Sunday, November 29, 2020

Election Post-Mortem 2020

What went wrong?  Oh yes, the monster has been routed, whether he agrees to go quietly into the night or not.  He even pre-announced his intention of not accepting his own firing.  The abject cowardice of his obsequious Congressional enablers is more troubling.  The man has trashed all national and international standards of decency, morality, honesty and diplomacy while showing nothing but contempt for science and the rule of law.  That he would be removed was largely a foregone conclusion, but beyond that, how do you explain what would otherwise be a Republican victory?

The paid punditry has rushed in to say that it was the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that pushed too far left.  Rubbish!!  The Democratic Party is now significantly to the right of Richard Nixon's Republican Party of  fifty years ago.  The absurdity of the pundits' claim was best seen in Florida where the voters went for Trump by a sizable margin on the same ballot that they supported a referendum mandating a $15./hour minimum wage, a policy opposed by the entire GOP, as well as by Biden, the corporate Democrats and the oligarchy.  

After wondering how a man who. inspires so much undiluted disgust could remain in contention in a national election, I realized that anyone so hated by the Establishment would automatically prove popular to a sizable portion of the populace.  Americans have always had a soft spot for renegades, criminals and other outrageous characters, from Billy the Kid and Bonnie and Clyde to the boys from Enron and Michael Milken.

Thinking further back, way back, to my own adolescence, I recalled the times I went to exhibitions of pro wrestling where I loudly cheered on the nefarious deeds of the villains and reveled in the shock I induced in the dim but sentimental matrons in attendance.  The rebellious spirit of my inner brat did not readily fall in line with fake establishment heroes and the sight of John Wayne in any movie filled me with contempt.  My cinematic heroes at the time ran to type-cast knife wielders such as Jack Palance, Henry Silva and Charles Bronson.  Who knows how I avoided growing up to be one of the Proud Boys?

While some of our youthful enthusiasms live on into old age, usually adolescent rebellion is overcome with time.  Not always.  In all those pick-up trucks trying to run a Biden campaign bus off the road in Texas, it seems like there were a lot of sixty-year-old adolescents brandishing their guns and their battle flags.

No aspect of the GOP strategy is more central to its success than its ability to provoke the prolongation of adolescent rebellion in its electorate, all in unwitting service to the oligarchy.  The "you can't take our guns" of these aging dudes sounds exactly the same, in tone and emotional intensity, as the bleating lament of our entitled fifteen-year-olds, " you can't take my iphone!".

Identity politics has nearly killed the Democratic Party.  We hear over and over that white people will soon be a minority.  Nobody wants to hear this except some people who identify with a minority which has no chance of ever becoming a majority.  We may vary in complexion, language, ethnicity and traditions, but we're all one big complicated family.  Family life can be difficult at times but denying the bond is not the answer.   The Republican Party has shamelessly magnified our differences to foster hatred and contempt in order to maintain minority control of the government but Democrats, whether from misguided idealism or simple stupidity, have jumped at the bait, continuing to foster racist terminology, dividing people into arbitrary categories, serving no purpose other than making us lose sight of our common interests.

Following the election, this phenomenon reached comic depths as Kamala Harris was heralded as the first woman of color, the first Asian American and the first African American* to ever be elected to the vice presidency.  She already brought a lot of identities to the table and she even has a seldom mentioned Jewish husband.

* Her father was Jamaican.  Does that count extra, or a little less, given the size of the island? 

In an earlier post here about five years ago, I decided that I would not run for public office, no matter how good the perks.  While probably seen by others as a WASP, I tend to reject such classification.  My family was mostly Dutch, of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed faith, and I've felt little in common with the real WASPS, the British, whom I hold responsible for everything from colonialism to overcooked beef to the lack of of mixing taps in household bathroom fixtures.   

Had I not renounced any political candidacy, what would my political identity be?  Religion and national origin were clearly of no help.  However, since early childhood I've always been a Boston Red Sox fan  and since adolescence a LA Rams fan.  Although I haven't seen a baseball game for several decades, I still identify as a Red Sox fan.  Would that bring me political support?  Some people who might agree with my political positions might also be NY Yankees fans or SF 49ers fans.  Worse yet, I fear some Red Sox fans might even be in the MAGA camp.

The "racial" categories commonly used by pollsters and the media in the US are white, black and Hispanic, the latter term sometimes being exchanged with Latino, or even the mysterious and totally confusing "Latinx".  The European Union has made some headway in defusing the resentments that have divided the Germans, the French, Greeks, Scandinavians and the Italians over centuries, but if if weren't for Bill Clinton, the affable Irish would still be killing each other over the family religion.  If Europeans have had so much trouble getting their act   together, what can we expect from the Spanish speakers from all over the world?  Do Battista Cubans, a powerful force in the politics of Florida and New Jersey, identify as people of color?  Do they have anything in common with people fleeing rape and murder carried out by CIA-backed regimes in Central America?

Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish sociologist, studied race in the US in the 1940's and concluded that while Americans persisted in seeing race as a binary distinction between black and white, something like 80% of the what is known as the black community was actually made up of a combination of black and white ancestry.  That was seventy-five years ago.  By now, both the black and white gene pools have been spiced up by infusions of genes from other minorities that we weren't even aware of seventy-five years ago.

