Thursday, November 9, 2017

Meeting the Challenges

The eminent British historian Arnold Toynbee devoted the twelve massive volumes of his epic work, A Study of History, to showing how his theory of history applied to twenty-three civilizations. In essence, his theory was that civilizations rise or fall in response to major challenges. If they face no major challenges, they don't rise very far and if they fail to respond to major challenges, they collapse and die.

I wouldn't presume to challenge Professor Toynbee's theory but if he was right, it looks like we're up the creek without a paddle. Rising to overcome a major challenge is difficult but if those threats are not acknowledged, it is all but impossible to overcome them.

There are two existential challenges to our civilization right now, starting with climate change and moving on to the accelerating gap between rich and poor. The first threatens to make large portions of currently inhabited parts of the world uninhabitable while the second will end democracy as the form of society which has characterized our recent civilization, returning us to some new variety of feudalism akin to that of the medieval world. American President Trump has appointed cabinet officials dedicated to cutting back all regulation aimed at protecting the environment and dealing with climate change, as if telling the musicians playing on the top deck of the Titanic to play louder will make everything better. He is also currently engaged in an effort to loot the Treasury on behalf of his fellow oligarchs. The heist, which goes under the innocent sounding name of “tax reform”, is being conducted under cover of an endless stream of public insults of everyone from foreign and domestic leaders to gold star mothers.

While these two challenges may prove to be life-threatening for our civilization, there are others which might provide a start in our efforts to save ourselves. We badly need some good news and if you look really hard, from time to time you can find it.

Sometimes problems are identified that many of us never knew the existence of. Climate skeptics are still saying that about climate change. In March of 2016 the Governor of North Carolina signed a bill into law blocking cities from allowing transgender individuals from using public bathrooms of the sex they identify with. Who knew that there was a problem? Many of us were not even aware of the growing legion of transgender people or, for that matter, what a transgender person is. Not completely unaware perhaps. I recall a person named Christine Jorgensen being prominently in the news in 1952 as an early recipient of sex change operations. She had started life as George. In 2015, Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon winner, revealed that he had always felt like he was supposed to be a woman and had recently completed a transformation into a woman, now known as Caitlin. Is this recent surge of confusion over sexual identity Nature's way, or God's way, of responding to the impending population explosion? If so, it doesn't seem to have worked, at least in the case of Jenner, who fathered six children during his three marriages, some even after he had started his transformative treatment.

Then again, we're not interested in divine solutions. We're looking to find human solutions. President Trump's recent toying with the possibility of nuclear war may be a subtle attempt to seek an answer to the problems of overpopulation and mass migration but we can do better than that.

The gender confusion issue is apparently more real than some of us thought. Much has been written about it without shedding much light. The most interesting writing on the subject that I've seen is Sons and Daughters, the village where girls turn into boys, by Susan Topol in the August 2017 issue of Harper's Magazine. For those mystified by the whole subject, it's worth reading. There also seems to be a growing movement involved in promoting the confusion. Some might see the phenomenon as a problem that needs attention as such, but that's not our aim in this piece. We're looking for good news and signs of hope.

In March of 2017, just a year after the Governor had signed the NC toilet bill into law, the law was repealed. What happened? Did the citizens of North Carolina have a change of heart or did all the men there harbor a wish to try out women's rest rooms? Not likely. Instead, groups all around the country, seizing the opportunity to speak out against discrimination against another beleaguered minority, rallied to protest the outrage perpetrated by the NC legislature. Entertainers canceled concerts, sport teams canceled All-Star contests, conventions were relocated out of state and corporations canceled plans to move their headquarters to North Carolina. In Charlotte alone, the Chamber of Commerce estimated losses to the city of $285 million and 1,300 jobs. Money talks! We will deal with the deification of the market at another time. For now, we'll just look at the upside.

On October 1st of this year, a disgruntled white male American brought twenty-three weapons, some of them automatic or semi-automatic, into his hotel suite in Las Vegas and opened fire on a crowd at a concert thirty-two floors below, killing fifty-nine people. More than 500 others were wounded or injured. Thirty-five days later another troubled native-born white American walked into a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and fired on the congregation, killing twenty-six people. Both of these incidents were horrifying and shocking but not altogether surprising. The US has been averaging about one multiple shooting (defined as at least four people shot) per day throughout the year.

