Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Salzburg and Rocky Mount

Recently, my wife and I watched a documentary on Salzburg, a beautiful city in Austria where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756. Despite its many other charms, Salzburg lives on with Mozart events and memorabilia as its major economic driver. Mozart’s musical legacy is alive and well throughout the world.
Viennese Monk by Robert De Graaf, based on
Schubert at the Piano by Gustav Klimt

Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on this date, October 10th, 101 years ago in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Last year there were many celebrations marking the centennial of his birth. I am now listening to his music, courtesy of Brian Delp and WBGO in Newark, and at this week’s Acqualoreto Happy Hour this evening, I will be toasting his memory. I hope that more than two and a half centuries after his birth, as with Mozart, Monk’s music will still be heard and appreciated. At 1.01 C along, I’m trying to do my part.

By the time he was five years old, Mozart was taken on an extended performing tour of major European cities by his father. By the time he was five, Monk had been taken by his mother from Rocky Mount to New York City, where he remained for the rest of his life. NYC has honored his presence by renaming a portion of West 63rd St. where he lived, as Thelonious Monk Circle. We doubt that Monk’s birth has had as much of an impact on Rocky Mount as Mozart’s has had on Salzburg, but it’s never too late.

All places go through ups and downs. Salzburg became the performance home for many of the favored musicians of the Third Reich after WWII but by now most of those people have faded from the scene and Salzburg, unsullied, thrives on its Mozart and chocolate.

Despite its history as the birthplace of aviation, as well as its being the site of many fine universities, North Carolina is currently known as the most gerrymandered state in the Union and at the forefront of voter suppression. Those evils must be eradicated but maybe Rocky Mount could take the lead in restoring some decency to the state’s reputation by establishing a Monk Festival in honor of one of America’s greatest native musical geniuses. There is a Monk Foundation, gathering funds for a life sized statue of Monk for Rocky Mount, but NC needs to do more to clean up its act and this is an opportunity.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

If the NFL Fails, What's Left?

The USA has been in serious decline at least since the turn of the century, by some measures from two or three decades earlier. Much of what there was, the majority middle class, the Constitution, an improving environment, a rising standard of living, is gone. From being the model for postwar development throughout the world, the US has turned into the world’s number one rogue nation, often feared, sometimes hated, and increasingly pitied. US industry has largely withered away, leaving a nation of service industries, from fast food and chic food through financial services and entertainment. Within the expanding entertainment sector there are professional and semi-professional (i.e. college) sports.

America’s sports tradition has revolved around three seasonal sports, baseball in the spring and summer, football in the autumn, and basketball in the winter. Most high schools in the US field teams in all three sports, along with less popular sports such as track & field, soccer, and in affluent communities, even ice hockey, tennis and golf. Football and basketball are the ones that attract a paying audience in both high school and college. The seasons barely overlap so high school athletes can, and often do, play all three major sports on their school teams.  With the growth of professional sports and their ever present drive to maximize revenues through television, the seasons of all three sports have expanded to cover at least half the year. Pro sports keep taking in ever more money, largely through TV, and pro athletes have a faster path to great riches than all but the shrewdest and sleaziest of upstart banksters, but they have to work hard to get there, as well as being possessed of exceedingly rare physical traits.

Baseball, called the national pastime since the Great Depression, when out of work men could pass the long afternoons at the ballpark for less than the price of a movie, is now played mostly at night in front of well paid workers by outrageously overpaid players often recruited from countries where the game is still widely played, such as the Dominican Republic, the rest of Latin America, and even Japan. Just as gladiators working the Colosseum during the Roman Empire were mostly recruited from the distant outposts of the Empire, big league baseball players increasingly come from the further reaches of the American Empire.

Basketball is played from early childhood even to middle age by many people throughout the US but a minuscule percentage are good enough to even think about playing pro ball. There are only about fifteen players on each pro team so the competition for a position on any of those teams is statistically akin to being elected president, except that to be an NBA player you have to be really talented. It also helps to be a tough, agile, two meter tall kid who grew up spending most of his days shooting baskets in a focused, competitive atmosphere. White kids aren’t discriminated against as far as I know, but there just aren’t that many of them with those requisites so by now, basketball is an almost exclusively black sport, much as ice hockey and Nascar racing are white sports.

Despite claims made by others, football is still the most popular American sport. It started in colleges such as Harvard, Rutgers and Princeton over a century ago and college teams still have huge and loyal followings, often playing in larger stadiums than those used by the pros. The big college programs have become more and more professional except that the players don’t get paid. Successful coaches at the big state universities are often the highest paid employees of their state. Vast numbers of players go through those schools tuition free but only a tiny number hit the jackpot and make it to the NFL.