While it may be in vogue for politicians liker Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and even Elizabeth Warren to identify themselves as women of color, they are doing no favor to democracy or the Democratic Party.  I'm sure that they meant no harm so let's bail them out.  We're all people of color.  I'm sort of a jaundiced pink myself.  Just don't make me a part of any sallow pink voting block.

The character of a candidate and the candidate's position on the issues were traditionally the basis of election choices although how your father voted and how well you got along with him may have had a more tangible effect.

Over the past four years the concept of "character" has been erased from public discourse.  In theory issues should therefore matter more than ever.  In this election year there were two issues of overriding importance: climate change, and the rapidly expanding gap between rich and poor.  After Jay Inslee was out of the race, climate change was barely mentioned again, although our grandchildren's future is very much in play.  Once the Establishment had crushed the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, discussion of the wealth gap was off limits and the election devolved into a referendum on the unfitness of Mr. Trump to occupy high office, in effect, a national impeachment referendum to supersede the failed effort in Congress.  Once again, the public was out ahead of the Senate.  Issues played even less a part than did the abandoned concept of character.

There were and are many other issues about which people can disagree, sometimes with great passion and conviction.  Most of them will not determine the survival of the planet, the civilization or the country but they will continue to be a basis for political discussion, activism, compromise and legislation.  A quick. and partial list of such concerns might include:

Abortion, Anti-trust laws, Border control,  Campaign finance, Capital punishment,  Corruption, Deficit spending, Drug legalization, Environmental protection, For profit prisons, Fracking, Free speech, Free Trade, Gerrymandering, Gun control, Immigration, Law and Order vs rights to protest, LBGT rights, Military deployment, Military spending,  Parental rights, Press freedom, Public Education, Single payer health care, Student loans, Taxation, Voter suppression, Whistle blower protection.

Articles and books have been written advocating different positions on all of these topics. Many of the issues, such as those related to health care and education, are simply derivatives of the major problem of the great economic divide.

Unfortunately, the DNC made fundamentally the same mistakes in 2020 as it had in 2016.  Real issues were downplayed or banned from discussion.  The candidate selection was just as rigged as the last time except that instead of the Establishment candidate being crowned from the start,  his triumph had to be hastily arranged after a panic attack brought on by an unacceptably democratic candidate becoming the surprise (to the DNC) frontrunner.  Aided by the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Establishment triumph was engineered in South Carolina, a state which went on to fully back Trump and the worse of his minions in the general election.  

Voters had had four years to see that Trump was not just a colorful renegade but a dangerous sociopath whose incompetence was killing hundreds of thousands of people, while Joe Biden was promoted as a nice man, less bloodthirsty than Hillary Clinton, but still capable of bringing a nostalgic return to the normalcy that voters rejected in 2016.  Biden is in fact likable.  Not many politicians can sustain long political careers without having some sort of innate likability.  (There are always rare exceptions such as Mitch McConnell).  Biden supported the illegal invasion of Iraq and virtually every other policy favoring corporations over people but then, so did most of the other people in Congress, and some of them have no likability component whatsoever. 

One might have expected that the outrages of Trump would have led to the dissolution of the Republican Party but alas, the Democratic Party refused to unlearn its skill at shooting itself in the foot.  Not only has it adhered to the divisive ways of racially charged politics,  it has informally established a "litmus test" of officially approved positions of the Democratic Party.  Many of these policies have been attributed to the "progressive wing" of the party but all the original candidates payed lip service to the approved dogma.  Ironically, the progressive candidates, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren  and a few more, kept their eye on the ball and concentrated of the two big issues of the day.  Meanwhile, the Establishment candidates, from Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete to Beto O'Rourke and a dozen more tended to focus on identity politics, abortion rights and gender denial while pushing aside any talk of universal health care or a living wage as being too radical for America.

The new dogma of the DNC centers on a number of philosophic or even theological givens which we don't recall ever being discussed or debated anywhere.  One is the divine status of "diversity" as an absolute good.  Is diversity a value to be cherished, a goal to be achieved or simply a fact of existence?  What constitutes diversity?  Those questions received even less attention than climate change.

Another resolves around "rights".  Rights have been fought for and expanded over recent centuries and often described as "God given rights" even by people who did not acknowledge the existence of God.  The Declaration of Independence was a prime example and we should all be grateful for the audacious use of this linguistic device.  There is a danger in such usage, in that whatever some of us may claim, none of us has a direct line to God, even with the development of Skype and WhatsApp.  We must be careful when dealing with theological absolutists, whether they be Texas evangelists supporting genocide so that Christ can safely return to the Middle East,  pious souls who place the birth rights of fetuses above all other human concerns, or entitled secular teens whose divine right to health care must include free, confidential and unfettered access to abortion, genital mutilation, methadone and whatever other new need comes on-line.