We don't know how many gender confused children were traumatized by public toilet incidents in Charlotte but a huge effort went into saving them from further discomfort. Couldn't a proportional effort be made on behalf of the eighty-five dead people in Las Vegas and Texas and the ones sure to follow? Both places proclaim themselves to be radically pro-gun. Open carry laws proliferate as do military style weapons. All you entertainers who boycotted Charlotte, where are you now? Athletes? I doubt that any of you would want to play in an open carry stadium, and the stadium owners probably don't want to risk damage to their property (including their players) but how about getting to and from the stadium? The Oakland Raiders are scheduled to move to Las Vegas in two or three years. Put your national anthem protests aside and get your agents to stipulate in your next contract that you won't play in an open carry city. Convention organizers, how about crossing open carry places off your list of potential venues. Thousands of people flock to Las Vegas for gambling, divorces and other types of “fun”. Some of them go there for the chance to shoot military style weapons at shooting ranges but if the more normal people all got together and said thanks but we'll do our debauchery in a safer environment, things might change almost as quickly as they did in Charlotte. Ironically, some of us signed petitions requesting that the GOP National Convention of 2016 in Cleveland be an open-carry convention but the politicians, with their own asses on the line, would have none of it. Why should they be more secure than singers, athletes or the general public?

Our prayers can go to the families of the dead, our letters to the newspapers, and our petitions to our Congressmen. We'll feel better for our good intentions and that will soften our resignation. Maybe Putin can do something to help, as he's credited with guiding most outcomes in the US, but don't hold your breath. Do you have college age children? Don't let them attend any school in an open carry state, much less exposing them to an open carry campus. Money talks. Make it clear to all these places that they can have their guns, or some of your money, but not both.

After the gun epidemic is cured, maybe we can move on to the vital issues of climate change and the new feudalism.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Punditalia Enemies List

While the term “Enemies List” conjures up memories of Richard Nixon, tempting us to avoid making such a compilation, the critical lack of enemies is such that we feel a duty find an answer. National Football League teams have difficulty paring down their rosters to the fifty-three player maximum. Identifying the ten people who constitute the most serious threats to our well-being is a far more onerous task, so much so that we've cheated a little, including twelve people* to the top ten list. So many players, so few positions available

Our readers have not been helpful, offering no suggestions of what we should do to find useful enemies. As to who the real enemies of the moment are, we will admit that it may be nationalistic hubris on our part, together with a lack of extensive knowledge of the villains lurking in other parts of the world, but we simply cannot think of anyone outside the USA who poses as great a threat to the world as do a large number of people operating within the country.

In ascending order, here are our choices for the ten foremost enemies of the American people and, in a variant of trickle down theory, of the peace and prosperity of the world:

10. Betsy DeVos- US Secretary of Education. Betsy De Vos has devoted a significant amount of her life and much of her considerable wealth to destroying public education in the US and now she is in a position to wreak ever more havoc. She might be too clueless to make this list but she gets extra points for being the sister of Eric Prince, founder of Blackwater.  In a tight race she was named worst of the worst of the Swamp Cabinet by NYT readers.   If American education should fail, other countries, from Finland to China, will continue to provide quality education, but a further rapid decline in knowledge in the USA does not bode well for the future of the planet.

9. Scott Pruitt- Head of the Environmental Protection Agency- The entire swamp cabinet is a vast collective threat to the security of the world. It's hard to pick the worst of the bunch (see the link above- Pruitt was runner-up) but putting a dedicated enemy of the environment in charge of the EPA, an agency he has sued on multiple occasions, would seem a sure path to creating an important world-class enemy.

8. Paul Singer- vulture capitalist. A public enemy who works mostly outside the public scrutiny, the world's leading vulture capitalist has brought misery to a number of nations from Congo to Argentina and most recently has been involved in creating and/or exploiting the economic crisis in Puerto Rico.

7. Rupert Murdoch- He's getting old and possibly mellower, considering that Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly and Megyn Kelly have all departed his realm, but Murdoch still controls a vast media network, which has been responsible for lowering the standards of public discourse, and of journalism, on at least three continents. Decades ago, few could imagine how an ultra right wing agenda could be promoted with the success he's had at it.

6. David and Charles Koch*- Their private lives may feature different favorite charities, but in their efforts to buy up the US Congress they act in tandem. Whereas there are other oligarchs motivated in part by a desire to bring about their own “better” vision of the future, these two consistently seek to further enrich themselves by ruinously exploiting natural resources and to do so they have no scruples about corrupting elected officials.

