Wednesday, July 10, 2019


The sanctuary of the Pasquarella

During a Champions League soccer match at Turin’s San Siro Stadium between Juventus and Real Madrid on June 3rd 2017, a wide screen TV showing of the game was set up in Turin’s Piazza San Carlo. A known criminal band of mostly North African thugs attacked the crowd with pepper spray with the intent to rob attendees. One person apparently died in the melee. Italy’s national police chief, Franco Gabrielli (the Chief of Italian Civil Protection) responded quickly, issuing the Circolare Gabrielli within the month to assure safety at all public gatherings. In the same year, Gabrielli married his long time girlfriend, Immacolata Postiglioni, the Chief of the Emergency Office of Civil Protection. The perfect storm! Two dedicated advocates of public safety joining forces. What could go wrong?

Chief Franco Gabrielli
The original measure proved to be so over-reactive that it put a damper on virtually all social/cultural gatherings in Italy. By July of 2018 a corrective measure was issued to make the order more workable. This one may have actually been named Circolare Gabrielli, while the original was perhaps called something else, despite emanating from the office of Gabrielli. Information about the events on the internet is remarkably difficult to find, limited mostly to the various laws and rulings written in deep bureaucratese, largely impenetrable to the curious foreigner.

Given that we’ve witnessed first-hand in New York City on September 11th of 2001 what can go wrong when government authorities ignore threats to public safety, we feel obligated to compliment the Italian Government for taking quick and decisive action in response to an ugly criminal event. Perhaps Chief Gabrielli could be temporarily loaned to the US to deal with the crisis at the southern border.

Second-guessing public authorities is always easier than carrying out their duties, and we love to do it. Living in underpopulated rural Umbria gives us a particular perspective that the Chief doesn’t have the luxury of sharing. We see his measures as overkill but left to our own devices, ours might be seen in the same light by city dwellers. If big soccer matches breed violence, why not just eliminate them, have them played in empty stadiums in neutral cities, or just ban the sport altogether and let the crowds concentrate their enthusiasm on more gentlemanly sports such as rugby?

Putting city-country differences aside for the moment, we would simply like to draw a little attention to the measures that have been taken. Generally all events involved in public gatherings will have new regulations about the size of the crowds and the number of security people that have to be on duty during those events. The size of the crowds at the Palio in Siena will be reduced from 40,000 to 12,000. What will the economic effect on Siena be? We assume that ticket prices will rise by a factor of three or four, but attendees buy more than tickets. Oh well, that’s a Tuscan problem.

Parking threat on river road
near Pasquarella
 Here in Umbria, there is a little sanctuary up the hill from a ravine near our village of Acqualoreto. It dates back to the 1100’s and is built against a cliff with rooms carved into the rock. For decades and probably centuries, local people have gathered there on the Sunday after Easter (Pasquarella) for a combination of a Mass and a picnic in the woods. In recent years the path up to the church has been improved and at the bottom of the hill, along the ravine, outdoor grilles have been
Porchetta and peanuts
built and parking has been improved. On the day of the Pasquarella, Masses have started early in the morning and have continued until late afternoon, eight in all. However, there have been several other days of pilgrimage to the sanctuary in January and August. Last year the use of the Pasquarella was canceled. It seems that the little piazza to the front and side of the church has been deemed too small for safe evacuation in the case of emergency.

Unsafe for emergency evacuation

Here in town on other occasions such as Corpus Domini, a score of villagers follow the priest out of the church, around the village and down and back to a little chapel a couple of hundred meters along the road. The new regulations require a person wearing an iridescent vest at the front and rear of all such processions. That is manageable enough but now, every little village festival has to have three or four Red Cross people standing by throughout to deal with “emergencies”. The biggest emergency is the cost of this service. Morre and Collelungo canceled their festas last year. Acqualoreto is soldiering on this summer but for how long? These little festivals take in some money, typically just enough to cover their costs, but with considerable new costs imposed, there may not be sufficient residual funds to finance next year’s events.
secured procession

By now, Todi is a small city known around the world for its history, beauty and livability but the entire Comune (county or township) has only 17,000 residents, of which about 7000 live in the city. It does an astounding job of hosting all sorts of cultural events at a time of serious difficulty for retail shops. The big need is more people and more jobs. We doubt that security guards are the answer to the employment problem.