Terminology has its limits.  "Liberal" in Europe usually means laissez faire economic policy, i.e. the lack of taxes and regulations, while in the US it has more social connotations, a sort of soft libertarianism with a strong dose of live and let live.  With the country and the world facing a dramatic shift toward neo-feudalism, live and let live just wasn't cutting it so progressives and populists came to the fore, pushing for real change.  Trump rode this wave to the White House, where he proved to be a complete fraud, dissipating and stealing public resources and subsidizing the oligarchy while oppressing and insulting the needy at every opportunity.      

On the other side, real populists have lost their way, opting for binary racist terminology, despite albinos, the real white people, being even more rare in the human community than transgendered people, while rejecting the more tangible binary distinction between people born male or female.

Worse still, the authoritarian mindset of some of the progressives emerged at just the most inopportune moment.  While liberal coastal city dwellers may be aghast at the perceived menace of gun-totin' Proud Boys at provincial Trump rallies doing convincing reenactments, complete with recycled Nazi and Confederate symbols, of Nazi mass gatherings in the Germany of the 1930's, they seem oblivious of the fears of many people throughout the country of a "Democratic regime" intent, not only on taking away their guns, but on making unapproved speech a punishable crime.

Protest against genocide is now a crime in California and other liberal states if the genocide is carried out by a nation considered a favored ally.  LBGT issues are no longer a liberal matter of live and live let but an activist campaign of  indoctrination of children, opposition to which can lose you your job, your business or even your children.

I can't imagine many voters refusing to vote for Democrats out of fear of having affordable health care being imposed of them but I can imagine some being so appalled by hearing of college students demanding safe zones on campus where they can't be exposed to ideas that might make them uncomfortable, that they would consider Trump and cohorts less dangerous than anyone backing such concepts.

Much of our future, if we survive the pandemic, will depend on the actions of a few people, starting with Joe Biden.    More than on Biden, our political future may rest with the people of Georgia, led by the resilient Stacey Abrams.  If they can replicate their November success, and the insider trading duo of David Perdue and Kelly (Marie Antoniette) Loeffler can be sent to their gilded early retirement, there may yet be hope for the country.  It is not a given.  Koch Industries is sparing no expense to crush such hopes.  

In my youth there was talk of a New South.  It's late but maybe now's the time.

                                                                    ***

If you enjoyed this blog, you can express your appreciation by sending off a few dollars to the campaigns of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Corruption

We are hoping to overcome the coronavirus.  What about the corruption virus?  Corruption is as old as the human race but it affects some of us more than others.  Growing up in an American suburb, I had little awareness of corruption in government.  We heard stories of big city political machines, Tammany Hall in New York, the Hague Machine in Jersey City and others around the country but they were something that affected other people.  In high school and college history classes, the subject rarely came up except in reference to the administration of Warren Harding.  I had a very old uncle from Ohio who had been a friend of Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State.  This well respected uncle had a graduate degree from Harvard and spent his life as Superintendent of Schools in Paterson, NJ.  He surprised me by speaking of his admiration for Warren Harding, another Ohio native, who I mostly knew about from the Teapot Dome scandal.  It seems that Harding had assembled one of the most respected and highly regarded cabinets in record time.  His Secretary of Interior, Albert Fall, an old friend, and his Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who had been his campaign manager, proved to be the ruination of his legacy.  Fall was the first ever US cabinet member to go to prison after being convicted of accepting bribes.  The Department Justice was also corrupt under Harry Daugherty and vast amounts of illegal booze were taken by bootleggers through bribery and kickbacks.  Harding had two long term extra-marital affairs which also tarnished his legacy.  He has typically been regarded as one of the worst presidents in US history although apart from the scandals of his two corrupt cabinet members, his actions were not notably different or worse than those of any other conservative Republican presidents.  In any case twenty percent of his cabinet was proved corrupt.


I was not around to observe the era when Al Capone and the Mafia controlled Chicago until he went to prison for tax evasion.  His Mafia roots went back to Sicily where with the unification of Italy, property owned by the Church was seized and privatised, driving much of the population into abject poverty, resulting in massive emigration and the growth of the Mafia to fill the void created by a failed state.  The void filled by Capone in Chicago was largely created by the enactment of Prohibition in 1920.  The organization grew powerful enough to continue its criminal activities even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.  Satisfying people’s illegal vices has always been a profitable criminal activity but when not enough things were banned, the protection racket could fill the coffers by offering “insurance” against risks that the insurance provider would also provide.


In the 60’s and 70’s my experiences with corruption, with the exception of a few questionable traffic “violations” in Tennessee and Chicago, were mostly second or third hand.  The Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, took a plea bargain to avoid prosecution for extortion in exchange for his resignation from office shortly before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency  to avoid impeachment over illegal activities including the Watergate burglary.


At that time I worked for a large Atlanta firm established by George Heery, an architect who specialised in fast-track building and advanced construction management techniques.  He established branch offices in many US cities when invited by local authorities to solve their building needs.  The NYC branch where I worked was opened because Mayor Lindsey had asked him to design a series of swimming pools in predominantly black neighborhoods to provide summer relief in the stormy aftermath of the season of racially motivated assassinations.  Parallel agencies were created by bypass the Byzantine bureaucracy of the Building Department.  Permits were expedited and the projects were completed quickly.  It took a heavy toll on the NYC budget for years to come but the pools served their communities well.  Heery was also asked to do a major project in New Orleans but after looking into the situation, he balked, saying the level of corruption was so ingrained there that he wouldn’t take it on. Deeply rooted corruption can be as hard to wipe out as the coronavirus.