5. a tie*: Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader and Tom Price, the new Head of the Department of Health and Human Resources. While McConnell would make many lists as public enemy number one, he may be on the way out. Both men are determined to limit health care in America to the wealthy, while diverting the savings from withheld care to tax giveaways to the super rich. Rumor has it that as a young member of Congress, McConnell served his constituents reasonably well. As so often happens in politics, venality grows with seniority and today there is no corporate lobbying effort that McConnell will turn away, no tactic too sleazy, no hypocrisy by which he can be embarrassed. Greed having replaced any moral compass he may have ever possessed, he is a dangerous man to have leading the US Senate. If he succeeds in passing either the umpteenth version of Trump Care or the anarchy-producing Affordable Care Act Repeal, his political future will end as soon as a large percentage of his Kentucky constituents realize that he has eliminated their health care. Win or lose, Tom Price will be there to reduce and even terminate health care for vast swaths of American citizens.  We have heard no rumors that in his youth Price was burdened by good intentions.

4. Grover Norquist- Another enemy of democracy who flies under the radar. In an earlier cartoon, I summarized the similar backgrounds, ideology and careers of Grover Norquist and Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was eliminated by Navy seals but Norquist is still at large, conducting weekly breakfasts for members of Congress where he induces them to take a sworn oath, in violation of their oath to protect the people and the Constitution of the United States, to never raise taxes. This could reasonably be seen as fomenting treason but it's been going on for years without prosecution. People often wonder how could a rich country such as the USA allow its infrastructure to decay to third world levels. Grover Norquist is a major factor.

3. Donald Trump- President of the USA. More than enough has been said about this man but as America's own Kim Jong Un, he does pose a credible threat to the peace and stability of the world.

2. Paul Ryan- While serial liars are not necessarily a threat to the Republic, when one becomes Speaker of the House and therefore right behind the Vice-President in line of succession to the presidency, it is time for concern. Apparently, the lies of Trump are accepted by friends and foes alike as the egocentric, mindless bluster of an adolescent bully. His speech is almost completely content-free. Ryan instead has the ability to recite endless sequences of verifiable non-facts, without embarrassment, as he charms countless grandmothers across the Midwest with his watery blue eyes, all the while doing contortions to deprive them of social security and medicare. Even the venerable New York Times describes him as a “policy wonk” despite his having proposed a total government budget less than the current military budget, but which increases military spending and slashes taxes, and the whole thing would be balanced. He doesn't appear to be very bright but his enviable acting skills have allowed him to synthesize the two books he's read, 1984 and Atlas Shrugged into his public persona of devout Roman Catholic who proclaims that greed is good and the rich shall inherit the earth.

1. Kris Kobach- A rising star on the enemies list, Kobach bears a greater responsibility for Donald Trump's entry into the White House than the collective effect of all the others blamed for it, from Putin to Hillary, James Comey to Debbie Wassermann Schultz. As inventor and administrator of Operation Crosscheck, Kobach was responsible for the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of US citizens, most of them from the African-American, Latino, and Asian-American communities. The suppressed vote in several decisive states was up to ten times the winning margin in those states. He has now been appointed to oversee the bogus prosecution of voter fraud, much as the leading proponent of environmental degradation has been appointed to oversee the EPA. Kobach and his GOP accomplices have built an electoral system whose corruption may be insurmountable. Trump could prove to be the most unpopular President in US history and the Republican Congress may be reviled, but the chances of their being removed by election grow ever more remote. Kobach embodies intelligence in combination with pure evil. More than Trump, he may become the face of American Fascism.

We don't mean to slight our European friends or others but who is there outside the US with both the will and the means to inflict as much damage as the people on the above list. The EU and its members states have no shortage of politicians who are foolish, incompetent, misguided, venal or corrupt but few are infused with enthusiasm for the New Feudalism, i.e. the endgame of the Neo-con lust for upward redistribution of wealth and elimination of the middle class.

Ms. Le Pen might have made the cut had she been elected to rule France but even she responded to real problems, not of her own making, no matter how odious some of her views may appear. In Europe there are still political opponents, no matter how contrasting their positions. In the US today, the big battles are with enemies, not opponents.