Once upon a time, preppy college boys were squeezed out of big time football by the sons of Polish steel workers and coal miners from western Pennsylvania.. Industries and demographics have changed. In 1961 James Meredith was the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, accompanied by federal marshals ordered in by President Kennedy to protect him from the redneck mobs trying to keep him out.  By 1985, Bo Jackson, one of the greatest athletes in American history, was winning the Heisman Trophy (for outstanding college football player of the year) at Auburn, a nearby rival of Ole Miss, in front of huge cheering crowds of the same sort of people who a generation earlier would stop at nothing to keep their universities white. Sports have their dark sides but football (and basketball) have had a role in the racial integration of the South. There is a delightful irony in seeing vast crowds of white people across Dixie, from the Carolinas to Texas, cheering on the black heroes of their alma maters on Saturdays in autumn. Those players now go on to make up the lion’s share of NFL rosters.

Players’ salaries in all pro sports continue to rise but there are warning signs on the horizon for football. The most discussed problem is the growing evidence of brain damage among retired players. Measures are being taken to reduce hits to the head but football is, by its nature, a spectacularly rough game. If the violence is reduced, will the spectacle maintain its popularity?
It'not Munich or Berlin in the 30's

A second and less discussed cloud on the horizon is the cultural divide between team owners and players. While the majority of players are non-white and from humble circumstances, the owners of the thirty-two teams are all billionaires, tending to the far right politically. It is often hard to determine if NFL games are simply lavish popular entertainments or recruiting rallies for the Orwellian-named Department of Defense, which does in fact pay the NFL to promote recruitment. Most games feature military flyovers, military bands, giant American flags and large units of uniformed veterans of recent military campaigns honored in the stands, or sometimes on the field, as our heroes who have sacrificed to defend our freedoms. The solemnity of the religious/militaristic rite is marred less by the protests of a few civic-minded players than by the grotesque mauling of the national anthem by pop stars trying to be original.
Military girls

Perhaps it’s only fair that the anthem is routinely trashed since its third stanza, rarely sung in public, is an ode to the coming defeat of the British and their efforts to free American slaves in the War of 1812. Statues of Confederate heroes have been disappearing from public view recently due to public outcry but the Star Spangled Banner is more of an affront to the descendants of those slaves than any of those post-Reconstruction statues.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion

A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Kaepernick and fellow protesters
NFL players are in a very complex position. Coming from underprivileged backgrounds in stark contrast to those of the owners, they are subjected to hyper-competition for their jobs. Surviving that competition can make them extremely wealthy young men but they are also in on-going, cut-throat negotiations with their employers, who can dump them at will. Such tensions came to light with Colin Kaepernick, an incredibly gifted athlete and far better than average quarterback. During the 2016 season, he refused to stand for the playing of the National Anthem prior to games to protest the all too frequent fatal police shootings of young black men and women in cities throughout the USA. An increasing number of players joined his protest. Despite a severe shortage of good quarterbacks, the key position in football, Kaepernick has been without a job for more than a year and is now suing the owners, alleging a conspiracy to keep him off the field., a charge which is as difficult to prove as it is obvious to see. He should be playing but, as a starting quarterback for a few years, he has already made more money than most Americans will earn in their lifetimes. Other younger players face bigger risks to their earnings. Many will no doubt keep their heads down and their comments to themselves. They walk a fine line between a return to poverty or a path to unimagined wealth. Still, it’s not hard to foresee this incendiary environment blowing up at some point.

Recently the NFL announced new rules for the 2018 season. Players will be required to respectfully stand during the playing of the national anthem, with an option of remaining in the dressing room until it’s over. Liberal media and journalists have come down hard on the NFL for suppressing the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech of the players, proving nothing so much as how the concern of today’s American “left” for constitutional rights is directly proportional to the wealth of the citizens whose rights are at issue. Do any of you who work in contact with the public, at a bank or a Walmart or an advertising agency, think that you could show up at work wearing a badge of support for a cause not supported by your employer? Journalists should know better, since few of them can write what they want when it contradicts the views of their employers.

The USA is a big, influential country with a long list of achievements in politics, science, art and culture. While our political heritage has fallen from the gutter into the sewer, a few of our better inventions have survived. Highest on my list of remaining American things of value are jazz and football.

Jazz is America’s music. Fortunately, it has spread to the rest of the world and is often appreciated more elsewhere than it is at home. It may be America’s greatest gift to the world and by now, excellent jazz musicians are emerging from the most unlikely and remote places on all continents.

American football may have evolved from English origins, along with soccer and rugby, but it is a distinctly American game. Unlike jazz, it has not effectively spread to the rest of the world, despite the efforts of the NFL to promote it with a few games in London and Mexico City. Overprotective parents increasingly discourage or forbid their children from playing it but nevertheless, football is one of the world’s great sports, both challenging to play and exciting to watch. Many sports feature remarkable athletic performances but football brings the fascination of a chess match played on a 100 yard long board with giant moving chess pieces of diverse capabilities. More than most, it is a coach’s game, but unlike baseball, that other coach’s game, where strategy often squeezes out most of the action, football never lacks for action, except during the TV commercials, which provide welcome breaks for getting another beer or disposing of the last one.