After that we moved to Italy.  When we rented a small summer house in the village of my in-laws and there was some delay in getting the electricity hooked up, my wife, following local advice, called up there utility and said “I’m told that if I want the connection made quickly, I should offer a pair of pigeons.  (Pigeons are one of the delicacies of local Umbrian cuisine) Who do I have to give the pigeons to?”  The man on the phone was deeply offended and insisted on knowing who had said such a thing. “Oh just voices in the village.”  The electricity was connected without further delay and no pigeons were involved.  Apparently corruption is not as pervasive in Umbria as elsewhere.


Many years later we got to know some people from Ukraine who worked in Italy as house cleaners and care givers.  Very nice people.  We heard hair-curling stories of how in Ukraine all the most basic needs of people, jobs, apartments, health care and even medicines were available, and only available, through extensive bribery.  Americans might foment coups or not, but regardless of the leader du jour, the corruption was solidly entrenched in the fabric of that society, much like New Orleans, only worse.


In the 80’s I spent a couple of years working in Saudi Arabia.  Corruption there was very different than in Sicily or Ukraine in that it was a very rich country and most of its citizens, although not always its guest workers, were very well off.  Still, executions and lesser punishments were meted out on the Sabbath (Friday) in a main square.  The stoning of adulterers was rare.  Mostly, it was Pakistani office boys found with their hands in a petty cash drawer getting their offending hands or fingers chopped off.  Meanwhile  the Prince who served as the Minister of Defense was celebrated as Saudi Businessman of the Year for the multimillion dollar “commissions” he received on the billions of dollars worth of weaponry he bought from the United States. 

The costs of building in the Middle East in those days were about double the costs of similar buildings anywhere else.  A part of this stemmed from logistical problems such as the severe heat and the long distances from the sources of materials to the building sites, but it was also due to the long chain of open hands which could stop the flow of materials along the way.


The Mafia has had a heavy hand in Sicily and its influence spread throughout Italy and beyond with time.  However, it may not be fair to blame the corruption that damaged the country in the 80’s and 90’s on the influence of the traditional Mafia bosses and their extended families.  Italy briefly became the world’s fifth largest economy and the second largest in Europe after Germany.  It thrived through its industrial and artisanal prowess and some good luck.  At a time when France and Switzerland invested heavily in nuclear energy, Italian voters vetoed nuclear facilities and were then able to buy electricity below cost after zero investment.  A winning lottery ticket!  Alas, as with many lottery winners, they blew the winnings.  A system known as the partitocracy, also referred to by some as the kleptocracy, came into being whereby the many competing political parties all acquiesced in the division of the spoils and the retention of the status quo.  More than fifty major construction projects were built throughout Italy and then abandoned when the money for their completion evaporated.  The one I saw close by was the new hospital just outside Orvieto which was started in the 1970’s, sat unfinished for years until thoroughly vandalized, and then redesigned and refinanced around 1993 with construction completed by 2007.  Many such projects were not so lucky and have never been completed at all.


In 1992 the Mani Pulite (clean hands) Scandal emerged in Milan.  Before it was over, it was said that enough evidence had been gathered to implicate more than sixty thousand elected officials throughout Italy.  Most of them escaped prosecution but many did not.  The old political parties all either went extinct or changed their names.


Between globalization and corruption the Italian economy was devastated, dropping behind those of France and the UK even faster than it had surpassed them.  Was globalization or its implementation another form of corruption?  I suspect it was but that’s a discussion for another day.  Systematic corruption has taken a toll on Italy but overall the government has tried to give the populace what it wanted and what it needed.


My home has been in Italy for forty-seven years and I believe I love my adoptive country as much or more than most native Italians,  Nevertheless, I have not always been totally happy with its politicians.  Still, the one time I felt truly proud of the government was when it chose to deny Bettino Craxi the possibility of returning to Italy for medical treatment with exemption from prosecution.  Faced with indictment on more than forty counts of corruption, Craxi had fled to exile in Morocco, and there he died.


Craxi was corrupt but unlike many similarly prominent political figures in my nation of birth, he was not a war criminal. Will the US ever show the backbone of Italy?  Where did the US go off the rails?  Was it the failure to prosecute our war criminals, as we had done so effectively to German war criminals at Nuremberg, opting instead to persecute whistle blowers?  Was it the insidious influence of nihilists such as Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan on political figures?  Members of Congress discovering that lobbyist perks paid better than their public salaries?  The glorification of self and the down playing of community?  Letting those responsible for the 2007 economic meltdown off the hook and even bailing out their corporations?  Whatever the cause, the US Government has not responded to the needs and desires of the public.  Various studies in some of the better universities have shown that the views of the general population have almost no effect on government policies, which instead are established by corporate lobbyists and the whims of oligarchs.