Perhaps confining the enemies list to individuals was a mistake. Nations qualified as military enemies in the past, but in today's globalized world where nations have lost their clout, various other non-governmental entities have stepped up to fill the void. A short list of groups justifying surveillance and possible action by the Department of Defense would surely include ALEC, the US Chamber of Commerce, Goldman Sachs, Macquarie, Monsanto and AIPAC to join the already singled out ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Our list also excludes people still living who have inflicted more damage on the world than most of our current finalists. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney may have done more than any other living humans to promote the New Feudalism but Bush now confines himself to painting oil portraits of his pets,
his acquaintances and himself, while Cheney mostly listens to the ticking of his mechanical heart between guest appearances on Fox News. Barack Obama came close to ending the rule of legislative democracy with his ISDS courts poisoning his proposed trade agreements but, alas, like so many others, those plans fell short. Hillary Clinton did enduring damage as Secretary of State, most evident here in Italy, but her current opportunities in mischief-making lie essentially in keeping the Democratic Party in the hands of its Neo-con wing to assure continued control of the US Government by the now openly Fascistic Republican Party.

What are the solutions to the enemy crisis? The Military Industrial Complex exists, ostensibly, to combat the enemies of the nation, but if the enemies reside mostly within the nation, and mostly in government itself, how can it fulfill its mission? If drone attacks can eliminate obscure potential terrorists in Pakistan, how difficult would surgical strikes be in Washington DC? Not difficult at all, but no doubt unconstitutional. Whether it's the nostalgia of old age for the discarded Constitution or simply our inherent conservatism, we do not yet recommend that our armed forces be turned on our internal enemies.

Given that our military services have no legitimate function without plausible enemies, as a moderate alternative to using them against our internal enemies, we would propose supporting our troops by bringing them home and helping them to find real jobs. Slash the military budget by 60 or 70 % immediately, end foreign occupations, ban the sale of weapons abroad, and curtail all military foreign aid. This would create a momentary surge of unemployment and put severe downward pressure on MIC stocks but it would free up vast amounts of money for useful things currently underfunded, such as health care, education and infrastructure. We could even rehabilitate the Peace Corps. It would spread good will and improve foreign relations in most of the world.

Alas, neither solution is likely to be adopted, although the militarization of municipal police forces during the Bush years shows that there was consideration of diverting the military mission to combating perceived domestic enemies. Over the past century that approach has been tried all around the world, from Russia, China, and Germany to most of Latin America. The outcomes have been nothing we would want to emulate.

In an effort to generate useful enemies, the US Congress has voted additional sanctions against Russia and is attempting, in a rare bi-partisan effort, to make it a felony, with draconian penalties, to support Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions campaigns in protest of Israel's violations of international law. Well, so much for the First Amendment protections of free speech. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the rest of the world will unite to impose sanctions on the USA until it modifies its rogue state demeanor. If not, the world may just have to wait for the US to self-destruct, praying that it does not take the entire planet down with it.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


We had clear-cut enemies when I grew up.   Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were the faces of evil. 
Our troops did their job, liberating Europe from the Nazis and smashing the Japanese war machine.   Uncle George sent home cartons full of military insignia, captured Japanese stationery and other items taken off dead Japanese soldiers, and later he returned with stories of the war in New Guinea. Those enemies served us well, creating a sense of national purpose and solidarity.

After the war, we always had enemies to unite against, if only in comic books and movies. The cinematic enemies were often Indians (before their mystical transformation into ecologically-correct Native Americans), sometimes gangsters, but more often, black-hatted Western villains.

Hollywood prototype

However, soon after the war ended, new enemies appeared in the real world. Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union emerged as our principal foes, with Mao Tse Tong lurking ominously in far away China. The Cold War lasted far longer than WWII had and it spawned surrogate wars, such as those in Korea and Vietnam, while starting a nuclear arms race and later a space race. Fear joined with competitive zeal to stimulate human energy, boosting the economy, especially in the military sector,  in the process.

Stalin's numerous successors, Malenkov, Krushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chemenko proved to be serviceable and credible enemies but the last, Michele Gorbachev, often appeared to be more rational and reasonable than our own leaders. With enemies like that we were in trouble, as confusion set in and the national will lost unity. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the presumable end of the Cold War, things began to get murkier.

In truth, confusion had set in much earlier. Our anti-Soviet, anti-communist passion boiled over under the witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy, setting Americans against Americans. While the Nazi and Soviet threats had been tangible enough to unify the populace, the Viet Cong rice farmers failed to convince growing numbers of Americans that they constituted an existential threat.