Musicians imitating Ray Charles
play in Todi's
Piazza Garibaldi
Red Cross standing by in case Garibaldi falls on
crowd due to rhythmic music

The road to the river
Several posts back, on June 16th of last year, we commented on the collapse of a short section of the road connecting our village with the river road that runs alongside the Tiber. We called it the Little GrandCanyon of Acqualoreto. Nothing has changed. The men working signs are still in place. A five km stretch of this road connects our village to the road running along the Tiber in the valley below, which in turn takes us just about anywhere we’re likely to go. The pavement is roughly five meters wide, just enough for vehicles to pass each other, assuming that each stays to the right. There are no shoulders to this road, much less sidewalks or paths for pedestrians or cyclists. No stripes are painted, either at the edges of the pavement or in the middle. 
curving metal gutter

 Along one section, metal drainage gutters have been installed to facilitate drainage on the hilly terrain. Sometimes they are a meter away from the pavement, hidden by tall grass, and sometimes they are right at its edge. These gutters have small cross braces at about every three meters.
preferred trajectory

Most drivers seem to prefer driving in the middle of the road, moving to the edge only when forced to by an on-coming vehicle. We are left to imagine what effect a slight excursion off the pavement might produce. Some precautions have been taken by the local authorities, such as installing a few poles with reflectors along the edge of the pavement where the gutter abuts it.
safety measures including posted
10 KPM speed limit

The other notable provision is a 10 KPH speed limit sign (hard to read in the picture due to uncut grass) which would appear to be more an attempt to reduce liability than speed. For US readers, that’s about 6 MPH, a brisk sustainable walking speed.

We would like to invite Chief Gabrielli to visit our area to to see the unintended consequences of his measures but we fear that if he noted the conditions of the roads that connect Acqualoreto to the world, he might conclude that the village could not be safely evacuated in the event of an emergency. If he issues another wide-reaching decree regarding road safety, it could mean the end of all motorized traffic in Italy. Good for the environment perhaps but at what cost?

One day we’ll all be securely dead but in the meantime, while we’re still breathing, we would like to see the politicians of all persuasions who lament the economic difficulties of the country turn their attention from prohibiting cultural and economic activity to promoting it. Small villages suffer from population loss and limited economic opportunities but they offer beauty, cultural traditions and a healthy atmosphere that can’t be matched in large cities. Killing what remains of their traditions and social/cultural events doesn’t seem like the product of the most positive or creative thinking available.

Friday, April 26, 2019


We’ve been hearing that our current politics is driven by fear. I won’t dispute that instilling fear is a much used tactic but the emotion that dominates these uneasy times seems to be disgust rather than fear. I turned to Google for enlightenment and came up with the following, along with a few other helpful articles here and here.


“The feeling when you encounter something that you don’t want to get into contact with in any way (neither see, hear, feel or taste it), because you expect it is bad for you. You want it to get away from you.” *from emotiontypology. Disgust is similar to contempt when related to human characteristics. “Moral disgust and contempt can be difficult to distinguish.” Outrage is not far away.

Among animals which prompt disgust, snakes, spiders and other crawling insects lead the unpopularity sweepstakes. Having worked at zoos at both ends of my career, I remain afraid of snakes but not disgusted by them, whereas I’ve always been disgusted by rats and other invasive rodents, even to the point of booing Mickey Mouse cartoons at the movies as a kid.

According to one of the articles linked, people who feel disgust readily are more likely to be conservative, whereas liberal people tend to feel less disgusted morally. My background is from a family of faltering Dutch Reformed faith. The severity and the religiosity were diluted but the Calvinist judgmental tendencies were retained, leaving us to experience disgust and contempt much more readily than most of our neighbors.

Curiously, my brother and I share this trait but owing to divergent political leanings, the objects of our contempt are usually polar opposites. My radically conservative brother would seem to be more within the confines of probability, in that his contempt is usually triggered by “the other”, i.e. whatever is outside the American suburban norm of the 50’s and 60’s, whereas mine, more often driven by aesthetic concerns, is rooted there. We get along remarkably well by simply avoiding the discussion of politics.