In the wake of all this, large segments of the US population became so fed up that they sought change, radical change.  The slogan “Make America Great Again” aligned better with their aspirations and frustrations than the tone-deaf and presumptuous twaddle “America is already great”.  They wanted the perceived rot excised and the swamp drained, much as the French had wanted at the time of their revolution.  That one turned into a blood bath, with many of its leaders beheaded by the guillotines they had erected themselves.  In the US the nihilistic impetus was given a different path.  The sometimes inflated but generally effective federal agencies were handed over to mafia bosses, no not those of the Gambino or Gotti crime families.  No Sicilian roots here.  They were to loot and eviscerate the agencies they were chosen to oversee and most of them did what was asked. There may have been some Russian Mafia connections in the mix but mostly these were home grown American grifters, corporate lobbyists and other white collar criminals, appointed by a president who had established a charity to help children with cancer and then stole from its funds for his own personal expenses.  He may someday be indicted for that if Americans can muster some Italian style backbone.  Meanwhile he has at least been forbidden from ever again engaging in charitable organizations in the State of New York.



The Trump Cabinet, indistinguishable from a Mob convention, has been well documented by a number of writers but normally escapes the scrutiny of the major media, obsessed as they are by the tweets, the insults and other outrages that provide daily background noise to cover the criminal activities of the regime.  One of the best analyses written so far is “Mapping Corruption…” by Jim Lardner.  By all means, please read it here.    It can be hard to even keep score but I’ve tried, with a chart.  Some officials and advisors have been removed by indictment while others have been fired because they haven’t been willing to play along with the criminal enterprise.  Others for insufficient obsequiousness to the Big Don, Capo dei Capi.  The turnover rate has been unprecedented but there seems to be no shortage of aspiring made men.  Years after the collapse of Enron there must be legions of wily, experienced and hardened fraudsters out there somewhere waiting for a second chance.





 
Moscow Mitch, the Horatio Alger of the Senate, is up for reelection to the Senate.  Mitch McConnell has risen from relatively modest origins to become one of the richest people in the Senate over the course of a long career spent almost exclusively in public office.  Yes, he did marry into money but marrying into money is generally beneficial for anybody, even more so for politicians, and he’s not alone. John McCain, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and even Kamala Harris have all enjoyed spousal support for their campaigns, although typically the money hasn’t come from Chinese shipping companies whose activities their spouses were appointed to oversee for the US Government. I suppose even Al Capone had his supporters, mostly people who were afraid of standing up to him.  Kentucky has lagged behind most of the country in a number of statistical categories.  Will this be the year when its voters take the lead in the fight against organized crime or will TV’s Tony Soprano have proved to be such a crowd pleaser that state pride kicks in for their own favorite son, the Big Boss of the Senate?


We are about to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the landslide election of Warren Harding.  Twenty percent of Harding’s cabinet proved corrupt, a record at the time.  Harding’s three years in office never achieved the level of scandal that we’ve grown accustomed to in any week of the present administration.


Dare we aspire to getting the level of corrupt cabinet officials down to the levels of the Harding Administration ever again?  The coming days will tell.



Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Discomfort Zone

For about as long as we’ve known that the earth is round but we weren’t going to fall off,
we’ve known that sooner or later we would die.  As infants, some of us might have been a little spooked by death but as we grew into adolescents we also came to feel immortal, a phase that continued for some of us into middle age.  It’s true that we heard “nothing is certain except death and taxes” more than practically any other aphorism but we learned to complain about taxes long before we worked up any real concern over the other inevitability.

Now that we’ve outlived our original life expectancy, we begin to notice things that escaped us before.  Many, perhaps most, of our friends are ex-smokers.  We all knew, no matter what the lawsuits say, that smoking was bad for us, even as the advertising campaigns worked to mitigate our fears, but it wasn’t until the immortality halo faded that most people decided to change their ways.  Curiously, that doesn’t seem to be the case with regard to alcohol.  Could it be due to the internet advice that a glass of red wine is good for one’s health?  Perhaps, but here in Italy the idea of giving up wine with all the good food available to us is comparable to, even worse than, going on a salt free or meatless diet.  Yes, we may be going to purgatory or hell sooner rather than later, but who wants to volunteer to go right now?

As we start to notice when reading obituaries that increasing numbers of the subjects are our age or, God forbid, even younger than ourselves, we begin to envision the day when we’ll receive some unexpected bad news from our doctor following a check-up or a complaint about a pain which seemed minor although unusual.  Of course we can imagine other grim scenarios, a moment where we underestimate the decline of our night driving capabilities; one episode too many of a risk-minimizing spouse placing something to be taken downstairs on an unlit step; or even the bad fortune to be on one of those rare planes that never makes it to its destination.  But those are just the whims of fate, statistically irrelevant and therefore outside the realm of our concern. Modern medicine has instilled a certain optimism in us, despite our knowledge of the inevitable trend.  We can battle and we can win.  Many of our friends have.  All sorts of diseases, which were considered death sentences not so long ago, have been successfully overcome by people all around us.  Staying positive is good for our morale, even for our health.