Hope is in short supply in America right now. The progression from James Meredith to Bo Jackson lets me hope that the country, despite appearances, is not beyond redemption. So, for this celebration of the nation’s independence on the two hundred and forty-second anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, I propose a toast to Colin Kaepernick. May more of his colleagues find their voices.

Despite all its problems, football must succeed! We have no queen to pledge our fealty to and no World Cup presence to cheer for. With democracy banished over the past several electoral cycles and American industry moribund, what else is left for Americans to rally round?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Roads Collapsing

Everywhere we look, roads are collapsing. In Rome huge sink holes have developed large enough to swallow up cars. As the holes open, new Roman ruins are being discovered. In our Umbrian village one of the two roads leading out of town has had one edge of the road fall away forty or fifty centimeters from the road surface. Over the intervening months,the new cliff has been fenced off, shutting the 1-1/2 lane road down to one lane. Perhaps our local officials are planning to make it a tourist attraction, the Umbrian Grand Canyon, or just find it so interesting, they don’t want to alter it.
Men working, sooner or later.

There is a precedent. A few years ago, a section of the same road ,a kilometer or two down the hill, was undermined by ground water so badly that the asphalt heaved, creating what amounted to a low wall across the road. The asphalt had to be scraped away and that section has remained a stretch of dirt road ever since. It’s a little dusty but definitely safer than before. Safety is not always a major concern, as we can see from the way the tall grass has been dealt with at a sign
The Grand Canyon of Acqualoreto
warning of a drainage ditch and concrete culvert along the road’s edge..

The Region of Umbria is divided into two provinces, Perugia and Terni. Our village of Acqualoreto sits just south of the border in the Province of Terni. Thank God! While I’ve been told by people who should know, that the provincial governments no longer play much of a role in road maintenance, for some inexplicable reason the roads
sign warning of ditch & concrete culvert
of Perugia, at least the ones near here, are notably worse than those of Terni. Last year, a short winding road through the village of Fiore became virtually impassible. It was “repaired” with all sorts of of road grading equipment and two or three flagmen to control traffic over a period of about a week. The road is only a kilometer or two long but it was repaved in patches, typically 40 to 60 meters long, where the worst parts were, but the good patches, while passable, were also very bad. Now they’re worse.

unpatched with patch beyond

more quiltwork
All around us, roads, from winding country roads to superstrade (non-toll divided highways) are full of so many potholes and degraded surfaces that driving becomes hazardous, as drivers, instead of just gliding along in their lane, swerve erratically to avoid the rough patches. We’ve had a strange winter, not especially cold, except for about one week in late February when temperatures were dramatically below below normal, touching -15°C and causing a number of pipes to burst. There was an unusual amount of rain. What then was the cause? Some suggest that the abundant rain undermined the roads and the frost damaged the pavement. Northern Europe had an abnormally cold winter so how are the roads in Germany and Scandinavia holding up? Is it just an occasional bad year and things will return to normal next year? We hope so but that’s what we thought about the olive harvest and we’ve now had four bad years in a row. Perhaps it’s all the wrath of a judgmental God, fed up with what we’re doing to His creation.
difficult road to the pizzeria

Italy is experiencing a long running economic crisis and has somewhat decentralized funding of government functions to the regions. Is rural Umbria too underpopulated to afford road maintenance? If so, what about the streets of Rome, with their unprecedented potholes? Surely, there’s no lack of population to pay for its roads.

Giant Roman pothole

We’ve heard that American infrastructure is underfunded and crumbling. At least we know how that happened. Once the masses were convinced that that government was the problem, not the solution, there was no money available for anything useful to the public, so schools, hospitals, airports and parks share the same fate as roads and bridges. Has this spread to Italy? Has climate change already changed the earth’s surface more than we thought? Does anyone have a clue? Is this a series of natural disasters or unusually bad administration?

Whatever the cause, it doesn’t seem like non maintenance of roads is especially good for the economy. Delivering goods gets to be difficult, and those tourists that we increasingly depend on for infusions of cash can’t be getting the most positive impression. Italy used to be a delightful place to drive, with its winding, hilly roads and non-problematic speed limits. Truck-filled autostrade and an obscene number of speed traps on the small roads have removed most of the joy of driving. Cars have gotten bigger and their drivers proportionately worse so unmaintained roads are just the latest affront.

Then again, paved roads are sooo 20th Century! Before 1970 few country roads around here were paved and then, suddenly, they all were. Driverless cars are said to be coming but they may be rendered unnecessary before they arrive. A new era is almost at hand. Amazon will be delivering all the merchandise we require by unmanned drones. With a complete virtual existence and all material needs at your door, who needs roads?
The wave of the future

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Return Trip

It's often noted that the later stages of life come to resemble the early ones. The cycle of life seems to hit its apex in the striving, self-important years, then retirees come to resemble carefree adolescents before succumbing to the vulnerability of the first stages of life. The English phrase “losing one's marbles” is roughly equivalent to becoming “rimbambito” in Italian, i.e. becoming a baby again. Yes, we do sometimes revert to our earlier stages.