Arabs were called upon to fill the void. The Arab oil crises of the 70's helped but the emergence of Osama bin Laden, the renegade heir to a Saudi fortune and self-appointed purveyor of Islamic fundamentalist terror, filled the traditional role of enemy more convincingly than the various Arab sheiks, kings and dictators available. The problem was that while his actions were effective, he was in essence a stateless person, so his plots, while clearly acts of terror, were criminal acts, not acts of war. That was too confusing for the easily confused George W. Bush, who therefore decided to invade and destroy an unrelated country, actually one rather hostile to Osama bin Laden and his ideology, but which was ruled by another verifiably villainous Arab.

Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, even repentant Col Gaddafi have all been dispatched. Hugo Chavez is dead of causes we may never fully know, and Fidel Castro has finally succumbed to Father Time. What's to be done? Who's left?
or Arch-Enemy?

For the past decade there has been a bipartisan campaign to make Vladimir Putin the rising star of international villainy. Perhaps it's his resemblance to the latest incarnation of James Bond that confuses me but something here just doesn't pass the smell test.

Meanwhile, the US military budget, larger than ever, just keeps growing, despite a lack of any credible military threat. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, like me, grew up in the Cold War but it would appear that their brains were frozen in time. Graham insists, every time that there appears to be an international crisis, that we immediately send the good guys more weapons. All sixteen US intelligence agencies are insufficient to accurately locate and identify “good guys” in most of these places but the arms shipments never let up. If credible enemies can't be found, sooner or later our military industrial complex runs the risk of going the way of the steel industry, the automobile industry or even of Enron.
Lest someone think I don't take military threats seriously, I do acknowledge that North Korea is talking and acting like an enemy, although given the immense asymmetry in weaponry, under normal circumstances, it wouldn't ever be regarded as any sort of threat. MAD, the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, worked for decades because both sides, with roughly similar nuclear arsenals, correctly assumed the fundamental rationality of their opponents. At the moment North Korea and the USA are led by individuals of a very similar personality type (or disorder if you will) so all bets are off. Several decades of terrorist “successes” have shown that the instinct for self-preservation does not universally prevail over other human passions or neuroses. Furthermore, checks and balances are no longer operational in the US and have never existed in North Korea.
Like North Korea, Israel is a small country with a nuclear arsenal, which also threatens to set off a nuclear holocaust. Benjamin Netanyahu might be a candidate to assume the role of world's leading enemy, except for the fact that he enjoys the support of nearly 100% of both houses of the US Congress. We don't really need to build up our military resources to offset this threat since we provide most of the resources that constitute the threat, although arming both sides in regional conflicts has been the key to the growth of the MIC for decades.

Still, in light of the desperate shortage of meaningful enemies, I would ask my readers to compile answers to two questions:

1. Assuming you are citizens and/or residents of the USA or the EU, please name ten individuals you regard as posing the greatest threat to your countrymen and/or to citizens of the world.*
* Please don't submit one or two names, such as Putin, Hillary or Trump, or generic ones, such as Arabs, terrorists or Neo-cons.   If you can't think of at least ten individuals and describe the threat they pose, you are not paying attention to the world around you.

2. In the interests of finding a solution to this crisis, we would ask how many of these persons are residents of countries other than the USA?

You can send your answers to: or respond on Facebook if that's where you're reading this. Next time I'll summarize the results and provide my own list along with suggestions for dealing with the crisis. Thanks in advance for your participation.

Thursday, May 25, 2017


The Great Wall of America is in the news again, after a series of distractions regarding Russian influence in the election and poisoned gas in Syria. President Trump started clamoring for funds for the Wall. That didn't happen and emergency funding to keep the Government running until September was passed without money for the Wall. The Mexicans haven't stepped up to fund it.

New distractions have emerged in the French elections, the push for Trumpcare in the House of Representatives, and the firing of Comey, but talk of the Wall may not go away for the next three years.

Walls have been around for a long time. While there is common agreement that prostitutes comprise the world's oldest profession, second place being contested between spies and pimps, coming from a related profession, I would argue that wall makers constitute the third oldest profession. Walls keep out the elements and provide for support for roofs in the case of building walls, as well as keeping out unwanted guests and other pests. Walls divide properties from adjacent ones, public from private spaces and sometimes define political boundaries. Low walls are largely symbolic but no less important in that they provide strong visual identities to some of those borders and boundaries in a less absolutist gesture.