It was too good to last.  Early in 2020 news of the coronavirus, Covid-19, started to trickle in.  First it was a small story from China but quickly it became a major story here in Italy and has subsequently spread to dominate the news and the lives of everyone throughout the world.

Many of us in the small cohort of Americans born between the world wars have had the good fortune to be too young for the Korean War, too old for the Viet Nam War and retired before the world-wide push toward neo-feudalism made normal working life a fading memory.

We have experienced a few near disasters and some real ones from which we have escaped relatively unscathed.  The Cuban missile crisis was our closest brush with real terror.  Friends all wanted to drive to the Canadian border to escape the destruction of New York but we figured that if it came to that, there would be little left to live for.  Two tough, resolute and intelligent leaders faced each other down and decided to let life go on.  That crisis passed.  We were not so lucky with the flawed US election of 2000.  The outcome of that fiasco led to death and destruction for millions of people, centered in the Middle East, but for some of us fortunate enough to to escape direct involvement, it still led to the devaluation of our retirement prospects and a culling of our professional guild.  Some of us also survived the disaster of 9/11 from up close.  The grim memories remain but for a while we also got to experience the efforts of neighbors and competitors helping each other in the recovery.  All such crises come upon us unexpectedly.  Damage is done but afterwards it’s back to work and on with our lives. 

The coronavirus has brought us to a new and unsettling situation.  Many of us, especially younger people, are impatient for the crisis to be over, for life to return to normal.   Some people reasonably wonder how they will manage without work or income.  An obnoxious minority complain and demonstrate over the inconveniences placed on them to save their lives.  Life is very different for different categories of people, rich and poor, old and young, but all share one depressing emotion: uncertainty.

The horrors of the pandemic cannot be forgotten and they bring to mind the victims of past catastrophes, those who died in trenches, gulags and concentration camps not knowing if anything of the world as they’d known it would survive.  Now we see people dying in hospitals after weeks of agony without seeing their loved ones; nursing homes piling up corpses in refrigerated trucks; mass graves for the anonymous dead; medical staff working non-stop and sometimes being struck down by the virus themselves.  The list goes on and on, perhaps to where we become a little bit jaded.  People are angry; people are impatient; the suffering is not evenly distributed.  Uncertainty!  Will we have a job?  Will we have food?  Will school resume?  Will the economy come back?  When?  Will we survive and if not, will anybody notice?  Will the big welcome hug from a long missed friend be the kiss of death?  Nothing, not even the sacrosanct football season, can be taken for granted.

Umbria is said to be the region of Italy least affected by the pandemic.  Those of us fortunate enough to live here have more to be thankful for than most people, and most of us are aware of it.  Still, the uncertainties remain here too.  Will the restaurants survive?  Will we see our friends from abroad again?  Will the legions of teenage Chinese piano prodigies play again in Todi?  Will live jazz return?

The upside of the pandemic is that it may bring us to reflect on what we have to be thankful for, without fatuous quibbling over the ineffable nature of the recipient of our gratitude.  So, however and whenever it may end, we thank God for a long and fortunate life, much of it lived in what we regard as an earthly paradise, but still, nobody wants to be the last soldier to die in a war, so please God, if it’s not asking too much, may we be granted the patience, the wisdom and the luck to survive to see the reigning devil consigned to hell and the forces of evil in his orbit vanquished through peaceful, Constitutional means.  Amen.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Sex Changes


Once upon a time, after people had learned to procure the basics of survival such as food, shelter, descendants and security, they became aware that some of these activities, such as eating and drinking, fighting, dressing up, and especially sex, could also be a source of pleasure. As the pleasurable aspects became sought out, the realization followed that sometimes these pursuits could also bring painful consequences. Incautious eating led to food poisoning, obesity, diabetes and heart disease; excessive drinking sometimes led to anti-social effects beyond mere cirrhosis of the liver. Sex could result in a wide range of sexually transmitted diseases and more dramatically, pregnancy, which was only sometimes the desired result.

Wise men, kings, philosophers and prophets came up with rules and regulations governing pleasurable but potentially hazardous activities. Food restrictions grew extreme in hot climates where spoilage was more of a problem, even taking on the mantle of religious dogma. Sex was to be limited, in most cultures, to people joined in matrimony, an institution devised to assure a degree of stability for the progeny, as well as for the people so enjoined. The restrictions varied from one culture to another but the rich and powerful were normally subjected to less restriction. For example, while most Muslims could have four wives, the Sultans, Sheikhs and Kings who ruled them could have hundreds. Western society frowned on all this and men and women were allowed only one spouse at a time. Children produced outside of matrimony were called bastards and they bore a heavy cost, usually more than their fathers, for their parents’ violation of social norms.

The rules and regulations governing sex may have had some practical basis but the lure of pleasure can take wrinkles that don’t follow all the carefully constructed rules and traditions. What came to be labeled perversions or deviancies probably existed as long as the rules, otherwise why would there have been rules. Such practices have been suppressed with varying degrees of severity but mostly quietly ignored when discreet, except for when some political purpose has been served by calling attention to them.