I've discovered some of that symmetry in my own life cycle while traveling recently. My very first foray into Europe was in my student years and in Italy I found myself particularly vulnerable. I hitch-hiked my way from Nice almost to Rome but having gotten to Viterbo at about 10:00 PM, I decided to take a train for the last leg to Rome. Hitch-hiking is not a very effective means of transport late at night on country roads, especially in a country where you don't speak the language. People were all very friendly, from the university students who accompanied me to the Viterbo Station, to the man who accosted me when I descended from the train at midnight in Rome's Termini Station. Asking if I needed a cheap place to stay, this man, who I'll call Aldo, because I seem to recall that was his name, said he knew an inexpensive place to stay in someone's apartment but for the night at hand, he knew a closer place only a little less cheap. While suspicious, I did need a place to sleep and had no clue where that might be, so I followed him to the first appartment and slept there without incident. Aldo implausibly claimed to be a doctor who just liked to help students and he showed up the next morning to accompany me to the other place in a residential neighborhood south of the center, stopping here and there for coffee, which he generously paid for. He introduced me to the woman in whose apartment I'd be staying, although she understood no more English than I understood Italian. Aldo couldn't have been more helpful. He suggested that if I really wanted to see all the sights in and around Rome, it was essential that I rent a car, if only for a day. His English was passable when he wanted to explain something but if questioned, his English instantly faded to a memory. Despite some apprehension, and no doubt due to the gullibility of youth, I acquiesced to the pitch and soon we were sailing around the city in a rented Fiat with Aldo at the wheel, looking a little like a bad copy of Vittorio Gassman in Il Sorpasso.. We were joined by two of his girlfriends for a ride out to Ostia. I failed to pursue the opportunities presented there, which might well have found me stranded naked in a pine grove, and we headed back to the city for more sight-seeing, which extended to a night club in the wee hours. As I reached the point of exhaustion, Aldo said fine, he'd take me back to the apartment and then return to the club and he'd see me in the morning. As you may have guessed, he didn't turn up the next morning and when I hastily returned to the car rental place I was told that everything was OK, “my friend” had returned the car and taken the deposit. I was furious but in reality, he had shown me a good time and served as a guide to Rome. I was fortunate. When I returned to the apartment I discovered that two young American women were also staying there and had been similarly ripped off by Aldo. They had come with their own rental car loaded with gifts they'd bought on their tour, but which their designated recipients would never see. We spent the next few days dividing our time between sight-seeing and looking for Aldo, vowing that if we saw him before he saw us, we'd kill him. We never saw him again.

The apartment was OK and seemed to fit my meager budget, but it wasn't as cheap as I'd thought. If it was to have cost Lit.3,000 a night, it came to something like Lit.7,000, because I'd taken a shower or a bath, and possibly turned on some lights. Toto's wonderfully comic movies were not made of fantasy. That's the way it was. Everything cost more than it was said to cost. The price of a modest meal wasn't what you planned because the cover charge and charges for bread, water and service could double the bill. Taxis had surcharges for baggage, round trips, holiday or nighttime service and for rate hikes that had not yet been installed on the meter. I got out of the country with a sigh of relief, escaping to the relaxed and secure atmosphere of Germany, despite having been completely enchanted by the beauty of the cities, the countryside and the women of Italy. The enchantment remained and the nervousness abated over time to the point where I've managed to live more than half my life very happily in Italy.

I've come to understand the post-war Italian mindset. Times were tough. Food was scarce and people learned or invented the tricks of survival. Once learned, those tricks turned into habits which persisted even after conditions had become notably better. The techniques of survival were ably documented by masters of the Italian cinema such as Totò, Gassman and Alberto Sordi.

Decades have passed and again I live on a restricted budget, as in my student days. Faced with the need to attend a family ceremony in London, I sought an economic means of getting there. Despite all these years of living in Italy, I am, for better and often for worse, still an American, and what are our most deeply held values? Low prices and convenience!! Closer to our hearts than mom, apple pie or the Constitution! The Perugia airport is only fifty-five km from our house and Ryanair offers seemingly the lowest prices to London, so just as I followed Aldo to that bargain apartment, I booked us on Ryanair.

Ryanair is operated by an Irishman, Michael O'Leary. I have met many Irishmen in recent years and have found them all to be unfailingly friendly, kind and generous. I'm not counting those who escaped the potato famine to become policemen in the USA. Their comportment is uniquely American. Perhaps not all Irishmen are like the ones I know. After all, not all Italians are like Aldo. Maybe only the best of Irishmen are drawn to Italy. Some of the others, especially those of the Enron generation, run airlines or banks Aldo managed to fleece three tourists in two days. He was good at his vocation but Ryanair processes thousands every day. What a shame that Alberto Sordi did not live long enough to depict O’Leary in a film.