The picture toward the top of the page is of viburnum, known locally as sambuchelle. These plants have nice flowers and make a dense hedge. We have many of them. Unfortunately, they stink, a characteristic described in plant catalogs as an “intoxicating fragrance”. Besides the Calvinist baggage, I have a strong sense of smell, not good enough to be a paid food or wine taster but enough to render me susceptible to disgust brought on by cigarette smoke, wet dogs and viburnum. My vision of Hell is riding in a car of a cigarette smoker with a dog. Indeed, my many years of smoking cigars resulted not only from a love of the scent of cigars but as much from the need for a counteroffensive against the ubiquitous poison gas ambiance generated by cigarette smoke, a tactic akin to using excessive cologne when riding the buses of Rome. As defined above, disgust arises from all the senses and while I’m conventionally liberal enough to oppose capital punishment, I would be tempted to make exceptions for “graffiti artists” and other desecrators of the visual environment. Likewise, aural stimuli, from much white pop music of the fifties, through decades of the San Remo Festival, to the sound tracks of the cartoons that my grandchildren watch, induce extreme distress. At the gym which I frequent, when the screaming military cadences of the ladies’ dancercizes subside, the aural vacuum is filled by the sounds of Radio Subasio, an agency possibly set up by the CIA to soften the will of terrorist prisoners held at Abu Graib. After two hours of exposure, normal brains turn to mush so I try to hold my workouts to an hour and a half.

In my bachelor days, many years ago, my Siamese cat slept inside my bed with me. This provoked some discomfort, if not outright disgust, in a number of visitors, not so different from my own unease at seeing people share their dishes with their pets. Our thresholds of disgust are highly subjective and personal.

Occasionally the disgust sweeping the world can be curiously bipartisan. In the UK, the failure to resolve the Brexit crisis has provoked disgust with the political establishment across the British political spectrum, even if abroad, the disgust has been sprinkled with other emotions ranging from disbelief through ridicule to pity.

One of the more bizarre aspects of the times we live in is that while President Trump has exceeded all precedents for provoking disgust, the intense disgust that he inspires is felt mostly in people usually considered liberal. His “conservative” base theoretically consists largely of easily disgusted people. It’s no surprise that they will not be upset with his treatment of poor people or of non-white people, but one might reasonably expect that people who are intolerant of others outside their experienced norms of appearance and custom would be appalled by his constant flouting of social norms of behavior that have evolved over centuries. Have actual conservatives been supplanted by a new breed of monsters, such as those filling his swamp cabinet, all dedicated to destroying the agencies they run? While a few collaborators have thrown in the towel, the President’s steadfast minions, from Mitch McConnell to William Barr, surrender whatever dignity or decency they may have ever possessed to the campaign to destroy every significant institution and all aspects of the natural environment, in the United States and beyond.  Their mission is to redistribute all economic resources to their oligarch patrons. It is not a zero sum game. They don’t really care if the pie gets smaller; they just want all of it. Will a new James Bond emerge to save the world from the plot by the spiritual descendents of Dr. No and Goldfinger to establish a neo-feudal regime? Will the level of disgust rise to the point of forcing change? We shall see.

Still, every one of us reacts to different things emotionally and stimuli come from all sides. While the Governor of Virginia was flubbing his press conference to explain a proposed law legalizing third trimester abortion and what to do with fetuses which accidentally survive the procedure, causing the law to be scrapped, in New York State the passage of a similar law was celebrated with the illumination of the NYC skyline in pink, ordered by the First Girlfriend of New York.  It may have been all congratulatory smiles in the citadel of secular orthodoxy but there were more bitter pockets of outrage in flyover country than the New York Times is ever likely to report. We think of flyover country as places like Iowa and Nebraska but the planes actually lift off in Newark and Queens. Not even the Pope appeared to take umbrage but the President was quick to jump at the chance to displace the Pope as the champion of unborn babies, thus ingratiating himself with more angry voters of short and narrow memory.

Another topic which provokes psychic, not to mention physical, discomfort is genital mutilation, a practice mostly carried out in African countries. African issues don’t carry much weight in the US but when some Africans get to the US and try to continue this tribal custom, a storm of indignation erupts. Given that opposition to such practices is so vocal and strong, it is beyond ironic that a recent objective in “progressive” circles is the surgical and chemical altering of pre-adolescent children to make their bodies better align with their perceived gender identities. Barring revolutionary medical advances, this will leave them sterile, perhaps a worthy goal for progressives concerned with rapid population growth at a time when the planet’s survival has come into question.

Disgust fatigue risks our turning away from the news of the world, which would be problematic if the major media actually reported news more than gossip. One story that somehow slipped in quietly the other day was about the comeback of asbestos. The formerly all purpose wonder substance was banned several decades back when its lethal effects became known but now the Trump Administration, in its efforts to create jobs and stimulate the economy, has eased the restrictions on its use. Previous sources of asbestos in Brazil and Canada have long since suspended operations but there is a small town in Russia which still produces asbestos and is now looking forward to a new era of prosperity. Residents there don’t worry about dangers inherent in the mining since they are only a few kilometers from a large, run-down nuclear power plant and all life has risks anyway so what the hell.

