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