Ryanair did remind me of those old days in Rome. The airfares they sold us seemed reasonable
but we each needed to bring along a suitcase, which nearly doubled the fare, not altogether unreasonably since they occupied about as much space as we did.. Always hoping to please my nervous wife, I opted for travel insurance and on-line check-in, figuring that the latter would assure us of assigned seats before getting to the airport. Not exactly! The boarding pass did arrive via email a few days before departure. An earlier statement from the airline said we could bring aboard a stowable carry-on bag but it seems that when the privilege of checking a bag is purchased, the carry-on privilege is rescinded. Our seats were indeed assigned prior to our departure, middle seats several rows apart. Recourse was available for nearly all inconveniences. For a fee we could change our seats, with a number of pricing options. There were enough other options available to run the price up to that of a business class ticket but none which could get you a seat suitable for average human dimensions. Of course, our assigned seats were next to occupied seats so if we wanted to sit together, we'd have to change both seats.

Once I'd paid the fees for the new seats and the carry-on bag I realized that I'd have to do this again for the return trip so I tried to check in for the return flight before leaving home. The Ryanair website seemed to work and I selected new seats and the carry-on option and proceeded to the pay page to enter my data. Something failed and when I returned to the site, it no longer acknowledged our reservation number, adding a layer of apprehension to the frustration.

In London, another try yielded a similar result, but three or four days prior to departure we received an email with the usual diabolically selected seats, which we managed to change, along with buying the carry-on option.

Given that the Ryanair flights leave at the crack of dawn from Stansted, which is somewhere in the north of England, we decided to go there the night before the flight and stay in the hotel attached to the airport. That was uneventful except that the electronic key cards to the rooms are apparently programmed to function only in the hands of British subjects. Fortunately we found some helpful Brits. As an architect, I like the Stansted Airport, with its light, airy roof and sense of open space. Unfortunately, the interior circulation was apparently not entrusted to the designer of the building. My guess is that it was done by Michael O'Leary himself. If there was any consultant involved, it would have to have been a moonlighting Gina Haspel, or someone of similar tendencies and experience. Normal people want to get from the airport entrance to their plane as quickly and simply as possible. Current security concerns do create an unwanted obstacle but beyond that, the passengers' needs are basically having a toilet, a newsstand and a cup of coffee with which to ingest their tranquilizers.

Checking in at the Perugia airport had been very easy except for the suspicious looks and thorough screening I got when traveling with an American passport but we knew that getting through Stansted would be no piece of cake, so we started looking into getting a wheelchair for my wife, who was not confident of surviving the procedure. At the airport we found a very pleasant, helpful man at the assistance station who provided us with the wheelchair and told us to just follow the purple line. This man had no connection with Ryanair and he's a credit to England. We may have been flustered by the speed with which the purple line took us through security. After wheeling through the unnerving spiral of the mega-shopping center on the way to the departure gates, I asked my wife where her carry-on was. In the confusion, I had forgotten all about it and sitting pretty in her wheel chair, she figured I had stowed it under the chair. I told her if the flight was called, just get on it and I'd try to join her later, and then I fought my way back upstream through the British version of the Mall of America to the security area. The bag was sitting there just as we'd left it and I raced back through the mall from hell for the third time just before the departure gate was due to close. Actually it hadn't opened yet.

We eventually departed thirty minutes late, with the usual safety instructions read in an indecipherable eastern sounding dialect, which, from the familiar “thank you” at the end of each blurb, we realized was an attempt at English. After an uneventful flight, enlivened by conversation with a pleasant man from Oxfordshire on his way to view to view the Giro d'Italia, we had another soft crash landing in Perugia, just like the one in Stansted a week earlier. The plane bounced, shook, shimmied, and braked hard to a stop. Both times, visibility was good. Was the landing done on autopilot with a defective computer hacked by Russians, or was it a training flight? A more radical explanation would be that the premium item in the Ryanair seating auction was the captain's chair. After all, every year in F1 racing some young driver magically appears in the cockpit of a minor team, his wealthy father having provided enough sponsorship money to keep the team going for the season. Young race drivers are not flustered by minor crashes so our pilot may have been the same for both legs of the trip. Our fellow passengers refrained from applause at our survival and everyone exited the plane as if nothing had happened. No visible damage was seen but how often can a plane take this sort of abuse before those little curled up wingtips go limp?

We were relieved to get back to Perugia and while we were quickly off the plane, there was a long wait for our baggage. The dog who eagerly sniffed all of us as we filed into the airport apparently was the only dog on duty so after he had checked us he was taken to process the bags backstage before they could be loaded onto the carousel. Best of all, our car was still there in the parking lot, I hadn't lost the keys, and the car started.

Just as I can look back on my early misadventures in Rome with a certain bemusement by now, realizing that no irreparable damage was done, back in the safety of my home I can now admit that Ryanair got us to and from London for less than the price of a high speed train ticket and in somewhat less time. 