The sexual revolution is often associated with the 60’s but changes had been a long time coming. As secondary education was extended to more people and the duration of that education was prolonged, the adolescent surge of hormones that had propelled people into early marriages for centuries found no outlet within the traditional norms. Something had to give and it did.

Besides the sexual revolution, the late 60’s were the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Americans who had not concerned themselves with the plight of African-Americans for a century were made to take notice. Feminist movements had been around for ages but gathered steam in the 60’s. Homosexuals took notice and seeing groups of people who had been maltreated for their status at birth begin to mobilize to stop the abuse, they too started to campaign for acceptance.

There was a difference not always acknowledged. Blacks and women had been systematically discriminated against, albeit in different ways, for their birth characteristics, over which they obviously had no control. While birth characteristics may affect behavior, they are not quite the same thing as behavioral traits. 

When homosexuals started calling themselves “gay”, not everyone was thrilled with the term. The recently deceased film and opera producer/director Franco Zeffirelli said he was a homosexual and did not want to be be called gay, a term he felt was without dignity. Well, language changes, whether we like it or not. Despite the appropriation of a formerly perfectly serviceable word, this would be one of the more innocuous modifications of language in the service of sex changes.

In deference to female homosexuals, the ancient term “lesbian” was dusted off to be used in tandem with “gay”. With the inclusion of bisexuals, the LBG movement was born, to be expanded to LBGT, and eventually to LBGTQIA+. The veritable alphabet soup of people not conforming to society’s sexual conventions has expanded to trap older politicians who haven’t kept up with what’s the latest thing in progressive causes.

Is homosexuality a genetically or culturally induced trait? No less an authority than Gore Vidal said that there are neither homosexuals nor heterosexuals, only homosexual or heterosexual acts. We claim no more special insight on this subject than we have with which came first, the chicken or the egg. We remain puzzled by the mystery of how much all children are the products of their genes and how much of their environment. As parents, we tend to assign causality of the perceived good traits to either superior genes or enlightened upbringing, while the disappointing outcomes are clearly the result of peer pressure. Still, the inclusion of B in the group title would seem to favor Vidal’s theory that issues of sexuality relate more to choices made than to immutable disposition.

In today’s passionately anti-clerical, secular world, it is in style to lambaste the Church for its restrictions on sexual behavior but we might note that homosexual acts have been regarded as criminal offenses by governments in countries of all religious persuasions, even atheistic ones, as well as in many US states. That was certainly the case in the US military. When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, one of his first presidential acts was to institute “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, a fairly radical decriminalization of homosexuality and a striking reversal of long-standing military policy. It was repealed in 2010 and less than three decades after DADT, Clinton is being castigated for having perpetrated what is now considered an outrageous denial of full equality.

If tolerance, acceptance and inclusion are today’s goals, why is the list not more inclusive? If LBGTQ is better than LBG, wouldn’t LBGIZMEATNNSTDCPPQ be infinitely better? That is, the Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Gay, Incestuous, Zoophile, Masochist, Exhibitionist, Asexual, Transvestite, Nudist, Necrophile, Swinger, Transgender, Dominant, Celibate, Polygamous, Passive, Queer people. Apologies to all those whose sexual identities/inclinations may have been overlooked.

Maybe not. It would lengthen speeches in political debates by so much that the presidential campaign might need to be extended by another six months. Joe Biden would stumble after the first five letters and the New York Times might question whether his condition warranted its continued unconditional support. If we could just agree to settle on “Q people” we could save everybody much time, effort and stress.

We won’t get into a discourse on how public prejudice has inhibited all the orientations listed above, other than to note some of the more blatant inconsistencies. Tolerance of what was recently considered deviant behavior is growing rapidly, albeit unevenly. Same sex marriage has become legal in ever more parts of the world at the same time that heterosexual marriage is fading to to where the majority of babies are born out of wedlock. Fathers, if present or at least identified, are now known as partners in capitalist-minded circles, and as companions in more socialist-oriented realms. Maybe all our new little bastards are better off without the stigma they would have faced in the time of Dickens but only time will tell if that’s true of the growing legions of their mothers. Thus far the evidence is not encouraging.

Some formerly disapproved practices are still subject to discrimination. Pedophiles are vilified and sometimes prosecuted, even though the age of consent has been raised in inverse proportion to the age of the onset of menstruation. Pedophilia has always been around but its status as a crime has varied remarkably over time. The age of consent dropped from twelve to ten in the England of 1576 and both of these ages were adopted by various American colonies. It was raised to sixteen in England in 1885 and most US states followed, to where, by the 1970’s the norm was sixteen, Hawaii being the outlier at fourteen, with only North Dakota and Idaho prosecuting men having sex with girls under eighteen. With intensive instruction on the mechanics of every variety of sexual interaction taking place in American elementary schools and the age of consent averaging sixteen, it would seem that kids are being placed at risk of prison terms for assiduously doing their homework, and those who reach out to their teachers for individual instruction put the faculty in jeopardy.