Robert Frost is known for saying “good fences make good neighbors”. Oops, I think that was “fences” not “walls”. Actually he was arguing against both walls and fences with a neighbor who liked them. Fences are more or less lighter, more permeable versions of walls. Bill Clinton and George Bush built a big one along 831 miles (almost half) of the 1,954 mile long Mexican border. Preliminary estimates of the cost of the wall for the entire border are $21 billion but we all know what happens to preliminary estimates.

My granddaughter, her father and friends
 visiting the Great Wall of China last winter.
The Great Wall of China was built over several dynasties but much of it between 221 BC and 206 BC to keep out Mongolian nomads who were stealing the crops of Chinese farmers. Some of it was built by paid labor but slave labor and prisoners also contributed to its construction. A million workers died in the process. Depending on what source you consult, the wall extends for 13,000 miles or 31,000 miles. Whatever figure you accept, that's a lot of wall. Much of the wall is still there and it may have worked, or perhaps the Mongolians just renounced their nomadic ways.

A remaining fragment of the
wall around Acqualoreto
Walls abound in Europe. Here in Italy remnants of them are everywhere. When my brother first visited us in Umbria and saw Todi, I expected the usual tourist reaction, such as “how lovely!” Instead, his first comment was “My God, what awful lives those people must have lived”. Todi, like most old Italian cities, had many large portals, whose enormous doors were closed at night to keep out invaders from nearby Orvieto.

Porta Orvietana
in Todi
Thinking it over for a moment, I realized there was some truth in his observation but I also took note of the irony in his saying it since he lived in a gated community on Hilton Head Island where the gates were always closed and protected by armed guards. All the world's a village, as they say here, but at least the portals of Todi, Rome and everywhere else in Italy, have had the big doors removed. They've been replaced by cameras which record the presence of cars which have no right to enter. Intruders are dealt with, not by the sword or boiling oil, but with exorbitant fines.

seriously guarded gates
on Hilton Head Island
The Chinese may have been among the first to define a national border with a large wall but in more recent times we usually associate that sort of wall building with Berlin and East Germany. Such walls can be effective. The Berlin Wall certainly was. It penned in half of a major European capital for nearly three decades, necessitating a major airlift to provide food and other staples of life to the walled-in residents. 239 people died trying to get over or through the wall but it did staunch the flow of refugees from East to West Germany. The wall did not come down until the regime that had built it collapsed. Will the US effort be as successful?

President Trump wants a wall, a big one, to divide Mexico from the US. This can be dismissed as overly extravagant, impractical, ecologically and aesthetically horrible but the idea of a secure national border is not really outrageous. The US, like virtually all other countries, does have border guards at airports and crossing points to control who is entering the country. At Newark's Liberty Airport, the guards have apparently been indoctrinated and trained at the “rape table” to develop a properly truculent demeanor. This came out in one of the many recent daily scandals so their function may now be fully privatized, with United Airlines a leading candidate to provide future airport security.

in the wake of the invasion of Libya 
While the government of the USA may now favor an absolutist approach to border security on its own borders, it seems remarkably oblivious to the sanctity of other country's borders. In joining with France and England in bombing Libya into medieval anarchy, it committed the equivalent of bombing the border crossing points at Tijuana, Nogales, Juarez and Laredo and opening up the roads into California, New Mexico and Texas. No apologies, reparations or remedial suggestions have come from either the Obama or Trump Administrations. What the French and English were thinking defies imagination. They didn't recognize their own feet when they started shooting. The Democratic half of the American public seems shocked by the isolationist implications of the Brexit and the Trump victories yet, along with the other half of the population, seems totally unmindful of the consequences of American policies.

Berlin wall and no-man's land
During the presidential campaign Donald Trump kept insisting not only that he would build a really big wall but that he'd make the Mexicans pay for it. Such talk was met with derision by the media and most of the population. Where did he get such a bizarre idea?
divided Berlin

The Walled Off Hotel facing
 the wall in the occupied
West Bank and run by the
artist Banksy.
He may have been thinking of Berlin, where the Soviets ordered the wall and got the East Germans to pay for it. 

