectarian strife, however ruthlessly, now faces internal opposition, reinforced by personnel from Al Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups, while also receiving support from the US (which, led by Senators John Mc Cain and Lindsay Graham, always seeks to find the good guys, i.e, the “moderate rebels” and ply them with advanced weaponry) and “America’s best ally in the Middle East apart from Israel, Saudi Arabia”. This alone would have been enough to set off a huge flow of refugees, but alas, the neo-cons struck again, following Sarkozy’s lead, to support the overthrow of Col. Gaddafi. Sarkozy at least admitted to having a motive. He was after a large share of Libyan oil, but what were Cameron and Obama/Clinton thinking? Oh wait, it was destroy them to save them, that recurrent American theme.

Let’s put aside the tall walls and the cheerful platitudes. We all know the china shop policy: break it and you’ve bought it, but we prefer to adhere to supermarket policy. That bottle of ketchup that fell and shattered as you reached for something else is just a small bit of the supermarket’s overhead, so don’t worry, somebody will be there to clean it up before anyone can track ketchup all over the store. Life and shopping go on uninterrupted. Comforting, but let’s be serious folks. It wasn’t a bottle of ketchup. We brought a whole herd of elephants into the china shop, or to reshift the analogy, we set off a containerful of explosives in the supermarket. They’re out of business! Surviving customers and employees are fleeing the wreckage.

We Americans don’t deal with moral debts too well, partly because we have trouble acknowledging them in the first place. We did eventually get rid of slavery but it took a very bloody civil war. There was talk of forty acres and a mule for the freed slaves but neither the forty acres nor the mules ever materialized.

We did better with war reparations and war crime trials when imposing them on other countries, but somehow, the laws we established in Nuremberg have never been applied to our own misdeeds. Our moral debt to the world is growing even faster than our our balance of trade deficit. What’s to be done about all these refugees that we’ve displaced?
cat skulls being cleaned by bugs- photo by Trip Advisor

Among the adventures of my distant youth, I spent a number of months in the State of Oklahoma undergoing military training. I can vouch for the terrain being every bit as challenging as the Arabian desert, where fate also led me to spend a significant amount of time. Oklahoma in those days was notable for countless little Mom and Pop museums featuring large snakes, scorpions, centipedes and God knows what other poisonous denizens of the desert. Among my most vivid memories there was the ten day period when the temperature never went below 41°C (107°F), day or night. Then there was the bug epidemic in Oklahoma City. Large brittle bugs were all over the streets and sidewalks to where you couldn’t take a step without crunching one. Some people have made a life for themselves in Oklahoma- mostly football coaches- but it is a challenge. If Syrian and Iraqi refugees have survived through the destruction of their desert kingdoms, they can thrive in Oklahoma.

Jim Imhofe proves climate change is a hoax
Oklahoma’s most important political leader is Senator Jim Imhofe. Americans are terrified by fanatical Islamic terrorists and the widespread rejection of refugees from the Middle East is largely a function of the this fear. I would suggest that refugees in America have as much to fear from our homegrown religious fundamentalists as the other way around.

I hereby propose that one half of the territory of Oklahoma, excluding that already set aside for Native Americans, be set aside as a new colony for refugees from the Middle East. If they survived under the bloody regimes of Saddam Hussein and Assad, they can make it in the desert fiefdom of Jim Imhofe. The more fervent Islamacists believe that 72 virgins await each martyred jihadi in Paradise. Jim Imhofe believes that the environment of this planet is in God’s hands and that it’s presumptuous to think that man can influence it. That could be seen as a standoff between two rival belief systems, except that while there is no scientific evidence confirming or denying the existence of Paradise or the presence there of compliant virgins, there is actually a broad scientific consensus that man is mucking up our climate and our atmosphere.

I see the settling of a few hundred thousand refugees in Oklahoma as a win-win situation. If they quietly assimilate, we’ll just see more Arab specialties in our food courts.
shawarma may be the new pizza
If they turn out to be mostly hard-core religious fanatics, they’ll have to compete with the very tough and well armed locals. We’ve seen competition between rival sects before. Jehovah’s Witnesses vs. Seventh Day Adventists, Scientologists against everybody. Look at Utah. Mormons were thought to be a subversive group. Mitt Romney’s grandfather was driven out of the US for his polygamous views, but by 2012 Mitt got to run for President, the dream of every aspiring American.

Our views of marriage have opened up a lot recently so we should have no trouble accommodating traditional Islamic customs. We’ve seen Irish terrorists, German terrorists, Italian terrorists, southern white terrorists, so why the unique obsession with the Islamic faction? The IRA was largely financed in Boston and New York, the Likud in NY and LA. It may be tough but it’s time to move on. I can understand and even feel the widespread aversion to the Other, having just watched parts of the Republican National Convention, but I’m betting that all those Syrians and Iraqis will make Oklahoma a better place.