Zoophilia and its cousin, bestiality, are not frequently discussed these days, now that most folks have moved from the farm to the cities. Bestiality is still on the books as a crime in many jurisdictions but in the age of inclusion, zoophilia, a condition rather than an act, is the preferred term. Bestiality was both more common and more severely punished years ago. Sweden executed up to seven hundred people for it between 1635 and 1778. The last recorded hanging for bestiality in the US was in 1800. At present it is legal in only eight states, as well as in Finland, Romania and Hungary. Devoted zoophiles should stay out of Rhode Island where expressions of their love can cost them seven to twenty years in prison. Apparently, the new mantra of our age, “It’s OK to be with the one you love” still has some exemptions for age and species.

As in all social customs pioneered and promoted in the USA, change tends to be radical and absolutist.  What was common becomes illegal and what was illegal becomes the social imperative. That’s been the case with smoking, drinking, drugs, religion, gambling and sex related activities ranging from homosexuality to abortion.

Such severe swings of the pendulum from austerity to value-free tolerance sometimes continue all the way to a new variety of authoritarianism. At present, people, who grew up at a time when homosexual activity was not only socially unacceptable but subject to prosecution under civil law, are now losing their jobs and sometimes their children for expressing the views that were instilled in them as children. The beautiful rainbow flag is now being raised above many suburban municipal buildings and county capitol buildings with much the same righteous fervor that those handsome Confederate flags were hoisted throughout South Carolina and Mississippi in the 1920’s. What has been known for generations as gender dysphoria, a not rare condition in pre-pubescent and adolescent children but usually outgrown by adulthood, is now being reclassified by some trendy medical practitioners, who are offering expensive “conversion therapy” to the gender of choice, that is, the choice of the child or the choice of the parent. How often does the Snow White syndrome come into play, where a beautiful mother sees a daughter emerging as a rival in the family for public adulation? Poisoned apples, the old solution, have been replaced by neutering.

While there is currently professed horror at the practice of female genital mutilation to limit the pleasure of sex, as carried out in developing countries such as Somalia, we’re hearing no similar outcry over the new fashion of (mostly) wealthy parents administering gender adjustment therapy, including surgery and puberty retarding hormones, effectively rendering the children sterile. Seen in the light of overpopulation on an overheating planet, selective sterilization may have some utility, but to some of us it seems even more invasive than the Chinese one-child policy and far more abusive toward children than all the depredations of scores of pedophile priests and scoutmasters.

Still, we shouldn’t be totally surprised. We’ve been taking our pets to the vet for years to be neutered so they’ll be happier, as well as to keep our big dogs from humping the new suede sofa or our cats from keeping us awake with blood-curdling sounds of their nocturnal battles. With the threat of our libidinous daughters turning up pregnant or our sons coming home with a new antibiotic resistant STD, who wouldn’t want to do as much for our children as we do for our pets.

If the exclusion of pedophiles from the new era of tolerance raises some troubling issues of hypocrisy, there’s no need to worry. The inclusion of “T” into the alphabet soup has brought with it transgender indoctrination classes in public schools and libraries with fully costumed transvestites teaching elementary school kids the use of sex toys and the mechanics of inter-gender sex. The ubiquity of i phones has rendered the study of old-fashioned subjects such as geography and history superfluous, so now kids of all potential genders have time available to discover how to get the most satisfaction from their rubber duckies, their classmates, and even their sensual studies advisors.

The last few centuries have seen us pass through an age of enlightenment to a war-torn period of totalitarian ideology to a short-lived period of expanding democracy. We now seem to have entered a period of the destruction of institutions, the disparaging of received wisdom, and the rejection of science. Faced with a climate crisis which threatens to make the earth uninhabitable, people described as “conservatives” have chosen to ride it out in top deck of the Titanic-style-- “waiter, let’s have that last bottle of champagne”. Not to be outdone, some people who self-identify as “progressives” are theorizing that gender has no objective reality, so we can just fondle everything and everyone in tranquil bliss as Aldous Huxley envisioned almost ninety years ago. There are more than enough studies demonstrating the climate crisis, but the “conservatives” choose to ignore them. Studies showing the world-wide drop in the sperm count in young men are not as common but they do exist. They are being ignored in an even more absolute, bipartisan way. Maybe that’s because in the Oligarch Era nobody wants (or can afford) to have babies anymore except people unable to have them, notably homosexuals who eschew conventional channels of reproduction, and women over fifty who were too busy in their fertile years. What about the apparent rise in gender confusion? How long ago was it that anyone was even aware of the existence, much less the definition, of a transgender person? Just as the right sees new opportunities in the planetary rise in temperatures (new shipping lanes across the North Pole, wine making in Scotland etc.) the left, which has typically at least sought to understand the causes of climate change and to find solutions to counteract it, has stopped all inquiry into what has produced the epidemic drop in human fertility and the expansion of gender confusion. Both phenomena appear to be currently outpacing the melting of glaciers. If people had reacted back in the 60’s the way they are now, pregnant women would still be taking thalidomide and cooing over how “original” their children were. Fanatical gender denial may be just what it takes to keep the Titanic crowd perched on the command deck until the ship finally goes down.

Perhaps there is a positive side though. If the earth is to soon become uninhabitable, isn’t it just as well that the human race loses its ability to reproduce so there won’t be so many people around to suffer the meltdown.