 We enjoyed our time in London among family and friends with its fine weather and splendid spring flowers. For nomadic adolescents traveling with little money and less baggage, I can recommend Ryanair. Just skip the extras, practice yoga for a few days prior to the trip, eat something before you get to the airport, and take some Xanax or whatever works for you. However, I will take inspiration from our friend Carol, who divides her time between Umbria and New York City. After returning to NY last autumn on American Airlines, she said enough is enough and booked her spring return to Italy on Holland American Lines. She returned looking more relaxed than ever after a comfortable fifteen day passage. We may skip the ship to England next time but the train is looking better and better as an option.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Upside Down Italian Politics

To most outside observers and many inside the country, Italian politics have always seemed anarchic. I've often lamented the use of the terms “conservative” and “liberal” because there's little conservative about about present day conservatives, while “liberal” has economic connotations usually at odds with social issue applications of the term. “Progressive” is even more problematic in that one woman's progress may be seen as regression by another. I've tended to favor the old French idea of the left and the right, with the right looking after the interests of the rich and powerful while the left tends to the needs of the poor, the workers and the powerless.

Alas, current Italian politics has thrown all the categories into a hat, shaken them and dumped out the random bits into scarcely recognizable units. We've just had parliamentary elections and journalists continue to write in abeyance to their historic allegiances. A recent electoral law, crafted by the Partito Democratico, assigns extra seats in Parliament to the coalition of parties garnering the most votes so that the possibility that a ruling coalition can be formed is enhanced. It also enhances the possibility that the powers-that-be hold on to their power. In the recent election there were three main groups in contention.

Silvio Berlusconi
The Center-Right was formed by Forza Italia, the party created by Silvio Berlusconi prior to his first term as premier, and with which he was attempting a political comeback, and by La Lega (the League) which was formerly La Lega Nord, when its objective was secession from the decadent, parasitic south. Berlusconi is the prototype for Donald Trump, a vulgar, corrupt, misogynist, hard-driving business man, who by hook or crook, became Italy's richest man, and has parlayed his economic success and domination of the media into political power. His success in ignoring the concept of conflict of interest changed those standards throughout the western world enough to allow Trump's conduct, previously unimaginable in the United States, to go unhindered. Ineligible to run as a candidate himself due to a conviction for tax fraud, Berlusconi hoped to be the de facto head of a new government. In the recent political campaign he seemed to take scripts verbatim from Ronald Reagan's 1980 speeches promoting tax cuts to raise tax revenues, described at the time by Big George Bush as voodoo economics. In this case, Berlusconi was pushing his own proposal for a flat tax, which would net him a personal gain not unlike the gift Trump has given himself with his huge tax cuts for the very rich. Despite being as fast and loose with the truth as some of his US counterparts, Berlusconi has had some good ideas. As premier, he made an agreement with Col. Gaddafi to halt the departure of illegal migrants from Libyan shores. Now, with Gaddafi murdered and the flow of migrants swamping Italy, he proposes to repatriate the majority of them and to start what he refers to as a “Marshall Plan” for Africa to improve conditions there. It's probably the most reasonable proposal on the issue heard during the campaign but Italians have probably seen enough of Berlusconi. His party came in behind that of Salvini, a humiliation he did not really expect. La Lega will have about 3% more seats in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies than Forza Italia but the coalition will have about 31-32% of the total seats in the two houses of Parliament.

Matteo Salvini
His main partner in the center-right coalition is Matteo Salvini, the brusque forty-four-year-old leader of the Lega, whose truculent manner and anti-EU stance, along with his fierce objection to uncontrolled immigration, has convinced the foreign press to label him a neo-fascist threat. His early political career in 1998 was as a leader of the “comunisti padani” and member of the governing town council of Milan, most notably promoting the legalization of marijuana. Salvini has reversed his stance on that while moving from one end of the political spectrum to the other. The Northern League's policy of advocating secession of the north switched to advocacy of secession from the EU, necessitating a change of name, as the League moved to garner support from all parts of the country, especially the disaffected south. In light of such changes of course, his reputation for intransigence may be overstated. He has little depth but his plain-spoken advocacy seems to be in the service of the people of his region, rather than at the bidding of the international oligarchs who employ his American GOP counterparts. While Salvini and Berlusconi have pledged to get along, Berlusconi is strongly pro-Europe while Salvini has advocated leaving both the Euro and the EU. Called neo-fascist by the nervous foreign press, and by much of the Italian press, Salvini has proposed returning the illegal (i.e. undocumented in today's terminology) immigrants to where they came from, much like virtually the entire US Republican congressional contingent, but unlike Senator Marco Rubio, who very recently advocated publicly the military overthrow of the elected Venezuelan Government, he has advocated no invasions of other countries. If the NYT has labeled Senator Rubio a dangerous neo-fascist, I missed it. The actual neo-fascists available to Italian voters were in two other parties, Fratelli d'Italia, which is the latest name for the group of far right people whose grandfathers were supporters of Mussolini but who have evolved into something considerably less right-wing than any Republican in public office in Ohio or Kansas. They ran within the center-right coalition and took just over 4% of the vote. The unapologetic fascists, running independently as Casapound Italia, took a small percentage of the vote, not even close to the 4% threshold required to be assigned any seats in Parliament.