Another precedent comes to mind. In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli Government has continued to build walls to separate and protect its ever-expanding settlements, which the world entire, even the US Government, acknowledges as illegal. Have they gotten the Palestinians to pay for those walls? No, but Israel, with its population of less than 9 million people and its territory slightly larger than New Jersey and slightly smaller than Massachusetts, gets more US foreign aid than any other country. Much of that aid comes in the form of military support but all that aid allows Israel to devote its resources to wall-building on stolen land, so it's not much of a stretch to say that the US is paying for those walls.
an Israeli wall in Palestine

Yes, walls can and do achieve some goals. Those in the West Bank by now have probably ended the possibility of a two state solution for Palestine and guaranteed that Israel will not survive as a democratic nation.

What will become of the Great Mexican Wall? Let's look for its advantages. It may bankrupt the United States enough to limit its ability to invade and occupy other nations around the world. Perhaps in a century or two it will become as much of a tourist attraction as the Great Wall of China. Remnants of the Berlin Wall now fetch a good price as people seek to keep a piece of history.

We always need to look on the bright side. Everything has its unintended consequences, occasionally positive ones. It's just that sometimes it takes more time for good things to emerge than most of us have left.

Friday, February 24, 2017


A couple of decades back, in conversation with an Italian architect friend and colleague, he insisted to me that in the absence of exploitable resources Italians had mastered the art of selling smoke. I was skeptical about the concept that Italy lacked resources, given its long coastline, extensive mountains, abundant supply of artists, artisans and skilled workers, as well as having, according to a UN report, something like 45% of the world’s acknowledged treasures of art and architecture. Nevertheless, he cited concepts such as “Italian Design” and “Made in Italy” in evidence of his theory. Had “Slow Food “ been invented then, he might have added it to the list of concepts which boost sales and add value to products, despite having the consistency of smoke or incense. While Italy does have forests, some geothermal facilities, abundant sunshine and wind, it does not have a large supply of traditional fossil fuels such as petroleum or coal.

My friend was right. Italy is the land of smoke sellers. The art of convincing people that the superfluous is the necessary is widely diffused throughout the population, from shoe sellers to butchers, waiters to seamstresses. It’s only the politicians whose smoke nobody wants to buy anymore.

Just as Italy’s 1987 ascent to being the world’s fifth largest economy ended abruptly in 1997, its status as a leading seller of smoke has succumbed to American leadership. Apparently Italy is not selling enough smoke or anything else, since its GNP has fallen behind those of the UK, India, France and Brazil. While the US population at large does not have the Italian gift for selling smoke, at the top of the heap there are major masters at work.

Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and Albert Lasker were two
pioneers in advertising, who are credited with convincing women to smoke in the post-WWII years, thus enabling them to attain equality with men in levels of lung cancer mortality. Bernays took Uncle Sigmund’s theories of psychoanalysis and applied them for commercial gain. Besides cigarettes, he promoted Ivory soap, disposable cups, books, ballet, and Dodge cars. He developed the use of third party advocates when he recruited doctors to testify that Americans would benefit from heartier breakfasts, which would also benefit Bernays’ client, the bacon industry.

He argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy. His civic advocacy showed up in the promotion of the fear of communism and the successful overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala on behalf of the United Fruit Company.

Lasker was no slouch either in the molding of public opinion. Besides promoting Palmolive, Pepsodent, Kotex, Sunkist oranges and Lucky Strike cigarettes, he helped engineer the 1920 landslide election of Warren Harding. At the time of his Sunkist campaign, orange groves in California were being uprooted due to lagging sales, a process he succeeded in halting.

While Bernays and Lasker were pioneers, they have had legions of effective disciples in both commercial and political realms. Bernays had a big influence in promoting the Cold War to assure the health of the military industrial complex, but he did have help from the Soviet Union, which flaunted its militarism.

Just who is the architect of the current Cold War revival is harder to determine. After all, following the collapse of the USSR, Russia stumbled into a period of rapid demographic decline, Mafia-style oligarchy and internal violence. NATO, i.e. the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, aggressively expanded its membership to Turkey and several former Soviet states, moving troops to within a few hundred miles of Moscow, despite assurances to the contrary by the first President Bush. Putin rescued Russia from its downward spiral and restored a degree of nationalistic pride, but the country remains a superpower only in that it retains a sizable nuclear arsenal, along with a lot of gas and petroleum. How then the current red scare, or better, the red white and blue scare, given Russia’s current flag, and why? Militaristic regimes, such as the USA, need enemies to justify their arms budgets and while Islamic terrorists may instill hatred and fear, they hardly constitute a credible military threat.