We’ve never been much caught up in the agitation over the alleged efforts of Putin to influence the 2016 US election since his efforts were at least furtive, whereas the more forceful interventions of Benjamin Netanyahu were carried out in plain sight on the floor of Congress shortly before the election. The combined efforts of Putin, Netanyahu, and Bill Clinton to subvert the election never added up to anything close to those of Kris Kobach. He remains unindicted and free despite his effective work to disenfranchise many times more voters than were needed to prevent the surprise victory of Donald Trump. Inasmuch as he is not a foreign agent, his work did not constitute the intervention of a hostile foreign power but only something more akin to treason or, at the least, as massive a civil rights violation as we’ve seen since the days of the KKK.

Nevertheless, those looking for more evidence of Russia’s hold over the current administration might want to follow the asbestos trail. Could this be a link that Mueller missed? Election help and Moscow building permits in exchange for jobs in a struggling Russian town plus the poisoning of the US homeland with the consequent weakening of its population?

Finally, as we end today’s sermon, we note that right-wing Democrats are loudly calling for the emergence of a Democratic presidential candidate who will not threaten the status quo. In 2016 they were very successful but they started from pole position in that race. (They did win the race even if the series championship eluded them.) Can they replicate that performance while starting from behind in 2020? At the moment, their efforts appear to be concentrated on Joe Biden, whose candidacy has only now been officially proclaimed, after delay after delay of a declaration ceremony, mostly caused by allegations of improper conduct towards women with him on prior campaign trails. Some women claim to have been disgusted by his actions in putting his arm on their shoulders or even sniffing their hair (ucch!). Joe Biden has always struck me as a very likable person, unusually so for a politician. Wealthy Democrats seem to adore him. Of all the twenty or thirty potential candidates in the race he is near the bottom of the list of whom I would want to see as the next president, but I would be happy to have him as a friend or neighbor. A compelling op-ed appeared in the NYT by a woman who is deeply offended by the attitudes he represents. We can respect her views without sharing them. I would have shared the article here but can't find it.  I too have been disgusted by some of Joe Biden’s actions, from his treatment of Anita Hill at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings to his advocacy of the criminally insane invasion of Iraq.

We risk drowning in a sea of disgust. It’s a constant companion, much like hypocrisy. An excess of hypocrisy leads to cynicism, as in Italy where universal cynicism has led to political paralysis. Similarly, the daily tidal wave of disgusting events in the USA appears to have rendered the population numb to the most grotesque outrages but sometimes hypersensitive to mini affronts. I would modestly suggest that we all take a deep breath and put this emotion under control and focus it where it matters. Asbestos could be a start. Climate science denial, or all science denial for that matter, would be better yet.

For my part, I pledge to resist kicking overly friendly, drooling dogs and to refrain from derogatory comments in the presence of cigarette smokers. I will even hold back from dropping a barbell on the hi-fi system at the gym. As an occasional political cartoonist, I can’t step back from disgust completely or I’d have nothing to draw, but should Joe Biden stop by the Circolo of Acqualoreto on a long campaign tour, or even on a post-withdrawal Umbrian vacation, speaking for the membership, I can assert that he will be welcomed with open arms, friendly hugs and all, by the assembled members, with the possible exception of my wife, but even she wouldn’t denounce him in the press. The presence of Kristen Gillibrand might prove more problematic since there is a lot of casual hugging and kissing at our Happy Hours and we wouldn’t want to risk being reported to the authorities.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

What's Next in the Future of Cults?

For several years people have been exposed to the idea that if they all shoot themselves in the foot they will receive a shower of unimaginable riches: handicapped car permits, enhanced pensions and health care, as well as a renewed sense of solidarity with their handicapped brethren.
In the UK, the argument convinced a majority of the population to make that commitment. When the ruse was exposed showing that the promised golden shower would be very different from what they had been led to expect, die-hard cult leaders stepped in to claim that “democracy” required that the voice of the people be respected and that there would be no going back. Logic might have suggested that the Make Britain Great Again cult should be simply seen as a momentary collective lapse of judgment and reconsidered.