Matteo Renzi
The center-left coalition was headed up by Matteo Renzi, who served as Prime Minister until he called for a referendum to alter the Italian Constitution, replacing it with a new one drawn up by JP Morgan with the help of Tony Blair. Ostensibly, the new Constitution would have made governing easier by placing control of the country in the hands of fewer people. The Senate would be eliminated as an elective body and as a voting entity. It would live on as a figurehead institution housing elder statesmen with a nice salary and benefits. Former heads of the Partito Democratico such as Massimo D'Alema and Pier Luigi Bersani openly opposed this referendum, even publicly warning that the proposed constitution was dangerous, yet Renzi prevailed in the party, echoing the success of the right wing of the Democratic Party in the US, on which he has modeled his career. The referendum failed badly and while Renzi resigned as Prime Minister in favor of his colleague Paolo Gentiloni, he retained control of the PD. While Matteo Salvini could be faulted for his many radical shifts of program, the same could not be said about Matteo Renzi. He has been steadfast in advocating measures, including all manner of privatization, that would take political decisions out of the hands of the voting public, assigning ever greater power to bankers and corporations. Prior to his attempt to replace the constitution, he unapologetically supported the TTIP, a trade agreement designed to end the legislative sovereignty of both the EU and its member nations.

A good deal of false information comes out during political campaigns. When it is not challenged, the silence tends to serve as confirmation, but certainly not a reliable one. Throughout the campaign, it was routinely stated that 15 million Italians live in poverty. I never heard that denied or refuted. This is a country of about sixty million people! Has any other country in the world been damaged as much or more by globalization? I don't know but in 1982, Italy's GNP surpassed that of the UK and Italy became the second largest economy in Europe and the fifth, or even fourth, largest in the world. It didn't last long. Corruption, which exploded in the Mani Pulite scandals of1992, devastated the country, but globalization possibly did as much. Italians had made just about everything, often the very best goods in any number of sectors, from food to textiles, fashion, leather goods, steel, glass, ceramics, optics, high performance automobiles. Food remains an important part of the economy but much of the rest is gone. Some Italian companies have survived by moving their production to low wage countries. Italian workers have simply been dumped. Italy is widely perceived as an idyllic countryside with great food, splendid monuments and art. That's all true but many cities off the tourist path have been reduced to a rather grim state with high unemployment, especially among the young. University enrollments expanded throughout the post-WWII era but in the past few years university enrollments have declined dramatically and large numbers of recent graduates have been leaving to find more opportunities in other countries. None of this augurs well for the future of the country.

Another unchallenged statement, emanating from Silvio Berlusconi, during the campaign was that the government had acquiesced to EU pressure to take in all the refugees that washed up on the shores of Sicily. While Berlusconi may be almost as fast and loose with the truth as Donald Trump, how else does one explain the supernatural passivity of the Italian Government in maintaining its borders? In the last few months before the election, the minister of the Interior did take effective action, but it was too little, too late. I often suggest that the bombing of Libya by France, the UK and the US would be comparable to the bombing of all US border crossing points by a foreign power. Many of us in Italy wondered what was wrong with the Italian police and military? They're not stopping this invasion. I stand by my comparison. However, if this accord was reached by the Italian Government, a more accurate paragon would be the US, under pressure from a foreign power, let's say Canada, simply closing all crossing stations along its southern borders and allowing traffic to flow unhindered and uncontrolled. I realize that there are many people who would consider that a noble goal. After all, look at the borders of Holland and Belgium for example. I would urge such people to go into an induced deep sleep and wake up in a new and better era.

Yet another bit of information, this time from Bloomberg News, slipped in under the radar. The announcement that the PD government had introduced a policy allowing wealthy individuals willing to establish residency in Italy to receive a flat income tax bill of €100,000 per year. This is not without precedent. Small countries around the world give outrageous tax breaks to lure rich residents. US states bankrupt themselves through tax giveaways to big corporations in exchange for their moving factories there. Still, while Berlusconi's self-enriching flat tax is consistent with the traditional values of the right, this proposal is not a flat tax rate but a flat tax amount, i.e. a regressive variable tax rate, with the rate growing ever lower as the wealth of the newly recruited immigrant grows higher. Yes, an annual tax bill of €100,000 seems almost like science fiction to most of us but for someone with a million Euro income, that's only 10%. Even some NFL back-up quarterbacks are making $5 M per year. Policies sometimes have unintended consequences. If Donald Trump hears about this, he might resign his office and move to Florence. Even the tax policies he's enacted himself couldn't help him that much. This policy comes from the Democratic Party (PD), not the one of Andrew Jackson, but the one derived from the Partito Democratico dell Sinistra, the workers' party, which in turn was the new name taken by the old Partito Comunista Italiano after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of most of the major parties in the fallout from Mani Pulite.

Following his role models, Tony Blair and Obama/Clinton, in taking the major party of the left to the hyper-capitalist right, Matteo Renzi led the Partito Democratico to a catastrophic loss in the recent elections. From number one, the party has slipped to number two, with about 19% of the seats in Parliament, a percentage dwarfed by the combined totals of the two principal parties of the center-right coalition. That brings us to the third ingredient in the electoral pot.