Cold War II is not the only currently successful propaganda campaign. Bernays and Lasker operated in the mid-twentieth century. In 1980 Ronald Reagan came to power and he unleashed some campaigns which are still going strong. He famously declared that the “government is not the answer to our problem, government IS the problem”. Think about that! This sentiment might be appropriate in much of the world. Kings have first of all looked after themselves and their courts. Dictators have always looked out for themselves, keeping Swiss banks flush with cash in the process.  But the USA? American flag-waving patriotism is almost without precedent, unless you count Germany in the 30’s, or today’s North Korea, but there has always been an element of compulsion in those other places. The US has vast pride in its democracy, the oldest surviving (?) democracy in the world. If our democracy is a source of pride and this is the government of the people, by the people and for the people, how does one explain President Reagan’s proclamation that it is THE problem? If the democratic government is the problem, what is the suggested alternative? Sadly, we’re beginning to get a look at the option.

Going hand in hand with the rejection of democracy, has been the religious embrace of privatization and the deification of “the market”. Many sophisticated people are skeptical about an omnipotent God, not to mention the infallibility of the Pope, but a surprising number of them are susceptible to a blind and absolute faith in the infallibility of “the market”. Who sold this bill of goods? More important, will it have the same disastrous consequences as the Lucky Strike campaign? Once all public resources are sold off to cronies of the people in power, what will become of the public? We can see some clues in the Russia of Yeltsin and now in the American rust belt. It has taken a dictator (strong man is the currently preferred term) Putin, to bring back Russia from terminal decline. Will that be the fate of the US? Many now fear Trump is that figure, but what brought us to this point?

After Flint, how many other cities will be fed poisoned water to increase profits? Many of the past and present propaganda campaigns have been the work of Republicans. Remember that 1920 campaign which gave us Harding and the Teapot Dome scandals! Guatemala was not the only country run by United Fruit. Arguably, ALEC is the most subversive organization in the US, and while some turncoat Democrats show up there, it is a largely Republican enterprise.

However, Democrats have played a major role in our current travails. Selling the inevitability of globalization with its attendant race to the bottom, was a bi-partisan effort. Democrats bear the brunt of the blame for the predominance of identity politics, hawking the idea that soon the assembled minorities would constitute a majority. Of course, if you include women in the list of minorities, they already do, even if some of the people involved don’t see themselves as part of a minority.

Concerns for the rights of homosexuals were reasonable enough, but then homosexual became gay and lesbian, the coalition kept gaining letters and turned into LBGTQ, leading an unsuspecting reader to figure that all these combined groups were just short of forming a majority. Add another B for bigamists, a P for pederasts and an I for the incestuously inclined and we’re practically there. Perversely, this is being informally proposed, in a nod to furthering the anti-regulation agenda, by Milo Yiannopoulos, formerly of Breitbart News, President Trump’s favorite news source.

In a time of infrastructure collapse and a growing neo-feudal gap between rich and poor, the principle concern of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party has seemed to be the the toilet access rights of transgendered children. I’m too old to be up to date on this but I tended to think of pre-pubescent children as being essentially neuter. I’m not sure what a transgendered child even is, much less what’s to be done about it. Is this really affecting more people than the lack of healthcare, homelessness, climate change, the obesity epidemic, gun violence, student loan debt, poisoned water, decreasing life expectancy, racial violence or herbicide laced food?

Democrats are electing a new chairman of the Democratic National Committee this week. The main contenders are, in the populist corner, the only Muslim in the US Congress, while in the establishment corner is a Wall Street, big Agro and bank friendly, TPP boosting, Latino former Secretary of Labor in the Obama Administration. The dark horse, in case the two main factions can’t compromise, is the gay mayor of South Bend who was a Harvard educated, highly regarded officer in the US military. He advises a love-in with all factions setting aside their differences. The other five in the race have little chance of being considered. Democrats may have been nurtured on identity politics but Trump has played every sort of dark, minority vilifying card in his deck to get to his unlikely election. Whatever the outcome of the DNC election, we can count on him and his GOP cohort to twist the knife of identity politics back into the Democrats’ innards.

Many of us are eager to see a radical change of course charted by the 2020 congressional elections but if the Democratic establishment, which gave us Republican control of the presidency, both Houses of Congress and full legislative control of twenty-five of the fifty states, is not removed from power in the party, our hopes for 2020 are just fatuous dreams. Things can get worse and there are plenty of clever GOP smoke sellers who will see to it that they will. Depending on the outcome of this election, we may bear witness to the birth a new major political party.