I do recall that after a centuries-long, half-hearted campaign to replace imperial units, in 1973 the UK joined the EEC and was obliged to adopt the metric system. Remember, that going back as far as the 1660’s, British scientists and engineers were at the forefront of metrication. As adopted, it included the ingeniously modular system of paper sizes and required abandonment of quaint non-decimal units of currency such as shillings and guineas. There has been some backlash. The pint will never die in Britain. After nearly a half century, human weights are still often announced in stone and distances are given in miles. All peoples of the earth are peculiar in that they are unique but the Brits seem to revel in their eccentricities more than most. Therefore, an eleventh hour reversion to reason is less than a sure bet.

What then might some of the effects of Brexit be, in terms of restoring Britain to past glory? We are reasonably sure that the Government of India will not go along with restoring the sovereignty of the Queen over the sub-continent, even though that would give car makers such as Land Rover and Jaguar their British identity back. German brands such as Mini and Rolls Royce, as well as all the major Japanese makes, still produce cars in the UK but with a new system of tariffs, that may prove untenable.

Will the metric system, partial or not, be revoked in a bid to make the special relationship with the USA more special? That’s a thorny issue since British pints are larger than US pints and President Trump is not known for compromise. Will the special relationship lead to Brits being required to eat anything that the FDA and the US Dept of Agriculture deem fit for human consumption? Will it mean that the UK, now freed from EU meddling, will fall under the umbrella of US Homeland Security?

Brexit may halt the painfully slow introduction of mixing taps into the British plumbing system but a reversion to the old hot and cold taps will be hindered by the loss of untold thousands of Polish plumbers who already left with their devalued pounds in the wake of the 2007 economic collapse. The edible food revolution may be harder to reverse, even if the formerly young unemployed Italians who sparked it are sent home, since nearly two generations of Britons have grown accustomed to eating edible food.

On the other side of the pond, the MAGA cult, cousin to the Make Britain Great Again cult, is also facing an uncertain future. Despite two years of daily scandals and the crude and unceasing demolition of standards of civility, diplomacy, credibility and integrity developed over two and a half centuries of US government*, the presidency of Donald Trump has sailed along without a peep of protest from the Republican-controlled Congress, with the exception of a few members pushed into early retirement by shame or dismal reelection prospects.

* Not to paint too rosy a picture but there were standards, no matter how imperfect adherence to them may have sometimes been.

After stating that he would drain the swamp, Trump sought and found his cabinet in the sewer. The subsequent high turn-over rate of his appointees resulted from some of them being even too sleazy for Trump to abide, while others were fired for not being sleazy enough. The new teflon president has slithered through all this on the strength of a rising stock market, (until September 2018) and vast kick-backs to the oligarchs who backed him (under the guise of tax reform).

Trump may have out-Foxed himself. While he simply lied outright in campaign promises regarding health care, social security, deficits and taking care of the troops, he also made statements about building a wall on the Mexican border so racist and so irrational that they clouded the essentially reasonable idea that a country should have secure borders. In so doing, he spawned a whole generation of believers in no borders at all. No sovereignty, just universal love.

He went on to say “I don’t see why we have to be enemies with Russia”. A quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idea of better relations with the inheritors of the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal seemed less irrational than most of Trump’s other tweets. Little did anyone realize that his quest for better relations was driven not by a need for national security but by the chance to build a Trump Tower in central Moscow.

Trump is now reviled across the bi-partisan Neo-con coalition for his Russian dealings. His support for a high visibility murderer and dismemberer has inspired queasiness in all but the deadest of souls. Recently he has fired all “the adults in the room”, i.e. the generals he had appointed to civilian posts. Then he announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan, undermining the absolute control of the government by the Military Industrial Complex. Ironically, the one positive thing he’s done in two years may be the thing that leads to his removal from office.

With apparent impunity, Trump can abuse women, pay them hush money, insult all identifiable minorities, tear up treaties, violate international law and act like the typical US kid drugged up for attention deficit disorder, but in derailing the military gravy train, he may have crossed a red line that neither Wall Street, the Pentagon, nor AIPAC will tolerate. Almost as quickly as I started to write this piece, Mr. Bolton, the new Director of Homeland Security, stepped in to overrule the President, possibly saving the President his job for the moment.

The troops were due to repatriated in one month; the final Mueller Report should be out sometime in the first quarter, and March 29th is the last day to drink or reject the Brexit Kool-aid. How will the cults fare? Your guess is as good as ours but it looks like an interesting time ahead. Happy New Year!