Beppe Grillo
Beppe Grillo was a very successful Italian comedian who developed a large popular following but whose irreverence for the ruling class came to get him banished from Italian TV. He continued to perform for large live audiences. His comedy, sharp and bitter but engaged, was reminiscent of that of Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory.. I tend to think of him as the Italian George Carlin, but he's more than that. He apparently tired of simply railing at the political establishment and decided to do something, and like Berlusconi, he founded his own party, the Five Star Movement, in 2009 He considered it a movement, not a party. Also like Berlusconi, he was ineligible to run for public office himself, having been convicted for his responsibility in a traffic accident which resulted in the death of a person. Berlusconi's crime was tax fraud, which happened after his entry into politics, although he has been indicted on a number of other charges. Grillo based his movement, and its name, on five principal themes: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable politics, the right to internet access, and environmentalism. He also insisted that anyone running under the M5S banner pledge to give back half of his or her salary to the government, based on his widely shared belief that Italian parliamentarians are over paid and too many in number (e.g. 968 vs 535 in the US Congress). Much like Bernie Sanders in the US, his campaign has attracted many young and enthusiastic people, fed up with the corrupt and inept political establishment. The M5S got the most votes in the 2013 election for the Chamber of Deputies, but not being in a coalition meant they were assigned only 109 of the 630 seats. This year they swept Italy south of Rome, where the problems of poverty and the wave of migrants have hit the hardest. The M5S is now the largest party in Italy with over 32% of the seats in Parliament but still outnumbered by the center-right coalition with 36% of the seats.
Luigi Di Maio

The Grillini, as they're often called, have been much criticized for being inexperienced in politics. The criticism is valid but their response is concentrated on their integrity. Many of their candidates have been recruited from positions in various professions, from medicine to scientific research, law, information technology and economics. While they may be good in their fields, most of them have little experience in political office. Luigi Di Maio, the new head of the party, and candidate for premier, via an on-line primary, is only thirty-one years old. While he studied engineering and law at the university, he left before obtaining a degree to join the newly formed M5S and at twenty-six became the youngest parliamentarian to become the vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies. His elevation in the party may be somewhat due to having more political experience than most of the candidates in the party, despite his youth, but he really hasn't worked at anything else. M5S internet ads have shown the faces and resumès of some of their young recruits alongside those of their direct electoral opponents, most of them right out of central casting for classic villains. They have also pointed out that among the hundreds of candidates put up by the two large coalitions, each slate has about a score of convicted felons in its ranks, while the M5S has none. Given the election results, many Italians apparently preferred to take their chances with inexperienced bright young people rather than with entrenched veterans of the political swamp.

The party proposes a minimum income for all citizens, a controversial stand but one that addresses a problem rarely talked about anywhere in the modern world. Research and technology are working madly to eliminate jobs. Artificial intelligence is thought to be the wave of the future, eliminating vast swaths of jobs, but little attention is devoted to how people will survive if work is eliminated.

The M5S has been described as anti-Europe or anti-EU but it might be more accurate to describe the EU as being anti-Europe. It was the French, English and Americans, not the EU, that attacked Libya, unleashing the flood of refugees. The EU did nothing. Just imagine the militias of Kansas and Utah joining up with the Argentine military to bomb Juarez, while the US Government did nothing about it. Would it be Mississippi, or California this time, to consider the idea of secession? Once the damage had been done, Italy asked the EU for help with the migrant problem but was told by Germany that the Italian borders and the refugees entering were Italy's problem. When the migrants started crossing from Italy into France, the French who, under Sarkozy, had precipitated the crisis, closed their borders in violation of the basic tenets of the European Union. When the EU was formed, Italy was among the most enthusiastic of all the original members. Most Italians still appreciate the convenience of the single currency, whether they are tourists or businessmen, but many are also realizing that the economic union is badly flawed and favors some of the more prosperous members at the expense of the poorer ones to the south. Another common view is that the EU is a center of smug, out-of-touch highly paid bureaucrats responsible to no one. I would add that they intervene in local rules and regulations without hesitation but barely manage a whimper in response to the most egregious examples of American imperialism. The NYT may see the winners of the election as pro-Putin but the reality that US regime media don't want to acknowledge is that sanctions imposed by the US on Russia and Iran have damaged Italy and other EU members almost as much as they have harmed the targeted countries.

What lies ahead? Renzi has said he would resign but not until a new government is formed and he's determined that the PD will not cooperate with any party outside his coalition, more or less guaranteeing that a new government cannot be formed. He sounds like a petulant child, combining the worst traits of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. That leaves it up to President Sergio Mattarella to figure out a solution. Good luck Mr. President! As I prepare to distribute this post, I've heard that the PD has told Renzi to leave, now. That may be the best news of the week.

Once, all roads led to Rome. Now, nobody knows which way is right, which way is left, which way is up? Do all paths lead downward? Stay tuned.